13. The Best-Laid Schemes
The Idea was born at the bottom of the river.
While Bella had hidden from Charlie and the truth of what she was, while Edward had hovered protectively over her, the idea had blossomed into existence.
She hadn't been ready for it then. So it stayed quiet, lurking in the back of her mind, waiting for the right moment.
It had been there, feeding off of her guilt when she had let Edward protect her from Jasper's accusing eyes. It was there now, whisper-quiet and unacknowledged, while she sat on the stairs in the middle of a cacophony of sound. Loud music that Bella only vaguely recognized poured from a stereo system in the living room, while Emmett and Rosalie ripped up the damaged flooring all throughout the main floor. Esme was on the phone arranging for the sale of their antique furniture, which was currently in the garage, and Carlisle was moving through the first floor wreckage, writing down a list of supplies that would need to be purchased for the replacement flooring.
Edward's piano had already been moved, and the low dais that it rested on had been re-covered in white laminate. It was back now, and Edward was tuning it, the tapping of the keys adding to the aural hurricane reverberating through the house.
Bella had offered to help with the work, but had instead found herself sitting next to Alice on the stairs, a laptop computer on her knees. "We need to choose a color scheme for your room!" Alice had declared excitedly.
Bella had started to protest that it didn't need redecorating, but Alice poked out her bottom lip and batted her eyelashes. "You wouldn't take my fun away, would you, Bella?"
Bella had surrendered, and now she was trying to choose between dozens of design ideas that Alice was showing her.
"I don't know. They're all so pretty. Any one of them would be amazing."
Alice shook her head. "That just tells me that we haven't found the one yet. Do you like the fluffy, lacy, girly ones or the sleek, straight lines?"
"Ummm . . . I guess sleeker lines?"
"Bold colors or pastels?"
"I don't know. They're all pretty. I guess I like the bold ones better."
"What about patterns? Do you like florals?"
Bella thought of the over-chintzed bedroom in the house in Mexico and shuddered. "No. No florals."
"Okay. What about neutral colors? Blacks, whites, tans?"
"Sure, they're fine."
Alice pursed her lips, clearly dissatisfied with Bella's lukewarm responses. She wanted to get a reaction, Bella knew, but it was hard to get all that excited about color schemes.
"There's a patchwork quilt in your room at Charlie's," Alice mused. "Do you like that? Down-home country style?"
"How do you know there's a patchwork quilt in my room?"
"Rose told me."
"How does Rose know?"
"When she went to borrow Charlie's flannel, she poked around a little. She thought there might be something she could bring you to help you feel more comfortable, but then she was worried that Charlie would miss whatever she took." She suddenly brightened. "Do you want something from your room? I bet Charlie would let you take anything you want."
"I haven't been in that room in years," Bella said, and Alice looked crestfallen.
"But maybe a nice chair to sit in and read?" Bella suggested, trying to brighten her up again.
"Of course! What kind of chair do you want?"
That stumped her. She wasn't familiar enough with the different styles of chairs to give them names, even if she did have a particular style in mind.
"Um . . . anything's fine."
Alice stared thoughtfully into space while Bella flipped through images on the computer, her attention drifting to the third floor.
Jasper was up there. He had been clearing out his study for Edward to use as a bedroom, but now he was just sitting alone in Carlisle's office, two fingers tapping on the arm of a chair. Every now and then he would take a deep breath, but other than that and the tapping, Bella hadn't heard him make a single move in twenty minutes.
He was upset with her. It was disappointing after how well they had gotten along the day before, when he was preparing her to see Charlie. She had thought they were making progress. But he was back to watching her every move with dark, suspicious eyes.
The Idea fidgeted in the back of her mind.
"I've got it!" Alice burst out. She snatched the computer off of Bella's lap and turned it toward herself, blocking Bella's view of the screen. "You're going to love it! I mean, really, really love it!" She clicked away at the mouse, moving almost too quickly for the computer to keep up, and after a few seconds she turned it around and presented it to Bella.
She had pulled up an interior decorating program that let the user model different colors to see if how they worked together. The virtual room was painted in tan, with accents of deep golds and sage greens, and a red clay crown molding bordering the room.
Bella gasped. The colors reminded her forcibly of home, and she felt a sudden urge to reach out and hug the computer.
"Oh, Alice, I do love it! It's perfect!"
"I knew it! I knew we'd find something! Edward, come look!"
Edward laughed and shook his head. "I see it, Alice. You're practically yelling it."
"So? What do you think?"
"It's good. I like the southwestern flavor."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "You're not anywhere near excited enough for my liking."
"That's because you're not doing my room yet. Are you going to do an homage to my home, too? Do the place up like a speakeasy, with Gatling guns as accents and a mural of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre on the wall?"
"Be careful what you wish for, Masen. I might just do it."
He laughed and turned back to his piano. "I like your ideas for Bella's room. And yes, I think you definitely should get some potted cactuses for the shelves."
She clapped her hands excitedly. "I can't wait to go shopping! Oh, Bella, I wish you could come with us, but I promise I'll only bring home things you'll absolutely love. Your room is going to be the coziest place in the whole house."
"I can't wait to see what you find."
"Carlisle," Edward said as he leaned over his piano, "he's just about ready."
Carlisle set his clipboard aside and headed toward the stairs. "Thank you, Edward." He vaulted over Alice and Bella. "Ladies."
"What's going on?" Bella asked.
