19. These Women
Carlisle and Esme stayed out until after sunrise, and when they returned they were freshly showered, wearing different clothes than they'd had on when they left.
And they were glowing.
"Well, Bella," Carlisle said after greeting the others, "I think we've kept your poor mother waiting long enough, don't you?"
Bella jumped up, wide-eyed.
"Come on. Let's get you set up, and then Esme and I will head over to your father's house and show your parents how to contact you."
"Make-up!" Alice cried, darting up the stairs. "I'm sorry, Bella, but you look too beautiful to convince anyone that you're sick." She reappeared with a make-up bag and followed Carlisle and Bella into the office.
Bella listened to Carlisle's instructions on how to use the webcam while Alice dulled her lips and smudged dark rings around her eyes. She slicked Bella's hair back and wound it up in a bun behind her head, then handed her a fresh pair of colored contacts.
"You'll have to replace these if you talk for very long. If you feel them starting to get thin, make an excuse to duck out of range of the camera and put new ones in.
"And don't sit so straight. Slump your shoulders like you're tired. You're supposed to be tired."
Bella slumped her shoulders.
"Oh, and I've got something for you to wear," Carlisle said.
Alice's eyes glazed over for just a moment, and she stiffened. "No!" she cried, but Carlisle had already returned and was holding a thin hospital gown out toward Bella.
Wild panic erupted inside of her at the sight of it and she staggered back, colliding with the wall. She felt the sheetrock crumble behind her, heard the splintering of the wood, and then she was tumbling out the other side of the wall onto Esme's clean, white carpet.
Before she could get up, Edward was at her side. He gathered her up into his arms and pulled her into his lap, rocking her back and forth. His soothing whispers eased her terror, until Carlisle moved toward her, peering at her through the hole in the wall, the hospital gown still clutched in his hand.
"No!" Bella screamed, trying to scramble out of Edward's grasp.
"Shhh, just relax. No one is going to hurt you."
"I don't want it!" she begged. She grasped at him since he wouldn't let her go, her fingers tearing his clothes as she tried to find an unbreakable grip. "Please, please, please, please!"
"What is it, Bella? I don't understand?"
Carlisle frowned down at the gown in his hand, and then left the office and strode out onto the back porch. He moved to the fire pit that Alice had used the night before and tossed the gown into the ashes.
"Benjamin, would you mind?"
By now, everyone in the house had gathered around to see what was wrong, Benjamin included. He nodded, and flames erupted in the fire pit, burning the flimsy fabric to ashes in seconds.
Bella's terror drifted away with the smoke, and she collapsed against Edward. She buried her face in the crook of his neck as dry, heaving sobs shook her body.
"It's okay," he whispered over and over again. "I've got you. You don't have to be afraid."
It was several minutes before she had calmed down enough to fully realize her position. Edward was holding her in his lap with his arms wrapped around her, pressing her firmly against his hard body while he whispered comforting words in her ear. As she calmed down, his lips trailed down the line of her jaw, awakening every nerve with their soft, tentative explorations.
Their audience all drifted away, leaving them in relative privacy, and in that moment she wanted him more than she had ever wanted anything. There was no justification for this. They were breaking Charlie's rules now, without a doubt. But if he just understood how much she needed Edward, surely he wouldn't object.
Edward's lips drifted toward her chin. "We're not supposed to be doing this," he whispered, a hint of mischief beneath his words.
"No," she agreed.
"We're supposed to be waiting."
She felt him smile before he placed a very careful kiss right at the corner of her mouth. "Don't tell Charlie."
She grinned, and he released his hold on her, his warm smile soothing away any lingering anxiety. At least, it did until she looked up and saw the damage she had caused to the office. She gasped and stared at the ragged plaster and splintered boards.
"I broke the wall!" she wailed.
Edward started laughing, a full, free sound that helped to ground her again. It couldn't wash away the guilt she felt at causing more destruction, though, and she turned to him with a troubled frown.
"I keep ruining your house!"
He shook his head, still laughing, and nudged her off of his lap so he could climb to his feet.
"Don't worry about it," he said, pulling her up with him.
"But I put a hole in the wall!"
"So we'll fix it." He wrapped an arm around her waist. "You wouldn't believe how many walls I destroyed when I was a newborn. Carlisle and I got very good at rebuilding them."
Bella peered up at him. "Just like that? You break walls and fix them?"
"When your body is harder than your house, it's not that weird."
Bella giggled. "Now you're just bragging."
Edward snickered and kissed the top of her head. "Come on, beautiful. Let's go upstairs and see if we can find you something a little less fashionable to wear for your conference with your mother. Most hospitals don't stock Alexander McQueen."
Bella sighed and looked down at yet another ruined blouse. She may have been harder than the house, but her clothes weren't, and the splintered wood had snagged the delicate fabric and blighted the weave. And hers wasn't the only one. She had left a handful of tears in Edward's shirt, though he was gracious enough not to mention them. He just took her hand, and the two of them went upstairs to change.
Bella searched through her closet until she found a sleeveless cotton top that could almost pass for simple hospital clothing if you didn't look to closely at it. By the time she emerged from her bedroom again, Carlisle had relocated the webcam to the library and was moving some furniture around so that, once again, she would have nothing more than a bare corner showing behind her.
"There we are," he said. "How's that?"
Bella gave him an awkward shrug. "Sorry. Again."
"It's my fault. I didn't realize that would upset you." He hesitated, then reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "I apologize."
