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Messaggio  simona80 il Lun 07 Mar 2011, 22:04

Chapter Twenty-Three
Bella awoke the next morning to the feel of something warm pressed close to her heart. And a gentle breeze of breath across the back of her neck.
Upon closer inspection, she realized that Edward's large hand was cupping her right breast as they spooned together.
She giggled and shifted slightly.
Edward growled at her sudden movement.
"Good morning, Edward."
"Morning, beautiful." His lips found her ear and kissed it.
"I take it you – slept well."
"Very well. And you?"
"Well, thank you."
"Does this bother you?" His hand caressed her gently through her nightshirt.
"No. It feels good."
She rolled over to face him. He slid his hand to the small of her back so he could pull her into a deep kiss.
"Isabella." He brushed a few wisps of hair out of her eyes. "There is something I would like to say to you."
Her brow furrowed.
He traced a single finger across her eyebrows, smoothing out the worry lines. "Don't frown. It's something nice. I think."
She looked up at him expectantly.
His eyes were large and dark and serious.
"I love you."
She blinked twice and then a smile slowly crept across her face. "I love you, too. I thought I was hearing things when you said it last night."
He kissed her tenderly. "I wasn't sure you heard me, either."
"You know, you said it to me before."
Edward pulled back, puzzled. "When?"
"The night I rescued you from Angela. I put you to bed and you called me Beatrice. You said that you loved me."
He gazed at her longingly.
"Isabella, I'm sorry it took me so long to say it properly."
She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her forehead against his stubbled chin. "Thank you," she whispered.
"No, darling. I should be thanking you. I've – never felt this way before. It makes me realize how much time I've wasted."
Edward's eyes grew sad.
Bella kissed him softly. "We both had a lot of growing to do. It's better this way."
"I regret the way I treated those other women. And that I wasted my time in empty liaisons. You know that, don't you?"
"I regret being with him. But there's nothing either of us can do about it now except be happy that we found each other."
"I wish we could spend the day in bed." His voice was wistful.
She laughed. "I think that would shock and scandalize your relations."
"Most likely. Damn them."
They both laughed until their laughter turned to passionate kisses.
She was the first to retreat.
"Can I ask you something?"
Edward's jaw set. "Of course."
Don't be too inquisitive this morning, Isabella. I can't tell you everything in Carlisle's house.
"What kind of lingerie do you like on a woman?"
Edward's jaw immediately relaxed and his lips curled into a crooked smile.
"And you're asking this because – you're doing a survey?" He chuckled, taking her hand in his, entwining their fingers together.
She blushed and looked down at their conjoined hands.
"I would like to go shopping before our trip to Italy. I was wondering what you – liked."
He gave her a smouldering look.
"Isabella, I am a man. If I were to tell you what lingerie I prefer, it would be no lingerie." He lifted her chin so that he could see her eyes.
"You are very beautiful. When I think of being with you, I think of taking my time to admire and explore your beauty – your face, your shoulders, your breasts, your hips, your legs, every part of you. Cream and pink and chocolate brown and soft curves for my body to worship."
He pushed her gently so that she was on her back and he was kneeling on either side of her hips, aligned above her.
"I would want you to wear something that would make you feel comfortable and beautiful, because that is how I want you to feel when you're with me."
He leaned down to capture her mouth and kissed her intently.
When he pulled back she laughed. "Comfortable as in a Lululemon yoga outfit?"
He frowned slightly. "I don't know what lou lemons are, but provided they make you comfortable, I'm sure I wouldn't object."
She arched her neck so that she could rub the tips of their noses together. "You're lovely, you know that? But I was serious when I asked you. I want to choose something you would like."
"Anything would be beautiful provided you are the one wearing it."
He kissed her again, and this time he allowed himself the luxury of lowering his naked chest so that it was close to but not touching hers. Heat and electricity jumped between their forms and soon Bella was breathless.
"Colour?" She gasped. "Style preference?"
Now he was chuckling, and stroking her cheek as it flushed.
"Well, not black or red."
She was surprised. "I thought those were the standard colours. They're supposed to be seductive."
He moved to the side so he could whisper in her ear. "You have already seduced me. I am enticed and tantalized and very, very excited."
Now the room was impossibly warm and she forgot what her next question was supposed to be.
And then she remembered. "So no black or red. Any favourite colours?"
He shook his head good-naturedly. "I think you would look nice in light colours – white, purple, blue. I suppose I could say I envisioned you in something classic, long, with your hair cascading down your shoulders. But this isn't about me, this is about you. And I think you should choose." He grinned. "Of course, I might decide to purchase an item or two for you while we're there. But for our first time, it's all about what you want. What makes you feel special and sexy and cherished. That's what I want because I love you, Isabella."
"I love you, too, Edward."
Bella smiled up at him and he thought his heart would melt inside of his chest.
She captured his face in her hand, running a thumb across the stubble of his chin and he closed his eyes and leaned into her touch.
When he opened his eyes, they were clear, bright and very hungry.
"I need to get ready. What time do we have to leave for Seattle?"
He began to kiss across her collarbone from one shoulder to another. "After – kiss – breakfast – kiss. Our flight is around dinner time – kiss – and we have to be at the airport early." Double kiss.
"Then I need to get dressed and pack. And I need to call Charlie and say goodbye."
He shook his head and then reluctantly rolled to the side. "Carlisle is making waffles for breakfast."
"Really?"
"Well, I told him a certain young lady was partial to waffles and he offered to make them. So as soon as you're ready, we can go downstairs together."
She kissed him once more and then disappeared into the hallway.
