Ultimatum ± EPOV She isn't ready for this, she doesn't understand what she's giving up. And I'm running out of time. Like most evenings lately, I was pacing around the house, thinking about everything I didn't want to think about while I waited for my Charlie approved visiting hours to start. Aggravated, I tried to focus on Bella and what she would be doing right now, in hopes that it would momentarily ease my anxiety. I pictured her cooking for Charlie, discussing their day, taking care of her homework, worrying about Jacob... Great. I manage one moment of reprieve from fearing for her mortality and where do my thoughts go? Werewolves. My mind was once again entirely incapable of just letting it go. They weren't even on speaking terms, he'd made no attempt to contact or see her. Why couldn't we all just forget about the dog and get back the the way things were? It had actually amazed me how, at least for the most part, in the weeks since Italy, our lives had returned to normal. Well, normal for us. Aside from Bella's preoccupation with wanting to make sure Jacob was okay, she seemed more or less the same as before I'd left. Before I'd made the worst mistake of my very long life. If I was being honest with myself, I still hadn't fully accepted Bella's forgiveness, though she gave it willingly and completely. I knew she downplayed how much I'd hurt her when I left, assuring me on an almost daily basis that it didn't matter because we were together now. She trusted me ± with her heart, with her very life ± yet, I couldn't make myself believe her in this one thing. Perhaps it was because I was endlessly reminded of how terrible it had really been for her. While Bella's ever silent mind was able to shield me from the reality of what I did, I was constantly assaulted from all other sides. The week I'd returned to school, every one of Bella's friend's thoughts were acidic, and very directly pointed at me. There were varying degrees of hatred, depending on the person's relationship to Bella, but one thing was constant among each of them. I had caused Bella more pain than any human being should have to suffer. And in truth, they didn't know the half of it. While the entire population of Forks seemed to have witnessed her breakdown, only myself and my family knew what she had gone through to rescue me. I thought I knew what fear was, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight of my Bella, fragile and breakable, standing before the most powerful and deadly of all vampires. I had never known true terror, until I listened to the minds of the Volturi contemplate ways to destroy the person I loved more than anything else in this world. The night Bella and I had returned from Italy was both the best and worst of my existence. I was grateful beyond anything I'd ever felt that the stars had finally aligned for us, and we had been miraculously released from the Volturi's hold and allowed to return home. Of course, the only reason Bella's overly extensive vampire knowledge had been forgiven was Alice's assurance that Bella would soon be one of us. And Bella's enthusiasm and determination for this outcome was precisely the thing that now had me pacing around the living room. ³You need to stop trying to make her decisions for her.´ 1
Carlisle's voice brought me abruptly from my thoughts. I looked up at him skeptically and shook my head. I really wasn't up for another argument. Carlisle had been more than a little persistent since Bella's little voting escapade the night we'd returned. It was hard to shake the feeling of betrayal as every member of my family, with the exception of Rosalie, had sat around a table and agreed with Bella's decision to end her human life. And you know things are bad when the only one not against you is Rose. ³If the time comes and Bella still wants me to change her, you know I'm going to keep my word,´ he said solemnly. ³I know,´ I said through gritted teeth. ³I don't want this to be a point of animosity between us, Edward.´ ³How can it not be? You know I don't agree with her choice, and yet you'll still go through with it.´ ³Yes, I will. Because it's her choice.´ He sighed, then added much more softly, ³Though you know that isn't my only reason.´ My eyes shut tight as I tried desperately to block out the path his thoughts had taken him on. I knew what he meant, why did he have to paint the pictures so clearly for me? Carlisle had realized long ago, long before Italy, that I would not live with Bella. The night of the vote, after Bella had gone home, he'd tried to appease my anger at him by explaining that while he loved Bella and truly desired for her to be part of our family, the main reason he'd agreed to change her was because of me. He told me that the agony he'd felt waiting to find out whether or not I'd been destroyed by the Volturi was something he wasn't willing to go through again. Whether consciously or not, any time Bella's mortality was brought up, his mind shuffled through all the ways her life could end, and he knew if something were to happen, I would finish what I had foolishly started once before. Only this time, Bella wouldn't be there to save me. ³I have to go,´ I said abruptly, eager to have Bella at my side again. She always had a way of pushing my fears aside, and focusing on the present ± on us. ³Are you coming back tonight?´ he asked. Every night, after Charlie kicked me out, I had a brief amount of time on my hands before joining Bella again by way of her window. Some nights I came home, others I simply waited outside for her. On occasion, I went to her room while she finished the rest of her evening tasks. I couldn't help it. Sometimes, I just needed to see the grin on her face when she found me stretched out on her bed, waiting for her. ³I'm not sure. Depends on how much help she needs with the college applications.´ And by help, I meant stubborn refusal that ended in me filling out most of them for her. ³Don't put too much pressure on her,´ Carlisle urged. ³If you relax and let her start to enjoy the idea of going to college, she might decide she wants to try it for awhile.´ I smiled, glad that at the very least, he wasn't quite as anxious as Bella was for her transformation. He also knew that at this point, I wasn't really holding out hope of changing her mind. All I could really hope for was more time. When I arrived at Bella's house, I stopped at the door to listen. I probably should have felt guilty for all the times I'd spent listening to her and Charlie's evening talks, but it was still so hard for 2
me not being able to hear her mind, I found myself taking every opportunity to learn her better. Tonight, they were talking about college. Charlie was proud and excited that she'd received her first acceptance, but less than thrilled by how far away it was. Although I'd never given any indication that I was planning to leave the state for college, a part of him assumed the two of us were planning to run away together, and he was blaming me for her eagerness to leave Forks behind. If only I could tell him that in this instance, I was entirely on his side. I wanted Bella to stay close to Charlie. It was the tie I knew she was having the hardest time thinking about breaking, and I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit I was planning on using that to buy myself more time. ³I was just...wondering what...Edward's plans are for next year?´ Charlie asked nervously. Bella stuttered and I recognized my cue. I knocked with a small smirk on my face, already anticipating her relieved expression as I heard her call, ³Coming!´ ³Go away,´ Charlie muttered and I stifled a laugh. Bella opened the door and smiled her most radiant smile at me. If my heart was still beating, it would have been pounding as I watched her eyes travel across my face and eventually lock gazes with mine. I heard her breath start and stop, and I quirked an eyebrow at the strange expression that had momentarily taken hold of her. Whatever it was, it passed as quickly as it had come, and she laced her soft, delicate fingers with mine, making me feel like I was coming home. ³Hey,´ she said softly, smiling at me lazily. I lifted our hands up, twined together, with the intention of kissing her hand, but was supremely aware of Charlie's glare in my general direction. Instead, I let my hand graze against her cheek, relishing in the warmth her skin always provided me. ³How was your afternoon?´ I asked. ³Slow.´ ³For me, as well.´ Every moment I spent apart from her felt like it dragged on forever. Unable to resist bringing her closer, I lifted our hands up to my nose, lightly brushing against her skin as her glorious scent filled my every sense. I closed my eyes and drank in her perfection. I could feel her pulse through her wrist, and as I let out a slow sigh, her heart started pounding faster. The rush of adrenaline that coursed through her veins made her smell so much more potent, but my control didn't waver for one second. I don't think she truly understood how different everything was now. I knew she could tell I was more relaxed being closer to her ± we'd certainly spent enough nights curled up together to prove that. But I doubted she comprehended the magnitude of what thinking I'd lost her had done to me. Everything inside me ached, felt real, physical pain, at the thought of anything ever hurting her again. Especially me. While I knew I still needed to be careful around her, the urge to protect her was more instinctual now than even my most basic need. Her blood would always sing to me, but I knew that the magnificent sound of her beating heart would always keep me from answering the call. Charlie's frenzied and disapproving thoughts interrupted my moment of reverie, and I opened my eyes just in time to see him glowering at me. ³Good evening, Charlie,´ I said politely, determined not to let my manners slip, even in the face of near hatred. 3
He grumbled, not moving from his protective stance. It was impossible to be angry with Charlie. It was clear he loved Bella dearly, and his resistance to me was merely a product of how deeply I'd hurt her. I could never blame him for doing everything in his power to make sure she never felt that kind of pain again. ³I brought another set of applications,´ I told Bella, holding up the hand that wasn't clutching hers. She groaned as she noticed the quite large roll of stamps around my finger, and I knew she was hoping we'd worn out our options. I'd been making her apply to anywhere and everywhere I thought might make her happy. There had to be something out there exciting enough to make her want at least a taste of the college experience. I also personally blamed myself and my absence for making her miss most of the deadlines, so I didn't feel the least bit guilty using the Cullen name ± not to mention our monetary resources ± to make sure Bella had an endless number of options to choose from. ³There are still a few open deadlines,´ I assured her, then added with a grin, ³And a few places willing to make exceptions.´ She cringed at my words and I felt her grip on my hand increase. I laughed, though I did hope she wouldn't be too mad at me for my persistence. ³Shall we?´ I asked, leading her to the kitchen with a disgruntled Charlie behind us. I arranged the applications by order of relevance, and likelihood of eliciting a response other than an eye roll from Bella. As she cleared the table, I noticed her grab her very worn copy of Wuthering Heights. I looked at her skeptically, wondering how she could read it so many times. For someone who supposedly adored love stories, I simply couldn't understand her fascination with what I could only consider a story of hate. What joy could she possibly get from a story whose characters were so cruel? ³Speaking of college applications, Edward,´ Charlie said, stopping me from making a comment I probably would have regretted about one of Bella's favorite books. ³Bella and I were just talking about next year. Have you decided where you're going to school?´ Never had Charlie's mind been clearer than in that moment. He wanted me far, far away, in some miserable climate he could feel confident Bella wouldn't be willing to live in. Of course, he had no way of knowing that Bella's plans centered around bad weather and isolation from civilization. ³Not yet,´ I answered, distracting myself from that line of thinking. ³I've received a few acceptance letters, but I'm still weighing my options.´ ³Where have you been accepted?´ ³Syracuse...Harvard...Dartmouth...and I just got accepted to the University of Alaska Southeast today,´ I added, winking at Bella and making her chuckle. ³Harvard? Dartmouth?´ Charlie asked, openly gaping. ³Well that's pretty...that's something. Yeah, but the University of Alaska...you wouldn't really consider that when you could go Ivy League. I mean, your father would want you to...´ ³Carlisle's always fine with whatever I choose to do,´ I said calmly. Besides, I didn't have a cap and gown from University of Alaska yet. It might be time to expand the collection again. I ignored Charlie's irritated grumbling, as Bella's face broke into a huge smile. ³Guess what, Edward?´ ³What, Bella?´ 4
³I just got my acceptance into the University of Alaska!´ ³Congratulations! What a coincidence.´ We really were enjoying this too much. I almost felt a little guilty as Charlie mumbled, ³Fine. I'm going to go watch the game, Bella. Nine-thirty.´ ³Er, Dad?´ she asked cautiously. ³Remember the very recent discussion about my freedom...?´ My eyes widened a bit. That part of the conversation must have happened before I'd arrived. Was Charlie finally over the worst of his brooding? ³Right,´ he sighed. ³Okay, ten-thirty. You still have a curfew on school nights.´ ³Bella's no longer grounded?´ I asked, excited by the possibility of spending time with her somewhere other than her house. Plus, my family really missed her. Alice was the only one who ever got to see her anymore, and even that was only because of the effect she seemed to have on Charlie. She swore it wasn't intentional, but I could hear her annoyingly smug thoughts when she was allowed to stay long past Bella's normal visiting hours. ³Conditionally,´ Charlie grumbled. ³What's it to you?´ ³It's just good to know. Alice has been itching for a shopping partner, and I'm sure Bella would love to see some city lights.´ I smiled at Bella, thinking of all the places I could take her to celebrate her newly restored freedom. She'd seen nothing but the school and the four walls of her house for so long, she might actually let me get away with taking her for an extravagant night on the town. Unfortunately, my thoughts were stopped in their tracks. ³No!´ Charlie yelled, and we both turned to him, wide eyed. ³Dad! What's the problem?´ Bella asked anxiously as I listened to her heart race. ³I don't want you going to Seattle right now.´ ³Huh?´ ³I told you about that story in the paper ± there's some kind of gang on a killing spree in Seattle and I want you to steer clear, okay?´ Gang activity. Right. Humans were always quick to place some kind of blanket of blame on gangs or serial killers when they didn't understand what was really going on. Whatever sells the papers. I guess in a way, we should be thankful they had no problem fabricating excuses for the atrocities that were occurring. If anyone found out the truth, we'd have a whole different set of problems to deal with. ³Dad,´ Bella breathed, obviously embarrassed by his overprotective outburst, ³there's a better chance that I'll get struck by lightning than that the one day I'm in Seattle ± ´ ³No, that's fine, Charlie,´ I said, quick to appease his worries. I needed him to understand I was as concerned with Bella's safety as he was. And in truth, there was no way I would take Bella anywhere near Seattle, though it had nothing to do with gang activity. ³I didn't mean Seattle. I was thinking Portland, actually. I wouldn't have Bella in Seattle, either. Of course not.´ I quickly glanced down at the latest newspaper article, wondering how bad it would get before someone intervened. The thought that these things were being allowed to continue appalled me. What did the Volturi exist for if not to step in when they were needed? And they were most definitely needed. 5
³Fine,´ I heard Charlie grumble as he left the room, but my thoughts were elsewhere. Things had gotten even worse than I'd realized. ³What ± ´ Bella started to ask, but I knew Charlie's attention wasn't entirely fixed on the game yet. ³Hold on,´ I said, passing her an application. ³I think you can recycle your essays for this one. Same questions.´ She sighed, but took the sheet reluctantly. It was hard to believe as I gazed out her window, the reality of what was happening in Seattle. At first, Carlisle had assumed it was just a single vampire, or perhaps a small coven, passing through the city and simply being less cautious than usual. But then the numbers had gone up. Very rarely did nomads stay in one place for long ± too many deaths in one area led to suspicions. Then, when the headlines started appearing and the murders continued, we knew we were dealing with something out of the ordinary. I wasn't sure how long I'd been silent, but Bella suddenly made a sound of disapproval and pushed the application across the table to me. ³Bella?´ ³Be serious, Edward. Dartmouth?´ I gently set the papers in front of her again, unwilling to be swayed by her self doubts. If Dartmouth appealed to her, I could assure her acceptance. ³I think you'd like New Hampshire. There's a full complement of night courses for me, and the forests are very conveniently located for the avid hiker. Plentiful wildlife,´ I told her with a grin. After all this time, I was no longer shocked by her casual acceptance of my way of life, and I was generally left with amusement. She continued to stare at me, unwavering, so I added, ³I'll let you pay me back, if that makes you happy. If you want, I can charge you interest.´ ³Like I could even get in without some enormous bribe,´ she scoffed. ³Or was that part of the loan? The new Cullen wing of the library? Ugh. Why are we having this discussion again?´ I knew what the next sentence was, though she couldn't speak it out loud for fear of Charlie overhearing. My hands instinctively clenched into fists as determination blazed in her eyes. ³Will you just fill out the application, please, Bella? It won't hurt you to apply.´ ³You know what? I don't think I will,´ she said stubbornly, starting to gather the papers. I quickly snatched them from her, and tucked them safely away. I was prepared for this. Nothing, not even Bella's own resistance, was going to stop her from having choices when the time came. ³What are you doing?´ she asked, irritated. ³I sign your name better than you do yourself. You've already written the essays.´ I smiled, unrepentant, and Bella's frustrated voice dropped to a whisper. ³You're going way overboard with this, you know. I really don't need to apply anywhere else. I've been accepted in Alaska. I can almost afford the first semester's tuition. It's as good an alibi as any. There's no need to throw away a bunch of money, no matter whose it is.´ I felt a sharp, agonizing pain as her words sunk in. Though this had been the plan all along, hearing her say it aloud made it that much more real. This was all nothing more than a cover story for her. She didn't care how many schools she was accepted into, where they were or what they could offer her. As long as they provided her with a reasonable excuse to move away, she could disappear, and finally get what she thought she wanted most. 6
³Bella ± ´ I started to plead, but we both knew where that argument led. ³Don't start. I agree that I need to go through the motions for Charlie's sake, but we both know I'm not going to be in any condition to go to school next fall. To be anywhere near people.´ ³I thought the timing was still undecided,´ I hedged, holding onto my last bit of hope. I needed more time. She needed more time. ³You might enjoy a semester or two of college. There are a lot of human experiences you've never had.´ ³I'll get to those afterward.´ ³They won't be human experiences afterward. You don't get a second chance at humanity, Bella.´ Though I'd never admitted it out loud, there was a huge part of me that blamed myself for her more than slightly skewed idea of what vampire life entailed. She saw me and my family leading a, more or less, normal life. Carlisle worked, Alice shopped, we went to school. We all spent a significant amount of time among humans. We'd had decades to practice curbing our thirst, and appearing normal was something we did because it was expected of us. It was a necessary choice we made when we decided we didn't want to live as the nomads did. We wanted a life, or at least something resembling a life. Bella didn't truly know the struggle we'd all faced in the beginning, or the struggles we continued to face on a daily basis. I'd always tried to shield Bella from the more gruesome aspects of our existence. Though I'd given her a vague idea, I hadn't gone into many details about my rebellious years and the murders I was responsible for. If it weren't for Carlisle, I might still be living that way. I'd never allowed her to see us hunt, so while she was able to joke about our dining habits, I wasn't entirely convinced she had a clear picture of what she would be facing. ³You've got to be reasonable about the timing, Edward,´ Bella said, breaking me from my thoughts. ³It's just too dangerous to mess around with.´ ³There's no danger yet,´ I said, hating to hear her talk about her transformation like it was the only way to keep her safe. My family and I would keep her safe. I would not allow her to be scared into this decision. She stared in me, disbelief apparent on her face. It's true, I wasn't arguing that her life had been in danger repeatedly. I cursed myself every day for having allowed any of it to happen. I watched her face contort as she likely recalled all she'd been through since I entered her life. I could see the fear in her eyes, and though I couldn't hear her thoughts, I had a very clear picture of what her mind was putting her through. I knew, because, as much as I tried to fight them, I had those same thoughts. She was imagining all the things that could happen to her, from freak accidents, to more vampire attacks, so simple old age. ³Bella,´ I said softly, trying to both reassure her and calm my own worries. ³There's no hurry. I won't let anyone hurt you. You can take all the time you need.´ ³I want to hurry,´ she said quickly, trying to shake all the concern off her face. She smiled a very forced smile. ³I want to be a monster, too.´ Fury suddenly took hold of me, though I could never find it in myself to be angry with her. It was my fault she didn't understand the truth of what we were. I'd fought so hard to protect her, to help her not be afraid, but I knew I would hate myself forever if I allowed her to go through with her plans without fully understanding what she would become.
³You have no idea what you're saying,´ I growled, dropping the newspaper in front of her and pointing to the headline. DEATH TOLL ON THE RISE, POLICE FEAR GANG ACTIVITY ³What does that have to do with anything?´ she asked, even now not comprehending what I was trying to tell her. ³Monsters are not a joke, Bella,´ I said firmly, locking eyes with her before her gaze traveled back to the paper. Comprehension flickered, and her eyes once again met mine. ³A...a vampire is doing this?´ she asked, panic evident in her shaky whisper. Though I hated to frighten her, I knew what needed to be said. She had to know that what she'd observed of me and my family, was not an accurate depiction of our world. There were horrors beyond even what she'd witnessed with the nomads and the Volturi. ³You'd be surprised, Bella, at how often my kind are the source behind the horrors in your human news. It's easy to recognize, when you know what to look for. The information here indicates a newborn vampire is loose in Seattle. Bloodthirsty, wild, out of control. The way we all were.´ I let my words sink in as she looked down at the paper, new understanding in her eyes. She had to wonder ± would she be like that? Would she be responsible for the deaths of innocents? ³We've been monitoring the situation for a few weeks. All the signs are there ± the unlikely disappearances, always in the night, the poorly disposed-of corpses, the lack of other evidence...Yes, someone brand-new. And no one seems to be taking responsibility for the neophyte...´ I realized Bella's breathing had turned shallow and her heart was racing, and instantly I regretted having spoken so bluntly. I knew it was necessary, but I couldn't shut out the pain I felt at having upset her. I breathed deeply and tried to take at least some of the edge out of my voice. ³Well, it's not our problem. We wouldn't even pay attention to the situation if it wasn't going on so close to home. Like I said, this happens all the time. The existence of monsters results in monstrous consequences.´ There was a long silence while Bella's eyes flashed dismally across the page. I wished she would say something, so I could know what effect my words had had on her. Eventually, her breathing returned to normal, though when she spoke, it was still that shaky whisper from before. ³It won't be the same for me. You won't let me be like that. We'll live in Antarctica.´ Though entirely inappropriate to laugh, I couldn't help myself. She'd inadvertently conjured a rather entertaining visual for me, and I realized she was right. I would go to positively absurd lengths to make sure she didn't end up like that savage in Seattle. ³Penguins. Lovely,´ I muttered, and was happy to hear Bella laugh again, even if it was an uneasy laugh. ³Alaska, then, as planned. Only somewhere much more remote than Juneau ± somewhere with grizzlies galore.´ ³Better,´ I said, glad the tension had eased. ³There are polar bears, too. Very fierce. And the wolves get quite large.´ Suddenly, Bella was gaping at me, the color of her cheeks reddening, but not from her usual blush. 8
³What's wrong?´ I asked, but the moment the words had left my mouth, I knew what I'd done. The sick irony was not lost on me. All I'd wanted for weeks was to forget about Jacob, let my subconscious believe he no longer existed. For once, I'd finally succeeded, and it turns out it was just long enough for me to upset Bella. ³Oh,´ I said, hoping she would just want to move on quickly. ³Never mind the wolves, then, if the idea is offensive to you.´ ³He was my best friend, Edward,´ she said softly, though there was a definite edge to her voice. ³Of course the idea offends me.´ ³Please forgive my thoughtlessness. I shouldn't have suggested that.´ ³Don't worry about it.´ I watched her eyes turn slightly glassy, and I ached to know I'd hurt her again. She was hiding from me, too, I knew that. I could see that a part of her wanted to be able to talk about it with me, but she was worried I wouldn't want to hear. Which I didn't. But that didn't mean I wouldn't listen, if it would help her heal some of the pain. I reached out to touch her face, lifting her chin up gently so she could see the sincerity in my eyes. I felt her relax under my touch, though her expression was still agonized. ³Sorry,´ I repeated. ³Really.´ ³I know. I know it's not the same thing. I shouldn't have reacted that way. It's just that...well, I was already thinking about Jacob before you came over.´ She paused, probably worried about offending me. I tried to keep the ire out of my eyes as my thoughts drifted to less than pleasant thoughts about Jacob. I could feel the frustration building, so I returned my focus to Bella. I knew she thought about him often. And yes, it upset me, but I still wanted her to open up. ³Charlie says Jake is having a hard time,´ she continued, even more quietly than before. ³He's hurting right now, and...it's my fault.´ ³You've done nothing wrong, Bella.´ I felt my posture relax infinitesimally. It was easier to think that Bella's concern for Jacob was a product the irrational guilt she often placed on herself. Anything was better than thinking there were unresolved feelings for him under the surface, feelings I couldn't fault her for but that slowly ate away at me. I knew what Jacob had been to her during my absence, and while I was grateful for whatever ability he had to help heal her, I wanted to believe his part in our story was over. ³I need to make it better, Edward. I owe him that. And it's one of Charlie's conditions, anyway ± ´ I felt my body tense and my fists clench. If only Charlie knew what he was sending Bella into. Not that a vampire would be much of an improvement over a werewolf if he knew the truth. Still, it didn't seem fair that Charlie was pushing Bella into Jacob's arms while he loathed my very existence. ³You know it's out of the question for you to be around a werewolf unprotected, Bella. And it would break the treaty if any of us cross over onto their land. Do you want us to start a war?´ ³Of course not!´ 9
³Then there's really no point in discussing the matter further.´ I tried to fill my voice with a sense of finality, but I knew Bella better than that. The subject was far from over. The most I could hope for at this point was to delay it until we'd both had time to calm down. Desperate to be talking about something, anything, else, I glanced behind her at the book she'd set aside earlier. ³I'm glad Charlie has decided to let you out ± you're sadly in need of a visit to the bookstore. I can't believe you're reading Wuthering Heights again. Don't you know it by heart yet?´ ³Not all of us have photographic memories,´ she snapped, still upset. What I wouldn't have given for Charlie to magically disappear into his room, so I could sweep Bella upstairs and make everything right again. She always seemed so much more forgiving when she was in my arms. Reluctantly, I settled for discussing her book. Maybe she would finally be able to explain what she found so enjoyable about it. ³Photographic memory or not, I don't understand why you like it. The characters are ghastly people who ruin each others' lives. I don't know how Heathcliff and Cathy ended up being ranked with couples like Romeo and Juliet or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. It isn't a love story, it's a hate story.´ ³You have some serious issues with the classics,´ she said bitterly. ³Perhaps it's because I'm not impressed by antiquity,´ I said with a smirk. When she didn't respond, I started to wonder if discussing the book had been a bad choice. Maybe I'd actually offended her and made everything worse. I hoped she didn't think I was trying to pick a fight, or turn her against one of her favorite literary couples. I just genuinely needed to understand how such a dark story could have captured her heart so completely. ³Honestly, though, why do you read it over and over?´ I asked, eyes pleading as I reached out to touch her face. ³I'm not sure,´ she breathed, her expression softening at my sudden interest. ³I think it's something about the inevitability. How nothing can keep them apart ± not her selfishness, or his evil, or even death, the in the end...´ And somehow, I started to understand. Though it might never sit on my shelf among my favorites, I could begin to see what had intrigued Bella. I myself understood something of inevitability, though before Bella, it had only manifested itself in my mind as the unchangeable life I'd been doomed to live in. Then, miraculously, she'd changed everything. All the things I'd lived through and experiences I'd had seemed to have been working together to bring me to her. By all accounts, I should have left this Earth long ago. I shouldn't be here to love her. Yet here I sat, against all odds, with my reason for being at my side. I certainly didn't deserve it ± I was as vile a being as Heathcliff. I wished I could be better for her. ³I still think it would be a better story if either of them had one redeeming quality,´ I added with a smile, trying to push away my feelings of unworthiness. I'd promised myself to stay away from conversations involving my not deserving her. Though I would always know it's true, it seemed to upset her to hear me speak it aloud. ³I think that may be the point,´ she continued. ³Their love is their only redeeming quality.´ As Bella was mine. ³I hope you have better sense than that ± to fall in love with someone so...malignant.´ 10
³It's a bit late for me to worry about who I fall in love with,´ she assured me. ³But even without the warning, I seem to have managed fairly well.´ I laughed under my breath. Of course I didn't agree, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't been hoping to hear those exact words. ³I'm glad you think so,´ I said with a grin. ³Well, I hope you're smart enough to stay away from someone so selfish. Catherine is really the source of all the trouble, not Heathcliff.´ ³I'll be on my guard.´ The atmosphere had grown lighter and I began tracing her soft cheeks with my thumb. It felt so natural, having her face gently resting in my hands. She leaned into my touch with a sigh, closing her eyes for a moment before her expression shifted once again. ³I need to see Jacob,´ she said firmly, and I shut my eyes to momentarily escape her stare. ³No.´ ³It's truly not dangerous at all. I used to spend all day in La Push with the whole lot of them, and nothing ever happened.´ She'd never gone into the specifics of her time with the wolves, and I'd honestly been happy not knowing exactly how deep into their world she'd let herself fall. But something in her voice told me she'd seen at least a glimpse of what I'd been warning her about. Her heart beat steadily faster as I allowed whatever memory had taken hold of her to unfold completely. Her eyes widened and I nodded in understanding. She hadn't been hurt, but there had been a moment of danger. ³Werewolves are unstable,´ I said, my voice even but firm. ³Sometimes, the people near them get hurt. Sometimes, they get killed.´ I watched as her expression shifted again, and it was a battle not to ask what she'd witnessed. I didn't want to think of her having ever been in peril, especially when I knew it was my fault she'd been put in that position. My leaving had forced her to seek refuge in a place that could only offer her more danger. ³You don't know them,´ she finally said, her voice barely a whisper. ³I know them better than you think, Bella. I was here the last time.´ ³The last time?´ ³We started crossing paths with the wolves about seventy years ago...We had just settled near Hoquiam. That was before Alice and Jasper were with us. We outnumbered them, but that wouldn't have stopped it from turning into a fight if not for Carlisle. He managed to convince Ephraim Black that coexisting was possible, and eventually we made the truce.´ I paused for a moment, thinking back to the courage Carlisle had shown. He knew it would be difficult to convince them that our family was different, but his desire for peace among our kinds was so strong, Ephraim couldn't in good conscience refuse us. So many decades had passed since the days of the wolves, we were certain that whatever danger had brought them about in the first place was long gone, and our adherence to the treaty had shown them our trustworthiness. We'd always assumed there had to be someone there to actively continue the line, so when Ephraim was gone and no new wolves emerged, we were convinced their time had ended. 11
³We thought the line had died out with Ephraim. That the genetic quirk which allowed the transmutation had been lost...´ I whispered, lost in thought. I looked up at Bella, wondering how it was even possible we were having this conversation. How had the wolves resurfaced? And why? ³Your bad luck seems to get more potent every day. Do you realize that your insatiable pull for all things deadly was strong enough to recover a pack of mutant canines from extinction? If we could bottle your luck, we'd have a weapon of mass destruction on our hands.´ I was mostly kidding, though a part of me wondered if I was onto something. If it was a desire to protect that caused the wolves to resurface, then I couldn't imagine a stronger pull than desire to protect Bella. She may not have been the initial cause, but if she was in danger for a single moment, even I couldn't fault Jacob for protecting her by any means necessary. I never thought I'd find myself grateful for the emergence of a werewolf, but he did save her life, and I knew for that, I would forever be in his debt. ³But I didn't bring them back,´ Bella said, the fierceness in her voice startling me. Her tone was strained, almost accusing. ³Don't you know?´ ³Know what?´ ³My bad luck had nothing to do with it. The werewolves came back because the vampires did. Jacob told me that your family being here set things in motion. I thought you would already know...´ My feelings of gratitude toward Jacob were quickly replaced with anger as I realized he had crossed yet another line. How dare he speak of things he knows nothing about? He wasn't there in the beginning, and there's only so much hearing the stories can teach someone. Our bond was strong as long as the rules were followed. Today, as it had always been, the treaty was firmly in place. None of my family had given the Quileutes any reason to doubt us. We'd been living in Forks for quite some time without any appearance of the wolves, and I resented his assumption that we were the cause of their return. ³Is that what they think?´ I asked, still bewildered. Perhaps the presence of the nomads and their careless disregard for human life, but not us... ³Edward, look at the facts. Seventy years ago, you came here, and the werewolves showed up. You come back now, and the werewolves show up again. Do you think that's a coincidence?´ I still wasn't convinced ± we'd done nothing to provoke them.. Still, I knew Carlisle, always the voice of reason, would want to hear about it. ³Carlisle will be interested in that theory,´ I said as calmly as I could manage. ³Theory,´ she repeated, obviously still irritated with me. I didn't know much about the process, nor had I ever been particularly interested, but the Black's theory did make me wonder how long the gene would take to manifest itself. Could it really be that things had been set in motion when my family arrived, but we didn't see the effects until much later? The one thing I still couldn't reconcile, however, is why they turned up at the precise moment we left. If we truly were the cause, wouldn't our leaving have stopped them from completing the transmutation? Or was it already too late by that point? ³Interesting, but not exactly relevant,´ I muttered, mostly to myself. Then, turning to Bella ± who, as it turns out, was just as good at distracting me as I was at distracting her ± I told her bluntly, ³The situation remains the same.´ 12
Bella watched me for a moment, and I could almost feel the wheels in her head turning. She thought I was overreacting, and she was desperate to try to make me see reason. Slowly, she stood up and walked over to me, my arms immediately opening and beckoning her closer. I hated it when she and I didn't see eye to eye, and hated even more when we let it get us both worked up. As she sat herself down in my lap and curled up into my embrace, I knew that both of us were tired of going around in circles. We didn't want to argue anymore, but were both still trying to make the other understand our line of thinking. ³Please just listen for a minute,´ she pleaded, looking up at me from under her lashes. ³This is so much more important than some whim to drop in on an old friend. Jacob is in pain. I can't not try to help him ± I can't give up on him now, when he needs me. Just because he's not human all the time...Well, he was there for me when I was...not so human myself. You don't know what it was like...´ I felt every inch of my body tense. Bella so rarely spoke of those months I was absent. She knew what it did to me. However, she could never know the full extent of it. She didn't realize that every time she spoke the words, my mind flashed to all the images I'd seen through the eyes of others. Her teachers would recall the dead expression she'd worn for so many months. Her friends would remember the way she barely spoke. It was the one time I was grateful I couldn't hear Charlie as clear as the rest. I couldn't imagine what I would see if I was granted full access to his mind. ³If Jacob hadn't helped me...´ she continued, ³I'm not sure what you would have come home to. I owe him better than this, Edward.´ My eyes snapped shut as I tried to block out the images that were assaulting me. I shuddered to think of what I would see if I were to come face to face with Jacob. No doubt, he had seen her at her worst. ³I'll never forgive myself for leaving you,´ I said, my voice strained in anguish. ³Not if I live a hundred thousand years.´ In the midst of my misery, I was graciously given the gentle reprieve of Bella's touch. I didn't deserve it. Her fingers traced my cheek and I sighed into her warmth, my eyes opening and locking with her gaze. ³You were just trying to do the right thing,´ she said kindly. ³And I'm sure it would have worked with anyone less mental than me. Besides, you're here now. That's the part that matters.´ She'd said the words so often, yet I still couldn't believe them. ³If I'd never left, you wouldn't feel the need to go risk your life to comfort a dog.´ She seemed taken aback for a moment, and I felt instantly guilty for having once again said something to offend her. I tried to soften my tone, but the severity of the situation would not allow it to come out as carefully as I wanted. ³I don't know how to phrase this properly. It's going to sound cruel, I suppose. But I've come too close to losing you in the past. I know what it feels like to think I have. I am not going to tolerate anything dangerous.´ ³You have to trust me on this. I'll be fine.´
No! my mind was screaming at me. This wasn't about not trusting her. She didn't know what she was walking into. I can't leave this up to chance. Please don't go where I can't follow. I can't know you're okay unless I'm with you. ³Please, Bella,´ I begged, unable to form the rest of the words, and trying to block out the voice telling me my pleading wouldn't do any good. ³Please what?´ she asked, exasperated. ³Please, for me. Please make a conscious effort to keep yourself safe. I'll do everything I can, but I would appreciate a little help.´ ³I'll work on it,´ she muttered, and it pained me that she seemed to be ignoring my desperation. Didn't she understand by now she means everything to me? ³Do you really have any idea how important you are to me? Any concept at all of how much I love you?´ I pulled her close, as tightly as I could without hurting her, and rested my chin on her head, breathing her in like it was the last breath I would ever take. When she kissed my neck, the warmth radiated through my entire body, and it both soothed me and made me ache. I needed her ± safe, forever... ³I know how much I love you,´ she said softly, her breath washing over me and creating another cascade of warmth. ³You compare one small three to the entire forest.´ ³Impossible.´ Though her voice was still doubtful, I could feel her heart beat a little faster, and she seemed to nuzzle closer to me. I would never stop trying to convince her that she was my world. With a quick kiss on her head, I repeated the words I knew wouldn't get us any closer to a solution. ³No werewolves.´ ³I'm not going along with that. I have to see Jacob.´ ³Then I'll have to stop you.´ ³We'll see about that. He's still my friend.´ There we sat, at yet another impasse. My beautiful, stubborn girl ± drawn to danger at every turn. Best friends with a werewolf, and in love with a vampire. Though I'd never condone it, or speak the words out loud, I was starting to wonder if maybe she was right. Immortality was the only way to keep her safe.
