Thursday, June 10, 2010

Amnesia, Chapter 14 - Truth


The moment I saw her, my skin began to crawl.

She wasn’t unattractive. In fact, she was rather sexy, with her blue-jean strut and her flame-red mane of hair. Every human in Jake’s stared unabashedly as she sauntered straight up to the bar, but she paid them no heed. Her shrewd, black eyes and knowing smirk were aimed only at me. I wanted to grab her and strangle her then and there for daring to come near Bella. Instead, I mustered a terse smile and asked, “What’ll it be?”, curious as to how she’d respond.

“How about a nice, tall Bloody Mary?” she replied without missing a beat. Her grin was crooked, like mine. The resemblance ended there, her malevolence thinly veiled by her smiling expression. I searched her mind and saw only my face there, heard only my name. She was focused solely on me, and she liked what she saw. The feeling was not mutual.

“I’d fix you a drink, but why waste the booze on someone--or something--that can’t appreciate it?” I countered in a low snarl, glad that it was near closing time and the crowd had begun to thin out.

“So that’s how you’re going to play, is it?” the redhead remarked, her smile fading. “That’s a fine thank-you for the gift of immortality.”

My jaw went slack as the image in her mind abruptly changed. My face was still the focal point, but it looked very different--eyes closed, head lolling back from what could only be a broken neck. She was cradling my limp body in her arms, and my features became a blur in her mind’s eye as she dove in for the kill. Here, at last, was my answer: it was Victoria who had turned me into a vampire. I stared at her in stunned amazement, then tried to cover my shock. She didn’t need to know that I could read her mind. My hidden talent might come in handy while dealing with her.

Her Cheshire-cat grin returned as she regarded my stupefied expression. “That’s right, my little brain-damaged progeny. You have me to thank for that beautiful body of yours walking around on the earth instead of buried six feet under it.” She paused and scrutinized me even more closely, her black eyes violating me head to toe. She leaned back and exhaled in satisfaction. “My God, you are magnificent. I knew you would be. I mean, you were always a handsome boy, and an even handsomer young man. But as an immortal, you are truly beyond compare. No wonder your little girlfriend can’t stay away from you, no matter how doomed your pathetic ‘romance’ is.” She made quotation marks in the air with her fingers as she spoke, then let out a mocking laugh. I would have cheerfully snapped her neck for that remark, but one fleeting picture in her brain kept me from touching her: my adolescent face. She wasn’t lying--she had known me years ago. My hunger for answers kept my fury in check.

Her demeanor shifted from gloating to wistful. “You really don’t remember me at all, do you,” she sighed.

I shook my head slowly and remained silent. I was beginning to see that if I simply let her talk, she would eventually hang herself. She obviously enjoyed the sound of her own voice.

“What a shame,“ she remarked, then looked angry for a moment. “That bastard,” she muttered under her breath. Her mind quickly flashed on another man’s face, but before I could identify it, she focused once again on me. It was clear that she was trying to block whomever it was out of her thoughts. I instantly wondered who he was, and how he fit into the equation.

It was nearing 1:30 a.m., and customers began filing out in small groups. The college kids who were home for Thanksgiving break were gathered around the pool tables, and would probably be there until I turned the lights on to signal closing time. I decided now was close enough. I wanted to speak with this creature alone.

“Wait here,” I told her, knowing full well that she had no intention of going anywhere. I went to the master electrical panel and flipped all the switches, bathing the entire bar in glaring white light. The air was soon filled with drunken groans of protest from the kids who weren’t ready to go home. I briefly wished Emmett were here, for he was far more effective at authoritatively clearing out the joint than I was. I had already let the other help go home, so it was up to me to close Jake’s for the evening.

I marched over to the stragglers and gave them a look so baleful that they made very little protest when I told them to get out. For once, I must have come across like the scary monster I truly was.

After every human had vacated the place, I began cleaning up after them, returning all the dirty glassware to the bar and wiping down the tables. The redhead watched me with growing irritation, her thoughts belying her anger that I hadn’t dropped everything in order to give her my undivided attention. I had decided that she didn’t deserve it. She could talk well enough while I finished my work for the evening, if she wanted to.

“You can drop the act,” she finally announced as I buried my hands in a sink full of dishes and soapy water behind the bar. “I don’t believe for one minute that you aren’t dying to know why I’m here, and what really happened to you.”

“I have a job to do,” I said curtly. “But I’m listening, if you want to tell me something.”

“So self-righteous, aren’t you!” she exclaimed. “What makes you think you’re so much better than me? Because you’ve decided to dine on animals instead of humans?”

I quirked an eyebrow and shrugged. I wondered how long this woman had been following me, observing my habits. And why had I never caught her thoughts before?

“Would it make you feel any differently about me if you knew the kinds of predators I feed on?” she asked, her tone hard. “Forget those bears and mountain lions you’re so fond of, Edward. Try a different kind of vicious creature.” I saw the human males she spoke of in her mind’s eye before the words came out of her mouth. “Murderers. Kidnappers. Rapists. Child molesters. Now there’s prey worth stalking…worth toying with before you go in for the kill.” Her eyes were filled with a righteous hatred. “That, my dear boy, is blood that goes down sweet and easy. I consider it a public service, frankly. Women everywhere should be thanking me.”

“I’m sure you have saved some innocent lives. Good for you,” I begrudgingly commended her. I had once considered going that route myself, and couldn’t argue much with her reasoning.

“You should come with me some time,” she encouraged. “Once you’ve tasted human blood again, you won’t be able to go back to the way you’re living now.”

I gave her a brief smile. “I thought about living that way,” I admitted. “But I decided I’m not interested in playing God.”

“Ah.” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Is that why you haven’t turned Bella yet?”

I felt my frigid blood grow hot at the sound of my angel’s name coming out of her wretched lips. Though I tried to hide my emotions, the redhead’s eyes sparked with the recognition that she had hit a nerve.

“What are you waiting for? You know you’ll have to do it, sooner or later. Unless you’re planning on leaving her.”

I concentrated on finishing up the dishes before I did or said something I would regret. I needed to play my cards carefully.

“You probably should leave her, you know, for her own good. If you don’t, you’ll just end up killing her,” she continued, enjoying twisting the metaphorical dagger. “Not on purpose, of course. But eventually there will be just one little slip…one tiny moment that you forget your own strength. Or that resistance to her blood that you’ve tried to build up might suddenly disappear for a split second, and you’ll have to have just one…little…taste.” She drew out her words melodramatically, goading me.

“What do you want?” I finally hissed, my patience at its end.

“Isn’t it obvious?“ Her eyes sparkled like black diamonds. “I want you,” she said with emphasis, her husky voice hovering between a purr and a growl.

I let out a scornful laugh and shook my head in refusal. “Just because you made me doesn’t mean you own me.”

“Doesn’t it?” she snorted, and again I caught a flash of the other man in her mind. Her maker? Her possessor? Her thoughts were still carefully veiled. “Shouldn’t the fact that I saved you not once, but twice, make you beholden to me in some way?”

Once more, my boyish face appeared in her mind…pale, pallid. Lips slightly blue. Hair wet. Lying in the sand. What had she saved me from then?

“That’s right,” she continued, looking at my confused countenance. “I didn’t just meet you, Edward. I’ve known you for a very long time. Well, in human years, anyway. I suppose the memory of those was erased by the accident. I’m not surprised. You were so very, very damaged when I found you after the car wreck,” she said softly, her eyes far away, her mind reliving the moment for me once again. “You had massive internal injuries. I could hear and smell the blood running rampant under your skin…delicious. Your brain was the worst, hemorrhaging severely. Yet amazingly enough, there was scarcely a mark on you. You were thrown from the car, you see. Hit a tree, or a rock…I’m not sure which. But that exquisite face of yours was completely intact while you were bleeding to death right under the surface. Neither God nor Satan would destroy beauty like yours. That’s what I thought to myself at the time.” She let out a wry laugh, then her smile faded. “I knew there was no hope for you unless I turned you.” She stopped and stared at my incredulous face. “So I did it. I gave you my blood. I gave you eternal life. I’m a part of you, Edward. Whether you like it or not.”

My head was spinning, trying to put together all the pieces of the puzzle. “But what did you do with my parents? And why did you carry me so far from the car, and then just leave me there when you were finished? I had no idea what had happened to me. I didn’t have a clue what kind of monster you had turned me into. I attacked a complete innocent on the side of the road. I nearly killed Bella…because of you!” I was beginning to see red, I was so furious.

Her eyes flashed angrily. “You never would have met her if it weren’t for me and James!” she exclaimed. Bingo. The man’s face appeared again before she put him out of her mind, but this time I got a little better look.

“Who is James?” I demanded, trying very hard to control my rage.

She was shaking angrily herself, but obviously for a different reason. A macabre smile twisted her lips as she told me, “He’s the man who killed your parents.”

