The day Bella and Edward spent together after her book tour was blissful, and, if questioned, neither would have been able to name a time when they had ever been happier.
It proved to be the calm before the storm.
Bella had finally bitten the bullet and told Edward about Jake’s unfortunate appearance at her publishers’ office whilst she was in London, and, although she had downplayed it as much as possible, it had inevitably thrown him into a furious spin. He cursed prolifically, before demanding that she seek legal advice about taking out a restraining order. Even when she pointed out that it would be almost impossible, in view of the fact that she had no proof that he had ever harmed her, he had urged her to speak to the police. He had then been voluble in his denunciation of the legal system, when they had confirmed Bella’s contention that, without evidence of a clear and present danger, there was little that could be done.
“So, what? We have to wait ‘til that fucker beats the shit out of you before they’ll do anything? That’s fucked up, Bella.”
He had wrung his hands, despite her insistence that Jake had no idea where she lived, and was only slightly mollified when she promised to be extra-vigilant, to make sure she kept to busy, brightly lit areas when out, and that she locked all the doors when she was home alone.
It would have to suffice, because, with only a week to go before Alice’s exhibition, and barely a fortnight until Christmas, they were both rushed off their feet—which at least helped to distract them both from thoughts of Jake. Bella spent most of her time in her studio, finishing off the paintings and illustrations she’d been working on, arranging the mounts, and talking to Alice.
Meanwhile, the restaurant was fully booked right up until lunchtime on Christmas Eve, after which it would be closed for Christmas Day and Boxing Day*, re-opening on the twenty-seventh. Thankfully, Edward had also managed to get that day off, so would have three clear days to relax and enjoy Christmas, something he couldn’t ever remember doing in the past. He would, however, need to sort out some time off before then to do his Christmas shopping. He had seen what he wanted to buy for Bella a couple of weeks earlier in the antique shop next door to CQ, and had been waiting for his Christmas pay-packet to get it. Thankfully, the shop’s owner had accepted a small deposit to secure the purchase and remove it from display.
In addition, it seemed he would need to buy extra gifts, as Bella’s aunt and uncle were joining them for two days. He knew he had no right to feel irritated by Bella’s announcement that Peter and Charlotte would be arriving on Christmas morning and staying overnight, but he couldn’t help resenting the intrusion. He had been so looking forward to the two of them having time together, without the pressures of work, even if it was just for three days, and now that was being reduced to little more than a day.
He sighed as he prepped for lunch—they had a Christmas office party booked today for twelve, as well as the normal lunchtime rush, so he had a busy day ahead of him. He told himself he needed to get over it, and he had to admit that a part of him was delighted that Bella was inviting her family to share the holiday with the two of them as a couple.
“No time for sighing or daydreaming, Edward… have you finished prepping the duck?”
Edward looked up at the sound of Carlisle’s voice.
“Yes, Chef, all done. I’m gonna start on the halibut now.”
Carlisle nodded and moved on. He could be harsh and demanding in the kitchen, but Edward understood that—he had been in enough commercial kitchens in his time—albeit briefly—to know that a lot of chefs could be complete arseholes. He had long ago realised that the best chefs maintained order by being firm but fair, treating their staff with respect and consideration, and always working as hard, if not harder, than those around them. Fortunately, Carlisle fell very much into the latter category, and, although one or two of the staff railed against kitchen discipline, Edward had never had a problem with his boss or his methods. On the contrary, he had learned so much in such a short time, that he was sure he would never be able to adequately repay Carlisle, or Esme, for this incredible opportunity. All he could do was work as hard as possible to make ‘Cullenary Quisine’ a success.
In this way, the days quickly passed. Bella spent evenings in her studio, and then would drive into the village to deliver her latest completed piece to the bookshop. Alice was supremely organised, spending what seemed like hours on the phone, and every time Bella dropped off another painting or drawing, she couldn’t help but be infected by Alice’s enthusiasm and passion.
Indeed, it would be hard not to be affected by Alice’s zeal, as the whole village seemed to be excited about the upcoming exhibition, which, it seemed, was great news for the whole community. Advertisements had gone in the regional newspapers, as well as online, and all the local hotels were fully booked. CQ was providing the catering, and a well-respected, Bristol-based jazz-fusion band would be performing during the evening. The ticket-only event was completely sold out, and Alice had managed to procure some incredible items for the charity-auction from local businesses to supplement the artwork being donated by Bella and Angela.