"Jasper's got something on his mind," Alice said, surfing a new decorating site for accents. "He takes forever to get to it sometimes. Hey, what do you think of these Navajo rugs? Are they too . . . ?"
"They're a little too. Except that one, actually, with the light browns. That would look really good." She tried to focus on color schemes with Alice, but her attention strayed to the top floor. There was nothing but silence now that Carlisle had reached his study, and Bella wondered what they were thinking, what they were waiting for.
It was in the middle of Edward playing a scale on his piano and Rosalie ripping up a particularly stiff bit of flooring that Jasper finally spoke.
"I'm not wrong, you know," he said, the noise in the house inadequate to drown out his voice.
"About what?" came the answer from Carlisle.
"Isabella. I can always place them. I mean, always, within a few days. And that kid is brand new. Under a week if I had to pin it down as close as I could."
Edward caught Bella's gaze and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.
"Yes . . ." Carlisle prompted.
"Peter saw it, too. We have experience with this. We know our newborns."
"I'm not sure I understand. Has someone challenged your assessment?"
"Does he not know that we can hear him?" Bella whispered to Alice.
It was Edward who answered. "He knows. He just doesn't care. It's too hard to keep secrets around here, so we've pretty much stopped trying."
"Just ignore him," Alice said airily. "Do you want a queen sized bed or a king?"
But she couldn't ignore him, and the silence that had fallen upstairs unnerved her more than ever. "Um . . . why do I need a bed?"
"It is a bed room."
"Edward doesn't have one."
"Edward doesn't like to curl up and read in bed. I thought you might."
"Here's the thing," Jasper began again upstairs. "She's been missing for two months. She's been a vampire for a week. So where has she been?"
"You're welcome to ask her," Carlisle answered, "if you're concerned about it."
"We have asked her. Chief Swan asked her again last night. She doesn't answer."
"She was under some pressure last night."
"And speaking of last night, how was that so easy for her? She shouldn't have been able to do that."
Alice reached out and squeezed Bella's hand, but Bella's attention was so focused on Jasper and Carlisle that she barely noticed.
"You prepared her well," Carlisle was saying. "Your ideas were ingenious—particularly the use of the wolf scent."
"She learned too quickly and she stayed too calm for week-old vampire."
"She did well, but her control wavered relatively quickly."
"No it didn't," Jasper said, his voice dark. "She never lost control. She told us that she came back here to see her father, but she only spent few minutes with him before she lied about her thirst and bailed."
Bella hunched over her knees, feeling exposed. She didn't want Edward to look at her. She didn't want him to know she had lied, and she especially didn't want him to know why. It was only when she noticed how loud her breathing sounded in her ears that she realized the activity around her had stopped. The music was still going, but no one was pulling up flooring or talking on the phone. They were all listening to Carlisle and Jasper talk about her.
After several silent moments upstairs, Carlisle spoke again.
"Jasper, do you remember when you and Alice first joined us?"
"You were suspicious of us all. We didn't behave the way you expected us to, and you weren't accustomed to having your expectations unmet."
Jasper drew in a deliberate breath and let it out. "Yeah."
"You're a very meticulous man. You take great pains to see to it that you're never surprised, because surprises unnerve you."
Jasper gave no answer, but the tapping of his fingers started up again.
Silence fell between them again, and Bella wished she had someplace to hide. She was just sure everyone was looking at her, listening to her, gauging her reactions. As if to reaffirm her fears, Alice started lightly stroking her hair, but stopped when Bella cringed away.
"You think I'm being too hard on her," Jasper finally said.
"I do." Carlisle's voice was warm and affectionate. "Please understand, I don't fault you for it. Your caution has been a boon to this family on countless occasions, and I'm deeply grateful for your counsel."
"But you want me to give her the benefit of the doubt."
"I'm not asking you to," Carlisle said, still so warm. "You have good instincts, and I wouldn't ask you to defy them. I just want you to give her time. She's still so young, both in human and vampire terms, and you can't blame her for being overwhelmed. She may confide in us yet, if we can show her we're worthy of her trust."
"But is she worthy of ours?"
"Time will tell. I believe your remarkable patience will serve you well here."
Another silence fell, stretching on for several minutes this time. Edward started tinkering with his piano again, and then gradually the activity around Bella resumed. Emmett and Rosalie were prying up the last of the flooring when Jasper spoke again.
"Why is it so much easier for her than it is for me?"
Carlisle's quiet chuckle drifted down through the ceiling. "Don't sell yourself short, son. Your control is excellent."
"Not like hers. I never could have done what she did as a newborn."
Bella heard the squeak of a chair before Carlisle spoke again. "I'm not so sure that's true. You never saw your family after you were changed, did you?"
"It makes a difference. We tend to think of emotional responses as separate entities from physical ones, but I expect you know better than anyone how interconnected they really are. Isabella's affection for her father tempered her instincts enough that the other precautions you put in place were able to take effect."
"You think the difference is that she cared about him?"
"Absolutely. That's a large part of what enabled me to learn to endure the smell of blood while I operated on my early patients. I was invested in their well-being." He sighed, and Bella heard the chair squeak again. "I wish you and the others would get more involved with your peers at school."
"That means being around them more. It increases the risk."
"Statistically, yes. But you'd be surprised how much easier it is to stop thinking about blood when you're engaged in interesting conversation."
"You really think that would make things easier?"
