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Darkest Before the Dawn

Summary:
The door opened behind me, with a cold gust of wind suddenly sweeping through the room, rustling the papers on the desk and carrying that scent! I froze. Not again!...I sensed nothing...The fragrance was maddening. I slowly turned my head, following the scent, and there she was. Standing, back pressed against the back wall, waiting. She was haunting me. A reimagining of Twilight from Edward's perspective, starting from the very beginning...The First Time - and continuing on beyond where Midnight Sun ends. NOMINATED: 2009 Bellie's category Canon that's Better than Canon NOMINATED: 2009 Indie's Top 10 Best Canon Disclaimer: All characters, settings, and a great majority of the dialogue are the property of Stephanie Meyer.


Notes:
I wrote the first five or so chapters of Darkest Before the Dawn before I knew about/read SM’s Midnight Sun. I have since read it, but have tried to stay true to “my” version of Edward, as well as staying true to SM’s original dialogue and plot line.


15. Chapter 15 - The Cullens

Rating 5/5   Word Count 8058   Review this Chapter

Chapter 15 – The Cullens

The night was long and peaceful. Bella lay in my arms, across my chest, cuddled up to me spoon-fashion, and a variety of different poses through the night. She wasn’t really restless, but each time she moved in her sleep I moved with her, a small symphony of silent loving motions. Occasionally, she spoke. At one point, she murmured ‘I love you’ filling me with such an incredible feeling that I almost woke her, but her face was too angelic in the moonlight to disturb. It was the best night of my life.

The dawn slowly came, muted light of yet another cloudy day filtering through the blinds into her room. At first light, Charlie was up, preparing for another day of fishing. I had reluctantly left Bella in her bed, moving to sit in the rocking chair and prepared to dash into the closet if he had any thoughts of checking in on Bella. He didn’t, and I realized why as he re-connected the battery cables on Bella’s truck on his way out. I laughed, soundlessly, in order to not wake her up.

After Charlie left, I decided to make a quick run home to change clothes, so I would be ready for our day as soon as Bella awoke. Running through the early morning dawn, I was elated in a way I had not been before. Now that we had survived, now that I had caged the beast within me, I greedily wanted it all…for Bella to be a part of my family, for me to be a part of hers…my mind was whirling with the implications of it. I was very much looking forward to sharing the good news of our triumph yesterday with my family. I knew Alice would have seen it, and told everyone, but I still wanted to share it with them myself. I was surprised how grateful I was to be a part of this family, and now I was eager to have Bella be a part of it too.

Alice must have seen me coming, because she was waiting for me outside the house, idly sitting on the porch, as if she had nothing else do to. As I approached, she stood up and literally threw herself into my arms, leaping off the porch and landing lightly on me, arms wrapping around my neck. I always knew you were strong enough, Edward, Alice thought, releasing me from her surprisingly strong grasp after a light peck on the cheek. You made me quite a bit of money last night, she added with a grin.

I looked askance at her, not exactly pleased that some members of my family were betting against us. “Congratulations,” I said, wryly. “I’m only here to change clothes and I need to see Esme. I want to return before Bella awakes.” You’re bringing her today, right? Of course, Alice would have been watching for when she would see Bella again.

“If she wants to…” I cautioned, as I turned to go inside. I left Alice happily envisioning all the things she and Bella would do…fixing Bella’s hair…shopping for Bella….shopping with Bella. I laughed lightly at that last image, seeing the chagrin in Bella’s face as she tried to pretend, for Alice’s sake, that she enjoyed searching endlessly through the racks of a store. I could hear Esme in the living room, wondering when I was going to arrive. As I stopped to talk to her, I didn’t have to be Jasper to feel the tidal waves of love coming off her.

“Oh, Edward! I am so proud,” she burst out aloud. I took her effusive hug gratefully, especially since I had something to ask. Her thoughts were coming at me rapid fire. This is wonderful, perfect. I’m so happy for you!What is she like? When can we meet her? Oh, no, wait…is she frightened of us? Poor thing, she must be half scared to death…

“Esme,” I said, interrupting her cascade of thoughts, “could I bring Bella here this morning?” I asked, barely restraining a smug smile. Her eyes flew wide and her thoughts were instantly eager. Oh! Yes! Her arms were quickly around me again. Alice must not have shared this part of her vision, leaving it to me. I smiled through the cloud of her dark curls. She released me, smiling ecstatically, already trying to figure out what special welcome she could prepare for Bella.

Before she could get too far, I cut her off, saying, “Now, I just want her to meet you, nothing extravagant, please? She would not like that.” She tried to look subdued, but the grin on her face was irrepressible, and her thoughts were still whirling around how she could subtly do something to make Bella welcome. I smiled, grateful for her unconditional love. “I have to change. I will be back with Bella later…if she agrees.” She nodded and I was gone in a flash. I didn’t have much time to get back to the house.

When I returned, the light was growing brighter in Bella’s room, and Bella was tossing and turning. I sat back in the rocking chair and waited for her. She lay with her arms across her eyes, not truly awake. She moaned and rolled on her side. Suddenly, she sat straight up.

