23 MONSTER

WHEN I WOKE UP IN THE MORNING, IT WAS VERY bright — even inside the tent, the sunlight hurt my eyes. And I was sweating, as Jacob had predicted. Jacob was snoring lightly in my ear, his arms still wrapped around me.

I pulled my head away from his feverishly warm chest and felt the sting of the cold morning on my clammy cheek. Jacob sighed in his sleep; his arms tightened unconsciously.

I squirmed, unable to loosen his hold, struggling to lift my head enough to see. . . .

Edward met my gaze evenly. His expression was calm, but the pain in his eyes was unconcealed.

“Is it any warmer out there?” I whispered.

“Yes. I don’t think the space heater will be necessary today.”

I tried to get to the zipper, but I couldn’t free my arms. I strained, fighting against Jacob’s inert strength. Jacob muttered, still fast asleep, his arms constricting again.

“Some help?” I asked quietly.

Edward smiled. “Did you want me to take his arms all the way off?”

“No, thank you. Just get me free. I’m going to get heat stroke.”

Edward unzipped the sleeping bag in a swift, abrupt movement. Jacob fell out, his bare back hitting the icy floor of the tent.

“Hey!” he complained, his eyes flying open. Instinctively, he flinched away from the cold, rolling onto me. I gasped as his weight knocked the breath out of me.

And then his weight was gone. I felt the impact as Jacob flew into one of the tent poles and the tent shuddered.

The growling erupted from all around. Edward was crouching in front of me, and I couldn’t see his face, but the snarls were ripping angrily out of his chest. Jacob was half-crouched, too, his whole body quivering, while growls rumbled through his clenched teeth. Outside the tent, Seth Clearwater’s vicious snarls echoed off the rocks.

“Stop it, stop it!” I yelled, scrambling awkwardly to put myself between them. The space was so small that I didn’t have to stretch far to put one hand on each of their chests. Edward wrapped his hand around my waist, ready to yank me out of the way.

“Stop it, now,” I warned him.

Under my touch, Jacob began to calm himself. The shaking slowed, but his teeth were still bared, his eyes furiously focused on Edward. Seth continued to growl, a long unbroken sound, a violent background to the sudden silence in the tent.

“Jacob?” I asked, waiting until he finally dropped his glare to look at me. “Are you hurt?”

“Of course not!” he hissed.

I turned to Edward. He was looking at me, his expression hard and angry. “That wasn’t nice. You should say sorry.”

His eyes widened in disgust. “You must be joking — he was crushing you!”

“Because you dumped him on the floor! He didn’t do it on purpose, and he didn’t hurt me.”

Edward groaned, revolted. Slowly, he looked up to glare at Jacob with hostile eyes. “My apologies, dog.”

“No harm done,” Jacob said, a taunting edge to his voice.

It was still cold, though not as cold as it had been. I curled my arms around my chest.

“Here,” Edward said, calm again. He took the parka off the floor and wrapped it over the top of my coat.

“That’s Jacob’s,” I objected.

“Jacob has a fur coat,” Edward hinted.

“I’ll just use the sleeping bag again, if you don’t mind.” Jacob ignored him, climbing around us and sliding into the down bag. “I wasn’t quite ready to wake up. That wasn’t the best night’s sleep I ever had.”

“It was your idea,” Edward said impassively.

Jacob was curled up, his eyes already closed. He yawned. “I didn’t say it wasn’t the best night I’ve ever spent. Just that I didn’t get a lot of sleep. I thought Bella was never going to shut up.”

I winced, wondering what might have come out of my mouth in my sleep. The possibilities were horrifying.

“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” Edward murmured.

Jacob’s dark eyes fluttered open. “Didn’t you have a nice night, then?” he asked, smug.

“It wasn’t the worst night of my life.”

“Did it make the top ten?” Jacob asked with perverse enjoyment.

“Possibly.”

Jacob smiled and closed his eyes.

“But,” Edward went on, “if I had been able to take your place last night, it would not have made the top ten of the best nights of my life. Dream about that.”

Jacob’s eyes opened into a glare. He sat up stiffly, his shoulders tense.

“You know what? I think it’s too crowded in here.”

