Prologue: Prelude

I was going to lose Bella.

The greatest fear in my silent heart had come close to being a nightmarish reality several times, and on one unspeakable occasion I'd thought it was true. But, today the words had a dual meaning.

The long night we'd spent in the wilderness at the mercy of the elements had been very nearly my own version of hell on earth. Watching him hold her, listening to the elaborate fantasies in his mind, seeing all the things he could give her that I could not; physical love, warmth, children...

Warmth was the most essential of those. She would have frozen to death without him last night and once again I felt a strange mixture of reluctant gratitude and raging jealousy toward the creature I was biologically predisposed to destroy.

In the early light of day, the pain I felt at their connection was unprecedented and in a fit of cruel immaturity I'd allowed him to find out about our impending union in the worst way possible. I wanted him to know that she was mine and no one else's. I wanted to hurt him for the torment I'd endured at his hands the night before.

It was juvenile and trivial, especially considering all the terrible things we had to face today; Bella's safety and the coming battle should have been my only concerns. My family would be fighting for our lives today alongside our ancient enemies. I was certain that we were going to win, but we were in the throes of a conflict all the same. Selfish and treacherous, I was too consumed with my own internal struggles to think about anyone besides myself.

I wasn't even thinking of Bella when I'd orchestrated the revelation, and the hurt on her face when she understood what I'd done filled me with self loathing and disgust. When she'd asked me to go back and find him for her I couldn't refuse. I wondered if my latest mistake would be the one she couldn't forgive me for. Would she choose him now? Had I finally pushed her too far? Pushed her into his arms?

I couldn't help but remember the epiphany she'd had in the woods about my love for her when I learned of the one she had about her love for him. Her lack of self awareness was her Achilles heel.

In spite of her insistence that I was enough for her as we sat in the tiny tent and waited for the battle to commence, the pain and doubt bubbled beneath the surface of my consciousness. She could still change her mind. I could lose her.

And then the world shifted on its axis when the familiar scent assaulted me.

Bella had been right; every problem we had could be traced to the same origin. Today, the fight that began as a benign encounter during a baseball game last year would be concluded. The shortcomings of Alice's second sight had been exploited by this one dangerous enemy. My previous desire for this confrontation mocked me when I looked at the frail and precious girl beside me. Her life was literally in my hands now, and I was outnumbered.

I was going to lose Bella.

Chapter 1-Provocations

"What time are Rose and Emmett coming back?" I asked Alice in an attempt to make small talk as we hunted deer during a lull in the rain one afternoon after school. Rosalie and Emmett had decided to take a short trip to Vancouver, but they hadn't specifically said when they would be returning. Alice became intensely focused for a half second as she tried to see the answer.

"They'll be home tomorrow morning," Alice replied as she finished off a large buck. "Emmett will have a new video game he wants to play with Jasper."

I was too distracted to be particularly interested in the subject; my mind was still in Forks with Bella. The time between the end of our school day and the start of my designated visiting hours with her were always difficult for me. Hunting provided me with a necessary diversion, but the doe I'd just captured hadn't been enough of a challenge to occupy me for long.

Today's separation had been worse for me than usual because of Bella's strange mood. She'd been distant and thoughtful all day and I was desperate to know what was bothering her.

"Emmett will keep Jazz distracted long enough for me to finish redecorating our room," Alice continued cheerfully. Her pleasant demeanor vanished a moment later and I could see the reason in her head. Rose was going to be doing some shopping on their way back. I snorted.

"Ugh," Alice grumbled as she washed her tiny hands in a nearby stream. I could hear the sounds of the returning rain in the distance. "She promised we'd go to Portland together next weekend. Shopping alone just isn't that much fun….oh!"

I froze for a moment when I saw a surprised looking Bella in her head. The indistinct quality of the vision frightened me.

"What is it!?" I demanded as she tried to focus. The image in her mind sharpened and I relaxed.

"Looks like I'm going to have a shopping companion after all," Alice sang cheerfully.

Race you! She thought as she leapt lightly to her feet. I could feel intermittent drops of moisture falling from the grey sky now.

"Charlie's going to un-ground Bella," I gasped in surprise as we took off running playfully through the permanently sodden forest. I couldn't stop myself from smiling widely at this unexpected news. No more hours of late afternoon separation anxiety.

My mind filled with a variety of possible outings I could plan for us as I covered enough ground to outrun Alice with ease. I heard her irritated thoughts from behind me and I laughed, slowing down to allow her to catch up. She'd known I'd beat her.

"I wonder what made him change his mind," I mused when Alice was beside me again.

"Charlie will see her acceptance letter to the University of Alaska Southeast in the mail today," Alice replied in explanation a moment later. "He'll call Renee to share the news. Renee will babble about how far away that is and how much she knows Charlie will miss Bella. The idea of Bella being gone will be the reason he lets up. Esme has your acceptance letter, by the way."

I smiled again when I thought of how Bella was going to react when she saw all the other college applications I was bringing over later. Perhaps I wouldn't press the issue today; if she was free, maybe we could find something more entertaining to do this evening. I started to speed up without thinking and Alice was falling behind again.

"Sorry," I chuckled at the disgruntled look on Alice's face. "I'll try to limit myself to your pace next time."

"Humph," Alice grumbled as her mind raced through a variety of retorts.

I started to make a snide comment when Alice's expression abruptly went blank. I gasped at the images in her head. She was seeing flashes of the conversation Charlie was planning to have with Bella later this evening. He intended to set a few conditions to his daughter's newly reinstated freedom.

"I won't allow it!" I growled angrily as we came to an abrupt stop in a thicket of evergreens. "I've already talked to Bella about this! She can't be on their land unprotected."

"Of course not," Alice agreed. "It's too dangerous. But, Jacob Black hasn't had any contact with Bella since the motorcycle incident, so there's no reason for you to get worked up yet anyway."

Unless you count the note Charlie gave her this morning she added mentally as an impulsive afterthought.

"What note?" I snarled. I was aware that Charlie had gone to visit Billy Black when I officially went home evening before. I also knew from Charlie's thoughts that Bella had been sending notes to Jacob periodically to try to convince him to call her, but Charlie hadn't been thinking about passing any messages to the dog when he left yesterday.

Lately, I'd had a much easier time hearing his mind since my visits with Bella were carefully supervised; I'd spent more time with him in the last two months than I had my own father. Plus, he was in a constant state of irritation in my presence and that made his thoughts come through more clearly.

Alice sighed regretfully; she hadn't meant for me to see that in her head. The sky opened abruptly and the rain fell fast and hard, almost as though it was attuned to my mood.

"While you were getting her food at lunch, I asked Bella about what was bothering her and she told me that Charlie gave her a note from Jacob before she left for school this morning," Alice explained aloud. "She didn't tell me exactly what it said, but apparently he told her they couldn't be friends as long as we were part of her life."