“Oh!” I grinned—did she wake up this way every morning?

“Your hair looks like a haystack…but I like it,” I commented from the chair.

“Edward! You stayed!” she rejoiced, bounding across the room and landing in my lap. I was delighted. She seemed to check herself, staring up at me to see if it was alright. I laughed, loving having her back in my arms.

“Of course,” I said, rubbing her back and loving that we could be together first thing in the morning. Even the brief separation when I left made me happy to be with her again. It would be painful to be separated from her for any length of time. She laid her head cautiously against my shoulder, and the feel of her hair spilling over me was wonderful. Bella awake was even better than Bella asleep.

“I was sure it was a dream,” she said into my chest.

“You’re not that creative,” I teased.

“Charlie!” she gasped, suddenly remembering to be concerned, and jumping up and heading to the door.

“He left an hour ago—after reattaching your battery cables, I might add. I have to admit I was disappointed. Is that really all it would take to stop you, if you were determined to go?”

She seemed to deliberate this more than necessary. “You’re not usually this confused in the morning,” I noted, holding my arms open for her to come back to me. No sense in having her halfway across the room when she was looking so inviting, rumpled hair and crumpled pajamas.

“I need another human minute,” she admitted.

“I’ll wait,” I said, not really understanding. She looked deliciously human to me.

She skipped out of the bedroom and down to the bathroom again. I wasn’t sure what she was doing there, but it sounded like she was washing up. There was something different about her this morning, a certain glow on her face. Did she always look like this when she first woke up? I hadn’t really noticed it those times when I had picked her up for school first thing in the morning. Perhaps she was feeling that same sense of wonder that I had—that we were together, that we had spent the night together, in each other’s arms…in just a few minutes, much to my delight, she was back. I held my arms wide for her again, and I could hear her heart thumping unsteadily.

“Welcome back,” I murmured as she climbed into my arms. I rocked her, not speaking, for a while. She looked oddly at me, just noticing my clothes.

“You left?” she accused, touching the collar of my fresh shirt.

“I could hardly leave in the clothes I came in—what would the neighbors think?” She pouted. “You were very deeply asleep; I didn’t miss anything,” I continued, grinning. “The talking came earlier.”

She groaned. “What did you hear?”

Only my favorite thing…”You said you loved me,” I said very softly.

“You knew that already,” she said, ducking her head and seeming embarrassed by her midnight confession.

“It was nice to hear, just the same.”

She pressed her face into my shoulder, hiding it from me. “I love you,” she whispered, causing my heart to swell.

“You are my life now,” I answered simply, unable to say much more at that moment. I kept rocking her, lovingly cradled in my arms as the light grew around us. It was easy for me to lose track of time, but I needed to be more mindful of it. I would, and could, rock Bella all day and not grow tired of it. She, however, needed her human moments—and I wanted to keep her human for a very long time, so I needed to start keeping closer track of the minutes and hours—which made me realize that she probably needed to eat again. She would need her strength, especially if she was to endure what I had planned for her today.

“Breakfast time,” I said, casually.

She clutched her throat protectively with both hands, staring aghast at me with wide eyes. My eyes flew open in shock. “Kidding!” she snickered. “And you said I couldn’t act!”

I frowned in disgust at her disturbing joke. “That wasn’t funny.”

“It was very funny, and you know it,” she replied, still smirking. I supposed that there were worse things than mocking the danger inherent in us.

“Shall I rephrase? Breakfast time for the human.”

“Oh, okay.”

Just for her impertinence, I threw her over my shoulder, gently but quickly. I ignored her protests as I carried her downstairs and sat her down in the kitchen chair. Sunlight was streaming in the kitchen window, a bright promise for the day.

“What’s for breakfast?” she asked pleasantly. This gave me pause. I frowned, trying to think if I had any idea how to make breakfast, and deciding that I did not.

“Er, I’m not sure. What would you like?” I asked, still frowning.

She grinned and hopped up. “That’s all right, I fend for myself pretty well. Watch me hunt.” I smiled. Bella’s silliness—just another thing for me to love. I watched her move around the kitchen, pulling out a bowl from one cabinet and a box from another. She retrieved a container of milk from the refrigerator and a spoon from the drawer. The box contained some kind of cereal, although it did not look like any cereal that I recognized from my childhood—these looked like round puffs of some kind. As she assembled her food and brought it to the table, I was trying to memorize what constituted breakfast, just in case I was called upon to make some in the future. I was determined that there would be just such an opportunity.

“Can I get you anything?” she asked, silly once again.

“Just eat, Bella,” I said, rolling my eyes. I watched her eat, gazing at her, something I never tired of. It seemed to make her self-conscious. When she was finished with her bite, she asked, “What’s on the agenda for today?”

“Hmmm…” I hesitated, wondering how best to phrase it so that she would agree, and wondering if she would think it sudden. “What would you say to meeting my family?”

She gulped.

“Are you afraid now?” I asked, hopeful that a house full of vampires might inspire some self-preservation. Not that she had anything to fear from these ones.

“Yes,” she admitted.

“Don’t worry,” I smirked. “I’ll protect you.”

