15. THE CULLENS
15. THE CULLENS
The muted light of yet another cloudy day eventually woke me. I lay with my arm across my eyes, groggy and dazed. Something, a dream trying to be remembered, struggled to break into my consciousness. I moaned and rolled on my side, hoping more sleep would come. And then the previous day flooded back into my awareness.
"Oh!" I sat up so fast it made my head spin.
"Your hair looks like a haystack... but I like it." His unruffled voice came from the rocking chair in the corner.
"Edward! You stayed!" I rejoiced, and thoughtlessly threw myself across the room and into his lap. In the instant that my thoughts caught up with my actions, I froze, shocked by my own uncontrolled enthusiasm. I stared up at him, afraid that I had crossed the wrong line.
But he laughed.
"Of course," he answered, startled, but seeming pleased by my reaction. His hands rubbed my back.
I laid my head cautiously against his shoulder, breathing in the smell of his skin.
"I was sure it was a dream."
"You're not that creative," he scoffed.
"Charlie!" I remembered, thoughtlessly jumping up again and heading to the door.
"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?"
I deliberated where I stood, wanting to return to him badly, but afraid I might have morning breath.
"You're not usually this confused in the morning," he noted. He held his arms open for me to return. A nearly irresistible invitation.
"I need another human minute," I admitted.
I skipped to the bathroom, my emotions unrecognizable. I didn't know myself, inside or out. The face in the mirror was practically a stranger - eyes too bright, hectic spots of red across my cheekbones. After I brushed my teeth, I worked to straighten out the tangled chaos that was my hair. I splashed my face with cold water, and tried to breathe normally, with no noticeable success. I half-ran back to my room.
It seemed like a miracle that he was there, his arms still waiting for me. He reached out to me, and my heart thumped unsteadily.
"Welcome back," he murmured, taking me into his arms.
He rocked me for a while in silence, until I noticed that his clothes were changed, his hair smooth.
"You left?" I accused, touching the collar of his fresh shirt.
"I could hardly leave in the clothes I came in - what would the neighbors think?"
"You were very deeply asleep; I didn't miss anything." His eyes gleamed. "The talking came earlier."
I groaned. "What did you hear?"
His gold eyes grew very soft. "You said you loved me."
"You knew that already," I reminded him, ducking my head.
"It was nice to hear, just the same."
I hid my face against his shoulder.
"I love you," I whispered.
"You are my life now," he answered simply.
There was nothing more to say for the moment. He rocked us back and forth as the room grew lighter.
"Breakfast time," he said eventually, casually - to prove, I'm sure, that he remembered all my human frailties.
So I clutched my throat with both hands and stared at him with wide eyes. Shock crossed his face.
"Kidding!" I snickered. "And you said I couldn't act!"
He frowned in disgust. "That wasn't funny."
"It was very funny, and you know it." But I examined his gold eyes carefully, to make sure that I was forgiven. Apparently, I was.
"Shall I rephrase?" he asked. "Breakfast time for the human."
He threw me over his stone shoulder, gently, but with a swiftness that left me breathless. I protested as he carried me easily down the stairs, but he ignored me. He sat me right side up on a chair.
The kitchen was bright, happy, seeming to absorb my mood.
"What's for breakfast?" I asked pleasantly.
That threw him for a minute.
"Er, I'm not sure. What would you like?" His marble brow puckered.
I grinned, hopping up.
"That's all right, I fend for myself pretty well. Watch me hunt."
I found a bowl and a box of cereal. I could feel his eyes on me as I poured the milk and grabbed a spoon. I sat my food on the table, and then paused.
"Can I get you anything?" I asked, not wanting to be rude.
He rolled his eyes. "Just eat, Bella."
I sat at the table, watching him as I took a bite. He was gazing at me, studying my every movement. It made me self-conscious. I cleared my mouth to speak, to distract him.
"What's on the agenda for today?" I asked.
"Hmmm..." I watched him frame his answer carefully. "What would you say to meeting my family?"
"Are you afraid now?" He sounded hopeful.
"Yes," I admitted; how could I deny it - he could see my eyes.
"Don't worry." He smirked. "I'll protect you."
"I'm not afraid of them," I explained. "I'm afraid they won't... like me. Won't they be, well, surprised that you would bring someone... like me... home to meet them? Do they know that I know about them?"
