Yes, it's been a while, but not as long as your last wait. To make up for it here's over 7000 words for your reading pleasure. Be aware that while most of the chapter is in Bella's pov, it does change near the end to Renee's pov. It's the only way we were going to understand why she did the things she did.
As always thanks to MarchHair5 for always taking time out of her hectic schedule to beta my work.
Thanks also to Roxymar for prereading and letting me bounce ideas off of her.
Disclaimer: Twilight belongs to SM. I only play in the sandbox she gave us.
Song: "What I've Done" by Linkin Park and "The Real Me" by Natalie Grant
The small grocery store in Forks only had three check-out lines, and all of them were full of people waiting to check out. My head fell back on my shoulders; I groaned at how slowly the line was moving, and I huffed in impatience as I bounced my heel off the bar at the bottom of my shopping cart. My phone chirped, indicating I had a text message.
Didn't anyone teach you, patience is a virtue?
I rolled my eyes, but I shuffled my feet to still their impatient beat, sighing heavily.
I swear everyone who lives in Forks is here today,I typed in reply.
Turn that frown upside down! It takes less facial muscles.
I snorted at Alice's text and shook my head, grinning.
Mission accomplished. See? Teeth even. :D
When you get home please promise you'll talk to your mother.
"On a cold day in hell," I frowned.
Bella, give her a cha—
I powered down my phone. "She's my mother, so it's my decision," I muttered a little too loudly.
I looked up quickly to see if I'd disturbed any of the other shoppers standing in line with me and cringed when the person in front of me turned around. Mrs. Cope was the hub of Forks' gossip chain. She didn't have a malicious or vindictive bone in her whole body, but she was a class A busybody. She was always very specific in her gossip, never elaborating or twisting what she learned. She just saw it as her God-given duty to spread the word of any piece of news or gossip that came her way. Working in the school's administrative office for thirty years meant she knew just about everyone in town, too. Her knowledge of the residents of Forks was frightening, so everyone was cautious of what they let slip around her.
"Hello, Bella, dear. Did I hear you mention your mother? Is she in town?" She adjusted her glasses on her face to get a better look at my shopping cart full of food. "Looks like you're planning a lovely dinner."
"Hi, Mrs. Cope." I plastered on a smile I didn't feel. "Yes, ma'am, Renee and Phil are in town visiting."
Her eyes widened in surprise. "Really? Why, I haven't seen your mother in ages. Not since she left—"
"I know, it was a surprise to me too," I interrupted, not wanting the trip down memory lane of when Renee walked out on me and Dad.
"You must be very excited to see your mother, dear. I should stop by and say 'hello' while she's in town. Is she and her new husband staying at The Lodge while they're in town?"
Ignoring her first statement, I gave the best neutral answer I could without being rude. "I don't think she's staying. She'll probably leave right after dinner, but I'll be sure to tell her you said 'hi'." I pointed toward the line in front of us "Looks like you're next."
"Oh!" She turned back to her own shopping cart and put her items on the conveyor belt so the cashier could begin ringing up her purchases.
Mrs. Cope checked out quickly and waved good-bye on her way out of the store—I was sure to pass along the news that Renee was in town.
I blew out a grateful sigh when she left and gave a tight smile to the cashier, Lauren. Could this day get any worse?
"Bella," Lauren sneered as her way of a friendly greeting.
She scanned my groceries in silence, though I could tell she was dying to say something. I got fed up with her smirks when she thought I wasn't looking.
"If you have something to say just come out and say it," I snapped, leaning toward her.
She blinked twice, giving me her patented innocent stare. It was a look she'd perfected over the years, ever since she tripped me on the playground in kindergarten, busting my lip and knocking out my front tooth.
"Whatever do you mean?" she asked in her syrupy voice. "I'm just doing my job. That'll be $129.64."
I yanked my card through the scanner, doing my best to ignore her. She hummed a happy tune while we both waited for the transaction approval to process and print my receipt so I could get out of here.
