Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's Nothing

The following one-shot work of fan fiction was submitted as an entry to the 2011 Season of Our Discontent Anonymous Angst Contest, originally posted at Thanks to pre-reader @JenJadeEyes and beta @SaritaDreaming for their guidance and feedback.

Title: It's Nothing


Pairing: Bella/Carlisle

Rating: M (Language, adult situations)

WordCount: 14,395

Summary: He's late, very late again; surely it's nothing, thinks Bella. AH/AU BxC, BxE

Warnings and Disclaimer:
Warning: Characters will be involved in angst-inducing situations often occurring in real life.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. Copyright 2011- Do not copy for translation. republication, or re-tranmission/transfer without express permission of author except for personal consumption as a downloaded mobile product on a mobile device.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

It's Nothing

When she woke up at 2:00 a.m., his side of the bed was cold and undisturbed. She slipped out from under the warmth of the coverlet, pulled on her robe, and eased down the stairs.

She couldn't help it—she felt compelled to check the garage to see if his car was there.

It wouldn't be there, nor would he be in his home office pecking away at his computer.

The damp garage air felt like a reproach as she opened the door. She didn't even need to turn on the garage light to see his car was not in its place. The garage felt void, a gaping unfilled open space.

She shut the door, locked it, and walked back into the family room. She looked out the window, opening it to see better through the driving rain. The chill of the dank air left her feeling as empty as the driveway.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

She turned on the television to watch something, anything that might keep her mind from wandering.

Bella wasn't worried; she didn't feel the mild anxiety that possessed her when the kids were out for the evening. Of course she'd worry about them even though they were really young adults now and fully capable of managing their time.

A mother's worry never shut off even when children were old enough to drive, to go to college, to get engaged and one day soon get married.

A wife's worry was far more conditional.

Nights spent in the family room were becoming habit. If Bella didn't find herself watching black and white classic movies in the wee hours, she was reading to fill her mind with something other than thoughts of empty frustration.

She fretted the leather couch cushions were beginning to conform to her shape—a dip here from her shoulder at one end, another wider dip in the middle from her hips. She often woke only minutes before her early-rising daughter came downstairs on weekdays. Bella tried not to let the children find her on the couch.

She frequently blamed early hot flashes for bouts of insomnia when caught sleeping on the couch. Or she'd say she'd simply fallen asleep while watching a movie later in the evening after the kids had gone to bed. As far as they knew, there were no other reasons for a mother to be found asleep on the family room couch.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Monday through Friday she found the weary groove and stayed in it. Take the younger teen to school for early morning student council meetings before heading off to work. Pick the older teen up at community college on the way home from daily grind of work in between runs, eight to five.

Weekends consisted of the usual hustle—track meets, football games, recitals punctuated by laundry and grocery shopping.

On occasion her husband would pick up milk and a few groceries early Sunday mornings, before heading off to play golf. It was no longer a given that he would do grocery shopping on early weekend mornings as he had for most of the last decade. Bella would have to alter her schedule and squeeze in a run to the store if Carlisle didn't make it.

When the kids were preschoolers and toddlers, it became too much to take them to the store. First-born Emmett would wheedle nonstop for something, anything, as if it were a game to wear his mother simply whine and fidget, too energetic to tolerate sitting in the grocery cart for the duration of grocery shopping. It was too exhausting for Bella to deal with them and get shopping done quickly.

A few trips to a counselor helped her see that she was simply overburdening herself. The counselor pointed out that with a full time job, classes in the evening during the week to maintain her professional and competitive edge, keeping a house and juggling nearly everything about the kids' lives, there was simply nothing left of Bella. She was drained—a mere husk of a woman.

Bella put her foot down and demanded Carlisle take on the grocery shopping.

Carlisle pushed back at first. He was needed on campus more and more frequently now that he'd finally become part of the administration. He already had a weekly household chore in the form of lawn care, too, although Bella did it when he was out of town, and Carlisle never had to worry about someone watching the kids when he cut the grass.

During their infancy through preschool years, Bella had to arrange leaving the kids with a sitter whenever she had to cut the grass. Ditto for shoveling out the drive way, although on a few occasions, Bella simply bundled the kids up tightly and sat them in their infant carriers in the drive as she had to do this since Bella was there to watch the kids; he never saw her juggling the kids as she performed his chores.

Carlisle saw a counselor, too, in an effort to validate his own feelings and address Bella's assertions that he was an absentee father and husband when it came to the tasks required to run their household.

Bella never did hear everything that came out of Carlisle's visits with his counselor. She only knew that he started doing the grocery shopping on early Sunday mornings, before the after-church crowds swooped in to shop and before his weekly tee time with other university administration members.

It was a big load off Bella. She hadn't noticed how much the resentment itself weighed her down, let alone how much it had taken out of her to squeeze in shopping every week. Things improved between husband and wife and settled into a comfortable stasis.

It lasted for nearly ten years, this quiet period of partnership, as the kids grew bigger, stronger, healthier, older, smarter.

It was too good to last.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

In the earliest days of their relationship, they couldn't keep their hands off each other. They struggled with spending time apart, so strong the physical pull between them. They dated for a couple of years while Bella finished her degree on his doctorate and as a teaching assistant at the same time. Every free moment they had was spend together, in direct contact with each other. As they typed away on their laptops, their bare feet would tangle together beneath the table. As they read text books or research material, their legs would be entwined as they sat at each end of the couch.

Even doing dishes found them in bodily contact. As Carlisle dried the dishes, some part of his body remained in touch with hers as he wiped each plate and pot. His leg rubbed her leg, or his back pressed against hers. Bella would shut her eyes as she washed the dishes and put them in the drainer, enjoying the warmth roiling off Carlisle's heated flesh onto hers as they worked together.

When the last dish had been dried and the sink rinsed, Carlisle would turn and wrap his arms around Bella, nosing into the curve between her neck and shoulder to inhale her scent. Their swaying continued, but with urgency; Bella would feel Carlisle's length pressed to her backside, becoming harder as his hands sought her breasts, then drifted to her waist to unfasten and remove her jeans or pull up her skirt.

The feel of his lips, warm and insistent on her ear, her jaw, her neck, her shoulder, raised goosebumps along her arms. The sound of his breathing as it became more rapid and shallow matched her own. His breath tickled and aroused the tiniest hairs along her flesh; they stood upright as if begging his attention.

Sometimes only seconds would pass between that last flick of the drying towel and the final rinsing of the sink before Carlisle would have buried himself deep into Bella as she stood in front of the sink. He'd nip at her flesh along her jaw and her earlobe, burying his fingers into her wetness in front as he penetrated her from behind.

Her head would loll back onto his shoulder, her long wavy hair caressing his arm as he both pulled her into him and braced them both against the edge of the counter. She would reach above and behind her to lace her warm, still-damp fingers into the brushy softness of his blond hair, pulling as each of his needy thrusts pushed into and joined her. A sense of completion and deep connection filled them as they came down from their post-coital buzz.

Chores were not an issue in those early days. These small household tasks performed together were communion, of which the young couple could not get enough.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Standing at the kitchen sink rinsing the breakfast dishes, she daydreamed about their past. It dawned on her that she couldn't remember the last time they had sex. She wasn't even thinking about making love, just sex.

When had it become so mechanical? She couldn't recall. It began to resemble a mutual scratching of an itch and not an exchange of passion. Now even the scratching was gone. It wasn't that the itch was gone; her vibrator found use several times a month. She was certain his lengthy showers involved some self-relief, although she'd never walked in on him. She had no interest in finding out. She couldn't even remember when she lost her curiosity.

Once, in the early days of their romance, they had stayed up all night alternating between raw, feral sex and making love softly, gently. They'd quit only after he could no longer produce ejaculate; how often they'd come they didn't know as they'd lost count. She remembered that they only caught an hour's sleep before they had to wake and get ready for work, stumbling bleary-eyed and laughing into the shower together.

That Carlisle was a different man, she thought. She hadn't seen him in years, maybe five years, maybe longer. She couldn't remember the last time she saw that Carlisle, the one who used to be the center of her world.