The contact still felt a little uncomfortable to Bella, but she was learning to recognize the good intentions behind it. She took a step closer to let him know she didn't mind, and allowed him to tuck her under his arm.
"It seems like such a stupid thing to get worked up about," she muttered.
Carlisle shook his head. "Sometimes the smallest things trigger bad memories. I wish I could tell you that there was a way to prevent it, but there isn't. It's your mind's way of coming to terms with what happened."
"I'm sorry I damaged the house again."
He chuckled. "It's all right. After you've spoken with your mother, you and Edward can work on repairing the wall."
He dropped his arm and stepped back. "Are you ready?"
"All right. Esme and I will be on our way. Wait for our call."
Bella had Alice help her touch up her smudged make-up and put in her contact lenses, and then sat behind the desk in the library and fidgeted. She jumped when the alert sounded that signaled an incoming connection, and she quickly accepted the call. After a few seconds of loading, a grainy image filled the screen of her computer. Renée was leaning forward, peering at the computer with an expression of eager befuddlement on her face, while Charlie sat beside her, grinding his teeth.
"Renée, it has to load. If you keep hitting buttons, you'll—"
Bella didn't hear the end of his sentence, because the screen suddenly went black. Renée had done exactly what Charlie had been trying to warn her not to do.
She giggled, imagining the exasperation on her father's face as she sent her own summons to connect with them on video chat. After a few seconds more, the image of her parents appeared on the screen again, but this time Renée was sitting back on the couch while Charlie leaned forward to fiddle with the computer.
Bella reminded herself to slump her shoulders, and she forced her smile into something that looked a little weaker.
"Hi," she said, giving the camera a little fluttering wave.
"Bella?" Renée raised her hands to cover her mouth, and then promptly burst into tears. "Baby, is it really you? We've been so worried! You never answered my calls, and then you weren't there, and I didn't know what to do . . ." Her mother's voice trailed off into a high-pitched wail and she turned and buried her face in Charlie's chest.
Bella was torn between guilt over the worry she had caused her mother and amusement at the expression on Charlie's face. He had never been comfortable with emotional displays, and from the weariness in his eyes, Bella imagined he'd had to put up with a lot of them lately.
"So, Dad," she said, forcing herself not to smile, "are you enjoying having Mom staying with you?"
He rolled his eyes in silent answer and urged Renée off of him. "Honey, come on, Bella doesn't want to see you crying. She wants to talk to her mother. Here, use a tissue, not my shirt."
Bella waited patiently while Charlie helped Renée pull herself together. When she was finally composed again, she turned and peered closely at Bella. It felt a little strange, since the webcam sat to the side of the computer, so when Renée peered at Bella, it looked as though she were staring off to one side of her. The video chat thing wasn't quite as natural as face-to-face communication.
"Look at you," Renée whispered. "You're so thin! You look like you haven't had a bite to eat since I last saw you!"
Bella smiled awkwardly. "It's the ultimate diet plan. Celebrities would pay big bucks to pick up an immune deficiency."
Renée let out a soggy laugh.
"But don't worry. I'm getting plenty to eat now, and I've stopped losing weight. I'm feeling a lot better."
"Well, you look . . . just beautiful."
She snorted. "I look terrible, and you know it."
"No you don't! I mean, you look tired, but all that weight you lost makes you look older and . . . I don't know, elegant."
"Elegant?" Bella giggled. "Talk about false advertising."
Renée sighed sadly. "What happened, baby? Where have you been all this time?"
So far Bella had gotten by with merely stretching the truth, but now it was time to lie. She didn't like lying, especially to her mother, and she knew she wasn't very good at it. What would Esme do? she asked herself. What would she say to make this believable?
Bella pictured Esme in her mind, trying to channel the sweet, familiar earnestness, the way she held her head, the tone of her voice. And she thought of Jasper and how easily he had lied to Mike. He'd avoided any specific details and then deflected attention back onto Mike.
She could do that.
"I don't really remember very much," she told her mother. "I must have been really sick, because it's all kind of hazy. But what about you? You guys must have been freaking out."
It worked like a charm. Renée groaned and launched into a monologue about how worried she had been when Bella hadn't answered any of her calls, and all of the things she and Charlie had done to try and find her. Guilt festered, tying Bella's stomach in knots as she listened to her mother's tale of woe.
"Phil's manager gave him some time off," Renée was saying, "but he had to go back after about a month. He wanted to be here so bad. He said to say the word as soon as we could visit you, and he would fly up."
"He doesn't have to come up. I can video chat with him as easily in Phoenix as I can in Washington."
"But we want to see you."
"Mom, you can't. Immune deficiency, remember? I have to be in a sterile environment."
"I'm not sick. I won't infect you with anything."
Bella heard Carlisle's voice through the computer, but she couldn't make out what he was saying. It obviously didn't please Renée, though, because she scowled at him.
"That's the way it is, Renée," Charlie muttered. He looked tired, and Bella felt a pang of sympathy for him. Renée could be relentless, and it took a lot of energy to put up with her sometimes.
Renée pursed her lips and looked back at the computer screen. "Well. Maybe after you're feeling better."
Bella let it go and was grateful for the reprieve.
"So what do you do all day in this hospital of yours?"
"Not much," she said, affecting a rueful grimace. "But now that I have a computer, I'll be able to do pretty much what I always did before. Curl up in bed and read for hours on end."
"What about school? You can't just quit school, can you?"
"What's the point of going to school now?"
"Don't be ridiculous, Bella. You can't give up your education. What kind of future can you have if you don't even finish high school?"