“I couldn’t agree more.”

I elbowed Edward in the ribs — probably giving myself a bruise.

“Guess I’ll catch up on my sleep later, then.” Jacob made a face. “I need to talk to Sam anyway.”

He rolled to his knees and grabbed the door’s zipper.

Pain crackled down my spine and lodged in my stomach as I abruptly realized that this could be the last time I would see him. He was going back to Sam, back to fight the horde of bloodthirsty newborn vampires.

“Jake, wait —” I reached after him, my hand sliding down his arm.

He jerked his arm away before my fingers could find purchase.

“Please, Jake? Won’t you stay?”

“No.”

The word was hard and cold. I knew my face gave away my pain, because he exhaled and half a smile softened his expression.

“Don’t worry about me, Bells. I’ll be fine, just like I always am.” He forced a laugh. “’Sides, you think I’m going to let Seth go in my place — have all the fun and steal all the glory? Right.” He snorted.

“Be careful —”

He shoved out of the tent before I could finish.

“Give it a rest, Bella,” I heard him mutter as he re-zipped the door.

I listened for the sound of his retreating footsteps, but it was perfectly still. No more wind. I could hear morning birdsong far away on the mountain, and nothing else. Jacob moved in silence now.

I huddled in my coats, and leaned against Edward’s shoulder. We were quiet for a long time.

“How much longer?” I asked.

“Alice told Sam it should be an hour or so,” Edward said, soft and bleak.

“We stay together. No matter what.”

“No matter what,” he agreed, his eyes tight.

“I know,” I said. “I’m terrified for them, too.”

“They know how to handle themselves,” Edward assured me, purposely making his voice light. “I just hate missing the fun.”

Again with the fun. My nostrils flared.

He put his arm around my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he urged, and then he kissed my forehead.

As if there was any way to avoid that. “Sure, sure.”

“Do you want me to distract you?” He breathed, running his cold fingers along my cheekbone.

I shivered involuntarily; the morning was still frosty.

“Maybe not right now,” he answered himself, pulling his hand away.

“There are other ways to distract me.”

“What would you like?”

“You could tell me about your ten best nights,” I suggested. “I’m curious.”

He laughed. “Try to guess.”

I shook my head. “There’re too many nights I don’t know about. A century of them.”

“I’ll narrow it down for you. All of my best nights have happened since I met you.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really — and by quite a wide margin, too.”

I thought for a minute. “I can only think of mine,” I admitted.

“They might be the same,” he encouraged.

“Well, there was the first night. The night you stayed.”

“Yes, that’s one of mine, too. Of course, you were unconscious for my favorite part.”

“That’s right,” I remembered. “I was talking that night, too.”

“Yes,” he agreed.

My face got hot as I wondered again what I might have said while sleeping in Jacob’s arms. I couldn’t remember what I’d dreamed about, or if I’d dreamed at all, so that was no help.

“What did I say last night?” I whispered more quietly than before.

He shrugged instead of answering, and I winced.

“That bad?”

“Nothing too horrible,” he sighed.

“Please tell me.”

“Mostly you said my name, the same as usual.”

“That’s not bad,” I agreed cautiously.

“Near the end, though, you started mumbling some nonsense about ‘Jacob, my Jacob.’” I could hear the pain, even in the whisper. “Your Jacob enjoyed that quite a lot.”

I stretched my neck up, straining to reach my lips to the edge of his jaw. I couldn’t see into his eyes. He was staring up at the ceiling of the tent.

“Sorry,” I murmured. “That’s just the way I differentiate.”

“Differentiate?”

“Between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Between the Jacob I like and the one who annoys the hell out of me,” I explained.

“That makes sense.” He sounded slightly mollified. “Tell me another favorite night.”

“Flying home from Italy.”

He frowned.

“Is that not one of yours?” I wondered.

“No, it is one of mine, actually, but I’m surprised it’s on your list. Weren’t you under the ludicrous impression I was just acting from a guilty conscience, and I was going to bolt as soon as the plane doors opened?”

“Yes.” I smiled. “But, still, you were there.”

He kissed my hair. “You love me more than I deserve.”

