It was only a little while later that Edward reminded me of my priorities.
It took him just one word.
“Renesmee . . .”
I sighed. She would be awake soon. It must be nearly seven in the morning. Would she be looking for me? Abruptly, something close to panic had my body freezing up. What would she look like today?
Edward felt the total distraction of my stress. “It’s all right, love. Get dressed, and we’ll be back to the house in two seconds.”
I probably looked like a cartoon, the way I sprung up, then looked back at him—his diamond body faintly glinting in the diffuse light—then away to the west, where Renesmee waited, then back at him again, then back toward her, my head whipping from side to side a half dozen times in a second. Edward smiled, but didn’t laugh; he was a strong man.
“It’s all about balance, love. You’re so good at all of this, I don’t imagine it will take too long to put everything in perspective.”
“And we have all night, right?”
He smiled wider. “Do you think I could bear to let you get dressed now if that weren’t the case?”
That would have to be enough to get me through the daylight hours. I would balance this overwhelming, devastating desire so that I could be a good— It was hard to think the word. Though Renesmee was very real and vital in my life, it was still difficult to think of myself as a mother . I supposed anyone would feel the same, though, without nine months to get used to the idea. And with a child that changed by the hour.
The thought of Renesmee’s speeding life had me stressed-out again in an instant. I didn’t even pause at the ornately carved double doors to catch my breath before finding out what Alice had done. I just burst through, intent on wearing the first things I touched. I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.
“Which ones are mine?” I hissed. As promised, the room was bigger than our bedroom. It might have been bigger than the rest of the house put together, but I’d have to pace it off to be positive. I had a brief mental flash of Alice trying to persuade Esme to ignore classic proportions and allow this monstrosity. I wondered how Alice had won that one.
Everything was wrapped in garment bags, pristine and white, row after row after row.
“To the best of my knowledge, everything but this rack here”—he touched a bar that stretched along the half-wall to the left of the door—“is yours.”
“All of this?”
“Alice,” we said together. He said her name like an explanation; I said it like an expletive.
“Fine,” I muttered, and I pulled down the zipper on the closest bag. I growled under my breath when I saw the floorlength silk gown inside—baby pink.
Finding something normal to wear could take all day!
“Let me help,” Edward offered. He sniffed carefully at the air and then followed some scent to the back of the long room. There was a built-in dresser there. He sniffed again, then opened a drawer. With a triumphant grin, he held out a pair of artfully faded blue jeans.
I flitted to his side. “How did you do that?”
“Denim has its own scent just like anything else. Now… stretch cotton?”
He followed his nose to a half-rack, unearthing a long-sleeved white t-shirt. He tossed it to me.
“Thanks,” I said fervently. I inhaled each fabric, memorizing the scent for future searches through this madhouse. I remembered silk and satin; I would avoid those.
It only took him seconds to find his own clothes—if I hadn’t seen him undressed, I would have sworn there was nothing more beautiful than Edward in his khakis and pale beige pullover—and then he took my hand. We darted through the hidden garden, leaped lightly over the stone wall, and hit the forest at a dead sprint. I pulled my hand free so that we could race back. He beat me this time.
Renesmee was awake; she was sitting up on the floor with Rose and Emmett hovering over her, playing with a little pile of twisted silverware. She had a mangled spoon in her right hand. As soon as she spied me through the glass, she chucked the spoon on the floor—where it left a divot in the wood—and pointed in my direction imperiously. Her audience laughed; Alice, Jasper, Esme, and Carlisle were sitting on the couch, watching her as if she were the most engrossing film.
I was through the door before their laughter had barely begun, bounding across the room and scooping her up from the floor in the same second. We smiled widely at each other.
She was different, but not so much. A little longer again, her proportions drifting from babyish to childlike. Her hair was longer by a quarter inch, the curls bouncing like springs with every movement. I’d let my imagination run wild on the trip back, and I’d imagined worse than this. Thanks to my overdone fears, these little changes were almost a relief. Even without Carlisle’s measurements, I was sure the changes were slower than yesterday.
Renesmee patted my cheek. I winced. She was hungry again.