Quite frankly, Bella was astonished at the interest the little local exhibition had garnered, and was somewhat concerned that people would find it disappointing. She said as much to Alice a couple of days beforehand, and was immediately chastised in no uncertain terms. They were talking about final details over a cup of coffee, when Bella mentioned her worries.
“Bella Swan, what is it with you and all this ridiculous modesty? ‘World of Ashkran’ is the most popular series of children’s books since ‘Harry Potter’, and your illustrations are a big part of that success. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had asking to buy your artwork—sight unseen—before the night. People want to meet you and Angela, and they want to see what else you can do. Add to that a charity auction, fantastic food from a restaurant which has already garnered incredible reviews, and a top-notch band—quite honestly, sweet-cheeks, I’m surprised we haven’t had more interest.
“Now, enough of all that. What about the centrepiece? Is it finished?”
Bella smiled, reaching over to squeeze her friend’s arm.
“Yes, it’s done—I just wanted to make sure it was completely dry before I brought it over. In fact, I was wondering if Jasper could give me a hand with it later. Edward’s going to be busy, and I thought it might be a good idea to deliver it in good time so you can organise getting it mounted. It’s too big for me to manage on my own.”
“Of course he can help. I’ll give him a call and see if he can get away from work a little earlier today. Will it fit in your car?”
“Yeah, no problem—it’s in three pieces. That would be great, Ally. I better get going. Tell Jasper to come round whenever he’s ready, and I’ll see you later.”
Bella stood in front of her full-length mirror, regarding her reflection critically. The form fitting, sapphire blue dress was sleeveless, with a deeply plunging v-neck and back, trimmed in black. It ended mid-thigh and, teamed with black, high-heeled strappy shoes, it made her legs look endless. She had coiled her long, dark hair into a low chignon at the back of her neck, applying smoky eye-shadow, outlining her eyes with kohl and black mascara to make them look huge. Her cheekbones were highlighted with a light application of blusher, and her full lips were coated in a pale plum shade, which gave them the appearance of ripe, succulent fruit.
She turned away from her inspection, deciding she was as good as she was going to get. She gathered up the fake fur, three-quarter length swing coat she’d bought on her recent trip, and picked up her small black clutch bag, before leaving the room and heading downstairs. Edward was working, but Carlisle had said he could leave at six o’clock. Lauren and Jessica, two of the waitresses who rented the flat above the restaurant, had said he could shower and change there, so he would be meeting Bella at the bookshop.
She was so happy that he would be there with her, as she was irrationally nervous about the evening. It was foolish, she knew, having given readings of her book to an audience and gone on radio to talk about her work. She knew children liked her ‘Ashkran’ illustrations, but she had never openly displayed her artwork before. The drawings and paintings she had produced were quite personal to her, and she couldn’t help worrying about what people would think. The centrepiece, in particular, had come from a place in her heart, and she found herself second-guessing her decision to exhibit it.
At least it wasn’t included in the selection that was being offered up for auction, so she wouldn’t be losing it. She just wasn’t sure how she felt about others—strangers—looking at it… judging it… analysing it.
A knock on the door forced her to stop thinking about it, and she walked into the hall to greet her visitor.
“Your carriage awaits you, Miss Swan,” announced a grinning Jasper, when she opened the door.
“Hi, Jasper, I’m ready, so let’s go,” she responded with an answering smile. Alice had insisted that her husband return after delivering the painting to give Bella a lift into the village so that she could enjoy a drink—her precise words were that Bella ‘needed to chill and not flap about like a startled goose all night’.
As she fumbled with her seatbelt, Jasper squeezed her arm gently. “Don’t be nervous, Bell, it’s going to be a great night.”
She gave him a tight smile and nodded.
“I know, I know, that’s what Alice keeps saying. She keeps doing that thing… you know, tapping her nose and saying—”
“She knows these things!” Jasper laughed, and Bella had to join in, shaking her head with a smirk.
He started the engine and reversed out of the drive, chuckling softly to himself. She was glad that she’d agreed to let him drive—there was something very calming about his presence, and she felt herself starting to relax a little as they swept across the hump-backed bridge towards the village.
Edward hurried along the High Street. He didn’t have a watch, but he knew he was late, and was cursing himself. He’d made the mistake of exiting through the restaurant so he could say goodbye to Carlisle and thank him for letting him leave early. As he’d left the kitchen, Esme had forestalled him, gushing over how handsome he looked in his suit, and then insisting he meet some people who had complimented his fish dish—a middle-aged couple and their two teenage daughters. He didn’t want to be rude, but the two girls were eyeing him up like he was the dessert trolley, and kept asking him questions and batting their eyelashes at him. He’d never seen so much hair-flicking in his entire life, but he knew he had no choice but to spend a little time talking to them.
