Friday, October 28, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 20 - Blindside

Edward Cullen’s Little Black Notebook
Saturday, September 11

I remembered to bring my camera with me today.

Too many times, I’ve taken Bella somewhere with breath-taking scenery, and then spent my time trying to memorize the way the sun plays off the highlights in her hair, or the way her cheeks flush in the breeze. Today I captured it all: the wind in her hair; the reflection of the water in her eyes; the glint of her teeth, as white as the sails behind her, when she laughed. The way she pulled my hooded sweatshirt close around her shoulders when the sun went under the clouds, then unzipped it when the warm rays reappeared. The way she rolled her eyes at me when I wouldn’t put the camera away, but then pressed her face to mine when I held the camera out in front of us to take our self-portrait.

But it was too late for me to capture the look of complete happiness she used to give me. I had already tarnished that with my duplicity. The minute she had discovered my lie of omission about Rosalie on Monday, I’d felt the tide turn. And now, as we drifted along the water, I tried to ignore the fact that she was drifting away from me.

The disappointment in her eyes over Rosalie’s confession had cut me to the bone. My withholding the truth had hurt her just as much as the truth itself. You’d think that this mistake would have been impetus enough to keep me from making another one, wouldn’t you? But perversely, it only cemented my fear in place, like concrete shoes dragging me under instead of letting me move forward.

Bella gave me several opportunities to tell her about you. She figured out that you’re gone. She just didn’t know how it happened. And, of course, that was the hardest thing for me to talk about. The thing I’d been beating back like a lion-tamer holds a beast at bay with a flimsy chair and a whip. I knew all along that the beast would win. And yet I continued the useless fight, when Bella only wanted me to give in.

I don’t know how I managed to skirt the issue all week. After Monday, there really was no point in the façade anymore. And yet she allowed me to dance around the elephant in the room for days. She did the dance with me, indulging my cowardice. Maybe the truth scared her. Maybe through my subterfuge, I’d only encouraged her to conjure up scenarios about you that were worse than what actually happened, though I doubt that’s possible. Or maybe her own past trauma had made her far more forgiving and patient with me than I deserved.

Either way, she let the beast lie, never giving it more than the gentlest of prods. Those were easily tamed, and she went along with my circus act, smiling fearlessly as I pretended that the beast was incapable of devouring us both.

But all of that ended today.

We started our day at the Seattle Tennis Club early so I could give Bella a quick tour before we met Mom’s sailing friend, Tom Rollins, at the boathouse. She viewed most of the club’s amenities with wide-eyed wonder, occasionally commenting on how beautiful the ballroom and dining rooms were. I loved seeing the places I’d grown up in through her eyes. She always gave me a new appreciation for the things I’d taken for granted.

After leaving a change of clothes in the club locker rooms, we headed down to the boathouse to meet our captain. A sturdy man in his sixties with silver hair and a beard to match, Tom Rollins had the kind of ruddy, weathered face that bore testimony to his love of the outdoors. His smile was warm and genuine, and it creased his face into deep, amiable grooves when he flashed it at us in welcome.

After I made the necessary introductions, he wasted no time in leading us to his beautiful fifty-foot sloop, Nessie, docked in the harbor. The yacht had a motor, as many modern vessels do, but once we were out on the open water, he killed the engine and hoisted the sails.

He gave Bella and I a few basic pointers as he put us to work, helping to ease out the mainsail and set the boom correctly over the transom. He showed us a few types of knots to use on the ropes, and gave us a basic understanding of things like close-haul and broad reach; tacking and jibing; beating and running. Bella seemed fascinated, and was eager to help trim the sails as we maneuvered up the coast. Before we knew it, the sun was high overhead, warm and dazzling under its canopy of vivid blue.

The city coastline was far behind us when our captain suggested we slow our pace and take a break for lunch. We were glad for calm waters as we ate the tuna sandwiches that Tom had thoughtfully packed for us. He barely took time to eat himself, instead regaling us with stories about journeys he’d made during weather much less favorable than this. He even remembered taking my mom and dad out once when they were dating.

“You’re a lot like your father, you know,” he commented to me with a grin.

“Really?” My tone was skeptical. “How so?”

“You’ve got the same calm, capable air about you, but there’s a fire in there, too. You’ve got that determined look in your eye.” He suddenly let out a chortle. “You look at Bella, here, the same way your dad always looked at your mom.”

“How was that?” Bella asked eagerly.

A sage smile split Tom’s grizzled beard and mustache. “Like he knew a good thing when he saw it, and wasn’t about to squander the opportunity to claim it for his own.”

He laughed at my sheepish grin while Bella elbowed me playfully.

“You’ve got your mother’s looks, though,” Tom added. “She’s still a beauty. The bloom hasn’t faded on that rose yet.”

“No, it hasn’t,” I replied. Bella murmured in agreement.

“Okay, hang on to your seats, and your lunches. I’m about to turn ol’ Nessie around and take her back to the harbor. You two want to give me a hand?”

“Sure,” Bella and I replied in unison, jumping up to help him with the sails. He instructed us how to jibe, a quick but slightly more dangerous way to turn the boat around since we’d be bringing the stern around into the eye of the wind. Tom put me in charge of centering and letting out the mainsail while he replaced the jib sheet. He talked me through the steps, but I was still surprised at how quickly the boom swung over the boat despite my best efforts to control it.

“Whoa!” Bella exclaimed, ducking down in her seat as I wrestled with the sail. After letting out the jib, Tom helped me trim the mainsail until we were at beam reach. As soon as the boat was at broad reach with the wind coming from the aft starboard side, I left Tom in the stern and sat next to Bella in the middle of the craft.

“You didn’t think I’d knock you overboard, did you?” I grinned.

“Of course not. Not intentionally, anyway,” she kidded. Suddenly her laughter subsided and a strange look came over her face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“Nothing. I guess I just had a déjà vu,” she answered with a frown. Then, her eyebrows suddenly lifted in recollection. “No, I remember what it was. I had a dream about this! I dreamt that you took me sailing. It was weeks ago, before you were anything more than my therapist.”

“Really?” I was surprised that she’d had a dream that turned out to be more of a premonition.

“Yeah. We were sailing, and it was a beautiful day like this one. But then it turned stormy all of a sudden, and the boat began to get tossed around on the waves.”

“Typical for the Sound,” I interjected.

“Right,” she agreed. “You were actually steering the boat in my dream. When you turned it around to head back to the shore, I lost my balance and fell in the water. I was flailing around with the rain hitting me in the face, and you threw me a life preserver so you could pull me back in. I couldn’t seem to hang on to it, though, and the next thing I knew, you jumped in to save me. I saw you swimming toward me, and suddenly I knew everything would be okay.”

“So . . . was it?” I asked. I loved that she thought of me as her lifeline, before we were even involved. I wondered if her dream would have turned out the same if it had happened this past week instead.

“I don’t know---I assume so. I woke up then.” She suddenly smiled. “The thing that I remembered most about it was that it was the first time I ever heard you call me ‘Bella.’”

I smiled faintly at my ridiculous attempts to keep her at arm’s length then, when she’d already captured my soul within the first two days of our meeting.

Her eyes were focused on the memory of the dream as she continued. “Right before you jumped in the water, you yelled, ‘Hang on, Bella. I won’t lose you, too.’”

My heart skipped a beat, maybe two, as I stared at her. How could she have known about you then? She couldn’t have. She didn’t. Her dream had been prophetic in ways that now sent a chill down my spine despite the balmy weather.

The realization hit Bella a moment later, for her eyes grew round with fearful comprehension.

“Edward,” she gasped softly, putting her hand on my arm and searching my eyes for confirmation. “Is that how Tanya died? Did she drown?”

I stared at her pensive face and fought the urge to laugh at the unintentional irony of her question. She had no way of knowing that she had hit the nail squarely on the head while still completely missing the mark.

I took the easy way out once again. I would say it’s an art form, but there’s no talent in taking the path of least resistance.

I nodded quietly. “She did, actually.”

Her face twisted into a mixture of sorrow and pity that I could scarcely bear. She gave my arm a sympathetic squeeze, then added cautiously, “Were you with her?”

I shook my head. “No, I wasn’t. But not a day goes by that I don’t wish I had been able to save her somehow.”

There. That, at least, was a true statement. But my conscience felt even more burdened than before.

She took my hands in hers and explored them, rubbing my fingers with hers; a soothing gesture, I supposed.

“I know how hard it is for you to talk about what happened,” she said, still staring at my knuckles, her thumb softly stroking the hairs that sprouted there. “You must have really loved her.”

The uncertainty in her voice nearly killed me. I couldn’t believe I was hearing it. I thought she was past her insecurities now; I thought I had systematically destroyed each one of them. I withdrew my hands from hers and took possession of her face instead, willing her to look up at me.

“How can you not understand how I feel about you?” I questioned her, trying to quell my frustration. “I won’t say I never loved her. I did, at the beginning. But it was so different from what I have with you that it doesn’t compare in any way, shape or form. I’ve told you that from the start. Even alive and breathing, she wouldn’t be any competition for you. So trust me, her ghost is even less.”

I leaned in and kissed her solemnly, reverently. I looked deeply into her eyes and tried to make her understand that the past couldn’t touch what I felt for her in the present.

“I have never loved anyone the way I love you. I will never love anyone the way I love you. If you don’t know anything else about me, then please tell me you at least know that.”

“I know you believe that,” she whispered. Her doubt was maddening to me.

“Of course I believe it, and so should you. It’s an uncontestable fact.” I leaned back and studied her, trying to figure out where this was coming from. Did she actually think that my reluctance to discuss you was because I had loved you more than I do her? The idea had never even occurred to me, but apparently it had to her. She didn’t seem to realize how absurd it was.

I stroked the side of her face with one hand; let my fingers thread through her wind-whipped hair.

“You’re the one,” I said simply, emphatically. “The only one.”

I couldn’t tell if her eyes watered at my declaration, or were merely stung by the wind. But she put her hand over mine on her face, brought my palm to her lips and kissed it. I drew her close to me and held her most of the way back to Seattle, leaving her side only to help Tom tack when necessary.

Bella and I hovered somewhere between exhilaration and exhaustion by the time we were on dry land again. We thanked our captain profusely for the trip, the lessons and the lunch. As we said our good-byes, Tom leaned in and spoke to me confidentially as Bella walked ahead of me down the dock.

“It was a pleasure seeing you and your girlfriend enjoying each other’s company like that. Took me right back to the days when your old man was courting your mother, no lie. I gotta hand it to ya---the Cullen men sure do know how to pick ‘em.”

When Bella turned and looked at me quizzically, Tom gave her a wink, then chuckled and slapped me on the back.

“What was that about?” she asked when I caught up with her.

“Nothing. Tom’s a wise man, that’s all.”

Bella was still feeling her sea legs a bit, and we walked it off with a stroll around the club grounds before resting on a park bench looking out over the water. Bella soon dozed off, her head lolling against my shoulder as her eyes closed and her breathing deepened. I stroked her hair and gazed down at her placid face: forehead smooth, mouth relaxed, eyelashes casting a fringed shadow on her flushed cheeks. I began to worry that she had gotten a bit sunburned, so I reluctantly roused her and suggested we go inside and get ready for dinner.