“How long has she been up?” I asked as Edward disappeared through the kitchen doorway. I was sure he was on his way to get her breakfast, having seen what she’d just thought as clearly as I had. I wondered if he would ever have noticed her little quirk, if he’d been the only one to know her. To him, it probably would have seemed like hearing anyone.
“Just a few minutes,” Rose said. “We would have called you soon. She’s been asking for you—demanding might be a better description. Esme sacrificed her second-best silver service to keep the little monster entertained.” Rose smiled at Renesmee with so much gloating affection that the criticism was entirely weightless. “We didn’t want to… er, bother you.”
Rosalie bit her lip and looked away, trying not to laugh. I could feel Emmett’s silent laughter behind me, sending vibrations through the foundations of the house.
I kept my chin high. “We’ll get your room set up right away,” I said to Renesmee. “You’ll like the cottage. It’s magic.” I look up at Esme. “Thank you, Esme. So much. It’s absolutely perfect.”
Before Esme could respond, Emmett was laughing again—it wasn’t silent this time.
“So it’s still standing?” he managed to get out between his snickers. “I would’ve thought you two had knocked it to rubble by now. What were you doing last night? Discussing the national debt?” He howled with laughter.
I gritted my teeth and reminded myself of the negative consequences when I’d let my temper get away from me yesterday. Of course, Emmett wasn’t as breakable as Seth. . . .
Thinking of Seth made me wonder. “Where’re the wolves today?” I glanced out the window wall, but there had been no sign of Leah on the way in.
“Jacob took off this morning pretty early,” Rosalie told me, a little frown creasing her forehead. “Seth followed him out.”
“What was he so upset about?” Edward asked as he came back into the room with Renesmee’s cup. There must have been more in Rosalie’s memory than I’d seen in her expression.
Without breathing, I handed Renesmee off to Rosalie. Super-self-control, maybe, but there was no way I was going to be able to feed her. Not yet.
“I don’t know—or care,” Rosalie grumbled, but she answered Edward’s question more fully. “He was watching Nessie sleep, his mouth hanging open like the moron he is, and then he just jumped to his feet without any kind of trigger—that I noticed, anyway—and stormed out. I was glad to be rid of him. The more time he spends here, the less chance there is that we’ll ever get the smell out.”
“Rose,” Esme chided gently.
Rosalie flipped her hair. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. We won’t be here that much longer.”
“I still say we should go straight to New Hampshire and get things set up,” Emmett said, obviously continuing an earlier conversation. “Bella’s already registered at Dartmouth. Doesn’t look like it will take her all that long to be able to handle school.” He turned to look at me with a teasing grin. “I’m sure you’ll ace your classes… apparently there’s nothing interesting for you to do at night besides study.”
Do not lose your temper, do not lose your temper, I chanted to myself. And then I was proud of myself for keeping my head.
So I was pretty surprised that Edward didn’t.
He growled—an abrupt, shocking rasp of sound—and the blackest fury rolled across his expression like storm clouds.
Before any of us could respond, Alice was on her feet.
“What is he doing ? What is that dog doing that has erased my schedule for the entire day? I can’t see anything ! No!” She shot me a tortured glance. “Look at you! You need me to show you how to use your closet.”
For one second I was grateful for whatever Jacob was up to.
And then Edward’s hands balled up into fists and he snarled, “He talked to Charlie. He thinks Charlie is following after him. Coming here. Today.”
Alice said a word that sounded very odd in her trilling, ladylike voice, and then she blurred into motion, streaking out the back door.
“He told Charlie?” I gasped. “But—doesn’t he understand? How could he do that?” Charlie couldn’t know about me! About vampires! That would put him on a hit list that even the Cullens couldn’t save him from. “No!”
Edward spoke through his teeth. “Jacob’s on his way in now.”
It must have started raining farther east. Jacob came through the door shaking his wet hair like a dog, flipping droplets on the carpet and the couch where they made little round gray spots on the white. His teeth glinted against his dark lips; his eyes were bright and excited. He walked with jerky movements, like he was all hyped-up about destroying my father’s life.
“Hey, guys,” he greeted us, grinning.
It was perfectly silent.
