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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.


28. Chapter 28 - Epilogue - The Prom

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Chapter 28 – Epilogue - The Prom

It took several days to find a flower dealer that could supply the small white star orchid that I had selected for Bella, and then two weeks advanced notice to ensure that it would be ready today. But when I arrived at the florist, it was well worth the effort to find the delicate hot house flower waiting, perfectly beautiful and fragile, just like Bella. The clear plastic box sat on the seat next to me as I sped down the highway from Port Angeles. Having acquired my prize, I was anxious to pick up Bella on time. A strange nervousness filled me at the idea that Bella would soon replace the box, sitting next to me in my car as though she belonged there. That I could be nervous now, after all that had transpired since I had met Bella, was almost laughable. But, however perplexing it was, there was a certain charm to it.

Bella still hobbled around in her cast, but each day of the last two months had seen her grow stronger—and more irritated at the pampering she received at my hands, as well as Alice's. We were inseparable at school. She still allowed me to carry her sometimes, but less as the days wore on and my requisite absences grew more frequent with the sunnier days of summer approaching. I had contrived every excuse to spend time at Bella's house after school: doing homework in her room, carrying her upstairs, even watching games with Charlie. I would have helped fix dinner, but between Esme's delivered meals and Alice commandeering the kitchen, I wasn't particularly welcome. Charlie nearly glowed around Alice, her attentions bringing out the better part of him. He had become much more tolerant of my presence as well, after my bribery with the cars and general good behavior around Bella. Although he still invoked curfew, he had allowed us one wonderful evening out last weekend. I suspected it was an acknowledgement that I would be taking Bella to prom soon, something we were oddly in agreement about.

We had driven all the way to Snoqualmie so that I could treat Bella to a proper date at a decent restaurant. Of course, she hadn't seen it that way, and seemed uncomfortable with the fuss when we arrived and had insisted that she hobble her own way into the restaurant. I had prearranged for the perfect seat with a view of the falls. Her objections fell away with the cascading water as she took in the panorama of natural beauty: pine trees lined the granite rock cliffs on either side of the falls and the late afternoon sun sparkled on the river. It was the perfect complement to the loveliness that was Bella.

I smiled as she seemed entranced by the scenery.

"Do you like it?" I asked, eyes freely caressing her face as she looked away. She pulled her gaze from the window to look at me.

"It's perfect," she breathed. I held her hand lightly in mine on top of the table, my fingertips gently stroking her palm, but my eyes were captured by hers. It was all I could do to resist reaching across the table to kiss her. The waiter broke the spell, announcing the specials and taking our orders. Once the waiter was gone, she gave me dirty look for ordering the lobster, one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. I didn't bother to explain that it was one of the least offensive smelling.

I had arranged a special tour of the kitchen and, while we waited for our food to be prepared, she hobbled to the back. We watched as the chef prepared miniature works of edible art. Bella spied a delicate chocolate dessert that the pastry chef labored on for several minutes, decorating each with curls of chocolate and colorful sauces. While Bella was preoccupied, I arranged to have one delivered after dinner.

We returned to our seats just as the setting sun peaked from behind the clouds and turned the falls into cascades of lavender-white lined with pine trees tipped in gold. For a long magical moment, we sat silently watching the gold fade and the shadowy darkness take over, turning the trees into prickly sentries guarding the rushing water. Bella's reflection in the darkening window was washed with a sickly amber, cavernous shadows under her eyes, and suddenly it seemed a haunted version of her that I could barely look upon.

Tearing my eyes away from that disturbing image, I blurted out in my distress, "Bella?"

"Yes?" she said, meeting my gaze and smiling. The ghost in the window disappeared with the warmth of her smile, and I suddenly felt foolish for imagining it.

"I . . . I'm so glad you agreed to come tonight. In spite of the drive."

"I think it's the longest we've had alone since I've been back," she said, smiling shyly.

"Unless you count the nights." I gave her my best crooked smile.

She blushed, right on cue, and said, "I like being with you more when I'm awake."

"I think I might like the things you say while sleeping the best."

She rolled her eyes. "No! Please don't start . . ."

Smiling devilishly, greatly enjoying her torment, I continued, "Last night it was mostly about not wanting to be carried, but there were a few times that you mentioned me in the most agreeable way . . ."

"Edward, please! Stop." She begged me with her eyes as well. It really wasn't fair, as though I could resist doing whatever she wished. I laughed and pretended to spare her only because the waiter soon brought us our first course.

