A Love Worth Defending

Epilogue: The Hands of Time

Bella scurried into her bedroom with a towel around her body, grateful Charlie was in the backyard and wouldn’t catch her. A glance at the clock revealed she had some time but not nearly enough to prepare for tonight.

Tonight.

A bevy of butterflies let loose in her belly, and she smiled. Eight months ago, she wouldn’t have thought a night like this could come. Eight months ago, in the span of three days, she thought she lost it all.

What a difference time could make.

When Bella returned home eight months ago, Charlie greeted her in the driveway with a bone-crushing hug. Neither spoke for several moments, relief washing through them in equal measure. When at last he released her, Charlie averted his gaze and offered to order a pizza.

If Bella noticed the moisture on his face, she didn’t comment.

Charlie never mentioned his conversation with Edward at the station, though he suspected it helped because Bella still welcomed Edward into their home.

The reduced frequency notwithstanding.

Bella and Edward eased their way back into each other’s lives. She drove herself to school and work and kept her windows closed at night. She reached the decision as they flew home from Florida and informed Edward when they touched down in Forks.

“I’m not trying to punish you,” she said with their hands still clasped. “I just want to start fresh, like a normal couple without fear of exposing secrets or the threat of rogue vampires.”

He nodded. “And though you are too kind to mention it, I should like to be invited into your room this time rather than take it upon myself to climb through your window.”

She shook her head, but a twinkle danced in his eyes. “Besides, I didn’t properly court you, Ms. Swan, and I intend to change that.”

And change it he did.

He slipped love poems in her locker, his natural scent infusing every line and space. She came home to find a perfect single stem in a bud vase on her porch, delighted by the variety and beauty of the blooms.

He took her to the movies, miniature golfing, and dinner-without-dancing. He whisked her high into the trees to watch the sunset, holding her close as she oohed and aahed in wonder. And when he walked her to her door at the end of the night, his chaste kiss to her lips set her soul aflame.

Halloween found them packed in the Volvo with Alice and Jasper to attend Jessica Stanley’s annual party. For senior year, she went all out with skeletons hanging from the second-floor railing, cobwebs in every corner and crevice, and a mysterious misty punch which frightened even the undead.

“Vampire or not, I wouldn’t drink that stuff with Emmett’s lips,” Jasper said.

Jasper and Alice’s dentist and tooth fairy costumes won the night’s competition, but Bella and Edward’s regular clothes earned only stares and confusion. When Ben finally gave up guessing, Angela laughed aloud upon learning they were “Aloof Girl” and “Broody Boy.”

Jessica was far less amused.

Thanksgiving found the Cullen clan in Bella’s kitchen. Having spent the morning volunteering around the city—and finding no polite way to escape Charlie’s insistence on a proper dinner—they faked their way through Bella’s turkey and trimmings. Emmett even helped himself to an extra slice of pumpkin pie.

Trading places for Christmas, Charlie and Bella braved the dusty snow and arrived at the Cullen mansion with frosty toes and warm smiles. Esme and Alice outdid themselves with the ceiling-high tree and tastefully decked halls, but it was the two-year In-Fisherman subscription bearing Charlie’s name that solidified Bella’s joy. She threw her arms around Esme in the kitchen, kissing her cheek.

While Charlie, Jasper, and Emmett marveled at a rare Christmas Day television appearance by their beleaguered Sonics, Edward gave Bella her gift. When she opened the gilded envelope, her mouth fell open.

“The Royal Shakespeare Company is performing Romeo & Juliet in New York this summer?”

Edward’s smile was too innocent. “What are the chances?”

“Edward Cullen, did you arrange for them to perform this play for me?”

Edward continued studying the draperies then finally grinned her way. “Such machinations turned out to be unnecessary. But they would have been well worth it to achieve that smile.”

Bella leaned in and kissed him, lingering longer than she had in some time. “I love you.”

He licked his lips, unable to help it. “As I love you.”

She nuzzled his nose with her own, hugging the gift to her chest with an Alice-worthy squeak.

