Chapter 21 VERDICT


WE WERE IN A BRIGHTLY LIT, UNREMARKABLE HALLWAY. The walls were off-white, the floor carpeted in industrial gray. Common rectangular fluorescent lights were spaced evenly along the ceiling. It was warmer here, for which I was grateful. This hall seemed very benign after the gloom of the ghoulish stone sewers.

Edward didn't seem to agree with my assessment. He glowered darkly down the long hallway, toward the slight, black shrouded figure at the end, standing by an elevator.

He pulled me along, and Alice walked on my other side. The heavy door creaked shut behind us, and then there was the thud of a bolt sliding home.

Jane waited by the elevator, one hand holding the doors open for us. Her expression was apathetic.

Once inside the elevator, the three vampires that belonged to the Volturi relaxed further. They threw back their cloaks, letting the hoods fall back on their shoulders. Felix and Demetri were both of a slightly olive complexion��it looked odd combined with their chalky pallor. Felix's black hair was cropped short, but Demetri's waved to his shoulders. Their irises were deep crimson around the edges, darkening until they were black around the pupil. Under the shrouds, their clothes were modern, pale, and nondescript. I cowered in the corner, cringing against Edward. His hand still rubbed against my arm. He never took his eyes off Jane.

The elevator ride was short; we stepped out into what looked like a posh office reception area. The walls were paneled in wood, the floors carpeted in thick, deep green. There were no windows, but large, brightly lit paintings of the Tuscan countryside hung everywhere as replacements. Pale leather couches were arranged in cozy groupings, and the glossy tables held crystal vases full of vibrantly colored bouquets. The flowers' smell reminded me of a funeral home.

In the middle of the room was a high, polished mahogany counter. I gawked in astonishment at the woman behind it.

She was tall, with dark skin and green eyes. She would have been very pretty in any other company��but not here. Because she was every bit as human as I was. I couldn't comprehend what this human woman was doing here, totally at ease, surrounded by vampnes.

She smiled politely in welcome. "Good afternoon, Jane," she said. There was no surprise in her face as she glanced at Jane's company. Not Edward, his bare chest glinting dimly in the white lights, or even me, disheveled and comparatively hideous.

Jane nodded. "Gianna." She continued toward a set of double doors in the back of the room, and we followed.

As Felix passed the desk, he winked at Gianna, and she giggled.

On the other side of the wooden doors was a different kind of reception. The pale boy in the pearl gray suit could have been Jane's twin. His hair was darker, and his lips were not as full, but he was just as lovely. He came forward to meet us. He smiled, reaching for her. "Jane."

"Alec," she responded, embracing the boy. They kissed each other's cheeks on both sides. Then he looked at us.

"They send you out for one and you come back with two�� and a half," he noted, looking at me. "Nice work."

She laughed��the sound sparkled with delight like a baby's cooing.

"Welcome back, Edward," Alec greeted him. "You seem in a better mood."

"Marginally," Edward agreed in a flat voice. I glanced at Edward's hard face, and wondered how his mood could have been darker before.

Alec chuckled, and examined me as I clung to Edward's side. "And this is the cause of all the trouble?" he asked, skeptical.

Edward only smiled, his expression contemptuous. Then he froze.

"Dibs," Felix called casually from behind.

Edward turned, a low snarl building deep in his chest. Felix smiled��his hand was raised, palm up; he curled his fingers twice, inviting Edward forward.

Alice touched Edward's arm. "Patience," she cautioned him.

They exchanged a long glance, and I wished I could hear what she was telling him. I figured that it was something to do with not attacking Felix, because Edward took a deep breath and turned back to Alec.

"Aro will be so pleased to see you again," Alec said, as if nothing had passed.

"Let's not keep him waiting," Jane suggested.

Edward nodded once.

Alec and Jane, holding hands, led the way down yet another wide, ornate hall��would there ever be an end?

They ignored the doors at the end of the hall��doors entirely sheathed in gold��stopping halfway down the hall and sliding aside a piece of the paneling to expose a plain wooden door. It wasn't locked. Alec held it open for Jane.

I wanted to groan when Edward pulled me through to the other side of the door. It was the same ancient stone as the square, the alley, and the sewers. And it was dark and cold again.

The stone antechamber was not large. It opened quickly into a brighter, cavernous room, perfectly round like a huge castle turret�� which was probably exactly what it was.