My body relaxed instantly against my better judgment. My conscience admonished me for being relieved since Bella really missed her former friend, but I couldn't help it. Her sporadic melancholy over Jacob Black was a small price to pay for her safety. A raindrop in the ocean compared to the anguish and wild panic I felt at the mere idea of her being in dangerous company in a place I was forbidden to go.

"Well, I never thought I'd say it, but I'm glad that dog and I can agree on something," I said wryly as I perched on a mossy log in the middle of a small clearing. "They can't be friends."

Friendship wasn't all he wanted from her.

My jealousy had waned some over the last few weeks in Jacob's absence because I knew without a doubt that Bella loved me more than I could ever possibly deserve. My concerns about Jacob Black now were primarily about safety.

Well, at least two thirds of them were.

Bella and I were happy together, but that didn't stop me from feeling twinges of insecurity when she seemed preoccupied, or when Charlie mentioned the Blacks in a very deliberate fashion in my presence. I had always known the day would come when Charlie would give Bella her freedom back and she would want to visit her friend, but I was still at a loss on how to stop her besides resorting to shameless pleading. And that would never work.

"What should I do, Alice?" I asked thoughtfully after a considerable period of silence. "How do I keep her safely away from him?"

"I don't know yet," Alice replied with a sigh. "The only think I can think of is for me to keep an eye on things and if she disappears from my sight, we'll know she's making plans to see him. The de facto pack leader has forbidden him from visiting her in Forks, so she'd have to go to La Push."

I nodded reluctantly as I pushed my sodden hair out of my eyes. This wasn't really a solution but it was better than nothing. I stood up and began to pace nervously. I had to think of something. I couldn't allow her to get hurt, like Emily Young, or unbearably worse...

The horrible memory of the ill fated phone conversation that led me to attempt suicide two months ago would be burned into my brain for eternity. Rosalie's words echoed in my head again like I was hearing them for the first time and I sank back down onto the mossy log as though I'd been kicked in the stomach at the agonizing recollection.

'She's dead, Edward'.

The pain I felt when I believed that she was dead was unendurable; every fiber of my being screamed in misery at the memory.

"Don't let anything distract you from watching her, Alice," I growled fiercely when I recovered myself. "And tell the others I won't be home tonight."

"I'll be very careful," Alice assured me. "And you should do the same thing."

Bella is going to talk to you about the situation later, so don't start acting like a caveman. I can see if you lose your temper it will only make matters worse. She thought warningly.

"I'll try," I replied stiffly before I took off running back to get the Volvo so I could get back to Bella; back to the only thing that mattered in the universe.

I parked the Volvo close to the house but in a place where Charlie wouldn't be able to see it if he looked out of the front window. I hid in the shadows behind the little house, invisible to passers by, but close enough to have a decent view into the well lit kitchen where Bella and Charlie sat perched over their mostly forgotten plates. I peered through the glass, listening hard to the intense conversation taking place at the well worn table.

"Can you get to the point, dad," Bella was saying irritably when I arrived. "What is your condition exactly?" My timing was impeccable. This was the part of the conversation I wanted to hear.

Maybe if I was a better cook this would've gone better…well, probably not, Charlie thought fleetingly before answering. I smiled a little; Charlie had tried to prepare dinner. No wonder the human food smelled much worse to me than usual. The smile was gone as soon as I heard Charlie's verbal response.

"I don't think you should dump all of your friends for your boyfriend, Bella," Charlie snapped.

Particularly Jacob. He added mentally.

"Its not nice, and I think your life would be better balanced if you kept some other people in it," He continued severely. "What happened last September…"he shuddered at the memory, but Bella didn't notice. Her eyes were closed and she was recoiling as though Charlie had slapped her.

Pain surged through me like fire at the look on her face. This reminder of what I'd done to her filled me with that familiar sense of self disgust. I had scarred her permanently.

God I hate bringing it up. I can tell what it does to her when I mention it. Charlie thought sadly. But that's why I can't let it go. I can't let her go through that again, and she's setting herself up for it. If he left her once without a second thought he could do it again.

I wished I could explain to him how wrong he was.

"Well," Charlie went on relentlessly in spite of the hurt on Bella's face. Her eyes snapped open and she forced herself to meet his gaze. "If you'd had more of a life outside of Edward Cullen, it might not have been like that."

"It would have been exactly like that," Bella countered in a whisper. Her tone was argumentative, but the pain was still evident in her eyes. I sighed miserably.

"Maybe, maybe not," Charlie replied diplomatically. He didn't agree, but he had no desire to get into a full blown argument with her.

"The point?" Bella reiterated in an attempt to shift the focus of the conversation.

"Use your freedom to see your other friends, too," Charlie replied carefully.

Charlie's mind was still on Jacob, of course. He had been talking to Billy again today and they'd concocted a plan to try to get Bella to visit Jacob. Apparently, Billy had changed his position about what was best for his son. He had initially thought it might be better if Bella didn't visit. I bit back a growl at the thought of their scheming.

Bella nodded cautiously in her father's direction, her deep brown eyes searching his identical ones for the hidden meaning in his words.

"Balance is good," Bella replied slowly. "Do I have specific time quotas to fill?"

That was an odd question, even for Bella. Surely she didn't think that I would abide by any specific socializing schedule Charlie set up for her if it involved the wolves!

I wouldn't. If it came down to that, I'd pack her things and move them into our house tonight. Alice hadn't foreseen any immediate changes in address for Bella, but I'd already ordered a king sized bed for her that would arrive next week just in case.

Charlie rolled his eyes and shook his head. I was relieved that he had no intention of setting up specific visits to La Push, though he wasn't finished yet.

"I don't want to make this complicated," he replied with a scowl. "Just don't forget your friends."

Bella bit her lip thoughtfully, and I knew she was having some kind of an internal struggle.

"Particularly Jacob," Charlie added carefully. Let's see what she says about that. Billy said he didn't know what was in that note Jake sent yesterday. Maybe I can get her to tell me since Mr. Wonderful isn't here yet. He thought. I cringed at the biting sarcasm in his mind.

Bella winced uncomfortably. I held my breath dramatically as I waited for her response.

"Jacob might be…difficult," Bella said slowly.

The dog would be impossible if I had anything to say about it.

Charlie scowled in irritation at her response. He was disappointed.

"The Blacks are practically family, Bella, "He admonished severely. "And Jacob has been a very very good friend to you." And he'd make a better boyfriend than Edward Cullen. I can trust Jake to take care of her…I don't know what would have happened to her without him.

I hung my head miserably in response to his thoughts. I knew what would have happened to her. I shuddered.

I know that," Bella replied tersely, and I returned my attention to the conversation in the kitchen.

"Don't you miss him at all?" Charlie asked in an exasperated voice.

What am I going to do with her? Surely she's a better friend than this! Bella's always been such a kind and selfless person. He thought.

Bella sighed almost inaudibly and averted her eyes from her father's face. She cleared her throat and I was sure she was trying to suppress her emotions on the subject. My heart ached with a mixture of grief and jealousy.

