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Midnight Sun - Entire Story

MidSun

Chapter 1 - FIRST SIGHT

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This was the time of day when I wished I were able to sleep.

High school.

Or was purgatory the right word? If there was any way to atone for my sins, this ought to count toward the tally in some measure. The tedium was not something I grew used to; every day seemed more impossibly monotonous than the last.

I suppose this was my form of sleep—if sleep was defined as the inert state between active periods.

I stared at the cracks running through the plaster in the far corner of the cafeteria, imagining patterns into them that were not there. It was one way to tune out the voices that babbled like the gush of a river inside my head.

Several hundred of these voices I ignored out of boredom.

When it came to the human mind, I’d heard it all before and then some. Today, all thoughts were consumed with the trivial drama of a new addition to the small student body here. It took so little to work them all up. I’d seen the new face repeated in thought after thought from every angle. Just an ordinary human girl. The excitement over her arrival was tiresomely predictable—like flashing a shiny object at a child. Half the sheep-like males were already imagining themselves in love with her, just because she was something new to look at. I tried harder to tune them out.

Only four voices did I block out of courtesy rather than distaste: my family, my two brothers and two sisters, who were so used to the lack of privacy in my presence that they rarely gave it a thought. I gave them what privacy I could. I tried not to listen if I could help it.

Try as I may, still…I knew.

Rosalie was thinking, as usual, about herself. She’d caught sight of her profile in the reflection off someone’s glasses, and she was mulling over her own perfection.

Rosalie’s mind was a shallow pool with few surprises.

Emmett was fuming over a wrestling match he’d lost to Jasper during the night. It would take all his limited patience to make it to the end of the school day to orchestrate a rematch. I never really felt intrusive hearing Emmett’s thoughts, because he never thought one thing that he would not say aloud or put into action. Perhaps I only felt guilty reading the others’ minds because I knew there were things there that they wouldn’t want me to know. If Rosalie’s mind was a shallow pool, then Emmett’s was a lake with no shadows, glass clear.

And Jasper was…suffering. I suppressed a sigh.

Edward. Alice called my name in her head, and had my attention at once.

It was just the same as having my name called aloud. I was glad my given name had fallen out of style lately—it had been annoying; anytime anyone thought of any Edward, my head would turn automatically…

My head didn’t turn now. Alice and I were good at these private conversations. It was rare that anyone caught us. I kept my eyes on the lines in the plaster. How is he holding up? she asked me.

I frowned, just a small change in the set of my mouth. Nothing that would tip the others off. I could easily be frowning out of boredom.

Alice’s mental tone was alarmed now, and I saw in her mind that she was watching Jasper in her peripheral vision. Is there any danger? She searched ahead, into the immediate future, skimming through visions of monotony for the source behind my frown.

I turned my head slowly to the left, as if looking at the bricks of the wall, sighed, and then to the right, back to the cracks in the ceiling. Only Alice knew I was shaking my head.

She relaxed. Let me know if it gets too bad.

I moved only my eyes, up to the ceiling above, and back down.

Thanks for doing this.

I was glad I couldn’t answer her aloud. What would I say? ‘My pleasure’? It was hardly that. I didn’t enjoy listening to Jasper’s struggles. Was it really necessary to experiment like this? Wouldn’t the safer path be to just admit that he might never be able to handle the thirst the way the rest of us could, and not push his limits? Why flirt with disaster?

It had been two weeks since our last hunting trip. That was not an immensely difficult time span for the rest of us. A little uncomfortable occasionally—if a human walked too close, if the wind blew the wrong way. But humans rarely walked too close.

Their instincts told them what their conscious minds would never understand: we were dangerous.

Jasper was very dangerous right now.

At that moment, a small girl paused at the end of the closest table to ours, stopping to talk to a friend. She tossed her short, sandy hair, running her fingers through it. The heaters blew her scent in our direction. I was used to the way that scent made me feel—the dry ache in my throat, the hollow yearn in my stomach, the automatic tightening of my muscles, the excess flow of venom in my mouth…

This was all quite normal, usually easy to ignore. It was harder just now, with the feelings stronger, doubled, as I monitored Jasper’s reaction. Twin thirsts, rather than just mine.

Jasper was letting his imagination get away from him. He was picturing it—picturing himself getting up from his seat next to Alice and going to stand beside the little girl. Thinking of leaning down and in, as if he were going to whisper in her ear, and letting his lips touch the arch of her throat. Imagining how the hot flow of her pulse beneath the fine skin would feel under his mouth…

I kicked his chair.

He met my gaze for a minute, and then looked down. I could hear shame and rebellion war in his head.

“Sorry,” Jasper muttered.

I shrugged.

“You weren’t going to do anything,” Alice murmured to him, soothing his chagrin. “I could see that.”

I fought back the grimace that would give her lie away. We had to stick together, Alice and I. It wasn’t easy, hearing voices or seeing visions of the future. Both freaks among those who were already freaks. We protected each other’s secrets.

“It helps a little if you think of them as people,” Alice suggested, her high, musical voice too fast for human ears to understand, if any had been close enough to hear. “Her name is Whitney. She has a baby sister she adores. Her mother invited Esme to that garden party, do you remember?”

“I know who she is,” Jasper said curtly. He turned away to stare out one of the small windows that were spaced just under the eaves around the long room. His tone ended the conversation.

He would have to hunt tonight. It was ridiculous to take risks like this, trying to test his strength, to build his endurance. Jasper should just accept his limitations and work within them. His former habits were not conducive to our chosen lifestyle; he shouldn’t push himself in this way.

Alice sighed silently and stood, taking her tray of food—her prop, as it were—with her and leaving him alone. She knew when he’d had enough of her encouragement.

Though Rosalie and Emmett were more flagrant about their relationship, it was Alice and Jasper who knew each other’s every mood as well as their own. As if they could read minds, too—only just each other’s.

Edward Cullen.

Reflex reaction. I turned to the sound of my name being called, though it wasn’t being called, just thought.

My eyes locked for a small portion of a second with a pair of wide, chocolate-brown human eyes set in a pale, heart-shaped face. I knew the face, though I’d never seen it myself before this moment. It had been foremost in every human head today. The new student, Isabella Swan. Daughter of the town’s chief of police, brought to live here by some new custody situation. Bella. She’d corrected everyone who’d used her full name…

I looked away, bored. It took me a second to realize that she had not been the one to think my name. Of course she’s already crushing on the Cullens, I heard the first thought continue.

Now I recognized the ‘voice.’ Jessica Stanley—it had been a while since she’d bothered me with her internal chatter. What a relief it had been when she’d gotten over her misplaced infatuation. It used to be nearly impossible to escape her constant, ridiculous daydreams. I’d wished, at the time, that I could explain to her exactly what would have happened if my lips, and the teeth behind them, had gotten anywhere near her. That would have silenced those annoying fantasies. The thought of her reaction almost made me smile.

Fat lot of good it will do her, Jessica went on. She’s really not even pretty. I don’t know why Eric is staring so much…or Mike.

She winced mentally on the last name. Her new infatuation, the generically popular Mike Newton, was completely oblivious to her. Apparently, he was not as oblivious to the new girl. Like the child with the shiny object again. This put a mean edge to Jessica’s thoughts, though she was outwardly cordial to the newcomer as she explained to her the commonly held knowledge about my family. The new student must have asked about us.

Everyone’s looking at me today, too, Jessica thought smugly in an aside. Isn’t it lucky Bella had two classes with me…I’ll bet Mike will want to ask me what she’s—

I tried to block the inane chatter out of my head before the petty and the trivial could drive me mad.

“Jessica Stanley is giving the new Swan girl all the dirty laundry on the Cullen clan,” I murmured to Emmett as a distraction.

He chuckled under his breath. I hope she’s making it good, he thought.

“Rather unimaginative, actually. Just the barest hint of scandal. Not an ounce of horror. I’m a little disappointed.”

And the new girl? Is she disappointed in the gossip as well?

I listened to hear what this new girl, Bella, thought of Jessica’s story. What did she see when she looked at the strange, chalky-skinned family that was universally avoided?

It was sort of my responsibility to know her reaction. I acted as a lookout, for lack of a better word, for my family. To protect us. If anyone ever grew suspicious, I could give us early warning and an easy retreat. It happened occasionally—some human with an active imagination would see in us the characters of a book or a movie. Usually they got it wrong, but it was better to move on somewhere new than to risk scrutiny.

Very, very rarely, someone would guess right. We didn’t give them a chance to test their hypothesis. We simply disappeared, to become no more than a frightening memory…

I heard nothing, though I listened close beside where Jessica’s frivolous internal monologue continued to gush. It was as if there was no one sitting beside her. How peculiar, had the girl moved? That didn’t seem likely, as Jessica was still babbling to her.

I looked up to check, feeling off-balance. Checking on what my extra ‘hearing’ could tell me—it wasn’t something I ever had to do.

Again, my gaze locked on those same wide brown eyes. She was sitting right where she had been before, and looking at us, a natural thing to be doing, I supposed, as Jessica was still regaling her with the local gossip about the Cullens.

Thinking about us, too, would be natural.

But I couldn’t hear a whisper.

Inviting warm red stained her cheeks as she looked down, away from the embarrassing gaffe of getting caught staring at a stranger. It was good that Jasper was still gazing out the window. I didn’t like to imagine what that easy pooling of blood would do to his control.

The emotions had been as clear on her face as if they were spelled out in words across her forehead: surprise, as she unknowingly absorbed the signs of the subtle differences between her kind and mine, curiosity, as she listened to Jessica’s tale, and something more…fascination? It wouldn’t be the first time. We were beautiful to them, our intended prey. Then, finally, embarrassment as I caught her staring at me.

And yet, though her thoughts had been so clear in her odd eyes—odd, because of the depth to them; brown eyes often seemed flat in their darkness—I could hear nothing but silence from the place she was sitting. Nothing at all.

I felt a moment of unease.

This was nothing I’d ever encountered before. Was there something wrong with me? I felt exactly the same as I always did. Worried, I listened harder.

All the voices I’d been blocking were suddenly shouting in my head.

…wonder what music she likes…maybe I could mention that new CD… Mike Newton was thinking, two tables away—fixated on Bella Swan.

Look at him staring at her. Isn’t it enough that he has half the girls in school waiting for him to… Eric Yorkie was thinking sulfurous thoughts, also revolving around the girl.

It was…so disgusting. You’d think she was famous or something… Even Edward Cullen , staring… Lauren Mallory was so jealous that her face, by all rights, should be dark jade incolor. And Jessica, flaunting her new best friend. What a joke… Vitriol continued to spew from the girl’s thoughts.

I bet everyone has asked her that. But I’d like to talk to her. I’ll think of a more original question… Ashley Dowling mused.

…maybe she’ll be in my Spanish… June Richardson hoped.

…tons left to do tonight! Trig, and the English test. I hope my mom… Angela Weber, a quiet girl, whose thoughts were unusually kind, was the only one at the table who wasn’t obsessed with this Bella.

I could hear them all, hear every insignificant thing they were thinking as it passed through their minds. But nothing at all from the new student with the deceptively communicative eyes.

And, of course, I could hear what the girl said when she spoke to Jessica. I didn’t have to read minds to be able to hear her low, clear voice on the far side of the long room.

“Which one is the boy with the reddish brown hair?” I heard her ask, sneaking a look at me from the corner of her eye, only to look quickly away when she saw that I was still staring.

If I’d had time to hope that hearing the sound of her voice would help me pinpoint the tone of her thoughts, lost somewhere where I couldn’t access them, I was instantly disappointed. Usually, people’s thoughts came to them in a similar pitch as their physical voices. But this quiet, shy voice was unfamiliar, not one of the hundreds of thoughts bouncing around the room, I was sure of that. Entirely new.

Oh, good luck, idiot! Jessica thought before answering the girl’s question.

“That’s Edward. He’s gorgeous, of course, but don’t waste your time. He doesn’t date.

Apparently none of the girls here are good-looking enough for him.” She sniffed.

I turned my head away to hide my smile. Jessica and her classmates had no idea how lucky they were that none of them particularly appealed to me.

Beneath the transient humor, I felt a strange impulse, one I did not clearly understand. It had something to do with the vicious edge to Jessica’s thoughts that the new girl was unaware of… I felt the strangest urge to step in between them, to shield this Bella Swan from the darker workings of Jessica’s mind. What an odd thing to feel.

Trying to ferret out the motivations behind the impulse, I examined the new girl one more time.

Perhaps it was just some long buried protective instinct—the strong for the weak.

This girl looked more fragile than her new classmates. Her skin was so translucent it was hard to believe it offered her much defense from the outside world. I could see the rhythmic pulse of blood through her veins under the clear, pale membrane… But I should not concentrate on that. I was good at this life I’d chosen, but I was just as thirsty as Jasper and there was no point in inviting temptation.

There was a faint crease between her eyebrows that she seemed unaware of.

It was unbelievable frustrating! I could clearly see that it was a strain for her to sit there, to make conversation with strangers, to be the center of attention. I could sense her shyness from the way she held her frail-looking shoulders, slightly hunched, as if she was expecting a rebuff at any moment. And yet I could only sense, could only see, could only imagine. There was nothing but silence from the very unexceptional human girl. I could hear nothing. Why?

“Shall we?” Rosalie murmured, interrupting my focus.

I looked away from the girl with a sense of relief. I didn’t want to continue to fail at this—it irritated me. And I didn’t want to develop any interest in her hidden thoughts simply because they were hidden from me. No doubt, when I did decipher her thoughts—and I would find a way to do so—they would be just as petty and trivial as any human’s thoughts. Not worth the effort I would expend to reach them.

“So, is the new one afraid of us yet?” Emmett asked, still waiting for my response to his question before.

I shrugged. He wasn’t interested enough to press for a more information. Nor should I be interested.

We got up from the table and walked out of the cafeteria.

Emmett, Rosalie, and Jasper were pretending to be seniors; they left for their classes. I was playing a younger role than they. I headed off for my junior level biology class, preparing my mind for the tedium. It was doubtful Mr. Banner, a man of no more than average intellect, would manage to pull out anything in his lecture that would surprise someone holding two graduate degrees in medicine.

In the classroom, I settled into my chair and let my books—props, again; they held nothing I didn’t already know—spill across the table. I was the only student who had a table to himself. The humans weren’t smart enough to know that they feared me, but their survival instincts were enough to keep them away.

The room slowly filled as they trickled in from lunch. I leaned back in my chair and waited for the time to pass. Again, I wished I was able to sleep. Because I’d been thinking about her, when Angela Weber escorted the new girl through the door, her name intruded on my attention.

Bella seems just as shy as me. I’ll bet today is really hard for her. I wish I could say something…but it would probably just sound stupid…

Yes! Mike Newton thought, turning in his seat to watch the girls enter.

Still, from the place where Bella Swan stood, nothing. The empty space where her thoughts should be irritated and unnerved me.

She came closer, walking down the aisle beside me to get to the teacher’s desk.

Poor girl; the seat next to me was the only one available. Automatically, I cleared what would be her side of the desk, shoving my books into a pile. I doubted she would feel very comfortable there. She was in for a long semester—in this class, at least. Perhaps, though, sitting beside her, I’d be able to flush out her secrets…not that I’d ever needed close proximity before…not that I would find anything worth listening to…

Bella Swan walked into the flow of the heated air that blew toward me from the vent.

Her scent hit me like wrecking ball, like a battering ram. There was no image violent enough to encapsulate the force of what happened to me in that moment.

In that instant, I was nothing close to the human I’d once been; no trace of the shreds of humanity I’d managed to cloak myself in remained.

I was a predator. She was my prey. There was nothing else in the whole world but that truth.

There was no room full of witnesses—they were already collateral damage in my head. The mystery of her thoughts was forgotten. Her thoughts meant nothing, for she would not go on thinking them much longer.

I was a vampire, and she had the sweetest blood I’d smelled in eighty years.

I hadn’t imagined such a scent could exist. If I’d known it did, I would have gone searching for it long ago. I would have combed the planet for her. I could imagine the taste…

Thirst burned through my throat like fire. My mouth was baked and desiccated.

The fresh flow of venom did nothing to dispel that sensation. My stomach twisted with the hunger that was an echo of the thirst. My muscles coiled to spring.

Not a full second had passed. She was still taking the same step that had put her downwind from me.

As her foot touched the ground, her eyes slid toward me, a movement she clearly meant to be stealthy. Her glance met mine, and I saw myself reflected in the wide mirror of her eyes.

The shock of the face I saw there saved her life for a few thorny moments.

She didn’t make it easier. When she processed the expression on my face, blood flooded her cheeks again, turning her skin the most delicious color I’d ever seen. The scent was a thick haze in my brain. I could barely think through it. My thoughts raged, resisting control, incoherent.

She walked more quickly now, as if she understood the need to escape. Her haste made her clumsy—she tripped and stumbled forward, almost falling into the girl seated in front of me. Vulnerable, weak. Even more than usual for a human.

I tried to focus on the face I’d seen in her eyes, a face I recognized with revulsion.

The face of the monster in me—the face I’d beaten back with decades of effort and uncompromising discipline. How easily it sprang to the surface now!

The scent swirled around me again, scattering my thoughts and nearly propelling me out of my seat.

My hand gripped under the edge of the table as I tried to hold myself in my chair.

The wood was not up to the task. My hand crushed through the strut and came away with a palmful of splintered pulp, leaving the shape of my fingers carved into the remaining wood.

Destroy evidence. That was a fundamental rule. I quickly pulverized the edges of the shape with my fingertips, leaving nothing but a ragged hole and a pile of shavings on the floor, which I scattered with my foot.

Destroy evidence. Collateral damage….

I knew what had to happen now. The girl would have to come sit beside me, and I would have to kill her.

The innocent bystanders in this classroom, eighteen other children and one man, could not be allowed to leave this room, having seen what they would soon see.

I flinched at the thought of what I must do. Even at my very worst, I had never committed this kind of atrocity. I had never killed innocents, not in over eight decades.

And now I planned to slaughter twenty of them at once.

The face of the monster in the mirror mocked me.

Even as part of me shuddered away from the monster, another part was planning it.

If I killed the girl first, I would have only fifteen or twenty seconds with her before the humans in the room would react. Maybe a little bit longer, if at first they did not realize what I was doing. She would not have time to scream or feel pain; I would not kill her cruelly. That much I could give this stranger with her horribly desirable blood.

But then I would have to stop them from escaping. I wouldn’t have to worry about the windows, too high up and small to provide an escape for anyone. Just the door—block that and they were trapped.

It would be slower and more difficult, trying to take them all down when they were panicked and scrambling, moving in chaos. Not impossible, but there would be much more noise. Time for lots of screaming. Someone would hear…and I’d be forced to kill even more innocents in this black hour.

And her blood would cool, while I murdered the others.

The scent punished me, closing my throat with dry aching…

So the witnesses first then.

I mapped it out in my head. I was in the middle of the room, the furthest row in the back. I would take my right side first. I could snap four or five of their necks per second, I estimated. It would not be noisy. The right side would be the lucky side; they would not see me coming. Moving around the front and back up the left side, it would take me, at most, five seconds to end every life in this room.

Long enough for Bella Swan to see, briefly, what was coming for her. Long enough for her to feel fear. Long enough, maybe, if shock didn’t freeze her in place, for her to work up a scream. One soft scream that would not bring anyone running.

I took a deep breath, and the scent was a fire that raced through my dry veins, burning out from my chest to consume every better impulse that I was capable of.

She was just turning now. In a few seconds, she would sit down inches away from me.

The monster in my head smiled in anticipation.

Someone slammed shut a folder on my left. I didn’t look up to see which of the doomed humans it was. But the motion sent a wave of ordinary, unscented air wafting across my face.

For one short second, I was able to think clearly. In that precious second, I saw two faces in my head, side by side.

One was mine, or rather had been: the red-eyed monster that had killed so many people that I’d stop counting their numbers. Rationalized, justified murders. A killer of killers, a killer of other, less powerful monsters. It was a god complex, I acknowledged that—deciding who deserved a death sentence. It was a compromise with myself. I had fed on human blood, but only by the loosest definition. My victims were, in their various dark pastimes, barely more human than I was.

The other face was Carlisle’s.

There was no resemblance between the two faces. They were bright day and blackest night.

There was no reason for there to be a resemblance. Carlisle was not my father in the basic biological sense. We shared no common features. The similarity in our coloring was a product of what we were; every vampire had the same ice pale skin. The similarity in the color of our eyes was another matter—a reflection of a mutual choice.

And yet, though there was no basis for a resemblance, I’d imagined that my face had begun to reflect his, to an extent, in the last seventy-odd years that I had embraced his choice and followed in his steps. My features had not changed, but it seemed to me like some of his wisdom had marked my expression, that a little of his compassion could be traced in the shape of my mouth, and hints of his patience were evident on my brow.

All those tiny improvements were lost in the face of the monster. In a few moments, there would be nothing left in me that would reflect the years I’d spent with my creator, my mentor, my father in all the ways that counted. My eyes would glow red as a devil’s; all likeness would be lost forever.

In my head, Carlisle’s kind eyes did not judge me. I knew that he would forgive me for this horrible act that I would do. Because he loved me. Because he thought I was better than I was. And he would still love me, even as I now proved him wrong.

Bella Swan sat down in the chair next to me, her movements stiff and awkward—with fear?—and the scent of her blood bloomed in an inexorable cloud around me.

I would prove my father wrong about me. The misery of this fact hurt almost as much as the fire in my throat.

I leaned away from her in revulsion—revolted by the monster aching to take her.

Why did she have to come here? Why did she have to exist? Why did she have to ruin the little peace I had in this non-life of mine? Why had this aggravating human ever been born? She would ruin me.

I turned my face away from her, as a sudden fierce, unreasoning hatred washed through me.

Who was this creature? Why me, why now? Why did I have to lose everything just because she happened to choose this unlikely town to appear in?

Why had she come here!

I didn’t want to be the monster! I didn’t want to kill this room full of harmless children! I didn’t want to lose everything I’d gained in a lifetime of sacrifice and denial!

I wouldn’t. She couldn’t make me.

The scent was the problem, the hideously appealing scent of her blood. If there was only some way to resist…if only another gust of fresh air could clear my head.

Bella Swan shook out her long, thick, mahogany hair in my direction.

Was she insane? It was as if she were encouraging the monster! Taunting him.

There was no friendly breeze to blow the smell away from me now. All would soon be lost.

No, there was no helpful breeze. But I didn’t have to breathe.

I stopped the flow of air through my lungs; the relief was instantaneous, but incomplete. I still had the memory of the scent in my head, the taste of it on the back of my tongue. I wouldn’t be able to resist even that for long. But perhaps I could resist for an hour. One hour. Just enough time to get out of this room full of victims, victims that maybe didn’t have to be victims. If I could resist for one short hour.

It was an uncomfortable feeling, not breathing. My body did not need oxygen, but it went against my instincts. I relied on scent more than my other senses in times of stress. It led the way in the hunt, it was the first warning in case of danger. I did not often came across something as dangerous as I was, but self-preservation was just as strong in my kind as it was in the average human.

Uncomfortable, but manageable. More bearable than smelling her and not sinking my teeth through that fine, thin, see-through skin to the hot, wet, pulsing—

An hour! Just one hour. I must not think of the scent, the taste.

The silent girl kept her hair between us, leaning forward so that it spilled across her folder. I couldn’t see her face, to try to read the emotions in her clear, deep eyes.

Was this why she’d let her tresses fan out between us? To hide those eyes from me? Out of fear? Shyness? To keep her secrets from me?

My former irritation at being stymied by her soundless thoughts was weak and pale in comparison to the need—and the hate—that possessed me now. For I hated this frail woman-child beside me, hated her with all the fervor with which I clung to my former self, my love of my family, my dreams of being something better than what I was… Hating her, hating how she made me feel—it helped a little. Yes, the irritation I’d felt before was weak, but it, too, helped a little. I clung to any emotion that distracted me from imagining what she would taste like… Hate and irritation. Impatience. Would the hour never pass?

And when the hour ended… Then she would walk out of this room. And I would do what?

I could introduce myself. Hello, my name is Edward Cullen. May I walk you to your next class?

She would say yes. It would be the polite thing to do. Even already fearing me, as I suspected she did, she would follow convention and walk beside me. It should be easy enough to lead her in the wrong direction. A spur of the forest reached out like a finger to touch the back corner of the parking lot. I could tell her I’d forgotten a book in my car…

Would anyone notice that I was the last person she’d been seen with? It was raining, as usual; two dark raincoats heading the wrong direction wouldn’t pique too much interest, or give me away.

Except that I was not the only student who was aware of her today—though no one was as blisteringly aware as I was. Mike Newton, in particular, was conscious of every shift in her weight as she fidgeted in her chair—she was uncomfortable so close to me, just as anyone would be, just as I’d expected before her scent had destroyed all charitable concern. Mike Newton would notice if she left the classroom with me.

If I could last an hour, could I last two?

I flinched at the pain of the burning.

She would go home to an empty house. Police Chief Swan worked a full day. I knew his house, as I knew every house in the tiny town. His home was nestled right up against thick woods, with no close neighbors. Even if she had time to scream, which she would not, there would be no one to hear.

That would be the responsible way to deal with this. I’d gone seven decades without human blood. If I held my breath, I could last two hours. And when I had her alone, there would be no chance of anyone else getting hurt. And no reason to rush through the experience, the monster in my head agreed.

It was sophistry to think that by saving the nineteen humans in this room with effort and patience, I would be less a monster when I killed this innocent girl.

Though I hated her, I knew my hatred was unjust. I knew that what I really hated was myself. And I would hate us both so much more when she was dead.

I made it through the hour in this way—imagining the best ways to kill her. I tried to avoid imagining the actual act. That might be too much for me; I might lose this battle and end up killing everyone in sight. So I planned strategy, and nothing more. It carried me through the hour.

Once, toward the very end, she peeked up at me through the fluid wall of her hair.

I could feel the unjustified hatred burning out of me as I met her gaze—see the reflection of it in her frightened eyes. Blood painted her cheek before she could hide in her hair again, and I was nearly undone.

But the bell rang. Saved by the bell—how cliché. We were both saved. She, saved from death. I, saved for just a short time from being the nightmarish creature I feared and loathed.

I couldn’t walk as slowly as I should as I darted from the room. If anyone had been looking at me, they might have suspected that there was something not right about the way I moved. No one was paying attention to me. All human thoughts still swirled around the girl who was condemned to die in little more than an hour’s time.

I hid in my car.

I didn’t like to think of myself having to hide. How cowardly that sounded. But it was unquestionably the case now.

I didn’t have enough discipline left to be around humans now. Focusing so much of my efforts on not killing one of them left me no resources to resist the others. What a waste that would be. If I were to give in to the monster, I might as well make it worth the defeat.

I played a CD of music that usually calmed me, but it did little for me now. No, what helped most now was the cool, wet, clean air that drifted with the light rain through my open windows. Though I could remember the scent of Bella Swan’s blood with perfect clarity, inhaling the clean air was like washing out the inside of my body from its infection.

I was sane again. I could think again. And I could fight again. I could fight against what I didn’t want to be.

I didn’t have to go to her home. I didn’t have to kill her. Obviously, I was a rational, thinking creature, and I had a choice. There was always a choice.

It hadn’t felt that way in the classroom…but I was away from her now. Perhaps, if I avoided her very, very carefully, there was no need for my life to change. I had things ordered the way I liked them now. Why should I let some aggravating and delicious nobody ruin that?

I didn’t have to disappoint my father. I didn’t have to cause my mother stress, worry…pain. Yes, it would hurt my adopted mother, too. And Esme was so gentle, so tender and soft. Causing someone like Esme pain was truly inexcusable.

How ironic that I’d wanted to protect this human girl from the paltry, toothless threat of Jessica Stanley’s snide thoughts. I was the last person who would ever stand as a protector for Isabella Swan. She would never need protection from anything more than she needed it from me.

Where was Alice, I suddenly wondered? Hadn’t she seen me killing the Swan girl in a multitude of ways? Why hadn’t she come to help—to stop me or help me clean up the evidence, whichever? Was she so absorbed with watching for trouble with Jasper that she’d missed this much more horrific possibility? Was I stronger than I thought?

Would I really not have done anything to the girl?

No. I knew that wasn’t true. Alice must be concentrating on Jasper very hard.

I searched in the direction I knew she would be, in the small building used for English classes. It did not take me long to locate her familiar ‘voice.’ And I was right.

Her every thought was turned to Jasper, watching his small choices with minute scrutiny.

I wished I could ask her advice, but at the same time, I was glad she didn’t know what I was capable of. That she was unaware of the massacre I had considered in the last hour.

I felt a new burn through my body—the burn of shame. I didn’t want any of them to know.

If I could avoid Bella Swan, if I could manage not to kill her—even as I thought that, the monster writhed and gnashed his teeth in frustration—then no one would have to know. If I could keep away from her scent… There was no reason why I shouldn’t try, at least. Make a good choice. Try to be what Carlisle thought I was.

The last hour of school was almost over. I decided to put my new plan into action at once. Better than sitting here in the parking lot where she might pass me and ruin my attempt. Again, I felt the unjust hatred for the girl. I hated that she had this unconscious power over me. That she could make me be something I reviled.

I walked swiftly—a little too swiftly, but there were no witnesses—across the tiny campus to the office. There was no reason for Bella Swan to cross paths with me. She would be avoided like the plague she was.

The office was empty except for the secretary, the one I wanted to see.

She didn’t notice my silent entrance.

“Mrs. Cope?”

The woman with the unnaturally red hair looked up and her eyes widened. It always caught them off guard, the little markers they didn’t understand, no matter how many times they’d seen one of us before.

“Oh,” she gasped, a little flustered. She smoothed her shirt. Silly, she thought to herself. He’s almost young enough to be my son. Too young to think of that way…

“Hello, Edward. What can I do for you?” Her eyelashes fluttered behind her thick glasses.

Uncomfortable. But I knew how to be charming when I wanted to be. It was easy, since I was able to know instantly how any tone or gesture was taken.

I leaned forward, meeting her gaze as if I were staring deeply into her depthless, small brown eyes. Her thoughts were already in a flutter. This should be simple.

“I was wondering if you could help me with my schedule,” I said in the soft voice I reserved for not scaring humans.

I heard the tempo of her heart increase.

“Of course, Edward. How can I help?” Too young, too young, she chanted to herself. Wrong, of course. I was older than her grandfather. But according to my driver’s license, she was right.

“I was wondering if I could move from my biology class to a senior level science?

Physics, perhaps?”

"Is there a problem with Mr. Banner, Edward?”

“Not at all, it’s just that I’ve already studied this material…”

“In that accelerated school you all went to in Alaska, right.” Her thin lips pursed as she considered this. They should all be in college. I’ve heard the teachers complain.

Perfect four point ohs, never a hesitation with a response, never a wrong answer on a test—like they’ve found some way to cheat in every subject. Mr. Varner would rather believe that anyone was cheating than think a student was smarter than him… I’ll bet their mother tutors them… “Actually, Edward, physics is pretty much full right now.

Mr. Banner hates to have more than twenty-five students in a class—”

“I wouldn’t be any trouble.”

Of course not. Not a perfect Cullen. “I know that, Edward. But there just aren’t enough seats as it is…”

“Could I drop the class, then? I could use the period for independent study.”

“Drop biology?” He mouth fell open. That’s crazy. How hard is it to sit through a subject you already know? There must be a problem with Mr. Banner. I wonder if I should talk to Bob about it? “You won’t have enough credits to graduate.”

“I’ll catch up next year.”

“Maybe you should talk to your parents about that.” The door opened behind me, but who ever it was did not think of me, so I ignored the arrival and concentrated on Mrs. Cope. I leaned slightly closer, and held my eyes a little wider. This would work better if they were gold instead of black. The blackness frightened people, as it should.

“Please, Mrs. Cope?” I made my voice as smooth and compelling as it could be—and it could be considerably compelling. “Isn’t there some other section I could switch to? I’m sure there has to be an open slot somewhere? Sixth hour biology can’t be the only option…”

I smiled at her, careful not to flash my teeth so widely that it would scare her, letting the expression soften my face.

Her heart drummed faster. Too young, she reminded herself frantically. “Well, maybe I could talk to Bob—I mean Mr. Banner. I could see if—”

A second was all it took to change everything: the atmosphere in the room, my mission here, the reason I leaned toward the red-haired woman… What had been for one purpose before was now for another.

A second was all it took for Samantha Wells to open the door and place a signed tardy slip in the basket by the door, and hurry out again, in a rush to be away from school.

A second was all it took for the sudden gust of wind through the open door to crash into me. A second was all it took for me to realize why that first person through the door had not interrupted me with her thoughts.

I turned, though I did not need to make sure. I turned slowly, fighting to control the muscles that rebelled against me.

Bella Swan stood with her back pressed to the wall beside the door, a piece of paper clutched in her hands. Her eyes were even wider than usual as she took in my ferocious, inhuman glare.

The smell of her blood saturated every particle of air in the tiny, hot room. My throat burst into flames.

The monster glared back at me from the mirror of her eyes again, a mask of evil.

My hand hesitated in the air above the counter. I would not have to look back in order to reach across it and slam Mrs. Cope’s head into her desk with enough force to kill her. Two lives, rather than twenty. A trade.

The monster waited anxiously, hungrily, for me to do it.

But there was always a choice—there had to be.

I cut off the motion of my lungs, and fixed Carlisle’s face in front of my eyes. I turned back to face Mrs. Cope, and heard her internal surprise at the change in my expression. She shrank away from me, but her fear did not form into coherent words.

Using all the control I’d mastered in my decades of self-denial, I made my voice even and smooth. There was just enough air left in my lungs to speak once more, rushing through the words.

“Nevermind, then. I can see that it’s impossible. Thank you so much for your help.”

I spun and launched myself from the room, trying not to feel the warm-blooded heat of the girl’s body as I passed within inches of it.

I didn’t stop until I was in my car, moving too fast the entire way there. Most of the humans had cleared out already, so there weren’t a lot of witnesses. I heard a sophomore, D.J. Garrett, notice, and then disregard…

Where did Cullen come from—it was like he just came out of thin air… There I go, with the imagination again. Mom always says…

When I slid into my Volvo, the others were already there. I tried to control my breathing, but I was gasping at the fresh air like I’d been suffocated.

“Edward?” Alice asked, alarm in her voice.

I just shook my head at her.

“What the hell happened to you?” Emmett demanded, distracted, for the moment, from the fact that Jasper was not in the mood for his rematch.

Instead of answering, I threw the car into reverse. I had to get out of this lot before Bella Swan could follow me here, too. My own person demon, haunting me… I swung the car around and accelerated. I hit forty before I was on the road. On the road, I hit seventy before I made the corner.

Without looking, I knew that Emmett, Rosalie and Jasper had all turned to stare at Alice. She shrugged. She couldn’t see what had passed, only what was coming.

She looked ahead for me now. We both processed what she saw in her head, and we were both surprised.

“You’re leaving?” she whispered.

The others stared at me now.

“Am I?” I hissed through my teeth.

She saw it then, as my resolve wavered and another choice spun my future in a darker direction.

“Oh.”

Bella Swan, dead. My eyes, glowing crimson with fresh blood. The search that would follow. The careful time we would wait before it was safe for us to pull out and start again…

“Oh,” she said again. The picture grew more specific. I saw the inside of Chief Swan’s house for the first time, saw Bella in a small kitchen with the yellow cupboards, her back to me as I stalked her from the shadows…let the scent pull me toward her…

“Stop!” I groaned, not able to bear more.

“Sorry,” she whispered, her eyes wide.

The monster rejoiced.

And the vision in her head shifted again. An empty highway at night, the trees beside it coated in snow, flashing by at almost two hundred miles per hour.

“I’ll miss you,” she said. “No matter how short a time you’re gone.” Emmett and Rosalie exchanged an apprehensive glance.

We were almost to the turn off onto the long drive that led to our home.

“Drop us here,” Alice instructed. “You should tell Carlisle yourself.” I nodded, and the car squealed to a sudden stop.

Emmett, Rosalie and Jasper got out in silence; they would make Alice explain when I was gone. Alice touched my shoulder.

“You will do the right thing,” she murmured. Not a vision this time—an order.

“She’s Charlie Swan’s only family. It would kill him, too.”

“Yes,” I said, agreeing only with the last part.

She slid out to join the others, her eyebrows pulling together in anxiety. They melted into woods, out of sight before I could turn the car around.

I accelerated back toward town, and I knew the visions in Alice’s head would be flashing from dark to bright like a strobe light. As I sped back to Forks doing ninety, I wasn’t sure where I was going. To say goodbye to my father? Or to embrace the monster inside me? The road flew away beneath my tires.


Chapter 2 - OPEN BOOK

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I leaned back against the soft snow bank, letting the dry powder reshape itself around my weight. My skin had cooled to match the air around me, and the tiny pieces of ice felt like velvet under my skin.

The sky above me was clear, brilliant with stars, glowing blue in some places, yellow in others. The stars created majestic, swirling shapes against the black universe—an awesome sight. Exquisitely beautiful. Or rather, it should have been exquisite.

Would have been, if I’d been able to really see it.

It wasn’t getting any better. Six days had passed, six days I’d hidden here in the empty Denali wilderness, but I was no closer to freedom than I had been since the first moment that I’d caught her scent.

When I stared up at the jeweled sky, it was as if there were an obstruction between my eyes and their beauty. The obstruction was a face, just an unremarkable human face, but I couldn’t quite seem to banish it from my mind.

I heard the approaching thoughts before I heard the footsteps that accompanied them. The sound of movement was only a faint whisper against the powder.

I was not surprised that Tanya had followed me here. I knew she’d been mulling over this coming conversation for the last few days, putting it off until she was sure of exactly what she wanted to say.

She sprang into sight about sixty yards away, leaping onto the tip of an outcropping of black rock and balancing there on the balls of her bare feet.

Tanya’s skin was silver in the starlight, and her long blond curls shone pale, almost pink with their strawberry tint. Her amber eyes glinted as she spied me, half-buried in the snow, and her full lips stretched slowly into a smile.

Exquisite. If I’d really been able to see her. I sighed.

She crouched down on the point of the stone, her fingertips touching the rock, her body coiled.

Cannonball, she thought.

She launched herself into the air; her shape became a dark, twisting shadow as she spun gracefully between me and the stars. She curled herself into a ball just as she struck the piled snow bank beside me.

A blizzard of snow flew up around me. The stars went black and I was buried deep in the feathery ice crystals.

I sighed again, but didn’t move to unearth myself. The blackness under the snow neither hurt nor improved the view. I still saw the same face.

“Edward?”

Then snow was flying again as Tanya swiftly disinterred me. She brushed the powder from my unmoving face, not quite meeting my eyes.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “It was a joke.”

“I know. It was funny.”

Her mouth twisted down.

“Irina and Kate said I should leave you alone. They think I’m annoying you.”

“Not at all,” I assured her. “On the contrary, I’m the one who’s being rude—abominably rude. I’m very sorry.”

You’re going home, aren’t you? she thought.

“I haven’t entirely decided that yet.”

But you’re not staying here. Her thought was wistful now, sad. “No. It doesn’t seem to be…helping.”

She grimaced. “That’s my fault, isn’t it?”

“Of course not,” I lied smoothly.

Don’t be a gentleman.

I smiled.

I make you uncomfortable, she accused.

“No.”

She raised one eyebrow, her expression so disbelieving that I had to laugh. One short laugh, followed by another sigh.

“All right,” I admitted. “A little bit.”

She sighed, too, and put her chin in her hands. Her thoughts were chagrined.

“You’re a thousand times lovelier than the stars, Tanya. Of course, you’re already well aware of that. Don’t let my stubbornness undermine your confidence.” I chuckled at the unlikeliness of that.

“I’m not used to rejection,” she grumbled, her lower lip pushing out into an attractive pout.

“Certainly not,” I agreed, trying with little success to block out her thoughts as she fleetingly sifted through memories of her thousands of successful conquests. Mostly Tanya preferred human men—they were much more populous for one thing, with the added advantage of being soft and warm. And always eager, definitely.

“Succubus,” I teased, hoping to interrupt the images flickering in her head.

She grinned, flashing her teeth. “The original.” Unlike Carlisle, Tanya and her sisters had discovered their consciences slowly. In the end, it was their fondness for human men that turned the sisters against the slaughter.

Now the men they loved…lived.

“When you showed up here,” Tanya said slowly. “I thought that…” I’d known what she’d thought. And I should have guessed that she would have felt that way. But I hadn’t been at my best for analytical thinking in that moment.

“You thought that I’d changed my mind.”

“Yes.” She scowled.

“I feel horrible for toying with your expectations, Tanya. I didn’t mean to—I wasn’t thinking. It’s just that I left in…quite a hurry.”

“I don’t suppose you’d tell me why…?”

I sat up and wrapped my arms around my legs, curling defensively. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Tanya, Irina and Kate were very good at this life they’d committed to. Better, in some ways, than even Carlisle. Despite the insanely close proximity they allowed themselves with those who should be—and once were—their prey, they did not make mistakes. I was too ashamed to admit my weakness to Tanya.

“Woman troubles?” she guessed, ignoring my reluctance.

I laughed a bleak laugh. “Not the way you mean it.” She was quiet then. I listened to her thoughts as she ran through different guesses, tried to decipher the meaning of my words.

“You’re not even close,” I told her.

“One hint?” she asked.

“Please let it go, Tanya.”

She was quiet again, still speculating. I ignored her, trying in vain to appreciate the stars.

She gave up after a silent moment, and her thoughts pursued a new direction.

Where will you go, Edward, if you leave? Back to Carlisle?

“I don’t think so,” I whispered.

Where would I go? I could not think of one place on the entire planet that held any interest for me. There was nothing I wanted to see or do. Because, no matter where I went, I would not be going to anywhere—I would only be running from.

I hated that. When had I become such a coward?

Tanya threw her slender arm around my shoulders. I stiffened, but did not flinch out from under her touch. She meant it as nothing more than friendly comfort. Mostly.

“I think that you will go back,” she said, her voice taking on just a hint of her long lost Russian accent. “No matter what it is…or who it is...that is haunting you. You’ll face it head on. You’re the type.”

Her thoughts were as certain as her words. I tried to embrace the vision of myself that she carried in her head. The one who faced things head on. It was pleasant to think of myself that way again. I’d never doubted my courage, my ability to face difficulty, before that horrible hour in a high school biology class such a short time ago.

I kissed her cheek, pulling back swiftly when she twisted her face toward mine, her lips already puckered. She smiled ruefully at my quickness.

“Thank you, Tanya. I needed to hear that.”

Her thoughts turned petulant. “You’re welcome, I guess. I wish you would be more reasonable about things, Edward.”

“I’m sorry, Tanya. You know you’re too good for me. I just…haven’t found what I’m looking for yet.”

“Well, if you leave before I see you again…goodbye, Edward.”

“Goodbye, Tanya.” As I said the words, I could see it. I could see myself leaving. Being strong enough to go back to the one place where I wanted to be. “Thanks again.”

She was on her feet in one nimble move, and then she was running away, ghosting across the snow so quickly that her feet had no time to sink into the snow; she left no prints behind her. She didn’t look back. My rejection bothered her more than she’d let on before, even in her thoughts. She wouldn’t want to see me again before I left.

My mouth twisted with chagrin. I didn’t like hurting Tanya, though her feelings were not deep, hardly pure, and, in any case, not something I could return. It still made me feel less than a gentleman.

I put my chin on my knees and stared up at the stars again, though I was suddenly anxious to be on my way. I knew that Alice would see me coming home, that she would tell the others. This would make them happy—Carlisle and Esme especially. But I gazed at the stars for one more moment, trying to see past the face in my head. Between me and the brilliant lights in the sky, a pair of bewildered chocolate-brown eyes stared back at me, seeming to ask what this decision would mean for her. Of course, I couldn’t be sure if that was really the information her curious eyes sought. Even in my imagination, I couldn’t hear her thoughts. Bella Swan’s eyes continued to question, and an unobstructed view of the stars continued to elude me. With a heavy sigh, I gave up, and got to my feet. If I ran, I would be back to Carlisle’s car in less than an hour…

In a hurry to see my family—and wanting very much to be the Edward that faced things head on—I raced across the starlit snowfield, leaving no footprints.

“It’s going to be okay,” Alice breathed. Her eyes were unfocused, and Jasper had one hand lightly under her elbow, guiding her forward as we walked into the rundown cafeteria in a close group. Rosalie and Emmett led the way, Emmett looking ridiculously like a bodyguard in the middle of hostile territory. Rose looked wary, too, but much more irritated than protective.

“Of course it is,” I grumbled. Their behavior was ludicrous. If I wasn’t positive that I could handle this moment, I would have stayed home.

The sudden shift from our normal, even playful morning—it had snowed in the night, and Emmett and Jasper were not above taking advantage of my distraction to bombard me with slushballs; when they got bored with my lack of response, they’d turned on each other—to this overdone vigilance would have been comical if it weren’t so irritating.

“She’s not here yet, but the way she’s going to come in…she won’t be downwind if we sit in our regular spot.”

“Of course we’ll sit in our regular spot. Stop it, Alice. You’re getting on my nerves. I’ll be absolutely fine.”

She blinked once as Jasper helped her into her seat, and her eyes finally focused on my face.

“Hmm,” she said, sounding surprised. “I think you’re right.”

“Of course I am,” I muttered.

I hated being the focus of their concern. I felt a sudden sympathy for Jasper, remembering all the times we’d hovered protectively over him. He met my glance briefly, and grinned.

Annoying, isn’t it?

I grimaced at him.

Was it just last week that this long, drab room had seemed so killingly dull to me?

That it had seemed almost like sleep, like a coma, to be here?

Today my nerves were stretched tight—piano wires, tensed to sing at the lightest pressure. My senses were hyper-alert; I scanned every sound, every sight, every movement of the air that touched my skin, every thought. Especially the thoughts. There was only one sense that I kept locked down, refused to use. Smell, of course. I didn’t breathe.

I was expecting to hear more about the Cullens in the thoughts that I sifted through. All day I’d been waiting, searching for whichever new acquaintance Bella Swan might have confided in, trying to see the direction the new gossip would take. But there was nothing. No one noticed the five vampires in the cafeteria, just the same as before the new girl had come. Several of the humans here were still thinking of that girl, still thinking the same thoughts from last week. Instead of finding this unutterably boring, I was now fascinated.

Had she said nothing to anyone about me?

There was no way that she had not noticed my black, murderous glare. I had seen her react to it. Surely, I’d scared her silly. I had been convinced that she would have mentioned it to someone, maybe even exaggerated the story a bit to make it better. Given me a few menacing lines.

And then, she’d also heard me trying to get out of our shared biology class. She must have wondered, after seeing my expression, whether she were the cause. A normal girl would have asked around, compared her experience to others, looked for common ground that would explain my behavior so she didn’t feel singled out. Humans were constantly desperate to feel normal, to fit in. To blend in with everyone else around them, like a featureless flock of sheep. The need was particularly strong during the insecure adolescent years. This girl would be no exception to that rule.

But no one at all took any notice of us sitting here, at our normal table. Bella must be exceptionally shy, if she’d confided in no one. Perhaps she had spoken to her father, maybe that was the strongest relationship…though that seemed unlikely, given the fact that she had spent so little time with him throughout her life. She would be closer to her mother. Still, I would have to pass by Chief Swan sometime soon and listen to what he was thinking.

“Anything new?” Jasper asked.

“Nothing. She…must not have said anything.”

All of them raised an eyebrow at this news.

“Maybe you’re not as scary as you think you are,” Emmett said, chuckling. “I bet I could have frightened her better than that.” I rolled my eyes at him.

“Wonder why…?” He puzzled again over my revelation about the girl’s unique silence.

“We’ve been over that. I don’t know.”

“She’s coming in,” Alice murmured then. I felt my body go rigid. “Try to look human.”

“Human, you say?” Emmett asked.

He held up his right fist, twisting his fingers to reveal the snowball he’d saved in his palm. Of course it had not melted there. He’d squeezed it into a lumpy block of ice.

He had his eyes on Jasper, but I saw the direction of his thoughts. So did Alice, of course. When he abruptly hurled the ice chunk at her, she flicked it away with a casual flutter of her fingers. The ice ricocheted across the length of the cafeteria, too fast to be visible to human eyes, and shattered with a sharp crack against the brick wall. The brick cracked, too.

The heads in that corner of the room all turned to stare at the pile of broken ice on the floor, and then swiveled to find the culprit. They didn’t look further than a few tables away. No one looked at us.

“Very human, Emmett,” Rosalie said scathingly. “Why don’t you punch through the wall while you’re at it?”

“It would look more impressive if you did it, baby.” I tried to pay attention to them, keeping a grin fixed on my face like I was part of their banter. I did not allow myself to look toward the line where I knew she was standing. But that was all that I was listening to.

I could hear Jessica’s impatience with the new girl, who seemed to be distracted, too, standing motionless in the moving line. I saw, in Jessica’s thoughts, that Bella Swan’s cheeks were once more colored bright pink with blood.

I pulled in short, shallow breaths, ready to quit breathing if any hint of her scent touched the air near me.

Mike Newton was with the two girls. I heard both his voices, mental and verbal, when he asked Jessica what was wrong with the Swan girl. I didn’t like the way his thoughts wrapped around her, the flicker of already established fantasies that clouded his mind while he watched her start and look up from her reverie like she’d forgotten he was there.

“Nothing,” I heard Bella say in that quiet, clear voice. It seemed to ring like a bell over the babble in the cafeteria, but I knew that was just because I was listening for it so intently.

“I’ll just get a soda today,” she continued as she moved to catch up with the line.

I couldn’t help flickering one glance in her direction. She was staring at the floor, the blood slowly fading from her face. I looked away quickly, to Emmett, who laughed at the now pained-looking smile on my face.

You look sick, bro.

I rearranged my features so the expression would seem casual and effortless.

Jessica was wondering aloud about the girl’s lack of appetite. “Aren’t you hungry?”

“Actually, I feel a little sick.” Her voice was lower, but still very clear.

Why did it bother me, the protective concern that suddenly emanated from Mike Newton’s thoughts? What did it matter that there was a possessive edge to them? It wasn’t my business if Mike Newton felt unnecessarily anxious for her. Perhaps this was the way everyone responded to her. Hadn’t I wanted, instinctively, to protect her, too?

Before I’d wanted to kill her, that is…

But was the girl ill?

It was hard to judge—she looked so delicate with her translucent skin… Then I realized that I was worrying, too, just like that dimwitted boy, and I forced myself not to think about her health.

Regardless, I didn’t like monitoring her through Mike’s thoughts. I switched to Jessica’s, watching carefully as the three of them chose which table to sit at. Fortunately, they sat with Jessica’s usual companions, at one of the first tables in the room. Not downwind, just as Alice had promised.

Alice elbowed me. She’s going to look soon, act human.

I clenched my teeth behind my grin.

“Ease up, Edward,” Emmett said. “Honestly. So you kill one human. That’s hardly the end of the world.”

“You would know,” I murmured.

Emmett laughed. “You’ve got to learn to get over things. Like I do. Eternity is a long time to wallow in guilt.”

Just then, Alice tossed a smaller handful of ice that she’d been hiding into Emmett’s unsuspecting face.

He blinked, surprised, and then grinned in anticipation.

“You asked for it,” he said as he leaned across the table and shook his ice-encrusted hair in her direction. The snow, melting in the warm room, flew out from his hair in a thick shower of half-liquid, half-ice.

“Ew!” Rose complained, as she and Alice recoiled from the deluge.

Alice laughed, and we all joined in. I could see in Alice’s head how she’d orchestrated this perfect moment, and I knew that the girl—I should stop thinking of her that way, as if she were the only girl in the world—that Bella would be watching us laugh and play, looking as happy and human and unrealistically ideal as a Norman Rockwell painting.

Alice kept laughing, and held her tray up as a shield. The girl—Bella must still be staring at us.…staring at the Cullens again, someone thought, catching my attention.

I looked automatically toward the unintentional call, realizing as my eyes found their destination that I recognized the voice—I’d been listening to it so much today.

But my eyes slid right past Jessica, and focused on the girl’s penetrating gaze.

She looked down quickly, hiding behind her thick hair again.

What was she thinking? The frustration seemed to be getting more acute as time went on, rather than dulling. I tried—uncertain in what I was doing for I’d never tried this before—to probe with my mind at the silence around her. My extra hearing had always come to me naturally, without asking; I’d never had to work at it. But I concentrated now, trying to break through whatever shield surrounded her.

Nothing but silence.

What is it about her? Jessica thought, echoing my own frustration.

“Edward Cullen is staring at you,” she whispered in the Swan girl’s ear, adding a giggle. There was no hint of her jealous irritation in her tone. Jessica seemed to be skilled at feigning friendship.

I listened, too engrossed, to the girl’s response.

“He doesn’t look angry, does he?” she whispered back.

So she had noticed my wild reaction last week. Of course she had.

The question confused Jessica. I saw my own face in her thoughts as she checked my expression, but I did not meet her glance. I was still concentrating on the girl, trying to hear something. My intent focus didn’t seem to be helping at all.

“No,” Jess told her, and I knew that she wished she could say yes—how it rankled inside her, my staring—though there was no trace of that in her voice. “Should he be?”

“I don’t think he likes me,” the girl whispered back, laying her head down on her arm as if she were suddenly tired. I tried to understand the motion, but I could only make guesses. Maybe she was tired.

“The Cullens don’t like anybody,” Jess reassured her. “Well, they don’t notice anybody enough to like them.” They never used to. Her thought was a grumble of complaint. “But he’s still staring at you.”

“Stop looking at him,” the girl said anxiously, lifting her head from her arm to make sure Jessica obeyed the order.

Jessica giggled, but did as she was asked.

The girl did not look away from her table for the rest of the hour. I thought—

though, of course, I could not be sure—that this was deliberate. It seemed like she wanted to look at me. Her body would shift slightly in my direction, her chin would begin to turn, and then she would catch herself, take a deep breath, and stare fixedly at whoever was speaking.

I ignored the other thoughts around the girl for the most part, as they were not, momentarily, about her. Mike Newton was planning a snow fight in the parking lot after school, not seeming to realize that the snow had already shifted to rain. The flutter of soft flakes against the roof had become the more common patter of raindrops. Could he really not hear the change? It seemed loud to me.

When the lunch period ended, I stayed in my seat. The humans filed out, and I caught myself trying to distinguish the sound of her footsteps from the sound of the rest, as if there was something important or unusual about them. How stupid.

My family made no move to leave, either. They waited to see what I would do.

Would I go to class, sit beside the girl where I could smell the absurdly potent scent of her blood and feel the warmth of her pulse in the air on my skin? Was I strong enough for that? Or had I had enough for one day?

“I… think it’s okay,” Alice said, hesitant. “Your mind is set. I think you’ll make it through the hour.”

But Alice knew well how quickly a mind could change.

“Why push it, Edward?” Jasper asked. Though he didn’t want to feel smug that I was the one who was weak now, I could hear that he did, just a little. “Go home. Take it slow.”

“What’s the big deal?” Emmett disagreed. “Either he will or he won’t kill her.

Might as well get it over with, either way.”

“I don’t want to move yet,” Rosalie complained. “I don’t want to start over.

We’re almost out of high school, Emmett. Finally.” I was evenly torn on the decision. I wanted, wanted badly, to face this head on rather than running away again. But I didn’t want to push myself too far, either. It had been a mistake last week for Jasper to go so long without hunting; was this just as pointless a mistake?

I didn’t want to uproot my family. None of them would thank me for that.

But I wanted to go to my biology class. I realized that I wanted to see her face again.

That’s what decided it for me. That curiosity. I was angry with myself for feeling it. Hadn’t I promised myself that I wouldn’t let the silence of the girl’s mind make me unduly interested in her? And yet, here I was, most unduly interested.

I wanted to know what she was thinking. Her mind was closed, but her eyes were very open. Perhaps I could read them instead.

“No, Rose, I think it really will be okay,” Alice said. “It’s…firming up. I’m ninety-three percent sure that nothing bad will happen if he goes to class.” She looked at me inquisitively, wondering what had changed in my thoughts that made her vision of the future more secure.

Would curiosity be enough to keep Bella Swan alive?

Emmett was right, though—why not get it over with, either way? I would face the temptation head on.

“Go to class,” I ordered, pushing away from the table. I turned and strode away from them without looking back. I could hear Alice’s worry, Jasper’s censure, Emmett’s approval, and Rosalie’s irritation trailing after me.

I took one last deep breath at the door of the classroom, and then held it in my lungs as I walked into the small, warm space.

I was not late. Mr. Banner was still setting up for today’s lab. The girl sat at my—at our table, her face down again, staring at the folder she was doodling on. I examined the sketch as I approached, interested in even this trivial creation of her mind, but it was meaningless. Just a random scribbling of loops within loops. Perhaps she was not concentrating on the pattern, but thinking of something else?

I pulled my chair back with unnecessary roughness, letting it scrape across the linoleum; humans always felt more comfortable when noise announced someone’s approach.

I knew she heard the sound; she did not look up, but her hand missed a loop in the design she was drawing, making it unbalanced.

Why didn’t she look up? Probably she was frightened. I must be sure to leave her with a different impression this time. Make her think she’d been imagining things before.

“Hello,” I said in the quiet voice I used when I wanted to make humans more comfortable, forming a polite smile with my lips that would not show any teeth.

She looked up then, her wide brown eyes startled—almost bewildered—and full of silent questions. It was the same expression that had been obstructing my vision for the last week.

As I stared into those oddly deep brown eyes, I realized that the hate—the hate I’d imagined this girl somehow deserved for simply existing—had evaporated. Not breathing now, not tasting her scent, it was hard to believe that anyone so vulnerable could ever justify hatred.

Her cheeks began to flush, and she said nothing.

I kept my eyes on hers, focusing only on their questioning depths, and tried to ignore the appetizing color of her skin. I had enough breath to speak for a while longer without inhaling.

“My name is Edward Cullen,” I said, though I knew she knew that. It was the polite way to begin. “I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself last week. You must be Bella Swan.”

She seemed confused—there was that little pucker between her eyes again. It took her half a second longer than it should have for her to respond.

“How do you know my name?” she demanded, and her voice shook just a little.

I must have truly terrified her. This made me feel guilty; she was just so defenseless. I laughed gently—it was a sound that I knew made humans more at ease.

Again, I was careful about my teeth.

“Oh, I think everyone knows your name.” Surely she must have realized that she’d become the center of attention in this monotonous place. “The whole town’s been waiting for you to arrive.”

She frowned as if this information was unpleasant. I supposed, being shy as she seemed to be, attention would seem like a bad thing to her. Most humans felt the opposite. Though they didn’t want to stand out from the herd, at the same time they craved a spotlight for their individual uniformity.

“No,” she said. “I meant, why did you call me Bella?”

“Do you prefer Isabella?” I asked, perplexed by the fact that I couldn’t see where this question was leading. I didn’t understand. Surely, she’d made her preference clear many times that first day. Were all humans this incomprehensible without the mental context as a guide?

“No, I like Bella,” she answered, leaning her head slightly to one side. Her expression—if I was reading it correctly—was torn between embarrassment and confusion. “But I think Charlie—I mean my dad—must call me Isabella behind my back.

"That’s what everyone here seems to know me as.” Her skin darkened one shade pinker.

“Oh,” I said lamely, and quickly looked away from her face.

I’d just realized what her questions meant: I had slipped up—made an error. If I hadn’t been eavesdropping on all the others that first day, then I would have addressed her initially by her full name, just like everyone else. She’d noticed the difference.

I felt a pang of unease. It was very quick of her to pick up on my slip. Quite astute, especially for someone who was supposed to be terrified by my nearness.

But I had bigger problems than whatever suspicions about me she might be keeping locked inside her head.

I was out of air. If I were going to speak to her again, I would have to inhale.

It would be hard to avoid speaking. Unfortunately for her, sharing this table made her my lab partner, and we would have to work together today. It would seem odd—and incomprehensibly rude—for me to ignore her while we did the lab. It would make her more suspicious, more afraid…

I leaned as far away from her as I could without moving my seat, twisting my head out into the aisle. I braced myself, locking my muscles in place, and then sucked in one quick chest-full of air, breathing through my mouth alone.

Ahh!

It was genuinely painful. Even without smelling her, I could taste her on my tongue. My throat was suddenly in flames again, the craving every bit as strong as that first moment I’d caught her scent last week.

I gritted my teeth together and tried to compose myself.

“Get started,” Mr. Banner commanded.

It felt like it took every single ounce of self-control that I’d achieved in seventy years of hard work to turn back to the girl, who was staring down at the table, and smile.

“Ladies first, partner?” I offered.

She looked up at my expression and her face went blank, her eyes wide. Was there something off in my expression? Was she frightened again? She didn’t speak.

“Or, I could start, if you wish,” I said quietly.

“No,” she said, and her face went from white to red again. “I’ll go first.” I stared at the equipment on the table, the battered microscope, the box of slides, rather than watch the blood swirl under her clear skin. I took another quick breath, through my teeth, and winced as the taste made my throat ache.

“Prophase,” she said after a quick examination. She started to remove the slide, though she’d barely examined it.

“Do you mind if I look?” Instinctively—stupidly, as if I were one of her kind—I reached out to stop her hand from removing the slide. For one second, the heat of her skin burned into mine. It was like an electric pulse—surely much hotter than a mere ninety-eight point six degrees. The heat shot through my hand and up my arm. She yanked her hand out from under mine.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered through my clenched teeth. Needing somewhere to look, I grasped the microscope and stared briefly into the eyepiece. She was right.

“Prophase,” I agreed.

I was still too unsettled to look at her. Breathing as quietly as I could through my gritted teeth and trying to ignore the fiery thirst, I concentrated on the simple assignment, writing the word on the appropriate line on the lab sheet, and then switching out the first slide for the next.

What was she thinking now? What had that felt like to her, when I had touched her hand? My skin must have been ice cold—repulsive. No wonder she was so quiet.

I glanced at the slide.

“Anaphase,” I said to myself as I wrote it on the second line.

“May I?” she asked.

I looked up at her, surprised to see that she was waiting expectantly, one hand half-stretched toward the microscope. She didn’t look afraid. Did she really think I’d gotten the answer wrong?

I couldn’t help but smile at the hopeful look on her face as I slid the microscope toward her.

She stared into the eyepiece with an eagerness that quickly faded. The corners of her mouth turned down.

“Slide three?” she asked, not looking up from the microscope, but holding out her hand. I dropped the next slide into her hand, not letting my skin come anywhere close to hers this time. Sitting beside her was like sitting next to a heat lamp. I could feel myself warming slightly to the higher temperature.

She did not look at the slide for long. “Interphase,” she said nonchalantly—perhaps trying a little too hard to sound that way—and pushed the microscope to me.

She did not touch the paper, but waited for me to write the answer. I checked—she was correct again.

We finished this way, speaking one word at a time and never meeting each other’s eyes. We were the only ones done—the others in the class were having a harder time with the lab. Mike Newton seemed to be having trouble concentrating—he was trying to watch Bella and me.

Wish he’d stayed wherever he went, Mike thought, eyeing me sulfurously. Hmm, interesting. I hadn’t realized the boy harbored any ill will towards me. This was a new development, about as recent as the girl’s arrival it seemed. Even more interesting, I found—to my surprise—that the feeling was mutual.

I looked down at the girl again, bemused by the wide range of havoc and upheaval that, despite her ordinary, unthreatening appearance, she was wreaking on my life.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t see what Mike was going on about. She was actually rather pretty…in an unusual way. Better than being beautiful, her face was interesting.

Not quite symmetrical—her narrow chin out of balance with her wide cheekbones; extreme in the coloring—the light and dark contrast of her skin and her hair; and then there were the eyes, brimming over with silent secrets…

Eyes that were suddenly boring into mine.

I stared back at her, trying to guess even one of those secrets.

“Did you get contacts?” she asked abruptly.

What a strange question. “No.” I almost smiled at the idea of improving my eyesight.

“Oh,” she mumbled. “I thought there was something different about your eyes.” I felt suddenly colder again as I realized that I was apparently not the only one attempting to ferret out secrets today.

I shrugged, my shoulders stiff, and glared straight ahead to where the teacher was making his rounds.

Of course there was something different about my eyes since the last time she’d stared into them. To prepare myself for today’s ordeal, today’s temptation, I’d spent the entire weekend hunting, satiating my thirst as much as possible, overdoing it really. I’d glutted myself on the blood of animals, not that it made much difference in the face of the outrageous flavor floating on the air around her. When I’d glared at her last, my eyes had been black with thirst. Now, my body swimming with blood, my eyes were a warmer gold. Light amber from my excessive attempt at thirst-quenching.

Another slip. If I’d seen what she’d meant with her question, I could have just told her yes.

I’d sat beside humans for two years now at this school, and she was the first to examine me closely enough to note the change in my eye color. The others, while admiring the beauty of my family, tended to look down quickly when we returned their stares. They shied away, blocking the details of our appearances in an instinctive endeavor to keep themselves from understanding. Ignorance was bliss to the human mind.

Why did it have to be this girl who would see too much?

Mr. Banner approached our table. I gratefully inhaled the gush of clean air he brought with him before it could mix with her scent.

“So, Edward,” he said, looking over our answers, “didn’t you think Isabella should get a chance with the microscope?”

“Bella,” I corrected him reflexively. “Actually, she identified three of the five.” Mr. Banner’s thoughts were skeptical as he turned to look at the girl. “Have you done this lab before?”

I watched, engrossed, as she smiled, looking slightly embarrassed.

“Not with onion root.”

“Whitefish blastula?” Mr. Banner probed.

“Yeah.”

This surprised him. Today’s lab was something he’d pulled from a more advanced course. He nodded thoughtfully at the girl. “Were you in an advanced placement program in Phoenix?”

“Yes.”

She was advanced then, intelligent for a human. This did not surprise me.

“Well,” Mr. Banner said, pursing his lips. “I guess it’s good you two are lab partners.” He turned and walked away mumbling, “So the other kids can get a chance to learn something for themselves,” under his breath. I doubted the girl could hear that.

She began scrawling loops across her folder again.

Two slips so far in one half hour. A very poor showing on my part. Though I had no idea at all what the girl thought of me—how much did she fear, how much did she suspect?—I knew I needed to put forth a better effort to leave her with a new impression of me. Something to better drown her memories of our ferocious last encounter.

“It’s too bad about the snow, isn’t it?” I said, repeating the small talk that I’d heard a dozen students discuss already. A boring, standard topic of conversation. The weather—always safe.

She stared at me with obvious doubt in her eyes—an abnormal reaction to my very normal words. “Not really,” she said, surprising me again.

I tried to steer the conversation back to trite paths. She was from a much brighter, warmer place—her skin seemed to reflect that somehow, despite its fairness—and the cold must make her uncomfortable. My icy touch certainly had…

“You don’t like the cold,” I guessed.

“Or the wet,” she agreed.

“Forks must be a difficult place for you to live.” Perhaps you should not have come here, I wanted to add. Perhaps you should go back where you belong.

I wasn’t sure I wanted that, though. I would always remember the scent of her blood—was there any guarantee that I wouldn’t eventually follow after her? Besides, if she left, her mind would forever remain a mystery. A constant, nagging puzzle.

“You have no idea,” she said in a low voice, glowering past me for a moment.

Her answers were never what I expected. They made me want to ask more questions.

“Why did you come here, then?” I demanded, realizing instantly that my tone was too accusatory, not casual enough for the conversation. The question sounded rude, prying.

“It’s…complicated.”

She blinked her wide eyes, leaving it at that, and I nearly imploded out of curiosity—the curiosity burned as hot as the thirst in my throat. Actually, I found that it was getting slightly easier to breathe; the agony was becoming more bearable through familiarity.

“I think I can keep up,” I insisted. Perhaps common courtesy would keep her answering my questions as long as I was rude enough to ask them.

She stared down silently at her hands. This made me impatient; I wanted to put my hand under her chin and tilt her head up so that I could read her eyes. But it would be foolish of me—dangerous—to touch her skin again.

She looked up suddenly. It was a relief to be able to see the emotions in her eyes again. She spoke in a rush, hurrying through the words.

“My mother got remarried.”

Ah, this was human enough, easy to understand. Sadness passed through her clear eyes and brought the pucker back between them.

“That doesn’t sound so complex,” I said. My voice was gentle without my working to make it that way. Her sadness left me feeling oddly helpless, wishing there was something I could do to make her feel better. A strange impulse. “When did that happen?”

“Last September.” She exhaled heavily—not quite a sigh. I held my breath as her warm breath brushed my face.

“And you don’t like him,” I guessed, fishing for more information.

“No, Phil is fine,” she said, correcting my assumption. There was a hint of a smile now around the corners of her full lips. “Too young, maybe, but nice enough.” This didn’t fit with the scenario I’d been constructing in my head.

“Why didn’t you stay with them?” I asked, my voice a little too curious. It sounded like I was being nosy. Which I was, admittedly.

“Phil travels a lot. He plays ball for a living.” The little smile grew more pronounced; this career choice amused her.

I smiled, too, without choosing to. I wasn’t trying to make her feel at ease. Her smile just made me want to smile in response—to be in on the secret.

“Have I heard of him?” I ran through the rosters of professional ball players in my head, wondering which Phil was hers…

“Probably not. He doesn’t play well.” Another smile. “Strictly minor league.

He moves around a lot.”

The rosters in my head shifted instantly, and I’d tabulated a list of possibilities in less than a second. At the same time, I was imagining the new scenario.

“And your mother sent you here so that she could travel with him,” I said.

Making assumptions seemed to get more information out of her than questions did. It worked again. Her chin jutted out, and her expression was suddenly stubborn.

“No, she did not send me here,” she said, and her voice had a new, hard edge to it.

My assumption had upset her, though I couldn’t quite see how. “I sent myself.” I could not guess at her meaning, or the source behind her pique. I was entirely lost.

So I gave up. There was just no making sense of the girl. She wasn’t like other humans. Maybe the silence of her thoughts and the perfume of her scent were not the only unusual things about her.

“I don’t understand,” I admitted, hating to concede.

She sighed, and stared into my eyes for longer than most normal humans were able to stand.

“She stayed with me at first, but she missed him,” she explained slowly, her tone growing more forlorn with each word. “It made her unhappy…so I decided it was time to spend some quality time with Charlie.”

The tiny pucker between her eyes deepened.

“But now you’re unhappy,” I murmured. I couldn’t seem to stop speaking my hypotheses aloud, hoping to learn from her reactions. This one, however, did not seem as far off the mark.

“And?” she said, as if this was not even an aspect to be considered.

I continued to stare into her eyes, feeling that I’d finally gotten my first real glimpse into her soul. I saw in that one word where she ranked herself among her own priorities. Unlike most humans, her own needs were far down the list.

She was selfless.

As I saw this, the mystery of the person hiding inside this quiet mind began to thin a little.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said. I shrugged, trying to seem casual, trying to conceal the intensity of my curiosity.

She laughed, but there was no amusement the sound. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you? Life isn’t fair.”

I wanted to laugh at her words, though I, too, felt no real amusement. I knew a little something about the unfairness of life. “I believe I have heard that somewhere before.”

She stared back at me, seeming confused again. Her eyes flickered away, and then came back to mine.

“So that’s all,” she told me.

But I was not ready to let this conversation end. The little V between her eyes, a remnant of her sorrow, bothered me. I wanted to smooth it away with my fingertip. But, of course, I could not touch her. It was unsafe in so many ways.

“You put on a good show.” I spoke slowly, still considering this next hypothesis.

“But I’d be willing to bet that you’re suffering more than you let anyone see.” She made a face, her eyes narrowing and her mouth twisting into a lopsided pout, and she looked back towards the front of the class. She didn’t like it when I guessed right. She wasn’t the average martyr—she didn’t want an audience to her pain.

“Am I wrong?”

She flinched slightly, but otherwise pretended not to hear me.

That made me smile. “I didn’t think so.”

“Why does it matter to you?” she demanded, still staring away.

“That’s a very good question,” I admitted, more to myself than to answer her.

Her discernment was better than mine—she saw right to the core of things while I floundered around the edges, sifting blindly through clues. The details of her very human life should not matter to me. It was wrong for me to care what she thought. Beyond protecting my family from suspicion, human thoughts were not significant.

I was not used to being the less intuitive of any pairing. I relied on my extra hearing too much—I clearly was not as perceptive as I gave myself credit for.

The girl sighed and glowered toward the front of the classroom. Something about her frustrated expression was humorous. The whole situation, the whole conversation was humorous. No one had ever been in more danger from me than this little girl—at any moment I might, distracted by my ridiculous absorption in the conversation, inhale through my nose and attack her before I could stop myself—and she was irritated because I hadn’t answered her question.

“Am I annoying you?” I asked, smiling at the absurdity of it all.

She glanced at me quickly, and then her eyes seemed to get trapped by my gaze.

“Not exactly,” she told me. “I’m more annoyed at myself. My face is so easy to read—my mother always calls me her open book.”

She frowned, disgruntled.

I stared at her in amazement. The reason she was upset was because she thought I saw through her too easily. How bizarre. I’d never expended so much effort to understand someone in all my life—or rather existence, as life was hardly the right word.

I did not truly have a life.

“On the contrary,” I disagreed, feeling strangely…wary, as if there were some hidden danger here that I was failing to see. I was suddenly on edge, the premonition making me anxious. “I find you very difficult to read.”

“You must be a good reader then,” she guessed, making her own assumption that was, again, right on target.

“Usually,” I agreed.

I smiled at her widely then, letting my lips pull back to expose the rows of gleaming, razor sharp teeth behind them.

It was a stupid thing to do, but I was abruptly, unexpectedly desperate to get some kind of warning through to the girl. Her body was closer to me than before, having shifted unconsciously in the course of our conversation. All the little markers and signs that were sufficient to scare off the rest of humanity did not seem to be working on her.

Why did she not cringe away from me in terror? Surely she had seen enough of my darker side to realize the danger, intuitive as she seemed to be.

I didn’t get to see if my warning had the intended effect. Mr. Banner called for the class’s attention just then, and she turned away from me at once. She seemed a little relieved for the interruption, so maybe she understood unconsciously.

I hoped she did.

I recognized the fascination growing inside me, even as I tried to root it out. I could not afford to find Bella Swan interesting. Or rather, she could not afford that.

Already, I was anxious for another chance to talk to her. I wanted to know more about her mother, her life before she came here, her relationship with her father. All the meaningless details that would flesh out her character further. But every second I spent with her was a mistake, a risk she shouldn’t have to take.

Absentmindedly, she tossed her thick hair just at the moment that I allowed myself another breath. A particularly concentrated wave of her scent hit the back of my throat.

It was like the first day—like the wrecking ball. The pain of the burning dryness made me dizzy. I had to grasp the table again to keep myself in my seat. This time I had slightly more control. I didn’t break anything, at least. The monster growled inside me, but took no pleasure in my pain. He was too tightly bound. For the moment.

I stopped breathing altogether, and leaned as far from the girl as I could.

No, I could not afford to find her fascinating. The more interesting I found her, the more likely it was that I would kill her. I’d already made two minor slips today.

Would I make a third, one that was not minor?

As soon as the bell sounded, I fled from the classroom—probably destroying whatever impression of politeness I’d halfway constructed in the course of the hour.

Again, I gasped at the clean, wet air outside like it was a healing attar. I hurried to put as much distance between myself and the girl as was possible.

Emmett waited for me outside the door of our Spanish class. He read my wild expression for a moment.

How did it go? he wondered warily.

“Nobody died,” I mumbled.

I guess that’s something. When I saw Alice ditching there at the end, I thought…

As we walked into the classroom, I saw his memory from just a few moments ago, seen through the open door of his last class: Alice walking briskly and blank-faced across the grounds toward the science building. I felt his remembered urge to get up and join her, and then his decision to stay. If Alice needed his help, she would ask…

I closed my eyes in horror and disgust as I slumped into my seat. “I hadn’t realized that it was that close. I didn’t think I was going to…I didn’t see that it was that bad,” I whispered.

It wasn’t, he reassured me. Nobody died, right?

“Right,” I said through my teeth. “Not this time.” Maybe it will get easier.

“Sure.”

Or, maybe you kill her. He shrugged. You wouldn’t be the first one to mess up.

No one would judge you too harshly. Sometimes a person just smells too good. I’m impressed you’ve lasted this long.

“Not helping, Emmett.”

I was revolted by his acceptance of the idea that I would kill the girl, that this was somehow inevitable. Was it her fault that she smelled so good?

I know when it happened to me…, he reminisced, taking me back with him half a century, to a country lane at dusk, where a middle-aged women was taking her dried sheets down from a line strung between apple trees. The scent of apples hung heavy in the air—the harvest was over and the rejected fruits were scattered on the ground, the bruises in their skin leaking their fragrance out in thick clouds. A fresh-mowed field of hay was a background to that scent, a harmony. He walked up the lane, all but oblivious to the woman, on an errand for Rosalie. The sky was purple overhead, orange over the western trees. He would have continued up the meandering cart path and there would have been no reason to remember the evening, except that a sudden night breeze blew the white sheets out like sails and fanned the woman’s scent across Emmett’s face.

“Ah,” I groaned quietly. As if my own remembered thirst was not enough.

I know. I didn’t last half a second. I didn’t even think about resisting.

His memory became far too explicit for me to stand.

I jumped to my feet, my teeth locked hard enough cut through steel.

“Esta bien, Edward?” Senora Goff asked, startled by my sudden movement. I could see my face in her mind, and I knew that I looked far from well.

“Me perdona,” I muttered, as I darted for the door.

“Emmett—por favor, puedas tu ayuda a tu hermano?” she asked, gesturing helplessly toward me as I rushed out of the room.

“Sure,” I heard him say. And then he was right behind me.

He followed me to the far side of the building, where he caught up to me and put his hand on my shoulder.

I shoved his hand away with unnecessary force. It would have shattered the bones in a human hand, and the bones in the arm attached to it.

“Sorry, Edward.”

“I know.” I drew in deep gasps of air, trying to clear my head and my lungs.

“Is it as bad as that?” he asked, trying not to think of the scent and the flavor of his memory as he asked, and not quite succeeding.

“Worse, Emmett, worse.”

He was quiet for a moment.

Maybe…

“No, it would not be better if I got it over with. Go back to class, Emmett. I want to be alone.”

He turned without another word or thought and walked quickly away. He would tell the Spanish teacher that I was sick, or ditching, or a dangerously out of control vampire. Did his excuse really matter? Maybe I wasn’t coming back. Maybe I had to leave.

I went to my car again, to wait for school to end. To hide. Again.

I should have spent the time making decisions or trying to bolster my resolve, but, like an addict, I found myself searching through the babble of thoughts emanating from the school buildings. The familiar voices stood out, but I wasn’t interested in listening to Alice’s visions or Rosalie’s complaints right now. I found Jessica easily, but the girl was not with her, so I continued searching. Mike Newton’s thoughts caught my attention, and I located her at last, in gym with him. He was unhappy, because I’d spoken to her today in biology. He was running over her response when he’d brought the subject up…

I’ve never seen him actually talk to anyone for more than a word here or there.

Of course he would decide to find Bella interesting. I don’t like the way he looks at her.

But she didn’t seem too excited about him. What did she say? ‘Wonder what was with him last Monday.’ Something like that. Didn’t sound like she cared. It couldn’t have been much of a conversation…

He talked himself out of his pessimism in that way, cheered by the idea that Bella had not been interested in her exchange with me. This annoyed me quite a bit more than was acceptable, so I stopped listening to him.

I put a CD of violent music into the stereo, and then turned it up until it drowned out other voices. I had to concentrate on the music very hard to keep myself from drifting back to Mike Newton’s thoughts, to spy on the unsuspecting girl…

I cheated a few times, as the hour drew to a close. Not spying, I tried to convince myself. I was just preparing. I wanted to know exactly when she would leave the gym, when she would be in the parking lot. I didn’t want her to take me by surprise.

As the students started to file out of the gym doors, I got out of my car, not sure why I did it. The rain was light—I ignored it as it slowly saturated my hair.

Did I want her to see me here? Did I hope she would come to speak to me? What was I doing?

I didn’t move, though I tried to convince myself to get back in the car, knowing my behavior was reprehensible. I kept my arms folded across my chest and breathed very shallowly as I watched her walk slowly toward me, her mouth turning down at the corners. She didn’t look at me. A few times she glanced up at the clouds with a grimace, as if they offended her.

I was disappointed when she reached her car before she had to pass me. Would she have spoken to me? Would I have spoken to her?

She got into a faded red Chevy truck, a rusted behemoth that was older than her father. I watched her start the truck—the old engine roared louder than any other vehicle in the lot—and then hold her hands out toward the heating vents. The cold was uncomfortable to her—she didn’t like it. She combed her fingers through her thick hair, pulling locks through the stream of hot air like she was trying to dry them. I imagined what the cab of that truck would smell like, and then quickly drove out the thought.

She glanced around as she prepared to back out, and finally looked in my direction. She stared back at me for only half a second, and all I could read in her eyes was surprise before she tore her eyes away and jerked the truck into reverse. And then squealed to a stop again, the back end of the truck missing a collision with Erin Teague’s compact by mere inches.

She stared into her rearview mirror, her mouth hanging open with chagrin. When the other car had pulled past her, she checked all her blind spots twice and then inched out the parking space so cautiously that it made me grin. It was like she thought she was dangerous in her decrepit truck.

The thought of Bella Swan being dangerous to anyone, no matter what she was driving, had me laughing while the girl drove past me, staring straight ahead.


Chapter 3 - PHENOMENON

.

Truly, I was not thirsty, but I decided to hunt again that night. A small ounce of prevention, inadequate though I knew it to be.

Carlisle came with me; we hadn’t been alone together since I’d returned from Denali. As we ran through the black forest, I heard him thinking about that hasty goodbye last week.

In his memory, I saw the way my features had been twisted in fierce despair. I felt his surprise and sudden worry.

“Edward?”

“I have to go, Carlisle. I have to go now .”

“What’s happened?”

“Nothing. Yet. But it will, if I stay.”

He’d reached for my arm. I felt how it had hurt him when I’d cringed away from his hand.

“I don’t understand.”

“Have you ever…has there ever been a time…”

I watched myself take a deep breath, saw the wild light in my eyes through the filter of his deep concern.

“Has any one person ever smelled better to you than the rest of them? Much better?”

“Oh.”

When I’d known that he understood, my face had fallen with shame. He’d reached out to touch me, ignoring it when I’d recoiled again, and left his hand on my shoulder.

“Do what you must to resist, son. I will miss you. Here, take my car. It’s faster.”

He was wondering now if he’d done the right thing then, sending me away.

Wondering if he hadn’t hurt me with his lack of trust.

“No,” I whispered as I ran. “That was what I needed. I might so easily have betrayed that trust, if you’d told me to stay.”

“I’m sorry you’re suffering, Edward. But you should do what you can to keep the Swan child alive. Even if it means that you must leave us again.”

“I know, I know.”

“Why did you come back? You know how happy I am to have you here, but if this is too difficult…”

“I didn’t like feeling a coward,” I admitted.

We’d slowed—we were barely jogging through the darkness now.

“Better that than to put her in danger. She’ll be gone in a year or two.”

“You’re right, I know that.” Contrarily, though, his words only made me more anxious to stay. The girl would be gone in a year or two…

Carlisle stopped running and I stopped with him; he turned to examine my expression.

But you’re not going to run, are you?

I hung my head.

Is it pride, Edward? There’s no shame in—

“No, it isn’t pride that keeps me here. Not now.” Nowhere to go?

I laughed shortly. “No. That wouldn’t stop me, if I could make myself leave.”

“We’ll come with you, of course, if that’s what you need. You only have to ask.

You’ve moved on without complaint for the rest of them. They won’t begrudge you this.”

I raised one eyebrow.

He laughed. “Yes, Rosalie might, but she owes you. Anyway, it’s much better for us to leave now, no damage done, than for us to leave later, after a life has been ended.” All humor was gone by the end.

I flinched at his words.

“Yes,” I agreed. My voice sounded hoarse.

But you’re not leaving?

I sighed. “I should.”

“What holds you here, Edward? I’m failing to see…”

“I don’t know if I can explain.” Even to myself, it made no sense.

He measured my expression for a long moment.

No, I do not see. But I will respect your privacy, if you prefer.

“Thank you. It’s generous of you, seeing as how I give privacy to no one.” With one exception. And I was doing what I could to deprive her of that, wasn’t I?

We all have our quirks. He laughed again. Shall we?

He’d just caught the scent of a small herd of deer. It was hard to rally much enthusiasm for what was, even under the best of circumstances, a less than mouthwatering aroma. Right now, with the memory of the girl’s blood fresh in my mind, the smell actually turned my stomach.

I sighed. “Let’s,” I agreed, though I knew that forcing more blood down my throat would help so little.

We both shifted into a hunting crouch and let the unappealing scent pull us silently forward.

It was colder when we returned home. The melted snow had refrozen; it was as if a thin sheet of glass covered everything—each pine needle, each fern frond, each blade of grass was iced over.

While Carlisle went to dress for his early shift at the hospital, I stayed by the river, waiting for the sun to rise. I felt almost swollen from the amount of blood I’d consumed, but I knew the lack of actual thirst would mean little when I sat beside the girl again.

Cool and motionless as the stone I sat on, I stared at the dark water running beside the icy bank, stared right through it.

Carlisle was right. I should leave Forks. They could spread some story to explain my absence. Boarding school in Europe. Visiting distant relatives. Teenage runaway.

The story didn’t matter. No one would question too intensely.

It was just a year or two, and then the girl would disappear. She would go on with her life—she would have a life to go on with. She’d go to college somewhere, get older, start a career, perhaps marry someone. I could picture that—I could see the girl dressed all in white and walking at a measured pace, her arm through her father’s.

It was odd, the pain that image caused me. I couldn’t understand it. Was I jealous, because she had a future that I could never have? That made no sense. Every one of the humans around me had that same potential ahead of them—a life—and I rarely stopped to envy them.

I should leave her to her future. Stop risking her life. That was the right thing to do. Carlisle always chose the right way. I should listen to him now.

The sun rose behind the clouds, and the faint light glistened off all the frozen glass.

One more day, I decided. I would see her one more time. I could handle that.

Perhaps I would mention my pending disappearance, set the story up.

This was going to be difficult; I could feel that in the heavy reluctance that was already making me think of excuses to stay—to extend the deadline to two days, three, four… But I would do the right thing. I knew I could trust Carlisle’s advice. And I also knew that I was too conflicted to make the right decision alone.

Much too conflicted. How much of this reluctance came from my obsessive curiosity, and how much came from my unsatisfied appetite?

I went inside to change into fresh clothes for school.

Alice was waiting for me, sitting on the top step at the edge of the third floor.

You’re leaving again, she accused me.

I sighed and nodded.

I can’t see where you’re going this time.

“I don’t know where I’m going yet,” I whispered.

I want you to stay.

I shook my head.

Maybe Jazz and I could come with you?

“They’ll need you all the more, if I’m not here to watch out for them. And think of Esme. Would you take half her family away in one blow?”

You’re going to make her so sad.

“I know. That’s why you have to stay.”

That’s not the same as having you here, and you know it.

“Yes. But I have to do what’s right.”

There are many right ways, and many wrong ways, though, aren’t there?

For a brief moment she was swept away into one of her strange visions; I watched along with her as the indistinct images flickered and whirled. I saw myself mixed in with strange shadows that I couldn’t make out—hazy, imprecise forms. And then, suddenly, my skin was glittering in the bright sunlight of a small open meadow. This was a place I knew. There was a figure in the meadow with me, but, again, it was indistinct, not there enough to recognize. The images shivered and disappeared as a million tiny choices rearranged the future again.

“I didn’t catch much of that,” I told her when the vision went dark.

Me either. Your future is shifting around so much I can’t keep up with any of it. I think , though…

She stopped, and she flipped through a vast collection of other recent visions for me. They were all the same—blurry and vague.

“I think something is changing, though,” she said out loud. “Your life seems to be at a crossroads.”

I laughed grimly. “You do realize that you sound like a bogus gypsy at a carnival now, right?”

She stuck her tiny tongue out at me.

“Today is all right, though, isn’t it?” I asked, my voice abruptly apprehensive.

“I don’t see you killing anyone today,” she assured me.

“Thanks, Alice.”

“Go get dressed. I won’t say anything—I’ll let you tell the others when you’re ready.”

She stood and darted back down the stairs, her shoulders hunched slightly. Miss you. Really.

Yes, I would really miss her, too.

It was a quiet ride to school. Jasper could tell that Alice was upset about something, but he knew that if she wanted to talk about it she would have done so already. Emmett and Rosalie were oblivious, having another of their moments, gazing into each others’ eyes with wonder—it was rather disgusting to watch from the outside.

We were all quite aware how desperately in love they were. Or maybe I was just being bitter because I was the only one alone. Some days it was harder than others to live with three sets of perfectly matched lovers. This was one of them.

Maybe they would all be happier without me hanging around, ill-tempered and belligerent as the old man I should be by now.

Of course, the first thing I did when we reached the school was to look for the girl. Just preparing myself again.

Right.

It was embarrassing how my world suddenly seemed to be empty of everything but her—my whole existence centered around the girl, rather than around myself anymore.

It was easy enough to understand, though, really; after eighty years of the same thing every day and every night, any change became a point of absorption.

She had not yet arrived, but could I hear the thunderous chugging of her truck’s engine in the distance. I leaned against the side of the car to wait. Alice stayed with me, while the others went straight to class. They were bored with my fixation—it was incomprehensible to them how any human could hold my interest for so long, no matter how delicious she smelled.

The girl drove slowly into view, her eyes intent on the road and her hands tight on the wheel. She seemed anxious about something. It took me a second to figure out what that something was, to realize that every human wore the same expression today. Ah, the road was slick with ice, and they were all trying to drive more carefully. I could see she was taking the added risk seriously.

That seemed in line with what little I had learned of her character. I added this to my small list: she was a serious person, a responsible person.

She parked not too far from me, but she hadn’t noticed me standing here yet, staring at her. I wondered what she would do when she did? Blush and walk away?

That was my first guess. But maybe she would stare back. Maybe she would come to talk to me.

I took a deep breath, filling my lungs hopefully, just in case.

She got out of the truck with care, testing the slick ground before she put her weight on it. She didn’t look up, and that frustrated me. Maybe I would go talk to her…

No, that would be wrong.

Instead of turning toward the school, she made her way to the rear of her truck, clinging to the side of the truck bed in a droll way, not trusting her footing. It made me smile, and I felt Alice’s eyes on my face. I didn’t listen to whatever this made her think—I was having too much fun watching the girl check her snow chains. She actually looked in some danger of falling, the way her feet were sliding around. No one else was having trouble—had she parked in the worst of the ice?

She paused there, staring down with a strange expression on her face. It was…tender? As if something about the tire was making her… emotional?

Again, the curiosity ached like a thirst. It was as if I had to know what she was thinking—as if nothing else mattered.

I would go talk to her. She looked like she could use a hand anyway, at least until she was off the slick pavement. Of course, I couldn’t offer her that, could I? I hesitated, torn. As adverse as she seemed to be to snow, she would hardly welcome the touch of my cold white hand. I should have worn gloves—

“NO!” Alice gasped aloud.

Instantly, I scanned her thoughts, guessing at first that I had made a poor choice and she saw me doing something inexcusable. But it had nothing to do with me at all.

Tyler Crowley had chosen to take the turn into the parking lot at an injudicious speed. This choice would send him skidding across a patch of ice…

The vision came just half a second before the reality. Tyler’s van rounded the corner as I was still watching the conclusion that had pulled the horrified gasp through Alice’s lips.

No, this vision had nothing to do with me, and yet it had everything to do with me, because Tyler’s van—the tires right now hitting the ice at the worst possible angle—was going to spin across the lot and crush the girl who had become the uninvited focal point of my world.

Even without Alice’s foresight it would have been simple enough to read the trajectory of the vehicle, flying out of Tyler’s control.

The girl, standing in the exactly wrong place at the back of her truck, looked up, bewildered by the sound of the screeching tires. She looked straight into my horror-struck eyes, and then turned to watch her approaching death.

Not her! The words shouted in my head as if they belonged to someone else.

Still locked into Alice’s thoughts, I saw the vision suddenly shift, but I had no time to see what the outcome would be.

I launched myself across the lot, throwing myself between the skidding van and the frozen girl. I moved so fast that everything was a streaky blur except for the object of my focus. She didn’t see me—no human eyes could have followed my flight—still staring at the hulking shape that was about to grind her body into the metal frame of her truck.

I caught her around the waist, moving with too much urgency to be as gentle as she would need me to be. In the hundredth of a second between the time that I yanked her slight form out of the path of death and the time that I crashed into to the ground with her in my arms, I was vividly aware of her fragile, breakable body.

When I heard her head crack against the ice, it felt like I had turned to ice, too.

But I didn’t even have a full second to ascertain her condition. I heard the van behind us, grating and squealing as it twisted around the sturdy iron body of the girl’s truck. It was changing course, arcing, coming for her again—like she was a magnet, pulling it toward us.

A word I’d never said before in the presence of a lady slid between my clenched teeth.

I had already done too much. As I’d nearly flown through the air to push her out of the way, I’d been fully aware of the mistake I was making. Knowing that it was a mistake did not stop me, but I was not oblivious to the risk I was taking—taking, not just for myself, but for my entire family.

Exposure.

And this certainly wasn’t going to help, but there was no way I was going to allow the van to succeed in its second attempt to take her life.

I dropped her and threw my hands out, catching the van before it could touch the girl. The force of it hurled me back into the car parked beside her truck, and I could feel its frame buckle behind my shoulders. The van shuddered and shivered against the unyielding obstacle of my arms, and then swayed, balancing unstably on the two far tires.

If I moved my hands, the back tire of the van was going fall onto her legs.

Oh, for the love of all that was holy, would the catastrophes never end? Was there anything else that could go wrong? I could hardly sit here, holding the van in the air, and wait for rescue. Nor could I throw the van away—there was the driver to consider, his thoughts incoherent with panic.

With an internal groan, I shoved the van so that it rocked away from us for an instant. As it fell back toward me, I caught it under the frame with my right hand while I wrapped my left arm around the girl’s waist again and drug her out from under the van, pulling her tight up against my side. Her body moved limply as I swung her around so that her legs would be in the clear—was she conscious? How much damage had I done to her in my impromptu rescue attempt?

I let the van drop, now that it could not hurt her. It crashed to the pavement, all the windows shattering in unison.

I knew that I was in the middle of a crisis. How much had she seen? Had any other witnesses watched me materialize at her side and then juggle the van while I tried to keep her out from under it? These questions should be my biggest concern.

But I was too anxious to really care about the threat of exposure as much as I should. Too panic-stricken that I might have injured her myself in my effort to protect her. Too frightened to have her this close to me, knowing what I would smell if I allowed myself to inhale. Too aware of the heat of her soft body, pressed against mine—even through the double obstacle of our jackets, I could feel that heat…

The first fear was the greatest fear. As the screaming of the witnesses erupted around us, I leaned down to examine her face, to see if she was conscious—hoping fiercely that she was not bleeding anywhere.

Her eyes were open, staring in shock.

“Bella?” I asked urgently. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” She said the words automatically in a dazed voice.

Relief, so exquisite it was nearly pain, washed through me at the sound of her voice. I sucked in a breath through my teeth, and did not mind the accompanying burn in my throat. I almost welcomed it.

She struggled to sit up, but I was not ready to release her. It felt somehow…safer? Better, at least, having her tucked into my side.

“Be careful,” I warned her. “I think you hit your head pretty hard.” There had been no smell of fresh blood—a mercy, that—but this did not rule out internal damage. I was abruptly anxious to get her to Carlisle and a full compliment of radiology equipment.

“Ow,” she said, her tone comically shocked as she realized I was right about her head.

“That’s what I thought.” Relief made it funny to me, made me almost giddy.

“How in the…” Her voice trailed off, and her eyelids fluttered. “How did you get over here so fast?”

The relief turned sour, the humor vanished. She had noticed too much.

Now that it appeared that the girl was in decent shape, the anxiety for my family became severe.

“I was standing right next to you, Bella.” I knew from experience that if I was very confident as I lied, it made any questioner less sure of the truth.

She struggled to move again, and this time I allowed it. I needed to breathe so that I could play my role correctly. I needed space from her warm-blooded heat so that it would not combine with her scent to overwhelm me. I slid away from her, as far as was possible in the small space between the wrecked vehicles.

She stared up at me, and I stared back. To look away first was a mistake only an incompetent liar would make, and I was not an incompetent liar. My expression was smooth, benign… It seemed to confuse her. That was good.

The accident scene was surrounded now. Mostly students, children, peering and pushing through the cracks to see if any mangled bodies were visible. There was a babble of shouting and a gush of shocked thought. I scanned the thoughts once to make sure there were no suspicions yet, and then tuned it out and concentrated only on the girl.

