A/N: This feels like a filler chapter to me, but it needed to happen. Over one hurdle, getting ready for the next one...
Some people have asked how long this is going to be. As far as chapters, I don't know. I do not outline like some other writers do. If I did, I'd never actually get to the writing phase. It's the question of what's gonna come out of my fingers that keeps me going, lol! As far as the storyline goes, I *do* know where this is going to end. We'll get through Charlie's criminal trial, the birth of the baby, and Bella's transformation (not necessarily in that order). Frank and Jacob are going to get their comeuppance. There won't be a wedding scene/chapter for the same reason that I didn't end up writing Christmas - I find them boring (sorry, hopeless romantics!). But I definitely still have some surprises up my sleeve for those of you still with me! (Also, two epilogues that are already written.)
All standard disclaimers apply.
As Children After Play
Bella couldn't believe the amount of paperwork necessary to fully, legally sever her from Charlie and Renee. It wasn't just one quick signature from each of them, as she'd naively assumed. Renee signed everything put in front of her with a kind of resigned impatience, but Charlie adamantly refused to put pen to paper until he was informed that disobeying the judge's order would land him in lockup. Even then, the furious clench of his fist on the pen showed that he was far from compliant and he almost ripped the paper with the force of his scrawl. Bella was a little afraid of what his reaction might be later on, when the judge and the state police were no longer hovering, but she tried to push those thoughts away. Legally, he couldn't do anything to her anymore. She didn't belong to him.
"I wish we could have done this years ago," Esme said softly as she and Carlisle signed the placement paperwork, agreeing to keep Bella until her eighteenth birthday unless something unforeseen happened. She cupped Bella's face in her hands, smiling at her newest daughter. Bella knew by now that the Cullens could not cry, but she saw the telltale sheen in Esme's eyes that would never fall.
"I love you," she said, letting herself fold into Esme's embrace. Edward and his brothers were still outside and she yearned for him, but having Esme was a wonderful relief. She was everything Bella could possibly have wished for in a mother—soft and caring, nurturing without being overbearing. She had no doubt that Esme, Rose, and even Alice would be excellent guides as she started on this new life as a member of the Cullen family. They would be there for her when her baby was born, and when—eventually—she took that final step and agreed to become a vampire.
Renee's eyes were coldly accusing when Bella raised hers, watching the interaction from the other side of the table, but Bella didn't care. Renee wasn't Charlie, but she hadn't been capable of giving Bella what she so desperately needed when she was young. In that respect, Bella did not blame her for her faults. But she did blame Renee for her blindness, her inability to see the truth. Her insistence that she had been a perfect mother hurt badly, if Bella was willing to admit it. She would be much better able to forgive Renee everything if her mother admitted that her rearing had been less than ideal.
"Charlie says your new family is filthy rich." Renee stood on her side of the table, her arms folded across her chest, weight resting on one leg, hip cocked to the side, in a loose teal dress. "I bet that makes it a whole lot easier to play the sweet daughter, doesn't it?"
Bella pressed closer to Esme, her face heating as she was forced to listen to her mother's insinuation. The Cullens wouldn't believe it, would they? They loved her. They knew her. They knew she didn't want their money, right?
"Bella is a sweet, conscientious young woman," Esme said evenly, her arms never moving from Bella's back. "If you knew her at all, you'd know that she isn't attached to material objects."
"Not attached to material objects?" Renee raised an eyebrow. "Then what's that thing around her neck? Looks like a material object to me."
Bella grasped Esme's necklace, warm from her body heat. It gave her comfort and she didn't like to take it off. Had wearing it today been a bad idea?
"It's a family heirloom," Esme said, brushing back Bella's hair with one gentle hand, "and therefore has a great deal of emotional significance. I'm extremely happy to see my youngest daughter wearing it, I assure you."
"You can feed her and put clothes on her back," Renee hissed, "but you'll never be her mother. She doesn't need one. Hell, she doesn't even want one. You've known her for what, a few months? I had her for sixteen years. Don't think you know my daughter better than I do."
"I'm sorry to have to correct you, ma'am," Carlisle said, his voice soft and professional—the voice he used to speak to drunk or belligerent patients, "but, according to this, she's not your daughter anymore." He held up the paper he had just signed, just one of many, but the significance of it was not lost. "I'm afraid you can't have it both ways. You gave her up, which, I'm sorry to say, is probably the best thing you've ever done for her. Let's not ruin the gesture with cruel words, shall we?"