"Oh, they already know everything. They'd taken bets yesterday, you know" - he smiled, but his voice was harsh - "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," he smiled approvingly.
"I've been known to do that every now and then." I grimaced. "So did Alice see me coming?"
His reaction was strange. "Something like that," he said uncomfortably, turning away so I couldn't see his eyes. I stared at him curiously.
"Is that any good?" he asked, turning back to me abruptly and eyeing my breakfast with a teasing look on his face. "Honestly, it doesn't look very appetizing."
"Well, it's no irritable grizzly..." I murmured, ignoring him when he glowered. I was still wondering why he responded that way when I mentioned Alice. I hurried through my cereal, speculating.
He stood in the middle of the kitchen, the statue of Adonis again, staring abstractedly out the back windows.
Then his eyes were back on me, and he smiled his heartbreaking smile.
"And you should introduce me to your father, too, I think."
"He already knows you," I reminded him.
"As your boyfriend, I mean."
I stared at him with suspicion. "Why?"
"Isn't that customary?" he asked innocently.
"I don't know," I admitted. My dating history gave me few reference points to work with. Not that any normal rules of dating applied here. "That's not necessary, you know. I don't expect you to... I mean, you don't have to pretend for me."
His smile was patient. "I'm not pretending."
I pushed the remains of my cereal around the edges of the bowl, biting my lip.
"Are you going to tell Charlie I'm your boyfriend or not?" he demanded.
"Is that what you are?" I suppressed my internal cringing at the thought of Edward and Charlie and the word boy friend all in the same room at the same time.
"It's a loose interpretation of the word 'boy,' I'll admit."
"I was under the impression that you were something more, actually," I confessed, looking at the table.
"Well, I don't know if we need to give him all the gory details." He reached across the table to lift my chin with a cold, gentle finger. "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?" I asked, suddenly anxious. "Will you really be here?"
"As long as you want me," he assured me.
"I'll always want you," I warned him. "Forever."
He walked slowly around the table, and, pausing a few feet away, he reached out to touch his fingertips to my cheek. His expression was unfathomable.
"Does that make you sad?" I asked.
He didn't answer. He stared into my eyes for an immeasurable period of time.
"Are you finished?" he finally asked.
I jumped up. "Yes."
"Get dressed - I'll wait here."
It was hard to decide what to wear. I doubted there were any etiquette books detailing how to dress when your vampire sweetheart takes you home to meet his vampire family. It was a relief to think the word to myself. I knew I shied away from it intentionally.
I ended up in my only skirt - long, khaki-colored, still casual. I put on the dark blue blouse he'd once complimented. A quick glance in the mirror told me my hair was entirely impossible, so I pulled it back into a pony tail.
"Okay." I bounced down the stairs. "I'm decent."
He was waiting at the foot of the stairs, closer than I'd thought, and I bounded right into him. He steadied me, holding me a careful distance away for a few seconds before suddenly pulling me closer.
"Wrong again," he murmured in my ear. "You are utterly indecent - no one should look so tempting, it's not fair."
"Tempting how?" I asked. "I can change..."
He sighed, shaking his head. "You are so absurd." He pressed his cool lips delicately to my forehead, and the room spun. The smell of his breath made it impossible to think.
"Shall I explain how you are tempting me?" he said. It was clearly a rhetorical question. His fingers traced slowly down my spine, his breath coming more quickly against my skin. My hands were limp on his chest, and I felt lightheaded again. He tilted his head slowly and touched his cool lips to mine for the second time, very carefully, parting them slightly.
And then I collapsed.
"Bella?" His voice was alarmed as he caught me and held me up.
"You... made... me... faint," I accused him dizzily.
"What am I going to do with you?" he groaned in exasperation. "Yesterday I kiss you, and you attack me! Today you pass out on me!"
I laughed weakly, letting his arms support me while my head spun.
"So much for being good at everything," he sighed.
"That's the problem." I was still dizzy. "You're too good. Far, far too
"Do you feel sick?" he asked; he'd seen me like this before.
"No - that wasn't the same kind of fainting at all. I don't know what happened." I shook my head apologeticallv, "I think I forgot to breathe."
"I can't take you anywhere like this."