Silence fell again, and some of the tension eased out of Bella's shoulders, but when Jasper spoke again she stiffened.
"She's too evasive. It worries me."
Bella waited for Carlisle to say something else, to defend her or side with Jasper, but he seemed content to stop there. After another long silence, Bella heard the scraping of chairs and a quiet murmur from Jasper that she didn't quite catch.
"I consider it an honor," Carlisle answered, and then the two of them exited the office.
Jasper descended the stairs first. "Alice, take a walk with me," he ordered as he stepped between her and Bella.
She rolled her eyes and closed the laptop, passing it back to Bella. "I'll be back soon. Keep thinking about ideas for your room."
Bella watched her follow Jasper out the front door, both of them moving along the narrow joists that Emmett and Rosalie had exposed when they'd ripped up the floor.
Carlisle descended the stairs behind Jasper and took Alice's place beside Bella. He reached out a hand, perhaps to touch her hair or squeeze her shoulder, but then thought better of it. He curled his fingers into a fist and dropped it into his lap. For a moment he didn't say anything, and Bella cast a furtive look at him as she hugged Alice's laptop to her chest.
"There's some tension between you and Jasper," he finally began.
"It's not her fault," Edward said from his piano bench, but at a silent reproach from Carlisle he ducked his head and stared at the keys.
Bella didn't say anything.
"It's to be expected, you know. We vampires aren't meant to live like this, in large family groups. We're too territorial. Our instincts tell us to lash out at those we perceive as threats."
She chewed at her lip. "I'm not a threat."
"Neither is Jasper," he said lightly, a smile playing at his lips. "But even if I could convince you of that logically, you wouldn't believe it on an instinctual level."
Bella shuddered. Those scars told her all she needed to know.
"It's all right to trust your instincts. It's how many newborns survive, particularly if they've been abandoned by their sires."
Bella waited for the "but." She waited for him to tell her to give Jasper what he wanted. Instead he leaned back against the stair railing, a nostalgic smile on his face.
"I reacted much the same way, you know. Back when Jasper and Alice first joined us. Most of us did. Esme was the only one who was able to look past his scars and see him for the man he is."
He waited for a response, but when he didn't get one he continued. "We all came to understand one another eventually, and I'm confident that you can, too. I hope you'll allow some time to let things settle between the two of you."
"Do I have a choice?" she muttered, more to herself than anything.
Carlisle's smile fell and his shoulders slumped. "Of course you have a choice. I won't keep you here against your will."
"That's not the message I got."
He leaned forward on his knees, bringing one had up to rub his forehead. "If you remain in Forks, I do need you to stay with us. But if you're really unhappy here, I won't stop you from leaving the territory."
The Idea rattled in the back of her mind.
"She's not." Edward pushed away from his piano and moved along the floor joists to the stairs. He dropped down on the step below Bella's feet and looked up at her, his eyes begging for the answer he wanted. "Are you, Bella? I mean, not because of us. I know you're unhappy, but it's not us, is it?"
She shook her head, but couldn't hold his gaze. Of course they hadn't caused the worst of it. It wasn't their fault that she had lost her family, her life, her son . . . but she felt suffocated in this house. There was always someone watching her, monitoring her every move, making sure she followed the rules.
"What is it?" Carlisle asked gently.
She took a shaky breath, hating that they were all staring at her once again, seeing every weakness. "I don't like being watched all the time."
"Of course you don't." Carlisle nodded, his eyes full of understanding. "Of course you don't. I'm sure all of this is overwhelming for you." He paused, his eyebrows pulled together in concentration. "You're welcome to wander the forest behind the house. As long as you stay within about fifteen miles to the south or the east, you shouldn't run the risk of coming across any humans."
Bella immediately perked up at the idea. "You don't care if I go out alone?"
"No . . . though I'd appreciate it if you'd check in now and then if you intend to be out for more than a few hours. And if your father calls, we may have someone run out and track you down, so try to leave an easy trail to follow."
Bella nodded, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. Charlie had already called twice, and both times Bella had gotten the impression that he was checking to make sure he hadn't dreamed her return. The conversations had been brief, since neither of them were very good with words, but Bella knew that the contact meant a lot to him.
"As a matter of fact," Carlisle continued, "you're about to have the house to yourself for a few hours. That is, unless you'd prefer to have someone stay with you?" His gaze flicked to Edward and then back again.
"No," Bella said quickly. "I mean . . . it's okay. You don't have to babysit me."
"All right. I'll take a cell phone with me. It's speed dial six on the home phone, so just give me a call if you need anything."
"When are you going to let us get our own cell phones?" Emmett asked, prying up the last of the flooring.
"You can get them any time you like."
"Sure. You just can't use them in public."
Emmett huffed and tossed the wood aside. "Why do you and Esme get to use them when none of the rest of us do?"
"To the people of Forks, the rest of you are teenagers."
"So? Teenagers use cell phones."
"Do any of your classmates have them?"
Emmett snorted. "In this backward town?"
"That's what I thought." Carlisle smiled patiently. "We don't draw undue attention to ourselves and that means you won't be the first student at Forks High School with a cell phone."
Emmett looked like he was about to argue, but Carlisle continued.
"You may, however, be the second. As soon as you see one of your peers with one, you can all get your own."
Emmett's sulky expression suddenly morphed into a calculating grin. "Really?"
"Practice subtlety, please, Emmett. This is about not drawing attention to ourselves."
