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Darkest Before the Dawn

Summary:
The door opened behind me, with a cold gust of wind suddenly sweeping through the room, rustling the papers on the desk and carrying that scent! I froze. Not again!...I sensed nothing...The fragrance was maddening. I slowly turned my head, following the scent, and there she was. Standing, back pressed against the back wall, waiting. She was haunting me. A reimagining of Twilight from Edward's perspective, starting from the very beginning...The First Time - and continuing on beyond where Midnight Sun ends. NOMINATED: 2009 Bellie's category Canon that's Better than Canon NOMINATED: 2009 Indie's Top 10 Best Canon Disclaimer: All characters, settings, and a great majority of the dialogue are the property of Stephanie Meyer.


Notes:
I wrote the first five or so chapters of Darkest Before the Dawn before I knew about/read SM’s Midnight Sun. I have since read it, but have tried to stay true to “my” version of Edward, as well as staying true to SM’s original dialogue and plot line.


10. Chapter 10 - Choices

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Chapter 10 – Choices

As I drove along the winding road outside of Forks towards our house, I was filled with dread. I could barely sort through the night’s events in my own mind. I had no idea how I would even begin to explain them to my family, who were sure to be home by now.

The headlights from the car cast blue beams into the forest ahead. I turned off the main road out of town, kicking up clouds of dust behind me as my Volvo sped down the rough dirt road. The turnoff to our house was another small dirt road, unmarked and looking more like an unused access road than a driveway. Our house was nestled deep in the forest, far from any neighbors.

I pulled to a stop in front of the wide porch, looking up at the white stately mansion that was my home. It gleamed in the moonlight, looking calm. Everyone was home and wondering when I would make my appearance, but not unduly alarmed. If Alice had foreseen any of tonight’s events, she had not shared it with the others. For a moment, I sat in the car collecting my thoughts. I would have to tell them what Bella knew, and I was sure that it would not be well received. Taking a last deep breath of the air in the car, which still carried Bella’s perfume from the drive back from Port Angeles, I got out of the car and made my way up the steps.

They had heard my car approach and knew I was back. I heard their anxious and curious thoughts as they were coming together in the living room to see me. As I walked through the front door, Esme was first to greet me, coming swiftly to embrace me. Her soft caramel colored hair brushed against my face. She radiated concern, wondering how I had spent these several days of solitude. I quickly explained how I had needed to intervene and save Bella from attackers in Port Angeles, and that we had just returned from there.

“She knows what we are, Esme,” I stated baldly, not knowing how to make it any easier. Rosalie, who along with Emmett was just arriving in the room, had heard everything I said. She said nothing, just hissed at me, turned her back and stomped up the stairs to hers and Emmett’s room, blonde curls bouncing and literally shaking the walls with every step. She shouted mental obscenities at me until she slammed the door to the bedroom. From the sound of it, I was pretty sure we would have to replace the door. She put on—loudly—some of that screeching metallic music that she enjoyed, thankfully donning earphones. Emmett shook his head sadly at me, turning to follow after Rosalie.

“Emmett—“ I said, stopping him. “Tell Rosalie we won’t have to leave Forks. Bella isn’t going to tell anyone. She’s…” I wanted to say, she’s with me now, but somehow that didn’t seem right—as if I had no right to say that. “She’s promised. I believe her.”

“Edward,” Emmett said, turning and coming over to lay a hand on my shoulder, “don’t worry about Rosalie, she’ll be fine. But you, my brother, need to figure out what you are doing here. If Bella is this important to you, you’re going to need to reconsider your desire to live an ascetic life…” he grinned. “It’s really a lot more fun when you can touch the woman, Edward.” I glared at him and he laughed quietly, shaking his head.

“But, seriously,” he continued, still laughing, “you need to make sure that you keep it under control, Edward. If this ends badly…well, let’s just say, I don’t think you want to be around Rosalie when it does.”

“This is not going to end badly, and if it did, Rosalie would be the least of my concerns,” I said angrily, not liking the casual way that he was discussing Bella’s death.

He shrugged and went up the stairs after Rosalie, wondering what he would have to do to calm her down this time. He seemed to hope it would involve the same physical comforts as the last time. I shut out his thoughts as Emmett ran up the stairs in a flash.

Esme was by my side again, gentle hand on my arm. I hated disappointing her, and I thought she would start pressuring me about changing Bella again. But that wasn’t what she wanted to say to me.

Do you really love her? she thought, her eyes golden from the weekend hunting and searching mine. Somehow she was gentle even in her thoughts.

“I don’t think I could go on without her, Esme,” I said softly, somewhat ashamed of my weakness even in front of Esme, who I knew would be the most understanding of everyone in my family.