"You seem agitated. Are you feeling all right?"
She nodded. "That's good. I heard you tell Mrs. Cope your mom is in town." She slowly folded the receipt, dragging out handing it over. I knew she was waiting for the perfect moment to make her dig.
The kid bagging my groceries was just putting the last of the food in my bag, so I held out my hand. "Can I have my receipt?"
"I'm glad I'm not in your shoes. I can't imagine what it's like having a mom that could just walk out on you." She clucked her tongue, shaking her head in feigned sympathy. She put the receipt in my hand and dropped the sad face act for a wide smile. "Have a nice day!"
I fisted the receipt in my hand, imagining it was her smug face, and clenched my teeth together as I fought the urge to respond. Grabbing the straps of the five bags now full of food in my free hand, I yanked them off the counter and stalked out of the store, taking deep breaths to calm the burning anger in my gut.
The automatic doors parted, and I stomped out into the parking lot to my truck. I threw the bags in the passenger side and slammed the truck door so hard the truck rocked.
"Excuse me, miss, could you help me please?"
I spun around, snarling at the stranger who'd snuck up behind me. My fingers curled into claws, and I crouched defensively, ready to fight if need be to protect myself. I quickly scanned the stranger from head to toe, assessing the danger.
He was barely over five feet, shorter than I, and looked like he'd blow away with a stiff wind. He wore a fedora and sunglasses even though it was overcast. Dressed in a suit, too fancy for Forks, and loafers, he looked the part of a geeky businessman. Even so, the hair on the back of my neck was standing on end.
He clutched his chest with his hand, evidently startled by my irrational actions. A gold signet ring on his finger, engraved with a "V" on top, caught my eye.
"Please forgive me for startling you, my dear. Believe me, that was never my intention." He bowed at the waist as though I were royalty. His foreign accent made his words sound even more formal than his actions.
I wiped my hands on my pants, willing myself to calm down. "I'm the one who's sorry. You must think I'm a crazy person." I grimaced. "How can I help you?" I asked, remembering my manners too late to change his first impression.
He opened his mouth to answer but snapped it shut, sniffing the air. He took a step back and turned around fully, looking over the parking lot for something before facing me again.
A gust of wind whipped my hair away from my face, exposing Edward's mark on my neck. He sniffed again and shook his finger at me. "Someone has been naughty. Where is—"
"Hey, Bella! Are you and Mike coming to the beach?"
I turned and saw Angie waving to me. She, Jessica, Tyler, and Eric crossed the parking lot toward me. The stranger spun on his foot and quickly walked away.
"Hey, guys," I replied, hugging Angie and Jessica. "Can't tonight. We have company in town and um…" I figured now was as good a time as any. "Mike and I aren't together. I…uh…met someone."
Their eyes widened in shock. "Who?"
I leaned in to hug them again, stepped around to the driver's side of the truck and climbed in. "I'll call you later and explain. Right now, I've got to get home before Dad does. He went to the airport."
I grimaced, remembering his order not to leave the house while he was gone that I'd ignored.
I swore you could cut the tension in the house with a knife. Dad and Phil were watching a baseball game on TV, but even though they chose a neutral subject—the game—their conversation was awkward and stiff.
Renee kept trying to help me prepare the food for dinner, but nothing was in the kitchen where she'd kept it all those years ago. I mean, why would it be? It wasn't her kitchen anymore; it was mine.
"I'll get started on making my famous baked beans," she offered with forced cheerfulness. "Charlie always loved them. Of course, you and I always hated the effects they had on him," she laughed.
I rolled my eyes at her poor attempt to draw me into conversation with her, ignoring the sound of cabinet doors being opened and closed behind me.
"Bella, where's my mother's bean pot? I can't find it anywhere."
I didn't elaborate that I broke it the first time I tried to make her baked beans after she told me I couldn't spend the summer with her in Florida. I had been making dinner for me and Dad and had just pulled them out of the oven. As I stared into the bubbling beans, something in me shattered. I threw our entire dinner in the yard and then erased every trace of Renee from our home and my life.