"Yes, let's not," Patrice agreed, making neat stacks of paperwork. She and Charlie's lawyer were handling everything very efficiently, explaining each form before passing it to their respective clients for signatures. Bella wondered if she would be asked to sign anything, but she was too rattled to ask and, so far, she had not. Apparently her minor status meant that she was free from that responsibility, and she was actually a little glad. She'd always been self-sufficient, and it was surprisingly nice to just sit back this once and let Carlisle and Esme do this for her.
"Try not to hold your stomach, sweetheart," Esme whispered close to her ear, and Bella quickly dropped her arm. Hugging herself was an instinctive action, but Esme was right; it was best that nobody had any reason to suspect she might be pregnant again. "We'll be done soon," the soothing whisper continued.
Bella hoped so. She missed Edward, and she was a little afraid of what he might do if he were separated from her much longer. How far did his mind-reading ability reach? Was he close enough to know that the judge had terminated Charlie's parental rights to her? For his sake, she hoped so. He was a worrier, and she hated to think that he was anxious over nothing. Plus, her daughter was hungry again. She needed to eat something soon if she didn't want to get sick.
"Now," Patrice said, "there's the matter of Isabella's paperwork. Your summons, Mr. Swan, indicated that you were to bring her birth certificate, Social Security card, and any other legal documents with you."
"Well, I didn't." Charlie shoved away the last piece of paper he had to sign. "I never thought an American judge would take my child away from me. This is communism, you know?"
Patrice ignored the complaints. "It wasn't a request, Mr. Swan. That was a legal edict."
"If we may," Carlisle said quietly, and he nodded to Esme. From her purse, she extracted a small handful of documents. Bella's eyes widened. Were those her real papers, or had the Cullens had another set forged for just such an occasion? She tried to keep her expression neutral as the paperwork was handed off to Patrice, who looked everything over. The little green Social Security card, the black and white birth certificate, even a passport in a little blue cover. "Mr. Swan didn't have them to bring. Bella is an intelligent young woman, and she brought her own documents with her when she left Charlie."
That was a bald-faced lie; Bella had done no such thing. But she recalled the night Emmett and Rosalie had brought her some items from her dad's house—a locked door seemed to mean very little to them when they wanted something. Maybe they had been proactive and taken her documents away from Charlie then? Or some other time? It didn't really matter, as long as the lawyer accepted them.
Charlie's face was red, and Bella could feel his black eyes staring into her, though she studiously refused to look at him. Judge Lucas was right—if she had had to return to Charlie after the trial today, Bella felt sure she wouldn't live very long. He wasn't mouthing off like Renee, but she could feel the fury rolling off of him in waves. If he was ever permitted to be alone with her again, she was in serious trouble.
"Mr. Swan," Patrice continued after she had gone through Bella's identifying documents and returned them to Carlisle, "about the order of protection..." She shifted in her seat, looking...not fearful, Bella decided, but as if she were trying to find the right words. "It goes into effect the minute you walk out of this courtroom. We have a little problem, since the Forks police department will of necessity be the ones enforcing it. I'm counting on Mr. Garcia, as the lawyer for the department and not just you, to keep everyone honest and above board. There will be state patrollers checking in periodically, particularly since a criminal investigation is ongoing. Is there anything about this that you don't understand?"
Charlie was murderously silent.
"Then I'd like to ask you and your lawyer to remain here for fifteen minutes while Isabella and the Cullens head out. Mrs. Dwyer, there is no order against you, so you're free to go whenever you please."
"There shouldn't be an order against my ex-husband either." Renee dug in her purse with a distracted motion. It was something Bella knew well—the familiar rifling through the messy bag for gum or mints, something to keep her mouth busy. She was a little startled to think that she might never see it again.
"Come on, sweetheart," Esme said, and Bella looked up to find Carlisle smiling warmly at her, his beautiful, serene face reassuring as always. He would be her father now. She still wanted to pursue a criminal case against Charlie, but he wasn't part of her day to day life anymore. She had a chance to learn what it was like to have a real father, a loving, caring man whose hands were used to heal and help, not hurt. On impulse, she stepped forward and put her arms around his middle, hugging him tight.
His hands were light, perfectly gentle as he squeezed her shoulder and touched the back of her head. He smelled good, like all the Cullens. "I'm very proud of you, Bella," he said quietly.
They were words Charlie had never spoken to her in her life.