Evasion ± EPOV That evening, Bella was distracted. No, not just distracted ± completely not herself. And it was making me nervous. Worried I'd been pushing her too far with all the college applications, I ran them back to my house before meeting her in her room. She seemed somewhat appeased that they didn't make another appearance, but there was something in her expression that still wasn't 14
right. I noticed she kept fidgeting with something in her pocket, and I had to stop myself several times from asking what it was. She was restless most of the night, and kept muttering ³I'm trying,´ as her expression twisted and contorted. I traced my fingers up and down her arm, planting light kisses on her shoulder and neck until she calmed down. Eventually, her breathing slowed and she turned into me, her head resting on my chest as I hummed to her. By morning, all the anxieties of the night appeared to have vanished. She smiled lazily up at me and I leaned down to kiss her forehead. ³Good morning, my love,´ I whispered as she signed and pulled herself closer. It was hard to let her go, but I knew she needed her personal time in the mornings. I also knew it would only be an hour or so until I'd see her again, and that knowledge was often the only reason I could make myself leave. I ran home to pick up the Volvo while Bella got ready for school. As soon as I entered, Alice was at my side with a disapproving look on her face. ³Why won't you let me buy her new clothes? You could give them to her. You know she'd be more likely to accept them coming from you.´ ³Hardly,´ I mumbled, rolling my eyes. Alice was never going to give up her quest to turn Bella into Small Town Style Barbie. ³I saw what she's planning on wearing today,´ she continued relentlessly. ³And she'll look as beautiful as she always does,´ I retorted, eliciting a pout from Alice. ³Why 0.does it matter so much to you anyway?´ ³Is it a crime for me to want her to look nice? After all, she is going to be my sister someday. I'm just looking out for her.´ ³Might be your sister,´ I corrected, which earned me another scowl. ³I refuse to argue with you about this,´ she said sternly. ³One way or another, Bella is joining this family. Either by her transformation or by you two finally making it official, she's going to be my sister. All I have to do is wait to see which happens first.´ ³Right,´ I said sarcastically. ³Like you have to wait to see anything.´ ³Hey, my vision isn't foolproof and you know it. Need I remind you that I didn't even see your proposal coming?´ ³Neither did I,´ I muttered, somewhat embarrassed. ³Besides, Bella hasn't made up her mind yet. Until she does, I'm as blind as you. Now, hurry up or you'll be late. You don't want to keep Bella waiting.´ I sighed as Alice flitted out the front door, letting my mind wander back to the night after the big vote, and to my quasi-proposal. Though I couldn't be sorry I'd said it, a part of me had been kicking myself ever since that night. ³Marry me first.´ I inwardly cringed at my completely unplanned, unromantic moment of idiocy. A marriage proposal shouldn't be blurted out, and it certainly shouldn't be offered as contingency to vampire conversion. I was an absolute fool. She hadn't even taken me seriously. Then again, how could I blame her? There had been no warning, no prelude, no flowers or candles. There hadn't even been a ring. 15
Not that I didn't have a ring, but that was another matter altogether. Although Bella and I hadn't spoken of it since that night, not a day went by that I didn't imagine new and much more proper ways of proposing to her again. I tried not to focus on the fact that she had basically refused me, deciding that under the circumstances, I shouldn't have expected any other response. Next time, though, I would make sure everything was perfect. I felt a grin spread across my face, and laughed under my breath at my wandering thoughts. When the time is right... I reminded myself. I knew Carlisle was home, and I wanted to talk with him about Jacob's theory on our being the cause of the werewolf...infestation...but I knew there wasn't time. Deciding it could wait until later, I hurried outside and drove off to pick up Bella. Out of respect for Charlie and his restrictions, she had been driving herself to school, and both of us were eager to resume our pattern from last year. She was waiting for me when I arrived, smiling from ear to ear as she ran to the Volvo. I took a quick peak around to make sure none of her neighbors were in sight, then flew around to the passenger door in time to open it for her. She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, her smile growing impossibly larger before stepping inside. We walked hand in hand until I dropped her off at her first class, and I was waiting for her outside of Spanish so we could walk to the cafeteria together. I loved the way her pulse raced every time my fingers laced with hers. The electricity between us seemed only to intensify with time. We headed to our usual table, and though my attention was always primarily on Bella, I was momentarily distracted by the nervous energy I felt permeating the room. Nearly every mind around me was frantic, worrying about finals, wondering what they were going to wear to prom, running through lists of graduation details. It was deafening. ³Have you sent your announcements, yet?´ Angela asked Bella the moment we sat down. I just know I'm the last one to get them out. Where did all the time go? How could I have let this happen? Her thoughts didn't stop racing, and I wondered how she would even hear Bella's answer. ³No. There's no point, really. Renee knows when I'm graduating. Who else is there?´ With all that time she's saving not sending out invitations, you'd think she could let me take her shopping once. I looked up to see Alice frowning at Bella, and I gave her a swift kick under the table. The last thing I wanted was for Bella to feel uncomfortable. She looked perfect to me. ³How about you, Alice?´ Angela asked, stopping Alice's less than kind thoughts in their tracks. ³All done,´ she said triumphantly. I rolled my eyes. Had we really needed another gradation announcement mounted on the wall? Esme had smiled proudly, as always, insisting there was no harm in letting her have a little fun with what would otherwise be a very mundane event for us all. ³Lucky you,´ Angela murmured. ³My mother has a thousand cousins and she expects me to hand-address one to everybody. I'm going to get carpal tunnel. I can't put it off any longer and I'm just dreading it.´ ³I'll help you,´ Bella said cheerfully. ³If you don't mind my awful handwriting.´ I smiled, happy to see Bella getting to spend time with her friends again. I knew part of her eagerness to help Angela was out of desire to abide by Charlie's wishes, spending more time outside the Cullen circle, but she'd also really missed Angela, and it was nice that they would get 16
to have some time, just the two of them. Maybe I'd reach out to some of her friends as well, and try to earn back their trust. It would be a difficult task with so many of them still harboring resentment toward me, but they were important to Bella, and that made me want to try. I glanced back over to Bella who was absolutely beaming as she made plans to go to Angela's house. She explained how Charlie had finally lifted her sentence, and Angela's eyes lit up. ³Well, this is great, Bella! We'll have to go out to celebrate.´ ³You have no idea how good that sounds.´ ³What should we do?´ Alice asked innocently, while her mind raced through various options she considered appropriate levels of celebration. Surely if I took her shopping in Paris, she'd have to let me buy her something, right? I mean, it would be absurd to travel all that way and come back empty handed. Oh! Maybe Rome. It really was a shame she didn't get to enjoy Italy. Don't you think we should help her get some real use out of that passport? I was about to give Alice another not so subtle kick, but Bella had already seen the look in her eyes. ³Whatever you're thinking, Alice, I doubt I'm that free.´ ³Free is free, right?´ ³I'm sure I still have boundaries ± like the continental U.S., for example.´ Though Angela and Ben both started laughing, Alice looked absolutely crestfallen, and I had to stifle my own laughter. Even without the benefits of mind reading, Bella knew Alice almost as well as I did. ³So what are we doing tonight?´ Alice asked, defeated. ³Nothing,´ Bella insisted. ³Look, let's give it a couple of days to make sure he wasn't joking. It's a school night, anyway.´ ³We'll celebrate this weekend, then.´ ³Sure,´ Bella answered somewhat wearily. Alice's smile reappeared as her mind launched into another series of outrageous things Bella would never agree to. At least she was keeping her plans within the country this time. The conversation shifted quickly into a lighthearted discussion of where they were going to drag Bella off to. It didn't escape my notice that Bella's earlier enthusiasm was slowly dissipating, and I took her hand in mine, silently assuring her she didn't have to do anything she didn't want to. Her expression was distant, and I was starting to worry that there might be more to it than her usual aversion to attention and people doing things for her. I was watching her carefully, and was about to see if she wanted to leave, when Alice abruptly stopped talking. Edward... My eyes shot up to hers and I listened, unmoving, while the vision played itself out. At first, it was hard to tell exactly what she was seeing, but slowly the pictures became clearer. There was a flash of red, like fire blazing its way through Forks. Then, the fire slowed and I could see a face I recognized all too well. Victoria.
Her villainous smile and ire filled eyes consumed my every thought as I forced myself not to tighten my grip on Bella's hand. Of course she would see Alice's expression and know she was seeing something, but I couldn't let her know it was anything to worry about. My family and I could handle one enraged vampire, and I would not allow Bella to waste one more moment of her life frightened. ³Alice? Alice!´ Angela said loudly, waving her hand and trying to get Alice's attention. I laughed to distract Angela , then kicked Alice sharply, reminding her we were in public. ³Is it naptime already, Alice?´ I said, forcing her to lock gazes with me. Her eyes widened and she let her posture shift back into its relaxed position. ³Sorry, I was daydreaming, I guess.´ ³Daydreaming's better than facing two more hours of school,´ Ben added, and almost instantly, we were engaged once more in casual conversation. The difference now, was that Alice, Bella, and I were all pretending. As hard as I was trying not to give Bella any reason to worry, I could hear that her heart wasn't settling back into its regular rhythm, and felt how tense her body was next to mine. Alice was keeping up the facade well, but I was sure Bella noticed the intensity of her gaze when she locked eyes with mine. Get Bella away from Forks for awhile. We'll handle this. I gave her the tiniest of nods while I ran my fingers through Bella's hair. I wasn't sure which one of us I was trying to comfort with the gesture. I stayed closer than usual to Bella's friends for the rest of the day, unwilling to give her the chance to ask what was wrong. I had every intention of listening to Alice's advice and getting Bella as far away from Forks as possible. I just needed to think of somewhere she wouldn't refuse. Where could I offer to take her that she wouldn't instantly recognize as an excuse to get her out of town? We could go up to Alaska to check out the college that would be serving as her alibi, though that thought only made me more miserable and worried. Better yet, I could take her to see Dartmouth, and try to entice her with the beautiful architecture. My mind still racing with possibilities, I eventually noticed Bella eying me suspiciously as we walked toward the parking lot at the end of the day. I quickly forced myself into a conversation with Mike Newton to delay the inevitable a little while longer. His car was only starting about half the time, and he was worried eventually he would end up stranded somewhere. ³Maybe you need a new battery,´ I suggested, infusing my voice with as much sincerity as I could muster, considering who I was talking to. Yeah, genius, like I never thought to check the battery. Why is he even bothering, anyway? Mike's biting internal sarcasm didn't make it any easier to keep the smile on my face. ³Yes, I thought of that,´ he said, obviously struggling as much as I was to keep the conversation polite. ³But I just replaced the battery.´ ³Perhaps it's the cables?´ ³Maybe. I really don't know anything about cars. I need to have someone look at it, but I can't afford to take it to Dowling's.´ I suddenly felt Bella's hand squeeze mine tightly, and her body stiffened. I glanced at her, but she already seemed to be calming herself down from whatever had upset her. 18
³I know a few things,´ I said, bringing my focus back to Mike. ³I could take a look, if you like. Just let me drop Alice and Bella at home.´ Seriously? he thought, gaping at me. Don't want him at my house, don't want to be having this conversation... ³Er...thanks,´ he stuttered, and I nearly rolled my eyes at how stubborn her was being. ³But I have to get to work. Maybe some other time.´ Like never. ³Absolutely.´ Then I smiled widely at him, trying not to take too much pleasure in the baffled look on his face. ³See ya,´ he muttered as he got into his car. It was so much easier when we both just hated each other. Does this mean I have to start being nice to Cullen? I laughed under my breath and politely listened to make sure his car started up, then went to open the passenger door for Bella. ³What was that about?´ she asked. ³Just being helpful.´ Then I glanced meaningfully back at Alice, with a look that said, ³now it's your turn to be helpful.´ She immediately starting babbling about everything and nothing, as Bella let out a sigh. She knew this trick. When we reached my driveway, Alice paused her chattering long enough to let me see one more flash of her earlier vision. Victoria was perched outside Bella's window, and it was everything I could do to maintain my relaxed posture. Bella already has plane tickets, remember? All you have to do is convince her to use them. ³See you later,´ I said casually, then nodded to her in understanding. How had I forgotten about the tickets to Jacksonville? I guess I was instinctively trying to forget everything about her horrible birthday that had led to the worst mistake of my long life. Though I knew curiosity was getting to her, Bella remained silent the whole way back to her house. Every once in awhile, I caught her glancing at me from the corner of her eye, but I kept my gaze fixed forward, a soft smile on my face. ³Light homework load tonight,´ I said as we pulled into the driveway. ³Mmm.´ ³Do you suppose I'm allowed inside again?´ I asked. Not that it ever really stopped me. Still, it was nice not to have to hide from Charlie. ³Charlie didn't throw a fit when you picked me up for school,´ she said simply, though there was an edge to her voice. I followed her upstairs, holding my breath and waiting for the question I knew was coming. I was surprised when she walked almost immediately to her computer, flicking it on as I laid down on the bed. I glanced toward her nightstand, wondering if I would find the tickets collecting dust in her drawer. Bella seemed sufficiently distracted, so I quickly opened the drawer and shuffled through a thin stack of papers, only to find them at the bottom of the pile, just as I'd suspected. Tickets tucked safely away in my pocket, my mind wandered as I listened to the sound of the computer warming up. Getting her to agree to a trip to Florida didn't seem like too difficult an undertaking. It was obvious she missed her mother. She had been talking about her in her sleep a 19
lot lately, and I was sure a visit would do both of them a lot of good. And Bella and I being on the other side of the country would keep me sane. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Bella's fingers drumming nervously on her desk. I stared at her worried expression, and the next instant, I was beside her, locking my fingers with hers. ³Are we a little impatient today?´ I asked, reveling in the warmth she was radiating. Suddenly, I needed to be closer. Her heartbeat picked up slightly as I gazed into her eyes, my intent becoming clear when I leaned in and took in a deep breath of her scent. It was amazing the way all my fears seemed to disappear the moment our lips touched. Everything else vanished and there was only us. Although I was no longer consciously thinking about the danger that was on the way, my concern for Bella's safety was still eliciting strange responses within me. Instead of pulling away like I normally would, everything in my body was telling me to bring her closer. Without thinking, my fingers were lacing into her hair and I was pressing her face tightly to mine. I hadn't grown immune to the burn that always rose in my throat when we were this close, but I'd learned not to let fear of it take over. I knew I was in control, and the soft hum Bella was unconsciously making was telling me she didn't want me to let go. Caught up in the moment, I was all too willing to comply, and I allowed myself to sink into her. I let my hand trace down her spine, and as I held her closer, I felt her start to shiver. With a reluctant sigh and one final deep breath of her perfection, I started to back away, but she pulled herself flush against me. I knew she always wished she was stronger, but in those instances when I felt her desperation to stay connected with me, I felt like I was the weak one. I wanted to give her everything, no matter what my rational thoughts were telling me. When her soft, warm tongue touched my bottom lip, the wave of desire I had been trying to bury came crashing in on me like a tidal wave. Her scent I'd learned to handle, but when she let me taste her like that... My actions finally caught up with my hazy mind, and I gently moved her face away from mine. Her breathing was ragged as we stared at each other, and I let out one soft laugh as I saw the reflection of my eyes in her own. For one brief moment, we matched ± two fiery eyed people in love, seeking more than was probably wise. ³Ah, Bella,´ I breathed, wishing that I could give her more. ³I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm not,´ she admitted, blushing. ³And I should feel sorry that you're not sorry, but I don't. Maybe I should go sit on the bed.´ ³If you think that's necessary...´ I smirked as I pulled myself unwillingly away from her. Necessary? Perhaps. Smart? Most definitely. ³Tell Renee I said hello,´ I said as she opened up her mother's email. ³Sure thing.´ I'm sure it was impolite, but I couldn't help reading over her shoulder when my eyes drifted for a second onto the screen and I saw Jacob's name. Renee was asking why Bella hadn't mentioned him in awhile. I bit back the smile that immediately formed upon reading Bella's reply that she didn't see him much, because he was spending time with ³a pack of this friends.´ Cute, Bella...
As she composed the rest of her reply, my eyes wandered around her room, and eventually landed on a mess pouring out from her closet. I recognized the stereo my family had given her last year, and was concerned that not only was it not in her truck where it belonged, but it also appeared to have been quite thoroughly trampled. ³What did you do to this?´ I gasped. ³It didn't want to come out of the dashboard.´ ³So you felt the need to torture it?´ ³You know how I am with tools. No pain was inflicted intentionally.´ Though she was being casual, something about her words pained me. Why had she been so desperate to get it out? Had the sight of it really been too much for her to take? ³You killed it,´ I sighed, a sharp wave of guilt crashing in on me as I tried to compose myself. ³Oh, well,´ she said indifferently. ³It would hurt their feelings if they saw this. I guess it's a good thing that you've been on house arrest. I'll have to get another one in place before they notice.´ Of course I was sure Alice already knew about the stereo massacre. I wondered why she hadn't said anything about it. ³Thanks, but I don't need a fancy stereo,´ Bella argued. ³It's not for your sake that I'm going to replace it.´ Thinking about the lengths she'd gone through to get it out of her car, I knew she must be as eager to forget everything related to her birthday as I was. I would have to make sure to get a different model to replace it, one that looked nothing like the one that lay in a heap on her floor. ³You didn't get much good out of your birthday presents last year,´ I said, trying to sound nonchalant. I was suddenly nervous that she would refuse the tickets, simply because of where they'd come from. Her heart jumped when she saw me casually waving the tickets, and I held my breath waiting for her response. She looked like she'd been punched in the gut, and for a moment, the whole plan felt ridiculous. Why didn't I just buy new tickets to Alaska? ³Do you realize these are about to expire?´ I asked, still attempting to keep my voice light. Maybe she would agree to use them if I told her how happy it would make my family. They had been a gift, after all. ³No,´ she replied, staring at the tickets with a worried expression. ³I'd forgotten all about them, actually.´ Having forgotten them is better than having destroyed them like the stereo. I took that as a good sign. ³Well, we still have a little time. You've been liberated...and we have no plans this weekend, as you refuse to go to the prom with me.´ I smiled at the look of horror that crossed her face at the mere mention of the word prom. It really was a miracle I'd managed to get her to there last year. And not just get her there, but get her dancing and having a halfway decent time. She still wasn't responding to my offer, so I added, ³Why not celebrate your freedom this way?´ ³By going to Florida?´ ³You did say something about the continental U.S. being allowable.´ I didn't fully understand her expression. It was like she was being pulled in two different directions. I knew a part of her wanted to see her mother, but it seemed as if she was fighting 21
against herself, unwilling to give in to my request. She hadn't asked about Alice's vision yet, but I was sure it was too much to hope she had forgotten about it. Maybe she knew this was a diversion and she was just being stubborn. ³Well?´ I finally asked, growing somewhat frustrated. I didn't want to force her into anything, but one way or another, we were leaving Forks this weekend. ³Are we going to see Renee or not?´ ³Charlie will never allow it.´ ³Charlie can't keep you from visiting your mother. She still has primary custody.´ ³Nobody has custody of me. I'm an adult.´ A very good point, Bella, I thought wryly. ³Exactly.´ Bella's eyes lit up momentarily, and I thought I might have convinced her. All thoughts of Victoria aside, I had to admit I was a little anxious myself to see Renee again. The first and only time we'd met had been in the hospital in Phoenix, and needless to say, I was not her favorite person. Still, while she was obviously ± and rightfully ± upset with me for my part in Bella's accident, she had listened while I'd explained exactly how important Bella was to me, and had allowed me to stay in Bella's room without argument. Something told me Renee was a very perceptive person, and she sensed the depths of my devotion to her daughter. I was looking forward to cementing that idea in her mind, this time under far better circumstances. I let myself grow excited and hopeful that Bella would agree to the trip as I stared deeply into her eyes. Then, the flash of enthusiasm I'd seen on her face only moments before disappeared, and I could almost hear her voice of reason kicking back in. ³No this weekend,´ she sighed, clearly disappointed. ³Why not?´ ³I don't want to fight with Charlie. Not so soon after he's forgiven me.´ If it was Charlie she was worried about, I felt certain I could take care of that problem. He wouldn't have a problem with Bella visiting Renee, and if he objected to my going with her, I would remind him that the tickets were a gift from Carlisle and Esme. They were given with the intention that she and I would go together. ³I think this weekend is perfect,´ I said calmly, ready to argue my point until she conceded. There was no reason for her to put it off. ³Another time,´ she insisted. With a deep breath, I prepared myself to shamelessly use a very unfair tactic, one that I would never use unless I was truly desperate. Guilt. ³You aren't the only one who's been trapped in this house, you know.´ She stared at me like she didn't believe the words coming out of my mouth ± which meant she was right on track, because they weren't true. I hadn't felt trapped at all. I loved spending time with Bella and it didn't really matter to me where we were. Yes, it would have been nice to take her out on a proper date now and then, but as long as she was content with us sitting on her bed, talking, and holding each other, I would never for one second complain. ³You can go anywhere you want,´ she finally said, sounding somewhat apologetic. Then I was the one feeling guilty. 22
³The outside world holds no interest for me without you,´ I assured her, not wanting her to feel like she'd been keeping me prisoner. She rolled her eyes in disbelief. ³I'm serious,´ I promised. If we were confined to her four walls for the rest of time, I wouldn't care because we'd be together, and I instantly wished I'd never implied that I felt any differently. ³Let's take the outside world slowly, all right?´ she asked, her posture relaxing slightly. ³For example, we could start with a movie in Port Angeles...´ Not far enough... I thought desperately. ³Never mind. We'll talk about it later,´ I said, trying not to sound defeated. I didn't want to bring it up with Charlie without her consent, but if I had to... ³There's nothing left to talk about,´ she said flatly. When I simply shrugged, her expression shifted. ³Okay, then, new subject.´ She now sounded determined, and the air of curiosity was back on her face. ³What did Alice see today at lunch?´ I fought the look of terror that was threatening to reveal how worried I really was. I'd known from the moment I saw Victoria flash through Alice's mind, that if Bella came right out and asked, I would hide the truth from her. I hated myself for even thinking about lying, but there was no other choice. The only consolation I could offer myself, was knowing that as soon as the danger had passed, I would confess the truth to her. She would be angry, I was certain of that, but anger was better than fear. I refused to put Bella through any more trauma because of the realities of my world. ³She's been seeing Jasper in a strange place, somewhere in the southwest, she thinks, near his former...family. But he has no conscious intentions to go back. It's got her worried.´ I held firmly to my resolve, trying to remind myself of the necessity of the lie. When Bella breathed a very relieved, ³Oh,´ I knew I'd made the right choice. ³Why didn't you tell me before?´ ³I didn't realize you'd noticed,´ I lied again, inwardly cringing. ³It's probably nothing important, in any case.´ Significantly more relaxed, Bella smiled and suggested we head downstairs to keep up appearances. We worked on homework while we waited for Charlie to come home, stopping to prepare dinner when Bella's calculus assignment got the better of her. ³Why is everything so easy for you?´ she muttered as she threw her pencil down. ³Repeat high school a few dozen times and you'll understand,´ I said with a sigh. Unexpectedly, it made Bella grin. ³Planning on it,´ she said cheerfully, and I silenced the growl I could feel building inside me. Although I hated all the disgusting food smells, I offered to help Bella with dinner simply to be closer to her. She laughed at me as I wrinkled my nose, pushing ingredients quickly away from me and into the pot on the stove. The atmosphere was light and comfortable, and when Charlie arrived, even he seemed to be in high spirits. As usual, I let Bella and Charlie eat dinner together, retreating to the living room to supposedly watch the news. At times, I could tell it struck Charlie as odd that I never ate with them, but he appreciated the time alone with Bella so much, he never said anything about it. I listened with a smile on my face as he complimented her cooking, and they talked about his day at work. He told her he had talked to Billy, but there was no mention of Jacob so I allowed 23
myself to relax. That is, until he informed her that they'd both been invited to La Push for the weekend. ³Huh,´ Bella muttered noncommittally. The logical side of my brain knew it wasn't the right moment. I told myself to wait until the tension in the room had lifted, but as Charlie got up and headed toward the living room for his nightly routine of falling asleep in front of the TV, I couldn't seem to stop myself. ³Charlie,´ I said casually. ³Yeah?´ ³Did Bella ever tell you that my parents gave her airplane tickets on her last birthday, so that she could visit Renee?´ I heard Bella's heart start racing and she dropped the plate she'd been washing. It crashed to the floor, but Charlie didn't even blink. ³Bella?´ he asked, his eyes still glaring wildly at me. ³Yeah, they did,´ she mumbled, her face turning red as Charlie turned to her in disbelief. ³No, she never mentioned it,´ he said through gritted teeth, turning back toward me. ³Hmm.´ ³Was there a reason you brought it up?´ he asked icily. ³They're about to expire. I think it might hurt Esme's feelings if Bella doesn't use her gift. Not that she'd say anything.´ Then it was Bella's turn to glare at me, her hand gripping the soapy sponge, frozen on the plate. I could feel both of us holding our breath while Charlie deliberated. ³It's probably a good idea for you to visit your mom, Bella,´ he finally said. ³She'd love that. I'm surprised you didn't say anything about this, though.´ ³I forgot.´ His thoughts turned skeptical as he tried to sort out what we were keeping from him. ³You forgot that someone gave you plane tickets?´ ³Mmm.´ Charlie's eyes turned back on me as the pieces started coming together. ³I noticed that you said they're about to expire, Edward. How many tickets did your parents give her?´ ³Just one for her...and one for me.´ At that, his face turned red, his eyes widened, and Bella dropped another plate. She didn't turn to look at me, but I could hear how ragged her breathing was. ³That's out of the question!´ Charlie screamed, and I struggled to keep my voice even. I knew how much it would upset Bella to have to listen to Charlie and I fight. ³Why? You just said it was a good idea for her to see her mother.´ He turned back toward Bella and suddenly, he was yelling her, though she hadn't said a word. ³You're not going anywhere with him, young lady!´ 24
This was exactly what she'd been afraid of, and I felt terrible for having caused it. It had hurt her so much, having Charlie upset with her. They'd finally come to some sort of almost truce, and I'd fueled the fire again the very next day. I expected to see tears when Bella turned around, but instead I saw fury, and I was as taken aback as Charlie. ³I'm not a child, Dad. And I'm not grounded anymore, remember?´ she spat. ³Oh yes, you are. Starting now.´ ³For what?!´ she shrieked. ³Because I said so.´ And because I knew Bella, I knew that was the moment Charlie had lost the argument. As angry as Bella might be with me for having brought it up, it was nothing compared to the fire I saw in her eyes at that statement. ³Do I need to remind you that I'm a legal adult, Charlie?´ He flinched slightly at the sound of Bella calling him by his first name. She was usually careful to only do that when he wasn't around. ³This is my house ± you follow my rules!´ he screamed, only digging the hole deeper. ³If that's how you want it. Do you want me to move out tonight? Or can I have a few days to pack?´ At the look on Charlie's face, I could see Bella turn instantly remorseful. She didn't want to hurt him, and she certainly didn't want to move out. It was desperation on both they parts, a father trying to protect his little girl, and the little girl fighting to be accepted as an adult. Eventually, they would find a balance, but not tonight. ³I'll do my time without complaining when I've done something wrong, Dad, but I'm not going to put up with your prejudices,´ she said evenly. Charlie muttered something unintelligible, and I could sense Bella starting to relax. She still wasn't looking at me, and I wondered how much of her dissipated anger would later be coming my way. ³Now, I know that you know that I have every right to see Mom for the weekend. You can't honestly tell me you'd object to the plan if I was going with Alice or Angela.´ ³Girls,´ he muttered. ³Would it bother you if I took Jacob?´ I bit back my own rage at her words, although I figured she was only trying to make a point. Charlie had made it very clear that rules I had to abide by would be waived for Jacob. Still, I could feel my teeth grinding together and my hands unconsciously clenching into fists while I waited for his answer. ³Yes. That would bother me,´ Charlie answered, though it sounded like he didn't even believe himself. ³You're a rotten liar, Dad.´ ³Bella ± ´ ³It's not like I'm headed off to Vegas to be a showgirl or anything. I'm going to see Mom. She's just as much my parental authority as you are.´ He nearly scoffed at her, and her anger started to show again. ³Are you implying something about Mom's ability to look after me?´ 25
At the same moment Charlie flinched, I could feel his thoughts start to give up the fight. He knew there was nothing he could do to stop her from going, and he was suddenly feeling nervous that she wouldn't come back if he didn't reign his temper in. ³You'd better hope I don't mention this to her,´ she said coldly. ³You'd better not. I'm not happy about this, Bella.´ ³There's no reason for you to be upset.´ They both seemed to sigh at the same moment, and I was suddenly struck by how much they looked alike. The resemblance wasn't normally noticeable at all, but something about their mutual acquiesce made them appear more like father and daughter than I'd ever seen. ³So my homework is done, your dinner is done,the dishes are done, and I'm not grounded,´ she said definitively. ³I'm going out. I'll be back before ten-thirty.´ ³Where are you going?´ he asked, though I could tell he was only half expecting an answer. ³I'm not sure. I'll keep it within a ten-mile radius, though. Okay?´ Charlie mumbled something as Bella finally turned to meet my stare. ³We're going out?´ I asked, hopeful but nervous as she glared at me. ³Yes. I think I'd like to speak to you alone.´ She turned around quickly, storming out the front door with me trailing miserably behind her. As soon as we were in the car, I braced myself for the explosion. ³What was that?´ she yelled. Instinctively, I used the only defense I felt would matter to her at all ± my concern for her. Though I couldn't tell her all the reasons, it was, in essence, what had started the whole fiasco. ³I know you want to see your mother, Bella ± you've been talking about her in your sleep. Worrying actually.´ ³I have?´ she asked, her voice instantly softer. ³But, clearly, you were too much of a coward to deal with Charlie, so I interceded on your behalf.´ I was trying to keep it light, while still letting her know I was only looking out for her best interests. It didn't seem to be the right approach. ³Interceded?´ she repeated, angry again. ³You threw me to the sharks!´ ³I don't think you were in any danger,´ I muttered sarcastically. ³I told you I didn't want to fight with Charlie.´ ³Nobody said that you had to.´ I'd actually been rather surprised, having expected Charlie to do most of the lecturing. Yet somehow, the tables had turned, and Bella had held her own far better than I'd expected. ³I can't help myself when he gets all bossy like that ± my natural teenage instincts overpower me,´ she said defensively. ³Well, that's not my fault,´ I laughed. We sat in silence for a few moments while I replayed the evening in my mind. She'd stood up for herself, and while she claimed it was just instinct taking over, I believed it was more than that. All throughout Charlie's severe restrictions, Bella had been more compliant than I ever would have imagined. She didn't complain or make Charlie feel guilty, probably because she felt her 26
punishment had been justified. She hated how worried she'd made him those days she was off saving me in Italy, and whatever she needed to do to appease him and repair the damage that had been done, she was more than willing. It was a selfless gesture, and I admired her for it. But this time, she knew she'd done nothing wrong. There was nothing wrong with my wanting to visit Renee with her, and that knowledge had made her fight for what she knew she deserved. Although I'd hated to see them fight that way, in a way, I was completely flattered. Bella had been angry with me for bringing the tickets up without her permission, but in the heat of the moment, she'd still stood up for me and our right to be together. We'd been quiet for such a long stretch of time, Bella's words jarred me back into consciousness. ³Does this sudden urge to see Florida have anything to do with the party at Billy's place?´ My body tensed. I'd been so relieved that Bella would be nowhere near Forks when Victoria arrived, I'd forgotten all about that. ³Nothing at all,´ I said, trying to keep my voice calm. ³It wouldn't matter if you were here or on the other side of the world, you still wouldn't be going.´ I could see her fists clench and it was clear she wanted to say something, but miraculously, she chose to keep it to herself. I was just happy to avoid another argument involving the dogs. ³So what do you want to do tonight?´ I asked, anxious to get her mind on other things. ³Can we go to your house? I haven't seen Esme in so long.´ ³She'll like that,´ I said, smiling warmly. ³Especially when she hears what we're doing this weekend.´ Bella let out a long sigh, and we drove the rest of the way in silence. I was a little nervous about her current mood when we approached the house, and wondered if the whole evening was beyond repair. ³Bella!´ Alice cried, throwing her arms around her the second we were inside. I let out a sigh of relief when Bella immediately relaxed. It seemed her frustrations with me were no match for the welcoming arms of my family. ³How does it feel to be out in the real world again?´ ³Since when is the vampire house considered part of the real world?´ she teased. ³I still feel like I'm in a fairytale every time I come over.´ I rolled my eyes at her use of the word ³fairytale.´ Somehow, after everything she'd been through because of me, she still regarded us as creatures of magic and fantasy, rather than the monsters we were. ³Who all is home?´ I asked, looking pointedly at Alice. ³Carlisle and Esme are upstairs,´ she said cheerfully. And the others are making a quick circuit around town for any signs of Victoria. She shouldn't be here for a couple of days, but we're taking every precaution. ³Great,´ I said, taking Bella's hand in mine. ³Now, should we go share the news?´ ³News?´ Alice asked innocently. ³Oh right, Alice,´ Bella teased. ³Like you didn't already know we're going to Florida this weekend. I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me that Edward had so much confidence tonight, you probably already told him it was a sure thing.´ 27
³I don't know anything until you decide it,´ she said solemnly, but when Bella quirked an eyebrow at her, she started giggling. ³I did know how much you've been thinking about your Mom lately, though, so I figured the chances were pretty good.´ Bella rolled her eyes as Carlisle and Esme came down the stairs. ³Bella, welcome,´ Carlisle said, smiling at her warmly. ³It's lovely to see you again,´ Esme added, reaching out to give her a hug. ³It's really nice to be back. I've missed you all so much.´ ³Well, you're welcome any time,´ Carlisle said, then glanced at me for a fraction of a second. When are you two leaving? I immediately turned to Esme, grinning widely. ³Esme, I thought you'd be pleased to hear Bella and I are finally making use of those plane tickets from last year.´ ³Oh that's wonderful. Is your mother excited, dear?´ ³Well, actually I haven't even gotten the chance to tell her. It was kind of a spontaneous decision.´ ³We're leaving on Friday,´ I added, and Carlisle nodded approvingly. From what Alice saw, that should be plenty of time. Does Bella know what's happening? I shook my head in the tiniest of gestures and he seemed relieved. While my family had always believed in being honest with Bella about the dangers around her, I felt that in this instance, they all agreed it was unnecessary to worry her. It would all be taken care of soon enough. Victoria wasn't going to send us on the elaborate hunt that James had. ³Bella,´ Alice said, motioning toward the kitchen. ³Would you like something to eat? Even though you haven't been around lately, we've kept things fully stocked.´ ³No thank you. I just ate dinner with Charlie.´ ³Dessert, maybe?´ I glanced at Alice's carefully fixed smile and saw she was trying to allow Carlisle and I a chance to talk without Bella around. ³She won't give up,´ I whispered to Bella. ³You might as well take a few bites of something and get it over with.´ Bella sighed and I gave her a quick kiss before following Alice to the kitchen. Esme joined them a few moments later, and I realized how much she had truly missed Bella. As soon as they were out of sight, I faced Carlisle. ³Are you guys going to be able to take care of this by the time we get back Sunday night?´ ³I don't see why not. Alice saw her going directly to Bella's house. She's acting much more straightforward than James was, and she's completely alone. Don't worry. Just keep Bella distracted, and maybe try to have a little fun yourself.´ ³Thanks.´ ³Now, Alice mentioned earlier there was something Bella said that confused you. Was it something you wanted to talk about?´ 28
³Oh,´ I said, having forgotten about it with our new concerns. ³It's nothing really, just a mildly irritating notion the wolves seem to have.´ ³And what is that?´ ³Apparently, they think we're the cause of their reappearance.´ ³Do they really?´ he asked, sounding more amused than I might have expected. ³Well, I'll admit it crossed my mind, though the timing makes it seem unlikely. They didn't show up until after we left.´ ³That's what I thought. Is it possible, though, that the change started when we arrived, and it simply took that long for it to complete itself?´ ³I suppose anything is possible. I don't know much about their kind. Fascinating species, though.´ I rolled my eyes. It was just like Carlisle to see everything, even the most despicable, volatile of creatures, as an interesting new learning experience. ³No, Alice, I promise it was delicious. I'm full, that's all.´ Bella was walking back toward me, Alice in full pout behind her. ³She barely ate two bites,´ she sulked. ³Well maybe next time I'll have to bring her over before dinner, and you can play chef properly.´ Alice grinned, her spirits brightened, and led Bella and the rest of us into the living room. A few minutes later, the rest of the family came home. Emmett and Rosalie said perfunctory hello's, then retreated upstairs. I might have been more irritated at Rose, but she was obeying my wishes. If you can't be nice, don't be here. Alice and I played chess while Jasper and Bella talked. Admittedly, it still made me nervous having them in such close proximity, but Jasper's guilt over the incident last year had made him so overly cautious, it was nearly impossible to doubt his total control around her. He cared about her too, and he'd spent so long feeling terrible about what had happened, I figured it was good for them to finally get to talk. Within minutes, Alice and my game was over. There simply wasn't any point in playing it out once we both saw where it was going. Sighing, she surrendered her king, then pushed the board toward Jasper and Bella. ³You two should play. At least Jasper won't be able to hear every move you're planning before you make it,´ she said indignantly. After their game was over, we spent the rest of the evening talking and laughing, catching Bella up on what she'd missed. Alice convinced me to play the piano for awhile, and as Bella sat beside me, looking up at me lovingly, the rest of my family disappeared. When we realized they were gone, we both laughed, remembering the first time they had not so subtly left us alone in this very spot. ³They've missed you,´ I said softly, reaching up to run my fingers through her hair. ³I missed you.´ ³You see me every day,´ she whispered, her breath catching slightly as I leaned in to give her a soft kiss. ³But not here. Not in my home, where I can really be myself. You don't know how wonderful it is for me to have you here. It makes the house complete.´ 29
She blushed, looking down at her lap, and I kissed her forehead. I took a deep breath and let my eyes shut, marveling at how perfect and content the moment was. It seemed impossible after all that had happened over the past few hours, yet here we were, just as I wanted to be. ³I don't want to go,´ she said, peeking up from under her lashes. ³But?´ ³But Charlie and I have fought enough for one night, and I want to be back well before my curfew so he doesn't think I'm pushing him simply to be defiant.´ ³I understand,´ I said, wrapping my arm around her shoulder as we stood up. A few minutes later, we were back at her house. The lights were on, and I could hear Charlie's mind wandering nervously. Of course I couldn't hear the exact words, but after a few moments, I started to understand the context. With a smirk, I turned to Bella. ³You'd better not come inside,´ she said sadly. ³It will only make things worse.´ ³His thoughts are relatively calm,´ I said, trying to stifle my laughter. ³I'll see you later.´ A low chuckle escaped me, and I kissed the top of her head. ³I'll be back when Charlie's snoring.´ I watched her walk dismally to the door, probably awaiting another bout of Charlie's anger. When she found out what was really on his mind, however, I had a feeling she might find herself wishing for his anger instead. It took everything in me to drive away, but given the nature of their discussion, eavesdropping would have been beyond my normal level of intrusion. It was going to be embarrassing enough without her finding out later that I'd listened in. I thought about going home again, but decided my time would be better spent checking things out around town. None of my family had found any signs of Victoria, but I knew I'd feel better after I'd checked it out myself. I'd made almost a full loop when I felt my cell phone go off. ³I know you're having fun looking for vampire tracks, and I hate to interrupt,´ Alice said, trying a little too hard to sound casual. ³But I need you to go check on Bella.´ ³Why? What's wrong?´ I asked frantically, already running in her direction. ³Nothing, I don't think. At least not yet. I figured with everything going on, you'd want me keeping a close eye on her. Everything was fine until a moment ago, then I suddenly went blind. You know what that means,´ she said heavily. I suppressed a low growl as my feet instinctively ran faster. ³Filthy wolves,´ I muttered. ³Yes, they are that,´ Alice agreed. If anyone was more infuriated by the wolves, it was Alice. Nothing frustrated her more than not being able to use her ability. ³Is she still at the house?´ ³I think so. I didn't see her leave, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. Once she made the choice to leave, everything disappeared. She could be down there right now for all I know.´ ³Hold on, I'm almost to the house,´ I said anxiously. A few seconds later, I saw her truck and felt relief rush over me. ³She's still here,´ I breathed. ³Thanks, Alice.´ 30
³No problem. And by the way, let Bella know her choices effect me too. It was really unsettling, seeing her simply disappear like that.´ ³I'll let her know. Talk to you tomorrow.´ The phone went silent as I reached the driveway. Without another thought, I opened the hood of her truck and removed the first vital item I saw. I shut it quietly then waited for Bella to come out. Sure enough, a few minutes later, Bella was flying out the front door. Looking somewhat guilty, she seemed to be checking over her shoulder every few steps, and when she finally stumbled into the car, she breathed a sigh of relief. It broke my heart to think of her purposely ignoring my warnings when my only concern was for her safety. It hurt even more to think of how angry she would be with me in a few moments. She made two attempts to start the engine before I made even the slightest movement. ³Gah!´ she gasped, finally noticing me in the seat beside her. If I hadn't been so focused on the situation at hand, it might have bothered me more that she hadn't noticed me right away. She always seemed so aware of my presence. ³Alice called,´ I explained, and in the darkness, I could see recognition flash in her eyes. ³She got nervous when your future rather abruptly disappeared five minutes ago.´ At this, her startled expression turned to one of absolute horror. ³Because she can't see the wolves, you know,´ I clarified. ³Had you forgotten that? When you decide to mingle your fate with theirs, you disappear, too. You couldn't know that part, I realize that. But can you understand why that might make me a little...anxious? Alice saw you disappear, and she couldn't even tell if you'd come home or not. Your future got lost, just like theirs.´ I understood that this must be confusing to Bella, and I wished I could explain exactly why it happens, but it was a mystery to all of us. ³We're not sure why this is. Some natural defense they're born with?´ It had been my first inclination, but I'd eventually written it off as just another theory. ³That doesn't seem entirely likely, since I haven't had any trouble reading their thoughts. The Blacks' at least. Carlisle theorizes that it's because their lives are so rules by their transformations. It's more an involuntary reaction than a decision. Utterly unpredictable, and it changes everything about them. In the instant when they shift from one form to the other, they don't really even exist. The future can't hold them...´ I wondered if Bella was even still listening to me. I'd gotten so lost in my own thoughts. As much as I hated to admit it, maybe Carlisle wasn't the only one with some sort of sick fascination with the wolves. Obviously, Bella was angry with me, and in many ways, I couldn't blame her. She didn't believe the wolves were a threat, and thought I was being overprotective. She'd already proven earlier with Charlie, that she hated when people treated her like a child, and I realized she would probably see what I was doing as falling into that same category. It didn't matter, though. I would accept her rage if it kept her safe. ³I'll put your car back together in time for school, in case you'd like to drive yourself,´ I assured her, hoping perhaps futilely, that she would forgive me as quickly as she'd seemed to forgive Charlie. She climbed out of the truck without a word, eyes cold and staring straight ahead.