"Yes, I do miss him," Bella answered finally in a choked whisper, still staring at the table. "I miss him a lot."

Bella's response froze me in place. Seeing her in pain devastated me, especially since there was nothing I could do to make it easier for her. She couldn't see him.

Now we're getting somewhere, Charlie thought.

"Then why is it difficult?" He asked her impatiently.

Bella looked up at Charlie after a moment's pause, and I could tell she was choosing her words carefully. There were too many secrets that she was bound to keep.

"With Jacob, there is a...conflict," she replied truthfully. "A conflict about the friendship thing; I mean, friendship doesn't always seem to be enough for Jake.

I knew that part already, Charlie thought. Jake's always had a crush on her, and she knew it too. I'd bet my favorite fishing pole this is about Edward being jealous. I see the way he reacts when I mention Jake. It eats him up. I love it.

I snorted angrily. Apparently, I wasn't doing a very good job of hiding my feelings about Jacob Black in front of Charlie. But my distress was a lot more complicated than the teenage angst Charlie was imagining.

"Isn't Edward up for a little healthy competition," Charlie retorted.

No, I wasn't; any competition that involved Jacob Black and I wouldn't be healthy for anyone, least of all Bella. I had to protect her.

Bella glared at Charlie in response, and I almost laughed at the irritation in her face.

"There's no competition," she grumbled emphatically. The pain and fear in my chest eased.

"You're hurting Jake's feelings, avoiding him like this," Charlie said deliberately. "He'd rather be friends than nothing at all." That's what Billy thinks, Charlie added mentally.

Bella gaped at him in indignation. She must've been thinking about the note Jacob had sent her.

"I'm pretty sure Jake doesn't want to be friends at all," Bella said heavily, and I could tell saying the words aloud hurt her. "Where'd you get an idea like that anyway?"

Charlie blushed, his cheeks flaming pink the way his daughter's often did when she was embarrassed.

"The subject might have come up today with Billy..." Charlie replied reluctantly. He hadn't intended for Bella to know he and Billy had been discussing the issue, and he was even more curious about the contents of Jacob's letter to Bella now.

"You and Billy gossip like old women," Bella snarled bitterly as she took her frustrations out on her food, piercing the plate of gunk with her fork.

I think it's time for the classic guilt trip, Charlie thought deviously. I hated that he was playing with Bella's emotions like this, especially since it wasn't going to do any good.

"Billy's worried about Jacob," Charlie said sadly. "Jake's having a hard time right now...he's depressed."

I can sympathize with Billy; I know what it was like to watch Bella go through the same thing. She needs to be reminded of what Jake did for her when she was depressed. Charlie thought.

Bella's expression was tormented as she kept her eyes on her plate.

Now I was frozen with anger; how dare he use Bella's pain to manipulate her? What Jacob Black was going through couldn't possibly compare to anything Bella had endured in my absence; she'd nearly died in more ways than one. Then I realized he was trying to do what he thought was best for her; he was trying to be a good father and protect her from experiencing that kind of suffering again. He didn't understand that I had suffered during our separation as well, and I could never be without Bella again. He didn't see that I was protecting her too. Charlie had no idea of Jacob Black's true nature.

"And you were always so happy after spending the day with Jake," Charlie reminded her. I wondered how many of those happy days had been spent on that wretched motorcycle Charlie hated so much.

"I'm happy now," Bella grumbled, her tone completely contradicting her words. Suddenly, both father and daughter were laughing hysterically.

"Okay, okay," Bella consented after the laugher had subsided. "Balance."

"And Jacob," Charlie continued firmly. I growled.

"I'll try," Bella replied reluctantly. She would never make a promise she couldn't keep. I had already explained to her why she couldn't go to La Push.

She'll do the right thing. Charlie thought happily. Now I'll get to the good news.

"Good," Charlie answered. "Find that balance, Bella. Oh yeah, you've got some mail," He smiled. "It's by the stove."

Bella didn't respond. Her expression was pensive and somber, and a familiar v shaped crease was present between her eyebrows.

Charlie stared at her with eager anticipation, and he was disappointed when she didn't take an interest in her letter. He had already read it of course. He rolled his eyes and tossed the opened envelope in her direction as he went to the sink to wash his dish. It grazed her elbow, and she looked up in surprise.

"Thanks," Bella muttered in a bewildered tone as she stared at the envelope.

"That was quick," she said a moment later. "I guess I missed the deadline on that one too." I couldn't help but smile.

Charlie chuckled in a childlike way as he waited for her to read the acceptance letter he'd tucked back inside the envelope. His thoughts were excited.

Bella picked it up and glowered at Charlie.

"It's open," she said irritably.

"I was curious," Charlie replied with a teasing shrug.

Bella smiled a little. "I'm shocked, Sheriff. That's a federal crime," she said jokingly.

"Oh, just read it," Charlie said in false irritation. Bella opened the envelope.

"Congratulations," Charlie said eagerly the moment she'd unfolded its contents. "Your first acceptance."

"Thanks, Dad," Bella replied evenly. She didn't seem remotely interested in examining the schedule of classes sitting in front of her.

"We should talk about tuition," Charlie said, too wrapped up in his own pleasure to notice Bella's indifference. "I've got some money saved up…"

"Hey, hey none of that," Bella interrupted sternly. "I'm not touching your retirement, Dad. I've got my college fund."

I rolled my eyes. I knew she didn't have nearly enough money to put herself through school, but she was too proud and selfless to consider accepting money from me or her parents. Not that she planned to actually go to college anyway. She was still hell bent on becoming a vampire. No pun intended. How I wished I could change her mind; find some way to make her wait.

Charlie scowled at her. He wanted to support her. He felt guilty for being absent through so much of her childhood.

"Some of these places are pretty pricey, Bells," Charlie argued. "You don't have to go all the way to Alaska just because it's cheaper."

I don't want her to be so far away. He thought sadly.

If he only knew just how much distance she really planned to put between them. Poor Charlie; It was hard to stay angry with him over his fixation with Jacob Black when I thought about how much he was going to miss Bella.

"I've got it covered," Bella lied dismissively. "Besides, there's lots of financial aid out there. It's easy to get loans."

I could offer her all the financial aid she would ever need if only she would take it.

Bella hates cold weather. I'd be willing to bet this whole Alaska thing has something to do with Cullen. They used to live up there. One way to find out…best to bring it up before he gets here. Charlie thought.

I looked down at my watch and realized that I would be allowed to go inside in less than three minutes. Thank heaven this was the last night I'd have to wait outside for 7:30 to arrive.

"So," Charlie said reluctantly before turning away from Bella as he tried to figure out how to ask his question.

"So what?" Bella prodded impatiently. She was clearly tired of having awkward conversations with her father this evening.

"Nothing," Charlie continued lamely. "I was just…" he paused again with a scowl. "wondering what…Edward's (he nearly choked on my name) plans are for next year."

"Oh," Bella said uncomfortably. I glanced down at my watch again and saw to my relief that it was now 7:30. I streaked toward the front door and knocked insistently a half second later. Just in time.