We parted ways to use the men’s and women’s facilities. I showered and dried my hair quickly, but didn’t bother to shave. Even though Bella often complained about my scratchy five o-clock shadow, I knew she secretly loved it. There were many things she never said aloud that I discerned anyway, by the look in her eyes, the crook of her smile, or that delectable blush. In so many ways, I felt like I knew her as well as I knew myself. Yet in others, she was still a mystery to me.

I donned the suit I’d brought with me but ditched the tie. Though the club’s main restaurant was formal, I still balked at wearing a tie in a sports facility. Maybe that was the rebel in me, always wanting to stray a little left of center. That was certainly the part of me that was drawn to you.

I waited in an elegant wingback chair nearby the ladies’ locker room, knowing it wouldn’t take Bella that long to get ready. She wasn’t a fussy girl, but was still effortlessly elegant when she wanted to be. That was on one of the things I loved most about her. I wondered if she could read my unspoken language as well as I could hers. I always thought she could until this week, when I saw that doubt in her eyes surface more and more. Maybe my lie of omission about Rosalie had done more damage than I ever could have predicted.

I could feel my face still etched with worry when a familiar pair of long, ivory legs strolled into view of my downcast eyes. A smile defeated my frown at the sight of them. I let my gaze linger on those lovely limbs in their black pumps before climbing upward, over the simple lines of her short red dress to the matching scarlet of her lips.

“Wow,” I said dumbly, appreciatively, as I gazed up at her perfection. “You look incredible.” I quickly rose to my feet for a different vantage point, one that allowed me to peer lewdly down the crossover neckline of her dress.

She gave me the usual outwardly exasperated, secretly pleased look. “So predictable,” she chided.

“The day I stop trying to look down your dress will be the day I die,” I told her, tilting her face up to give her a kiss on the cheek.

“And mine will be the day I stop enjoying it.”

I grinned and offered her my arm. “Shall we?”

“Lead the way, Mr. Cullen,” she replied, clasping my elbow. “You look ridiculously handsome, by the way,” she added as I escorted her to the dining area.

“I will take that as a compliment, coming from the most beautiful woman here,” I told her as we entered the restaurant.

She tried to act blasé, but her eyes were still wide at the old-school elegance of the place, all dark wood, linen, crystal, tea roses and candlelight. The hostess seated us near the terrace overlooking the water, and Bella sighed at the view of it beyond the lushly manicured gardens.

“This place is amazing,” she said with a shake of her head after we were seated. “This whole day has been amazing. Thank you for the best birthday present ever.”

“Oh, this isn’t your birthday present,” I informed her. “But I’m glad you’re having a good time.”

“Edward,” she admonished. “This is more than enough. You didn’t have to buy me anything else.”

“I didn’t,” I said with a mischievous grin.

Her face was alight with anticipation. “Now you’ve really got me curious. Surprises make me nervous.”

My grin broadened. “Don’t worry. It’s definitely something you’ll like.”

“Hmm. I don’t doubt that,” she said with the quirk of one brow.

We perused the menus; I ordered a bottle of one of their best white wines and some hors d’oeuvres while Bella deliberated over the entrees. She finally chose salmon while I went with rockfish, and we both picked crab bisque for our first course.

When the waiter returned with our wine, I could barely stop staring at Bella long enough to approve the sample he poured me. I was mesmerized by the flicker of the candlelight in her dark eyes. The warm heat of them intoxicated me more than the wine ever could.

The waiter poured us each a glass before taking his leave. I raised mine, beckoning her to do the same.

“What shall we toast to?” I asked, deferring to her.

“To us, of course,” she answered immediately. “And to more days like this.”

“To us,” I echoed, touching my glass to hers. We watched each other sip the wine, enticed by the sensuality of each other’s mouths. I knew that the physical aspect of our relationship would never be lacking. I had never felt so bound to anyone the way I am to her . . . so utterly attuned to her needs and wants. And certainly no one had ever held my own in the palm of her hand the way she does.

I wanted that to be enough; but of course, it wasn’t. The reason our physical connection was so strong was because it was rooted in the emotional and spiritual. And until I could share those as fully with her as I had shared my body, I knew we would never move forward.

Our hors d’oeuvres soon arrived, and we noshed on artichoke-dill crostini as we waited for our soup. Bella’s cheeks grew pinker with every sip of chenin blanc that she took. I grinned and filled her glass again.

“Do you like the wine?” I asked her.

“I do, as a matter of fact,” she said with a small giggle. “Almost as well as I like the company.”

“How you do flatter me, Miss Swan.” I took a sip from my own glass and savored the warmth that spread through my belly after the crisp finish of the wine had dissipated.

“I used to hate that, you know,” she told me, making a face.

“Hate what?”

“When you called me ‘Miss Swan’ or ‘Isabella.’ It sounded so formal and stand-offish.”

“It was. That was entirely the point. I didn’t want to get too close. Be too familiar.”

We both let out a short laugh at the thought. “I would venture to say that we are now about as familiar with one another as two human beings can possibly be,” she said, giving me a look so seductive that I could feel arousal begin to disrupt the contour of the gabardine fabric between my legs.

“I’d say so,” I agreed. My smile faded slightly as I looked at her. “That’s why I fought you so hard. I think I knew from the beginning that you’d get inside me like no one else ever has. That you would irrevocably change my life.”

“Is that such bad thing?” she asked hesitantly. “You did the same to me, you know.”

“Did I?” I mused. Now it was her turn to look incredulous at my lack of confidence in her feelings for me. “Okay, I guess I did,” I relented. “But I think you were more ready for it than I was.”

She looked even more annoyed now. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that. I wasn’t even looking for a relationship when I met you. And even after I met you, I never dreamed that my infatuation with you would be a two-way street.”

“Why not?”

Her expression became exasperated. “Edward, you’re the guy who’s had girls fawning over him since birth. And before you argue with me, remember that I saw the evidence at your family’s house last weekend. I, on the other hand, am the girl who went to her senior prom with a gay guy because neither of us could get a date with the guy we really wanted to go with. And yes, we both wanted to go with the same guy, if you must know.”

I tried not to laugh, but couldn’t stop my mirth from bubbling to the surface. “You already know what I think of the men from your past. They were idiots who didn’t deserve you.”

“Yeah, well, you would have been the equivalent of that unattainable guy who never noticed me, let alone asked me to Prom. So when you did notice me . . . well, you made a pretty big impact,” she finished quietly.

I tried not to snicker at the vast chasm between what she thought of me and what I thought of myself. Instead, I reached over the table and took her hand in mine.

“I wish I could have taken you to Prom,” I told her. That was the truth. The girl I did take gave me a drunken blow job in the back of my car and then promptly threw up out the door. I decided to save that story for another day.

“And I wish I could have taken you to the Black and Red Ball,” I added instead.

“You can take me next year,” she said with a smile.

“It’s a date. I’m entering it in my iPhone, so don’t even think about going with anyone else.”

“Are you kidding? I can’t think of a better way to spend our one-year anniversary,” she said with a smile.

The grin that stole over my face felt like it stretched from ear to ear. Even though I had felt her distancing herself from me, apparently she thought of the rift as temporary. “That’s right, it will be our first anniversary, won’t it?”

She nodded and ran her thumb over mine. “We’ll have some celebrating to do in the garden maze, I think.”

“I like how you think, Miss Swan.” And then, I corrected myself. “Bella.”

“That’s the thing---I kind of like it when you call me ‘Miss Swan’ now. It feels sort of decadent. Like you’re my boss and you’ve just called me into your office to reprimand me for doing something bad.” She lifted one very subtle, yet very provocative, eyebrow at me.

Damn, but she knew how to get my juices flowing. “I highly doubt I’d be reprimanding you for that. Quite the opposite, I would imagine. But you’ve given me an idea for our next role-playing session.”

I detached my hand from hers just enough to run my fingers slowly along her palm. My eyes never left hers; her gaze didn’t waver.

“You and your games,” she whispered at last with the ghost of a grin.

“You know I’m not playing with you,” I murmured.

She swallowed hard and opened her mouth to answer, but was cut off by the arrival of our waiter. I reluctantly let go of her hand, and reached for my silverware instead while he served our bowls of bisque.

I felt the atmosphere turn more serious again as the sun’s light began to wane through the windows. The thought of Bella leaving crept into my mind unbidden. I’d been trying not think about it, but her departure was only a few days away.

“So have you decided when you’re going to leave for your Dad’s?” I asked, trying to sound offhand.

“I don’t know. Monday or Tuesday, I think,” she replied before spooning another mouthful of crab.

“You’re going on your birthday?” I couldn’t keep the disappointment out of my voice this time.

“Well, maybe. I’m kind of superstitious about driving the day after. I know that’s silly,” she said quietly.

“No, it’s not silly. I don’t want you driving if you don’t feel comfortable.”

“Well, Rose gave me the whole week off, so I can play it by ear. She barely blinked an eye about me asking for vacation time. I’m sure that’s her way of trying to make amends,” she said with a shrug.

“Is it working?” I asked. I wondered if my attempt to make amends was being received any better.

“A little. I think what will really help is the time away from her. From the whole situation. I need a some distance. Some clarity.”

I nodded, unable to argue with her, unable to deny her what she needed.

“I’ll miss you,” I told her softly.

“It’s only a week,” she reminded me. “But I’ll miss you too.”

We ate in silence for a moment before she spoke again.

“You can send me dirty texts, you know. We can have phone sex. That’ll be a new one.”

I let out a chuckle. “I like how you see the glass half-full, Miss Swan.” I grabbed the wine bottle and refilled her glass to exactly the half-way mark.

“I’ll drink to that,” she said, raising her goblet.

“So will I.” I touched my glass to hers and hoped that the sentiment would find its way to my pessimistic soul.

Our toast somehow signaled the arrival of the main course, and we concentrated on our meals then. I made an effort to simply live in that perfect moment, enjoying a delicious meal in an elegant atmosphere, with my favorite person in the world.

I should have known better, of course. Every time I let my guard down and simply believe that I’m deserving of such happiness, it comes crashing down around me in vengeful retribution. Forget the glass simply being half empty---it’s usually broken and smashed in my face as well.

We enjoyed a glass of port for dessert, and Bella was beginning to get that drowsy, tipsy, ready-for-love look in her eyes. I was more than ready to take her up on it. We got up from the table, and I took her hand in mine to lead her toward the entrance. I was glancing back to make sure I hadn’t guided her right into anyone’s table when it happened.

I heard his voice.

A voice I hoped I’d never hear for the rest of my life.

I hadn’t heard it in years, but I recognized it instantly.

“Edward Cullen.”

He spoke my name with menace and disgust, the way one would address an enemy. Every muscle in my body stiffened with dread as I slowly turned to face him.

There he stood, all six feet, five inches of him, as big and intimidating as I remembered. He still looked like his suit could barely contain him, and his face was already beginning to turn red with rage at the mere sight of me. I couldn’t say I blamed him. He always swore he would kill me if he ever laid eyes on me again, and the fury in his eyes quickly told me that the desire had not faded.

