A/N: This chapter is dedicated to sleepyvalentina.

Many thanks: Oxymoronic8, for her invaluable suggestions and brainstorming. Withthevampsofcourse, for her keen eye and confidence. Revrag, for her honesty.

To everyone: I did a particularly lousy job at replying to reviews last chapter. As I rush to finish the rest of the story in my limited free time, it is possible I will continue to be remiss at replying. If the lack of a reply will disappoint you, wait to review until the end. It is my intention to reply to everyone who reviews the final chapter.

Chapter 22

Friday, January 11, 2008

I was working for criminals.

There was no other conclusion I could draw.

I'd spent the last few weeks doing things as usual, determined not to make immediate changes to my life after realizing a few too many people I'd interrogated had gone missing.

I wasn't much of a planner, but even I knew that flipping out was a bad idea. What if I was the next person to disappear? I'd spent some time in my little apartment researching. I looked up all of the people I could remember interrogating. When I saw documents lying on the printer that weren't mine at work, I read them covertly. I watched the interactions in the office, trying to figure out who knew the score and who didn't.

I came to the conclusion everyone in my back little corner of the office seemed to know something illegal was happening.

What I didn't understand was what Volterra was doing with the information that was being gathered.

All Aro ever said was that knowledge was power, but power to do what? And what good was power if you didn't use it? Or did they use it?

I wanted to go to the authorities immediately, but I couldn't see the point. No matter what Volterra was doing, they were so big and so rich and I wasn't idealistic enough to believe the police would do anything.

For my own sanity, I needed to know what was going on.

And so I did something stupid.

I went on a date with Felix.

September 4, 2008 – September 13, 2008

The car ride with Jake was uncomfortable. While I knew that no one could see me in a car with him, knowing that and hiding under a blanket for three and a half hours were different things. He turned on the air conditioning on the floor vents, but nothing helped much. I'd assumed his garage was where he lived, an apartment about a half hour from Edward's house. But no, his garage was in La Push, all the way across the state.

Every so often, Jake would ask if I was doing okay.

No, I wasn't okay. The heat was suffocating me to the point that I felt light-headed and nauseated. A neck cramp was coming on from the weird crouching position I was maintaining. Oh, and my heart was wholly and utterly broken.

But I told Jake I was fine.

For the duration of the drive, there was nothing for me to do but focus on my physical discomfort. Once I managed to maneuver into a more comfortable lying down position, my thoughts took over. This was a bad thing because I agonized over all the things I could have done better. For instance, I could have left a note for Edward in the safe—a real note that said something. I mulled over what I would have said to him and decided a better note would have made things worse. It was bad enough I broke up with him by note, but maybe that would make it easier for him to move on.

I couldn't think about Edward moving on, but I did want him to be happy. He deserved to be happy. He could be prickly on the exterior, but on the inside he was generous and considerate and had so much to give. Tears formed in the corners of my eyes, and I blinked them away.

I would not cry. If I let myself cry, I would lose my nerve. I owed it to Edward, to myself, and to all of the Cullens to be strong and smart. I would disappear without any trace leading to them, and Jason Jenks and whoever else had my number would know that I had disappeared. Some damage was probably already done, but I would do what I could to keep them safe.

After an eternity in my dark hidey-hole, the car slowed down, turned onto a dirt road, and finally came to a stop. Two dogs barked in the distance.

"You wait here, Bella. I'm going to open the garage door."

The driver's side door opened and closed, and then opened again when Jake climbed back in. The car's engine turned over, and we crept forward. When I was sure we were in the garage, I threw the blanket off and took several deep breaths.

"Anxious to be out of there?" Jake asked. He was grinning back at me.

I gave him a wan smile as an answer. Sweat had plastered tendrils of my hair to my cheeks and forehead, and the sudden rush of cooler air on my head made me shiver.

Jake opened the door and climbed out. "The car's right here," he said as he tapped a hand on the hood of an orange car next to him. "What do you think?"

It was orange and small and at least ten years old. I'd never seen a car quite like it, and that meant it would stand out. But would it stand out if people didn't know what they were looking for?

