A/N: There are no words to express how sorry I am that it's taken me this long to update ISYC. I had a major case of writer's block that wouldn't dissolve for the longest time. No excuses or BS, just a heartfelt I'm sorry. I thank the readers who have (so, so patiently) emailed and PM'd me asking about updates. To those of you who are still reading, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I recommend going back a chapter (or two) to catch up to where we are in the story.
Thanks to my lovelies, Keye and Sandy, who have been on this journey with me for a long while. Their friendship and support is unwavering.
I thank my lovely beta, Sue (chayasara), for catching all my little snafus and being my word fairy. Mwah!
~A Future Unwritten~
I'm not sure why I hadn't thought of Laurent earlier. It seemed like years since Sandra had introduced us and Laurent had asked me to paint portraits of the Volturi. Part of the agreement included the caveat that no questions be asked about the red-eyed creatures in the pictures.
A lot had occurred since then. Edward and the Cullens had shown Laurent mercy when they found him at the cottage with me in his arms, dripping blood. Carlisle had performed Sandra's change himself when Laurent was unable to, offering the Cullens' home as a hosting site. I knew Laurent was grateful for the help he'd received, and I also knew Sandra would exert her influence over him to help us if necessary. When it came to saving Edward, I had no qualms about using whatever tools were at my disposal to make it happen.
I paced in front of the cabin with Edward's cell pressed to my ear. The early morning dew coated my sneakers, dampening my socks and the bottom of my jeans. Carlisle had called earlier with a number where I could reach Sandra and Laurent.
"But why doesn't Sandra want to speak to me?" I asked again, curling a lock of hair around my finger and pulling until my eyes watered.
"Bella, my dear, she's having a hard time." Laurent's soothing Jamaican tones came over the line. "She's not acclimating to this life as fast as she'd hoped."
"What does that mean? Just tell me!"
"Sandra . . . went after a human. She's devastated and ashamed."
I stopped pacing and closed my eyes, shutting out the gray sky and the field of grass surrounded by dense woods edging its borders. An image of Sandra, feral the way Edward had been in my hospital room that first day, played behind my eyes. I knew from my conversations with Sandra since her transformation that killing a human was her worst nightmare. "Did she . . . ?"
"No. It was close, but a few of us tackled her before she had the chance." Laurent sighed deeply. "She hasn't left her room for several days."
"Oh, I'm sorry. She'll bounce back. Sandra's tough."
"Yes, she is. And how are you and your beau?"
"Well, that's kind of why I'm calling, Laurent. I need your help."
"Anything you need, my dear."
"I hope you mean that." I took a deep breath then plunged right to the heart of the matter. "I need to know about the work you commissioned me to do. Why are those paintings being done?"
There was a long silence on the other end of the line. I waited, knowing this would present a quandary for Laurent. Should he remain loyal to vampire law or help those who provided him the chance to be with his mate?
"Bella, why are you asking me this now?"
"I wouldn't ask if it wasn't absolutely necessary. I've had visions about things in that folder that affect me and those I love in a very personal and . . . permanent way."
"Oh, dear. I don't know all that much, I'm afraid, but I'll help any way I can."
My stomach dropped. I'd expected Laurent to give me the answers I needed, but hearing that his knowledge was limited wasn't encouraging. I glanced back at the cabin. Edward hovered on the porch, and I could sense he wanted to know what was in the folder I was referring to.
"Why did you ask for those paintings?"
"I was hired to . . . get you to paint them."
"Me in particular?"
"Yes. Falling for Sandra wasn't part of the plan, but I knew the only way to you was through your agent."
"Does Sandra know this?"
"Okay, so who hired you?"
"Another vampire. His name is James, and he had a lot of money."
"James?" I choked out.
A moment later, Jasper and Edward were flanking me, both of them with clenched fists. I held a hand up, encouraging them to stay quiet.
"I don't know him that well. He's a smarmy fellow, and I usually wouldn't do business with the likes of him. He only wanted paintings commissioned by a particular well-known artist and was willing to pay a hefty price. I didn't see the harm."
"Where can he be found?"
"I have a cell number but no idea of his whereabouts."
"How did you get the folder?"
"We did meet one time. It was at an old abandoned compound in Italy, but I have no idea where he could be now."
My heart beat faster and Jasper whimpered. This could be it!