Silence met my announcement, and then I heard her take a shuddering breath. I didn't know why it was such a big deal. It was just a dish she'd left behind. If it were important, she should have taken it with her.
I tensed as I heard her come up behind me.
"Your hair has gotten so long. It's beautiful. You were always such a tomboy and wanted it short so it didn't get in your way." She touched my hair, stroking my head.
I stepped away from her touch. "Yeah, well things change," I muttered.
Her hand dropped in defeat, and she walked over to sit at the table. I ignored her while I made the potato salad. "You aren't peeling the potato skins off?" she asked.
"Oh." She took a deep breath and tried again. "So, senior year. You must be excited."
The silence lasted only a minute before she waded in again. "Have you—"
I dropped the knife I was using to cut up the potatoes into the sink and turned around, crossing my arms over my chest.
"Look, Renee." She winced at hearing me refer to her by her name and not call her Mom. "I know Dad insisted you come here—probably lay some big guilt trip on you to get you to set foot in Forks again after all this time—but you can stop pretending. You and I both know you don't really give a shit."
"Bella, Charlie didn't have to guilt me into being here for you." She stood, stopping in front of me and cupping my cheeks in her hands. "I love you so much, sweetheart. I've missed you more than you could ever know. I miss seeing you and getting to talk to you. Do you remember how you used to snuggle up with me on the couch and want me to read—"
"So what? You left, and then you didn't even want to see me—" I broke on a sob, hating that she saw my pain.
Her glassy eyes quickly filled with tears, spilling over her lashes. She tried to wrap her arms around me, but I fought against her comforting embrace and shoved her away.
"No! You don't get to come here now and pretend to care. I want you to leave. Go back to Florida or wherever you're going to run to next." I angrily wiped my cheeks free of my own tears. "I just feel sorry for Phil. How long before you leave him behind? At least this time you won't leave any unwanted kids behind when you go."
"Bella, that's enough!"
I blinked, glaring at my dad and Phil who'd come into the room. Phil immediately went to comfort my sobbing mother, while Dad approached me, disappointment written clearly across his face.
"Isabella Marie Swan, apologize to your mother," he demanded.
I stared at the wall behind him, refusing to meet his gaze. "Why should I?" I sulked. "I only told the truth like you taught me."
He sighed and grasped my shoulders in his large hands. He squeezed my shoulders, forcing my attention on him instead of the imaginary speck on the far wall. I sniffed, and he brought his hand up, using his thumb to wipe my face dry.
I ignored the jab of remorse at hearing Phil's quiet voice offering love and reassurance mingled with Renee's low sobs.
"Why did you call her?" I begged, keeping my voice low so it didn't carry. "She doesn't love us. She doesn't belong here."
Dad closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around me. My arms immediately went around him in return. I held onto him so fiercely that I swore I heard his ribs creak. Being enveloped in the comfort and safety I always found in my dad made it easy to forget the hurt and betrayal I felt over Renee.
"I love you, Bella. Your mom loves you just as much."
I snorted in disbelief. "Yeah, right."
He grasped my face in his hands, turning my eyes up to meet his serious gaze. "Bella, you were just a kid, so you couldn't understand then, but it just about killed your mom to leave you with me. She loves you so much, but she just couldn't stay here. I understood, and it was my decision to let her go. I could have laid on so much guilt that she would have stayed, but she just would have been miserable. She didn't take you with her because she knew how much her leaving was going to hurt me, and she didn't want me to be alone or for you to be uprooted from everything you knew."
My eyes darted past him to Renee standing across the room, listening. There was so much sadness in her eyes it was a physical pain to look at her. I looked back to my dad, still not willing to believe him. "She would have tried harder if she loved me, but she didn't."
He looked to the ceiling as though it would hold the answers he sought, before responding. "Bella, do you remember what Esme told you the other day when you…um…had a meltdown?"