“I’m not afraid of them,” she explained. “I’m afraid they won’t…like me. Won’t they be, well, surprised that you would bring someone…like me…home to meet them? Do they know that I know about them?”

“Oh, they already know everything. They’d taken bets yesterday, you know,” I grimaced at the thought, “on whether I’d bring you back, though why anyone would bet against Alice, I can’t imagine. At any rate, we don’t have secrets in the family. It’s not really feasible, what with my mind reading and Alice seeing the future and all that.”

“And Jasper making you feel all warm and fuzzy about spilling your guts, don’t forget that.”

“You paid attention,” I smiled approvingly.

“I’ve been know to do that every now and then,” she grimaced, not seeing the compliment in my words. “So did Alice see me coming?”

I went still at the thought of Alice and her predictions of a dead, or undead, Bella. “Something like that,” I said, turning away from her, hoping she wouldn’t see that look of foreboding on my face. We had come through the worst of it already. I hadn’t had time to ask Alice, but surely the future would look different now. In any event, I was still determined to make it so.

“Is that any good?” I asked, turning back to her and pushing the dark thoughts out of my head. I eyed her breakfast with a teasing look on my face. “Honestly, it doesn’t look very appetizing.”

“Well, it’s no irritable grizzly…” she murmured. I glowered at her as she hurried through her cereal. I stood up, trying to put a little distance between myself and the smell coming off the cereal. Staring abstractedly out the back window, I thought about Bella’s impending visit with my family. They would love her…well, most of them would, and the rest would come along in time. But what about her family? Would Charlie ever be able to accept me as a part of Bella’s life? It was something I had never even considered a possibility before today. But I wanted it, just as I wanted her to be a part of my family. I turned back to her and smiled.

“And you should introduce me to your father, too, I think,” I said, watching her carefully to see what she thought of this.

“He already knows you,” she reminded me. This gave me a twinge that I did not expect.

“As your boyfriend, I mean.” That word both thrilled me and somehow seemed completely inadequate to describe the feelings I had for Bella.

She stared suspiciously at me. “Why?”

“Isn’t that customary?” I asked innocently, trying to hide the sinking feeling that she really didn’t want Charlie to know about me, that she didn’t share that same urgency to share me with her family that I had to share her with mine.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “That’s not necessary, you know. I don’t expect you to…I mean, you don’t have to pretend for me.”

I tried to smile patiently, but there was pain nibbling at the edges of my heart. She didn’t want this. “I’m not pretending.”

She kept pushing the remains of her cereal around the edges of the bowl, biting her lip and avoiding me. I waited, but the stabbing in my heart was getting more insistent.

“Are you going to tell Charlie I’m your boyfriend or not?” I demanded.

“Is that what you are?” she asked, seeming to cringe, and I didn’t understand it. What was stopping her from saying ‘yes’?

“It’s a loose interpretation of the word ‘boy’, I’ll admit,” was all I would allow. I wanted her to confess that I was something to her, something worth declaring to her father.

“I was under the impression that you were something more, actually,” she finally admitted, looking at the table. She didn’t see my sigh of relief as she examined the wood grain in front of her.

“Well, I don’t know if we need to give him all the gory details,” I said, more softly, reaching across the table to lift her chin with my cold finger. “But he will need some explanation for why I’m around here so much. I don’t want Chief Swan getting a restraining order put on me.”

“Will you be?” she asked, seeming anxious. “Will you really be here?”

Did she think I would stay away? Now? “As long as you want me,” I assured her.

“I’ll always want you,” she warned me. “Forever.”

Forever.That is a very long time Bella. I wouldn’t have her that long, not if she remained as she was. I walked slowly around the table, and paused, touching my fingertips to her cheek, feeling the pulsing heat there. I didn’t want that to end, the radiant life in her. I wanted her to live.

“Does that make you sad?” she asked. I couldn’t answer her without betraying all my raging inner conflict. Forever. There was only one way I could have Bella forever. I stared into her eyes and tried to imagine them immortal—fiery red, lusting for human blood. No, I would not allow that to happen, even if my heart desired it beyond what I thought possible. I would keep her human, until the end of her days, and then that would be my end too. It was the way it was meant to be, the way every lover in all of time had hoped it would be. And I very much wanted to have all that went with that, with her.

“Are you finished?” I asked, deciding it was time for Bella to meet my family and begin our lives together.

She jumped up, eager too. “Yes.”

“Get dressed—I’ll wait here.” I wanted to give her some privacy, but mostly I needed to compose myself. She scurried upstairs, excited for our day, and she looked so young, so unprepared for all that life held. I would be with her, I hoped, if she would have me, through all that our lives would bring. I shook my head, taking a deep breath, clearing away my thoughts and drifting toward the stairs, magnetically pulled after her. I needed to not focus too intently on the future right now. First things first, and today, I was going to bring my love to meet my family. There was something amazingly comforting and thoroughly terrifying about that.

