Midnight Sun (Twilight Continuation from Edward's POV)

Chapter 5: The Cullens

I ran home without a star in the sky. Entering by the backdoor, Esme and Alice seized me.

"Alice told us your afternoon with Bella went well." Esme enthused.

"Very well!" My sister skull dusted me with both hands.

They both looped an arm around each of mine to escort me from the kitchen to the great room.

"Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh!" Emmett, rushing forward from the hall, hefted me up into his favorite mixed martial arts hold.

"Right on bro! I knew you could do it!" He set me down hard and gestured for a high five to which I complied. "You're a total a nutjob." He shook his head. "But I suppose every self-respecting family has one."

With a little dance, Emmett celebrated internally. Yes! Yes! Yeees! I won... FINALLY!

"Time to ante-up, missy!" He gloated in the direction of the garage. Rose had secluded herself there, ignoring me and Emmett. I caught something in his head about Greco-Roman wrestling they had wagered against yesterday's outcome. Evidently, Rose lost.

I jumped out of my brother's headspace before it got graphic. Emmett sparred sportingly with Jasper, who turned up at that moment, before charging off in Rosalie's direction.

Meanwhile, Alice was devising ambitious schematics in her head for Jasper to renovate her closets. Rose wasn't the only who lost a bet.

"Hey Jazz," I said acknowledging his entrance into the great room.

"Edward," my brother gave me an apologetic look, "I'm glad it worked out yesterday… I mean it." What I heard from his thoughts, he did mean it.

"Thank you. I appreciate that." We traded grins that meant there were no hard feelings between us.

It was then Carlisle appeared from upstairs. He held out his hand for mine and shook it ardently. "Well done, son."

When he let go of it, I spoke. "Carlisle, I was thinking about what you said. I'd like to bring Bella by today to meet everyone and see where we live."

"Yes, we would love that!" Esme nearly squealed.

"That's a grand idea," my father smiled looking at Esme. "We'll look forward to that."

I turned to Jasper. "Please don't misunderstand me, but with everything that has happened…"

Before I could finish my brother stopped me. "I'll keep a safe distance. Don't worry. I look forward to making Bella's acquaintance."

Alice tapped her chin with a finger before flipping her hand in one direction when she mentioned, "You know, that's the first time you've referred to her as 'Bella,'" and then flapping it over in the other direction, "as opposed to the 'Swan girl', although, I'll admit it was catchy..." A cheeky smile dominated her features.

Jasper inclined his head to her screwing up his face. Then after a quick kiss, they wandered off holding hands.

Alice waved at me dreamily. "We'll see you soon, Edward. Can't wait to see Bella again."

Just as the pair vanished through the backdoor, my sister shot a glance at me.

That's when I saw it.

It was something long repressed, but her carefulness slackened under Jasper's influence. I had seen this vision before. However, the clarity of it was more impactful than every other transmission — Alice, her arms around an unearthly Bella with bloodstained eyes smiling, not at Alice, but directly — at me.

A snarl was unleashed before a swift rigor mortis bound my body.

Esme quavered, "Edward!"

"Edward, what's wrong?" My father demanded.

Both followed my sightline to the backdoor.

"It was Alice, wasn't it? You saw something?" Esme turned to me. With flagging confidence, I couldn't hold her gaze.

"Whatever it was you saw, remember, nothing is definite. Look at what transpired yesterday."

"Your mother is right. Alice's visions… they're not always reliable. You know this."

My head fell to my hands. No one spoke, nor could I hear their thoughts. Only two aspects of my bent frame were held in their minds.

Carlisle said soundlessly, The future is a malleable force that offers no promises. He next vocalized, "We may only rule the present. You've acted astutely, Edward, attributing to your triumph yesterday."

"Sweetheart," my mother stressed, "Carlisle and I could not be prouder of you. We know how much you care for Bella, how much you love her. We have faith in you, and your commitment to always… choose well." Esme's smile was dauntless.

Cleaving to parents assurances, I said. "I know. You're right." It came from a hallow conviction.

As I made my way back to Bella's home, I vowed to use every power to stop Alice's predictions. "But to what extent?" My conscious demanded. The fact that I loved Bella was irrefutable. But did I love her enough to leave her? I remained irresolute.

