ALICE DROPPED ME OFF IN THE MORNING, IN KEEPING with the slumber party charade. It wouldn’t be long until Edward showed up, officially returning from his “hiking” trip. All of the pretenses were starting to wear on me. I wouldn’t miss this part of being human.
Charlie peeked through the front window when he heard me slam the car door. He waved to Alice, and then went to get the door for me.
“Did you have fun?” Charlie asked.
“Sure, it was great. Very . . . girlie.”
I carried my stuff in, dumped it all at the foot of the stairs, and wandered into the kitchen to look for a snack.
“You’ve got a message,” Charlie called after me.
On the kitchen counter, the phone message pad was propped up conspicuously against a saucepan.
Jacob called, Charlie had written.
He said he didn’t mean it, and that he’s sorry. He wants you to call him. Be nice and give him a break. He sounded upset.
I grimaced. Charlie didn’t usually editorialize on my messages.
Jacob could just go ahead and be upset. I didn’t want to talk to him. Last I’d heard, they weren’t big on allowing phone calls from the other side. If Jacob preferred me dead, then maybe he should get used to the silence.
My appetite evaporated. I turned an about face and went to put my things away.
“Aren’t you going to call Jacob?” Charlie asked. He was leaning around the living room wall, watching me pick up.
I started up the stairs.
“That’s not very attractive behavior, Bella,” he said. “Forgiveness is divine.”
“Mind your own business,” I muttered under my breath, much too low for him to hear.
I knew the laundry was building up, so after I put my toothpaste away and threw my dirty clothes in the hamper, I went to strip Charlie’s bed. I left his sheets in a pile at the top of the stairs and went to get mine.
I paused beside the bed, cocking my head to the side.
Where was my pillow? I turned in a circle, scanning the room. No pillow. I noticed that my room looked oddly tidy. Hadn’t my gray sweatshirt been draped over the low bedpost on the footboard? And I would swear there had been a pair of dirty socks behind the rocking chair, along with the red blouse I’d tried on two mornings ago, but decided was too dressy for school, hanging over the arm. . . . I spun around again. My hamper wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t overflowing, the way I thought it had been.
Was Charlie doing laundry? That was out of character.
“Dad, did you start the wash?” I shouted out my door.
“Um, no,” he shouted back, sounding guilty. “Did you want me to?”
“No, I got it. Were you looking for something in my room?”
“I can’t find . . . a shirt. . . .”
“I haven’t been in there.”
And then I remembered that Alice had been here to get my pajamas. I hadn’t noticed that she’d borrowed my pillow, too — probably since I’d avoided the bed. It looked like she had cleaned while she was passing through. I blushed for my slovenly ways.
But that red shirt really wasn’t dirty, so I went to save it from the hamper.
I expected to find it near the top, but it wasn’t there. I dug through the whole pile and still couldn’t find it. I knew I was probably getting paranoid, but it seemed like something else was missing, or maybe more than one something. I didn’t even have half a load here.
I ripped my sheets off and headed for the laundry closet, grabbing Charlie’s on the way. The washing machine was empty. I checked the dryer, too, half-expecting to find a washed load waiting for me, courtesy of Alice. Nothing. I frowned, mystified.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Charlie yelled.
I went back upstairs to search under my bed. Nothing but dust bunnies. I started to dig through my dresser. Maybe I’d put the red shirt away and forgotten.
I gave up when the doorbell rang. That would be Edward.
“Door,” Charlie informed me from the couch as I skipped past him.
“Don’t strain yourself, Dad.”
I pulled the door open with a big smile on my face.
Edward’s golden eyes were wide, his nostrils flared, his lips pulled back over his teeth.
“Edward?” My voice was sharp with shock as I read his expression. “What —?”
He put his finger to my lips. “Give me two seconds,” he whispered. “Don’t move.”
I stood frozen on the doorstep and he . . . disappeared. He moved so quickly that Charlie wouldn’t even have seen him pass.