The tires roughly thumping over the bridge near the house brought me back from my reverie. I glanced quickly at the flowers to make sure they were still secure on the seat. Scanning ahead, I searched for Alice's thoughts and found them finishing up the last touches. Alice's mind hummed with happiness, but I didn't linger there, keeping my promise not to peek. My arrival in a couple of minutes would be well timed.

I was determined that Bella wouldn't miss any human experiences. There was a small part of me that bitterly regretted the things I had missed and would never have. Normal, human things like dances. Like falling in love. There were some that I thought I would never reclaim, but Bella seemed to keep proving me wrong in that regard, bringing my existence back to life in ways I didn't even know I had lost. I was determined that she would lose nothing by choosing to be with me, for as long as we had. My odd alliance with Charlie on prom worked well toward that end. He had promised not to bring the subject up, as long as I promised to bring her home by curfew, to which of course I readily agreed. We both knew, by unspoken agreement, that the only way to get Bella to the dance would be through subterfuge. Alice had been only too eager to agree, assuring me that our plan would work.

I looked down to ensure the tuxedo was still in good shape for picking up Bella. Other than the rental we had acquired in Las Vegas, the last time I had worn my own evening suit had been when Rosalie and Emmett had gotten married for the tenth time. I smiled. We tended to count weddings, rather than anniversaries. Rose and Em were in the lead, their youthful appearance requiring more frequent weddings than Carlisle and Esme, and Alice preferring to be a bridesmaid rather than a bride. The wedding in Poughkeepsie had been small and intimate, but Alice insisted that everyone dress formally. Jasper and I stood up for Emmett, Carlisle gave Rose away. Alice was at her maniacal best for months in preparation. At least Rose was able to put Alice in her place when her preparations were out of control. I grimaced. Poor Bella didn't have a chance against the mighty midget.

The tires crunched their way down the winding driveway. Alice had heard and hurriedly finished some detail that surely didn't require finishing and thankfully carried Bella down the stairs rather than allowing her to try to negotiate them herself. Bella protested, of course, but Alice had her waiting in the foyer in no time, so she didn't have long to complain.

Plucking the box from the seat, I hurried to the door and hesitated. It seemed I should have to knock, an anxious suitor coming to call, but it was my own house so that seemed silly. Still, there was that nervousness again. As I put my hand to the door handle I realized what it was: this was my first prom, as well. I had attended high school many times over, but I had never gone to prom. Why would I? A small smile threatened to break out. Bella was all the reason I needed to live, to do the things that made life full. I took a deep breath and opened the door.

My smile faded as shock took over. I knew Bella was beautiful. I knew Alice had spent the better part of the day tormenting Bella with her beauty mysticism. But none of that prepared me for the vision that stood before me.

Alice gently held her upright, so she wouldn't have to put weight on her cast, which peeked out from under the cascades of deep blue chiffon and silk that comprised her dress. Other than the entrancing way the color played against her skin, I hardly noticed what she was wearing. Seemingly defying gravity, her dress clung to her, baring her shoulders and neck and the graceful curves and hollows my eyes found there. I had somehow missed the way her neck swept a smooth arc up to her earlobes, until I realized with a start that her hair was up, pinned in dark elaborate curls that begged to be touched. Without consciously moving, I was in front of her, captivated by the blush that was slowly warming every inch of her exposed skin. I was staring. Rudely. I didn't care.

"You are unfairly beautiful," I murmured, pulling in closer. Her eyes were wide, and she seemed lost for words, which was fine as I had no more to share. Alice slipped away as I slid my arms around her waist, holding her up and close to me.

Don't mess up the lipstick, Edward! Alice admonished from the other room. I chuckled softly as I bypassed her lips and dropped mine to Bella's jaw, placing soft kisses along it and soaking up her scent. When I pulled back, her eyelids fluttered, and for a moment I thought she had fainted.

"Bella!" I breathed, a little alarmed. I had a firm grip on her, so she wouldn't fall.

She gasped, opened her eyes and stared up into mine. "You really shouldn't do that."

"My kissing expertise affecting you again?" I asked, eyebrow quirked. "I would think you would be used to it by now."

"You look like my own personal angel," she stated simply. If I could have blushed, I would have. I was far from an angel, no matter how I appeared. Even the devil himself contrived to be an angel of beauty. I wished those dark thoughts away.

"You are the only angel here," I replied, bending to kiss her.

Edward, don't mess up my work! Alice complained again. Sighing, I stopped just short of her lips and whispered, "I'm not going to be able to kiss you with Alice the Tyrant nearby." Alice harrumphed in her thoughts. "Besides, I should probably give you this." I produced the tiny orchid from behind my back.

