Chapter 24 VOTE
HE WAS NOT PLEASED, THAT MUCH WAS EASY TO READ in his face. But, without further argument, he took me in his arms and sprang lithely from my window, landing without the slightest jolt, like a cat. It was a little bit farther down than I'd imagined.
"All right then," he said, his voice seething with disapproval. "Up you go."
He helped me onto his back, and took off running. Even after all this time, it felt routine. Easy. Evidently this was something you never forgot, like riding a bicycle.
It was so very quiet and dark as he ran through the forest, his breathing slow and even��dark enough that the trees flying past us were nearly invisible, and only the rush of air in my face truly gave away our speed. The air was damp; it didn't burn my eyes the way the wind in the big plaza had, and that was comforting. As was the night, too, after that terrifying brightness. Like the thick quilt I'd played under as a child, the dark felt familiar and protecting.
I remembered that running through the forest like this used to frighten me, that I used to have to close my
eyes. It seemed a silly reaction to me now. I kept my eyes wide, my chin resting on his shoulder, my cheek against his neck. The speed was exhilarating. A hundred times better than the motorcycle.
I turned my face toward him and pressed my lips into the cold stone skin of his neck.
"Thank you," he said, as the vague, black shapes of trees raced past us. "Does that mean you've decided you're awake?"
I laughed. The sound was easy, natural, effortless. It sounded right. "Not really. More that, either way, I'm not trying to wake up. Not tonight."
"I'll earn your trust back somehow," he murmured, mostly to himself. "If it's my final act."
"I trust you," I assured him. "It's me I don't trust."
"Explain that, please."
He'd slowed to a walk��I could only tell because the wind ceased��and I guessed that we weren't far from the house. In fact, I thought I could make out the sound of the river rushing somewhere close by in the darkness.
"Well��" I struggled to find the right way to phrase it. "I don't trust myself to be�� enough. To deserve you. There's nothing about me that could hold you."
He stopped and reached around to pull me from his back. His gentle hands did not release me; after he'd set me on my feet again, he wrapped his arms tightly around me, hugging me to his chest.
"Your hold is permanent and unbreakable," he whispered. "Never doubt that."
But how could I not?
"You never did tell me��" he murmured.
"What your greatest problem is."
"I'll give you one guess." I sighed, and reached up to touch the tip of his nose with my index finger.
He nodded. "I'm worse than the Volturi," he said grimly. "I guess I've earned that."
I rolled my eyes. "The worst the Volturi can do is kill me."
He waited with tense eyes.
"You can leave me," I explained. "The Volturi, Victoria�� they're nothing compared to that."
Even in the darkness, I could see the anguish twist his face��it reminded me of his expression under Jane's torturing gaze; I felt sick, and regretted speaking the truth.
"Don't," I whispered, touching his face. "Don't be sad."
He pulled one corner of his mouth up halfheartedly, but the expression didn't touch his eyes. "If there was only some way to make you see that I can't leave you," he whispered. "Time, I suppose, will be the way to convince you."
I liked the idea of time. "Okay," I agreed.
His face was still tormented. I tried to distract him with inconsequentials.
"So��since you're staying. Can I have my stuff back?" I asked, making my tone as light as I could manage.
My attempt worked, to an extent: he laughed. But his eyes retained the misery. "Your things were never gone," he told me. "I knew it was wrong, since I promised you peace without reminders. It was stupid and childish, but I wanted to leave something of myself with you. The CD, the pictures, the tickets��they're all under your floorboards."
He nodded, seeming slightly cheered by my obvious pleasure in this trivial fact. It wasn't enough to heal the pain in his face completely.
"I think," I said slowly, "I'm not sure, but I wonder�� I think maybe I knew it the whole time."
"What did you know?"
I only wanted to take away the agony in his eyes, but as I spoke the words, they sounded truer than I expected they would.
"Some part of me, my subconscious maybe, never stopped believing that you still cared whether I lived or died. That's probably why I was hearing the voices."
There was a very deep silence for a moment. "Voices?" he asked flatly.
"Well, just one voice. Yours. It's a long story." The wary look on his face made me wish that I hadn't brought that up. Would he think I was crazy, like everyone else? Was everyone else right about that? But at least that expression��the one that made him look like something was burning him��faded.
