A/N: Wow, you guys are all over the map with your reactions to this story! Sarita officially has whiplash. I do love your passion, theories, and even your anger (sometimes). My readers rock the hardest!

Happy pills to Keye, Sandy, and Caz for prereading and keeping me amused with their commentary.

Huge thanks to my lovely beta, SassySue (Chayasara), for being super fast and helping me clarify a muddy section. My words are always much better after being run through her clarity filter. Mwah!


Chapter 24

~The Price of Admission~


~*Bella*~

Once the door slams shut and there's no longer a reason to prove how strong I can be, I break down. My back hits the door, and I slump to the floor in a shivering ball. The tears pour from my eyes. I pray nobody comes down those stairs right now—especially not Jordin or one of her cronies. I flick the light switch off to discourage anyone from venturing down the stairs.

The doorknob jiggles, followed by a whump! as Edward bangs on the door and lets loose a "Fuck!" Then there's a scrape as he slides down the other side. "Damn it, Bella . . . I love you. God, I fucked everything up. My life has been a lie."

I'm not even sure he knows we're inches apart right now, separated only by two inches of metal. I bite my knuckle to hold in my sobs so he won't hear.

"It happened so slowly . . . fuck! How did I not see it? The partying that led to drinking . . . and then that douche-bag Albright and his fucking pills." There's another soft thump, maybe Edward's head banging against the door. "Oh, Bella. I can't lose you again." His barely audible murmur drips with agony, and now I know he believes he's alone.

I have to restrain myself from flinging the door open and throwing myself in his arms, but just like I told him, it's not the answer. Edward obviously has issues he needs to resolve. I can't fix him or be a substitute for what only he can do for himself—and so I remain curled in a ball and wait him out, afraid if I attempt to leave, he'll hear me and begin pleading with me all over again. I'm also afraid I won't be strong enough to say no a second time.

Eventually, the scuff of Edward's defeated footsteps scrape with excruciating slowness along the path leading back to the parking lot. The engine of the Audi revs, and the tires shriek as he peels out.

I remain there with my arms wrapped around my knees until my ass is numb and my joints ache. Unimaginable pain slices through me as I consider how clueless Edward has been about the demons hiding within his own psyche. The bottom drops out of my anger, exposing the rawness beneath. In truth, there's a far deeper issue at work than me being pissed off at Edward.

I bite my knuckle so hard I can taste the saltiness of my own blood. It isn't that I don't believe someone can find his way into hell by making a few wrong turns—I'm just so disillusioned and disappointed that Edward never acknowledged it until I left. Would he ever have made this discovery if not faced with proof on the DVD? I've always thought of Edward as the strong, sure one, but recent events have completely shattered that illusion. What am I left with? Who is Edward Cullen, and is he right for me?

"Bella?" Becca's hushed whisper and the rasp of her slippered feet jolt me out of my thoughts.

"H-Here." My hoarse, disembodied voice echoes around the cavernous stairwell. I flinch, feeling like a stranger in my own skin.

The glow of the emergency light creates a fiery halo around Becca's head when she finally gets to me. She leans down, peering into the darkness. "Where the hell are you?"

"Down here."

"Oh, Bella." Becca hunkers down on the bottom step and leans against the wall, our knees touching. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" I ask tonelessly.

"Tricking you. That Edward's plan obviously didn't pan out."

"It's okay, Bec. You meant well."

"You wanna talk about it?"

"No."

Becca and I huddle at the bottom of the stairs until I can bear to get up and put one foot in front of the other.

~SN~

Edward left me one voicemail the day after I slammed the door in his face.

"Bella, it's me. I just wanted to say that I'm going to give you the space you need. I promise not to accost you anywhere around campus again. I just . . . what my life turned into was bizarre, but that's not who I really am. Please think about it. I know you're hurt by what you saw on that DVD—I understand why you would be—but that man, that Edward, doesn't exist anymore. He stopped existing the moment you stood up in that church. I love you, beautiful. Come home to me."