“Edward, if Bella belongs with you, then she belongs with us,” she said. Before I could start to protest the idea of changing Bella, she patted me on the arm, stopping my protestations. “I will love her whether she’s human or not,” she said, smiling at me in a way that settled and warmed my heart. “How could I not? I have been waiting so long for you to find someone, Edward—to love someone. I…” she hesitated, not sure how much to say, but knowing I could hear her thoughts anyway. “I have been so worried—that you might not…well, find someone. We both have,” she said glancing over at Carlisle, who was calmly looking at me from the other side of the room, waiting for Esme to finish with me.

“I am so happy for you, my son.” She hugged me close and I finally felt some of the anxiety and torment of the evening melt away.

“Thank you, Esme,” I said. She slipped away from my arms to let Alice capture my attention. Alice was nearly bouncing, she was so excited, her dark spiky hair trembling.

“Edward, does this mean I get to meet Bella tomorrow?” she asked, as if I had just told her she was getting a new puppy—or a new dress, more likely.

“Alice, I don’t know if it’s wise—she just found out what we are. I’m not sure that she’s ready to deal with more than one vampire at a time.” Or perhaps even one.

Alice frowned at me, and then went into full pout. “I am quite certain that Bella will love me, just as much as I love her. You are just keeping her to yourself, Edward, and I don’t appreciate it.” I smiled in spite of myself.

“Please, Alice, just give me a little time.” I wasn’t sure that Bella wouldn’t change her mind overnight and decide that she is better off staying away from me. Alice had been so supportive of my…obsession with Bella. I didn’t want her disappointed if it didn’t work out for them to be friends. “I’m sure you two will get a chance to meet soon enough,” if Bella still wants to be around me, I added.

Alice didn’t like this, and was clearly plotting her next move in introducing herself to Bella. But she left me alone for now, gliding out of the room. Jasper had been watching me, casually leaning against the wall with his blonde hair falling slightly into his eyes. He was relaxed and silent, even in his thoughts, the entire time. I glanced at him, but he only raised an eyebrow at me. His golden eyes burned—he was clearly trying to read me.

“Carlisle,” I said, turning to him, “there’s something more you should know. Bella found out what we were from a Quileute boy, Jacob Black.”

At this Carlisle dropped his calm demeanor and looked very surprised. “Jacob Black,” he said, pointedly.

“Yes,” I answered. “I think he must be the grandson, or I guess great-grandson of Ephraim Black. But he’s just a boy—I don’t think he knew what he was saying, or believed it. He was telling stories.”

“Still, this is very troubling,” replied Carlisle, a look of worry clouding his face as he crossed his arms, and contemplated what new disaster I had brought to the family.

“He mentioned our family by name, saying we didn’t come down to La Push because of the treaty. I…” I hesitated. Now I was protecting Bella’s friend, although I really had no desire to do so. I mostly didn’t want Bella to think she had made trouble for her friend. “I don’t think the treaty has been broken, not really. He was just…trying to impress Bella,” I said with a slight smile.

“Well, we certainly won’t do anything rash,” said Carlisle, seriously, running his fingers through his blonde hair and looking more worried than he sounded. “Do you think he has told anyone but Bella?”

“No, and even to her, he said they were only stories, legends from his ancestors. I don’t think he believes them himself. Bella didn’t say anything to him to make him think otherwise—she still has kept our secret, even now.” Even now that she knows what a monster I am, I thought.

Can you really trust her, Edward? he thought, not wanting to voice it in front of the others.

“I love her, Carlisle, and I think…” I hesitated, struggling with the feelings of the evening still overwhelming me, “…I think she cares enough about me to not betray us.” I wanted to say she loved me, too, but honestly I couldn’t say that—even if I hoped it were true. I wasn’t sure, come morning, if the horror of it would have finally sunk in. But she had kept our secret so far, and that was more than anyone had expected.

Carlisle seemed decided and nodding, said, “We don’t want to contact the Quileute tribe unless we have no other choice.” His face softened, “I am happy for you, Edward.” I smiled slightly in return, still anxious.

More serious again, he asked, “What about these attackers in Port Angeles? Did you…?”

“No. I wanted to.” A flash of my original bloodlust came surging back to me as I thought about it. “You wouldn’t believe the vile things they were thinking, Carlisle. And one of them…well, he’s done this before and frankly he deserves to die.”

He looked at me appraisingly and then nodded again. “You did the right thing.” Carlisle glanced quickly at Jasper, and then crossed the room to follow Esme out. As he passed me, he gave me a warm glance, thinking I’m proud of you, Edward. I know this is hard for you. I think Bella is bringing out the best in you, though. I smiled in return.

Finally, Jasper and I were alone. I knew he could feel my conflicted emotional state, and probably understood it even better than I could. I sighed and looked at him.

“What? No barrage of questions from you?” I asked, lightly.