What a long way they had traveled together to become lost to each other.

Bella's chest tightened, her eyes filled with tears. Don't cry now, she thought to herself; you'll just make your makeup run. Grieve when you get home after work tonight.

No—grieve after the kids go to bed.

The self-denial and deferral of need had become so automatic.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

She couldn't blame him, really. His career supported them. Her own career was in coast-mode, having taken a backseat to the needs of the children. There was no way that Bella could push herself into the next level of achievement without frequent travel. That would mean leaving the kids with a sitter even longer, missing more of their firsts, missing their recitals and games.

At least one parent had to be there for them, and in order forCarlisle's career to grow and meet their family's financial needs, it couldn't be him.

Bella did what she could to stay current and competitive, taking classes periodically to maintain her continuing education credits. If something happened—God help them and pass over them—she could support the children and herself and save for retirement. But even the extra classes kept her from the kids.

Whenever she thought about juggling her family and career, she tried to remember that many others would be happy with her situation.

Somebody out there was hungrier, needier than she was; she should be grateful.

She still felt empty after chiding herself.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

They'd run out of ham. Emmett had eaten the last of it the previous evening; his athlete's appetite meant dinner often wasn't enough to hold him. He'd had the last of the ham in a sandwich after he came home from seeing his girlfriend.

Although she typically packed a lunch every morning, Bella decided not to settle for peanut butter or cheese instead of a ham sandwich.

She walked from the office to the corner cafe at lunch to grab a sandwich to go. She'd planned to eat at her desk while she worked and leave a little earlier to stop at the market on the way home.

Her grocery list mentally fluttered and disappeared when she saw him.

It was his car, she was sure of it; she was less than 50 feet away from the street. She froze in place, watching him.

He was laughing, his blond head thrown back, teeth exposed in an open-mouthed guffaw. She knew that laugh. It was the kind of laugh that would grip him during the holidays with favorite family members, laughing without any social restraint in the safety and comfort of loved ones' presence. It was the laugh they used to share at home.

He was laughing at something the woman in the passenger seat must have said, Bella imagined. The woman had a wry smirk on her face. Her eyes were only for Carlisle.

That's all that Bella could see before the traffic light turned green and Carlisle's laugh faded into a large grin as his attention focused on driving forward and away from the intersection and Bella.

She froze in place on the sidewalk just outside the cafe door. She felt like she'd seen a ghost. What was that? What did it mean?

Her stomach suddenly hurt; she turned around and walked back to the office. There was no way she could eat now.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

It's nothing. It had to be nothing. It had been lunch hour and he was probably driving a fellow administration member to a lunch event.

That's what she told herself all afternoon.

That's what she told herself as she shuttled her daughter to dance class.

That's what she told herself as she prepared dinner.

She repeated this mantra at two in the morning when she woke and found his side of the bed empty again.

It's nothing. This nothing was unrelated to the empty bed, because Carlisle's calendar clearly showed he would be at a fundraiser that evening.

Bella frequently passed on these events so that the kids would have a parent at home with them; they were stuffy gatherings, unchanging from year to year. The gala black tie events she couldn't pass up because of the ramifications on Carlisle's career. She would buy the obligatory formal dress, get her hair done, eat the dreadful dinner or munch on the awful appetizers and sip wine as she shook hands and smiled. But the less formal events she would skip. She'd done so many for years and always at a cost to time with the kids.

He'd be home any time now, because it was nothing.

She didn't hear him come in at three, having fallen asleep again on the couch.

She found him already in bed deeply asleep at four when she woke.

Bella did not go back to sleep. She didn't crawl back into bed.

The kids found her wide awake, mauve circles beneath her eyes when they came downstairs that morning.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Carlisle entered the kitchen, whistling snippets of an unidentified tune as he finished tying his tie. He greeted Alice with a peck on her cheek, halting her progress on a breakfast smoothie for a second. Emmett's hair he ruffled as he passed his son before putting a piece of bread in the toaster.

Apparently there was nothing else left in Carlisle's store of affectionate displays as he sat down to eat his toast and drink his coffee. Bella was already sitting at the table, reading the morning paper, her presence unacknowledged until he asked her to pass the business section.

"How was the fundraiser?" she asked.

Carlisle glanced up from the business section briefly, raising an eyebrow as he picked up the paper and held it up in front of him splayed open wide as he continued reading it.

"Good, the same old, same old," he responded flatly. She couldn't see his face or read his expression behind the paper.

"Nothing out of the ordinary, then?" Bella asked, wanting validation that it was nothing, nothing.

"Unh-huh," he grunted. He quickly folded the business section and put it back on the table, in a sudden hurry. He slammed the remaining coffee in his mug, grabbed his toast plate and mug, and jumped up to put them in the sink.

Wiping his mouth with a napkin while looking at his watch, he said, "I won't be here for dinner. There's a staff meeting at the end of the day to discuss budget cuts. I expect it will run late."

He breezed past Bella, giving her shoulder a quick squeeze as he snatched up his sport jacket and then ran out the door.

It didn't feel like nothing, she thought as she rinsed the breakfast dishes. It felt like something big and heavy, yet invisible; whatever it was smothered words he might have said instead.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

She was so preoccupied with her thoughts that she didn't make her lunch. It was just as well; she could walk down to the corner cafe and just maybe she'd see Carlisle drive by again, only this time alone. Just maybe.

The morning slogged along while her mind raced. Clients hemmed and hawed, taking their time with every decision.

Finally a break in phone calls and meetings came and she could walk to the cafe. Bella didn't see the black BMW pass by as it had the day before; she wondered if it might drive by during lunch hour. It was just after noon; she could sit in the cafe at the window and watch traffic go by as she debated what to do about nothing. She worked through her lunch far too often anyhow; she owed herself some work-free time and lunch away from her desk might be in order.

But the cafe was busy, this being lunch hour. She found every table full as she walked through, sandwich in hand. She paused for a moment, wondering if there were a bench nearby, but the weather was a little chilly for dining outdoors.

"Excuse me, miss. Excuse me?" a male voice next to her flagged her attention.

He was sitting at a table for two at the window overlooking the intersection, the seat across from him empty.

Her eyebrows shot up into her hairline in an expression of surprise; she looked to her left, to her right. Apparently this tall, sharp-jawed man was speaking to her. Oh, she thought.

"Uh, yes?" she choked out as his green eyes bored into hers, his face showing amusement.

"You can sit here, I won't bite. I wouldn't mind the company," he said. A restrained, quizzical smile crossed his face as he pointed to the empty chair.

"Oh..." Bella was a bit surprised. It never occurred to her to ask about the seat. She'd simply assumed the man was waiting for a lunch date.

Why she'd assumed, she wasn't sure. Perhaps it was because he was extremely good-looking and no man of his physical gifts would be alone, would they?

She looked down, suddenly bashful; in doing so her eyes lit on his left hand, closest to her.

No wedding ring.

No pale shadow from a ring removed, either. Huh.

Unh...why did she look? She felt confused just as suddenly as she felt bashful.

"Here, let me..." he said, jumping up walking around her to pull the empty chair out for her.

Bella was still stunned, but her body moved of its own accord and sat down in the offered seat. He pushed her seat in gently as she scooted forward to the table; she choked out a muffled 'thank you' as she settled in.

"Hi, I'm Edward. What's your name?" he asked as he offered his hand to shake hers. He was still looking at her intently with amusement.

"Bella. You can call me Bella," she said haltingly. What was she thinking, was she really sitting down with a strange man over lunch, just so she could spy on her husband? The surreality of the moment was unwinding her sense of composure.

"Well, Bella, it's nice to meet you. This'll sound lame, but do you come here often?" He was still smiling that bemused half-smile.

"Oh, only when I haven't packed my lunch. I generally don't eat here. I just get a sandwich or salad to take back to my office," she replied, feeling like she owed him an explanation for what must look like quirky behavior. She imagined she looked lost and out of place, just as she felt.

"Maybe that's why I haven't seen you before. I'm here a lot. I've never been good at packing lunch," said Edward, punctuating his observation with a bite of his sandwich, not taking his eyes off Bella.

