Disclaimer: "Twilight" belongs to SMeyer. "Les Yeux de la Lune" belongs to Elysabeth.


Chapter 18: Posthumous

A violent shudder shook me as I landed.

That voice echoed in my head. An auditory nightmare.

It couldn't be him. It was impossible. Yet my supernaturally sensitive hearing could not be wrong.

The voice was accompanied by static that sounded … electronic.

Once again, the voice rang out.

"Hello, my darling girl. It's your dear James," it repeated.

Same phrases, same intonation, same words.

I understood now.

A gasp of shock and terror escaped from Bella's lips while the cellphone slipped from her hands on its way to the spongy ground.

It didn't land. I caught it in its fall. I pulled Bella's shaking body more tightly to mine while I put the phone to my ear, my teeth gritted.

"Victoria! I know it's you!"

I heard a harpy's laugh, some distance from the transmitter. Then the call cut off.

"Hello?"

She had hung up.

I repressed a furious growl.

A soft voice vibrated against my chest. ''It's starting again.''

Her hands trembled as they held onto my jacket. I put away the phone and cradled her face in my hands. She was deathly pale.

''Bella, listen to me. That wasn't James. He's dead, you hear me?''

''But-''

''What you heard was a voicemail he left when he was alive.''

''You … you're sure of that?''

''Absolutely.''

I didn't have time to reassure her more. We had to get out of here. I scooped her up in my arms and had vanished from the meadow in a single second. The forest had suddenly become a dangerous, hostile place of potential ambush, while only a few moments ago, it seemed to watch over us protectively.

Where was that harpy? Was she hiding nearby and spying on us, waiting for the most advantageous moment to show herself?

I opened my mental ear to its maximum, scrutinizing all the minds I could find. I heard only the thoughts of the students near the school gym. I also discovered that my siblings were on alert; Alice had just seen my decision to return to our house. She hadn't yet seen why, but she knew it was serious. My family was already departing the dance to meet us at home.

Holding Bella even tighter, I doubled my speed and crossed the river, cutting through the curtain of rain that was beating down on us. Bella, curled up against me, was making a superhuman effort to not be overcome by panic.

When I reached the house, my father was already in the living room, pacing as he waited for us. I was grateful to see Esme rush to us with a blanket in her arms. Bella was soaked, and shivering as much from cold as from fear.

"Alice just called us. What's happening?'' Carlisle asked.

I summed up the situation in a word: "Victoria.''

I needed say nothing more to stop my parents in their tracks.

By the time Bella was installed on the sofa, swaddled in blankets, I heard the M3, my Volvo and the Porsche roaring up the drive. My siblings burst into the living room.

During the drive here, Alice must have focused on us and learned more, for Jasper said immediately,
"What's with this phone call from beyond the grave? James is dead!''

Emmett echoed his sentiments. "We ripped him into pieces and burnt him to ash!''

"I know," I answered. "It's Victoria who called. I heard her laugh. She was playing a recording. She and James must have talked by telephone while he was tracking Bella, and she used an old message James had left on her voice mailbox. I don't see any other explanation."

Bella was listening intently although our frayed nerves were making us speak at a vampire speed. "So … the message, originally, was for Victoria, not me," she said.

"Yes." I sensed her breathing calm down. Knowing that James's words weren't really meant for her comforted her. "It was a joke. A very bad joke."

A joke that signaled very clearly that Victoria had absolutely no intention of resigning herself to the loss of her mate.

I paced the living room, nervous and angry. I wanted to hold Bella's shivering body to reassure her, but I was afraid of breaking her in my agitation. Esme, eternally maternal, acted in my stead, wrapping her arms around Bella's frail shoulders.

I stopped next to Alice. "You didn't see anything coming."

She shook her head quickly. "It must have been a sudden impulse, not calculated. She periodically disappears from my vision. It's as I've told you: she's difficult to hold on to. All that I'm sure of is that she isn't close by."

