Charlie was waiting up for me. All the house lights were on. My mind was blank as I tried to think of a way to make him let me go. This wasn't going to be pleasant.
Edward pulled up slowly, staying well back from my truck. All three of them were acutely alert, ramrod straight in their seats, listening to every sound of the wood, looking through every shadow, catching every scent, searching for something out of place. The engine cut off, and I sat, motionless, as they continued to listen.
"He's not here," Edward said tensely. "Let's go." Emmett reached over to help me get out of the harness.
"Don't worry, Bella," he said in a low but cheerful voice, "we'll take care of things here quickly."
I felt moisture filling up my eyes as I looked at Emmett. I barely knew him, and yet, somehow, not knowing when I would see him again after tonight was anguishing. I knew this was just a faint taste of the goodbyes I would have to survive in the next hour, and the thought made the tears begin to spill.
"Alice, Emmett." Edward's voice was a command. They slithered soundlessly into the darkness, instantly disappearing. Edward opened my door and took my hand, then drew me into the protecting enclosure of his arm. He walked me swiftly toward the house, eyes always roving through the night.
"Fifteen minutes," he warned under his breath.
"I can do this." I sniffled. My tears had given me an inspiration.
I stopped on the porch and took hold of his face in my hands. I looked fiercely into his eyes.
"I love you," I said in a low, intense voice. "I will always love you, no matter what happens now."
"Nothing is going to happen to you, Bella," he said just as fiercely.
"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."
"Get inside, Bella. We have to hurry." His voice was urgent.
"One more thing," I whispered passionately. "Don't listen to another word I say tonight!" He was leaning in, and so all I had to do was stretch up on my toes to kiss his surprised, frozen lips with as much force as I was capable of. Then I turned and kicked the door open.
"Go away, Edward!" I yelled at him, running inside and slamming the door shut in his still-shocked face.
"Bella?" Charlie had been hovering in the living room, and he was already on his feet.
"Leave me alone!" I screamed at him through my tears, which were flowing relentlessly now. I ran up the stairs to my room, throwing the door shut and locking it. I ran to my bed, flinging myself on the floor to retrieve my duffel bag. I reached swiftly between the mattress and box spring to grab the knotted old sock that contained my secret cash hoard.
Charlie was pounding on my door.
"Bella, are you okay? What's going on?" His voice was frightened.
"I'm going borne," I shouted, my voice breaking in the perfect spot.
"Did he hurt you?" His tone edged toward anger.
"No!" I shrieked a few octaves higher. I turned to my dresser, and Edward was already there, silently yanking out armfuls of random clothes, which he proceeded to throw to me.
"Did he break up with you?" Charlie was perplexed.
"No!" I yelled, slightly more breathless as I shoved everything into the bag. Edward threw another drawer's contents at me. The bag was pretty much full now.
"What happened, Bella?" Charlie shouted through the door, pounding again.
"I broke up with him!" I shouted back, jerking on the zipper of my bag. Edward's capable hands pushed mine away and zipped it smoothly. He put the strap carefully over my arm.
"I'll be in the truck - go!" he whispered, and pushed me toward the door. He vanished out the window.
I unlocked the door and pushed past Charlie roughly, struggling with my heavy bag as I ran down the stairs.
"What happened?" he yelled. He was right behind me. "I thought you liked him."
He caught my elbow in the kitchen. Though he was still bewildered, his grip was firm.
He spun me around to look at him, and I could see in his face that he had no intention of letting me leave. I could think of only one way to escape, and it involved hurting him so much that I hated myself for even considering it. But I had no time, and I had to keep him safe.
I glared up at my father, fresh tears in my eyes for what I was about to do.
"I do like him - that's the problem. I can't do this anymore! I can't put down any more roots here! I don't want to end up trapped in this stupid, boring town like Mom! I'm not going to make the same dumb mistake she did. I hate it - I can't stay here another minute!"
His hand dropped from my arm like I'd electrocuted him. I turned away from his shocked, wounded face and headed for the door.
"Bells, you can't leave now. It's nighttime," he whispered behind me.
I didn't turn around. "I'll sleep in the truck if I get tired."
"Just wait another week," he pled, still shell-shocked. "Ren¨¦e will be back by then."
This completely derailed me. "What?"
Charlie continued eagerly, almost babbling with relief as I hesitated. "She called while you were out. 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."
I shook my head, trying to reassemble my now-confused thoughts. Every passing second put Charlie in more danger.
"I have a key," I muttered, turning the knob. He was too close, one hand extended toward me, his face dazed. I couldn't lose any more time arguing with him. I was going to have to hurt him further.
"Just let me go, Charlie." I repeated my mother's last words as she'd walked out this same door so many years ago. I said them as angrily as I could manage, and I threw the door open. "It didn't work out, okay? I really, really hate Forks!"
