The first twenty-four hours were hell.
In retrospect, I supposed that they seemed particularly hellish because of the supreme bliss that had filled every cell of my body in the all-too-brief moments before.
After the horror of James draining me, the sensation of Edward lifting me up into his protective embrace was heaven. I clung to him as tenaciously as I could, desperate to stay with him. As always, I felt safe cradled in his arms; his words were sweet salvation. But I sensed darkness looming ever closer…enormous, inescapable. I felt as if I were falling down a deep well, Edward’s face and voice echoing above me and then fading to nothingness as I spiraled helplessly downward.
Inert, numb, I floated. Seconds? Days? Time had ceased to have meaning.
And then, through the soft black cocoon of unconsciousness, I heard something. It was faint at first, like the sound of a primitive drumbeat far in the distance. But the beating became louder, more insistent. I could feel it reverberating through my body, reviving it, resurrecting it. Through the haze of dawning consciousness, I discerned that the source of the vibration was at my lips, and they reflexively closed around the pulse, eager to embrace it. Its perfume beneath my nose was beyond compare. I began to suck tentatively, drinking as much of this sweet elixir into my body as I could. I instinctively knew that this was the source of my deliverance, and with each swallow, I could feel a surge of life pumping through me, sparking my limbs with electricity.
Edward. This was the first conscious word that resurfaced in my head. This was the name for the power rejuvenating my body. He was the life force. He was everything.
My eyelids fluttered slightly and I saw his face. Instant recognition and relief flooded me. My beautiful god was giving me the greatest gift he possibly could, and I received it gratefully, eagerly. I tried to speak, to reassure his worried mind. I could feel his fear as if it were my own. But I couldn’t seem to stop my tongue from lapping up his life source long enough to form the words.
Edward, I can feel you, my mind cried silently.
I could sense his elation, and his thoughts soon expressed it. His words flowed through me as easily as his blood. Yes…that was what this intoxicating drink was. Conscious thought and memory grew the more I drank, and I reached my hands up to grasp his arm firmly, letting him know that I was strong and alive. This was the moment I had longed for…the turning point. The merging of our bodies, minds and souls. The bestowing of his strength upon me. The sharing of his immortality with me. I knew with complete assurance that he would never let me go again. When he put his lips to my neck and took what was left of my frail humanity inside him, I knew that our covenant was complete. There was no greater bond than this, and our mutual thoughts confirmed it, even as our spirits wordlessly shared the unfathomably intense communion. Nothing could possibly tear us asunder now.
Even as that knowledge flowed through me, I sensed something changing. Edward’s mind was drifting, and became filled with images I didn’t recognize. An incredibly detailed film began playing in his head, and I soon realized that he was the star. I watched in awe as he grew from a tiny baby to the beautiful creature he was today. Euphoria filled me as I realized that these were memories, flooding Edward’s brain as thoroughly as our shared blood flooded our veins. Had I somehow been the catalyst for this? I didn’t understand how that could be, but I was too thrilled for him to care. He was complete now; he was whole. His emotional reaction nearly overpowered my own, and the feeling of it mingling with mine made me sob in gratitude.
But even this could not interrupt my hungry mouth from gnawing at his steely flesh. I would never tire of the circle we made together, feeding off of one another. I was too drunk with his essence to realize that it was beginning to wane. The balance was shifting. A fire began to burn through me, bringing me more warmth and life than I ever dreamed possible. I had never felt this vital, this alive, as a human. The vampire strength was more powerful than I ever could have imagined. I could feel my body transforming into something so wholly other than it had been, that exhilaration overtook me to an unprecedented degree.
And that precise moment was when the hell began.
I heard a familiar voice piercing the cocoon in which Edward and I were enveloped. Carlisle’s? Yes, that was it. He accused me of killing Edward, but that was impossible. Wasn’t it clear that we were one now? We gave life to each other--we didn’t take it away from one another.
I felt foreign hands on me, pulling roughly at me, jerking me away from my other half. How dare Carlisle remove me from Edward? The notion was unthinkable, incomprehensible. I screamed in outrage as my body was cruelly snatched away from its protector, my empty hands and mouth reaching in vain for their comfort. Instead they turned on the aggressor, clawing and biting in fury at the being who had so thoroughly wrenched me away from my other half. I flailed violently at Carlisle, trying to extricate myself from his iron grasp. No sooner had I freed myself from his grip than two more pairs of hands restrained me.
“Edward!” I wailed, my vocal chords straining with desperation. I looked around wildly, trying to focus. I finally found his beautiful face and my heart ached with need. His eyes were closed; his skin translucent alabaster, blue veins pushing faintly through their sparkling cover. Carlisle knelt over him, grasping Edward’s face in his hand and lifting his eyelids gently one by one. His blue orbs were now a milky white; dull, unseeing.
“Esme, Alice, get Bella to the cottage,” Carlisle ordered. “We’ll have to keep watch over her there. I’m going to need to give Edward a transfusion.”
“How are you going to do that?” a quivering voice spoke near my ear. I tried to pry my eyes from Edward’s still form in order to focus on my prisoners. I recognized their faces, and tried to put the names to them. Yes, of course…Alice. And Esme. Her worried question to her husband hung in the air while I continued to writhe uncontrollably in the two vampires’ grips.
“I’ll give him my blood,” Carlisle informed us. “And if necessary, I’ll get him some human stores from the hospital. He might need the strength. Don’t worry, Esme…I won’t let him go,” he assured her soberly.
I began to sob again, horrified at the thought that I had nearly destroyed my love, and aching miserably to be near him. But I soon learned that the pain of being separated from Edward was nothing to the pain of my human body slowly dying.
I railed against Alice and Esme, who half-dragged, half-carried me away from Edward’s lifeless body as Carlisle prepared to do for his son what he had just done for me. The fire that had surged through me and made me feel so alive soon intensified into an inferno, its flames seeming to engulf my veins. I was being burned alive, from the inside out. How on earth could anyone survive such torture?
I don’t know where the Cullens took me. I had no sense of time or place. My eyes were squeezed shut in pain, my body curled into a ball of agony. Conscious thought failed me as the excruciating fire blazed on and on. My mind was nothing but a dizzying whirl of images, past and present. I tried to concentrate, not wanting to lose my memories--or my very sanity--to the raging inferno. But my main wish was simply for the pain to stop. It had to end soon. How much could any being endure?
Ever so slowly, consciousness fought through the pain-provoked madness and tried to claim me. I occasionally began to hear familiar voices. Edward’s lilting baritone was the only one that truly cut through my anguish, his honey tones like water to my fire. I couldn’t speak his name, but I repeated it over and over in my head like a mantra, clinging to it as if it were a life preserver. I could feel him ever present, and his nearness was the only balm to soothe me. I had the fleeting thought that I was glad Edward had no memory of this kind of pain. I was sure I would not be so lucky.
Eventually, blessedly, the fire began to burn itself out. The heat gradually subsided, and a coolness settled into my limbs. The relief was profound. I lay perfectly still for a long moment, feeling the steady intake of my lungs and the lethargic, nearly non-existent beat of my now-cold heart. I became aware of the sensation of cool breath blowing softly on my cheek, and the feel of someone’s fingers entwined with mine. Edward. I tried to squeeze his hand; to open my eyes and look at him. I wasn’t sure whether the laws of physics or simple fear kept me immobile. I was afraid that if I lifted so much as a finger, the flames might begin racing through me once more. I suddenly felt his cool hand on my forehead, brushing my hair back. Electricity shot through me, but it wasn’t the painful fire--it was the surge of excitement I felt every time Edward touched me.
I tried to assure him with my mind. Edward…I’m okay.
His other hand tightened around mine. “Bella?” he whispered, his voice raw, urgent, hopeful.
Yes. I had to make this new and hopefully improved body work somehow. I concentrated very hard on the feel of Edward’s fingers between mine, and tried to grip them in return. I wasn’t sure I had actually moved at first, but then I heard Edward make an exclamation of what sounded almost like pain.
“Bella!” he said in surprise, followed by a short laugh. “You don’t know your own strength yet, do you?” His thumb pressed into my palm, rubbing it gently.
Had I squeezed too hard? Why weren’t my senses more coordinated? Was this what it felt like to be a vampire?