"I've got time." His voice was unnaturally even.
"It's pretty pathetic."
I wasn't sure how to explain. "Do you remember what Alice said about extreme sports?"
He spoke the words without inflection or emphasis. "You jumped off a cliff for fun."
"Er, right. And before that, with the motorcycle��"
"Motorcycle?" he asked. I knew his voice well enough to hear something brewing behind the calm.
"I guess I didn't tell Alice about that part."
"Well, about that�� See, I found that�� when I was doing something dangerous or stupid�� I could remember you more clearly," I confessed, feeling completely mental. "I could remember how your voice sounded when you were angry. I could hear it, like you were standing right there next to me. Mostly I tried not to think about you, but this didn't hurt so much��it was like you were protecting me again. Like
you didn't want me to be hurt.
"And, well, I wonder if the reason I could hear you so clearly was because, underneath it all. I always knew that you hadn't stopped loving me."
Again, as I spoke, the words brought with them a sense of conviction. Of rightness. Some deep place inside me recognized truth.
His words came out half-strangled. "You�� were�� risking your life�� to hear��"
"Shh," I interrupted him. "Hold on a second. I think I'm having an epiphany here."
I thought of that night in Port Angeles when I'd had my first delusion. I'd come up with two options. Insanity or wish fulfillment. I'd seen no third option.
But what if��
What if you sincerely believed something was true, but you were dead wrong? What if you were so stubbornly sure that you were right, that you wouldn't even consider the truth? Would the truth be silenced, or would it try to break through?
Option three: Edward loved me. The bond forged between us was not one that could be broken by absence, distance, or time. And no matter how much more special or beautiful or brilliant or perfect than me he might be, he was as irreversibly altered as I was. As I would always belong to him, so would he always be mine.
Was that what I'd been trying to tell myself?
"Oh. Okay. I see."
"Your epiphany?" he asked, his voice uneven and strained.
"You love me," I marveled. The sense of conviction and Tightness washed through me again.
Though his eyes were still anxious, the crooked smile I loved best flashed across his face. "Truly, I do."
My heart inflated like it was going to crack right through my ribs. It filled my chest and blocked my throat so that I could not speak.
He really did want me the way I wanted him��forever. It was only fear for my soul, for the human things he didn't want to take from me, that made him so desperate to leave me mortal. Compared to the fear that he didn't want me, this hurdle��my soul��seemed almost insignificant.
He took my face tightly between his cool hands and kissed me until I was so dizzy the forest was spinning. Then he leaned his forehead against mine, and I was not the only one breathing harder than usual.
"You were better at it than I was, you know," he told me.
"Better at what?"
"Surviving. You, at least, made an effort. You got up in the morning, tried to be normal for Charlie, followed the pattern of your life. When I wasn't actively tracking, I was�� totally useless. I couldn't be around my family��I couldn't be around anyone. I'm embarrassed to admit that I more or less curled up into a ball and let the misery have me." He grinned, sheepish. "It was much more pathetic than hearing voices. And, of course, you know I do that, too."
I was deeply relieved that he really seemed to understand��comforted that this all made sense to him. At any rate, he wasn't looking at me like I was crazy. He was looking at me like�� he loved me.
"I only heard one voice," I corrected him.
He laughed and then pulled me tight against his right side and started to lead me forward.
"I'm just humoring you with this." He motioned broadly with his hand toward the darkness in front of us as we walked. There was something pale and immense there��the house, I realized. "It doesn't matter in the slightest what they say."
"This affects them now, too."
He shrugged indifferently.
He led me through the open front door into the dark house and flipped the lights on. The room was just as I'd remembered it��the piano and the white couches and the pale, massive staircase. No dust, no white sheets.
Edward called out the names with no more volume than I'd use in regular conversation. "Carlisle? Esme? Rosalie? Emmett? Jasper? Alice?" They would hear.
Carlisle was suddenly standing beside me, as if he'd been there all along. "Welcome back, Bella." He smiled. "What can we do for you this morning? I imagine, due to the hour, that this is not a purely social visit?"
I nodded. "I'd like to talk to everyone at once, if that's okay. About something important."
