Title of Story: Souls of Men
Word Count: 11,062 (wordcounttool dot com)
Story Summary: Blood lines run deep. Loyalties are fierce and violent. Arranged marriages erase debt and strengthen unions.
Cash is king. Bella Swan must decide if she believes there can be good men who do bad things.
Standard Disclaimer: The author does not own any publicly recognizable entities herein. No copyright infringement is intended.
There were five families.
In the old days rivalries ended with bullet-riddled bodies, the pop of flashbulbs recording the carnage for the newspapers. Corruption tainted every politician, priest and business owner in the city. There came a dark day, a day our parents remember, when the families were forced underground. Everyone had a brother, cousin or husband in prison.
As years passed the families rose again, grooming their offspring in elite private schools. They bred educated thugs, far more dangerous than the generations before them; beloved in their respective neighborhoods and feared just the same. Political office came easily to the new generation and without knowing it the city was under their thumb again.
The faces have changed but some things remain the same. The blood lines run deep. Loyalties are fierce and violent. Arranged marriages erase debt and strengthen unions. Cash is king.
I once found a shoebox full of neatly stacked and banded hundred dollar bills under Edward's bed. He was sixteen years old, caught between studying for the ACT's and a different kind of education, one that he rarely spoke about. It was always there, cell phone ringing at late hours; showing up to school with bruised knuckles and tired eyes. Alice told me not to ask questions. She never spoke about her family's business. None of them did.
Our prestigious school on the West Side hosted kids from all five families.
Maybe if my dad hadn't saved up his meager police officer's salary to send me there I could have had a normal life. I could have had a small house in the suburbs, two kids and a posed Christmas card photo every year. I'm sure it's what he envisioned for me. He was a diligent man, working hard to uncover the misdeeds of the city's richest citizens. He was also misguided, eventually letting righteousness cloud his judgment.
He didn't think there were good men who did bad things. In the end he couldn't see that he had become one of them.
Looking back, even after my own darkest days, I wouldn't take any of it back.
Not for anything.
Now would be the right time to cry.
"You always thought you were better than me."
He's grabbing my wrists in one hand, so tight that I can feel my bones shift. His other hand is pulling up the skirt of my uniform. "Michael, stop," I say, not recognizing my own voice. I'm in shock, out of my body. I can't stop looking at his face, watching him grimace as my body fights against him.
I've known him since kindergarten. When he walked into the diner tonight it was like seeing a ghost. The Cullen family cut me off so swiftly that I sometimes felt I made the whole thing up. Michael's presence sent me into a tailspin. I was distracted enough that I didn't see him waiting for me when I brought out the trash.
He tries to force his leg between mine. I struggle, managing to get one hand free. I see headlights bounce off of the brick wall on the other side of the alley.
I start to yell for help and the back of his hand makes contact with my cheekbone. My knees buckle and my shoes slip in the snow. I have the sick realization that it's likely no one is going to hear me even if I scream. The diner is the last place open at this time of night and I'm closing alone.
"Get up." He hits me again and this time he wraps his hand around my bicep to keep me from falling over, jerking me upward. " I said get up."
"Don't do this, Michael. Please," I plead. He won't look at me.
He fumbles with his belt.
I see the figure behind him just before an arm wraps around his neck, jerking him backward. I pull my skirt down and stumble, landing on my hands and knees. The man has Michael by the shirt, his fist drawing back and making contact, over and over again.
I don't need to see his face to know who it is. I know by the silhouette in the streetlight. I would know from a mile away.
Michael sputters, blood on his face. Edward shoves him backward and he stumbles. Edward pulls him up by the front of his shirt. He's going to hit him again.
"Stop," I say it loud, my voice commanding like I needed it to be a few minutes ago. Edward's fist pauses in midair. I can see his pulse racing in the vein below his jaw. His eyes aren't his own until he blinks, coming to.
He drops Michael back into the snowbank. I don't look down at him, afraid I may be sick. I keep my focus on Edward, not that I could look anywhere else. There's blood on his clothes and hands.
I pick my keys up off the ground and try to open the back door. After a few seconds he takes the keys and does it for me, holding it open for me. Everything is just as I left it, the kitchen dark and quiet. My purse is on the counter and my coat is thrown over the back of a chair.
Automatically, I walk to the phone. Edward comes toward me and I recoil, dropping the receiver on the counter. He hangs it up, keeping a safe distance between us.
"No cops," he says. I should have known better, I suppose. He pulls out a burner and dials, not breaking our gaze while it rings. "I need you and Em at the diner….yeah, that one...in the alley. You'll recognize him." He flexes his hand without wincing, the knuckles split and bleeding. He looks me over. I'm too stunned to assess the damage on my own body. "Call Dr. Banner. See if he can bring his bag."
He ends the phone call and it's quiet again. I haven't seen him since Esme's funeral over a year ago. I haven't seen any of them since that day. An occasional article in the paper but nothing that compares to seeing him in the flesh in front of me.
There's something I should say here; something that I practiced in my mind a thousand times. I can't remember a single word of it.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
My body hurts, but it's nothing compared to the ache in my chest. I'm not sure if it's because of what just happened or if it's being this close to Edward again, though.
"No," I say, honestly.
Slowly, he reaches his hand out, toward my cheek. "Can I…?" he asks.
I take a step back.
He looks more like Carlisle every year. His jaw is sharper and his shoulders broader than last time I saw him. He's wearing a slim grey suit.
He drops his hand and follows my gaze, looking down at his attire. "I was coming from a meeting." I wonder what kind of meeting takes place this late at night.
"You're bleeding," I say. He looks down at his hand but makes no move to help himself. The suit will be ruined, I'm sure.
"Bella…" he starts, but nothing follows it. He closes his mouth.
"Why are you here?" I ask.
"Why are you still working at the diner?" he asks, looking me over. My uniform is tight and short, but the cut of the bust is high and modest. I make good tips and like the regulars. My boss is an old friend of my dad's.
Since I graduated I haven't been able to find a "real" job. Not for lack of trying, though. Something in me ignites.
