18. Practically Human
"Edward, if we're going to do this, it needs to be sooner rather than later."
Edward glanced up from Esme's draft of the caucus invitation, which he had been reading over Carlisle's shoulder. "Yeah, two seconds, Rose. Esme, I still think it's a little too vague. If we don't want our visitors finding loopholes, we have to be very specific."
"I can't be too specific or it will raise questions at the printers."
Jasper was shaking his head. "Edward is right. We'll just have to print them here. I know it won't be as nice, but I think we need to serve function over style."
"Okay." She pursed her lips. "I'll re-write it."
"Let's go, Edward," Emmett said, descending the stairs with two jam-packed backpacks dangling from his arms. "I want to get to Port Angeles and get some phones."
"You can go," Rosalie told him with a huff. "I can do this without you."
Emmett rolled his eyes. "No you can't fucking do this without me. Quit trying to be all brave-little-warrior and let me take care of you."
"Fine." Rosalie sniffed haughtily, but she couldn't quite hide the tenderness in her eyes. "Edward, hurry up."
"Alice, have you ordered the plane tickets?" Carlisle asked.
"I ordered them through to Astana, but I can't tell how things are going to go once Emmett and Rosalie get to Russia. I'll have to book the rest later."
Bella glanced at Alice, who was hanging a huge piece of butcher paper next to the front door, but her attention strayed back to Edward when he moved to join Rosalie on the couch. He reached out a hand to take Rosalie's, but she only looked at it disdainfully. "Don't try to comfort me. I don't want your pity."
"You want my help?" Jasper asked.
Edward looked at Rosalie with raised eyebrows.
"Whatever," she said with a shrug of cool indifference. "I'm not doing this again, so you might as well get what you can out of it."
She looked hard and unruffled, but this time Bella was paying attention, and she saw it. The flat exterior wasn't really Rosalie. It was a mask. Something was upsetting her, and she was refusing to let it show.
Jasper dragged an armchair over to the couch and then the three of them sat forward, elbows propped on knees, and closed their eyes.
And then nothing happened. For several long moments they all just sat there, still as statues.
After a full minute had passed, Edward opened one eye and peeked at Rosalie. "Any time—"
"Shut up," she snapped.
Emmett tossed his backpacks in the corner and moved to sit behind Rosalie on the couch, thumping Edward on the back of the head as he passed. He rested one hand on Rosalie's shoulder, and her posture sagged.
After a few more silent seconds, Edward winced. Bella wanted to ask what they were doing, but they all seemed very engrossed in whatever was happening.
Edward cringed again, and a shudder pulsed through his body. He reached for Rosalie's hand without opening his eyes, but she hissed sharply at the contact and jerked away.
Edward balled his hands into fists and ground them against his thighs. He was panting heavily, sharp breaths rushing in and out between his teeth. He looked like he was in agony, and Bella started toward him to try and help in whatever way she could.
Carlisle stopped her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and steering her away.
"But—Edward . . ."
"He'll be fine."
"What are they doing?"
Carlisle smiled sadly. "You can ask him about it later. Meanwhile, why don't we see if we can find a good place to set up your webcam? I was thinking we might re-arrange things in the office behind the stairs."
Bella followed him back into the little office and listened to him talk about how the room might be made to resemble a sterile hospital room on camera, but her attention was on Edward. She heard him utter a low, pained moan, and it was all she could do not to drop the desk she was helping Carlisle move and run out to stop whatever was happening.
"There. If we set the camera up here, all she'll see is an empty corner."
Bella nodded absently. "Yeah. That's good."
"Bella, sweetheart." Carlisle rounded the desk and placed a cautious hand on her shoulder. "Edward knew what he was asking from Rosalie. He knew it would be difficult to endure."
"Why is he doing it? What did he ask?"
He pulled out a chair for her, and once she was settle he perched on the edge of the desk. "It seems that all of my girls have been mistreated by the men in their lives," he said, sounding tired.
Bella's stomach immediately tightened.
"I won't go into details," Carlisle assured her, noticing her reaction. "But Rosalie is no exception. She was assaulted by her fiancé and a group of his friends—this was while she was still human, before she met Emmett. The memory is terribly painful for her, and I can only imagine how difficult it must be for her to re-live it in order to show Edward."
"But, why? Why would he want to see that?"
"He's worried about you."
Her eyes widened. "Me?"
"He's afraid of saying or doing something that might trigger a painful memory for you. He asked Esme and Rosalie to share their experiences so that he would be more aware of sensitive issues."