"You must work nearby, then?" Bella's curiosity was piqued.

They chatted animatedly as they ate about their respective jobs. She mentioned her kids briefly, but didn't dwell on them long since he didn't mention having kids of his own, and she didn't want to bore him. Their easy back-and-forth felt comfortable. Bella hadn't had a conversation with another adult in so long about anything not related to Carlisle's career, the kids' education or sports, or her daily work that she felt a little giddy.

She was so preoccupied she almost missed the BMW when it drove by, Carlisle smiling broadly in the front seat as a neat female coiffure bobbed along in the passenger seat.

But she didn't miss it. She sat frozen. Her face fell after the black sedan passed through the intersection just outside the window. Her eyes dropped to her sandwich.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Edward stopped talking, his brow knotting. Something had happened and he couldn't figure out what it was. This lively and engaging woman sudden closed up like a flower at sunset, and he didn't know if it was something he said.

He'd only been talking about his job. Did she have a problem with the kind of work he did? Did she have a problem with him? He hoped he hadn't offended her; she was the sweetest person he'd met in a long while, and smart, too.

"Hey." He tried to draw her out, query widening his eyes and lifting his brows. She didn't respond; she remained locked in place looking down at table.

He reached across the table and touched the back of her hand; a little static shock flickered between them as his fingers made contact with her skin. She jumped a little and looked up and into his eyes, surprise registering first on her face and fading into sadness.

"Are you okay? Was it something I said?" he asked her. His green eyes now squinted a little with concern, never looking away from her brown ones which looked like they might threaten to tear up.

"Uh, I'm fine, it's fine, it's okay. No, no, it's not you," she stuttered. Her fingers began to worry the paper on which her sandwich sat.

Bella looked away and out the window, following the flow of traffic. The black BMW was gone.

So was her appetite.

She thanked Edward for letting her share the table as she excused herself and rose from her chair, picking up the remains of her partially-eaten sandwich. Her eyes were preoccupied with the task at hand.

"Bella? Is there anything I can do for you?" He didn't know why he was asking this of her, a total stranger. He wanted her to look at him again, though, and she looked like she was lost again, more so than she did before he offered her a seat at the table.

She looked up at him, her brown eyes a little watery. "No, thank you. You've been really nice, Edward. I'm glad I met you."

She looked away again as she grabbed her purse and turned to leave. Impulsively, Edward reached out to touch her forearm; another static shock leapt between them, punctuating his touch.

"Whatever it is that happened, I'm sorry. Something clearly upset you all of a sudden. If you want to talk about it, I'm all ears." He didn't know why he said that, it was as if his mouth had a will of its own. He found himself simultaneously reaching for a business card in his shirt pocket, pulling it out and offering it to her without even thinking about it.

Bella stared at the card for a moment.

She set the remnants of her lunch on the table, took the card and put it in her purse, looking at Edward all the while from the corner of her eye. She didn't know why she took the card. It just seemed like the thing to do.

And he'd been awfully nice, like a long-time friend from the moment he introduced himself.

She might need a friend if her suspicions were correct.

"Thank you, Edward. Maybe I'll see you here again some time soon for lunch," she said, offering a restrained smile.

"That'd be great, Bella. I look forward to it." He smiled broadly, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

"'Bye," she said as she grabbed her discarded lunch and turned away and walked toward the exit. She tossed her litter in the trash can at the door and looked over her shoulder; he was still looking at her, smiling.

She nodded slightly as she waved and walked out the door, feeling simultaneously sad, confused and tickled.

It felt like hello and good-bye at the same time.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

The cafe suddenly felt like all the oxygen had fled out the door behind Bella, as if the space had depressurized.

As Edward pondered this abrupt change, he realized he hadn't gotten Bella's phone number.

His heart gave a little flip.

He hoped she'd call him. He didn't even care about the diamond ring set she'd been wearing.

He just wanted to hear her voice and talk with her again.

Realizing that she had his office number as well as his cell phone on his business card, he picked up the rest of his lunch and swept out of the cafe in a hurry to get back to his desk.

He was an optimist by nature.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Carlisle said he'd be late.

It was very late.

She fell asleep on the couch watching a chick flick about a cheating husband.

She didn't hear him come in at three a.m.—the second time in two days.

She found him already in bed deeply asleep at four when she woke, yet again.

Bella went back to sit on the couch and watched another chick flick.

For the second morning in a row, the kids found her with even deeper and darker circles under her eyes when they came downstairs that morning.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Bella called in sick; she really did feel out of sorts, although more heartsick than physically ill. Her intuition chewed at her, gnawed away at her insides, kept her from eating breakfast.

After her teens rushed out the door and Carlisle fled in a manner that had become all too common, Bella crawled back into bed.

She pulled a pillow over her head to muffle out sound, but the only real sound there was to be heard was the inescapable thump of her tormented heart.

She dozed off into a deep sleep for several hours, waking a little after lunch when her stomach began to complain painfully of neglect.

Bella shuffled off to the kitchen, feeling sorry for herself. She couldn't bring herself to think it all the way through. She couldn't say it out loud to herself.

Brushing her teeth after lunch, she glanced in the mirror. For a second she didn't recognize herself. This was some other woman with a drawn face and shadowy eyes, she thought; she wasn't that woman. She couldn't possibly be a cuckolded spouse.

But there it was, in that brief flash of non-recognition, the realization that Carlisle was probably cheating on her.

Correction:Carlisle had probably been cheating on her for some time now.

She grabbed for the lid of the toilet, flinging it open only seconds before she vomited her lunch.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

He sat at the same table in the window, hoping she'd wander in as she had the day before, looking a little adrift and in need of a seat and companionship.

He ate his sandwich, not tasting it, thinking about her heart-shaped face, the arch of her eyebrows, the fullness of her bottom lip.

Edward went back to the office and tried to focus on his work and not look at the phone.

He tried not to wait for her call.

He was still an optimist, though.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Bella knew she was in shock. She was well-versed in the stages of grief, having loved and lost family members and friends and having helped others through grief.

She knew she was vulnerable, too, in this state of shock. She could do something rash as she entered the stages of anger, denial, and bargaining. She knew she needed help.

While pacing back and forth across the length of the master bedroom, her cell phone rang. It was Angela.

"Hey, girlfriend! Are we still on for a girls' night?" Angie didn't even let Bella choke out a greeting before burbling out her request. They'd been friends for so very long that formalities were a waste of time anyhow.

"Uh, Ang..."

"Bella? What's wrong?" The delayed response shook Angela; in those two brief syllables she heard a world of hurt. They really had been friends that long.

"Carlisle. I think he's cheating on me," Bella whispered.

"Oh, Bella...where are you, are you at your desk?" Angela hoped Bella could dish a little more without worrying about being overheard.

"No, I called in sick. I'm at home. I haven't slept well, and I needed both rest and some time to think." Bella hung her head, squeezing her eyes shut tightly to fight back tears and sniffles as she sat down on the floor in front of the closet.

"Look, I'm going to blow off work early and come and get you. Do the kids need you this afternoon at all? We could start our girls' night early," offered Angela. She hoped Bella wasn't too despondent just yet.

"No, they're both going to friends' be at a sleepover, and Emmett is staying with a friend off campus. Ang, I need help figuring this out. Just come on over."

"Give me 30 minutes and I'll be there., Just hang tight, okay? Don't do anything rash. Promise?" Angela didn't think Bella sounded unstable, but the tight, thin voice didn't sound at all like her friend.

"I promise. Really, I'll be fine. I'll be here waiting." She slumped over on the floor, lying on her back, feeling as if she was being pulled by a magnetic force to lie prone between the closet doors and below the clothes hanging in the closet. She wondered if she'd be able to pull herself up and off the floor before Angela arrived.

"Love you,Bell, hang in there. We'll figure this out," said Angela in a firm, crisp voice. She sounded a bit angry all of a sudden.

"Thanks, Ang. Love you, too."

