Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 23 - Texts

Text Messages
Monday, September 13


12:25 p.m.
Edward: Just got your voice mail. Wish I could talk to you in person but I know you’re driving. So glad you liked the birthday present. When I thought about what you’d really like, the guitar and sheet music was the best idea I could come up with. Drive carefully and remember to let me know when you get to your Dad’s. Love you.

2:41 p.m.
Bella: Damn, we keep missing each other. I’m at a truck stop in BF Egypt, filling up the gas-guzzler. I think old Red gets negative miles to the gallon. The present was perfect. I promise you, I WILL make that guitar sing. Eventually. ;-)

4:57 p.m.
E: I know you will. It’s later -- you should be in Forks by now. Please let me know when you get there safely.

5:20 p.m.
B: I’m here. No problems on the road. How is your jaw?

E: Hurts like hell. It’s good for me. I’m glad your trip was uneventful. I love you.

B: Put ice on it again and take those pills your dad gave you. I love you, too.

11:03 p.m.
E: Can’t sleep. Keep thinking about last night. I know you hate apologies, but I owe you one. Coming to your place and forcing myself on you like that was inexcusable, no matter how freaked out I was about the thought of losing you. As if pounding you into the headboard was going to keep you from leaving my sorry ass. I wouldn’t blame you if you did.

B: You know I won’t. I love you. I knew what was going on with you. I pushed you into getting therapy; you pushed back. I would have stopped you if I’d wanted to.
P.S. I’ll let you in on a little secret -- I like being pounded into the headboard. By you, anyway.

E: Hate to tell you, but that’s not much of a secret. I may be oblivious to some things, but recognizing what turns you on isn’t one of them. The difference last night was that I didn’t pay attention. I was selfish. I took without giving. I’ll never do that to you again.

B: Apology accepted. But I don’t accept the idea that you’ll never give me a good pounding again. In fact, I demand that you do. Just let me catch up next time.

E: That is definitely something I can agree to. I look forward to it. So when is it that you’re coming back to Seattle?

B: LOL Not sure. As much as I miss you, I think you and I both need this time apart. Just to think. Figure things out. I do, anyway.

E: I know. You’re right. Do what you need to do. I promise to do the same.

B: Love you. Good night.

E: Sweet dreams, Bella.


Tuesday, September 14

7:45 a.m.
E: Can’t stop thinking about you. I know what a hard day this will be for you. Call me if you need to talk. Hope you and your dad are doing okay.

2:13 p.m.
B: Sorry I didn’t answer earlier. I was up and out in the wilderness at the ass-crack o’ dawn, believe it or not. Charlie wanted to take me fishing. It was kind of nice. Peaceful. Kept our minds off of things. We actually caught a few trout, so looks like I’ll be cooking tonight. Didn’t have any phone service out there to answer you ‘til now. Don’t worry, the day is going okay. Gonna call Phil in a bit and see how he’s doing. Thanks for checking up on me. You’re the best.

2:55 p.m.
E: I’ll always check up on you. Glad you and your dad are spending some quality time together. Makes me think I should do the same w/mine. I told him about the other night and let him check out my face, so you and Alice should be happy. He gave me the name of a good psychotherapist, BTW. I have an app’t. with her Thursday afternoon. Wish me luck.

B: You won’t need luck. I know you hate doing this, but I have a strong feeling that you’ll be glad you did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have pushed you so much.

E: I know. I’m getting used to the idea. It’ll be a good thing, I think. You can say ‘I told you so’ later.

B: I don’t need to. Just let me know how it goes. Good, bad or ugly, I want to know.

E: You’ll be the first to hear about it. Hate to go but my next client is here.

B: Go heal -- it’s what you do best.

E: Guess we’ll soon find out.


Wednesday, September 15

11:22 p.m.
E: Just got back from Billy’s. Jazz and I did a little open mic action. Went well. Crowd was good. No tomatoes. NGL, Imma li’l drunk right now. Miss you. Bad. Why does whiskey make it worse? What are you wearing? Shit. Sorry. Meant to say, How was your day?

B: LOL Glad to see you’re just a “li’l” drunk. Sorry I missed you and Jasper -- you know how much I love hearing you sing. Been practicing on the Martin all day long. I’m going to make you proud one of these days.

E: You make me proud every day. And grateful. I don’t know why the hell you put up with me.

B: Stop it. That self-deprecation is something you should ask the therapist about tomorrow.

E: Don’t remind me. And BTW you should do that yourself. Makes me nuts when you get all insecure and think I won’t be satisfied with you or that I still love my dead ex-girlfriend. You need to get over that shit. If you could see inside my mind you’d know how consumed I am with thoughts of you. All hours of the day and night. If that’s crazy, I don’t care. Call me certifiable. I love you. I need you. I want you. Only you. Now tell me what you’re wearing for fuck’s sake.

B: Wow. Remind me to get you to this exact level of intoxication next time we’re together. I’m wearing the same tank top and pajama pants I always wear to bed. Now go jerk off like a good, horny boy and then sleep it off. Don’t you have clients in the morning?

E: Just a couple. Then I have app’ts. Very Important Appointments. Getting-My-Shit-Together-For-Bella Appointments.

B: You mean for Edward.

E: Fine. For both of us. I won’t apologize for doing it for you, too. Everything I do is at least partly for you. I’m hanging up now before I start spouting bad Bryan Adams songs.

B: LOL God, I love you. When you’re whacking off tonight, imagine my mouth on you. Licking . . . Sucking . . . Swallowing. Deep. Sweet dreams, sexy man.

E: Fuck. Me. How long does it take to drive to Forks? I’m ready to get in the car right now.

B: You’re drunk as hell. Go to bed. That’s an order.

E: I love Bossy Bella.

B: I know.


Thursday, September 16

6:30 p.m.
B: Haven’t heard from you yet. Must admit I’m a little nervous. Please tell me how everything went with the therapist. How are you?

E: Okay. Or at least, I will be. Sorry I didn’t call or text. Have a lot going on in my head right now. Trying to sort out my thoughts. When I do, you’ll hear from me, I promise.

B: Okay. You’re scaring me a little. Was it that bad?

E: Yes, and no. In the grand scheme of things, it was good. Just . . . difficult. But I expected it to be.

B: I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could do. Please call me if you want to talk.

E: I will. I guess I’m the one who needs some time now.

B: Fair enough. I’ll be here when you need me.

E: I always need you. Don’t ever doubt that.

B: Goes both ways. Only three days and I miss you like crazy.

E: Only takes me about three hours.

B: I know. Me too. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon. Don’t know how many more contemplative walks in the woods I can take. It’s too green here. Gives me the creeps.

E: LOL My nature girl. A little self-analysis goes a long way, doesn’t it?

B: Yeah. It’s hard, but worth it.

E: You’re right, I know. Perspective, and all that.

B: Right. I’ll let you know when I’m coming home. Tomorrow night I’m meeting up with a few old classmates who are still here in Forks.

E: Really? Anyone I should worry about? Mike Newton, perhaps?

B: *snort!* No. And even if he were here, he’d be nothing for you to worry about. You know that.

E: Yeah, I know. We both need to work on being secure in our relationship.

B: You’re right, we do. Guess the therapist is doing her job.

E: So far, so good. I promise I’ll tell you all about it as soon as I get my head together.

B: No hurry. I’m not going anywhere, honest. Forks isn’t that far. I’ll be back soon. I miss you too much not to.

E: Ditto. But I’m glad you did what you had to do. I think I’m ready to do the same.

B: Good. I love you, Edward.

E: I love you, too. That’s one thing I don’t need a shrink to help me figure out.

B: :-)

E: Back atcha, baby.


Saturday, September 18

1:57 a.m.
B: Wee! My turn for drunk texts. Fuck I think the booze is stronger here than in Seatlte. Is that possible?

E: I don’t think so. Unless some asshole slipped something in your drink. Who were you with?

B: Eh, no one you know. Couple guys, Eric and Tyler and this bitch Lauren. She was a bitch in HS and she’s still a bitch. But even she wouldn’t slip sumthin in my dink. Drink. Shit. LOLOL No, I just had too much. Dumb drunking games. You know I cant play sports. Even bar sports. Fucking lose every tine.

E: LOL Oh, my sweet girl. You are not going to be well tomorrow. Wish I was there to hold your hair back when you vomit, then make you greasy hash browns in the morning.

B: Oh I already barfed once at the bar. Not prety. Made it to the toilet tho at least. Missed you all night. You shoulda seen the lozers in this place. Had to get drunk just to look at ‘em. Guh that’s mean! I’m so spoiled. You’re sexy as fuck. You know your the sexiest fucker I’ve ever seen with my actual eyes who wasn’t like on a movie screen somewhere. Fuck. I miss you. Picturing you naked now. Plz tell me you’r naked.

E: Christ. I’m about to be. It’s not right that your drunk texts make me this hot. I see my swearing has been a bad influence on you. Even if I was there, it would be wrong to fuck you when you’re this drunk. But now that’s all I can think about.

B: Mm Im thinking about it too. I’m lying face down on the bed . . . imagining you fucking me from behind. God that wuld feel so good right now. I’d get up on my hands and knees so you could push that cock aaalll the way in and fuck me deep and hard like I like it.

E: Good God. You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you?

B: Yes. If I have to be drink and horny an frustrated, you can at least be furstrated with me.

E: Oh baby. That’s a given right now. Will be until you come back. When are you coming back?

B: Um mebbe Sunday? Think tomorrow I might not feel so god.

E: I think you may be right. Now it’s my turn to tell you to sleep it off while I go beat off again.

B: Ill be beating off w/you.

E: I think you’ll be passed out, but I appreciate the solidarity.

B: No relly I will. Soon as I shut this phon. Fuck these buttins are tiny. Cnt see so good.

E: LOL Good night, Bella. Try to take some aspirin with a big glass of water right now.

E: Bella?

E: Oh, honey. I’ll be thinking of you tomorrow when you’re in hangover hell. I love you. Good night.

2:41 p.m.
E: Okay, it’s mid-afternoon and I still haven’t heard from you. Please just text me “Hi” so I know you’re alive.

B: “Hi.” Barely. Death would be a sweet release.