Bella sat back in her chair, hugging herself against the churning in her stomach. Edward was doing this for her?
"Or rather," Carlisle said gently, "I should say that Edward asked Esme. Rosalie volunteered to participate as well. It's tremendously difficult for her to do what she's doing, but she's trying very hard to make up for what she said to you."
"She's doing this . . . to apologize?"
"But . . . she already did. She said she was wrong."
"Words mean very little to Rosalie. For her, what really matters is making amends. So she'll do this for you with the hope that you and Edward can avoid some of the difficult situations that she and Emmett have encountered."
"Was it hard for them?" Bella asked, glancing toward the office doorway.
"At times. Occasionally it still is. But they love each other enough to keep working at their relationship, no matter how difficult."
Bella wrung her hands in her lap. She didn't want Edward to have to work so hard, to walk on eggshells to avoid hurting her. She wanted it to be easy for him. And yet, she knew how the memories of her time with Joham haunted her, lurking in every shadowy place, waiting to pounce as soon as she dropped her guard. They hounded her, which meant they would hound Edward as well.
"That must be really frustrating for Emmett," she whispered.
"It can be."
She stared at her hands as she twisted and tugged at them. "It's not really fair. He didn't ask for that."
Carlisle was silent for a long time, and when she finally peeked up at him she found him watching her.
"Neither did Rosalie."
No. She hadn't. Bella pulled her knees up to her chest, a futile attempt to protect herself from the turmoil in her own head. Rosalie hadn't asked for what she had gotten, but it was hers to bear whether she liked it or not. Emmett had a choice.
Edward had a choice.
"I'm sorry to barge in," Esme said, tapping at the door frame. "Carlisle?"
She held out the new draft of the invitation and he took it and read it over.
"I think it's good. Aro? Would you mind taking a look?"
Bella heard Aro's quick footsteps descending the stairs, and he appeared in the doorway in less than a second. He reached for the invitation with a gloved hand and quickly read through it.
"'Cordially invited,' I think . . . and Carlisle, if I were you, I would add that a violation of the code of behavior constitutes a challenge to the coven leader."
"That's a little drastic, isn't it?"
"Do you want your rules obeyed or don't you?"
"I agree," Jasper called from the living room.
Carlisle acquiesced. "See if you can find a polite way to word that, won't you, darling."
"Of course." Esme disappeared again, darting back upstairs to the library.
"What does that mean?" Bella asked. "A challenge to the coven leader?"
"Challenging a coven leader is a very serious thing," Carlisle told her. "It essentially means you're contesting his right to rule his coven and control his territory. When a coven leader is challenged, he either surrenders his claim or engages in a fight to the death."
Bella shuddered. "So, if someone breaks your rules that means you have to fight them?"
"Not alone," Aro said with a coy smile. "If a coven is loyal to their leader, they can help him. Considering the strength of this coven, I find it very unlikely that anyone would risk a fight."
Carlisle was shaking his head sadly. "That's likely true, but I don't relish the idea of some hothead trying his luck. I honestly doubt I would have it in me to kill him."
"All the better. You'll showcase your merciful, gentle nature and further endear yourself to our community."
Carlisle's frown disappeared and he chuckled. "All while proving that I'm unfit to exact justice. Really, Aro, when are you going to stop worrying that I'm vying for your position?"
"I'm doing you a favor," he said. "A reluctant leader is almost always wildly popular. I'm simply helping to ensure that you don't find yourself in a position where you're unable to refuse."
"Thank god I have you watching out for my best interests," Carlisle said dryly.
The phone rang then, and Carlisle excused himself to answer it. Aro turned to Bella, and she thought he was about to say something to her when Carlisle's voice stopped them.
"Carmen! I'm so glad you called; we were beginning to get worried. I have news. Is Eleazar with you?"
Aro's attention was riveted on Carlisle's conversation as soon as Carmen confirmed that yes, Eleazar was there. He listened while Carlisle told his friends about Aro's arrival and reassured them of his safety and of Sulpicia's. Carmen described a couple of leads they wanted to follow up on to see who else might have survived, and then Carlisle told them about his plan to hold a political gathering.
Carmen let out a low whistle. "That's quite the undertaking. What does . . . what does Jasper think of it all?"
"He might never forgive me for putting him through it," Carlisle laughed.
"But I do hope you'll make it home before then," Jasper called from the living room.
