If my heart had not been silent for well over a century, I am sure the sight before me would have stopped it. A petite brunette was stepping down from the driver's seat of an overloaded pick-up. She stretched unconsciously, no doubt stiff from hours of travel. The sunlight behind her, though diluted by thick clouds, perfectly illuminated her soft curves beneath a cotton t-shirt. The image burned behind my eyelids, even as I willed myself to remember that I could not afford to be distracted by her unexpected physical perfection.

Not that I expected Bella Swan to be anything short of perfect in any other way.

It was on her reputation that I had chosen the State of Washington as the location for my special dinner with select friends. I had researched the best caterers and specifically chosen her because she was well known to source all of her ingredients personally, from only organic suppliers of the highest standards. She could also proficiently prepare meals for up to a dozen people on her own.

Along with professional references, I'd done a full background check on Bella. More important than the raves reviews regarding her culinary talent was her unblemished reputation for discretion. This trait was appreciated by those clients who were not necessarily well known, but valued their privacy while indulging in activities that were less palatable to most of society.

The availability of the right caterer had led to a real estate search. I'd closed on the purchase of a multi-story, modern home a few weeks ago. There was ample room for my guests on the upper floors, with plenty of bedrooms featuring doors opening out onto balconies.

The house was well secluded. Bella's gaze was now traveling from one side to the other of my home's imposing façade; her lips moved as she counted the shining windows. She looked to the front door, to the coolers and boxes loaded high in her truck, and then to the long driveway that twisted through ancient trees more than a mile back to the state highway. Her long lashes seemed to beckon to me as she blinked, overwhelmed. She chewed her lip, and I heard her heart beat a little faster.

However, I could not hear a single thought from her mind, though I could sense a torrent behind those chocolate eyes. In my centuries of existence, I had never met anyone that I could not hear. The possibility was so unimaginable; I could hardly believe it. If I still slept, I might have wondered if it was a nightmare.

We stood on opposite sides of a wall of glass, myself invisible thanks to the light of the setting sun behind her. I could guess anxiety was starting to war with her professionalism. Should she enter, or would it be best for her to return to the safety of her vehicle, turn the engine on and never spare a glance in her rearview mirror?

She could not leave.

A crucial step in convincing others to come to my way of life was to show just how enjoyable my diet could be. This meant that I needed to serve the absolute best. I had been organizing this weekend-long retreat for over a year. More to the point, I had been planning an event like this in some fashion for several decades, ever since my mentor, Carlisle, had taught me about his way of life. I have more than embraced our form of vegetarianism, working alongside him for the greater good.

Not being able to monitor the thoughts of the human I had hired for this weekend was a complication. But, I would not allow it to be a reason for abandoning my plans or even distracting me from them. Pushing my worries and my curiosity about Miss Swan to the back of my mind, I opened the door and crossed the gravel driveway giving her my best, closed-lip smile.

Bella's eyes grew wide when she caught sight of me. Her mouth fell open as her breath caught and the rhythmic thumping of her heart lost a beat. I nearly stopped myself, frozen in alarm at the sudden absence of the alluring sound of her warm-blooded life. However, she composed herself quickly, giving me back my own composure. The brave girl even took a half step forward before I could meet her.

"You must be Bella Swan," I said, offering her my gloved hand.

She blinked several times before taking my hand briefly, but firmly. "Yes, are you Mr. Cullen?" she asked.

I repressed the urge to scowl at her formality and kept my voice light as I corrected her. "Edward, please. I feel as if we're old friends after all the phone calls and e-mails I've pestered you with."

"Friends?" she repeated her face scrunching up as if the word tasted sour in her mouth.

Something twisted inside me at her reaction. Humans often used the word "friend" to describe those they interacted with, so much so that it seemed to have virtually no meaning for that species. For myself, I had very few true friends, as I had so many reasons to be careful with those I trusted. Though I could not hear what she was thinking, part of me was sure that I had taken her by surprise. Bella imbued significant meaning in the word friend but did not particularly want me to use it toward her. Why? Could she somehow subconsciously sense that I would not be a good friend to her?

We stood there looking at each other.

"May I help you bring some of this inside?" I finally broke the tension. "You can pull around to the far corner. There's a ramp that leads into the kitchen so we won't have to manage the stairs."

Bella shook her head. "That won't be necessary," she said, moving protectively in front of the truck's tailgate. "As I explained, I can handle everything on my own."

Despite my anxiety, I smiled at her stubbornness. "Ah, but as I recall, our contract specified that you were to prepare your wondrous meals for my guests," I paused, for the next part had not been stated in any form in our formal agreement or any of the casual e-mails we'd previously traded. "We didn't say one way or the other whether I could assist you. If you didn't want me to help, you should have specified."

Bella crossed her arms over her chest. It did not escape my notice that the light t-shirt was somewhat see-through thanks to the slant of light. My gaze lingered and I could see a blush deepening the color of her skin from her face, down her neck, and lower, beneath that thin cotton.

I hadn't been with a female of my species or hers for well over a decade. In truth, I'd been too distracted by my work to miss the feeling of soft curves beneath my fingers. The way those long dormant desires flared up at just the sight of her standing before me was as unexpected as her silent mind. I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, pushing down the urges that could only be a distraction from my important work. I could handle my own baser instincts.

"We agreed that I would keep to myself in the kitchen," she said. "It seems a bit out of the spirit of our agreement to have you walking in and out."

"Humor me," I insisted. "As you might have guessed, I'm a bit of a foodie, and I'd love to get a sneak peek at your ingredients. Plus, it will help me work off some nervous energy before my event begins."

At this, she raised an eyebrow, "You don't have other things to do to get ready?"

I shook my head and raised my hands in a helpless gesture. "Months of proper planning has its downside."

She didn't answer, but got back into the truck, moving it to where I had suggested. I was careful to walk at a human pace to meet her. She had just gotten out and was reaching for a crate in the bed of her truck, her back turned to me. As she stretched, her shirt rose above the waist of her jeans, exposing an inch of porcelain skin. My mouth unexpectedly pooled with venom, but I swallowed both the poison in my mouth and the lust that was clouding my brain.