Leah and Seth slipped in behind him, in their human forms—for now; both of their hands were trembling with the tension in the room.
“Rose,” I said, holding my arms out. Wordlessly, Rosalie handed me Renesmee. I pressed her close to my motionless heart, holding her like a talisman against rash behavior. I would keep her in my arms until I was sure my decision to kill Jacob was based entirely on rational judgment rather than fury.
She was very still, watching and listening. How much did she understand?
“Charlie’ll be here soon,” Jacob said to me casually. “Just a heads-up. I assume Alice is getting you sunglasses or something?”
“You assume way too much,” I spit through my teeth. “What. Have. You. Done? ”
Jacob’s smile wavered, but he was still too wound up to answer seriously. “Blondie and Emmett woke me up this morning going on and on about you all moving cross-country. Like I could let you leave. Charlie was the biggest issue there, right? Well, problem solved.”
“Do you even realize what you’ve done? The danger you’ve put him in?”
He snorted. “I didn’t put him in danger. Except from you. But you’ve got some kind of supernatural self-control, right? Not as good as mind reading, if you ask me. Much less exciting.”
Edward moved then, darting across the room to get in Jacob’s face. Though he was half a head shorter than Jacob, Jacob leaned away from his staggering anger as if Edward towered over him.
“That’s just a theory , mongrel,” he snarled. “You think we should test it out on Charlie ? Did you consider the physical pain you’re putting Bella through, even if she can resist? Or the emotional pain if she doesn’t? I suppose what happens to Bella no longer concerns you!” He spit the last word.
Renesmee pressed her fingers anxiously to my cheek, anxiety coloring the replay in her head.
Edward’s words finally cut through Jacob’s strangely electric mood. His mouth dropped into a frown. “Bella will be in pain?”
“Like you’ve shoved a white-hot branding iron down her throat!”
I flinched, remembering the scent of pure human blood.
“I didn’t know that,” Jacob whispered.
“Then perhaps you should have asked first,” Edward growled back through his teeth.
“You would have stopped me.”
“You should have been stopped—”
“This isn’t about me,” I interrupted. I stood very still, keeping my hold on Renesmee and sanity. “This is about Charlie, Jacob. How could you put him in danger this way? Do you realize it’s death or vampire life for him now, too?” My voice trembled with the tears my eyes could no longer shed.
Jacob was still troubled by Edward’s accusations, but mine didn’t seem to bother him. “Relax, Bella. I didn’t tell him anything you weren’t planning to tell him.”
“But he’s coming here!”
“Yeah, that’s the idea. Wasn’t the whole ‘let him make the wrong assumptions’ thing your plan? I think I provided a very nice red herring, if I do say so myself.”
My fingers flexed away from Renesmee. I curled them back in securely. “Say it straight, Jacob. I don’t have the patience for this.”
“I didn’t tell him anything about you, Bella. Not really. I told him about me . Well, show is probably a better verb.”
“He phased in front of Charlie,” Edward hissed.
I whispered, “You what ?”
“He’s brave. Brave as you are. Didn’t pass out or throw up or anything. I gotta say, I was impressed. You should’ve seen his face when I started taking my clothes off, though. Priceless,” Jacob chortled.
“You absolute moron ! You could have given him a heart attack!”
“Charlie’s fine. He’s tough. If you’d give this just a minute, you’ll see that I did you a favor here.”
“You have half of that, Jacob.” My voice was flat and steely. “You have thirty seconds to tell me every single word before I give Renesmee to Rosalie and rip your miserable head off. Seth won’t be able to stop me this time.”
“Jeez, Bells. You didn’t used to be so melodramatic. Is that a vampire thing?”
Jacob rolled his eyes and flopped into the nearest chair. His little pack moved to stand on his flanks, not at all relaxed the way he seemed to be; Leah’s eyes were on me, her teeth slightly bared.
“So I knocked on Charlie’s door this morning and asked him to come for a walk with me. He was confused, but when I told him it was about you and that you were back in town, he followed me out to the woods. I told him you weren’t sick anymore, and that things were a little weird, but good. He was about to take off to see you, but I told him I had to show him something first. And then I phased.” Jacob shrugged.