Bella clicked "End." Lying on the bedroom floor in her robe, she looked up into the clothes in the closet. How had she never noticed the excessive tidiness of the suits and slacks on Carlisle's side of the closet? They looked as if they had been placed carefully into a store's inventory, while her side looked a little cattywhompus—skirts and slacks interspersed, sweaters and blouses mixed together.

How was it after all this time in this house that she'd never looked at these mundane things from this perspective? How is it she never noticed one side looked lived in, the other didn't?

As she pondered the whys and whens and the meaning of it all, a single long light-colored hair hanging from the sleeve of a suit jacket in the closet caught her eye.

Nobody in the house had long hair except Bella.

And nobody in the house had hair that color—not quite blond, not quite 's own short hair was light blond and sprinkled heavily with white-grey; the two kids had hair that was shorter and much darker in color, more like Bella's.

Bella sat up sharply to inspect the odd hair. It was caught on the button of a suit jacket sleeve, wound around it. She stood up, parting the suit jackets along the closet rod so she could look more closely at this particular jacket.

There was another hair on the lapel, long and wavy and the same unfamiliar color.

She opened the jacket slowly, reaching into the inside chest pocket. There was something in the pocket that felt like paper.

Bella pulled the papery objects out. They were smallish, white with thermal print.

Ticket stubs from a movie theater.

She couldn't remember the last time she'd been to a movie with Carlisle.

Bella shut her eyes for a second, fighting a wave of nausea; she couldn't look at the ticket stubs. She put them back in the pocket and left the closet open and walked quickly to the bathroom to vomit again.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

When the door bell rang, Bella had gotten herself together after mentally slapping herself out of a breakdown. She'd brushed her teeth again, pulled on a button-down blouse and a pair of jeans. She'd put in some eye drops and slapped on a brief bit of makeup. There was no way she was going to go out to a club tonight—or a movie for that matter.

No, she was going to try to remain focused and talk this all through with her best friend. Maybe she was being irrational. Maybe she wasn't. But she knew she had to get her shit together because of the kids. She would be the same dedicated parent she'd been for them, only now she was going to have to parent herself at the same time.

And Angie—thank God for Angie—she'd be right there with her, the voice of reason and a devil's advocate.

Angela rushed in as soon as Bella opened the door; she swept Bella into a big hug, gave her a solid squeeze and then released her to look into her face. She could see past the makeup and the eye drops to the fatigue and concern. She'd seen this look on Bella's face before, the last time when Bella's favorite grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer.

Yeah, this was a cancer, too—an emotional, psychic agent eating away at Bella's self-esteem. If she didn't help Bella address this effectively and rapidly, it might do irreparable damage.

"Tell me everything. Just dump." Angela pulled Bella to the living room where they curled up on opposite ends of the couch, and Bella began to unburden herself in a staccato that rapidly picked up pace.

The long evenings alone.

Sleeping on the couch.

The non-existent sex.

Missing intimacy of other kinds, like touch.

The car seen twice with a female passenger.

"And while I was on the phone with you, I found something else. Come see for yourself," she said as she jumped up and pulled Angela to the master bedroom closet.

"Look, I found a couple of hairs on this jacket," Bella said as she pointed to the long, wavy strange hairs on the sleeve and lapel.

"This might be nothing, Bella, really. It could have been an accident, a couple of hairs snagged off a stranger in passing." Angela was playing devil's advocate, even though she'd already heard enough to raise the hackles on the back of her neck.

"And then these ticket stubs." Bella reached into the inside chest pocket again, pulling out the same two white pieces of thermal printed paper she'd had in her hand less than an hour ago.

"Oh...oh my God," Angela said, her eyes widening. The date of the movie was only a few nights ago, for a romantic flick playing on the other side of town. She knew Bella had been home alone that night.

"What do I do, Ang? I don't know what to do now." Bella looked on the verge of tears again, but her jaw was set squarely. "We know women who've been through this. I just never thought it would be one of us. Me."

"I've got a contact I want you to call, Bella. It's a law firm, but they specialize in investigations. You know, a P.I." Angela pulled out her cell phone and began to search for a number. "You don't have all the facts, and you need them before you confront Carlisle. Maybe it's all innocent and above board, but what if it isn't? Don't tip your hand and let him know or he may hide it from you even if it's innocent. If he's going through a mid-life crisis, who knows what kind of reaction he'll have?" She sent the contact number by text message to Bella's phone.

"Yeah, you're right, I need to do some research. I'd expect the same effort for my kids if they were at risk. Why not for myself?" Bella's shoulders slumped, her head bowed, reflecting her internal pain.

"And get copies immediately of all financial records. If Carlisle's really sleeping around and he's doing something stupid, he may try to hide what he's done or move assets around. Protect yourself, Bella. Do it for the kids if you can't get angry enough to do it for yourself." Angela pulled Bella into another big hug.

"This is the damnedest, Bella, it just fucking hurts to think about it. Let's do something for ourselves like we used to when we were kids. How about manicures and ice cream and chick flicks?" Angela gave Bella one of her familiar sly smiles, recalling breakups with boyfriends long past when Bella consoled Angela over sickly-sweet hot fudge sundaes, the smell of fingernail polish remover hanging heavy in the air.

"I can't meltdown yet, Ang. I have to keep it together until I know the truth. If ice cream gets me through it, so be it." Bella dragged Angela into the kitchen to dig for bowls and spoons, ice cream and fudge sauce.

It was going to be a cold dinner, in more ways than one.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Carlisle came home just before midnight. He found Bella and Angela dozing on the living room couch in front of the flatscreen; Sliding Doors was playing on Netflix as the two women snored lightly.

He took note of the debris field on the coffee table—ice cream bowls, wine glasses, nail polish remover, cotton balls, so on.

He recognized the signs and wondered what Angela could be so upset about that she needed a girls' night in with Bella.

Grabbing the remote, he shut off the television and then went to take a shower, smiling to himself. It never occurred to him that Angela wasn't the one upset.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

It was Saturday morning;Carlisle would be out playing golf with his usual foursome, meeting them for coffee and a standing 8:00 a.m. tee time. There'd be lunch afterward, followed by a beer or two as the foursome watched some sporting event on the big screen televisions around the clubhouse pub.

This meant Carlisle was rarely home before 2:00 p.m. on any Saturday suitable for golf. This Saturday was a particularly choice day for the sport, sunny and crisp, the dew drying quickly on the greens as the sun rose.

Angela's car pulled away from the house shortly after 1:00 a.m.; waking on the couch, she'd roused Bella before leaving. Seven hours later Bella rose and double-checked the garage and driveway for Carlisle's car—it was gone as were his golf clubs.

She went back into the home office and went through all of the financial statements from Yeah, brokerages and banks, pulling household bills and the income tax filings for the last seven years. She started to scan them all. It dawned on her that she should have been doing this all along, scanning the bills and using an online bill paying system just to keep her records more organized and cut the time she spent managing finances. In fact, should Carlisle come home in the middle of this effort, she'd simply tell him she was preparing to digitize their finances to save time.

After two hours of scanning and refiling, Bella had an epiphany.

This was all too easy.

Was she in shock? Sure, she felt a little queasy just thinking about the likelihood of Carlisle's betrayal. She felt a little sick when she thought about calling a P.I. or shopping for an attorney.

But she wasn't crumpling, folding into a paralyzed bundle of nerves. She wasn't broken and shattered. It was as if she had expected this deep in the core of her bones, in the recesses of her soul.

It felt as if she'd already experienced a loss and was merely revisiting it from a distance.

Her marriage, as documented by financial statements and bills, was completely scanned by noon that sunny Saturday, before Alice came home from her sleepover.

Every little jot and tittle contained in a flash drive, smaller than a house key, lying in the palm of her hand.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

It was four o'clock when Carlisle came home. He never came into the house. Bella realized he was home when she heard the lawn tractor start up in the backyard. She looked out to see Carlisle whistling as he mowed.

The first words he spoke to her in more than 24 hours were in the kitchen as she finished cooking dinner.

He asked what she was cooking and how long it would be before she was done.

She told him she needed 30 minutes to finish; Carlisle turned toward the living room and fixed himself a cocktail then went and read the newspaper.

