17 ALLIANCE

“BELLA?”

Edward’s soft voice came from behind me. I turned to see him spring lightly up the porch steps, his hair windblown from running. He pulled me into his arms at once, just like he had in the parking lot, and kissed me again.

This kiss frightened me. There was too much tension, too strong an edge to the way his lips crushed mine — like he was afraid we only had so much time left to us.

I couldn’t let myself think about that. Not if I was going to have to act human for the next several hours. I pulled away from him.

“Let’s get this stupid party over with,” I mumbled, not meeting his eyes.

He put his hands on either side of my face, waiting until I looked up.

“I won’t let anything happen to you.”

I touched his lips with the fingers of my good hand. “I’m not worried about myself so much.”

“Why am I not surprised by that?” he muttered to himself. He took a deep breath, and then he smiled slightly. “Ready to celebrate?” he asked.

I groaned.

He held the door for me, keeping his arm securely around my waist. I stood frozen there for a minute, then I slowly shook my head.

“Unbelievable.”

Edward shrugged. “Alice will be Alice.”

The interior of the Cullens’ home had been transformed into a nightclub — the kind that didn’t often exist in real life, only on TV.

“Edward!” Alice called from beside a gigantic speaker. “I need your advice.” She gestured toward a towering stack of CDs. “Should we give them familiar and comforting? Or” — she gestured to a different pile — “educate their taste in music?”

“Keep it comforting,” Edward recommended. “You can only lead the horse to water.”

Alice nodded seriously, and started throwing the educational CDs into a box. I noticed that she had changed into a sequined tank top and red leather pants. Her bare skin reacted oddly to the pulsing red and purple lights.

“I think I’m underdressed.”

“You’re perfect,” Edward disagreed.

“You’ll do,” Alice amended.

“Thanks.” I sighed. “Do you really think people will come?” Anyone could hear the hope in my voice. Alice made a face at me.

“Everyone will come,” Edward answered. “They’re all dying to see the inside of the reclusive Cullens’ mystery house.”

“Fabulous,” I moaned.

There wasn’t anything I could do to help. I doubted that — even after I didn’t need sleep and moved at a much faster speed — I would ever be able to get things done the way Alice did.

Edward refused to let me go for a second, dragging me along with him as he hunted up Jasper and then Carlisle to tell them of my epiphany. I listened with quiet horror as they discussed their attack on the army in Seattle. I could tell that Jasper was not pleased with the way the numbers stood, but they’d been unable to contact anyone besides Tanya’s unwilling family. Jasper didn’t try to hide his desperation the way Edward would have. It was easy to see that he didn’t like gambling with stakes this high.

I couldn’t stay behind, waiting and hoping for them to come home. I wouldn’t. I would go mad.

The doorbell rang.

All at once, everything was surreally normal. A perfect smile, genuine and warm, replaced the stress on Carlisle’s face. Alice turned the volume of the music up, and then danced to get the door.

It was a Suburban-load of my friends, either too nervous or too intimidated to arrive on their own. Jessica was the first one in the door, with Mike right behind her. Tyler, Conner, Austin, Lee, Samantha . . . even Lauren trailing in last, her critical eyes alight with curiosity. They all were curious, and then overwhelmed as they took in the huge room decked out like a chic rave. The room wasn’t empty; all the Cullens had taken their places, ready to put on their usual perfect human charade. Tonight I felt like I was acting every bit as much as they were.

I went to greet Jess and Mike, hoping the edge in my voice sounded like the right kind of excitement. Before I could get to anyone else, the bell rang again. I let Angela and Ben in, leaving the door wide, because Eric and Katie were just reaching the steps.

I didn’t get another chance to panic. I had to talk to everyone, concentrate on being upbeat, a hostess. Though the party had been billed as a joint event for Alice, Edward, and me, there was no denying that I was the most popular target for congratulations and thanks. Maybe because the Cullens looked just slightly wrong under Alice’s party lights. Maybe because those lights left the room dim and mysterious. Not an atmosphere to make your average human feel relaxed when standing next to someone like Emmett. I saw Emmett grin at Mike over the food table, the red lights gleaming off his teeth, and watched Mike take an automatic step back.