"Laurent, I need you to tell me everything you know about that compound."
The five of us sat around the fire. Edward had his arm draped over my shoulders, Jacob had his over Joselle's, and Jasper was cross-legged on the floor beside the couch. We'd been talking, arguing, and hashing things out for hours. The remnants of the soup Joselle and I had attempted to eat for dinner sat congealing in bowls on the coffee table. The bottle of wine, however, was nearly empty.
"Are we all clear on the plan?" Edward asked, glancing around at everyone.
"I still don't understand why—" I started to protest, but he cut me off with a fierce look.
"Bella, there are too many variables. For one, we're dealing with vampires, and I don't need to be distracted by trying to keep you safe. For another, we don't know how Alice is going to react to you after she's been drinking human blood for God knows how long."
I looked into his eyes for a long moment and then nodded. "Okay."
"No more arguing?"
"Good." Edward turned his head. "Jacob? Any concerns about watching over the ladies while Jasper and I are gone?"
"I'd like to be there for the action, but I understand why you two need to be the ones to go. Don't worry about a thing."
Jasper rose to his feet lithely and started pacing around the cabin like a caged animal. He'd been patient all day, but now that things were settled, he seemed anxious to put the plan into action.
Laurent thought he didn't know much, but the information he'd offered about the compound had allowed us to find it. He'd confirmed the existence of a tree with red leaves on its northern border, and although there was no proof it was the same one from my visions, we were confident it was. Edward and Jasper were leaving tonight. Our hope was that they could outsmart James and his crew. Even though it was just the two of them, their gifts and my visions were on their side. I would keep in touch with them by cell phone. No new visions had come to me, but I felt confident Alice would be back with Jasper soon.
Some time later, Edward grasped my hand. "Bella, it's time."
"I know." It took a monumental effort to keep my voice steady.
He lifted my hand to his cool lips and kissed each knuckle in turn before tugging me up from the couch and leading me outside.
The night was cold and clear with countless stars dotting the cobalt sky. It was silent out here, even more so than Forks, and a light breeze caressed my skin. Edward faced me on the porch, cupping my face in his hands. His eyes glittered in the scant light, his expression unreadable in the shadows.
"Bella, I love you so much. I hate the thought of being apart from you."
"I love you, too." My fingers clenched at his waist, bunching the fabric of his shirt. "We'll get through this," I said with more conviction than I felt. I was about to embark on a deception that would either save us or end us, and in order to pull it off, I needed Edward to go. If he had any inkling of what I was up to, he'd try to stop me.
"You promise?" he murmured against my lips. It might have been amusing, a vampire asking for reassurance from his fragile human fiancé, if a telltale tremor didn't ripple through his usually rock-steady body.
Edward's vulnerability twisted my heart, and I nearly spilled my guts and told him everything. He'd once expressed sorrow that I had to bear the burden of my gift alone, and in that moment, I felt sorry for myself for the first time. This might be our last goodbye. My last chance to come clean. What if there were another way?
There isn't. We've worked so hard for this one slim chance. Don't waver now, Bella. BB's voice was strong and sure, and I had to trust her. After all, she was me, and she'd lived his death over and over again. I owed it to us to try.
I gazed into Edward's eyes. "I promise."
When I think of a goodbye between lovers, I picture lips mashed together and clinging desperation that leaves behind swollen lips and bruises.
"Oh, Bella." My name floated on a velvet sigh, and Edward took me in his arms as if I was made of glass. His lips brushed against mine and moved over them in tender kisses. Even when our tongues slid against one another, it was soft and gentle, innocent. My fingers went slack, the blood flowing back into them as I let go of Edward's shirt and slid my hands underneath it to caress the lean muscles of his back.
He nuzzled his lips into the hollow of my throat while resting one hand lightly against the back of my neck. Tingling shivers rolled through me, radiating from my heart and spiraling outward. A feeling of lightness replaced the smothering weight I'd been carrying around inside me. I was drunk on his scent, on the nearness of his body.
Too soon Edward pulled away and wrapped my fingers around his cell phone. "Keep this close to you, Bella. Jasper's number is programmed in."
"I will." My phone hadn't received a signal since we'd arrived at the cabin, which was why I was taking his.
"Jasper." His voice was soft, but of course Jasper heard him and joined us on the porch.
