They emerged one by one from the forest edge, ranging a dozen meters apart. The first male into the clearing fell back immediately, allowing the other male to take the front, orienting himself around the tall, dark-haired man in a manner that clearly displayed who led the pack. The third was a woman; from this distance, all I could see of her was that her hair was a startling shade of red.
They closed ranks before they continued cautiously toward Edward’s family, exhibiting the natural respect of a troop of predators as it encounters a larger, unfamiliar group of its own kind.
As they approached, I could see how different they were from the Cullens. Their walk was catlike, a gait that seemed constantly on the edge of shifting into a crouch. They dressed in the ordinary gear of backpackers: jeans and casual button-down shirts in heavy, weatherproof fabrics. The clothes were frayed, though, with wear, and they were barefoot. Both men had cropped hair, but the woman’s brilliant orange hair was filled with leaves and debris from the woods.
Their sharp eyes carefully took in the more polished, urbane stance of Carlisle, who, flanked by Emmett and Jasper, stepped guardedly forward to meet them. Without any seeming communication between them, they each straightened into a more casual, erect bearing.
The man in front was easily the most beautiful, his skin olive-toned beneath the typical pallor, his hair a glossy black. He was of a medium build, hard-muscled, of course, but nothing next to Emmett’s brawn. He smiled an easy smile, exposing a flash of gleaming white teeth.
The woman was wilder, her eyes shifting restlessly between the men facing her, and the loose grouping around me, her chaotic hair quivering in the slight breeze. Her posture was distinctly feline. The second male hovered unobtrusively behind them, slighter than the leader, his light brown hair and regular features both nondescript. His eyes, though completely still, somehow seemed the most vigilant.
Their eyes were different, too. Not the gold or black I had come to expect, but a deep burgundy color that was disturbing and sinister.
The dark-haired man, still smiling, stepped toward Carlisle.
“We thought we heard a game,” he said in a relaxed voice with the slightest of French accents. “I’m Laurent, these are Victoria and James.” He gestured to the vampires beside him.
“I’m Carlisle. This is my family, Emmett and Jasper, Rosalie, Esme and Alice, Edward and Bella.” He pointed us out in groups, deliberately not calling attention to individuals. I felt a shock when he said my name.
“Do you have room for a few more players?” Laurent asked sociably.
Carlisle matched Laurent’s friendly tone. “Actually, we were just finishing up. But we’d certainly be interested another time. Are you planning to stay in the area for long?”
“We’re headed north, in fact, but we were curious to see who was in the neighborhood. We haven’t run into any company in a long time.”
“No, this region is usually empty except for us and the occasional visitor, like yourselves.”
The tense atmosphere had slowly subsided into a casual conversation; I guessed that Jasper was using his peculiar gift to control the situation.
“What’s your hunting range?” Laurent casually inquired.
Carlisle ignored the assumption behind the inquiry. “The Olympic Range here, up and down the Coast Ranges on occasion. We keep a permanent residence nearby. There’s another permanent settlement like ours up near Denali.”
Laurent rocked back on his heels slightly.
“Permanent? How do you manage that?” There was honest curiosity in his voice.
“Why don’t you come back to our home with us and we can talk comfortably?” Carlisle invited. “It’s a rather long story.”
James and Victoria exchanged a surprised look at the mention of the word “home,” but Laurent controlled his expression better.
“That sounds very interesting, and welcome.” His smile was genial. “We’ve been on the hunt all the way down from Ontario, and we haven’t had the chance to clean up in a while.” His eyes moved appreciatively over Carlisle’s refined appearance.
“Please don’t take offense, but we’d appreciate it if you’d refrain from hunting in this immediate area. We have to stay inconspicuous, you understand,” Carlisle explained.
“Of course.” Laurent nodded. “We certainly won’t encroach on your territory. We just ate outside of Seattle, anyway,” he laughed. A shiver ran up my spine. “We’ll show you the way if you’d like to run with us — Emmett and Alice, you can go with Edward and Bella to get the Jeep,” he casually added.
Three things seemed to happen simultaneously while Carlisle was speaking. My hair ruffled with the light breeze, Edward stiffened, and the second male, James, suddenly whipped his head around, scrutinizing me, his nostrils flaring.