I heard the scraping of a kitchen chair as Bella jumped out of her seat.

"Coming!" I heard her call as she raced toward the living room. The excitement in her voice sent a wave of elation through me. I could scarcely stand to wait for her to make it to the door. I needed to touch her.

"Go away," Charlie muttered almost inaudibly. His displeasure with my presence was meaningless at the moment. Everything was meaningless except for the girl on the other side of that door. I heard her fumbling with its deadbolt for a half second before she opened it.

The pleasure I felt at the look of adoration on her face was beyond words. She smiled at me, her deep brown eyes warm and bright. I feasted on every inch of her beautiful appearance and smiled in return. How had I ever thought I could survive without her? She held out her hand to me, and took it, savoring her soft warmth. We sighed in unison at the contact.

"Hey," she said quietly, and that one little word seemed to say a thousand other things in every letter. She smiled at me. I touched her cheek with the hand that grasped hers and smiled back.

"How was your afternoon?" I asked casually, restraining myself from the urge to scoop her up in my arms. Charlie wouldn't appreciate that kind of display of affection.

"Slow," she replied simply.

"For me as well," I said knowingly.

I moved my hand away from her cheek and pulled her wrist to my own face. I closed my eyes and inhaled, breathing in her heavenly scent. The burn in my throat was just a meaningless reflex now, natural as a human heartbeat. It was merely proof that my body still worked, but nothing more. The only important thing about her blood now was that it carried the breath of life through her precious body. I pressed her warm wrist to my nose and relished in the rhythm of her pulse. I smiled gratefully. I would never stop being thankful for the woman standing in front of me.

Ugh. I wish he'd waited until I could ask her about his school plans. Now I'll have to ask him. If she's going to Alaska, I hope he's going to Hawaii…or Timbuktu, or anywhere but Alaska. Charlie thought irritably.

I opened my eyes when he started walking toward the living room. I pulled some postage stamps and a large envelope out of my coat too quickly for Bella or Charlie to notice. I tried not to laugh as I heard the intense annoyance in Charlie's thoughts. He really hated any situation that made speaking to me necessary, and after his ploy to push Bella toward that dog, I found myself enjoying his discomfort.

"Good evening, Charlie," I said pleasantly as Charlie crossed his arms and glared at me in response. I ignored his hostile mind and body language.

"I brought another set of applications," I told Bella pleasantly as I showed her the envelope and the stamps I'd wrapped around my finger.

Bella let out a disgruntled sigh, her shoulders slumping in exasperation. She was growing tired of my ever growing list of schools that were still considering prospective students for the coming semester. I grinned at her predictable response.

"There are still a few open deadlines, and a few places that are willing to make exceptions." I said cheerfully. There were a few "administrative fees" involved in those exceptions, mind you.

Bella scowled at me, and I laughed. I knew she didn't like the idea of my money opening up additional collegiate options for her, but she was going to have to get used to certain privileges eventually.

"Shall we," I asked, suppressing another laugh as I pulled her into the kitchen.

Bella took her plate to the sink to rinse it while I organized the forms alphabetically on the table. I rolled my eyes when I saw her lay the familiar, battered copy of Wuthering Heights on the countertop. I could hear Charlie's heavy footsteps three feet behind me so I didn't comment on the book. I pressed my lips into a thin line to keep from smiling as I heard him make the necessary mental preparations to speak to me civilly. He took a deep breath.

"Speaking of college applications Edward," Charlie said dourly, "Bella and I were just talking about your plans for next year. Have you decided where you're going to school?" I'll bet its Alaska, and if it is, I'll be on the phone with Renee tonight so we come up with a plan to talk Bella into going to school in Florida.

"Not yet," I replied cheerfully. I couldn't help but smile at Charlie as I listened to all the points he was going to try to pitch to Bella about the advantages of meeting new people when you went to college. "I've received a few acceptance letters, but I'm still weighing my options."

Yeah, right. I'll bet they've got this whole thing planned out already. But there's no way he could know she got accepted in Alaska yet. Maybe I can talk her out of going there before he finds out. He thought.

"Where have you been accepted?" Charlie asked. So I'll know where Bella shouldn't go.

I smiled even wider. As if he could keep us apart.

"Syracuse, Harvard, Dartmouth," I replied slowly as though I were counting them up carefully in my head. "Oh and I just got accepted to the University of Alaska Southeast today."

I flashed a glance at Bella out of the corner of my eye and winked playfully at her. She pressed her lips together to suppress a laugh, understanding what I was planning.

Wow. The kid's smart, I'll give him that. Charlie thought.

"Harvard? Dartmouth?" Charlie whispered and he was impressed against his will. "Well, that's pretty…that's something."

Maybe it'll be easier for me to talk him out of going to Alaska than it would be to try to sway Bella. He thought impulsively.

"Yeah, but the University of Alaska…you wouldn't really consider that when you could go Ivy League. I mean, your father would want you to…" Charlie continued. I cut him off before he could start naming all the reasons why I should go to the other side of the country.

"Carlisle is always fine with whatever I choose to do," I answered pleasantly.

"Humph," Charlie snorted disbelievingly. He was sure that a man as brilliant as Carlisle would want his son to go to the best school he could get into. He was clearly convinced that Bella and I were scheming together.

And right on cue, Bella spoke.

"Guess what, Edward," She asked rhetorically as she tried not to laugh.

"What, Bella?" I asked with genuine interest. I couldn't wait to see Charlie's response to Bella's announcement.

"I just got my acceptance to the University of Alaska!" Bella replied, her voice full of an excitement she hadn't shown when Charlie had given her the letter. The difference made Charlie furious.

"Congratulations!" I cried, unable to keep a broad smile from spreading across my entire face. "What a coincidence."

I knew it!! Charlie thought as he eyed us beadily. He's behind this whole damn thing. Bella hates snow! I'm going to have a word with Carlisle about this!

"Fine," Charlie snarled. "I'm going to go watch the game, Bella. Nine thirty." He added the last part automatically.

"Er, Dad?" Bella asked cautiously. "Remember the very recent discussion we just had about my freedom?"

Charlie sighed in a defeated sort of way when he thought of having me in his house later than usual. "Right," he said after a brief pause. "Okay, ten thirty. You still have a curfew on school nights."

"Bella's no longer grounded?" I asked eagerly as I thought of taking Bella to that new sushi restaurant in Portland this weekend. I would have loved to do more than that, but she would never allow me to splurge on her.

Charlie's jaw flexed angrily. He had no intention of allowing me to take Bella anywhere this weekend.

"Conditionally," Charlie hissed. "What's it to you?"

I tried not to think about Charlie's plans to get Bella to spend some time with someone besides me. But, perhaps I could get Bella to meet Charlie's request for balance with Alice's help. Maybe they could go shopping this weekend. She didn't object as much when Alice spent money on her.

"It's just good to know," I replied genially. Bella smiled at me. She must know that Alice had predicted her parole. "Alice has been itching for a shopping partner, and I'm sure Bella would love to see some city lights." I smiled back at her.