I clung to Edward, the fear ratcheting up again. He grabbed my face between his hands and kissed me hard then turned us and pressed me away from him and into Jacob's arms, who now stood in the doorway.
"No! Not yet." I reached out for Edward, but Jacob easily held me against his chest.
"No, Bella. This is hard enough already." His jaw was clenched and a muscle ticked on the side of his face as he stepped away from me. "I love you."
He blew me a kiss, his golden eyes full of yearning. And in the blink of an eye, he was gone.
"No! Edward!" I struggled in Jacob's arms, but he held fast.
"Bella, Bella. Calm down. He's far from here by now, honey." Jacob kissed my hair and never flinched when I turned in his embrace and sobbed into his chest.
A few hours later, I sat staring into the fire, clutching Edward's cell phone in my hand. No visions had come through, although I wasn't surprised because I already knew what needed to be done—now it was a matter of logistics.
Jacob paced restlessly around the cabin; his gargantuan frame seemed to dwarf the small space. He scrubbed his fingers over the short spikes of his hair, muttering under his breath, and eventually ripped off his hoodie.
Joselle seemed amused by Jacob's antics. "Jacob, why not blow off some steam?"
"I'd love to. What can I do?" Jacob's face was hopeful. He obviously needed out of his own head.
"Phase. Go for a run. Work it off."
"Are you sure? You guys might need something—"
"Jacob! If we need you, you're just a yell away. Honestly, you're beginning to drive me nuts, pacing like an old woman."
I turned my face away and smiled.
"Old woman! Aw, all right. I'll be nearby, though."
For a few minutes, Joselle watched Jacob bounding around the cabin at breakneck speed. When I felt the weight of her sink down onto the couch beside me, I glanced up at her wistful expression.
"Are you okay, Joselle?"
"Yes. Just remembering how Joshua gets when he needs to run—like a caged animal. He'd almost look to me for permission, as if what he is was something to be ashamed of, something to suppress." She ducked her head and long, glossy hair cloaked her face. "I miss him so much, Bella. Have you seen . . . ?" Her voice hitched.
"No, I'm sorry, but I'll let you know if I see anything new."
"Thank you. Now . . . do you want to tell me what's going on?"
"What do you mean?"
"Bella, you've been staring into that fire for hours. I know it's not just because you're worried about the quest Edward and Jasper are on." She placed a gentle hand on my arm. "Talk to me. Maybe I can help."
I glanced into Joselle's concerned brown eyes. Something about her reminded me of Angela. I was absolutely homesick for my best friend and yearning for someone to unburden myself to. Could I trust her? Should I unload what I'd been holding inside onto another person?
In the end, I was too weak and worn down to go on this way any longer. The weight of the baggage I'd tried to shoulder alone had finally pulled me down, and I knew there was no way to do this on my own. Without help, I'd never be able to ditch Jake or make it to Volterra.
Through my tears, I told Joselle everything. It was my intention to tell her just enough to convince her to help me, but once the words started tumbling out of my mouth, they wouldn't stop—and it felt too good to get it off my chest. Through it all, she held me or rubbed my back; she said all the right things, sometimes cooing at me the way you would an aggrieved child.
"Oh, Bella, you've been carrying so much around with you! I'm glad you trusted me."
"Me, too. I feel so much better." I sniffled, swabbing at my nose with a tissue. Joselle's arm was around my shoulders and she rocked us to and fro gently until I was almost lulled to sleep. A wide yawn had me clamping my hand over my mouth and shaking my head to throw off the drowsiness.
"You should get some rest."
"But I have to get out of here!"
"Have you figured out how you will give Jacob the slip?"
I shook my head.
"What about how you will get yourself to Volterra?"
I shook my head again.
"I have to, Joselle—I just have to. There's so much I didn't think about." I shredded the soggy tissue between my fingers. Truth be told, I hadn't thought this far ahead. My only goal had been to get Edward out of the way, to help set things up so Alice and Joshua could be rescued. My plan had been to slip away once I'd leaped that hurdle, but I'd never given serious consideration to how it would be possible to leave for Volterra with Jacob watching me with a keen eye or—more importantly—how I would get myself there from the middle of nowhere without a vehicle.
"Not to worry. I'll help you."
"You will? You don't think this is crazy?"