Bella turned back to me, a wooden crate of sugar pumpkins in her arms, which she handed to me silently. I smiled as she stared me in the face. Her eyes grew wider, and her breath hitched. A scent far more delicious than the pumpkins between us flavored the air. I didn't dare to move, and she still grasped the crate in her hands.

"Did you want to carry something yourself," I teased. "Or did you want me to just show you the kitchen and come back for the rest?"

Her sunset-rivaling blush deepened, and she let go of the crate and turned away, awkwardly climbing into the truck bed to grab another box. I shifted my own load to one arm, offering her my hand to help steady her as she jumped down. As my fingers connected with her elbow, I felt an electric hum pass between us. Bella swayed back and forth as if she felt it as well, but was torn between pulling away from me and pressing closer.

I took a deep breath to calm by scattered thoughts. However, because of my closeness to Bella as I inhaled, I had inadvertently pulled in her scent the way I would if I had been hunting. A long-forgotten monster inside of me growled in pleasure at her sweet blood.

"Are you all right?" she asked, her breath fanning across my face.

I opened my eyes, not having been aware I'd shut them. Looking at her eyes helped. Bella's gaze was concerned and innocent. It steadied me to think of her that way: kind, and in need of protection. I could control the monster inside of me, even if it meant having to take a double dose of the formula I'd been relying on for decades.

"I'm fine," I said. "Let me show you to the kitchen." Though my instincts were screaming at me to keep Bella locked in my gaze and close the small space between us, I turned away and led her down toward the subgrade doors and into the kitchen.

The basement needed to be completely remodeled after I purchased the property. I was more than capable of designing and installing the necessary mechanical systems to transform the below-ground space into a restaurant-quality kitchen with top of the line appliances. The men who delivered the professional ranges and the walk-in cooler were surprised at where they were to go but relieved that there was a ramp into the lower area. I could only imagine what they would think if they knew that the many thousands of dollars' worth of equipment were all for one person to use for only one weekend.

Hiring Bella Swan was not a risk I took lightly, but I thought I was well prepared.

I had also designed and furnished a comfortable apartment alongside the kitchen in the basement. To be sure my human chef would have no reason to be bored and want to stray from this area, I installed a flat screen television and blue-ray player. A floor-to-ceiling bookcase was stocked with not only her favorite titles (hacking an Amazon account is laughably easy) but many more films and books that were recommended for her by the online company that could predict a human's minds almost as well as I could. Not satisfied with the look once I had placed my purchases for Bella in there, I filled up the remaining space with some of my own books, which showed a bit of age.

"Wow," she paused upon entering the kitchen, while my thoughts traveled to the king-sized bed I was suddenly anxious to show her. She ran her fingers over the main work table, taking in all the shining stainless steel. "I may never want to leave this place."

A soft growl escaped me once again before I could suppress it and pass it off as a laugh and a cough. "If what I've heard about your skills is true, my guests and I just may not want to let you leave."

An uncomfortable silence passed between us, as I realized there was more truth to that statement than I wanted to admit. In the mere minutes that I had been in Bella's presence, I had become attached to her in a way that was unwise. I tried to distract both of us from that thought, "So, I assume these pumpkins are for our first-course soup tonight?"

"Yes," she said. "I need to get them roasting right away."

I waved a hand to the ovens, and Bella started setting the temperature she needed and getting the gourds scrubbed and into pans. I watched in fascination as she moved gracefully from one task to another. She was so focused on her work, I was able to stand back and watch for much longer than humans would find normal or polite. Her heart rate became slower as her awareness of me faded.

Dancers performing ballet could not rival the beautiful and precise execution of their movement the way Bella set out her ingredients, washing, chopping, and managing several pans on the range top while keeping her senses tuned to the ovens, which she opened to retrieve roasted vegetables at precisely the right moment.

It occurred to me just how much I had been looking forward to being able to do this. It had frustrated me talking with her on the phone, not only because I wrongly assumed I would be able to hear her thoughts when we were together, but because I was so intrigued by her mind. I wanted to know if her external beauty was a match for her soul.

It certainly was, I thought to myself as I remembered the most critical conversation we'd had by phone:

"I do have one unusual request," I had begun.

As if she had expected it, I could tell she was trying to muffle a laugh on her end of the call. "I'm sure it won't be the most unusual I've heard," she'd promised.

My grin was no doubt evident in my reply, "I need you to stay completely out of the areas where my guests and I will be entertaining. Your apartment for the weekend is connected directly to the kitchen, and I'll ask that you not wander from either of those areas."

There had been a pause.

"I thought you said you didn't want to hire any servers," she finally spoke, her tone and choice of words careful. "How did you want to present the meals?"

"I have a dumbwaiter and cart," I responded. "I'll take care of everything else."

"Okay," Bella replied. "This isn't because I'm a woman is it?"

"Of course not," I would feel fury at whoever had disrespected Bella for her to have that thought. "My guests and I are very careful about our privacy. And there will be a lot of …" I paused. "… delicate conversations. It will make things much easier for me to know that we don't have to worry about being overheard by someone who isn't knowledgeable or loyal to our cause."

"You mean a cause other than living organic?" Bella began, but then quickly added. "Forget I asked that. I have no problem staying in my own part of the building. I absolutely respect the privacy of you and your guests. I was just a bit concerned about not being able to get feedback on the courses I serve, or make sure that every dish is presented in time for it to be the proper temperature."

"I assure you," I told her. "I will personally be responsible for making sure the dishes don't sit too long. And I will be happy to pass on the feedback from all of my guests."

"Okay," she said with much more calm and certainty.

I was surprised that she didn't push further. "That's all you were concerned about?" I prompted. "You will agree to stay out of sight?"

"Of course, Mr. Cullen," she assured me. "I respect my client's wishes. As long as you are as committed to organic food prepared well and not allowed to sit and lose the quality, then I have no problem with any other requests you have regarding your event."

I should have ended the call then, but my curiosity was piqued. Would Bella refrain from asking personal questions if I didn't show her the same courtesy? "I'm glad to hear it," I said. "What drew you to cooking with only organic ingredients?"