"It's beautiful, Edward, but how do I . . . " Bella had a mixture of dread and fascination on her face, as if she were confronted with a beautiful but deadly snake, rather than a flower.

"You are so absurd," I murmured, as I took the flower from the box. The florist had tied a spray of baby's breath and a small, trailing white ribbon to it. I pinned the small bundle to the curls on the side of her head, trying to linger, brushing my fingers against her soft hair, without mussing it. When it was secure, I ran my fingers though the curls falling down her back without restraint.

"There," I said, stepping back to admire her. "Perfect in every way."

Bella grinned shyly until I swept her up in my arms. She still was embarrassed whenever I carried her, but I wasn't going to have her hobbling all the way to prom. Ignoring her frown, I whispered, "Maybe I'll be able to kiss you, once we're away from the house."

Bella was instantly suspicious. "Away? Where are we going?" I carried her swiftly out the door, ignoring her question. I tried to remember how far Alice could hear, and wondered if she would be able to hear us kissing over the engine of the Volvo.

She set her mouth in a hard line, seeing that I wasn't going to answer. She eyed the Volvo as we approached. "We're driving somewhere? Where are we going, Edward?"

I set her down next to the car, dodging her question once again, and helped her inside. The layers of fabric billowed around her, and it took a moment to contain it within the car. I couldn't quite suppress my grin. When I had her settled, I got in the driver's seat and headed back out the long, narrow drive.

"At what point exactly are you going to tell me what's going on?" she asked grumpily as we turned out of the driveway. She looked genuinely angry now, which I found highly amusing.

"I'm shocked that you haven't figured it out yet," I mocked her, smiling to take the edge off.

She seemed thrown for a moment. “I did mention that you looked very nice, didn’t I?” she verified.

“Yes,” I said, grinning, but her grumpiness soon returned.

“I’m not coming over anymore if Alice is going to treat me like Guinea Pig Barbie when I do.”

I was about to promise that the torture was over, and that Alice wouldn’t dress her up like a plaything again, even though I knew it wasn’t true, when my phone started ringing. Frowning slightly, I pulled it from the pocket inside my jacket. I looked briefly at the caller ID before answering.

“Hello, Charlie,” I said warily.

“Charlie?” Bella said, frowning.

“Edward,” Charlie gave me his usual gruff greeting. “I, um, have a young man here who claims he is taking Bella to the prom. Name’s Tyler?”

My eyes widened in disbelief, and then a grin spread across my face as I realized what had happened. “You’re kidding!” I laughed.

“What is it?” Bella demanded, but I ignored her.

“Why don’t you let me talk to him?” I suggested with relish. I waited as Charlie handed the phone to Tyler.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Tyler, this is Edward Cullen.” Tyler obviously needed things spelled out for him, and I was just the vampire to do it. “I’m sorry if there’s been some kind of miscommunication,” I continued, not at all sorry that I had a chance to put Tyler, and anyone else who might imagine they had some kind of chance with Bella, in his place, “but Bella is unavailable tonight.” I deepened my tone, making the threat unmistakable. “To be perfectly honest, she’ll be unavailable every night, as far as anyone besides myself is concerned.” A thrill at speaking those words ran through me. “No offense. And I’m sorry about your evening.” I snapped the phone shut, having uttered a complete lie. I couldn’t possibly be less sorry. A huge smirk stretched across my face.

Bella’s face and neck were an outrageous red, and tears threatened to spill. I was shocked. “Was that last part a bit too much? I didn’t mean to offend you.” I should have realized that Bella wouldn’t want my admittedly possessive claim made so publicly.

“You’re taking me to the prom!” she yelled, surprising me again. Did she really not know?

I quickly recovered and pressed my lips together, eyes narrowing. “Don’t be difficult, Bella.”

She glanced out the window. We were already halfway to the school. Had Tyler not called, she would have realized soon anyway.

“Why are you doing this to me?” she demanded in horror. I was genuinely amazed that she hadn’t figured this out much sooner.

I gestured to my tuxedo, which surely would have been a giveaway, if nothing else. “Honestly, Bella, what did you think we were doing?”

Angry tears rolled down her cheeks, which she quickly tried to wipe away. Suddenly I was angry too. She was acting as if going to the prom with me was beyond torment for her, something I was inflicting upon her. Given that I had never actually asked her to go, a part of me felt wounded. She was turning me down. She had said it, hadn’t she? That she would have found a way not to go, if she could. Was doing this, with me, really such torture?

“This is completely ridiculous,” I said, frustrated. “Why are you crying?”