Sooner than I expected, Bella came bouncing down the stairs in a long, khaki-colored skirt and that dark blue blouse that was so lovely against her luminescent skin. Her hair was pulled back, exposing the delicate curves of her neck. In that graceless way of hers, she bounded right into me when she reached the bottom of the stairs—warm, soft Bella meets immovable, granite me. I smiled slightly as I steadied her, holding her carefully away from me for a few seconds, marveling at how beautiful she was. I quickly pulled her close, wanting her next to me.

“Wrong again,” I murmured in her ear. “You are utterly indecent—no one should look so tempting, it’s not fair.”

“Tempting how?” she asked. “I can change…”

I sighed, shaking my head and thinking how no matter what she wore, she would still have the same effect on me. “You are so absurd.” I kissed her softly on her forehead, just pressing my lips to her, blowing cool air on her and inhaling my favorite perfume.

“Shall I explain how you are tempting me?” I said, voice growing thick with the impact of her scent. I traced my fingers slowly down her spine, my breath starting to quicken, still breathing on her forehead. Her hands were touching my chest, burning there. I tilted my head slowly and touched my stone lips to the softness of Bella’s, very carefully, parting them slightly to inhale the perfume directly from her mouth.

And then she collapsed.

“Bella?” I asked, alarmed as I caught her and held her up. What had happened?

“You…made…me…faint,” she accused me, seeming dizzy.

What am I going to do with you?” I groaned, exasperated and frustrated in my desire for her. “Yesterday I kiss you, and you attack me! Today you pass out on me!”

She laughed weakly, and I continued holding her up as she seemed no where near steady enough to stand on her own. I was chagrined.

“So much for being good at everything,” I sighed.

“That’s the problem. You’re too good. Far, far too good.”

“Do you feel sick?” I asked, thinking the after effects of my supposedly wonderful kissing did not look terribly good on her.

“No—that wasn’t the same kind of fainting at all. I don’t know what happened.” She shook her head. “I think I forgot to breathe.”

“I can’t take you anywhere like this.” I could just see the outraged look on Alice’s face, and Emmett would be absolutely impossible.

“I’m fine,” she insisted. “Your family is going to think I’m insane anyway, what’s the difference?” Well, she was right about that. I looked at her carefully, and she seemed to be regaining some of her color. In fact, she looked very nice, indeed.

“I’m very partial to that color with your skin,” I said, staring at her again. She blushed, just adding to my enjoyment, and looked away, allowing me to stare.

“Look, I’m trying really hard not to think about what I’m about to do, so can we go already?” she asked. I smiled.

“And you’re worried, not because you’re headed to meet a houseful of vampires, but because you think those vampires won’t approve of you, correct?”

“That’s right,” she answered immediately.

I shook my head. “You’re incredible.”

I had a hard time keeping my eyes off her as we drove Bella’s truck out of the main part of town. She kept fidgeting, playing with her dark hair, flipping it back and forth behind her shoulder. I couldn’t resist reaching out and softly stroking her hair, from the top of her head, down to her shoulder and back where it fell. It seemed to calm her a little. I was nervous, too, but more in excited anticipation. We passed over the bridge at the Calaway River, the road winding northward, the houses flashing past us and growing farther apart. We were surrounded by the misty forest when we reached that familiar unmarked turnoff, barely visible among the ferns. As I turned on to the unpaved road, the tires of Bella’s truck crunching far louder than my Volvo ever did, I thought about how amazing it felt to be bringing her here. The drive was the same, but the passenger was decidedly not. We had never brought a human to our home. I had never brought someone I loved to meet my family. Our lives were predictably routine, almost mind numbingly so. We were easily distracted, partly because any break in the routine was cause for celebration, but the terrifying ride we had been on since Bella came into my life was not the sort of excitement my family generally craved—although she was the best thing that ever happened to me. But now, this felt…different. Exciting, yet…normal. Hasn’t every young man, at some point, brought his love to meet his family? I smiled, thinking how Bella had once again helped me to reclaim something I had lost, when my young life had prematurely ended.

The forest pulled together over our heads, causing the road to darken as it lay ahead of us. The trees started to thin—we were almost there. I could hear my family’s thoughts as they busied themselves, readying for us. I smiled again, hearing Esme anxiously thinking she should have prepared something for Bella, and struggling against my expressed instructions that she not do so. Carlisle was calm, as he always was, but then he had met Bella before…but there was something more…he was gratified to see Esme bustling around the house, straightening things that didn’t need straightening. It verified for him that Bella was good for more than just me, filling me with a renewed pride in my success in the meadow yesterday with Bella.

Jasper was subtly radiating soothing waves to Alice, while trying to appear to be reading a magazine so she would not realize what he was doing. Alice, of course, wasn’t fooled, but was pretending not to notice, allowing Jasper the pleasure of flooding her with calm, so that he would not be nervous about keeping control around Bella. Those two were quite the pair, and I loved them deeply for their urgent desire to make Bella welcome.

I was relieved to not sense Rosalie or Emmett.

The darkness of the woods gave way to the lighter gloom of the meadow surrounding our house. The six giant trees that shaded the house kept most of the morning sun from filtering through. Our house was large, accommodating the three couples, plus one odd bachelor that lived there. It was older than I, which was satisfying in a strange way. It was timeless, graceful, stretching to the top of the giant cedars surrounding it and gleaming even in the shadows thrown all around it. It was home.