E: Sorry you’re so sick. Why the hell did you get so drunk without me around?

B: Because there was nothing better to do. No one to stop me.

E: Bad reasons. Imagine me giving you a nice neck massage . . . There. Does your head feel better?

B: No. Imaginary massage is futile. Need the real thing.

E: I can be there in a few hours.

B: No. I’d die if you saw me this way. I smell like the bottom of a beer cask.

E: Now you know why I slunk away from your place that first morning. Shame and self-loathing in Seattle.

B: Now in Forks.

E: Right. I’ll let you get your rest. Feel better, sweet Bella.

B: Thanks. Maybe tomorrow.

E: Definitely tomorrow.


Sunday, September 19

4:02 p.m.
B: I just read your letter. Well, it came in the mail yesterday, but I was so sick that Charlie didn’t bother me. The he went and forgot to give it to me until just now, the doofus. Edward . . . I don’t even know what to say. No, that’s not true. I have a million things I want to say to you, but not like this. It has to be in person. I would have left Forks today if I’d gotten your letter sooner. I’ll call you as soon as I get there tomorrow. I can’t wait to see you. I love you more than words could possibly express.

E: I can’t wait to see you, either. I never knew a week could drag by so slowly. Next time I’m coming with you.

B: There won’t be a next time. I’ll never leave you behind again.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 22 - Estrangement


From the Desktop of Bella Swan
Monday, September 13 (cont’d.)


When I woke up yesterday morning, the sun was high in the sky and Edward’s side of the bed was empty.

I stretched and blinked, my mind blessedly blank for a minute. I simply luxuriated in my favorite king-sized cocoon, wondering idly if Edward was reading or checking email, or maybe attempting to make me breakfast. I giggled at the thought.

And then the reality of the night before came rushing back to me, crushing my fleeting bliss with one swift blow.

Much like the impact Mr. Donnelly’s fist had on Edward’s face, I supposed.

I frowned and forced myself to sit up. I needed to go find him and make sure he was okay. I didn’t stop to think about whether or not I was okay. I was afraid if I allowed myself that luxury, I might not like the answer.

When I reached the bedroom door, I heard the low murmur of Edward’s voice and followed it to the living room. He lounged on one end of the sofa, cell phone to his ear. He smiled -- then winced -- when he saw me. The crack in his bottom lip had darkened to an ugly scab, and the side of his face protruded slightly in a profusion of faint eggplant-colored bruises. I tried not to gasp at the sight, but the sound was out of my mouth before I could stop it.

“Well, judging by Bella’s reaction, I’m a pretty sight this morning,” he quipped into the phone. He paused to listen, then added, “I know. All this from one measly punch. Which only proves what a complete pussy I am.”

I gave him a reproachful look as I sat down facing him on the couch. I could hear his sister’s voice over the phone, and her tone matched my expression.

“Alice says I’m a pussy, too,” Edward told me with a sly grin.

Her violent protests were easy to hear through the tiny speaker. I gave his leg a reproving shove while he chuckled at us both.

“Yeah, I know,” he said to her in reply. “Bella thinks I should have had him arrested, too. But it only would have added fuel to the fire of his resentment. This way, he got in his last licks so maybe he can stop blaming me for everything. Well, as much as he’ll ever be able to.”

He listened to her answer, then said, “I know he’s as much at fault as I am. That’s something he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life. It’s punishment enough.”

He gave me a meaningful look and reached over to give my knee a squeeze.

“Sure,” he said into the phone, then handed it to me. “Alice wants to talk to you. I’ll be back in a minute.” He gave me a light kiss on the forehead before rising from the couch and heading for the bathroom.

“Hey Alice. Are you all settled in your new place?” I greeted her.

“Moved in, yes. Settled, not so much. Jasper just left and I miss him already. Seems like some kind of freaky dream that I’m back in school. I mean, I just graduated, didn’t I?” she asked with a wistful laugh.

“Well, I commend you for going back to finish your education. Getting a medical degree can’t be easy.”

“No. Trust me, if it was, I’d have found a way to be licensed to practice already,” she said before changing the subject. “But forget about me and the fifty pounds of textbooks I just bought today. How are you doing? I can’t believe you found out about Tanya the way you did. I told Edward nothing good would come of his procrastination.”

“I’m okay, I guess. I mean, I’m not the one walking around looking like a tenderized pork chop,” I joked weakly.

“Not on the outside, anyway,” she replied insightfully. “If Edward had been up-front with you, maybe this would have been easier for you to deal with.”

“Well, I’m not sure there ever would have been a good time for the discussion we had last night. But yeah, it was kind of a shock. I wish Edward would have pressed charges against Mr. Donnelly.”

“I’m not surprised he didn’t,” Alice sighed. “In Edward’s mind, he had it coming. Knowing his guilt complex, it probably actually made him feel better.”

“I think you’re right about that. And I get why he feels that way. But I just wonder if it’s going to change anything.”

“Hmm. I don’t know,” she mused. “Edward’s been using the guilt as a crutch for a long time. It’s been a good excuse for him not to move forward with his life. But if anyone can give him a reason to change, it’s you.”

“I hope so,” I replied. I wasn’t sure I wanted the onus of Edward’s recovery to be on my shoulders. I knew that if he really wanted to change, he’d have to want to do it for himself.

“I know so,” Alice said confidently. “Now that everything’s out in the open, you two can start with a clean slate. Believe me when I tell you that I’ve never seen him the way he is when he’s with you. You make him happy like no one ever has before. Trust me, I know.”

“My ears are burning,” Edward’s voice drifted over my shoulder. “Whatever my baby sister is saying about me, it’s a lie.”

“I sure hope not,” I said as he resumed his place next to me on the sofa.

“Wow, you mean she’s being nice for a change? She must miss me already. Or maybe it’s just pity.”

“I do miss him,” Alice piped up in my ear. “I miss you both. You have to promise to email me and text me and tweet me. I swear I’ll answer, even if I only have time for two lines.”

“You know I will, and so will Edward. You want to talk to him again?”

“No, just remind him to have Dad check him out and give him the good drugs if he needs ‘em.”

“Will do,” I said with a chuckle.

We said our good-byes and I handed the phone to Edward. He set it on the coffee table and looked up at me cautiously, as if he was bracing himself.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Sore. Apologetic.” He reached out to cup the side of my face briefly. “I’m sorry I put you through all that last night.”

I shook my head firmly. “No more apologies.” I leaned in and gently stroked his injured jaw. “Alice said your dad can get you a prescription for some pain pills. Why don’t you call him?”

He grimaced slightly. “Not necessary. I’ve got some leftover painkillers from a couple years ago when I sprained my wrist slamming one of Katrina’s fly balls.” He let out an embarrassed laugh.

“Did you take some this morning?”

“No.”

I sighed in mild exasperation. “Typical man. Did you at least eat some breakfast? I can’t believe you let me sleep so late.”

“I figured you needed it after taking care of me all night. I made myself a protein shake. I’m surprised the blender didn’t wake you. But the thought of chewing wasn’t terribly appealing to me, so . . .”

I frowned and ran my thumb gently over his cracked bottom lip. “I could make you some soup for lunch, when you’re ready,” I offered.

He smiled and pulled me close. “Sounds good. I might take you up on that offer.”

We snuggled quietly on the couch for a bit. I was still feeling drained from the evening before; still feeling the aftershocks of Edward’s seismic admissions. He seemed subdued himself, his arms heavy and protective around me. I knew I could spend the entire day this way, wrapped in his embrace, and be content.

“You know, I can postpone my trip to Forks,” I said at last, breaking the silence. “I don’t like leaving you like this.”

“You don’t have to do that for me. I’m fine. I’ve endured worse.” He fingered his jaw, apparently examining the swelling.

“So you won’t even miss me, then?” I teased.

“I’ll miss you like crazy. You know that.”

“Maybe you can come up next weekend and meet Charlie,” I said, then immediately wanted to bite my tongue off for suggesting it. I still had trouble envisioning the two most important men in my life spending more than about ten minutes in each other’s company without running out of things to talk about.

“I’d love to meet your dad,” Edward said, with a little too much relish for my liking.

“Yeah, well, I’m not sure you’ll win him over with your face looking like a mincemeat pie. Maybe we should wait until you’re healed.”

“Oh, I’ll be good as new by next weekend,” he grinned. “Besides, he doesn’t know what the other guy looks like. I can make up a great story about how I defended your honor against some lowlife thug.”

“Tanya’s father might as well be a thug. The guy is huge and he attacked you without any warning or way to defend yourself. You should have pressed charges,” I grumbled.

Edward’s smile faded. “I just want it to be over now.”

I gave him a relenting nod. “I know. I do, too.”

“I’m glad we agree on that.”

We shared a gentle kiss, and afterward I ran my finger over the hardness of his healing lip.

“I hate that he did this to you,” I whispered. “Marred these sweet lips.” I kissed him softly again.

“They’ll be good as new before you know it,” Edward assured me. “And when they are, I intend to put them to good use again.” His eyes traversed my body up and down, gleaming with that light I love so much. “But in the meantime, I’ll just have to use my fingers instead.”

His hands were on me then, following the path his eyes had just roamed. I sighed with pleasure and let my own hands find the warmth of his skin under his t-shirt.

“I wanted to end yesterday by making love to you all night,” he whispered, his fingers exploring under the hem of my borrowed shirt. “Best laid plans . . .”

“Don’t let him ruin them,” I said. “We still have today.”

He smiled and kissed me as well as he could, but the rumble of discomfort in his throat gave him away.

“Sshhh,” I admonished, placing my index finger over his swollen lips to still them. “Let me do the work.”

I placed my lips gently upon his before moving them to one side of his face, then the other. I made sure they were mere feathers on his bruised flesh. My fingers were silk ribbons, gentle and caressing, as I slowly undressed him and then myself. I allowed them to be firm only with his growing erection, stroking him to readiness before swinging one leg over his body and lowering myself upon him.

We both sighed with satisfaction at the feel of him entering me. I pushed myself slowly down upon him, easing his thick length deep inside until my thighs met the warmth of his. His hands wandered over my body as I rode him at a leisurely pace, pushing down until he filled me completely before releasing him and beginning again.