"I'm afraid it's not that interesting of a story," she replied. Nevertheless, she did not seem eager to end the phone call. Perhaps I could test my skill at interpreting someone's mind without actually hearing their thoughts.

"I'm always interested in people's thoughts on this particular subject," I replied. Which was not at all true. In fact, it was not the subject matter, but Bella Swan herself that had me captivated and not wanting to end the call.

"Well," Bella said. "First off, I think more of us should remember that as recently as one hundred years ago, organic food wasn't a choice. There wasn't such thing as non-organic food because all the chemicals that are so often used in commercial farming hadn't been invented, yet."

Oh, I was well aware of that fact. It was something I thought about every day.

"So, you are intrigued by the historical aspect?" I prompted. Would she be interested in the stories I could share with her of the past? But no, I reprimanded myself. I couldn't think that way because for Bella Swan to know me would be far too dangerous for her.

However, that did not stop me from wanting to know her. Therefore, we continued to talk about her training and how she had built her business. I kept expecting her to mention some negative experience that had led to her strong commitment to organic. Perhaps a relative that had developed cancer, or a friend that was put out of business by big agriculture.

But, it never came to that. Bella seemed to be a rare individual who was committed to good just for goodness sake. She had a very clear sense of right and wrong, but she also expected each individual to make that choice on their own. She was not the type to be picketing organizations or lecturing others who didn't see the world as she did.

After several phone calls in which we discussed mostly food, I felt as if I knew Bella Swan, even though we never got into our personal lives. She was good, I was sure. I trusted her, which was extremely unusual when dealing with my own kind and unprecedented when dealing with a human. I'd regretted that my talent for reading people did not work over the telephone. It would be a great disappointment if the inner thoughts of this woman did not match what she had shared with me willingly.

My feelings as I now watched Bella use the kitchen I designed specifically for her, putting her skills to use for me and my expected guests, could not be described as disappointed. I wasn't sure how I would define them. It was beyond frustrating that I could not hear her; even embarrassing to be so caught off guard by the unprecedented situation. However, I would not have replaced her with anyone else.

We were both pulled out of our individual bubbles by the sound of the doorbell.

I cleared my throat as she looked up and our eyes again locked. "That will be the first guest," I explained needlessly. "As our contract stated, I would like you to stay out of sight. Just call if you need help finding anything or have any questions."

"Considering it was about a half mile walk from your front foyer to here, I don't think you'd be able to hear me if I did call to you," she mumbled, then added more explicitly, "I'm sure I'll be just fine."

I smirked and took the cell phone out of my pocket. "I meant on this, of course."

"Oh," Bella blushed and looked down at the chopped vegetables in front of her. "Of course."

I walked away from her, my ears trained on her heartbeat. It rose as I exited the kitchen as if part of her was aware of the danger lurking on my doorstep.

But, no, I thought to myself. There would be no threat to Bella. I wouldn't have hired a human chef for this event if there was any risk. If there was one thing I was sure of, it was the effectiveness of the formula I had developed. All of the vampires coming for this weekend had been taking it long enough and would be just as able as I was to resist the sweet scent of my hired cook's blood.

Yet, my anxiety increased the farther away from her I moved, and I could not stop myself from focusing more than was wise on the sound of her beating heart. Though I could not afford the distraction, I could not fully tear my mind away from the only sound of life within these walls, even as more and more of my guests arrived.

Bella's dinner was an unqualified success. All of my guests praised her skill, and more than one asked me to share her contact information so they could make her an offer. For some reason, I refused. Though I knew that it would be a mistake for me to see her again after this weekend, it troubled me to think of her working for another vampire.

She followed my instructions and stayed in the kitchen, using the dumbwaiter to send each course up to the ground floor while I sent the empty dishes back down to her. After dessert, I took the stairs, interrupting her cleaning and prep for tomorrow to make sure she would be comfortable in the room I had prepared for her.

The necessity of having her follow behind me and out of sight meant that I became even more focused on her with my other senses. Her heartbeat was fast becoming the most important sound in the universe, and I thought I would forever be able to pick it out from miles away. Her scent, so close, made me feel a little drunk. The heat from her body warmed my back as if I was leading a blazing fire along the hallway.

After an excruciatingly long minute, we arrived at her room, and I stepped aside after opening the door. Bella's eyes grew wide at the floor to ceiling bookcase that was across from the king-sized bed.

"Help yourself to anything you're interested in," I told her.

"I'm not sure," she hesitated, before walking over and touching one spine with her index finger. "Some of these look like antiques. I wouldn't want to damage one."

I shook my head and let out a small laugh. "Books are meant to be read, not treated as precious artifacts only to be admired from a distance. It would please me to know you have something to occupy yourself with for the evening since you've agreed to not leave your room."

"I see no reason to leave," she said with a smile. "If you're sure you don't mind me reading one."

I shook my head, "I don't mind at all," I said. I wanted to help her make a selection or ask her about what she typically liked to read, but I was distracted by an impatient thought coming from the dining room. "Please enjoy yourself. You still have your phone with you?"

Bella nodded, and I smiled.

"If there's anything you need, I will be happy to bring it to you," I promised. "Good night, Bella." I walked out and closed the door behind me. Part of me wished to lock it, but I couldn't make her a prisoner.

I laid my hand on the wooden surface, wishing I could hear her thoughts so that I had an idea of whether she was enjoying herself, or whether she was at all anxious to be here. Still, she was silent except for the metronome of her heart. That would have to be enough to keep me focused.

When I returned to the dining room, I was met with the gaze and thoughts of seven curious vampires. All but one I was pleased to see and hear. Caius Volturi, the most recent vegetarian, was being far more guarded with his thoughts than the others, and I struggled not to frown at him in consternation.

"Well," I began. "Now that we've had our dinner, let's begin our meeting. I called us together to discuss a recent discovery that threatens our way of life. I believe we must now be move vigilant than we ever have."

The reaction to this announcement was a swarm of varied thoughts. There were a few who correctly suspected what I was referring to; the others were curious and uncertain. Caius was suddenly focusing his thoughts on translating the works of Shakespeare into Arabic.