³Shut your window if you want me to stay away tonight. I'll understand,´ I said softly, feeling somewhat defeated as she shut the door. The second she was out of sight, I raced around the side of her house and peered up at her window. Not even a minute later, Bella appeared, and with one swift motion, slammed it shut. My heart sank, though I'd expected nothing less. I was debating staying outside her room anyway, reminiscent of the days when I'd watched her from afar. I would respect her wishes and not go inside, but the thought of spending the night away from her was nearly unbearable. I stared longingly up at her room, wishing there was a way to keep her safe that wouldn't make her shut me out. Then, I saw her return, and I once again wished I could read her mind. Her expression was a mixture of frustration and hurt, but despite whatever she was feeling, she took the final step toward the window and opened it widely. Excitement bubbled up inside, and I fought to remind myself she probably still needed time to herself. I didn't doubt for a moment that she was still upset with me, and I didn't want to push her too far too soon. I tried to convince myself it was better that I wait. I almost made it to the count of ten before climbing up and pulling her into my arms.
Motives ± EPOV Our flight left an hour after school was out, ensuring we would arrive in Florida in the middle of the night. When I made a joke about not needing sunscreen, Bella looked at me almost apologetically and I wished I had kept my mouth shut. I asked Carlisle to drop us off since Charlie was still only moderately okay with the situation, and I didn't want anything upsetting Bella this weekend. It was a chance for her to get away for a couple of days, forget the stresses of her upcoming graduation and all she felt that entailed. I reminded her as often as I could that there was no hurry, and since we were talking about eternity, she needed to be completely sure, but she always repeated the same thing ± her mind was made up. Shortly after graduation, she was determined to make Carlisle follow through with his promise. Bella stared out the window dreamily for most of the flight, glancing occasionally at me with a look of pure love in her eyes. I wasn't sure if it was the simple fact that we were getting away, or that she was going to see her mother again, but it was the most at peace I'd seen her in a long time. Renee met us at the airport, and the moment she and Bella locked eyes, they squealed with delight and ran toward each other. I watched in awed silence as they grinned and hugged, both talking a mile and minute, probably not understanding a word the other was saying but not caring because they were together. It was several minutes before either of them seemed to remember I was there. Then, with a sheepish smile, Bella turned to me. ³Mom, you remember Edward,´ she said tentatively. I could hear her holding her breath. ³So nice to see you again, Renee,´ I said, using the fact that I was holding both Bella's and my own bags as an excuse not to shake her hand. The last thing we needed was for her to jump at my icy skin. ³Edward,´ she said formally, nodding once at me. I'd forgotten how interesting it was listening to Renee's thoughts. It was a jumble, much like Charlie's was, but I could hear coherent words and phrases every so often, and was surprised at how clear a picture it granted me. Polite...clearly cares...too soon...seventeen. It was as if Renee was in a constant battle with herself. She could sense how deeply I loved Bella, but was also frightened by that very fact. She couldn't let go of the notion that falling in love too young had no way of ending well. If only she knew how long I'd waited for Bella, and how complete my devotion to her truly was. ³Phil's sorry he couldn't be here to greet you,´ she said, turning back to Bella. ³He has to be up at the crack of dawn tomorrow, and he'll be working with the team all weekend, getting them ready for the big game on Sunday.´ ³That's fine. I'm sure we'll find some time to talk.´ ³That would be nice. Maybe I can make everyone breakfast Sunday morning before he has to head out.´ ³Or you could let me cook,´ Bella said, a little too enthusiastically. I held back a chuckle as I thought of all the stories she'd told me about Renee's cooking. ³We'll see. For now, we'd better get you kids home. I'm sure you're both exhausted.´ It was a short car ride to Renee's house, but she and Bella managed to catch up fairly well. I'd never heard Bella so talkative. It didn't escape my notice that Renee kept glancing back at me in 33
the rear view mirror. With so much of my time spent listening to people's thoughts and figuring them out, it was an odd feeling, knowing she was working so hard to figure me out. She noticed the way I watched Bella every second, and again she seemed to be arguing with herself over whether it was endearing or cause for concern. When Bella felt my stare, she reached back over her shoulder and I gave her hand a quick squeeze, enjoying the way her heart sped up as soon as we touched. Renee's scrutiny only increased after the gesture, though her voice remained even. When we arrived, the two walked hand in hand inside while I carried our bags. Renee had made up the couch for me, and Bella was shown to the guest room. ³Goodnight,´ Bella said, glancing back at me longingly. That look didn't escape Renee's notice either, and she eyed me cautiously as they headed upstairs. A few minutes later, Renee came back down, and her mind was working overtime, debating how much to say to me. I had to suppress a grin when I realized she was worried about me sneaking up to Bella's room. ³I hope this is all right for you,´ she said, glancing at the couch. ³And I'm right upstairs if you need anything else.´ Subtle... ³It's wonderful. Thank you for your hospitality.´ ³No, thank you,´ she said, her eyes instantly softening. ³Thank you so much for bringing Bella out here. I miss her every day.´ ³I'll pass the thanks along to my parents. It was their idea, and I'm happy we were able to make the trip. She misses you very much as well.´ ³Really?´ she asked, her voice almost shaking as she sat down beside me. ³Of course. She talks about you often.´ ³That's good to hear. Every time she calls or emails me, all I really hear from her is how happy she is. Obviously, that's what I want. That's the most important thing. It's just that it's still strange for me, hearing that she's happy in the place I couldn't wait to get away from.´ She paused then, and I tried to listen to the path her mind had taken her on, but there were too many conflicting emotions and thoughts. ³She didn't use to like Forks much either,´ she finally continued. ³She probably never spent long enough there to really get to know anyone. She has a lot of friends now, and she likes school.´ ³And she has you.´ It wasn't a question, but a simple statement of fact, as sure as if she'd told me it rains a lot in the Northwest. ³Yes, Bella and I are very happy together. And my family absolutely adores her. She spends a lot of time with Alice especially. It's fun to watch them together. Opposites in so many ways, yet somehow the best of friends.´ ³Yes, well, I'm glad to hear she's doing well.´ Be careful...slow down...too young...so kind... The battle raged on for a few more moments, before she finally sighed and let her expression relax into a smile. 34
³I'm sorry, I should let you sleep. I'll see you in the morning.´ Without another word, she stood up and walked quickly up the stairs. When I heard her door shut, my own internal battle began as I decided whether or not to go to Bella. A part of me wondered if she was expecting me to, though we had already decided to spend the two nights there apart. While I had no doubt I could get to her soundlessly and unnoticed, I knew the idea made Bella nervous, and it seemed smarter not to take the chance. It was a very long night. I hadn't realized how much I'd come to depend on Bella's presence to make the otherwise lonely, mundane hours pass by quickly. Early the next morning, I heard Phil coming downstairs, so I closed my eyes and leaned back onto the couch. Bringing the boyfriend home to meet Mom. It's a wonder she's not more of a wreck. I inwardly smiled, watching him through half opened eyes as he made himself breakfast. He was quiet and respectful, looking in my direction only once before heading out for his busy day. A couple of hours after Phil left, a door opened upstairs. I sat up and stretched out my arms when I heard the familiar sound of Bella's heartbeat. She was still rubbing at tired eyes as she entered the living room, but as soon as she saw me, her face broke into a huge grin. ³Good morning,´ I whispered as she curled up onto my lap. ³It is now,´ she giggled, her arms wrapping around my neck as her face buried into my shoulder. ³I didn't realize how hard it would be to sleep without you.´ ³Well, after tomorrow night, I'll do my best to make sure you never have to again.´ She didn't respond, and when I glanced down, I noticed the pout on her face. ³Are you rethinking our sleeping arrangements already?´ I teased. ³Maybe,´ she mumbled, and I felt her cheeks growing warmer. ³If you want me to come up tonight, all you have to do is ask.´ ³I'll keep that in mind,´ she said, nuzzling closer. I smiled and stroked her hair, comforted by the fact that even one night apart felt like too much to her. I felt exactly the same way. We sat in silence for a few minutes, enjoying each others company, until Bella sighed and started to pull away. ³I want to get breakfast started before Mom wakes up. That way, she has no choice but to accept the offer.´ ³And what will Renee say when I decline your gracious food offering?´ ³Oh, well you will have already eaten, of course. My cooking is simply too delicious to resist,´ she teased. I followed her into the kitchen and watched in fascination at the way she knew where everything was. ³Mom is such a creature of comfort,´ she said as she reached for the frying pan. ³Different house, yet everything is set up exactly how it was back home.´ ³Do you think she misses Arizona?´ ³You're asking me? You must have a much better idea than I do.´ ³You'd be surprised,´ I muttered, not really wanting to get into the mechanics of Renee's mind with Bella. ³Besides, that's not exactly what's at the forefront of her thoughts.´ 35
She stopped in her tracks and looked at me wide eyed, her heart starting to race. ³Is she upset? Does she wish I had come alone? Is she going to lecture me like Charlie?´ ³Hey,´ I said, crossing the room instantly and pulling her into my arms again. ³Don't worry about it. She's fine. Just a little worried, that's all. She can tell how much we care about each other, and she's afraid we're too young.´ ³If only she knew,´ she sighed, mirroring my earlier thoughts. With a deep breath, Bella resumed breakfast, and as the scent started to waft through the house, I could hear Renee stirring upstairs. I quickly detached myself from Bella and took a seat at the table. Shouldn't have...they're guests...so thoughtful... ³Good morning you two,´ she said brightly. ³I was going to cook, but it looks like you beat me to it.´ ³That's the idea,´ Bella smiled. ³Consider it a thanks for picking us up and letting us stay here.´ ³You know you're welcome any time. It's just so good to see you again.´ She walked over and gave Bella another enormous hug, her mind suddenly racing through a number of memories from Bella's childhood. Although it was little more than quick glimpses at pieces of a large puzzle, I got a fairly clear impression of why Bella always said she felt like the grown up in their relationship. Renee never kept her thoughts in one place for long, always looking forward to the next exciting event. It was like nothing was ever able to hold her interest for more than a few moments. When breakfast was ready, they sat down at the table, Bella beside me and Renee across from us. ³Edward was really hungry so I him something earlier,´ Bella said, smirking sideways at me, ³but I waited for you so we could eat together.´ ³That's so sweet. And after breakfast, maybe I can take you into town.´ Bella's eyes darted to me for a moment before answering. I wouldn't be able to set foot outside, and we weren't sure the excuse of my term paper would last the entire weekend. ³I'm still a little jet-lagged,´ she said. ³Do you think we could stay here today? Talk some more, maybe watch a movie. It's good to finally be able to just relax.´ ³Of course, sweetie. Whatever you want.´ Renee glanced over at me and I tried to momentarily divert my attention away from Bella. I looked around the house and finally let my gaze wander back to Renee, who was still watching me questioningly. ³Your house is lovely,´ I said, smiling warmly. ³How are you and Phil liking Florida so far?´ ³It's hot, that's for sure, and a different kind of hot than Phoenix was. But we're really happy here. How are things back home? Are you two getting excited for graduation?´ I heard Bella's heart jump, and she instinctively leaned in closer to me. ³There's definitely a lot to think about,´ I said, taking Bella's hand underneath the table. ³But we're ready,´ she added, giving my hand a firm squeeze. Renee kept us engaged in near constant conversation, her mind still racing trying to figure out how to fit months worth of not seeing Bella into the two days she had. She was always 36
exceptionally polite to me, though I continued to hear her warring thoughts and see her confused glances. Phil came home late and completely exhausted, apologizing for having to make a hasty retreat. He needed a shower and a good night's sleep before the big game Sunday. Bella smiled at him sincerely, and I knew she was planning on getting up extra early to make sure breakfast was ready before he had to leave. It would be the only real time she would get to spend with him. Bella and I generally kept a respectable distance, but when evening came and Renee wished us goodnight, I caught a very pointed look in my direction. It was nearly as obvious as the one Bella gave me only moments later, telling me beyond any doubt that she'd decided it was worth the risk. As soon as I was sure Renee was asleep, I swiftly flew upstairs and into Bella's room. She was beaming at me the moment I entered. ³Missed you,´ she whispered as I crawled into the bed next to her. She leaned into me and laid her head against my chest. ³Missed you, too,´ I said, kissing the top of her head. ³So, are you and Renee going out tomorrow? I wouldn't want you to miss out on the sun entirely because of me.´ I was trying to keep it light, but she detected the hint of sadness in my voice. I hated that I wasn't able to take her outside or walk along the beach with her, and I certainly didn't want her giving it all up because she felt bad about leaving me behind. The day was coming far too soon when she too would have to hide from the sun, and I couldn't stand to think of her missing out while she could still be basking in it. ³Yeah, she's going to show me around town, and we might go down to the beach for a bit.´ ³Please don't hurry on my account. I'm perfectly happy here. You two should have some time alone together anyway.´ ³I know. I just hate leaving you behind.´ ³Bella, it's okay. I'm happy to see you so happy. That's all I care about.´ She snuggled closer to me, and I started to hum her lullaby. Within a few minutes, she was drifting off to sleep, and I tried to fight the feelings of guilt over all the things I was taking away from her. I crept downstairs before the sun came up, and Bella joined me shortly after. By the time Phil and Renee woke up, she'd prepared an elaborate breakfast which they all devoured, while I pretended to already be hard at work on my supposed term paper. A couple of hours later, Bella and Renee left for their day together. When Renee suggested I bring my paper down to the beach to work on it there, I explained that the heat tended to give me a headache and I needed to concentrate. As soon as they were gone, I took out my cell phone and made the call I'd been both wanting to make, and dreading since we'd arrived. It hadn't even rung once when I heard Alice's voice on the other line. ³We almost had her, but she got away.´ ³What?´ I yelled. ³How is that possible?´ ³We don't entirely know. It was like she knew exactly where we were and what we were planning. She knew where the boundary line was too, and she used it against us. Besides the fact that as soon as we got near the wolves, I was effectively blind, there was a bit of an incident. The pack had been tracking her as well, but when one of them thought Emmett had crossed the line, 37
he lunged at him, teeth bared, no thought whatsoever of the hunt that really mattered. Two of the others jumped in front of him to stop the attack, but when Rosalie stepped in, ready to fight right alongside Emmett, it only got them more worked up. Esme and I tried to pull Emmett and Rose away, while Jasper and Carlisle calmed the pack down. Between Jasper's ability to make them feel like we're all one big happy family, and Carlisle's voice of reason, the whole ordeal didn't take more than a few moments. It didn't matter, though. Victoria was long gone.´ I took a deep breath and clenched my eyes shut, exasperated. ³So what do we do now?´ ³There's not much we can do. I don't see any sign of her returning right away, but we'll be prepared in any case.´ ³So you're sure she's nowhere near Forks?´ ³It doesn't look like it. Are you two coming home tonight?´ ³We have to. If I try to keep her here longer than we'd planned, she'll know something's wrong.´ ³And you're still sure keeping this from her is the best idea?´ ³Yes. There's no point in frightening her as long as we're sure there's no danger. She's lived through enough trauma because of us as it is.´ ³All right. But for the record, I think you should tell her. It was different when we thought Victoria would be taken care of by now. But don't you think she deserves to know what's out there?´ ³She knows what's out there. All that matters now is that she never has to face any of it again.´ ³Okay,´ she sighed, obviously not convinced. ³I'll see you tonight.´ My mind raced the rest of the day, and although I knew I was being ridiculous, I couldn't help but worry about Bella. There was no reason to think Victoria could have somehow known we were here, but after hearing how quickly she'd disappeared from Forks, all I wanted was for Bella to be back in my arms again. When they returned that afternoon, I went to give Bella a hug, and noticed she pulled away from me almost instantly. She looked up into my eyes with the strangest expression, and glanced at Renee who was busying herself in the kitchen, trying to give us a few moments together. When I asked if anything was wrong, she shook her head and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, then went to join Renee. After they'd eaten dinner, Bella reluctantly went upstairs to pack her bag. Renee watched me while her mind once again tried to figure me out. There was something softer now, more accepting somehow in her thoughts, which was mirrored in her expression. She walked over and sat down beside me on the couch while I too started gathering my things. ³She loves you,´ she said simply, and I stopped to look her in the eyes. ³And I love her. More than anything.´ ³Yes. I can see that. I may not understand exactly what it is you two have, but I trust Bella, and she trusts you.´ Then, inexplicably, her mind became clearer than I'd ever seen it. She was imagining Bella older, picturing her future. And I was unmistakably in it ± beside her, loving her, protecting her. I smiled as I realized Renee understood us a lot better than she was giving herself credit for. ³Promise me one thing,´ she said softly, looking wistfully up toward Bella's room. ³Take care of her, and make sure she's always as happy as she is right now.´ 38
³I will. For as long as she'll let me.´ She smiled, shaking her head as she laughed to herself. As hard as I tried to listen, her thoughts had become hazy again. She seemed happy though, content, which gave me a peace of mind I hadn't realized I'd been looking for. Bella came downstairs with a sad smile on her face, and when Renee hugged her, they both had tears in their eyes. The sun was starting to set as we drove to the airport, and after another round of tearful hugs and goodbyes, Renee let Bella go and waved us off. She didn't say much on the plane, and I watched the way her eyes kept following the horizon line as we flew west toward the setting sun. Carlisle had brought the Volvo to the airport for us, figuring we would want some time alone to talk. As I watched Bella from the corner of my eye, I finally decided I couldn't take the silence anymore. Though I thought the weekend had gone exceptionally well, I was worried that something had upset her. ³You've been very quiet,´ I said softly. ³Did the plane make you sick?´ ³No, I'm okay.´ ³Are you sad to leave?´ ³More relieved than sad, I think.´ I looked at her skeptically. I knew she'd enjoyed the time with her mother, and Renee had been much more accepting of our relationship than I think Bella had expected. What reason could she have to be relieved it was over? ³Renee is so much more...perceptive than Charlie in some ways. It was making me jumpy,´ she explained. I laughed, suddenly more than a little curious what Renee had said to her during their time alone. When she'd spoken to me, it almost seemed like she was encouraging our relationship to progress. It's not like I thought she was expecting an engagement or anything, but I was sure from the glimpses I'd gotten, she knew Bella was my future, and I was hers. ³Your mother has a very interesting mind. Almost childlike, but very insightful. She sees things differently than other people.´ Bella nodded as she considered this, then turned to look back out the window. Her eyes fluttered closed and I heard her breathing slow, as she finally gave in to her exhaustion. I slowed down slightly, enjoying watching the peaceful way she slept, and when we finally pulled into her driveway, I wished I didn't have to wake her. At least it wouldn't be long before I could hold her, and let her drift off gently again into a full night's sleep. I slowly reached out to touch her cheek, not wanting to startle her. Her eyes squinted open and she smiled as she focused on me. I kissed her forehead and whispered, ³We're home, Sleeping Beauty. Time to awake.´ As I reached into the back seat to get her bag, we both noticed the curtains move. Charlie was trying to stay calm and not appear too anxious, but he was happy to have Bella home. A part of him was worried that she might have found Florida too appealing, or missed her mother too much. He couldn't stand the thought of her wanting to leave Forks behind the way Renee had. Somewhere in the middle of his muddled thoughts, I caught something about Jacob, and I felt my body tense. ³How bad?´ Bella asked, misreading my sudden change in posture. 39
³Charlie's not going to be difficult. He missed you,´ I said, trying to force myself to relax. When we reached the door, Charlie was waiting with a wide, enthusiastic grin on his face. ³Welcome home, kid! How was Jacksonville?´ ³Moist. And buggy.´ I could hear the relief as his worried thoughts eased. ³So Renee didn't sell you on the University of Florida?´ ³She tried. But I'd rather drink water than inhale it.´ With an audible sigh, he turned to me and asked, ³Did you have a nice time?´ ³Yes. Renee was very hospitable,´ I said politely, smiling ± which always confused him. ³That's...um, good. Glad you had fun.´ With that, Charlie scooped Bella into a huge hug, laughing when she muttered, ³Impressive.´ ³I really missed you, Bella. The food around here sucks when you're gone.´ ³I'll get on it,´ she said, grinning as he released her. She was happy to be home too, and it wasn't until that instant that I realized part of me had been as nervous as Charlie was that she would be entranced by the Florida sun, wishing she could stay. I'd never stand in her way, and I'd spend my life inside hiding from the sun if that's what she wanted. But I was glad to know she truly considered Forks her home. ³Would you call Jacob first?´ Charlie said, interrupting my moment of joy. He hadn't thought about it since he'd first seen us pull up, and I'd allowed myself to forget it was coming. ³He's been bugging me every five minutes since six o'clock this morning. I promised I'd have you call him before you even unpacked.´ ³Jacob wants to talk to me?´ Bella asked tentatively. I wished I hadn't heard the touch of excitement in her voice. ³Pretty bad, I'd say. He wouldn't tell me what it was about ± just said it was important.´ The words were barely out of his mouth before the phone rang, and I nearly growled. ³That's him again, I'd bet my next paycheck.´ ³I got it,´ Bella said, running toward the kitchen with me following nervously behind. ³Hello?´ she asked expectantly. ³You're back,´ I heard him say. I put one hand around Bella's waist and listened to their short conversation. I didn't think even he would be foolish enough to let something about Victoria slip, but I was waiting, ready to grab the phone away at the first indication. It all felt simple enough, though I couldn't understand why he wanted to make sure she was going to be at school the next day. Did he think I'd kidnapped her or something? I tried to ignore the way Bella's heart sped up slightly as she told him she was happy he'd called. The hand that wasn't holding her clenched into a fist and I instinctively backed away so she wouldn't feel my extreme tension. The conversation ended abruptly, and Bella was left with a look of severe disappointment on her face. ³That was short,´ she said dejectedly. ³Is everything all right?´ I asked, feeling simultaneously relieved he hadn't said much, and furious that he'd upset Bella. 40
³I don't know. I wonder what that was about.´ ³Your guess is probably better than mine,´ I said, smirking at her. The only time I had any idea what he was thinking was when I had access to his mind, and thankfully, it had been a long time since we'd been close enough for that. ³Mmm,´ she mumbled, absently reaching for ingredients for dinner. I watched her, once again trying to figure out her what her silent mind wouldn't tell me. Was she simply worried about him, or did she really miss him? Was it nothing more than a friend looking out for a friend, or were there unresolved feelings from the time I'd left her so broken, she'd turned to the wolf for solace? I was still staring at her, perplexed, when she stopped in her tracks. Her eyes widened, her breath sped up, and the hamburger meat slipped from her hands. I closed the small gap between us, catching and discarding it before pulling her into my arms. ³What's wrong?´ I whispered nervously, but she merely shook her head. After several very long minutes, I gently shook her, and asked, ³Bella?´ Her eyes were glazed over as I stared into them. ³I think...I think he was checking,´ she said quietly, her voice trembling. ³Checking to make sure. That I'm human, I mean.´ My body tightened and I felt a hiss building in my chest. The kid had a lot of nerve. ³We'll have to leave,´ Bella said softly. ³Before. So that it doesn't break the treaty. We won't ever be able to come back.´ Her voice broke and I held her closer, willing her misery away. ³I know,´ I breathed, wishing for anything that would give us more time ± her love for Charlie, fear of breaking the treaty, even unwillingness to hurt Jacob. Anything. We were both so lost in our own minds, we didn't hear Charlie enter the kitchen. ³Ahem.´ Bella flinched away from me, face bright red. I leaned against the counter to give her space, and as hard as I tried, I couldn't relax my expression. I focused down toward the floor and attempted to calm myself down, not wanting Charlie to misread it as irritation with him. ³If you don't want to make dinner, I can call for a pizza,´ he said. ³No, that's okay, I'm already started.´ ³Okay,´ he answered, leaning against the wall and staring at us intently. It was clear he wasn't about to leave us alone again. Using exhaustion from the trip as an excuse, I decided to make my exit. It was late, and I knew it wouldn't be long before Bella would be asleep. I needed to make a quick run home to check in with my family before joining her again. She started setting the table and, ignoring Charlie's glare, I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and whispered, ³I'll see you soon,´ far too low for Charlie to hear. When I got home, of course Alice was waiting for me. ³How was your trip?´ she asked casually as I rolled my eyes. I wasn't in the mood for small talk. ³It was lovely. Now, there's a more important matter at hand.´ ³I've already told you, Victoria is nowhere near us.´ 41
³It's actually not about that,´ I said, my earlier irritation creeping back into my voice. ³It seems Jacob thought I was running Bella out of town to change her.´ ³What?´ she gaped, and her thoughts immediately turned sour. She hated that it was just one more thing she hadn't seen coming. ³He'd been calling Charlie all weekend, and when he finally got to speak to Bella, the whole conversation didn't even last five minutes. She thinks he was checking up on her.´ ³What right does he have? Even if you had taken her away for that reason, it would have been far away from Quileute land and he'd have no way of ever proving it.´ ³I know. I think it's more that. He's...worried about her. He wanted to know she was okay.´ I felt some of my anger dissipate as I realized it probably wasn't all about the treaty to him. He cared about Bella, in his own way, and I couldn't fault him for that. Still, I didn't want him checking up on her every time she disappeared for a few days. With Victoria's whereabouts unknown, it was entirely possible that we'd have to repeat our escape again in the near future. After a few minutes, Carlisle and Esme came downstairs. They greeted me with smiles and hugs, happy Bella and I had enjoyed our trip. The atmosphere was almost too light, considering the reason for our departure. They all assured me, however, that there was no danger in the immediate future, and the best thing I could do was to keep Bella calm ± close, but calm ± until they could figure out a plan of action. By the time I was on my way back to her, everything had started to feel nearly back to normal. That was, until we got to school the next day. Better get here soon. Don't want to be here any longer than I have to. Stupid bloodsuckers. They're lucky Paul didn't take that big one out. Had every right to. Next time, we're not stopping him. They step over the line, they're fair game. I could hear Jacob's infuriated thoughts a few blocks before we reached the school, and my hands clenched around the steering wheel. ³If I asked you to do something, would you trust me?´ I asked Bella warily. It was obvious Jacob would have no problem speaking bluntly in front of her, and I knew there was little I would be able to do about it. Her heartbeat accelerated as she took in my expression. ³That depends,´ she said shakily. ³I was afraid you would say that.´ ³What do you want me to do, Edward?´ ³I want you to stay in the car.´ As I parked the car, I glanced carefully around until I found him. There was no way I'd be able to convince Bella to stay if she saw him, so I tried to keep her eyes locked with mine. ³I want you to wait here until I come back for you.´ ³But...why?´ she asked, her gaze breaking from mine as she surveyed the parking lot. ³Oh,´ she finally breathed, and I knew the battle was lost. All I could do now was try to stop him from saying the words out loud. ³You jumped to the wrong conclusion last night,´ I told her solemnly. ³He asked about school because he knew that I would be where you were. He was looking for a safe place to talk to me. A place with witnesses.´ She looked momentarily confused, but her expression quickly shifted into one of resolve. 42
³I'm not staying in the car.´ ³Of course not,´ I sighed. ³Well, let's get this over with.´ We got out of the car and I wasted no time in reaching out to grab Bella's hand. I laced her fingers through mine, ignoring the icy thoughts that were coming my way as Jacob glared openly toward us. The thoughts of everyone around us were confused and nervous, with an occasional touch of exhilaration, the way most high school kids responded when they sensed a fight could break out at any moment. I stopped walking when I was sure we were close enough to talk without anyone overhearing. I gently moved Bella a step behind me, and set to work trying to stop Jacob from saying too much. ³You could have called us,´ I said firmly. ³Sorry. I don't have any leeches on my speed dial.´ ³You could have reached me at Bella's house, of course,´ I said, smiling sincerely. His face contorted, his jaw tightened, and I bit back the growl that was threatening to escape. Being familiar with the irrational responses of werewolves, I reminded myself that it was my job to keep him as calm as possible. ³This is hardly the place, Jacob. Could we discuss this later?´ ³Sure, sure. I'll stop by your crypt after school. What's wrong with now?´ I glanced around pointedly at all the bystanders, listening carefully as they grew more and more curious. It wasn't worth stirring suspicion, and Jacob knew it. He was just being stubborn. ³I already know what you came to say,´ I said softly, a small grin playing at my mouth. Really, we hadn't even needed to get out of the car. This could have been settled before it was started. ³Message delivered,´ I said dryly. ³Consider us warned.´ I chanced a quick look toward Bella who was still watching us worriedly. ³Warned?´ she asked. ³What are you talking about?´ Unbelievable, Jacob thought, his irritation growing. Won't even let her make up her own mind who to be upset with. ³You didn't tell her?´ he asked incredulously. ³What, were you afraid she'd take our side?´ ³Please drop it, Jacob,´ I said calmly. ³Why?´ You afraid she'll ditch you when she hears how it was your family who took it a few steps too far? And how if it wasn't for that idiot brother of yours, Victoria might be a pile of ashes by now? ³What don't I know?´ Bella asked nervously. ³Edward?´ You don't tell her, I will. All's fair... ³Jake?´ she asked, turning to him. It took every ounce of strength in me not to scoop her up and take off running. If it weren't for the growing number of witnesses staring at us, I don't think I would have been able to stop myself. Jacob smirked at me. You know she would have rather heard it from you, but I'm happy to oblige.
³He didn't tell you that his big...brother crossed the line Saturday night?´ he said, scrutinizing Bella's reaction. Then, he turned back to me and he was scathing. ³Paul was totally justified in ± ´ ³It was no-man's land!´ ³Was not!´ I watched him closely for any sign he was losing control. No amount of bystanders would stop me from getting Bella out of there if I thought for one moment he was about to phase. He seemed to be calming himself down as Bella finally spoke, her voice terrified. ³Emmett and Paul? What happened? Were they fighting?´ she asked, increasingly nervous with every second that passed without an answer. ³Why? Did Paul get hurt?´ ³No one fought,´ I whispered. ³No one got hurt. Don't be anxious.´ You have got to be kidding me, Jacob suddenly thought, staring at me in disbelief.Well this is an interesting twist. I get to be the barer of all sorts of good news today, don't I? I glared at him, but he was long gone. He was enjoying the moment far too much. ³You didn't tell her anything at all, did you?´ he said deliberately, piquing Bella's curiosity. ³Is that why you took her away? So she wouldn't know that ± ?´ ³Leave now,´ I spat, wishing more than ever that we were alone and I could put him in his place properly. ³Why haven't you told her?´ he persisted unrelentingly. I glared at him, more furious than I'd ever been with him. He was doing this out of spite. He didn't care about how much it would upset Bella, only that it would get her angry with me. In the midst of my fury, I could hear Bella's heart start to pound and her breath was coming in quick, short gasps. I looked down at her wide, scared eyes just before she spoke. ³She came back for me.´ The fear in her eyes, the fear I'd worked so hard to shield her from, was increasing with every second. I pulled her into me and softly touched her cheeks, willing her pain away. ³It's fine,´ I whispered, desperately trying to look into her eyes, but they were glazed over and distant. ³It's fine. I'll never let her get close to you, it's fine,´ I repeated. When she still wouldn't look at me, I turned to stare at Jacob. ³Does that answer your question, mongrel?´ I growled. ³You don't think Bella has a right to know? It's her life.´ ³Why should she be frightened when she was never in danger?´ ³Better frightened than lied to.´ You may not agree with me, but Bella will. Just wait. I almost wish I could be there to see it. Bella's breathing started to steady, and I wiped the last of her tears away. ³Do you really think hurting her is better than protecting her?´ I whispered, hating the way the panic was still lingering in her eyes after the tears had stopped. ³She's tougher than you think. And she's been through worse.´ Without warning, all the bitter and sarcastic thoughts vanished from Jacob's mind, and I was left with nothing but images of Bella. For a moment, I didn't understand what had caused his sudden shift in thinking, but then I saw her lying on the ground in the woods. Her hair was tangled and 44
matted, her face twisted into a mask of pain, her eyes bloodshot, staring into nothingness. It felt like a secondhand memory, one that Jacob had seen through the eyes of another, but that only diluted it infinitesimally. Then, I saw her with Jacob. She was so still, she might have been asleep, except that her eyes were open. Open, but completely vacant. Image after image of that vacant stare followed, sometimes accompanied by images of Bella wrapping her arms around herself like she was in some kind of physical pain. It looked like she was gasping for air as she fought to keep her composure. Nowhere in the sea of memories did I see the faintest glimpse of a smile. It was the worst kind of torture, because it was exactly the kind of pain I was trying to protect her from, yet I knew I had been the cause of every moment of it. ³That's funny,´Jacob laughed, finally releasing me from the torment of his memories. ³What are you doing to him?´ Bella snapped angrily at Jacob. ³It's nothing, Bella,´ I whispered. ³Jacob just has a good memory, that's all.´ Another wave of images hit me just as I was recovering, and Jacob smiled viciously. ³Stop it!´ Bella yelled. ³Whatever you're doing.´ ³Sure, if you want,´ he said casually. ³It's his own fault if he doesn't like the things I remember, though.´ Then, I heard the school principal making his way toward us. He'd heard talk of some big kid no one knew hanging around the parking lot. ³The principal's on his way to discourage loitering on school property,´ I said softly. ³Let's get to English, Bella, so you're not involved.´ ³Overprotective, isn't he?´ Jacob said to Bella. ³A little trouble makes life more fun. Let me guess, you're not allowed to have fun, are you?´ ³Shut up, Jake,´ she snapped, but he was too amused to care. ³That sounds like a no. Hey, if you ever feel like having a life again, you could come see me. I've still got your motorcycle in my garage.´ ³You were supposed to sell that. You promised Charlie you would.´ ³Yeah, right. Like I would do that. It belongs to you, not me. Anyway, I'll hold on to it until you want it back.´ He was nearly smiling, all signs of anger completely gone as he looked at Bella. It was like he'd completely forgotten why we were standing there, or that I was there at all for that matter. ³Jake...´ Bella said softly, and he leaned in closer to her. I watched with dark curiosity at the way she seemed to have such a calming effect on him. No wonder she'd never felt in danger around him. He was much more carefully practiced than I would have expected. ³I think I might have been wrong before, you know, about not being able to be friends. Maybe we could manage it, on my side of the line. Come see me.´ I forced myself not to flinch at the suggestion. Bella was already going to be upset enough, without me reminding her for the hundredth time how unsafe it was to be in the company of werewolves. Even if Jacob had managed to infuse me with some small amount of confidence that he wouldn't cause her any physical harm, there was no way I was letting her anywhere near the rest of the pack. Especially after what happened Saturday. 45
Bella glanced up at me before answering, and I kept my expression composed. ³I, er, don't know about that, Jake.´ ³I miss you every day, Bella. It's not the same without you.´ I was stunned. There wasn't a single trace of a malicious thought in his mind, though he was looking right at her, wrapped tightly in my arms. All I could hear was compassion, and a genuine longing to be with her. ³I know and I'm sorry, Jake, I just...´ ³I know,´ he sighed, and in an instant, he was the person he'd been before. Jealous, angry with me, and endlessly frustrated by the fact that Bella was no longer his in the way he'd once thought of her. ³Doesn't matter, right? I guess I'll survive or something. Who needs friends?´ I felt Bella's arms twitch toward him, but I couldn't make myself let her go. My need to protect her was too strong. Yet somehow I knew it was no longer physical harm I was protecting her from. A moment later, we all heard the principal's voice coming up behind us, and we knew the conversation was over. ³Okay, get to class. Move along, Mr. Crowley.´ ³Get to school, Jake,´ Bella whispered. I dropped my arms from around her, and took her hand in mine. ³I mean it,´ the principal continued. ³Detention for anyone who's still standing here when I turn around again. Ah, Mr. Cullen. Do we have a problem here?´ ³Not at all, Mr. Greene. We were just on our way to class.´ ³Excellent. I don't seem to recognize your friend,´ he said, looking at Jacob. ³Are you a new student here?´ Can't possibly be in high school. Come on, just leave. We don't need any trouble today. ³Nope,´ Jacob said, obviously enjoying the fact that he was making poor Mr. Greene nervous. ³Then I suggest you remove yourself from school property at once, young man, before I call the police.´ Jacob and I both grinned as the same image came to us. Charlie would get a phone call that somebody was causing a scene at the high school, and he'd come charging in only to see Jacob standing there, laughing. While Jacob was sure he would shrug the whole thing off, I knew how seriously Charlie took his job, and I couldn't help but think the incident would take Jacob's approval rating down a notch. Maybe I should keep him here a little while longer... ³Yes, sir,´ Jacob said with mock sincerity, saluting him before speeding away on his bike. Disrespectful. Shouldn't have to put up with this nonsense... ³Mr. Cullen,´ he said, directing his frustration back at me. ³I expect you to ask your friend to refrain from trespassing again.´ ³He's no friend of mine, Mr. Greene, but I'll pass along the warning,´ I said, smiling warmly at him Should have known. Not his fault. Never had any trouble before. Shouldn't have bee n rude. ³I see. If you're worried about any trouble, I'd be happy to ± ´ 46
³There's nothing to worry about, Mr. Greene. There won't be any trouble.´ ³I hope that's correct. Well, then. On to class. You, too, Miss Swan.´ Bella's baffled expression didn't escape my notice as we walked to class hand in hand. ³Do you feel well enough to go to class?´ I asked her softly. I knew she'd have an enormous amount of questions, and while I wasn't in any hurry for the anger that would likely accompany them, there was no point in putting it off and watching her sulk all day. ³Yes,´ she said, gripping my hand a tighter. Class had already started when we arrived, and Bella wasted no time getting to her questioning. I nearly laughed when I saw her furiously scrawling a note to me. Was this really the best way to discuss this? I read her note, in which she demanded that I tell her everything. Though it didn't seem the ideal way to go about it, I decided if this was how she wanted to handle it, I would be all too willing. She couldn't yell at me in the middle of class. I explained that Alice had seen a vision of Victoria, but promised Florida had merely been a precaution. I told her about the incident in La Push much the way Alice had explained it to me. It was a misunderstanding, and no one got hurt. There was nothing for her to be concerned about. Her eyebrows pulled together as she read, some hidden emotion upsetting her further, though I'd tried to keep it as casual as possible. A moment later, she started writing again, and as soon as I saw she was asking about Charlie, I shook my head. This wasn't about him, and Victoria was being far too careful about not exposing her location to risk an attack on him. I reached out for the paper so I could explain, but she was already scribbling again. When I saw, Florida was a bad idea, I cringed, and quickly answered that there was no way I was sending her there alone. Then, with a grin, I added, With your luck, not even the black box would survive. Her eyes widened as her expression shifted again, and I was suddenly having more fun than I probably should have been, given the circumstances. So let's say my bad luck did crash the plane. What exactly were you going to do about it? she wrote, eying me skeptically. Why is the plane crashing? The pilots are passed out drunk. Easy. I'd fly the plane. She glared down at the paper, and I chuckled under my breath as she started writing again. Both engines have exploded and we're falling in a death spiral toward the earth. I'd wait till we were close enough to the ground, get a good grip on you, kick out the wall, and jump. Then I'd run you back to the scene of the accident, and we'd stumble around like the two luckiest survivors in history. Her eyes widened in surprise. ³What?´ I whispered. It wasn't like it had come out of nowhere. She'd been nearly silent on the plane, so I'd let my mind wander a bit. Maybe more than a bit. ³Nothing,´ she mouthed, as she scratched out the words on the paper, replacing them with the one sentence I'd been waiting for from the start. You will tell me next time. 47
I met her stare again and wondered how long it would be until there was a next time. I knew she was trying to be brave, and in a way I understood her desire to know what was coming. As difficult as it was to think about telling her a vicious, out for revenge vampire was coming for her, I knew she deserved better than to be lied to. After an endless stretch of time, I reluctantly nodded, and she let out a long, slow breath she'd been holding. First they walk in late, then I'm completely ignored... I heard Mr. Berty's irate thoughts just as Bella was scribbling Thanks onto the page. I snatched the paper from Bella and covered it with another, then quickly scrawled down notes on the poem Mr. Berty had been reciting as he began his walk toward us. ³Is that something you'd like to share there, Mr. Cullen?´ ³My notes?´ I asked. He looked down at the paper, baffled. Could have sworn...getting too paranoid. Oh well. He walked away and Bella rolled her eyes. I let a huge grin take over my face, happy the conversation was over. At least for now.