Bella frowned. "Mom . . . you get what this is, right? I'm not here so I can get better and get out again." She peered at her mother's face, anxiously gauging her reaction. "I thought Dr. Cullen explained that to you. I can't leave the hospital, and even in here . . . I don't have that much longer."
Renée stared silently at the computer screen for several long seconds, and then she stood up and stalked away.
"I'll handle it," Charlie said with a sigh, and followed Renée off camera.
Edward appeared in the doorway and Bella looked up at him, wanting nothing more than to go to him and let him hold her and help her forget all of the hard things she had to deal with. But she didn't. She stayed and waited for her mother, and she drew strength from the fact that he would be there for her when she was finished.
Esme's face appeared on the computer screen, and she gave Bella a bracing smile.
"You're doing great," she whispered. She glanced off camera, where Bella could hear muffled arguing, and then leaned forward. "I know that was hard, but it was exactly the right thing to say."
Bella forced an unconvincing smile. She really hoped that this wasn't doing more harm than good.
Esme glanced off camera again, then blew Bella quick kiss and scooted out of the way.
Renée took her place again, her lips pressed into a hard line.
"Isabella Marie Swan, I've had enough of this."
Edward widened his eyes dramatically from the doorway. "She middle-named you," he whispered. "You're in trouble."
Bella bit her lip to keep from smiling.
"You listen to me," Renée said. "I know the last few months have probably been very confusing for you, and maybe you're even a little resentful that I got married again."
"What?" Bella stared at her computer screen in bewilderment. "What are you talking about? I love Phil."
"It's okay, Bella. All the books said you would feel betrayed and act out in some way or another. I won't pretend it doesn't bother me that you called your father instead of me, but I understand it."
Renée's withering glare stopped her.
"Whatever it was, it's forgiven. But now it's time to tell me the truth."
"I don't understand what you mean."
She let out an irritated sigh. "Do you remember Sarah Black?"
"What?" Bella shook her head, confused. "No, not really."
"We used to spend a lot of time with her. Charlie and Billy would go off fishing, and you and I would spend the day with Sarah and her kids. And you all used to love it when Sarah would take you out to the beach and tell you stories. Only she didn't tell you about Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs. In her stories, the wolves were the good guys." She arched an eyebrow at something off camera. "I spent enough time listening to Sarah's stories to recognize a pair of Cold Ones when I see them."
Bella's jaw dropped and Edward's eyes widened in genuine surprise. Several moments passed in silence, but then Renée crossed her arms over her chest.
"I'm waiting. I don't know what happened, but I know your doctor is a liar. Now tell me the truth, and I don't want to hear another word about that ridiculous immune deficiency. Where are you?"
Bella was torn between denying everything and confessing everything. She wanted more than anything to come clean to her mother, but she recognized the threat. Renée simply wouldn't be able to keep quiet about this.
"Well." Edward strode into the room and dragged a chair from another desk over next to Bella. He plunked down into it and dropped an arm over her shoulders. "This puts us in kind of an awkward position."
"Hands off, Cullen," Charlie's voice growled from off camera.
Edward let his arm fall to his side.
"The thing is," he told Renée, "we're very invested in remaining anonymous. Carlisle is the best doctor that Forks has ever had, but can you imagine what would happen if people knew a vampire was working at the local hospital?"
"How do you think I feel, knowing that vampire is keeping me from my little girl?"
Edward glanced at Bella and shrugged. "She has a point."
So Bella told her a truncated version of events. She told her about stopping in Tijuana and about meeting Joham, but she skipped over everything to do with Alexander. That, she decided, she simply couldn't talk about. At least not yet. Not unless she could get him back.
But she told her mother about being turned into a vampire, and about running away and swimming to avoid the temptation to kill. She told her about finding Jasper in the woods and all that the Cullens had done for her, and by the time she finished, her mother was crying.
"Honey, what are you saying?" she asked, sniffling into the tissues that Charlie had handed her. "You're not one of them. You don't look at all like they do. Sure, you're pale, but that's just because you've been sick."
Edward wordlessly passed Bella a handkerchief, and she began wiping away the make-up Alice had so carefully applied. With each stroke of the cloth, Renée's eyes widened.
She cleared her throat. "You were awfully committed to lying to your mother, weren't you?"
"I was just trying to protect you. This is a dangerous secret, and you're not very good at keeping secrets."
"Well . . . so what if I'm not?"
Bella rolled her eyes, but Renée continued.
"Who cares if I can't keep a secret? Nobody ever listens to me anyway. I'm just gullible old Renée who believes every crazy story she's ever heard—and now might be a good time to point out that, as it turns out, some of those crazy stories are true. But that's not the point. The point is, if I slip up and say something about vampires, who's going to believe me?"
Bella considered that, and shrugged. "Okay, that's probably true."
"Of course it's true. Now apologize to your mother for lying."
"I'm sorry, Mom. You're right, it wasn't fair."
"And you're not dying, are you?"
"No. Actually, just the opposite. I'm not going to get any older."
"What?" Renée's mouth dropped open. "You're going to stay a teenager forever? Baby, you're so lucky!"
Edward snorted. "Yeah, it's a real treat."
"How old are you?" Renée asked.
"A hundred and three."
Renée laughed in delight. "It's like Peter Pan! You never have to grow up!"
Bella wasn't half as excited about that prospect as her mother was, but she only smiled.
"Bella? Aren't you going to introduce me to your friend?"
"Um . . . yeah. This is Edward Cullen." She glanced at him. "He's Dr. Cullen's . . . son. Sort of."