"It's great." I attempted a real smile this time. It must have been enough, because he smiled back even wider.

"She's no looker, but she is dependable."

"Your car is a girl?"

"All cars are girls."

I shook my head. The old me would have argued and bantered, but I didn't have the heart now. I wanted to be on my way. "Thanks so much for this, Jake. I can never repay you."

"I'm sure we could think of something…" His voice trailed off suggestively, and he arched an eyebrow. At my stony expression, he backed off. "But really, this is the least I can do to help you."

"Why are you helping me?" Implicit trust of people was my normal state of being, but recent events had made me paranoid.

"Did you ever ask Edward why he helped you?"

I closed my eyes against the pain of hearing Edward's name. "I did. He said it was the right thing to do."

"Well, it was. And so is this." Jake tossed me the keys, not meeting my eyes. "There shouldn't be anyone around at this time of day, but I'll scout out down the road to be sure. Do you know where you're going?"

"I do." It was a lie, but that was okay. If I didn't know where I was going, no one else did, either.

"Follow me out, and I'll lead you to one-oh-one. From there, you should be able to go wherever."

I hugged Jake for being such a good friend. He squeezed me a little too hard, but I didn't mind. Who knew when I'd have another chance for a hug from anyone? I let the embrace draw out a few beats more than was strictly friendly, but I don't think either of us minded. I wasn't interested in him romantically, but he'd been a good friend to me when I needed one.

He opened the door of my new little car for me, and I climbed into the driver's seat. The car started up without hesitation, and it was an easy drive to the highway. The car was small, but it got good gas mileage, and the driver's seat was made for someone with a petite frame. We got along fine. I named the car Renee, for my mom, because this was her kind of road trip: nowhere to be and letting the road take you where it goes.

I spent each day driving, and stayed in a different town every night for more than a week. I tried to stay in towns with funny names or that reminded me of someone I knew. Some places matched up with people more closely than others. One morning I found myself in a café, in a tiny Texas town called Alice. The date on the newspaper told me it was my birthday. I was twenty-five, a quarter of a century old. I didn't like to be the center of attention, so my birthday wasn't a time I looked forward to, but on this birthday I almost wished for a fuss. No one but Edward knew when my birthday was, and I could almost imagine Alice's outrage that I would dare have a birthday without informing her. Edward knew I liked things low-key, so I imagined he wouldn't have planned anything big, but we probably would have gone to dinner somewhere nice. It was Saturday, so maybe we would have taken in the symphony or a play.

I indulged for a few minutes more, thinking of all the things Edward and I might have done to celebrate my birthday. I let myself remember the curve of his jaw, the light glinting off his hair, the low, gravelly voice he saved for our private moments.

This was an old-fashioned place, and there was a pay phone in the corner of the restaurant. No one was using it, despite there being plenty of customers. I finished my coffee, paid the bill, and left a healthy tip. Then, I sat on the chair in front of the pay phone.

I could call Edward. I could tell him I was okay. I could tell him I loved him. He probably hadn't forgotten me yet. He was probably still worried. Or maybe he was mad. I stared at the phone a few minutes more. I knew the phone number by heart.

"Do you need change, hon?" a waitress called out to me from behind the counter.

I shook my head. I was an idiot. I sat in front of the phone so long people were staring. I couldn't call him now. Everyone would remember me.

I left the restaurant, got back in my car, and put miles between me and Alice, Texas. When I took a break to get gas, I considered calling Edward again, but this time I was stronger.

He was safer without me.

September 14, 2008 – December 11, 2008

After days and days on the road, I was sick of it. I wasn't anywhere close to Seattle, and I was having back problems from all the driving. Instead of traveling all day, every day, and only stopping to sleep, I took to spending a few days in each place before moving on.

While it was a relief to be stationary, it left me with a lot of time doing nothing. I didn't want to go out and risk being seen, but staying in my room all the time was mind numbing. I read USA Today daily, but that only filled an hour, max. The rest of the time I spent thinking.