Two stories up, long window slits threw thin rectangles of bright sunlight onto the stone floor below. There were no artificial lights. The only furniture in the room were several massive wooden chairs, like thrones, that were spaced unevenly, flush with the curving stone walls. In the very center of the circle, in a slight depression, was another drain. I wondered if they used it as an exit, like the hole in the street.

The room was not empty. A handful of people were convened in seemingly relaxed conversation. The murmur of low, smooth voices was a gentle hum in the air. As I watched, a pair of pale women in summer dresses paused in a patch of light, and, like prisms, their skin threw the light in rainbow sparkles against the sienna walls.

The exquisite faces all turned toward our party as we entered the room. Most of the immortals were dressed in inconspicuous pants and shirts��things that wouldn't stick out at all on the streets below. But the man who spoke first wore one of the long robes. It was pitch-black, and brushed against the floor. For a moment, I thought his long, jet-black hair was the hood of his cloak.

"Jane, dear one, you've returned!" he cried in evident delight. His voice was just a soft sighing.

He drifted forward, and the movement flowed with such surreal grace that I gawked, my mouth hangmg open. Even Alice, whose every motion looked like dancing, could not compare.

I was only more astonished as he floated closer and I could see his face. It was not like the unnaturally attractive faces that surrounded him (for he did not approach us alone; the entire group converged around him, some following, and some walking ahead of him with the alert manner of bodyguards). I couldn't decide if his face was beautiful or not. I suppose the features were perfect. But he was as different from the vampires beside him as they were from me. His skin was translucently white, like onionskin, and it looked just as delicate��it stood in shocking contrast to the long black hair that framed his face. I felt a strange, horrifying urge to touch his cheek, to see if it was softer than Edward's or Alice's, or if it was powdery, like chalk. His eyes were red, the same as the others around him, but the color was clouded, milky; I wondered if his vision was affected by the haze.

He glided to Jane, took her face in his papery hands, kissed her lightly on her full lips, and then floated back a step.

"Yes, Master." Jane smiled; the expression made her look like an angelic child. "I brought him back alive, just as you wished."

"Ah, Jane." He smiled, too. "You are such a comfort to me."

He turned his misty eyes toward us, and the smile brightened��became ecstatic.

"And Alice and Bella, too!" he rejoiced, clapping his thin hands together. "This is a happy surprise! Wonderful!"

I stared in shock as he called our names informally, as if we were old friends dropping in for an unexpected visit.

He turned to our hulking escort. "Felix, be a dear and tell my brothers about our company. I'm sure they wouldn't want to miss this."

"Yes, Master." Felix nodded and disappeared back the way we had come.

"You see, Edward?" The strange vampire turned and smiled at Edward like a fond but scolding grandfather. "What did I tell you? Aren't you glad that I didn't give you what you wanted yesterday?"

"Yes, Aro, I am," he agreed, tightening his arm around my waist.

"I love a happy ending." Aro sighed. "They are so rare. But I want the whole story. How did this happen? Alice?" He turned to gaze at Alice with curious, misty eyes. "Your brother seemed to think you infallible, but apparently there was some mistake."

"Oh, I'm far from infallible." She flashed a dazzling smile. She looked perfectly at ease, except that her hands were balled into tight little fists. "As you can see today, I cause problems as often as I cure them."

"You're too modest," Aro chided. "I've seen some of your more amazing exploits, and I must admit I've never observed anything like your talent. Wonderful!"

Alice flickered a glance at Edward. Aro did not miss it.

"I'm sorry, we haven't been introduced properly at all, have we? It's just that I feel like I know you already, and I tend get ahead of myself. Your brother introduced us yesterday, in a peculiar way. You see, I share some of your brother's talent, only I am limited in a way that he is not." Aro shook his head; his tone was envious.

"And also exponentially more powerful," Edward added dryly. He looked at Alice as he swiftly explained. "Aro needs physical contact to hear your thoughts, but he hears much more than I do. You know I can only hear what's passing through your head in the moment. Aro hears every thought your mind has ever had."

Alice raised her delicate eyebrows, and Edward inclined his head.

Aro didn't miss that either.

"But to be able to hear from a distance��" Aro sighed, gesturing toward the two of them, and the exchange that had just taken place. "That would be so convenient."

Aro looked over our shoulders. All the other heads turned in the same direction, including Jane, Alec, and Demetri, who stood silently beside us.

I was the slowest to turn. Felix was back, and behind him floated two more black-robed men. Both looked very much like Aro, one even had the same flowing black hair. The other had a shock of snow-white hair��the same shade as his face��that brushed against his shoulders. Their faces had identical, paper-thin skin.