Before I could compose myself enough to count to two, he was back. He put his arm around my waist and pulled me swiftly toward the kitchen. His eyes darted around the room, and he held me against his body as if he were shielding me from something. I threw a glance toward Charlie on the couch, but he was studiously ignoring us.
“Someone’s been here,” he murmured in my ear after he pulled me to the back of the kitchen. His voice was strained; it was difficult to hear him over the thumping of the washing machine.
“I swear that no werewolves —” I started to say.
“Not one of them,” he interrupted me quickly, shaking his head. “One of us.”
His tone made it clear that he didn’t mean a member of his family.
I felt the blood empty from my face.
“Victoria?” I choked.
“It’s not a scent I recognize.”
“One of the Volturi,” I guessed.
“That’s why I think it must have been them — it wasn’t long ago, early this morning while Charlie was sleeping. And whoever it was didn’t touch him, so there must have been another purpose.”
“Looking for me.”
He didn’t answer. His body was frozen, a statue.
“What are you two hissing about in here?” Charlie asked suspiciously, rounding the corner with an empty popcorn bowl in his hands.
I felt green. A vampire had been in the house looking for me while Charlie slept. Panic overwhelmed me, closed my throat. I couldn’t answer, I just stared at him in horror.
Charlie’s expression changed. Abruptly, he was grinning. “If you two are having a fight . . . well, don’t let me interrupt.”
Still grinning, he put his bowl in the sink and sauntered out of the room.
“Let’s go,” Edward said in a low hard voice.
“But Charlie!” The fear was squeezing my chest, making it hard to breathe.
He deliberated for a short second, and then his phone was in his hand.
“Emmett,” he muttered into the receiver. He began talking so fast that I couldn’t understand the words. It was over in half a minute. He started pulling me toward the door.
“Emmett and Jasper are on their way,” he whispered when he felt my resistance. “They’ll sweep the woods. Charlie is fine.”
I let him drag me along then, too panicked to think clearly. Charlie met my frightened eyes with a smug grin, which suddenly turned to confusion. Edward had me out the door before Charlie could say anything.
“Where are we going?” I couldn’t stop whispering, even after we were in the car.
“We’re going to talk to Alice,” he told me, his volume normal but his voice bleak.
“You think maybe she saw something?”
He stared at the road through narrowed eyes. “Maybe.”
They were waiting for us, on alert after Edward’s call. It was like walking into a museum, everyone still as statues in various poses of stress.
“What happened?” Edward demanded as soon as we were through the door. I was shocked to see that he was glowering at Alice, his hands fisted in anger.
Alice stood with her arms folded tight across her chest. Only her lips moved. “I have no idea. I didn’t see anything.”
“How is that possible?” he hissed.
“Edward,” I said, a quiet reproof. I didn’t like him talking to Alice this way.
Carlisle interrupted in a calming voice. “It’s not an exact science, Edward.”
“He was in her room, Alice. He could have still been there — waiting for her.”
“I would have seen that.”
Edward threw his hands up in exasperation. “Really? You’re sure?”
Alice’s voice was cold when she answered. “You’ve already got me watching the Volturis’ decisions, watching for Victoria’s return, watching Bella’s every step. You want to add another? Do I just have to watch Charlie, or Bella’s room, or the house, or the whole street, too? Edward, if I try to do too much, things are going to start slipping through the cracks.”
“It looks like they already are,” Edward snapped.
“She was never in any danger. There was nothing to see.”
“If you’re watching Italy, why didn’t you see them send —”
“I don’t think it’s them,” Alice insisted. “I would have seen that.”
“Who else would leave Charlie alive?”
“I don’t know,” Alice said.
“Stop it, Edward,” I whispered.
He turned on me, his face still livid, his teeth clenched together. He glared at me for half a second, and then, suddenly, he exhaled. His eyes widened and his jaw relaxed.
“You’re right, Bella. I’m sorry.” He looked at Alice. “Forgive me, Alice. I shouldn’t be taking this out on you. That was inexcusable.”
“I understand,” Alice assured him. “I’m not happy about it, either.”