I concentrated again, willing the dark curtains covering my eyes to be raised. I desperately wanted to see Edward’s face. My eyes snapped open like window shades that had been wound too tightly and then released. I was disoriented at first, the gray Washington sunlight streaming in the window to my left seeming inordinately bright. It brought the stone ceiling and walls around me into stark relief, each detail of their craggy surface a fascinating study to my newborn vampire eyes. But when my sight drifted to the right, I was so astonished at what I saw there that I gasped out loud.
Edward Cullen was the most beautiful creature ever created.
Obviously, I had known this before. He was empirically, unequivocally handsome; no human would ever deny it. But no human was capable of seeing what I saw when I gazed at him now. The rainbows of color that danced off of his skin gave him an ethereal glow much more vivid than I had never noticed through mortal eyes. His lips were the softest, most perfect shade of pink; the hairs of his brows and eyelashes the silkiest chestnut brown. But his eyes were the most remarkable of all. I could now see the entire kaleidoscope of colors creating the shade of blue that my human eyes had always admired. Now I could discern the tiny lines of color making up his irises---so many varying shades of blue, green, gray and hazel that the colors seemed to dance and change with the scarcest movement. No wonder his eyes had always seemed to change with the weather--every hue was already inherent there, waiting to be exploited by the sun’s rays.
And yet, the most remarkable thing about Edward’s eyes was the love I saw there. His joy at seeing me conscious again seemed to be as intense as my own. He squeezed my hand in his, then reached out with the other hand and stroked my face with his long fingers.
“Welcome back, angel,” he whispered, grazing my cheek with his soft lips. His touch seemed so much more comfortable now, so soothing. I realized with a start that he no longer felt cold and statuesque. He felt…normal. I lifted my hand to his face, and was further amazed at how different he felt to me now. His skin was smooth and shimmering as always, but also soft, supple and…warm? I reminded myself that I was the one who had changed. I was now cold, like he was. And when I glanced down at our hands clasped tightly together, my pearlescent ivory skin was proof. I wanted to cry with joy and relief. We were equals at last.
I propped myself up on one elbow, noting that the bed I’d been lying on was covered with a beautiful antique quilt. I didn’t know where we were, but the rustic surroundings were a far cry from the Cullens’ spacious, modern home. My attention was quickly captured by Edward’s glorious face again, and I reached out once more to explore his features more thoroughly. I examined every plane, every curve, every dimple as if for the first time. His eyes caressed my face almost as thoroughly, and I wondered what I looked like to him now. Had I become anywhere near as hauntingly lovely as Edward and the rest of the Cullens were?
“Edward,” I whispered, testing my vocal chords. It sounded strangely foreign to my ears. It was still my voice, but more musical; an alto version of Alice’s pure, bell-like soprano. “Are you okay? Carlisle said I hurt you…” I faltered, remembering his eerily colorless skin when I was forcibly removed from him by Dr. Cullen.
Edward shook his head and insisted, “I’m fine,” as he threaded his fingers through the hair behind my ear. “Carlisle knew what to do. You didn’t think I’d leave you here to fend for yourself without me, did you?”
“No,” I answered. “Not now. But that’s exactly what you were doing before, wasn’t it? You were going to leave me. You were leaving with Victoria,” I accused quietly.
Edward’s face fell, his eyes unable to meet mine. “I wanted better than this for you,” he finally said hollowly. He lifted my hand to his lips and pressed them there for a long moment.
“There is nothing better than this…than us,” I corrected him. I took his chin in my hand and lifted his face, willing him to look at me. “Did you ever stop to think that maybe this was my destiny? That I was meant for a different kind of life, with you?”
His lips parted as if to speak, but he faltered, remained silent. His mouth was so deliciously soft, so inviting. I leaned toward him slowly and kissed him, feeling the same tingle I always did when our lips met. In fact, it seemed to be magnified tenfold. His mouth opened with a relenting sigh, allowing my curious tongue entrance. He tasted every bit as delicious as before, and his scent still made me delirious, though not helpless as it had when I was human. I was quite certain I would never be helpless again.
I drew back suddenly as an alarming thought crossed my mind. Edward’s brow furrowed in frustration as we parted.
“Do you miss it?” I whispered worriedly. “My warmth…my smell?”
His face registered relief, and a half-grin claimed his lips. “No,” he assured me, cupping my face in his hand. “It’s nice, not having to fight the blood thirst anymore.” He gave me a long, serious look. “You’re still my Bella. Nothing could ever change that.”
And with that, his mouth closed over mine once more. I kissed him hungrily, amazed at the desire that surged through me. It seemed that every urge or need I’d had as a human was now intensified, and my craving for Edward was no exception. He moaned softly as my hand trailed down his throat and over his chest, my fingers deftly undoing the top buttons of his shirt before we were interrupted by a loud coughing noise.
Disoriented, I reluctantly broke away from Edward and we both turned our heads toward the sound. There, in the doorway of the cozy bedroom, stood Alice, beaming excitedly. Her beauty was almost as dazzling as Edward’s to my new immortal eyes.
“You made it!” she exclaimed giddily. She turned her head and hollered, “Carlisle, come quick--Bella’s finally awake!” She bounded into the room, brushed Edward aside and clutched me in a hug, nearly dragging me off the bed.
Then she held me at arm’s length and gave me a once-over. “You look stunning,” she announced. And then, more softly, “Was it horrible? The conversion?”
Both Alice and Edward stared at me with trepidation. Neither of them remembered what had happened to them. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want Edward to feel any worse about having changed me. Carlisle entered the room at that moment, saving me from having to reply. Had he always been this extraordinarily handsome? I couldn’t stop marveling at the way the world appeared to me now. It was as if my new, improved eyesight revealed an extra dimension that my human vision simply couldn’t comprehend.
“How’s my patient today?” he smiled, just as he had done weeks ago when I was in the hospital. He sat on the side of my bed, brandishing a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope. Edward rose from his chair and pulled Alice back so that Dr. Cullen could examine me. He checked my eyes, ears, nose and throat as he would a human, which I found ludicrous now. Still, I accommodated him, wanting him to see for himself that I was fine. Better than fine.
“I hope the pain wasn’t too unbearable,” he said as he strapped the cuff tightly around my upper arm. “I gave you a couple of shots of morphine when your suffering seemed to be at its worst. It seemed to still you a bit so that you could rest more comfortably. I hope it helped.”
I looked up at three expectant vampire faces, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them the truth. I nodded slightly and managed to croak, “Thank you. I’m fine.” My throat was beginning to feel parched. The fire seemed to have left a desert in its wake.
The doctor took my vitals, then announced both my blood pressure and heartbeat to be nearly non-existent. “Which is perfectly normal for a vampire…especially a newborn who needs to feed,” he added. He looked up at Edward, his unspoken question heard easily in Edward’s mind.
“Of course I’ll take her hunting,” Edward replied with a grin, then turned to me. “Are you thirsty?”
I nodded vigorously, and the others laughed. Edward took my hand and gently pulled me off the bed. I looked down and noticed I was still wearing the jeans and sweater I’d had on before. I realized I had no idea how much time had passed.
“What day is it?” I asked nervously.
“It’s Friday morning,” Edward replied. “You missed a day, I’m afraid.”
I nodded, wondering how on earth I’d survived the burning agony for that long. Perhaps trial by fire was what it took to forge the kind of strength that now surged through my limbs.
Suddenly, panic seized me as I realized what else losing an entire day meant. “What about Charlie and Renee?” I gasped. “They must be frantic!”
“Don’t worry, I took care of everything,” Alice quickly interjected, taking my arm in hers and launching into an explanation. It seemed that I had become quite ill and feverish during the drive to Seattle, so Alice and Jasper brought me back to Forks and took me straight to see their father. Upon examination, Dr. Cullen discovered that I had contracted mononucleosis. He thought it best that he keep an eye on me for a few days, as my fever had spiked quite high. (The irony of this little white lie was not lost on me.) Though Charlie and Renee were concerned, they trusted Dr. Cullen implicitly, and believed him when he told my father how contagious I was. He advised Charlie to wait a few days before venturing over to the Cullen house to visit me.
“So, you see? I bought you some time to get used to your new vampire life,” Alice concluded with a contented smirk.
“By giving me mono?” I retorted in dismay. “Great. Now my parents will think Edward gave it to me.”