My moans became louder with each thrust of my hips against his, and he bucked upward to meet me with equal fervor, his gasps and groans matching mine as our pace quickened. I pressed my body into his, loving the hot silk of his skin on mine as his arms wrapped around me and pulled me closer.

I grasped his hair more firmly, and he nuzzled the undamaged side of his face against mine, his hot fingers gripping my ass while he thrust harder and harder into me. Passion had its way with us then, obliterating careful restraint as our bodies gave in to the insistent rhythm of lust.

But when our eyes met through the blur of skin and sweat and the swinging locks of my hair, I saw so much more. I saw the truth. Or maybe I just saw what I always wanted to see.

“You love me,” I gasped as I tightened all around him, clinging, coming.

His gentle fingers gripped my skull, holding my face to his, willing the mirror of my love to reflect back into his gaze as my body unraveled all around him.

“What gave it away?” he murmured with my beloved crooked grin as he rocked into me, still working toward his own release. My answering laugh was short, swallowed by the intensity of the moment. I circled my arms around his neck and held him close while his cock plunged up, up, up until I felt a second wave of tightness constrict my belly deep within.

“You’re going to come for me again,” he rasped, his voice registering both appreciation and wonder. “Just one of the many things I love about you.”

I could muster only a moan in response, too swept away by the burning between my thighs and the passion in Edward’s face. His brows furrowed, his breathing quickened, his cock throbbed into my burning flesh. I watched as his eyes squeezed shut just before I felt his sweet explosion, bathing me inside with liquid heat as his gasping breaths warmed my face.

The burn within me ignited and my body became a dancing flame, crackling with bursts of energy around him. I clutched him closer, trying to still the trembling that shook me, but it was no use. My ecstasy repeated itself, stronger and more insistent this time, wringing soft cries from my throat as it had its way with me.

“Fuck, I love the way you come,” he growled into my ear, and my fingers grasped his thick hair in response.

“And I love the way you curse at me,” I replied between panting breaths. “Makes me know you really feel it.”

He chuckled, his hot breath in my ear sending now-familiar but still effective shockwaves down my spine. “I’m such a romantic,” he joked.

“You are,” I sighed as my body began to relax. “A dirty-talking, perverted romantic, but a romantic nonetheless.”

“Much like yourself, Miss Swan,” he said with a devilish grin.

“I learned from the master.”

“So you’ve said. But I refuse to take full responsibility. I think I just bring out something that was inside you all along.” He was still grinning as he nuzzled my face once more. His breath was warm and soothing now.

“I think you may be right,” I said quietly, pressing my lips to his temple.

“Mmm,” he murmured into my cheek. “This is how yesterday should have ended.”

I nodded my agreement. “Still, I’m glad everything’s out in the open now,” I said. I didn’t add that I wished he had trusted me enough to reveal the truth on his own.

“I was a coward,” he admitted. “I should have told you sooner. I can’t tell you how sorry I am for that.”

“Remember what I said about apologies?”

It was his turn to nod. We sat still awhile longer, enveloped in our usual post-coital glow. As much as I hated to tear myself away from him, the realization that I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet, let alone showered, began to creep and crawl over me.

“It’s my turn to apologize, anyway. You must love me to put up with my morning breath this long,” I said with a grimace.

“Bella, I think we’re far beyond that kind of superficiality,” he said dismissively.

“Well, I’m still not beyond common courtesy. You’re all nice and clean and I’m . . . ” I trailed off with a shudder of distaste.

“Delicious,” he asserted, burying his nose in my neck. “You have no idea how good you smell to me. Your hair . . . your skin. . .” He inhaled deeply for emphasis.

I sighed contentedly and breathed his own heady scent into my lungs. “I feel the same way about you. But please, for my own sanity, you have to let me go shower.”

He chuckled and eased his grip on me. “Fine. Don’t take too long.”

“I won’t,” I promised. “When I come back, I’ll make you some lunch.”

“Then definitely hurry. I can come help, if that will speed things up.” He waggled his eyebrow suggestively.

“I’m pretty sure that would have the opposite effect.” I gave him a warning look as I disentangled myself from his embrace. I hated how cold and naked I felt after I pulled myself away from the warmth of his body. His face also registered disappointment at first; then his gaze turned admiring as it lingered over me before I turned and hurried to the bathroom.

I brushed my teeth and showered quickly, anxious to get back to Edward. I donned the thick terry bathrobe he kept on a hook behind the door, then rummaged through his medicine cabinet until I found his prescription for Tylenol 3. I grabbed the bottle and took it back out to the couch, where he lay reading a classic rock magazine.

“Quiz,” he announced as I approached. “What was the name of the club where the Beatles and the Stones first saw Jimi Hendrix play?”

I didn’t miss a beat. “The Marquee Club in London, January of 1967. Here, take two of these immediately.” I shoved the prescription bottle at him.

“God, I love you,” he said appreciatively at my knowledge of musical trivia. His smile faded as he took the bottle from me. “I don’t need these, Bella. I feel fine.”

“You don’t know how much you tossed and turned last night, and how much you moaned in your sleep,” I argued. “You were in pain.”

His frown turned to a resigned pout. “I’m sorry I kept you awake.”

“Apologies . . .” I reminded him with a clucking noise. “You can make it up to me by taking some medicine.”

His half-smile was more of an annoyed curl of the lip. “Remind me again why I like your bossy side. . . ?”

“Because it’s always right. You’ll thank me later.”

“I’ll be asleep later,” he groused. “Codeine knocks me out.”

“You’ll heal faster that way.”

He emitted a dubious-sounding grunt and reached for his coffee cup. I leaned down and gave him a quick kiss before heading to his bedroom to change into the clothes I had worn sailing the day before. Then I made my way to the kitchen, where I discovered that Edward had almost none of the necessary ingredients to make soup.

“Do you have any broth or bouillon?” I called to him.

I could hear his snort all the way across the room. “Open the second cupboard, middle shelf,” he directed me.

When I complied, I was met with the sight of several cans of Campbell’s ready-to-eat soup. I laughed in spite of myself. “This wasn’t exactly what I had in mind,” I told him.

He grinned but didn’t leave his perch on the sofa. “Soup for bachelors. I’m used to it.”

I shrugged and chose the chicken noodle variety, then warmed it in a pan while I fixed a grilled cheese sandwich. Edward peppered me with more music-related questions, which I answered with little effort. After I correctly identified the person for whom Robert Plant had written the lyrics to “All My Love,” Edward jumped off the couch and loped over to the stove.

“Marry me,” he said in my ear, wrapping his arms around me.

I ignored the pins and needles dancing down my spine and answered, “If I had known all it took was canned soup and grilled cheese to get you to commit, I wouldn’t have bothered with the home-made stuff.”

“Right. You’re the commitment-phobe,” he accused playfully. He gave me a quick kiss before getting serving dishes and silverware out of the cabinets.

“That’s not true,” I said in quiet denial. “If I ever hear a proper proposal, I’ll give you a proper answer.”

I glanced at him in time to see one eyebrow raise in contemplation at me. He said nothing as we settled down to eat lunch at the bar. In fact, he was unusually quiet while we ate. By the end of the meal, he was yawning profusely.

“Guess you were right about the codeine,” I said with a grin. I reached over and gave his neck a gentle squeeze. He eyed me with sleepy irritation.

“I told you so.” His childlike response made my grin deepen.

“Why don’t you go take a nap? I’ll clean up,” I offered.

“Fine,” he agreed grumpily. “I’ll be a zombie the rest of the afternoon. Are you happy now?”

“If it helps you relax and heal, then the answer is ‘yes.’”

“Harrumph.” He gave me a cross look before hopping off the bar stool and disappearing to his bedroom.

I soon found that I was grateful for a little time to myself. I was in a contemplative mood as I washed up the dishes. I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t more relieved now that the riddle of Edward’s past had been solved. Or had it? Maybe the uncertainty was what worried me as I nervously scrubbed every bit of his kitchen until it gleamed spotlessly.

No matter what Edward said about not loving Tanya the way he did me, the truth was, he did love her at one time. He loved her enough to stick by her through some very tough times. And when she killed herself, the trauma of how she did it derailed his education. He switched careers entirely because of her.

Even though my rational side told me that whatever they had was long ago and couldn’t touch us now, an irrational streak of jealousy still ran through me. I hated the thought that Edward had shared the kind of closeness we have with someone else. And I was more convinced than ever that the bond he’d had with Tanya was much stronger than the one I’d shared briefly with Mike.

I tried to dispel my pointless fears by working my way around the rest of the loft. I found myself tidying up every corner of its considerable space while Edward napped, even though I can usually think of a dozen things I’d rather do than clean. I even fluffed and turned over the couch cushions, first in the living room and then the music room.

That’s when I found the notebook.

It was stuffed in between the arm and the far left seat cushion, just haphazardly enough that I didn’t know whether it fell in or was shoved there on purpose.

I didn’t want to pry, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this was where Edward kept his song lyrics. He still hadn’t written down the words to “Bella Notte” for me, and I was desperate to have them.

I slowly opened the black leather cover and peeked at the top of the first page. What I saw there made my breath catch in my throat.

Dear Tanya.

I stared at the name, trying not to look at the message below it. Edward’s words to his deceased girlfriend were none of my business. And truthfully, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read them anyway.

I raised my eyes to the date at the top of the page instead. December 15 . . . nearly three years ago. Right after Tanya died. With trembling fingers I flipped the pages back to find the last entry.

It was dated yesterday.

I slammed the notebook shut. My heart sank and my stomach roiled as I stared down at it. Suddenly my formless fears had substance and shape. I literally held the considerable weight of them in my hands. I knew what I would find if I scanned the volume’s numerous pages. After all, I have a computer hard drive full of sentiments I can never send to you, Mom.

I thumbed gingerly through the sheets of paper just long enough to confirm my suspicions. Sure enough, each entry began with her name, or addressed her in some way. I closed the cover quickly before I was tempted to read any more. I didn’t want to invade Edward’s privacy like that, no matter how much my curiosity begged me to do it. Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know why he wrote to her all these years. I desperately wanted to believe it was only guilt tying him to the past, but the pages I held in my hands taunted me with possibility of so much more.