"NO!" Charlie said with a growl. I looked up at him in shock for a split second, but froze when I heard the reason for his reaction.


"I don't want you going to Seattle right now," Charlie said fiercely.

I could see vague descriptions in his mind about an article he'd read in the times. The humans were getting more and more suspicious. I grabbed the newspaper off the kitchen counter before either of them could register the movement.

"Huh?" Bella asked in confusion at Charlie's strong reaction.

"I told you about that story in the paper," Charlie replied irritably. "There's some kind of gang on a killing spree in Seattle and I want you to steer clear, okay?"

Naturally, Bella just rolled her eyes. No survival instincts. I suppressed a growl of my own as I read the article.

"Dad," She argued automatically. "There's a better chance that I'll get struck by lightning than the one day I'm in Seattle…"

With Bella's luck, she could probably trip over a lightning bolt before it had a chance to strike.

"No, that's fine Charlie," I interjected before they could start arguing. "I didn't mean Seattle. I was thinking of Portland actually. I wouldn't have Bella in Seattle either. Of course not."

Both Bella and Charlie looked at me with identical expressions of surprise, but I didn't respond. I was too busy reading the article.

Death Toll on the Rise; Police Fear Gang Activity. The headline said.

"Fine," Charlie said curtly as he went to take his usual place in front of the TV. The game he wanted to see started in two minutes, and he'd had enough of me for one evening. He pressed the TV remote with a flourish and the sounds of baseball commentary filled the house.

"What…" Bella began, but I cut her off.

"Hold on," I interrupted without looking at her as I memorized the details of the page in front of me. I needed to talk to Jasper about this. I slid one of the neatly arranged applications in her direction. "I think you can recycle your essays for this one; same questions."

Bella sighed impatiently but took the paper from me. I listened to the scratching of her pen as it moved across the page, lost in my thoughts for a moment.

Five more deaths since the last story two weeks ago.

What was going on? Newborns were hard to control, certainly, but where was the maker? Why wasn't he urging more caution out of his new charge? Didn't he know the consequences of carelessness? Weren't they the least bit concerned about the Volturi?

I shivered internally as I revisited the memory of our terrifying encounter with the Volturi back in March. Caius's warning about changing Bella echoed in my head.

'…we will visit you as well to be sure that you follow through on your side. Were I you, I would not delay too long. We do not offer second chances.' He'd warned.

Alice had shown Aro a vision of Bella's future as an immortal, and the promise of that future was the only thing that had saved our lives that day. If the Volturi came to Seattle, it might occur to them to stop by while they were in the area. I couldn't let that happen.

Jasper had said it was too soon to tell whether or not Italy would intervene, but he was hopeful that this threat would move on before that time came. And if they didn't…

My reverie was interrupted by the rustling of paper and a delicate snort from Bella.

"Bella?" I asked her curiously, wondering what sort of question on the application had amused her.

"Be serious, Edward. Dartmouth?" She said in response to my question, gesturing toward the paper she'd set aside.

I gently pushed the admissions packet back toward her.

"I think you'd like New Hampshire," I replied sincerely. "There's a full compliment of night courses for me, and the forests are very conveniently located for the avid hiker. Plentiful wildlife." I smiled broadly at her in an attempt to distract her.

She took a deep, disgruntled breath and glared at me. I needed to try harder.

"I'll let you pay me back, if that makes you happy," I said persuasively. "If you want, I can charge you interest." I almost smiled at the idea. If I had anything to say about it, my money would soon be hers too.

Bella's look of irritation intensified. "Like I could get in without some enormous bribe," She grumbled, reminding me forcibly of Charlie. "Or was that part of the loan? The new Cullen wing of the library? Ugh! Why are we having this discussion again?"

Did she really think it would take that much to get her into Dartmouth? Bella had great test scores and grades. The only thing she was lacking in was extracurricular activities. The biggest problem was the lateness in the year.

"Will you just fill out the application, please Bella?" I asked reasonably. "It won't hurt you to apply."

Besides, I already had a house waiting for the two of us. Alice couldn't see if we would need it yet, but it was in move in condition just in case.

Bella's jaw tightened in a perfect imitation of her father. "You know what? I don't think I will," She replied mulishly. Her fingers flexed and I registered her intentions just in time to snatch the forms out of her reach and slide them deftly into my coat pocket.

"What are you doing?" She hissed a second later when she realized the papers had vanished.

"I sign your name better than you do yourself," I reminded her briskly. "You've already written the essays."

Visions of coming home every night to Bella in our own little house filled my mind; holding her while she slept, watching her make friends with her classmates…she had so much to look forward to. And, I wanted to share it all with her. I wanted to give her every chance to enjoy her human life that I could.

"You're going way overboard with this," She muttered angrily. "I really don't need to apply anywhere else. I've been accepted in Alaska and I can almost afford the first semester's tuition. It's as good an alibi as any. There's no need to throw away a bunch of money, no matter whose it is."

The cozy images in my mind of housekeeping with Bella vanished and were replaced instead with Alice's vision of Bella with white marble skin and crimson eyes. I winced.

"Bella," I said in an imploring voice. Why couldn't she just wait a little while? Take her time and make sure this was what she wanted! She had her whole life ahead of her.

"Don't start," she retorted stubbornly, her voice an angry whisper. "I agree that I need to go through the motions for Charlie's sake, but we both know I'm not going to be in any condition to go to school next fall. To be anywhere near people.

"I thought the timing was still undecided," I countered, reminding her of the negotiations we'd had about me changing her. I'd offered her marriage and she'd offered me time. "You might enjoy a semester or two of college. There are a lot of human experiences you've never had."

"I'll get to those afterward," She snapped, missing my point.

"They won't be human experiences afterward," I answered patiently. She still had no idea what she was getting into. Everything would be so different for her if she made this change, irreversibly so. "You don't get a second chance at humanity, Bella."

She frowned worriedly at me for a moment before responding. "You've got to be reasonable about the timing, Edward. It's just too dangerous to mess around with."

Of course! She was still scared of Victoria and the Volturi, and with good reason. But I would not allow her fear to dictate her choices. I wanted so much more for her than that. Victoria was seriously outnumbered. If the Italians were coming to Seattle to deal with this newborn, all the more reason for me to get her to New Hampshire.

"There's no danger yet," I argued, and it was true. Things weren't dire yet, and even if they were I would not allow anything to happen to her; I would shield her from it.

She looked at me with angry disbelief written all over her soft face, but she didn't speak. She seemed lost in her thoughts for a moment, and I watched as her frustration turned to anxiety. My heart ached at the pressure she must surely be feeling.

"Bella," I whispered sadly at the worried look in her chocolate eyes. "There's no hurry," I promised. "I won't let anyone hurt you. You can take all the time you need."

She smiled weakly, but the gesture only made me feel worse.

"I want to hurry," she murmured in a half teasing tone to try to lighten the mood. "I want to be a monster too."