“Because I’m mad!”

She was angry—angry that I had deceived her into spending an evening with me at prom, the one and only time we would be able to do so. She didn’t realize how important this was—she was too young to see that these moments only come once and then they are gone, like dandelion seeds blown away on the wind. She didn’t understand. And so I decided to cheat.

“Bella,” I said, pouring all the conviction I had into a blazing stare.

“What?” she muttered, but I could tell it was having an effect on her.

Locking in her eyes, I leaned slightly closer. “Humor me.”

I could see her fury melting away, and I hoped she would forgive me. For the cheat. For forcing her to live her human moment. For insisting that she belonged to me and only me.

“Fine,” she pouted, giving in with poor grace. “I’ll go quietly.” I sighed in relief.

“But you’ll see,” she continued. “I’m way overdue for more bad luck. I’ll probably break my other leg. Look at this shoe! It’s a death trap!” She held out her good leg from under the swishing chiffon as evidence.

“Hmmm.” I ran my eyes up and down her exposed leg, lingering on her well turned ankle and delicate feet strapped to a stiletto heel with shiny ribbons. “Remind me to thank Alice for that tonight.”

“Alice is going to be there?” She seemed to take comfort in this, and perhaps I was forgiven after all.

“With Jasper, and Emmett . . . and Rosalie,” I admitted. While Emmett adored Bella, and Jasper still felt protective of her, although he kept his distance, Rose ignored Bella outright. She wasn’t overly rude to Bella, for which I was grateful. If she had a mind to, she could have been much more difficult.

Bella shook her head and swiftly changed subjects. “Is Charlie in on this?” she asked, suspicious. Apparently I wasn’t yet forgiven.

“Of course,” I grinned, and then chuckled. “Apparently Tyler wasn’t, though.”

She gritted her teeth but didn’t comment further. We had arrived at school and Rose’s M3 stood conspicuously in the parking lot, red paint glowing in the early evening sun filtering through the clouds. I got out and went around to help Bella out of the car. I held out my hand, figuring she was unlikely to want to be carried at this point. She stubbornly sat in her seat, arms folded, looking smug.

I sighed. “When someone wants to kill you, you’re brave as a lion—and then when someone mentions dancing . . . “ I shook my head, frustrated.

She gulped, and I realized she was genuinely afraid. My frustration evaporated, and I spoke more softly. “Bella, I won’t let anything hurt you—not even yourself. I won’t let go of you once, I promise.”

She seemed comforted by this. “There, now,” I said, very gently, “it won’t be so bad.” I leaned down and wrapped one arm around her waist. She took my other hand and let me lift her from the car. Keeping my arm securely around her, I supported her weight as she limped toward the school.

Students in formal attire flowed toward the gym. Bella and I attracted little notice, as the Forks High population had finally adjusted to the fact that we were constantly together. My life before Bella seemed like a distant, vaguely distasteful dream—something that happened a long time ago, to someone else. Bella giggled as we entered the gym, seeing the balloon arches and twisted garlands of pastel crepe paper decorating the walls.

“This looks like a horror movie waiting to happen,” she snickered.

“Well,” I muttered, as we slowly approached the ticket table, taking our time, “there are more than enough vampires present.”

Emmett and Rose twirled around the dance floor, sharing it only with Jasper and Alice, as the rest had pressed to the sides of the room to give them space. They were enjoying themselves, even if they were making somewhat of a spectacle with their outdated, formal dance. I grinned. As I thought about it, I realized it was their first prom as well, or at least the first of their immortal lives. They were making the most of it.

“Do you want me to bolt the doors so you can massacre the unsuspecting townsfolk?” Bella whispered conspiratorially.

“And where do you fit into that scheme?” I glared at her, wishing we could simply pretend to be a normal couple at prom, just for a short time.

“Oh, I’m with the vampires, of course.”

I smiled, reluctantly. “Anything to get out of dancing.”

“Anything,” she agreed.

I purchased our tickets and then steered Bella toward the dance floor. She cringed against me and I believe was intentionally dragging her feet, far more than the weighty cast required.

“I’ve got all night,” I warned. I towed her out to the dance floor where Alice was pirouetting around Jasper and Emmett and Rose were locked in some kind of dance embrace that would have required more privacy if there wasn’t music to justify it. Bella watched in horror.

“Edward,” she squeaked. “I honestly can’t dance!”

“Don’t worry, silly,” I whispered back. “I can.” I put her arms around my neck and lifted her and slid my feet under hers. I was very thankful for the endless dance lessons that Alice had pressed on me over the decades. We whirled effortlessly, as I knew we would. Her feather weight was even lighter as we picked up speed and twirled with the music.

