Rose and I were halfway down the Schuylkill Expressway before either of us spoke.
“I think that went well,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
I burst into tears.
“It’s not about your actual relationship; she doesn’t know Edward. Shit, if we wanted to be real here, she doesn’t even know you. She knows who you were and things you’ve done. Both are past tense. She doesn’t know how Edward’s changed you. She’s letting that cloud her perception of the situation. She’ll come around. And if she doesn’t? Fuck her.”
“You let her have it after I left, didn’t you?”
“I think I exhibited great restraint—I just let her in on the institution of female friendship according to Rose. In my world, it’s not kosher to call your bff a slut unless you mean it as a compliment.”
“Is it ever a compliment?”
“Are you kidding? In my world, it usually is.”
I laughed even though I was crying.
“See? You can still smile. It’s not the end of the world. I will say this—I was never so happy that I chose to keep my pregnancy secret. I’m sure if she knew about the baby, she’d think Em was just marrying me to do the right thing. I got an obscene amount of pleasure from telling her about my engagement after you left. I’m not sure where she got her perception of Emmett as this overgrown frat boy fearful of any real commitments. He and Jasper are the same age, and Jasper is more than willing to marry her in a few weeks.”
“Alice gave Jasper an ultimatum.”
“Jasper and Alice. He wanted to have his PhD first. She told him she’d move back to Ohio if he didn’t make it official by the end of the year.”
“The plot thickens. I would never have guessed that one.”
The remainder of the ride to New Jersey was silent. When we got to my house, Edward’s car wasn’t in the driveway.
“I’m home early. I told him I’d be out late.”
“I’m not leaving you alone,” Rose insisted.
“You don’t have to babysit me. You have enough going on, and I know you’re exhausted. Edward’s parents live a few blocks away from you on Warwick Road. Would you mind dropping me off there?”
“Not at all,” she said as she put her car back in gear.
After we pulled into Edward’s driveway, Rose leaned over and gave me a hug.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Thank you. Now please go get some rest. Sleeping for two, remember?” I managed a small smile before getting out of the car and walking to the front door. I rang the bell, hoping Edward would answer.
Instead, I was greeted by Esme.
“Bella, are you alright? You look like you’ve been crying.”
“Is Edward home?”
“He ran to the store for me; he should be back soon. Come on inside.” She pulled me inside the house and led me to the family room.
“Sit down, and I’ll get you a drink.” She handed me a glass of wine before joining me on the sofa. “Would you like to talk about it?”
“It’s somewhat embarrassing.”
“I’ve heard it all.”
“I hadn’t told my best friend about my relationship with Edward until just now, and it didn’t go well. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it wouldn’t, which is why I put it off for so long.”
“Are we talking about Alice?”
“I’m not surprised.” She put down her wine glass. “I wish I could tell you that Alice is in the minority and that you aren’t going to encounter this again and again, but I won’t lie to you. Tonight is just the beginning. Edward swears he’s up for it, but his age absolves him of any responsibility—it’s your character that will be called into question.”
“I know, and I don’t expect the rest of the world to understand. I just didn’t expect this from Alice. We were like sisters.”
“The people who claim to love us the most are often our harshest critics. It can be hard to stomach, but I assure you Alice’s reaction was more about how she views herself and her own relationships than how she feels about you. You and Edward are up against society’s perceptions, and society is comprised of individuals like Alice. The weight of their judgment will fall solely upon you. No one will fault Edward for having feelings towards you. He’s a young man and full of hormones. You’re a beautiful woman. He’s programmed to want you. Society both expects this and encourages it, until the moment it becomes mutual. Then you are cast as the predator and details no longer matter.”
Much to my mortification, I began to cry.
“Oh, sweetie, come here.” Esme put her arm around me and pulled my head onto her shoulder. I closed my eyes and relaxed into her embrace. “It won’t be easy. I wish I could promise you this would be the end of it, but sadly it’s just a preview of coming attractions. Only you can decide if it’s worth it.”
“It’s worth it; he’s worth it.”
She stroked my hair, and my tears ceased.
“Then fuck her.”
I had to smile—no wonder her son was fearless. When I opened my eyes, Edward standing in front of us.
“I should let you two have some privacy,” Esme said.
