A/N: Hello, awesome readers! For those of you who read Broken Windows,thank you for the positive response to the epilogue. For those who haven't read it—the story is now complete. Wahoo! Let's rejoin Edward and Co. in Italy, shall we? Buckle up.
Heaps of repose to my darlings, Keye, Sandy, and Aleea, for prereading, keeping the author amused, and being all around awesome.
Thanks to my betas, Katmom and SassySue (chayasara), for their red pen prowess and for being vampire fast. Mwah!
God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose.
Take which you please—you can never have both.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Isabella and Alice emerge from the small café and make their way to the Mercedes. Alice stows the black duffel they brought with them in the back seat.
When the passenger door opens, I'm startled by Isabella's appearance. Gone are the jeans and Henley she wore on the plane ride over, replaced by skintight, black leather pants and a snug top with a plunging neckline—all of it hugging her delectable curves. No longer waif-thin and sickly, Isabella is a vision of sexiness and vitality. Her four-inch spike heels rasp against the cobbles, and then one long, luscious leg at a time slides into the car. The soft whisper of leather against leather incites thoughts of letting the seat back and pulling her over me, her lips moving over mine as her hands work my pants open to free me . . .
The slam of the car door jolts me out of the fantasy. "Shit." I suck in an unneeded breath and look into her face. "Shit."
Not only has Isabella changed clothes, but expertly applied make up adorns her face. There's a hint of blush on her cheeks, her lips stained ruby, but what absolutely fascinates me are her eyes. Midnight blue shadow covers her delicate lids, a smoky line sweeps beneath her dark lashes, and each outer corner segues into a complex network of curlicues in cobalt and silver. "Shit."
Isabella smirks at me. "Your vocabulary prowess is astounding, Edward."
Alice giggles from the back seat.
"I—" My eyes rake over her again. "What's all this?"
The amusement slips from Isabella's face, her expression hardening. She points to her eyes. "This is war paint." Her fingers leave the decoration to glide over the swell of one breast, along the curve of her waist, to the flare of her hip. "I am whole now, and no one will ever take me down again."
I stare back at her, speechless. Isabella always fascinated me with her strength, but the steel emanating from her ruby eyes frightens me. "Isabella, we're about to go into the wolves' den. We must tread carefully with the Volturi."
"Not to worry. I've been coached." Her smile is saucy but leaves me cold.
I glance back at Alice, who seems to find the scenery around us intensely interesting. Before the words come forth from my lips, Alice beats me to it. "We're not calling this off, Edward. Inaction is a decision, too, and it has far reaching consequences."
It feels as if everyone knows what's going on except me, and that isn't a place I allow myself to visit often. I'm used to being in control, and ever since Jenks called me with Hunter's offer to track down his bail-jumping wife, my life has careened out of control. Don't get me wrong—some of the most wonderful things have occurred, but that doesn't mean I like where this is headed.
"Edward, do you trust me?" Isabella's fingers twine with mine.
My eyes meet hers. "Of course I do."
"Then stop over-thinking this. I'm well aware what these freaks can do to us. I'm not being reckless—I know exactly what I'm doing."
"Care to share the plan with me then?"
"No. Aro can read your mind, but I'm banking on the fact that he can't read me."
With nothing left to say, I put aside my reservations and place my trust in my mate. Even when she announces that we will walk right into the mouth of the lion, I say nothing. This satisfies Alice, who glances around us as we leave the car and walk the narrow streets hoping to catch a glimpse of Jasper. She doesn't see him as we walk, and I don't hear his mind before the Castle Volturi looms ahead, its massive stone structure casting a shadow over the street. It's the middle of the afternoon; many tourists stroll the cobbled streets and alleys, vendors sell their wares, but the shadowed area is conspicuously empty, avoided. It's as if the tourists and townspeople instinctively shy away from the evil emanating from within the castle walls.
Isabella strides up to the door and pulls the thick crimson and gold twined rope that sets off a chime inside. I smirk. How Addams Family.
The heavy wooden door is opened by a human female with cascades of dark curls tumbling over her shoulders. Her pale face is artfully made up, and she smiles pleasantly. "May I help you?"
Isabella steps forward. "We're here to see Aro."
The woman's forehead creases. I wasn't told of any appointments. "Do you have an appointment?"
"Not an official one, but if you mention Isabella Swan-Hunter, I think he'll be happy to make an exception."
"Very well. Why don't you come in?" Swan-Hunter! My God. She leads us through a cavernous entryway to a sitting area across from the reception desk. "Please make yourselves comfortable, and I'll be back in a moment." The sound of her heels echos off the marble floors as she hurries away.