She left the courtroom sandwiched between her two new parents, Alice following after she hugged Heidi giddily. Charlie and Renee stayed behind, and Bella did not look back.
Edward was on her the moment they reached the parking lot, and she let him span her waist with his hands, picking her up and spinning her once before settling her on her feet again. Out of nowhere, as his arms wrapped around her and held her tightly, tears began to fall from her eyes. She couldn't stop them. She felt a little hysterical as she pressed her face into Edward's button-down shirt and held her breath against the cries that threatened to emerge from her throat.
"What's wrong?" His hands traveled over her swiftly, his voice tight and anxious. "Sweet girl, what's wrong? Are you hurt? He can't touch you anymore, Bella. You did it—you're free."
And, for some reason, that broke her. A strangled sob left her mouth despite her best efforts to hold them at bay, and she clung tightly to Edward's shoulders, hiding in his collar.
"I think she's just a little overwrought, son," Carlisle said gently. "It was quite a day for all of us."
Was that all? Bella didn't know. She couldn't explain even to herself why she was crying, or why her usual control had snapped. She pressed close to Edward, her Cullen, the man she knew would always be there for her, no matter what else might happen. She didn't begrudge him his outburst in the courtroom, but she had missed him after he was told to leave. Just knowing he was there made her feel so much better.
"Shh, baby," he murmured, and Bella let his soft, cool hands soothe her, his voice almost tangible as he whispered to her. His fingers stroked through her hair and down the subtle curve of her spine, cupped the back of her neck and let her hide against him. "You're fine. Everything will be okay now."
"We'd better get going," Jasper said, glancing worriedly at the door to the family court building. "Charlie isn't very happy right now."
"I bet." Emmett didn't sound sorry in the least.
"We can talk about everything when we get home." Carlisle dug his keys out of his pants pocket and clicked the button to unlock his car. "Let's get on our way—Jasper has an excellent point."
Bella managed to choke down the leftovers from lunch as they pulled onto the freeway headed out of Olympia, north toward home. She wasn't hungry, but she knew better than to deny the baby in her belly. Once had definitely been enough.
When she was done, she curled close to Edward and closed her eyes. He wrapped a throw blanket around her, then his arms, and she sighed softly. This would be her future from now on. No more fear. No more Charlie. Heidi would check in on them from time to time during the next few months until she turned eighteen, but that wasn't anything they couldn't handle.
She was free.
"I'm so, so sorry I lost my temper in there," Edward said, his voice buzzing against her cheek as he spoke. "I just...when I heard him claim you like some object..."
"I know." She rubbed her thumb slowly against his shirt, just over the spot where his heart would beat if he were still alive. "I'm just glad you stopped."
"Alice showed me..." His voice trailed off, and he shifted so he could slip his hand over the gentle swell of her growing belly. "When do you think I'll be able to feel her?"
"What's this now?" Carlisle glanced at them through the rearview mirror. "Bella, did you feel the fetus?"
Bella nodded, dropping her hand to cover Edward's. She threaded her fingers through his, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. "In the courtroom," she said quietly. "I...couldn't quite believe it."
"When will I be able to feel her?" Edward repeated. He sounded a little put out, and Bella couldn't help but think it was cute.
"Twenty-four to twenty-six weeks for a normal human fetus," Carlisle said. "As far as I can tell, vampire senses aren't any better than regular human hands in this case—but, as I keep saying, there's no guarantee with this little one." He paused for a moment as he changed lanes smoothly. Bella could see the dashboard from her position in the back seat. Carlisle was driving quite fast, but not nearly as fast as his children did. "Bella, we've been putting it off, but now that the fetus is moving we really should take you to the hospital and do as thorough an exam as we can."
Bella wasn't entirely thrilled with the idea, but she didn't fight it. Some minor discomfort now was far preferable to something bad happening down the road because they weren't prepared. "What sort of stuff do you want to do?" she asked hesitantly.
"I want some general stats on you, obviously," Carlisle said. "I know we've done this at home, but it will be nice to use the hospital's equipment to get more accurate readings. We'll try for a sonogram—maybe we can see for sure whether that's a daughter you're carrying like you want. You're also right in the perfect window for an amniocentesis, which I would really like to do. It may shed some light on exactly what it is, genetically, that you're carrying."
"Those can be dangerous," Edward objected, pulling her tighter against him. "I won't have you risking my family for the sake of science, Carlisle."