There were moments, I entertained the daydream of a real human boy courting this real human girl… and I was that boy. Someone with no secrets or demons. Someone of flesh and blood. A boy that could hold his beloved without fears of harming her. But I would knock myself down from that daydream that could only ever be a daydream.

There were moments, I wanted to trap Bella in my hands and keep her light and warmth for my own pleasure. She would be my personal sun, and I, a cold satellite contentedly orbiting around her.

There were moments, I thought of leaving. And if, when that happened... I would die.

In the end, between unfeasible daydreams and miserable reality, I didn't know what I would do. So I left the fate of my future to Bella. As long as she wanted me, I would stay even with the danger I posed. I was too selfish to "choose well," which inevitably meant letting her go. That I couldn't bear. And if I would be denied the dream then I would take and grab and horde what I could have. I confronted the dawn with a greedy jubilance I would have never thought possible. The promise of seeing her face, hearing her voice, even the subjection of her scent was something I would not be without.

Racing back to Bella, I culled solace in the rim of light cheering the sullen sky. Earlier in the night, asleep in my arms, she spoke from her dreams.

"I love you, Edward." The memory repeated in my mind chasing Alice's black prophecies and my own bitter ruminations from my thoughts.

When I reached Bella's home, I found her father connecting the Chevy's battery cables before departing for another fishing trip. Chief Swan's antics were amusing but not incredibly inventive. Once the cruiser drove away, I levered through Bella's bedroom window right into the rocking chair. I communed with her as she slept until sunlight chinked through the clouds.

Just as I left her, she remained swaddled in the quilt but for an arm that blindfolded her eyes. She then let out a groan and spooled over to her side.

"Oh!" Bella sat up in instant wakefulness.

"Your hair looks like a haystack… but I like it!" I said admiringly.

"Edward! You stayed!" Bella threw out her arms pitching herself across the room and onto my lap. Then struck with sudden propriety, she froze.

I rubbed her back. "Of course."

Her open mouth curved into a smile, snuggling into my chest.

"I was sure it was a dream."

"You're not that creative," I went to kiss her, but before I could, Bella leapt forward and scampered to the door.

"Charlie!"

"He left an hour ago — after reattaching your battery cables, I might add. I have to admit I was disappointed. Is that really all it would take to stop you, if you were determined to go?"

Bella held on to the doorknob, slowly pivoting toward me.

"You're not usually this confused in the morning," and I invited her back into my empty arms for that kiss.

As I was about to snatch Bella up, she begged off, "I need another human minute."

I thought about it.

"I'll wait."

Bella backed out the door and up the stairs. By the time she strode back to her room, I worked out how I was going to bring up the idea of meeting my family. My arms had remained open when she reappeared.

"Welcome back." I pulled Bella into my lap. Mint and strawberries mixed with her scent when she curled up in my arms. And I began to rock us in a subdued rhythm.

She then eyed me suspiciously as I breathed her scent in deeply. "You left?" pinching the collar of my changed shirt.

In defense of my truancy, I explained, "I could hardly leave in the clothes I came in — What would the neighbors think?"

Bella's lips drooped into a sulk.

"You were very deeply asleep; I didn't miss anything." I kissed the top of her now brushed out hair, "The talking came earlier."

"What did you hear?" she moaned.

I spent half a minute poring over her face savoring a memory.

"You said you loved me."

"You know that already," she said softly, tucking her head into my shoulder.

"It was nice to hear, just the same."

A moment of complete stillness transpired. Then in the smallest voice Bella whispered, "I love you." It sounded deafeningly throughout the chambers of my heart, that if I didn't know better, I swore it beat then.

She loved me. Me! Bella. Loved. Me? And fate help me, help her — I loved Bella.

I wanted to tell her so, but the syllables wouldn't form in my mouth. This was important, and here I was without words. To top it off, my lungs failed to respire. I needed to breathe in order to speak.

Falling short of what I meant to say, I muttered, "You are my life now."

Bella nuzzled against me heating through my chest. In the space of what I wished was an eternity, we yielded to the peace of a consensual silence. I resumed rocking us back and forth until the sun's arrival scoured her room of all the shadows from the previous night.