When I worked for the Volturi, I didn't ask enough questions. I didn't ask them partly because the questions never occurred to me, but also because I didn't have the nerve. Now, with hindsight, I could look back and see how odd my position there was. They'd put me in my own office next to the boss, with a bunch of people who knew it was a criminal organization. The other new college grads were in the front office, no doubt working on legitimate business.

It smelled funny.

I may not have had the time to puzzle it out back then, but now I had nothing but time. And given that I didn't have a future to consider, figuring this mess out became my mission in life.

I couldn't trust anyone.

Couldn't talk to anyone.

Nighttime was the worst. I was turning into a conspiracy theorist, subsisting on Lifetime movies that gave me nightmares. When the nightmares were so bad I couldn't sleep, I switched to the classic movie station. The end result was that I couldn't turn off the television, because to turn it off was to be alone with my thoughts, and to be alone meant I would think about Edward.

I tried not to think about what things would have been like if I had stayed with him. Tried not think about whether he was seeing someone else, if I was already nothing more than a footnote in the Cullen family history. There would be an asterisk next to those months in 2008, and the words following would say: *Time we helped poor, unfortunate girl who planned to testify against the Volturi.

I cut the thoughts of Edward off there. Self-pity wasn't useful, and if thoughts of him continued, I wouldn't be able to hold myself together.

One night, after a particularly violent nightmare, a memory nudged me.

It was something Aro said the day I met him. He told me we'd met before. I ignored it at the time because it didn't make sense and I wasn't in a position to ask about it. Now I wanted to know exactly what he meant.

I stewed on it for two days before I dredged up a memory of a birthday party long ago, and my mom arguing with a scary man. Could that have been Aro? Surely my mom didn't know Aro. I tried to remember what they were arguing about, or some words that were said, but nothing came back to me.

I went to the Internet. The hotel had free Wi-Fi, and I put it to use googling my mother.

I knew almost nothing about her family. She ran away from them at eighteen. That was how she met my father. She was alone and needed a place to stay. He was a chivalrous new cop who wouldn't let her sleep on the streets. It turned into something more, and less than a year later, I was born.

While Grandma Swan would regale me with stories about my dad catching snakes in the gully as a child, there was no one to tell me about my mom's past. When I was small, she told me she was born the day she met my dad, and I spent a few confused years trying to figure out how that was possible. At age eight, I asked her more direct questions, but she ignored me. When I was fifteen, I thought she would share things with me because I was more mature, but she was a master at changing the subject. When I told her she was avoiding the issue and talked back to her, she grounded me. It was the only time she ever grounded me. After that, my dad pulled me aside and told me if I ever asked her about her past again, he would make me sorry. He didn't make idle threats, and I stopped asking.

When she was dying of cancer in a hospital, the last thing on my mind was asking about her family. Instead, I made her comfortable as best I could and held her hand. We talked about lots of things, but mostly she wanted to hear about me. She knew she would never see me grow old, and she wanted us to talk about me as much as she could.

Now I was ready to kick myself for not asking more about her family.

Who were they? Puzzling through things was a good diversion, and I went into it with a fresh zeal. When my search for information on my mother yielded nothing, I instead searched for information about the Volturi to answer the question of why a thoroughly average girl from Arizona would catch the eye of Aro.

There was more on the Internet than I anticipated. I would have thought people would be too scared to put information online—after all, Demetri spent his whole day tracking down people who needed to be found. I could only imagine that Aro considered people posting personal information about the Volturi and private information about Volterra, Inc. to be reason enough for finding someone.

And I well knew what happened to people the Volturi "found" who didn't have information to add to the Volterra knowledge base.

I couldn't get the image of Aro in my childhood house out of my head. Was he really there? Maybe I was misremembering… but he said he met me before, and that was the only thing that made sense. I refused to believe my mother ever slept with him, and it was equally ludicrous to believe my little family had any information the Volturi would have wanted. That left only one possibility.

My mom was related to Aro?

No.

No way was I related to that creeper.

But what if I were? What if Aro was her dad? It seemed unlikely, but what other conclusion could I draw? He was old enough to be her dad. That would make him my grandfather. An hour of searching yielded Aro's last name, something I had never known in all the time I worked with him.