-
Carlisle was a whirling dervish of activity in the kitchen, making and serving Sunday breakfast for his hungry family. Emmett was eating everything that wasn't nailed down or claimed by anyone else, and Rose, Alice and Jasper were poring over pictures of Seattle wedding reception venues on Jasper's Blackberry. And arguing good-naturedly.
"There they are." Alice greeted her brother and her best friend with a hug when they entered the kitchen.
"I need to give this back to you," Bella whispered as she began to undo the scarf she had knotted around her neck.
"Keep it. Mom had three or four of them. I took one and so did Rose." Alice smiled and squeezed her hand.
Bella pressed Alice into a grateful hug. Once again she was thankful for her friend's generosity, and also for Esme, whose presence never seemed far away.
While Edward visited with Jasper and Alice and offered his considered opinion on tuxedoes, Bella walked towards Carlisle to pick up her breakfast.
"How is your hand?" He handed her a plate and smiled at her kindly.
"It's much better, thank you."
"You look happy this morning." Emmett poured Bella a glass of orange juice.
"I am. I really am."
"Make sure he treats you right," he whispered with a serious face. "Don't put up with any bullshit."
She looked up at him thoughtfully.
"He has changed, Emmett. He treats me well and he wants me to be happy and he – loves me." She spoke in a low voice so no one else could hear her confession.
Emmett gazed at her in surprise and then shook his head. "I'll be damned," he muttered.
He shifted his weight uncomfortably from large foot to large foot and then he changed the subject.
"Jacob was supposed to have a bail hearing yesterday. His lawyer was trying to have him released." He looked at Bella cautiously. "I haven't been able to find out what happened. You might want to ask your Dad about it."
It took a moment for his words to register with her, but when they did, she was seized with anxiety. Her face turned ghostly white and then her plate and glass smashed against the floor, spilling her breakfast into a sticky, juice soaked disaster.
She blinked rapidly as she tried to regain her composure, praying that she wouldn't be sick in the middle of Carlisle's kitchen.
A half an instant later, she moved to kneel so that she could clean up her latest mess, cursing herself for being such a klutz again.
Edward has to be tired of watching me drop things. I am such an idiot.
But before her knees hit the floor, a hand appeared in front of her face.
Bella looked up into a pair of concerned green eyes.
Edward moved his hand slightly, encouraging her to take it. He pulled her into his side and then seated her on a bar stool, kissing her forehead quickly.
"You're safe with me," he whispered. "I won't let him near you." For good measure, Edward rubbed her arms up and down comfortingly.
While Carlisle prepared another waffle, Edward crouched down to pick up the broken pieces.
"I'll do that. Sit with your girl." Emmett's voice was low and gruff at Edward's elbow. "And I'm sorry."
No one noticed the subtle exchange between the two brothers – the prodigal son and the son of constancy. Their eyes met and in that moment, a look of understanding and perhaps even forgiveness passed between them.
Edward nodded gratefully and then took a seat by Bella, wrapping his arm around her waist and murmuring soothing words in her ear until she stopped shaking.
He had to get her out of Forks.
-
As they drove away, Bella closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. It had been an emotional morning. Saying goodbye to her adoptive family was always difficult. And saying goodbye to Charlie after the weekend's events was exhausting. Although she had been relieved to learn that he had been denied bail.
"Are you alright?" Edward reached out a tentative hand to stroke her cheek.
She opened her eyes. "Part of me didn't want to leave. Part of me couldn't wait to put everything behind me."
He nodded sympathetically. "I feel the same way."
"What did Charlie say to you when he shook your hand?"
Edward shifted in his seat. "He thanked me for coming to your rescue. He said he knew it could have been a lot worse and that he couldn't repay me." Edward threaded his long fingers through Bella's, pulling her hand to his lips so that he could kiss it. "And then he asked me to keep an eye on his little girl. He said you were everything to him."
That made a tear run down Bella's cheek. She wiped it away with her free hand, and then looked out the window.
Things with her father had certainly changed.
-
It was a long flight back to Toronto. Bella cuddled up to Edward after dinner was served, eschewing the movie and her homework to rest her head against his upper arm.
"I need to make arrangements for our trip," he said in a low voice, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.
"When are we leaving?"
"Unfortunately, sooner than you think. I had planned on leaving as soon as classes were over on Friday. But if you are coming, I'll need to wait until after Katherine turns your grade in. My lecture is on December tenth. Could we leave on the eighth?"
"I have to submit essays on Friday, anyway. And Katherine is expecting a draft of part of my thesis then, too. I'm assuming she'll submit my grades within a few days, so I could probably leave on the eighth. When were you planning on coming back?"
Edward moved his arm so that it was wrapped around her and she was leaning her head against his chest.
"Alice is pretty adamant about having everyone home for Christmas. And that includes you. So we would have to leave Italy on the twenty-third or the twenty-fourth and bypass Toronto for Seattle. Unless you'd rather spend Christmas in Italy. With me."
Bella laughed. "Not at the risk of incurring the wrath of Alice. And Charlie is expecting me home. Even though he knows I can't stay at his house." She shivered involuntarily.
Edward squeezed her. "Then you can stay with me. And if need be, we'll reserve a room at a hotel. I'm not sleeping across the hall from you ever again."
She blushed at his remark and smiled.
"We'll have two weeks to enjoy Florence. Or we can travel to Venice and Rome, if you wish. Maybe rent a villa in Umbria. I know of a place near Todi that is very beautiful. I'd like to show it to you."
"As long as I'm with you, my love, I don't care where we are."
His lips tightened momentarily. "Bless you for that," he murmured.