He's kept his word and hasn't called or shown up at Delaney Hall or anywhere else around campus. For all I know, he could've left Dartmouth. His message let me know he's waiting and hoping, that I needn't be anxious about his absence. It's a precious gift, one I greatly appreciate.

The next several days are a strange mix of emotional turmoil, caffeine, pep talks from Becca, getting back to class, and a dangerous seedling of thought that sprouts and grows no matter how hard I try to ignore it. It invades my mind even in the midst of the most mundane tasks.

I place a dish in the drainer and start scrubbing another, my mind drifting off into its latest obsession. It wanders down dark and twisted pathways crowded with thorns. One thought plagues my every waking and sleeping moment that's not taken up by something else and taints the moments that are. Although I haven't seen or heard from Edward, this thought stalks me wherever I go. It beckons to me, a siren call encouraging me to head down a path I know is dark, and yet I can't seem to stay away.

It doesn't take long for me to give in. In my weakened, vulnerable state, it was only a matter of time. A call from the one person who can help me with my plight seals the deal.

I'm going to do this.

The bleating ring of my cell phone startles me, and I drop the dish back into the pan. Hot, soapy water douses the front of my T-shirt and splashes me in the face.

"Shit!"

I grab the dish towel and mop my face off before grabbing for the phone. Michael Newton.

"Hello?"

"Hey, Bella. How are you?"

"Mike. I'm kinda surprised to hear from you."

"I got one, too." Mike's voice is soft and sympathetic, a finger jammed deep into an open wound.

A wash of iciness shoots through my veins. "Got what?"

"An unmarked envelope with a DVD in it." Mike sighs. "Bella, what did you do?"

I drop into a chair at the kitchen table, afraid I'll simply fall to the floor otherwise. With my free hand, I grip a handful of hair and pull hard enough to draw the sting of tears. Tanya sent Mike a copy of the DVD? A copy of Edward's shame and my pain? Who else did she send it to?

"Dear God," I whisper.

"Bella? Talk to me."

"Mike, where are you?"

"In Florida. Why?"

"Oh."

"Bella, what's happened? You know . . . you know I still love you. I want you to be happy."

"I left him." I stare listlessly at a cobweb fluttering in the corner of the wall.

"You left Edward? Are you crazy?"

"I was crazy to believe . . . we could overcome this . . . her." Sobs start hiccuping out of me, wrenching my chest. "Tanya always . . . meant to win. That crazy b-bitch . . . always manages . . . to win."

"No! You can't let her, Bella. Don't make all of this for nothing. You and Edward belong together."

"You sure you watched the same DVD I did?" My voice rises hysterically. "Edward likes it rough! With d-drugs and booze. He . . . was different with me. I'm not enough for him."

"Stop right there, Swan! That sounds more like Tanya talking, not you. It's you he always wanted, not her. What does Edward have to say about all this?"

It's such a relief to have someone to talk to who knows all the angles. Without a second thought I break down, and in between my sobs, I tell Mike everything. Maybe it should, but it doesn't feel weird to confide the entire mess to my ex—the guy who helped Tanya set us up the first time but also gave me the means to help right things. When I finish, the line is quiet for almost a full minute before he speaks again.

"Holy shit, Bell. This is heavy. The thing is, he was doing what he needed to in order to get by."

"You're defending him?" I ask incredulously, swiping at my tears with a napkin.

"Bella . . . sometimes you have to compensate. I'm not defending him, but I do understand him."

"What do you mean compensate?"

Mike blows out a breath then draws one back in. "I'm not saying this to make you feel bad . . . but don't you think I'll have to find a way to compensate when I get involved with someone? Didn't you compensate in some ways to be with me when you couldn't have Edward?"

"I did love you, Mike."