My teeth felt like a vise was pushing them together. “I want every word, you monster.”
“Well, you said I only had thirty seconds—okay, okay.” My expression must have convinced him that I wasn’t in the mood for teasing. “Lemme see… I phased back and got dressed, and then after he started breathing again, I said something like, ‘Charlie, you don’t live in the world you thought you lived in. The good news is, nothing has changed—except that now you know. Life’ll go on the same way it always has. You can go right back to pretending that you don’t believe any of this.’
“It took him a minute to get his head together, and then he wanted to know what was really going on with you, with the whole rare-disease thing. I told him that you had been sick, but you were fine now—it was just that you’d had to change a little bit in the process of getting better. He wanted to know what I meant by ‘change,’ and I told him that you looked a lot more like Esme now than you looked like Renée.”
Edward hissed while I stared in horror; this was headed in a dangerous direction.
“After a few minutes, he asked, real quietly, if you turned into an animal, too. And I said, ‘She wishes she was that cool!’” Jacob chuckled.
Rosalie made a noise of disgust.
“I started to tell him more about werewolves, but I didn’t even get the whole word out—Charlie cut me off and said he’d ‘rather not know the specifics.’ Then he asked if you’d known what you were getting yourself into when you married Edward, and I said, ‘Sure, she’s known all about this for years, since she first came to Forks.’ He didn’t like that very much. I let him rant till he got it out of his system. After he got calmed down, he just wanted two things. He wanted to see you, and I said it would be better if he gave me a head start to explain.”
I inhaled deeply. “What was the other thing he wanted?”
Jacob smiled. “You’ll like this. His main request is that he be told as little as possible about all of this. If it’s not absolutely essential for him to know something, then keep it to yourself. Need to know, only.”
I felt relief for the first time since Jacob had walked in. “I can handle that part.”
“Other than that, he’d just like to pretend things are normal.” Jacob’s smile turned smug; he must suspect that I would be starting to feel the first faint stirrings of gratitude about now.
“What did you tell him about Renesmee?” I struggled to maintain the razor edge in my voice, fighting the reluctant appreciation. It was premature. There was still so much wrong with this situation. Even if Jacob’s intervention had brought out a better reaction in Charlie than I’d ever hoped for…
“Oh yeah. So I told him that you and Edward had inherited a new little mouth to feed.” He glanced at Edward. “She’s your orphaned ward—like Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.” Jacob snorted. “I didn’t think you’d mind me lying. That’s all part of the game, right?” Edward didn’t respond in any way, so Jacob went on. “Charlie was way past being shocked at this point, but he did ask if you were adopting her. ‘Like a daughter? Like I’m sort of a grandfather?’ were his exact words. I told him yes. ‘Congrats, Gramps,’ and all of that. He even smiled a little.”
The stinging returned to my eyes, but not out of fear or anguish this time. Charlie was smiling at the idea of being a grandpa? Charlie would meet Renesmee?
“But she’s changing so fast,” I whispered.
“I told him that she was more special than all of us put together,” Jacob said in a soft voice. He stood and walked right up to me, waving Leah and Seth off when they started to follow. Renesmee reached out to him, but I hugged her more tightly to me. “I told him, ‘Trust me, you don’t want to know about this. But if you can ignore all the strange parts, you’re going to be amazed. She’s the most wonderful person in the whole world.’ And then I told him that if he could deal with that, you all would stick around for a while and he would have a chance to get to know her. But that if it was too much for him, you would leave. He said as long as no one forced too much information on him, he’d deal.”
Jacob stared at me with half a smile, waiting.
“I’m not going to say thank you,” I told him. “You’re still putting Charlie at a huge risk.”
“I am sorry about it hurting you. I didn’t know it was like that. Bella, things are different with us now, but you’ll always be my best friend, and I’ll always love you. But I’ll love you the right way now. There’s finally a balance. We both have people we can’t live without.”
He smiled his very most Jacob-y smile. “Still friends?”
Try as hard as I could to resist, I had to smile back. Just a tiny smile.
He held out his hand: an offer.
I took a deep breath and shifted Renesmee’s weight to one arm. I put my left hand in his—he didn’t even flinch at the feel of my cool skin. “If I don’t kill Charlie tonight, I’ll consider forgiving you for this.”
