Brief Author's note:

I just wanted to say thank you to all of the readers out there who haven't given up on this story in spite of my sporadic updating. Between the holidays and the current legislative session (I work in government) I've had little time to write. I really appreciate each one of you, and your reviews mean so much to me. I try to answer them all, but if I missed yours somehow, please know that I appreciate it very much. This chapter covers Chapter 19 in Eclipse. It's not as long as the last one and we won't get to the proposal until the next chapter but there are some extras here. Enjoy.

Chapter 15-Preferences

Bella didn't stir as I climbed carefully through her bedroom window a short time later. Alice insisted on cleaning her up a little, so I grudgingly left the room for a few moments while she washed Bella off and re-dressed her in her favorite cotton PJ's.

"I just couldn't let her sleep covered in that smell. I did you a favor, Edward," Alice whispered as I tucked Bella's little quilt around her. "She didn't even stir."

"She's exhausted," I murmured as I gently brushed a curl away from her forehead. "I never should have agreed to let her come."

Alice snorted softly. "You always let Bella get her way, no matter what she wants." Not that you have any right to make her decisions for her.

I rolled my eyes in irritation. "You make me sound like an overindulgent father."

"Overindulgent, yes," Alice said carefully. I know you're upset over the bracelet and you have no intention of telling her how you feel. She thought. Charlie was trudging down the stairs for his usual cup of coffee and she didn't want him to suspect we were here. The sun was rising now, and the overcast sky had a pinkish tinge, indicating that it might not rain all day.

"Alice," I sighed wearily. I didn't want to discuss this now.

"You need to talk to her," Alice pressed.

"I know that, but…" I began through clenched teeth.

"But nothing," Alice interrupted. "Bella loves you and if she knew how much the bracelet bothered you…"

"Then she would feel terribly guilty. She doesn't deserve that," I said curtly as Bella groaned and rolled over in her sleep. I stroked her cheek.

"You don't deserve it either," Alice replied significantly. "I don't need Jasper to sense how you beat yourself up all the time over leaving."

She was wrong; I did deserve the guilt. I owned every morsel of it.

"Two wrongs don't make a right, Edward," Alice said sagely. "Now I need to go. I want to try to concentrate on what's going to happen this weekend." And I need to talk to Jasper. She thought.

"You aren't going to let him get away with what he said tonight about using Bella as bait," I stated. I was still aggravated with my brother, and I felt that he deserved the tongue lashing that Alice was sure to give him.

"Nope," Alice replied simply as she vanished through the window. I closed it softly behind her before curling up beside Bella.

"Edward, don't go," she whimpered. I pulled her close and tried to ignore the lingering werewolf smell that still clung to her hair from where Jacob had carried her.

"I'm right here, love," I said as I softly kissed her cheek. "I'll always be right here."

"I can follow…help me," she grumbled. Her eyelids twitched and I knew she was dreaming. "Jasper… just wait,"

I grimaced. It didn't take a genius to deduce what she was dreaming about. I cursed Jasper before tucking Bella's quilt more securely around her shoulders so I could tighten my hold on her.

Bella continued to talk incessantly in her sleep throughout the day. Some of what she said seemed to be about Jasper's plan to use her as a decoy to distract the newborns, but other words and phrases made little sense to me.

"The third wife used a knife, I could too…" Bella babbled. "For them…"

I frowned. I had no idea what she was talking about, but she was clearly disturbed by whatever images were plaguing her unconscious thoughts. Had she watched some kind of strange horror film with Emmett recently? Emmett loved 80's horror movies; he thought the cheap special effects were funny. I told him those stupid movies he loved so much gave her nightmares the last time he'd talked her into watching a Friday the 13th Marathon…

"I hate the smell…blood," she said as she buried her face in my chest.

Her chatter continued, but she did not wake. Once I'd thought the phone would surely disturb her when it rang loudly at half past noon, but it didn't. I slipped out of the bed to turn the ringer off. She needed to rest.

I continued to watch her sleep from the well-used rocking chair on the other side of the room. I tried to decipher the meaning of her disjointed talking, but more often than not I couldn't figure out what her dreams meant. I spent most of the day thinking about what Alice had said.

I knew she was right and I needed to talk to Bella about Jacob's gift, but I had no idea how to do it without getting angry. It infuriated me that she would allow him to give her such a personal present. I was sure that if I had given her something similar, she would have objected, but I didn't understand why.

She had assured me that her issues with marriage were generational, but sometimes I still suspected that something else was preventing her from agreeing to make the ultimate commitment to me. Perhaps she wasn't even aware of the true meaning of her hesitation. Was it unresolved feelings for Jacob?

I felt the familiar twist of jealousy in my chest at the thought. I had refused to make her choose between the two of us thus far, but I was sure that I was going to have to soon.

What if she didn't choose me?

The only reason she's so uncomfortable is because she's attracted to me. Jacob had thought when he was carrying her through the woods.

Was he right?

"Edward," Bella muttered, sitting up at around half past three. Her hair was standing out all over her head, and her pajamas were messy and wrinkled.

"Yes, sweetheart?" I replied.

She didn't respond. She merely dropped back onto her squashy pillow and began to snore softly. I laughed quietly.

Nearly an hour later, she finally began to regain consciousness. It was a relief because I knew that it wouldn't be too much longer before Charlie got home, and we needed to talk.

Bella yawned widely and stretched before reaching out her hand toward me.

"Edward?" She mumbled sleepily. I obliged her searching fingers by taking her hand into my own.

"Are you really awake this time?" I asked as I ran my fingers over her knuckles.

"Mmm," she confirmed. "Have there been a lot of false alarms?"

"You've been very restless — talking all day." I replied, thinking of all the cryptic things she'd said in her sleep. I could guess the meaning of some of them, but the parts about someone named "the third wife" made no sense to me whatsoever. I would have to ask her about that one.

"All day?" Bella gasped. Her eyes were wide open now as she ran a hand over her tangled hair.

"You had a long night," I replied. "You'd earned a day in bed."

"Wow." She said. She sat up and looked out the window. The late afternoon sun that was shining feebly through the curtains seemed to confirm the time of day to her. Her stomach rumbled. I knew she hadn't eaten much at all the day before.

"Hungry?" I asked. "Do you want breakfast in bed?" I remembered how much she'd enjoyed it when I made her a large breakfast and served it to her in her room right after we'd returned from Italy. I had virtually no cooking skills, but I had been watching the Food Network. She certainly could use a hearty meal.

"I'll get it," She said, shaking her head and stretching again. "I need to get up and move around."

She still seemed slightly disoriented and I could tell that she was still tired. Her sleep had not been restful, and I knew she would be more accident prone than usual, so I held onto her as we went downstairs to the kitchen.

I watched with mild disapproval as the put two of those revolting pop tart pastries in the toaster. I'd read the nutrition label on the box before; they were loaded with sugar and little else.

"Ugh, I'm a mess." Bella said as she caught sight of her reflection in the toaster.

I could hardly disagree with her. She was beautiful despite her disheveled appearance but her hair was standing up all over her head and her eyes were puffy.

