“No. No way!” I shook my head fiercely and then shot a glance at the smug smile on my seventeen-year-old husband’s face. “No, this doesn’t count. I stopped aging three days ago. I am eighteen forever.”
“Whatever,” Alice said, dismissing my protest with a quick shrug. “We’re celebrating anyway, so suck it up.”
I sighed. There was rarely a point to arguing with Alice.
Her grin got impossibly wider as she read the acquiescence in my eyes.
“Are you ready to open your present?” Alice sang.
“Presents ,” Edward corrected, and he pulled another key—this one longer and silver with a less gaudy blue bow—from his pocket.
I struggled to keep from rolling my eyes. I knew immediately what this key was to—the “after car.” I wondered if I should feel excited. It seemed the vampire conversion hadn’t given me any sudden interest in sports cars.
“Mine first,” Alice said, and then stuck her tongue out, foreseeing his answer.
“Mine is closer.”
“But look at how she’s dressed .” Alice’s words were almost a moan. “It’s been killing me all day. That is clearly the priority.”
My eyebrows pulled together as I wondered how a key could get me into new clothes. Had she gotten me a whole trunkful?
“I know—I’ll play you for it,” Alice suggested. “Rock, paper, scissors.”
Jasper chuckled and Edward sighed.
“Why you don’t you just tell me who wins?” Edward said wryly.
Alice beamed. “I do. Excellent.”
“It’s probably better that I wait for morning, anyway.” Edward smiled crookedly at me and then nodded toward Jacob and Seth, who looked like they were crashed for the night; I wonder how long they’d stayed up this time. “I think it might be more fun if Jacob was awake for the big reveal, don’t you agree? So that someone there is able to express the right level of enthusiasm?”
I grinned back. He knew me well.
“Yay,” Alice sang. “Bella, give Ness—Renesmee to Rosalie.”
“Where does she usually sleep?”
Alice shrugged. “In Rose’s arms. Or Jacob’s. Or Esme’s. You get the picture. She has never been set down in her entire life. She’s going to be the most spoiled half-vampire in existence.”
Edward laughed while Rosalie took Renesmee expertly in her arms. “She is also the most un spoiled half-vampire in existence,” Rosalie said. “The beauty of being one of a kind.”
Rosalie grinned at me, and I was glad to see that the new comradeship between us was still there in her smile. I hadn’t been entirely sure it would last after Renesmee’s life was no longer tied to mine. But maybe we had fought together on the same side long enough that we would always be friends now. I’d finally made the same choice she would have if she’d been in my shoes. That seemed to have washed away her resentment for all my other choices.
Alice shoved the beribboned key in my hand, then grabbed my elbow and steered me toward the back door. “Let’s go, let’s go,” she trilled.
“Is it outside?”
“Sort of,” Alice said, pushing me forward.
“Enjoy your gift,” Rosalie said. “It’s from all of us. Esme especially.”
“Aren’t you coming, too?” I realized that no one had moved.
“We’ll give you a chance to appreciate it alone,” Rosalie said. “You can tell us about it… later.”
Emmett guffawed. Something about his laugh made me feel like blushing, though I wasn’t sure why.
I realized that lots of things about me—like truly hating surprises, and not liking gifts in general much more—had not changed one bit. It was a relief and revelation to discover how much of my essential core traits had come with me into this new body.
I hadn’t expected to be myself. I smiled widely.
Alice tugged my elbow, and I couldn’t stop smiling as I followed her into the purple night. Only Edward came with us.
“There’s the enthusiasm I’m looking for,” Alice murmured approvingly. Then she dropped my arm, made two lithe bounds, and leaped over the river.
“C’mon, Bella,” she called from the other side.
Edward jumped at the same time I did; it was every bit as fun as it had been this afternoon. Maybe a little bit more fun because the night changed everything into new, rich colors.
Alice took off with us on her heels, heading due north. It was easier to follow the sound of her feet whispering against the ground and the fresh path of her scent than it was to keep my eyes on her through the thick vegetation.
At no sign I could see, she whirled and dashed back to where I paused.
“Don’t attack me,” she warned, and sprang at me.
“What are you doing?” I demanded, squirming as she scrambled onto my back and wrapped her hands around my face. I felt the urge to throw her off, but I controlled it.
“Making sure you can’t see.”
“I could take care of that without the theatrics,” Edward offered.
“You might let her cheat. Take her hand and lead her forward.”
“Don’t bother, Bella. We’re doing this my way.”
I felt Edward’s fingers weave through mine. “Just a few seconds more, Bella. Then she’ll go annoy someone else.” He pulled me forward. I kept up easily. I wasn’t afraid of hitting a tree; the tree would be the only one getting hurt in that scenario.
