Monday, January 18, 2010

Amnesia, Chapter 8 - The Deep End

This pic is not entirely accurate, as Chapter 8 does not actually feature any famous possibly-gay surrealist painters. But this is as close as I could get to finding Really Wet Rob (notwithstanding the wet t-shirt pics.)


“Edward Anthony Cullen?”

I read the name on the Washington state driver’s license that Emmett Cullen had just handed me, and looked up at him in complete confusion.

He cocked his head a bit sheepishly to one side. “I guess I forgot to tell our guy that you weren’t a part of the family,” he explained. “He’s gotten us I.D.s for a long time…I think he just assumed you were a Cullen, too. Sorry I didn’t clarify that with him. It’s just an I.D., though, man. So you can get a phone, an apartment, whatever conveniences you want, right?”

Our guy? Apparently the Cullens had kept some master forger on their payroll for awhile if he routinely cranked out bogus Cullen identification documents. I had to admit, the driver’s license looked legit. “Our guy” was good at his job.

“It’s fine,” I told Emmett at last. “I’m sure I’ve been called worse.”

Emmett laughed and agreed, then began wiping down the bar. It was almost 3 o’clock, and soon the first-shift mill workers would be piling in for a couple of beers before heading home.

“Thanks, man, I appreciate it. Tell me what I owe you,” I said, pulling my wallet out of my back pocket and inserting the new I.D. its plastic sleeve.

“You owe me nothing, forget about it,” Emmett scoffed with a dismissive wave. Then his face lit up with an idea, which I heard in his head before he articulated it. “If you want to do something in return, you could come visit Esme and Carlisle some time. Esme really has a soft spot for you. She thinks you would fit right in with us, and she’d love to have somebody new to talk to. She never had kids when she was alive, you know. I think she’s trying to make up for it now by taking us all under her wing.”

I considered his offer, and thought that maybe I’d take him up on it. It might be nice to be around people with whom I could be myself, and not hide who I was.

“Well, maybe I’ll stop by tomorrow afternoon before work,” I suggested, looking to Emmett for approval. He grinned and said that would be great, and maybe we could even get in a couple of games of RockBand before we were due at the bar. “Let me guess, you play drums, right?” I asked him with a laugh. I couldn’t imagine him on any other instrument, even the fake ones that came with the music video game.

“Hey, I happen to play a mean guitar too,” he protested with an easy grin. “I’m gonna smoke your ass either way.”

“Doubtful,” I shot back, then headed to the freezer to stock the cooler behind the bar. I didn’t remember whether or not I’d played RockBand before, but if my aptitude for the instruments I’d found in the high school band room was any indication, I’d give him a run for his money. My friendship with Emmett had become a lot more relaxed since the truth had come out in the open, and we entertained ourselves at work with plenty of inside jokes and rounds of pool during the slow times. Emmett tended to pick on me like a big brother would, and I found I kind of liked it. I’d been an only child before, so this would have been a new experience for me even if I hadn’t lost my memory.

Jake’s was pretty busy for a Monday, now that the weather was getting cooler and the days were short. There wasn’t much to do in a small town, so a place like Jake’s did good business most nights. I was glad to have the distraction, because I’d had Sunday off, and it nearly drove me mad trying to stay away from Bella. I thought about calling her at least a hundred times. I walked by her house about once every hour, wondering if she would come out, or if she were doing homework, or talking on the phone with her ridiculous friends. If she only knew the things going through their minds, she’d disown the lot of them, save for Angela Weber. Jessica thought nothing of stabbing her in the back, and Mike thought of nothing but romancing her and getting her in bed. I had to block his thoughts continuously because I couldn’t stand to see what he wanted to do with Bella. Of course, a big part of my problem was that I basically wanted the same things he did. But I was positive he didn’t have a fraction of the emotional connection or the concern for her that I did. I hoped Bella wasn’t too mad at me for kissing her in front of him, but I couldn’t take another minute of his mind screaming what he planned for the night of the FHS Winter Formal, when he could get her far away from me. Little did he know that he would never get her alone---I would be lurking nearby. If he had even the tiniest inkling that he would force her to do something she didn’t want to, I would end him, then and there, without compunction.

I was growing tired of trying to stay away from Bella already, and it had only been a week since the disastrous Halloween party. When she came in Jake’s by chance Friday night, I was practically giddy with relief. Her scent blew in the door and it was the most exquisitely welcome torture I’d ever felt. I was unhappily surprised when she averted her eyes from mine almost immediately upon entering the room, and hid among her friends. Was she avoiding me? I couldn’t believe it. Maybe she was just embarrassed about being drunk at the party, and kissing me. But she hadn’t sounded that way over the phone. She was the one who’d brought it up. I frowned and studied her, then sifted through the thoughts of her friends. That’s when I discovered that Mike was planning on asking her out and felt pretty confident that she’d say yes. He had to be wrong about that, I thought. I was sure had feelings for me. There was no way she’d give this idiot the time of day.

And yet she continued to turn away from me and pay attention to him while he stumbled and tripped over his words, trying to gather his courage. It was all I could do to feign interest in Jessica’s overly dramatic reenactment of her friend’s drunken stupidity the weekend before, when all I wanted to do was study Bella’s reaction through Mike Newton’s agitated brain. I was shocked when she said yes, she’d go out with him.

I needed to look her in the eyes---make her look into mine. I took her favorite brand of soda to the table and attempted to read her expression as she looked up at me, to no avail. I tried to convey my own vexation to her, but wasn’t sure if she comprehended my stare. Did she really prefer her friends’ company to mine? Would she really rather spend time with Mike Newton than come talk to me?

Thankfully, I got some clarification soon after, when Mike noisily bragged about his date with Bella to the entire bar. She looked embarrassed, and when she followed an upset Jessica to the ladies’ room, I finally got my answers. I hated having to use the filter of Jessica’s feeble mind to see and hear the truth from Bella, but it worked well enough. I was relieved when Bella assured her friend that she had accepted Mike’s invitation out of a fit of jealousy over Jessica’s attentions to me. Still, I wondered why she would feel so insecure about me. I thought my feelings for her were obvious.

I decided I’d make my intentions perfectly clear to her the minute I got the chance. I could hear Esme’s voice in the back of my head telling me it would only lead to trouble, but the need to be near Bella was too strong. My siren was calling to me. As soon as I saw her practicing darts alone, I took my break and went to speak to her.

The conversation went better than I expected. It was so easy being with her, talking to her, teasing her, flirting with her. She gave back as good as she got, which just made me want to push our boundaries a little further. Showing her how to break at pool just about did me in. The heat of her body pressed against mine seemed like it should sear right through our clothes, and in my imagination, it did. I wanted to wrap her warmth around me like a blanket and lose myself inside her. I would never stop wanting the closeness, the oneness, I’d felt with her in that brief moment when her life hung in the balance…the horrible moment her impending death had brought me back to life. There had to be a way to find that unity with her again, but without the violence. I knew what the answer was, if I were strong enough to keep the monster within me at bay.

Could I do it? Could I make love to Bella without my passion for her turning into something ugly and uncontrollable? I fought with the question over and over in my mind, and it was the only thing that kept me away from her. I couldn’t live with myself if I ever succeeded in ending her life. I would have to beg the Cullens to kill me, if there was, indeed, a way for our kind to die.

I had other questions for the vampire coven as well. How did we all become immortal? Apparently a non-lethal bite from a vampire wasn’t enough, or Bella would have become one of us by now. And I couldn’t fathom condemning her to our fate: to roam the earth for eternity, a soulless, walking corpse. When I considered what I truly was, I didn’t want Bella to come anywhere near me. She should run from all of us as fast as she could. And yet she seemed to gravitate toward us instead, befriending Alice and becoming infatuated with me. Her self-preservation instincts seemed to be missing altogether. I often wondered what other calamities I might have to save her from in the future, other than the ones I might be responsible for myself.