"We'll make a point of it," Carmen said, and Bella thought she sounded a little relieved.
Carmen and Carlisle arranged the details of having Esme's invitations sent and distributed around Europe, and then Carmen said goodbye, excusing herself with the reminder that they had much to do and a limited time to do it.
Carlisle returned to the office when he hung up, finding Aro perched in an office chair with a satisfied smile on his face.
"It will be so good to see Eleazar again," Aro said eagerly.
"Indeed. It's been, what, nearly forty years since he's been to Italy?"
Esme materialized in the doorway and once again presented her invitation to Carlisle and Aro. When they both approved it, she took it back and headed out to the living room.
"All finished, Rosalie?" she asked. "Emmett and I really need to get to Port Angeles. You'll come, won't you? We'll buy you some absurdly expensive jewelry to make you feel better."
"I imagine Edward could use your company right now," Carlisle murmured to Bella.
She pushed herself out of her chair and hurried to the living room, where she found Edward on the couch looking shocked and a little bit ill. She sat down next to him and linked her arm through his—that was something friends did, right?—laying her head on his shoulder.
"I never had any idea," he said, his voice oddly empty. "I've seen bits and pieces, but the whole of it together . . . and the way it felt . . ." He cringed, and one hand clutched at his stomach. "That was so wrong."
He freed his arm from Bella's and wrapped her up in an embrace so tight it was almost painful. She buried her face in his neck and squeezed just as hard, and that was okay too, because sometimes friends gave each other hugs when they needed them. They weren't breaking Charlie's rules.
The next several days were a constant flurry of activity. Esme printed off hundreds of invitations and enclosure cards. Carlisle said they were probably printing more invitations than there were vampires in the world, but he wanted there to be plenty of cards circulating.
Emmett and Rosalie packed the bulk of them in a suitcase and took them with them when they left. The rest were boxed up and mailed to Eleazar and the other contacts who would help distribute them farther, faster.
Meanwhile, Charlie had told his fib to Renée, and she had immediately flown to Washington. Carlisle was on the phone with her every couple of hours, trying to convince her that she couldn't drive to the imaginary hospital in Seattle and demand to see her daughter. He had taken on the role of Bella's alleged primary physician, and was continually assuring Renée that Bella's health was stabilizing and that he was making arrangements for a computer to be placed in her room. The webcam in the office was set up and ready to use as soon as Carlisle decided that a believable amount of time had passed.
He was unflappable. Bella was climbing the walls.
There was just so much waiting. She was waiting to speak with her mother, waiting to hear from Peter and Charlotte, waiting for Aro or Amun to make a move, waiting for a scourge of vampires to descend on Forks . . .
"I know it's difficult to be patient," Carlisle told her one afternoon. "Try to find something to distract yourself. After all, a watched pot never boils."
He patted her head and walked away, and Edward dropped down next to her on the couch.
"Doesn't he drive you crazy?"
The grin on his face eased some of her tension and she smiled back.
"Listen, I wondered if you wanted to try a little experiment."
"What kind of experiment?" she asked him.
"Jasper's been thinking about how good your control is. We were wondering if it's just because you have a relationship with Charlie, or if you'd do as well with other people."
"I won't," she said quickly. "I haven't. There was . . . this man . . ."
Edward took her hand and brought it to his lips, pressing a firm kiss to her fingers. "I understand," he murmured. "But that was without the help of Jared's bandana, right? Doesn't that make a difference?"
"Jared promised to give us more whenever we want. He sees it as his responsibility to do whatever he can to keep people safe."
Bella grimaced at the memory of the smell, but she wasn't about to refuse his offer.
"Alice has to do some shopping at a sporting goods store on the edge of town," Edward continued. "It's usually not very busy, so we thought that might be a good place to start. What do you think? Do you want to go with her?"
She scraped her teeth anxiously across her lower lip. "What if I can't do it? What if I lose control?"
"Jasper and I will be right beside you the whole time. We'll keep you from hurting anyone."
"But . . . if people see . . . won't they know something's wrong?"
"We'll sell it as a panic attack," he said with a shrug. "We did it for Jasper once before."
Bella blew out a breath. "You really want me to try going out in public?"
"Not if it's too much. But I think it would good to test your limits a little."
"Okay." She nodded. "I'll try."
She let out a startled gasp as a Ziploc bag came sailing over her shoulder and landed in her lap.