I couldn't help glancing up at Edward's face as I spoke. His expression was critical, but resigned. When I looked back to Carlisle, he was looking at Edward, too.
"Of course," Carlisle said. "Why don't we talk in the other room?"
Carlisle led the way through the bright living room, around the corner to the dining room, turning on lights as he went. The walls were white, the ceilings high, like the living room. In the center of the room, under the low-hanging chandelier, was a large, polished oval table surrounded by eight chairs. Carlisle held out a chair for me at the head.
I'd never seen the Cullens use the dining room table before��it was just a prop. They didn't eat in the house.
As soon as I turned to sit in the chair, I saw that we were not alone. Esme had followed Edward, and behind her the rest of the family filed in.
Carlisle sat down on my right, and Edward on my left. Everyone else took their seats in silence. Alice was grinning at me, already in on the plot. Emmett and Jasper looked curious, and Rosalie smiled at me tentatively. My answering smile was just as timid. That was going to take some getting used to.
Carlisle nodded toward me. "The floor is yours."
I swallowed. Their gazing eyes made me nervous. Edward took my hand under the table. I peeked at him, but he was watching the others, his fate suddenly fierce.
"Well," I paused. "I'm hoping Alice has already told you everything that happened in Volterra?"
"Everything," Alice assured me.
I threw her a meaningful look. "And on the way?"
"That, too," she nodded.
"Good," I sighed with relief. "Then we're all on the same page."
They waited patiently while I tried to order my thoughts.
"So, I have a problem," I began. "Alice promised the Volturi that I would become one of you. They're going to send someone to check, and I'm sure that's a bad thing��something to avoid.
"And so, now, this involves you all. I'm sorry about that." I looked at each one of their beautiful faces, saving the most beautiful for last. Edward's mouth was turned down into a grimace. "But, if you don't want me, then I'm not going to force myself on you, whether Alice is willing or not."
Esme opened her mouth to speak, but I held up one finger to stop her.
"Please, let me finish. You all know what I want. And I'm sure you know what Edward thinks, too. I think the only fair way to decide is for everyone to have a vote. If you decide you don't want me, then�� I guess I'll go back to Italy alone. I can't have them coming here." My forehead creased as I considered that.
There was the faint rumble of a growl in Edward's chest. I ignored him.
"Taking into account, then, that I won't put any of you in danger either way, I want you to vote yes or no on the issue of me becoming a vampire."
I half-smiled on the last word, and gestured toward Carlisle to begin.
"Just a minute," Edward interrupted.
I glared at him through narrowed eyes. He raised his eyebrows at me, squeezing my hand.
"I have something to add before we vote."
"About the danger Bella's referring to," he continued. "I don't think we need to be overly anxious."
His expression became more animated. He put his free hand on the shining table and leaned forward.
"You see," he explained, looking around the table while he spoke, "there was more than one reason why I didn't want to shake Aro's hand there at the end. There's something they didn't think of, and I didn't want to cine them in." He grinned.
"Which was?" Alice prodded. I was sure my expression was just as skeptical as hers.
"The Volturi are overconfident, and with good reason. When they decide to find someone, it's not really a problem. Do you remember Demetri?" He glanced down at me.
I shuddered. He took that as a yes.
"He finds people��that's his talent, why they keep him.
"Now, the whole time we were with any of them, I was picking their brains for anything that might save us, getting as much information as possible. So I saw how Demetri's talent works. He's a tracker��a tracker a thousand times more gifted than Jarres was. His ability is loosely related to what I do, or what Aro does. He catches the�� flavor? I don't know how to describe it�� the tenor�� of someone's mind, and then he follows that. It works over immense distances.
"But after Aro's little experiments, well��" Edward shrugged.
"You think he won't be able to find me," I said flatly.
He was smug. "I'm sure of it. He relies totally on that other sense. When it doesn't work with you, they'll all be blind."
"And how does that solve anything?"
"Quite obviously, Alice will be able to tell when they're planning a visit, and I'll hide you. They'll be helpless," he said with fierce enjoyment. "It will be like looking for a piece of straw in a haystack!"
He and Emmett exchanged a glance and a smirk.
This made no sense. "But they can find you," I reminded him.