Pensive, Jasper rubbed his chin. "How did she know your new cellphone number?" he asked me.

"I didn't change it."

When they had seized Bella in Phoenix, James and Victoria had found my number in her phone's address book. I had crushed my own cellphone in rage, but when I bought a new one, I had kept my old number, a decision I was now regretting.

"If Victoria wasn't here spying on you, how did she know that Bella was with you?" Jasper went on. "She called you, but the call was clearly aimed at Bella. How did she know that Bella would pick up?"

At his words, I had a sudden intuition. "I bet she was taking a chance …" I said.

I turned to the small figure buried in blankets. "Bella, where is your cellphone?"

"In my room somewhere at home."

"Is it off?"

"Probably."

I headed to the door. "I'll be right back."

I raced to Charlie's house. Bella's father was watching a game with a co-worker from the police station. I entered Bella's room by the window and retrieved the telephone. As quick as that, I was back at my house.

When I flipped open the phone, I swore. My intuition was right.

"Jesus Christ, Victoria called at least 30 times!" Bella's eyes widened at my words, and I went on, "The same number is listed in your incoming calls."

Jasper studied the little screen. "Look at the time: she called during the dance. When Bella didn't answer, she tried your phone. She guessed that you wouldn't be far from Bella and that her call would have the effect she wanted.

"And she had a stroke of luck – she didn't expect Bella to answer, which would explain her satisfied laugh. She was pleased to have hit her initial target."

My brother examined the phone further and saw that a message had been left each time Victoria called. He played them, and I was grateful that only the vampires could hear the words.

"Hello, my darling girl. It's your dear James."

It was the same message each time.

"What do you see of the female?" Jasper asked Alice.

"It's hazy. She's angry and … wants to punish us."

In my sister's mind, I saw many paths for Victoria, but they were all indistinct. Possible but not clear. I sensed her desire to make us pay for destroying James, but not the realization of that desire. I didn't know if I should be relieved or not. These paths were purely hypothetical at the moment, but they could become concrete.

"But she isn't planning to attack us," Alice continued, her eyes unfocused. "She knows that would be suicide."

Carlisle was thoughtful. "I believe that this was the vengeance we were expecting. Victoria knows she can't come after us without destroying herself in the process. There are too many of us. So she is seeking revenge in a different way. By this circuitous route, she wants to unsettle you and Bella. And doing that, she knows, unsettles us too."

Emmett put it more colorfully. "She can't get close to us so she gets off by freaking us out a little."

A little? Bella was in a state of shock!

I looked at her fragile form on the sofa. She looked so vulnerable with her damp hair stuck to her temples and her eyes staring off into the distance.

I was struck by a feeling that I knew very well, but that I had thought I wouldn't experience again: guilt. The last few weeks had almost convinced me that that feeling would no longer be part of my life. I was wrong.

I knelt next to Bella. Even in her wet dress, she dazzled me. I made my voice as gentle as I could considering that I was still racked by anger and guilt.

"You are going to stay here tonight." I pushed a lock of her hair behind her ear.

"Is that really necessary?" she asked.

"I'd prefer you to be here, guarded by the whole family. Just in case."

She looked distressed. "I'm causing you so much trouble -"

Surely she couldn't think that! "I am the cause of all this, not you," I said, bitterly.

Carlisle placed one hand on my shoulder, the other on Bella's. "It doesn't matter who is the cause. You are part of our family, and we protect our family. Nothing more need be said."

My beloved gave him a grateful smile. "Thank you."

I detested the furrow of concern in her forehead. I kissed it, hoping that my lips would erase it. But no. It was an indelible mark. I consoled myself with the observation that my proximity slowed her galloping heartbeat and calmed her staccato breathing. I was the cause of her torments and the remedy for them at the same time. It was a paradox.

"You are also going to get another telephone."

"But Charlie gave me that phone. He's going to ask why I –"

She stopped short when she heard the crunch of plastic, the phone disintegrating in my hand.