And then I saw the entire scene like a movie through her eyes: The ordinary, if somewhat unkempt-looking, blond vampire leaping out suddenly from the thick forest, directly in the path of the oncoming sedan. The car abruptly swerving to avoid him, crossing the median and crashing headlong into a rocky outcrop. A body thrown violently from the back seat upon impact. The mangled vehicle bursting into flames…but not before the male vampire had pulled the dying couple from the wreckage and fed on their blood. Victoria had run to me, hovering over me, crying out my name and cradling me in her arms. Why was she so attached? I could feel her emotions through her thoughts. She truly cared for me. Why? How had she ever known me before that day on the Pacific Coast Highway?

“Not you,” she had moaned pitifully, smoothing my hair back from my motionless face. And then, after a moment, “Don’t worry, Edward. I won’t let you die.” She had clamped her teeth on her own wrist and torn viciously at the skin there until the blood oozed freely; then she’d held it over my slack mouth, letting it flow down my throat. “God, please let this work,” she had prayed, and I was taken aback at the earnestness of her plea. “Make him swallow my blood somehow. Make him live. I saved him once….I can do it again.”

Suddenly, her wrist had been wrenched violently away from my mouth. Through her mind’s eye, I saw the visage of the vampire named James, peering venomously down into her face. He was furious at what she was doing. She had dropped my body momentarily and, with lightning speed, shot a well-placed kick into his gut, sending him sailing at least 100 feet through the air before he landed. And in that small space of time, she had scooped me up in her arms and run.

She ran and ran, faster than the sound of her boots in the brush could carry. She shifted my body up over her shoulder, trying to pick up speed. Though my weight was nothing for her immortal strength to bear, it still impeded her enough for James to gain on her. A sudden blunt force in the middle of her back sent her to the ground, knocking me from her arms. James instantly grabbed my limp form and bared his razor-sharp teeth next to my neck, poised for the kill.

“No!” she screamed, her voice piercing the silent forest like a deranged banshee.

He laughed in vicious amusement. “What’s the matter, Victoria, my dear? Are you afraid I’ll kill your darling boy? Why would I do such a thing?”

I couldn’t see her face…this “movie” was from her point of view. But I could feel her boiling pain and resentment. “Because you’re a sick, jealous bastard, that’s why,” she snarled in answer to his question.

“On the contrary, I think I’ve been extremely accommodating of your little obsession over the past, what, six years now? Have I ever kept you from checking up on him, visiting him? Lurking like a pathetic stalker at his tawdry little track meets and piano recitals? I think I’ve been extremely patient with you, my pet. After all, it was merely a harmless little fascination with a beautiful boy.

“But I’m not blind, and I’m certainly no fool,” the blond vampire continued, his lip curling in a disgust. He lifted my lifeless body in example. “This human is a boy no longer. He’s a man. And I’ve seen your expression change as you look at him. Those platonic, even motherly, feelings of yours have turned into something much less pure. Why on earth would I let you turn him into one of us? So you can leave me for him? Never!” he spat. “You are mine. I created you, and I intend you keep you.”

His mouth widened over my broken neck again, and Victoria let out another agonized scream of protest. “What will it take for you to spare him?” she rasped. “Name your terms.”

James raised his face. “So you want to bargain with me?” he grinned cruelly.

“Yes,” she agreed, sounding defeated.

“Fine,” he announced, relinquishing my body and letting it fall to the mossy earth. “I’ll spare his life, if you promise never to come looking for him again. Once we leave this place, we will never return. There will be no more pursuing this boy, no more worshipping his pretty face from afar. Understood?”

Her breath heaved loudly in her ears…my ears…as I continued to relive the tale in her head. She gazed down at my ghostly pallor while I lay still as a stone on the damp forest floor. Her eyes closed for a long moment. And when she opened them, she focused on James’ expectant face.

“Yes,” she agreed dully. “Just let him live.”

James laughed delightedly in victory. “And so I shall,” he said amiably, rising to his feet and stretching out his hand toward his vampire lover. “Not that he will have much of a life, should he make it through the night,” he guffawed.

Please, God…let the blood work. He had to have had enough. He must be turned. He must survive. Victoria chanted this thought to herself over and over, trying to will me to live through her urgent mantra. I wondered what kind of God answered the prayers of undead demons like Victoria. Whatever He was, He had granted her wish.

And thus she had unwillingly taken the hand of her mate and departed. She had left me lying under the protective boughs of a giant sequoia, while James tried to assure her that he understood her plight. After all, he had pursued her with the same sort of single-minded fervor when he met her. The moment he saw her, he was convinced that she would be all he would ever want. He had decided early on to make her his, in every way. So he killed her and gave her his immortal blood, ensuring that he would have an eternal companion to save him from the encroaching madness of a life that never ends.

We sat in silence for several minutes while I tried to absorb all that I had seen. She studied me carefully, then finally spoke.

“James was right,” she murmured at last. “You can read my mind quite thoroughly, can’t you?”

It seemed pointless, and impossible, to deny it now. I nodded imperceptibly.

“I hate that he’s always right,” she sighed. She was quiet, and her thoughts were a jumble of images of the blond vampire; some fond, some resentful. “I used to love him, you know. It’s been many years since he found me and made me his. My human life hadn’t been all that memorable…I wasn’t sad to leave it. I saw the world that James opened up to me as a wondrous new place, full of danger and excitement. I went along with all his little games; I relished them. It was fun. I knew no other way. I wanted no other way.”

The dissatisfaction in her voice was impossible to miss. “What changed?” I asked her.

Her mind drifted again, this time to a boat, off in the hazy distance. She seemed to be standing on the shore, or a dock, staring across the dark waves. I recognized the distant shoreline in her memory, because I had just visited it three days ago with Bella. Victoria was standing on the dock at the marina in my hometown.

It was almost impossible to see the man and the adolescent boy with their fishing poles, they were so far away; but she studied them intently for a moment. Her eyes darted to other crafts on the choppy water, some closer, some further away. She seemed to be casing the area, and her throat burned with fiery thirst. She was hunting. One of these unlucky boaters would soon become her prey.

Excited shouting began to echo across the water. The boy had caught something--something big. It was easy to see him struggling with his fishing pole, trying to reel the fish in, but being jerked violently by its efforts to escape. The man--his father?--put down his own pole and loped across the boat to aid the boy, but before the man could reach him, the boy was suddenly pulled over the side of the boat and into the water.

The fish dragged him quickly away from the craft, while the father hollered for his son to let go of the line. He frantically grabbed for his life vest. He and his son had foolishly left them nearby on the deck instead of wearing them, perhaps thinking that they didn’t need them while the boat was anchored. By the time the man had put on his vest and secured one for his son, the boy was far from the boat. His head bobbed precariously in the water, repeatedly disappearing under the waves. He obviously wasn’t a good swimmer.

And like a shot, Victoria was off. She leapt from the dock she’d been standing on and glided, dolphin-like, through the muddy water. She was at the boy’s side in seconds. I could feel the undertow pulling at Victoria’s feet; she, of course, was strong enough to resist its inexorable pull. But the boy was gasping and sputtering as she approached. By the time she reached him, he had disappeared.

She dove into the murky froth, her vampire eyes searching the black water for her prey. She wasn’t about to let such an easy mark be devoured by the river instead. Finally she caught him by his t-shirt and yanked him upward, out of the grasp of the undertow’s cold vortex. She pulled him behind the boat, out of the line of vision of the father who ran desperately from bow to stern, looking for signs of the child who had disappeared. Then Victoria swam for the nearest island, slogging up on the brown, debris-covered sand with the boy in her arms. She laid him down gently, then firmly pushed the water from his lungs in a series of quick Heimlich maneuvers. The liquid sputtered from his mouth and he choked and gasped with life, but remained unconscious.

Perfect, she thought with satisfaction. The blood warm and alive, the mind oblivious. She looked up at the boy’s face, and there it was: my countenance, only younger. I looked as most boys do: the beginnings of a man’s jaw and brow beginning to show signs of sprouting from an otherwise angelic child’s face. My skin retained a tinge of ghostly pallor from nearly drowning, yet somehow still glowed with the translucent purity of youth. My limbs were long and gangly, shoulders not yet broad. I was probably about twelve years old, and displayed every awkwardly endearing characteristic of that in-between age.

Victoria noticed the same things I did, yet she attached far more meaning to her observations. I could feel the emotions that accompanied her appraisal of my boyish face. In that moment, she found me unspeakably beautiful; a perfect example of the untold promise of life to come. She couldn’t bring herself to kill me. In fact, in a sudden and perverse twist of logic, she mentally held me up as a paragon of everything human that she could no longer possess: warmth, vulnerability, potential for growth and change. She began to imagine me as a man, and the various incarnations of me that would lead up to that final change. She wanted to watch it happen. She wanted to be a witness to my fruition. Instead of being my harbinger of death, she would now be my granter of life. She fancied herself my champion, my hero, my savior. She had never been any of those things before.