"But you were never in love with me. You were never head-over-heels to the point you'd stand up in front of a church full of people and protest my marriage to someone else." When I remain silent, he goes on. "You finally decided you couldn't do it anymore. For whatever reason, Edward wasn't as strong as you were. I know all about demons, Bella—things that keep you up nights because they own a piece of your soul. On occasion it takes something stronger to take the edge off or to live with it." His tone is faraway now, and I know he's talking about himself, too.

"Did you ever do drugs, Mike?"

"Nah. There were times I got hammered, either because you were slowly growing apart from me or because the guilt of what I did started to eat away at my insides. My point is . . . Edward had his own demons to exorcise. Obviously, Tanya had a strong influence over his experiences. You understand where I'm going with this?"

"Do you think I'm being too judgmental? Because I have to tell you—I have a problem with all this."

"I'm not saying you should ignore Edward's issues . . . just don't slam the door on the possibility of working things out. You two have been through so much, and I'll never forgive myself for my own part in that."

"Thanks for the talk. I promise I'll think about what you said. Do you . . . want a chance to redeem yourself?"

"Hell, yeah! What can I do?"

"Well, I need something specialized that's right up your alley . . ."

The next two days are spent planning. As promised, Mike overnights me a small package from Florida that contains exactly what I need.

When Becca's key fits into the lock, adrenaline flows through my veins. It's showtime.

I suck at being subtle. She's not even through the door before I'm all over her and babbling like a fool. "Becca, I need your help. If you say no, I'll just find another way, so say yes. Help me."

Becca's arms are loaded with a teetering pile of clothes, towels, and books. Her eyes grow wide as she turns and kicks the door shut with her foot. Frizzy hair is piled loosely on top of her head; a few twisted strands that weren't captured rest against the side of her neck. "Huh? 'Course I'll help you, silly! Just let me put this shit away."

I help relieve her of some of the burden, bringing it into her room.

"You might not want to help me when you hear what I'm asking."

"How bad could it be, Bella? This is the first time since—" Becca swallowed hard. "Let's just say, it's good to see you animated."

"Where can I find Jason Albright?" I blurt out. Great opening, Bella! All the speech practice, right out the freakin' window. Brilliant.

"What?"

"Jason. Albright. Where?"

"Oh, no! You don't want to do that." The towel Becca was folding drops to the floor, and she stares back at me with dismay. "No."

"Yes."

"No." Her head shakes emphatically enough that half of her hair comes tumbling down around her shoulders in a frizzy halo.

"Bec, I'm going to talk to Albright. Either you can tell me where to find him, or I can make a spectacle of myself, but one way or the other, I'm going to meet with him tonight."

She rushes around the bed and grabs me by the arms. Her face is so close to mine, I can count the freckles on her nose. "You don't want to mess with these people."

"I get that—I do. Doesn't change what needs to go down, though. Will you help me, or do I find someone else who will?"

"Well, fuck, Bella! You've put me in an awkward one here. Fine. I'll tell you what you want to know. Don't say I didn't warn you."

Two hours later, I walk into the The Quiet Man, a bar in the seedy part of town. I try to remember Becca's advice, though it's getting jumbled up in my mind. Walk with confidence. Hold your head high. Dress to kill. Whatever else you do, act like you mean it.

My high-heeled black boots click on the hardwood floors, but I don't hear them. The Quiet Man is not so quiet. I gaze around, taking in the atmosphere. Rock music blares from a jukebox in the corner. A long bar runs alongside the left wall, and every stool is filled. The tables out on the floor are half-filled, and beyond those are four pool tables, two of which are in use. Booths line the wall along the right side.

Black jeans fit me like a second skin, and the clingy magenta V-neck shows a bit more cleavage than I'm used to. My hair is wild and free, teased into a huge mane. I stride with purpose toward the saloon-style doors in the right rear corner and almost make it through them before Gomer Pyle stops me.