"It broke at the gym when you dropped it on the dance floor. Someone stepped on it," I said, inventing a story for her to tell Charlie. "You have no choice but to buy a new one."

She examined the mangled phone with her hands, flabbergasted, before saying, "I'd like to stay here, but Charlie won't be pleased, you and me together all night…."

She didn't finish, but she didn't have to. Officially, I never saw Bella after curfew. Unofficially, I spent nearly every night in her room.

"I will call him and tell him that I'm inviting you to stay over," Alice said. "I'll tell him it's a girls' night so we can gossip about the dance, watch a movie, eat popcorn, talk about boys. That's what girls do, right?"

"Yeah, I guess."

While Alice was arranging this "girls' night," Jasper had an idea. He went upstairs and returned in a second with his laptop. He took my cellphone, noted the incoming number of Victoria's call, and a few clicks later had found what he wanted.

"Look. The area code is Canadian. It's neither a residential or commercial number, nor that of a cellphone. The call must have been made from a pay phone."

I looked over his shoulder at his computer screen. "Can you pinpoint the phone?"

"No. I can trace the call through the satellite only while the line is in use."

"In other words, we have to wait until she calls back," I said.

The thought made me grind my teeth. I glared at my phone. If that vile creature called again, I wouldn't answer for my actions.

Emmett's fists clenched and I was in perfect harmony with his state of mind.

"If the number is Canadian, that means that she's probably still in the Rockies. That's a good place for us to start searching. We have to find her. We should have ended her too. She helped that maniac in his hunt. She deserves as much as he did to rot in hell," he said.

I wanted very much to accompany my brother, but I would have had to leave Bella behind and that was out of the question.

Rosalie hissed in disapproval. She didn't want Emmett to go after a psychopathic vampire on his own. Victoria was on her own too, but rage and rancor and suffering increased her strength. Emmett, meanwhile, was so impulsive and confident that he had a tendency to underestimate his adversaries. A confrontation could go badly for him.

"Oh, sweetheart, just come with me if you're so worried," my brother said to soothe Rosalie.

Carlisle raised his hands in a call for calm. "We don't know her intentions. We should wait."

"Wait for what? For her to go after Bella again?" I roared.

Carlisle had only to give me a pointed look to bring me back in line. He asserted his authority so rarely that when he did it was instantly effective.

"As long as we are uncertain of Victoria's goals, we will not take action against her. A prank call isn't sufficient reason to kill her."

"She helped James."

"What is to say that she wasn't controlled by James, blinded by her feelings for him and unaware of the gravity of his actions? You didn't study her mind – James's mind monopolized your attention. You don't know if she is as evil as her partner or a victim herself. And you, Alice, you can't see her. You don't know what she plans to do. Under these circumstances, I believe that it's best to wait and remain vigilant."

I knew that my father was right, but the idea of taking no action was unbearable.

My mother rose from the sofa and had me take her place next to Bella. I wasn't sure it was a good idea – I was still too on edge. I was afraid of breaking her.

But Esme knew what she was doing. The moment I touched Bella, my tension dissipated. It was if I had been conditioned to become calm when I was close to the most essential element of my existence.

"I'm going to make a bed ready for you upstairs," Esme murmured to Bella.

"I'm not sleepy," Bella protested, but my mother had already vanished.

"You are exhausted and in shock," I said.

"I'm fine."

She did seem to be in control of herself, but then, she was a good actress. I sought the opinion of Jasper, who knew better than anyone.

"She is terrorized and at the end of her strength," he thought. I gave him a pleading glance and he understood. Almost immediately, Bella's body relaxed. Her eyelids struggled to stay open.

"Oh, Jasper, no, don't do that," she said weakly, realizing his maneuver. "It's not right, it's a trick, I don't want … to… sleep."

"You need it," I whispered to her, kissing her eyes shut. She mumbled some more protests, but finally her breathing became slow and regular.

"Sleep, sweet moon."