"Oh, I didn't say that. I think it's crazy, but that's not for me to judge. You're the gifted one, and if you feel this strongly that it has to be this way . . . well, I'll do what I can."
"Thank you, Joselle!" I flung myself into her arms.
"Now, first things first—you need some sleep, and before you argue with me, I'll need some time to put my plan in motion anyway." She held me firmly by the shoulders, her dark eyes all business now. "Get it together, honey. You sleep while I work on this."
"Okay." I was exhausted and probably wouldn't get very far without several hours of sleep. The chances of Edward and Jasper rescuing Alice and Joshua and returning before I left were slim. "What exactly is your plan?"
"We need to get Jacob out of the way, so I'll give him a little something to knock him out just long enough for you to be well away from here by the time he wakes up. You also need a way to get to Volterra. We are in the middle of the woods, after all." Joselle smiled. "I know someone who owes me a favor. He has a car and doesn't ask a lot of questions. He can drop you off close to Volterra, but you'll be on your own from there."
"That's perfect, Joselle! I . . . I only need a one-way ride there. Then I'll either be coming home with Edward or . . . or it won't matter."
"Oh, honey." Joselle hugged me close. "I'm so sorry you have to go through this. You're such a sweet girl."
Four rasping thumps on the porch announced Jacob's return. He phased back into human form before entering the cabin. His dusky skin was covered with dirt, twigs, and rivulets of sweat.
"Hey." Jacob smiled, roughing a hand through his hair. "Think I need a shower . . ."
Joselle wrinkled her nose. "That would be an understatement, Jacob. How about I make you something to eat while you get cleaned up?"
"That sounds great!" His gaze turned my way. "You doing okay, Bells?"
"Yeah, Jake. I'm good." I yawned. "Actually, I'm going to hit the hay."
Once I was alone, the ramifications of what I was about to do hit me with deadly force. Shutting the flimsy wooden door to my room, I sagged onto the mattress with my head in my hands. Now that the time had come, I wasn't sure if I could pull this off. But every time the doubts and fears threatened to overtake me, the thought of what would happen if I failed chilled me to the core. Yes, it was crazy to walk straight into the den of predators—especially ones as sick and ruthless as the Volturi—but the alternative was incomprehensible.
I hefted Edward's phone in my hand. I wasn't supposed to call him unless it was absolutely necessary. The last thing he needed was another vampire hearing his phone vibrate at an inopportune moment. How I longed to bask in the comfort of his velvet tones, to have him tell me it would all be okay. Eventually, I reclined on the bed with his phone clutched to my chest and fell into a dreamless sleep.
When I awoke, it was to a light vibration in my hand. I sat up eagerly and swung my legs over the side of the bed. Morning was just arriving outside the window, the bluish light of early dawn still casting odd shadows. Swiping my finger over the cell phone screen, I tapped the incoming text message.
I miss you so much, Bella. I can't wait until you're in my arms again. ~ E
The message had come in ten minutes ago. Knowing I might never have another chance, I texted him back.
I love and miss you, too. So much. I won't be able to take full breaths until your hands are on me again. ~B
I dressed slowly, hoping another text from Edward would come in before my journey began, but the phone remained silent. When I opened my door, I was greeted by the sight of Joselle busy in the kitchenette. Jacob was splayed out on the couch with one arm and one leg trailing along the floor, snoring and muttering.
"Good morning, Bella! How did you sleep?"
"Not too bad. You?"
"Oh, I haven't slept. I plan to catch up once you're gone."
"Jacob?" I inclined my head toward my slumbering friend.
"Out like a light. He won't be an issue." She turned back to the counter and poured coffee from a glass carafe into a thermos. "Gianni will be here to pick you up within the hour. He'll drop you off just outside of Volterra, no questions asked." She poured coffee into a mug and handed it to me.
"Thank you so much—for everything you've done." Tears welled in my eyes.
"You're welcome. The ride to Volterra will take a few hours, so I've packed you some sandwiches and a thermos of coffee."
"Sounds great." I settled at the small table tucked against the wall and ate a piece of toast while drinking my coffee; my stomach didn't feel steady enough for anything more elaborate.
A short time later, a white Range Rover pulled up outside. Joselle and I hugged each other tight before I clambered into the front seat.