Almost with reluctance I spoke, "Breakfast time."

In a startling movement, Bella's hands flew to her throat. With eyes bulging, she stared at me.

I gawped back at her.

"Kidding!" She revealed in devious giggle. "And you said I couldn't act!"

"That wasn't funny."

Bella wrinkled her nose. "It was very funny, and you know it."

These shenanigans were in absolute bad form, but one look at that smile, and I was fast to forgive her.

"Shall I rephrase?" I offered, "Breakfast time for the human."

"Oh, okay."

In a fireman's hold, I flung Bella over my shoulder, and despite her objections, drifted down the stairs depositing her neatly on a chair. The Swan kitchen sparkled like of a bowl of lemons wishing us a good morning. It was the greatest morning of all time.

Bella jockeyed forward in her seat. "What's for breakfast?"

I gave her one of those looks when you're uncertain someone's speaking to you. "Er, I'm not sure. What would you like?" I was mentally scrolling through my amassed recipes about to cross-reference them against the available provisions.

Bella smiled and sprang to her feet. "That's all right, I fend for myself pretty well. Watch me hunt."

She was poking fun at me.

"Can I get you anything?" she asked.

I made a face. "Just eat, Bella."

She jiggled something out of a box into a bowl and covered it with milk. As she moved the flotillas of her breakfast around with her spoon, I found it calming. This was useful as I prepared my pitch.

Then with perfect timing, Bella cleared her throat and said, "What's on the agenda for today?"

"Hmmmm…" Just as rehearsed, I proposed, "What would you say to meeting my family?"

She swallowed audibly.

"Are you afraid now?" Encouraged that she was, as Esme phrased it, "choosing well."

Her face solidified in a fretful expression. "Yes."

"Don't worry," I grimaced, "I'll protect you."

"I'm not afraid of them," she clarified. "I'm afraid they won't… like me. Won't they be, surprised that you would bring someone… like me… home to meet them?"

"Oh, they already know everything. They'd taken bets yesterday, you know." — I was grinning; yet, inside I buffered sharp disappointment against Jasper's and Rose's lack of faith in me — "On whether I'd bring you back, though why anyone would bet against Alice, I can't imagine. At any rate, we don't have secrets in the family. It's not really feasible, what with my mind reading and Alice seeing the future and all that."

"And Jasper making you feel all warm and fuzzy about spilling your guts, don't forget that."

"You paid attention," I said.

"I've been known to do that every now and then." Bella's smile changed into a smirk. "So did Alice see me coming?"

What? How? Taken completely off guard by what she said, a galaxy of images spun in my brain, burnishing that final portrait of Bella's crimson eyes.

"Something like that," I answered turning away from her.

I eagerly sought to veer from this path. "Is that any good?" Deeming her breakfast inconsumable, "Honestly, it doesn't' look very appetizing."

"Well, it's no irritable grizzly…," she teased.

I glared back mockingly, relieved interest in Alice's visions was deflected.

From out the kitchen windows, the cluster of trees that served to camouflage me before made me think of something else. Now that we sorted out my family, there were other considerations, primarily Chief Swan.

"And you should introduce me to your father, too, I think."

"He already knows you."

"As your boyfriend, I mean."

Bella peered up at me warily. "Why?"

"Isn't that customary?"

"I don't know." Her brow began to crease. "That's not necessary, you know. I don't expect you to… I mean, you don't have to pretend for me."

With all seriousness, I looked her straight in the eye. "I'm not pretending."

Bella absentmindedly dawdled with what was left of her breakfast and nearly chewed off her lip in thought.

"Are you going to tell Charlie I'm your boyfriend or not?" A proper courtship, even a partial one, was what I wanted. I was determined to have some small level of normal.

"Is that what you are?"

"It's a loose interpretation of the word 'boy,' I'll admit."

She lowered her eyes to the table. "I was under the impression that you were something more, actually."

My face formed a wide grimace as a thousand torches flared up inside me.

"Well, I don't know if we need to give him all the gory details." Bending over the table, I tipped her face up to mine. "But he will need some explanation for why I'm around here so much. I don't want Chief Swan getting a restraining order put on me."