Nature ± EPOV Bella's irritation with me regarding the Victoria incident seemed to dissipate over the next few days. While I was thrilled to be back in her good graces, her change in mood wasn't entirely without a downside. As her anger wavered, her anxiety grew. She tried to hide it from me, and I knew there had never been a time when she was more thankful for my inability to read her thoughts. There were signs, though. Signs that were hard to ignore. 48
At first, she acted as if the fact that she was once again being stalked by a deranged vampire was nothing out of the ordinary ± something to be expected even. She shrugged it off and went about her days in a fairly normal manner. However, as the days passed, I sensed the subtle changes. She was startled more easily by sudden sounds and movements, though there wouldn't likely be such a prelude to the type of attack she was in danger of. She was restless at night, her breathing more ragged and her speech more disjointed than usual. She never looked fully rested when she awoke. I'd also noticed she held me closer, both at night and during the day. I was certain it was an unconscious gesture, so I didn't say anything. I was more than happy to give her whatever extra feeling of security I could offer, and the last thing I wanted was for her to feel embarrassed about needing it. She'd done a fairly good job of hiding her fears from my family, with the exception of Jasper, of course, who tried to make me feel better by assuring me she grew more relaxed and confident when she was with us all. It was why I was completely stunned when Friday night, during one of her evening visits, she declared very firmly that she believed it was a bad idea to remain human any longer. All eyes turned abruptly to Bella. As a low growl escaped my chest, Alice flitted casually to my side. ³A little warning would have been nice,´ I muttered under my breath. Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen tonight. She's just nervous, that's all. She'll listen to us, I promise. ³There are seven of us, Bella. And with Alice on our side, I don't think Victoria's going to catch us off guard,´ Carlisle told her. Alice grinned smugly and went to Bella's side. ³I think it's important, for Charlie's sake, that we stick with the original plan.´ ³We'd never allow anything to happen to you, sweetheart,´ Esme added kindly, glancing toward me for a moment. Her words were as much a promise to me as they were to Bella. ³You know that. Please don't be anxious.´ Esme kissed her forehead lovingly and Bella blushed. Your girl's pretty cute when she's all embarrassed, Emmett thought wryly, and I hissed nearly inaudibly at him as he broke into quiet laughter. ³I'm really glad Edward didn't kill you,´ he told Bella, still chuckling. ³Everything's so much more fun with you around.´ Oh yeah, this is how I wanted to spend my evening. Talking the human out of immortality again. And I thought eternity was monotonous before. Rosalie was staring daggers at Emmett, who seemed completely oblivious, still too amused by the whole conversation. Bella turned pleadingly to Alice, probably hoping to exploit her obvious desire to have Bella be an official member of the family, but Alice simply rolled her eyes. ³I'm offended. You're not honestly worried about this, are you?´ ³If it's no big deal, then why did Edward drag me to Florida?´ Bella turned to look at me, a hint of frustration lurking behind her mostly composed exterior. ³Haven't you noticed yet, Bella, that Edward is just the teensiest bit prone to overreaction?´ I sighed indignantly. Overreaction indeed. None of them understood how hard it was to sit by day after day and watch Bella, fragile and mortal, wondering what the next catastrophe would be. They all had the luxury of virtually indestructible mates, and couldn't possible fathom what that kind of fear felt like. 49
Relax Edward, Alice thought, staring at me pointedly. Or better yet, let's help Bella relax. With a warm smile, Alice gripped Jasper's arm and whispered softly to him. He looked at me, then at Bella, and gave Alice the tiniest of nods as he took a deep breath. Almost immediately, I heard Bella's racing heart return to normal. A contented smile captured her face, and she turned to me with nothing but love and trust in her eyes. ³You're safe with us, Bella,´ Carlisle promised. ³You are part of this family, and we will always protect you, no matter what.´ She turned her gentle, relaxed stare toward Carlisle and thanked him as I took her hand in mine. ³See? There's nothing to worry about,´ I whispered, kissing her cheek as my thumb traced circles on the back of her hand. A part of me wanted to keep her there and under Jasper's calming influence, but it was getting late and I knew she needed to get home. We'd barely made it out of the driveway before Bella's expression shifted back to one of anxiety. ³Bella, love, you're perfectly safe,´ I told her before she could even get the words out. Her brow pulled together as she looked over at me, and I smiled, bringing her hand up to kiss it. ³I'm never going to let anything happen to you. Alice is on constant guard. We'll know the moment Victoria is planning to return. And next time, we won't let the wolves distract us from what's really important. She will not get away from us again.´ I tried my best to keep the ire out of my voice as I thought about how close my family had been to taking care of the problem. Deep down I knew it was a simple mistake, but I couldn't help but blame the pack's temper for Victoria's escape. ³Still,´ Bella whispered, her eyes glazed over as she stared nervously out the window, ³it seems ridiculous to put it off. We've already agreed my change is going to happen.´ She didn't look at me, probably because she knew what she would see. My teeth were clenched and my knuckles were gripping the steering wheel. I would never accept her change as imminent the way she did. Until her heart beat for the last time, I would hold onto her humanity and cherish it like the gift it was. ³If you know you're safe,´ I said, speaking as calmly as I could manage, ³then there's no need to rush into anything.´ ³I know we said after graduation, but every day we wait is one more day we tempt fate,´ she argued, turning to look me in the eye. ³That's between you and Carlisle.´ Then I thought of the only thing I knew for sure would end the conversation. Smiling sincerely, I added, ³Of course, you know that I'm willing to make it between you and me at any time that you wish. You know my condition.´ I heard her heart jump and stutter as her eyes widened and returned to the window. Everyday since we'd returned from Florida, I found myself thinking about my absurd proposal, and I suddenly berated myself for bringing it up again. She deserved so much better, and I planned to give it to her. Though the fear in her eyes at the very mention of marriage did shake my confidence to some extent. Would it really make a difference where or how I said it? Would it matter to her if I whisked her away to our meadow and proposed underneath the glorious rays of the sun? Would she care that it was my mother's ring I held in offering, the single tie I had to my human past and the only object I deemed beautiful enough to place on her finger? Would my declaration of love and 50
eternal devotion silence her fears? I would give her all I had to give, yet I had no way of knowing if it was enough. It was with that thought that I parked the car and walked her to the front door. I could hear Charlie pacing inside, though we were nowhere near her curfew. ³See you in a few minutes,´ I whispered, kissing her softly before making my way around the house to her window. Bella and Charlie engaged in their normal evening smalltalk, and while he remained as oblivious as usual, I could tell she was nervously rushing the conversation. Less than ten minutes had passed before she yawned and said she was going to bed. She climbed the stairs with deliberately heavy feet, and I laughed to myself at her theatrics. Not quite ready to let her sleep, I settled into her rocking chair and waited for the door to open. All signs of her earlier tension gone, she grinned widely at me as she quickly crossed the room and came to sit in my lap. I rocked us silently while running my fingers through her silky hair and she sighed into my shoulder. After a few minutes, she peeked up at me through her lashes, and reached a finger out to trace the shadows under my eyes. ³I've been taking up too much of your time,´ she whispered. ³Not possible,´ I said firmly, kissing the top of her head. ³You've gone too long without hunting.´ ³I'm fine. Don't worry about me.´ ³You should have gone last weekend, but you were babysitting me,´ she mumbled, pouting slightly. ³I was taking you for a long overdue visit with your mother, and I was happy to do so.´ She looked at me skeptically and I rolled my eyes. ³If it would ease your worry, I'll go to the park for a few hours with Jasper and Emmett tomorrow.´ She paused for a moment as if deciding something very important. ³Has Alice seen any sign of Victoria coming back to Forks?´ she asked, a little more casually than I would have expected. ³No, there's no indication she's anywhere near here.´ ³Then it's settled. You're taking a real hunting trip tomorrow.´ ³Bella, there's no need...´ ³Yes, there is. It's been a long time since you've gone somewhere besides the park, and I know you're tired of it. Besides, I've made up my mind, which means Alice has probably already told the guys about it, and I'm sure they're both very excited.´ She looked at me defiantly, challenging me to argue with her logic. When I sighed and nodded, she smiled triumphantly and resumed her position curled up against me. ³Thank you,´ I finally breathed. I hugged her tightly to me, overcome by how loving and understanding she was. ³For what?´ she whispered, tracing her fingers up and down my chest.
³For knowing me so well. For understanding what I need when even I don't.´ I leaned my face down to kiss her, and she melted into my touch. ³Thank you for being you.´ We held each other for a few more minutes, silent except for the sound of our breathing in unison. When she yawned again, I knew it was time to let her sleep. I carried her to the bed, and her arms never broke from around my neck. She scooted closer once we were laying down, and closed her eyes when I started humming to her. ³The earlier I leave, the sooner I can come back to you,´ I said softly, and she smiled into my chest. ³Go have fun. Bag a few mountain lions for me.´ I laughed quietly as I resumed stroking her hair, and before long she was asleep. I listened to her dream, happy to hear she seemed far more relaxed than she had all week. When she drifted off into dreamless slumber, I carefully slid out from beneath her and wrapped her up in the quilt. I glanced at a pile of stationary on her bedside table, and quickly scrolled a note for her. Something to remind her that even when I was away, my heart was always with her. I'll be back so soon you won't have time to miss me. Look after my heart ± I've left it with you. With a smile, I placed it on the pillow beside her, kissed her forehead softly, and left for what I hoped would be a very short trip. Back so soon? Alice teased when I returned home. I can't imagine why. ³Cute,´ I muttered as she gleefully bounded toward me. ³I assume you've already informed Emmett and Jasper about the trip.´ ³Of course.´ ³It's making me really nervous, the idea of being so far out of town.´ ³This is a good thing. Bella's obviously not so worried that she's afraid to let you leave.´ ³I wish I didn't have to.´ ³I know, and Bella knows that too. But she also knows this is something you need, and she's more than happy to let you have some fun in the process. She's still somewhat amused, I'd even say fascinated, by the idea of you hunting,´ she smiled. ³And that doesn't bother you at all?´ I asked incredulously. ³No. I think it's sweet. She loves you, and this is just another part of who you are.´ And who she'll soon be. It hadn't been intentional, that's simply how Alice thinks, but I growled at her nevertheless. ³Whoa, don't let the animal out quite yet. Save it for the grizzlies,´ Emmett said, smirking as came down the stairs. I ignored him, still glaring at Alice. ³Sorry,´ she mumbled, and I nodded with a deep sigh. ³You'll stay close by in case anything changes?´ I asked her. ³Yes, I promise. And if she starts concocting more plans to visit the wolves, I'll take out another piece of her car.´ ³Thanks,´ I said, then turned to Emmett. ³Is Jasper ready to go?´ ³He actually took off about an hour ago. He dared us to catch up with him,´ he added with a snicker. 52
A huge grin broke out across my face, momentarily pushing my fears aside. ³It's been awhile since I've run at full speed. You up for the challenge?´ ³Always,´ he said, taking off without another word. Alice smiled at me and gave my hand a quick squeeze. ³Have fun, and try not to worry too much.´ ³I'll try.´ ³Now hurry up, Emmett's probably halfway across town by now.´ ³Ha! I'm just hanging back so I don't crush his ego too soon,´ I teased, and Alice flitted out of the room. I took another deep breath and darted out the back door, the speed and exhilaration hitting me almost instantly. It wasn't long before I caught up with Emmett, and it was tempting to keep up my current speed and leave him behind. The surge of excitement as the trees blurred into a sea of green was wonderful, and it served to distract me ± a welcome relief, even if only for a moment. No need to show off, Emmett thought as I raced past him. The girlfriend's not here to watch. Distraction gone. Thanks a lot, Emmett. ³I'm not showing off,´ I said, slowly my pace slightly. ³It just feels good to be out again. For the first time in quite awhile, I wasn't thinking about anything at all.´ Hmm, Edward finally not over thinking everything. Please, don't let me hold you back. I'll catch up. ³No, it's fine. The moment's lost anyway.´ We ran the rest of the way side by side, and in relative silence. Emmett tried to keep his mind on mundane things, then focused in on the hunt as we grew closer to our favorite spot. When we were about fifty miles away, we saw Jasper in the distance. Emmett and I smiled sideways at each other, and picked up our pace to an all out sprint, tackling Jasper a few moments later. ³Took you guys long enough,´ he said sarcastically as we all continued our run. ³I was starting to think I was going to have the pick of the whole forest.´ ³Don't you think Edward should have first choice?´ Emmett said, smirking at me. ³After all, he's been cooped up in Forks longer than either of us.´ ³I'm not sure if self-exile gives him any special rights,´ Jasper said with a grin, and I lunged at him again. Just as he was jumping out of the way, we all stopped in our tracks. We could smell blood, and it was close. Suddenly, all the playful banter disappeared, and I could feel all of us tense in anticipation. My jaw tightened as we took off in separate directions, each in search of our own favorite prey. It wasn't long before I'd come across a pair of mountain lions. Even with all the adrenaline and my senses focused on the kill, I felt a smile pull at my mouth as I remembered Bella's parting words to me. Her casual acceptance of my way of life, unbelievable as it may be, truly was a gift. It was with that thought that I attacked the smaller of the animals, the larger one taking off immediately. I saw that he was fast, and excitement welled up in me once again as I thought about the chase that would follow. When I'd finished the first, I sprinted after the second, finding him in minutes. Feeling greedy, I found a third only miles away, and gorged myself as I hadn't been able to so for so long. All conscious thought escaped me until I heard Emmett chuckle from behind me. 53
³And they say I'm insatiable.´ I took one final draw of blood, pushing the carcass aside as he walked over to me. ³Where's Jasper?´ ³Oh, he's having a bit more fun than he should be. I'm pretty sure he's done hunting for the moment, but he was scaring a herd of elk last I saw.´ ³And you?´ ³Grizzlies galore,´ he smiled. I attempted to return his enthusiasm, but with the thrill of the hunt no longer occupying my every thought, I found myself growing nervous again. ³Okay,´ he said, watching me curiously, ³you just took down two mountain lions... ´ ³Three,´ I corrected. ³Fine, three, and you still look stressed. What's going on?´ I hesitated, wondering how much to say. I didn't want to burden him, although clearly he was already seeing right through me. I shrugged and tried to infuse my tone with a level of composure. ³It's difficult to be away from Bella.´ ³Alice is keeping a close watch on her. And Carlisle and Esme are there too, looking out for her. You've got to relax.´ ³It's not only that, though.´ I took a breath and when I spoke again, I found my words were pouring out, fast and unstoppable. ³Ever since she and Carlisle made their little arrangement, my whole perception of our relationship has changed. I can never just be with her, because I'm always aware that each minute we spend together is counting down to the end. It's like each one of her breaths are numbered. Every heartbeat is special, because I know they're running out. I don't want to be away from her, because every second I am means there's something I'm missing.´ He stared at me for an endless moment, his thoughts jumping around from sympathy to confusion to frustration. Finally, he shook his head. ³I wish you wouldn't talk about her like she's dying.´ I scoffed, glaring at him icily. ³Okay, yes, technically she is. But it's not like it's really the end. This is only the beginning. You two are going to have eternity together. I know you wish there was another way, but honestly, sometimes I don't understand what you're so upset about. Being with her forever is what you want. And Bella wants that, too.´ ³I know she does, but still...´ ³No,´ he interrupted. ³There's no but. You have to let her make her own choices. And she's chosen you.´ He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in. When I made no attempt to argue, he smiled and continued. ³Besides, the whole family has accepted her and welcomed her in. Well, almost the whole family,´ he added under his breath. I cringed, but made myself ask the question which I was fairly confident I already knew the answer to. ³Does Rose...talk about Bella a lot?´ I asked warily. ³If by talk you mean complain, then yes. All the time.´
³I know she has her reasons, but I wish she could find a way to at least be civil. Her thoughts can be pretty vicious, and it's hard to listen to her constant sarcasm and negativity when Bella comes over, and even worse to wonder what she's saying and thinking when we're not around.´ ³You can't let it get to you. All of us love Bella, and she's as much a part of our family as if Carlisle had already changed her.´ He watched me cautiously as I shuddered, then quickly continued. ³Even with Rose, you've got to know it's not really anything personal. She just doesn't agree with the choice Bella is making.´ ³Neither do I,´ I growled, unable to hold it in. ³Then you of all people should understand,´ he said with more sincerity than I'd ever heard. ³In her own strange way, Rose is trying to protect her. She doesn't want her to make a choice that can't be undone, and regret it for all eternity. Because she doesn't think there's anything she can do to stop her, she gets frustrated, and that comes out as anger toward Bella. That's the simplest explanation I can give you. Well, that and the fact that she thinks you're a complete moron. But you probably hear that all the time,´ he added wryly. ³Yeah, she's not exactly subtle.´ I shook my head, frustrated. ³Do you think she's every going to get over it? Will she ever accept Bella, even if she can't accept the choice she's making?´ ³Alice seems to think so. But as Rose has no immediate plans to start calling Bella 'dear little sister,' I think it's probably just Alice's unbridled optimism.´ ³Comforting,´ I mumbled. ³What are brothers for?´ We sat quietly, both lost in our own thoughts about the future. As we waited for Jasper to finish whatever game he was playing with the wildlife, another anxious feeling started to creep over me. Something felt wrong, and I suddenly wished Alice was there to assure me things were still okay back home. ³What's up?´ Emmett asked, quirking an eyebrow at me. ³Something's not right. I should go back.´ ³Edward, you're being paranoid again. Alice told me not to let you freak out.´ ³I'm not freaking out. I'm just...I need to go.´ ³Hey Jazz,´ he called dramatically, staring at me with patronizing eyes. ³Hunting trip's been cut short. Edward misses his girlfriend.´ ³Very mature,´ I muttered. ³And I never said you two had to leave. You should stay. I was finished anyway.´ ³Sure you were,´ he said sarcastically. ³Okay, we'll stay. But if I were you, I'd take my time getting home. You know Alice is going to give you a hard time about this. Have fun with that, by the way.´ ³Yeah, thanks,´ I said, rolling my eyes. Just as he was trying to convince me to stay a little longer and join him for a duel attack, my cell phone went off. I looked down at it, feeling another swell of nerves when I saw Alice's name. ³What's wrong?´ I answered. ³She disappeared again,´ she said, her voice shaking. ³I thought she understood that the moment she crosses paths with those animals...´ 55
³She's with the wolves?´ I screamed, my thoughts racing at the trouble she could already be in. Emmett's eyes widened, and he nodded in understanding as I took off running. ³I didn't see her leave, but it's the only explanation,´ Alice continued as the trees blurred into a sea of green. ³It must not have been premeditated, though. It all happened so fast. One second she was at work and the next, there was nothing. I went straight to Newton's, and they said she'd been given the day off. I went by her house and the truck was gone. She's down there, Edward, and neither one of us can do a thing about it.´ ³Why didn't you call me right away?´ I asked desperately. ³I hoped I could catch her before she crossed the line. I'm so sorry.´ I felt myself start to shake, fear taking over. She didn't have a cell phone so I couldn't call her, Alice couldn't see her, and neither of us could cross the boundary line to go get her. For a moment, I actually considered asking Charlie if he had any immediate plans to go visit Billy. Then I cringed as I realized Bella and Jacob weren't likely to be spending their day of freedom with Billy. As I tried to picture what they were probably doing, each image grew progressively darker. A walk on the beach ± that should be safe enough. Hanging out in his garage ± it might bring back memories of the times they'd spent together when I'd been gone, but otherwise harmless. Riding their motorcycles ± dangerous, although I knew she'd ridden before and Jacob had managed to keep her safe. Visiting with his friends ± that's where my panic kicked in. Especially given the recent incident with the pack and my family, I couldn't be sure that one of them wouldn't see Bella as a threat, one of the enemies. The mere sight of her could ignite their rage and cloud their judgment. ³Alice, will you wait at the boundary line until I get home?´ ³Of course, I'm on my way now. I'll take your car so it will be there for you when you get back.´ ³Thanks. Let me know if you see any sign of her coming home.´ ³I will. And Edward, she's going to be okay.´ ³I know,´ I said, wishing I really believed it. ³She has to be.´ ³I'll see you soon?´ she asked when I trailed off into silence. ³Yeah, I'll be there as soon as I can.´ I ran faster than I'd ever run before, and tried without success not to think about what I was running toward. Before I knew it, I was back in Forks, and the reality of the situation truly set in. As I neared the boundary line, I saw Alice leaning up against the Volvo, her eyes clenched shut in deep concentration. I slowed down to a stop and waited for her to look at me. When she did, her eyes were strained and troubled. I felt instantly guilty, realizing how difficult it was for her, trying to watch for things she couldn't see. ³I'm sorry,´ she said, frustrated and miserable. ³It's okay, I'm here now. Thanks for staying.´ ³What are you going to do?´ ³Wait, I guess. What else can I do?´ ³If you're all right here...´ she started, still watching me apologetically. ³Yes, you should go home. I know how hard this is for you.´ 56
³Thanks,´ she smiled. ³I'll call you if anything changes.´ There was only one road from Forks down to La Push, and I sat right on the other side of the line, staring intently at it and silently pleading for Bella to hear me. Couldn't she feel what she was doing to me? As hard as I tried, I couldn't stop my mind from assuming the worst. One of those beasts could have phased the moment they saw her ± the girl in love with the vampire, part of the family whom they believed was the reason they'd been condemned to their fate. I tried to remind myself that at least Jacob was remarkably in control for one so new to the existence, and the nature of his thoughts had showed me he truly believed Bella would always be safe with himself and the pack. But while he would always work to portray them as the heroes in this story, hints of the darker truth ± what even he knew they were capable of ± had a way of creeping in, and they solidified my fears. Time seemed to stand still as I sat, waiting, wondering... Switzerland ± EPOV I sat in my car, eyes fixed on the small road leading out of La Push. Time seemed to stand still. If she knew what she was doing to me, surely Bella wouldn't have pulled such a ridiculous stunt. Alice had told me it must have been a snap decision, in order for her to have disappeared so quickly. She wasn't thinking about me and all the times I'd warned her of the danger. She hadn't thought about how every moment I couldn't know whether or not she was safe ate away at my sanity. She'd left on a whim. She'd left to be with him... Although I'd tried to deny it, in that moment, I realized I was in fact feeling the unsettling twinges of jealousy. I'd been trying to convince myself the only reason I didn't want her visiting La Push was her safety, and of course that was my primary concern, but as the seconds ticked by, I had to admit, at least to myself, that there was another emotion toying with me. Perhaps Bella didn't understand the full extent to which it tormented me when she went to where I couldn't protect her, but I was certain she had a vague idea. And in the end, her running away at the first opportunity made me wonder what kind of pull Jacob had over her. How desperately did she want to be with him that she could so callously cast my feelings aside, and put me through this misery? The longer I sat, the harder it was to remember why it was necessary for me to simply wait. The sun blazing overhead was a fortunate reminder that waiting in the car was my only real option. If it had been nighttime, it would have been all too easy to convince myself that I could remain hidden ± run to her, and watch from a distance, knowing I was close enough to intervene should it become necessary. With each minute that passed, I grew more panicked, and eventually I began foolishly bargaining with myself. If she's not back by the time the sun sets, I'm going to find her, treaty or not. Such a dangerous place for my mind to go, and it was getting worse every minute. I could feel my resolve wavering as I stared at the empty road, helpless. Why wait for sundown? It's not like I have anything to hide. The wolves know what I am. If she's not back in an hour, I'm going after her.
Thankfully, as foot twitched toward the gas pedal, I head the familiar roar of Bella's engine. The relief that washed over me as she came into view trumped any feelings of jealously that had managed to creep in. All that mattered was that she was safe. She'd always made it clear how aware of my presence she was, so admittedly, I was expecting her to see me right away and pull over. I was dumbfounded when her truck turned onto the road leading back to Forks, and I suddenly wondered if she'd seen me and chosen not to stop. I knew that my protective nature, and what she would consider unwarranted worry, often frustrated her. Though I didn't want to believe it, the unfalteringly steady speed she maintained all the way back into town only made me feel more certain she was avoiding me. I stared into her rear view mirror, wishing she would glance back at me. I longed to see her eyes, needed to get some idea of what she was thinking and feeling. Frustrated yet again by her ever silent mind, it felt cruel for her to keep her gaze from me as well. Her eyes were often the only window I had into her thoughts, and she was keeping that window closed to me in this of all moments. Her truck passed the turnoff to her house without slowing, and for a moment, I wondered if she was heading toward my house. A few blocks later, she pulled up next to the curb in front of a house I didn't recognize. Bella had been talking about her plans to help Angela with graduation announcements, so I assumed it was the Weber residence. As I drove past her parked truck, I tried unsuccessfully to convince myself she was merely keeping a promise to a friend, rather than purposely putting off talking to me. Still, as her eyes stared stubbornly downward, I couldn't help but feel her avoidance. It took everything in me to keep driving, but now that her safety was no longer a concern, I knew I didn't have the right to force her company. I would check in with Alice, though of course she would already know Bella was safely back over the line. Then, I would wait for her to come home. If Bella asked me to leave, I would comply, but I hoped that being back within the comfort of her home, she would be willing to listen with an open mind, and she would finally understand why I couldn't allow her safety to be put at risk again. Even I didn't believe it could ever be that simple. I stood in the growing darkness of her room for what seemed like hours. I lost track of time, though I noticed the sun was beginning to set by the time I heard her truck roar to a stop outside. I forced myself not to listen to her conversation with Charlie, though somehow Jacob's name managed to pierce through my determined wall. My teeth clenched as the earlier feelings of jealously once again took hold. It was ridiculous, and I hated myself for allowing such a juvenile response, yet I couldn't stop the train of thought. Why, if she was as happy with me as she said she was, couldn't she seem to let him go? Though I'd been worried Bella would be the irrational one, the longer I waited for her to come upstairs, the less rational my own thoughts became. The realization of what I'd almost done because of her rash decision came crashing in on me, and by the time Bella finally entered her room and looked me in the eye, it was all I could think about. She didn't take my concerns seriously, she'd chosen her own desire to visit Jacob over listening to my pleas against it, and it had nearly made me break the treaty my family had spent decades upholding. ³Hi,´ she whispered, and amid my staggering, racing thoughts, I couldn't find my voice to answer her. ³Er...so, I'm still alive,´ she continued, and I felt a growl boil up at her attempt at nonchalance. ³No harm done,´ she added, shrugging casually. 58
Unfortunately, the moment she spoke the words, my overactive imagination pictured all the harm that could have been done. My eyes shut tightly and I watched my worst fears behind my eyelids. ³Bella,´ I said, desperate to find my way out of the nightmare and back into the present. ³Do you have any idea how close I came to crossing the line today? To breaking the treaty and coming after you? Do you know what that would have meant?´ I heard her take in a sharp breath and I forced my gaze upon her again. ³You can't!´ she gasped, her eyes panicked. ³Edward, they'd use any excuse for a fight. They'd love that. You can't ever break the rules!´ ³Maybe they aren't the only ones who would enjoy a fight,´ I spat, suddenly bombarded with images of finally getting to show those monsters what they were up against. They had no idea. If Jacob or any of those cretins he called friends ever caused her any harm... ³Don't you start,´ she said, breaking me from my thoughts. ³You made the treaty ± you stick to it.´ ³If he'd hurt you ± ³I started, but she wasn't in any mood to hear it. And honestly, I didn't really want to think about it any more myself. ³Enough! There's nothing to worry about. Jacob isn't dangerous.´ ³Bella,´ I said, rolling my eyes at her absurdity. She had no concept of danger when it came to her life. Countless afternoons spent in a house full of vampires, hunted by one who wants revenge, gallivanting with werewolves ± just another day, nothing worth worrying about. ³You aren't exactly the best judge of what is or isn't dangerous,´ I added dryly. ³I know I don't have to worry about Jake. And neither do you.´ I felt my jaw tighten at the finality of her statement. It felt like it would never end. She was determined that there was no danger in her spending time with him, and she wasn't going to stop trying to convince me. Whether it was simply because she wanted to be able to spend time with him, or because she genuinely wanted me to accept him I couldn't be sure. As Bella eyed me cautiously from across the room, I realized neither one of us had made any motion to move toward each other. Normally, she was in my arms within seconds of closing her door, and I suddenly felt pain ± a longing, deep inside at the distance between us. It wasn't just the physical distance either, but the chasm the seemed to have opened up between us from the argument that appeared to have no solution. As if feeling the distance as implicitly as I did in that moment, Bella began walking toward me, her eyes never leaving mine. Without a word, she pulled me into her embrace. It spoke volumes to how much the day had distressed me that I didn't immediately return the gesture, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered if I would hold her too tightly, hurt her inadvertently from my desire to never let go. The last rays of sun were pouring through her window, casting an ethereal glow that almost started to ease my concerns. In the sanctuary of her room, it was easier to push my fears aside. Still, the tighter she held me, the more I was reminded of my role as her protector. Why couldn't she let me play my part? I wished I could make her understand that when she took herself to where I could no longer watch over her, I was helpless and without purpose. ³I'm sorry I made you anxious,´ she said softly. 59
I felt my tension ease slightly with the sincerity of her tone. No longer able to stand the emptiness I felt not having her in my arms, I pulled her close and let myself breathe her in. ³Anxious is a bit of an understatement. It was a very long day.´ ³You weren't supposed to know about it. I thought you'd be hunting longer.´ I noticed her concerned glance up toward my eyes, and my short hunting trip suddenly felt like it had been much longer ago than the early hours of that morning. She'd been right before. It had been too long since my last hunt and I was far from satisfied. I also knew the stress of the day had made my eyes darken more quickly than they should have, and she was staring at me, concerned. She frowned, as if I'd had any choice but to come home. ³When Alice saw you disappear, I came back,´ I said simply. ³You shouldn't have done that. Now you'll have to go away again.´ ³I can wait.´ No thirst or pain could drive me away any time in the near future. ³That's ridiculous. I mean, I know she couldn't see me with Jacob, but you should have known ± ´ ³But I didn't,´ I insisted. Even with Alice's subjective visions, I could never be truly sure Bella was all right, and without her vision, I was completely in the dark. ³And you can't expect me to let you ± ´ ³Oh, yes, I can,´ she said, irritation saturating her tone. ³That's exactly what I expect ± ´ ³This won't happen again.´ ³That's right! Because you're not going to overreact next time.´ It was foolish to say it. Even as the words left my mouth, I knew they were only going to fuel her anger, yet I didn't seem to be able to stop myself. ³Because there isn't going to be a next time.´ ³I understand when you have to leave, even if I don't like it ± ´ she argued. ³That's not the same. I'm not risking my life.´ ³Neither am I.´ Her eyes were fixed on me and her jaw was set. It was as if she were arguing the simplest of truths, confused as to why I couldn't be persuaded. She was holding stubbornly to her words exactly the way I was holding to mine. As we stood, silent and frozen, it all started to feel very futile. ³Werewolves constitute a risk,´ I said plainly, already braced for her rebuttal. ³I disagree.´ ³I'm not negotiating this, Bella.´ What would be the point? ³Neither am I.´ I could feel the tension start to return to my body, the calming effects of having her in my arms slowly dissipating. I feared my voice would be too harsh, so I paused before speaking again, willing the frustration away. Unfortunately, she misread my silence, and allowed her own thoughts to wander. When she spoke again, her voice was colder somehow, and I wished we could go back in time. I should have gone to her the moment she stepped into the room. I should have scooped her up and pulled her next to me on the bed. Though there were obviously things that needed to be 60
discussed, the events of the day were too fresh. Perhaps we should have allowed a little time to pass before opening the floodgates. ³Is this really just about my safety?´ she asked, trying to get me to admit to the truth I could still barely admit to myself. ³What do you mean?´ I asked, buying myself a few seconds. ³You aren't...I mean, you know better than to be jealous, right?´ she hedged. As the words left her mouth, I tried to deny them, but the sinking feeling that washed over me didn't grant me any peace. ³Do I?´ I asked, watching and taking in her incredulous expression. ³Be serious,´ she nearly laughed. ³Easily ± there's nothing remotely humorous about this.´ ³Or...is this something else altogether? Some vampires-and-werewolves-are-always-enemies nonsense? Is this just a testosterone-fueled ± ´ Though I was happy she seemed to have moved on quickly from the topic of my jealousy, the notion that there was something beyond even that infuriated me. Frustration crushed me again as I listened to her try to turn my efforts to keep her safe into some barbaric grudge I needed to settle. All efforts at keeping up a calm facade disappeared. ³This is only about you,´ I growled. ³All I care is that you're safe.´ I stared at her intently, searching for a sign that she understood. If she couldn't make herself believe this most undeniable of truths, how would she ever have enough faith in my intentions to allow me to protect her the way I needed to? ³Okay,´ she finally breathed, and her eyes instantly softened. ³I believe that. But I want you to know something ± when it comes to all this enemies nonsense, I'm out. I am neutral country. I am Switzerland. I refuse to be affected by territorial disputes between mythical creatures. Jacob is family.´ I cringed slightly as I tried to comprehend the place he had in her life. Though I tried to block them out, familiar feelings of guilt began to settle over me. If I hadn't left, if I hadn't made my terrible mistake, she wouldn't have sought refuge in the worst of places. She considered him family, and when I remembered the images he'd forced me to see ± the ways I'd broken her, the ways he'd saved her ± I couldn't blame her for granting him that title. ³You are...´ she continued, her eyes suddenly filled with more love than I thought I deserved, ³well, not exactly the love of my life, because I expect to love you for much longer than that. The love of my existence.´ I was temporarily stunned at such a declaration in the midst of our argument. I almost spoke, but the determination quickly returned to her eyes. ³I don't care who's a werewolf and who's a vampire. If Angela turns out to be a witch, she can join the party, too.´ I watched her carefully, deciding how serious she was. And of course, since it was Bella, she was completely serious. ³Switzerland,´ she repeated. It really was that simple to her. This wasn't about werewolves and vampires, or even treaties and ancient rivalries. This was about the person she loved and the person she'd sought refuge in during my absence. Friends, family. It was about her desire to keep us both in her life, no matter how impossible it seemed. 61
³Bella,´ I sighed, about to tell her how absurd she was. Then, as I stared into her pleading eyes, I realized how tired she was of fighting. In truth, I was tired too ± not something I was used to feeling. I paused, wondering if there was anything I could say to end it at least for the moment, and took in a deep breath. I hadn't meant to, but I must have made a sour face. ³What now?´ she asked. ³Well...don't be offended, but you smell like a dog,´ I said with a grin. Despite the insult, she smiled back at me before burying her face against my chest. She was my Bella again. It was if the day had never happened. Unfortunately, my growing thirst over the following days also suggested the day had never happened, and another hunting trip was planned for Friday. Though disappointed, I couldn't say I was surprised when Alice approached me Wednesday evening. I'd left Bella's house only a few minutes earlier, and as I was parking my car at home, Alice flitted to my side. ³She's going to try to leave again,´ she sighed. ³She's trying not to think about it too much, but I've been on high alert.´ ³Thanks,´ I said flatly, and she watched incredulously as I walked toward the house. ³You don't sound upset.´ ³Of course I'm upset. But I knew it was coming.´ ³Well, what are you going to do?´ ³I don't know.´ I shook my head, staring at the ground and willing the answer to come to me. ³Alice, I can't fight with her anymore. It's wearing us both down. It's like we just keep going around in circles, stubborn and relentless, neither one of us willing to give in. Will she ever understand?´ ³I wish I could answer that for you, but given the creatures in question, I don't exactly have that kind of insight.´ She smirked at me, trying to hide that fact that she was just as frustrated as I was. ³Carlisle isn't scheduled at the hospital tomorrow, so everyone wants to leave early. I don't even know if I can make myself go. I feel like I should stay, but if I do, she'll know it's only to keep her away from the wolves. Yet if I go, I risk having a repeat of last weekend, and I don't think I can handle that.´ Alice closed her eyes for a brief moment, then smiled serenely at me. I quirked one eyebrow up. ³What?´ I asked. ³The answer is yes, obviously. I've always wanted to have a slumber party,´ she grinned. ³The only thing left is for you to make up your mind as to what exactly you're going to give me. Your first choice was nice, but where would I wear it? The second idea you had was wonderful, but Jasper's already getting it for me for Christmas. I'm hoping you end up leaning toward something a bit more...shiny. And fast.´ I rolled my eyes. The plan had been rolling around in my mind since last weekend ± a way to make sure Bella didn't make any more escape attempts during my necessary hunting trips. I knew Alice would be more than happy to keep Bella occupied, but it still seemed only fair to thank her properly. After all, when Bella realized what was going on, she'd take it out on Alice, likely ruining any chance of them having the type of weekend Alice was hoping for. ³Thanks,´ I said, wishing there was an easier way than kidnapping Bella to keep her safe. 62
³Don't worry about it. And don't worry about Bella either. She'll understand.´ I eyed her skeptically. ³Eventually,´ she added, and I sighed deeply as I took off once again toward Bella's house.