"I'm fine," I insisted. "Your family is going to think I'm insane anyway, what's the difference?"
He measured my expression for a moment. "I'm very partial to that color with your skin," he offered unexpectedly. I flushed with pleasure, and looked away.
"Look, I'm trying really hard not to think about what I'm about to do, so can we go already?" I asked.
"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," I answered immediately, hiding my surprise at his casual use of the word.
He shook his head. "You're incredible."
I realized, as he drove my truck out of the main part of town, that I had no idea where he lived. We passed over the bridge at the Calawah River, the road winding northward, the houses flashing past us growing farther apart, getting bigger. And then we were past the other houses altogether, driving through misty forest. I was trying to decide whether to ask or be patient, when he turned abruptly onto an unpaved road. It was unmarked, barely visible among the ferns. The forest encroached on both sides, leaving the road ahead only discernible for a few meters as it twisted, serpentlike, around the ancient trees.
And then, after a few miles, there was some thinning of the woods, and we were suddenly in a small meadow, or was it actually a lawn? The gloom of the forest didn't relent, though, for there were six primordial cedars that shaded an entire acre with their vast sweep of branches. The trees held their protecting shadow right up to the walls of the house that rose among them, making obsolete the deep porch that wrapped around the first story.
I don't know what I had expected, but it definitely wasn't this. The house was timeless, graceful, and probably a hundred years old. It was painted a soft, faded white, three stories tall, rectangular and well proportioned. The windows and doors were either part of the original structure or a perfect restoration. My truck was the only car in sight. I could hear the river close by, hidden in the obscurity of the forest.
"You like it?" He smiled.
"It... has a certain charm."
He pulled the end of my ponytail and chuckled.
"Ready?" he asked, opening my door.
"Not even a little bit - let's go." I tried to laugh, but it seemed to get stuck in my throat. I smoothed my hair nervously.
"You look lovely." He took my hand easily, without thinking about it.
We walked through the deep shade up to the porch. I knew he could feel my tension; his thumb rubbed soothing circles into the back of my hand.
He opened the door for me.
The inside was even more surprising, less predictable, than the exterior. It was very bright, very open, and very large. This must have originally been several rooms, but the walls had been removed from most of the first floor to create one wide space. The back, south-facing wall had been entirely replaced with glass, and, beyond the shade of the cedars, the lawn stretched bare to the wide river. A massive curving staircase dominated the west side of the room. The walls, the high-beamed ceiling, the wooden floors, and the thick carpets were all varying shades of white.
Waiting to greet us, standing just to the left of the door, on a raised portion of the floor by a spectacular grand piano, were Edward's parents.
I'd seen Dr. Cullen before, of course, yet I couldn't help but be struck again by his youth, his outrageous perfection. At his side was Esme, I assumed, the only one of the family I'd never seen before. She had the same pale, beautiful features as the rest of them. Something about her heart-shaped face, her billows of soft, caramel-colored hair, reminded me of the ingénues of the silent-movie era. She was small, slender, yet less angular, more rounded than the others. They were both dressed casually, in light colors that matched the inside of the house. They smiled in welcome, but made no move to approach us. Trying not to frighten me, I guessed.
"Carlisle, Esme," Edward's voice broke the short silence, "this is Bella."
"You're very welcome, Bella." Carlisle's step was measured, careful as he approached me. He raised his hand tentatively, and I stepped forward to shake hands with him.
"It's nice to see you again, Dr. Cullen."
"Please, call me Carlisle."
"Carlisle." I grinned at him, my sudden confidence surprising me. I could feel Edward's relief at my side.
Esme smiled and stepped forward as well, reaching for my hand. Her cold, stone grasp was just as I expected.
"It's very nice to know you," she said sincerely.
"Thank you. I'm glad to meet you, too." And I was. It was like meeting a fairy tale - Snow White, in the flesh.
"Where are Alice and Jasper?" Edward asked, but no one answered, as they had just appeared at the top of the wide staircase.
"Hey, Edward!" Alice called enthusiastically. She ran down the stairs, a streak of black hair and white skin, coming to a sudden and graceful stop in front of me. Carlisle and Esme shot warning glances at her, but I liked it. It was natural - for her, anyway.