"Five minutes!" Alice called out, already heading back up the stairs from where she had come. "The perfume and stuff is in the box on the front porch—and be sure to put in a pair of the contacts."
Bella peered at the bandana inside the Ziploc bag and decided to leave it there until they were in the car on the way to town. She went outside with Edward, though, and found the colored contact lenses Alice had been talking about. Bella pressed them into her eyes, distracted at first by the way they clouded her vision, but she looked at Edward for approval.
"You look disturbingly normal," he said with a grin, and raised a bottle of perfume to spritz some on her. The two of them went through her ritual of making her smell as foul as possible until Alice and Jasper joined them.
"Nervous?" Jasper asked her with a smile that reminded her he already knew the answer.
"That's good. Being nervous keeps your guard up. It's when you get too comfortable that accidents happen." He gave her a friendly slap on the back and they all headed for the garage.
They took Edward's Volvo to the sporting goods store. Bella tied on her bandana as soon as it came into view, and Edward started filling her in on what she would find inside.
"Mrs. Newton is in the back doing inventory. Her son Mike is at the front counter finishing up with a customer who just bought a rifle. There's a woman in the back looking at bathing suits and three teenagers from La Push messing around with soccer balls."
Jasper tapped anxious fingers on his knee as they pulled into the parking lot. "Carlisle wants us to get to know our neighbors, right?" He shook his head. "Well, kid, let's go get to know Mike Newton."
Bella buried her nose in the bandana and took a deep, reassuring breath.
As soon as they were out of the car, Edward's arm was around Bella's waist. They still weren't breaking Charlie's rules, she told herself as she snuggled against his side. He was making sure she didn't hurt anyone, so it was okay.
"All right so far?" he asked her.
The man buying the rifle was leaving as they approached the door. Bella and Edward gave him plenty of space to get out before following Jasper and Alice inside.
The store wasn't large. Six long shelving units ran from the front of the store to the back, and with a couple of well-placed mirrors, the spiky-haired boy at the counter would be able to see anything that was happening in the store with a few quick glances. He was eyeing the three Quileute boys, who were kicking a ball back and forth down one of the aisles, but as soon as they caught a glimpse of Bella and the others, their smiles fell and they put the ball away. With a dark glare at the four of them, all three boys stalked out of the store.
The boy at the counter didn't seem disappointed to see them go. "Hey, Alice!" he said with a bright smile, but it faltered when his eyes flicked to Jasper. "Hey . . . Jasper . . . what's up?"
Alice was already making a beeline for the camping and fishing section. "We might be buying out your whole store. Give me just a minute."
Bella swallowed against the burn and tried not to think of the three wetly pulsing hearts that were still in the building with them. Mike Newton's blood was the closest, though it was mingled with a heavy dose of an unpleasant cologne, but the woman shopping for bathing suits seemed content to do without soaps or perfumes, and the undiluted aroma of her blood drifted to Bella in tempting tendrils.
She breathed deeply into her bandana and tried to think of Charlie.
The boy at the counter nodded to them, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. His fidgeting only increased when Jasper approached him instead of following Alice.
"How's it going, Mike?" he asked, leaning against the counter.
Mike licked his lips. He looked like he had forgotten how to speak. "Uh . . . good. Good. Is that . . . um . . . does Edward have a girlfriend?" His eyes flicked over to Bella again, but he looked away quickly when he saw that she was watching him.
The artery in his throat pulsed so very invitingly . . .
"They're kind of on-again, off-again," Jasper replied. He leaned forward with a smirk and lowered his voice. "Right now they're off-again, if you can believe it."
Mike glanced at them again, taking in the way Bella clung to Edward's side, and snorted. "Doesn't look like that'll last long."
"No kidding. What's this?" Jasper gestured to a piece of paper that had been tossed next to the register. "Are you planning on trying out for football this year?"
Mike made a face. "I don't know. Maybe."
"You don't seem too excited about it."
"How are you doing?" Edward murmured to Bella. "Are you okay to go in a little farther? Maybe look at the yoga gear?"
"You want me to do yoga?"
He chuckled. "No, but it's a little weird for us to just stand here in the doorway."
Right. Appearances. Bella nodded and they moved to the first aisle, pretending to peruse through the instructional DVDs as they listened to Jasper talk to Mike about football.
"I think it sounds fun," Mike was saying, "but my dad said if I tried out, he would donate new uniforms to the team."
"And that's a bad thing?"