"I forget how easily things come to you when you're a Cullen."
It's not that he's entitled. Even in high school he worked hard, not content to skate through on his family name. Not all of the bosses' kids are that ambitious. He's never really struggled, though.
My eye hurts so badly I see stars and I can feel the bruise forming, hot under my skin. I grab a bag of peas from the freezer, one for me and one for Edward. He sets his on the counter.
"You're better than this," he says, gesturing at our surroundings.
I stare at him. There's a lot I've forgotten. His arrogance is one of them.
"You sound like Carlisle," I say, knowing it's unkind. He doesn't react like I thought he would, though. He shrugs, like he's accepted that part of himself.
"Anyway, you lost the right to comment on my life a long time ago," I continue.
This time he does what I expect, dropping his gaze. I recognize genuine pain and regret in his expression. I thought that would make me feel good, but instead tears start to well up in my eyes.
"You know what? I'm fine. I'm going to finish up here and I'm going to go home."
Turning, I put the peas back in the freezer, trying not to wince at the pain in my wrists. He's watching me closely.
"Dr. Banner is on his way. He should look at your eye."
"I'm okay. I don't need him to."
"Bella, you need-"
"Please leave," I say, barely holding it together.
He doesn't move.
"Please," I whisper.
When the door shuts behind him I slide down the wall, crying harder than I have in a year.
By the time I leave, Michael is gone and there's no evidence that anything happened here. No blood. No footsteps.
It was all a dream.
I walk in to whispers, practically the entire church turning in their seats to get a look at me. The Cullens don't turn, though. They're in the first pew, Alice's head on Jasper's shoulder. Edward is in the first seat. There's not a place for me there, not that I expected it.
I sit in the back by myself, ignoring the people who stare at me.
The coffin comes down the middle aisle, followed by priests with incense. The smoke is thick and makes me feel like I can't get a full breath. I sit through the service, unable to shed a tear. Mine are gone. Carlisle, Jasper, Edward and Emmett get up at the end to carry out the coffin. I hear Alice break down as they start to move.
Edward sees me just before he passes.
I watch him go through all of the stages of grief in that moment, one by one.
Alice passes, too consumed to see me. Rose does, though. She looks away after a second, her arm around Alice's shoulders.
When they're gone I stay seated, after the church is empty and no voices echo in from outside. I stay seated so long that the priest comes to check on me. Outside, I get in my car and drive back to my dad's house to start packing his things. I'm not sure I could afford to stay here even if I wanted to, so I'm selling it.
He has pictures of me framed on his mantle. There's one of the six of us before prom. One from graduation.
There's a posed photo of my mom and dad that was taken before I was born.
It's the only one I keep.
I wake up to someone pounding on my apartment door. Bolting up in bed, I grab my robe and get up, wincing at the stiffness in my knees from when I fell. Judging from the light it's late afternoon.
Jasper's face is visible through the peephole. He's on his phone, raising his fist to pound again when I open the door. He's wearing a black suit and his hair is more groomed than I've ever seen it.
"She's here," he says to the person on the other end of the line. He hits a button to end the call.
Pushing past me, he spends a moment taking in my apartment. "Grab what you can fit in your purse. We've got to go."
My heart races.
"What do you mean? Why?"
"Do you trust me?"
I stare at him, incredulous. "No."
He shakes his head. "You have no choice. We fucked up. Get dressed. Don't pack a bag, though. They can't know you're leaving town."
His phone rings and he runs a hand through his hair. "Shit."
"What do you mean 'we fucked up'?" The night before crashes into me and I reach up to touch my cheek. Pain blooms where I press with my fingers.
He holds up a hand, answering the phone.
Throwing on jeans and a hoodie I wait for Jasper to get off the phone again. From what I can tell he's communicating in mostly expletives.
"Are you ready?" he asks, looking me over.
"I'm not going anywhere."
He stares at me, then dials the phone again, clearly frustrated. "She says she's not going anywhere," he says into the phone. There's a long pause. He rolls his eyes. "I don't know, dude. Why don't you talk to her?"
I hesitate. I know who's on the other end. Finally, I grab it, bringing it to my ear.
"Do what Jasper says."
It takes me a moment to compose myself. I glance at Jasper, who's pretending not to listen but totally is.
"I don't know what makes you think you can just show up after a year and start acting like you can tell me what to do, but-"
"You're in danger."
"Michael's family isn't happy with what I did to his face."
"So why are they coming after me? Why not you?"
He hesitates. Jasper purposefully won't meet my eyes.
"Please just go with Jasper, Bella."
"This is insane. I have a job. I have a life. I can't just pick up and leave because you think someone might be after me."
"It's a confirmed suspicion."
"What does that mean, Edward?" I forgot how this works. He's used to people complying when he gives instructions. I rub my eyes, pausing when I realize how this is all happening. "How do you know all this? Are you having me followed?"
His silence gives him away. I drop my hand.
"Wait...were you watching me before last night?" I didn't question it at the time but it's highly unlikely that Edward just happened to show up out of the blue at that moment after a year without contact.
Jasper mouths "busted" and walks into my kitchen.
"It paid off, didn't it?" he asks, unapologetic.
"You seriously need therapy," I say, looking out the window. There's a white van parked across the street from my house. The figure inside of it has a camera with a long lens pointing right at me. "Do you have someone watching me right now? In a white van across the street?" I ask. I raise my hand, waving at the camera.
"Get away from the window and put Jasper back on." The urgency in his voice makes my stomach turn.
"Jasper," I say, moving further into the living room. I gesture toward the van.
He grabs the phone, walking over to the window. He raises his middle finger, holding it up until the van pulls away.
"It was James. That means Laurent is somewhere around here." Walking from window to window, he scans the neighborhood. "He's probably already in the building. Fuck. Tell Em to pull up in back. I'll get her out." He pauses, listening. "I said I'll get her out."
"Fucking asshole," he says, after ending the call. "Let's go."
Part of me wants to protest, but I've met Laurent and I'd like to avoid seeing him ever again, if possible. I just hate having my choices made for me. It's half of the reason Edward and I aren't together now.