I laughed at the impossibility of that idea. “Next would be the night after Italy,” I continued.

“Yes, that’s on the list. You were so funny.”

“Funny?” I objected.

“I had no idea your dreams were so vivid. It took me forever to convince you that you were awake.”

“I’m still not sure,” I muttered. “You’ve always seemed more like a dream than reality. Tell me one of yours, now. Did I guess your first place?”

“No — that would be two nights ago, when you finally agreed to marry me.”

I made a face.

“That doesn’t make your list?”

I thought about the way he’d kissed me, the concession I’d gained, and changed my mind. “Yes . . . it does. But with reservations. I don’t understand why it’s so important to you. You already had me forever.”

“A hundred years from now, when you’ve gained enough perspective to really appreciate the answer, I will explain it to you.”

“I’ll remind you to explain — in a hundred years.”

“Are you warm enough?” he asked suddenly.

“I’m fine,” I assured him. “Why?”

Before he could answer, the silence outside the tent was ripped apart by an earsplitting howl of pain. The sound ricocheted off the bare rock face of the mountain and filled the air so that it seared from every direction.

The howl tore through my mind like a tornado, both strange and familiar. Strange because I’d never heard such a tortured cry before. Familiar because I knew the voice at once — I recognized the sound and understood the meaning as perfectly as if I’d uttered it myself. It made no difference that Jacob was not human when he cried out. I needed no translation.

Jacob was close. Jacob had heard every word we’d said. Jacob was in agony.

The howl choked off into a peculiar gurgled sob, and then it was quiet again.

I did not hear his silent escape, but I could feel it — I could feel the absence I had wrongly assumed before, the empty space he left behind.

“Because your space heater has reached his limit,” Edward answered quietly. “Truce over,” he added, so low I couldn’t be sure that was really what he’d said.

“Jacob was listening,” I whispered. It wasn’t a question.

“Yes.”

“You knew.”

“Yes.”

I stared at nothing, seeing nothing.

“I never promised to fight fair,” he reminded me quietly. “And he deserves to know.”

My head fell into my hands.

“Are you angry with me?” he asked.

“Not you,” I whispered. “I’m horrified at me.”

“Don’t torment yourself,” he pleaded.

“Yes,” I agreed bitterly. “I should save my energy to torment Jacob some more. I wouldn’t want to leave any part of him unharmed.”

“He knew what he was doing.”

“Do you think that matters?” I was blinking back tears, and this was easy to hear in my voice. “Do you think I care whether it’s fair or whether he was adequately warned? I’m hurting him. Every time I turn around, I’m hurting him again.” My voice was getting louder, more hysterical. “I’m a hideous person.”

He wrapped his arms tightly around me. “No, you’re not.”

“I am! What’s wrong with me?” I struggled against his arms, and he let them drop. “I have to go find him.”

“Bella, he’s already miles away, and it’s cold.”

“I don’t care. I can’t just sit here.” I shrugged off Jacob’s parka, shoved my feet into my boots, and crawled stiffly to the door; my legs felt numb. “I have to — I have to . . .” I didn’t know how to finish the sentence, didn’t know what there was to do, but I unzipped the door anyway, and climbed out into the bright, icy morning.

There was less snow than I would have thought after the fury of last night’s storm. Probably it had blown away rather than melted in the sun that now shone low in the southeast, glancing off the snow that lingered and stabbing at my unadjusted eyes. The air still had a bite to it, but it was dead calm and slowly becoming more seasonable as the sun rose higher.

Seth Clearwater was curled up on a patch of dry pine needles in the shadow of a thick spruce, his head on his paws. His sand-colored fur was almost invisible against the dead needles, but I could see the bright snow reflect off his open eyes. He was staring at me with what I imagined was an accusation.

I knew Edward was following me as I stumbled toward the trees. I couldn’t hear him, but the sun reflected off his skin in glittering rainbows that danced ahead of me. He didn’t reach out to stop me until I was several paces into the forest shadows.

His hand caught my left wrist. He ignored it when I tried to yank myself free.

“You can’t go after him. Not today. It’s almost time. And getting yourself lost wouldn’t help anyone, regardless.”

I twisted my wrist, pulling uselessly.