She stood and waved at the boat, hollering for the father to turn his craft and come ashore. She shouted that she had saved his son, and he needed to come and get him. The man--my father--turned his attention toward the sound of her voice, and his shoulders slumped in relief when he saw the woman waving and pointing down at me. He quickly revved the boat’s engine and turned it around, heading for the island.

Victoria looked down at my face and stroked my features gently, her fingers shaking as she felt the warmth of my smooth skin under her icy touch. “Nothing will ever happen to you as long as I’m here to protect you,” she whispered. She leaned down and kissed my cheek gently, smoothing my hair out of my face; then rose to her feet and bolted into the wooded thicket behind us. She hid behind a tree as my father anchored the boat and sloshed through the water toward my body. I had begun to come to, choking and sputtering some more as my father helped lift me to a sitting position. He looked around everywhere for his son’s hero, but she remained undetected in the thick cluster of trees.

“Thank you,” my father called out gratefully into the muggy air, then paused to wait for her appearance. “Please show yourself so I can give you proper thanks for saving my son,” he added hopefully.

He was met with only the sound of the waves lapping up on the beach at his feet. He shrugged, bewildered, and turned his attention to me, lifting me up and carrying me back to the boat. Victoria watched in silence, mentally repeating her vow to be my unseen and unsung protector for the rest of my days. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my similar vows to Bella, made over her fragile body as she lay in the hospital bed.

“Do you see?” Victoria finally said softly, staring at me questioningly over the bar. “Do you understand why I could never give up on you? I can’t explain what happened to me in that moment, but I never forgot it. It changed me. You changed me. I never hunted any innocents after that. Only the evil-doers of this world.”

Her eyes burned with a passion for me that I knew I could never return. “You made me a symbol of everything good and human that you had lost,” I told her. “But then you changed me. Now I’m like you, and that human innocence is lost. There’s no reason for you to look out for me anymore. No reason for you to be fixated on me. You can’t save me anymore.”

“No,” she whispered, leaning closer, eyes blazing fervently. “But now you can return the favor. You can save me.”

My brow furrowed for a moment before her unspoken words echoed in my head. He’ll never let me go. You have to help me get rid of him. You have to kill James.

I stared at her, incredulous. “You want me to kill James?” I exclaimed. “That’s what you’re here for? To collect on a bill I never even knew I owed you?”

“Don’t you want vengeance for your family?” she countered vehemently. “And what about the way he set you up to take the fall for that little blonde girl? I knew he had followed me back here--it didn’t take long for him to figure out where I’d gone when I snuck away a few weeks ago. Why do you think I killed that fisherman while you were out of town? I didn’t want to take an innocent life, but I had no choice. I had to create an alibi for you. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you, Edward. I don’t think a little favor is too much to ask for after all this time.”

I took a deep breath and tried to wrap my mind around this new twist. “So let’s say I help you do this. We kill James. Then what?”

Her brain blurted her desires before she could stop it. Leave this place and come with me.

I shook my head. “You know I can’t do that.”

“Of course you can,” she insisted excitedly. “Think about it, Edward. You could be living a life of total freedom with me, traveling wherever you want, whenever you want! We could make it like a pilgrimage, visiting the world’s greatest cities one by one and ridding them of the filth and vermin that plague their streets. It would be a righteous way to live, Edward. There’s no reason for you to box yourself into this dreary little corner of the world, feeding off of the weak blood of animals…denying yourself what your true nature wants and deserves. When you were human, you couldn’t wait to free yourself of the shackles that small-town living imposed on you. What happened to that sense of adventure? It doesn’t make any sense for you to stay here.”

I looked into her impassioned black eyes and was stunned to see the sincerity there. She truly thought I might be lured by her offer. That I would leave the only family I could count on, and the only person I loved more than my existence, in order to fulfill some previously unknown and unsought obligation to her.

“I don’t remember who I was as a human, or what I wanted then,” I reminded her. “Your partner made sure my brain was too scrambled to ever recall what happened before. You can thank him for my preference to stay with the people I know and love now. Wandering the earth like a vagrant parasite holds no appeal for me.”

She fought to keep her lips from dissolving into an ugly sneer. “Love,” she muttered contemptuously. “What do you know about love? Your longest attachment has been all of two months now, if that. Do you have any idea how much I suffered, watching you from afar for all those years? Knowing that you were oblivious to my very existence, even though you had me to thank for yours? But I was happy to suffer in silence, knowing that you were better off that way. Free to live a happy, normal, human life. I wanted that for you, I truly did.

“But now?” she paused, and let out a low chuckle. “Everything has changed. There’s no reason for me to let you be. There’s no reason for you to deny the woman who made sure that you will live on forever. You owe me, Edward,” she finished emphatically.

My eyes met hers with equal intensity. “The way you owe James?” I shot back.

The sneer finally won and captured her face in its twisted grip. “I’ve paid my dues, and then some, where he’s concerned. You, my dear boy, haven’t begun to pay.”

“Is that what you really want? For someone to pay for what happened to us both? Or do you just want me to suffer the way you did for all those years?”

“No, of course I don’t want you to suffer! I want you to love me!” she cried impulsively. Chagrined, she shrank back, as if she had said too much.

“You know it doesn’t work that way,” I said quietly. “You can’t make me love you, any more than James can make you love him again. My heart belongs to someone else. It always will.”

Her face was ashen and still. Her eyebrow slowly raised, and then her upper lip joined it. The smile that flitted across her face was bitter. “So Bella is the only one you love. And that’s unchangeable, is it? You know this for certain, in a matter of weeks?”

In a matter of hours…minutes, even, I thought. But I simply nodded in response.

“Are you ready to prove that you love her?” Her eyes challenged me. Queasiness spread through my belly, and I felt my face harden. I braced myself and waited for her to continue.

“I stayed out of your way for six long years in order for you to live the life you deserved. I would have stayed in the shadows for decades if that’s what it took for you to be happy.” I could see where she was headed, and my stomach churned. “Tell me, Edward: what would you be willing to do to make sure that Bella lives the life she deserves?”

“Are you threatening her?” I growled, glimpsing the vague ill intentions that swirled around Victoria’s mind.

“Of course not,” she denied. “I don’t have to. You know it as well as I do, Edward: if you remain in Bella’s life, it will eventually be her undoing, no matter how good your intentions are.” She must have seen the uncertainty in my face, because she continued like a dog gnawing a bone. “You know it to be true. Look at what happened to you. Despite my best intentions, your life was nearly snuffed out too soon. If I hadn’t intervened, you would have been lost forever. You very nearly were.”

“If you hadn’t carried a torch for me all those years, I never would have been in danger from either you or James in the first place!” I retorted.

That is exactly my point,” she replied in a low hiss, her eyes shining victoriously. “In spite of all that love you claim to have for her…no matter what you want for her…what do you suppose Bella’s eventual outcome will be?”

I wanted to deny it, to rail against her. But Victoria had just put voice to my unspoken fears, and the voice rang true. I was the worst danger Bella would ever face. If I truly wanted what was best for her, I would remove the cancer before it spread any further.

“Come with me, Edward,” the vampire beckoned in what I’m sure she thought was an alluring tone. “You know it’s the best thing for her.” She paused and placed her hand over mine. Her cool touch made shudders of revulsion run up my arm. “You can watch her, visit her, like I did you. I won’t mind. How can I?” she offered, in what passed for her version of benevolence.

She removed her hand from mine and rose from the bar stool, then shot me a foreboding look. “Don’t condemn her to your fate,” she said ominously. “Meet me here tomorrow at noon. It will be the best gift you could ever give her.”

She strode purposefully toward the door, then turned back as she opened it. “And if you truly worry for her safety, then trust me, you’ll help me get rid of James.”

And with that, she was out the door, leaving me stunned and immobile for several long minutes. I knew she was working me, playing on my fears for Bella’s safety in order to get what she wanted. But I couldn’t escape the thought that in the end, she was right. I didn’t trust her--and I certainly didn’t trust James--to leave Bella alone and unharmed. But if I rallied the Cullens and we managed to kill off Victoria and James, what then? Bella thought she wanted to be like us; to be locked into an immortal life with me and the Cullens. But how would she feel about that choice decades from now, looking back on a childless existence, with her real family long dead and buried? Would she resent me then, the way Victoria resented James now?

No matter which solution I chose, Bella would lose something precious to her. If she chose me, her losses would be irrevocable. But if I let her go, what would she lose? Only me; and what good was I to her, anyway? She was young and beautiful, with an entire lifetime of human experiences awaiting her. I simply couldn’t condemn her to a fate with me, frozen in time, never able to move on, to grow, to evolve. Who was I to take those things from her?