Maybe less than half.
"Well, they'll know you're leaving now so grab whatever you want. Just do it fast." Jasper pauses, smiling briefly. "It's good to see you, Bella."
"Good to see you,too, Jasper."
I stuff everything I can fit into a bag and know I'll walk out of here without looking back. I've gotten good at letting things go.
Jasper pulls out his gun before opening my apartment door, a precaution that makes me roll my eyes. It's not until I see Laurent disappear around a corner ahead of us that I feel the sense of urgency Edward was attempting to convey. Jasper pushes me into the stairwell, shielding me as we move down to the first level. Emmett is waiting with a smile, the door to the SUV open. He shuts it behind me and gets in. Jasper's back on the phone.
"We've got a tail," he says, looking in the mirrors. I turn and look behind us. The white van is stopped, blocking the alley behind us. Emmett peels out, gunning the engine as we take a hard right onto the street. The city flies past as Emmett runs red lights, weaving between lanes and just in general scaring the shit out of me. He's leaned back in his seat, driving with one hand.
"Laurent was in the building. He'll be behind us unless Emmett can get us out of here." There's a long pause. He braces himself on the dashboard with his free hand as we take another corner too fast. "Yeah, Edward, I'm aware of the limitations of our current situation. Maybe next time you beat the shit out of a boss's kid you should kill him so at least we have enough time to get the fuck out of the city before they come looking for us."
He listens for a second and hangs up.
"Fucking asshole," he says, again.
"You two bicker like sisters," Emmett says, jamming on the brakes at a light. The stillness after the last few minutes is abrupt and I don't understand the change in pace until I see a police cruiser roll past, going the other direction. Emmett taps on the steering wheel, peeling out again when the light changes.
When we get on the freeway everything settles but it takes me half an hour to relax my shoulders. Emmett looks like he doesn't have a care in the world, doing 110 in the left lane.
"So how you been?" he asks, looking at me in the rearview mirror.
I can't help but smile. "Good. How are you?"
He grins. "Rose is pregnant."
"That's amazing. "Boy or girl?"
"Girl," he says. "We're naming her Esme." He meets my eyes in the rearview mirror. There's no animosity there, not that I expected there would be. Jasper's staring out the window but is listening.
My smile falls, but I fight valiantly to keep it on. "I'm so happy for you, Emmett. She'll be beautiful."
"What about you? Are you dating anyone?"
Jasper shoots him a look.
"No, but since Edward is having me watched I suppose you already knew that."
Emmett has the good grace to look sheepish, but can't contain his natural curiosity.
"How did you figure it out?"
Jasper turns his head toward him, glaring at him and shaking his head.
"What?" he says, shrugging.
"He just showed up at the right moment last night. Too much of a coincidence."
My hand comes up to my cheek. I wish I had ice for my eye. We're all quiet for a few minutes.
"Edward should have fucking killed him," Jasper says, staring straight ahead.
Neither Emmett or I respond.
The traffic lightens the further we get from the city. We're heading north. I'd heard rumors of a cabin but have never been there. The sun sets, making the snow glow pink and purple. I let my eyes drift shut after a while, lulled to sleep by the white noise of the engine.
My dad paces in front of the fireplace, still in uniform. He's still wearing his gun and holster, which is unusual and makes this conversation that much more serious.
"Let me tell you something about the Cullen family."
He caught Edward in my room after school. I was in a state of undress that embarrassed both of us. He's hardly looked at me since he pushed Edward out the front door.
"They're bad people, Bella. They're murderers. They gamble and they steal."
"You know Edward, dad. You know Alice. They aren't bad."
"I know that you being friends with Alice is different than you…" he shakes his head. "You're forbidden to date him."
He loves Alice. Somehow she's escaped the widespread wrath he has for the five families. Edward hasn't been so lucky.
"If you could see the things I've seen you would understand, kid."
It takes me a long time to respond.
"You can't stop me from seeing him."
"The hell I can't."
"I love him," I say.
He shakes his head. "You don't know what love is."
"How old were you when you met mom?"
That gives him pause. We hardly talk about her anymore. She died in a car accident before I was old enough to remember her face.
"Fifteen," he says. His face changes and he shows his years. "Just stay away from him. I'm going to go lay down for a while."
He hangs his holster in the front hall closet and walks upstairs, his feet heavy on the wooden floor.
I call Alice.
"I'll talk to him. I give good Charlie."
"He caught us half naked in my bed."
"Congrats on getting to third base, by the way."
My face goes hot. "He told you that?"
She laughs. "Nope."
"You love me."
She's right. I do.
I wake up as we pull onto a dirt road. The only light is from the moon and the shadows are a deep black. This isn't a well-traveled route. We follow a set of tracks, but it looks like only one car has come this way recently.
I wonder if Edward is already there. My heartbeat speeds.
"Where are we going?" I ask for the first time.
"Family cabin," Jasper answers. "I haven't been up in years. It's Carlisle's hideout."
The thought of seeing Carlisle again makes my heartbeat speed for a different reason. Jasper catches my eye. "He's not here now, though."
I nod, relieved.
We pull up next to a very expensive-looking car in front of a very large cabin. I guess I would expect nothing less from this family. This is how they do rustic.
A curtain is pulled back and closed again. The door opens and I see Alice's figure. I'm suddenly very apprehensive. Before I can say anything Jasper grabs my bag and walks up the steps, kissing her before sidling past. Emmett touches her shoulder. As I walk up she takes a deep breath, like she's bracing herself.
"Hi, Alice," I say. She looks too thin.
We hug awkwardly and she takes a step back. I follow my old friend into the kitchen.
"Your face," she says, referring to the bruises.
"It's not that bad," I say. "I was lucky."
Edward comes down the stairs wearing jeans and a t-shirt that I haven't seen since we were in high school. His hair is wet from the shower. I can't breathe.
"It wasn't luck," he says, still unapologetic.
Alice ignores him.
"Did they feed you?"
I shake my head.