"Will you be?" Bella leaned forward. "Will you really be here?"

"As long as you want me."

"I'll always want you," she whispered, "Forever."

One by one, I could feel those secret torches flicker out. My ribs crumpled inward like a dead star. Edging around the table, I reached out my hand until my fingertips met her cheek. Forever, I despaired silently, she doesn't know what she's saying, what she's committing herself to.

"Does that make you sad?"

I couldn't answer. I could only considered the expression that passed across her face. All I saw was hope. Condemnable hope.

If Bella were to reject me, if temperamental fate were to rescind her gift, it would have been worth every torment as long as it was mine to bear. But my conscience's heaviest burden was knowing the sacrifices Bella had made and the sacrifices she would make by choosing me. As much as I tried to convince myself to abide by Bella's decisions, I knew her survival would be left up to me choosing well.

I found my voice. "Are you finished?"

"Yes." She said, hopping out of her chair.

"Get dressed — I'll wait here."

Bella skipped off to change. After a few minutes, I heard her exit her bedroom and set out for the staircase where I waited for her.

"Okay," she announced as she gamboled down the stairs, "I'm decent."

She must have misjudged the distance between us because she careened right into me. Whoa! Correcting her balance, I stood her upright.

Bella had swept her hair up into a ponytail that I was instantly enthralled by her naked neck. My hands gripped her. All that smooth diaphanous skin… Then there was her scent. That persecuting addictive scent that pushed me into doing things I shouldn't. I corseted my arms around Bella.

"Wrong again," I whispered into her ear. It was so small so delicate I could swallow it whole. "You are utterly indecent — no one should look so tempting, it's not fair."

"Tempting how?" She fussed. "I can change…"

"You are so absurd." I said kissing her forehead while my fingers scaled down her back.

"Shall I explain how you are tempting me?" My lips naturally gravitated to hers, and for the second time — I kissed her.

Right out of a page from an antebellum novella, Bella swooned in my arms.

"Bella?" I said frantically, propping her up.

She swayed in my clutches. "You… made… me… faint."

"What am I going to do with you?" I moaned. "Yesterday I kiss you, and you attack me! Today you pass out on me!"

An anemic laugh escaped her trembling frame.

"So much for being good at everything."

"That's the problem." She gazed at me with an addled expression. "You're too good. Far, far too good."

"Do you feel sick?" recalling her dizzy spell from yesterday.

"No — that wasn't the same kind of fainting at all. I don't know what happened." She was looking at her shoes. "I think I forgot to breathe."

"I can't take you anywhere like this."

"I'm fine," she assured. "Your family is going to think I'm insane anyway, what's the difference?"

As I assessed Bella's fitness to walk much less meet my supernatural family, I saw that she wore the cobalt blouse I liked. With a lovelorn pang, I grinned. "I'm very partial to that color with your skin."

She blushed rubies and turned away. "Look, I'm trying really hard not to think about what I'm about to do, so can we go already?"

"And you're worried, not because you're headed to meet a houseful of vampires, but because you think those vampires won't approve of you, correct?"

"That's right," she said with confounding matter-of-factness.

I shook my head. "You're incredible."

Bella didn't protest when I played chauffer. We trundled in her truck beyond the outskirts of town, over the Calawah River Bridge and past widely distanced businesses and loosely planned communities. Puttering by houses that became grander and scarcer, I turned sharply onto our unpaved drive that was hidden under thickets of ferns, brushwood, and overarching hemlocks.

The truck's strident engine would certainly clue my family of our arrival as we took the promenade around a grove of ancient trees and circled the front lawn sided by mature cedars that led to our home.

A couple of miles back, Esme's thoughts and words rang clear. She's here! "She's here!" She herald enthusiastically.

Rosalie sneered, "Come Emmett!"

"Baby, don't you want to meet Bella first?" he suggested. "Come on, it'll be fun."

"Absolutely NOT!" A booming crash followed.

Through Emmett's perceptions, I saw him motion to Jasper. Rosalie didn't say another word.

The next sound I heard was the fleet-footed gait of Rosalie and Emmett racing toward the forest behind our home. I wasn't concerned. I had seen worst from my sister.