But my instinctual fear made me oddly brazen in that moment. I stepped in front of Bella slightly to shield her, took a deep breath and braced myself.

Then I calmly greeted your father for the first time since your funeral.

“Hello, Mr. Donnelly.” I was amazed that my voice was so even. It almost sounded as if it had come from someone else. I shifted my gaze quickly to your mother beside him, still small and unassuming, her tiny hand barely able to grasp his arm. “Mrs. Donnelly,” I said to her, more gently this time. She didn’t smile at me, nor did she frown. She merely looked afraid.

“I can’t believe you have the gall to show your face in this club,” he said through gritted teeth. “I told you what would happen if I ever had the misfortune of running into you here. Have you forgotten already?”

I hadn’t, though I had buried it pretty well. It suddenly dawned on me why I always made Katrina leave before the day grew long: because I knew that’s when your family liked to come play a couple sets of tennis before dinner on the weekends. I refused to let your father’s threats keep me from the club where I’d been a member since birth, but I also had no wish to poke the sleeping giant. So I always arrived here with Kate at midday and made sure we left before four o’clock.

Now, as I looked up at him, I realized that maybe that’s why I brought Bella here tonight. Perhaps my subconscious had outwitted me at last, and forced me toward the resolution I’d been so desperately trying to avoid.

“No sir, I haven’t forgotten your threats,” I said evenly. “But the fact is, I have a right to be here as much as you do.”

“The Platt family name got you in here, but trust me, I can get you out.” He added begrudgingly, “Your mother is a good woman. She’s the only reason I haven’t had you removed from here long ago.”

“Go ahead, if I’m that much of an affront to you. There are other places to play tennis in this city.”

“An affront?!” he spat. “An affront doesn’t begin to describe what you are. You’re a goddamned criminal. You should be behind bars for what you did.”

I could feel Bella’s hand on my arm then, gripping me tightly. I couldn’t bear to look at her face. I could already feel the stares, hear the whispers, of everyone else behind us in the dining room. I was surprised that the staff hadn’t interceded already. I was sure that the minute we raised our voices, they would.

“Despite what you think, I did nothing wrong. I know you’re looking for someone to blame, but I am not responsible for your daughter’s actions.”

Even as I said the words, I knew I didn’t entirely believe them. I wanted to, but I never could quite convince myself. And I sure as hell couldn’t convince your father.

His face began to turn purple then, his breath huffing in palpable fumes from his barrel chest. “How can you look me in the eye and say you had nothing to do with what happened to her? She called me the night before, crying her eyes out over your sorry ass once again; and twenty-four hours later, she was dead!”

Bella’s fingers were daggers in my arm. I heard her voice, small and frightened, saying my name. I put my hand protectively over hers, but my eyes never left the enraged countenance of your father glaring at me.

“Your daughter was sick. If you hadn’t ignored the warning signs all those years, maybe she wouldn’t have been as far gone as she was. Every time I thought I had her convinced to get help, you’d talk her out of it and tell her she was fine,” I hissed, my voice growing brittle with resentment at the memories he’d unearthed, like ghouls rising from a haunted crypt.

“She was fine until she took up with you!” he accused, his voice cracking with emotion. “She was an A-student. Smart, beautiful, full of life. By the time you were through with her, she was depressed and struggling just to make grades; calling me every other week, crying over the latest stunt you’d pulled.” He was practically shaking now. “You can try to kid yourself but you’ll never fool me. Her blood is on your hands just as much as if you’d wielded the knife yourself!”

I stared at him, dumbstruck. His version of our history was so skewed that I barely recognized it. I wondered if that’s what you had told him, or if that’s how he really saw you, and us. Maybe he had twisted what he did know into a past that he could live with, to absolve himself of any blame.

Suddenly, I felt empathy for this man who was ready to grind me into a pulp under his heel. I knew what it felt like to want to change the past; to be unable to bear the guilt of the truth. He and I simply had different ways of dealing with the pain. Or not dealing with it, as the case may be.

But I was done pulling the wool over my own eyes. I’d be damned if I’d let him continue to do the same.

“You can make me the scapegoat---that’s fine. In a lot of ways, I deserve it. But you’re the one who’s fooling yourself if you think your daughter was fine before she met me. She was ill, and it started long before I knew her. You turned a blind eye because you didn’t want to see it. You didn’t want to admit that your perfect little princess had a flaw--that she might actually need professional help. She was acting out for years and you just put a fucking band-aid on it and told her she’d be fine. Tanya wasn’t fine. I made my share of mistakes with her, but if you’re looking for someone to blame, you’d better take a long look in the mirror and make sure your hands aren’t bloody, too.”

He stared at me in unmitigated shock for a moment. I was just as shocked myself. I had never put any of those sentiments into words before, not even in all those useless letters I wrote to you. And now I stood there, nearly panting and quivering as much as your father was at the accusation. The tension between us was so strong that I felt like I might snap like a twig if I didn’t calm down.

I didn’t have time to try. Your father’s shock swiftly turned back to its default setting in my presence---rage. I’ll never forget the livid look in his eyes as he shrugged off your mother’s timid grip on him and closed the already narrow space between us.

“Don’t you dare utter my little girl's name ever again, you murdering piece of filth!” he bellowed.

It only took a split second, but I swear I saw his hammy fist coming at me in slow-motion, fingers curling one at a time into a right hook aimed at the square of my jaw. Yet I still had no time to react; to defend myself or duck out of the way. The brutal crack of his upper-cut knocked my head sideways, rattling every bone of my scull. My teeth sliced into the tender flesh of my mouth and filled it with blood as my head whipped toward Bella. I heard her scream my name; saw the blur of her horrified face as I staggered into her. She tried to catch me, but she was no match for my taller, heavier frame.

My head spun; my vision tripled. I felt my knees give way, and I was going down. But somehow, just before everything went black, I managed to look your father in the eyes and choke out a response to his knock-out punch.

“Thank you.”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 19 - Omission

From the Desktop of Bella Swan

Monday, September 6

I'd never seen anyone get punched in the face in real life until today.

I've never personally witnessed any barroom brawls or after-school showdowns, miraculously enough. I don't know how I managed to escape it until now.

But I'll never forget the sound of Alice's fist hitting Rosalie's face. The smack of skin on skin; the crack of bone meeting bone. It was brief but brutal, for a fountain of blood spewed from Rose's left nostril a moment later.

I wasn't sure what I felt in that moment. I'm generally against violence of any kind. But I can't deny that the tiniest thrill of exultation raced through me when Alice actually did what I'd only had the unfulfilled urge to do.

After Esme and I had left the so-called "Chamber of Horrors," I caught a glimpse of Alice striding purposefully down the lawn out back. When I realized that Edward and Rosalie were also missing, my curiosity got the better of me, and I followed Alice down to the retaining wall.

I only caught the tail end of Rosalie's words before Alice attacked her. She was once again belittling Jasper's abilities behind his back while complimenting Edward's. No wonder Alice lost her cool. My own ire had been growing as I stood behind her, listening carefully after she'd shushed me with a finger to her pursed lips when I approached. When she stomped around the corner to confront Rosalie, I followed close on her heels; but nothing could have prepared me for her swift retribution.

Rosalie's screams were ear-splitting as blood gushed down her lip. She appeared too stunned to even think about hitting Alice back. The latter was busy yelling things like "How dare you spew such bullshit about Jasper?" and "Where the hell do you get off trying to bully my brother like that?"

And through it all, Edward was staring at me.

Several emotions flitted across his features before they settled into one primary, easily recognizable expression: fear.

I'd seen it so many times in the past week that I was almost immune to it now. Almost ready to scream as loud as Rosalie and tell him, "Unless you're hiding a secret life as a mafia hit-man, or you drown sacks full of puppies for kicks, there is nothing you could do to make me stop loving you." And even then, I wasn't so sure about the mafia thing being a deal-breaker, since he'd be killing bad guys anyway.

After Alice enumerated Rosalie's numerous sins, she was riled up enough again to give her a shove. This time, Rosalie was angry enough to shove back. Edward finally broke out of his trance then and pulled the girls apart. He easily held Alice at bay, literally picking her up off the ground with one arm and dragging her away from Rosalie while she kicked and struggled against him.

"Pipe down, pipsqueak," he admonished calmly, the voice of reason among the fray.

"You broke my nose!" Rosalie sobbed, holding up her sleeve to stymie the stream of blood.

"I did not, you wuss. I didn't hit you that hard. Haven't you ever had a nosebleed before?" Alice snarled.

"Regardless, let's get her back to the house and have Dad look at it," Edward said, still sounding remarkably cool and collected. In fact, he sounded a lot like his father in that moment.

I finally managed to move from the spot where I'd been frozen in shock. I went to Rosalie and put an arm around her shoulder while she sniffled and blinked back tears. Edward motioned for us to follow, then turned back toward the house, still grasping Alice firmly in one arm to keep her ire in check. I steered Rosalie carefully behind them and we followed them up the gently sloping lawn.

Once inside the house, a whole new flurry of chaos broke out. Emmett flew into a rage at the sight of his girlfriend's bloody face. He demanded to know what had happened as he pulled Rosalie away from me and cradled her in one beefy arm. Esme gasped at the sight of all the blood, then ran to the kitchen sink to get fresh towels and ice. Carlisle corralled Emmett and Rose into the kitchen behind his wife, then sat Rose in a chair so he could examine her.

While he and Esme cleaned her up and Emmett soothed her, a confused Jasper approached the rest of us where we'd congregated in the kitchen doorway.

"What the hell happened?" he whispered.

"Nothing she didn't deserve," Alice hissed. She flexed her right hand a couple of times, then rubbed it gingerly with her left.

"You didn't," Jasper exclaimed. He looked to Edward, then me. We nodded in unison.

At first he appeared incredulous; then baffled. We shrugged, not knowing how to explain, but obviously not entirely disapproving of Alice's outburst.

Jasper could not hide the tiny grin that stole over his face. "My kind of woman," he murmured quietly into her ear, his lips touching her earlobe in a quick kiss.

She returned his tiny grin and whispered softly, "I'd defend you to the death."

"I didn't know I needed defending," he muttered, glancing warily in Rosalie's direction.

I realized then that their relationship was not that different from mine and Edward's. I couldn't imagine leaving him to go to school in another state, so I knew how hard the next few months would be for them.

Emmett looked relieved when his father ascertained that Rosalie's nose was not, in fact, broken. But when he discovered that Alice was her attacker, I feared for a moment that he might inflict the same injury, or worse, on his sister.

"What the hell were you thinking?" he bellowed. And then, to Rose, "You should file assault charges against her."

Rosalie shook her head wearily while Alice defended herself.

"If you had heard the things she was saying about Jasper, and Edward and Bella, you wouldn't blame me one bit," she insisted.

"Alice," Carlisle reprimanded her sharply. "We raised you better than that. That kind of behavior is unacceptable in this household."

"We weren't in the house, technically," she grumbled.