She leaned over to whisper in his ear. "At the risk of revealing too much information, I'll tell you that the dates you have chosen are perfectly compatible with my – um, cycle. In case you were worried about that being a problem."
He smirked slightly but said nothing, choosing only to indicate his relief with a very polite nod. However, inwardly, he allowed himself a fist pump.
"Alice is scheduling the wedding for late August, provided the venue they want is available. I wonder why she wants to wait so long." Bella was fishing to see if Edward had any information.
He shrugged. "Knowing Alice, she'll need months to make sure the proper people are notified and the wedding is featured on CNN."
They both chuckled.
"Edward, I found something in the second floor bathroom."
He gave her quizzical look. "What was it?"
"The package for a pregnancy test."
It took a moment for Edward to process this information. "You don't think … Alice?"
Bella nodded. "It wasn't mine. Obviously. And Alice said Rose can't have children, so …"
"Do you think that's why Alice wants an August wedding? She's waiting until after the baby is born?"
"It makes sense."
Edward nodded to himself. "Well, she won't be able to keep it a secret for too long. Carlisle is a doctor … and Emmett and Rose are nosy."
"Do you think Jasper would be happy about a baby?"
Edward shifted slightly in his seat. "He loves her. He wants to marry her. I think this will make him more determined than ever – the thought of the love of his life carrying his child. If it were true."
He paused for a moment and then turned to face her. "Isabella, does it trouble you that I can't …?"
"Not really. A family seems so far removed from me. I want to finish my degree and then work on my doctorate. I'd like to teach." She shrugged. "Perhaps this is the benefit of dating a much younger woman."
Edward snorted. "You make me sound antique. You realize that when you're thirty you will probably change your mind. If not sooner. And when that happens …"
She frowned and shook her head at him.
"What do you expect me to say – that I don't want you? I'm not going to say that. I love you, Edward, all of you. Please don't push me away when we've finally gotten close." She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes. "It hurts."
"Forgive me," he whispered, kissing the back of her hand.
She accepted his apology and then closed her eyes, weary from the day's emotions.
Edward rubbed at his eyes so that he could think. But he soon realized that he needed space and time away from her in order to do that.
Her mere presence intoxicated him.
I won't need to push you away when I tell you about Tanya ...
-
The first week of December was the last week of classes. It was a quiet week, for the most part.
Edward and Bella dutifully kept their distance from one another. Every evening he prepared his lecture for the Uffizi Gallery in his spacious condominium while she worked tirelessly on her essays and her thesis in her tiny hobbit hole.
And they texted one another mercilessly.
Darling,
I miss you.
Come over?
Love,
E.
Bella smiled at the screen of her iPhone in such a way that even the iPhone blushed. And then she typed her reply.
E,
I miss you, too.
I'm finishing an essay for this crazy Dante seminar I'm taking.
I'll probably be up all night.
The professor is hot but demanding.
I love you,
B.
Bella turned her attention back to her laptop as she continued editing her essay for Katherine. Within a few minutes, her iPhone was chirping at her again.
Darling,
You're in luck –
I am a Dante specialist.
Why don't you bring your essay over here
and I will help you with it …
all night …
Love,
E.
P.S. How hot?
Bella giggled at his message and then hit reply.
Dearest Dante Specialist,
My professor is hot like fire, Scotch bonnet peppers,
or chicken Vindaloo.
I know what your all-nighter would include –
and it wouldn't be finishing my essay.
Rain check for Friday?
Love,
Your B.
XO
Bella stared at her iPhone waiting for another text message. But it didn't come.
Until she was in the bathroom.
When she returned, she read the following,
Darling B,
Hmmm. That's pretty hot.
Your rejection of my invitation has reduced me to a sea of loneliness,
which I will now chase away with a shot of Scotch
and two chapters of Graham Greene.
Your X and O almost make up for it.
How is your hand?
I Love You,
E.
P.S. You are hot like the surface of the sun but far more lovely.
Bella laughed again. She flexed her hand and rotated her wrist. It was healing nicely and she had taken the bandages off a few days before.
Dearest E,
My hand is much better,
thank you.
But it would be a thousand times better if you were here to kiss it,
B.
And then a few minutes later …
I'm heading to my car…
E.
Bella quickly texted a response.
Edward, Stop!
Such a nice gesture.
Thanks.
Of course I would love to see you,
but I have to get this paper done
and if you come over, it won't get finished.
Will see you tomorrow at your seminar.
Please?
Love, B.
P.S. Your compliments take my breath away.
It took Edward just one minute to answer.
Darling,
Fine.
(heading back upstairs lonely & dejected,
possibly wiping away sad, sad tears)
Love,
E.
P.S. Breathe, darling, for the compliments will never end.
-
Edward and Bella finally met in person at his last seminar on Wednesday, which was made all the more interesting by Angela Webber's conspicuous behaviour.
She was quiet.
She was still dressed fashionably, in an aubergine coloured cashmere sweater dress that clung tantalizingly to her chest and derrière. Her make up was flawless, her hair long and impeccably groomed. But her expression was sour and she didn't take notes, for her arms were crossed defensively across her ample breasts.
When Professor Masen asked a question that she knew, she refused to raise her hand. When he looked over the rims of his glasses to see if he could coax her into participating, she scowled and looked away.
Were it not for the fact that his mind was on Dante's Paradiso, he might have grown uneasy. But he didn't.
Angela was conspicuous not only in her silence but in her blatant hostility towards Bella, for whom she reserved the vilest of glares.
"What crawled up her butt?" Bella whispered to Peter as soon as the class was over.