We were quiet, and as we pulled to a stop in front of the house and I killed the engine, I could hear the river’s background music. I wondered what Bella must be thinking of this massive vampire retreat in the woods.

“Wow,” she said.

“You like it?” I smiled, glad that she was impressed but hoping it wasn’t too intimidating. Meeting my family should be intimidation enough.

“It…has a certain charm.”

I chuckled and playfully pulled on the end of her ponytail. “Ready?” I asked, reaching past her to open the door.

“Not even a little bit—let’s go.” I was instantly around the car to be by her side. She made a kind of nervous, strangled sound and smoothed her hair nervously. I look her hand, still thrilling that I could do so easily.

“You look lovely,” I said, as I led her to the porch, rubbing gentle circles on the back of her hand and trying to calm her. They heard our arrival and were waiting for us. I opened the door for her, trying not to show my sudden last-minute clutch of fear about how this would go, and leading her into the large common room. Sunlight streamed in from the floor-to-ceiling windows at the back of the house and bounced around the room, lighting it with a soft, diffuse glow. Carlisle and Esme were waiting for us by the piano. They made no movement, obviously thinking they did not want to startle Bella, and were waiting for me to make my introduction. I was impressed that Esme was restraining herself—in her thoughts, she clearly wanted to bound across the room and envelope Bella in one of her motherly hugs. Carlisle was naturally restrained, standing calmly by Esme’s side, but he was happy that Bella was finally here…and something else, something tucked away in the back of his mind that he was trying to hide from me, to not ruin this moment. Whatever it was, he would tell me soon enough.

“Carlisle, Esme, this is Bella,” I said, breaking the brief silence upon our entering the house.

Carlisle stepped forward first, being especially careful to go slowly, saying “You’re very welcome, Bella.” He raised his hand tentatively, thinking, Will she be alright with my touch, Edward? Bella answered for me, stepping forward to shake his hand.

“It’s nice to see you again, Dr. Cullen.”

“Please, call me Carlisle.”

“Carlisle,” she stated, and she surprised me by grinning at him. Carlisle smiled in response. I like her very much, Edward. She has kindness in her smile. I exhaled relief, not realizing until that moment how tense I had been. I was a little surprised by it, wondering what I had expected would happen. Esme could no longer restrain herself, stepping forward and reaching for Bella’s hand. I realized that she didn’t know if Bella would welcome her touch, and had allowed Carlisle to approach her first, knowing that Bella had already met him and that this might make her more comfortable. I said a silent thank-you to Esme for her tender care in making Bella feel welcome. Esme’s thoughts were a giddy jumble of excitement. So beautiful…so lovely…so sweet…

Esme gently grasped Bella’s warm hand in hers. “It’s very nice to know you,” Esme said, and I wondered if Bella could hear the love in her voice. She’s wonderful, and brave, Edward! I’m so happy you’ve brought her to us…

“Thank you. I’m glad to meet you, too,” Bella replied, sounding a little more nervous again.

Alice was about to burst with excitement, hanging out upstairs with Jasper’s firm hand and calming waves keeping her in place.

I want to go to her now, Jasper, it’s time.

Patience, Alice. Edward will let us know when it’s time, right Edward?

Their furtive whispers on the second floor would have been undetectable had I not heard their thoughts, as Jasper knew well.

“Where are Alice and Jasper?” I asked, knowing that would release Alice from Jasper’s restraint.

“Hey, Edward!” Alice called enthusiastically, having arrived at vampire speed at the top of the wide staircase, Jasper still nervously at her side. Yes, yes, yes! Alice thought as she ran down the stairs, not checking her speed at all, and gracefully stopping right in front of Bella. Visions of her and Bella shopping, chatting and doing various sisterly things were flashing through her mind at top speed as well. Carlisle and Esme, having been so careful with their movements, were not impressed. They each chastised Alice in their minds, but just shot warning looks at her and didn’t speak. Jasper held back, concentrating on Alice, but she was not to be contained.

“Hi, Bella!” Alice exclaimed, and then she shocked everyone by bouncing forward and kissing Bella on the cheek. I almost shot my arm out to block her, but checked myself at the last millisecond because I saw in her thoughts what she was planning, and I knew she wouldn’t risk hurting Bella. Still, I was stiff with tension. Carlisle and Esme were looking at her with shocked and disapproving looks, eyes darting to me. Will Bella be okay with this? Esme wanted to know. I will stop her, if you want me to. I shook my head very slightly, and then glanced at Bella. She seemed shocked as well, but pleased, seeming to enjoy Alice’s enthusiastic welcome. Alice, for her part, was brimming over with joy. It seemed to be infectious, setting Bella at ease. I saw in Jasper’s thoughts the waves of happiness coming from Alice, with smaller ripples from Bella—my own tenseness, seen through Jasper’s eyes, was a stark contrast to the two of them. Jasper relaxed a little as he leaned against the wall, watching us. Relax, Edward, he thought. They’ll be fine.