Anger pulsed through me and I ground my teeth together to keep from yelling. She didn't get it! I wanted to shield her from what was really going on in Seattle, but she needed a healthy dose of reality.

"You have no idea what you're saying," I growled at her as I thrust the newspaper into the space between us at the table. I indicated the glaring front page article. Bella frowned at me for a second before her eyes raked over the story.

"What does that have to do with anything?" she asked, her forehead creased in confusion as she stared into my stone face. I hated the idea of frightening her, but she needed to understand.

"Monsters are not a joke, Bella," I replied harshly. Her eyes dropped back down to the page for a moment before she turned to stare back up at me. She gasped.

"A…a vampire did this?" She breathed incredulously.

I smiled bitterly at the way she stumbled over the word. She could scarcely say it! How in the world did she expect to deal with the change itself? There was so much she still needed to think about, to understand.

"You'd be surprised, Bella, at how often my kind are the source behind the horrors in your human news," I said in a cold hiss. My eyes met hers with a fierce intensity, willing her to listen. "It's easy to recognize when you know what to look for. The information here indicates a newborn vampire is loose in Seattle. Bloodthirsty, wild, out of control…the way we all were."

She would be the same way, too if she were changed.

I remembered my early days with Carlisle; how hard it had been to adjust to my acute senses, hearing Carlisle's mind, and the overwhelming burn that overpowered every other thought or feeling; thirst. My first human kill didn't happen until I was two months old, but rather than satisfying me, it had only made me want more. Carlisle had to move with me three times our first year. I remember asking him if he thought I was worth the trouble. He told me he did, and he meant it. His patience and kindness paid off eventually, but not before many lives were lost.

Bella averted her eyes from mine and stared at the page. I could tell she was trying to absorb the magnitude of my words. I gave her a few minutes to process what I'd told her. It was hard to wait; upsetting her like this went against every instinct I had. I wanted to pull her into my arms and tell her not to worry about any of it, but I couldn't because it wasn't true, and I needed to give her plenty of reasons to stay alive.

"It won't be the same for me," she said finally, her voice a sad murmur.

I sighed, feeling the love I have for her surge in my frozen chest at the amount of trust she had in me. She'd had faith in me from the start, faith I had never deserved, and then she'd trusted me again after I'd let her down. And now, she was willing to put not only her life but the lives of others in my hands.

"You won't let me be like that," She continued a half second later. "We'll live in Antarctica."

I couldn't help but laugh at the image of my little Bella preying on arctic animals somewhere too remote for National Geographic cameras.

"Penguins," I said with a chuckle. "Lovely."

Bella laughed nervously as she pushed the newspaper aside. It crumpled onto the floor and I left it there. She was overwhelmed and didn't want to discuss the matter further. I wouldn't push her to think of painful things now.

"Alaska, then, as planned," she replied lightly. "Only somewhere much more remote that Juneau…somewhere with grizzlies galore."

"Better," I countered, trying to keep the conversation light for her sake. "There are polar bears, too. Very fierce! And, the wolves get quite large."

Without warning, Bella's mouth fell open in shock and she exhaled sharply as though she'd just received a painful physical blow.

"What's wrong!" I asked in alarm as her face turned stark white and she stopped breathing altogether. And a half second later I understood.


I felt sick at the sadness in her face and sicker still at the reason for it. I hated how her thoughts had instantly turned to him at the mere mention of the word wolf. I hated the affect he had on her, even at a distance. I hated him.

"Oh never mind the wolves, then if the idea is offensive to you," I snapped stiffly. My hard body was robotic and colder than usual at her reaction.

"He was my best friend, Edward," She whispered, and the heartache in her voice was undisguised. "Of course the idea offends me."

"Please forgive my thoughtlessness," I replied, hoping to ease the tension and change the subject now before we wound up talking about things I wasn't ready to deal with. Alice had said she'd bring it up, but she didn't mention that I would open the door for the conversation to start, and I certainly didn't want to talk about it when she was upset.

She sighed and averted her eyes from mind, staring down at her hands, which were fisted with tension. "Don't worry about it," she said quietly.

Maybe I should get her a real dog. It would smell better. I thought angrily.

Then I was abruptly disgusted with myself for being so callous. Regardless of what Jacob Black was and how I felt about him, Bella cared for him and he'd saved her life. Even though he was no longer present in her life, the time they'd been friends had impacted her, and I had no right to react this way. This was my fault, not hers. I reached for her, sliding my finger under her chin so she would meet my gaze.

"Sorry, really," I said inadequately. How could I ever explain to her how truly sorry I was? I wanted to take away all of the sadness I could see in her eyes, and I couldn't.

"I know," she said with a deep sigh. Her expression didn't relax; on the contrary she seemed even more tense than before. I braced myself for the conversation Alice had foreseen this afternoon.

"I know it's not the same thing; I shouldn't have reacted that way," Bella replied remorsefully as though she needed to apologize to me. It's just that....well...." she paused for a moment, and I knew she was choosing her words carefully. "I was already thinking about Jacob before you came over."

I tried not to react to this statement. She was scrutinizing my face intently for signs of distress, staring deeply into my eyes for a long moment. I was grateful that I had overheard part of her conversation with Charlie earlier. If I had been taken off guard by the subject I might've given something more away. As it was, she seemed to register some of the distress I was feeling in my eyes, because the tone of her voice was imploring when she continued.

"Charlie says Jake's having a hard time," she said sadly, her voice begging me to understand. "He's hurting right now, and it's my fault."

"You've done nothing wrong, Bella," I insisted with a growl. None of this was her fault.

Bella sighed deeply, biting her lip as was her habit when she was nervous or upset. "I need to make it better, Edward," she argued. "I owe him that, and it's one of Charlie's conditions anyway, so..."

I felt another surge of anger at Charlie for the way he'd used Bella's feelings to try to get his way over this situation. He had no idea how much danger he was putting her in. She didn't need to feel obligated to put her life at risk because of some fictitious sense of responsibility for a werewolf's feelings.

"You know its out of the question for you to be around a werewolf unprotected, Bella," I hissed angrily. "And it would break the treaty if any of us were to cross over onto their land. Do you want to start a war?"

Bella gasped, and a horrified look crossed her face at the thought.

"Of course not!" she replied in a scandalized whisper.

"Then there's really no point in discussing the matter further," I said evenly.

Suddenly I had an image in my head of Jacob Black holding Bella hostage on the reservation to keep her from me, or to start a fight, or even worse; Bella standing beside him as he morphed into a werewolf. I couldn't think about this anymore or I would snap. I moved my hand away from her face, trying to think of something else to talk about. I noticed that battered book lying on the counter again. I forced myself to smile as I turned my gaze back to hers.

"I'm glad Charlie has decided to let you out of the house," I said in a half teasing voice. "You're sadly in need of a visit to the bookstore. I can't believe you're reading Wuthering Heights again. Don't you know it by heart yet?"