“Whatcha got there?”

I jumped at the sound of Edward’s voice behind me, teasing and innocent though it was. When I turned so that he could see the notebook in my grip, his smile faded.

“I didn’t read any of it,” I blurted instantly. “I found it in the sofa. I thought that maybe it was for song lyrics, but . . .” My voice faltered as our eyes carried on the rest of the conversation.

“There are song lyrics in there,” he said at last, though he still looked guilty, even ashamed.

“Like I said, I didn’t read it,” I reiterated softly.

“I don’t mind if you do. Go ahead.” His tone was unconvincing.

I frowned and shook my head. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not keeping any more secrets from you.”

I nodded in acknowledgement, but was still uneasy. I didn’t believe he really wanted me to read the letters, any more than I wanted to see whatever sentiments the pages in my hands contained.

“I told you I do the same with my mom. I write to her all the time,” I reminded him. “Because I love her and miss her so much.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, dead silence fell. I hadn’t meant them as an accusation, or even a question. But I knew now that I wanted -- needed -- an answer.

Edward’s denial was swift. “That’s not why I wrote to her,” he said, a tad too defensively for my liking. “You have to believe that.”

I held the notebook out to him, but he was slow to take it. His eyes were pleading.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” I whispered.

“It’s not the same,” he insisted, finally taking the book from my hands. “The reasons I wrote to her were not the reasons you write to your mother.”

“No, they probably weren’t,” I conceded quietly. “She was my mom. My caretaker, my best friend. Tanya was your lover.”

Edward stared at me in stone silence for a moment, his eyes filled with incredulous dismay. He shook his head in frustration, then shook the black-covered tome at me.

“Read it, Bella. Read it and you’ll see. Since the day I met you, every entry in this journal has been about you. And that’s all this is -- a journal. All those letters to her were only a pretense. They were really letters to myself, trying to figure out how to get past everything. Trying to find some peace.”

I didn’t reach for the notebook. I remained still, just looking at him. I wanted to understand the desperation in his eyes.

“Did it work?” I asked him pointedly.

His face fell. Asking the dead for forgiveness was a fool’s errand, and we both knew it. My mother’s death was unrelated to my relationship with Edward, other than my injuries being the catalyst that eventually led me to him. But the suicide of Edward’s first real girlfriend had directly affected his relationship with the next. Her specter still hung over us like a watchful moon, waxing and waning, but never truly gone.

I wanted her gone. The question was, did Edward?

When I realized what I was about to say to him, my gut churned.

“You said that you tried to convince Tanya to see someone. To get some help with her problems,” I began tentatively. I didn’t need to finish the thought. Edward’s face darkened at the implication.

“You think I need to see a shrink,” he stated. He tossed the journal in the direction of the couch, never taking his disillusioned eyes from mine.

“Not necessarily,” I answered hastily. “Maybe just a grief counselor or something. I’m just afraid that this --” I motioned to the notebook where it lay on the couch -- “is bigger than me. Bigger than the both of us.”

“You’re wrong. Nothing is bigger than us.” Edward shook his head in denial. “Besides, I tried counseling. It didn’t do one fucking bit of good.”

“But maybe it will now,” I persisted. “Now that you’re in a better place. Now that you have a reason to let go of the past once and for all. At least, I hope you do,” I added uncertainly.

“Of course I do. I am letting go of it. Last night was a huge step for me, whether you know it or not.”

“Then take the next one. Don’t stop now,” I implored.

His face twisted in pain and frustration. He looked like he was fighting back tears, or maybe angry words. I hated feeling like I was giving him an ultimatum, but I had to know that Tanya’s ghost wasn’t going to come between us any longer. I had to be sure that he was willing to let her go.

“You told her that you felt like you couldn’t help her -- that it was beyond your capability,” I reminded him. “Well, that’s kind of how I’m feeling right now. I just think it would help you to talk to someone completely objective, who can help you sort out why you’ve held onto the guilt for so long. Look how many pages you filled trying to be your own therapist, and where did it get you?”

He was definitely fighting back tears now, and so was I. I knew this was not what he wanted to hear. It broke my heart to say the words. But I knew I couldn’t go forward with him until he was able to move forward himself.

“I told you I’d do anything for you,” he said, his voice tight. “If that’s what you need, then I’ll do it.”

“I think it’s what you need. I want you to do it for yourself. You need closure.”

“I need you.” His words were strangled; his eyes, pleading. I grabbed both his hands in mine and squeezed them tightly.

“You have me. Don’t ever doubt that. But right now, I think you need more. I think you need something I don’t know how to give you. I don’t know how to make you forgive yourself, or stop begging a ghost for absolution.”

“You should know better than anyone else exactly why I did it. You still write to your mother. You haven’t let that go.” But his accusation was half-hearted. We both knew how different that was from being bound to the memory of someone whose final act was designed to tie him to her forever with tethers of guilt and recrimination.

“I’ll never let go of my mom completely because I’ll never stop loving her,” I said. My hands went limp in his. I swallowed hard and forced myself to voice my worst fears. “I know you love me. I just don’t know how much you still love Tanya.” Her name left an acrid taste in my mouth.

Edward’s eyelids squeezed shut and his head shook slowly back and forth. He gripped my hands more tightly, forcing them to fight back. His expression was almost infuriated.

“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t love her? That I stopped loving her long ago?” He let go of my hands and clutched the sides of my face instead. “What do I have to do to prove to you that I love only you?”

I fought back tears of my own as I brought my hands to his, gentling his grip on me.

“I know you love me,” I reiterated. “But love can’t always fix everything.”

The fury in his countenance finally won. “That’s bullshit!” he exclaimed. He abruptly let go of my face and took a step back. “Love is all there is, Bella. It’s the only thing that can fix anything. It’s the only reason to even try.”

“Then love yourself enough to try. Before you met me, you spent the past three years beating yourself up over what happened. So now that you finally got someone else to do it, you think that’s the end of it? One punch in the face and you’re completely over it?”

“I am over it!” he shot back vehemently. He turned away from me, gripping his head in his hands, his fingers raking roughly through his hair. He took several deep breaths, seeming to will himself to calm down.

When he turned to face me again, his words brimmed with unwilling resignation. “I don’t blame you for doubting me. I brought it on myself by keeping things from you. I’ll do whatever it takes to regain your trust. I’ll call and make the appointment tomorrow.”

His face was still twisted in bitterness, and I felt queasy. If he was this unhappy about the prospect of getting help, I didn’t know how much good it would do.

“Please don’t do this just for me,” I begged quietly. “Please do it for yourself.”

“I’m doing it for us,” he said. His eyes grew apprehensive. “Assuming there still is an ‘us.’”

“Of course there is,” I asserted quickly.

But though we stood mere feet apart, the divide between us had never felt wider.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was ten o’clock last night when I heard the front door bell, followed by a series of insistent knocks.

“Just a minute!” I hollered from my bedroom as I packed the last of my underwear and socks in my suitcase. I had left Edward’s place shortly after our argument, claiming I had laundry to do before packing for my trip to Forks. He let my lame excuse slide. I figured maybe he was glad to be rid of me.

I worried all night that he was still upset with me for essentially forcing him to go into therapy. Had I done the right thing? I wasn’t sure. I’d always thought counseling had helped me, yet I still had a breakdown of sorts the night I almost ran over Lucky. I was afraid that if Edward didn’t deal with the emotional fallout of what had happened with Tanya, it would still rear its ugly head in some awful way that I could not predict.

I hurried to the front door and undid the safety chain. “Did you forget your keys?” I asked with a laugh, expecting to see Angela’s face when I opened the door.

Instead I saw Edward’s bruised, rain-soaked countenance staring down at me.

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing would come out. He was staring at me with an intensity that shook me to my core. His lips quivered as if he wanted to say something as well, but only a shaky breath escaped. He took my face in his wet hands and drew me to him, kissing me fiercely. The dried blood on his lip was rough against my skin, but I opened my mouth to his insistent tongue and let it begin the familiar dance with mine.

Edward fell back against the door, shutting it and pulling me against him. My fingers were quick to bury themselves in his wet hair. It dripped on my forehead as he kissed me harder, whimpering with pain or need, I wasn’t sure which. My own clothes became soaked next to his, but I knew it was no matter. He was already pushing them out of the way, his hands finding my skin beneath with hot assurance. I pulled at the damp flannel shirt covering him, and he let go of me long enough to free his arms of it before crushing me to him again.

Before I knew it, he was lifting me off the ground and my legs instinctively wrapped around him. He carried me back to my bedroom and fell with me upon the bed. We were reduced to a frantic tangle of wet fabric and warm skin as we writhed and groped at one another.

As soon as our clothes were removed and thrown in all directions, Edward was inside me. I gasped loudly as his thick cock impaled me, thrusting so hard and deep that my hands flew up to the headboard behind me to brace myself. His hands covered my own in seconds, fingers curling possessively around mine as he drove deep again. I cried out at the suddenness of his attack, surprised but not unwilling as he began drilling me with rhythmic precision.

The air was filled with nothing but my continued cries and his grunts as he plunged into me with the intensity of a pile driver. His eyes were wild, desperate, hungry, guilty . . . so many things at once that I could only stare up at him helplessly while he pinned me in place and fucked me senseless.

My body was beginning to stir in response, my insides squeezing us both to an impending climax , when he suddenly switched tactics. I gasped with shock again when he withdrew, moving his hands and ravaged lips down my body instead, stroking and tonguing me until my moans were as low and urgent as his own. Only when I felt his mouth between my legs, leaving a slick film in its wake, did I realize what he was about to do.

He rose up on his haunches and stared down at me, his expression alternately asking permission and demanding submission. I closed my eyes and waited for the last wall between us to be torn asunder.

The tip of his cock was not unwelcome against my back entrance. Warm and wet, it pushed its way slowly, ever so slowly inside, and I was ready for it.

At least, I thought I was. I still yelped in pain when its full girth stretched my opening beyond its previous limits. Edward stopped a moment, his fevered eyes registering momentary apology; but when my initial pain had subsided, he pushed on until I let out a long breath of relief. As before, pleasure had soon replaced pain, and I moaned softly in time with the slow, gentle rhythm he began.