"I'll make something," she says, getting out a loaf of bread. "Emmett is saying goodnight to Rose. You'll see her in the morning. We made up a bed for you. You must be exhausted." She speaks quickly, like she'd planned to say all of it.
"I slept in the car. I've been working nights so my schedule is backwards."
She carefully spreads mustard on the bread, biting her lip uncomfortably like I didn't follow the script she had written in her head.
I look back at the living room. Edward is still standing there, staring at us. He looks like he's watching something sad. Maybe he is.
When I turn back to Alice her eyes are watering. She puts down the knife. "I'm sorry."
I'm not really sure who she's saying it to.
"I should have contacted you earlier," she says.
Edward approaches. "Alice-" he says, his voice cautionary.
"Shut up, Edward." Alice bites out. I'm surprised. The Alice I used to know wouldn't have said that.
Edward glances at me. I feel like I'm treading on a very intimate family moment, so I pick up my bag.
"If it's okay I'm going to go upstairs."
"Of course," she says, staring down at the counter. Edward gives me a look I can't decipher, and I decide not to try.
I take my bag and walk up to the second floor, looking in the rooms until I find one that looks like it might be meant for me. I close the door and go in the bathroom, turning on the shower. After I'm undressed I step into the steaming water.
I shouldn't be here. Seeing Edward, Jasper and Emmett feels okay. Good even, in a way. Seeing Alice feels like visiting a grave. Alice and Esme were closer than any mother and daughter I've ever known. I mourned for her loss as much as my own, not that she would know that.
After she changed her email address I gave up on trying to contact her.
Esme wasn't supposed to be there when my dad's team raided the restaurant. Carlisle had bought it for her years earlier as a place for the family to gather. My dad told me it was also a way for them to funnel cash into the family. I picture a smiling Esme in her kitchen and can't imagine her being a part of anything that subversive.
The official story is that she pulled a gun on the officers. Even though her body was found with a 9mm clasped in her hand I never believed it. The police were known to plant evidence. It was the last in a series of raids on the five families. Esme wasn't the only casualty. Many lives were lost.
My dad was shot and killed at sundown the next day, not twenty-four hours later. He was shot at close range, twice in the chest and once between the eyes. They say he probably knew his killer. There was no evidence. No witnesses. Even so I've always thought Carlisle did it.
In a biblical sense maybe it was meant to be.
I step out of the shower and look over my body in the mirror. There are the bruises I can feel, but the ones on my hip bones and my inner thighs hurt worse to look at.
Dressing slowly, I take time to comb my hair. I'd like to go to sleep but my stomach keeps growling. Even during my worst days when I could hardly get out of bed I still had to eat every now and then. The body keeps on even when you feel like you can't.
I walk down the stairs as quietly as I can. Edward is sitting at the counter, a glass of whiskey in front of him next to the bottle.
He spots me but keeps his eyes to himself. Something in his posture makes me soften.
He smiles, but it's gone quickly.
The sandwich Alice was making is abandoned on the counter, everything sitting out just like it was when I walked upstairs. I finish the job, putting everything away where I think it should go. When I finish I'm not hungry.
I open cabinets until I find the glasses and set one down in front of Edward. He pours whiskey into my glass, probably twice what I would pour for myself.
Taking a sip, I look him over. "You were wearing that shirt the first time you kissed me."
He looks down, a slight smile. "You snuck into my room during a sleepover," he says, like he'd forgotten. "Everyone thought you were such a good girl. I knew better."
The memory makes my skin flush hot. "Cops' kids are like pastors' kids. Shiny on the outside and rotten in the middle."
"You weren't rotten. You were brave."
"Not brave. Just horny."
He laughs, spinning his glass and watching the whiskey slosh around.
"Remember the time we took out the Porsche?"
"I thought Carlisle was going to have an aneurysm."
"About the car or the condom wrapper he found in the car?"
"Oh, god, stop," I say, feeling my cheeks flush further. "How is he?" I ask, more out of politeness than anything.
"Still a tyrant." Not surprising.
He stills, looking up at me.
"Becoming a tyrant."
"That's too bad." Edward and his father didn't get along growing up. They're too similar. He used to hate the parts of himself that reminded him of Carlisle. I see only acceptance on his face now, though.
"I thought you wouldn't 'rule with fear'." He used to say that.
"I used to think a lot of things that weren't true."
My heart drops and I hope it doesn't show on my face.
I shiver and he nods toward the fire in the fireplace. He grabs the bottle and follows me to the living room where we both sit on the couch, a safe distance apart. When I hold out my glass for him to refill he stares at the bruises on my wrist.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
"I will be."
He stares at me like he's got something to say.
"What?" I ask.
"I have a lot of questions."
"Don't pretend you don't know every move I make." I'm still not over that.
He looks away but he doesn't seem remorseful. "I know that you work late most nights and that you order takeout from the Vietnamese place around the corner from your apartment. I know that you take long walks on the lake late at night, sometimes when it's so cold you shouldn't be out there."
That started last year. I still do it sometimes when I need to be cleansed by the wind and cold.
"But I don't know why you do any of it. It drives me crazy."
"You aren't entitled to my thoughts," I say. It's the one part of my life than can remain truly private.
He looks down. "I know that."
"What about you? I'm not bugging your cell phone so..."
He rolls his eyes, but answers my question. "Working a lot."
"Is it what you thought it'd be like? Working for Carlisle?"
He turns to me.
"You're the first person who's asked me that."
I wait for him to respond.
"It's exactly what I expected. It's what I was born to do and I'm good at it." His voice gets quiet. "Really good at it."
That doesn't surprise me, but his next question does.
"Have you been with anyone else?"
I wonder if he's starting to get drunk. My cheeks feel warm from the whiskey.
"Are you asking me about my sex life?"
He nods, watching my face intently. It almost makes me laugh.
"I haven't." I don't elaborate. The words leave my mouth before I can think. "Have you?"
He hesitates, his eyes on his drink. I'm crushed. Despite the fact that I have no right to him and have no reason to be angry, I'm crushed.
"There are certain aspects of this life that I wasn't prepared for."
I try to read between the lines, but can't.