Probably Alice had done this on purpose, to force me into the center of attention — a place she thought I should enjoy more. She was forever trying to make me be human the way she thought humans should be.

The party was a clear success, despite the instinctive edginess cause by the Cullens’ presence — or maybe that simply added a thrill to the atmosphere. The music was infectious, the lights almost hypnotic. From the way the food disappeared, that must have been good, too. The room was soon crowded, though never claustrophobic. The entire senior class seemed to be there, along with most of the juniors. Bodies swayed to the beat that rumbled under the soles of their feet, the party constantly on the edge of breaking into a dance.

It wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it would be. I followed Alice’s lead, mingling and chatting for a minute with everyone. They seemed easy enough to please. I was sure this party was far cooler than anything the town of Forks had experienced before. Alice was almost purring — no one here would forget this night.

I’d circled the room once, and was back to Jessica. She babbled excitedly, and it was not necessary to pay strict attention, because the odds were she wouldn’t need a response from me anytime soon. Edward was at my side — still refusing to let go of me. He kept one hand securely at my waist, pulling me closer now and then in response to thoughts I probably didn’t want to hear.

So I was immediately suspicious when he dropped his arm and edged away from me.

“Stay here,” he murmured in my ear. “I’ll be right back.”

He passed gracefully through the crowd without seeming to touch any of the close-packed bodies, gone too quickly for me to ask why he was leaving. I stared after him with narrowed eyes while Jessica shouted over the music eagerly, hanging on to my elbow, oblivious to my distraction.

I watched him as he reached the dark shadow beside the kitchen doorway, where the lights only shone intermittently. He was leaning over someone, but I couldn’t see past all the heads between us.

I stretched up on my toes, craning my neck. Right then, a red light flashed across his back and glinted off the red sequins of Alice’s shirt. The light only touched her face for half a second, but it was enough.

“Excuse me for a minute, Jess,” I mumbled, pulling my arm away. I didn’t pause for her reaction, even to see if I’d hurt her feelings with my abruptness.

I ducked my way through the bodies, getting shoved around a bit. A few people were dancing now. I hurried to the kitchen door.

Edward was gone, but Alice was still there in the dark, her face blank — the kind of expressionless look you see on the face of someone who has just witnessed a horrible accident. One of her hands gripped the door frame, like she needed the support.

“What, Alice, what? What did you see?” My hands were clutched in front of me — begging.

She didn’t look at me, she was staring away. I followed her gaze and watched as she caught Edward’s eye across the room. His face was empty as a stone. He turned and disappeared into the shadows under the stair.

The doorbell rang just then, hours after the last time, and Alice looked up with a puzzled expression that quickly turned into one of disgust.

“Who invited the werewolf?” she griped at me.

I scowled. “Guilty.”

I’d thought I’d rescinded that invitation — not that I’d ever dreamed Jacob would come here, regardless.

“Well, you go take care of it, then. I have to talk to Carlisle.”

“No, Alice, wait!” I tried to reach for her arm, but she was gone and my hand clutched the empty air.

“Damn it!” I grumbled.

I knew this was it. Alice had seen what she’d been waiting for, and I honestly didn’t feel I could stand the suspense long enough to answer the door. The doorbell peeled again, too long, someone holding down the button. I turned my back toward the door resolutely, and scanned the darkened room for Alice.

I couldn’t see anything. I started pushing for the stairs.

“Hey, Bella!”

Jacob’s deep voice caught a lull in the music, and I looked up in spite of myself at the sound of my name.

I made a face.

It wasn’t just one werewolf, it was three. Jacob had let himself in, flanked on either side by Quil and Embry. The two of them looked terribly tense, their eyes flickering around the room like they’d just walked into a haunted crypt. Embry’s trembling hand still held the door, his body half-turned to run for it.

Jacob was waving at me, calmer than the others, though his nose was wrinkled in disgust. I waved back — waved goodbye — and turned to look for Alice. I squeezed through a space between Conner’s and Lauren’s backs.

