35 DEADLINE

“Headed out?” Edward asked, his tone nonchalant. There was a sort of forced composure about his expression. He hugged Renesmee just a little bit tighter to his chest.

“Yes, a few last-minute things…,” I responded just as casually.

He smiled my favorite smile. “Hurry back to me.”

“Always.”

I took his Volvo again, wondering if he’d read the odometer after my last errand. How much had he pieced together? That I had a secret, absolutely. Would he have deduced the reason why I didn’t confide in him? Did he guess that Aro might soon know everything he knew? I thought Edward could have come to that conclusion, which explained why he had demanded no reasons from me. I guessed he was trying not to speculate too much, trying to keep my behavior off his mind. Had he put this together with my odd performance the morning after Alice left, burning my book in the fire? I didn’t know if he could have made that leap.

It was a dreary afternoon, already dark as dusk. I sped through the gloom, my eyes on the heavy clouds. Would it snow tonight? Enough to layer the ground and create the scene from Alice’s vision? Edward estimated that we had about two more days. Then we would set ourselves in the clearing, drawing the Volturi to our chosen place.

As I headed through the darkening forest, I considered my last trip to Seattle. I thought I knew Alice’s purpose in sending me to the dilapidated drop point where J. Jenks referred his shadier clients. If I’d gone to one of his other, more legitimate offices, would I have ever known what to ask for? If I’d met him as Jason Jenks or Jason Scott, legitimate lawyer, would I ever have unearthed J. Jenks, purveyor of illegal documents? I’d had to go the route that made it clear I was up to no good. That was my clue.

It was black when I pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant a few minutes early, ignoring the eager valets by the entrance. I popped in my contacts and then went to wait for J inside the restaurant. Though I was in a hurry to be done with this depressing necessity and back with my family, J seemed careful to keep himself untainted by his baser associations; I had a feeling a handoff in the dark parking lot would offend his sensibilities.

I gave the name Jenks at the podium, and the obsequious maître d’ led me upstairs to a small private room with a fire crackling in a stone hearth. He took the calf-length ivory trench coat I’d worn to disguise the fact that I was wearing Alice’s idea of appropriate attire, and gasped quietly at my oyster satin cocktail dress. I couldn’t help being a little flattered; I still wasn’t used to being beautiful to everyone rather than just Edward. The maître d’ stuttered half-formed compliments as he backed unsteadily from the room.

I stood by the fire to wait, holding my fingers close to the flame to warm them a little before the inevitable handshake. Not that J wasn’t obviously aware that there was something up with the Cullens, but it was still a good habit to practice.

For one half second, I wondered what it would feel like to put my hand in the fire. What it would feel like when I burned. . . .

J’s entrance distracted my morbidity. The maître d’ took his coat, too, and it was evident that I was not the only one who had dressed up for this meeting.

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” J said as soon as we were alone.

“No, you’re exactly on time.”

He held out his hand, and as we shook I could feel that his fingers were still quite noticeably warmer than mine. It didn’t seem to bother him.

“You look stunning, if I may be so bold, Mrs. Cullen.”

“Thank you, J. Please, call me Bella.”

“I must say, it’s a different experience working with you than it is with Mr. Jasper. Much less… unsettling.” He smiled hesitantly.

“Really? I’ve always found Jasper to have a very soothing presence.”

His eyebrows pulled together. “Is that so?” he murmured politely while clearly still in disagreement. How odd. What had Jasper done to this man?

“Have you known Jasper long?”

He sighed, looking uncomfortable. “I’ve been working with Mr. Jasper for more than twenty years, and my old partner knew him for fifteen years before that.… He never changes.” J cringed delicately.

“Yeah, Jasper’s kind of funny that way.”

J shook his head as if he could shake away the disturbing thoughts. “Won’t you have a seat, Bella?”

“Actually, I’m in a bit of a hurry. I’ve got a long drive home.” As I spoke, I took the thick white envelope with his bonus from my bag and handed it to him.

“Oh,” he said, a little catch of disappointment in his voice. He tucked the envelope into an inside pocket of his jacket without bothering to check the amount. “I was hoping we could speak for just a moment.”

“About?” I asked curiously.

“Well, let me get you your items first. I want to make sure you’re satisfied.”

He turned, placed his briefcase on the table, and popped the latches. He took out a legal-sized manila envelope.