After Jake’s closed that night, I knew my feet would carry me to the Swan residence before I could give it any conscious thought. I took my usual post in the large maple tree outside Bella’s window. She slept peacefully, and occasionally smiled. I saw her lips move, and I knew she was talking in her sleep again. What was she saying? The unanswered question gnawed at me. I hopped down from the tree and flew to the front door, stole the key from its hiding place under the eaves, and let myself into the house at last, berating myself the entire time. I took in the simply furnished bungalow with my nocturnal sight, and breathed the sweet perfume that permeated the air. I crept up the stairs and let my sense of smell lead me right to Bella’s bedside.

This was the first time I’d watched her sleep like this, up close, since she’d been in the hospital weeks ago. The sight of her now was blessedly different---healthy, whole, peaceful. I knelt next to her and stroked her hair. I wondered if she would wake if I spoke or sang to her, now that she was free of pain medication. I kept my silence, content to listen to the steady rhythm of her breathing. Every time she stirred or rolled over, I tensed in readiness to dart out of the room, but she never awoke. And then, finally, she spoke.

“Edward,” she said, and my eyes grew round. Fire spread through my body at the knowledge that she was dreaming about me. Should I answer? I held my tongue.

She murmured softly and her brow crinkled slightly. “Don’t stop,” she whispered.

My heart thudded in my chest. What, exactly, was her dream version of me doing? I could imagine numerous things, but I doubted that her mind was traveling down quite the same path as mine had been lately. And yet she made a low sound in her throat again, a tiny moan, that stirred everything south of my waist.

“Yes,” she said breathlessly. I never knew one simple word could arouse me so much. Her sighs and moans became more frequent, and I couldn’t believe that she was dreaming about the same things I’d been imagining, but she had to be. No other thoughts would produce those sounds of pleasure that vibrated her throat. My erection throbbed painfully, but touching myself while eavesdropping on her erotic dream would make me about the biggest pervert who ever walked. I had probably already achieved that dubious distinction just by breaking in here.

“Please, Edward,” Bella implored, and I nearly groaned out loud myself. Every cell in my body was screaming to touch her, to crawl in bed with her and take her in my arms and make every single part of her dream come true. I couldn’t believe she really wanted me the same way I wanted her. Her breathing became quick and shallow, and she writhed under the covers, her hands twisting the sheets. Her eyebrows knitted together as a succession of soft cries escaped her lips, and I was torn between euphoria and shame as I watched her climax, her body shuddering repeatedly before finally relaxing with a long sigh.

I sat still as a stone, staring at her, trying to absorb what had just happened. I had fantasized about this moment, watching her face as she lost all control and let her senses take over. But I had always been an active participant in that fantasy, touching her, kissing her, moving inside her, feeling her body tighten around me as she came. Seeing her achieve that high with only dreams of me was both intoxicating and frustrating as hell. There was no way I could walk away from her now. Not when she wanted this as much as I did.

I remained a fixture at her bedside until the first glimmer of dawn began to seep through Bella’s bedroom window. She murmured my name twice more during the night, sending the same surge of desire through me each time. I didn’t know how any of this would work between us, but I had to try. I had no more will to fight it.

I noiselessly left the house just as I heard the first stirrings of Bella’s father in the room down the hall. I escaped into the woods near the Swan property, running until I found a secluded spot to sink down on a boulder and think about what had happened. I couldn’t stop replaying Bella’s moment of release over and over in my mind…relishing that fact that it was me who had been the cause of her wet dream, that it was me she wanted, me she came for. My rigid cock was begging for release, and I unzipped my jeans and began stroking myself, imagining her hands and mouth on me…imagining what it would feel like to push myself into the tight, wet heat between her legs and pump in and out of her until she made that ecstatic face, those reckless sounds that I’d already witnessed firsthand. I came quickly, and as the orgasm rocked my body, I gripped the tree behind me to steady myself. Instantly a huge chunk of its trunk broke away in my fist. I stared at the wood pulp in my hand and my high wore off quickly, fear taking its place. Even if I could keep myself from biting Bella in the throes of passion, there were clearly other ways I could fatally harm her in an instant.

I tossed the wood chips to the ground, growling in frustration. There had to be a way around this. There had to be a way to be with Bella without hurting her. And if anyone could help me find some answers, it would be the Cullens.

I headed over to the high school, glad that the janitors showed up early so I could sneak in and clean myself up. I had come to know their schedule fairly well, since I was staying in the school most nights now. One night I had entertained myself by slowly following the endless rows of lockers that lined the school’s hallways until I caught the faint remnant of Bella’s scent emanating from locker number 237. I paused to inhale my own personal version of catnip while I studied the built-in combination lock and thought about trying to jimmy it. Then I realized what a sick bastard I was and walked away in disgust. I didn’t have far to walk, since her locker was conveniently located close to the band room where I spent a good chunk of my time, tinkering on the piano and lately on a well-used guitar, which I found I quite liked as well. Of course, the escape was only temporary, because most of the time I found that whatever songs I played or lyrics I improvised, I created them with Bella in mind. I knew I should find some reason to exist other than for Bella. But as a soulless blood-sucker, I couldn’t fathom what that reason might be.

I set off for the Cullens’ early, even though I had told Emmett I’d stop by in the afternoon. I had nothing else to fill my time, and I suspected they fought the same battles against a purposeless existence. Carlisle had obviously attended med school just like a human and was fighting his true nature daily by saving lives instead of ending them. I could see the appeal in that. It was probably the easiest way to assuage his guilt over what he had become.

Emmett answered the door of the Cullen home before I had a chance to ring the bell. I looked at him quizzically, and he quickly explained with a grin, “I saw you coming up the drive. Alice knew you were going to stop by early. Her skills come in pretty handy sometimes.”

I shook my head in wonder. “So, how often does she see the future? I mean, how does that work, exactly?” I asked as Emmett ushered me into the living room. I remembered her disturbing vision of me attacking Bella, and her admission that she hadn’t seen it in time to stop it.

“It’s pretty random,” Emmett admitted. “She’s trying to channel it more; sort of tune in to the visions and make more sense of them. Sometimes she sees things that are far in the future, and other times she sees things that are about to happen in a few minutes. And sometimes, things don’t quite happen like her visions predict they will. The future can always change because people have free will. It’s not an exact science, that’s for sure.”

I suddenly heard Esme’s voice in my head, welcoming me warmly. She appeared moments later from the next room and gave me a hug in greeting. “I’m so glad you decided to come visit, Edward,” she smiled. “Carlisle is at work, and Jasper and Alice are in school. Emmett gets bored because Rosalie and I aren’t very much competition playing cards or video games.” She winked at Emmett, who grinned broadly.

“I already told him I’m gonna hand his ass to him,” Emmett said as he gave me a rough slap on the back. Emse gave him a look. She didn’t care for curse words. “Sorry, Esme,” Emmett muttered. “But I SO am,” he hissed over at me.

“You probably will,” I conceded. “I don’t even know if I can play. I don’t really remember, you know.”

“Then let’s find out what you’re made of,” Emmett replied, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. He led me into a cavernous den equipped with a massive plasma TV, home theater sound system and the latest Nintendo Wii and X-Box 360 game systems. Emmett suggested a simple Wii Sports game first, though he promised to eventually “pulverize” me at Halo 3. I picked up handling the gaming controllers pretty quickly, and I sensed I had used one before. As I learned the rules of the different games we tried, I found that being able to read Emmett’s mind was a definite advantage. I anticipated each move he made seconds before he made it, and was able to maneuver accordingly. He won the first couple of rounds, but was disgruntled when I took the third. He apparently hadn’t figured out that I was using my clairvoyant abilities to his detriment. He had just suggested we go for best of seven when I heard Rosalie’s unmistakable voice from behind us.

“He’s reading your mind so he can beat you, you know,“ she informed her boyfriend. She gave me a withering smile. My lip curled in response.

Emmett looked at me with a start. “Damn, Edward! I wasn’t even thinking about that. I was wondering how you picked up this shit so fast.” He turned to Rosalie. “I still think he had to be a gamer before,“ he told her. Then, shifting his attention back to me, he asked, “Have you had any memories come back to you at all? Your parents? Anything?“

I shook my head. “Not a thing.“

“The same thing happened to Alice,“ Rosalie told me. “She’d been left to rot in an insane asylum when people got wind of her visions. That was back in the 1920s, when a gift like hers was seen as a sign of insanity. She doesn’t know how she became a vampire, either, and she can’t remember much of her human life before. In her case, that was a blessing.“ Rosalie scrutinized my troubled expression for a moment. “Maybe you were a nut job, too,“ she concluded, barely containing her snarky grin.