Esme reappeared to take Bella from me. "She's soaked," my mother said. "I'm going to undress her and put her in something more comfortable."

"I can take care of –"

"Young man, from this moment on, a woman needs to take over," she told me firmly.

She flew upstairs with the sleeping form of my love. I hadn't thought anything of undressing Bella, but … well, Esme wasn't wrong.

I decided to change out of my formal clothes and when I returned to the living room, the rest of my family was still discussing Victoria's possible reprisals, deepening my feelings of guilt.

I was full of remorse. Remorse for putting Bella in danger. Remorse for forcing her to endure this nightmare. Because I was the cause of this nightmare. If it weren't for me, Bella would never have been the object of James's pursuit. Nor would a psychotic vampire have harassed her on the phone.

If that weren't enough, Rosalie's thoughts added to my burden of guilt.

"Here we go again… more trouble because of her, and there's no light at the end of the tunnel. Don't you see that you will perpetually endanger her? If it's not James or Victoria, it will be some other vampire we encounter who will go after her. You know very well that other vampires will cross our path, by chance or by intent. We can't withdraw completely from the vampire world just to avoid exposing Bella to the danger of non-vegetarians. It would be a lot simpler if she was like us."

I eyed Rosalie, who wore her usual haughty expression. She was deliberately provoking me. She knew very well that I couldn't imagine transforming Bella. Rosalie herself, who so detested what we were, was opposed to it.

Satisfied by my dismay over her suggestion, Rosalie attacked again.

"If that outcome is impossible for you, the other solution, radical but effective, is to leave her. The farther you are from her, the farther she will be from the dangers of our world."

Alice saw the prospective futures that our mute exchange portended, and intervened.

"I'm stopping this now. That won't fix anything, Edward," she declared brusquely.

Jasper, Emmett and Carlisle looked at us, intrigued.

"Hey, what's going on?" my giant brother asked.

With a truculent expression, Alice crossed her arms and glared at Rosalie. "Rose is trying to persuade Edward to give up Bella for her own good, and ours."

I painfully envisaged this possibility, and it destroyed me already. Separating myself from Bella would kill me, but it would be worth it if it protected Bella.

"Rose –" Carlisle said, distressed.

"What?" Rose spat out. "You all know it's the most logical solution."

"The problem, darling, is that I like Bella, too," Emmett said, wincing.

Rosalie stalked out of the living room indignantly and marched to the garage. Emmett was on her heels.

"Oh, come on, baby, don't go off in a huff. You have to admit, she's entertaining, the blind little bat …"

The rest of his words were cut off by the garage door closing behind him.

Alice yanked me from my trance by placing a hand on my shoulder. "Edward, we're all afraid of what the future holds, because we all know that Bella will die one day. But believe me, the harm has been done: she is one of us now. Though what am I saying? The good has been done, is how I should put it. She is one of us, and it's been good to have a human among us. You don't want to lose her, and we don't want to lose her either. So forget about that path you saw in your future: it leads only to a dead end."

"We don't abandon our family, son, even if we think we're acting in their best interest," Carlisle reminded me.

Esme returned during this exchange.

"Bella's in bed, and sleeping, but it's thanks only to Jasper. I doubt that it's a real rest," she said.

I was already upstairs. I found Bella in my parents' room, the only one that had a bed. When she decorated the house, Esme had wanted this room to look as human as possible.

When my eyes fell upon the silhouette curled up under the covers, a wave of emotion shook me from head to toe. A wave that was a mixture of love, melancholy and regret, tenderness and bitterness.

How could I have considered myself for even a single instant capable of being apart from her?

The reason was simple. I had thought it while Bella wasn't near me. I had blocked Esme's mind so I wouldn't see her undress Bella. If Bella had been in my mental or real field of vision, if I hadn't been out of her presence, I would not have pondered Rosalie's idea for a millisecond.

The remorse was still there. The regret for having dragged her into this business with Victoria and James was still clawed at me. The fury of knowing that she might always be in danger still tormented me. But there would be even more regrets, remorse and rage if I made the mistake of erasing her from my existence.