He shrugged, looking miserable. "He obviously doesn't think I'm good enough to make it on my own, and I don't want to be the guy who buys his way onto the team."
Jasper nodded thoughtfully. "Maybe he's just trying to be supportive. He played football in high school, didn't he?"
Mike rolled his eyes. "All four years, three of them on varsity."
"And I bet he loved it."
"He still has pictures up all over the house."
Jasper chuckled. "Sounds like he's trying to share his passion with you. Do the two of you get along very well?"
"All right, I guess. Seems like we don't really have much to talk about."
"All the more reason he'd want you on the team. I'd bet this is more about him than you. I doubt it's him questioning your ability so much as wanting to find some common ground."
Mike tapped his fingers on the flyer. "Maybe. It still doesn't change the fact that I won't know whether I'm actually good enough."
"Believe me, I know that feeling," Jasper muttered.
Mike raised his eyebrows curiously.
"You have no idea what it's like to be a Cullen."
"I guess that's true, huh? Your family all seems so perfect."
"Seems like it comes naturally to them," Jasper agreed. "But not to me. Guys like us . . . we have to work twice as hard." He gestured toward the flyer. "But maybe that's not such a bad thing in this case. I bet if you asked your dad, he'd help you put together a workout routine to get you in shape for try-outs."
"Throw him a bone. If you let him feel like he's involved in your life, he'll probably cut you a little more slack."
Mike grinned. "Maybe I can talk him into a later curfew."
"Pick your moment. Maybe after a Spartans win."
Alice skipped up to the counter and linked her arm through Jasper's. "Mike, I have a question. I was looking at the Ultralight one- and two-man tents over there, but they seem awfully small. Aren't they cramped?"
"Oh, yeah, that's more of a recommendation for backpackers, who always want to shave off as many ounces from their tent weight as possible. If you don't have to carry it anywhere, I'd recommend some of the larger Coleman's next to them. They have more head room and storage space, but you're probably still better off with one person in a two-man or two people in a four-man."
"Thank you! That's so helpful! But it doesn't look like you have very many. Are there more in the back?"
"Sure. How many do you need?"
"I'd say about twenty-five each of the two-man and four man."
Mike's eyebrows shot up. "Oh. Uh . . . we don't have that many, but I could order some in for you. A rush shipment could probably be here in a couple of days, but it's expensive."
"We're not in a super big hurry, but we might end up needing more later. Carlisle's hosting this environmental retreat thing, but getting a head count is an absolute mess."
"I can get you the fifty you need by next Monday, and then after that we try to keep our inventory at about ten or so a piece . . ."
"Still doing okay?" Edward whispered in Bella's ear.
She nodded. She'd been so engrossed in the conversation between Jasper, Mike, and Alice that she had almost forgotten the burn in her throat. It seemed impossible, now that Edward had reminded her of it, but she just breathed into her bandana and tried to kill the cravings.
"It's not too bad if I don't think about it."
"You're doing so well. It's amazing."
She beamed up at him.
"Do you want to meet Mike?" Edward asked, gesturing toward the front counter.
She tucked herself a little closer to Edward, but nodded. It was easier to think of him as a person—rather than food—after hearing his thoughts about his father and football.
Edward tightened his arm around her and steered her toward the counter, a yoga DVD clutched in one hand. He waited for Alice to finish discussing her sizeable order of tents, travel chairs, lanterns, ice chests, and other camping gear, and then dropped the DVD on the counter.
"Hey," Mike said, looking uncomfortable again.
"Hey, Mike. This is my friend Bella."
Mike flashed her a smile that was maybe just a little too eager and held out his hand. "It's nice to meet you."
She took his hand, but the moment she felt his pulse flutter at the base of his thumb, she jerked away again. It was just a little too tempting. She forced a smile, though, so he wouldn't think she was being rude. "Hi."
"Your hands are freezing. Maybe you need a pair of those gloves." He pointed behind her to a display on one of the end caps.
Bella just smiled.
"Do you live here in Forks?" he asked as he rang up the DVD.
"Um . . . I just moved here."
"Yeah? From where?"
Bella was surprised at the question, and she glanced quickly up at Edward. "Arizona."
Mike frowned and narrowed his eyes. "Hey! I recognize you. Aren't you Chief Swan's daughter?"
Bella gave a start of surprise and Edward and Jasper exchanged wary looks.
"Yeah, your picture was in the paper, back when . . ." Mike trailed off and his eyes widened.