Edward and Alice only laughed at my irritation. Carlisle chimed in with the opinion that it was actually quite smart of Alice to come up with that story, because it might allow me to stay with the Cullens indefinitely, as mononucleosis could be quite serious.
“You may have to ease yourself back into life with your father,” he told me, his face grave. “Your craving for human blood will be so strong that it could be dangerous if you’re exposed to him without us there to intercede, if necessary. I know you don’t want to risk hurting him, Bella.”
“You’re saying that you don’t think I can control myself---even with my own father?” I asked incredulously. I couldn’t imagine ever lifting a finger to harm him, even if the thirst was ten times worse than this.
The Cullens all nodded grimly in unison. I frowned, not believing it. Edward could read the stubbornness on my face, I was sure, because he clutched my hand firmly in his and said, “You haven’t caught the scent of warm, living blood yet.” He guided me out of the bedroom door and into a small but charmingly decorated living room, its cozy couches surrounding an inviting fireplace. “Let’s take you into the wilderness for a bit before we even think about unleashing you on humanity, okay?”
“Fine,” I agreed grumpily, still disbelieving. And then, changing the subject: “Where are we, anyway? What is this place?”
Carlisle’s voice answered in reply from behind me. “Esme and I had it built as a present for Rosalie and Emmett, the first time we lived in this area, decades ago. It was their honeymoon cottage after their first marriage.”
“First marriage?” I questioned him.
Carlisle laughed in reply. “They like to renew their vows every ten or twenty years, and go off together on a honeymoon. They need their time apart from us every now and then,” he smiled. “We all need that from time to time. We’ve all come out here to stay when we want some solitude.”
“He means when we want to get busy,” Alice whispered loudly with a giggle. “Family togetherness does have its drawbacks. Sometimes we like a little more privacy, if ya know what I’m sayin’, and I think ya do,” Alice winked.
Edward gave me a tiny grin and squeezed my hand. It felt like a thousand volts flew up my arm from the contact. If I hadn’t been so unbearably thirsty, I might have urged Alice and Carlisle to leave Edward and I alone right then and there.
“Are the others back at the main house?” I asked politely, not wanting to give away my true thoughts.
“Esme was here with us all night watching over you,” Carlisle said. “Alice came to relieve her this morning.”
“And the boys? Rosalie?” I asked.
“They were making sure the nomads were properly disposed of,” Dr. Cullen answered curtly.
I inhaled sharply at the mention of James and Victoria, then let out a relieved breath at the knowledge that they would no longer be able to come after the people I loved. I wondered exactly how the Cullens had “disposed of” the wayward vamps. I shot Edward a questioning look, and he whispered, “I’ll explain later.” Then, more loudly, “Shall we go find you some breakfast?”
I nodded, my mouth so dry that speaking was beginning to feel like a Herculean effort, even for a newly-minted immortal. Edward led me toward the front door and out into the crisp morning air. A fine layer of snow dusted the ground---the first snowfall of the year. I realized with delight that the cold didn’t bother me; putting on a coat seemed superfluous at best.
“Edward!” I exclaimed with a start as we ventured out into the wintry forest. “When you came to Newton’s to buy a coat and gloves…you never even needed them.” I studied his sheepish face for a moment as the truth struck me. “You only came in to see me, didn’t you! You didn’t need any of that stuff you bought.”
“You’re just now figuring that out?” he said with a sly grin. “Everything I’ve done has been about you, from the start. I thought you knew that.” He brushed my face gently with his hand.
I gazed at the pure emotion in his glistening blue eyes, shaking my head. “How did I get so lucky?” I whispered.
“You always get everything backwards,” Edward sighed, shaking his head. “Now, why don’t we check out your new skills? See if you can keep up with me,” he challenged. And with that, he took off like a shot and disappeared into the brush ahead.
“Wait!” I hollered, sprinting after him, not knowing where he had gone. But as my feet propelled me forward, I caught his delicious scent in the air, wafting back to me from the path he’d taken. I closed my eyes for a moment and honed in on the smell I knew so well, now more pungent than I’d ever imagined it could be. Then I raced in that direction, my feet seeming to have minds of their own as I sped ever-faster through the brush. What had seemed a blur when I was human was now slowed down in surprisingly garish detail, every branch and bough of every shrub and tree easily discernible--and easily avoided--as my legs pumped furiously, yet effortlessly, beneath me.
Soon I saw Edward’s graceful figure speeding full bore ahead of me. He was fast--but not as fast as me. I crept closer, reaching out for his shoulder, grabbing the soft fabric of his flannel shirt in my fist. It tore as easily as a petal from a flower, leaving me with a scrap of material in my hand. I heard Edward’s laugh taunting me as a burst of speed carried him out of my grasp. Incensed, I raced after him, and before I knew it I was upon him. This time, I leapt on him and threw him to the ground. The feeling was exhilarating, being able to force his steel body to the earth with the sheer force of my own. What was once immovable stone to me was now a laughing, wriggling man in my grasp.
I rolled him over to his back, straddling him and pinning his shoulders to the snowy ground. “Say ‘uncle!’” I commanded ruthlessly.
Still grinning, Edward reached up and stroked the side of my face with his hand, drawing me closer. “Never,” he whispered wickedly. He lifted his head and kissed me hungrily, passionately. His hand closed around my neck and his other arm circled my waist, crushing me against him. I yielded immediately, dissolving in his kiss, in his arms. Our limbs entangled, our lips fused, Edward pulled me to the ground next to him, his tongue plumbing the depths of my mouth with a hunger and fierceness I’d never felt from him before. I suddenly realized that this was the first time he had been able to let himself go with me---to be reckless, bold, forceful. He groaned desperately, his breath caressing my face, his hands roaming up and down my body, groping and grasping me to him as if he couldn’t get close enough. I could scarcely breathe or think. I could only revel in the sensation of our bodies finally coming together effortlessly, thoughtlessly.
I moaned with satisfaction as he rolled me on my back, pressing my body into the snow with his own. His hands were warm on my face--still a sweet surprise--as he covered me with kisses. My legs and arms wrapped around him, pulling him in. I wanted him to undo the zippers on our jeans and take me right there in the middle of the forest. I imagined what it would feel like to have him thrusting fearlessly inside me, making love to me the way we both wanted so desperately. I pressed my body tightly against his, writhing underneath him, kissing him wildly. God, how I loved and wanted this man, was all my addled mind could muster.
And then, through the fog of desire, I heard Edward’s voice. “You’re going to have to do much better than this. This was way too easy.” He planted a tiny peck on my nose, and before I could gather my wits, he had hoisted himself up easily and stood grinning smugly down at me. He then took off running, giving me a taunting look over his shoulder at my shocked face as he disappeared.
“You…you tricked me!” I sputtered indignantly. “I’ll get you, Edward Cullen!” I grunted as I leapt to my feet and chased after him, easily picking up his scent once more. I crept closer to him, reveling in the alien feeling of a body now effortlessly graceful and quick, where it had been so painfully awkward and clumsy before. His scent pulled me onward, and I heard his laughter as I closed in on him.
And then, suddenly, everything changed. A new, unfamiliar smell assaulted my nose. It was very different from Edward’s musky allure. This scent was heavy, pungent, slightly gamey. My stomach growled angrily, twisting insistently in response to this new odor. Without thinking, I swiftly veered off course, toward the warm, earthy scent. Its pull was much too strong to resist. It wasn’t long before I met the source of the smell. I stopped short before scaring the small group of deer in the trees ahead: two does and their young, searching the barren shrubs for food. A part of my mind scoffed at the ridiculous idea of attacking any of these animals in hope of assuaging the thirst that now throbbed dryly throughout my mouth and throat. That part of my brain was quickly silenced by the instinct that filled other every cell of my newly altered being: the overwhelming need to kill, to drink, to survive.
I was barely conscious of my actions after that. Too hungry to bother with strategy, I rushed the herd, quickly closing in on the slowest of the bunch as they ran for their lives. Its neck was torn and gushing into my mouth without me knowing quite how it had happened. All I knew was comfort and relief as the hot, delicious liquid filled my belly and cleared the cotton from my mouth.
When I was satisfied that I had drained every drop of blood from the animal, I finally rose to my feet, slightly dazed, staring down at the limp corpse before me. I couldn’t fully comprehend what I had just done. Only when I looked at the blood soaking my sweater and staining my hands did I fully realize what it meant to be a vampire. In some ways, hunting and killing seemed perfectly normal; the natural order of things. And yet part of me was mildly repulsed at what I had just done; what I had become. I stared at my bloody hands for some time, trying to digest all the conflicting feelings that flooded me. The only thing I knew for sure was that the thirst was quenched, for the time being, and I was glad of that.