Though I had no idea what I should be looking for, I opened the envelope and gave the contents a cursory glance. J had flipped Jacob’s picture and changed the coloring so that it wasn’t immediately evident that it was the same picture on both his passport and driver’s license. Both looked perfectly sound to me, but that meant little. I glanced at the picture on Vanessa Wolfe’s passport for a fraction of a second, and then looked away quickly, a lump rising in my throat.

“Thank you,” I told him.

His eyes narrowed slightly, and I felt he was disappointed that my examination was not more thorough. “I can assure you every piece is perfect. All will pass the most rigorous scrutiny by experts.”

“I’m sure they are. I truly appreciate what you’ve done for me, J.”

“It’s been my pleasure, Bella. In the future, feel free to come to me for anything the Cullen family needs.” He didn’t even hint at it really, but this sounded like an invitation for me to take over Jasper’s place as liaison.

“There was something you wanted to discuss?”

“Er, yes. It’s a bit delicate. . . .” He gestured to the stone hearth with a questioning expression. I sat on the edge of the stone, and he sat beside me. Sweat was dewing up on his forehead again, and he pulled a blue silk handkerchief from his pocket and began mopping.

“You are the sister of Mr. Jasper’s wife? Or married to his brother?” he asked.

“Married to his brother,” I clarified, wondering where this was leading.

“You would be Mr. Edward’s bride, then?”

“Yes.”

He smiled apologetically. “I’ve seen all the names many times, you see. My belated congratulations. It’s nice that Mr. Edward has found such a lovely partner after all this time.”

“Thank you very much.”

He paused, dabbing at the sweat. “Over the years, you might imagine that I’ve developed a very healthy level of respect for Mr. Jasper and the entire family.”

I nodded cautiously.

He took a deep breath and then exhaled without speaking.

“J, please just say whatever you need to.”

He took another breath and then mumbled quickly, slurring the words together.

“If you could just assure me that you are not planning to kidnap the little girl from her father, I would sleep better tonight.”

“Oh,” I said, stunned. It took me a minute to understand the erroneous conclusion he’d drawn. “Oh no. It’s nothing like that at all.” I smiled weakly, trying to reassure him. “I’m simply preparing a safe place for her in case something were to happen to my husband and me.”

His eyes narrowed. “Are you expecting something to happen?” He blushed, then apologized. “Not that it’s any of my business.”

I watched the red flush spread behind the delicate membrane of his skin and was glad—as I often was—that I was not the average newborn. J seemed a nice enough man, criminal behavior aside, and it would have been a shame to kill him.

“You never know.” I sighed.

He frowned. “May I wish you the best of luck, then. And please don’t be put out with me, my dear, but… if Mr. Jasper should come to me and ask what names I put on these documents . . .”

“Of course you should tell him immediately. I’d like nothing better than to have Mr. Jasper fully aware of our entire transaction.”

My transparent sincerity seemed to ease a bit of his tension.

“Very good,” he said. “And I can’t prevail upon you to stay for dinner?”

“I’m sorry, J. I’m short on time at present.”

“Then, again, my best wishes for your health and happiness. Anything at all the Cullen family needs, please don’t hesitate to call on me, Bella.”

“Thank you, J.”

I left with my contraband, glancing back to see that J was staring after me, his expression a mixture of anxiety and regret.

The return trip took me less time. The night was black, and so I turned off my headlights and floored it. When I got back to the house, most of the cars, including Alice’s Porsche and my Ferrari, were missing. The traditional vampires were going as far away as possible to satiate their thirst. I tried not to think of their hunting in the night, cringing at the mental picture of their victims.

Only Kate and Garrett were in the front room, arguing playfully about the nutritional value of animal blood. I inferred that Garrett had attempted a hunting trip vegetarian-style and found it difficult.

Edward must have taken Renesmee home to sleep. Jacob, no doubt, was in the woods close by the cottage. The rest of my family must have been hunting as well. Perhaps they were out with the other Denalis.

Which basically gave me the house to myself, and I was quick to take advantage.

I could smell that I was the first one to enter Alice and Jasper’s room in a long while, maybe the first since the night they’d left us. I rooted silently through their huge closet until I found the right sort of bag. It must have been Alice’s; it was a small black leather backpack, the kind that was usually used as a purse, little enough that even Renesmee could carry it without looking out of place. Then I raided their petty cash, taking about twice the yearly income for the average American household. I guessed my theft would be less noticeable here than anywhere else in the house, since this room made everyone sad. The envelope with the fake passports and IDs went into the bag on top of the money. Then I sat on the edge of Alice and Jasper’s bed and looked at the pitifully insignificant package that was all I could give my daughter and my best friend to help save their lives. I slumped against the bedpost, feeling helpless.