When he’d finally managed to extricate himself as politely as possible, he was then stopped by Jessica, who cooed endlessly over how well he ‘scrubbed up’. He knew she had a crush on him, and he was constantly having to avoid being caught alone with her. She had invited him to the pub on more than one occasion, hinting that he should spend time with people his ‘own age’, making it clear she thought Bella was too old for him. As if he gave a toss what she thought. She had wrapped her hands around his arm and was clinging to him like a limpet, and eventually he had to tell her bluntly that he was on his way to Bella’s exhibition.
Finally, he had escaped, and now he was pushing open the door of ‘Wonderland’—the name always made him smile, it was so… Alice.
Inside, the warmth hit him after the chill of the late December night. Alice had paid her staff to act as greeters, directing guests to the café area, and they smiled at him as he entered, waving him through.
He strode quickly past the bookshelves, but stopped as he reached the arched opening into the temporary exhibition space. Alice had paid a team of local men to come in and take out all the books and shelves from the café, along with most of the tables and chairs, and the fireside sofas. Where she’d put everything, he couldn’t imagine, but now the space was open and seemed much larger than he’d remembered. But what had pulled him up short was the startling array of artwork mounted all around the walls.
Edward seldom went into Bella’s studio—it was her personal space, and he didn’t feel comfortable invading it. He had therefore seen none of her work until this moment. What he now saw was a gorgeous feast for the eyes—colourfully exotic fantasy scenes dominated one whole wall, making him feel like he was entering another world. He realised these were from the books she illustrated, and now understood why they were such a massive hit with children. They were exquisite.
His eyes panned across the wall towards the back of the area, and suddenly the artwork he’d just been admiring paled into insignificance. Had he thought they were exquisite? No, that word needed to be reserved for the woman his eyes had inevitably been drawn to.
Bella stood, in profile, talking to a tall, slender woman with shoulder-length black hair. She spoke animatedly, her hands gesticulating in front of her. He watched with rapt attention when the woman said something that made Bella throw her head back and laugh with delight. His heart seemed to swell inside his chest as he watched her. There were a lot of women in the room, many of them very beautiful, but Bella stood out, like a single stunning rose amongst a garden of lupins and geraniums.
As if the heat of his gaze was beginning to warm her skin, he saw Bella pause and stiffen, and then she was turning, finding him with her eyes. The smile that broke across her face seemed to light up the room, like the sun emerging from behind the moon at the end of an eclipse. Edward was dazzled, Bella’s image burning itself onto his retinas, in much the same way as staring at an eclipse.
So blinded was he by her radiant luminosity, that he failed to note her own reaction to his presence. Her smile faded, mouth falling open and eyes widening, as she took him in. If Bella had previously considered Edward to be handsome, the man before her needed a whole new set of adjectives to describe him, because she surely couldn’t come up with any that adequately covered it.
Edward in jeans and a t-shirt was hot… Edward in a suit was something else entirely. She could feel her breathing become shallow as she tried, and failed, to fill her lungs. He literally took her breath away.
Who knew how long the two of them might have remained frozen in place, utterly captivated by one another, had Alice not intervened. She had been observing their behaviour with some amusement, but now decided that enough was enough. Swiping two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter, she made her way over to Edward, breaking the spell as she proffered a drink.
“You made it! Here, get your laughing gear round that.”
Edward dragged his eyes from Bella and smiled down at the diminutive woman beside him, accepting the tall flute of sparkling wine.
“Thanks, Alice. It all looks amazing, you’ve done a fantastic job.” He looked around in wonder, before his eyes once again settled on the beautiful brunette across the room, who was now walking towards him.
“It is pretty fantastic, isn’t it—Bella’s artwork is incredible.”
Alice turned and smiled as her friend approached. Seeing that she was without a drink, she handed her untouched champagne to Bella, squeezing her shoulder and kissing her on the cheek.
“Congratulations, hun, it’s a triumph. Enjoy.”
With that, she walked away, leaving the couple on their own.
Bella looked up at Edward. “You’re here.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry I’m late—”
Bella cut him off by cupping his cheek and reaching up to kiss him softly on the mouth.