The trio from Carlisle's painting was complete, unchanged by the last three hundred years since it was painted.

"Marcus, Caius, look!" Aro crooned. "Bella is alive after all, and Alice is here with her! Isn't that wonderful?"

Neither of the other two looked as if wonderful would be their first choice of words. The dark-haired man seemed utterly bored, like he'd seen too many millennia of Aro's enthusiasm. The other's hice was sour under the snowy hair.

Their lack of interest did not curb Aro's enjoyment.

"Let us have the story," Aro almost sang in his feathery voice.

The white-haired ancient vampire drifted away, gliding toward one of the wooden thrones. The other paused beside Aro, and he reached his hand out, at first I thought to take Aro's hand. But he just touched Aro's palm briefly and then dropped his hand to his side. Aro raised one black brow. I wondered how his papery skin did not crumple in the effort.

Edward snorted very quietly, and Alice looked at him, curious.

"Thank you, Marcus," Aro said. "That's quite interesting."

I realized, a second late, that Marcus was letting Aro know his thoughts.

Marcus didn't look interested. He glided away from Aro to join the one who must be Caius, seated against the wall. Two of the attending vampires followed silently behind him��bodyguards, like I'd thought before. I could see that the two women in the sundresses had gone to stand beside Caius in the same manner. The idea of any vampire needing a guard was faintly ridiculous to me, but maybe the ancient ones were as frail as their skin suggested.

Aro was shaking his head. "Amazing,"' he said. "Absolutely amazing."

Alice's expression was frustrated. Edward turned to her and explained again in a swift, low voice. "Marcus sees relationships. He's surprised by the intensity of ours."

Aro smiled. "So convenient," he repeated to himself. Then he spoke to us. "It takes quite a bit to surprise Marcus, I can assure you."

I looked at Marcus's dead face, and I believed that.

"It's just so difficult to understand, even now," Aro mused, staring at Edward's arm wrapped around me. It was hard for me to follow Aro's chaotic train of thought. I struggled to keep up. "How can you stand so close to het like that?"

"It's not without effort," Edward answered calmly.

"Butstill��la tua cantante! What a waste!"

Edward chuckled once without humor. "I look at it more as a price."

Aro was skeptical. "A very high price."

"Opportunity cost."

Aro laughed. "If I hadn't smelled her through your memories, I wouldn't have believed the call of anyone's blood could be so strong. I've never felt anything like it myself. Most of us would trade much for such a gift, and yet you��"

"Waste it," Edward finished, his voice sarcastic now.

Aro laughed again. "Ah, how I miss my friend Carlisle! You remind me of him��only he was not so angry."

"Carlisle outshines me in many other ways as well."

"I certainly never thought to see Carlisle bested for self-control of all things, but you put him to shame."

"Hardly." Edward sounded impatient. As if he were tired of the preliminaries. It made me more afraid; I couldn't help but try to imagine what he expected would follow.

"I am gratified by his success," Aro mused. "Your memories of him are quite a gift for me, though they astonish me exceedingly. I am surprised by how it�� pleases me, his success in this unorthodox path he's chosen. I expected that he would waste, weaken with time. I'd scoffed at his plan to find others who would share his peculiar vision. Yet, somehow, I'm happy to be wrong."

Edward didn't reply.

"But your restraint!" Aro sighed. "I did not know such strength was possible. To inure yourself against such a siren call, not just once but again and again��if I had not felt it myself, I would not have believed."

Edward gazed back at Aro's admiration with no expression. I knew his face well enough��time had not changed that��to guess at something seething beneath the surface. I fought to keep my breathing even.

"Just remembering how she appeals to you��" Aro chuckled. "It makes me thirsty."

Edward tensed.

"Don't be disturbed," Aro reassured him. "I mean her no harm. But I am so curious, about one thing in particular." He eyed me with bright interest. "May I?" he asked eagerly, lifting one hand.

"Ask her," Edward suggested in a flat voice.

"Of course, how rude of me!" Aro exclaimed. "Bella," he addressed me directly now. "I'm fascinated that you are the one exception to Edward's impressive talent��so very interesting that such a thing should occur! And I was wondering, since our talents are similar in many ways, if you would be so kind as to allow me to try��to see if you are an exception for me, as well?"

My eyes flashed up to Edward's face in terror. Despite Aro's overt politeness, I didn't believe I really had a choice. I was horrified at the thought of allowing him to touch me, and yet also perversely intrigued by the chance to feel his strange skin.