"And I can take care of myself."
Emmett laughed, and reached across the table toward his brother, extending a fist.
"Excellent plan, my brother," he said with enthusiasm.
Edward stretched out his arm to smack Emmett's fist with his own.
"No," Rosalie hissed.
"Absolutely not," I agreed.
"Nice." Jasper's voice was appreciative.
"Idiots," Alice muttered.
Esme just glared at Edward.
I straightened up in my chair, focusing. This was my meeting.
"All right, then. Edward has offered an alternative for you to consider," I said coolly. "Let's vote."
I looked toward Edward this time; it would be better to get his opinion out of the way. "Do you want me to join your family?"
His eyes were hard and black as flint. "Not that way. You're staying human."
I nodded once, keeping my face businesslike, and then moved on.
"Yes," he said, voice grave. I was a little surprised��I hadn't been at all sure of his vote��but I suppressed my reaction and moved on.
She hesitated, biting down on her full, perfect bottom lip. "No."
I kept my face blank and turned my head slightly to move on, but she held up both her hands, palms forward.
"Let me explain," she pleaded. "I don't mean that I have any aversion to you as a sister. It's just that�� this is not the life I would have chosen for myself. I wish there had been someone there to vote no for me."
I nodded slowly, and then turned to Emmett.
"Hell, yes!" He grinned. "We can find some other way to pick a fight with this Demetri."
I was still grimacing at that when I looked at Esme.
"Yes, of course, Bella. I already think of you as part of my family."
"Thank you, Esme," I murmured as I turned toward Carlisle.
I was suddenly nervous, wishing I had asked for his vote first. I was sure that this was the vote that mattered most, the vote that counted more than any majority.
Carlisle wasn't looking at me.
"Edward," he said.
"No," Edward growled. His jaw was strained tight, his lips curled back from his teeth.
"It's the only way that makes sense," Carlisle insisted. "You've chosen not to live without her, and that doesn't leave me a choice."
Edward dropped my hand, shoving away from the table. He stalked out of the room, snarling under his breath.
"I guess you know my vote." Carlisle sighed.
I was still staring after Edward. "Thanks," I mumbled.
An earsplitting crash echoed from the other room.
I flinched, and spoke quickly. "That's all I needed. Thank you. For wanting to keep me. I feel exactly the same way about all of you, too." My voice was jagged with emotion by the end.
Esme was at my side in a flash, her cold arms around me.
"Dearest Bella," she breathed.
I hugged her back. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Rosalie looking down at the table, and I realized that my words could be construed in two ways.
"Well, Alice," I said when Esme released me. "Where do you want to do this?"
Alice stared at me, her eyes widening with terror.
"No! No! NO!" Edward roared, charging back into the room. He was in my face before I had time to blink, bending over me, his expression twisted in rage. "Are you insane?" he shouted. "Have you utterly lost your mind?"
I cringed away, my hands over my ears.
"Um, Bella," Alice interjected in an anxious voice. "I don't think I'm ready for that. I'll need to prepare��"
"You promised," I reminded her, glaring under Edward's arm.
"I know, but�� Seriously, Bella! I don't have any idea how to not killyou."
"You can do it," I encouraged. "I trust you."
Edward snarled in fury.
Alice shook her head quickly, looking panicked.
"Carlisle?" I turned to look at him.
Edward grabbed my face in his hand, forcing me to look at him. His other hand was out, palm toward Carlisle.
Carlisle ignored that. "I'm able to do it," he answered my question. I wished I could see his expression. "You would be in no danger of me losing control."
"Sounds good." I hoped he could understand; it was hard to talk clearly the way Edward held my jaw.
"Hold on," Edward said between his teeth. "It doesn't have to be now."
"There's no reason for it not to be now," I said, the words coming out distorted.
"I can think of a few."
"Of course you can," I said sourly. "Now let go of me."
He freed my face, and folded his arms across his chest. "In about two hours, Charlie will be here looking for you. I wouldn't put it past him to involve the police."
"All three of them." But I frowned.
This was always the hardest part. Charlie, Renee. Now Jacob, too. The people I would lose, the people I would hurt. I wished there was some way that I could be the only one to suffer, but I knew that was impossible.
