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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.


18. Chapter 18 - The Tracker

Rating 2.5/5   Word Count 5617   Review this Chapter

Chapter 18 – The Tracker

James emerged from the forest, sniffing the air and stopping when he saw us waiting for him, standing in groups around the field. He had tracked our scent to the clearing, the others trailing behind him. He hung back, standing warily at the edge of the forest and waiting for the other two. He scanned the eight of us and coldly evaluated our respective threats. His slight build, light brown hair and nondescript features belied the fierce predator in his mind…he was constantly hunting. He recognized Carlisle as the leader immediately, and then focused briefly on Emmett’s size and potential strength. He instantly dismissed the females as less threatening, but his eyes lingered on each of them as he considered what cruel amusement could be found there. I bristled and involuntarily moved to block his view as his scan reached Bella.

As the second male broke from the forest, James angled back, his smooth movements nearly a crouch, allowing him…Laurent…to take the lead. He had olive-skin and glossy black hair and his determined walk marked him as sinister, until he flashed an easy smile of gleaming white teeth. He moved confidently into the clearing, his eyes sweeping us curiously. He intended to greet us warmly, if we were receptive, and hoped for some pleasant company. As he took in our clothes and refined manner, a flush of embarrassment ran through him. He saw the contrast with his own worn clothing and his wild looking companions.

The woman, Victoria, brought up the rear. Her shocking red hair cascaded from her head, filled with leaves and debris from the woods. Her eyes shifted nervously, taking us in quickly and flicking back to James. They were mated. She took her lead from him and instinctively matched his position, angling back to cover their left flank and forming a defensible triangle with the other two. Her feral thoughts flitted between assessing the threat we posed and wondering about James’ intentions.

Their blood red eyes blazed from their recent human kill.

My body tensed, stomach clenched and nerves set on edge by James’ measuring stare and Victoria’s nervous twitching. I prepared for any sudden movement on their part, trying to remain outwardly calm. They don’t know…yet. I wanted to take Bella’s hand to reassure her—I could feel her quaking next to me—but I feared I would crush it.

The three of them moved cautiously forward together, thoroughly vampire in their catlike gait and ready to crouch and spring at any instant. Their bare granite feet left deep prints in the muddy field. Laurent led them with an intentionally relaxed air to greet Carlisle, Jasper and Emmett. The three of them had moved to intercept the travelers, blocking their path to Bella. Jasper sent calming waves over them, trying to forestall any sudden anxious moves. Emmett studied them and watched for any sign of hostility. Carlisle wore a deliberately neutral face and calm demeanor. Victoria’s shifty movements slowly quieted, and even Laurent succumbed to Jasper’s talent, his smile spreading across his face. But James seemed immune—no, not immune—his predatory intent had nothing to do with fear or anxiety. He took pleasure from the challenge we presented, and Jasper’s subtle gift only enhanced his cold-blooded calculations.

Laurent stepped forward, focused on Carlisle. “We thought we heard a game,” he said in a voice relaxed by Jasper influence, and tinged with a French accent. “I’m Laurent, these are Victoria and James.” He gestured to the vampires slightly behind him.

Carlisle regarded him with a cautious optimism. “I’m Carlisle. This is my family, Emmett and Jasper, Rosalie, Esme and Alice, Edward and Bella.” He referred to us in groups, intentionally not to singling anyone out, especially Bella. Rosalie, Esme and Alice formed a brigade halfway between Bella and I, and the rest. Alice mentally reached forward to anticipate their next move, but hazy uncertainty blurred the future.

“Do you have room for a few more players?” Laurent asked sociably. Carlisle’s urbane demeanor and our kempt appearances impressed him. He wanted to stay with us a while.

Carlisle matched Laurent’s 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.” Laurent hoped Carlisle would invite them to stay.

“No, this region is usually empty except for us and the occasional visitor, like yourselves.” Carlisle looked for a way to discourage them from staying without alarming them.

The tensions eased as they talked and Jasper’s influence pervaded. My rigid stance protecting Bella did not change. James slowly examined each of us, with particular attention to the women. He noticed that Bella and I were the only pair standing together, and he stared at us, wondering if we were mated. Victoria’s twitching eyes noticed James’ stare and followed it. I held as still as a statue and wished I could will Bella to stop her constant, small movements. Jasper’s warm blanket of calm had reached her as well, and she had stopped quaking outright, but she couldn’t help the tiny motions that all humans made. My stomach clenched tighter.