“Come on, Rose, give the guy a break,“ Emmett sighed, rising and putting his arm around his other half. “At least you and I knew what had happened to us when we were turned. Imagine wandering around like Edward did, completely lost and clueless. It’s a miracle he didn’t kill Bella instantly, without a thought. I killed my ‘Bella,’ and I knew better,” he said somberly.

“What do you mean?” I asked him. “’Your Bella?’”

“My ‘singer,’ as Carlisle calls it,” Emmett explained. “The human whose blood is so appealing, you can’t stop yourself, no matter how hard you try to resist. I came across a woman hanging her laundry out to dry one day. So innocent… so unsuspecting,” he said softly, his eyes far away. “I tried to leave, and not come any closer to her. But it was like she had a noose around my neck, pulling me in. I walked up to her, and she smiled at me. Looked right at me, with no fear. I didn’t want to kill her… but her scent was too much. It took control of me. I couldn’t stop it.” His eyes were dark with regret.

Rosalie reached up and stroked the side of Emmett’s face. “It couldn’t be helped,” she whispered to him. “Sometimes you can’t fight against our vampire nature. It’s too hard.”

“You’ve managed to do it all these years,” Emmett told her, his eyes full of love and admiration. “You’re a stronger person than I am. Always have been. You saved me, and not just that first time when you found me dying in the woods.” It was odd hearing those words come from Emmett’s seemingly invincible, hulking frame.

Rosalie smiled lovingly up at him and said, “I knew the minute I saw you that you were worth saving.” For the first time, I got an inkling of what Emmett saw in this girl beyond a beautiful exterior. He quickly explained to me that he’d been mauled in the woods by a bear years ago, and that vampire Rosalie had carried his bleeding body all the way to the Cullen house in the hopes that Carlisle could help him. Death was clearly inevitable, and Carlisle had turned him into a vampire in order to save him. “We’ve been together ever since,” Rosalie ended softly.

“So how did he do it?” I questioned them. “How do you turn someone into a vampire?”

“The exchange of blood,” Emmett answered simply. “You drain the human to the point of death, and then make the person drink your vampire blood in return. It sounds easier than it is, though. Few vampires can stop at the crucial moment, right before the person dies. None of us has ever tried to do it. I know I don’t trust myself. Carlisle is over 400 years old, though---he’s had several lifetimes to build his resistance to human blood, and his self-control.”

The “crucial moment”… I knew it well. Had Carlisle felt that exquisite connection to human life when he had created his little vampire family? I was anxious to talk to him and pick his brain. I had to know if my connection to Bella was the exception or the norm. Carlisle, with his wisdom and experience, could surely help me make sense of my feelings.

My thoughts were pleasantly interrupted by the sound of piano music in a distant room. In my mind’s eye I saw a pair of feminine hands stroking the keys, and it piqued my curiosity.

“Is that Esme?” I asked. Emmett’s mind answered my question before he could point to the north end of the house. “She likes to play,” he answered. “She’s got an antique baby grand that she restored herself. That’s a hobby of hers, Rose’s too. They do renovations and interior design, sort of free-lance. We’ve got to have hobbies, you know…otherwise we’d go crazy.” He gave Rose’s waist a squeeze, and she grinned back. I quickly steered clear of where their minds began wandering.

“I’ve been kind of struggling with the time-management thing myself,” I admitted. “It’s been tough getting through all the sleepless nights.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to tell him about my excursions to Bella’s house, especially last evening‘s, when I’d crossed the line of decency to an obscene degree. I certainly didn’t want to reveal anything to Rosalie, who seemed to judge me harshly no matter what I did.

“You’re welcome to come over here any time,” Emmett said. “We have tons of books, music, movies…whatever you need to pass the time. Sometimes it helps just to have other people around who understand, even if you don’t say a word to each other.”

I nodded and thanked him, then excused myself to search for Esme and her baby grand. I found her in a conservatory of sorts: an expansive, airy room with glass walls to the north, beautiful hardwood floors corner to corner, and one wall lined entirely with wooden cubby holes filled with sheet music, instruments and other musical accoutrements. The piano was the main attraction of the room, its lovely tones reverberating through the natural wood and echoing in the air for seconds after the notes were played. Esme was interpreting a beautiful Rachmaninoff piece that I had tried to learn at the high school. I listened undiscovered for several minutes before Esme caught sight of me out of the corner of her eye and halted abruptly.

“No, don’t stop,” I blurted. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. It was beautiful, please continue.”

“Thank you, Edward,” she smiled warmly. “Do you like music?”

“I love it. I play all the time. It’s the only thing that keeps me sane sometimes, I think,” I told her truthfully.

She cocked her head to one side in sympathy and asked, “Where do you play?”

“I sneak into the high school and stay there overnight a lot. I play the instruments there. Whatever I can find, anyway. The piano is my favorite though.”

Her eyes brightened. “Will you play something for me?” she asked.

“Well…I can try. Mostly I just improvise. I never know what’s going to come out when I sit down at the piano,” I told her.

Her eyebrows raised in wonder. “You mean you play by ear? Off the top of your head?” I nodded in reply. She shook her head and said, “That’s a rare gift. I wish I could do it. Any skill I have comes from many years of practice. And I do mean many,” she laughed. She got up from the burgundy leather-upholstered bench and motioned for me to take a seat in her place.

I scooted the bench back to accommodate my long legs and gazed at the gorgeous ivory keys before me. The rich Steinway & Sons logo embossed in the wood stared back at me, daring me to touch this incredible instrument. I would do more than touch it, I decided. I would make it sing.

I began to play a pretty, melancholy tune that I had been toying with over the past couple of weeks. It was a melody that kept popping up in my head over and over, and I kept working with it, stretching it, adding to it until I had what felt like a complete piece, or at least close to it. The song felt like it might always be a work in progress. And that seemed fitting, since, like most other things in this new existence of mine, it belonged to Bella. Everything I had, everything I was, was hers.

After I finished, I sat staring at the keyboard for a moment. I could definitely get used to playing this gorgeous piano, if the Cullens didn’t mind. I looked over at Esme, who sat still as a statue, face rapt, eyes closed. When she finally opened them, she gave me a long, intense gaze.

“You wrote that?” she asked at last. “Edward… that was incredibly beautiful. Incredibly moving. You have such a gift. Have you written any more?”

“Nothing official, really. I just noodle and let my fingers take me where they want to go.”

“Then take me with you,” Esme smiled. She gestured for me to continue playing, and the invitation was irresistible. I attacked the Steinway, fingers flying, the music spinning out of control on this Cadillac of pianos. I didn’t know how I would ever go back to the clunky upright in the FHS band room after this. Maybe I wouldn’t have to. In the back of my mind, I considered taking the Cullens up on last week’s offer to let me stay here in this house with them. It had to be better than wandering the school or library, and maybe it would keep me from stalking Bella like some freak or criminal.

When I finally finished the wild piece I’d improvised, I was surprised to find I had a bigger audience. Apparently when I was lost in the music, I was oblivious to the thoughts or presence of other people in the room. Emmett and Rosalie gaped at me openly, and for the first time, Rosalie seemed to approve of something I’d done. Emmett began clapping and whistling, and exclaiming that he didn’t know I had it in me. Rosalie offered a simple, “You’re very talented, Edward,” but her thoughts admitted that she had loved my music. I grinned at her and said, “Thanks.”

Esme rose from the velvet-covered Queen Anne chair she’d been sitting in and announced, “It’s almost time for my appointment with Dr. Freeberg’s wife. She’s been wanting me to consult on her house remodel. Rosalie, do you want to come with me?”

“Yeah, I do,” she replied. “But I want to have a word with Edward first.” She raised an eyebrow at me, and I squirmed a bit uncomfortably on the piano bench.

“Edward, you’re welcome to entertain us any time you like,” Esme smiled at me. “I hope you’ll consider it.”