Plus, I could still smell Jacob Black on her skin. . The memory of the way he'd touched her and…licked her cheek came back to me with a vengeance and I suppressed a growl.

"It was a long night," I said. "You should have stayed here and slept."

"Right! And missed everything. You know, you need to start accepting the fact that I'm part of the family now." She grumbled as the toaster popped.

Everyone in my family (with the possible exception of Rose) thought that Bella completed all of us. It thrilled me to hear that she was present last night because she felt like a Cullen.

She was with us, not the wolves.

"I could probably get used to that idea." I said with a soft smile. She smiled in return as she took her seat and started to take a bite of her breakfast.

As she raised her hand to her mouth the light glinted off the silver bracelet on her arm again. My happiness evaporated at once. I wasn't going to be able to tolerate looking at Jacob's present without saying something.

"May I?" I asked quietly as Bella bit into her pop tart. She swallowed hard before answering.

"Um, sure."

She looked wary as I reached over to examine the charm. Her reaction forced me to accept that she was at least somewhat aware of how I felt about the bracelet. I felt a surge of hurt and anger .I had to take great care not to pulverize the wood and metal.

I studied the tiny wooden wolf for a long moment, marveling inwardly at the care and detail in its face. Jacob had clearly put some effort into carving it. This intensified the powerful urge I had to crush it into powder between my fingers. It would be so easy, and I wouldn't have to look at it ever again…

I glanced at Bella to see that her brow was creased with worry, and I felt guilty. I had no right to destroy her things. The bracelet was hers to do with as she wished, but it pained me to see her wear it.

"Jacob Black can give you presents." I said matter-of-factly as I let go of the little wooden wolf.

"You've given me presents," Bella said, and there was a defensive tone to her voice. "You know I like the homemade kind."

Yes, she had accepted the CD I'd given her for her birthday because I didn't spend any money on it.

An idea occurred to me suddenly. Perhaps the bracelet wouldn't bother me quite as much if I enhanced the stupid thing with a charm of my own.

"How about hand-me-downs? Are those acceptable?" I asked her after a thoughtful pause.

"What do you mean?"

"This bracelet." I continued as I ran my finger across the metal. "You'll be wearing this a lot?"

Bella shrugged in a noncommittal sort of way. It frustrated me. As usual, she wasn't revealing anything. Did this mean that she wanted to wear it and she didn't want to upset me? Or was it Jacob's feelings that she was worried about?

"Because you wouldn't want to hurt his feelings," I prodded as I studied her face carefully.

"Sure, I guess so." She responded with another shrug. Her face was still unreadable and cautious.

"Don't you think it's fair, then," I replied as I turned her hand over and traced my finger over her wrist. "If I have a little representation?"

"Representation?" Bella echoed with a confused frown.

"A charm — something to keep me on your mind." I explained as I envisioned one of the diamonds that had belonged to my mother dangling from the metal links of the bracelet.

"You're in every thought I have. I don't need reminders." Bella said. I could hear the sincerity in her voice, but it didn't quell my desire to get her to wear a piece of jewelry I had given her. Her evasiveness was getting the better of me.

"If I gave you something, would you wear it?" I asked again.

"A hand-me-down?" Bella checked with raised eyebrows.

"Yes, something I've had for a while." I confirmed. I thought of my mother's ring and for the thousandth time I envisioned the way it would look on her hand. I wanted nothing more than to see it on her finger every day for eternity, but right now, I'd settle for adding a charm to her bracelet. Maybe that would give me an opening to get her to accept the ring sometime soon. Alice's wedding vision hadn't changed.

"Whatever makes you happy." She replied.

Her apathy pushed me over the edge and the anger I'd been working so hard to suppress flared.

"Have you noticed the inequality?" "Because I certainly have." I snapped bitterly before I could control myself.

Why didn't she want to wear something I gave her? Most women would be thrilled to get a gift from their boyfriends, and I had more money than I would ever be able to spend. I desperately wanted to dote on her with it. She deserved the world on a string.

"What inequality?" She asked with a frown.

I studied her face through narrowed eyes for a long moment and realized she truly didn't understand what I was upset about. For someone who was so intelligent and observant, she could be really obtuse when it came to my feelings.

"Everyone else is able to get away with giving you things; everyone but me. I would have loved to get you a graduation present, but I didn't. I knew it would have upset you more than if anyone else did. That's utterly unfair. How do you explain yourself?" I replied angrily.

"Easy." She answered immediately with a shrug. My eyes widened. I hadn't expected her to readily admit she didn't want to accept gifts from me.

"You're more important than everyone else. And you've given me you. That's already more than I deserve, and anything else you give me just throws us more out of balance."

I stared at her for a long moment as I tried to process what she'd said.

Bella didn't want to accept gifts from me because she still somehow felt unworthy of me, and by extension, of my gifts!

So many wealthy men would have been thrilled to find out that their significant others had no interest in their money, but in this context it was both painful and exasperating. She still didn't understand how special she was, how the true imbalance of our relationship came from my inability to ever measure up to her, not the other way around.

"The way you regard me is ludicrous." I said curtly. I knew she wouldn't listen if I told her she had things backward.

She didn't respond as she continued to eat her breakfast.

Abruptly, my phone vibrated in my pocket, and Alice's number flashed across the screen.

"What is it, Alice?" I answered, knowing she must have seen something.

"Bella liked Jasper's idea about using her as a diversion on the battlefield a little too much," Alice said without preamble.

"I sort of guessed as much," I said, glaring at Bella as I spoke. "She was talking in her sleep."

"She's planning to try to find us in the clearing so she can help, but she'll just get lost. I keep getting flickers of you searching for her in the woods after it's all over. I don't see you having any trouble finding her, but the wolves are still making it difficult for me to see as clearly as I'd like. You need to make sure she stays away from the fight." Alice went on.

"I'll take care of it," I assured her. Bella blushed and looked down at the remnants of her pop tarts.

"I know," Alice replied quickly. "I told Jasper he's an idiot for opening his big fat mouth. Oh, and by the way, two more of the newborns have been destroyed. They are nineteen of them now. I'll talk to you later."

We hung up simultaneously. I glared at Bella as I closed the phone and slid it back into my pocket.

"Is there something you'd like to talk to me about?" I demanded irritably. I was sure that Alice was right about Bella's intentions but I wanted to hear it straight from her. It was time for us to be forthright with each other about everything.

Bella's eyes never left the table as she seemed to deliberate for a moment. She pressed her lips into a thin, thoughtful line.

"I like Jasper's idea," She said finally, confirming what Alice had seen.

I moaned in exasperation. Why couldn't she just believe me when I told her everything would be fine! Her involvement would defeat the entire purpose of the fight, and no one would benefit from it.

"I want to help. I have to do something," She insisted.

"It wouldn't help to have you in danger." I retorted angrily.

"Jasper thinks it would. This is his area of expertise." Bella countered stubbornly.

I glared warningly at her. I was going to choke Jasper when I saw him. It wouldn't kill him, but it might make me feel a bit better.

"You can't keep me away," she persisted, her chin jutting out in a familiar defiant gesture. "I'm not going to hide out in the forest while you all take risks for me."