“What’s your hunting range?” Laurent asked casually, his thoughts settling on a plan to hunt nearby, just out of our range and explore relations with us. He respected Carlisle’s obvious leadership and wanted to see if we could form friendships, or possibly an alliance.

Carlisle inwardly tensed and sensed the danger in that question. He thought briefly about telling them we did not hunt humans, but abandoned that in favor of marking our territory. “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.” I wondered why Carlisle mentioned Denali, but then his thoughts clearly showed he hoped they would continue traveling north. He realized that Laurent craved more civilized company and he thought he could redirect them to our friends in Alaska.

Laurent rocked back on his heels, shocked at this revelation. He had never heard of vampires who settled in one place, and was amazed that there were two such encampments.

“Permanent? How do you manage that?” he asked, curiosity and astonishment filling his thoughts. James, however, was instantly suspicious. It dawned on him how large our group was, and that we did not just come together for the game. They all live…together, he thought. His eyes swept us again, trying to figure out the relationships between us, how we could all live in close proximity…undetected…and what an interesting diversion that might provide. I fought back a growl, keeping a blank face, trying not to give away my anger and panic. They still don’t know…they might yet leave.

“Why don’t you come back to our home with us and we can talk comfortably?” Carlisle invited. “It’s a rather long story.” I struggled through a surge of panic that Carlisle was inviting them back to the house. How would we hide her then? In his thoughts, I saw an image of Bella and me driving away in the Jeep. You must take Bella away, Edward, he thought, until they leave. My fears stepped down a notch. This was our escape.

But when Carlisle used the word ‘home’, Victoria looked at James in surprise and finally realized that meant we were all together. Fear spiked through her, and she looked anew at us, seeing that we vastly outnumbered them, should we prove a united threat. She wanted to run, but remained rooted next to James as he surveyed us. Laurent controlled his surprise better, and continued to be intrigued rather than alarmed, his impression confirmed that we were more civilized than they. He wanted to learn more.

“That sounds very interesting, and welcome.” He smiled. “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.” He eyed Carlisle’s ball game attire, only slightly scuffed from the game, jealous again.

Carlisle tensed again at the word ‘hunt’. “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.”

“Of course,” Laurent nodded, happy to accommodate to join us. “We certainly won’t encroach on your territory. We just ate outside of Seattle, anyway,” he laughed, the vision of a mangled, blood drained human passing through his mind in fond remembrance of the taste. James smiled and recalled it with pleasure—he had taken his time with that one. I shuddered at the image and Bella started quaking again in spite of Jasper’s intervention.

Edward—Emmett and Alice are the strongest, take them with you…take her and go, Carlisle thought. Out loud, he said, casually, “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.”

While Carlisle was speaking, a light breeze caught Bella’s scent and blew it to James. I stiffened as I realized he smelled it, his nostrils flaring to suck up more and his head whipping around to find the source of it. He instinctively fell into a crouch, taking a step forward toward Bella. Fury and alarm seized me—I bared my teeth, throwing myself into a crouch in front of Bella to protect her. A snarl ripped from my throat. I would kill him before I let him touch her. I sensed Bella frozen by fear behind me, but my eyes were fixed on James, my mind probing his for any thought or intent to move. He wanted her blood and was momentarily surprised by my defensive stance. Then, he realized we were mated, his mind spinning to understand how a vampire and human could do so. His eyes narrowed.

“What’s this?” Laurent exclaimed in surprise. I vaguely saw that Victoria had assumed a defensive crouch as well, unsure what was going on but echoing James and ready to fight. James and I glared at each other. He feinted slightly to the side, testing me. I shifted to block him. A small smile lit his eyes as he realized I would protect her at all costs, a plan slowly forming in his mind. He weighed my size and strength, his eyes flicking to Bella and inhaling her scent to memorize it.

“She’s with us.” Carlisle said firmly, directed at James, but he ignored him. Jasper and Emmett were on high alert, ready to spring at any sign of James moving. Laurent finally caught Bella’s scent and awareness dawned in his mind.

“You brought a snack?” he asked, incredulous, and was drawn a step forward without thinking. I snarled again, ferociously baring my teeth, my body taut and ready. Laurent stepped back again.