"We're family," Edward explained. "We live together, and I pose as his adopted son."
"But you aren't really related?"
"We are in a way that matters to our kind. Loyalty means at least as much to us as blood relationships mean to humans."
Renée looked abashed. "Of course. I didn't mean to imply . . ."
"It's all right," Edward said with a chuckle, shaking his head. "We're an unusual family, both to vampires and humans."
"I can't believe you figured it out from Sarah's old stories," Bella said.
"Yeah, well . . . Karen Newton also mentioned that she'd seen you in her store the other day."
Bella's jaw dropped again. "Karen Newton? But I thought the only ones there were Mike and that lady buying swimming suit."
"Karen was in the back doing inventory," Edward muttered. "I wasn't even paying attention to her."
"Nice catch," Jasper drawled from downstairs.
"Karen was always such a sweetheart," Renée was saying. "She hosted my baby shower when I was pregnant with you, and I used to take you for play dates with her little boy all the time."
"He was so cute. He used to follow you around like a little puppy. If you were happy, he was happy. If you cried, he cried."
Edward glowered harder.
"Anyway, baby, I don't really know what to do. I want to see you, but if it's really that hard for you to smell blood . . . but you were in Karen's store . . . I just don't know, honey. Tell me what to do."
"The blood is really hard to deal with," Bella told her. "But I've been able to see Charlie for short visits."
Bella realized that was probably the wrong thing to say about the time that her mother's face started turning read.
"CHARLIE SWAN!" she yelled. "YOU'VE BEEN TO SEE HER? YOU KNEW ALL ALONG WHAT WAS HAPPENING AND YOU SAT THERE AND LIED RIGHT TO MY FACE?"
"Crap," she muttered. "It's not his fault. It's mine; I made him lie."
"I'VE BEEN A COMPLETE WRECK!" she said, leaping to her feet. "AND YOU DIDN'T SAY ONE WORD, NOT ONE WORD TO LET ME KNOW THAT SHE WAS PERFECTLY FINE ALL ALONG!"
Bella knew she needed to distract her mother before she had a chance to build up a good head of steam. "You should come over now." She glanced quickly at Edward to make sure it was okay, and turned back to Renée when he nodded. "You can see my room. Alice decorated it to remind me of home."
It worked. Renée dropped back into her seat, still breathing hard but with curiosity showing on her face. "Who's Alice?"
"She's Edward's sister. They have kind of a big family."
"And you're living with them now?"
"Yeah. Seriously, you should come over. It's beautiful here."
"Really? You don't mind?"
"No, not at all. I've missed you so much, Mom."
"I've missed you, too! I can't wait another minute. I'll be there before you know it!" She jumped up and hurried away, and a moment later Charlie appeared on the computer screen.
"That woman's going to give me an ulcer," he muttered.
Bella giggled. "Are you coming along?"
"Is that okay?"
"Of course. When she gets too crazy, I'll deflect attention off of me by reminding her that you spent the last few days letting her suffer."
Bella grinned at him.
"We'll see you in a few minutes," Charlie said, then reached forward and turned off the webcam.
Bella changed into a pair of shorts and a slightly more stylish top to meet her mother. She felt the contact lenses dissolving in her eyes as she covered herself in scented product, but opted not to put in a second pair. There was apparently no need to hide now. She wrapped another one of Jared's bandanas around her neck and then wandered down to the river and waded out into the shallows.
Edward and Jasper joined her there, always ready to protect her from herself, but this time Benjamin and Tia followed, too.
"You're mother is coming to visit?" Benjamin asked.
"Do you mind if I stay and watch?"
She blinked in surprise. "You . . . you want to watch me talk to my mother?"
"Unless you don't want me to."
"You can, but it might be kind of boring."
"On the contrary, I find human relationships fascinating. Family behavior, in particular, is very strange."
He cocked his head. "Don't you see how odd it is that you allow humans to chastise you and tell you what to do? When you're so much stronger than they are?"
She just shrugged and let the river's current catch one foot and tug it away from the other. Her legs looked a lot better after her grooming session with Alice and Tia, she thought, and she rubbed her foot against the back of her other leg, absently enjoying the smoothness of her skin.
"It's not as much about power as it is about love and respect," Edward told Benjamin. "It's one of the reasons we choose to live like humans, actually. We value that dynamic."
"You enjoy answering to humans?"
"Sometimes, sure. It makes us part of the community. There's give and take for all involved."
They heard a pair of cars turn onto the gravel drive in the distance, and Tia and Benjamin leapt across the river and climbed up into a tree near the banks. Bella wandered up out of the water and took her place beside Edward and Jasper. Edward kissed her temple and winked at her before stepping away to leave a Charlie-approved amount of space between them.
Renée was the first to reach them. As soon as she caught a glimpse of Bella through the trees, she started squealing and threw herself at her daughter. Bella was careful to cushion the blow, and she let Renée squeeze her as tightly as she could and rock her back and forth.
"So," she said when she finally released her. "Tell me all about it. Do you raid blood banks in the middle of the night? Do you turn into a bat?"
Bella giggled. "We drink animal blood. And so far I haven't turned into anything except an out-of-control idiot."
"You?" Renée kicked off her shoes and started rolling up the cuffs of her capris. "I don't believe a word of it."
The others caught up with them then, but didn't join the conversation. Charlie, Carlisle, and Esme sat down on the large rock on the edge of the riverbank while Bella and Renée waded into the shallows, chatting about what it was like to be a newborn vampire. Bella told Renée about her frustrating lack of impulse control, and Renée started laughing.