“I definitely will,” I replied. She and Emmett left the room, the latter giving his girlfriend a warning look. She ignored him and sat down on the velvet chair across from me, appraising me coolly.

“I know I’ve been hard on you, Edward,” she began. “I’d like to explain why.”

Suddenly I saw ugly, violent images in her head… apparent memories of acts committed against her. I shuddered at the disturbing pictures that cluttered Rosalie’s mind as she frowned and seemed to struggle to collect her thoughts. I waited for her to speak.

“I see how you look at Bella, and I see how she responds to you. It worries me,” she said. “You realize that nothing good can come of a relationship with her. One or both of you will end up hurt. It’s inevitable.”

I let out a long sigh. “I know that, Rosalie. Believe me, I’ve tried to stop this. I know I’m no good for her. But the selfish part of me keeps winning,” I admitted in frustration. “The fact that I know she has feelings for me isn’t helping matters.”

“Try harder,” she said roughly. Then, suddenly, she looked almost apologetic. “Look, I know this is none of my business. But I look at someone like Bella, and I see the promise of normal human life in danger of being ruined. A husband…children…a family. A purpose. Those are all things that I wanted desperately, and they were taken away from me.”

In her mind, I could see Rosalie struggle futilely against several male attackers. The things they did to her made my skin crawl. I was afraid to ask what had happened to her…I wasn’t sure I wanted to know any more. Her eyes pierced mine, and I could see that she was painting the picture for me so that she didn’t have to say it out loud. Carlisle had found her inches from death. He saved her the only way he knew how.

“Don’t misunderstand me,“ she continued. “I love Emmett with all my heart, whatever’s left of it. He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. He’s the person who makes what I am bearable. But I wouldn’t have chosen this for myself. The more Bella falls for you, the more willing she’ll be to give up things that are so precious, so irreplaceable….” she trailed off and frowned. “Right now, she has choices. So many paths she can follow. Do you really want to lead her down the road we travel?” The question in her eyes was an honest one. I lowered my head, unable to answer. I knew what my reply should be, but the thought created such a gnawing emptiness in my gut that I couldn’t acknowledge it.

Rosalie stood up and took a step toward me. I looked up into her sad, pale blue eyes. “Don’t take away Bella’s choice, Edward,” she said softly. And with that she turned and left the room.

The weight of her words crushed me. She had only reiterated what Carlisle and Esme had already told me, and what I knew was the truth. If Bella remained human, she would grow older and leave me behind for a real life, as she should. If I selfishly turned her into a vampire, she would never have a normal life or a family of her own, other than a make-shift version like the Cullens had fashioned for themselves. And she would have to separate herself from her parents when her eternally youthful appearance became impossible to explain away.

I couldn’t even allow myself to think of the worst-case scenario: that I would make a horrible mistake, and end her life in an instant with so much as an errant flick of my wrist.

These thoughts weighed heavily on me for the rest of the day, and I sleep-walked through my shifts at the bar. Emmett demanded to know what Rosalie had said to me to make me so depressed. I assured him it wasn’t her fault, and that she had only pointed out the obvious to me in a way that hit home. Emmett didn’t question me any further, but his mind revealed that he had a notion of what my internal struggles were. He didn’t condone me spending any more time with Bella, either, and I couldn’t blame him.

I dedicated the rest of the week to immersing myself in anything that would take my mind off of her. I spent most of my free time at the Cullen house, losing myself in the immense literary collection in Carlisle’s library, listening to the family’s eclectic music collection, playing Esme’s gorgeous piano, and battling for supremacy over Emmett and Jasper in dozens of video game wars. I learned their individual stories: how Jasper had been turned into a vampire while serving in the Confederate army in the 1860s, feeding on humans and warring with other vampires during nearly 100 years of skirmishes in the south until he found Alice and changed his way of life; how Carlisle had helped his father persecute supposed witches, werewolves and vampires in 17th century London until the fateful day he discovered a real coven of vampires and was attacked; how he found Esme after a suicide attempt in the 1920s and created his first vampire and mate, after two centuries of feeding only on animals and helping humans with his medical training.

I was astounded to find out how long these seemingly young, beautiful creatures had already roamed the earth. They traveled from place to place, never able to spend more than a decade in any one location without arousing suspicion. They had lived in Forks once before, in the 1930s. They had chosen its rainy clime as home again three years ago. Emmett, Rosalie, Jasper and Alice had attended high school and college numerous times, and had a display case full of graduation caps to prove it. And I was surprised to discover that Emmett and Rosalie were actually husband and wife, as were Jasper and Alice. Emmett and Rosalie were fond of renewing their vows every decade or so, often leaving the others for extended periods of honeymooning.

They had found a way to make lives for themselves that were as close to a human existence as possible, and the more I learned about them, the more grateful I was that I had stumbled upon them so soon after my transformation. I wasn’t sure what would have happened to me if I had been forced to live the life of a nomad, never finding a place where I could truly be accepted. I was beginning to feel that the Cullen household was that place. Even Rosalie was starting to warm up to me since I had stopped mentioning Bella and had stayed away from her all week.

I felt horrible for not calling Bella, especially when I had promised her last weekend that I would see her again soon. No wonder she doubted my feelings for her when it probably looked like I could turn them on and off like a light switch. I knew it was better to nip our relationship in the bud before it went any further, but it pained me more than I ever dreamed it would. Every time I thought about her going out with that lame-brained Mike Newton, the bile rose in my throat. I would give anything to be the one to take her out that evening, to see her come to the front door in a beautiful dress, to hold her in my arms during a slow dance. Then, when I realized that I couldn’t even take the girl to dinner without revealing another abnormality about myself, I was reminded why I should let her go and find happiness with the Mike Newtons of the world.

By Friday it had become pretty obvious that I was now an honorary Cullen, of sorts. Esme showed me a long, narrow guest room on the second floor that no one was using, and she asked me once again to make it my own. I studied the daybed situated against a bank of windows overlooking the woods below; the antique desk and bedside table that Esme had restored; and a wall of wooden shelving units not unlike those in the conservatory downstairs, waiting for me to fill them with CDs and books of my choosing. I didn’t hesitate this time. I wanted a place to call “home.” I told Esme I’d gather my meager belongings from the gym lockers I’d been using at FHS and bring them back to the house that night.

Her bear hug and huge smile were more than enough reward for my decision. “I know I’m not old enough to be your mother, Edward… that’s true of all of you,” she admitted. “But I consider you family already. Wherever we make our home, you will always be welcome.”

“Thanks, Esme,” I said a bit bashfully. “That means more to me than you know.”

She smiled and hugged me again, and I set off for the high school with a bit of peace in my soulless body that I thought I’d never find.

School had ended about an hour earlier, so I expected to have to sneak past a few students who might have after-school activities. It was a Friday afternoon, so I imagined that most of them would have high-tailed it out of the place as soon as they could. As I approached the gym, I was hit with the double whammy of Bella’s smooth alto voice and the ubiquitous floral bouquet that accompanied her.

“No, too cheesy,” she was saying loudly. “I mean, I know we want lots of sparkly stuff, but there is such a thing as overkill.”

I was overwhelmed by my reaction to simply knowing she was in the building. God help me, I would never get over this girl as long as I stayed in this town, I thought miserably. I sneaked into the side door that opened behind the folded bleachers, and I lurked there, catching sight of her between the wooden bench slats. She was wearing her usual thermal shirt, this one pale green with a tiny, washed-out floral pattern throughout. Her jeans were, as always, tight from hips to ankles, making it easy for me to imagine her long, ivory legs hidden beneath them. She stood with one Converse-covered foot propped on the other, arms crossed, studying a canopy of fake glitter-covered decorations that hung at varying lengths from the rafters above. Jessica Stanley stood perched near the top of a tall step-ladder, balancing a giant glitter ball on the seat of the ladder and glaring down at Bella. Angela Weber held the ladder steady below while Jessica launched into a small tirade.