I locked my focus on his voice, wondering if I could catch a hint at what he might be hiding. But, I then heard the pattering of water on tile. I was distracted by the thought that my cook must be getting ready to shower. On instinct, I paced back to the door, placing myself between her and the other vampires. I swallowed as the image of Bella slipping her clothes off her soft, creamy skin and stepping into the stream of hot water completely took over my mind.

"What is this threat?" Jasper Whitlock asked, breaking my distraction; his hand gripping his mate Alice's shoulder. In his mind, I could hear various military strategies remembered from his years in the Southern wars.

"It is nothing quite so straight-forward as that, my friend," I said with a grimace. "We here in this room are probably more informed about the human business of agriculture than any of our race."

Kate Denali snorted indelicately. "Of course we are," she said. "Why would anyone else be interested in corn and grain, since we are the only ones who actually eat it?"

I nodded. "It's true that I had hoped more of our kind would be willing to take advantage of the formula my father developed. I personally believe that after the initial transition is made, it can be just as satisfying to eat human food, as it is to live off human blood. It may be less convenient to imbibe a few times a day, as humans do, and to always remember to take the formula with your meals, but I think our feast tonight proves just how much joy there can be in the culinary arts."

The last phrase brought my thoughts back to Bella. Her heart was picking up, but I could still hear the shower running. She hadn't hurt herself, had she? I knew that if it were serious, I would hear something more. Yet, despite my need to focus on what was happening in this room, I inhaled deeply trying to detect if there was a stronger trace of her blood in the air. I assured myself that each precious drop was still safely ensconced in her body, but the scent was spiked with the tang of heightened adrenalin.

Jasper fidgeted, revealing how much he had assimilated into human society. His muscles would never grow stiff, but his mind was uncomfortable, and he had picked up the habit of moving to show it.

"You don't need to convince us of the benefits of your way of life, Edward," he spoke softly, but with certainty. "You need to tell us if there is a threat to it, for that would obviously affect all of us."

I nodded, still reading the thoughts in the room. Caius' repetition of Hamlet was distracting me. I could only stall and gather information for so long; he did not seem to be slipping. Could I assume I knew what he was trying to hide?

"The threat is not something we can fight with our strength," I continued. "But, I am hopeful we can use our intellect and influence to ensure a promising future for us, as well as the humans."

The room was silent as every amber eye was focused on me. I heard a small gasp, and I pictured chocolate eyes widening under the steady stream I could still hear running. But, it was not a cry of pain. The small moan, which no doubt everyone could hear was unmistakable. Alice's head turned slightly, but otherwise, no one commented. Privacy was always a matter of choice with our kind. No one was as interested in the sounds Bella was making in her shower as I was. And, I knew I could not risk being too interested.

"The threat," I stated trying to keep my voice calm, "is coming from something invisible even to our eyes. It is a killer; beyond the ways it was intended. I am speaking of a gene, developed by a group of humans intent on controlling the food supply, and thereby controlling the wealth of the entire planet. It is a genetic modification to nearly all the seeds planted, sold by an organization that rivals the fiercest of our kind in its heartlessness and hunger for power.

Most commonly called the terminator gene by humans, it makes plants sterile, forcing farmers to return to the corporation for seeds that will actually produce more food. It was banned by most governments, but recently it was discovered that this gene, is, in fact, in most plants grown by farmers today.

And, though scientists have yet to prove it has an effect on the humans who eat it, the Terminator Gene most definitely has an effect on vampires. It does not interfere with our ability to digest food that is noticeable at the time of consumption. However, in our system, it has the opposite effect of my father's formula. Rather than allowing our bodies to get strength and nourishment from the food, it takes from our bodies, terminating our control and heightening our desire for blood."

Silence and absolute stillness met my long prepared speech. Far above us, I heard sheets being pulled down, and a mattress being compressed where a warm body would one seemed to react but me, my head turning slightly as if I could see, as well as hear Bella as she stretched in the bed I had acquired for her.

I blinked, bringing my focus back to the room where I stood. I glanced around at the faces all frozen like waxworks.

I worried that I had made all of my guests go into shock. However, a moment later, a barrage of mental questions and protests hit me as if I were a politician facing a room of reporters.

How could this be true?

Does he have proof?

Are we the only ones that know this?

I raised my hand to quiet the storm, forcing them to focus their thoughts on me once again. "The first thing we must all do is be aware of the threat," I stated. "If you have paid attention, you know that there are efforts to rid the food supply of GMOs, and the organic supply is not yet tainted."

"But, if you were only warning us to eat organic, you wouldn't have brought us here," Kate guessed correctly.

I nodded. "Unfortunately, life, even in the form of plants, is unpredictable and hard to track. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it resists being contained. From what I've learned, there is a significant risk that this gene can move from one plant to another without human effort." In my head, I added, or vampiric efforts, but kept that thought to myself.

"So, you are asking us to help the humans who are trying to ban GMOs," Alice stated quietly. "Vampires have not interfered in human concerns in that way for centuries. To involve ourselves may risk exposure."

"I believe the risk of doing nothing far outweighs the risk of revealing ourselves," I answered. "Especially if we plan well and are careful."

Jasper nodded at me gravely. "So you have brought us together to strategize."

"Yes," I said. "And I did so with much thought. I know I've given you a lot to consider." My head was actually beginning to ache a bit from the level of their thoughts. "Tomorrow we shall begin to form a plan, but I think we should take the time to think individually overnight."

Caius raised his eyebrow in surprise. What had he been expecting, I wondered.

"As you know," I said, tapping my temple, "I can't give you much privacy while we are within a few miles of each other." The general buzz of thoughts at this was that they did remember and had no objections, but I continued. "This location was chosen because there are thousands of acres of preservation land around us. I know a good run can help me think, and I will be staying here so your thoughts may be your own."

Kate rose to her feet. "Are you banishing us, Edward?"

"Of course not," I told her. "I'm just telling you that you are free to stay or go as you wish. You each have your own room that I've made as comfortable for you as I can. But, you are under no obligation to remain where you know I will have access to your thoughts." I paused before continuing. "I have put my trust in each of you before, and I'm sure I will again. So, I have no concern about seeing everyone here tomorrow night."