When she loosened her arm from my shoulder, I tightened my hold on her.
“I’m always here if you need me, Bella. Edward isn’t the only one who loves you.”
I may have lost a best friend, but I’d found a mother. She gave me a small squeeze, and I stood to face Edward.
“Why don’t you take Bella upstairs? Your father should be home any minute, and I need to make a few business calls.”
Edward led me up the back stairs from the kitchen to the second floor.
“I’ve never been up here,” I said.
“I know; it wasn’t intentional. It just makes more sense to go to your house.” He paused, then added with a blush, “We can be pretty loud, you know.”
He opened a five-panel door and gestured me inside his room.
I sat on the edge of the bed and took a deep breath. “There’s no easy way for me to say this, so I’m just going to put it out there. You haven’t met Alice is because she didn’t know about you until tonight.”
“Oh.” He sat next to me. “I suspected as much. I’m guessing she doesn’t approve?”
“That would be an understatement. She said some pretty hateful things—all about me, of course. It doesn’t help that she has a brother your age who more or less does nothing but play video games and jerk off. Anyway, I let it slip that Alice has said some less than flattering things about Em and Rose’s age difference and that only fueled the fire. I stormed out, and I can only imagine what Rose said to Alice after I left. I don’t know, because Rose wouldn’t tell me. When I saw you weren’t at my house, I asked Rose to bring me here.”
“I wish you’d called me .”
“I’m sorry; I was borderline hysterical through most of the drive home. I’d just managed to calm down when we pulled up. Your mother is amazing, by the way. She put a lot of things in perspective for me. I know I’m not blameless in this. I did exacerbate the situation by waiting this long to tell Alice.”
“Or you just postponed the inevitable. Regardless, it’s not worth beating yourself up over it. I’m sorry being with me comes at such high cost for you, and though I hope for your sake Alice comes around, I’m not optimistic.” He leaned back onto the bed and pulled me into his arms. “For the record, I’ve never been into video games. I will, however, admit to jerking off all day. At least, that’s what I did before…”
“I was speaking metaphorically.”
“I wasn’t,” he admitted.
I laughed, and he held me more tightly.
“She’s the first, but she won’t be the last. I just hope you never doubt that I’m worth this.”
“How did you leave things?” .
“I told her to let me know if she still wanted me in her wedding. I think what hurt me the most is that nothing she said throughout the whole ordeal was false. Except the bit about my being in a relationship with you because I need to be in control.”
Edward laughed. “She said that? I’m sorry, Bella, but that’s hilarious.”
“Hey, I do have some control here.”
His laughter intensified.
“At least I can go on field trips without getting a parental permission slip signed.”
“I’ll grant you that one, yes,” he said. “But that has more to do with legal liability than control.”
I sighed. “I understand where she’d get her ideas. I mean, I’ve told you how I approached relationships before we met. But she pretty much called me a slut and accused me of using you to fill a void. She said your age guaranteed me the upper hand, thus ensuring you never question me or ask for more than I’m willing to give.”
“Interesting hypothesis. She obviously took intro-level psych at some point. My mom would have a field day with her. Seriously though, you have to admit Alice’s perception of us is comical. I may spend a lot of time on my knees, but I’m far from powerless.”
“This is serious.”
“I’m just trying to make you laugh. Look, I don’t want to defend Alice because a lot of what she said is indefensible. However, in the absence of any actual observation of how we function as a couple, I can see where she would get those ideas.”
“You’re not angry with me for not telling her until now?”
“No. Her reaction proves you were onto something. I just wish you’d told me. I would have gone with you.”
Anvil of deception gone from my shoulders, I noticed our surroundings. We were sitting on a dark wood sleigh bed. One wall had floor to ceiling shelves loaded with books and cds. A plasma television was mounted on the opposite wall with a chocolate brown leather love seat and chair in front of it. The Persian rugs partially covering the random-width planks of the hardwood floor appeared to be antique. There was nothing about this space that would indicate a teenager occupied it. My eyes continued to scan the room, finally settling on the lithograph above the bed.
“Grant Wood?” I asked.
“It doesn’t take much to distract you, does it?”
“It’s real, isn’t it?”
“Yes. They all are.”