Jasper frowned at me, confusion replacing the calm, leonine demeanor of before. “I don’t really understand, Edward. You say you love Bella, but your emotions are all over the map. I get the love, and anger, and anxiety, but the…” he seemed to be searching for the right word, “…guilt? What is that about?”

“I don’t really want to talk about it, Jasper,” I said wearily, sighing.

“Do you want me to…?” he asked, eyebrows raised.

“No. I’m fine, Jasper. I just need a break. It’s been a long day.” I smiled, weakly.

“Well, in that case, I need to catch up on my small game hunting. You know, all those days in the wilderness, hunting lion and bear, has just ruined my short game.”

I laughed. The last thing Jasper needed to do was more hunting, but I certainly did if I was going to be able to go to school tomorrow—and I needed a distraction. I wondered if this time alone, just the two of us, had been prearranged. Normally, Jasper was never far from Alice, if he could avoid it. That he would be here, watching out for me…I was touched.

“Let’s go catch some rabbits,” I said, smiling warmly at him.

“Forget rabbits, where’s the challenge in that? I’m thinking squirrel…hmm, possibly chipmunk,” Jasper said, smiling widely as we sped out into the forest.

The air was unusually foggy, a chilly mist that clung to everything. Every surface seemed cold and damp. I glanced at the car seat beside me, making sure I had remembered to bring the jacket—Bella would certainly need it this morning. As I approached her house, I slowed, scanning. There were no thoughts in the house, so Chief Swan must have already left for work. I assumed Bella was still there—her truck was still parked in the driveway. I parked the Volvo next to it and waited.

Last night, there had been no choices for Bella. She was cornered in Port Angeles, forced to stay at the restaurant, and trapped in the car with me. Today she had a choice—whether she wanted to be with me or not—knowing all that she knew. My stomach was a tight knot of anticipation as I waited for her.

The mist continued to coat everything in a slick layer of coldness, obscuring my view through the windshield. I heard her open the front door and hurry through the cold to the driveway. She was surprised to see my car there and skidded to a stop, heart stuttering then racing. Swiftly, I jumped out of the car and opened the passenger door for her.

“Do you want to ride with me today?” I asked softly, smiling slightly at the surprised expression on her face and hoping her hammering heart was not fear. I waited for her to choose. If she said no, I would make my apologies and beat a hasty retreat. I tried to keep my expression light, not betraying the fear I felt.

“Yes, thank you,” she said, to my immense relief. She stepped into the car. I closed the door behind her and quickly came around to the driver’s side, got in, and started the car. I was elated to not have to pretend to move slowly, humanly, around her anymore.

“I brought the jacket for you. I didn’t want you to get sick or something.” She wore heavier clothing than usual—dark jeans and a thick, brown sweater that covered her neck completely. Her dark hair twisted around the contours of her sweater, forming a dark frame around her pale skin and fine features. I had only been in the car with her for a moment, and I was already getting that electric feeling climbing through my body.

“I’m not quite that delicate,” she said, pulling my light tan jacket into her lap and pushing her arms through the too-long sleeves.

“Aren’t you?” I said quietly, already losing count of the number of times I had rescued her from some horrible fate. It would just figure if something like a virus would come and take her from me.

It didn’t take long to get to school. I no longer feigned to drive slowly. The fog-shrouded streets felt leaden, and we didn’t speak for a few minutes. After the drama of the night before, it was hard to know where to start today. She seemed as uncertain as I was.

“What, no twenty questions today?” I smirked, trying to lighten the mood.

“Do my questions bother you?” she asked.

“Not as much as your reactions do,” I joked, but seriously concerned about what conclusions she had come to in the night. I had stopped, briefly, to watch her sleep, but there had been no talking. In fact, she had been very still, sleeping very soundly.

“Do I react badly?” she frowned.

“No, that’s the problem. You take everything so coolly—it’s unnatural. It makes me wonder what you’re really thinking.”

“I always tell you what I’m really thinking.”

I laughed. No one ever says what they are really thinking, this I knew better than most anyone else. “You edit,” I accused. It drove me mad to know that I could never know what the full story in her mind was.

“Not very much.” Ah, at least she was honest about it.

“Enough to drive me insane,” I said, still smiling.

“You don’t want to hear it,” she mumbled very softly. I didn’t say anything. I very much wanted to hear what she thought, but she was right—I was afraid of what it might be. We were arriving in the school parking lot, which was already filling up with student’s cars.

“Where’s the rest of your family?” she asked.

“They took Rosalie’s car.” I shrugged as we parked next to Rosalie’s outrageous red convertible M3. It was a sweet piece of machinery, but seriously stood out in the unpretentious Forks High parking lot. “Ostentatious, isn’t it?”

“Um, wow,” she breathed. “If she has that, why does she ride with you?”

“Like I said, it’s ostentatious. We try to blend in.”

“You don’t succeed.” She laughed, shaking her head. The musical sound of her laughter rang in my ears. “So why did Rosalie drive today if it’s more conspicuous?”