“Fucking hell, Bella, it’s a dance! I know disco balls are cheesy, but they make cool patterns on the floor when the lights hit them. I told the DJ we’d have it all set up and he’s bringing this killer light show. It’ll be awesome. You’ve got to trust me on this. I mean, shit, it‘s not like we have some Prom-sized budget to make this crap-hole look like a winter wonderland,” she scowled, and went back to hoisting the decoration up over the rafter with a hooked instrument. It swung perilously for a moment, and I wondered if I would bother to rush to her aid if it accidentally hit her in the head.

Jessica managed to steady the mirror ball and checked to make sure it was secure. At that moment, I heard the irritating sound of Mike Newton’s voice boom through the silence.

“Dammit Jessica, I told you to wait until I got here!” he exclaimed, rushing in the room from the front entrance and helping her as she descended from the ladder. “I told you girls to wait to do the heavy-duty stuff so I could help you. You could have hurt yourselves,” he scolded.

“Geezus, Mike, we’re not helpless, you know,” Jessica growled at him. It seemed she was still harboring a grudge against both Mike and Bella over their impending date. I wasn’t too happy about it myself, and unfortunately that thought made me realize this might be the first and last time I’d ever agree with Jessica Stanley about anything. “If you wanted to help, then you should have chewed Lauren’s ass for being ‘sick’ today and leaving us in the lurch.” She made quotation marks with her fingers as she said the word “sick,” adding an eye roll for emphasis. “Please. I know that wench is just getting her nails done and her dress fitted,” she muttered.

Bella sighed heavily and trudged over to her friends, while they continued to argue over who should have done what on the decorating committee. She looked like she’d rather be anywhere else than in this gym with them. I couldn’t believe she’d gotten herself into this unwanted date just because she thought I was interested in Jessica. How she ever could have imagined such a thing was beyond me. I would rather have stuck pins in my eyes (if that were physically possible anymore) than listen to that girl for another minute.

I managed to tear my eyes away from Bella and head back to the boys’ locker room, where I filled a large duffel bag with the clothes and shoes I’d hidden in a couple of remote corner lockers. I deliberated for a moment, wondering what to do. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving this building as long as Bella was in it, and yet I was tired of eavesdropping on her like a criminal. She didn’t deserve that. And if I were truly going to let her go, I would need to break myself of this habit.

I heard their faint voices still bickering as I exited from the side door again, and I wandered by Bella’s locker, inhaling deeply like some sad, starving addict as I passed. I kept walking down to the band room, which was blessedly empty. I sat down at the piano that had been my only friend for so many nights, and ran my fingers over the keys absently until a melody began to take shape. I lost track of time as I played, and the melancholy tune morphed into Bella’s song, as it often did. Though this piano was a mere shadow of the masterful instrument in the Cullen house, it struck a sentimental chord for me, and I enjoyed making it sing as much as I did the Steinway. Lost in my own thoughts, I barely registered the lilac and freesia scent that began to permeate the room, burning my throat as it always did. The smell, sight and sound of Bella was so much a part of my subconscious that I didn’t realize she was actually in the room until the crash of a high-hat hitting the tiled floor behind me jolted me out of my dream world. I whipped my head toward the sound and found her clumsily picking up the cymbals she’d accidentally knocked to the floor, her face flooded pink with embarrassment.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled in a humiliated voice. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you. That was so….” she trailed off, shaking her head and wringing her hands together. I wanted to rush to her, but I forced myself to sit still, letting her finish. “I didn’t know you played. I didn’t know you could… you’re… really talented,” she finished haltingly, looking down at the floor, blushing furiously.

I love you. It was the first, the only, thought that popped into my head. I wanted to blurt it out loud, make her understand, make her believe it. I didn’t care about anything else in this world except her, standing there, feeling uncomfortable when she should feel nothing but confident that she was loved and adored.

I took a deep breath and instead simply said, “Thank you.” I stared at her until her eyes lifted up to mine. “Come here,” I ordered softly. She gazed at me uncertainly, then walked toward me and stopped a couple of feet from the piano bench. “Sit down,” I told her, scooting to the side and patting the seat next to me. She bit her lip and obeyed, and when I turned my face to hers, we were mere inches away. My mouth watered and I held my breath, her scent momentarily assaulting me to the point of insanity. I closed my eyes briefly and turned my head away, then from the corner of my eye I saw her slump and look down. How could my slightest movement away from her affect her like that? Unless she felt as deeply for me as I did for her, God help her.

I tried to lighten the mood. “It’s late. What are you still doing in school? Did you get detention or something?” I teased.

“Of course not!” she protested. “I had to help decorate for Winter Formal. Jessica signed me up weeks ago when she was still speaking to me.”

I let out a short laugh. “You mean she’s not speaking to you now?”

“Well, yeah, she is, but I’ll be glad when tomorrow night is over with and we can all forget I ever agreed to go out with Mike,” she said with an irritated sigh.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about her,” I said. “I’m not sure how good of a friend she is to you anyway. What if the situation were reversed? Do you think she’d be as worried about your feelings as you are about hers?”

She gave me a look that indicated she understood what I was getting at.

“I’m pretty sure that if I had given Jessica the time of day last weekend, she wouldn’t have thought twice about your reaction,” I told her.

Her eyebrow raised playfully. “You think pretty highly of yourself,” she accused.

“No. I just read people pretty well,” I smiled. “Except for you. You usually keep me guessing.”

She looked surprised. “I always feel like I’m an open book. My mom always told me I could never hide anything; that it was always written all over my face.”

“Maybe,” I said dubiously, though I didn’t see how that was true. “I don’t know. You always seem to surprise me.”

“How so?” she asked, her face curious.

“Well, just when I think you’re pretty shy and quiet, you’ll do or say something really bold that I didn’t expect. Keeps me off balance.” I grinned at her sideways and started noodling on the piano keys to keep my nervous hands busy. “I like it, though,” I assured her.

She bit her lip, and as always, I wanted to kiss her. I concentrated on the piano instead. Her eyes watched my fingers for a moment, and then she asked, “How did you learn to play?”

“I don’t know. I think it just comes naturally, like I was born knowing how to do it,” I mused, my fingers moving up the scale in a minor chord pattern, my arm brushing against the warm fabric of her shirtsleeve. “I remember my mom used to sit with me and show me how to hold my hands correctly over the keyboard, like this.” I demonstrated the proper form, and glanced at Bella. Her eyes were enormous with shock, her mouth hanging open.

“Edward!” she exclaimed. “Do you realize what you just said?”

I thought for a moment, and then realized that I had spoken about my mother. A memory from my childhood had come to the surface, as naturally as I would remember what I’d had for breakfast this morning, if I could still eat. My shocked face mimicked hers, and a thrill of excitement ran through me. “I remembered her,” I whispered in wonder. “It’s vague…but I can feel her, sitting there next to me, with her arms around me.”

Bella’s eyes shone with happiness for me. “You had a memory. A real memory of your family, Edward! Maybe this is just the beginning… maybe you’ll have more!” She squeezed my bicep between her warm fingers and gave me a smile that would melt an iceberg. It certainly worked wonders on my cold heart, which thudded in response.

“That would be nice,” I said, afraid to hope for anything more. “Maybe if I don’t push it, things will come back to me naturally, in time.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, since my parents were dead. With memories would come emotions…and those emotions would include grief. Maybe I was better off as I was.

“I’m so happy for you,” Bella sighed, and she put her arm around my waist, her hand burning through my cotton shirt, as she rested her head for a moment on my shoulder. I laid the side of my face against the thick brown hair on top of her head, and felt the heat from her scalp warming my skin. If I could press every inch of her body against mine, would I absorb her warmth through osmosis? Or would my clammy skin chill her to the bone? I pulled my head away, and Bella did the same, but her high had not worn off.

“So what are you doing here, anyway? You didn’t come here looking for me, did you?” Bella asked, looking a smidge hopeful that maybe I had. If she only knew the lengths I had already gone to in order to see her, she’d sic her dad and his police buddies on me.

“I like to sneak in here after hours and use the music room, and sometimes the library,” I admitted to her with a laugh. “Lame, huh?”

“Well, not when you can play like that. Seriously, Edward… that was the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. What is it? Did you write it?”

