A/N: Hello, awesome readers! As always, thank you for your patience, emails, and PMs. My apologies that this chapter took so long.
Love to my awesome prereaders, Keye, Sandy, and Aleea, for their invaluable input.
Huge thanks to my lovely betas, Katmom and SassySue (chayasara), for wielding the sparkly reds—especially when I make stoopid mistakes. ;-) Mwah!
~The Pull of Destiny~
I do not allow myself vain regrets or foreboding.
~ Mary Chestnut
Isabella's eyes slip closed.
The silence stretches. It seems to go on for an eternity though only seconds pass.
"Open your eyes, sweet one."
Isabella is completely still as only a vampire can be. No heartbeat, no heaving of her bosom as she draws breath, or even the twitch of an eyelid. She could be made of stone, and fear races through me for a moment. Has she come through the process as expected? Could some remnant of her blood anomaly have carried over, hidden in a crevice deep in the recesses of a cell, just waiting to reach out at her most vulnerable of moments?
I stroke my hand down her arm. Her skin is smooth as silk, lacking any imperfections.
My sister pushes the bedroom door open and pops her dark head in. "She's fine."
"You can see her?"
"Clear as a bell. She's fine."
I relax slightly as I trail my fingertips over the top of Isabella's hand. Grabbing the edge of the sheet, I tug it up until it covers her nakedness. As it billows down around her and whispers against her skin, Isabella gasps and her lids fly open.
A millisecond later I'm on my back with her knees squeezing my hips borderline painfully and her hands pinning mine above my head. Wild claret eyes roam over my face, and a soft growl vibrates in her throat.
"It's all right, Isabella. You're safe."
Alice giggles and slips from the room, leaving me to wonder what I've missed.
Isabella ignores my words as if I haven't spoken. Transferring my captured wrists to the cage of her left hand, she smoothes her right palm over my face and down the side of my neck. Her eyes track her questing fingers, and then she bends her head lower and trails the tip of her nose along the same path. Rolling purrs buzz along my skin, and every so often she sucks air in through her mouth or her soft, venom-coated tongue flicks out to taste me.
"Mm-mm . . ."
Sharpened nails drag slowly over my nipples, and I draw in a breath and hold it, trying to think of something—anything-other than the inappropriate urge to claim her here and now.
Isabella glances into my eyes at my reaction, and then she does it again.
"Isabella, please . . ." I force out through gritted teeth.
"Yours are sensitive, too—just like mine." Her hand leaves my chest and moves to her own. She tweaks a nipple between her fingers and moans, pressing her bareness down over my denim-covered crotch. "Is it always this way, then?"
"Dear God, yes." The sight of her touching herself brings on a raging hard-on, and I gasp for air I don't physiologically need but suddenly can't seem to do without.
My hands are suddenly free as she grasps my face between her palms and looks into my eyes.
"Edward, you're more beautiful than I ever knew. I've never really seen you. And, oh, you smell like summer rain and warm sunsets. I want to kiss you. May I? Please?"
I laugh, surprised and delighted by her quirkiness just as much as a curious newborn as when she was a frail human. "You trap me to the bed, restrain my hands, and play with my nipples . . . then you ask permission to kiss me?"
Isabella looks contrite, and I daresay she would be blushing if she still could.
"I'm sorry about that. It was . . . it was . . ."
"Yes! That." Relief transforms her features. "I was lying there trying to absorb all the stimuli, and then the sheet rubbed against my nipples! And your scent, Edward. Smelling you for the first time—truly smelling you,tasting you on the air—I just lost all control."
"Yes, it can work like that for us." I smirk at her.
"We can move so fast, do so much, and . . . I still want to kiss you."
"Gently, Isabella. You still need to acclimate to your new strength."
"Of course," she whispers, sliding her fingers over my cheeks to thread into my hair. She brings those pouty lips down to meet mine. They are as perfect and right as ever, just not so warm or fragile. The kiss begins tentatively, our mouths meeting in soft caresses, and builds in intensity.
My now-free hands slip around her shoulders and glide slowly over newly-formed curves, learning her body anew. This is a landscape I know intimately, and yet I'm exploring it for the first time. When Isabella's tongue drags slowly across my lips, I part them, allowing her to explore my mouth as she's never been able to before. I give control over to my mate, letting her taste and plunder as she wishes.
Eventually, she lifts her head to gaze into my eyes. "You taste even better than you smell, Edward." Her brows draw together, and she strokes a finger down the front of her throat. "What is this . . . stinging feeling I have?"
"Thirst, my love."
"I'm surprised it took you this long." I grin and twine a mahogany curl around my finger. "Usually sex isn't the first thing newborns concentrate on."
"Will you teach me how to feed?"