He showed up at the table after Alice and Bella had set the table and begun to serve themselves.

"How was your sleepover?" he asked, looking at his watch.

"Oh, fine, Dad. We did the usual, watched videos and painted our nails,"Alice said, watching her father for any reaction. Bella could tell that something more had happened than just that, given Alice's too-chipper demeanor on return home that afternoon, and now Alice's careful observation of Carlisle's face. She'd ask for more details after dinner; her gut told her there were boys involved and she'd have to give Alice another reminder about being careful with her future and safe about sex.

"Good, good. Glad to hear it."Carlisle didn't look up from his watch or his dinner.

He never said a word to Bella the entire meal, appearing to listen to Alice and Bella as they chatted about school and college applications soon to be up the plates that Alice and Bella hadn't already cleared at the end of the meal, put them in the kitchen and left for the home office.

When Bella went to bed alone after midnight, light still pooled on the hall floor below the closed office door.

Sunday was much the same, although the weather was overcast and cooler. Bella spent the day finishing the week's laundry, cleaning house and going grocery shopping.

Carlisle arrived home in time for dinner.

As she washed the dishes alone, Bella wondered how long it had been like this—a dearth of interaction between herself and her husband. Why hadn't she noticed until now that they were little more than roommates?

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Bella took a personal break at 10:00 a.m. on Monday morning and called the P.I. as Angela suggested. She wasn't exactly certain what questions to ask before engaging an investigator. She decided before she called that she would feel them out first.

The woman she spoke with was kind, non-judgmental, and explained what the firm usually did for their clients requesting investigations into possible infidelity. They were licensed and bonded; they'd sign a confidentiality agreement in concert with the contract for their services.

Karen, the investigator's representative, asked Bella a few questions after explaining how the investigators did their work. Something must have triggered her call to their offices, after all.

After answering a few questions, Bella ended her call with the investigator's office feeling like she was taking the right steps. She wanted to make the right decisions about her life, and she needed more information than she had to do so.

Bella forgot to mention that she thought she had seen Carlisle driving by with another woman. She remembered this detail when her stomach growled just before noon.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

She was a little later than she wanted to be, arriving at the cafe at 12:15 p.m. when the line at the counter was the longest. She hoped she wouldn't miss Carlisle's car if he drove by again.

Service moved quickly, though; today she placed an order for a simple house salad which was already pre-made, saving a few more minutes in line. After paying for her lunch, she looked for seating next to the front window looking over the nearby intersection.

Sitting alone at a table for two was Edward. He appeared to be looking for her, brushing his floppy auburn hair out of his eyes and smiling as they made eye contact. Bella walked toward him since the only open seat was at his table.

"Hey, Bella! It's nice to see you again," he said, standing up to pull out the open seat for her. Bella couldn't help but smile back; he had an infectious smile, made more charming by his slightly flushed cheeks. He pushed his longish hair back out of his eyes nervously as he sat back down after pushing Bella's chair back into the table.

"Thanks, Edward, it's nice to see you, too. I hope I'm not taking somebody else's seat again," she said, blushing under his steady gaze.

God, this is a strange man, someone I really don't know at all. Why am I acting this way? she wondered.

Remembering why she was there, she kept an eye on the street as she spoke with Edward and ate her salad. She must have looked distracted to him as he asked her if everything was okay.

"Yes, everything's just fine. Thanks for asking. What about you?"

"I'm fine, too, although I'd be great if you had called me just to talk this weekend," he said with another half-smile. "No pressure, though. I'm sure you're a busy woman."

"Oh, yeah, my weekends are usually pretty full." Bella felt guilty and ashamed. Guilty, because she really would have liked talking with Edward rather than spend another lonely weekend on mundane chores alone. She felt ashamed for having left Edward hanging; it sounded like he had been counting on her call, even though she was pretty certain she hadn't assured him she'd phone.

They continued chatting easily as they had the previous week. He was so easy to talk with, as if she'd known him for a long time. This time Edward remembered to ask for a business card. He told Bella he had a friend who owned a small manufacturing business that might be in need of her company's services. She jumped a little as a small static-like shock jolted her hand when her skin made contact with Edward's as she handed him her card. His eyebrows raised, registering surprise; he must have felt the same little shock, she surmised. He smiled a little more widely as he thanked her for her card.

Good, he thought. He noted her cell phone number was on it as he put it in his wallet.

Just as she had last week, Bella finished her lunch and left the cafe, wishing Edward a pleasant afternoon and evening while her eyes flitted to traffic passing by.

She never saw the black car pass by. Did she arrive too late and miss it? Or did Carlisl not go out to lunch today? Bella would have to think of a way to check without raising Carlisle's suspicions.

It felt odd, though, to be worrying about his suspicions when he was the one acting strangely.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Bella checked her email when she got back to her desk, logging into her laptop and then her private Gmail account.

As promised, the documents from the investigator's office were there. She downloaded them to her laptop with plans to complete them at home in the evening after dinner if Carlisle was late once again.

She teared up, feeling not only hurt but a little disgusted with herself. This was all so dispassionate and cold, shopping for an investigator and then reviewing contract documents for the same.

Surely she should feel more angry and hurt and quite a bit more surprised than she did. Isn't that how cuckolded spouses feel?

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Dinner came and went without Carlisle. The dishes were done, Alice was doing her homework, and Emmett was reading noisily—rap music playing loudly, the bass causing objects to thrum, as he reviewed a text for his English composition class.

It was a typical weekday evening.

Bella was in the home office, turning on the desktop computer while she waited for her laptop to boot up. She was going to look at the investigator's documents one more time. She was also going to check the desktop computer's history, to see if any tell-tale cookies or links were left behind.

Her cell phone rang; the display showed Carlisle's name. He usually called earlier if he was going to be home soon. Better late than never, she thought as she pressed "Send" to answer.


There was a pause and an intake of air at the other end.

"I'm sorry. It's not Carlisle," a female voice answered after a couple of heart beats. "Carlisle was admitted earlier to the hospital after he had chest pains."

"What?" Bella couldn't wrap her head around this news. He looked fine this morning, if a little tired and his usually less-than-communicative self. Surprise and confusion squeezed her stomach with a fist-like grip. She choked out the next question that popped into her mind. "Which hospital?"

"Bayview. He's here in the cardiac wing right now. They are running more tests," the female said.

Shock fogged Bella's brain. Tests. That must be a good sign, they are still figuring things out if they are running tests.

"Okay, thank you. I'll be there within the half hour," Bella said, wondering suddenly how she would tell the kids and what she would tell them. "Can you tell Carlisle I'll be there soon, please?"

"Sure, I'll do that. I'll let him know."

Bella ended the call. She was still in a haze, trying to pull herself together enough to change gears to deal with this emergency. "Alice! Emmett!" she shouted the kids' names.

Alice ran out, hearing tension in her mother's voice. "What, Mom? What's going on?"

"Emmett, we need Emmett!" Bella reached her son's room and began pounding on his bedroom door, hoping he could he hear her over the bass drums beating through the stereo speakers.

"What? Alice, piss off!" Emmett shouted. "I'm trying to study!"

Bella beat on the door again, putting her mouth almost on top of the door as she yelled again. "Emmett! Open the door!"

Emmett swung the door open rapidly, looking angry as he filled the doorway then deflating suddenly with surprise as he took in his mother's appearance. "Mom! What's wrong?"

"Your father's in the hospital. He's been admitted for chest pains. I have to go there right now."

"Do you want me to drive us there?" Emmett asked, his eyes wide with fright.

Alice looked equally scared, her eyes tearing up slightly, her mouth open and slack.

"No, I want you to stay here with Alice." Bella reached for his shoulder, squeezing it as much to comfort herself as to assure him.

"Alice, Emmett's in charge. Both of you need to stay here and stay focused on your school work. The hospital is running tests right now. I'm going to get answers about your dad's condition, and I'll call you as soon as I find out what's going on."

"Are you sure, Mom? Shouldn't we be there?"Alice asked, her voice tight with teary panic.