He came out of nowhere, his hand on my shoulder pulling me back toward the shadow by the kitchen. I ducked under his grip, but he grabbed my good wrist and yanked me from the crowd.

“Friendly reception,” he noted.

I pulled my hand free and scowled at him. “What are you doing here?”

“You invited me, remember?”

“In case my right hook was too subtle for you, let me translate: that was me uninviting you.”

“Don’t be a poor sport. I brought you a graduation present and everything.”

I folded my arms across my chest. I didn’t want to fight with Jacob right now. I wanted to know what Alice had seen and what Edward and Carlisle were saying about it. I craned my head around Jacob, searching for them.

“Take it back to the store, Jake. I’ve got to do something. . . .”

He stepped into my line of sight, demanding my attention.

“I can’t take it back. I didn’t get it from the store — I made it myself. Took a really long time, too.”

I leaned around him again, but I couldn’t see any of the Cullens. Where had they gone? My eyes scanned the darkened room.

“Oh, c’mon, Bell. Don’t pretend like I’m not here!”

“I’m not.” I couldn’t see them anywhere. “Look, Jake, I’ve got a lot on my mind right now.”

He put his hand under my chin and pulled my face up. “Could I please have just a few seconds of your undivided attention, Miss Swan?”

I jerked away from his touch. “Keep your hands to yourself, Jacob,” I hissed.

“Sorry!” he said at once, holding his hands up in surrender. “I really am sorry. About the other day, I mean, too. I shouldn’t have kissed you like that. It was wrong. I guess . . . well, I guess I deluded myself into thinking you wanted me to.”

“Deluded — what a perfect description!”

“Be nice. You could accept my apology, you know.”

“Fine. Apology accepted. Now, if you’ll just excuse me for a moment . . .”

“Okay,” he mumbled, and his voice was so different from before that I stoppd searching for Alice and scrutinized his face. He was staring at the floor, hiding his eyes. His lower lip jutted out just a little bit.

“I guess you’d rather be with your real friends,” he said in the same defeated tone. “I get it.”

I groaned. “Aw, Jake, you know that’s not fair.”

“Do I?”

“You should.” I leaned forward, peering up, trying to look into his eyes. He looked up then, over my head, avoiding my gaze.

“Jake?”

He refused to look at me.

“Hey, you said you made me something, right?” I asked. “Was that just talk? Where’s my present?” My attempt to fake enthusiasm was pretty sad, but it worked. He rolled his eyes and then grimaced at me.

I kept up the lame pretense, holding my hand open in front of me. “I’m waiting.”

“Right,” he grumbled sarcastically. But he also reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a small bag of a loose-woven, multi-colored fabric. It was tied shut with leather drawstrings. He set it on my palm.

“Hey, that’s pretty, Jake. Thanks!”

He sighed. “The present is inside, Bella.”

“Oh.”

I had some trouble with the strings. He sighed again and took it from me, sliding the ties open with one easy tug of the right cord. I held my hand out for it, but he turned the bag upside down and shook something silver into my hand. Metal links clinked quietly against each other.

“I didn’t make the bracelet,” he admitted. “Just the charm.”

Fastened to one of the links of the silver bracelet was a tiny wooden carving. I held it between my fingers to look at it closer. It was amazing the amount of detail involved in the little figurine — the miniature wolf was utterly realistic. It was even carved out of some red-brown wood that matched the color of his skin.

“It’s beautiful,” I whispered. “You made this? How?”

He shrugged. “It’s something Billy taught me. He’s better at it than I am.”

“That’s hard to believe,” I murmured, turning the tiny wolf around and around in my fingers.

“Do you really like it?”

“Yes! It’s unbelievable, Jake.”

He smiled, happily at first, but then the expression soured. “Well, I figured that maybe it would make you remember me once in a while. You know how it is, out of sight, out of mind.”

I ignored the attitude. “Here, help me put it on.”

I held out my left wrist, since the right was stuck in the brace. He fastened the catch easily, though it looked too delicate for his big fingers to manage.

“You’ll wear it?” he asked.

“Of course I will.”