I had put her in danger? Then I would take the responsibility of protecting her.

I stepped closer to Bella and lay down carefully on the bed. The mattress barely moved under my weight. I slid under the covers, knowing that I had put on clothes thick enough to block my glacial skin from hers.

I molded myself to my moon, surrounding her body with my own. I was stealthy enough to not wake her, but she moved unconsciously to settle against me. I marveled still to observe how our bodies lined up with each other, like a jigsaw puzzle of only two pieces.

With my nose, I traced the fragile line of her nape. I greedily breathed in her fragrance, asking myself once more how I could have been foolish enough to think I could give her up.

Silently, I asked for her forgiveness for having thought of leaving her.

I wouldn't leave her. And I certainly wouldn't leave her alone tonight.

It was like every other night I watched her sleep, except that tonight I was entitled to be under the covers with her. It was a novel experience for me. I hadn't been horizontal in a bed since I'd been ill with the Spanish flu. I wasn't accustomed to lying down for hours, but I certainly wasn't going to complain about being able to lie next to my miracle.

Her sleep was restless. She constantly muttered incoherent phrases and words I couldn't understand yet conveyed terror. Hearing the voice of her assailant had revived bad memories that invaded her dreams, and I reproached myself again. I tightened my arms around her in the hopes that it would comfort her.

An inspiration came to me, and I started to hum softly, a musical murmur that I hoped would ease her nocturnal fears. I improvised, choosing notes at random until I realized that I was humming our melody, our piano piece for four hands.

I hummed it until the dawn.

And the next day, to distract ourselves, we sat at my Bosendörfer and lost ourselves in the music. Our four hands ran along the keyboard, seeking to recover lightheartedness and forget our cares. Twenty fingers that tried to drown out our worries. Twenty fingers that hit the keys firmly, as if each of them represented one more step on the way to obliviousness.

We weren't playing our song. We were our song, we lived it, we needed it.

But the ending, brutal and pitiless, returned me to a reality that in perfect accord with the guilt and anger that I hadn't managed to banish. I hit the keys with an intensity that made my notes overpower Bella's.

When we were finished, I snatched my hands from the keyboard.

"Forgive me," I said, more sharply than I had intended.

Bella had sensed my tension in the last notes and she knew the cause of it only too well.

"Don't worry about it." She was much more serene than the previous night, the shock of Victoria's unpleasant joke had faded, and the huge breakfast that Alice had arranged had brought back some color to her face. But the worry line in her forehead was still there, and the shadows under her eyes betrayed her state of mind.

"Worry is all I can do!" I said, my temper mounting. "This is not normal. Nothing that's happening to you is. You should have an easy, uncomplicated, human life. Those shadows under your eyes should be the result of a silly dance that lasted into the morning hours, not a call from a mad vampire. When you sleep, you should dream about your science projects or the last book you've read, not of the pursuit that nearly cost your life. That scar on your wrist should be from a bike crash or a skiing accident, not from a bite by a demented vampire. You should be worrying about what college to go to, not about whether a tracker is going to show up at your door. You should wake up in the morning thinking about what you're going to wear that day, what you're going to have for breakfast, not about possible reprisals from a vengeance-hungry vampire."

I pounded my fist on the keyboard, which rang out with discordant notes. I had just enough restraint not to crack the piano into pieces.

Bell had not moved an inch during my tirade and didn't even flinch at the sound of the piano.

"Are you done?" she asked, her tone detached. She didn't wait for an answer and went on. "I don't want normality, Edward. I say no to an uncomplicated life, if that means you won't be part of it. Now that I've found you, I don't intend to give up this" – she waved toward the piano "—or us, no matter what happens."