“Hadn’t you noticed? I’m breaking all the rules now.” I smiled, coming around the front of the car to meet her. I walked as close to her as I could without touching. I wanted very much to softly put my arm around her, declaring loudly to the entire campus Bella Swan is with ME, but didn’t feel I had the right to do that—or that she would want my cold touch, even over the heavy sweater. But walking this close to her, feeling her warmth and perfume even through the chilly air, I felt we were at least connected. I heard the astonished thoughts of several students who had already spied us, closely walking, as if we were a couple.

“Why do you have cars like that at all?” she asked. “If you’re looking for privacy?”

“An indulgence,” I admitted with a smile. “We all like to drive fast.”

“Figures,” she muttered, making me grin.

Jessica waited for us under the shelter of the cafeteria’s roof overhang. Her thoughts were a crazed jumble of questions that she wanted to grill Bella with. Her eyes were bugging out of their sockets as she realized I had brought Bella to school.

“Hey, Jessica,” Bella said as we approached her. “Thanks for remembering.” Jessica had brought Bella’s jacket. Bella took it from Jessica’s frozen form, her eyes still wide with shock.

“Good morning, Jessica,” I said, as politely as I could.

“Er…hi.” Her thoughts scrambled again as she looked at me. She looked meaningfully at Bella and said, “I guess I’ll see you in Trig.”

“Yeah, I’ll see you then.”

Jessica walked away, looking back twice over her shoulder to stare at us again. Questions were whirling through her simplistic mind.

“What are you going to tell her?” I asked under my breath, greatly anticipating listening into Bella’s Trig class.

“Hey, I thought you couldn’t read my mind!” she hissed.

“I can’t,” I said, startled. She must have been thinking the same thing that I was. This brought a sudden warmth to my smile. “However, I can read hers—she’ll be waiting to ambush you in class,” I warned her. She groaned as she pulled off my jacket and gave it to me, putting on the jacket that Jessica had brought her.

“So what are you going to tell her?”

“A little help?” she pleaded. “What does she want to know?”

I shook my head. “That’s not fair,” I said, grinning wickedly.

“No, you not sharing what you know—now that’s not fair.”

She was right, as usual. We were in this together, we two—I couldn’t rightly withhold anything from her now. We were walking together to her first class, stopping just outside the door.

“She wants to know if we’re secretly dating. And she wants to know how you feel about me,” I said, trying to make something coherent out of Jessica’s jumbled thoughts.

“Yikes. What should I say?” she asked, innocently. People were passing us as we stood outside the doorway, their shocked thoughts at seeing us together yelling out at me. Somehow they just faded into the background—Bella had captured my complete attention as I contemplated her question.

“Hmmm.” I knew what I wanted her to say, but I wanted to hear what she really thought. Light tendrils of her hair were flying around in the breeze. I caught a stray lock, loving the soft feel of it, and tucked it back into place behind her neck, careful not to touch her with my icy skin. Her heart beat a little erratically as I touched her hair, and oh how I loved that sound. “I suppose you could say yes to the first…if you don’t mind—it’s easier than any other explanation.”

“I don’t mind,” she said softly, that surge of guilty pleasure going through me again.

“And as for her other question…well, I’ll be listening to hear the answer to that one myself.” I smiled as she caught her breath, and relished the thought of hearing what she would say. I turned and walked away before she had a chance to ask me any further questions.

“I’ll see you at lunch,” I called over my shoulder, as people all around us stopped to stare. I made it to my first class just before the bell rung, but couldn’t concentrate on anything. The first two hours passed in a blur, and I mostly watched the fog drift through the tops of the treetops. I kept thinking about what Bella might say, turning last night over and over in my mind. Her scent lingered on my jacket and I kept breathing it in, desensitizing. Most of the other student’s thoughts were swirling around the dance this weekend.

I realized, once again, that Bella and I seemed somehow separate from the rest of reality. We had our own plans for Saturday, but they had nothing to do with something as simple as a dance. In fact, I wasn’t sure what our plans were exactly. Bella had said she wanted to go to Seattle, but that was before…before our revelations and realizations and before Bella entered my secret world. We were teetering on the edge of a precipice I couldn’t see over. I knew what I wanted to do this weekend—but what I wanted wasn’t going to be found in Seattle.

The fog finally evaporated, leaving behind low level clouds that kept the day gloomy. The clouds diffused the sunlight so that there were no shadows—nowhere to hide. The bell rang, and finally it was third period—time to listen in on Bella’s class. As I made my way to English, I searched for Jessica’s thoughts. She was almost as crazed with anticipation as I was, making me smile as I settled into my seat.

Bella came into Trig, but before she could take her seat next to Jessica, she burst out, “Tell me everything!”

“What do you want to know?” Bella asked, ever coy.