Esme gave Alice a look so severe that I began to quake in my sneakers a little on her behalf.

"You apologize to Rosalie immediately," she demanded. "I don't care what she said. Physical violence is never justified."

"It's okay," Rose said nasally through the towel-wrapped ice pack she held to her face. "She's right. I deserved it. I'm the one who owes you all an apology."

The room fell silent as everyone stared at her in surprise.

She took a deep breath and continued. "I'd like the chance to explain myself, if you'll let me." Her eyes swept the room anxiously, waiting for protests. Alice looked ready to interject, but Carlisle's eyes silenced her.

"Of course, dear," Esme encouraged, giving Rosalie a pat on the arm.

I'll start from the beginning so Dr. and Mrs. Cullen know what's going on. No more secrets," Rose said wearily.

"You don't need to do this right now, babe," Emmett said, covering her free hand on the kitchen table with his.

Esme added, "Whatever it is, I'm sure it can wait until you're up to speaking."

Rose shook her head slightly, trying to keep the gauze packing that Carlisle had stuffed up her nose in place. It would have been a comical sight if she weren't clearly still in pain.

"No, I want to get everything out in the open," she insisted. She looked carefully around the room at us, breathed deeply again and began.

"It started the week before last, when Alice invited me to sit in on one of Jasper's band rehearsals. I know you all wanted my honest opinion about them, but I sugar-coated it a bit." She turned to Jasper then. "The truth is, I think your band needs some work. You're talented and you have potential, but you're still not quite gelling. I feel like something is missing."

Jasper nodded slowly, but held his tongue.

"What I didn't tell you is that I think what's missing is Edward," she said bluntly. "The minute he sat in with you, everything started clicking on all cylinders. He's very gifted."

"That he is," Jasper agreed. Edward looked embarrassed.

"In fact, Edward is so gifted that I couldn't help but wonder why Bella hadn't mentioned it to me," Rose continued. "Her job is to find talent for our label, so it didn't make sense to me that she would be hiding someone with so much potential.

"My imagination started to run wild, and I did a few things I'm not at all proud of. I snooped in Bella's desk until I found some recordings of Edward. I jumped to all kinds of crazy conclusions when I heard them. I should have confronted Bella directly, but I ambushed Edward instead."

The room was still silent as a stone. I was a little shocked that Rosalie was owning up to everything so frankly.

"I was hoping that the element of surprise would get him to spill the beans," she explained. "I played the recordings for him and demanded to know if they were his. I wanted to know if the two of them were hiding his talent from me for a reason."

She stopped and leveled her gaze at me. Her eyes were fearful, but determined.

"What Edward didn't tell you is that I suspected the two of you were conspiring to go off on your own. I was afraid that he was trying to lure you away from Java Noise to start your own label, with him as your meal ticket."

I gaped at her in disbelief. "What?" I let out a small laugh because the idea was so ludicrous to me. It took me a moment before the true meaning of her words sank in. But when they did, I could feel indignation begin to boil under my skin.

"After all this time, how could you doubt my loyalty to the company? My loyalty to you?"

She grimaced, then took a deep breath. "Because I had my own Edward when I was your age," she said.

A low murmur traversed the room. I shook my head in confusion. "I don't understand."

"Java Noise isn't the first record company I've worked for," she informed us. "I moved to Los Angeles straight out of college and interned at a very big label whose name I'll leave out of this. I was a talent scout, just like you, only on a bigger, more competitive scale. I already had a couple of great acquisitions under my belt when I stumbled across an aspiring singer-songwriter a lot like Edward. Talented, charismatic, with that extra special something that can capture a crowd and hold it in the palm of his hand.

"I went to bat for him like I'd never done before, trying to get him signed to our label. But because he was so green, and there were so many like him trying to get their feet in the door, our company offered him a deal that would have benefited us more than him should he make it big. He and his management balked at signing the contract and made a counter-offer, trying to get a higher percentage of profits and royalties. The label refused to compromise, and cut him loose instead."

She let out a heavy sigh and readjusted her ice pack. "I was so invested in him that I was devastated. It didn't help matters that my relationship with him had developed beyond a professional one." She gave Emmett a guilty glance, then shot Edward and I a meaningful look.

"At the time, My Space and Youtube were still fairly new and growing like mad on the internet. It was suddenly possible for artists to self-promote on the cheap like they'd never been able to before. My 'Edward' convinced me that with my connections and his talent, we could make it on our own. We could start our own label together and reap all the rewards without any middle-men in the way."

Her brief smile was wry. "I was young and cocky, and head over heels for that guy. I didn't want to lose him, and he had me believing that we could really do it all ourselves. I was so naïve."

She paused, her melancholy gaze far away for a moment.

"So, I did it. I quit my job and put all of my energy into our new DIY venture. Long story short, we were in over our heads. I couldn't get the financing to record and promote him properly on my own, and the results from the new social media were underwhelming. Frustration and failure took their toll on our relationship, professional and personal. By the time all was said and done, I was alone. No job, no client, no boyfriend. I came crawling back home with my tail between my legs.

"I was sure I was going to quit the business then. I felt exhausted and defeated. But pretty soon I found myself hanging out in clubs again, watching the local talent. And I realized that I'll never stop getting a charge out of finding that diamond in the rough that you just know, in your gut, you can polish into something brilliant. So I started nosing around for A&R jobs in the area, and I was lucky enough that Sam and Mark at Java gave me a second chance."

She paused then, looking cautiously around the room at all of us. "I'm not trying to make excuses for the accusations I made, and the way I made them. I'm just explaining how my mind jumped to the worst-case scenario."

Edward was still frowning at her, his brow creased in accusation. "So basically you're saying that you measured Bella by your own admittedly short yardstick."

Rosalie bristled slightly, but then nodded. "Yes. It was unfair, to both of you. I'm sorry for accusing you the way I did, Edward. I was completely out of line."

He nodded almost imperceptibly, but didn't answer her.

She turned her guilty gaze toward me. "Bella, I am truly sorry for not telling you everything, and for not trusting you. You have a much more level head on your shoulders than I did at your age, so I should have known better. I just hope you can give me the opportunity to try to regain your trust."

I could still feel resentment percolating under the surface, despite her confession and apology. "I don't like being played for a fool," I said bitterly.

Her face fell. "I understand."

"I don't like holding grudges, either," I told her. "But you have to give me some time."

She nodded. "Of course," she said quietly.

Emmett gave Rosalie's hand a squeeze. His expression was sympathetic rather than affronted. Apparently she had already revealed everything to him, but had kept the rest of us in the dark. I wasn't sure how I would be able to forgive her for assuming the worst about me, even now that I had a better understanding of how she arrived at her conclusions. But the fact that she and both Cullen brothers had kept the full truth from me hurt worse than Rosalie's suspicions themselves. I wondered why they all thought I was some fragile flower who needed to be protected. If anything, I'd rather get hit with the whole ugly truth at once so that I know what I'm dealing with.

I looked at Edward, wondering why he couldn't seem to grasp that. Wondering why he thought it was better to shelter me than level with me.

"Don't you have something to say to Jasper?" Alice suddenly piped up. Her nostrils flared in indignation as she glared at Rosalie.

Rose shot Jasper a sheepish glance. "I'm sorry if I've judged you harshly. I shouldn't write you off based on one rehearsal. You do have moments of brilliance on the guitar. You were pretty rockin' at the Black and Red Ball." She gave him a hesitant smile then, which he returned.

"It's fine. Alice is a bit over-protective when it comes to apparent slights. I'm a little thicker-skinned than she gives me credit for being," Jasper said evenly.

"Sounds familiar," I mumbled under my breath. I felt Edward's eyes on me, but I did not lift my own to meet them.

"I think there's someone else here tonight who needs to make an apology," Carlisle said with a warning tone. He gave his daughter a stern look. "Alice?" he prompted.

Alice let out an aggravated sigh. "Fine. I'm sorry I hit you," she mumbled to Rosalie. "It was bad enough when I heard the way you lied to Bella and tricked my brother. But when you insulted my man, that was it. I kind of lost it."

Rose winced as she flipped the ice pack over and reapplied it to the side of her nose. "I get it. I probably would have done the same." She gave Emmett a warm, protective look. Then she shifted her attention to Carlisle and Esme.

"I apologize for ruining your Labor Day party. I would have chosen a different time, a different way to deal with my mistakes if I could have. But I'm glad I told the truth." She gave Alice a bitter smile. "Maybe I should thank you for forcing it out of me."

Alice shrugged, her scowl subsiding a bit. "It's always better to get that stuff out in the open instead of letting it fester into something worse," she said. I didn't miss the quick glance she gave Edward.

"I know," Rosalie agreed quietly. "I just felt so foolish and guilty for assuming the worst that my first instinct was to try to make it go away somehow. I didn't want to hurt Bella any worse than I already had, and neither did Edward." She turned to me. "We were probably wrong to try to spare you, and I'm sorry. I won't pretend that I wasn't trying to protect myself, too. I was afraid you'd never be able to forgive me."

She paused, her expression cautiously hopeful. I couldn't quite bring myself to let her off the hook just yet.

"I appreciate your honesty," I said at last. "If you had just explained all of this from the very beginning, I might have understood your motivations better. And I might have been able to forgive a little more quickly."

She nodded. "I don't know why some lessons have to be learned the hard way."

"That's just life," Esme said, reaching out and giving Rosalie a gentle squeeze on the shoulder. "I'm glad you were brave enough to tell us your story. If you mean as much to Emmett as I think you do, then I consider you a part of this family. And in this family, we don't expect perfection. Just honesty. I think you'll find that when you have the truth on your side, you can deal with just about anything else that comes at you."

Rosalie's smile was grateful. "You're very kind, Mrs. Cullen. Kinder than I deserve."

"Esme," she replied warmly. "Call me Esme."

With those words, I knew that Rosalie was officially a part of the Cullen family, and I'd better figure out a way to get along with her. Never mind the fact that at that moment, I couldn't even fathom working with her every day, let alone counting her among my closest friends.

Carlisle got up from the table and disappeared for a bit, then returned with a packet of pill samples. He filled a glass of water for Rosalie and handed her the packet.

"These will help with any pain and swelling you might have," he said. "And I'd like you to make an appointment to visit my office this week so I can follow up and make sure you're okay. It's the least I can do after the way my daughter treated you."

He gave Alice a look so disappointed and disapproving that it would make the Pope feel unworthy. I began to understand why Edward had often referred to his father as the Guilt Trip Master.

As Rosalie took one of the prescription pain pills, Carlisle added, "They'll probably also make you sleepy, so take care if you're driving anywhere."

"I'll be doing the driving tonight," Emmett asserted, stroking Rosalie's hair.

"I should probably be going soon, anyway," she said. "I've imposed on everyone enough here today."

"You're welcome to stay here as long as you like, dear," Esme offered.

"Thank you, but we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow," Rose answered, giving me a tentative smile. "Holidays always make the rest of the work week busier than usual."