She was distracted by the bedlam. She glanced around, her expression still stunned, and tried to get to her feet.

I put my hand lightly on her shoulder to hold her down.

“Just stay put for now.” She seemed alright, but should she really be moving her neck? Again, I wished for Carlisle. My years of theoretical medical study were no match for his centuries of hands-on medical practice.

“But it’s cold,” she objected.

She had almost been crushed to death two distinct times and crippled one more, and it was the cold that worried her. A chuckle slid through my teeth before I could remember that the situation was not funny.

Bella blinked, and then her eyes focused on my face. “You were over there.” That sobered me again.

She glanced toward the south, though there was nothing to see now but the crumpled side of the van. “You were by your car.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“I saw you,” she insisted; her voice was childlike when she was being stubborn.

Her chin jutted out.

“Bella, I was standing with you, and I pulled you out of the way.” I stared deeply into her wide eyes, trying to will her into accepting my version—the only rational version on the table.

Her jaw set. “No.”

I tried to stay calm, to not panic. If only I could keep her quiet for a few moments, to give me a chance to destroy the evidence….and undermine her story by disclosing her head injury.

Shouldn’t it be easy to keep this silent, secretive girl quiet? If only she would trust me, just for a few moments…

“Please, Bella,” I said, and my voice was too intense, because I suddenly wanted her to trust me. Wanted it badly, and not just in regards to this accident. A stupid desire.

What sense would it make for her to trust me?

“Why?” she asked, still defensive.

“Trust me,” I pleaded.

“Will you promise to explain everything to me later?” It made me angry to have to lie to her again, when I so much wished that I could somehow deserve her trust. So, when I answered her, it was a retort.

“Fine.”

“Fine,” she echoed in the same tone.

While the rescue attempt began around us—adults arriving, authorities called, sirens in the distance—I tried to ignore the girl and get my priorities in the right order. I searched through every mind in the lot, the witnesses and the latecomers both, but I could find nothing dangerous. Many were surprised to see me here beside Bella, but all concluded—as there was no other possible conclusion—that they had just not noticed me standing by the girl before the accident.

She was the only one who didn’t accept the easy explanation, but she would be considered the least reliable witness. She had been frightened, traumatized, not to mention sustaining the blow to the head. Possibly in shock. It would be acceptable for her story to be confused, wouldn’t it? No one would give it much credence above so many other spectators…

I winced when I caught the thoughts of Rosalie, Jasper and Emmett, just arriving on the scene. There would be hell to pay for this tonight.

I wanted to iron out the indention my shoulders had made against the tan car, but the girl was too close. I’d have to wait till she was distracted.

It was frustrating to wait—so many eyes on me—as the humans struggled with the van, trying to pull it away from us. I might have helped them, just to speed the process, but I was already in enough trouble and the girl had sharp eyes. Finally, they were able to shift it far enough away for the EMTs to get to us with their stretchers.

A familiar, grizzled face appraised me.

“Hey, Edward,” Brett Warner said. He was also a registered nurse, and I knew him well from the hospital. It was a stroke of luck—the only luck today—that he was the first through to us. In his thoughts, he was noting that I looked alert and calm. “You okay, kid?”

“Perfect, Brett. Nothing touched me. But I’m afraid Bella here might have a concussion. She really hit her head when I yanked her out of the way…” Brett turned his attention to the girl, who shot me a fierce look of betrayal. Oh, that was right. She was the quiet martyr—she’d prefer to suffer in silence.

She did not contradict my story immediately, though, and this made me feel easier.

The next EMT tried to insist that I allow myself to be treated, but it wasn’t too difficult to dissuade him. I promised I would let my father examine me, and he let it go.

With most humans, speaking with cool assurance was all that was needed. Most humans, just not the girl, of course. Did she fit into any of the normal patterns?

As they put a neck brace on her—and her face flushed scarlet with embarrassment—I used the moment of distraction to quietly rearrange the shape of the dent in the tan car with the back of my foot. Only my siblings noticed what I was doing, and I heard Emmett’s mental promise to catch anything I missed.

Grateful for his help—and more grateful that Emmett, at least, had already forgiven my dangerous choice—I was more relaxed as I climbed into the front seat of the ambulance next to Brett.

The chief of police arrived before they had gotten Bella into the back of the ambulance.

Though Bella’s father’s thoughts were past words, the panic and concern emanating out of the man’s mind drown out just about every other thought in the vicinity.

Wordless anxiety and guilt, a great swell of them, washed out of him as he saw his only daughter on the gurney.

Washed out of him and through me, echoing and growing stronger. When Alice had warned me that killing Charlie Swan’s daughter would kill him, too, she had not been exaggerating.

My head bowed with that guilt as I listened to his panicked voice.

“Bella!” he shouted.

“I’m completely fine, Char—Dad.” She sighed. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Her assurance barely soothed his dread. He turned at once to the closest EMT and demanded more information.

I wasn’t until I heard him speaking, forming perfectly coherent sentences despite his panic, that I realized that his anxiety and concern were not wordless. I just…could not hear the exact words.

Hmm. Charlie Swan was not as silent as his daughter, but I could see where she got it from. Interesting.

I’d never spent much time around the town’s police chief. I’d always taken him for a man of slow thought—now I realized that I was the one who was slow. His thoughts were partially concealed, not absent. I could only make out the tenor, the tone of them…

I wanted to listen harder, to see if I could find in this new, lesser puzzle the key to the girl’s secrets. But Bella was loaded into the back by then, and the ambulance was on its way.

It was hard to tear myself away from this possible solution to the mystery that had come to obsess me. But I had to think now—to look at what had been done today from every angle. I had to listen, to make sure that I had not put us all in so much danger that we would have to leave immediately. I had to concentrate.

There was nothing in the thoughts of the EMTs to worry me. As far as they could tell, there was nothing seriously wrong with the girl. And Bella was sticking to the story I’d provided, thus far.

The first priority, when we reached the hospital, was to see Carlisle. I hurried through the automatic doors, but I was unable to totally forgo watching after Bella; I kept an eye on her through the paramedics’ thoughts.

It was easy to find my father’s familiar mind. He was in his small office, all alone—the second stroke of luck in this luckless day.

“Carlisle.”

He’d heard my approach, and he was alarmed as soon as he saw my face. He jumped to his feet, his face paling to bone white. He leaned forward across the neatly organized walnut desk.

Edward—you didn’t—

“No, no, it’s not that.”

He took deep breath. Of course not. I’m sorry I entertained the thought. Your eyes, of course, I should have known… He noted my still-golden eyes with relief.

“She’s hurt, though, Carlisle, probably not seriously, but—”

“What happened?”

“A stupid car accident. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I couldn’t just stand there—let it crush her—”

Start over, I don’t understand. How were you involved?

“A van skidded across the ice,” I whispered. I stared at the wall behind him while I spoke. Instead of a throng of framed diplomas, he had one simple oill painting—a favorite of his, an undiscovered Hassam. “She was in the way. Alice saw it coming, but there wasn’t time to do anything but really run across the lot and shove her out of the way. No one noticed…except for her. I had to stop the van, too, but again, nobody saw that…besides her. I’m…I’m sorry Carlisle. I didn’t mean to put us in danger.” He circled the desk and put his hand on my shoulder.

You did the right thing. And it couldn’t have been easy for you. I’m proud of you, Edward.

I could look him in the eye then. “She knows there’s something…wrong with me.”

“That doesn’t matter. If we have to leave, we leave. What has she said?” I shook my head, a little frustrated. “Nothing yet.” Yet?

“She agreed to my version of events—but she’s expecting an explanation.” He frowned, pondering this.

“She hit her head—well, I did that,” I continued quickly. “I knocked her to the ground fairly hard. She seems fine, but… I don’t think it will take much to discredit her account.”

I felt like a cad just saying the words.

Carlisle heard the distaste in my voice. Perhaps that won’t be necessary. Let’s see what happens, shall we? It sounds like I have a patient to check on.

“Please,” I said. “I’m so worried that I hurt her.”

Carlisle’s expression brightened. He smoothed his fair hair—just a few shades lighter than his golden eyes—and he laughed.

It’s been an interesting day for you, hasn’t it? In his mind, I could see the irony, and it was humorous, at least to him. Quite the reversal of roles. Somewhere during that short thoughtless second when I’d sprinted across the icy lot, I had transformed from killer to protector.

I laughed with him, remembering how sure I’d been that Bella would never need protecting from anything more than myself. There was an edge to my laugh because, van notwithstanding, that was still entirely true.

I waited alone in Carlisle’s office—one of the longer hours I had ever lived—listening to the hospital full of thoughts.

Tyler Crowley, the van’s driver, looked to be hurt worse than Bella, and the attention shifted to him while she waited her turn to be X-rayed. Carlisle kept in the background, trusting the PA’s diagnosis that the girl was only slightly injured. This made me anxious, but I knew he was right. One glance at his face and she would be immediately reminded of me, of the fact that there was something not right about my family, and that might set her talking.

She certainly had a willing enough partner to converse with. Tyler was consumed with guilt over the fact that he had almost killed her, and he couldn’t seem to shut up about it. I could see her expression through his eyes, and it was clear that she wished he would stop. How did he not see that?

There was a tense moment for me when Tyler asked her how she’d gotten out of the way.

I waited, not breathing, as she hesitated.

“Um...” he heard her say. Then she paused for so long that Tyler wondered if his question had confused her. Finally, she went on. “Edward pulled me out of the way.”

I exhaled. And then my breathing accelerated. I’d never heard her speak my name before. I like the way it sounded—even just hearing it through Tyler’s thoughts. I wanted to hear it for myself…

“Edward Cullen,” she said, when Tyler didn’t realize who she meant. I found myself at the door, my hand on the knob. The desire to see her was growing stronger. I had to remind myself of the need for caution.

“He was standing next to me.”

“Cullen?” Huh. That’s weird. “I didn’t see him.” I could have sworn… “Wow, it was all so fast, I guess. Is he okay?”

“I think so. He’s here somewhere, but they didn’t make him use a stretcher.”

I saw the thoughtful look on her face, the suspicious tightening of her eyes, but these little changes in her expression were lost on Tyler.

She’s pretty, he was thinking, almost in surprise. Even all messed up. Not my usual type, still… I should take her out. Make up for today…

I was out in the hall, then, halfway to the emergency room, without thinking for one second about what I was doing. Luckily, the nurse entered the room before I could—

it was Bella’s turn for X-rays. I leaned against the wall in a dark nook just around the corner, and tried to get a grip on myself while she was wheeled away.

It didn’t matter that Tyler thought she was pretty. Anyone would notice that.

There was no reason for me to feel…how did I feel? Annoyed? Or was angry closer to the truth? That made no sense at all.

I stayed where I was for as long as I could, but impatience got the best of me and I took a back way around to the radiology room. She’d already been moved back to the ER, but I was able to take a peek at her x-rays while the nurse’s back was turned.

I felt calmer when I had. Her head was fine. I hadn’t hurt her, not really.

Carlisle caught me there.

You look better, he commented.

I just looked straight ahead. We weren’t alone, the halls full of orderlies and visitors.

Ah, yes. He stuck her x-rays to the lightboard, but I didn’t need a second look. I see. She’s absolutely fine. Well done, Edward.

The sound of my father’s approval created a mixed reaction in me. I would have been pleased, except that I knew that he would not approve of what I was going to do now. At least, he would not approve if he knew my real motivations…

“I think I’m going to go talk to her—before she sees you,” I murmured under my breath. “Act natural, like nothing happened. Smooth it over.” All acceptable reasons.

Carlisle nodded absently, still looking over the x-rays. “Good idea. Hmm.” I looked to see what had his interest.

Look at all the healed contusions! How many times did her mother drop her?

Carlisle laughed to himself at his joke.

“I’m beginning to think the girl just has really bad luck. Always in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Forks is certainly the wrong place for her, with you here.

I flinched.

Go ahead. Smooth things over. I’ll join you momentarily.

I walked away quickly, feeling guilty. Perhaps I was too good a liar, if I could fool Carlisle.

When I got to the ER, Tyler was mumbling under his breath, still apologizing.

The girl was trying to escape his remorse by pretending to sleep. Her eyes were closed, but her breathing was not even, and now and then her fingers would twitch impatiently.

I stared at her face for a long moment. This was the last time I would see her.

That fact triggered an acute aching in my chest. Was it because I hated to leave any puzzle unsolved? That did not seem like enough of an explanation.

Finally, I took a deep breath and moved into view.

When Tyler saw me, he started to speak, but I put one finger to my lips.

“Is she sleeping?” I murmured.

Bella’s eyes snapped open and focused on my face. They widened momentarily, and then narrowed in anger or suspicion. I remembered that I had a role to play, so I smiled at her as if nothing unusual had happened this morning—besides a blow to her head and a bit of imagination run wild.

“Hey, Edward,” Tyler said. “I’m really sorry—” I raised one hand to halt his apology. “No blood, no foul,” I said wryly. Without thinking, I smiled too widely at my private joke.

It was amazingly easy to ignore Tyler, lying no more than four feet from me, covered in fresh blood. I’d never understood how Carlisle was able to do that—ignore the blood of his patients in order to treat them. Wouldn’t the constant temptation be so distracting, so dangerous…? But, now… I could see how, if you were focusing on something else hard enough, the temptation was be nothing at all.

Even fresh and exposed, Tyler’s blood had nothing on Bella’s.

I kept my distance from her, seating myself on the foot of Tyler’s mattress.

“So, what’s the verdict?” I asked her.

Her lower lip pushed out a little. “There’s nothing wrong with me at all, but they won’t let me go. How come you aren’t strapped to a gurney like the rest of us?” Her impatience made me smile again.

I could hear Carlisle in the hall now.

“It’s all about who you know,” I said lightly. “But don’t worry, I came to spring you.”

I watched her reaction carefully as my father entered the room. Her eyes widened and her mouth actually fell open in surprise. I groaned internally. Yes, she’d certainly noticed the resemblance.

“So, Miss Swan, how are you feeling?” Carlisle asked. He had a wonderfully soothing beside manner that put most patients at ease within moments. I couldn’t tell how it affected Bella.

“I’m fine,” she said quietly.

Carlisle clipped her X-rays to the lightboard by the bed. “Your X-rays look good.

Does your head hurt? Edward said you hit it pretty hard.” She sighed, and said, “I’m fine,” again, but this time impatience leaked into her voice. Then she glowered once in my direction.

Carlisle stepped closer to her and ran his fingers gently over her scalp until he found the bump under her hair.

I was caught off guard by the wave of emotion that crashed over me.

I had seen Carlisle work with humans a thousand times. Years ago, I had even assisted him informally—though only in situations where blood was not involved. So it wasn’t a new thing to me, to watch him interact with the girl as if he were as human as she was. I’d envied his control many times, but that was not the same as this emotion. I envied him more than his control. I ached for the difference between Carlisle and me—that he could touch her so gently, without fear, knowing he would never harm her…

She winced, and I twitched in my seat. I had to concentrate for a moment to keep my relaxed posture.

“Tender?” Carlisle asked.

Her chin jerked up a fraction. “Not really,” she said.

Another small piece of her character fell into place: she was brave. She didn’t like to show weakness.

Possibly the most vulnerable creature I’d ever seen, and she didn’t want to seem weak. A chuckle slid through my lips.

She shot another glare at me.

“Well,” Carlisle said. “Your father is in the waiting room—you can go home with him now. But come back if you feel dizzy or have trouble with your eyesight at all.” Her father was here? I swept through the thoughts in the crowded waiting room, but I couldn’t pick his subtle mental voice out of the group before she was speaking again, her face anxious.

“Can’t I go back to school?”

“Maybe you should take it easy today,” Carlisle suggested.

Her eyes flickered back to me. “Does he get to go to school?” Act normal, smooth things over…ignore the way it feels when she looks me in the eye…

“Someone has to spread the good news that we survived,” I said.

“Actually,” Carlisle corrected, “most of the school seems to be in the waiting room.”

I anticipated her reaction this time—her aversion to attention. She didn’t disappoint.

“Oh no,” she moaned, and she put her hands over her face.

I liked that I’d finally guessed right. I was beginning to understand her…

“Do you want to stay?” Carlisle asked.

“No, no!” she said quickly, swinging her legs over the side of the mattress and sliding down till her feet were on the floor. She stumbled forward, off-balance, into Carlisle’s arms. He caught and steadied her.

Again, the envy flooded through me.

“I’m fine,” she said before he could comment, faint pink in her cheeks.

Of course, that wouldn’t bother Carlisle. He made sure she was balanced, and then dropped his hands.

“Take some Tylenol for the pain,” he instructed.

“It doesn’t hurt that bad.”

Carlisle smiled as he signed her chart. “It sounds like you were extremely lucky.” She turned her face slightly, to stare at me with hard eyes. “Lucky Edward happened to be standing next to me.”

“Oh, well, yes,” Carlisle agreed quickly, hearing the same thing in her voice that I heard. She hadn’t written her suspicions off as imagination. Not yet.

All yours, Carlisle thought. Handle it as you think best.

“Thanks so much,” I whispered, quick and quiet. Neither human heard me.

Carlisle’s lips turned up a tiny bit at my sarcasm as he turned to Tyler. “I’m afraid that you’ll have to stay with us just a little bit longer,” he said as he began examining the slashes left by the shattered windshield.

Well, I’d made the mess, so it was only fair that I had to deal with it.

Bella walked deliberately toward me, not stopping until she was uncomfortably close. I remembered how I had hoped, before all the mayhem, that she would approach me… This was like a mockery of that wish.

“Can I talk to you for a minute?” she hissed at me.

Her warm breath brushed my face and I had to stagger back a step. Her appeal had not abated one bit. Every time she was near me, it triggered all my worst, most urgent instincts. Venom flowed in my mouth and my body yearned to strike—to wrench her into my arms and crush her throat to my teeth.

My mind was stronger than my body, but only just.

“Your father is waiting for you,” I reminded her, my jaw clenched tight.

She glanced toward Carlisle and Tyler. Tyler was paying us no attention at all, but Carlisle was monitoring my every breath.

Carefully, Edward.

“I’d like to speak to you alone, if you don’t mind,” she insisted in a low voice.

I wanted to tell her that I did mind very much, but I knew I would have to do this eventually. I may as well get on with it.

I was full of so many conflicting emotions as I stalked out of the room, listening to her stumbling footsteps behind me, trying to keep up.

I had a show to put on now. I knew the role I would play—I had the character down: I would be the villain. I would lie and ridicule and be cruel.

It went against all my better impulses—the human impulses that I’d clung to through all these years. I’d never wanted to deserve trust more than in this moment, when I had to destroy all possibility of it.

It made it worse to know that this would be the last memory she would have of me. This was my farewell scene.

I turned on her.

“What do you want?” I asked coldly.

She cringed back slightly from my hostility. Her eyes turned bewildered, the expression that had haunted me…

“You owe me an explanation,” she said in a small voice; her ivory face blanched.

It was very hard to keep my voice harsh. “I saved your life—I don’t owe you anything.”

She flinched—it burned like acid to watch my words hurt her.

“You promised,” she whispered.

“Bella, you hit your head, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her chin came up then. “There’s nothing wrong with my head.” She was angry now, and that made it easier for me. I met her glare, making my face more unfriendly.

“What do you want from me, Bella?”

“I want to know the truth. I want to know why I’m lying for you.” What she wanted was only fair—it frustrated me to have to deny her.

“What do you think happened?” I nearly growled at her.

Her words poured out in a torrent. “All I know is that you weren’t anywhere near me—Tyler didn’t see you, either, so don’t tell me I hit my head too hard. That van was going to crush us both—and it didn’t, and your hands left dents in the side of it—and you left a dent in the other car, and you’re not hurt at all—and the van should have smashed my legs, but you were holding it up…” Suddenly, she clenched her teeth together and her eyes were glistening with unshed tears.

I stared at her, my expression derisive, though what I really felt was awe; she had seen everything.

“You think I lifted a van off you?” I asked sarcastically.

She answered with one stiff nod.

My voice grew more mocking. “Nobody will believe that, you know.” She made an effort to control her anger. When she answered me, she spoke each word with slow deliberation. “I’m not going to tell anybody.” She meant it—I could see that in her eyes. Even furious and betrayed, she would keep my secret.

Why?

The shock of it ruined my carefully designed expression for half a second, and then I pulled myself together.

“Then why does it matter?” I asked, working to keep my voice severe.

“It matters to me,” she said intensely. “I don’t like to lie—so there’d better be a good reason why I’m doing it.”

She was asking me to trust her. Just as I wanted her to trust me. But this was a line I could not cross.

My voice stayed callous. “Can’t you just thank me and get it over with?”

“Thank you,” she said, and then she fumed silently, waiting.

“You’re not going to let it go, are you?”

“No.”

“In that case…” I couldn’t tell her the truth if I wanted to…and I didn’t want to.

I’d rather she made up her own story than know what I was, because nothing could be Worse than the truth—I was a living nightmare, straight from the pages of a horror novel.

“I hope you enjoy disappointment.”

We scowled at each other. It was odd how endearing her anger was. Like a furious kitten, soft and harmless, and so unaware of her own vulnerability.

She flushed pink and ground her teeth together again. “Why did you even bother?”

Her question wasn’t one that I was expecting or prepared to answer. I lost my hold on the role I was playing. I felt the mask slip from my face, and I told her—this one time—the truth.

“I don’t know.”

I memorized her face one last time—it was still set in lines of anger, the blood not yet faded from her cheeks—and then I turned and walked away from her.


Chapter 4 - VISIONS

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I went back to school. This was the right thing to do, the most inconspicuous way to behave.

By the end of the day, almost all the other students had returned to class, too. Just Tyler and Bella and a few others—who were probably using the accident as a chance to ditch—remained absent.

It shouldn’t be so hard for me to do the right thing. But, all afternoon, I was gritting my teeth against the urge that had me yearning ditch, too—in order to go find the girl again.

Like a stalker. An obsessessed stalker. An obsessessed, vampire stalker.

School today was—somehow, impossibly—even more boring than it had seemed just a week ago. Coma-like. It was as if the color had drained from the bricks, the trees, the sky, the faces around me… I stared at the cracks in the walls.

There was another right thing I should be doing…that I was not. Of course, it was also a wrong thing. It all depended on the perspective from which you viewed it.

From the perspective of a Cullen—not just a vampire, but a Cullen, someone who belonged to a family, such a rare state in our world—the right thing to do would have gone something like this:

“I’m surprised to see you in class, Edward. I heard you were involved in that awful accident this morning.”

“Yes, I was, Mr. Banner, but I was the lucky one.” A friendly smile. “I didn’t get hurt at all… I wish I could say the same for Tyler and Bella.”

“How are they?”

“I think Tyler is fine…just some superficial scrapes from the windshield glass.

I’m not sure about Bella, though.” A worried frown. “She might have a concussion. I heard she was pretty incoherent for a while—seeing things even. I know the doctors were worried…”

That’s how it should have gone. That’s what I owed my family.

“I’m surprised to see you in class, Edward. I heard you were involved in that awful accident this morning.”

“I wasn’t hurt.” No smile.

Mr. Banner shifted his weight from foot to foot, uncomfortable.

“Do you have any idea how Tyler Crowley and Bella Swan are? I heard there were some injuries…”

I shrugged. “I wouldn’t know.”

Mr. Banner cleared his throat. “Er, right…” he said, my cold stare making his voice sound a bit strained.

He walked quickly back to the front of classroom and began his lecture.

It was the wrong thing to do. Unless you looked at it from a more obscure point of view.

It just seemed so…so unchivalrous to slander the girl behind her back, especially when she was proving more trustworthy than I could have dreamed. She hadn’t said anything to betray me, despite having good reason to do so. Would I betray her when she had done nothing but keep my secret?

I had a nearly identical conversation with Mrs. Goff—just in Spanish rather than in English—and Emmett gave me a long look.

I hope you have a good explanation for what happened today. Rose is on the warpath.

I rolled my eyes without looking at him.

I actually had come up with a perfectly sound explanation. Just suppose I hadn’t done anything to stop the van from crushing the girl… I recoiled from that thought. But if she had been hit, if she’d been mangled and bleeding, the red fluid spilling, wasting on the blacktop, the scent of the fresh blood pulsing through the air …

I shuddered again, but not just in horror. Part of me shivered in desire. No, I would not have been able to watch her bleed without exposing us all in a much more flagrant and shocking way.

It was a perfectly sound excuse…but I wouldn’t use it. It was too shameful.

And I hadn’t thought of it until long after the fact, regardless.

Look out for Jasper, Emmett went on, oblivious to my reverie . He’s not as angry…but he’s more resolved.

I saw what he meant, and for a moment the room swam around me. My rage was so all-consuming that a red haze clouded my vision. I thought I would choke on it.

SHEESH, EDWARD! GET A GRIP! Emmett shouted at me in his head. His hand came down on my shoulder, holding me in my seat before I could jump to my feet.

He rarely used his full strength—there was rarely a need, for he was so much stronger than any vampire any of us had ever encountered—but he used it now. He gripped my arm, rather than pushing me down. If he’d been pushing, the chair under me would have collapsed.

EASY! He ordered.

I tried to calm myself, but it was hard. The rage burned in my head.

Jasper’s not going to do anything until we all talk. I just thought you should know the direction he’s headed.

I concentrated on relaxing, and I felt Emmett’s hand loosen.

Try not to make more of a spectacle of yourself. You’re in enough trouble as it is.

I took a deep breath and Emmett released me.

I searched around the room routinely, but our confrontation had been so short and silent that only a few people sitting behind Emmett had even noticed. None of them knew what to make of it, and they shrugged it off. The Cullens were freaks—everyone knew that already.

Damn, kid, you’re a mess, Emmett added, sympathy in his tone.

“Bite me,” I muttered under my breath, and I heard his low chuckle.

Emmett didn’t hold grudges, and I probably ought to be more grateful for his easy going nature. But I could see that Jasper’s intentions made sense to Emmett, that he was considering how it might be the best course of action.

The rage simmered, barely under control. Yes, Emmett was stronger than I was, but he’d yet to beat me in a wrestling match. He claimed that this was because I cheated, but hearing thoughts was just as much a part of who I was as his immense strength was a part of him. We were evenly matched in a fight.

A fight? Was that where this was headed? Was I going to fight with my family over a human I barely knew?

I thought about that for a moment, thought about the fragile feel of the girl’s body in my arms in juxtaposition with Jasper, Rose, and Emmett—supernaturally strong and fast, killing machines by nature…

Yes, I would fight for her. Against my family. I shuddered.

But it wasn’t fair to leave her undefended when I was the one who’d put her in danger.

I couldn’t win alone, though, not against the three of them, and I wondered who my allies would be.

Carlisle, certainly. He would not fight anyone, but he would be wholly against Rose’s and Jasper’s designs. That might be all I needed. I would see…

Esme, doubtful. She would not side against me either, and she would hate to disagree with Carlisle, but she would be for any plan that kept her family intact. Her first priority would not be rightness, but me. If Carlisle was the soul of our family, then Esme was the heart. He gave us a leader who deserved following; she made that following into an act of love. We all loved each other—even under the fury I felt toward Jasper and Rose right now, even planning to fight them to save the girl, I knew that I loved them.

Alice…I had no idea. It would probably depend on what she saw coming. She would side with the winner, I imagined.

So, I would have to do this without help. I wasn’t a match for them alone, but I wasn’t going to let the girl be hurt because of me. That might mean evasive action…

My rage dulled a bit with the sudden, black humor. I could imagine how the girl would react to my kidnapping her. Of course, I rarely guessed her reactions right—but what other reaction could she have besides terror?

I wasn’t sure how to manage that, though—kidnapping her. I wouldn’t be able to stand being close to her for very long. Perhaps I would just deliver her back to her mother. Even that much would be fraught with danger. For her.

And also for me, I realized suddenly. If I were to kill her by accident… I wasn’t certain exactly how much pain that would cause me, but I knew it would be multifaceted and intense.

The time passed quickly while I mulled over all the complications ahead of me: the argument waiting for me at home, the conflict with my family, the lengths I might be forced to go to afterward…

Well, I couldn’t complain that life outside this school was monotonous any more.

The girl had changed that much.

Emmett and I walked silently to the car when the bell rang. He was worrying about me, and worrying about Rosalie. He knew whose side he would have to choose in a quarrel, and it bothered him.

The others were waiting for us in the car, also silent. We were a very quiet group.

Only I could hear the shouting.

Idiot! Lunatic! Moron! Jackass! Selfish, irresponsible fool! Rosalie kept up a constant stream of insults at the top of her mental lungs. It made it hard to hear the others, but I ignored her as best I could.

Emmett was right about Jasper. He was sure of his course.

Alice was troubled, worrying about Jasper, flipping through images of the future.

No matter which direction Jasper came at the girl, Alice always saw me there, blocking him. Interesting…neither Rosalie nor Emmett was with him in these visions. So Jasper planned to work alone. That would even things up.

Jasper was the best, certainly the most experienced fighter among us. My one advantage lay in that I could hear his moves before he made them.

I had never fought more than playfully with Emmett or Jasper—just horsing around. I felt sick at the thought of really trying to hurt Jasper…

No, not that. Just to block him. That was all.

I concentrated on Alice, memorizing Jasper’s different avenues of attack.

As I did that, her visions shifted, moving further and further away from the Swan’s house. I was cutting him off earlier…

Stop that, Edward! It can’t happen this way. I won’t let it.

I didn’t answer her, I just kept watching.

She began searching farther ahead, into the misty, unsure realm of distant possibilities. Everything was shadowy and vague.

The entire way home, the charged silence did not lift. I parked in the big garage off the house; Carlisle’s Mercedes was there, next to Emmett’s big jeep, Rose’s M3 and my Vanquish. I was glad Carlisle was already home—this silence would end explosively, and I wanted him there when that happened.

We went straight to the dining room.

The room was, of course, never used for its intended purpose. But it was furnished with a long oval mahogany table surrounded by chairs—we were scrupulous about having all the correct props in place. Carlisle liked to use it as a conference room.

In a group with such strong and disparate personalities, sometimes it was necessary to discuss things in a calm, seated manner.

I had a feeling that the setting was not going to help much today.

Carlisle sat in his usual seat at the eastern head of the room. Esme was beside him—they held hands on top of the table.

Esme’s eyes were on me, their golden depths full of concern.

Stay. It was her only thought.

I wished I could smile at the woman who was truly a mother to me, but I had no reassurances for her now.

I sat on Carlisle’s other side. Esme reached around him to put her free hand on my shoulder. She had no idea of what was about to start; she was just worrying about me.

Carlisle had a better sense of what was coming. His lips were pressed tightly together and his forehead was creased. The expression looked too old for his young face.

As everyone else sat, I could see the lines being drawn.

Rosalie sat directly across from Carlisle, on the other end of the long table. She glared at me, never looking away.

Emmett sat beside her, his face and thoughts both wry.

Jasper hesitated, and then went to stand against the wall behind Rosalie. He was decided, regardless of the outcome of this discussion. My teeth locked together.

Alice was the last to come in, and her eyes were focused on something far away—the future, still too indistinct for her to make use of it. Without seeming to think about it, she sat next to Esme. She rubbed her forehead as if she had a headache. Jasper twitched uneasily and considered joining her, but he kept his place.

I took a deep breath. I had started this—I should speak first.

“I’m sorry,” I said, looking first at Rose, then Jasper and then Emmett. “I didn’t mean to put any of you at risk. It was thoughtless, and I take full responsibility for my hasty action.”

Rosalie glared at me balefully. “What do you mean, ‘take full responsibility’?

Are you going to fix it?”

“Not the way you mean,” I said, working to keep my voice even and quiet. “I’m willing to leave now, if that makes things better.” If I believe that the girl will be safe, if I believe that none of you will touch her, I amended in my head.

“No,” Esme murmured. “No, Edward.”

I patted her hand. “It’s just a few years.”

“Esme’s right, though,” Emmett said. “You can’t go anywhere now. That would be the opposite of helpful. We have to know what people are thinking, now more than ever.”

“Alice will catch anything major,” I disagreed.

Carlisle shook his head. “I think Emmett is right, Edward. The girl will be more likely to talk if you disappear. It’s all of us leave, or none of us.”

“She won’t say anything,” I insisted quickly. Rose was building up to the explosion, and I wanted this fact out there first.

“You don’t know her mind,” Carlisle reminded me.

“I know this much. Alice, back me up.”

Alice stared up at me wearily. “I can’t see what will happen if we just ignore this.” She glanced at Rose and Jasper.

No, she couldn’t see that future—not when Rosalie and Jasper were so decided against ignoring the incident.

Rosalie’s palm smacked down on the table with a loud bang. “We can’t allow the human a chance to say anything. Carlisle, you must see that. Even if we decided to all disappear, it’s not safe to leave stories behind us. We live so differently from the rest of our kind—you know there are those who would love an excuse to point fingers. We have to be more careful than anyone else!”

“We’ve left rumors behind us before,” I reminded her.

“Just rumors and suspicions, Edward. Not eyewitnesses and evidence!”

“Evidence!” I scoffed.

But Jasper was nodding, his eyes hard.

“Rose—” Carlisle began.

“Let me finish, Carlisle. It doesn’t have to be any big production. The girl hit her head today. So maybe that injury turns out to be more serious that it looked.” Rosalie shrugged. “Every mortal goes to sleep with the chance of never waking up. The others would expect us to clean up after ourselves. Technically, that would make it Edward’s job, but this is obviously beyond him. You know I’m capable of control. I would leave no evidence behind me.”

“Yes, Rosalie, we all know how proficient an assassin you are,” I snarled.

She hissed at me, furious.

“Edward, please,” Carlisle said. Then he turned to Rosalie. “Rosalie, I looked the other way in Rochester because I felt that you were owed your justice. The men you killed had wronged you monstrously. This is not the same situation. The Swan girl is an innocent.”

“It’s not personal, Carlisle,” Rosalie said through her teeth. “It’s to protect us all.”

There was a brief moment of silence while Carlisle thought through his answer.

When he nodded, Rosalie’s eyes lit up. She should have known better. Even if I hadn’t been able to read his thoughts, I could have anticipated his next words. Carlisle never compromised.

“I know you mean well, Rosalie, but…I’d like very much for our family to be worth protecting. The occasional…accident or lapse in control is a regrettable part of who we are.” It was very like him to include himself in the plural, though he had never had such a lapse himself. “To murder a blameless child in cold blood is another thing entirely. I believe the risk she presents, whether she speaks her suspicions or not, is nothing to the greater risk. If we make exceptions to protect ourselves, we risk something much more important. We risk losing the essence of who we are.” I controlled my expression very carefully. It wouldn’t do at all to grin. Or to applaud, as I wished I could.

Rosalie scowled. “It’s just being responsible.”

“It’s being callous,” Carlisle corrected gently. “Every life is precious.” Rosalie sighed heavily and her lower lip pouted out. Emmett patted her shoulder.

“It’ll be fine, Rose,” he encouraged in a low voice.

“The question,” Carlisle continued, “is whether we should move on?”

“No,” Rosalie moaned. “We just got settled. I don’t want to start on my sophomore year in high school again!”

“You could keep your present age, of course,” Carlisle said.

“And have to move again that much sooner?” she countered.

Carlisle shrugged.

“I like it here! There’s so little sun, we get to be almost normal.”

“Well, we certainly don’t have to decide now. We can wait and see if it becomes necessary. Edward seems certain of the Swan girl’s silence.” Rosalie snorted.

But I was no longer worried about Rose. I could see that she would go along with Carlisle’s decision, not matter how infuriated she was with me. Their conversation had moved on to unimportant details.

Jasper remained unmoved.

I understood why. Before he and Alice had met, he’d lived in a combat zone, a relentless theater of war. He knew the consequences of flouting the rules—he’d seen the grisly aftermath with his own eyes.

It said much that he had not tried to calm Rosalie down with his extra faculties, nor did he now try to rile her up. He was holding himself aloof from this discussion—above it.

“Jasper,” I said.

He met my gaze, his face expressionless.

“She won’t pay for my mistake. I won’t allow that.”

“She benefits from it, then? She should have died today, Edward. I would only set that right.”

I repeated myself, emphasizing each word. “I will not allow it.” His eyebrows shot up. He wasn’t expecting this—he hadn’t imagined that I would act to stop him.

He shook his head once. “I won’t let Alice live in danger, even a slight danger.

You don’t feel about anyone the way I feel about her, Edward, and you haven’t lived through what I’ve lived through, whether you’ve seen my memories or not. You don’t understand.”

“I’m not disputing that, Jasper. But I’m telling you now, I won’t allow you to hurt Isabella Swan.”

We stared at each other—not glaring, but measuring the opposition. I felt him sample the mood around me, testing my determination.

“Jazz,” Alice said, interrupting us.

He held my gaze for a moment more, and then looked at her. “Don’t bother telling me you can protect yourself, Alice. I already know that. I’ve still got to—”

“That’s not what I’m going say,” Alice interrupted. “I was going to ask you for a favor.”

I saw what was on her mind, and my mouth fell open with an audible gasp. I stared at her, shocked, only vaguely aware that everyone besides Alice and Jasper was now eyeing me warily.

“I know you love me. Thanks. But I would really appreciate it if you didn’t try to kill Bella. First of all, Edward’s serious and I don’t want you two fighting. Secondly, she’s my friend. At least, she’s going to be.” It was clear as glass in her head: Alice, smiling, with her icy white arm around the girl’s warm, fragile shoulders. And Bella was smiling, too, her arm around Alice’s waist.

The vision was rock solid; only the timing of it was unsure.

“But…Alice…” Jasper gasped. I couldn’t manage to turn my head to see his expression. I couldn’t tear myself away from the image in Alice’s head in order to hear his.

“I’m going to love her someday, Jazz. I’ll be very put out with you if you don’t let her be.”

I was still locked into Alice’s thoughts. I saw the future shimmer as Jasper’s resolve floundered in the face of her unexpected request.

“Ah,” she sighed—his indecision had cleared a new future. “See? Bella’s not going to say anything. There’s nothing to worry about.” The way she said the girl’s name…like they were already close confidants…

“Alice,” I choked. “What…does this…?”

“I told you there was a change coming. I don’t know, Edward.” But she locked her jaw, and I could see that there was more. She was trying not to think about it; she was focusing very hard on Jasper suddenly, though he was too stunned to have progressed much in his decision making.

She did this sometimes when she was trying to keep something from me.

“What, Alice? What are you hiding?”

I heard Emmett grumble. He always got frustrated when Alice and I had these kinds of conversations.

She shook her head, trying to not let me in.

“Is it about the girl?” I demanded. “Is it about Bella?” She had her teeth gritted in concentration, but when I spoke Bella’s name, she slipped. Her slip only lasted the tiniest portion of a second, but that was long enough.

“NO!” I shouted. I heard my chair hit the floor, and only then realized I was on my feet.

“Edward!” Carlisle was on his feet, too, his arm on my shoulder. I was barely aware of him.

“It’s solidifying,” Alice whispered. “Every minute you’re more decided.

There’re really only two ways left for her. It’s one or the other, Edward.” I could see what she saw…but I could not accept it.

“No,” I said again; there was no volume to my denial. My legs felt hollow, and I had to brace myself against the table.

“Will somebody please let the rest of us in on the mystery?” Emmett complained.

“I have to leave,” I whispered to Alice, ignoring him.

“Edward, we’ve already been over that,” Emmett said loudly. “That’s the best way to start the girl talking. Besides, if you take off, we won’t know for sure if she’s talking or not. You have to stay and deal with this.”

“I don’t see you going anywhere, Edward,” Alice told me. “I don’t know if you can leave anymore.” Think about it, she added silently. Think about leaving.

I saw what she meant. Yes, the idea of never seeing the girl again was…painful.

But it was also necessary. I couldn’t sanction either future I’d apparently condemned her to.

I’m not entirely sure of Jasper, Edward, Alice went on. If you leave, if he thinks she’s a danger to us…

“I don’t hear that,” I contradicted her, still only halfway aware of our audience.

Jasper was wavering. He would not do something that would hurt Alice.

Not right this moment. Will you risk her life, leave her undefended?

“Why are you doing this to me?” I groaned. My head fell into my hands.

I was not Bella’s protector. I could not be that. Wasn’t Alice’s divided future enough proof of that?

I love her, too. Or I will. It’s not the same, but I want her around for that.

“Love her, too? ” I whispered, incredulous.

She sighed. You are so blind, Edward. Can’t you see where you’re headed?

Can’t you see where you already are? It’s more inevitable than the sun rising in the east.

See what I see…

I shook my head, horrified. “No.” I tried to shut out the visions she revealed to me. “I don’t have to follow that course. I’ll leave. I will change the future.”

“You can try,” she said, her voice skeptical.

“Oh, come on!” Emmett bellowed.

“Pay attention,” Rose hissed at him. “Alice sees him falling for a human! How classically Edward!” She made a gagging sound.

I scarcely heard her.

“What?” Emmett said, startled. Then his booming laugh echoed through the room. “Is that what’s been going on?” He laughed again. “Tough break, Edward.”

I felt his hand on my shoulder, and I shook it off absently. I couldn’t pay attention to him.

“Fall for a human?” Esme repeated in a stunned voice. “For the girl he saved today? Fall in love with her?”

“What do you see, Alice? Exactly,” Jasper demanded.

She turned toward him; I continued to stare numbly at the side of her face.

“It all depends on whether he is strong enough or not. Either he’ll kill her himself” —she turned to meet my gaze again, glaring— “which would really irritate me, Edward, not to mention what it would do to you—” she faced Jasper again, “or she’ll be one of us someday.”

Someone gasped; I didn’t look to see who.

“That’s not going to happen!” I was shouting again. “Either one!” Alice didn’t seem to hear me. “It all depends,” she repeated. “He may be just strong enough not to kill her—but it will be close. It will take an amazing amount of control,” she mused. “More even than Carlisle has. He may be just strong enough…

The only thing he’s not strong enough to do is stay away from her. That’s a lost cause.” I couldn’t find my voice. No one else seemed to be able to either. The room was still.

I stared at Alice, and everyone else stared at me. I could see my own horrified expression from five different viewpoints.

After a long moment, Carlisle sighed.

“Well, this…complicates things.”

“I’ll say,” Emmett agreed. His voice was still close to laughter. Trust Emmett to find the joke in the destruction of my life.

“I suppose the plans remain the same, though,” Carlisle said thoughtfully. “We’ll stay, and watch. Obviously, no one will…hurt the girl.” I stiffened.

“No,” Jasper said quietly. “I can agree to that. If Alice sees only two ways—”

“No!” My voice was not a shout or a growl or a cry of despair, but some combination of the three. “No!”

I had to leave, to be away from the noise of their thoughts—Rosalie’s self-righteous disgust, Emmett’s humor, Carlisle’s never ending patience…

Worse: Alice’s confidence. Jasper’s confidence in that confidence.

Worst of all: Esme’s… joy.

I stalked out of the room. Esme touched my arm as I passed, but I didn’t acknowledge the gesture.

I was running before I was out of the house. I cleared the river in one bound, and raced into the forest. The rain was back again, falling so heavily that I was drenched in a few moments. I liked the thick sheet of water—it made a wall between me and the rest of the world. It closed me in, let me be alone.

I ran due east, over and through the mountains without breaking my straight course, until I could see the lights of Seattle on the other side of the sound. I stopped before I touched the borders of human civilization.

Shut in by the rain, all alone, I finally made myself look at what I had done—at the way I had mutilated the future.

First, the vision of Alice and the girl with their arms around each other—the trust and friendship was so obvious it shouted from the image. Bella’s wide chocolate eyes were not bewildered in this vision, but still full of secrets—in this moment, they seemed to be happy secrets. She did not flinch away from Alice’s cold arm.

What did it mean? How much did she know? In that still-life moment from the future, what did she think of me?

Then the other image, so much the same, yet now colored by horror. Alice and Bella, their arms still wrapped around each other in trusting friendship. But now there was no difference between those arms—both were white, smooth as marble, hard as steel.

Bella’s wide eyes were no longer chocolate. The irises were a shocking, vivid crimson.

The secrets in them were unfathomable—acceptance or desolation? It was impossible to tell. Her face was cold and immortal.

I shuddered. I could not suppress the questions, similar, but different: What did it mean—how had this come about? And what did she think of me now?

I could answer that last one. If I forced her into this empty half-life through my weakness and selfishness, surely she would hate me.

But there was one more horrifying image—worse than any image I’d ever held inside my head.

My own eyes, deep crimson with human blood, the eyes of the monster. Bella’s broken body in my arms, ashy white, drained, lifeless. It was so concrete, so clear.

I couldn’t stand to see this. Could not bear it. I tried to banish it from my mind, tried to see something else, anything else. Tried to see again the expression on her living face that had obstructed my view for the last chapter of my existence. All to no avail.

Alice’s bleak vision filled my head, and I writhed internally with the agony it caused. Meanwhile, the monster in me was overflowing with glee, jubilant at the likelihood of his success. It sickened me.

This could not be allowed. There had to be a way to circumvent the future. I would not let Alice’s visions direct me. I could choose a different path. There was always a choice.

There had to be.


Chapter 5 - INVITATIONS

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High school. Purgatory no longer, it was now purely hell. Torment and fire…yes, I had both.

I was doing everything correctly now. Every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed. No one could complain that I was shirking my responsibilities.

To please Esme and protect the others, I stayed in Forks. I returned to my old schedule. I hunted no more than the rest of them. Everyday, I attended high school and played human. Everyday, I listened carefully for anything new about the Cullens—there never was anything new. The girl did not speak one word of her suspicions. She just repeated the same story again and again—I’d been standing with her and then pulled her out of the way—till her eager listeners got bored and stopped looking for more details.

There was no danger. My hasty action had hurt no one.

No one but myself.

I was determined to change the future. Not the easiest task to set for oneself, but there was no other choice that I could live with.

Alice said that I would not be strong enough to stay away from the girl. I would prove her wrong.

I’d thought the first day would be the hardest. By the end of it, I’d been sure that was the case. I’d been wrong, though.

It had rankled, knowing that I would hurt the girl. I’d comforted myself with the fact that her pain would be nothing more than a pinprick—just a tiny sting of rejection—compared to mine. Bella was human, and she knew that I was something else, something wrong, something frightening. She would probably be more relieved than wounded when I turned my face away from her and pretended that she didn’t exist.

“Hello, Edward,” she’d greeted me, that first day back in biology. Her voice had been pleasant, friendly, one hundred and eighty degrees from the last time I’d spoken with her.

Why? What did the change mean? Had she forgotten? Decided she had imagined the whole episode? Could she possibly have forgiven me for not following through on my promise?

The questions had burned like the thirst that attacked me every time I breathed.

Just one moment to look in her eyes. Just to see if I could read the answers there…

No. I could not allow myself even that. Not if I was going to change the future.

I’d moved my chin an inch in her direction without looking away from the front of the room. I’d nodded once, and then turned my face straight forward.

She did not speak to me again.

That afternoon, as soon as school was finished, my role played, I ran to Seattle as I had the day before. It seemed that I could handle the aching just slightly better when I was flying over the ground, turning everything around me into a green blur.

This run became my daily habit.

Did I love her? I did not think so. Not yet. Alice’s glimpses of that future had stuck with me, though, and I could see how easy it would be to fall into loving Bella. It would be exactly like falling: effortless. Not letting myself love her was the opposite of falling—it was pulling myself up a cliff-face, hand over hand, the task as grueling as if I had no more than mortal strength.

More than a month passed, and every day it got harder. That made no sense to me—I kept waiting to get over it, to have it get easier. This must be what Alice had meant when she’d predicted that I would not be able to stay away from the girl. She had seen the escalation of the pain. But I could handle pain.

I would not destroy Bella’s future. If I was destined to love her, then wasn’t avoiding her the very least I could do?

Avoiding her was about the limit of what I could bear, though. I could pretend to ignore her, and never look her way. I could pretend that she was of no interest to me.

But that was the extent, just pretense and not reality.

I still hung on every breath she took, every word she said.

I lumped my torments into four categories.

The first two were familiar. Her scent and her silence. Or, rather—to take the responsibility on myself where it belonged—my thirst and my curiosity.

The thirst was the most primal of my torments. It was my habit now to simply not breathe at all in Biology. Of course, there were always the exceptions—when I had to answer a question or something of the sort, and I would need my breath to speak. Each time I tasted the air around the girl, it was the same as the first day—fire and need and brutal violence desperate to break free. It was hard to cling even slightly to reason or restraint in those moments. And, just like that first day, the monster in me would roar, so close to the surface…

The curiosity was the most constant of my torments. The question was never out of my mind: What is she thinking now ? When I heard her quietly sigh. When she twisted a lock of hair absently around her finger. When she threw her books down with more force than usual. When she rushed to class late. When she tapped her foot impatiently against the floor. Each movement caught in my peripheral vision was a maddening mystery. When she spoke to the other human students, I analyzed her every word and tone. Was she speaking her thoughts, or what she thought she should say? It often sounded to me like she was trying to say what her audience expected, and this reminded me of my family and our daily life of illusion—we were better at it than she was. Unless I wrong about that, just imagining things. Why would she have to play a role? She was one of them—a human teenager.

Mike Newton was the most surprising of my torments. Who would have ever dreamed that such a generic, boring mortal could be so infuriating? To be fair, I should have felt some gratitude to the annoying boy; more than the others, he kept the girl talking. I learned so much about her through these conversations—I was still compiling my list—but, contrarily, Mike’s assistance with this project only aggravated me more. I didn’t want Mike to be the one that unlocked her secrets. I wanted to do that.

It helped that he never noticed her small revelations, her little slips. He knew nothing about her. He’d created a Bella in his head that didn’t exist—a girl just as generic as he was. He hadn’t observed the unselfishness and bravery that set her apart from other humans, he didn’t hear the abnormal maturity of her spoken thoughts. He didn’t perceive that when she spoke of her mother, she sounded like a parent speaking of a child rather than the other way around—loving, indulgent, slightly amused, and fiercely protective. He didn’t hear the patience in her voice when she feigned interest in his rambling stories, and didn’t guess at the kindness behind that patience.

Through her conversations with Mike, I was able to add the most important quality to my list, the most revealing of them all, as simple as it was rare. Bella was good. All the other things added up to that whole—kind and self-effacing and unselfish and loving and brave—she was good through and through.

These helpful discoveries did not warm me to the boy, however. The possessive way he viewed Bella—as if she were an acquisition to be made—provoked me almost as much as his crude fantasies about her. He was becoming more confident of her, too, as the time passed, for she seemed to prefer him over those he considered his rivals—Tyler Crowley, Eric Yorkie, and even, sporadically, myself. He would routinely sit on her side of our table before class began, chattering at her, encouraged by her smiles. Just polite smiles, I told myself. All the same, I frequently amused myself by imagining backhanding him across the room and into the far wall… It probably wouldn’t injure him fatally…

Mike didn’t often think of me as a rival. After the accident, he’d worried that Bella and I would bond from the shared experience, but obviously the opposite had resulted. Back then, he had still been bothered that I’d singled Bella out over her peers for attention. But now I ignored her just as thoroughly as the others, and he grew complacent.

What was she thinking now? Did she welcome his attention?

And, finally, the last of my torments, the most painful: Bella’s indifference. As I ignored her, she ignored me. She never tried to speak to me again. For all I knew, she never thought about me at all.

This might have driven me mad—or even broken my resolution to change the future—except that she sometimes stared at me like she had before. I didn’t see it for myself, as I could not allow myself to look at her, but Alice always warned us when she was about to stare; the others were still wary of the girl’s problematic knowledge.

It eased some of the pain that she gazed at me from across a distance, every now and then. Of course, she could just be wondering what kind of a freak I was.

“Bella’s going to stare at Edward in a minute. Look normal,” Alice said one Tuesday in March, and the others were careful to fidget and shift their weight like humans; absolute stillness was a marker of our kind.

I paid attention to how often she looked my direction. It pleased me, though it should not, that the frequency did not decline as the time passed. I didn’t know what it meant, but it made me feel better.

Alice sighed. I wish…

“Stay out of it, Alice,” I said under my breath. “It’s not going to happen.” She pouted. Alice was anxious to form her envisioned friendship with Bella. In a strange way, she missed the girl she didn’t know.

I’ll admit, you’re better than I thought. You’ve got the future all snarled up and senseless again. I hope you’re happy.

“It makes plenty of sense to me.”

She snorted delicately.

I tried to shut her out, too impatient for conversation. I wasn’t in a very good mood—tenser than I let any of them see. Only Jasper was aware of how tightly wound I was, feeling the stress emanate out of me with his unique ability to both sense and influence the moods of others. He didn’t understand the reasons behind the moods, though, and—since I was constantly in a foul mood these days—he disregarded it.

Today would be a hard one. Harder than the day before, as was the pattern.

Mike Newton, the odious boy whom I could not allow myself to rival, was going to ask Bella on a date.

A girl’s choice dance was on the near horizon, and he’d been hoping very much that Bella would ask him. That she had not done so had rattled his confidence. Now he was in an uncomfortable bind—I enjoyed his discomfort more than I should—because Jessica Stanley had just asked him to the dance. He didn’t want to say “yes,” still hopeful that Bella would choose him (and prove him the victor over his rivals), but he didn’t want to say “no” and end up missing the dance altogether. Jessica, hurt by his hesitation and guessing the reason behind it, was thinking daggers at Bella. Again, I had the instinct to place myself between Jessica’s angry thoughts and Bella. I understood the instinct better now, but that only made it more frustrating when I could not act on it.

To think it had come to this! I was utterly fixated on the petty high school dramas that I’d once held so in contempt.

Mike was working up his nerve as he walked Bella to biology. I listened to his struggles as I waited for them to arrive. The boy was weak. He had waited for this dance purposely, afraid to make his infatuation known before she had shown a marked preference for him. He didn’t want to make himself vulnerable to rejection, preferring that she make that leap first.

Coward.

He sat down on our table again, comfortable with long familiarity, and I imagined the sound it would make if his body hit the opposite wall with enough force to break most of his bones.

“So,” he said to the girl, his eyes on the floor. “Jessica asked me to the spring dance.”

“That’s great,” Bella answered immediately and with enthusiasm. It was hard not to smile as her tone sunk in to Mike’s awareness. He’d been hoping for dismay. “You’ll have a lot of fun with Jessica.”

He scrambled for the right response. “Well…” he hesitated, and almost chickened out. Then he rallied. “I told her I had to think about it.”

“Why would you do that?” she demanded. Her tone was one of disapproval, but there was the faintest hint of relief there as well.

What did that mean? An unexpected, intense fury made my hands clench into fists.

Mike did not hear the relief. His face was red with blood—fierce as I suddenly felt, this seemed like an invitation—and he looked at the floor again as he spoke.

“I was wondering if…well, if you might be planning to ask me.” Bella hesitated.

In that moment of her hesitation, I saw the future more clearly than Alice ever had.

The girl might say yes to Mike’s unspoken question now, and she might not, but either way, someday soon, she would say yes to someone. She was lovely and intriguing, and human males were not oblivious to this fact. Whether she would settle for someone in this lackluster crowd, or wait until she was free from Forks, the day would come that she would say yes.

I saw her life as I had before—college, career…love, marriage. I saw her on her father’s arm again, dressed in gauzy white, her face flushed with happiness as she moved to the sound of Wagner’s march.

The pain was more than anything I’d felt before. A human would have to be on the point of death to feel this pain—a human would not live through it.

And not just pain, but outright rage.

The fury ached for some kind of physical outlet. Though this insignificant, undeserving boy might not be the one that Bella would say yes to, I yearned to crush his skull in my hand, to let him stand as a representative for whoever it would be.

I didn’t understand this emotion—it was such a tangle of pain and rage and desire and despair. I had never felt it before; I couldn’t put a name to it.

“Mike, I think you should tell her yes,” Bella said in a gentle voice.

Mike’s hopes plummeted. I would have enjoyed that under other circumstances, but I was lost in the aftershock of the pain—and the remorse for what the pain and rage had done to me.

Alice was right. I was not strong enough.

Right now, Alice would be watching the future spin and twist, become mangled again. Would this please her?

“Did you already ask someone?” Mike asked sullenly. He glanced at me, suspicious for the first time in many weeks. I realized I had betrayed my interest; my head was inclined in Bella’s direction.

The wild envy in his thoughts—envy for whoever this girl preferred to him—suddenly put a name to my unnamed emotion.

I was jealous.

“No,” the girl said with a trace of humor in her voice. “I’m not going to the dance at all.”

Through all the remorse and anger, I felt relief at her words. Suddenly, I was considering my rivals.

“Why not?” Mike asked, his tone almost rude. It offended me that he used this tone with her. I bit back a growl.

“I’m going to Seattle that Saturday,” she answered.

The curiosity was not as vicious as it would have been before—now that I was fully intending to find out the answers to everything. I would know the wheres and whys of this new revelation soon enough.

Mike’s tone turned unpleasantly wheedling. “Can’t you go some other weekend?”

“Sorry, no.” Bella was brusquer now. “So you shouldn’t make Jess wait any longer—it’s rude.”

Her concern for Jessica’s feelings fanned the flames of my jealousy. This Seattle trip was clearly an excuse to say no—did she refuse purely out of loyalty to her friend?

She was more than selfless enough for that. Did she actually wish she could say yes? Or were both guesses wrong? Was she interested in someone else?

“Yeah, you’re right,” Mike mumbled, so demoralized that I almost felt pity for him. Almost.

He dropped his eyes from the girl, cutting off my view of her face in his thoughts.

I wasn’t going to tolerate that.

I turned to read her face myself, for the first time in more than a month. It was a sharp relief to allow myself this, like a gasp of air to long-submerged human lungs.

Her eyes were closed, and her hands pressed against the sides of her face. Her shoulders curved inward defensively. She shook her head ever so slightly, as if she were trying to push some thought from her mind.

Frustrating. Fascinating.

Mr. Banner’s voice pulled her from her reverie, and her eyes slowly opened. She looked at me immediately, perhaps sensing my gaze. She stared up into my eyes with the same bewildered expression that had haunted me for so long.

I didn’t feel the remorse or the guilt or the rage in that second. I knew they would come again, and come soon, but for this one moment I rode a strange, jittery high. As if I had triumphed, rather than lost.

She didn’t look away, though I stared with inappropriate intensity, trying vainly to read her thoughts through her liquid brown eyes. They were full of questions, rather than answers.

I could see the reflection of my own eyes, and I saw that they were black with thirst. It had been nearly two weeks since my last hunting trip; this was not the safest day for my will to crumble. But the blackness did not seem to frighten her. She still did not look away, and a soft, devastatingly appealing pink began to color her skin.

What was she thinking now?

I almost asked the question aloud, but at that moment Mr. Banner called my name. I picked the correct answer out of his head while I glanced briefly in his direction.

I sucked in a quick breath. “The Krebs Cycle.” Thirst scorched down my throat—tightening my muscles and filling my mouth with venom—and I closed my eyes, trying to concentrate through the desire for her blood that raged inside me.

The monster was stronger than before. The monster was rejoicing. He embraced this dual future that gave him an even, fifty-fifty chance at what he craved so viciously.

The third, shaky future I’d tried to construct through willpower alone had crumbled—destroyed by common jealously, of all things—and he was so much closer to his goal.

The remorse and the guilt burned with the thirst, and, if I’d had the ability to produce tears, they would have filled my eyes now.

What had I done?

Knowing the battle was already lost, there seemed to be no reason to resist what I wanted; I turned to stare at the girl again.

She had hidden in her hair, but I could see through a parting in the tresses that her cheek was deep crimson now.

The monster liked that.

She did not meet my gaze again, but she twisted a strand of her dark hair nervously between her fingers. Her delicate fingers, her fragile wrist—they were so breakable, looking for all the world like just my breath could snap them.

No, no, no. I could not do this. She was too breakable, too good, too precious to deserve this fate. I couldn’t allow my life to collide with hers, to destroy it.

But I couldn’t stay away from her either. Alice was right about that.

The monster inside me hissed with frustration as I wavered, leaning first one way, then the other.

My brief hour with her passed all too quickly, as I vacillated between the rock and the hard place. The bell rang, and she started collecting her things without looking at me.

This disappointed me, but I could hardly expect otherwise. The way I had treated her since the accident was inexcusable.

“Bella?” I said, unable to stop myself. My willpower already lay in shreds.

She hesitated before looking at me; when she turned, her expression was guarded, distrustful.

I reminded myself that she had every right to distrust me. That she should.

She waited for me to continue, but I just stared at her, reading her face. I pulled in shallow mouthfuls of air at regular intervals, fighting my thirst.

“What?” she finally said. “Are you speaking to me again?” There was an edge of resentment to her tone that was, like her anger, endearing. It made me want to smile.

I wasn’t sure how to answer her question. Was I speaking to her again, in the sense that she meant?

No. Not if I could help it. I would try to help it.

“No, not really,” I told her.

She closed her eyes, which frustrated me. It cut off my best avenue of access to her feelings. She took a long, slow breath without opening her eyes. Her jaw was locked.

Eyes still closed, she spoke. Surely this was not a normal human way to converse. Why did she do it?

“Then what do you want, Edward?”

The sound of my name on her lips did strange things to my body. If I’d had a heartbeat, it would have quickened.

But how to answer her?

With the truth, I decided. I would be as truthful as I could with her from now on.

I didn’t want to deserve her distrust, even if earning her trust was impossible.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. That was truer than she would ever know. Unfortunately, I could only safely apologize for the trivial. “I’m being very rude, I know. But it’s better this way, really.”

I would be better for her if I could keep it up, continue to be rude. Could I?

Her eyes opened, their expression still wary.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

I tried to get as much of a warning through to her as was allowed. “It’s better if we’re not friends.” Surely, she could sense that much. She was a bright girl. “Trust me.”

Her eyes tightened, and I remembered that I had said those words to her before—just before breaking a promise. I winced when her teeth clenched together—she clearly remembered, too.

“It’s too bad you didn’t figure that out earlier,” she said angrily. “You could have saved yourself all this regret.”

I stared at her in shock. What did she know of my regrets?

“Regret? Regret for what?” I demanded.

“For not just letting that stupid van squish me!” she snapped.

I froze, stunned.

How could she be thinking that? Saving her life was the one acceptable thing I’d done since I met her. The one thing that I was not ashamed of. The one and only thing that made me glad I existed at all. I’d been fighting to keep her alive since the first moment I’d caught her scent. How could she think this of me? How dare she question my one good deed in all this mess?

“You think I regret saving your life?”

“I know you do,” she retorted.

Her estimation of my intentions left me seething. “You don’t know anything.” How confusing and incomprehensible the workings of her mind were! She must not think in the same way as other humans at all. That must be the explanation behind her mental silence. She was entirely other.

She jerked her face away, gritting her teeth again. Her cheeks were flushed, with anger this time. She slammed her books together in a pile, yanked them up into her arms, and marched toward the door without meeting my stare.

Even irritated as I was, it was impossible not to find her anger a bit entertaining.

She walked stiffly, without looking where she was going, and her foot caught on the lip of the doorway. She stumbled, and her things all crashed to the ground. Instead of bending to get them, she stood rigidly straight, not even looking down, as if she were not sure the books were worth retrieving.

I managed not to laugh.

No one was here to watch me; I flitted to her side, and had her books put in order before she looked down.

She bent halfway, saw me, and then froze. I handed her books back to her, making sure that my icy skin never touched hers.

“Thank you,” she said in a cold, severe voice.

Her tone brought back my irritation.

“You’re welcome,” I said just as coldly.

She wrenched herself upright and stomped away to her next class.

I watched until I could no longer see her angry figure.

Spanish passed in a blur. Mrs. Goff never questioned my abstraction—she knew my Spanish was superior to hers, and she gave me a great deal of latitude—leaving me free to think.

So, I couldn’t ignore the girl. That much was obvious. But did it mean I had no choice but to destroy her? That could not be the only available future. There had to be some other choice, some delicate balance. I tried to think of a way…

I didn’t pay much attention to Emmett until the hour was nearly up. He was curious—Emmett was not overly intuitive about the shades in other’s moods, but he could see the obvious change in me. He wondered what had happened to remove the unrelenting glower from my face. He struggled to define the change, and finally decided that I looked hopeful.

Hopeful? Is that what it looked like from the outside?

I pondered the idea of hope as we walked to the Volvo, wondering what exactly I should be hoping for.

But I didn’t have long to ponder. Sensitive as I always was to thoughts about the girl, the sound of Bella’s name in the heads of…of my rivals, I suppose I had to admit, caught my attention. Eric and Tyler, having heard—with much satisfaction—of Mike’s failure, were preparing to make their moves.

Eric was already in place, positioned against her truck where she could not avoid him. Tyler’s class was being held late to receive an assignment, and he was in a desperate hurry to catch her before she escaped.

This I had to see.

“Wait for the others here, all right?” I murmured to Emmett.

He eyed me suspiciously, but then shrugged and nodded.

Kid’s lost his mind, he thought, amused by my odd request.

I saw Bella on her way out of the gym, and I waited where she would not see me for her to pass. As she got closer to Eric’s ambush, I strode forward, setting my pace so that I would walk by at the right moment.

I watched her body stiffen when she caught sight of the boy waiting for her. She froze for a moment, then relaxed and moved forward.

“Hi, Eric,” I heard her call in a friendly voice.

I was abruptly and unexpectedly anxious. What if this gangly teen with his unhealthy skin was somehow pleasing to her?

Eric swallowed loudly, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Hi, Bella.” She seemed unconscious of his nervousness.

“What’s up?” she asked, unlocking her truck without looking at his frightened expression.

“Uh, I was just wondering…if you would go to the spring dance with me?” His voice broke.

She finally looked up. Was she taken aback, or pleased? Eric couldn’t meet her gaze, so I couldn’t see her face in his mind.

“I thought it was girl’s choice,” she said, sounding flustered.

“Well, yeah,” he agreed wretchedly.

This pitiable boy did not irritate me as much as Mike Newton did, but I couldn’t find it in myself to feel sympathy for his angst until after Bella had answered him in a gentle voice.

“Thank you for asking me, but I’m going to be in Seattle that day.” He’d already heard this; still, it was a disappointment.

“Oh,” he mumbled, barely daring to raise his eyes to the level of her nose.

“Maybe next time.”

“Sure,” she agreed. Then she bit down on her lip, as if she regretted leaving him a loophole. I liked that.

Eric slumped forward and walked away, headed in the wrong direction from his car, his only thought escape.

I passed her in that moment, and heard her sigh of relief. I laughed.

She whirled at the sound, but I stared straight ahead, trying to keep my lips from twitching in amusement.

Tyler was behind me, almost running in his hurry to catch her before she could drive away. He was bolder and more confident than the other two; he’d only waited to approach Bella this long because he’d respected Mike’s prior claim.

I wanted him to succeed in catching her for two reasons. If—as I was beginning to suspect—all this attention was annoying to Bella, I wanted to enjoy watching her reaction. But, if it was not—if Tyler’s invitation was the one she’d been hoping for—then I wanted to know that, too.

I measured Tyler Crowley as a rival, knowing it was wrong to do so. He seemed tediously average and unremarkable to me, but what did I know of Bella’s preferences?

Maybe she liked average boys…

I winced at that thought. I could never be an average boy. How foolish it was to set myself up as a rival for her affections. How could she ever care for someone who was, by any estimation, a monster?

She was too good for a monster.

I ought to have let her escape, but my inexcusable curiosity kept me from doing what was right. Again. But what if Tyler missed his chance now, only to contact her later when I would have no way of knowing the outcome? I pulled my Volvo out into the narrow lane, blocking her exit.

Emmett and the others were on their way, but he’d described my strange behavior to them, and they were walking slowly, watching me, trying to decipher what I was doing.

I watched the girl in my rearview mirror. She glowered toward the back of my car without meeting my gaze, looking as if she wished she were driving a tank rather than a rusted Chevy.

Tyler hurried to his car and got in line behind her, grateful for my inexplicable behavior. He waved at her, trying to catch her attention, but she didn’t notice. He waited a moment, and then left his car, sauntering up to her passenger side window. He tapped on the glass.

She jumped, and then stared at him in confusion. After a second, she rolled the window down manually, seeming to have some trouble with it.

“I’m sorry, Tyler,” she said, her voice irritated. “I’m stuck behind Cullen.” She said my surname in a hard voice—she was still angry with me.

“Oh, I know,” Tyler said, undeterred by her mood. “I just wanted to ask you something while we’re trapped here.”

His grin was cocky.

I was gratified by the way she blanched at his obvious intent.

“Will you ask me to the spring dance?” he asked, no thought of defeat in his head.

“I’m not going to be in town, Tyler,” she told him, irritation still plain in her voice.

“Yeah, Mike said that.”

“Then why—?” she stared to ask.

He shrugged. “I was hoping you were just letting him down easy.” Her eyes flashed, then cooled. “Sorry, Tyler,” she said, not sounding sorry at all.

“I really am going to be out of town.”

He accepted that excuse, his self-assurance untouched. “That’s cool. We still have prom.”

He strutted back to his car.

I was right to have waited for this.

The horrified expression on her face was priceless. It told me what I should not so desperately need to know—that she had no feelings for any of these human males who wished to court her.

Also, her expression was possibly the funniest thing I’d ever seen.

My family arrived then, confused by the fact that I was, for a change, rocking with laughter rather than scowling murderously at everything in sight.

What’s so funny? Emmett wanted to know.

I just shook my head while I also shook with fresh laughter as Bella revved her noisy engine angrily. She looked like she was wishing for a tank again.

“Let’s go!” Rosalie hissed impatiently. “Stop being an idiot. If you can.” Her words didn’t annoy me—I was too entertained. But I did as she asked.

No one spoke to me on the way home. I continued to chuckle every now and again, thinking of Bella’s face.

As I turned on to the drive—speeding up now that there were no witnesses—

Alice ruined my mood.

“So do I get to talk to Bella now?” she asked suddenly, without considering the words first, thus giving me no warning.

“No,” I snapped.

“Not fair! What am I waiting for?”

“I haven’t decided anything, Alice.”

“Whatever, Edward.”

In her head, Bella’s two destinies were clear again.

“What’s the point in getting to know her?” I mumbled, suddenly morose. “If I’m just going to kill her?”

Alice hesitated for a second. “You have a point,” she admitted.

I took the final hairpin turn at ninety miles an hour, and then screeched to a stop an inch from the back garage wall.

“Enjoy your run,” Rosalie said smugly as I threw myself out of the car.

But I didn’t go running today. Instead, I went hunting.

The others were scheduled to hunt tomorrow, but I couldn’t afford to be thirsty now. I overdid it, drinking more than necessary, glutting myself again—a small grouping of elk and one black bear I was lucky to stumble across this early in the year. I was so full it was uncomfortable. Why couldn’t that be enough? Why did her scent have to be so much stronger than anything else?

I had hunted in preparation for the next day, but, when I could hunt no more and the sun was still hours and hours from rising, I knew that the next day was not soon enough.

The jittery high swept through me again when I realized that I was going to go find the girl.

I argued with myself all the way back to Forks, but my less noble side won the argument, and I went ahead with my indefensible plan. The monster was restless but well-fettered. I knew I would keep a safe distance from her. I only wanted to know where she was. I just wanted to see her face.

It was past midnight, and Bella’s house was dark and quiet. Her truck was parked against the curb, her father’s police cruiser in the driveway. There were no conscious thoughts anywhere in the neighborhood. I watched the house for a moment from the blackness of the forest that bordered it on the east. The front door would probably be locked—not a problem, except that I didn’t want to leave a broken door as evidence behind me. I decided to try the upstairs window first. Not many people would bother installing a lock there.

I crossed the open yard and scaled the face of the house in half a second.

Dangling from the eave above the window by one hand, I looked through the glass, and my breath stopped.

It was her room. I could see her in the one small bed, her covers on the floor and her sheets twisted around her legs. As I watched, she twitched restlessly and threw one arm over her head. She did not sleep soundly, at least not this night. Did she sense the danger near her?

I was repulsed by myself as I watched her toss again. How was I any better than some sick peeping tom? I wasn’t any better. I was much, much worse.

I relaxed my fingertips, about to let myself drop. But first I allowed myself one long look at her face.

It was not peaceful. The little furrow was there between her eyebrows, the corners of her lips turned down. Her lips trembled, and then parted.

“Okay, Mom,” she muttered.

Bella talked in her sleep.

Curiosity flared, overpowering self-disgust. The lure of those unprotected, unconsciously spoken thoughts was impossibly tempting.

I tried the window, and it was not locked, though it stuck due to long disuse. I slid it slowly aside, cringing at each faint groan of the metal frame. I would have to find some oil for next time…

Next time? I shook my head, disgusted again.

I eased myself silently through the half-opened window.

Her room was small—disorganized but not unclean. There were books piled on the floor beside her bed, their spines facing away from me, and CDs scattered by her inexpensive CD player—the one on top was just a clear jewel case. Stacks of papers surrounded a computer that looked like it belonged in a museum dedicated to obsolete technologies. Shoes dotted the wooden floor.

I wanted very much to go read the titles of her books and CDs, but I’d promised myself that I would keep my distance; instead, I went to sit the old rocking chair in the far corner of the room.

Had I really once thought her average-looking? I thought of that first day, and my disgust for the boys who were so immediately intrigued with her. But when I remembered her face in their minds now, I could not understand why I had not found her beautiful immediately. It seemed an obvious thing.

Right now—with her dark hair tangled and wild around her pale face, wearing a threadbare t-shirt full of holes with tatty sweatpants, her features relaxed in unconsciousness, her full lips slightly parted—she took my breath away. Or would have, I thought wryly, if I were breathing.

She did not speak. Perhaps her dream had ended.

I stared at her face and tried to think of some way to make the future bearable.

Hurting her was not bearable. Did that mean my only choice was to try to leave again?

The others could not argue with me now. My absence would not put anyone in danger. There would be no suspicion, nothing to link anyone’s thoughts back to the accident.

I wavered as I had this afternoon, and nothing seemed possible.

I could not hope to rival the human boys, whether these specific boys appealed to her or not. I was a monster. How could she see me as anything else? If she knew the truth about me, it would frighten and repulse her. Like the intended victim in a horror movie, she would run away, shrieking in terror.

I remembered her first day in biology…and knew that this was exactly the right reaction for her to have.

It was foolishness to imagine that if had I been the one to ask her to the silly dance, she would have cancelled her hastily-made plans and agreed to go with me.

I was not the one she was destined to say yes to. It was someone else, someone human and warm. And I could not even let myself—someday, when that yes was said—

hunt him down and kill him, because she deserved him, whoever he was. She deserved happiness and love with whomever she chose.

I owed it to her to do the right thing now; I could no longer pretend that I was only in danger of loving this girl.

After all, it really didn’t matter if I left, because Bella could never see me the way I wished she would. Never see me as someone worthy of love.

Never.

Could a dead, frozen heart break? It felt like mine would.

“Edward,” Bella said.

I froze, staring at her unopened eyes.

Had she woken, caught me here? She looked asleep, yet her voice had been so clear…

She sighed a quiet sigh, and then moved restlessly again, rolling to her side—still fast asleep and dreaming.

“Edward,” she mumbled softly.

She was dreaming of me.

Could a dead, frozen heart beat again? It felt like mine was about to.

“Stay,” she sighed. “Don’t go. Please…don’t go.” She was dreaming of me, and it wasn’t even a nightmare. She wanted me to stay with her, there in her dream.

I struggled to find words to name the feelings that flooded through me, but I had no words strong enough to hold them. For a long moment, I drowned in them.

When I surfaced, I was not the same man I had been.

My life was an unending, unchanging midnight. It must, by necessity, always be midnight for me. So how was it possible that the sun was rising now, in the middle of my midnight?

At the time that I had become a vampire, trading my soul and my mortality for immortality in the searing pain of transformation, I had truly been frozen. My body had turned into something more like rock than flesh, enduring and unchanging. My self, also, had frozen as it was—my personality, my likes and my dislikes, my moods and my desires; all were fixed in place.

It was the same for the rest of them. We were all frozen. Living stone.

When change came for one of us, it was a rare and permanent thing. I had seen it happen with Carlisle, and then a decade later with Rosalie. Love had changed them in an eternal way, a way that never faded. More than eighty years had passed since Carlisle had found Esme, and yet he still looked at her with the incredulous eyes of first love. It would always be that way for them.

It would always be that way for me, too. I would always love this fragile human girl, for the rest of my limitless existence.

I gazed at her unconscious face, feeling this love for her settle into every portion of my stone body.

She slept more peacefully now, a slight smile on her lips.

Always watching her, I began to plot.

I loved her, and so I would try to be strong enough to leave her. I knew I wasn’t that strong now. I would work on that one. But perhaps I was strong enough to circumvent the future in another way.

Alice had seen only two futures for Bella, and now I understood them both.

Loving her would not keep me from killing her, if I let myself make mistakes.

Yet I could not feel the monster now, could not find him anywhere in me.

Perhaps love had silenced him forever. If I killed her now, it would not be intentional, only a horrible accident.

I would have to be inordinately careful. I would never, ever be able to let my guard down. I would have to control my every breath. I would have to keep an always cautious distance.

I would not make mistakes.

I finally understood that second future. I’d been baffled by that vision—what could possibly happen to result in Bella becoming a prisoner to this immortal half-life?

Now—devastated by longing for the girl—I could understand how I might, in unforgivable selfishness, ask my father for that favor. Ask him to take away her life and her soul so that I could keep her forever.

She deserved better.

But I saw one more future, one thin wire that I might be able to walk, if I could keep my balance.

Could I do it? Be with her and leave her human?

Deliberately, I took a deep breath, and then another, letting her scent rip through me like wildfire. The room was thick with her perfume; her fragrance was layered on every surface. My head swam, but I fought the spinning. I would have to get used to this, if I were going to attempt any kind of relationship with her. I took another deep, burning breath.

I watched her sleeping until the sun rose behind the eastern clouds, plotting and breathing.

I got home just after the others had left for school. I changed quickly, avoiding Esme’s questioning eyes. She saw the feverish light in my face, and she felt both worry and relief. My long melancholy had pained her, and she was glad it seemed to be over.

I ran to school, arriving a few seconds after my siblings did. They did not turn, though Alice at least must have known that I stood here in the thick woods that bordered the pavement. I waited until no one was looking, and then I strolled casually from between the trees into the lot full of parked cars.

I heard Bella’s truck rumbling around the corner, and I paused behind a Suburban, where I could watch without being seen.

She drove into the lot, glaring at my Volvo for a long moment before she parked in one of the most distant spaces, a frown on her face.

It was strange to remember that she was probably still angry with me, and with good reason.

I wanted to laugh at myself—or kick myself. All my plotting and planning was entirely moot if she didn’t care for me, too, wasn’t it? Her dream could have been about something completely random. I was such an arrogant fool.

Well, it was so much the better for her if she didn’t care for me. That wouldn’t stop me from pursuing her, but I would give her fair warning as I pursued. I owed her that.

I walked silently forward, wondering how best to approach her.

She made it easy. Her truck key slipped through her fingers as she got out, and fell into a deep puddle.

She reached down, but I got to it first, retrieving it before she had to put her fingers in the cold water.

I leaned back against her truck as she started and then straightened up.

“How do you do that?” she demanded.

Yes, she was still angry.

I offered her the key. “Do what?”

She held her hand out, and I dropped the key in her palm. I took a deep breath, pulling in her scent.

“Appear out of thin air,” she clarified.

“Bella, it’s not my fault if you are exceptionally unobservant.” The words were wry, almost a joke. Was there anything she didn’t see?

Did she hear how my voice wrapped around her name like a caress?

She glared at me, not appreciating my humor. Her heartbeat sped—from anger?

From fear? After a moment, she looked down.

“Why the traffic jam last night?” she asked without meeting my eyes. “I thought you were supposed to be pretending I don’t exist, not irritating me to death.” Still very angry. It was going to take some effort to make things right with her. I remembered my resolve to be truthful with her…

“That was for Tyler’s sake, not mine. I had to give him his chance.” And then I laughed. I couldn’t help it, thinking of her expression yesterday.

“You—” she gasped, and then broke off, appearing to be too furious to finish.

There it was—that same expression. I choked back another laugh. She was mad enough already.

“And I’m not pretending you don’t exist,” I finished. It was right to keep this casual, teasing. She would not understand if I let her see how I really felt. I would frighten her. I had to keep my feelings in check, keep things light…

“So you are trying to irritate me to death? Since Tyler’s van didn’t do the job?” A quick flash of anger pulsed through me. Could she honestly believe that?

It was irrational for me to be so affronted—she didn’t know of the transformation that had happened in the night. But I was angry all the same.

“Bella, you are utterly absurd,” I snapped.

Her face flushed, and she turned her back on me. She began to walk away.

Remorse. I had no right to my anger.

“Wait,” I pleaded.

She did not stop, so I followed after her.

“I’m sorry, that was rude. I’m not saying it isn’t true” —it was absurd to imagine that I wanted her harmed in any way— “but it was rude to say it, anyway.”

“Why won’t you leave me alone?”

Believe me, I wanted to say. I’ve tried.

Oh, and also, I’m wretchedly in love with you.

Keep it light.

“I wanted to ask you something, but you sidetracked me.” A course of action had just occurred to me, and I laughed.

“Do you have a multiple personality disorder?” she asked.

It must seem that way. My mood was erratic, so many new emotions coursing through me.

“You’re doing it again,” I pointed out.

She sighed. “Fine then. What do you want to ask?”

“I was wondering if, a week from Saturday…” I watched the shock cross her face, and choked back another laugh. “You know, the day of the spring dance—” She cut me off, finally returning her eyes to mine. “Are you trying to be funny?” Yes. “Will you let me finish?”

She waited in silence, her teeth pressing into her soft lower lip.

That sight distracted me for a second. Strange, unfamiliar reactions stirred deep in my forgotten human core. I tried to shake them off so I could play my role.

“I heard you say that you were going to Seattle that day, and I was wondering if you wanted a ride?” I offered. I’d realized that, better than just questioning her about her plans, I might share them.

She stared at me blankly. “What?”

“Do you want a ride to Seattle?” Alone in a car with her—my throat burned at the thought. I took a deep breath. Get used to it.

“With who?” she asked, her eyes wide and bewildered again.

“Myself, obviously,” I said slowly.

“Why?”

Was it really such as shock that I would want her company? She must have applied the worst possible meaning to my past behavior.

“Well,” I said as casually as possible, “I was planning to go to Seattle in the next few weeks, and, to be honest, I’m not sure if your truck can make it.” It seemed safer to tease her than to allow myself to be serious.

“My truck works just fine, thank you very much for your concern,” she said in the same surprised voice. She started walking again. I kept pace with her.

She hadn’t really said no, so I pressed that advantage.

Would she say no? What would I do if she did?

“But can your truck make it there on one tank of gas?”

“I don’t see how that is any of your business,” she grumbled.

That still wasn’t a no. And her heart was beating faster again, her breath coming more quickly.

“The wasting of finite resources is everyone’s business.”

“Honestly, Edward, I can’t keep up with you. I thought you didn’t want to be my friend.”

A thrill shot through me when she spoke my name.

How to keep it light and yet be honest at the same time? Well, it was more important to be honest. Especially on this point.

“I said it would be better if we weren’t friends, not that I didn’t want to be.”

“Oh, thanks, now that’s all cleared up,” she said sarcastically.

She paused, under the edge of the cafeteria’s roof, and met my gaze again. Her heartbeats stuttered. Was she afraid?

I chose my words carefully. No, I could not leave her, but maybe she would be smart enough to leave me, before it was too late.

“It would be more… prudent for you not to be my friend.” Staring into the melted chocolate depths of her eyes, I lost my hold on light. “But I’m tired of trying to stay away from you, Bella.” The words burned with much too much fervor.

Her breathing stopped and, in the second it took for it to restart, that worried me.

How much had I scared her? Well, I would find out.

“Will you go to Seattle with me?” I demanded, point blank.

She nodded, her heart drumming loudly.

Yes. She’d said yes to me.

And then my conscious smote me. What would this cost her?

“You really should stay away from me,” I warned her. Did she hear me? Would she escape the future I was threatening her with? Couldn’t I do anything to save her from me?

Keep it light, I shouted at myself. “I’ll see you in class.” I had to concentrate to stop myself from running as I fled.


Chapter 6 - BLOOD TYPE

.

I followed her all day through other people’s eyes, barely aware of my own surroundings.

Not Mike Newton’s eyes, because I couldn’t stand any more of his offensive fantasies, and not Jessica Stanley’s, because her resentment toward Bella made me angry in a way that was not safe for the petty girl. Angela Weber was a good choice when her eyes were available; she was kind—her head was an easy place to be. And then sometimes it was the teachers who provided the best view.

I was surprised, watching her stumble through the day—tripping over cracks in the sidewalk, stray books, and, most often, her own feet—that the people I eavesdropped on thought of Bella as clumsy.

I considered that. It was true that she often had trouble staying upright. I remembered her stumbling into the desk that first day, sliding around on the ice before the accident, falling over the low lip of the doorframe yesterday… How odd, they were right. She was clumsy.

I didn’t know why this was so funny to me, but I laughed out loud as I walked from American History to English and several people shot me wary looks. How had I never noticed this before? Perhaps because there was something very graceful about her in stillness, the way she held her head, the arch of her neck…

There was nothing graceful about her now. Mr. Varner watched as she caught the toe of her boot on the carpet and literally fell into her chair.

I laughed again.

The time moved with incredible sluggishness while I waited for my chance to see her with my own eyes. Finally, the bell rang. I strode quickly to the cafeteria to secure my spot. I was one of the first there. I chose a table that was usually empty, and was sure to remain that way with me seated here.

When my family entered and saw me sitting alone in a new place, they were not surprised. Alice must have warned them.

Rosalie stalked past me without a glance.

Idiot.

Rosalie and I had never had an easy relationship—I’d offended her the very first time she’d heard me speak, and it was downhill from there—but it seemed like she was even more ill-tempered than usual the last few days. I sighed. Rosalie made everything about herself.

Jasper gave me half a smile as he walked by.

Good luck, he thought doubtfully.

Emmett rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Lost his mind, poor kid.

Alice was beaming, her teeth shining too brightly.

Can I talk to Bella now ??

“Keep out of it,” I said under my breath.

Her face fell, and then brightened again.

Fine. Be stubborn. It’s only a matter of time.

I sighed again.

Don’t forget about today’s biology lab, she reminded me.

I nodded. No, I hadn’t forgotten that.

While I waited for Bella to arrive, I followed her in the eyes of the freshman who was walking behind Jessica on his way to the cafeteria. Jessica was babbling about the upcoming dance, but Bella said nothing in response. Not that Jessica gave her much of a chance.

The moment Bella walked through the door, her eyes flashed to the table where my siblings sat. She stared for a moment, and then her forehead crumpled and her eyes dropped to the floor. She hadn’t noticed me here.

She looked so… sad. I felt a powerful urge to get up and go to her side, to comfort her somehow, only I didn’t know what she would find comforting. I had no idea what made her look that way. Jessica continued to jabber about the dance. Was Bella sad that she was going to miss it? That didn’t seem likely…

But that could be remedied, if she wished.

She bought a drink for her lunch and nothing else. Was that right? Didn’t she need more nutrition than that? I’d never paid much attention to a human’s diet before.

Humans were quite exasperatingly fragile! There were a million different things to worry about…

“Edward Cullen is staring at you again,” I heard Jessica say. “I wonder why he’s sitting alone today?”

I was grateful to Jessica—though she was even more resentful now—because Bella’s head snapped up and her eyes searched until they met mine.

There was no trace of sadness in her face now. I let myself hope that she’d been sad because she’d thought I’d left school early, and that hope made me smile.

I motioned with my finger for her to join me. She looked so startled by this that I wanted to tease her again.

So I winked, and her mouth fell open.

“Does he mean you?” Jessica asked rudely.

“Maybe he needs help with his Biology homework,” she said in a low, uncertain voice. “Um, I’d better go see what he wants.”

This was another yes.

She stumbled twice on her way to my table, though there was nothing in her way but perfectly even linoleum. Seriously, how had I missed this before? I’d been paying more attention to her silent thoughts, I supposed… What else had I missed?

Keep it honest, keep it light, I chanted to myself.

She stopped behind the chair across from me, hesitating. I inhaled deeply, through my nose this time rather than my mouth.

Feel the burn, I thought dryly.

“Why don’t you sit with me today?” I asked her.

She pulled the chair out and sat, staring at me the whole while. She seemed nervous, but her physical acceptance was yet another yes.

I waited for her to speak.

It took a moment, but, finally, she said, “This is different.”

“Well…” I hesitated. “I decided as long as I was going to hell, I might as well do it thoroughly.”

What had made me say that? I supposed it was honest, at least. And perhaps she’d hear the unsubtle warning my words implied. Maybe she would realize that she should get up and walk away as quickly as possible…

She didn’t get up. She stared at me, waiting, as if I’d left my sentence unfinished.

“You know I don’t have any idea what you mean,” she said when I didn’t continue.

That was a relief. I smiled.

“I know.”

It was hard to ignore the thoughts screaming at me from behind her back—and I wanted to change the subject anyway.

“I think your friends are angry at me for stealing you.” This did not appear to concern her. “They’ll survive.”

“I may not give you back, though.” I didn’t even know if I was trying to be honest now, or just trying to tease her again. Being near her made it hard to make sense of my own thoughts.

Bella swallowed loudly.

I laughed at her expression. “You look worried.” It really shouldn’t be funny…

She should worry.

“No.” She was a bad liar; it didn’t help that her voice broke. “Surprised, actually…. What brought this on?”

“I told you,” I reminded her. “I got tired of trying to stay away from you. So I’m giving up.” I held my smile in place with a bit of effort. This wasn’t working at all—

trying to be honest and casual at the same time.

“Giving up?” she repeated, baffled.

“Yes—giving up trying to be good.” And, apparently, giving up trying to be casual. “I’m just going to do what I want now, and let the chips fall where they may.” That was honest enough. Let her see my selfishness. Let that warn her, too.

“You lost me again.”

I was selfish enough to be glad that this was the case. “I always say too much when I’m talking to you—that’s one of the problems.” A rather insignificant problem, compared to the rest.

“Don’t worry,” she reassured me. “I don’t understand any of it.” Good. Then she’d stay. “I’m counting on that.”

“So, in plain English, are we friends now?”

I pondered that for a second. “Friends…” I repeated. I didn’t like the sound of that. It wasn’t enough.

“Or not,” she mumbled, looking embarrassed.

Did she think I didn’t like her that much?

I smiled. “Well, we can try, I suppose. But I’m warning you now that I’m not a good friend for you.”

I waited for her response, torn in two—wishing she would finally hear and understand, thinking I might die if she did. How melodramatic. I was turning into such a human.

Her heart beat faster. “You say that a lot.”

“Yes, because you’re not listening to me,” I said, too intense again. “I’m still waiting for you to believe it. If you’re smart, you’ll avoid me.” Ah, but would I allow her to do that, if she tried?

Her eyes tightened. “I think you’ve made your opinion on the subject of my intellect clear, too.”

I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but I smiled in apology, guessing that I must have offended her accidentally.

“So,” she said slowly. “As long as I’m being…not smart, we’ll try to be friends?”

“That sounds about right.”

She looked down, staring intently at the lemonade bottle in her hands.

The old curiosity tormented me.

“What are you thinking?” I asked—it was a relief to say the words out loud at last.

She met my gaze, and her breathing sped while her cheeks flushed faint pink. I inhaled, tasting that in the air.

“I’m trying to figure out what you are.”

I held the smile on my face, locking my features that way, while panic twisted through my body.

Of course she was wondering that. She wasn’t stupid. I couldn’t hope for her to be oblivious to something so obvious.

“Are you having any luck with that?” I asked as lightly as I could manage.

“Not too much,” she admitted.

I chuckled in sudden relief. “What are your theories?” They couldn’t be worse than the truth, no matter what she’d come up with.

Her cheeks turned brighter red, and she said nothing. I could feel the warmth of her blush in the air.

I tried using my persuasive tone on her. It worked well on normal humans.

“Won’t you tell me?” I smiled encouragingly.

She shook her head. “Too embarrassing.”

Ugh. Not knowing was worse than anything else. Why would her speculations embarrass her? I couldn’t stand not knowing.

“That’s really frustrating, you know.”

My complaint sparked something in her. Her eyes flashed and her words flowed more swiftly than usual.

“No, I can’t imagine why that would be frustrating at all—just because someone refuses to tell you what they’re thinking, even if all the while they’re making cryptic little remarks specifically designed to keep you up at night wondering what they could possibly mean…now, why would that be frustrating?” I frowned at her, upset to realize that she was right. I wasn’t being fair.

She went on. “Or better, say that person also did a wide range of bizarre things—from saving your life under impossible circumstances one day to treating you like a pariah the next, and he never explained any of that either, even after he promised. That, also, would be very non-frustrating.”

It was the longest speech I’d ever heard her make, and it gave me a new quality for my list.

“You’ve got a bit of a temper, don’t you?”

“I don’t like double standards.”

She was completely justified in her irritation, of course.

I stared at Bella, wondering how I could possibly do anything right by her, until the silent shouting in Mike Newton’s head distracted me.

He was so irate that it made me chuckle.

“What?” she demanded.

“Your boyfriend seems to think I’m being unpleasant to you—he’s debating whether or not to come break up our fight.” I would love to see him try. I laughed again.

“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she said in an icy voice. “But I’m sure you’re wrong anyway.”

I very much enjoyed the way she disowned him with her dismissive sentence.

“I’m not. I told you, most people are easy to read.”

“Except me, of course.”

“Yes. Except for you.” Did she have to be the exception to everything?

Wouldn’t it have been more fair—considering everything else I had to deal with now—if I could have at least heard something from her head? Was that so much to ask? “I wonder why that is?”

I stared into her eyes, trying again…

She looked away. She opened her lemonade and took a quick drink, her eyes on the table.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked.

“No.” She eyed the empty table between us. “You?”

“No, I’m not hungry,” I said. I was definitely not that.

She stared at the table her lips pursed. I waited.

“Could you do me a favor?” she asked, suddenly meeting my gaze again.

What would she want from me? Would she ask for the truth that I wasn’t allowed to tell her—the truth I didn’t want her to ever, ever know?

“That depends on what you want.”

“It’s not much,” she promised.

I waited, curious again.

“I just wondered…” she said slowly, staring at the lemonade bottle, tracing its lip with her littlest finger. “If you could warn me beforehand the next time you decide to ignore me for my own good? Just so I’m prepared.”

She wanted a warning? Then being ignored by me must be a bad thing… I smiled.

“That sounds fair,” I agreed.

“Thanks,” she said, looking up. Her face was so relieved that I wanted to laugh with my own relief.

“Then can I have one in return?” I asked hopefully.

“One,” she allowed.

“Tell me one theory.”

She flushed. “Not that one.”

“You didn’t qualify, you just promised one answer,” I argued.

“And you’ve broken promises yourself,” she argued back.

She had me there.

“Just one theory—I won’t laugh.”

“Yes, you will.” She seemed very sure of that, though I couldn’t imagine anything that would be funny about it.

I gave persuasion another try. I stared deep into her eyes—an easy thing to do, with eyes so deep—and whispered, “Please?”

She blinked, and her face went blank.

Well, that wasn’t exactly the reaction I’d been going for.

“Er, what?” she asked. She looked dizzy. What was wrong with her?

But I wasn’t giving up yet.

“Please tell me just one little theory,” I pleaded in my soft, non-scary voice, holding her eyes in mine.

To my surprise and satisfaction, it finally worked.

“Um, well, bitten by a radioactive spider?”

Comic books? No wonder she thought I would laugh.

“That’s not very creative,” I chided her, trying to hide my fresh relief.

“I’m sorry, that’s all I’ve got,” she said, offended.

This relieved me even more. I was able to tease her again.

“You’re not even close.”

“No spiders?”

“Nope.”

“And no radioactivity?”

“None.”

“Dang,” she sighed.

“Kryptonite doesn’t bother me either,” I said quickly—before she could ask about bites—and then I had to laugh, because she thought I was a superhero.

“You’re not supposed to laugh, remember?”

I pressed my lips together.

“I’ll figure it out eventually,” she promised.

And when she did, she would run.

“I wish you wouldn’t try,” I said, all teasing gone.

“Because…?”

I owed her honesty. Still, I tried to smile, to make my words sound less threatening. “What if I’m not a superhero? What if I’m the bad guy?” Her eyes widened by a fraction and her lips fell slightly apart. “Oh,” she said.

And then, after another second, “I see.”

She’d finally heard me.

“Do you?” I asked, working to conceal my agony.

“You’re dangerous?” she guessed. Her breathing hiked, and her heart raced.

I couldn’t answer her. Was this my last moment with her? Would she run now?