"There was a lot of fallout after my mother was killed. The families thought the cops had inside information." He turns to look at me.
It takes me second to catch up. "From me."
"The Denalis lost the most. We had to work hard to repair that relationship."
There's something he's leaving out. I can still read him.
"How did you repair it?"
His eyes drop again and I turn my head to look at the fire. Whatever he's going to say is going to hurt me. That much I can tell.
"I'm engaged to marry Tanya Denali."
I bring the glass to my lips.
"Congratulations." I've never said anything less genuine in my entire life.
He kills his drink and pours another. I can feel him looking at me but can't look back at him just yet. We went to school with Tanya. She hated me as much as I hated her.
"I don't love her," he says.
That makes me laugh, but there's little humor in it. "I suppose that doesn't really matter, does it?"
Emotions that I've suppressed start to bleed through my protective layers. I set down my drink and stand, not willing to let him see me cry.
He stands too, setting down his drink next to mine. He looks like he wants to reach for me, but doesn't.
"Do you remember the last time we were together?" I ask.
I know by the look on his face that he remembers it as well as I do.
It was the most passionate, tragic, poignant sex I've ever had. I didn't know until it was over that he was saying goodbye.
Tears well up at the memory.
"Forget you knew me," I say, repeating his words back to him.
His face falls and he shakes his head, but doesn't speak.
For the second time, he lets me walk away.
I go to Edward's dorm and his roommate says he won't be back that week.
It's three in the morning when I get to the Cullen house. None of them answered their phones. Not even Alice.
There's only one of them that I need to see, though. Someone buzzes me in the gate before I can say my name into the intercom. I forego the front door, walking around to the tree outside of Edward's window. We've been climbing in and out of his house this way since high school. It's been a while, but I still know every foothold.
He isn't in his room so I wait, sitting on the edge of his bed. Through the closed door, I hear talking that verges on yelling at times. It's a male's voice but I can't make out the words. I look around at the room that hasn't changed since he lived here.
When Edward walks in an hour later I haven't moved, afraid to make a noise. I haven't seen him since my dad was shot. It was only hours ago that I left the police station, holding a bag of his things that were left in his locker. I stood outside, realizing I had nowhere to go.
I stand, ready to apologize and ask if he's okay. I want to ask why he didn't call me back and if he got my messages but he just walks quickly toward me, grabbing me and kissing me hard. He unbuttons my pants, pulling them down and off in one motion. We fall onto the bed, his motions urgent, his teeth at my neck. "I'm so sorry," I whisper. I realize I'm crying. His lips meet mine and I don't speak again. He removes the clothing that's between us and takes me quickly, so roughly that I gasp into his mouth. It's right, the slight pain from his hands pulling down on my shoulders to give him leverage. The better it feels, the harder I cry, until I arch, his body hitting mine in the perfect way. An ache blooms with the pleasure.
The good feeling fades.
I stare up at the ceiling, not trying to hide my tears. He doesn't kiss me and doesn't say sweet words. He catches his breath and as he pushes himself away from me he doesn't meet my eyes.
Naked, he walks into the bathroom and shuts the door. I sit up, slowly getting dressed as I wait for him. He comes out wearing sweatpants slung down low, a joint behind one ear. He won't look at me.
"I thought you'd be gone," he says.
He stands a few feet away, looking at the door. It takes me a full minute to understand that he wants me to leave. I get to my feet.
"I'm sorry," I say.
He pulls the joint out from behind his ear, lighting it and tossing the lighter on his desk. Normally he would try to cover up the smoke but he exhales without regard for his surroundings. Maybe his mother was the one he behaved for.
"Are we done?" The question causes me physical pain but I ask it anyway.
He meets my eyes, just once and just for long enough that I get a glimpse of the full weight of his agony.
"Forget you knew me."
Rosalie and I weren't ever the best of friends but she hugs me like a sister, standing back to look at my bruised face.
"Fucking Newton," she says.
Emmett shakes his head and she rolls her eyes.
"He thinks I need to quit swearing so much before the baby's born." She moves behind him and rubs his shoulders while he eats.
"You haven't changed." I look her over. "You might be nicer than I remember, but maybe that's the hormones."
She smiles. "Tanya's a troll. You're a vast improvement."
Emmett chokes on his pancake.
"Rose," he says, when he can breath again. She shrugs and pushes her thumbs on either side of his spine. I can't help but think that she should be the one getting the backrub.
Alice has kept herself busy since I came down, chopping and tossing things into pans. The spread is impressive, something that Esme would have put together. Jasper catches my eye, giving me a slight smile. His hair is sticking up on one side and he's wearing pajama pants.
"Coffee?" Alice asks, sliding a mug across the marble counter to me.
I take the mug, thanking her. Her smile falls as soon as she looks away.
I'm reminded that I shouldn't be here. She's not over this and maybe that's the way it should be.
"Could someone give me a ride into the nearest town?"
All four of them turn to look at me.
"I've imposed enough."
"What did Edward say about that?" Rose asks, raising an eyebrow.
"He doesn't get a say," I say quickly.
Edward is walking down the stairs behind me, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. "You're safer here than you are anywhere else." When he stops in the kitchen he gives me a look. There's an apology there. I'm not upset like I was last night but my mind is made up.
I shake my head. "Why all of this, though? I still don't understand why is Michael so hellbent on finding me. Why isn't he looking for you?"
Alice looks up. "No one would go after Edward. Hurting you is the next best way to hurt him."
No one moves.
"That's not true anymore," I say quietly, setting down the coffee I've barely touched.
Alice stares at Edward, holding his gaze until her face crumples. Jasper stands, walking around the island to comfort her.
I look around at each of them, looking for an explanation. Not one of them will meet my eyes.
Alice breaks out of Jasper's arms, wiping at her cheeks. "I can't. I can't do this anymore."
He tries to rein her back in and she steps out of his reach, holding a hand up to stop him. She speaks through tears.
"Edward always loved you. Even after my mom…" she fades off. "He cut you off to protect you from the truth."
My skin goes cold.
She sighs, like she's shrugging a weight off of her shoulders.
