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.

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