"It serves you right for being such a grown-up kid!" she giggled.
Bella kicked a spray of water at her.
"So what about the night life? Are there exclusive clubs that cater to vampires?"
Bella raised her eyebrows. "Exclusive clubs?"
"You know, like on that show on HBO. They're always going out to vampire bars and getting in fights."
Bella snorted. "No. No vampire bars."
Talking with her mother wasn't like talking with Charlie. Charlie was solid, sensible, and exactly what she needed with her life so out of control. But Renée was the one she could share the crazy minutia with, and who could make her laugh by coming up with things like vampire night life. With every laugh and roll of her eyes, she could feel the little broken pieces of herself fusing back together.
"So," Renée said after about a half an hour, "let's get to the good stuff. That boy." She raised her eyebrows and looked pointedly at Edward, who was skipping stones with Jasper a few yards away. "He's cute."
"Yeah." Bella ducked her head and laughed. "He is. He can also hear us."
"He can?" She looked at Edward again, and he winked at her. "Well. That doesn't change anything. He's still really cute."
"He's off-limits," Charlie growled from his rock.
Carlisle sighed. "I wish you'd reconsider. They're good for each other."
"Reconsider what?" Renée demanded.
"The two of them," Charlie said, gesturing between Bella and Edward. "Living together and . . ." He waved his hand and grimaced.
Renée's eyes went wide. "And what? Bella! Is he your boyfriend? You've never had a boyfriend! This is so—"
"No!" Charlie interrupted. "He most certainly is not her boyfriend."
"Why not?" She looked over at Edward again, and then back at Charlie.
"Oh, for god's sake, Renée. Do you really think it's a good idea for your sixteen-year-old daughter to be living with her boyfriend?"
"Oh." She twisted a toe in the mud at her feet. "Well, when you put it that way . . ."
Renée looked at Bella apologetically, as though she thought her admission might be some kind of betrayal. "It's probably best to listen to your father. He's usually right about these things." But she leaned in close and whispered in Bella's ear, "He'll come around."
Bella grinned and met Edward's eye. He grinned back, but it was short lived. After a moment he was distracted by something back at the house, and he turned to stare intently through the trees.
"We've got this," he murmured to Jasper. "Go."
Jasper didn't hesitate, and he didn't bother to hide his speed. He darted back to the house, and a moment later Bella heard a low, aggravated curse.
"You've got to stop this," he growled. When he didn't get an answer, he raised his voice. "Damn it, Alice, I mean it!"
"Carlisle is counting on me," Alice said, her voice low and distracted.
"What's going on?" Renée asked. "What are you all looking at?"
"Nothing." Bella turned away from the house and waded a little deeper, until the water nearly reached her knees.
"He's counting on you to gather supplies," Jasper was saying. "He doesn't expect you to prevent every possible problem."
"Oh, dear," Carlisle said. He stood, but hesitated, his eyes on Bella and Renée."
"Esme and I can handle her," Edward told him.
Carlisle smiled gratefully and then turned and jogged back toward the house.
"What's wrong?" Renée asked.
"Alice is upset about something," Bella said, deciding a full explanation of the upcoming caucus would probably be a little too much for her mother's nerves. "They're just trying to make her feel better."
"Which one is Alice?"
"She's Jasper's wife."
"Wife? He's married? But he's so young!"
"He's a hundred and sixty," Edward said with a grin.
"Right." She pursed her lips and nodded. "No more aging. That's going to take some getting used to."
"Tell me about it," Edward agreed. "Do you know how many times I've graduated from high school?"
Renée laughed, and then turned to Bella. "Speaking of which . . . what are we going to do about school for you? I guess you're probably not coming back home. What do we do about truancy and all that?"
"Carlisle will help us get a medical waiver for her so she can stay home for a year," Esme said. "If she's up to it, maybe she can return next fall."
"And what about you?" Bella asked. "Classes start for you at the end of the month, don't they? Is your classroom all ready?"
"Oh, well." Renée looked away. "I thought maybe I might resign, actually."
"Because you're here."
"And, what, you thought you'd move to Forks to be close to me? You tried that once, remember? It didn't end well."
"That was different."
"But you still hate it here."
"Well . . ." She shrugged. "Who doesn't?"
Bella laughed. "I don't, actually. I'm learning to appreciate the rain, if you can believe it."
"Impossible. My daughter adores the sunshine."
"Yeah, well, your daughter now sparkles in the sunshine."
She gasped. "You do? Not really?"
Bella nodded. "Sometime when it's not so overcast I'll have to show you. It's . . . well, it's weird, actually, but I'm getting used to it."
"If you can get used to that," Renée said resolutely, "I can get used to Forks."
"What about Phil? He's not going to give up baseball to come live here."
She sighed. "I can't leave. I've tried living without you, Bella, and it doesn't work. I'm a complete mess."
"Don't you think it will be different now, though? I mean, now that you know where I am and you don't have to worry about me?"
"So sensible," she muttered, and pulled Bella close to kiss her cheek.
It was a little too much. Bella had kept the thirst at bay fairly well, but at her mother's close proximity it flared up, burning her throat, making her whole body tremble from the temptation of it. She jerked out of her mother's embrace and dove down into the water, letting the heavy flow insulate her from the scent she craved so badly.
Esme and Edward were at her side in an instant, both still fully clothed, both gripping her arms, just in case.
"What's happening?" Renée asked in alarm. "Bella? What's wrong?"