Though they did not leave immediately, one by one my guests slipped away. Their mind's voices went quiet as the distance between us increased. Caius was the first, his mind buzzing with the Odyssey in Homer's original Greek. Kate was thinking of me in ways that made the gentleman in me a bit uncomfortable, and I was thankful when she decided to go for a run. Alice and Jasper were also somewhat distracted by thoughts that were better held in private.

True to my word, I did not leave the building. The thump-thump of Bella's heart grew louder to my ears as each distraction faded. Though I could stand perfectly still for days, I wandered from room to room like an anxious human. Again and again, I became aware that I was circling Bella's room in smaller and smaller circles, and I would banish myself to the opposite side of the building.

In the earliest hours of the next day, about two am, I couldn't resist her pull any longer. Though I hated myself for it as I slid open her window and climbed inside, the sight of her curled on her side in bed was irresistible. I watched her as her eyes moved in sleep, wishing I could hear her thoughts or know her dreams.

"Edward," she sighed, as her body relaxed and she turned. I was frightened she was awake and had seen me, but I then saw that her eyes were still closed and moving rapidly.

She was dreaming of me.

My still heart burned in my chest. But, there was another burn in my throat. Something I had not felt for many years. I inhaled her scent, and the fire grew stronger.

What was happening to me? I felt as if I were going mad. My eyesight was reduced to a pinprick of light, and all I could see besides a black tunnel was a single vein in her neck, pulsing, beckoning me closer. I had noticed the uniquely delicious scent of her blood when we first met, but it was something else now. I felt incapable of seeing anything else. Venom pooled in my mouth at an unwelcome image of me sinking my teeth into her supple flesh.

This should not be happening. I should not be thirsty or hungry after taking the formula before her amazing dinner. Yet, there was no denying the long-suppressed thirst was now stronger.

I reached out a finger. Surely, just touching her skin, feeling her pulse would not be such a sin. However, I was not in control of myself, and what was intended to be a ghost of a touch was enough to rouse her from her sleep.

Bella's eyes flew open, and she sat up with a shriek.

The entire room filled my sight again, and my ears were now attuned to sounds besides Bella's racing heart. I heard the far-off thoughts of other vampires, and I was shocked perhaps more deeply than the frightened girl in front of me. From the thoughts I could hear, another was as focused on Bella's heart as I had been before she woke. But, he was not quite so concerned with keeping his thirst at bay.

Unable to take the time to explain, I pulled Bella from the bed, throwing her over my shoulder as I started to run. But, where could we go? I was fast, even for my kind, but I had no hope of outrunning the hunters I could hear coming while carrying the girl. I passed the front door, flinching away from the cool draft of fresh air and the sudden vision of being pursued over the mountains.

If we couldn't run to escape, I needed to hide her somewhere safe. But what door could keep out one of my kind? No wood was heavy enough, and human locks would be useless? I needed time to think, to create a plan. The thub-thub of Bella's heart was distracting me. If I had had my full brainpower, I never would have come up with such a foolish idea. Before I could comprise a better plan, I found myself pulling open the heavy steel door of the walk-in pantry.

I deposited Bella on a crate of potatoes while I grabbed one of the storage racks and twisted it into a long straight shape. Though I could bend the metal, I couldn't snap it in half. This gave me hope that it would be strong enough to withstand the attack I knew would soon be coming.

"What are you doing?"Bella gasped through chattering teeth as she looked up at me. "Why were you in my room? Why are we here?"

"At least I didn't choose the freezer," I answered, more to myself than to her. It had crossed my mind, briefly wondering if the cold would decrease the potency of her scent.

I squeezed the bridge of my nose, angry with myself for not thinking of how the temperature would affect my fragile human. I should have wrapped blankets around her before leaving the room. But, although Bella may not be comfortable in this space dressed as she was, I didn't have to worry about hypothermia setting in. The cold she felt was probably due more to the shock and fear of being pulled from her bed.

"Don't touch the walls," I told her as I twisted the makeshift brace around the door handle in the form of a crude knot. "It will lower your body temperature faster." I didn't think it was possible, but her heart was beating even faster now as I heard the thoughts of hunting vampires getting closer and closer.

"What the hell is going on?" Bella said. "I knew I should have never taken this job. All those crazy rules. Are you people some kind of psycho drug addicts?"

"Drugs?" I repeated incredulously.

"You shouldn't be able to carry me as fast as you did," she seemed to be speaking mostly to herself.

I was nearly overwhelmed with the smell of Bella's blood, but there was something else that I did not expect. The smell of vegetables just starting to rot.

"What is that smell?" I said aloud. I was answered by an incredulous look from Bella and more bangs on the metal door.

I moved away as if drawn by a magnet, not toward Bella's delicious blood, but the strange odor that did not make sense. In the far corner of the cooler, there were sugar pumpkins, sliced open and half-baked. The increased temperature and poor handling had caused them to begin to decay. I picked one up and sniffed, the scent of vampire was detectable over the disgusting rot.

"What?" Bella started, staring in confusion at the pumpkin in my hand.

We were interrupted from our thoughts and each other by the first BANG on the other side of the door. I could hear the vampire try the handle first, but thankfully, my quick work of the rack made the normal way of opening the door impossible, even with greater-than-human strength. Our pursuer gave up on the handle and began throwing himself against the door, impatient and crazed enough to think he could break the steel more easily than he could the lock.

"What's that?" Bella gasped, now standing and pressing herself against the far wall of the cooler.

"Thatis a complication," I stated, my voice flat.

"A complication?" her voice raised, as she started to panic and the thuds on the door of the cooler came louder and faster. I managed to stay calm only by seeing how little the effect each impact was making to the shape of our shelter.

"Whoever is trying to break through that door is acting like they're on PCP or something," Bella said, mostly to herself. "Either it's drugs, or I'm having a totally bizarre nightmare."

I couldn't help it when a laugh escaped. How absolutely human she was; when faced with the supernatural, she would create scenarios far more ridiculous than the truth. I regretted my levity at once. For not only did Bella's face twist in anger and her hands ball into fists, but I was forced to inhale to recover the oxygen I had expelled.