The three of us stand there and wait. When Isabella looks as if she might speak, I hold a finger up to my lips and shake my head. Every word we say from here on out can potentially be heard and used against us.
Our greeter must have gone fairly deep inside the castle because we're surrounded by silence. Eventually she returns, flanked by two vampires.
"Aro will see you now." She nods her head toward her companions. "They will escort you inside."
The grim-faced vampires turn and start walking back the way they came without a word, and we fall into step behind them. They lead us down several long hallways before we reach an open elevator. There seems to be no obvious way to summon it, and I surmise it's controlled from somewhere within. We step into the elevator in silence. Again, there are no buttons to push. A few seconds later, the doors slide closed and the elevator descends at least three floors by my estimation. It doesn't bode well that there is no way for us to control the elevator, but it's too late to turn back.
I attempt to read our escorts, but they're simple lackeys with no knowledge of who we are. They lead us into a dank hallway that looks exactly like the one we just left upstairs. Everything looks the same in this place—marble floors, stone walls, ancient-looking artifacts and paintings. Isabella's spike heels throw echoes.
We stop in front of massive oak double doors that swing open slowly. The two vampires step to either side of the entryway, leaving us alone to face what's inside.
"Do come in."
Across the vast room is a dais with a trio of thrones. Aro stands upon it with an exotic, dark-haired vampire at his back. Pale marble floors, stairs, columns, and walls create a lighter atmosphere than the dingy halls. I almost expect to see a skylight in the domed ceiling, though I know we're underground. Ten other vampires line the walls at intervals.
The three of us walk forward, stopping at the bottom of the stairs. Aro gazes down on us.
I bow my head. "The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated."
Aro smiles faintly. When his roving gaze lands on Isabella and remains there, I fight hard not to growl—that would not be wise.
Aro's amused eyes meet mine. "You don't like it that I'm looking her over. Why is that?"
"She's my mate." I glance at the two empty thrones, wondering where his brothers are. Marcus would have seen the connection between Isabella and me immediately. "Where are your brothers?"
"Ah, Caius and Marcus are scouting about. I'm flying solo right now—all decisions fall to me. Such a burden." His high-pitched laugh cuts through the air, and a chill runs down my spine. This is not good news. Aro is the craziest of them all, and according to Carlisle, his brothers often temper his lunacy. "I've been expecting you two . . ." he gestures to Alice and me ". . . but this rare beauty is a delightful bonus."
My jaw tightens, and I fight to keep my hands from curling into claws.
Easy, Edward, Alice thinks.
"You may change your mind about me being delightful," Isabella says.
"Do tell." Brave lass. His thought holds admiration, but I worry about how long that will last.
I decide to draw attention away from Isabella. "Aro, where is Carlisle? Is he all right?"
Aro's eyes snap to mine. "You think I would hurt my old friend? He's fine."
"May we see him?"
"In time, Edward, in time." Aro descends a few stairs, halting on the bottom one and turning his attention back to Isabella. "Come forward, my dear. What is your name?"
I want to grab her and carry her out of here.
Isabella steps away from me toward Aro. "I'm Isabella Masen."
"Isabella . . . Is that not the name of Senator Hunter's wife?" Aro tilts his head inquisitively.
Isabella stiffens. "James Hunter is my ex-husband."
"Correct me if I'm wrong—you had the blood anomaly, and yet you've been turned?"
"How is that possible?"
"You should know. Your minions seized all of Dr. Cullen's research and brought it back here." Isabella's tone is acid.
Fear shoots through me. "Isabella, don't."
Aro holds a hand up to me. "It's quite all right, Edward. Isabella is a newborn and needs some time to adjust to our ways. No harm done." His attention turns back to her, a crafty look in his eyes. "And I'm sure you know that research was incomplete."
Through Aro's eyes, I watch a smirk twist Isabella's lips. Instead of addressing the research, she changes the subject. "I'd like to see James. May I?" Her voice is soft and cajoling.
We all stare at her in surprise. Aro recovers quickly, amusement returning to his gaze. "You may. Not alone, of course."
"I have no desire to be alone with that . . . with James."
This should be interesting. Aro delights in the coming confrontation. He snaps his fingers. "Bring Hunter in."
Isabella is only three feet in front of me, but it feels like a mile. My fingers twitch with the need to touch her and assure myself she's all right.
Edward, she can take care of . . . without you . . . okay? Alice's thought, while directed straight at me, cuts in and out like a staticky radio station. Shit. Not now.
"You look distressed, Edward." Aro watches me closely. What's going . . . with . . . interesting.