I looked at her and debated telling her the truth. I opted for half of it. “Yeah, I did. It’s just a melody I’ve been playing with for awhile. I’m glad you like it.”

“I love it. You’re amazing. It’s kind of annoying, actually,” she sniffed, and I chuckled at her pout. “I mean, is there anything you can’t do, Edward?”

I can‘t tell you what I am. I can’t tell you what I did to you. I can‘t be human for you.

“Sure,” I answered, ignoring those painful truths. “I can’t read your mind. I can’t remember most of my past. And I can’t take you to the dance tomorrow night, but I would, if I could,” I grinned, playing a grandiose little riff on the piano.

She sighed dramatically. “You have no idea how badly I wish you could do that last one,” she said. “But it’s too late for me to back out now. Mike already rented a suit.”

“And what are you wearing?” I asked her, knowing that I’d be eating my heart out when I heard the answer.

“Oh, just some dress I had to wear to my cousin’s wedding last summer,” she said nonchalantly. “It’s too bare to wear here this time of year, but I’ll just throw some kind of sweater over it. I don’t really care.” She made a dismissive face.

“’Too bare?’” I prodded. “You know you can’t say something like that to a guy without a little more explanation.”

She laughed and a tinge of red painted her cheeks. “Sorry, it’s not revealing or anything like that. It’s got this sort of halter neck, with a bare back. It’s periwinkle blue. It’s simple, but it’s pretty.”

I wondered if my eyes revealed how turned on I felt, imagining the milky expanse of flesh this dress would reveal… to Mike Newton, of all people. My eyes narrowed and I fought off the urge to say something petty. “It sounds nice. I wish I could see it.”

“Well, maybe I’ll wear it for you sometime,” she said, cocking one eyebrow at me suggestively.

“There!” I said emphatically. “What you just said…there’s an example of how you surprise me. You seem kind of innocent…and then this little devil pops out, every now and then, just to make me wonder.”

Her cheeks reddened again, but she didn’t miss a beat. “I told you at the Halloween party that that was the real me,” she said. “I can’t help it if you don’t believe me.”

“I guess I should know by now that I can usually take what you tell me at face value,” I said. “Still, you are a complex woman, Bella Swan.”

She laughed and gave me a playful shove. “So what else do you do for fun, Edward Masen? Besides hang out in a school you don‘t even attend.”

“Hey, don’t knock it! This place is like the YMCA. It even has a pool. I like to go swimming. Oh, and by the way, I’ve had a slight change of identity,” I added, pulling my wallet out and showing her my new driver’s license. She stared at it in surprise.

“Edward Cullen?” she queried, studying it with knitted brows. “Did the Cullens adopt you or something?”

“Well, not officially,” I said. “But they did ask me to move in with them, and I decided to do it,” I told her. “I mean, I was staying in this little abandoned cabin in the woods, so it was kind of a no-brainer when Esme offered me a room.”

“Wow, that’s great!” Bella said sincerely. “I always wondered where you were living, since you mentioned wanting to get a place of your own. But that house is gorgeous, and huge. I wouldn’t say no, either, if they offered to take me in. Alice didn‘t even tell me that you were moving in with them!” she added with a pout, as if we were keeping a secret from her. If she only knew how many.

“I’ve been hanging out at the Cullens’ a lot this week, but Alice is always at school when I’m there, and I’m at work when she’s home. Esme just asked me to move in today,” I explained. “It’s been nice being there; having other people around. They kind of feel like family already, in a weird way.” I could never explain to her just how weird.

“Well, obviously they do, since you already changed your name on your driver’s license,” Bella said, still looking a little perplexed.

“It wasn’t really my idea,” I admitted. “Emmett got the I.D. for me. It’s a forgery. He forgot to tell the guy that I wasn’t a Cullen---it was just an honest mistake.” I shrugged and looked at the license briefly before shoving the wallet back in my jeans pocket.

“Well, maybe it happened for a reason,” Bella suggested. “Maybe you’re meant to be a Cullen. It does have a nice ring to it. ‘Edward Cullen.’” She smiled up at me, then looked puzzled again. “I still don’t know why you didn’t just report your missing license though, even if you don’t remember who you were. You’re still Edward Masen, after all. Nothing has really changed.”

I sighed and wondered how to explain it to her. “But it feels like things have changed, to me. I don’t know who Edward Masen is anymore. I don’t know if I can be that guy, or if I want to be. Maybe you’re right. Maybe the name on the license wasn’t a mistake. Maybe Edward Cullen is who I am now, who I’m meant to be.” And as I said the words, I felt their impact, felt their truth.

“Well, then, it’s nice to meet you, Edward Cullen,” Bella said, sticking out her hand in greeting. I stared at it uneasily, not wanting to place my cold hand in hers. I’d touched her before, but we were outdoors, and the temperature of my skin could be explained away. There were no excuses to hide behind now.

But maybe I was tired of hiding, and too weak to resist Bella any longer. If I couldn’t push her away, maybe I could scare her away. Perhaps the truth could accomplish what lies could not.

I grasped her hand firmly in mine and held it there. “The pleasure is all mine, Isabella Swan.“ I was sure that truer words were never spoken, as the flames from her skin licked up my fingers and burned into my palm. She let out a tiny gasp, but her eyes never left mine. She didn’t let go of my hand; she didn’t pull away. We sat locked in the grip of a handshake that felt more like a tug of war, staring at one another, each daring the other to give up.

Agonizing seconds ticked away. Neither of us spoke. Her eyes seemed to tell me that she knew there was something different about me, something wrong with me. But her lips said nothing. I wondered if it were just stubbornness holding her here, sheer bravado keeping her from following what common sense would dictate. I relented finally and released her hand, then rose from the piano bench.

“It’s late,” I said shakily, running my still-warm hand through my hair. “Your dad is probably wondering where you are.”

Bella sat still for a moment, staring in the vicinity of my shoes. “Charlie knows I was staying late with the girls to decorate the gym. I told him we were all going out for pizza. He’s not expecting me for awhile.” She looked up at me with steely green eyes. “So, do you really go swimming in here at night when no one’s around?”

A charge crackled through my body. Was she really suggesting what I thought she was? Surely not. That couldn’t be where her thoughts were headed. “Yeah, I do, after the janitors leave,” I answered cautiously. “It’s nice, swimming at night. It’s relaxing.” My body felt anything but relaxed as I contemplated Bella joining me for a moonlight swim.

“I’ve never been in the pool here after dark,” she said quietly. Was she waiting for an invitation? My eyes searched hers for the answer, since her mind would reveal nothing to me.

“Do you want to go check it out?” I asked, my voice raspy. I cleared my throat nervously, and for some reason, my moment of insecurity seemed to spur her to action. She jumped up and headed for the door, grabbing her backpack off the floor where she’d dropped it earlier. She turned to me and said, “Let’s go.”

I picked up my duffel bag of clothes, thankful that Bella didn’t ask what was in it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit I’d actually been staying here in the school, since she thought just hanging out after hours was weird enough. I followed her through the hallway to the other side of the building, where an indoor/outdoor pool had been added some years before. I led her down a narrow hallway to a side door that led directly to the pool, which I had always found unlocked, for some odd reason. Normally kids had to enter through two separate locker rooms before entering the pool area.

We stood for a moment in silence, listening to the softly lapping water. The full-sized swimming pool was entirely indoors, but the far wall led to an outdoor patio area for sunbathing when the weather permitted. An accordion-like folding door separated the pool from the patio, and moonlight streamed through its giant glass panels, creating rectangles of glistening reflections down the length of the pool.

“It’s beautiful,” Bella breathed, her green eyes reflecting the patterns on the water.

“Yes, it is,” I agreed softly, though I spoke only of her exquisite face in the moonlight.

She turned to look at me, and our eyes locked, a delicious tension hanging in the damp air between us. I wanted to touch her and kiss her so badly that I could barely think. Thankfully, her brain seemed to be in slightly better working order.

“Do you have swim trunks?” she asked. “Or do you usually go skinny dipping?”

God, she was really going there, wasn’t she? “I don’t have a swim suit,” I answered, a grin twisting my lips before I could stop it. “Sometimes I wear my underwear, though.”