“When you don’t kill Charlie tonight, you’ll owe me huge.”
I rolled my eyes.
He held out his other hand toward Renesmee, a request this time. “Can I?”
“I’m actually holding her so that my hands aren’t free to kill you, Jacob. Maybe later.”
He sighed but didn’t push me on it. Wise of him.
Alice raced back through the door then, her hands full and her expression promising violence.
“You, you, and you,” she snapped, glaring at the werewolves. “If you must stay, get over in the corner and commit to being there for a while. I need to see . Bella, you’d better give him the baby, too. You’ll need your arms free, anyway.”
Jacob grinned in triumph.
Undiluted fear ripped through my stomach as the enormity of what I was about to do hit me. I was going to gamble on my iffy self-control with my pure human father as the guinea pig. Edward’s earlier words crashed in my ears again.
Did you consider the physical pain you’re putting Bella through, even if she can resist? Or the emotional pain if she doesn’t?
I couldn’t imagine the pain of failure. My breathing turned to gasps.
“Take her,” I whispered, sliding Renesmee into Jacob’s arms.
He nodded, concern wrinkling his forehead. He gestured to the others, and they all went to the far corner of the room. Seth and Jake slouched on the floor at once, but Leah shook her head and pursed her lips.
“Am I allowed to leave?” she griped. She looked uncomfortable in her human body, wearing the same dirty t-shirt and cotton shorts she’d worn to shriek at me the other day, her short hair sticking up in irregular tufts. Her hands were still shaking.
“Of course,” Jake said.
“Stay east so you don’t cross Charlie’s path,” Alice added.
Leah didn’t look at Alice; she ducked out the back door and stomped into the bushes to phase.
Edward was back at my side, stroking my face. “You can do this. I know you can. I’ll help you; we all will.”
I met Edward’s eyes with panic screaming from my face. Was he strong enough to stop me if I made a wrong move?
“If I didn’t believe you could handle it, we’d disappear today. This very minute. But you can. And you’ll be happier if you can have Charlie in your life.”
I tried to slow my breathing.
Alice held out her hand. There was a small white box on her palm. “These will irritate your eyes—they won’t hurt, but they’ll cloud your vision. It’s annoying. They also won’t match your old color, but it’s still better than bright red, right?”
She flipped the contact box into the air and I caught it.
“When did you—”
“Before you left on the honeymoon. I was prepared for several possible futures.”
I nodded and opened the container. I’d never worn contacts before, but it couldn’t be that hard. I took the little brown quarter-sphere and pressed it, concave side in, to my eye.
I blinked, and a film interrupted my sight. I could see through it, of course, but I could also see the texture of the thin screen. My eye kept focusing on the microscopic scratches and warped sections.
“I see what you mean,” I murmured as I stuck the other one in. I tried to not blink this time. My eye automatically wanted to dislodge the obstruction.
“How do I look?”
Edward smiled. “Gorgeous. Of course—”
“Yes, yes, she always looks gorgeous,” Alice finished his thought impatiently. “It’s better than red, but that’s the highest commendation I can give. Muddy brown. Your brown was much prettier. Keep in mind that those won’t last forever—the venom in your eyes will dissolve them in a few hours. So if Charlie stays longer than that, you’ll have to excuse yourself to replace them. Which is a good idea anyway, because humans need bathroom breaks.” She shook her head. “Esme, give her a few pointers on acting human while I stock the powder room with contacts.”
“How long do I have?”
“Charlie will be here in five minutes. Keep it simple.”
Esme nodded once and came to take my hand. “The main thing is not to sit too still or move too fast,” she told me.
“Sit down if he does,” Emmett interjected. “Humans don’t like to just stand there.”
“Let your eyes wander every thirty seconds or so,” Jasper added. “Humans don’t stare at one thing for too long.”
“Cross your legs for about five minutes, then switch to crossing your ankles for the next five,” Rosalie said.
I nodded once at each suggestion. I’d noticed them doing some of these things yesterday. I thought I could mimic their actions.