I nodded in agreement. I knew that we would have plenty to keep us occupied at Java for the next few days. I hate that I'm facing the prospect of work with a faint feeling of dread rather than enthusiasm like I usually do. I wonder if that will ever change. I hope so. I don't want Rosalie's mistrust to permanently taint my attitude toward the job I've always loved.

Esme began to put together care packages of leftover food for us to take home, and I quickly offered to help. She refused, of course, and made Alice do it instead. I couldn't help but think how well you and Esme would have gotten along, Mom. I'm having a harder time imagining rough-around-the-edges Charlie hitting it off with genteel and refined Carlisle, though. And yet, I know it's going to happen one of these days. Even after today's disappointments, I know Edward is the one. I can't imagine my life without him anymore.

We said our good-byes with hugs, just as we had said our hellos. When Alice gripped me in a quick embrace, she whispered, "I'm not sorry I hit her. I still feel a lot worse for you."

I chuckled a little and told her "thanks." She winked and said she'd call me soon. I realized again how much I was going to miss her myself while she was away.

The trip to the dock was eerily silent. Soon after we left the Cullen property, Rosalie fell asleep. She didn't stir when Emmett turned on the radio and let it drone softly in the background.

I gazed out the window, unable to appreciate the beauty of the passing landscape the way I had earlier. After a few miles, I felt the warmth of Edward's hand on mine, making me turn to him. His eyes were plagued with doubt and worry. I turned my hand, palm up, so that he could lace his fingers through mine. He held my hand, and my gaze, until it burned through me and I had to look away. He lifted my hand to his mouth then, and pressed his warm lips upon it.

Forgive me.

I didn't need to hear the words. I saw the entreaty in his eyes.

I'll always forgive you.

I wondered if he was as astute at reading my unspoken language. If he was, he seemed to question it once again.

I sighed; my eyes fell. Why did no one trust in me?

The ferry ride home was a little better, probably because Edward and I found a secluded place to sit, away from Rosalie and Emmett. Even though the air was getting cooler as hazy sun set behind its cloud cover, I preferred the fresh breeze of the upper deck to the inside cabins. We sat side by side, looking out over the water. Well, I was looking at the water. I could feel Edward looking at me.

"I'm sorry I wasn't completely honest with you," he said softly after a long moment.

I returned his gaze, even though the pain in his eyes cut me. "I know you are."

"I just didn't want to hurt you like that. I never want to be the one to hurt you."

"Rosalie is the one who did that by not trusting me. You didn't hurt me until you added to what she did by not trusting me to handle it. Do you understand that?"

His eyes closed and he took a deep breath before opening them. "Yes."

"Even Emmett knew everything before I did. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel?"

His eyes finally wavered, then lost the battle with mine. "I'm sorry," he reiterated. I could barely hear his hoarse reply over the wind and waves that helped push the ferry eastward.

"Edward, I don't want you to feel guilty for trying to protect me. I love that that's your first instinct. But I'd still rather you have enough confidence in me to be honest with me and treat me like your equal; your best friend. More than your best friend."

He twisted his body toward mine on the bench and grabbed both of my hands in his. "You are all of those things to me. I don't want you to ever doubt that." He paused, glancing down at our hands, hit thumbs smoothing the outline of mine. "I'm not used to being that open with anyone. Confiding everything. Holding nothing back. I've been more open with you than with anyone else - let you see parts of me that I never show anyone. You're in there so deep . . ."

He trailed off, and his eyes swallowed mine. I felt myself drowning again, giving myself over to his undertow. I resisted; kept my head above the surface.

"But it's still not all of you, is it?"

The motion of Edward's thumbs stopped cold. His face hardened around the edges. The hypnotic swirl of his eyes stilled.

The breath left my body in a disappointed sigh. I squeezed his hands tightly. "I know how hard it is to give everything. It's scary. But I'm greedy. I want all of you. Every bit. The good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. Whatever it is, I can take it. I will take it."

He stared at me in something like disbelief. I wondered how he could doubt my love for him after all we'd been through together. Even though it had only been a short time, it felt like eternity somehow. Like he was the destiny I didn't know was mine until I found him.

"I wish I knew why," he murmured.

I huffed a small laugh. "You might as well ask why the sky is blue. Or gray, as the case may be," I added with a wry grin at the clouds. "It just is. I love you."

I didn't know what else to say. It was all that was necessary, as far as I was concerned.

"There aren't enough words to express what I feel for you," he replied. His eyes were as troubled as the sky above. And then, suddenly, his smile broke through the clouds. "But 'I love you, too' is a good start."

I smiled back. "It's a very good start."

I extricated one hand from his so I could reach up to touch his face. "I loved seeing all those pictures and videos of you at your Mom's," I told him. "I loved seeing how you became the man you are today."

He raised a dubious eyebrow. "Well, if you wanted the warts-and-all version, you certainly got a good dose of that." His grin faded. "Why did you look so sad when we got to the photos of all those silly high school and college formals I went to? Were my tuxes that bad?"

I couldn't seem to laugh at his joke. "Because your eyes are so different now," I told him. "You were completely carefree then. It wasn't that long ago, but you looked so much younger. So . . . I don't know; full of promise? Or confidence, maybe? Your face was just so smooth and untroubled. You still look that way when you're sleeping."

I stroked his face now; and of course, it was lined with care, maybe even regret, as he gazed at me.

"I wish I had met you then," he said. "I might still that look that way. While I'm awake," he added with a sardonic laugh.

I smiled wistfully. "You wouldn't have glanced at me sideways then. I wasn't your type."

"Then I was a fool."

I shook my head. "Things happen the way they're supposed to happen. There's a reason we found each other when we did. You saved me." Let me save you, I wanted to add.

"That may be a bit generous. I think you were doing all right on your own."

"But you made me better than all right. You made me so much more."

"It's the least I could do." He looked like he wanted to say more, but his words were cut off by the blast of the ferry's horn, announcing our impending arrival at the Washington Street terminal.

"We'd better find our ride," Edward said, rising from the bench, still holding my hand. I stood up and stretched a little, and we went off in search of Emmett and Rosalie.

We found them inside, huddled at a small table, drinking iced tea. I gasped when I saw Rose. Her nose and cheek were swollen, and a faint purple bruise was beginning to bloom under her left eye.

"I must be a pretty sight," she grimaced at my reaction.

"Alice went too far. She shouldn't have hit you," Edward said reproachfully.

"That's the understatement of the year," Emmett growled. "There's no excuse for her behavior. We're not little kids anymore, duking it out on the playground."

Rose waved her hand at him, as if to calm him down. "I had it coming. I'll live. I've been through worse."

"You should have slugged her back," Edward said. "You could have gotten in a good punch before I broke it up."

Rosalie let out a snort. "Somehow I don't think it would have helped matters. I can take my lumps. I'm just glad you two didn't take a shot at me. You would have been completely justified."

I shook my head at her. "Not my style."

She smiled up at me. "I know. I should have remembered that all along."

I got her meaning and tried to return her smile, but it still felt forced.

Emmett helped Rosalie up and kept a protective arm around her as we prepared to leave the ferry. After docking and retrieving the Range Rover, Emmett drove us back to Edward's place, where I'd stayed the night before. The conversation was mostly small talk revolving around the good parts of our day at the Cullen home, and what the work week held for each of us. By the time we got to the loft, the sun had set and I was beginning to feel wiped out by the events of the day.

As Edward and I silently listened to the service elevator's gears haul us to the top floor, I mustered the courage to make a request.

"Is it all right if I spend the night at my place? I'm really tired, and I have some things I need to take care of." At the sight of his disappointed face, I quickly added, "Boring things like ironing clothes for work and paying bills. You know, the stuff it's easy to forget about when I'm with you."

His half-smile was wan. "Sure. I should probably do some of that myself."

I let out a guffaw. "Do you even own an iron?"

"I think so, somewhere," he said, giving me my favorite crooked grin. "Maybe I should see if I can excavate it from my closet."

Once inside the apartment, he watched silently as I gathered my things from the bathroom and bedroom and packed them in my overnight bag.

"I should have driven my truck here," I said sheepishly as we headed for the front door. "I'm sorry you have to drive me home."

He frowned at me, looking mildly offended. "I don't mind driving you home."

The silence felt heavy as we made the trip from SoDo to my duplex on the west side. I couldn't stop thinking about what had happened after Rosalie left the "Chamber of Horrors," and Esme and I sat alone, looking at Edward's photo album. I was lapping him up with a spoon, drinking in the adorable tow-headed childhood Edward; the skinny, awkward adolescent version; the young, increasingly handsome teenager; and the rather wild-looking college incarnation.

Smattered throughout his pictorial history were girls. Little girls, stealing kisses. Pre-teen girls, blushing and holding his hand. High school girls, fresh-faced and clearly smitten. College girls, some apparently drunk, most eager-looking.

And then I saw her.

There was only one picture, at the bottom of the last page in the album. It was taken on the deck of the Cullen house; I recognized the landscape in the background. Edward and a pretty strawberry blonde stood arm in arm, smiling. Her grin was huge and confident; his was slightly strained. His expression was different in the picture with this girl than in any of the others. There was tension in his posture as his hand gripped her shoulder tightly.

The blonde was pale and slightly freckled, with one of those effortlessly beautiful faces that show up in skin care commercials. But there was something a little "off" in her gaze. It was too intense; too exuberant. She was just . . . too much. I couldn't put my finger on it. I was strangely disturbed at the sight of her, and yet, I felt an odd sadness as well, which startled me. I finally realized that the emotion she evoked in me was pity. But why should such a lovely girl, with Edward at her side, warrant my pity?

Esme made a low sound of surprise when she saw the photo I was staring at. She quickly closed the back cover, forced a smile and said, "Well, I'm sure Edward will be furious with me for showing you all of these, especially the bathtub pictures."

"He'll get over it," I said with a smile. "I'm so glad you did. I enjoyed every minute of it immensely."

Her smile turned genuine then. "You're good for him, Bella. I don't know if you see that, but I can assure you, you bring out the best in him. I'm so glad he met you."

"That works both ways, Esme," I replied. She gave me a hug, and I thought of you, Mom. It was just the kind of hug you would have given me.

I glanced over at Edward now, frowning purposefully at the road ahead. We were almost at my place. I deliberated for a moment, and then tried prying at the lid on the can of proverbial worms.

"I saw a picture of Tanya today."

I watched him like a hawk, unsurprised at his immediate stiffening, his intake of breath.

"She was very pretty."

He exhaled loudly; I could see his visible effort to calm himself. "Yes, she was."

The fact that he didn't correct me when I spoke of her in the past tense did not escape me. His reply was merely confirmation of what I already knew; what I had known subconsciously for some time.

"She's dead, isn't she?"

His face tensed once more, but in a different way this time. It was the look of someone holding back emotions; keeping a torrent dammed and shored away. I knew all too well how that felt.

"Yes," he said at last, his voice coarse with effort.

I waited, but I knew there would be no more explanation. Not yet. And though my patience was being tested to its very limit, I remembered what it had taken for my own dam to burst. I tried to imagine how I would have felt if Edward had pushed the issue and nagged me, trying to make me to relive a horror I'd just as soon forget. I probably would have resented him for it and pushed him away.

