A Love Worth Defending


Bella awoke to a classic phone ringing. It took a minute to understand why, given that her bedroom in Forks didn’t have one and the sound was beside her head on the left.

But when she spotted the familiar bespectacled stuffed owl in her arms, she remembered.

She wasn’t in Forks anymore.

She was in Jacksonville.

With a groan, she stretched out a hand and grabbed the receiver from its cradle. “Hello?”

“Sweetie? It’s Mom.” Renee’s voice was so awfully cheerful. “Did I wake you?”

“You could say that. What time is it?”

“Just after one.”

“In the afternoon?” Bella turned again, squinting at the sun through the thin purple fabric of the curtains. “Why did you let me sleep so late?”

“Because I know you’re still on West Coast time. And I saw no reason to wake you.”

She buried her head beneath the extra pillow. “How was your trip?”

“Loud, thanks to Phil’s snoring. How he can sleep on a crowded bus I’ll never know.”

The muffled sounds of a PA announcement interrupted their conversation. “Are you still at the station?”

“Yes.” Renee lowered her voice. “A few people recognized Phil, so he’s signing autographs.”

“I didn’t know his team had such a following.”

“Me either. But you should see him. He’s so cute and happy.”

The love in her mother’s voice made Bella ache. “I’ll let you go then.”

“No, no. We have to wait for his teammate to settle the rental car.” Renee paused. “And I’m never too busy to check on my first-born.”

Bella rolled onto her back. “I’m your only-born.”

“Even better. So how are you?”

“I’m fine.”

She chuckled mirthlessly. “That’s a Swan-ism, you know. Saying you’re ‘fine’ when you’re obviously not. I hate ‘fine.’”

Bella closed her eyes, remembering another person in her life who hated to hear she was ‘fine.’

The person who was the reason she was anything but.

“Fine. I mean, I’m not fine. But I’m not not fine enough to want to talk about it.”

“See?” Renee was undisturbed by her syntax. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“It isn’t the worst thing I’ve done in the past few days.”

“You know, Phil doesn’t need me here. It’s only a three-game series, so I could hop on the bus and come home. We could curl up in our jammies, eat junk food, and watch movies until we pass out.”

“Mom, I appreciate it, really. But I’m fin—perfectly content alone. I’m probably going to lounge around, maybe go to the beach.”

“Ooh, that sounds fun.” She cleared her throat. “Only, uh… I need a little favor first.”

“What kind of favor?”

“Oh, it’s really nothing. See, the season’s almost over, and Phil’s agent needs him to review some new contracts or something.” Not even marriage could improve Renee’s indifference to detail. “They’re being Fed Ex’d to the house today and have to be signed for.”

Bella glanced at the window wistfully, seeing the sunshine through different eyes. There was no way to get lost in the surf and sun until that package came. And it’d be just her luck the delivery driver wouldn’t pass their block until sunset.

Even her simplest plans were derailed by someone else’s whims.

“You could sit on the back porch and catch some rays,” Renee continued. “You can’t see the beach, but there’s an unobstructed view of our neighbor’s rose garden. She won second prize in a local competition this summer.”

Bella swallowed her cranky reply.

“…stab you in the eye with her pearl-handled shears if you touch them, but she doesn’t mind the admiration,” Renee was saying. “Now her husband has been known to stroll around outside in his swimsuit. But he’s really nice and makes great iced tea. And if he only faces forward, you’d never know he was wearing a thong….”

Bella shook her head to clear it of the image. “I think I’ll stay indoors, catch up on my soaps.”

“Oooh, good, because things are heating up on Days of our Lives! Stefano is back.”

“Hasn’t he died twice in the past ten years?”

“Honey, you can’t kill Stefano DiMera. He’s practically immortal.” Renee laughed, not noticing when Bella didn’t. “Oh, our car is ready. I’ll call you when we get to the hotel, okay?”

“If you insist, but I’ll be fi….” Bella hadn’t realized how often she used the f-word. “Have fun, Mom. And beware of groupies.”

“We will, honey. Thank you.” Renee lowered her voice. “And don’t worry. I’ve got brass knuckles and a Taser in my purse.”

Bella couldn’t be sure Renee was joking. “I love you, Mom. And thanks for letting me stay here.”

“Oh, Bella. You have a home wherever I am, and that will never change. And… whatever’s wrong, give it time. Things have a way of working themselves out.”

“I’ll text you when the package comes. Bye, Mom.”