Gianni was a middle-aged man with an angular, craggy face. He smiled as we started off but never said a word the entire journey. He accepted one of the sandwiches Joselle had packed with a grateful nod, but that was the extent of our interaction. It seemed a bit odd, but everything about my life had been out of the ordinary the past few months, and I was grateful for the silence.
The roads between the cabin and Volterra were mainly backwoods dirt tracks that wound through dense forest. Several times my teeth snapped together as we jounced over the rough terrain. Eventually, we came out onto a wider paved road. After several miles of sparsely spaced farmland and houses, we entered a town with cobbled streets and stone buildings. I recognized the area both from my painting and the artwork in Carlisle's office—Volterra.
"You go hotel, yes?" Gianni spoke for the first time, gesturing up ahead.
The Piazza del Priori lay before us in all its splendor. It was a sunny afternoon, and people were milling about the courtyard, more densely concentrated around the vendors that dotted the periphery. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry; certainly nobody appeared to be afraid. The desolate, darkly shadowed piazza of my nightmares was hidden beneath the light of the day and the presence of the people.
"Y-Yes. The closest hotel, please."
By coincidence, or fate, my second-floor room overlooked the piazza.
Gianni insisted on carrying my little duffel bag and checking the room for me before he left. I tried to slip him a tip, but he smiled and shook his head.
"Good luck, miss."
There would be no unpacking. I'd only brought a change of clothes and Edward's cell phone with me, and I still had the tiny cooler of sandwiches. Joselle had tucked a paperback in the side pocket of my bag, and I smiled when I discovered it. I hadn't considered needing a remedy for thinking too much while I waited for BB to give me the go-ahead, but the book might prove to be a welcome distraction.
Still no word from Edward. I wondered if Jacob was awake by now and how pissed he was about our deception. He'd have to get over it.
Drifting over to the window, I parted the filmy white curtains and looked down at the piazza. The golden halo tinging the edges of the buildings hinted at the latent rays of the setting sun, which still lit the world outside of the rapidly darkening courtyard, but its inner depths were already filled with long shadows. Few people lingered in the growing darkness; even the lanterns spread throughout barely chipped away at its ominous presence.
I moved away from the window only to turn the lights off and then returned to my post. It wasn't long before figures in flowing claret robes swept along the edges of the piazza. There weren't many of them, but I knew who they were. What they were.
They glided along with confidence, as if they owned the space they occupied, and I supposed they did. The few humans that hadn't yet vacated the area instinctively shied away from the vampires, though I'm certain they had no idea why. One vendor crossed herself after a slight form, almost small enough to be a child, stopped to peruse her wares. It was impossible to tell if there was a female or a young boy underneath the hooded cloak.
I was unable to tear my eyes away from the childlike figure, and my heart started to slam in my chest for reasons I didn't understand. There was something familiar about the small vampire, who stopped in the middle of the piazza and glanced directly up at me. The hood slid back far enough for me to make out pointy features and long cornsilk hair. Jane. I acknowledged her name in mind only, knowing she could hear my heart racing even now, that she would hear if I uttered even the slightest of whispers.
BB had told me about Jane, showed me what she looked like, and stressed how cruel she could be. I also knew her devastating power was useless against me, but that didn't make her any less dangerous.
After a few seconds that seemed like hours, Jane turned away, the long robes swishing around her legs as she readjusted her cowl.
That night, I couldn't fall asleep. I lay in the center of the queen size bed, dwarfed by it, lonely for Edward. The moon was a mere sliver in the sky, leaving the hulking stone buildings in complete darkness, and the streetlamps glowed softly below, but their light didn't carry far—it certainly couldn't reach me. Even swathed in complete darkness I felt exposed, raw. My heart kept beating too fast, my pulse fluttering often.
BB never came that night. The morning found me with cramped muscles and a gritty feeling in my dried out eyes. The sun was strong and bright in the early hours, but the afternoon was overcast, a light drizzle dampening the cobbles below. Red robed figures appeared, haunting the piazza like wraiths. One dark-haired woman took her hood down and began handing fliers out to the tourists, chatting and smiling with some of them. Though she was some distance away, I'd spent enough time around vampires to realize she was human. My curiosity was getting the better of me, and I pulled on a sweater, intending to investigate.
No, Bella. You must stay here.
In the past, I'd spoken aloud to BB, but that wouldn't be wise when there was a group of vampires down below.
You have no idea what they're up to. Believe me, you don't want to get caught up in that.