Esme explained Bella's favorite trick to quell her bloodlust, and Bella let herself be soothed by the pride she heard in Esme's voice. It reminded her that she was doing something right, that there were things she wanted more than blood. She took a moment to cement that thought in her head, then surfaced and brushed the hair out of her face.
"Sorry," she said, wiping at the water dripping from her face. "Being a newborn sucks."
"It's time to go," Charlie said, standing up.
"No!" Bella spun to face him, craving just a little bit more time. "Please don't go yet. I haven't even shown you guys my room. It's so pretty. And you have to meet Alice. Please? I'm not ready for you to go."
Charlie relented. "As long as you're up to it."
"I am. I totally am. Just . . ." She tugged at the bandana around her neck. The river water had dulled the scent, and she really needed a new one. "I just have to change this, and I'll be all set. Please stay? I'll be right back."
Renée and Charlie stayed another hour, and oohed and ahhed appropriately when Bella showed them her room, the wall she had recently destroyed, and her skin sparkling in a ray of sun that peeked out from behind the ever-present ceiling of clouds. Renée wanted to take pictures, but Carlisle quickly stepped in to remind her of the importance of discretion. She dutifully waited until the sunlight was gone, and then snapped a few pictures of Bella to take home to Phil.
"We can still video chat online," Bella promised her. "In fact, it will be a lot easier for me."
"Yes, but who will go with me to cake decorating classes? Or recreate Paris in the living room with cardboard boxes and watercolors? Who will learn Esperanto with me?"
Bella laughed and shook her head at some of the crazy things that they had done together. "You'll just have to talk Phil into it, I guess. And just think. He's not such a klutz, so you could probably even get him to go spelunking with you.
"Ooh, spelunking . . . I've wanted to try that for so long. You know, I heard there were a ton of old Spanish mines in Sycamore Canyon . . ."
"See? You should definitely go exploring. Just be safe, okay? If you're splattered all over the bottom of some ravine, you won't be able to cash in all the mountains of Spanish gold you're going to find."
Charlie rolled his eyes. "Don't encourage her."
After Bella said goodbye to her parents, Aro, Amun, and Kebi all emerged from where they had been hiding out. Without really being directed to, the Cullens and their guests gathered outside on the porch. Benjamin immediately began peppering Bella with questions about cake decorating and lost Spanish mines, but Aro had something more serious on his mind.
"She guessed what you were," he told Carlisle quietly.
"If she could, what's to stop others from guessing?"
"Nothing. On very rare occasions, people recognize that there's something legitimately different about us. They rarely guess correctly, which I believe we can attribute to the absurdity of their vampire stories, but there are a few who have understood that we're not quite human."
"There have been others?"
"Yes. Edward's mother, for example. Before she died, she made it clear to me that she knew I could keep Edward from dying. I'm not sure she realized what she was asking, but she did ask me to do what others couldn't."
"And yet you continue to live among humans? Jeopardizing our anonymity?"
Amun snorted. "Don't be a hypocrite, Aro. You've had plenty of your own dealings with humans. Don't think we don't know about your business ventures. You made obscene profits by intimidating crime lords and captains of industry. Do you think they never guessed that your minions were more than human?"
"They never guessed we were vampires," Aro argued.
"Renée wouldn't have either, if not for the chance repetition of an old legend."
"Yes," Aro murmured thoughtfully. "It's not the woman who's the problem. It's that tribe . . ."
"Don't threaten my friends," Carlisle said, his voice low and warning. "I won't stand for it."
"Threaten? No, no, of course not. But suppose we could reach an agreement with them? After all, you've convinced them to abide by this treaty of yours . . ."
Aro trailed off, staring sightlessly into the trees as his mind continued to work.
"Leave them alone. Their land is off-limits to all of us."
"Of course, of course. I wouldn't dream of breaking a covenant with them."
Aro was still thinking, but Carlisle let it go. Bella didn't, though. The hungry look in Aro's eyes made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She found herself hoping that the political race wouldn't come down to Aro and Amun, because she wasn't sure she could stand either one of them having any power over her life.
Sixteen days after they left, Emmett and Rosalie returned. They were optimistic about the contacts that they had made in Russia and Australia, but they weren't as certain of their success in India. They had met three nomads, but none of them would commit to making the trip. Each had promised to pass the word along, though, so there was some hope that there would be at least a small Asian presence at the gathering.
The following day, Tanya and her sisters arrived from Alaska. The Cullens greeted them on the front porch, and Bella couldn't help but feel a little twinge of jealousy when Edward hugged Tanya hello.
They kept their embrace brief, however, and then Tanya turned to Bella, holding up a leather thong with a little stone lion's head dangling from it.
"I brought you a gift," she said. "It's an Aleut charm. The lion represents strength of will and familial ties. Considering your recent changes . . ." she gestured to Edward, and then to the other Cullens, "I thought it seemed appropriate."
Bella took it from her and inspected the intricate carving in the stone. "It's beautiful."
"The Aleut people used to believe that an amulet would be more powerful if it was carved from a stone taken from the stomach of a sea otter."
Bella's eyes went wide, and Tanya smiled.
"Not the tastiest of creatures, sea otters."
"You actually found a sea otter with a stone in its stomach?"
"It took me a few tries."
Edward peered at the stone over Bella's shoulder. "It really is beautiful. But rough. You didn't carve it, did you?"
"What kind of Aleut talisman would it be if it had been carved by a Russian vampire? I took it to an old man in Juneau who sells novelties to tourists. He carved it for me."
"This is really amazing," Bella said. "Thank you, Tanya."
"Let me help you put it on," Edward told her.