"I shot Charlie."
I left without my bag, grabbing my coat but not my gloves.
There was no need to run. I just walked away off into the woods, listening to the crunch of snow under my shoes until I got to this clearing. Now that I've stopped moving the silence is profound, my ears ringing in the absence of sound.
Sitting in the snow I let the cold seep into my clothes, hoping it numbs me through. I don't want to feel this. The pain is new again, tearing at my chest.
A few minutes later the approaching footsteps are Edward's. I don't have to look to know. He stands a few feet away.
"I couldn't tell you," he says.
"So you just cut me off." Tears blur my vision. He reaches down but I stand without his help, stumbling in the snow as I try to put space between us. My voice comes out strong. "I thought you hated me. I sat at my father's funeralalone."
"He killed my mother," he says emphatically, his voice loud in the quiet woods. He exhales a breath, calming himself. "How could I go to his funeral?"
We stare at one another. I can see now this is beyond repair.
As the words leave my mouth he flinches. "You," I lower my voice out of habit, "fucked me one last time and then you never talked to me again." Anger rises up in my chest. "You couldn't even look at me. I didn't deserve that. Until yesterday I'd never felt so degraded."
He looks stricken. "You don't understand. They were going to kill you."
I shake my head.
"Don't lie to me," I say, my vision blurring.
"I agreed to never speak to you again. I agreed to ask Tanya to marry me. It was the only way I could stop it."
"Stop," I say, desperate.
"Bella-" he starts, but can't finish. For the first time since I've known him, his eyes are wet with tears. "I'm so sorry."
It's the first time he's apologized to me.
My eyes blur again. He steps closer, catching my hips.
His breath stutters. "I love you."
"Don't say that," I breathe.
As we stare at each other his face changes. A tear rolls down his cheek but he's done crying. "I love you," he says again, with conviction.
Something inside of me rights itself.
I bring my palm up to press against his cheek. He doesn't move until my skin touches his, then he covers my hand with his, pushing his cheek into my hand and then kissing my wrist, then my palm, then pulling me into him and kissing me like I'm air and water and earth.
He falls back in the snow, pulling me down on top of him. Together, we pull off my jeans and I unzip his, pulling him out and inside of me. We pause, both of us still as our bodies remember how to do this. Tears come now, but a different kind.
"Please say it back," he says.
I whisper the three words against his lips, gasping as when he starts to shift my hips, his hands doing the work that I can't at the moment.
He swears under his breath, finding the right spot with his thumb and rubbing circles until I come apart, him right behind me. We catch our breath staring at each other. I lean in and kiss his lips, chastely.
When I pull back his face is relaxed, an expression I remember well.
"It doesn't seem like so long since we did that."
It really doesn't. I smile.
"My ass is frozen."
He grabs it, chuckling then laughing outright. He helps me stand and we dress, standing in front of each other when we're done. I don't know what's next.
His phone chimes and he pulls it out, glancing at the screen.
His face goes blank.
"What's going on?" I ask.
He doesn't answer, his eyes flicking up to something behind me.
"I'm sorry," he says.
There's a sharp pain in my neck and the world goes black.
I come to in the back of a car. My head hurts and my hands are restrained behind my back. I struggle to sit up.
Laurent is turned in the passenger seat, looking back at me. James is driving.
"Bella," he says in greeting.
"Laurent," I respond, wincing.
"Sorry to drug you. Carlisle thought it was easiest."
I try to keep my expression neutral.
"We won't hurt you. Not until after the meeting, at least."
My heart speeds. "Meeting?"
His smile widens. "You've caused a lot of problems, girl. The Denalis want you dead. So do the Newtons. They've called a meeting of the families. Until then you're safe unless you try to escape. If you do I will slit your throat. Do you understand?"
I think of Edward's face, looking behind me. He knew they were there for me and did nothing to stop it.
Carlisle thought it was easiest.
"I see you're realizing that you've been betrayed."
He looks me over, his expression almost sympathetic. Not quite.
"They had no choice. Edward violated the agreement and nearly killed the Newton boy. Carlisle turned you over to keep the peace. It was the right thing to do."
James speaks up from the driver's seat.
"Keep quiet, Laurent. You don't need to tell her anything."
He shrugs and turns around, leaving me to my thoughts. By the landscape I can tell we're close to the city.
I don't struggle against my restraints and I don't even entertain the idea of trying to escape. I know enough about Laurent to know he wasn't kidding about slitting my throat. From the freeway exit we take I know we drive into a Denali neighborhood. We pull into an attached garage on a house with beige siding. James lets me out of the car and pushes me into the house, walking me through the kitchen to a sparsely decorated living room. He undoes the handcuffs and I rub my wrists, the bruises from Michael aggravated now.
"Sit down," he says. I comply and he leaves the room.
When he returns it's with someone I didn't expect to see.
"Carlisle." I go to stand and he raises a hand, asking me to stay seated.
He sits in the chair across from me, his eyes taking in every detail of my appearance. His gaze trips on my wrists.
"Did the Newton boy do that?" he asks, gesturing to my cheek.
His hands come up to his temples and he closes his eyes. I wonder if he has a headache as well.
"I'm here to take you to the meeting. We'll have an escort, of course." He glances toward the kitchen where I'm sure James and Laurent are listening. "There are a few things I need to explain to you first."
"There is no due process here. No jury of your peers. You may be judged fairly and you may not, but understand that your presence in this meeting will be unwelcome. Many lives were lost because of your father and it's very possible that you will be the one to pay the price for it."
After what Laurent's told me that doesn't come as a surprise. My gaze holds steady and for maybe the first time ever I look Carlisle Cullen dead in the eye.
"I'm sorry, Carlisle. For Esme. For everything."
He freezes at the sound of her name. "The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself."
I know the verse. It was one of my dad's favorites. "Ezekiel," I say.
Carlisle nods in approval. "You pay attention in Mass."
"Then don't apologize for your father's actions. You're an innocent, but that may not matter."
I look down, swallowing hard. "What about Edward?"