It wasn’t long before I grew used to the sensation of him filling me this way, and his pace increased, as did his groans of pleasure. I studied the grateful arousal in his eyes as he watched his cock disappear again and again in my ass, and I wondered why this somewhat taboo pleasure was such a turn-on for him. I had to admit that it was becoming a bit of a turn-on for me as well, though it wasn’t as intensely pleasurable as regular sex was for me. I knew it would take me longer to find satisfaction this way.

As if reading my mind, Edward let one of his hands wander from its perch on my thigh down to my sex, stroking and fingering my clit while he continued to pump his cock deep inside my rectum. My body writhed in response, the combined sensations thrilling me in a whole new way. The fervor of Edward’s movements increased, and the more I moaned, the faster he stroked and entered me.

When I reached up to run my hands over the planes of his torso and belly, he sighed with a shudder and fell into me, pressing his body against mine as his tempo increased. He was beyond control once more, thrusting into me with the same abandon he had before, but without the same results. My orgasm was elusive now that he had removed his hands from my clitoris, and while his body rose to a fever pitch of ecstasy, mine could only lag behind and enjoy his release.

His euphoria was short-lived when he realized that, for the first time, I had not met him at that pinnacle. The satisfied conqueror soon became the penitent thief.

His first words since he arrived were ones of trepidation.

“Did I hurt you?” he whispered. He pulled out, but didn’t pull away.

“No. You were amazing.”

“You didn’t come.” His face was stricken.

“I would have,” I assured him quickly. “It was just taking me a little longer, that’s all.”

“Why didn’t you stop me?”

I smiled gently. “I didn’t want to.” I couldn’t find the words to tell him how fiercely beautiful his passion was to me.

He shook his head in bewilderment. “I would have waited for you.”

“I didn’t want you to wait. If I had, you would have known it.”

I reached up and wiped the sweat and rain from his face. He stroked my hair and gently kissed me. His eyes were filled with conflicting emotions again, and they darted all over my face, looking for an outlet. His lips found mine again, and yet again, perhaps trying to wordlessly express feelings that were too complex, too deep, to verbalize.

I had no energy for words myself. I held him while he buried his face in my neck and curled himself like a fetus around me.

“Please let me stay with you tonight,” he murmured.

“There’s nowhere else I’d want you to be,” I answered truthfully.

I waited until he was asleep before I gently withdrew from his embrace and went to the bathroom to clean myself up. I was a little sore, but perversely, I liked the sensation.

When I returned to the warmth of Edward’s arms, I covered his bruises with tiny kisses before I fell into an exhausted sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Happy Birthday, Bella.”

The whisper of Edward’s velvet voice woke me from my slumber this morning. I smiled and opened my eyes to the gorgeous sight of him grinning down at me.

“Thanks,” I said. I stretched and began to prop myself up on my elbows.

“No, don’t get up. You deserve to sleep in. I want you to get your rest before you have to drive all afternoon.”

“You’re too good to me,” I protested sleepily.

“I wish that were true,” was his characteristic reply.

I sighed and reached up to trace the purple stain that still sullied his perfect skin.

“Your face looks a little better.”

“It feels a little better,” he conceded.

“You’ll have fun explaining this to your clients today.”

“I think the knuckle-shaped bruises will do the talking for me,” he said ruefully.

My eyes swept over his lithe form leaning over me. He was already dressed and ready to leave for work.

“I’ll miss you,” I murmured, running my fingers over his healing bottom lip.

His hand stroked my face, mimicking my movements. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to make you believe in me again,” he promised.

“I never stopped believing in you. I just want you to believe in yourself.”

His lips pursed slightly in doubt, but he nodded. He leaned down and pressed his lips to my forehead.

“I love you,” he whispered, his breath warm on my skin.

“I love you.”

“Drive safely. Promise you’ll call me the minute you get to Forks,” he ordered.

I smiled at the over-protective Edward I know and love. “I promise.”

The twist of his sad smile and the gait of his long legs were the last things I saw as he closed the bedroom door behind him. I reached for the pillow he’d slept on and pulled it close, burying my face in its musk. Breathing his scent in deeply, I fell asleep again.

I was unconscious until mid-morning. The blanket of gray smothering the sky had been ineffectual at waking me. I lay still for a moment, trying not to think about the fact that the weather matched my mood. It seemed apropos for my birthday. A dark cloud descended over September thirteenth when I lost you the next day.

I dragged myself out of bed and was trudging in the direction of the bathroom when something caught the corner of my eye. I started violently when I turned and saw a strange head-like shape protruding over the back of the sofa. My relief was profound when I finally realized what it was: the top of a guitar case.

I padded across the hardwood floor to the rug in front of the couch. Propped up at one end was a very new, yet very familiar guitar case, wrapped in an enormous red bow.

“Oh no, you didn’t,” I whispered to myself, since Edward was nowhere near. A small ivory card with my name written on it was tucked under the bow. I pulled the card out, my fingers shaking for no good reason as I removed it from its envelope.

The antique cream-colored paper was embossed with an ornate treble clef sign and musical notes on the front. The card was blank, save for Edward’s elegant scrawl inside: “This belongs to you more than it ever did to me. I know you can make it sing. Happy Birthday, Bella. I love you. Edward.”

My eyes were already brimming with tears as I opened the snaps of the guitar case and let the lid fall open against the back of the couch. Even though I knew what I would see, I still let out a tiny gasp as the dull gray morning light glinted softly off the glossy wood of Edward’s -- now my -- Martin acoustic guitar.

I carefully pulled the instrument from its container, teary-eyed and grinning like a loon at Edward’s thoughtfulness and generosity. As I strummed my fingers along the perfectly-tuned strings, the wonderful memories of that guitar replayed in my head. The night Edward performed the song he’d written just for me; the next day when he taught me how to play it myself. I blinked back the moisture in my eyes so that I could find the proper frets to form some chords. The progression I played was the beginning of my song; our song. I had practiced what I could remember of it, but he still hadn’t given me any sheet music for his composition.

That’s when I caught sight of something else in the bottom of the guitar case. Another ribbon, pale blue this time, was tied loosely around several large pieces of paper that matched the ivory of the card Edward had given me. I leaned down and grasped the pages, sliding them out of their silky tie. They were bound on one side by fabric tape. The cover contained only a few words, in Edward’s signature script:

“For Bella, the light that leads me out of my darkness. I will love you always. Edward.”

When I opened the bound pages, my tears fell freely. There, written in Edward’s meticulous hand, were the entire guitar tablature, melody line and lyrics to “Bella Notte.” I sat with a thud on the sofa, re-reading every word he had written to me in that song. In light of what I now knew, his words touched me more deeply than I had ever thought possible. They broke my heart, then healed it, in the space of two verses and choruses.

Once I had managed to pull myself together, I searched for my phone and called Edward. A text message wasn’t enough this time. I got his voice mail, and I gushed my heartfelt thanks in broken, sniveling words.

“Edward, this is so beautiful. The best birthday present I’ve ever gotten. You are too good to me, no matter what you say.” I paused and added, “Just be good to yourself now. Please. I’ll be back before you know it. I love you. So much.”

Tears pricked at my eyes again. Even though I truly believed Edward and I needed this break from each other, I knew that getting in my truck and leaving him behind, even for a week, would be the hardest thing I’d done in a long time.

When I packed up my rusty old truck for the trip to Forks, I included my new guitar. I figured I’ll have plenty of time to practice in the coming week. If Edward thinks I can make it sing, then I intend to do just that.

He’s not the only one who has something to prove.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 21 - Atonement


From the Desktop of Bella Swan
Monday, September 13


Happy Birthday to me.

My birthday hasn’t been a day to celebrate in years, so I don’t know why I thought this time would be any different. Maybe because I had found love and happiness--the kind I never really dreamed I’d have. Or because I thought love could fix all the bad stuff, or at least make it bearable.

Maybe it can. Maybe it just needs time to work its magic, to let its healing fingers repair the damage.

That’s what I’m hoping as I stare out my bedroom window, feeling sixteen again. Feeling just like those first days when I stared hopelessly through these glass panes, wondering when I would feel whole again. Normal again. Happy again.

I’m thinking of Edward right now, of course. Always. I can see him in my mind’s eye, looking out his own rain-spattered window, absently stroking Lucky’s fur. I know he’s as miserable as I am, and it hurts me more than my own pain. My jaw ached every time I pressed the ice pack to his face Saturday night. He winced, I winced.

I understood then why he tried to spare me. He must have known how his own pain would cut me to the bone; how acutely I would suffer with him as he relived his horror, wallowed in his guilt. And yet it was a catharsis that neither of us could escape. We simply had to soldier through it.

I reminded myself how I’d relied on his strength to come to grips with my own past; to admit to him my own culpability, no matter how misplaced. And so I shored up my own reserves and stood strong for him so that he could do the same. I thought it would kill me inside, but I did it. I would do anything for him.

Now it’s his turn to do the same for me.

“You okay, Bells?”

The familiar, gentle gruffness of Charlie’s voice interrupted my thoughts. He leaned in my bedroom doorway, a look of concern furrowing his forehead.

“Yeah, Dad. I’m going to be.”

He nodded. “We can talk more in the morning. Or now, if you want. You just let me know.”

I gave him a grateful smile. “Tomorrow’s good. I’m pretty beat.”

He came into the room then and approached the desk chair where I sat; the chair in which I’d done my homework throughout my high school years, and wrote to you, Mom. He leaned down and kissed me gently on the temple. He gave my shoulder a squeeze and said, “It’s going to work out. You’ll see.”

I looked up at him with a modicum of surprise. Charlie wasn’t known for his cheerful optimism.

“You think so?”

“From what you’ve told me, yeah. I think so. Seems like this Edward has his heart in the right place. He was trying to spare you from things that had nothing to do with you; things you can’t do anything about now. Don’t know that I would have done any different myself.”

My surprise grew. Maybe he and Edward would get along better than I ever dreamed.

“Thanks, Dad.” I pressed my hand over his for a moment while he squeezed my shoulder reassuringly once more. He gave my hair a quick pat before leaving the room and heading off to bed.