I remembered. I'd chosen to ignore her advice, but Dad obviously remembered and wasn't going to let me forget. It was when Dad picked me up from the Cullens' after my meltdown in Carlisle's office and his timely call. As much as I wanted answers right then and there, Carlisle had decided, and Dad agreed, it was best to explain everything at once with both my parents present since Renee was involved also.
I didn't agree to Dad's stand that she loved me and cared about my wellbeing. My sarcastic remark of "If she cared so much, where is she?" had been met with silence from my dad and gentle admonishment from Esme.
"Bella, a mother's love never dies or goes away. You have every reason to feel hurt and pain for your mother's choice to leave. No one is denying your feelings, but remember those feelings stem from a child who didn't understand the intense pain your mother was feeling at the death of her mate.
"As a mother, I can't imagine how much it hurt her to leave you with your father, but as a mate I can imagine the unbearable pain she felt at the death of Joshua Uley. She did what she felt was right for her at the time. I'm not saying her choices were right or wrong, but each person deals with grief in the way that is right for them. You don't have to understand it; you just have to respect their right to feel it."
Renee stepped away from Phil, stopping beside my dad and me. She lay her hand on Dad's arm and turned to me. "Bella, no matter what you might think, I never stopped loving you."
I shrugged, still unable to forgive and forget. Her lips pursed in thought as she saw my unwillingness to bend. She nodded, seeming to come to some internal decision, and took my hand. "Come on. You and I are going to take a drive."
I shook my head, pulling away from her and Dad. "I need to finish dinner."
Dad jumped in, halting my ready excuse. "Phil and I can handle dinner from here, or we can go to The Lodge when you get back. Go with your mom."
"Fine," I grumbled, stepping away.
Dad's hand on my arm stopped me. "Bella, listen to your mom."
"Yeah, fine," I agreed.
He shook his head. "No, Bella, I mean really listen to her."
Renee drove my truck along the winding roads and had no trouble navigating the streets, even though she hadn't been here in twelve years. Granted, the town hadn't changed that much, but still it bugged me that she knew her way around as though she still lived here. We drove in silence, neither of us trying to make conversation for the time being. I had a feeling she would have plenty to say when we got wherever she was headed. I stared unseeing at the passing scenery, my hair whipping around my head and out the open window, only occasionally bothering to brush it out of my eyes.
A short time later, I saw the familiar signs notifying us that we were entering the Quileute Reservation and sat up straighter, looking around, curious as to why she brought us here and where exactly we were headed.
As we passed the small grocery store, I saw Uncle Billy wheeling his chair down the ramp beside the front stairs. Jacob walked ahead of him, carrying several large boxes toward the back of a truck, where another guy was lowering the tailgate for him. Their voices carried on the breeze; they were discussing plans for the bonfire they were having later tonight.
The other guy turned quickly, and I recognized Paul immediately. His dark eyes locked on me, daring me to look away until we turned the corner and he was out of sight. I shivered, remembering the night he'd tried to take me from Edward. He'd frightened me, but a small part of me felt bad for the pain in his eyes when Sam took him outside.
Just now I could have sworn I saw that same pain mixed with anger when he saw us. I shook my head, dispelling the memory. A few minutes later we stopped at the side of a heavily wooded road instead of near the beach where I'd assumed she was headed.
She turned off the enginer and sat staring out the window, lost in her own thoughts. From where I sat I saw a tear slide down her cheek.
I looked around us but didn't see anything other than trees and more trees, nothing to warrant the apparent emotional response she had to this place. Still, I felt compelled to speak. "Are you okay?"
She sniffed, wiping her face, and turned to me, pain still evident in her eyes. "Yeah," she replied, softly. "I just wasn't prepared for the memory to feel so fresh."
She opened her door and got out. I got out and walked to the front where she stood with her arms wrapped tightly around her.
She turned to me, and I saw raw pain in her eyes—pain like I've never seen before on a person or ever wanted to see again. She pointed to a spot in the road in front of us that looked just like every other spot. Her voice barely rose above a whisper.
