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II. Of Shields and Secrets

Renée

Eighteen summers ago

The fresh, floral scent of detergent wafted through the wooden doors as a young woman squeezed water out of the sheets, shaking out the creases before pinning them to the clothesline.

Cool wind blew from the east, tugging her wild chestnut hair out of its loose bun. She tucked the lock back into place, keeping a watchful eye on the back door. The steps leading to the backyard were rickety and wide, and she didn't want little Bella to come tumbling down when she came looking for her mother.

She'd always been hopelessly careless.

The trait had always inconvenienced her when she was younger and now, it was endangering her loved ones. Because of her carelessness, her four-year-old daughter had been dragged into this wild goose chase.

Until now, she hardly understood their motives; her feeble telekinesis was hardly impressive. She could will a pen towards her or levitate a sheet of paper above her palms for a few brief seconds. It had been silly fun, a useless stunt that had made her friends shriek in delight.

How could she have known that there were creatures in this world that would see her childish antics as anything more?

Renée clipped on another article of clothing, glancing at the back door again. Bella was still inside, busy with her new playthings, and the rare stillness gave Renée's mind a chance to wander to places she'd forbidden it to go—for there was a heaviness in her heart that had little to do with the danger surrounding them.

Her daughter. Vampires. Werewolves. They should be at the forefront of her mind but the thing that niggled at her the most was something that should seem trivial in the larger scheme of things.

Charlie.

She'd married her husband because he'd been fearless and loyal. A dedicated husband, a policeman so brilliant he'd uncovered the secrets of the supernatural world she'd been born into without her having to breathe a word. It should've been perfect.

Only, in her imagination, he'd shared his journey with her instead of… this.

She sighed and pushed the thought away. It could wait. With the animal drinkers' help, they were close to securing the area again. She could return to work, find some semblance of normalcy and maybe, when the craziness died down, so would this unsettling feeling.

She picked up the laundry basket. She had a daughter to think of. And Charlie was a wonderful father, careful and responsible—perhaps a better parent than Renée could ever be. She reached for the doorknob. Little patters echoed from within, followed by a child's excited squeal.

Vampires?

Renée didn't think as she threw the door open. It smashed into the wall and a vase fell off the shelf, shattering. The sight that greeted her made the laundry basket slip between her fingers.

Bella was alone but—

Her little girl looked up, smiling prettily, the dozens of floating, colourful marbles around her forgotten as she ran towards her mother. The little glass balls clattered to the ground, the noise echoing like rain.

Renée's heart hammered in her chest as she lifted her child into her arms. No one could know. No one—

As she hugged her little girl more tightly, the hair at the back of her neck stood up. She whirled around, adrenaline racing through her veins.

Her instincts had been right the first time.

Emerging from the shadows like a nightmare, the scarlet-eyed predator stared at her, his movements unhurried and calm as he removed the midnight cloak from around his shoulders, letting it drop to the ground.

Jacob

Present

"Jake, honey, are you sure you're all right?" Nessie's worried voice rang out from the bedroom. "You've been cutting those cucumbers for an hour now."

"Yeah, yeah, stop bugging me already," he said in his best cheery, teasing voice.

There was no need for Nessie to know about the pack's latest mess. Chop. No need at all. Chop.

He glanced at Nessie, who looked more tired than he'd ever seen her.

He sighed.

Gaining her affections had taken him two long, painful years.

The first year, neither of them could look the other in the eye. She'd been appalled and he'd been too ashamed. Despite the elders' warnings, he'd tried to force himself to stay with Bella. After all, no one in their tribe had imprinted in five hundred years.

He'd tried to convince himself it was a phase, that he'd had cold feet. He'd tried to get over it. All of his efforts were for nothing; although he still cared deeply for Bella, he couldn't bring himself to love her the same way.

Eventually, Bella had given up. He'd been on guard duty when she'd packed all her things and moved back in with Charlie. She'd left a message.

Please don't contact me. I need time alone. Coffee shop next week at midday?