She started playing her part of the melody again, and repeated the beginning when I didn't follow her lead. She refused to go on as long as I kept my hands clenched on my lap. Her fingers caressed the keys slowly, then insistently, tenaciously, patiently, full of conviction, certain that I would surrender. And she was right. The melody was too beautiful to ignore. It shouldn't be solitary, incomplete, unfinished. I could no longer remain indifferent and my hands opened by themselves, landing on the keyboard as I joined her.

"That alone –" she murmured, nodding toward our four hands working together "—is worth a thousand trackers and a thousand anonymous phone calls."

This time, our piece succeeded in calming me, and my ending dissolved into the more harmonious finale of my companion.

I tried reminding myself that the time was over for reproaches over having made her part of my life. I wanted her in my life, and I was going to keep her in it. It's what she wanted as well. At least for the moment it was.

"There will be no other tracker, Bella. No other call. I swear to you."

I sealed this promise with a kiss on the flower that I had discovered yesterday. And I lost myself for good in the happiness of rediscovery.

I realized then that I wasn't the only person who owed Fate for allowing me to find such happiness. For my part, I would pay my debt when Bella died of illness or age. Indeed, I already paid a little each day with my full awareness that my happiness was ephemeral. Bella too was paying for our happiness, as Fate demanded. Being with me meant living in the constant fear of running across other creatures like James or Victoria. The price she paid was that of peace of mind. It was unfair to her, to us. Unfair, but also even-handed. It was a deal that we didn't have the right to contest: we had found each other, and we owed something in exchange.

But I could make the burden of this debt easier for her to shoulder … at least, I could try.

After Bella got a new phone and I changed my number, there were no more calls. When she had looked through Bella's school files for James, Victoria had surely also seen Charlie's home phone number. We didn't know if she planned to reach Bella through that number, but we didn't want to take that risk. Jasper's computer skills came in handy then: on Monday, Chief Swan got a call from his phone company that his number was changing because of modifications to the system. To lend credence to this ruse, other residents of Forks were advised that their numbers were changing as well.

This precaution taken, all that was left to do was to watch out for Victoria. Alice concentrated on her, and after a week, she detected nothing interesting apart from her decision to go see Laurent.

Should we worry about this meeting with Laurent? Would she try to convince him that if they joined forces that they would have a better shot at defeating us? I strongly doubted that Laurent would get involved in any scheme of Victoria's. From the beginning he didn't want to be a part of anything. The death of James, the head of his coven, wouldn't bother him, I was certain. All that would matter to him was finding a stronger coven to be a member of. What I had seen in his mind were the characteristics of a hanger-on. He wasn't a warrior. He much preferred to be under the wing of a robust coven whose stronger members would fight for him. He was a parasite. Whatever conversation he had with Victoria, I was almost certain that Laurent wasn't a cause for concern.

Bella continued her academic routine, but I knew that Victoria's prank had shaken her. In her waking hours she seemed strong and unperturbed, but her disturbed sleep betrayed her true state of mind.

I was always with her, and when I needed to hunt, I had a member of my family watch over her. Victoria's action had proved that she hadn't gotten over her mate's death and in the circumstances we should expect a reprisal of some sort, with Laurent's help or not. If I had her mind available to me, I could have studied it. But the only way to do that was to track her down, and I refused to leave Bella. The last time I had had ended in a torture session, a bite and her imminent death. I was probably giving myself too much credit, but I told myself that as along as I was in arm's reach of Bella, nothing would happen to her. Nothing. So I gave up the idea of tracking down Victoria, and left the task of watching her to Alice.

It was obvious to me that my companion was fighting to hide her constant fear, and that it wasn't fear for herself as much as it was that Charlie was in danger because of her, and that my family would be harmed by Victoria's anger. Nothing I said convinced her that she was wasting her time in pointless worry.

It was painful to see her this way, and besides reassuring her, I didn't know what to do, not until summer vacation neared.