And so, as I gazed sadly at Edward's struggling form, I said simply, "I'm sorry."

He said nothing; just shook his head wearily. He probably wanted to tell me not to be sorry; that he didn't want my pity. But he looked tired. As tired as I felt right now.

When he pulled up to the house, he quickly got out of the Volvo and grabbed my overnight bag out of the back seat. He carried it as he escorted me up the stairs to the landing, ever the gentleman.

"Thanks," I said softly as I took the bag from him. "I actually had a good time, despite what happened. I'm glad you took me out to your family's house. That means a lot to me."

His gentle hand cradled my face. "You mean everything to me," he said, his voice still raw. "Everything."

I nodded and reached up to kiss him. His lips were urgent against mine, and I could feel our kiss good-night quickly escalate to something more. It was always that way with him, and even as I relished our passion, I pulled back from it this time.

"I love you," I said in reassurance to the uncertainty in his eyes.

I turned to open the door, but stopped when I heard his velvet voice, low and purposeful.

"I will give you everything, Bella. I promise you that."

I turned back long enough to see the steely determination in his eyes. It made me sad to see him work so hard, when he could just let go and be free at last.

"I know," I replied.

He began to back down the stairs, still staring up at me. It took every ounce of strength I had to turn away and lift my leaden feet through the doorway. I looked back and watched through the door as he disappeared into the dark, the glow of the Volvo's taillights the last thing I saw as they streaked down the street.

I closed the door behind me and sagged against it, letting out a sigh of exhaustion.

"Wow. Rough day?" Angela remarked from the sofa. I laughed a little when I saw that she had our bills spread out on the coffee table before her and her laptop at the ready.

"Parts of it," I answered. I left my bag by the door and collapsed on the couch next to my roommate. I regaled her with the whole story, while she made the appropriate responses of indignation where necessary.

"Unbelievable," she said at the conclusion of my tale. "How are you gonna work with that woman every day?" she asked in reference to Rosalie.

I shook my head. "No idea. I'd like to be a big enough person to forgive, but I don't know if I can forget it."

"I don't know if I could, either," she said. "Oh, by the way, your dad called. He forgot you were spending the day out on Bainbridge Island. I told him to try your cell, but he just said for you to call him when you got back."

"Really? Huh. His ears must have been burning. I was just telling Edward today that I was missing him."

I assured Angela I'd help her with the bills in a minute, then dug my cell out of my purse, went to my room and called Charlie.

"Hey, Bells," he exclaimed when he picked up the phone. "How was your day with the rich folks?"

I managed a laugh. "It was good, for the most part. There were a few Labor Day fireworks, though."

"Little late in the year for those, isn't it?" he asked. His tone told me he got my meaning, but wasn't going to pry.

"Definitely. Don't worry, I'll tell you the whole story soon."

"That new boyfriend of yours is treating you right, isn't he?" he grumbled.

"Yes, Dad. Edward treats me very well. Too well, sometimes," I answered cryptically.

"Huh. So when am I gonna get to meet this kid? You gonna bring him up north for a visit sometime?"

"Maybe," I hedged, still trying in vain to picture my dad and Edward in the same room together. "I have actually been thinking about coming up for a visit, if you're not too busy."

"I'm never too busy for my little girl," he said, in that gruff-yet-tender way of his. "I got you a birthday present. It'd be great if you could come collect it in person."

"Dad, you didn't have to do that," I protested feebly.

"Of course I did. It's nothing big; just something I thought you'd like to have."

"Sounds nice, thanks." I wondered if he could hear the smile in my voice. "I'm going sailing with Edward next weekend, but maybe I can come up to Forks after that. I have the feeling I might want to take a little vacation time from work if I can swing it."

"I know that's a hard time for you, Bells. It is for me, too." Dad's sigh was sympathetic. He assumed I was talking only about the anniversary of the accident. "Maybe it would be a good thing for both of us if you could make it up here for a few days."

"Yeah, I think so, too," I agreed. "I'll see if I can get some time off from work and make it happen."

After Dad and I said our good-byes, I realized I felt a sense of relief. A little sabbatical in the sleepy town of Forks might be just what I need. I want a break from Rosalie's suspicious mind, and Jake's misplaced jealousy.

I refuse to listen to the tiny voice in my head suggesting that, as much as I'll miss him, maybe I need a break from Edward's insecurity, too.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 18 - Countdown, day 8

Edward Cullen’s Little Black Notebook
Monday, September 6

Every time I have to ride the ferry, I remember why I hate it so much.

No matter what I do, that one particular memory of you nags at the corners of my mind, wanting to replay in its entirety. I never let it, if I can help it.

But even as I sat next to Bella today, concentrating on how pretty she looked with the blue waters of the Sound over her shoulder, I heard your words echo in my ears.

What if I jumped? Would you come in after me? Or would you let me drown?

And then you laughed, in that slightly unhinged way that gave me my first glimpse of the truth about you. The disturbing sound of a joke too frightening to be funny.

Come on, let’s do it! Let’s jump together. I’m a good swimmer; so are you. We’ll see how long it takes for the Coast Guard to come rescue us . . .

I let out a sick laugh now as I remembered my response. Are you insane? Do you have a death wish or something?

They were rhetorical questions at the time. I just blamed it on the E then. You were high as a kite that evening. Again. I think that was about the time that I began to grow weary of being your babysitter.

“What was that for?” Bella’s question thankfully derailed my train of thought.

“What?” I asked nonchalantly, trying to mask the shudder of anxiety that had just run down my spine.

“That little laugh.”

“Oh . . . just remembering your buddy Jacob’s face the other day when he was threatening me to treat you right, or else,” I covered quickly.

“Ugh.” Bella rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe he called you out like that. Ridiculous. You treat me like a princess,” she insisted.

I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard Rosalie emit a snort not unlike the one I’d just uttered moments ago. I glanced down the bench over Emmett’s hulking form in time to see her eyes dart away from me and look out over the water.

I tried to ignore my suspicion and turned back to Bella. “You don’t deserve anything less.”

Her eyes rolled skyward again and she gave my leg a gentle nudge with hers. “Whatever. Jake needs to step off. I don’t know how many times I have to explain to him that he and I are just friends.”

“Well, maybe that’s all he’s doing---trying to be a good friend to you, Bella,” Rose piped up. “He’s just looking out for you. That’s not such a bad thing.”

I could feel the hairs prickle on the back of my neck as my eyes narrowed at her. I was beginning to think I needed to get to the bottom of her animosity toward me. I couldn’t imagine what I’d done to provoke it.

“She’s right,” I said, glancing down at Rose in time to catch her look of surprise. “I don’t mind you having someone at work who’s watching out for your best interests.”

Rosalie’s eyes narrowed at me and her mouth formed a tight line. I knew my arrow had hit its mark.

Bella’s look was knowing, even grateful, as she covered my hand with hers. I gave her a surreptitious wink; the ghost of a grin passed over her lips.

Emmett cleared his throat loudly. “So, I wonder how Jasper fared at Mom and Dad’s all night?” he wondered aloud, wisely changing the subject.

“Good question,” I said. I couldn’t believe it when Alice told me he was actually going to spend the whole weekend there, helping her pack. “We may not even have to fire up the barbecue. I’m sure Jasper’s already been thoroughly grilled,” I said with a chuckle.

“Stop,” Bella said in exasperation. “I refuse to believe your parents are that bad. I like what I’ve seen of them so far. And I can’t wait to see where you grew up.”

“Me neither,” Rose said, smiling up at my brother.

“I’m sure they’ll be only too happy to give you a mind-numbing tour of the house and the grounds,” I sighed.

Emmett chimed in then. “Ah, yes. Brace yourselves, ladies, because that will include a long and laborious stay in the Chamber of Horrors.” He raised an ominous eyebrow at them, then at me.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Rose laughed.

“The Chamber of Horrors is what we Cullen kids lovingly call the room Mom has turned into a shrine of trophies and awards from our childhood, plus endless, relentless volumes of family photo albums and videos,” I informed them.

“You know Mom’s gonna whip those babies out to embarrass the hell out of us at the first opportunity,” bemoaned Emmett with a shake of his head.

The girls practically squealed with glee while my brother and I groaned at the prospect.

“Hey, it’s only fair,” Bella said, giving me an elbow this time. “I showed you all my dorky childhood pictures. Now it’s time for payback.”

“Oh, I can’t wait,” Rosalie said with relish. “Naked baby photos, toothless school portraits, bad hair-do’s, hideous prom tuxes. . .” She trailed off and gave us a wicked grin.

“Christ,” Emmett and I both swore in unison. Even though our girlfriends were obviously looking forward to our impending humiliation, I knew that would be nothing compared to Mom’s utter delight in outing our most awkward moments.

“I wonder if Jasper has already been through the Chamber and survived?” Emmett mused with a grin.

“Probably that and more. Dad may have unleashed his ‘What Are Your Plans For The Future?’ speech,” I said portentously.

Emmett shuddered dramatically. “Or worse yet, the ‘What Are Your Plans For Our Daughter?’ speech! Thank God we’ll be spared that one.”

“Don’t be so sure,” I retorted. “He’s probably practicing a special version just for us. Something like, ‘What Do You Plan To Tell The Father Of The Girl You’re Dating Who Wants To Know What Your Plans Are For Her?’”

“Stop!” Bella demanded again between giggles. “You have two parents who are kind and loving and care about what happens to you. Don’t knock it. Not everyone is so lucky.”

I sobered up quickly and took her hand in mine. “You’re right,” I said, sufficiently chastised. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I like how close your family is---the way you all tease each other. It’s nice.”

I stroked her hand with my thumb. “Do you miss having brothers and sisters?” I asked.

She shrugged. “You can’t really miss what you’ve never had. But sometimes I think it would be nice to have a bigger family. I don’t even have that many cousins, and they’re spread out all over the country. I’m not close to any of them.”

“Families are all right sometimes,” I begrudgingly admitted with a sidelong grin at Emmett. I felt like telling Bella that if I had my way, she’d never be without a family, but it seemed too soon for that. I didn’t want to scare her with any more premature marriage talk. I wondered why I kept having those thoughts myself, because God knows that before Bella, I never did. But there was an inevitability to the two of us, together, that I could feel in my bones.

I was actually looking forward to taking her to my parents’ home. That, too, was inevitable.

As the ferry neared Bainbridge Island, the sun overhead began to lose its battle with an army of encroaching clouds, and the water became a bit choppy.

“I hope it doesn’t rain,” Rosalie lamented, frowning into the horizon.

“Par for the course on a holiday,” Emmett commented.

“Especially a Seattle holiday,” I added.

“I don’t care. We’ll still have fun,” Bella, insisted with determination. Her tone made me think that maybe spending the day at my family’s home felt significant to her, too.

Once we docked, we retrieved Emmett’s Range Rover and piled into its roomy interior. We made our way up 305 until we reached the turnoff to head south.