Temper ± EPOV I knew Bella was going to be angry. I knew there was nothing I could say or do that would make her understand why I felt the need to take the precautions I was. I knew it, but that didn't mean I wasn't going to try everything in my power to make it up to her. That was why I was currently tucking bedding into an elaborately decorated bed, hoping she would be comfortable during her nights in my room, and that even in her anger, she might dream of me while I was away. It was Thursday afternoon, and everything was set. All the things Bella would need were here, and Alice was officially on duty, ready to entertain and distract Bella as only she could. I'd been instructed to keep my cell phone turned off until I was already on my way home. Alice was persistent in her assurance that nothing would happen, and didn't want me wasting another hunting trip worrying about what was going on at home. I obeyed diligently at first, but of course my nerves eventually got the better of me. When my family and I reached the edge of the California reserve, I turned my phone back on and saw I had 63
two new messages. With a deep breath ± and a reproachful glare from Jasper and Emmett ± I ducked away to find out whether yet another weekend would have to be cut short. ³You are in trouble,´ Bella's voice spat from the recording. ³Enormous trouble. Angry grizzly bears are going to look tame next to what is waiting for you at home.´ A wide grin spread across my face. I hated that she was mad at me, but at least she was safe. There was also the fact that Bella was really adorable when she was trying to sound threatening. Next was a message from Alice that also made me smile. ³She's fine, Edward. Don't you trust your little sister? Now put your phone away and go hunt or I'll call Jazz and have him throw it into the lake.´ As I was tucking the phone, still turned on, back into my pocket, I heard Jasper's voice behind me. ³She's not kidding,´ he said with a smirk. ³Fine,´ I sighed, turning it off reluctantly. I was about to protest, but fortunately at that moment, I caught the scent of a pair of mountain lions. I took off running, Jasper right behind me, and for a short time, the world and all my worries disappeared. A few hours later, when my thirst was satisfied, reality started coming back to me. I worried about Bella, though I knew if I made any attempt to check my phone, it would be out of my hand and at the bottom of the lake in seconds. Trying to distract myself from what was presently going on, I started thinking once again about Bella's refusal to my proposal, and what it would mean for our future if I were to ask her again properly only to have her deny me a second time. I knew we were from two completely different times. I understood that she was young, and scared. Logically, I could tell myself it made sense for her to be unready for such a huge, lifechanging decision. The problem, however, was that she was so ready to throw away her humanity, and bind herself to this existence forever. That, compared to marriage, was a far greater commitment. It was making me start to doubt. Was it possible that her desire to join our family was less about me and more about her glorified idea of immortality? She'd always shown an unnatural fascination with our way of life. Maybe I'd been flattering myself assuming I was the only reason. Hadn't humans always searched for eternal youth and a way to live forever? I don't know how long I'd been frozen, staring off at nothing, but eventually Carlisle approached me and asked if there was anything I wanted to talk about. Jasper and Emmett had taken off after a family of grizzlies, and it was the first time on the trip we'd been alone. Though most of the time Carlisle spoke to me like an equal ± a friend, a brother ± there were times his voice took on a distinctly fatherly tone. In those times particularly, his love and concern for me were obvious, and I found myself speaking to him exactly as I imagined a son would to his father. ³I'm not sure where to begin,´ I said dismally. ³You looked like you were somewhere very far away. At first I assumed you were simply worrying about Bella, but then it started to look like something more. You know you can tell me anything, and I'll help in any way I can.´ I hadn't intended to discuss it, but the words were out before I knew I was speaking. ³I asked Bella to marry me,´ I said softly, unsure of what his reaction would be. Really though, I shouldn't have been surprised. ³I know. Alice mentioned it.´ 64
³Of course she did,´ I said, feeling slightly embarrassed that more people knew about my ridiculous spontaneous proposal. Though he didn't say a word, I suddenly felt the need to defend myself. ³That wasn't how it was supposed to happen. I'm planning on asking her again, properly this time.´ ³I know, and I'm sure it will be perfect. I also have no doubt that your love and devotion to Bella were apparent in your first attempt, even though the circumstances were not what you'd intended. I'm actually wondering right now if you aren't concerned over the wrong thing.´ ³What do you mean?´ ³What I mean is, it seems you're in a bit of a paradox. You're fighting so hard to keep Bella human, mortal, yet you expect her to pledge herself to you forever. You're offering Bella eternity, while simultaneously trying to keep her from it. Surely you can understand her hesitation.´ ³But I was agreeing to her condition. I was doing the unthinkable and offering to change her myself.´ ³You weren't happy about it.´ ³Of course I wasn't. I could never take her life from her gladly, willingly.´ ³And she knew that. You just said that the proposal wasn't how you'd intended it. If she'd accepted under those circumstances, she knows you would have spent the duration of your engagement buying yourself more time. She would have seen how miserable it was making you, and known that she was causing your unhappiness. She deserves more than that, doesn't she?´ There was something off about his voice, and I eyed him curiously. ³Has Alice seen that?´ I hedged, and he glanced toward the ground. ³Does Alice see her saying yes and then worrying about me and my end of the bargain?´ He looked back up at me with a new severity in his eyes. ³Just promise me that when the time comes, you'll remember that she's making sacrifices for you, too. Nothing about this situation you two have found yourselves in should be taken lightly. Make sure you both know what you truly want, and what you're willing to give up. There's no sense in making each other miserable, agreeing to things you're not okay with´ I was about to ask for a slightly less cryptic explanation, but stopped when I heard Emmett's booming voice through the clearing. ³Are you guys still talking?´ he called. Jasper came up behind him, laughing, and I realized their side trip had a secondary purpose. ³Come on. More feast, less chatter,´ he said as Carlisle threw one more meaningful glance in my direction. Why did it suddenly feel like everyone else knew more than me? We stayed out hunting all night, and well into the next day. When the sun started to set, we decided to head home, and as soon as we were running, my hand instinctively reached for my phone. I looked over at Jasper who rolled his eyes. Yes, you can check in now. Seriously, though, you have got to learn to relax. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw there were no new messages. I started to dial Alice's number to let her know we were on our way, when it started ringing. ³Don't be upset,´ Alice said before I'd even gotten out my ³hello.´ Without thinking, I sped up my pace. 65
³What happened?´ I asked anxiously. ³Bella's completely fine ± ´ ³Yes, she is,´ I interrupted, my nerves making me more irritable than I probably should have been. ³You've been with her the whole time as promised, right?´ ³Mostly,´ she said guiltily, then her own irritation became apparent. ³I swear that girl is pushing my level of patience to its breaking point. You thought you were close to crossing the line?´ ³She went back to La Push again? How?´ ³Well, I guess I can't place all the blame on Bella. That mongrel showed up at school on a motorcycle and caught her off guard. I'd like to think she wouldn't have gone if she'd taken the time to think about how much it would upset both of us. But I think we both know that's probably not the case.´ ³Where is she now?´ I growled. ³Relax. She's up in your room.´ Strangely, it sounded like she was smiling. ³Alice?´ ³She wouldn't talk to me about it, but when she got back, she was looking less than thrilled about her little visit. I don't know what he did or said to her, but something tells me she won't be running off again any time soon.´ As I let that sink in, my mood grew perceptibly lighter. Maybe there wasn't anything I could say to convince Bella to stay away from the wolves, but with their volatile nature and short tempers, I should have known it was only a matter of time before Jacob sabotaged himself. I was almost afraid to think of what could have happened, but I convinced myself that since Bella was safe, it really didn't matter. I would simply hope that whatever it was had made enough of an impact on her, I would no longer have to bribe Alice with trinkets while I was away. ³We'll be home soon,´ I told Alice, now smiling like I was sure she was. ³She'll be waiting,´ she said simply, and the phone clicked to silence. My pace grew impossibly faster as I thought of Bella, lying in bed, in my room. What's the big hurry? Emmett thought as he struggled to keep up with me. Bella in trouble again? ³No,´ I said, still grinning. ³She went to La Push, but came back on her own, and apparently quite upset.´ That wolf of hers in an idiot. ³We already knew that,´ I grinned. ³I'm just looking forward to finding out exactly how big of one he is.´ I couldn't help but speculate about what Jacob or his pack had done, but since there was no way to know, I tried to put it out of my mind. Instead, I focused on what Carlisle had said earlier, as well as all of Alice's previous warnings to not try to make Bella's choices for her. If I was ever going to expect her to accept a marriage proposal from me, I knew I was going to have to start compromising. It was still too difficult to think about willingly changing her, but there was one compromise I was starting to feel a bit more capable of making. Though I didn't yet have the details, clearly Bella was more than able to take herself away from a situation she didn't feel comfortable with. I could never trust the wolves, but perhaps it was time I tried having a little more faith in Bella. 66
Maybe it was because a part of me wanted to believe she had no intention of going back to La Push, or it might have been a simple desire to end the fight we'd had so many times, but whatever the reason, I was finding myself more and more okay with the idea of not interfering with her visits. Anxious to discuss it with Bella, I kept my quick pace and beat everyone home. I heard Alice's melancholy thoughts coming from the garage as I neared the house, and decided to check in with her first. I didn't want her thinking I was upset with her for having let Bella get away. It wasn't her fault. And though it was hard to believe, some good may have come from the incident. ³I'm not going to take the car away,´ I said as I entered the garage. She smiled widely at me just as my gaze drifted toward the motorcycle that sat in the corner. Her face went stoic as my eyes widened. Would you rather he'd brought her home on his bike? she argued. I sighed. ³Of course not. Anyway, it doesn't matter, right? She's home safely.´ ³Exactly.´ ³Did she ever tell you what upset her?´ ³No, she went straight up to your room and hasn't left all night.´ ³Thank you, Alice.´ ³For what?´ ³For being concerned. And for doing everything in your power to keep her safe. I know it's not easy when she gets mixed up with the wolves. I understand how frustrating this weekend must have been for you. I want you to know I'm going to try my best not to ask anything like this of you again. I'm hoping there won't be a need at all, but if she does decide to forgive whatever happened down there, I'm going to attempt to stay out of it next time.´ ³Wow. Do you really think you'll be able to do that?´ ³I have to try. I can't keep letting this come between Bella and I.´ Alice nodded in approval, though her thoughts were as wary as mine. I went inside, hurrying up the stairs toward my room, but was stopped in my tracks as I passed Rosalie and Emmett's room. Rose was waiting for Emmett to get home, and while she was as anxious as usual for his return, her primary thoughts were of something completely different. I've done everything I can. If she's stupid enough not to listen, it's her own fault. Can't blame me if she's miserable for eternity. No one can ever say I didn't warn her. I wasn't surprised. Most of what she was thinking were things I'd grown used to since Bella had made her choice clear. Rose didn't agree, because if it had been up to her, she never would have chosen this life. I was about to walk away and leave her to her musings, when an unexpected thought found its way into the mix. Of course she's not thinking about children now. She's still a child herself. But she's an idiot for thinking Edward will always be enough for her. I stopped, stunned. Though Rosalie's thoughts occasionally betrayed her normally secret desire to have a child, I hadn't realized she was worried that Bella would have the same regrets. It made sense, and of course I'd had that fear myself ± it was just one more thing I'd be denying Bella by agreeing to take her life ± but it was still strange to hear that particular concern come from Rose. 67
I felt somehow more voyeuristic than normal, listening to such private thoughts, so I quickly made my way up to my room and searched the bed for Bella's sleeping form, only to find it empty. I was surprised to hear her heart and breath coming from the couch I'd pushed aside. She was buried beneath the comforter I'd picked out, curled up in what I could only assume was defiance of my gift. I scooped her up gently in my arms and carried her over to the bed. She could be mad at me if she wanted, but there was no sense in her making herself uncomfortable, simply to prove a point. I wrapped her up in the blankets and laid down beside her, happy when she unconsciously curled her body close to mine. She sighed in her sleep, her mouth twitching into an almost smile as she rested her cheek against my chest. I listened to her quiet, steady breaths, completely content, until she eventually turned away from me. It was as if even in sleep she was debating whether or not to forgive me. I listened to her sleep, hoping she might give me some clue as to what had happened in La Push, but she remained silent. Curiosity was getting the better of me, yet I knew after she woke up, I wouldn't make any attempt to get her to talk until she was ready. For now, I would simply focus on the fact that she was here, safe, and at home with me. I only hoped her anger with me wouldn't hinder us from celebrating that fact. It was something I'd longed for many times while I lay holding her in her room. It wasn't that I minded us staying there every night, but sometimes it was unsettling, knowing Charlie was so nearby, and blissfully unaware that his daughter no longer slept alone. Here in my house we didn't have to talk softly, or make sure I was gone by a certain time. She could wake up in my arms and let me hold her for as long as we wanted. I could sing to her while we watched the sun come up. It was everything I wanted, and not just for one night, but for every night. I was once again reminded of all the reasons I wanted to make her my wife. There had never been anyone else and there would never be anyone else. Bella had given me a reason to exist, and I wanted her beside me every minute of every day. Even though the idea of what forever meant for her humanity terrified me, it was in every other way exactly what I'd wanted. Just as Carlisle had said, I'd found myself in a paradox, longing for the very thing I was so determined not to have. After several hours lost in my own very confusing thoughts, Bella started to stir. She was was facing me again, though she was still on the opposite side of the bed. I was respecting the distance she'd put between us, though I wanted nothing more than to pull her into my embrace and never let go. She stretched and turned her body away, toward the window, then back back again before opening her eyes. I could see her perfectly, though I doubted she could even make out my shape in the darkness. ³Sorry,´ I whispered, not wanting to startle her. ³I didn't mean to wake you.´ Her hands fumbled toward me, and I reached my own out until she grasped them tightly and pulled herself close. She seemed to still be half asleep and I was waiting for her to remember her anger at any moment. Hoping to keep it at bay a little while longer, I hugged her to me and rocked her against my chest. She began slowly kissing my throat and I nearly laughed as a shiver of pleasure washed over me. I'd been expecting her fury, and instead I was greeted with her soft, warm breath and loving kisses. Certainly I deserved none of it. She continued kissing my face until her lips met my own, and it was like coming home. Nothing on Earth compared to that feeling. It almost made going away worth it if I was welcomed back 68
like this. I reveled in the way she sighed and leaned into me, like she couldn't get close enough. It was the way I felt every time we were together. When I finally made myself pull away, I laughed softly. ³I was all braced for the wrath that was going to put grizzlies to shame, and this is what I get? I should infuriate you more often.´ ³Give me a minute to work up to it,´ she said, barely parting her lips from mine. ³I'll wait as long as you want,´ I said, just as unwilling as she was to allow any space between us. I held her close, loving the way her body fit perfectly against mine, and yet it still felt like we weren't close enough. My fingers reached up to tangle in her hair and I felt myself struggling not to hold her too tightly. Then I realized I wasn't the only one getting caught up in the moment ³Maybe in the morning,´ she nearly gasped. ³Whatever you prefer.´ ³Welcome home. I'm glad you came back,´ she said as I trailed kissed down her cheek and along her jaw. Her words only served to remind me where we were ± we were home, both of us, together. I loved the way it sounded. ³That's a very good thing,´ I murmured, wondering if she knew what she was doing to me. I'd never fully realized exactly how much it meant to me to have her home with me. When I was at her house, I was a guest. When she was here, it was like she was where she'd always belonged. Bella had made no secret of how comfortable she felt in my house, and my family had already welcomed her in completely. All I wanted was to make it official, make her mine ± my family ± for all time. As she hummed and sighed, breathing against my neck, all my well thought out restraint seemed to vanish. I could never hold her too tight ± there was no such thing. We could never be too close ± I would never get enough of her. I ached to be closer, even now as we were molded together, and I soon found my hand idly tracing down her arm, brushing her side and eliciting a slight shiver from her. I continued my path across her waist and down her leg until I was holding her calf in my hand. Without thinking, I pulled her leg up around me, the warmth of her body assaulting me as her breath caught. For an instant, I felt myself losing control, but I couldn't make myself care. As my hand desperately held her to me, I forced myself to regain a measure of control. I smirked as my mouth found its way to her throat. It used to be only her blood that called to me, and now her entire body was testing me in new and wonderful ways. I forced my hand to relax so I didn't accidentally bruise her, then whispered against her skin. ³Not to bring on the ire prematurely, but do you mind telling me what it is about this bed that you object to?´ I quickly but cautiously rolled to one side and lifted Bella onto me, eager to feel her warmth against every inch of me. Her hair fell in long sweeps around her, and I held my hands on either side of her face in such a way that allowed me to continue kissing her throat. Her heart was racing and her breathing erratic, which only seemed to encourage me. ³The bed?´ I repeated, smiling at her apparent inability to find words. ³I think it's nice.´ ³It's unnecessary,´ she breathed as I guided her lips back to mine. She kissed me feverishly and in that instant, I wanted more than anything to feel her heart beating beneath me. Slowly, gently, I rolled her over onto her back and positioned myself above her. 69
³That's debatable,´ I laughed softly. ³This would be difficult on a couch.´ Every second, I was carefully calculating how much weight I could put on her without hurting her. I could feel the heat radiating from her skin and her heart pounding under my chest. I wanted more, but how far could I push myself? I was already worried about crushing her, and I didn't dare hold her any tighter than I already was. I was overcome with a desire to taste her, and while that should have terrified me, I instead felt myself pressing my lips to hers again, then softly tracing them with the tip of my tongue. It was magnificent, and I began wondering why we'd never been like this before. ³Did you change your mind?´ she asked. Oh, right, that's why. I felt instantly remorseful as I realized I'd given her the wrong idea. If she knew how difficult it was to restrain myself, how my muscles were nearly trembling from having to hold back the strength with which I wanted to hold onto her, she wouldn't ask such a question. But she didn't know, or didn't fully understand, and I couldn't really expect her to. While she'd seen my strength on rare occasions, like so long ago in our meadow, she'd always believed my love for her would keep me from ever harming her. I wanted with everything in me to believe that, but her life was too precious to take such a risk. I sighed, bracing myself for the disappointment I knew was I about to ignite in her, as I rolled us back onto our sides. ³Don't be ridiculous, Bella. I was just trying to illustrate the benefits of the bed you don't seem to like. Don't get carried away.´ ³Too late,´ she said softly, breaking my heart. How I longed to give her everything. ³And I like the bed,´ she added, forcing a smile. ³Good,´ I said, returning her smile and pressing my lips to her forehead. ³I do, too.´ ³But I still think it's unnecessary. If we're not going to get carried away, what's the point?´ I let out a long, deep breath, cursing myself for having let things go this far. She had too difficult a time drawing lines that needed to be drawn. ³For the hundredth time, Bella ± it's too dangerous.´ ³I like danger,´ she said stubbornly. Instantly, I was reminded of her trips to La Push, and her naivety when it comes to her own safety. ³I'll tell you what's dangerous,´ she continued. ³I'm going to spontaneously combust one of these days ± and you'll have no one but yourself to blame.´ I knew she was trying to make a joke, but the guilt of the situation was getting to me and I reluctantly started to push her away. ³What are you doing?´ she asked, holding onto me. ³Protecting you from combustion. If this is too much for you...´ ³I can handle it,´ she said, wiggling her way back into my embrace. It probably wasn't smart, but I couldn't make myself fight her on it. Once I was holding her again, feeling her relax into me, I realized that even when I frustrated her, she would rather be close than have me pull away. It was a comforting feeling. ³I'm sorry I gave you the wrong impression,´ I apologized. ³I didn't mean to make you unhappy. That wasn't nice.´ 70
³Actually, it was very, very nice,´ she said slyly, her breath warming my icy skin. She was going to be my undoing. I felt that earlier sense of longing starting to take hold of me again, a desire, a need to be closer. Not wanting to blur the lines again, I took a breath to steady myself. ³Aren't you tired?´ I asked, hoping futilely to distract her. ³I should let you sleep.´ ³No, I'm not. I don't mind if you want to give me the wrong impression again.´ ³That's probably a bad idea. You're not the only one who gets carried away.´ ³Yes, I am,´ she muttered, scowling. If only she knew, I thought, laughing under my breath. ³You have no idea, Bella. It doesn't help that you are so eager to undermine my self-control, either.´ ³I'm not going to apologize for that.´ ³Can I apologize?´ I asked, more than ready to change the subject. It was yet another argument that tended to go in circles with us, and I was looking forward to addressing the one that may have finally found its resolve. ³For what?´ ³You were angry with me, remember?´ ³Oh, that,´ she said, frowning slightly. ³I'm sorry. I was wrong. It's much easier to have the proper perspective when I have you safely here.´ She smiled as I hugged her tighter. ³I go a little berserk when I try to leave you. I don't think I'll go so far again. It's not worth it.´ If there was any anger left in her, it disappeared with those words. ³Didn't you find any mountain lions?´ she asked, grinning. ³Yes, I did, actually. Still not worth the anxiety. I'm sorry I had Alice hold you hostage, though. That was a bad idea.´ ³Yes,´ she said simply. ³I won't do it again,´ I promised. ³Okay. But slumber parties do have their advantages...´ she smiled, pressing herself against me and kissing my neck. ³Mmm, I may take you up on that,´ I sighed, momentarily forgetting why stopping her was necessary. My head felt cloudy as her breath washed over me and my resolve started to waver. ³So is it my turn now?´ she asked, pulling me abruptly from my wandering thoughts. ³Your turn?´ ³To apologize.´ ³What do you have to apologize for?´ I'd been expecting her to be furious with me, and instead I'd been met with nothing but understanding and affection. In my joy, it hadn't occurred to me that she was expecting me to be upset with her. ³Aren't you mad at me?´ she asked, confused. ³No.´ ³Didn't you see Alice when you got home?´ she asked, as if I was missing something obvious. ³Yes ± why?´ 71
³Are you going to take her Porsche back?´ Then I understood. Bella knew the exact details of our arrangement and she assumed I would accuse Alice of not upholding her part of the deal. Even if that were the case ± and truthfully, I didn't blame Alice in the least ± what would I gain by taking away something Alice loved? Honestly, I was going to buy it for her anyway. I would owe her for all eternity for bringing Bella to me in Volterra. ³Of course not,´ I assured her. ³It was a gift.´ ³Don't you want to know what I did?´ she asked. Of course I did. It had been driving me crazy since I'd spoken to Alice on the phone. Still, I only wanted to know if Bella was ready to talk about it. I tried my best to appear nonchalant. ³I'm always interested in everything you do ± but you don't have to tell me unless you want to.´ ³But I went to La Push,´ she said sheepishly. ³I know.´ ³And I ditched school.´ ³So did I.´ I was determined not to allow her a moment of guilt over what had happened. It was over and done, and no harm had come from it. It had very possibly even given her a glimpse of what I'd been warning her about, and made her reluctant to return. It looked like she was staring straight at me, though I wondered if her eyes had adjusted to the darkness yet. The way her fingers were searching the lines of my face made me feel like she was using them to try to read my expression. ³Where did all this tolerance come from?´ she asked skeptically. I felt remorseful yet again. I truly had been a tyrant, I thought with a sigh. ³I decided that you were right. My problem before was more about my...prejudice against werewolves than anything else. I'm going to try to be more reasonable and trust your judgment. If you say it's safe, then I'll believe you.´ Please say you don't think it's safe and that you're never going back... ³Wow.´ I felt my heart sink. As I waited hopefully for her to tell me the words I longed to hear ± she'd had enough, she understood why it was best to stay away ± I struggled to remember that even if she hadn't changed her mind, there was another reason for my compromise. ³And...most importantly...I'm not willing to let this drive a wedge between us.´ Without another word, she laid her head back down on my chest, and I could feel her breathing steady. She was happy, and I had to believe that was all that mattered. ³So,´ I said, casually starting to fish for the most crucial piece of the puzzle. ³Did you make plans to go back to La Push again soon?´ She didn't speak, and I could hear her heart start to speed up again. She didn't want to say the words out loud. I suddenly felt foolish to have thought that one bad day was enough to keep her from Jacob. Once again, I'd underestimated the place he had in her life.
Not wanting her to think I was going back on my words, I quickly added, ³Just so that I can make my own plans. I don't want you to feel like you have to hurry back because I'm sitting around waiting for you.´ ³No,´ she said, a touch of sadness apparent in her tone. ³I don't have plans to go back.´ The curiosity was getting to me, but I didn't want to push her. I was honestly so thrilled to hear she wasn't planning a return trip, I didn't care if she kept the reason from me forever. ³Oh. You don't have to do that for me,´ I offered, though I knew it wasn't about me. ³I don't think I'm welcome anymore,´ she said, her voice soft and almost shaking. I was taken aback. I'd been assuming from Alice's description Bella had left because she was upset and wanted to get away. It never occurred to me she no longer felt wanted there. ³Did you run over someone's cat?´ I teased, now wondering what she could have done to wear out her welcome. As far as I'd seen, Jacob was borderline obsessed with having her around. ³No,´ she said dismally. ³I thought Jacob would have realized...I didn't think it would surprise him.´ She paused, as if what she was about to say was causing her physical pain. I was overcome with a sinking feeling, understanding what she meant before she'd finished explaining. ³He wasn't expecting...that it was so soon.´ ³Ah,´ I breathed. Of course it made sense that Jacob would have gotten angry with her, when forced to think about her transformation. It was difficult for me to think about it, and it meant I got to be with her forever. How much more painful must it be for him? It means the end of whatever relationship they have ± the end of hope. He must have lashed out at her, though I assume he was still managing to hold onto enough control that it was only verbal. Though a part of me hated to admit it, I'd seen the purity of how Jacob cared for her. It would take a lot more than that to anger him enough to phase and risk hurting her. I watched Bella closely, her eyes close to tears, wondering what he'd said to cause her so much grief. ³He said he'd rather see me dead,´ she finally said. Her voice cracked, her expression cold and miserable. Although I thought I'd feel nothing but grateful for whatever Jacob had done to push her away, in that instant I could only hate him for causing her such pain. I wanted to rip him apart for being so selfish, so infantile. I pulled Bella close, holding her and trying to make the agony go away. ³I'm so sorry,´ I breathed, pressing my lips to the top of her head. ³I thought you'd be glad.´ There was a hint of bitterness in her voice, though I couldn't tell if it was directed at myself or Jacob. ³Glad over something that hurt you? I don't think so Bella.´ I could feel some of the tension in her body dissipate as she nuzzled closer to me, seemingly relieved by my response, though I couldn't imagine how she could have thought any differently. Did she really think me selfish enough to wish that kind of pain on her, simply to rid myself of that cretin? I could think of a much better way to rid us of him entirely, but I doubted if Bella could ever be that angry with him. ³What's wrong?´ she asked, pulling me from that thought ± which was probably a good thing. ³It's nothing,´ I said, not wanting to upset her further. ³You can tell me.´ 73
I debated, curious what her reaction would be. ³It might make you angry,´ I warned. ³I still want to know.´ I sighed. She left me no choice. Bella was never very good at letting things go. ³I could quite literally kill him for saying that to you. I want to.´ To my great surprise, she laughed, though I could tell she was slightly uncomfortable. I hoped she knew me well enough to know I would never act on the thought ± at least, not without her permission. ³I guess it's a good thing you've got so much self-control.´ ³I could slip,´ I offered. Just say the word... To my surprise, her voice, her entire mood, suddenly shifted. ³If you're going to have a lapse in control, I can think of a better place for it,´ she said sweetly, touching my face and attempting to kiss me. Worried that my self-control had already been pushed to its limit once today, I stopped her before she could start again. ³Must I always be the responsible one?´ I asked. My words did nothing to deter her. She was a woman on a mission. ³No,´ she said, smiling widely up at me. ³Let me be in charge of responsibility for a few minutes...or hours.´ ³Goodnight, Bella,´ I insisted, though I knew she wasn't thinking at all about sleep. ³Wait ± there was something else I wanted to ask you about.´ ³What's that?´ ³I was talking to Rosalie last night...´ I breathed in deeply, frozen in place. I didn't know if I was up for this discussion. While a part of me hoped Rosalie's words had gotten through to her, given her a reason to reconsider her decision, I was equally terrified of what that would mean if it were true. Perhaps Rose was right, Bella hadn't really been thinking of all she was giving up. What if now that she was forced to think about it, she realized she couldn't give up the possibility of having children? The thought might save her humanity, but it could also cost me her love and dedication. It was something I would never be able to give her. The thought made me loathe my existence more than I'd felt in a long time. ³Yes,´ I finally said, preparing myself for whatever was about to be said. ³She was thinking about that when I got in. She gave you quite a lot to consider, didn't she?´ ³She told me a little bit...about the time your family lived in Denali.´ Baffled, I tried to quickly sift through what I'd heard, but whatever Rose had said about Denali was no longer on her mind when I got home. ³Yes?´ I prompted. ³She mentioned something about a bunch of female vampires...and you.´ Oh, no. I did not want to have this conversation. Being stuck in an endless existence has a few down sides no one really wants to think about ± like literally never living down humiliating moments. Not that I'd done anything particularly inexcusable, but the situation with Tanya's clan was not something I wanted to be reminded of. Ever. Least of all by Rosalie. 74
³Don't worry,´ Bella said, attempting to sound casual. ³She told me you didn't...show any preference. But I was just wondering, you know, if any of them had. Shown a preference for you, I mean.´ It was like I was there again, being bombarded by their lust filled thoughts, and as hard as I tried, I couldn't block out the memories. Irina and Kate were more discreet than Tanya, never making their intentions known out loud. They were actually quite embarrassed when they learned I could hear them. Tanya however...well, subtle was never her style. ³Which one?´ Bella asked when I remained silent. ³Or was there more than one?´ I knew it was unfair, not saying anything, letting her think the worst, but I was finding it nearly impossible to form the words. Especially since thinking of Tanya had also reminded me of one of the darkest times in my life. Right after I'd first caught Bella's scent and I had fled like the coward I was, I'd made the mistake of returning to Denali. I'd given Tanya the wrong impression and felt miserable for it. I'm not used to rejection, she'd said dejectedly, then proceeded to let her mind wander freely through her thousands of lovers. It was meant to make me want her, but instead it had made me feel insignificant. Even if I had been interested, what would I have been to her? One grain of sand on the beach, one star in the endless night sky. I'd never considered myself vain, but surely I was worth more than that. Didn't I deserve better? ³Alice will tell me,´ Bella said, making me realize I still hadn't spoken a word out loud. ³I'll go ask her right now.´ I held her close, the thought of her talking to Alice about it making me nervous. Knowing her, she'd probably make some ridiculous joke that Bella would take too seriously, and it would make her more self conscious than she already was. There was no need. Bella was the only one I'd ever wanted. ³It's late,´ I said, internally cursing Rosalie for having brought it up to begin with. ³Besides, I think Alice stepped out...´ ³It's bad,´ she said, her heart starting to race. ³It's really bad, isn't it?´ ³Calm down, Bella. You're being absurd.´ She sounded so distressed, I wondered how far her mind had already taken it. I thought I'd made it clear there had never been anyone before her, but she seemed almost panicked. ³Am I?´ she asked, eyes wide and nervous. ³Then why won't you tell me?´ ³Because there's nothing to tell,´ I said sincerely. ³You're blowing this wildly out of proportion.´ ³Which one?´ she persisted. I let out a deep sigh. I couldn't believe I was being forced to justify a situation in which nothing had actually happened. Besides, the nothing had been long before I'd even laid eyes on Bella. Fortunately, I'd started to learn how crazy the emotion of jealously can make a person ± otherwise I would have started to doubt Bella's sanity. ³Tanya expressed a little interest,´ I said in an overly uninterested tone. ³I let her know, in a very courteous, gentlemanly fashion, that I did not return that interest. End of story.´ If only it could have been, but Bella was persistent. ³Tell me something ± what does Tanya look like?´ ³Just like the rest of us ± white skin, gold eyes,´ I said calmly. 75