I bit back a smile at the determination in her voice. My Bella was brave to a fault. I understood that she only wanted to contribute in some way but Alice had seen that her attempt wouldn't work.

"Alice doesn't see you in the clearing, Bella. She sees you stumbling around lost in the woods. You won't be able to find us; you'll just make it more time consuming for me to find you afterward." I explained in a deceptively calm voice.

Her stubborn expression didn't falter as she answered me.

"That's because Alice didn't factor in Seth Clearwater," she said as her lips curled into a calculated smile. "If she had, of course, she wouldn't have been able to see anything at all. But it sounds like Seth wants to be there as much as I do. It shouldn't be too hard to persuade him to show me the way."

I felt a swell of furious frustration at her scheming. Didn't she know, or care that the main reason we were fighting this battle to protect her! Less than 24 hours ago my family had been preparing to face their deaths, and she was determined to undermine all of our efforts to keep her safe!

I gritted my teeth and composed myself. No, she didn't know, because she hadn't heard the specifics of Alice's vision. If she did know all the horrible things that Alice had seen, it would only intensify her resolve to try to fight for the people she loved.

"That might have worked . . . if you hadn't told me. Now I'll just ask Sam to give Seth certain orders. Much as he might want to, Seth won't be able to ignore that kind of injunction." I said in an equally calm voice.

Bella's triumphant smile didn't falter. I should have known she wasn't going to give up that easily.

"But why would Sam give those orders? If I tell him how it would help for me to be there? I'll bet Sam would rather do me a favor than you."

I fought back the urge to smash Charlie's kitchen table into kindling. She was right, of course; Sam Uley was a shrewd man who intended to fight for the greater good of his tribe and the pack. He wasn't participating in this battle out of any sense of loyalty to Bella; this was about his duties as the acting Alpha and chief of the Quilleutes. He was too pragmatic and detached to care about one life versus the many lives that could be lost if the newborns were able to overpower us. If he thought that Bella's involvement would help their cause, he wouldn't hesitate to assist her.

Sam might not care, but Jacob did. Jacob would not allow Bella to endanger herself. I felt a surge of reluctant gratitude for his position within the pack.

"Maybe you're right. But I'm sure Jacob would be only too eager to give those same orders." I said coolly.

Once again, I found myself being forced to rely on Jacob Black's assistance to keep Bella safe. Did he have some sort of pact with the Devil Himself? What had I done to continually deserve to be in his debt?

Oh, yes. I had abandoned the woman I loved and nearly gotten her killed on multiple occasions.

Bella frowned in bewilderment. "Jacob?"

"Jacob is second in command. Did he never tell you that?" I asked, surprised. I assumed that he would boast about his position in an effort to impress her. "His orders have to be followed, too."

Bella frowned and her shoulders slumped in a final gesture of defeat. I smiled triumphantly, but I was acutely aware of Bella's tenacity. I was sure she'd come up with another plan or argument of some sort. I decided to change the subject while I could.

"I got a fascinating look into the pack's mind last night. It was better than a soap opera. I had no idea how complex the dynamic is with such a large pack. The pull of the individual against the plural psyche…"

I remembered the way that the wolves had all been able to think independently until Sam gave them a command. When he ordered them to focus on something specific, they had to surrender their own mental will to his. It was strangely intriguing and alarming to me. Fortunately, Sam wasn't the kind of leader who would readily abuse that authority, and if he did, Jacob could challenge him.

"Absolutely fascinating," I repeated.

Bella glared at my transparent attempt to distract her, but she didn't interrupt.

"Jacob's been keeping a lot of secrets," I continued, hoping to pique her interest. "For instance, did you note the smaller gray wolf there last night?"

She nodded reluctantly, and I could tell that her curiosity was starting to get the better of her. I laughed lightly.

"They take all of their legends so seriously. It turns out there are things that none of their stories prepared them for."

A bitter female werewolf, for instance, I thought.

Bella's expression shifted and she sighed. Curiosity was winning out over irritation. "Okay, I'll bite. What are you talking about?"

"They always accepted without question that it was only the direct grandsons of the original wolf who had the power to transform." I said. Leah joining the pack would shock Bella just as much as it had shocked the Quilleutes.

"So someone changed who wasn't a direct descendant?" Bella asked in surprise.

Well, someone who was not supposed to be a direct descendant had changed, but the situation with Embry was a different kettle of fish.

"No. She's a direct descendant, all right." I said with a smirk.

"She?" Bella repeated with wide eyed surprise.

I nodded. "She knows you. Her name is Leah Clearwater."

I remembered the low opinion Leah had of Bella and suppressed a scowl. I hadn't actually been able to detect any personal reason for her feelings of disdain. Had she and Leah had some kind of negative encounter when I was gone? Perhaps Bella would tell me more.

"Leah's a werewolf!" Bella cried in surprise.

"What? For how long? Why didn't Jacob tell me?" She babbled.

"There are things he wasn't allowed to share — their numbers, for instance. Like I said before, when Sam gives an order, the pack simply isn't able to ignore it. Jacob was very careful to think of other things when he was near me. Of course, after last night that's all out the window." I explained, thinking of the careful way he had concealed the information from me.

"I can't believe it. Leah Clearwater!"

"Poor Leah," Bella whispered sadly after a long moment.

It was clear to me now that Leah's hostility was entirely one sided. I could only assume that her disdain was solely based on Jacob's feelings. Bella had done nothing to warrant Leah's dislike, and the unfairness of Leah's feelings made me even angrier when I saw the compassion in Bella's dark eyes. I snorted bitterly at her misplaced pity.

"She's making life exceedingly unpleasant for the rest of them. I'm not sure she deserves your sympathy." I said derisively.

"What do you mean?" Bella asked with a slight frown.

"It's hard enough for them, having to share all their thoughts. Most of them try to cooperate, make it easier. When even one member is deliberately malicious, it's painful for everyone." I explained, thinking of the universal discomfort that the entire pack had felt due to Leah's unpleasant musings.

"She has reason enough," Bella muttered. I knew she was familiar with the pack's ability to read each other's minds when they were in their wolf forms. Her compassion meant that she was obviously aware of the history Leah shared with Sam as well.

"Oh, I know," I agreed, confirming that I was also aware of the situation.

"The imprinting compulsion is one of the strangest things I've ever witnessed in my life, and I've seen some strange things." He shook his head wonderingly. "The way Sam is tied to his Emily is impossible to describe — or I should say her Sam. Sam really had no choice."

My mind wandered back to the fateful day when my resolve to stay away from Bella had crumbled. I'd never had a choice either.

It reminds me of A Midsummer Night's Dream with all the chaos caused by the fairies' love spells . . . like magic." I said lightly.

"It's very nearly as strong as the way I feel about you." I smiled softly. It was true that imprinting could be compared to vampire mating, but it wasn't quite as powerful in its intensity.

"Poor Leah," Bella repeated. "But what do you mean, malicious?"

"She's constantly bringing up things they'd rather not think of," I replied. "For example, Embry."