Could I be allowed to tell her that I loved her before she left? Or would that frighten her more?

“But not bad,” she whispered, shaking her head, no fear in her clear eyes. “No, I don’t believe that you’re bad.”

“You’re wrong,” I breathed.

Of course I was bad. Wasn’t I rejoicing now, that she thought better of me than I deserved? If I were a good person, I would have stayed away from her.

I stretched my hand across the table, reaching for the lid to her lemonade bottle as an excuse. She did not flinch away from my suddenly closer hand. She really was not afraid of me. Not yet.

I spun the lid like a top, watching it instead of her. My thoughts were in a snarl.

Run, Bella, run. I couldn’t make myself say the words out loud.

She jumped to her feet. “We’re going to be late,” she said, just as I’d started to worry that she’d somehow heard my silent warning.

“I’m not going to class.”

“Why not?”

Because I don’t want to kill you. “It’s healthy to ditch class now and then.” To be precise, it was healthier for the humans if the vampires ditched on days when human blood would be spilt. Mr. Banner was blood typing today. Alice had already ditched her morning class.

“Well, I’m going,” she said. This didn’t surprise me. She was responsible—she always did the right thing.

She was my opposite.

“I’ll see you later then,” I said, trying for casual again, staring down at the whirling lid. And, by the way, I adore you…in frightening, dangerous ways.

She hesitated, and I hoped for a moment that she would stay with me after all.

But the bell rang and she hurried away.

I waited until she was gone, and then I put the lid in my pocket—a souvenir of this most consequential conversation—and walked through the rain to my car.

I put on my favorite calming CD—the same one I’d listened to that first day—but I wasn’t hearing Debussy’s notes for long. Other notes were running through my head, a fragment of a tune that pleased and intrigued me. I turned down the stereo and listened to the music in my head, playing with the fragment until it evolved into a fuller harmony.

Instinctively, my fingers moved in the air over imaginary piano keys.

The new composition was really coming along when my attention was caught by a wave of mental anguish.

I looked toward the distress.

Is she going to pass out? What do I do? Mike panicked.

A hundred yards away, Mike Newton was lowering Bella’s limp body to the sidewalk. She slumped unresponsively against the wet concrete, her eyes closed, her skin chalky as a corpse.

I almost took the door off the car.

“Bella?” I shouted.

There was no change in her lifeless face when I yelled her name.

My whole body went colder than ice.

I was aware of Mike’s aggravated surprise as I sifted furiously through his thoughts. He was only thinking of his anger toward me, so I didn’t know what was wrong with Bella. If he’d done something to harm her, I would annihilate him.

“What’s wrong—is she hurt?” I demanded, trying to focus his thoughts. It was maddening to have to walk at a human pace. I should not have called attention to my approach.

Then I could hear her heart beating and her even breath. As I watched, she squeezed her eyes more tightly shut. That eased some of my panic.

I saw a flicker of memories in Mike’s head, a splash of images from the Biology room. Bella’s head on our table, her fair skin turning green. Drops of red against the white cards…

Blood typing.

I stopped where I was, holding my breath. Her scent was one thing, her flowing blood was another altogether.

“I think she’s fainted,” Mike said, anxious and resentful at the same time. “I don’t know what happened, she didn’t even stick her finger.” Relief washed through me, and I breathed again, tasting the air. Ah, I could smell the tiny flow of Mike Newton’s puncture wound. Once, that might have appealed to me.

I knelt beside her while Mike hovered next to me, furious at my intervention.

“Bella. Can you hear me?”

“No,” she moaned. “Go away.”

The relief was so exquisite that I laughed. She was fine.

“I was taking her to the nurse,” Mike said. “But she wouldn’t go any farther.”

“I’ll take her. You can go back to class,” I said dismissively.

Mike’s teeth clenched together. “No. I’m supposed to do it.” I wasn’t going to stand around arguing with the wretch.

Thrilled and terrified, half-grateful to and half-aggrieved by the predicament which made touching her a necessity, I gently lifted Bella from the sidewalk and held her in my arms, touching only her clothes, keeping as much distance between our bodies as possible. I was striding forward in the same movement, in a hurry to have her safe—farther away from me, in other words.

Her eyes popped open, astonished.

“Put me down,” she ordered in a weak voice—embarrassed again, I guessed from her expression. She didn’t like to show weakness.

I barely heard Mike’s shouted protest behind us.

“You look awful,” I told her, grinning because there was nothing wrong with her but a light head and a weak stomach.

“Put me back on the sidewalk,” she said. Her lips were white.

“So you faint at the sight of blood?” Could it get any more ironic?

She closed her eyes and pressed her lips together.

“And not even your own blood,” I added, my grin widening.

We were to the front office. The door was propped an inch open, and I kicked it out of my way.

Ms. Cope jumped, startled. “Oh, my,” she gasped as she examined the ashen girl in my arms.

“She fainted in Biology,” I explained, before her imagination could get too out of hand.

Ms. Cope hurried to open the door to the nurse’s office. Bella’s eyes were open again, watching her. I heard the elderly nurse’s internal astonishment as I laid the girl carefully on the one shabby bed. As soon as Bella was out of my arms, I put the width of the room between us. My body was too excited, too eager, my muscles tense and the venom flowing. She was so warm and fragrant.

“She’s just a little faint,” I reassured Mrs. Hammond. “They’re blood typing in biology.”

She nodded, understanding now. “There’s always one.” I stifled a laugh. Trust Bella to be that one.

“Just lie down for a minute, honey,” Mrs. Hammond said. “It’ll pass.”

“I know,” Bella said.

“Does this happen often?” the nurse asked.

“Sometimes,” Bella admitted.

I tried to disguise my laughter as coughing.

This brought me to the nurse’s attention. “You can go back to class now,” she said.

I looked her straight in the eye and lied with perfect confidence. “I’m supposed to stay with her.”

Hmm. I wonder… oh well. Mrs. Hammond nodded.

It worked just fine on her. Why did Bella have to be so difficult?

“I’ll go get you some ice for your forehead, dear,” the nurse said, slightly uncomfortable from looking into my eyes—the way a human should be—and left the room.

“You were right,” Bella moaned, closing her eyes.

What did she mean? I jumped to the worst conclusion: she’d accepted my warnings.

“I usually am,” I said, trying to keep the amusement in my voice; it sounded sour now. “But about what in particular this time?”

“Ditching is healthy,” she sighed.

Ah, relief again.

She was silent then. She just breathed slowly in and out. Her lips were beginning to turn pink. Her mouth was slightly out of balance, her lower lip just a little too full to match the top. Staring at her mouth made me feel strange. Made me want to move closer to her, which was not a good idea.

“You scared me for a minute there,” I said—to restart the conversation so that I could hear her voice again. “I thought Newton was dragging your dead body off to bury it in the woods.”

“Ha ha,” she said.

“Honestly—I’ve seen corpses with better color.” This was actually true. “I was concerned that I might have to avenge your murder.” And I would have.

“Poor Mike,” she sighed. “I’ll bet he’s mad.”

Fury pulsed through me, but I contained it quickly. Her concern was surely just pity. She was kind. That was all.

“He absolutely loathes me,” I told her, cheered by that idea.

“You can’t know that.”

“I saw his face—I could tell.” It was probably true that reading his face would have given me enough information to make that particular deduction. All this practice with Bella was sharpening my skill at reading human expressions.

“How did you see me? I thought you were ditching.” Her face looked better—the green undertone had vanished from her translucent skin.

“I was in my car, listening to a CD.”

Her expression twitched, like my very ordinary answer had surprised her somehow.

She opened her eyes again when Mrs. Hammond returned with an ice pack.

“Here you go, dear,” the nurse said as she laid it across Bella’s forehead. “You’re looking better.”

“I think I’m fine,” Bella said, and she sat up while pulling the ice pack away. Of course. She didn’t like to be taken care of.

Mrs. Hammond’s wrinkled hands fluttered toward the girl, as if she were going to push her back down, but just then Ms. Cope opened the door to the office and leaned in.

With her appearance came the smell of fresh blood, just a whiff.

Invisible in the office behind her, Mike Newton was still very angry, wishing the heavy boy he dragged now was the girl who was in here with me.

“We’ve got another one,” Ms. Cope said.

Bella quickly jumped down from the cot, eager to be out of the spotlight.

“Here,” she said, handing the compress back to Mrs. Hammond. “I don’t need this.”

Mike grunted as he half-shoved Lee Stevens through the door. Blood was still dripping down the hand Lee held to his face, trickling toward his wrist.

“Oh no.” This was my cue to leave—and Bella’s, too, it seemed. “Get out to the office, Bella.”

She stared up at me with bewildered eyes.

“Trust me—go.”

She whirled and caught the door before it had swung shut, rushing through to the office. I followed a few inches behind her. Her swinging hair brushed my hand…

She turned to look at me, still wide-eyed.

“You actually listened to me.” That was a first.

Her small nose wrinkled. “I smelled the blood.” I stared at her in blank surprise. “People can’t smell blood.”

“Well, I can—that’s what makes me sick. It smells like rust…and salt.” My face froze, still staring.

Was she really even human? She looked human. She felt soft as a human. She smelled human—well, better actually. She acted human…sort of. But she didn’t think like a human, or respond like one.

What other option was there, though?

“What?” she demanded.

“It’s nothing.”

Mike Newton interrupted us then, entering the room with resentful, violent thoughts.

“You look better,” he said to her rudely.

My hand twitched, wanting to teach him some manners. I would have to watch myself, or I would end up actually killing this obnoxious boy.

“Just keep your hand in your pocket,” she said. For one wild second, I thought she was talking to me.

“It’s not bleeding anymore,” he answered sullenly. “Are you going back to class?”

“Are you kidding? I’d just have to turn around and come back.” That was very good. I’d thought I was going to have to miss this whole hour with her, and now I got extra time instead. I felt greedy, a miser hording over each minute.

“Yeah, I guess…” Mike mumbled. “So are you going this weekend? To the beach?”

Ah, they had plans. Anger froze me in place. It was a group trip, though. I’d seen some of this in other students’ heads. It wasn’t just the two of them. I was still furious. I leaned motionlessly against the counter, trying to control myself.

“Sure, I said I was in,” she promised him.

So she’d said yes to him, too. The jealousy burned, more painful than thirst.

No, it was just a group outing, I tried to convince myself. She was just spending the day with friends. Nothing more.

“We’re meeting at my dad’s store, at ten.” And Cullen’s NOT invited.

“I’ll be there,” she said.

“I’ll see you in Gym, then.”

“See you,” she replied.

He shuffled off to his class, his thoughts full of ire. What does she see in that freak? Sure, he’s rich, I guess. Chicks think he’s hot, but I don’t see that. Too…too perfect. I bet his dad experiments with plastic surgery on all of them. That’s why they’re all so white and pretty. It’s not natural. And he’s sort of…scary-looking. Sometimes, when he stares at me, I’d swear he’s thinking about killing me… Freak…

Mike wasn’t entirely unperceptive.

“Gym,” Bella repeated quietly. A groan.

I looked at her, and saw that she was sad about something again. I wasn’t sure why, but it was clear that she didn’t want to go to her next class with Mike, and I was all for that plan.

I went to her side and bent close to her face, feeling the warmth of her skin radiating out to my lips. I didn’t dare breathe.

“I can take care of that,” I murmured. “Go sit down and look pale.” She did as I asked, sitting in one of the folding chairs and leaning her head back against the wall, while, behind me, Ms. Cope came out of the back room and went to her desk. With her eyes closed, Bella looked as if she’d passed out again. Her full color hadn’t returned yet.

I turned to the secretary. Hopefully Bella was paying attention to this, I thought sardonically. This was how a human was supposed to respond.

“Ms. Cope?” I asked, using my persuasive voice again.

Her eyelashes fluttered, and her heart sped up. Too young, get a hold of yourself!

“Yes?”

That was interesting. When Shelly Cope’s pulse quickened, it was because she found me physically attractive, not because she was frightened. I was used to that around human females…yet I hadn’t considered that explanation for Bella’s racing heart.

I rather liked that. Too much, in fact. I smiled, and Mrs. Cope’s breathing got louder.

“Bella has gym next hour, and I don’t think she feels well enough. Actually, I was thinking I should take her home now. Do you think you could excuse her from class?” I stared into her depthless eyes, enjoying the havoc that this wreaked on her thought processes. Was it possible that Bella…?

Mrs. Cope had to swallow loudly before she answered. “Do you need to be excused, too, Edward?”

“No, I have Mrs. Goff, she won’t mind.”

I wasn’t paying much attention to her now. I was exploring this new possibility.

Hmm. I’d like to believe that Bella found me attractive like other humans did, but when did Bella ever have the same reactions as other humans? I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

“Okay, it’s all taken care of. You feel better, Bella.” Bella nodded weakly—overacting a bit.

“Can you walk, or do you want me to carry you again?” I asked, amused by her poor theatrics. I knew she would want to walk—she wouldn’t want to be weak.

“I’ll walk,” she said.

Right again. I was getting better at this.

She got up, hesitating for a moment as if to check her balance. I held the door for her, and we walked out into the rain.

I watched her as she lifted her face to the light rain with her eyes closed, a slight smile on her lips. What was she thinking? Something about this action seemed off, and I quickly realized why the posture looked unfamiliar to me. Normal human girls wouldn’t raise their faces to the drizzle that way; normal human girls usually wore makeup, even here in this wet place.

Bella never wore makeup, nor should she. The cosmetics industry made billions of dollars a year from women who were trying to attain skin like hers.

“Thanks,” she said, smiling at me now. “It’s worth getting sick to miss Gym.” I stared across the campus, wondering how to prolong my time with her.

“Anytime,” I said.

“So are you going? This Saturday, I mean?” She sounded hopeful.

Ah, her hope was soothing. She wanted me with her, not Mike Newton. And I wanted to say yes. But there were many things to consider. For one, the sun would be shining this Saturday…

“Where are you all going, exactly?” I tried to keep my voice nonchalant, as if it didn’t matter much. Mike had said beach, though. Not much chance of avoiding sunlight there.

“Down to La Push, to First Beach.”

Damn. Well, it was impossible, then.

Anyway, Emmett would be irritated if I cancelled our plans.

I glanced down at her, smiling wryly. “I really don’t think I was invited.” She sighed, already resigned. “I just invited you.”

“Let’s you and I not push poor Mike any further this week. We don’t want him to snap.” I thought about snapping poor Mike myself, and enjoyed the mental picture intensely.

“Mike-schmike,” she said, dismissive again. I smiled widely.

And then she started to walk away from me.

Without thinking about my action, I reached out and caught her by the back of her rain jacket. She jerked to a stop.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I was almost angry that she was leaving me.

I hadn’t had enough time with her. She couldn’t go, not yet.

“I’m going home,” she said, baffled as to why this should upset me.

“Didn’t you hear me promise to take you safely home? Do you think I’m going to let you drive in your condition?” I knew she wouldn’t like that—my implication of weakness on her part. But I needed to practice for the Seattle trip, anyway. See if I could handle her proximity in an enclosed space. This was a much shorter journey.

“What condition?” she demanded. “And what about my truck?”

“I’ll have Alice drop it off after school.” I pulled her back to my car carefully, as I now knew that walking forward was challenging enough for her.

“Let go!” she said, twisting sideways and nearly tripping. I held one hand out to catch her, but she righted herself before it was necessary. I shouldn’t be looking for excuses to touch her. That started me thinking about Ms. Cope’s reaction to me, but I filed it away for later. There was much to be considered on that front.

I let her go beside the car, and she stumbled into the door. I would have to be even more careful, to take into account her poor balance…

“You are so pushy!”

“It’s open.”

I got in on my side and started the car. She held her body rigidly, still outside, though the rain had picked up and I knew she didn’t like the cold and wet. Water was soaking through her thick hair, darkening it to near black.

“I am perfectly capable of driving myself home!” Of course she was—I just wasn’t capable of letting her go.

I rolled her window down and leaned toward her. “Get in, Bella.” Her eyes narrowed, and I guessed that she was debating whether or not to make a run for it.

“I’ll just drag you back,” I promised, enjoying the chagrin on her face when she realized I meant it.

Her chin stiffly in the air, she opened her door and climbed in. Her hair dripped on the leather and her boots squeaked against each other.

“This is completely unnecessary,” she said coldly. I thought she looked embarrassed under the pique.

I just turned up the heater so she wouldn’t be uncomfortable, and set the music to a nice background level. I drove out toward the exit, watching her from the corner of my eye. Her lower lip was jutting out stubbornly. I stared at this, examining how it made me feel… thinking of the secretary’s reaction again…

Suddenly she looked at the stereo and smiled, her eyes widening. “Clair de Lune?” she asked.

A fan of the classics? “You know Debussy?”

“Not well,” she said. “My mother plays a lot of classical music around the house—I only know my favorites.”

“It’s one of my favorites, too.” I stared at the rain, considering that. I actually had something in common with the girl. I’d begun to think that we were opposites in every way.

She seemed more relaxed now, staring at the rain like me, with unseeing eyes. I used her momentary distraction to experiment with breathing.

I inhaled carefully through my nose.

Potent.

I clutched the steering wheel tighter. The rain made her smell better. I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. Stupidly, I was suddenly imaging how she would taste.

I tried to swallow against the burn in my throat, to think of something else.

“What is your mother like?” I asked as a distraction.

Bella smiled. “She looks a lot like me, but she’s prettier.” I doubted that.

“I have too much Charlie in me,” she went on. “She’s more outgoing than I am, and braver.”

I doubted that, too.

“She’s irresponsible and slightly eccentric, and she’s a very unpredictable cook.

She’s my best friend.” Her voice had turned melancholy; her forehead creased.

Again, she sounded more like parent than child.

I stopped in front of her house, wondering too late if I was supposed to know where she lived. No, this wouldn’t be suspicious in such a small town, with her father a public figure…

“How old are you, Bella?” She must be older than her peers. Perhaps she’d been late to start school, or been held back…that wasn’t likely, though.

“I’m seventeen,” she answered.

“You don’t seem seventeen.”

She laughed.

“What?”

“My mom always says I was born thirty-five years old and that I get more middle-aged every year.” She laughed again, and then sighed. “Well, someone has to be the adult.”

This clarified things for me. I could see it now…how the irresponsible mother helped explain Bella’s maturity. She’d had to grow up early, to become the caretaker.

That’s why she didn’t like being cared for—she felt it was her job.

“You don’t seem much like a junior in high school yourself,” she said, pulling me from my reverie.

I grimaced. For everything I perceived about her, she perceived too much in return. I changed the subject.

“So why did your mother marry Phil?”

She hesitated a minute before answering. “My mother…she’s very young for her age. I think Phil makes her feel even younger. At any rate, she’s crazy about him.” She shook her head indulgently.

“Do you approve?” I wondered.

“Does it matter?” she asked. “I want her to be happy…and he is who she wants.” The unselfishness of her comment would have shocked me, except that it fit in all too well with what I’d learned of her character.

“That’s very generous…I wonder.”

“What?”

“Would she extend the same courtesy to you, do you think? No matter who your choice was?”

It was a foolish question, and I could not keep my voice casual while I asked it.

How stupid to even consider someone approving of me for their daughter. How stupid to even think of Bella choosing me.

“I-I think so,” she stuttered, reacting in some way to my gaze. Fear…or attraction?

“But she’s the parent, after all. It’s a little bit different,” she finished.

I smiled wryly. “No one too scary then.”

She grinned at me. “What do you mean by scary? Multiple facial piercings and extensive tattoos?”

“That’s one definition, I suppose.” A very nonthreatening definition, to my mind.

“What’s your definition?”

She always asked the wrong questions. Or exactly the right questions, maybe.

The ones I didn’t want to answer, at any rate.

“Do you think that I could be scary?” I asked her, trying to smile a little.

She thought it through before answering me in a serious voice. “Hmm…I think you could be, if you wanted to.”

I was serious, too. “Are you frightened of me now?” She answered at once, not thinking this one through. “No.” I smiled more easily. I did not think she was entirely telling the truth, but nor was she truly lying. She wasn’t frightened enough to want to leave, at least. I wondered how she would feel if I told her she was having this discussion with a vampire. I cringed internally at her imagined reaction.

“So, now are you going to tell me about your family? It’s got to be a much more interesting story than mine.”

A more frightening one, at least.

“What do you want to know?” I asked cautiously.

“The Cullens adopted you?”

“Yes.”

She hesitated, then spoke in a small voice. “What happened to your parents?” This wasn’t so hard; I wasn’t even having to lie to her. “They died a very long time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, clearly worried about having hurt me.

She was worried about me.

“I don’t really remember them that clearly,” I assured her. “Carlisle and Esme have been my parents for a long time now.”

“And you love them,” she deduced.

I smiled. “Yes. I couldn’t imagine two better people.”

“You’re very lucky.”

“I know I am.” In that one circumstance, the matter of parents, my luck could not be denied.

“And your brother and sisters?”

If I let her push for too many details, I would have to lie. I glanced at the clock, disheartened that my time with her was up.

“My brother and sister, and Jasper and Rosalie for that matter, are going to be quite upset if they have to stand in the rain waiting for me.”

“Oh, sorry, I guess you have to go.”

She didn’t move. She didn’t want our time to be up, either. I liked that very, very much.

“And you probably want your truck back before Chief Swan gets home, so you don’t have to tell him about the Biology incident.” I grinned at the memory of her embarrassment in my arms.

“I’m sure he’s already heard. There are no secrets in Forks.” She said the name of the town with distinct distaste.

I laughed at her words. No secrets, indeed. “Have fun at the beach.” I glanced at the pouring rain, knowing it would not last, and wishing more strongly than usual that it could. “Good weather for sunbathing.” Well, it would be by Saturday. She would enjoy that.

“Won’t I see you tomorrow?”

The worry in her tone pleased me.

“No. Emmett and I are starting the weekend early.” I was mad at myself now for having made the plans. I could break them…but there was no such thing as too much hunting at this point, and my family was going to be concerned enough about my behavior without me revealing how obsessive I was turning.

“What are you going to do?” she asked, not sounded happy with my revelation.

Good.

“We’re going to be hiking in the Goat Rocks Wilderness, just south of Rainier.” Emmett was eager for bear season.

“Oh, well, have fun,” she said halfheartedly. Her lack of enthusiasm pleased me again.

As I stared at her, I began to feel almost agonized at the thought of saying even a temporary goodbye. She was just so soft and vulnerable. It seemed foolhardy to let her out of my sight, where anything could happen to her. And yet, the worst things that could happen to her would result from being with me.

“Will you do something for me this weekend?” I asked seriously.

She nodded, her eyes wide and bewildered by my intensity.

Keep it light.

“Don’t be offended, but you seem to be one of those people who just attract accidents like a magnet. So…try not to fall into the ocean or get run over or anything, all right?”

I smiled ruefully at her, hoping she couldn’t see the sadness in my eyes. How much I wished that she wasn’t so much better off away from me, no matter what might happen to her there.

Run, Bella, run. I love you too much, for your good or mine.

She was offended by my teasing. She glared at me. “I’ll see what I can do,” she snapped, jumping out into the rain and slamming the door as hard as she could behind her.

Just like an angry kitten that believes it’s a tiger.

I curled my hand around the key I’d just picked from her jacket pocket, and smiled as I drove away.


Chapter 7 - MELODY

.

I had to wait when I got back to school. The final hour wasn’t out yet. That was good, because I had things to think about and I needed the alone time.

Her scent lingered in the car. I kept the windows up, letting it assault me, trying to get used to the feel of intentionally torching my throat.

Attraction.

It was a problematic thing to contemplate. So many sides to it, so many different meanings and levels. Not the same thing as love, but tied up in it inextricably.

I had no idea if Bella was attracted to me. (Would her mental silence somehow continue to get more and more frustrating until I went mad? Or was there a limit that I would eventually reach?)

I tried to compare her physical responses to others, like the secretary and Jessica Stanley, but the comparison was inconclusive. The same markers—changes in heart rate and breathing patterns—could just as easily mean fear or shock or anxiety as they did interest. It seemed unlikely that Bella could be entertaining the same kinds of thoughts that Jessica Stanley used to have. After all, Bella knew very well that there was something wrong with me, even if she didn’t know what exactly it was. She had touched my icy skin, and then yanked her hand away from the chill.

And yet…as I remembered those fantasies that used to repulse me, but remembered them with Bella in Jessica’s place…

I was breathing more quickly, the fire clawing up and down my throat.

What if it had been Bella imagining me with my arms wrapped around her fragile body? Feeling me pull her tightly against my chest and then cupping my hand under her chin? Brushing the heavy curtain of her hair back from her blushing face? Tracing the shape of her full lips with my fingertips? Leaning my face closer to hers, where I could feel the heat of her breath on my mouth? Moving closer still…

But then I flinched away from the daydream, knowing, as I had known when Jessica had imagined these things, what would happen if I got that close to her.

Attraction was an impossible dilemma, because I was already too attracted to Bella in the worst way.

Did I want Bella to be attracted to me, a woman to a man?

That was the wrong question. The right question was should I want Bella to be attracted to me that way, and that answer was no. Because I was not a human man, and that wasn’t fair to her.

With every fiber of my being, I ached to be a normal man, so that I could hold her in my arms without risking her life. So that I could be free to spin my own fantasies, fantasies that didn’t end in with her blood on my hands, her blood glowing in my eyes.

My pursuit of her was indefensible. What kind of relationship could I offer her, when I couldn’t risk touching her?

I hung my head in my hands.

It was all the more confusing because I had never felt so human in my whole life—not even when I was human, as far as I could recall. When I had been human, my thoughts had all been turned to a soldier’s glory. The Great War had raged through most of my adolescence, and I’d been only nine months away from my eighteenth birthday when the influenza had struck… I had just vague impressions of those human years, murky memories that faded more with every passing decade. I remembered my mother most clearly, and felt an ancient ache when I thought of her face. I recalled dimly how much she had hated the future I’d raced eagerly toward, praying every night when she said grace at dinner that the “horrid war” would end… I had no memories of another kind of yearning. Besides my mother’s love, there was no other love that had made me wish to stay…

This was entirely new to me. I had no parallels to draw, no comparisons to make.

The love I felt for Bella had come purely, but now the waters were muddied. I wanted very much to be able to touch her. Did she feel the same way?

That didn’t matter, I tried to convince myself.

I stared at my white hands, hating their hardness, their coldness, their inhuman strength…

I jumped when the passenger door opened.

Ha. Caught you by surprise. There’s a first, Emmett thought as he slid into the seat. “I’ll bet Mrs. Goff thinks you’re on drugs, you’ve been so erratic lately. Where were you today?”

“I was…doing good deeds.”

Huh?

I chuckled. “Caring for the sick, that kind of thing.” That confused him more, but then he inhaled and caught the scent in the car.

“Oh. The girl again?”

I grimaced.

This is getting weird.

“Tell me about it,” I mumbled.

He inhaled again. “Hmm, she does have a quite a flavor, doesn’t she?” The snarl broke through my lips before his words had even registered all the way, an automatic response.

“Easy, kid, I’m just sayin.’”

The others arrived then. Rosalie noticed the scent at once and glowered at me, still not over her irritation. I wondered what her problem was, but all I could hear from her were insults.

I didn’t like Jasper’s reaction, either. Like Emmett, he noticed Bella’s appeal.

Not that the scent had, for either of them, a thousandth portion of the draw it had for me.

I was still upset me that her blood was sweet to them. Jasper had poor control…

Alice skipped to my side of the car and held her hand out for Bella’s truck key.

“I only saw that I was,” she said—obscurely, as was her habit. “You’ll have to tell me the whys.”

“This doesn’t mean—”

“I know, I know. I’ll wait. It won’t be long.” I sighed and gave her the key.

I followed her to Bella’s house. The rain was pounding down like a million tiny hammers, so loud that maybe Bella’s human ears couldn’t hear the thunder of the truck’s engine. I watched her window, but she didn’t come to look out. Maybe she wasn’t there.

There were no thoughts to hear.

It made me sad that I couldn’t hear enough even to check on her—to make sure she was happy, or safe, at the least.

Alice climbed in the back and we sped home. The roads were empty, and so it only took a few minutes. We trooped into the house, and then went to our various pastimes.

Emmett and Jasper were in the middle of an elaborate game of chess, utilizing eight joined boards—spread out along the glass back wall—and their own complicated set of rules. They wouldn’t let me play; only Alice would play games with me anymore.

Alice went to her computer just around the corner from them and I could hear her monitors sing to life. Alice was working on a fashion design project for Rosalie’s wardrobe, but Rosalie did not join her today, to stand behind her and direct cut and color as Alice’s hand traced over the touch sensitive screens (Carlisle and I had had to tweak that system a bit, given that most such screens responded to temperature). Instead, today Rosalie sprawled sullenly on the sofa and started flipping through twenty channels a second on the flat screen, never pausing. I could hear her trying to decide whether or not to go out to the garage and tune her BMW again.

Esme was upstairs, humming over a new set of blue prints.

Alice leaned her head around the wall after a moment and started mouthing Emmett’s next moves—Emmett sat on the floor with his back to her—to Jasper, who kept his expression very smooth as he cut off Emmett’s favorite knight.

And I, for the first time in so long that I felt ashamed, went to sit at the exquisite grand piano stationed just off the entryway.

I ran my hand gently up the scales, testing the pitch. The tuning was still perfect.

Upstairs, Esme paused what she was doing and cocked her head to the side.

I began the first line of the tune that had suggested itself to me in the car today, pleased that it sounded even better than I’d imagined.

Edward is playing again, Esme thought joyously, a smile breaking across her face. She got up from her desk, and flitted silently to the head of the stairs.

I added a harmonizing line, letting the central melody weave through it.

Esme sighed with contentment, sat down on the top step, and leaned her head against the banister. A new song. It’s been so long. What a lovely tune.

I let the melody lead in a new direction, following it with the bass line.

Edward is composing again? Rosalie thought, and her teeth clenched together in fierce resentment.

In that moment, she slipped, and I could read all her underlying outrage. I saw why she was in such a poor temper with me. Why killing Isabella Swan had not bothered her conscience at all.

With Rosalie, it was always about vanity.

The music came to an abrupt halt, and I laughed before I could help myself, a sharp bark of amusement that broke off quickly as I threw my hand over my mouth.

Rosalie turned to glare at me, her eyes sparking with chagrined fury.

Emmett and Jasper turned to stare, too, and I heard Esme’s confusion. Esme was downstairs in a flash, pausing to glance between Rosalie and me.

“Don’t stop, Edward,” Esme encouraged after a strained moment.

I started playing again, turning my back on Rosalie while trying very hard to control the grin stretching across my face. She got to her feet and stalked out of the room, more angry than embarrassed. But certainly quite embarrassed.

If you say anything I will hunt you like a dog.

I smothered another laugh.

“What’s wrong, Rose?” Emmett called after her. Rosalie didn’t turn. She continued, back ramrod straight, to the garage and then squirmed under her car as if she could bury herself there.

“What’s that about?” Emmett asked me.

“I don’t have the faintest idea,” I lied.

Emmett grumbled, frustrated.

“Keep playing,” Esme urged. My hands had paused again.

I did as she asked, and she came to stand behind me, putting her hands on my shoulders.

The song was compelling, but incomplete. I toyed with a bridge, but it didn’t seem right somehow.

“It’s charming. Does it have a name?” Esme asked.

“Not yet.”

“Is there a story to it?” she asked, a smile in her voice. This gave her very great pleasure, and I felt guilty for having neglected my music for so long. It had been selfish.

“It’s…a lullaby, I suppose.” I got the bridge right then. It led easily to the next movement, taking on a life of its own.

“A lullaby,” she repeated to herself.

There was a story to this melody, and once I saw that, the pieces fell into place effortlessly. The story was a sleeping girl in a narrow bed, dark hair thick and wild and twisted like seaweed across the pillow…

Alice left Jasper to his own devices and came to sit next to me on the bench. In her trilling, wind chime voice, she sketched out a wordless descant two octaves above the melody.

“I like it,” I murmured. “But how about this?” I added her line to the harmony—my hands were flying across the keys now to work all the pieces together—modifying it a bit, taking it in a new direction…

She caught the mood, and sung along.

“Yes. Perfect,” I said.

Esme squeezed my shoulder.

But I could see the end now, with Alice’s voice rising above the tune and taking it to another place. I could see how the song must end, because the sleeping girl was perfect just the way she was, and any change at all would be wrong, a sadness. The song drifted toward that realization, slower and lower now. Alice’s voice lowered, too, and became solemn, a tone that belonged under the echoing arches of a candlelit cathedral.

I played the last note, and then bowed my head over the keys.

Esme stroked my hair. It’s going to be fine, Edward. This is going to work out for the best. You deserve happiness, my son. Fate owes you that.

“Thanks,” I whispered, wishing I could believe it.

Love doesn’t always come in convenient packages.

I laughed once without humor.

You, out of everyone on this planet, are perhaps best equipped to deal with such a difficult quandary. You are the best and the brightest of us all.

I sighed. Every mother thought the same of her son.

Esme was still full of joy that my heart had finally been touched after all this time, no matter the potential for tragedy. She’d thought I would always be alone…

She’ll have to love you back, she thought suddenly, catching me by surprise with the direction of her thoughts. If she’s a bright girl. She smiled. But I can’t imagine anyone being so slow they wouldn’t see the catch you are.

“Stop it, Mom, you’re making me blush,” I teased. Her words, though improbable, did cheer me.

Alice laughed and picked out the top hand of “Heart and Soul.” I grinned and completed the simple harmony with her. Then I favored her with a performance of

“Chopsticks.”

She giggled, then sighed. “So I wish you’d tell me what you were laughing at Rose about,” Alice said. “But I can see that you won’t.”

“Nope.”

She flicked my ear with her finger.

“Be nice, Alice,” Esme chided. “Edward is being a gentleman.”

“But I want to know.”

I laughed at the whining tone she put on. Then I said, “Here, Esme,” and began playing her favorite song, an unnamed tribute to the love I’d watched between her and Carlisle for so many years.

“Thank you, dear.” She squeezed my shoulder again.

I didn’t have to concentrate to play the familiar piece. Instead I thought of Rosalie, still figuratively writhing in mortification in the garage, and I grinned to myself.

Having just discovered the potency of jealousy for myself, I had a small amount of pity for her. It was a wretched way to feel. Of course, her jealously was a thousand times more petty than mine. Quite the fox in the manger scenario.

I wondered how Rosalie’s life and personality would have been different if she had not always been the most beautiful. Would she have been a happier person if beauty hadn’t at all times been her strongest selling point? Less egocentric? More compassionate? Well, I supposed it was useless to wonder, because the past was done, and she always had been the most beautiful. Even when human, she had ever lived in the spotlight of her own loveliness. Not that she’d minded. The opposite—she’d loved admiration above almost anything else. That hadn’t changed with the loss of her mortality.

It was no surprise then, taking this need as a given, that she’d been offended when I had not, from the beginning, worshiped her beauty the way she expected all males to worship. Not that she’d wanted me in any way—far from it. But it had aggravated her that I did not want her, despite that. She was used to being wanted.

It was different with Jasper and Carlisle—they were already both in love. I was completely unattached, and yet still remained obstinately unmoved.

I’d thought that old resentment was buried. That she was long passed it.

And she had been…until the day that I finally found someone whose beauty touched me the way hers had not.

Rosalie had relied on the belief that if I did not find her beauty worth worshiping, then certainly there was no beauty on earth that would reach me. She’d been furious since the moment I’d saved Bella’s life, guessing, with her shrewd female intuition, the interest that I was all but unconscious of myself.

Rosalie was mortally offended that I found some insignificant human girl more appealing than her.

I suppressed the urge to laugh again.

It bothered me some, though, the way she saw Bella. Rosalie actually thought the girl was plain. How could she believe that? It seemed incomprehensible to me. A product of the jealousy, no doubt.

“Oh!” Alice said abruptly. “Jasper, guess what?” I saw what she’d just seen, and my hands froze on the keys.

“What, Alice?” Jasper asked.

“Peter and Charlotte are coming to visit next week! They’re going to be in the neighborhood, isn’t that nice?”

“What’s wrong, Edward?” Esme asked, feeling the tension in my shoulders.

“Peter and Charlotte are coming to Forks?” I hissed at Alice She rolled her eyes at me. “Calm down, Edward. It’s not their first visit.” My teeth clenched together. It was their first visit since Bella had arrived, and her sweet blood didn’t appeal just to me.

Alice frowned at my expression. “They never hunt here. You know that.” But Jasper’s brother of sorts and the little vampire he loved were not like us; they hunted the usual way. They could not be trusted around Bella.

“When?” I demanded.

She pursed her lips unhappily, but told me what I needed to know. Monday morning. No one is going to hurt Bella.

“No,” I agreed, and then turned away from her. “You ready, Emmett?”

“I thought we were leaving in the morning?”

“We’re coming back by midnight Sunday. I guess it’s up to you when you want to leave.”

“Okay, fine. Let me say goodbye to Rose first.”

“Sure.” With the mood Rosalie was in, it would be a short goodbye.

You really have lost it, Edward, he thought as he headed toward the back door.

“I suppose I have.”

“Play the new song for me, one more time,” Esme asked.

“If you’d like that,” I agreed, though I was a little hesitant to follow the tune to its unavoidable end—the end that had set me aching in unfamiliar ways. I thought for a moment, and then pulled the bottle cap from my pocket and set it on the empty music stand. That helped a bit—my little memento of her yes.

I nodded to myself, and started playing.

Esme and Alice exchanged a glance, but neither one asked.

“Hasn’t anyone ever told you not to play with your food?” I called to Emmett.

“Oh, hey Edward!” he shouted back, grinning and waving at me. The bear took advantage of his distraction to rake its heavy paw across Emmett’s chest. The sharp claws shredded through his shirt, and squealed across his skin.

The bear bellowed at the high-pitched noise.

Aw hell, Rose gave me this shirt!

Emmett roared back at the enraged animal.

I sighed and sat down on a convenient boulder. This might take awhile.

But Emmett was almost done. He let the bear try to take his head off with another swipe of the paw, laughing as the blow bounced off and sent the bear staggering back.

The bear roared and Emmett roared again through his laughter. Then he launched himself at the animal, who stood a head taller than him on its hind legs, and their bodies fell to the ground tangled up together, taking a mature spruce tree down with them. The bear’s growls cut off with a gurgle.

A few minutes later, Emmett jogged over to where I was waiting for him. His shirt was destroyed, torn and bloodied, sticky with sap and covered in fur. His dark curly hair wasn’t in much better shape. He had a huge grin on his face.

“That was a strong one. I could almost feel it when he clawed me.”

“You’re such a child, Emmett.”

He eyed my smooth, clean white button-down. “Weren’t you able to track down that mountain lion, then?”

“Of course I was. I just don’t eat like a savage.” Emmett laughed his booming laugh. “I wish they were stronger. It would be more fun.”

“No one said you had to fight your food.”

“Yeah, but who else am I going to fight with? You and Alice cheat, Rose never wants to get her hair messed up, and Esme gets mad if Jasper and I really go at it.”

“Life is hard all around, isn’t it?”

Emmett grinned at me, shifting his weight a bit so that he was suddenly poised to take a charge.

“C’mon Edward. Just turn it off for one minute and fight fair.”

“It doesn’t turn off,” I reminded him.

“Wonder what that human girl does to keep you out?” Emmett mused. “Maybe she could give me some pointers.”

My good humor vanished. “Stay away from her,” I growled through my teeth.

“Touchy, touchy.”

I sighed. Emmett came to sit beside me on the rock.

“Sorry. I know you’re going through a tough spot. I really am trying to not be too much of an insensitive jerk, but, since that’s sort of my natural state…” He waited for me to laugh at his joke, and then made a face.

So serious all the time. What’s bugging you now?

“Thinking about her. Well, worrying, really.”

“What’s there to worry about? You are here. ” He laughed loudly.

I ignored his joke again, but answered his question. “Have you ever thought about how fragile they all are? How many bad things there are that can happen to a mortal?”

“Not really. I guess I see what you mean, though. I wasn’t much match for a bear that first time around, was I?”

“Bears,” I muttered, adding a new fear to the pile. “That would be just her luck, wouldn’t it? Stray bear in town. Of course it would head straight for Bella.” Emmett chuckled. “You sound like a crazy person, do you know that?”

“Just imagine for one minute that Rosalie was human, Emmett. And she could run into a bear…or get hit by a car…or lightening…or fall down stairs…or get sick—get a disease!” The words burst from me stormily. It was a relief to let them out—they’d been festering inside me all weekend. “Fires and earthquakes and tornados! Ugh!

When’s the last time you watched the news? Have you seen the kinds of things that happen to them? Burglaries and homicides…” My teeth clenched together, and I was abruptly so infuriated by the idea of another human hurting her that I couldn’t breathe.

“Whoa, whoa! Hold up, there, kid. She lives in Forks, remember? So she gets rained on.” He shrugged.

“I think she has some serious bad luck, Emmett, I really do. Look at the evidence.

Of all the places in the world she could go, she ends up in a town where vampires make up a significant portion of the population.”

“Yeah, but we’re vegetarians. So isn’t that good luck, not bad?”

“With the way she smells? Definitely bad. And then, more bad luck, the way she smells to me.” I glowered at my hands, hating them again.

“Except that you have more self-control than just about anyone but Carlisle.

Good luck again.”

“The van?”

“That was just an accident.”

“You should have seen it coming for her, Em, again and again. I swear, it was like she had some kind of magnetic pull.”

“But you were there. That was good luck.”

“Was it? Isn’t this the worst luck any human could ever possibly have—to have a vampire fall in love with them?” Emmett considered that quietly for a moment. He pictured the girl in his head, and found the image uninteresting. Honestly, I can’t really see the draw.

“Well, I can’t really see Rosalie’s allure, either,” I said rudely. “Honestly, she seems like more work than any pretty face is worth.” Emmett chuckled. “I don’t suppose you’d tell me…”

“I don’t know what her problem is, Emmett,” I lied with a sudden, wide grin.

I saw his intent in time to brace myself. He tried to shove me off the rock, and there was a loud cracking sound as a fissure opened in the stone between us.

“Cheater,” he muttered.

I waited for him to try another time, but his thoughts took a different direction.

He was picturing Bella’s face again, but imagining it whiter, imagining her eyes bright red…

“No,” I said, my voice strangled.

“It solves your worries about mortality, doesn’t it? And then you wouldn’t want to kill her, either. Isn’t that the best way?”

“For me? Or for her?”

“For you,” he answered easily. His tone added the of course.

I laughed humorlessly. “Wrong answer.”

“I didn’t mind so much,” he reminded me.

“Rosalie did.”

He sighed. We both knew that Rosalie would do anything, give up anything, if it meant she could be human again. Even Emmett.

“Yeah, Rose did,” he acquiesced quietly.

“I can’t… I shouldn’t… I’m not going to ruin Bella’s life. Wouldn’t you feel the same, if it were Rosalie?”

Emmett thought about that for a moment. You really…love her?

“I can’t even describe it, Emmett. All of a sudden, this girl’s the whole world to me. I don’t see the point of the rest of the world without her anymore.” But you won’t change her? She won’t last forever, Edward.

“I know that,” I groaned.

And, as you’ve pointed out, she’s sort of breakable.

“Trust me—that I know, too.”

Emmett was not a tactful person, and delicate discussions were not his forte. He struggled now, wanting very much not to be offensive.

Can you even touch her? I mean, if you love her…wouldn’t you want to, well touch her…?

Emmett and Rosalie shared an intensely physical love. He had a hard time understanding how ne could love, without that aspect.

I sighed. “I can’t even think of that, Emmett.” Wow. So what are your options, then?

“I don’t know,” I whispered. “I’m trying to figure out a way to…to leave her. I just can’t fathom how to make myself stay away…” With a deep sense of gratification, I suddenly realized that it was right for me to stay—at least for now, with Peter and Charlotte on their way. She was safer with me here, temporarily, than she would be if I were gone. For the moment, I could be her unlikely protector.

The thought made me anxious; I itched to be back so that I could fill that role for as long as possible.

Emmett noticed the change in my expression. What are you thinking about?

“Right now,” I admitted a bit sheepishly, “I’m dying to run back to Forks and check on her. I don’t know if I’ll make it till Sunday night.”

“Uh-uh! You are not going home early. Let Rosalie cool down a little bit.

Please! For my sake.”

“I’ll try to stay,” I said doubtfully.

Emmett tapped the phone in my pocket. “Alice would call if there were any basis for your panic attack. She’s as weird about this girl as you are.” I grimaced at that. “Fine. But I’m not staying past Sunday.”

“There’s no point in hurrying back—it’s going to be sunny, anyway. Alice said we were free from school until Wednesday.”

I shook my head rigidly.

“Peter and Charlotte know how to behave themselves.”

“I really don’t care, Emmett. With Bella’s luck, she’ll go wandering off into the woods at exactly the wrong moment and—” I flinched. “Peter isn’t known for his self-control. I’m going back Sunday.”

Emmett sighed. Exactly like a crazy person.

Bella was sleeping peacefully when I climbed up to her bedroom window early Monday morning. I’d remembered oill this time, and the window now moved silently out of my way.

I could tell by the way her hair lay smooth across the pillow that she’d had a less restless night than the last time I was here. She had her hands folded under her cheek like a small child, and her mouth was slightly open. I could hear her breath moving slowly in and out between her lips.

It was an amazing relief to be here, to be able to see her again. I realized that I wasn’t truly at ease unless that was the case. Nothing was right when I was away from her.

Not that all was right when I was with her, either, though. I sighed, letting the thirst fire rake through my throat. I’d been away from it too long. The time spent without pain and temptation made it all the more forceful now. It was bad enough that I was afraid to go kneel beside her bed so that I could read the titles of her books. I wanted to know the stories in her head, but I was afraid of more than my thirst, afraid that if I let myself get that close to her, I would want to be closer still…

Her lips looked very soft and warm. I could imagine touching them with the tip of my finger. Just lightly…

That was exactly the kind of mistake that I had to avoid.

My eyes ran over her face again and again, examining it for changes. Mortals changed all the time—I was sad at the thought of missing anything…

I thought she looked…tired. Like she hadn’t gotten enough sleep this weekend.

Had she gone out?

I laughed silently and wryly at how much that upset me. So what if she had? I didn’t own her. She wasn’t mine.

No, she wasn’t mine—and I was sad again.

One of her hands twitched, and I noticed that there were shallow, barely healed scrapes across the heel of her palm. She’d been hurt? Even though it was obviously not a serious injury, it still disturbed me. I considered the location, and decided she must have tripped. That seemed a reasonable explanation, all things considered.

It was comforting to think that I wouldn’t have to puzzle over either of these small mysteries forever. We were friends now—or, at least, trying to be friends. I could ask her about her weekend—about the beach, and whatever late night activity had made her look so weary. I could ask what had happened to her hands. And I could laugh a little when she confirmed my theory about them.

I smiled gently as I wondered whether or not she had fallen in the ocean. I wondered if she’d had a pleasant time on the outing. I wondered if she’d thought about me at all. If she’d missed me even the tiniest portion of the amount that I’d missed her.

I tried to picture her in the sun on the beach. The picture was incomplete, though, because I’d never been to First Beach myself. I only knew how it looked in pictures…

I felt a tiny qualm of unease as I thought about the reason why I’d never once been to the pretty beach located just a few minutes run from my home. Bella had spent the day at La Push—a place where I was forbidden, by treaty, to go. A place where a few old men still remembered the stories about the Cullens, remembered and believed them.

A place where our secret was known…

I shook my head. I had nothing to worry about there. The Quileutes were bound by treaty, too. Even had Bella run into one of those aging sages, they could reveal nothing. And why would the subject ever be broached? Why would Bella think to voice her curiosity there? No—the Quileutes were perhaps the one thing I did not have to worry about.

I was angry with the sun when it began to rise. It reminded me that I could not satisfy my curiosity for days to come. Why did it choose to shine now?

With a sigh, I ducked out her window before it was light enough for anyone to see me here. I meant to stay in the thick forest by her house and see her off to school, but when I got into the trees, I was surprised to find the trace of her scent lingering on the trail there.

I followed it quickly, curiously, becoming more and more worried as it led deeper into the darkness. What had Bella been doing out here?

The trail stopped abruptly, in the middle of nowhere in particular. She’d gone just a few steps off the trail, into the ferns, where she’d touched the trunk of a fallen tree.

Perhaps sat there…

I sat where she had, and looked around. All she would have been able to see was ferns and forest. It had probably been raining—the scent was washed out, having never set deeply into the tree.

Why would Bella have come to sit here alone—and she had been alone, no doubt about that—in the middle of the wet, murky forest?

It made no sense, and, unlike those other points of curiosity, I could hardly bring this up in casual conversation.

So, Bella, I was following your scent through the woods after I left your room where I’d been watching you sleep… Yes, that would be quite the ice breaker.

I would never know what she’d been thinking and doing here, and that had my teeth grinding together in frustration. Worse, this was far too much like the scenario I’d imagined for Emmett—Bella wandering alone in the woods, where her scent would call to anyone who had the senses to track it…

I groaned. Not only did she have bad luck, but she courted it.

Well, for this moment she had a protector. I would watch over her, keep her from harm, for as long as I could justify it.

I suddenly found myself wishing that Peter and Charlotte would make an extended stay.


Chapter 8 - GHOSTS

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I did not see much of Jasper’s guests for the two sunny days that they were in Forks. I only went home at all so that Esme wouldn’t worry. Otherwise, my existence seemed more like that of a specter than a vampire. I hovered, invisible in the shadows, where I could follow the object of my love and obsession—where I could see her and hear her in the minds of the lucky humans who could walk through the sunlight beside her, sometimes accidentally brushing the back of her hand with their own. She never reacted to such contact; their hands were just as warm as hers.

The enforced absence from school had never been a trial like this before. But the sun seemed to make her happy, so I could not resent it too much. Anything that pleased her was in my good graces.

Monday morning, I eavesdropped on a conversation that had the potential to destroy my confidence and make the time spent away from her a torture. As it ended up, though, it rather made my day.

I had to feel some little respect for Mike Newton; he had not simply given up and slunk away to nurse his wounds. He had more bravery than I’d given him credit for. He was going to try again.

Bella got to school quite early and, seeming intent on enjoying the sun while it lasted, sat at one of the seldom used picnic benches while she waited for the first bell to ring. Her hair caught the sun in unexpected ways, giving off a reddish shine that I had not anticipated.

Mike found her there, doodling again, and was thrilled at his good luck.

It was agonizing to only be able to watch, powerless, bound to the forest’s shadows by the bright sunlight.

She greeted him with enough enthusiasm to make him ecstatic, and me the opposite.

See, she likes me. She wouldn’t smile like that if she didn’t. I bet she wanted to go to the dance with me. Wonder what’s so important in Seattle…

He perceived the change in her hair. “I never noticed before—your hair has red in it.”

I accidentally uprooted the young spruce tree my hand was resting on when he pinched a strand of her hair between his fingers.

“Only in the sun,” she said. To my deep satisfaction, she cringed away from him slightly when he tucked the strand behind her ear.

It took Mike a minute to build up his courage, wasting some time on small talk.

She reminded him of the essay we all had due on Wednesday. From the faintly smug expression on her face, hers was already done. He’d forgotten altogether, and that severely diminished his free time.

Dang—stupid essay.

Finally he got to the point—my teeth were clenched so hard they could have pulverized granite—and even then, he couldn’t make himself ask the question outright.

“I was going to ask if you wanted to go out.”

“Oh,” she said.

There was a brief silence.

Oh? What does that mean? Is she going to yes? Wait—I guess I didn’t really ask.

He swallowed hard.

“Well, we could go to dinner or something…and I could work on it later.” Stupid—that wasn’t a question either.

“Mike…”

The agony and fury of my jealousy was every whit as powerful as it had been last week. I broke another tree trying to hold myself here. I wanted so badly to race across the campus, too fast for human eyes, and snatch her up—to steal her away from the boy that I hated so much in this moment I could have kill him and enjoyed it.

Would she say yes to him?

“I don’t think that would be the best idea.”

I breathed again. My rigid body relaxed.

Seattle was just an excuse, after all. Shouldn’t have asked. What was I thinking?

Bet it’s that freak, Cullen…

“Why?” he asked sullenly.

“I think…” she hesitated. “And if you ever repeat what I’m saying right now I will cheerfully beat you to death—”

I laughed out loud at the sound of a death threat coming through her lips. A jay shrieked, startled, and launched itself away from me.

“But I think that would hurt Jessica’s feelings.”

“Jessica?” What? But… Oh. Okay. I guess… So… Huh.

His thoughts were no longer coherent.

“Really, Mike, are you blind?”

I echoed her sentiment. She shouldn’t expect everyone to be as perceptive as she was, but really this instance was beyond obvious. With as much trouble as Mike had had working himself up to ask Bella out, did he imagine it wasn’t just as difficult for Jessica?

It must be selfishness that made him blind to others. And Bella was so unselfish, she saw everything.

Jessica. Huh. Wow. Huh. “Oh,” he managed to say.

Bella used his confusion to make her exit.

“It’s time for class, and I can’t be late again.” Mike became an unreliable viewpoint from then on. He found, as he turned the idea of Jessica around and around in his head, that he rather liked the thought of her finding him attractive. It was second place, not as good as if Bella had felt that way.

She’s cute, though, I guess. Decent body. A bird in the hand…

He was off then, on to new fantasies that were just as vulgar as the ones about Bella, but now they only irritated rather than infuriated. How little he deserved either girl; they were almost interchangeable to him. I stayed clear of his head after that.

When she was out of sight, I curled up against the cool trunk of an enormous madrone tree and I danced from mind to mind, keeping her in sight, always glad when Angela Weber was available to look through. I wished there was someway to thank the Weber girl for simply being a nice person. It made me feel better to think that Bella had one friend worth having.

I watched Bella’s face from whichever angle I was given, and I could see that she was sad again. This surprised me—I thought the sun would be enough to keep her smiling. At lunch, I saw her glance time and time again toward the empty Cullen table, and that thrilled me. It gave me hope. Perhaps she missed me, too.

She had plans to go out with the other girls—I automatically planned my own surveillance—but these plans were postponed when Mike invited Jessica out on the date he’d planned for Bella.

So I went straight to her home instead, doing a quick sweep of the woods to make sure no one dangerous had wandered too close. I knew Jasper had warned his one-time brother to avoid the town—citing my insanity as both explanation and warning—but I wasn’t taking any chances. Peter and Charlotte had no intention of causing animosity with my family, but intentions were changeable things…

All right, I was overdoing it. I knew that.

As if she knew I was watching, as if she took pity on the agony I felt when I couldn’t see her, Bella came out to the backyard after a long hour indoors. She had a book in her hand and a blanket under her arm.

Silently, I climbed into the higher branches of the closest tree overlooking the yard.

She spread the blanket on the damp grass and then lay on her stomach and started flipping through the worn book, as if trying to find her place. I read over her shoulder.

Ah—more classics. She was an Austen fan.

She read quickly, crossing and recrossing her ankles in the air. I was watching the sunlight and wind play in her hair when her body suddenly stiffened, and her hand froze on the page. All I saw was that she’d reached chapter three when she roughly grabbed a thick section of pages and shoved them over.

I caught a glance of a title page, Mansfield Park. She was starting a new story—the book was a compilation of novels. I wondered why she’d switched stories so abruptly.

Just a few moments later, she slammed the book angrily shut. With a fierce scowl on her face, she pushed the book aside and flipped over onto her back. She took a deep breath, as if to calm herself, pushed her sleeves up and closed her eyes. I remembered the novel, but I couldn’t think of anything offensive in it to upset her. Another mystery. I sighed.

She lay very still, moving just once to yank her hair away from her face. It fanned out over her head, a river of chestnut. And then she was motionless again.

Her breathing slowed. After several long minutes her lips began to tremble.

Mumbling in her sleep.

Impossible to resist. I listened as far out as I could, catching voices in the houses nearby.

Two tablespoons of flour…one cup of milk…

C’mon! Get it through the hoop! Aw, c’mon!

Red, or blue…or maybe I should wear something more casual…

There was no one close by. I jumped to the ground, landing silently on my toes.

This was very wrong, very risky. How condescendingly I’d once judged Emmett for his thoughtless ways and Jasper for his lack of discipline—and now I was consciously flouting all the rules with a wild abandon that made their lapses look like nothing at all. I used to be the responsible one.

I sighed, but crept out into the sunshine, regardless.

I avoided looking at myself in the sun’s glare. It was bad enough that my skin was stone and inhuman in shadow; I didn’t want to look at Bella and myself side by side in the sunlight. The difference between us was already insurmountable, painful enough without this image also in my head.

But I couldn’t ignore the rainbow sparkles that reflected onto her skin when I got closer. My jaw locked at the sight. Could I be any more of a freak? I imagined her terror if she opened her eyes now…

I started to retreat, but she mumbled again, holding me there.

“Mmm… Mmm.”

Nothing intelligible. Well, I would wait for a bit.

I carefully stole her book, stretching my arm out and holding my breath while I was close, just in case. I started breathing again when I was a few yards away, tasting the way the sunshine and open air affected her scent. The heat seemed to sweeten the smell.

My throat flamed with desire, the fire fresh and fierce again because I had been away from her for too long.

I spent a moment controlling that, and then—forcing myself to breathe through my nose—I let her book fall open in my hands. She’d started with the first book… I flipped through the pages quickly to the third chapter of Sense and Sensibility, searching for something potentially offensive in Austen’s overly polite prose.

When my eyes stopped automatically at my name—the character Edward Ferrars being introduced for the first time—Bella spoke again.

“Mmm. Edward.” She sighed.

This time I did not fear that she had awoken. Her voice was just a low, wistful murmur. Not the scream of fear it would have been if she’d seen me now.

Joy warred with self-loathing. She was still dreaming of me, at least.

“Edmund. Ahh. Too….close…”

Edmund?

Ha! She wasn’t dreaming of me at all, I realized blackly. The self-loathing returned in force. She was dreaming of fictional characters. So much for my conceit.

I replaced her book, and stole back into the cover of the shadows—where I belonged.

The afternoon passed and I watched, feeling helpless again, as the sun slowly sank in the sky and the shadows crawled across the lawn toward her. I wanted to push them back, but the darkness was inevitable; the shadows took her. When the light was gone, her skin looked too pale—ghostly. Her hair was dark again, almost black against her face.

It was a frightening thing to watch—like witnessing Alice’s visions come to fruition. Bella’s steady, strong heartbeat was the only reassurance, the sound that kept this moment from feeling like a nightmare.

I was relieved when her father arrived home.

I could hear little from him as he drove down the street toward the house. Some vague annoyance…in the past, something from his day at work. Expectation mixed with hunger—I guessed that he was looking forward to dinner. But his thoughts were so quiet and contained that I could not be sure I was right; I only got the gist of them.

I wondered what her mother sounded like—what the genetic combination had been that had formed her so uniquely.

Bella started awake, jerking up to a sitting position when the tires of her father’s car hit the brick driveway. She stared around herself, seeming confused by the unexpected darkness. For one brief moment, her eyes touched the shadows where I hid, but they flickered quickly away.

“Charlie?” she asked in a low voice, still peering into the trees surrounding the small yard.

The door of his car slammed shut, and she looked to the sound. She got to her feet quickly and gathered her things, casting one more look back toward the woods.

I moved into a tree closer to the back window near the small kitchen, and listened to their evening. It was interesting to compare Charlie’s words to his muffled thoughts.

His love and concern for his only daughter were nearly overwhelming, and yet his words were always terse and casual. Most of the time, they sat in companionable silence.

I heard her discuss her plans for the following evening in Port Angeles, and I refined my own plans as I listened. Jasper had not warned Peter and Charlotte to stay clear of Port Angeles. Though I knew that they had fed recently and had no intention of hunting any where in the vicinity of our home, I would watch her, just in case. After all, there were always others of my kind out there. And then, all those human dangers that I had never much considered before now.

I heard her worry aloud about leaving her father to prepare dinner alone, and smiled at this proof to my theory—yes, she was a care-taker.

And then I left, knowing I would return when she was asleep.

I would not trespass on her privacy the way the peeping tom would have. I was here for her protection, not to leer at her in the way Mike Newton no doubt would, were he agile enough to move through the treetops the way I could. I would not treat her so crassly.

My house was empty when I returned, which was fine by me. I didn’t miss the confused or disparaging thoughts, questioning my sanity. Emmett had left a note stuck to the newel post.

Football at the Rainier field—c’mon! Please?

I found a pen and scrawled the word sorry beneath his plea. The teams were even without me, in any case.

I went for the shortest of hunting trips, contenting myself with the smaller, gentler creatures that did not taste as good as the hunters, and then changed into fresh clothes before I ran back to Forks.

Bella did not sleep as well tonight. She thrashed in her blankets, her face sometimes worried, sometimes sad. I wondered what nightmare haunted her…and then realized that perhaps I really didn’t want to know.

When she spoke, she mostly muttered derogatory things about Forks in a glum voice. Only once, when she sighed out the words “Come back” and her hand twitched open—a wordless plea—did I have a chance to hope she might be dreaming of me.

The next day of school, the last day the sun would hold me prisoner, was much the same as the day before. Bella seemed even gloomier than yesterday, and I wondered if she would bow out of her plans—she didn’t seem in the mood.

But, being Bella, she would probably put her friends’ enjoyment above that of her own.

She wore a deep blue blouse today, and the color set her skin off perfectly, making it look like fresh cream.

School ended, and Jessica agreed to pick the other girls up—Angela was going, too, for which I was grateful.

I went home to get my car. When I found that Peter and Charlotte were there, I decided could afford to give the girls an hour or so for a head start. I would never be able to bear following behind them, driving at the speed limit—hideous thought.

I came in through the kitchen, nodding vaguely at Emmett’s and Esme’s greetings as I passed by everyone in the front room and went straight to the piano.

Ugh, he’s back. Rosalie, of course.

Ah, Edward. I hate to see him suffering so. Esme’s joy was becoming marred by concern. She should be concerned. This love story she envisioned for me was careening toward a tragedy more perceptibly every moment.

Have fun in Port Angeles tonight, Alice thought cheerfully. Let me know when I’m allowed to talk to Bella.

You’re pathetic. I can’t believe you missed the game last night just to watch somebody sleep, Emmett grumbled.

Jasper paid me no mind, even when the song I played came out a little more stormily than I’d intended. It was an old song, with a familiar theme: impatience. Jasper was saying goodbye to his friends, who eyed me curiously.

What a strange creature, the Alice-sized, white-blond Charlotte was thinking.

And he was so normal and pleasant the last time we met.

Peter’s thoughts were in sync with hers, as was usually the case.

It must be the animals. The lack of human blood drives them mad eventually, he was concluding. His hair was just as fair as hers, and almost as long. They were very similar—except for size, as he was almost as tall as Jasper—in both look and thought. A well matched pair, I’d always thought.

Everyone but Esme stopped thinking about me after a moment, and I played in more subdued tones so that I would not attract notice.

I did not pay attention to them for a long while, just letting the music distract me from my unease. It was hard to have the girl out of sight and mind. I only returned my attention to their conversation when the goodbyes grew more final.

“If you see Maria again,” Jasper was saying, a little warily, “tell her I wish her well.”

Maria was the vampire who had created both Jasper and Peter—Jasper in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Peter more recently, in the nineteen forties. She’d looked Jasper up once when we were in Calgary. It had been an eventful visit—we’d had to move immediately. Jasper had politely asked her to keep her distance in the future.

“I don’t imagine that will happen soon,” Peter said with a laugh—Maria was undeniable dangerous and there was not much love lost between her and Peter. Peter had, after all, been instrumental in Jasper’s defection. Jasper had always been Maria’s favorite; she considered it a minor detail that she had once planned to kill him. “But, should it happen, I certainly will.”

They were shaking hands then, preparing to depart. I let the song I was playing trail off to an unsatisfying end, and got hastily to my feet.

“Charlotte, Peter,” I said, nodding.

“It was nice to see you again, Edward,” Charlotte said doubtfully. Peter just nodded in return.

Madman, Emmett threw after me.

Idiot, Rosalie thought at the same time.

Poor boy. Esme.

And Alice, in a chiding tone. They’re going straight east, to Seattle. No where near Port Angeles. She showed me the proof in her visions.

I pretended I hadn’t heard that. My excuses were already flimsy enough.

Once in my car, I felt more relaxed; the robust purr of the engine Rosalie had boosted for me—last year, when she was in a better mood—was soothing. It was a relief to be in motion, to know that I was getting closer to Bella with every mile that flew away under my tires.


Chapter 9 - PORT ANGELES

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It was too bright for me to drive into town when I got to Port Angeles; the sun was still too high overhead, and, though my windows were tinted dark, there was no reason to take unnecessary risks. More unnecessary risks, I should say.

I was certain I would be able to find Jessica’s thoughts from a distance—Jessica’s thoughts were louder than Angela’s, but once I found the first, I’d be able to hear the second. Then, when the shadows lengthened, I could get closer. For now, I pulled off the road onto an overgrown driveway just outside the town that appeared to be infrequently used.

I knew the general direction to search in—there was really only one place for dress shopping in Port Angeles. It wasn’t long before I found Jessica, spinning in front of a three way mirror, and I could see Bella in her peripheral vision, appraising the long black dress she wore.

Bella still looks pissed. Ha ha. Angela was right—Tyler was full of it. I can’t believe she’s so upset about it, though. At least she knows she has a back up date for the prom. What if Mike doesn’t have fun at the dance, and he doesn’t ask me out again?

What if he asks Bella to the prom? Would she have asked Mike to the dance if I hadn’t said anything? Does he think she’s prettier than me? Does she think she’s prettier than me?

“I think I like the blue one better. It really brings out your eyes.”

Jessica smiled at Bella with false warmth, while eyeing her suspiciously.

Does she really think that? Or does she want me to look like a cow on Saturday?

I was already tired of listening to Jessica. I searched close by for Angela—ah, but Angela was in the process of changing dresses, and I skipped quickly out of her head to give her some privacy.

Well, there wasn’t much trouble Bella could get into in a department store. I’d let them shop and then catch up with them when they were done. It wouldn’t be long until it was dark—the clouds were beginning to return, drifting in from the west. I could only catch glimpses of them through the thick trees, but I could see how they would hurry the sunset. I welcomed them, craved them more than I had ever yearned for their shadows before. Tomorrow I could sit beside Bella in school again, monopolize her attention at lunch again. I could ask her all the questions I’d been saving up…

So, she was furious about Tyler’s presumption. I’d seen that in his head—that he’d meant it literally when he’d spoken of the prom, that he was staking a claim. I pictured her expression from that other afternoon—the outraged disbelief—and I laughed. I wondered what she would say to him about this. I wouldn’t want to miss her reaction.

The time went slowly while I waited for the shadows to lengthen. I checked in periodically with Jessica; her mental voice was the easiest to find, but I didn’t like to linger there long. I saw the place they were planning to eat. It would be dark by dinner time…maybe I would coincidentally choose the same restaurant. I touched the phone in my pocket, thinking of inviting Alice out to eat… She would love that, but she would also want to talk to Bella. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to have Bella more involved with my world. Wasn’t one vampire trouble enough?

I checked in routinely with Jessica again. She was thinking about her jewelry, asking Angela’s opinion.

“Maybe I should take the necklace back. I’ve got one at home that would probably work, and I spent more than I was supposed to…” My mom is going to freak out. What was I thinking?

“I don’t mind going back to the store. Do you think Bella will be looking for us, though?”

What was this? Bella wasn’t with them? I stared through Jessica’s eyes first, then switched to Angela’s. They were on the sidewalk in front of a line of shops, just turning back the other way. Bella was no where in sight.

Oh, who cares about Bella? Jess thought impatiently, before answering Angela’s question. “She’s fine. We’ll get to the restaurant in plenty of time, even if we go back.

Anyway, I think she wanted to be alone.” I got a brief glimpse of the bookshop Jessica thought Bella had gone to.

“Let’s hurry, then,” Angela said. I hope Bella doesn’t think we ditched her. She was so nice to me in the car before… She’s really a sweet person. But she’s seemed kind of blue all day. I wonder if it’s because of Edward Cullen? I’ll bet that was why she was asking about his family…

I should have been paying better attention. What all had I missed here? Bella was off wandering by herself, and she’d been asking about me before? Angela was paying attention to Jessica now—Jessica was babbling about that idiot Mike—and I could get nothing more from her.

I judged the shadows. The sun would be behind the clouds soon enough. If I stayed on the west side of the road, where the buildings would shade the street from the fading light…

I started to feel anxious as I drove through the sparse traffic into the center of the town. This wasn’t something I had considered—Bella taking off on her own—and I had no idea how to find her. I should have considered it.

I knew Port Angeles well; I drove straight to the bookstore in Jessica’s head, hoping my search would be short, but doubting it would be so easy. When did Bella ever make it easy?

Sure enough, the little shop was empty except for the anachronistically dressed woman behind the counter. This didn’t look like the kind of place Bella would be interested in—too new age for a practical person. I wondered if she’d even bothered to go in?

There was a patch of shade I could park in… It made a dark pathway right up to the overhang of the shop. I really shouldn’t. Wandering around in the sunlight hours was not safe. What if a passing car threw the sun’s reflection into the shade at just the wrong moment?

But I didn’t know how else to look for Bella!

I parked and got out, keeping to the deepest side of the shadow. I strode quickly into the store, noting the faint trace of Bella’s scent in the air. She had been here, on the sidewalk, but there was no hint of her fragrance inside the shop.

“Welcome! Can I help—” the saleswoman began to say, but I was already out the door.

I followed Bella’s scent as far as the shade would allow, stopping when I got to the edge of the sunlight.

How powerless it made me feel—fenced in by the line between dark and light that stretched across the sidewalk in front of me. So limited.

I could only guess that she’d continued across the street, heading south. There wasn’t really much in that direction. Was she lost? Well, that possibility didn’t sound entirely out of character.

I got back in the car and drove slowly through the streets, looking for her. I stepped out into a few other patches of shadow, but I only caught her scent once more, and the direction of it confused me. Where was she trying to go?

I drove back and forth between the bookstore and the restaurant a few times, hoping to see her on her way. Jessica and Angela were already there, trying to decide whether to order, or to wait for Bella. Jessica was pushing for ordering immediately.

I began flitting through the minds of strangers, looking through their eyes.

Surely, someone must have seen her somewhere.

I got more and more anxious the longer she remained missing. I hadn’t considered before how difficult she might prove to find once, like now, she was out of my sight and off her normal paths. I didn’t like it.

The clouds were massing on the horizon, and, in a few more minutes, I would be free to track her on foot. It wouldn’t take me long then. It was only the sun that made me so helpless now. Just few more minutes, and then the advantage would be mine again and it would be the human world that was powerless.

Another mind, and another. So many trivial thoughts.

…think the baby has another ear infection…

Was it six-four-oh or six-oh-four…?

Late again. I ought to tell him…

Here she comes! Aha!

There, at last, was her face. Finally, someone had noticed her!

The relief lasted for only a fraction of a second, and then I read more fully the thoughts of the man who was gloating over her face in the shadows.

His mind was a stranger to me, and yet, not totally unfamiliar. I had once hunted exactly such minds.

“NO!” I roared, and a volley of snarls erupted from my throat. My foot shoved the gas pedal to the floor, but where was I going?

I knew the general location of his thoughts, but the knowledge was not specific enough. Something, there had to be something—a street sign, a store front, something in his sight that would give away his location. But Bella was deep in shadow, and his eyes were focused only on her frightened expression—enjoying the fear there.

Her face was blurred in his mind by the memory of other faces. Bella was not his first victim.

The sound of my growls shook the frame of the car, but did not distract me.

There were no windows in the wall behind her. Somewhere industrial, away from the more populated shopping district. My car squealed around a corner, swerving past another vehicle, heading in what I hoped was the right direction. By the time the other driver honked, the sound was far behind me.

Look at her shaking! The man chuckled in anticipation. The fear was the draw for him—the part he enjoyed.

“Stay away from me.” Her voice was low and steady, not a scream.

“Don’t be like that, sugar.”

He watched her flinch to a rowdy laugh that came from another direction. He was irritated with the noise— Shut up, Jeff! he thought—but he enjoyed the way she cringed.

It excited him. He began to imagine her pleas, the way she would beg…

I hadn’t realized that there were others with him until I’d heard the loud laughter.

I scanned out from him, desperate for something that I could use. He was taking the first step in her direction, flexing his hands.

The minds around him were not the cesspool that his was. They were all slightly intoxicated, not one of them realizing how far the man they called Lonnie planned to go with this. They were following Lonnie’s lead blindly. He’d promised them a little fun…

One of them glanced down the street, nervous—he didn’t want to get caught harassing the girl—and gave me what I needed. I recognized the cross street he stared toward.

I flew under a red light, sliding through a space just wide enough between two cars in the moving traffic. Horns blared behind me.

My phone vibrated in my pocket. I ignored it.

Lonnie moved slowly toward the girl, drawing out the suspense—the moment of terror that aroused him. He waited for her scream, preparing to savor it.

But Bella locked her jaw and braced herself. He was surprised—he’d expected her to try to run. Surprised and slightly disappointed. He liked to chase his prey down, the adrenaline of the hunt.

Brave, this one. Maybe better, I guess…more fight in her.

I was a block away. The monster could hear the roar of my engine now, but he paid it no attention, too intent on his victim.

I would see how he enjoyed the hunt when he was the prey. I would see what he thought of my style of hunting.

In another compartment of my head, I was already sorting through the range of tortures I’d born witness to in my vigilante days, searching for the most painful of them.

He would suffer for this. He would writhe in agony. The others would merely die for their part, but the monster named Lonnie would beg for death long before I would give him that gift.

He was in the road, crossing toward her.

I spun sharply around the corner, my headlights washing across the scene and freezing the rest of them in place. I could have run down the leader, who leapt out of the way, but that was too easy a death for him.

I let the car spin out, swinging all the way around so that I was facing back the way I’d come and the passenger door was closest to Bella. I threw that open, and she was already running toward the car.

“Get in,” I snarled.

What the hell?

Knew this was a bad idea! She’s not alone.

Should I run?

Think I’m going to throw up…

Bella jumped through the open door without hesitating, pulling the door shut behind her.

And then she looked up at me with the most trustful expression I had ever seen on a human face, and all my violent plans crumbled.

It took much, much less than a second for me to see that I could not leave her in the car in order to deal with the four men in the street. What would I tell her, not to watch? Ha! When did she ever do what I asked? When did she ever do the safe thing?

Would I drag them away, out of her sight, and leave her alone here? It was a long shot that another dangerous human would be prowling the streets of Port Angeles tonight, but it was a long shot that there was even the first! Like a magnet, she drew all things dangerous toward herself. I could not let her out of my sight.

It would feel like part of the same motion to her as I accelerated, taking her away from her pursuers so quickly that they gaped after my car with uncomprehending expressions. She would not recognize my instant of hesitation. She would assume the plan was escape from the beginning.

I couldn’t even hit him with my car. That would frighten her.

I wanted his death so savagely that the need for it rang in my ears and clouded my sight and was a flavor on my tongue. My muscles were coiled with the urgency, the craving, the necessity of it. I had to kill him. I would peel him slowly apart, piece by piece, skin from muscle, muscle from bone…

Except that the girl—the only girl in the world—was clinging to her seat with both hands, staring at me, her eyes still wide and utterly trusting. Vengeance would have to wait.

“Put on your seatbelt,” I ordered. My voice was rough with the hate and bloodlust. Not the usual bloodlust. I would not sully myself by taking any part of that man inside me.

She locked the seatbelt into place, jumping slightly at the sound it made. That little sound made her jump, yet she did not flinch as I tore through the town, ignoring all traffic guides. I could feel her eyes on me. She seemed oddly relaxed. It didn’t make sense to me—not with what she’d just been through.

“Are you okay?” she asked, her voice rough with stress and fear.

She wanted to know if I was okay?

I thought about her question for a fraction of a second. Not long enough for her to notice the hesitation. Was I okay?

“No,” I realized, and my tone seethed with rage.

I took her to the same unused drive where I’d spent the afternoon engaged in the poorest surveillance ever kept. It was black now under the trees.

I was so furious that my body froze in place there, utterly motionless. My ice-locked hands ached to crush her attacker, to grind him into pieces so mangled that his body could never be identified….

But that would entail leaving her here alone, unprotected in the dark night.

“Bella?” I asked through my teeth.

“Yes?” she responded huskily. She cleared her throat.

“Are you all right?” That was really the most important thing, the first priority.

Retribution was secondary. I knew that, but my body was so filled with rage that it was hard to think.

“Yes.” Her voice was still thick—with fear, no doubt.

And so I could not leave her.

Even if she wasn’t at constant risk for some infuriating reason—some joke the universe was playing on me—even if I could be sure that she would be perfectly safe in my absence, I could not leave her alone in the dark.

She must be so frightened.

Yet I was in no condition to comfort her—even if I knew exactly how that was to be accomplished, which I did not. Surely she could feel the brutality radiating out of me, surely that much was obvious. I would frighten her even more if I could not calm the lust for slaughter boiling inside me.

I needed to think about something else.

“Distract me, please,” I pleaded.

“I’m sorry, what?”

I barely had enough control to try to explain what I needed.

“Just prattle about something unimportant until I calm down,” I instructed, my jaw still locked. Only the fact that she needed me held me inside the car. I could hear the man’s thoughts, his disappointment and anger… I knew where to find him… I closed my eyes, wishing that I couldn’t see anyway…

“Um…” She hesitated—trying to make sense of my request, I imagined. “I’m going to run over Tyler Crowley tomorrow before school?” She said this like it was a question.

Yes—this was what I needed. Of course Bella would come up with something unexpected. Like it had been before, the threat of violence coming through her lips was hilarious—so comical it was jarring. If I had not been burning with the urge to kill, I would have laughed.

“Why?” I barked out, to force her to speak again.

“He’s telling everyone that he’s taking me to prom,” she said, her voice filled with her tiger-kitten outrage. “Either he’s insane or he’s still trying to make up for almost killing me last…well you remember it,” she inserted dryly, “and he thinks prom is somehow the correct way to do this. So I figure if I endanger his life, then we’re even, and he can’t keep trying to make amends. I don’t need enemies and maybe Lauren would back off if he left me alone. I might have to total his Sentra, though,” she went on, thoughtful now. “If he doesn’t have a ride he can’t take anyone to prom…” It was encouraging to see that she sometimes got things wrong. Tyler’s persistence had nothing to do with the accident. She didn’t seem to understand the appeal she held for the human boys at the high school. Did she not see the appeal she had for me, either?

Ah, it was working. The baffling processes of her mind were always engrossing.

I was beginning to gain control of myself, to see something beyond vengeance and torture…

“I heard about that,” I told her. She had stopped talking, and I needed her to continue.

“You did?” she asked incredulously. And then her voice was angrier than before.

“If he’s paralyzed from the neck down, he can’t go to the prom either.” I wished there was someway I could ask her to continue with the threats of death and bodily harm with out sounding insane. She couldn’t have picked a better way to calm me. And her words—just sarcasm in her case, hyperbole—were a reminder I dearly needed in this moment.

I sighed, and opened my eyes.

“Better?” she asked timidly.

“Not really.”

No, I was calmer, but not better. Because I’d just realized that I could not kill the monster named Lonnie, and I still wanted that more than almost anything else in the world. Almost.

The only thing in this moment that I wanted more than to commit a highly justifiable murder, was this girl. And, though I couldn’t have her, just the dream of having her made it impossible for me to go on a killing spree tonight—no matter how defensible such a thing might be.

Bella deserved better than a killer.

I’d spent seven decades trying to be something other than that—anything other than a killer. Those years of effort could never make me worthy of the girl sitting beside me. And yet, I felt that if I returned to that life—the life of a killer—for even one night, I would surely put her out of my reach forever. Even if I didn’t drink their blood—even if I didn’t have that evidence blazing red in my eyes—wouldn’t she sense the difference?

I was trying to be good enough for her. It was an impossible goal. I would keep trying.

“What’s wrong?” she whispered.

Her breath filled my nose, and I was reminded why I could not deserve her. After all of this, even with as much as I loved her…she still made my mouth water.

I would give her as much honesty as I could. I owed her that.

“Sometimes I have a problem with my temper, Bella.” I stared out into the black night, wishing both that she would hear the horror inherent in my words and also that she would not. Mostly that she would not. Run, Bella, run. Stay, Bella, stay. “But it wouldn’t be helpful for me to turn around and hunt down those…” Just thinking about it almost pulled me from the car. I took a deep breath, letting her scent scorch down my throat. “At least, that’s what I’m trying to convince myself.”

“Oh.”

She said nothing else. How much had she heard in my words? I glanced at her furtively, but her face was unreadable. Blank with shock, perhaps. Well, she wasn’t screaming. Not yet.

It was quiet for a moment. I warred with myself, trying to be what I should be.

What I couldn’t be.

“Jessica and Angela will be worried,” she said quietly. Her voice was very calm, and I was not sure how that could be. Was she in shock? Maybe tonight’s events hadn’t sunk in for her yet. “I was supposed to meet them.” Did she want to be away from me? Or was she just worried about her friends’ worry?

I didn’t answer her, but I started the car and took her back. Every inch closer I got to the town, the harder it was to hold on to my purpose. I was just so close to him…

If it was impossible—if I could never have nor deserve this girl—then where was the sense in letting the man go unpunished? Surely I could allow myself that much…

No. I wasn’t giving up. Not yet. I wanted her too much to surrender.

We were at the restaurant where she was supposed to meet her friends before I’d even begun to make sense of my thoughts. Jessica and Angela were finished eating, and both now truly worried about Bella. They were on their way to search for her, heading off along the dark street.

It was not a good night for them to be wandering—

“How did you know where…?” Bella’s unfinished question interrupted me, and I realized that I had made yet another gaffe. I’d been too distracted to remember to ask her where she was supposed to meet her friends.

But, instead of finishing the inquiry and pressing the point, Bella just shook her head and half-smiled.

What did that mean?

Well, I didn’t have time to puzzle over her strange acceptance of my stranger knowledge. I opened my door.

“What are you doing?” she asked, sounding startled.

Not letting you out of my sight. Not allowing myself to be alone tonight. In that order. “I’m taking you to dinner.”

Well this should be interesting. It seemed like another night entirely when I’d imagined bringing Alice along and pretending to choose the same restaurant as Bella and her friends by accident. And now, here I was, practically on a date with the girl. Only it didn’t count, because I wasn’t giving her a chance to say no.

She already had her door half open before I’d walked around the car—it wasn’t usually so frustrating to have to move at an inconspicuous speed—instead of waiting for me to get it for her. Was this because she wasn’t used to being treated like a lady, or because she didn’t think of me as a gentleman?

I waited for her to join me, getting more anxious as her girlfriends continued in toward the dark corner.

“Go stop Jessica and Angela before I have to track them down, too,” I ordered quickly. “I don’t think I could restrain myself if I ran into your other friends again.” No, I would not be strong enough for that.

She shuddered, and then quickly collected herself. She took half a step after them, calling, “Jess! Angela!” in a loud voice. They turned, and she waved her arm over her head to catch their attention.

Bella! Oh, she’s safe! Angela thought with relief.

Late much? Jessica grumbled to herself, but she, too, was thankful that Bella wasn’t lost or hurt. This made me like her a little more than I had.

They hurried back, and then stopped, shocked, when they saw me beside her.

Uh-uh ! Jess thought, stunned. No freaking way!

Edward Cullen? Did she go away by herself to find him? But why would she ask about them being out of town if she knew he was here… I got a brief flash of Bella’s mortified expression when she’d asked Angela if my family was often absent from school. No, she couldn’t have known, Angela decided.

Jessica’s thoughts were moving past the surprise and on to suspicion. Bella’s been holding out on me.

“Where have you been?” she demanded, staring at Bella, but peeking at me from the corner of her eye.

“I got lost. And then I ran into Edward,” Bella said, waving one hand toward me.

Her tone was remarkably normal. Like that was truly all that had happened.

She must be in shock. That was the only explanation for her calm.

“Would it be all right if I joined you?” I asked—to be polite; I knew that they’d already eaten.

Holy crap but he’s hot! Jessica thought, her head suddenly slightly incoherent.

Angela wasn’t much more composed. Wish we hadn’t eaten. Wow. Just. Wow.

Now why couldn’t I do that to Bella?

“Er…sure,” Jessica agreed.

Angela frowned. “Um, actually, Bella, we already ate while we were waiting,” she admitted. “Sorry.”

What? Shut up! Jess complained internally.

Bella shrugged casually. So at ease. Definitely in shock. “That’s fine—I’m not hungry.”

“I think you should eat something,” I disagreed. She needed sugar in her bloodstream—though it smelled sweet enough as it was, I thought wryly. The horror was going to come crashing down on her momentarily, and an empty stomach wouldn’t help.

She was an easy fainter, as I knew from experience.

These girls wouldn’t be in any danger if they went straight home. Danger didn’t stalk their every step.

And I’d rather be alone with Bella—as long as she was willing to be alone with me.

“Do you mind if I drive Bella home tonight?” I said to Jessica before Bella could respond. “That way you won’t have to wait while she eats.”

“Uh, no problem, I guess…” Jessica stared intently at Bella, looking for some sign that this was what she wanted.

I want to stay…but she probably wants him to herself. Who wouldn’t? Jess thought. At the same time, she watched Bella wink.

Bella winked?

“Okay,” Angela said quickly, in a hurry to be out of the way if that was what Bella wanted. And it seemed that she did want that. “See you tomorrow, Bella…Edward.” She struggled to say my name in a casual tone. Then she grabbed Jessica’s hand and began towing her away.

I would have to find some way to thank Angela for this.

Jessica’s car was close by and in a bright circle of light cast by a streetlamp.

Bella watched them carefully, a little crease of concern between her eyes, until they were in the car, so she must be fully aware of the danger she’d been in. Jessica waved as she drove away, and Bella waved back. It wasn’t until the car disappeared that she took a deep breath and turned to look up at me.

“Honestly, I’m not hungry,” she said.

Why had she waited for them to be gone before speaking? Did she truly want to be alone with me—even now, after witnessing my homicidal rage?

Whether that was the case or not, she was going to eat something.

“Humor me,” I said.

I held the restaurant door open for her and waited.

She sighed, and walked through.

I walked beside her to the podium where the hostess waited. Bella still seemed entirely self-possessed. I wanted to touch her hand, her forehead, to check her temperature. But my cold hand would repulse her, as it had before.

Oh, my, the hostess’s rather loud mental voice intruded into my consciousness.

My, oh my.

It seemed to be my night to turn heads. Or was I only noticing it more because I wished so much that Bella would see me this way? We were always attractive to our prey. I’d never thought so much about it before. Usually—unless, as with people like Shelly Cope and Jessica Stanley, there was constant repetition to dull the horror—the fear kicked in fairly quickly after the initial attraction…

“A table for two?” I prompted when the hostess didn’t speak.

“Oh, er, yes. Welcome to La Bella Italia.” Mmm! What a voice! “Please follow me.” Her thoughts were preoccupied—calculating.

Maybe she’s his cousin. She couldn’t be his sister, they don’t look anything alike.

But family, definitely. He can’t be with her .

Human eyes were clouded; they saw nothing clearly. How could this small-minded woman find my physical lures—snares for prey—so attractive, and yet be unable to see the soft perfection of the girl beside me?

Well, no need to help her out, just in case, the hostess thought as she led us to a family-sized table in the middle of the most crowded part of the restaurant. Can I give him my number while she’s there…? she mused.

I pulled a bill from my back pocket. People were invariably cooperative when money was involved.

Bella was already taking the seat the hostess indicated without objection. I shook my head at her, and she hesitated, cocking her head to one side with curiosity. Yes, she would be very curious tonight. A crowd was not the ideal place for this conversation.

“Perhaps something more private?” I requested of the hostess, handing her the money. Her eyes widened in surprise, and then narrowed while her hand curled around the tip.

“Sure.”

She peeked at the bill while she led us around a dividing wall.

Fifty dollars for a better table? Rich, too. That makes sense—I bet his jacket cost more than my last paycheck. Damn. Why does he want privacy with her ?

She offered us a booth in a quiet corner of the restaurant where no one would be able to see us—to see Bella’s reactions to whatever I would tell her. I had no clue as to what she would want from me tonight. Or what I would give her.

How much had she guessed? What explanation of tonight’s events had she told herself?

“How’s this?” the hostess asked.

“Perfect,” I told her and, feeling slightly annoyed by her resentful attitude toward Bella, I smiled widely at her, baring my teeth. Let her see me clearly.

Whoa. “Um…your server will be right out.” He can’t be real. I must be asleep.

Maybe she’ll disappear…maybe I’ll write my number on his plate with ketchup… She wandered away, listing slightly to the side.

Odd. She still wasn’t frightened. I suddenly remembered Emmett teasing me in the cafeteria, so many weeks ago. I’ll bet I could have scared her better than that.

Was I losing my edge?

“You really shouldn’t do that to people,” Bella interrupted my thoughts in a disapproving tone. “It’s hardly fair.”

I stared at her critical expression. What did she mean? I hadn’t frightened the hostess at all, despite my intentions. “Do what?”

“Dazzle them like that—she’s probably hyperventilating in the kitchen right now.”

Hmm. Bella was very nearly right. The hostess was only semi-coherent at the moment, describing her incorrect assessment of me to her friend on the wait staff.

“Oh, come on,” Bella chided me when I didn’t answer immediately. “You have to know the effect you have on people.”

“I dazzle people?” That was an interesting way of phrasing it. Accurate enough for tonight. I wondered why the difference…

“You haven’t noticed?” she asked, still critical. “Do you think everybody gets their way so easily?”

“Do I dazzle you?” I voiced my curiosity impulsively, and then the words were out, and it was too late to recall them.

But before I had time to too deeply regret speaking the words aloud she answered,

“Frequently.” And her cheeks took on a faint pink glow.

I dazzled her.

My silent heart swelled with a hope more intense than I could ever remember having felt before.

“Hello,” someone said, the waitress, introducing herself. Her thoughts were loud, and more explicit than the hostess’s, but I tuned her out. I stared at Bella’s face instead of listening, watching the blood spreading under her skin, noticing not how that made my throat flame, but rather how it brightened her fair face, how it set off the cream of her skin…

The waitress was waiting for something from me. Ah, she’d asked for our drink order. I continued to stare at Bella, and the waitress grudgingly turned to look at her, too.

“I’ll have a coke?” Bella said, as if asking for approval.

“Two cokes,” I amended. Thirst—normal, human thirst—was a sign of shock. I would make sure she had the extra sugar from the soda in her system.

She looked healthy, though. More than healthy. She looked radiant.

“What?” she demanded—wondering why I was staring, I guessed. I was vaguely aware that the waitress had left.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

She blinked, surprised by the question. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t feel dizzy, sick, cold?”

She was even more confused now. “Should I?”

“Well, I actually I’m waiting for you to go into shock.” I half-smiled, expecting her denial. She would not want to be taken care of.

It took her a minute to answer me. Her eyes were slightly unfocused. She looked that way sometimes, when I smiled at her. Was she…dazzled?

I would love to believe that.

“I don’t think that will happen. I’ve always been very good at repressing unpleasant things,” she answered, a little breathless.

Did she have a lot of practice with unpleasant things, then? Was her life always this hazardous?

“Just the same,” I told her. “I’ll feel better when you have some sugar and food in you.”

The waitress returned with the cokes and a basket of bread. She put them in front of me, and asked for my order, trying to catch my eye in the process. I indicated that she should attend to Bella, and then went back to tuning her out. She had a vulgar mind.

“Um…” Bella glanced quickly at the menu. “I’ll have the mushroom ravioli.” The waitress turned back to me eagerly. “And you?”

“Nothing for me.”

Bella made a slight face. Hmm. She must have noticed that I never ate food. She noticed everything. And I always forgot to be careful around her.

I waited till we were alone again.

“Drink,” I insisted.

I was surprised when she complied immediately and without objection. She drank until the glass was entirely empty, so I pushed the second coke toward her, frowning a little. Thirst, or shock?

She drank a little more, and then shuddered once.

“Are you cold?”

“It’s just the coke,” she said, but she shivered again, her lips trembling slightly as if her teeth were about to chatter.

The pretty blouse she wore looked too thin to protect her adequately; it clung to her like a second skin, almost as fragile as the first. She was so frail, so mortal. “Don’t you have a jacket?”

“Yes.” She looked around herself, a little perplexed. “Oh—I left it in Jessica’s car.”

I pulled off my jacket, wishing that the gesture was not marred by my body temperature. It would have been nice to have been able to offer her a warm coat. She stared at me, her cheeks warming again. What was she thinking now?

I handed her the jacket across the table, and she put it on at once, and then shuddered again.

Yes, it would be very nice to be warm.

“Thanks,” she said. She took a deep breath, and then pushed the too-long sleeves back to free her hands. She took another deep breath.

Was the evening finally settling in? Her color was still good; her skin was cream and roses against the deep blue of her shirt.

“That color blue looks lovely with your skin,” I complimented her. Just being honest.

She flushed, enhancing the effect.

She looked well, but there was no point in taking chances. I pushed the basket of bread toward her.

“Really,” she objected, guessing my motives. “I’m not going into shock.”

“You should be—a normal person would be. You don’t even look shaken.” I stared at her, disapproving, wondering why she couldn’t be normal and then wondering if really wanted her to be that way.

“I feel very safe with you,” she said, her eyes, again, filled with trust. Trust I didn’t deserve.

Her instincts were all wrong—backwards. That must be the problem. She didn’t recognize danger the way a human being should be able to. She had the opposite reaction. Instead of running, she lingered, drawn to what should frighten her…

How could I protect her from myself when neither of us wanted that?

“This is more complicated than I’d planned,” I murmured.

I could see her turning my words over in her head, and I wondered what she made of them. She took a breadstick and began to eat without seeming aware of the action.

She chewed for a moment, and then leaned her head to one side thoughtfully.

“Usually you’re in a better mood when your eyes are so light,” she said in a casual tone.

Her observation, stated so matter of factly, left me reeling. “What?”

“You’re always crabbier when your eyes are black—I expect it then. I have a theory about that,” she added lightly.

So she had come up with her own explanation. Of course she had. I felt a deep sense of dread as I wondered how close she’d come to the truth.

“More theories?”

“Mm-hm.” She chewed on another bite, entirely nonchalant. As if she weren’t discussing the aspects of a monster with the monster himself.

“I hope you were more creative this time…” I lied when she didn’t continue.

What I really hoped was that she was wrong—miles wide of the mark. “Or are you still stealing from comic books?”

“Well, no, I didn’t get it from a comic book,” she said, a little embarrassed. “But I didn’t come up with it on my own, either.”

“And?” I asked between my teeth.

Surely should would not speak so calmly if she were about to scream.

As she hesitated, biting her lip, the waitress reappeared with Bella’s food. I paid the server little attention as she set the plate in front of Bella and then asked if I wanted anything.

I declined, but asked for more coke. The waitress hadn’t noticed the empty glasses. She took them and left.

“You were saying?” I prompted anxiously as soon as we were alone again.

“I’ll tell you about it in the car,” she said in a low voice. Ah, this would be bad.

She wasn’t willing to speak her guesses around others. “If…” she tacked on suddenly.

“There are conditions?” I was so tense I almost growled the words.

“I do have a few questions, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed, my voice hard.

Her questions would probably be enough to tell me where her thoughts were heading. But how would I answer them? With responsible lies? Or would I drive her away with truth? Or would I say nothing, unable to decide?

We sat in silence while the waitress replenished her supply of soda.

“Well, go ahead,” I said, jaw locked, when she was gone.

“Why are you in Port Angeles?”

That was too easy a question—for her. It gave away nothing, while my answer, if truthful, would give away much too much. Let her reveal something first.

“Next,” I said.

“But that’s the easiest one!’

“Next,” I said again.

She was frustrated by my refusal. She looked away from me, down to her food.

Slowly, thinking hard, she took a bite and chewed with deliberation. She washed it down with more coke, and then finally looked up at me. Her eyes were narrow with suspicion.

“Okay then,” she said. “Let’s say, hypothetically, of course, that…someone…could know what people are thinking, read minds, you know—with just a few exceptions.”

It could be worse.

This explained that little half-smile in the car. She was quick—no one else had ever guessed this about me. Except for Carlisle, and it had been rather obvious then, in the beginning, when I’d answered all his thoughts as if he’d spoken them to me. He’d understood before I had…

This question wasn’t so bad. While it was clear that she knew that there was something wrong with me, was not as serious as it could have been. Mind-reading was, after all, not a facet of the vampire cannon. I went along with her hypothesis.

“Just one exception,” I corrected. “Hypothetically.”

She fought a smile—my vague honesty pleased her. “All right, with one exception, then. How does that work? What are the limitations? How would…that someone…find someone else at exactly the right time? How would he know that she was in trouble?”