"The risk of complications is extremely low," Carlisle said. "It's my professional opinion that the benefits of knowing more about the nature of this pregnancy outweigh any potential risk by far."
Edward dropped his other hand to rest against her stomach. "Can we not talk about this right now?" he said finally. "We just got through...I need..."
He didn't have to finish his sentence; Bella understood. He'd just been forced away from her in the courtroom after promising he wouldn't leave her. He'd had to leave her with Charlie and, while he trusted his parents and Alice to defend her, Bella knew that it still must have hurt him deeply. Now wasn't a good time to bring up a medical procedure that could potentially harm either her or the fetus she carried, no matter how small Carlisle said the risks were. Edward needed a chance to calm down, to reconnect with her. Pushing for the next challenge wasn't the best choice at the moment.
"Later, please, Carlisle?" she said softly, reaching up to cup Edward's jaw in her hand. He kissed her fingers gratefully, his lips cool and gentle, and she heard him exhale behind her, his firm body relaxing infinitesimally.
"Later, then," Carlisle agreed. "You're right—tonight should be a night for celebrating."
"If I know Alice, she's already planning something." Edward did not sound completely thrilled with the idea, which Bella understood. She was still...she didn't know how she felt. She wasn't full of glee or elation as she'd assumed. More like...like she just didn't know how to react. She was happy, yes, she supposed. Grateful to the Cullens for everything they had done to get to this point. But it was so overwhelming, and she wondered if maybe the reality of the situation hadn't quite sunk in yet. Charlie didn't have a legal right to compel her to do anything anymore. He was out of her life for good, and so was Renee. She'd still have to see him, she supposed, since they lived in the same small town. But he had no claim to her, and never would again.
"I love you," she breathed, ducking her forehead against Edward's strong arm. Her tears had stopped, and she felt a little better now that she had eaten. The steady motion of the car and the flash of greenery outside the window were soothing.
"Are you mad at me?" he asked haltingly. "I'm sorry, love. I know I promised not to leave you, but I couldn't—"
"I know." She did. It wasn't reasonable to ask him to be calm when Charlie threatened and goaded. He didn't have Jasper's patience or Carlisle's control, especially when it came to her. "I understand, and I love you."
"I was so relieved when I heard the judge mentally make her decision." He rubbed his thumb against her blouse, just above the waistband of her jeans. "She believed you from the start, you know. I was worried for a while because she wanted Charlie to be able to explain his side of things. She was hoping that maybe a reconciliation would be possible if he agreed to go to counseling and whatever. But when he started to talk, she realized that it just wasn't happening."
"I'm glad." Bella kissed him gently. "So glad." She remembered well the first time he'd ever touched her, in biology lab. He had taken her chin gently in his cold hand and pulled her lip away from her teeth. At the time she'd jerked out of his grip, extremely nervous and unsure about the sudden attention from her beautiful, grumpy lab partner. The memory made her smile a little now. If she had known then what he would become to her...but it was impossible to know things like that. Even Alice's gift had limits. She could forgive Edward for his overbearing nature, for the possessive streak that made him incapable of sitting by when Charlie acted up. It was part of his personality, and she loved him. She didn't want to change him. It seemed strange now that she had ever wanted to pull away from his hands. They were cold, but she'd quickly learned to associate that with comfort and safety.
"You're mine now," Edward murmured, his voice laced with wonder.
"Ours, technically," Esme called from the front seat, sounding amused. "Mine and Carlisle's."
The corner of his mouth tipped up in amusement. "I only have the most honorable of intentions toward your daughter, ma'am."
Esme's eyes glimmered happily as she turned in her seat to regard them. "See that that continues to be true. She's precious to us."
Bella's cheeks heated, and she ducked her head against Edward's shirt. Even teasing, they were some of the nicest words anyone had ever said to her.
Rosalie met them at the door, her arms outstretched, and she swept Bella into a tight hug that almost squeezed the breath out of her. Bella only smiled and hugged her sister back, loving the firm grip. She didn't care that the bodies of her new family were cold and hard, that they didn't have to breathe, that they were far stronger than her, their senses more keen. They were hers. They hugged her, and played with her, and spoke gently. The world might see them as monsters, but she knew from experience that there were far worse monsters out there with human blood in their veins.
"Thank you," she whispered, the sweet, feminine smell of her sister surrounding her. She shook strands of Rosalie's light hair out of her eyes, but did not let go. "You were the first person to ever ask if anything was wrong. I kind of feel like I have you to thank for all of this."