"What's with Embry?" She asked in surprise. Jacob hadn't told her anything about that situation. I didn't blame him.

"His mother moved down from the Makah reservation seventeen years ago, when she was pregnant with him. She's not Quileute. Everyone assumed she'd left his father behind with the Makahs. But then he joined the pack."

"So?" Bella prompted.

"So the prime candidates for his father are Quil Ateara Sr., Joshua Uley or Billy Black, all of them married at that point, of course."

"No!" Bella gasped in a scandalized voice. I smirked. My attempts to distract her had worked, at least to some degree anyway.

"Now Sam, Jacob, and Quil all wonder which of them has a half-brother. They'd all like to think it's Sam, since his father was never much of a father. But the doubt is always there. Jacob's never been able to ask Billy about that."

I'd seen from his thoughts that Jacob had always believed Billy loved his mother, but now he was dealing with questions about all the things he'd heard about their so called perfect marriage. He'd been too young when his mother died to remember much about the way they'd been together, and it pained him to think that his father could have been unfaithful.

"Wow. How did you get so much in one night?" Bella asked, and I could hear the curiosity in her voice.

"The pack mind is mesmerizing; all thinking together and then separately at the same time. There's so much to read!" I said, thinking of how fascinating the collective workings of their minds were. I'd been reading the thoughts of others for eighty eight years and this was by far the most interesting mental phenomenon I'd ever encountered besides my inability to read Bella.

"The pack is fascinating," Bella agreed with a laugh, "almost as fascinating as you are when you're trying to distract me."

The smile melted off my face in an instant. She wasn't going to let this go.

"I have to be in that clearing, Edward." Bella insisted.

My imagination ran wild as I pictured her standing in the middle of an open field full of supernatural warriors, wolves and vampires in the throes of battle.

"No," I said vehemently, no longer trying to hide my anger. She needed to understand that this was not up for discussion. There was no way in Hell I was going to allow her to be within ten miles of the place. It was far too dangerous.

Bella averted her expressive eyes from me then and I could tell she was thinking hard about something that made her uneasy. I resisted the urge to cup my hand under her chin and force her to meet my gaze. I hated it when she hid her face from me. It made it all the more difficult to understand what she was thinking.

The silence continued to eat away at my patience like acid. I was just about to speak when I heard her take a deep breath. She was steeling herself to say something unpleasant.

"Okay, look, Edward," she murmured, still staring down at the battered wood of the table. "Here's the thing . . . I've already gone crazy once. I know what my limits are. And I can't stand it if you leave me again. "

I gasped in stunned agony at her words as a torrent of terrible memories flooded my mind.

"You don't want me?" Bella said in a soft, flat voice as we stood on the edge of the woods near Charlie's house.

"No," I replied…

"…She's tougher than you think," Jacob Black had said in the school parking lot the day he'd come to deliver his warning about the treaty lines. "She's been through worse."

And then, Jacob's memories replaced mine, crushing my heart.

Bella's cold limp form cradled in Sam Uley's arms as she muttered, "He's gone."….

…Bella, emaciated and wan, standing outside his front door with dark circles etched under her eyes.

And worst of all, the conversation they'd had on First Beach the day she'd explained Victoria's motives for being in the Pacific Northwest.

'Do you know what she wants?' Jacob had asked her. He was referring to Victoria.

'Of course,' Bella whispered. 'She wants me.'

'Why?' Jacob probed as he tried to comfort her.

"Edward killed James,' Bella replied thickly. "She did get…pissed off. But Laurent said she thought it was fairer to kill me than Edward. Mate for mate. She didn't know-still doesn't- that things aren't like that with us anymore; not for Edward, anyway."

"Is that what happened; why the Cullens left?' Jacob asked.

"'I'm nothing but a human after all. Nothing special."

Remorse and pain twisted in my chest as I stared down at her bowed head. She had no right to feel guilty for reminding me of my unforgivable actions, but she did. I could hear the stammer in her heartbeats that told me just how horrible she felt for resorting to such a subject in order to get what she wanted.

Permitting her to be in that clearing was impossible; I could not allow her to be in danger.

I practically flung myself at her in sheer desperation. I longed to comfort her and make her see that there was no need for her to assist us in this battle. We would all be fine, thanks to the alliance with the wolves.

"You know it's not like that, Bella," I whispered into her soft, tangled hair as I held her close and caressed her. "I won't be far, and it will be over quickly."

"I can't stand it," she repeated without meeting my gaze. "Not knowing whether or not you'll come back. How do I live through that, no matter how quickly it's over?" Her voice was thick with distress.

I sighed heavily. "It's going to be easy, Bella. There's no reason for your fears."

"None at all?" She murmured in an almost beseeching whisper. I could hear the depth of her anxiety in every word.

"None." I promised.

"And everybody will be fine?" She prompted.

"Everyone," I assured her.

"So there's no way at all that I need to be in the clearing?" she asked.

I breathed a tiny sigh of relief. Perhaps I had eased her fears a little. I understood Bella well enough to know that she would not stop worrying until every last Quileute and Cullen were at home safe and sound.

"Of course not. Alice just told me that they're down to nineteen. We'll be able to handle it easily." I went on.

"That's right — you said it was so easy that someone could sit out. Did you really mean that?" She asked me carefully. She was still staring down at the table. Her pulse increased again.

"Yes." I answered with a slight frown. What was she getting at? Was she going to ask me to try to keep Alice out of the fight? Jasper had sensed her concern for my sister before she'd seen them face off against each other. Surely she wasn't still worried after that!

Worrying about the safety of supernatural creatures was exactly the sort of thing she would do.

Was it Jacob she was hoping to shield? I nearly snorted at the idea of her trying to persuade me to keep him off the front lines of a vampire death match.

"So easy that you could sit out?" She asked carefully.

Shock coursed through me as I absorbed her words.

We sat in a motionless silence for a long moment as I considered the implications of her request.

Yesterday, I thought my family was going to die because we were facing a fight that we couldn't win. I had witnessed it all through Alice's thoughts; Carlisle's screams of grief as Esme was ripped apart before his eyes…

…Bella lying bloodless beneath a tiny female vampire on the front porch with murky and unseeing eyes.

A familiar fear beyond words or description choked me once again as the memory of the pain I'd felt less than three months earlier overwhelmed every other thought or sense of reason.

She's dead, Edward

When I thought that she was lost, all was lost. She was everything in my world; my heart and my hope. My existence before her was meaningless; to lose her was an unendurable Hell. I would have no will to live if she didn't. She mattered to me more than anything else.

But how could I allow my family to face this battle without me when this was my fight more than anyone else's? Inexplicably, it was my Bella they wanted. I had stand with the others to defend her. I would not lose her.

I heard Bella's deep intake of breath a moment later, pulling me out of my terrible reverie.

"So it's one way or the other. Either there is more danger than you want me to know about, in which case it would be right for me to be there, to do what I can to help. Or . . . it's going to be so easy that they'll get by without you. Which way is it?" She asked in an oddly practical tone.

Her words made it sound like it was the simplest choice in the world; cut and dry.