He'd assumed she'd meant for her to meet him there but instead he'd found Nessie, who'd seemed equally shocked to see him there.

Bella told me to come.

Jacob gave the cucumber a particularly vicious slice, and the knife went through the chopping board.

"Fuck," he muttered.

"Jake wha—…" Nessie began, rising, when their front door flew open, falling off its hinges for the umpteenth time now.

Embry stood in the door, breathing heavily as though he'd been running for miles.

Before Jake could murder the bastard for breaking his door, Embry uttered words that nearly stopped his heart.

"Jake! Bella's gone!"

"What happened?" Nessie asked instantly and Jake felt himself become a little sick.

"Quil saw her running off into the forest—she crossed the treaty line. Says he saw her with a bloodsucker—the crazy one…" he garbled.

"The crazy one?" Jake repeated, baffled.

"Edward Cullen," Sam strode in calmly behind Embry then, closely followed by Quil and Seth. His decisive aura helped to quiet Jake's nerves slightly.

"Quil just described him to me. He's an old relative of Carlisle's."

Even though Sam stepped down to be Beta when Jake had joined, he was still the most experienced of the pack. Jake sometimes wondered if he'd made a mistake in becoming the Alpha.

Beside him, Nessie had turned pale. He gave her hand a squeeze.

It was hard for her. It was hard for all of them. But it had to be the hardest on Bella. Truth be told, it was better if she left La Push. But ever since they'd killed the sadistic vampire who'd nearly ruined her, his slippery mate had been tailing her like a bloodhound.

Jake clenched his fists. He'd sworn to stay with her after that horrific incident. And he'd failed. Spectacularly.

"We have to find her," he said at last.

"We'll help you," Sam promised, and the others nodded.

Despite their conviction, Jake knew that everyone was weary. Half the trouble in their clan had something or other to do with Bella. And the elders still wouldn't tell them what the hell was going on. Why were the vampires in La Push? Why had the tracker singled out Bella, of all people?

As the others filed out, Jake took a deep breath to steady himself. Bella's life had been far from easy. He'd sworn to protect her and then he'd hurt her in the worst way possible. He put a hand on his forehead. Breathe.

He'd find her.

Bella

Present

My hand shook around the glass. The tea was about to spill—but Edward's long fingers wrapped over my own, guiding the glass up to my lips.

"Are you feeling better?" he asked tentatively.

"I'm jumping for joy." My sarcasm was diminished by the faintness in my voice. His self-proclaimed 'jog' had made me sick to the core, and I'd spent the last hour regurgitating my lunch into the hotel toilet.

His only response was to coax me to drink more of the warm tea.

"So what's the plan?" I asked wearily once my stomach had calmed down.

He set the glass on the table. Leaning elegantly on an elbow, one leg crossed over the other, he said conversationally, "Well, I have a gourmet coming up and you're going to be the main course."

I stared, shocked until I saw the sparkle of humour in his eye. A second passed and then miraculously, I cracked a smile—the first time in months.

"So this gourmet," I made an effort to play along, "it's in a 'castle' that's actually a hotel?" I glanced around at the suite we were in.

He smiled. "We're getting to that part. But first—…" He held out both his fists.

I rubbed my face and then awkwardly bumped my knuckles against his. He laughed at that.

"No, Bella! This isn't a fist bump. Pick one."

I twisted my hair between my fingers, eyeing him suspiciously. "Why?"

"Just pick one," he urged.

I crossed my arms. "What is this? Do I get to pick whether I get grilled or braised?"

He laughed again. "No one will be having you for dinner. Not today, anyway." He winked. "This is something else. Something nice."

"Something nice for you or something nice for me?"

He leant in, goodwill and a great deal of mischief in his expression. "What about something nice for the both of us?"

Fair enough.

I came closer to peep between his fingers but he pulled them away, clicking his tongue. "No peeking."

"Fine. Then this one." I reached out to slap his right fist—intending to hit harder than normal just to sass him but he dodged my blow, grinning. He opened the hand and a beautiful sight unfolded before me. Sunny petals bloomed from his palm, twisting around each other to form a single yellow rose.