“I’m sorry, Bella,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I did that.”

“You didn’t do anything. It’s my fault. I did this. I did everything wrong. I could have . . . When he . . . I shouldn’t have . . . I . . . I . . .” I was sobbing.

“Bella, Bella.”

His arms folded around me, and my tears soaked into his shirt.

“I should have — told him — I should — have said —” What? What could have made this right? “He shouldn’t have — found out like this.”

“Do you want me to see if I can bring him back, so that you can talk to him? There’s still a little time,” Edward murmured, hushed agony in his voice.

I nodded into his chest, afraid to see his face.

“Stay by the tent. I’ll be back soon.”

His arms disappeared. He left so quickly that, in the second it took me to look up, he was already gone. I was alone.

A new sob broke from my chest. I was hurting everyone today. Was there anything I touched that didn’t get spoiled?

I didn’t know why it was hitting me so hard now. It wasn’t like I hadn’t known this was coming all along. But Jacob had never reacted so strongly — lost his bold overconfidence and shown the intensity of his pain. The sound of his agony still cut at me, somewhere deep in my chest. Right beside it was the other pain. Pain for feeling pain over Jacob. Pain for hurting Edward, too. For not being able to watch Jacob go with composure, knowing that it was the right thing, the only way.

I was selfish, I was hurtful. I tortured the ones I loved.

I was like Cathy, like Wuthering Heights, only my options were so much better than hers, neither one evil, neither one weak. And here I sat, crying about it, not doing anything productive to make it right. Just like Cathy.

I couldn’t allow what hurt me to influence my decisions anymore. It was too little, much too late, but I had to do what was right now. Maybe it was already done for me. Maybe Edward would not be able to bring him back. And then I would accept that and get on with my life. Edward would never see me shed another tear for Jacob Black. There would be no more tears. I wiped the last of them away with cold fingers now.

But if Edward did return with Jacob, that was it. I had to tell him to go away and never come back.

Why was that so hard? So very much more difficult than saying goodbye to my other friends, to Angela, to Mike? Why did that hurt? It wasn’t right. That shouldn’t be able to hurt me. I had what I wanted. I couldn’t have them both, because Jacob could not be just my friend. It was time to give up wishing for that. How ridiculously greedy could any one person be?

I had to get over this irrational feeling that Jacob belonged in my life. He couldn’t belong with me, could not be my Jacob, when I belonged to someone else.

I walked slowly back to the little clearing, my feet dragging. When I broke into the open space, blinking against the sharp light, I threw one quick glance toward Seth — he hadn’t moved from his bed of pine needles — and then looked away, avoiding his eyes.

I could feel that my hair was wild, twisted into clumps like Medusa’s snakes. I yanked through it with my fingers, and then gave up quickly. Who cared what I looked like, anyway?

I grabbed the canteen hanging beside the tent door and shook it. It sloshed wetly, so I unscrewed the lid and took a swig to rinse my mouth with the ice water. There was food somewhere nearby, but I didn’t feel hungry enough to look for it. I started pacing across the bright little space, feeling Seth’s eyes on me the whole time. Because I wouldn’t look at him, in my head he became the boy again, rather than the gigantic wolf. So much like a younger Jacob.

I wanted to ask Seth to bark or give some other sign if Jacob was coming back, but I stopped myself. It didn’t matter if Jacob came back. It might be easier if he didn’t. I wished I had some way to call Edward.

Seth whined at that moment, and got to his feet.

“What is it?” I asked him stupidly.

He ignored me, trotting to the edge of the trees, and pointing his nose toward the west. He began whimpering.

“Is it the others, Seth?” I demanded. “In the clearing?”

He looked at me and yelped softly once, and then turned his nose alertly back to the west. His ears laid back and he whined again.

Why was I such a fool? What was I thinking, sending Edward away? How was I supposed to know what was going on? I didn’t speak wolf.

A cold trickle of fear began to ooze down my spine. What if the time had run out? What if Jacob and Edward got too close? What if Edward decided to join in the fight?

The icy fear pooled in my stomach. What if Seth’s distress had nothing to do with the clearing, and his yelp had been a denial? What if Jacob and Edward were fighting with each other, far away somewhere in the forest? They wouldn’t do that, would they?