"You'd only be sitting in a hallway waiting. It may be stressful for you and even more stressful for your dad if you're there. Just try to remain calm and do what you normally do until you hear from me. This may be nothing at all, just a very bad case of indigestion for all we know. I know you're going to be worried, but I promise I will text or call you with information as soon as I can, okay?"

Alice grabbed her mother in a hug; Emmett folded both of them in his reach and squeezed. Bella choked out a little gasping laugh. "Okay, okay, we're going to be fine. Let me get going so I can check on your dad and call you. Make sure you have your cell phones charged and handy."

The kids were both reluctant to let go, but did so, still looking surprised and fearful. Bella gave them each a kiss on the cheek, then went to get her purse and a book to read in case she had to wait.

As she backed out of the driveway, the kids waved at her from the front door. They haven't done that in years, she thought,since before Alice started high school. Their gesture touched her heart, cutting through the ratcheting worry she felt over Carlisle's condition.

Please, let it just be indigestion or a little angina, she thought.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Stopping at the hospital's front desk, Bella asked for the room number for her husband. "He's in Cardiac Care, third floor, room 308. That's right across from the nurses' station, to the left as you get off the elevator," the receptionist said with a tight smile. Bella nodded and thanked her before heading briskly down the hall to the bank of metal doors and buttons.

As she rode up, Bella's stress level rose; her own heart was beating rapidly as the elevator door opened at the third floor. The manic beeping of many monitors at the nurses' station only heightened her increasing sense of dread and worry about Carlisle.

A nurse looked up as she approached the desk. "I'm looking for Carlisle Cullen. I'm his wife. How is he?" Bella asked. The nurse looked a little puzzled and asked to see Bella's ID. "I'm sorry, we have to be careful releasing information about patients," the nurse said. She checked the computer at the desk." He's right here, ma'am. He's under a mild sedative right now and might be groggy if he's not asleep. The doctor will be making rounds very shortly and will give you more details about his condition. Go ahead and have a seat in his room for now." The nurse pointed to her left.

Bella entered the dimly-lit room across the hall from the desk. There were two beds with two patients, an unfamiliar man lying in the first bed. The bed farthest from the door, closest to the window, was Carlisle's. She could see him dozing, his forehead knotted slightly in his sleep, his skin ashen. A monitor beeped softly at his side, another displayed his heart beats per minute. She sighed, feeling a little better now that she could see him. She leaned in close over his bed, wanting to touch his face or his hand, but she was afraid of waking him and increasing his stress.

She was so preoccupied with worry for Carlisle that she didn't notice another visitor in the room until she set her purse down and looked for a chair in which to sit. A woman sitting next to the room divider curtain between the beds stood up, nodding to Bella before leaving.

It was a minute or two after Bella had settled into her chair and taken stock of the monitor readings and the notes left by nurses on the white board above the patients' beds that Bella realized the other visitor hadn't been there for the room's other patient. In fact, the visitor looked familiar.

She was the woman Bella'd seen twice in Carlisle's car.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Edward turned on the tap, letting the water run until it was hot and the shower stall was steamy. He'd just finished playing raquetball with a friend and looked forward to removing the sticky man-stink he'd earned.

He reveled in the shower head's massaging spray, taking his time as he thought about his day. The best part had been seeing Bella again, even though she'd seemed more preoccupied than the last time he saw her.

She'd smelled so good, good enough to eat. Her scent rolled off her—a mixture of berries and vanilla and lavender—when he'd leaned in to push her chair into the table. He wanted to stroke her soft cascade of dark brown waves, then wrap her hair around his hand and wrist as he pulled her toward his chest. He wanted to kiss her neck just below her jaw and breathe in her scent, then kiss her full, pink lips.

He stroked himself, aroused at the thought of her reciprocating his attentions. A tingle ran down his spine as he imagined the pinkness of her lips replicated by her nipples. His groin tightened and his erection hardened further as he thought of the soft fullness of her breasts—softer because of her motherhood, her nipples likely larger and more sensitive for the same reason. Mothers were more responsive and less reticent in his experience. He could imagine her being as fearless at seeking her pleasure as she was at being a mother.

Bella would be an erotic paradox of petite firmness and lushness; Edward imagined her wrapping her firm legs around his neck, digging her heels into his back, only to later squeeze his hips between her thighs. Wondering if she tasted as good as she smelled spurred him to stroke himself faster, more firmly. Imagining her shuddering beneath him, calling out his name in her sweet voice, sent him over the edge to reach his release under the warm water.

He chastised himself as he toweled off, reminding himself she might not be available at all. He grinned to himself about her status as both a casual friend and spank bank material.

Before settling into bed to catch up on his reading, watch sports recaps, and the late news, Edward grabbed his cell phone. He drafted a text message as he reclined against his pillows and headboard; he'd already entered the cell phone number in his contact list earlier that day, upon return to his office.

Thinking of you, want to thank you for our chat at lunch and your biz card. Have a nice evening. ~ E

He smiled as he pressed the "Send" button. Thinking of you, most certainly.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

The hospitalist making rounds stopped into Carlisle's room about 20 minutes after Bella sat down, 15 minutes after she'd sent a text message to both of the kids to let them know what she'd learned. He interrupted her fretting, smiling and introducing himself in low, measured tones as he looked at Carlisle's chart.

"Your husband is fine, Mrs. Cullen. We're monitoring his blood chemistry right now. He wasn't having a heart attack when he arrived at the hospital earlier today, but his symptoms were consistent with the potential for a heart attack. We can see unusual activity on his EKG. While his blood enzymes were normal to slightly elevated on arrival, they have been slowly elevating and need to be monitored closely," he explained. The hospitalist's bland expression didn't reveal any unusual concern, Bella noted, but she didn't feel less worried yet.

"So he may be having a heart attack now? One might be starting?"

"Yes, that's what the blood tests show, along with the EKG."

Bella's gut wrenched with worry. "How bad will it be? Can we stop the damage?"

"Your husband has already received several medications to reduce the chance of permanent damage to his heart, including a blood thinner. We've already taken some Doppler scans of his heart's performance and can see some blockage. He came in before a lot of damage was done to his heart, but the cardiologist will review the scan data shortly to make a more detailed assessment of the amount of damage done, the location of blockages to your husband's heart, and the next steps we should take in treatment."

"What can I do? Is there something I should be doing for him?" she asked. She had no idea what the normal routine would be in caring for a cardiac patient. She felt like she'd been suddenly thrown into the deep end of the pool.

"The only thing you can do is wait quietly. Make sure that any issues at home and work are dealt with so they don't increase his stress level. The cardiologist will go over everything with you after he's completed his assessment. Be sure to leave your contact information with the nurses' station if you have to leave. Do you have any questions for me?"

Bella couldn't think of any questions, feeling completely lost and unprepared for this situation. Hugging her arms around herself tightly, she nodded her head no and said thank you.

"Oh, your spouse will be sedated through the evening. It's in his IV and will help him stay calm while easing his chest pain. You can probably nap in that recliner chair if you choose to stay with him. It's possible he won't even notice you're here as long as he's sedated."

"Thank you, Doctor." She could only nod her head in affirmation.

Carlisle really hadn't noticed her much at home lately anyhow. Even with a heart attack under way, little had changed.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Bella's cell phone chirped twice, indicating incoming messages. She'd gone down to the lobby to make phone calls since cell phones weren't permitted in Cardiac Care. The kids had replied to her earlier text message to them, asking her to tell their dad they loved him.

As she paced around the nearly empty lobby, she called them at the house to repeat what the hospitalist had told her. She asked them both to follow their normal routines, telling them she didn't know if she'd be home or if she was staying at the hospital. She wouldn't know until the cardiologist stopped in and gave his assessment.

Bella called Carlisle's department at the university, leaving a message about his condition. She said she would provide an update in the morning. She called her own supervisor and left a similar message—she'd call in with an update in the morning, but she'd likely be out because of her spouse's cardiac condition.

Her phone rang almost immediately after she ended the call. It was the Cardiac Care nurses' station, letting her know the cardiologist was on his way to talk with her.