Edward took a deep breath. “Okay, let’s look at this logically. What are the possibilities?”
Everyone seemed to thaw out at once. Alice relaxed and leaned against the back of the couch. Carlisle walked slowly toward her, his eyes far away. Esme sat on the sofa in front of Alice, curling her legs up on the seat. Only Rosalie remained unmoving, her back to us, staring out the glass wall.
Edward pulled me to the sofa and I sat next to Esme, who shifted to put her arm around me. He held one of my hands tightly in both of his.
“Victoria?” Carlisle asked.
Edward shook his head. “No. I didn’t know the scent. He might have been from the Volturi, someone I’ve never met. . . .”
Alice shook her head. “Aro hasn’t asked anyone to look for her yet. I will see that. I’m waiting for it.”
Edward’s head snapped up. “You’re watching for an official command.”
“You think someone’s acting on their own? Why?”
“Caius’s idea,” Edward suggested, his face tightening again.
“Or Jane’s . . . ,” Alice said. “They both have the resources to send an unfamiliar face. . . .”
Edward scowled. “And the motivation.”
“It doesn’t make sense, though,” Esme said. “If whoever it was meant to wait for Bella, Alice would have seen that. He — or she — had no intention of hurting Bella. Or Charlie, for that matter.”
I cringed at my father’s name.
“It’s going to be fine, Bella,” Esme murmured, smoothing my hair.
“But what was the point then?” Carlisle mused.
“Checking to see if I’m still human?” I guessed.
“Possible,” Carlisle said.
Rosalie breathed out a sigh, loud enough for me to hear. She’d unfrozen, and her face was turned expectantly toward the kitchen. Edward, on the other hand, looked discouraged.
Emmett burst through the kitchen door, Jasper right behind him.
“Long gone, hours ago,” Emmett announced, disappointed. “The trail went East, then South, and disappeared on a side road. Had a car waiting.”
“That’s bad luck,” Edward muttered. “If he’d gone west . . . well, it would be nice for those dogs to make themselves useful.”
I winced, and Esme rubbed my shoulder.
Jasper looked at Carlisle. “Neither of us recognized him. But here.” He held out something green and crumpled. Carlisle took it from him and held it to his face. I saw, as it exchanged hands, that it was a broken fern frond. “Maybe you know the scent.”
“No,” Carlisle said. “Not familiar. No one I’ve ever met.”
“Perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way. Maybe it’s a coincidence . . . ,” Esme began, but stopped when she saw everyone else’s incredulous expressions. “I don’t mean a coincidence that a stranger happened to pick Bella’s house to visit at random. I meant that maybe someone was just curious. Our scent is all around her. Was he wondering what draws us there?”
“Why wouldn’t he just come here then? If he was curious?” Emmett demanded.
“You would,” Esme said with a sudden, fond smile. “The rest of us aren’t always so direct. Our family is very large — he or she might be frightened. But Charlie wasn’t harmed. This doesn’t have to be an enemy.”
Just curious. Like James and Victoria had been curious, in the beginning? The thought of Victoria made me tremble, though the one thing they seemed certain of was that it had not been her. Not this time. She would stick to her obsessed pattern. This was just someone else, a stranger.
I was slowly realizing that vampires were much bigger participants in this world than I’d once thought. How many times did the average human cross paths with them, completely unaware? How many deaths, obliviously reported as crimes and accidents, were really due to their thirst? How crowded would this new world be when I finally joined it?
The shrouded future sent a shiver down my spine.
The Cullens pondered Esme’s words with varying expressions. I could see that Edward did not accept her theory, and that Carlisle very much wanted to.
Alice pursed her lips. “I don’t think so. The timing of it was too perfect. . . . This visitor was so careful to make no contact. Almost like he or she knew that I would see. . . .”
“He could have other reasons for not making contact,” Esme reminded her.
“Does it really matter who it was?” I asked. “Just the chance that someone was looking for me . . . isn’t that reason enough? We shouldn’t wait for graduation.”