I thought about a life with Victoria instead, and my instant reaction was aversion. I felt a certain amount of guilt and sympathy for her plight, but as it was caused quite unknowingly by me, I couldn’t manage to feel responsible. Yet I also couldn’t help but appreciate the irony of our parallel situations. If Bella had responded unfavorably to me the first day I went to see her in Newton’s; or if she had never forgiven me when she found out the truth about what I’d done to her; then I would be in Victoria’s shoes right now. I would be eating my heart out over an unrequited obsession just as she had. What kind of callous person would I be if I didn’t acknowledge that glaring truth? And how could I dismiss Victoria so completely, when she wasn’t so very different from me?

I realized with a heavy heart that I had already made my decision. When Victoria asked me what I would be willing to do to assure Bella the life she deserved, she already knew the answer. So did I. I would do anything, sacrifice anything. I think I had known this was the inevitable conclusion all along, before Victoria ever showed herself and solved the riddle of what my life had been before. Nothing she had ever done or would do changed the inescapable truth that Bella had been better off before I tainted her world with my presence, and she would be better off when I was gone.

As soon as my mind was resolute, my dead heart began to ache horribly. I had to see her; I had to hold her in my arms one last time. I couldn’t wait until morning. Every minute with her was precious.

I quickly finished closing and locking up the bar before I sprinted to Bella’s house. I found a very bored-looking Rosalie lounging on the front stairs. She was obviously relieved at my arrival.

“It’s about time,” she groused, heaving herself up and brushing off her designer jeans. “Why were you so late closing up Jake’s?”

I debated lying, but decided on a version of the truth. “I had a visitor,” I told her. The look on my face must have given the rest away.

“Victoria?” she exclaimed, suddenly interested. “What did she say? Did you get any answers?”

I nodded and gave her the short version of the story. I left out the part about my impending departure, even though she would be the one Cullen who would probably support my decision. If she told the others, however, I’d be facing a wall of opposition that I simply didn’t want to deal with. It would be better if I disappeared as unexpectedly as I had appeared in their lives.

“So how do you plan to deal with this Victoria woman?” Rosalie asked. “You know she’s not going to give up on you easily. Not after all she’s done for you. Or at least, I’m sure that’s how she sees it.”

I sighed heavily. “I’m not sure,” I lied. “But no matter what, I’m going to make sure that she and James don’t come after Bella.”

“Let them,” Rosalie said cavalierly. “We can take care of them. I’m sure Emmett would be itching for a really good fight. It’s been years since he faced off against anyone other than a grizzly, or Jazz, just for fun.”

I let out a small chuckle. “Thanks, Rose. I’ll let you know if I need the cavalry to ride in to the rescue.” She headed down the steps, and I called after her, “I love you, you know. All of you.”

She looked back at me, her eyes suspicious. What are you planning, Edward? she wondered. But aloud she said only, “We love you too, Edward.”

After Rosalie disappeared down the drive, I let myself into the Swan house with the key hidden under the eaves. I was surprised to see light coming from under Bella’s bedroom door when I got to the top of the stairs. I gently opened the door and quietly called her name, panicking for a moment when she didn’t reply. I sighed with relief when I realized what had happened: she had fallen asleep reading. Her favorite book, Wuthering Heights, was still tucked under her hands.

“An epic tale of twisted, ugly passions that ends in complete misery for nearly every character in the book,” I whispered as I gently pried the novel out from under her fingers. “How very fitting.” I set the book on the nightstand, turned out the light, and lay next to my angel, wrapping one arm protectively over her. I stared at her for what seemed both an eternity and mere seconds before she stirred and awakened. She was happy to see me, until she perceived the dread on my face. How could she read me so well, even in the dark?

I tried to calm her. I lied. She knew I lied. She knew me so well, without once being able to read my mind. I couldn’t read hers, and so often felt lost and confused, wondering what she was really thinking and feeling. She was my favorite mystery; one I never wanted to stop trying to solve. I never wanted to leave her side. I could feel the tears welling and I squeezed them back. I prayed for sleep to come and grant me an excuse for not having to explain, though I knew it was a fruitless endeavor. I buried my face in the exquisite scent of her soft neck, her hair, her pillow; hoping she would stop questioning me, stop making me lie to her.

She finally slept fitfully, and I studied every expression, every movement, with the rapt attention of a Rhodes scholar. When she finally rose at dawn to shower, I wanted to hop in with her, despite the fact that her father was in the next room. Instead I sat on the edge of her bed and listened to the running water, remembering the way it spilled over her ivory skin when we showered together four short days ago in my parents’ house. I replayed each memory in my mind, trying to burn the impression into my brain so that I would never forget a single thing about her…so that she would become a permanent part of my immortal being, no matter how much time passed.

I did this while she ate breakfast with her father. I could hear their simple morning chatter as clearly as if I were sitting at the table with them. I imagined what she must look like in her giant, fluffy bathrobe with her wet hair trailing down her back, chewing her eggs and toast. And then my mind wandered back to the weekend…the times I watched her eat, watched her laugh, watched her forehead crinkle with passion when she came. I catalogued every detail and committed it to memory, filed away permanently in what was left of my tattered mind.

When Bella came upstairs and caught me doing this, she appeared frightened. I could hide nothing from her, it seemed. I pulled her to me and buried my face in her robe so that she couldn’t see my pain at the thought of leaving her. But the ache wouldn’t be denied, and I groaned like a wounded animal at the feel of her in my arms, knowing this would be the last time. Her heartbeat quickened and her warm skin beckoned to me from under the soft fabric. I had to touch her, feel her, possess her once more.

Her body was a drug to me as I pulled her robe open and touched my skin to hers. I couldn’t stop kissing, nuzzling, tasting every bit of her as my hands stroked her and held her close. Her fingers through my hair felt like angel’s wings. God, how I loved her. How I wanted her.

All thought faded as my instincts took over. I pushed her back on her bed; my clothes were off in an instant and I was hovering over her, spreading her open, plunging inside her. I teetered on a knife’s edge between pleasuring her and hurting her, and maintaining that balance was the most welcome torture I would ever experience. I pressed my body to hers, grinding into her as much as I dared; every inch of her beneath me searing me, branding me as hers from head to toe. She would own my body and soul, if I had such a thing, until the day I stopped breathing.

I sobbed like a broken man when I came inside her, feeling as if the pinnacle and the demise of my existence were one and the same in this moment. There would be nothing more for me after this. But there would be life for her, and that was enough. It was more than enough. It was everything. It had to be.

I tried to pull myself together, knowing that I would arouse her suspicion if I continued to wear my heart on my sleeve this way. I could see and feel her dismay as I pulled away from her. I felt the same stabbing pain shoot through me as the night she accused me of not knowing what love was…because if I did, I wouldn’t have lied to her. Maybe she was right. Maybe I should tell her the truth. And then what: wait for James or Victoria to attack her the second she was out of my sight?

No, I wouldn’t go through this argument in my mind any longer. It always led me back to the fact that Bella would be better off without vampires in her world. Next year she would go to college and get away from the Cullens, and meet some nice, normal human man she could marry. The thought made me ill, and I pushed it away. Victoria was wrong about one thing: I would not be able to watch Bella live her life without me. I wasn’t strong enough. But I thought I might be strong enough to stay away from her and exist on my memories. Maybe in time they wouldn’t hurt so much.

I tried very hard to behave as normally as possible, to push the dreadful thoughts away long enough to take Bella to school. She still looked pensive as we said our good-byes, and I knew that I hadn’t really fooled her. I never could. I finally gave in and pulled her to me in one last passionate, desperate kiss. The smell, the taste of her was my heaven. I reveled in it one last moment before letting her go and resigning myself to a lifetime of purgatory. Lord knows I had never deserved anything more.

I watched until she disappeared into the school, then darted to the nearby woods. I let the tears flow freely until my pain finally settled into a dull, numbing ache. I thought about going back to the Cullen house and packing a few things, but I didn’t want to have to explain myself to any of them. Besides, it seemed that my new way of life wouldn’t require much in the way of personal belongings. I would be living the way vampires were intended: lurking in the shadows like the predators we were. I wondered if I would really feed on humans again. I supposed that if I were to follow Victoria’s lead, the temptation would eventually be too strong. But part of me hated the thought of rejecting the civilized way of life the Cullens had managed to maintain for so long. Carlisle and Esme would be disappointed in me, I was sure.

I sighed and decided to make my way to Jake’s and wait there. It was nearing noon already. There was no point in putting off the inevitable any longer.

I didn’t have to wait long. Victoria arrived early, and her thrilled smile of satisfaction upon seeing me galled me a little. She was mentally congratulating herself on her victory. I wanted to slap the smile right off of her face, and for one second, I wondered what the hell I was doing.

“You won’t regret this,” she tried to assure me. I had no reply, for I was reasonably sure that regret would be a very big part of my existence for quite some time.

“Have you thought about where you’d like to go first?” she asked excitedly. I shook my head listlessly. “No? That’s okay, I have a plan. I thought we could travel down the coast. The scenery is gorgeous, and there are plenty of places to stop and hunt along the way. And I’m talking people or animals…whichever you prefer.”