I lifted the pumpkin in front of my face and breathed through it as if it were a thick, orange, surgical mask. The rotting flesh wasn't a very efficient filter, only slightly distracting me from the sweet allure of her adrenalin-spiked blood.

I lowered the gourd and started to get closer, but caught myself and took a step back instead. "Bella," I spoke carefully in my most calming tone. "Did you see anyone near your ingredients before dinner, was anyone else in the kitchen?"

"No," she said. "You told me to stay away from the guests, and no one came into the kitchen."

"Are you sure you didn't notice anything strange?" I pushed. "Did you leave the ovens unsupervised for any time at all?" With that, I held up the disgusting, half-baked gourd.

Bella's eyes went wide.

"The only time I left the kitchen before the food was served was to go to the bathroom," she insisted, still trying to make sense when danger ran unchecked by logic. "It would have been nearly impossible for someone to remove all those from of the oven and replace them. It would have taken several trips carrying the hot trays."

A noise of derision escaped me, not at Bella's understandable innocence, but my own foolish trust and distraction.

Before I could think of what to do next, we were interrupted by Caius' mind-voice. "Edward, open the door. Stop hiding from your true nature. I will show you what you've been missing all these years living like a sheep when you should be a lion."

"My true nature is shown in my choices," I answered aloud.

"What are you talking about," Bella asked, her face wrinkled in confusion.

How could I explain all of this to the beautiful cook who had unknowingly served poison to a roomful of vampires, which would most likely lead to her own death?

As Caius continued his wheedling inner-monologue, I looked into the chocolate brown eyes of the girl. Yes, my vampire side wanted her blood, but there was more to her than what I could smell in the air. There was more to me than the monster that demanded a taste.

"Bella," I spoke gently, blocking out the thoughts of the killer on the other side of the cooler door. "I am truly sorry for putting you in this position. Please know that I didn't plan for this. But, you are in terrible danger right now, and I need for you to trust me if I am going to get you out of this house alive."

"It will never happen," came Caius thoughts. "You can't stay in there forever."

I turned and spoke to the door, my own reflection staring back at me in the cold silver metal. "We can stay in here longer than you can stay out there," I replied. "We have enough food to sustain us for at least a week; I doubt you thought to pack your own snacks." I winced at the euphemism. "Not to mention, the others will be back soon."

This time, he answered me aloud. "Why do you think they would help you and not me? Thanks to your girl's tasty meal tonight, all of them will be craving her blood, just as you are."

Bella's eyes grew wide with fear.

"Please, try to stay calm, Bella," I said, swallowing the venom that was pooling in my mouth. "I promise you I am in control, and he's just trying to make your adrenaline spike."

"It's working," she whispered.

On the other side of the door, Caius' cackle was ostentatious.

"Edward," Bella called my name tentatively. "I trust you. Please, just tell me what is going on."

I explained it all. How the stories she had read about the monsters from the Dark Ages were not just metaphor or superstition. How vampires had ruled over her kind for centuries, staying just out of sight. Of how my mentor had developed the key to our peaceful existence.

"So, Monsanto is run by vampires?" Bella interrupted me when I got to the part about the Terminator Gene's effect on our ability to consume human food.

Despite the seriousness of our situation, I broke out into a crooked grin. "No, Bella," I said. "The company is run by humans. But the tendency of your species toward greed and indifference to your own kind's future is just as dangerous as those who want to drink your blood. It just takes longer for them to kill."

I was talking for so long; Bella seemed to forget about the other vampire outside the door. She jumped at the sound of his voice as I ended my soliloquy.

"You shouldn't mess with the way things are, Edward," Caius said. "We were meant to survive on our true nourishment. You and Carlisle have attempted to make us weak, but I will bring an end to your little experiment."

Bella looked around the pantry and suddenly grabbed a long narrow box. I cocked my head in confusion as she started to roll out parchment paper, and then grabbed a sharpie from another box on the table.

How long can he stay out there; will he have to sleep when the sun comes up? She wrote.

I shook my head and started to answer, but Bella put a finger to my lips and handed me the marker. I was amazed at her bravery for placing a piece of her so close to my teeth. More than that, I realized she was trusting that I would find a way to save us both, trying to keep our conversation private from the murderous vampire on the other side of the door, but I couldn't imagine how it would help.

Seeing no point in trying to shield her from the truth of our desperate situation, I humored her by writing underneath her question.

He won't sleep. He could stand outside for days – until he needed to hunt.

Bella's face scrunched in confusion at the last word. As the realization hit her, she took a shuddering breath.

"Feeling a little chilly, human?" Caius taunted.

Bella turned her head to stare at the door, but instead of the fear I expected to see, her face was full of anger, disgust, and determination.

"I'm a chef," she answered. "We can handle both being in a freezer and standing in front of a hot stove for a long time."

She gritted her teeth before writing on the parchment again,

Will he need to hide from the sunlight coming through the windows?

I shook my head gravely. I could have left it at that, but I wanted her to know more. I was growing certain that this girl would be the last person I ever spoke to. Caius would not let us escape. I could probably win a fight with him if I had no distraction, but he would use my need to protect Bella against us. I had seen it too many times in battle, and I knew that if she were hurt, I would be at his mercy.

Sunlight makes us weak but doesn't cause any lasting damage. I wrote back.

She looked around the room I feared would be our tomb. Bella remained more hopeful than I. She turned back to the parchment.

Could we attack with a stake to the heart? We could probably carve one out of a rolling pin.

I took the pen back. That's a myth. Our skin is too hard to be damaged by a blunt element.

Bella nodded, but still looked determined. She started rubbing her hands over her arms to warm herself. I could see the gooseflesh rising on her skin as she gave up warming herself with friction. I wished I could do that for her, but it would probably just make her colder.

She rolled the parchment back over the table and read it again, reviewing our silent conversation, trying to digest this frightening reality that monsters were real.

Suddenly, she pushed the marked paper off the edge of the table. The ferocity of her expression was in total contrast to the soft sound of the light material floating down to gather in folds on the floor and the roll vibrating as it spun inside the cardboard box. For the first time, her hand was shaking as she formed the words.