"I'm sorry that I was right," Rose murmured back, "but I'm not sorry about how things turned out. You're free now, babe. You're safe." She pulled back, and there was a telltale gleam in her golden eyes even though no tears would ever fall. "You're probably sick of hearing this, but I'm so proud of you."
Bella shook her head. No, she didn't think she could ever get sick of those words. It had taken seventeen years to hear them from someone she loved, and it felt so, so good. Part of her wanted to deny them, to claim that she really hadn't done much. But another part of her remembered how terrifying it had been to sit in a room with Charlie again after all this time, even with Edward and Esme flanking both sides. She was exhausted, elated, and too many things for her to really decipher individual emotions. But through it all, overwhelming thankfulness to and for her new family shone through.
"Sorry, little mouse," Emmett said, tweaking her hair as he came up behind Rosalie. "I know you maybe wanted to tell her yourself, but I just couldn't help calling her from the car. She did demand to know what was going on as soon as possible."
"It's okay," Bella said, smiling at her new brother as Rose released her. She'd honestly expected Rosalie to know everything before they got home, especially since Emmett had driven far faster than Carlisle, who had a human in the car.
"I want to hear it from you, though," Rose said, pulling Bella into the living room. "I already ordered you a pizza—you can slice some of that sausage stuff on top of it if you want to."
Bella laughed. Her daughter seemed appeased for now, and something else to eat actually sounded pretty good. She let Rosalie settle her on the couch before Edward squeezed in beside her, claiming his spot. His arm slipped around her shoulders, drawing her body close, and she smiled as she felt his gentle kiss against her temple.
"You have no idea how difficult it was to sit there and listen to Charlie's head," he said, grimacing. "I know you want to do this legally, but I really wanted to pull him apart." His arm tightened around her, and Bella burrowed into his side.
"Thank you for not." She turned her head and rubbed her nose gently against his jaw. "I know it must have been hard, but I don't want his blood on your hands."
"There's already blood on my hands. You can't change that."
"No," she agreed, "but I can do my best not to be the cause of more."
"I feel like a toast," Alice said, swirling into the room with Mason in her arms. He clapped and pointed at Emmett, reaching out excitedly for his father. "I wish we could."
"We could all pour just a sip to clink glasses with, and then give it all to Bella," Emmett suggested with a grin. "C'mon, let's get the human drunk!"
"No," Bella and Edward both said firmly, his hand pressing against her belly.
"Not while she's pregnant," Rose reminded him.
"Oh, yeah. Sorry."
"And underage," Carlisle added, though his eyes sparkled with amusement.
"Emmett said you were scared, Bella," Rose said, settling in a chair near the couch, "but that you held up like a champ."
"Like a boss is actually what I said," Emmett added, holding a squealing Mason above his head as the baby reached for his hair.
"Not the point, babe."
Bella chewed thoughtfully on her lip. "I didn't really feel like I did so great," she admitted quietly. "I panicked, and Heidi had to help me."
"That's what she's for," Esme said, slipping into the room with a glass of soda. She put the drink on the coffee table in front of Bella and smiled at her warmly. "Her job is to help you, honey. And I think you did quite well, considering the circumstances. You had every right to panic when they brought up the topic of that horrible man." She shook her head in distaste.
"I should have expected it. I mean, it's kind of a big deal, right? But I just never thought…" She took comfort from the way Edward was rubbing her belly gently with his thumb, long smooth strokes that soothed her confused, overworked nerves. "I was prepared to talk about Charlie, not…him."
"It's a possibility we could have better prepared you for," Carlisle said. "But Heidi didn't plan to bring it up unless it was necessary. She knows it's difficult for you to talk about, and she thought Charlie's behavior outside of that was enough to get you out of his care. If their lawyer hadn't brought up Jacob Black, you probably would have been fine."
"I feel kind of guilty about what I did to Jacob," she admitted, rolling the edge of her sleeve between her fingers. "He really didn't want to do it once he found out what I wanted."
"Don't worry about him, Bella," Emmett replied over the sound of Mason's babbling. "He knew what Charlie was doing to you and he just let it happen for years. I'd tear him and his lousy father apart in an instant if it wouldn't violate our treaty with the pack."