At the same time, I was hurting them more by staying human. Putting Charlie in constant danger through my proximity. Putting Jake in worse danger still by drawing his enemies across the land he felt bound to protect. And Renee��I couldn't even risk a visit to see my own mother for fear of bringing my deadly problems along with me!
I was a danger magnet; I'd accepted that about myself.
Accepting this, I knew I needed to be able to take care of myself and protect the ones I loved, even if that meant that I couldn't be with them. I needed to be strong.
"In the interest of remaining inconspicuous," Edward said, still talking through his gritted teeth, but looking at Carlisle now, "I suggest that we put this conversation off, at the very least until Bella finishes high school, and moves out of Charlie's house."
"That's a reasonable request, Bella," Carlisle pointed out.
I thought about Charlie's reaction when he woke up this morning, if��after all that life had put him through in the last week with Harry's loss, and then I had put him through with my unexplained disappearance��he were to find my bed empty. Charlie deserved better than that. It was just a little more time; graduation wasn't so far away��
I pursed my lips. "I'll consider it."
Edward relaxed. His jaw unclenched.
"I should probably take you home," he said, more calm now, but clearly in a hurry to get me out of here. "Just in case Charlie wakes up early."
I looked at Carlisle. "After graduation?"
"You have my word."
I took a deep breath, smiled, and turned back to Edward. "Okay. You can take me home."
Edward rushed me out of the house before Carlisle could promise me anything else. He took me out the back, so I didn't get to see what was broken in the living room.
It was a quiet trip home. I was feeling triumphant, and a little smug. Scared stiff, too, of course, but I tried not to think about that part. It did me no good to worry about the pain��the physical or the emotional��so I wouldn't. Not until I absolutely had to.
When we got to my house, Edward didn't pause. He dashed up the wall and through my window in half a second. Then he pulled my arms frcm around his neck and set me on the bed.
I thought I had a pretty good idea of what he was thinking, but his expression surprised me. Instead of furious, it was calculating. He paced silently back and forth across my dark room while I watched with growing suspicion.
"Whatever you're planning, it's not going to work," I told him.
"Shh. I'm thinking."
"Ugh," I groaned, throwing myself back on the bed and pulling the quilt over my head.
There was no sound, but suddenly he was there. He flipped the cover back so he could see me. He was
lying next to me. His hand reached up to brush my hair from my cheek.
"If you don't mind, I'd much rather you didn't hide your face. I've lived without it for as long as I can stand. Now�� tell me something."
"What?" I asked, unwilling.
"If you could have anything in the world, anything at all, what would it be?"
I could feel the skepticism in my eyes. "You."
He shook his head impatiently. "Something you don't already have."
I wasn't sure where he was trying to lead me, so I thought carefully before I answered. I came up with something that was both true, and also probably impossible.
"I would want�� Carlisle not to have to do it. I would want you to change me."
I watched his reaction warily, expecting more of the fury I'd seen at his house. I was surprised that his expression didn't change. It was still calculating, thoughtful.
"What would you be willing to trade for that?"
I couldn't believe my ears. I gawked at his composed face and blurted out the answer before I could think about it.
He smiled faintly, and then pursed his lips. "Five years?"
My face twisted into an expression somewhere between chagrin and horror.
"You said anything," he reminded me.
"Yes, but�� you'll use the time to find a way out of it. I have to strike while the iron is hot. Besides, it's just too dangerous to be human��for me, at least. So, anything but that."
He frowned. "Three years?"
"Isn't it worth anyrhing to you at all? "
I thought about how much I wanted this. Better to keep a poker face, I decided, and not let him know how very much that was. It would give me more leverage. "Six months?"
He rolled his eyes. "Not good enough."
"One year, then," I said. "That's my limit."
"At least give me two."
"No way. Nineteen I'll do. But I'm not going anywhere near twenty. If you're staying in your teens forever, then so am I."
He thought for a minute. "All right. Forget time limits. If you want me to be the one��then you'll just have
to meet one condition."
"Condition?" My voice went flat. "What condition?"
His eyes were cautious��he spoke slowly. "Marry me first."
I stared at him, waiting�� "Okay. What's the punch line?"