Edward nodded in encouragement��whether because he was sure Aro would not hurt me, or because there was no choice, I couldn't tell.

I turned back to Aro and raised my hand slowly in front of me. It was trembling.

He glided closer, and I believe he meant his expression to be reassuring. But his papery features were too strange, too alien and frightening, to reassure. The look on his face was more confident than his words had been.

Aro reached out, as if to shake my hand, and pressed his insubstantial-looking skin against mine. It was hard, but felt brittle��shale rather than granite��and even colder than I expected.

His filmy eyes smiled down at mine, and it was impossible to look away. They were mesmerizing in an odd, unpleasant way.

Aro's face altered as I watched. The confidence wavered and became first doubt, then incredulity before he calmed it into a friendly mask.

"So very interesting," he said as he released my hand and drifted back.

My eyes flickered to Edward, and, though his face was composed, I thought he seemed a little smug.

Aro continued to drift wnh a thoughtful expression. He was quiet for a moment, his eyes flickering between the three of us. Then, abruptly, he shook his head.

"A first," he said to himself "I wonder if she is immune to our other talents�� Jane, dear?"

"No!" Edward snarled the word. Alice grabbed his arm with a restraining hand. He shook her off.

Little Jane smiled up happily at Aro. "Yes, Master?"

Edward was truly snarling now, the sound ripping and tearing from him, glaring at Aro with baleful eyes. The room had gone still, everyone watching him with amazed disbelief, as if he were committing some embarrassing social faux pas. I saw Felix grin hopefully and move a step forward. Aro glanced at him once, and he froze in place, his grin turning to a sulky expression.

Then he spoke to Jane. "I was wondering, my dear one, if Bella is immune to you."

I could barely hear Aro over Edward's furious growls. He let go of me, moving to hide me from their view. Caius ghosted in our direction, with his entourage, to watch.

Jane turned toward us with a beatific smile.

"Don't!" Alice cried as Edward launched himself at the little girl.

Before I could react, before anyone could jump between them, before Aro's bodyguards could tense, Edward was on the ground.

No one had touched him, but he was on the stone floor writhing in obvious agony, while I stared in horror.

Jane was smiling only at him now, and it all clicked together. What Alice had said about formidable gifts , why everyone treated Jane with such deference, and why Edward had thrown himself in her path before she could do that to me.

"Stop!" I shrieked, my voice echoing in the silence, jumping forward to put myself between them. But Alice threw her arms around me in an unbreakable grasp and ignored my struggles. No sound escaped Edward's lips as he cringed against the stones. It felt like my head would explode from the pain of watching this.

"Jane," Aro recalled her in a tranquil voice. She looked up quickly, still smiling with pleasure, her eyes questioning. As soon as Jane looked away, Edward was still.

Aro inclined his head toward me.

Jane turned her smile in my direction.

I didn't even meet her gaze. I watched Edward from the prison of Alice's arms, still struggling pointlessly.

"He's fine," Alice whispered in a tight voice. As she spoke, he sat up, and then sprang lightly to his feet. His eyes met mine, and they were horror-struck. At first I thought the horror was for what he had just suffered. But then he looked quickly at Jane, and back to me��and his face relaxed into relief.

I looked at Jane, too, and she no longer smiled. She glared at me, her jaw clenched with the intensity of her focus. I shrank back, waiting for the pain.

Nothing happened.

Edward was by my side again. He touched Alice's arm, and she surrendered me to him.

Aro started to laugh. "Ha, ha. ha," he chuckled. "This is wonderful!"

Jane hissed in frustration, leaning forward like she was preparing to spring.

"Don't be put out, dear one," Aro said in a comforting tone, placing a powder-light hand on her shoulder. "She confounds us all."

Jane's upper lip curled back ever her teeth as she continued to glare at me.

"Ha, ha, ha," Aro chortled again. "You're very brave, Edward, to endure in silence. I asked Jane to do that to me once��just out of curiosity." He shook his head in admiration.

Edward glared, disgusted.

"So what do we do with you now?" Aro sighed.

Edward and Alice stiffened. This was the part they'd been waiting for. I began to tremble.

"I don't suppose there's any chance that you've changed your mind?" Aro asked Edward hopefully. "Your talent would be an excellent addition to our little company."

Edward hesitated. From the corner of my eye, I saw both Felix and Jane grimace.

Edward seemed to weigh each word before he spoke it. "I'd�� rather�� not."

"Alice?" Aro asked, still hopeful. "Would you perhaps be interested in joining with us?"