Bella placed the phone back on its cradle. Talking to Renee was exhausting, but in Bella’s present condition, it was a mental pentathlon. She wouldn’t have confided in Renee about normal issues—difficult classes, uncertainty about college, Charlie’s Charlieness—let alone the impossible ones on her mind.

Ones requiring more than time to fix.

Stretching herself awake, Bella placing her feet on the fluffy purple rug Renee set beside her bed. The room was too frilly for Bella’s taste, but she appreciated the proof of Renee’s hope she’d come for a visit someday.

Though perhaps not unannounced the Saturday after her 18th birthday.

When Bella arrived on Renee’s doorstep with a suitcase and wary smile, Renee accepted her thin cover story. She paid for the cab against Bella’s wishes and did her best not to prod for details, inviting her instead to make herself comfortable.

But that comfort lasted only for the first three questions.

“And how’s Edward?”

“Oh, he’s fine.” Bella said brightly, despite her heart’s descent into the pit of her stomach. “He and his brothers went hunting this weekend, so I thought it’d be a good time to get away.”

“You couldn’t go if he weren’t busy?”

“It’s not like that, Mom.” Bella barely hid her irritation. “The timing just made sense.”

“Speaking of time, how long are you staying?”

Bella winced internally. “Not too long. I have an English exam on Thursday.”

Bella hoped Renee wouldn’t ask why she had no books or what excuse Charlie would give the school to cover her absence. Bella hadn’t thought that far ahead, hadn’t considered anything beyond the need to get away from Forks as soon as humanly possible.

“Okay, well.” Renee handed her the menu with an easy smile. “I’m thinking house lo mein, chicken and broccoli, and a pupu platter. What do you think?”

Bella forced her thoughts away from the weekend and padded to the unoccupied hall bathroom. After spotting the claw-foot tub Saturday night, she promised herself one good soak. Living with Charlie in such a small house made recreational bathing impossible, and after the week she’d had, this was the least she deserved.

Surveying Renee’s bounty of bath products, she bypassed all strawberry-related scents and chose a soothing lavender vanilla blend. She doubled the recommended amount to lose herself in suds and gathered her hair into a topknot. Her mother’s ancient radio rested on the shelf above the toilet, and she clicked it on before stepping into the steaming water. And as Stevie Nicks sang about the landslide, Bella closed her weary eyes and pretended she wasn’t crying.

Refreshed in body if nowhere else, Bella entered the kitchen to stop the gnawing in her stomach. She had no taste for anything particular, but after Saturday’s Chinese and last night’s Mexican, something simple and mild seemed the order of the day. Rummaging through the makeshift pantry, she unearthed a box of banana walnut muffin mix. Surprised to find eggs and oil, she didn’t push her luck by looking for a muffin tin, opting for a loaf pan instead.

With a large glass of milk and two thick slices of warm bread, she settled on the couch. She clicked the television to life with the remote, turning from whatever sport-themed channel Phil last watched. Bella flipped through cooking shows, historical documentaries, and movies of all kinds, but nothing held her interest. Annoyed with her scattered, restless brain, she settled on a Columbo marathon.

Halfway through the episode, she set the half-empty glass beside her plate on the coffee table and tucked her legs beneath her. Burrowing under the cozy throw Renee kept on the couch, she laid her head on the arm of the sofa. The bath and breakfast caught up to her, and as the rumpled lieutenant questioned the victim’s sketchy secretary, Bella fell asleep.

For the second time that morning, a ringing phone startled her awake. This time it was her cell phone in her hoodie pocket, and she couldn’t quell the hope blooming in her breast.

But reality sobered her as the caller’s identity flashed across her screen, and she forced away her disappointment as she muted the television. “Hey, Ang.”

“Bella? Is everything all right?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Because you’re not here.”

“Right.” Duh. “It was a long weekend, and I didn’t get much rest, so….”

“Taking a personal day, I totally get it.” Angela sounded relieved. “So how did the trial end?”

“Not the way I expected.” Bella managed to keep her voice neutral. “But uh, Rosalie wanted me to thank you for your time and help.”

“Oh, good. You know, Edward said the same thing, but I didn’t believe him.”

“Edward?” That stupid hope returned against her will. “You spoke to him?”

“Right before lunch. I was hoping to catch him in homeroom, but he was late.”

That was odd. Edward had never been late for anything in his life.

Immortal or otherwise.