“You might be a little more appreciative,” Alice chided him. “This is as much for you as it is for her.”
“True. Thank you again, Alice.”
“Yeah, yeah. Okay.” Alice’s voice suddenly shot up with excitement. “Stop there. Turn her just a little to the right. Yes, like that. Okay. Are you ready?” she squeaked.
“I’m ready.” There were new scents here, piquing my interest, increasing my curiosity. Scents that didn’t belong in the deep woods. Honeysuckle. Smoke. Roses. Sawdust? Something metallic, too. The richness of deep earth, dug up and exposed. I leaned toward the mystery.
Alice hopped down from my back, releasing her grip on my eyes.
I stared into the violet dark. There, nestled into a small clearing in the forest, was a tiny stone cottage, lavender gray in the light of the stars.
It belonged here so absolutely that it seemed as if it must have grown from the rock, a natural formation. Honeysuckle climbed up one wall like a lattice, winding all the way up and over the thick wooden shingles. Late summer roses bloomed in a handkerchief-sized garden under the dark, deep-set windows. There was a little path of flat stones, amethyst in the night, that led up to the quaint arched wooden door.
I curled my hand around the key I held, shocked.
“What do you think?” Alice’s voice was soft now; it fit with the perfect quiet of the storybook scene.
I opened my mouth but said nothing.
“Esme thought we might like a place of our own for a while, but she didn’t want us too far away,” Edward murmured. “And she loves any excuse to renovate. This little place has been crumbling away out here for at least a hundred years.”
I continued staring, mouth gaping like a fish.
“Don’t you like it?” Alice’s face fell. “I mean, I’m sure we could fix it up differently, if you want. Emmett was all for adding a few thousand square feet, a second story, columns, and a tower, but Esme thought you would like it best the way it was meant to look.” Her voice started to climb, to go faster. “If she was wrong, we can get back to work. It won’t take long to—”
“Shh!” I managed.
She pressed her lips together and waited. It took me a few seconds to recover.
“You’re giving me a house for my birthday?” I whispered.
“Us,” Edward corrected. “And it’s no more than a cottage. I think the word house implies more legroom.”
“No knocking my house,” I whispered to him.
Alice beamed. “You like it.”
I shook my head.
“I can’t wait to tell Esme!”
“Why didn’t she come?”
Alice’s smile faded a little, twisted just off what it had been, like my question was hard to answer. “Oh, you know… they all remember how you are about presents. They didn’t want to put you under too much pressure to like it.”
“But of course I love it. How could I not?”
“They’ll like that.” She patted my arm. “Anyhoo, your closet is stocked. Use it wisely. And… I guess that’s everything.”
“Aren’t you going to come inside?”
She strolled casually a few feet back. “Edward knows his way around. I’ll stop by… later. Call me if you can’t match your clothes right.” She threw me a doubtful look and then smiled. “Jazz wants to hunt. See you.”
She shot off into the trees like the most graceful bullet.
“That was weird,” I said when the sound of her flight had vanished completely. “Am I really that bad? They didn’t have to stay away. Now I feel guilty. I didn’t even thank her right. We should go back, tell Esme—”
“Bella, don’t be silly. No one thinks you’re that unreasonable.”
“Alone time is their other gift. Alice was trying to be subtle about it.”
That was all it took to make the house disappear. We could have been anywhere. I didn’t see the trees or the stones or the stars. It was just Edward.
“Let me show you what they’ve done,” he said, pulling my hand. Was he oblivious to the fact that an electric current was pulsing through my body like adrenaline-spiked blood?
Once again I felt oddly off balance, waiting for reactions my body wasn’t capable of anymore. My heart should have been thundering like a steam engine about to hit us. Deafening. My cheeks should have been brilliant red.
For that matter, I ought to have been exhausted. This had been the longest day of my life.
I laughed out loud—just one quiet little laugh of shock—when I realized that this day would never end.
“Do I get to hear the joke?”
“It’s not a very good one,” I told him as he led the way to the little rounded door. “I was just thinking—today is the first and last day of forever. It’s kind of hard to wrap my head around it. Even with all this extra room for wrapping.” I laughed again.
He chuckled with me. He held his hand out toward the doorknob, waiting for me to do the honors. I stuck the key in the lock and turned it.
“You’re such a natural at this, Bella; I forget how very strange this all must be for you. I wish I could hear it.” He ducked down and yanked me up into his arms so fast that I didn’t see it coming—and that was really something.
“Thresholds are part of my job description,” he reminded me. “But I’m curious. Tell me what you’re thinking about right now.”