“Bella?” I heard my name uttered softly, uncertainly, behind me.
I turned slowly to face Edward. I wondered vaguely how much blood remained on my face, and wiped at it absently with the back of my hand. “Yes?”
He scrutinized me carefully. “Are you okay?”
I held up my scarlet hands. “As good as I can be.”
He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and stepped toward me, pulling me gently in his arms. “The instinct takes over. It always does. This is what you are now. This is what I tried to protect you from.” He rocked me gently and stroked my hair.
I buried my face in his flannel-covered chest and wrapped my arms around him. “It’s not so bad,” I said at last. “I was never a vegetarian, so it’s not like this is so far-removed from the burger I ate the other day. It’s just…hard to comprehend what I’m capable of now.”
Edward nodded, his lips warm on my forehead. “It will take some time to get used to. But you will. You were incredible just now,” he assured me.
He nodded, and his smile was almost…proud. “I followed you when you changed course on me. You didn’t even need my help--you just followed your instincts and went in for the kill. But now you know how the bloodlust can rule you--how the scent can take over your mind, your willpower. And you haven’t even come across human blood yet.”
I shook my head, thinking of how foolishly I’d assumed I would never hurt Charlie. Now I wasn’t so sure. “What if I can’t control myself?” I asked Edward worriedly. “What if I can never go back to my old life?”
“Don’t jump the gun,” he told me. He gently rubbed his thumb along my mouth and chin, and I knew he was wiping away blood. “After you, I never once slipped, even with Lauren. And I came so close…I don’t know how I stopped myself. Just the thought of you, what I had done to you, kept me from ever repeating that mistake. You could be the same. I can’t imagine you ever hurting your father, or your mother, either.”
I nodded quietly, enjoying the feel of Edward’s arms around me, calming me; his face buried in my hair.
“You know,” he mused after a moment, “after you get used to the idea, hunting can be sort of…fun. Kind of a challenge. I like to kill predators, myself. But I’ve got nothing on Emmett. You should see him when he’s facing off with a Grizzly.”
“A Grizzly bear?” I exclaimed, looking up at Edward in surprise.
“I pity the bears, quite honestly. I think Emmett uses them for therapy. Every one of them becomes the bear that took him down when he was human.”
I shook my head in wonder. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, after the way you saved me from that black bear last week. Just think…you won’t ever have to save me again,” I grinned up at him, pleased at the thought.
“I hope not. But I don’t intend to let you out of my sight for too long, just in case,” he smiled down at me. He kissed me gently and smoothed my hair back. “So…are you up for an adventure? I’m a little hungry for mountain lion today, I think.”
My eyebrows raised as I tried to imagine Edward stalking such a sleek and powerful animal. I didn’t have to use my imagination for long. I gamely followed Edward through the forest into mountainous territory, my nose constantly a-twitch with the tantalizing scents of various animals as we climbed. Edward slowed when he came across the odor he was searching for. I followed close behind, attempting to be as quiet and stealthy as he was. I looked around, trying to find the great cat in the rocky terrain around us; but I could discern nothing, even with my newly superior eyesight. I soon realized that Edward was looking upward, and my eyes followed his into the trees. There, perched lazily among the branches, was Edward’s mark.
The great cat stared down at us with piercing yellow eyes, its long tail twitching in agitation, much like a common housecat’s. It seemed to be appraising us warily. I doubted it would attack the both of us, sensing it was outnumbered.
Edward was having none of that. With lightning speed, he raced toward the tree, leaping up in an attempt the grab the cougar with his bare hands. The cat hissed in protest and leapt from its perch, hitting the ground running. Edward gave chase, and I followed quickly behind. The sight of Edward loping gracefully after his prey was truly a wonder to behold. When he seized the rear haunch of the animal, it yowled loudly and turned to fight. It swung a massive paw at Edward’s neck, claws extended, shredding his shirt to rags. I could see the cat’s confusion when its claws bounced harmlessly off of its victim’s marble exterior. The mountain lion attacked again, trying to claim Edward’s neck in its vice-like jaws; but the poor animal had never met a predator like this before. Edward grabbed the cat’s fanged mouth in his hands, wrestling it to the ground; and with one swift movement, he wrenched the animal’s head violently around, breaking its neck. Edward’s razor-sharp teeth were sunk into its flesh before its body had time to fall limply aside. A clean bite to the carotid claimed the animal’s life, and Edward fed as neatly as he had gone in for the kill. Scarcely any blood spilled until he removed his mouth from the animal’s neck, and I stared in awe at his ability to so deftly drink the cat’s blood with scarcely any of it marring his own face or hands.
“Come and finish it off, Bella,” he beckoned me. “You’re probably still thirsty.”
I nodded, still stunned, and stepped forward to end what Edward had started. This blood tasted richer, more satisfying than that of the doe I had taken down earlier. He was right--predators did make a better meal.
When I’d finished, I felt a bit sluggish and overfull, as if I had made a glutton of myself. “Was that enough for you?” I asked Edward worriedly. “You left most of it for me.”
“I don’t need as much as I used to,” he answered. “We can go again tomorrow. Maybe we’ll bring Emmett and Jasper--they can teach you a few tricks.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think I’ll ever be as skilled as you are,” I said ruefully, glancing down at my heavily stained clothes. “Look at me, compared to you.”
“You didn’t see me after I killed my first bear,” he said with a short laugh. “I was lucky I didn’t have my jacket on at the time. It was the only thing that covered all the blood so that I could run to town and buy some clean clothes.” He took my hand and helped me up. “Let’s get you back to the cottage so you can clean up a little.”
I nodded and took his lead. This time, he didn’t race ahead. He stayed beside me whole way back as we seemed to fly silently through the frosty air. We leapt over huge rocks, gullies, and even a wide stream. Each time I laughed like a child, giddy to experience my newfound abilities. Edward seemed to be reliving his discoveries through me, since his had been tainted by fear of the unknown. Now he was able to enjoy his powers for the miracle they truly were, not dread them because he didn’t know where they came from.
When we arrived at the cottage, we found it empty. Carlisle and Alice had apparently decided that Edward and I needed some quality time together. For some reason, nervousness prickled through me, as if I were a newlywed myself and this honeymoon cottage was made for Edward and me. I explored the place more thoroughly now, amused to find that nearly every built-in feature and piece of furniture was made of some kind of stone, wrought iron or heavy wood. It was clearly made to withstand the kind of abuse that creatures with ridiculous powers might accidentally inflict. When I returned to the bedroom to check the closet for clean clothes, my stomach quivered again at the sight of the bed. The antique quilt had been replaced by fresh linens in shades of deep plum, and strewn over the top were hundreds of rose petals. For the first time, I noticed that the bed frame was forged of heavy wrought iron, with ornate roses woven into its latticework pattern. Candles and flowers were placed strategically on every piece of heavy oak furniture. The room had been designed for romance, it was clear; and I was sure that Alice had decorated it for us with that in mind.
I reached out to touch one of the iron roses, and grimaced at the blood stains on my hands. I left the room quickly and headed for the bathroom, flicking on the light and approaching the sink. I gasped when I saw my reflection in the mirror. The blood was ghastly, to be sure; but that’s not what made my jaw drop. Under the tangled, matted hair and dried blood was the face of a very beautiful girl.
I blinked several times to make sure it was still me. The reflection blinked back in unison. I reached my hand out to the mirrored face; only glass met my fingertips. It was still me, and yet, something was different. Subtle changes had refined every feature, as if distilling them to their very essence. My skin was poreless, creamy alabaster; my lips distinctly drawn upon it in a perfect pink bow below my button nose. My eyes had taken on a dazzling emerald hue that sparkled under the glow of the bathroom fixtures, and each orb was framed by long, sweeping, glossy black eyelashes topped with perfectly drawn eyebrows. It was like seeing a new and improved version of myself, as if a TV talk show host had just done a make-over on me to show the world my astonishing “before and after.”
I was still staring like Narcissus when Edward appeared in the doorway behind me.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded of his reflection.
“Tell you what?” He appeared to be clueless.