He let it flutter down onto my hand. "For you."

"Oh." Surprise coloured my voice. "Thanks." It was a neat little magic trick but why would he—…?

"A little thank you for the donation," he quipped, noticing the question on my face.

"Donation?" I stared at him, mystified, and he reached over, ruffling my hair fondly.

"The blood donation."

Oh.

"Well, I—…" I was about to tell him I wasn't interested in flowers but he put a finger on my lip.

"None of that now," he said cheerfully. "I'm going to fix you, remember?"

"But—…" I mumbled against his finger and he shook his head.

"Trust me, it's going to work."

"But—…"

"I promise we're going to have lots of fun." He seemed to be getting more and more excited by the minute.

"The thing is," I tried again, and he finally let his hand drop, his eyes suddenly so focused it made me hesitate. I chewed my lip for several seconds, pondering my words, and he waited, unexpectedly patient.

I took a deep breath and then exhaled in a rush. "I shouldn't be here. I'm not allowed to leave La Push. Didn't Carlisle tell you?"

He raised his eyebrows, watching me for a few seconds, and then surprisingly, his smile turned impish.

"And since when do we have to do what anyone says?"

I turned his words in my head, trying to apply what he was saying to my situation. What about the danger? What about everyone who—

"You're thinking so hard your ears are smoking," he commented. "Why shouldn't you leave?"

I opened my mouth to answer and then stopped, apprehensive. Carlisle had introduced him to us as an eccentric relative. I'd automatically assumed that he, too, was an animal drinker. But after meeting him in the forest and seeing the behaviour he was capable of…

My heart raced. I'd been so caught up in the moment that I'd nearly forgotten that I was talking to a human drinker. Human drinkers were trouble. I'd experienced it firsthand with a tracker in Phoenix. Everything had spiralled downwards after the incident with James. The trauma. The imprinting. My future.

"What do you want from me?" The words came out sharper than I intended.

If Edward could smell my fear, he didn't react to it, keeping his posture relaxed and his smile easy. "Your company. And if you let me, sometimes, your blood."

I twisted my fingers together, biting my lip so hard I tasted the salty tang of blood. "And if I don't want to…?"

He slanted his head and came closer. He was inching forwards so slowly that I could've pulled away. But I'd been through this with James. The helplessness of being played with as I tried to flee… I wasn't going to go through that again. So I forced myself to stay still, my expression wilfully impassive.

But he wasn't looking into my eyes. "You're bleeding," he fussed. Reaching up, he traced my bottom lip with his thumb, gently tugging it free from under my teeth. His skin was cool as it brushed my skin and a strange tingle ran through me at his touch, the subtle scent rolling from his skin heady and enticing.

A predator's snare.

"I can help you with that." His expression was so soft, his voice a tempting promise.

Looking at him, I understood why humans could so willingly walk to their deaths. It was easy to overlook the icy skin and dismiss little misgivings when the lure was so overpowering.

Was he going to grant my request after all?

I stayed perfectly still as he leant in, pressing his lips softly to mine, running his tongue over the tiny cut. The moment I felt the skin knit together, he pulled back.

I took an unsteady breath, feeling dizzy.

"Then I'll take you back home," he said quietly, answering a question I'd nearly forgotten.

I realised that my heart was hammering wildly and no doubt, he could hear it. Not knowing what to do with myself, I reached for the glass and gulped down more tea.

"Home," I repeated softly.

"Home," he confirmed, nodding as he rocked his chair backwards. "Or you could come with me." The creaking of wood was a blur in my periphery. Thinking about home when I'd been so close to ending my life was wreaking havoc on my emotions.

I hadn't been able to cry after my mother died. And after James, it had been the same barring a couple of nightmares. Losing Jake had felt more painful than anything else, maybe because when it came to him, I'd truly believed in a future.

I'd never been good at expressing emotion so why was it so hard to hold back now?