He had mother's maiden name.

I put my head down in my arms and cried.

That was why he was in my house.

That was why he gave me a scholarship.

That was why I was in the back part of the office.

He must have thought I was a lousy granddaughter when I went to the authorities.

Another week, another town.

I switched hotels every week to avoid drawing attention to myself. It didn't matter how mired in self pity or misery or fear I was, I forced myself into the car, drove across a state line, and stayed somewhere new.

I bought myself a gift Mastercard with a balance of half of the money I took from Edward so that I could buy things I needed.

Julie Chamberlain, a.k.a. me, earned a boatload of Best Western points. And with the Best Western points, she purchased Barnes & Noble gift cards. The books were an indulgence, because I didn't have room to take them with me. I could only take what fit in the trunk, and that was a suitcase, a duffel bag, and a small cooler. The books were a no-no. I justified their expense by rationalizing that they were essentially free, since I had to pay for the hotel room. When I switched towns, I used the GPS I'd purchased to find a local library where I could donate the books. It was a small thing, but it made me feel human. It didn't fit my What Would Rosalie Do? motto, but I thought Edward would approve. And I wanted to feel close to Edward, since I would never be close to him again.

It wasn't until the revelation of my family tree that I realized I'd been holding on to the idea that maybe, when this was over, Edward and I could be together again. Now that I knew I came from a family of law-evading killers, I had to accept that I wouldn't be with Edward ever again. Even when the trial ended, supposing I survived, there was no witness protection plan secret enough to keep me away from the Volturi. I was family. They would find me.

I was doomed.

I shouldn't have been surprised. In my head, I was still Bella Lawson, Edward's fiancée. But I gave up the right to be her when I put the ring on the table. I was Marie Swan now, and Marie didn't lead the charmed life Bella did.

All I'd wanted was to be an English teacher. Was that so much to ask for?

Yes, apparently it was. Instead of teaching in a high school in some small suburb of Phoenix, I spent my time jumping from hotel room to hotel room. I'd disconnected myself from everyone and everything I cared about. I was jittery and nervous whenever I heard a noise in the hallway. I watched my rear-view mirror so much that I almost rear-ended someone the previous day. And all this was so I could testify against the people who I now knew were the only living family I had left.

I was doing the right thing. My mother cut all ties and left them. She was so young, and she managed to get away. A little piece of me wondered if she knew the things they did. Could she have gone to the authorities years ago?

It was a question I couldn't know the answer to.

All I could know is what I would do. I would testify. I hadn't worked out all the details about getting to the trial without Emmett's support, but I would think of something. I wanted him involved as little as possible. His family needed him.

It took me weeks to come to peace with the knowledge that I was related to killers, but I did.

I started eating again. Not a ton, but enough to sustain me. I needed to be strong to testify.

Coming to peace with a reality without Edward was a slower process.

Who was I kidding? It wasn't a process at all. They say time heals all wounds, but they would be wrong.

Time deadens wounds that are too deep to heal, but they never go away.

December 12, 2008

I was careful.

I kept a low profile.

I wore a hat and sunglasses at all times when outside during the day.

I did as little as possible that was traceable.

Despite my best efforts, I was driving through town on my out to the highway, and someone was following me.

Breathe, Bella.

What would Rosalie do?

Rosalie would lose them, dummy.

I considered letting my pursuer follow me out to the highway, but my car didn't go all that fast. I needed to lose the pursuer while I was in town. I cranked the steering wheel to make a sudden right turn. I weaved through traffic for a while, keeping to a strict series of unpredictable turns.

I moved through the traffic so much that I couldn't figure out if I was still being followed. It seemed like I was in the clear, so I pulled into an alley to hide.

I was on my own this time. There was no Emmett coming to save me, a fact that was apparent when I realized this was a dead-end alley, and a car had pulled in behind me, cutting off my escape.

My heartbeat thudded in my ears. The adrenaline was pumping, but there was nowhere to go. I could run on foot, but I would have to make it past the car behind me. That was no good. What if he had a gun? With that thought, I slid low in my seat. No use getting shot in the back of the head.