“What happened last night?”

“He bought me dinner, and then he drove me home.” It was nice to see that Bella tortured her friends with terse answers, and not just me. Jessica was having none of it—she highly doubted that was all there was.

“How did you get home so fast?” she demanded.

“He drives like a maniac. It was terrifying.” I laughed, drawing glances from a couple of students in English. I would have to be careful to keep my reactions to myself, or I would stand out as a lunatic as well as a freak.

“Was it like a date—did you tell him to meet you there?” Jessica continued.

“No—I was very surprised to see him there,” Bella replied, honestly.

Jessica was getting more frustrated. This was not the elaborate scheme she was hoping to uncover. “But he picked you up for school today?” she pressed.

“Yes—that was a surprise, too. He noticed I didn’t have a jacket last night.”

“So are you going out again?” Jessica demanded.

“He offered to drive me to Seattle Saturday because he thinks my truck isn’t up to it—does that count?”

“Yes,” Jessica said, nodding, thinking of all the things that could happen in a long drive to Seattle. She threw in a few things that she would do, if she were on a date with Edward Cullen. Ugh. I wished she would stick to grilling Bella.

“Well, then, yes.”

“W-o-w.” Jessica exaggerated the word into three syllables, expressing her awe that Bella was dating me. “Edward Cullen.”

“I know,” Bella agreed. That made me smile—“wow” didn’t exactly cover how I felt about Bella, but it was reassuring that it was at least somewhat mutual.

“Wait!” Jessica practically shouted, just having remembered her most pressing question. “Has he kissed you?”

“No,” Bella mumbled. “It’s not like that.” Jessica was very disappointed. It was hard to tell if Bella was too. Did she want it to be like that, as much as I longed for it? Or was she saying she didn’t feel that way about me—that I, well, repulsed her? I wished Jessica would concentrate more carefully on Bella’s face so I could read her reaction better.

“Do you think Saturday…?” Jessica asked, breathless.

“I really doubt it,” Bella replied. Was she disappointed? Jessica was, terribly, and it was so difficult to see through her eyes without having them colored by her thoughts. Their class was starting, so Jessica had to drop her inquiries to a whisper.

“What did you talk about?” she pushed.

“I don’t know, Jess, lots of stuff,” Bella whispered back. “We talked about the English essay a little.” Did we? I didn’t remember.

“Please, Bella,” Jessica begged. “Give me some details.”

“Well…okay, I’ve got one.” I sat up a little straighter. “You should have seen the waitress flirting with him—it was over the top. But he didn’t pay any attention to her at all.” The waitress, really? I remembered every detail of our conversation, every touch—or near touch—from our intense encounter in the restaurant. Bella remembered the waitress?

“That’s a good sign,” Jessica nodded. “Was she pretty?”

“Very—and probably nineteen or twenty.”

“Even better. He must like you.” Well, clearly I liked Bella. This could hardly be news to Bella, or even Jessica for that matter. It was pretty obvious I was terribly smitten.

“I think so, but it’s hard to tell. He’s always so cryptic,” Bella continued, sighing. Hard to tell? Somehow I wasn’t making my intentions clear to Bella and this came as somewhat of a shock to me. Unless…she was just saying this for Jessica’s benefit. Again, it was difficult to see through Jessica’s eyes—but Bella had to know how much I loved her, after all that we had been through last night, and even before.

“I don’t know how you’re brave enough to be alone with him,” Jessica breathed.

“Why?”

“He’s so…intimidating. I wouldn’t know what to say to him.” Jessica replied. Well, at least Jessica realized the inherent danger I presented. Maybe Bella would finally realize it as well, I thought with dread.

“I do have some trouble with incoherency when I’m around him,” Bella admitted, making me think of my good night wish to her last night and smiling.

“Oh well. He is unbelievably gorgeous,” Jessica said as if that would justify almost any other flaw I had—if she only knew.

“There’s a lot more to him than that,” Bella said.

“Really? Like what?”

“I can’t explain it right…but he’s even more unbelievable behind the face.” I nearly laughed out loud at that one…unbelievable was definitely the word to use.

“Is that possible?” Jessica giggled. “So you like him, then?”

“Yes,” said Bella, and my cold dead heart warmed just a little.

“I mean, do you really like him?” Jessica pressed.

“Yes,” Bella repeated, and was she blushing? Even Jessica seemed to think so.

“How much do you like him?”

“Too much,” Bella whispered back, “More than he likes me. But I don’t see how I can help that,” she said, sighing and definitely blushing this time. From there, class had begun and they were diverted from further discussion for the rest of class. But I was already lost in my own thoughts—how could she think she liked me more than I cared for her? Did she really have no idea of the depth of my feelings for her? This seemed ludicrous, given all the risks I had taken for her—all so I could just be near her. It seemed a horrible injustice for her to think that, and it started to make me angry. I had to wait through another whole period before I would be able to ask her about it at lunch. It was agonizing.