“Hypothetically?”

“Sure.” Her lips twitched, and her liquid brown eyes were eager.

“Well,” I hesitated. “If…that someone…”

“Let’s call him ‘Joe,’” she suggested.

I had to smile at her enthusiasm. Did she really think the truth would be a good thing? If my secrets were pleasant, why would I keep them from her?

“Joe, then,” I agreed. “If Joe had been paying attention, the timing wouldn’t have needed to be quite so exact.” I shook my head and repressed a shudder at the thought of how close I had been to being too late today. “Only you could get into trouble in a town this small. You would have devastated their crime rate statistics for a decade, you know.”

Her lips turned down at the corners, and pouted out. “We were speaking of a hypothetical case.”

I laughed at her irritation.

Her lips, her skin… They looked so soft. I wanted to touch them. I wanted to press my fingertip against the corner of her frown and turn it up. Impossible. My skin would be repellent to her.

“Yes, we were,” I said, returning to the conversation before I could depress myself too thoroughly. “Shall we call you ‘Jane’?” She leaned across the table toward me, all humor and irritation gone from her wide eyes.

“How did you know?” she asked, her voice low and intense.

Should I tell her the truth? And, if so, what portion?

I wanted to tell her. I wanted to deserve the trust I could still see on her face.

“You can trust me, you know,” she whispered, and she reached one hand forward as if to touch my hands where they rested on top of the empty table before me.

I pulled them back—hating the thought of her reaction to my frigid stone skin—and she dropped her hand.

I knew that I could trust her with protecting my secrets; she was entirely trustworthy, good to the core. But I couldn’t trust her not to be horrified by them. She should be horrified. The truth was horror.

“I don’t know if I have a choice anymore,” I murmured. I remembered that I’d once teased her by calling her ‘exceptionally unobservant.’ Offended her, if I’d been judging her expressions correctly. Well, I could right that one injustice, at least. “I was wrong—you’re much more observant than I gave you credit for.” And, though she might not realize it, I’d given her plenty of credit already. She missed nothing.

“I thought you were always right,” she said, smiling as she teased me.

“I used to be.” I used to know what I was doing. I used to be always sure of my course. And now everything was chaos and tumult.

Yet I wouldn’t trade it. I didn’t want the life that made sense. Not if the chaos meant that I could be with Bella.

“I was wrong about you on one other thing as well,” I went on, setting the record straight on another point. “You’re not a magnet for accidents—that’s not a broad enough classification. You are a magnet for trouble. If there is anything dangerous within a ten-mile radius, it will invariably find you.” Why her? What had she done to deserve any of this?

Bella’s face turned serious again. “And you put yourself into that category?” Honesty was more important in regards to this question than any other.

“Unequivocally.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly—not suspicious now, but oddly concerned. She reached her hand across the table again, slowly and deliberately. I pulled my hands an inch away from her, but she ignored that, determined to touch me. I held my breath—not because of her scent now, but because of the sudden, overwhelming tension. Fear. My skin would disgust her. She would run away.

She brushed her fingertips lightly across the back of my hand. The heat of her gentle, willing touch was like nothing I’d ever felt before. It was almost pure pleasure.

Would have been, except for my fear. I watched her face as she felt the cold stone of my skin, still unable to breathe.

A half-smile turned up the corners of her lips.

“Thank you,” she said, meeting my stare with an intense gaze of her own. “That’s twice now.”

Her soft fingers lingered on my hand as if they found it pleasant to be there.

I answered her as casually as I was able. “Let’s not try for three, agreed?” She grimaced at that, but nodded.

I pulled my hands out from under hers. As exquisite as her touch felt, I wasn’t going to wait for the magic of her tolerance to pass, to turn to revulsion. I hid my hands under the table.

I read her eyes; though her mind was silent, I could perceive both trust and wonder there. I realized in that moment that I wanted to answer her questions. Not because I owed it to her. Not because I wanted her to trust me.

I wanted her to know me.

“I followed you to Port Angeles,” I told her, the words spilling out too quickly for me to edit them. I knew the danger of the truth, the risk I was taking. At any moment, her unnatural calm could shatter into hysterics. Contrarily, knowing this only had me talking faster. “I’ve never tried to keep a specific person alive before and it’s much more troublesome than I would have believed. But that’s probably just because it’s you.

Ordinary people seem to make it through the day without so many catastrophes.” I watched her, waiting.

She smiled. Her lips curved up at the edges, and her chocolate eyes warmed.

I’d just admitted to stalking her, and she was smiling.

“Did you ever think that maybe my number was up that first time, with the van, and that you’ve been interfering with fate?” she asked.

“That wasn’t the first time,” I said, staring down at the dark maroon table cloth, my shoulders bowed in shame. My barriers were down, the truth still spilling free recklessly. “Your number was up the first time I met you.” It was true, and it angered me. I had been positioned over her life like the blade of a guillotine. It was as if she had been marked for death by some cruel, unjust fate, and—since I’d proved an unwilling tool—that same fate continued to try to execute her.

I imagined the fate personified—a grisly, jealous hag, a vengeful harpy.

I wanted something, someone, to be responsible for this—so that I would have something concrete to fight against. Something, anything to destroy, so that Bella could be safe.

Bella was very quiet; her breathing had accelerated.

I looked up at her, knowing I would finally see the fear I was waiting for. Had I not just admitted how close I’d been to killing her? Closer than the van that had come within slim inches of crushing her. And yet, her face was still calm, her eyes still tightened only with concern.

“You remember?” She had to remember that.

“Yes,” she said, her voice level and grave. Her deep eyes were full of awareness.

She knew. She knew that I had wanted to murder her.

Where were the screams?

“And yet here you sit,” I said, pointing out the inherent contradiction.

“Yes, here I sit…because of you.” Her expression altered, turned curious, as she unsubtly changed the subject. “Because somehow you knew how to find me today…?” Hopelessly, I pushed one more time at the barrier that protected her thoughts, desperate to understand. It made no logical sense to me. How could she even care about the rest with that glaring truth on the table?

She waited, only curious. Her skin was pale, which was natural for her, but it still concerned me. Her dinner sat nearly untouched in front of her. If I continued to tell her too much, she was going to need a buffer when the shock wore off.

I named my terms. “You eat, I’ll talk.”

She processed that for half a second, and then threw a bite in her mouth with a speed that belied her calm. She was more anxious for my answer than her eyes let on.

“It’s harder than it should be—keeping track of you,” I told her. “Usually I can find someone very easily, once I’ve heard their mind before.” I watched her face carefully as I said this. Guessing right was one thing, having it confirmed was another.

She was motionless, her eyes wide. I felt my teeth clench together as I waited for her panic.

But she just blinked once, swallowed loudly, and then quickly scooped another bite into her mouth. She wanted me to continue.

“I was keeping tabs on Jessica,” I went on, watching each word as it sank in.

“Not carefully—like I said, only you could find trouble in Port Angeles—” I couldn’t resist adding that. Did she realize that other human lives were not so plagued with near death experiences, or did she think she was normal? She was the furthest thing from normal I’d ever encountered. “And at first I didn’t notice when you took off on your own. Then, when I realized that you weren’t with her anymore, I went looking for you at the bookstore I saw in her head. I could tell that you hadn’t gone in, and that you’d gone south…and I knew you would have to turn around soon. So I was just waiting for you, randomly searching through the thoughts of people on the street—to see if anyone had noticed you so I would know where you were. I had no reason to be worried…but I was strangely anxious…” My breath came faster as I remembered that feeling of panic. Her scent blazed in my throat and I was glad. It was a pain that meant she was alive. As long as I burned, she was safe.

“I started to drive in circles, still…listening.” I hoped the word made sense to her.

This had to be confusing. “The sun was finally setting, and I was about to get out, and follow you on foot. And then—”

As the memory took me—perfectly clear and as vivid as if I was in the moment again—I felt the same murderous fury wash through my body, locking it into ice.

I wanted him dead. I needed him dead. My jaw clenched tight as I concentrated on holding myself here at the table. Bella still needed me. That was what mattered.

“Then what?” she whispered, her dark eyes wide.

“I heard what they were thinking,” I said through my teeth, unable to keep the words from coming out in a growl. “I saw your face in his mind.” I could hardly resist the urge to kill. I still knew precisely where to find him. His black thoughts sucked at the night sky, pulling me toward them…

I covered my face, knowing my expression was that of a monster, a hunter, a killer. I fixed her image behind my closed eyes to control myself, focusing only on her face. The delicate framework of her bones, the thin sheath of her pale skin—like silk stretched over glass, incredibly soft and easy to shatter. She was too vulnerable for this world. She needed a protector. And, through some twisted mismanagement of destiny, I was the closest thing available.

I tried to explain my violent reaction so that she would understand.

“It was very…hard—you can’t imagine how hard—for me to simply take you away, and leave them…alive,” I whispered. “I could have let you go with Jessica and Angela, but I was afraid if you left me alone, I would go looking for them.” For the second time tonight, I confessed to an intended murder. At least this one was defensible.

She was quiet as I struggled to control myself. I listened to her heartbeat. The rhythm was irregular, but it slowed as the time passed until it was steady again. Her breathing, too, was low and even.

I was too close to the edge. I needed to get her home before…

Would I kill him, then? Would I become a murderer again when she trusted me?

Was there any way to stop myself?

She’d promised to tell me her latest theory when we were alone. Did I want to hear it? I was anxious for it, but would the reward for my curiosity be worse than not knowing?

At any rate, she must have had enough truth for one night.

I looked at her again, and her face was paler than before, but composed.

“Are you ready to go home?” I asked.

“I’m ready to leave,” she said, choosing her words carefully, as if a simple ‘yes’

did not fully express what she wanted to say.

Frustrating.

The waitress returned. She’d heard Bella’s last statement as she’d dithered on the other side of the partition, wondering what more she could offer me. I wanted to roll my eyes at some of the offerings she’d had in mind.

“How are we doing?” she asked me.

“We’re ready for the check, thank you,” I told her, my eyes on Bella.

The waitress’s breathing spiked and she was momentarily—to use Bella’s phrasing—dazzled by my voice.

In a sudden moment of perception, hearing the way my voice sounded in this inconsequential human’s head, I realized why I seemed to be attracting so much admiration tonight—unmarred by the usual fear.

It was because of Bella. Trying so hard to be safe for her, to be less frightening, to be human, I truly had lost my edge. The other humans saw only beauty now, with my innate horror so carefully under control.

I looked up at the waitress, waiting for her to recover herself. It was sort of humorous, now that I understood the reason.

“Sure,” she stuttered. “Here you go.”

She handed me the folder with the bill, thinking of the card she’d slid in behind the receipt. A card with her name and telephone number on it.

Yes, it was rather funny.

I had money ready again. I gave the folder back at once, so she wouldn’t waste any time waiting for a call that would never come.

“No change,” I told her, hoping the size of the tip would assuage her disappointment.

I stood, and Bella quickly followed suit. I wanted to offer her my hand, but I thought that might be pushing my luck a little too far for one night. I thanked the waitress, my eyes never leaving Bella’s face. Bella seemed to be finding something amusing, too.

We walked out; I walked as close beside her as I dared. Close enough that the warmth coming off her body was like a physical touch against the left side of my body.

As I held the door for her, she sighed quietly, and I wondered what regret made her sad. I stared into her eyes, about to ask, when she suddenly looked at the ground, seeming embarrassed. It made me more curious, even as it made me reluctant to ask. The silence between us continued while I opened her door for her and then got into the car.

I turned the heater on—the warmer weather had come to an abrupt end; the cold car must be uncomfortable for her. She huddled in my jacket, a small smile on her lips.

I waited, postponing conversation until the lights of the boardwalk faded. It made me feel more alone with her.

Was that the right thing? Now that I was focused only on her, the car seemed very small. Her scent swirled through it with the current of the heater, building and strengthening. It grew into its own force, like another entity in the car. A presence that demanded recognition.

It had that; I burned. The burning was acceptable, though. It seemed strangely appropriate to me. I had been given so much tonight—more than I’d expected. And here she was, still willingly at my side. I owed something in return for that. A sacrifice. A burnt offering.

Now if I could just keep it to that; just burn, and nothing more. But the venom filled my mouth, and my muscles tensed in anticipation, as if I were hunting…

I had to keep such thoughts from my mind. And I knew what would distract me.

“Now,” I said to her, fear of her response taking the edge off the burn. “It’s your turn.”


Chapter 10 - THEORY

.

“Can I ask just one more?” she entreated instead of answering my demand.

I was on edge, anxious for the worst. And yet, how tempting it was to prolong this moment. To have Bella with me, willingly, for just a few seconds longer. I sighed at the dilemma, and then said, “One.”

“Well…,” she hesitated for a moment, as if deciding which question to voice.

“You said you knew I hadn’t gone into the bookstore, and that I had gone south. I was just wondering how you know that.”

I glared out the windshield. Here was another question that revealed nothing on her part, and too much on mine.

“I thought we were past all the evasiveness,” she said, her tone critical and disappointed.

How ironic. She was relentlessly evasive, without even trying.

Well, she wanted me to be direct. And this conversation wasn’t going anywhere good, regardless.

“Fine, then,” I said. “I followed your scent.” I wanted to watch her face, but I was afraid of what I would see. Instead, I listened to her breath accelerate and then stabilize. She spoke again after a moment, and her voice was steadier than I would have expected.

“And then you didn’t answer one of my first questions…” she said.

I looked down at her, frowning. She was stalling, too.

“Which one?”

“How does it work—the mind reading thing?” she asked, reiterating her question from the restaurant. “Can you read anybody’s mind, anywhere? How do you do it? Can the rest of your family…?” She trailed off, flushing again.

“That’s more than one,” I said.

She just looked at me, waiting for her answers.

And why not tell her? She’d already guessed most of this, and it was an easier subject that the one that loomed.

“No, it’s just me. And I can’t hear anyone, anywhere. I have to be fairly close.

The more familiar someone’s…‘voice’ is, the farther away I can hear them. But still, no more than a few miles.” I tried to think of a way to describe it so that she would understand. An analogy that she could relate to. “It’s a little like being in a huge hall filled with people, everyone talking at once. It’s just a hum—a buzzing of voices in the background. Until I focus on one voice, and then what they’re thinking is clear. Most of the time I tune it all out—it can be very distracting. And then it’s easier to seem normal,”

— I grimaced— “when I’m not accidentally answering someone’s thoughts rather than their words.”

“Why do you think you can’t hear me?” she wondered.

I gave her another truth and another analogy.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “The only guess I have is that maybe your mind doesn’t work the same way the rest of theirs do. Like your thoughts are on the AM

frequency and I’m only getting FM.”

I realized that she would not like this analogy. The anticipation of her reaction had me smiling. She didn’t disappoint.

“My mind doesn’t work right?” she asked, her voice rising with chagrin. “I’m a freak?”

Ah, the irony again.

“I hear voices in my mind and you’re worried that you’re the freak.” I laughed.

She understood all the small things, and yet the big ones she got backwards. Always the wrong instincts…

Bella was gnawing on her lip, and the crease between her eyes was etched deep.

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her. “It’s just a theory…” And there was a more important theory to be discussed. I was anxious to get it over with. Each passing second was beginning to feel more and more like borrowed time.

“Which brings us back to you,” I said, divided in two, both anxious and reluctant.

She sighed, still chewing her lip—I worried that she would hurt herself. She stared into my eyes, her face troubled.

“Aren’t we past all the evasions now?” I asked quietly.

She looked down, struggling with some internal dilemma. Suddenly, she stiffened and her eyes flew wide open. Fear flashed across her face for the first time.

“Holy crow!” she gasped.

I panicked. What had she seen? How had I frightened her?

Then she shouted, “Slow down!”

“What’s wrong?” I didn’t understand where her terror was coming from.

“You’re going a hundred miles an hour!” she yelled at me. She flashed a look out the window, and recoiled from the dark trees racing past us.

This little thing, just a bit of speed, had her shouting in fear?

I rolled my eyes. “Relax, Bella.”

“Are you trying to kill us?” she demanded, her voice high and tight.

“We’re not going to crash,” I promised her.

She sucked in a sharp breath, and then spoke in a slightly more level tone. “Why are you in such a hurry?”

“I always drive like this.”

I met her gaze, amused by her shocked expression.

“Keep your eyes on the road!” she shouted.

“I’ve never been in an accident, Bella. I’ve never even gotten a ticket.” I grinned at her and touched my forehead. It made it even more comical—the absurdity of being able to joke with her about something so secret and strange. “Built in radar detector.”

“Very funny,” she said sarcastically, her voice more frightened than angry.

“Charlie’s a cop, remember? I was raised to abide by traffic laws. Besides, if you turn us into a Volvo pretzel around a tree trunk, you can probably just walk away.”

“Probably,” I repeated, and than laughed without humor. Yes, we would fare quite differently in a car accident. She was right to be afraid, despite my driving abilities… “But you can’t.”

With a sigh, I let the car drift to a crawl. “Happy?” She eyed the speedometer. “Almost.”

Was this still too fast for her? “I hate driving slow,” I muttered, but let the needle slide another notch down.

“This is slow?” she asked.

“Enough commentary on my driving,” I said impatiently. How many times had she dodged my question now? Three times? Four? Were her speculations that horrific?

I had to know—immediately. “I’m still waiting for your latest theory.” She bit her lip again, and her expression became upset, almost pained.

I reigned in my impatience and softened my voice. I didn’t want her to be distressed.

“I won’t laugh,” I promised, wishing that it was only embarrassment that made her unwilling to talk.

“I’m more afraid that you’ll be angry with me,” she whispered.

I forced my voice to stay even. “Is it that bad?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

She looked down, refusing to meet my eyes. The seconds passed.

“Go ahead,” I encouraged.

Her voice was small. “I don’t know how to start.”

“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” I remembered her words before dinner.

“You said you didn’t come up with this on your own.”

“No,” she agreed, and then was silent again.

I thought about things that might have inspired her. “What got you started—a book? A movie?”

I should have looked through her collections when she was out of the house. I had no idea if Bram Stoker or Anne Rice was there in her stack of worn paperbacks…

“No,” she said again. “It was Saturday, at the beach.” I hadn’t expected that. The local gossip about us had never strayed into anything too bizarre—or too precise. Was there a new rumor I’d missed? Bella peeked up from her hands and saw the surprise on my face.

“I ran into an old family friend—Jacob Black,” she went on. “His dad and Charlie have been friends since I was a baby.”

Jacob Black—the name was not familiar, and yet it reminded me of something…some time, long ago… I stared out of the windshield, flipping through memories to find the connection.

“His dad is one of the Quileute elders,” she said.

Jacob Black. Ephraim Black. A descendant, no doubt.

It was as bad as it could get.

She knew the truth.

My mind was flying through the ramifications as the car flew around the dark curves in the road, my body rigid with anguish—motionless except for the small, automatic actions it took to steer the car.

She knew the truth.

But…if she’d learned the truth Saturday…then she’d known it all evening long…and yet…

“We went for a walk,” she went on. “And he was telling me about some old legends—trying to scare me, I think. He told me one…” She stopped short, but there was no need for her qualms now; I knew what she was going to say. The only mystery left was why she was here with me now.

“Go on,” I said.

“About vampires,” she breathed, the words less than a whisper.

Somehow, it was even worse than knowing that she knew, hearing her speak the word aloud. I flinched at the sound of it, and then controlled myself again.

“And you immediately thought of me?” I asked.

“No. He…mentioned your family.”

How ironic that it would be Ephraim’s own progeny that would violate the treaty he’d vowed to uphold. A grandson, or great-grandson perhaps. How many years had it been? Seventy?

I should have realized that it was not the old men who believed in the legends that would be the danger. Of course, the younger generation—those who would have been warned, but would have thought the ancient superstitions laughable—of course that was where the danger of exposure would lie.

I supposed this meant I was now free to slaughter the small, defenseless tribe on the coastline, were I so inclined. Ephraim and his pack of protectors were long dead…

“He just thought it was a silly superstition,” Bella said suddenly, her voice edged with a new anxiety. “He didn’t expect me to think anything of it.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her twist her hands uneasily.

“It was my fault,” she said after a brief pause, and then she hung her head as if she were ashamed. “I forced him to tell me.”

“Why?” It wasn’t so hard to keep my voice level now. The worst was already done. As long as we spoke of the details of the revelation, we didn’t have to move on to the consequences of it.

“Lauren said something about you—she was trying to provoke me.” She made a little face at the memory. I was slightly distracted, wondering how Bella would be provoked by someone talking about me… “And an older boy from the tribe said your family didn’t come to the reservation, only it sounded like he meant something different.

So I got Jacob alone and I tricked it out of him.” Her head dropped even lower as she admitted this, and her expression looked…guilty.

I looked away from her and laughed out loud. She felt guilty? What could she possibly have done to deserve censure of any kind?

“Tricked him how?” I asked.

“I tried to flirt—it worked better than I thought it would,” she explained, and her voice turned incredulous at the memory of that success.

I could just imagine—considering the attraction she seemed to have for all things male, totally unconscious on her part—how overwhelming she would be when she tried to be attractive. I was suddenly full of pity for the unsuspecting boy she’d unleashed such a potent force on.

“I’d like to have seen that,” I said, and then I laughed again with the black humor.

I wished I could have heard the boy’s reaction, witnessed the devastation for myself.

“And you accused me of dazzling people—poor Jacob Black.” I wasn’t as angry with the source of my exposure as I would have expected to feel. He didn’t know better. And how could I expect anyone to deny this girl what she wanted? No, I only felt sympathy for the damage she would have done to his peace of mind.

I felt her blush heat the air between us. I glanced at her, and she was staring out her window. She didn’t speak again.

“What did you do then?” I prompted. Time to get back to the horror story.

“I did some research on the internet.”

Ever practical. “And did that convince you?”

“No,” she said. “Nothing fit. Most of it was kind of silly. And then—” She broke off again, and I heard her teeth lock together.

“What?” I demanded. What had she found? What had made sense of the nightmare for her?

There was a short paused, and then she whispered, “I decided it didn’t matter.” Shock froze my thoughts for a half-second, and then it all fit together. Why she’d sent her friends away tonight rather than escape with them. Why she had gotten into my car with me again instead of running, screaming for the police…

Her reactions were always wrong—always completely wrong. She pulled danger toward herself. She invited it.

“It didn’t matter?” I said through my teeth, anger filling me. How was I supposed to protect someone so…so…so determined to be unprotected?

“No,” she said in a low voice that was inexplicably tender. “It doesn’t matter to me what you are.”

She was impossible.

“You don’t care if I’m a monster? If I’m not human?”

“No.”

I started to wonder if she was entirely stable.

I supposed that I could arrange for her to receive the best care available… Carlisle would have the connections to find her the most skilled doctors, the most talented therapists. Perhaps something could be done to fix whatever it was that was wrong with her, what ever it was that made her content to sit beside a vampire with her heart beating calmly and steadily. I would watch over the facility, naturally, and visit as often as I was allowed…

“You’re angry,” she sighed. “I shouldn’t have said anything.” As if her hiding these disturbing tendencies would help either of us.

“No. I’d rather know what you’re thinking—even if what you’re thinking is insane.”

“So I’m wrong again?” she asked, a bit belligerent now.

“That’s not what I was referring to!” My teeth clenched together again. “‘It doesn’t matter’!” I repeated in a scathing tone.

She gasped. “I’m right?”

“Does it matter?” I countered.

She took a deep breath. I waited angrily for her answer.

“Not really,” she said, her voice composed again. “But I am curious.” Not really. It didn’t really matter. She didn’t care. She knew I was inhuman, a monster, and this didn’t really matter to her.

Aside from my worries about her sanity, I began to feel a swelling of hope. I tried to quash it.

“What are you curious about?” I asked her. There were no secrets left, only minor details.

“How old are you?” she asked.

My answer was automatic and ingrained. “Seventeen.”

“And how long have you been seventeen?”

I tried not to smile at the patronizing tone. “A while,” I admitted.

“Okay,” she said, abruptly enthusiastic. She smiled up at me. When I stared back, anxious again about her mental health, she smiled wider. I grimaced.

“Don’t laugh,” she warned. “But how can you come out during the daytime?” I laughed despite her request. Her research had not netted her anything unusual, it seemed. “Myth,” I told her.

“Burned by the sun?”

“Myth.”

“Sleeping in coffins?”

“Myth.”

Sleep had not been a part of my life for so long—not until these last few nights, as I’d watched Bella dreaming…

“I can’t sleep,” I murmured, answering her question more fully.

She was silent for a moment.

“At all?” she asked.

“Never,” I breathed.

I stared into her eyes, wide under the thick fringe of lashes, and yearned for sleep.

Not for oblivion, as I had before, not to escape boredom, but because I wanted to dream.

Maybe, if I could be unconscious, if I could dream, I could live for a few hours in a world where she and I could be together. She dreamed of me. I wanted to dream of her.

She stared back at me, her expression full of wonder. I had to look away.

I could not dream of her. She should not dream of me.

“You haven’t asked me the most important question yet,” I said, my silent chest colder and harder than before. She had to be forced to understand. At some point, she would have to realize what she was doing now. She must be made to see that this all did matter—more than any other consideration. Considerations like the fact that I loved her.

“Which one is that?” she asked, surprised and unaware.

This only made my voice harder. “You aren’t concerned about my diet?”

“Oh. That.” She spoke in a quiet tone that I couldn’t interpret.

“Yes, that. Don’t you want to know if I drink blood?” She cringed away from my question. Finally. She was understanding.

“Well, Jacob said something about that,” she said.

“What did Jacob say?”

“He said you didn’t…hunt people. He said your family wasn’t supposed to be dangerous because you only hunted animals.”

“He said we weren’t dangerous?” I repeated cynically.

“Not exactly,” she clarified. “He said you weren’t supposed to be dangerous. But the Quileutes still didn’t want you on their land, just in case.” I stared at the road, my thoughts in a hopeless snarl, my throat aching with the familiar fiery thirst.

“So, was he right?” she asked, as calmly as if she were confirming a weather report. “About not hunting people?”

“The Quileutes have a long memory.”

She nodded to herself, thinking hard.

“Don’t let that make you complacent, though,” I said quickly. “They’re right to keep their distance from us. We are still dangerous.”

“I don’t understand.”

No she didn’t. How to make her see?

“We try,” I told her. “We’re usually very good at what we do. Sometimes we make mistakes. Me, for example, allowing myself to be alone with you.” Her scent was still a force in the car. I was growing used to it, I could almost ignore it, but there was no denying that my body still yearned toward her for the wrong reason. My mouth was swimming with venom.

“This is a mistake?” she asked, and there was heartbreak in her voice. The sound of it disarmed me. She wanted to be with me—despite everything, she wanted to be with me.

Hope swelled again, and I beat it back.

“A very dangerous one,” I told her truthfully, wishing the truth could really somehow cease to matter.

She didn’t respond for a moment. I heard her breathing change—it hitched in strange ways that did not sound like fear.

“Tell me more,” she said suddenly, her voice distorted by anguish.

I examined her carefully.

She was in pain. How had I allowed this?

“What more do you want to know?” I asked, trying to think of a way to keep her from hurting. She should not hurt. I couldn’t let her be hurt.

“Tell me why you hunt animals instead of people,” she said, still anguished.

Wasn’t it obvious? Or maybe this didn’t matter to her either.

“I don’t want to be a monster,” I muttered.

“But animals aren’t enough?”

I searched for another comparison, a way that she could understand. “I can’t be sure, of course, but I’d compare it to living on tofu and soy milk; we call ourselves vegetarians, our little inside joke. It doesn’t completely satiate the hunger—or rather thirst. But it keeps us strong enough to resist. Most of the time.” My voice got lower; I was ashamed of danger I had allowed her to be in. Danger I continued to allow…

“Sometimes it’s more difficult than others.”

“Is it very difficult for you now?”

I sighed. Of course she would ask the question I didn’t want to answer. “Yes,” I admitted.

I expected her physical response correctly this time: her breathing held steady, her heart kept its even pattern. I expected it, but I did not understand it. How could she not be afraid?

“But you’re not hungry now,” she declared, perfectly sure of herself.

“Why do you think that?”

“Your eyes,” she said, her tone offhand. “I told you I had a theory. I’ve noticed that people—men in particular—are crabbier when they’re hungry.” I chuckled at her description: crabby. There was an understatement. But she was dead right, as usual. “You are observant, aren’t you?” I laughed again.

She smiled a little, the crease returning between her eyes as if she were concentrating on something.

“Were you hunting this weekend, with Emmett?” she asked after my laugh had faded. The casual way she spoke was as fascinating as it was frustrating. Could she really accept so much in stride? I was closer to shock than she seemed to be.

“Yes,” I told her, and then, as I was about to leave it at that, I felt the same urge I’d had in the restaurant: I wanted her to know me. “I didn’t want to leave,” I went on slowly, “but it was necessary. It’s a bit easier to be around you when I’m not thirsty.”

“Why didn’t you want to leave?”

I took a deep breath, and then turned to meet her gaze. This kind of honesty was difficult in a very different way.

“It makes me…anxious,” I supposed that word would suffice, though it wasn’t strong enough, “to be away from you. I wasn’t joking when I asked you to try not to fall in the ocean or get run over last Thursday. I was distracted all weekend, worrying about you. And after what happened tonight, I’m surprised that you did make it through a whole weekend unscathed.” Then I remembered the scrapes on her palms. “Well, not totally unscathed,” I amended.

“What?”

“Your hands,” I reminded her.

She sighed and grimaced. “I fell.”

I’d guessed right. “That’s what I thought,” I said, unable to contain my smile. “I suppose, being you, it could have been much worse—and that possibility tormented me the entire time I was away. It was a very long three days. I really got on Emmett’s nerves.” Honestly, that didn’t belong in the past tense. I was probably still irritating Emmett, and all the rest of my family, too. Except Alice…

“Three days?” she asked, her voice suddenly sharp. “Didn’t you just get back today?”

I didn’t understand the edge in her voice. “No, we got back Sunday.”

“Then why weren’t any of you in school?” she demanded. Her irritation confused me. She didn’t seem to realize that this question was one that related to mythology again.

“Well, you asked if the sun hurt me, and it doesn’t,” I said. “But I can’t go out in the sunlight, at least, not where anyone can see.” That distracted her from her mysterious annoyance. “Why?” she asked, leaning her head to one side.

I doubted I could come up with the appropriate analogy to explain this one. So I just told her, “I’ll show you sometime.” And then I wondered if this was a promise I would end up breaking. Would I see her again, after tonight? Did I love her enough yet to be able to bear leaving her?

“You might have called me,” she said.

What an odd conclusion. “But I knew you were safe.”

“But I didn’t know where you were. I—” She came to an abrupt stop, and looked at her hands.

“What?”

“I didn’t like it,” she said shyly, the skin over her cheekbones warming. “Not seeing you. It makes me anxious, too.”

Are you happy now? I demanded of myself. Well, here was my reward for hoping.

I was bewildered, elated, horrified—mostly horrified—to realize that all my wildest imaginings were not so far off the mark. This was why it didn’t matter to her that I was a monster. It was exactly the same reason that the rules no longer mattered to me.

Why right and wrong were no longer compelling influences. Why all my priorities had shifted one rung down to make room for this girl at the very top.

Bella cared for me, too.

I knew it could be nothing in comparison to how I loved her. But it was enough for her to risk her life to sit here with me. To do so gladly.

Enough to cause her pain if I did the right thing and left her.

Was there anything I could do now that would not hurt her? Anything at all?

I should have stayed away. I should never have come back to Forks. I would cause her nothing but pain.

Would that stop me from staying now? From making it worse?

The way I felt right now, feeling her warmth against my skin…

No. Nothing would stop me.

“Ah,” I groaned to myself. “This is wrong.”

“What did I say?” she asked, quick to take the blame on herself.

“Don’t you see, Bella? It’s one thing for me to make myself miserable, but a wholly other thing for you to be so involved. I don’t want to hear that you feel that way.” It was the truth, it was a lie. The most selfish part of me was flying with the knowledge that she wanted me as I wanted her. “It’s wrong. It’s not safe. I’m dangerous, Bella—

please, grasp that.”

“No.” Her lips pouted out petulantly.

“I’m serious.” I was battling with myself so strongly—half desperate for her to accept, half desperate to keep the warnings from escaping—that the words came through my teeth as a growl.

“So am I,” she insisted. “I told you, it doesn’t matter what you are. It’s too late.” Too late? The world was bleakly black and white for one endless second as I watched the shadows crawl across the sunny lawn toward Bella’s sleeping form in my memory. Inevitable, unstoppable. They stole the color from her skin, and plunged her into darkness.

Too late? Alice’s vision swirled in my head, Bella’s blood red eyes staring back at me impassively. Expressionless—but there was no way that she could not hate me for that future. Hate me for stealing everything from her. Stealing her life and her soul.

It could not be too late.

“Never say that,” I hissed.

She stared out her window, and her teeth bit into her lip again. Her hands were balled into tight fists in her lap. Her breathing hitched and broke.

“What are you thinking?” I had to know.

She shook her head without looking at me. I saw something glisten, like a crystal, on her cheek.

Agony. “Are you crying?” I’d made her cry. I’d hurt her that much.

She scrubbed the tears away with the back of her hand.

“No,” she lied, her voice breaking.

Some long buried instinct had me reaching out toward her—in that one second I felt more human than I ever had. And then I remembered that I was…not. And I lowered my hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my jaw locked. How could I ever tell her how sorry I was?

Sorry for all the stupid mistakes I’d made. Sorry for my never-ending selfishness. Sorry that she was so unfortunate as to have inspired this first, tragic love of mine. Sorry also for the things beyond my control—that I’d been the monster chosen by fate to end her life in the first place.

I took a deep breath—ignoring my wretched reaction to the flavor in the car—and tried to collect myself.

I wanted to change the subject, to think of something else. Lucky for me, my curiosity about the girl was insatiable. I always had a question.

“Tell me something,” I said.

“Yes?” she asked huskily, tears still in her voice.

“What were you thinking tonight, just before I came around the corner? I couldn’t understand your expression—you didn’t look that scared, you looked like you were concentrating very hard on something.” I remembered her face—forcing myself to forget whose eyes I was looking through—the look of determination there.

“I was trying to remember how to incapacitate an attacker,” she said, her voice more composed. “You know, self defense. I was going to smash his nose into his brain.” Her composure did not last to the end of her explanation. Her tone twisted until it seethed with hate. This was no hyperbole, and her kittenish fury was not humorous now.

I could see her frail figure—just silk over glass—overshadowed by the meaty, heavy-fisted human monsters who would have hurt her. The fury boiled in the back of my head.

“You were going to fight them?” I wanted to groan. Her instincts were deadly—

to herself. “Didn’t you think about running?”

“I fall down a lot when I run,” she said sheepishly.

“What about screaming for help?”

“I was getting to that part.”

I shook my head in disbelief. How had she managed to stay alive before she’d come to Forks?

“You were right,” I told her, a sour edge to my voice. “I’m definitely fighting fate trying to keep you alive.”

She sighed, and glanced out the window. Then she looked back at me.

“Will I see you tomorrow?” she demanded abruptly.

As long as I was on my way to hell—I might as well enjoy the journey.

“Yes—I have a paper due, too.” I smiled at her, and it felt good to do this. “I’ll save you a seat at lunch.”

Her heart fluttered; my dead heart suddenly felt warmer.

I stopped the car in front of her father’s house. She made no move to leave me.

“Do you promise to be there tomorrow?” she insisted.

“I promise.”

How could doing the wrong thing give me so much happiness? Surely there was something amiss in that.

She nodded to herself, satisfied, and started to remove my jacket.

“You can keep it,” I assured her quickly. I rather wanted to leave her with something of myself. A token, like the bottle cap that was in my pocket now… “You don’t have a jacket for tomorrow.”

She handed it back to me, smiling ruefully. “I don’t want to have to explain to Charlie,” she told me.

I would imagine not. I smiled at her. “Oh, right.”

She put her hand on the door handle, and then stopped. Unwilling to leave, just as I was unwilling for her to go.

To have her unprotected, even for a few moments…

Peter and Charlotte were well on their way by now, long past Seattle, no doubt.

But there were always others. This world was not a safe place for any human, and for her it seemed to be more dangerous than it was for the rest.

“Bella?” I asked, surprised at the pleasure there was in simply speaking her name.

“Yes?”

“Will you promise me something?”

“Yes,” she agreed easily, and then her eyes tightened as if she’d thought of a reason to object.

“Don’t go into the woods alone,” I warned her, wondering if this request would trigger the objection in her eyes.

She blinked, startled. “Why?”

I glowered into the untrustworthy darkness. The lack of light was no problem for my eyes, but neither would it trouble another hunter. It only blinded humans.

“I’m not always the most dangerous thing out there,” I told her. “Let’s leave it at that.”

She shivered, but recovered quickly and was even smiling when she told me,

“Whatever you say.”

Her breath touched my face, so sweet and fragrant.

I could stay here all night like this, but she needed her sleep. The two desires seemed equally strong as they continually warred inside me: wanting her versus wanting her to be safe.

I sighed at the impossibilities. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said, knowing that I would see her much sooner than that. She wouldn’t see me until tomorrow, though.

“Tomorrow, then,” she agreed as she opened her door.

Agony again, watching her leave.

I leaned after her, wanting to hold her here. “Bella?” She turned, and then froze, surprised to find our faces so close together.

I, too, was overwhelmed by the proximity. The heat rolled off her in waves, caressing my face. I could all but feel the silk of her skin…

Her heartbeat stuttered, and her lips fell open.

“Sleep well,” I whispered, and leaned away before the urgency in my body—

either the familiar thirst or the very new and strange hunger I suddenly felt—could make me do something that might hurt her.

She sat there motionless for a moment, her eyes wide and stunned. Dazzled, I guessed.

As was I.

She recovered—though her face was still a bit bemused—and half fell out of the car, tripping over her feet and having to catch the frame of the car to right herself.

I chuckled—hopefully it was too quiet for her to hear.

I watched her stumble her way up to the pool of light that surrounded the front door. Safe for the moment. And I would be back soon to make sure.

I could feel her eyes follow me as I drove down the dark street. Such a different sensation than I was accustomed to. Usually, I could simply watch myself through someone’s following eyes, were I of a mind to. This was strangely exciting—this intangible sensation of watching eyes. I knew it was just because they were her eyes.

A million thoughts chased each other through my head as I drove aimlessly into the night.

For a long time I circled through the streets, going nowhere, thinking of Bella and the incredible release of having the truth known. No longer did I have to dread that she would find out what I was. She knew. It didn’t matter to her. Even though this was obviously a bad thing for her, it was amazingly liberating for me.

More than that, I thought of Bella and requited love. She couldn’t love me the way I loved her—such an overpowering, all-consuming, crushing love would probably break her fragile body. But she felt strongly enough. Enough to subdue the instinctive fear. Enough to want to be with me. And being with her was the greatest happiness I had ever known.

For a while—as I was all alone and hurting no one else for a change—I allowed myself to feel that happiness without dwelling on the tragedy. Just to be happy that she cared for me. Just to exult in the triumph of winning her affection. Just to imagine day after day of sitting close to her, hearing her voice and earning her smiles.

I replayed that smile in my head, seeing her full lips pull up at the corners, the hint of a dimple that touched her pointed chin, the way her eyes warmed and melted…

Her fingers had felt so warm and soft on my hand tonight. I imagined how it would feel to touch the delicate skin that stretched over her cheekbones—silky, warm…so fragile.

Silk over glass…frighteningly breakable.

I didn’t see where my thoughts were leading until it was too late. As I dwelt on that devastating vulnerability, new images of her face intruded on my fantasies.

Lost in the shadows, pale with fear—yet her jaw tight and determined, her eyes fierce, full of concentration, her slim body braced to strike at the hulking forms that gathered around her, nightmares in the gloom…

“Ah,” I groaned as the simmering hate that I’d all but forgotten in the joy of loving her burst again into an inferno of rage.

I was alone. Bella was, I trusted, safe inside her home; for a moment I was fiercely glad that Charlie Swan—head of the local law enforcement, trained and armed—

was her father. That ought to mean something, provide some shelter for her.

She was safe. It would not take me so very long to avenge the insult…

No. She deserved better. I could not allow her to care for a murderer.

But…what about the others?

Bella was safe, yes. Angela and Jessica were also, surely, safe in their beds.

Yet a monster was loose in the streets of Port Angeles. A human monster—did that make him the humans’ problem? To commit the murder I ached to commit was wrong. I knew that. But leaving him free to attack again could not be the right thing either.

The blond hostess from the restaurant. The waitress I’d never really looked at.

Both had irritated me in a trivial way, but that did not mean they deserved to be in danger.

Either one of them might be somebody’s Bella.

That realization decided me.

I turned the car north, accelerating now that I had a purpose. Whenever I had a problem that was beyond me—something tangible like this—I knew where I could go for help.

Alice was sitting on the porch, waiting for me. I pulled to a stop in front of the house rather than going around to the garage.

“Carlisle’s in his study,” Alice told me before I could ask.

“Thank you,” I said, tousling her hair as I passed.

Thank you for returning my call, she thought sarcastically.

“Oh.” I paused by the door, pulling out my phone and flipping it open. “Sorry. I didn’t even check to see who it was. I was…busy.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry, too. By the time I saw what was going to happen, you were on your way.”

“It was close,” I murmured.

Sorry, she repeated, ashamed of herself.

It was easy to be generous, knowing that Bella was fine. “Don’t be. I know you can’t catch everything. No one expects you to be omniscient, Alice.”

“Thanks.”

“I almost asked you out to dinner tonight—did you catch that before I changed my mind?”

She grinned. “No, I missed that one, too. Wish I’d known. I would have come.”

“What were you concentrating on, that you missed so much?” Jasper’s thinking about our anniversary. She laughed. He’s trying not to make a decision on my gift, but I think I have a pretty good idea…

“You’re shameless.”

“Yep.”

She pursed her lips, and stared up at me, a hint of accusation in her expression. I paid better attention later. Are you going to tell them that she knows?

I sighed. “Yes. Later.”

I won’t say anything. Do me a favor and tell Rosalie when I’m not around, okay?

I flinched. “Sure.”

Bella took it pretty well.

“Too well.”

Alice grinned at me. Don’t underestimate Bella.

I tried to block the image I didn’t want to see—Bella and Alice, best of friends.

Impatient now, I sighed heavily. I wanted to be through with the next part of the evening; I wanted it over with. But I was a little worried to leave Forks…

“Alice…” I began. She saw what I was planning to ask.

She’ll be fine tonight. I’m keeping a better watch now. She sort of needs twenty-four hour supervision, doesn’t she?

“At least.”

“Anyway, you’ll be with her soon enough.”

I took a deep breath. The words were beautiful to me.

“Go on—get this done so you can be where you want to be,” she told me.

I nodded, and hurried up to Carlisle’s room.

He was waiting for me, his eyes on the door rather than the thick book on his desk.

“I heard Alice tell you where to find me,” he said, and smiled.

It was a relief to be with him, to see the empathy and deep intelligence in his eyes.

Carlisle would know what to do.

“I need help.”

“Anything, Edward,” he promised.

“Did Alice tell you what happened to Bella tonight?” Almost happened, he amended.

“Yes, almost. I’ve got a dilemma, Carlisle. You see, I want…very much…to kill him.” The words started to flow fast and passionate. “So much. But I know that would be wrong, because it would be vengeance, not justice. All anger, no impartiality. Still, it can’t be right to leave a serial rapist and killer wandering Port Angeles! I don’t know the humans there, but I can’t let someone else take Bella’s place as his victim. Those other women—someone might feel about them the way I feel about Bella. Might suffer what I would have suffered if she’d been harmed. It’s not right—” His wide, unexpected smile stopped the rush of my words cold.

She’s very good for you, isn’t she? So much compassion, so much control. I’m impressed.

“I’m not looking for compliments, Carlisle.”

“Of course not. But I can’t help my thoughts, can I?” He smiled again. “I’ll take care of it. You can rest easy. No one else will be harmed in Bella’s place.” I saw the plan in his head. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, it did not satisfy my craving for brutality, but I could see that it was the right thing.

“I’ll show you where to find him,” I said.

“Let’s go.”

He grabbed his black bag on the way. I would have preferred a more aggressive form of sedation—like a cracked skull—but I would let Carlisle do this his way.

We took my car. Alice was still on the steps. She grinned and waved as we drove away. I saw that she had looked ahead for me; we would have no difficulties.

The trip was very short on the dark, empty road. I left off my headlights to keep from attracting attention. It made me smile to think how Bella would have reacted to this pace. I’d already been driving slower than usual—to prolong my time with her—when she’d objected.

Carlisle was thinking of Bella, too.

I didn’t foresee that she would be so good for him. That’s unexpected. Perhaps this was somehow meant to be. Perhaps it serves a higher purpose. Only…

He pictured Bella with snow cold skin and blood red eyes, and then flinched away from the image.

Yes. Only. Indeed. Because how could there be any good in destroying something so pure and lovely?

I glowered into the night, all the joy of the evening destroyed by his thoughts.

Edward deserves happiness. He’s owed it. The fierceness of Carlisle’s thoughts surprised me. There must be a way.

I wished I could believe that—either one. But there was no higher purpose to what was happening to Bella. Just a vicious harpy, an ugly, bitter fate who could not bear for Bella to have the life she deserved.

I did not linger in Port Angeles. I took Carlisle to the dive where the creature named Lonnie was drowning his disappointment with his friends—two of whom had already passed out. Carlisle could see how hard it was for me to be so close—for me to hear the monster’s thoughts and see his memories, memories of Bella mixed in with less fortunate girls who no one could save now.

My breathing sped. I clenched the steering wheel.

Go, Edward, he told me gently. I’ll make the rest of them safe. You go back to Bella.

It was exactly the right thing to say. Her name was the only distraction that could mean anything to me now.

I left him in the car, and ran back to Forks in a straight line through the sleeping forest. It took less time than the first journey in the speeding car. It was just minutes later that I scaled the side of her house and slid her window out of my way.

I sighed silently with relief. Everything was just as it should be. Bella was safe in her bed, dreaming, her wet hair tangled like seaweed across the pillow.

But, unlike most nights, she was curled into a small ball with the covers stretched taut around her shoulders. Cold, I guessed. Before I could settle into my usual seat, she shivered in her sleep, and her lips trembled.

I thought for a brief moment, and then I eased out into the hallway, exploring another part of her house for the first time.

Charlie’s snores were loud and even. I could almost catch the edge of his dream.

Something with the rush of water and patient expectation…fishing, maybe?

There, at the top of the stairs, was a promising looking cupboard. I opened it hopefully, and found what I was looking for. I selected the thickest blanket from the tiny linen closet, and took it back into her room. I would return it before she woke, and no one would be the wiser.

Holding my breath, I cautiously spread the blanket over her; she didn’t react to the added weight. I returned to the rocking chair.

While I waited anxiously for her to warm up, I thought of Carlisle, wondering where he was now. I knew his plan would go smoothly—Alice had seen that.

Thinking of my father made me sigh—Carlisle gave me too much credit. I wished I was the person he thought me to be. That person, the one who deserved happiness, might hope to be worthy of this sleeping girl. How different things would be if I could be that Edward.

As I pondered this, a strange, uncalled image filled my head.

For one moment, the hag-faced fate I’d imagined, the one who sought Bella’s destruction, was replaced by the most foolish and reckless of angels. A guardian angel—

something Carlisle’s version of me might have had. With a heedless smile on her lips, her sky-colored eyes full of mischief, the angel formed Bella in such a fashion that there was no way that I could possibly overlook her. A ridiculously potent scent to demand my attention, a silent mind to enflame my curiosity, a quiet beauty to hold my eyes, a selfless soul to earn my awe. Leave out the natural sense of self-preservation—so that Bella could bear to be near me—and, finally, add a wide streak of appallingly bad luck.

With a careless laugh, the irresponsible angel propelled her fragile creation directly into my path, trusting blithely in my flawed morality to keep Bella alive.

In this vision, I was not Bella’s sentence; she was my reward.

I shook my head at the fantasy of the unthinking angel. She was not much better than the harpy. I could not think well of a higher power that would behave in such a dangerous and stupid manner. At least the ugly fate I could fight against.

And I had no angel. They were reserved for the good—for people like Bella. So where was her angel through all this? Who was watching over her?

I laughed silently, startled, as I realized that, just now, I was filling that role.

A vampire angel—there was a stretch.

After about a half hour, Bella relaxed out of the tight ball. Her breathing got deeper and she started to murmur. I smiled, satisfied. It was a small thing, but at least she was sleeping more comfortably tonight because I was here.

“Edward,” she sighed, and she smiled, too.

I shoved tragedy aside for the moment, and let myself be happy again.


Chapter 11 - Interrogations

.

CNN broke the story first.

I was glad it hit the news before I had to leave for school, anxious to hear how the humans would phrase the account, and what amount of attention it would garner.

Luckily, it was a heavy news day. There was an earthquake in South America and a political kidnapping in the Middle East. So it ended up only earning a few seconds, a few sentences, and one grainy picture.

“Alonzo Calderas Wallace, suspected serial rapist and murderer wanted in the states of Texas and Oklahoma, was apprehended last night in Portland, Oregon thanks to an anonymous tip. Wallace was found unconscious in an alley early this morning, just a few yards from a police station. Officials are unable to tell us at this time whether he will be extradited to Houston or Oklahoma City to stand trial.” The picture was unclear, a mug shot, and he’d had a thick beard at the time of the photograph. Even if Bella saw it, she would probably not recognize him. I hoped she wouldn’t; it would make her afraid needlessly.

“The coverage here in town will be light. It’s too far away to be considered of local interest,” Alice told me. “It was a good call to have Carlisle take him out of state.” I nodded. Bella didn’t watch much TV regardless, and I’d never seen her father watching anything besides sports channels.

I’d done what I could. This monster no longer hunted, and I was not a murderer.

Not recently, anyway. I’d been right to trust Carlisle, as much as I still wished the monster had not gotten off quite so easily. I caught myself hoping he would be extradited to Texas, where the death penalty was so popular…

No. That didn’t matter. I would put this behind me, and concentrate on what was most important.

I’d left Bella’s room less than an hour ago. I was already aching to see her again.

“Alice, do you mind—”

She cut me off. “Rosalie will drive. She’ll act pissed, but you know she’ll enjoy the excuse to show off her car.” Alice trilled a laugh.

I grinned at her. “See you at school.”

Alice sighed, and my grin became a grimace.

I know, I know, she thought. Not yet. I’ll wait until you’re ready for Bella to know me. You should know, though, this isn’t just me being selfish. Bella’s going to like me, too.

I didn’t answer her as I hurried out the door. That was a different way of viewing the situation. Would Bella want to know Alice? To have a vampire for a girlfriend?

Knowing Bella…that idea probably wouldn’t bother her in the slightest.

I frowned to myself. What Bella wanted and what was best for Bella were two very separate things.

I started to feel uneasy as I parked my car in Bella’s driveway. The human adage said that things looked different in the morning—that things changed when you slept on them. Would I look different to Bella in the weak light of a foggy day? More sinister or less sinister than I had in the blackness of night? Had the truth sunk in while she slept?

Would she finally be afraid?

Her dreams had been peaceful, though, last night. When she’d spoken my name, time and time again, she’d smiled. More than once she’d murmured a plea for me to stay.

Would that mean nothing today?

I waited nervously, listening to the sounds of her inside the house—the fast, stumbling footsteps on the stairs, the sharp rip of a foil wrapper, the contents of the refrigerator crashing against each other when the door slammed. It sounded like she was in a hurry. Anxious to get to school? The thought made me smile, hopeful again.

I looked at the clock. I supposed that—taking in account the velocity her decrepit truck must limit her to—she was running a little late.

Bella rushed out of the house, her book bag sliding off her shoulder, her hair coiled into a messy twist that was already coming apart on the nape of her neck. The thick green sweater she wore was not enough to keep her thin shoulders from hunching against the cold fog.

The long sweater was too big for her, unflattering. It masked her slender figure, turning all her delicate curves and soft lines into a shapeless jumble. I appreciated this almost as much as I wished that she had worn something more like the soft blue blouse she’d worn last night…the fabric had clung to her skin in such an appealing way, cut low enough to reveal the mesmerizing way her collar bones curled away from the hollow beneath her throat. The blue had flowed like water along the subtle shape of her body…

It was better—essential—that I kept my thoughts far, far away from that shape, so I was grateful to the unbecoming sweater she wore. I couldn’t afford to make mistakes, and it would be a monumental mistake to dwell on the strange hungers that thoughts of her lips…her skin…her body…were shaking loose inside of me. Hungers that had evaded me for a hundred years. But I could not allow myself to think of touching her, because that was impossible.

I would break her.

Bella turned away from the door, in such a hurry that she nearly ran right by my car without noticing it.

Then she skidded to a stop, her knees locking like a startled colt’s. Her bag slid further down her arm, and her eyes flew wide as they focused on the car.

I got out, taking no care to move at human speed, and opened the passenger door for her. I would not try to deceive her anymore—when we were alone, at least, I would be myself.

She looked up at me, startled again as I seemingly materialized out of the fog.

And then the surprise in her eyes changed to something else, and I was no longer afraid—or hopeful—that her feelings for me had changed in the course of the night. Warmth, wonder, fascination, all swimming in the melted chocolate of her eyes.

“Do you want to ride with me today?” I asked. Unlike dinner last night, I would let her choose. From now on, it must always be her choice.

“Yes, thank you,” she murmured, climbing into my car without hesitation.

Would it ever cease to thrill me, that I was the one she was saying yes to? I doubted it.

I flashed around the car, eager to join her. She showed no sign of being shocked by my sudden reappearance.

The happiness I felt when she sat beside me this way had no precedent. As much as I enjoyed the love and companionship of my family, despite the various entertainments and distractions the world had to offer, I had never been happy like this. Even knowing that it was wrong, that this couldn’t possibly end well, could not keep the smile from my face for long.

My jacket was folded over the headrest of her seat. I saw her eyeing it.

“I brought the jacket for you,” I told her. This was my excuse, had I needed to provide one, for showing up uninvited this morning. It was cold. She had no jacket.

Surely this was an acceptable form of chivalry. “I didn’t want you to get sick or something.”

“I’m not quite that delicate,” she said, staring at my chest rather than my face, as if she were hesitant to meet my eyes. But she put the coat on before I had to resort to commanding or coaxing.

“Aren’t you?” I muttered to myself.

She stared out at the road as I accelerated toward the school. I could only stand the silence for a few seconds. I had to know what her thoughts were this morning. So much had changed between us since the last time the sun was up.

“What, no twenty questions today?” I asked, keeping it light again.

She smiled, seeming glad that I’d broached the subject. “Do my questions bother you?”

“Not as much as your reactions do,” I told her honestly, smiling in response to her smile.

Her mouth turned down. “Do I react badly?”

“No, that’s the problem. You take everything so coolly—it’s unnatural.” Not one scream so far. How could that be? “It makes me wonder what you’re really thinking.” Of course, everything she did or didn’t do made me wonder that.

“I always tell you what I’m really thinking.”

“You edit.”

Her teeth pressed into her lip again. She didn’t seem to notice when she did this—it was an unconscious response to tension. “Not very much.” Just those words were enough to have my curiosity raging. What did she purposefully keep from me?

“Enough to drive me insane,” I said.

She hesitated, and then whispered, “You don’t want to hear it.”

I had to think for a moment, run through our entire conversation last night, word for word, before I made the connection. Perhaps it took so much concentration because I couldn’t imagine anything that I wouldn’t want her to say to me. And then—because the tone of her voice was the same as last night; there was suddenly pain there again—I remembered. Once, I had asked her not to speak her thoughts. Never say that, I’d all but snarled at her. I had made her cry…

Was this what she kept from me? The depth of her feelings about me? That my being a monster didn’t matter to her, and that she thought it was too late for her to change her mind?

I was unable to speak, because the joy and pain were too strong for words, the conflict between them too wild to allow for a coherent response. It was silent in the car except for the steady rhythms of her heart and lungs.

“Where’s the rest of your family?” she asked suddenly.

I took a deep breath—registering the scent in the car with true pain for the first time; I was getting used to this, I realized with satisfaction—and forced myself to be casual again.

“They took Rosalie’s car.” I parked in the open spot next to the car in question. I hid my smile as I watched her eyes widen. “Ostentatious, isn’t it?”

“Um, wow. If she has that, why does she ride with you?” Rosalie would have enjoyed Bella’s reaction…if she were being objective about Bella, which probably wouldn’t happen.

“Like I said, it’s ostentatious. We try to blend in.”

“You don’t succeed,” she told me, and then she laughed a carefree laugh.

The blithe, wholly untroubled sound of her laughter warmed my hollow chest even as it made my head swim with doubt.

“So why did Rosalie drive today if it’s more conspicuous?” she wondered.

“Hadn’t you noticed? I’m breaking all the rules now.” My answer should have been mildly frightening—so, of course, Bella smiled at it.

She didn’t wait for me to open her door, just like last night. I had to feign normality here at school—so I couldn’t move fast enough to prevent this—but she was just going to have to get used to being treated with more courtesy, and get used to it soon.

I walked as close to her as I dared, watching carefully for any sign that my proximity upset her. Twice her hand twitched toward me and then she would snatch it back. It looked like she wanted to touch me… My breath sped.

“Why do you have cars like that at all? If you’re looking for privacy?” she asked as we walked.

“An indulgence,” I admitted. “We all like to drive fast.”

“Figures,” she mumbled, her tone sour.

She didn’t look up to see my answering grin.

Nuh-uh! I don’t believe this! How the hell did Bella pull this off? I don’t get it!

Why?

Jessica’s mental boggling interrupted my thoughts. She was waiting for Bella, taking refuge from the rain under the edge of the cafeteria’s roof, with Bella’s winter jacket over her arm. Her eyes were wide with disbelief.

Bella noticed her, too, in the next moment. A faint pink touched her cheek when Bella registered Jessica’s expression. The thoughts in Jessica’s head were fairly clear on her face.

“Hey, Jessica. Thanks for remembering,” Bella greeted her. She reached out for the jacket and Jessica handed it to her wordlessly.

I should be polite to Bella’s friends, whether they were good friends or not.

“Good morning, Jessica.”

Whoa…

Jessica’s eyes popped even wider. It was strange and amusing…and, honestly, a bit embarrassing…to realize how much being near Bella had softened me. It seemed like no one was afraid of me any more. If Emmett found out about this, he would be laughing for the next century.

“Er…hi,” Jessica mumbled, and her eyes flashed to Bella’s face, full of significance. “I guess I’ll see you in Trig.”

You are so going to spill. I’m not taking no for an answer. Details. I have to have details! Edward freaking CULLEN!! Life is so unfair.

Bella’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, I’ll see you then.”

Jessica’s thoughts ran wild as she hurried to her first class, peeking back at us now and then.

The whole story. I’m not accepting anything less. Did they plan to meet up last night? Are they dating? How long? How could she keep this a secret? Why would she want to? It can’t be a casual thing—she has to be seriously into him. Is there any other option? I will find out. I can’t stand not knowing. I wonder if she’s made out with him?

Oh, swoon… Jessica’s thoughts were suddenly disjointed, and she let wordless fantasies swirl through her head. I winced at her speculations, and not just because she’d replaced Bella with herself in the mental pictures.

It couldn’t be like that. And yet I…I wanted…

I resisted making the admission, even to myself. How many wrong ways would I want Bella in? Which one would end up killing her?

I shook my head, and tried to lighten up.

“What are you going to tell her?” I asked Bella.

“Hey!” she whispered fiercely. “I thought you couldn’t read my mind!”

“I can’t.” I stared at her, surprised, trying to make sense of her words. Ah—we must have been thinking the same thing at the same time. Hmm…I rather liked that.

“However,” I told her, “I can read hers—she’ll be waiting to ambush you in class.” Bella groaned, and then let the jacket slide off her shoulders. I didn’t realize that she was giving it back at first—I wouldn’t have asked for it; I would rather she kept it…a token—so I was too slow to offer her my help. She handed me the jacket, and put her arms through her own, without looking up to see that my hands were extended to assist. I frowned at that, and then controlled my expression before she noticed it.

“So, what are you going to tell her?” I pressed.

“A little help? What does she want to know?”

I smiled, and shook my head. I wanted to hear what she was thinking without a prompt. “That’s not fair.”

Her eyes tightened. “No, you not sharing what you know—now that’s unfair.” Right—she didn’t like double standards.

We got to the door of her class—where I would have to leave her; I wondered idly if Ms. Cope would be more accommodating about a switch in the schedule of my English class… I made myself focus. I could be fair.

“She wants to know if we’re secretly dating,” I said slowly. “And she wants to know how you feel about me.”

Her eyes were wide—not startled, but ingenious now. They were open to me, readable. She was playing innocent.

“Yikes,” she murmured. “What should I say?”

“Hmmm.” She always tried to make me give away more than she did. I pondered how to respond.

A wayward strand of her hair, slightly damp from the fog, draped across her shoulder and curled around where her collar bone was hidden by the ridiculous sweater.

It drew my eyes…pulled them across the other hidden lines…

I reached for it carefully, not touching her skin—the morning was chill enough without my touch—and twisted it back into place in her untidy bun so that it wouldn’t distract me again. I remembered when Mike Newton had touched her hair, and my jaw flexed at the memory. She had flinched away from him then. Her reaction now was nothing the same; instead, there was a slight widening of her eyes, a rush of blood under her skin, and a sudden, uneven thumping of her heart.

I tried to hide my smile as I answered her question.

“I suppose you could say yes to the first…if you don’t mind—,” her choice, always her choice, “—it’s easier than any other explanation.”

“I don’t mind,” she whispered. Her heart had not found its normal rhythm yet.

“And as for her other question…” I couldn’t hide my smile now. “Well, I’ll be listening to hear the answer to that one myself.” Let Bella consider that. I held back my laugh as shock crossed her face.

I turned quickly, before she could ask for any more answers. I had a difficult time not giving her whatever she asked for. And I wanted to hear her thoughts, not mine.

“I’ll see you at lunch,” I called back to her over my shoulder, an excuse to check that she was still staring after me, wide-eyed. Her mouth was hanging open. I turned away again, and laughed.

As I paced away, I was vaguely aware of the shocked and speculative thoughts that swirled around me—eyes bouncing back and forth between Bella’s face and my retreating figure. I paid them little attention. I couldn’t concentrate. It was hard enough to keep my feet moving at an acceptable speed as I crossed the soggy grass to my next class. I wanted to run—really run, so fast that I would disappear, so fast that it would feel like I was flying. Part of me was flying already.

I put the jacket on when I got to class, letting her fragrance swim thick around me.

I would burn now—let the scent desensitize me—and then it would be easier to ignore it later, when I was with her again at lunch…

It was a good thing that my teachers no longer bothered to call on me. Today might have been the day that they would have caught me out, unprepared and answerless.

My mind was in so many places this morning; only my body was in the classroom.

Of course I was watching Bella. That was becoming natural—as automatic as breathing. I heard her conversation with a demoralized Mike Newton. She quickly directed the conversation to Jessica, and I grinned so wide that Rob Sawyer, who sat at the desk to my right, flinched visibly and slid deeper into his seat, away from me.

Ugh. Creepy.

Well, I hadn’t lost it entirely.

I was also monitoring Jessica loosely, watching her refine her questions for Bella.

I could barely wait for fourth period, ten times as eager and anxious as the curious human girl who wanted fresh gossip.

And I was also listening to Angela Weber.

I had not forgotten the gratitude I felt to her—for thinking nothing but kind things toward Bella in the first place, and then for her help last night. So I waited through the morning, looking for something that she wanted. I assumed it would be an easy; like any other human, there must be some bauble or toy she wanted particularly. Several, probably. I would deliver something anonymously and call us even.

But Angela proved almost as unaccommodating as Bella with her thoughts. She was oddly content for a teenager. Happy. Perhaps this was the reason for her unusual kindness—she was one of those rare people who had what they wanted and wanted what they had. If she wasn’t paying attention to her teachers and her notes, she was thinking of the twin little brothers she was taking to the beach this weekend—anticipating their excitement with an almost maternal pleasure. She cared for them often, but was not resentful of this fact… It was very sweet.

But not really helpful to me.

There had to be something she wanted. I would just have to keep looking. But later. It was time for Bella’s trig class with Jessica.

I wasn’t watching where I was going as I made my way to English. Jessica was already in her seat, both her feet tapping impatiently against the floor as she waited for Bella to arrive.

Conversely, once I settled into my assigned seat in the classroom, I became utterly still. I had to remind myself to fidget now and then. To keep up the charade. It was difficult, my thoughts were so focused on Jessica’s. I hoped she would pay attention, really try to read Bella’s face for me.

Jessica’s tapping intensified when Bella walked into the room.

She looks…glum. Why? Maybe there’s nothing going on with Edward Cullen.

That would be a disappointment. Except…then he’s still available… If he’s suddenly interested in dating, I don’t mind helping out with that…

Bella’s face didn’t look glum, it looked reluctant. She was worried—she knew I would hear all of this. I smiled to myself.

“Tell me everything!” Jess demanded while Bella was still removing her jacket to hang it on the back of her seat. She was moving with deliberation, unwilling.

Ugh, she’s so slow. Let’s get to the juicy stuff!

“What do you want to know?” Bella stalled as she took her seat.

“What happened last night?”

“He bought me dinner, and then he drove me home.”

And then? C’mon, there has to be more than that! She’s lying anyway, I know that. I’m going to call her on it.

“How did you get home so fast?”

I watched Bella roll her eyes at the suspicious Jessica.

“He drives like a maniac. It was terrifying.”

She smiled a tiny smile, and I laughed out loud, interrupting Mr. Mason’s announcements. I tried to turn the laugh into a cough, but no one was fooled. Mr. Mason shot me an irritated look, but I didn’t even bother to listen to the thought behind it. I was hearing Jessica.

Huh. She sounds like she’s telling the truth. Why is she making me pull this out of her, word by word? I would be bragging at the top of my lungs if it were me.

“Was it like a date—did you tell him to meet you there?”

Jessica watched surprise cross Bella’s expression, and was disappointed at how genuine it seemed.

“No—I was very surprised to see him there,” Bella told her.

What is going on?? “But he picked you up for school today?” There has to be more to the story.

“Yes—that was a surprise, too. He noticed I didn’t have a jacket last night.”

That’s not very much fun, Jessica thought, disappointed again.

I was tired of her line of questioning—I wanted to hear something I didn’t already know. I hoped she wasn’t so dissatisfied that she would skip the questions I was waiting for.

“So are you going out again?” Jessica demanded.

“He offered to drive me to Seattle Saturday because he thinks my truck isn’t up to it—does that count?”

Hmm. He sure is going out of his way to…well, take care of her, sort of. There must be something there on his side, if not on hers. How could THAT be? Bella’s crazy.

“Yes,” Jessica answered Bella’s question.

“Well, then,” Bella concluded. “Yes.”

“Wow…Edward Cullen.” Whether she likes him or not, this is major.

“I know,” Bella sighed.

The tone of her voice encouraged Jessica. Finally—she sounds like she gets it!

She must realize…

“Wait!” Jessica said, suddenly remembering her most vital question. “Has he kissed you?” Please say yes. And then describe every second!

“No,” Bella mumbled, and then she looked down at her hands, her face falling.

“It’s not like that.”

Damn. I wish… Ha. Looks like she does to.

I frowned. Bella did look upset about something, but it couldn’t be disappointment like Jessica assumed. She couldn’t want that. Not knowing what she knew. She couldn’t want to be that close to my teeth. For all she knew, I had fangs.

I shuddered.

“Do you think Saturday…?” Jessica prodded.

Bella looked even more frustrated as she said, “I really doubt it.”

Yeah, she does wish. That sucks for her.

Was it because I was watching all this through the filter of Jessica’s perceptions that it seemed like Jessica was right?

For a half-second I was distracted by the idea, the impossibility, of what it would be like to try to kiss her. My lips to her lips, cold stone to warm, yielding silk…

And then she dies.

I shook my head, wincing, and made myself pay attention.

“What did you talk about?” Did you talk to him, or did you make him drag every ounce of information out of you like this?

I smiled ruefully. Jessica wasn’t far off.

“I don’t know, Jess, lots of stuff. We talked about the English essay a little.”

A very little. I smiled wider.

Oh, c’MON. “Please, Bella! Give me some details.”

Bella deliberated for a moment.

“Well…okay, I’ve got one. You should have seen the waitress flirting with him—it was over the top. But he didn’t pay any attention to her at all.”

What a strange detail to share. I was surprised Bella had even noticed. It seemed a very inconsequential thing.

Interesting… “That’s a good sign. Was she pretty?”

Hmm. Jessica thought more of it that I did. Must be a female thing.

“Very,” Bella told her. “And probably nineteen or twenty.”

Jessica was momentarily distracted by a memory of Mike on her date Monday night—Mike being a little too friendly with a waitress who Jessica did not consider pretty at all. She shoved the memory away and returned, stifling her irritation, to her quest for details.

“Even better. He must like you.”

“I think so,” Bella said slowly, and I was on the edge of my seat, my body rigidly still. “But it’s hard to tell. He’s always so cryptic.”

I must not have been as transparently obvious and out of control as I’d thought.

Still…observant as she was… How could she not realize that I was in love with her? I sifted through our conversation, almost surprised that I hadn’t said the words out loud. It had felt like that knowledge had been the subtext of every word between us.

Wow. How do you sit there across from a male model and make conversation?

“I don’t know how you’re brave enough to be alone with him,” Jessica said.

Shock flashed across Bella’s face. “Why?”

Weird reaction. What does she think I meant? “He’s so…” What’s the right word? “Intimidating. I wouldn’t know what to say to him.” I couldn’t even speak English to him today, and all he said was good morning. I must have sounded like such an idiot.

Bella smiled. “I do have some trouble with incoherency when I’m around him.”

She must be trying to make Jessica feel better. She was almost unnaturally self-possessed when we were together.

“Oh well,” Jessica sighed. “He is unbelievably gorgeous.”

Bella’s face was suddenly colder. Her eyes flashed the same way they did when she resented some injustice. Jessica didn’t process the change in her expression.

“There’s a lot more to him than that,” Bella snapped.

Oooh. Now we’re getting somewhere. “Really? Like what?”

Bella gnawed her lip for a moment. “I can’t explain it right,” she finally said.

“But he’s even more unbelievable behind the face.” She looked away from Jessica, her eyes slightly unfocused as if she was staring at something very far away.

The feeling I felt now was loosely similar to how it felt when Carlisle or Esme praised me beyond what I deserved. Similar, but more intense, more consuming.

Sell stupid somewhere else—there’s nothing better than that face! Unless it’s his body. Swoon. “Is that possible?” Jessica giggled.

Bella didn’t turn. She continued to stare into the distance, ignoring Jessica.

A normal person would be gloating. Maybe if I keep the questions simple. Ha ha.

Like I’m talking to a kindergartener. “So you like him, then?”

I was rigid again.

Bella didn’t look at Jessica. “Yes.”

“I mean, do you really like him?”

“Yes.”

Look at that blush!

I was.

“How much do you like him?” Jessica demanded.

The English room could have gone up in flames and I wouldn’t have noticed.

Bella’s face was bright red now—I could almost feel the heat from the mental picture.

“Too much,” she whispered. “More than he likes me. But I don’t see how I can help that.”

Shoot! What did Mr. Varner just ask? “Um—which number, Mr. Varner?”

It was good that Jessica could no longer quiz Bella. I needed a minute.

What on earth was that girl thinking now? More than he likes me? How did she come up with that? But I don’t see how I can help that? What was that supposed to mean? I couldn’t fit a rational explanation to the words. They were practically senseless.

It seemed I couldn’t take anything for granted. Obvious things, things that made perfect sense, somehow got twisted up and turned backwards in that bizarre brain of hers.

More than he likes me? Maybe I shouldn’t rule out the institution just yet.

I glared at the clock, gritting my teeth. How could mere minutes feel so impossibly long to an immortal? Where was my perspective?

My jaw was tight throughout Mr. Varner’s entire trigonometry lesson. I heard more of that than the lecture in my own class. Bella and Jessica didn’t speak again, but Jessica peeked at Bella several times, and once her face was brilliant scarlet again for no apparent reason.

Lunch couldn’t come fast enough.

I wasn’t sure if Jessica would get some of the answers I was waiting for when the class was over, but Bella was quicker than she was.

As soon as the bell sounded, Bella turned to Jessica.

“In English, Mike asked me if you said anything about Monday night,” Bella said, a smile pulling at the corners of her lips. I understood this for what is was—offence as the best defense.

Mike asked about me? Joy made Jessica’s mind suddenly unguarded, softer, without its usual snide edge. “You’re kidding! What did you say?”

“I told him you said you had a lot of fun—and he looked pleased.”

“Tell me exactly what he said, and your exact answer!”

That was all I was going to get from Jessica today, clearly. Bella was smiling like she was thinking the same thing. Like she’d won the round.

Well, lunch would be another story. I would have better success with getting answers out of her than Jessica, I would make sure of that.

I could hardly bear to check in occasionally with Jessica through the fourth hour.

I had no patience for her obsessive thoughts of Mike Newton. I’d had more than enough of him in the last two weeks. He was lucky to be alive.

I moved apathetically through gym class with Alice, the way we always moved when it came to physical activity with humans. She was my teammate, naturally. It was the first day of badminton. I sighed with boredom, swinging the racket in slow motion to tap the birdie back to the other side. Lauren Mallory was on the other team; she missed.

Alice was twirling her racket like a baton, staring at the ceiling.

We all hated gym, Emmett especially. Throwing games was an affront to his personal philosophy. Gym seemed worse today than usual—I felt just as irritated as Emmett always did.

Before my head could explode with impatience, Coach Clapp called the games and sent us out early. I was ridiculously grateful that he’d skipped breakfast—a fresh attempt to diet—and the consequent hunger had him in a hurry to leave campus to find a greasy lunch somewhere. He promised himself he would start over tomorrow...

This gave me enough time to get to the math building before Bella’s class ended.

Enjoy yourself, Alice thought as she headed off to meet Jasper. Just a few days more to be patient. I suppose you won’t say hi to Bella for me, will you?

I shook my head, exasperated. Were all psychics so smug?

FYI, it’s going to be sunny on both sides of the sound this weekend. You might want to rearrange your plans.

I sighed as I continued in the opposite direction. Smug, but definitely useful.

I leaned against the wall by the door, waiting. I was close enough that I could hear Jessica’s voice through the bricks as well as her thoughts.

“You’re not sitting with us today, are you?” She looks all…lit up. I bet there’s tons she didn’t tell me.

“I don’t think so,” Bella answered, oddly unsure.

Hadn’t I promised to spend lunch with her? What was she thinking?

They came out of the class together, and both girls’ eyes widened when they saw me. But I could only hear Jessica.

Nice. Wow. Oh, yeah, there’s more going on here than she’s telling me. Maybe I’ll call her tonight… Or maybe I shouldn’t encourage her. Huh. I hope he moves past her in a hurry. Mike is cute but…wow.

“See you later, Bella.”

Bella walked toward me, pausing a step away, still unsure. Her skin was pink across her cheekbones.

I knew her well enough now to be sure that there was no fear behind her hesitation. Apparently, this was about some gulf she imagined between her feelings and mine. More than he likes me. Absurd!

“Hello,” I said, my voice a tad curt.

Her face got brighter. “Hi.”

She didn’t seem inclined to say anything else, so I led the way to the cafeteria and she walked silently beside me.

The jacket had worked—her scent was not the blow it usually was. It was just an intensification of the pain I already felt. I could ignore it more easily than I once would have believed possible.

Bella was restless as we waited in line, toying absently with the zipper on her jacket and shifting nervously from foot to foot. She glanced at me often, but whenever she met my gaze, she looked down as if she were embarrassed. Was this because so many people were staring at us? Maybe she could hear the loud whispers—the gossip was verbal as well as mental today.

Or maybe she realized, from my expression, that she was in trouble.

She didn’t say anything until I was assembling her lunch. I didn’t know what she liked—not yet—so I grabbed one of everything.

“What are you doing?” she hissed in a low voice. “You’re not getting all that for me?”

I shook my head, and shoved the tray up to the register. “Half is for me, of course.”

She raised one eyebrow skeptically, but said nothing more as I paid for the food and escorted her to the table we’d sat at last week before her disastrous experience with blood typing. It seemed like much more than a few days. Everything was different now.

She sat across from me again. I pushed the tray toward her.

“Take whatever you want,” I encouraged.

She picked up an apple and twisted it in her hands, a speculative look on her face.

“I’m curious.”

What a surprise.

“What would you do if someone dared you to eat food?” she continued in a low voice that wouldn’t carry to human ears. Immortal ears were another matter, if those ears were paying attention. I probably should have mentioned something to them earlier…

“You’re always curious,” I complained. Oh well. It wasn’t like I hadn’t had to eat before. It was part of the charade. An unpleasant part.

I reached for the closest thing, and held her eyes while I bite off a small bite of whatever it was. Without looking, I couldn’t tell. It was as slimy and chunky and repulsive as any other human food. I chewed swiftly and swallowed, trying to keep the grimace off my face. The gob of food moved slowly and uncomfortably down my throat.

I sighed as I thought of how I would have to choke it back up later. Disgusting.

Bella’s expression was shocked. Impressed.

I wanted to roll my eyes. Of course we would have perfected such deceptions.

“If someone dared you to eat dirt, you could, couldn’t you?” Her nose wrinkled and she smiled. “I did once…on a dare. It wasn’t so bad.” I laughed. “I suppose I’m not surprised.”

They look cozy, don’t they? Good body language. I’ll give Bella my take later.

He’s leaning toward her just the way he should, if he’s interested. He looks interested.

He looks…perfect. Jessica sighed. Yum.

I met Jessica’s curious eyes, and she looked away nervously, giggling to the girl next to her.

Hmmm. Probably better to stick to Mike. Reality, not fantasy…

“Jessica’s analyzing everything I do,” I informed Bella. “She’ll break it down for you later.”

I pushed the plate of food back towards her—pizza, I realized—wondering how best to begin. My former frustration flared as the words repeated in my head: More than he likes me. But I don’t see how I can help that.

She took a bite from the same slice of pizza. It amazed me how trusting she was.

Of course, she didn’t know I was poisonous—not that sharing food would hurt her. Still, I expected her to treat me differently. As something other. She never did—at least, not in a negative way…

I would start off gently.

“So the waitress was pretty, was she?”

She raised the eyebrow again. “You really didn’t notice?” As if any woman could hope to capture my attention from Bella. Absurd, again.

“No. I wasn’t paying attention. I had a lot on my mind.” Not the least of which had been the soft cling of her thin blouse…

Good thing she’d worn that ugly sweater today.

“Poor girl,” Bella said, smiling.

She liked that I hadn’t found the waitress interesting in any way. I could understand that. How many times had I imagined crippling Mike Newton in the biology room?

She couldn’t honestly believe that her human feelings, the fruition of seventeen short mortal years, could be stronger than the immortal passions that had been building up in me for a century.

“Something you said to Jessica…” I couldn’t keep my voice casual. “Well, it bothers me.”

She was immediately on the defensive. “I’m not surprised you heard something you didn’t like. You know what they say about eavesdroppers.” Eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves, that was the saying.

“I warned you I would be listening,” I reminded her.

“And I warned you that you didn’t want to know everything I was thinking.” Ah, she was thinking of when I’d made her cry. Remorse made my voice thicker.

“You did. You aren’t precisely right, though. I do want to know what you’re thinking—

everything. I just wish…that you wouldn’t be thinking some things.” More half-lies. I knew I shouldn’t want her to care about me. But I did. Of course I did.

“That’s quite a distinction,” she grumbled, scowling at me.

“But that’s not really the point at the moment.”

“Then what is?”

She leaned toward me, her hand cupped lightly around her throat. It drew my eye—distracted me. How soft that skin must feel…

Focus, I commanded myself.

“Do you truly believe that you care more for me than I do for you?” I asked. The question sounded ridiculous to me, like the words were scrambled.

Her eyes were wide, her breathing stopped. Then she looked away, blinking quickly. Her breath came in a low gasp.

“You’re doing it again,” she murmured.

“What?”

“Dazzling me,” she admitted, meeting my eyes warily.

“Oh.” Hmm. I wasn’t quite sure what to do about that. Nor was I sure that I didn’t want to dazzle her. I was still thrilled that I could. But it wasn’t helping the progression of the conversation.

“It’s not your fault.” She sighed. “You can’t help it.”

“Are you going to answer my question?” I demanded.

She stared at the table. “Yes.”

That was all she said.

“Yes, you are going to answer, or yes, you really think that?” I asked impatiently.

“Yes, I really think that,” she said without looking up. There was a faint undertone of sadness in her voice. She blushed again, and her teeth moved unconsciously to worry her lip.

Abruptly, I realized that this was very hard for her to admit, because she truly believed it. And I was no better than that coward, Mike, asking for her to confirm her feelings before I’d confirmed my own. It didn’t matter that I felt I’d make my side abundantly clear. It hadn’t gotten through to her, and so I had no excuse.

“You’re wrong,” I promised. She must hear the tenderness in my voice.

Bella looked up to me, her eyes opaque, giving nothing away. “You can’t know that,” she whispered.

She thought that I was underestimating her feelings because I couldn’t hear her thoughts. But, in truth, the problem was that she was underestimating mine.

“What makes you think so?” I wondered.

She stared back at me, the furrow between her brows, biting her lips. For the millionth time, I wished desperately that I could just hear her.

I was about to beg her to tell me what thought she was struggling with, but she held up a finger to keep me from speaking.

“Let me think,” she requested.

As long as she was simply organizing her thoughts, I could be patient.

Or I could pretend to be.

She pressed her hands together, twining and untwining her slender fingers. She was watching her hands as if they belonged to someone else while she spoke.

“Well, aside from the obvious,” she murmured. “Sometimes… I can’t be sure— I don’t know how to read minds—but sometimes it seems like you’re trying to say goodbye when you’re saying something else.” She didn’t look up.

She’d caught that, had she? Did she realize that it was only weakness and selfishness that kept me here? Did she think less of me for that?

“Perceptive,” I breathed, and then watched in horror as pain twisted her expression. I hurried to contradict her assumption. “That’s exactly why you’re wrong, though—” I began, and then I paused, remembering the first words of her explanation.

They bothered me, though I wasn’t sure I understood exactly. “What do you mean, ‘the obvious’?”

“Well, look at me,” she said.

I was looking. All I ever did was look at her. What did she mean?

“I’m absolutely ordinary,” she explained. “Well, except for the bad things like all the near death experiences and being so clumsy that I’m almost disabled. And look at you.” She fanned the air toward me, like she was making some point so obvious it wasn’t worth spelling out.

She thought she was ordinary? She thought that I was somehow preferable to her? In whose estimation? Silly, narrow-minded, blind humans like Jessica or Ms.

Cope? How could she not realize that she was the most beautiful…most exquisite…

Those words weren’t even enough.

And she had no idea.

“You don’t see yourself very clearly, you know,” I told her. “I’ll admit you’re dead-on about the bad things…” I laughed humorlessly. I did not find the evil fate who haunted her comical. The clumsiness, however, was sort of funny. Endearing. Would she believe me if I told her she was beautiful, inside and out? Perhaps she would find corroboration more persuasive. “But you didn’t hear what every human male was thinking on your first day.”

Ah, the hope, the thrill, the eagerness of those thoughts. The speed with which they’d turned to impossible fantasies. Impossible, because she wanted none of them.

I was the one she said yes to.

My smile must have been smug.

Her face was blank with surprise. “I don’t believe it,” she mumbled.

“Trust me just this once—you are the opposite of ordinary.” Her existence alone was excuse enough to justify the creation of the entire world.

She wasn’t used to compliments, I could see that. Another thing she would just have to get used to. She flushed, and changed the subject. “But I’m not saying goodbye.”

“Don’t you see? That’s what proves me right. I care the most, because if I can do it…” Would I ever be unselfish enough to do the right thing? I shook my head in despair. I would have to find the strength. She deserved a life. Not what Alice had seen coming for her. “If leaving is the right thing to do…” And it had to be the right thing, didn’t it? There was no reckless angel. Bella didn’t belong with me. “Then I’ll hurt myself to keep from hurting you, to keep you safe.” As I said the words, I willed them to be true.

She glared at me. Somehow, my words had angered her. “And you don’t think I would do the same?” she demanded furiously.

So furious—so soft and so fragile. How could she ever hurt anyone? “You’d never have to make the choice,” I told her, depressed anew by the wide difference between us.

She stared at me, concern replacing the anger in her eyes and bringing out the little pucker between them.

There was something truly wrong with the order of the universe if someone so good and so breakable did not merit a guardian angel to keep her out of trouble.

Well, I thought with dark humor, at least she has a guardian vampire.

I smiled. How I loved my excuse to stay. “Of course, keeping you safe is beginning to feel like a full-time occupation that requires my constant presence.” She smiled, too. “No one has tried to do away with me today,” she said lightly, and then her face turned speculative for half a second before her eyes went opaque again.

“Yet,” I added dryly.

“Yet,” she agreed to my surprise. I’d expected her to deny any need for protection.

How could he? That selfish jackass! How could he do this to us? Rosalie’s piercing mental shriek broke through my concentration.

“Easy, Rose,” I heard Emmett whisper from across the cafeteria. His arm was around her shoulders, holding her tight into his side—restraining her.

Sorry, Edward, Alice thought guiltily. She could tell Bella knew too much from your conversation…and, well, it would have been worse if I hadn’t told her the truth right away. Trust me on that.

I winced at the mental picture that followed, at what would have happened if I’d told Rosalie that Bella knew I was a vampire at home, where Rosalie didn’t have a façade to keep up. I’d have to hide my Aston Martin somewhere out of state if she didn’t calm down by the time school was over. The sight of my favorite car, mangled and burning, was upsetting—though I knew I’d earned the retribution.

Jasper was not much happier.

I’d deal with the others later. I only had so much time allotted to be to be with Bella, and I wasn’t going to waste it. And hearing Alice had reminded me that I had some business to attend to.

“I have another question for you,” I said, tuning out Rosalie’s mental hysterics.

“Shoot,” Bella said, smiling.

“Do you really need to go to Seattle this Saturday, or was that just an excuse to get out of saying no to all your admirers?”

She grimaced at me. “You know, I haven’t forgiven you for the Tyler thing yet.

It’s your fault that he’s deluded himself into thinking I’m going to prom with him.”

“Oh, he would have found a chance to ask you without me—I just really wanted to watch your face.”

I laughed now, remembering her aghast expression. Nothing I’d ever told her about my own dark story had ever made her look so horrified. The truth didn’t frighten her. She wanted to be with me. Mind-boggling.

“If I’d asked you, would you have turned me down?”

“Probably not,” she said. “But I would have cancelled later—faked an illness or a sprained ankle.”

How strange. “Why would you do that?”

She shook her head, as if she was disappointed that I did not understand at once.

“You’ve never seen me in gym, I guess, but I would have thought that you would understand.”

Ah. “Are you referring to the fact that you can’t walk across a flat, stable surface without finding something to trip over?”

“Obviously.”

“That wouldn’t be a problem. It’s all in the leading.” For a brief fraction of a second, I was overwhelmed by the idea of holding her in my arms at a dance—where she would surely wear something pretty and delicate rather than this hideous sweater.

With perfect clarity, I remembered how her body had felt under mine after I’d thrown her out of the way of the oncoming van. Stronger than the panic or the desperation or the chagrin, I could remember that sensation. She’d been so warm and so soft, fitting easily into my own stone shape…

I wrenched myself back from the memory.

“But you never told me—” I said quickly, preventing her from arguing with me about her clumsiness, as she clearly intended to do. “Are you resolved on going to Seattle, or do you mind if we do something different?” Devious—giving her a choice without giving her the option of getting away from me for the day. Hardly fair of me. But I had made her a promise last night…and I liked the idea of fulfilling it—almost as much as that idea terrified me.

The sun would be shining Saturday. I could show her the real me, if I was brave enough to endure her horror and disgust. I knew just the place to take such a risk…

“I’m open to alternatives,” Bella said. “But I do have a favor to ask.” A qualified yes. What would she want from me?

“What?”

“Can I drive?”

Was this her idea of humor? “Why?”

“Well, mostly because when I told Charlie I was going to Seattle, he specifically asked if I was going alone and, at the time, I was. If he asked again, I probably wouldn’t lie, but I don’t think he will ask again, and leaving my truck at home would just bring up the subject unnecessarily. And also, because your driving frightens me.”

I rolled my eyes at her. “Of all the things about me that could frighten you, you worry about my driving.” Truly, her brain worked backwards. I shook my head, disgusted.

Edward, Alice called urgently.

Suddenly I was staring into a bright circle of sunlight, caught up in one of Alice’s visions.

It was a place I knew well, the place I’d just considered taking Bella—a little meadow where no one ever went beside myself. A quiet, pretty place where I could count on being alone—far enough from any trail or human habitation that even my mind could have peace and quiet.

Alice recognized it, too, because she had seen me there not so long ago in another vision—one of those flickering, indistinct visions that Alice had shown me the morning I’d saved Bella from the van.

In that flickering vision, I hadn’t been alone. And now it was clear—Bella was with me there. So I was brave enough. She stared at me, rainbows dancing across her face, her eyes fathomless.

It’s the same place, Alice thought, her mind full of a horror that did not match the vision. Tension, perhaps, but horror? What did she mean, the same place?

And then I saw it.

Edward! Alice protested shrilly. I love her, Edward!

I shut her out viciously.

She didn’t love Bella the way I did. Her vision was impossible. Wrong. She was blinded somehow, seeing impossibilities.

Not even a half a second had passed. Bella was looking curiously at my face, waiting for me to approve her request. Had she seen the flash of dread, or had it been too quick for her?

I focused on her, on our unfinished conversation, pushing Alice and her flawed, lying visions far from my thoughts. They didn’t deserve my attention.

I wasn’t able to keep up the playful tone of our banter, though.

“Won’t you want to tell your father that you’re spending the day with me?” I asked, darkness seeping into my voice.

I shoved at the visions again, trying to push them farther away, to keep them from flickering through my head.

“With Charlie, less is always more,” Bella said, certain of this fact. “Where are we going, anyway?”

Alice was wrong. Dead wrong. There was no chance of that. And it was just an old vision, invalid now. Things had changed.

“The weather will be nice,” I told her slowly, fighting the panic and indecision.

Alice was wrong. I would continue as if I hadn’t heard or seen anything. “So I’ll be staying out of the public eye…and you can stay with me, if you’d like to.” Bella caught the significance at once; her eyes were bright and eager. “And you’ll show me what you meant, about the sun?”

Maybe, like so many times before, her reaction would be the opposite of what I expected. I smiled at that possibility, struggling to return to the lighter moment. “Yes.

But…” She hadn’t said yes. “If you don’t want to be…alone with me, I’d still rather you didn’t go to Seattle by yourself. I shudder to think of the trouble you could find in a city that size.”

Her lips pressed together; she was offended.

“Phoenix is three times bigger than Seattle—just in population. In physical size—”

“But apparently your number wasn’t up in Phoenix,” I said, cutting off her justifications. “So I’d rather you stayed with me.” She could stay forever and it would not be long enough.

I shouldn’t think that way. We didn’t have forever. The passing seconds counted more than they ever had before; each second changed her while I remained untouched.

“As it happens, I don’t mind being alone with you,” she said.

No—because her instincts were backwards.

“I know.” I sighed. “You should tell Charlie, though.”

“Why in the world would I do that?” she asked, sounding horrified.

I glared at her, the visions I couldn’t quite manage to repress swirling sickeningly through my head.

“To give me some small incentive to bring you back,” I hissed. She should give me that much—one witness to compel me to be cautious.

Why had Alice forced this knowledge on me now?

Bella swallowed loudly, and stared at me for a long moment. What did she see?

“I think I’ll take my chances,” she said.

Ugh! Did she get some thrill out of risking her life? Some shot of adrenaline she craved?

I scowled at Alice, who met my glare with a warning glance. Beside her, Rosalie was glowering furiously, but I couldn’t have cared less. Let her destroy the car. It was just a toy.

“Let’s talk about something else,” Bella suggested suddenly.

I looked back at her, wondering how she could be so oblivious to what really mattered. Why wouldn’t she see me for the monster I was?

“What do you want to talk about?”

Her eyes darted to the left and then the right, as if checking to make sure there were no eavesdroppers. She must be planning to introduce another myth-related topic.

Her eyes froze for a second and her body stiffened, and then she looked back to me.

“Why did you go to that Goat Rocks place last weekend…to hunt? Charlie said it wasn’t a good place to hike, because of bears.” So oblivious. I stared at her, raising one eyebrow.

“Bears?” she gasped.

I smiled wryly, watching that sink in. Would this make her take me seriously?

Would anything?

She pulled her expression together. “You know, bears are not in season,” she said severely, narrowing her eyes.

“If you read carefully, the laws only cover hunting with weapons.” She lost control over her face again for a moment. Her lips fell open.

“Bears?” she said again, a tentative question this time rather than a gasp of shock.

“Grizzly is Emmett’s favorite.”

I watched her eyes, seeing this settle in.

“Hmm,” she murmured. She took a bite of the pizza, looking down. She chewed thoughtfully, and then took a drink.

“So,” she said, finally looking up. “What’s your favorite?” I supposed I should have expected something like that, but I hadn’t. Bella was always interesting, at the very least.

“Mountain lion,” I answered brusquely.

“Ah,” she said in a neutral tone. Her heartbeat continued steady and even, as if we were discussing a favorite restaurant.

Fine, then. If she wanted to act like this was nothing unusual…

“Of course, we have to be careful not to impact the environment with injudicious hunting,” I told her, my voice detached and clinical. “We try to focus on areas with an overpopulation of predators—ranging as far away as we need. There’s always plenty of deer and elk here, and they’ll do, but where’s the fun in that?” She listened with a politely interested expression, as if I were a teacher giving a lecture. I had to smile.

“Where indeed,” she murmured calmly, taking another bite of pizza.

“Early spring is Emmett’s favorite bear season,” I said, continuing with the lecture. “They’re just coming out of hibernation, so they’re more irritable.” Seventy years later, and he still hadn’t gotten over losing that first match.

“Nothing more fun than an irritated grizzly bear,” Bella agreed, nodding solemnly.

I couldn’t hold back a chuckle as I shook my head at her illogical calm. It had to be put on. “Tell me what you’re really thinking, please.”

“I’m trying to picture it—but I can’t,” she said, the crease appearing between her eyes. “How to you hunt a bear without weapons?”

“Oh, we have weapons,” I told her, and then flashed her a wide smile. I expected her to recoil, but she was very still, watching me. “Just not the kind they consider when writing hunting laws. If you’ve ever seen a bear attack on television, you should be able to visualize Emmett hunting.”

She glanced toward the table where the others sat, and shuddered.

Finally. And then I laughed at myself, because I knew part of me was wishing she would stay oblivious.

Her dark eyes were wide and deep as she stared at me now. “Are you like a bear, too?” she asked in an almost-whisper.

“More like the lion, or so they tell me,” I told her, striving to sound detached again. “Perhaps our preferences are indicative.” Her lips pulled up a tiny bit at the corners. “Perhaps,” she repeated. And then her head leaned to the side, and curiosity was suddenly clear in her eyes. “Is that something I might get to see?”

I didn’t need pictures from Alice to illustrate this horror—my imagination was quite enough.

“Absolutely not,” I snarled at her.

She jerked away from me, her eyes bewildered and frightened.

I leaned back, too, wanting to put space between us. She was never going to see, was she? She wouldn’t do one thing to help me keep her alive.

“Too scary for me?” she asked, her voice even. Her heart, however, was still moving in double time.

“If that were it, I would take you out tonight,” I retorted through my teeth. “You need a healthy dose of fear. Nothing could be more beneficial for you.”

“Then why?” she demanded, undeterred.

I glared at her blackly, waiting for her to be afraid. I was afraid. I could imagine only too clearly having Bella near when I hunted…

Her eyes remained curious, impatient, nothing more. She waited for her answer, not giving in.

But our hour was up.

“Later,” I snapped, and I rose to my feet. “We’re going to be late.” She looked around herself, disoriented, like she’d forgotten we were at lunch.

Like she’d forgotten we were even at school—surprised that we were not alone in some private place. I understood that feeling exactly. It was hard to remember the rest of the world when I was with her.

She got up quickly, bobbling once, and threw her bag over her shoulder.

“Later, then,” she said, and I could see the determination in the set of her mouth; she would hold me to that.


Chapter 12 - COMPLICATIONS

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Bella and I walked silently to biology. I was trying to focus myself on the moment, on the girl beside me, on what was real and solid, on anything that would keep Alice’s deceitful, meaningless visions out of my head.