He snickered quietly. "Maybe she finally realized Masen will never pass her dissertation proposal and so she's contemplating a career change. There's a strip club on Yonge Street that is looking to hire. She might have what it takes to work at the Brass Rail. Or not."
Now it was Bella's turn to snicker.
"By the way, I like your scarf. Very French." Peter grinned at her good-naturedly. "A gift from the boyfriend?"
"No. My best friend back home. She's interested in fashion."
"Well, it looks nice on you."
Bella smiled at him and then they both packed up their books and walked home through the delicately cascading snow, telling (slightly edited) stories about their separate Thanksgivings.
-
By Friday, Professor Masen was in a foul mood. He'd spent almost an entire week without Isabella and he'd had to watch her walk away with Peter after his seminar, without so much as a backwards glance in his direction.
He had to keep his distance from her when all he wanted to do was touch her and tell everyone she was his.
He had to sleep alone for almost a week. Sleeping naked in the darkness, the demons had come and nightmares had taunted and oppressed him. Nightmares normally held at bay by her very presence, a luminescence unequalled by the brightest star.
A star he would soon have to live without.
He knew that he had to tell his secrets before they boarded the plane for Italy. Thus, he rued the fact that his (possibly) last week with Isabella had been spent alone.
He'd changed his ticket and made all of the reservations for Isabella to accompany him to Florence, but he did so half-heartedly and not without investing in travel cancellation insurance, for he truly believed that she would leave him.
He dreaded the moment when her wide, innocent eyes would darken and tear up with knowledge and she would reject him as unworthy. But he would not allow her to gift her innocence to such a monster unknowingly. He would not play Cupid to her Psyche.
For that would be monstrous.
Consequently, it was with undisguised coolness that he greeted her Friday evening when she arrived at his door, just in time for dinner.
He kissed her forehead fraternally and then stepped aside, indicating that she should come in.
Bella knew instantly that something was wrong. And it wasn't solely because she could hear the strains of Puccini's Madama Butterfly wafting from the living room. Usually Edward greeted her with a hug and a few passionate kisses, before removing her coat.
Instead he stood there, not even making eye contact, waiting for her to move or to speak.
"Edward?" She reached up to touch his face. "Is something wrong?"
"No," he lied, turning his face away. "It has been a long week. Can I get you a drink?"
Bella resisted the urge to nag him for information and instead requested a glass of wine. Perhaps he would loosen up over dinner.
But he didn't.
He served their dinner in complete silence and when Bella tried to make polite small talk over their roast beef and baked potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, he responded monosyllabically.
She told him she had completed all of her schoolwork for the semester and that Katherine Picton had agreed to turn her grades in before Tuesday, December eighth, but Edward only nodded stiffly in response, glaring into his soon to be empty wine glass.
Bella had never seen him drink so heavily. He was already drunk the night she rescued him at Lobby. But this night it was different. He wasn't flirtatious and happy, he looked tormented. With each glass, she grew more and more worried but every time she opened her mouth to say something, she would catch a glimpse of fleeting sadness on his face, which made her refrain.
He grew progressively cooler and more detached with each drink, so much so that by the time he served one of his housekeeper's homemade apple pies for dessert, Bella waved it away and demanded that he silence Maria Callas so that they could talk.
That drew his attention, since the pie (and the Butterfly) was the culmination of his supper. His Last Supper.
"Nothing is wrong," he huffed, as he strode over to the stereo and stopped the operatic performance.
"Edward, stop lying to me. It's obvious you're upset. Just tell me. Please."
The sight of Isabella, innocent Isabella, with her big, brown eyes and her now furrowed brow almost undid him.
Did she have to be so sweet? So giving? Did she have to be compassionate? With large, gentle eyes?
His guilt compounded.
Perhaps it was a mercy that he hadn't seduced her. Her heart would mend more readily now, now that they had not known each other sexually.
They'd only been together for a few weeks. She would dry her tears quickly and maybe find a quiet, peaceful affection with someone good and constant, like Peter.
The thought made him violently ill.
Without a word, he walked over to the piano and grabbed one of the decanters and a crystal glass. He returned to his seat at the dining room table and then poured two finger's worth of Scotch. He drank half of it in one swallow and then thumped his glass down roughly.
He waited for the burning sensation in his throat to abate. He waited for the liquid courage to adhere to his insides, fortifying him, strengthening him. But it would take much more Scotch to dull the ache in the depths of his soul.
He took a deep breath. "I can't put this off any longer. I have some – unpleasant things to tell you. And I know that when I'm finished, I'll lose you."
"Edward, please. I –"
"I need to say it all at once. Please, just let me say it." He tugged at his hair wildly. "Before I lose my courage."
He closed his eyes and inhaled once again.
And when he opened them, he peered over at her like a wounded dragon.
"You are looking at the face of a killer."
Sounds hit her ears but didn't sink into her consciousness. She thought she'd heard wrong.
"Not only am I a killer, I took innocent life.
"If you can stand to remain in the same room with me for a few minutes, I'll explain how this came to be." He waited for her to react but she sat quietly, so he continued.
"I went to Oxford for my master's degree. I studied at Magdalen College. You know this already. What you don't know is that while I was there I met an American girl called Tanya."
Bella inhaled sharply and Edward paused.
Every time she had asked him about Tanya he had always put her off. He had tried to make her think that she was not a threat, but Bella had not believed him. Of course Tanya was a threat to their creeping closeness.
Tanya had pulled him away from her in the middle of dinner back in October. And before he had run away Edward had stood, haggard, quoting Lady Macbeth.