“No, Bella,” Edward said quickly. “It’s not that bad. If you’re really in danger, we’ll know.”
“Think of Charlie,” Carlisle reminded me. “Think of how it would hurt him if you disappeared.”
“I am thinking of Charlie! He’s the one I’m worried about! What if my little guest had happened to be thirsty last night? As long as I’m around Charlie, he’s a target, too. If anything happened to him, it would be all my fault!”
“Hardly, Bella,” Esme said, patting my hair again. “And nothing will happen to Charlie. We’re just going to have to be more careful.”
“More careful?” I repeated in disbelief.
“It’s all going to be fine, Bella,” Alice promised; Edward squeezed my hand.
And I could see, looking at all of their beautiful faces one by one, that nothing I could say was going to change their minds.
It was a quiet ride home. I was frustrated. Against my better judgment, I was still human.
“You won’t be alone for a second,” Edward promised as he drove me to Charlie’s. “Someone will always be there. Emmett, Alice, Jasper . . .”
I sighed. “This is ridiculous. They’ll get so bored, they’ll have to kill me themselves, just for something to do.”
Edward gave me a sour look. “Hilarious, Bella.”
Charlie was in a good mood when we got back. He could see the tension between me and Edward, and he was misinterpreting it. He watched me throw together his dinner with a smug smile on his face. Edward had excused himself for a moment, to do some surveillance, I assumed, but Charlie waited till he was back to pass on my messages.
“Jacob called again,” Charlie said as soon as Edward was in the room. I kept my face empty as I set the plate in front of him.
“Is that a fact?”
Charlie frowned. “Don’t be petty, Bella. He sounded really low.”
“Is Jacob paying you for all the P.R., or are you a volunteer?”
Charlie grumbled incoherently at me until the food cut off his garbled complaint.
Though he didn’t realize it, he’d found his mark.
My life was feeling a lot like a game of dice right now — would the next roll come up snake eyes? What if something did happen to me? It seemed worse than petty to leave Jacob feeling guilty about what he’d said.
But I didn’t want to talk to him with Charlie around, to have to watch my every word so I didn’t let the wrong thing slip. Thinking about this made me jealous of Jacob and Billy’s relationship. How easy it must be when you had no secrets from the person you lived with.
So I would wait for the morning. I most likely wasn’t going to die tonight, after all, and it wouldn’t hurt him to feel guilty for twelve more hours. It might even be good for him.
When Edward officially left for the evening, I wondered who was out in the downpour, keeping an eye on Charlie and me. I felt awful for Alice or whoever else it might be, but still comforted. I had to admit it was nice, knowing I wasn’t alone. And Edward was back in record time.
He sang me to sleep again and — aware even in unconsciousness that he was there — I slept free of nightmares.
In the morning, Charlie left to go fishing with Deputy Mark before I was up. I decided to use this lack of supervision to be divine.
“I’m going to let Jacob off the hook,” I warned Edward after I’d eaten breakfast.
“I knew you’d forgive him,” he said with an easy smile. “Holding grudges is not one of your many talents.”
I rolled my eyes, but I was pleased. It seemed like Edward really was over the whole anti-werewolf thing.
I didn’t look at the clock until after I’d dialed. It was a little early for calls, and I worried that I would wake Billy and Jake, but someone picked up before the second ring, so he couldn’t have been too far from the phone.
“Hello?” a dull voice said.
“Bella!” he exclaimed. “Oh, Bella, I’m so sorry!” he tripped over the words as he hurried to get them out. “I swear I didn’t mean it. I was just being stupid. I was angry — but that’s no excuse. It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever said in my life and I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me, please? Please. Lifetime of servitude up for grabs — all you have to do is forgive me.”
“I’m not mad. You’re forgiven.”
“Thank you,” he breathed fervently. “I can’t believe I was such a jerk.”
“Don’t worry about that — I’m used to it.”
He laughed, exuberant with relief. “Come down to see me,” he begged. “I want to make it up to you.”