With sudden, chilling certainty I realized that they would — if the wrong words were said. I thought of the tense standoff in the tent this morning, and I wondered if I’d underestimated how close it had come to a fight.

It would be no more than I deserved if I somehow lost them both.

The ice locked around my heart.

Before I could collapse with fear, Seth grumbled slightly, deep in his chest, and then turned away from his watch and sauntered back toward his resting place. It calmed me, but irritated me. Couldn’t he scratch a message in the dirt or something?

The pacing was starting to make me sweat under all my layers. I threw my jacket into the tent, and then I went back to wearing a path across the center of the tiny break in the trees.

Seth jumped to his feet again suddenly, the hackles on the back of his neck standing up stiffly. I looked around, but saw nothing. If Seth didn’t cut it out, I was going to throw a pinecone at him.

He growled, a low warning sound, slinking back toward the western rim, and I rethought my impatience.

“It’s just us, Seth,” Jacob called from a distance.

I tried to explain to myself why my heart kicked into fourth gear when I heard him. It was just fear of what I was going to have to do now, that was all. I could not allow myself to be relieved that he’d come back. That would be the opposite of helpful.

Edward walked into view first, his face blank and smooth. When he stepped out from the shadows, the sun shimmered on his skin like it did on the snow. Seth went to greet him, looking intently into his eyes. Edward nodded slowly, and worry creased his forehead.

“Yes, that’s all we need,” he muttered to himself before addressing the big wolf. “I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. But the timing is going to be very close. Please have Sam ask Alice to try to nail the schedule down better.”

Seth dipped his head once, and I wished I was able to growl. Sure, he could nod now. I turned my head, annoyed, and realized that Jacob was there.

He had his back to me, facing the way he’d come. I waited warily for him to turn around.

“Bella,” Edward murmured, suddenly right beside me. He stared down at me with nothing but concern showing in his eyes. There was no end to his generosity. I deserved him now less than I ever had.

“There’s a bit of a complication,” he told me, his voice carefully unworried. “I’m going to take Seth a little ways away and try to straighten it out. I won’t go far, but I won’t listen, either. I know you don’t want an audience, no matter which way you decide to go.”

Only at the very end did the pain break into his voice.

I had to never hurt him again. That would be my mission in life. Never again would I be the reason for this look to come into his eyes.

I was too upset to even ask him what the new problem was. I didn’t need anything else right now.

“Hurry back,” I whispered.

He kissed me lightly on the lips, and then disappeared into the forest with Seth at his side.

Jacob was still in the shadow of the trees; I couldn’t see his expression clearly.

“I’m in a hurry, Bella,” he said in a dull voice. “Why don’t you get it over with?”

I swallowed, my throat suddenly so dry I wasn’t sure if I could make sound come out.

“Just say the words, and be done with it.”

I took a deep breath.

“I’m sorry I’m such a rotten person,” I whispered. “I’m sorry I’ve been so selfish. I wish I’d never met you, so I couldn’t hurt you the way I have. I won’t do it anymore, I promise. I’ll stay far away from you. I’ll move out of the state. You won’t have to look at me ever again.”

“That’s not much of an apology,” he said bitterly.

I couldn’t make my voice louder than a whisper. “Tell me how to do it right.”

“What if I don’t want you to go away? What if I’d rather you stayed, selfish or not? Don’t I get any say, if you’re trying to make things up to me?”

“That won’t help anything, Jake. It was wrong to stay with you when we wanted such different things. It’s not going to get better. I’ll just keep hurting you. I don’t want to hurt you anymore. I hate it.” My voice broke.

He sighed. “Stop. You don’t have to say anything else. I understand.”

I wanted to tell him how much I would miss him, but I bit my tongue. That would not help anything, either.

He stood quietly for a moment, staring at the ground, and I fought against the urge to go and put my arms around him. To comfort him.

And then his head snapped up.

“Well, you’re not the only one capable of self-sacrifice,” he said, his voice stronger. “Two can play at that game.”

“What?”

