Alice shoved the beribboned key in my hand, then grabbed my elbow and steered me toward the back door. "Let's go, let's go," she trilled.
"Is it outside?"
"Sort of," Alice said, pushing me forward.
"Enjoy your gift," Rosalie said. "It's from all of us. Esme especially."
"Aren't you coming, too?" I realized that no one had moved.
"We'll give you a chance to appreciate it alone," Rosalie said. "You can tell us about it... later."
Emmett guffawed. Something about his laugh made me feel like blushing, though I wasn't sure why.
I realized that lots of things about me - like truly hating surprises, and not liking gifts in general much more - had not changed one bit. It was a relief and revelation to discover how much of my essential core traits had come with me into this new body.
I hadn't expected to be myself. I smiled widely.
Alice tugged my elbow, and I couldn't stop smiling as I followed her into the purple night. Only Edward came with us.
"There's the enthusiasm I'm looking for," Alice murmured approvingly. Then she dropped my arm, made two lithe bounds, and leaped over the river.
"C'mon, Bella," she called from the other side.
Edward jumped at the same time I did; it was every bit as fun as it had been this afternoon. Maybe a little bit more fun because the night changed everything into new, rich colors.
Alice took off with us on her heels, heading due north. It was easier to follow the sound of her feet whispering against the ground and the fresh path of her scent than it was to keep my eyes on her through the thick vegetation.
At no sign I could see, she whirled and dashed back to where I paused.
"Don't attack me," she warned, and sprang at me.
"What are you doing?" I demanded, squirming as she scrambled onto my back and wrapped her hands around my face. I felt the urge to throw her off, but I controlled it.
"Making sure you can't see."
"I could take care of that without the theatrics," Edward offered.
"You might let her cheat. Take her hand and lead her forward."
"Alice, I - "
"Don't bother, Bella. We're doing this my way."
I felt Edward's fingers weave through mine. "Just a few seconds more, Bella. Then she'll go annoy someone else." He pulled me forward. I kept up easily. I wasn't afraid of hitting a tree; the tree would be the only one getting hurt in that scenario.
"You might be a little more appreciative," Alice chided him. "This is as much for you as it is for her."
"True. Thank you again, Alice."
"Yeah, yeah. Okay." Alice's voice suddenly shot up with excitement. "Stop there. Turn her just a little to the right. Yes, like that. Okay. Are you ready?" she squeaked.
"I'm ready." There were new scents here, piquing my interest, increasing my curiosity. Scents that didn't belong in the deep woods. Honeysuckle. Smoke. Roses. Sawdust? Something metallic, too. The richness of deep earth, dug up and exposed. I leaned toward the mystery.
Alice hopped down from my back, releasing her grip on my eyes.
I stared into the violet dark. There, nestled into a small clearing in the forest, was a tiny stone cottage, lavender gray in the light of the stars.
It belonged here so absolutely that it seemed as if it must have grown from the rock, a natural formation. Honeysuckle climbed up one wall like a lattice, winding all the way up and over the thick wooden shingles. Late summer roses bloomed in a handkerchief-sized garden under the dark, deep-set windows. There was a little path of flat stones, amethyst in the night, that led up to the quaint arched wooden door.
I curled my hand around the key I held, shocked.
"What do you think?" Alice's voice was soft now; it fit with the perfect quiet of the storybook scene.
I opened my mouth but said nothing.
"Esme thought we might like a place of our own for a while, but she didn't want us too far away," Edward murmured. "And she loves any excuse to renovate. This little place has been crumbling away out here for at least a hundred years."
I continued staring, mouth gaping like a fish.
"Don't you like it?" Alice's face fell. "I mean, I'm sure we could fix it up differently, if you want. Emmett was all for adding a few thousand square feet, a second story, columns, and a tower, but Esme thought you would like it best
the way it was meant to look." Her voice started to climb, to go faster. "If she was wrong, we can get back to work. It won't take long to - "
"Shh!" I managed.
She pressed her lips together and waited. It took me a few seconds to recover.
"You're giving me a house for my birthday?" I whispered.
"Us," Edward corrected. "And it's no more than a cottage. I think the word house implies more legroom."
"No knocking my house," I whispered to him.
Alice beamed. "You like it."
I shook my head.
"I can't wait totell Esme!"
"Why didn't she come?"
Alice's smile faded a little, twisted just off what it hadbeen, like my question was hard to answer. "Oh, you know... they all remember how you are about presents. They didn't want to put you under too much pressure to like it."
"But of course I love it. How could I not?"
"They'll like that." She patted my arm. "Anyhoo, your closet is stocked.Use it wisely. And... I guess that's everything."
"Aren't you going to come inside?"
She strolled casually a few feet back. "Edward knows his way around. I'll stop by... later. Call me if you can't match your clothes right." She threw me a doubtful look and then smiled. "Jazz wants to hunt. See you."