What are they up to?
A chill rushed up my spine. The word "harvesting" wasn't typically a foreboding word, but it was when the Volturi were involved.
Feeding time, BB clarified, just in case I hadn't gotten the message clearly enough. They approach outsiders and offer tours of the castle. Sometimes they promise a free banquet, though they never tell the tourists that they are the ones on the menu. They're sick and twisted.
Maybe that's a way I can get into the castle to see Aro?
No! You'd never make it to him alive. He's fed separately, and his food is hand-chosen by Jane. You're not his type. You'd be swept away with the tide . . . into the chamber.
Where they feed. All the unsuspecting victims are lead through the castle to a special basement chamber . . . with drains in the floor. I'm sure you can imagine what those are for.
Jesus! They're so evil. How am I going to get into the castle to see Aro then?
I've been considering that. You're going to walk right through the front door.
You'll wait until tomorrow morning when they've all been well fed. You'll have to be braver than you've ever been, Bella. Make some noise, lest one of them decide to make you into a snack before you can speak with Aro.
Okay. What should I do until then?
Rest up. Whatever you do, don't let them overhear you talking to anyone, and don't go outside.
I managed to get three hours of sleep. Edward called once and left a voice mail, but the presence of the red-robed Volturi below kept me from listening to it.
In the morning, while it was sunny, I listened to the message.
"Bella? Where the hell are you? I know you're not at the cabin. Jacob's blaming himself, and Joselle's not talking. Why did you feel you had to deceive me? Haven't I proven I'll support you no matter what? I . . . I don't even know what to think. Call me."
"I'm so sorry, Edward," I whispered.
He'd sounded so upset in his message, so disillusioned. I could imagine him dragging his fingers through his hair as he tried to figure out my motivations for lying to him. He hadn't even said he loved me. I knew he did, but it smarted just the same.
I contemplated not calling him back, but the thought of never hearing his beautiful voice again was too painful to bear. I returned the call with shaking fingers.
"I love you." I had to be sure he knew in case I couldn't pull this off.
"What are you doing?" There was fear in his voice.
"Where are you? Did you find Alice?"
"Don't change the subject. What the hell are you up to? Please, love, tell me you aren't going to do anything stupid."
"Anything that might end in your death or keep us apart. Tell me where you are, and I'll come get you. We'll deal with this together, come up with a plan." Edward's voice was hoarse and held an edge of desperation that I understood all too well. There was nothing I wanted more than to give in to his request.
"I can't. Please, Edward . . . don't make this harder for me."
"Bella, I love you! I can't exist without you. Work with me . . . don't try to do this alone."
Pain arced through my body, a fist tightening around my heart. "I love you, too. For eternity."
I hung up.
A torrent of tears fell then, and I clutched the phone to my breast, ignoring the insistent vibration as Edward tried to call me back over and over again.
When I exited the room, I left the phone in the middle of the bed. Either I'd be back for my things or they would no longer matter. What I did know was that I couldn't let the Volturi catch me with Edward's cell phone on me.
It wasn't hard to find the Volturi's castle. The turrets were visible even from deep within the piazza. I walked the cobblestone streets with my head held high, a sense of power building within. By the time I stood before the huge wooden doors, my resolve was shaken, but I was still determined to forge ahead. I grasped the huge brass knocker and swore I could hear its echo within.
A square panel in the thick wooden door opened and a hooded man glared down at me. "State your business."
It reminded me of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her friends had finally reached Emerald City. I might have giggled if the situation wasn't so dire.
"I'm here to see Aro."
The vampire snorted rudely. "Get lost."
I lifted my chin defiantly and raised my voice. "I demand to see Aro! I have information he'll be interested in."
The door opened and I was unceremoniously yanked inside by my arm by the sour faced vampire and dragged down a long hallway. A stone hand clamped tightly over my elbow to the point of pain, and I bit my lip to keep from crying out. The lighting was dim; I almost expected there to be torches set in holders on the walls and suits of armor in alcoves. The artwork did have an old-style feel to it, and a damp mustiness pervaded the air.
The vampire beside me moved with dizzying speed, and I was helplessly dragged along for the ride, my feet barely whispering across the stone floor. There was no time to take in his appearance; I feared if I stumbled, that he would continue on, dragging me by a broken arm if necessary. After what seemed to be a long time, he halted abruptly. My body kept going until his hold pulled back on my arm and my teeth snapped together painfully.
