A Love Worth Defending

Of Hugs and Hellos

Edward stood on the edge of the rock, his eyes focused on the simmering embers in the center of the stone circle. The fire burned out hours ago, but still he remained, refusing to move until the final curlicue of sweet smoke evaporated.

He would see it through.

It was too soon to gloat about the ease of Victoria's death, to recall the satisfaction of closing his hands around her narrow throat and squeezing until it turned to dust. He saw little point in smiling at the memory of her head rolling off his stacked palms, staring sightlessly at nothing once it hit the ground. For without the ultimate prize in his grasp, his victory would be hollow.

His phone rang in his pocket, and its ringtone prompted him to whip out the phone, pressing "Talk" with a grimace. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Not a single thing," came the slightly Southern reply. "She's asleep in the next room."

Edward blew out a breath so strong, the smoldering ashes on the ground blew away. "I'm on my way.”

As he neared the motel, Edward felt the weight in his chest lighten a bit. But it wasn't the corporate Cullen relief at Victoria's death or the touching realization that all six of them flew across the country to be there if he needed them.

It was, and always would be, a heartbeat. The steady, soothing music of life beating inside the woman he loved.

Though his family could sense his nearness, Edward leaned against a tree across the street to revel in the serenity of the sound. For everything Edward couldn't know without reading Bella's mind, there was something sacred in her heartbeat which never failed to calm the confusion in his soul.

And that was quite an accomplishment.

He had no clue where they stood, no reason to hope Bella would consent to see him when she awoke in a few hours. He promised to stay away until she called for him, and though she said his name before opening the door to Victoria, he could not assume she would have invited him in had he been the actual visitor. If anything, she might have sent him away again, perhaps with a pointed order to return to Forks and wait for her there.

There was no way to know.

His phone rang again, and this time, the ringtone made him roll his eyes. "I'm outside," he said. "Why are you calling?"

"Because it's rude to shout," his smallest sister said. "Now get up here."

Following her orders as usual, Edward sped across the street and upstairs to the indicated suite, unsurprised when Alice met him at the door with a smirk. "You're late."

Pushing her gently out of the way, Edward entered the room, taking its mental temperature. Jasper was by the window, replaying his conversation with Bella on a loop. Though he sensed no duplicity at the time, Jasper found it difficult to believe she had truly forgive him for his attack on her birthday. And though Edward wanted to add his reassurances, he left his brother to it, hoping to soon have a similar problem.

Carlisle and Esme smiled at him from the seating area, their minds joyful at his return and optimistic that all was not lost for him and his lady love. He nodded at them, unable to speak.

Alice stood by his side, her all-knowing gaze making him want to push her again.

"Ah-ah-ah." She shook a chiding finger at him. "That's no way to treat your favorite sister."

"Who said you were my favorite?" Edward asked. "There's always Rosalie."

"Yeah, there is." Emmett's booming voice preceded him out of the bathroom where he’d finished his second shower. "And after what she did tonight, she's got that title locked up."

Edward's eyes widened. "What did she do?"

Jasper paused in his musing to replay the entire scene between Bella and Rosalie in his mind, and Edward was stunned. Her secret visit to Bella's room before he left Forks was one thing, but extending herself to Bella as well...

"It was no big deal." Rosalie walked through the front door, another stack of towels in her hand. "Your girl was overwhelmed, and I was just the first to…"

Before Rosalie could finish her sentence, Edward was across the room with his arms around her. "Thank you so much."

The room went silent with shock. Edward and Rosalie seldom shared ten pleasant words in a year, and now they were hugging?

Rosalie dropped the towels—which Alice caught before they hit the ground—and patted Edward's back, a soft smile touching her lips. "You're welcome, Grasshopper."

As Esme sighed with pride, Rosalie shoved Edward across the room, straightening her clothes. "Now would you people please stop hugging me?"

After a fourth shower for Emmett—he hated smelling like the ocean—three Cullen couples decided to return to Forks.

"Alice needs to be in school today," Esme said. "Even if she arrives late."

"And we need to be home," Carlisle added, "in case Chief Swan has questions about Bella's impromptu vacation."

"I don't think Chief Swan will contact us," Alice said with a glance at Edward. She hadn't divulged their man-to-boyfriend talk to the family, and he appreciated her discretion. "But we should get going. If we hustle, we can make the next flight."