“I feel like I’m five years old,” she laughed, after a few minutes.

“You don’t look five,” I murmured, pulling her closer for a second, lifting her completely off the ground and up to eye level. I was enjoying myself immensely, and that she had finally relented and was enjoying it as well . . . it made me want to stop dancing and pull her into a dark corner, like the other furtive lovers here.

“Okay, this isn’t half bad,” she admitted a moment later. I was about to protest her understatement, when half bad suddenly turned into a lot worse. The Black boy was here and he was looking for Bella. I glared at the doors he was about to walk through.

Bella could hardly have missed my sudden tenseness, even amongst the twirling. “What is it?” she asked. Black walked through the doors and spied us immediately. Dressed in a white shirt and tie and black jeans, he walked across the floor toward us, intent on speaking to Bella.

Why did I let him talk me into this? Black grumbled in his thoughts. Crazy old man. As he moved closer, I lurched our dancing to a stop, my glare unleashed. He didn’t notice, his eyes glued to the curves bared by Bella’s dress. Bella . . . oh, man, she gets more beautiful each time I see her. I wish . . . I snarled very quietly, but loud enough for him to her, interrupting him before he could finish that thought.

“Behave!” Bella hissed at me.

“He wants to chat with you.” My anger filled my voice. I would gladly throw this party crasher out the door, given leave to do so. Black reached us, the embarrassment clear on his face.

“Hey, Bella, I was hoping you would be here.” Or not. Maybe if you hadn’t come, I wouldn’t have to . . . still, good to see you. Black smiled warmly at her, and I wanted to wipe that smile off. I kept my hands on Bella, holding her close—a pointed message.

“Hi, Jacob,” she smiled back at him, sinking my heart. “What’s up?”

“Can I cut in?” he asked tentatively, glancing at me. I narrowed my eyes at him, but Bella clearly didn’t want me to make a scene here. And I was determined not to ruin Bella’s prom with a brawl. I forced my expression to go blank, carefully set Bella on her feet and took a step back.

“Thanks,” Jacob said amiably. I nodded curtly, looked at Bella for a long moment to make sure she wanted this, and then turned to walk away. Black had one dance to say what he had to say, and not a single second more. I would be watching them very carefully.

Jacob put his hands on her waist, and she reached up to put her hands on his shoulders. He was touching her. I shuddered and continued my forced march to the wall where I would watch them, keeping my face a mask. I wasn’t quite sure I would be able to endure this.

God, she smells nice, Black thought, and my stomach clenched.

“Wow, Jake, how tall are you now?” Bella asked.

She noticed! “Six-two,” he said smugly, smiling down at her. They stood swaying awkwardly from side to side without moving their feet. Just as well she can’t dance, I’d be no good at that. Not like him. But then Bella never was very graceful. Kinda surprised she would come to a dance . . .

“So, how did you end up here tonight?” she asked, interrupting his thoughts.

“Can you believe my dad paid me twenty bucks to come to your prom?” he said, clearly ashamed that he had agreed.

“Yes, I can,” Bella muttered. “Well, I hope you’re enjoying yourself, at least. Seen anything you like?” Bella nodded toward a group of girls lined up against the wall, her meaning clear. I groaned, knowing full well Jacob’s preference for the beauty in his arms.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “But she’s taken.” God, she feels nice. The way this dress moves over her skin . . . I had to forcibly restrain myself from flying off the wall and ripping his hands from her. He looked down into Bella’s bewildered look, and then they both looked away, embarrassed. Jesus, that was a stupid thing to say. But she looks so amazing . . . “You look really pretty, by the way,” he added, shyly.

“Um, thanks. So why did Billy pay you to come here?” she asked quickly.

Man, I really don’t want to do this. “He said it was a ‘safe’ place to talk to you. I swear the old man is losing his mind.” They both laughed weakly. “Anyway, he said that if I told you something, he would get me that master cylinder I need,” he confessed with a sheepish grin. Ugh. That sounds really dumb. She’s going to think that all I care about is the car.

“Tell me, then,” Bella said, grinning at him. “I want you to get your car finished.” Bella glanced at me, and I kept my expression blank. Inside, I seethed. Jacob’s hands still moved slightly on her hips, even though they weren’t dancing.

He looked away again, ashamed. “Don’t get mad, okay?”