Edward's cool hand curled around my cheek, his thumb tracing my eyelid.

"I can smell it," he murmured. "Salt." His arms were gentle, enveloping me entirely against him.

When Jake held me, his body had always been fever-hot. Hugging a human man had always awakened my memories of Jake. But Edward's body was so different—cool and unyielding—his scent inadvertently drugging my mind, blurring the memories, relaxing me and giving me permission to let go.

He held me like that for a long time, his hand rubbing my back soothingly. His shirt was damp by the time I was done and slowly, I began to regain my wits. Before I could feel properly embarrassed, however, he was suddenly gone.

I looked around in confusion, feeling much lighter albeit a little disoriented.

"Bella. Bella, look!" His voice was nearby. I looked up and was shocked to see that he was juggling eggs, a frying pan and tomatoes, with a silly expression on his face. It was such a bizarre sight that I laughed in astonishment.

"There!" he said, beaming, evidently pleased with himself for cheering me up. He stopped juggling and cracked the eggs flawlessly into the pan, catching them one after the other and throwing the shells into the bin before catching the other two tomatoes.

"Help me with dinner?" he asked brightly.

"Okay," I said, unable to help the smile spreading on my face. That was the most ridiculous but sweetest thing anyone had ever done for me.

"Catch!" he flung the tomatoes at me and I fumbled before managing to trap them between my hands and abdomen.

"Good catch. Come on," he disappeared through the door.

I quickly wiped my wet face and grabbed the room keys before following him down the corridor. He was whistling as we went into the elevator, casually swirling the raw eggs around in the pan.

And something hit me as not quite right.

"Er… Edward?" I asked uncertainly.

"Hmm?"

"We're in a hotel. Where are we going to find a stove?" Come to think of it, where did he get the pan, eggs and tomatoes?

He grinned like a Cheshire cat as the elevator doors opened. "You'll see."

He stalked out self-importantly into the dining floor; wielding the pan like it was a sword. I ran after him, feeling incredibly self-conscious.

"Edward," I hissed, "What are you doing? People are staring."

And that had to be the understatement of the year. All the diners were ogling, whispering and sniggering at his nuttiness. Our nuttiness, I realised, looking down at the tomatoes in my hands. Good grief.

"Aw loosen up, Bella," he said confidently, looking amused. I crept nervously behind him, avoiding all the questioning, incredulous eyes, and trying not to trip over my own feet in my embarrassment.

"If you're going to stride into the kitchen and demand to use their stove, I'm not following you!" I threatened desperately.

His only response was to grin more widely, link arms with me—no, I don't want to be seen with you like this!—and knock presumptuously on the 'Staff Only' door.

There were sounds of yelling, footsteps, and then a chef with a large red face and curious eyes poked his head out. "Yes?"

I wanted to disappear.

"Why can't we just have a normal dinner?" I sighed, as we knelt at a mini-stove on one side of the kitchen.

To his credit, it hadn't been that bad. He'd been polite—not demanding and eccentric as I'd expected him to be—and somehow he'd managed to convince the chef to lend us a small stove. I suspected there was some under-the-table money involved, but I didn't ask.

"When you've lived as long as I have, you'll realise how extremely boring normal is," he flipped the egg expertly in the pan, "Besides, what is there for me to do at a normal dinner? I suppose I could taste you…" His eyes twinkled teasingly, having dropped to my jugular but his tone clearly implied something else.

"Don't be vulgar," I mimicked his earlier words, my face turning scarlet.

He smiled slightly and then gave me an unexpected peck on the cheek.

"Anything for you, sweetheart."

I turned redder, if that was possible, and he laughed.

"I don't need my gift after all. You're easy to read."

I frowned up at him. "What gift?"

"I'm a mind-reader," he said, widening his eyes and trying, but failing, to look spooky.

I slapped his arm and instantly regretted it.

"Why do you have to be so damn hard?" I asked, disgruntled as I tried to pull back my aching palm.

He caught it in both of his, letting his cool skin sooth my bruised one.