Today was a bit of a revelation. Charlie and I aren’t much for words, but as soon as he gave me a bear hug in greeting, I felt hot tears spill from my eyes, followed by words from my lips. When he asked me what was wrong, the floodgates opened. I told him everything, from my troubles with Rosalie to my heartbreaking weekend with Edward. My poor dad had never gotten such an earful from me. But without you around, and Angela at Ben’s all weekend, I had nowhere else to turn.

Charlie was great. He listened; he nodded, hummed and grunted in all the right places. And now, he reassured me about Edward. Amidst the turmoil of my life, my relationship with my father has been an unexpected bright light. We reached a new level of closeness because of it. Bet you’re surprised to see that from your perch up there in the clouds, or wherever you are.

I can’t see the clouds now, but I know they’re out there. All I see is black; all I hear is the raindrops tapping a steady rhythm against the pane. I wonder if it’s raining in Seattle, or if Edward’s looking out at a starry night sky. He’d probably prefer the clouds right now.

I already had a text message from him when I arrived earlier.

Please let me know when you get there safely.

I answered immediately. I’m here. No problems on the road. How is your jaw?

Hurts like hell. It’s good for me. I’m glad your trip was uneventful. I love you.

Put ice on it again and take those pills your dad gave you. I love you, too.

I had thought it was bad when Alice hit Rosalie last Monday, but I was horribly na├»ve. I found out what real violence looked and sounded like when Tanya Donnelly’s father laid into Edward. The last time I’d felt terror like that was the accident. I had hoped I’d never have to see someone I love splattered with blood ever again -- hoped I’d never have to wear that blood myself. But Donnelly’s mammoth fist propelled a crimson gush from Edward’s mouth that spattered us both as he fell into me.

I shuddered now at the memory, but couldn’t keep myself from reliving it. Couldn’t stop remembering how Edward fought to keep his balance instead of knocking me sideways; how I tried in vain to steady him when that brute literally knocked him off his feet. I watched in horror as Edward’s eyes began to roll back in his head before his body slumped to the floor.

But I’ll never forget that second of clarity in his eyes, nor that macabre smile that twisted his lips, as he rasped his appreciation for the punishment he’d been craving for so long.

Edward actually said “thank you” to the man who knocked him out cold.

I wanted to throw myself at Donnelly and pummel him with my fists. Spit on him and claw at him and make him pay somehow for the damage he’d just inflicted.

But all I could do was scream while several club employees restrained him and kept him from coming at Edward again. Donnelly even tried to kick Edward as they dragged him away, and I glared in loathing at the man who would literally kick someone while he was down. Then I fell to my knees beside Edward and tried to roll him over. A waiter materialized on the other side of him and helped me. My relief was profound at the groan Edward emitted, and the flutter of his eyelashes, when we moved him.

His eyes were unfocused for a moment, but he squeezed my hand when I grabbed his.

“Bella?” he whispered, turning his head in my direction.

“I’m right here,” I told him, reaching out my other hand to smooth his hair and stroke the untouched side of his face.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“Don’t be,” I told him. “Just lie still until we get you some help.”

The next hour was a blur of tennis club employees coming to Edward’s aid, followed by the arrival of the police. A sports medicine expert on staff checked Edward out in the infirmary, packing his mouth with gauze and thankfully determining that all of Edward’s teeth were still intact. He said he didn’t think that the split in Edward’s lip would need stitches, but that it wouldn’t hurt to see a doctor and dentist in a couple of days to make sure everything was healing properly.

Once Edward came to, he looked annoyed, or maybe embarrassed, by all the attention. He waved the medical attendant away and assured the police that he didn’t need an ambulance. When I suggested that he should go to the hospital to make sure he didn’t have a concussion, he gave me a look so baleful that I quickly bit my lip. Apparently his pride had been just as wounded as his face.

Still, he refused to press charges against Tanya’s father. The club higher-ups promised that they would take punitive action against him, and I almost snorted out loud at the suggestion. Suspending Donnelly’s membership would be a useless slap on the wrist.

“Edward, he assaulted you,” I pleaded with him. “Have him arrested, for God’s sake.”

He glared again, a warning look the likes of which he’d never directed at me. “Leave it alone, Bella. There’s no point. What’s done is done.” His voice was thick with the effort it took to speak through his gauze-filled wound.

He looked stubbornly up at the cops from the cot where he lay, half propped-up on pillows, while he held a cold compress to his swelling jaw.

The sports medicine guy piped up then. “Mr. Cullen, you should reconsider. If Mr. Donnelly had aimed about three inches higher, you might not be talking to us right now.”

My heart rate doubled at the meaning of his words. If Tanya’s father had punched Edward hard enough in the temple . . . No, it was unthinkable.

“Well, he didn’t. No permanent damage was done.” Edward’s eyes drifted; settled on the empty air in front of him. “We’re even now,” he muttered softly.

I shook my head in frustration. Edward’s refusal to push the issue left no other recourse but to release him, and worse yet, Tanya’s father. As disillusioned as I was that Edward had kept so much from me, I was much more furious at Donnelly for the way he behaved. If Tanya had taken her own life, then Edward was merely a convenient target upon whom to vent his pain and anger. He should be forced to own up to his misplaced aggression and face the consequences.

But Edward let him off the hook.

The club staff insisted on sending us home in a cab, following behind with Edward’s car. We sat hand in hand, wrapped in a stifling blanket of silence. Edward stared dully, unseeing, at the back of the driver’s seat while his other hand pressed the cold pack to his face. I couldn’t stop glancing at the spots of dried blood on his shirt collar. I couldn’t wait to get him back to the loft so I could get us both some clean clothes.

I went into mothering mode the minute we stepped inside the door. I took the ice pack from him and put it in the freezer to make it cold again. He followed me to the bedroom and watched from the doorway as I rifled through his drawers and got us both fresh clothes to wear. Then he let me lead him to the bathroom, where I undressed him and cleaned him up with a washcloth. It was the first time that there was no sexual intent in my actions, and none in his reactions. He simply looked resigned as I washed the blood away from him and then from myself. I helped him dress; he finally came to life and did the same for me, holding my favorite worn t-shirt of his over my head so that I could put my arms through the holes.

“Do you want to go to bed? Or sit up for awhile?” I asked him when we were done.

“Let’s go sit in the living room,” he mumbled thickly. His face was red and swollen; his eye socket turning a faint blue. It ached to look at him, his beauty even more poignant to me now that it was marred and twisted with pain. I took his hand and led him out to the couch.

“You sit down while I get the ice pack,” I ordered, dropping his hand.

“No, that can wait. My face is still completely numb.”

“Then let me get you some pain pills for when the cold wears off.”

He shrugged and slumped on the sofa while I rounded up some Advil and a glass of water. I administered the drugs and sat facing him on the couch while he swallowed and then cringed at the effort. I took the glass from him when he was finished and set it on the coffee table, then reached over and gently stroked his hair.

“Please stop taking care of me,” he mumbled wearily.

“I’ll never stop taking care of you. I love you.”

His eyes closed and he slowly shook his head. “Why?”

I sighed and continued to finger his hair. “I have no idea.”

His grin was short-lived before it turned to a grimace. “Don’t make me laugh.”

“I doubt I can right now,” I answered frankly.

He was quiet for a moment, that faraway look in his eyes again. He blinked and returned to the present.

“I’m sorry I put you through that,” he said with a penitent sigh. “You shouldn’t have had to find out about Tanya that way. I don’t know why I couldn’t seem to tell you everything before.”

“I do,” I answered. “Remember who you’re talking to? I know how much it hurts.”

It was his turn to reach out and take a few strands of my hair between his fingers. “I didn’t want you to hurt along with me.”

“It’s too late for that,” I said, putting my hand over his. “It has been for awhile.”

He nodded in acknowledgment. He continued to play with locks of my hair despite my efforts to take his hand in mine. He looked as if the strands between his fingers were the most fascinating things he’d ever seen.

Abruptly he stopped, then took a deep breath. “I guess I should start from the beginning.” His tone was purposeful; portentous.

“You don’t have to do this now,” I told him. “You can barely speak.”

“No. No more secrets.” A wry smile suddenly played at his swollen, cracked lips. “I sound like Rosalie did a week ago. Funny how it took a beating to get us both to finally drop our guards.”

“Hilarious,” I muttered dryly.

His hand was on my face then, thumb caressing my cheek. “I wish I had met you at U-Dub. You would have been a freshman when I was a junior, I think.”

“No, I think you were a senior when I started college,” I told him.

His wistful smile faded. “That is a pity. I met Tanya my junior year instead.” His hand dropped to the couch between us. He sighed and continued.

“Remember that comment you made about me and girls? That they were always fawning over me, my whole life?” I gave a brief nod. “Well, I guess you were right. I never had to work very hard to get a girl’s attention. That’s not such a good thing. It can make you cocky and arrogant. Or just bored.”

I bristled slightly, imagining the playboy that he used to be. “Men do like the chase,” I said. A generalization, to be sure, but one that seemed to be true more often than not.

“I think it’s in our DNA or something,” he agreed. “And I never had much opportunity to chase anyone. That’s probably why I was drawn to Tanya at first. I met her at a party, and she was doing her own thing, hanging out with her girlfriends. She wanted nothing to do with me. So, of course, I took that as a personal challenge to win her over.”

He reached for the glass of water on the table and took a sip. “Turns out I’d met my match, or so I thought. She never had much trouble attracting any guy she wanted, either. So we had fun playing cat and mouse for awhile.

“That’s how it was in the beginning. Fun. We were just having fun, I thought. We dated most of junior year, but I lived in an apartment with a couple buddies of mine, and she lived in a sorority house. We spent as much time studying and hanging out with our friends as we did hanging out together. It was a normal balance for two college kids. I thought everything was fine. I thought she was fine. A little wild, but I was into that at the time. She liked to party and have fun, and she didn’t seem to give a shit what anyone thought of her.”

He stopped and gave me a meaningful look. “I’ve always been attracted to strong women. Women who aren’t afraid to stand up for themselves, or what they believe in.” He reached for my face again, caressing it briefly.

“But back then, I mistook brashness for strength. Tanya was headstrong and stubborn and willful. She did what she wanted, when she wanted. It was her way or the highway, with no in between.