“I’ve behaved pretty badly myself. I’ve made this much harder for you than I needed to. I could have given up with good grace in the beginning. But I hurt you, too.”

“This is my fault.”

“I won’t let you claim all the blame here, Bella. Or all the glory either. I know how to redeem myself.”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded. The sudden, frenzied light in his eyes frightened me.

He glanced up at the sun and then smiled at me. “There’s a pretty serious fight brewing down there. I don’t think it will be that difficult to take myself out of the picture.”

His words sank into my brain, slowly, one by one, and I couldn’t breathe. Despite all my intentions to cut Jacob out of my life completely, I didn’t realize until that precise second exactly how deep the knife would have to go to do it.

“Oh, no, Jake! No, no no no,” I choked out in horror. “No, Jake, no. Please, no.” My knees began to tremble.

“What’s the difference, Bella? This will only make it more convenient for everyone. You won’t even have to move.”

“No!” My voice got louder. “No, Jacob! I won’t let you!”

“How will you stop me?” he taunted lightly, smiling to take the sting out of his tone.

“Jacob, I’m begging you. Stay with me.” I would have fallen to my knees, if I could have moved at all.

“For fifteen minutes while I miss a good brawl? So that you can run away from me as soon as you think I’m safe again? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I won’t run away. I’ve changed my mind. We’ll work something out, Jacob. There’s always a compromise. Don’t go!”

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not. You know what a terrible liar I am. Look in my eyes. I’ll stay if you do.”

His face hardened. “And I can be your best man at the wedding?”

It was a moment before I could speak, and still the only answer I could give him was, “Please.”

“That’s what I thought,” he said, his face going calm again, but for the turbulent light in his eyes.

“I love you, Bella,” he murmured.

“I love you, Jacob,” I whispered brokenly.

He smiled. “I know that better than you do.”

He turned to walk away.

“Anything,” I called after him in a strangled voice. “Anything you want, Jacob. Just don’t do this!”

He paused, turning slowly.

“I don’t really think you mean that.”

“Stay,” I begged.

He shook his head. “No, I’m going.” He paused, as if deciding something. “But I could leave it to fate.”

“What do you mean?” I choked out.

“I don’t have to do anything deliberate — I could just do my best for my pack and let what happens happen.” He shrugged. “If you could convince me you really did want me to come back — more than you wanted to do the selfless thing.”

“How?” I asked.

“You could ask me,” he suggested.

“Come back,” I whispered. How could he doubt that I meant it?

He shook his head, smiling again. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”

It took me a second to grasp what he was saying, and all the while he was looking at me with this superior expression — so sure of my reaction. As soon as the realization hit, though, I blurted out the words without stopping to count the cost.

“Will you kiss me, Jacob?”

His eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed suspiciously. “You’re bluffing.”

“Kiss me, Jacob. Kiss me, and then come back.”

He hesitated in the shadow, warring with himself. He half-turned again to the west, his torso twisting away from me while his feet stayed planted where they were. Still looking away, he took one uncertain step in my direction, and then another. He swung his face around to look at me, his eyes doubtful.

I stared back. I had no idea what expression was on my face.

Jacob rocked back on his heels, and then lurched forward, closing the distance between us in three long strides.

I knew he would take advantage of the situation. I expected it. I held very still — my eyes closed, my fingers curled into fists at my sides — as his hands caught my face and his lips found mine with an eagerness that was not far from violence.

I could feel his anger as his mouth discovered my passive resistance. One hand moved to the nape of my neck, twisting into a fist around the roots of my hair. The other hand grabbed roughly at my shoulder, shaking me, then dragging me to him. His hand continued down my arm, finding my wrist and pulling my arm up around his neck. I left it there, my hand still tightly balled up, unsure how far I could go in my desperation to keep him alive. All the while his lips, disconcertingly soft and warm, tried to force a response out of mine.

As soon as he was sure I wouldn’t drop my arm, he freed my wrist, his hand feeling its way down to my waist. His burning hand found the skin at the small of my back, and he yanked me forward, bowing my body against his.

His lips gave up on mine for a moment, but I knew he was nowhere close to finished. His mouth followed the line of my jaw, and then explored the length of my neck. He freed my hair, reaching for my other arm to draw it around his neck like the first.