“I said she’s with us,” Carlisle corrected in a hard voice. I can take him, Emmett thought, eyeing James, but he was waiting for Carlisle, who still stood straight, buying time.

“But she’s human,” Laurent protested, astounded. His mind was whirling. Is she a pet?What is happening here?Don’t they know what trouble this could cause?

“Yes,” Carlisle said coldly. Emmett was tensing, ready to spring. Let me take him, Edward. You and I—he won’t have a chance. James sensed Emmett’s eyes boring into him and realized the odds were stacked against him—for now. He slowly straightened out of his crouch, caressing Bella with his eyes, and cementing her scent in his mind. He was envisioning the torments he would put her soft body through before he was done with her, his thoughts slicing through me. His mind grew calmer with every imagined harm he would inflict on her. As his plan took shape, my panic rose exponentially. He would track her…he would find her…he would hurt her…I shuddered involuntarily, but remained crouched, teeth threatening. I had to get her out of here…far awaynow.

Laurent was trying to diffuse the situation, but it was too late… “It appears we have a lot to learn about each other.”

“Indeed,” Carlisle said coolly. Wait, Edward…we will get Bella safely away.

“But we’d like to accept your invitation.” Laurent flicked his eyes to Bella and then back to Carlisle. He still wanted to come to the house. It was impossible—Bella and I had to leave now. “And, of course, we will not harm the human girl. We won’t hunt in your range, as I said.”

James looked in disbelief and aggravation at Laurent. He was relying on Laurent to help with his plan to hunt Bella…Laurent had always been part of their games before. James exchanged a brief look with Victoria, and knew that she would join him. Victoria looked anxiously from face to face, wondering if there would be a fight now and trying to figure out what James’ plan was.

Carlisle assessed Laurent for a moment before he spoke, trying to determine if he could trust him to keep his word. He thought that maybe Laurent could be trusted, but not James. “We’ll show you the way. Jasper, Rosalie, Esme?” he called. I will take them with me. Take Alice and Emmett and Bella and go, Edward, he thought. Rosalie and Esme converged on Carlisle, blocking Bella from James’ view. Alice flew to Bella’s side and Emmett backed slowly away from James, eyes locked on him as he joined us.

As soon as he reached us, I whispered, “Let’s go, Bella.” I could hear the desperation in my own voice. She was frozen in place and I had to take her by the elbow and pull her with us. I tried to be gentle, but I urgently needed her to move now—we had little time before James would start the hunt. Alice and Emmett guarded us from the rear. Bella stumbled. My impatience grew at our slow pace, but it was nothing next to the sheer terror that gripped me. He was going to hunt her down and kill her, hideously and painfully. What have I done?

Once we were through the trees, I slung Bella onto my back without warning and flew through the forest, hoping Emmett and Alice could keep up, but not waiting for them. The forest was nearly pitch-black, but my fear heightened senses cut through and I quickly left them behind. When we arrived at the Jeep, I flung Bella into the back seat.

“Strap her in,” I ordered Emmett, who slid in beside her as I started the engine. I swerved the car backward, spinning around to face the service road. My mind raced with the Jeep, trying to figure out where he would go first, what his first line of attack would be. I could still hear his thoughts, planning to kidnap Bella first, not kill her right away…a red haze of anger clouded my vision as we sped along the dark forest road. His thoughts faded as our distance grew.

How could I? What kind of idiot was I? My relentless need for Bella would cost her life, and it would be a horrible end, brought not by my teeth tearing through her neck, but something much, much worse. I growled, cursing myself for the vile, loathsome beast that I was, foolishly wasting Bella’s life for my own pleasure. I was no better than James, who took pleasure in the act of destruction itself. The end was the same…no, it was worse. I loved her and I let this happen to her. Emmett and Alice glared out the side windows as I spat obscenities at myself.

We hit the main road, finally able to pick up some speed. I turned away from Forks, heading south. I needed to put distance between James and Bella and buy myself some time to think. Where could we go? Where would he not be able to find her? My heart sank, knowing it was hopeless. He would never give up.

“Where are we going?” Bella asked. I barely heard her in my concentration on our escape. If we ran south, somewhere he couldn’t easily follow in the daytime, we could hide. Who did we know? Where was safe for a human amongst vampires? Nowhere, the answer came uneasily. I despaired, a bitter ache forming in my chest.