As we neared the house, I watched Bella curiously review the surroundings, relieved she was spared Rosalie's tantrum.

"Wow."

I parked the Chevy in front of my home. "You like it?"

Bella peered at me sideways. "It… has a certain charm." Reaching over, I tugged on her ponytail.

"Ready?" I asked when I opened the passenger door.

"Not even a little bit — let's go." With strained laughter she patted down her hair.

"You look lovely." I grasped her hand. The motion felt more native to me than even hunting.

When we stepped onto the porch, Bella's escalating nervousness registered in her heartbeat. My thumb traced rings at the back of her hand, and opening one of the palladium double doors, I ushered her through.

Bella's mouth fell open as she considered the sight of the great room. The light of the midmorning sun kindled brightly. We walked through the entryway, our reflections visible against the opposite wall of windows.

I noticed my parents upon the raised level where the grand piano stood to our left. They were clad in their uniformly neutral colors. With the off-white tones of the furnishings and all the ubiquitous beige, I wondered what Bella was thinking as she processed what was before her.

"Carlisle, Esme," In the dense silence, it felt like I had just interrupted a church service. "This is Bella."

"You're very welcome, Bella." Carlisle cautiously approached us to shake Bella's hand.

"It's nice to see you again, Dr. Cullen."

"Please, call me Carlisle."

"Carlisle." Bella smiled. Her voice, to my amazement held none of her earlier anxiousness.

"It's very nice to know you," Esme said with a well-established fondness, extending her hand to Bella.

"Thank you. I'm glad to meet you, too." Although Bella was a "quiet girl" as Emmett once described, she had irresistible charm.

"Where are Alice and Jasper?" Just as I read their minds, I heard them at the top of the staircase.

"Hey, Edward!" Alice hailed.

With Jasper in tow, she flitted down the stairs coming at a standstill in front of us. Carlisle and Esme joined me in casting disapproving glances at my sister.

"Hi, Bella!" Alice welcomed. Then with perfect liberty, she sashayed forward planting a kiss on Bella's cheek. Looks of remonstration abounded.

I'm so happy she's here! I wonder what she makes of our little abode… Now, isn't that a smart blouse… Oh, I do like her hair that way. It's quite becoming… Alice hounded me with her internal asides. My body cemented in response.

From the expression on Bella's face, she was taken by surprise along with the rest of my family at Alice's gusto, but to my relief, Bella seemed pleased. Before Bella saw me do it, I fired Alice a reproving glance.

"You do smell nice, I never noticed before," Alice complimented aloud. Bella's skin colored a ravishing rosette to which an uncomfortable silence entered the room.

As this went on, Jasper was milling at the foot of the stairs. His presence became pronounced when the atmosphere improved dramatically. I checked him with a brief stare.

"Hello, Bella," Jasper received her cordially but did not approach.

"Hello, Jasper." Bella grinned and then addressed everyone. "It's nice to meet you all — you have a very beautiful home."

"Thank you," Esme said. "We're so glad that you came." What a brave, dear, young woman! Bella is lovely. Esme expressed soundlessly.

But my father's thoughts drew the rest of my attention. Edward. My eyes ticked over to him. Alice foresees we will soon be receiving visitors. They've taken a detour to the East but should arrive in our borders within the week.

With a brief nod to Carlisle, I immediately became watchful. By "visitors" I understood other vampires were on their way. In a paranoiac response, I began charting measures in my mind to ensure Bella's safety.

She was admiring the Steinway on the second level.

"Do you play?" Esme inquired. I refocused on their conversation.

Bella shook her head. "Not at all. But it's so beautiful. Is it yours?"

"No," Esme chuckled, "Edward didn't tell you he was musical?"

"No." Bella turned her head to me and crinkled her eyes. "I should have known, I guess."

My mother's face lit up questioningly.

Bella continued, "Edward can do everything, right?"

Whaaat? Hold on. Jasper cracked up inwardly and sniggered outwardly. Wait til' Emmett hears this one! Adding death by hysterics as one of the few ways to kill a vampire.

Esme gazed at me with reproach. "I hope you haven't been showing off — it's rude."

"Just a bit," I admitted.