"Hi, Bella!" Alice said, and she bounced forward to kiss my cheek. If Carlisle and Esme had looked cautious before, they now looked staggered. There was shock in my eyes, too, but I was also very pleased that she seemed to approve of me so entirely. I was startled to feel Edward stiffen at my side. I glanced at his face, but his expression was unreadable.
"You do smell nice, I never noticed before," she commented, to my extreme embarrassment.
No one else seemed to know quite what to say, and then Jasper was there - tall and leonine. A feeling of ease spread through me, and I was suddenly comfortable despite where I was. Edward stared at Jasper, raising one eyebrow, and I remembered what Jasper could do.
"Hello, Bella," Jasper said. He kept his distance, not offering to shake my hand. But it was impossible to feel awkward near him.
"Hello, Jasper." I smiled at him shyly, and then at the others. "It's
nice to meet you all - you have a very beautiful home," I added conventionally.
"Thank you," Esme said. "We're so glad that you came." She spoke with feeling, and I realized that she thought I was brave.
I also realized that Rosalie and Emmett were nowhere to be seen, and I remembered Edward's too-innocent denial when I'd asked him if the others didn't like me.
Carlisle's expression distracted me from this train of thought; he was gazing meaningfully at Edward with an intense expression. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Edward nod once.
I looked away, trying to be polite. My eyes wandered again to the beautiful instrument on the platform by the door. I suddenly remembered my childhood fantasy that, should I ever win a lottery, I would buy a grand piano for my mother. She wasn't really good - she only played for herself on our secondhand upright - but I loved to watch her play. She was happy, absorbed - she seemed like a new, mysterious being to me then, someone outside the "mom" persona I took for granted. She'd put me through lessons, of course, but like most kids, I whined until she let me quit.
Esme noticed my preoccupation.
"Do you play?" she asked, inclining her head toward the piano.
I shook my head. "Not at all. But it's so beautiful. Is it yours?"
"No," she laughed. "Edward didn't tell you he was musical?"
"No." I glared at his suddenly innocent expression with narrowed eyes. "I should have known, I guess."
Esme raised her delicate eyebrows in confusion.
"Edward can do everything, right?" I explained.
Jasper snickered and Esme gave Edward a reproving look.
"I hope you haven't been showing off- it's rude," she scolded.
"Just a bit," he laughed freely. Her face softened at the sound, and they shared a brief look that I didn't understand, though Esme's face seemed almost smug.
"He's been too modest, actually," I corrected.
"Well, play for her," Esme encouraged.
"You just said showing off was rude," he objected.
"There are exceptions to every rule," she replied.
"I'd like to hear you play," I volunteered.
"It's settled then." Esme pushed him toward the piano. He pulled me along, sitting me on the bench beside him.
He gave me a long, exasperated look before he turned to the keys.
And then his fingers flowed swiftly across the ivory, and the room was filled with a composition so complex, so luxuriant, it was impossible to believe only one set of hands played. I felt my chin drop, my mouth open in astonishment, and heard low chuckles behind me at my reaction.
Edward looked at me casually, the music still surging around us without a break, and winked. "Do you like it?"
"You wrote this?" I gasped, understanding.
He nodded. "It's Esme's favorite."
I closed my eyes, shaking my head.
"I'm feeling extremely insignificant."
The music slowed, transforming into something softer, and to my surprise I detected the melody of his lullaby weaving through the profusion of notes.
"You inspired this one," he said softly. The music grew unbearably sweet.
I couldn't speak.
"They like you, you know," he said conversationally. "Esme especially."
I glanced behind me, but the huge room was empty now.
"Where did they go?"
"Very subtly giving us some privacy, I suppose."
I sighed. "They like me. But Rosalie and Emmett..." I trailed off, not sure how to express my doubts.
He frowned. "Don't worry about Rosalie," he said, his eyes wide and persuasive. "She'll come around."
I pursed my lips skeptically. "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 wasn't sure if I wanted to know the answer.
He sighed deeply. "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?" I asked incredulously. I tried to imagine a universe in which someone as breathtaking as Rosalie would have any possible reason to feel jealous of someone like me.
"You're human." He shrugged. "She wishes that she were, too."
"Oh," I muttered, still stunned. "Even Jasper, though..."