He grinned at me — it was the happy smile that I loved to see him wear.

I returned it for a moment, but then my eyes shot reflexively around the room again, anxiously scanning the crowd for some sign of Edward or Alice.

“Why’re you so distracted?” Jacob wondered.

“It’s nothing,” I lied, trying to concentrate. “Thanks for the present, really. I love it.”

“Bella?” His brows pulled together, throwing his eyes deep into their shadow. “Something’s going on, isn’t it?”

“Jake, I . . . no, there’s nothing.”

“Don’t lie to me, you suck at lying. You should tell me what’s going on. We want to know these things,” he said, slipping into the plural at the end.

He was probably right; the wolves would certainly be interested in what was happening. Only I wasn’t sure what that was yet. I wouldn’t know for sure until I found Alice.

“Jacob, I will tell you. Just let me figure out what’s happening, okay? I need to talk to Alice.”

Understanding lit his expression. “The psychic saw something.”

“Yes, just when you showed up.”

“Is this about the bloodsucker in your room?” he murmured, pitching his voice below the thrum of the music.

“It’s related,” I admitted.

He processed that for a minute, leaning his head to one side while he read my face. “You know something you’re not telling me . . . something big.”

What was the point in lying again? He knew me too well. “Yes.”

Jacob stared at me for one short moment, and then turned to catch his pack brothers’ eyes where they stood in the entry, awkward and uncomfortable. When they took in his expression, they started moving, weaving their way agilely through the partiers, almost like they were dancing, too. In half a minute, they stood on either side of Jacob, towering over me.

“Now. Explain,” Jacob demanded.

Embry and Quil looked back and forth between our faces, confused and wary.

“Jacob, I don’t know everything.” I kept searching the room, now for a rescue. They had me backed into a corner in every sense.

“What you do know, then.”

They all folded their arms across their chests at exactly the same moment. It was a little bit funny, but mostly menacing.

And then I caught sight of Alice descending the stairs, her white skin glowing in the purple light.

“Alice!” I squeaked in relief.

She looked right at me as soon as I called her name, despite the thudding bass that should have drowned my voice. I waved eagerly, and watched her face as she took in the three werewolves leaning over me. Her eyes narrowed.

But, before that reaction, her face was full of stress and fear. I bit my lip as she skipped to my side.

Jacob, Quil, and Embry all leaned away from her with uneasy expressions. She put her arm around my waist.

“I need to talk to you,” she murmured into my ear.

“Er, Jake, I’ll see you later . . . ,” I mumbled as we eased around them.

Jacob threw his long arm out to block our way, bracing his hand against the wall. “Hey, not so fast.”

Alice stared up at him, eyes wide and incredulous. “Excuse me?”

“Tell us what’s going on,” he demanded in a growl.

Jasper appeared quite literally out of nowhere. One second it was just Alice and me against the wall, Jacob blocking our exit, and then Jasper was standing on the other side of Jake’s arm, his expression terrifying.

Jacob slowly pulled his arm back. It seemed like the best move, going with the assumption that he wanted to keep that arm.

“We have a right to know,” Jacob muttered, still glaring at Alice.

Jasper stepped in between them, and the three werewolves braced themselves.

“Hey, hey,” I said, adding a slightly hysterical chuckle. “This is a party, remember?”

Nobody paid any attention to me. Jacob glared at Alice while Jasper glowered at Jacob. Alice’s face was suddenly thoughtful.

“It’s okay, Jasper. He actually has a point.”

Jasper did not relax his position.

I was sure the suspense was going to make my head explode in about one second. “What did you see, Alice?”

She stared at Jacob for one second, and then turned to me, evidently having chosen to let them hear.

“The decision’s been made.”

“You’re going to Seattle?”

“No.”

I felt the color drain out of my face. My stomach lurched. “They’re coming here,” I choked out.

The Quileute boys watched silently, reading every unconscious play of emotion on our faces. They were rooted in place, and yet not completely still. All three pairs of hands were trembling.

“Yes.”

“To Forks,” I whispered.

“Yes.”

“For?”