³And, of course, extraordinarily beautiful.´ I could hear the hurt behind her words. She still didn't regard herself as beautiful, no matter the number of times I'd told her, showed her how amazing she was. ³I suppose, to human eyes,´ I said. Yes, Tanya was beautiful in her own way, but I'd had the advantage of seeing into her mind. It was not nearly as inviting as her outward facade, and that had a way of marring my image of her. Though I tried not to hold Tanya or her sister's pasts against them, it was difficult to see beyond the slaughters of the earlier years of their existence. I smiled then, as I stared at the woman who'd finally awoken my sleeping heart. It was hard to imagine anyone purer or more selfless. Bella was truly Tanya's opposite in nearly every conceivable way. ³You know what, though?´ I asked. ³What?´ she muttered. I leaned in closer, laughing lightly at her indignant expression. If it took the rest of forever to prove it to her, I vowed one day she would understand that no one, human or vampire, could ever hold a candle to her. When my mouth found the soft skin at the base of her ears, I whispered, ³I prefer brunettes.´ ³She's a blonde. That figures,´ she sighed, ridiculously still worrying though I was cherishing her, worshiping her with my lips. ³Strawberry blonde ± not at all my type,´ I assured her, continuing to trail soft kisses across her cheek and over every inch of her perfect skin I could find. When I reached the base of her neck, I breathed her in reverently, smiling as I waited for her to accept my promises. It was fine ± she could take her time. I was perfectly happy discovering new ways of showing her. After several minutes, when her blood was racing so fast her skin was actually warming my icy lips, she finally spoke. I loved the way the words came out shaky and breathless. ³I guess that's okay, then,´ she said hesitantly, making me smile again in the darkness. ³Hmm,´ I said softly, letting my breath cool her heated skin. ³You're quite adorable when you're jealous. It's surprisingly enjoyable.´ I almost felt guilty for the sour expression my words elicited. ³It's late,´ I whispered, ready to let her drift back into the quiet sanctity of sleep. I hoped that now, with so much discussed and resolved, her dreams would be peaceful. ³Sleep, my Bella. Dream happy dreams. You are the only one who has ever touched my heart. It will always be yours. Sleep, my only love.´ I could feel her contentment as I began humming softly. She scooted her body against mine, pressing her cheek into my chest with a sigh. As her breathing steadied and her eyes started to flutter, I let my thoughts wander back to that which I longed for most ± to be here, like this forever. My life, my love. My wife. Would she ever want the same things as I did? Would she ever understand the ways in which she would complete me if she'd only say yes? As the hours passed and the light of morning crept in through the window, she began to murmur in her sleep. I traced her cheekbones lightly, then let my fingers run through her silky hair. Talk to me, my love... 76
³Mine,´ she whispered. I smiled. ³Always. I am yours.´
Target ± EPOV The sun filtered in through the window, catching Bella's hair and making it look almost golden. She was radiant in the morning light, and though I'd told her a thousand times how gorgeous she was, I wondered if she would ever truly believe me. ³Good morning,´ I whispered when she started to stir. ³Very good,´ she mumbled, tightening her grip on me, still half asleep. I ran my fingers gently through her hair as her eyes fluttered open and struggled to focus. ³There's no hurry,´ I told her, not quite ready to let go yet. ³It's still early.´ ³I know, but I feel kind of bad having left Charlie alone the past two days.´ ³He was alone every day before you came. I'm pretty sure he can take care of himself.´ I was trying not to be paranoid, but something told me there was another reason she was anxious to get home. Was she hoping Jacob would have called to apologize? And if he hadn't, would she try to contact him, eager to make amends? As hard as it was, I tried to push those thoughts aside, reminding myself I'd promised to stay out of it. ³I still think I should get back. Besides, you'll be coming over soon, right?´ ³Of course. I'll be right behind Alice. But, in keeping up appearances, I'll wait a respectable amount of time before coming in. How does five minutes sound?´ I asked, winking at her. She laughed, stretching up to kiss me. Everyone decent in there? Alice teased, her footsteps right outside my door. Jasper said the energy was feeling a bit... charged last night. I sighed, reluctantly pulling away from Bella's kiss. 77
³Come in, Alice,´ I said dryly. Bella's eyes widened and she blushed, scrambling to put a bit of space between us as Alice opened the door. ³Relax,´ she laughed as she stepped inside. Doesn't she know yet that there really is no such thing as privacy in this house? I growled, too low for Bella to hear, and Alice rolled her eyes. ³I figured I'd be driving you home today, Bella, since Edward's technically not supposed to be home yet.´ ³Yes, thank you. I'm ready whenever you are,´ she said, then turned to me and added, ³see you soon?´ ³Not soon enough,´ I said, kissing her forehead. I waited about ten minutes before heading out, wanting to give Bella at least some time with Charlie. When I arrived, I heard the TV on in the living room. I sighed. So much for fatherdaughter bonding time. Just as I reached up to ring the doorbell, I realized something wasn't right. I caught an unfamiliar scent and my hands clenched into fists as Bella opened the door. The scent was even stronger inside the house. ³Edward? What ±?´ she started to ask, but I quickly interrupted, needing to know what was happening before panicking her. ³Give me two seconds. Don't move.´ I ran silently past Charlie, up the stairs and to her room, horrified that the scent was stronger there than the rest of the house. Another vampire had been there, and it seemed they were the most interested in Bella. My first thought was that Victoria had managed to come back into town undetected, but I'd tracked her before, and the unfamiliarity of the scent suggested someone else. It could easily be a member of the Volturi checking up on Bella, and if that was the case, they would be less than ecstatic about the fact that she was still human. It didn't seem likely, however, because I doubted Alice could have missed something like that. She'd been keeping a close watch on them, and as far as we knew, they had made no plans to visit us. I made a quick circuit through the rest of the house. The scent was present, though more subtle, in Charlie's room, and it was only then that I realized the impossibility of him being alive right now. It added to my suspicion that it was one of the Volturi. They would have wanted to keep a low profile and they most likely would have resisted the urge to kill him. If it had been anyone else, I couldn't imagine them leaving him alive. I raced back to Bella's side, hating the nervous look on her face. I was afraid to tell her my suspicions, knowing the conclusion it would lead her to. She was already in such a hurry to be changed, if she thought she ± not to mention Charlie ± were in danger because she was human, there would be no stopping her. I pulled Bella close to me, protecting her though I knew the immediate threat was long gone. I led her into the kitchen, scanning every inch of the room as if someone was going to jump out at us. ³Someone's been here,´ I whispered, worried Charlie might be eavesdropping on our conversation. 78
³I swear that no werewolves ± ´ she started. For once I wished it had been the wolves. ³Not one one them,´ I said, looking meaningfully into her eyes. ³One of us.´ I was horrified, watching the sick look on her face as the fear set in. ³Victoria?´ she gasped. ³It's not a scent I recognize.´ ³One of the Volturi,´ she said. It sounded more like a statement than a question. ³Probably.´ She relaxed infinitesimally. The idea seemed slightly less terrifying to her than that of Victoria, which made me wonder if she had somehow blocked out the atrocities she'd witnessed in Italy. The Volturi were every bit as great of a threat to her as Victoria. ³When?´ she asked. ³That's why I think it must have been them ± it wasn't long ago, easily this morning while Charlie was sleeping. And whoever it was didn't touch him, so there must have been another purpose.´ ³Looking for me.´ Her expression remained surprisingly calm, though her racing heart betrayed her terror. I cursed myself for having once again brought such horrors into her life. No one should have to live in fear for their life, and because of me, this was becoming an all too common worry. I stared at her, wishing more than anything that I could shield her from worry and pain, but knowing there was no way. At least not while she was human... ³What are you two hissing about in there?´ Charlie's voice pulled me abruptly from my unwanted thoughts. I felt like a monster for having let it cross my mind ± dooming her to this life could never be considered protecting her. Bella's eyes, wide with fear, stared at Charlie as if she wanted to scream. I knew that look. It was the same look she'd had when she'd first been tracked by James and I'd tried to take her away from Charlie. She was scared for his life, so much so that, for the moment, concern for her own safety completely vanished. Charlie misread her expression and broke into a smile. ³If you two are having a fight...well, don't let me interrupt.´ Bella remained frozen as he left the room, and as I listened to her frantic breathing, I knew I couldn't stand for her to be in the house a moment longer. Her once seemingly safe home now felt tainted, and I hated myself all the more for it. I had to get her out. ³Let's go,´ I said, knowing what was coming next. ³But Charlie!´ she protested. A second later, I had my phone out and was dialing. I'd been given no warning, so obviously Alice had missed whoever this intruder was, but I hoped that by now she had some idea of what was going on. If she had seen something, I was sure she would have already enlisted Emmett and Jasper's help in checking the area. ³Hey, what's going on?´ Emmett answered, far too relaxed. Clearly, they were all still in the dark. ³Emmett,´ I said, then spoke quickly, not wanting Bella to hear any more than she needed to. ³Alice missed something. A vampire, probably one of the Volturi, was here in Bella's room. I 79
need to get her out of here, but she's afraid for Charlie. Can you and Jasper make a quick circuit through the woods around her house, then hang around for a bit while I talk to Alice?´ ³Of course. Is Bella okay?´ I appreciated the sincere concern in his voice. He truly looked at Bella like she was his little sister, and it meant a lot to me that even with Rosalie's opposition, he had accepted her into our family completely. ³She's okay, just shaken up. We'll both feel better when we've spoken with Alice. Hopefully she knows what this is all about. I'll talk to you later.´ ³No problem. Tell her not to worry about Charlie. We'll keep him safe.´ The line went dead and I reached out to take Bella's arm. It was a struggle to stay calm, and I could feel her hesitation as I started walking toward the door. What I really wanted to do was pull her onto my back and run as fast as I could back to my house, though I didn't think Charlie was quite distracted enough not to notice us fly past him. ³Emmett and Jasper are on their way,´ I promised her, pleading with my eyes. ³They'll sweep the woods. Charlie is fine.´ Bella was eying me skeptically, but I felt her relax slightly beneath my touch. Although she was scared for Charlie, I could also tell she wasn't entirely comfortable being in the house. I walked us hastily to the door, and Bella looked at him, unable to hide the panic she was feeling. Charlie's muddled thoughts shifted from excitement to confusion as he took in the scene, but we didn't have time to stop and make up excuses. ³Where are we going?´ Bella asked quietly, although we were well out of Charlie's hearing range. ³We're going to talk to Alice.´ ³You think maybe she saw something?´ ³Maybe,´ I said, trying to force my voice to remain steady. It was difficult for me to admit even to myself how upset I was with Alice. She'd been so confident, nearly cocky really, about how finely tuned her senses were when it came to watching Bella. She'd told me once that it was the clearest she'd ever seen a human, and though she'd refrained from saying it out loud, I'd heard the rest of her thought. Bella was almost as easy to see as a vampire, because she was already so familiar and accepting of our lifestyle, so ready to be a part of it. As upset as it had made me, I'd at least been able to take comfort in knowing Bella's future was in clear focus for Alice. So where was that clear picture now? We arrived at my house a few minutes later. Emmett and Jasper were already gone, but the rest of my family stood waiting just inside the door. My eyes went instantly to Alice, eager to demand an explanation for how a vampire was allowed to get into Bella's room when she was supposedly on the lookout. Carlisle took one look at my expression and his thoughts were immediately reproachful. Calmly, Edward, this isn't her fault. She already feels bad enough. Please remember, she can't see everything all at once. But I was already gone, frustration and fear having overtaken rational thought. ³What happened?´ I growled, glaring at her unmoving posture. ³I have no idea,´ she said softly, eyes fixed on mine. ³I didn't see anything.´ ³How is that possible?´ 80
³Edward,´ Bella whispered, shocked. She didn't often hear me angry. ³It's not an exact science, Edward,´ Carlisle said, this time out loud, making sure he had my full attention. I couldn't bring myself to look at him, partly because I was transfixed by the ire in Alice's usually loving eyes, and partly because I didn't want to see the disapproval I was sure was in Carlisle's. ³He was in her room, Alice. He could have still been there ± waiting for her.´ ³I would have seen that.´ Give me some credit here. That would have affected her future and I wouldn't have missed that. I cringed. By ³affected her future,´ she might as well have said destroyed it. ³Really? You're sure?´ I spat. This is bordering on humiliating, Edward, and I don't deserve it, she thought icily. ³You've already got me watching the Volturi's decisions, watching for Victoria's return, watching Bella's every step. You want to add another? Do I just have to watch Charlie, or Bella's room, or the house, or the whole street, too? Edward, if I try to do too much, things are going to start slipping through the cracks.´ ³It looks like they already are,´ I said coldly. ³She was never in any danger. There was nothing to see.´ Everything about her future is exactly as it was. Everything, she added again for emphasis.A tiny smirk tugged at her mouth, and I spoke quickly to block out the image I was sure was about to back up that assurance. ³If you're watching Italy, why didn't you see them send ± ´ ³I don't think it's them. I would have seen that.´ ³Who else would leave Charlie alive?´ I felt Bella's breath catch and she started to shake. It wasn't something she wanted to think about, but of course she knew it was true. A random rogue vampire wouldn't have thought twice about taking Charlie's life. All alone in the middle of the night, evidence so easily disposed of. The Volturi, however, were all about keeping a low profile, and they wouldn't want to burn any bridges, especially where our family was concerned. They would have made sure that whomever they'd sent was well fed and in complete control. If this intruder was indeed one of them, Charlie had never been in any danger. I watched as Alice quickly sifted through image after image, trying to find any clue, anything we might have missed, but there was nothing. For the first time since I'd arrived home, her voice softened and she sounded genuinely apologetic. ³I don't know,´ she said sadly. ³Helpful,´ I muttered. ³Stop it, Edward,´ Bella chided. I looked down at her, and it was less than a second before the guilt hit me. She'd been the one in danger, yet she would never blame Alice ± or anyone for that matter ± for circumstances that were clearly out of our control. ³You're right, Bella. I'm sorry.´ As soon as I'd said it, I knew she wanted my apology directed elsewhere. I turned to Alice, full of remorse. ³Forgive me, Alice. I shouldn't be taking this out on you. That was inexcusable.´ 81
³I understand. I'm not happy about it, either.´ And I promise I'll keep an even closer watch until we know exactly what we're up against, she added silently, likely not wanting to frighten Bella further. ³Okay,´ I said, promising myself to remain as rational and pragmatic as possible. The last thing Bella needed was to see how fearful I was about the situation. The best thing we could do for her at this precise moment was to let her know she was protected. ³Let's look at this logically. What are the possibilities?´ She's being tracked again. Can't keep herself out of trouble for five minutes, Rosalie thought icily. Another coven spontaneously decided to pass through the town and happened to catch her scent, Alice thought, searching for a reason she didn't see them coming. Poor dear, it must be terrifying knowing someone was in her home. Esme's motherly kindness and concern took over her every thought, and I led Bella to the couch to sit beside her. She put her arm lovingly around Bella's shoulder while I held Bella's hands tightly in mine, careful not to crush her but feeling a desperate desire to hold her closer. ³Victoria?´ Carlisle asked as I sifted through everyone's thoughts, trying to find something I hadn't already considered. ³No. I didn't know the scent. He might have been from the Volturi, someone I've never met...´ Alice was quick to interject. ³Aro hasn't asked anyone to look for her yet. I will see that. I'm waiting for it.´ That was when it hit me. The reason one of them could have slipped through Alice's radar. She was watching for the wrong thing. ³You're watching for an official command?´ ³You think someone's acting on their own? Why?´ The Volturi presented a united front on the surface, but I'd had the opportunity to look into their minds. It was fascinating the way Aro simply assumed the others would follow him blindly, yet the more I heard, the more I realized that some of their loyalties were holding on by a very thin thread. ³Caius's idea,´ I said, remembering the way he'd been virtually ready to strike Alice and I down when we refused to join them. And Bella « I was appalled at how quickly he had decided she must be destroyed. ³Or Jane's ...´ Alice added. ³They both have the resources to send an unfamiliar face... ´ ³And the motivation.´ I felt my fists clench as I thought back to Jane's hate-filled mind. She was drunk with the power, and willing to do whatever was necessary to hold onto her place of honor at Aro's side. From the moment Aro made his proposition to us she was furious, under the impression that adding Alice and my talents to the mix would diminish her importance in his eyes. Then, when she heard Aro discussing the possibilities of Bella's future powers, should she be changed and choose to join them, a new wave of hatred took over. Her fury was fueled even more by the fact that her particular talent had absolutely no effect on Bella. Esme's words broke into my thoughts and I forced myself to relax, reminding myself of the necessity of keeping a cool head. 82
³It doesn't make sense, though,´ she said, her arm still around Bella. ³If whoever it was meant to wait for Bella, Alice would have seen that. He ± or she ± had no intention of hurting Bella. Or Charlie, for that matter.´ Bella went rigid at my side. ³It's going to be fine, Bella,´ Esme said soothingly. ³But what was the point then?´ Carlisle said, mostly to himself. ³Checking to see if I'm still human?´ Bella asked, her voice surprisingly steady, like it was a valid reason for them to have made a visit. I chose not to dwell on that. ³Possible,´ Carlisle said. Then he glanced at me so quickly I was sure Bella hadn't seen. We may have less time than we think. My eyes widened, but before I had time to let the panic truly take over, Rosalie's bitter mind distracted me. Idiot's already made her choice, might as well get it over with and be done with it. Then they can go run off to wherever it is they're going and leave the rest of us alone. So ridiculous « constantly on the lookout « don't know how Alice can stand it « As she launched into a string of incoherent insults, I felt miserable and hopeless. Rosalie, my one strange but sure partner in the battle to keep Bella human, had finally given up. Even she was tired of the fight, ready to give in for the sake of convenience. As my thoughts grew more dejected by the second, Emmett and Jasper came running into the house. ³Long gone, hours ago,´ Emmett said, adding a silent apology to me. ³The trail went East, then South, and disappeared on a side road. Had a car waiting.´ ³That's bad luck,´ I said under my breath as an image of the wolf pack tearing the menace limb from limb filled my mind. ³If he'd gone west « well, it would be nice for those dogs to make themselves useful.´ Bella's breath caught and I saw her shake. She was worried about her friends being in danger because of her, just like she worried when my family took on James last year. One vampire posed no threat to a coven our size, or a pack like the one Jacob ran with. Would she ever realize that she was the only fragile, breakable one in the picture? ³Neither of us recognized him,´ Jasper said. ³But here. Maybe you know the scent.´ He handed Carlisle a piece of greenery, but when he smelled it, he shook his head dismally. ³No. Not familiar. No one I've ever met.´ ³Perhaps we're looking at this the wrong way. Maybe it's a coincidence ...´ Esme started to say. Everyone's thoughts turned instantly skeptical ± all except for Carlisle who was filled with nothing but love and admiration. My love, the eternal optimist « ³I don't mean a coincidence that a stranger happened to pick Bella's house to visit at random,´ she amended, taking in the expressions around her. ³I meant that maybe someone was just curious. Our scent is all around her. Was he wondering what draws us there?´
³Why wouldn't he just come here then?´ Emmett asked, eyebrow raised. ³If he was just curious?´ To Emmett, everyone in the world had a tendency to make things more complicated than they needed to be. That's my boy, Esme thought with a grin. ³You would,´ she said. ³The rest of us aren't always so direct. Our family is very large ± he or she might be frightened. But Charlie wasn't harmed. This doesn't have to be an enemy.´ Please, Edward, for your sake and for Bella's, try to relax. Don't always assume the worst, she silently pleaded. Carlisle was still watching her, awe in his eyes and his thoughts, while the rest of us pondered the possibility. It wasn't completely out of the question. With Bella's luck, and her being so prone to dangerous situations, it would just figure that yet another random vampire would decide to take an interest in her. Not that that made me feel any better about the situation. If anything, it added an element of uncertainty that made me impossibly more nervous. At least if it was Victoria or one of the Volturi, we knew what we were up against. What if this was another tracker like James? What if he already had Bella's scent in his head and was looking for her right now? I suddenly realized Alice was watching me indignantly. I see that look on your face. Stop picturing some new horror, we have enough to worry about as it is. I know I missed this one, but I won't let it happen again She's fine. After I nodded reluctantly, she spoke aloud, her voice infused with confidence. ³I don't think so. The timing of it was too perfect « This visitor was so careful to make no contact. Almost like he or she knew that I would see ...´ ³He could have other reasons for not making contact,´ Esme said calmly. ³Does it really matter who it was?´ Bella asked, her heart racing. I knew that frightened sound, recognized the panic in her voice. I knew what she was going to say before she said it. ³Just the chance that someone was looking for me « isn't that reason enough? We shouldn't wait for graduation.´ ³No, Bella,´ I said firmly, though I'd learned by now that my unwavering tone meant basically nothing to her where this subject was concerned. ³It's not that bad. If you're really in danger, we'll know.´ I shot a quick look at Carlisle, pleading with my eyes for him to be the voice of reason. I'd concluded it was easier for Bella to listen to him where timing was concerned, since she knew he supported her decision to be changed to begin with. ³Think of Charlie,´ he said gently. ³Think of how it would hurt him if you disappeared.´ ³I am thinking of Charlie!´ she shrieked. ³He's the one I'm worried about! What if my little guest had happened to be thirsty last night? As long as I'm around Charlie, he's a target, too. If anything happened to him, it would be all my fault!´ ³Hardly, Bella,´ Esme said sweetly. It would be ours, for not protecting you the way we've promised to. I could hear the hurt and worry as she allowed herself one brief moment to do what she'd instructed me not to do ± fear the worst. ³And nothing will happen to Charlie,´ she added, gently stroking Bella's hair. ³We're just going to have to be more careful.´
³More careful?´ Bella asked, her eyes unfathomable. Once again, I was left hating myself for ever having brought this upon her. No one should have to fear for their lives and the lives of those they love, because of the company they keep. ³It's all going to be fine, Bella,´ Alice said, though her eyes were on me, her thoughts echoing the sentiment as I held Bella's hand with all the strength I could allow. Bella stayed with us a little while longer, and though she made no more mention of her transformation date, I knew it was the foremost thing on her mind. By the time I drove her home, she was practically sulking. ³You won't be alone for a second,´ I promised, although I knew that wasn't what was bothering her. ³Someone will always be there. Emmett, Alice, Jasper ...´ ³This is ridiculous. They'll get so bored, they'll have to kill me themselves, just for something to do.´ Even when I knew she was kidding, her lack of concern for her well being always made me nervous. ³Hilarious, Bella,´ I muttered as we pulled into her driveway. When we walked inside, Charlie's thoughts were « smug. And strangely hopeful, though I couldn't tell exactly why. ³I'll be right back,´ I told Bella as she cooked Charlie's dinner. I said it in as light a tone as I could muster, but of course she understood what I was doing. It wasn't that I didn't trust Emmett and Jasper to have thoroughly scoured the area, but if we'd learned one thing today it was that things change quickly, and we can't necessarily see everything coming in advance. Things could change in a matter of seconds. I ran a quick circle around the house's perimeter, catching no unfamiliar scents, no sign that anything wasn't exactly as it should be. I ran to the end of her street, then made a loop through the surrounding wooded area. I was certain that if one of us was nearby, that would be the ideal place to hide, undetected among the constantly changing scents of the forest. When I was sure the area was clear, I made my way back to Bella's house just in time to hear why Charlie had seemed so enthusiastic. ³Jacob called again,´ he said pointedly the moment I'd walked through the door. ³Is that a fact?´ Bella answered dryly. I had to suppress a grin at Charlie's crestfallen expression. He must have been underestimating how upset Bella was with Jacob. Personally, I thought she'd been very clear about the matter, but of course I was paying close attention. ³Don't be petty, Bella,´ he said. ³He sounded really low.´ ³Is Jacob paying you for all the P.R., or are you a volunteer?´ Charlie's low mumbles blended perfectly with the cluttered confusion of his mind. He wanted to know what Jacob had done to make Bella turn her back on him so completely, but he knew it wasn't his place to ask. He was frustrated and at a loss, so he eventually excused himself to the living room where he pretended to watch TV while listening intently to us. ³Good night, Bella,´ I said politely ± and deliberately loudly ± smiling as Bella rolled her eyes. ³See you soon,´ I added in a whisper, grazing her ear with my lips.
It was a fast trip back home. Emmett was guarding Bella's house, and while I felt nothing but confidence in his ability to protect her, I was feeling somewhat guilty for putting my entire family out, and was eager to relieve him of his post. I changed my clothes and asked Alice if she'd seen anything new. ³Nothing to report in town. And no changes in Italy as far as I can see. Everyone seems more or less content, with no immediate plans to visit or check in.´ ³Unless someone decides to come here on a whim,´ I said dismally. ³They all know the way your ability works. Do you think someone could be using it against you, blocking you in a sense by not planning ahead?´ ³We've always run that risk. It's as true today as it ever was. The only difference is that now something has happened to scare you, and it's made you more aware of the loopholes in my power.´ I'm sorry, she added silently, and a new wave of guilt hit me. ³Don't be sorry,´ I said, forcing a smile. ³I appreciate everything you do, and I'm sure it will be enough.´ With a sigh, she nodded and left the room. She wanted to believe me as much as I wanted to believe myself. Without another moment's hesitation, I was running back to Bella's house. All clear, Emmett thought when I came into view. ³Thank you,´ I called softly to him as I climbed up into her window. I'd been worried that Bella would have trouble sleeping, knowing that an uninvited guest had been in her room, but she seemed surprisingly at ease. I suspected it was at least partly an act to make me feel better, but I didn't dare question her, or make her think about it any more than she likely already was. Acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, we slipped seamlessly back into our normal routine. Wrapped tightly in her quilt to shield her from my frozen skin, Bella curled up into me as best she could, and I sung to her until she fell asleep. My fingers ran gently through her hair while I listened intently for any sign of distress in her dreams. It was the one place she couldn't hide from me or put on any type of bravado, so I was grateful when I heard nothing but her normal sighs and declarations of love. Charlie left early the next morning, allowing Bella and I a rare morning of uninterrupted togetherness. I watched her eat breakfast, trying to decipher the meaning behind the nervousness in her eyes as she glanced over at me. Surely she had plenty to fear, but I doubted that was what this particular look was about. I wished I was wrong, but something told me Jacob was on her mind, and that our short but enjoyable werewolf embargo was about to end. ³I'm going to let Jacob off the hook,´ she finally said. I put on my very best, sincerest smile. Staying out of it, not making her choices for her « ³I knew you'd forgive him. Holding grudges is not one of your many talents.´ Bella looked satisfied by my show of civility, and I watched in polite acceptance as she dialed his number. I listened silently as he babbled out his inane apology, wishing I didn't notice the way it made Bella's face light up. I didn't flinch when he invited her down for a visit. My careful facade remained fully intact until he callously joked about making it up to her by taking her cliff diving. 86
A low snarl ripped through me, and I was grateful I'd opted to keep a bit of distance between myself and Bella. Clearly it had been too low for her to hear, and I quickly reset the smile on my face. Bella looked at me warily before declining his invitation. ³Not right now,´ she said sadly. ³He's not thrilled with me, is he?´ Jacob asked, and I was stunned when I realized he sounded embarrassed. He must have known Bella would have told me exactly what he said. Perhaps he did actually realize how heartless and foolish he'd been. ³That's not the problem,´ Bella explained. ³There's « well, there's this other problem that's slightly more worrisome than a bratty teenage werewolf...´ Couldn't have said it better myself, I thought, feeling rather proud of Bella. When he asked what was wrong, I heard her hesitation. She could put on her brave face as much as she wanted, but it was obvious she didn't want to talk about it more than she had to. In any case, there was something I wanted to ask Jacob. I motioned toward the phone and Bella scrutinized me, trying to figure out my intention. ³Bella?´ Jacob asked when she remained silent. I gestured again, reaching closer to the phone. I didn't understand her refusal. It wasn't like I could reach through the phone and strangle him, as appealing as the prospect was. ³Do you mind speaking to Edward?´ she finally asked cautiously. ³Okay,´ he said after deliberating. ³This should be interesting.´ The look on Bella's face as she handed me the phone was more than a little amusing. She was staring at me wide-eyed, silently telling me to mind my manners. Though it was hard to believe, I was actually finding it quite easy to keep my feelings toward Jacob in check. I'd started to realize I would always have the upper hand because I understood something he didn't. Bella was happier when I was nice to him. ³Hello, Jacob,´ I said with a smile. ³Hi, bloodsucker. To what do I owe this displeasure?´ ³Someone was here ± not a scent I know,´ I said, choosing to ignore him rather than play into his game. ³Has your pack come across anything new?´ ³Nope. No vamps in our territory. They all know better,´ he said pompously, though I could hear a twinge of nervousness in his voice. ³You know, just because there's some new parasite running around, that doesn't give you the right to keep Bella away if she wants to come here. She'd be perfectly safe with us. No one's going to get past us, and you know it.´ ³Here's the crux, Jacob. I won't be letting Bella out of my sight till I get this taken care of. It's nothing personal ± ´ ³You don't own her!´ he spat. There was a pause, and when he spoke again, his voice was calmer. ³Now, don't think that I don't get it. You guys are together and she wants to spend the majority of her time with you. I don't like it, but I'm not going to try to fight her on it. I already messed up once. Anyway, I figure you're going to be out trying to find this mystery vampire, and all I'm saying is that while you're out searching, you should let her be here. The whole pack is on constant vampire watch, we'll keep her safe.´ ³You might be right ± ´ I started to agree, but apparently he wasn't listening anymore. 87
³Come to think of it, why aren't you out trying to find him right now? If it were me, I wouldn't rest until I'd caught the filthy bloodsucker.´ He paused, an idea forming in his mind. ³In fact, if it's open vampire season up there, what would you say to granting the wolves an all access pass if we happen to catch the scent while he's on his way to Forks. I could maybe talk to Sam about allowing you guys the same access, if you caught the scent tracking him toward La Push. I don't know if he'll go for it, but it seems stupid to risk losing the trail over some boundary line.´ ³That's an interesting suggestion. We're quite willing to renegotiate. If Sam is amenable.´ ³I'll see what I can do. Keeping that thing away from Bella is the most important thing right now. I think even Sam will understand that.´ ³Thank you.´ It was amazing how fighting for a common good can put everything in perspective. ³So,´ Jacob continued, ³when you do go out tracking this thing, who's going with you? I mean, does Bella have enough bodyguards left over?´ I thought about my promise to always have one of my family members with her during the short periods of time when I wasn't there. I'd also been entertaining the idea of taking a slightly longer tracking expedition, just to check all the surrounding areas, and while I'd considered taking Emmett and Jasper along, I much preferred the idea of going by myself and leaving the rest of them to watch over her. Strength in numbers seemed like the best way to go. ³I'd planned to go alone, actually. And leave her with the others.´ ³Oh, come on. If you're taking off, let Bella come stay with us. Then you can take the whole vampire hunting party if you want, and you don't have to worry about her. Like I said, we're on constant watch here. Nothing's getting through.´ I thought briefly about it, trying my best to ignore the sick feeling in my gut at the thought of willingly turning her over to the wolves' protection. But, as much as I hated to admit it, he did have a point. They were quite capable where tracking was concerned, and they wouldn't hesitate for one second to rip whoever this was to pieces. They might have even finished off Victoria, if the issue of the boundary line hadn't come into play. And now we were working on making that line slightly less of on issue. ³I'll try to consider it objectively. As objectively as I'm capable of,´ I said. ³Hey, do you think I can stop by there and catch a whiff of the leech's scent while it's still strong? It'll be easier to track him if I know exactly what I'm looking for.´ ³That's not a half-bad idea. When?´ ³The sooner the better. Now, if that's okay. I mean, if you can pry yourself away from Bella long enough for me to step in for a few minutes.´ I was well past being irritated with his childish mockery. We were taking steps toward finding our intruder. That was all that mattered. ³No, that's fine. I'd like a chance to follow the trail personally, anyway. Ten minutes ...´ ³And you'll be gone by the t ime I get there?´ ³Certainly.´ I turned to Bella who was watching me with expectant eyes. ³Bella?´ I said, handing her the phone. ³What was that all about?´ she asked the moment the phone was to her ear. 88
I tuned Jacob out politely while he told her the plan, however, when Bella warned him not to do anything risky, I heard him laugh at the same time I did. My Bella. After all this time, she was still always worried about the wrong things. ³You're coming up?´ she said, after another minute. The excitement in her voice and eyes was impossible to miss. ³Jake, I really don't like the idea of you tracking ± ´ she said worriedly, and I rolled my eyes. A moment later, she hung up the phone and turned to me, disbelieving. ³Yes, we're calling a temporary truce,´ I said gently. ³Some things are simply more important than century-long rivalries.´ She was still watching me skeptically as I ran my fingers through her hair, stopping to rest my hand on her cheek. ³Don't worry about us, Bella. Either of us. We're both fine, and more than capable of handing this. All you have to do is keep yourself safe, and we're happy.´ I smiled as she relaxed under my touch. She truly was the most extraordinary creature I'd ever met. Somehow, this beautiful girl was special enough to both the vampires and the werewolves, that the rules were being changed. Maybe it wouldn't last beyond this immediate threat, but I could feel a perceptible shift in the balance between our family and the tribe. As strange and unsettling as it might be, we were now fighting the same enemy. And that changed everything.