"Not all of us have photographic memories," she grumbled irritably at my jab.

Perhaps this new subject in the conversation would help me effectively sidestep the werewolf conundrum for now, though I doubted it. Bella was relentless when she'd made up her mind about something, but I was at a loss about how to handle her determination to continue to fraternize with dangerous enemies. At least it might give me some time to think.

"Photographic memory or not, I don't understand why you like it." I pressed. "The characters are ghastly people who ruin each others' lives. I don't know how Heathcliff and Cathy ended up being ranked with couples like Romeo and Juliet or Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It isn't a love story, it's a hate story."

I'd had to read the novel more than once during my various incarnations as a student over the last several decades and I'd never understood the appeal of the story. Especially for Bella, since she loved the romantic works of Austen and Shakespeare; Wuthering Heights just didn't seem to fit with her character and her other tastes.

"You have some serious issues with the classics," Bella replied in an annoyed voice. I smiled slightly at the successful subject change.

"Perhaps it's because I'm not impressed by antiquity." I replied cheerfully at the joke about my age. "Honestly, though, why do you read it over and over?" I stretched out my arm so I could cup her warm face in my hand. "What is it that appeals to you?"

How could someone as good and kind as she was relate to such characters? My efforts to understand her had almost effectively distracted me. I could spend an eternity trying to figure her out. I stared into her deep brown eyes intently as though I were trying to read some answer there.

"I'm not sure," she replied after a thoughtful pause. "I think it's something about the inevitability. How nothing can keep them apart—not her selfishness, or his evil, or even death, in the end…"

"I still think it would be a better story if either of them had one redeeming quality," I countered, still trying to figure out some more convincing arguments to keep her away from La Push and the werewolves.

"I think that may be the point," she disagreed, shaking her head a little. "Their love is their only redeeming quality."

Hmmm. I'd never thought of it that way, but Bella's statement made perfect sense for her. She could always see the good where no one else could. She'd seen the good in me, after all, and her love had made me want to be good, in spite of my monstrous nature. The all consuming love I felt for her had redeemed me, after all. Perhaps she had a point.

"I hope you have better sense than that—to fall in love with someone so…malignant." I said, half teasing and half serious. She'd fallen in love with a vampire after all.

"It's a bit late for me to worry about who I fall in love with," she said with a smile as she leaned tenderly into my palm. "But even without the warning, I seem to have managed fairly well."

"I'm glad you think so." I replied with a grateful smile; I was so lucky she thought much better of me than I deserved.

"Well, I hope you're smart enough to stay away from someone so selfish. Catherine is really the source of all the trouble, not Heathcliff." Bella said.

Well, that wasn't something I had to worry about, considering I had fallen in love with the most beautiful and selfless woman on the planet.

"I'll be on my guard," I assured her sarcastically.

Bella gave me a piercing look, her brown eyed pleading as she took my hand and pressed it against her warm cheek.

"I need to see Jacob." she insisted again as she leaned her face into my hand.

My silent heart sank and I closed my eyes to keep from seeing the pained expression in hers. Denying her anything was physically painful to me, but this was something I could not compromise on. I would do anything for her; give her anything she desired, but she was asking for something impossible. I couldn't allow her to be in harm's way. Everything I had done since she came into my life had been to keep her safe, and she was hell bent on making my job as difficult as possible.

"No." I answered flatly, my eyes still closed tightly.

"It's truly not dangerous at all," she countered, pleading again. "I used to spend all day in La Push with the whole lot of them, and nothing ever happened."

Her words at the end of the sentence were fainter, less convincing. I could feel the increase in the rhythm of her heart and the heat that flushed her cheeks. She was a terrible liar.

What had happened while she was there!? Her reaction made me certain that rogue vampires hadn't been the only threat to her safety while I was away. She'd had a close shave in La Push, perhaps even more than one. Curiosity and fear pulsed through me at the thought. I was desperate to know what had happened, and who was responsible for nearly hurting her. I would destroy them if I ever found out. I calmed myself with the reminder that it wasn't relevant now since she would never set foot on the reservation again.

I was more determined than ever to keep her away from them. I nodded slightly as though affirming this to both of us.

"Werewolves are unstable. Sometimes, the people near them get hurt. Sometimes, they get killed." I said coldly, thinking of Josiah Clearwater, a pack mate of Ephraim Black who had accidentally killed his wife and daughter when he'd changed in front of them, and then of Emily Young, the girl who'd suffered a serious injury at the hands of her fiancé and pack leader Sam Uley.

I opened my eyes and waited for her to respond.

"You don't know them," Bella whispered as though she'd heard what I was thinking.

"I know them better than you think, Bella. I was here the last time." I replied. The image of Josiah's broken face as we'd negotiated the treaty would be burned into my eternal memory forever. He died of a broken heart shortly after the disaster, leaving his remaining child, a son, to be raised by Ephraim.

"The last time?" Bella asked curiously. I thought she'd known from Jacob Black's little story that I had personally been a part of the treaty negotiations.

"We started crossing paths with the wolves about seventy years ago… We had just settled near Hoquiam," I answered, my mind wandering back over a half century. "That was before Alice and Jasper were with us. We outnumbered them, but that wouldn't have stopped it from turning into a fight if not for Carlisle. He managed to convince Ephraim Black that coexisting was possible, and eventually we made the truce." It hadn't been easy, but Carlisle was an extraordinary peace keeper. If he weren't such an incredible and compassionate doctor, he would have made an amazing diplomat or political leader if such careers were possible for a vampire.

"We thought the line had died out with Ephraim," I thought aloud. "That the genetic quirk which allowed the transmutation had been lost…"

What had caused them to return? I wondered idly if Jacob Black had shared any more of their tribal history with her during the time she spent with him in La Push. I quickly dismissed the idea; now that Jacob Black and the rest of his generation knew their tribal legends were factual, there was no way they would divulge any more of their secrets to an outsider in such a careless fashion.

"Your bad luck seems to get more potent every day. Do you realize that your insatiable pull for all things deadly was strong enough to recover a pack of mutant canines from extinction? If we could bottle your luck, we'd have a weapon of mass destruction on our hands." I teased.

Bella raised her eyebrows at me in surprise. I had been expecting indignation on her part at the jab. What was she thinking?

"But I didn't bring them back. Don't you know?" She asked in an incredulous voice.

"Know what?" I asked in curious irritation as I stared at her suspiciously. Did she know more than I suspected about their histories?

"My bad luck had nothing to do with it. The werewolves came back because the vampires did." Bella said as though she was trying to explain to me that rain is wet.

"Jacob told me that your family being here set things in motion. I thought you would already know…"

"Is that what they think?" I said incredulously. I knew their prejudices ran bone deep, but to blame us for a gene they passed down seemed extreme even for them. Jacob Black had surely tried to brainwash her while I was away.

"Edward, look at the facts," Bella said, staring up at me as though I were missing something very obvious again. "Seventy years ago, you came here, and the werewolves showed up. You come back now, and the werewolves show up again. Do you think that's a coincidence?"