"They were right there. It was like they were waiting for us. I'd never been so afraid in my life."
I looked at the road again, still not seeing the memory she was evidently reliving. "Who? The wolves?" I asked, making a guess.
She shook her head and smiled indulgently at me. She reached out and brushed my hair away from my neck, seeing Edward's mark on my neck. "You think the Quileutes are the monsters because you've been marked by your vampire, but no, Bella. It wasn't Quileutes. They were never a threat to you or me. They protect humans, but they're especially protective of imprints."
She turned so she faced me. "Bella, you're almost an adult now. You've decided to be a mate to a creature that used to be just as human as you or me, but you need to understand: He. Isn't. Human. A vampire attacked him, bit him, drank his blood, and sent enough poison flowing through his veins that it killed him and turned him into the abomination he is now."
I shook my head, clenching my teeth in anger. "Edward is not an abomination, and Carlisle didn't attack him. He saved him. Edward was dying, and Carlisle saved his life."
"Bella, tell me something. How old is your vampire?"
"His name is Edward," I spat.
She nodded. "Okay, fair enough. How old is Edward?"
"A hundred and seventeen." I shrugged. "So what? That doesn't make him an abomination."
"A hundred and seventeen," she repeated, "and you think that's normal? How many people do you know that old?"
I rolled my eyes at her narrow-mindedness. "Angie's great-grandmother lived to be a hundred and two," I stated, smug in my answer.
Renee smiled. "Did you hear what you said? She lived. She lived a long life, and she died, I'm assuming, a natural death in the end. Your Edward won't die. He'll live forever unless someone sets him on fire. That's an abomination."
I pushed my tongue into my cheek and cut my eyes to the side. "I'm not going to argue with you about my relationship with Edward. Edward is my choice."
"Okay, we'll just agree to disagree on this. That mark probably means it would be too late to turn back now anyway." She pushed away from the car and walked over to the spot she'd mentioned. "That isn't why I brought you out here anyway. I wanted to tell you why I had to leave and hope you can maybe understand a little better now that you have your own mate."
I walked over to her and waited silently for her to continue. She turned toward the truck and reached for my hand, pulling me into her arms. I got the feeling her story was going to be emotionally hard for her, so I ignored the instinct to pull away.
"I'd promised Charlie to stay away from the reservation, but it was so hard. I needed Josh as much as I needed my next breath. When we were apart I was in physical pain. My chest was perpetually squeezed in a vise, and I suffered horrible panic attacks. Every bit of the pain and anxiety disappeared when I was with him. It's why I couldn't stay away. Tell me, is it like that with your Edward?"
The last thing I wanted to do was validate Renee's feelings, but I did understand. My feelings for Edward were every bit as intense, but Edward assured me this was normal for newly mated couples. The word mated was foreign and still made me blush furiously at what it meant. He'd promised the intensity of our feelings for each other would never dim, but the pain of separation would lessen as our bond grew and strengthened. He said for males the separation would always be more painful because it was in their chemical makeup to be protective and possessive. Separation went against everything they were and stood for.
So, yeah, I understood.
"I did my best to stay away as long as possible, but it wouldn't last. I'd break and have to see him. Josh was trying just as hard to honor his marriage and mine by staying away, but I knew he prowled near our home. I'd hear him sometimes at night howling."
She paused, swallowing hard. "You have no idea how painful that sound was to hear. Even Charlie couldn't ignore it. I tried to make our marriage work, but I was giving in more often to the pull. I think somehow I sensed our time was running out. It had only been a few days since I'd seen Josh, but I was dying inside. I couldn't think. I couldn't breathe. I could barely go through the day-to-day motions. Knowing you needed me was the only reason I got out of bed in the mornings. Charlie knew I was at the end of my endurance, so he informed me he'd volunteered to take another officer's shift, even though he was due for a week off. We'd fought so much over the years about Josh, but I think he'd finally either given up or just accepted that Josh was always going to be between us, and we were all helplessly trapped in this mess."