"You ask me to let them fight without my help," I muttered in a flat voice.

The idea of staying on the sidelines went against nearly every instinct I had. I craved revenge; I needed to wage war against those who threatened everything and everyone who mattered to me.

"Yes," she said simply. "Or to let me be there. Either way, so long as we're together.

I took a deep breath and tried to brace myself to face her. I didn't want her to see how much it pained me to have to make such a choice.

I knew that I didn't really have a choice.

I had to do this for her.

I finally managed to meet her gaze, and I saw the anguish that I felt staring back at me from the depths of her eyes. It had been just as difficult for her to ask me to do this as it was for me to walk away from the coming fight.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket and dialed.

"Alice," I said as soon as I heard the answering click on the line.

"Hey, Edward," she said knowingly. She must have realized I was going to call.

"Could you come babysit Bella for awhile?" I asked, looking at Bella inquiringly. I knew the way I'd phrased my request wasn't tactful, but to my surprise, Bella didn't react.

"I need to speak with Jasper," I continued. I felt ashamed and frustrated over her request in spite of myself. It was a blow to my male pride to stand aside and let the others fight without me.

Alice paused for a brief moment, and I knew she must be foreseeing my discussion with Jasper.

"Just let me take care of a couple of things here and I'll be on my way in about five minutes," she replied. "Everything will be fine, Edward, just do what you have to for her."

"What are you going to discuss with Jasper?" Bella asked softly as I hung up the phone. Her eyes were still filled with remorse.

"I'm going to discuss…me sitting out," I answered thickly. I felt as though I would choke on the words as they left my mouth.

"I'm sorry." She whispered guiltily with averted eyes.

Regret burned my stomach at the wounded look on her face. It cost her dearly to ask me for such a favor. She gave me so much, and asked for little in return. In fact, she rarely ever asked me for anything at all.

I was being selfish. If removing myself from the conflict would give her peace of mind then my pride was a small price to pay for that.

"Don't apologize," I replied, forcing myself to smile halfheartedly. I was the one who was sorry for making her feel even guiltier than she already did.

"Never be afraid to tell me how you feel, Bella. If this is what you need . . .You are my first priority."

"I didn't mean it that way — like you have to choose me over your family." She said in a pleading voice.

"I know that," I assured her. Bella would never give me such a selfish ultimatum.

"Besides, that's not what you asked. You gave me two alternatives that you could live with, and I chose the one that I could live with. That's how compromise is supposed to work."

She sighed softly in relief at my words and buried her face in my shirt. Her forehead made a comforting warm spot just below my heart. It was entirely hers.

"Thank you," She said softly.

"Anytime," I said fervently as I placed a kiss in her hair. "Anything."

I held her close for a moment as I thought about the potential adjustments Jasper would need to make to our-no, their-fighting strategy. I sincerely hoped that he didn't plan to give me too much grief over my decision. His rash suggestion about Bella being in the clearing was at least partly responsible for her request.

This train of thought reminded me of Bella's cryptic sleep talking.

"Who's the third wife?" I asked abruptly.

"Huh?" Bella stammered uncomfortably. Her reaction was unexpected and odd. I caught Alice's scent as she ran through the trees that were adjacent to Charlie's property. She'd made it faster than I expected.

"You were mumbling something about 'the third wife' last night. The rest made a little sense, but you lost me there." I explained.

"Oh. Um, yeah…that was just one of the stories that I heard at the bonfire the other night." She said with a falsely nonchalant shrug. "I guess it stuck with me."

I pulled back and studied her face inquiringly for a long moment. Her reaction to my question made me even more curious. Why did she seem so uneasy?

Alice opened the back door a moment later. She scowled in Bella's direction.

"You're going to miss all the fun," she groused. This really is going to be an easy victory, Edward. I wish you could convince her of that but you can't.

"Hello, Alice," I said without commenting. I tilted Bella's face up toward my own and kissed her softly. Her eyes were still full of needless guilt and worry.

"I'll be back later tonight," I assured Bella. "I'll go work this out with the others, rearrange things."

"Okay." She agreed.

"There's not much to arrange," Alice said. "I already told them." I thought it would be better if I talked to them before you arrived.

I grimaced slightly, but Bella didn't seem to notice. Alice was trying to make it easier for me to face my brothers. She knew how hard it would be for me to give them this news in person. I wouldn't have to hear any initial unguarded negative thoughts from Jasper or Emmett if they were prepared to hear what I had to say in advance.

"Emmett is pleased." Alice went on in an attempt to reassure me. He just said it meant more newborns for him if you weren't there. You know he thinks your mind reading gives you an unfair edge and he doesn't want to be outdone.

I sighed heavily at the thought of Emmett's overzealous attitude.

"Of course he is." I grumbled as I turned to leave.

Don't worry too much about this, Edward. You're going to have other plans to make for the weekend. Alice thought as I closed the door behind me. There was an oddly smug tone to her thoughts that made me curious. She was deliberately hiding something from me, but I sensed that it wasn't a bad thing. I was intrigued but I didn't have time to try to figure out what she was hiding. It would have to wait.

As I ran through the forest toward home, I wondered what Alice meant. Had she foreseen me playing a different role in the fight? The thought made me hopeful for a brief moment, and then I chastised myself for my compulsive selfishness. I'd agreed to stay out of this for Bella and I would not break my word to her.

Time and again, Bella had made innumerable sacrifices for me, and I had offered her few concessions in return. She risked her safety to be with me when I wanted her blood more than almost anything on this earth. She traveled halfway around the world to save me from myself and unwittingly sealed her own fate to become what I am. She intended to lose her humanity, and in a sense, her life. A life she would give away freely for me.

In every way that mattered, Bella had always put me first.


Not Jacob Black, or Alice, or even her father. She always chose me above all the other people she loved.

She loved me more than everyone else. That should be enough for me, but it wasn't.

I wanted Bella to be my wife. Perhaps part of the reason was the social customs that were permanently ingrained into my personality, but there was more to it than that. If Bella married me, it would mean that she was completely committed to me and not just to being a vampire. She'd said that immortality and marriage weren't mutually exclusive or inclusive to her, but in my heart I felt that being married would only serve to strengthen our bond. It would make a difference, whether she realized it or not.

I remembered the day that we'd sat down and discussed our feelings about marriage. She'd been reluctant to tell me how she really felt. She often avoided subjects when it was difficult for her to admit to her feelings of insecurity or worry. Today was the first time she had ever told me what she needed outright without me pushing her for information. For Bella, asking for favors was the ultimate act of vulnerability. It was a huge show of trust for her to make such a request of me.

Any urge that I had to join in the fight was gone now. I understood what Bella's candor really meant for us, whether she realized the difference or not.

It was time for me to ask her to marry me again.

My phone began to buzz in my pocket just as I reached the mouth of our long, winding driveway.

"Do it this weekend! I'll set everything up for you to ask her the night before your camp out," Alice squealed without preamble as soon as I answered.

"I take it you saw what I decided," I said with a smirk as I approached the front door. Apparently, she had seen what Bella was going to decide as well. My heart swelled to three times its normal size at her enthusiasm.