A swift rigidity fell on all of them as James lurched one step forward into a crouch. Edward bared his teeth, crouching in defense, a feral snarl ripping from his throat.
It was nothing like the playful sounds I’d heard from him this morning; it was the single most menacing thing I had ever heard, and chills ran from the crown of my head to the back of my heels.
“What’s this?” Laurent exclaimed in open surprise. Neither James nor Edward relaxed their aggressive poses. James feinted slightly to the side, and Edward shifted in response.
“She’s with us.” Carlisle’s firm rebuff was directed toward James. Laurent seemed to catch my scent less powerfully than James, but awareness now dawned on his face.
“You brought a snack?” he asked, his expression incredulous as he took an involuntary step forward.
Edward snarled even more ferociously, harshly, his lip curling high above his glistening, bared teeth.
Laurent stepped back again.
“I said she’s with us,” Carlisle corrected in a hard voice.
“But she’s human ,” Laurent protested. The words were not at all aggressive, merely astounded.
“Yes.” Emmett was very much in evidence at Carlisle’s side, his eyes on James. James slowly straightened out of his crouch, but his eyes never left me, his nostrils still wide. Edward stayed tensed like a lion in front of me.
When Laurent spoke, his tone was soothing — trying to defuse the sudden hostility. “It appears we have a lot to learn about each other.”
“Indeed.” Carlisle’s voice was still cool.
“But we’d like to accept your invitation.” His eyes flicked toward me and back to Carlisle. “And, of course, we will not harm the human girl. We won’t hunt in your range, as I said.”
James glanced in disbelief and aggravation at Laurent and exchanged another brief look with Victoria, whose eyes still flickered edgily from face to face.
Carlisle measured Laurent’s open expression for a moment before he spoke. “We’ll show you the way. Jasper, Rosalie, Esme?” he called. They gathered together, blocking me from view as they converged. Alice was instantly at my side, and Emmett fell back slowly, his eyes locked on James as he backed toward us.
“Let’s go, Bella.” Edward’s voice was low and bleak.
This whole time I’d been rooted in place, terrified into absolute immobility. Edward had to grip my elbow and pull sharply to break my trance. Alice and Emmett were close behind us, hiding me. I stumbled alongside Edward, still stunned with fear. I couldn’t hear if the main group had left yet. Edward’s impatience was almost tangible as we moved at human speed to the forest edge.
Once we were into the trees, Edward slung me over his back without breaking stride. I gripped as tightly as possible as he took off, the others close on his heels. I kept my head down, but my eyes, wide with fright, wouldn’t close. They plunged through the now-black forest like wraiths. The sense of exhilaration that usually seemed to possess Edward as he ran was completely absent, replaced by a fury that consumed him and drove him still faster. Even with me on his back, the others trailed behind.
We reached the Jeep in an impossibly short time, and Edward barely slowed as he flung me in the backseat.
“Strap her in,” he ordered Emmett, who slid in beside me.
Alice was already in the front seat, and Edward was starting the engine. It roared to life and we swerved backward, spinning around to face the winding road.
Edward was growling something too fast for me to understand, but it sounded a lot like a string of profanities.
The jolting trip was much worse this time, and the darkness only made it more frightening. Emmett and Alice both glared out the side windows.
We hit the main road, and though our speed increased, I could see much better where we were going. And we were headed south, away from Forks.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
No one answered. No one even looked at me.
“Dammit, Edward! Where are you taking me?”
“We have to get you away from here — far away — now.” He didn’t look back, his eyes on the road. The speedometer read a hundred and five miles an hour.
“Turn around! You have to take me home!” I shouted. I struggled with the stupid harness, tearing at the straps.
“Emmett,” Edward said grimly.
And Emmett secured my hands in his steely grasp.
“No! Edward! No, you can’t do this.”
“I have to, Bella, now please be quiet.”
“I won’t! You have to take me back — Charlie will call the FBI! They’ll be all over your family — Carlisle and Esme! They’ll have to leave, to hide forever!”
“Calm down, Bella.” His voice was cold. “We’ve been there before.”