"Whoa! Whoa, little lady! Where do you fancy you're going?" A tall guy unfolds himself from the booth beside the doors and steps right in my path. He's tall and leanly muscled, wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, and what looks to be a genuine cowboy hat. He even has a well-chewed toothpick balancing between his lips as he talks.

I rake my eyes over him from head to toe and offer my best bitchy look. "I'm here to see Albright."

"That so?" He laughs loudly. "Who might you be?"

"Impatient."

His smile disappears, and his blue eyes have storm clouds brewing. Oops. "Name."

"Bella."

A shadow swells behind the swinging doors and the cowboy turns his head, listens for a few seconds, then nods. "Today's your lucky day, sweetheart." With a flourish, the cowboy holds the door open and gestures me inside.

Be brave, Bella. Head up. Confidence.

I swagger in as if I own the place.

The doors lead into a dank, dimly lit room. Black, scuffed linoleum and dark wood paneling create a shadowy den. A retreating figure mutters, "Check her out," as he slips through a doorway in the rear corner of the room, and I'm left standing flanked by two bouncer types in tight black T-shirts.

"Any contraband?" one asks in a bored tone while the other crosses his arms over his broad chest and blocks the exit.

"What? No."

"You a cop?"

"No."

"Narc?"

"No."

"Hands against the wall, princess."

Becca warned me of this, so I cooperate. Turning to face the wall, I place my palms on the sticky wood, not caring to know what coats its disgusting surface. The big oaf inserts a dirty work boot between my feet and taps them apart until my legs are spread to his satisfaction. He proceeds to pat me down expertly without leaving me feeling violated—quite a feat when you're in the back room of a seedy bar.

"What's this?" He holds up the recorder Mike told me to plant in my front jeans pocket.

I shrug. "Insurance." Decoy, asshole.

"What's the bulge in your jacket pocket?"

I glare up at him with scorn. "My car keys. Go ahead . . . dig 'em out, Brutus."

He smirks at me, and I have the insane urge to ask him if he polishes his head. "J-Bird! She's clean. Got a recording device off her."

"That so? Well, send her on in."

Brutus looks down at me, his smirk still in place. "You heard the man. Go on in." He holds up my recorder. "You can pick this up on your way out."

"Gee, thanks." I offer a sneer, my effort to stay in character for what's ahead.

I feel as if I'm about to enter the chamber of the Wizard of Oz. My legs tremble, and I walk forward slowly, parting the wooden beads hanging in the doorway. They make a faint clacking sound as they bump together.

Inside, a young guy sits behind a beat up metal desk writing something in a ledger book. He glances up, and I'm surprised by his appearance—not much older than me with an innocence about his face that belies the danger that lurks beneath. Sandy hair, slightly longer than collar length is tucked behind his ears, and he wears a thick leather strap with a shark's tooth around his neck. There's something surfer-like about him.

He smiles up at me and gestures to a pair of battered leather club chairs in front of the desk. "Have a seat."

I'm thrown by his friendly demeanor and stumble over my feet as I make my way to the nearest chair.

He flips the ledger closed and folds his hands on top. "So . . . Bella, what can I do for you?"

I have his undivided attention. "Are you Jason Albright?"

"I am."

"I need your help."

"My help?" Jason places a hand against his chest, and his expression turns inquisitive. "What could I possibly help you with?"

"Tanya Denali." Pure acid drips from my voice.

"Oh, you're the Bella." Jason nods his head in understanding. "You're far prettier than I was led to believe, fair Bella."

"I need—"

"Uh, uh, uh!" He holds a finger in the air, roots around in the desk drawer, and slaps a little blue pill down on top of the ledger. "Your entrance fee."

"Excuse me?"

Jason pinches the pill between his thumb and index fingers and holds it up. "If you want to do business with me, your entrance fee is this little baby."

"Okay . . . how much?"

"You misunderstand. Swallow it."

"I'm not taking that!"