We passed Angela Weber, lingering on the sidewalk, discussing an assignment with a boy from her Trigonometry class. I scanned her thoughts perfunctorily, expecting more disappointment, only to be surprised by their wistful tenor.

Ah, so there was something Angela wanted. Unfortunately, it wasn’t something that could be easily gift-wrapped.

I felt strangely comforted for a moment, hearing Angela’s hopeless yearning. A sense of kinship that Angela would never know about passed through me, and I was, in that second, at one with the kind human girl.

It was oddly consoling to know that I wasn’t the only one living out a tragic love story. Heartbreak was everywhere.

In the next second, I was abruptly and thoroughly irritated. Because Angela’s story didn’t have to be tragic. She was human and he was human and the difference that seemed so insurmountable in her head was ridiculous, truly ridiculous compared to my own situation. There was no point in her broken heart. What a wasteful sadness, when there was no valid reason for her not to be with the one she wanted. Why shouldn’t she have what she wanted? Why shouldn’t this one story have a happy ending?

I wanted to give her a gift… Well, I would give her what she wanted. Knowing what I did of human nature, it probably wouldn’t even be very difficult. I sifted through the consciousness of the boy beside her, the object of her affections, and he did not seem unwilling, he was just stymied by the same difficulty she was. Hopeless and resigned, the way she was.

All I would have to do was plant the suggestion…

The plan formed easily, the script wrote itself without effort on my part. I would need Emmett’s help—getting him to go along with this was the only real difficulty.

Human nature was so much easier to manipulate than vampire nature.

I was pleased with my solution, with my gift for Angela. It was a nice diversion from my own problems. Would that mine were as easily fixed.

My mood was slightly improved as Bella and I took our seats. Maybe I should be more positive. Maybe there was some solution out there for us that was escaping me, the way Angela’s obvious solution was so invisible to her. Not likely… But why waste time with hopelessness? I didn’t have time to waste when it came to Bella. Each second mattered.

Mr. Banner entered pulling an ancient TV and VCR. He was skipping through a section he wasn’t particularly interested in—genetic disorders—by showing a movie for the next three days. Lorenzo’s Oil was not a very cheerful piece, but that didn’t stop the excitement in the room. No notes, no test-able material. Three free days. The humans exulted.

It didn’t matter to me, either way. I hadn’t been planning on paying any attention to anything but Bella.

I did not pull my chair away from hers today, to give myself space to breathe.

Instead, I sat close beside her like any normal human would. Closer than we sat inside my car, close enough that the left side of my body felt submerged in the heat from her skin.

It was a strange experience, both enjoyable and nerve-racking, but I preferred this to sitting across the table from her. It was more than I was used to, and yet I quickly realized that it was not enough. I was not satisfied. Being this close to her only made me want to be closer still. The pull was stronger the closer I got.

I had accused her of being a magnet for danger. Right now, it felt like that was the literal truth. I was danger, and, with every inch I allowed myself nearer to her, her attraction grew in force.

And then Mr. Banner turned the lights out.

It was odd how much of a difference this made, considering that the lack of light meant little to my eyes. I could still see just as perfectly as before. Every detail of the room was clear.

So why the sudden shock of electricity in the air, in this dark that was not dark to me? Was it because I knew that I was the only one who could see clearly? That both Bella and I were invisible to the others? Like we were alone, just the two of us, hidden in the dark room, sitting so close beside one another…

My hand moved toward her without my permission. Just to touch her hand, to hold it in the darkness. Would that be such a horrific mistake? If my skin bothered her, she only had to pull away…

I yanked my hand back, folded my arms tightly across my chest and clenched my hands closed. No mistakes. I’d promised myself that I would make no mistakes, no matter how minimal they seemed. If I held her hand, I would only want more—another insignificant touch, another move closer to her. I could feel that. A new kind of desire was growing in me, working to override my self-control.

No mistakes.

Bella folded her arms securely across her own chest, and her hands balled up into fists, just like mine.

What are you thinking? I was dying to whisper the words to her, but the room was too quiet to get away with even a whispered conversation.

The movie began, lightening the darkness just a bit. Bella glanced up at me. She noted the rigid way I held my body—just like hers—and smiled. Her lips parted slightly, and her eyes seemed full of warm invitations.

Or perhaps I was seeing what I wanted to see.

I smiled back; her breathing caught with a low gasp and she looked quickly away.

That made it worse. I didn’t know her thoughts, but I was suddenly positive that I had been right before, and that she wanted me to touch her. She felt this dangerous desire just as I did.

Between her body and mine, the electricity hummed.

She didn’t move all through the hour, holding her stiff, controlled pose as I held mine. Occasionally she would peek at me again, and the humming current would jolt through me with a sudden shock.

The hour passed—slowly, and yet not slowly enough. This was so new, I could have sat like this with her for days, just to experience the feeling fully.

I had a dozen different arguments with myself while the minutes passed, rationality struggling with desire as I tried to justify touching her.

Finally, Mr. Banner turned the lights on again.

In the bright fluorescent light, the atmosphere of the room returned to normal.

Bella sighed and stretched, flexing her fingers in front of her. It must have been uncomfortable for her to hold that position for so long. It was easier for me—stillness came naturally.

I chuckled at the relieved expression on her face. “Well, that was interesting.”

“Umm,” she murmured, clearly understanding what I referred to, but making no comment. What I wouldn’t give to hear what she was thinking right now.

I sighed. No amount of wishing was going to help with that.

“Shall we?” I asked, standing.

She made a face and got unsteadily to her feet, her hands splayed out as if she were afraid she was going to fall.

I could offer her my hand. Or I could place that hand underneath her elbow—just lightly—and steady her. Surely that wouldn’t be such a horrible infraction…

No mistakes.

She was very quiet as we walked toward the gym. The crease was in evidence between her eyes, a sign that she was deep in thought. I, too, was thinking deeply.

One touch of her skin wouldn’t hurt her, my selfish side contended.

I could easily moderate the pressure of my hand. It wasn’t exactly difficult, as long as I was firmly in control of myself. My tactile sense was better developed than a human’s; I could juggle a dozen crystal goblets without breaking any of them; I could stroke a soap bubble without popping it. As long as I was firmly in control…

Bella was like a soap bubble—fragile and ephemeral. Temporary.

How long would I be able to justify my presence in her life? How much time did I have? Would I have another chance like this chance, like this moment, like this second?

She would not always be within my arm’s reach…

Bella turned to face me at the gym’s door, and her eyes widened at the expression on my face. She didn’t speak. I looked at myself in the reflection of her eyes and saw the conflict raging in my own. I watched my face change as my better side lost the argument.

My hand lifted without a conscious command for it to do so. As gently as if she were made of the thinnest glass, as if she were fragile as a bubble, my fingers stroked the warm skin that covered her cheekbone. It heated under my touch, and I could feel the pulse of blood speed beneath her transparent skin.

Enough, I ordered, though my hand was aching to shape itself to the side of her face. Enough.

It was difficult to pull my hand back, to stop myself from moving closer to her than I already was. A thousand different possibilities ran through my mind in an instant—a thousand different ways to touch her. The tip of my finger tracing the shape of her lips. My palm cupping under her chin. Pulling the clip from her hair and letting it spill out across my hand. My arms winding around her waist, holding her against the length of my body.

Enough.

I forced myself to turn, to move away from her. My body moved stiffly—unwilling.

I let my mind linger behind to watch her as I walked swiftly away, almost running from the temptation. I caught Mike Newton’s thoughts—they were the loudest—while he watched Bella walk past him in oblivion, her eyes unfocused and her cheeks red. He glowered and suddenly my name was mingled with curses in his head; I couldn’t help grinning slightly in response.

My hand was tingling. I flexed it and then curled it into a fist, but it continued to sting painlessly.

No, I hadn’t hurt her—but touching her had still been a mistake.

It felt like fire—like the thirsting burn of my throat had spread throughout my entire body.

The next time I was close to her, would I be able to stop myself from touching her again? And if I touched her once, would I be able to stop at that?

No more mistakes. That was it. Savor the memory, Edward, I told myself grimly, and keep your hands to yourself. That, or I would have to force myself to leave…somehow. Because I couldn’t allow myself near her if I insisted on making errors.

I took a deep breath and tried to steady my thoughts.

Emmett caught up to me outside the English building.

“Hey, Edward.” He’s looking better. Weird, but better. Happy.

“Hey, Em.” Did I look happy? I supposed, despite the chaos in my head, I felt that way.

Way to keep your mouth shut, kid. Rosalie wants to rip your tongue out.

I sighed. “Sorry I left you to deal with that. Are you angry with me?”

“Naw. Rose’ll get over it. It was bound to happen anyway.” With what Alice sees coming…

Alice’s visions were not what I wanted to think about right now. I stared forward, my teeth locking together.

As I searched for a distraction, I caught sight of Ben Cheney entering the Spanish room ahead of us. Ah—here was my chance to give Angela Weber her gift.

I stopped walking and caught Emmett’s arm. “Hold on a second.” What’s up?

“I know I don’t deserve it, but would you do me a favor anyway?”

“What is it?” he asked, curious.

Under my breath—and at a speed that would have made the words incomprehensible to a human no matter how loud they’d been spoken—I explained to him what I wanted.

He stared at me blankly when I was done, his thoughts as blank as his face.

“So?” I prompted. “Will you help me do it?”

It took him a minute to respond. “But, why?”

“C’mon, Emmett. Why not?”

Who are you and what have you done with my brother?

“Aren’t you the one who complains that school is always the same? This is something a little different, isn’t it? Consider it an experiment—an experiment in human nature.”

He stared at me for another moment before he caved. “Well, it is different, I’ll give you that… Okay, fine.” Emmett snorted and then shrugged. “I’ll help you.” I grinned at him, feeling more enthusiastic about my plan now that he was on board. Rosalie was a pain, but I would always owe her one for choosing Emmett; no one had a better brother than mine.

Emmett didn’t need to practice. I whispered his lines to him once under my breath as we walked into the classroom.

Ben was already in his seat behind mine, assembling his homework to hand in.

Emmett and I both sat and did the same thing. The classroom was not quiet yet; the murmur of subdued conversation would continue until Mrs. Goff called for attention.

She was in no hurry, appraising the quizzes from the last class.

“So,” Emmett said, his voice louder than necessary—if he were really speaking only to me. “Did you ask Angela Weber out yet?” The sound of papers rustling behind me came to an abrupt stop as Ben froze, his attention suddenly riveted on our conversation.

Angela? They’re talking about Angela?

Good. I had his interest.

“No,” I said, shaking my head slowly to appear regretful.

“Why not?” Emmett improvised. “Are you chicken?” I grimaced at him. “No. I heard that she was interested in someone else.” Edward Cullen was going to ask Angela out? But… No. I don’t like that. I don’t want him near her. He’s…not right for her. Not…safe.

I hadn’t anticipated the chivalry, the protective instinct. I’d been working for jealousy. But whatever worked.

“You’re going to let that stop you?” Emmett asked scornfully, improvising again.

“Not up for the competition?”

I glared at him, but made used of what he gave me. “Look, I guess she really likes this Ben person. I’m not going to try to convince her otherwise. There are other girls.”

The reaction in the chair behind me was electric.

“Who?” Emmett asked, back to the script.

“My lab partner said it was some kid named Cheney. I’m not sure I know who he is.”

I bit back my smile. Only the haughty Cullens could get away with pretending not to know every student at this tiny school.

Ben’s head was whirling with shock. Me? Over Edward Cullen? But why would she like me ?

“Edward,” Emmett muttered in a lower tone, rolling his eyes toward the boy.

“He’s right behind you,” he mouthed, so obviously that the human could easily read the words.

“Oh,” I muttered back.

I turned in my seat and glanced once at the boy behind me. For a second, the black eyes behind the glasses were frightened, but then he stiffened and squared his narrow shoulders, affronted by my clearly disparaging evaluation. His chin shot out and an angry flush darkened his golden-brown skin.

“Huh,” I said arrogantly as I turned back to Emmett.

He thinks he’s better than me. But Angela doesn’t. I’ll show him…

Perfect.

“Didn’t you say she was taking Yorkie to the dance, though?” Emmett asked, snorting as he said the name of the boy that many scorned for his awkwardness.

“That was a group decision apparently.” I wanted to be sure that Ben was clear on this. “Angela’s shy. If B—well, if a guy doesn’t have the nerve to ask her out, she’d never ask him.”

“You like shy girls,” Emmett said, back to improvisation. Quiet girls. Girls like…hmm, I don’t know. Maybe Bella Swan?

I grinned at him. “Exactly.” Then I returned to the performance. “Maybe Angela will get tired of waiting. Maybe I’ll ask her to the prom.”

No, you won’t, Ben thought, straightening up in his chair. So what if she’s so much taller than me? If she doesn’t care, then neither do I. She’s the nicest, smartest, prettiest girl in this school… and she wants me .

I liked this Ben. He seemed bright and well-meaning. Maybe even worthy of a girl like Angela.

I gave Emmett a thumbs up under the desk as Mrs. Goff stood and greeted the class.

Okay, I’ll admit it—that was sort of fun, Emmett thought.

I smiled to myself, pleased that I’d been able to shape one love story’s happy ending. I was positive that Ben would follow through, and Angela would receive my anonymous gift. My debt was repaid.

How silly humans were, to let a six inch height differential confound their happiness.

My success put me in a good mood. I smiled again as I settled into my chair and prepared to be entertained. After all, as Bella had pointed out at lunch, I’d never seen her in action in her gym class before.

Mike’s thoughts were the easiest to pinpoint in the babble of voices that swarmed through the gym. His mind had gotten far too familiar over the last few weeks. With a sigh, I resigned myself to listening through him. At least I could be sure that he would be paying attention to Bella.

I was just in time to hear him offer to be her badminton partner; as he made the suggestion, other partnerings ran through his mind. My smile faded, my teeth clenched together, and I had to remind myself that murdering Mike Newton was not a permissible option.

“Thanks, Mike—you don’t have to do this, you know.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep out of your way.”

They grinned at each other, and flashes of numerous accidents—always in some way connected to Bella—flashed through Mike’s head.

Mike played alone at first, while Bella hesitated on the back half of the court, holding her racket gingerly, as if it was some kind of weapon. Then Coach Clapp ambled by and ordered Mike to let Bella play.

Uh oh, Mike thought as Bella moved forward with a sigh, holding her racquet at an awkward angle.

Jennifer Ford served the birdie directly toward Bella with a smug twist to her thoughts. Mike saw Bella lurch toward it, swinging the racket yards wide of her target, and he rushed in to try to save the volley.

I watched the trajectory of Bella’s racquet with alarm. Sure enough, it hit the taut net and sprung back at her, clipping her forehead before it spun out to strike Mike’s arm with a resounding thwack.

Ow. Ow. Ungh. That’s going to leave a bruise.

Bella was kneading her forehead. It was hard to stay in my seat where I belonged, knowing she was hurt. But what could I do, if I were there? And it didn’t seem to be serious… I hesitated, watching. If she intended to continue to try to play, I was going to have to manufacture an excuse to pull her out of class.

The coach laughed. “Sorry, Newton.” That girl’s the worst jinx I’ve ever seen.

Shouldn’t inflict her on the others…

He turned his back deliberately and moved to watch another game so that Bella could return to her former spectator’s role.

Ow, Mike thought again, massaging his arm. He turned to Bella. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, are you?” she asked sheepishly, blushing.

“I think I’ll make it.” Don’t want to sound like a crybaby. But, man, that hurts!

Mike swung his arm in a circle, wincing.

“I’ll just stay back here,” Bella said, embarrassment and chagrin on her face rather than pain. Maybe Mike had got the worst of it. I certainly hoped that was the case.

At least she wasn’t playing anymore. She held her racquet so carefully behind her back, her eyes wide with remorse… I had to disguise my laugh as coughing.

What’s funny? Emmett wanted to know.

“Tell you later,” I muttered.

Bella didn’t venture into the game again. The coach ignored her and let Mike play alone.

I breezed through the quiz at the end of the hour, and Mrs. Goff let me go early. I was listening intently to Mike as I walked across the campus. He’d decided to confront Bella about me.

Jessica swears they’re dating. Why? Why did he have to pick her?

He didn’t recognize the real phenomenon—that she’d picked me.

“So.”

“So what?” she wondered.

“You and Cullen, huh?” You and the freak. I guess, if a rich guy is that important to you...

I gritted my teeth at his degrading assumption.

“That’s none of your business, Mike.”

Defensive. So it’s true. Crap. “I don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to,” she snapped.

Why can’t she see what a circus sideshow he is? Like they all are. The way he stares at her. It gives me chills to watch. “He looks at you like…like you’re something to eat.”

I cringed, waiting for her response.

Her face turned bright red, and her lips pressed together like she was holding her breath. Then, suddenly, a giggle burst through her lips.

Now she’s laughing at me. Great.

Mike turned, thoughts sullen, and wandered off to change.

I leaned against the gym wall and tried to compose myself.

How could she have laughed at Mike’s accusation—so entirely on target that I began to worry that Forks was becoming too aware… Why would she laugh at the suggestion that I could kill her, when she knew that it was entirely true? Where was the humor in that?

What was wrong with her?

Did she have morbid sense of humor? That didn’t fit with my idea of her character, but how could I be sure? Or maybe my daydream of the giddy angel was true in the one respect, in that she had no sense of fear at all. Brave—that was one word for it. Others might say stupid, but I knew how bright she was. No matter what the reason, though, this lack of fear or twisted sense of humor wasn’t good for her. Was it this strange lack that put her in danger so constantly? Maybe she would always need me here…

Just like that, my mood was soaring.

If I could just discipline myself, make myself safe, then perhaps it would be right for me to stay with her.

When she walked through the gym doors, her shoulders were stiff and her lower lip was between her teeth again—a sign of anxiety. But as soon as her eyes met mine, her rigid shoulders relaxed and a wide smile spread across her face. It was an oddly peaceful expression. She walked right to my side without hesitation, only stopping when she was so close that her body heat crashed over me like a tidal wave.

“Hi,” she whispered.

The happiness I felt in this moment was, again, without precedent.

“Hello,” I said, and then—because with my mood suddenly so light I couldn’t resist teasing her—I added, “How was gym?”

Her smile wavered. “Fine.”

She was a poor liar.

“Really?” I asked, about to press the issue—I was still concerned about her head; was she in pain?—but then Mike Newton’s thoughts we so loud they broke my concentration.

I hate him. I wish he would die. I hope he drives that shiny car right off a cliff.

Why couldn’t he just leave her alone? Stick to his own kind—to the freaks.

“What?” Bella demanded.

My eyes refocused on her face. She looked at Mike’s retreating back, and then at me again.

“Newton’s getting on my nerves,” I admitted.

Her mouth fell open, and her smile disappeared. She must have forgotten that I’d had the power to watch through her calamitous last hour, or hoped that I hadn’t utilized it.

“You weren’t listening again?”

“How’s your head?”

“You’re unbelievable!” she said through her teeth, and then she turned away from me and stalked furiously toward the parking lot. Her skin flushed dark red—she was embarrassed.

I kept pace with her, hoping that her anger would pass soon. She was usually quick to forgive me.

“You were the one who mentioned how I’d never seen you in Gym,” I explained.

“It made me curious.”

She didn’t answer; her eyebrows pulled together.

She came to a sudden halt in the parking lot when she realized that the way to my car was blocked by a crowd of male students.

I wonder how fast they’ve gone in this thing…

Look at the SMG shift paddles. I’ve never seen those outside of a magazine…

Nice side grills…

Sure wish I had sixty thousand dollars laying around…

This was exactly why it was better for Rosalie to only use her car out of town.

I wound through the throng of lustful boys to my car; after a second of hesitation, Bella followed suit.

“Ostentatious,” I muttered as she climbed in.

“What kind of car is that?” she wondered.

“An M3.”

She frowned. “I don’t speak Car and Driver.”

“It’s a BMW.” I rolled my eyes and then focused on backing out without running anyone down. I had to lock eyes with a few boys that didn’t seem willing to move out of my way. A half-second meeting my gaze seemed to be enough to convince them.

“Are you still angry?” I asked her. Her frown had relaxed.

“Definitely,” she answered curtly.

I sighed. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up. Oh well. I could try to make amends, I supposed. “Will you forgive me if I apologize?” She thought about that for a moment. “Maybe…if you mean it,” she decided.

“And if you promise not to do it again.”

I wasn’t going to lie to her, and there was no way I was agreeing to that. Perhaps if I offered her a different exchange.

“How about if I mean it, and I agree to let you drive this Saturday?” I cringed internally at the thought.

The furrow popped into existence between her eyes as she considered the new bargain. “Deal,” she said after a moment of thought.

Now for my apology… I’d never tried to dazzle Bella on purpose before, but now seemed like a good time. I stared deep into her eyes as I drove away from the school, wondering if I was doing it right. I used my most persuasive tone.

“Then I’m very sorry I upset you.”

Her heartbeat thudded louder than before, and the rhythm was abruptly staccato.

Her eyes widened, looking a little stunned.

I half-smiled. It seemed like I’d gotten it right. Of course, I was having a bit of difficulty looking away from her eyes, too. Equally dazzled. It was a good thing I had this road memorized.

“And I’ll be on your doorstep bright and early Saturday morning,” I added, finishing the agreement.

She blinked swiftly, shaking her head as if to clear it. “Um,” she said, “it doesn’t help with the Charlie situation if an unexplained Volvo is left in the driveway.” Ah, how little she still knew me. “I wasn’t intending to bring a car.”

“How—” she started to ask.

I interrupted her. The answer would be hard to explain without a demonstration, and now was hardly the time. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be there, no car.” She put her head on one side, and looked for a second like she was going to press for more, but then she seemed to change her mind.

“Is it later yet?” she asked, reminding me of our unfinished conversation in the cafeteria today; she’d let go of one difficult question just to return another that was more unappealing.

“I suppose it is later,” I agreed unwillingly.

I parked in front of her house, tensing as I tried to think of how to explain…without making my monstrous nature too evident, without frightening her again. Or was that wrong? To minimalize my darkness?

She waited with the same politely interested mask she’d worn at lunch. If I’d been less anxious, her preposterous calm would have made me laugh.

“And you still want to know why you can’t see me hunt?” I asked.

“Well, mostly I was wondering about your reaction,” she said.

“Did I frighten you?” I asked, positive that she would deny it.

“No.”

I tried not to smile, and failed. “I apologize for scaring you.” And then my smile vanished with the momentary humor. “It was just the very thought of you being there…while we hunted.”

“That would be bad?”

The mental picture was too much—Bella, so vulnerable in the empty darkness; myself, out of control… I tried to banish it from my head. “Extremely.”

“Because…?”

I took a deep breath, concentrating for one moment on the burning thirst. Feeling it, managing it, proving my dominion over it. It would never control me again—I willed that to be true. I would be safe for her. I stared at the welcome clouds without seeing them, wishing I could believe that my determination would make any difference if I were hunting when I crossed her scent.

“When we hunt…we give ourselves over to our senses,” I told her, thinking through each word before I spoke it. “Govern less with our minds. Especially our sense of smell. If you were anywhere near me when I lost control that way…” I shook my head in agony at the thought of what would—not what could, but what would—surely happen then.

I listened to the spike in her heartbeat, and then turned, restless, to read her eyes.

Bella’s face was composed, her eyes grave. Her mouth was pursed just slightly in what I guessed was concern. But concern for what? Her own safety? Or my anguish? I continued to stare at her, trying to translate her ambiguous expression into sure fact.

She gazed back. Her eyes grew wider after a moment, and her pupils dilated, though the light had not changed.

My breathing accelerated, and suddenly the quiet in the car seemed to be humming, just like in the darkened biology room this afternoon. The pulsing current raced between us again, and my desire to touch her was, briefly, stronger even than the demands of my thirst.

The throbbing electricity made it feel like I had a pulse again. My body sang with it. Like I was human. More than anything in the world, I wanted to feel the heat of her lips against mine. For one second, I struggled desperately to find the strength, the control, to able to put my mouth so close to her skin…

She sucked in a ragged breath, and only then did I realize that when I had started breathing faster, she had stopped breathing altogether.

I closed my eyes, trying to break the connection between us.

No more mistakes.

Bella’s existence was tied to a thousand delicately balanced chemical processes, all so easily disrupted. The rhythmic expansion of her lungs, the flow of oxygen, was life or death to her. The fluttering cadence of her fragile heart could be stopped by so many stupid accidents or illnesses or…by me.

I did not believe that any member of my family would hesitate if he or she were offered a chance back—if he or she could trade immortality for mortality again. Any one of us would stand in fire for it. Burn for as many days or centuries as were necessary.

Most of our kind prized immortality above anything else. There were even humans who craved this, who searched in dark places for those who could give them the blackest of gifts…

Not us. Not my family. We would trade anything to be human.

But none of us had ever been as desperate for a way back as I was now.

I stared at the microscopic pits and flaws in the windshield, like there was some solution hidden in the glass. The electricity had not faded, and I had to concentrate to keep my hands on the wheel.

My right hand began to sting without pain again, from when I’d touched her before.

“Bella, I think you should go inside now.”

She obeyed at once, without comment, getting out of the car and shutting the door behind herself. Did she feel the potential for disaster as clearly as I did?

Did it hurt her to leave, as it hurt me to let her go? The only solace was that I would see her soon. Sooner than she would see me. I smiled at that, then rolled the window down and leaned across to speak to her one more time—it was safer now, with the heat of her body outside the car.

She turned to see what I wanted, curious.

Still curious, though she’d asked me so many questions today. My own curiosity was entirely unsatisfied; answering her questions today had only revealed my secrets—

I’d gotten little from her but my own conjectures. That wasn’t fair.

“Oh, Bella?”

“Yes?”

“Tomorrow it’s my turn.”

Her forehead puckered. “Your turn to what?”

“Ask the questions.” Tomorrow, when we were in a safer place, surrounded by witnesses, I would get my own answers. I grinned at the thought, and then I turned away because she made no move to leave. Even with her outside of the car, the echo of the electricity zinged in the air. I wanted to get out, too, to walk her to her door as an excuse to stay beside her…

No more mistakes. I hit the gas, and then sighed as she disappeared behind me. It seemed like I was always running toward Bella or running away from her, never staying in place. I would have to find some way to hold my ground if we were ever going to have any peace.


Chapter 13 - BALANCING

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I could still feel Bella's warmth in the car, though I'd already put miles between us. I drove quickly towards home to make my nightly appearance, knowing that soon I would leave again, to take solace in Bella's dreams. Although a part of me still felt voyeuristic, the quiet comfort I had found in watching her sleep, hearing her whisper my name, was not something I could easily give up.

As soon as I walked into the house, I heard chattering in the living room. My family was arguing, and yet again I found myself the center of their attention. Of course they all knew of my plans to spend the day with Bella on Saturday, and were currently in loud dispute over whether or not such a thing should be allowed.

Allowed. As if I were a child and needed their permission. I rolled my eyes when the conversation came to an abrupt halt as I entered the room.

“No, please, continue,” I said sarcastically. “Sounds like it was just getting interesting.”

“Edward, we're merely discussing the situation, and what it could potentially mean for our family,” Carlisle told me calmly. “Your decisions effect all of us now, and we just want to be sure you're taking all the necessary precautions. No one is accusing you of anything.”

“I've already told them they don't have anything to worry about,” Alice added, a wide grin spreading across her face. “You love her. You're not going to hurt her.”

“Right,” I mumbled. “Thanks.”

I wished I could sound more confident, that some of Alice's faith in me would rub off, but with the memory of Bella's scent still burning my throat and blurring my sense of reason, it was difficult to see things as clearly as she did.

“See, he doesn't even trust himself,” Rosalie said sharply. “Why should the rest of us?”

“Rosalie,” Esme scolded, sounding just motherly enough to make me chuckle.

“Fine. Just let me know when I should start packing,” Rose snapped as she flew from the room. I growled after her, but stopped when I noticed Emmett's glare.

“Relax,” he warned. “She's just upset. No need for you to make it any worse. Speaking of which, are you sure this little date alone with Bella is such a good idea? Why put yourself in that position? I mean, is it really worth it, making yourself go through all that?”

I nodded, then looked meaningfully at Alice, who smiled and let her mind wander over a dozen or so images of Bella and I together. Alone. Safe. I held onto each one of them as tightly as I could, trying to convince myself I was strong enough to make them reality.

Whatever, Emmett thought, smirking slightly as he too left the room. But don't say I didn't warn you.

“Don't worry, Edward,” Alice said kindly, noticing the worried look on my face as she bounded to my side. “Everything will be perfect.”

“I only wish I could be sure.”

“Well, I'm sure,” she teased. “Shouldn't that be enough?”

Needing to refocus my racing thoughts, I decided to spend the rest of the evening at the piano, much to Esme's delight. I played all of her favorites, as well as the piece Bella had inspired. I let the music surround me, envelop me, until the last of my worries had faded away. As soon as it was late enough, I took off into the night with a renewed sense of confidence. I wondered how it was possible that each night when I ran away from my family and all that was familiar, every step closer to Bella felt more like home. I hurried to her window, climbed in noiselessly, and watched in awed silence at the beauty of my Bella sleeping.

There was something different about her tonight, though, and I once again wished futilely that I could get a glimpse into her mind. Her face remained calm, not a single worried line taking away any of the peace from her face, yet she was obviously restless. She tossed and turned, and several times she startled herself awake, though her eyes didn't ever stay open long enough to focus on anything around her. In perfect stillness, I kept a careful distance until she fell into a deeper, dream filled sleep. She didn't speak as often as usual, although I was excited to hear my name escape her lips more than once.

“Edward...” she said softly, and I instinctively leaned closer as my body fought against my common sense. It was more painful for me the closer I was, but I couldn't stop the pull I inevitably felt when she called out to me. I knew I shouldn't touch her, my icy hand would surely wake her up, but somehow with each passing second, the pull was becoming more of a gravitational force.

“Edward, stay,” she mumbled, turning from her back onto her side so she was facing me. “More...”

Her unconscious request was enough to break the last of my resolve. Like a fool with absolutely no self control whatsoever, I reached out and gently brushed a piece of hair away from her face, careful not to touch her skin. Her head tilted toward my hand like she knew I was there, and longed to be nearer. The hint of a smile played at the corner of her mouth.

“Mmmm...” she sighed, her warm breath washing over my face, which was now just inches away. I felt the familiar burn intensify, but miraculously, it was overshadowed by the electric current that once again seemed to pass between Bella and I. Desperate for the distraction, I allowed one finger to lightly trace down her cheekbone, thrilling to the feeling of her warm skin against mine.

Afraid she would stir at my cold touch, I held my breath and listened closely to her heartbeat, trying to find any indication that she'd been startled. As steady as her breathing, her heart continued it's perfect rhythm, and I let out a sigh of relief. When she further relaxed into my touch, I started to hum softly, hoping whatever dreams were filling her mind remained pleasant ones.

The night passed quickly and far too soon I could see the sun begin to streak in through the window. Once I heard Charlie stir, I knew it was time to leave her side, though thankfully I also knew it would be even less time than usual before I'd see her again. Being in the enclosed space of the car with Bella wasn't the most comfortable option for me, but I wasn't about to give up precious time with her just because it caused me some physical pain. Especially since today was my day for questions.

I ran home quickly and got into my car, driving back to Bella's without stopping in at home. I didn't particularly feel in the mood to hear any more of Rosalie's criticisms, and I definitely didn't have time to calm myself down again with music if I was going to make it back to Bella on time. I arrived just as Charlie was heading out the front door, and waited until he was out of sight, parking where he had been.

I saw Bella sneak a peak out her window, and laughed at how surprised she looked to see me already sitting there. Hadn't she figured out by now that I was unable to stay away from her? I thought about knocking on her door so I could properly escort her to the car, but also didn't want to rush her if she wasn't ready yet. After all, she'd still been in bed just a short time ago.

Before I had time to wonder what the proper etiquette for our newfound situation was, Bella was shutting the door and making her way to the car. I took one more deep breath before she opened the car door and assaulted me with her scent again. I was determined, though, to let nothing show on my face. If she was going to open up to me at all today, I needed her to be completely comfortable in my presence.

“Good morning,” I said softly, smiling at her expression as she took her seat. She was staring at me with those wonder filled eyes again, like she was still waiting for me to disappear. Then, I noticed that she looked slightly paler that normal, her eyes a little redder and watering slightly. “How are you today?” I added.

“Good, thank you,” she answered casually, though I could tell there was something bubbling just under the surface. Her expression was still bright, but the skin below her eyes looked shadowy. I knew she'd been stirring for a portion of the night, but I had hoped she'd gotten enough restful sleep to make up for it.

“You look tired,” I said, growing concerned. I quickly started trying to count the actual number of hours since she'd calmed down. The time I spent with her always flew by in such a blur, it was hard to determine. Two hours, maybe three? Not enough for her to feel awake and refreshed.

“I couldn't sleep,” she admitted.

“Neither could I,” I said, unable to resist. As strange as it was getting used to the idea that Bella wasn't bothered by the realities of my life, in truth, it was nice being able to be so honest with her.

“I guess that's right,” she laughed. “I suppose I slept just a little bit more than you did.”

“I'd wager you did.”

“So what did you do last night?” she asked. I felt a tiny flicker of guilt, and a part of me wished I could confess that I spent my nights watching her, adoring her. Still, I didn't want her to be self conscious, and somehow it seemed like a little too soon to let her in on all my secrets. She'd already learned far more than I'd ever intended on telling her, and today was my turn.

“Not a chance,” I told her with a quiet laugh. “It's my day to ask questions.”

“Oh, that's right,” she said in a tone that made me think she wished I'd forgotten. “What do you want to know?”

What didn't I want to know? So much about her was a mystery to me, and I still hadn't grown entirely used to not being able to listen and find out for myself. I was learning more about her by watching the beautiful way her expression shifted from moment to moment, but there were things about her life I wanted to know that I couldn't learn by watching.

I wanted to learn about her past as well as her present, but I knew it would take her awhile to feel comfortable answering my questions, so I decided to start with something easy.

“What's your favorite color?” I asked, genuinely interested although she rolled her eyes at the inquiry.

“It changes from day to day.”

“What's your favorite color today?”

“Probably brown,” she answered, glancing down at her sweater. I thought for a moment about the vibrant colors most humans tended to wear, likely trying to make themselves stand out. It made sense that Bella would rather blend in, choosing a more neutral palate for her wardrobe, however it struck me as odd that she would say it was her favorite color.

“Brown?” I asked, disbelieving, and wondering if she'd just said the first thing that popped into her mind.

“Sure. Brown is warm. I miss brown. Everything that's supposed to be brown – tree trunks, rocks, dirt – is all covered up with squashy green stuff here.” Her face had pulled together into an almost scowl, and I had to smile. I kept forgetting that Forks wasn't exactly her ideal environment, that she was only living here out of selfless desire to let her mother live her life.

I watched her eyes closely as they softened, and noticed the way her dark brown sweater made them look even deeper than usual. They perfectly matched the color of her hair, which I suddenly had the desire to run my fingers through once more. As she smiled up at me, I was struck by how everything about her was warm and kind, and in that instant I understood her answer.

“You're right. Brown is warm,” I said, brushing her hair back behind her shoulder. It felt like silk in my hands.

We pulled up to the school, and I instantly wished I had driven slower. I wasn't ready to let her go yet.

“What music is in your CD player right now?” I asked, figuring if her favorite color changed daily, there probably wasn't much point in asking what her favorite song was. Maybe I would find that Bella was never exactly the same person from day to day. Living such an unchanging existence, I liked the idea that I would have to pay attention each moment I was with her, to figure out exactly what mood she was in and what she would like at any given moment.

“Linkin Park,” she said, smiling in such a way that I knew there must be a story behind it. I grinned at her in return, reaching to pull my own copy out to show her. It was always nice when I learned something else we had in common.

“Debussy to this?” I asked skeptically, hoping she'd explain what the look had meant. Instead, she just stared at the CD and shrugged.

Sensing she still wasn't truly at ease talking about herself with me, I exited the car and walked around to open her door for her. I figured it would be easier for her if we were at school, around other people, where she knew I wouldn't ask her anything too personal. She beamed up at me when I took her hand and helped her out, which sparked another curiosity.

“Not used to being treated like a lady?” I asked, trying to keep my voice light. I had to admit though, I had been wondering about whether or not she'd been in any relationships back in Phoenix. I didn't want to embarrass her by asking her outright, so I hinted around the subject, hoping she'd tell me something.

“Just because you're following a different generation's set of rules for being a gentleman...” she teased. Then, her expression changed again and she looked meaningfully at me. “You never did tell me how old you are.”

“Nope, today is my day,” I said, amazed that she was still trying to turn the conversation back to me. I was never going to get any of my questions answered at this rate. “You'll have another turn, I promise, but for now, I want to learn about you.”

She blushed, but gave my arm a little squeeze as we turned and walked toward the school.

“Okay, so today you like brown, and you're either listening to Debussy or Linkin Park. If I were to, say, take you to a movie, what type of movie might you want to watch?”

“Honestly, I'm not too big into movies, but I'll watch pretty much whatever is on. I guess if I have to choose, I prefer comedies. Action movies are okay, just none of that ridiculous horror, monster, zombie nonsense.”

“Oh, no, none of that. You prefer hanging out with the real monsters.”

She scowled at me, so I quickly continued before she could start lecturing me on the way I regarded myself.

“What I mean is, yes, the vampire will make a note not to take you to any zombie movies.” Her face relaxed as I laughed, and we continued our purposefully slow walk to her first class.

“If you don't care much for movies, what would you say is your favorite way to pass the time?” She dropped her gaze and her cheeks turned pink. “Go on,” I urged.

“Uh, aside from spending time with you,” she mumbled, almost to herself, “I really like to read.”

Her remark made my insides feel like they were going to burst, but I forced myself to keep going as if she hadn't said it. Clearly she was embarrassed, although if she had any idea how much I loved being with her, she'd know there was no reason to be ashamed.

“What type of books do you read?”

“The classics, mostly. Boring answer, right?”

“Far from it,” I assured her. “The fact that you appreciate the great literary masters of times past, just shows that you have very refined taste.”

We talked about her favorite books until we reached her English class, and in a very selfish moment I almost considered asking her to skip so we could spend the day talking. Her first two classes were right next to each other, so it would be two hours before I'd be with her again, although I would be spending every minute watching her through the medium of those around her.

“See you soon,” I forced myself to say as she grinned and ducked into the classroom. At least she seemed excited that I was so eager to spend as much of the day as possible with her.

Bella's classes were uneventful, and for the most part her friends were keeping their thoughts to themselves. Although Mike's mind was racing with questions about how serious she and I were, he kept his conversation to polite comments about their classes and the weather. I left my own class the second the bell rang and moved at slightly more than acceptable human pace so that I was waiting at the door when Bella left Spanish.

“How was class?” I asked, stifling a chuckle at her confused expression when she saw me waiting.

“Didn't you come from the other end of the building?”

“No one was watching,” I assured her. She sighed, looking at me disapprovingly as we began walking.

“If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?” I asked, not wanting to waste a moment that could be spent getting to know her better. I wasn't sure how often she would be willing to let me do all the talking.

“Honestly, back in Phoenix. I really love it there. Maybe it's just because it's familiar, but it's hard to imagine wanting to live anywhere else. Not that I've seen too many places.”

“So you haven't traveled much?”

“A little, when I was younger, but Mom never liked going too far from home. I mean, when Forks felt like I'd really gone someplace, that must say something,” she laughed.

“Would you like to travel?”

“Of course. Eventually.”

“Any place in particular?” I couldn't help but think of all the different places my family and I had lived. Moving every few years grew monotonous, but it had allowed us to experience an endless number of new things. Unfortunately, we were somewhat limited in our destinations, assuming we wanted to spend any amount of time outside during the day. The northwest had been serving us well for quite some time, and I suddenly found myself wishing Bella were happier here.

“As for the US, I'd like to see some east coast cities. I've really only been on this side of the country.”

“How about internationally?”

“Can I just say everywhere?” she asked with a laugh.

“Okay, everywhere,” I grinned. I'd never known Bella had such an interest in traveling, and my mind instantly launched into all the places I could take her. It probably wasn't the most logical path for my thoughts to be taking. “Where would you go first?”

“Europe, definitely.”

“Carlisle spent a lot of time in Europe. You two should really talk sometime. He has an incredible amount of knowledge about a seemingly endless number of subjects.”

“That sounds wonderful. You must have learned so much from him over the years.”

“Yes, he's been wonderful to me. In many ways a father, often a teacher, always a friend.”

With that thought, we reached her next class and I reluctantly let her go once more.

“I'll be counting the minutes until lunch.”

“Coming from someone who doesn't eat, I'll take that as a compliment,” she said with a wide grin as she turned to step inside.

The minutes dragged, and when lunch finally arrived, she greeted me with another huge smile. We sat at the same table we had the previous day, and again, the eyes of the school seemed to be on us.

What does he see in her? Jessica thought, rudely glaring at us.

Had to be Bella. It just had to be her that made the guy want to date, Mike thought angrily.

Yet again, Angela's kindness helped me to block out everyone else's infuriating inability to mind their own business.

They look really happy. It's nice he finally has someone, she thought, smiling and waving at Bella as she passed.

“Angela approves of us,” I told Bella once she was out of earshot.

“And the rest of them?” she asked, glancing nervously around her.

“Angela approves,” I repeated, Bella's face growing redder by the second. “But don't worry about them, okay? If you let what other's think get to you, you'll never have any peace. Trust me, I have a lot of experience.”

“Yeah, I guess you do,” she said, returning her gaze to mine. Her eyes looked sad and concerned, and the last thing I wanted was her worrying about the oddities of my life that's grown so used to. The only thing I cared about was that Bella seemed to accept me so entirely, and I was eager to get back our earlier lighthearted mood.

“So, Bella who wants to travel the world and read the classics, shall we continue?”

“If you really want to, but I still don't know why you find me so interesting.”

“You're a mystery to me, Bella. A mystery that keeps getting more and more beautiful with each piece of the puzzle I unlock.”

She blushed deeper than I'd seen all day, her eyes darting to her hands, which she'd started to fidget with on the table.

“If you say so,” she whispered, and although she still sounded like she doubted me, along with her blush, she was now grinning ear to ear.

“Okay, I'm guessing you're not particularly into sports.”

“What tipped you off?” she asked sarcastically, meeting my eyes again.

“Oh, just a hunch. Bet that breaks Charlie's heart a little.”

“I watch baseball with him sometimes. And football if I'm really bored, though I gave up trying to understand the rules years ago.”

“What activities were you interested in when you were younger?”

“I took ballet for awhile, but I was never any good at it. I think Mom was hoping to find something that would help my coordination, but the year I twisted my ankle at the big recital, she decided it was probably a lost cause.”

“Anything else?”

“I tried ice skating once.”

“And how did that go?”

“She considered putting me back in ballet.”

I laughed loudly, and was happy to see her laughing with me. With every question I asked, she grew more and more animated. At times she seemed confused by some of the things I wanted to know, but in the end I think she was actually flattered, which only encouraged me to ask her more.

Returning to her list of favorites, I rattled off a few quick inquiries I'd been wondering about.

“What's your favorite season?”

“In Phoenix, fall. In Forks, summer.”

“Favorite type of food?”

“Italian.”

“Favorite drink?”

“Lemonade.”

“Ice cream?”

“Cookies and cream.”

“Animal?”

“Dogs.”

“Gemstone?”

“Topaz.”

I was about to ask her favorite flower when I noticed she'd started blushing again, and looked away.

“Did that embarrass you?” I asked, baffled.

“No,” she said shyly, still not meeting my eyes.

“What's wrong?”

“Nothing. Now aren't you going to ask my favorite author or TV show?”

“No. I want to know why you're blushing.”

“No reason. It just made me think of something. Forget it, it's not a big deal.”

“Please?” I asked, trying to get her to look at me again.

“My favorite author is Jane Austin.”

“But I want to know why your favorite gemstone is topaz, and why it seems to have upset you.”

“I'm not upset,” she said, feigning nonchalance and still stubbornly refusing to look up.

“Tell me,” I pleaded, wishing I knew how to use that “dazzling” skill she'd insisted allowed me to get my way.

After a few more silent moments, she sighed and whispered, “It's the color of your eyes today.” If it were possible for me to blush in return, I would have been as red as her. Instead I sat there, grinning and staring at her, happier than I'd been all day. It was a silly thing to be so excited about, but something about the sincerity in her voice was making me positively ecstatic. She still hadn't looked up, and when I heard her heartbeat speed up again and her breathing hitch, I realized there was more.

“I suppose if you asked me in two weeks, I'd say onyx.” I almost laughed as I remembered just how well she knew me, even down to the pattern of my changing eyes. As much as I was enjoying the moment, I made myself continue, in hopes that she would look at me again. I was already missing the intensity of staring into her beautiful brown eyes.

“What kinds of flowers do you prefer?” I asked, happy when she immediately lifted her head.

“Cactus flowers,” she said, a hint of her earlier enthusiasm coming back.

“Why am I not surprised?” I teased, rolling my eyes.

I was grateful that we had the next class together, since I was nowhere near ready to let her go. I continued asking about her time in Phoenix as we walked to Biology, and didn't stop until Mr. Banner arrived. When I realized today was going to be another movie day, I instinctively moved my chair a few inches away from Bella's, not that I thought it would help much.

Just as I knew it would, the second the lights went out, the electric current that seemed to flow between us was reignited, intensified by the darkness. I remembered how wonderful it had felt to graze my fingertips along her cheek last night while she slept, recalled the silky texture of her hair against my hand. I wanted to reach out to her, to hold her hand in the dark room. When she leaned forward and placed her chin on her arms, I fought against the urge to do the same. It would have been so easy to fold my arms beside hers, letting our skin touch and giving in to the electricity. Easy, but not smart.

I stayed planted firmly in place in my seat, watching her as she stared straight ahead and at least pretended to watch what was on the TV. When the lights came back on, she glanced at me, and I hoped my internal battle didn't show too greatly on my face.

I couldn't bring myself to begin questioning her again on the way to Gym, I was still so lost in my desire to touch her. Right before she turned to leave, I gave in just slightly, brushing the back of my hand to her delicate face. I was certain no matter how many times I felt her perfect skin on my granite hand, I would never tire of the feeling of peace it brought me.

I watched through her classmates eyes as she stayed, thankfully, out of the way throughout Gym. Mike was looking particularly sour, but as long as he kept Bella from inadvertently injuring herself, I figured I couldn't fault him too much. When class was over, I made my way back to the gymnasium, and was thrilled to see her brilliant smile the moment our eyes met. If everyday could feel this wonderful, endlessly repeating high school might not be as boring as it once was.

On the drive home, I noticed the way Bella's eyes turned melancholy as she glanced up at the overcast sky. Remembering her enthusiasm when she spoke of her life in Phoenix, I asked her what she missed most about it. I listened in rapt attention as she described things I could barely imagine. Obviously, I hadn't spent much time anywhere the sun was out on a near daily basis, and as hard as I tried, I couldn't remember what it had felt like on my human skin.

I was filled with wonder as I listened to her talk about the beauty of the sun cascading across the hills and valleys of the place she loved so deeply. With each passing moment, her eyes seemed to light up more and more, and even when the rain began to pour around us, nothing dampened her spirit. It was that spark, that passion, that gave me the confidence I'd been so desperately searching for as I'd spoken to my family about taking her to my special hideaway on Saturday. There was no amount of pain too great that could stop me from seeing her face lit by the sun.

Listening to her, I started to realize that one of the things I felt guiltiest about was the fact that her wanting to be with me was, in essence, taking the sun away from her. Although I was still afraid she would be repulsed by my true appearance, she'd made it clear she wanted to spend time with me, and I was just beginning to understand how much she missed the joys of a sun drenched day. Putting all my fears aside, I was determined to give her at least this one day where she could have both.

When she'd finished describing in perfect detail the beauty of the Arizona landscape, I asked her about the house she'd grown up in. She laughed, admitting she was a bit of a pack rat, which struck me as odd, since she'd barely decorated her room here. Then I realized the probable reason why. This wasn't truly home to her. I wanted to ask her more about the decisions that had brought her here, but the setting sun reminded me the evening was getting away from us. Although I wouldn't have minded being formally introduced, I wasn't sure she was ready to explain my presence to Charlie yet.

“Are you finished?” she asked, when I didn't immediately bombard her with another series of questions.

“Not even close – but your father will be home soon.”

“Charlie!” she gasped, then looked around bewildered, like she'd forgotten everything else in the world but us. I knew exactly how she felt. “How late is it?” she asked, and I hated to admit that our day was coming to an end.

“It's twilight,” I muttered, realizing that this used to be my favorite time of day. It meant the sun no longer hindered me or my family, and with the rest of the world getting ready for sleep, we felt freer somehow. Yet now, with Bella at my side, I found I wanted the day to keep going. She was truly changing everything about the way I look at the world. When I turned and saw her curiosity, her earnest desire to know even the darkest parts of my world, I felt as if all the love I felt for her was about to come pouring out.

“It's the safest time of day for us. The easiest time. But also the saddest, in a way...the end of another day, the return of the night. Darkness is so predictable, don't you think?”

“I like the night. Without the dark, we'd never see the stars. Not that you see them here much,” she added, and I laughed at the childlike way she nearly pouted. I'd never admit it to her, I didn't want her to think I was patronizing or belittling her, but I couldn't help but find her petulance endearing. The strangest things seemed to irritate her.

“Charlie will be here in a few minutes. So, unless you want to tell him that you'll be with me Saturday...” I suggested, part of me still wishing she would tell him the truth.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” she said stubbornly, grabbing her books. “So is it my turn tomorrow, then?”

“Certainly not!” I said, feigning shock. “I told you I wasn't done, didn't I?”

“What more is there?” she asked, a hint of her earlier nervousness coming back.

“You'll find out tomorrow,” I teased, reaching to open her door for her. I was just beginning to enjoy the sound of her heart racing from my close proximity, when something completely unwelcome interrupted it.

This is completely out of line, a dark voice thought. It was one I wished I didn't recognize so easily. He has no right to be here.

“Not good,” I said under my breath, debating for a moment whether I should whisk Bella away to somewhere she wouldn't have to deal with what was surely coming. Of course, I knew that would only make things worse.

“What is it?” Bella asked worriedly.

I looked toward her and willed myself to remain calm.

“Another complication,” I said, trying to keep the edge out of my voice.

I quickly opened Bella's door and sat back firmly in my seat, determined to hold my ground steadily with Charlie so near and Billy's son beside him. This was not the time or place for confrontation.

“Charlie's around the corner,” I said to Bella, though in all honesty, I was mostly reminding myself.

Bella jumped out of the car, and I hated that I had to leave her there. She'd understand soon enough the necessity of it, but it didn't make it any easier to drive away. With a hard pump on the accelerator, I put as much distance between Billy and I as I could, as quickly as my car would allow. Part of me wanted to stay behind, to make sure Billy didn't do or say anything to upset her, but I knew no good could come of my staying and listening in. I trusted Bella would tell me later if he said anything too far out of line.

I sped home, hoping Alice would be able to give me some reassurance about Billy. I was two steps through the door before she came bounding toward me.

“Don't worry about it, Edward,” she sang, far too cheerful in my opinion, given the subject matter. “Billy's upset, but he can't tell Bella anything she doesn't already know.”

“I guess,” I said, feeling only minimally better.

“He wants her to be careful, and he feels an obligation to look out for her because she's Charlie's daughter. As far as I can see, that's the extent of it.”

“Yeah, so far,” I muttered, not entirely convinced.

“Edward,” she scolded like she always did when I doubted her abilities, “I believe you have more important things to think about right now.”

“Such as?”

“Such as preparing for Saturday.”

“What exactly do you mean, preparing?” I asked nervously. “I thought you said I had nothing to worry about.”

“You don't. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't do everything you can to make it easier on yourself.”

“I already said I'd go hunting with you tomorrow afternoon.”

“I know. That isn't the only thing you can do, though.”

“What exactly are you suggesting?”

“I know you've been spending the better part of your nights with Bella, but I've also seen how hesitant you are when you're near her. I think the best thing for you to do is turn yourself right around and spend every second you can next to her. Billy will only be there a few hours, then Bella should go right to sleep. I've already seen she's going to sleep very soundly tonight, she's so exhausted from not sleeping enough last night. It will be perfectly safe for you to be close to her, let her scent assault you so you can start to learn to block it out.”

“Alice, this is absurd. It's not like I can make myself immune.”

“Not completely, but I see you growing more desensitized the more time you spend with her, and now seems as good a time as any to start. More than that, though, I think it's important that you start to see you can be close to her, that you truly can handle it. Trust me, you'll thank me for this later.”

Then, with an aggravating smirk, she starting reciting the states and their capitols in her head so I would have no idea what exactly I would be thanking her for.

As much as my mind was telling me to argue with her, I couldn't deny that a part of me was all too willing to listen to her. She'd seen that Bella would sleep soundly, and even when she was restless, I'd been able to touch her softly without waking her. Maybe Alice was right. Maybe I did need to convince myself of my ability to be close to her.

I waited, pacing, until Alice told me it was all right to head back. In seconds, I was running at top speed toward her house. I arrived just in time to see Billy's car driving away.

I listened outside the window as Bella and Charlie went through their usual nightly smalltalk, and was relieved to hear nothing out of the ordinary. Either Billy had chosen not to give any sort of warning tonight, or at the very least he didn't say anything with Charlie around. When was I ever going to learn not to doubt Alice? When Charlie commented on asking Mike Newton to the dance, I felt the same ridiculous jealously I always did when any other male was brought up. My tension eased as Bella's obvious frustration came out, and I reminded myself that it was me she was choosing to spend time with.

After dinner, she trudged up the stairs and to her room. She opened a book, but I could see the fatigue taking over after only a few pages. With a deep sigh, she turned off her light and scooted under the covers. It was less than ten minutes before her breathing steadied and I knew she was in a deep sleep. I waited for the sleep talking to come, but she was unusually silent. Curious, and eager to test Alice's theory, I climbed inside the window and sat on the floor beside her bed.

Thinking of what Alice had said, I took a purposefully deep breath as Bella breathed out, letting her scent fill my every sense. It was intoxicating – thrilling, yet terrifying. Through the pain, however, I could tell Alice was onto something. Each breath I took in this close proximity to her, felt easier than the last. Wondering just how far I could push myself, I leaned in until I could feel her breath on my face. I reached out a tentative hand and brushed the hair away from her face, reveling once again in its silky texture. Then, I gently touched her cheek and was excited to find that she didn't shy away from my touch.

I moved my hand down until it was resting against her neck, right over her pulse. Feeling it beat against me was almost too much, but in the same moment I started to move away, she sighed my name. It was different than how she'd said it before, when I knew she was dreaming. This time, with no other signs that her subconscious was racing, it felt like she knew I was there. Completely enraptured, I stayed there for hours while Bella slept silently beneath my touch.

It was somewhat of a shock when I saw the beginnings of daylight break through her window. With a triumphant smile, I quietly made me exit. The entire way home, I marveled at how I'd been closer to her for longer than I'd thought possible, and as the hours passed the pain became almost unnoticeable. It made me think our day alone together might actually be possible.

See, I told you, I heard Alice gloating from inside as I got into the Volvo. I rolled my eyes, but my grin didn't fade.

I waited around the corner until I saw Charlie drive away, then quickly pulled into his parking spot. It was less than a minute before Bella was bounding down the stairs toward me. I smiled at the fact that she seemed as eager as I was to spend another day together.

“How did you sleep?” I asked, unable to resist hearing her answer.

“Fine. How was your night?”

“Pleasant,” I said nonchalantly, grinning in spite of myself. I wondered if I would ever be able to admit to her how pleasant all my nights had become since finding a new favorite way to spend them.

“Can I ask what you did?” she said curiously.

“No. Today is still mine.”

She sighed but didn't protest, and I wasted no time getting back to where we'd left off. I was endlessly fascinated by how excited she was talking about her life in Phoenix. She told me more about her mother and her friends, what she missed most about them all. By lunch, she was no longer showing any signs of embarrassment as I pressed for more details, and I felt a sudden bout of confidence, finally asking the question I'd been the most interested in.

“What about old boyfriends?” I asked as casually as I could manage. “Did you leave any broken hearts behind when you left?”

Her face turned red and I wondered if perhaps she was about to tell me something I didn't really want to hear. After all, I was still getting used to the feeling of jealousy. I tried to keep my expression relaxed as I waited for her answer.

“Not really,” she finally said, though she was still blushing. “I mean, no one showed me much attention, which was pretty much how I wanted it. I guess I had a crush or two growing up, but I never felt compelled to do anything about it.”

Though I hadn't been expecting an extensive dating history, I was stunned by the notion that I was the first person she'd ever been truly interested in. While flattering, it was also unsettling. Was it just because of what I was? Was I a fascination to her, another magnet for danger pulling her in?

“So you never met anyone you wanted?” I asked, watching her face closely.

“Not in Phoenix,” she replied firmly, her eyes staring unblinkingly into mine.

Caught between what I wanted and what I kept telling myself I should want, I held her stare and let the battle inside rage. She was perfect – so fragile, so innocent, and as much as I wanted her, I didn't know how I could allow it. Nothing about me was deserving, yet I couldn't bring myself to leave.

I wanted to keep her safe, but I still couldn't be sure that my being with her would allow that. I desperately desired to give her anything and everything she wanted, yet the only thing she seemed to want was to spend time with me. It was the world's most ironic paradox.

Don't forget about her truck. And please, stop worrying. I'm not a mind reader and even I can see you're a wreck.

Alice's not so subtle commentary, along with a quick smile in my direction, interrupted my thoughts from across the room.

“I should have let you drive yourself today,” I said, forgetting for a moment that Bella hadn't heard Alice as I had.

“Why?” she asked, surprised.

“I'm leaving with Alice after lunch.”

“Oh,” she said, frowning. Her disappointment might have been more entertaining had my mind not just been in such a dark place. “That's okay, it's not that far of a walk.”

“I'm not going to make you walk home,” I sighed. “We'll go get your truck and leave it here for you.”

“I don't have a key with me,” she said, and I almost laughed. “I really don't mind walking,”

“Your truck will be here, and the key will be in the ignition – unless you're afraid someone might steal it,” I teased.

“All right,” she said, a hint of defiance in her voice. I could almost hear her trying to figure out what I was up to.

“So where are you going?” she asked when I refused to divulge my secret.

“Hunting. If I'm going to be alone with you tomorrow, I'm going to take whatever precautions I can.”

It was true I'd gained some confidence from having spent several nights in close proximity to her, but it was different when I was there in her house with her. I felt more accountable. I was very aware of Charlie's presence in the room down the hall. Although I still felt extremely protective of Bella – and I certainly hoped that my protective side would always remain the strongest force – something about the idea of being miles away from every other human excited the monster inside. The knowledge that no one would see or hear us, made it that much more difficult to control the fiendish fire that could never be fully extinguished.

“You can always cancel, you know,” I felt compelled to add, part of me still hoping she would come to her senses. If she showed even the slightest bit of hesitation, I would not allow myself to go through with my plans.

“No,” she said quietly. “I can't.”

“Perhaps you're right.” We really were both already in too deep. And I couldn't bring myself to regret it.

“What time will I see you tomorrow?” she asked sadly, and once again her obvious desire to be with me instantly brightened my mood.

“That depends...it's a Saturday, don't you want to sleep in?”

“No,” she answered quickly, her eyes widening at the same time the blush returned to her cheek. She was still embarrassed by one of the things I adored the most.

“The same time as usual, then. Will Charlie be there?”

“No, he's fishing tomorrow,” she said, clearly elated about the fact. I felt my fists clench at the realization that I couldn't even tell myself he was at home waiting for her.

“And if you don't come home, what will he think?” I pressed. Please, give me something...

“I have no idea,” she said casually. “He knows I've been meaning to do the laundry. Maybe he'll think I fell in the washer.”

She was trying to make light of what I was most fearful of, and I was suddenly infuriated. Not at her. Never at her. I knew she was only trying to act unconcerned because she didn't want me to worry. But how could I ever forgive myself for allowing this potentially fatal excursion to take place, when she showed me nothing but infinite trust?

“What are you hunting tonight?” she asked calmly after a few moments, obviously in a hurry to remind me how completely normal she found my atrocious existence. I might have thought she was putting on an act for my benefit, but her heartbeat and breathing remained perfectly steady. It was as if she'd simply asked me what I was having for lunch.

“Whatever we find in the park. We aren't going far.”

“Why are you going with Alice?”

Because she's the only one who doesn't think I've completely lost my mind.

“Alice is the most...supportive.” Not particularly in the mood to discuss the rest of my family, I hoped she wouldn't press the subject. But then, that wouldn't have been Bella.

“And the others? What are they?”

I tried to think of the nicest possible way to say it.

“Incredulous, for the most part,” I sighed, and I saw her glance nervously toward my family.

“They don't like me,” she said flatly, and I wondered suddenly why it should bother her to think that a family of vampires didn't care for her.

“That's not it,” I said, though it wasn't entirely true. Rosalie had made her opinion very clear, and the rest of them were, at best, bored with having to think about her. “They don't understand why I can't leave you alone,” I added, Emmett's mocking thoughts seeping into the back of my mind.

“Neither do I, for that matter,” she mumbled, the oddest scowl taking over her her beautiful face. I shook my head in disbelief.

“I told you – you don't see yourself clearly at all. You're not like anyone I've ever known. You fascinate me.”

She glared at me, clearly doubting my words, so I tried to explain it better. “Having the advantages I do, I have a better than average grasp of human nature. People are predictable. But you...you never do what I expect. You always take me by surprise.”

Her gaze left mine, her expression dismal, and I hoped I hadn't made her feel self conscious. It was wonderful that she was different from the rest of them, those pathetic humans all trying to behave the way they think they're supposed to, while their thoughts betray how untrue to themselves they are. Bella had taken me by surprise from the very start, but it was only by my paying close attention that I was able to understand exactly how unique and genuine she was. What may have started as pure fascination had quickly grown to admiration and affection, and before I knew what was happening, I'd fallen unwittingly in love with her.

“That part is easy enough to explain,” I continued when she still didn't look at me. I had to make her see how extraordinary she was. “But there's more...and it's not so easy to put into words – ”

That's it, I'm done. I just don't have it in me to sit here and listen to his ridiculous lunchtime love confessions...

Rosalie's sharp thoughts broke through my already disjointed speech, and I turned to see her staring directly at Bella, her eyes callous.

You're not worth it, little girl. I will not let you ruin what this family has built here.

I hissed softly in her direction, and it was enough. Without a glance at me, she turned to Emmett and motioned for them to leave. When I looked back at Bella, her eyes were wide. I could only imagine how much worse it would have been if she'd heard what I'd been forced to hear.

“I'm sorry about that. She's just worried. You see...it's dangerous for more than just me if, after spending so much time with you so publicly...” I turned away, ashamed, not wanting to finish the thought.

“If?”

“If this ends...badly.” I couldn't bare to look into her eyes any longer, the guilt and the fear I had inside momentarily too much to take. I should have left, I should have let her hate me from the start. At least then she'd be safe. Though my head was in my hands, I saw her inch her hand toward me and I longed to feel her soothing touch in my miserable moment. I couldn't blame her, though, when she pulled away at the last second. Why would she want to be near me when I had just confessed my family's fears that I would kill her? I was amazed she wasn't running for the door.

“And you have to leave now?” she asked, her voice somewhat shaking. Perhaps I was right, and she really was about to run away – finally afraid the way I'd been expecting her to be from the beginning.

“Yes,” I whispered, chancing a glance at her face. Was it the last time I would be able to look at her? I had expected to see fear, but was instead met with her normal expression of sadness when we were about to part ways. She was looking at me, disappointed, and her heart started to race as I watched her. I felt a slight glimmer of hope.

“It's probably for the best,” I added, deciding since she'd admitted the effect I had on her, I might as well leave her with one confession of my own. “We still have fifteen minutes of that wretched movie left to endure in Biology – I don't think I could take any more.”

I smirked and raised an eyebrow, nearly laughing out loud at the expression that followed. Then, in a flash, Alice was there, ruining all my fun.

Don't give her a heart attack, Edward. I don't think it's normal for a person's pulse to change that rapidly.

It bothered me that she sounded only half joking.

“Alice,” I said flatly.

“Edward,” she said. I knew she was beaming without so much as a glance at her.

I'm here. It would be rude not to introduce us.

“Alice, Bella – Bella, Alice,” I said flatly.

There. Was that so hard?

“Hello, Bella. It's nice to finally meet you,” she said, subtly stressing the word finally. I glared at her for a split second.

“Hi, Alice,” Bella said nervously.

“Are you ready?” Alice asked.

“Nearly. I'll meet you at the car.”

Alice flitted off, hardly able to contain her excitement, as images of her and Bella laughing and smiling filled her every thought.

“Should I say 'have fun,' or is that the wrong sentiment?” Bella asked, eying me curiously.

“No, 'have fun' works as well as anything.”

“Have fun, then,” she said, still unable to conceal her obvious disappointment.

“I'll try. And you try to be safe, please,” I added. I hated to admit how worried I was leaving her alone for the evening. It would be just like her to find herself in some random catastrophe with Alice and I away.

“Safe in Forks – what a challenge,” she muttered sarcastically.

“For you it is a challenge. Promise.”

“I promise to try to be safe,” she said, placating me. “I'll do the laundry tonight – that ought to be fraught with peril.”

“Don't fall in,” I teased.

“I'll do my best.”

It was clear that we were now simply stalling, so I reluctantly stood up. The sooner I finished hunting, the sooner I could get back to her.

“I'll see you tomorrow,” she said dismally, and the same look she'd had when I first told her I was leaving was back on her face.

“It seems like a long time to you, doesn't it?” I asked, still in disbelief that she was so eager to be with me. I smiled when she nodded, thinking about how hours and days used to pass by in a blur, but now, even minutes spent away from Bella felt like an eternity.

“I'll be there in the morning,” I said, touching her soft cheek before leaving. I wished the warmth of her touch could stay with me while I was away, I felt so empty without it.

Away from the stare of nosy students, I flew across the parking lot to meet Alice. She was already sitting in the driver's seat, listening to one of my CD's.

“I'll meet you at home after you run and get Bella's truck. That is, assuming the truck survives your driving.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

I hurried to Bella's house and, though I knew where she kept her spare key, climbed in through the window out of habit. Some of her clothes were lying scattered on the ground, and I chuckled a little when I realized she wasn't kidding about needing to do laundry. I almost felt bad that I'd been keeping her so distracted. Almost.

When I didn't find the key in her room, I made my way to the laundry room and eventually found them in a pair of jeans at the bottom of the pile. The truck started up after only minor protest, and I concentrated on driving it at a respectable speed. I parked in the vacant spot my Volvo had left, and with the keys still in the ignition, started to get out. Then, I grinned and fished a piece of paper out of my pocket. I scrolled, “Be safe,” across it, and wondered as I gently folded my little reminder, if Bella would think me too pessimistic. It didn't seem likely that anything would happen to her in the few hours I was away, but I hoped that knowing I was thinking of her would make her especially cautious.

Alice was waiting for me on the porch when I arrived home, and we ran our usual route into the park.

You know, I wouldn't have minded if you wanted to go farther for a better variety, she thought as the trees thickened.

“I know, but I wanted to stay close to home.”

She's fine, I promise. I would see if anything was going to happen. I keep a pretty close watch on her, you know.

“I know. I appreciate it, really.”

And?

“Hey, I thought I was the only mind reader.”

You're rather transparent, Edward. At least, to me you are.

“Fine. I was hoping maybe you could keep a particularly close eye on her tomorrow. I know you said I have nothing to worry about, but it would make me feel better knowing you're making sure I don't do anything we'll all regret.”

She came to a halt and turned to face me. She spoke aloud, obviously wanting me to get the full impact of her words.

“Of course I'll help in any way I can, but...listen, I know you don't want to hear this, but you have to remember I can only see as far as the decisions the two of you make. Right now, she trusts you implicitly, and you have made up your mind quite definitively to be her protector. You have no conscious desire to hurt her, and if something were to happen, it would be the result of a sudden, split second decision. If that was the case, there wouldn't be much I could do about it.”

I stared at her, frightened, but knowing she was right. She smiled warmly at me, touching my shoulder with all the sisterly kindness I'd come to know throughout our decades together.

“I still don't believe you'll do anything to hurt her, but I wanted you to know that this really is in your hands. You're just going to have to trust yourself. Trust yourself as much as Bella trusts you.”

“Thanks, Alice,” I said, trying to believe in myself the way she wanted me to.

Now, there's a herd of elk about a mile away. I'll race you. Last one there gets the scrawny ones.

And with that, she was off in a blur. I counted to ten to give her a fair head start.

After gorging myself far beyond what was necessary, we took off for home. We were silent as we ran, but I couldn't help hearing her, as much as I tried to block her out. Unlike the rest of my family who were too busy worrying about the implications if tomorrow didn't go as planned, Alice was focused on a completely different looking future.

She saw tomorrow being a turning point in Bella and my relationship. She saw Bella happy and carefree, and eventually even saw her being welcomed into the family. The exact details weren't clear, but she seemed certain the day would soon come that Bella would be a part of all our lives.

She fought to stay focused on the visions of Bella that I would find acceptable. More than once, however, she faltered. I cringed every time I was forced to see Bella pale and cold, part of our family in a way I vowed never to let come to pass. The idea that Bella would want such a thing was ludicrous, and the thought of changing her against her will was unforgivable. I growled at Alice and she quickly refocused her thoughts, her silent apology genuine.

When we got home, I hurried inside to get cleaned up and changed. I was pleasantly surprised to see the sun coming up as I ran toward Bella's house, though there was still a thin layer of clouds that would need to burn off. Since she'd said Charlie would be fishing today, I figured he would be long gone by the time I arrived. Not wanting to interrupt her morning routine, I stood off to one side of the house, just out of sight. I grinned when Bella peeked out the window not once, but twice, each time with increasing excitement. Far too anxious, I found myself knocking at her door a bit before our normal meeting time, but since I knew she was up, I couldn't seem to make myself wait any longer.

As I listened to her fumble with the lock, the gravity of the day seemed to come crashing back in on me. Worried for about the millionth time that we were making a mistake, I focused my thoughts back on Alice's visions and reassurances. When Bella finally got the door open and she was once again staring adoringly up at me, all my worries disappeared. She looked lovely in her tan sweater and blue jeans, casual, comfortable, and magnificently warm. A deep contrast from what I must have looked like in beige, the neutral color highlighted the pink in her cheeks.

“Good morning,” I smiled, unable to stop myself from taking another head to toe look at her.

“What's wrong?”

“We match,” I said lightly. Well, at least our clothes did.

We walked toward the truck, and with a triumphant smile, Bella went straight to the driver's side, reminding me of our agreement.

“We made a deal,” she said, not hesitating for a moment before climbing in. I sighed, reluctantly taking my seat as she asked, “Where to?”

“Put your seat belt on – I'm nervous already.”

She glared at me, but put on her belt and icily repeated, “Where to?”

“Take the one-oh-one north,” I said, not wanting to give away our destination too soon. Not that she would have any idea my personal little sanctuary even existed.

I wasn't sure if it was because of how wary I was about the day, or if I simply wasn't used to traveling at normal, human speeds, but Bella seemed to be driving slower than necessary.

“Were you planning to make it out of Forks before nightfall?” I asked, not wanting to waste a moment of our precious day.

“This truck is old enough to be your car's grandfather – have some respect.”

Although I was tempted to resume asking her questions, I didn't want anything to make her uncomfortable today, and she seemed perfectly content driving together in silence. I thought it odd at first – most people were so eager to break the silence – but after a few minutes, I decided to accept it with welcome relief. With my constantly having to hear everyone's internal chatter, I relished the quiet, and if Bella was happy, then I was happy.

I waited until the last possible moment to break our peaceful silence, then told her, “Turn right on the one-ten.” She turned, and I settled back into my seat. This was my favorite part of the journey. “Now we drive until the pavement ends.”

“And what's there, at the pavement's end?”

“A trail,” I said noncommittally.

“We're hiking?” she asked, a hint of fear in her voice. I knew it wasn't her first choice for Saturday afternoon activities, but I was fairly certain the beauty of where we would end up would make it worth it for her.

“Is that a problem?”

“No.” She attempted a smile, but I could hear her heart start to race.

“Don't worry, it's only five miles or so, and we're in no hurry.”

We returned to our mutual silence, but now that I'd sensed her nervousness, it was not as comfortable as it had been before.

“What are you thinking?” I finally asked, unable to stop myself. I felt like I'd asked it so many times before, and I never knew if she was telling me the whole truth or filtering for my benefit.

“Just wondering where we're going,” she said lightly.

“It's a place I like to go when the weather is nice,” I said, glancing at the clouds Alice promised would be gone by later this morning.

“Charlie said it would be warm today,” Bella said, and I saw she too was watching the clouds. I knew she'd been curious about the mystery of my appearance in the sun, and I could feel her growing more anxious as the moment of truth approached.

“And did you tell Charlie what you were up to?” I asked hopefully.

“Nope.” I'd suspected as much.

“But Jessica thinks we're going to Seattle together?” I confirmed. As much as I hated to think of Jessica during our day together, reminding myself without a doubt that I would be held responsible if Bella went missing seemed like the wisest thing to do.

“No, I told her you canceled on me – which is true.”

Although we'd been in the car together without the burning in my throat feeling too torturous, in that moment it raged forth and took over my senses.

“No one knows you're with me?” the monster asked darkly.

“That depends...I assume you told Alice?”

“That's very helpful, Bella.”

My voice was far too harsh and I hated myself for snapping at her, but I couldn't contain all the things that were simultaneously running through me.

Fear.

Doubt.

Thirst.

“Are you so depressed by Forks that it's made you suicidal?” I asked, too viciously again. I had to get myself under control.

“You said it might cause trouble for you...us being together publicly,” she said calmly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world she were discussing.

“So you're worried about the trouble it might cause me – if you don't come home?” I was nearly snarling at her, though some remaining sane portion of my brain told me that she'd been acting out of the best intentions. The fact that those intentions were utterly absurd, however, was hard to ignore.

She didn't speak again, but nodded in response to my accusation. Looking for any outlet to channel my frustration, I started muttering unintelligibly under my breath.

Of all the ridiculous things...she's looking out for me, doesn't even care about herself at all...how am I supposed to keep her safe when she has no sense of self preservation...no wonder she's always getting into trouble...

I could feel the anxiety radiating from her, and I was determined to regain my composure by the time we arrived at the end of the road. She parked and got out of the car without looking at me, and I glanced over my shoulder to see her taking off her sweater. The heat didn't much matter to me, but I had liked the way we matched earlier – anything to remind me we weren't different in every possible way – I decided to do the same.

“This way,” I said, motioning in the opposite direction she had started to walk.

“The trail?” she asked, and I felt a twinge of guilt for having misled her. I heard her frenzied steps as she circled the truck and nearly stumbled to my side.

“I said there was a trail at the end of the road, not that we were taking it.”

“No trail?” she asked wearily. I'd been hoping for something that would put the monster back in his cage, and sure enough, her panic was enough to remind me of my role as her protector.

“I won't let you get lost,” I promised, smiling as I turned to look at her.

I had expected her to relax at my assurance, or at the very least offer a smile like she usually did when she wanted to show me she trusted me. Maybe I'd done more damage than I realized by speaking so angrily to her before.

“Do you want to go home?” I asked, part of me hoping to be granted the reprieve, but a bigger part eager to show her the place that was so special to me. We'd come this far, it seemed a shame to waste the day and the sun that was surely on its way.

“No,” she said, stepping closer to me. She looked close to tears.

“What's wrong?” I asked softly, cursing myself for having upset her.

“I'm not a good hiker. You'll have to be very patient,” she said, and even without being able to read her mind, I knew she wasn't telling me the truth. Still, I didn't want to force her to talk about anything she wasn't comfortable with.

“I can be patient,” I said, playing along. “If I make a great effort.”

I'd tried to make my voice light and teasing, hoping to urge a smile from her. Though the corner of her mouth turned up, she still looked miserable. Great. I'd ruined our whole day because of my own fears and insecurities. So what if no one knew we were together. I knew we were together, and that I was personally responsible for keeping her safe. That would be enough. It would have to be.

When she still didn't speak, I sighed deeply. “I'll take you home,” I offered, giving her one more chance to retreat if it was what she truly wanted. I felt I was back to my former, more trustworthy self, but if I'd frightened her too deeply to proceed, I would respect her wishes.

“If you want me to hack five miles through the jungle before sundown, you'd better start leading the way.” She nearly spat the words at me, and I was baffled that her mood seemed to be shifting as often as mine today. Usually she was much more level headed.

She stood, glaring at me, and I eventually realized she was waiting for me to decide. Although at the moment, neither of us seemed emotionally stable enough to go through with our plans, I started walking because I knew I couldn't disappoint her. I was sure that once her own anger dissipated, she would remember what this day was about.

It was about trust; answering questions, and sharing secrets. It was about us, and what we could potentially be to each other if we put our fears aside. It was Bella and I, away from the world and prying eyes, unashamed and honest.

It was about me learning how far the monster inside could be pushed, how strong the protector would have to be to silence the thirst. It was about Bella figuring out just how deeply into my world she could allow herself to be thrown, while still remaining true to her own.

It was the ultimate balancing act.

We trudged along, Bella keeping up better than I think she or I had anticipated. I helped her over a few difficult areas, the electricity between us unbelievably heightened each time I touched her skin. Occasionally, I noticed her glancing in my direction, though her expression was unreadable.

Hoping to break her from her sullen mood, I started asking questions about her childhood again. I asked anything and everything I could think of to try to make her smile. Eventually, she started to relax again, and I noticed it made her pace speed up slightly. The more animated she got talking about her life, the faster she seemed to climb over the trees and rocks. She even stumbled significantly less.

As the hours passed, the clouds began to disappear. The sun was shining, but the trees created such a dense cover above us, I knew my secret would be safe a little while longer. Bella's face was alight with joy when she noticed the sun through the trees, and she sped up her pace yet again.

“Are we there yet?” she asked, feigning a frown at me.

“Nearly,” I promised, feeling my own anticipation growing. “Do you see the brightness ahead?”

“Um, should I?” she asked, squinting.

“Maybe it's a bit soon for your eyes,” I teased.

“Time to visit the optometrist,” she mumbled, rolling her eyes.

I slowed down a bit as the sun lit meadow came into view. It was a place I'd retreated to many times, and I was thrilled to finally be sharing it with her. It had been a place of solitude, but now I felt certain it's true beauty would be even more pronounced, because I would no longer have to be there alone.

Bella was hurrying towards the stream of light, looking like an explorer about to unlock a hidden treasure. I walked a few steps behind her, basking in her excitement, and found myself holding my breath as she stepped into the sunlight. Her skin bathed in the warm light and her hair shining like spun gold, she had never looked more beautiful. From beneath the trees, I watched in awe as she took in her surroundings. Her face was filled with pure joy, and I vowed in that moment to do anything for her, take her anywhere, if it meant she could always look that happy.

For a moment, I simply breathed, letting the smells of the forest mingle with Bella's perfectly torturous scent. I embraced the way it teased and tormented me, because it meant we were together, and I was in control of my need. Taking another deep breath, I let her happiness become my own. Her peace was my peace.

There was nothing else in that moment but us, and the knowledge that my place of refuge no longer belonged to me alone.


Chapter 14 - CONFESSIONS

.

I waited at the edge of the meadow, still hiding under the shade of the tress. Bella walked slowly through the grass, eyes alight with wonder, and I couldn't help but smile right along with her. I wondered how long it would take her to notice I was no longer following her. She usually seemed all too aware of my presence.

I watched her, thrilled to see the place that had brought me so much joy was making her happy as well. I wanted desperately to join her, yet I couldn't bring myself to step out into the sunlight. I wanted her to truly take in all the beauty of my personal sanctuary before I forever changed by adding the image of myself to it.

Of course she would be frightened, I didn't doubt that for a moment. Secretly I'd wondered many times if the only reason Bella still didn't fear me was because I was so practiced at acting human around her. Aside from whatever fantasies her imagination had created, which in all honesty were probably nothing near the truth, she'd never seen me actually look like a vampire. Today I was going to show her something that would make me appear far from human, and she would be afraid. The side of me that wanted to protect her told me that was a good thing, but the side that had already grown too attached to our time together was terrified.

As if sensing where my thoughts had taken me, she turned to look for me. I was surprised that her expression was concerned, and feared for a moment that I had walked too far into the sun and inadvertently revealed the truth before I was ready. Then her eyes found mine and her face instantly softened. She took a step towards me and reached her hand out like she wanted me to take it and join her. As much as I wanted to hold her hand in mine, longed to feel that spark her touch always ignited, I refused to feel the rejection that would most certainly follow when she saw my skin in the light. I couldn't bare to feel her hand ripped away from mine when the repulsion set in, so I held it up, silently urging her to wait just a little longer.

I sighed and took in a deep breath of air I didn't need, and prepared for the moment I had both anticipated and dreaded. As I stepped out into the light I kept my eyes firmly locked with hers, determined to see her initial reaction, and also not wanting to see the reflexion off my skin. Yet I was unable to avoid seeing it reflect off of her own soft, perfect face, and I closed my eyes in frustration. Taking another unnecessary breath, I prepared for the worst. When I opened my eyes, would she still be standing with me or would she have turned and ran, praying I wouldn't follow her?

Reminding myself that a part of me wanted her to run, I forced my eyes open. And she was still standing in front of me, closer even than she was before though I couldn't understand how. Unable to make sense of her expression and as always wishing I could read her mind, I pleaded to her with my eyes.

Please tell me what you're thinking, they urged, and as if she had suddenly figured out how to read my mind, she reached out and took my hand and led me further into the meadow. Gently pulling me down with her, she crossed her legs and sat in the grass. Her eyes, warm and adoring and completely undeserved, never left mine.

Whatever it was that kept her from being afraid of me the way any other human would seemed to still be in tact, despite my inarguably inhuman appearance. Though all I wanted was to bask in the sun with her and revel in the awe of her acceptance of me, I reminded myself why I had brought her here. I'd vowed to myself to be completely honest, even if it meant the day ending with her wanting nothing to do with me. If she was determined to try to be with me, she needed to know everything, the complete truth, hiding nothing. There was so very much to say.

As difficult as it was for me to accept, Bella still seemed completely at ease around me. In fact she looked fascinated, watching me like she wanted to touch my ridiculous skin. Deciding that the best way to proceed with our day of truth was to just be myself, I laid down in the grass facing up to the sky and closed my eyes. I tried to believe I was capable of acting the way I normally would if this was any other sunny day in my hideaway. I could pretend she wasn't there staring at me. I could convince myself not to notice the way the breeze was mingling her scent with the wildflowers and making my sanctuary nearly unbearable.

Abruptly I opened my eyes, terrified that I had already let my thoughts take me to the darkest of places, and focused again on her and the way she was watching me. There was no fear there, though I couldn't understand how. There was only warmth and affection. I let me eyes close once more and starting singing softly under my breath, the way I always did when I needed to find peace.

I wasn't if she could see my lips move, though I was positive she couldn't hear me, but eventually she asked what I was doing. I told her simply that I was singing, but inside I wondered if she would ever know that although my voice was too soft for human ears, my heart was singing to her.

I didn't expect her to close her eyes or lay down next to me. Even with her apparent lack of fear, she couldn't possibly want to put herself in such a vulnerable position. Every now and then, I would peak at her through barely opened eyes, just to see if anything in her expression had changed. She still watched me with curious eyes, and the slightest hint of a smile playing at the corner of her mouth.

Just as I was about to chance another glimpse at her, I felt her finger brush against the back of my hand. My eyes flew open and I gazed wide eyed at her. Unconsciously, I felt myself grin, baffled by why she would want to touch me but thoroughly enjoying the sensation of her warm skin on mine.

Though I wasn't sure I was quite ready to hear the answer, I couldn't help asking the question I'd been holding in since I first stepped into the sunlight.

“I don't scare you?” I asked, still smiling yet fighting against the pain I knew would come if her answer was yes.

“No more than usual,” she replied casually, and I smiled wider as I realized she was telling me the truth. She always told me the truth, absurd as it might be.

My smile must have encouraged her, because she scooted a fraction of an inch closer and let the rest of her fingertips run along my forearm. Her hand was shaking and I closed my eyes again, hoping the fear I'd been dreading wasn't finally starting to set in.

“Do you mind?” she asked timidly, and I had to stifle a laugh. Did I mind? Her touch was the greatest feeling I'd experienced in the whole of my existence.

“No,” I answered, debating how much I should say. Then remembering my vow of honesty I added, “You can't imagine how that feels.”

With a sigh, I let my body sink further into the grass as her hand continued to trace my arm. I could feel her moving toward the inside of my elbow so when she reached for my hand, I flipped it over, palm up. I must have moved too quickly because her fingers froze in place. I opened my eyes, desperate again to read her expression. She was startled, but there was still no trace of fear and I allowed my eyes to close once more.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, wishing she could understand just how strange all this was for me. I'd never allowed myself to be anything less than human around her before, yet already it felt right and natural. “It's too easy to be myself with you.”

She continued inspecting my hand, then out of nowhere I could feel her breath on my skin. I looked up to see my hand inches from her face. I was so close to her and in that moment the intensity of the desire I'd been working so hard to control was almost too much. I needed a distraction. Very quickly.

“Tell me what you're thinking,” I said softly, not wanting to alarm her with the severity of my voice. “It's still so strange for me, not knowing.”

“You know, the rest of us feel that way all the time,” she said sarcastically. Internally I praised her for being able to lighten the moment when it was most crucial for her survival.

Though I was trying not to focus on it, the realization of the danger that had just passed hit me. I tried to keep my voice relaxed, though knowing Bella, she'd see right through me.

“It's a hard life,” I said, wishing with everything in me that I had some semblance of a normal life to give to her. She didn't deserve the kind of life I had to offer, yet it was all I had to give. And undoubtedly I would give her everything I had.

The original reason for my question had all but vanished, but she still hadn't told me what she was thinking and now I was curious.

“But you didn't tell me,” I reminded her gently, hoping she hadn't been trying to distract me because she didn't want to answer. I had to know.

“I was wishing I could know what you were thinking...” Her voice trailed off like she was waiting for me to tell her. Maybe it was selfish but I had already revealed so much of myself to her, and now it was my turn. I had asked first and I needed to hear the truth before anything else was said.

“And?” I said simply, unwilling to budge just this once.

“I was wishing that I could believe that you were real. And I was wishing that I wasn't afraid.”

And there it was. I felt my breath catch as I took in her words. She was afraid. Of course she was afraid. She was just very, very good at hiding it from me.

“I don't want you to be afraid,” I said hopelessly. Foolishly.

“Well, that's not exactly the fear I meant, though that's certainly something to think about.”

Quickly and without thinking, I sat myself halfway up and leaned onto my arm, my other hand unfathomably still in her hand. Why had she not let go yet? She'd just told me she was afraid, yet she was still looking at me with those kind eyes, tender and not afraid at all.

As I put her expression together with her words, they took on new meaning and sang through my mind like a beautiful symphony.

Not exactly the fear I meant.

If she wasn't afraid for her safety, what else there was for her to be afraid of? My mind raced through every possibility until I remembered her conversation with Jessica, the one she knew I was listening to. She'd been upset, concerned that she cared for me more than I did for her. And then she'd told me it bothered her that it seemed like sometimes I was trying to say goodbye. Was it possible that she was simply afraid of me leaving?

Although I knew it would only encourage the thirst that was already painfully ripping at my throat, I let my face move infinitesimally closer to hers, taking in all of her wonderful and perfect scent. If my guess was correct, I needed to know just how close she wanted to keep me. I had to hear her say it.

“What are you afraid of, then?” I whispered, slowly letting out the full breath I had taken.

Rather than answer me with the words I longed to hear, she inched her own face closer to mine. My throat burned and ached, the venom flowed under my tongue, and I felt my fist clench inside her fragile little hands. Without another thought I did the opposite of what the monster inside was begging me to do.

I fled.

I ran with immeasurable speed back to the shadows and stared at her, wondering how many more times her life would be in danger today. As I looked at the pain on her face, I knew my earlier assumption had been correct. She was afraid I was going to leave her, and in a moment of weakness I had just confirmed that fear.

“I'm...sorry...Edward,” I heard her whisper. Her voice was so soft, but she knew I would hear. She already knew me so well.

The agony that seared through me as I watched her silenced the thirst that had only moments ago been completely overwhelming.

“Give me a moment,” I said, no longer afraid of hurting her but figuring we both needed time to collect ourselves. Knowing it would calm me as it always did, I listened to the sound of her heartbeat. When it had once again slowed to its normal pace I walked deliberately slowly toward her, willing her not to be afraid, of me or of my leaving again. I sat down in front of her, crossing my legs and mirroring her position. I smiled at her and tried to convey how much I wished I could stay beside her always.

“I am so very sorry.” I wanted her to understand that my quick retreat was only for her protection, but now more than ever I didn't want to frighten her with the reality of my deplorable desire. “Would you understand what I meant if I said I was only human?”

She nodded, though for the first time all day she didn't attempt a smile. She was starting to understand. I could feel her pulse speed up again, smell the adrenaline course through her veins. Though I hadn't imagined it possible, it only made her smell more desirable. I smiled sarcastically at the irony. She was finally afraid of me and it only made me want her more.

“I'm the world's best predator, aren't I?” I said with a smirk. “Everything about me invites you in – my voice, my face, even my smell. As if I need any of that!”

With a sudden rush of excitement at the knowledge that there was no reason to hide anything from her anymore, I jumped to my feet and ran with all my strength around the meadow and stood once again in the shade.

“As if you could outrun me,” I laughed, feeling some kind of sick pleasure in finally sensing her fear of losing me was greater than any fear I could incite in her. Without thinking about the ramifications, I ripped a thick branch from the tree that was sheltering me and threw it against another tree. I listened to the deafening sound as it shattered, then raced to her side again, feeling something akin to adrenaline in my own lifeless veins.

“As if you could fight me off,” I teased. It was only then as reality started coming back to me that I began to take in her expression. Everything stopped. The excitement faded and my own momentary joy dissolved as I looked into Bella's eyes and for the first time, saw real fear.

Bella was terrified. Of me. And it was my own fault.

My triumph turned to defeat, as the horror of what I had just done sank in. I'd always meant to show her what I was capable of, but what was I thinking, not giving her any warning at all? I'd let the excitement take over and cloud my judgment. And now Bella sat unmoving, paralyzed with fear, waiting for my next move.

“Don't be afraid,” I murmured pathetically, wishing there was nothing for her to fear. “I promise...” My voice trailed off as I tried to find the words to reassure her that there was no danger. I was more in control in that moment than I had been all day, watching her, feeling her hurt. Her fear filled blood more potent than it had ever been, I forced myself to take a deep breath, fill my entire being with her scent. As the burn threatened my will and urged me to act, I stared at Bella's innocent and terrified face and silenced it, determined not to let it rule me any longer.

“I swear not to hurt you,” I finished, making the vow to Bella and to myself at the same time. With all the conviction of my words filling me with hope, I took another slow step toward her.

“Don't be afraid,” I repeated, this time with the knowledge that, if she would let me, I would spend my entire existence making sure she never had any reason to be afraid.

Seeing her eyes soften slightly, I sat down in front of her once again, so close our knees were almost touching. I wanted to reach out to her but wasn't sure if it was too soon.

“Please forgive me,” I said sincerely. She seemed puzzled by the formality of my tone, so I decided to lighten things up again, like she was so good at doing.

“I can control myself,” I smiled. “You caught me off guard. But I'm on my best behavior now.”

I was expecting a response and when she didn't so much as blink I grew concerned. Had I already done too much damage to be repaired? Desperate, I made one more attempt at light humor.

“I'm not thirsty today, honestly,” I winked, happy my overindulgent hunting trip yesterday made that fact true, at least as far as my actual physical need was concerned.

Finally her frozen expression broke and I reveled in the sound of her laughter, even if there was still something off about it. I wasn't yet sure if she was ready to touch me again, but I couldn't help myself. I was so worried about her and all I wanted to do was comfort her, reassure her.

“Are you all right?” I asked softly. Then I reached my hand out, careful not to take hers in mine but rather letting it rest gently in her grasp. She needed to be the one in control now. I owed her that much.

She took several quiet, shallow breaths as her eyes moved between our hands and my eyes. Finally she went back to tracing my hand with her fingertips and I sighed, relieved the worst seemed to be over. I smiled warmly at her, trying to get back the feeling we had before my irrational behavior.

“So where were we, before I behaved so rudely?” I asked, wishing things could be easier for her.

“I honestly can't remember,” she answered sheepishly, and the guilt washed over me once again.

“I think we were talking about why you were afraid, besides the obvious reason.” Of course now I'd given her every reason to be afraid of me. After all that had transpired between us, I didn't deserve anything more than that fear. Yet still, I needed to hear her answer.

“Oh, right.”

“Well?” It was ridiculous to hope for it, but I wanted to believe there was still a part of her that wanted me to stay.

As the seconds ticked by silently, it seemed less and less likely that her answer would be in my favor. As painful as I knew her next sentence might be, the anxiety of not knowing was getting the best of me.

“How easily frustrated I am,” I sighed, trying not to upset her. I had to remember, I was letting her control things now. She could take as long as she needed to answer, and I would just have to channel every ounce of patience in me while I waited for her.

“I was afraid...because, for, well, obvious reasons, I can't stay with you. And I'm afraid that I'd like to stay with you, much more than I should.”

If my heart could still beat, it would have started racing. It didn't seem possible that she could still want me, but I wasn't capable of dreaming, so this had to be real. She was staring at our hands again but I wanted her to look up. I needed to look into her eyes, to make sure it wasn't just some facade to make me feel better. After all, she'd proven to me time and again how self sacrificing she could be.

It probably wasn't the best idea, but the only way I could think of to find out if what she was saying was really how she felt, was to mention the possibility of leaving. Although part of me still believed it would be for the best, the thought of being away from her caused me physical pain that rivaled any raging thirst she'd ever made me feel.

“Yes,” I answered slowly, not quite sure how to phrase it. I didn't want to upset her, or frighten her. But I had to know. “That is something to be afraid of, indeed. Wanting to be with me. That's really not in your best interest.”

She frowned at me and I felt a glimmer of hope. Carefully, I continued, saying the words that threatened to tear me apart.

“I should have left long ago. I should leave now. But I don't know if I can.”

In a strangely human moment, I held my breath as I waited for her answer.

“I don't want you to leave,” she mumbled, her eyes still refusing to meet mine.

Thrilled and uncomprehending, I offered her a quick assurance, wanting her to understand that leaving wasn't really an option for me anymore.

“Which is exactly why I should. But don't worry. I'm essentially a selfish creature. I crave your company too much to do what I should.”

There was no keeping anything from her anymore. She'd finally started to understand how much I craved her blood, and now I sat beside her, trying to make her understand that there were two kinds of desire I felt for her.

“I'm glad,” she said sweetly. As much as I'd been keeping the relentless monster at bay, I couldn't forget his existence, and in that moment my urge to protect this innocent girl overcame my desire to be with her.

“Don't be!” I said, perhaps a bit too harshly, as I pulled my hand away from her as gently as I could manage. My touch seemed to be distracting her, and I needed her to understand what I was about to say.

“It's not only your company I crave!” I said looking away, embarrassed once again by my weakness. “Never forget that. Never forget I am more dangerous to you than I am to anyone else.” I felt her eyes searching my face, yet in that particular moment of honesty, I couldn't bear to see what her eyes would reveal.

“I don't think I understand what you mean—by that last part anyway,” she said. As I had been all day, I was expecting to hear fear in her voice, but all there was was curiosity. When I looked back into her eyes, they were thoughtful, and I realized she wanted to know the truth as much as I wanted to tell it to her. It gave me the strength to continue.

“How do I explain? And without frightening you again...hmmmm.” I sifted through several possible explanations, most of them involving food. I wondered idly if that would upset her. My thoughts were interrupted when I felt her squeeze my hand. I didn't remember having put it back in hers, but I was happy to feel her touch again.

“That's amazingly pleasant, the warmth,” I sighed, wishing she could understand just how spectacular it really was for me. Over the years, I'd only ever had physical contact with my family and of course all of their skin felt exactly like mine. Before Bella I hadn't felt warmth in so many decades, I'd almost forgotten what it was like.

I marveled for another brief moment over the pleasure of her touch, then forced myself to focus again. Deciding the food analogy was really the only way to explain it to a human, I sighed and tried to phrase my words carefully.

“You know how everyone enjoys different flavors? Some people love chocolate ice cream, others prefer strawberry?”

She nodded, though there was a hint of concern on her face, probably seeing where I was going with it.

“Sorry about the food analogy—I couldn't think of another way to explain.”