Why hadn't this possibility occurred to us? In Bella's mind, it was clearly a foregone conclusion.

"Carlisle will be interested in that theory." I replied coolly. I couldn't believe we'd never made the connection between our presence and theirs.

"Theory," She spat, sure that she was right.

So was I.

I thought about how life might have been for Bella if my family and I had never come to Forks to start with as I stared blankly out of the kitchen window at the rain. There would have been no supernatural creatures here if it weren't for us. She would probably be hanging out with Angela Weber right now, or else making plans with some human boy for the weekend. The thought of how empty my life would be if I had never met her nearly made me sick, and yet, I was sad for the normal life she would never have as a result of my presence here. It was a painfully interesting thing to consider.

"Interesting, but not exactly relevant," I whispered after a moment in response to her theory and my musings. "The situation remains the same."

Abruptly, Bella got up from her seat at the table and walked toward me. I stretched out my arms to her, knowing that whatever she had to say now was going to be bad. She sat down in my lap and curled herself up against me without meeting my eyes. I tried to brace myself mentally for her latest explanation about why she had to go to La Push.

"Please just listen for a minute," Bella begged sadly. "This is so much more important than some whim to drop in on an old friend. Jacob is in pain. Her voice was thick now, and I could tell she was trying to hold back a flood of emotion. The jealousy and terror burned inside me at the thought of her being with him. "I can't not try to help him—I can't give up on him now, when he needs me. Just because he's not human all the time… Well, he was there for me when I was…not so human myself. You don't know what it was like…"

She broke off, and I could feel the increase in her heart rate again, her cheeks were flushed with the unwarranted guilt I knew she felt for resorting to this excuse to see the werewolf. Anguish tore at every particle of my body and I wanted to cry out with the awful misery I felt. How I hated myself for leaving her, for forcing her to turn to him for solace and protection! The thought of all the terrible pain she'd endured and the dangers she'd faced in my absence tormented me constantly, and for her to bring it up was almost more than I could stand. My own memories were terrible enough, and to think of her suffering was agony. If my body could produce tears, my eyes would have been full to the brim with them.

"If Jacob hadn't helped me…I'm not sure what you would have come home to. I owe him better than this, Edward." Bella continued in a reluctant whisper.

My jaw flexed and I clenched my teeth together so hard that if I had been human it would have crushed them to powder. My chest felt as though white hot knives were stabbing through it, but no amount of guilt could ever make me change my mind about allowing her to fraternize with werewolves, no matter what the circumstances were. It was my fault she had suffered, that she had been in danger in my absence, but I would not give in to her wishes no matter how many times she reminded me of the debt she owed Jacob Black.

"I'll never forgive myself for leaving you," I choked, my throat almost too tight for me to form the words. "Not if I live a hundred thousand years." I hoped she could hear the depth of my remorse somehow. I felt her warm hand caressing the side of my cheek in a gesture of comfort, and I knew she felt hideous for resorting to this topic of conversation to try to justify her desire to see her old friend. I relished in her soothing touch for a moment before taking a deep breath and opening my eyes to face her. I knew I would see sadness and compassion in her eyes when I met her gaze, and my agony intensified at the sympathy in her face. I did not deserve her kindness.

"You were just trying to do the right thing," She said in a gentle, consoling voice. And I'm sure it would have worked with anyone less mental than me. Besides, you're here now. That's the part that matters."

She was so forgiving and sensitive! I couldn't let her put her life at risk because she was too kind for her own good. I loved her too much for that. I had put her in danger too many times to take any unnecessary chances. Wasn't it enough that danger seemed to find her without tempting fate this way?

"If I'd never left, you wouldn't feel the need to go risk your life to comfort a dog." I said bitterly, hating myself for the foolhardy choice I made last fall. Would I ever stop paying for that mistake? I knew I didn't deserve a reprieve, but surely Bella did. She had done nothing to deserve all this suffering and grief. I hated that Charlie had placed the responsibility of Jacob Black's well being on her shoulders.

Bella recoiled and her eyes closed tightly at the derogatory term, but I refused to relent.

"I don't know how to phrase this properly," I mused darkly. No matter how I said what I needed to say, it was going to sound callous. "It's going to sound cruel, I suppose. But I've come too close to losing you in the past. I know what it feels like to think I have. I am not going to tolerate anything dangerous."

"You have to trust me on this. I'll be fine." Bella reiterated emphatically.

She didn't get it. How could I explain? I supposed it was time for the shameless pleading now. I wasn't used to resorting to such things, and I was even less comfortable with the idea of trying to express my fears, but it was necessary now.

"Please, Bella," I begged, hoping against hope that she would hear the heartache in my voice. There were no words to tell her about the horror and desolation I'd felt when I thought she was gone, and I didn't have the strength to try to explain it anyway. The memory was too traumatic; too fresh and raw in my heart.

"Please what?" Bella asked confusedly as she stared into my desperate eyes.

"Please, for me. Please make a conscious effort to keep yourself safe. I'll do everything I can, but I would appreciate a little help." I begged.

"I'll work on it," She said sarcastically.

She didn't understand or appreciate her own frailty, nor could she relate to the hellish horror I'd endured when I thought she was dead. Her fear for my safety when she'd come to Volterra to stop my suicide was profound, but she'd known I was still alive; its wasn't the same thing.

"Do you really have any idea how important you are to me? Any concept at all of how much I love you?" I held her tighter, positioning her so that her cheek was resting against my Adam's apple; her hair tickled my chin. I knew she didn't, of course; vampire emotions were much more complex and all consuming than mortal feelings, but I had to try to explain.

She kissed my neck, and her soft, warm mouth lingered at the base of my jaw. The sensation would have made my heart race if that were possible. She had no idea what it did to me when she kissed me there. I suppressed my desire with effort.

"I know how much I love you," she said, her breath brushing against my throat. I nearly shivered.

"You compare one small tree to the entire forest." I said softly, inhaling her sweet sent.

"Impossible." She said, thinking that I was underestimating her feelings for me again. I wasn't; I knew she loved me with as much passion and fervor as it was possible for her to feel, but she hadn't waited a century for me.

I kissed the top of her head and sighed. "No werewolves." I said unwaveringly.

"I'm not going along with that. I have to see Jacob." She answered without pausing.

I almost smiled at the level of tenacity we both possessed. Of course, we might be evenly matched in the stubbornness department, but not in strength or resources. I still had my inhuman power and Alice on my side.

"Then I'll have to stop you." I warned her calmly.

"We'll see about that," She argued unconvincingly. I almost smiled at the futile stubbornness in her voice. "He's still my friend."

Her face furrowed into a frown and I knew she was thinking about the note Jacob Black had sent to her through Charlie again. I was glad that Jacob Black and I were on the same page. They couldn't be friends, especially not when he wanted more from her.

I couldn't put her in danger, and I couldn't lose her to him either way.

Note: The Twilight Saga is the property of Stephenie Meyer. I will not profit from this work.