"Listen," Jasper said, leaning in close to Mike. "We're not really advertising the fact that she's back home. She's had a rough couple of months and we'd like to let things settle down a little before mentioning it to anyone. Avoid the gossip, you know?"
Mike nodded, accepting Jasper's excuses without questioning them. "You got it. I won't say anything. But . . ." He looked back at Bella and smiled at her. "I'm glad you're all right."
Edward tossed his cash on the counter and snatched up the DVD, his mood suddenly souring. "Thanks," he muttered, then steered Bella away from the counter without waiting for his change. He stalked outside and opened the car door for Bella before rounding the car and climbing in himself.
"What's wrong?" Bella asked. "Are you worried about him recognizing me."
"No." Edward glared at the store and seethed.
Bella reached out and ran her fingertips over the back of his hand, until he flipped it over and laced their fingers together. "I'm sorry," he said, his expression softening. "I'm being irrational."
"Why? What happened?"
He let out his breath in an irritated huff. "Mike recognized you because he had . . . fantasies about you after he saw your picture in the paper."
Bella clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes widening. "Are you kidding me?" Her voice came out muffled, but she didn't move her hand.
"In his daydreams, he's quite the hero."
Bella couldn't help it. She started giggling. "I'm so flattered!"
Edward huffed in annoyance.
Bella squeezed his hand and sidled as close as the center console would allow. "I'll take real heroes over imaginary ones any day."
He peeked at her out of the corner of his eye and allowed a small smile.
Alice and Jasper left the store then, and Jasper gave Edward a thump on the back of the head as he climbed into the car.
"Feeling threatened by high school boys now?"
"Shut up," Edward muttered.
Bella giggled and stuffed the bandana back in the Ziploc bag. The wolf smell was still plenty strong, and she could use it again next time she saw Charlie.
When they got home, Carlisle was moderating yet another debate between Amun and Aro. Bella wasn't sure why he put up with them the way he did, but he laughed at their petty squabbling and looked genuinely pleased when arguing points with Amun.
For his part, Aro tended to agree with Carlisle a lot. He was always pointing out their similarities, or finding justifications for habits of Carlisle's that Amun criticized. While Amun seemed to be attempting to persuade Carlisle to see things his way, Aro was content to mold himself to fit his host's lifestyle.
Mostly, anyway. Bella didn't see him giving up human blood any time soon.
As always, Kebi knelt at Amun's feet, her head bowed and her face veiled. Bella found her behavior deeply unsettling. She didn't know whether Kebi was happy to surrender herself so willingly to Amun's whims or whether she felt forced in some way, but every time Bella thought of Kebi she was hit with a wave of nausea. She kept hoping that Carlisle would say something, that he would demand that Amun show her a little more respect, but if Carlisle was at all disturbed by Amun's treatment of his mate, he kept it to himself.
"Esme," Alice called out as soon as they walked in the door.
Esme appeared at the top of the stairs and leaned over the railing.
Alice gave her a thumbs-up and the two of them shared wide grins before Esme turned and disappeared again.
Bella wanted to ask what was going on, but Tia distracted her from the back porch, beckoning to her and the others with a wave of her hand. Alice skipped outside with a delighted grin, and Bella, Edward, and Jasper all followed after.
Benjamin gave them a curious look as they dragged chairs over and sat on them.
"Does the animal blood make you tired?"
Edward grinned and shook his head.
"So why do you sit all the time? It's . . . odd. Isn't it?" He exchanged a glance with Tia. "Is it just our coven that doesn't sit?"
"It's a habit we've cultivated," Jasper answered. "Humans sit, so we sit. We do a lot of unusual things for the purpose of blending in."
"Like going to high school?" he asked with a smirk.
Jasper nodded. "Keeping a stocked kitchen, attending community events, occasionally tripping over something or 'falling asleep' in class. Carlisle even stops for coffee on the way to work every day."
"These are normal human behaviors?" Benjamin asked, a deep curiosity in his eyes.
Jasper arched an eyebrow. "Haven't had much contact with humans?"
"We haven't had much contact with anyone for a very long time. Amun has been . . ."
"Paranoid," Tia supplied.
"Protective," Benjamin said. "He was afraid that my gift would make me a target."
"He's not wrong. Watch your back, kid. There are a lot of people who would love to get their hands on that talent."
"It's a good thing I have friends who I can trust."
Jasper shook his head. "Trust your mate. Everyone else is suspect."
"Are you always so suspicious?" Benjamin asked with a smile.