“Dammit, Edward! Where are you taking me?” she repeated, tearing me out of my thoughts.

“We have to get you away from here—far away—now.” My eyes were glued on the road. I was afraid to look at her, afraid to see the fear in her eyes that I caused, afraid I would see her face on the torn and abused body in James’ vision.

“Turn around!” she demanded. “You have to take me home!” She was shouting and struggling with the harness, tearing at the straps. She was finally panicking, and I was powerless to stop it.

“Emmett,” I said grimly, and he grabbed her hands to hold her still. I barely registered his gentle care to not hurt her as he held her.

“No! Edward! No, you can’t do this.”

“I have to, Bella, now please be quiet.” She could hate me, should hate me, but I needed her quiet so I could think. If there was any chance to keep her alive...but my stubborn Bella wouldn’t stop.

“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!”

Even now, in her greatest peril, she was only thinking of the effect on us, on my family. We weren’t the soft destructible ones. Didn’t she understand? She didn’t see how much danger she was in—she never did, and probably never would even as James was crushing the life out of her. A chill went through my cold body. I had to stop him. She needed to remain calm. It would be much more difficult to hide if she was panicking.

“Calm down, Bella,” I said, my voice cold. “We’ve been there before.”

“Not over me, you don’t! You’re not ruining everything over me!” She struggled again, uselessly, against Emmett’s steely grip. She was so absurd. Everything was already ruined, and I had done it, not her. I edged the car a little faster, speeding away from him.

Alice spoke up. “Edward, pull over.” I flashed her a hard look. Her thoughts were blank—either she was shielding them from me, or she simply didn’t know what to do, any more than I did. I didn’t know and didn’t care. I sped up again.

“Edward, let’s just talk this through.” And then I saw…she had no idea what we were up against.

“You don’t understand!” I roared, my frustration spilling out and flying at Alice. “He’s a tracker, Alice, did you see that? He’s a tracker!”

Emmett stiffened, and their thoughts both took on a new dread. They knew now that he wouldn’t stop—he would find her, driven by his insatiable need. They didn’t know the rest of his hideous plans, but I wasn’t going to spell them out in front of Bella. It was enough for them to know that he would be able to find her, no matter what we did.

“Pull over, Edward.” Alice said calmly, but it was an order, not a request. She was insane if she thought I was going to give him any more time to catch up. I inched the speedometer past 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.” How could she not see his evil intent, the plans that he had so clearly laid already in his mind? Didn’t she see what he was capable of? “He begins the hunt tonight.”

“He doesn’t know where—“

“How long do you think it will take him to cross her scent in town?” I interrupted, anger rising in me that she couldn’t see the danger. “His plan was already set before the words were out of Laurent’s mouth.”

Bella gasped, realization dawning. “Charlie! You can’t leave him there! You can’t leave him!” She was thrashing against the harness again.

“She’s right,” Alice said. I slowed the car slightly. I hadn’t thought of Charlie, but honestly I couldn’t…Bella had to come first.

“Let’s just look at our options for a minute,” Alice coaxed, and I hesitated. I hadn’t had time to think this through, but the need to get away still coursed through me. I slowed a little more. What could we do, but run? I realized suddenly that I needed Alice’s help to figure this out. I slammed on the brakes, bringing the car to a screeching stop on the shoulder of the highway. Bella flew against the harness and then slammed back into the seat.

“There are no options,” I hissed, but not entirely sure.

“I’m not leaving Charlie!” Bella protested again. I didn’t even look at her. How much more would she hate me when she knew her father would die too, because of her…because of me? I deserved her hatred. But, all that mattered now was finding a way to save her, in spite of the aching suspicion in my mind…it was already too late…

“We have to take her back,” Emmett finally spoke. He was thinking that we had no right to take her away, if she didn’t want to go.

“No.” I was not going to take her back to die.

“He’s no match for us, Edward. He won’t be able to touch her.” Emmett wanted a piece of James as much as I did, but he didn’t see that James wasn’t interested in fighting. He just wanted his prize…Bella.

“He’ll wait.”

Emmett smiled. “I can wait, too.” He thought this was some kind of game he could win. He had no idea what he was up against.