Edward chuckled. “Definitely worth it.”

“Your gift is at home.”

“It’s okay,” Edward said. “Seeing you happy is gift enough.”

“If you say so.” She rolled her eyes playfully. “But I want you to have it while it’s still Christmas. Come by tonight after Charlie’s asleep.”

Edward later confessed not understanding her instructions, but when he pulled up to the Swan residence after receiving Bella’s confirmation text, his heart swelled to the point of bursting.

Her bedroom window was open.

Bella waited for him in the middle of her floor, her brightened gaze fixed on his face. She barely blinked as he climbed in and shut the window behind him. When at last he took her in his arms, she sighed, feeling the final weight from their past dissolve into nothing.

“Welcome home,” she whispered, and he kissed the top of her head.

“Bella?” A knock on the door snapped her back to the present. “Alice is on the phone downstairs. Says you need to stop ignoring her.”

“What is she…” Bella grabbed her cell phone from her nightstand. Eight missed calls, half as many texts. “Tell her I’m calling right now!”

“Will do,” Charlie yelled back.

“I’m sorry,” Bella said by way of greeting. “My ringer was off.”

“Good thing my visions are not,” Alice snapped, though Bella could tell she wasn’t really annoyed. “Otherwise I might have to drive over there.”

“And interrupt your pre-prom preparations? What would the neighbors think?”

“We don’t have any neighbors. I just wanted to make sure you were all set for tonight.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Bella inspected her outfit for the umpteenth time. “Head to toe, I’m covered.”

“I wish you would have let me come help or even Rose. You know she’d do it.”

“I know.” Bella’s relationship with Rosalie was one of the strangest blessings to emerge from the chaos and one for which she was most grateful. “She was here earlier, braiding my hair.”

“I knew it! She said she had to go buy Emmett new underwear for tonight, which I should have known was a ruse because Emmett doesn’t wear underwear on special occasions.”

Bella lotioned her legs. “That’s more than I needed to know, Al.”

“Just for that, I shouldn’t tell her what Emmett’s planning for the first dance.”

“If you want to risk Rosalie’s wrath, be my guest.”

“She is much scarier in heels,” Alice said. “So are you nervous?”

“About tonight?” Bella asked. “No. Not really. Sort of.”

Alice chuckled. “That sounds about right.”

“I just…beyond the pomp and circumstance, I feel like something huge is on the horizon. But you know what? I’m not gonna worry about it. As long as it involves Edward, I am all in.”

Alice’s grin flooded her voice. “Tonight is going to be epic, Bella.”

“Is that your gift talking?”

“Nope.” Alice popped the ‘p’. “Just my enthusiastic opinion as your BFF and Edward’s favorite sister.”

“I heard that,” Rosalie said in the background. “And I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Are you talking crap after that little stunt you pulled today?”

Bella noted the snark in Rosalie’s reply. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Emmie needed undies.”

“Yeah, right,” Alice said. “And do you think eight months of humanity can’t erase decades of acidity?”

“I think your clairvoyance has given you an elevated sense of importance.”

“That’s it! Bella, I need to go put Rosalie in her place.”

“She needs her head examined!” Rosalie called out.

“Watch out, Blondie!” Alice’s voice faded from the phone. “You’re gonna eat those words.”

Bella laughed as she hung up, wishing she were there. Despite their differences, Alice and Rosalie seldom argued as Alice could see the winner before Rosalie raised her first point. These predictions only aggravated Rosalie further, producing the next argument. Round and round they’d go until Esme intervened or Carlisle threatened to cancel their credit cards.

There was a man who knew his daughters.

Bella set her phone on her nightstand, noting the time. Edward would be here soon, and she wasn’t dressed. She was thankfully low maintenance and could be ready in minutes, but as she slipped on her shoes, the trembling of her fingers gave her away.

She was nervous.

So nervous that when Charlie next knocked on her door, she yelped in surprise. “Yes?”