I finally pried my eyes from my own face and whirled to face him. “How much I’ve changed!”
His forehead creased in confusion. “But you haven’t. Your eyes, maybe, a little. The color is more intense than before. But other than that….” he trailed off and shrugged, clearly not understanding my shock.
“Edward. Are you mad? I was plain before. Very, very average. I did not look like this. I mean, I haven’t even showered the muck off and I can still see that I am….” I couldn’t bring myself to say the word.
Edward could. “Beautiful?” he suggested. He shook his head in mild exasperation and gave me my favorite crooked grin. “Bella, you were always beautiful. You haven’t changed that much. It’s the way you see yourself that’s changed.”
I frowned and looked at my reflection once again. Then I looked at Edward, who was so breathtaking that I could barely believe he was real, let alone my lover and partner for all of eternity. I remembered that upon awakening this morning, he had looked even more amazing to me through my new vampire vision. He was right…the way I saw the world and everything in it had changed. And that included me.
He leaned down and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “I’m going to leave you alone for a bit…let you get used to all of this. Okay?”
I nodded slowly, trying to let this new truth sink in. Edward told me he was going to make a couple of phone calls, to check on the Cullens and make sure that they had taken care of James and Victoria.
At their mention, I grabbed Edward’s arm as he turned to go. “What do mean when you say that? How did you ‘take care of them?’ How is our kind killed?”
His face was grim. “I couldn’t bring myself to kill Victoria, even after everything she did. I let Rosalie and Alice do it. I’m sure Rosalie was only too happy to tear Victoria’s head from her body. That’s what I did to James.” His voice was ghostly quiet, tense with hatred.
“You killed him yourself?” I asked. “I don’t remember that….”
“After Carlisle brought me back to consciousness, I discovered that Emmett and Jasper were holding James for me. They thought I should get the satisfaction of wiping that smug smirk off of his face myself.” His eyes seemed to be focused on the memory. “After everything he did to my family, and to you…I took his head in my hands and I twisted until it cracked like a walnut shell, and then I twisted some more. The girls had built a bonfire to destroy Victoria’s remains, and I tossed his rotten skull on top and watched it burn.” His lip curled in grim satisfaction. His eyes shifted back to the present, and looked into mine. “That’s how you kill our kind. Rip them apart and burn the pieces.”
I shuddered a little in spite of myself. “I’m glad you did it,” I told him. “You deserved to see justice served. Even better that you got to serve it yourself.”
He smiled wanly. “I thought I would feel that way. But it doesn’t change what happened. It doesn’t fix the mistakes I made. It doesn’t change the fact that I failed you, Bella,” he said softly.
I shook my head vehemently. “Stop it. I don’t want to hear any more of this kind of talk from you. None of this was your fault. We were both in the wrong place at the wrong time, from the very beginning. We were both victims. But it doesn’t matter, because I wouldn’t change one thing that’s happened. Not one. Do you understand me?” I gripped his face fiercely, my eyes blazing at his. “What we shared together was…sacred. I’ve never felt anything so primal, so deep, so…important in my life. We are a part of each other now in a way that never, ever could have happened if we had lived normal human lives. So stop apologizing for giving me the most amazing, most cherished gift I’ll ever receive.” I felt the tears begin to fall, and I knew what they looked like without the help of the mirror.
Edward’s face crumpled as he pulled me to him. “I wouldn’t change it either,” he whispered, his hands cradling my face, his lips inches from mine. “God help me…I wouldn’t change a thing.” The tears slid down his face and mingled with mine as he kissed me, over and over. He pushed me back against the marble wall, his arms winding tightly around me and keeping me from hitting the cold stone behind me. My hands clutched his hair greedily as my tongue searched his mouth, wanting to taste him, drink him in once again.
His breath came hard and fast as his hands worked at my clothes, lifting the bloody sweater over my head and tossing it to the floor. One quick yank from me and his already-torn shirt fell to pieces. Within seconds, our clothes made a trail to the shower. We stood under a stream of steaming hot water, letting it wash away all the blood, including our tears. We couldn’t stop kissing and grasping at one another, both desperate to recapture the closeness that our shared blood had created. Edward shoved me against the shower wall, its marble smooth and harmless against my skin. His fingers found the sweet spot between my legs, and I moaned at his touch until he smothered my mouth once more with his. I reached down and stroked his erection, loving the feel of it growing and hardening under my touch. He slid his long fingers inside me and moved them in rhythm with my hand pumping his shaft. I whimpered as he plunged his hand deeper, stretching me, filling me, stroking the sensitive flesh deep inside. I grasped his cock more firmly, working it faster, feeling it thicken, wanting it inside me.
Edward didn’t have to be a mind-reader to know my thoughts. He pulled his fingers from me and grasped my thighs firmly, pushing me against the wall as he lifted me up. My arms wound around his neck, my legs around his waist; and I clung to him as he impaled me with his cock. I gasped at the feel of him so deep inside me, gravity pulling my body down as he filled me up. He held me effortlessly against the wall, and for once he didn’t have to worry about hurting me as he thrust inside me, deep and hard, again and again. Our moans and cries mingled with the sound of the running water as it warmed our skin and trickled down our writhing bodies.
We came quickly, together, in a series of shuddering gasps and groans, our eyes locked in a grip as tight and passionate as that of our bodies. I couldn’t stop the tears that flowed again, this time from the sheer intensity of what we shared. My love for him was almost an ache inside me, it was so deep, so profound.
Edward seemed to understand. He said nothing, just kissed my tears away and gently twirled me under the cleansing water, our bodies still joined together, as we slowly came down from our high. He finally set my quivering body back on its feet, but he didn’t let me go. We held each other for several long, perfect moments, neither of us wanting to break the spell we created every time we came together.
So we didn’t. We made love all day, and all night. We christened every room, every piece of furniture in the cottage, in every way possible, it seemed. Edward laid me out on the dining room table, lifting my legs up and kissing his way down the insides of my calves and thighs, his mouth finally working its magic between my legs until I begged him to take me. I rode him mercilessly on the living room sofa, and later the loveseat, in the glow of a roaring fire in the fireplace. He went down on me in the kitchen; I returned the favor in the den. He bent me over the breakfront, rattling the dishes as he pounded me senseless. We were high on love, drunk with lust, as we worshipped and ravished each other’s bodies in turn. We never tired; we never required any rest or recuperation. Vampire love existed in a different realm from human love, and we were blissfully lost in its limitless possibilities.
By the time we reached the bedroom, the rose petals had wilted. We contemplated lighting the candles, but never quite got around to it. Edward was too interested in studying the contrast between my ivory skin and the silky garnet comforter beneath it, bathed in the blue-tinged moonlight that streamed through the window. He ran his hands slowly down my body…from my neck, over my breasts and abdomen, between my legs and eventually to my feet…where he gave each a nice little massage. No matter now many times he touched me, my body instinctively arched and strained to meet his gorgeous hands, and he loved this about me. He trailed his fingers up my legs once again, making me squirm as he reached my groin. The small of my back lifted, pushing my belly into his probing fingers. My ribs stretched beneath his silken touch; my nipples hardened as my breasts filled his palms.
“If I weren’t already dead, I’d swear you’re trying to kill me,” I moaned as his hands stroked my neck and face. His grin was slightly smug as he reached down to kiss me, and my lips yearned for his, opening to let him in. My greedy hands reached for his rock-hard shoulders, trying to pull him closer. I loved nothing more than the feel of his body pressed to mine, especially now that he could actually do such a thing with impunity. But Edward was in a teasing mood, and he deliberately held back, kissing me lightly, darting his tongue playfully in and out of my mouth. Finally my frustration won out, and I locked my arms and legs around him, pulling him down decisively. Then I rolled him over so that I was on top, and kissed him the way I wanted to: deeply and thoroughly. He laughed a little when I finally relinquished his lips and moved my mouth down the side of his face to his neck. I was determined to make him respond to my touch the way I did his.
I trailed my fingers down his thick neck, over his broad shoulders and down to his chest, stroking the wisps of light brown hair that grew there. His sharp intake of breath expanded his pecs beneath my hands, and I grinned in satisfaction. The flat planes of his stomach pushed against my fingers as he breathed deeply again; and by the time my fingers traced the deep ‘V’ that marked the flesh over his hipbones, his pelvis twitched responsively under my touch.