"Yes, he is." Alice pushed herself out of her chair and moved to curl up in Jasper's lap. "Which is why his judgment is so valuable."
"Are you telling me you don't trust your coven?" Benjamin asked.
"No." Jasper flicked his eyes to where Amun sat beyond the glass, locked in heated debate with Aro. He gave Benjamin a pointed look. "But not everyone is as worthy of my confidence."
Benjamin frowned, but didn't answer.
"Bella, I have a question," Tia said, changing the subject.
Bella raised her eyebrows, inviting her to continue.
"Alice was showing me some really cute skirts in her closet, and I was just wondering. Do you wear skirts? I mean . . . because . . ." She bent down and rolled up the cuff of her jeans, showing off dark hairs that contrasted sharply against her pale skin. "Humans shave their legs, don't they?"
Bella frowned. She hadn't even considered leg hair since she had been turned, but she hadn't exactly been keeping up with her shaving while she was with Joham. "Um. Yeah. They do."
"I've only been able to scrape a few hairs down with my nails, but it leaves stubble. Have you removed any?"
She shook her head, but Alice spoke up with a grimace.
"You can do it, but I'll warn you, it's not pleasant."
"What do you do?"
Tia sat in the chair that Alice had vacated, and Alice moved to stand in front of her. She grabbed Tia's ankle and raised her leg, and then rapped her fingertip so hard against Tia's leg that it sent a crack running up her skin. Alice quickly snatched three hairs out of the crack before it could seal itself up again.
"Ow!" Tia cried with a gasp. "Oh! Oh, it tingles! It feels so . . . wrong."
"That's your body protesting the separation," Alice told her. "If you burn the hair, it stops tingling."
"Oh." Tia reached out and accepted the hairs that Alice brushed into her palm. "That's so weird."
"Do you want to do more? I'll help."
Tia pressed her lips together, debating for a moment. "They were really cute skirts."
"Were they?" Benjamin asked, and his interest seemed to help Tia make up her mind.
"Yes. I want to do the rest. But lets get it over with as quickly as possible."
Benjamin jogged into the woods, and while he gathered an armful of dry wood, a ring of rocks and raised earth gathered themselves next to the porch. When he returned, he dumped the wood haphazardly in the circle, and a fire suddenly blazed up.
"There you go," he said with an eager grin.
"Why don't you go change into something shorter so we have better access," Bella suggested.
Tia darted inside, and Alice turned to Bella.
"How about you? Are you in?"
Bella frowned and tugged up the leg of her jeans, eyeing the pale hair on her leg. "I don't know . . ." She wasn't a fan of pain, and she wasn't sure she was willing to put up with it for the sake of fashion. But it suddenly occurred to her that Edward was sitting right next to her, getting an eyeful of hairy leg, and she shoved her pants back into place. She peeked at him out of the corner of her eye, but he didn't look disgusted like she would have expected.
If she'd been human, her cheeks would have been burning with embarrassment.
"What's wrong?" Edward asked her.
She hunched her shoulders, tucking into herself. "Do you think it's gross?"
Edward laughed and tugged up one pant leg, showing off a much thicker growth of hair. "When I was human, most women never shaved their legs. Men still don't. The standard is completely arbitrary, and I honestly don't care one way or the other."
"I don't want to do it," she mumbled.
"Okay," Alice said with a shrug.
And just like that, the subject was dropped. When Tia returned, she and Alice moved a couple of chairs close to the fire and started working at Tia's legs, cracking, plucking, flicking tiny hairs into the flames, and Bella experience a moment of disorientation. She had spent so long with Joham, having her preferences entirely ignored, being forced to do what he wanted regardless of the pain it caused her. She hadn't noticed the way the atmosphere had changed her, sinking into her skin, crawling through her veins, changing her understanding of herself and of the people around her.
She had actually expected to be forced.
She fought back the sudden urge to vomit. She hadn't always been this girl, too afraid to speak, spending her time hiding in corners and waiting to be dominated. She had always been quiet, but she had liked herself that way.
She didn't like herself now. She didn't like that she had to rally her nerve just to raise her head, or that she always wished she could sink into the walls and disappear. She didn't like the impulse that she had to run every time she was faced with vampires, or humans, or anything even remotely unfamiliar.
She didn't like the fear.