But what else could I do?

I sat there for several minutes with my head bowed before the inkling of a good idea came to me.

If…

If I was to assume that Jacob and Renesmee were going to escape, then that included the assumption that Demetri would be dead. That gave any survivors a little breathing room, Alice and Jasper included.

So why couldn’t Alice and Jasper help Jacob and Renesmee? If they were reunited, Renesmee would have the best protection imaginable. There was no reason why this couldn’t happen, except for the fact that Jake and Renesmee both were blind spots for Alice. How would she begin to look for them?

I deliberated for a moment, then left the room, crossing the hall to Carlisle and Esme’s suite. As usual, Esme’s desk was stacked with plans and blueprints, everything neatly laid out in tall piles. The desk had a slew of pigeonholes above the work surface; in one was a box of stationery. I took a fresh sheet of paper and a pen.

Then I stared at the blank ivory page for a full five minutes, concentrating on my decision. Alice might not be able to see Jacob or Renesmee, but she could see me. I visualized her seeing this moment, hoping desperately that she wasn’t too busy to pay attention.

Slowly, deliberately, I wrote the words RIO DE JANEIRO in all caps across the page.

Rio seemed the best place to send them: It was far away from here, Alice and Jasper were already in South America at last report, and it wasn’t like our old problems had ceased to exist just because we had worse problems now. There was still the mystery of Renesmee’s future, the terror of her racing age. We’d been headed south anyway. Now it would be Jacob’s, and hopefully Alice’s, job to search for the legends.

I bowed my head again against a sudden urge to sob, clenching my teeth together. It was better that Renesmee go on without me. But I already missed her so much I could barely stand it.

I took a deep breath and put the note at the bottom of the duffel bag, where Jacob would find it soon enough.

I crossed my fingers that—since it was unlikely that his high school offered Portuguese—Jake had at least taken Spanish as his language elective.

There was nothing left now but waiting.

For two days, Edward and Carlisle stayed in the clearing where Alice had seen the Volturi arrive. It was the same killing field where Victoria’s newborns had attacked last summer. I wondered if it felt repetitive to Carlisle, like déjà vu. For me, it would be all new. This time Edward and I would stand with our family.

We could only imagine that the Volturi would be tracking either Edward or Carlisle. I wondered if it would surprise them that their prey didn’t run. Would that make them wary? I couldn’t imagine the Volturi ever feeling a need for caution.

Though I was—hopefully—invisible to Demetri, I stayed with Edward. Of course. We only had a few hours left to be together.

Edward and I had not had a last grand scene of farewell, nor did I plan one. To speak the word was to make it final. It would be the same as typing the words The End on the last page of a manuscript. So we did not say our goodbyes, and we stayed very close to each other, always touching. Whatever end found us, it would not find us separated.

We set up a tent for Renesmee a few yards back into the protective forest, and then there was more déjà vu as we found ourselves camping in the cold again with Jacob. It was almost impossible to believe how much things had changed since last June. Seven months ago, our triangular relationship seemed impossible, three different kinds of heartbreak that could not be avoided. Now everything was in perfect balance. It seemed hideously ironic that the puzzle pieces would fit together just in time for all of them to be destroyed.

It started to snow again the night before New Year’s Eve. This time, the tiny flakes did not dissolve into the stony ground of the clearing. While Renesmee and Jacob slept—Jacob snoring so loudly I wondered how Renesmee didn’t wake—the snow made first a thin icing over the earth, then built into thicker drifts. By the time the sun rose, the scene from Alice’s vision was complete. Edward and I held hands as we stared across the glittering white field, and neither of us spoke.

Through the early morning, the others gathered, their eyes bearing mute evidence of their preparations—some light gold, some rich crimson. Soon after we all were together, we could hear the wolves moving in the woods. Jacob emerged from the tent, leaving Renesmee still sleeping, to join them.

Edward and Carlisle were arraying the others into a loose formation, our witnesses to the sides like galleries.