"Oh, I'm subtle," he said, turning to pick up an armload of splintered wood. "Sly, even. I'm going to get this done, and nobody will know I had anything to do with it."
Carlisle chuckled and stood. "I'll help you finish hauling the scrap out, and then we should all get on our way. We won't be able to have anything delivered, so we'll need to rent a truck while we're in Port Angeles."
His words were followed by a flurry of activity as everyone started carrying bundles of the old flooring out to the front yard. Alice and Jasper reappeared to help out, and soon they had the mess cleared out, leaving only the joists and the platform for Edward's piano. Bella couldn't help the smile that leapt to her face when she saw Carlisle grab Esme around the waist and spin her around before dancing her across the framework of the floor. Their feet unerringly found the boards beneath them as they gazed into one another's eyes.
"I shouldn't let you out of the house looking like this," he murmured, his hand gripping the back of her paint-stained T-shirt. "You'll drive the poor locals mad with desire."
Edward dropped down next to Bella on the stairs, distracting her from the scene. "Are you sure you don't want me to stay? They don't really need my help."
She smiled at him, but shook her head. As fond as she was of him, she still craved a little time to herself. She wasn't used to the constant scrutiny, and it was wearing on her.
"Okay. We'll be back soon. If you're feeling adventurous, I'll show you how to lay carpet." He squeezed her hand by way of parting and headed out the front door.
"Let's get a move on, lovebirds," Emmett said, striding past Carlisle and Esme, who were now kissing passionately in the middle of the living room. "Time's a-wastin'."
The two of them broke apart, and Esme looked back at Bella as they headed out the door. "Take care, sweetheart. Call us if you need anything."
Bella fluttered her fingers in a wave, and then the door closed behind them, leaving her alone in the house. She listened while car doors opened and closed and two engines rumbled to life. When the sounds faded off into the distance she let out a long breath and finally relaxed.
They were gone. She was alone.
She stood and moved to the stereo, turning off the music and letting the peace of the empty house seep into her bones. She could hear the muffled sounds of the forest beyond the walls of the house: the twitter of birds, the rush of the river, the rustle of wind in the trees. It sounded warm and safe after the chaos of the house's destruction.
But she soon realized that being alone with her thoughts wasn't as pleasant as she had hoped it would be. With nothing to distract her, her mind wandered back to the house in Mexico, to the monster who had imprisoned her there and to the little boy she had left in his care.
And that was when the Idea pushed its way into the forefront of her mind.
She dismissed it as soon as she had acknowledged it. There were some things she just couldn't do.
But it wouldn't go away. It twitched and nudged. It scratched and tugged. And though Bella didn't want to have anything to do with it, she soon realized she had to give it some serious thought.
She didn't want it. As awkward and uncomfortable as she found her current situation, it was still a million times better than what she had come from. Jasper was intimidating, to be sure, but Edward . . . Edward was . . .
She didn't know what Edward was, exactly, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized it didn't matter. Edward didn't matter, and Jasper didn't matter, and even sweet, generous Alice didn't matter.
Because the Idea was more than just an idea. It was an imperative. She had to go back.
Every self-preserving instinct in her body fought back against the Idea, but she knew she didn't really have a choice. Her guilt over leaving her son wasn't going to go away. It was, in fact, intensifying. He was on her mind every free moment, and even plenty of moments when she was supposed to be focused on other things.
She couldn't forget him. She was ashamed of herself for even trying. Her mother would never have done that. Charlie would never have done that. She had become a disappointment to both of them when she had run from her responsibilities.
She had become a disappointment to herself.
She didn't know what she would do when she got there. Just the thought of seeing Joham again left her feeling weak and nauseated. If the opportunity presented itself, she would take her son and run with him, but she doubted that she'd get the chance. And she couldn't risk challenging Joham. If she lost the fight, he would turn her away or even kill her. That wasn't an option. She had to be with Alexander, even if it meant submitting to Joham's tortures again.
She had to resign herself to the most likely scenario. She was going to Mexico, and she doubted that she would be coming back.
It left a hollow ache in her chest to think of it. Carlisle had been good to her, despite her fears. Esme, Rosalie, Alice . . . and Edward. It hurt too much to even think of him, so she didn't. She couldn't, or she would lose her nerve.
She thought of Charlie again, and it nearly broke her. He would be devastated when he found out she had gone again. But she had to. If he knew what she was going back to, he would understand. She was doing what he would do.
She moved along the exposed boards to the kitchen and scribbled a note on the pad next to the phone.
Tell Charlie I'm sorry.
It was the best she could do. She couldn't bear the thought of telling him the reason she had to leave again. It was best to let him think she was still the same old Bella, still his little girl.
It would be easier for him.
She thought of leaving something for Edward, too. Something to thank him for being so . . . so exactly what she needed. But she froze up at the thought of saying goodbye to him, and she finally just dropped the pen and turned away. She was shaking all over from terror, from sadness, from the guilt of leaving more chaos in her wake. That seemed to be all she could do since she had turned into this. She had walked into a harmonious family and turned them all against one another. She had walked into an elegant home and was leaving it half gutted.
It was time for her to leave, before she made it all worse.
She walked out the back door, making sure it latched firmly behind her, and with one more longing look at the house, she turned southwest in a path that would take her to the ocean without crossing La Push.