As she left the lobby area to head for the elevator, her phone chirped again. She assumed it was a text from one of the kids.

She was surprised to see it was Edward. Far too much was going on to make sense of this and put this message in context. She stopped outside the elevator and chose to send a brief text back so as not to appear rude and to put it behind her for now.

Thank you, too, have a nice night. - B

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Bella checked in at the nurses' station to let them know she'd returned and would be waiting for the cardiologist in Carlisle's room. When she entered the room she found Carlisle barely awake and dozy, on the verge of falling back to sleep.

"How are you feeling?" she asked, keeping her voice low and measured.

He looked puzzled at first, like he didn't recognize her or expect to see her. He blinked slowly a few times as if to focus. It must be the sedation, she thought.

"My chest hurts," he said, his tongue thick. He swallowed slowly, then blinked.

"It's not so bad now. Good drugs," he added with a faint smile.

"The cardiologist is on his way to talk about the scans they took of your heart. He should be here in just a few minutes."Carlisle blinked again slowly in response, nodding his head slightly.

"My mouth is dry," he rasped. "Can you get me some water?"

Bella noticed a water jug, a cup, and straw had been placed on a rolling table next to his bed, appearing since she'd last been in the room. She poured a little water in the cup and held it and the straw to his mouth; Carlisle sipped enough to wet his tongue. Bella noticed his lips were dry; she retrieved some lip balm from her purse and applied a small amount on his lips. He gave her a small smile and whispered his thanks.

"Are you comfortable?" Bella noticed his feet were uncovered; she touched his toes and found them chilled. "Would you like me to cover your feet?"

Carlisle nodded slightly. She pulled up the blanket at the end of the bed after adjusting the sheeting, covering his feet. He nodded again in thanks, too drowsy to speak.

The cardiologist entered the room, clipboard in his left hand, his right hand outstretched to shake Bella's. "I'm Doctor Chopra. I've been assigned to your spouse's case." He leaned over Carlisle to look into his eyes and face and greeted him as his his cardiologist.

After looking at the IV and heart monitor, Dr. Chopra held out a printout on his clipboard so that both Carlisle and Bella could read it. "As you can see, this is a graphic representation of Carlisle's heart taken with Doppler technology." He pointed to an area adjoining the heart. "This area is the point at which an artery enters the heart chamber, carrying blood. This Doppler image suggests a critical degree of blockage, possibly more than 80 percent. Plaque buildup and or inflammation are cutting off blood flow. This is causing the chest pain, literally strangling the heart tissue by suffocation."

Bella could only nod yes at this point, trying to digest what she was seeing and still drowsy-alert, only able to blink and nod yes.

"My suggestion for next steps are to insert a stent in this blood vessel, in order to increase blood flow to the heart, assuming the vessel is at least 80 percent blocked. We would need to perform a catheterization followed by an internal Doppler to physically check and measure the amount of blockage first, then insertion of a stent if necessary. Are you with me so far? Do you have any questions?"

"Yes, I think I understand," Bella said. She looked at Carlisle who in turn looked at Bella and then at Dr. Chopra to nod yes.

"I don't have any questions, either," said Bella, looking back again at Carlisle to confirm agreement. He looked at her with what appeared to be understanding and agreement.

"Okay, then, about the catheterization. Rather than open a patient's chest, a snake-like camera and tool are run from the patient's thigh to their heart through blood vessels. We start with an incision at the thigh..." Dr. Chopra continued in detail, explaining the entire procedure. Bella was alternatingly queasy and fascinated with the description. It wasn't clear how much Carlisle was getting out of the conversation, but he didn't nod off, continuing to blink slowly as he watched Dr. Chopra and Bella. The doctor explained that depending on what he found—how bad the blockage was after the catheter had been inserted and another scan taken from the interior of Carlisle's chest—he'd insert a going to be hospitalized for at least another 24 hours.

The doctor suggested Bella go home and try to get a good night's be sedated up to and through the catheterization scheduled for early afternoon the next day. He checked Carlisle's vitals again, scratched some notes in his charts, shook Bella's hand again in parting, and left the room.

Carlisle drifted off into the void of sedation almost as soon as the doctor cleared the door.

Bella fell into the visitor's chair at the foot of the bed. Nothing in her life was fixed, nothing solid. She was utterly adrift in a see of what-ifs. She dug her toes into the floor, gripping the chair's arms tightly, as if she could pin herself in place against the unseen current of change.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

She must have drifted off while waiting in Carlisle's hospital room. Waiting for what, she really didn't know; only monitoring would take place through the night.

Buzz-buzz again—a familiar sound stirred from her sleep, now buzzing again from the stand next to Carlisle's bed. It was his cell phone; the staff must have put it there when they admitted him from ER to the cardiac care floor.

Bella grabbed it in order to squelch the noise before it disturbed Carlisle. She wasn't familiar with the model, poking and stabbing at the display to find the settings feature to shut off the ringer.

Up came Carlisle's text messages.

You were missed at this afternoon's meeting. I left notes at your office. - Bob

read the most recent message. But it preceded a message left shortly before noon.

I love you and miss you, meet you for lunch - Esme

Text messages from department members and administration staff preceded this message, all innocuous and business-like. Right up until one left in the wee hours of the morning.

Miss you already. Love you. - Esme

Bile rose in Bella's throat. She barely made it to the toilet of the small bathroom adjoining Carlisle's room. It didn't occur to her that the dozy elderly patient in the room's second bed might see and hear her vomiting.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Long after midnight, Bella went home. The hospitalist physician on duty had already stopped in to check on Carlisle and give Bella the time of the catheterization for the next still under sedation, sleeping deeply enough that he probably didn't know she was still in the room.

If he'd been awake, she would have had a hard time resisting the urge to corner him about the text messages and phone calls documented on his cell phone. Even if she could ask him calmly, she was pretty sure he couldn't give her a reasonable explanation that didn't include cheating on her.

She thought about next steps on the way home, driving with the windows rolled down a quarter of the way. It had rained that evening. The smell of the wet pavement and sodden lawns heightened her melancholy. She was pretty sure by the time she pulled in the driveway and the garage that she wouldn't bother with contracting the P.I.

She had all the evidence she needed. She was only struggling with validating her own observations and feelings, and now her concern over Carlisle's health.

She struggled with guilt, wrestling with herself about her lack of feeling. She felt panicked about the possible damage to Carlisle's heart, worried about her children, but she didn't feel as deeply as she should have. She should be quaking now, terrified about the potential loss of her helpmate; she would have been petrified with fear had this happened ten years ago.

But now? Bella only felt a mild sense of trepidation. Whatever happened, happened, and she'd do her best to deal with it and move on. She battered herself internally for feeling so assured, not having realized that years of lonely independence had prepared her well to be on her own.

She checked on the kids. She checked the house and closed everything down for the night. She took a shower and crawled into bed, to lie there thinking for another hour.

Groggy with impending sleep, Bella thought, They don't warn you about the 'death 'til you part' clause in your wedding vows.They don't warn you that it may be long and ugly and often lonely.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

With the kids' anxiety squelched by a thorough update over breakfast, Bella concentrated on calling Carlisle's office as well as her own. She let them know that Carlisle was in the hospital; neither she nor Carlisle would be in their respective offices for the next two days.

At least she hoped that's all the absence would be, based on the description of the catheterization process.

She packed lunches, prepped some laundry, saw the kids off to their respective schools, then dressed and prepared for another long day of waiting at the hospital.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Bella arrived at the hospital a couple of hours before Carlisle's scheduled procedure. He was still heavily sedated, rousing only slightly from time to time. He looked at Bella through heavy lids, slowly recognizing her. His body language changed slightly, his head and shoulders slowly orienting towards her like a flower would follow the sun. His face relaxed, the faint tension in his forehead and jaw fading slowly the longer she sat next to his bed.

She was wracked with guilt as she realized he was tracking her even in a soporific state. She'd been thinking about legal separation and divorce since her evening heart-to-heart with Angela. The conversation with the P.I. had only reinforced her feeling that perhaps it was time to end her marriage. Perhaps it had simply run its course and it was time to move on. With their children now grown, Carlisle could be released to find happiness and Bella could do the same.

