Edward gracefully descended to bent knee in front of Bella, reaching for her left hand. He reverently placed a black velvet-covered box in the center of her trembling palm and asked if she would do him the honor of becoming Mrs. Edward Cullen.
With bitter tears still streaming down her face from his latest rejection of her amorous advances, she stood paralyzed with shock—not speaking, barely breathing, staring at the square box, and dreading what she was sure was nestled inside.
When after several moments she still hadn’t said a word, Edward’s topaz eyes shifted from hopeful anticipation to puzzled concern, and then lit up as if he had been struck with a marvelous plan. He slowly lifted the rounded top of the hinged box, exposing the jewel encrusted ring within.
His lilting, lyrical words about it having been his mother’s, and something else about appraisals and total karat weight, were drowned out by the droning buzz in her head.
It was as if he didn’t know her at all. Hadn’t he ever truly listened to anything she had said?
He’d buy her expensive things—offered them ceaselessly—but wouldn’t share himself. He’d wax poetic for hours about the depth and breadth of his all-encompassing love, but he refused to tell her the things she wanted and needed to know.
Like all the gory details about what it was like to become and survive as a vampire.
Then it struck her that he never told her, and prevented anyone else from telling her, because it was information she wouldn’t need to know. He never planned on her becoming a vampire.
Was it that they weren’t allowed to tell her? What could Edward really do to any of them if they answered her questions? She would never know because she wasn’t permitted a single moment alone with any of them to ask—especially Jasper.
She knew Jasper had not meant for her to be hurt at her birthday party, and she knew, out of all of them, he would be the only one to speak the unvarnished truth to her. He would be willing to answer any question she had.
Not long after she and Alice had miraculously rescued Edward from Volterra, she had been making a sandwich in the kitchen, and Jasper appeared at the opposite end of the center work island.
“What do you want, Bella?” he had asked, his deep voice a mere whisper before he disappeared through the back door to join Emmett for the afternoon.
More than once, she had seen him sitting quietly, a book in his strong hands, as she passed by and thought she might be able to speak to him. She knew he wanted her to. She had felt his encouragement.
She had seen the look of disapproval in Jasper’s eyes when Edward would redirect the topic of conversation away from vampire behavior, or when he would dismiss her concerns about the Volturi, saying he would take care of everything.
What do you want?
She had seen that question in Jasper’s eyes each time. But each and every time, before she could take a step in his direction, Alice or Edward would appear and steer her away to something they thought was more interesting.
Even Emmett had given her searching looks before inviting her to be the second player in a video game. As soon as Bella had been annihilated, Edward or Alice had swept her away before Emmett would even have the chance to get out his full gloat.
They all knew what was at stake, yet Edward disregarded the real danger to Bella and his entire family, choosing instead to remain in his fantastically delusional romantic world. His plan was for Bella to remain human, and he would protect and save her by locking her away until her precious humanity finally imploded and she succumbed to the not-so-precious ravages of age and disease.
How normal of a human life would that be? Was he in love with her, or was he in love with his romantic notions of what he thought their life together would be?
Had she been asleep since they had somehow, seemingly against all odds, returned from Italy? When had she stopped thinking for herself?
Returning to the present, she blinked rapidly as she realized Edward was still kneeling before her. Once again, he had rebuffed her, removed her hands from his person, and tried to placate her with diamonds when all she wanted was a real life with him.
Or did she?
Over and over, she had relented and done what Edward and Alice had wanted to do, but what did she want? Had they ever really asked her? Or had the questions from Edward and Alice always been phrased in such a way that it appeared she was being given some sort of choice? Did she want to wear the teal dress or the midnight blue? Would she prefer to watch the 1968 critically acclaimed version of Romeo and Juliet on DVD or the 1954 adaptation on cable TV?
Had they ever asked her what she wanted?
Even his irresponsibly thoughtless trip to Italy had managed to take any real choice away from her and his family. He had exposed his family’s knowledge of her to the Volturi, condemning them all to a life of running and hiding. His decision to keep her human subjected all of them to the wrath of the powerful kings.
Her teary eyes refocused on the boy gazing up at her with a puzzled expression on his face, as if he couldn’t understand why she wasn’t gasping and snatching the ring from his hand.
“Bella? Didn’t you hear me, love? I know you’re … disappointed, but I thought we could come to a … compromise. When you accept my ring and my name—when you become my wife …” He bowed his head over her hand and looked up at her with imploring, liquid-gold eyes. “… I … I promise to try.”
It was a look that had never failed to melt her heart before, but his beseeching eyes and the subtle lift of the corner of his mouth made her blood suddenly run cold. He had used those tactics against her countless times to get his own way.
He urged her hand up. Perhaps he thought her weak, human eyesight was lacking, and she wasn’t able to properly appreciate the number of flawless gems scattered over the long, oval setting or the intricate gold filigree of the band. “You can quit your little job at Newton’s and sell that truck. I’ve a safe and reliable car already picked out for you. You know Alice would love to put together a magnificent summer wedding for us, and then we could go to Dartmouth, and—”
She wondered if she would be allowed to choose the color of the car. Perhaps she’d get to choose between a pearl-coat silver or a clear-coat silver.
With a minute movement of Edward’s hand, the flashing glitter of the diamonds captured her vision, and she suddenly saw her future self.
She was lying on finely tufted and embroidered white satin in a metallic silver coffin. Her perfectly coiffed blue-silver hair complemented the grey pearl and diamond drop-earrings in her lobes, which were impeccably matched to the grey pearl choker she wore.
The modestly cut, blue silk evening gown displayed her sharply protruding collar bones to perfection.