"Yes," Alice said eagerly. "I told you to focus on making other plans…"

"Wait, where's Bella? Did you tell her what…" I stammered, feeling a swell of anger and panic at the idea of Alice tipping her off before I could plan a proper proposal.

"Relax, she's in the shower," Alice replied, and I could imagine her rolling her eyes at me.

"Of course," I replied in relief. "How do you suggest I get her on my own..."

I sighed. Bella and I were never completely alone, unless we went to the meadow, and right now that wasn't really prudent.

"Easy," Alice said. "I'll just plan another sleepover. I'll tell Charlie that you all are going camping and ask if Bella can stay with me. The two of you can have the house to yourselves while the rest of us go hunting; you won't need to hunt with us since you aren't going to be fighting."

I didn't respond, and she correctly interpreted my silence.

"I'm sorry, Edward," Alice said remorsefully. "I know how much you wanted to fight, but this could be a blessing in disguise."

"Blessings for vampires," I snorted. I was still disappointed that I wasn't going to be fighting, but the idea of having a night alone with Bella thrilled me. It would be the first time we wouldn't have to worry about getting caught kissing by Charlie or being overheard by my family.

"This is going to work, Edward! Oh! Bella's coming, I have to go," Alice whispered a second before she disconnected the call.


My family was watching the latest news about what was happening in Seattle while they waited for me in the living room. The police had just found yet another body burned in a dumpster near Pike Place. Jasper met my eyes for a brief moment and I could hear that he felt guilty, but I was still too angry to acknowledge him.

"Hey Edward," Emmett said from the large white couch as I stepped inside. "I hear you're going to be on Bella-sitting duty this weekend."

"Emmett!" Esme chastised in a stern and motherly way. He never thinks before he speaks.

Rosalie rolled her eyes and moved away from him in irritation. He's just gloating because he wants to show off on Saturday. She added wordlessly.

"Sorry," Emmett grumbled. It's no big thing, bro. It just means more newbies for me. Someone's gotta keep Bella out of trouble; it'll be better for you to do it rather than trusting the dogs. He thought.

"I'm the one who's responsible for Bella asking Edward to stay behind," Jasper said as he stood up and gave me an apologetic look. I'm sorry, Edward. I feel your anger and I understand it, but you know I wouldn't have allowed her to get hurt.

"Alice told me what you said last night about using Bella as bait, Jasper. If we didn't need you on Saturday I'd kick your ass myself." Emmett retorted. He should have known Bella would want to go along with his stupid idea.

I smiled a little at Emmett's protective thoughts. He took his role as her adopted big brother seriously.

"Well, I'm proud of you, Edward," Carlisle said with a smile. What you're doing is far more admirable than fighting. You're making your mate happy and keeping her safe.

I nodded once. I appreciated his words and his thoughts, but I still felt ashamed for leaving them with one less fighter. I knew I had made the right choice, but that still didn't make it an easy one.

"How is this going to impact your strategy?" I asked. I didn't want to talk about my decision any more. It was a done deal and we needed to focus on any changes Jasper needed to make.

"The main thing we're going to have to worry about is making sure we spend some more time focusing on handling more than one newborn at a time," Jasper replied. "We can work on that at our training session later."

Emmett grinned widely in anticipation.

"I could use your help with training exercises tonight, Edward," Jasper said thoughtfully.

"Alright," I replied. "What time should we be there?"

"I take it Bella will be with coming with you," Rosalie scowled. I guess her mangy friend can keep her entertained again tonight while we do all the work.

I glared at her in response. Jasper sensed my tension and Rose's disgust and quickly began discussing the formation that should be used in the clearing. It was decided that Emmett and Jasper should stand at either end of the field while Carlisle, Esme and Alice covered the middle and the rear.

I listened intently to Jasper's plans and I felt better about their ability to succeed without me. We agreed to gather in the clearing at 10:00pm so that we could finish a little earlier than the night before.

I arrived at Charlie's just as Bella was clearing the table. Charlie was in a better mood than usual because he was under the impression that I was going to be gone for the weekend. He was always pleased when Bella spent time away from me. It was for that reason that I had decided to forgo asking for his permission to marry Bella. I knew he would either laugh in my face or tell me no.

"I hear you're going camping to celebrate graduation, Edward," Charlie said cheerfully as he got up from the table. "I hope you have fun." I definitely will. I won't have to worry about what you're up to with my daughter while I'm fishing this weekend. He thought happily.

Bella gave me an inquiring look from the other side of the room that Charlie couldn't see. She must have been wondering if I was aware of Alice's plan.

"I'm sure I will," I replied coolly.

Something about the expression on my face got Charlie's attention and suddenly he wasn't so cheerful anymore. I could hear a flicker of unwelcome suspicion in his mind as he wondered whether or not Alice and Bella's so-called "slumber party" was a ruse. He shook his head slightly and dismissed the idea. He didn't really want to know the details of his adult daughter's personal life.

"Speaking of," Alice said from the living room couch. "I think we should probably go home a bit early tonight. You'll need your rest if you're going to get out before sunrise in the morning."

I suppressed a smile and nodded.

We said our goodnights shortly thereafter and Alice drove the Volvo down the block before letting me out so I could sneak back in to Bella's bedroom.

I sat on Bella's bed and waited for her to finish washing dishes and making small talk with Charlie. I thought about how I might plan a romantic proposal. Should I make dinner? That seemed to cliché. My phone chimed, and I saw that I had a text message.

Don't plan anything elaborate. Oh, and stop worrying. I promise it will be fine.


I laughed to myself. Psychic abilities aside, my sister knew me well.

"I think I'm going to turn in a little early tonight," I heard Bella say shortly thereafter. I snickered as I looked down at my watch. It wasn't even nine o'clock.

"You can't be tired," Charlie said incredulously.

"A little," Bella answered feebly. She was such a terrible liar.

"No wonder you like to skip the parties," Charlie grumbled. "It takes you so long to recover." He'd been hoping to spend a little more time with her.

"It was a really long night," Bella replied. I heard her place a soft kiss on Charlie's cheek before retreating upstairs to join me in her room.

"What time are we meeting with the wolves?" Bella asked as she curled up beside me in her little bed.

"In an hour," I replied as I pulled her closer.

"That's good. Jake and his friends need to get some sleep." She agreed. I stroked her hair gently and she relaxed in my arms.

"They don't need as much as you do," I teased, thinking of the weak excuse she'd given Charlie.

She stared at me intently for a moment. I knew she was expecting me to ask her to stay home tonight but I had no intention of doing so. She'd been right when she said that I should get used to including her in things that concerned the family. Soon, I hoped that she would be a part of our family in a much more concrete way.

"Did Alice tell you that she's kidnapping me again?" Bella asked with a slight frown.

I smiled widely in response.

"Actually, she's not." I answered cryptically

Her frown deepened and I laughed.

"I'm the only one who has permission to hold you hostage, remember?" I replied. "Alice is going hunting with the rest of them."

"I guess I don't need to do that now." I added with a sigh. I hoped that my voice didn't sound too dismal. I didn't want her to think I was second guessing my decision to stay with her, because I wasn't. However, it still troubled me to know that my family would be outnumbered on Saturday.