“There’s no way I’ll be mad at you, Jacob,” she assured him. My anger flashed. I wished she would be mad at him, even just a little. He was stealing our prom time. “I won’t even be mad at Billy. Just say what you have to.” She was trying to get him to say what he came for, so he could leave. I was a little mollified.

Jacob mentally cringed, knowing he was going to have to finally tell her. “Well—this is so stupid, I’m sorry, Bella—he wants you to break up with your boyfriend. He asked me to tell you ‘please’.” He shook his head in disgust, but secretly wished that she might actually do what Billy asked. Maybe it would be worth it—naw, she’d just hate me too. I would. What a creepy thing to do.

“He’s still superstitious, eh?”

“Yeah. He was . . . kind of over the top when you got hurt down in Phoenix. He didn’t believe . . .” He trailed off self-consciously. Jeez, this sounds bad. I mean it was kinda weird that she got hurt so much just falling down the stairs, but that doesn’t mean . . .

Bella’s eyes narrowed. “I fell,” she stated.

“I know that,” he said quickly. That’s all there is to it, right? Bella really is clumsy. It could happen. Maybe.

“He thinks Edward had something to do with me getting hurt.” It wasn’t a question, and the set of her mouth broadcasted anger I could feel across the room. My heart soared that she finally was angry with this interruption, but sank when I realized it was the one thing she was wrong about. Billy was more right than he knew.

Jacob wouldn’t look in her eyes, mortified. She’s never going to forgive me for this. Why the hell did I agree to this? God, I’m an idiot.

“Look, Jacob, I know Billy probably won’t believe this, but just so you know”—he looked up at her, searching her eyes—“Edward really did save my life. If it weren’t for Edward and his father, I’d be dead.”

Of course, his father, the doctor. He was there, too, right? “I know,” he said. If she says it, I believe it. Bella wouldn’t lie to me with those soft brown eyes . . .

“Hey, I’m sorry you had to come do this, Jacob,” Bella apologized, irritating my last nerve. Of all things to apologize for! “At any rate, you get your parts, right?”

“Yeah,” he muttered. I am not telling her the rest, screw this. I swear, the old man’s gotta do his own visits to crazy town without me, from here on out.

“There’s more?” Bella guessed in disbelief.

“Forget it,” he mumbled, “I’ll get a job and save the money myself.” What kind of friend am I, doing this? This is a huge mistake.

She glared at him until he met her gaze. “Just spit it out, Jacob.”

“It’s so bad.” Please, Bella, don’t make me do this.

“I don’t care. Tell me,” she insisted.

“Okay . . . but, geez, this sounds bad.” He shook his head. “He said to tell you, no to warn you, that—and this is his plural, not mine”—he lifted one hand from her waist and made a little quotation mark in the air—“’We’ll be watching.’” Please, Bella, don’t blame me for this. Don’t hate me. He watched her warily.

Bella laughed out loud. “Sorry you had to do this, Jake,” she snickered.

Oh, thank God. She thinks it’s as ridiculous as I do. He grinned in relief. “I don’t mind that much,” he said, his eyes raking over her dress, admiring her curves and lingering far too long on her exposed shoulders. Maybe this was worth it, after all . . .

I growled very softly and felt a hand on my shoulder. An eerie calm flooded me as I flashed a look and found Jasper at my side. I don’t know when he arrived, but he was probably the only thing that stopped me from flying across the room. His golden eyes studied mine, and then narrowed looking at Jacob, clearly appraising him.

“So, should I tell him you said to butt the hell out?” Jacob was asking hopefully.

“No,” Bella sighed. “Tell him I said thanks. I know he means well.”

The song was over, and Bella dropped her arms. Jacob had his time, and now it was up. I nodded to Jasper, letting him know I was fine, and strode quickly toward them. Black was leaving, whether he realized it or not. His hands were still lingering on her waist, and I would happily remove them in just a moment.

He glanced at her cast, and asked, “Do you want to dance again? Or can I help you get somewhere?”

“That’s all right, Jacob. I’ll take it from here,” I said, trying to keep the menace out of my voice for Bella’s sake. Black flinched and stared wide-eyed at me. Jesus, where did he come from?

“Hey, I didn’t see you there,” he mumbled. Creepy. The guy just appeared out of nowhere. No wonder Billy thinks he’s strange. “I guess I’ll see you around, Bella.” He stepped back, waving half-heartedly.

Bella smiled. “Yeah, I’ll see you later.” I fervently wished she wouldn’t.

“Sorry,” he said again, before he turned for the door, hoping he might some day be able to make this night up to her.