“See? This ‘over-priced penis extension’ - I believe that’s what you called it - does come in handy now and then,” my brother teased Rosalie as we cruised along in comfort. “I’d like to see you take the four of us anywhere in your convertible. Edward’s legs wouldn’t even fit in the back seat.”

“Emmett, the only reason you need a vehicle like this is if you’re going to take us out into wilderness to shoot bear. I’m assuming that’s not on the agenda today.”

“Well, you assumed wrong. How else do you think we’re going to find dinner?” he shot back with a smirk.

“At the supermarket, I hope. You couldn’t shoot fish in a barrel.”

“Funny, you weren’t complaining about my aim last night, darlin‘.”

Emmett and Rosalie’s banter was a constant backdrop during the drive to South Beach. I interrupted them frequently to point out the landmarks of my youth to Bella.

Her eyes seemed to drink it all in---the serene landscape bordered by the Sound on all sides, with views of Mount Rainier , the Cascades and Seattle in the distance. She commented often on how beautiful Bainbridge Island is, and she was right. I never realize how peaceful it was growing up there until I leave the city and go back to visit.

As complimentary as Bella was of the entire island, she saved her best gasps for the first glimpse of our Hamptons-style home on Beans Bight Road. I suddenly saw the place through her eyes as we approached. The sheer scale of our traditional two-story, six-bedroom home nestled on an acre of prime shoreline real estate is nothing to sneeze at. The grounds are a combination of perfectly manicured lawns leading to sprawling gardens and wilderness the further one roams from the house. After I quit school and moved home, I spent a lot of time walking along the strip of white sand beach just down the hill, thinking until my brain hurt. The beauty of the place holds a tinge of sadness for me now---another thing I seem to resent you for.

“Edward, this is amazing,” Bella said, sounding a bit awestruck as we trundled down the long drive.

“Well, it’s no Platt estate, but it’ll do in a pinch,” I downplayed.

“It’s gorgeous,” Rosalie said simply while Emmett parked outside the carriage house. Bella nodded, still staring out the window as I exited the SUV and went to open her door for her.

“It looks like a fairytale house,” she said. “Magical.”

“The stone walkway to the front door really makes it look that way,” Rosalie said as we all got out of the car. “Like the world’s biggest fairytale cottage in the woods.”

“Heh! Maybe it is,” Emmett played along. “Maybe we big, bad wolves have lured you here to show you what big teeth we have.” He dove for Rosalie’s neck with a growl, while she laughed and shoved him away.

“You know what they say about guys with big teeth,” Bella murmured to me quietly with a wicked arch of one brow.

“I’m shocked, Miss Riding-Hood,” I replied with a grin. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”

“Haven’t we already played that game?” she demurred as I took her hand.

“Yes, but Show and Tell is still my favorite.” I pulled her toward the rustic paving stones that led to the front door, following Emmett and Rosalie. Alice beat us all to the punch, opening the front door and waving us down the walk with a huge grin. When we finally reached the front door, she greeted the girls by name, and then Emmett and I as “Brutus” and “Doofus,” respectively.

“What’s with the name-calling, Dorkus?” I demanded as we stepped into the foyer.

“I call ‘em as I see ‘em,” she replied sweetly.

“So do I, munchkin,” I said with a saccharine grin back at her.

“Are you two at it already?” wafted Mom’s voice from the vicinity of the kitchen. She appeared seconds later, wearing her ubiquitous “Kiss the Cook” apron. “They’ve been like this since Alice came out of the womb,” she added to Rose and Bella, her eyes rolling heavenward as if praying for patience. She approached with arms wide open and gave us all hugs, one by one.

“I kid because I care,” Alice insisted with another adoring look at me. “He can’t help being a doofus. It’s a congenital defect.”

“Speaking of defects . . .” I began, but Mom put up her hand to shush me.

“I declare this house a squabble-free zone for the rest of the day,” she announced. “Honestly, the minute you all set foot in here, you behave like teenagers again.”

As if to prove it, Alice stuck her tongue out at me. I gave her my best Elvis sneer in return.

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’ll keep these two in line,” Emmett offered with an air of authority.

“You?” she scoffed. “You’re the worst of the bunch.”

“Hey, I resemble that remark,” he answered with a wink.

Bella and Rosalie chuckled at our antics, but they both still looked a bit uncomfortable. Bella’s eyes roamed left and right, taking in the expansive entryway; the long living room with its glass-walled views of the city skyline; and the grand, curving staircase that led to our old bedrooms.

“Home, sweet home,” I said, giving her hand a squeeze. “Do you like it?”

“What’s not to like?” she said, her tone a bit overwhelmed. “It’s beautiful. I mean, it’s huge and spacious, but it’s still homey, you know?”

Not surprisingly, Mom beamed at that comment. “That’s what I was aiming for. I always decorate so that everyone who enters here feels comfortable. Stuffy and formal is no way to live.”

“Amen,” I said.

“However, I do draw the line at dirty and messy,” Mom added, eying my outfit up and down.

“Hey, this is fresh out of the washer,” I protested.

“After about a thousand spin cycles, by the looks of it,” she teased.

“Thanks, Mom. I can see how this day is going to go,” I groused.

She laughed, reached up, ruffled my hair and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “I kid because I care,” she repeated Alice’s sentiment with a laugh.

I glanced at my sister’s smug expression and asked her, “Where’s Jasper?”

“He’s out back, helping Dad with the grill.”

Emmett and I exchanged knowing looks.

“Should we go rescue the poor bastard?” he asked.

“I suppose,” I said with a shrug. “Though it’ll probably do him some good to sweat it out a bit. Like a Cullen clan initiation ceremony.”

“A hazing, if you will,” Emmett concurred.

“You two are ridiculous. Dad and Jasper have been having a good time this weekend. I think Jasper would rather hang with him than help me pack,” Alice pouted.

“I’d rather hang upside down by my toenails than help you pack,” I told her.

Alice rolled her eyes, then shot a pleading look at my girlfriend. “How do you put up with him, Bella? You must have the patience of a saint.”

“She does, actually,” I murmured, giving Bella a rather penitent look. She frowned slightly and shook her head as if to refute me, but we both knew it was true.

Mom stepped in then, speaking with her usual calm authority. “Why don’t I show the girls around the house while you boys go help your father?”

“Sounds good,” Emmett said quickly, catching my eye and nodding in the direction of the patio. I gave Bella’s elbow a squeeze and then left her in the capable hands of my mother.

“Poor things. They’re about to be bored out of their minds,” Emmett said with a chuckle as we shuffled through the kitchen. Mom already had the island covered with every conceivable type of picnic salad---vegetable, fruit, pasta, and then some.

“Nah. Chicks love that shit,” I said with a grin before opening the French glass doors to the paved wraparound deck.

Emmett looked impressed. “Spoken like a true Neanderthal! We may make a man out of you yet, young pup.”

“Don’t you mean, ‘politically incorrect jackass?’” I corrected him.

“Same difference.”

“Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ve already achieved ‘jackass’ status several times over.”

"Probably. I'll ask Bella later on," he threatened good-naturedly as we stepped out onto the paving stones.

"We'll probably have to rescue them from the Chamber at some point, you know. Otherwise they'll spend the entire day making fun of our childhood mullets and our old girlfriends."

Emmett gave me a look of mock horror. "Nuh-uh. We have to nip that in the bud or we'll never get laid again."

Our adolescent chortles were cut short as we reached the grill. Dad stood looking at us, arms crossed, one judgmental eyebrow aloft.

"Not that we would ever dream of engaging in premarital sex," Emmett quickly amended with a huge Cheshire grin.

"Of course not," Dad said dryly.

Jasper's chuckle carried over Dad's shoulder. He waved a basting brush at us and then went back to coating several racks of ribs with barbecue sauce. I brushed past Dad after a quick man-hug to supervise while Jasper turned the ribs.

"Looks good," I said appreciatively. I glanced back to see Dad and Emmett immersed in conversation before I added, "I'm surprised to see that Dad hasn't skewered you and thrown you up here yet." I gestured to the grill top with a laugh.

Jasper only grinned. "He's been surprisingly mellow. No serious talks yet. The most serious thing we've done all weekend was play some old video games that you left behind when you moved out. Your old man has surprisingly quick reflexes."

"Huh," I mused. Maybe Dad was actually turning over a new leaf. I remembered our talk before work that morning, when he apologized for the pressure he had put on me. Evidently he was trying to change his ways, for Alice's sake. In the past, I was sure that a school teacher wouldn't have been his ideal choice for a son-in-law, if that's where things were heading.

"He must like you," I said with a smile. "That's a good thing."

"Yeah. We get along pretty well. I mean, I remember we all had fun working together when we helped you remodel the loft. I think your dad would do anything for his kids, when it comes down to it." He brushed more barbecue sauce on the meat before closing the lid. "And we both love Alice. That's the important thing."

I was impressed at the seriousness in Jasper's eyes. I'd only seen him this focused when he was rehearsing a guitar lick, trying to get it perfect. I could see that he was putting the same effort into his relationship with my sister.

"You're going to miss her, aren't you?" I said quietly.

He smiled, but the pain in his eyes was impossible to miss.

"I know it sucks, but you two are gonna make it through this," I assured him. "I can see that it's what you both want."

As if on cue, the subject of our conversation bounded through the doors to the covered patio, then rushed over to us when she saw us around the corner at the grill.

"Smells delicious," she declared, throwing her arms around Jasper. She turned to me and said, "He and Dad made some kind of secret rub for the meat last night. They won't tell us what's in it, but they insist these will be the best ribs we've ever had."

"Secret rub? Okay, I'll try not to be scared by that. God knows what they put in it," I said.

"Eye of newt and tongue of frog," Jasper intoned with a wicked chuckle.

"I don't put it past you."

We ambled back into the kitchen, where Mom, Bella and Rosalie had just congregated to continue preparing for lunch.

"That was quick," I commented. "I was sure you'd still be stuck sitting through video of me trying to learn to walk."

"Oh, that's after lunch," Bella said with relish. "I told your Mom that I want to see it all."

"Great." My smile was more of a wince, which only made Bella giggle.

We concentrated on finishing lunch then, throwing burgers and brats on the grill along with the ribs, and pulling cooked casseroles out of the oven. By the time we were done, the food wouldn't fit on our outdoor table. We had to leave most of it on the kitchen island and help ourselves, buffet-style.

We managed to wedge all eight of us around the oblong table under our outdoor shelter, then held hands while Dad said grace. I made a mental tally of all the things I was grateful for besides the food before us, giving Bella's hand an extra squeeze as I did so. She squeezed back, and we gave each other a sidelong glance that said everything our lips did not.

The next hour or so passed in a blur of good food, beer, and laughter. The sun occasionally broke through the clouds, buoying our spirits further. It was one of those days where all seemed right with the world.

That should have been my first warning.

When we'd all eaten more than our fill and helped clean up, we began to wander off in different directions for the afternoon. Mom and Dad sat with Jasper and Alice on the deck, finalizing plans for her move back to Stanford in a couple of days. Emmett and I decided to take Rosalie and Bella on a walk around the property, though we each took off in different directions. Bella and I set off down the stone path from the back door, over the lawn and along the rock wall that separated the bluff from the beach below.

