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Chapter 15 The Cullens

Chapter 15 The Cullens

The muted light of yet another cloudy day eventually woke me. I lay withmy arm across my eyes, groggy and dazed. Something, a dream trying to beremembered, struggled to break into my consciousness. I moaned and rolledon my side, hoping more sleep would come. And then the previous dayflooded 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 voicecame from the rocking chair in the corner.

  "Edward! You stayed!" I rejoiced, and thoughtlessly threw myself acrossthe room and into his lap. In the instant that my thoughts caught up withmy actions, I froze, shocked by my own uncontrolled enthusiasm. I staredup 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 ofhis skin.

  "I was sure it was a dream.""You're not that creative," he scoffed.

  "Charlie!" I remembered, thoughtlessly jumping up again and heading tothe door.

  "He left an hour ago — after reattaching your battery cables, I mightadd. I have to admit I was disappointed. Is that really all it would taketo stop you, if you were determined to go?"I deliberated where I stood, wanting to return to him badly, but afraid Imight have morning breath.

  "You're not usually this confused in the morning," he noted. He held hisarms open for me to return. A nearly irresistible invitation.

  "I need another human minute," I admitted.

  "I'll wait."I skipped to the bathroom, my emotions unrecognizable. I didn't knowmyself, inside or out. The face in the mirror was practically a stranger— eyes too bright, hectic spots of red across my cheekbones. After Ibrushed my teeth, I worked to straighten out the tangled chaos that wasmy hair. I splashed my face with cold water, and tried to breathenormally, with no noticeable success. I half-ran back to my room.

  It seemed like a miracle that he was there, his arms still waiting forme. 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 clotheswere 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 neighborsthink?" I pouted.

  "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 forthas the room grew lighter.

  "Breakfast time," he said eventually, casually — to prove, I'm sure, thathe 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 eyescarefully, to make sure that I was forgiven. Apparently, I was.

  "Shall I rephrase?" he asked. "Breakfast time for the human.""Oh, okay."He threw me over his stone shoulder, gently, but with a swiftness thatleft 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 Ipoured the milk and grabbed a spoon. I sat my food on the table, and thenpaused.

  "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 mouthto 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 tomeeting my family?" I gulped.

  "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 withmy 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 didAlice 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 mybreakfast with a teasing look on his face. "Honestly, it doesn't lookvery appetizing.""Well, it's no irritable grizzly…" I murmured, ignoring him when heglowered. I was still wondering why he responded that way when Imentioned 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 referencepoints 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'thave 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 mylip.

  "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 thoughtof Edward and Charlie and the word boy friend all in the same room at thesame time.

  "It's a loose interpretation of the word 'boy,' I'll admit.""I was under the impression that you were something more, actually," Iconfessed, looking at the table.

   "Well, I don't know if we need to give him all the gory details." Hereached across the table to lift my chin with a cold, gentle finger. "Buthe will need some explanation for why I'm around here so much. I don'twant 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, hereached out to touch his fingertips to my cheek. His expression wasunfathomable.

  "Does that make you sad?" I asked.

  He didn't answer. He stared into my eyes for an immeasurable period oftime.

  "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 etiquettebooks detailing how to dress when your vampire sweetheart takes you hometo 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 onthe dark blue blouse he'd once complimented. A quick glance in the mirrortold me my hair was entirely impossible, so I pulled it back into a ponytail.

  "Okay." I bounced down the stairs. "I'm decent."He was waiting at the foot of the stairs, closer than I'd thought, and Ibounded right into him. He steadied me, holding me a careful distanceaway for a few seconds before suddenly pulling me closer.

  "Wrong again," he murmured in my ear. "You are utterly indecent — no oneshould 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 coollips delicately to my forehead, and the room spun. The smell of hisbreath made it impossible to think.

  "Shall I explain how you are tempting me?" he said. It was clearly arhetorical question. His fingers traced slowly down my spine, his breathcoming more quickly against my skin. My hands were limp on his chest, andI felt lightheaded again. He tilted his head slowly and touched his coollips 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. "YesterdayI 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 good.""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 whathappened." 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 colorwith your skin," he offered unexpectedly. I flushed with pleasure, andlooked away.

  "Look, I'm trying really hard not to think about what I'm about to do, socan we go already?" I asked.

  "And you're worried, not because you're headed to meet a houseful ofvampires, but because you think those vampires won't approve of you,correct?""That's right," I answered immediately, hiding my surprise at his casualuse 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 hadno idea where he lived. We passed over the bridge at the Calawah River,the road winding northward, the houses flashing past us growing fartherapart, getting bigger. And then we were past the other houses altogether,driving through misty forest. I was trying to decide whether to ask or bepatient, 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 wewere suddenly in a small meadow, or was it actually a lawn? The gloom ofthe forest didn't relent, though, for there were six primordial cedarsthat shaded an entire acre with their vast sweep of branches. The treesheld their protecting shadow right up to the walls of the house that roseamong them, making obsolete the deep porch that wrapped around the firststory.

  I don't know what I had expected, but it definitely wasn't this. Thehouse was timeless, graceful, and probably a hundred years old. It waspainted a soft, faded white, three stories tall, rectangular and wellproportioned. The windows and doors were either part of the originalstructure or a perfect restoration. My truck was the only car in sight. Icould hear the river close by, hidden in the obscurity of the forest.

  "Wow.""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 toget 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 mytension; 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 originallybeen several rooms, but the walls had been removed from most of the firstfloor to create one wide space. The back, south-facing wall had beenentirely replaced with glass, and, beyond the shade of the cedars, thelawn stretched bare to the wide river. A massive curving staircasedominated 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 raisedportion 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 struckagain by his youth, his outrageous perfection. At his side was Esme, Iassumed, the only one of the family I'd never