I wound my arms around her, Jasper’s artificial calmness burnt off by the lingering feel of Black’s presence. I could smell his touch on her. The music started up, but I just wanted to hold her close. She leaned her head against my chest, burning a warm hole there.

“Feeling better?” she teased.

“Not really,” I said tersely.

“Don’t be mad at Billy,” she sighed. “He just worries about me for Charlie’s sake. It’s nothing personal.”

Of course, it was extremely personal. But that wasn’t what wrapped my stomach in knots. “I’m not mad at Billy,” I said shortly. “But his son is irritating me.”

She pulled back to look at me, examining my face. “Why?”

Did she really not know? Couldn’t she tell how much it affected me when he held her? “First of all,” I said, “he made me break my promise.”

She stared at me, confused.

I half-smiled. “I promised I wouldn’t let go of you tonight,” I explained.

“Oh. Well, I forgive you.”

“Thanks. But there’s something else.” I frowned. I wanted to tell her how much I hated his hands on her, how much his thoughts about her drove me insane with jealousy. She waited patiently for me to continue. I couldn’t think of how to say it, without sounding foolish, or worse. I settled for a petty disparagement.

“He called you pretty,” I said, frown deepening. “That’s practically an insult, the way you look right now. You’re much more than beautiful.” Black knew it all too well, but I was happy to let him appear an undiscerning lout.

She laughed. “You might be a little biased.”

“I don’t think that’s it. Besides, I have excellent eyesight.” Wishing to banish any thoughts of our intruder, I slipped my feet under hers again and led us, twirling, around the dance floor.

“So are you going to explain the reason for all of this?” she asked.

I looked down at her, wondering for the thousandth time why I couldn’t read her mind. She confused me often and was doing it again. She glared meaningfully at the crepe paper hanging from the ceiling. I didn’t have to read her mind to realize she was demanding an explanation for my deceit in arranging for her to come to prom with me. Again, there was that small twinge, that she wasn’t happy just to be here, sharing this with me. Suddenly, all I wanted was to be alone with her. I quickly spun her through the crowd to the back door of the gym and out into the cool, dim light of the fading sunset.

As soon as the doors closed behind us, and we had no onlookers, I swept her up in my arms and carried her across the dark grounds to a bench beneath the shadow of the madrone trees. I sat and cradled her to my chest. I wished we could just be ordinary lovers in a secret, darkened spot, stealing kisses and fevered touches. My heart ached that the one I loved, that I had finally found, would be the one person that I could never really physically have. The moon drew my eyes. It was already high in the sky, visible through the gauzy clouds.

“The point?” she pressed quietly.

I stared at the moon and it glared back, impassive, eternal and unconcerned about my plight. The coldness of eternity seeped into me. “Twilight, again,” I murmured. “Another ending. No matter how perfect the day is, it always has to end.”

“Some things don’t have to end,” she muttered through her teeth, tense.

I sighed, not wishing to have our recurring fight about forever. “I brought you to the prom,” I said slowly, “because I don’t want you to miss anything. I don’t want my presence to take anything away from you, if I can help it. I want you to be human. I want your life to continue as it would have if I’d died in nineteen-eighteen like I should have.”

She shuddered in my arms and shook her head angrily. “In what strange parallel dimension would I ever have gone to prom of my own free will? If you weren’t a thousand times stronger than me, I would never have let you get away with this.”

I smiled briefly, thinking that it was my wily deceit, and the help of Charlie and Alice, that brought her to prom, not my fiendish strength. But that only brought me back to the center of our dilemma: the nature of who I was. Trying to brush it aside, I noted, “It wasn’t so bad, you said so yourself.”

“That’s because I was with you.”

We were quiet for a minute. I stared at the moon, unable to meet her gaze.

Because she was with me, she was in danger every moment of her life.

Because she was with me, she had been horribly tortured by a bloodthirsty vampire.

Because she was with me, two months of her life were spent in pain, healing from grievous wounds.

Because she was with me, my existence had meaning. I lived again.

It was hideously unfair. Monstrously selfish. And I couldn’t stop.

All I wanted in this world was her—to be with her, as many days as we may have. I wanted to kiss her, hold her—my body literally ached for her, as a man, not as a monster. I wanted her in my bed, as my wife. I wanted to count our weddings.

I suddenly remembered something I wondered before.

“Will you tell me something?” I asked, glancing down at her with a slight smile.

“Don’t I always?”

“Just promise you’ll tell me,” I insisted, grinning.

“Fine.”

“You seemed honestly surprised when you figured out that I was taking you here,” I began.

“I was,” she interrupted.