Bella wrinkled her nose. She understood Emmett's feelings, but she didn't see the situation the same way. It wasn't Jacob's place to protect her from Charlie. He was her friend, not her protector. They'd grown up together, but she never really thought they were close. Besides, Billy was friends with Charlie. Jacob was practically just as much under Charlie's thumb as she was. And it was fine that the Cullens disagreed with her; she didn't mind. But she wasn't going to blame Jacob for something that was Charlie's fault. "I still feel bad," she said. "He was afraid he'd get in trouble with his dad or Charlie, but he helped me anyway. I think it was his way of admitting that he knew, without saying anything."
"Well, we're saying it, even if he won't," Rosalie said firmly. "Charlie is a son of a bitch, and he never deserved you. Neither does his sorry excuse for an ex-wife."
"Pizza's here," Alice said a moment before the doorbell rang. She slipped out of the room to get it.
Bella gave a faltering smile. She didn't know how she felt about Renee's sudden appearance today, and she had a feeling it would take a while for her to process. Growing up, Charlie had been the parent she could depend on—not for kindness or affection, but he was nothing if not set in his routine. Renee had been the parent she could love, despite the instability in her life. Renee had her own life, her own agenda, but she wasn't cruel. She didn't hit. Only once had she ever punished her daughter, and that had been for accusing Charlie of abuse.
But now? Now Bella wasn't sure what to think. The parent she had always thought of fondly had not only abandoned her, but attacked her in court. "I don't understand," she admitted quietly, letting Edward hold her as she accepted the warmth of his touch. "I just don't understand why she would do that. She doesn't even like Charlie."
Edward and Alice exchanged a look as the immaculately-dressed vampire came back into the room holding a pizza box. Bella watched the silent exchange without surprise. "You know," she said.
Edward exhaled slowly, his perfect face a troubled mask. He didn't want to tell her; that much was clear. But he could read her parents' thoughts, and Bella knew the moment she saw the insecurity in his deep yellow eyes that he knew something that he thought would hurt her.
"I need to know," she said, watching his eyes. "Please, Edward."
It was another test of the promise they'd made to each other—he to let her have more control over her life, and she to accept help when she needed it. Edward wanted to protect her from the world, but it just wasn't possible. She'd seen some of the darkest things this life had to offer, cruelty and deep shame, the dregs of humanity using other people with no conscience or remorse. Her father had hurt her, and her mother had not protected her. As much as Edward wanted to wrap her in bubble wrap and handle her like glass, he couldn't stop her past from showing up from time to time in this new life. It just wasn't reasonable. Bella watched him, tracing the well-loved arch of his brow and angle of his jaw with her eyes. Edward was not a reasonable man when it came to her, and she knew that. Accepted it, to some extent. But this was the agreement they'd made, the promise to work with each other instead of against.
His beautiful eyes softened as he gazed at her, though the set of his mouth still reminded her of pain. "I know," he said, his voice soft velvet. "You're in charge now, and you can have anything you want. I just…"
"I know." She straightened her spine, allowing her forehead to rest against his. "But I'm a big girl. I can handle it."
Edward's breath was cool on her cheek. "RVs are gas guzzlers," he said finally. "It gets expensive."
For a moment Bella couldn't understand what he was trying to say. When it clicked in her head, she wasn't really all that surprised, though she wished she was. "He bribed her."
"Essentially," Edward agreed reluctantly. "I'm sorry, Bella."
"How much?" She looked up at him, the need to know sudden and strong. "How much did he pay her?"
"The price of the flight, plus a grand."
And for some reason, some odd reason that Bella couldn't explain even to herself, that stung. Her mother had sold her out for a measly thousand dollars? It was like a slap in the face.
"I'm sorry, lovely," Edward whispered.
"What does she think?" Her voice sounded shaky even to her own ears. "Does she really think I'm lying, or did she just want the money more than she cared what happened to me?"
"She hasn't made her mind up, and she doesn't plan to. She doesn't want to know." Edward's hand shifted, moving to hold the slight roundness of her belly instead of rubbing it with his thumb. "She wants to move on with her life and her new husband; she doesn't want to be dragged into the middle of anything."
Bella closed her eyes. "Yeah, that sounds like Renee." That much was undeniable. Renee cared about very little except herself and the here-and-now. She wouldn't appreciate being dragged into her past by an ex-husband and the daughter they shared.
"She loves you."
Bella flinched slightly at Jasper's unexpected voice. He was so quiet most of the time, and probably the family member she had spent the least amount of time with. But there was a softness to him, an understanding gleam in his eye whenever he looked at her. His ability to sense emotion no doubt contributed to that.