"Yes, of course." My hands settle over the flare of her hips, and I hesitate a moment, unsure how to address the issue of what she intends to feed on. We've always been straight with one another, so I decide on the direct approach. "Isabella, what type of diet do you intend to follow?"
"The same as you."
"Are you sure? I won't be upset if you choose another way."
"I know you won't. It's what I want, but you have to show me how to . . . choose the right ones to drink."
"There are some bags of blood we brought with us. Alice thought of everything, I think."
"Oh, okay. Will we travel with the bags?"
"When we leave for Italy."
An unpleasant feeling washes over me. "Isabella—"
"Don't, Edward." Her voice is pure ice. "I'm going to Italy with you, and we will stop those sick bastards."
Three days later, Isabella has learned to dress herself without ripping the clothes to shreds and open a door without tearing it off the hinges. She never seems to tire of looking at me or exploring my body with her newly sensitive fingertips or her all-seeing eyes. I have never been the subject of such scrutiny before, but I don't mind it one bit.
Alice has sequestered herself to monitor her ever-morphing visions. With so many of us involved, so many desires and agendas to account for, the variables at play are too numerous for her to settle on anything concrete. Each time a vision develops with any clarity, it dissolves into a hazy fog.
I've given up trying to convince Isabella to let me go to Italy without her. She's the most stubborn woman I've ever come across, my match in every way. I did insist she learn to feed from both animals and humans before we leave. We can't rely on bags of blood. There may be times no vile human specimens are easily accessible, and we can't afford to have any extra issues while on the road. There's also my concern Isabella won't be able to handle proximity to humans without going after them.
Isabella passes the animal-take-down test like a pro. Watching her streak stealthily through the trees and bring down a buck is a turn-on for me. Once she finishes, her eyes seek out mine.
"Are you all right, Edward? Was it—did you hear anything?"
"No, it was fine." I smile. In the middle of acclimating to being a vampire and prepping to go to Italy to face our enemies, she's worried about whether I picked up thoughts from a dying animal.
When evening falls, Rose accompanies us to a nearby town. We flank Isabella, using great caution as we draw closer to the human population. I cast my mind out, searching for suitable quarry. We haven't long to wait once we reach the seedier parts of town; the back alleys of bars are rife with vermin.
Isabella and I wear contact lenses to conceal our red eyes. I've tried to steer her away from the humans, but other than pulling in a harsh breath every so often, she's done remarkably well. We schooled her to stop breathing if necessary. So far, it hasn't been, and Isabella is enjoying sampling everything on the air with her newly attuned senses—even the vile smells.
Most of the storefronts we pass are closed for the day, except for a few bars, restaurants, a donut shop, and gas station. Neon signs light up the night, and white lights strung between the trees along the road lend a festive feel to the nearly deserted area. Past this quaint downtown section and around a corner or two, the darker, less populated areas are a nesting zone for the less savory. Due to the lateness of the hour, and the fact it's a weeknight, there are few stragglers on the streets.
I locate our first victim. He's actually an employee at one of the bars whose intent is to follow a drunken woman home and have his way with her. He's done it before. He only chose this job for the rich sea of victims it draws into his net. I bare my teeth and swallow back a mouthful of venom, feeling the vampire equivalent of an adrenaline rush. My muscles coil in readiness, but I must remember this kill belongs to Isabella.
I don't tell her yet because the few people on the street might notice something amiss if she reacts. I still can't believe how calm she is in the presence of humans.
"This way," I say.
As we enter a side alley that brings us that much closer to this scumbag, Isabella halts, her boots scuffing against the wet pavement. Rose and I stop with her. Her entire body stiffens, and she sniffs the air. "I smell one."
"One what?" Rose asks.
"A bad one. That way." Isabella points in the direction where the vile human smokes a cigarette out behind the bar while solidifying his plans for the evening. "Hold onto me. The burning . . . it's so much worse now."
I grab her arm, tugging her back a moment. "Remember, we can't draw attention to what we are. I know it's difficult when dealing with the scum of the earth, but there can't be any witnesses, and the body must be disposed of afterward."
She glares back at me, lifting her chin in defiance. "I'm not some wild animal, Edward!"
"Perhaps not, but you're no longer human," Rose reminds her. "You have the instincts of a predator, and they sometimes kick in without warning. Be mindful of that."
"I promise. I'd never expose us."
As we draw closer, I scan the area. He's alone in a dead-end alley. It couldn't be more perfect, really. The three of us stand at the corner of the building just out of sight while Isabella breathes deeply until she acclimates to his scent.
"I can handle it now," she says.
"You're all clear, Isabella," I whisper in her ear. "Keep it clean and quiet. If you need us, we'll step in."
"Okay. Wish me luck." She goes up on tiptoe and pecks me on the lips before sashaying away down the alley.
The scumbag notices her and takes a long drag off his cigarette, blowing a plume of smoke into the air. "Hey, pretty lady. You lost?"