“So I did things her way, for awhile. We saw each other more during the summer before our senior year, and that’s when I began to notice the problems. See the cracks in that carefree mask she wore.

“I started to realize just how often she was using recreational drugs, for one. I knew she liked to take a little Ecstasy before going out, and she’d come down by smoking pot. I wasn’t really into it because I don’t like feeling that out of control.” He stopped and mustered a crooked grin at me. “Imagine that.”

My answering smile was brief. His own faded quickly.

“Anyway, when the drug use became more frequent, I started to suspect that she was self-medicating. She probably should have been on lithium, or anti-depressants. I’ll never really know. I’m not a psychiatrist, and I wasn’t studying to be one. I didn’t see the signs right away. I just thought she was moody. Girls are moody, right? PMS or whatever.” He shrugged and gave me a guilty look. “That’s the way I thought back then. I didn’t think. I never dreamed there was anything seriously wrong until we moved in together.”

He paused, and I felt my blood growing cold with dread. Wherever this was going, it wasn’t good. And I didn’t like hearing about Edward’s only long-term relationship before me. I knew that was why I hadn’t pushed him to reveal the details, even though he needed to get whatever he was hiding out in the open. I was afraid of what I might hear. And now that the moment was at hand, that fear was palpable, forcing my heart to work harder to push the icy blood through my veins.

“We got a little more serious over the summer, and she started pushing for us to get an apartment together our senior year. Her parents didn’t approve. Neither did mine.” He let out a wry laugh. “Mom and Dad could see what a train wreck it would be. They never suspected what was really going on with her, but they always felt something was ‘off.’ They didn’t like her, and they didn’t bother to hide it from me. They were always civil toward her, of course. And her parents seemed to like me okay in the beginning. We even played tennis together a few times that summer. But they still didn’t want their little girl living in sin with me.”

He took another sip of water; made another grimace of pain. “Of course, we ended up doing what we damned well pleased. I think Tanya lived to defy her father. But then she’d turn right around and beg for his forgiveness after the fact. And of course, his perfect princess could do no wrong in his eyes, so she was always forgiven. I don’t even want to consider the psychological implications of that,” he said with a look of distaste.

“It was after we moved in together that I discovered just how bad her emotional and mental state was. I think she must have had classic bipolar disorder. She was up and down like a see-saw. Her highs would last for days, even weeks. She would go through frenzies of activity -- rearranging all the furniture in apartment, jogging three times a day, partying all the time, only sleeping three or four hours a night. It was exhausting. And when I couldn’t keep up with her, she’d tell me I was a stick in the mud, and that she was going to dump my boring ass and find someone new. I’d get fed up and tell her to go ahead. Then she’d start crying hysterically and accuse me of not loving her anymore. It was nuts.”

He paused, his puffy lips forming a bitter smile. “I always swore I’d never use words like that. ‘Nuts.’ ‘Crazy.’ But she wasn’t … normal. It took me a long time to see it. Or maybe it just took me awhile to admit it. But our fights started happening more often, because she was just … irrational. Giddy and euphoric one minute, depressed and crying the next.

“The manic episodes were almost worse than the depressive ones. She would talk a mile a minute, and she would make these grand plans for our future together. She kept hinting around at us getting married after graduation. She’d pester me constantly about where I was planning to go to med school so she could look for a job there, or maybe continue her own education. She was an art history major, and she was interested in architecture, so she’d taken some drafting and engineering courses. She was smart, when she applied herself. But she was getting more and more scattered and unfocused.

“I started to wonder if I was a bad influence on her, somehow. It seemed like she had gotten along better when she was living with all her friends in the sorority house. I think maybe she had more of a support system there than living alone with me. I had some really tough courses senior year, and I started going to the library and other places on campus to study because I couldn’t concentrate at the apartment when she was in one of her phases. And then, of course, she’d complain that I was never around and never paid any attention to her. She even accused me of cheating on her. Like I had the time or energy to even think about that.”

He let out an exhausted breath. “It was just a vicious circle. Nothing I did was right. But then she’d come out of it for a few days and she’d seem like her old self again. She didn’t always have depressive episodes. Sometimes she’d just be normal. Again, I hate to use terms like that, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I was able to talk to her rationally during those times, and I started to make gentle suggestions that she see a counselor to talk about what was going on. Because I think she knew, in her heart, that there was something wrong. She wasn’t happy. And I couldn’t seem to make her happy, no matter what I did.

“I finally succeeded in getting her to go to a psychologist a couple of times. Each time I did, her dad would find out about it and tell her that she was wasting her time and money, listening to ‘that psychobabble.’ He’d tell her there was nothing wrong with her that a long run or a couple games of tennis wouldn’t cure.”

Edward snorted derisively. “You saw for yourself what kind of man he is. Domineering, closed-minded. What he said went in that household. It’s no wonder she had such a rebellious streak -- a need to control her own world once she went to college and got out from under his iron fist. But she could never stop seeking his approval. And Daddy didn’t approve of shrinks, so that was that.”

Edward stopped for a moment. He looked so tired, and his bruises were worsening. I wanted to go get the ice pack for him, but I knew he needed to finish his story. I tried to wait patiently; tried to appear strong and capable even though I felt sick inside. I didn’t want to hear any more.

“The closer we got to the end of the semester and our final exams, the more stressed out we became. Our arguments were happening more often, usually over the fact that I still hadn’t decided what graduate schools I was going to apply for and the deadlines were getting near. She was pushing the marriage idea again, and the more she pushed, the more I balked. Her pressuring me only made me realize that I just couldn’t see that kind of future with her. I started admitting to myself that I didn’t really love her anymore. Not the way she needed me to, anyway. I couldn’t be her support system -- not when I felt like I was barely treading water myself. I just wanted out. And I knew that if that’s how I felt, I should end things with her before we got in any deeper.

“But it was so hard to bring myself to drop that kind of bomb on her when she was so fragile. I was afraid that if I threatened to leave her, she’d lose it entirely.

“So, I tried to wait it out until the end of the semester.” A bitter smile flitted across his face. “I failed miserably. About a week before finals, we got into one of our typical fights, and when she started in on me again, I just snapped. I told her that even if I had chosen a med school, I probably wouldn’t have told her about it because I wasn’t sure I wanted her to follow me there.”

Edward shook his head in regret. “She looked at me like I’d just slapped her. I guess I had, in a way. She was literally trembling when she said to me, ‘I’m sorry my existence is such a fucking inconvenience for you.’ Then she ran to the bathroom and slammed the door behind her.”

Edward took another drink of water; it clearly pained him to swallow. I wondered if we should change the gauze packing that distended his cheek, but now definitely wasn’t the time.

“I was so close to just walking out of the apartment and leaving her there to cool off. But something in her eyes -- in her voice -- told me to go after her. I got to the bathroom just in time to catch her swallowing a handful of pills.”

My breath caught in my throat, but Edward didn’t notice. He was too wrapped up in the memory as he continued.

“I wrestled the bottle from her and then forced her to throw up. I literally stuck my finger down her throat.” He paused, shuddering. I was too nauseous to even respond.

“I begged her to get help again. She told me she didn’t need a psychiatrist -- she just needed me. I tried to explain to her that I didn’t know how to help her anymore; that this was beyond me. But it was so hard to get through to her when she was like that. And I was getting so tired of it all. Of trying to be strong for both of us, and still keep up my grades. It was just too much. All of it.”

He sighed heavily and set his water glass back on the table. He finally looked at me then, in a strange mixture of apology and defensiveness. I could tell he didn’t want my pity, even though the situation warranted it. I tried to give him a look of reassurance, but in truth, I didn’t know how much more I could bear to hear.

“I managed to calm her down that night. I probably lied and told her all the things she wanted to hear, just so she wouldn’t be tempted to take any more pills. And she was fine for a few days. We managed to keep afloat a little while longer. But the same abyss dragged us down again, and within a week we were in the middle of another cesspool.”

Edward’s hollow gaze was focused on the past as he continued ominously. “It was the Thursday night before finals. Tanya wanted to go out; I wanted to stay in and study. That was all it took for us to start bickering -- such a simple thing. Such a ridiculous thing. But that’s what we were reduced to by then -- every little ripple between us turned into a huge tidal wave. It was just indicative of what was really going on beneath the surface.

“We said horrible things to each other. Ugly things meant to inflict as much emotional damage as possible. It finally ended with me telling her that I’d had enough -- I was moving out, and that when I came back the next day to get my things, I’d better not find her there.

“She flipped out, like I knew she would. But I’d gotten to the point where I was almost immune to her hysterics, and I told her as much.

“Then I remember her screaming at me, ‘I don’t know how else to get through to you!’

“And I told her, ‘You can’t. You can’t get through to me anymore. I’m done living like this. Until you can admit you have a problem and get some help, I can’t be with you anymore.’

“She said, ‘You think I’m crazy, don’t you? You think I’m a fucking nut case. Well if I am, it’s because you made me this way. The minute anything gets too heavy or too real between us, you shut down. If I even mention any plans for our future together, you clam up or run out the door.’

“And I replied, ‘That’s because I’m not sure I want a future with you.’”

Edward sighed heavily, his eyes bleary. “That set her off again, of course. But then I proved her point by deciding to stay at Jasper’s place that night. I remember trying to fill my backpack while she followed me from room to room, crying and begging me not to go. Her weakness only wore on my nerves at that point. I just wanted some peace … to not have deal with the madness anymore. I thought that maybe if I left for good this time, she’d take my advice seriously and see a psychiatrist. I don’t know. I was so tired. So done.”

He looked that way now, and I wanted to reach out to comfort him; but I seemed to be frozen, immobile with dread.

“She followed me to the door, grabbing at me, sobbing. It only repelled me. I was halfway out the door when she gave me her own ultimatum:

“'If you leave me, I’ll swear to God I’ll go through with it this time.’”

My heart dropped, imagining it. I braced myself for what I knew was coming.

“I just stared at her,” Edward continued. “We both knew exactly what she was talking about. I should have known she wasn’t bluffing. But I was so sick of her threats, so sick of her trying to manipulate me.

“So you know what I said to her?” Edward stopped his narrative and looked me dead in the eyes, challenging me. Daring me to ask him. I only stared back dumbly, my stomach twisting into painful knots as I awaited the terrible truth.