She smiled at me and it was obviously forced, so I smiled back at her apologetically. There was no turning back now and we both knew it.

“You see, every person smells different, has a different essence. If you locked an alcoholic in a room full of stale beer, he'd gladly drink it. But he could resist, if he wished to, if her were a recovering alcoholic. Now let's say you placed in that room a glass of hundred-year-old brandy, the rarest, finest cognac—and filled the room with its warm aroma—how do you think he would fare then?”

She stared at me, trying to understand the temptation I was apparently failing miserably at explaining. I watched her expression shift from confused, to thoughtful, to somewhat accepting, then back to confused. Clearly she'd never been tempted beyond what she could tolerate, never given in and eaten forbidden food. Hadn't every child stolen a cookie from the jar at some point?

“Maybe that's not the right comparison,” I said, desperate to make her understand. “Maybe it would be too easy to turn down the brandy. Perhaps I should have made our alcoholic a heroin addict instead.”

Finally it all seemed to click as I saw a brief flicker of fear in her eyes, which she quickly replaced with amusement. Amazing me as always, she made a joke.

“So what you're saying it, I'm your brand of heroin?”

I smiled, showing her how much I appreciated her attempt to keep things light, but also wanting her to know that she was more right than perhaps she had realized.

“Yes, you are exactly my brand of heroin.”

Without missing a beat, she asked, “Does that happen often?”

I thought for a moment, wondering how best to answer. I wanted her to know the danger and severity of the situation she'd found herself in, but I'd frightened her so much already, I struggled with the right way to say it.

Maybe if it wasn't about us directly...

“I spoke to my brothers about it. To Jasper, every one of you is much the same. He's the most recent to join our family. It's a struggle for him to abstain at all. He hasn't had time to grow sensitive to the differences in smell, in flavor.”

Though I hadn't been looking directly at her, I was fairly sure I saw her flinch from the corner of my eye.

I looked swiftly back at her, wishing there was an easier way but needing her to understand why it was so much harder to control myself around her. She was so different from the rest of them, those humans I walked around with every day, barely a burn in my throat at all compared to her. My Bella and her heavenly scent, too delicious to resist but to precious to destroy.

“Sorry,” I apologized.

“I don't mind. Please don't worry about offending me, or frightening me, or whichever. That's just the way you think. I can understand, or I can try to at least. Just explain however you can.”

Relieved by her determination to understand, I summoned the strength to continue.

“So Jasper wasn't sure if he'd ever come across someone who was as...” I trailed off. This was the hardest part. Explaining the intense desire without upsetting her further. Finding the right adjective.

Delectable. Luscious. Exquisite. Inviting

The venom started to flow again, and I cursed myself for letting it get that far. I quickly continued my explanation, hoping she wouldn't notice the change in my voice.

“...appealing as you are to me. Which makes me think not,” I finished conclusively, forcing back the thirst. “Emmett has been on the wagon loner, so to speak, and he understood what I meant. He says twice, for him, once stronger that the other.”

“And for you?”

“Never.”

That was it. That was what I needed her to understand. There had never in my almost one hundred years, been anyone who tempted me the way she does. The smartest thing for both of us would be for me to leave, yet neither one of us seemed able to accept that option. Still, it was only fair that she understand completely. I'd never pushed my resistance to the extreme like this. I couldn't truly be sure how long I could hold on.

Then I remembered the way she'd leaned into me earlier without a trace of fear, and the vow I'd silently made to keep her safe, to let her be close to me without giving her a reason to be afraid. I forced another deep, intoxicating breath, and let the burn strengthen my resolve. I was not going to allow the monster within to take such a precious gift from the man who so desperately wanted nothing more than to love her.

Lost in my thoughts, I almost didn't hear her when she spoke again.

“What did Emmett do?” she asked, and instantly I went rigid. My hand made a fist inside hers, and no amount of her warmth and comfort could relax it. I wasn't going to answer her, and she knew it. Nothing could make me form those words.

“I guess I know,” she said, trailing off sadly.

There was no reason for it, she wasn't accusing or condemning him, but still I felt the urge to defend my brother.

“Even the strongest of us fall off the wagon, don't we?”

“What are you asking? My permission?” she said in the harshest tone I'd ever heard her take. I was so stunned, I'm not sure I even understood what she was asking. Then in a completely different tone, she added, “I mean, is there no hope, then?”

“No, no!” I yelled, frightening even myself because in that instant I knew what she'd thought, and it horrified me. Was she really sitting beside me, calm and rational, but secretly wondering when the vampire would attack? Could she really care about me so much that she was willing to give her life to be with me?

Though she was talking about what she basically assumed was her imminent death, her voice was gentle and kind like she was comforting me. It was filled with such sadness that I was completely overcome. I wanted to hold her and tell her everything would be fine. Nothing was going to make me do to her what Emmett had done to those humans. It wasn't the same. Couldn't she see it wasn't the same?

“Of course there's hope! I mean, of course I won't...” It was then I realized that she couldn't possibly know the absolute conviction of the vow I'd made to myself earlier, the vow that was getting me through this ordeal. I wanted to make her understand that although nothing could ever dilute the potency of her blood, my love for her was making every second we spent together more bearable. Her life had been in danger many times. But now the only thing raging through me was the strength of what I felt for her. My love would save her life, again and again.

“It's different for us,” I tried pitifully to explain. “Emmett...these were strangers he happened across. It was a long time ago, and he wasn't as...practiced, as careful, as he is now.”

I stared at her, hoping she could see the difference.

“So if we'd met...oh, in a dark alley or something...” she said hesitantly.

“It took everything I had not to jump up in the middle of that class full of children and —” I stopped, wondering if that was too much truth for her. Yet I'd promised her total honesty so I continued, trying not to say anything too offensive. “When you walked past me, I could have ruined everything Carlisle has built for us, right then and there. If I hadn't been denying my thirst for the last, well, too many years, I wouldn't have been able to stop myself.”

I felt the disgust wash across my face remembering that first dark day, when I'd almost taken the life of the most innocent, the most compassionate of humans. I never would have known just how profane a sin I'd committed. I'd never have felt this impossibly strong love for the girl who now sat across from me, the unworthy vampire.

“You must have though I was possessed,” I said, finally forcing myself to see that horrific day through her eyes.

“I couldn't understand why. How you could hate me so quickly...”

“To me, it was like you were some kind of demon, summoned straight from my own personal hell to ruin me. The fragrance coming off your skin...I thought it would make me deranged that first day. In that one hour, I thought of a hundred different ways to lire you from the room with me, to get you alone. And I fought them each back, thinking of my family, what I could do to them. I had to run out, to get away before I could speak the words that would make you follow...”

She looked confused, although I was certain she was at least beginning to understand how close I had actually been. She hadn't said anything in so long and I wanted to gauge her reaction, so I added something I probably should have kept to myself.

“You would have come.”

Her voice was calm, as she confirmed what I already knew. “Without a doubt.”

Though I fought it, I was bombarded by the image of what I could have done to her in my selfish, destructive desire. I saw a flash of her cold pale skin, and no longer had it in me to look into her eyes. They were so comfortable, so trusting, and I deserved none of it.

“And then,” I continued sadly, staring down at her perfect, warm hands still holding mine tightly, “as I tried to rearrange my schedule in a pointless attempt to avoid you, you were there – in that close, warm little room, the scent was maddening. I so very nearly took you then. There was only one other frail human there – so easily dealt with.”

I saw her shiver so I stopped momentarily, taking another deep breath to scorch my throat. It seemed a fitting punishment. I was admitting to the worst moment of my terrible weakness and making her relive that day, showing her how close she and all the others were to death. That was surely going to haunt her for the rest of her life. It wasn't fair that she was suffering alone. I parted my lips slightly and inhaled again, letting the burn saturate my throat before I continued.

“But I resisted. I don't know how. I forced myself not to wait for you, not to follow you from the school. It was easier outside, when I couldn't smell you anymore, to think clearly, to make the right decision. I left the others near home – I was too ashamed to tell them how weak I was, they only knew something was very wrong – and then I went straight to Carlisle, at the hospital, to tell him I was leaving.”

Of all the things I'd told her throughout the day, I didn't understand how that would be the piece of information that shocked her. But there she sat, wide eyed and clearly surprised. Had she even realized I'd left? I'd thought about her every second I was away. I wanted to ask her what she did during those days. It had been nagging at me, wondering what I'd missed during my pathetic escape attempt.

But her eyes were urging me to continue, and this day was hers. She needed me to finish my story, no matter how embarrassed I was of what I had done.

“I traded cars with him – he had a full tank of gas and I didn't want to stop. I didn't dare to go home, to face Esme. She wouldn't have let me go without a scene. She would have tried to convince me that it wasn't necessary...”

I almost stopped to clarify, after all I didn't want Bella to get the wrong impression of Esme. Despite how some of my family felt, Esme never would have encouraged me to act on my thirst in order to stay. Not to say she wouldn't have done everything else including but not limited to house arrest to keep me from leaving. Still, Bella didn't seem upset by what I'd said, so I continued, anxious to get through it and ready to move on. The next part of my story was the most humiliating.

“By the next morning I was in Alaska. I spent two days there, with some old acquaintances...but I was homesick.”

And Tanya was as relentless as ever and it was making me insane, I thought, deciding to edit out that part. No need to burden her with the annoyance of “Desperate Vampire Seeking Mate.”

“I hated knowing I'd upset Esme, and the rest of them, my adopted family. In the pure air of the mountains it was hard to believe you were so irresistible. I convinced myself it was weak to run away. I'd dealt with temptation before, not of this magnitude, not even close, but I was strong.”

At least I used to think I was strong. I suppressed the smile that was building inside me as certain realizations started to sink in. Even when it was easier for me and my pathetic lack of control, I wasn't happy being away from her. She was everything. She was the reason for it all.

“Who were you, an insignificant little girl...” And finally I couldn't hide the grin any longer, because the look on her face was priceless. “...to chase me from the place I wanted to be? So I came back...”

She was still looking at me incredulously and I hoped I hadn't offended her. She didn't know it yet, couldn't understand, but in my confession I'd realized the answer I'd been searching for. She was why I came back. This girl, this fragile human girl. I didn't want to admit it, but I knew now that she controlled me then just as she was controlling me now. I was hers, long before I consciously knew it.

Yes, I missed my family. I missed this silly, rainy, overcast town and the fact that I could lead a somewhat normal life here. Of course I hated to admit that some human had driven me from my home. But none of those were the real reasons I came back.

I came back because I couldn't get her scent out of my head, couldn't stop seeing her face every time I closed my eyes. I was intoxicated by everything about her. I missed Bella. And no amount of thirst or pain could keep me away. Just like no pain I would feel would ever be worth harming her in any way.

I wanted to tell her, explain everything I was feeling, but I felt an obligation to finish what I had started. So I continued, trying to keep the words from bursting out of me.

“I took precautions, hunting, feeding more than usual before seeing you again. I was sure that I was strong enough to treat you like any other human. I was arrogant about it. It was unquestionably a complication that I couldn't simply read your thoughts to know what your reaction was to me. I wasn't used to having to go to such circuitous measures, listening to your words in Jessica's mind...her mind isn't very original, and it was annoying to have to stoop to that.”

Maybe one day I would admit all the dreadful things Jessica thought about her. I hated that Bella was so trusting of her and her supposed friendship, when Jessica didn't deserve any of it. But that was for another today. Today was hers. Ours.

“And then I couldn't know if you really meant what you said. It was all extremely irritating. I wanted you to forget my behavior that first day, if possible, so I tried to talk with you like I would with any person. I was eager actually, hoping to decipher some of your thoughts. But you were too interesting,” I admitted, and my confession almost slipped out. How I hung on every word she said, sifted through everyone else's boring mind just to see her face, hear her voice. How I watched her sleep, entranced, listening to her dream. No, it was too soon for all that.

“I found myself caught up in your expressions...and every now and then you would stir the air with your hand or your hair, and the scent would stun me again...”

Then the worst moment of my existence flashed before my eyes, as I remembered the panic I felt watching that van careening towards her. Was there any way to explain what I felt in those seconds? The only possible way was to admit to her the careful lie I had composed – composed my never had the strength to use – to cover up the truth of that terrible moment. I could tell her the truth, admit why I had risked everything to save her. It was the answer to the question that had plagued her for far too long. And it was the most important thing I could give her.

“Of course, then you were nearly crushed to death in front of my eyes. Later I thought of a perfectly good excuse for why I acted at that moment – because if I hadn't saved you, if you blood had been spilled there in front of me, I don't think I could have stopped myself from exposing us for what we are.”

I took a deep breath and for once didn't even notice the searing pain, though I'm sure it was there. I was staring intently into her eyes, happy that I could finally tell her how that moment had changed everything.

“But I only thought of that excuse later. At the time, all I could think was, 'Not her.'”

I closed my eyes, feeling truly tired for the first time in almost a century. She still hadn't spoken a word, though I could hear her heartbeat start to speed up again. When she finally spoke, her voice was strained, like she had gone a long time without swallowing and her throat was aching for something to quench the thirst. I tried not to smile at the comparison. Maybe she really could understand my pain to some extent.

“In the hospital?” she asked, and I was startled that after all I'd confessed, she was still searching for answers from my darkest moments. How much more truth could she take? Yet I forced myself to continue.

“I was appalled. I couldn't believe I had put us in danger after all, put myself in your power – you of all people. As if I needed another motive to kill you.”

She flinched at the same time as I did, and I hated myself for having let the word slip out. I'd been so careful not to say it, but in all my honesty I must have let my guard down. Hastily, I tried to fix whatever hurt I'd just inadvertently caused her.

“But it had the opposite effect,” I said quickly, trying to think of anything that could make her feel more at ease. Though it was difficult for me to admit even to myself, that was essentially the moment when I first chose her over my family. It would be hard to say the words out loud, but I felt I owed her that truth.

“I fought with Rosalie, Emmett, and Jasper when they suggested that now was the time...the worst fight we've ever had. Carlisle sided with me, and Alice.” I tried my best not to show anything on my face, but it was impossible to think of Alice without also thinking about her two unacceptable visions for Bella's future. “Esme told me to do whatever I had to in order to stay.”

I shook my head, wondering again if I should defend Esme and her compassionate nature. She told me to do whatever was necessary, but of course I could read her thoughts. She never would have allowed me to hurt Bella. She and Carlisle already had a plan and they would have intervened long before I did anything I would regret later.

“All that next day,” I continued, lost in the memory of it all, “I eavesdropped on the minds of everyone you spoke to, shocked that you kept your word. I didn't understand you at all. But I knew that I couldn't become more involved with you. I did my very best to stay as far from you as possible. And every day the perfume of your skin, your breath, your hair...it hit me as hard as the very first day.”

As I thought back to the endless nights I spent agonizing over how best to keep her safe, I couldn't help but smile softly. Even then, even when everything in my nature was telling me to act, to give in...I couldn't bear to think of hurting her. The thirst burned me, tortured me, but every time it scorched me I was assaulted by images that I knew I would never let come to pass.

I thought of her cold, lifeless body, of never being able to see her smile again or guess the thoughts of her silent mind. And although I didn't yet have a name for it, I could feel the emotion that was slowly taking over everything in me, feel it changing me. It was taking me farther away from the monster, and closer to the man I wanted to be.

Knowing this was it, the moment of truth I'd been so desperate for all day, I looked into her eyes with all the love and affection that had been bubbling to the surface.

“And for that,” I said slowly, needing her to really take it all in, “I'd have fared better if I had exposed us all at that first moment, than if now, here – with no witnesses and nothing to stop me – I were to hurt you.”

Her expression was still unreadable as she softly asked, “Why?”

“Isabella,” I said, using her full name to make sure I had her complete attention. And because I'd been longing to see how it sounded coming from my lips. Without thinking I gave in to something I'd been wanting to do all afternoon. I reached up and ran my fingers through her hair, relishing the way it softly caressed my fingers.

I smiled as my touch made her shiver, because I could tell she wasn't afraid. She was excited.

“Bella, I couldn't live with myself if I ever hurt you. You don't know how it's tortured me.” I looked down, suddenly nervous about what I was about to say. I wanted her to know, needed her to understand, but the words were catching. That same image that had haunted me for so long was now it the forefront of my mind and I needed to push it away, to bury it for good. It would never happen. Bella would never be taken from me. I forced the words out, knowing they would give me strength to tell Bella how much she truly meant to me.

“The thought of you, still, white, cold...to never see you blush scarlet again, to never see that flash of intuition in your eyes when you see through my pretenses...it would be unendurable.”

With that I met her gaze and all the pain I was feeling, all the agony I'd suffered fighting the monster inside disappeared. She was finally going to know. She would finally understand.

“You are the most important thing to me now. The most important thing to me ever.”

I heard her heart beat faster than I'd ever heard it as she dropped her eyes down and looked at our entwined hands. My eyes never left her face. I couldn't hear her thoughts. Her expression was all I had. Although I was pretty sure the racing heart was a good sign.

“You already know how I feel, of course,” she said, still not meeting my eyes and torturing me in a new way. She was making me guess how she felt when all I wanted was to hear her say the words out loud. She wasn't looking at me, but still I silently pleaded with my eyes. Tell me. Please, tell me.

“I'm here...which, roughly translated, means I would rather die than stay away from you.”

She'd just told me quite possibly the most beautiful thing anyone in the history of the world had ever said. Yet she was frowning. And I was baffled.

“I'm an idiot,” she added.

That sent me over the edge. I grinned, like the absolute fool that I was and laughed in agreement, because her reactions really were ridiculous.

“You are an idiot,” I said, still chuckling, and relieved when she finally met my gaze. She was happy, confused but happy, and we laughed together wondering how we'd gotten to this point.

My eyes never left hers as I finally gave in and said the words I'd been thinking all afternoon.

“And so the lion fell in love with the lamb...”

She blushed and looked away, and as much as I wanted to stare into her eyes forever, I understood that this was a turning point for her. Although I'd been thinking the word for quite some time, I recognized her shy reaction as I confessed my love. If she needed time to let it sink in, I'd give her as much as she needed. I'd give her anything.

“What a stupid lamb,” she finally sighed, and my grin only widened. Really, I was the much bigger idiot in this scenario. I'd brought this all upon myself, willfully putting myself in agony every day just to be near her.

“What a sick, masochistic lion,” I added, letting my eyes drift to the trees behind her. The sky was still bright, but I saw one dark cloud roll in and I wondered if it was going to rain on us, here in our perfect moment. I don't think either of us would have cared.

“Why...” she said softly, but then trailed off. I smiled because even though I was sure it wasn't what she was asking, the word made me think about all the reasons why I loved her. The sunlight bounced off my skin, casting prisms on her face, yet she smiled at me like there was nothing unusual about it at all. That was definitely one of the many reasons why.

“Yes?” I asked, really just wanting to hear her perfect voice for awhile. I felt like I had been talking all day.

“Tell me why you ran away before,” she finished and my smile disappeared.

“You know why.”

“No, I mean, exactly what did I do wrong? I'll have to be on my guard, you see, so I better start learning what I shouldn't do.”

I wanted to scowl at her for managing once again to place the blame on herself when I was the one whose behavior was inexcusable. But the disapproving look I intended to give her got lost in a wave of pleasure as she once again reached out and stroked her fingers against my hand.

“This, for example, seems to be all right.”

I just smiled and let myself indulge a little in the feel of her touch. My voice was relaxed as she calmed me with her gentleness.

“You didn't do anything wrong, Bella. It was my fault.” Always my fault.

“But I want to help, if I can, to not make this harder for you.”

“Well,” I said reluctantly, but unable to argue with her if she was set on making things easier. I wanted it not for my sake but for hers. I was more determined than ever to keep complete and perfect control when we were together, to never let her be afraid again.

“It was just how close you were,” I sighed remembering her breath on my hand, her face inches from mine. “Most humans instinctively shy away from us, are repelled by our alienness...I wasn't expecting you to come so close. And the smell of your throat,” I said urgently, the burn making itself known again. But I was in control. There was nothing for her to worry about and I checked to make sure her eyes weren't fearful.

“Okay, then,” she said as if I were talking about something completely unimportant, rather than her survival. Then in possibly the cutest gesture I'd ever seen her make, she tucked her chin, smiled and said, “No throat exposure.”

I laughed, deliriously happy that I was able to talk openly with her about everything now, even my repulsive longing to sink my teeth into her throat. It didn't seem to upset her or scare her. She was just as thrilled by my honesty as I was at finally being able to share everything with her.

Of course I didn't want her to think she needed to start wearing turtlenecks everyday, so I quickly clarified.

“No, really, it was more the surprise than anything else.”

Slowly, I reached up to touch the side of her neck. Her skin was so soft, so delicate, and I wondered what it would be like to brush against it with my nose. My lips...

I would have worried that my cold touch would bother her, but she had been initiating contact all day. She seemed to like my touch as much as I relished in hers, so I left it there, feeling her pulse under my fingertips.

“You see,” I told her calmly. “Perfectly fine.” And I really was. Even as I listened to her pulse race, took in her luxurious scent, I couldn't feel even the slightest lapse in my control. All I could think about was how I wanted to touch her more and make her heart race faster.

I'd never been more comfortable with her than in that moment, so I decided to test myself just a bit further. I knew I was incapable of hurting her now. The man was finally winning the battle with the monster. And I really did want to be closer, to feel more of her skin on mine.

Sensing what I was feeling as she always did, her cheeks turned their familiar shade of pink. I wanted to laugh because it seemed silly to blush in such a moment, sitting in our stillness, just watching each other. But I also knew what I was about to do and I didn't want her to be embarrassed of her reactions to me. I enjoyed them. They made her who she was, and they reminded me that at least some part of her longed for me as I longed for her.

“The blush on your cheeks is lovely,” I said softly, and watched the shade deepen.

Reluctantly, I took my other hand from hers and it fell lifelessly to her side. She didn't want me to let go either. It was the most amazing feeling to be so wanted. Eager to show her my intentions, I brushed my fingers lightly along her soft cheek. She sighed and I felt her relax beneath my touch. Encouraged, I brought my other hand up from her neck and cupped her face delicately between my hands, always aware of how utterly breakable she was.

It terrified me, but also filled me the deepest sense of joy that she trusted me so completely. It fueled my earlier resolve and made me believe that being with her could really be possible.

“Be very still,” I said, ready to test my limits but still afraid of my instincts taking over without warning. As much as I wanted to let her control everything today, this was definitely a moment I needed to lead. Even though it seemed impossible that I would hurt her now of all times, I wasn't going to take any unnecessary chances. I had to be in charge, just for these few precious moments.

Slowly, so slow I wasn't even sure I was moving, I leaned closer to her. I kept my eyes locked with hers, silently reminding her not to make any sudden movements. My fingers were still stinging from the sensation of warmth where I had touched her face and neck. I wanted to feel that warmth on my face, wanted to feel that much more human for her. So I gently laid my cheek against her throat, taking one shallow breath to see how much more potent her scent would be in such close proximity.

It was painful, but bearable. The thirst raked at my throat, but I was so happy to be touching her without her being afraid that it lessened the pain. Assured that I was still in complete control, I allowed my breaths to return to normal. I let my fingers trace down from her face to her neck, focusing on the texture of her skin on mine. I felt her shiver and worried for one brief moment if having so much of my icy skin on hers at once was making her too cold. Then I realized her heart was racing again and reminded myself that her shivers could mean something else.

When my hands finally rested on her shoulders, I let my nose trace along the length of her collarbone. The fiery burn was almost too much and I contemplated backing away, but I was so near to her heart and it was beating faster than I'd ever heard it. Beating that way for me.

It gave me all the encouragement I needed to take the final step in my little experiment. I pressed my cheek firmly but gently into her chest and listened to her frantic heartbeat. I forced one more deep breath of her heavenly scent and closed my eyes.

“Ah,” I breathed, letting the sanctity of this impossible moment wash over me. I don't know how long I sat there, face pressed against her wonderfully warm skin, but I eventually noticed her heartbeat return to normal. We both breathed steadily and I wondered if she could be as unwilling to let this moment end as I was. Still, I was curious what her expression would show me, so I slowly returned to my sitting position and let my hands fall to my side. I knew it wouldn't be long until I would be holding her again.

She looked content, happy even, though there was still a hint of nervousness in her eyes. I didn't want her to think that every time I touched her she would have to sit there like a statue. In fact, part of me wished she could have touched my cheek as well. I longed to feel her soft fingers trace the lines of my face.

“It won't be so hard again,” I assured her, glad I could say it with such confidence. It really had been quite manageable.

“Was that very hard for you?” she asked, concerned for me as she always was.

“Not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be,” I said truthfully. “And you?”

“No, it wasn't bad...for me,” she answered, blushing the deepest shade of red I'd seen yet. A huge grin pulled at my lips. She'd enjoyed me touching her, being that close to her.

“You know what I mean,” I teased and she grinned right back at me.

“Here,” I said, pleased to have just thought of an excuse to hold her hand again. I brought it softly up to my cheek and sighed as I felt her caress my skin. I could tell my face wasn't as icy as usual, still radiating some of her delightful warmth, and I hoped she could feel it too.

“Do you feel how warm it is?” I asked hopefully.

She looked like she wanted to answer me, but the strangest expression had just crossed her face. It was almost...longing? How I wished I could know what she was thinking.

“Don't move,” she whispered, and I froze beneath her. Sensing what she was about to do, I let my eyes close and focused on making sure I was still in control of myself. I knew it was coming, but I still felt myself tense as her fingers touched my cheek. I wanted to lean into her touch, encourage her, let her know how much I was enjoying it. But she had stayed still for me, and it was her turn to explore me now.

I was surprised when I felt her touch my closed eyes, and again wondered what she was thinking. Then her fingers moved to my nose and eventually my lips. Without meaning to, I opened my mouth and let out the breath I hadn't realized I was holding. Yet somehow I knew I hadn't been holding it to keep her scent away. Recognizing yet another long buried human reaction, I realized I'd been holding it in anticipation.

Far too soon, I felt her hand pull away from me. I opened my eyes and could feel them shamefully begging her for more. Did she have any idea what she was doing to me? I wanted to wrap my arms around her, pull her close, inhale her luscious scent until it drove me mad. It was a new kind of desire, one I hadn't believed myself capable of, and it was harder to contain even than the beast whose need I thought would always come first. This was new, and wonderful, and completely unexpected.

“I wish,” I said, struggling for the right words, “I wish you could feel the...complexity...the confusion...I feel. That you could understand.”

Unable to control this new longing, I reached up and ran my fingers through her hair once more.

“Tell me,” she whispered, and I could feel how badly she wanted to understand.

“I don't think I can. I've told you, on the one hand, the hunger – the thirst – that, deplorable creature that I am, I feel for you. And I think you can understand that, to an extent. Though as you are not addicted to any illegal substances, you probably can't empathize completely,” I teased, determined to keep the mood light.

She'd ended up understanding better than I could have expected. Regretfully, my foolish actions during the day had finally made her see the danger of being with me. Yet now those desires were overshadowed by new and powerful sensations, and I needed her to understand just what that meant. There was hope for us now. I finally felt like I had something to offer her.

“But...” I said quietly, letting my fingers gently caress her lips and loving the shudder that ran through her as I did, “There are other hungers. Hungers I don't even understand, that are foreign to me.”

“I may understand that better than you think.” Her breath was shaky when she spoke and it filled me with delight.

“I'm not used to feeling so human,” I admitted. “Is it always like this?”

“For me?” she asked. I held another expectant breath as I waited for her answer. “No, never. Never before this.”

At that I reached out both of my hands and scooped hers into mine, holding them tighter than I probably should have. If my strength made her uncomfortable, she didn't complain. After a moment I forced myself to loosen my grip, just in case I was hurting her. It was unfathomable that this new desire was almost as difficult to control as the one I'd been fearing for so long. I wanted to hold her tight, squeeze her hands in mine and never let go. It was harder than I would have imagined, holding back and minding every touch for fear of crushing her fragile body.

“I don't know how to be close to you,” I said with a sudden twinge of sadness. “I don't know if I can.”

This wasn't something I'd factored into the equation. My longing to be close to her could put her in as much danger as the thirst I'd finally manged to tame. It felt like the universe was against us, giving us more and more reasons not to be together.

Something of my inner turmoil must have shown on my face, and being the compassionate soul that she was, her next gesture was one of pure comfort. She leaned into me, slowly as was our understood standard, and rested her cheek on my chest. I wished I could make my heart beat for her.

“This is enough,” she said sweetly, letting her eyes flutter closed.

Completely overcome with my love for her and the trust and faith she had in me, I didn't know how to respond. I wanted to ask how she could possibly think I was enough for her. What chance at a normal life could I offer her? Yet as the wind ruffled her hair again and blew her scent toward me once more, I smiled and reminded myself we had already won the hardest battle.

Acting on what I could only assume was some part of my human nature, I wrapped my arms gently around her and took a deep breath of her hair. It was the most marvelous scent, and my joy once again silenced the burn.

“You're better at this than you give yourself credit for,” she said with a giggle. It was such a relief that my gesture appeared to have been the appropriate one.

“I have human instincts – they may be buried deep, but they're there.”

I closed my eyes, and let the events of the day replay through my mind. We'd accomplished so much, both of us, and although it seemed the world was against us, I wasn't going to let anything touch us in our fleeting moment of perfect bliss.

With a sigh, I noticed the setting sun and felt our day coming to an end. If it weren't for the fact that I knew I would be watching her sleep in a few short hours, I don't think I would have been able to let her go.

“You have to go,” I muttered, half hoping she wouldn't hear me. Or wouldn't care.

“I thought you couldn't read my mind,” she sighed.

“It's getting clearer,” I said, smiling at how well I seemed to understand her now. As I thought about how long it had taken to walk there this morning, I grew concerned that it would be dark long before we could reach the car. And while the dark didn't matter to me, I knew it would make the hike that much more difficult for her. With a rush of excitement I thought of a solution, though I wasn't sure how she would react to it. Still, it seemed like a fitting way to end our day of truth and revelations.

“Can I show you something?” I asked, looking deep into her eyes to gauge her reaction.

“Show me what?” she asked nervously.

“I'll show you how I travel in the forest.” I saw the glint of fear in her eyes, and I suppressed my laughter as I thought about all the possibilities her imagination was likely creating. “Don't worry, you'll be very safe, and we'll get to your truck much faster.” I smiled, trying to assure her I'd protect her as I let her take a small step into my vampire world.

“Will you turn into a bat?” she asked, and the laughter I'd been holding in finally escaped in a loud burst. Hollywood really had fun coming up with ways to make our world even stranger than it already was.

“Like I haven't heard that one before!”

“Right, I'm sure you get that all the time,” she muttered sarcastically, probably trying to mask her embarrassment.

“Come on, little coward,” I teased, having a bit more fun with it than I should have. “Climb on my back.”

She looked at me like I was joking, so I smiled and went to pull her up. Her heart was racing again but it didn't sound the same as before when I was touching her. I was startled realize I could tell the difference, and thrilled that I'd inadvertently discovered another way of reading her.

As I pulled her up, I felt her tiny arms and legs lock around me, and tried my best not to think about how good it felt to have her pressed into me.

“I'm a bit heavier than your average backpack,” she said shyly.

“Hah!” I laughed again, rolling my eyes. She felt as light as a feather to me.

I casually reached up and brought her palm to my cheek, partly because I wanted her to feel comfortable again and partly because I missed the feeling of her hand against my face. I inhaled her beautiful scent, barely noticing the ache it incited in my throat.

“Easier all the time,” I whispered, more to myself than to her.

Then with one final breath I took off. I immediately felt her hand leave my face and resume its firm grip around my neck. I wished I could see her. I really had no way of knowing how she would react to the speed. Since I couldn't read her and I really didn't want to stop until we reached the truck, I simply let myself thrill to the excitement of running. It wasn't just the running though, it was feeling Bella there with me, finally sharing with her the one part of this miserable existence I actually enjoyed.

I thought about slowing down, to prolong the moment, but I was anxious to hear her thoughts on the experience. I hoped it was as invigorating for her as it always was for me.

After just a few minutes, I spotted her truck in the distance. Slowing down to a gentle stop, I took in another deep breath, letting her scent mingle with all the life of the forest around us. It was divine.

“Exhilarating, isn't it?” I asked excitedly. I waited for a few seconds, eager for her response, when it occurred to me she was still gripping me so tightly her knuckles had turned white.

“Bella?” I asked, growing concerned.

“I think I need to lie down,” she said breathlessly.

“Oh, sorry,” I said, feeling a sharp pain of regret. I didn't think it would have bothered her that much.

“I think I need help,” she added, arms and legs still clenched around me.

Despite my best efforts, a small laugh escaped my lips. Of all the things about me she couldn't handle, of course it would end up being the one thing I was so sure she would like. I unlocked her grip and pulled her into my arms, wrapping her up the way I had in our meadow. The human gestures were coming to me more readily every second.

I was enjoying holding her, but then I remembered she had asked to lie down. I lowered her carefully onto the ferns and quickly inspected her to make sure there was no outward damage. Had I underestimated the effect of the sharp wind against her face, or the amount of strain the speed would put on her body?

“How do you feel?” I asked, genuinely concerned though I couldn't see anything wrong with her.

“Dizzy, I think.”

Oh, well I guess that was a reasonable response. “Put your head between your knees.” I'd never understood it, but I'd heard people say it helped.

I continued watching her, and listening as her breathing steadied. Eventually she lifted her head, though she kept her eyes closed.

“I guess that wasn't the best idea,” I murmured apologetically.

“No, it was very interesting,” she said, eyes still squeezed shut. I laughed at her feeble attempt to make me feel better.

“Hah! You're at white as a ghost – no, you're as white as me!” I laughed.

“I think I should have closed my eyes,” she said, shaking her head at herself.

“Remember that next time.”

“Next time!” she yelled, and I had to laugh again. Then quietly I heard her mutter, “Show-off.”

I sat there listening to her as her breathing steadied and watched her, wondering how on earth this could be her most difficult moment of the day. She'd been alone with me all day as I relentlessly shared with her my darkest secrets. She didn't fear my unnatural skin or my unyielding strength. She reveled in my cold touch and graced me with her warm fingertips in return. I'd accomplished everything I set out to do and so much more. There was only one way this day could be more perfect and in that quiet moment, with only the sound of her heart and our breathing, I let myself believe it was possible.

“Open your eyes, Bella,” I said in my gentlest voice.

As her beautiful eyes fluttered open, I heard her breath catch. She was surprised by how close I was, but it didn't seem to bother her. In fact I could swear she moved just a fraction of an inch nearer to me by instinct.

“I was thinking, while I was running...” I began, wondering how I would bring up what I so desperately wanted to try.

“About not hitting trees, I hope,” she interjected.

“Silly Bella,” I laughed. Always afraid of me for all the wrong reasons. “Running is second nature to me, it's not something I have to think about.”

“Show-off,” she said again, this time obviously meaning for me to hear it.

I smiled at her and prepared myself for what was next. The last hurdle to jump over. My final test of the day. Just how close could I be to her and still keep the monster at bay?

“No. I was thinking there was something I wanted to try.”

Of course all of this was entirely new to me, so I hadn't the faintest idea of how to start. So I decided to begin with the gesture that had left us both feeling so at peace earlier. I took her soft face into my hands and gazed into her eyes.

For a moment, she stopped breathing altogether. It wasn't until then that I realized I hadn't taken a breath in awhile either. Perhaps that was smart. But being stupid had gotten me pretty far today, so I decided to take a careful breath.

Even with her face inches from mine and her moist lips parted as she realized what I wanted to do, I was in control. I moved very slowly toward her until I could feel her breath on my face. It was warm, just like her touch, and I paused to marvel at how wonderful it felt. Taking another deep and cautious breath, I watched her eyes close softly. A quiet sigh escaped her lips and it was all the reassurance I needed. There was no need great enough to make me harm her, now or ever. So I let my own eyes close as hers had, and pressed my lips to hers.

It was the most magnificent feeling, soft and loving. I could taste her on my lips but it didn't ignite the painful thirst as I had expected. It made me long for more of her embrace.

Unfortunately, Bella seemed as in tune to my desires as always, and was all too willing to give me what I wanted. Every caution, every warning, every plea I had made to her to stay still disappeared. Her fingers reached up and grabbed at my hair and secured my face to hers. Her lips were parted beneath mine and I could feel her breathing me in just as I had breathed her in.

And without warning it was too much. The tender, affectionate man was gone and the monster could once again taste what it desired most. And this time my prey was clutching me to her. I froze, holding my breath and forcing the beast to retreat. I quickly played back our day in the grass, remembering the way her eyes watched me with curiosity and above all her graceful innocence.

Without opening my eyes, I pushed her face away but couldn't bring myself to release her entirely. Feeling her perfect warmth in my hands was the only thing allowing me to hold onto my last bit of restraint. Still refusing to breathe, I opened my eyes. Hers were still closed, and even in the midst of the terrible moment, I found myself wondering what she was thinking.

Eventually her eyes opened, and after taking in my expression, she whispered, “Oops.”

“That's an understatement,” I mumbled sarcastically.

“Should I...” she started to move, but that only seemed to make it worse. I couldn't have her stirring her scent around me.

“No, it's tolerable. Wait for a moment, please,” I said as calmly as I could manage. Even then I refused to let her know just how close I had been to letting the monster out.

It helped that she never took her eyes off of mine. There was no way I would have been able to hurt her while staring into them. She watched me with such adoration, it made the wild thirst die down more quickly.

“There,” I finally said, feeling a touch of my earlier peace return to me.

“Tolerable?” she asked, smirking ever so slightly. Casual and relaxed again so quickly. I had to laugh.

“I'm stronger than I thought. It's nice to know.” Yes. I needed to focus on the strength I had found rather than the weakness that had almost overtaken me. After all, I had still won the battle. And I learned another piece of information that would help me next time. Hmm. I wondered how she would react if I asked her to keep her eyes open while kissing me.

“I wish I could say the same. I'm sorry,” she said, frowning. I couldn't bear to see her place the blame on herself again. So I teased her. She seemed to like it when I made jokes.

“You are only human, after all.”

“Thanks so much,” she said bitterly, and I wished I had just left it alone.

Ready for this dismal moment to be over, I jumped to my feet and reached for her hand. I was surprised when she didn't immediately take it and worried I'd frightened her more than I'd thought, but then I felt her hand in mine and everything felt normal again. Well, normal for us.

She wobbled unsteadily as I tried to get a better grip on her. Of course I was used to her lack of coordination, but I couldn't resist the urge to make just one more joke.

“Are you still faint from the run? Or was it my kissing expertise?” I laughed.

She watched me for a moment, like she was trying to work out some equation in her head. If she had any idea how frustrating it was for me not knowing...

“I can't be sure, I'm still woozy,” she finally answered. “I think it's some of both, though.”

“Maybe you should let me drive,” I offered, wondering how in the world she would be able to drive when she could barely walk.

“Are you insane?”

“I can drive better than you on your best day,” I reminded her. “You have much slower reflexes.” I didn't mean it as an insult. It was just one of the differences between our two kinds.

“I'm sure that's true, but I don't think my nerves, or my truck, could take it.”

“Some trust, please, Bella.” I almost laughed at the irony of my asking for her trust now, when she'd done nothing but give it to me wholeheartedly all day.

I watched as her hand clenched in her pocket, probably holding onto the key with all her might. She seemed to think about it momentarily, but shook her head, unwilling to budge.

“Nope. Not a chance.”

I lifted an eyebrow, silently asking if she was really putting her foot down on this one. I don't know why, but as she began walking around me toward the driver's side, it started to feel like a challenge.

As I watched her stumble once again, I reached my arm out and encircled her waist.

“Bella, I've already expended a great deal of personal effort at this point to keep you alive,” I reminded her, still trying to keep things light. “I'm not about to let you behind the wheel of a vehicle when you can't even walk straight. Besides, friends don't let friends drive drunk.”

I laughed as I watched my joke sink in. She understood, but still she had to ask. And of course I couldn't resist.

“Drunk?”

“You're intoxicated by my very presence.” I grinned my most mischievous grin at her.

“I can't argue with that,” she conceded, and I had to admit it made me happy to know she really did feel that way.

With a knowing look, she lifted the key in the air and let it drop. Of course I caught it instantly and she just smiled.

“Take it easy – my truck is a senior citizen,” she said, a real hint of worry in her voice. Once again, always afraid of the wrong things.

“Very sensible,” I said seriously, letting her know I wouldn't push her ancient truck past its limit. No, apparently it was only myself I was willing to push to the extreme.

Then I noticed she was looking at me somewhat sadly, and I wondered if it really bothered her that much, the idea of me driving too fast in her beloved truck.

When she spoke however, her voice was as miserable as her expression, though she tried to mask it with irritation.

“Are you not affected at all? By my presence?”

I smiled at her again, baffled that she couldn't see it, feel in emanating from me every second we were together. I was affected by everything she did, every way she looked, every sound she made. Her presence made my existence worthwhile.

Determined to make her see just what she did to me, I lowered my face slowly to hers and let my lips trace her jawline. Gently my mouth caressed her from her ear to her chin, over and over until both of our breathing had sped up and I trusted she was starting to understand. When I looked at her again, her eyes were wide and excited.

“Regardless,” I said softly, “I have better reflexes.”


Chapter 15 - MIND OVER MATTER

.

My mind was still reeling from the events of the day as I watched Bella buckle her seatbelt nervously. Really, I had just run her at my full speed through the forest without so much as brushing against a tree branch. What did she think I was going to do, drive us off a cliff into the ocean?

She looked up at me with wide eyes, and I just rolled my own at her as I started the engine and began our drive. Wishing I could make her as comfortable as she had been sitting with me in our meadow, I reached across and took her hand in mine. She relaxed slightly and smiled at my casual touch. A huge grin spread across my face as I realized all the barriers were gone now. I'd been afraid to touch her for so long, worried the chill of my fingers would bother her. Now I knew it excited her. Amazing as it was to think about the possibility, this could be our new normal. I could hold Bella's hand, hug her, ruffle her hair.

Kiss her...

That part of the afternoon was still a bit of a blur. If it weren't for the lingering burn in my throat that had been reignited after tasting her on my lips, I almost wouldn't have believed it really happened. Of course there was one other admittedly more enjoyable reminder. Bella still had the most adorably goofy grin on her face, a slight blush still coloring her cheeks.

I had to remind myself not to speed in old truck down. I could feel the engine screaming at me as I tried to push it even to sixty, so I relaxed my foot and tried to concentrate on other things. The sunset over the horizon. The trees on the side of the road that may as well have been standing still. Bella's fingers locked with mine between us. Her beautiful eyes when she chanced a glance at me from under her lashes.

I wondered if she knew how much I loved it when she looked at me that way. It was so shy like she didn't want me to know she was staring, which is ridiculous because having her look at me, still completely unafraid was the most thrilling feeling. I was still trying to convince myself all of this was real when I caught her gaze and saw the blood rush to her cheeks again. It gave me some ray of hope that perhaps she really did care for me like I so desperately loved her.

Of course I knew it couldn't be exactly the same for her. She hadn't been waiting nearly a century to find the reason for her existence. In fact, I got the feeling she wasn't very big on the whole idea of dating. I chuckled under my breath as I remembered her irritation at being repeatedly asked to the dance. They'd all shown her interest, yet she turned each one of them down.

But she hadn't turned me down. So there I sat with the most remarkable human I'd ever met holding my hand and looking at me like I was the prize rather than the unmistakable winner.

Although I was perfectly content to sit in silence and marvel at how far we'd come in such a short time, I thought the quiet might be bothering her. I reached to turn on the radio, tuning the knob until I found one of my favorite stations. She seemed surprised when I started singing along with one of the songs.

“You like fifties music?” she asked, peeking up at me again, driving me crazy. In the most fantastic way.

“Music in the fifties was good,” I said, then paused realizing I'd never actually told her how old I was. I wasn't sure if she was ready for that piece of information, so I cracked a quick joke, trying to distract her. “Much better than the sixties, or the seventies, ugh! The eighties were bearable.”

I smiled warmly at her but like always her curiosity was already piqued.

“Are you ever going to tell me how old you are?” she asked, meeting my eyes with a pleading look.

“Does it matter much?” I said, still trying to keep the atmosphere light.

“No, but I still wonder.” She looked strangely dejected, as if not knowing had really been troubling her. “There's nothing like an unsolved mystery to keep you up at night.”

Had she actually lost sleep wondering about my past? It seemed a fairly insignificant detail to be bothering her so much, but who was I to question human worries.

“I wonder if it will upset you,” I said softly.

Time had lost all meaning to myself and my family. As the years pass and we remain unchanged, we eventually just stopped counting. If it weren't a necessary part of our facade, keeping up with world events and trends, I honestly think we wouldn't even know what year it was. Still, it was something Bella wanted to know, and if I'd learned anything today it was that I would do anything in my power to make her happy.

After yet another song ended, she finally spoke and her voice was calm, but with just a hint of frustration.

“Try me,” she said, and I allowed myself to meet her stare once more. Her eyes were just as adoring as when she'd watched the sun bounce off my skin, or listened to my worst confessions. She was urging me on, trying to tell me that whatever the answer was it wouldn't change anything. With a sigh I gave in and told her what she'd been wanting to know.

“I was born in Chicago in 1901,” I said slowly, watching her reaction carefully. Maybe she was expecting worse, or maybe she was just really good at keeping her shock hidden. Either way, nothing about her expression changed so I smiled and continued. “Carlisle found me in a hospital in the summer of 1918. I was seventeen, and dying of the Spanish Influenza.”

That did it. That knowledge of my last dark human moments made her gasp. When I looked at her there was an agony in her eyes I didn't fully understand. She seemed to be hurting for my former pain, though it was just a distant memory to me. Her empathy would never cease to astound me.

“I don't remember it well,” I assured her, determined to help the soft peace return to her eyes. “It was a very long time ago, and human memories fade.”

I sifted quickly through the few foggy human memories I'd manged to cling to. I could still see my mother's face, though I'd managed to block out how sick and pale she'd become at the end. I didn't remember much of my childhood but there were bits and pieces that had stuck with me. Often it felt more like watching a movie of someone else's life rather than recalling my own, but at least they were there. There were some, like Alice, who didn't have any memories of being human. Although I'd never trade the few memories I had, I sometimes wondered if not remembering made this life easier. If you couldn't remember the joys of being human, would it make you miss it less?

The sound of Bella's steady breathing brought me back and reminded me I was in the middle of telling her something she'd been eager to hear about for a long time. I quickly picked up where I had left off, sharing a piece of information that was always very painful to recall.

“I do remember how it felt, when Carlisle saved me. It's not an easy thing, not something you could forget.” I worried she was going to ask about my transformation, and was relieved she seemed to be letting it go. At least for the moment.

“Your parents?” she asked, probably wondering why Carlisle hadn't saved us all. Of course she couldn't understand how difficult the decision had been for him deciding to save even me.

“They had already died from the disease. I was alone. That was why he chose me. In all the chaos of the epidemic, no one would ever realize I was gone.”

“How did he...save you?” she asked, and there was a glimmer of something slightly more that just idle curiosity behind her words. I didn't know what it was, but it made me nervous just the same.

I should have quit while I was ahead. This really wasn't something I was ready to discuss with her. I looked at her again and she was silently begging me to keep going. I really was under her complete control.

“It was difficult. Not many of us have the restraint necessary to accomplish it. But Carlisle has always been the most humane, the most compassionate of us...I don't think you could find his equal throughout all of history.” I had to take a moment to form my next words. I still wasn't entirely sure why, but I felt the need to emphasize one particular point.

“For me, it was merely very, very painful.” I felt my jaw clench as I spoke. I didn't want to upset her, but something told me she had already started to glorify to some extent our way of life. I needed her to understand that it isn't something any of us would have chosen. The transformation itself is enough to make anyone pray for death. Then the irony is that when death doesn't come, you wake to a life where death will never be an option again. At least not without taking very extreme measures.

Although I wished the subject could be closed entirely, there was one more thing I wanted her to understand. I needed her to know that our family was created more or less for companionship. Carlisle had hung onto enough of his humanity that he recognized he didn't want to be alone. Most vampires are perfectly content by themselves, or with just their mate once they find them. Somehow, all of us needed each other. We needed to belong, not just to ourselves or to one other, but to a group. We needed a family. It was the closest we could come to feeling human again.

“He acted from loneliness,” I explained. “That's usually the reason behind the choice. I was the first in Carlisle's family, though he found Esme soon after. She fell from a cliff,” I said, editing a few details of her story out of respect. “They brought her straight to the hospital morgue, though, somehow, her heart was still beating.”

It was difficult for me to think about how close Esme had been to not making it through the change. Vampire venom can work miracles, but she'd been so close to death she was almost beyond repair. I didn't like to think of what it would be like without her around, and it was impossible to think of what Carlisle would be without her. It was like she was perfectly designed for him. Their innate compatibility was enough to make me wonder if some higher power hadn't led Carlisle into this life for the sole purpose of finding her. Centuries apart, immortality was the only way for them to be together.

Lost in my reverie, Bella's next question caught me rather off guard.

“So you must be dying, then, to become...” her voice trailed off. I knew she wasn't comfortable using the word vampire. I'd only heard her say it once, that first day when she admitted to me she knew what I was. Even then it'd been barely more than a whisper. I wondered how she would feel if I started using it casually in our conversation.

“No, that's just Carlisle. He would never do that to someone who had another choice.” Carlisle possessed more respect for human life than most humans do. His utter determination to protect rather than to harm was ultimately what gave us all hope. The monster can still be tamed, the man can win out over the beast. It was Carlisle who had assured me I would be strong enough to get through my day alone with Bella, and I was grateful beyond measure that I had proven him right.

“It's easier he says, though, if the blood is weak,” I finally finished, trying once again to put an end to the topic. As thrilled as I was to finally be sharing my secrets with her, there were still things I wasn't ready for her to know, to be thinking about.

“And Emmett and Rosalie?” she asked, eager to learn more.

“Carlisle brought Rosalie to our family next.” I paused for a split second, wondering if I should divulge the next bit of information. Although I found it completely unimportant and irrelevant, I had a snaking suspicion it would bother Bella. Her ridiculous insecurities always got the best of her.

“I didn't realize till much later that he was hoping she would be to me what Esme was to him – he was careful with his thoughts around me,” I said flippantly, rolling my eyes and trying to make light of it. It really was absurd, like vampire match making. He had good intentions though and I never faulted him for it. Bella's expression didn't indicate she was upset, but I heard her breathing change so I quickly continued.

“But she was never more than a sister. It was only two years later that she found Emmett. She was hunting – we were in Appalachia at the time – and found a bear about to finish him off. She carried him back to Carlisle, more that a hundred miles, afraid she wouldn't be able to do it herself. I'm only beginning to guess how difficult that journey was for her.”

I glanced at Bella to make sure she was okay, and also that she realized the depth of what I was saying. Every day with her was a struggle, though I was pleased to find it was getting easier with time. But no amount of physical pain I was feeling could compare to the absolute elation I felt to having found someone so remarkable. Though admittedly it wasn't the most logical pairing, I finally felt I had found what the rest of my family had – someone to make our endless existence worthwhile.

Unable to resist the urge to feel her blushing cheek again, I brought our hands up together and let the back of my hand lightly brush her skin. The delicate warmth was a sweet reminder that we would find a way to make this work.

My eyes must have still been agonized though, because she looked at me reassuringly and whispered, “But she made it.”

I couldn't understand why, but she looked away from me with a sadness I wished I could take away.

“Yes,” I mumbled. Wondering if the conversation had gotten too serious for her. Unwilling to let Bella worry over the troubles of our past, I forced my tone to soften.

“She saw something in his face that made her strong enough. And they've been together ever since. Sometimes they live separately from us, as a married couple.”

And things are so much more peaceful then, I thought wryly.

“But the younger we pretend to be, the longer we can stay in any given place. Forks seemed perfect, so we all enrolled in high school. I suppose we'll have to go to their wedding in a few years, again,” I laughed. And every time, Alice would insist on putting her in a new dress. Just exactly how many wedding gowns does one girl need?

“Alice and Jasper?” she continued, apparently determined to learn my entire family's history. If she kept this up, maybe eventually she would feel courageous enough to meet them officially. With a smirk, I wondered how awkward that moment would be.

Bella, let me introduce you to my family. Oh, don't worry, I've threatened to rip apart anyone who doesn't stay at least ten feet away from you.

“Alice and Jasper are two very rare creatures. They both developed a conscience, as we refer to it, with no outside guidance. Jasper belonged to another...family, a very different kind of family,” I said, trying my best to emphasize the point while discouraging her from asking details. That was one subject I was determined not to burden her with. “He became depressed, and he wandered on his own. Alice found him. Like me, she has certain gifts above and beyond the norm for our kind.”

“Really?” she said excitedly. “But you said you were the only one who could hear people's thoughts.”

“That's true. She knows other things. She sees things – things that might happen, things that are coming. But it's very subjective. The future isn't set in stone. Things change.”

I felt my voice catch and I glanced quickly at Bella, once again hoping she could just let it go. As much as I tried to fight it, Alice's two differing yet equally disturbing images took hold of my mind. It was worse than just having heard her talk about it, I had seen them, repeatedly in fact. Somehow that gave them merit, made them more concrete. I had already proven I was strong enough not to let the first come to pass. Bella sitting comfortably beside me, holding my hand was proof of that.

But the image of Bella pale and cold, part of my world in a way I would never allow her to be, felt so uncertain. I wondered how it could ever come to that. I'd spent a great deal of time thinking about it, more than I wanted to, but in the end I'd decided there were only two possible explanations. First, if I were selfish enough to ask it of her to ease my own suffering. It likely would continue to be a constant battle, the closer she wanted to get to me. Still, I couldn't imagine ever succumbing to that, so I thought of the second possibility.

If she were on the brink of death and changing her was the only way to keep her with me. That desperate option seemed far more likely. My love for her was already so powerful a force, as much as I hated myself for thinking it, I knew I would act in any way needed not to lose her.

So I would have to work very hard to keep her safe, to never let any harm come to her. I smiled at the thought of continuing to be her own personal guardian – well, not exactly angel, so guardian vampire would just have to do.

Bella brought me back to the present with yet another question. Frustrated in my struggle to keep just a few things from her, I wished we were driving my car so we could get back faster. I didn't know how much more of this either one of us could take.

“What kinds of things does she see?”

“She saw Jasper and knew that he was looking for her before he knew it himself. She saw Carlisle and our family, and they came together to find us. She's most sensitive to non-humans. She always sees, for example, when another group of our kind is coming near. And any threat they may pose.”

And for that I was eternally grateful. Without Alice's gift, I probably wouldn't ever be able to let Bella out of my sight.

“Are there a lot of...your kind?” she asked, obviously surprised. I wondered what her definition of “a lot” was. It didn't feel like that many to us, but to a human, one rogue vampire was probably “a lot.”

“No, not many,” I said, hoping she wasn't too frightened by the idea of having us walk among her kind unnoticed. “But most won't settle in any one place. Only those like us, who've given up hunting you people,” I teased, “can live together with humans for any length of time. We've only found one other family like ours, in a small village in Alaska. We lived together for a time, but there were so many of us that we became too noticeable. Those of us who life...differently tend to band together.”

“And the others?” she asked. She was trying to mask it, but I knew it was scaring her to think about it. I was thankful to finally be pulling into her driveway, hoping that once inside we could talk about more pleasant things. Like our day together. And hopefully our endless days to come.

“Nomads, for the most part. We've all lived that way at times. It gets tedious, like anything else.” That was putting it mildly. It was enough to drive you mad, never having a home, never feeling settled. “But we run cross the others now and then, because most of us prefer the North.”

“Why is that?”

“Did you have your eyes open this afternoon?” I smirked at her. “Do you think I could walk down the street in the sunlight without causing traffic accidents? There's a reason why we chose the Olympic Peninsula, one of the most sunless places in the world. It's nice to be able to go outside in the day. You wouldn't believe how tired you can get of nighttime in eighty-odd years.”

It was nice to finally be honest about just how long I had been wandering around in this miserable existence. Maybe it would help her understand how special she truly was, why she had so drastically changed everything.

“So that's where the legends came from?”

“Probably.” Yeah, that and bored Hollywood writers who got paid way too much to think up absurdities about the supernatural. Even if they knew the truth about us, it probably wouldn't stop them from inventing even more myths and legends to try to entertain the people.

“And Alice came from another family, like Jasper?”

“No, and that is a mystery. Alice doesn't remember her human life at all.” I sighed and wondered why Alice's nonexistent memory seemed more troubling to the rest of us than it did to her. Maybe because we were all clinging to whatever part of our humanity we could remember, and we couldn't understand how she was so content, only knowing this way of life.

“And she doesn't know who created her,” I continued. “She awoke alone. Whoever made her walked away, and none of us understand why, or how, he could. If she hadn't had that other sense, if she hadn't seen Jasper and Carlisle and known that she would someday become one of us, she probably would have turned into a total savage.”

Thankfully, at that Bella's stomach growled loudly. I had to laugh because here we were talking about vampires and our history, and Bella's body seemed to be trying to remind her she was human.

“I'm sorry, I'm keeping you from dinner,” I sighed, reluctant to let her go. I reminded myself the sooner I let her have dinner and get to bed, the sooner I could be with her again. I wondered what dreams would have after a day like today. I hoped the beauty overshadowed the nightmarish things she'd had to learn about. I wanted only peaceful dreams for her, always.

“I'm fine, really,” she said. She seemed as unwilling to leave as I was. A part of me wished she knew I was never far away.

“I've never spent much time around anyone who eats food. I forget.”

“I want to stay with you,” she said firmly, shocking me by being so straightforward. Usually I had to guess at her feelings toward me. It was wonderfully enjoyable to hear her speak so honestly.

“Can't I come in?” I asked, suddenly excited by the idea of actually being invited in. Sneaking around did make me feel somewhat guilty. Not guilty enough to stop of course, but still...

“Would you like to?”

Would I like to? What kind of question was that? Although, she seemed to be trying to remain nonchalant, so I would attempt the same.

“Yes, if it's all right,” I said casually, and in the same second I was already out of the car opening her door for her. Right. Nonchalant.

“Very human,” she said with a grin.

“It's definitely resurfacing.” Along with a tidal wave of emotions I'd never had the pleasure of feeling even in my human life.

I loved the way she kept glancing up at me as we walked together. Not only was it adorable, but it also made me feel a strange kind of warmth from deep inside me, almost like when I touched her. It made me want to tell her everything, all the times I'd watched her, how amazing she was even when she was asleep. It probably wasn't the best idea, but I couldn't help myself.

I took a couple of quick steps, beating her to the door and opened it for her. I took a deep breath, because of course she would put the pieces together.

“The door was unlocked?” she asked skeptically.

“No, I used the key from under the eave.”

She walked through the door and turned the light on, looking at me warily. This may have been a mistake.

“I was curious about you,” I said, trying to sound like it was no big deal.

“You spied on me?” she asked, attempting to sound furious. Yet there was a little flicker of a smile playing at her lips, and it encouraged me to continue with my confession.

“What else is there to do at night?”

For the first time all day, she didn't push for any more information. Instead she turned and headed toward the kitchen. Still invigorated by the knowledge that I could really be myself around her, I flew past her and sat down before she was even halfway down the hall.

I watched her curiously as she heated up a plate of leftovers. The smell was revolting, so for the first time I actually willed myself to focus on her sweet aroma, trying to get past the burn and really take it all in. I was happy to find it didn't pain me nearly as much as it had even a few hours ago. Perhaps I was growing desensitized. That was an encouraging thought. So encouraging that I almost didn't hear her when she spoke again.

“How often?” she said softly. Ah. Of course she wasn't letting it go. She'd just been looking for something to distract her so she could again act completely uninterested.

“Hmmm?” I muttered, buying a few seconds to figure out how best to phrase my answer.

“How often did you come here?” She asked it like it was past tense. I almost felt bad for correcting her. Almost.

“I come here almost every night.” The only exception being when I was away hunting, and even those trips I'd been cutting short as of late.

She turned and looked at me incredulously. “Why?” she asked, she voice a full octave higher than normal. I tried not to smile too widely.

“You're interesting when you sleep. You talk,” I sighed. About me.

“No!” she shrieked, and instantly I wished I'd never brought it up. Her face was the darkest shade of red I'd ever seen and she was clearly mortified. I didn't understand what she was so embarrassed about. Whether dreaming or awake, she was divine.

“Are you very angry with me?” I asked, hoping she'd forgive me for this as easily as she'd forgiven what I considered far more horrendous sins.

“That depends!” she gasped, her voice still nowhere near normal.

“On?”

“What you heard!”

Understanding what she must mean, I rushed to her side. After admitting shamelessly just how deeply I cared for her, I couldn't fathom why she was so humiliated by the thought of me hearing a few of her unconscious thoughts about me. Besides, there were never any confessions of love, as much as I wished I could be so lucky, only occasional mentions of my name. And asking me not to leave.

“Don't be upset!” I pleaded, lowering my face so I could look her in the eye. More so than usual, she looked very small as she watched me shyly.

“You miss your mother,” I told her gently. “You worry about her. And when it rains, the sound makes you restless. You used to talk about home a lot, but it's less often now.” I wanted to tell her how happy it made me that the closer she and I became, the less she mentioned Phoenix. “Once you said, 'It's too green,'” I remembered with a low chuckle.

“Anything else?” she asked. She was going to make me say it.

“You did say my name,” I replied calmly, though inside I felt like I was going to burst at the memory.

“A lot?” she sighed.

“How much do you mean by 'a lot,' exactly?” I asked, trying to avoid the question. Not so much for her sake but because I was suddenly a little embarrassed by the fact that I knew the exact number.

“Oh no!” she moaned, dropping her gaze to the floor.

I felt terrible for having upset her so much, so I pulled her into me and held her gently. I let my hands tangle in her hair as I breathed in her luscious scent. In keeping with my desensitization theory, I noticed there was almost no pain at all. I was caught up in how floral it was, pleasant and warm, just like everything else about her.

I brushed her hair back from her face and lowered my lips to her ear, letting them barely touch her as I whispered, “Don't be self-conscious. If I could dream at all, it would be about you. And I'm not ashamed of it.”

I felt her relax into my embrace, finally reaching her arms around me and squeezing back. I heard Charlie's thoughts a few seconds before she heard him pull into the driveway, and she tightened her grip on me.

“Should your father know I'm here?” I asked, already sure I knew the answer.

“I'm not sure...” she said uncertainly. I smiled at the thought that she still wasn't ready to let me go.

“Another time then...” I said, disappearing up the stairs to wait for her.

“Edward!” she whispered loudly, and I just laughed. When would she learn? I was never far away.

I stood in the hallway outside her bedroom, oddly reluctant to go in without her permission even though I'd been doing so for weeks. It was different though, now that she knew. I felt a pang of worry that maybe she would ask me to stop coming. As much as I hated the thought of missing that time with her, if she really felt strongly about it, I would respect her wishes.

I listened to her and Charlie talk idly about the day, wondering how it was possible he didn't notice the obvious excitement in her voice as she spoke. Finally I head him say, “You look kinda keyed up.” I laughed under my breath as I imagined the blush that must have rushed to her cheeks. A few moments later he started asking her about boys. I snickered again as I heard her insist that none of the boys had caught her eye.

Charlie was a bit too much like his daughter in that he couldn't just let things go. He insisted on asking about that horrid Mike Newton and I felt the familiar twinge of jealousy. Logically, I knew there was no reason for it, after all Bella had spent the day with me. Holding my hand. Staring into my eyes. Learning all there was to know about me. Yet the feeling still crept in, irrational as it was. It was one aspect of feeling human again that I was not particularly enjoying.

Eventually they said their good-nights, and not wanting to startle her when she reached the top of the stairs, I decided meeting her in her room was best. It was wrong, I know, but when I saw her bed I couldn't resist laying down on it. I stretched out with my feet hanging off the edge and waited for Bella.

She shut the door louder than I thought was necessary and went straight to the window, not even noticing me on her bed. She called my name frantically into the darkness and I laughed quietly at her. Did she think I was hanging out in the trees? Not that I hadn't done that before.

“Yes?” I said slyly, and she turned around startled.

“Oh!” she cried, lowering herself to the floor. She wasn't usually this jumpy. Maybe the stress of the day was finally starting to sink in.

“I'm sorry.” I tried to sound sincere, but she just looked so cute sitting there, nearly hyperventilating on the floor.

“Just give me a minute to restart my heart.”

She was so beautiful I couldn't wait any longer. I wanted her beside me again, so I sat up and reached over to help her up. She felt so fragile as I lifted her onto the bed next to me.

“Why don't you sit with me,” I said, taking her hand. “How's the heart?”

“You tell me – I'm sure you hear it better than I do.”

I laughed because she was right. I knew the sound of her heart better than any other sound in the world. I'd follow it anywhere.

“Can I have a minute to be human?” she asked when her heart had returned to normal.

“Certainly,” I said, just happy she didn't seem at all uncomfortable with my being in her room. On her bed. With her father downstairs.

“Stay,” she ordered, and looked at me with stern eyes. I fought the laughter that was threatening to escape, not wanting to embarrass her again.

“Yes, ma'am,” I answered, freezing where I sat.

She hurried off to the bathroom and I allowed my mind once again to run through all that had happened that day. I'd been so worried that things would go badly, it didn't seem possible that it was really all behind us, the most difficult test passed. It wasn't so much that I truly believed I would hurt her. I'd like to think I never really thought that possible, though certain nagging thoughts told me otherwise. But there had most definitely been the possibility of me running away if it became too much to handle. She probably never would have forgiven me if I'd left her stranded out there and had to send Carlisle to go get her. Although knowing Bella, even that might not have been beyond her ability to forgive.

I was impatient for her to return and I questioned how long a humans nightly routine could take. Eventually I heard the shower start and I tried very hard not to think about the warm water cascading over her soft skin. Instead I made myself focus on Charlie's muffled thoughts. Though they weren't clear, they were obviously about Bella. Naturally he was worried about her. He shifted back and forth between vague concern that she didn't seem interested in dating, and wondering if she was actually very interested but hiding it from him. After several blurry minutes of sifting through his mind, I heard him go outside, followed by the distinct sound of battery cables being detached. I laughed and rolled my eyes.

Finally I heard the water shut off, and a few minutes later Bella told Charlie good-night again, likely attempting to emphasize the fact that she was going to bed. She raced up the stairs and bounded back into the room, looking over at me expectantly like she thought I would have changed my mind and run off. I wish she could understand that nothing short of her kicking me out herself could make me leave. I was hopelessly addicted to her.

When she squinted through the darkness and saw that I hadn't moved, her eyes lit up and she flashed my favorite adoring smile at me. I returned the expression warmly, as I started to take in her appearance. I don't know what I had been expecting, but her old t-shirt and worn out sweatpants most certainly weren't it.

“Nice,” I said with a grin.

She cringed, so I quickly added, “No, it looks good on you.”

“Thanks,” she said quietly, shuffling over to sit beside me again. I was actually glad she hadn't troubled herself with trying to impress me. I loved every inch of her, just the way she was. There was no need to change anything about her normal pattern just because I was now allowed to be a part of it.

I was curious though, when she seemed so anxious to spend more time with me, why she had bothered with such an in depth process.

“What was all that for?”

“Charlie thinks I'm sneaking out,” she said knowingly.

“Oh,” I said, thinking about her currently non-working truck. “Why?”

“Apparently, I look a little overexcited.”

She rolled her eyes, but her blush always gave her away. Overexcited was exactly what she was. I loved that our day together had had that effect on her, though I hoped she'd be able to relax enough to get a good night's sleep. I was anxious to see where her dreams would take her tonight.

I cupped my hand under her chin and lifted her eyes to meet mine.

“You look very warm, actually,” I sighed, leaning in to touch my cheek to hers. Now that I knew how nice it felt, I missed her warmth on my skin when it wasn't there. Unconsciously I let a low “Mmmmmm...” escape as I breathed her in.

As she sat silently letting me caress her face and take in her heavenly scent, I wished more than ever that I could know what she was thinking. Did she still think I needed her to be still? Would she ever be able to reach up and touch my face in return, pull me closer to her and make the moment even more perfect?

“It seems to be...much easier for you, now, to be close to me,” she whispered, still not moving an inch.

“Does it seem that way to you?” I asked, grinning as I slid my nose to her jaw. I brushed her hair back and lightly kissed her below her ear. It was the softest little patch of skin and I wished for a second I could taste it on my tongue.

“Much, much easier,” she sighed, letting her eyes flutter closed.

“Hmm.” It had been getting easier every second we were together, either because I was getting used to her, or because every moment I loved her more seemed to strengthen my resolve. I let my fingers trace down the side of her neck and across her collarbone.

“So I was wondering...”

“Yes?” I asked, pleased that I seemed to be distracting her so thoroughly. I really had no idea what I was doing. I was just acting on what felt right, and at that moment touching every inch of her skin seemed right.

“Why is that...do you think?”

I laughed, because it had been such a surprise to me that I really didn't think I could explain it right. Everything had been so much simpler when it came down to just Bella and I. Between the force of my initial reaction to her and the endless mocking of my brothers, I think I'd convinced myself it was impossible for us to be together. At least not without a constant, unrelenting pain assaulting me. The fact that I was now able to relax around Bella, to enjoy being close to her, to feel pleasure rather than agony from her nearness, was a gift I didn't feel I could possibly deserve.

Finally I answered her with the simplest of all possible explanations.

“Mind over matter,” I said with a small laugh, my lips just barely touching her. I let my breath tickle her neck and she shivered.

Without warning she pulled away from me and my breath caught, fearing I'd done something to upset her though I couldn't think of what. As she backed away, her wet hair fell down around her face and her pulse started to race. Against my will my I felt my jaw tighten as adrenaline once again made her blood altogether too delicious. Still, I couldn't feel any lapse in my control. Just a return of the scorching pain from earlier. It was a very small price to pay for being this close to her.

“Did I do something wrong?” I finally had to ask.

“No – the opposite. You're driving me crazy,” she said, her breath almost gasping. I put her words together with her body's reaction and suddenly felt very pleased with myself.

“Really?” I smiled, wondering how I'd managed to figure out this whole closeness thing so quickly.

“Would you like a round of applause?” she said, sarcasm dripping from her voice.

It just made my grin widen.

“I'm just pleasantly surprised,” I explained. “In the last hundred years or so, I never imagined anything like this. I didn't believe I would ever find someone I wanted to be with...in another way than my brothers and sisters. And then to find, even though it's all new to me, that I'm good at it...at being with you...” My voice and my mind trailed off at the same time while I thought of more ways I'd like to try to drive her crazy.

“You're good at everything,” she said, still looking slightly irritated, though amusement was definitely starting to win out. I just shrugged and she laughed. It felt so good to laugh with her, to feel so...normal for once.

“But how can it be so easy now? This afternoon...”

“It's not easy,” I said, remembering how quickly and unexpectedly the fire had returned. I knew better than to let my guard down and I certainly didn't want her to forget for one second that she was sitting inches away from a vampire. She had to maintain some level of control over herself. I'd learned the necessity of that by her response to my kiss and the nearly unmanageable thirst it had ignited.

I decided the best way to make her understand, would again be total honesty. It was difficult to admit how much things had changed, how different I'd felt this morning compared to how I felt now. Still, she had a right to hear the truth.

“But this afternoon, I was still...undecided. I am sorry about that, it was unforgivable for me to behave so.”

Bella, in all her compassion, didn't let me agonize for even one second over my confession.

“Not unforgivable,” she said, looking deeply into my eyes to assure me. I'd done nothing to deserve that kind of affection.

“Thank you,” I smiled, though it felt insufficient. “You see, I wasn't sure if I was strong enough...” I said miserably. My fingers twitched and I knew I needed to feel her again to get through what I was about to say. I brought her hand up to my face, relishing in her smile and gentle touch. “And while there was still that possibility I might be...overcome,” I sighed, taking a meaningful breath of the sweet scent coming from her wrist, “I was...susceptible. Until I made up my mind that I was strong enough, that there was no possibility at all that I would...that I ever could...”

I couldn't even think the word anymore. While she sat there in all her beauty and innocence, it was physically painful to think about any harm ever coming to her. I wanted to wrap her up in my arms and tell her how much I needed her...her soft, warm, perfect body and her adoring eyes. It was beyond any need I'd ever felt. It was confusing and terrifying and wonderful.

“So there's no possibility now?” she asked, raising one eyebrow.

“Mind over matter,” I assured her, trying to convey everything I was feeling through my smile.

“Wow, that was easy,” she teased and a huge laugh escaped my mouth.

“Easy for you!” I said, touching her nose to emphasize the word. She giggled at the gesture and I rolled my eyes at her.

Uninvited, Alice's visions of Bella's future returned to my mind. I quickly ran over the two possibilities again. I'd basically decided never to leave Bella's side long enough for anything to hurt her, and I knew no amount of suffering on my part was worth Bella giving up her life, her soul.

As confident as I felt from today's success, I couldn't pretend I wasn't worried that I might someday still be overcome in a moment of weakness. It seemed absurd to imagine I could let my control waver like that, but then I remembered the intensity of my need as she clutched me to her, when I could still taste her on my lips.

“I'm trying,” I said, my face and voice abruptly melancholy. “If it gets to be...too much, I'm fairly sure I'll be able to leave.”

She glared at me. I should have known better than to talk about leaving with her.

“And it will be harder tomorrow,” I said, thinking about my theory as to why it was so much easier now than this afternoon. “I've had the scent of you in my head all day, and I've grown amazingly desensitized. If I'm away from you for any length of time, I'll have to start over again. Not quite from scratch, though, I think.”

I hoped. Though I didn't plan on being gone for long enough to find out.

“Don't go away, then,” she pleaded, sounding a little bit childish but also undeniably sweet. I wanted her to want me, to need me there with her.

“That suits me,” I grinned. “Bring on the shackles – I'm your prisoner.”

And I couldn't resist. I reached over and locked my fingers around her wrists, gently but firmly. I wouldn't say it out loud for fear of scaring her away, but I wanted her to belong to me like I had so completely given myself to her.

We laughed quietly together, the hopeful atmosphere returning to us again.

“You seem more...optimistic that usual. I haven't seen you like this before.”

Didn't she understand yet? This day had changed everything. And every second I spent loving her more and more made it all seem that much easier.

“Isn't it supposed to be like this? The glory of first love, and all that. It's incredible, isn't it, the difference between reading about something, seeing it in the pictures, and experiencing it?”

I thought of Carlisle before Esme, Rosalie before Emmett. I'd seen the way finding their perfect partner had changed them, but still I'd never really been able to imagine what it would feel like. I'd counted myself as the outcast, the unlovable, destined for whatever reason to walk alone forever. I was still having trouble understanding the power of everything I was feeling, the way it had completely taken over everything else.

I smiled at her as she agreed, “Very different. More forceful than I'd imagined.” Although she'd made it fairly clear she'd never really been in a relationship before, it was nice just the same, hearing her say it. As least we were both figuring this all out together.

“For example,” I continued, deciding it was time to admit my irrational jealousy. With all her insecurities, it seemed only fair to let her know she definitely wasn't alone in that either. “The emotion of jealousy. I've read about it a hundred thousand times, seen actors portray it in a thousand different plays and movies. I believed I understood that one pretty clearly. But it shocked me...”

For a split second I almost lost my nerve, thinking about how humiliating it was going to be to admit everything out loud. Still, I knew it would make her happy.

“Do you remember the day that Mike asked you to the dance?”

She nodded and a rather adorable smile tugged at her cheek. “The day you started talking to me again.”

I sighed. At least her smile had just given me something to replace the bad feelings surrounding that day.

“I was surprised by the flare of resentment, almost fury, that I felt – I didn't recognize what it was at first. I was even more aggravated than usual that I couldn't know what you were thinking, why you refused him. Was it simply for your friend's sake?” I hated using the word “friend” in reference to Jessica and her cruel mind. “Was there someone else? I knew I had no right to care either way. I tried not to care.”

Her expression was shocked, like she truly had no idea what I was talking about, why it had bothered me so much. So I laughed and added, “And then the line started forming.”

She did not look amused. Even now, so long after the fact, all the attention still bothered her. I should count myself grateful that my relentless pursuit seemed to be the one she didn't mind.

“I waited, unreasonably anxious to hear what you would say to them, to watch your expressions. I couldn't deny the relief I felt, watching the annoyance on your face. But I couldn't be sure.”

I took a deep breath and prepared to admit just how long I'd been watching her sleep. I had no way of knowing whether it would upset her more, knowing it had been for such a long time. I hoped we'd come far enough, and she would appreciate my honesty enough that she would let it go.

“That was the first night I came here. I wrestled all night, while watching you sleep, with the chasm between what I knew was right, moral, ethical, and what I wanted. I knew that if I continued to ignore you as I should, or if I left for a few years, till you were gone, that someday you would say yes to Mike, or someone like him. It made me angry.”

She was watching me with unfathomable eyes, disbelief apparent on her face, like she couldn't understand my strong reaction. I wondered what she would think if she knew how many times I'd fantasized about shoving Mike into a wall, or even simply threatening him, demanding that he stay away from Bella.

Irrational, yes. Tempting, absolutely.

“And then,” I said, hoping my disclosing the details of her sleep talking wouldn't incite the same reaction as earlier, “as you were sleeping, you said my name.”

I closed my eyes for a moment, remembering how that was the moment I'd first realized I loved her. It had awoken the man in me, the part of me that wanted to be everything for her.

“You spoke so clearly, at first I thought you'd woken. But you rolled over restlessly and mumbled my name once more, and sighed. The feeling that coursed through me then was unnerving, staggering. And I knew I couldn't ignore you any longer.”

Her face was still frozen in shock, but I heard her heart start beating erratically. I hoped she was finally starting to understand why I watched her every night, why I became addicted to it. Still so cautious around me in her everyday life, it was the only way for me to know how she really felt. It gave me hope. It gave me strength to keep fighting the battle everyone was so convinced I was going to lose.

I wished she would say something, anything to let me into her mind for just a moment. I was kind of pouring my heart out and she was sitting there like a statue before me. Then I thought of something I was fairly sure would get a reaction from her.

“But jealousy...it's a strange thing. So much more powerful than I would have thought. And irrational! Just now, when Charlie asked you about that vile Mike Newton...” I said, shaking my head and waiting for her response.

“I should have known you'd be listening,” she said, more defeated than I thought necessary. Of course I listened. I thought she knew that by now.

“Of course,” I said simply.

“That made you feel jealous, though, really?”

I smiled. There it was. Of all her admirers, she seemed the most irritated by Mike, much to my great amusement.

“I'm new at this; you're resurrecting the human in me, and everything feels stronger because it's fresh.“But honestly, for that to bother you, after I have to hear that Rosalie – Rosalie, the incarnation of pure beauty, Rosalie – was meant for you. Emmett or no Emmett, how can I compete with that?”

Of all the ridiculous, absolutely pointless things for her to worry about, she was really jealous of Rosalie? I might have said something, but it occurred to me that my jealously of that pathetic, childish Mike probably looked just as absurd to her.

“There's no competition,” I assured her, smiling my biggest, brightest smile. When even that seemed to do nothing to make her feel better, I took both her hands stilled locked firmly in my grasp, and brought them around behind me. It felt spectacular having her whole body pressed against mine and I allowed myself another deep breath of her hair.

“I know there's no competition. That's the problem,” she said sadly. I hated hearing her sound that way, so broken, so insignificant. How did she not yet know she was everything to me?

“Of course Rosalie is beautiful in her way, but even if she wasn't like a sister to me, even if Emmett didn't belong with her, she could never have one tenth, no, one hundredth of the attraction you hold for me.”

I paused to make sure she was really listening to me. I needed her to understand, to believe me when I told her she was the only person in all my years who'd made me glad I existed. I'd spent so long feeling like everything was pointless, not even trying to find a partner because what good could it possibly do? All those years of loneliness, of trying to make peace with my solitude, were worth it because they had led me to her.

“For almost ninety years I've walked among my kind, and yours...all the time thinking I was complete in myself, not realizing what I was seeking. And not finding anything, because you weren't alive yet.”

I finally felt her smile into my chest as she pressed her cheek closer to me.

“It hardly seems fair,” she said softly, “I haven't had to wait at all. Why should I get off so easily?”

I rolled my eyes at her. Only Bella could classify spending so much time alone with a vampire as “easy.”

“You're right,” I teased, trying to make her see her inane logic. “I should make this harder for you, definitely.”

Then I scooped both of her hands up into one of mine, so that I could run my fingers through her silky hair.

“You only have to risk your life every second you spend with me, that's surely not much. You only have to turn your back on nature, on humanity...what's that worth?”

“Very little – I don't feel deprived of anything.”

She spoke with such sincerity it made my chest tighten, like I was gasping for air I didn't need. She really didn't feel like she was giving anything up to be with me. But what about when she wanted more? We could never be together the way a man and a woman should be. We could never have a family together, or even grow old together. How long could she stay happy, growing older while watching me stay frozen in time.

“Not yet,” I finally sighed, willing myself not to think about all the things I was taking away from her by staying. I wasn't ready for that yet. For now I just wanted to stay in our perfect moment, her arms around me, my face buried in her hair.

Breaking my from my thoughts, I heard footsteps outside her door. Charlie was checking up on her, just like she'd anticipated. My grip instinctively tightened around her.

“What...” she asked, but he was already slowly turning the doorknob. It was rather inconvenient not being able to hear his thoughts clearly. Still, I felt like I should have heard him coming sooner. I let go of her hands and slipped out of her arms quickly, stifling a chuckle when she almost fell face first onto the bed where I had just been.

“Lie down!” I whispered, and watcher her curl quickly into a ball under the blanket. Her forced breathing was laughable, and I was glad the room was too dark for Charlie to really notice anything strange. He watched her for a moment and I heard his staggered thoughts berate himself for having been suspicious. I almost felt bad for him, because he'd actually been pretty spot on.

After about a minute, he softly closed the door again. When I heard him close his own bedroom door, I silently slipped under the covers and wrapped my arm around Bella. It was warm under her thick quilt, which made me feel less guilty about pressing my cold body so close to hers. I leaned over her and whispered into her ear, “You are a terrible actress – I'd say that career path is out for you.”

“Darn it,” she said, feigning nonchalance again. But I could hear her wildly beating heart. Hear it, and revel in it.

As much as I wished she could stay awake all night with me, I didn't want sleep deprivation to add to her usual lack of balance. Someone would probably notice if I flew out in front of her to catch her if she started to fall. Reluctantly, I started humming to her, trying to slow her frantic heart. It was nice to finally be able to sing Bella her lullaby, even if I wasn't quite ready to tell her I'd written it for her.

“Should I sing you to sleep?” I asked softly, listening as her heartbeat and breathing steadied.

“Right,” she said with a laugh. “Like I could sleep with you here!”

Still self conscious. I wished she could see there was nothing for her to be embarrassed of.

“You do it all the time,” I said softly.

“But I didn't know you were here,” she replied, the earlier irritation starting to creep back into her voice. I knew it was selfish, but I was afraid she was going to ask me to leave so I hastily changed the subject.

“So if you don't want to sleep...” I trailed off. I think she read more into my tone than I was intending because I heard her inhale sharply.

“If I don't want to sleep...?” she repeated.

“What do you want to do then?” I asked with a laugh, hoping I hadn't just put an idea into her head that really shouldn't be there. I listened while she returned her breathing to normal.

“I'm not sure,” she muttered after almost a minute.

“Tell me when you decide,” I said, more than happy to fill my time enjoying her skin and her scent. I traced my nose along the length of her jaw, breathing in and letting my breath wash over her. I felt goosebumps rise on her neck. It was really quite amazing. Now that I'd gotten past the worst of the pain, I found that I could really take all of her in, enjoy the aroma that was unique to her. It reminded me just how precious a gift I'd been given.

“I thought you were desensitized.”

“Just because I'm resisting the wine doesn't mean I can't appreciate the bouquet,” I told her gently, hoping it wouldn't upset her. It was a compliment, really, though I wasn't entirely sure she could see it that way. “You have a very floral smell, like lavender...or freesia. It's mouthwatering.”

“Yeah, it's an off day when I don't get somebody telling me how edible I smell,” she said sarcastically.

I laughed at her flippant reaction. Okay, so maybe she hadn't accepted the compliment but at least I hadn't offended her.

“I've decided what I want to do,” she finally said. “I want to hear more about you.”

I wondered how much more she really wanted to know. I felt like I'd already told her most of my deepest darkest secrets. And now she knew all about my family, and how I'd been created. What else was there?

“Ask me anything,” I replied, curious.

“Why do you do it?” she asked after a moment. “I still don't understand how you can work so hard to resist what you...are. Please don't misunderstand, of course I'm glad that you do. I just don't see why you would bother in the first place.”

I'll admit, it wasn't a question I'd expected her to ask. Mostly because it meant she was actually thinking about what it traditionally meant to be a vampire. I'd been assuming she avoided thinking about the logistics of it all, and here she was blatantly asking why I wasn't off killing people like the rest of them.

“That's a good question,” I finally said, not wanting her to think I was avoiding answering, “and you are not the first one to ask it. The others – the majority of our kind who are quite content with our lot – they, too, wonder at how we live. But you see, just because we've been...dealt a certain hand...it doesn't mean that we can't choose to rise above – to conquer the boundaries of a destiny that none of us wanted. To try to retain whatever essential humanity we can.”

She didn't say anything for awhile, and her breathing didn't change. I hoped I was explaining it well enough for her, because it was a very important part of our lives. Clinging to whatever shreds of humanity we could was what kept us going, gave us the courage to fight against our nature. It was essentially the reason I was able to lay here, tangled up with a human whose blood called to me, begged me to give in, yet all I wanted was to hold and protect her.

After several more moments of silence I had to ask. “Did you fall asleep?” It had been a very long, emotionally draining day.

“No,” she said, though her voice betrayed her obvious exhaustion.

“Is that all you were curious about?”

“Not quite.” Of course not. Not the always inquisitive Bella.

“What else do you want to know?”

“Why can you read minds – why only you? And Alice, seeing the future...why does that happen?”

I shrugged, having often wondered that myself.

“We don't really know,” I told her truthfully. “Carlisle has a theory...he believes that we all bring something of our strongest human traits with us into the next life, where they are intensified – like our minds, and our senses. He thinks that I must have already been very sensitive to the thoughts of those around me. And that Alice had some precognition, wherever she was.”

“What did he bring into the next life, and the others?” she asked, excitedly. Again I found myself slightly concerned by her obvious fascination with us. It was just so far from the normal human reaction to the supernatural.

“Carlisle brought his compassion. Esme brought her ability to love passionately. Emmett brought his strength, Rosalie her...tenacity,” I said through clenched teeth. There were a lot of other words for it, but I was in the presence of a lady. “Or you could call it pigheadedness,” I laughed, unable to resist.

“Jasper is very interesting,” I continued, not quite sure how to explain it. It was more something you needed to experience. “He was quite charismatic in his first life, able to influence those around him to see things his way. Now he is able to manipulate the emotions of those around him – calm down a room of angry people, for example, or excite a lethargic crowd, conversely. It's a very subtle gift.” Subtle, and very useful.

It was a lot of information to take in, so I calmly stroked her hair, her cheek, her arm, while I waited for another question. Part of me hoped she would fall asleep in the process. I was so anxious to hear her dream.

“So where did it all start?” she finally said groggily. “I mean, Carlisle changed you, and then someone must have changed him, and so on...”

It was like our own twisted version of the chicken and the egg. Where did it all start? There had to be a beginning for us, just like there was a beginning for mankind. Although I'd never really been able to make sense of it myself, I tried to explain my take on it as best I could.

“Well, where did you come from? Evolution? Creation? Couldn't we have evolved in the same way as other species, predator and prey? Or, if you don't believe that all this world could have just happened on its own, which is hard for me to accept myself, is it so hard to believe that the same force that created the delicate angelfish with the shark, the baby seal and the killer whale, could create both our kinds together?”

“Let me get this straight – I'm the baby seal, right?” she said slyly, peaking for one brief second over her shoulder at me. I grinned. Glad she made the connection.

“Right,” I laughed, burying my face further into her glorious hair.

There was another moment of peaceful quiet, so I softly asked, “Are you ready to sleep? Or do you have any more questions?”

“Only a million or two.”

I sighed. “We have tomorrow,” I reminded her, “and the next day, and the next...”

I could feel her smile in the darkness. “Are you sure you won't vanish in the morning? You are mythical, after all.”

Her voice was teasing, but I knew it was something she was genuinely worried about. I wanted to make the point very clear. I was hers, absolutely and unconditionally. I wasn't going anywhere unless she ordered me away.

“I won't leave you,” I said solemnly.

She seemed to take that in for a moment then added, “One more, then, tonight....”

I waited for her question but it didn't come. Instead I felt her skin grow hot under mine. It was like her whole body was blushing, and I wondered what question could have created such a strong reaction.

“What is it?” I asked, the curiosity almost unbearable.

“No, forget it. I changed my mind.”

“Bella, you can ask me anything,” I urged. I knew I wouldn't be able to relax and enjoy our night together if I was left wondering what she was too afraid to know. I thought I'd already told her the worst, but who knows. Her reactions were never what I expected. My fingers started playing aimlessly with her hair until finally I let out a frustrated moan.

“I keep thinking it will get less frustrating, not hearing your thoughts. But it just gets worse and worse.”

It didn't seem right. She was going to get a peaceful night's rest and I was going to lay there agonizing all night over what piece of information she was too afraid to know.

“I'm glad you can't read my thoughts. It's bad enough that you eavesdrop on my sleep-talking,” she said, trying to change the subject.

“Please?” I begged, but she shook her head. “If you don't tell me, I'll just assume it's something much worse than it is.” I was already imaging the worst. Maybe she'd ask me what human blood tastes like. That was the last thing I wanted to think about with her lying in my arms, all trusting and delectable.

“Please?” I pleaded one last time.

“Well,” she said, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Yes?” I didn't think it was possible, but her skin suddenly seemed to radiate even more heat.

“You said that Rosalie and Emmett will get married soon...” she whispered. “Is that...marriage...the same as it is for humans?”

“Is that what you're getting at?” I laughed, relieved that was all it was. She wanted to know if vampires had the same physical desires as humans. It wasn't something I would have expected her to think of, but all things considered, it didn't seem too difficult a topic. It had a pretty straightforward answer.

“Yes, I suppose it is much the same. I told you most of those human desires are there, just hidden behind more powerful desires.”

“Oh,” she mumbled. Only I got the feeling there was more. And with a sudden twinge of anxiety, it occurred to me the next part of her question might not be as easily answered.

Glutton for punishment that I was, I had to ask. “Was there a purpose behind your curiosity?”

“Well, I did wonder...about you and me...someday...”

Great. Why hadn't I just sung her to sleep earlier like I'd wanted to. I'm sure it would have worked. She was so exhausted, and she seemed to relax so easily when I ran my fingers along her skin. But I wanted to hear her voice more, to know what she was thinking. Stupid curious vampire. I supposed it wasn't an option to just jump out the window.

I realized after a moment that her body had gone as still as mine. It was too much to hope for that she had fallen asleep. I assumed she was holding her breath, anxiously waiting for me to answer the question I really, really wanted to avoid.

“I don't think that...that...would be possible for us,” I finally said, utterly defeated.

“Because it would be too hard for you, if I were that...close?”

Oh, Bella, you had to say it, didn't you?

I'd been trying to answer her very pragmatically, speaking from a purely logistical, theoretical standpoint. Now I was thinking about her, wondering what it would be like, wishing it were possible. Didn't she know she was driving me crazy, too?

“That's certainly a problem,” I admitted, trying to force my mind away from the image that had instantly filled my every thought. “But that's not what I was thinking of.” At least it hadn't been. “It's just that you are so soft, so fragile. I have to mind my actions every moment that we're together so that I don't hurt you. I could kill you quite easily, Bella, simply by accident.”

I was whispering, feeling somewhat ashamed to admit yet another weakness. I was so afraid I wouldn't be able to control my actions if I let myself lose focus with her. Every touch, every caress was so carefully calculated.

I very lightly touched my palm to her cheek and felt her press just slightly into it. That also complicated things. She didn't seem to be minding her own actions very closely, and there was just no way for me to know how she was going to respond in any given situation.

“If I was too hasty...if for one second I wasn't paying enough attention, I could reach out, meaning to touch your face, and crush your skull by mistake. You don't realize how incredibly breakable you are. I can never, never afford to lose any kind of control when I'm with you.”

I wanted her to say something, anything, to assure me that this wasn't a deal breaker. I'd assumed she'd realized my strength after what happened in the meadow today, but maybe she hadn't really thought it through. Maybe she had been lying there, wondering why I didn't hold her more tightly. Maybe my soft caresses wouldn't be enough for her.

“Are you scared?” I finally asked, bracing myself for whatever her response would be. She seemed to think about it for a few moments, but when she spoke, her voice was steady.

“No. I'm fine.”

I listened to her heart, her breathing, and deliberated for a minute or two. She seemed content, but she had stopped trying to pull me in closer. In an attempt to reassure her, I squeezed her just a little bit tighter and felt her sigh.

Relieved that we'd made it through yet another difficult conversation, something else popped into my head. I didn't really have a right to ask, but with all we'd already been through, I figured she could handle it. I tried to make my voice as light and unconcerned as possible.

“I'm curious now, though. Have you ever...?” Oddly enough, I realized I was just as embarrassed speaking bluntly about it as she had been.

“Of course not,” she answered quickly, the heat returning to her skin. “I told you I've never felt like this about anyone before, not even close.”

“I know. It's just that I know other people's thoughts. I know love and lust don't always keep the same company.”

“They do for me. Now, anyway, that they exist for me at all.”

I smiled at her in the darkness and nuzzled further into her hair. I thought about how I'd watched the rest of my family find their mates, the bonds they had formed perfect and unbreakable. It made it that much stranger to watch so many humans change partners as often as they changed clothes. I didn't think Bella fell into that category, thinking of how irritated she'd been when males showed her attention, but I didn't know what her life had been back in Phoenix. It was a relief to hear her say it. That obnoxious feeling of jealousy had already started to gnaw at me again, just thinking about her with someone else, even if it was before I knew her.

“That's nice,” I sighed. “We have one thing in common, at least.”

“Your human instincts...” she said, her voice low and shaky again. “Well, do you find me attractive, in that way, at all?”

I laughed and resumed playing with her hair. Silly, insecure, beautiful girl. Couldn't she feel it, couldn't she tell all the ways I wanted her?

“I may not be human, but I am a man,” I told her, hoping she would just leave it at that.

Thankfully, she finally gave in to a huge yawn.

“I've answered your questions, now you should sleep,” I said, really needing us to be finished for the night. I couldn't remember what it felt like to be tired, but I'm pretty sure this was the closest I'd ever come to it.

“I'm not sure if I can.”

She was still nervous having me there, and I knew she needed sleep. Reluctantly I asked, “Do you want me to leave?”

“No!” she yelled and I laughed. She was going to wake up Charlie and then where would we be? I lowered my lips once again to her ear and began humming her lullaby. It was only a few moments before I felt her go limp in my arms, her breathing relaxed and steady.

Finally able to relax myself, I let my thoughts drift while idly tracing my fingers across her shoulders, her back. Occasionally she let out a soft sigh, so I knew she was enjoying my touch, even in her sleep. It was a miraculous feeling.

I had no way of knowing if she'd even be able to dream with me there. Bella was so strong willed, maybe she'd talk her subconscious out of it for fear of what I might hear her say. Still, even if she was silent all night, none of my nights listening to her could compare to the feeling of her sleeping in my arms. Knowing she trusted me so completely filled me with an entirely new kind of joy. I may not be able to be everything for her, but I could always be her protector, her shelter.

After awhile, she started to stir. I hoped she wasn't getting cold so I wrapped the quilt more tightly around her, trying to block out the chill of my body. She made a low murmur, then startled me by flipping completely over and turning into me. She wrapped her arm around my waist and buried her face into my chest. I was frozen, shocked at how tightly she was holding me. Then, it happened. She said my name.

Without thinking, I reached up to run my fingers through her hair and she sighed, nuzzling further into my chest. When she said my name again I responded, hoping that somewhere in her subconscious she could hear me.

“I'm here, Bella. I'm here, I've got you,” I said softly.

My fingers continued their slow rhythm in her hair as I started softly singing to her again. She was so warm, so beautiful, I felt like my silent heart was going to suddenly start beating again.

Then, just when I thought the night couldn't get any more perfect, I heard her speak the words I'd been longing to hear.

“I love you,” she breathed, and I felt my own breath catch.

I marveled at her words, then whispered, “I love you, too, Bella. I'm always going to love you.”

“Mmmm...”

It was the greatest moment of my entire existence.

After a few minutes of silence, her breathing changed and I knew the dream was over. She was very still and her grip on me had loosened. Hoping I wouldn't wake her, I brushed the hair away from her face and kissed her lightly on her forehead. I let my lips linger for a few seconds while breathing in all of her exquisite scent. Then I kissed her beautiful closed eyes and told her again how much I loved her.