“I don’t have a bathing suit here, either,” she said. “I don’t have swimming this semester.”

I studied her face, desperate for some clue as to what she was really planning to do here. I didn’t want to blow it by assuming too much, or too little, for that matter.

“…but I could swim in my underwear, too, I suppose,” she offered, never taking her eyes from mine. I couldn’t drown in the water, but I wasn’t so sure about the depths of those sea-green orbs of hers.

I let out a ragged breath. “You really want to do this?” I asked her, giving her one last out.

She nodded slowly. “The pool is still heated at night, right?” she asked, her face showing the first sign of trepidation.

“Yeah, the water’s really warm,” I assured her, although I was certainly no accurate judge.

“Okay, then. I’m in,” she said firmly, almost a little defiantly. Maybe she was getting a kick out of sneaking in here after hours. Or maybe she was going to prove that she wasn’t afraid of me, even though she clearly knew that there was something odd about my makeup.

She kicked off her shoes, and I did the same. She hesitated, looking a little uncomfortable.

“I’ll go first,” I said, beginning to unbutton my shirt. Her eyes were glued to my fingers as I undid the buttons, one after the other, her gaze alone making the hairs on my arms stand up. I felt almost embarrassed myself as I peeled the garment off and tossed it to the bleachers on my left. Her eyes raked over my chest and down my stomach, and I felt my cock stiffen under her intense appraisal. God, this was going to get embarrassing. But she couldn’t be surprised at how much I wanted her, could she? Not after that moment in her truck, not after I kissed her in the bar.

She started to pull at the hem of her shirt, and her flushed face gave away her anxiety.

“I won’t peek, I promise,” I offered, turning my back to her so she could undress. I heard her exhale, then saw her discarded shirt land next to mine on the bench. I unbuttoned the fly on my jeans and eased them down my legs, glad that she couldn’t see the raging hard-on struggling against the knit fabric of my gray boxer-briefs. We hadn’t even had a real date, so disrobing and revealing my cock pointing straight at her as if marking its next conquest seemed like way too much, too soon.

When I caught sight of her jeans joining mine on the bleachers, I spoke over my shoulder. “On the count of three, we both jump in, okay?” I suggested.

“Okay,” she agreed. In unison we counted, and at three, I turned and cannon-balled into the deep end. I saw her flying in a few feet away out of the corner of my eye, and heard her scream of laughter before the water closed over me. I plummeted quickly to the bottom of the 12 feet of water, once again forgetting my superhuman strength. I was sure I’d sent quite a tidal wave in all directions, and hoped I hadn’t cracked the cement at the bottom of the pool.

When I resurfaced, I looked around for Bella. I finally saw her a few yards away, sputtering and pushing her wet hair out of her eyes. “Geezus, Edward!” she yelled. “I think they felt that out in Puget Sound.”

I laughed and swam toward the 5-foot mark, where she bobbed up and down in the water, probably touching the bottom intermittently with her feet.

“I’m not a very good swimmer,” she admitted, confirming my suspicions. “The deep end makes me kind of nervous.”

I reached out my hand. “Hang on to me,” I told her. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

“I believe you,“ she replied softly. She looked up at me from beneath wet eyelashes, and I watched the water make crystalline patterns on her creamy skin as it rolled down her face. I had never seen her look more beautiful than she did right now, her hair in messy wet waves on her neck, her cheeks shining in the moonlight.

She took my hand, and I wondered briefly if my skin felt any warmer now that I was immersed in the heated pool. Maybe that had even occurred to her---that I might be more touchable this way. Assuming, of course, that she had the desire to touch me.

I swam backward toward the deep end, pulling Bella with me. She floated forward, her face tilted up, trying to keep from sinking as the bottom of the pool fell away. I pulled her closer and wrapped her arm around my neck while I began to tread water, moving in slow, small circles. She clung to me, her face inches from mine, her eyes staring at me with complete trust.

“So, you’re a great swimmer, too. It figures,” she finally said, breaking the spell and making me laugh.

“It’s not that hard,” I insisted. “If you can’t tread water, you can just float, on your back or your stomach. Try it.”

“No way,” she said with a small laugh, her arm tightening around my neck. “I’d probably float right into the side of the pool and knock myself unconscious in the dark.”

I did laugh out loud then, realizing that I could see much better in the dim room than she could. This probably was a little scary for her, even with the moon cutting swaths of light across the water.

“I told you I’d never let anything happen to you, and I meant it,” I reminded her.

She looked at me and her face became serious. “I know that. And I know you probably could stop me from getting hurt, before it even happened. You’ve done it before.” She paused and looked at me expectantly. I wondered if she had remembered what really happened with the falling tree branch, and was waiting for me to make some sort of confession or explanation.

We bobbed gently up and down in the water, circling slowly, my preternatural limbs easily keeping us afloat. I touched the side of her face, my thumb rubbing her cheek. Her eyes closed and her lips parted, and the urge to kiss her was too strong to resist.

“Maybe I only have those instincts when it comes to you,” I whispered before I pressed my lips against hers. She responded instantly, her arm pulling us closer, her other hand stroking my jaw, her fingers sinking into the wet curls behind my ear. Like the first time we kissed, it quickly became hungry, searching, passionate. We broke away only long enough for me to tread water and keep us afloat. It became a strange water ballet, fingers caressing each other, tongues teasing and tasting each other and then breaking away briefly, only to find one another again.

“Oh God, Edward,” she finally sighed, and I moaned at the sound of my name escaping her lips. I kissed her deeply, my hand tangling in her wet hair, massaging the back of her head. My lips traveled across her face and down her ivory neck, grazing the faded scars I’d caused so many weeks ago. I kissed them gently, reverently, knowing in that moment that there was no possible way I’d ever inflict this type of harm upon her again.

Suddenly Bella gasped loudly and stiffened in my arms. I lifted my head quickly to find her staring at me in confusion. She ran her hand down the side of my face, over my lips and down my neck, studying me as if she’d never seen me before. Terror seized me before she could utter the words.

“I just had the weirdest déjà vu…” she said, brows furrowed, eyes still traveling all over my features. “…as if I’ve been with you like this before… like I’ve seen your face, your hair, all wet, in the moonlight.” Her fingers slowly traced my hairline. “You’re like a work of art,” she whispered.

My heart slammed against my ribs, and it was all I could do to keep the panic from welling up in my chest. I shook my head slightly, unable to find a reply, praying like mad that the moment would pass and her memories would go no further.

Her hands continued to play in my hair. “Of course, that’s crazy. I’ve never been swimming with you before,” she said with laugh. “Deja vus are so weird, aren’t they?” She leaned in and gave me several small, wet kisses all over my mouth and jaw. “I must have just been wishing that I’d been with you like this before,” she sighed.

I smiled feebly in response, trying like hell to hide my inner turmoil. What if the day came when she realized this had been no déjà vu? I knew I should tell her the truth before she figured it out on her own, but the thought made me so sick inside that I could scarcely consider it.

I maneuvered us away from the deep end and into shallower waters so that we could both stand on our feet again. “Are you tired?” she asked me, her arms still around my neck, her feet not touching the bottom. I would have laughed out loud at that notion if I weren’t so shaken up inside.

“No, I’m fine,” I assured her. “I just thought maybe you’d had enough of hanging onto me for dear life in the dark,” I tried to joke.

“No way,” she protested. “That was the best part. I like hanging onto you in the dark,” she said, her voice husky. She began kissing me again, and I couldn’t help but respond. It was like I was programmed to abandon all logic when I was with her, and just live in that perfect moment, breathing her in, savoring the sweet torture of her essence. She circled her arms tighter around my neck and hoisted herself up in the water, wrapping her legs around my waist. My hands instinctually grabbed her thighs to catch her and hold her in place, and a groan ripped from my throat at the sensation of her body pressed against mine, straddling me.

“God, Bella, what are you trying to do to me?” I begged her in between kisses.

“I’m trying to make you want me as much as I want you,” she murmured, arching her hips, pressing her bare stomach against mine. She tried to kiss me again, but I pulled my head back, gaping at her in disbelief. How could she have just said that? How could she still doubt my desire, my need for her?