Seeing that, I was about to relax again, when Alice said, “You do smell nice, I never noticed before,” causing extreme embarrassment for Bella, I was sure, as well as everyone else in the room—except for Alice. Good Lord, Alice, Jasper thought, stepping in—figuratively, because he was still keeping his distance from the temptation of Bella’s blood by remaining at the foot of the stairs. That warm butter feeling spread through me, not as debilitating as it had the last time he used his influence on me, but substantial enough to ease the sudden uncomfortable tension in the room. I raised an eyebrow at him, and he smiled slightly in response, but was obviously concentrating on flooding the room with ease. I was grateful for it, and wondered if Bella was feeling the effect, or if she was immune to his powers as well as mine. I glanced quickly at her and she seemed calm—but then Bella always seemed unnaturally calm to me.

“Hello, Bella,” Jasper quietly called from across the room and, fortunately, made no motion to come shake Bella’s hand. He was appraising her, seeing her embarrassment fall off under his influence, and measuring the effect she had on Alice and everyone in the room. I can see why you can’t stay away from her, Edward, he thought, with a small smile that Bella interpreted as for her, since he was still looking her way. This disturbed me in a way I had not expected.

“Hello, Jasper,” Bella said, smiling shyly, and capturing my attention again. “It’s nice to meet you all—you have a very beautiful home.” With that, Bella worked some of her own magic, and I could hear everyone make a mental sigh of relief. Jasper dropped his emotional damper, and I could see he was charmed by her as well.

“Thank you,” replied Esme, thinking she wished she had been able to come and embrace Bella as Alice had. “We’re so glad that you came.” She is wonderful, Edward, she thought, making me smile. Carlisle interrupted her thoughts, grabbing my attention with his urgent, silent message for me. Alice sees some nomads coming into our area, Edward. She says they know of us, and may seek us out. They haven’t decided yet. There is no immediate danger, because they are not here today, but you need to keep a close watch on Bella until the danger passes. I nodded slightly, once. I had been distracted and just noticed that Bella had drifted toward the piano when Esme asked, “Do you play?”

Bella shook her head. “Not at all. But it’s so beautiful. Is it yours?”

“No,” she laughed. “Edward didn’t tell you he was musical?” Shame on you, Edward! How could you not share this with her? Chagrined, I imagined this was why young men dreaded bringing the women they loved home to meet their families.

“No,” Bella accused, and I tried to look innocent. Was there any way I was going to be able to get out of this? Bella glared at me with narrowed eyes. “I should have known, I guess.”

Esme was confused, raising her eyebrows. What does she mean?

“Edward can do everything, right?” Bella explained, causing me to cringe. This was definitely why men avoided bringing home the women they loved. Jasper snickered, thinking I deserved every ounce of embarrassment this was bringing me, laughing quietly as he felt the intensity of it. Esme gave me a reproving look. Edward, seriously!

“I hope you haven’t been showing off—it’s rude,” she scolded me. Esme scolding me, like the mother hen that she was, suddenly struck me as funny—as if showing off was the worst offense I had committed recently. Carlisle was biting back a laugh, which was clearly aimed at both me and Esme.

“Just a bit,” I laughed, trying to make the best of my embarrassment. Esme’s face softened a little. Oh, Edward, I haven’t heard you laugh in…I knew Bella would be good for you! And her smile turned almost smug. I knew it.

“He’s been too modest, actually,” Bella corrected me.

“Well, play for her,” Esme encouraged.

“You just said showing off was rude,” I objected, knowing full well I was going to lose this one.

“There are exceptions to every rule,” she replied. Play, Edward, she commanded.

“I’d like to hear you play,” Bella volunteered, sealing my fate. I was surrounded. This was, without a doubt, why men were terrified of bringing their lovers home. Ha! Jasper was laughing in his head, greatly enjoying my torment.

“It’s settled then.” Esme literally pushed me toward the piano. I captured Bella’s hand along the way, dragging her with me. She got me into this, the least she could do was keep me company through the embarrassment. I sat her on the bench beside me, and gave her an exasperated look before I turned to the keys. I tried to ignore the smug, satisfied thoughts coming from Esme as I played a song I had not in a long time…her song. It was complicated, luxurious and felt good under my fingers as they floated across the keys, every note still exactly where I remembered it. I noticed that Bella’s mouth had dropped open in astonishment. Esme and Carlisle were barely restraining their chuckles at Bella’s gaping reaction, and Jasper’s rather disgusted thoughts were reaching me as well. I looked at Bella and winked, very much enjoying the ability to impress her. “Do you like it?”

“You wrote this?” she gasped.

I nodded. “It’s Esme’s favorite.” Thank you, Edward, Esme thought from behind me.

She closed her eyes, shaking her head, causing me to frown. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m feeling extremely insignificant.”

I sighed, and slowed the music down. The last thing Bella could ever be was insignificant. I wanted her to know that, so I started playing Bella’s lullaby. Since I first composed it, that lonely night long ago when I could only dream of holding Bella in my arms, and scarcely allowed myself even to dream it, I had fine tuned it, changed it. It evolved as we had and now it was full, complex, strains running through it that shadowed the nuances of our relationship. I might have to change it again, or perhaps compose something new. I wanted to preserve that lullaby feeling of my new found love for her, but the turn our love had taken in the last day certainly deserved something new…something more vibrant and exciting.