“See? Two can play this game,” I teased, stroking his thighs as I watched his engorged member grow at the mere prospect of my touch.
“You’re right,” he replied huskily. “But I’m still faster than you.” Quicker than I could blink, he managed to remove his body from under mine, letting me land face-down into the petal-strewn coverlet. Seconds later his body was half-straddled over mine, holding me down, as his hands began their relentless exploration of my back just as they had my front. The outraged feminist in me wanted to fling him off of me, especially now that I could actually accomplish the deed. But the sensualist in me gave in to the waves of pleasure that his hands and lips generated as he worked his way down my body. By the time his hands grasped my cheeks firmly, I was already spreading my legs for him, begging for the feel of his tongue tickling the flesh between them.
The comforter muffled my endless moans as he probed deep inside me with his tongue and fingers. I lost all control of my body, my back arching and legs opening wide to meet the source of such ecstasy. Finally Edward rose to his knees, grasped my hips and pulled them upward until my weight was on my knees as well. I felt the hardness of his cock between my legs, rubbing up and down the length of my clit until I practically begged him to slide it inside me. He teased me with the head inside my opening until I couldn’t take it anymore. I pushed back against him until he was deep inside me, and we both groaned loudly at the sensation.
Any self-consciousness I possessed melted away as Edward slid slowly, deeply, in and out of me, his hands stroking my body up and down as he did so. I gave myself over entirely to the almost unbearably intense pleasure each time he filled me up, my hands gripping the comforter so hard the fabric felt as if it might disintegrate in my hands. His thrusts came harder, faster, sharper; and each time his body met mine, it forced a moan from me that I couldn’t hold back. His fingers were firm on my ass, massaging me, and I loved the feel of what his hands could do when he no longer had to be careful not to harm me.
I wondered if he could actually read my mind now, because no sooner than I‘d had that thought, his hand came down hard across my left cheek, causing me to cry out in surprise. The bigger surprise was how good the stinging reverberation felt, shaking me down to the core, where I felt the familiar pressure begin to build. He thrust several more times before I felt it again, his hand making a resounding slap against my right cheek this time. I gasped and groaned Edward’s name, my body squirming with pleasure that I couldn’t conceal.
He rammed me mercilessly after that, punctuating the effort with a few more well-placed slaps until I climaxed so hard that the poor comforter finally tore into ribbons between my lethal fingers. I felt Edward’s hands, firm yet gentle, rubbing up and down my quaking legs and torso, massaging me, calming me afterward. He was maddeningly good at not only making me give in completely to his desires, but making me realize that they were mine as well.
“Do you have any idea how sexy you are?” he murmured in my ear as he leaned over me, his breath tantalizing on my neck.
“As sexy as you, I hope,” I sighed, rolling over beneath him and staring up at his gorgeous face. I was completely intoxicated by him and what he had just done to me, and I reached up to pull him closer. He finally gave in and let his body rest on mine, and I relished the weight of every inch of him pressing me into the bed. “Do you know how good it feels to have you let go?” I asked him, combing my fingers through his unruly hair. “To know that you can be free with me…that you don’t have to be careful anymore…that you don’t have to hold anything back?“
His eyes widened and he let out an incredulous laugh. “As a matter of fact, I do know how good it feels,” he smiled, stroking my hair in return. “I was thinking the same thing about you. You are different, somehow, and it has nothing to do with your appearance. It’s the way you look at me now. Unafraid. Like you finally, truly trust me.”
I frowned up at him, smoothing his hair back from his temples. “I was never afraid of you. I always trusted you. You just never believed it.”
A wry smile flitted across his lips. “You trusted me as much as you could. But I needed to earn it. I had to prove to you that I would never deliberately hurt you again. I had to prove to you what I was made of.”
I sighed and let my fingers fall down his neck before wrapping my arms around him. “You did that, and so much more. I’m sorry I ever doubted you. When James kidnapped me, all I could think was what an idiot I’d been for ever imagining that you could have been responsible for the things he did.”
“Sshhh,” he silenced me, his fingers lightly touching my lips. “I don’t want you to relive any of that. It’s over, it’s done. He tricked us all. But the truth always comes out, and right prevails. I do believe that.”
“So do I, now.” I gazed up at him, wondering if he had any idea how much I loved him, and how grateful I was for this moment--and every moment to come--with him.
“I do know,” he whispered. “I’m grateful too. More than words could ever say.”
My eyes flew open in surprise. “Edward…did you just read my mind?”
He looked confused for a moment. “Didn’t you say that out loud?”
“No!” I exclaimed excitedly. “I thought we’d never be able to share our thoughts again, after…after you turned me,” I stammered, not able to find words for the profound experience that had changed us both. “That moment when we could communicate without words, the two of us…like one being…I thought we’d never get that back.”
He shook his head ruefully. “We probably never will…not like that,” he said. “But I did hear you before that, when that bastard had you tied up in the cabin…I heard you as plain as day, calling to me for help.” His face twisted with pain at the memory.
“I was trying so hard…I wanted my words to reach you,” I told him. “But just now, I wasn’t trying at all!”
His grin was irrepressible. “Maybe I’ll get inside your head yet, Bella Swan,” he smirked before smothering me with happy kisses.
“Isn’t it enough that you’re in my heart?” I replied, letting my hands roam down his body. “And in my soul?”
“Almost,” he whispered, his lips trailing down my neck and across my chest. I felt him harden again between my legs, and I rubbed my thigh against him to help him along.
“I know another place I’ll let you inside,” I murmured suggestively. “A place I think you really need to come.”
“You do, hmmmm?” he mumbled, his words lost between my breasts. “You want me to come inside you?”
“You have no idea how much.”
“Then just think about it, and I’ll see if I can figure it out,” he smiled as he nudged my thighs apart with his hips.
“If you do it right, I won’t be able to think at all,” I replied wickedly.
“Oh, that sounds like a challenge if I’ve ever heard one,” he grinned. He slid his shaft in me to the hilt with one smooth stroke, looking very pleased at the sound I made when he did it. “What was that, Bella? I’m not sure I heard you correctly.” And with that, he withdrew and thrust into me again, forcing another groan from my lips.
I reached over my head and grabbed the iron latticework of the headboard to brace myself. “If I can still answer you with intelligible words, then you must be slacking,” I taunted him, wrapping my legs around him and waiting for his next assault.
His eyes narrowed and he studied me a moment. “I don’t know. I think maybe you like it this way a little too much. Maybe I should just make you wait for a bit.” He withdrew from me then, and hovered over me a moment, not touching me. My body writhed uncomfortably under the empty, cold air. He lowered his face near mine, his lips tantalizingly close. “What do you want me to do, Bella?”
I glared up at him, annoyed that he had turned the tables on me again. “Go fuck yourself,” I grumbled, wriggling out from under him. I felt his hand close around my waist and wrench me back before I could scoot further away.
“I’d rather fuck you,” he stated, grabbing my hands and pinning them above my head. “Better yet, I’d rather make love to you and make you feel as incredible as you make me feel,” he amended sweetly, covering my mouth with a long, heady kiss before I could protest. By the time he was done, all my angry retorts were forgotten.
“I really hate you sometimes,” I lied, sulking.
“I love you,” he replied, kissing my cheek.
“You’re full of it.”
“Full of love.” He kissed my earlobe.
“What kind of fool do you take me for?”
“A fool for love, hopefully,” he replied, trying to suppress a giggle as he kissed my collar bone. I couldn’t help but laugh myself, unable to sustain any sort of irritation with him.
“I’m a fool for you,” I admitted, unable to keep my fingers out of his lustrous hair. “And I don’t care. I’m not ashamed to say it.”
He raised his face to mine, his smile melting into something more serious. “You don’t have to be. You know I’d do anything for you.”
I nodded, tracing his face with my fingers, swimming in the dark blue sea of his eyes. “I know. You already have.”
His hands threaded through my hair as he stared down at me, his gaze so full of emotion that it pierced me to my core. He said nothing more. Instead, he kissed me so tenderly that it took my breath away. And when he made love to me, it was so slow and sensual that I felt as if I were melting beneath him, our bodies undulating together as gently and surely as waves washing up on a beach. We rolled languidly all over the rose-covered bed, each of us taking turns on top, our bodies joined in perfect unison no matter how we moved. And when he finally came inside me, I made sure to memorize the look on his face in the pale light streaming through our bedside window. Never had he looked so exquisitely, achingly beautiful as the moment he lost himself in me, and never did I feel so at one with him when I did the same in return.