“It doesn’t matter, you’re here now, that’s all I care about. I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to get away.”
Edward took Bella’s glass from her hand, setting both their drinks down on a nearby table. He then wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her to him.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, you should know that,” he told her, before dipping his head to capture her mouth with his.
The kiss was probably too long and too inappropriate, given their location, but neither one of them cared at that moment. The world disappeared, and for a short while, it was just the two of them.
But the world quickly intruded, as a voice behind Edward suddenly burst their bubble.
“Bella Swan, for fuck’s sake, stop eating the face off that poor man and give me a hug!”
The couple broke apart and Bella gazed over Edward’s shoulder, her eyes going wide.
“Rose? Oh my God, Rose!”
She extricated herself from Edward’s embrace and flung herself at the person who had spoken.
Edward turned to see Bella throw her arms around a tall, striking blonde, who was grinning from ear to ear.
“Rose, I can’t believe you’re here.”
The two women hugged each other tightly, as Edward looked on with a smile.
Pulling back, Bella held onto Rose’s hands, looking her up and down and shaking her head.
“How… what… oh my God, how did you know where to find me?”
Rose chuckled, squeezing Bella’s hands. “I got an email from someone called Alice Whitlock, inviting me.”
“What? But how did she know…?” She turned to try and find Alice in the crowd, but then Edward came up and slipped his arm round her shoulder.
“Don’t freak out at me, but I found Rose’s email address on your computer and gave it to Alice. You’ve been talking about trying to meet up, so I thought it would be worth asking her to come to you.”
Bella peered up at him, her eyes a little glassy. “Oh, Edward…” She let go of her friend and threw her arms around his neck.
“Thank you,” she whispered against his neck, as he hugged her back.
“Well, Swan, it looks like you snagged yourself a good one at last—and he’s a bit of all right,” Rose said, as they pulled apart.
Dragging her eyes back to Rose, Bella grinned. “Yeah, he is, isn’t he? Rose, this is my boyfriend, Edward.”
Rose stuck her hand out for Edward to take, giving it a quick shake. “Good to meet you, Edward… and thanks for organising this.”
“You’re welcome, Rose. It’s really nice to meet you too—Bella’s always talked so highly of you.”
“Ha, well, she’s one of the few. I generally tend to rub people up the wrong way. But talking of the few…” She glanced over her shoulder, and they became aware, for the first time, of the man-mountain standing behind her. “This is my significant other, Emmett.”
The man was easily six foot four, with a physique to match. He would be seriously intimidating, but for his laughing blue eyes and the dimples which bookended his wide grin as he moved to wrap a muscle-bound arm around Rose’s shoulders. He offered his right hand to Bella, completely enveloping her smaller one.
“Great to meet you, Bella, I’ve heard a lot about you from this one.”
“Well, it’s really nice to meet you too, Emmett—and you look like that rarity in life, a man who can handle Rose Hale.”
Emmett guffawed loudly at that. “I think I’m gonna like you, Bella.”
He let go of her, and held his hand out to Edward.
With introductions complete, Bella led the way into the gallery space, smiling with delight as Rose gasped upon first sighting the artwork adorning the walls.
“Fuck me, Bell, who knew you were such a talented little trollop?” she said, not quite able to hide the hint of awe in her voice. “And I, uh, read your book… it was pretty good.”
Bella stared at her friend, who refused to meet her eye, a tinge of colour in her cheeks.
“Rosalie Hale, are you telling me you read chick-lit? You? Miss Iron Knickers?” Bella couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped her.
Rose simply shrugged. “Only because it was written by someone I know—and I had nothing else to read at the time.”
Bella laughed aloud now, knocking her shoulder against Rose’s arm. “Fair enough.”
She turned away to find Edward, who was standing behind her, gazing in wonder at the far wall. She looked back at the focus of his attention.
Over the fireplace, in pride of place, the entire chimney breast was taken up by a triptych of paintings—two smaller canvases on either side of a larger one. All three depicted similar monochromatic scenes—a long, empty road blanketed in snow. Each image, however, was subtly different. On the left, a lone man trudged through a snow storm; on the right, a woman travelled an equally bleak and empty path. Tempering the inherent loneliness of these two images, however, was the central canvas.
As if the artist had drawn back to view the scene from a wider angle, the larger picture now showed the two people walking towards one another. So skilful was the brushwork, and the use of light and shade, one might almost imagine that the snow swirled across the landscape, and, more astonishingly, that the couple drew closer together the longer one gazed at the scene.