Bella lifted her hair and let him tie the leather behind her neck. He gave her shoulders a squeeze when he finished, and Tanya turned away with a knowing smile.
Aro stepped out onto the porch then, and Bella immediately felt the atmosphere grow frigid.
"Tanya," he said, his voice dripping with deferential charm. "How very nice to see you again, my dear."
Tanya flashed what was obviously a very forced smile and inclined her head minutely. "Aro."
"Irina, Katrina," he went on, seemingly oblivious to their chilly reception, "it's a pleasure to meet you under such amiable circumstances. Perhaps this time we will have the opportunity to get to know one another better."
No one answered, and an awkward pause fell over the group for a moment. Finally, Carlisle pushed the front door open and guided the three newcomers through.
"Have you heard from Eleazar and Carmen?" he asked as they all filed inside.
"Their flight lands in Seattle this afternoon," Tanya told him. "They'll be here by this evening."
"Well, well, what have we here?"
Amun was descending the stairs with his coven in tow, and he smiled broadly at Tanya and her sisters. "These must be the lovely Denali women I've heard so much about."
Carlisle made the introductions, and Tanya greeted Amun with far more warmth than she had Aro. Amun took her hand and brought her fingers to his lips, and Bella grimaced. She wondered if Tanya knew what kind of man she was getting so friendly with.
Amun was surprisingly well-behaved that day. He spoke to the girls in an unctuous tone that just missed being oily, and deferred to their opinions on nearly everything. Aro tried to be just as companionable, but his efforts were invariably met with stony coldness.
But that didn't stop him from trying. Both he and Amun kept up a steady stream of conversation with the three women, and they reminded Bella of television dating show that Renée had liked to watch. Everyone was trying to appear at ease, but there was an underlying current of tension that made the whole situation feel awkward and forced.
The girls from Denali were all but forgotten, though, when Carmen and Eleazar arrived. Everyone filed outside to greet them, and Aro was off the porch and heading toward them before Eleazar had even pulled the rental car to a stop. He pulled open Eleazar's door, and Eleazar was already lowering himself into a deep bow as he stepped out of the car. He offered his hand to Aro, who began peeling off his gloves.
Carlisle cleared his throat, and Aro replaced his gloves with a quiet growl.
Eleazar looked surprised, but accepted the gloved handshake that Aro offered. "I was so relieved to hear that you were safe," he murmured.
"Old friend." Aro dropped his hand and gripped his shoulders. "Thank you for searching out the others. I only wish I could have done the same."
"I regret that I have only limited information to share. It seems most of the survivors have done their best to disappear."
"I can hardly blame them, after what we suffered. I came here seeking protection myself."
"And you'll have it."
Bella heard Tanya growl softly.
Carlisle had moved to Carmen's door to help her out of the car, and he escorted her up the porch steps.
"Carmen, Eleazar, I'd like you to meet my old friend Amun and his mate, Kebi."
Amun moved forward to greet them with the same ingratiating civility that he had displayed with Tanya.
"And this is Benjamin," Amun told them after he had clasped each of their hands in turn. He reached back to take Benjamin's elbow and steer him forward.
Eleazar looked at him for a long, silent moment, one eyebrow arched curiously. "A pleasure," he finally said, then turned to Carlisle. "Have you seen . . . ?"
"I've seen a little," he replied with a smile. "Benjamin has been helping Bella and Edward dig an amphitheater behind the house."
"Mm." Eleazar went back to studying Benjamin. "But you can do more than move dirt around, can't you?"
"Much more," Benjamin confirmed with a wide smile. "Though it took some practice to get the hang of shaping the earth into the form I want. The detail-work actually takes more concentration than whipping up a thunderstorm."
Carmen's eyes widened. "Whipping up a thunderstorm?"
"He's an elementalist," Eleazar explained. "I've never seen a vampire with this particular gift. It's . . ."
"Powerful," Amun said smugly.
"Sublime," Aro added with a reverent sigh.
Eleazar frowned. "I would have thought your sire would have advised you to be a little more tight-lipped about such a potent talent."
"He did." Benjamin shrugged and gestured around at the crowd of vampires. "But you know how it is. Eighteen can keep a secret if seventeen of them are dead."
Eleazar let out a hard laugh and then nodded toward Tia. "And who is your lovely friend."
Tia looked pleased to be acknowledged. Not flattered, Bella thought, but approving. She smiled at Eleazar and stepped forward to offer him her hand.
"This is Tia, my mate," Benjamin told him.
Carmen took her turn greeting the girl, and she leaned forward with a conspiratorial smile. "I bet a lover's quarrel between the two of you is literally earth-shattering."
Tia laughed, but Benjamin shook his head.
"Tia and I never quarrel. We have an understanding. She's always right."
Everyone chuckled at his joke. Or at least, everyone except Amun and Kebi. Amun sniffed disdainfully, but Bella wasn't sure if anyone else noticed. Benjamin had successfully, if inadvertently, monopolized the attention of nearly the entire group, and they all ignored Amun as Carlisle led them back inside. Once in the living room, though, Amun re-asserted his position by taking a seat next to Eleazar and posing earnest questions to him about what leads he had found in his search for the surviving members of the Volturi.
The rest of the night was spent in hearing about Eleazar's search, rehashing the attack on Volterra, and mulling over various speculations on the possible motivations behind it. Bella found it all dull and repetitive, and passed the time with a stack of novels. She couldn't seem to keep a part of her mind from following the tedious conversation, however, so she couldn't have been happier when sunrise brought a distraction with it. As the first rays of morning light streamed in through the glass wall at the back of the house, Carmen stood up and moved to look out at the clear sky.