I frowned. “How?”
“Anything you want. Cliff diving,” he suggested, laughing again.
“Oh, there’s a brilliant idea.”
“I’ll keep you safe,” he promised. “No matter what you want to do.”
I glanced at Edward. His face was very calm, but I was sure this was not the time.
“Not right now.”
“He’s not thrilled with me, is he?” Jacob’s voice was ashamed, rather than bitter, for once.
“That’s not the problem. There’s . . . well, there’s this other problem that’s slightly more worrisome than a bratty teenage werewolf. . . .” I tried to keep my tone joking, but I didn’t fool him.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded.
“Um.” I wasn’t sure what I should tell him.
Edward held his hand out for the phone. I looked at his face carefully. He seemed calm enough.
“Bella?” Jacob asked.
Edward sighed, holding his hand closer.
“Do you mind speaking to Edward?” I asked apprehensively. “He wants to talk to you.”
There was a long pause.
“Okay,” Jacob finally agreed. “This should be interesting.”
I handed the phone to Edward; I hoped he could read the warning in my eyes.
“Hello, Jacob,” Edward said, perfectly polite.
There was a silence. I bit my lip, trying to guess how Jacob would answer.
“Someone was here — not a scent I know,” Edward explained. “Has your pack come across anything new?”
Another pause, while Edward nodded to himself, unsurprised.
“Here’s the crux, Jacob. I won’t be letting Bella out of my sight till I get this taken care of. It’s nothing personal —”
Jacob interrupted him then, and I could hear the buzz of his voice from the receiver. Whatever he was saying, he was more intense than before. I tried unsuccessfully to make out the words.
“You might be right —,” Edward began, but Jacob was arguing again. Neither of them sounded angry, at least.
“That’s an interesting suggestion. We’re quite willing to renegotiate. If Sam is amenable.”
Jacob’s voice was quieter now. I started chewing on my thumbnail as I tried to read Edward’s expression.
“Thank you,” Edward replied.
Then Jacob said something that caused a surprised expression to flicker across Edward’s face.
“I’d planned to go alone, actually,” Edward said, answering the unexpected question. “And leave her with the others.”
Jacob’s voice rose in pitch, and it sounded to me like he was trying to be persuasive.
“I’ll try to consider it objectively,” Edward promised. “As objectively as I’m capable of.”
The pause was shorter this time.
“That’s not a half-bad idea. When? . . . No, that’s fine. I’d like a chance to follow the trail personally, anyway. Ten minutes . . . Certainly,” Edward said. He held the phone out to me. “Bella?”
I took it slowly, feeling confused.
“What was that all about?” I asked Jacob, my voice peeved. I knew it was juvenile, but I felt excluded.
“A truce, I think. Hey, do me a favor,” Jacob suggested. “Try to convince your bloodsucker that the safest place for you to be — especially when he leaves — is on the reservation. We’re well able to handle anything.”
“Is that what you were trying to sell him?”
“Yes. It makes sense. Charlie’s probably better off here, too. As much as possible.”
“Get Billy on it,” I agreed. I hated that I was putting Charlie within the range of the crosshairs that always seemed to be centered on me. “What else?”
“Just rearranging some boundaries, so we can catch anyone who gets too near Forks. I’m not sure if Sam will go for it, but until he comes around, I’ll keep an eye on things.”
“What do you mean by ‘keep an eye on things’?”
“I mean that if you see a wolf running around your house, don’t shoot at it.”
“Of course not. You really shouldn’t do anything . . . risky, though.”
He snorted. “Don’t be stupid. I can take care of myself.”
“I also tried to convince him to let you visit. He’s prejudiced, so don’t let him give you any crap about safety. He knows as well as I do that you’d be safe here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“See you in a few,” Jacob said.
“You’re coming up?”
“Yeah. I’m going to get the scent of your visitor so we can track him if he comes back.”
“Jake, I really don’t like the idea of you tracking —”
“Oh please, Bella,” he interrupted. Jacob laughed, and then hung up.