I virtually flew through the empty hallways so I could be waiting for her outside her Spanish class when the bell rang. I leaned against the wall, acting casual, as if I had been waiting for an hour for her. As Bella and Jessica came out of the room, Jessica took one look at me, rolled her eyes and left us alone.

“See you later, Bella,” she said as she walked away, clearly thinking up a new round of questions with which to grill Bella later.

“Hello,” I said, waiting breathlessly to start my own grilling.

“Hi.”

We walked silently to the cafeteria, gathering stares from most of the students as we passed in the hallway. Most were shocked to see a Cullen walking with another student—they were so used to seeing us keep separate from everyone else. The questions burning in my mind were personal, reserved for our private bubble at lunchtime, not to be shared with the gawking onlookers. I kept looking at her face. I hadn’t been properly reading her expressions before, obviously, and I was trying to decipher what she was thinking now. It was impossible. I decided I really was completely handicapped without being able to read someone’s thoughts, and that frustrated me to no end.

She fidgeted with the zipper on her jacket, my stares probably unnerving her. I filled up a tray with food as we went through the line at the cafeteria.

“What are you doing?” she objected. “You’re not getting all that for me?”

“Half is for me, of course,” I said, shaking my head and stepping forward to buy the food. She looked askance at me. I led the way to our table, the same one we shared so long ago last week, when I thought I was breaking all the rules just by having lunch with her. We gathered even more stares as we sat, but I just ignored them. We would at least be out of hearing—well, human hearing in any event.

“Take whatever you want,” I said, pushing the tray toward her.

“I’m curious,” she said, picking up an apple and turning it around in her hands, “what would you do if someone dared you to eat food?”

“You’re always curious,” I said, grimacing. Your curiosity is going to be the death of us Bella…but I realized that my curiosity about her was what got me into this situation in the first place. It was hardly fair to blame her.

I glared at her, holding her eyes in mine as I lifted the slice of pizza off the tray and deliberately bit off a mouthful, chewed quickly and swallowed the disgusting mess. She watched with wide eyes.

“If someone dared you to eat dirt, you could, couldn’t you?” I asked with condescension.

She wrinkled her nose. “I did once…on a dare,” she admitted. “It wasn’t so bad.”

Of course she did—I laughed. “I suppose I’m not surprised.” Jessica’s thoughts intruded, wondering what every detail of our lunchtime meant. “Jessica’s analyzing everything I do—she’ll break it down for you later,” I said, glancing over Bella’s shoulder in Jessica’s direction. I pushed the rest of the pizza towards Bella and thought again about the conversation that Bella and Jessica had in Trig.

She put down her apple and took a bite of pizza, looking away from me and avoiding my gaze.

“So, the waitress was pretty, was she?” I asked casually.

“You really didn’t notice?”

“No. I wasn’t paying attention. I had a lot on my mind.”

“Poor girl.” As much as I liked the idea that Bella might be concerned about any kind of competition—as if there could be any—I was much more concerned about what she had said after that.

“Something you said to Jessica…well, it bothers me.” My voice was husky with emotion that I couldn’t quite control.

“I’m not surprised you heard something you didn’t like. You know what they say about eavesdroppers,” she said.

I refused to be distracted. “I warned you I would be listening.”

“And I warned you that you didn’t want to know everything I was thinking.”

That brought me up short. “You did,” I agreed, but it still didn’t matter. “You aren’t precisely right, though. I do want to know what you’re thinking—everything. I just wish…that you wouldn’t be thinking some things.”

She scowled at me. “That’s quite a distinction.”

“But that’s not really the point at the moment,” I said, leaning in toward her, drawn by the intensity of our discussion. She leaned forward, her right hand cupped around her neck.

“Then what is?”

“Do you truly believe that you care more for me than I do for you?” I said softly, leaning closer and staring deeply into her eyes. I desperately wanted her to tell me the truth, no editing. She held her breath, and then looked away.

“You’re doing it again,” she muttered.

“What?” I asked alarmed, eyes wide open in surprise.

“Dazzling me,” she admitted, looking back at me again.

“Oh,” I said, frowning. I had not been trying to. I simply, intensely, wanted the truth from her.

“It’s not your fault,” she sighed. “You can’t help it.”

“Are you going to answer the question?” I asked, impatient and refusing to be distracted again.

She looked down. “Yes.” Again, with the terse answers! She would drive me insane with this.

“Yes, you are going to answer, or yes, you really think that?” I asked, irritated.

“Yes, I really think that,” she said, keeping her eyes down on the table.

What kind of an idiot was I? Somehow, in all of this, I had failed to let Bella know how I truly felt. Even though she knew the truth about my monstrous powers, she didn’t know the truth about how I felt for her. Emmett was right—I was a fool, caught up in my own misery and not thinking of her, what she was thinking, feeling. She was staring miserably at the table, possibly embarrassed by this revelation. Well, that needed to change immediately.