“You didn’t see—you don’t understand. Once he commits to a hunt, he’s unshakable. We’d have to kill him.”

Of course, this was what Emmett was hoping for. “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,” Emmett said, calmly. No! There was no way we could guarantee Bella’s safety in a three-on-three vampire brawl. She would be dead before we knew it.

“There’s another option,” Alice said quietly, and I turned on her, my fury unleashed. If she suggested that I change Bella now, I would throw her out of the truck and take my chances on my own.

“There—is—no—other—option!”

Emmett and Bella were staring at me, Emmett trying to figure out why I was being so unreasonable. He didn’t see what James was thinking. If he knew what James contemplated with Rosalie, we wouldn’t be having this discussion and James would already be dead, and Bella as well. Alice was unfazed by my outburst, but apparently was not thinking of changing Bella. She stared me down with those blazing bronze eyes of hers for a long moment.

Bella broke in, “Does anyone want to hear my plan?”

“No,” I growled, earning a malevolent glare from Alice. Don’t take your anger out on Bella, Edward, or I’ll rip your head off myself. I just glared at her, but the fury was leaking out of me, replaced by the self-loathing it was holding at bay.

“Listen,” Bella pleaded. “You take me back.”

“No,” I interrupted. Home was the first place he would look for her. She did not understand.

“You take me back. I tell my dad I want to go home to Phoenix,” she started, explaining her plan. “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.”

I finally turned to stare at her, stunned. It was actually a brilliant plan—if the idea was to use Bella as bait and spare everyone else. Completely unacceptable.

“It’s not a bad idea, really,” Emmett said, surprised and impressed.

“It might work—and we simply can’t leave her father unprotected. You know that,” Alice added.

They were all looking at me, colluding together in this insane plan. None of them understood the danger that he posed. Bella would be dead, or much worse, if he ever crossed her path again. “It’s too dangerous—I don’t want him within a hundred miles of her.”

“Edward, he’s not getting through us,” Emmett tried to assure me.

Alice concentrated on the near future, seeing what would happen if we went back to the house. James was there waiting…watching… “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 argued. He would come for her, the moment we let our guard down. I knew it.

“I demand that you take me home,” said Bella, and I couldn’t think when she was talking. The sound of her voice cut through me as visions of her in James’ cruel grasp flitted through my mind. I pressed my fingers to my temples and squeezed my eyes shut. I couldn’t risk taking her back to the house. I wouldn’t risk losing her. Didn’t she see that?

“Please,” she said in a small voice that ripped through me again. Grief at the thought of losing her threatened to overwhelm me. James would reach her, torture her. She would hate me, curse me with her dying breath. But she would loath me even more if any harm came to Charlie because of me—I had to at least try to protect him. I didn’t look at her, afraid her soft brown eyes would sap whatever resolve I had remaining.

“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?” I finally looked up and saw hope in her eyes. “Fifteen minutes from the time you cross the doorstep.” Then I will bring you out myself…

I tore my eyes away from her, not wanting to see the fear and hope in her eyes. She was determined to risk herself to save Charlie…they were both in terrible danger, and it was all my fault. I turned on the Jeep and spun the car around, tires squealing. We sped towards town again.

“Emmett?” she asked. He was still holding her hands, restraining her.

“Oh, sorry,” he said, letting her loose.

This plan was insanity itself. I would stay constantly at her side, albeit out of Charlie’s view. Then we would run and Bella would know that Charlie was safe. I could give her that, even if…even if in the end I couldn’t keep her safe. I couldn’t think about that now, concentrating on making this work.

“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.” I glared at her in the rearview mirror. No more than that Bella. “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.” He still wanted a piece of James.

“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.”

I sighed and relented. “If the tracker is there, we keep driving.”

“We’re going to make it there before him,” Alice said, confidently. I could see the picture of Bella’s house and the empty forest surrounding it. There was also an image of all four of us driving away in Bella’s truck, Emmett standing in back. “What are we going to do with the Jeep?” Alice asked.

“You’re driving it home,” I said coldly, disputing her vision. I would take Bella alone.

“No, I’m not,” she replied, calmly determined to come with us. I cursed low and harsh at her. I didn’t need her stubbornness right now.

Bella mumbled something and then said, “I think you should let me go alone.”