“At first I thought you guys were ditching together,” Angela continued, “then he showed up alone, and…”

“What did he say?”

“That Rosalie and Emmett really appreciated me coming Saturday and being so honest. And uh…” She paused, and Bella stopped breathing. “That he didn’t mind me calling him ‘creepy.’”

Bella’s laugh was somewhat strangled. “I’m sure that was a relief.”

“You have no idea! I almost called you a dozen times this weekend to ask for his number so I could apologize. Then I thought it’d be better to do it in person. But he said I should never be sorry for telling the truth.”

“Did he say anything else? About this weekend, I mean?”

“No. But when I asked where you were, he said I should call you.” Angela sighed. “And I wish I hadn’t waited so long, but I was studying for a French exam, and now I have to run to the library to get this book for our group project in Ancient History, and…”

“It’s cool, Ang. I’ll catch you later.”

“Okay. Well, I know you’re not sick, but come back soon! Edward looks lost without you.”

Bella resisted an eye roll as she ended the call. She couldn’t believe Edward noticed her absence and refused to care if he did.

But despite her efforts, she could not drag her mind away from him.

And that pissed her off all over again.

There was no question Bella was hurt. Edward’s refusal to compromise wounded her someplace deep and unrelenting. Though she believed his stupidity was somehow rooted in love, that little detail could not remove the sting from his rejection.

If anything, it made it worse.

Bella was no Bible-thumper, but she knew what it said about love. It wasn’t selfish or arrogant, didn’t force his way. It endured, believed, hoped, and bore all things. And it was stronger and greater than either hope or faith.

Edward failed the first test with flying colors and was zero-for-four on the next. And as he had no faith in her and no hope in their love, the last part wasn’t worth considering.

Aggravated afresh, Bella unmuted the television, vowing again to put him out of her thoughts.

Afternoon bled into evening, and still that Fed Ex package hadn’t arrived. Renee didn’t give Bella a tracking number—likely because she didn’t have one—and it made little sense to request one now. If anything, Renee flubbed the dates and kept Bella inside all day for no reason.

Not that Bella hadn’t been productive.

After two episodes of Columbo—one which featured a favorite actress as a child guest star—she left the living room and contemplated the rest of her day. She decided against admiring the neighbor’s garden, afraid of what she might see, and reorganized the pantry instead, tossing out expired foods and creating a logical storage plan. This project led her to the refrigerator where she repeated the process, trusting her best judgment instead of the “smell test” to see if a Tupperwared item was still safe for human consumption.

She filled half a trash bag with questionable leftovers.

After creating a shopping list to replace what she tossed, she returned to the bathroom for a well-earned shower complete with shampoo and exfoliation. Though no longer expecting a delivery, she nevertheless donned a sports bra beneath her t-shirt and opted for thin pajama pants instead of shorts. And she combed out the tangles in her hair and gathered it in a sloppy ponytail to dry.

Deciding on a light dinner of soup and a sandwich, Bella ate at the kitchen counter to watch the sunset through the window above the sink. The colors were peaceful in their majesty, and Bella was rooted to the spot until the final fragments of the day were swallowed by the night’s advance.

Bella liked the night even as a child, finding it the best time to read uninterrupted. She could lose herself in whatever story captured her imagination with nothing on the horizon but decadent darkness.

Renee had never understood it.

But as this first night alone in Florida descended, the first night alone since the end of the trial, Bella was crushed by the weight of loneliness. It was bad enough she had none of her favorite books to comfort her. But Edward had invaded her nights and turned them into a waking dream. No longer something private and solitary, it was something to share and welcome with open arms.

Open arms with their cool, strong touch, enveloping her like a soft winter’s solstice.

Memories flooded her mind unbidden, and Bella felt herself slipping. It was too quiet, too empty in the house, and there was nothing to stop those memories from dragging her under the water in which she was trying to desperately not to drown.

“No.” Bella insisted to the silence. “Not yet.”

She yanked the curtains closed, which had little effect as they were sheer, and washed her dishes. As she dried and put them away, the doorbell rang. She nearly danced with glee at the sound, grateful for the distraction and company.

Though likely the last stop on the route, Bella hoped the delivery person was pleasant and looking to chat a bit. She would stop short of extending an invitation to come in, but she would certainly offer a hearty hello.

But when she opened the front door, the friendly greeting disappeared into thin air.

As did every rational thought she might have had.

“Hello, Bella,” Edward said. “May I come in?”

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