Jason's eyes harden, the carefree surfer gone, and a flicker of the dirtbag people fear peeks out. "Skip!"

Brutus pokes his head in. "Yeah, boss?"

"Show the fair Bella out. Our business is concluded."

My mouth gapes open. "No! You didn't even hear me out!"

Jason stands up and stalks around the desk, perching on the front corner, and looks down at me with a mixture of amusement and annoyance. He swipes at his nose and laughs humorlessly. "You're in my crib, bitch. I make the rules here. A guy can't be too careful these days—with cops and narcs and such floating around. If you don't take the pill, Skip here will show you out."

All hope of burying Tanya under her own bullshit is slipping through my fingers. Brutus (I think my name for him is better) takes my elbow, and I wrench it out of his grasp. "Fine! Give me the damn pill!"

"Well, all right then." Jason's benign surfer persona smooths back into place, and he drops the pill in my palm. "There's a water cooler in the corner. Skip will supervise. Bottom's up!"

True to Jason's word, Brutus leans against the wall by the water cooler and watches me swallow the pill.

"Open your mouth and lift your tongue."

"For real?"

"Do I look like a funny man to you?"

With a roll of my eyes, I open my mouth wide and lift my tongue. "Happy?"

"Take a seat."

With a huff, I stalk back over to Jason and glare up at him. "Satisfied?"

His eyes harden again. "Actually, no. Sit your ass in the chair, and show me some respect. Remember where you are, Bella. This isn't a high school Kool-Aid cotillion."

I clamp my lips shut and sit in the chair. Only to prove Tanya set up her own beating would I subject myself to this demeaning experience.

"See? You can play nice." Jason returns to his seat behind the desk and looks at me expectantly. "Please state your business."

"Um . . . what will that pill do to me?"

"Think of it as . . . an enhancing agent. Whatever emotions you feel will be amplified."

"So, it's not like GHB?"

"What kind of man do you think I am? All drugs are illegal, but GHB is something I never mess with. BriteBlue will amplify what's already present, but at no time will you do anything you don't want to deep inside."

"How much did Tanya pay you to get her beat up?"

Jason's eyes widen with innocence. "I heard about Tanya through the grapevine. Unfortunate turn of events, but I assure you my alibi is air tight."

"I don't think you did it, but I do think you referred her to someone who did. Look, I'm not interested in getting you in hot water . . . I just want Tanya. Whoever beat her up obviously went overboard. I don't think even Tanya would sign up for what happened to her—he was probably just supposed to rough her up."

"Let's say you're right—what do you intend to do with this information?"

"Expose her for the lying bitch that she is."

"What's in this for me?"

"You get to keep your pretty face intact."

"Are you threatening me?" Jason's laugh was the dangerous kind.

"As I said, I'm not interested in you or your little drug cartel." I wave my hand in the air before standing up and planting my palms on Jason's desk and leaning over in his face. "I just want Tanya's ass on a silver platter, and I'll do whatever is necessary to make that happen. If you're in my way, then you might be a casualty."

"Little girl, you're in way over your head."

~SN~

~*Edward*~

Bella's words, "You're not ready to be with me," cut deep. By the time I reach my apartment, my only thoughts are of drowning in the bottle of Wild Turkey in my cabinet. The first mouthful burns like hell going down, but it's all warmth and numbness from there.

I drink with the lights out, flopping down on the couch without bothering to take off my jacket. I can't—it still smells of her. My face is wet with tears, but I don't feel like less of a man for it. No, that would be reserved for the fucking catastrophe I allowed my life to become while I wasn't paying attention. Pain slams into me, and I moan out loud before taking another swig of bourbon.

Emmett finds me sitting in the dark hours later with the nearly-empty liquor bottle between my legs. He comes in and flips on the light, blinding me.

"Turn the fucking lights off!" My voice is slurred and gravelly, and my mouth tastes like cat piss.

"Aw, shit. She didn't bite." Emmett is great at stating the obvious.