He opened the door—it fell back with a barely audible creak—and stepped through into the little stone living room.
“Everything,” I told him. “All at the same time, you know. Good things and things to worry about and things that are new. How I keep using too many superlatives in my head. Right now, I’m thinking that Esme is an artist. It’s so perfect!”
The cottage room was something from a fairy tale. The floor was a crazy quilt of smooth, flat stones. The low ceiling had long exposed beams that someone as tall as Jacob would surely knock his head on. The walls were warm wood in some places, stone mosaics in others. The beehive fireplace in the corner held the remains of a slow flickering fire. It was driftwood burning there—the low flames were blue and green from the salt.
It was furnished in eclectic pieces, not one of them matching another, but harmonious just the same. One chair seemed vaguely medieval, while a low ottoman by the fire was more contemporary and the stocked bookshelf against the far window reminded me of movies set in Italy. Somehow each piece fit together with the others like a big three-dimensional puzzle. There were a few paintings on the walls that I recognized—some of my very favorites from the big house. Priceless originals, no doubt, but they seemed to belong here, too, like all the rest.
It was a place where anyone could believe magic existed. A place where you just expected Snow White to walk right in with her apple in hand, or a unicorn to stop and nibble at the rosebushes.
Edward had always thought that he belonged to the world of horror stories. Of course, I’d known he was dead wrong. It was obvious that he belonged here . In a fairy tale.
And now I was in the story with him.
I was about to take advantage of the fact that he hadn’t gotten around to setting me back on my feet and that his wits-scramblingly beautiful face was only inches away when he said, “We’re lucky Esme thought to add an extra room. No one was planning for Ness—Renesmee.”
I frowned at him, my thoughts channeled down a less pleasant path.
“Not you, too,” I complained.
“Sorry, love. I hear it in their thoughts all the time, you know. It’s rubbing off on me.”
I sighed. My baby, the sea serpent. Maybe there was no help for it. Well, I wasn’t giving in.
“I’m sure you’re dying to see the closet. Or, at least I’ll tell Alice that you were, to make her feel good.”
“Should I be afraid?”
He carried me down a narrow stone hallway with tiny arches in the ceiling, like it was our own miniature castle.
“That will be Renesmee’s room,” he said, nodding to an empty room with a pale wooden floor. “They didn’t have time to do much with it, what with the angry werewolves. . . .”
I laughed quietly, amazed at how quickly everything had turned right when it had all had looked so nightmarish just a week ago.
Drat Jacob for making everything perfect this way.
“Here’s our room. Esme tried to bring some of her island back here for us. She guessed that we would get attached.”
The bed was huge and white, with clouds of gossamer floating down from the canopy to the floor. The pale wood floor matched the other room, and now I grasped that it was precisely the color of a pristine beach. The walls were that almost-white-blue of a brilliant sunny day, and the back wall had big glass doors that opened into a little hidden garden. Climbing roses and a small round pond, smooth as a mirror and edged with shiny stones. A tiny, calm ocean for us.
“Oh” was all I could say.
“I know,” he whispered.
We stood there for a minute, remembering. Though the memories were human and clouded, they took over my mind completely.
He smiled a wide, gleaming smile and then laughed. “The closet is through those double doors. I should warn you—it’s bigger than this room.”
I didn’t even glance at the doors. There was nothing else in the world but him again—his arms curled under me, his sweet breath on my face, his lips just inches from mine—and there was nothing that could distract me now, newborn vampire or not.
“We’re going to tell Alice that I ran right to the clothes,” I whispered, twisting my fingers into his hair and pulling my face closer to his. “We’re going to tell her I spent hours in there playing dress-up. We’re going to lie .”
He caught up to my mood in an instant, or maybe he’d already been there, and he was just trying to let me fully appreciate my birthday present, like a gentleman. He pulled my face to his with a sudden fierceness, a low moan in his throat. The sound sent the electric current running through my body into a near-frenzy, like I couldn’t get close enough to him fast enough.
I heard the fabric tearing under our hands, and I was glad my clothes, at least, were already destroyed. It was too late for his. It felt almost rude to ignore the pretty white bed, but we just weren’t going to make it that far.
This second honeymoon wasn’t like our first.
Our time on the island had been the epitome of my human life. The very best of it. I’d been so ready to string along my human time, just to hold on to what I had with him for a little while longer. Because the physical part wasn’t going to be the same ever again.
I should have guessed, after a day like today, that it would be better.
I could really appreciate him now—could properly see every beautiful line of his perfect face, of his long, flawless body with my strong new eyes, every angle and every plane of him. I could taste his pure, vivid scent on my tongue and feel the unbelievable silkiness of his marble skin under my sensitive fingertips.