“Exactly,” I agreed. “But you must have had some other theory . . . I’m curious—what did you think I was dressing you up for?” I wondered, if her thoughts had shifted, changed . . . maybe even hoped?

She pursed her lips, hesitating. “I don’t want to tell you.”

“You promised,” I objected.

“I know.”

“What’s the problem?”

“I think it will make you mad—or sad.”

Mad or sad? I frowned. She had to know, from my gentle teasing before, didn’t she? That I secretly wanted . . . privately wished that someday . . . the last thing I would be was mad or sad, if we made the rumors come true and ran away. So, what was she thinking?

“I still want to know. Please?”

She sighed and I waited, now nervous.

“Well . . . I assumed it was some kind of . . . occasion. But I didn’t think it would be some trite human thing . . . prom!” she scoffed.

“Human?” I asked flatly. So that was it. Forever. It always came back to that.

She looked down at her dress, fidgeting with a stray piece of chiffon. I waited.

“Okay,” she said quickly. “So I was hoping that you might have changed your mind . . . that you were going to change me, after all.”

I knew it, but to hear the words . . . anger flashed through me. How silly of me, thinking of marriage, a silly human thing! As if I could have any such happiness. No matter that it was the thing I most desired, most wished for—to be human, with her. My face twisted, and I realized I was doing exactly what she feared, and I didn’t want to ruin tonight with my foolish dreams. I buried that longing back deep down where it belonged, in the bottomless well of desires that will never be achieved. I realized she was waiting for me to say something. And then it struck me.

I smiled. “You thought that would be a black tie occasion, did you?” I teased, touching the lapel of my tuxedo jacket.

She scowled, and I think I only succeeded in embarrassing her. “I don’t know how these things work,” she said. “To me, at least, it seems more rational than prom does.”

I grinned. “It’s not funny,” she said.

“No, you’re right, it’s not,” I agreed, my smile fading. “I’d rather treat it like a joke, though, than believe you’re serious.”

“But I am serious.”

I sighed deeply. “I know. And you’re really that willing?”

She bit her lip and nodded. I already knew the answer, but it was painful to have it confirmed. She was so young, so willing to throw it all away, for a monster.

“So ready for this to be the end,” I murmured, “for this to be the twilight of your life, though your life has barely started. You’re ready to give up everything.”

“It’s not the end, it’s the beginning,” she disagreed quietly.

“I’m not worth it,” I said sadly.

“Do you remember when you told me that I didn’t see myself very clearly?” she asked, eyebrows raised. “You obviously have the same blindness.”

That Bella didn’t see her own beauty was obvious to everyone but herself. The demon lures that made me attractive—I was well aware of those, and everything that came with them. “I know what I am.”

She sighed, acknowledging our stalemate. I wouldn’t give in on this. She had to know this by now. But, perhaps, I could awaken some sense in her, some reasonable fear? Was it possible? I examined her face, wondering . . .

“You’re ready now, then?” I asked.

“Um.” She gulped. “Yes?”

I smiled. She was nervous, after all, at this unexpected turn. Perhaps I could call her bluff, make her see the rashness of it . . . I inclined my head slowly, until my lips brushed against the skin just under the corner of her jaw, the familiar warmth burning them.

“Right now?” I whispered, blowing cool air on her neck. She shivered, making me smile. Her body was rigid, hands balled into fists, breathing hard . . . her body knew to fear me.

“Yes,” she whispered. Ah, Bella. I laughed, darkly, and pulled away.

“You can’t really believe that I would give in so easily,” I said, trying to mock her to hide my disappointment.

“A girl can dream.”

“Is that what you dream about? Being a monster?”

“Not exactly,” she said, frowning. “Mostly I dream about being with you forever.”

Didn’t she know? That I would stay for all of her days? The ache in her voice drew me, mirroring my own need for her.

“Bella.” My fingers lightly traced the shape of her lips, loving the softness there. “I will stay with you—isn’t that enough?”

She smiled, moving her lips under my fingertips. “Enough for now.”

I frowned. She wouldn’t give in or give up. I sighed, a long frustrated sound. She reached out and touched my face, wiping any thoughts from my mind. Her slightest touch could do that, and it would forever be my undoing.

“Look,” she said. “I love you more than everything else in the world combined. Isn’t that enough?”

“Yes, it is enough,” I answered, smiling, leaning into her touch. “Enough for forever.” All the days that I had belonged to her. I couldn’t imagine ever leaving her side. I moved my lips back down to her throat, inhaling my favorite perfume and softly brushing my lips against her velvet soft skin.

Bella was all I would ever want.

THE END