She didn't get far. It was only a few minutes before she heard the squeal of tires in the distance, and then someone was running toward her in the trees.
Edward. She felt simultaneously relieved and tormented. How could she leave if he asked her to stay? Her heart was already pulling her in two directions, and if he pulled any harder she would rip in two. She slowed to a stop, her shoulders slumping.
She could hear seven people running toward her now, but Edward reached her first. He skidded to a stop in front of her, grabbing her arms and shaking her.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, his voice pained and desperate. "You're not leaving, Bella. Please. Please, you're not really leaving?"
"Edward, let go of her." Carlisle stopped a few yards away from them, the others coming up behind him. "I told her she could leave if she wanted to. It's her choice."
Edward ignored him, still gripping Bella's arms tightly. "Are we really so awful? Have we made you so miserable?"
"I have to go back," she whispered, but it was without conviction. She didn't want it. "I'm sorry."
"Why? Back to what? I thought your sire abandoned you?"
She shook her head, wishing that the truth didn't condemn her so harshly. "It was me. I left."
She was conscious again of eyes on her, analyzing her. Of Jasper, especially, studying her and discovering her secrets.
"Why?" Edward asked her. His grip loosened and he pulled her closer, winding one arm around her waist.
She let her head fall against his chest. "It was so awful there." She wanted to tell him everything, to unburden her soul onto his strong shoulders, but she knew she couldn't take the disapproval that would follow. Instead she just clutched the back of his shirt and shuddered at the memory of Joham's hands on her. "He was so awful."
"Then why go back? Stay here with us . . . with me."
Her knees buckled from the sheer weight of her desire to give in. But she couldn't.
"I left . . ." a baby, my son, "something. I have to go back for it."
"Bella . . ."
It was Alice who stepped forward, her eyes haunted with the ghost of too much knowledge. "Bella, you won't find what you're looking for. I'm sorry, but . . . whatever it is . . . it's not there."
"Yes it is," she hissed, the anger coiling in her stomach and escaping before she could stop it. How dare she? How dare she try to keep Bella from her son?
Edward's voice was gentle, his breath comforting as it fluttered through her hair. "Where did you leave it?"
"Mexico," she answered, and shivered at the thought of the lonely house with the rows of cots in the living room.
"Do you mind if we drive? Running is fun and all, but it helps to have the cover of tinted windows if we're going to travel in daylight."
Bella sucked in a sharp breath, pulling back to look at him. For a moment, everything else blurred and all she could see were his searching eyes, his crooked, tentative smile. Was he really offering to come with her? Could it be that she didn't have to do this alone?
Alice's voice broke through her haze, bringing her back to reality.
"Edward, it's no good. You can see as well as I can that you won't find anything."
"I know. But it's not fair to ask Bella to trust that. She needs to see it for herself."
"Alice and I will come with you," Jasper said.
Edward shook his head.
"Edward, you heard what Peter said—"
"And you said yourself that Peter was overly paranoid. You make her uncomfortable, Jasper. You're not coming."
He started to argue, but Alice touched his arm. "He's right, we can't. That thing I told you about . . . it's getting more concrete. We need to be here."
"Then Edward needs to be here, too."
She shook her head. "He knows about Edward. That's enough. He needs to see you."
Bella felt Edward stiffen. "When were you going to share that with the rest of us?" he demanded.
"When I knew enough to be certain, just like always." Her eyes flashed, but behind the irritation they looked fathomless and old, like she had lived a million lifetimes. "But . . . I'm pretty sure. So come back soon." She moved forward and gripped one of Bella's hands behind Edward's back. "Come back."
Bella buried her head in Edward's chest and nodded. If he came with her, maybe she had a chance of getting Alexander away from Joham and Serena. Maybe she could escape with him after all, and bring him back here. They would all know the truth about her then, but she could handle that if she had her son with her. If she had done what she could to fix her mistake, maybe it would be okay if they knew.
"I haven't gotten her a passport yet," Jasper said.
"That's okay. We've both sneaked across the border before." He released her and nodded in the direction he had come from. "So how about it? Do you mind if we drive?"
"Edward . . ."
Carlisle stepped forward and Edward turned to him, his jaw set, ready to fight. But Carlisle just held out a set of keys.
"Take the Mercedes. You'll need the darker tint if you're heading south."
Edward accepted the keys and allowed Carlisle to pull him into an embrace. The older man slipped a cell phone from his pocket and tucked it into Edward's.
"If you run into any trouble, you call me immediately."
Esme drew Bella's attention by stepping forward and embracing her as well. "You be safe," she whispered, her voice imploring.
Bella nodded, but she didn't promise.
Rosalie moved in, wrapping her arms around both of them. "Hurry back. Esme will fret the entire time you're away." She cleared her throat. "And I might, too."
"I really hope I'm wrong," Alice added, joining the hug, but her voice didn't hold any hope. She was sure of her dour prediction.
Bella was overwhelmed by the show of affection and support, and she didn't know how to respond. She swallowed against the lump forming in her throat and offered them the best smile she could muster.
"All right, you bunch of old hens," Edward said, shooing the girls away. "The sooner we get going, the sooner we can be back. Come on, Bella." He held out his hand to her and she took it, her smile growing more genuine.
She was going back for her son, and Edward was coming with her. She felt like she could fly.