"This place is amazing," she reiterated as we walked hand in hand. "I don't know how you ever left it to move into the city."

I shrugged, looking out at the admittedly stunning mountain views across the Sound. "It's a nice getaway, but it's too removed from everyday life. I kind of like the pace of the city. There's so much more to do - restaurants and clubs, theaters and museums, all right at your fingertips."

"Yeah, I know. And I agree with that. But it's weird - being here kind of makes me a little homesick for Forks. I mean, it's nowhere near as gorgeous as this island is. It's gloomy and damp and oppressive half the time. But sometimes the monotony of a simpler life is kind of . . . comforting, I guess. Sometimes I can understand why Charlie likes it so much."

I held her hand tightly as I guided her down the grassy hill to the narrow beach. We walked along the water in silence for a moment, just enjoying the atmosphere. Yet I could feel a vague melancholy emanating from Bella, and when I glanced at her, I saw the tiny line between her brows.

"Maybe you should go visit your dad one of these weekends," I suggested. "Sounds like you're missing him a little bit."

"I guess I am," she agreed. She kicked at bits of rock and debris as we skirted the shore. "Happens to me every time my birthday rolls around. Well, not my birthday itself, of course. It's the day after that always gets to me."

I frowned at her, trying to discern her meaning. And then, an abrupt wave of horror surged from my scalp to my toes.

That was the day her mother was killed.

And that, of all days, was the day that I had been planning to unload my own horror story upon her, to absolve my conscience from any further lies of omission.

What the hell was I thinking?

I hadn't been thinking, obviously. If I had, I never would have devised this crazy countdown to begin with. The day I had made the off-hand remark to Katrina, the significance of the date I'd chosen had evaded me completely. And during the entire week that followed, I had been so caught up in my own past trauma that I had carelessly, unforgivably forgotten about Bella's.

And just like that, my Countdown was done.

"I'm so sorry," I whispered shakily. Bella's expression was curious as she looked up at me, wondering at my sudden emotional state.

"It's not your fault," she said in a tone that indicated she was stating the obvious. "You've done so much to help me let go of all that old self-blame and guilt. You know how self-defeating it is."

Her hand gripped mine harder then; her eyes were filled with meaning. I could put nothing past her. Now was the time. I should tell her, right now, and get it over with.

A sweat broke out on my brow, and it wasn't from the patchy sun overhead. I could feel panic rising in my chest, unwelcome and unrelenting. I had to get over it somehow. I had to push it down so I could find my voice and make it say the words without faltering.

"Bella, I . . . " It was no use. I had to stop for air, and the breath I took shook harder than leaves in the breeze. I have so much to tell you that I don't know where to start. I don't want to ruin this perfect day. I don't want to look back. I want to go forward with you. Please don't make me go back...

But I knew that going back was the only way I'd ultimately be able to move ahead.

Bella gripped both of my hands now, her palms warm and strong against mine. Her eyes told me that she was ready to hear whatever I had to tell her. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, a steadier one this time. And just as I opened my mouth, a distant voice stopped me cold.

"Hey, guys!" Rosalie called from several yards away. I opened my eyes to see my brother and his girlfriend approaching from the other end of the beach. They waved in unison and gave us matching toothy grins. They were a stunning couple. And in that moment, I wanted the sea to swallow them both whole.

"Isn't this beautiful?" Rose continued as they got nearer. "You've got to go down around that bend and check out the view. If you climb the bluff, you can see in all directions. It's stunning."

"That's great," Bella said weakly. She sounded disappointed. But if I'm being honest, my relief at my reprieve was at least equal to my frustration at being interrupted.

"I was thinking about going back to the house to see the so-called Chamber of Horrors, though," Rose continued with a grin at Bella. "Do you want to come with?"

"Well, sure, but what about the bluff?" she asked, gesturing down the beach.

"I'll bring you back out here later," I offered, perhaps a bit too quickly.

"Oh. Okay," she said, still sounding less than enthusiastic.

"Come on, bro," Emmett said to me. "I think we'd better go with them. We might need to police Mom."

"Or at least offer disclaimers to whatever she unearths," I agreed.

We headed back to the house, where Mom was only too eager to dig out the camcorder and connect it to the TV in the Chamber. Emmett and I sat back and endured our girlfriends ooh-ing and ah-ing at videos of us as babies, then toddlers, doing all the cute and embarrassing things that babies do. The embarrassment only escalated as our video selves grew older and more awkward. Bella and Rosalie couldn't stop laughing as they watched us suffer through adolescence, voices cracking and limbs too long to coordinate. Their laughter lessened as we reached the high school years and began to look like younger versions of who we are today. "So handsome," Rosalie sighed at Emmett's senior prom video, before demanding to know all about his date.

Bella was quiet as she watched me attend various past formals, each time with a different girl on my arm. I studied her face as she watched my teenaged self onscreen. She looked more sad than jealous, and I wondered why. I couldn't wait to pick her brain when we were alone.

When the videos ended and Mom turned to the photo albums, Emmett and I both groaned simultaneously.

"I don't think I can take any more of this," he announced, getting up from the couch and stretching.

"I'm with you. Let's go find and Dad and Jasper."

The girls called us amateurs as we gave them quick kisses and left the Chamber.

"Brutal," Emmett said with a shudder.

I nodded and we went in search of the men, who, along with Alice, were fiddling with my old PlayStation in the TV room. It was a relief to get lost in some fantasy NFL action and not have to think, or worry, about what lay ahead. Another beer and some downtime soon had me in a better frame of mind.

After a couple of games, I excused myself to use the bathroom. When I exited and headed down the hall, I ran into Rosalie.

"So you finally escaped the Chamber?" I joked.

"Well, after we were done with Emmett's photo albums and had moved on to yours, I thought I'd take a breather and let Bella enjoy getting a glimpse into your past."

Her words were pointed. I hoped I was just being paranoid as I looked at her stony expression. But my suspicions only mounted at her next words.

"Listen, can I have a word with you? Somewhere private."

I swallowed the lump of faint dread in my throat and said, "Sure. Why don't we take a walk?"

She followed me out one of the many sets of French doors that led to the deck. We headed down the lawn in silence, until we reached the curve of stone wall leading to the beach. I stopped and turned to face her when the house was no longer in view.

"Look. I know you have some kind of beef with me, so go head, let's hear it," I blurted, my patience at an end.

Rosalie's eyes widened in surprise. "I have no beef with you," she protested, looking mildly affronted. "I wanted to thank you, actually."

"For what?"

"For not telling Bella the extent of my suspicions."

"Save it," I told her tersely. "I don't need any thanks for trying to keep her happy."

"Yeah, well, you could have made things a lot worse for me by letting her know just how out of control my imagination got. Things are tense enough between us without her knowing that I thought she was going to mutiny and start her own label with you. So I appreciate your discretion. That's all I wanted to say," she finished, her face showing mild distaste at the crow she'd just eaten.

"I didn't tell her how bad your accusations were because I didn't want to hurt her, but also because that confession needs to come from you, not me. You're the one who needs to come clean if you really want to make amends with her."

Her guffaw echoed down the stone wall. "You're a fine one to talk about coming clean," she said derisively.

Every hair on my body stood on end. "What do you mean by that?" I could barely force the words through my clenched teeth.

Her snort was softer this time. "I mean, I know what it's like to have done things in the past that you're not proud of. Things you'd just as soon forget, or pretend they never happened." Her gaze clouded over and her voice became more subdued as she spoke. "Things that you're afraid might make it a lot harder for the people you love to love you back."

I stared at her, seething inwardly. My loud-mouthed brother had told his harpy girlfriend about my shortcomings before I'd even managed to confess them to Bella.

"Well, I guess that makes us even, then," I said, my voice brittle. "We each have something we can hold over the other's head now."

She shook her head and gave me a wan smile. "That's not what this is about, Edward. I didn't bring you out here to threaten you into making a deal. If anything, we should declare all bets off and show our hands. Bella deserves that."

"I won't argue with that," I agreed. "Go ahead. You first."

She let out a bitter laugh. "Thanks. You do realize she'll be a hell of a lot more upset with me than with you. My mistake was not trusting her integrity when she'd given me no reason to doubt it. You're just trying to protect her from an ugly incident that happened before you even knew each other. She won't hold that against you."

"Maybe not," I said, unconvinced. I studied her for a moment, trying to figure out if she was sincere. Her eyes had the weary look of someone trying very hard to forgive herself. I recognized that look. I saw it in the mirror every morning when I got out of bed.

"If I know Bella, her heart may be big enough to forgive us both," I told her. "Eventually."

Rosalie let out a mirthless chuckle. "I hope so," she said. "I don't want to lose her."

Neither do I. I left the words unspoken, but I was sure their sentiment was evident on my face.

"I wanted to talk to you about something else, too," Rose continued. "Have you given my offer any more thought?"

I looked at her blankly. "What offer?"

"I'd still like to see you as part of Jasper's band. I was hoping you'd take my words to heart and really think about it. You're a natural. You're just what they need." Her eyes narrowed up at me, shrewd and uncannily perceptive. "Maybe it's what you need, too."

My head began shaking back and forth in knee-jerk rejection. "I told you where I stand on that. Not interested."

"Even if the future of your sister's boyfriend is at stake?" she pressed. "The guy's got talent, and able-bodied musicians backing him up. What he doesn't have is that 'it' factor, for lack of a better word. He doesn't have what you have. That inexplicable quality that makes people sit up and take notice. Makes them stop what they're doing to listen."

I could feel every feature on my face harden into stone at her persistence. "That's absurd. I'm no different than any other guy with a guitar and a hard luck story. Besides, you haven't even seen me perform. You don't know what you're talking about."

"I got a good enough taste at that rehearsal," she argued. "And on the recording Bella made, you could have heard a pin drop at the end of that performance. You had those people spellbound. You can't buy that kind of power - it's a gift. You have it, and you're wasting it. Jasper would probably give his eye teeth for a fraction of your charisma, and you're in a position to share the wealth with him. But you're so fucking stubborn, or afraid, or whatever the hell your problem is, that you won't even consider doing it?"

I was about to form a rebuttal to her tirade when I heard the rustle of footsteps in the tall grass behind us. I turned to see Alice rushing around the curve of the stone wall, her dainty features set in a mask of fury. Nostrils flaring, lips curling into a grimace, she stopped short in front of Rosalie and glared up at her with formidable rage.

I inhaled sharply as I watched Alice's hazel eyes flash a poisonous green. I'd seen that look before. I knew what was coming.

"You. Bitch." I could practically feel the venom from where I stood as she spat out the words.

And then, my adorable baby sister balled her tiny hand into a fist and punched Rosalie Hale right in the nose.

A shockwave of astonishment barreled down my spine, but not because Alice had just assaulted our brother's girlfriend.

What rooted me to the spot in panic was the sight of Bella standing a few feet behind her, gaping at us with horror-stricken brown eyes. Amid Rosalie's shrieks over the blood pouring from her nose, and Alice's yelps that she had it coming, one thought prevailed in my mind.

How much had Bella heard?