“Wait a minute,” I said, shaking my head. I let go of her and let her drift away from me. Her face morphed from confusion to humiliation, and frustration fueled me as I grabbed her hand and pulled her gently. “Follow me,” I ordered, swimming toward the shallowest end of the pool, pulling her with me. When we stood at last, the water lapped a few inches below the waistband of my briefs, and hit Bella right at her waist. A series of ledges descended from the poolside into the shallow water, and I pushed her back toward the top ledge, ignoring her surprised gasp as I lifted her up to sit on it, exposing her nearly naked body in all its moonlit glory. My hungry eyes explored every part of her, watching the glistening rivulets of water run down her heaving chest, her flat stomach, the gentle curve of her hips, and over her creamy thighs. I stared shamelessly at the outline of her taut nipples, clearly visible through the thin, pale-blue wet cotton of her unpadded bra. I studied the small indentation of her hips, disappearing under a flimsy matching string bikini that barely covered the mound between her legs.

After caressing every inch of her body thoroughly with my eyes, I looked up into her anxious face and tried to convey every ounce of desire I had for her with one intense, unguarded gaze. I placed my hand gently but firmly under her chin, not letting her look away.

“Isabella Swan,” I began, my voice thick with emotion. “How can you possibly doubt how much I want you? How much I need you?” I let my fingers fall slowly down her neck, tracing the hollow of her throat and collarbone, and drifting down the valley between her perfect, pert breasts. “You are the most beautiful thing in the world to me,” I whispered, trailing my hand down her flat stomach, over the recess of her belly button and down the soft skin of her abdomen, stopping just shy of her panties. Goose bumps rose on her stomach, spreading quickly over her body---angry welts that reminded me how uncomfortable my touch must feel to her now that she was out of the warm water, the air cooling her skin.

I frowned and whispered, “I’m sorry,” backing away from her and despairing of ever being able to love her the way she deserved.

She instantly grabbed my arm to stop me from retreating any further. It was her turn to grasp my face, willing me to look up into her flashing green eyes. “Edward Cullen,” she said, my name sounding like the Hallelujah chorus falling from her lips. She spoke slowly, softly, deliberately. “Don’t you ever apologize for touching me again.”

And with those words, I was lost. I crushed her mouth in a kiss, but she didn’t crumble or break. She only kissed me back fiercely, her hands twisting in my hair and grasping my shoulders to draw me nearer. I grabbed her thighs and pulled her flush against me, the heat between her legs searing my throbbing cock through the thin wet layers of cotton. I moaned and gasped like an animal into her mouth as her warm hands wandered down my back and then my front, rubbing my nipples with her fingers, stroking the thickening trail of hair down to the waistband of my briefs and pausing there, coaxing a whimper of submission out of me as I buried my lips in her neck to stifle it. My right hand grasped the perfect round cheek of her ass while my left stroked the nipple of her breast into a hard pink knot under my fingers. It was her turn to gasp and moan, her groin pushing hard against mine, legs wrapping around me, hands clutching my back.

“Bella, God help me, I can’t stay away from you anymore,” I said between ragged breaths and hungry kisses.

“Good,” was the reply from her pink and swollen lips. “I can’t take any more of you disappearing on me, Edward,” she said in an almost desperate tone. “I can’t take it. You have to let me in.” She held my face still for a moment and looked deeply into my eyes. “Please,” she pleaded quietly.

I tried to slow my frantic breathing, and my forehead fell against hers. I didn’t know how I could ever reveal my dark secrets and not lose her. But it was becoming clear that if I didn’t try, losing her would become a certainty.

I nodded slowly and pressed my closed lips firmly on hers.

“Do you trust me?” she asked, her hands gently stroking the sides of my face.

I nodded again and replied, “Yes,” my voice a mere crumb as I yielded to her.

“That’s good,” she said, sounding relieved. “You know I won’t let anything bad happen to you,” she echoed my promises back to me with a small smile. “If I can help it.”

I mustered a weak grin before my forehead creased in anguish. “You’ve already saved me ten times over, Bella. You don’t even know….” I trailed off, shaking my head.

“Then tell me,” she said softly.

I sighed and entwined my fingers in her long hair, playing with the thick locks. I finally looked into her eyes and said, “I will someday. I promise.”

She looked ready to protest when the sound of electronic music suddenly pierced the muggy air. “My phone,” she sighed, looking back at the bleachers where our clothes and bags lay.

“It’s probably your dad,” I said, glancing up at the clock on the wall. It was already close to 7 o‘clock, and I was supposed to be at Jake’s any minute. “You’d better get it,” I said, reluctantly letting her go. I felt the shock of cold emptiness the minute her warm body left mine. I watched her run to find her phone, admiring every slender curve and wondering if I was doomed to walk around with a perpetual hard-on whenever I was with her.

I ascertained that it was Charlie who had called, and I excused myself to the boys’ shower room to grab some towels for the both of us. When I returned, she was just hanging up, assuring her father that she’d be home soon, her face registering disappointment as I approached. As she clicked off the phone, I wrapped a large towel around her shivering body and held her in my arms for a moment. She buried her face in my chest, and my hands lost themselves in her hair yet again. I lifted her face to mine and kissed her gently, then asked if there were hair dryers in the girls’ locker room. I didn’t want her to get sick by going out into the cold with wet hair.

She laughed and told me I was a worrywart, but added that she liked it. My eyes followed her until she disappeared into the shower room, toting her dry clothes with her. I rinsed off in the boys’ room, towel-dried my hair and dressed, then waited for Bella to emerge from the girls’ showers. She didn’t take too long, and I fell for her all over again when I saw her, fresh-scrubbed and pink-cheeked, her hair spilling in slightly damp waves down her back. Her unique perfume cut through the chlorine-scented air and burned my mouth as if it had been days, not minutes, since I‘d endured the torturous smell of her blood. I would never cease to be amazed at how many ways this girl continued to be my undoing.

“Do you have to work tonight?” she asked as I walked her to her car.

I nodded in reply. “Yeah, I told Emmett I’d cover his shift so he and Rosalie can go to Port Angeles this evening. There’s some chick flick she’s dying to see. I’ve worked every night this week, so he owes me,” I laughed.

“Well, maybe he can do the same for you and me some night,” Bella suggested, her expression cautiously hopeful.

“That sounds like a plan,” I said emphatically, an idea suddenly popping into my head. As soon as I thought of it, I knew I would have to follow it through. “In fact, I know exactly how he can repay me.”

“You do?” Bella asked, her eyes brightening. “What do you have in mind?”

“Hmmm…” I mused, grinning at her mischievously. “No, I can’t tell you, that would ruin the surprise.”

She huffed in frustration. “I don’t like surprises,” she said warily, unlocking her truck and throwing her book bag onto the passenger seat. She turned and looked up at me imploringly. “Can you give me a hint?”

“Nope,” I answered firmly. “But I will tell you, I’m pretty sure you’ll like this surprise. I hope so, anyway.”

“Argh!” she growled. “So cryptic.”

I laughed and pulled her to me, kissing her repeatedly until she sighed and said, “Good diversion tactic, Cullen.”

“Mmm, it worked then,” I chuckled, giving her several more pecks until she pushed me away in mock irritation.

“When are you going to get a phone?” she complained.

“Soon. Next week, I promise.”

“When am I going to see you again?”…more plaintive this time.

“Very soon. Sooner than you think.”

She still looked a bit skeptical as she climbed in the cab of her truck. She leaned toward me and said somewhat bashfully, “Thanks for tonight.”

“Don’t thank me,” I told her. “It’s the best night I’ve ever had. Until the next one I spend with you, that is.”

She let out a laugh and shook her head. “You’re a hopeless romantic, you know that?” she teased. But the blush that crept over her face told me she liked it.

“You have no idea,” I replied, raising one eye brow suggestively and giving her a slight smirk. But you’re about to find out.

I gave her a tender kiss before closing the truck door and watching her drive off in the direction of Charlie’s house. I ran at vampire speed to relieve Emmett from his shift at the bar, but not before I made sure he could work for me tomorrow night. I decided that it was about time Bella Swan changed her mind about surprises.

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