“I miss you already.”
“I don’t need to leave. I can stay. . . .”
It was quiet for a long moment, just the thud of my heart hammering, the broken rhythm of our ragged breathing, and the whisper of our lips moving in synchronization.
Sometimes it was so easy to forget that I was kissing a vampire. Not because he seemed ordinary or human—I could never for a second forget that I was holding someone more angel than man in my arms—but because he made it seem like nothing at all to have his lips against my lips, my face, my throat. He claimed he was long past the temptation my blood used to be for him, that the idea of losing me had cured him of any desire for it. But I knew the smell of my blood still caused him pain—still burned his throat like he was inhaling flames.
I opened my eyes and found his open, too, staring at my face. It made no sense when he looked at me that way. Like I was the prize rather than the outrageously lucky winner.
Our gazes locked for a moment; his golden eyes were so deep that I imagined I could see all the way into his soul. It seemed silly that this fact—the existence of his soul—had ever been in question, even if he was a vampire. He had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body.
He looked back at me as if he could see my soul, too, and as if he liked what he saw.
He couldn’t see into my mind, though, the way he saw into everyone else’s. Who knew why—some strange glitch in my brain that made it immune to all the extraordinary and frightening things some immortals could do. (Only my mind was immune; my body was still subject to vampires with abilities that worked in ways other than Edward’s.) But I was seriously grateful to whatever malfunction it was that kept my thoughts a secret. It was just too embarrassing to consider the alternative.
I pulled his face to mine again.
“Definitely staying,” he murmured a moment later.
“No, no. It’s your bachelor party. You have to go.”
I said the words, but the fingers of my right hand locked into his bronze hair, my left pressed tighter against the small of his back. His cool hands stroked my face.
“Bachelor parties are designed for those who are sad to see the passing of their single days. I couldn’t be more eager to have mine behind me. So there’s really no point.”
“True.” I breathed against the winter-cold skin of his throat.
This was pretty close to my happy place. Charlie slept obliviously in his room, which was almost as good as being alone. We were curled up on my small bed, intertwined as much as it was possible, considering the thick afghan I was swathed in like a cocoon. I hated the necessity of the blanket, but it sort of ruined the romance when my teeth started chattering. Charlie would notice if I turned the heat on in August. . . .
At least, if I had to be bundled up, Edward’s shirt was on the floor. I never got over the shock of how perfect his body was—white, cool, and polished as marble. I ran my hand down his stone chest now, tracing across the flat planes of his stomach, just marveling. A light shudder rippled through him, and his mouth found mine again. Carefully, I let the tip of my tongue press against his glass-smooth lip, and he sighed. His sweet breath washed—cold and delicious—over my face.
He started to pull away—that was his automatic response whenever he decided things had gone too far, his reflex reaction whenever he most wanted to keep going. Edward had spent most of his life rejecting any kind of physical gratification. I knew it was terrifying to him trying to change those habits now.
“Wait,” I said, gripping his shoulders and hugging myself close to him. I kicked one leg free and wrapped it around his waist. “Practice makes perfect.”
He chuckled. “Well, we should be fairly close to perfection by this point, then, shouldn’t we? Have you slept at all in the last month?”
“But this is the dress rehearsal,” I reminded him, “and we’ve only practiced certain scenes. It’s no time for playing safe.”
I thought he would laugh, but he didn’t answer, and his body was motionless with sudden stress. The gold in his eyes seemed to harden from a liquid to a solid.
I thought over my words, realized what he would have heard in them.
“Bella…,” he whispered.
“Don’t start this again,” I said. “A deal’s a deal.”
“I don’t know. It’s too hard to concentrate when you’re with me like this. I—I can’t think straight. I won’t be able to control myself. You’ll get hurt.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Bella . . .”
“Shh!” I pressed my lips to his to stop his panic attack. I’d heard it before. He wasn’t getting out of this deal. Not after insisting I marry him first.
He kissed me back for a moment, but I could tell he wasn’t as into it as before. Worrying, always worrying. How different it would be when he didn’t need to worry about me anymore. What would he do with all his free time? He’d have to get a new hobby.
“How are your feet?” he asked.
Knowing he didn’t mean that literally, I answered, “Toasty warm.”
“Really? No second thoughts? It’s not too late to change your mind.”
“Are you trying to ditch me?”
He chuckled. “Just making sure. I don’t want you to do anything you’re not sure about.”
“I’m sure about you. The rest I can live through.”
He hesitated, and I wondered if I’d put my foot in my mouth again.