The weekend went on like this; a honeymoon of sorts. We spent the mornings hunting, and the rest of the day and night laughing, talking, and making love. When I considered the idea that this would be my life for infinity, I could scarcely wrap my mind around such sublime happiness.
But eventually, real life began to burst our lovely bubble. Alice showed up at the cottage on Sunday to inform us that Charlie had been phoning the Cullen household twice a day, asking to speak with me. They had only been able to make up so many excuses before they had to give in and tell Charlie he could stop by to see me. He would be at the Cullen house at 4 p.m. I had exactly four hours to prepare.
I stared at Edward and Alice in a panic. How on earth would I be able to withstand the temptation of human blood on only my third day as a newborn vampire? Edward was sure I would be fine, and Alice agreed with him vehemently, though I caught her sneaking a questioning look at her brother right afterward. He repeated that I had fed plenty this morning, and that I would never dream of hurting my own flesh and blood, no matter what the circumstances were. I tended to agree with him, but I was still trembling with dread the entire afternoon.
We headed to the Cullen home, where my new vampire family greeted me excitedly--well, all of them except Rosalie. The rest tried to put me at ease, giving me tips on how to stop breathing so that I could avert the bloodlust before it started. They assured me they would all stay close by, and would stop me from harming Charlie if I lost control. Emmett even tried to take my mind off of things by challenging me to a couple of video games, but I couldn’t concentrate worth a damn and lost repeatedly. Jasper finally suggested that we arm-wrestle instead, and due to my newborn strength, I managed to slam Emmett’s beefy arm to the boulder within seconds. (Esme had made us go outside so as to spare her furniture.) That made me feel a little better, though Emmett was less than pleased.
As 4 o’clock approached, I arranged myself on the living room sofa and pulled the quilt over me, trying to look sickly. Then I waited nervously for my father to arrive. Edward perched on the arm of the sofa next to me, looking remarkably calm and casual, but I knew better. He was poised for action, his eyes sharp and alert.
I didn’t have to wait long. I could smell Charlie before he ever entered the foyer. I grabbed Edward’s hand tightly when the pungent scent wafted under the door, more beguiling by far than any of the animal scents I had come across in the woods.
“You’ll be fine,” Edward whispered, rubbing his thumb reassuringly in the palm of my hand.
Alice ushered my father into the room, where he approached me tentatively. He looked worried, even haggard. I immediately felt guilty for enjoying the past few days as much as I had when my father had clearly been so concerned about me. And I also knew in that instant that I would never, ever turn on him, no matter what my vampire instincts bid me to do.
“Hey, Dad,” I greeted him, trying to sound like my normal self, though I wasn’t sure how to do that anymore. “I’m sorry if I worried you. I’m getting better, really.”
“You still look awfully pale, Bells,” Charlie replied uncertainly, his brows forming a concerned ‘V.’ “Dr. Cullen said you’re still pretty contagious, but….” he faltered for a moment as he took a step toward the couch.
“It’s okay, Dad. You can still give me a hug,” I invited him, giving Edward’s hand a reassuring squeeze before letting it go and reaching out to my father. Charlie came and sat next to me on the sofa, gathering me up in his warm embrace. The pulse of his neck pounded in my ears, the perfume of his blood making me delirious for a moment. I literally stopped inhaling, as the Cullens had taught me. It felt odd at first, but I found that I wasn’t gasping for air, and the scent was almost tolerable.
“You scared your mom and I, you know,” he scolded, reluctantly letting me go and settling on the chair next to the sofa. “How in the heck did you contract mono, anyway? He looks all right,” Charlie commented, giving Edward a look of aggravation.
“I don’t know, Dad,” I shrugged, trying to make my voice sound weak. “Maybe I drank out of a dirty glass somewhere by mistake.” I coughed a couple of times for emphasis.
“Probably at that damned bar. That’s no place for a high school girl to be hanging out,” he grumbled, giving Edward a healthy glare again. Edward smiled sheepishly but held his tongue.
“Well, I won’t be able to go out for awhile, so you won’t have to worry about it,” I replied, adding another cough, and wondering if I was laying it on a little thick. Carlisle entered the room at that moment, and I sighed with relief, which was a mistake. When I inhaled again, I caught a whiff of my father’s all-too-inviting blood and a predatory growl began to rumble in my chest. I grabbed Edward’s hand again and threw myself into a fake coughing fit to cover up what had happened.
Charlie instinctively rose from his chair to care for me, but Carlisle beat him to it. He handed me a cup of what looked like warm tea and told me to take a sip. I faked it admirably, while Dr. Cullen explained to my father what I’d been through the past few days, and what I could expect as I recovered from my “illness.” Charlie listened to Carlisle’s convincing story, and by the time the discussion was done, it was decided that it would be best for everyone if I stayed with the Cullens indefinitely, until I was stronger and able to go back to school. Alice and Jasper would bring me my homework so that I could try to stay caught up for the rest of the semester, and hopefully I would be able to take my midterms before Christmas break. I stared with almost reverent awe at how smoothly Carlisle operated. By the time my father left, I had his full blessing to stay here at this house in the woods as long as was necessary, with the hope that I’d be able to spend Christmas at home with him. I agreed that this was the best plan, naturally; and holding my breath, I hugged Charlie once again before he took his leave.
I let out a huge, relieved sigh as the door shut behind him, then turned to Carlisle and threw my arms around him. “You were amazing. Thank you,” I said gratefully.
He gave me a long hug in return and said simply, “I would do the same for any of my family.” He looked at me with fatherly affection, and I felt my cold blood warm in response. I glanced at Edward, and I could see how touched he was at Carlisle’s words. Even though Dr. Cullen was ten years our senior at best, it was clear that he was a father figure for Edward, and Edward a son to Carlisle. I felt as much a part of their family as I did my own, now that I was one of their kind. I began to feel like there might be a way to bridge my two worlds, at least for a little while. The inevitable problems could wait a few years, until I could find a way to explain my unchanging appearance.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas passed quickly. The Cullens taught me the finer points of hunting, though of course my favorite partner was Edward. He mesmerized me with his grace--so lithe and quick on his feet that his prey never stood a chance; so neat and clean going in for the kill that the animal rarely suffered. And naturally, Edward barely had any blood on his hands afterward. I tried to emulate him as best I could. Though I had lost the clumsiness that had plagued me while human, I could never hope to match Edward’s feline skill. I found him so seductive while hunting that our excursions often ended with a mad dash to the cottage so that we could satisfy our other hungers after we fed.
Charlie visited the Cullen household at least twice a week. Each time, I donned sweats and tried to look wan and tired. I already had “pale” down pat. Though the smell of my father’s blood was still maddening, my love for him always superseded my vampire cravings. The Cullens marveled at my restraint, but they still made sure I was well-fed before Charlie’s visits. I often made Edward sit with me, just in case I lost control and did something horrendous. I finally had an inkling of just how difficult it had been for him to love with me when I was human. Knowing firsthand what his struggles had been only made me more in awe of his character. He was truly the finest man I would ever know.
I completed my first semester of senior year by doing the schoolwork online, for which Jasper and Alice razzed me endlessly, since they still had to attend class. I was even able to take my finals via computer, and I aced them, getting nearly straight A’s. Edward was so impressed that he decided to take my finals, too, just to see how many answers he could get right. When he surprised me by doing nearly as well as I did, he admitted to having sneaked peeks at my textbooks all along. I told him he should enroll at FHS for the spring semester and graduate with me in the spring.
“Just think, Edward…we could go to high school together! Then you could be with me all day, holding my hand between classes, sneaking kisses during lunch…it would be sooo romantic,” I teased him.
He scoffed outwardly at the notion, but I could tell that he was seriously considering it. There was no reason that he couldn’t rejoin the human world if the rest of us were doing it. The Cullens had graduated high school and college time and time again, simply for the joy of the human experience. Eternity was a long time, and there was so much to learn, so much to know. Edward was far too bright and talented to serve up drinks in a bar forever, and he knew it, too.