“Jesus, Bella, this is… fucking amazing.”
She glanced around as Edward moved to her side. She watched his face as he continued to stare in wonder at the scene before them. At last, conscious of her eyes on him, he turned his head to look at her.
“Is that… is it supposed to be… us?” He whispered the last word, his beautiful, expressive green eyes full of emotion.
She merely smiled and reached for his hand, linking their fingers.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
He looked again at the paintings and then back to her, his eyes glassy. He lifted his other hand and cupped her face, rubbing his thumb gently over her cheek.
“It’s… God, yes, it’s incredible… you’re incredible.”
He closed the distance between them, resting his forehead against hers. He was so filled with love in that moment that it almost made his legs buckle beneath him. How he managed to stop the words pouring forth he would never know, but he knew that one day—very soon—he would tell her.
But not here. No, when he told her, they wouldn’t be in a public place, surrounded by people. Because when he said the words—whether or not she said them back—he would need to show her exactly how much.
Before he could kiss her, he became aware of people closing in around them, speaking to Bella, complimenting her and asking questions about her artwork. He let go of her, causing her to look at him quizzically, but he just smiled and stepped back, wanting her to bask in the admiration and attention of those who had come to pay homage. He didn’t mind—he knew that he would have her all to himself later, and she deserved to enjoy this.
Leaving her side, he moved closer to the paintings over the fire. There was a small, white, printed card underneath, as there was for all the pieces. Leaning in, he read the inscription: WHERE ROADS CONVERGE. Underneath the title, in smaller print, were the words: ‘Not For Sale’.
He looked back up at the painting—from this closer angle, it almost felt like he was in the middle of the snow storm, and he shivered in remembrance of that cruel night. He had been at his lowest ebb, and he had no doubt that, if not for Bella, he may well have died on that roadside. But from the depths of despair, where all hope had seemed extinguished, his guardian angel had brought him back to life. He’d had nothing—no family, no friends, no home and no future.
But now he had everything. He had a home, a job he loved, money in his pocket and good friends. Over and above all these things, though, he had Bella—and she was everything.
He didn’t dare question how he got so lucky, for fear of jinxing it. He turned away from the paintings and looked for her. She was surrounded by people, nodding and talking, but her eyes constantly sought his, and each time they found him, she smiled. And each time she smiled, he felt it—in his heart, in his stomach, in his very bones—the connection, like a strong, invisible thread, tying him to her.
He drifted away, wanting to study the other paintings and drawings, filled anew with wonder and admiration at her talent.
After a while, he found Carlisle and Esme, who had managed to get away early, along with Alice and Jasper. He revelled in the ease of the friendships he’d formed with these people, never losing touch with where Bella was, but enjoying the company of those around him. He expressed his gratitude to Jasper, who had found him a beer to replace the champagne, and tried some of the food he’d earlier helped Carlisle to prepare.
A little later, Alice called the assembled guests to order so that the auction could start, and once again found himself beside Bella, his heart swelling with pride as the pieces she had donated were sold for huge sums of money.
When Bella left him to use the bathroom, he found himself standing next to Carmen, Bella’s agent, whom he’d briefly met earlier. He felt her hand on his arm, and looked around at her.
“You’re good for her, Edward. I’ve never seen her so happy, nor so creative. I don’t know what you’re doing… well, I can take a pretty good guess, but whatever it is, I hope you keep doing it, and that you’re going to stick around.”
Edward frowned at her. “It’s nothing to do with me, Carmen. Bella is incredibly talented, and I can’t take credit for any of this. But I’m not going anywhere unless she tells me to go.”
“Oh, I don’t think there’s any danger of that happening. And don’t sell yourself short. Apart from the fact that, from what I’ve heard, you’re pretty talented yourself, I can assure you that from the moment she met you, she’s been writing better than ever. And you only have to look at the paintings over the fireplace to know that she’s found her muse.”
He gave her a rueful smile, shaking his head. He opened his mouth to respond, but at that moment, his attention was drawn to raised voices and a loud thud coming from the bookshop. Along with everyone standing on that side of the café, he turned towards the noise, his brow wrinkling in confusion. As he did, a tall, dark-haired man burst through the arch, shaking off the restraining hand of one of the greeters.
“Sir, this is a ticket-only event, you can’t—”
“Go fuck yourself, dickhead, I’m Bella Swan’s boyfriend.”
Boxing Day – The day after Christmas, a public holiday in the UK