"Not exactly." Isabella ducks her head down, feigning shyness. Once she's within a few feet of him, her demeanor changes as she stalks closer, tossing thick ropes of bouncing mahogany curls casually over one shoulder.
Oh, she's a pretty one. I'd like to see those sweet lips wrapped around my dick.
My first instinct is to go after him, protect her, then I realize she doesn't need me for that anymore. I bite back a growl as bits of powdered brick sift to the damp pavement.
"Easy," Rose whispers, placing a hand on my shoulder.
Isabella plucks the cigarette out of the dirtbag's hand, tosses it to the ground, and crushes it under the heel of her black leather boot.
"Hey! Whadda ya think you're doin'?"
She crowds him, pushing him back against the bricks. "Those things will kill you." She laughs at her own joke before pinning his shoulders with her hands and pressing her knee into his groin.
"Whoa! Watch the rocks there, sweet thing. If it's action you want, you only hafta ask." He lets out a low laugh. "I don't mind it rough if that's what you're inta'."
Isabella leans in close to his face, just the way I coached her, allowing a cloud of her venom-laced breath to confuse and entice her prey. "You'll have to pardon me—I'm a little new at this. Tilt your head to the left."
He grunts but does as she asks. Isabella leans in and latches onto his neck, taking strong pulls. He struggles for a moment but has no chance of pulling free. As soon as the anesthetic properties of her venom kick in, his body relaxes between Isabella's and the brick wall.
She's thirsty, and it's over quickly. When she raises her head from the crook of his neck, a rivulet of blood rolls from the side of her mouth. Sensing it, she swipes the crimson ribbon with her index finger and licks it off. Not bad for a first feeding. I ignore the inappropriate stirring in my pants; we still have work to do.
Isabella and I carry him between us, pretending to be assisting a drunken friend. Once we're off the street, I toss him over my shoulder, and the three of us streak into the nearby woods. The slime doesn't deserve a proper burial, but we can't afford to have bodies found drained of their lifeblood.
By the time we're done, it's nearing last call at the local bars, so we keep to the trees where I can listen for anything out of the ordinary. There's nothing except an angry bar manager that wants to know "where the fuck Marco got off to, the lazy, soon-to-be-unemployed fucker."
I caress Isabella's face with the pad of my thumb. "You did well tonight. Are you still thirsty?"
She giggles, rubbing a hand over her belly. "I'm practically sloshing, Edward. I'm a bit more petite than you are, remember?"
Rose smiles, patting Isabella on the arm. "Good job . . . sis." The word seems foreign on her tongue, and she looks as surprised to say it as I am to hear it. Then her forehead furrows. "You did say earlier that you smelled a bad one, right?"
"Yeah . . . sis." Isabella grins and smacks Rose on the back, sending her flying into a tree. "Oh, shit! Sorry." She looks down at her offending hand, horrified.
I laugh freely, and it feels so good. Seeing Rose smacked around—even if it is by accident—is an extra special bonus.
Rose shakes her hair back in place and shoots a glare my way, but her look softens when she notices how upset Isabella is. "No, no, honey. Don't worry about it. You just don't know your own strength yet." She cocks an eyebrow and turns a spiteful look on me. "Maybe you'll break Edward's balls—take him down a peg or two."
"You wish, Ice Queen. I wonder how many times you've cracked poor Emmett's." I glare back at her for a few seconds, and then we both smirk.
Things are beginning to ease between us. For the first time, I openly admit to myself that it pleases me. Maybe there's hope for me and my family yet.
I turn to my mate. "Can you explain what you smell?"
"The rest of the humans smell good, but I don't want to hurt them because . . . because I was one of them. This guy smelled different. The best way I can describe it is an underlying scent that's somewhere between human and animal."
"Rose, have you ever experienced this?"
"Let's test it out."
For the next few hours, we skulk around the underbelly of town. Isabella sniffs them out, and I confirm her judgment through their minds. She's right one hundred percent of the time. Fascinating.
When we finally arrive back at the cabin, Alice is virtually bouncing off the walls, though she isn't her typical bubbly self. "It's time to go, Edward."
"As sure as I'm getting. Demetri managed to get Aro to send Felix and Jane with him to track us."
"What about Renata?"
Alice tilts her head with a sour look. "C'mon, Edward! You know that's not possible. She never leaves Aro's side. The odds will never be better than this."
"Who's Renata?" Isabella asks.
We gather around the fireplace in the living room to talk. Even though Isabella no longer suffers from the cold, she still enjoys the warmth from a crackling fire.
"Renata has a special gift. She can redirect anyone who tries to come directly at her and whomever she's shielding. Aro goes nowhere without her by his side."
"He does this so nobody can take him out?"
"Exactly. He's a coward, Isabella."