“You inspired this one,” I said softly, the lullaby take a turn to the sweeter half of the melody. She didn’t say anything as I kept playing. Jasper showed me, though…the love between us was like an impenetrable cloud of emotion that surrounded us, enveloped us, and seemed to bind us together. It was so strong, that feeling, I could feel Jasper being drawn in by it. A grinning Alice hooked her arm around Jasper and whispered in his ear that it was time. Alice and Jasper left first, ghosting away up the stairs to their room. Carlisle slowly tugged Esme away—her thoughts were drenched with the love and joy that she felt, seeing me here with Bella, clearly in love. When they were gone, I said, “They like you, you know. Esme especially.”

She glanced behind us, just now noticing their absence. “Where did they go?”

“Very subtly giving us some privacy, I suppose.” I knew they could still hear every word, every whisper, should they choose to. But living in close quarters with other vampires had trained us all to turn a blind eye, and ear, to things around us, when necessary.

Bella sighed. “They like me. But Rosalie and Emmett…”

I frowned. “Don’t worry about Rosalie,” I said, echoing Emmett, and trying to be persuasive, my hands still softly stroking the keys. “She’ll come around.”

Bella looked skeptical. “Emmett?”

“Well, he thinks I’m a lunatic, it’s true, but he doesn’t have a problem with you. He’s trying to reason with Rosalie.” They must have left for the forest, because I couldn’t hear them anywhere near the house. I appreciated Emmett’s efforts, and wondered how much Alice had to do with that particular arrangement.

“What is it that upsets her?”

I sighed deeply. “Rosalie struggles the most with…with what we are. It’s hard for her to have someone on the outside know the truth. And she’s a little jealous.” This was something I actually wanted her to know, a point I wanted to drive home.

Rosalie is jealous of me?” she asked, incredulous.

“You’re human.” I shrugged. “She wishes that she were, too.”

“Oh,” she muttered, not seeming to get my point. “Even Jasper, though…”

“That’s really my fault,” I hurried to explain to her, lest she get the wrong idea. “I told you he was the most recent to try our way of life. I warned him to keep his distance.”

She was quiet for a moment, and shuddered, an entirely reasonable response, for once.

“Esme and Carlisle…?” she continued, trying to cover up her reaction.

“Are happy to see me happy. Actually, Esme wouldn’t care if you had a third eye and webbed feet. All this time she’s been worried about me, afraid that there was something missing from my essential makeup, that I was too young when Carlisle changed me…she’s ecstatic. Every time I touch you, she just about chokes with satisfaction.” I hoped she heard that…she was still eavesdropping in the other room. Perhaps she would relax around Bella in the future. Esme was right that there was something missing all this time, in me—that something was Bella.

“Alice seems very…enthusiastic.”

“Alice has her own way of looking at things,” I said, trying not to grimace. Alice was convinced that Bella and she would be best of friends…best of eternal friends. I was still determined not to have that happen.

The set of my face must have told Bella more than I wanted to. “And you’re not going to explain that, are you?” A moment of wordless communication passed between us. I realized that she knew I was keeping something from her, but I hoped she understood that I wasn’t going to talk about this. Not now. She let it go.

“So what was Carlisle telling you before?”

I frowned—my ever observant Bella. “You noticed that, did you?”

She shrugged. “Of course.”

I looked at her, gauging what I could tell her. She already knew about the existence of other vampires, ones that preyed on humans. That would not be a shock. But knowing they were coming to Forks was an entirely different thing. “He wanted to tell me some news—he didn’t know if it was something I would share with you.”

“Will you?”

“I have to, because I’m going to be a little…overbearingly protective over the next few days—or weeks—and I wouldn’t want you to think I’m naturally a tyrant.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, exactly. Alice just sees some visitors coming soon. They know we’re here, and they’re curious.”

“Visitors?”

“Yes…well, they aren’t like us, of course—in their hunting habits, I mean. They probably won’t come into town at all, but I’m certainly not going to let you out of my sight till they’re gone.”

She shivered.

“Finally, a rational response!” I murmured. “I was beginning to think you had no sense of self-preservation at all.”

She ignored me, her gaze wandering around our house. With its light walls, open architecture, and window upon window, it did not fit the mythical typecast of a vampire haven. “Not what you expected, is it?” I asked, a bit too smug.

“No,” she admitted.

“No coffins, no piled skulls in the corners, I don’t even think we have cobwebs…” I thought of Esme’s perpetual cleaning efforts, combined with her keen vampire sight and I doubted there was a speck of dust anywhere. “What a disappointment this must be for you,” I added, slyly.

“It’s so light…so open,” she agreed, ignoring my gentle ribbing. It was beautiful, letting all the sun in to flood the house, whenever there actually was sun to be found in Forks.

“It’s the one place we never have to hide.” I brought her song to a gentle end, ending on a melancholy note.