“And blink at least three times a minute,” Emmett said. He frowned, then darted to where the television remote sat on the end table. He flipped the TV on to a college football game and nodded to himself.
“Move your hands, too. Brush your hair back or pretend to scratch something,” Jasper said.
“I said Esme ,” Alice complained as she returned. “You’ll overwhelm her.”
“No, I think I got it all,” I said. “Sit, look around, blink, fidget.”
“Right,” Esme approved. She hugged my shoulders.
Jasper frowned. “You’ll be holding your breath as much as possible, but you need to move your shoulders a little to make it look like you’re breathing.”
I inhaled once and then nodded again.
Edward hugged me on my free side. “You can do this,” he repeated, murmuring the encouragement in my ear.
“Two minutes,” Alice said. “Maybe you should start out already on the couch. You’ve been sick, after all. That way he won’t have to see you move right at first.”
Alice pulled me to the sofa. I tried to move slowly, to make my limbs more clumsy. She rolled her eyes, so I must not have been doing a good job.
“Jacob, I need Renesmee,” I said.
Jacob frowned, unmoving.
Alice shook her head. “Bella, that doesn’t help me see.”
“But I need her. She keeps me calm.” The edge of panic in my voice was unmistakable.
“Fine,” Alice groaned. “Hold her as still as you can and I’ll try to see around her.” She sighed wearily, like she’d been asked to work overtime on a holiday. Jacob sighed, too, but brought Renesmee to me, and then retreated quickly from Alice’s glare.
Edward took a seat beside me and put his arms around Renesmee and me. He leaned forward and looked Renesmee very seriously in the eyes.
“Renesmee, someone special is coming to see you and your mother,” he said in a solemn voice, as if he expected her to understand every word. Did she? She looked back at him with clear, grave eyes. “But he’s not like us, or even like Jacob. We have to be very careful with him. You shouldn’t tell him things the way you tell us.”
Renesmee touched his face.
“Exactly,” he said. “And he’s going to make you thirsty. But you mustn’t bite him. He won’t heal like Jacob.”
“Can she understand you?” I whispered.
“She understands. You’ll be careful, won’t you, Renesmee? You’ll help us?”
Renesmee touched him again.
“No, I don’t care if you bite Jacob. That’s fine.”
“Maybe you should leave, Jacob,” Edward said coldly, glaring in his direction. Edward hadn’t forgiven Jacob, because he knew that no matter what happened now, I was going to be hurting. But I’d take the burn happily if that were the worst thing I’d face tonight.
“I told Charlie I’d be here,” Jacob said. “He needs the moral support.”
“Moral support,” Edward scoffed. “As far as Charlie knows, you’re the most repulsive monster of us all.”
“Repulsive?” Jake protested, and then he laughed quietly to himself.
I heard the tires turn off the highway onto the quiet, damp earth of the Cullens’ drive, and my breathing spiked again. My heart ought to have been hammering. It made me anxious that my body didn’t have the right reactions.
I concentrated on the steady thrumming of Renesmee’s heart to calm myself. It worked pretty quickly.
“Well done, Bella,” Jasper whispered in approval.
Edward tightened his arm over my shoulders.
“You’re sure?” I asked him.
“Positive. You can do anything. ” He smiled and kissed me.
It wasn’t precisely a peck on the lips, and my wild vampiric reactions took me off guard yet again. Edward’s lips were like a shot of some addictive chemical straight into my nervous system. I was instantly craving more. It took all my concentration to remember the baby in my arms.
Jasper felt my mood change. “Er, Edward, you might not want to distract her like that right now. She needs to be able to focus.”
Edward pulled away. “Oops,” he said.
I laughed. That had been my line from the very beginning, from the very first kiss.
“Later,” I said, and anticipation curled my stomach into a ball.
“Focus, Bella,” Jasper urged.
“Right.” I pushed the trembly feelings away. Charlie, that was the main thing now. Keep Charlie safe today. We would have all night. . . .
The sound of Charlie’s cruiser got closer and closer. The second of levity passed, and everyone was still. I crossed my legs and practiced my blinks.