"That's really my fault," he said. "I told you he was the most recent to try our way of life. I warned him to keep his distance."
I thought about the reason for that, and shuddered.
"Esme and Carlisle... ?" I continued quickly, to keep him from noticing.
"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," he said through tight lips.
"And you're not going to explain that, are you?"
A moment of wordless communication passed between us. He realized that I knew he was keeping something from me. I realized that he wasn't going to give anything away. Not now.
"So what was Carlisle telling you before?"
His eyebrows pulled together. "You noticed that, did you?"
I shrugged. "Of course."
He looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds before answering. "He wanted to tell me some news - he didn't know if it was something I would share with 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."
"Nothing's wrong, exactly. Alice just sees some visitors coming soon. They know we're here, and they're curious."
"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."
"Finally, a rational response!" he murmured. "I was beginning to think you had no sense of self-preservation at all."
I let that one pass, looking away, my eyes wandering again around the spacious room.
He followed my gaze. "Not what you expected, is it?" he asked, his voice smug.
"No," I 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," he continued slyly.
I ignored his teasing. "It's so light... so open."
He was more serious when he answered. "It's the one place we never have to hide."
The song he was still playing, my song, drifted to an end, the final chords shifting to a more melancholy key. The last note hovered poignantly in the silence.
"Thank you," I murmured. I realized there were tears in my eyes. I dabbed at them, embarrassed.
He touched the corner of my eye, trapping one I missed. He lifted his finger, examining the drop of moisture broodingly. Then, so quickly I couldn't be positive that he really did, he put his finger to his mouth to taste it.
I looked at him questioningly, and he gazed back for a long moment before he finally smiled.
"Do you want to see the rest of the house?"
"No coffins?" I verified, the sarcasm in my voice not entirely masking the slight but genuine anxiety I felt.
He laughed, taking my hand, leading me away from the piano.
"No coffins," he promised.
We walked up the massive staircase, my hand trailing along the satin-smooth rail. The long hall at the top of the stairs was paneled with a honey-colored wood, the same as the floorboards.
"Rosalie and Emmett's room... Carlisle's office... Alice's room..." He gestured as he led me past the doors.
He would have continued, but I stopped dead at the end of the hall, staring incredulously at the ornament hanging on the wall above my head. Edward chuckled at my bewildered expression.
"You can laugh," he said. "It is sort of ironic."
I didn't laugh. My hand raised automatically, one finger extended as if to touch the large wooden cross, its dark patina contrasting with the lighter tone of the wall. I didn't touch it, though I was curious if the aged wood would feel as silky as it looked.
"It must be very old," I guessed.
He shrugged. "Early sixteen-thirties, more or less."
I looked away from the cross to stare at him.
"Why do you keep this here?" I wondered.
"Nostalgia. It belonged to Carlisle's father."
"He collected antiques?" I suggested doubtfully.
"No. He carved this himself. It hung on the wall above the pulpit in the vicarage where he preached."
I wasn't sure if my face betrayed my shock, but I returned to gazing at the simple, ancient cross, just in case. I quickly did the mental math; the cross was over three hundred and seventy years old. The silence stretched on as I struggled to wrap my mind around the concept of so many years.
"Are you all right?" He sounded worried.
"How old is Carlisle?" I asked quietly, ignoring his question, still staring up.
"He just celebrated his three hundred and sixty-second birthday," Edward said. I looked back at him, a million questions in my eyes.
He watched me carefully as he spoke.
"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 kept my face composed, aware of his scrutiny as I listened. It was easier if I didn't try to believe.
"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." I grew very still at the word. I'm sure he noticed, but he went on without pausing.
"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 than 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" - his brief laugh was darker now - "and waited where Carlisle had seen the monsters exit into the street. Eventually one emerged."
His voice was very quiet; I strained to catch the words.
"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."
He paused. I could sense he was editing something, keeping something from me.
"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."
I'm not sure what my face was revealing, but he suddenly broke off.
"How are you feeling?" he asked.
"I'm fine," I assured him. And, though I bit my lip in hesitation, he must have seen the curiosity burning in my eyes.
He smiled. "I expect you have a few more questions for me."
His smile widened over his brilliant teeth. He started back down the hall, pulling me along by the hand. "Come on, then," he encouraged. "I'll show you."