The two of them started running back the way Edward had come, toward the two cars that had been parked in the shadow of the trees along the side of the highway. They passed the Volvo, which Edward had left running, unwilling to pause even long enough to cut the engine, and headed for the Mercedes. Edward opened Bella's door for her and gave her a hand into her seat, then rounded the car and climbed behind the wheel. He coaxed the engine to life and pulled onto the freeway, his eyes roaming admiringly over the dash of the car.
"Check the glove box," he said. "Carlisle might have some good music in there."
She rooted around inside, finding a mix of albums nearly as eclectic as the one Edward had kept in his room, if significantly smaller. She withdrew a Bruce Springsteen CD that reminded her of summers with Charlie and examined it. It made her feel connected to her father, and right now she needed to borrow his strength.
"Is this one okay?"
Edward nodded and she slid it into the player. The electric tones of "Blinded by the Light" drifted out of the speakers, and Edward turned up the volume as he accelerated to well over the speed limit. He looked happy and carefree, and his good mood was contagious. There was a lightness in Bella's chest that she hadn't felt in months, and a little giggle bubbled out of her as Bruce started to sing. Optimism brightened her surroundings, and she hugged herself happily when Edward's velvet voice joined in with the song. She felt vibrant and alive, and though she was poised on the edge of what promised to be the biggest change of her life, she felt ready for it.
The drive was long, but it was exciting. Edward drove much faster than Carlisle did, at least when traffic allowed. He weaved between cars, breezing by even the fastest drivers and only slowing for the occasional speed trap or congested road. They stopped three times for gas, always at nearly-abandoned roadside stops, and each time Bella cranked up the music in the car and hunched down in her seat with her breath held, trying to think of anything except for the blood pumping in the cashiers' veins.
It was easier than she thought it would be. After all, she had Alexander to think of. What kind of role model could she be for her boy if she couldn't keep herself from killing any human in the general vicinity?
They made amazing time. It was only a little after midnight when they passed San Diego, and not long after that Edward exited the freeway and maneuvered his way to a poorly-maintained side road.
"Where are we going?" Bella asked, scanning her surroundings.
"A convenient place to cross the border. Where did you come across the first time?"
He cocked his head to the side, giving her an odd look. "You didn't swim all the way from Mexico to Washington, did you?"
"Didn't you ever go ashore?"
"I couldn't," she said. "I . . . would have smelled them."
Edward gaped at her, barely sparing any attention for the road ahead. "You stayed in the water so you wouldn't kill anyone?"
He laughed shook his head. "You belong with us, Bella." He took her hand and brought it to his lips, giving it a firm kiss and laughing again. It was a wondering, infectious sound, and Bella found herself smiling along with him.
"We're taking a dryer route this time, if that's okay."
"What if someone sees us?"
"That's where the fun part comes in," he said with a grin. "We stay low, crawl, mostly, and once we're a ways away, we leave a couple of drained animals lying around."
Bella furrowed her brow, not understanding what he was telling her.
"Come on, Bella, you lived in Arizona. Surely you've heard legends of the chupa cabre?"
Her eyes widened and she laughed. "You want people to think we're chupa cabre?"
"It's better than having them think we're vampires."
Bella laughed again, encouraged by the mischief in his eyes. "Have you started these rumors before?"
"Once, in 1996. Emmett and I took an impulsive trip and didn't think to bring along our passports. We made the papers and everything."
"What about the Volturi? Did they find out?"
"Who knows?" He shrugged. "Unless people were talking about vampires, they didn't care." He pulled the Mercedes into a copse of scrubby trees beside the road and cut the engine.
"Are we just going to leave the car?" Bella asked.
They climbed out and Edward locked it up. "Ready? I'll go first, but stay close."
Edward crouched down, leaning on his hands, and Bella imitated his stance. He crawled forward a few feet, and then took off, tearing across the open land. Bella knew he wasn't going as fast as he could have, but with his speed and stance he did look somewhat animalistic. She followed after him, easily leaping fences and rivers, ducking into the shadows of trees and bushes wherever they were available. When they had put a good ten miles between themselves and the car, Edward tore off after a coyote and drained it, tossing the body out on the open ground.
Bella managed to catch a jackrabbit and did the same. It wasn't as good as a carnivore, but the bitterness was starting to grow on her. It was almost like learning to drink coffee, she thought. She was developing a taste for grass-fed rodents.
Edward held out a hand to her when she was finished, and she took it eagerly.
"So," he said. "Where to?"
"Um." She looked around her. They were east of Tijuana, but the terrain was unfamiliar. They were too far east, she thought. Maybe. But she didn't recognize this part of the desert.
Edward saw her uncertainty and stepped in to help. "Maybe we should try retracing your steps. When you left . . . wherever you were . . . where did you go?"
"To the coast. South of Tijuana."
"Straight to the water, huh?"
"Okay. Let's head out to the coast and see if anything catches your eye."
Bella agreed, and taking the somewhat awkward chupa cabre stance again, the two of them darted off through the brush.
They didn't make it to the coast, though. They had only been running for about a half hour when Bella skidded to a stop. Edward stopped as well and straightened, jogging back to her.
"I recognize this. I came this way."
She was staring at a road off in the distance, to the South. She had been on the other side of it when . . .
Her throat burned at the memory of the thumping baseline, the pulsing blood, the open car window. She could see the exact spot where it had happened. The car was gone but the earth was still churned up from the impact.
They were close.