“Edward’s here.” Charlie paused. “You okay in there?”

“Uh, yeah. I’ll be right down!”

Bella laid a hand over her heart to keep it in her chest and took a few calming breaths. With a final glance in the mirror, Bella headed downstairs to meet her man.

He stood at the bottom of the stairs, his crooked smile making her heart race anew. She knew he could hear it, and the thought made her blush more. But as his smile widened with her every step, Bella forgot to be embarrassed.

She wasn’t the only one affected.

“Hello, Ms. Swan.” He kissed the back of her hand. “You look lovely this evening.”

Bella gave him a slow smile. “Thank you, Mr. Cullen.”

“All right, kids.” Charlie cleared his throat, breaking their eye contact. “I know this is prom night, but same rules apply. No drinking, no drugs, no illegal activity, and nothing that could make me a grandfather.”

“Dad!” Bella’s cheeks flamed as Edward studied the patterns in the floor. “I cannot believe you said that!”

“Just wanted it on the record. Now as long as you’re back before I leave for work tomorrow, consider yourself on time.”

Bella hugged him, surprising him with a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for the leeway.”

“Yeah, well.” He waved her off, fixing Edward with a hard glare. “Don’t make me regret it.”

“Never,” Edward said.

Charlie left the hall and returned to his Mariners game. “Have fun.”

Extending his arm to Bella, Edward escorted her to his car. With a quick glance around, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her, his lips cool but passionate. “Hi.”

She was breathless. “Hey.”

“You do look amazing.” He gave her another once over. “Really amazing.”

She swatted his arm. “You act like I’ve never worn shorts before.”

“Gym shorts through others’ eyes don’t count. The up-close version is far superior. And denim cutoffs?” He whistled. “Yes, indeed.”

“You’re biased, but I’ll take it.” She kissed him quickly. “Now get in the car before Charlie changes his mind about letting me skip prom.”

Edward bowed. “Yes, ma’am.”

When Bella told Charlie she wasn’t going to prom, he objected in the strongest terms, going on about rites of passage and tradition. He further stunned her with money for a dress and permission to spend the weekend celebrating, but she still declined. It was only after a conversation with Billy Black of all people that Bella realized what was going on.

Charlie didn’t want to say goodbye.

“I know it doesn’t make sense,” Billy confided during the Swan’s last visit to the reservation. “But Charlie sees your refusal to go to prom as a declaration of independence. If you don’t need prom, then you don’t need him anymore.”

Bella wasn’t about to endure chiffon and corsages to appease her father, but she couldn’t let him worry about losing her. So as they drove home from Billy’s that night, she said, “This has been the best year of my life.”

Charlie sighed. “Do I have to sit through an ‘Edward’s so great’ speech right now?”

“Edward is a part of it, but he’s not the only man in my life.” When Charlie didn’t reply, she added, “Just promise you won’t turn my room into a gym after I leave for Dartmouth.”

It was then Charlie looked at her, his eyes unreadable.

“I’m gonna need a place to sleep when I come home for breaks,” she continued. “And that couch is not the answer.”

Charlie didn’t reply, and Bella thought Billy had been mistaken. But as they pulled into the Swan driveway, Charlie said, “A gym sounds good. How would you feel about a sofa bed?”

Bella punched his arm and got out of the car, and Charlie never mentioned prom again.

“What are you thinking about?” Edward asked from the driver’s seat.

“Charlie. And Dartmouth. And next Thanksgiving.”

“Sometimes I consider it a blessing that I cannot read your thoughts.” Edward rolled the car to a stop and cut the engine. “I would be confused more often than not.”

“I mean, I didn’t think Forks could offer me anything.” Bella got out of the car. “Now it’s the center of my life. Sometimes that amazes me.”

“Know what amazes me?” Edward reached for her hand. “You.”

She laced their fingers together, keeping her comments about his bias to herself.