Scent ± EPOV ³Is this really necessary?´ she asked for the third time in under five minutes. It was taking longer to get out the door than I'd anticipated, and I was risking possible werewolf exposure if she didn't let me leave. Bella was practically pouting when we finally said our goodbyes at the door. As grateful as I was that Jacob had agreed to help us find our mysterious unwanted guest, it didn't mean I was willing to be in the same room as him. ³It's not that I feel any personal antagonism toward him, Bella,´ I explained, though I knew it was only partly true. ³It's just easier for both of us. I won't be far away. You'll be safe.´ ³I'm not worried about that,´ she said sulkily. I smiled, thrilled by the idea that even one afternoon apart seemed like too much for her. When I thought of Jacob getting to spend time with Bella when what she and I really wanted was the rest of the day alone, I decided the least I could do was leave him with a little reminder of my presence. I reached out to take her hand and pulled her into my arms, breathing in the luxurious scent coming off every strand of her hair. And as I breathed her in, I let my own breath wash over her. In the little time I'd spent around Jacob, I'd discovered something that seemed to be inherent in our respective genetic makeups, reflecting the way we felt about each other. I couldn't be sure exactly what we smelled like to the wolves, but based on the revolting stink that seemed to saturate them, I assumed it wasn't pleasant. It may have been petty, but I hoped that aside from reminding him that Bella had spent the morning in my arms, it would serve the dual function of deterring him from wanting to get too close to her. Bella shivered slightly as I pulled away and I worried for a moment that my icy breath had chilled her. However, the hazy look that had taken over her eyes assured me it was the good kind of shiver. ³I'll be right back,´ I said, laughing as I pictured the look on Jacob's face when he inevitably pulled her in for a hug. ³What's so funny?´ she asked, but of course I would never admit to having given in to such a childish prank. Although I considered staying nearby long enough to hear his response, in the end I decided I'd acted immature enough for one day. Besides, if I stayed for five minutes, it would be too easy to 90
stay the whole time, and I had already decided to venture a bit closer to the treaty line in an attempt to pick up any trace of the intruder. It was a quick run toward La Push, and although Jacob had said he'd talk to Sam about allowing us greater access for the sake of the hunt, I didn't want to cross the line unless I needed to. I scoured the surrounding areas but came up short, as I'd expected. There was nothing but the normal variety of wildlife ± and the general smell of wet dog, but that was to be expected, given where I was. I wondered how long Jacob was planning on staying. I'd only been gone about a half an hour, but I was already anxious to get back. I decided to head back to Bella's but promised myself that if he was still there I would wait patiently, and at a respectable distance, until he was ready to leave. As I passed Bella's mailbox, I stopped to see if any college acceptance letters had arrived. I had no doubt that she would have her pick of schools, should she decide to try college out for awhile. All I could do was hope that one of them was appealing enough to make her want to delay her change for a bit longer, though nothing had sparked even the slightest bit of interest so far. Still, I was thrilled to see a large envelope from Dartmouth, one of the schools I took the liberty of applying to for her. Maybe once she was actually holding the letter in her hand, she would realize the possibilities. Tucking the letter inside my pocket, I made my way up to the house. Much to my amusement, the first thing I heard when I stepped onto the porch was, ³Ugh, your hair stinks worse than your room.´ I smiled to myself, not only entertained by his response, but happy to know it was the first time during their visit he had been close enough to notice. I listened quietly as they joked about the smell, and was startled when Jacob abruptly told her, ³See you around, Bells.´ ³Are you leaving?´ she asked. The sadness in her voice tugged at my heart. I wanted to give her everything that made her happy, but it was difficult to accept that sometimes he was what she wanted. ³He's waiting for me to go,´ he explained. ³I can hear him outside.´ Just couldn't stay away, could you? he added silently. It was hard to get used to the idea that Jacob could hear my presence as well as I heard his. At least he couldn't hear my thoughts, although I suspected he knew the general idea. Just as he was about to leave, he paused, his thoughts growing patronizing. Hey, you don't mind if I borrow your girlfriend for the evening, do you? We already decided I can keep her safe, so no big deal, right? You know, assuming you can stand to let her out of your sight for longer than a half an hour. I bit back the growl rising in my throat as he extended the official invitation to Bella ± a bonfire on the beach. I knew I had no right to ask her not to go. All I could do was listen to whether or not she would accept. ³C'mon, you think somebody's going to get past all ± all six of us?´ Jacob urged when she hesitated. ³I'll ask,´ she said, obviously torn, but for what reason? Was she finally showing an ounce of concern for her well being, or was she worried about what I would say if she told me she wanted to go? 91
³Is he your warden, now, too?´ Jacob scoffed. ³You know, I saw this story on the news last week about controlling, abusive teenage relationships and ± ´ ³Okay! Time for the werewolf to get out!´ she yelled, making me smile. ³Bye, Bells. Be sure you ask permission,´ he said. I know you're listening so just... could you please let her come and don't make her feel bad about it? The sincerity I heard shocked me. He was asking me to allow her to visit ± not making a snide remark about controlling her or trying to goad me into it, but actually asking me. I'm not sure what my expression showed when I walked into the room, but before Bella had even seen me, it changed. I was distracted by an overwhelming scent; familiar, although something about it was off. It confused me for a moment, but then I saw the bloody knife on the counter. Ah. Werewolf blood. Here I thought I'd arrived in time for all the fun, but it looks like I missed the real excitement. Maybe he had tried to get close to her earlier and she was making her feelings about it known. I sighed. Wishful thinking, I'm sure. ³Did you two get into a fight?´ I asked. ³Edward!´ she said excitedly, closing the distance between us in seconds and throwing her arms around me. ³Hi, there,´ I said, returning the embrace. It was good to know that no matter how disappointed she'd seemed to be when Jacob left, it was nothing compared to the enthusiasm she showed at my return. ³Are you trying to distract me? It's working.´ ³No, I didn't fight with Jacob. Much. Why?´ ³I was just wondering why you stabbed him. Not that I object,´ I teased, motioning toward the knife. ³Dang! I thought I got everything.´ She sounded so apologetic, I wondered if I should explain that smelling wolf blood had precisely the opposite effect as smelling human blood. It if was possible for a vampire to get sick, that would be the scent that would cause it. Before I could say a word, she was at the sink scrubbing away at it. ³I didn't stab him,´ she said. ³He forgot he had a knife in his hand.´ ³That's not nearly as fun as the way I imagined it.´ ³Be nice,´ she warned, though there was a hint of teasing in her voice. Good or bad, I'd had enough of any conversation involving Jacob, so I decided it was time to unveil what I thought was a very exciting acceptance letter. ³I got your mail,´ I said, feigning nonchalance. ³Anything good?´ ³I think so.´ I hoped as I handed her the letter, that seeing it, actually holding it in her hand, might make her just the slightest bit excited. ³Dartmouth? Is this a joke?´ she asked incredulously. I just sighed and tried tactic number two; reminding her that we would be there together. She always said that was all she cared about. ³I'm sure it's an acceptance. It looks exactly like mine.´ ³Good grief, Edward ± what did you do?´ 92
³I sent in your application, that's all.´ No need to mention what Carlisle did. The school of medicine now had significantly more scholarship money available for incoming students. He hadn't even blinked. He'd been happy to do it, whether Bella ended up attending the school or not. ³I may not be Dartmouth material, but I'm not stupid enough to believe that.´ ³Dartmouth seems to think that you're Dartmouth material,´ I said, smile fixed firmly on my face. It didn't matter how she got in. If it was what she wanted, that's where she would go. I had no doubt in her abilities, and if she needed a little extra help with the class load, that's where I came in. I could tutor her in any subject she decided to take. I loved the idea that all my time attending college after college would actually go to some use, other than to occupy my endlessly bored mind. ³That's very generous of them,´ she said slowly, like the words were causing her physical pain. ³However, accepted or not, there is still the minor matter of tuition. I can't afford it, and I'm not letting you throw away enough money to buy yourself another sports car just so that I can pretend to go to Dartmouth next year.´ I hated that she still thought I was doing all this so that she could simply pretend to go to school. Why was she so opposed to trying it out for a year? Most high school seniors couldn't wait to get to college and experience the freedom of finally being on their own. Of course, I'd always known there was nothing usual about Bella's reaction to normal human events and life changes. ³I don't need another sports car. And you don't have to pretend anything. One year of college wouldn't kill you. Maybe you'd even like it. Just think about it, Bella. Imagine how excited Charlie and Renee would be...´ And suddenly, for the briefest of moments, I saw a touch of wonder in her eyes. Although it faded almost as quickly as it had appeared, I knew then that I'd found the key to my last shred of hope. Maybe she would never consider staying human longer for herself, but for her parents... ³Edward, I'm worried about living through graduation, let alone this summer or next fall,´ she said, interrupting my moment of happiness. The look of joy and anticipation for the life I so wanted her to have was now replaced by one of fear. I was determined not to let her make the choice that would forever steal her humanity because she was afraid. How could I ever live with myself? I pulled her into my embrace, wishing she would believe me when I swore to keep her safe. Unlike me and the rest of my family who had no other choice, Bella was a healthy ± if not a bit unfortunate ± girl, with the rest of her life before her. ³No one is going to hurt you,´ I promised. ³You have all the time in the world.´ ³I'm mailing the contents of my bank account to Alaska tomorrow,´ she said stubbornly. ³It's all the alibi I need. It's far enough away that Charlie won't expect a visit until Christmas at the earliest. And I'm sure I'll think of some excuse by then. You know, this whole secrecy and deception thing is kind of a pain.´ She looked up at me with a tiny smile. I knew she was trying to make a joke and keep the subject light like she always did, but her teasing words were too near the truth. She had no idea how difficult it was, living the way we do, never allowing yourself to get too close to anyone for fear of discovery. ³It gets easier,´ I said bitterly, finding it harder than usual to hide my displeasure. ³After a few decades, everyone you know is dead. Problem solved.´ 93
The miserable expression that took hold of her made me instantly remorseful. Although it was something she would inevitably have to think about, there was a better time and place to bring it up, and certainly a more tactful way. ³Sorry, that was harsh,´ I apologized. ³But still true,´ she said, her eyes vacant and glazed over. Inexcusably, I took advantage of her moment of sorrow. ³If I get this resolved, whatever it is we're dealing with, will you please consider waiting?´ ³Nope.´ ³Always so stubborn.´ ³Yep.´ Her washing machine made a loud sound in the otherwise quiet room, and she mumbled, ³Stupid piece of junk,´ as she reluctantly left my arms. ³This reminds me,´ she said as she adjusted the towel. I could still smell a faint trace of wolf blood on it. ³Could you ask Alice what she did with my stuff when she cleaned my room? I can't find it anywhere.´ That surprised me. Alice wasn't exactly compulsively clean, and I couldn't imagine her voluntarily cleaning Bella's room. Raiding it and throwing out all clothes she deemed unacceptable, perhaps, but not cleaning. ³Alice cleaned your room?´ ³Yeah, I guess that's what she was doing. When she came to get my pajamas and pillow and stuff to hold me hostage.´ She was glaring at me now, but my mind was already somewhere else. I was sure if Alice had been bothered enough by Bella's room to clean it, she would have said something to me, or at least allowed her mind to wander to it at some point. ³She picked up everything that was lying around, my shirts, my socks, and I don't know where she put them.´ It took about five more seconds for the pieces to come together, and when they did, I felt like an absolute fool for not having realized it sooner. I should have thought to ask if anything was missing the moment we knew someone had been in her room. ³When did you notice your things were missing?´ I asked, though I was certain I already knew the answer. ³When I got back from the fake slumber party. Why?´ ³I don't think Alice took anything. Not your clothes, or your pillow. The things that were taken, these were things you'd worn... and touched... and slept on?´ ³Yes. What is it, Edward?´ She still didn't understand, and I hated that I had to say the words out loud. The idea that this intruder actually had her things made me furious, and I could only imagine the sense of violation it would bring to Bella. ³Things with your scent,´ I said softly. ³Oh!´ she gasped, her eyes widening. She watched me in silence while the gravity of what that meant sunk in, and after a few moments, she whispered, ³My visitor.´ ³He was gathering traces... evidence. To prove that he'd found you?´ I wondered. It would make sense if it had indeed been a member of the Volturi checking to see if she was human, but I still had my doubts that any of them were involved. No other scenario made sense, though. What 94
other vampire would take along items that smelled like a human, especially one with a scent as sweet as Bella's? Why would they torture themselves like that? ³Why?´ she finally asked, and I wished I was any closer to an answer for her than I'd been when the whole mess started. If anything, I was more confused. ³I don't know,´ I admitted dismally. ³But, Bella, I swear I will find out. I will.´ I pulled her close again, hoping she could feel the absolute promise in my voice. ³I know you will,´ she whispered, her soft cheek pressed tightly to my chest. I could feel her heart beating frantically against me, though she was clearly trying to exude a calm confidence. Her faith in me was overwhelming. It made me all the more determined to solve this mystery quickly, and once again put her fears behind her. A few minutes later, my phone vibrated, breaking our shared moment of peace. ³Just the person I need to talk to,´ I said when I saw Carlisle's number. ³Carlisle, I ± ´ ³Edward, have you seen today's paper? The situation in Seattle is getting out of hand. And it's not just the sheer volume of deaths, but the manner in which they're happening. They're very sloppy, Edward. Vicious, and with no attempt to hide the evidence.´ ³I'll check it out,´ I said, his words only partly registering. My attention was elsewhere. ³Listen, I'm not quite sure yet what to make of this, but we just figured out that whoever was in Bella's room didn't leave empty handed.´ ³They took something of hers?´ he asked, the concern in his voice obvious. ³Yes. Several somethings to be precise. Things that would have her scent all over them. What do you think it means?´ ³It sounds like something the Volturi would do, but Alice remains confident it isn't one of them. And with none of us recognizing the scent, it seems very unlikely.´ ³That's the same conclusion I came to. I just don't know what to think, Carlisle. But I can't stand the thought of someone having her things.´ ³I know, I don't like it either. I'll fill Alice in on what you've told me. Now, Edward, I know you have a lot on your mind, but Emmett was thinking of making a quick run up to Seattle to see if he can find any pattern to the chaos. I know it's not our place or responsibility to interfere, but whoever is causing all this destruction isn't that far away, and if there's any indication they're heading this way, it's best we know about it beforehand.´ ³Maybe I'll go...´ I said, but as I glanced toward Bella, her eyes still fearful, I couldn't see myself having the strength to leave her, even for a couple of hours. ³Maybe not,´ I amended. ³Don't let Emmett go alone, you know how he gets. At least ask Alice to keep an eye on things. We'll figure this out later.´ ³Of course. And you know Alice is always watching.´ With that, I hung up the phone. Although it couldn't be the foremost thing on my mind, Carlisle's worried tone had made me curious. Always the picture of composure, it wasn't often he let his anxieties show. ³Where's the paper?´ I asked Bella, still not sure how much I should share with her. Did I really need to give her one more thing to worry about? ³Um, I'm not sure. Why?´ 95
³I need to see something. Did Charlie already throw it out?´ ³Maybe...´ I ran quickly out to the recycling bin and fetched the paper. It only took a few seconds to find the headline Carlisle was talking about. My eyes scanned the article, horrified at how fast the murder total was rising. Even the most vicious of vampires with little to no regard as to whether or not he was discovered couldn't be the sole cause of so many deaths. Not unless he was purposely trying to get caught. With a stab of pain, I remembered a time not so long ago when I had wanted to get caught breaking the rules. Of course I hadn't needed to kill anyone in order to be discovered. Even in my darkest of hours, I would never have taken an innocent life to ensure the end of my own. There are other ways. Still, the idea that this was the work of a suicidal vampire was far-fetched. It seemed much more likely that they simply didn't know better. ³It's getting worse,´ Bella said. I hadn't realized she'd been reading over my shoulder. ³Altogether out of control,´ I said, more to myself than to her. ³This can't be the work of just one newborn vampire. What's going on? It's as if they've never heard of the Volturi. Which is possible, I guess. No one has explained the rules to them... so who is creating them, then?´ ³The Volturi?´ she asked, panicked. ³This is exactly the kind of thing they routinely wipe out ± immortals who threaten to expose us. They just cleaned up a mess like this a few years ago in Atlanta, and it hadn't gotten nearly this bad. They will intervene soon, very soon, unless we can find some way to calm the situation. I'd really rather they didn't come to Seattle just now. As long as they're this close... they might decide to check on you.´ Her eyes were wide with terror and she looked paler than usual. ³What can we do?´ ³We need to know more before we can decide that. Perhaps if we can talk to these young ones, explain the rules, it can be resolved peacefully.´ Even as I said it, my words felt impossible. I couldn't imagine reasoning with a group of newborns who'd already proven they had absolutely no self control. ³We'll wait until Alice has an idea of what's going on.... We don't want to step in until it's absolutely necessary. After all, it's not our responsibility.´ I didn't want it to end in a fight ± we already had enough to deal with ± and Carlisle hated the idea of killing anyone, even if they themselves were merciless killers. Cringing, I remembered how difficult it had been for him to admit that killing James was the only answer. Emmett, I feared, would be all too eager to take on a group of newborns. If the rest of us weren't there to reign him in, he'd probably already be in Seattle. His headstrong, confident nature was usually not a problem, but in this case, it made me nervous. He didn't fully understand what we were up against. ³But it's good we have Jasper,´ I said softly, grateful for the first time for his brutal history. ³If we are dealing with newborns, he'll be helpful.´ ³Jasper? Why?´ she asked. I smiled, despite my trepidation. He would most likely be happy to know that his past was finally going to be good for something. ³Jasper is sort of an expert on young vampires.´ ³What do you mean, an expert?´ ³You'll have to ask him ± the story is involved.´ Involved... and brutal. And therefore, censored. I, of course, knew every detail, and over the decades I'd lost track of what he'd actually spoken 96
aloud and what I'd learned through inadvertent listening. I respected him and his privacy enough not to say much about his past for fear of revealing something he'd intended to keep to himself. He would never admit, not even to Alice, the extent to which the guilt still plagued him over the atrocities he was involved in, and how it was made worse for him every time he felt his self restraint weaken. ³What a mess,´ Bella mumbled. Exactly what I was thinking. ³It does feel that way, doesn't it? Like it's coming at us from all sides these days.´ My own guilt once again set in when I thought of all the different ways I was risking the life of the person whom I'd sworn to protect. If it wasn't vindictive vampires bent on revenge, or the werewolf whose arms I'd basically thrown her into, it was out of control newborns who happened to have chosen the northwest for their rampage. Okay, technically that wasn't my fault, but if it weren't for me, Bella would believe it was just some serial killer like everyone else. Instead, she had to live with the fear that came from knowing the truth. I sighed, hating how thoroughly I seemed to have disrupted her life. ³Do you ever think that your life might be easier if you weren't in love with me?´ I asked miserably. ³Maybe. It wouldn't be much of a life, though.´ ³For me,´ I whispered, overcome by the unconditional love I saw when I looked into her eyes. It was more than I deserved. In that instant, I remembered what I'd overheard her talking to Jacob about. I'd taken so much from her, the least I could do was try to give her anything and everything that made her happy. No matter how insane it seemed to me. ³And now,´ I said, smiling with as much sincerity as I could muster, considering what I was about to say. ³I suppose you have something you want to ask me?´ She looked genuinely perplexed. ³I do?´ ³Or maybe not,´ I said, smiling. Who was I to remind her if she'd already so conveniently forgotten? Be reasonable, give her what makes her happy... I reminded myself. ³I was rather under the impression that you'd promised to ask my permission to go to some kind of werewolf soiree tonight.´ ³Eavesdropping again?´ She didn't sound surprised, or particularly bothered. For some reason, that made me smile. ³Just a bit, at the very end.´ ³Well, I wasn't going to ask you anyway. I figured you had enough to stress about.´ Yet again, she was giving me more than I deserved. I took a step closer to her until I could feel her heart pounding in her chest. I reached up to cradle her face and watched her eyes carefully as I asked the question I was sure I already knew the answer to. ³Would you like to go?´ ³It's no big thing,´ she lied. ³Don't worry about it.´ ³You don't have to ask my permission, Bella. I'm not your father ± thank heaven for that. Perhaps you should ask Charlie, though.´ ³But you know Charlie will say yes,´ she said, a hint of a smile playing at her lips. I'd have to remember that smile while she was away, to remind myself why I was momentarily sacrificing my sanity. 97
³I do have a bit more insight into his probable answer than most people would, it's true.´ One of the most constant trends in Charlie's often confused mind was that Jacob was good, someone to be trusted. The peace that seemed to wash over him when he thought of Jacob and Bella being together was rivaled only by the concern he felt when he thought of her relationship with me. I felt certain I would never completely undo the damage I'd done by leaving her, at least as far as Charlie was concerned. I couldn't expect to, really. Not when I thought of what he'd been put through, taking care of Bella during those desolate months. I watched as first confusion, then indecision washed over Bella's face. I knew she wanted to go, but she was finally considering my feelings on the matter, the way I'd wanted her to all along. It gave me even more confidence in my decision. ³Bella,´ I said, looking deeply into her eyes so she'd know I meant it. ³I told you that I was going to be reasonable and trust your judgment. I meant that. If you trust the werewolves, then I'm not going to worry about them.´ ³Wow,´ she said, still watching me with disbelieving eyes. ³And Jacob's right ± about one thing, anyway ± a pack of werewolves ought to be enough to protect even you for one evening.´ I nearly laughed. I wondered if they realized keeping Bella safe was a full time job. ³Are you sure?´ She was giving me an out, a guilt free escape that would keep her beside me instead of relinquishing her care to the wolves. I considered taking it, but the smile that was threatening to break through her expression reminded me that my first and foremost task was keeping her happy ± I owed her that much after all she'd been through because of me. ³Of course,´ I said, my smile locked in place. ³Only... ´ It was with great difficulty that I was entrusting her to Jacob's watch, something I was sure Bella was aware of, and I felt certain she would grant my few small requests. ³I hope you won't mind taking a few precautions? Allowing me to drive you to the boundary line, for one. And then taking a cell phone, so that I'll know when to pick you up?´ ³That sounds... very reasonable,´ she hedged, clearly waiting for the catch. ³Excellent,´ I said as calmly as I could manage. There was no point in letting her know I was screaming on the inside. No good could come from showing how miserable the idea of handing her over to a pack of immature dogs made me. She wanted to spend time with them, and I had no right to refuse. I'd left her, hurt her in the most inexcusable way, and I'd sworn that if it took my entire existence, I would make it up to her. I just hated that my vow involved letting her go where I could not follow. I listened with measured patience as Bella spoke with Jacob, explaining that I'd agreed to drive her to the boundary line and that I would pick her up when the bonfire was over. Though I tried not to listen to Jacob's side of the conversation, it was impossible not to hear the smugness in his tone. Our meeting was set for six o'clock, so there wasn't enough time to unveil the surprise I had waiting for Bella at home. It was something that had been playing around in my mind since I'd heard about Bella's motorcycle escapades while I'd been away. Although I hated the idea of sanctioning more reckless behavior on her part, the moment I purchased my new silver motorcycle, I knew I'd made the right choice. She had downplayed it, but I could tell how much she'd enjoyed the exhilaration of riding, and I wanted to give that happiness back to her. And it 98
would be even better now, because she would be able to ride for the pure enjoyment of it, rather than as a way of reconnecting with what she'd lost. I had left her so broken that she'd felt the need to go to ridiculous extremes to hear my voice. I might have been more upset about her risking her safety for something so absurd, but if I had been able to conjure up a crystal clear hallucination of her, I too would have done anything to achieve it. I would have run around Volterra taunting the Volturi like a madman for one moment with my imagined Bella. So, I put my nervousness aside ± after all, I would be there to catch her before she could hurt herself ± and decided to buy myself a bike so we could ride together. I felt a small twinge of guilt when I thought of how greatly Charlie would disapprove of her being back on a motorcycle, but honestly, there weren't many of his rules I wasn't breaking, so why not add one more to the list? There was one very important difference, however, between when Jacob had taken her out and what I was planning. It actually made me furious that he hadn't insisted on it from the beginning of their insane recreational activities. Along with my bike, I'd also purchased Bella appropriate riding attire, including a top of the line motorcycle helmet. Not that I intended on letting her fall, but still, there was no reason to take any chances. I'd allowed my mind to wander as Bella finished her conversation with Jacob, and I realized with a start that she was now talking to me. ³Do we have time?´ she asked. ³I'm sorry, love, my mind was somewhere else.´ ³It's okay. I was talking to myself more or less. I'm just used to you hearing everything, whether I think you're listening or not,´ she said with a tiny smirk. ³I wanted to know if we have time to go back to your place and pick up my motorcycle. Since I'm not exactly using it these days, I figure I should give it back to Jacob. Maybe he can sell it and make some money. I feel terrible, all the time he put into those bikes, and now we can never ride together anymore.´ My heart sank at her dejected expression and the tone in her voice. I don't know why it had never occurred to me before that moment. The idea of riding with me wouldn't thrill her the way I'd intended it to, because it wasn't about the bikes. It was about Jacob. This was something special she'd shared with him. I nodded solemnly, feeling like a complete fool, and we drove in near silence all the way to my house. As we entered the garage, it was too much to hope that she wouldn't think anything of the silver motorcycle sitting next to her own. Although fast cars were something of a fascination to myself and my family, Bella knew none of us had any particular interest in motorcycles. There was no mistaking the purpose of this bike. ³What is that?´ she asked, eyes wide. ³Nothing.´ ³It doesn't look like nothing.´ I forced a smile, determined not to let her know how disappointed I was. ³Well, I didn't know if you were going to forgive your friend, or he you, and I wondered if you would still want to ride your bike anyway. It sounded like it was something that you enjoyed. I thought I could go with you, if you wished.´
A look of unexplained sadness came over her as she stared at our bikes, and I wondered if I'd just unwittingly reminded her of the horrible time we'd spent apart. Just as I was about to apologize for making such a heinous mistake, she whispered, ³I wouldn't be able to keep up with you.´ Happy that this concern, at least, was one I could dispel immediately, I reached out to take her face in my hands. I touched her cheeks, her lips, willing her eyes to find mine so she could see how very content I would be riding with her, if it would make her happy. ³I'd keep pace with you, Bella.´ ³That wouldn't be much fun for you.´ ³Of course it would, if we were together.´ She seemed lost in thoughts for a brief moment, her brow pulled together in concentration. Perhaps it hadn't been a mistake. Maybe I could give her this small joy once again. ³Edward,´ she finally said, ³if you thought I was going too fast or losing control of the bike or something, what would you do?´ I paused, beginning to understand why riding with Jacob was such a thrill for her. With him, there was still an element of danger. Though I'm sure she knew he would never let her get seriously hurt, he also wasn't about to hurl himself out to catch her if she started to tip over. She knew as well as I did that I couldn't say the same for myself. ³This is something you do with Jacob,´ I said, trying to smile. I wouldn't let her feel guilty. ³I see that now.´ ³It's just that, well, I don't slow him down so much, you know. I could try, I guess....´ She was trying to make me happy, humoring me and nothing more. ³Don't worry about it,´ I said, laughing when I realized exactly what I was going to do with it. Alice must have already seen this coming. It would explain why she was so eager to help me pick out which bike to purchase. She wasn't shopping for me. She was shopping for Jasper. ³I saw Jasper admiring it. Perhaps it's time he discovered a new way to travel. After all, Alice has her Porsche now.´ ³Edward, I ± ´ I kissed her quickly, unwilling to let her feel any remorse. The only reason I'd bought it was because I thought it would make her happy. If that wasn't the case, then there was no point in spending one more second thinking about it. ³I said not to worry,´ I assured her when our lips parted. ³But would you do something for me?´ ³Whatever you need.´ I reached around her and grabbed the jacket and helmet I'd picked out. Just because she didn't want to ride with me, didn't mean she wouldn't want to ride at all. Although I hated that I wouldn't be there to catch her when she inevitably fell, I did feel marginally better knowing at least she would be better protected than in previous attempts. ³Please?´ I asked when she eyed the helmet skeptically. ³I'll look stupid,´ she protested. ³No, you'll look smart. Smart enough not to get yourself hurt.´ I reached out to touch her face again, suddenly more aware than usual how fragile it felt in my hands. ³There are things between my hands right now that I can't live without. You could take care of them.´ 100
³Okay, fine. What's the other thing?´ ³It's a riding jacket,´ I said, laughing at the things humans had to use to protect themselves. I guess there were a few advantages to being a vampire. ³I hear road rash is quite uncomfortable, not that I would know myself.´ Reluctantly, she put the helmet on and shrugged into the jacket. It was such a different look from her normal attire, and the scowl on her face as I zipped her up made her look oddly ferocious ± or at least ferocious for Bella. I grinned at the image before me. My sweet Bella, glowering at me from inside a sea of thick, black leather. ³Be honest, how hideous do I look?´ she asked. I stepped back to really take her all in. It was the first time she didn't appear entirely breakable, and for the briefest of seconds, I imagined her as I was ± strong, powerful, unstoppable... I quickly stopped that train of thought. What was wrong with me? ³That bad, huh?´ she asked, and I realized she was still waiting for a response. There was no way I was telling her what had just passed through my thoughts, so I tried to put it the best way I could. ³No, no, Bella. Actually...´ I paused. There was no other way to say it. Though it pained me to think of her losing her mortality, I had to admit I was attracted to that fierce, unrelenting image of Bella ± strong and unbreakable, standing at my side. ³You look... sexy.´ ³Right,´ she laughed. ³Very sexy, really.´ For once, it was easier that she wouldn't believe me. It saved me from having to explain why I was finding her particularly sexy at this moment. ³You are just saying that so that I'll wear it. But that's okay. You're right, it's smarter.´ I pulled her close to me, laughing under my breath. After all this time, she still didn't see herself clearly. ³You're silly. I suppose that's part of your charm. Though, I'll admit it, this helmet does have its drawbacks.´ I took off her helmet, letting her hair fall in waves around her shoulders. I kissed her, reminding myself as I did that she was still soft and fragile. For some reason I was finding it harder than usual to keep my kiss gentle. I tried not to think about the reason why as another image of Bella, pale skinned and hard as marble, assaulted me, unbidden. ³I suppose I have to let you go,´ I said as I pulled gently away from her. ³Oh, I don't really need to go,´ she answered, somewhat breathlessly. ³Now, don't start that. It's taken a great deal to convince myself to spend an evening apart from you. Don't tempt me to change my mind.´ She looked at me like she was considering it, so I quickly shuffled us outside and into the car. I knew how much she wanted to go down to La Push tonight, even if in this exact moment she wasn't sure. Bella was fairly quiet during the drive until she finally turned to me with the strangest expression. ³You know what this reminds me of? It's just like when I was a kid and Renee would pass me off to Charlie for the summer. I feel like a seven-year-old.´ 101
I had to laugh, but decided not to comment. We were getting closer to La Push and I needed to keep myself focused and calm if I was going to get through the exchange. I heard Jacob before we saw him, and even though he was getting his way, his bitterness hadn't lessened. I couldn't understand it. After all, he and Bella were about to spend the evening together with me nowhere in sight, not able to come near her no matter how desperately I wanted to, leaving him more or less in charge of how long the evening the lasted. Still don't understand what he's playing at , he thought just before we came into view. Oh, great. His posture stiffened when he saw us and I could hear him trying to block his mind from me. He started thinking about inconsequential things, his obvious irritation at my talent seeping through the best of his efforts. He finally gave up when Bella waved at him warmly, smiling at her before sarcastically adding, thanks for letting Bella come out and play. ³Call me whenever you're ready to come home, and I'll be here,´ I told her when we'd parked. I was getting more nervous every second, but the happiness on Bella's face made it clear there was no turning back. ³I won't be out late.´ Jacob waited, watching in confusion, as I unloaded Bella's motorcycle from my car. Gonna let her ride with the big boys? he thought acidly. Though I see not without a bit of protection. What? You don't trust me to keep her in one piece? I did a pretty good job of it while you were M.I.A. ³Do you have it all?´ I asked Bella, ignoring Jacob and trying to muffle the snarl that was threatening to rip through me. ³No problem.´ The malice in Jacob's every thought multiplied the moment I leaned toward Bella. Although I was trying not to be as spiteful and petty as him, I succumbed to a moment of weakness, pulling Bella tightly to me and kissing her feverishly. Filthy, disgusting, creepy as hell... how can she stand it? Jacob worked quickly to try to silence his mind, but he was too far gone. I laughed under my breath as I released Bella from my embrace. ³Goodbye,´ I said softly, thrilled to hear her heart was racing. I wondered if he could hear it too. I wasn't sure exactly how acute their senses were. ³I really do like the jacket,´ I added, grinning as she blushed. She walked slowly away from me, almost as if she was giving me one last chance to rescind my offer. A wave of terror passed briefly but violently through me as the reality of who I was sending her off to hit me, but I buried it as swiftly as I could manage. I didn't want her night to be marred by feelings of guilt. Whatever suffering I was about to put myself through was my problem, not hers. Because he loved making things as difficult as possible for me, Jacob narrated Bella's steps, telling me exactly what I already knew. Almost to the line... what are you going to do when you can't come after her? Just a few more feet... it's out of your hands now, isn't it, bloodsucker? I snarled quietly, unable to hold it in any longer but unwilling to upset Bella. Jacob just smiled as I got back into the car, watching, glaring.. 102
³What's all that?´ he asked, turning his attention to Bella when she was just a few steps away. ³I thought I should put this back where it belongs.´ This time, his enthusiasm outweighed his desire to silently antagonize me. All I heard was a list of all the places he'd wanted to take Bella riding but assumed he'd never get the chance to. He wasn't taunting me. He was simply ecstatic. Jacob didn't waste any time. The second Bella's foot crossed the boundary line, he scooped her up into an overtly showy hug. All mine, he though wryly. My foot instinctively pressed down on the gas, reflexes twitching, wishing I could just go run him over, but I stopped when his mind silently added what he hated and what would keep me sane. For a few hours, anyway... I'd had just about all I could take, so with that thought, I forced myself to drive away, leaving my only love with a creature I only knew how to hate. Still, deep within in me I could feel that she was safe. For Bella's sake alone, I would allow myself to be momentarily grateful for how deeply Jacob cared for her. His love, foolish and fruitless as it was, would protect her until she was back in my arms.
Waiting ± EPOV It never got any easier to drive away from Bella, but tonight it was harder than usual. Of course, it didn't help matters any that I was leaving her with a pack of immature, reckless, out of control... No. I couldn't let myself think that way or I'd never get through the evening. I watched in my rear view mirror until Bella and Jacob were out of sight. The moment I could no longer see her, I felt a stabbing pain in my chest, as if I were feeling my heart stop beating all over again. It was everything I could do not to turn around and go back for her ± tell her I'd changed my mind, that there was too much danger and uncertainty with her intruder still on the loose. She'd understand. She had already given me many chances to stop her from going. I knew without any doubt that if I called her and asked her to come back to the boundary line, told her I needed her to come home with me, she would comply. Which was why I made myself keep driving. As difficult as it was for me to understand, spending time in La Push with the friends she'd made during my absence was important to Bella, and I had promised not to let her miss out on any experiences she deemed important. That promise felt especially meaningful with graduation and her intended transformation date looming before us, nearer every second of every day. I tried to occupy my mind on the drive home, and thinking about graduation and making the most of Bella's remaining human days had given me an idea. I hadn't thought of anything specific and had little more than a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but that didn't stop Alice from already being one step ahead of me. As soon as I'd stepped through the front door, she was at my side. ³I'd love to help, of course, but just so you know, she's not going to be happy. And we're not surprising her. I'm not doing anything to upset Bella like that. She is almost officially my sister, you know.´ I glared at her, but it did nothing to deter the smile on her face. Alice was far too eager for Bella's change to let my feelings on the matter put a damper on her excitement. ³Fine, no surprises,´ I said grudgingly. ³Now, can you tell me how many of her friends will actually come to a graduation party if we have it here? The point is to let her spend as much time with them as she can and that won't work if they're all too nervous to show up.´ Alice closed her eyes for a moment, a look of serenity on her face as we both watched the future unfold. While a number of Bella's friends still harbored some ill feelings toward me, it didn't appear that anyone would pass up the opportunity to finally see where the elusive, mysterious Cullen family lived. Everyone invited would accept the invitation, and Bella would be able to spend the evening celebrating the end of her high school career with her classmates. I was no longer foolish enough to think that a desire not to lose her school friends had any effect on the choice she'd made. I had been watching her start to withdraw from even those she felt closest to for quite some time. I wasn't entirely sure if it was intentional ± after all, she was fairly preoccupied with rogue vampires and werewolf gatherings ± but whether or not she intended to, I could see Bella was already preparing herself for her imminent goodbyes. 104
³Alice?´ I asked as her eyes opened again. ³You don't see any chance of Bella changing her mind, right?´ She smiled angelically at me. ³You would know if I had, wouldn't you?´ ³Right,´ I said skeptically. ³Like you've never shielded your thoughts from me.´ ³But why would I shield something like that?´ ³Because if Bella was showing even the slightest bit of doubt, you know I would latch onto it and use it to try to change her mind.´ ³I promise you there is no doubt whatsoever that she wants to be one of us. She is ready to be a part of this family. The only variation I ever see is in how she's changed.´ She paused, looking deeply into my eyes, her tone more serious than I'd heard in a long time. ³She wants it to be you, Edward.´ ³But not enough to agree to marry me.´ It was impossible to disguise the hurt in my voice. ³It's true, marriage is the last thing on her mind right now, and as much as I'd like to, I can't tell you I've seen visions of wedding bells. She's not there yet. But sometimes I can clearly see you being the one to change her, and since I know how stubborn you are, I can only assume that means there are times she's considering agreeing to your proposal.´ My eyes widened in surprise ± surprise, and hope. ³Don't get ahead of yourself,´ Alice warned. ³Remember, you haven't even proposed to her properly yet.´ ³I know, and I feel like I'm running out of opportunities. Graduation is going to be here before we know it, and right now, she seems determined to stick to that deadline.´ ³You'll think of something,´ she said, grinning impishly before starting to mentally sing the alphabet backwards. Subtle. I retreated to my room, trying not to look at the clock on the way. It felt like it had been hours since I'd left Bella, but I was sure it had been more like minutes. There was no use driving myself crazy worrying about her, so instead, I forced myself into the best distraction I currently had available ± staring at my mother's wedding ring and imagining it on Bella's finger. It all seemed so simple. We'd found each other, we were in love, we both knew we would never want anyone else for the rest of eternity... so what was stopping us? Bella was more than willing to give up everything in her human life for immortality, yet she couldn't fathom binding herself to me in this way. The conundrum once again filled me with doubts that my rational mind couldn't silence. Did she really want me forever, or did she simply want forever? I was more than aware that Bella had developed a glorified picture of what our existence was like, and what hers would soon be like if everything went according to her plans. I often wondered if she would go through with it if she knew what the burn in our throats felt like each time we were near humans. If she truly understood the pain that came with self control and the empty, hollow feeling of never getting what our bodies naturally craved, how could she possibly doom herself to that life? I was certain she didn't think about such things. She thought about never having to be afraid again, never worrying about Victoria or the Volturi coming after her. She saw herself strong and unbreakable. Immortal. Wasn't that what all humans wanted ± the secret to eternal life, youth, and beauty? Was I really the reason for her desire to leave the fragile, mortal human race, or was I merely the means of achieving it? 105
I quickly forced the thought out of my mind, almost hearing Bella tell me I was being ridiculous. Still, while it seemed like she truly loved me despite my deplorable nature, I could never completely shake that feeling of doubt. She'd forgiven me for all my sins, even those I committed before she knew me, yet how could one as pure and blameless as Bella want to spend one lifetime, let alone eternity, with a creature like me? I stared at the ring, the only real tie I had left to my own human life, and wondered how much simpler things would be if only I could be human for Bella. I wanted so badly to give her the life she deserved, to give her me if that was what she really desired,without making her sacrifice anything. But that was impossible. She wanted us to be the same, and if I couldn't be human for her, there was really only one choice. I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit it would make my life a lot easier. Although I knew there was no way I would ever hurt Bella, that fact didn't do anything to lessen the agonizing burn I still felt every time we were together. I'd grown used to it, though not immune. In fact, I was certain that even a lifetime together wouldn't take away the pain. The only thing that could take away the call of her blood was to stop it from pumping through her veins, but wishing for such a thing would only make me more of a monster than I already am. So many times I felt certain I would give anything just to know she's safe, to be sure nothing would ever take her from me. Yet I couldn't take her humanity for my peace of mind. I could never reconcile damning her to a life of darkness in order to keep her light shining forever in mine. But if she's already made her choice... With a sigh, I placed the ring back inside its box, and returned it to its hopefully temporary home inside the nightstand. I could feel the weight of the ring even when I was no longer holding it, and my mind wandered back to the other half of our very confusing equation. We were talking about forever, and I needed our forever to begin with the irrefutable knowledge that I am hers and she is mine. Although I had no way of knowing when or if she would change her mind, somehow, I could envision what the moment would look like. In my mind, I'd already placed my mother's ring on Bella's finger, and pictured it bringing a smile to her face and light to her eyes. I could so clearly see that instant when she would finally say yes, and it was to that image I now found myself clinging as I felt the seconds tick by. Cringing, I wondered how long a pack of mangy wolves could keep her entertained. Once again, all I could do was wait. Lately, it felt like waiting was all I ever did. I was waiting for Victoria to be close enough for us to strike. I was waiting for Bella to decide whether she was willing to marry me to get what she claimed she wanted more than anything. Waiting for the end, waiting for the beginning... waiting for the change I dreaded yet couldn't deny the allure of. I waited, with morbid anticipation, for the day I would no longer have to fear losing what matters most to me. At half past eleven, the phone rang. ³Bella,´ I breathed, relieved. ³Sorry to disappoint, bloodsucker,´ Jacob answered coldly, though his voice was only a whisper. ³What's wrong?´ I asked, panicking. I flew down the stairs and was already outside, climbing into the Volvo when he spoke again. 106
³Relax, will you. Everything's fine. Bella fell asleep, that's all. She's right next to me and I'm driving as we speak.´ ³Oh.´ ³Don't sound so surprised,´ he said, his voice scathing. ³You didn't really think I'd let anything happen to her, did you?´ ³No. If I had, I wouldn't have let her go.´ ³Let her?´ he spat, indignant. ³You know, I'm getting a little tired of this controlling thing you've got going on. At some point, Bella's gonna get tired of it too.´ ³That's not your concern. And, as I'm sure you know, Bella is perfectly capable of speaking her mind. If she's having a problem with my behavior, she'll tell me.´ ³Yeah, well, I'd wait in line and buy tickets to be at that show,´ he muttered. ³Anyway, we'll be to the line in a few minutes. I assume you don't want me to just drive her home myself?´ ³There will be no need for that. I'm pulling up right now.´ ³Of course you are.´ With that, the phone went silent. I parked the car and waited with as much patience as I could muster. I saw headlights at the same moment I heard a string of insults from Jacob's mind. It was easier to ignore them once Bella was in my sight. I could see her sleeping form in the passenger's seat, and a moment after the car stopped, she startled herself awake. I listened silently as Jacob explained that he had called me for her. I waited patiently while they exchanged pleasantries regarding the evening, but when Jacob starting talking about how nice it was having her there with him, I got out of the car and started to pace. ³Yeah, he's not so patient, is he?´ I heard him say. ³Go ahead. But come back soon, okay?´ I bit back a snarl, though even I knew it was unjustified. The smile on her face told me she'd had a good time, and as far as I could tell, there wasn't anything wrong with her. Jacob had fulfilled his end of the bargain and kept her safe, so at least as far as Bella was concerned, I couldn't fault him. They exchanged good-nights and Bella rushed toward me, smiling widely in the darkness. Her radiance lit up the night sky. ³Bella,´ I breathed as I scooped her up. I never fully realized how empty I felt without her until she was in my arms again. ³Hi. Sorry I'm so late. I fell asleep and ± ´ ³I know. Jacob explained,´ I said, stopping her. There was no reason for her to apologize. ³Are you tired? I could carry you,´ I offered as she walked, still half asleep, beside me. ³I'm fine.´ ³Let's get you home and in bed. Did you have a nice time?´ ³Yeah ± it was amazing, Edward.´ Despite her exhaustion, I could see the spark of excitement in her eyes. ³I wish you could have come. I can't even explain it. Jake's dad told us the old legends and it was like... like magic.´ I watched her brilliant smile, and for one fleeting moment, nothing mattered ± not werewolves, rivalries, treaties or boundary lines. In that instant, Bella's happiness transcended it all. ³You'll have to tell me about it,´ I said, smiling. ³After you've slept.´ 107
³I won't get it right,´ she mumbled, yawning. I laughed as I buckled her in, hoping she could get some more sleep on the drive home. Until next time, leech, Jacob thought as he pulled away. Bella waved at him, but he was too busy glaring at me to notice. I smiled to myself as I realized this would always be his biggest mistake. He was too busy hating me to think about what that hate was doing to Bella. I'd paid enough attention to know she was happier when we at least tried to get along. As I'd hoped, Bella drifted back off to sleep, and I was able to set up the evening's plans. I knew she was uncomfortable with the precautions I was taking, worrying that she was putting us out, but my family was more than willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to keep her safe. After all, we still didn't know precisely what we were up against. I dialed the number without taking my eyes off of Bella. Even after all our nights together, I never tired of watching her sleep. ³We're almost to Bella's house,´ I said when I had Esme on the phone. ³I won't be long tonight, I just need to bring the car home then I'll be heading right back. Is Alice on her way?´ ³Actually, I am. Alice went with Jasper, along with Rose and Emmett. They're going to check out the situation in Seattle.´ ³Has something new happened?´ ³Just more of the same. There have been several more deaths. Carlisle is worried the Volturi will intervene at any time, and the last thing we want right now is them stopping in for a visit.´ I fought back the growl building in my chest. They were the only ones even more eager than Bella for her to join our race. For Aro, the reason wasn't simply because she was a human who knew too much. He'd taken a particular liking to her, speculating what special abilities she would have after her transformation, given her mind's strange ability to block his and my powers. ³Is Carlisle in Seattle, too?´ ³No. He's working late at the hospital tonight. We had hoped to go there together in the morning. Will you need one of us to keep watch while you run home tomorrow morning?´ I sighed. ³I suppose it isn't really necessary. I'll only be gone a few minutes and I'm sure Jacob is close by. No one is going to get past him.´ She smiled, obviously satisfied. ³Thank you. I really think its best if we all go.´ ³It's hard to believe how out of control this has gotten, and how fast.´ ³I know. Let's hope it ends just as quickly. Maybe if whoever is responsible sees us and realizes they're being watched, they'll move on.´ I was silent. We both knew the chances of that were slim. If we were in fact dealing with newborns, they wouldn't be thinking rationally enough to care that they were being monitored. ³I'll see you in a few minutes,´ I finally said. ³I'm on my way.´ Esme was already at the house when we pulled up. And so was Jacob. I couldn't see him, but I could hear him. As soon as he realized I was there, he went back to trying to block me by thinking about inconsequential things, slipping in an occasional insult now and again. It was getting surprisingly easy to ignore him. ³Bella, sweetheart, we're home.´ 108
³What?´ she muttered. ³You just need to wake up enough to get inside and say goodnight to Charlie, then you can fall right back to sleep in my arms.´ ³He's going to be mad I'm so late,´ she said, waking up slightly. ³Jacob called him as well, so he wasn't worried. He's not upset at all.´ Charlie was never upset when Jacob was involved. I wondered how he would feel if he knew Jacob's secret, though I had a feeling consorting with werewolves would still rank higher than dating a vampire on his list of acceptable activities. ³I'll see you soon?´ Bella asked with a smile. ³Very soon,´ I promised, kissing her. I drove home as fast as my car would take me and ran back at record speed. Esme smiled warmly at me when I came up beside her. ³Anything to report?´ I asked. ³Besides the presence of Bella's own personal watchdog?´ she teased. ³Persistent, isn't he?´ ³He cares about her.´ Her voice was chiding and I could sense her mothering instinct taking over. She was the only one of us who managed to harbor absolutely no ill will towards the wolves. ³I know he does,´ I sighed. ³And this is Bella we're talking about. It doesn't hurt to have an extra set of eyes watching over her, at least until she's strong enough to take care of herself.´ She raised a knowing eyebrow at me and I couldn't help but smile. Even with Alice's visions and Jasper's empathy, somehow Esme always seemed to know me just a little better than the rest of my family. She knew that no matter what I felt about Jacob personally, a part of me would always be grateful to him for helping take care of Bella, both now and when I'd been absent. She also knew that no longer having any need to keep him around was, in my mind, just about the most appealing aspect of what life would be after Bella's transformation. ³I'll let you know if I hear anything from Alice.´ ³Thank you. And thanks for coming over here tonight.´ ³I'm happy to do it. Tell Bella 'pleasant dreams' for me.´ ³I will.´ As I climbed noiselessly through Bella's window, I thought I heard a low howl from somewhere in the darkness. ³Is Jacob out there?´ Bella asked, and I wondered for a moment if she'd heard it too. ³Yes... somewhere. And Esme's on her way home.´ The look on her face made me wish I hadn't said anything, though I couldn't understand why she wasn't happier knowing she was never left without someone keeping watch. ³It's so cold and wet. This is silly,´ she complained. ³It's only cold to you, Bella.´ 109
She looked like she wanted to protest, but instead, she yawned. I smiled, pulling her into my embrace. ³You've had a long night and you need your sleep.´ She nodded, yawning again as she trudged to the bathroom for her nightly routine. Her eyes were half closed when she came back, and she crawled into bed, pulling me toward her drowsily. I held her tightly to me, wishing as she drifted to sleep that her thick quilt weren't necessary. I wanted to be closer, but I also didn't want her shivering from the cold. ³Esme wishes you pleasant dreams. As do I, my love,´ I whispered, but she'd already slipped back into unconsciousness. Despite our wishes for only happy dreams, Bella slept restlessly, murmuring incoherently for hours before finally settling into what seemed to be a dreamless state. I ran my fingers through her silky hair and sang softly to her, hoping to coax her nightmares away. Eventually her breathing slowed and she grew silent. When I was certain my movement wouldn't disturb her, I turned to the book that was sitting on her nightstand. I was always curious what story was currently occupying her mind, and I wasn't surprised to find Wuthering Heights sitting there, tattered and worn from its countless readings. I knew she'd been reading it again, though I couldn't understand why. I always thought that in order for a story to be enjoyable, the reader needed to be able to relate to the characters in at least some small way. Heathcliff and Catherine were cruel, selfish, and spiteful, everything Bella's not, and I didn't comprehend her fascination with their relationship. Determined to find some redeemable quality in the characters Bella seemed to love so much, I picked up her worn copy and started reading. I'd read it before, of course ± there are few of the classics I hadn't read during my years of endless nights ± but this time, I was surprised to find myself commiserating with Heathcliff. Though I could never condone his drastic actions, I had to admit I understood him better than I ever had before. He'd been forced to watch the woman he loved choose someone else, and the jealously had driven him mad. The extremes to which that particular emotions can drive a person had always been somewhat lost on me, but since Bella, I'd started to gain a new understanding. Still, no matter how jealous, how miserable he had been watching his beloved Catherine in the arms of another, while Edgar remained in her favor, nothing could make Heathcliff act on a desire to harm him. As long as Heathcliff believed Catherine to be happy with Edgar, he would do nothing to disturb that happiness. Just as I knew I would never harm Jacob, even if Bella were to have chosen him over me. In the stillness of the night, as if Bella had figured out how to read my mind, her eyes shot open and her body shook. She pressed her warm cheek against my chest and breathed deeply. ³Did I wake you?´ I asked quietly, dropping her book carelessly in my attempt to hold her close. She seemed so distressed. ³No,´ she said, relaxing almost instantly as I wrapped my arms around her. ³I had a bad dream.´ ³Do you want to tell me about it?´ ³Too tired,´ she muttered. ³Maybe in the morning, if I remember.´ ³In the morning.´ ³What were you reading?´ she asked, her eyes already closed again. 110
I felt like a child who had been caught doing something they weren't supposed to, though I couldn't entirely explain the feeling. ³Wuthering Heights,´ I admitted softly, hoping she'd already fallen back asleep. ³I thought you didn't like that book.´ ³You left it out.´ Her breathing slowed and I could tell she was very nearly asleep again. Then, for some reason, I wanted her to understand. I needed her to know that no matter what pain it put me through ± even if it meant tolerating that mongrel for as long as he lived ± I would always put Bella's happiness before my own. ³Besides...´ I continued, wondering if she was still listening, ³the more time I spend with you, the more human emotions seems comprehensible to me. I'm discovering that I can sympathize with Heathcliff in ways I didn't think possible before.´ ³Mmm,´ she breathed. ³I swore I'd never hurt you, so as long as you care about him, as long as it's in my power, I will never hurt him.´ I waited for a response, some sign that she trusted what I was telling her, but her steady breathing told me she was asleep once more. I listened carefully, making sure her previous nightmare didn't return, but the rest of the night passed without a sound. When the first glimpse of light shone through her window, Bella started to stir. ³Good morning, my darling,´ I whispered as she nuzzled into the crook of my arm. ³Always, when you're here,´ she said, smiling up at me through still tired eyes. ³Do you want to tell me about your dream now?´ ³I don't remember much about it. I know there was a storm and I was cold. I'm pretty sure I was on the beach, and I think Jake was there.´ She stopped, her eyes suddenly wide and a little embarrassed. ³Go on,´ I encouraged, making sure my expression was still relaxed. ³That's it, really. The rest is kind of a blur. I just know I was relieved when I woke up, and I was happy you were here to warm me up.´ I laughed. ³I warmed you up?´ I asked skeptically. ³But I'm freezing.´ She ducked her eyes away from me, blushing, and I realized what she meant. ³Your skin might be,´ she said shyly, ³but I still feel warm and safe when you're here with me.´ ³I'm always here, Bella,´ I said, leaning down to press my lips to hers. I felt her warmth against my skin as her heart started to speed up. I was enjoying the moment, thrilled as I always was that she was so unwilling to let me go. But when her breathing started to grow erratic and her fingers laced into my hair, I realized I would again have to be the one to stop. ³I'll be back soon,´ I promised, trying not to see the disappointment on her face as I pulled away. I ran quickly home, and when I arrived to find my house empty, I remembered that the rest of my family was in Seattle. I felt somewhat guilty as I remembered Esme's words. I really think its best if we all go. My whole family was in Seattle, doing their best to get the situation under control, while I stayed in Forks. Of course they understood there was no way I was leaving Bella unprotected, but I still wished there was something I could do to help. Just as I was about to call Alice, I saw a note in her handwriting on top of the piano. 111
Edward, we're fine. Stop worrying. Go be with Bella. I know you want to help, but remember, we're doing this for her, too. You are helping us by keeping her safe. I smiled, thankful as I often was that there was really no point arguing with Alice.