Bella trembled slightly in anticipation.
"Tanya was an undergraduate at the same college. She was attractive. Tall and regal with reddish hair. She liked to tell people that she was related to the Russian aristocracy, an Anastasia of sorts. We became friends and would spend time together on occasion, but it wasn't physical. I was seeing other girls and she was pining away for someone …"
He cleared his throat nervously.
"I graduated and moved to Harvard. Tanya and I kept in touch via email for year or so, very casually, and then she told me she had been accepted to Harvard for her master's degree. She was studying to become a Dostoyevsky specialist. She needed help finding a place to live since she was still in Oxford and so I told her about a vacant apartment in my building. She moved in that August."
He gazed at Bella searchingly.
She nodded, trying to keep her trepidation from showing on her face.
"The year she arrived was my most difficult in graduate school. I was working on my dissertation along with being a teaching assistant to a very demanding professor. I was staying up all hours, writing and getting very little sleep. That was when I started doing cocaine."
His gaze dropped and he fidgeted with his hands, drumming across the table as if he were playing the piano.
Bella wondered what melody he had chosen to play.
Berlioz, definitely.
"I used to go out drinking on the weekends with the guys from my program. We'd get into fights, on occasion." He laughed. "I wasn't always on my best behaviour and sometimes we'd even go out looking for trouble. It paid off, though. With Jacob."
He leaned forward in his chair, resting his forearms on top of his knees.
Bella watched his knee bounce nervously. With every sentence he grew more restless, indicating that he was approaching closer and closer to the edge of the abyss in which he had hidden his secret.
"One night someone passed around some coke. I wondered if it would help me stay up so I could work late. That's how it started. I used it as a stimulant. Then I alternated its use with alcohol. I thought because I went to Harvard, I was a respectable drug user. I thought I could control it." He sighed deeply and the tone of his voice dropped. "I was wrong."
"Tanya was always around. She'd knock on my door at all hours because I was always awake. I'd write and she'd sit on my couch and read or make Russian tea. She started cooking for me and buying groceries. Eventually, I gave her a key to my apartment since she was over all the time. When I was doing coke, I didn't eat much. She was the only reason why I had any nutrition at all. She took care of me."
Now Edward's voice took on a darker tone, as if the guilt inside him was clawing to get out.
He read the question in her eyes and his jaw set.
"Yes, she knew I was on drugs. At first I tried to hide it, but she was always there. Finally, I gave up and started doing it in front of her. She didn't care."
Now he avoided Bella's gaze. He looked ashamed.
"She had lived a sheltered life. She was completely innocent about drugs and a lot of other things. I was a corrupting influence. One night, she joined me. She stripped out of her clothes and suggested we snort lines off one another. I wasn't thinking straight, obviously, and she was naked …"
He exhaled slowly and shook his head, keeping his eyes on his fidgeting hands.
"I'm not making excuses. It was my fault. But I didn't plan on getting involved with her. She was a nice girl who was used to getting what she wanted. And she wanted me – the brilliant drug addict downstairs." He rubbed at his chin with the back of his hand and Bella suddenly realized he had not shaved that morning.
He squirmed in his chair and inhaled deeply.
"The next morning I told her it had been a mistake. I wasn't interested in being monogamous. The coke made me crave sex, although it eventually impaired my satisfaction. Karma, I suppose. I was used to being with different women every weekend. But when I told her all of this, she said she didn't care. No matter what I said or did, or how much of an asshole I was to her, she was always there. So that's how it was for a while. She acted as if she was my girlfriend and I acted as if she was a convenient lay. I didn't care about her, I only cared about myself and the drugs and the damned dissertation."
Bella felt her heart sink.
She knew that Edward had never wanted for female companionship. He was a handsome man who was sensual in the extreme. Women fell all over themselves in order to attract his attention. Bella wasn't pleased about his past, but she had accepted it and told herself that it didn't matter.
But Tanya was different.
She had known this intuitively from the first time she heard the name. And even though she believed Edward was no longer involved with her, what he was beginning to describe was much more serious than a one-night stand.
The green spectre of jealousy curled around her heart.
Edward stood up and started pacing, tugging at his hair with both hands.
"Everything came to a crashing halt about six months later when she told me that she was pregnant. I told her it was her fault for not being on the Pill. I accused her of trying to entrap me and told her to get rid of it." His face contorted with emotion and he looked as if he were in pain.
"She cried. She got on her knees and said that she'd been in love with me since Oxford and that she wanted my baby. But I wouldn't listen. I threw some money at her for an abortion and pushed her out of my apartment as if she were trash." Edward groaned, a twisted cry that seemed to come from the depths of his soul. He rubbed at his eyes with his fingers.
Bella fanned a shaking hand to her forehead. She had not expected this. But as her mind raced ahead, a number of pieces of the puzzle that was Edward Masen began to come together.
"I didn't see her for a long time. I assumed she'd had the abortion. I didn't even bother to find out, that's how fucked up I was. A couple of months later, I stumbled into the kitchen one morning and found an ultrasound snapshot on my fridge. With a note."
He slumped back in his chair and placed his head in his hands.
"She wrote, 'This is your baby girl, Maia. Isn't she beautiful?'"
Edward's words were half strangled by the sob that ripped from his chest.
"I could see the outline of her little head and her nose, her tiny arms and legs. Little hands and little feet. She was beautiful. This beautiful, fragile little baby. My little girl. Maia." He swallowed another sob. "I didn't know. It wasn't real. She wasn't real until I saw her picture and ..."
Edward was crying.