I didn’t know the full extent of the Cullens’ wealth, but what I did know made me more than a little uncomfortable. “Your bedroom has more furniture in it than my entire house.”
“And your house feels more like home to me,” he said. “Funny how that works.”
I reached for a tissue from his night stand. A small, sterling silver frame held a yearbook head shot of me. I remember when it was taken. It was muggy and I was having a bad hair day. I wondered how long he’d had it beside his bed.
“I hate that picture,” I said, blowing my nose. “You know it’s almost three years old, right?”
“I’ll take it down on one condition,” he offered.
“And what would that be?” I asked.
“Give me a new one with which I can replace it. Or better yet —have some taken with me.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “We’ve been dating two months, you want to pose for portraits?”
“I’m going to be away from you Monday through Friday. I’ll need some eye candy. Besides, it won’t be a big ordeal. I’ll call our family photographer and he can swing by and take them here. Or even at your house if you’d prefer.”
“There will be plenty of eye-candy at Princeton, Edward. Trust me on this. You don’t need to commission professional photographs of us to have something to look at.”
I hated having my picture taken. Though now that Alice knew, we were officially ‘out’ so to speak. I saw no reason to deny him.
“Thank you.” He pulled me against his chest and kissed my lips.
As I lay next to him in his bed, I felt like I was in heaven. “You won’t have a mattress like this in your dorm room, you know.”
He laughed. “Bella, there are many things I’m concerned about lacking once I leave for school. Decent furniture appears nowhere on that list.”
There was a soft knock on his door. I immediately jumped off of his bed and settled myself into the leather chair across the room. He rolled his eyes at me before standing up and saying, “Come in.”
Esme appeared in the doorway.
“Something came up and I need to run out for a while. I’m not sure when I’ll be home and your father is still in surgery.” She looked over at me. “Are you feeling better, dear?”
I nodded, offering her a small smile.
“Glad to hear it,” she said. She turned back to Edward. “Call me if you need anything. And that goes double for you, Bella.” She looked back over at me as she said my name. “You are not alone. As far as Carlisle and I are concerned, you’re part of the family. You’re welcome to stay here if you don’t want to go home.”
I got up and went over to hug her.
“Thank you, Esme. For everything.”
“It’s not a big deal, Bella. Truly. It’s the least we can do for you.” She reached over and ruffled Edward’s hair. “Text me and your father if you plan on spending the night at Bella’s.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Edward said.
She stepped out of my embrace and hurried off. Moments later the alarm system chirped, confirming she’d left the house.
“Every time I think I am getting used to your mother, she does something else that just blows me away.”
Edward smiled. “I told you in the beginning she was very supportive. She meant it, you know. She adores you. They both do.”
“I’m starting to get that. I just don’t understand why.”
“You’re completely selfless. At least, you have been when it came to me.”
“Oh believe me, Edward. I’m not and I haven’t been.”
“Think about it, Bella. I have absolutely nothing to lose here. Sure, in the beginning my mother needed some time to warm up to the idea that her baby boy was dating a teacher at his school. Until it became clear to them that you were willing to risk everything you’ve worked for to be with me. You still are. I’m not going to pretend I don’t fully understand that if the wrong person ran into us while we were out together you wouldn’t be completely compromised. No one would ever believe we weren’t involved while I was still a student. You place your livelihood in jeopardy each and every time you set foot outside of your house with me. I know all about the ambiguous morality clauses of teaching contracts. And you aren’t just risking the ridicule of strangers. Tonight you may have just lost your best friend over me. So you should never question why you have my parents’ unwavering support. You have demonstrated time and time again exactly how much you are willing to sacrifice to be with me. Meanwhile, I haven’t risked losing a thing.”
I took him by the hand pushed him to sit down on the edge of his bed. “I can think of something you lost.”
He blushed. God, he was adorable. “That was something I gave to you,” he clarified. “Do you want me to take you home?”
I shook my head. “I know there’s no way in hell Alice will show up at my house to apologize, but I know that if I go home I’ll be disappointed if she doesn’t.”
“You heard my mother. You’re welcome to stay here. Let me show you where the bathroom is and get you something to wear to bed.”
I washed up and put on one of his t-shirts. He pulled me into his arms and I settled into bed with him. My last thought before drifting off to sleep was that tomorrow would have to be better.