The car pulled in front of the house and idled for a few seconds. I wondered if Charlie was as nervous as I was. Then the engine cut off, and a door slammed. Three steps across the grass, and then eight echoing thuds against the wooden stairs. Four more echoing footsteps across the porch. Then silence. Charlie took two deep breaths.
Knock, knock, knock.
I inhaled for what might be the last time. Renesmee nestled deeper into my arms, hiding her face in my hair.
Carlisle answered the door. His stressed expression changed to one of welcome, like switching the channel on the TV.
“Hello, Charlie,” he said, looking appropriately abashed. After all, we were supposed to be in Atlanta at the Center for Disease Control. Charlie knew he’d been lied to.
“Carlisle,” Charlie greeted him stiffly. “Where’s Bella?”
“Right here, Dad.”
Ugh! My voice was so wrong. Plus, I’d used up some of my air supply. I gulped in a quick refill, glad that Charlie’s scent had not saturated the room yet.
Charlie’s blank expression told me how off my voice was. His eyes zeroed in on me and widened.
I read the emotions as they scrolled across his face.
Shock. Disbelief. Pain. Loss. Fear. Anger. Suspicion. More pain.
I bit my lip. It felt funny. My new teeth were sharper against my granite skin than my human teeth had been against my soft human lips.
“Is that you, Bella?” he whispered.
“Yep.” I winced at my wind-chime voice. “Hi, Dad.”
He took a deep breath to steady himself.
“Hey, Charlie,” Jacob greeted him from the corner. “How’re things?”
Charlie glowered at Jacob once, shuddered at a memory, and then stared at me again.
Slowly, Charlie walked across the room until he was a few feet away from me. He darted an accusing glare at Edward, and then his eyes flickered back to me. The warmth of his body heat beat against me with each pulse of his heart.
“Bella?” he asked again.
I spoke in a lower voice, trying to keep the ring out of it. “It’s really me.”
His jaw locked.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” I said.
“Are you okay?” he demanded.
“Really and truly great,” I promised. “Healthy as a horse.”
That was it for my oxygen.
“Jake told me this was… necessary. That you were dying.” He said the words like he didn’t believe them one bit.
I steeled myself, focused on Renesmee’s warm weight, leaned into Edward for support, and took a deep breath.
Charlie’s scent was a fistful of flames, punching straight down my throat. But it was so much more than pain. It was a hot stabbing of desire, too. Charlie smelled more delicious than anything I’d ever imagined. As appealing as the anonymous hikers had been on the hunt, Charlie was doubly tempting. And he was just a few feet away, leaking mouthwatering heat and moisture into the dry air.
But I wasn’t hunting now. And this was my father.
Edward squeezed my shoulders sympathetically, and Jacob shot an apologetic glance at me across the room.
I tried to collect myself and ignore the pain and longing of the thirst. Charlie was waiting for my answer.
“Jacob was telling you the truth.”
“That makes one of you,” Charlie growled.
I hoped Charlie could see past the changes in my new face to read the remorse there.
Under my hair, Renesmee sniffed as Charlie’s scent registered with her, too. I tightened my grip on her.
Charlie saw my anxious glance down and followed it. “Oh,” he said, and all the anger fell off his face, leaving only shock behind. “This is her. The orphan Jacob said you’re adopting.”
“My niece,” Edward lied smoothly. He must have decided that the resemblance between Renesmee and him was too pronounced to be ignored. Best to claim they were related from the beginning.
“I thought you’d lost your family,” Charlie said, accusation returning to his voice.
“I lost my parents. My older brother was adopted, like me. I never saw him after that. But the courts located me when he and his wife died in a car accident, leaving their only child without any other family.”
Edward was so good at this. His voice was even, with just the right amount of innocence. I needed practice so that I could do that.
Renesmee peeked out from under my hair, sniffing again. She glanced shyly at Charlie from under her long lashes, then hid again.
“She’s… she’s, well, she’s a beauty.”
“Yes,” Edward agreed.
“Kind of a big responsibility, though. You two are just getting started.”
“What else could we do?” Edward brushed his fingers lightly over her cheek. I saw him touch her lips for just a moment—a reminder. “Would you have refused her?”
“Hmph. Well.” He shook his head absently. “Jake says you call her Nessie?”