Fragments of thought from around the room start to echo in my head. Fuck. My agitation level ratchets up as the words bounce off the inside of my skull, coming from all directions at once. Isabella turns to look at me with concern in her eyes.
Alice whispers, "Focus." I'm not sure which one of us she's directing it to.
A door to the right of us opens, and Alec leads in James Hunter. Isabella steps back, wedging herself between us, with Alice to the left and me to the right.
The illustrious senator looks rested and well taken care of. He smiles at Aro, who takes in everything with interest. "What's going—" The words dry up when James' eyes light on me. "You!"
Before I can get myself in check, I bare my teeth and snarl. Remembered pain flares in my memory. So does our conversation in Senator Hunter's office before he shot me in the face several times with his atomizer.
Hunter stabs a finger in my direction. "I killed you!"
"You did a shit job of it."
"Enough!" Aro claps his hands together once sharply. "Senator Hunter, you have a visitor. Someone who would very much like to speak with you." The amusement returns to his expression.
"Me." Isabella steps forward in all her curvy, spiked-heel, leather-clad glory.
Hunter gasps, his eyes raking over her in surprise. "Bella . . ."
"Isabella!" Her name is a whip crack in the air, and before anyone anticipates her move, Isabella is an inch from his face.
"This isn't possible . . . you—you can't be immortal!" Hunter's face twists into an ugly mix of anger, disbelief, and defeat.
"Oh, but I am, James."
Through Hunter's horrified eyes, I watch the corners of Isabella's ruby lips turn up in a triumphant smile. Her scarlet eyes are cold and flat. In this moment, she looks the part of the fierce vampiress, all humanity absent.
"What the fuck is this, Aro?" Hunter sputters, glaring Aro's way.
Aro simply raises his eyebrows and shrugs his shoulders. "I'm curious to know myself."
"This is bullshit! You double-crossed me!"
Isabella leans in close enough for her cool breath to ghost over her ex-husband's face. "No, he didn't. I arrived here as a vampire."
"Who did this then? Who turned you?"
"I did." I take a step in Hunter's direction, glaring, but Isabella shakes her head. At the same moment, Alice grabs my arm to restrain me.
"You? You should be dead. How did you survive?" Even when faced with a roomful of vampires, one of them being his pissed-off ex-wife, James Hunter is an arrogant asshole.
Before I react to his remark, Isabella grabs the front of his shirt and propels him back into the wall, her snarling face just inches from his. I look to Aro, but he's unconcerned and amused, watching the scene play out with great curiosity. Alice's hand tightens on my arm.
"Look at you . . . so fiercely beautiful." James looks Isabella up and down with admiration.
"You've taken so much from me." Her voice drips with accusation. "My parents, my freedom, my child. I almost died from the leukemia—all the tests you ran on me, the treatments you put off."
He squirms beneath her iron hold. "Be—Isabella . . . I was trying to save us both. I knew immortality would cure the leukemia."
"What about murdering my parents?"
"Your parents died before we met."
"You handpicked me, James. I know. Edward found your files at the compound in Spain."
"Lies! He's just trying to turn you against me."
"Really? What about Hannah? You took my child away and used her as a bargaining chip to gain my cooperation—that is until I found out you never intended to keep your end of the deal!"
"Do you really believe I would hurt my own child?" James reasons.
Isabella laughs humorlessly and shakes her head. "Actually, Senator, I think you'd sell your own mother to get your way."
Aro snorts with a hand over his mouth, obviously delighting in the entire scene.
Hunter loses his shit. "You know what? I did have your parents killed! And I'd bleed every last drop out of that kid if it meant I could live forever! You should be in the ground by now, you bitch!"
Silence falls over the room, the only sound the beating of James Hunter's heart and his harsh breathing. He pulls his arms close to his sides as if trying to hug himself.
And then Isabella laughs. "You know what, James? You'll never be immortal. Scum like you doesn't deserve to pollute the earth forever."
"Oh, I will. Aro and I have a gentleman's agreement. I will be granted immortality and a place here with the Volturi."
"Well, isn't that cozy. Except Aro doesn't have the cure or the serum, does he?"
"That's only a matter of time—something you're out of!" Hunter slips his hand from his pocket and sprays something in Isabella's face.
I growl and move forward, already knowing what it is, but Alice hangs onto my arm. "Edward, no."
