I had long ago realized that the prospect of my own death held no fear for me. I was raised as a girl of strong convictions and stronger loyalties and that held true even here. Especially here.
Even when my allegiance to this family had been a formality rather than an instinct, I had been willing to sacrifice my life instead of theirs. Now that things had become inexorably complicated, that conviction had only been strengthened.
They would protect me. Whether it was out of loyalty to what I meant to their brother or son or a fear that I would lose myself in the battle, they would not unleash me if there were other options.
I came to this battleground without a fear of my own demise. If it had been possible, my heart would have pounded out of terror only because, for all my new abilities, I might not be able to stand between death and the man I loved.
Compelled by that dread, I stepped forward and thirsted for battle.
Fifteen months ago, I would have counted it as a blessing that Forks had a sunny day. It was something of a miracle if I could bare arms any earlier than June and when I spotted Charlie, he was perspiring lightly and shielding his eyes against the sun.
I'd come prepared, of course—Alice had tried her best to convince me to breeze into Port Angeles looking like something out of an Audrey Hepburn movie. I had firmly said no and worn a long-sleeved tee, jeans, sneakers and a Red Sox cap instead of the wide-brimmed hat, designer suit and Manolo Blahnik slides that she had envisioned.
In spite of the fact that I was wearing enough clothes to fend off a coastal thunderstorm, Charlie seemed to approve. At least that was what I gathered from the fact that he grinned broadly at the sight of me and said one thing only in greeting: "Bells, you haven't changed a bit."
Either he was lying politely in a very un-Charlielike manner or he was deluding himself. Then again, this was the man who kept both the picture of me as a newborn and my junior class picture on the living room mantel. He could just be seeing what he wanted to see. It would have been impolite to argue the point or correct him rather bluntly, so I returned his grin as best as I could. "You thought I would?"
"I don't know," he sighed, letting me go. "You've been rooming with Alice Cullen for the last year. I wasn't sure what to expect."
"Good point," I conceded.
Without asking, he slung my duffel bag over his shoulder and headed out the doors to the ever-conspicuous police cruiser.
"Don't worry," I said as I fell in step with him. "I learned only the important Italian words—gelato, pizza, Dolce and Gabanna, Armani and de la Renta."
I could have sworn that his step faltered at the last few names, but he at last laughed at my attempt at a joke. "Well, I hope you still like pizza," he called over his shoulder. "Jake and Billy Black were over a few weeks ago and Jake taught me how to make it at home."
The mere thought of Charlie anywhere near our decrepit old oven was enough to make me glad that I had already lost my appetite. No force of nature, god or man could teach Charlie how to cook and I was pretty sure that Jake Black was no exception.
"Sounds good," I enthused.
It was easier to start with the small lies and then perpetuate the major one. If I was going to make this work, I would have to learn to pace myself.
"How are they?" I asked, eager to turn the conversation away from anything food-related.
Twelve months of fishing stories and progress reports on the '77 Volvo that Jacob was rebuilding with someone named Embry kept us busy until the halfway point. From there, I prompted him into telling all about my friends' exploits since I'd last heard from them. It was mostly unnecessary, since Angela had kept me fairly well-informed by e-mail, but he hadn't run out of things to say by the time he took our exit.
To my surprise, he swung into the Thriftway parking lot instead of going directly home.
"Sorry," he said sheepishly. "I forgot a few things for the crust."
"Don't worry about it," I said casually. "I'm in no rush to get home."
He was going to get suspicious fairly soon of the fact that I was agreeing with everything he proposed, but the reason for that change was much less sinister than he might imagine. Since the day that I had stormed out of the house and fled to Phoenix, I had talked to Charlie on a fairly regular basis. He had rarely if ever mentioned the incident, much less complained about hurt feelings or grudges that he was entitled to hold. I had decided on the plane from Zurich to Chicago that I would go easy on him for at least a few days.
"Want to come?" he invited. "I'll let you pick out the toppings."
I could have laughed at the imagined expression on Charlie's face when I got to pick the toppings. He was a fan of sausage and bell peppers and while I couldn't stand the thought of grilled meat at the moment, it didn't much matter what I would want on his pizza.
"No thanks," I replied. "I'm sort of tired and it'll go faster if I'm not tagging along."
Not to mention the fact that facing a store where people I knew personally would shop was even more terrifying a prospect than trying to choke down Charlie's half-baked monstrosity.
"All right," he sighed. "I'll just be a few minutes."
"Great." I extracted my cell phone and waved it for emphasis. "I'll let everyone know that I got in safely."
Of course, the phone call was mostly for show. Alice had foreseen everything from the safe landing to the fact that I should sit on the left aisle to avoid a loudly snoring German businessman. Edward had insisted on knowing how I thought that things were going with Charlie.
He answered on the first ring with an unconvincingly casual "Hello."
"I survived initial contact," I teased.
"So I gathered," he said with a wry note in his voice. "What does he have planned for tonight?"
"Demonstrating his new-found cooking skills," I pronounced. "I think there's a Celtics game later."
"I'll bring you dinner then," he offered. "Any preferences?"