I would wait for the driver of the car to come and shoot me from the front.

No.

I didn't want to be shot at all. I started to panic, and closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I needed to be calm.

Think, I admonished myself. I failed at being Rosalie, because she would have lost them several blocks ago.

What would Emmett do? He would have a gun, and he would shoot them. That wasn't going to work for me.

What would Edward do? He wouldn't have been in this situation in the first place.

The adrenaline created a distracting din in my head, and it was growing difficult to think.

What would Esme do? Esme wouldn't assume she was in mortal danger. She would wait and make sure it was an enemy behind her.

That wasn't going to work either. Esme was practically a saint. She didn't have any enemies to worry about.

Each second felt as though it was made up of hundreds of tiny pieces of time, and I could detect each one of them passing. I darted my hand up to adjust my rearview mirror so I could see behind me. The windows of the car were tinted, but I could see the outline of a man's head through the glass. He was moving, and fear paralyzed me. He opened his door, and I knew he was coming for me. I couldn't see his face as he stepped out of the car, and I prayed it wasn't one of the Volturi. I considered channeling Emmett and ramming the car behind me to try and escape, but my car was a lightweight.

There was a slim possibility I could throw the car in reverse at an angle and hit the man with my car.

I'd never killed anyone, and I didn't think I could do it now, either.

While I mulled my options, time ticked away and they began to disappear.

I was slunk too low in the seat to look back over my shoulder and see his approach. My rearview mirror was only showing me his chest and his waist. He was wearing a business suit. One hand was in his pocket. Could that be a gun? He had a bit of a gut, which meant it wasn't Felix or any of the other Volturi I would have expected to come after me. That was good, right?

I took deep breaths, willing myself calm. I would stay low, and if he came close enough, I would slam him with the driver's door. The alley was tight. With a little bit of luck I could hit him into the brick wall and then steal his car.

Yes.

That was my new (far-fetched) plan.

I expected him to have a gun.

I expected him to be a menacing thug.

Instead, it was… Jason Jenks?

He had his hands in the air and no gun. He was gesturing like he wanted to talk to me. Like a fool, I rolled down the window.

"Marie," he said, and he looked a little bit relieved. "Thank goodness I caught you."

"I'm sure Aro will reward you richly." My voice cracked.

Jason cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. "You think I want to turn you over to... to them?"

"Why else would you be following me?" I demanded. "You know my name. You're obviously connected to the Volturi." If Jason wasn't working for the Volturi, what did he want with me? I put a hold on the idea of slamming him with the car door, wondering the whole time if I was doing the right thing.

"You really don't remember me, do you?" He shook his head. "It doesn't matter. We can discuss the finer points later. Right now we need to get you out of here."

"What?" I was now thoroughly confused. If this was all a game to mess with my head, it was working.

"Your car and license plate are known. Come with me."

"But why am I still alive?"

Jason cast another look over his shoulder. "This isn't safe. We can talk later. Get in my car."

What choice did I have? Even if I refused to get in his car, I was parked in. I could run on foot, but how far would I get? I was in a strange city, and I'd taken so many turns, I had no idea where I was.

Could I trust Jason Jenks, or was this all an elaborate ruse to take me somewhere sinister? I searched his face for something, any clue that would tell me what to do. The only vibe I got from him was anxiety. That could mean anything.

I exited my car and let Jason Jenks hustle me into his. Emmett would have a fit, but he wasn't here. If Jason could find me, who knew how many other people were watching me?

Once we were on our way, I let my fingers wander over the leather seats of his Mercedes. Neither of us said anything. He appeared to be concentrating on the road, and I still wasn't sure if he was saving my life or taking me to my demise. We drove for several hours. Road signs indicated we were going to St. Louis.