"My son will be pardoned because of his name but he will still be expected to honor his commitments. If you want what's best for him you won't interfere."
"I won't," I answer.
He looks down at his cell phone and stands, motioning for me to stand as well. As we pass Laurent and James in the kitchen they bow their heads slightly to Carlisle, a sign of respect. We get in a car that's parked in the driveway, Laurent and James follow in the car behind us.
It's not a time for small talk, so I stay silent as we take side streets through the city. I try to predict the future. Maybe they will put a bullet in my head or maybe they will kill me slowly. Maybe, like in a horror movie, they will put me in a room and make me choose my own death.
Maybe it will all be okay.
The further we drive the less I believe that, though.
Carlisle keeps glancing at me. We meet eyes and he looks forward again, shaking his head like he's disappointed in himself. "God damn it," he says, before turning on the radio and cranking the volume all the way up. I have to force myself not to cover my ears.
He says, just loud enough that I can hear it. "Play to Aro. He has a lot of influence and he likes the game. Play it. He likes to be the hero." He hesitates. "He has an agenda, like anyone else. It will benefit his family to see Edward succeed."
Slowly, he lowers the volume and I look forward again, processing that without comment.
We pull up to a house that could double as a castle. For some reason I thought we'd be meeting in a warehouse somewhere. Maybe I've seen too many movies. We stop in the carport and a butler lets us in the door. Suddenly I'm self-conscious, my jeans and jacket feel ratty in this house with its oriental rugs and dark wood. I smooth down my hair as best as I can and take off my coat, folding it over my arm.
I'm instructed to sit in a chair outside a set of large wooden doors. It sounds like there's a crowd inside. Carlisle enters and the din quiets. It feels like hours before they come get me. By the time I walk in my nerves are frayed.
Inside the room there's a table long enough that the people at the other end narrow their eyes to see me better. The door behind me shuts loudly and I startle. One man smiles widely at that, his head tilted. Aro. It's the only smile I receive.
All eyes in the room are on me. It takes me just a second to find Edward. I don't let my gaze linger too long, jumping to Tanya who sits to his left. She has a hand on his, a large diamond ring on her finger. She openly glares at me.
Michael is sitting with his father, his face almost unrecognizable under the bruises. He scowls as well as he can and my hands start to shake. Carlisle was right, I'm not going to find many friendly faces here.
Aro speaks, his eyes sparkling. "We'd like to give you the chance to tell your side of the story."
I scan the room. Edward doesn't look up.
"From the beginning?"
Smiling widely, Aro nods.
I take a deep breath, deciding to speak to Edward, even if he won't acknowledge me.
"I've loved Edward Cullen since grade school."
He takes a breath and holds it.
"When we were young he used to protect me. My clothes were never as nice as everyone elses and I had to bring my own lunch, but he never made me feel like I was less than him."
Tanya rolls her eyes.
"My dad didn't like us together, but I didn't tell him anything. I didn't know anything to tell, honestly. Until two days ago I hadn't seen any of the Cullens since Esme's funeral."
Carlisle's eyes close and his head bows at her name.
"I've never been more sorry for anything in my life. I loved her. I loved all of them."
"And what about Michael?" Aro asks, gently.
I speak with strength that roots in rage. "I told him no."
Murmurs echo around the room.
"What of your feelings for Edward now?"
Tanya straightens in her chair. "Why do we care how she feels? She can't be trusted. She knows too much. Kill her. Dump her body in the wetlands."
Aro clicks his tongue, shaking his head. "So little regard for life, Ms. Denali."
Tanya sneers, sitting back in her chair. Edward doesn't react.
For the first time, Tanya's father speaks up. "Aro, Edward is engaged to my daughter. This is inappropriate."
Aro looks the two of them over. Edward's sitting stiff in his seat. "There isn't love there. Not even affection. But it's our way, isn't it? The Denalis were owed and the Cullens sacrificed to save young Bella. Star-crossed lovers."
"Aro, you speak of a storybook romance," an old man says.
"And why shouldn't I, Marcus? Have we strayed so far that we forget what matters? If Carlisle can forgive the loss of his dear Esme why shouldn't we forgive our losses as well? Charlie Swan is dead."
"My son-" Mr. Newton begins. His face is red and his expression sour.
"Had your son acted like a gentleman we wouldn't be here." Aro's voice cuts through the room.
The old man, his eyes hardly open, bangs his cane three times on the wooden floor. "We vote only on the life of the girl."
Mr. Denali wets two of his fingers, extinguishing the candle in front of him. I realize there are five candles. One for each family.
"The Denalis have spoken."
In just under a minute there are two votes to kill me and two to spare me. A life decided in less time than a commercial break on television. It comes down to Aro.
Marcus speaks. "Bella Swan's father has caused a great deal of heartache in the five families. Why should we save her?"
Edward gets to his feet. Tanya blanches and her father closes his eyes, shaking his head like he knew this was coming. "Because I love her."
Aro's face lights up.
Tanya stands, her chair toppling to the floor behind her. She turns to her father. "If you let this happen I'll never forgive you."
He just stares straight ahead, ignoring her.
She turns to Edward, her fists clenched and shaking. "I'll ruin you."
He looks at her without emotion. Her hand flies out to slap him but he catches it before she makes contact. She tries to retract it as he grabs the ring, pulling it off her finger.
Aro is positively delighted. He claps his hands together. Tanya stomps out, her heels loud on the wooden floor.
"I vote to spare the girl. This passion. This dedication. This is what we need to unite us. Edward will one day become head of the Cullen family. We'll be electing him to city council next year. Eventually mayor. He will do all of this with Bella at his side."
Edward watches for my reaction. I don't have one.
"It is done," Marcus says.
Three candles burn bright on the table.
I get out of the car as soon as it stops moving, walking quickly down the driveway toward the street. I didn't say a word on the way here.
"Hey," he says. "Bella, stop." When I don't stop walking I hear him behind me. "Damn it, Bella. Stop." He grabs my arm and I freeze. He realizes his mistake and holds his hands up in surrender.
Anger swells in my chest. "I'm not one of your thugs. I'm not scared of you."