"In her own way," he went on, his eyes half-closed as if remembering the feel of Renee's emotions in the courtroom. "She's angry—exasperated at this interruption to her life. But her emotions are quite clear. She doesn't hate you, and she's afraid to find out the truth about Charlie. She'd just rather not know."
"That," Rosalie accused darkly, "is not love."
Jasper only shrugged. "I know what I feel."
"Did you…push Charlie or anyone else while we were there?" Bella asked hesitantly. "When he blew up? Or when the judge made her decision?"
Jasper shook his head. "I was ready to step in if I needed to, but Charlie dug his own grave and Judge Lucas was ready to throw the book at him even before the trial started."
Edward's grim expression lightened slightly. "She was," he agreed.
"Please eat before it gets cold, Bella." Esme handed her a plate. Bella blinked back tears that she was once again in control of, and she slid a pizza slice out of the box. She was still upset at the revelation of Renee's motives, but what could she do? Renee was Renee. Nothing would change her.
"Even though she kicked me out, I wanted to hug that judge," Edward said, his expression easing again. "She didn't trust Charlie from the start, but she wanted to be fair and give him a chance to change her mind. I was so worried all the way through, but she never wavered."
"I don't see how any sane person, especially a woman, could sit there and think that bastard was a capable father," Rose griped.
"No swearing in front of the little dude." Emmett wiggled his finger playfully at her. Rosalie only made a face back at him.
"The important thing is that we got exactly what we wanted." Carlisle's voice was calm and soothing, as always. "Bella is ours now permanently, and a restraining order has been issued. He won't be able to harm you ever again." He smiled gently at his newest daughter.
"Which Charlie has no intention of obeying," Edward growled, his arms tightening around her body. Bella couldn't blame him, and her own hand found its way to his arm, holding on firmly.
"What do you mean?" The tight knot of anxiety that had slowly begun to loosen in her gut was suddenly back. "Is he planning something?" Edward and Alice working together would be able to stop whatever it was, right? She was tired of living with the shadow of fear hanging over her. She hadn't realized it until she landed in the United States again, but her time with Alice at Ellison House had been blissfully free of that particular fear.
"Nothing concrete," Edward said, trying to soothe her even as he exchanged another look with Alice. "It's nothing to worry about right now."
"I don't want to have to worry about it ever." Bella put her plate down and turned slightly on the couch, her hand resting at the crook of his elbow. "Edward, I need to know. I'm going to start showing soon, and I don't want him to know about her. What if he—"
"He won't, Bella," Alice said. She looked about as serious as Bella had ever seen her. "I have trouble seeing you most of the time, but Charlie's another story. He's usually pretty predictable. I'll watch him, I promise, and if he decides to try something, we'll be ready for him."
"We weren't ready in the grocery store," Rosalie said grimly. "When he found us with the baby? The man is dangerous, Alice. He gets these ideas out of nowhere, and he just acts on them. I wouldn't put it past him to do something like that again if he sees Bella around town, especially if she's showing. And we can't exactly hide something like that in a town this size. People are going to find out."
Bella ducked her head against Edward's arm. She didn't want the town knowing about this pregnancy, Charlie especially. She didn't really care about what people thought of her, but she didn't want them to think badly of the Cullens. She also had no wish to give Charlie more incentive to hurt her.
"We'll go away again, then," Edward said firmly. "Bella wants to have the baby at Ellison House anyway. We can go back there now; he'll never have to know anything."
"We can't do that, son," Carlisle said, though he sounded like he wished it were an option. "We still have a criminal trial to get through, remember, and even if we didn't, we can't just disappear after gaining custody of Isabella. Heidi will be making visits to check up on us. If we leave the country immediately, it will look extremely suspicious. England has a very friendly relationship with the United States; they'll send her back if the court changes its mind."
Bella could feel Edward's frustration, and she understood it. This wasn't fair. She'd thought she was free, that everything would be fine after this. Yes, the criminal trial was still to come, but it hadn't seemed like such a huge obstacle until this moment. "I don't want to see him," she whispered. "I don't want him to see me."
"We'll do our best, Bella," Carlisle said gently, "but we really do need to stay in Forks for the time being. Can you understand that?"
Yes, she understood, but that didn't mean she liked it.
"We can continue to homeschool you, if you don't want to go back to Forks High," Esme suggested. Bella knew she was trying to find some sort of comforting compromise, something they could do to ease the strain. "Gossip runs rampant in small towns, and I'm sure you'd rather avoid that."