He sighed. "You're wounding my ego, Bella. I just proposed to you, and you think it's a joke."
"Edward, please be serious."
"I am one hundred percent serious." He gazed at me with no hint of humor in his face.
"Oh, c'mon," I said, an edge of hysteria in my voice. "I'm only eighteen."
"Well, I'm nearly a hundred and ten. It's time I settled down."
I looked away, out the dark window, trying to control the panic before it gave me away.
"Look, marriage isn't exactly that high on my list of priorities, you know? It was sort of the kiss of death for Renee and Charlie."
"Interesting choice of words."
"You know what I mean."
He inhaled deeply. "Please don't tell me that you're afraid of the commitment," his voice was disbelieving, and I understood what he meant.
"That's not it exactly," I hedged. "I'm�� afraid of Renee. She has some really intense opinions on getting married before you're thirty."
"Because she'd rather you became one of the eternal damned than get married." He laughed darkly.
"You think you're joking."
"Bella, if you compare the level of commitment between a marital union as opposed to bartering your soul in exchange for an eternity as a vampire��" He shook his head. "If you're not brave enough to marry me, then��"
"Well," I interrupted. "What if I did? What if I told you to take me to Vegas now? Would I be a vampire in three days?"
He smiled, his teeth flashing in the dark. "Sure," he said, calling my bluff. "I'll get my car."
"Dammit." I muttered. "I'll give you eighteen months."
"No deal," he said, grinning. "I like this condition."
"Fine. I'll have Carlisle do it when I graduate."
"If that's what you really want." He shrugged, and his smile became absolutely angelic.
"You're impossible," I groaned. "A monster."
He chuckled. "Is that why you won't marry me?"
I groaned again.
He leaned toward me; his night-dark eyes melted and smoldered and shattered my concentration. " Please, Bella?" he breathed.
I forgot how to breathe for a moment. When I recovered, I shook my head quickly, trying to clear my suddenly clouded mind.
"Would this have gone better if I d had time to get a ring.'"
"No! No rings!" I very nearly snouted.
"Now you've done it," he whispered.
"Charlie's getting up; I'd better leave," Edward said with resignation.
My heart stopped beating.
He gauged my expression for a second. "Would it be childish of me to hide in your closet, then?"
"No," I whispered eagerly. "Stay. Please."
Edward smiled and disappeared.
I seethed in the darkness as I waited for Charlie to check on me. Edward knew exactly what he was doing, and I was willing to bet that all the injured surprise was part of the ploy. Of course, I still had the Carlisle option, but now that I knew there was a chance that Edward would change me himself, I wanted it bad. He was such a cheater.
My door cracked open.
"Oh, hey, Bella." He sounded embarrassed at getting caught. "I didn't know you were awake."
"Yeah. I've just been waiting ior you to wake up so I could take a shower." I started to get up.
"Hold on," Charlie said, flipping the light on. I blinked in the sudden brightness, and carefully kept my eyes away from the closet. "Let's talk for a minute first."
I couldn't control my grimace. I'd forgotten to ask Alice for a good excuse.
"You know you're in trouble."
"Yeah, I know."
"I just about went crazy these last three days. I come home from Harry's funeral, and you're gone. Jacob could only tell me that you'd run off with Alice Cullen, and that he thought you were in trouble. You didn't leave me a number, and you didn't call. I didn't know where you were or when��or if��you were coming back. Do you have any idea how�� how��" He couldn't finish the sentence. He sucked in a sharp breath and moved on. "Can you give me one reason why I shouldn't ship you off to Jacksonville this second?"
My eyes narrowed. So it was going to be threats, was it? Two could play at that game. I sat up, pulling the quilt around me. "Because I won't go."
"Now just one minute, young lady��"
"Look, Dad, I accept complete responsibility for my actions, and you have the right to ground me for as long as you want. I will also do all the chores and laundry and dishes until you think I've learned my lesson. And I guess you're within your rights if you want to kick me out, too��but that won't make me to go to Florida."
His face turned bright red. He took a few deep breaths before he answered.
"Would you like to explain where you've been?"
Oh, crap. "There was�� an emergency."
He raised his eyebrows in expectation of my brilliant explanation.