But his unconscious self still reached out to her. They were still entwined, if not physically. How could she give up now on this man who had once been the center of her solar system? How could she even think of separation when he may need truly need her? How could she risk his health by increasing his stress?

Bella resolved to wait and see. She'd taken a vow, no matter whether he'd broken his or not. She'd seen him through health and would now see him through sickness even though they may eventually separate once he'd returned to 's condition might even give them more time to deal with their issues since he would need to take a short leave and work on a reduced schedule until he was back at full health.

Carlisle broke her reverie. "Hey," he whispered, his voice thin and dry. The hand closest to her moved slightly toward her.

She took his hand in hers gently, giving it a soft squeeze. "Hey," she whispered back. "The doctor will be shortly to check on you before they take you to surgery. Just rest, okay? I'll be here waiting for you." Tears welled at the corners of her eyes. She blinked to fight them back, offering up a weak, watery smile.

He struggled to return her smile with one of his own, the corners of his mouth turning up slowly as if held down by weights. He closed his lids slowly, opening them again to look into her eyes, the smile fleeing his face. His face tightened as if in pain.

"I'm sorry," he rasped. He swallowed, looking as if he would say more, continuing to stare unblinking into her eyes.

"It's okay, Car. We'll talk more when you get better," she choked out, patting his hand.

The nurse and two surgical aides swept into the room with a gurney in tow just as Bella was reaching toward Carlisle. "Mr. Cullen? It's time for your catheterization. Mrs. Cullen? Come with me," said the nurse.

Bella leaned forward toward her husband, brushing his hair out of his face then kissing his forehead. He sighed; she squeezed his hand again in parting. "I'll see you afterward, Car. I'll be waiting." Emotion flitted over his face, so quickly she almost missed it. Was it sadness? Pain? Regret? There was no chance to decipher it or ask him about it as the techs began to lift him from the bed onto the gurney.

"Mrs. Cullen?" the nurse asked again. "This way, please. The family waiting room is just down the hall." Bella took a seat as instructed, to wait for a pre-surgical briefing from the cardiologist.

The quiet was unnerving, even with the faint buzz of a television in the background. She was left alone again with her thoughts and anxieties after the cardiologist came to explain the simple procedure, expected outcomes, and exited to surgery.

In the hour she had to wait by herself it occurred to her this was purgatory on earth.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Bella tried to occupy herself with sending text message updates to the kids and Angela as well as making calls to Carlisle's department and her office.

The hour turned into two. She broke out her e-reader to kill the time, trying to lose herself in a mystery-romance novel.

She'd almost succeeded in losing herself in her e-book when the cardiologist entered the waiting room.

He wasn't alone. Behind him was the hospital's chaplain. They both wore tight faces, their hands clenched.

There would be no more waiting. No more talk. No more mystery.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

To their closest friends, she relayed what the cardiologist had told her. During the catheterization, Carlisle had a "widow maker" cardiac event, a blockage which blew so rapidly and caused such damage that they could not repair it fast enough. There was no chance he would have survived if this had happened outside of the hospital. His best opportunity was there under the care of cardiologist, who did everything possible to save him, and the best simply wasn't good enough.

Widow maker, indeed.

The funeral was well-attended, many faculty and students paying their respects to Carlisle. Emmett and Alice held up admirably given the suddenness of their loss. Emmett even gave a brief eulogy for his father; he'd grown up so very much in the previous four days and now sounded more like his father than ever horribly broken during the visitation events at the funeral home, but calm during the funeral service itself. She clung tightly to her mother's hand as Bella sat stoically through the service.

Bella lost any control she had as the pallbearers loaded the coffin into the hearse for the last time, her frozen ambivalence shattered. Emmett did his best to keep her from buckling under her grief while Bella's parents did their best for Alice.

The woman in black with the long caramel-colored hair who'd sat in the last row of the church went unnoticed. With so many others quietly sniffling while dabbing at their eyes, her tears went unremarked and anonymous.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Bella was better prepared than she thought for this loss. She'd helped with her grandmother's and her in-laws' funerals and later with the disposition of their estates. Knowing what to expect and what to do made it easier, although she felt like she was moving through a dense fog. She ignored her cell phone in order to maintain some control over the mourning process. If she limited her calls to those coming into or made from the house landline phone, she found she could cope without being inundated by well-meaning friends and family.

She made arrangements for the kids to attend some grief counseling with her. The sessions seemed to help them all with starting a new life without their father-husband. It crossed Bella's mind during one session that perhaps she'd already been processing enough grief before Carlisle's death that this sudden loss was easier.

She was still angry with him, but the anger was different, tempered more than frustrated.

She deleted all his text messages without reading them and destroyed his SIM card before turning his phone back into the university.

Whatever Carlisle had been doing no longer mattered. Bella resolved that she wouldn't let it shape her life or her kids' lives going forward. He'd said he was sorry about something—whatever it was, it would have to be enough.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

Several weeks after the funeral, Bella found herself at work one day without lunch and thought about heading to the corner cafe to grab some take-out.

It dawned on her that she hadn't heard from Edward recently. It was likely her own fault, having ignored the phone so long. She'd made up her mind to close the cell phone account which had been in Carlisle's name. She'd been so overwhelmed with calls, voicemails, and text messages that she decided it was easier to start from scratch with a new account. Granted, it had been out of a brief sense of pique that she decided to purge the phone from her life, but she couldn't deal with a few key messages buried among all the others. They were the last she'd gotten from Carlisle. They were just too much to handle.

In the decision to purge, she'd lost Edward's number along with the text he'd sent before the funeral. His business card was lost in the shuffle of post-funeral and estate administration paperwork.

Perhaps Edward would be there at the cafe and she could reestablish contact with him. It might be nice to have a new male friend of her own who wouldn't look at her with pity like all her other male friends had in the wake of Carlisle's passing.

When she entered the bustling cafe and got in line, she surveyed the tables for Edward's floppy russet hair and tall physique. She didn't see him at first, spotting him across the crowded floor after she'd received and paid for her salad.

He was there, smiling, sitting at a table in the window with his lunch.

Her heart did a little flip upon seeing his smile, and then a flop as she took note of the beautiful strawberry blonde woman smiling back at him, sitting across from him at the table. They made a beautiful couple, she thought, as she turned heel and walked out of the restaurant with her lunch in hand.

~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~ X ~ 0 ~

"I keep hoping she'll stop in here for lunch," he said before taking a bite of his sandwich. "She's sweet and smart and gorgeous."

"She must be something if you keep haunting this place," the strawberry blonde replied, smirking as she opened her bottle of water. "Lord knows I could use a little something-something like that. I wonder if she has a friend?"

"Tanya, I have to see her again and get to know her a little better before I'd ever have the balls to ask her if she has any lesbian friends to introduce to my cousin. Christ, I have to figure out why she's not answered my calls." Edward sighed, frustrated. He'd thrown out Bella's business card after entering her number in his phone. He now regretted deeply his neat-freak compulsion for eliminating paper.

"Look, you thought she was married. You said she was wearing a ring. Maybe you shouldn't get your hopes up."

"Yeah, she had a ring on, but she just didn't seem attached, you know? She didn't talk about her husband like most married women do. She just seemed, well, I don't know...alone. Available, maybe?" Edward scrunched up his napkin, emphasizing his agitation.

The bell above the door chiming as people entered and left the cafe had been ringing non-stop through lunch. He'd paid it no heed, laughing at Tanya's snarky commentary about their previous evening's escapades at the gay bar near campus. The bell tinkled again, and something caught his eye.

Was that a woman with dark hair brown hair he'd seen leaving? Whoever it was was gone, having cleared the doorway already.

It couldn't have been her, could it? he wondered.

"Hey, you okay?" his cousin asked, noticing Edward's sudden tension and preoccupation.

He looked back at Tanya and smiled. "Yeah, I'm fine, it's nothing. Nothing at all."

~~ Fin ~~

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