"What about Joshua's wife? Alice said he was married. Did you ever stop to think about her?" I accused.
Renee rubbed my arms and stepped away. She bent down, picking up a leaf, and proceeded to tear it apart while gazing into the woods in thought. "Josh's wife was like your dad—both of them trapped in the tangled mess of the imprint. It would be easy to say if Josh had just believed the legends then none of this would have happened and everything would be better, but that would be a lie, too."
"How can you believe that? I mean, if you and Joshua Uley could have been together from the beginning, then you wouldn't have been torn between being with me and dad or being with him."
She looked over her shoulder at me and smiled. "I wouldn't have you. Josh wouldn't have had Sam or Paul. We may have needed each other to breathe, but neither of us could ever regret our children."
She brushed her hands against her pants and pointed into the trees. "Josh's house was just over a mile straight through the trees, but it took three miles to drive around to it. He could run so fast. He got to us so quickly."
She pointed to where I stood. "There were three of them. They blocked the road completely. I'd never seen a vampire before, but their red eyes gave them away. They shouldn't have been there. The Quileutes' land is protected by a treaty—"
"The treaty is with the Cullens only," I interrupted, explaining. "They don't drink human blood, only animals. It's why their eyes are gold, not red."
She stared at me, stunned. "So your Edward doesn't kill humans?"
I shook my head, proud of my mate. "No, he doesn't. His family doesn't either." I chose not to bring up the past and why we were waiting for Carlisle's friend to get here or the stuff we'd learned already. She'd learn soon enough. Right now I wanted to hear her story and maybe get her to see Edward in a better light before they met.
Her eyes took on a distant look, and I saw the shudder that wracked her body as she remembered the past again.
"These vampires were definitely not like your Edward then. We'd spent the day at the beach with Josh and his boys. You and Paul built sandcastles and collected shells while Sam played at being a wolf and watched over the two of you. You had a bag full of shells you couldn't wait to show Charlie. You were so tired that you'd fallen asleep as soon as I started the drive home.
"I knew we were going to die right there on the road, and no one would even know. In that moment I wasn't thinking about how much it would hurt Josh if I died. My only thought was I should have never brought you with me. It was bad enough how much I'd hurt Charlie over the years, but it would devastate him to lose you. This is what my inability to stay away from Josh had done—I'd put my baby at risk, and I couldn't live with that."
I hummed along with the song on the radio, replaying the glorious day that I'd had with Josh. I looked over the seat to Bella stretched out across the back seat, already sound asleep. Her mouth hung open, and I laughed at hearing her light snores.
"So much like your Daddy."
I pushed away the guilt, refusing to think about Charlie until we were off the reservation. Only then would I let the guilt and betrayal choke me. Right now I wanted to savor the feeling of being able to breathe again, even if only for a short while.
Remembering Bella playing so well with the boys and their friends had me wondering if in a few years my child would be an imprint for one of them. "Maybe the next generation can get it right since we couldn't."
Coming around the bend in the road, I eased off the gas, slowing down for the three men in the road ahead. "You're going to get hit walking in the middle of the road like that," I mumbled.
They didn't move to the sides even though they saw my car getting closer, and I was forced to hit the brake and bring the car to a stop. "Idiots, do you want to get hit?"
I leaned out the window, gesturing for them to move out of the way. "Could you please get out of the way?" I huffed. "I need to get home."
The one in the middle tilted his head up to the sky and took an exaggerated breath.
"Do you smell that?" he asked his friends.
"The vile stench of dog?" One of his friends grimaced while the third one made a show of covering his nose and mouth.
"No, this whole place reeks of dog. There's another scent, though. I smelled it earlier coming from the beach when we came in from the water."
I thought back but couldn't remember any strangers hanging out on the beach today.
"I don't smell anything but wet dog."
"Extend your senses, you imbecile!" he snapped. "I should have drained you on the spot."
He backhanded his friend, and I clamped my hand over my mouth, fighting to keep my scream inside as I watched him fly backwards into the trees.