"No, thank you," Alice said.

"And you, Bella?" Aro raised his eyebrows.

Edward hissed, low in my ears. I stared at Aro blankly. Was he joking? Or was he really asking me if I wanted to stay for dinner?

It was the white-haired Caius who broke the silence.

"What?" he demanded of Aro; his voice, though no more than a whisper, was flat.

"Caius, surely you see the potential," Aro chided him affectionately. "I haven't seen a prospective talent so promising since we found Jane and Alec. Can you imagine the possibilities when she is one of us?"

Caius looked away with a caustic expression. Jane's eyes sparked with indignation at the comparison.

Edward fumed beside me. I could hear a rumble in his chest, building toward a growl. I couldn't let his temper get him hurt.

"No, thank you," I spoke up in barely more than a whisper, my voice breaking in fright.

Aro sighed. "That's unfortunate. Such a waste."

Edward hissed. "Join or die, is that it? I suspected as much when we were brought to this room. So much for your laws."

The tone of his voice surprised me. He sounded irate, but there was something deliberate about his delivery��as if he'd chosen his words with great care.

"Of course not." Aro blinked, astonished. "We were already convened here, Edward, awaiting Heidi's return. Not for you."

"Aro," Caius hissed. "The law claims them."

Edward glared at Caius. "How so?" he demanded. He must have known what Caius was thinking, but he seemed determined to make him speak it aloud.

Caius pointed a skeletal finger at me. "She knows too much. You have exposed our secrets." His voice was papery thin, just like his skin.

"There are a few humans in on your charade here, as well," Edward reminded him, and I thought of the pretty receptionist below.

Caius's face twisted into a new expression. Was it supposed to be a smiled.

"Yes," he agreed. "But when they are no longer useful to us, they will serve to sustain us. That is not your plan for this one. If she betrays our secrets, are you prepared to destroy her? I think not," he scoffed.

"I wouldn't��," I began, still whispering. Caius silenced me with an icy look.

"Nor do you intend to make her one of us," Caius continued. "Therefore, she is a vulnerability. Though it is true, for this, only her life is forfeit. You may leave if you wish."

Edward bared his teeth.

"That's what I thought," Caius said, with something akin to pleasure. Felix leaned forward, eager.

"Unless��" Aro interrupted. He looked unhappy with the way the conversation had gone. "Unless you do intend to give her immortality?"

Edward pursed his lips, hesitating for a moment before he answered. "And if I do?"

Aro smiled, happy again. "Why, then you would be free to go home and give my regards to my friend Carlisle." His expression turned more hesitant. "But I'm afraid you would have to mean it."

Aro raised his hand in front of him.

Caius, who had begun to scowl furiously, relaxed.

Edward's lips tightened into a fierce line. He stared into my eyes, and I stared back.

"Mean it," I whispered. "Please."

Was it really such a loathsome idea? Would he rather die than change me? I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach.

Edward stared down at me with a tortured expression.

And then Alice stepped away from us, forward toward Aro. We turned to watch her. Her hand was raised like his.

She didn't say anything, and Aro waved off his anxious guard as they moved to block her approach. Aro met her halfway, and took her hand with an eager, acquisitive glint in his eyes.

He bent his head over their touching hands, his eyes closing as he concentrated. Alice was motionless, her face blank. I heard Edward's teeth snap together.

No one moved. Aro seemed frozen over Alice's hand. The seconds passed and I grew more and more stressed, wondering how much time would pass before it was too much time. Before it meant something was wrong��more wrong than it already was.

Another agonizing moment passed, and then Aro's voice broke the silence.

"Ha, ha, ha," he laughed, his head still bent forward. He looked up slowly, his eyes bright with excitement. "That was fascinating!"

Alice smiled dryly. "I'm glad you enjoyed it."

"To see the things you've seen��especially the ones that haven't happened yet!" He shook his head in wonder.

"But that will," she reminded him, voice calm.

"Yes, yes, it's quite determined. Certainly there's no problem."

Caius looked bitterly disappointed��a feeling he seemed to share with Felix and Jane.

"Aro," Caius complained.

"Dear Caius," Aro smiled. "Do not fret. Think of the possibilities! They do not join us today, but we can always hope for the future. Imagine the joy young Alice alone would bring to our little household�� Besides, I'm so terribly curious to see how Bella turns out!"

Aro seemed convinced. Did he not realize how subjective Alice's visions were.' That she could make up her mind to transform me today, and then change it tomorrow? A million tiny decisions, her decisions and so many others', too��Edward's��could alter her path, and with that, the future.