She looked surprisingly like her Grandmother Swan. Only more ancient and withered than Charlie’s mother had ever looked. No matter the inadequacy of her human sight, or how artfully the make-up had been applied—and it, too, was perfect—it couldn’t cover the dull greyness of death.
With Edward doing everything he could to extend her mortal life as long as possible, she wondered how many decades she had lived. How many of those had she been feeble and ill? The emaciated, pinched look of her shrunken features made her wonder how much pain she had been in.
Had she even remembered who Edward was? Or had her mind and memories been stolen away by the administration of pain killers and drugs to force her heart to work harder and more drugs to thin her blood so her heart didn’t have to work so hard?
Beneath long, fitted sleeves, her nearly translucent, age-spotted hands were crossed over her frail, unmoving breast—her skeletal left hand placed over the gnarled, arthritis-deformed knuckles of her right so that the diamond Eternity ring on the third finger could wink mockingly up at her.
It was lovely, of course. Sparkling diamonds were channel-set all around the band, meeting the three larger diamonds at the top. The brilliant gems also served to draw the eye from the still-visible, silvery scar that peeked from under the pearl-buttoned cuff.
It seemed a shame the sleeves weren’t quite long enough to cover her bony wrists.
Beside the casket stood Edward, looking as adolescently beautiful as he always had, in his immaculately tailored black suit. He held a single red rose in his hand. With a grimace and a shuddering sigh, he placed the long-stemmed flower across her still hands, making sure to conceal the scar from James’ long ago bite.
Beyond him were the rest of the sorrowful Cullens, impeccably dressed in their subdued funeral finery, not even bothering to pretend to hold back nonexistent tears. There was no one to pretend for. There were no other mourners present at her funeral. Edward had taken such meticulous care of her fragile, human body, there were no humans left alive to mourn her passing.
How had she lived so long as a human with the Volturi waiting to hear of her transformation? They wouldn’t have forgotten. It was likely that Edward had faked an earlier death for her and kept her isolated and away from any humans who might see her and question her ancient, shriveled presence.
The Italian vampires weren’t the only ones after her. How had they kept Victoria away?
It was ironic how the supposedly dead vampires attending her funeral looked so vibrantly alive when standing next to her corpse.
She knew then if she agreed to Edward’s compromise, he would always find some way to hold her off. Delay just a bit longer and use every talent and trick at his disposal to divert and redirect her. Just as he had always done, almost from the moment she had met him. She would be his prisoner—locked away so no harm would be able to find her.
He would keep her weak and helpless against the other vampires searching for her.
He would decide on the path of her life. He already had.
She would have no say.
She shook her head to clear away the daytime nightmare.
She curled her suddenly chilled fingers over the velvet box and closed the lid before placing it in his hand and stepping away from him.
Bella had never wanted a magnificent wedding, and she loved that old, ugly rusty-orange truck that her father had bought for her. She knew she could never afford to go to Dartmouth. She would barely be able to afford more than a few credits at a time at Peninsula College with her little job, though Edward would be able to buy her way into any college she wanted to go to—as long as she chose one of those from the shiny-slick brochures he had given her.
As he unfolded from his position on the pale gold carpet, his empty hand went to cup her cheek, and he drew in a deep breath. She stepped around him to avoid his attempt to dazzle her once again, flinching away as he reached for her arm. She clasped her hands together in front of her chest and walked quietly from his room.
Had she spent the last few months in a constant state of enthrallment? When was the last time she had honestly made any sort of decision for herself?
He had stated all the concessions she would have to make in order for her to be the perfectly dutiful companion for him. Was she merely another accessory in what he imagined would be a perfect life? He’d mentioned all the things he could give her except for eternity with him and the strength she would need against those who were after her.
Apparently, he could deal with her for a few decades, but didn’t want to be bothered beyond that. He traded in cars for new models every few years. Since he had delved into the realm of romance for the first time, the second and third would be so much easier for him. She wondered what the next model of human would look like.
And what of his family? Bella wouldn’t blame them if they scattered to all corners of the world to save themselves.
Her fingers grazed over the polished wood of the banister as she made her way down the stairs and into the Cullens’ living room, Edward treading silently behind her.
Bella noticed all the Cullens were present in the room. Evidently, they had all been aware that Edward was going to propose to her and were gathered to hear the happy news. They all knew about his plans, but she hadn’t, of course.
Had he ever told her anything of consequence?
Well, she was sure he did it all to surprise her. It was such a romantic gesture.
She refused to acknowledge the worried look in Esme’s and Carlisle’s eyes, or the bewildered look in Alice’s as she jumped up from her perch on the couch, stared with glazed eyes, and searched frantically through her visions.
Edward appeared at her side as she crossed the wide expanse of white carpet, taking in what she thought was a cautiously hopeful look in Emmett’s eyes.
She lifted her jacket from the hook by the door and slid her arms into the sleeves. When Edward tried to assist her, she stepped away from him and closer to Jasper who stood by the door. For the first time in months, she pulled her own long hair from under the collar and flipped it to her back. She slowly zipped the jacket and turned to Edward. “I need time to think.”
Startled and dismayed, but recovering quickly, Edward shifted into her view. “Please, love, allow me to drive you home.”
“No.” She felt in her pocket for her keys, and when she couldn’t find them, looked to the crystal bowl on the table by the door.
Jasper held out his hand, the keys dangling from his long fingers. As she reached up, he dropped them into her palm.
Looking up into his soft amber eyes, she tried to send as much appreciation to him as she could. She knew he handed her the keys so Edward couldn’t take them and force her to relent. “Thank you, Jasper.”
He merely bowed his golden head and stepped to the side as he politely opened the door for her.