Bella gaped at me for a long moment.

"You're kidnapping me?" She repeated.

I nodded in affirmation, watching her reaction very carefully. She didn't say anything. Uncertainty filled my mind. What if she didn't want to stay with me? Had she really been looking forward to taking some kind of shopping trip with Alice? No, of course she hadn't. Bella hated shopping…why was she so quiet?

"Is that all right?" I asked her finally. If she didn't wish to go, I wasn't going to press the issue. The last thing I wanted was to make her feel obligated to spend the night with me regardless of my intentions.

"Well . . . sure, except for one thing." She replied.

I tensed. Did she know that I was planning to ask her to marry me again? Was she going to set some kind of condition for our evening together?

"What thing?" I asked worriedly when she didn't explain at once. She registered the anxiety on my face and spoke quickly.

"Why didn't Alice tell Charlie you were leaving tonight?" she asked with a small smile. I laughed loudly in relief. She was looking forward to an evening alone with me, and it thrilled me to no end.

"That's a valid question," I said as I leaned in to kiss her.

Once my lips were pressed against hers, however, I was too distracted to elaborate further.


Bella's mood seemed much lighter as I ran through the trees with her later that evening. I knew she was relieved that I was going to be by her side during the fight. She rested her cheek against the base of my neck and watched our progress through a sea of evergreens that must have been a blur to her human eyes.

I, too, was feeling more optimistic as a result of the change in her demeanor. Plus, I was elated that she and I were going to be completely alone at last. In less than 24 hours I would be asking her to marry me.

My pleasant mood soured slightly when I detected the distinctive canine smell of three wolves. I used my extra sense to listen as we approached the clearing.

can't believe you actually told Sam you would come here alone tonight. There's a big difference between being brave and being stupid, Jake. Quil thought. He was very anxious about being outnumbered by a group of vampires.

Sam wanted the others to patrol the area tonight in case something came up before Saturday. The bloodsuckers aren't going to break the treaty when they need our help. Jacob thought irritably.

I nodded to myself. Sam had apparently decided that it wasn't necessary to have the entire pack attend when he could be utilizing their resources more effectively elsewhere.

Jake's right. We can handle this; just chill, Quil. Ha! That rhymed! Embry thought.

You're an idiot, Quil thought as he made a snorting sound.

I can smell Bella, Jacob thought suddenly.

..and her vampire, Embry added.

"Edward and Bella are close," I heard Alice whisper a second later in a disgruntled voice. Her knowledge had nothing to do with a vision and everything to do with scent; she'd picked it up a moment after the wolves had. They were blinding her as usual and she was annoyed.

Good. I can't wait to fight you and Jasper at the same time Edward, Emmett thought eagerly.

I could hear the crunching sound of pine needles beneath his feet. He and Jasper were already practicing in a light hearted sort of way.

A few seconds later my family and the wolves were also in Bella's line of vision.

Carlisle and Esme were sitting together with their foreheads touching in an oddly intimate posture. They appeared to be completely focused on each other, but they were well aware of their surroundings. Esme was watching the Quil surreptitiously out of the corner of her eye, and Carlisle was paying close attention to the moves Jasper was using against Emmett.

Rosalie and Alice were sitting on the ground next to each other. Alice appeared relaxed but she was still irritated over her wolf induced blind spot. Rose, on the other hand, was more at ease. She was pleased that Paul wasn't here, and annoyed as usual that Bella was. I gritted my teeth and shot her a dark glance as we entered the clearing.

Jacob, who was staring at us intently as we joined the others, noticed the look.

Huh. Bella told me that blonde leech didn't like her, but I didn't think she'd be that obvious about it.

This information surprised me slightly. I knew that Bella had talked to Jacob about my family's talents, but for some reason I had never really thought about her confiding in Jacob as a friend about her relationships with us in such an ordinary way. A powerful rush of jealousy unlike any other that I had experience filled my chest.

"Where are the rest of the wolves?" Bella asked, interrupting my morose thoughts as she registered the three wolves standing in the clearing.

"They don't all need to be here. One would do the job, but Sam didn't trust us enough to just send Jacob, though Jacob was willing. Quil and Embry are his usual . . . I guess you could call them his wingmen." I explained in a deceptively even voice as I tried to calm down.

"Jacob trusts you." Bella said in a way that suggested she was being more hopeful than realistic.

Trust is a big overstatement, bloodsucker. I know you all won't kill us as long as we're useful to you.

I nodded vaguely in Jacob's direction. "He trusts us not to try to kill him. That's about it, though."

That was wise of him, especially with the resentment I was feeling at the moment.

"Are you participating tonight?" Bella asked carefully. Something in my eyes must have tightened because her brow furrowed slightly and I could see the guilt in hers.

"I'll help Jasper when he needs it. He wants to try some unequal groupings, teach them how to deal with multiple attackers." I answered in what I hoped was an offhand voice.

Bella's guilty look shifted into one of full fledged worry and I heard her heart rate increase slightly. My choice of words had frightened her all over again.

I gave her a little shrug in an effort to show her that it wasn't a big deal, but instead of looking less anxious, she turned to stare across the field at the others. I knew she was trying to hide her concern from me and reassurances would be useless now.

I watched as she locked eyes with Jacob and he gave her a cheerful look that would have been a smile if he were in his human form. Bella understood the gesture and offered him a forced half grin in return. She was still tense.

Jacob noticed her anxious demeanor and loped over to where we were standing.

"Jacob," I said cordially.

He didn't look at me. Instead, he remained focused on Bella. She could see the concern in his canine face.

I wonder what's bothering her. Maybe I can cheer her up. He thought, emphasizing the "I" part. It was quite an effort for me to keep my face smooth but I didn't react. I knew that he was taunting me. I started to tell Bella what he was thinking but she responded to him before I could speak.

"I'm fine," She said, accurately interpreting his thoughts. "Just worried, you know."

That's really stupid. What is there to be worried about? Jacob thought.

Bella didn't seem to understand the unspoken question, so I translated aloud this time.

"He wants to know why," I explained, not wanting to repeat his thought verbatim. The dog had no tact whatsoever, and I hated the idea that he would dismiss her feelings as "stupid".

Jacob glared at me and snarled in a disgruntled gesture.

You know, if you can't tell her what I actually said, do me a favor and don't bother translating, bloodsucker. I'd rather howl at her. He thought irritably.

A mental image of Bella trying to decipher his thoughts by playing some twisted version of dog charades made me smile in spite of myself.

"What?" Bella asked curiously as her eyes darted back and forth between the wolf and I.

"He thinks my translations leave something to be desired. What he actually thought was, 'That's really stupid. What is there to be worried about?' I edited, because I thought it was rude." I clarified with a hint of reluctant amusement in my voice.

"There's plenty to be worried about," Bella answered curtly. "Like a bunch of really stupid wolves getting themselves hurt."

She's the one that's being stupid, worrying about us when she should be thinking about herself. Typical Bella. He thought with a snort of what could only be described as laughter.