I didn't feel comfortable this close to Chicago, where the U.S. operations of Volterra, Inc. were based, but I didn't say anything. Jason drove us into the heart of downtown, to the Ritz-Carlton. He gave his keys to the valet and ordered a bellhop to haul my luggage. He checked into a room, and we both went up there together. I was a little unnerved that the concierge assumed we were husband and wife-I'd had enough of that kind of pretending to last me a lifetime-but I reminded myself that Jason had a wife already. This was a brief sham to keep from drawing attention to me. Nothing more, nothing less.

The room was a suite. It had two rooms, a bedroom and a front room complete with sofa, loveseat, and coffee table. There was even a dining table with chairs set up in a corner by a window. Compared to the Best Western, it was a palace.

I exhaled a puff of air as I inspected the room. I had half-expected to be greeted by one of the Volturi or one of their employees, and I was relieved it was just me and Jason.

"Is it later yet? Can we talk now?" I asked.

He handed me the room service menu. "Dinner first."

I opted for a burger. He ordered a three-course meal.

"You don't remember me at all, do you?" He perched on the end of an armchair, leaning forward toward me.

"Should I?

He smiled thinly. "I like to think I'm memorable, but maybe I'm not to young ladies."

"You seem familiar, but I can't place you. Why did you come find me?"

"We met when you were a fresh face with Volterra, Inc. I doubt you'd been there long when they sent you to greet me. It was obvious you had no idea what the organization did. Your job was to be a friendly and pretty face."

"I was a greeter for a while," I affirmed.

"I had a, well, I'm not sure how to put this. I don't always see eye to eye with Caius."

"Nobody does. He hates everyone."

"Not everyone." Jason drew in a breath and continued, "I had to tell Caius something he didn't want to hear. I went in there one night with the idea that I might die. But they sent you to pick me up from the airport, and you were a bright light on a dark night. You were very kind. After I survived my meeting with Caius, you took me to dinner.

"We had a conversation about philosophers, Plato in particular, and you let me decompress and escape for a few minutes. I remember you fondly." He ran a hand through his thinning hair and waited for my response.

"You tracked me down out of fondness?" I was incredulous.

"No, silly girl, I'm helping you because I want you to be alive to testify."

"You're helping me?"

"I'd rather not go on the record about it, but yes." He looked away.

"But the painting you took to Edward's house… why?" My words were jumbled in my head, and they weren't coming out right. I was overwhelmed.

"The Volturi found you and were keeping an eye on your actions. I was warning you in the best way I could."

"You couldn't have sent a letter? Or a text? Or something obvious?"

"If you would have bothered to look at the painting, you would have realized the top level of paint is a forgery. Underneath the paint was my message."

There was a knock at the door, indicating our food had arrived. Jason tipped the waiter, and we ate in silence for several minutes.

When my burger was halfway gone, I set it down and looked Jason in the eye. "A little subtle with the painting, weren't you?"

"I had to be. And anyway, Mr. Cullen would have noticed something was wrong with the painting. I counted on his intelligence."

I wondered whether Edward had read the message after I left. "You know, I left right after you came by the house."

He speared a fork full of salmon. "Not exactly the action I was trying to elicit."

I set my jaw to keep from snapping at him. If he wanted a particular outcome, he could have said something to us in plain English instead of scaring me into sudden action.

"Do you still work for the Volturi?" I kept my voice sweet to hold back my annoyance. This guy was on my side, kind of, and I needed him to stay that way.

"Technically, I don't work for them. I do work for them. There is a difference."

"Why don't you stand up to them, then?" I wasn't unique. Other people had consciences. Surely, I couldn't be the only person to witness the evil that was the Volturi. Why hadn't anyone else stepped forward?

Jason winced. "Too much to lose. You're a better person than I am."

I stared at him. He had too much to lose. I'd lost everything that meant anything to me. Here he was, helping a little bit where no one could see. He would sleep fine at night in his thousand-count sheets, secure in the knowledge that he helped me. Me, I would be running for my life.

Burger gone, I nibbled a fry and pushed my plate away. Something besides his obvious cowardice was bothering me. "You said I'm in danger, so why haven't they killed me?"

"Why would they need to? If they know where you are, they don't have to worry about you until just before the trial."