She didn't wait for him to answer, but headed southeast. When she reached the road she turned east and followed it, peering through the darkness, trying to catch a glimpse of the hell she had left behind.
She saw it before long, and it was all she could do to force herself to keep going. Every instinct in her body was screaming for her to get away from there, to never go near that house or its inhabitants again.
Every instinct except one. One that knew her son was there, and was desperate to get him back. And it was a strong one.
So she kept running, despite the terror that tried to freeze her limbs, despite the dread that curdled the blood in her stomach. She kept running despite the fact that she wanted to stop Edward, to send him away so he wouldn't know the things she never wanted to show him.
But as they approached the house, she began to sense that something was off. It was too silent. The air conditioner wasn't running, despite the intense summer heat. There was no murmur of voices, no clomping of feet, no clink of chain links against metal bedframes.
Her throat tightened.
But it was late. Joham would be out. Whatever girls he had in there would be sleeping. Serena might be, too, or else quietly reading a book. They would want the house quiet, so as not to disturb the baby.
Of course the house was silent. Why wouldn't it be? That didn't mean Alice was right, that there was nothing to find.
She gave up the too-slow animal gait and pushed herself to her feet. She expected Edward to protest, but he only followed along silently. When they reached the house she burst inside, ready to face Joham, ready to find Alexander and run with him.
But they weren't there.
The room was empty. The cots that had lined the walls for the last few months had disappeared. There were no dishes in the sink, no baby paraphernalia scattered on the kitchen island.
"No," she gasped, and ran upstairs, shoving her way into the bedrooms. "No, no, no!" When she found them empty she ran through them all again, flinging open closets, searching under the beds. But there was nothing.
"Bella." Edward caught her when she darted down the stairs and went to search the bathroom off of the kitchen. "Let me help you. What are you looking for?"
"All of them," she choked out, shoving away from him. "They're here. I know they are."
Edward grabbed her hand, pulling her back to him once again. "There's no one here. Judging by how faded the scents are, the place has been empty for days.
"He has to be!" She jerked her hand out of his and ran to the bathroom, searching in closets, under the sink, knowing full well that it was irrational but needing to all the same. She couldn't accept that Alexander was gone. If she did, she would break.
Edward stood stoically by while she went through the house again, tearing it apart, searching for something—anything—that would indicate where her son had gone. Her eyes stung with phantom tears and dry, racking sobs escaped unnoticed from her throat. She wanted to tear the house apart, to search between the walls and under every tile on the roof.
Edward stopped her when she began punching through the drywall. He dragged her back against his chest and wrapped his arms around her, holding her as she sobbed and made a half-hearted effort to wriggle free.
"I have to find him," she whimpered. "He has to be here."
Edward's grip loosened. "Who?"
Bella sank to the floor, shaking from the weight of her despair. She caught the faintest trace of Alexander's scent and she rolled onto her side, curling into a ball and pressing her face into the floor to try and draw his essence from the board that he had once touched.
"Who, Bella?" Edward lowered himself to his knees behind her, one hand resting lightly on her arm. "Who are you looking for?"
She didn't answer him. She didn't know if she wanted to. In the weeks since she had left her mother she had accrued a lifetime's worth of regrets, and she didn't want Edward to see her for the mess that she was.
But the burden was too heavy to carry alone. It was destroying her, breaking her down, and she was sure it would grind her to dust if she had to hold it much longer. So she took a shuddering breath and whispered the name that haunted her thoughts.
"Who is Alexander? Is that your sire?"
Her sire? Bella let her hair fall in front of her face, hiding her from Edward. Technically, she supposed, the boy was her sire. But by the way the Cullens had used the word, she knew that it meant more to them than just the person whose venom had made her a vampire. To them, the sire was responsible for the vampire he had created.
But Alexander was only a child—her child. It was she who should have taken responsibility for him.
When she didn't answer, Edward squeezed her arm. "Why do you need to find him?"
Her body shook with grief and desperation, and her fingers dug into the floor beneath her, gouging deep holes into the wood.
"I love him."
She hadn't yet admitted it, even to herself. But since the first time she had held him, felt his warm weight tucked against her chest, she had loved him. She just didn't know how to reconcile that love with the fear and horror of what had come before.
Edward's hand slipped off of her arm, and he rocked back. "Oh."
For several long moments, neither of them spoke. Bella continued to cry as the loss seeped deep into her bones. She couldn't accept that Alexander was lost to her, but she didn't know what to do now.
"I'm going to go outside," Edward finally said, his voice sounding quiet and distant beneath Bella's sobs. "To see if there's any trace of a scent that might let us know where he's gone."
The promise of action, the suggestion that there was something to be done, brought Bella back to herself. She pushed herself to her feet and followed him out the door, scouting the terrain with him, searching for scents.
But they didn't find anything more than animal trails. After circling the house several times, pushing the perimeter wider each time, Edward finally stopped and shook his head.
"I'm sorry, Bella. The weather has destroyed his scent—if he left one at all. It's possible he left in a car, and that's just not possible to track."
"No!" Despair started to settle on her again, and she reacted violently. "There has to be a way! I have to find him!"
His eyes were pained when he turned to her. "I can try going into Tijuana and asking around. Maybe he passed through, mentioned to someone where he was going."
She nodded, grasping desperately to the frayed edges of hope, knowing it was a long shot but unable to acknowledge that it was. Edward would find him. He had the advantage of being able to read minds, after all. There was no one better suited for the task.