“Can you?” he asked quietly. “I don’t mean the wedding—which I am positive you will survive despite your qualms—but afterward… what about Renée, what about Charlie?”
I sighed. “I’ll miss them.” Worse, that they would miss me, but I didn’t want to give him any fuel.
“Angela and Ben and Jessica and Mike.”
“I’ll miss my friends, too.” I smiled in the darkness. “Especially Mike. Oh, Mike! How will I go on?”
I laughed but then was serious. “Edward, we’ve been through this and through this. I know it will be hard, but this is what I want. I want you, and I want you forever. One lifetime is simply not enough for me.”
“Frozen forever at eighteen,” he whispered.
“Every woman’s dream come true,” I teased.
“Never changing… never moving forward.”
“What does that mean?”
He answered slowly. “Do you remember when we told Charlie we were getting married? And he thought you were… pregnant?”
“And he thought about shooting you,” I guessed with a laugh. “Admit it—for one second, he honestly considered it.”
He didn’t answer.
“I just wish… well, I wish that he’d been right.”
“Gah,” I gasped.
“More that there was some way he could have been. That we had that kind of potential. I hate taking that away from you, too.”
It took me a minute. “I know what I’m doing.”
“How could you know that, Bella? Look at my mother, look at my sister. It’s not as easy a sacrifice as you imagine.”
“Esme and Rosalie get by just fine. If it’s a problem later, we can do what Esme did—we’ll adopt.”
He sighed, and then his voice was fierce. “It’s not right ! I don’t want you to have to make sacrifices for me. I want to give you things, not take things away from you. I don’t want to steal your future. If I were human—”
I put my hand over his lips. “You are my future. Now stop. No moping, or I’m calling your brothers to come and get you. Maybe you need a bachelor party.”
“I’m sorry. I am moping, aren’t I? Must be the nerves.”
“Are your feet cold?”
“Not in that sense. I’ve been waiting a century to marry you, Miss Swan. The wedding ceremony is the one thing I can’t wait—” He broke off mid-thought. “Oh, for the love of all that’s holy!”
He gritted his teeth. “You don’t have to call my brothers. Apparently Emmett and Jasper are not going to let me bow out tonight.”
I clutched him closer for one second and then released him. I didn’t have a prayer of winning a tug-of-war with Emmett. “Have fun.”
There was a squeal against the window—someone deliberately scraping their steel nails across the glass to make a horrible, cover-your-ears, goose-bumps-down-your-spine noise. I shuddered.
“If you don’t send Edward out,” Emmett—still invisible in the night—hissed menacingly, “we’re coming in after him!”
“Go,” I laughed. “Before they break my house.”
Edward rolled his eyes, but he got to his feet in one fluid movement and had his shirt back on in another. He leaned down and kissed my forehead.
“Get to sleep. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
“Thanks! That’s sure to help me wind down.”
“I’ll meet you at the altar.”
“I’ll be the one in white.” I smiled at how perfectly blasé I sounded.
He chuckled, said, “Very convincing,” and then suddenly sank into a crouch, his muscles coiled like a spring. He vanished—launching himself out my window too swiftly for my eyes to follow.
Outside, there was a muted thud, and I heard Emmett curse.
“You’d better not make him late,” I murmured, knowing they could hear.
And then Jasper’s face was peering in my window, his honey hair silver in the weak moonlight that worked through the clouds.
“Don’t worry, Bella. We’ll get him home in plenty of time.”
I was suddenly very calm, and my qualms all seemed unimportant. Jasper was, in his own way, just as talented as Alice with her uncannily accurate predictions. Jasper’s medium was moods rather than the future, and it was impossible to resist feeling the way he wanted you to feel.
I sat up awkwardly, still tangled in my blanket. “Jasper? What do vampires do for bachelor parties? You’re not taking him to a strip club, are you?”
“Don’t tell her anything!” Emmett growled from below. There was another thud, and Edward laughed quietly.
“Relax,” Jasper told me—and I did. “We Cullens have our own version. Just a few mountain lions, a couple of grizzly bears. Pretty much an ordinary night out.”
I wondered if I would ever be able to sound so cavalier about the “vegetarian” vampire diet.
He winked and dropped from sight.
It was completely silent outside. Charlie’s muffled snores droned through the walls.
I lay back against my pillow, sleepy now. I stared at the walls of my little room, bleached pale in the moonlight, from under heavy lids.
My last night in my room. My last night as Isabella Swan. Tomorrow night, I would be Bella Cullen. Though the whole marriage ordeal was a thorn in my side, I had to admit that I liked the sound of that.