Well I suppose men are apt to go unchecked when wooing their "inamorata" as they say. And it's clearly working. Just listening to her heart race… how endearing. My mother's soft smile echoed her thoughts.

"He's been too modest, actually," Bella said in my defense.

Esme decided to contradict her own prior objections. "Well, play for her."

I had to point out, "You just said showing off was rude."

"There are exceptions to every rule."

"I'd like to hear you play." Bella prompted.

"It's settled then." My mother nudged me toward the piano.

Tugging Bella along, I seated her on the bench next to me. I felt a bit put on the spot. There was no telling if Bella was going to like what she was about to hear. Why ruin a perfect morning? I looked at her with a frown then turned my attention to the concert grand.

My fingers swept the keys in scales and arpeggios. The notes then flowed into the song I composed for Esme, which I played as a thank you for my family's hospitality towards Bella. I angled myself to Bella, only to see her jaw drop in surprise. My family quietly laughed in unison.

There was an upswing of emotion during the next section of the melody. I winked at her, "Do you like it?"

"You wrote this?"

I nodded. "It's Esme's favorite."

Bella closed her eyes and shook her head.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm feeling extremely insignificant."

After several measures of switching key signatures, I transitioned into Bella's lullaby. The phrasing became meditative and less embellished.

"You inspired this one." The rhapsody proliferated with the sentiment I held for her without any concern to my sappiness and the risk of eternal taunting from my siblings.

Thinking of them… "They like you, you know." In truth, half my family already loved Bella and that wasn't even counting me.

"Esme especially," I said.

Peeking behind her, she noticed that the room had emptied.

"Where did they go?"

"Very subtly giving us some privacy, I suppose."

Bella sighed. "They like me. But Rosalie and Emmett…"

"Don't worry about Rosalie," I said with some confidence. "She'll come around." Although, I wasn't entirely certain if my sister's attitude adjustment would be achieved any time soon.

Bella's mouth sealed into a hard line. She didn't seem convinced either.

"Emmett?"

"Well, he thinks I'm a lunatic, it's true, but he doesn't have a problem with you. He's trying to reason with Rosalie."

"What is it that upsets her?"

I exhaled my discouragement. "Rosalie struggles the most with… with what we are. It's hard for her to have someone on the outside know the truth. And she's a little jealous."

"Rosalie is jealous of me?" Bella spluttered in disbelief.

"You're human," I explained. "She wishes that she were, too."

"Oh," Bella's lowered lashes swept her cheeks, "Even Jasper, though…"

"That's really my fault," I confessed. "I told you he was the most recent to try our way of life. I warned him to keep his distance." I thought I perceived her shiver.

"Esme and Carlisle…?" Bella hastened, to cover her reaction.

"Are happy to see me happy. Actually, Esme wouldn't care if you had a third eye and webbed feet. All this time she's been worried about me, afraid that there was something missing from my essential makeup, that I was too young when Carlisle changed me… She's ecstatic. Every time I touch you, she just about chokes with satisfaction."

"Alice seems very… enthusiastic."

"Alice has her own way of looking at things," I said obliquely.

"And you're not going to explain that, are you?"

Bella knew I was keeping something from her. She knew that I knew this. What began as a look between us became a staring competition. I won. But Bella would no doubt revisit this matter another time.

She then swapped subjects. "So what was Carlisle telling you before?"

"You noticed that, did you?"

She shrugged. "Of course." It called to mind our very first conversation. How strikingly observant she was… and how exceptionally inconvenient.

"He wanted to tell me some news — he didn't know if it was something I would share with you."

"Will you?"

"I have to, because I'm going to be a little… overbearingly protective over the next few days — or weeks — and I wouldn't want you to think I'm naturally a tyrant."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, exactly. Alice just sees some visitors coming soon. They know we're here, and they're curious."

"Visitors?"

"Yes… well, they aren't like us, of course — in their hunting habits, I mean. They probably won't come into town at all, but I'm certainly not going to let you out of my sight till they're gone."

Bella shuddered much more noticeably this time.

"Finally, a rational response!" I applauded. "I was beginning to think you had no sense of self-preservation at all."

Bella ignored my barb and looked around evaluating the rest of the room.

My eyes followed hers. "Not what you expected, is it?'