He turned back to me, straightening his sleeve as though the scene was nothing unusual, and I got my first look at his red eyes and I knew…
I quietly climbed out of the car, leaving it running so the radio and engine would hopefully drown out any noise and Bella would stay blissfully asleep in the backseat. I prayed they wouldn't know she was there and someone would find her and take her home to Charlie.
I bit down on my lip at the thought that I wouldn't get to tell Bella I loved her or hold her one last time before I died. I didn't dare look to the backseat for fear these monsters would know my baby slept, unaware of the danger I'd put us in with my selfish actions.
"What do you want?" My voice trembled though I fought down my fear with everything I had inside. "I have twenty dollars in my purse you're welcome to if you'll just let me through."
In the blink of an eye the ringleader was standing in front of me, his hand already around my neck. He lifted me in the air as though I were nothing more than a paper doll and leaned in close. "Money can't buy what we require, but the offer is appreciated," he chuckled.
"Wha-what d-d-d-do you want?"
"Hmm, what do I want? I want that sweet nectar."
He licked my face, and his tongue was cold like the glide of an ice cube on my skin. His head jerked back suddenly, and he spat on the ground twice before glaring at me. He shook me, strangling me until I wheezed and my eyes rolled back in my head.
"What is that? Your taste does not match the sweet aroma coming from you. Why?" he demanded.
I tried to shake my head. I didn't understand what he was talking about. He leaned in, sniffing my neck, then between my breasts. He grabbed the front of my shirt with his free hand and ripped it from my body, leaving long scratches on my chest from his nails. He threw me to the ground at his feet, holding the torn fabric to his nose and inhaled deeply.
His gaze dropped to me, and he grinned. I didn't know how, but I knew in that moment it was Bella he wanted.
"No!" I screamed. I lunged to my feet, clawing at his face until my fingernails were shredded and bloody. I kicked and punched with everything I had in me, but it was useless. I was battling a brick wall.
His friends grabbed me, each pulling an arm until I thought they would rip from their sockets. All the while he laughed at me, completely unmoved by my attack.
"You taste like a dog, but you know where my nectar is, don't you?" he tsked.
"No! Just leave us alone," I screamed, struggling against his friends despite the pain I was in.
He raised an eyebrow as understanding lit up his eyes, and he walked toward the car.
I screamed in anguish, realizing my mistake too late. "You leave my baby alone, you bastard! I swear to God I'll kill you if you touch her!"
He ignored me as he peered in first the front window and then the back. He looked back at me and grinned. "There it is."
"I'm so sorry, baby," I sobbed, brokenly. My head dropped in defeat as my knees finally buckled beneath me. "I'm so sorry."
"What about this one?"
"You can share her." He waved his hand, dismissing me as having no importance. "I have no interest in dog food when I can have a steak."
I heard the car door open and then the air was filled with snarls. I looked up to see a wolf break through the trees—Josh. He charged the vampire by the car, catching him off guard. Josh snapped his jaws around the vampire's arm, ripping it from his body, and went back for more. The ones holding me threw me in the ditch beside the road and rushed to help their friend.
I crawled along the ditch, my only concern getting to Bella while their battle waged. The sound of metal being ripped apart filled the air, sending chills down my spine, but I stayed focused on my goal.
There was an anguished yelp and then silence.
I shook myself from the memory, clutching at my chest, unable to breathe. It took me a moment to realize part of the reason I couldn't breathe was because of how tightly Bella was holding me. I wrapped my arms around her, holding her just as fiercely, and sobbed for everything I'd lost that day—Josh, Charlie, and even my baby, though she was standing right here.
Bella led me over to a large stump beside the road, probably left over from a tree that had fallen that long-ago day, and we sat together just like we did when she was a child and was sad or afraid. The only difference was she was comforting me this time.
When I felt I had more control over my emotions I continued. "The silence that followed Josh's cry…I knew. It was like someone had reached into my chest, ripped my heart out, and crushed it under their boot. My lungs seized, and I couldn't breathe. The pain was so intense you would think I was the one dying, but I couldn't think about my grief. You were all that mattered. I had to get to you."