You're not telling me something. There has to be a way to hurt him. He's threatening you, so there must be a way for vampires to hurt each other.

I sighed but again decided to be truthful with her. I wrote:

He plans to rip my body apart.

Bella grew pale as she took in those words. It was as if the thought of Caius hurting me frightened her in a way that being in danger herself didn't.

Unable to think of anything better to do, I went on.

It's a slow process, and even then, it's only permanent destruction if the pieces are burned.

Her eyes now went wide, and she turned away from the words to look into my face. She mouthed the words silently, "burned?"

I nodded, curious as to what she might be thinking. She wrote,

So, fire can harm a vampire?

I nodded again. Then my mouth fell open as Bella rolled her eyes and started to laugh a bit.

Caius' thoughts were pleased, and he called through the door. "Is the hysteria setting in? You won't have much longer, Edward."

Bella was still smiling. She turned away from me and started grabbing small metal containers from the back area of the pantry. She laid them in a line on the table next to our parchment, and then looked at me expectantly.

I raised an eyebrow at the small containers.

She wrote,

If the sun is out now, will you be too weak to make it to my truck?

I shook my head no, which was the answer to her question, but also a sign of my puzzlement. I had never wanted to hear someone's thoughts more.

Now, instead of words, Bella drew a rough sketch of the pantry. She laid out her plan, and I began to feel a weight lifting from my chest. This girl was brave and smart. I made a few adjustments to her sketch and strategy, wanting to keep her father from any possible harm. Her plot could work, but only if the timing was absolutely perfect.

Finally, we agreed, and I spoke through the door.

"Caius," I called for his attention unnecessarily. Bella moved away from me, gathering the tools she needed: a long buffet tray, a can opener, and a large box of silver cylinders.

"I'm still here," he said. "And I have no doubt I will see the rest of your little party soon. The sun will be up in a few minutes."

"I know they'll be back before long, which is why I want to make a deal with you," I swallowed. "Let the girl go. Let her get into her truck and drive away. She's an innocent bystander, and I know it's really me you want to destroy."

Caius scoffed. "Oh how touching," he said. "Do you really think that's offering me something of value? I can kill you and have the girl as my victory toast if I just wait you out."

Bella met my eyes as she used the can opener on the last of the metal cylinders, pouring the jellied substance into a large hotel pan. It was fortunate that she was so careful about NOT storing it near the ovens, and had placed the box near the vegetables in the pantry. It was the one bit of luck on this luckless night.

"But you're not really sure if you'll be able to wait us out, are you?" I asked. "You were bluffing earlier about the others taking your side. You don't really know how strong the effects of the gene are for the quantities we consumed. If the others are able to resist their thirst and hunger, they may fight for us, rather than with you."

"What is your offer in exchange for the girl?" he whispered, and I knew I had him.

"My life," I said. Though I had explained this to her, Bella winced at my words. "You may or may not be able to persuade the others, and you may not have to if the food supply continues to be tainted. But, I know that's only part of what you really want. I know how much you hate me for my choice."

"You are an abomination," came his thought. He wouldn't say it aloud because he feared the emotional reaction to my decision was a weakness. He wanted to pretend he was rational in his feelings about the vegetarian lifestyle, but he was anything but.

Bella and I both stared at the metal door, prepared for the moment we hoped was coming.

"Open the door," he said aloud. Though it was buried beneath an image of him letting her run to her truck while tearing me apart, I sensed his real intent was to kill Bella as soon as the door was open. He would then be coming to me. I repressed the growl at this thought, but his underhandedness and arrogance at believing himself to be more cunning than me was part of what Bella and I were anticipating.

I removed the twisted metal rack from the handle and heard his excitement grow. Across the room, Bella's breath and heartbeat increased. We met each other's gaze, and with a small nod, both acted at the same moment.

I opened the door and threw myself behind it, allowing Caius to burst into the cooler and lock eyes with Bella, who was now wearing a fireproof apron and gloves. She dropped the lighter in her left hand into the large metal tray in her right. I heard the great whoosh of air as oxygen raced to be consumed by the fire that ignited in the fuel of over a dozen Sterno cans.

If the evil creature had stopped to consider his plan or tried to come after me, he might have lived. But because he was focused on getting to Bella as quickly as he could, he ran straight into a wall of liquid flame as Bella tossed the metal tray into the air in front of her, then turned her back to the flames as she ducked behind the wall of pans we had crudely assembled.

The little droplets of fire were everywhere. Although he could dodge the pan, which still held the majority of the Sterno, he could not avoid being hit. Super-sweet smoke filled the room as tiny fingers of flame tunneled into his rock-like limbs and torso, searching out venom, which was even more reactive than the chemical weapon we had created.

I called for Bella through the haze.

"Edward, run!" she screamed back to me.

I stood, frozen in fear as Caius' flaming corpse fell forward, onto the rotted pumpkins that had been central to his plan. I couldn't see, beyond that, even with my super-human eyesight, the smoke was so thick. I was afraid for Bella, and uncertain where there might still be small pools of liquid flame. I couldn't take a step for fear of accidentally coming in contact with the fire that would catch onto my flesh as it had with Caius.

Suddenly, I was hit in the stomach and pushed backward, miraculously landing on bare floor. Even more astonishing, as my arm reached out to steady myself, I felt the frame of the door.

I wrapped my arms tight around the warm body that was clinging to me, and raced through the opening, swinging the cursed metal door behind me to what could have been our tomb.

Bella coughed into my shoulder, and I lowered us both to the ground. I could feel the heat coming from the fire in the cooler as it radiating through the floor. I would need to move her further away, but first I needed to know how badly she was hurt.

"Edward, are you all right?" she coughed and gasped the words while looking wide-eyed into my face.

"I'm fine," I assured her. "Don't move too much, you might have broken something."

She shook her head violently. "I'm all right," she said. Her breathing was raspy from inhaling some of the smoke, and her heart was still beating too fast, but she didn't have any burns, cuts or broken bones.