That Christmas was one of the most joyous ones I had ever spent. Renee and Phil came to stay for a week, and I split my time between family get-togethers at Charlie’s and the Cullens’ houses. Winter sweaters made it easy to keep my cold skin from alerting my human parents to the change in me, and Alice’s make-up tips helped give my cheeks a more lifelike glow. I even learned to pretend-eat, which consisted of chewing small bits of food before quickly disposing of them in a napkin on my lap. My fast movements were easily missed by slower human eyes, I found.
Edward and I exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve at the cottage, eager to spend some time alone before the family gatherings the next day. My gift for him was easy: I made a beautiful photo album with all the photographs of Edward’s human family and friends that I had pilfered from his Iowa home when he wasn’t looking. He was as shocked and touched as I thought he’d be, especially since his amnesia was cured and he now had full memories of his life before. Carlisle had a theory that when Edward fed on my changing vampire blood, it helped finish his own conversion, since the small amount of Victoria’s blood hadn’t been able to heal him. It made perfect sense to Edward and me. We seemed to have been made to complete each other.
Edward gave me a beautiful necklace, the figure of an angel, exquisitely wrought of white gold in painstaking detail. He said it reminded him of me, and how I had saved him. He always seemed to conveniently forget that he had done the same for me, time and time again. I was thankful that I had forever to remind him.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s was a blissful blur of presents, laughter and love-making, the latter of which Edward and I managed to sneak in between family obligations and hunting. We couldn’t seem to go for more than a day or two without craving each other almost as much as the blood we were forced to subsist on. It was a dilemma that didn’t bother either of us in the slightest. Sneaking “quickies” in the closet or the garage only heightened the passion of the forbidden. The Cullens were obviously on to us, but the Swans were none the wiser, I hoped.
The Cullens invited Charlie, Renee and Phil over for a New Year’s Eve get-together, but Charlie had already accepted Billy Black’s invitation to a party on the Quileute reservation, and Renee and Phil decided to head back to Florida a day early. I guessed that Mom felt that she and her new husband had worn out her welcome with Dad, and I knew she was missing the warm weather.
Emmett had to work at Jake’s that evening, and Rosalee decided to hang out at the bar to kiss him at midnight. The rest of the Cullens and I watched movies and played board games at their house. I almost laughed out loud at the sight of half a dozen vampires, myself included, competing for play Monopoly money and arguing over Trivial Pursuit questions. But I loved the notion that even supernatural creatures such as ourselves could still lead relatively normal lives, and not be forced to live as outcasts and nomads, the way Victoria and James had.
We watched the midnight countdown on TV, and smooched our partners when the Times Square ball dropped.
“Happy New Year, Bella,” Edward whispered as he leaned down to kiss me. When I looked at the love and happiness on his face as our lips met, I was sure that I would never be more at peace than this, no matter how long I lived.
As we broke apart from our midnight kiss, Edward’s eyes began sparkling mischievously.
“Come on. I have a surprise for you,” he said, his expression oddly pensive, yet excited. He grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the stairs, up to his room. The moonlight streamed through the wall of windows, reminding me of the night he’d tried to seduce me here--the night his secrets had been revealed. I had reacted quite badly, my trust in him broken. Things were so very different now. I was sure that whatever he might spring on me, I would never respond to him that way again.
He sat on the divan and pulled me down next to him. He grasped both my hands in his and gave me a long, serious look.
“Bella, I lied to you about something earlier this week,” he said gravely, his eyes repentant.
My heart began to thud uneasily. “Okay. What is it?” I tried to quell the mild dread that surged in my chest.
“I still…” he halted, pursing his lips, his face chagrined. My dread began to increase as he fought to continue. “I still…have one more present to give you,” he finished, his poker face breaking into a teasing grin.
I exhaled in relief and gave him a playful swat on the arm. “God, Edward, don’t scare me like that!”
“All right, I won’t scare you like that. I’ll scare you like this instead.” And from his shirt pocket, he procured a small, dark box with rounded corners, the kind you get from expensive jewelry stores. He placed it in my hand and looked at me expectantly. An absurd wave of panic traveled from my scalp to my toes as my eyes dropped from his to the tiny velvet box nestled in my hand.
I couldn’t keep my fingers from shaking as I opened the lid, and I let out a ragged gasp when I saw the contents. Nestled in the box’s satin confines was one perfect, sparkling diamond set in a slender band of gold. I gaped at it for a solid minute, and then at Edward’s hopeful face.
“Edward,” I said incredulously, “this is a diamond.”
“Yes.” He gave me his most disarming crooked grin, his eyes dancing with anticipation.
“A diamond ring.”
“Yes.” His grin broadened.
“As in….” My mouth couldn’t form the words.
“Yes?” he prompted, waiting for me to finish my thought.
“It looks like….an engagement ring,” I finally sputtered.
“Yes,” he agreed, and I could feel my eyebrows reaching for my hairline. “It was my mother’s,” he explained quietly. “We found it on James when we cleaned out his pockets. Apparently he removed the valuables from his victims, either as souvenirs, or to pawn. He still had this on him, luckily for me. I recognized it right away. I can’t wear it, obviously; so I’m hoping you’ll do me the honor.”
I looked at the tastefully elegant ring and was elated that Edward had found it. I was also humbled that he would entrust it to me. But on top of that, I was petrified at what it represented. Was he really asking what I thought he was?
“It’s incredibly beautiful,” I told him truthfully. “But…what does it mean?”
He raised his eyebrow at me as if I were mentally impaired. “All right, you’re going to make me do this the old-fashioned way, aren’t you?” he sighed. “I was trying to avoid this, because it doesn’t strike me as your style. But you’ve left me no choice.”
Edward took the ring box from me, grinned impishly and got down on one knee. Before I could protest, he grabbed my hand and pressed it between his own.
“Isabella Swan, you are the most important person in my life. You have been since the day you found me, and you always will be. I love you more than I ever thought it was possible to love someone. I can’t imagine living the rest of eternity without you.” His words, and face, were achingly sincere. The urges to cry, laugh, faint, or possibly vomit fought with each other inside me as he uttered the unforgettable words: “Will you marry me?”
I stared at him dumbly. Of course I wanted to spend forever with him. That was a given. My love for him was so unwavering that any other possibility seemed ludicrous. But marriage? Now?
“Edward, I’m only eighteen!” I blurted, knowing how ridiculous the argument was even as it left my lips.
He merely laughed. “If you’re going to use that as an excuse, it’s going to be a very long eternity together. You’ve got about a year before I call you on it.”
“Okay, fine…you know what I mean, though. I haven’t even finished high school yet! I mean, we have plenty of time, don’t we? Why rush into something like…marriage?” I uttered the word as if it were a curse.
“I wasn’t suggesting we rush into it. There is such a thing as a long engagement, you know,” he argued. He pulled the ring out of the box, then took my left hand. “There’s no one else I want to wear this ring, ever. Just try it on to see if it fits.” And with that, he slipped the diamond on my left ring finger. It was slightly loose, but it fit well enough. I looked at the sparkling rock, gleaming more brilliantly than my own skin under the moon’s gentle rays. I had to admit that I liked the look of it. I was surprised to discover that I liked the feel of it even more. But when I thought of walking down the aisle in the white dress, with my friends and family dressed in fluffy meringue gowns and stuffy tuxedoes waiting at the end of it, I immediately began to panic.
I took a deep breath to collect myself, and looked down into Edward’s gorgeous, expectant face. “Can I think about it?” I finally asked weakly.
To my relief, he only smiled. He didn’t seem put off at all. “Of course. In the meantime, keep it. It’s yours.” He kissed my hand reverently, then rose to his feet and looked down at me, grinning broadly.
“What’s so funny?” I demanded archly. “I didn’t say ‘yes,’ you know.”
His grin turned into a smirk. “But you will.”
“You are awfully sure of yourself, Mr. Cullen.”
“No, I’m sure of us. A love like ours will prevail over a little case of cold feet.” He leaned down and gave me a tiny kiss on the tip of my nose. “Not every marriage ends up like Charlie and Renee’s, you know,” he reminded me.
“You are getting better at reading my mind. I wasn’t even trying that time.”
“Neither was I,” he laughed. “I don’t have to be a mind-reader to know why marriage isn’t your favorite institution. But my parents were very happy, and so are Carlisle and Esme…and Emmett and Rosalie…and Jasper and Alice.”
“Peer pressure is not going to work on me. Should I jump off a bridge because all my friends did it too?”
“Sure. You can jump off of anything you want to, now, and walk away unscathed.”