I hoped it would soothe her long enough for me to make a quick run home. I hadn't anticipated her wanting me to stay. As much as it hurt to think about leaving her, even for a few minutes, I thought it would be a good idea to check in with my family. Although I was confident Alice would have assured them things had gone well, I figured I owed it to them to tell them in person. Well, really I was only concerned with telling Carlisle and Esme. The rest of them could think whatever they wanted to think.

Either way, changing clothes seemed like a good idea as well. It felt like the respectful thing to do, even though I was pretty sure none of Bella's neighbor's had seen me go in with her last night. Still, Bella hated attention, and the last thing she needed was people speculating about me having stayed the night.

I smiled to myself, wondering if now I would be spending every night. She seemed rather reluctant to let me go.

Certain she'd drifted into the dreamless portion of her sleep, I kissed her hair one more time and climbed carefully out of bed. Surprisingly, I felt just a bit colder as soon as our bodies weren't pressed together anymore. Eager to get back to her before she noticed I was gone, I decided to make it a very quick run.

I flew soundlessly through the trees, hurrying even for me. When I got home, they were waiting for me, like I knew they'd be.

Where've you been all night? Emmett thought the second I walked through the door.

I eyed him with a look that clearly said, Everything is fine but please don't make me go into details.

Refusing to let it go, he spoke aloud. “Seriously, man. We've all been worried. What happened today?”

“Yeah, how did your big day with the human go?” Rosalie chimed in sarcastically. “Did you actually manage not to kill her?”

“What's it to you?” I snapped, really wishing I could have just talked to Carlisle and everyone else had stayed out of it. “I thought you all wanted me to just get it over with.”

“I don't want to move again, Edward!” she yelled.

I smirked at her, perfectly content to just let her stew for awhile. However, Alice was already flitting down the stairs to join us.

“Of course he didn't kill her, Rose. I told you, he loves her.”

Rosalie rolled her eyes as her mind launched into a steady stream of insulting thoughts about me. And Bella. Then me and Bella together.

“Oh, that's right,” said Jasper, who walked in and completed my little circle of torment. “You're in love with her now. And I thought I had problems controlling myself.”

I glared at him and Emmett doubled over in laughter.

“So how's that going anyway?” he continued, trying to contain his own laughter.

“Alice, I assume you'll fill them all in,” I said sourly, racing out of the room just in time to hear Emmett start to make a very inappropriate joke at my expense. Any other day I might have gone back down, taken him outside and thrown him into a tree or something. But all I could think about was getting back to Bella.

After a quick stop to my room to change clothes, I went straight to Carlisle's office, anxious to tell him of my success.

Come in, he thought before I reached the door. I smiled, pleased with myself for having such good news to tell him.

“Good evening,” I said, taking a seat next to his desk. It was amazing how the behaviors we'd gotten used to performing strictly for appearance's sake were now part of our lives even when we were alone.

“Alice told me the news,” he said warmly. “I knew everything would go well.”“Thank you,” I said. There was something slightly off about his tone and I wondered exactly what Alice had seen.

“So you two are very close now?” he asked, looking down at his desk rather than at me.

“What exactly do you mean by close?” I asked cautiously.

“Alice saw you...embracing the girl. She said you were quite in control.”

He finally looked up at me and I noticed the worry on his face.

“Yes, I held her,” I said, wishing I wasn't being forced to provide so many details. “I showed her what we look like in the sun and she wasn't afraid. She was...fascinated. She touched my skin.”

“That's wonderful.” So why didn't it sound like he thought it was wonderful.

“What's wrong, Carlisle?” I asked, hoping he wouldn't ruin my blissful mood.

“I just think you should be...careful.”

“I am being careful. All I'm being is careful. I mind every second I'm with her.” I could feel the sharpness of my tone and I hated using it with Carlisle of all people, but it sounded like he was doubting me. I couldn't understand why when he'd given me nothing but encouragement, and assurance that I was strong enough not to hurt her.

“You love her.” It wasn't a question.

“Yes, I love her. More than anything. And I'm not going to do anything to harm her.”

“I didn't say you were.”

“Then what's the problem?” I growled, wishing I had just stayed wrapped up in her arms where everything made sense.

Carlisle had been guarding his thoughts closely since I'd walked in. Still, in the midst of hospital news and paperwork, I distinctly heard, He won't survive it if he looses her. In that instant I started to understand where his mind had taken him. As I stared at him in disbelief, he spoke again softly.

“She's changed you, hasn't she? Irreversibly?”

I paused to think about what he was saying. He was asking if I'd found my mate, the one I wanted to spend forever with. Logically it made no sense at all, the two of us were so different, so physically incompatible.

Yet all I could think was, Yes. I've found her. And I'm never letting her go.

“Yes, everything is different now,” I finally said, answering his question.

He seemed to ponder that for a moment, and my eyes begged him not to ask questions I didn't have the answer to. Eventually he smiled at me.

“Emse is thrilled, you know.”

I allowed myself to give him the smile I'd been wanting to give since I walked in the room.

“I know she is. She's wanted this for a long time.”

“You two will find a way,” he said firmly. I just nodded.

After a few minutes of silence, I stood up and he understood what it meant.

“You're going back to her,” he said.

“Yes. I just wanted to let everyone know that things are fine. I mean, I've got it all under control,” I added with a smirk.

“Should I assume we're going to see a lot less of you around here?” he asked as I walked toward the door.

I thought about that, then felt a smile tugging at the corner of my mouth.

That's all the answer I need, he thought. Be well.

I nodded again and closed the door behind me. I could still hear the rest of my family arguing downstairs and it was enough to make me want to just jump out of my window and make a run for it. Alice would probably never forgive me though, if I didn't at least briefly talk to her about our day.

I rolled my eyes and ran down the stairs, anxious to get it over with.

“So what? Are you spending nights at the humans house now?” Rosalie asked through gritted teeth.

“Didn't you know, he's been spending nights there for awhile. Just...now she knows he's there,” Emmett laughed loudly. And I snapped.

I lunged at him and knocked him to the floor. Of course it wasn't a very smart move on my part because after that initial hit, the one I only got in because he wasn't expecting it, I found myself pinned to the ground.

“Why so touchy?” he smirked and Alice giggled.

Oh, this was a new low. Weren't we allowed to have any secrets? It was bad enough that Alice had probably seen the vast majority of our day together, but did she really have to talk to Emmett about it? I was never going to live this down.

“Alice, a word please,” I said sourly as Emmett let me up.

“Of course,” she smiled, streaking out of the room. I followed her, glaring at the others to let them know they were not welcome to join us.

Don't be mad at me, she pleaded as soon as we were alone. Well, as alone as anyone could be in a house full of vampires who could hear everything you said.

“I'm not mad,” I lied. “I just would have thought you'd have shown a little more respect for Bella. You are still planning on being friends with her, aren't you?”

She pouted and instantly her thoughts turned to a stream of apologies. I knew it was cruel, but I was tired of everyone treating Bella and I like we were the greatest piece of gossip they'd ever heard.

“Alice, I just wish you would keep your thoughts to yourself. Don't you think it's embarrassing enough, my knowing you can see everything that happens between us? Aren't we allowed a little privacy?”

“I was just looking out for her, Edward,” she said sulkily. “I thought you wanted me to keep an eye on Bella's future.”

“I do. Just maybe don't keep quite so close an eye when I'm with her.”

“But I thought...”“I know. We both thought I was the greatest danger in her life. And maybe I still am. But, after today...I don't know, it doesn't really feel like it anymore. Now I'm more,” I paused, thinking of exactly what I was so worried about. “I guess now I'm more worried about something happening to her when I'm not there to protect her. She's so fragile. I can hardly stand to let her out of my sight.”

She smiled tenderly at me, and walked over to plant a kiss on my cheek.

“Then what are you still doing here?” she asked wryly. “Go back to her. And I promise to try my very hardest to keep my head out of it.”

“Thank you,” I said sincerely.

She turned to leave but then added, “Oh, and Edward?”

“Yes?”

“Go out the back. They're still not done making jokes you probably don't want to hear.”

“Thanks for the tip,” I sighed.

But I really couldn't make myself care. My mind was already focused on getting back to the girl I loved. She was sleeping, quietly waiting for me, and I couldn't wait to hold her in my arms again and bury my face in her soft hair.


Chapter 16 - INTRODUCTIONS

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I was thrilled to see that Bella was in exactly the same position as when I left. I couldn't stand the thought of her waking up and wondering where I had gone, if I had broken my promise so soon and left her. She was still and quiet, her arm stretched lazily over the place I had been, so I climbed back under the blanket and scooted close to her.

She sighed and snuggled in toward me until her head once again found my chest. She seemed to take a deep breath then her fingers tightened, gripping my shirt and I smiled in the darkness at her. A part of me wished she would wake up so I could hear her voice again, or that she would find me in another one of her dreams. Still, I was content to just...be with her, and that was the strangest and most wonderful feeling.

With endless time stretched out before us, my family and I usually tried to find ways of passing the time. Reading, music, art, we all had our hobbies. Yet beyond all that, each of them had something I'd never had before – someone to love, to spend time with just for the pure enjoyment of it. All the times I'd watched Alice and Jasper just stare at each other, Carlisle and Esme giggle like they were teenagers in love, I couldn't understand how they were so happy doing nothing at all. As the hours passed and I listened to Bella's heart and the steady rhythm of her breath, it all made sense. When they were together they were doing something. They were loving each other, perfectly.

As night slowly came to an end and I saw the beginnings of the sunrise through her window, I felt Bella start to shiver slightly. I pulled the blanket tighter around her but she still looked cold. As much as I hated leaving her loving embrace, I didn't want her to wake up chilled. Carefully, I climbed out of bed and sat down in her rocking chair. Unthinkingly I started rocking back and forth, watching her and completely content to just be near her.

It was cloudy of course, Alice had only predicted one day of sun for our lovely little town, yet the light was bright enough to make Bella stir. She turned over onto her back and threw her arms across her eyes like she was trying to hang onto the last bit of night. After a few minutes she let out a groan and flipped onto her side, away from me and into the wall. I laughed under my breath as she fought off the morning, half conscious and completely unaware of my presence.

“Oh!” she finally gasped, sitting straight up, eyes wide and confused. One side of her hair was sticking up rather amusingly, but the knowledge that it had gotten that way because she'd pressed herself tightly into me for most of the night made it positively endearing.

“Your hair looks like a haystack...but I like it,” I smiled

“Edward! You stayed!” she cried ecstatically. Then more quickly that I'd ever seen her move, she was flying across the room and into my lap. She threw her arms around my neck and squeezed me, her head burrowed into my shoulder. Then with a horrified look, her eyes darted up to me, obviously wondering if our “no sudden movements” rule was still in effect. I laughed because as surprising as it was, her enthusiasm was nothing but enjoyable. Even if it did wake up the gnawing pain in my throat, it was worth it.

“Of course,” I grinned, letting my hands trace across her back and she nuzzled further into my chest and took several deep breaths. I'd never considered what I would smell like to her, but apparently there were no complaints.

“I was sure it was a dream,” she whispered.

“You're not that creative,” I assured her.

Then, as swiftly as she had thrown herself onto me, she was leaping out of my grasp leaving my stunned and wondering what I'd done wrong.

“Charlie,” she said, hurrying to the door.

“He left an hour ago – after reattaching your battery cables, I might add,” I informed her, already wishing she was back in my arms. “I have to admit I was disappointed. Is that really all it would take to stop you, if you were determined to go?”

She looked confused by my question and stood frozen in place as if her mind was debating something very important. I figured she could debate just as well with me holding her, so I reached out my arms, eyes begging her to come back. I wasn't ready for her to go back to reality yet. She seemed so much happier with me, wrapped up in my world, crazy and confusing as it was.

She deliberated a few more seconds before finally saying, “I need another human minute.”

“I'll wait,” I said calmly, purposely not moving my arms one inch. I would wait, arms open, for as long as she needed me to.

She wasn't gone nearly as long as she had been the night before, having performed most of her nightly routine simply for Charlie's benefit. I heard the sound of water running, on and off several times. I tried to think back to what exactly it took for humans to get ready in the morning, but things had been simpler in my time. Women nowadays made preparing for the day into an even in and of itself.

Bella came back after only a few minutes, hair straighter and face washed, but as usual without makeup or jewelry. I was glad to see she still didn't find it necessary to go out of her way trying to impress me. Maybe she really did understand how perfect she already was to me. I reached my still outstretched arms out even further to her, inviting her in, missing her warmth against my body.

After a few staggered beats of her heart she climbed back into my lap and I wrapped my arms completely around her. It was amazing how well she fit into my embrace, like she was made to be there, safe and protected.

“Welcome back,” I sighed. Welcome home.

I rocked us back and forth as we sat in silence, once again content to just be. She felt so relaxed with me I almost wondered if she might have drifted off again. Then I felt her fingers tracing the collar of my shirt and when she spoke, her voice was disapproving.

“You left?”

“I could hardly leave in the clothes I came in – what would the neighbors think?”

I decided to leave out the part about checking in, not sure she would want to think about how some of them thought I wouldn't bring her back alive. She frowned, apparently not liking the idea of me having left at all. If she only knew just how fast I ran through those trees. I may have actually broken my own record.

“You were very deeply asleep,” I promised her, then unable to resist added, “I didn't miss anything. The talking came earlier.”

“What did you hear?” she said miserably. She was mortified again, but this time I wanted her to really understand. I needed her to know why it was so important to me, why hearing her dream was such a precious gift to me.

“You said you loved me,” I told her gently.

“You knew that already,” she said shyly, lowering her gaze.

“It was nice to hear, just the same.” Nice didn't even begin to describe it. I longed to hear it again but didn't want to push her if she wasn't ready.

Once again giving me everything I needed but didn't deserve, she pressed her face more closely to my shoulder and breathed, “I love you.”

It was even more beautiful than hearing it while she dreamed, because this time I knew she wanted me to hear it, feel it, cherish it.

“You are my life now,” I told her, hoping she was starting to feel the depth of what that meant. She was everything to me and I'd devote my existence to keeping her safe, and making sure she always knows how much she's loved.

The minutes passed, or it could have been hours. We were together and time meant nothing. Eventually though, my thoughts drifted to her human needs and I assumed she must be getting hungry.

“Breakfast time,” I sighed, wishing we could just stay where we were.

Then she shocked me by staring at me in horror and clutching her throat. I knew she was kidding, but I honestly hadn't thought her capable of such a tasteless joke. I felt my eyes widen as I took in her feigned terror and tried to talk myself out of feeling awful for even having made her think about such things.

“Kidding!” she laughed. “And you said I couldn't act!” Her face immediately returned to the kind, adoring Bella. However her casual attitude toward the whole situation did not sit well with me.

“That wasn't funny,” I said, a little frustrated with myself for not being able to look past the awkwardness and joke about it the way she so obviously did.

“It was very funny, and you know it.”

She stared at me, waiting for the forgiveness she'd been giving me freely and without merit so I forced the gentle calm back into my eyes. If she could make fun of the vampires, I guess I'd have to learn how to as well.

“Shall I rephrase? Breakfast time for the human.”

“Oh, okay,” and she rolled her eyes at me.

She'd had her moment, and now it was my turn. I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder like a backpack, careful not to jostle her around too much. I flew her down the stairs, grinning while she attempted to argue with me. She must not have been too irked by it because by the time she was sitting up in her chair, and after her breath had returned to normal, she smiled and asked me, “What's for breakfast?”

Damn, I groaned internally. I remembered that she needed food, but I didn't think to learn to make food. I still hadn't found out all her little secrets like all the things she liked and disliked, including foods.

"Er, I'm not sure," I answered honestly, "What would you like?"

I was hoping she wouldn't ask for anything difficult. A pop tart maybe? Disgusting! I could see my reflection in her bright brown eyes and I watched as my brow furrowed at the complexity that was food. I was stumped on what to do.

She could read the apprehension on my face. She grinned her magnificent smile, bounded toward the cabinets and began searching.

"That's all right," she giggled, "I fend for myself pretty well. Watch me hunt."

My gaze followed her every move. I saw how she bounced on each of her steps. How every time she found something distasteful she would slightly shake her head, and when she was considering her options she would purse her lips.

When she found something to her liking, she pulled it out of the cabinet and placed it on the table returning to the fridge to grab something else, and then added the two together. I could smell the sourness of the milk and the wheat from the cereal. It was repulsive. How could she eat something like that? No wonder she was so frail.

Still somewhat disconcerted by her carefree attitude toward everything vampire, I sat down and watched her carefully as she poured herself a bowl of cereal. It looked disgusting.

“Can I get you something?” she asked politely before taking her first bite.

'Not unless you happen to be hiding a mountain lion in your pantry,' I thought to myself.

“Just eat,” I said dryly.

As much as I tried to avoid watching humans eat, I couldn't help look at her as she daintily chewed her cereal. It was basically as opposite as one could possibly get from a hunting trip with, say...Emmett. I don't think she'd make light of it all, if she ever saw what we were really like when we hunted.

It was strangely beautiful, watching how her eyes never left mine as she ate. It seemed almost like she was saying, “See? You let me glimpse into your world, now I'm showing you mine.”

When she was nearly done, she asked, “What's on the agenda for today?”

I thought about all she had learned yesterday, so much of my family's history, why we live the way we do. She'd taken everything in stride in such a way that the next logical step would be meeting them, officially.

She'd seen my siblings around school, but none of them had ever spoken to her, with the exception of Alice of course. I'd worked hard to keep their words few and far between, though goodness knows Alice had been trying to corner her for weeks. It would make me nervous except for the fact that Alice was almost as excited at the thought of Bella being around as I was. In her own strange little way, she loved her too.

“Hmmm...” I murmured, stalling as I tried to figure out how to ask whether or not she would feel comfortable walking into a houseful of vampires. There was really no good way to say it.

“What would you say to meeting my family?”

She swallowed audibly, nervousness painted all over her face. I smiled. It was about time! I'd started to think she was underestimating just what we were capable of. Not that I wanted her to be afraid. Still, it was nice to know she valued her life at least minutely.

“Are you afraid?” I asked, seeing it and just wishing she would admit it already.

“Yes,” she said timidly and I wanted to scoop her up and kiss her right then.

“Don't worry,” I said slyly, liking the idea of once again being her guardian. “I'll protect you.”

“I'm not afraid of them,” she said and I stared at her baffled. What else was there to be afraid of? “I'm afraid they won't....like me. Won't they be, well, surprised that you would bring someone...like me...home to meet them? Do they know that I know about them?”

Okay, not exactly the fear I was expecting, but it did make sense. We valued our privacy very much. It was a matter of necessity. It made sense for her to worry that they would be upset about a human knowing all their secrets. And truth be told, some of them were. Well, one really. Maybe Emmett could take Rose hunting for the day. Bond with her, or whatever.

As much as I wished it wasn't the case I had to admit it. “Oh, they know everything.” Yeah, everything. Thanks Alice. Then I forced a smile, deciding it was best that she know everything as well, if I really expected her to just walk right in and meet everyone face to face.

“They'd taken bets yesterday, you know, on whether I'd bring you back, though why anyone would bet against Alice, I can't imagine,” I sighed, trying out the whole vampire nonchalance thing. “At any rate, we don't have secrets in the family. It's not really feasible, what with my mind reading and Alice seeing the future and all that.”

“And Jasper making you feel all warm and fuzzy about spilling your guts, don't forget that,” she added with a smile.

“You paid attention,” I complimented, trying to hide my surprise.

“I've been known to do that every now and then,” she said with a frown. The strangest things offended her.

I couldn't stop smiling my befuddled smile. I probably shouldn't have been shocked anymore by how comfortable she was with the bizarre goings on of my life, but instead I kept waiting for that little something that would send her over the edge. I'd just bluntly told her that part of my family assumed she wouldn't still be alive today, and she was cracking jokes about Jasper's powers. Extraordinary. And very unsettling.

“So did Alice see me coming?” she asked, bringing my thoughts quickly back into focus. Again, Alice's images washed over me, though the stronger of the two definitely now was Bella white and hard as stone, her eyes red and thirsty.

“Something like that,” I muttered, turning away. I didn't want to look at her until I could force that picture from my mind. I didn't want anything tainting her beauty, her warm, soft blush.

After a few moments my mind was clearly back on the Bella that sat before me, human and wonderful. She was watching me like she was trying to read my mind. Just like she always was, I was grateful my thoughts were my own. I felt a sudden twinge of sympathy for the rest of my family. How could they stand it?

Ready to change the subject I glanced down at the remains of her now soggy cereal. “Is that any good? Honestly, it doesn't look very appetizing.”

“Well, it's no irritable grizzly...” she said under her breath, purposely not looking at me. She could tell I was keeping something from her and she didn't like it. I stood up and gazed out the window, still watching her from the corner of my eye. She'd seen too much in my face when she'd mentioned Alice and I was worried that, like everything else, it would be impossible for her to let go. I was determined to say anything that would take her mind off of it.

“And you should introduce me to your father, too, I think.”

“He already knows you,” she said, blushing adorably.

“As your boyfriend, I mean.”

Then she just stared at me, likely dumbfounded by my use of the word “boyfriend.” Granted, it seemed an absurd term for someone who had basically pledged eternity to her. It wasn't like we could go into details though, so it was a good idea to keep it as simple as possible for the humans.

“Why?” she finally asked, eying me skeptically.

“Isn't that customary?”

“I don't know,” she said, looking a little perturbed by the whole issue. “That's not necessary, you know. I don't expect you to...I mean, you don't have to pretend for me.”

“I'm not pretending,” I assured her. Downplaying, yes. And attempting not to give Charlie a heart attack. Best to keep things casual, at least as far as appearances were concerned. All that really mattered was that Bella and I knew how we felt. Let the rest of the world think we were just two kids in love.

Amazingly, she was still fidgeting with the last crumbs of her cereal. How long did it take to eat breakfast? I could have finished off a whole herd of elk by now. Impatient as ever to know what she was thinking, I had to ask.

“Are you going to tell Charlie I'm your boyfriend or not?”

“Is that what you are?” she asked looking embarrassed.

“It's a loose interpretation of the word 'boy,' I'll admit,” I teased, hoping she wasn't ashamed of me or something. Not that I could really blame her. I wasn't exactly what a father would wish for his daughter.

“I was under the impression that you were something more, actually,” she whispered, looking down shyly.

Seeing the return of the sadness in her eyes, I felt terrible. Here she was, finally starting to understand that she was my entire world, and I'd manged to make her feel insecure again. I didn't want her to think I was trivializing what she meant to me, what we were becoming to each other. It was a necessary charade, just like what my family and I did everyday. It was another way to blend in. What would Charlie think if I were to come out and confess my love for his daughter when the last he'd heard was that she wasn't interested in anyone?

It wasn't like with my family, everything out in the open for all to see and hear whether we like it or not. We dealt with things because we had to. Charlie, we would need to ease in. The best way to start would be a simple introduction, let him know we were involved, and prepare him for the fact that he'd be seeing a lot more of me.

“Well, I don't know if we need to give him all the gory details,” I said, wishing I could take away all her fears. Gently, I touched my finger to her chin and felt that wonderful warmth grace me once more. I lifted her face to mine, trying to reassure her with my stare that if I could, I would shout it to the world. She looked at me, still confused, so I added something I hoped would cheer her up. She liked the idea of me staying close by.

“But he will need some explanation for why I'm around here so much. I don't want Chief Swan getting a restraining order put on me.”

“Will you be?” she asked excitedly, her eyes lighting up again. “Will you really be here?”

She was so beautiful, so utterly lovable, I wished I never had to leave. The day I could make her see that once and for all, I'd consider my life a success. Words didn't feel like enough to explain how everything about her drew me in, and my touch could never fully convey the depths to which I desired her. Yet I would spend forever holding her, caressing her, telling her again and again how precious she is. I sighed and watched her expression closely.

“As long as you want me,” I said simply, wishing there was some way to keep her from ever doubting me.

“I'll always want you,” she said softly. “Forever.”

Forever. One word and everything stopped.

She couldn't yet understand the true capacity of forever. She'd lived so few years, and yet even if she lived a long life, her years were numbered. I knew forever. It was exactly how long I would love her, even when time stole her away from me and left me stranded in eternity without her.

Then I remembered Carlisle's hidden thought, the one he hadn't wanted me to hear, the one I hadn't understood or wanted to think about.

He won't survive it if he loses her.

Maybe the reality was that he knows I won't survive it when I lose her.

Even if I protect her from every danger and Carlisle helps me keep her healthy, cures her if she gets sick, there's nothing that will prevent time from taking her away from me. Seventy, eighty years, maybe, if we're very lucky. And then nothing. No more reason to exist.

I walked slowly towards her, taking in everything about her. Her eyes, her hair, her glorious scent, the soft blush that always seemed to color her cheeks when I was near. The way she loved me, unafraid and unrelentingly. Was Carlisle right? Would I simply give up after she was gone? Before Bella I didn't know what I was missing, didn't believe there was more than just existing. She truly had changed everything, just like Carlisle had already figured out.

With a sudden wave of horror I wondered if this was the cause of Alice's vision. Knowing I couldn't survive without her, would I ask her to sacrifice her life, her soul, to save us both? Could I really take away her humanity to preserve my eternity?

I didn't know what my expression was telling her, and I certainly had no intention of explaining it. At least not yet. She was staring up at me with bewildered eyes as I reached down to touch her face, needing her more than ever to help make sense of everything.

“Does that make you sad?” she asked, her voice full of sorrow. I wished I could reassure her, but I was speechless. The answer was such a confusing mix of yes and no. Yes, I wanted her to want me, and to think of her wanting me forever was an unimaginably powerful force. Yet I couldn't bear to think of what it would mean for her, if someday she did start to understand the depths of forever and decided she still wanted me. I wasn't sure I could ever ask it of her for myself, but what if she wanted the one thing I was afraid to give her? If the only way to give her forever was to make her like me, how could I deny my love what her heart wanted?

Unable to give her any semblance of an answer I simply asked, “Are you finished?”

“Yes,” she said, jumping up. Unbelievably, she was happy. And really far too excited that she was about to meet a family of vampires.

“Get dressed – I'll wait here,” I said, walking with her to the bottom of the stairs.

She bounded away looking positively luminous. She was in good spirits, but I could also hear the way her pulse had started racing. It was probably the most nervous I'd ever seen her, and while I'd like to think her nerves were for the right reasons, I was sure I knew her better than that.

She took her time getting dressed and I wondered if she was finally succumbing to the foolish notion that she needed to wear something special or waste time primping her hair to ensure everyone's approval. It really wouldn't matter to any of them what she was wearing, though I couldn't help thinking the more clothes the better. Anything to cover up a few more inches of her skin and dilute her scent, even if only helped fractionally.

After what seemed like an unnecessarily long time, she appeared at the top of the stairs with a strained smile on her face.

“Okay,” she said, hurrying back down to me. “I'm decent.”

She was in such a rush that she fell right into me. I reached out to help her regain her balance, and in the process really stopped to look at her outfit. I'd never seen her wear a skirt before. It was unlike her, though I had to smile at the fact that she'd put on my favorite blue sweater. She really had been paying close attention. Her hair was pulled back casually. I didn't want to insult her or make her feel more awkward as she walked into this already uncomfortable situation, but I wished she would have kept her hair down. With her neck and throat exposed like that, I'd probably have to introduce Jasper from the next room.

Although I had my concerns, she did look lovely. More feminine than I was used to seeing her, and it just accented the color in her cheeks. I pulled her into me and let my fingers trace down her back. She relaxed into my arms and hugged me back. It was enough to almost make me forget about the whole meeting the family thing. I was tempted to scoop her up and take her back to her room so we could lie together blissfully again, wrapped up in each other and forgetting the world.

“Wrong again,” I whispered, breathing in the smell of her hair. “You are utterly indecent – no one should look so tempting, it's not fair.”

“Tempting how?” she asked. “I can change...” There was a slight hint of panic in her voice as it finally started to occur to her what she was about to walk into. I might have been happier at her sudden flash of self preservation, but I was overcome with the desire to feel her lips on mine again.

“You are so absurd,” I laughed, kissing her forehead. She was beautiful, warm, and wonderful, and she was in love with me.

“Shall I explain how you are tempting me?” I teased.

I ran my fingers up and down her back, enjoying the way it played with her erratic heartbeat. I felt myself instinctively start breathing harder as she brought her hands to my chest, touching me lightly and looking at me with such longing. Slowly I leaned into her and my lips met hers. It was completely different than the last time when I was so preoccupied with controlling my other desire. I wasn't worried at all about the burn in my throat this time. I was too absorbed in the way her soft, perfect lips caressed mine. So confident in my control, I allowed my mouth to open just slightly and took one slow, beautiful breath of her.

One second I was lost in her touch, the next I was catching her limb body.

“Bella?” I said, frightened I had somehow manged to hurt her.

“You...made...me...faint,” she panted, and I sighed in both relief and confusion.

“What am I going to do with you?” I said, wondering if we were ever going to be able to kiss each other without her having some bizarre reaction. “Yesterday I kiss you, and you attack me! Today you pass out on me!”

She laughed, the color rushing back to her cheeks. It made me nervous the way it still felt as if she were about to fall over. I held her tightly to me, afraid to let go. I didn't know much about the fundamentals of human relationships, but being able to kiss without her needing resuscitation was probably on the list.

“So much for being good at everything,” I mumbled.

“That's the problem,” she gasped. “You're too good. Far, far too good.”

Remembering the only other time I'd seen her collapse, I asked, “Do you feel sick?”

“No – that wasn't the same kind of fainting at all,” she said, looking a little embarrassed. “I don't know what happened. I think I forgot to breathe.”

“I can't take you anywhere like this,” I said smiling. Good. I didn't really want to leave anyway. The day would be much better spent trying to figure out the mechanics of kissing without fainting. Perhaps if she was already lying down...

“I'm fine,” she said, interrupting my thoughts. Which probably was for the better. “Your family is going to think I'm insane anyway, what's the difference?”

Actually they thought I was insane, but I'd already learned to deal with that. I stepped back to look at her, making sure everything was back to normal. Well, normal for Bella. She seemed confident enough, which was ludicrous really, but I couldn't help but be proud of her bravery. Even if she was afraid for all the wrong reasons, she was still willing to face her fears for me.

“I'm very partial to that color with your skin,” I complimented, trying to ease her silly insecurities. She blushed again and looked away, but I could see the grin on her face.

“Look, I'm trying really hard not to think about what I'm about to do, so can we go already?”

“And you're worried, not because you're headed to meet a houseful of vampires, but because you think those vampires won't approve of you, correct?” I asked, just to make sure that really was all she was afraid of.

“That's right,” she said too quickly.

“You're incredible,” I smiled, shaking my head. It was crazy, yet I loved her even more because of it. She cared about me enough to want my family to like her. Although it was difficult to think of us by conventional standards, I knew that her desire for their approval was something any boyfriend would be glad to have his girlfriend to feel.

I walked her to her truck and opened the passenger door for her, clearly indicating I still didn't think she was in any condition to drive. Besides, it would be far too difficult trying to explain the way to my house. It was something you more or less had to just feel. Bend in the road, odd formation of trees, hidden pathway to the dirt road that led the way to our secret sanctuary.

It wasn't exactly the type of house one would expect to find anywhere near a town like Forks. Esme had designed it decades ago, but Carlisle wanted us to find a place we felt like we could really get settled before building it for her. The pacific northwest was everything we could ask for, so he gave her her dream home. The design was actually a tribute to both Esme and my time as humans, perfectly crafted to fit the early 1900's.

The fact that it was so near the forest was convenient for hunting, though of course we preferred to go farther away when possible. It was beautiful too, and I loved that I could hear the river from my room. Something about the sound had soothed me during my endless nights. The nights before I had Bella. The nights that no longer mattered or existed.

I glance over at her as I parked the truck in front of my home. It was nice to finally be able to share this with her. Her eyes were wide, taking it all in.

“Wow,” she breathed, and I was thrilled to see how mesmerized she was.

“You like it?” I asked with a grin.

“It...has a certain charm,” she said, trying to sound indifferent. I laughed and ran my fingers through her ponytail, still wishing I could ask her to take it out. Oh well, they'd need to to get used to having her in close proximity. And I would hear if it was getting to be too much for any of them.

“Ready?” I asked, as I flew around to open her door.

“Not even a little bit – let's go,” she answered, choking out a laugh for my benefit. She reached up to touch her hair. Let it down, please just let it down. Then her arm fell to her side and I snatched her hand up in mine, determined to keep her attached to me the whole time.

“You look lovely,” I assured her.

I heard her heart start racing as we neared the door. I tried to to comfort her by tracing the back of her hand, gently squeezing it to let her know I was staying very close. I wasn't certain but I had a feeling being surrounded by so many of us at once might trigger the reaction I'd been expecting her to have all along.

I opened the door and led her inside, keeping her hand firmly in mine. Her eyes widened as she saw our large front room. Esme and Carlisle were waiting for us near the piano, keeping their distance until I officially invited them over to meet her.

Of course I should have figured Alice would have told them to expect us. I might have been irritated at her for not being able to stay out of it, especially after our conversation last night, but in truth I was glad they had all been forewarned. I also hoped she would have pleaded with Rosalie on my behalf to be on her best behavior, and reminded Jasper of my previous request that he keep his distance until he was absolutely positive he was in control.

Overwhelmed by the house, it took Bella a few moments to even see them standing there, but when she did they all exchanged warm smiles.

'She really isn't afraid at all, is she?' Esme thought, and unconsciously I squeezed Bella's hand again. No. Never afraid of the vampires. Only their approval as my adopted parental figures.

'She's so relaxed, so at ease with him. Truly remarkable.' Carlisle's thoughts mirrored Esme's perfectly, in sync even in their minds.

Figuring they were right and she really was comfortable enough, I decided to start the introductions.

“Carlisle, Esme, this is Bella,” I said formally, not quite sure how to go about introducing someone they already knew so much about.

“You're very welcome, Bella,” Carlisle said, taking a few hesitant steps towards her. He reached his hand out and she quickly shook it.

“It's nice to see you again, Dr. Cullen,” she smiled, clearly pleased with herself at being able to shake off her nervousness so well.

“Please, call me Carlisle.”

“Carlisle,” she repeated, her smile widening. Amazed at how well she was handling it, I relaxed my grip on her slightly, though there was no way I was letting go of her hand.

Esme walked towards her and reached out to her lovingly. She was absolutely beaming. Such a lovely girl, she thought.

“It's very nice to know you,” she said kindly. You've made him so happy.

“Thank you. I'm glad to meet you, too.” I could tell she was genuinely excited to be there, happy to be welcomed into my life so completely. I didn't know how she was doing it, but she was acting as if we were just a normal family. Maybe that was really how she saw us.

“Where are Alice and Jasper?” I asked. I assumed the rest of them were close by, trying to space out their entrances so as not to overwhelm her. Confirming my suspicions, the second Alice heard her name she was at the top of the stairs, one arm around Jasper's waist and the other enthusiastically waving at Bella.

“Hi, Bella!” she called enthusiastically.

Finally! What took you two so long? I rolled my eyes. This was going to be interesting. She glided down the stairs in one quick motion, obviously not concerned at all about easing Bella in. She was determined to just be herself. Then, to all of our astonishment, she leaned over and kissed Bella on the cheek. Bella was clearly surprised but didn't appear to be bothered by it.

Welcome to the family, Alice thought cheerfully and I instinctively tightened my grip on Bella's hand again. She looked up at me and I forced myself to calm down. It was just Alice being Alice.

“You do smell nice, I never noticed before,” she added casually and Bella's faced turned a deep shade of red. I wanted to be mad at her for making such an inappropriate comment but other than Bella's obvious embarrassment, no one seemed to think anything of it. Carlisle and Esme just glanced at each other, amused by the whole thing.

After a few moments of silence – well silence for Bella, I was stuck listening to my family dissect every minute change in her expression, every uneven beat of her heart – Jasper slowly and carefully came down to join us. I could tell he was taking in the atmosphere, surprised by how relaxed it felt given the events he'd just witnessed.

'Wow, you might not even need me,' Jasper teased. I shot a quick glare at him. 'Oh, sorry, that's right. You'd prefer I waited outside,' Jasper thought.

I wanted to be irritated at his attitude, but honestly I was just glad Jasper's thoughts were focused on giving me a hard time and not on Bella herself.

'I'm fine, Edward. Really,' Jasper thought, watching my expression. 'Trust me, Alice would never forgive me if I did anything to mess this up.'

That at least I could believe. She'd probably been lecturing him all day. Besides, if there was any chance of him slipping up, she would have seen it and made him stay away. She was almost as protective of Bella as I was.

As much as I was trying to hide it, I could tell Bella had caught onto my unease and I felt her tense slightly at my side. Feeling the change, Jasper let a wave of calm wash over the room. I looked at him skeptically.

Jasper thought to me, 'What? Can't hurt, right?'

“Hello, Bella,” he said calmly, opting out of the handshake most likely for my own sanity.

“Hello, Jasper,” she replied politely, then smiled warmly at all of them. “It's nice to meet you all – you have a very beautiful home.”

Suddenly my family's minds were racing with thoughts:

'So calm...'

'Completely at home here.'

'Where is she getting the courage to just stand there like that?'

'Why isn't she panicking?'

'Bella's just wonderful.'

'A truly rare creature indeed.'

Their thoughts all jumbled together as I watched her in awed silence. My beautiful Bella, making friends with the vampires.

“Thank you,” Esme said.

Then Esme then added to me in thought, 'And thank you for bringing her. I've been so anxious to meet the girl who's stolen your heart.'

Esme spoke to Bella, “We're so glad that you came.”

I couldn't have been happier as I looked around the room. The ones I loved, together and smiling. Then I noticed Carlisle glance at me, his eyes narrowed just slightly.

'I assume you've seen Alice's vision?' Carlisle thought to me.

I nodded small enough I knew Bella wouldn't see.

'Alice thinks they'll be here soon. It's getting clearer. I wasn't sure if you would want to burden Bella with this. She's doing so well, but knowing they're coming would surely frighten her,' Carlisle thought at me.

You would think, I thought to myself, shrugging almost invisibly at Carlisle.

Carlisle thought, 'So you're planning on telling her?'

I looked over at Bella whose attention had been drawn elsewhere, still taking in her surroundings. I would be keeping close by, and although I happily reminded myself she would probably like that, I was certain she would notice the change in my mood.

Until they were gone I couldn't let my guard down around her. I wouldn't be able to simply relax and lose myself in her the way I'd already started to grow used to. Alice and I would be on high alert, both using our powers to their fullest to keep the girl we loved safe.

I nodded again at Carlisle and he smiled.

'I guess she has a right to know, she's sort of family now. It's lovely watching the two of you. I can tell she trusts you completely,' Carlisle thought.

Joyfully I smiled back at him and began tracing the back of Bella's hand again. The fact that she was standing so confidently beside me was proof of her trust. She'd put her life in my hands, and I'd spend eternity making sure no harm ever came to her.

I looked over at Bella again, and she was eying the grand piano that had occupied my time for so many otherwise dull and boring nights.

“Do you play?” Esme asked.

Bella frowned and shook her head, then said, “Not at all. But it's so beautiful. Is it yours?”

“No,” Esme said with a laugh then glanced at me. I thought you'd told her all your secrets? she teased. Oh well, I'm happy to take care of this one for you. “Edward didn't tell you he was musical?” I rolled my eyes at her. Always the proud mother.

“No,” Bella said, looking at me indignantly. “I should have known, I guess.”

Esme seemed confused by the comment, so Bella added, “Edward can do everything, right?”

'Yeah, kid's got nothing better to do at night,' Jasper thought.

A small laugh escaping Jasper's mouth as he thought, "However, are you going to keep up with all your hobbies now that your time is spent entertaining the human with vampire tricks?'

I growled at him, too low for Bella to hear.

I could hear Emmett laughing from upstairs as Rosalie let out a sigh of disgust. Though I'd wanted Bella to meet everyone, if they were going to act like children it was better they keep to themselves.

“I hope you haven't been showing off – it's rude,” Esme said firmly, bringing me back to the present. It was always amusing when she switched into “mom mode.”

“Just a bit,” I laughed, grinning from ear to ear and beaming at Bella. I never needed to hide anything anymore. She liked it when I was myself.

'Told you love makes you giggle like an idiot. Welcome to the club,' Esme thought as she smirking at me.

I just laughed again. I was all right with looking like an idiot if I got to feel like this.

“He's been too modest, actually,” said Bella, defending me.

“Well, play for her,” Esme added cheerfully, looking at me with excited eyes.

“You just said showing off was rude,” I reminded her.

“There are exceptions to every rule.” Of all the things you should be proud of, Edward...

I knew there was no way I was getting out of it, and truthfully I was excited to finally play for Bella. Not because I wanted her to be impressed, but because the most beautiful music I'd ever written was all because of her.

“It's settled then,” Esme said, taking my free hand and dragging me toward the piano.

Bella's hand was still clutched tightly in mine and I didn't let go until she was sitting beside me. With one last quick squeeze I let go, looking longingly at her and she scooted closer to me.

I began with Esme's song since I knew she'd been hoping to hear it. She loved when I played. Bella watched me, eyes wide and mouth hanging open.

My family laughed and I listened to their mixed reactions:

'I knew she'd like it.'

'He's just showing off again.'

'Look how happy he is, playing for her.'

'We should really let them be alone. This is a special moment.'

Their thoughts blurred together again as I heard Carlisle lead their quiet exit. I looked over at Bella and she was still gaping as my fingers moved across the keys. When her eyes met mine I winked at her playfully.

“Do you like it?”

“You wrote this?” she asked, astonished, and I nodded.

“It's Esme's favorite,” I told her. It was my favorite too, before your song.

She closed her eyes and hung her head, looking strangely forlorn. I couldn't understand what had upset her.

“What's wrong?”

“I'm feeling extremely insignificant,” she whispered.

Immediately I slowed my fingers and carefully blended the end of Esme's song into the beginnings of her lullaby. It was softer, gentler, and not as ornate.

I had tried to capture her pureness, her innocence in every note, though I knew no sounds in this world could ever do her justice.

“You inspired this one,” I breathed, looking at her with all the love I was feeling.

Surely Bella could see it, hear it in her song. Without her they were just notes, but she gave them life. She gave everything in my life meaning.

As I continued to play softly, Bella's expression smoothed and she looked content. It was bringing her happiness just like when I had sung her the simple melody as she was drifting off to sleep.

“They like you, you know,” I told her, hoping she realized just how completely she had already been accepted. “Esme especially.”

She looked behind her and noticed for the first time that we were alone.

“Where did they go?” she asked, slightly concerned.

“Very subtly giving us some privacy, I suppose.” And gossiping upstairs about things that really should be none of their business.

Her face once again looked defeated though I couldn't imagine how the day could have been any more successful.

“They like me. But Rosalie and Emmett...” she trailed off.

I refused to let her spend one second agonizing over what Rosalie thought. I'd given up wasting my energy trying to figure out her mind decades ago, and I had the advantage of a first hand look into it. Complete nonsense.

“Don't worry about Rosalie,” I said, trying to convince her there was no point.

“She'll come around,” I promised Bella.

I would make sure Rosalie would do a very good job of pretending to accept Bella. As much as I didn't want to abuse my powers, my insight into her thoughts had let me in on a few things she probably wouldn't want made into public knowledge. I was sure I could persuade her to put on a big smile and welcome Bella with open arms. Not that I was going to let her touch her.

“Emmett?” Bella asked, watching me closely.

“Well, he thinks I'm a lunatic, it's true, but he doesn't have a problem with you. He's trying to reason with Rosalie,” I said.

“What is it that upsets her?” Bella wondered aloud.

'What doesn't?' I thought to myself, sighing.

“Rosalie struggles the most with...with what we are. It's hard for her to have someone on the outside know the truth.” I paused for a second, wondering if I should continue.

It didn't seem fair to Rosalie, but I knew it would help Bella with at least one of her insecurities. And really, Rose hadn't even bothered to come down today. It served her right, having one of her secrets out.

“And she's a little jealous,” I continued, feeling only a slight twinge of guilt.

“Rosalie is jealous of me?” she asked shocked.

Bella looked as if she were trying to figure out a complex math problem in her head. Did she really think Rosalie was all that special? I couldn't understand it, but maybe I'd just spent too many years listening to Rosalie whine. Emmett was the only thing that made her tolerable at all.

“You're human,” I said, shrugging indifferently. “She wishes that she were, too.”

It was the least embarrassing and the most easily explained reason. Everything else was basically laughable. I may not care much for her, but I wasn't going to divulge anything that would humiliate her.

“Oh,” she said, and I was relived she finally let one thing go without the whole inquisition bit.

“Even Jasper, though...” Bella trailed off.

“That's really my fault,” I told her, wishing I had just let Jasper be himself.

As it turned out Jasper was too busy making fun of me to pay much attention to her smell.

I told Bella, “I told you he was the most recent to try our way of life. I warned him to keep his distance.”

Her eyes were frozen on me as she processed that. I hoped it wouldn't upset her, but obviously everyone had been on their best behavior so she really shouldn't worry. She shivered slightly but seemed to talk herself out of any further reaction.

“Esme and Carlisle...” she asked.

“Are happy to see me happy,” I assured her.

I wished for a moment she could step inside Esme's mind the way I could, so she could see her utter elation watching Bella and I together.

I said to Bella, “Actually, Esme wouldn't care if you had a third eye and webbed feet. All this time she's been worried about me, afraid that there was something missing from my essential makeup, that I was too young when Carlisle changed me...She's ecstatic. Every time I touch you, she just about chokes with satisfaction.”

Bella smiled, obviously pleased by Esme's approval. If only she knew how much they already cared about her, how Carlisle had already started thinking of her as family. I wanted to try to explain it, but thought she'd be better off learning it on her own over time. She probably wouldn't believe me anyway.

“Alice seems very...enthusiastic,” Bella said with a wide smile.

In that second I knew Alice was going to be right again, although I'd never truly doubted it. It was one of her most confident visions, and now it was absolute. They were going to be wonderful friends.

“Alice has her own way of looking at things,” I said, attempting to hide the sea of images that took over my every thought. It was no use. She knew me too well.

“And you're not going to explain that, are you?” Bella asked, not missing a beat.

All I could do was stare at her, because of course I couldn't explain. What was I going to say? I know you two just met, but Alice already loves you so much she's picking out your wedding dress.

Bella stared at me, waiting for a response I wasn't prepared to give.

Finally she sighed and asked, “So what was Carlisle telling you before?”

Bella really didn't miss anything.

“You noticed that, did you?” I said.

“Of course,” Bella said in that nonchalant tone I was starting to get used to.

I had hoped to have her safely back in her house, curled up in my arms again before telling her about the danger that was coming. But, I figured everything else had been so easy, she could probably handle one more of my realities.

“He wanted to tell me some news – he didn't know if it was something I would share with you.”

“Will you?” Bella asked, already pleading with her eyes. She couldn't stand to be left out of anything. It was like a strange, sick fascination with all things vampire.

“I have to,” I sighed, “because I'm going to be a little...overbearingly protective over the next few days – or weeks...” Or the rest of your life, but who's counting? “...and I wouldn't want you to think I'm naturally a tyrant.”

“What's wrong?” Bella asked.

“Nothing's wrong, exactly. Alice just sees some visitors coming soon. They know we're here, and they're curious,” I said.

“Visitors?” Bella's voice was starting to crack just a little and I wished yet again that I could shield her from the truth of what's really out there.

As unsettling as her unrelenting acceptance of us was, I was glad it was strong enough to keep her fears away. It was allowing her to sit with me in my house, with my family, and be a part of my life in a way I'd never expected possible. It made me feel almost...normal. If she started to comprehend what the rest of them were really like, if they confirmed all her preconceived notions as to what vampires were really capable of, I was afraid she might rethink the situation she was letting herself walk into.

“Yes...” I paused, trying to phrase my words carefully. “Well, they aren't like us, of course – in their hunting habits, I mean. They probably won't come into town at all, but I'm certainly not going to let you out of my sight till they're gone.”

Her nerves finally got the best of her and her whole body shook. It looked like she was trying to forget a nightmare she'd just woken up from. I didn't like seeing her scared, but in a way it was good to see her react reasonably for once.

“Finally, a rational response!” I said under my breath. “I was beginning to think you had no sense of self-preservation at all.”

As much as I hated knowing she was frightened, it was nice to see she at least recognized real danger when it was there. I'd like to think she was never afraid of me because deep down, even before I knew, she must have felt certain that I would never be capable of hurting her.

She recovered from the scare easily, and resumed her examination of the house. Her eyes were still wide and unbelieving as she took it all in. Still, she seemed happy here, and I was reminded again of how lucky I was to have her. Different as our worlds were, she fit in so perfectly already it gave me hope for our future. The impossible was feeling more and more possible every second.

“Not what you expected, is it?” I said, noting the way she was scrutinizing every inch of the space. It was probably the exact opposite of Hollywood's idea of the vampire mansion.

“No,” she smiled, her gaze stopping to linger on the staircase leading to the unknown parts of our home, undoubtedly curious.

“No coffins, no piled skulls in the corners; I don't even think we have cobwebs...what a disappointment this must be for you,” I teased.

“It's so light...so open.”

We loved the openness of it, thrived on being able to let the sunlight in when we could so rarely enjoy it any other way. The glass walls facing the forest allowed us to be a part of the world, while still enjoying the sanctity of privacy.

“It's the one place we never have to hide,” I told her, looking deeply into her eyes as I finished her lullaby. I almost hadn't realized I was still playing, but feeling it come to an end added an emptiness to the air. I wished I could fill her life with music and beauty every moment of every day. She deserved to be surrounded by it, wrapped up in its grace the way her beauty always held me.

“Thank you,” she said softly as the final chord lingered around us. I could hear it for longer than her, the way it blended perfectly into the stillness of the room. As I gazed into her adoring eyes, I noticed she was nearly crying. It was the first time I'd seen her moved to tears and it was so beautiful I reached out to her without thinking.

She quickly wiped most of them away, embarrassed for reasons I would never understand, but when I touched her cheek lightly right below her eye I felt a single moist drop on my finger. She'd just shown me yet another side of herself and I was deeply grateful. The small tear felt like such an important part of her that I was overcome with the desire to taste her on my lips again. Rather than kissing her – because honestly I wasn't yet ready for another one of her unexpected responses – I put the tear in my mouth, tasting her sweet saltiness.

She looked at me confused, but it wasn't something I thought I could explain properly so I hastily changed the subject to something I knew would get her mind off of it.

“Do you want to see the rest of the house?” I said cheerfully.

“No coffins?” she asked with a smile, though I could hear a hint of real curiosity in her voice.

I took her hand, laughing at what she had probably prepared herself for coming here. I led her towards the stairs and repeated, “No coffins.”

We walked slowly, her fingers tracing the banister on the way up. She still looked completely dumbfounded by it all as I gestured towards the various rooms.

“Rosalie and Emmett's room...” And yes I can hear you pacing in there. I can't believe you wouldn't even say hello, I thought icily. “Carlisle's office...Alice's room...”

I hadn't particularly been watching her, trying to let her take in the house without my stare making her uncomfortable. Abruptly, I felt her pull on my hand as we reached the end of the hallway. I turned to see her stopped in her tracks, staring at Carlisle's huge cross and looking more confused than I'd seen her all day. I couldn't understand her reaction at first, then I remembered the stories. Right, that one almost made a little bit of sense.

“You can laugh,” I told her kindly. I didn't want her to worry about offending me. “It is sort of ironic.”

She reached up to touch it, curiosity written all over her face.

“It must be very old,” she said, her voice full of wonder.

“Early sixteen-thirties, more or less.” Humans were so used to everything having to be new and modern, if something was more than a hundred years old, it was considered an antique. Huh, I thought, suddenly amused by the idea. To them, even I'm an antique.

She looked at me, still bewildered. “Why do you keep this here?”

“Nostalgia. It belonged to Carlisle's father.”

“He collected antiques?”

It was the first time it had occurred to me that Bella had no idea how old Carlisle was. To all of our family, even with our own immortality stretched before us, his years seemed like a long time. We really were children in comparison.

“No. He carved this himself. It hung on the wall above the pulpit in the vicarage where he preached.”

I watcher her closely as she processed this new piece of information. Now she really was doing a math problem in her head, and I waited for her to speak. She stared at me for a long time, then let her gaze drift back to the cross. Her eyes had taken on a new expression, one I wasn't expecting and didn't fully understand. It was sorrowful almost, sympathetic.

“Are you all right?” I asked her, worried by how sad she seemed.

“How old is Carlisle?” she asked without looking at me.

“He just celebrated his three hundred and sixty-second birthday,” I told her, trying to make my voice upbeat. It was sweet that she seemed worried for him, but of all of us, he was the most content with the idea of eternity by far.

Although it took many countless years of suffering, over time he'd been able to see this existence as a gift. He had all the time he would ever need to study, learn, to be an artist, to help people and be a kind of perpetual savior. There was no reason to feel sorry for him. He had made peace with what this world had given him long ago.

“Carlisle was born in London, in the sixteen-forties, he believes. Time wasn't marked as accurately then, for the common people anyway. It was just before Cromwell's rule, though.”

Carlisle had always been grateful that he had held on so tightly to his human memories. In the beginning it was despair and denial that had made him cling so desperately, but over time he thought back to them merely for educational purposes. He knew a lot about the life and times, the way things were, and that knowledge helped him as he started learning how to blend into the world around him.

I looked closely at Bella's expression before going any further. I assumed she would want to know, since she'd been so curious about us all and how we had entered into this life. And Carlisle was, of course, the one who started it all for our family. Yet she seemed more troubled by his story than any other I'd told, and I wanted to make sure she was really ready to hear it. She looked calm enough, though again I found myself wishing I could hear how she was actually feeling. I was worried she was putting on a brave face so that I would continue.

“He was the only son of an Anglican pastor. His mother died giving birth to him. His father was an intolerant man. As the Protestants came into power, he was enthusiastic in his persecution of Roman Catholics and other religions. He also believed very strongly in the reality of evil.”

It was what made his story so disturbing, what he went through so terrifying. Nowadays no one ever really got close to figuring out what we were, because everything they couldn't understand was passed off as myths and stories. Carlisle lived in a time when people believed in monsters, and were determined to destroy them.

“He led hunts for witches, werewolves...and vampires.” She shuddered slightly at the word, but didn't ask me to stop. “They burned a lot of innocent people – of course the real creatures that he sought were not so easy to catch.

“When the pastor grew old, he placed his obedient son in charge of the raids. At first Carlisle was a disappointment; he was not quick to accuse, to see demons where they did not exist. But he was persistent, and more clever than his father. He actually discovered a coven of true vampires that lived hidden in the sewers of the city, only coming out by night to hunt. In those days, when monsters were not just myths and legends, that was the way many lived. The people gathered their pitchforks and torches, of course,” I laughed dryly. What did people think that was going to solve exactly? “...and waited where Carlisle had seen the monsters exit into the street. Finally one emerged.”

I paused again to make sure she was okay. Her face was horrified, but not frightened. I didn't want to tell her the next part, because if she was already appalled, hearing about the way Carlisle was changed might send her over the edge. I tried to keep my voice relaxed, though I myself found it difficult to think about. I had a better understanding of what he went through than the rest of my family, having heard the way his mind remembered it in such detail. He'd edited parts of his story when telling it to us, even to Esme. I was the only one who understood exactly how much he had suffered.

I thought of the old vampire who'd ultimately been the reason for all of our existences, and felt myself cringe.

“He must have been ancient, and weak with hunger. Carlisle heard him call out in Latin to the others when he caught sight of the mob. He ran through the streets, and Carlisle – he was twenty-three and very fast – was in the lead of the pursuit. The creature could have easily outrun them, but Carlisle thinks he was too hungry, so he turned and attacked. He fell on Carlisle first, but the others were close behind, and he turned to defend himself. He killed two men, and made off with a third, leaving Carlisle bleeding in the street.”

Bleeding and writhing in pain...pain that he couldn't comprehend. He thought he'd died and was feeling the fires of hell, though he couldn't fathom how that could be considering he'd done everything he and his father believed necessary to ensure salvation. The creature had been so weak and desperate to quench his thirst, he'd bitten Carlisle repeatedly, trying to find the fastest way to drain him. Only I knew exactly how many times he'd been bitten, though obviously Esme would have seen his multiple scars. It was unfortunate, not only for Carlisle but for myself, since he'd used the details of his change as a model for how to change me. He'd tortured himself for years, believing he'd caused me unnecessary pain, though I assured him the decisions he'd made were completely logical and I would never fault him for it.

Bella still looked concerned, though her fascination seemed to be winning whatever battle was raging on inside her head. Reluctantly, I finished Carlisle's tragic story, wishing we were back downstairs and I was filling her thoughts with music rather than things that would surely give her nightmares.

“Carlisle knew what his father would do. The bodies would be burned – anything infected by the monster must be destroyed. Carlisle acted instinctively to save his own life. He crawled away from the alley while the mob followed the fiend and his victim. He hid in the cellar, buried himself in rotting potatoes for three days. It's a miracle he was able to keep silent, to stay undiscovered. It was over then, and he realized what he had become.”

The raging thirst that was the first thing you felt made that fact clear. There are other things too, like the feeling of power and strength that course through your veins. It's startling, since the last thing you can clearly remember feeling is helplessness and agony. While most of us were reassured by the strength, Carlisle recalled being frightened of it, worried from the very beginning that he would inadvertently cause someone else harm. It was that mindset, the overwhelming desire to protect rather than to hurt, that made him what he is today. Everything we are was ultimately because he possessed a different kind of strength than the rest of us from the start.

I'd lost myself momentarily in my own reveries, but the look on Bella's face quickly brought me back. She looked like she might cry again, only these were the kind of tears I refused to let escape from her. I didn't want her mind troubled over the horrors of any of our pasts. We were all relatively content now – with one obnoxious exception – and I didn't want her worrying about his or any of our happiness.

Carlisle had found Esme, and I was fairly certain that he would have done anything, even let himself burn for an entire lifetime, in order to be with her. Now, though I still couldn't fathom how I deserved her, I had Bella. Whatever torments I'd had to suffer, and whatever agony I was still putting myself through, everything was completely and without a doubt worth it if it meant we were together.

“How are you feeling?” I finally asked, hoping I could ease any worries that were causing her pain.

“I'm fine,” she replied in a steadier voice than I'd anticipated. Adorably, she bit her lip and I could see a smile twitching at her cheek. She wanted to learn more. Knowing she was anxious to learn more about my family gave me the determination I needed to keep going.

“I expect you have few more questions for me,” I said, smiling warmly at her.

“A few,” she admitted, at last letting her smile shine through and brightening the darkness that had crept over us. We were creatures of legends, but Bella possessed a magic all her own. She'd entranced me, captured my silent heart, and changed my unchangeable world. If that wasn't magic, I don't know what is.

Returning her glorious smile, I squeezed her hand and led her towards Carlisle's office.

“Come on, then, I'll show you.”


Chapter 17 - BASEBALL

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She followed me without any hesitation, eager to learn more about Carlisle's early years. I hoped he would be able to share some of his story with her himself, because as well as I understood the events it was still that much more remarkable hearing the tale in his own words. Even I found it difficult to fathom all that he had gone through trying to deal with the circumstances, things what they were in those days. And to think he had gone through all of it alone gave me that much more respect for him. Without his constant model of courage and inspiration I don't know what I would have become, but I was sure I wouldn't have Bella standing at my side.

I waited for just a moment outside the door, knowing Carlisle would have heard us coming. As Bella watched me expectantly, we heard him say, “Come in.” We stepped inside and Bella's eyes widened again as she took in the office, lined almost entirely with Carlisle's massive library. Unlike most with such an extensive collection, he had actually read them all. Read them, and memorized most of them. His vast amount of knowledge would put every professor, every PhD, every scientist or doctor in the world to shame. He'd taken the never ending time and used it to better himself, to learn enough that he could give back to the race he was no longer a part of but loved dearly.

When Bella's eyes finally settled on Carlisle, sitting at his desk and waiting patiently for her to examine every inch of the room, they exchanged warm smiles.

She has her own thirst for knowledge, I can see it in her eyes, he thought, glancing briefly at me before looking back at Bella.

“What can I do for you?” he asked, though I was sure he'd been listening to our conversation in the hall. He stood then, always the gentleman.

“I wanted to show Bella some of our history. Well, your history, actually.”

“We didn't mean to disturb you,” Bella said, her face shifting into something that resembled regret. I wished I could make her understand how welcome she was in our home, how happy Carlisle was to share his knowledge with her. I guessed it was something she'd have to come to see on her own in time, like their whole hearted acceptance of her.

“Not at all,” Carlisle assured her. “Where are you going to start?” He was already eying the picture on his wall that depicted the town he was born in. He would never say it out loud, but I could feel the way it made him a little homesick for the place he would always miss though he barely remembered it.

“The Waggoner,” I told him, watching his gaze and glancing at the picture behind us. I put my hand on Bella's shoulder, turning her around so she could see the various pieces of art Carlisle had collected over the years, chronicling his life. I smiled as I heard her heart start racing again and pulled her a little closer.

Wow, you really have quite an effect on her, Carlisle smirked.

I walked Bella over to the densely covered wall so she could see every detail close up. Her eyes traveled quickly between the frames, not sure where to start. After she was finished with her initial scan, I led her to the picture that still had Carlisle's full attention. Looking at it was the only time he ever really looked sad or nostalgic. As he walked up behind us I could feel him trying to focus his thoughts on work and the hospital, but it wasn't enough to keep the occasional longing memory from creeping in.

Bella looked confused as to what exactly she was looking at.

“London in the sixteen-fifties,” I explained.

“The London of my youth,” Carlisle added. Bella jumped slightly and I could hear her heartbeat change. Once again I was thrilled that I could tell the difference between the way it sounded when she was nervous or startled, and the erratic way it beat when she was excited by something I did. With a grin I squeezed her hand and it shifted back into my favorite accelerated cadence.

“Will you tell the story?” I asked Carlisle, and Bella turned expectantly toward him.

“I would,” he told her, “but I'm actually running a bit late. The hospital called this morning – Dr. Snow is taking a sick day. Besides,” he said turning back to me, “you know the stories as well as I do.”

Besides Edward, you know she wants to hear your voice, not mine, he thought with a grin. I'll see you two later.

Carlisle had barely left the room when Bella turned back to me, eyes eager and curious. “What happened then? When he realized what had happened to him?”

I turned my stare to the picture which held in the background the massive cliff Carlisle had thrown himself from, trying to undo what fate had done to him. Unthinkingly, I tightened my grip on Bella. The way the grass lay peacefully in the forefront reminded me of our own meadow. Calm and beautiful, but with something dangerous lurking ominously behind the surface. Yet somehow, as it had with Carlisle's attempts, life had won out over death.

“When he knew what he had become he rebelled against it,” I whispered. “He tried to destroy himself. But that's not easily done.”

“How?” she said, her voice sympathetic again for Carlisle's suffering.

“He jumped from great heights. He tried to drown himself in the ocean...” That was actually how he had figured out that air was no longer a necessity, simply a human habit that had remained after his transformation. I considered mentioning this to Bella, but she was already taking a lot of information in and I didn't want to burden her with another one of our anomalies.

“But he was young to the new life, and very strong,” I continued. “It is amazing that he was able to resist...feeding...” I paused, but Bella's face showed no hint of disgust. She'd already grown used to our ways and the words I purposely avoided didn't seem to trouble her at all. “...while he was still so new. The instinct is more powerful then, it takes over everything. But he was so repelled by himself that he had the strength to try to kill himself with starvation.”

I heard her inhale sharply. “Is that possible?” she whispered. I heard a hint of concern in her voice that went beyond her empathy for Carlisle.

“No, there are very few ways we can be killed.” I didn't feel up to going into the details, partly for fear of frightening her, and partly because it even got to me a bit. I'd heard the description of such an event over and over through the medium of Jasper's mind, and it was horrific. I continued quickly, not giving her the chance to ask the question I knew was on the tip of her tongue.

“So he grew very hungry, and eventually weak. He strayed as far as he could from the human populace, recognizing that his willpower was weakening, too. For months he wandered by night, seeking the loneliest places, loathing himself.”

I felt her hand tighten around mine and when I looked at her eyes, they looked glassy and far away. I decided that she'd had enough of hearing about Carlisle's first miserable months. She understood more completely than I would have expected, and I knew it would make his triumph that much more amazing to her.

I could already feel that she was starting to understand the deep respect we all had for him, why he was ultimately the reason we were all able to live the life he'd set out for us. We followed his example as if we were his true children. I let a smile wash over my face as I continued his story, hoping it would bring the peace back to her agonized eyes.

“One night, a herd of deer passed his hiding place. He was so wild with thirst that he attacked without a thought. His strength returned and he realized there was an alternative to being the vile monster he feared. Had he not eaten venison in his former life? Over the next months his new philosophy was born. He could exist without being a demon. He found himself again.”

I could feel Bella relax at my side as her gaze wandered again across the pictures. She even started to smile a little and I luxuriated in her steady breathing, the quiet rhythm of her heart. I could have stood listening to the sound of her heart all day, but I was excited to tell her about Carlisle's early years of studying, the way he'd learned to see immortality as a gift rather than a curse.

“He began to make better use of his time. He's always been intelligent, eager to learn. Now he had unlimited time before him. He studied by night, planned by day. He swam to France and...”

“He swam to France?” she interrupted, her voice higher than usual. Oops. So much for avoiding the not breathing issue.

“People swim the Channel all the time, Bella,” I said calmly. One last attempt at avoidance.

“That's true, I guess. It just sounded funny in that context. Go on.” She was biting her lip adorably, trying her best to let me finish without asking questions every second. It made me want to tell her just to see her reaction.

“Swimming is easy for us...”

“Everything is easy for you,” she said, rolling her eyes. Good job with the not interrupting. Maybe next time I'd get a whole sentence out. It was easier when she was in shock.

“I won't interrupt again, I promise,” she said solemnly. I laughed quietly. It sounded like a challenge, so I finished my sentence.

“Because technically, we don't need to breathe.”

“You...” she started to say, but I just smirked at her.

“No, no, you promised,” I reminded her with a laugh, touching her lips with my finger. I would have rather silenced her with a kiss. “Do you want to hear the story or not?”

“You can't spring something like that on me, and then expect me not to say anything.” Her words were muffled against my fingertip and I could feel her warm breath on my skin. Needing to feel her soft skin again, I moved my finger from her lips and cradled her neck in my hand. I could feel her pulse racing beneath me and her breath caught, but she persisted, determined to keep me talking.

“You don't have to breathe?” she asked, exasperated.

“No, it's not necessary.” And during that first day of being assaulted by Bella's appetizing scent, not a possibility. Holding my breath was the only thing that got both of us through the day. “Just a habit,” I added indifferently, determined to keep the dark memories away. They didn't matter anymore. Bella was safe and I was going to make sure it always stayed that way.

“How long can you go...without breathing?” she asked, still unable to comprehend.

“Indefinitely, I suppose; I don't know. It gets a bit uncomfortable – being without a sense of smell.”

Her eyes were incredulous. “A bit uncomfortable,” she repeated.

It seemed a relatively insignificant detail to be bothering her so much, but her face was still tense and disbelieving. As if my not needing oxygen was what had finally made her see how unalike, how incompatible we were. Was it always going to be this way between us? Her casually accepting the most atrocious parts of our nature, then just when I start to let my guard down I stun her with the most trivial of facts? If one day it's all too much for her to take, would I even be able to let her go anymore, if that was what she truly wanted? I had to believe I could.

As Bella took in my expression, her own softened and she reached up to smooth the worried lines that had spread across my face. Her gentle touch soothed and calmed me and I felt the breath I had been unintentionally holding escape from me. I let my face rest in her remarkable touch, wondering how she always made me feel so much better so quickly.

“I keep waiting for it to happen,” I admitted, hoping somehow she would assure me she wasn't secretly waiting for her chance to escape.

“For what to happen?” she asked, eyes still tender, fingers still caressing my cheek.

“I know that at some point, something I tell you or something you see is going to be too much. And then you'll run away from me, screaming as you go.” I tried to force a smile, but the thought of no longer having her beside me was tearing me apart. I could feel how closely our existences were tied, and although I assured myself I could let her go a part of me knew, as was true now, I would never be far away. I would find a way to be content again, watching her from afar, loving her hopelessly.

“I won't stop you,” I said quietly, almost unable to form the words. “I want this to happen, because I want you to be safe. And yet, I want to be with you. The two desires are impossible to reconcile...”

Though it was getting easier everyday, I thought, convincing myself that I had been her biggest threat. Now my thirst was under the control of my love for her. As prone to danger as Bella obviously was, it had started to feel like having me around to protect her was actually the best way to ensure her safety. As long as I wasn't the one bringing trouble her way, it couldn't be wrong to love her and keep watch over her.

I watched her face as she took in what I was saying, heard how afraid I was of losing her. She leaned in closer, staring at me intently.

“I'm not running anywhere,” she said firmly. As I listened to the steady beat of her heart it was hard not to believe her, impossible as her words were. I grinned then, feeling the light atmosphere of earlier in the day start to return.

“We'll see,” I teased.

She scowled at my disbelief which of course made me ecstatic. It seemed she'd made up her mind to stay, to not let anything I said scare her away. She was stubborn, which might end up working in my favor.

“So, go on,” she said, obviously trying to prove her determination. “Carlisle was swimming to France.”

Her lips had formed a tight line as she waited for me to continue, though I could see the curiosity returning to her eyes. I had to fight back a laugh. She was adorable when she was trying to make a point.

I thought for a moment, remembering exactly where we had left off. My eyes wandered until I found the picture depicting Carlisle's early days with the Volturi. The ruling family that kept residence in Italy was more of a theoretical concept at the time. In those days, most vampires didn't have a problem with anonymity, seeing as it was more or less necessary for their survival. Still, as the years passed it became clear that certain rules would need to go into effect, to keep the world from finding out our secrets. And of course with rules, there had to be consequences. And enforcers.

“Carlisle swam to France,” I finally said, not quite ready to explain the rules governing the way we existed, “and continued on through Europe, to the universities there. By night he studied music, science, medicine – and found his calling, his penance, in that, in saving human lives.”

He'd always told us his years studying in Europe, learning how to become something greater than what he had been, were the happiest he had known. That is, until he created us. He'd explained that as thrilled as he was by the knowledge he was gaining, all the libraries in the world had never offered him any of the joys he'd later found with companionship, with finally having a family again. He'd learned how to make peace with his existence, but we'd given him a reason to want to live.

Those first years with him, when it was just the two of us were enlightening. Carlisle was careful with his thoughts, once he realized I could hear them. During his years in medicine he'd dealt with so much blood, so much temptation. Still a newborn, he didn't want to make resisting any harder than it already was for me. Yet when I asked about the decades he spent perfecting his medical skills, I could always hear the difficulties, the battle that had raged inside him as his patients bled in his hands. But he never gave in, not once in all his countless years, and it gave me the strength I needed to persevere.

“I can't adequately describe the struggle,” I said softly, again watching Bella's expression closely. “It took Carlisle two centuries of torturous effort to perfect his self-control. Now he is all but immune to the scent of human blood, and he is able to do the work he loves without agony. He finds a great deal of peace there, at the hospital...”

My voice trailed off again as I thought of how I used to long for the peace he'd found, not only in his work but in Esme as well. Always having Carlisle, I'd never felt lonely the way he had before he created me. I was never truly alone as he had been. However it wasn't until he found Esme that I even considered the possibility there could be something more than simple companionship for our kind.

Suddenly his every thought was consumed with her. They were so compatible, so perfectly designed for one another, his mind had found a new type of peace, one even saving lives had never been able to give him. He was complete, whole for the first time. Though at the time I thought it impossible to find someone so precisely matched for me, something in me longed for the quiet way his thoughts always seemed to settle on her, no matter how chaotic they had been.

Now my every thought was of Bella, and every second we were together I felt all the love I didn't believe possible. Though it seemed an insurmountable problem, being different from her in almost every conceivable way, when I looked her her I knew I had found the one I was meant for.

I glanced at Bella and her eyes were anxious for me to continue, so I quickly pulled my thoughts back into the present. Touching the painting in front of us, I forced myself to continue. There was plenty of time to daydream about Bella later. And really it was so much better when she was in my arms.

“He was studying in Italy when he discovered the others there. They were much more civilized and educated than the wraiths of the London sewers.”

I pointed to Carlisle and the others, wondering if she'd made the connection yet. She took in the pictures, her brow pulling together like she was trying to sort out everything I'd just told her. Then her eyes widened and she laughed one quick, sharp laugh. She squinted and took another step closer toward the figure she'd just recognized as Carlisle.

“Solimena was greatly inspired by Carlisle's friends. He often painted them as gods,” I said with a laugh. If he'd understood what they really were, I was sure they would have been depicted as devils. “Aro, Marcus, Caius,” I added, pointing at each one respectively. “Nighttime patrons of the arts.” At least that's more or less what they were when they had been painted. It was all Bella really needed to know. There was no point in frightening her over things she would never have to worry about.

“What happened to them?” she whispered, her finger instinctively moving toward the group. Her tone sounded almost reverent.

“They're still there,” I shrugged, attempting to sound casual. “As they have been for who knows how many millennia. Carlisle stayed with them only for a short time, just a few decades.” Bella almost scoffed, probably not thinking about the fact that for Carlisle, that was a small fraction of his years. “He greatly admired their civility, their refinement, but they persisted in trying to sure his aversion to 'his natural food sound,' as they called it. They tried to persuade him, and he tried to persuade them, to no avail. At that point, Carlisle decided to try the New World. He dreamed of finding others like himself. He was very lonely, you see.”

Having watched Bella's empathy all day, I knew her expression was about to shift back into concern for him. I smiled lovingly at her, trying to remind her the story has a happy ending.

“He didn't find anyone for a long time. But, as monsters became the stuff of fairy tales, he found he could interact with unsuspecting humans as if he were one of them.” Bella had shared a few of her silliest theories with me, maybe someday I would let her in on all the wrong assumptions made about Carlisle throughout his years. Humans really do have highly overactive imaginations.

“He began practicing medicine. But the companionship he craved evaded him; he couldn't risk familiarity. When the influenza epidemic hit, he was working nights in a hospital in Chicago. He'd been turning over an idea in his mind for several years, and he had almost decided to act – since he couldn't find a companion, he would create one.”

I heard Bella inhale sharply and she moved a step closer to me. It was strange, being so honest with her about what had led Carlisle to create me. Strange, yet wonderful. It was nice having her know, comforting that she accepted it all so gracefully.

I had always understood his motives, even when he berate himself, considering the decision selfish. I even vaguely remember him trying to explain what he was about to do to me while I was still human, though the exact words have long since faded. The sentiment, however, was unmistakably one of heartfelt apology.

“He wasn't absolutely sure how his own transformation had occurred, so he was hesitant. And he was loath to steal anyone's life the way his had been stolen. It was in that frame of mind that he found me. There was no hope for me; I was left in a ward with the dying. He had nursed my parents, and knew I was alone. He decided to try...”

It was in that moment I found myself grateful Carlisle had not stayed to tell his story. Although I had never faulted him for any part of his choice or the way he'd gone about it, I was certain she would have been able to hear the guilt he still felt, though buried deeply beneath the joy we all brought to him.

I tried to focus my thoughts on Carlisle and the rest of my family I loved so completely, rather than the agony of my transformation. Even after nearly a hundred years, it was painful to remember the three days of torture that had saved me from death. Yet as hard as I tried, the familiar memory of searing pain crept back into my thoughts. The only difference was that this time, with Bella beside me, it felt like a reasonable price to have paid. Left to die, I never would have found my reason for living.

I'd let my gaze drift to the woods outside my window that had once given me so much joy. Alone for so many decades, I thought I'd found my own version of happiness. I had interests, hobbies, a love of the nature that surrounded me. Now I wondered how any of it had mattered at all without someone to share it with. Everything seemed more alive now, more vibrant with Bella at my side. I turned to look at her and all the love I felt burst through as I smiled at her.

“And so we've come full circle,” I said simply, though I knew she wouldn't understand the full depth of the words. As I had always felt was true for Carlisle and Esme, everything I'd been through suddenly felt like a journey to bring me to Bella.

“Have you always stayed with Carlisle, then?” she asked and I nearly shuddered. I didn't want to think about the dark and miserable time when I'd left the sanctuary Carlisle had created for us. Still, it was something I felt Bella had a right to know.

“Almost always,” I sighed, putting my arm around her for strength. I started walking us towards the door. It didn't feel right to talk about my years of defiance in Carlisle's office. Everything there radiated his purity and I didn't want to taint it with stories of my transgressions. Bella looked over her shoulder as we left, taking in all she had seen and learned with one final glance.

Once we were walking slowly down the hallway, she peered up at me and asked, “Almost?”

I was prepared to answer her question, but I was still having trouble phrasing it, wishing there was anything I could say that would make me seem less of a monster. Of course, I didn't really deserve to be sugarcoated like that. She needed to hear the truth, no matter how appalling my actions had been.

“Well, I had a typical bout of rebellious adolescence – about ten years after I was...born...created, whatever you want to call it. I wasn't sold on his life of abstinence, and I resented him for curbing my appetite. So I went off on my own for a time.” I took a deep breath and waited for her reaction.

“Really?” she asked, her voice betraying nothing but her normal amount of curiosity.

Amazing. Once again I found myself baffled as to what would upset her. I'd always thought she must have assumed I'd faltered now and again, with my references to addiction and falling off the wagon. But somehow she wasn't bothered learning that for awhile, typical vampire behavior had been my way of life. Sure, my not requiring oxygen left her speechless, but this particular piece of information was taken in stride. Ridiculous, unpredictable human.

“That doesn't repulse you?” I had to ask, still confused.

“No,” she answered calmly as if it were the most normal thing she'd ever heard.

“Why not?”

“I guess...it sounds reasonable.”

I finally gave in and laughed out loud as we reached the top of the stairs. That was it. I'd had enough of trying to figure Bella out for one day. I'd tell the rest of my story and she could take it however she wanted.

“From the time of my new birth, I had the advantage of knowing what everyone around me was thinking, both human and non-human alike. That's why it took me ten years to defy Carlisle – I could read his perfect sincerity, understand exactly why he lived the way he did.” With his every thought focused on the sanctity of human life, his constant battle fighting death, how could I be responsible for causing it?

“It took me only a few years to return to Carlisle and recommit to his vision. I thought I would be exempt from the...depression...that accompanies a conscience. Because I knew the thoughts of my prey, I could pass over the innocent and pursue only the evil. If I followed a murderer down a dark alley where he stalked a young girl – if I saved her, then surely I wasn't so terrible.”

A shiver ran through Bella as we both unthinkingly remembered the night I'd found her in Port Angeles. Hearing the disgusting things those men were planning to do to her was the closest I'd been to reverting to my old ways. Though for the first time my desire to kill had not been a product of unrelenting thirst. I'd wanted to destroy them for their wanting to defile someone as pure and innocent as Bella. Fearing what seeing such an act would have done to Bella, I was grateful I'd had the restraint to drive away, and even more grateful Carlisle had later helped me get the lowlifes behind bars.

In our silence, I heard her pulse return to normal so I hastily finished.

“But as time went on, I began to see the monster in my eyes.” The way my eyes had burned that deep shade of crimson still haunted me to this day. “I couldn't escape the debt of so much human life taken, no matter how justified. And I went back to Carlisle and Esme. They welcomed me back like the prodigal. It was more than I deserved.”

We'd reached my room and I stopped to look deeply into her eyes, afraid that hearing just how far gone I'd been might have finally made her afraid. Once again, there was only sympathy and compassion for my suffering. She was so kind and forgiving, it sent a fresh surge of guilt through me.

Determined not to taint the last of the tour, I pushed the thoughts away and opened the door.

“My room,” I muttered, guiding her in.

I waited while she did her usual survey of her surroundings. I wished the sun could make a brief appearance so she could see how beautifully it lit up the forest my room overlooked. She glanced at my music collection and I thought about putting something soft and comforting on to help get back the relaxed feeling from earlier. Before all my secrets had come out. She eyed the fabric that lined my walls and smiled at me.

“Good acoustics?”

I returned her warm smile with one of my own and a quick nod, laughing joyously at how at home she looked standing in my room. I turned on the music quietly, not wanting to distract her too much. She smiled as the notes filled the air. So thoughtful and beautiful, and completely relaxed again, I wished I could scoop her up into my arms. I wanted to dance with her, hold her close, and fill the room with her presence so I'd never feel lonely here again.

Finally back in the part of my home I felt the most comfortable, the most at peace, I really let myself think about all she'd seen and learned throughout the day. She knew the reasons for my creation and why we all lived the way we do. I'd let her into the darkest parts of my past and she'd listened with gracious understanding. There was nothing I needed to fear, nothing left to hide from her. She knew me inside and out and was somehow still at my side, adoration filling her every stare.

“How do you have these organized?” she asked. So deep in thought, her voice caught me off guard.

“Ummm, by year, and then by personal preference within that frame,” I said quietly. I hoped she didn't think I was ignoring her, but I was having a hard time focusing on much of anything. I stared at her, entranced by the way she fit so perfectly into my mixed up world. I couldn't think of anything else but how lucky I was to have found her.

“What?” she asked cautiously, obviously wondering about my sudden change in expression.

“I was prepared to feel...relieved. Having you know about everything, not needing to keep secrets from you. But I didn't expect to feel more than that. I like it. It makes me...happy.”

I hoped I didn't sound totally ridiculous, so I shrugged indifferently and smiled at her. I was happy. More than happy, I was elated. I couldn't explain it any better than that. There was just something about the knowledge that she knew me, really knew me, and still wanted to be with me. Maybe I'd been afraid I was mistaking her affection with simply curiosity.

“I'm glad,” she said with a grin.

Still in disbelief that everything had gone so smoothly, I found myself scrutinizing her expression. It was gentle and at ease. So much so that it almost made me nervous. Maybe she was just in shock. Maybe I'd had her so wrapped up in my own world, when she went back to hers she would realize she didn't really belong here. Now that I thought about it, we had more or less been consumed with each other the past two days, no contact with normal human life aside from her brief exchange with Charlie. Would going back to school, seeing her friends and returning to daily life make her see exactly how insane all of this really was?

I wasn't sure what my expression was telling her, but she suddenly smirked at me. Thankfully, it brought me back to her.

“You're still waiting for the running and the screaming, aren't you?” she asked, guessing my thoughts more perfectly than I was ever able to guess hers. I nodded and gave her a half-hearted smile, wishing I could believe in her love the way she seemed to believe in me.

“I hate to burst your bubble, but you're really not as scary as you think you are. I don't find you scary at all, actually,” she said flippantly. I looked at her skeptically then taking in her obviously forced expression of nonchalance, smiled widely at her, all my teeth showing.

“You really shouldn't have said that,” I said, laughing mischievously. Overcome with a rush of excitement from our day of truth, I let myself sink into a crouch, a growl I never thought she'd be alright with hearing building up in me. She took a step back and I almost stopped, but her taunting voice egged me on. Her voice, and my desire to wrap my arms around her again.

“You wouldn't.”

Careful not to jar her, I leaped from my crouch and locked my arms around her. As we fell into the sofa I let my body absorb the shock, then tightened my grasp on her as she breathed in deeply. She was trying to wiggle out of my hold but it felt too nice, too warm. I wasn't ready to let go yet.

I curled her up into to me so she was pressed tightly against my chest. She watched me cautiously for a moment, but must have decided it was all in fun. She made one more feeble attempt to get free before relaxing and sinking into me. I listened as her heart slowed.

“You were saying?” I teased.

“That you are a very, very terrifying monster,” she said sarcastically.

“Much better.”

“Um. Can I get up now?” she asked, trying once again to work her way out of my arms. I laughed lightly at how little effort she was actually putting into her escape attempt. I was debating letting her up, when I heard Alice and Jasper's familiar thoughts coming from the hallway.

What are they doing up there? Or maybe I don't want to know.

Edward, you'd better not break her. I don't think Charlie would be too happy if she came home in a full body cast.

“Can we come in?” Alice asked sweetly, a completely different tone than that of her not so subtle warning to me.

I felt Bella's skin grow hotter and she started wiggling again, this time actually putting forth some effort. If she knew what I had to put up with hearing, I don't think she'd be embarrassed about me holding her in front of my family. I swung her around so she was sitting in my lap. I wasn't sure how much less awkward that was for her, but at least we were no longer horizontal.

“Go ahead,” I said, laughing under my breath at the color on Bella's cheeks.

Alice practically skipped in, grinning from ear to ear.

You two are so cute. I love how much you make her blush, she thought, sitting down on the floor.

Wow, am I interrupting something? Jasper added, probably sensing the excitement in the air mixed with Bella's racing heart and pumping adrenaline. He sounded like he was somewhere in between mocking me and sincerely asking if I wanted them to leave. I rolled my eyes at him then looked down at Alice.

“It sounded like you were having Bella for lunch, and we came to see if you would share,” she said lightly. I felt Bella's whole body go rigid and I couldn't stop the smile from spreading across my face. Now that I was relatively certain she wasn't going to make a run for it, it was actually rather enjoyable to be able to tease her a little.

“Sorry, I don't believe I have enough to spare,” I said, pulling Bella closer until I could feel her raised body temperature pressed against every inch of me. She resisted for a fraction of a second before giving in and sinking back into me. It was delightful.

I suppose you don't want me to mention the fact that getting her blood pumping like that is wretchedly insensitive to those of us not conveniently in love with her?

I could hear that Jasper was in complete control but I still glared at him as he smiled wryly at me.

“Actually,” he said finally stepping inside the room, probably to drive me insane, “Alice says there's going to be a real storm tonight, and Emmett wants to play ball. Are you game?” Or are you too busy playing pouncing games with your girlfriend?

I wanted to glare at him but it had been a long time since there had been a storm big enough to let us really play, not holding back. I felt the excitement start to overtake me. Then reflexively I hugged Bella, unwilling to let her go. Alice saw the gesture and grinned.

“Of course you should bring Bella.”

Oh thanks, Alice, Jasper thought, throwing her a quick glare. Then he looked back at me, defeated. Whatever gets you out there, I guess. Although I'm pretty sure Emmett was planning on dragging you there himself if you'd said no.

Ignoring him, I turned to Bella. “Do you want to go?” I asked expectantly.

“Sure,” she said, feigning enthusiasm. I knew sports were probably on the bottom rung of her list of priorities. Still, I was certain our game would be more interesting than anything Charlie had ever forced her to sit through. “Um, where are we going?”

“We have to wait for thunder to play ball – you'll see why,” I grinned.

“Will I need an umbrella?” she asked reluctantly, and we all laughed. For someone who hated the rain so much, she sure had picked the wrong town to live in.

“Will she?” asked Jasper, humoring her.

Clouds rolling in, at least an hour of good strong thunder...but it will be dry. Besides Edward, if it rains you can just wrap her up in your arms. You seem to have gotten very good at that. She grinned widely.

“No,” she said, mostly to Bella. “The storm will hit over town. It should be dry enough in the clearing.”

“Good, then,” Jasper said, his excitement finally starting to come out.

“Let's go see if Carlisle will come,” Alice added, hurrying to the door.

“Like you don't know.” Okay, you kids have fun. Jasper teased. Don't be late to the game.

I smiled as he closed the door behind them.

“What will we be playing?” Bella asked, eyes wide.

“You will be watching,” I explained. “We will be playing baseball.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes as if baseball sounded too mundane for a group of vampires.

“Vampires like baseball?”

“It's the American pastime,” I told her seriously. Then I nuzzled at her neck so I could hear her heart race once more before taking her to see yet another one of my family's secrets.



Chapter 18 - THE GAME

.

Bella had been eying me cautiously the whole way back to her house, like she was waiting for me to spring some surprise on her. I'd tried to explain, it really was just baseball. Well, vampire baseball, but in essence it was the same. We just happened to run a bit faster and hit a bit harder than human players. Still, I didn't know what she was so nervous about.

I had planned on coming in with her, still hesitant to leave her side for even a moment after what Alice had seen, but when I saw the familiar black Ford parked in her driveway a low hiss rose in my throat. I could hear nothing but disgust in Billy's string of insulting thoughts aimed directly at me. The way they were coming across as a warning, a threat, made me cringe. It was almost as if Billy somehow understood my ability, like he knew I could hear him. Like he wanted me to hear him.

My family has been nothing but respectful, honoring the treaty in a way you don't seem capable of. Why couldn't you just stay on your own land, leave Bella and I alone and stay out of it, I muttered quickly, too low for Bella to hear.

I couldn't really blame Jacob in all this, he looked as unwilling to be part of the situation as I felt. His thoughts were irritated and mortified and I might have even felt a little sorry for him, being dragged into a battle he didn't belong in. Except for the fact that mixed in with thoughts of Please Dad, don't embarrass me and Can we just get this over with, I distinctly heard, What's Cullen got that I don't? I've known her since we were kids, we have fun. Don't understand what the fascination is...

I shook off the twinge of jealously that welled up in me – after all, he was just a kid – and focused in again on Billy. He was determined to talk to Charlie, convince him to make Bella stay away from me, although it was definitely going to work in my favor that he was still bound by the treaty not to reveal anything specific. It was also helpful that Jacob still thought of his father as a somewhat eccentric, superstitious man who put too much stock in legends. His disbelieving attitude would likely keep Charlie relaxed throughout the exchange. Still, the fact that Billy was interfering at all was infuriating.

“This is crossing the line,” I growled, and Bella's eyes shot up to mine.

“He came to warn Charlie?” she gasped.

I nodded as I thought about the best way to handle things. Thankfully Charlie wasn't home yet, so the easiest way would be if I could convince them to leave before he arrived. I thought about how difficult it would be, attempting to remain calm and rational when Billy was so determined to destroy my once chance at happiness. What right did he have to interfere? As unorthodox as my relationship with Bella might seem, I wasn't breaking any rules.

Aware of the intensity of our glares, Bella once again took things upon herself.

“Let me deal with this,” she offered and I couldn't help the relief that washed through me. I looked down at her, kind and innocent, and tried to wipe the ire from my expression.

“That's probably best,” I conceded, though I hated the thought of what Billy would say to her without Charlie there. Especially if he found a way to get Jacob out of the room so he could talk openly. I was suddenly very thankful I had shared so much with Bella. At least it had come from me first. I couldn't imagine Billy saying anything that would shock her after all she'd learned over the past two days. In fact, it would probably irk him that she was able to accept everything so coolly.

“Be careful, though. The child has no idea,” I added, making sure Bella didn't inadvertently reveal something to Jacob. Not that I thought he'd believe any of it. He'd long given up taking the stories of his tribe seriously. It was all just fun and games to him.

Bella looked at me with mild irritation. “Jacob is not that much younger than I am,” she said in what was, ironically, a very childish tone. She had again managed to find a way to take my frustration away and I grinned at her, all but forgetting the black stare Billy was still giving me.

“Oh, I know,” I teased.

She sighed and moved to leave the car. Abruptly I felt the tug of her absence and I considered waiting for her upstairs while she dealt with Billy. Then, reason slowly set in and I knew I would need to consult Alice on how this particular complication would play out. Regretfully, I would have to leave her, though I'd be sure to make our time apart as brief as possible.

“Get them inside so I can leave,” I said gently. “I'll be back around dusk.”

“Do you want my truck?” she offered kindly and again I had to chuckle at how she could know so much about me, yet sometimes understand so little.

“I could walk home faster than this truck moves,” I laughed. Running at full speed I could probably make it there and back before her truck had turned onto the main road.

“You don't have to leave,” she said sadly, and as her eyes pleaded with mine I started to forget exactly why I needed to go. I smiled warmly at her, hoping she knew just how unwilling I was to leave, even for a short time.

“Actually I do,” I sighed, then added with a smile, “After you get rid of them, you still have to prepare Charlie to meet your new boyfriend.”

She stared at me, exasperated. I knew she'd love that. “Thanks a lot.”

“I'll be back soon,” I promised with a tender smile. I glanced quickly at Billy who was still staring daggers at me. It was foolish, but I couldn't help myself as I leaned it to kiss Bella on the neck. Billy's thoughts shifted quickly into raging, pointed accusations as he watched me. Bella's heart sped up, though I could tell it was more from nervousness than the usual way she thrilled to my kiss.

As she too met Billy's enraged stare she mumbled, “Soon,” and darted from the truck toward them. I watched her as she tried to greet them casually. It pained me, thinking of leaving her alone with them. I hoped Jacob's obvious crush would keep him in the room with her. At least that way Billy wouldn't be able to say anything too hurtful or upsetting. I couldn't stand the thought of him lecturing her. She had enough to worry about, trying to think of a way to ease Charlie into the idea of our being together.

As soon as they were inside, I flew out of the truck and made my way home. It was one of the rare times I found no joy in running. I was on a mission, and the sooner I could establish just how big a threat Billy was going to be to our relationship, the sooner I could back with Bella. I'd barely opened the door when Alice came sprinting toward me.

What are you doing here? I thought you two were going to meet us there. What's wrong?

“Nothing's wrong, Alice,” I lied. “I mean, I don't think it is. I just need you to try to look for something.”

“Is Bella all right?” she asked worriedly.

“She's fine. She's just being...interrogated a bit right now.” I paused. “By the Blacks.”

I watched as her expression changed from concern to irritation, and eventually to rage that almost rivaled mine.

It's not his place to get involved in this, you haven't done anything wrong! She thought, unable to form the words aloud.

“I know,” I said evenly, trying to calm her down. I needed her focused or she wouldn't be able to see anything clearly. “I don't know exactly what he's planning, only that he clearly doesn't want me anywhere near Bella, and he seems to have taken it upon himself to try to make that happen.”

I waited while her thoughts slowed and rationalized, and finally she asked, “How can I help?”

“I just need you to make sure he's not planning anything big. You know, no storming the house or plans to reveal us or anything like that.”

“You really think he'd break the treaty over this?”

“I don't know. He didn't sound like he wanted to. He was thinking up ways to defame me without breaking any rules, but if Charlie can't be convinced to step in, I'm not sure how far he'll go trying to protect Bella.”

Alice closed her eyes and slowed her breathing, trying to focus in on any shift in Bella's or our future. She was silent for a few moments and I listened intently as her thoughts bounced and jumped. I smiled as she focused in on Bella and I together, laughing, smiling, and completely at ease. She tried to see beyond that, to see if there was anything struggling to pull us apart, but nothing came close to even minutely skewing the vision. She smiled as she opened her eyes.

“You two are so happy,” she said dreamily. “It's hard to see past that when both of your minds are so completely made up.”

“Thank you,” I sighed. “Is there anything else, though. Really try.”

She wrinkled her nose at me, rolled her eyes, and closed them once more. This time her breathing stopped entirely. I tried to follow her frenzied thoughts as she attempted to focus in on Charlie. He was as blurry to her as his thoughts were to me, and I wondered if maybe I should introduce the two of them so she could get a better vision of his future. It would come in very handy if she could see his reactions and help me better prepare for them. If I could win Charlie over, Billy wouldn't feel like as big of a threat.

“I'm sorry,” she finally said, looking at me again. “I can't really get a handle on Charlie, though I don't see anything that indicates he'll have a problem with you. Other than the fact that you're dating his only daughter, of course,” she smirked. “As for the Blacks, I just can't seem to find anything. Maybe because I don't really know much about them. Or maybe because Billy hasn't entirely made up his mind on how he wants to handle things. Or maybe...”

“Your maybes aren't really helping me, Alice,” I snapped much harsher than I had intended. The look that shot across her face made me instantly apologetic, though she didn't give me time to get the words out.

“Then get yourself a real psychic, Edward,” she spat. “I'm doing the best I can! Watch Bella, don't watch Bella, watch her but only when you're not hovering over her. I can't keep up with you and I can't concentrate when you're in my head like that!”

She turned away and dashed up the stairs, slamming her door behind her. Within seconds I could hear my family's thoughts cascading down on me. Of course I figured they were listening, but it was frustrating nevertheless.

What does he expect, constant 24 hour supervision?

The Blacks are just worried about Bella, he's being overprotective again.

I want to see the look on Charlie's face when Edward picks her up tonight.

Ridiculous. Completely ridiculous, all of it.

I flew up the stairs and knocked on Rosalie and Emmett's door. There was something I needed to say and at least for a few minutes, it would keep me from prying into Alice's mind. She needed time to think, and I already felt miserable enough for having upset her.

“Come in,” Rosalie said sweetly, and I heard Emmett laugh. They were sitting together on the edge of the bed, already in their baseball gear and ready for the game.

“Why didn't you come down earlier?” I asked, trying to match her calm tone.

“Well, I knew you didn't want me to meet Bella unless I was sure I could behave.”

“And?”