Bella saw tears roll down his cheeks and her heart clenched. As her own eyes filled with tears she moved to go to him, but he raised a hand to stop her.
"I told Tanya I was sorry. I told her I'd help with the baby. Of course, I was broke. I had spent all my money on drugs and had already run up a tab with my dealer. Tanya knew that and somehow she still wanted me. We got back together and she'd read on my couch while I wrote my dissertation. She stayed away from the drugs and tried to take care of herself and the baby. I tried to quit, but couldn't. I was too edgy. I couldn't function."
He pulled his head up to look over at Bella.
"Do you want to hear the rest? Or are you ready to leave now?"
Bella didn't hesitate. She walked over to him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. "Of course I want to hear the rest, Edward."
He clung to her tightly, but only for a moment before he was pushing her away and wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand.
She stood to one side, awkwardly wringing her hands while he continued his confession.
"Tanya's parents lived in Alaska. They weren't wealthy, but they would send her money. Esme used to send me money, too, whenever I called her. Somehow we were able to stay afloat. Or at least, delay the inevitable. But I used most of the money for drugs." He laughed darkly. "What kind of man takes money from a pregnant woman and wastes it on cocaine?"
He quickly continued. "One night in September, I went on a bender. I was gone for a couple of days, and when I finally came home I collapsed on the sofa. I didn't even make it into the bedroom.
"I woke up the next morning completely hung over. I stumbled down the hall and saw blood on the floor."
Edward covered his eyes with his palms, as if he were trying to blot out the vision.
Bella felt her pulse begin to race as she waited for his revelation.
"I followed the trail and found Tanya lying on the bathroom floor in a pool of blood. I tried to find her pulse, but I couldn't. I thought she was dead."
He was silent for a few minutes.
Bella held her breath as she waited for him to continue.
"If I had checked on her when I got home, I could have called an ambulance immediately. But I didn't. I was high and I crashed and I didn't care about anyone but myself. When they told me she lost the baby, I knew. It was a preventable death and it was my fault. I might as well have killed her with my own hands."
He held his hands in front of his face and turned them slowly, as if he were regarding them for the first time.
"I am a murderer, Isabella. A drug addicted murderer."
Bella opened her mouth to contradict him but he quickly cut her off.
"Tanya spent weeks in the hospital, first with physical problems and then with depression. I had to take a leave of absence from Harvard because I was too drugged up or drunk to work. I owed thousands of dollars to some dangerous people and had no way of coming up with the money. I was going to beg Esme and Carlisle to pay for Tanya's medical expenses. She tried to kill herself in the hospital, so I wanted to check her into a private mental health facility, somewhere where they would be gentle with her. When I called her parents begging them to help, they told me I was a disgrace. That I needed to marry her, and then they'd help us."
He paused. "I would have done it. But Tanya was too unstable to even discuss it. So I made up my mind that I would discharge my duty to her, and then I was going to kill myself. And that would put an end to all of our problems."
Edward looked up at her with cold, dead eyes.
"So you see, Isabella, I am one of the damned. Through my own depraved indifference I caused the death of a child and the permanent destruction of a young woman's bright future. It would have been better if I had had a millstone hung around my neck and been cast into the sea."
"It was an accident. It wasn't your fault."
He laughed bitterly. "It wasn't my fault that I had sex with Tanya and made a baby? It wasn't my fault that I treated her like a whore, addicted her to drugs, and pressured her to have an abortion? It wasn't my fault that I stumbled in, high, and didn't even bother to check to see if she was in my apartment?!"
Bella took his hands in hers and grasped them tightly. "Edward, listen to me. You contributed to the situation, but it was an accident. If there was so much blood then that meant that something was wrong with the baby. And if you hadn't called the ambulance when you did, Tanya would have died. You saved her."
He wouldn't look up, but she moved her hand to his chin and forced him to look at her.
"You saved her. And you said yourself that you wanted the baby. You didn't want the baby to die."
He flinched beneath her touch but she would not release him.
"You are not a murderer. It was just a tragic accident."
"You don't understand, Isabella." His voice was cold, listless. "I am just like he is. He used you and I used her. I did more than use her. I treated her as if she were a plaything and gave her drugs, when I should have protected her. What kind of monster am I?"
"You are nothing like him," she hissed, her emotions getting the better of her. "He has no remorse for what he did and given the opportunity he would do it again. Or worse."
She took a deep breath and held it.
"Edward, you made some mistakes. You did terrible things. But you are sorry for them. And you've been trying to make up for them for years. Shouldn't that count for something?"
"All the money in the world cannot pay for a life."
"A life you didn't take," she countered, eyes flashing.
Edward hid his face in his hands. This was not how he expected this conversation to go.
Why is she still here? Why hasn't she run away?
She stepped backwards and watched him momentarily. She could feel the despair rolling off of him in waves as she frantically wracked her brain to find some way to help him.
"Do you know Victor Hugo's Les Misérables?"
"Of course," he muttered.
"The hero abandons his sin and performs a penance; he looks after a young girl as if she were his own daughter. But all the while, a policeman hunts him, convinced that he has not reformed. Wouldn't you rather be the person performing penance than the policeman arguing that there can be no reform?"
Edward didn't answer.
"Do you think that you should have to suffer for your sin forever?"
No response.
"Because it seems that's what you're saying – you won't allow yourself to be happy. You won't allow yourself to have children. You think you've lost your soul. But what about redemption, Edward? What about forgiveness?"
"I don't deserve it."
"What sinner deserves it?" She shook her head. "When I told you about what happened with him you told me to forgive myself and let myself be happy. Why can't you do the same thing for yourself?"