"What does Alexander look like? Maybe you could make a sketch of him that I could show people?"
"Not Alexander. Joham would have gone to the city. Or Serena."
"Who are they?"
But Bella was already running back into the house, racing up the stairs to a desk she had ransacked earlier and pulling out a sheet of lined paper. She found a pen and sketched out a likeness of Joham, her hand moving with perfect precision. Edward followed her and looked over her shoulder as she set the first paper aside and then began a second drawing.
"Joham and Serena?" he asked.
"I'm going to give you the cell phone, so I can get in touch with you if I need to. Will you be all right here?"
She nodded again and accepted the phone, trading it for the drawings.
He stared down at them and fidgeted, his lips pressed into a tight line. "The road isn't far away. You'll want to keep the doors and windows closed."
He cleared his throat, his gaze still fixed on the papers in his hands.
"I'll do everything I can," he said, and then was out the door and down the stairs before she could respond.
Bella listened to his soft footfalls until she couldn't hear them anymore, and then she drifted down the stairs. She scanned the empty living room, its walls decorated with pictures put up by a family that had mysteriously disappeared, floors grooved and scratched by the cots that had also vanished.
She moved to the space near the window, where her cot had been, and sank to the floor. She leaned against the wall and traced the tallies she had scratched there, marking her presence, counting down her days. She had despaired here. She had fantasized. She had crafted apologies to her family, again and again.
She had thought she would die here.
And she nearly had. If Alexander had been like Serena, unable to produce venom . . . if Joham had been there to take the baby before he could bite her . . .
The fact that the boy had wanted her sent sharp pains stabbing through her chest. When she had hated him, he had loved her. He had given her life, the thing she had clung to so desperately, so hopelessly. He had saved her, and now she had to do the same for him.
She couldn't leave him with Joham and Serena. She couldn't let him be raised by them, become like them.
All of her hopes were pinned on Edward, but as time passed they grew dimmer and dimmer. It was a long shot. For Edward to happen across the same people that Joham might have. For them to remember him, or have any information. Hour succeeded hour, with only her weak breathing and the sounds of animals and cars outside of the house to mark their passage.
When the eastern sky was just beginning to lighten, the phone vibrated and beeped. She flipped it open and read the text message from a number with a Washington area code.
Please come home as soon as you can. –Alice
Not long after, Bella heard Edward's step in the dirt outside and moved to the porch to wait for him. Her stomach felt heavy and sour, but there was a little flicker of hope inside, and she desperately needed him to give her something to justify it. She couldn't read anything in his flat, expressionless face, and she wrung her hands in front of her, trying to force herself to be patient.
"I'm sorry," he said without preamble once he reached the porch. "I didn't find anything. A few people recognized Joham, but they hadn't seen him recently and didn't know anything about where he might have gone."
Bella noticed the cool remoteness of his voice, but she couldn't make herself think about what it meant. She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to hold her pieces together.
"What do I do?" she whispered, her voice as dry and aimless as the desert wind.
Edward's stiff stance softened and he moved toward her, letting one hand drift around to the small of her back. "I don't know. We could look somewhere else, try other cities, but I don't think it's likely that we'll find anyone with real information. From what I've seen, Joham isn't one for idle conversation."
Bella sagged against him, desperation warring with defeat. She couldn't stand to give up, but she didn't know what else to do.
"Peter and Charlotte might be able to help," he said, his voice low and cautious.
Bella's head snapped up and she stumbled back a step, staring at him in horror. "Peter wants to kill me!"
"He doesn't. Not really. He doesn't care about you one way or the other."
"He told Jasper—"
"He's worried about Jasper. You have to understand where they come from, Bella. For a long time, the only way either of them survived was to immediately remove anything that could ever become a threat. Peter still lives that way, but Jasper doesn't, and Peter's afraid he's going to lose his best friend."
"He won't help me."
"He will if Jasper asks him to."
"Why would Jasper help me?"
"Because I'll ask him to."
She shook her head, afraid to pin her hopes on a man who had lobbied for her death. "How could Peter help?"
"He's connected. Information travels surprisingly well between nomads. They see a lot and they tell stories."
"You think he might have heard of Joham?"
"He might know someone who knows someone who knows someone. But I'll be honest . . . your picture of Joham probably won't do as much good as information about him would. It's stories that get spread around, not images."
Bella shuddered. She could imagine reports of Joham being passed from vampire to vampire, shared like tall tales or urban legends. Stories of a man who kidnapped girls to force them to bear his children . . . that had to be noteworthy even among blood-drinking monsters, didn't it?
"Alice wants us to go home," she said, because she couldn't say anything else.
"She sent a message." She gestured toward the phone, which she had left lying on the floor beneath the window, and Edward went inside to retrieve it. He came back out after a moment, his eyes straying back the way they had come.
"We should go," he said. "We've waited too long already." He eyed the lightening horizon and then headed inside again, jogging up the stairs. When he came back down, he was carrying two blankets.
"It's not ideal," he said, handing one to her, "but it's better than nothing."
She watched him throw the blanket around himself, leaving his head uncovered for now, and she did the same. She was feeling the tearing already, the agony that came from leaving behind her the one connection she had to her son. She wanted to run back inside, to throw herself on the floor where she had spent so many months in desperate ennui, wishing she could be anywhere else in the world.
But when Edward started running, she followed him, every step bringing with it a fresh stab of sorrow.