“Thank you,” she murmured, warming my heart. I looked in her liquid chocolate eyes and saw that they were shimmering with tears. I was gladdened to see that my music had so moved her, but even more I was fascinated. I had not seen human tears in so many years…she wiped her eyes, seeming embarrassed by her tears. I reached up and touched the corner of her eye, feeling the hot wetness trapped on my finger. I lifted my finger away from her face, bringing the tear with it, and looked at it sparkling and threatening to run a hot river down my finger. Quickly, I put my finger in my mouth to taste it. Ah—it tasted just like her, only saltier. She looked at me curiously, and I felt myself getting lost in those still shiny eyes. I wanted her to stay as heartbreakingly human as she was, moved to tears by my songs for her…today was the start of that. I smiled.

“Do you want to see the rest of the house?”

“No coffins?” she verified, sarcasm tinged with anxiety. I laughed, taking her hand and leading her away from the piano.

“No coffins,” I promised. I lead her up the staircase to the long hall at the top that led to our respective bedrooms. “Rosalie and Emmett’s room…Carlisle’s office…Alice’s room…” I gestured as we passed the doors. She stopped suddenly at the end of the hall, staring at the large dark wooden cross hanging on the wall above our heads. I chuckled at the stunned look on her face. “You can laugh,” I said. “It is sort of ironic.”

She didn’t laugh, just stared as if she thought there might be some kind of magical power in that symbol. She reached out to it slightly, as if she wanted to touch it. “It must be very old,” she guessed.

I shrugged. “Early sixteen-thirties, more or less.”

She tore her eyes away from it to stare at me. “Why do you keep this here?”

“Nostalgia. It belonged to Carlisle’s father.”

“He collected antiques?” she suggested, obviously questioning how old Carlisle was.

“No. He carved this himself. It hung on the wall above the pulpit in the vicarage where he preached.” She looked shocked and started staring at the cross again. She already knew I was over a hundred years old—was it shocking to her that Carlisle was over three hundred years old? She continued to stare, and I started to worry.

“Are you all right?”

“How old is Carlisle?” she asked quietly, still staring at the cross.

“He just celebrated his three hundred and sixty-second birthday,” I answered. She looked back at me, searching my face for answers. It was time for her to know the family I hoped for her to join. “Carlisle was born in London, in the sixteen-forties, he believes,” I said, watching her carefully. “Time wasn’t marked as accurately then, for the common people anyway. It was just before Cromwell’s rule, though.”

“He was the only son of an Anglican pastor. His mother died giving birth to him. His father was an intolerant man. As the Protestants came into power, he was enthusiastic in his persecution of Roman Catholics and other religions. He also believed very strongly in the reality of evil. He led hunts for witches, werewolves…and vampires.” She seemed to go still, when I said that, but I continued. “They burned a lot of innocent people—of course the real creatures that he sought were not so easy to catch. When the pastor grew old, he placed his obedient son in charge of the raids. At first Carlisle was a disappointment; he was not quick to accuse, to see demons where they did not exist. But he was persistent, and more clever, than his father. He actually discovered a coven of true vampires that lived hidden in the sewers of the city, only coming out by night to hunt. In those days, when the monsters were not just myths and legends, that was the way many lived.” She seemed absorbed by my story, and I was glad. There was so much more for her to know in order for her to be folded into our family, and have no secrets between us.

“The people gathered their pitchforks and torches, of course,” I continued, laughing darkly at the thought that those villagers had any chance against true vampires, “and waited where Carlisle had seen the monsters exit into the street. Eventually one emerged.”

My voice went quiet, hushed by the horrible circumstances of Carlisle’s transformation. I knew Carlisle was listening from his office. “He must have been ancient, and weak with hunger. Carlisle heard him call out in Latin to the others when he caught the scent of the mob. He ran through the streets and Carlisle—he was twenty-three and very fast—was in the lead of the pursuit. The creature could have easily outrun them, but Carlisle thinks he was too hungry, so he turned and attacked. He fell on Carlisle first, but the others were close behind, and he turned to defend himself. He killed two men, and made off with a third, leaving Carlisle bleeding in the street.” I paused, wondering what she thought of this bloody and violent turning, and whether she realized how desperately Carlisle did not want to be what he had become. How all of us truly wished to be human, as she was. I didn’t think that she did, but in time, she would.

“Carlisle knew what his father would do. The bodies would be burned—anything infected by the monster must be destroyed. Carlisle acted instinctively to save his own life. He crawled away from the alley while the mob followed the fiend and his victim. He hid in a cellar, buried himself in rotting potatoes for three days. It’s a miracle he was able to keep silent, to stay undiscovered.”

“It was over then, and he realized what he had become.” She looked stricken, and I was concerned that I had just overwhelmed her with Carlisle’s story.

“How are you feeling?” I asked, concerned again.

“I’m fine,” she assured me. She didn’t look fine. She bit her lip, looking unintentionally seductive, and her eyes were burning with curiosity. I realized I had intrigued her, and I smiled slightly.

“I expect you have a few more questions for me.”

“A few.”

My smile widened and I pulled her back down the hall with me, toward Carlisle’s office. “Come on, then, I’ll show you.”