“No, we don’t,” I said, my voice too sharp and piercing. “Her name is Renesmee.”
Charlie refocused on me. “How do you feel about this? Maybe Carlisle and Esme could—”
“She’s mine,” I interrupted. “I want her.”
Charlie frowned. “You gonna make me a grandpa so young?”
Edward smiled. “Carlisle is a grandfather, too.”
Charlie shot an incredulous glance at Carlisle, still standing by the front door; he looked like Zeus’s younger, better-looking brother.
Charlie snorted and then laughed. “I guess that does sort of make me feel better.” His eyes strayed back to Renesmee. “She sure is something to look at.” His warm breath blew lightly across the space between us.
Renesmee leaned toward the smell, shaking off my hair and looking him full in the face for the first time. Charlie gasped.
I knew what he was seeing. My eyes—his eyes—copied exactly into her perfect face.
Charlie started hyperventilating. His lips trembled, and I could read the numbers he mouthed. He was counting backward, trying to fit nine months into one. Trying to put it together but not able to force the evidence right in front of him to make any sense.
Jacob got up and came over to pat Charlie on the back. He leaned in to whisper something in Charlie’s ear; only Charlie didn’t know we could all hear.
“Need to know, Charlie. It’s okay. I promise.”
Charlie swallowed and nodded. And then his eyes blazed as he took a step closer to Edward with his fists tightly clenched.
“I don’t want to know everything, but I’m done with the lies!”
“I’m sorry,” Edward said calmly, “but you need to know the public story more than you need to know the truth. If you’re going to be part of this secret, the public story is the one that counts. It’s to protect Bella and Renesmee as well as the rest of us. Can you go along with the lies for them?”
The room was full of statues. I crossed my ankles.
Charlie huffed once and then turned his glare on me. “You might’ve given me some warning, kid.”
“Would it really have made this any easier?”
He frowned, and then he knelt on the floor in front of me. I could see the movement of the blood in his neck under his skin. I could feel the warm vibration of it.
So could Renesmee. She smiled and reached one pink palm out to him. I held her back. She pushed her other hand against my neck, thirst, curiosity, and Charlie’s face in her thoughts. There was a subtle edge to the message that made me think that she’d understood Edward’s words perfectly; she acknowledged thirst, but overrode it in the same thought.
“Whoa,” Charlie gasped, his eyes on her perfect teeth. “How old is she?”
“Um . . .”
“Three months,” Edward said, and then added slowly, “rather, she’s the size of a three-month-old, more or less. She’s younger in some ways, more mature in others.”
Very deliberately, Renesmee waved at him.
Charlie blinked spastically.
Jacob elbowed him. “Told you she was special, didn’t I?”
Charlie cringed away from the contact.
“Oh, c’mon, Charlie,” Jacob groaned. “I’m the same person I’ve always been. Just pretend this afternoon didn’t happen.”
The reminder made Charlie’s lips go white, but he nodded once. “Just what is your part in all this, Jake?” he asked. “How much does Billy know? Why are you here?” He looked at Jacob’s face, which was glowing as he stared at Renesmee.
“Well, I could tell you all about it—Billy knows absolutely everything—but it involves a lot of stuff about werewo—”
“Ungh!” Charlie protested, covering his ears. “Never mind.”
Jacob grinned. “Everything’s going to be great, Charlie. Just try to not believe anything you see.”
My dad mumbled something unintelligible.
“Woo!” Emmett suddenly boomed in his deep bass. “Go Gators!”
Jacob and Charlie jumped. The rest of us froze.
Charlie recovered, then looked at Emmett over his shoulder. “Florida winning?”
“Just scored the first touchdown,” Emmett confirmed. He shot a look in my direction, wagging his eyebrows like a villain in vaudeville. “’Bout time somebody scored around here.”
I fought back a hiss. In front of Charlie? That was over the line.
But Charlie was beyond noticing innuendos. He took yet another deep breath, sucking the air in like he was trying to pull it down to his toes. I envied him. He lurched to his feet, stepped around Jacob, and half-fell into an open chair. “Well,” he sighed, “I guess we should see if they can hold on to the lead.”