I let my mind wander idly for a moment, expecting sleep to take me. But, after a few minutes, I found myself more alert, anxiety creeping back into my stomach, twisting it into uncomfortable positions. The bed seemed too soft, too warm without Edward in it. Jasper was far away, and all the peaceful, relaxed feelings were gone with him.
It was going to be a very long day tomorrow.
I was aware that most of my fears were stupid—I just had to get over myself. Attention was an inevitable part of life. I couldn’t always blend in with the scenery. However, I did have a few specific worries that were completely valid.
First there was the wedding dress’s train. Alice clearly had let her artistic sense overpower practicalities on that one. Maneuvering the Cullens’ staircase in heels and a train sounded impossible. I should have practiced.
Then there was the guest list.
Tanya’s family, the Denali clan, would be arriving sometime before the ceremony.
It would be touchy to have Tanya’s family in the same room with our guests from the Quileute reservation, Jacob’s father and the Clearwaters. The Denalis were no fans of the werewolves. In fact, Tanya’s sister Irina was not coming to the wedding at all. She still nursed a vendetta against the werewolves for killing her friend Laurent (just as he was about to kill me). Thanks to that grudge, the Denalis had abandoned Edward’s family in their worst hour of need. It had been the unlikely alliance with the Quileute wolves that had saved all our lives when the horde of newborn vampires had attacked. . . .
Edward had promised me it wouldn’t be dangerous to have the Denalis near the Quileutes. Tanya and all her family—besides Irina—felt horribly guilty for that defection. A truce with the werewolves was a small price to make up some of that debt, a price they were prepared to pay.
That was the big problem, but there was a small problem, too: my fragile self-esteem.
I’d never seen Tanya before, but I was sure that meeting her wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for my ego. Once upon a time, before I was born probably, she’d made her play for Edward—not that I blamed her or anyone else for wanting him. Still, she would be beautiful at the very least and magnificent at best. Though Edward clearly—if inconceivably—preferred me, I wouldn’t be able to help making comparisons.
I had grumbled a little until Edward, who knew my weaknesses, made me feel guilty.
“We’re the closest thing they have to family, Bella,” he’d reminded me. “They still feel like orphans, you know, even after all this time.”
So I’d conceded, hiding my frown.
Tanya had a big family now, almost as big as the Cullens. There were five of them; Tanya, Kate, and Irina had been joined by Carmen and Eleazar much the same way the Cullens had been joined by Alice and Jasper, all of them bonded by their desire to live more compassionately than normal vampires did.
For all the company, though, Tanya and her sisters were still alone in one way. Still in mourning. Because a very long time ago, they’d had a mother, too.
I could imagine the hole that loss would leave, even after a thousand years; I tried to visualize the Cullen family without their creator, their center, and their guide—their father, Carlisle. I couldn’t see it.
Carlisle had explained Tanya’s history during one of the many nights I’d stayed late at the Cullens’ home, learning as much as I could, preparing as much as was possible for the future I’d chosen. Tanya’s mother’s story was one among many, a cautionary tale illustrating just one of the rules I would need to be aware of when I joined the immortal world. Only one rule, actually—one law that broke down into a thousand different facets: Keep the secret .
Keeping the secret meant a lot of things—living inconspicuously like the Cullens, moving on before humans could suspect they weren’t aging. Or keeping clear of humans altogether—except at mealtime—the way nomads like James and Victoria had lived; the way Jasper’s friends, Peter and Charlotte, still lived. It meant keeping control of whatever new vampires you created, like Jasper had done when he’d lived with Maria. Like Victoria had failed to do with her newborns.
And it meant not creating some things in the first place, because some creations were uncontrollable.
“I don’t know Tanya’s mother’s name,” Carlisle had admitted, his golden eyes, almost the exact shade of his fair hair, sad with remembering Tanya’s pain. “They never speak of her if they can avoid it, never think of her willingly.
“The woman who created Tanya, Kate, and Irina—who loved them, I believe—lived many years before I was born, during a time of plague in our world, the plague of the immortal children.
“What they were thinking, those ancient ones, I can’t begin to understand. They created vampires out of humans who were barely more than infants.”
I’d had to swallow back the bile that rose in my throat as I’d pictured what he was describing.
“They were very beautiful,” Carlisle had explained quickly, seeing my reaction. “So endearing, so enchanting, you can’t imagine. You had but to be near them to love them; it was an automatic thing.