“Not over me, you don’t! You’re not ruining everything over me!” I struggled violently, with total futility.
Alice spoke for the first time. “Edward, pull over.”
He flashed her a hard look, and then sped up.
“Edward, let’s just talk this through.”
“You don’t understand,” he roared in frustration. I’d never heard his voice so loud; it was deafening in the confines of the Jeep. The speedometer neared one hundred and fifteen. “He’s a tracker, Alice, did you see that? He’s a tracker!”
I felt Emmett stiffen next to me, and I wondered at his reaction to the word. It meant something more to the three of them than it did to me; I wanted to understand, but there was no opening for me to ask.
“Pull over, Edward.” Alice’s tone was reasonable, but there was a ring of authority in it I’d never heard before.
The speedometer inched passed one-twenty.
“Do it, Edward.”
“Listen to me, Alice. I saw his mind. Tracking is his passion, his obsession — and he wants her, Alice — her , specifically. He begins the hunt tonight.”
“He doesn’t know where —”
He interrupted her. “How long do you think it will take him to cross her scent in town? His plan was already set before the words were out of Laurent’s mouth.”
I gasped, knowing where my scent would lead. “Charlie! You can’t leave him there! You can’t leave him!” I thrashed against the harness.
“She’s right,” Alice said.
The car slowed slightly.
“Let’s just look at our options for a minute,” Alice coaxed.
The car slowed again, more noticeably, and then suddenly we screeched to a stop on the shoulder of the highway. I flew against the harness, and then slammed back into the seat.
“There are no options,” Edward hissed.
“I’m not leaving Charlie!” I yelled.
He ignored me completely.
“We have to take her back,” Emmett finally spoke.
“No.” Edward was absolute.
“He’s no match for us, Edward. He won’t be able to touch her.”
Emmett smiled. “I can wait, too.”
“You didn’t see — you don’t understand. Once he commits to a hunt, he’s unshakable. We’d have to kill him.”
Emmett didn’t seem upset by the idea. “That’s an option.”
“And the female. She’s with him. If it turns into a fight, the leader will go with them, too.”
“There are enough of us.”
“There’s another option,” Alice said quietly.
Edward turned on her in fury, his voice a blistering snarl. “There — is — no — other — option!”
Emmett and I both stared at him in shock, but Alice seemed unsurprised. The silence lasted for a long minute as Edward and Alice stared each other down.
I broke it. “Does anyone want to hear my plan?”
“No,” Edward growled. Alice glared at him, finally provoked.
“Listen,” I pleaded. “You take me back.”
“No,” he interrupted.
I glared at him and continued. “You take me back. I tell my dad I want to go home to Phoenix. I pack my bags. We wait till this tracker is watching, and then we run. He’ll follow us and leave Charlie alone. Charlie won’t call the FBI on your family. Then you can take me any damned place you want.”
They stared at me, stunned.
“It’s not a bad idea, really.” Emmett’s surprise was definitely an insult.
“It might work — and we simply can’t leave her father unprotected. You know that,” Alice said.
Everyone looked at Edward.
“It’s too dangerous — I don’t want him within a hundred miles of her.”
Emmett was supremely confident. “Edward, he’s not getting through us.”
Alice thought for a minute. “I don’t see him attacking. He’ll try to wait for us to leave her alone.”
“It won’t take long for him to realize that’s not going to happen.”
“I demand that you take me home.” I tried to sound firm.
Edward pressed his fingers to his temples and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Please,” I said in a much smaller voice.
He didn’t look up. When he spoke, his voice sounded worn.
“You’re leaving tonight, whether the tracker sees or not. You tell Charlie that you can’t stand another minute in Forks. Tell him whatever story works. Pack the first things your hands touch, and then get in your truck. I don’t care what he says to you. You have fifteen minutes. Do you hear me? Fifteen minutes from the time you cross the doorstep.”
The Jeep rumbled to life, and he spun us around, the tires squealing. The needle on the speedometer started to race up the dial.
“Emmett?” I asked, looking pointedly at my hands.
“Oh, sorry.” He let me loose.