"You shouldn't be scared of me," he says, quietly. I detect a note of regret in his voice. "I just want you to listen."
Embarrassed at my outburst, I look away.
Edward's been living at Emmett and Rose's while his loft gets refinished. Edward's is the only car here.
"If my father gives an order I have to listen. I had no choice."
"You let them knock me out. You let them take me away without question."
He clenches his fists and takes a deep breath. "The family is first." He drops his eyes. "And I did question it, but there was nothing I could do."
The last few days catch up with me and I rub my eyes. "This is too much."
"Come inside," he says. When I don't move he says something that doesn't cross his lips often. "Please."
I follow him into the house. It's modern; sparsely furnished. He leads me to his bedroom. I just want to close my eyes and forget this day.
"Aro meant what he said," he says, watching me strip off my sweater.
I look down at my wrists, the bruises still dark. Edward's hands are bruised as well, stitches on two of his knuckles. He's strong and lean, taut muscle visible under his clothes. I look away when my body starts to respond. Too tired for that, I sit on the edge of the bed.
"When the time is right I'll be in charge. They'll expect us to be married."
"That doesn't sound like a question. It sounds like an order."
"It's as good as an order, coming from Aro."
I look down at my hands. "And he spoke of romance…" I say, sarcastically.
Slowly, he comes to stand in front of me, dropping to one knee. He pulls one of my hands up to his cheek.
"I'll give you romance. I'll make this right."
I choose honesty. "It's going to take me some time."
Even though I can sense his impatience, he nods. His phone chimes and he pulls it out of his pocket. I can read the subtle change in expression.
"You have to go."
"Can I kiss you?"
After a moment I nod.
It's a kiss so sweet I could get lost.
When I hear the front door close behind him I look around the empty room. Laying back on the bed I try to sleep but can't. I bolt upright when I hear the front door open again.
Rose's voice echoes over the hardwood floors. "Bella?"
I'm more relieved to see her than I thought I would be. She smiles and the warmth in it makes my body relax for the first time in hours.
"Hungry?" she asks. "Because I'm fucking starving." She grins.
I follow her to the kitchen, making her sit while I make pasta sauce. She watches me chop garlic.
"I forgot you could cook."
"No one to cook for these days."
"Edward will love it."
Esme made amazing meals. I have a vivid memory of Edward hugging her while she stirred a pot on the stove. She'd swatted him away with an oven mitt.
"Do you know where they went?"
She looks at me closely, her eyes moving over my face.
"We don't ask those questions."
The knife stills as I process that. I glance up and resume chopping.
"Doesn't that bother you?" I ask.
She shrugs. "Sometimes. But as long as Emmett comes home to me I don't care where he is or what he does."
I don't respond. There was a time when I would have accepted that without question.
She stares at me, biting her lip. There's clearly something on her mind.
Gently, I set down the knife. "What do you need to say to me, Rose?"
She's hesitant. "Are you all in? Because you can't go halfway with this family."
My response isn't as automatic as it would have been at one time in my life. "I know that. I'm in."
She appraises me for another long minute before she gets up, waddling over to the pantry. She comes out with a black box. Inside is a 9mm.
"Just like Esme's," she says. "You should have it."
I don't need to ask her why she's showing me this. The intent is clear. She watches my face.
Esme did pull a gun on my dad. I try to picture it and can't.
"She knew how to shoot?"
Rose affirms that, closing the box slowly.
"It's important to know how to defend your family. Did your father not teach you?"
I just stare at her. She walks the box back to the pantry. I'm out of tears for the Swan family. When she returns she changes the subject.
"Your only job is to make him happy, Bella. Make him forget what's waiting for him when he walks out the door."
I raise an eyebrow. "Somehow I can't see you in that role, Rose."
"You'd be surprised."
An independent, indignant part of me wants to protest the notion of being a submissive wife. There's resignation on her face and I wonder if she's gone through the same thing.
"If you're thinking I'm weak now or I don't get to speak my mind, you're wrong. Esme wasn't weak. She was the backbone. I can't be what she was, though." She takes a breath. "Neither can Alice."
"Edward isn't the only one who needs you. This last year has been...rough. Alice hasn't been well."
Losing Alice as a friend was almost harder than losing Edward, at times. I'm not sure if it's fair to hold out hope for that relationship but looking at Rose's face, I decide to try.
The burner ticks and I heat the pan. I toss onion in, stirring it as it softens.
"It smells really good," Rose says as I add the garlic. I smile as genuinely as I can.
I finish the food as she watches. We don't say much, sitting down in the living room to watch a movie after dinner. At some point both of us fall asleep. I wake up to Edward's voice in my ear.
"Hi," I say, sitting up and stretching. Rose must have gone to bed. He leads me to his bedroom, dim lights and soft sheets. I fall back on the bed and he stands next to it, unbuttoning his shirt. I watch, letting my eyes travel over the planes of his body as he undresses, finally standing in boxer briefs by the side of the bed.
"Where were you?" I ask. A test.
He looks down at me, shaking his head once.
Admonished, I turn my head away from him. I think of the gun hidden in the pantry.
Edward sits next to me, running his hand up my leg; the inside of my thigh. "Did Rose talk to you?"
There's a large mirror on the wall opposite us. My eyes are fixed on my own reflection. I suppose I could have guessed that conversation wasn't spontaneous.
"Are you okay?"
I watch myself nod.
He waits for me to look at him.
"I'm not forcing you into this. If you decide to be with me there are things you'll have to accept. That's one of them" His thumb slides over my hipbone. "But I'll take care of you. I'll give you anything you want. I'll do anything you ask me to."
"That's a dangerous thing to say."
"I know." He slides his hand lower. "But no matter what you have to choose."
I sit up and he starts to lift my shirt but I stop him, sliding off the bed and carefully dropping to my still-sore knees in front of him. He inhales sharply as I take him in my mouth, looking down at me through half-closed eyes.
"What are you doing?" he asks, his voice thick.
I pause, looking up. I see power. I see love.
I see a good man who does bad things.
"I'm making my choice."
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