The lights go off, and I wait for my fucking retinas to recover from the blue and yellow Rorschach blotches. Emmett plops down on the couch beside me and throws an arm around my shoulders. I try to shrug him off, but he won't allow it.

"What happened, Eddie?"

"Lemme the fuck alone."

"That's enough firewater for you, bro!" He snatches the bottle of Wild Turkey from between my legs and disappears into the kitchen with it.

A second later, maybe two, I'm asleep.

When I next open my eyes, grayish light spills in through the living room windows. I'm laid out on the couch with one leg hanging off, covered by a blanket. To say I feel like death is a gross understatement. When the memory of last night at Delaney Hall smashes into me like a Mack truck, I begin to wish for it to take me.

The scent of fried eggs and bacon curls up my nose. It smells heavenly for half a second and then I'm up off the couch, stumbling for the bathroom. I fall to my knees and barf up bile and Wild Turkey for the next ten or fifteen minutes. When I find the strength to get up, I brush my teeth twice and scrub my face before stripping down and stepping into the shower. The scalding water loosens my muscles and refreshes my mind.

I don some clean clothes and join Emmett in the kitchen. The smell of breakfast is more palatable this time, and I pull up a stool and shovel eggs into my mouth as if I haven't eaten in days.

"You got classes today?"

"Not until mid-afternoon, thank fuck," I mumble around a mouthful of toast. In the back of my mind, I hear Mom. "Edward! Don't talk with your mouth full." I try on a smile, but it comes off more like a grimace.

"Good, good. We need to talk. Mano a mano."

I halt mid-chew and glance over at my big oaf of a brother. He takes my silence as encouragement.

"Let's talk about how this whole drugs and drinking shit started, shall we?" He cracks his knuckles.

I shake my head and resume chewing. "Uh-uh."

"Dude, you may not want to hear this, but you need to get to the bottom of your issues, not the bottom of a bottle."

"Em, please. Cut me some slack. I think there's a marching band practicing inside my skull—a bad one."

"Whose fault is that, buddy?" He slaps me hard on the back. "Sticking your head up your ass is exactly what got you here."

I relent and explain the whole ugly scene with Bella. It hurts all over again, like a thousand daggers twisting inside me, and I forget all about my hangover. My breakfast threatens to come back up.

When I finish talking, Emmett stares at me with his mouth agape.

"You're going to catch flies, Em."

"Holy shit! Bella's got some balls, man. You know what, though? She's right. You're not ready to be with her."

"What? Thanks a lot!" I glare at him as best I can with a marching band clanging around in my head. My right eye twitches, ruining the effect, I'm sure.

"Eddie, I'm on your side. You need to dig deep and figure out why you did all that with Tanya. I mean, if you're truly not into the rough stuff . . . then what the fuck was up with that?"

I drop my head in my hands and squeeze. My head feels better this way—as if I'm literally holding myself together. I think it through for a few minutes before I answer.

"Well, at first there was no issue being with Tanya. I was so pissed off at Bella for choosing Mike . . . my anger toward her made it easy to choose the girl who was offering herself to me, the girl who picked me up off the ground that night.

"Things started to change when we were into our first year at Dartmouth, though. There was never any real resolution with Bella, and as the anger and betrayal subsided . . . I started having dreams about her, about being with her. At first I thought they were harmless." I dig the heels of my hands into my eyes and clench my jaw. "But then I would wake up to T, and she was so different—so far from where I thought I'd be. She loved me, hung on my every word—and, God help me, I hated myself for not feeling the same."

"I thought you loved her."

"I did, in my way. There was something missing, though. More and more often, I started dreaming about Bella . . . and then those fantasies intruded into my waking life. I saw her everywhere—in the sun glinted strands of another girl's hair, when a couple walked by laughing and holding hands, or when someone picnicked under a tree . . . because that was too lame for the likes of my high-maintenance girlfriend. Tanya was sophisticated and shallow, and I began to feel like a stranger in my own life."