Esme hugged Edward with all the love in her heart. "Don't give up," she said. "You and Bella are a long way from over." Edward kissed her cheek with gratitude.

"Be easy, Bro." Emmett slapped Edward's back with enough force to double him over. "It's all good in the hood. And that girl in there, she's yours for the taking."

"Just don't screw it up," Rosalie huffed as she passed by. "Can't have my affection going to waste." Edward snorted a laugh, marveling at the newfound ease between him and his crankiest sister. Somehow in all this mess, Rosalie had come to respect him, and though he knew not how, it pleased him just the same.

"Jasper," Edward called out.

The former Major paused by the door, turning around with a wary gaze. Edward did not blink as he approached his brother with his hand outstretched. Jasper regarded it with a frown, shaking his head.

"Please, brother," Edward said. "Don't leave this between us."

Jasper sighed. "I do not deserve it."

"Thank God we seldom get what we deserve," Edward glanced at the wall between his room and the next. "Otherwise who among us would be where we are?"

From the corner of his eye, Edward saw Alice lace her fingers through those of Jasper's other hand. Jasper straightened and firmly shook Edward's hand, pumping it twice. With a mutual nod, all was forgiven.

Alice tugged Jasper toward the door, sparing a glance over her shoulder to mouth her gratitude to Edward. In her eyes, Edward saw her certainty that all would be well between him and Bella, and he could only pray to be as sure.

Once his family cleared the room, Edward had nothing ahead of him but the rest of his life until Bella called his name. Settling onto the bed, he leaned against the headboard, closed his eyes, and listened to Bella's heart play the music of his life.

Having spent the entire night listening to Bella sleep, fighting annoyance that for once she'd stayed silent, Edward was hard-pressed to tune her out the next morning. He knew she knew the Cullens were next door, but he didn't want to intrude on her privacy, especially if she didn't know he had returned. Retrieving his cell phone from his pocket, Edward sent Bella a quick message.

"Good morning. The family has gone home, but I am next door. I can go if you wish to be alone."

He heard the chimed receipt through the wall and held his breath as she padded across the room to flip open the phone.

She gasped softly, her heart rate ticking up, and he could almost see her nibbling her bottom lip in thought. He heard nothing for a moment then the phone being closed and returned to her nightstand. Her footsteps traveled away from him , and the bathroom door shut.

Esme told him Bella showered last night, so she wasn't about to repeat the exercise. Bella hadn't sent him away, so Edward suspected Bella would want to see him. And hopefully soon.

So he waited.

And waited and waited.

He recited the Book of Psalms backwards in Hebrew to keep from listening to her movements next door. He called to check in with Carlisle who confirmed their safe return to Forks. There was no indication their absence had been noticed, and with Alice back at school, everything seemed normal on the surface.

"There is but one piece missing now," Carlisle said. "And we hope it will find its rightful place soon."

"So do I, Carlisle," Edward admitted. "So do I."

Edward remade the hotel bed, programmed the bedside alarm clock with the proper time, and had finished cleaning the unused coffeemaker when he heard two short raps on the wall between their rooms.

"Edward?" she called softly.

He blurred to the wall and knocked back twice. "I'm here."

A gentle sigh was her first reply. “I'm calling you."

With an inward Emmett-like fist pump, Edward cleared his throat. "I'll be right there."

Edward stopped short of using vampire speed to reach her door but only just. With a trembling breath, he knocked three times. She exclaimed softly, mumbling something he didn't catch, and with a long exhale of her own, Bella opened the door.

She was loveliness personified, the soft green of her tank and matching yoga pants only augmenting that fact. Her strawberry shampoo retained its potency, blending perfectly with her natural scent to create the fragrance Edward associated with heaven on earth. She looked well-rested and ready, and that was a huge relief.

Edward didn't know what he expected of himself or what she expected him to do. But seeing her in front like this was his total undoing. In his mind's eye, he saw himself closing the space between them in one swift stride, pulling her into his arms, and kissing her senseless.

But some rational part of his being—a voice which sounded suspiciously like Rosalie's—warned that such a move would undermine his plan to let set the pace. So he swallowed the impulse, righting himself mentally, and offered a gentle, genuine smile instead. "Hi."

Bella's countenance brightened, and she answered with a smile of her own. "Hi." She stepped back into the room, beckoning him forward with a tilt of her head. "Come in."

He nodded once before crossing the threshold, and Bella closed the door behind her.

Now they could begin.

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