"I need some sun," she declared. "Who wants to go down to the river with me?"
A chorus of happy agreement followed, and most everyone, Bella included, rose. Only Carlisle, Eleazar, Aro, Amun, and Kebi remained where they were.
"Not coming along?" Esme asked Carlisle, lacing her fingers through his hair and scratching lightly at his scalp.
"You go ahead. I may meet you out there."
Tanya and her sisters had brought along their own bathing suits, but Alice had to shop in various different closets to find things for Carmen, Benjamin, and Tia. Once clothes were procured, though, the girls all crowded into Bella's room to get changed.
Bella tugged on the tankini that Alice had bought for her and eyed herself in the mirror. The girls hadn't stopped with their legs when they had done their hair removal project, and she was glad now to have bare underarms and a tidied bikini area. She glanced at Tia, who was also inspecting her newly-hair-free underarms.
"I'm not used to it yet," she said. "Does it seem weird to you?"
"I used to shave, so I actually think it feels nice."
Tia eyed her reflection. "I keep comparing myself to the magazines in Alice's room."
"That's not fair to the models," Carmen said with a laugh as she tied the strings of a scandalously small bikini top behind her neck.
Bella looked around at the others. Almost all of them were in bikinis, though Rosalie and Irina had both donned stylish one-piece suits. Bella examined the strip of skin bared by her top and considered changing, but she finally decided that she was unlikely to draw much attention, given the company she was in, so it probably didn't matter what she wore.
She could hear the boys talking together at the top of the stairs, and she looked around again. Rosalie was twisting her hair up into a bun and Carmen was tugging at her nearly-nonexistent bikini bottoms, but other than that it looked like they were all ready. A few moments later, they were filing out of her bedroom, and Bella eyes immediately sought Edward.
He didn't meet her gaze, however. He was looking at Tia, his eyes narrowed, and suddenly he smirked.
"Think it'll work?" he asked quietly as she walked by him.
She shrugged and shot him a dazzling smile. "It's worth a try." She headed down the stairs and when the others started to follow, Edward put an arm out and stopped them for just a second, letting Tia get a head start.
The effect she had was immediate. The men in the living room glanced up when they heard her come down, and Amun's jaw dropped.
"Tia!" he hissed, his horror plain on his face. "What do you think you're doing?"
"I'm going swimming." Bella could hear the false cheeriness in her voice, and she peered at Amun as she descended the stairs with the others.
"Get back upstairs and put on something decent!" Amun said, his voice a deep, vicious growl.
"What's the matter with what I'm wearing?"
"I think she looks wonderful," Benjamin said, coming up beside her and slipping an arm around her bare waist.
"She's dressed . . . like a slave girl!" Amun spat.
"Oh," Tia said with a smile, "so the way Kebi used to dress? It seems you'd like it, then."
Amun shot to his feet, looking livid. "BENJAMIN!" he roared. "GET CONTROL OF YOUR WOMAN!"
Benjamin stiffened. "I don't control Tia."
"You had better start, before she brings further shame on this coven!"
A low growl issued from Benjamin's throat, but Eleazar interrupted by quietly clearing his throat. His posture was relaxed, one leg crossed over the other as he leaned back in his chair, but there was something about him that made him seem dark and dangerous.
"Do you, then, believe my wife brings shame to me?"
Amun's eyes shot between Carmen and Eleazar, and he choked on his words.
"Gentlemen," Eleazar said, addressing Aro and Amun, "let's get something straight. I know what you want from me, and I might be persuaded to give it. But I've spent the happiest portion of my life living with four strong, capable women, and as a result I have very little patience for misogyny. This," he gestured to where Kebi was kneeling at Amun's feet, "wins you no points with me."
Amun ground his teeth and lowered himself back into his chair. "I think you do me an injustice, Eleazar. I take especially good care of my women. Kebi's desire to stay close to me is simply a result of her trust in my protection."
"Kebi is perfectly capable of taking care of herself—or she would be, in your absence. I'm unimpressed with romantic chauvinism, Amun. Don't try to pass off your disdain for women as anything but unenlightened ethnocentrism."
Aro chuckled smugly. "You are rather devoted to your old ways. Maybe it's time you let go of the past."
"I wouldn't be so quick to criticize," Eleazar told Aro sharply.
Aro looked shocked. "Old friend, I'm insulted. You were a part of my coven. You saw that I gave no preferential treatment based on sex."
"No? Where is Sulpicia? Have you hidden her away somewhere, refusing once again to allow her to stand with you? Your lack of faith in her has turned her into more of a prisoner than a partner. Is that what you call enlightenment?"
Aro snapped his mouth closed and pursed his lips.
"Both of you have shut yourselves away from the world for so long that you've stopped evolving with it. Right now I don't think either one of you is up to the task of governing a modern society. If you want my help, you would do well to update your sensibilities, and unless I see a marked improvement I will withhold my support." He uncrossed his legs and pushed himself to his feet. "Come on, Carlisle. Our wives look beautiful and our families want to have some fun. I think it's clear how we ought to be spending the day."
Carlisle took Eleazar's proffered hand and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. "We'll be right behind you," he said to his family, and then he and Eleazar headed upstairs to change.
"See you at the river," Tia said sweetly. She hooked her arm through Benjamin's and headed outside.
Edward watched her go with a slow shake of his head. "That girl," he whispered to Bella, draping an arm over her shoulders, "is a force to be reckoned with."