She nodded, understanding my question. “One carried your red shirt.”

I tried to swallow.

Jasper’s expression was disapproving. I could tell he didn’t like discussing this in front of the werewolves, but he had something he needed to say. “We can’t let them come that far. There aren’t enough of us to protect the town.”

“I know,” Alice said, her face suddenly desolate. “But it doesn’t matter where we stop them. There still won’t be enough of us, and some of them will come here to search.”

“No!” I whispered.

The noise of the party overwhelmed the sound of my denial. All around us, my friends and neighbors and petty enemies ate and laughed and swayed to the music, oblivious to the fact that they were about to face horror, danger, maybe death. Because of me.

“Alice,” I mouthed her name. “I have to go, I have to get away from here.”

“That won’t help. It’s not like we’re dealing with a tracker. They’ll still come looking here first.”

“Then I have to go to meet them!” If my voice hadn’t been so hoarse and strained, it might have been a shriek. “If they find what they’re looking for, maybe they’ll go away and not hurt anyone else!”

“Bella!” Alice protested.

“Hold it,” Jacob ordered in a low, forceful voice. “What is coming?”

Alice turned her icy gaze on him. “Our kind. Lots of them.”

“Why?”

“For Bella. That’s all we know.”

“There are too many for you?” he asked.

Jasper bridled. “We have a few advantages, dog. It will be an even fight.”

“No,” Jacob said, and a strange, fierce half-smile spread across his face. “It won’t be even.”

“Excellent!” Alice hissed.

I stared, still frozen in horror, at Alice’s new expression. Her face was alive with exultation, all the despair wiped clean from her perfect features.

She grinned at Jacob, and he grinned back.

“Everything just disappeared, of course,” she told him in a smug voice. “That’s inconvenient, but, all things considered, I’ll take it.”

“We’ll have to coordinate,” Jacob said. “It won’t be easy for us. Still, this is our job more than yours.”

“I wouldn’t go that far, but we need the help. We aren’t going to be picky.”

“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” I interrupted them.

Alice was on her toes, Jacob leaning down toward her, both of their faces lit up with excitement, both of their noses wrinkled against the smell. They looked at me impatiently.

“Coordinate?” I repeated through my teeth.

“You didn’t honestly think you were going to keep us out of this?” Jacob asked.

“You are staying out of this!”

“Your psychic doesn’t think so.”

“Alice — tell them no!” I insisted. “They’ll get killed!”

Jacob, Quil, and Embry all laughed out loud.

“Bella,” Alice said, her voice soothing, placating, “separately we all could get killed. Together —”

“It’ll be no problem,” Jacob finished her sentence. Quil laughed again.

“How many?” Quil asked eagerly.

“No!” I shouted.

Alice didn’t even look at me. “It changes — twenty-one today, but the numbers are going down.”

“Why?” Jacob asked, curious.

“Long story,” Alice said, suddenly looking around the room. “And this isn’t the place for it.”

“Later tonight?” Jacob pushed.

“Yes,” Jasper answered him. “We were already planning a . . . strategic meeting. If you’re going to fight with us, you’ll need some instruction.”

The wolves all made a disgruntled face at the last part.

“No!” I moaned.

“This will be odd,” Jasper said thoughtfully. “I never considered working together. This has to be a first.”

“No doubt about that,” Jacob agreed. He was in a hurry now. “We’ve got to get back to Sam. What time?”

“What’s too late for you?”

All three rolled their eyes. “What time?” Jacob repeated.

“Three o’clock?”

“Where?”

“About ten miles due north of the Hoh Forest ranger station. Come at it from the west and you’ll be able to follow our scent in.”

“We’ll be there.”

They turned to leave.

“Wait, Jake!” I called after him. “Please! Don’t do this!”

He paused, turning back to grin at me, while Quil and Embry headed impatiently for the door. “Don’t be ridiculous, Bells. You’re giving me a much better gift than the one I gave you.”

“No!” I shouted again. The sound of an electric guitar drowned my cry.

He didn’t respond; he hurried to catch up with his friends, who were already gone. I watched helplessly as Jacob disappeared.

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