"In here." His voice was rough and grating.
I was tossed into a semi-circular chamber, falling to my knees on the thin red and gold carpet. The door slammed shut and a heavy tumbler engaged; the bolt slamming home sounded so final, but at least he hadn't eaten me.
As the hours crawled by, I realized it might have been a grave error to leave my only method of communication with the outside world in my hotel room. I shook off my insecurity. This was how it had to be done, and I had to believe it would be okay. BB had remained completely silent, though I'd called out to her in my mind more times than I could count. I just kept reminding myself that I already had all the information required to save Edward and secure our future.
My jail had no windows to gaze out of, but there was a padded seat that curved along one side of the wall. Eventually, I settled on the red velvet cushion with my legs tucked under me and kept going over every bit of information I knew about the Volturi.
When the door suddenly opened, I froze in place.
Aro swept in, robes aflutter. He was even scarier in person—poker straight, inky shoulder length hair, chalky skin, and cardinal irises. He stopped about ten feet away, his pale hands clasped together beneath the billowing sleeves of his black robe and cocked his head to the side.
"I understand you demanded to see me." His delighted smile did nothing to soothe my pounding heart.
I just stared up at him unable to speak.
"You seem awfully quiet for one who made such a racket to get in here. You have some information for me? Please . . . do share." His eyes held more than a smidgen of crazy.
All at once, it slammed home.
This was not where I was supposed to speak to Aro, alone in a locked chamber with no witnesses.
My eyes widened and I tried to speak, but it was as if my mouth had been sewn shut. My heart worked just fine; it slammed hard against my ribs as if trying to escape.
"Oh, dear. Perhaps I can just have your hand then?" Aro moved closer and reached out.
I shook my head. "No." It was the faintest of whispers, which of course he heard.
"It won't hurt, child."
I cringed back against the wall, knowing there was no way to stop him. With my eyes scrunched closed, I steeled myself, waiting for his cold touch.
It was nothing like Edward's. No, when Aro's cold fingers slid along mine, I thought of slithering reptiles and squirming bugs in the earth. A cold and predatory essence extended beyond his touch and probed at my mind, snaking along the perimeter but unable to enter. He grasped my hand tighter until I cried out in pain and thought my fingers would snap like twigs. His horrible gift attempted to burrow into me to no avail, but I was left feeling dirty and violated just the same.
"What is this?" He spat angrily. "How is this possible? This is no coincidence!"
"I . . ."
"Speak, girl, or I shall rip your tongue from your mouth before I feed you to my friends!"
The threat did the trick. The thought of not being alive and able to say the words necessary to save Edward was enough to loosen my tongue. "No, please! I'm immune to your gift."
"Are you?" His voice was soft again, thoughtful. "Jane! Send Jane in here!"
"Not her . . . please."
His creepy eyes bore into mine. "It's almost as if you know what to expect. But how could that be?"
Before I could answer, Jane breezed through the door. "Yes, Master?" When her gaze landed on me, her red eyes were appraising. She tilted her head, a cruel, knowing smile playing over her lips. "Her heart sounds familiar . . . especially racing the way it is. Oh, yes, I believe you're staying in a hotel by the Piazza del Priori."
"Is that so?" Aro asked.
"Y-Yes. At least, I was last night."
"Her heart pounded rather hard when she saw me from her window," Jane mentioned casually.
"Try your power on her, Jane."
"Of course, Master."
"No! Please don't." The last thing I wanted was to make an enemy of the little freak, and I knew that's exactly what would happen if her power failed to drop me to the floor writhing in agony.
A commotion broke out in the hall, ending the debate, and Aro hissed angrily. However, Jane clapped her hands together with undisguised glee.
A familiar growl I would know anywhere reached my ears. "Bella! I smell her scent—I know she's here! Bella!"
My insides twisted into a knot and then the floor rushed up to meet me.
A/N: So when do things ever go as planned? Would love to hear your thoughts. Again, I apologize for the long wait for this chapter. Only a few chapters left before this journey is over. Thank you for sticking with me!
I recently read Ghostwriter by the talented Lissa Bryan. Stay tuned for news of my review of the book and the blog tour and e-book giveaway, coming to my blog in October.
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