My skin was so sensitive under his hands, too.
He was all new, a different person as our bodies tangled gracefully into one on the sand-pale floor. No caution, no restraint. No fear—especially not that. We could love together —both active participants now. Finally equals.
Like our kisses before, every touch was more than I was used to. So much of himself he’d been holding back. Necessary at the time, but I couldn’t believe how much I’d been missing.
I tried to keep in mind that I was stronger than he was, but it was hard to focus on anything with sensations so intense, pulling my attention to a million different places in my body every second; if I hurt him, he didn’t complain.
A very, very small part of my head considered the interesting conundrum presented in this situation. I was never going to get tired, and neither was he. We didn’t have to catch our breath or rest or eat or even use the bathroom; we had no more mundane human needs. He had the most beautiful, perfect body in the world and I had him all to myself, and it didn’t feel like I was ever going to find a point where I would think, Now I’ve had enough for one day . I was always going to want more. And the day was never going to end. So, in such a situation, how did we ever stop ?
It didn’t bother me at all that I had no answer.
I sort of noticed when the sky began to lighten. The tiny ocean outside turned from black to gray, and a lark started to sing somewhere very close by—maybe she had a nest in the roses.
“Do you miss it?” I asked him when her song was done.
It wasn’t the first time we’d spoken, but we weren’t exactly keeping up a conversation, either.
“Miss what?” he murmured.
“All of it—the warmth, the soft skin, the tasty smell… I’m not losing anything at all, and I just wondered if it was a little bit sad for you that you were.”
He laughed, low and gentle. “It would be hard to find someone less sad than I am now. Impossible, I’d venture. Not many people get every single thing they want, plus all the things they didn’t think to ask for, in the same day.”
“Are you avoiding the question?”
He pressed his hand against my face. “You are warm,” he told me.
It was true, in a sense. To me, his hand was warm. It wasn’t the same as touching Jacob’s flame-hot skin, but it was more comfortable. More natural.
Then he pulled his fingers very slowly down my face, lightly tracing from my jaw to my throat and then all the way down to my waist. My eyes rolled back into my head a little.
“You are soft.”
His fingers were like satin against my skin, so I could see what he meant.
“And as for the scent, well, I couldn’t say I missed that. Do you remember the scent of those hikers on our hunt?”
“I’ve been trying very hard not to.”
“Imagine kissing that.”
My throat ripped into flames like pulling the cord on a hot-air balloon.
“Precisely. So the answer is no. I am purely full of joy, because I am missing nothing. No one has more than I do now.”
I was about to inform him of the one exception to his statement, but my lips were suddenly very busy.
When the little pool turned pearl-colored with the sunrise, I thought of another question for him.
“How long does this go on? I mean, Carlisle and Esme, Em and Rose, Alice and Jasper—they don’t spend all day locked in their rooms. They’re out in public, fully clothed, all the time. Does this… craving ever let up?” I twisted myself closer into him—quite an accomplishment, actually—to make it clear what I was talking about.
“That’s difficult to say. Everyone is different and, well, so far you’re the very most different of all. The average young vampire is too obsessed with thirst to notice much else for a while. That doesn’t seem to apply to you. With the average vampire, though, after that first year, other needs make themselves known. Neither thirst nor any other desire really ever fades . It’s simply a matter of learning to balance them, learning to prioritize and manage. . . .”
He smiled, wrinkling his nose a little. “Rosalie and Emmett were the worst. It took a solid decade before I could stand to be within a five-mile radius of them. Even Carlisle and Esme had a difficult time stomaching it. They kicked the happy couple out eventually. Esme built them a house, too. It was grander than this one, but then, Esme knows what Rose likes, and she knows what you like.”
“So, after ten years, then?” I was pretty sure that Rosalie and Emmett had nothing on us, but it might sound cocky if I went higher than a decade. “Everybody is normal again? Like they are now?”
Edward smiled again. “Well, I’m not sure what you mean by normal. You’ve seen my family going about life in a fairly human way, but you’ve been sleeping nights.” He winked at me. “There’s a tremendous amount of time left over when you don’t have to sleep. It makes balancing your… interests quite easy. There’s a reason why I’m the best musician in the family, why—besides Carlisle—I’ve read the most books, studied the most sciences, become fluent in the most languages.… Emmett would have you believe that I’m such a know-it-all because of the mind reading, but the truth is that I’ve just had a lot of free time.”
We laughed together, and the motion of our laughter did interesting things to the way our bodies were connected, effectively ending that conversation.