I watched from a distance, waiting by the tent for Renesmee to wake. When she did, I helped her dress in the clothes I’d carefully picked out two days before. Clothes that looked frilly and feminine but that were actually sturdy enough to not show any wear—even if a person wore them while riding a giant werewolf through a couple of states. Over her jacket I put on the black leather backpack with the documents, the money, the clue, and my love notes for her and Jacob, Charlie and Renée. She was strong enough that it was no burden to her.

Her eyes were huge as she read the agony on my face. But she had guessed enough not to ask me what I was doing.

“I love you,” I told her. “More than anything.”

“I love you, too, Momma,” she answered. She touched the locket at her neck, which now held a tiny photo of her, Edward, and me. “We’ll always be together.”

“In our hearts we’ll always be together,” I corrected in a whisper as quiet as a breath. “But when the time comes today, you have to leave me.”

Her eyes widened, and she touched her hand to my cheek. The silent no was louder than if she’d shouted it.

I fought to swallow; my throat felt swollen. “Will you do it for me? Please?”

She pressed her fingers harder to my face. Why?

“I can’t tell you,” I whispered. “But you’ll understand soon. I promise.”

In my head, I saw Jacob’s face.

I nodded, then pulled her fingers away. “Don’t think of it,” I breathed into her ear. “Don’t tell Jacob until I tell you to run, okay?”

This she understood. She nodded, too.

I took from my pocket one last detail.

While packing Renesmee’s things, an unexpected sparkle of color had caught my eye. A chance ray of sun through the skylight had hit the jewels on the ancient precious box stuffed high overhead on a shelf in an untouched corner. I considered it for a moment and then shrugged. After putting together Alice’s clues, I couldn’t hope that the coming confrontation would be resolved peacefully. But why not try to start things out as friendly as possible? I asked myself. What could it hurt? So I guess I must have had some hope left after all—blind, senseless hope—because I’d scaled the shelves and retrieved Aro’s wedding present to me.

Now I fastened the thick gold rope around my neck and felt the weight of the enormous diamond nestle into the hollow of my throat.

“Pretty,” Renesmee whispered. Then she wrapped her arms like a vise around my neck. I squeezed her against my chest. Interlocked this way, I carried her out of the tent and to the clearing.

Edward cocked one eyebrow as I approached, but otherwise did not remark on my accessory or Renesmee’s. He just put his arms tight around us both for one long moment and then, with a deep sigh, let us go. I couldn’t see a goodbye anywhere in his eyes. Maybe he had more hope for something after this life than he’d let on.

We took our place, Renesmee climbing agilely onto my back to leave my hands free. I stood a few feet behind the front line made up by Carlisle, Edward, Emmett, Rosalie, Tanya, Kate, and Eleazar. Close beside me were Benjamin and Zafrina; it was my job to protect them as long as I was able. They were our best offensive weapons. If the Volturi were the ones who could not see, even for a few moments, that would change everything.

Zafrina was rigid and fierce, with Senna almost a mirror image at her side. Benjamin sat on the ground, his palms pressed to the dirt, and muttered quietly about fault lines. Last night, he’d strewn piles of boulders in natural-looking, now snow-covered heaps all along the back of the meadow. They weren’t enough to injure a vampire, but hopefully enough to distract one.

The witnesses clustered to our left and right, some nearer than others—those who had declared themselves were the closest. I noticed Siobhan rubbing her temples, her eyes closed in concentration; was she humoring Carlisle? Trying to visualize a diplomatic resolution?

In the woods behind us, the invisible wolves were still and ready; we could only hear their heavy panting, their beating hearts.

The clouds rolled in, diffusing the light so that it could have been morning or afternoon. Edward’s eyes tightened as he scrutinized the view, and I was sure he was seeing this exact scene for the second time—the first time being Alice’s vision. It would look just the same when the Volturi arrived. We only had minutes or seconds left now.

All our family and allies braced themselves.

From the forest, the huge russet Alpha wolf came forward to stand at my side; it must have been too hard for him to keep his distance from Renesmee when she was in such immediate danger.

Renesmee reached out to twine her fingers in the fur over his massive shoulder, and her body relaxed a little bit. She was calmer with Jacob close. I felt a tiny bit better, too. As long Jacob was with Renesmee, she would be all right.

Without risking a glance behind, Edward reached back to me. I stretched my arm forward so that I could grip his hand. He squeezed my fingers.

Another minute ticked by, and I found myself straining to hear some sound of approach.

And then Edward stiffened and hissed low between his clenched teeth. His eyes focused on the forest due north of where we stood.

We stared where he did, and waited as the last seconds passed.

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