That thought didn't give me the warm fuzzies, and it didn't make complete sense, either. There was a piece of the puzzle I was missing. "How am I safer now in this hotel than I was yesterday?"

"I've reason to believe they've lost track of you about, say, six hours ago?"

My eyes widened. "You did something?"

His Cheshire cat grin answered my question, and my icy feelings toward his cowardice thawed some.

"I'm anonymous again?" I asked eagerly. I smiled a real smile.

"I believe so." He hesitated, and then added, "Be careful with it this time. Travel by taxi or bus, stay out of the public eye, and avoid Best Westerns."

"They have a good points program," I pointed out a bit defensively.

My brain was in overdrive, considering what this new anonymity could mean. What I yearned for was a way to justify seeing Edward again, or maybe just hearing his voice would be enough. I could sneak to a pay phone and call his cell. If he answered, I would hang up right away. If he didn't, I would have the pleasure of hearing his voicemail pick up. Either way, I would hear his smooth baritone in my ear. I basked in the possibility for several seconds, until I remembered Edward was probably being watched, and contacting him might reveal my location.

My spirits fell again at the realization that nothing changed for Edward and me, but I tried to remain positive. Anonymity wouldn't change much in the everyday scheme of my existence, but at least it made it easier for me to make it to the trial. That was my end goal.

Jason interrupted my reflections by speaking. "Do remember you'll still be in danger getting to the trial."

"Like I could forget," I muttered. With a catch in my voice, I asked, "Will you tell Edward that I'm safe?"

Jason put a kind hand on my shoulder, and I managed not to flinch. "You have my word."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Jason Jenks episode shook me. I took his advice, for the most part, though I confess I cashed out the rest of my Best Western points for gift cards. It would have been wasteful not to. I missed Renee. I shouldn't have named the car after my mother because now I was sad I'd had to abandon her.

The Volturi knew I was alive. They were watching me before Jason found me, and they might be watching me still. My whole existence devolved into looking over my shoulder. Nowhere was safe.

I started staying in nicer hotels, because room service made life easier. I rarely left my room, so there were few ways I could be surprised. Every time food was delivered, I would peer through the peephole and assure myself it was hotel staff at the door. It occurred to me that someone could poison my food, so I had taken to tasting each dish, waiting a half hour, and then eating if no ill effects overtook me. No poison yet.

The fancier hotels put a significant dent in my $20,000. The Best Western might have been off the highway, and it might not have been the cleanest, but it had been cheap. Staying in swanky digs and surviving on room service was turning me into a pauper.

My only real outing from the hotel was to the laundromat. Back when I stayed in Best Westerns, I used their laundering service, but now I was on a budget. I was able to wash and dry my clothes for much cheaper than what the hotels charged. As an added bonus, going out of the hotel meant I could request maid service; something I hadn't had since Sunday.

I'd left Edward's with a week's worth of outfits. Although I put up with a lot of things in my quest to be inconspicuous, I wouldn't abide wearing dirty things. I packed my dirty clothes into my suitcase; along with my small box of powder detergent, my Downy ball, and a bottle of Spray N Wash; and rode the bus to the laundromat.

It was morning, and most people were presumably at work, so I had the place to myself. The interior was bright and sunny, courtesy of a south-facing front that had floor-to-ceiling glass. Even in deserted, benign places, I kept waiting for the moment someone approached me accidentally-on-purpose, put a gun to my ribs, and lead me to a quiet alleyway where I could die.

Yes, I was becoming morbid.

I separated my darks and lights and set the washers running. While the machines ran, I wore a baseball cap low over my eyes and slouched at a table where I kept my face buried in a favorite book. Being outside of the confining walls of a hotel was liberating, if not comforting.

The trial date wasn't until February, and I wasn't sure how I was going to survive the upcoming weeks. The hotel rooms were driving me crazy and my funds were low. I was considering going to a homeless shelter and pretending to be homeless – wait, I was homeless, wasn't I? – but I didn't want to put other residents of the shelter at risk. If they were in the shelter, presumably they were already down on their luck, right?