My cruel words did their job - Charlie stayed frozen on the doorstep, stunned, while I ran into the night. I was hideously frightened of the empty yard. I ran wildly for the truck, visualizing a dark shadow behind me. I threw my bag in the bed and wrenched the door open. The key was waiting in the ignition.
"I'll call you tomorrow!" I yelled, wishing more than anything that I
could explain everything to him right then, knowing I would never be able to. I gunned the engine and peeled out.
Edward reached for my hand.
"Pull over," he said as the house, and Charlie, disappeared behind us.
"I can drive," I said through the tears pouring down my cheeks.
His long hands unexpectedly gripped my waist, and his foot pushed mine off the gas pedal. He pulled me across his lap, wrenching my hands free of the wheel, and suddenly he was in the driver's seat. The truck didn't swerve an inch.
"You wouldn't be able to find the house," he explained.
Lights flared suddenly behind us. I stared out the back window, eyes wide with horror.
"It's just Alice," he reassured me. He took my hand again.
My mind was filled with the image of Charlie in the doorway. "The tracker?"
"He heard the end of your performance," Edward said grimly.
"Charlie?" I asked in dread.
"The tracker followed us. He's running behind us now."
My body went cold.
"Can we outrun him?"
"No." But he sped up as he spoke. The truck's engine whined in protest.
My plan suddenly didn't feel so brilliant anymore.
I was staring back at Alice's headlights when the truck shuddered and a dark shadow sprung up outside the window.
My bloodcurdling scream lasted a fraction of a second before Edward's hand clamped down on my mouth.
He released my mouth, and wound his arm around my waist.
"It's okay, Bella," he promised. "You're going to be safe."
We raced through the quiet town toward the north highway.
"I didn't realize you were still so bored with small-town life," he said conversationally, and I knew he was trying to distract me. "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 wasn't being nice," I confessed, ignoring his attempt at diversion, looking down at my knees. "That was the same thing my mom said when she left him. You could say I was hitting below the belt."
"Don't worry. He'll forgive you." He smiled a little, though it didn't touch his eyes.
I stared at him desperately, and he saw the naked panic in my eyes.
"Bella, it's going to be all right."
"But it won't be all right when I'm not with you," I whispered.
"We'll be together again in a few days," he said, tightening his arm around me. "Don't forget that this was your idea."
"It was the best idea - of course it was mine."
His answering smile was bleak and disappeared immediately.
"Why did this happen?" I asked, my voice catching. "Why me?"
He stared blackly at the road ahead. "It's my fault - I was a fool to expose you like that." The rage in his voice was directed internally.
"That's not what I meant," I insisted. "I was there, big deal. It didn't bother the other two. Why did this James decide to kill met There're people all over the place, why me?"
He hesitated, thinking before he answered.
"I got a good look at his mind tonight," he began in a low voice. "I'm not sure if there's anything I could have done to avoid this, once he saw you. It is partially your fault." His voice was wry. "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." His tone was full of disgust.
He paused a moment.
"But if I had stood by, he would have killed you right then," he said with hopeless frustration.
"I thought... I didn't smell the same to the others... as I do to you," I said hesitantly.
"You don't. 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 don't think I have any choice but to kill him now," he muttered. "Carlisle won't like it."
I could hear the tires cross the bridge, though I couldn't see the river in the dark. I knew we were getting close. I had to ask him now.
"How can you kill a vampire?"
He glanced at me with unreadable eyes and his voice was suddenly harsh. "The only way to be sure is to tear him to shreds, and then burn the pieces."
"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?" I asked, my voice raw.
"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."
He turned off onto the invisible drive, with Alice following behind.
We drove right up to the house. The lights inside were bright, but they did little to alleviate the blackness of the encroaching forest. Emmett had my door open before the truck was stopped; he pulled me out of the seat, tucked me like a football into his vast chest, and ran me through the door.
We burst into the large white room, Edward and Alice at our sides. All of them were there; they were already on their feet at the sound of our approach. Laurent stood in their midst. I could hear low growls rumble deep in Emmett's throat as he set me down next to Edward.
"He's tracking us," Edward announced, glaring balefully at Laurent.
Laurent's face was unhappy. "I was afraid of that."
Alice danced to Jasper's side and whispered in his ear; her lips quivered with the speed of her silent speech. They flew up the stairs together. Rosalie watched them, and then moved quickly to Emmett's side. Her beautiful eyes were intense and - when they flickered unwillingly to my face - furious.
"What will he do?" Carlisle asked Laurent in chilling tones.
"I'm sorry," he answered. "I was afraid, when your boy there defended her, that it would set him off."
"Can you stop him?"
Laurent shook his head. "Nothing stops James when he gets started."
"We'll stop him," Emmett promised. There was no doubt what he meant.
"You can't bring him down. I've never seen anything like him in my three hundred years. He's absolutely lethal. That's why I joined his coven."
His coven, I thought, of course. The show of leadership in the clearing was merely that, a show.