“You’re wrong,” I said in my most velvet voice, willing her to believe it was true.

She finally looked up at me.

“You can’t know that,” she disagreed in a whisper.

“What makes you think so?” I asked, trying to discern why she thought what she did, and how I could convince her of my love. She just stared back at me, saying nothing. Desperate to convince her, I was starting to lose patience. I scowled and she held a finger up, asking me to wait.

“Let me think,” she insisted. That I could do. I sat, very still, waiting for her to think. She dropped her hand to the table, pressing her palms together. She stared at her hands, twisting and untwisting her fingers. After an eternity of waiting, she finally spoke.

“Well, aside from the obvious, sometimes…” she hesitated. “I can’t be sure—I don’t know how to read minds—but sometimes it seems like you’re trying to say goodbye when you’re saying something else.”

I stared at her. Of course she would see that, my incredibly observant Bella.

“Perceptive,” I whispered. I remembered back to that sunny day with her and Newton at the table, when he asked her out. I thought for a moment that in all my denials—my pushing her away, my vague, incoherent warnings—that I had lost her. All my attempts to warn her, to keep her safe, were just convincing her that I really didn’t care for her the way I truly did. But it was only because I did truly love her that I was willing to give her up, keep her safe, even if it caused me immeasurable torment.

“That’s exactly why you’re wrong, though,” I started, and then stopped. “What do you mean, ‘the obvious’?” I asked, feeling like I missed something.

“Well, look at me,” she said, unnecessarily, as I was already staring at her. “I’m absolutely ordinary—well, except for bad things like all the near-death experiences and being so clumsy that I’m almost disabled. And look at you.” She waved her hand toward me. What on earth was she talking about?

And then I realized—Bella didn’t have any idea how amazingly, deliciously attractive she was—and not just to me. “You don’t see yourself very clearly, you know. I’ll admit you’re dead-on about the bad things,” I chuckled, “but you didn’t hear what every human male in this school was thinking on your first day.”

She blinked, surprised. “I don’t believe it…” she mumbled to herself.

“Trust me just this once—you are the opposite of ordinary,” I said, gazing at her with that unabashed yearning I had felt growing stronger every time I saw her. That I found her irresistibly, tormentingly attractive she had to believe.

“But I’m not saying goodbye,” she pointed out.

“Don’t you see? That’s what proves me right. I care the most, because if I can do it,” and I shook my head, not wanting to even think about the possibility of having to give her up, “if leaving is the right thing to do, then I’ll hurt myself to keep from hurting you, to keep you safe.”

She glared at me. “And you don’t think I would do the same?” she accused.

“You’d never have to make the choice.” I silently gave thanks that she wouldn’t because if she ever left me, for my own good, I would perish just as readily as if I left her. But I had no intention of doing that now. I smiled mischievously.

“Of course, keeping you safe is beginning to feel like a full-time occupation that requires my constant presence.”

“No one has tried to do away with me today,” she reminded me.

“Yet,” I added, lightly.

“Yet,” she agreed, a little too readily.

“I have another question for you,” I said, trying to sound casual. My plan for this weekend had taken on a new urgency.

“Shoot.”

“Do you really need to go to Seattle this Saturday, or was that just an excuse to get out of saying no to all your admirers?”

She made a face at me. “You know, I haven’t forgiven you for the Tyler thing yet,” she warned me. “It’s your fault that he’s deluded himself into thinking I’m going to prom with him.”

“Oh, he would have found a chance to ask you without me—I just really wanted to watch your face,” I chuckled, not at all remorseful. “If I’d asked you, would you have turned me down?”

“Probably not,” she admitted, to my considerable satisfaction. “But I would have canceled later—faked an illness or a sprained ankle.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked, very confused.

She shook her head sadly. “You’ve never seen me in Gym, I guess, but I would have thought you would understand.”

“Are you referring to the fact that you can’t walk across a flat, stable surface without finding something to trip over?”

“Obviously.”

“That wouldn’t be a problem,” I said, confidently. “It’s all in the leading.” Before she could protest, I added, “But you never told me—are you resolved on going to Seattle, or do you mind if we do something different?”

“I’m open to alternatives,” she said. “But I do have a favor to ask.”

Even though we no longer had secrets, habit made me wary. “What?”

“Can I drive?”

“Why?” I asked, frowning. I couldn’t imagine taking her ancient vehicle on the drive I had planned.

“Well, mostly because when I told Charlie I was going to Seattle, he specifically asked if I was going alone and, at the time, I was. If he asked again, I probably wouldn’t lie, but I don’t think he will ask again, and leaving my truck at home would just bring up the subject unnecessarily. And also, because your driving frightens me.”