The washing cycle finished, and I shifted my clothes to the dryer. I sat back down at the table and started reading Romeo and Juliet for the umpteen millionth time. I preferred the slim paperback version, but today, in deference to my situation, all I had was a hefty tome of the Bard's collected works. I turned each paper-thin page with reverence as I re-read the part where Juliet awoke, saw Romeo, and killed herself. My eyes were a little teary, because if timing and fate had been kinder, they would have had their happily ever after.

I didn't hear the door open, but I felt a blast of cold, winter air. The unshed tears in the corners of my eyes made my vision blurry as I looked up to see who had opened the door. A man had entered the laundromat. He was in a bulky, black winter coat. He wore a hat. The sun was behind him, throwing his face into shadow.

It was normal business hours. A man entering the laundromat shouldn't have made me nervous, but I couldn't see one of his hands. Was it in his pocket? Behind his back? I tried to convince myself it didn't matter where his hand was. There was no reason anyone would know I was here. He probably wanted to have clean clothes, just like I did.

Then I realized he wasn't carrying any laundry.

I froze.

This was it.

I was going to die.

He looked straight at me, and I acted on instinct. In one fluid motion, I stood up and hurled The Collected Works of William Shakespeare at his mid-section. When I saw him double over, I grabbed my bottle of Spray n Wash. As soon as he looked up, I sprayed him right in the eyes and started to run.

His fingertips caught my arm, but I was already out the door.

I didn't have my coat or my laundry, but I still had my Spray n Wash and my feet were flying.

With several yards between me and the laundromat, I stole a look over my shoulder to see if he was pursuing me.

My heart stopped.

He'd taken off his hat to wipe the stuff out of his eyes. In the late-morning sunshine, his hair glinted bronze.

As if he sensed me looking at him, he straightened for a moment to meet my gaze. I had to cover my mouth with my hand to keep from crying out. His face was too gaunt and his coat was too cheap, but his identity was unmistakable.

It was Edward.

I ran back without a second thought and threw myself into his arms. He winced as he caught me.

Edward was trying to tell me something, but it barely registered. He was here. And I'd missed him. And he'd looked for me.

"Bella," he murmured.

"Hmm?"

"I need to rinse my eyes out, and then we need to leave. Get your clothes."

The whites around his eyes were shot through with red, and I felt a surge of guilt as I watched him bend over the laundromat sink to wash out his eyes.

"Your clothes," he said, sounding irritated, "or we won't have time for them."

I whisked my still-damp clothes out of the dryer and into my suitcase. As I was reaching for my last sock in the dryer, Edward grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the exit.

"Let's move."

He led me into a dark, narrow side street, and I didn't resist. I would have gone anywhere with him. We slipped into a black sedan, and before my seatbelt was on, Edward was driving.

It was not the kind of car I would have normally associated with Edward. The seats were plush, but they were fabric rather than leather. The dash was cheap plastic. It was an American car.

He noticed my appraisal of the car. "It was all I could get on short notice." He added, "It doesn't stand out, which is an advantage."

"I'm staying at the Windsor," I said softly. No one could hear us now that we were in the car, but I wasn't sure if this was reality or not. If I spoke too loudly, it might shatter the fantasy. If this were a fantasy, though, Edward's eyes wouldn't be on fire and I would still have all my socks.

"I know. A friend of mine is pretending to be you for a few days. She's in your room now."

I blinked several times, my hands twisting together in my lap. "But, how did she get my key?"

"She showed ID to the front desk and they gave her another set of keys to replace the ones she 'lost.'"

I made a mental note that expensive hotels weren't any more secure than cheap ones. "Where are we going?"

"Away. It's not safe for you around here."

"Then it's not safe for you either," I said in a rush. "If something happened to you…"

I watched Edward's profile. The muscles in his jaw were working overtime, and I wondered what words he was fighting back.

Finally, he said, "I'm well capable of making my own decisions. I have a plane waiting for us at the airport. Will you come with me?"

"But… the Cullen Foundation… who will explain your absence?"

"Will you come with me?"

"You'll be in danger…"

"Marie, will you accompany me?"

He said my name. He knew my name.

It sounded wrong. And right.