“However, they could not be taught. They were frozen at whatever level of development they’d achieved before being bitten. Adorable two-year-olds with dimples and lisps that could destroy half a village in one of their tantrums. If they hungered, they fed, and no words of warning could restrain them. Humans saw them, stories circulated, fear spread like fire in dry brush. . . .
“Tanya’s mother created such a child. As with the other ancients, I cannot fathom her reasons.” He’d taken a deep, steadying breath. “The Volturi became involved, of course.”
I’d flinched as I always did at that name, but of course the legion of Italian vampires—royalty in their own estimation—was central to this story. There couldn’t be a law if there was no punishment; there couldn’t be a punishment if there was no one to deliver it. The ancients Aro, Caius, and Marcus ruled the Volturi forces; I’d only met them once, but in that brief encounter, it seemed to me that Aro, with his powerful mind-reading gift—one touch, and he knew every thought a mind had ever held—was the true leader.
“The Volturi studied the immortal children, at home in Volterra and all around the world. Caius decided the young ones were incapable of protecting our secret. And so they had to be destroyed.
“I told you they were loveable. Well, covens fought to the last man—were utterly decimated—to protect them. The carnage was not as widespread as the southern wars on this continent, but more devastating in its own way. Long-established covens, old traditions, friends… Much was lost. In the end, the practice was completely eliminated. The immortal children became unmentionable, a taboo.
“When I lived with the Volturi, I met two immortal children, so I know firsthand the appeal they had. Aro studied the little ones for many years after the catastrophe they’d caused was over. You know his inquisitive disposition; he was hopeful that they could be tamed. But in the end, the decision was unanimous: the immortal children could not be allowed to exist.”
I’d all but forgotten the Denali sisters’ mother when the story returned to her.
“It is unclear precisely what happened with Tanya’s mother,” Carlisle had said. “Tanya, Kate, and Irina were entirely oblivious until the day the Volturi came for them, their mother and her illegal creation already their prisoners. It was ignorance that saved Tanya’s and her sisters’ lives. Aro touched them and saw their total innocence, so they were not punished with their mother.
“None of them had ever seen the boy before, or dreamed of his existence, until the day they watched him burn in their mother’s arms. I can only guess that their mother had kept her secret to protect them from this exact outcome. But why had she created him in the first place? Who was he, and what had he meant to her that would cause her to cross this most uncrossable of lines? Tanya and the others never received an answer to any of these questions. But they could not doubt their mother’s guilt, and I don’t think they’ve ever truly forgiven her.
“Even with Aro’s perfect assurance that Tanya, Kate, and Irina were innocent, Caius wanted them to burn. Guilty by association. They were lucky that Aro felt like being merciful that day. Tanya and her sisters were pardoned, but left with unhealing hearts and a very healthy respect for the law. . . .”
I’m not sure where exactly the memory turned into a dream. One moment it seemed that I was listening to Carlisle in my memory, looking at his face, and then a moment later I was looking at a gray, barren field and smelling the thick scent of burning incense in the air. I was not alone there.
The huddle of figures in the center of the field, all shrouded in ashy cloaks, should have terrified me—they could only be Volturi, and I was, against what they’d decreed at our last meeting, still human. But I knew, as I sometimes did in dreams, that I was invisible to them.
Scattered all around me were smoking heaps. I recognized the sweetness in the air and did not examine the mounds too closely. I had no desire to see the faces of the vampires they had executed, half afraid that I might recognize someone in the smoldering pyres.
The Volturi soldiers stood in a circle around something or someone, and I heard their whispery voices raised in agitation. I edged closer to the cloaks, compelled by the dream to see whatever thing or person they were examining with such intensity. Creeping carefully between two of the tall hissing shrouds, I finally saw the object of their debate, raised up on a little hillock above them.
He was beautiful, adorable, just as Carlisle had described. The boy was a toddler still, maybe two years of age. Light brown curls framed his cherubic face with its round cheeks and full lips. And he was trembling, his eyes closed as if he was too frightened to watch death coming closer every second.
I was struck with such a powerful need to save the lovely, terrified child that the Volturi, despite all their devastating menace, no longer mattered to me. I shoved past them, not caring if they realized my presence. Breaking free of them altogether, I sprinted toward the boy.
Only to stagger to a halt as I got a clear view of the hillock that he sat upon. It was not earth and rock, but a pile of human bodies, drained and lifeless. Too late not to see these faces. I knew them all—Angela, Ben, Jessica, Mike.… And directly beneath the adorable boy were the bodies of my father and my mother.
The child opened his bright, bloodred eyes.