I had dropped my plans to travel with Bella, preoccupied as I was with Victoria, but I realized that a trip would be useful in several ways. First, it would distract Bella. Second, traveling would make it more difficult for Victoria to attack us, since we wouldn't be sitting ducks in Forks (a scenario I thought unlikely, but I was sufficiently paranoid to worry about it). Victoria wasn't a tracker, and would never be able to follow us as James had.

Exams week, Bella concentrated on studying, and I took advantage of that to finalize my plans. Esme was a precious ally in this regard.

Esme and Bella's mother had established a friendship during Renee's brief stay in Forks. Esme had thus called her and had no difficulty convincing Renee that my plans were a good idea. A major selling point was that we could visit some college campuses along the way and that we would spend a few days in Jacksonville. Renee had then called Charlie to tell him that this trip would be an enriching experience for their daughter.

On a day when I claimed to be hunting, I presented my plan to Charlie. I didn't have to do much to win him over. Renee had sung my praises to him, as had Esme. For, of course, it wasn't the trip in itself that bothered Charlie, but the Y-chromosome-equipped traveling companion.

For appearance sake, he gave me a man-to-man talk about keeping my hormones in check if I hoped to survive to adulthood.

It was surprising, even disconcerting, to find that unlike almost everybody I had ever met, Charlie wasn't intimidated, even subconsciously, by my being a vampire. For nearly 100 years, no human had dared tried to tell me what to do. In general, people shrank away from me. But not Charlie. And instead of taking umbrage at his show of paternal authority, I was oddly pleased that he was treating me as an ordinary, human guy.

I nodded and solemnly agreed with his admonishments. Which didn't keep me from bursting into laughter in the forest when our conversation was over. The situation was rather comical.

With Charlie duly appeased, now I had to see if Bella was still tempted by my offer.

When I returned to my house, I found my companion and Jasper having a fiercely fought chess game. I didn't show myself at first, curious to see how the match would turn out.

"I would ask that you leave my bishop where I put it, Jasper the Hacker," Bella was saying.

"I didn't touch it."

"It was on D5 and you just moved it to E4 so that it's in the path of your queen."

"It was already there."

"I'm blind, but I have other ways of seeing." She touched her bishop and some pawns on the board. "This bishop is colder than the other pieces; you just had it in your hand, proof that you moved it."

Jasper had to admit defeat. "Ah, dammit."

"Cheat."

Her mischievous smile showed that she was not all offended by his stratagem.

"It adds a certain spice to the game," he said in his defense.

"You want spice? What do you say about this?" She captured his queen with a crafty move by her knight.

The game continued in silence as the players concentrated, one on her mental image of the board and the other on the mental state of his opponent.

Jasper still restricted his contact with Bella and didn't breathe when she was in the house. If he needed air to talk, he went into the forest to fill his lungs. Bella wasn't his singer, but he knew his limits. He was training himself to be in her presence through this chess game. He used the time while she thought about her next move to become accustomed to hearing her heart pump blood and stoically watching the artery in her neck.

In the end, Jasper overcame the loss of his queen, and won the game, though just barely.

"At least you won honorably, not by cheating," Bella told him.

I had waited for this friendly joust to end before showing myself.

Jasper murmured to Bella which direction I was coming from and disappeared abruptly. I was wondering why when Bella stood up and pranced gleefully toward me … without her brace.

"You got it off?" I asked.

Bella greeted me with a pirouette accompanied by an arabesque.

She was laughing. I hadn't heard her laugh since our night under the twisted oak. The sound was a balm for my frozen heart.

"Carlisle took it off while you were away so I could surprise you."

I realized that Jasper had left because he didn't want to ruin the surprise by my hearing about it in his mind.

I grabbed Bella in mid-pirouette and spun her around. "Finally! It's about time we had some good news."

I put her down and kissed her smile. I was pleased to see her smiling after so many days of worry. And feeling that smile against my lips was a new sensation for me, one more to add to my limited experience as a vampire in love.

"This is excellent timing," I said slyly. "I also have a piece of good news for you."


T/N: Ely thanks you for your reviews. Some good guesses from you guys about what what going on.