In silence, they took the familiar path to their favorite place. Though Edward hadn’t brought her here since the previous summer, the meadow was just as Bella remembered: wildflowers in every conceivable shade peppered the lush green grass with color, their blossoms swaying in the gentle evening breeze.

“Is this a good spot?” Edward asked.

“It’s perfect,” she replied with her eyes trained toward the setting sun.

Edward unfolded the blanket and set a picnic scene worthy of Martha Stewart Magazine. Besides the mini-containers of seasonal fruit, there was chilled bowtie pasta with chicken and pesto, spinach, tomato, and mozzarella wraps, and devil’s food cupcakes with cream cheese icing.

Bella swiped her finger through the thick, sweet topping. “Is there anything Esme can’t do?” She noted Edward’s focus on her lips. “What’s wrong?”

He tapped the side of his mouth with a finger. “You have a little….”

“Of course I do. I’ll just get a napkin, and…”

“Please.” His voice dropped an octave. “Allow me.”

Keeping his gaze locked on hers, Edward leaned forward and pressed his lips to the dollop of frosting beside Bella’s mouth. His tongue snuck out to swipe the spot clean, and the contact made them sigh.

“So sweet.” His gaze drifted toward her lips. “But not sweet enough.”

Their kiss was sensual and unhurried, her hand cupping his cheek as they moved together. She tilted her head and tasted icing on his tongue, colder yet every bit as delicious. When they broke apart, Bella’s smile was wider than the late spring sky. “I love you, Edward.”

He kissed her once more. “As I love you.”

While Bella ate her fill, Edward regaled her with an update on Alice and Rose’s argument, poorly hiding his pleasure that his sisters were fighting over him.

“It was Emmett who put an end to the whole thing,” he said. “By reminding them of my chronic indecisiveness, he pronounced me incapable of choosing a favorite sister.”

“It’s Rosalie, isn’t it?”

Edward glanced around. “Don’t tell anyone.”

He pulled out his phone and showed her pictures of the Cullen couples in their prom attire. Though Rosalie and Emmett were no longer students, Rose would never miss an opportunity to don a gorgeous gown, and tonight was no exception.

“I thought last year’s red dress was something.” Bella was awed by the backless emerald gown with its thigh-high slit. “But this is…”

“Subtlety was never her strong suit.” Edward smiled at the image. “But that’s Rosalie.”

“So Alice decided on the purple, I see.” The fashion-forward flapper dress fit her personality to a tee. “I should have known.”

“It was a last-minute decision. She saw some sophomore interloper wearing something marginally similar to the gold one and changed her mind.” Edward shook his head. “Have I told you how much I love your indifference to such things?”

“Not today.” Bella smiled. “But I’m sure I’ll care at some point.”

Edward raised an eyebrow. “To the point of having three dresses on stand-by?”

“No.” Bella’s blush returned. “But I’m sure there will be some occasion in our future where what I wear will matter to me.”

Edward set his phone beside him on the blanket. “Are you sure about that?”

“Yes.” Bella watched him pull out a gift bag from the basket, and a shot of panic raced through her. “But not today. I mean some day way out in the future. I’m talking months and years and decades.”

Edward chuckled. “Relax, love. It’s not what you think.”

Bella’s audible relief was laced with embarrassment. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He laid a cool palm atop her hand, soothing her nerves. “If anything, I am more certain than ever that this is the right thing to do.”

Bella swallowed hard as he set the bag between them. “What is it?”

Edward kept his head down and didn’t answer right away. Bella refrained from biting her bottom lip, choosing instead to squeeze the hand she was holding. Edward squeezed back, raising his gaze to hers.

“Bella, from the moment I realized I loved you, I feared time was not on our side. Beyond the differences in our physical design, I worried you would tire of me or worse: I would push you away. The latter was briefly true, as your grace and mercy saved us from disaster, and the former….” Edward crossed his fingers. “Let’s hope it never comes to that.”

“I will never tire of you.” Bella stroked his hand with her thumb. “Or of the way you love me.”