I gave her a look of surprise. “I’m not trying to change your entire way of life in a day, Edward,” she said. “I never got a chance to help you adjust to being a vampire. I was never able to mentor you like I should have. James robbed me of that.” Her voice was bitter.

“What about James, then?” I questioned her. “Is he still lurking around here? If he’s a danger to Bella like you claim he is, I don’t want him anywhere near her.”

“James is a tracker,” Victoria stated. “His favorite thing in the world is to stalk his prey for awhile before he attacks. I knew he would follow me here, and not just because he’s obsessed with controlling me. He can’t resist a challenge. We used to play our own little version of Hide and Seek, just to keep things interesting,” she informed me. “If we leave, he’ll follow us, because he’ll follow me wherever I go. Our best strategy is to get far away from Forks, and Bella, as quickly as possible. We can deal with him when he’s caught up to us somewhere far from here.”

I nodded, wondering if I could trust her words. What if she and James were actually working together, and this was just a ruse to lure me away from Bella, leaving her unprotected? Then again, why would James have it in for her?…unless he saw me as a threat to his relationship with Victoria. In that case, he might view Bella as the most effective way to get to me.

I suddenly grew uneasy at this new suspicion. Alice had told me not to trust Victoria; that she lied. She had told me not to go with her. Fear began gnawing at my insides.

“Will you do me a favor first?” I requested.

Her eyebrow raised. “What is it?”

“I haven’t had time to feed. Do you mind if I make one last hunting trip around here?”

She looked relieved. “Sure,” she shrugged, obviously unperturbed by my small request. “I’ll go with you. This could be interesting to watch. Although I have watched you before, a couple of times. I’m sure James has, too.”

I looked at her, puzzled. “How is it that I never sensed either of you, or heard your thoughts?”

She laughed and said, “I had an excellent teacher, though I’ve never been able to do quite what James does. Of all of his talents, his ability to hide is his most finely honed skill. If he doesn’t want you to know his intentions, or his location, then trust me, you won’t. Spying on you undetected has probably been his greatest joy in life these past few weeks, especially when he figured out you’re a mind-reader.” She paused and grew serious. “Don’t underestimate him, Edward. He’s capable of most anything. We need to be on our guard, because he could surprise us any time.”

I thought back to my hunting trip in Iowa…his words in my head, his scent leading me away from Bella. He had followed us there, and he most certainly was taunting me, letting me know how easily he could get to Bella if he wanted to. My anxiety grew. I would make sure that this little hunting excursion with Victoria lasted until I heard from Alice that she and Jasper were safely on their way to Seattle with Bella in tow.

Victoria asked where I wanted to hunt, and I suggested heading south into the mountains. No easily caught deer or elk would do for this expedition. I intended to stalk something that took more time and effort to kill--a predator, preferably a mountain lion. Victoria sounded excited to watch me at work. I could tell already that I would never get used to being the object of her unsought affection.

We journeyed southeast and were well into mountainous territory when I caught the scent I was looking for. I found the large cat lounging on a flat rock, trying to warm itself in the anemic Washington midday sun. It wisely sensed danger as I approached, its ears pricking at the quiet patter of my feet as I drew nearer. I let out a low, menacing growl for good measure, to make sure the animal would either confront me or run, allowing me to fight or give chase.

Edward, we lost her.

For a mad second or two, I thought the urgent voice in my head was that of the lion whose yellow eyes met mine. Then a bolt of fear shot through me as I realized that the familiar voice belonged to Alice, dozens of miles away in Forks. What did she mean, they lost her? Lost Bella? How? My mind swirled with horrible possibilities as I came to the awful realization that my suspicions were justified.

I can’t see where she is.

The mountain lion mere yards away clearly smelled my terror, for its eyes flashed with confidence as it pounced from the rock and charged me, knocking me flat within seconds. It attacked my throat with vigor, but of course its fangs met with an impossible resistance it did not expect. I grabbed its massive jaws in my hands, and with one quick wrench, its neck was broken. I was too sick inside to even crave the animal’s blood, but with Victoria standing nearby cheering my victory, I knew I must drink.

“Fantastic,” she sighed with satisfaction as I finished off the beast and tossed its body aside. “You know, I could get used to watching you hunt wild animals instead of people. It’s so…primal.” She gave me a seductive grin that only made me want to wring her neck the way I had the lion’s.

“So tell me, Victoria,” I demanded, wiping my mouth clean of any blood that remained. “How far away did you agree to lure me so that James could go in for the kill?”

I had to admit, she looked genuinely baffled. “What are you talking about?”

“Are you going to deny that James has gone after Bella? What kind of fool do you take me for?” I snorted, leaping up and grabbing her roughly by the arm. “Did you think I would buy your story that you’ve been running from him this whole time?”

She shook her head in denial, her eyes seemingly confused. “What do you mean? It’s no story, it’s the truth! I left him weeks ago. I’ve been dodging him as much as I have that annoying vampire family of yours. I wasn’t lying--I want him dead, Edward!” she insisted vehemently.

“Or maybe you’ve been working with him this whole time just to fuck with my head a little more, since the brain damage you left me with obviously wasn’t enough for you!” I raged, feeling that my icy blood might start to boil if the wretch in front of me was responsible for James laying a single finger on Bella.

“No!” she exclaimed, her eyes blazing like hot coals. “I would never trick you like that. Believe it or not, I would never hurt Bella to get back at you. I know all too well what that feels like. I actually do care about you, you know. How can I prove that to you?”

“Tell me where he is,” I hissed angrily, grabbing her other arm and giving her a rough shake. “Tell me what he has planned. Tell me if he has Bella.”

Either she was a tremendous actress, or she really didn’t have any clue. Her expression was dismayed, and oddly repentant. “I don’t know,” she said hoarsely. “Where is this coming from? Did you hear him? Is he nearby?” She began to look around nervously.

Edward, I just had a vision of her in the deer stand! Your place in the woods. We’re headed in that direction, but we don’t know how quickly we can find it. Hurry, Edward…she’s in danger.

Alice’s voice in my head first brought relief, then panic. I knew exactly where to find Bella…but it was more than twenty miles away, through rocky terrain. How fast could I travel? I was about to find out.

I released Victoria and was off like a shot, racing north without a thought or word to the vampire I left behind. She called my name, and I vaguely heard her footsteps running after me; but I could think of nothing except Bella’s safety. I leapt over massive rocks as if they were pebbles in my way, running so fast that even my vampire sight couldn’t focus on the blur of trees as they passed. I tried to outrun the unthinkable ideas of what James was capable of doing to my angel. If he touched her, I would shred him to pieces with my bare hands. I was certain I would need no help from the Cullens to do it, though I prayed like mad that Alice and Jasper had already found my cabin and rescued Bella by now.

Edward, be careful! It’s a trap.

“Bella?” I gasped, and ground to an instant halt. Never had I heard her voice in my head, except in my own fantasies. But I would know that beautiful alto anywhere, and it was most certainly Bella’s, ringing in my head as clear as a bell. I looked around frantically, and realized I wasn’t far from the tiny hovel I had briefly called home. It was only a few more miles.

I was about to begin running again when I saw the vision: Bella’s tear-stained face, looking up in fear from the cot I knew so well. She was bound and gagged, unable to speak. Fury and terror seized me in equal measure as the picture shifted, and I watched the stubby hands that tied her…heard her sobs of protest before he shoved the gag in her mouth.

It was a shame that I had to treat her so badly, I know, came a foreign male voice in my head. I had heard it only once before--in the woods outside my Iowa home. But how else could I get you to relinquish what you’ve taken from me? An equal trade seems to be the most equitable solution, don’t you agree? An eye for an eye…a love for a love.

“James!” I bellowed his name like a curse. “Where are you hiding, you coward? Show yourself!” I heard nothing but the whispers of the forest around me. He might not be close enough to hear me, just close enough to send his twisted thoughts in my direction. Of course--he was probably near the cabin now, waiting for me to come to Bella’s rescue. How on earth had he managed to lure her away from the school with Alice and Jasper none the wiser? Victoria was right--his cloaking skills must be superior, or at least more effective than Alice or I had ever encountered. Except for Bella’s, of course. Had I really heard her words in my mind at last? I wanted to believe it was so.

“Talk to me again, angel,” I whispered under my breath as I took off toward the cabin. I didn’t care what kind of trap James was setting for me. He would not get away with this as long as there was breath left in this walking corpse of mine.

“Edward, wait!” a voice called, but it came from behind me, not within. Victoria had nearly caught up to me. I was glad she was following me, since she was obviously what James was after. I would be more than happy to deliver her back to his waiting arms in exchange for Bella’s release.