"Then what?"

"It all got to me, and I started avoiding sex. When I'd open my eyes and realize . . . well, let's just say I started projecting a lot of my resentment onto Tanya. I'd be short with her, and then I'd feel guilty afterward. She sensed something was wrong, and I think she was afraid I'd leave her. When we went to parties, she'd encourage me to 'loosen up' with a few drinks. It seemed harmless enough—and worked for a while." I scrub my hands over my face, a noticeable tremor in my fingers. "This douche, Jason Albright, started showing up at some of the parties. He peddles pills—his own formula—and Tanya started buying off him."

"Like Ecstasy?"

"No, this fucker developed something a bit more subtle. He calls it a 'mood enhancer.' It pretty much takes the mood you're in and . . . amplifies it. Best to take it while having a good time."

"So, Tanya was taking these?"

"Yeah. She only took them on nights we partied, and she was so . . . free. I envied her that, longed to get out of my head. One New Year's Eve at a party, she popped one in my mouth, and I just went with it. We drank champagne and snuck off to a deserted bedroom and locked the door. Tanya was all over me, and the fizz of the champagne with the pill on top ignited this hunger in me. We did it twice—once on the bed and once up against the wall. Tanya was always up for trying anything, and she pulled me along with her." I rake my hands through my hair and tug. Saying all this out loud is hard.

Emmett nods his head, scrubbing his fingers roughly over his short hair. "Fuck, man. I can kinda see how it might have gone down."

"Yeah, well, after that experience . . . it was harder than ever to just do it straight. I'm not gonna lie—with the pills it felt fantastic, and I could get out of my head for a while. In the light of day, I'd sometimes question what we were doing, but Tanya had this way of making me feel like a stick in the mud. She told me I think too much, that I need to let go—so I did."

"Where'd the rough and tumble come in?"

"Like I said, the pills amplify whatever mood you're in. Sometimes I was frustrated with myself for having a dream about Bella, or I hated myself for not wanting T more. She liked it rough—and I guess I channeled some of my frustrations into our sex life. It was like a release valve, and she goaded me . . . encouraged it."

"Eddie, I can see how you were drawn in, but . . . there's gotta be a reason. I mean, after hearing everything, I understand your side and Bella's. Don't be mad . . . but I think you need to see somebody, man."

"See who?"

"A headshrinker. Figure out why you did all that shit, and why even after you knew what a skank Tanya was, you ran to her side."

"I did not run to her side! I just went to make sure she was okay."

"Eddie, I hate to break it to you, but you fucked up. It would have been fine to check on Tanya if you'd called Bella first. You really shoulda called Kate and let her take care of the bitch. Tanya's not your responsibility anymore, man."

Emmett leaves me alone to think. Deep down, I know he's right—and so is Bella. How can I give myself to her completely if I don't know what lies beneath the surface of my own mind? My parents are deeply in love and have a healthy marriage. It's not as if I have a background of insecurity or have reason to believe I'd end up alone, yet my actions tell a different story.

I realize there was a moment in time, a pivotal event that changed me forever. It was when Bella stood up before the entire congregation of Abundant Mercy and fought for us. Now it's my turn.

I leave a message on Bella's cell phone.

"Bella, it's me. I just wanted to say that I'm going to give you the space you need. I promise not to accost you anywhere around campus again. I just . . . what my life turned into was bizarre, but that's not who I really am. Please think about it. I know you're hurt by what you saw on that DVD—I understand why you would be—but that man, that Edward, doesn't exist anymore. He stopped existing the moment you stood up in that church. I love you, beautiful. Come home to me."

My next call is to a therapist. The first available appointment is for a week from now. With that done, my focus is on putting one foot in front of the other, soul searching, and fighting to keep my word to Bella by giving her the space she needs.