A thoughtful expression flitted across his face, but a question bubbled out of my mouth before he could speak, "So. Mind-reading?"

"Yeah. Mind-reading."

"That's so unique," I said honestly. "And a little disturbing…" I couldn't help adding.

He deliberated for a moment, and then said, "I can't read yours."

"Oh?" I said, feeling a little relieved, "So you can only read selected people's minds?"

He frowned. "Not exactly. You're the first person I can't read."

"Okay," I said slowly, trying to digest the consequences of that.

"But as I said, I don't need to with you. Everything's written on your face," he grinned presumptuously and I resisted the urge to smack him again.

"Your egg's done," he added, flipping it deftly onto my plate. Some of the hot oil splattered onto my arm.

"Careful with that," I complained.

"Sorry!"

He was endearingly careful with the next few scoops. Then we both sat back on the kitchen floor and as I ate, he spoke.

"We're leaving first thing in the morning. We could buy clothes and other things you might need at stores, and then… we don't actually have to go directly to the castle. We could wander around first, see places, travel out of the country and try lots of nice food, for both you and me," he spoke rapidly, with an excited gleam in his eyes, "Oh, just think of all the exotic girls! And after that-…"

"Wait," I spluttered, "You're going to murder girls as we're travelling?"

"No, don't be silly—I'm just going to take a sip. They won't mind. So—I was saying-…"

"Hang on, who said anything about me agreeing to all of this?"

He looked at me as though I had sprouted horns. "What do you mean?"

"I-…" I trailed off, not sure of what I was going to say. Tell him I actually wanted to go home? Did I really want to?

So was I going to cruise along with his mad agenda? What about everyone back home? My dad? Jake?

Reality was sinking in once again. My trail had ended at the sea. By now, there would be an uproar and the Cullens would've been contacted.

What was I thinking?

Edward was still looking at me with those fast, perceptive eyes of his. Waiting.

Now that he was less animated, it struck me that he looked a little lonely.

The longer I looked at him, the more I began to realise what his life must be like; a whirlwind of excess and distractions to run away from the sinking sense of loneliness. I understood so well because that same emptiness was inside me too. Only, I curled up around it and shrivelled while he ran away—living a life of indulgence and delusions. The stark similarity between us was disconcerting.

"Bella?" he asked uncertainly.

"I don't know. I- the wolves. My dad—they all probably think I'm dead or hurt," I said disjointedly.

His eyes became round like plates. "Oh. Crap. That slipped my mind."

I looked at him disbelievingly. "You're supposed to have perfect recall and an incredibly multi-track mind."

"I know, but I have too many tabs open—planning ahead for ten trips or more isn't easy you know."

"Ten trips?" I exclaimed and then shook my head, "Never mind. We're getting sidetracked again. I need to send my dad a note—an email. Something."

"Email? Here," he pulled out an iPhone from his pocket.

I never thought I would beam so brightly at the sight of the smartphone. I'd always hated touchscreen and all its un-feel-able keys, but now, it was literally a lifesaver.

I thought about calling my dad but decided I couldn't deal with his reactions right now. I booted up the phone, staring at the scratches and chipped glass at its sides.

"Why haven't you upgraded to the 7S?" I asked, as I opened the Safari browser.

"Oh, I forgot to," he replied, looking a little absent-minded.

I shook my head, wondering what could possibly be on his mind.

He had hundreds of bookmarks in his browser, with thousands of pages haphazardly placed in each of the folders. It was a wonder that the phone was still functioning.

I logged out of his email—ten thousand or so unread—and logged into mine.

Dear Dad,

I paused. What could I say to him? After erasing several sentences, I settled with:

I'm safe, don't worry. I'm travelling with Edward. Please tell the others not to look for me. I'll come back when I'm ready, I promise.

Love you,

Bella

I logged out.

Edward was looking at me with a huge grin on his face. "So we're going?"

I tried not to give away the answer before I spoke, but his excitement was infectious. My lips curling into a wide smile, I told him, "Yes."


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