"Please," Bella said quietly. "I'll be showing soon, and I don't want..."
"I know," Esme said, her voice soothing. "I know, baby, and you don't have to."
"You'll get a better education from us anyway," Rose said with a little eye-roll.
Bella tried a smile. "I believe you." While part of her was tired of being cooped up and didn't want to be housebound, another part of her felt a deep sense of relief at being spared the ordeal of going to school pregnant. The kids in Phoenix hadn't noticed anything, though they'd made jokes about the huge clothes she wore, far too big for her body and too warm for the desert climate. But she didn't trust that it would happen again, that she would be so lucky a second time. And if Charlie got wind that she was pregnant again... Bella shuddered. She was afraid of what her father might do. Especially if he knew that this one was Edward's.
"I won't let him touch either of you," Edward said softly. "You'll be fine."
She had to believe him. He wanted his child so badly, and Bella knew that he'd do whatever he could to make her safe.
"Please try not to worry," Carlisle said. "We'll do everything we can to keep you safe, sweetheart. I'll take you to the hospital in the middle of the night when no one except the emergency staff is there. You don't have to go to school. You can stay at home, and we'll always make sure someone is with you, just in case."
"I don't want to put you out like that..."
Rosalie shook her head. "Really, Bella? I thought we were past all this. You're ours, babe. It's not putting us out. You're family."
Yes, Bella knew that. But it would take a while to get used to.
"Carlisle," Edward warned, "playing nice with Heidi isn't worth Bella or the baby getting hurt."
"They won't, son," Carlisle said firmly. "We won't let them."
They worked out a schedule quickly, where Esme would stay with Bella during the school day, Carlisle too on his days off. Edward fought to stay out of school for the rest of the year, but they talked him firmly out of it. He'd already missed a lot of time, Carlisle argued, and people might get suspicious. Grudgingly, Edward agreed to evenings and weekends, and they all rotated who would stay back when the rest of the family went hunting. Bella didn't like all the trouble they were going to, but she managed to keep her mouth shut this time. Edward loved her, and he loved his child. If something happened to the baby, she didn't want to think about what he might do. Far better to let the family be overprotective if it meant Edward's peace of mind.
She ate three slices of pizza, which surprised her, and Esme boxed the rest up for leftovers.
"I can't believe you felt her," Edward murmured, rubbing her belly. "Have you again?"
Bella shook her head. "You will soon," she promised.
"I'm not a patient man," Edward said, a smile playing along the corners of his mouth.
"You waited a long time for me."
Edward's eyes nearly glowed. His mouth flicked into that crooked smile she loved, but before he could say anything, Rose cut in.
"But he made our lives miserable while he did it." Her eyes twinkled with amusement. "I've told you before, Bella, you're good for him. He doesn't deserve you, but nobody here is going to question it if he makes you happy.
Bella only leaned farther into Edward's arm. She accepted Rosalie for who she was, even if that meant dealing with the odd comment about Edward's attitude. It wasn't meant cruelly, so she could handle it.
"You're tired," Edward said softly, ignoring Rosalie except for an angry glance in her direction. "I can feel it."
Bella nodded. She was tired, yes, but she didn't know if her mind would shut off and let her sleep. "I'm...I don't really know what to do with myself now," she admitted.
"You'll have lessons from the family," Esme said. "You'll take care of yourself and your baby, let Carlisle examine you, and we'll prepare for the criminal trial. You'll be fine, Bella."
The criminal trial. Right. Bella gripped Edward's hand, holding it tightly. The sense of accomplishment from the day slipped away, and she hated the anxiety that replaced it. All too soon she would have to face Charlie again, and it wouldn't be just his rights as a parent on the line, it would be his freedom. His job. His entire reputation. Today hadn't been a particularly easy win, all things considered, but she had no illusions that Charlie would fight hard when there was more on the line.
"We'll be there for you," Edward murmured. "Every step of the way, Bella."
Yes, she knew that. But it didn't make it any easier when she thought about how she would next meet Charlie.
A/N: We hit 1,000 reviews! I almost can't believe it! I love you guys! (BTW, are you following me on Twitter? at judo_lin. I fangirl over other authors, collect fic recommendations, and watch the general mayhem.) Mwah! Loves you, duckies!
Also, I have been an absolute fail at responding to reviews, but I'm trying hard to fix that!