I couldn’t afford to slow down when I was so close. We had almost reached the clearing near the cabin, and I could swear I caught a whiff of Bella’s sweet scent hanging faintly in the air. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Victoria was still behind me, and was suddenly blind-sided. Had I hit a boulder? My entire body felt as if it had been slammed against a wall of concrete. I fell with such force that I plowed into the earth beneath me, half-buried in the cold mud. The concrete had fallen with me, on me; and as my eyes whipped up to see what had happened, cold steel fingers gripped my throat with a strength I had felt only from the likes of Emmett Cullen. I looked up into the menacing black eyes I’d seen last night--through Victoria’s memories.

“James,” I managed to rasp, grabbing his wrists and trying to pry his hands from my throat. He held fast, but was unable to tighten his grip or twist my neck while my own brute strength worked against him.

“Edward,” he grinned back with a demented cackle. “Don’t you know it’s not worth losing your head over a woman?” He shoved my skull back into the ground, digging his thumb into my windpipe and squeezing as hard as he could. Luckily, vampires didn’t really need to breathe. I tried to maneuver my legs so that I could give him a well-placed kick or a knee to the groin, but Victoria beat me to it. She flew toward us out of nowhere, smashing her hiking-boot-covered foot into his ribs. His body sailed into the air before landing twenty feet away; but he instantly sprang up and whirled to face me again. I was already on my feet, crouched down, ready for him.

“Stop this, both of you!” Victoria shouted as she tried to maneuver between us.

James laughed, a vicious, ugly sound. “Why don’t you stop this, my pet?” he taunted her. “You’re the only one who can. After all, you started it.”

She shook her head. “I’m not coming with you,” she sneered. “I’m done with you and your sick little games.”

His eyebrow raised; his face was disbelieving. “You used to love our games, Victoria,” he reminded her softly, his tone far more sinister when it was controlled and quiet. “You used to relish the challenge as much as I did. You were as much of a force to be reckoned with as I was, until….” he trailed off and shifted his glare to me, then snorted in derision. “This pretty boy made you soft. Weak. Pathetic. I kept thinking you would outgrow your bizarre crush on him. I humored you in the beginning because I thought you regretted never having had a child. He seemed to bring out the mothering instinct in you.” He let out another mirthless laugh, his dark eyes shifting back and forth between us. “I guess he is your progeny, in a way, isn’t he? I never dreamed you’d given him enough vampire blood to turn him. I guess I was too busy dining on the delicious blood of his parents to pay close enough attention to what you were doing.” He grinned at me cruelly. “Don’t worry, Edward. They were unconscious at the time. At least, I think they were. I‘m sure they didn’t feel a thing.”

His lips curled up at the corners, but he never got the last laugh out. I rushed him and gave him a right hook to the jaw so hard that he flew back a dozen feet into a giant redwood. The tree gave way with a splintering crack as his body carved its niche in the trunk. In seconds he had leapt from the trees and pummeled me in the gut with both fists, sending me reeling halfway across the clearing.

And so it went, the two of us battling, with Victoria trying to pull James off of me whenever he lunged for my neck. He was obviously intent upon removing my head from my body, one of the few ways that our kind could be killed. A good bonfire afterwards was the safest and surest way to put a vampire to his eternal rest, or damnation, whichever was applicable.

Soon we were near the deer stand, and I was sure then that I could smell Bella; feel her presence. I raced to the front door and was about to wrench it open when I was knocked away again, this time by another vicious kick to the hip by James as he sailed at me like a ninja warrior. It was a strange sensation, fighting with one of my own kind. I was battered and bruised from head to toe, and yet I could feel each wound, each broken bone, healing within seconds after the damage was inflicted. I truly felt indestructible, and I was sure James did as well. And yet I knew that one wrong move, or Victoria choosing to side with James against me, could spell my undoing.

None of it seemed to matter when I looked at the tiny cabin that housed my only reason to stay alive. I would keep Bella safe or die trying.

James hovered a few feet from the door, protecting it like a goalkeeper. I decided to try a different tactic.

“You said you wanted to make a trade…‘a love for a love,’” I reminded him. “Are you going back on that now?”

His eyes narrowed and his posture straightened slightly. “I am a man of my word,” he claimed. “If only it were that simple. You see, I’m not sure how you can return what you stole from me.”

“And what is that?” I asked, taking the bait.

“Her heart,” he said simply, gazing at Victoria, who stood uneasily nearby.

“You can’t steal someone’s heart,” I argued. “It has to be given willingly.”

James let out a surprised laugh. “Well, aren’t you the philosopher, Edward. Who knew? And all this time I thought your brain was reduced to nothing but oatmeal.”

“No small thanks to you,” I muttered.

“Indeed,” he agreed. “I would apologize, though I think you might doubt my sincerity. But you are right about one thing: A heart must be given willingly. And for some reason I can’t begin to fathom, Victoria has given hers to you. The damned thing of it is, though, she was a little too late. You already have someone’s heart--Bella’s. And she has yours. Am I right?”

I didn’t answer, just stared at him dourly and waited for him to get to the punch line.

“As I was telling you earlier, through that nifty little mind-reading trick of yours: we need to come to an equitable solution. You seem to have been given one heart too many, Edward, and you have only one to give back in return.” He tapped his chin in mock thoughtfulness. “I know! Perhaps I should follow King Solomon’s wisdom and offer to slice you down the middle, so that Bella and Victoria can each have half. Whoever gives you up in order for you to remain whole is the one who loves you the most and deserves to keep you. What do you think?”

He laughed uproariously at his suggestion, while Victoria and I stared at him in disgust. James’ smile faded as he studied her expression. He sighed heavily. “You used to have such a great sense of humor, my love. Where did it go? I thought you would enjoy the irony of that parable, since you already made that very sacrifice to save Edward. Twice.” He gave me a look that clearly indicated he thought I wasn’t worth it.

He gazed back at Victoria, and their eyes seemed to be communicating something that only they understood. After a moment, he continued. “If the situation were reversed, and Edward were the one making the decision, who do you suppose he would choose, Victoria? Who would he save? Who would he sacrifice?”

Her lip twitched slightly, but she made no reply.

“If I stepped aside right now, Edward would race into this cabin and release sweet Bella from the ropes that bind her, fighting us tooth and nail to do it. And if you were standing in front of this door instead of me, he would think nothing of killing you to get to her. You know I speak the truth.”

She glared at him silently, hating that he was right. She made no attempt to hide her thoughts from me, and they were in turmoil. She knew that I would never love her; and in that moment, she knew that she could never love James again, either. She was lost.

“Stop fighting fate,” he continued his plea. “We belong together. We always have. Give up this pointless obsession and come back to me.” He held out his hand to her, giving her as sincere a look as he was capable of.

Thank God, I’m free!

For a split second I thought those words were Victoria’s; but no, that exultant voice in my head belonged to my angel. It was all I could do to keep from calling out Bella’s name when her words suddenly pierced my brain again. Was it really her? Had she managed to work her way out of the ropes that bound her just a few yards away? My sluggish heart began to chug with anxiety. I hoped she wouldn’t do anything foolish; that she would wait until it was safe before she ventured outside.

Victoria finally spoke. “I can’t go with you,” she told him dully. “I won’t go back to the way things were.”

“As if you have so many other appealing options,” James scoffed. “You’d be wise to cut your losses and try to find happiness elsewhere. You’ll certainly never find it with him.” His gaze shifted to me and his eyebrow lifted menacingly. “I think we should leave this godforsaken little burg behind and start anew, my pet. But perhaps we can share a little snack before we go. Bella’s scent seems to be seeping from under the door…and, I must admit, she does smell positively scrumptious!”

I was shaking with rage as I lunged for James’ throat. At that precise moment, the door of the cabin swung open swiftly behind him, and there stood Bella, brandishing one of the metal legs from the rickety cot she’d been tied to. I had no idea how she’d managed to dismantle it. Before I could warn her to stop, she ran out and swung it with all her might at James’ head.

The metal bent harmlessly around his impervious skull, but it did the trick: it surprised him just long enough for me to get the upper hand. I threw him violently to the ground and fell upon him, seizing him in a choke-hold with both hands. I pushed at his jaw with one hand while the other squeezed his throat with every ounce of strength I had. I was determined to twist his head to the breaking point, but his iron grip on my arms kept me from accomplishing the deed.

I was so intent on snuffing out the life in those snarling black eyes glaring up at me that I nearly didn’t hear the muffled scream behind me. But Victoria’s shrill voice made me snap to attention.

“Give me one good reason not to kill her!”

My heart sank, knowing what I would see when I looked behind me. Without slackening my hold on James, I slowly turned my head. There stood Victoria, one arm ensnaring Bella’s waist, the other over her mouth and jaw, pulling her head back. The vampire’s sharp teeth were inches from Bella’s tender neck. I could still see the faint scars from my own handiwork displayed there, taunting me.

I sighed in defeat, feeling once again that I would never be able to escape cruel fate.

“What do you want, Victoria?” I asked hollowly.

“You know exactly what I want.” Her eyes were desperate, crazed. Her mind was no longer thinking clearly. She didn’t care if Bella lived or died. She simply wanted me to choose her, and it no longer mattered to her whether or not I made that choice of my own volition.