She peeked at Alice and Tia, who were chatting happily beside the fire, despite the pain that Tia was willingly subjecting herself to for the sake of . . . vanity, Bella guessed. It seemed like a high price to pay, but then, what was a little pain to a vampire? Bella had suffered far worse on a daily basis under Joham's care, and that had been in a much more fragile state. The fear of pain suddenly seemed a little bit irrational.
As did the fear of Jasper. She glanced at him and found him watching her, his expression blank, though the angle of the setting sun threw his scars into a sharp relief and added a sinister quality to his face. They still elicited a visceral response in her, those scars, but rationally she knew that Jasper wasn't half as dangerous to her as he looked. He could be, but he had chosen not to be. He had prevented her from killing two Quileute men, an action that would surely have gotten her killed by the wolves, and then had brought her back here to a house full of strangers who had been nothing but kind to her. When Charlie came to visit, Jasper stood guard to make sure she wouldn't do something she would regret. When she had asked for help finding her son, it was Jasper who had called on his connections to begin the search.
He could be vicious. That fact was literally etched into his skin. But his actions spoke at least as loudly as his countenance did, and Bella was regretting her stubbornness regarding him.
She thought of Alice devoting so much thought to creating a room that Bella would feel comfortable in, of Esme holding her as tenderly as any mother could, of Rosalie's wry humor and her determination to back up her words with action.
She thought of Emmett and his energizing smile. Neither he nor Carlisle had held her lapses in judgment against her. She had attacked both of them, and they had forgiven her without a moment's hesitation.
And then there was Edward. Solid and patient, with a smile that could replace the sun. When Bella was tied in knots, Edward loosened them. When she felt adrift, he anchored her. Whatever she lacked, he became, and he did it with a warmth that almost made her feel like she was worthy of his efforts.
For the first time, Bella looked around her and saw her situation for what it was. She was safe here. Aro and Amun were dangerous, and the jury was still out on Tia and Benjamin—and yet, despite their presence, Bella realized she had nothing to fear. She was among friends, and they were strong.
She was distracted from her thoughts by the sharp, deliberate rap of a stiletto heel on wood. It was a sound that was designed to demand attention, and Bella looked inside where Esme stood at the top of the stairs.
Her jaw dropped.
Esme was dressed in a long, red dress that draped and clung in the most tantalizing of ways. She had pulled her hair over one shoulder, emphasizing the smooth, bare column of exposed throat on one side, and she graced the men below her with a sultry, seductive smile.
Carlisle went still, his only movement a slow parting of his lips as he drew in a shallow breath.
"Carlisle," Esme murmured, slowly blinking her smoky eyelids. "Take me dancing."
His only answer was a dazed nod and the flicker of his eyes as he took her in from head to toe. Esme shifted, letting the slit of the skirt fall open and expose one long, slender leg, and Carlisle gulped.
"My, my . . ." Aro murmured. "You are a lucky man, Carlisle."
He swallowed hard.
Esme's lips, stained a deep red, pulled into a pretty pout. "You'll take me, won't you darling?"
"Absolutely." His answer came out as a reverent whisper, and Esme rewarded him with a pleased smile.
Bella gawked. That was what she wanted. She was sick of pathetic, mousy little Bella. She wanted to be able to command attention with a single step and hold it with the curve of her spine and the set of her shoulders. She wanted eyes that kept secrets and lips that promised to tell them. She wanted the strength and self-assurance that she saw now at the top of the stairs.
Amun, however, seemed less impressed. "Really, Carlisle? You're going to let your woman lead you around by the nose?"
"Absolutely," he said again, his eyes fixed on Esme's legs.
"Darling?" Esme prompted. "Don't you think you should change clothes?"
Her request seemed to snap Carlisle out of his reverie. He raced up the stairs and past his wife, and returned in less than a minute dressed all in black. He swept Esme up in his arms, eliciting a bright, gay laugh, and carried her down the stairs.
"Jasper, keep those two from killing each other while I'm gone, won't you?" he said over his shoulder, and then rushed Esme out the door.
Everyone on the porch with Bella laughed, and Bella cast a surreptitious glance at Edward. As usual, just the sight of his smile made her stronger. She lifted her chin and smiled back, not hesitantly or shyly, but with a delight that matched his.
She didn't have Esme's strength yet, but a determined little seed had been planted. One day it would be her standing there with Edward in her thrall, her confidence revealed in every move the way Esme's had been. She wasn't sure how she would get there, but she knew one thing for certain: she wasn't going to manage it if she was worried about hair.
"I changed my mind," she told Alice. "I want to do my legs, too."