I sighed in relief, and gently pulled her to her feet. I was tempted to carry her but settled on holding her hands and guiding her as we made our way outside at a fast human pace. I opened the door to her truck and set her on the driver's seat. It was then I remembered that her keys were still likely in her room, but I couldn't take the time to retrieve them.

Before Bella could protest, I ripped open the steering column and twisted the wires together to start her engine. I then closed the door and backed away.

Bella didn't start driving as I expected. Instead, she rolled down her window and leaned out to ask me, "What are you doing?"

"I'm waiting for you to drive away to safety," I scowled at her. "Caius may be gone, but the others will be here soon. You need to get away from all of us."

"I don't need to get away from you," she protested.

"Bella," I growled. "Don't be difficult."

"I'll leave if you'll tell me when I'll see you again," she paused before adding, "And you have to mean it."

I shook my head, which thankfully contained only my own thoughts. The other vampires were still off in the distance. Nevertheless, I didn't want to take the risk of them returning and having their thirst ignited by my Bella's sweet blood.

"I can't let you be part of my world, Bella," I said. Though I had no intention of truly removing her from my life. She would never know when I would be near her, ensuring she was safe.

"You don't get to decide, Edward," she said, now opening her door and stepping out of the still running truck. "We were a team in there," she pointed toward the building. "You can't just decide to go on without me."

"Bella," I sighed. "You don't know what you're asking me."

Bella frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. "Let me give it a try; I'm asking you to trust me to keep your secret and for you to not shut me out. I'm asking you to let me help you get more vampires on your side and spread the word about the Terminator Gene's effects."

"You don't understand the risk," I cut her off. "Caius was just one vampire. There are hundreds more out there."

"Exactly," Bella said, pointing a finger at my chest. "And I'm at risk, just like every other human if they have no hope of controlling their thirst."

I gasped at her use of the term, and the truth in her statement.

"I'll be safer with you," she continued, then gave me a wry smile. "Besides, do you think you can find a better chef to help you convince others that human food is good enough to sacrifice blood for?"

I considered what she was saying, and the future she was offering me. Why couldn't it be as she was suggesting? It's not as if she was asking me to change her into a vampire. The thought of having Bella by my side, of hearing her stories, watching over her for the rest of our life, as we each worked for the greater cause: a cause, which before tonight we had both shared but for different reasons.

"Okay," I said, with a smirk. "But I'm driving."

I lifted her back into the truck, placing her in the passenger seat as I slid behind the wheel. I wanted to put some distance between us and the other vampires who had come to hear my warning this weekend. Between the effects of the inorganic pumpkin and the fearful smell of a burning Caius hanging in the air, I didn't think it was the time or place to have a reasonable conversation with them.

We would need to find Carlisle, and let him know what had happened.

But somehow, through it all, I could see a future with the beautiful girl beside me.


I reluctantly removed my lips from the pulsing neck vein, looking up into chocolate brown eyes that were full of confusion.

"What are you doing?" Bella grumbled angrily. "I wasn't done kissing you, yet."

I laughed at her mock anger, placing another soft and gentle kiss on her neck. Though she still smelled better to me than anyone I had ever encountered, my thirst for her blood had been manageable once my system was cleansed of the Terminator gene tainted food. It was sweet torture to show my affection to her throat; we both enjoyed it far too much to ever stop.

"I wasn't done either," I assured my beautiful human. "But the producer will be coming to speak to you in five seconds."

Bella frowned, and I gave her one more reassuring squeeze before releasing her. She made a small sound of protest at the loss of my arms from her waist. I was just settling into a chair on the other side of the dressing room when there was a knock on the door. I grinned wickedly at her.

"Show off," Bella mouthed at me, before calling out, "Come in."

. The woman who entered was thinking of several things at once, but her mind nearly stopped when she saw me eyeing Bella with desire. Though my girl's mind still remained silent to me, I now knew her well enough to imagine her thoughts as she raised an eyebrow and let out a huff

"Excuse me," the blond woman said while she lifted a hand to her headset, pretending to be distracted as she eye-fucked me. Neither Bella nor I were fooled, as I picked up a magazine and pretended to read, not caring to look at her.

"Did you need me to do another sound check?" Bella asked.

"No," the producer finally pulled herself together, bringing her thoughts back to the segment Bella was about to film. I smiled slightly as I heard her reviewing all the details that were necessary to ensure the dishes Bella had prepared would look as appetizing as they always were under the harsh television lights. She was quite good at her job, which was part of why I'd been okay with Bella agreeing to this interview.

As shy as my mate was, we both knew it was vital to our cause to have celebrity chefs not only promoting organic food but also giving subtle hints to those of my kind who monitored the media. It was imperative for them to understand that Monsanto was tampering with the human food supply and how dangerous it could be to both humans and others.

I was, of course, by her side for every public event, and advising her on all media appearances. We were never apart except when she was on camera.

As if my silent musing had triggered the producer's subconscious, she turned to me. "Are you sure about not being part of the segment, Mr. Cullen?" she asked, her voice annoyingly breathy. "I think our audience would just love to hear about how you were inspired to help Bella publish her cookbook after just one catering event."

I smiled ruefully and was about to give my standard response when Bella replied for me. "He's not interested in being on camera."

The blond pouted, her painted lips protruding pathetically. I wanted to laugh or roll my eyes but didn't have a chance to do either before Bella once again surprised me.

She mock-whispered to the producer, her hand held up to her mouth as if she would keep me from hearing. "Actually, he can't be captured on film." She looked at me significantly, as her eyebrows rose.

A low growl, far too quiet to actually be heard, rumbled in my chest. Bella just grinned at me, but the producer's subconscious finally began firing the warnings that usually kept humans at a distance from me. She quickly mumbled her excuses and left the room, fumbling with the door so badly she had to try twice to close it.

Bella began giggling, bending over and holding her sides.

"Vampire jokes aren't funny, love," I told her, trying to keep a straight face.

She looked up at my conflicted expression and laughed harder, gasping out, "That was amusing, and you know it."

We both knew it was, of course.

It was good to laugh when we could.

There was enough to be serious about while trying to save humankind. It was hard work, but with Bella by my side, we were both up to the challenge.