“All right,” I conceded, despair splintering my voice. “If you let Bella go free, I’ll come with you.” My pained eyes met Bella’s, begging for her forgiveness. Her gaze was frightened, but also seemed to be filled with understanding. At least the way I had behaved earlier probably made sense to her now. I didn’t know if James had told her anything, but I was sure she comprehended what was happening. She had probably heard most of our conversation from within the deer stand. If I weren’t so afraid for her, I would have been bursting with pride that she’d managed to escape the ties that bound her.

Victoria regarded me warily for a moment, then looked at James struggling beneath my stone grip. As a newborn vampire, I was inherently stronger; but James fed on human blood, which gave him an advantage. We seemed to be locked in a stalemate.

“What about him?” I asked her. “Do you still want him dead? If you do, then you’ll have to help me.”

James’ eyes flared indignantly. He flashed Victoria a murderous look, obviously shocked that she had plotted against him. Her eyes filled with guilt under his incredulous gaze.

“I don’t know if I can do it,” she admitted, her voice cracking. “Can we take him to your family? They can finish him off quick enough.”

James’ eyes were wild, and his throat rumbled with a stifled roar under my crushing fingers. He struggled uselessly against me, and I could feel the fury building in his small but muscular frame.

“You’re in luck. They should be here any minute,” I told her, hoping that Alice and Jasper would stumble upon us soon. I was surprised they hadn’t heard our growls echoing through the forest.

“And when they arrive, you’ll leave Bella and James to them, and come with me?” Victoria demanded uncertainly. Her brain betrayed that she didn’t trust me to do as I promised. I wondered if she knew how to trust anyone. It was a lesson she certainly never would have learned from James.

I nodded slowly, sadly, but emphatically. I looked at Bella and my heart ached with longing and regret. One tear rolled silently down her cheek as she stared back at me. When the tear splashed on Victoria’s hand, the vampire looked down in surprise, then revulsion.

“Here,” she grunted in distaste. “Say your nauseating good-byes to each other. Just don’t make me watch.” And with that, she gave Bella a rough push away from her, toward the spot where James and I lay deadlocked. True to form, Bella teetered precariously for a moment before her ankle twisted under her and she fell to the earth beside us.

What happened then took only an instant, but felt as if it were drawn out painfully in slow motion as I stared in abject horror. James released my arm immediately and grabbed Bella’s wrist, trying to draw it to his mouth. I slammed his arm into the frozen tundra, willing him to release his grip on Bella. I had almost succeeded when my worst nightmare came true: Victoria grabbed me from behind and yanked me upward, then kicked me off of James’ body. She dove upon me, grabbing my jacket in her fierce grip and using her momentum to roll my body with hers across the ground, away from James. The second he was free, he seized Bella from behind as she tried vainly to scramble to her feet. He pulled her back to the ground, jerked her head back, and looked up at me in smug victory.

“Eye for an eye…love for a love,“ he growled. And then James sank his snarling mouth into the sweet, vulnerable spot beneath her ear.

“Edward!” she managed to scream, and her desperate cry sent a million knives stabbing through me.

“NO!” I roared, in a volume I never knew I was capable of emitting. The sight of James’ teeth tearing into my angel’s neck was more than I could bear. I flung Victoria away from me and leapt to my feet before lunging at James, but Victoria’s arm jerked my neck back in a stranglehold, trying to drag me away. I could see and feel the jealousy seething within her, ruling her actions as she held me back. She wanted nothing more than to see her competition eliminated. Nearly blind with rage, I bent over swiftly with her arm still locked around my neck. The motion flipped her right over my head and slammed her body into the frigid ground. I dove again for James, whose mouth was still locked on Bella’s neck. A river of scarlet blood flowed from the wound and soaked her collar. Her terrified eyes locked with mine, pleading.

I bellowed her name like a wounded animal as I stumbled toward her, only to be stopped again by Victoria. She grabbed my ankle as I tried to pass, pulling my foot out from under me. I fell to the ground with a shudder and tugged my leg from her tenacious grasp, kicking her away as I clutched at James’ shin, trying to drag him closer. He heaved his boot-covered foot up and planted it in my shoulder, punting me back as he continued to suck the life out of the only person who truly mattered to me.

“Let go of her, you bastard!” I raged, leaping toward him again. Victoria once again threw herself on me and thwarted my progress. Desperation began to overtake me, and I cried out, “Alice! Where are you?”

I’m here! We’re coming!

No sooner did I hear the words in my head, I heard their footsteps in the distance, running fast. In my periphery, I saw Alice and Jasper racing through the clearing toward us, followed distantly by Emmett and Rosalie. I had never been so grateful to see anyone in my short new life, and was even more relieved when I felt Victoria being ripped away from me, freeing me to attack James.

James, of course, was smarter than that. He reluctantly released Bella and rose to his feet, ready to run. Jasper, however, was faster, and Emmett was stronger. The former caught James after he had fled only a few feet, while the latter easily subdued him, wrenching his arms behind his back.

“So this is the bastard who killed your parents, is it?” Jasper asked me, giving James a look of disgust.

“Do you want to do the honors?” Emmett queried, giving James a brutal shove in my direction. Jasper grasped James’ neck in his steel fist and jerked his face toward me, as if offering him up like a sacrifice.

“I’d love to…but I’ve got better things to do,” I replied, giving James one last look of pure, unadulterated hatred. I wanted nothing more than to wring his neck myself. But I could barely take my eyes off of the ghostly white girl lying in front of me, hanging onto her life by a tenuous thread. Bella was all that mattered. Revenge was a waste of time, and I was terrified that Bella had precious little of it left.

I scooped her limp body up in my arms and held her close. Her breathing was shallow, her heartbeat slow and ponderous.

“You’re safe now, Bella,” I whispered to her, desperately wanting to believe my own words. “I’m going to take care of you.”

She looked up at me groggily, her lids half-closed, her pupils unable to focus. I was filled with a level of fear and dread that I had never dreamed possible.

I turned and headed toward the woods. When I passed my sisters, who held Victoria securely between them, Rosalie snarled, “What do you want us to do with her, Edward?” She gave Victoria’s red mane a vicious yank for emphasis.

Victoria’s eyes were pleading. I tried to feel empathy for her; to muster a bit of gratitude for what she had done for me. But as I looked down into Bella’s ashen face, I could feel nothing but rage and resentment.

I looked into Victoria’s inky black orbs and said, “I’m sorry for all you went through because of me. And I’m grateful for you saving me. But when you tried to kill Bella, you might as well have stuck the knife in me.” Victoria’s lips twisted bitterly.

You’re pathetic, her thoughts baited me. You could have had so much more.

“All I’ll ever need is right here in my arms.” I turned to my sisters and said, “Call Carlisle right away--Bella’s going to need him.” I glanced at Victoria and added resolutely, “I don’t care what you do to her.”

And with that, I turned my back and carried Bella swiftly into the woods, to a secluded spot where she wouldn’t have to hear what the Cullens did to James and Victoria. I ripped my jacket off and settled into the nook of a large sequoia’s roots, cradling Bella carefully in my arms and pressing my coat firmly against her bleeding neck.

“You were so brave, coming out and attacking James like that. I’m so proud of you,“ I smiled down at her.

She grinned weakly in return. “I just wish I could have been more help to you,” she whispered hoarsely.

“Don’t be ridiculous. You were fantastic. Like a superhero,“ I insisted. I smoothed her hair back from her face, and felt the clammy sweat on her brow. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered tearfully, rocking her gently. “I never should have left you. I should have gone to the Cullens for help. I should have listened to Alice.”

She shook her head wanly. “You were only trying to do what’s best for me,” she croaked, her voice nearly gone. “You just never figured out what that is.”

I let out a choking laugh. “Maybe you’re right. I just didn’t want you to lose everything the way I did. I didn’t want to be the one to take those things from you.”

Her eyes closed for a moment, then opened slowly. “You didn’t. You gave me so much more than I ever could have dreamed of.” She coughed weakly, and her head fell back against my arm. “I don’t regret any of it. You were worth it.”

I shook my head in denial. “You’re talking as if it’s over. We are not over, Bella. You’re not going anywhere. Carlisle will be here any minute and he’ll stitch you up just like he did before. You’re going to be fine.”

Her eyes were sunken and dull as she gazed up at me. “I can’t feel my hands and feet anymore, Edward. I can’t…move.”

My heart began to hammer loudly, and I realized in that moment that I could no longer hear hers. I knelt my head down to her chest, and could barely discern the faint, irregular thump from behind her ribs. Her breath was cool and shallow on my face. Her skin was pallid and damp. I didn’t want to admit what was happening, didn’t want to see what was staring me in the face. I removed my coat from her neck to check her wounds, and the cloth was soaked through with her fragrant blood.

Bella was dying.