“I told her, ‘Fine. Go ahead. Put us both out of our misery. I don’t give a damn what you do anymore.’”

I wanted to squeeze my eyes shut in denial and swallow the bile that rose in my throat. But my eyes were locked with Edward’s in pity and horror as the reason for his guilt set in. I knew that it would do no good to try to convince him he wasn’t at fault, so I sat and waited for the truth to tumble from his lips like a head from the guillotine’s blade.

“Those were my exact words. I told a mentally unstable girl -- one I had professed to love -- to go ahead and kill herself.” His features were twisted in a self-loathing so sharp that its knife’s edge cut me to the core.

And then he abruptly laughed; a sick, slightly hysterical sound. “How the hell was I supposed to know that she’d pick that moment to start taking my advice? She never did what I told her before.”

“Edward . . .” My voice was a mere crumb. I wanted to soothe him, but didn’t know how. I wanted to stop him, but I knew it was no use. I simply sat, inert, and waited while he gathered his strength. His body tensed and his face contorted with the effort to continue.

“I went back the next day when I knew she’d be in class. It was silent as a tomb in the apartment. You’d think I would have sensed it … would have known I was walking into a shroud of death.

“But you know what I felt? Relief.” He stopped and gave me that hard, challenging look again. “I was relieved that she wasn’t there so I could pack my things in peace.

“So that’s what I did. I filled the Volvo with what I could carry and decided to leave her the bulk of the furniture. Most of what we had were flea market finds and hand-me-downs from our parents. I worked fast, wanting to get out before she came back from class.”

He paused again, and I felt every ounce of awful portent along with him as his breathing grew more ragged.

“The bathroom was the last place I went. I thought I’d taken most of my stuff out of there the night before when I went to Jasper’s place, but I decided I’d better check just to be sure.

“The door was ajar, and before I even turned the light on, I saw this metallic glint on the floor, near the bathtub. I remember staring at it for the longest time, like I couldn’t figure out what it was. Of course, I knew what it was. I just couldn’t figure out what a butcher knife was doing in the bathroom.

“I stood there in denial for I don’t know how long. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the horror of the truth. But there was blood on the knife -- I could see it clearly from where I was standing. And in that moment, I knew. I knew exactly what I would see when I stepped inside that room and walked toward that bathtub.

“I was frozen to the spot with dread. I wanted to turn around and run. But somehow I forced myself to walk to the tub instead. I felt like a puppet being jerked forward by strings -- being forced to come and face the grisly truth.”

Edward’s eyes squeezed shut for a moment; mine were wide with second-hand horror.

“She had filled the tub with enough water that she was completely submerged. I’ll spare you the details -- I’m sure you can imagine what I found. I stared at her body in … just … shock, I guess. Complete horror … disbelief. I didn’t want to accept that she had done that to herself. That she would really go through with it.

“I knew she was dead. I could see that she was long gone. But for some reason, I suddenly snapped to, like I’d been awakened from a nightmare, only to find that reality was ten times worse. I sprang into action then, far too late. I pulled her out of the tub; she was so cold and stiff that I could barely maneuver her. But I couldn’t give seem to give up. Couldn’t stop trying to breathe life back into her somehow. I gave her CPR and mouth-to-mouth -- utterly useless, but I had to do it. I had to try, even though I knew there was no way to resuscitate a corpse.”

“Edward, stop.” I was surprised to hear my own voice. It was a hoarse croak, a desperate plea. I couldn’t take any more. I wanted to block the vision in my head of Edward pulling Tanya from a pool of her own blood and trying to revive her. I knew how utterly devastating the ordeal must have been. How Edward would have been soaked in that sea of red, desperate and guilty and terrified to his very marrow. I knew about blood and horror and regret. The tears that rolled down my cheeks now were from a painfully familiar place.

Edward looked at me with red-rimmed eyes, his expression so fraught that I instinctively sought to comfort him. I reached out to smooth the battered side of his face, knowing that I was powerless to heal a pain that went so much deeper.

He winced, but mirrored my actions, his own fingers rising tentatively to my cheek.

“I didn’t want to make you relive that with me,” he whispered. His gaze faltered. “I didn’t want to relive it myself.”

“I know,” I answered, gingerly stroking his swollen face. “I hate that you ever had to go through something like that. It makes me sick inside.” I wrapped my arms around him and laid my head on his chest, right under his neck. I let my tears fall unfettered; let them soak the fabric of his t-shirt. His own arms wound protectively around me and he held me close for a long moment. I heard him sniff a couple of times, and I hoped that he was letting some of those pent-up emotions out. I hoped he was finding whatever solace in me that he could.

I finally raised my head and kissed him on the wound-free side of his face, tasting the saltwater of his tears. I wiped them away with my fingers; he reached up and did the same to me.

Sea of Red.

Edward’s song of pain materialized in my head, and I gasped at its full meaning. The words suddenly made sense to me now. What I had assumed to be metaphor had actually been gruesome, unthinkable reality. My heart ached for him in a way I’d never imagined it could.

“Edward, why did you tell me Tanya drowned?” I asked him quietly.

His smile was grim. “Another lie of omission for which I need to beg your forgiveness. The coroner’s report listed drowning as the official cause of death. The autopsy determined that after she slit her wrists, she lost consciousness due to loss of blood. She was technically still alive when she passed out and slid down into the water. She asphyxiated before she ever bled out.”

I shook my head violently then to silence him. “Dear God,” I whispered with a shudder. “Don’t apologize. I’m the one who’s sorry, Edward. I hate that she did that to you. To herself.”

He nodded in acknowledgment but said nothing. He looked haggard, like he’d just survived a battle. I knew that the emotional one was far more draining than the physical.

“Thank you for sharing that with me. I know exactly how hard this was for you.” I held his face gently and stroked his cheek with my thumb. “But I hope maybe you can start to let go of it now. The mental illness is what took her life. You do know that, don’t you?”

His lips twisted into a brief snicker. “Maybe if you tell me enough, I’ll believe it.”

I shook my head in resignation. “I think in your head, you already do. But the heart isn’t always so quick to follow.”

Edward’s fingers combed through the hair at my temple and he gave me a wan smile. “I’d ask you how you got so wise, but I know the answer to that. And I’m sorry for what you had to go through to achieve it.”

“I’m sorry for us both,” I answered quietly. I rose from the sofa to retrieve the ice pack from his freezer. When I returned, he was carefully picking the wad of blood-soaked gauze from the inside of his cheek.

“I must look like Marlon Brando with this shit in my mouth,” he joked weakly.

“A little. Much hotter, though,” I assured him. “Should I go get you some more gauze?”

He shook his head. “I think the bleeding has stopped.” But he grunted in pain when I carefully applied the ice pack to the side of his face again.

“We should call a dental surgeon. You might need stitches,” I said worriedly.

He shook his head. “The inside of the mouth heals quickly. It should be better in the morning.”

“You would make a really good doctor, you know,” I said. “You could still do it.”

He smiled briefly; his eyes looked lost in thought for a moment. “I’d have to repeat my entire senior year just to get my undergrad degree. I never did take my final exams for that first semester. The dean even offered to let me take them late, due to ‘extenuating circumstances.’ But I just … shut down, I guess. I never went back. Mom and Dad tried to be patient and supportive, but my father never could accept me blowing my education like that. I get why. He didn’t want to see me ruin my life over what happened. But I think ruining my life was my way of punishing myself for the way I handled everything. Or mishandled it, really. I figured I didn’t deserve a good life when I’d practically taken someone else’s with my carelessness.”

“You have to stop that,” I told him. “You didn’t make her do what she did. You said it yourself, to her father -- that you’re not responsible for her actions. That’s the truth. You have to let go of the guilt, no matter now tempting it is to hang onto it. It’s keeping you stuck in the past. And I really need you and want you here with me, in the present.”

His eyes swept over my face, grateful and loving and pained all at once. “You don’t even know what you’ve done for me. How you’ve saved me from myself. I’m so sorry if I hurt you. That was never my intention. That seems to be my gift -- hurting the ones I love with very little effort.”

“Stop it.” My voice was firmer this time. “You know how much you healed me. How you’ve been there for me when I needed you. I won’t let you wallow in this self-blame anymore. You didn’t raise the knife to Tanya any more than I deliberately drove my mother into the path of an oncoming truck. This has to end.” I regarded the doubt and sorrow in his eyes and my own sadness grew.

“Please,” I added softly.

His fingers worked my hair again, massaging my scalp, subconsciously soothing me when he was the one who needed comfort. “I’d do anything for you, Bella.”

“I know. But I think the question now is, would you do the same for yourself?”

His fingers stilled. His brow furrowed and the shadow of doubt flickered in his eyes again.

“I’ll try,” he said at last.

I nodded and reached over to press my lips tenderly to his. I knew that this was all he could promise me right now. And for now, it was enough.

I led him to the bedroom and arranged the bed pillows so that his head would be elevated more than normal while he slept. I helped him get situated under the covers, then held the cold compress to his face for awhile, smoothing his hair and stroking his battered but still beautiful face until he grew drowsy.

“You would make an excellent doctor yourself,” he murmured when I removed the ice pack and hopped off the bed to return it to the kitchen.

“Anything is possible. The future is wide open,” I reminded him.

His eyes remained closed, but his brief grin was reassuring. “I like how you think, Miss Swan,” he repeated.

“Then start thinking that way yourself,” I answered half under my breath as I left the room.

When I returned, he was unconscious. I carefully crawled under the covers and wrapped myself around him, but sleep was elusive for me. I couldn’t dispel the ugly images that invaded my mind. Every time Edward groaned or fidgeted restlessly in his sleep, I jerked awake and studied him in the dim light to make sure he was okay. When he awoke in the middle of the night, complaining of the throbbing in his jaw, I was quick to get him more pain pills. I was ready, willing and able to be his nursemaid until his physical wounds began to heal.

But the question that worried me throughout the long night was this: Would I be able to help him heal the wounds that ran so much deeper?

I prayed for strength as the dawn’s light began to filter around the edges of the bedroom window. I laid my head on Edward’s chest and let the soft rumble of his breathing lull me to sleep.