And would it really matter that Alice was willing, would it make any difference if I did become a vampire, when the idea was so repulsive to Edward? If death was, to him, a better alternative than having me around forever, an immortal annoyance? Terrified as I was, I felt myself sinking down into depression, drowning in it��

"Then we are free to go now?" Edward asked in an even voice.

"Yes, yes," Aro said pleasantly. "But please visit again. It's been absolutely enthralling!"

"And we will visit you as well," Caius promised, his eyes suddenly half-closed like the heavy-lidded gaze of a lizard. "To be sure that you follow through on your side. Were I you, I would not delay too long. We do not offer second chances."

Edward's jaw clenched tight, but he nodded once.

Caius smirked and drifted back to where Marcus still sat, unmoving and uninterested.

Felix groaned.

"Ah, Felix." Aro smiled, amused. "Heidi will be here at any moment. Patience."

"Hmm." Edward's voice had a new edge to it. "In that case, perhaps we'd better leave sooner rather than later."

"Yes," Aro agreed. "That's a good idea. Accidents do happen. Please wait below until after dark, though, if you don't mind."

"Of course," Edward agreed, while I cringed at the thought of waiting out the day before we could escape.

"And here," Aro added, motioning to Felix with one finger. Felix came forward at once, and Aro unfastened the gray cloak the huge vampire wore, pulling from his shoulders. He tossed it to Edward. "Take this. You're a little conspicuous."

Edward put the long cloak on, leaving the hood down.

Aro sighed. "It suits you."

Edward chuckled, but broke off suddenly, glancing over his shoulder. "Thank you, Aro. We'll wait below."

"Goodbye, young friends," Aro said, his eyes bright as he stared in the same direction.

"Let's go," Edward said, urgent now.

Demetri gestured that we should follow, and then set off the way we'd come in, the only exit by the look of things.

Edward pulled me swiftly along beside him. Alice was close by my other side, her face hard.

"Not fast enough," she muttered.

I stared up at her, frightened, but she only seemed chagrined. It was then that I first heard the babble of voices��loud, rough voices��coming from the antechamber.

"Well this is unusual," a man's coarse voice boomed.

"So medieval," an unpleasantly shrill, female voice gushed back.

A large crowd was coming through the little door, filling the smaller stone chamber. Demetri motioned for us to make room. We pressed back against the cold wall to let them pass.

The couple in front, Americans from the sound of them, glanced around themselves with appraising eyes.

"Welcome, guests! Welcome to Volterra!" I could hear Aro sing from the big turret room.

The rest of them, maybe forty or more, filed in after the couple. Some studied the setting like tourists. A few even snapped pictures. Others looked confused, as if the story that had led them to this room was not making sense anymore. I noticed one small, dark woman in particular. Around her neck was a rosary, and she gripped the cross tightly in one hand. She walked more slowly than the others, touching someone now and then and asking a question in an unfamiliar language. No one seemed to understand her, and her voice grew more panicked.

Edward pulled my face against his chest, but it was too late. I already understood.

As soon as the smallest break appeared, Edward pushed me quickly toward the door. I could feel the horrified expression on my face, and the tears beginning to pool in my eyes.

The ornate golden hallway was quiet, empty except for one gorgeous, statuesque woman. She stared at us curiously, me in particular.

"Welcome home, Heidi," Demetri greeted her from behind us.

Heidi smiled absently. She reminded me of Rosalie, though they looked nothing alike��it was just that her beauty, too, was exceptional, unforgettable. I couldn't seem to look away.

She was dressed to emphasize that beauty. Her amazingly long legs, darkened with tights, were exposed by the shortest of miniskirts. Her top was long-sleeved and high-necked, but extremely close-fitting, and constructed of red vinyl. Her long mahogany hair was lustrous, and her eyes were the strangest shade of violet��a color that might result from blue-tinted contacts over red irises.

"Demetri," she responded in a silky voice, her eyes flickering between my face and Edward's gray cloak.

"Nice fishing," Demetri complimented her, and I suddenly understood the attention-grabbing outfit she wore�� she was not only the fisherman, but also the bait.

"Thanks." She flashed a stunning smile. "Aren't you coming?"

"In a minute. Save a few for me."

Heidi nodded and ducked through the door with one last curious look at me.

Edward set a pace that had me running to keep up. But we still couldn't get through the ornate door at the end of the hallway before the screaming started.