Then both of his arms were constricted around my waist, and his lips found my ear.

“You can do better than this, Bella,” he whispered huskily. “You’re overthinking it.”

I shivered as I felt his teeth graze my earlobe.

“That’s right,” he murmured. “For once, just let yourself feel what you feel.”

I shook my head mechanically until one of his hands wound back into my hair and stopped me.

His voice turned acidic. “Are you sure you want me to come back? Or did you really want me to die?”

Anger rocked through me like the whiplash after a heavy punch. That was too much — he wasn’t fighting fair.

My arms were already around his neck, so I grabbed two fistfuls of his hair — ignoring the stabbing pain in my right hand — and fought back, struggling to pull my face away from his.

And Jacob misunderstood.

He was too strong to recognize that my hands, trying to yank his hair out by the roots, meant to cause him pain. Instead of anger, he imagined passion. He thought I was finally responding to him.

With a wild gasp, he brought his mouth back to mine, his fingers clutching frantically against the skin at my waist.

The jolt of anger unbalanced my tenuous hold on self-control; his unexpected, ecstatic response overthrew it entirely. If there had been only triumph, I might have been able to resist him. But the utter defenselessness of his sudden joy cracked my determination, disabled it. My brain disconnected from my body, and I was kissing him back. Against all reason, my lips were moving with his in strange, confusing ways they’d never moved before — because I didn’t have to be careful with Jacob, and he certainly wasn’t being careful with me.

My fingers tightened in his hair, but I was pulling him closer now.

He was everywhere. The piercing sunlight turned my eyelids red, and the color fit, matched the heat. The heat was everywhere. I couldn’t see or hear or feel anything that wasn’t Jacob.

The tiny piece of my brain that retained sanity screamed questions at me.

Why wasn’t I stopping this? Worse than that, why couldn’t I find in myself even the desire to want to stop? What did it mean that I didn’t want him to stop? That my hands clung to his shoulders, and liked that they were wide and strong? That his hands pulled me too tight against his body, and yet it was not tight enough for me?

The questions were stupid, because I knew the answer: I’d been lying to myself.

Jacob was right. He’d been right all along. He was more than just my friend. That’s why it was so impossible to tell him goodbye — because I was in love with him. Too. I loved him, much more than I should, and yet, still nowhere near enough. I was in love with him, but it was not enough to change anything; it was only enough to hurt us both more. To hurt him worse than I ever had.

I didn’t care about more than that — than his pain. I more than deserved whatever pain this caused me. I hoped it was bad. I hoped I would really suffer.

In this moment, it felt as though we were the same person. His pain had always been and would always be my pain — now his joy was my joy. I felt joy, too, and yet his happiness was somehow also pain. Almost tangible — it burned against my skin like acid, a slow torture.

For one brief, never-ending second, an entirely different path expanded behind the lids of my tear-wet eyes. As if I were looking through the filter of Jacob’s thoughts, I could see exactly what I was going to give up, exactly what this new self-knowledge would not save me from losing. I could see Charlie and Renée mixed into a strange collage with Billy and Sam and La Push. I could see years passing, and meaning something as they passed, changing me. I could see the enormous red-brown wolf that I loved, always standing as protector if I needed him. For the tiniest fragment of that second, I saw the bobbing heads of two small, black-haired children, running away from me into the familiar forest. When they disappeared, they took the rest of the vision with them.

And then, quite distinctly, I felt the splintering along the fissure line in my heart as the smaller part wrenched itself away from the whole.

Jacob’s lips were still before mine were. I opened my eyes and he was staring at me with wonder and elation.

“I have to leave,” he whispered.

“No.”

He smiled, pleased by my response. “I won’t be long,” he promised. “But one thing first . . .”

He bent to kiss me again, and there was no reason to resist. What would be the point?

This time was different. His hands were soft on my face and his warm lips were gentle, unexpectedly hesitant. It was brief, and very, very sweet.

His arms curled around me, and he hugged me securely while he whispered in my ear.

“That should have been our first kiss. Better late than never.”

Against his chest, where he couldn’t see, the tears welled up and spilled over.

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