Isabella shakes her head and crushes the atomizer in her fist while Hunter is still holding it. The crunch of metal and snapping of bones echo around the room followed by his screams. Blood drips to the floor, the scent of it "wrong" in the same way Isabella's was before she was turned. Isabella pins him to the wall by his throat, allowing his broken hand to hang free. He screams again, nearly passing out from the pain. She waits patiently for him to stop blubbering, then leans in and whispers, "I'm immune."
Aro and I both say, "What?" at the same time.
We've all . . . cure as . . . precaution. Alice's thought comes in fragments, but I surmise Isabella and Alice took the cure before we left for Italy.
The look on Aro's face indicates a dawning realization that he's been doubly hoodwinked. "Bring Carlisle in!"
"Let go of me, you psycho bitch!" James shrieks.
"You know what, James? I'm ashamed to admit that ever since Edward came back from Spain, I've been dreaming of getting my hands on you." Isabella's voice lowers to a dangerous whisper. "Fantasies of snapping the vertebrae in your back, rendering you paralyzed and helpless. Putting you in one of those nursing homes that you hate so much with its reek of disinfectant and watching you wither away and die, old and infirm. To have people feed you, bathe you, and slide a bedpan beneath your pathetic wrinkled ass."
Despite the agonizing pain, Hunter's blue eyes grow stormy with anger, and he glares at Isabella. "You forget where you are. The Volturi are in charge here! You're nothing. You always have been. I pulled you out of Nowhereville and made you a senator's wife."
"You're smooth and smarmy. You glad-hand left and right, buy and sell people as if they're commodities . . . lie, cheat, and bullshit your way through everything. I was young and innocent, and I believed in you—even loved you! You approached me like any other deal, James. Our courtship was nothing more than one of your political campaigns, full of empty promises."
Hunter smirks. "That's right. I campaigned for you, and you were easy. Like taking candy from a baby."
I flash across the room, snarling, but Isabella holds a hand up. "No, Edward."
Alec steps forward, sending a rolling cloud of darkness my way. Isabella startles, her head snapping in his direction. Her eyes widen, and she steps back, reaching a hand out to touch me. Then the damnedest thing happens—the bubbling murk slips up and over us like a rip curl while everyone else is blinded.
"What's happening?" Hunter calls out.
Isabella pulls me up against her body and looks around wildly. "What is that, Edward?"
I place my lips against her ear and speak as low as I can. "Alec can blind people with this dark mist. Somehow, you're deflecting it."
She clings to me and twirls us away from Hunter. As we move, the mist parts, eddying around the invisible barrier.
The slam of a door breaks the spell, and the mist returns to Alec. He looks surprised to see us across the room close to Alice again, and so does Aro. Hunter still seems dazed by the experience, leaning against the wall cradling his broken hand.
Carlisle is escorted into the room by one of the guards. He looks well, though his eyes are dark with thirst. When he sees us there, his expression is a mixture of relief and wariness. It's good to . . . whole again, Edward.
I shake my head like a dog with itchy ears, though I know it won't help. Something inside me is still broken.
"Attention!" Aro slaps his palms together once. The glitter in his eyes is dangerous. "Carlisle, you told me you didn't have the cure perfected when you arrived here, and yet, here stands Edward in one piece. Care to explain?"
My brow creases with confusion. Surely Aro used his gift on Carlisle.
"I didn't and don't have the cure, Aro. We all worked on the research so no one person would have complete knowledge. Whoever has the cure will have ultimate power, and it's too dangerous to allow that to fall into the hands of one."
"Even you, good doctor?"
"I don't want that responsibility."
Aro steps down and walks slowly over to Carlisle. He usually has others brought to stand below the dais because of his short stature, but the rage boiling beneath the surface is evident, and he doesn't seem to care that he has to look up into my sire's face. "And why in the world would you think that decision lies with you?"
"Aro, I never asked for this. It was thrust upon me, and I made the best decision I could under the circumstances."
"You made the wrong decision!" Aro's voice is a ragged growl. "Give me your hand."
For the first time since I've known him, Carlisle is scared. He shakes his head. "We made an agreement long ago, old friend."
"Agreements don't survive treason."
"No treason has been committed! I was protecting my family—trying to save my son and his mate. When we came up with a cure, I would have shared it with the Volturi. Surely you don't believe I would hoard it."
"Share it. Share it? We are royalty! We decide who and what and when! Now give me your hand."
A guard kicks Carlisle in the back of the legs, driving him to his knees before Aro. Without a choice, Carlisle offers his hand to Aro.
We're so fucked.
A/N: If you haven't already guessed, there will be more fun and excitement coming up. Any thoughts or theories? Edward is still recovering his gift, but there was no time for him to hang on the beach a sip on a Mai Tai. Makes things more challenging anyway.
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