I filled my cheeks with air and then blew it out noisily. "I don't know what to tell you, Dad. It was mostly a misunderstanding. He said, she said. It got out of hand."
He waited with a distrustful expression.
"See, Alice told Rosalie about me jumping off the cliff��" I was scrambling frantically to make this work, to keep it as close to the truth as possible so that my inability to lie convincingly would not undermine the excuse, but before I could go on, Charlie's expression reminded me that he didn't know arything about thecliff.
Major oops. As if I wasn't already toast.
"I guess I didn't tell you about that," I choked out. "It was nothing. Just messing around, swimming with Jake. Anyway, Rosalie told Edward, and he was upset. She sort of accidentally made it sound like I wa? trying to kill myself or something. He wouldn't answer his phone, so Alice dragged me to�� L.A., to explain in person." I shrugged, desperately hoping that he would not be so distracted by my slip that he'd miss the brilliant explanation I'd provided.
Charlie's face was frozen. "Were you trying to kill yourself, Bella?"
"No, of course not. Just having fun with Jake. Cliff diving. The La Push kids do it all the time. Like I said, nothing."
Charlie's face heated up��from frozen to hot with fury. "What's it to Edward Cullen anyway?" he barked. "All this time, he's just left you dangling without a word��"
I interrupted him. "Another misunderstanding."
His face flushed again. "So is he back then?"
"I'm not sure what the exact plan is. I think they all are."
He shook his head, the vein in his forehead pulsing. "I want you to stay away from him, Bella. I don't trust him. He's rotten for you. I won't let him mess you up like that again."
"Fine," I said curtly.
Charlie rocked back onto his heels. "Oh." He scrambled for a second, exhaling loudly in surprise. "I thought you were going to be difficult."
"I am." I stared straight into his eyes. "I meant, 'Fine, I'll move out.'"
His eyes bulged; his face turned puce. My resolve wavered as I started to worry about his health. He was no younger than Harry��
"Dad, I don't want to move out," I said in a softer tone. "I love you. I know you're worried, but you need to trust me on this. And you're going to have to ease up on Edward if you want me to stay. Do you want me to live here or not?"
"That's not fair, Bella. You know I want you to stay."
"Then be nice to Edward, because he's going to be where I am." I said it with confidence. The conviction of my epiphany was still strong.
"Not under my roof," Charlie stormed.
I sighed a heavy sigh. "Look, I'm not going to give you any more ultimatums tonight��or I guess it's this morning. Just think about it for a few days, okay? But keep in mind that Edward and I are sort of a package deal."
"Think it over," I insisted. "And while you're doing that, could you give me some privacy? I really need a shower."
Charlie's face was a strange shade of purple, but he left, slamming the door behind him. I heard him stomp furiously down the stairs.
I threw off my quilt, and Edward was already there, sitting in the rocking chair as if he d been present through the whole conversation.
"Sorry about that," I whispered.
"It's not as if I don't deserve far worse," he murmured. "Don't start anything with Charlie over me, please. "
"Don't worry about it," I breathed as I gathered up my bathroom things and a set of clean clothes. "I will start exactly as much as is necessary, and no more than that. Or are you trying to tell me I have nowhere to go?" I widened my eyes with false alarm.
"You'd move in with a house full of vampires?"
"That's probably the safest place for someone like me. Besides��" I grinned. "If Charlie kicks me out, then there's no need for a graduation deadline, is there?"
His jaw tightened. "So eager for eternal damnation," he muttered.
"You know you don't really believe that."
"Oh, don't I?" he fumed.
"No. You don't."
He glowered at me and started to speak, but I cut him off.
"If you really believed that you'd lost your soul, then when I found you in Volterra, you would have realized immediately what was happening, instead of thinking we were both dead together. But you didn't��you said 'Amazing. Carlisle was right,'" I reminded him, triumphant. "There's hope in you, after all."
For once, Edward was speechless.
"So let's both just be hopeful, all right?" I suggested. "Not that it matters. If you stay, I don't need heaven."
He got up slowly, and came to put his hands on either side of my face as he stared into my eyes. "Forever," he vowed, still a little staggered.
"That's all I'm asking for," I said, and stretched up on my toes so that I could press my lips to his.