Edward looked down at the floor. "Because you were the victim. I am the killer."
"Let's say that's true. What would be an appropriate penance, Edward? How would justice be served?"
"An eye for an eye," he muttered.
"Fine. An eye for an eye would mean that you would have to save the life of a child. You are responsible for the death of a child, so justice requires that you give back a life. Not coins. Not pretty presents, but life."
He sat motionless, but she knew he was listening.
"You saved Tanya's life, but I know you won't count that. You need to save the life of someone else's child. Don't you agree, Edward? Wouldn't that pay for your sin? Or at least offer some kind of restitution?"
"It wouldn't bring Maia back. But it would be something. It would make me less – monstrous." Edward's shoulders hunched in his chair as he hung his head low.
The pain in his voice almost rent Bella's heart in two, but she continued bravely.
"You would have to find a child who was in danger of dying and save her. And that would be atonement."
He nodded slightly, stifling a groan.
Bella sank down on her knees, taking his hands in hers.
"Don't you see, Edward? I am that child."
He lifted his head and stared at her as if she were mad, his watery eyes boring into her own.
"Jacob would have killed me. He was so angry when I hit him, he was going to break through my bedroom door and kill me. Except he would have raped me first. Even if I had called Charlie or 911, they never would have never arrived in time.
"But you saved me. You pulled him away from my door. You kept him from going back into the house. I am alive now only because of you. I am Charlie's baby girl and you saved my life, Edward."
He remained motionless, entirely without words.
"A life for a life, that is what you said. You took a life, and now you have saved one. Think about that.
"Now you have to forgive yourself. Ask Tanya to forgive you, ask God to forgive you, but you have to forgive yourself. You're a different person now."
"It isn't enough," he whispered, his great, sad eyes still wet with tears.
"It won't bring your daughter back, that's true. But think about the gift you gave Charlie – his only daughter. Turn our debt into penance. You are not a monster, you are an angel. My angel."
Edward stared at her quietly, trying to read her eyes, her lips, her expression. And then when he was finished, he held his hand out and drew her into his arms, settling her on his lap. He held her for what seemed like forever as his tears spilled onto her shoulder.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry I waited so long to tell you. I'm sorry my story is true. I've killed your faith in me. I know that."
"Edward, don't. I still love you."
She tried to soothe him by murmuring in his ear, by letting him release his grief through his tears.
And when his tears finally subsided, she touched the buttons of his white shirt and began undoing them quickly, before he could ask what she was doing. She parted the shirt back from his naked chest and ran her fingers around his tattoo.
And then slowly, very slowly, she lowered her lips to the dragon's mouth and kissed it.
When she sat back, Edward stared at her in silent wonder.
She removed her scarf and gently lifted his hand so that he was touching her bite mark, a mark that had faded slightly but not disappeared. And then she placed her hand on top of his tattoo.
He winced and closed his eyes.
"We both have scars. And maybe you're right, they won't disappear. But I am your atonement, Edward. My life is your gift to a father who could have lost his child forever. Thank you."
"I am a hypocrite." His voice was rough. "I told Charlie he was a terrible father. What kind of father was I?"
"A young one. An inexperienced one. You shouldn't have been taking drugs. But you wanted the baby, Edward. You said so yourself."
He nodded slightly as they clung to one another.
"Nothing I can say will bring her back. But if it would comfort you, I would say that I believe your little girl is singing with the blessed in Paradise. With Esme."
She wiped his tears away.
"I'm sure that Esme and Maia would want you to find love and grace and forgiveness. They would pray for your redemption. They wouldn't think that you're a monster."
"How can you be sure?" He whispered.
"I learned this from you, in your last seminar. Canto thirty-two of Dante's Paradiso describes the special place God has for children. Of such are the kingdom of heaven. And in Paradise, there is only love and forgiveness. No hatred. No malice. Only peace."
He pulled her close and the couple held one another tightly.
Bella could not have imagined Edward's secret. And although she was distressed with the way his melancholy disposition had fashioned his grief, his grief was something she could not deny.
She had not loved a child only to see the child die. So she was moved with compassion for him and an abiding will to help him recognize his own self-worth and to accept that he was loveable, despite his past sins.
Seated on his lap with his tears still dampening her blouse, the picture that was Edward Masen became strikingly clear. In many ways, he was very much a frightened little boy, fearful that no one would forgive him his faults. Or love him in spite of them.
But she would.
"Edward, you can't be comfortable in this chair."
He nodded against her shoulder.
"Come." Bella stood up and took his hand, pulling him to his feet. She led him over to the sofa and encouraged him to sit down, while she flipped the switch for the fireplace.
He kicked off his shoes and she coaxed him to stretch out lengthwise, resting his head in her lap.
She traced his eyebrows and then began running her fingers through his wild, untamed hair.
He closed his eyes.
"Where is Tanya now?"
He sighed.
"In Boston. When I received my inheritance, I set up a trust fund for her. She has been in and out of rehab a couple of times. But she's well looked after and she went back to Harvard part-time a year or two ago."
"What happened the night she called you during our dinner?'
Edward gave her a puzzled look and then recognition flashed across his face.
"I forgot that you heard that call. She had been drinking and she got into a car accident. She was hysterical on the phone and I thought I was going to have to fly down there. She only calls when she's in trouble. Or at Christmas to make sure I received my gifts."
"So what happened?"
"I ran back to my apartment but before I left for the airport, I was able to reach one of the trust fund's lawyers in Boston. He met her at the hospital and assured me that she wasn't as badly injured as she led me to believe. But she was charged a day or so later. There was nothing I could do but hire someone to defend her. She has been pretty good lately but this happens from time to time."