A few minutes passed in silence, other than the roar of the engine. Then Edward spoke again. “This is how it’s going to happen. When we get to the house, if the tracker is not there, I will walk her to the door. Then she has fifteen minutes.” He glared at me in the rearview mirror. “Emmett, you take the outside of the house. Alice, you get the truck. I’ll be inside as long as she is. After she’s out, you two can take the Jeep home and tell Carlisle.”
“No way,” Emmett broke in. “I’m with you.”
“Think it through, Emmett. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”
“Until we know how far this is going to go, I’m with you.”
Edward sighed. “If the tracker is there,” he continued grimly, “we keep driving.”
“We’re going to make it there before him,” Alice said confidently.
Edward seemed to accept that. Whatever his problem with Alice was, he didn’t doubt her now.
“What are we going to do with the Jeep?” she asked.
His voice had a hard edge. “You’re driving it home.”
“No, I’m not,” she said calmly.
The unintelligible stream of profanities started again.
“We can’t all fit in my truck,” I whispered.
Edward didn’t appear to hear me.
“I think you should let me go alone,” I said even more quietly.
He heard that.
“Bella, please just do this my way, just this once,” he said between clenched teeth.
“Listen, Charlie’s not an imbecile,” I protested. “If you’re not in town tomorrow, he’s going to get suspicious.”
“That’s irrelevant. We’ll make sure he’s safe, and that’s all that matters.”
“Then what about this tracker? He saw the way you acted tonight. He’s going to think you’re with me, wherever you are.”
Emmett looked at me, insultingly surprised again. “Edward, listen to her,” he urged. “I think she’s right.”
“Yes, she is,” Alice agreed.
“I can’t do that.” Edward’s voice was icy.
“Emmett should stay, too,” I continued. “He definitely got an eyeful of Emmett.”
“What?” Emmett turned on me.
“You’ll get a better crack at him if you stay,” Alice agreed.
Edward stared at her incredulously. “You think I should let her go alone?”
“Of course not,” Alice said. “Jasper and I will take her.”
“I can’t do that,” Edward repeated, but this time there was a trace of defeat in his voice. The logic was working on him.
I tried to be persuasive. “Hang out here for a week —” I saw his expression in the mirror and amended “— a few days. Let Charlie see you haven’t kidnapped me, and lead this James on a wild-goose chase.
Make sure he’s completely off my trail. Then come and meet me. Take a roundabout route, of course, and then Jasper and Alice can go home.”
I could see him beginning to consider it.
“Meet you where?”
“Phoenix.” Of course.
“No. He’ll hear that’s where you’re going,” he said impatiently.
“And you’ll make it look like that’s a ruse, obviously. He’ll know that we’ll know that he’s listening. He’ll never believe I’m actually going where I say I am going.”
“She’s diabolical,” Emmett chuckled.
“And if that doesn’t work?”
“There are several million people in Phoenix,” I informed him.
“It’s not that hard to find a phone book.”
“I won’t go home.”
“Oh?” he inquired, a dangerous note in his voice.
“I’m quite old enough to get my own place.”
“Edward, we’ll be with her,” Alice reminded him.
“What are you going to do in Phoenix ?” he asked her scathingly.
“I kind of like it.” Emmett was thinking about cornering James, no doubt.
“Shut up, Emmett.”
“Look, if we try to take him down while she’s still around, there’s a much better chance that someone will get hurt — she’ll get hurt, or you will, trying to protect her. Now, if we get him alone…” He trailed off with a slow smile. I was right.
The Jeep was crawling slowly along now as we drove into town. Despite my brave talk, I could feel the hairs on my arms standing up. I thought about Charlie, alone in the house, and tried to be courageous.
“Bella.” Edward’s voice was very soft. Alice and Emmett looked out their windows. “If you let anything happen to yourself— anything at all — I’m holding you personally responsible. Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” I gulped.
He turned to Alice.
“Can Jasper handle this?”
“Give him some credit, Edward. He’s been doing very, very well, all things considered.”
“Can you handle this?” he asked.
And graceful little Alice pulled back her lips in a horrific grimace and let loose with a guttural snarl that had me cowering against the seat in terror.
Edward smiled at her. “But keep your opinions to yourself,” he muttered suddenly.