Laurent was shaking his head. He glanced at me, perplexed, and back to Carlisle. "Are you sure it's worth it?"
Edward's enraged roar filled the room; Laurent cringed back.
Carlisle looked gravely at Laurent. "I'm afraid you're going to have to make a choice."
Laurent understood. He deliberated for a moment. His eyes took in every face, and finally swept the bright room.
"I'm intrigued by the life you've created here. 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." He hesitated. "Don't underestimate James. 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, but I saw him flicker another puzzled look at me.
"Go in peace," was Carlisle's formal answer.
Laurent took another long look around himself, and then he hurried out the door.
The silence lasted less than a second.
"How close?" Carlisle looked to Edward.
Esme was already moving; her hand touched an inconspicuous keypad on the wall, and with a groan, huge metal shutters began sealing up the glass wall. I gaped.
"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."
Edward's tone was deadly. "As soon as Bella is clear, we hunt him."
"I guess there's no other choice," Carlisle agreed, his face grim.
Edward turned to Rosalie.
"Get her upstairs and trade clothes," Edward commanded. She stared back at him with livid disbelief.
"Why should I?" she hissed. "What is she to me? Except a menace - a danger you've chosen to inflict on all of us."
I flinched back from the venom in her voice.
"Rose..." Emmett murmured, putting one hand on her shoulder. She shook it off.
But I was watching Edward carefully, knowing his temper, worried about his reaction.
He surprised me. He looked away from Rosalie as if she hadn't spoken, as if she didn't exist.
"Esme?" he asked calmly.
"Of course," Esme murmured.
Esme was at my side in half a heartbeat, swinging me up easily into her arms, and dashing up the stairs before I could gasp in shock.
"What are we doing?" I asked breathlessly as she set me down in a dark room somewhere off the second-story hall.
"Trying to confuse the smell. It won't work for long, but it might help get you out." I could hear her clothes falling to the floor.
"I don't think I'll fit..." I hesitated, but her hands were abruptly pulling my shirt over my head. I quickly stripped my jeans off myself. She handed me something, it felt like a shirt. I struggled to get my arms through the right holes. As soon as I was done she handed me her slacks. I yanked them on, but I couldn't get my feet out; they were too long. She deftly rolled the hems a few times so I could stand. Somehow she was already in my clothes. She pulled me back to the stairs, where Alice stood, a small leather bag in one hand. They each grabbed one of my elbows and half-carried me as they flew down the stairs.
It appeared that everything had been settled downstairs in our absence. Edward and Emmett were ready to leave, Emmett carrying a heavy-looking backpack over his shoulder. Carlisle was handing something small to Esme. He turned and handed Alice the same thing - it was a tiny silver cell phone.
"Esme and Rosalie will be taking your truck, Bella," he told me as he passed. I nodded, glancing warily at Rosalie. She was glowering at Carlisle with a resentful expression.
"Alice, Jasper - take the Mercedes. You'll need the dark tint in the south."
They nodded as well.
"We're taking the Jeep."
I was surprised to see that Carlisle intended to go with Edward. I realized suddenly, with a stab of fear, that they made up the hunting party.
"Alice," Carlisle asked, "will they take the bait?"
Everyone watched Alice as she closed her eyes and became incredibly still.
Finally her eyes opened. "He'll track you. The woman will follow the truck. We should be able to leave after that." Her voice was certain.
"Let's go." Carlisle began to walk toward the kitchen.
But Edward was at my side at once. He caught me up in his iron grip, crushing me to him. He seemed unaware of his watching family as he pulled my face to his, lifting my feet off the floor. For the shortest second, his lips were icy and hard against mine. Then it was over. He set me down, still holding my face, his glorious eyes burning into mine.
His eyes went blank, curiously dead, as he turned away.
And they were gone.
We stood there, the others looking away from me as the tears streaked noiselessly down my face.
The silent moment dragged on, and then Esme's phone vibrated in her hand. It flashed to her ear.
"Now," she said. Rosalie stalked out the front door without another glance in my direction, but Esme touched my cheek as she passed.
"Be safe." Her whisper lingered behind them as they slipped out the door. I heard my truck start thunderously, and then fade away.
Jasper and Alice waited. Alice's phone seemed to be at her ear before it buzzed.
"Edward says the woman is on Esme's trail. I'll get the car." She vanished into the shadows the way Edward had gone.
Jasper and I looked at each other. He stood across the length of the entryway from me... being careful.
"You're wrong, you know," he said quietly.
"What?" I gasped.
"I can feel what you're feeling now - and you are worth it."
"I'm not," I mumbled. "If anything happens to them, it will be for nothing."
"You're wrong," he repeated, smiling kindly at me.
I heard nothing, but then Alice stepped through the front door and came toward me with her arms held out.
"May I?" she asked.
"You're the first one to ask permission." I smiled wryly.
She lifted me in her slender arms as easily as Emmett had, shielding me protectively, and then we flew out the door, leaving the lights bright behind us.