Perhaps it was the flickering glow of the fire. Perhaps it was the stress of having revealed his darkest secret. But at that moment Edward looked remarkably old and weary for his thirty something years.
"Do you love her?"
Edward shook his head.
"I don't think my feelings count as love, although I feel something for her. She was never familiar to me, much to my shame. But I couldn't abandon her. Not when her family was so far away and they refused to help. I was the cause of her problems and the likelihood that she'll never have another child." His voice grew uneven and he shuddered.
"Is that why you decided not to have children?"
"An eye for an eye, remember. When she cried in my arms and told me, I made the decision. I had a hard time convincing a doctor to agree to perform the procedure; they all argued that I was too young and that I would change my mind. But finally, I found someone to do it. Strangely, it comforted me at the time."
He reached his hand up to caress the curve of Bella's cheek. "I told her about you. She has always been jealous, but she knows I can't give her what she wants. Our relationship is – complicated. She will always be part of my life, Isabella. I need you to realize that. That is, if you still …"
She pressed their lips together. "Of course I'm still in love with you. You're supporting her and helping her whenever she gets into trouble. That is the honourable thing to do."
"Believe me, Isabella, I am far from honourable."
"Would you - tell me about your tattoo?"
He sat up slightly so that he could remove his shirt, which he dropped unceremoniously onto the Persian carpet.
He reclined on her lap and looked up into her eyes, which radiated acceptance and concern.
"I had it done in Boston after I was released from rehab."
Bella kissed the dragon once again, very, very lightly.
Edward inhaled sharply at the feeling of her mouth against that part of his naked flesh.
She moved her hands to stroke his hair, hoping it would comfort him.
"What does the dragon represent?"
"The dragon is me or the drugs or both. The heart is mine and it's broken, obviously. Maia will always be in my heart. You probably think it's horrible – to have such a morbid and ugly thing on my body. Permanently."
"No, Edward, I don't think that. It's like – a memorial."
"Tanya was about five months pregnant when she lost the baby. She was not in her right mind and neither was I, so we didn't have a funeral. A couple of years ago I had a headstone erected for Maia in Boston." He grasped Bella's hand in his and kissed her palm.
"She isn't buried there." His voice was pained.
"She wouldn't be there, anyway, Edward. She's with Esme now."
He paused and stared at her as his eyes filled with tears again.
"Thank you for that, Isabella," he whispered, pressing his lips to her hand once more.
"There is a carved angel on either side of the headstone. I wanted it to be beautiful."
"I'm sure it's lovely."
"You've already received part of her memorial."
She looked puzzled.
"Your bursary. I named it for her – Maia Tanya Masen."
Bella wiped a tear that sprang suddenly from her eye. "I am so sorry I tried to give it back to you. I didn't know."
Edward reached up and kissed her nose. "I know that, my love. At the time, I wasn't ready to explain how significant the bursary was. I only wanted you to have it. No one else was worthy."
He kissed her again softly, on the lips.
"I should tell you that I asked Alice about it. She had no idea."
"No one knows about Maia and Tanya except for Carlisle. And Esme. I was so ashamed of everything, they thought it would be enough for Emmett and Alice to know about the drugs. No one knows about the tattoo, however. You're the only one."
She tangled her fingers in his hair, willing him to find peace.
"Your Puccini scared me," she whispered.
"It seemed – fitting."
She shivered.
"The way I treated her. She loved me for years and I couldn't love her back." He shrugged awkwardly. And then shifted his gaze so that his intensity burned into hers.
"I would never treat you like a butterfly, like something I've captured for my own amusement. I'd never pin you to a card and pull your wings."
She shook her head as a pained look crossed her pretty face. "Edward, please. I trust you. You are not Pinkerton. I know that."
In proof of her declaration she kissed him, moving her mouth in concert with his until she had to pull back to draw breath.
"I don't deserve you," he whispered.
"Maybe we don't deserve each other, but I can choose who I love. And I choose you. Don't take that choice away from me."
He frowned as if he didn't believe her.
"Please let me love you." Her voice cracked on the last two words, and a stray tear pushed down her cheek.
"As if I could even contemplate living without you." He drew her to him, the desperate passion of a tortured soul binding the two together.
She met him movement for movement, taking and giving all at once as she leaned over the beautiful man who rested his bronze haired head in her lap.
His mouth found her wrists as he kissed them with wet, open kisses, sucking gently at the delicate place where pale veins were covered by rice paper skin.
"Forgive me, Isabella, but I need you. My sweet, sweet girl. So much." His eyes were a green fire and his voice was gravelly.
Before she knew what was happening, he had repositioned himself so that he was sitting on the couch and she was straddling him. Their upper bodies pressed tightly together, his hands worshipping the gentle sway of her lower back and the curve of her behind through her wool Theory trousers.
In the back of her mind, Bella recalled one of the black and white photographs from Edward's bedroom. And in that instant, she recognized its beauty and its passion from a first person perspective.
It was want and need and desperation and adoration and deep, deep unconditional love now made free through the telling of dark, hidden secrets.
He felt her love in her kiss, her embrace, the way her fingers lightly brushed the back of his neck, and the surface of his tattoo, coaxing open mouthed kisses up and down the lines of his chest.
She would give him everything. She would do anything to take away his pain, including offering up herself.
The Sacrifice of Isaac.
With trembling fingers, she undid the buttons of her blouse and slipped it from her shoulders.
A faint gasp from Edward's mouth mirrored the sound of the silk sinking slowly to the floor.
She was his atonement.

simona80
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