"No," she admitted.

"No coffins, no piled skulls in the corners; I don't even think we have cobwebs… what a disappointment this must be for you."

"It's so light… so open."

My reply was unintentionally somber: "It's the one place we never have to hide."

I had reached the last movement of the piece, ending in the final melancholic chord.

"Thank you," Bella whispered. A smile graced her lips. Then to my alarm, I saw that she was crying. With the back of her hand, she began to blot her eyes.

With fascination, I touched the corner of her eye and rescued a tear. It instantly cooled on my finger.

Like sleep, the inability to cry was another vampire congenital condition. I placed my finger in my mouth. Bella's tears were a savory complement to her aromatically sweet blood.

She stared at me nonplussed.

I grinned, "Do you want to see the rest of the house?"

"No coffins?" Her tone was both sarcastic and nervous. Laughing, I confiscated her hand to lead her away from the piano.

"No coffins." I confirmed.

Up the broad staircase, I guided Bella to the first landing. "Rosalie and Emmett's room… Carlisle's office… Alice's room…" Identifying each corresponding door as we walked by.

At the end of the hall, Bella perused the cruciform mounted on the wall. I snickered at her stumped expression.

"You can laugh," I said. "It is sort of ironic."

"It must be very old."

"Early sixteen-thirties, more or less."

Her head turned to me. "Why do you keep this here?"

"Nostalgia. It belonged to Carlisle's father."

"He collected antiques?"

"No. He carved this himself. It hung on the wall above the pulpit in the vicarage where he preached."

Bella's eyes enlarged.

"Are you all right?"

With her sightline set ponderously on the cross, she asked, "How old is Carlisle?"

"He just celebrated his three hundred and sixty-second birthday." I recognized the innumerable questions forming behind Bella's eyes as I continued. "Carlisle was born in London, in the sixteen-forties, he believes. Time wasn't marked as accurately then, for the common people anyway. It was just before Cromwell's rule, though."

I then began a story never told to a mortal.

"He was the only son of an Anglican pastor. His mother died giving birth to him. His father was an intolerant man. As the Protestants came into power, he was enthusiastic in his persecution of Roman Catholics and other religions. He also believed very strongly in the reality of evil. He led hunts for witches, werewolves… and vampires."

Bella tried not to react when I mentioned "vampires." Yet the word we had been avoiding fell seamlessly into my narrative.

"They burned a lot of innocent people — of course the real creatures that he sought were not so easy to catch.

"When the pastor grew old, he placed his obedient son in charge of the raids. At first Carlisle was a disappointment; he was not quick to accuse, to see demons where they did not exist. But he was persistent, and more clever that his father. He actually discovered a coven of true vampires that lived hidden in the sewers of the city, only coming out by night to hunt. In those days, when monsters were not just myths and legends, that was the way many lived.

"The people gathered their pitchforks and torches, of course" — I said with a derisive laugh — "and waited where Carlisle had seen the monsters exit into the street. Eventually one emerged.

"He must have been ancient, and weak with hunger. Carlisle heard him call out in Latin to the others when he caught the scent of the mob. He ran through the streets, and Carlisle — he was twenty-three and very fast — was in the lead of the pursuit. The creature could have easily outrun them, but Carlisle thinks he was too hungry, so he turned and attacked. He fell on Carlisle first, but the others were close behind, and he turned to defend himself. He killed two men, and made off with a third, leaving Carlisle bleeding in the street."

As I shared Carlisle's tale, I expunged the particulars of vampire transfiguration, vigilant of the vow I made against Alice's prophecies.

"Carlisle knew what his father would do. The bodies would be burned — anything infected by the monster must be destroyed. Carlisle acted instinctively to save his own life. He crawled away from the alley while the mob followed the fiend and his victim. He hid in a cellar, buried himself in rotting potatoes for three days. It's a miracle he was able to keep silent, to stay undiscovered.

"It was over then, and he realized what he had become."

Bella looked peaked.

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine," she muttered. Her bottom lip disappeared under her upper row of teeth.

"I expect you have a few more questions for me." I ventured.

"A few," she said.

"Come on, then." I linked my hand with hers and steered her back down the hall. "I'll show you."

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