I sighed heavily and tried not to lose my temper. I hated how insulting his thoughts were. I itched to hit him with something; a boulder, a tree, a rolled up newspaper...

Jasper glanced over at me in response to blatant hostility he could feel emanating from me.

Edward, if you don't mind I'd like some assistance, he thought. I knew he needed the help, but he also wanted to distract me.

"Jasper wants help. You'll be okay without a translator?" I asked, feeling reluctant to leave her with him.

"I'll manage." Bella replied.

I looked at her for a long moment as a million emotions overwhelmed me. Regret for what I'd put her through when I left; sadness for the guilt she felt for asking me not to leave her during the fight; longing to have her all to myself, and envy at the bond she shared with Jacob.

She stared back at me with a bewildered expression before I walked away.

"We're going to try a dual attack from either side," Jasper said in a businesslike voice. "I'm sure the creator is aware that we will be outnumbered over two to one and he'll be planning to have his army ambush us from different positions. Newborns are instinctively straight forward, but it helps to be prepared."

Carlisle rose from his place beside Esme to join us, and Jasper and I came at him from opposite sides of the clearing.

I was faster than Jasper, so I leapt in Carlisle direction before Jasper came at him from the other end. Carlisle was knocked flat on his back, growling instinctively as I placed my mouth at the base of his throat.

"That was fast, Edward," Jasper said as we rose to our feet. "Carlisle, I think we should try again."

Quil and Embry watched our progress with rapt attention, absorbing every subtle movement we made. After four attempts, Carlisle managed to knock me aside and pin Jasper with one swift swipe of his arm.

"Good," Jasper said approvingly as Carlisle stepped aside and Rosalie took his place.

I shot a quick glance at Bella and Jacob, and saw that he was sitting on the hard earth beside her in an effort to keep her warm. She was leaning into him and running her fingers absently through the fur around his neck. He was grumbling in contentment at her touch. In spite of his form, the comfortable and intimate stance made me ache.

You know, I never had a dog. I always wanted one, but Renée's allergic." I heard Bella say as Jasper demonstrated a sneak attack for Rosalie.

Jacob let out another wheezy version of a laugh.

I'll be your dog anytime, preferably your lap dog, Jacob thought, and the double entendre was unmistakable. Anger surged through me as Quil and Embry snorted too.

You're such a perv, Jake, Embry thought.

That's just wrong, Quil agreed before turning his attention back to our demonstration.

"Aren't you worried about Saturday at all?" Bella asked.

Jacob rolled his eyes at her in a dismissive gesture that she understood at once.

"I wish I could feel that positive." Bella said regretfully as she leaned in closer to him.

I'm not worried for myself, but I am for my brothers, and for you.

We're going to be fine, Jake. Embry and Quil thought simultaneously.

"Concentrate, Edward," Jasper chided me when I continued to stare at them. I know you hate the way she is with him, but we have more pressing matters to attend to now.

"I'm sorry," I replied guiltily as I refocused my attention on training.

You should have left her at home. She's just a hindering our progress. Rosalie thought as the others watched us from the sidelines.

I didn't respond. Instead, I redoubled my efforts to help Jasper and tried to ignore Bella and Jacob.

Rose was able to overcome us more quickly than Carlisle, and she walked away a few minutes later wearing a satisfied smirk.

That's my girl! Emmett thought proudly, kissing Rosalie enthusiastically when she sat down beside him. Esme stepped forward and we began the dance again.

After another 45 minutes of putting us all through the paces, Jasper stopped.

"I think we've accomplished as much as we can tonight," He said. "You've all made a lot of progress and I'm really pleased. We'll have no trouble on Saturday." He went on confidently.

Thanks for letting us watch again, Embry thought politely. I was surprised, but I relayed the message to the others.

"Thank you all for coming," Carlisle said in return.

I approached a tired looking Bella and she smiled.

"Are you ready to go?" I asked tentatively.

"Yes," she replied as I helped her to her feet and slung her on my back in one swift movement. She wrapped her arms around me and rested her head on my neck.

So we're going on a hike, Jacob thought, glaring at the way Bella clung to me. I smirked. His jealousy pleased me. It felt like revenge for his crude mental musings.

"Yes," I nodded. "I have all of the necessary camping gear available. We'll meet you Friday afternoon six miles from the ranger station. I'll go ahead and set up the site while I wait for you to bring her."

The trip should be fun Jacob thought in response. He was desperate for a show of emotion from me, and I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction.

"We'll see you Friday," I said as I walked away from him.

"Bye, Jake," Bella called from her perch on my back. Without another word, I took off through the trees, savoring the warmth of Bella's body pressed against mine and leaving Jacob Black behind us where he belonged.


"Are you ready to go to bed?" I asked Bella when she came back to her room freshly showered and dressed in a pink bathrobe. I could tell by the look on her face that she was still worried about her loved ones, but I hoped that she would try to get some rest tonight.

"I'm actually not that tired," she replied as she slipped the robe off her shoulders, revealing the blue silk pajamas that I loved. I swallowed hard.


"You should sleep. You've been out late for the last two nights," I said disapprovingly as I shifted my pants underneath her quilt.

"I also slept the day away," she countered. She curled up beside me on the bed and I pulled the covers away from my lap so I could put it around her. She obliged.

I sighed with relief. I wanted her so much. My self control seemed to waver a little more each day. Heaven help me if she ever made a blatant attempt to seduce me.

She gave me a long searching look, and something of my internal conflict must have shown in my face. She frowned.

"What are you thinking?" I asked.

"I'm thinking that I want to know what you're thinking," She answered as she buried her face in my neck. Her wet hair tickled my Adam's apple and I shivered with desire.

"I'm thinking that you need to go to sleep," I lied.

She sighed heavily. "I don't know if I can."

I winced at the anxiety in her voice.

"I love you," I whispered as I pressed my lips to hers. "Try to think about happier things."

"Like tomorrow night?" she said, smiling slightly.

"Yes," I agreed, thinking of the charm I was going to add to her bracelet, and the ring I hoped to place on her finger.

"I don't know if I can; I'm so worried…" she began sadly.

I placed my finger to her lips, and she kissed the tip.

"For this one night, could we try to forget everything else besides just you and me?" I begged, staring beseechingly into her eyes. "It seems like I can never get enough time like that. I need to be with you. Just you."

"Okay," she whispered as she moved my finger away from her lips and placed her mouth on mine. I was unable to resist the desire to deepen the kiss, and I ran my tongue over her lips, tasting her.

"Mmm," she moaned as she leaned against me. My hands ran over her back, finding purchase on the exposed skin where her pajama top had ridden up. I groaned.

"We have to stop," I said as I pulled away from her. For once, she didn't fight me.

As she dozed off in my arms, I could have sworn I heard her say something that sounded remarkably like, "for now," into my chest.

That's it for this chapter! I almost took out that last little scene in Bella's room but I just couldn't resist leaving it in there as a prelude of things to come at the Cullen house. I wanted to set the scene for Bella's indecent proposal and Edward's marriage one. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks again for reading and reviewing. I really appreciate it.