I clenched my teeth. They were all conspiring to get Bella killed…I knew Bella would sacrifice herself in an instant if I gave her any chance to do so. “Bella, please just do this my way, just this once,” I begged.

“Listen, Charlie’s not an imbecile,” she protested. “If you’re not in town tomorrow, he’s going to get suspicious.”

I couldn’t care less what Charlie thought, I just needed to take her away and keep her safe. Why couldn’t any of them see that? “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 Bella, surprised again. “Edward, listen to her,” he urged. “I think she’s right.”

“Yes, she is,” Alice agreed. Of course she was right. I knew that more than any of them. I saw how I fit into this game of James’. Tormenting me was his real delight, once he saw how I would do anything to protect Bella. But it didn’t matter. I still had to do everything I could to keep her safe.

“I can’t do that,” I said icily. They were demented if they thought I was going to leave Bella’s side.

“Emmett should stay, too,” Bella went on with her crazy plan. “He definitely got an eyeful of Emmett.”

“What?” Emmett turned to Bella, not understanding. Emmett’s desire to pound James had not escaped Bella’s notice…nor James’.

“You’ll get a better crack at him if you stay,” Alice agreed, trying to convince Emmett to stay. What was she doing?

I stared at her, incredulous. “You think I should let her go alone?”

“Of course not,” Alice said. “Jasper and I will take her.” She had already looked ahead…she and Jasper, in Phoenix with Bella, hiding…the tracker was still here in Washington, hundreds of miles away from Bella…

“I can’t do that,” I repeated, not sure if I could possibly let her go without me. It seemed incredibly wrong. How could I let her out of my sight for even a moment, with him out there, hunting her?

Bella was trying to convince me to go. “Hang out here for a week—“ I gaped at her in the mirror, “—a few days,” she amended. “Let Charlie see you haven’t kidnapped me, and lead this James on a wild-good 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.”

Impossibly, she was making sense. If she was safely away, I could hunt James. Lead him away from her…circle back on him…all of us together could take him easily with Bella safely away from the fight…

“Meet you where?” I asked, a small hope lighting in me that this might work.

“Phoenix.”

“No. He’ll hear that’s where you’re going,” I said impatiently. They had to go somewhere else, less obvious.

“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, his fondness for Bella growing.

“And if that doesn’t work?” I asked. Her logic was giving me a headache.

“There are several million people in Phoenix,” she informed me. And none smell like you, Bella.

“It’s not that hard to find a phone book,” I retorted.

“I won’t go home.”

“Oh?” I asked, suspicious now. It would be just like Bella to slip off somewhere I couldn’t find her, with some elaborate scheme that would only end up with her dead.

“I’m quite old enough to get my own place.”

“Edward, we’ll be with her,” Alice reassured me. She showed me a picture of a hotel room.

“What are you going to do in Phoenix?” I asked her scathingly. The blinds had better be drawn in that room.

“Stay indoors.”

“I kind of like it.” Emmett said, thinking about hunting James as well, unconstrained by Bella’s presence.

“Shut up, Emmett,” I spat.

“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 could see him ripping James into dozens of small pieces in his mind. We had nearly arrived at Charlie’s house, and I slowed the Jeep so we would not attract attention. The thought of letting her go, letting her out of my sight for even a moment, terrified me. Even if that was her best chance of surviving, I couldn’t help but think it was a horrible mistake. Anything could happen, and I wouldn’t be there to stop it. I was even more afraid that she would go and do something to unnecessarily put herself at risk. She had already done that so many times…for me.

“Bella,” I said, very softly. Alice and Emmett looked out the windows to give us some semblance of privacy. “If you let anything happen to yourself—anything at all—I’m holding you personally responsible. Do you understand that?”

“Yes,” she gulped.

I turned to Alice. “Can Jasper handle this?” I had to ask, but I knew that he would be fine. His desire to protect her would be similar to mine.

“Give him some credit, Edward. He’s been doing very, very well, all things considered.”

“Can you handle this?” I asked, to which she gave me her most fearsome grimace and guttural snarl. I smiled. The Alice I knew, and sometimes feared, would be as good a protector for Bella as I could be…maybe better…as long as she didn’t do something foolish, like put thoughts into Bella’s head about the disadvantages of being a soft, vulnerable human.

“But keep your opinions to yourself,” I muttered.