I rolled my eyes. “Of all the things about me that could frighten you, you worry about my driving.” I shook my head, but then it occurred to me that she did not plan on telling her father that she would be with me…and she should. “Won’t you want to tell your father that you’re spending the day with me?” It was the proper thing to do, in any event, but that wasn’t my greatest concern.

“With Charlie, less is always more. Where are we going, anyway?”

“The weather will be nice, so I’ll be staying out of the public eye…and you can stay with me, if you’d like to.” This was her chance to avoid being alone with me. She knew now what the danger was.

“And you’ll show me what you meant, about the sun?” she asked, excited.

“Yes.” I smiled at her willingness. “But if you don’t want to be…alone with me, I’d still rather you didn’t go to Seattle by yourself. I shudder to think of the trouble you could find in a city that size.”

She seemed offended. “Phoenix is three times bigger than Seattle—just in population. In physical size—“

“But apparently,” I interrupted, “your number wasn’t up in Phoenix. So I’d rather you stayed near me.” I gazed intently at her, impressing the importance of what I was saying. She had the option to not be alone with me, if she chose—it was dangerous, after all. I was dangerous. But going off somewhere by herself, into who knew what kind of danger, was completely out of the question.

“As it happens, I don’t mind being alone with you.”

“I know,” I sighed, both elated and disturbed by that. “You should tell Charlie, though.”

“Why in the world would I do that?”

I was suddenly angry that she still did not grasp the danger of what we were doing. “To give me some small incentive to bring you back.”

She gulped, finally hearing my warning. “I think I’ll take my chances.”

I exhaled angrily and looked away from her. I could hear the angry thoughts from my family’s table intruding on our tense conversation.

“Let’s talk about something else,” she suggested.

Yes, let’s not talk about me killing you. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked, annoyed.

She glanced around. “Why did you go to that Goat Rocks place last weekend…to hunt? Charlie said it wasn’t a good place to hike, because of bears.”

I stared at her—did she not remember our conversation last night?

“Bears?” she gasped, and I smirked. “You know, bears are not in season,” she added with mock sternness.

“If you read carefully, the laws only cover hunting with weapons,” I said, dryly, watching her realize what I meant by that.

“Bears?” she repeated, seeming stunned.

“Grizzly is Emmett’s favorite,” I said, waiting to see if this would be the time, finally, when she would really understand the danger she was in.

“Hmmm,” was all she said, taking a bite of pizza, and then a drink of Coke. She seemed to be deliberately avoiding my gaze, thinking about what I had just said.

“So,” she finally added, as I was starting to get worried. “What’s your favorite?”

“Mountain lion,” I said, not approving of the direction this was going.

“Ah,” she said, looking at her soda again. This was making her uncomfortable.

“Of course,” I said, trying to keep it casual, “we have to be careful not to impact the environment with injudicious hunting. We try to focus on areas with an over population of predators—ranging as far away as we need. There’s always plenty of deer and elk here, and they’ll do, but where’s the fun in that?” I teased, smiling.

“Where indeed,” she said, concentrating on her pizza, obviously trying not to appear disturbed about this topic that would frighten any rational person.

“Early spring is Emmett’s favorite bear season—“ I went on, watching for her reaction, “—they’re just coming out of hibernation, so they’re more irritable.”

“Nothing more fun than an irritated grizzly bear,” she agreed, gamely.

I laughed, shaking my head. “Tell me what you’re really thinking, please.”

“I’m trying to picture it—but I can’t,” she admitted. “How do you hunt a bear without weapons?”

“Oh, we have weapons.” I flashed a grin full of weaponry. “Just not the kind they consider when writing hunting laws. If you’ve ever seen a bear attack on television, you should be able to visualize Emmett hunting.”

She peeked over at Emmett, and I followed her gaze. Of course she didn’t know that Emmett was more like an over grown teddy bear than a grizzly. I laughed softly.

“Are you like a bear, too?” she asked quietly.

“More like the lion, or so they tell me,” I said lightly. “Perhaps our preferences are indicative.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Is that something I might get to see?”

“Absolutely not!” I said, aghast, suddenly terrified. She leaned back, finally stunned out of this insane conversation we were having. I leaned back and folded my arms across my chest. There was no possibility of that ever happening.

“Too scary for me?” she asked.

“If that were it, I would take you out tonight,” I said, fear turning into anger. “You need a healthy dose of fear. Nothing could be more beneficial for you.”

“Then why?” she pressed.

I glared at her. When would she truly understand that she was in danger here? What would it take? Or would it be too late, by the time she realized? It would be done and she would be gone—lifeless and cold. The cafeteria was nearly empty, the rest of the students having moved on to their next class.

“Later,” I finally said, frustrated, and stood up quickly. “We’re going to be late.”

She jumped up, and grabbing her bag, said, “Later, then.”