She stares thoughtfully into the fire for a few seconds. "How many can Renata protect at one time?"
"That's a very good question. Just those in her immediate proximity—she can't, for instance, protect the entire Volturi guard."
"So a little bit of distraction . . ."
"No." I shake my head. "Her only job is to protect Aro. If she failed, there would be purple smoke billowing out the castle chimneys. Anyway, he's not the only one we have to be concerned with."
"Aren't the rest of them just sheep?"
Rose and Alice simply watch our exchange, Rose looking proud, Alice looking thoughtful.
"Yes and no. There are many gifted among them, but Aro is not the only obstacle. His brothers, Marcus and Caius, also rule over the Volturi."
Alice interrupts, "This is a great conversation, but we need to get going. We have a small window of opportunity before Jane and Felix realize they've been duped."
"Alice, do you know how we're going to pull this off?" I like to know I'm going to win before I enter into a dire situation.
"Not exactly, but this is the one sliver of light I see in the dark. Every other possibility ends in many clouds of purple smoke—or forced servitude. I think we can do this."
"All right. How are we getting there?"
"The Cullen jet is too obvious, so I had Esme convince our mechanic to say there's a problem with the pre-flight checks. We're getting a smaller plane, one the Volturi won't be alerted about when it lands."
Rose becomes animated, a deadly light glowing in the recesses of her amber eyes. "Well, as my Monkey Man likes to say—let's go crack some heads!"
"Um, Rose . . . you can't come." Alice looks apologetic.
"Why the fuck not?"
"Because then all of us who have the pieces of the cure would be there. That's too dangerous. You need to keep moving until this is over."
Rose stomps her foot, nearly breaking through the wood planks of the floor. "Why me?"
"Because you had more pieces of the cure than we did. Also, Edward and I have to be there—me for my visions and Edward for his mind reading."
Another colorful string of expletives lets loose from Rose's pretty mouth, but she finally crosses her arms and acquiesces. "Fine."
I touch her arm. "Rose, you must realize your part in this is no less important. You helped come up with the cure, and now you must protect the information from that maniac. If something goes wrong, it might buy us a little time."
"Yeah, I guess."
"But most of all, Rose?" I wait for her to look at me. "Thank you for all you've done for me and my mate. I'll never be able to repay you."
"That means a lot coming from you, Edward. It really does." Rose smiles at me. "So where do you want me to go?"
As the small private plane wings us toward Italy, Isabella curls up in my lap. She can no longer sleep, but she's silent for most of the ride—withdrawn. I ask about it once, but she merely shakes her head and goes back to ruminating.
Alice is also in her own world. She steeps herself in thoughts of Jasper and their impending reunion although he's been instructed to remain invisible when we arrive.
Emmett and Esme are leading Demetri and company on a wild goose chase, dropping hints of my scent and Isabella's along the way. Demetri is heavily banking on us to succeed. If we fail, Aro will surely discern his part in the subterfuge, and he'll be as good as dead. I wonder at Demetri's motivation, but I really don't care—I only care that we come out of this as unscathed as possible. It doesn't seem likely we can best Aro on our own, but there is no other choice. If we run, it's only a matter of time before he finds us. And then there would be no mercy.
When the pilot announces our landing is imminent and asks us to return to our seats and fasten our seatbelts, Isabella ignores the request and remains curled in my lap, still as stone. I'm worried about her, about what's going through her mind. I'm shut out of her thoughts and can only go by the non-verbal clues she emits.
The landing is smooth, the weather outside bleak and gray with ample cloud cover. Alice has a sleek black Mercedes with heavily tinted windows waiting for us. I know she'd rather have a loud, racy sports car, but this will allow us to blend in.
The ride from the small airstrip to Volterra is short and somber. Isabella still isn't talking. It's as if she isn't here at all. I pull the car to the side of the road just outside the small village and sweep a finger along her jawline.
She looks back at me with her beautiful crimson eyes. They are cold for a second, calculating, and then they fill with the love she has for me.
"Are you all right? Is something wrong? You don't have to do this. We can contact Jasper, have you remain with him until it's finished."
"Shh . . ." Isabella places a finger against my lips. "I'm fine. I need to be there, Edward. Isn't that right, Alice?"
Alice, who's been sitting silently in the back seat staring out the window with glazed eyes, finally engages with us. "Yes. She needs to be there."
I scan Alice's mind but find a dark void filled with occasional thoughts of Jasper. I have no chance against her; my gift is still spotty, and she's already an expert at keeping me out.
It all comes down to trust—and maybe a little bit of faith in Isabella's God.
A/N: Any theories about what's coming? How about what's up with Isabella? As always, I look forward to your thoughts. We're nearing the end of this puppy.
For Broken Windowsreaders . . . don't fall over, but I'm working on the next chapter. It will probably be the last chapter unless it runs too long and needs to be split in two.
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