“And I decided that I couldn't,” she smiled innocently. I could feel the irritation welling up again.

“Fine,” I said, not sure I was composed enough to speak to her any further. I turned to Emmett. “What about you?”

“What, and leave Rose up here all alone? She would've ended up breaking something, and I figured Bella didn't need any more drama. Getting a tour of the vampire mansion was enough excitement for one day.”

I shook my head at both of them, wishing there was a way I could make them accept Bella. I wanted her to feel welcome here, by everyone, and though I was sure Emmett was only staying away for Rose's sake, it bothered me that she seemed so determined not to change her attitude. Her thoughts gave me no hint of acquiesce, and I wondered if the two would ever be able to be in the same room together. After a few silent moments I left, not sure what else to day, and knocked lightly on Alice's door.

“Yeah, you can come in,” she mumbled. She was lying curled up on Jasper's chest as he lovingly stroked her hair. He was glaring at me and I attempted a smile.

“I apologize, Alice. I didn't mean to put so much pressure on you. I know you love her too.”

“Of course I do,” she said sitting up. “And your paranoia has me worrying about her all the time. First the other vampires I saw, now Billy who I can't seem to get a reading on. And of course you've got me on constant lookout for any natural disasters that might strike, Bella herself included. You know, I'm not going to be able to see every time she falls down and scrapes her knee,” she added sarcastically.

“I know, and again I'm sorry. It's just that...” I paused, wishing I could say this to Alice alone, without Jasper's stare boring into me. “I just don't seem to be able to exist without her anymore. If something happened because I wasn't close enough to stop it, or because I wasn't paying attention for one moment...” My voice trailed off, unable to finish the thought. It was irrational, I knew, but I hoped Alice could understand my intense need to protect her.

I watched as her warm smile returned. Slowly – and Alice never moved slowly – she got up off the bed and walked over to me. She stopped just a few inches from my face and stood up on her tiptoes, looking deeply into my eyes.

You and Bella will always be together. I know you don't want to think about it, but you know what I've seen. The image of her dying has completely vanished, and I only see one future for you both. So ignore it if you must, but I'm going to take comfort in knowing that Bella is part of our family. Forever.

I wanted to be mad at her. I wanted to scream at her for putting the image that horrified me back in my mind and securing it so completely. Yet the thought of Bella and I...forever...pushed all other thoughts away. I stared at her for an unimaginable stretch of time as more of Alice's visions flooded my mind. Though I still couldn't accept what would have to take place to make them true, this time I didn't fight them. I let them come, even let myself revel for the briefest of moments at the thought of not having to worry about her safety anymore. What it would feel like to know she was mine for all eternity.

Seriously, man. It drives me nuts when you guys do that. Aren't we gonna go play ball?

Jasper's thought brought me abruptly back to the present and I turned to glare at him.

What?

“Come on, let's go. Jasper's getting impatient,” I told Alice. “I'm going to take the Jeep to pick up Bella and I'll meet you guys there.” Alice started to turn away but I took her hand and pulled her back to face me. “Thanks,” I mouthed, and she grinned widely at me.

Driving back to Bella I would not allow my thoughts to drift back to where they had been with Alice. I refused to spend one more second pining away after a future I was still determined not to let come to pass. All worries seemed to disappear as soon as her house was in view and I quickly parked the Jeep. I ran in a blur to the door, not worrying as much as I probably should have whether someone might have been watching.

I rang the doorbell and listened as Charlie's jumbled thoughts grew louder and more concerned. They didn't sound out of the ordinary though, nothing to indicate that Billy had spooked him. Just the usual concerns of a father who wasn't ready to let his little girl go.

He opened the door with a forced smile and I could see Bella hovering nervously behind him, her heart racing. She was giving him the strangest look, almost like she was willing him not to humiliate her. It was oddly endearing.

“Come on in, Edward,” he said politely, though his mind was not offering me nearly the same pleasantries.

I could hear Bella exhale a slow sigh of relief, though we both knew the hardest part was still ahead of us. I hoped something in him recognized how much I cared for Bella and it would put his mind at ease.

“Thanks, Chief Swan,” I said in my most formal and appreciative voice.

“Go ahead and call me Charlie. Here, I'll take your jacket.”

“Thanks, sir.”

“Have a seat there, Edward,” he said and I could feel the tenor of his mind switch to something resembling a trial. It was overprotective, remarkably sweet, and completely amusing.

I sank down into the chair beside the couch and braced myself for the onset of questions. Inexplicably Bella glared at me, though I couldn't imagine it being less awkward if she and I had sat next to each other, Charlie staring daggers at me from the chair. I winked at her, as if to say, Please just trust me. I've got more insight into this one than you do.

“So I hear you're getting my girl to watch baseball,” he said skeptically. He obviously thought it was a cover for something much more mischievous.

“Yes, sir, that's the plan,” I answered sincerely, and amazingly he seemed to believe me.

“Well, more power to you, I guess,” he chuckled, both his voice and mind relaxing. At least Charlie had found one silver lining in the whole boyfriend situation. Bella had always been very forthcoming about her aversion to sports. Charlie was hoping I'd finally bring out the sports lover in her.

We sat in silence for a minute or two until Bella took a deep breath.

“Okay,” she said, standing up and clearly ready for the awkward moment to be over. “Enough humor at my expense. Let's go.” She darted past us to get her coat and I could feel Charlie's anxiety return.

“Not too late, Bell,” he warned, though he was looking directly at me. I stifled a laugh at Bella's exasperated sigh.

“She'll be safe with me, I promise, sir.” I tried to infuse my voice with the same sincerity as when I made the vow to myself. He eyed me cautiously but I could tell he believed me, and it made me ecstatic to feel I'd earned at least his partial approval.

We both watched as Bella stomped out of the room, hiding her humiliation with frustration. It was adorable, and Charlie and I laughed in unison. What was even more entertaining was her expression when she saw the Jeep I'd brought. Had she really thought I'd planned on taking the Volvo trudging through the mud to the middle of nowhere? Not that I'd told her exactly how far out we'd need to go.

Charlie whistled behind us, partly in awe and partly to mask the concern that was creeping back over him.

“Wear your seat belts,” he added in a strained whisper.

Bella looked a bit queasy as she approached the daunting vehicle. She looked like a cat preparing to pounce as she readied herself to jump into the high seat. Would it really be that difficult to ask for my help? I thought with a sigh, lifting her quickly inside.

I walked slowly to the driver's side and held in another laugh as I watched Bella fumble helplessly with the harness. Her contorted expression looked like she was trying to solve a Rubik's Cube.

“What's all this?” she asked, clearly frustrated.

“It's an off-roading harness,” I answered calmly.

“Uh-oh.” Her pulse quickened and her eyes widened in horror. I smiled, thinking of how I could calm her down and get her buckled safely in all at the same time. From where Charlie stood, I was confident all he would see was me securing his girl into place, an act he would surely approve of.

I leaned across and began fastening the harness with one hand and lightly tracing Bella's neck with the other. My cool fingertips grazed across her collarbone, and she shivered as goosebumps rose on her delicate skin. This time I didn't even pause to worry I was making her too cold. Her soft sigh assured me it was the good kind of shiver.

Reluctantly I returned to my seat, though the pounding of her heart was still making me grin widely. I started the engine and Bella jumped at the sound.

“This is a...um...big Jeep you have,” she said, still trying to mask her anxiety.

“It's Emmett's. I didn't think you'd want to run the whole way.” I held my breath, waiting for her reaction to the knowledge that she'd be running with me again, but she was still too distracted by the vehicle to notice what I'd said.

“Where do you keep this thing?”

“We remodeled one of the outbuildings into a garage.” It was meant to be Emmett and Rose's place, during the periods when they decided to spend some time on their own. Of course, it didn't take long to realize that when they hit that point, the backyard simply wasn't far enough away. For any of us.

“Aren't you going to put on your seat belt?” she asked in a slightly disapproving voice. I turned and raised one eyebrow at her. Hadn't she caught on yet?

As she watched me, something in her expression changed. The queasy look from earlier returned and I was worried she was being jostled around too much. I almost slowed down when she choked out her next words.

“Run the whole way?” Ah. There it was. “As in, we're still going to run part of the way?” Her voice was panicked and again I wondered how the experience could have been so frightening for her. She trusted me in every other way, but being whisked through the woods was too much for her. I tried to smile, though I was genuinely concerned that it bothered her so much. We had a long way to go, and if I couldn't run we'd end up missing the whole game. And Emmett and Jasper would never let me hear the end of it.

“You're not going to run,” I teased lightly.

“I'm going to be sick.”

“Keep your eyes closed, you'll be fine.” Honestly, if she didn't see how fast we were going, I was sure I could run carefully enough that she'd barely even notice the movement.

She bit her lip and I was once again overtaken by the urge to press my own lips against her. Without even a moment of doubt over my control – it was such a relief, knowing I could be close to her – I gently kissed the top of her head, her scent overwhelming my senses. A low moan escaped my throat, though I couldn't bring myself to be sorry I'd done it. The pain was worth it to be filled with her luscious scent, impossibly sweeter in the damp, cool air. She glanced up at me questioningly, and I was happy to be able to say the words honestly without fear of frightening her.

“You smell so good in the rain.”

“In a good way, or in a bad way?” she asked, blushing and looking guilty for reasons I couldn't fathom.

“Both,” I sighed. “Always both.”

As we turned onto the hidden pathway and the road grew rougher, Bella started to bounce up and down in her seat. She didn't protest, though I could hear her sharp intakes of breath as she tried to calm herself down. I wondered if she realized just how much easier it would have been if we had run the whole way. If only I could find a way to cure her of her fear of running. Maybe if I relaxed her first, gave her a happy thought, so to speak, before we took off. I grinned to myself, realizing I was coming up with excuses to kiss her again.

By the time we'd reached the point where the Jeep could no longer fit down the path, I'd all but perfected my plan. Just as Alice had predicted, the rain was slowing and the sky was letting a few rays of sun shine through the storm. It created an ethereal effect through the trees, and I found myself anticipating the moment more and more.

“Sorry, Bella, we have to go on foot from here,” I said, already anxious for her reaction.

“You know what? I'll just wait here.”

“What happened to all your courage? You were extraordinary this morning,” I said, smiling again at the thought of Bella surrounded by my family, comfortable and perfectly at home.

“I haven't forgotten the last time yet,” she said, giving me the cue I'd been waiting for. I raced around to her door and started releasing the clasps on her harness, taking in another luxurious breath of her rain soaked hair.

“I'll get those, you go on ahead,” she said frantically. As if I was going to leave her side, even for a moment.

“Hmmm...” I trailed off, wondering how best to phrase it. I wanted her to be prepared so we had some chance of her reacting rationally. I was perfectly in control, but I still didn't relish the thought of having to pry her off of me. “It seems I'm going to have to tamper with your memory.”

Hoping she could feel the electricity, that she had some idea of what was coming, I pulled her swiftly from her seat and placed her carefully in front of me.

“Tamper with my memory?” Her voice was shaking and it made me wonder just how distracted I could make her. I wanted her to forget everything except us.

“Something like that,” I mumbled, looking at her with all the longing I'd been feeling ever since that moment in the car. My need to be close to her, to taste her again was taking over all my other senses.

She still looked like she had no idea what I was about to do, and I fought to hide the amusement her naivety triggered in me. Willing her to understand, I rested my hands on the Jeep, one on either side of her. As I inched my way closer, I could feel her rest into the door. She was still baffled as I tilted my face toward her and filled myself with her scent.

“Now,” I said, taking one more perfectly agonizing breath, “what exactly are you worrying about?”

“Well, um, hitting a tree,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. I could hear her heart racing and it just excited me more. “...and dying. And then getting sick.”

Suppressing the smile that threatened to break the intensity of the moment, I let my lips slowly find the softest little patch of skin on her throat. I could taste her adrenaline, feel her pulse under my lips. It was fantastic and torturous all at once. Yet I couldn't stop, I needed more of her.

“Are you still worried now?” I muttered, lips still resting against her increasingly warm skin.

“Yes,” she said in a strained voice. “About hitting trees and getting sick.”

I let my lips and my nose trace a cool line up to her chin as I inhaled deeply, completely intoxicated.

“And now?” I continued, thrilling to every ragged breath she took in. Feeling her body react to my touch was more enjoyable, more exhilarating than anything I'd ever experienced.

“Trees. Motion sickness,” she whispered, though I could tell all coherent thoughts were long vanished.

I pressed my lips to each of her soft eyelids, marveling at how even they had a scent all their own, each place on her body holding its own mystery.

“Bella, you don't really think I would hit a tree, do you?” I whispered.

“No, but I might.” All the determination had left her voice and I felt her chin lift, eyes still closed but searching for my lips. I trailed my lips in soft kisses down her cheek, stopping just before my lips met hers, prolonging the moment just a bit longer. Her shallow breaths were urging me on, her anticipation breaking down my last ounce of willpower.

“Would I let a tree hurt you?” I murmured, allowing my lips to gentry trace her bottom lip. Already I could taste her sweetness and I wanted to let all my defenses drop, though somewhere in the back of my very clouded mind I remembered that for her safety that was an impossibility.

“No,” she sighed.

“You see,” I smiled, speaking the words against her mouth. “There's nothing to be afraid of, is there?”

“No,” she whispered, all her earlier fears forgotten, just as I had intended. With that knowledge, I finally gave in and kissed her with all the love and passion that had been building up inside me. I caressed her face, enraptured by the way she trembled in my embrace. I couldn't make myself care or try to stop her when her arms locked around my neck and pulled me in closer. I could feel every inch of her fragile body pressed against mine, and I was grateful for the little voice in the back of my head that shouted beyond all the desire I was feeling, telling me to hold her gently.

With the tiny bit of rational thinking I had left in me focused entirely on not breaking her, I was caught completely off guard when she let out a deep sigh into my mouth. Inhaling unthinkingly, I was assaulted by her warm breath and the monster was resurfaced, enraged at having been kept at bay for so long.

“Damn it, Bella!” I nearly shouted, though the anger was solely directed at my own despicable weakness. “You'll be the death of me, I swear you will.”

When I could once again focus my gaze to where Bella stood, I saw her hunched over as if she didn't have the power to hold herself up. I might have been somewhat pleased with myself if it hadn't ended the way it did.

“You're indestructible,” she gasped, still staring at the ground.

“I might have believed that before I met you. Now let's get out of here before I do something really stupid.”

The vile monster had still not been completely silenced, and I was growing more and more frustrated with myself with each burning breath I took. I pulled Bella onto my back, wishing I could have just left her in her relaxed state instead of pushing the limits, selfish creature that I was. All I'd really wanted was for her to be comfortable running with me.

I could faintly see the rest of my family's footprints in the mud. I counted the tracks and determined they were all there waiting for us. They were probably wondering what was keeping us. Or hearing about it in excruciating detail from Alice. Either way, there was not stopping now. I desperately needed the wind and the speed of running to clear my head. I couldn't believe I had been so overconfident. I could never let my guard down with Bella, not for one second. Though the thrill of concentrating on her and her alone had been mesmerizing and wonderful.

I felt her grip me tightly and I knew she was as ready and she was going to be.

“Don't forget to close your eyes,” I warned her, wishing I could get the ferocity out of my voice. I wanted only to speak kindly to Bella, always. No matter how inexcusable I'd behaved.

Her head burrowed into my shoulder and I could tell she was following my instructions. I ran at just slightly under my normal speed, being especially cautious and hoping the motion wouldn't bother her this time. The rush of air against my face definitely helped and I purposely took slow, steady breaths, focusing on the forest around me. By the time we stopped I felt like myself again, though I couldn't entirely shut out the feeling of self loathing. My only comfort was knowing that Bella, kind soul that she was, had probably already forgiven me.

I reached up and gently stroked her hair, hoping she could feel that I was back in control. That I loved her, and I was sorry.

“It's over, Bella,” I told her gently. After one brief moment I felt her release me from her grasp, though if I'd known how unstable she was I would have made her hold on a little longer. Stubborn as ever, she tried to get down on her own and ended up in a heap on the ground.

“Oh!” she muttered, irritated at her usual lack of balance.

I watched her carefully, wondering why she hadn't asked for help like the last time. She looked confused, maybe even a little disoriented, then utterly perturbed by the whole thing. Yet the whole time she made no attempt to pick herself up. I shouldn't have laughed, but her expression was such a conglomeration of emotions I couldn't hold it in.

With a low grumble she stood up and started brushing herself off, missing about half of the debris that had accumulated on her coat. I couldn't stop the laughter, though I felt bad. It was obviously making her more upset. As she started to storm off into the woods, in the completely wrong direction, I pulled myself together and wrapped my arm around her waist.

“Where are you going, Bella?” I asked, making sure my voice was kind. She looked so mad and I was feeling rather guilty for making things worse instead of better.

“To watch a baseball game. You don't seem to be interested in playing anymore, but I'm sure the others will have fun without you.” The furious tone coming out of her soft lips was baffling. Again, I couldn't understand why the little things bothered her so much more than the things that should be truly troubling. She had fallen and I had laughed. Okay, it was completely insensitive, but in my defense I was laughing more out of relief than anything. The incident before our run had been very unsettling.

“You're going the wrong way,” I said softly, not wanting to upset her further. Without a word she trudged off toward the field. I reached out to her again, holding her closely but gently.

“Don't be mad,” I pleaded, “I couldn't help myself. You should have seen your face.” I laughed softly once more, this time purely out of joy at having her back in my arms.

“Oh, you're the only one who's allowed to get mad?” she asked, eyebrows raised and voice accusing.

“I wasn't mad at you,” I clarified, wondering how she could think I'd ever be mad at her for my own horrid faults.

“'Bella, you'll be the death of me'?” There was a sadness I couldn't quite explain as she repeated my foolish words back to me.

“That was simply a statement of fact,” I said, hating myself more for having said something inadvertently offensive.

“You were mad.”

“Yes,” I admitted. I was still mad, but at myself. Always at myself.

“But you just said – ”

“That I wasn't mad at you. Can't you see that, Bella?” Hadn't she figured it out yet? I cherished her, was captivated by her every breath, yet I was constantly aware of the fact that I deserved none of it. “Don't you understand?” I asked, though it sounded like I was begging. Maybe I was begging. I needed her to know I would never blame her for eliciting my most loathsome responses.

“See what?” asked angrily and her eyes searched mine for the answer she couldn't seem to comprehend.

“I'm never angry with you – how could I be? Brave, trusting...warm as you are.”

“Then why?” she breathed, clearly determined to understand the way I so desperately wanted her to. I reached out and held her perfect, soft, glorious face in my hands, again overwhelmed by how much I loved her.

“I infuriate myself,” I whispered, and instantly her expression softened, like she was shocked to hear the words. “The way I can't seem to keep from putting you in danger. My very existence puts you at risk. Sometimes I truly hate myself. I should be stronger, I should be able to – ”

Miraculously, her desire to stop me from even mentioning leaving was still there despite my behavior. I felt her soft fingertips touch my lips, silencing me.

“Don't,” she said simply, and how could I refuse? There was nothing I wanted more than to stay with her, forever. I reached up to take her hand in mine and brought it to my cheek, unwilling to let go of her warm touch. I pressed it against my face, marveling at how amazing her skin felt on mine and the strength of what it made me feel.

“I love you,” I told her, looking deeply into her eyes to make sure she understood just how much. “It's a poor excuse for what I'm doing, but it's still true.”

Just when I thought I couldn't love her any more, the goofiest grin spread across her face and she blushed a lovely shade of pink. I didn't question it, just happy that she still seemed excited by my confessions of love. I hoped my words would never stop eliciting that response because I would never stop telling her, and her blushing smile was all the reminder I needed that hearing it made her happy.

“Now, please try to behave yourself,” I said, half teasing and half begging her to just stay still this time. I needed to know I could kiss her without it turning into such an ordeal.

I kissed her very softly, silently pleading that she maintain her own control as I desperately clung to mine. Even the brief seconds my lips were against hers were divine, and I was disappointed when I felt her sigh and pull away. I stared at her, perplexed.

“You promised Chief Swan that you would have me home early, remember? We'd better get going.”

“Yes, ma'am,” I said with a smile, though I wished it hadn't ended quite so soon. It was the most reasonably she'd responded to my kiss and I was hoping to be able to stay in the moment just a little longer.

I held her hand as we walked through the last of the mossy trees until we reached the field. It had been a favorite hideout of ours and far enough away from the town that the loud cracks of our bats would blend in perfectly with the thunder. I watched Bella's eyes widen as she took in the scene that had become commonplace to us. Alice was practicing her lightning fast pitches, Carlisle speeding from base to base, getting the field ready for the game.

Esme, as always, was watching our family with love and adoration. Baseball wasn't her favorite pastime, but reveling in the happiness it brought us was. She smiled warmly when she saw Bella and I across the field and hurried over to us. Rosalie in all her glory refused to even look in our direction, marching toward the others with a string of explicatives running through her mind. Emmett watched her, or rather ogled her, for a long moment before following after Esme.

You two sure took your time getting here, he thought with a smirk. And man was it loud...

I wanted to glare at him, but Esme was already staring at me with her kindest eyes. There was no need to let her know what a cretin Emmett was being.

“Was that you we heard, Edward?” she asked sweetly.

“It sounded like a bear choking,” Emmett added in what was clearly mock concern.

Bella just smiled at Esme and confirmed, “That was him.” If she was still upset with me, she was obviously going to let it go, at least in front of my family. Always the picture of politeness, trying to make the vampires happy.

“Bella was being unintentionally funny,” I added, casting the quickest of scowls at Emmett while Esme's attention was on Bella.

Yeah, I bet you two are all laughs and hilarity. Now can you manage to detach from her hip long enough to play a decent game?

Thankfully Alice was streaking toward us, excitement written all over her face.

“It's time,” she said, right as the first wave of thunder rolled across the field. I felt Bella shiver beside me and for a moment I wondered if I could leave her side long enough to play. I wanted to wrap her up in my arms and never let go.

“Eerie, isn't it?” Emmett said, winking at Bella as the thunder subsided.

“Let's go,” Alice chirped, dragging Emmett along behind her. You too, Edward, she added. Time to be a show off again.

As I watched my family take their places, the excitement of the game started tp wash over me. It had been so long and it was always exhilarating, being able to let out the full force of our strength and speed without breaking anything. Aside from the occasional bat.

“Are you read for some ball?” I asked Bella.

She stared at me with just a hint of hesitation before muttering, “Go team!” I had to laugh at her fake enthusiasm. She really was trying. I was glad Esme was going to sit with her, keep her somewhat grounded in reality as the rest of us ghosted across the field. I wasn't sure how much of the game she'd actually be able to make sense of, not that I thought she really cared about the logistics of the game.

With a parting sigh and touch of her silky hair, I ran to meet the rest of them, showing off maybe just a little. It really was fun being the fastest. I fought the urge to listen in on Esme and Bella's conversation, deciding it was good that they finally get to talk, just the two of them. Bella had been so concerned about my family's approval, and if anyone could convince her just how loved she already was, it was Esme and her unmistakable kindness and sincerity.

After everyone had taken their places, I heard Esme call, “All right. Batter up.” Emmett stepped up to home plate and I listened as Alice thought through the perfect opening pitch. It wasn't often that I got to play any type of game with them, mostly because they thought I had an unfair advantage, hearing what they were planning before the acted. Baseball was one of the few sports where they'd all decided my power couldn't really do too much damage. If anything, they thought hearing their constant inner babbling might be enough of a distraction that I'd miss things.

When Alice finally released the ball, it flew toward Emmett. It streaked past him in a blur. He didn't even flinch.

Strike one, Alice thought smugly as an impish grin flitted across her cheeks. It's going to be a good game. She prepared for the second pitch but Emmett was prepared this time. She could usually only sneak one past him, just like any of us could only ever get in one solid punch before his disarming strength and instinct took over. I was the closest he ever got to a fair fight, though he'd learned over the years that if he just stopped thinking, he could quickly regain the advantage. Right Emmett, just don't think. That's always the answer.

Alice launched her second pitch and the bat collided with the ball. Emmett took off victoriously.

Go! Alice thought but I was already blazing through the trees, eyes locked on the ball. Putting every ounce of force into my run, my feet barely touching the ground, I started closing the distance. Planting my foot firmly, I hurled myself into the air and snatched the ball. I almost wished Bella could have seen that one.

I heard Esme's shout of “Out!” just as I reentered the clearing, and grinned at Emmett's look of desolation. He took the game so seriously. Rosalie was up next and she was glaring right past Alice toward me.

Can't believe he brought his human to this. And everyone's acting like it's so normal. Yeah, Bella, come to our house. Sure, come watch the game. Whatever. Just bringing the girlfriend home, no big deal.

Her thoughts never let up and I smirked as the distraction caused her to miss the first and second of Alice's pitches. Finally she silenced her insults and concentrated, hitting the third one firmly. Of course I didn't have to run as fast to catch her ball, though I did have to jump higher. She had a tendency to hit up and into the tress. Amazingly, she'd figured out how to be annoying even in her baseball technique.

Two outs and Jasper was up. He took his place, swinging the bat around and grinning slyly at Alice. They could always find a moment to flirt, even in the midst of a game.

“Love ya, babe,” he mouthed to her and she blew him a quick kiss before whirling the ball past him, resulting in his first strike. His smile never faded, too in love to care much about the fact that his girl was beating him. The second pitch came in low and Jasper hit it into the ground where it skidded straight into Carlisle. He bounced it off his foot and ran it to first base, colliding with Jasper as they both broke into laughter.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bella jump to her feet, a look of concern on her face. She seemed to relax when Esme gently said, “Safe,” and she hesitantly sat back down. I thought she understood that it takes a lot more than crashing into each other to cause us any harm. I'd have to let her watch Emmett and I go at it someday to prove there really wasn't anything for her to worry about.

My team was up to bat and Emmett took over Alice's place on the pitcher's mound. He smiled at me as I stepped up to bat and I rolled my eyes. His favorite trick was running through the periodic table in his head, just to make sure I had no knowledge of how or when he was going to hurl the ball at me. The first pitch whirled by and I heard him chuckle.

Oh yeah, I've been practicing.

I concentrated and gripped the bat as I attempted to hit the second ball. Strike two. Another laugh from Emmett.

Come on, you'd better hit this one. Bella's watching...

I forced myself to focus, ignoring his mental chattering. Like a flash the ball left his hand and finally collided with my bat. I took off, watching as Rosalie raced for the ball she hadn't expected me to hit. I knew she had no chance of catching it and I smiled triumphantly as I rounded home plate, casting a quick smile in Bella's direction.

Emmett managed to strike out first Alice, then Carlisle. Determined and confident as I stepped up for my second round at bat, I hit the first of his pitches with a loud crack. A piece of the bat flew into the air and I took off running. This time Rosalie was prepared, having started running before Emmett had even released the ball. I knew she'd caught it when I heard her victorious yell come from the middle of the forest.

Rotating batting order, Emmett paced as Alice struck out Jasper. Rosalie only made it to first thanks to Carlisle's speed and dexterity. With a sly grin Emmett stepped up to the plate and hit the first pitch. I took off and jumped for it but couldn't get a grip as it bounced off my fingers, ricocheted off a tree and buried itself in a dense patch of ferns. By the time I found it, both Rosalie and Emmett were grinning at me from home plate.

Jasper manged to hit Alice's first pitch and it sailed almost too easily into my hands, making their third out. Thrilled by the excitement of the game, I ran to Bella as we changed positions and Carlisle stepped up to bat. It didn't escape my notice that Alice was smiling wildly at me as I approached Bella.

“What do you think?” I asked, ecstatic that she was there sharing it with me.

“One thing's for sure, I'll never be able to sit through dull old Major League Baseball again,” she said with a smile.

“And it sounds like you did so much of that before,” I said, laughing at how hard she was trying to seem enthusiastic.

She's having a good time, Edward, Esme assured me with a sideways glance. She's very impressed.

“I am a little disappointed,” she said with the funniest little smile.

“Why?”

“Well, it would be nice if I could find just one thing you didn't do better than everyone else on the planet.”

See, I told you. She's proud of you, Esme added. I smiled widely at Bella and listened to her accelerated heart.

“I'm up,” I sighed reluctantly, as the other team's impatient thoughts took me away from the moment.

I noticed Rosalie slowly backing up into the woods, so I decided to hit low. I slid into second just before Emmett caught up with me, and waited for Carlisle's hit that would hopefully give me the chance to finish the run. He didn't disappoint, sending the ball soaring through the treetops. I strolled casually toward home, letting Carlisle catch up, and we both touched home together with smiles and high fives as Alice came flitting over to join the celebration.

Our team quickly took the lead as Emmett mumbled things like “lucky,” and “show-off” under his breath. We were in the middle of the fifth inning when Alice suddenly dropped the ball with a gasp. I stared at her in horror as the image that had assaulted her filled my every thought. Three crimson eyed vampires, speeding through the forest. They were heading directly for us.

I didn't bother asking her for details, only able to think of one thing. I rushed to Bella's side, locking my arms tightly around her as I continued to filter through exactly what Alice was seeing.

“Alice?” Esme asked nervously, though her stare was fixed on the protective stance I'd taken over Bella.

“I didn't see – I couldn't tell,” Alice breathed apologetically, eyes staring into mine. I'm sorry, Edward. I should have been paying closer attention. I shook my head, unwilling to let her feel any more guilt than what I'd already caused her today. It was my fault, bringing Bella so far out into the forest when we knew the nomads were nearby.

“What is it, Alice?” Carlisle asked as the rest of my family formed a circle around us.

“They were traveling much quicker than I thought. I can see I had the perspective wrong before,” she said quietly, glancing up at Jasper. The threat of danger started to sink in and he moved closer to her, as protective as I was being of Bella. Alice was significantly less breakable, though of course that didn't negate his instinct to defend her.

“What changed?” he asked her gently.

“They heard us playing, and it changed their path,” she said woefully. I'm sorry, I should have seen it, her mind kept repeating. All of us glanced at Bella who was looking paler than I'd ever seen her.

“How soon?” Carlisle asked me, likely realizing that if I could already hear them clearly the answer was, “too soon.”

I listened carefully, worried when I picked them out so quickly. Focusing in on voices I'd never heard before was usually more difficult, but their intent was crystal clear. They were curious, hoping to obverse the unconventional vampires they couldn't understand. And they wanted to play.

This should be interesting.

They actually call themselves a family, how absurd.

Maybe they'll let us join in the game. Oh, a little sport would be so much fun.

“Less than five minutes,” I finally said, estimating as best I could from their surroundings and the speed they were traveling. “They're running – they want to play,” I added with disgust. We were like some little science project to them.

“Can you make it?” Carlisle asked hopefully, glancing at Bella's terrified face.

“No, not carrying – ” I stopped myself, not wanting to give Bella a way to make her feel this was in any way her fault. I'd been careless and I had to figure out how to make her safe. “Besides,” I added as a terrible thought crossed my mind, “the last thing we need is for them to catch the scent and start hunting.” Bella shivered beside me and I held her closer, wishing she was back in her bed, safely curled up in my arms with me singing her to sleep.

“How many?” Emmett asked Alice, as his body instinctively shifted into a fighting stance. Of course he would assume this had to end in destruction.

“Three.”

“Three!” he said, a sickening smile spreading across his face. “Let them come.” I could use a little exercise, his mind added, far too excited by the idea. I tried not to think about how I was in fact, somewhat comforted by my brother's willfulness to rip to shreds anyone who threated our tightly bonded family. I sincerely hoped it wouldn't come to that, but...whatever it takes to keep Bella safe.

All of us, except Emmett who was too busy planning the fight, turned to Carlisle. In times like this we all relied on him as our leader, to help us choose the best course of action. I was sifting through Alice's mind, trying to find anything we might have missed when Carlisle spoke again.

“Let's just continue the game,” he said calmly. “Alice said they were simply curious.” I stared at him with wide eyes, unwilling to accept the best thing to do was to stand around and wait.

Trust me, Edward. It's for the best. You can't get her to safety without risking crossing paths with them. We'll keep her behind us until we can distract them enough to provide you the escape you need. I won't let anything happen to any of our family.

Esme was watching the intensity of my stare with Carlisle. We love her too, Edward. We won't let any harm come to her, she added. Once again her thoughts were perfectly in sync with his, and I relaxed infinitesimally at the sheer conviction in her tone. If it came down to it, my family would fight for the girl I loved, and I loved them all the more for it.

“Are they thirsty?” she muttered aloud so that Carlisle could hear. I shook my head, relieved that none of them seemed to be thinking about hunting. As much as I hated to think of the human blood that must have been recently spilled, it made me less fearful for Bella. Their senses wouldn't be heightened the way they would be if they hadn't just gorged themselves.

“You catch, Esme. I'll call it now,” I finally said, firmly taking my stance as Bella's protector. My vow to her had never felt stronger as I thought about the lengths I would go to to ensure her safety. I'd fight them all if I had to, rip every last one of them apart.

Everyone took their places again on the field, Alice and Esme staying the closest. No one dared go farther than was necessary to keep up the charade of the game.

“Take your hair down,” I whispered to Bella, idly remembering how I thought that would make a difference when she met my family. It was ridiculous to think that a thin layer of hair could mask her luscious scent, but nevertheless I needed to do everything in my power to keep her hidden. As she let our her ponytail and ruffled her hair it only stirred her scent more, filling the air around us with it.

“The others are coming now,” she said quietly, trying to mask her fear.

“Yes, stay very still, keep quiet, and don't move from my side, please.” I was trying to hide my own terror, not wanting her to be any more afraid than she already was. Gently and lovingly, I ran my fingers through her hair and brought it around her face, covering as much skin as I could.

“That won't help,” Alice whispered, observing my actions. “I could smell her across the field.”

“I know,” I admitted, remembering how every rustle of the wind had brought her scent to me like a tidal wave. I only hoped that her blood wouldn't be as potent to our visitors, that their senses would be dull, her scent masked by all the other smells of the forest and wildlife.

As we watched the others resume the game, their eyes constantly darting through the surrounding forest, Bella gazed up at me.

“What did Esme ask you?”

There was no hiding anything from her. She was far too observant. I debated whether or not to tell her, but figured it was better she know. It was very fortunate that the answer to Esme's question had been in our favor and I hoped it would ease her mind slightly.

“Whether they were thirsty,” I said softly, trying to infuse my voice with reassurance.

I listened to my family's thoughts, all but one of which were focused on every possible outcome. Emmett was sure it would end in a fight and he'd even managed to get Jasper a little excited about the idea. Carlisle, always the voice of reason, was thinking of ways to simply talk them into leaving. Alice couldn't stop apologizing to me, which made me feel even more miserable. Esme was muttering positive thoughts and promises that things would be okay.

Rosalie was...despicable. She'd reached a new low and I tried very hard to block out her every thought.

Ridiculous. All this anxiety to save some girl because Edward can't get over his stupid infatuation induced crush. Should have just stayed home. Not worth my energy, not worth anything...

I stared into the forest, trying to figure out which direction they would come from. I needed to keep as much distance as possible between them and Bella. Maybe Carlisle was right. Maybe he could simply get them talking, answer all their questions about the strange vegetarian vampires they were so fascinated with. Bella and I could simply walk away from the scene while their attention wasn't on us. I tried to convince myself it was possible, but something inside me knew it wouldn't be that simple.

“I'm sorry, Bella,” I whispered, despising myself for my foolishness. “It was stupid, irresponsible, to expose you like this. I'm so sorry.”

She didn't say a word, though I hoped she knew I would die before letting any harm come to her. I felt my breath catch as I saw the first hint of movement in the trees beyond right field. I stepped in front of Bella, blocking her as best I could from their approach. The rest of my family heard the noise a second after I did. The cracking of branches, shifting of trees, and stealthy footsteps of the three vampires who threatened to destroy the person I loved most.



Chapter 19 - RACE

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My jaw was clenched tightly and it was a struggle to keep from reaching out to hold onto Bella. Everything in me wanted to wrap my arms around her, protect her, shelter her from whatever was coming. But I knew better. And even if I didn't, Carlisle's racing thoughts reminded me of the necessity of acting normal as he silently repeated one thing and one thing only.

She needs to blend in...we can't draw attention to her.

As the three nomads stepped out of the forest and into the clearing, my family and I instinctively huddled closer together. We formed a sort of arrowhead in the grass with Carlisle at the point, our leader as always, and Emmett and Jasper who were all too ready to attack on either side of him. Rosalie and Esme were behind Emmett, Alice and I behind Jasper, both carefully trying to block Bella's scent from the approaching predators.

Mirroring our shape, one of the males walked out in front, the woman and other male on either side of him a few steps back. I listened carefully, trying to pick out any shift in their thoughts, anything that would indicate they knew they were in the presence of a human. Knowing that Emmett and Jasper were ready to fight, and that the others would join in to protect us, I planned my escape should it be necessary. As difficult as it would be to flee knowing my family was fighting for us, I wouldn't hesitate for one second to run Bella to safety if any of the nomads thought of harming her.

There certainly are a lot of them, the male in front thought.

What odd creatures, standing around playing games like a happy little family, the woman mused, obviously irritated.

So many perfectly delicious dining options wandering around this ridiculous town and they're feeding on what...squirrels? The second of the males was eying us sarcastically, and I fought back the growl that was building in my throat. I thought of how hard Carlisle worked to preserve human life, and it enraged me to hear it disregarded so callously. I was grateful it was only I who had to endure it. I hoped that our brief encounter would satisfy their curiosity and when it was over they would leave immediately. It made me cringe to think of them feeding in our home territory.

Carlisle took a few tentative steps toward the group, Emmett and Jasper right at his heels. I could see the effort it was taking them to keep their posture calm and relaxed. As they moved, the wind blew gently and I felt my hands ball into fists as I waited for the nomads to react. Thankfully, Bella's scent was blown in the opposite direction, and I relaxed as the first male moved toward Carlisle, no indication he sensed anything was wrong.

“We thought we heard a game,” he said casually, smiling. “I'm Laurent, these are Victoria and James,” he added, motioning to his companions.

“I'm Carlisle. This is my family, Emmett and Jasper, Rosalie, Esme and Alice, Edward and Bella.” Everything is fine, Edward, he added, as if sensing the panic that shot through me when he said her name. Blending in, I reminded myself. Just part of the family.

I watched as Victoria and James glanced at each of us cautiously, though their thoughts assured me they were merely confused by what they were seeing. They couldn't understand the choices we made, not only in our feeding habits but also by how many were in our family.

How does such a large group remain unnoticed? Victoria thought as her eyes continued to take us in. James cocked his head toward me and I again struggled to keep my frame relaxed. Had he picked up on the intensity of my stare? Jasper glanced toward us, feeling how difficult it was becoming for me to keep my composure. I felt a gentle wave of serenity flow around us, though it did little to calm me.

Keep it together, Edward. I can only do so much.

“Do you have room for a few more players?” Laurent asked.

“Actually, we were just finishing up. But we'd certainly be interested another time. Are you planning to stay in the area for long?” Carlisle asked and I felt my breath catch.

“We're headed north, in fact, but we were curious to see who was in the neighborhood. We haven't run into any company in a long time.”

I could feel the rest of my family exhale in relief and Carlisle continued in his friendly tone.

“No, this region is usually empty except for us and the occasional visitor, like yourselves.”

“What's your hunting range?”

If you can even call it that... James and Victoria thought sarcastically in unison.

“The Olympic Range here, up and down the Coast Ranges on occasion. We keep a permanent residence nearby. There's another permanent settlement like ours up near Denali.”

We all saw Laurent take a small step back as if he were in shock, but only I heard the rush of nearly incoherent thoughts that played through his mind. Carlisle was trying to make sense of his reaction.

He doesn't believe the stories, does he? He wonders if maybe we're really just like the rest of them, and just claiming this territory for ourselves? he asked me silently. Having heard traces of disbelief in Laurent's mind amidst his genuine curiosity, I nodded almost invisibly to Carlisle.

“Permanent?” Laurent finally asked. “How do you manage that?”

“Why don't you come back to our home with us and we can talk comfortably? It's a rather long story.”

Carlisle's intention was twofold. First and most importantly, he was providing Bella and I the escape we needed. Second, he truly wanted these vampires who were everything he wasn't to understand that there was another way to live. He needed them to see that human bloodshed was not the only option, even if he had almost no hope of changing their ways.

James and Victoria looked at each other as they each contemplated whether they actually wanted to venture into our large family's home. It all seemed so foreign to them. Laurent was clearly pleased by the invitation and smiled warmly at us.

“That sounds very interesting, and welcome. We've been on the hunt all the way down from Ontario, and we haven't had the chance to clean up in a while.” Their lifestyle does appear considerably more hygienic, he thought, taking in our cleanliness. Even after an afternoon playing baseball, we were nothing compared to the filthy, disheveled creatures who stood before us, remnants of traveling and feeding apparent on every soiled inch of them.

“Please don't take offense, but we'd appreciate it if you'd refrain from hunting in this immediate area. We have to stay inconspicuous, you understand,” Carlisle added gently.

“Of course. We certainly won't encroach on your territory. We just ate outside of Seattle, anyway,” he laughed, nonchalant as the rest of us fought the wave of disgust running through us.

I could hear Bella's heart speed up and I wished with everything in me she'd never had to hear about the atrocities that were all too common among the worst of our kind. The only satisfaction I could gain from this meeting was my own knowledge that standing between the nomads and Bella, I felt more human than vampire.

“We'll show you the way if you'd like to run with us – Emmett and Alice, you can go with Edward and Bella to get the Jeep,” he said casually. I felt Bella's breathing steady as she realized the encounter was coming to a close. Soon I would have her safely in her bed, my arms around her, singing her to sleep. I might never stop singing for fear that this nightmare would take hold of her and cause her more pain.

As the group started to disperse and my fears slowly dissipated, I began to loath myself for having allowed Bella to be exposed to such danger. It was almost as painful as when I'd been afraid I was capable of hurting her, though this time I felt at least somewhat absolved. I'd been allowed to be her protector, as I'd sworn to be for the rest of time, and I felt some relief at having been able to uphold my promise.

Just as Carlisle's final words before our departure rang through the air, the breeze picked up again. I barely had time to notice that the winds had changed and they were now blowing Bella's scent right towards the nomads, when Jame's head snapped toward us. My body tensed, ready to leap on him if he took just one step toward her.

Human! His every thought was consumed with her as he crouched and readied himself to attack. Warm, blood pulsing, so frail...

I lowered myself to meet his stance, lips curled back over my teeth, growling ferociously in an attempt to make him back down. He was not only outnumbered but outmatched. I felt stronger and more powerful than I thought possible, driven by the most intense desire I'd ever felt. It raged through me, fierce and all consuming. Protect Bella. She's all that matters, today and forever. No harm will ever come to her.

“What's this?” I faintly heard Laurent ask, though I diverted none of my attention to him. I was busy carefully matching Jame's every movement as he tried to shift to one side. I didn't even want that savage looking at my Bella.

“She's with us,” Carlisle said sternly. Edward, don't move unless he attacks.

“You brought a snack?” Laurent asked, suddenly catching Bella's scent and moving unthinkingly toward us. I let another deafening snarl escape and Laurent staggered backward.

Jame's thoughts, which had been focused solely on the kill, finally settled into something that sounded almost like amusement.

A little protective of our food, are we?

I fought the urge to respond, telling myself that the last thing we needed was for Jame to inadvertently learn of my ability to read his mind.

“I said she's with us,” Carlisle repeated firmly.

“But she's human,” Laurent said, utterly stunned. Amazing. They really are what they say they are.

“Yes,” he said simply as Emmett moved into place beside him, cautioning James with his eyes. James stood back up, but I stayed crouched and ready to lunge. Bella's ragged breathing was agonizing and I tried to block out the frantic panic of her heart. I had to stay focused. Everything in me wanted to grab her and run, but I had no way of knowing how fast or strong James was. All I could feel was his determination, and that was enough to keep me frozen in place. His eyes were locked on Bella, nostrils flared and a sadistic smiled was tugging at his mouth.

Well this should be interesting. A whole family of vampires protecting one pathetic little human. One of whom seems rather attached to her.

I was faintly aware of the fact that Laurent and Carlisle were still speaking. Their voices still sounded unusually calm considering what was taking place around them.

“It appears we have a lot to learn about each other,” Laurent said smoothly.

“Indeed.”

“But we'd like to accept your invitation.”

For one second, his words broke both Jame's and my focus. I saw Laurent glance toward Bella out of the corner of his eye before adding, “And, of course, we will not harm the human girl. We won't hunt in your range, as I said.”

Sorry. All bets off, James thought as he turned to glare at Laurent. His eyes flickered next to Victoria as he thought, Just you and me, babe, in what was a strangely melancholy tone. She seemed to understand what his gaze was telling her and I had no doubt she would comply. Interesting how one difference of opinion was all it took to disband their small group.

“We'll show you the way,” Carlisle said, still addressing Laurent, though I was beginning to understand that the power of the trio lied with James. “Jasper, Rosalie, Esme?”

My family quickly formed a tight circle, protecting Bella from view. Alice was beside her, watching her lovingly as she tried to comfort me. Everything's going to be fine, Edward. They know they can't fight off all of us. The worst is over. Bella is perfectly safe.

“Let's go, Bella,” I said softly. I expected her to move, to collapse into my arms from the stress of it all, but she was frozen. I reached out to grip her elbow, tugging gently until her muscles finally relaxed. I pulled her along beside me, wishing I could run but trying to appear composed in case James was still watching. Obviously he had already figured out how protective I was of Bella, but something told me it was still best to act calm, not antagonize him any more.

As soon as we were out of view from the others, I pulled Bella up and her arms latched around my shoulders. Somehow she felt even more fragile than she had mere hours ago. I whispered a silent apology as I took off at blinding speed. I knew Alice and Emmett were falling farther behind with each passing second, but I couldn't will myself to slow down. I wanted Bella as far from that place, from those monsters, as possible.

I tried to be gentle as I put Bella inside the Jeep, but fury was coursing through my veins. Whether it was fury at James for his desire to destroy everything I loved, or fury at myself for allowing him the opportunity, I wasn't sure. Emmett and Alice caught up to us, and dove into the Jeep.

“Strap her in,” I told Emmett as I revved the engine. The moment I heard the click of her harness my foot pressed firmly on the gas. I cursed myself quietly, letting the anger flow through me rather than fighting it off like I should have. It was cowardly and it wasn't fair to Bella, but anger was easier than the other emotions. If I didn't allow my fury to consume me, I would be left with guilt, frustration, despair.

Bella was not going to be happy with what was coming next. She wouldn't understand, and unfortunately I couldn't let that matter. I allowed the anger fill me again, silencing the agony of knowing how much what we were going to do would upset her. I had hoped her fear would keep the question I knew was coming away for a few more minutes. Just let me have the anger a little longer. Of course Bella was quicker than than.

“Where are we going?” she asked, not even a minute after turning onto the main highway.

I didn't answer. I didn't move.

Edward, you have to talk to her.

Fess up man, we all know what you're doing.

“Dammit, Edward! Where are you taking me?” she screamed, breaking my already dead heart.

If you don't say it, I will, Alice threatened.

“We have to get you away from here – far away – now.” I braced myself for her reaction, tightening my grip on the steering wheel until my hand was molded around it.

“Turn around! You have to take me home!” she yelled, and I heard her start fumbling with her harness.

“Emmett,” I said, though it was nearly a whisper. I was doing what I'd sworn never to do. I was hurting Bella. I was causing her misery. Although I knew it was the only way to keep her safe, it tore me apart, one agonizing plea at a time.

“No!” Rip... “Edward!” Tear... “No, you can't do this.” The last ounce of strength in me seemed to dissolving into nothing. I knew I wouldn't be able to take it for very long and I feared I would give in, give her what she was crying for. Yet this was the only way to keep her safe...

“I have to Bella,” I said firmly, wishing she could understand the pain I was feeling. “Now please be quiet,” I softly begged, unable to bear one more anguished outcry.

“I won't!” she yelled, again nearly breaking the last of my will. “You have to take me back – Charlie will call the FBI! They'll be all over your family – Carlisle and Esme! They'll have to leave, to hide forever!”

“Calm down, Bella. We've been there before,” I said solemnly. I could understand Bella not wanting to be taken from her home. I knew she would be worried about Charlie's safety and what her sudden disappearance would do to him. But I refused to let her be this upset over what it would put my family through.

“Not over me, you don't! You're not ruining everything over me!” She thrashed around in her seat violently and I felt a new wave of guilt wash over me. In the midst of everything, she had managed to find a way of making everything her fault again.

Wow, Emmett thought, in yet another one of his completely inappropriate moments. I'm starting to see what you see in this girl. Feisty, isn't she? I would have sneered at him but Alice interrupted.

Don't you see what this is doing to her, Edward? I know you're scared, but you can't make her decisions for her. Maybe there's another way, one that doesn't involved kidnapping Bella and holding her against her will. I want her safe too, but I will not let her hate us forever for it.

I didn't look at her and I didn't slow down.

“Edward, pull over,” Alice said aloud, fire in her eyes. I glared at her and ground my foot against the peddle, pushing it nearer and nearer its maximum speed.

“Edward, let's just talk this through,” she pleaded.

“You don't understand,” I screamed, trying to ignore the way my voice made Bella flinch. “He's a tracker, Alice, did you see that? He's a tracker.”

Whoa, new rules apply, Emmett added, only just beginning to see the gravity of the situation.

Alice's mind quickly filled with rage. I never wanted to use my visions against you, but so help me I will tell her everything.

“Pull over, Edward,” she said too calmly, considering the threat she'd just made to me. I continued to increase our speed.

What do you think Bella would do then? If she knew this would end in either her dying, or her being changed? Do you think she would run? Or do you think she'd be all too eager to get on with it? She knows as well as we all do that you won't let her die.

“Do it, Edward,” she repeated.

“Listen to me, Alice. I saw his mind. Tracking is his passion, his obsession – and he wants her, Alice – her, specifically,” I roared, willing her to understand that one of her visions was not necessarily more certain than the other. If he somehow got to her and did more damage than even vampire venom could mend...

“He begins the hunt tonight,” I said, not letting myself finish the thought and not taking my foot off the gas.

“He doesn't know where – ”

“How long do you think it will take him to cross her scent in town? His plan was already set before the words were out of Laurent's mouth.”I heard Bella's sharp intake of breath and instantly regretting having said the words aloud. She'd been so focused on what her disappearance would mean for my family she must not have had time to think about her father's own safety.

“Charlie! You can't leave him there! You can't leave him!” she screamed, finally realizing what I'd known from the moment we left the field. The tracker would go to her house. He'd find it quickly, it was possible he already had. Laurent had promised not to hunt on our land, but James clearly felt no loyalty to him anymore.

Hearing her anguish and thinking through what Alice had said, my foot backed off the gas though I kept driving, still staring straight ahead.

If we can find a way to keep Charlie safe, she'll be much more willing to cooperate, Alice thought calmly, then added aloud, “Let's just look at our options for a minute.”

I released my foot from the gas, listened for a moment while Emmett thought of every possible way to “take the weak, ridiculous excuse for a vampire down,” then slammed on the brakes.

“There are no other options,” I said through clenched teeth.

“I'm not leaving Charlie!” Bella screamed. I fought the urge to turn around and try to comfort her, though I knew there was only one thing she wanted, and I couldn't give that to her.

“We have to take her back,” Emmett said. Whatever Alice is thinking, you know she's right. She does have a bit of insight into the situation.

“No.”

“He's no match for us, Edward. He won't be able to touch her.”

“He'll wait.”

“I can wait too,” he smiled. It'll be fun. Like a vampire stakeout. I mean, why does Bella have to be the one to leave? Me and Jazz can drag James out of the country. We were just talking about how long it's been since we took a nice, long run together...

“You didn't see – you don't understand,” I groaned, hating his nonchalance. “Once he commits to a hunt, he's unshakable. We'd have to kill him.”

“That's an option,” he smiled. Just say the word and it's done. You won't even have to get your hands dirty.

“And the female. She's with him. If it turns into a fight, the leader will go with them, too.”

“There are enough of us,” he said, though his voice was now bordering on sarcastic. I was trying too hard. Emmett knew as well as I did that this wasn't about my family's safety. Of course the nomads were outnumbered and if it came down to a fight I was sure we would win. Still, the endless streams of what ifs kept playing out in my mind. One wrong move on our part, one moment of being too distracted by the fight, and he could get to her. I knew as well as any that one second is all it would take to change everything.

“There's another option,” Alice whispered, stubborn as always. James won't touch her if she's already been bitten. It would take all the fun right out of his game...

“There – is – no – other – option!” I screamed, her expression unchanging. She knew that was not a choice I would make willingly. Even if Bella were dying I didn't know how I could bring myself to damn her to this miserable existence, even if one wretched part of me wanted it more than anything.

Bella. Forever...

“Does anyone want to hear my plan?” Bella said, interrupting the most peaceful thought I'd had since the whole ordeal had begun.

“No,” I snapped, though the anger was only toward myself.

Don't yell at her just because you don't like what her future looks like. Or because you do like it but can't admit it to yourself.

Okay, maybe the anger was a little bit toward Alice too.

“Listen,” Bella said, trying her best to sound relaxed. “You take me back...”

“No,” I mumbled reflexively, though I knew she wasn't finished.

“You take me back,” she repeated, anger and frustration returning to her tone. “I tell my dad I want to go home to Phoenix. I pack my bags. We wait till this tracker is watching, and then we run. He'll follow us and leave Charlie alone. Charlie won't call the FBI on your family. Then you can take me any damned place you want.”

All three of us watched her, speechless at how rationally she was thinking given the circumstances. For a moment, even Alice and Emmett's minds were silent. It was the quietest moment I'd had in decades.

“It's not a bad idea, really,” Emmett finally said.

“It might work,” Alice added. And I'll be keeping a very close watch on Bella's future, so I'll know if there's cause for concern. “And we simply can't leave her father unprotected. You know that.”

All of them stared at me, Alice and Emmett pleading silently to pull myself together and think of the bigger picture. Bella's thoughts were as painfully silent as ever but her eyes begged me to comply.

“It's too dangerous – I don't want him within a hundred miles of her,” I said, though I could feel my resolve crumbling with every passing second of Bella's stare.

“Edward, he's not getting through us,” Emmett assured me. He punctuated the sentiment by letting me see a dozen or so different images of he and Jasper tearing James into pieces.

Alice quickly let the scenario play out through her mind, then very confidently told me, “I don't see him attacking. He'll try to wait for us to leave her alone.”

“It won't take long for him to realize that's not going to happen,” I growled, abhorring the thought of leaving Bella's side for one second with a monster like James after her.

“I demand that you take me home,” Bella said in her most confident voice. It might have worked had I not been so in tune with the changed rhythm of her breathing, so aware of the way her heart was racing. Bella was scared and she was trying to be brave. For me. For Charlie. For all of us. I shut my eyes tightly and tried to silence the voice in my head reminding me it was all my fault.

“Please,” she added quietly. And somehow that final plea, the one that might have been her final attempt before giving in and letting me take her far away, was the one that broke my resolve.

“You're leaving tonight, whether the tracker sees or not,” I whispered, utterly defeated. “You tell Charlie that you can't stand another minute in Forks. Tell him whatever story works. Pack the first things your hands touch, and then get in your truck. I don't care what he says to you. You have fifteen minutes. Do you hear me? Fifteen minutes from the time you cross the doorstep.”

I didn't pause to wait for her response. I knew it was what she wanted, what she needed, and I knew I had to give it to her. Alice would watch her future, I would listen to the tracker's every thought, and Emmett would plan various ways to rip the creature to shreds if he took one step toward the house. He was right. There was no getting through us, and Bella could have the peace of mind knowing her father was safe.

“Emmett?” I heard her mutter from the back. I looked in the mirror to see him releasing her from his iron hold, and allowed myself a brief smile as she settled comfortably back into her seat.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, grinning infinitesimally at me. You're right, man. The warm is totally nice.

Okay, smile gone. If I weren't so relieved by how quickly Bella had calmed down, I might have snapped at him.

I listened carefully as Alice's mind continued playing out possible outcomes for the night. She saw nothing to indicate that there would be any problems getting Bella safely in and out of Charlie's, and back to our house. From there she thought of everything from running Bella on foot out of the country, to booking multiple flights then walking her around every gate in the airport to confuse the scent. Though she couldn't see specifically how James would react to any tricks we might try to play, there was one thing that was certain. James was relentless. He would not give up no matter where we ran. Never happy to resort to violence, I tried not to dwell too long on what that meant.

James would not be allowed to walk away from this fight.

A few more silent minutes passed and I calmed myself by counting Bella's breaths and heartbeats. I'll never let anything or anyone take those sounds away from me.

“This is how it's going to happen,” I finally said, knowing we were only minutes from her house. “When we get to the house, if the tracker is not there, I will walk her to the door. Then she has fifteen minutes.” I quickly glanced back at Bella to make sure she understood what I was saying. She'd have to be fast and creative in her story. We both knew Charlie wasn't going to let her go easily.

“Emmett,” I continued, grateful for his strength and determination, “you take the outside of the house. Alice, you get the truck. I'll be inside as long as she is. After she's out, you two can take the Jeep home and tell Carlisle.”

“No way,” Emmett said firmly. “I'm with you.” If he attacks, I'm not letting you fight him alone.

“Think it through, Emmett. I don't know how long I'll be gone.”

“Until we know how far this is going to go, I'm with you.” You can be a real idiot sometimes, but you're my brother and I will fight beside you until this is over.

I let out a long sigh, knowing there was no point in arguing with him. It wasn't exactly like I could force him to let us go alone, and truthfully I knew I'd feel better having him with us. He'd never let anyone touch Bella.

“If the tracker is there, we keep driving,” I added, trying to cover my bases.

“We're going to make it there before him,” Alice said, showing me the image in her mind for confirmation. “What are we going to do with the Jeep?”

Great. She wanted to go with us too. Did she and Emmett really think I was that incapable of defending myself? I'd barely talked myself into letting Emmett come along, I certainly wasn't dragging Alice into this. As much as I knew she could take care of herself, Jasper would never forgive me for allowing her into a fight while he stayed in Forks playing watch-vampire for Charlie. Even though she's virtually indestructible, he worried about Alice's safety as much as I worried about Bella's.

“You're driving it home,” I answered, hoping she could hear the finality in my voice.

“No, I'm not,” she said sweetly, again flooding me with images of her hovering protectively around Bella. I love you both, and I'm not going anywhere.

I muttered things that were definitely not appropriate for Bella to hear as Alice kept smiling her innocent and unyielding smile.

“We can't all fit in my truck,” Bella said quietly. I could tell there was more to the sentence, though I wasn't sure I wanted to hear the rest. She was looking at her feet when she spoke again. “I think you should let me go alone.”

My eyes shot up to the rear view mirror and her gaze timidly met mine.

“Bella, please just do this my way, just this once,” I begged. I knew she was worried about me and trying to be brave, but now simply wasn't the time.

“Listen,” she said, confidence slowly creeping back into her voice. “Charlie's not an imbecile. If you're not in town tomorrow, he's going to get suspicious.”

“That's irrelevant. We'll make sure he's safe, and that's all that matters.”

“Then what about this tracker? He saw the way you acted tonight. He's going to think you're with me, wherever you are.”

I watched as Emmett glanced at Bella with the strangest look of pride. Being chased by an obsessed vampire killer, and all she can think about is keeping you and Charlie safe, and not messing things up for our family...amazing.

“Edward, listen to her,” he addedaloud, still looking at Bella like he was in awe. “I think she's right.”

“Yes, she is,” Alice said, this time thankfully not backing her words up with another rush of visions. They were starting to feel like a constant exclamation point to every word she spoke.

“I can't do that,” I said bleakly, not able to bear the thought of leaving her side when I knew what was pursuing her. I couldn't fathom the torture of not knowing where she was, not ever being certain of her safety. She was always so afraid of my leaving her, but I was every bit as afraid of us being separated as she was.

“Emmett should stay, too. He definitely got an eyeful of Emmett,” she said, ignoring my words and my expression.

“What?” Emmett asked, as shocked as I was that she would send her strongest protector with me instead of keeping him with her.

“You'll get a better crack at him if you stay,” Alice reminded me. Of course he'll assume you two are together. She could be halfway across the country by the time he realizes you stayed in Forks by yourself.

“You think I should let her go alone?” I snapped, glaring at Alice in frustration and anger, though something in me knew I'd already lost the battle. It was three against one.

“Of course not,” Alice said softly, trying to calm me down as my breathing sped up and my hands clenched into fists around the steering wheel. “Jasper and I will take her.”

“I can't do that,” I muttered. Then Alice filled my mind with pictures of Bella safe and perfect, hundreds of miles away from any danger. I felt a crushing pain at the thought of being so far away from her, but we all knew that when it came down to it, my feelings of loneliness weren't really important at all. If Bella was safe, I could get through anything.

“Hang out here for a week – ” Bella said calmly.

Too long... My mind instantly fought against the idea of not being beside her.

“ – a few days,” she said, taking in my expression. “Let Charlie see you haven't kidnapped me, and lead this James on a wild-goose chase. Make sure he's completely off my trail. Then come and meet me. Take a roundabout route, of course, and then Jasper and Alice can go home.”

Against my will, a vision of my own flashed through my mind. I could see it all too clearly. Bella and I alone, together, traveling the world. We'd lead James far away from her scent, but we could never go back to Forks. Assuming we didn't kill him, we'd always worry that he would be there waiting for our return. I wanted so much for Bella to have a normal life, to make sure that her being with me did not make her give up anything. Still, the thought of having her all to myself, being able to show her the world and forever bask in her presence...

“Meet you where?” I found myself asking, far too attached to the future that was racing through my thoughts.

“Phoenix. Of course.”

“No. He'll hear that's where you're going,” I said, quickly snapping myself back into the present. There was no time for idle fantasies about a life that probably wasn't possible for us anyway. She'd never be willing to leave everything behind for me, and it would be selfish of me to ask that she do such a thing. Bella was going to live her life, her human life like the rest of her friends and family. I would not take that away from her.

“And you'll make it look like that's a ruse, obviously. He'll know that we'll know that he's listening. He'll never believe I'm actually going where I say I am going.” She said it with such confidence, I actually felt a little silly for not thinking of it myself.

“She's diabolical,” Emmett laughed, still quite proud of her for thinking so clearly in the midst of everything.

“And if that doesn't work?”

“There are several million people in Phoenix,” she told me, still calmer than I thought she should be. Her heart wasn't even racing. Apparently the idea of fleeing across multiple states to evade a sadistic vampire tracker wasn't particularly upsetting to her. Not like, oh...running with me or meeting my family.

“It's not that hard to find a phone book,” I added, though I was figuring out that she had an answer for everything.

“I won't go home.”

“Oh?” Why go back to Phoenix if not to be with her mother?

“I'm quite old enough to get my own place.”

“Edward, we'll be with her,” Alice added, hearing the low growl that was building in my chest at the idea of Bella off on her own.

“What are you going to do in Phoenix?” I spat at her.

“Stay indoors,” she smiled.

“I kind of like it,” Emmett added with a grin. Send the girls on a nice little vacation while you and I take care of James. He won't know what hit him...

“Shut up, Emmett.”

“Look, if we try to take him down while she's still around, there's a much better chance that someone will get hurt – she'll get hurt, or you will, trying to protect her. Now, if we get him alone...” He was smiling again as he painted the rest of the picture for me, far too graphic for Bella to hear. The specifics of killing a vampire were not something any of us wanted her to think about in any amount of detail.

As we approached the house, I heard Bella's heart finally start to speed up. She was forcing herself to take slow, calming breaths, but I knew she was afraid.

“Bella,” I said gently, suddenly realizing my voice had probably been offering her little comfort during our drive. I hated knowing how harsh I'd sounded. I was just so terrified of losing her.

“If you let anything happen to yourself – anything at all – I'm holding you personally responsible. Do you understand that?”

“Yes,” she said, her voice strained. Of course it was unfair to use her her guilt tendencies against her, but I couldn't help feeling that she would be more careful if she believed she was doing it for my sake. She had to know by now, I just wouldn't survive if I lost her.

“Can Jasper handle this?” I asked Alice. She growled, too low for Bella to hear. I'd started to feel more comfortable with his being around her, seeing as most of his energy was being spent making fun of me, but I still had to be sure.

“Give him some credit, Edward. He's been doing very, very well, all things considered.” Relax. I'll keep an eye on the situation and make sure he hunts if there's even a chance his control is wavering.

“Can you handle this?” I asked, bracing myself for her reaction. This time she didn't hold back, and I could hear Bella's breath catch, her heart pounding in her chest.

How dare you insinuate... she began, but I cut her off with a quick smile.

“But keep your opinions to yourself,” I reminded her, then watched as her expression shifted back to a demure smile.

Oh, don't worry. She'll figure all of that out on her own, when the time is right.



Chapter 20 - GOODBYES

.

We drove in silence the rest of the way to Bella's house. Even Emmett and Alice's mind's were quiet, focused intently on listening for any sign of James. We all peered into the shadows or the surrounding forest, watching closely but seeing nothing unusual. I took a deep breathe as we pulled up behind Bella's truck, and I let her lovely scent momentarily block out all the fear I was feeling. For one second, there was no danger. There was only Bella and I, and the love we felt for each other.

Far too soon, Alice pulled me from my peaceful moment of delusion.

He hasn't tracked her here yet. You two have a little time, but be careful. Stick to the plan.

“He's not here. Let's go,” I told Bella, wishing I could have basked in her presence just a little longer. Though I refused to think the worst, something in me knew she and I would be separated longer than I was willing to think about. I didn't know exactly how or in what way, but I was certain the next few days were going to change everything.

Emmett quickly released Bella's harness, smiling at her with all the love of a brother toward his little sister. It really was amazing how quickly she had won her way into all of their hearts. All except for Rosalie of course, but I didn't let myself dwell on that. Rose basically only knew how to love herself. Even Emmett came second to her selfishness.

“Don't worry, Bella,” Emmett said kindly, “we'll take care of things here quickly.” If that stupid tracker would just hurry up and get here, maybe we could have him taken care of before Bella even crosses the state line.

I tried to smile to show him something at least resembling confidence, but the sight of Bella's tears stopped it before it began. She looked so small, so fragile, looking up at Emmett with her eyes filling up. When she glanced at Alice, they poured down her cheek. I knew it would only hurt her more if she caught my gaze. I couldn't even imagine what I must look like. If it were possible for me to cry my eyes would have been a perfect mirror of hers. I was certain she would be able to feel that and it would only bring her more tears, so I forced myself to turn away.

“Alice, Emmett,” I said, keeping my eyes locked on the darkness around us as they quickly left the Jeep.

Everything is going to be fine, Alice thought gently.

You guys hurry up, it's time to get this thing started! Emmett added, though there was something tainting his usual energy and enthusiasm. If I didn't know better, I'd have wondered if he wasn't a little nervous himself about what was coming.

As they ran soundlessly away from us, I raced around to Bella's door, helping her down from the massive Jeep. Could it really have been only a few hours ago that I'd lifted her up into her seat, laughing at her dismay as she fumbled with the harness? It all seemed so trivial, and I wondered how I could have wasted one second of our time together. We should have just stayed home, wrapped up in each other's arms in our perfect little world.

With that thought I pulled her close to me, her arm entwining with mine as we walked to the door. Fearing the night in a way I never had before, I walked quickly, though I would have given anything to simply stop time. She was pressed so tightly to me I could feel her heart racing against my chest, and I wished I could have taken the time to count the beats, savor the way the damp night air changed and enhanced her scent.

“Fifteen minutes,” I said softly, though I wasn't sure if I was reminding her or myself.

“I can do this,” she said through her still flowing tears.

When we reached the porch she startled me by reaching both of her hands up to my face. I could feel her warmth radiating through every inch of me and for a moment I couldn't fathom how I was going to be able to let her go. As her eyes blazed into mine I wanted to forget the plan, forget how carefully orchestrated every minute of the night was. I wanted to grab hold of her and run, faster than I'd ever moved before, and take her away from all of it. Her stare only intensified when she finally spoke to me.

“I love you,” she whispered, her fingers caressing my face. “I will always love you, no matter what happens now.” My chest tightened as I put aside my selfish desire to run away with her. Whatever it takes to make her safe, I reminded myself.

“Nothing is going to happen to you, Bella.”

“Just follow the plan, okay? Keep Charlie safe for me. He's not going to like me very much after this, and I want to have the chance to apologize later.”

I barely heard her as I caught the faint sound of movement in the trees, though the air was still.

“Get inside, Bella. We have to hurry,” I pleaded. As much as I wished I could stay there and prolong our moment together, I knew every second we waited was adding to the danger threatening her.

“One more thing,” she said, the fire in her eyes burning wildly. “Don't listen to another word I say tonight!” She stood on her tiptoes and closed the small gap between us, kissing me fiercely for a split second. I wanted to respond but before I knew what was happening, she was violently throwing the door open.

“Go away, Edward!” she screamed, slamming the door in my face. It took me a moment to catch up with her plan, but as I heard the strangest mix of concern and relief float through Charlie's mind, I understood. She was making sure he wouldn't suspect I had taken her away. She was protecting me, and amidst the chaos I felt myself smile.

I flew around the side of the house and up to her window the way I had for so many nights. A wave of something near nostalgia washed through me as I stepped inside her room. What used to be my calm sanctuary now set the scene for panic and despair.

“Leave me alone!” I heard Bella scream as she scrambled up the stairs and through the door. She didn't look at me as she began fumbling around for her bag.

“Bella, are you okay? What's going on?” Charlie yelled, knocking on her locked door.

“I'm going home,” she screamed, and I looked at her just in time to see the fresh wave of tears that were streaming down her face.

“Did he hurt you?” Charlie asked.

“No!” she cried, obviously horrified that he had come to that conclusion. Finally she turned to face me and determination had started to replace the agony in her eyes. I was rummaging through her dresser, tossing her clothes to pack. I was relieved to see she still had a few warm weather items amid the sea of sweaters and long sleeved shirts that were necessary for Northwest weather. I knew Arizona would be hot and I didn't want her to be uncomfortable. Not that I doubted Alice's ability to shop, even in the most dire of circumstances.

“Did he break up with you?” Charlie asked, still trying to figure out Bella's behavior.

“No!” she yelled again while packing the items I threw to her.

“What happened, Bella?”

“I broke up with him!” she screamed while she tugged on her bag's zipper. I could hear the change in her heart and see the pain in her eyes at having uttered the words, false as they were. She was losing her resolve and I wondered if it was making it more difficult to lie to Charlie with me there listening to it all. I reached over to close the bag and placed it over her arm.

“I'll be in the truck – go!” I told her, urging her to finish what she had started. I jumped out the window, scanning every inch of darkness as I made my way to Bella's truck. Though I could still hear the argument clearly, I forced myself to block out her words. Instead, I listened intently to the sounds of the forest. I made myself hear every cracking twig, every rustle of tress in the soft breeze, constantly ascertaining whether there was something unfamiliar in the always familiar sounds of nature.

Though I was trying to give her privacy, I couldn't help tuning in again when I heard a very startled, “What?”

At the same time my head snapped in the direction of the house I heard the sound I'd been terrified of hearing. A soft, sinister laugh was coming from the trees. Before I had time to panic, I heard Alice's voice in the distance.

“We're here,” she called, alerting both James and I to her and Emmett's presence. James growled into the darkness. Relieved by the knowledge that he wouldn't attack when he knew he was outnumbered, I turned my attention back to Bella and Charlie.

“She called while you were out,” Charlie said, and I assumed he was talking about her mother. “Things aren't going so well in Florida, and if Phil doesn't get signed by the end of the week, they're going back to Arizona. The assistant coach of the Sidewinders said they might have a spot for another shortstop.”

There was another dry laugh. Arizona girl, huh? Not exactly conducive to vampire life.

I snarled into the stillness, hoping the threat would keep James at bay a little while longer. He knew Alice and Emmett were close by, and I was sure he knew I was there too. I'd made it fairly obvious wherever Bella was, I would be. It was the basis of our entire inane plan. Still, I readied myself to attack if he took one step from his hiding place. As Alice and Emmett came into view, we all growled menacingly into the trees

Wow, she really does have her own little army of vampires. I don't see what all the commotion is about, but at least it makes things interesting. It was about time for a little sport.

“I have a key,” I heard Bella murmur as she started to open the door. I turned my attention back to her while still listening intently as the upcoming hunt consumed James's every thought. “Just let me go, Charlie. It didn't work out, okay? I really, really hate Forks!”

I took my eyes off of Bella just long enough to see the pained expression on Charlie's face. His thoughts were even more jumbled than usual. There were still pleas trying to make her stay, and confusion as to what had really caused the scene. Yet there was one overwhelming emotion that clouded everything else. Defeat.

My whole body tensed as I watched Bella run toward the truck. I listened as James growled softly from the trees, but he made no move to attack. He knew I was waiting and that he was being watched closely. Bella tossed her bag in the back and climbed in, her face stained with tears though for the moment her eyes were dry.

“I'll call you tomorrow!” she called to Charlie as she started the engine. She watched him in the rear view mirror as she drove away and I listened to her try to stifle her sobs. I took her hand in mine and felt how hard she was shaking.

“Pull over,” I told her gently.

“I can drive,” she said, trying to regain her composure.

I wouldn't argue with her, sure that would just upset her more, but I also knew she wasn't in any condition to drive. In one swift motion I reached over and pulled her across my lap, changing to the driver's seat.

“You wouldn't be able to find the house,” I explained in my most soothing voice.

I listened while her breathing returned to normal, and just as she started to relax headlights came up too fast on us. With a gasp she turned to stare out the back window, terrified.

“It's just Alice,” I told her, reaching out for her hand again. I squeezed it gently, trying to assure her we had things under control. Her heart settled, but somehow its steady beat did nothing to calm my nerves.

“The tracker?” she asked, quick as ever to figure things out.

“He heard the end of your performance,” I admitted.

“Charlie?” she gasped, a new wave of panic entering her voice.

“The tracker followed us. He's running behind us now.” I would have been listening to his thoughts, but they weren't giving me anything useful. He was so focused on the hunt – on the kill – there was little logic or planning going on. He only had one thought and I knew all too well what it was.

“Can we outrun him?” she asked, and I decided that there was no point in downplaying the situation. She needed to know the truth, as painful as it was to admit.

“No.”

Instinctively I drove faster, pushing her truck to its limit and wishing we were in one of my family's other cars. Not that it would do any good, really. James was as fast as he was stubborn. Bella watched as Alice followed us, and I hoped she could feel the strength of our numbers and the determination of everyone involved not to let any harm come to her. After a few silent moments I felt the truck buckle slightly under Emmett's weight. Before I could explain, Bella was screaming and I cursed my brother under my breath for not having given any warning. I reached out to put my fingers against Bella's shrieking lips.

“It's Emmett!” I assured her as her chest rose and fell in panicked gasps. With a fresh wave of guilt sweeping over me, I wrapped my arm around Bella's waist and tried to think of some way to comfort her. I wished we had the luxury of time so I could pull over and press her against me, rocking her and singing to her until all her fears were gone. With a sigh, I decided I would have to settle for trying to distract her with a bit of teasing.

“I didn't realize you were still so bored with small-town life. It seemed like you were adjusting fairly well – especially recently. Maybe I was just flattering myself that I was making life more interesting for you.” I smiled at her and tried to make my voice light and casual, give her a few moments away from the nightmare that was chasing us.

“I wasn't being nice,” she said, refusing to meet my gaze. “That was the same thing my mom said when she left him. You could day I was hitting below the belt.”

I instantly hated myself for my stupid attempt at distraction. The sadness and regret in her voice told me I'd only made things worse.

“Don't worry. He'll forgive you,” I said softly, smiling as her eyes met mine. They held a different kind of fear than what I'd been witnessing since the moment the nomads showed up. She was truly afraid she had ruined her relationship with her father. With all her endless ability to forgive, she couldn't see that he would have the same level of forgiveness for her.

“Bella, it's going to be all right,” I promised.

“But it won't be all right when I'm not with you,” she said shakily, making my heart tighten in my chest. With Bella beside me and my arm tightly locked around her waist, it was so easy to forget that in less than an hour we'd be countless miles apart. Not since my initial fleeing to Denali had I been more than a short hunting trip's distance away from Bella. And since I'd realized how deeply I love her, I'd hunted mostly in the park just outside the city, unwilling even to make the journey to our usual more distant locations. The thought of having hundreds of miles between us was nearly unbearable.

“We'll be together again in a few days,” I said, trying to comfort both Bella and myself. I pulled her closer to me, as if locking her in my embrace now would prevent the inevitable separation that was looming over us. “Don't forget that this was your idea,” I added, trying to smile through the pain.

“It was the best idea – of course it was mine,” she said, sounding almost like herself.

I knew it was an act, but I appreciated that she was making as much effort as I was to try to keep things feeling normal as best we could. I offered her one more tentative smile, though of course she saw right through me.

“Why did this happen?” she asked, and it sounded like another sob was threatening to escape her. “Why me?”

She might as well have asked “what did I do?” and the thought of Bella blaming herself yet again for my carelessness made me loath myself even more.

“It's my fault – I was a fool to expose you like that.”

“That's not what I meant,” she said, her voice hesitating just a moment before she continued. “I was there, big deal. It didn't bother the other two. Why did this James decide to kill me? There're people all over the place, why me?”

I thought about what she was asking and cringed at how similar it was to when she had inquired as to why I said I was more dangerous to her than to other humans. In essence, it did boil down to the powerful lure of her scent, though obviously she had no control over that. It was Bella that drew him in, but it was myself who set him off. Everything about my stance in the field told him one thing.

She belongs to me.

“I got a good look at his mind tonight. I'm not sure if there's anything I could have done to avoid this, once he saw you. It is partially your fault,” I said, trying to make my voice light and teasing. “If you didn't smell so appallingly luscious, he might not have bothered. But when I defended you...well, that made it a lot worse. He's not used to being thwarted, no matter how insignificant the object. He thinks of himself as a hunter and nothing else. His existence is consumed with tracking, and a challenge is all he asks of life. Suddenly we've presented him with a beautiful challenge – a large clan of strong fighters all bent on protecting the one vulnerable element. You wouldn't believe how euphoric he is now. It's his favorite game, and we've just made it his most exciting game ever.”

James was the absolute worst of our kind, a creature who gave merit to all the horrific stories humans created about us. He enjoyed violence, craved the fight, and above all thirsted for blood without any regard to the life attached to it. The fact that we were running from him, that Bella was still alive, was proof of the inarguable strength our family showed.

“But if I had stood by, he would have killed you right then,” I added quietly, unwilling to hide the truth from Bella but unable to meet her stare.

“I thought...I didn't smell the same to the others...as I do to you,” she whispered.

Of course it wasn't the same! My hands clenched into fists around the steering wheel at the thought of what it would have meant if she had called to James the way she called to me. Though it was the last thing I wanted to think of at that precise moment, I couldn't help my mind wandering back to that first terrible day. The way Bella's blood assaulted me, strangled me and pulled me in...

“You don't,” I said quickly, not wanting to waste precious moments with Bella dwelling on the past that didn't matter. “But that doesn't mean that you aren't still a temptation to every one of them. If you had appealed to the tracker – or any of them – the same way you appeal to me, it would have meant a fight right there.”

I watched as Bella's body shook with a wave of fear and all I could think was, I can never let her be afraid again. Though I knew I'd been trying to find some way around it, that shiver coursing through her veins was all it took to get me on board with Emmett's line of thinking.

“I don't think I have any choice but to kill him now,” I said sadly. “Carlisle won't like it.”

I didn't know what reaction I was expecting, but I was surprised when Bella calmly asked, “How can you kill a vampire?” She sounded inquisitive, her tone reminiscent to when she was learning about my life and my family. It was as if she were asking merely out of curiosity rather than discussing how to destroy the predator who was stalking her.

I watched her, baffled as ever, but reminded myself that this was no time to hide the truth. It was not easy to kill our kind, but I knew we would all do whatever was necessary and I tried to give her that assurance by saying it as plainly as I could.

“The only way to be sure is to tear him to shreds, and then burn the pieces.”

She showed no reaction, didn't hesitate for a second before adding, “And the other two will fight with him?”

“The woman will. I'm not sure about Laurent. They don't have a very strong bond – he's only with them for convenience. He was embarrassed by James in the meadow...”

“But James and the woman – they'll try to kill you?” Her voice broke at the word and I was overtaken again by how undeserving I was of her love, pure and perfect even as her life was in danger.

“Bella, don't you dare waste time worrying about me. Your only concern is keeping yourself safe and – please, please – trying not to be reckless.”

“Is he still following?”

“Yes. He won't attack the house, though. Not tonight.”

James was determined and in his mind, failure was not an option. He'd never dream of taking us on while we were on our own land. He would observe and plan, and for that I was grateful I hadn't let on to my particular ability. I hoped I would get all the insight we'd need to defeat him simply by listening.

I allowed myself one peaceful moment as we pulled up to our house. My sanctuary for so many years, it had never looked more wonderful than in that moment. I didn't let myself think about the goodbye I would have to say within those walls, but instead focused on the only thing that truly mattered. Bella was with us and at least for that moment, she was in the safest place in the world.

As the truck slowed, I heard Emmett's thoughts race full gear into the protective big brother tone I'd started to get used to – and deeply appreciated.

Keep watch, check with Alice for any changes, I'll get Bella inside. Don't worry, we've got this. He's not going to try anything on our turf.

I watched Emmett hold Bella protectively against his chest, running faster than I'd ever seen him move until they were safely inside. I looked at Alice with weary eyes, as if the pleading could make her tell me something encouraging.

He's close but I don't see him attacking until he's got her alone.

“Until?” I whispered frantically.

Quietly, she reminded me. All I'm saying is that's his plan, that's what he sees himself doing. But you and I both know Bella is not going to be left alone for an instant, so there isn't a problem. Now hurry inside, Bella's going to need you to be strong for this.

We were at their side before Emmett had set Bella down. I tore my eyes from Bella's nervous expression and saw Laurent standing among my assembled family members. Emmett was growling at him as he placed Bella back at my side. I allowed myself one brief moment to revel in the warmth and joy of having her near enough again that our skin was touching, then focused on Laurent.

“He's tracking us,” I snapped angrily.

“I was afraid of that.” What have I brought on this family because of my foolish curiosity?

My glare softened only slightly as I realized Laurent's guilt over the situation. He'd never intended to cause any trouble for us, and clearly James was an unstoppable force that even his companion could not control.

I watched as Alice closed the gap between her and Jasper, and whispered too low for Bella to hear that time was running short and they needed to pack a few things before leaving. Rosalie heard her and rushed to Emmett's side, understanding that there were only minutes left before they too would be parted. Her thoughts turned icy as she glared at Bella.

Can't believe I have to let Emmett fight for some human just because yet another stupid vampire can't seem to leave her alone. Edward so help me, you owe me forever for this.

I snarled under my breath and she forced her thoughts to turn back to Emmett. In an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment, I felt the concern that washed through her. She'd been channeling all her energy into being angry with Bella, but underneath it all, she was worried about Emmett's safety.

“What will he do?” Carlisle asked. I turned back to Laurent and we all watched him carefully.

“I'm sorry. I was afraid, when your boy there defended her, that it would set him off.”

“Can you stop him?”

“Nothing stops James when he gets started,” he sighed, shaking his head. It is a fight to the death now, and one I will not be a part of.

I would have been furious at Laurent's eagerness to bow out, but in truth I knew it was not his fight and I couldn't blame him for acting out of self preservation.

“We'll stop him,” Emmett said firmly. Edward, don't let him get to you. James doesn't stand a chance against us.

“You can't bring him down,” Laurent persisted, and I felt the sureness of the statement echoed in his mind as he thought through James's previous conquests. “I've never seen anything like him in my three hundred years. He's absolutely lethal. That's why I joined his coven.”

I heard Bella gasp almost imperceptibly as she realized James was the true leader of their group, something I'd understood from the callous disregard he'd shown Laurent in the field.

Laurent eyed Bella wearily, shaking his head and recalling some of the more gruesome ways he'd seen James kill. How many will die to save the girl? They do not understand what they face.

He looked at Carlisle and coldly asked, “Are you sure it's worth it?”

The growl I let rip through my chest and throat silenced every one of Laurent's thoughts. He took a step back, fearful, as he was right to be. It took all my strength not to lunge at him, but Bella's presence reminded me it was not he who I truly wished to fight. He may not understand our love, but he was not the enemy who threatened our happiness.

“I'm afraid you're going to have to make a choice,” Carlisle told Laurent solemnly. His eyes softened as he looked at each of our faces.

Marvelous creatures, this family, he thought, eyes taking in all of us and the home we'd built for ourselves. I never thought it possible for our kind to live in a way that feels so...human.

“I'm intrigued by the life you've created here,” he finally said. “But I won't get in the middle of this. I bear none of you any enmity, but I won't go up against James. I think I will head north – to that clan in Denali.” I don't know that I will be strong enough to conform to this way of life, but I have been inspired to try. “Don't underestimate James,” he added. “He's got a brilliant mind and unparalleled senses. He's every bit as comfortable in the human world as you seem to be, and he won't come at you head on...I'm sorry for what's been unleashed here. Truly sorry.”

He bowed his head to us and glanced once more at Bella.

She must be a very remarkable girl, to have elicited such strong emotions. Though I was certain Laurent hadn't figured out my ability to read him mind, somehow his final thought sounded like a direct apology to me.

I abhor the thought of having upset the life you've created. May the united front of this family keep your lives in tact.

“Go in peace,” Carlisle said calmly.

We watched as Laurent took one final look at our family, then flew out the door. There was a certain finality to the sound of the door closing behind him, the last excuse for not setting our plan in motion gone.

“How close?” Carlisle asked, his eyes locking intensely with mine. I listened for several moments while I located James's already familiar voice again. He was confident, certain of his and Victoria's success, and he was anxious to get started.

“About three miles out past the river; he's circling around to meet up with the female.”

“What's the plan?”

“We'll lead him off, and then Jasper and Alice will run her south.”

“And then?” Carlisle was trying to keep his thoughts focused, his concern solely for Bella's safety, but I knew what he was truly asking. He wanted to know if we would need to kill James.

“As soon as Bella is clear, we hunt him.” I tried to infuse my voice with a sense of command, though it pained me to force Carlisle into something I knew he hated. Still, I needed him to understand that in this case it was the only way.

“I guess there's no other choice,” he conceded. If we leave him alive, he'll just come back for her later. I was grateful for his acceptance, knowing how difficult it was for him to admit, and I silently vowed to do everything in my power to never put him in that position again.

“Get her upstairs and trade clothes,” I said to Rosalie, hoping for once she would just listen. Of course, nothing having to do with Rose was ever that simple.

You have got to be kidding me! Just because you think she smells all sweet and delicious doesn't mean I want her stench any closer to me than necessary.

I hardened my expression, trying to convey that I wasn't giving her a choice.

“Why should I?” she asked, her words sharp and biting. “What is she to me? Expect a menace – a danger you've chosen to inflict on all of us?”

“Rose...” Emmett said softly, touching her shoulder gently and trying to reason with her. She shied away from his touch, eyes still glaring into mine.

I'm letting Emmett fight by your side. You don't have any right to ask more of me than that.

And as much as I hated to admit it, she was right. I had no right to ask any of them to fight for Bella, yet there they were. My entire family was putting their lives I danger to protect the fragile human who held my heart.

“Esme?” I asked, turning to her, thankful for her reassuring smile.

“Of course,” she said without a moment's hesitation.

In an instant, Esme had lifted Bella into her arms. They were up the stairs and out of sight before Bella could react.

“How are you, son?” Carlisle asked gently, my eyes lingering on the spot Bella had been standing seconds before.

“Terrified,” I admitted, any sense of pride or attempt to hide me fears long passed.

“Everything will work out. You and Emmett are strong, capable fighters, and though I loath the thought, I will fight right along beside you until James is finished.”

“What if we're wrong and he doesn't follow us. What if he gets to her and I'm not there?” I asked, suddenly completely unsure of the supposedly brilliant plan we'd created. The thought of not having Bella with me, of not being completely sure of her safety at any given moment, felt too difficult to bear.

“James will follow us. He will believe Bella is with you, and even if he eventually realizes he's being deceived, he will have no way of knowing where Alice and Jasper have taken her. Her scent will be masked long enough for them to leave the area safely, and she'll be in another state long before he realizes he's been fooled.”

I nodded slowly, willing myself to believe. It sounded good in theory, but I couldn't shake the feeling that my being separated from Bella was a horrible mistake. She and I made each other strong. Our love somehow created reason out of chaos, and I felt like without her beside me, nothing would make sense anymore.

“Edward, Alice will see if something goes wrong and she and Jasper will get her to safety,” Emmett assured me. “Don't ever forget that Alice is always one step ahead. Bella's in good hands with her. She loves her almost as much as you do...though in a far less nauseating way,” he added, his voice once again teasing. I attempted a smile though I still couldn't feel anything but fear.

“Each of our groups will have a cell phone. Check them often, and we'll report any changes or updates. Emmett, go grab anything you might need...” Carlisle trailed off, still not willing to think about the actual act of killing James. Emmett nodded and rushed out of the room.

When Carlisle spoke again, his voice was soft but severe. “Edward, I need you to do something and I know it will be difficult. You're very afraid but I want you to fill Bella with every ounce of confidence you can muster. You'll have just a few moments with her and I want you two to part both feeling sure of our success. Stand confident and sure, Bella will be watching you closely. You know she fears for your safety, but you have the ability to calm those fears by hiding your own. Let her know in any way you can that this will all be over soon. I say this not only for her sake, but for ours as well. Emmett and I need you to be completely focused, and this is the best way I can think of to ensure that happens.”

I nodded, believing in my gut that he was right. I couldn't let Bella's last image of my face be one filled with fear. Our time apart would be as difficult for her as it was for me, and I couldn't spend my time worrying about how scared she was. I had to show her there was nothing to be afraid of, then from the moment we left the house, I needed my every thought to be focused on James.

Emmett strolled calmly back into the room just as Esme and Alice were bringing Bella downstairs. She wobbled a little as they let go of her but I suppressed the urge to rush to her side. Focus on the plan. Confidence. I knew as soon as I held her, the walls would come crashing down and she would see through me the way she always did. I had to save our goodbye for the last possible second.

Carlisle gave Esme and Alice their phones, then smiled warmly at Bella.

“Esme and Rosalie will be taking your truck, Bella.”

Don't remind me, Rosalie thought viciously, glaring at Carlisle.

“Alice, Jasper – take the Mercedes. You'll need the dark tint in the south.” They nodded and he added, “We're taking the Jeep.”

I couldn't understand why, but Bella's heart seemed to speed up at that. Was it all finally sinking in? She'd been handling everything so well and in that moment I realized her calm attitude was the only thing giving me the strength to leave. If she fell apart now, if she let me see how truly frightened she was, I wasn't sure I'd be able to leave her.

“Alice, will they take the bait?” Carlisle asked, thankfully interrupting my concern.

She closed her eyes and I felt a quick surge of comfort at her peaceful expression. I listened to her mind closely and was grateful to see there were no signs of anything veering off track. The plan seemed flawless as she saw James take every piece of bait we would set for him

“He'll track you,” she assured me, opening her eyes and looking deeply into mine. You've seen it too now. You know everything is as it should be. “The woman will follow the truck. We should be able to leave after that.”

“Let's go,” Carlisle said, and I knew the moment I'd been dreading had arrived.

I flew across the room to Bella, finally giving in to the need to be close to her. I wondered if she knew how difficult it had been for me to keep my distance, or if she could ever understand the reasons why it was necessary. I was falling apart on the inside and touching her, feeling her heartbeat against me was quickly crumbling the last of my will.

I wrapped my arms around her, filling myself with her perfect scent, memorizing every inch of her body and the way it shaped itself around mine when I held her. I brushed my fingertips across her soft, warm cheeks. I lifted her up to me until we could both feel the other's breath against each of our faces, then kissed her with more intensity than I'd ever allowed myself. I cherished the burn in my throat I'd once been afraid of, breathing her in until everything inside me ached. It was the sweetest torture I'd ever felt.

I knew if I stayed any longer I'd lose the courage to walk out the door, so I lowered her feet back to the ground, one hand still caressing her cheek. Remembering what Carlisle had told me, I attempted to fill my stare with the certainty of my return. I knew if I spoke she would hear the agony in my voice so I remained silent. Wishing for once that she could read my mind, I repeated one thing over and over and hoped at least she could read it in my eyes.

I'm coming back for you...

As she watched me, tears began filling her eyes. If they spilled over, if I saw her cry, I knew my mask would dissolve and she would see the terror I was feeling. So I forced myself not to see her anymore. I focused all my thoughts on James and the fight that was to come. Swiftly I turned to leave, refusing to look at any of my family's expressions. We were as prepared as we were going to be and without another moment's hesitation, I ran out the door with Carlisle and Emmett right behind me.

As we climbed into the Jeep I was consumed by everything that was happening. We were driving into the night to kill a monster, and I was leaving the only thing that mattered, my love, my existence, in Alice's hands.



Chapter 21 - THE TRACKER

.

We were weaving in and out of traffic as James followed us. We were driving north towards Vancouver. Each second that I spent away from Bella I could feel my body's fresh tear ache. Half of me was with her, without her I could never be whole. We drove until we were only thirty miles away from Vancouver before I heard a distant ringing. It was just a faint echoing sound.

It's about time, she better have good news for me about the human.

About the human? It was definitely James' thoughts I heard as he continued to stay out of our vision, keen to not be spotted.

"Carlisle, slow down," I ordered while looking wildly around.

Carlisle released his foot from the gas and the Jeep slowly drifted down to sixty as he looked sideways at me. "What is it?" Carlisle asked, anxious.

"James has just received a phone call," I explained.

"Where did they take her?" James was wildly enthusiastic at the prospect of finding her when I was nowhere near her. I was too far away from him to hear the other end of the conversation so I settled with listening through James' mind.

"I don't know. They mixed the smell up and she was not in the truck. It was two female vampires and they drove west until we were several miles away from Forks. She must still be there. They tricked us," I heard Victoria say.

Idiotic woman! James roared in his head. "Find her! I'm heading straight to the airport," he said and hung up the phone.

James ran the opposite direction of the road, flying feverously away from the Jeep until I couldn't hear his thoughts anymore.

"Stop!" I yelled.

Carlisle slammed on the brakes as the Jeep slid to a halt on the side of the highway.

"What is it?" Emmett and Carlisle asked at the same time.

"He knows that Bella isn't in the truck. He has a cell phone. He's sent Victoria back to Forks because he believes she is still there."

I didn't expect the nomad to have something as technologically advanced as a cell phone considering how they live. But I remembered something that Laurent had said, "He's every bit as comfortable in the human world as you seem to be, and he won't come at you head on…"

Emmett and Carlisle both understood instantly that Victoria had realized Bella was not in the truck.

"I'll call Esme," Carlisle said while picking up his cell phone and dialing her number quickly. I heard Esme's voice on the other line. "Carlisle," she began but he cut her off to explain what happened.

"She knows that Bella isn't with you and suspects that she is still in Forks. Go back and watch Charlie, make sure he's safe. Send Rosalie to find Victoria and follow her. We need to make sure that she isn't able to track Bella. We'll chase after James, we think he's headed to the nearest airport!" Carlisle's lips were blurred at the fast motion of his speech.

"I'll tell her. Carlisle, I love you, be careful," Esme said affectionately.

"I love you, too and I will." Carlisle hung up the phone.

Let me go after him, please Edward. Emmett was begging in his mind. I turned around to face him.

"We'll both go." I turned to Carlisle. "Continue north until you reach the airport. Keep an eye out for him there – if we lose track of him I want to make sure we know where he is headed. We will keep you up to date."

He nodded. Emmett and I dashed from the Jeep and headed towards the forest where I last heard James' thoughts. When we caught up with his scent I could hear his faint hasty footsteps but he was too far away for me to hear his mind. The sun was peeking through the canopy of trees as the night sky began to slowly lighten the forest floor, bathing it in a pleasant golden glow.

Can you hear his thoughts? What are his plans? Emmett asked.

"No. He is too far away from us." I spoke quickly.

Go ahead of me and see what you can find out. Hey – don't get too close without me, Emmett chuckled. I want a piece of him too.

I rolled my eyes and darted faster than ever towards the one creature who threatened Bella's life more than I already had. I had trouble catching up to him but I was able to finally hear one thought.

'She's still in Forks.'

I slowed some to let Emmett catch up with me. "I think he's going to head back to Forks…but I don't understand what James is up to," I explained to Emmett.

Maybe we could split up and try to trap him, he suggested.

"That might be what he wants. Let's just keep together for now."

You're just afraid I'll catch up to him before you and will miss the opportunity to kill him, Emmett was plainly trying not to laugh.

I sighed loudly at his thoughts, though he was partially correct – I did want to personally rip him to shreds. I cou