My body began to shake and I couldn’t make it stop. Tears welled in my eyes and fell freely down my cheeks though I tried to hold them back. I didn’t want to scare her; I didn’t want her to see me this way. I soon realized it didn’t matter.

“Edward?” she whispered, blinking fiercely, her unfocused eyes rolling back slightly. “I can’t see you. I can’t….” her voice trailed off and her eyelids fluttered closed. “I love you.”

She went limp in my arms.

“Bella?” I whimpered. And then, more frantically, “Bella?” Panic swelled in my chest, threatening to consume me. And then I saw the picture in my mind: Victoria opening her wrist and letting the blood flow into me. I now understood her desperation. I would not, could not let Bella go. A world without her was inconceivable to me.

I thought nothing of the pain as I bit viciously into the flesh of my wrist with my razor-sharp teeth. I made sure I sliced at the artery, watching with relief as the thick scarlet fluid began to ooze from my skin in rhythmic spurts. I let Bella’s head drop back over the crook of my arm, her mouth falling open so that I could force my bleeding wrist between her lips. I waited in agony as my blood filled her mouth. I prayed that it would trickle down into her stomach; that she could somehow find the strength to swallow. I stroked her throat gently with my other hand, as if it would help the liquid flow down where it was so desperately needed.

“Please, God, save her,” I sobbed, leaning over and kissing her icy cheek. “Let me hear her say my name once more. Don’t let my mistakes be her undoing again.” I continued to rock her gently, stroking her face and her neck, hoping that my blood would be enough to save her, to give her life. Eternal life. Oh God, let it be so. I couldn’t even feel guilty for my selfishness in wanting her to live. The world would lose one of its brightest lights if her life was snuffed out.

Edward…I can feel you.

Bella? A thrill of hope radiated through me. I had heard her voice in my head once again, I was sure of it. Bella, can you hear me?

Yes. You can read my thoughts?

Yes. New tears began to spring; this time from the hope that began to flood through me. I can hear you. I heard you earlier, too. You were inside my mind…you can’t imagine how it felt to hear your voice in my head.

I tried so hard to send my thoughts to you, and to Alice. And you heard me. You found me.

Yes, sweet angel. I will always find you.

I felt her lips and tongue move slightly under my open wrist. A sob of relief caught in my throat. Drink, Bella. Take my blood. Take my life.

You told me never to drink your blood, Edward.

I laughed out loud then and leaned down to kiss her cheek. I think I told you a lot of things you shouldn’t have listened to.

Her mouth was beginning to gain strength, her lips growing firmer against my skin, her tongue beginning to suck and lap the blood from me. The sensation was beyond compare. I wanted her to take everything from me; body, mind and soul. I was hers, completely.

You are mine, her thoughts spoke to me. As I am yours.

“Yes,” I whispered aloud into her ear, brushing my lips along the delicate flesh. I kissed her neck gently, nuzzling her. The wetness of her blood coated my lower lip; I mindlessly licked it away. The taste was so overpowering that I groaned out loud. I was suddenly invaded by the scent of her blood, as if it were a living, growing thing spreading through my nostrils and into my lungs. I had to have more. My lips brushed her neck again, lower, where the blood still ran freely. The taste was irresistible, and my tongue crept out to lick my lips clean again.

Taste me, she beckoned. Drink from me.

I groaned again, trying to resist. I didn’t want to hurt her, not when she was just beginning to respond. But the blood that was already there, staining her neck…surely there was no harm in partaking of this, was there? I ran my tongue up and down her flesh, lapping the exquisite elixir from her and feeling the ecstasy mount within me.

God help me, Bella, I can’t…stop. I didn’t know whether the taste of her blood or the loss of my own made me weak; I only knew I could resist no longer. My mouth found the open wound on her neck and began to gently suckle there, coaxing the sweet red fluid from her and relishing its incomparable taste on my tongue. I felt her lips sucking harder on my wrist, and to my delight, her once-dead hands reached up and grasped my arm firmly in their cool grip. She drank from me earnestly, hungrily, greedily.

“Edward,” she sighed aloud against my skin. I’ve never felt so alive.

My thoughts were too chaotic to form a coherent reply. I drank from her almost as lustfully as she did from me, reveling in the incredible taste. My head was pounding, and the throb began to pulse throughout my body. I soon realized what it was: the joining of our hearts, exactly as it had been the first time I drank from her. Only now the circle was complete, for Bella drank from me as well. The throbbing intensified, and I felt my heart swell as it recognized its partner, its soul mate. Her heartbeat grew stronger and louder, and it matched mine in an insistent rhythm that pummeled me from within like hands striking the skin of a drum.

My Bella, was all I could think as our blood mingled and became one, flowing through each other, giving each other life. It was a moment of completion, of pure ecstasy, that I thought I would never find again. And yet here it was, consuming me more wholly than I ever dreamed possible. Bella’s heartbeat overtaking my body was the most unforgettable sensation I would ever experience.

Edward…I never knew it could be like this. You, inside me, so completely. I never knew I could love you this way. Her mind was swirling with passionate thoughts that mirrored my own.

I can‘t even begin to explain how much I love you. You are everything to me. I could think of nothing more to say. Words escaped me. I began to feel drunk; woozy.

I can’t get enough of you, Edward. She dug her teeth into my wrist and sucked roughly, and pain shot up my arm. I can’t stop.

I don’t want you to stop. Everything I am is yours.

She continued to work at my wrist, and the throbbing in my head grew louder, more insistent…almost painful. My mouth on her neck began to tire and grow slack. Her blood was beginning to take on a different smell and taste…less sweet, more pungent. Almost acrid. And yet, I continued to feed weakly, taking this changing blood into my body. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I discerned what was happening: her blood was transforming, becoming less human, more vampire.

Drink, my son. It will cure you.

My brow furrowed in confusion at the new voice in my head. It wasn’t Bella’s, but it was just as familiar, just as intimate, and even more comforting.

Don’t worry, my little Edward. Everything is going to be fine. Just take the medicine and you’ll wake up good as new.

Mom? My mind called weakly. Are you really here?

Of course I am, darling boy. I’ve been here all along, as has your father. We would never abandon you. You just needed a way to find us again.

I could feel her warm hand on my forehead, smoothing my hair back, the way she did when I was a child. I looked up into a vision of her face--her lovely blue eyes, her honey-colored hair, her kind smile. And suddenly, everything became clear to me. Piano lessons, camping trips, picnics, softball games. Discussions around the dinner table, laughter around the TV. Dad helping me with my homework. Mom tucking me into bed. Recitals, concerts, track meets--my parents in attendance at every one. Keggers around bonfires in the country with my friends. Making out under the bleachers after the game with my girlfriend. My best friend sneaking into his brother’s stash so we could get high while we listened to old Pink Floyd records.

Every page from the book of my life came into vivid relief, one by one, as they flipped through my mind. The people, the places, the events…each one a jigsaw puzzle piece that fit neatly into the next one, until the entire picture was finally complete. I was flabbergasted that the tapestry of my life was once again whole.

Bella…I remember. My head spun crazily, giddily.

I know. It’s wonderful, Edward. Everything is the way it should be. You are whole. And we are one.

What did I ever do to deserve this?

You never deserved anything less.

I nodded weakly, and my head fell back against the tree. I couldn’t drink her blood any longer. It was too bitter. Her sweet essence was gone, but her eyes opened to gaze up at me, and their brilliance was stunned me senseless. They were shockingly green, and so lovely that I could only stare in wonder at their incredible depths.

“Beautiful,” I whispered, my eyes closing briefly. I felt so tired. How odd. I hadn’t felt tired in so long. I missed being sleepy, I realized. The feeling was comforting, like the face of my mother, which I could now conjure up at will.

My arm ached dully as Bella continued to suck hungrily from my wrist. Her pretty face kept blurring as my eyes floated shut, over and over again. I thought I heard another familiar voice through the murky haze, calling my name, then Bella’s. A male voice.

“Carlisle?” I murmured.

“Bella, stop! You’re killing him!”

I felt my angel being wrenched from my arms, but I couldn’t seem to lift my eyelids enough to see what was happening. I thought I heard her frustrated, angry scream in response, but it sounded very far away. My limbs were far too heavy for me to raise myself up and go after her. The soft, oppressive blackness enveloped me like velvet, and I had no choice but to succumb to its seductive embrace. As I drifted into the darkness, I finally recalled its name.



  1. You are a mind-reader. It was the day, when I wanted to ask you, when will be the next chapter. And.... ta-dammm. Here it is. Thanks!

  2. Leann ! Please ! When will be the next ????

  3. Hi twmmy, sorry it is taking me so long! I hurt my back almost 2 weeks ago and am still recovering. I hope to have the next chapter done this weekend. Thanks for asking! :)

  4. I'm sorry for you, be careful, don't make house work so hard. Or did you hold up your child? 'cause my last back hurt was when I holded up my 12 years old on my back, and taked him upstairs to the bed. I promise I will be patient.