"Fast food," I requested. "And nothing with fur..."
I was cut off as there was a quiet knock on the window. I glanced up immediately to find Angela Weber standing outside, her smile hopeful and almost cautious.
"I'll call you back," I murmured before stowing the phone and opening the door.
Angela pulled me into a hug as soon as I stood, holding on just long enough that I knew I had been missed, but not too long.
"I saw Charlie in there," Angela explained. "I can't believe you're back."
I grinned genuinely for the first time since landing in the United States. "The feeling's mutual," I said honestly. "I've been back about ten minutes."
"So I heard," she said, bending down to hug me quickly. "I don't want to inerrupt your first night home, but are you free tomorrow?"
Tomorrow, as far as I could tell, I would be waiting for Edward to come over and keeping Charlie away from cooking implements.
"I am," I said. "Why don't you come over for dinner?"
It would give us a chance to talk over something other than and would distract Charlie from the fact that I wasn't touching my food.
"I'd love to," Angela replied with her usual quiet good humor. "Can I bring anything?"
"Salad," I suggested. "Charlie's getting some basic ingredients tonight and I have the feeling I'll need to restock the fridge from scratch tomorrow."
Her eyes glinted and I could tell that she remembered the stories of Charlie's dietary habits very well. As if on cue, Charlie stepped through the automatic doors of the Thriftway with his arms full of bags. Apparently "a few things" were extremely relative.
"Good luck with that," she chuckled. "Welcome back, Bella."
"Six o'clock tomorrow," I called back as she headed across the lot to her own car.
Since I was already up, I relieved Charlie of a few of the bags and arranged them in the back seat. "Find everything you need?" I asked.
"And a few other things," he confirmed.
"Good," I replied. "I'd hate to think you left anything on the shelves."
He ignored that comment. "Angela's done well for herself," he commented. "She could have gone back East like you, but she wanted to stay close to home."
There was an approving note in his voice that was the closest I'd heard him come to reprimanding me for choosing Dartmouth. It was bad enough that I had gone to Italy for a year, but I was going to college on the other side of the country as well. I could have gone to UC Berkeley, closer to home, but no, I had to rebel and go to an Ivy League with my boyfriend...
"Angela wanted to stay with Ben," I pointed out, "and Edward's coming with me to Dartmouth."
He grunted once, but there was no real annoyance in the sound. I quickly changed the subject out of a sense of self-preservation.
"I've got presents," I said as something of a peace offering.
"So do I," he said. "One of the guys at work convinced me to get a cable modem, your truck just had a tune-up and I think I got you a new frying pan since you were here last."
I had to laugh at that. It was as much a welcome-home as the truck had been when I first came to Forks. Charlie was the type to get someone lampshades for Christmas just because sentimentality meant giving someone you loved a practical gift. A cable modem was the Charlie equivalent of a life-size teddy bear.
He grunted something like "You're welcome" and kept his eyes on the road.
"Will Edward be coming over?" he asked without further preamble.
Technically, it was true. He'd planned to come just after midnight.
"I'll have time to see him tomorrow," I said.
Charlie finally seemed to be mollified by my sense of priorities. A few minutes more passed and finally, we pulled into the driveway alongside my truck. I ran an affectionate hand over its side, promising to be back later for a proper greeting, and turned to follow Charlie into the house.
"Why don't you go wash up and unpack?" he invited. "I'll call you if anything catches fire."
The only comforting thing about that joke was the fact that in a year, he hadn't managed to burn the place down. Then again, if Jake had only taught him the art of pizza-making a few weeks ago, he'd been living off of un-combustible takeout and microwave dinners before then.
"I'll do that," I promised, taking my bag back. "Thanks."
I dumped my bag on the bedroom floor and headed straight for the bathroom. Once the door was locked, I crossed to the sink and splashed water on my face to rinse away the grit of traveling. My hair was still tucked neatly under the baseball cap, so I pulled the hat off and let my hair fall down into a more natural position around my narrow shoulders. There were dark shadows beneath my eyes, but I did not feel exhausted as those suggested.
I twisted my hair up off my neck and clipped it in place, stretching languorously in the small space. Finally, I reached into the pocket of my jeans and removed the contact case. It would be a while before dinner and I didn't need to keep the lenses in when I was in the security of my own bathroom.
Bending over my outstretched palm, I pulled at the corner of my eyelid and blinked the first colored lens into my hand. A moment later, I was rid of the second one and I placed them both in the carrying case. Letting out a quiet sigh, I glanced up and met my own gaze in the mirror.
Rosalie and I had gone hunting as a farewell to the Italian Alps, but it had been nearly day since the ibex. Still, my eyes were a satisfied shade of gold.
Charlie's knock startled me and, even with my enhanced reflexes, I might have dropped the lenses if they hadn't already been in their place. I steadied myself quickly and straightened up.
"I think I got the temperature wrong," Charlie called. "I put in at 450 degrees like Jake said, but it's black now and smoking..."
If Renee was hare-brained, Charlie was nothing if not scatter-brained when it came to household appliances. I serenely reached for my brown-tinting lenses and prepared to go to the rescue.
"I'll be right there."