“And I am learning to silence my mind when it refutes you. As such, I wanted to give you a symbol of your immovable, essential place in my life, something to convey the depth of my commitment and my understanding of what’s important.

“We have settled much between us in the past few months,” he continued. “You’ve given me permission to purchase the vehicle of your choosing when your beloved truck dies. We have selected the off-campus apartment you’ll share with Alice and Rosalie at Dartmouth.”

“And the generous visitation policy.”

He smiled, and his voice dropped with sincerity. “But your potential change has not been mentioned since Florida. It weighs on my mind, and that will not do.”

Before Bella could reply, Edward took a flat square jewelry box out of the bag. Though Bella wouldn’t have thought it possible, his hand shook as he opened it.

Inside was an antique gold locket suspended from a thin gold necklace. Bella ran her fingers over the outside before unlocking it to reveal a stunning miniature clock with delicate Roman numerals around the face. She blinked at him in awe.

“This is a smaller replica of the Waltham pocket watch my father gave me on my 16th birthday,” he murmured. “He did so as a reminder to cherish each moment as it comes and leave the future to God as He alone knows it all.

“Bella, I want you for the rest of your life and would be honored if you chose to stay for the rest of mine. But with this gift, I place my time in your hands, accepting every precious second you spare, every minute you’re mine, every hour we have. With this gift, I relinquish my fear of tomorrow and release my faith that whatever time we have together will be more than enough.”

Edward lifted the necklace from the box, unclasping the chain. “May I?”

Bella nodded, not trusting her voice. Gathering her hair to one side, she leaned forward for Edward to place the chain around her neck. The locket came to rest in the center of her chest, and she felt its significance in her very soul.

Bella cupped Edward’s face in her hands, her eyes alight with love and gratitude. “Thank you.”

“Thank you.” He laid his hands atop hers. “For never giving up on me. For trusting me. For reminding me every day what it means to be alive. You are my everything, Isabella Swan, and I am so….”

Bella did interrupt him that time, but his eager response to her kiss suggested he didn’t mind. Wrapping her in his arms, Edward abandoned his train of thought and let their lips do the talking.

And Bella understood every word he didn’t say.

When they separated, Bella laid a hand on her necklace and met his eyes. “I’ll never take it off.”

And she kept her word.

Bella wore that necklace to graduation three weeks later where Charlie and Renee beamed from the audience. She wore it when she and Edward spent a rare rainy weekend with her mother and Phil in Florida, hiding her amusement as Edward pretended he’d never been there before. She wore it when she put the last suitcase in her truck the morning she left for Dartmouth, fighting tears as Charlie instructed her a fourth time on how to use pepper spray.

She wore it to Rosalie and Emmett’s sixth wedding the summer of her sophomore year and to the surprise anniversary party Alice threw for Carlisle and Esme at their Hanover home. She wore it to her college graduation, where Charlie attended with girlfriend Sue Clearwater which even Alice hadn’t seen coming. She wore it to Irina and Laurent’s unusual but touching nuptials in Denali the following month.

She wore it when she and Edward spent two years after graduation traveling the world alone. She wore it at the top of the Eiffel Tower, along the Great Wall, and through the canals of Venice where they happened to run into Rosalie and Emmett. She wore it in the Sydney Opera House, on the beaches of Cape Town, and at the Taj Mahal where Jasper and Alice somehow knew they’d be.

At least Carlisle and Esme asked to join them in Brazil.

And she wore it on that moonless night several weeks later when they were alone again and she looked at Edward and said, “I love this necklace, but I want to redeem the time it represents.”

He took her hands, scanning her eyes. “What are you saying?”

“Edward, I want to spend forever with you.” She smiled. “So I want to become a vampire.”

She wore it as Edward’s incredulity melted into elation, his eyes glazing over with unsheddable tears. She wore it as he dropped to his knees and thanked her for making him the happiest creature on earth.

And when Bella bent to kiss Edward, she felt their love being sealed in the annals of eternity, in a place where they had nothing but time on their side and no agenda but to be together.

Forever.

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