Each day is colorless without her, every moment torturous. I move through life like a zombie, unable to sleep nights and suffering for it during the days. The mindless numbness that pervades my being is welcome; the thick haze wraps around me like a damp blanket, softening the edges of my pain. I realize I'm in a state of stasis until Bella decides if I'm worthy of taking another chance on.

Kate calls, but I tell her in no uncertain terms that I'm finished with Tanya. She's no longer my responsibility or concern.

"How can you be so cold, Edward?" Kate's voice hitches on a sob. "My baby sis was beaten to a bloody pulp. All she does is ask for you, cry for you."

"I'm sorry—sorry she was hurt and that you have to be in the middle of this, but I'm so done. You have no idea what atrocities your baby sis is capable of." When she draws a breath, I continue before she can ask. "Trust me, Kate—you don't want to know the extent of her deviousness."

"Tell me."

"Just let Tanya know she's fucked with my life for the last time. I won't be taking any more calls from either of you. Goodbye, Kate."

I delete no less than twenty messages off my phone from Kate and Tanya without listening to them and will never be able to describe the feeling of freedom it brings me.

Emmett decides to make this trip into a vacation and stay on at least until I've had my first appointment with the therapist. This turns out to be a lucky break when the phone call from Becca comes in a few days later.

We're slouched on my couch eating nachos and watching a game when my cell rings.

"Hello?"

"Edward, I think I fucked up, and ohmygod, I don'tknowwhattodo." Becca's words come rushing out so fast I can barely make out what she's saying.

"Becca, slow down. What's going on?" I'm up off the couch, pacing back and forth.

"I didn't want to, but she . . . said she'd find a way no matter what. I just . . . I think she's in over her head with this."

I rake a shaking hand through my hair, certain she's talking about Bella, and it's not good. "Is this about Bella?"

"Yeah. Edward, she's at . . . at The Quiet Man right now."

"She what? What the hell is she doing there?" My voice booms through the phone, and Becca whimpers. Emmett is up off the couch and in my face whispering questions, but I don't hear him.

"She's determined to p-prove that Tanya s-set up her attack. She wanted to m-meet with Jason."

"No, no, no! Why would you send her right into the lion's den?"

"I didn't know what to do, okay? She was going to find him no matter what I did," Becca screams back at me and dissolves into tears. "Please . . . you h-have to go after her. I'm sorry. I'm s-so sorry."

"How long ago did she leave?"

"Over an hour ago. I'm sorry!" Becca wails.

"It'll be okay. I'm on my way, all right?"

"Thank you."

I hang up with Becca and stare at Emmett.

"Bro, what's going on?"

"Em, I know I promised not to interfere in Bella's life, but we need to get down to The Quiet Man right now."

"What the hell is that?"

"It's a bar in the shitty part of town—where the douche that sells Tanya drugs does business. Bella is on her way there to try to prove Tanya set up her own attack."

"Aw, shit."

"I'm going to need your brawn to get in there. Albright is always surrounded by muscle. Bella has no idea who she's dealing with."

Emmett smacks a fist into his palm. "Let's go shake some trees and see what all falls out."

My brother looks at this as an adventure, and I'm really glad he's coming with me, but he has no idea what these people are like. That thought has me frantically pulling on shoes and grabbing for my jacket because Bella is even more clueless about what she's walking into. Icy fire lights me up as adrenaline rockets through my veins. I welcome every heart-pounding, hopped up drop—I'm going to need it for what's ahead.

~SN~


A/N: So . . . go on then. You guys have been having too much fun with me the past few chapters. *Sarita dons padded collar* Thoughts, theories? Please be sort of nice or you might get a lump of coal in your stocking!

My wish is that all of you and yours have a wonderful and joyous holiday season. With so many ugly things going on in the world, keep those you love close and let them know how much they mean to you.

I'm working on the next chapter of Red Kryptonite. I won't make any promises as far as updates go, because of the holidays and such, but I'll make it as soon as possible.

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