I took another deep shuddering breath and turned to Bella, only to realize she had been crying as well.
"I'm sorry, Mom," she croaked.
"Oh, no, baby," I whispered, kissing her tearstained cheek. "You have nothing to be sorry for." I pushed her hair out of her face and used the front of my shirt to wipe her eyes.
"But I do. I didn't know. I didn't understand how you must have felt." She sniffed, rubbing her arm under her nose. "You lost your mate. If I lost Edward—"
"Shhh. You're not going to lose your Edward. I may not have met this vampire of yours, but I know only the strongest and most fierce vampire would be good enough for my daughter."
Her watery smile brightened her face. "He really is. I love him so much."
I nodded, acknowledging her feelings.
"What happened after Josh died? How did we get away?"
I sighed, remembering. "Josh alerted the rest of the pack that was on patrol that there were vampires on their land and we were in danger. Billy was the closest, and he arrived just after Josh died. Josh had killed one and injured the one that came after you, but he was still lethal and there was still the third one. I think he must have hidden, whether from cowardice or strategy, I don't know."
"Billy thought he only had the one injured vampire to fight and focused on him. The other one came up behind him. I saw him just as I got to you and yelled a warning to Billy. He turned just in time to keep from being bitten, but the vampire crushed his spine. The rest of the pack arrived by then, and the fight was over in seconds."
I stared up at the overcast sky, giving myself a moment to indulge in my "what if" fantasy.
What if Billy had gotten there sooner? Could he and Josh together have beaten them? Would Josh still be here? Would I still be married to Charlie, all of us still miserable? Or would Josh and I have finally given in and broken our vows to be together?
There was really no way to know. The only thing I knew for a fact was that I missed him every day, and I was so very tired.
"What happened after that?" Bella asked quietly. "I know you left, but why?"
I shook my head, turning back to Bella. "I don't have an answer that will make sense to you, Bella. I only know I felt so much guilt, even though I know there was no way for anyone to have known what would happen that day. I just kept thinking if I hadn't been weak—if I hadn't gone to see him that day—he might still be alive."
I wiped at the fresh tears on my face. "I'd already hurt so many people: Josh's wife now had to raise her boys alone; Sam and Paul would grow up without a father to guide them; Sarah would have to raise three children while taking care of Billy, who was now paralyzed; and Billy who would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, unable to shift and protect his family."
I cupped Bella's cheeks in my hands and stared into her eyes showing her all the love I felt for my only child. "Not to mention I almost lost you because of my selfishness, and I couldn't bare the weight of my sins. I had to leave, and the only selfless thing I could do was not break your father's heart by taking you with me. It killed me to drive away and leave you. I can't count how many times I turned the car around, unable to leave you behind."
She stood, and I stared at her back while she absorbed everything she'd learned. After a few minutes she turned back to me, her eyes so red and swollen from crying. "Then why did you cut my visits short? What changed? Why didn't you want me anymore?"
I stood and rushed over to her, enveloping her in my arms. I was so very grateful she didn't pull away. "No, Bella. I've always wanted you. I thought one of the Quileutes would imprint on you since you were my daughter. You and Paul were so close when you were children that Josh and I speculated that when you both got older you might be his imprint."
"Paul? He tried to take me from Edward." She shook her head. "I'm Edward's mate, not Paul's or any other Quileute's either."
I stared into her eyes, searching, though I didn't know what I was looking for. Something tickled in the back of my mind, a distant memory from long ago.
"Are you sure?"
She pulled her shoulders up, breaking my hold to step back.
"Of course, I'm sure," she scoffed. She held her hair up and turned her head. "This is Edward's mark. I'm his mate. I bit him, too, and even though it's not very deep, he has my mark over his heart, too."
We both turned, startled by a deep angry voice coming from the gloom of the woods.
End Note: Are you still with me? More soon!