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?

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