Time ± EPOV Why does Bella have to be the only person on the face of the planet who hates parties? It was the end of the day and Alice, Bella, and I were walking toward the car. I'd been idly tracing patterns on the back of Bella's hand when I noticed the longing on Alice's face. I raised one eyebrow at her and she sighed. A surprise party really would be so much more fun, but if we spring it on her without any warning, she's going to pretend to get food poisoning and end up hiding in your room all night. Oh, well. At least she's going to let me pick out her outfit. Her expression softened slightly as I rolled my eyes. Always more perceptive than I give her credit for, Bella looked up at me then, questions in her eyes. I smiled reassuringly at her before shooting a pointed glance at Alice. It was time to tell Bella what she was planning. The last thing I wanted was Bella thinking something was wrong. She always grew paranoid when she knew things were being said that she couldn't hear. All right, I'll ask her now, Alice thought, skipping to Bella's side. So impatient for someone with endless time on their hands... I'd decided it would be best for Alice to broach the subject of the party herself. After all, it was nearly impossible to say no to Alice's wild plans when she told you that you'd already agreed to them. ³I have foreseen...´ she said mysteriously, and Bella's breath caught. I threw my elbow at Alice. So much for making Bella feel better. 112
³Fine,´ she said. ³Edward is making me do this. But I did foresee that you would be more difficult if I surprised you.´ ³In English?´ Bella asked warily. ³Don't be a baby about this. No tantrums.´ ³Now I'm scared.´ ³So you're ± I mean we're ± having a graduation party. It's no big thing. Nothing to freak out over. But I saw that you would freak out if I tried to make it a surprise party.´ I mean really, talk about taking things for granted. I wish someone could surprise me with a party, but unless someone spontaneously decides... I reached out to Alice playfully, breaking her from her rant. I actually wished there was a way to surprise Alice. It would be entertaining to see the look on her face when she realized someone was finally one step ahead of her. ³And Edward said I had to tell you,´ she continued. ³But it's nothing. Promise.´ Bella looked utterly defeated. ³Is there any point in arguing?´ ³None at all,´ Alice answered angelically. ³Okay, Alice. I'll be there. And I'll hate every minute of it. Promise.´ Although I knew she was being purposely difficult, I couldn't help but wonder if the party was a mistake. Was I once again pushing her into something she had no interest in, simply because I thought it was an important experience? ³That's the spirit!´ Alice said enthusiastically. I would have almost believed it if it weren't for the fact that she was simultaneously thinking, so stubborn. ³By the way, I love my gift. You shouldn't have.´ ³Alice, I didn't!´ ³Oh, I know that. But you will.´ Bella's eyes widened in panic and I shot another glare at Alice. What? I just thought she'd like to know how much I'm looking forward to the concert. You know, so she doesn't have to worry about whether or not I'll like it. ³Amazing,´ I sighed. ³How can someone so tiny be so annoying?´ ³It's a talent.´ ³Couldn't you have waited a few weeks to tell me about this?´ Bella asked, obviously irritated. ³Now I'll just be stressed that much longer.´ She has no idea how close it is, Alice thought unconsciously, her mind slipping for one brief second to a vision of Bella's transformation before looking at me apologetically. She was so eager to welcome Bella officially into our family, and it always seemed like Bella was just as eager, so we were both shocked that she hadn't literally been counting down the days. ³Bella,´ she asked cautiously. ³Do you know what day it is?´ ³Monday?´ Alice rolled her eyes with a sigh. ³Yes. It is Monday... the fourth,´ she said, whirling her around so she was staring at one of the many posters announcing the graduation date. Bella looked like 113
she was seeing it for the first time, but for weeks now, the posters had been taunting me. Every day, they reminded me with silent finality that Bella's heartbeats were numbered. ³It's the fourth? Of June? Are you sure?´ she asked, panicked. She's afraid, Edward. But she isn't changing her mind. Alice answered the question before I'd even finished thinking it. Of course I knew Bella's mind was made up, but the look of terror on her face was enough to make me momentarily question her resolve. Now I felt my own eyes widen in surprise. ³It can't be!´ she gasped. ³How did that happen?´ Get her walking again. She's upset, and you should get her somewhere you two can actually talk. She might slip and say something she shouldn't if we stay here. I carefully took Bella's elbow and motioned her toward the parking lot. We walked quickly and I counted every one of her breaths, which were coming in short, shallow gasps. When we were inside the car, I noticed that the fear on Bella's face had been replaced by a strangely vacant stare. Eventually, as Alice started babbling about party details, Bella's expression twisted back into one of confusion and concern. She looked like she was trying to figure out the answer to a difficult math equation, and I figured whatever panic she'd felt at her impending graduation had turned back into worry over the social event she was being forced into. She was silent, even after we'd dropped Alice off at home. Her eyes were glazed over and she looked exhausted. We pulled up to her house and I watched her carefully as we exited the car. She looked like she was counting her steps, concentrating on each one. Once we were inside, I guided her to the couch and sat her down beside me. She stared absently out the window as I stroked the back of her hand, wondering where her thoughts had taken her. Was she really that upset about the party? Maybe she was worried because she'd misunderstood the reason we were having it. Perhaps she thought I was trying to strengthen the bond she shared with her friends, to give her a reason to delay her transformation. In truth, I was doing the opposite. As much as it pained me to admit it, this party signified the end. I was giving her a chance to say her goodbyes. Several times, it looked like she was about to say something, but she always stopped herself, looking past me rather than meeting my gaze. When I was sure I couldn't take it anymore, I let out a deep sigh. ³Would you please tell me what you are thinking?´ I pleaded. ³Before I go mad?´ Once again, she opened her mouth in what appeared to be an attempt at speech, but just as quickly, she shut it again. Her eyes were almost apologetic, and I wondered if she was about to back out of the party altogether. ³Your lips are white. Talk, Bella.´ She let out a long breath, and when she spoke, her voice was shaking. ³The date took me off guard. That's all.´ I waited, feeling the sudden weight of words she didn't want to say out loud. ³I'm not sure what to do... what to tell Charlie... what to say... how to... ´ Though she was struggling with what she was trying to say, I understood. ³This isn't about the party?´ 114
³No. But thanks for reminding me.´ She watched me with a look I wasn't used to seeing ± she was afraid. It was nothing like the fear I used to assume I would see when she realized what I was or what I was capable of. She'd never been afraid of me the way she should have. Yet now here she was, true fear behind her eyes, and the reason for that fear was because she was about to get what she'd sworn she wanted more than anything. ³You're not ready,´ I said softly, trying with all my might to assure her that was okay. ³I am,´ she said unconvincingly, her voice still trembling. She wanted to appear brave, and it pained me to see her try so hard. ³I have to be,´ she continued firmly. ³You don't have to be anything,´ I promised her. Her eyes turned glassy as she whispered, ³Victoria, Jane, Caius, whoever was in my room...´ All the people who were trying to harm her, all the dangers I'd brought upon her... ³All the more reason to wait,´ I said, almost to myself. I would not allow her to end her life because she thought it was the only way she would be safe. I'd hunt them all down myself before I let her be frightened into this decision. This is her life we were talking about, her humanity, her soul, and if she was having even the slightest of doubts, then promise or no promise, all bets were off. We would waiting until she's ready. ³That doesn't make any sense, Edward!´ I held her face in my hands, so fragile, so warm and perfect. I hated that she was afraid. I hated that she didn't trust I could protect her. I hated that she felt she had no way out, no choice but immortality. ³Bella. Not one of us had a choice. You've seen what it's done... to Rosalie especially. We've all struggled, trying to reconcile ourselves with something we had no control over. I won't let it be that way for you. You will have a choice.´ I'd started to come to terms with Bella's decision because I was so sure it was what she truly wanted. But the terror in her eyes could not be ignored. There was at least some measure of doubt behind her determination, and until I saw that absolute certainty once again, I would not allow the change to happen. ³I've already made my choice,´ Bella said, her voice only slightly more calm. ³You aren't going through with this because a sword is hanging over your head. We will take care of the problems, and I will take care of you. When we're through it, and there is nothing forcing your hand, then you can decide to join me, if you still want to. But not because you're afraid. You won't be forced into this.´ My eyes were locked with hers and I hoped she felt the absolute certainty there. ³Carlisle promised,´ she said stubbornly, though her words didn't have the same air of finality as they usually did. ³After graduation.´ ³Not until you're ready,´ I repeated. ³And definitely not while you feel threatened.´ The look on her face was frustration mixed with defeat, and I knew the conversation was over. At least for the moment. ³There,´ I said, pressing my lips to her forehead. She relaxed only slightly beneath my touch. ³Nothing to worry about.´ ³Nothing but impending doom,´ she halfheartedly teased. 115
³Trust me.´ ³I do.´ She'd always trusted me to keep her out of harm's way, even when it seemed nearly impossible to do so, yet I heard the way her heart was racing. Even with my speed and strength, nothing was certain. It made me ache that I would never be able to completely take her fear away. Not without making her indestructible, that is. ³Can I ask you something?´ she finally said after a very weighted silence. ³Anything.´ She paused for a moment as if what she was about to ask was difficult, so I was surprised when she asked, ³What am I getting Alice for graduation?´ I laughed at the fact that no matter what catastrophe was currently upon us, she could always find something trivial to worry about. ³It looked like you were getting us both concert tickets ± ´ ³That's right! The concert in Tacoma. I saw an ad in the paper last week, and I thought it would be something you'd like, since you said it was a good CD.´ ³It's a great idea. Thank you.´ ³I hope it's not sold out.´ ³It's the thought that counts. I ought to know.´ And seeing as Alice had already picked out what she was going to wear to the show, I assumed Bella would be able to get tickets. Knowing I would rather spend the evening with Bella, I'd already hinted to Jasper that I would bequeath mine to him, and he and Alice could have an evening out together. Bella let out a long breath, and when I noticed she wasn't looking me in the eye, I realized her question about the gift had merely been buying her time. What was she afraid to ask? ³There's something else you meant to ask,´ I prompted her. ³You're good.´ ³I have lots of practice reading your face. Ask me.´ She scooted closer to me and ducked her head down, pressing her cheek to my chest. I could feel her heart pounding as she built up the courage to ask whatever it was that was troubling her. As they always did when I was wishing I could just read her mind, the seconds felt like they were dragging on. When she finally spoke, her voice was trembling, and there was a sadness behind it that I seldom heard. ³You don't want me to be a vampire.´ ³No, I don't,´ I said simply. To wish for such a thing, even when it seemed to be the only way to ensure our forever, would be unthinkable. I expected her to complain or argue with me, but instead she sat quietly, looking almost embarrassed, though I couldn't understand why. ³That's not a question,´ I finally said, when I couldn't take the silence any longer. ³Well...´ she started, her cheeks blazing hot, ³I was worrying about... why you feel that way.´ ³Worrying?´ Why would my desire to preserve her humanity cause her to worry? Although I knew she wanted us to be the same, I thought she understood my reasons. I thought I'd made it 116
clear a thousand times over how precious her life, her heart, her soul, everything about her was to me. I'd be a murderer and a thief, worse than the monster I already knew myself to be, if I were to take everything from her purely for my own selfish desires. ³Would you tell me why?´ she asked, her voice unsteady and genuinely concerned. ³The whole truth, not sparing my feelings?´ I was baffled. Why would I hide any of my reasons, and how could any of them hurt her? They could only prove my love for her more completely. ³If I answer your question, will you then explain your question?´ She nodded, though she still wouldn't look into my eyes. I took a deep breath before starting, worried now that I would somehow offend her without meaning to. I couldn't stand knowing how much this was hurting her, when all I ever wanted was to protect her, preserve her perfection. ³You could do so much better, Bella,´ I started, but the words didn't sound like enough. It was the most absurd understatement I'd ever uttered. ³I know that you believe I have a soul, but I'm not entirely convinced on that point, and to risk yours...´ I couldn't continue, couldn't make myself speak of the travesty that seemed so imminent. She'd made her choice, there was no way to deny her, but saying it out loud would give it more finality than I could handle. I shook my head, turning the focus back to myself. It was what she wanted to know ± why I didn't want this for her, even when it would solve so many of the obstacles we faced by being together. ³For me to allow this ± to let you become what I am just so that I'll never have to lose you ± is the most selfish act I can imagine. I want it more than anything, for myself. But for you, I want so much more. Giving in ± it feels criminal. It's the most selfish thing I'll ever do, even if I live forever. If there were any way for me to become human for you ± no matter what the price was, I would pay it.´ I hadn't known what brought on her question, or why she was worried about my answer, so I had no way of knowing how she would react to my answer. It was more honest than I'd allowed myself to be with her ± more honest even than I was with myself most of the time ± and admitting that changing her was what my heart truly desired tore me apart. Could she forgive me for my selfish desires if she understood the only reason I wanted it was because I couldn't live without her? I looked down at her, terrified of what I would see on her face now that she knew, and was startled to find she was smiling. ³So... it's not that you're afraid you won't... like me as much when I'm different ± when I'm not soft and warm and I don't smell the same? You really do want to keep me, no matter how I turn out?´ ³You were worried I wouldn't like you?´ I gasped, disbelieving even as I repeated her words. A part of me was furious at myself, because if she could think such a thing then I must not be doing enough to assure her of my love. It had never crossed my mind that she took my refusal to change her to mean I was questioning that I wanted her by my side forever. Then as quickly as my self-loathing had set in, it passed, and I found myself laughing. Whether at the ridiculousness of her assumption or out of sheer relief I wasn't sure. ³Bella, for a fairly intuitive person, you can be so obtuse!´ She stared at me, uncomprehending for a moment. Then slowly, a smile tugged at her lips. I still didn't understand how she could have been so worried, when I'd told her time and again that I 117
couldn't live without her. Certainly my trip to Volterra last year should have been proof enough of that. ³I don't think you realize how much easier it will be for me, Bella, when I don't have to concentrate all the time on not killing you.´ I used to shy away from saying the word out loud, but for some reason it seemed important to say it now. After thinking I'd lost her forever, controlling the blood lust had become significantly easier. The instinct to keep her safe had long ago triumphed over the instinct to satiate my own desires, but that didn't mean it wasn't still painful. Now that I knew Bella was concerned I wouldn't like her when she was changed, I wanted to remind her that taking away the temptation of her blood would grant me a release from the agony I thought I would always have to endure. Still, for every happiness, there is a sacrifice. ³Certainly, there are things I'll miss,´ I said sadly, brushing my fingers across her cheek as I tried to memorize the exact feel of her soft, warm skin. ³This for one...´ She blushed under my touch and I laughed in spite of myself, as I thought about a time when her reactions wouldn't be so obvious to me. Would I still be able to read her when I no longer had her racing heart and blushing cheeks telling me how she felt? I hoped I would, though the thought of finding new ways to understand and know her excited me as well. ³And the sound of your heart,´ I said, focusing in on it, luxuriating in its melody. I'd spent so long listening, counting the beats, I could hardly fathom a world without it. ³It's the most significant sound in my world. I'm so attuned to it now, I swear I could pick it out from miles away. But neither of these things matter. This,´ I said, cradling her face. My one love. My reason for everything. ³You. That's what I'm keeping. You'll always be my Bella, you'll just be a little more durable.´ She closed her eyes, peaceful and serene as I traced my fingertips across her skin. Soon, I would never have to worry about losing her again. She would be mine, forever. Except... She'd asked her question, and I had one of my own. I was both anxious and nervous to bring up the subject again, but as graduation grew nearer everyday, I knew my time was running out. ³Now will you answer a question for me? The whole truth, not sparing my feelings?´ I asked, using the words she'd chosen. She'd been upfront about her concerns, and my total and absolute honesty in answering her had put her mind at ease. I hoped that my own concerns were just as unfounded, and that she could offer me an answer that would grant me the same relief. ³Of course,´ she said quickly. Now that the moment was upon me, I instantly wanted to take it back. I wasn't sure if I was ready for her answer. I took a deep breathe and uttered the words that had been eating away at me since she had refused my proposal. ³You don't want to be my wife.´ It was amazing how much it hurt to say it aloud. She gasped and I heard her heart jump, skipping a beat while she regained her composure. After a moment, she said, ³That's not a question,´ throwing my own words from earlier back to me. I slowly laced my fingers with hers, continuing in the same manner. ³I was worrying about why you felt that way,´ I repeated. ³That's not a question, either,´ she said, stalling. We could keep dancing around what we both knew I was asking, but every second she evaded me, my silent heart seemed to break further. She 118
said she wanted forever, yet I couldn't stop the little voice in the back of my mind from repeating, she doesn't want to be your wife... ³Please, Bella?´ I begged. ³The truth?´ she said, barely whispering. ³Of course. I can take it, whatever it is.´ I prepared myself for the worst. If she told me right then that all she really wanted was to be a vampire ± to be safe, to be immortal, without worry, never afraid ± I knew I would grant it to her. Whether she wanted me forever or not, I desired nothing more than for her to be happy. ³You're going to laugh at me,´ she said. That was highly unlikely. It was hard to think of anything that could be amusing about my beloved explaining why she was willing to give up her soul but wouldn't let me put a ring on her finger. ³Laugh? I cannot imagine that,´ I said dryly. ³You'll see,´ she said, pausing before blushing wildly once again. Then, although I hadn't said another word, her expression twisted and contorted until she finally shouted, ³Okay, fine! I'm sure this will sound like some big joke to you, but really! It's just so...so... so embarrassing!´ She sounded almost guilty as she averted her gaze once more, which didn't ease my mind any. ³I'm not following you,´ I hedged. She leaned back until her eyes were locked with mine, and I was utterly dumbfounded by her expression. She looked furious, and I suddenly wondered if everything was somehow even worse than I'd imagined. I'd barely been able to handle the knowledge that she didn't want to marry me, but now I was left wondering if she was actually offended by the idea. I was shocked and hurt, and wishing more than anything that we could go back to her simply saying, ³no.´ ³I'm not that girl, Edward,´ she snapped, her tone more biting than I'd ever heard. ³The one who gets married right out of high school like some small-town hick who got knocked up by her boyfriend! Do you know what people would think? Do you realize what century this is? People don't just get married at eighteen! Not smart people, not responsible, mature people! I wasn't going to be that girl! That's not who I am...´ I waited for her to say she didn't want to be my wife, waited for the part about not wanting to promise her forever to a selfish monster like me. But it never came. There might have been more to her frantic explanation, or maybe I just didn't hear it. All I could think about at that moment was the fact that the reason Bella had said no had nothing to do with me. It didn't really even have anything to do with her. She was worried about what people would think, and if she stopped to consider the fact that those people she was concerned about weren't going to have any place in her new life, maybe she'd find that there was nothing stopping her from saying yes. I realized a moment later she was staring at me, obviously awaiting my reaction to her confession. ³That's all?´ I asked blankly, probably sounding like a complete fool. ³Isn't that enough?´ ³It's not that you were... more eager for immortality itself than for just me?´ 119
³Edward!´ she said, laughing and sputtering as I listened in disbelief. ³And here... I always... thought that... you were... so much... smarter than me!´ I pulled her into my arms and laughed along with her as the weight of the world seemed to lift from my shoulders. Apparently we were both total fools, worrying needlessly when all we really needed to do was listen to and trust in each other. ³Edward,´ she breathed, nuzzling closer to me as I basked in her radiating warmth and love. ³There's no point to forever without you. I wouldn't want one day without you.´ ³Well, that's a relief,´ I sighed. ³Still...´ she said, a hint of g uilt creeping back into her voice, ³it doesn't change anything.´ ³It's nice to understand, though. And I do understand your perspective, Bella, truly I do. But I'd like it very much if you'd try to consider mine.´ She nodded cautiously. I wanted so much for her to see things through my eyes, just for this one moment. She said she wanted eternity with me, but there was one problem. She had no real concept of what eternity felt like. I did. I'd had nearly a hundred years to ponder what forever truly felt like, and most of those years I'd spent assuming I would always be alone. She couldn't possibly comprehend how completely she'd changed my existence, because she was still mortal. Time meant something entirely different to her. I knew I wanted her forever, because I knew how forever had felt without her. The idea of eternity seemed unbearable before Bella, yet because of her, it now felt like a gift. I wanted her to understand, but we were from such different worlds ± different times. In her world, the idea of getting married at eighteen was absurd. Where I'd grown up, in my time, it was to be expected. ³You see, Bella, I was always that boy. In my world, I was already a man. I wasn't looking for love ± no, I was far too eager to be a soldier for that; I thought of nothing but the idealized glory of the war that they were selling prospective draftees then ± but if I had found...´ I paused, unable to simply say someone because I knew that whether a hundred years ago or a hundred years in my future, I was only ever meant to find Bella. She was the only one who could make my existence worthwhile. ³I was going to say if I had found someone, but that won't do. If I had found you, there isn't a doubt in my mind how I would have proceeded. I was that boy, who would have ± as soon as I discovered that you were what I was looking for ± gotten down on one knee and endeavored to secure your hand. I would have wanted you for eternity, even when the word didn't have quite the same connotations.´ Her eyes were wide with astonishment and possibly a touch of nervousness, but I wasn't the slightest bit sorry. She needed to understand where I was coming from, why in my mind, there was absolutely no reason not to marry her. I knew down to the very soul she was sure I still possessed that she was all I would ever need. ³Breathe, Bella,´ I said gently when I realized she hadn't moved. She took one slow, forced breath. ³Can you see my side, Bella, even a little bit?´ I asked. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but for one brief second I could swear I saw a flicker of excitement in her eyes. 120
³The thing is, Edward, in my mind, marriage and eternity are not mutually exclusive or inclusive concepts. And since we're living in my world for the moment,´ she argued with a smirk, ³maybe we should go with the times, if you know what I mean.´ So stubborn. The whole reason we were having this discussion in the first place was because she was adamantly determined to leave her world and join mine. All things considered, it really wasn't fair for her to bring human logic and standards into it at all. ³But on the other hand, you will soon be leaving time behind you altogether. So why should the transitory customs of one local culture affect the decision so much?´ ³When in Rome?´ she pressed, but I think even she knew it was a moot point. I laughed at her indignant expression, momentarily content that we were at least getting our feelings on the matter out in the open. I wasn't expecting her to change her mind that instant. In fact, I would have been a little disappointed if she had. After all, I still hadn't proposed to her properly, and since this was something I was only going to do once, I didn't want to miss the opportunity. ³You don't have to say yes or no today, Bella. It's good to understand both sides, though, don't you think?´ ³So your condition...?´ ³Is still in effect.´ I tried not to think about how formal it all felt. Terms and conditions ± it was starting to sound more like a business arrangement than two people in love discussing their future together. ³I do see your point, Bella,´ I assured her, ³but if you want me to change you myself...´ Would you first do me the honor of becoming my wife? Be mine, as I am yours, forever? How simple it would have been to open the floodgate and let the words pour out. But Bella was already humming the wedding march, and it was impossible to ignore the fact that there was no joy in her tone. She wasn't ready, and I couldn't handle being turned down again. So I would wait. For as long as she needed me to. Fortunately, I had plenty to distract me. During the brief times I was at home, Alice was babbling a constant stream of party details, and when she wasn't saying them out loud, she was thinking them. I'd stopped responding to her, because it was simply too difficult to keep track of what she was and wasn't saying out loud. I wasn't even sure she knew anymore. ³The flowers will be here tomorrow, and they'll be perfect except for one small bouquet that will be slightly wilted, I'll have to take care of that immediately.´ How hard is it to deliver fresh flowers, anyway? ³And I've seen what you're planning on wearing, Edward. It's simply dreadful. Have I taught you nothing in our decades together?´ Did you start taking fashion advice from Bella, because really, that's being rather counterproductive. ³I don't know why I even bother anymore.´ She's not a lost cause, though. She's going to have much better fashion sense after... Alice finally stopped, mid sentence or mid thought, when she noticed I was glaring at her. ³What?´ she asked innocently. ³I didn't think we were still tiptoeing around the subject, seeing as graduation is in a few days.´ She smiled angelically and flitted out the front door, probably on her way to pick up even more unnecessary decorations. She knew as well as I did that while the tentative date for Bella's transformation was set, everything depended on Bella's final decision regarding my condition ± a decision which Alice still swore to me she hadn't officially made yet. 121
Every time I tried to decipher anything Alice might have seen, anything that would tell me whether another more formal proposal would grant me the answer I desired, she found a new and increasingly more irritating way of blocking me. She was hiding something, and was being even more diligent about it than usual. Bella certainly wasn't giving me any insight. Our conversation about our differing views on marriage had felt so open and honest, I had fully expected to hear something about it in her dreams, and for our discussion to continue on into the following morning. Instead, she'd slept silently that night, and when I'd returned from my morning run home, I found her absently pushing around her cereal and starting with glassy eyes at the newspaper. I watched her for a few moments, trying to read her expression. There was definite concern in her eyes as she scanned the print on the page, and I knocked softly, hoping to grant her relief from whatever tragedy she was reading about. ³Bella?´ I said when she didn't lift her gaze from the page. She jumped, her eyes frantic and panicked, as she turned to look at me. I was instantly remorseful at having made her obvious anxiety worse, and I hurried over to hold her hand in mine. ³Did I startle you? I'm sorry. I did knock...´ ³No, no,´ she said, her voice shaky as she eyes wandered back to the paper. ³Have you seen this?´ Seattle Terrorized By Slayings ³I hadn't seen today's news yet. But I knew it was getting worse. We're going to have to do something... quickly.´ Honestly, my family and I had thought all this would be over by now, either by us intervening and convincing whoever was at fault that it was in their best interest to move on, or by the Volturi putting an end to it on their terms. Though Carlisle was still determined there was something we could do, my family hadn't made another trip to Seattle since their first unproductive visit. While they'd had no intention of beginning a fight, they had hoped to at least gain some insight as to what they were up against, yet somehow, whoever was responsible was remarkably good at evading us. It made absolutely no sense if he or she was a newborn. They shouldn't have any real skills ± simply an uncontrollable need to feed. ³What does Alice say?´ Bella asked, eyes still glued to the headline. ³That's the problem. She can't see anything... though we've made up our minds half a dozen times to check it out. She's starting to lose confidence. She feels like she's missing too much these days, that something's wrong. That maybe her vision in slipping away.´ ³Can that happen?´ she gasped. ³Who knows? No one's ever done a study... but I really doubt it. These things tend to intensify over time. Look at Aro and Jane.´ Even my own talent, aside from my one baffling exception, seemed to have increased over the years ± if not in actual skill, then certainly in my ability to control it. Those first few years were miserable, before I learned to at least somewhat block out the noise. ³Then what's wrong?´
³Self-fulfilling prophecy, I think. We keep waiting for Alice to see something so we can go... and she doesn't see anything because we won't really go until she does. So she can't see us there. Maybe we'll have to do it blind.´ ³No,´ she said firmly. I could see the terror in her eyes, and though I wished we could wait for Alice to see something helpful, our time was running out. We would most likely be taking action whether Alice could get past whatever was blocking her vision or not. If we were dealing with newborns ± and despite everything, it still seemed the most likely option ± then there was one person who would understand what we were getting ourselves into better than anyone else. I hated that I would have to bring up the past that he was so determined to forget, but at this point, Jasper was our biggest advantage. ³Did you have a strong desire to attend class today? We're only a couple of days from finals; they won't be giving us anything new.´ ³I think I can live without school for a day. What are we doing?´ ³I want to talk to Jasper.´ Bella nodded hesitantly, and I could tell she was curious what roll Jasper would play in the situation, though I doubted she would ask it out loud. We drove in somewhat uncomfortable silence to my house, both of us lost in our own concerns. When we arrived, my family was waiting, watching the TV and hoping they would hear something that would give us a clue. Why can't I see anything? Is there something else besides the wolves I can't see? What if I don't see the Volturi coming? What if they're already on their way? Alice was sitting on the stairs with an agonized expression on her face. I wished I could say something to make her feel better, but she was thinking the exact thing I was. We all depended so greatly on her abilities, and if she was missing things, it could mean disaster for us. ³Hey, Edward,´ Emmett said, joining the others. He was smiling, the only one in the room whose mind wasn't consumed with worry. ³Ditching, Bella?´ he asked lightly. ³We both are,´ I told him. ³Yes,´ he laughed, ³but it's her first time through high school. She might miss something.´ I sighed, simultaneously irritated and thankful that at least one of us was able to keep a positive attitude in the midst of such uncertainty. I looked to Carlisle, giving him the newspaper, and it didn't escape my notice that he wouldn't look me in the eye. He was so used to being the one with the cool head, the one person in my family who never let the rest of us panic. Yet even he was fearing the worst. ³Did you see that they're considering a serial killer now?´ I asked. ³They've had two specialists debating that possibility on CNN all morning.´ ³We can't let this go on.´ He glanced at Bella for a split second. I know. But unless Alice finds a way past whatever is blocking her vision, we don't know who they are, or how many there are. It could turn into a fight so easily, and if they are newborns, they won't care who's watching or what is revealed. Then, when the Volturi come, they'll charge us with breaking the rules as well. ³Let's go now. I'm dead bored,´ Emmett interrupted. Rosalie hissed from upstairs. ³Such a pessimist,´ he mumbled. 123
Not our fight... don't see why we're even bothering. Let the Volturi pay us a visit for all I care. Finding it harder than usual to ignore Rose, I forced my attention to Emmett.. ³We'll have to go sometime.´ Suddenly Rosalie was on the top step, looking down at me serenely. Well, if we want this over quickly, we could always take Bella with us. She seems to appeal to everyone so much, I'm sure she would lure the newborns right to us. I very nearly lunged at her, and it took every ounce of strength within me to keep my expression blank. I could tell she was only half joking, and that didn't help matters any. ³I'm concerned,´ Carlisle said, drawing my focus away from Rose. ³We've never involved ourselves in this kind of thing before. It's not our business. We aren't the Volturi.´ ³I don't want the Volturi to have to come here,´ I said firmly. ³It gives us so much less reaction time.´ Carlisle was trying, for my sake, not to think what the rest of my family already was. But even from him I heard, soon enough, Bella will be immortal and it won't matter if they come. ³And all those innocent humans in Seattle,´ Esme said, mostly to herself. ³It's not right to let them die this way.´ ³I know,´ Carlisle said, taking her hand gently. I still don't understand the motive, but it's the only thing that makes sense.... Jasper was staring at the floor, shaking his head slowly. All the deaths, no regard whatsoever... it's almost like they're practicing for something. And the body count keeps getting higher, like there are more of them every day. They're staying in one place... waiting for the rest, perhaps? We figured there were several, but an army... ³Oh,´ I gasped. ³I didn't think of that. I see. You're right, that has to be it. Well, that changes everything.´ Jasper's head shot up. He met my gaze with wide eyes, and I could see he hadn't realized I'd been listening. He was too caught up in his revelation. I almost apologized to him, but at the same moment, I noticed that the rest of my family was more irritated at the exchange than he was. Out loud, Bro? Seriously, come on, Emmett thought. Honestly, how do you expect us to accomplish anything with you and Jasper talking in code, Rose added. Alice was staring at me, hurt. Kind of getting a complex about my abilities, here. Would you mind not flaunting yours? Even Carlisle was slightly perturbed. Now's not the time to be keeping things to yourself, Edward. ³I think you'd better explain to the others,´ I told Jasper. ³What could be the purpose of this?´ I muttered. ³What's he rambling about?´ Alice asked Jasper. ³What are you thinking?´ Jasper watched me, looking somewhat betrayed, and I mouthed, ³sorry´ to him. He didn't like being the center of attention, and he was looking at the expectant faces that surrounded him nervously. I was about to offer to explain for him, when he thought, No point in keeping it to myself any longer. Bella should really know the whole story first, though. After all, she's family now. 124
His expression softened as he turned to Bella, and I was glad she was too focused on him to notice the shock in mine. Jasper hated talking about his past. Did he really care enough about Bella that he wanted her to know his history? ³You're confused,´ he said gently, eyes fixed on Bella. ³We're all confused,´ Emmett muttered. ³You can afford the time to be patient. Bella should understand this, too. She's one of us now.´ Let me know when we get to the part I don't already know.... Emmett rolled his eyes as Jasper turned back to Bella. ³How much do you know about me, Bella?´ ³Not much,´ she whispered. Does she know about the newborns, Edward? Does she know how many times I' ve killed? ³No. I'm sure you can understand why I haven't told her that story. But I suppose she needs to hear it now.´ Can she handle this? he asked, and I gave him a small nod, hoping I was right. Slowly, Jasper started to roll up his sleeve, and I watched Bella closely as he held his scarred wrist up to the light. It took her a moment, but when she recognized the mark, she gasped. ³Oh. Jasper, you have a scar exactly like mine,´ she said. If it were only one... he thought as he revealed more of his mutilated skin. ³Jasper, what happened to you?´ she asked as she took in the sheer number of scars. His story held more horror than I wanted her to know, but when I saw the determination on Jasper's face, I knew there was no going back. Though he never spoke of the exact details, I knew how he'd gotten each and every one of his scars. He kept them hidden beneath clothes, but I knew Alice kissed them all every night, a silent promise that he would never have to feel that kind of pain again. I knew that no matter how many decades passed, Jasper would always be haunted by the violence of his former life, and that as sure as he could never forgive those who had hurt him, he believed nothing could atone for what he'd done. I held my breath as he started his story, wondering exactly how much Bella would know when it was over.