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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.


25. Chapter 25 - Road Trip

Rating 5/5   Word Count 7681   Review this Chapter

Chapter 25 - Road Trip

The taxi bumped and shook as it crawled through the maze of terminals to get to the airport drop-off zone where I would have to leave Bella. I held her gingerly in my lap, trying to keep the taxi from jostling her. Her minute movements against my skin made me hyper-aware of her every small touch. Her thigh, the one not encased in a cast and left exposed by the blue shorts that she wore, brushed mine. Her bare arm wrapped around my shoulder and her wrist whispered heat against the back of my neck as her fingers tangled in my hair. My arm wrapped firmly around her waist, one hand gently holding her hip to buffet the taxi's motion and the other hand supporting her broken leg. I had no idea how I was going to let her go without me.

Not that I had much choice. Everyone had made that painfully clear. Once we had known Bella would be discharged on Tuesday, Charlie insisted on flying down from Forks to bring her home in the truck. His anger was directed mostly at me, but also vaguely in Renee's direction, because she had insisted that he not come Phoenix, as long as she was here to care for Bella. Our cover story had held up well, but would be blown wide open if Charlie insisted on bringing Bella home in her truck. Right now, the truck sat in the Cullen family garage, and there was no way to get it to Phoenix before Charlie arrived. It had taken all of Alice's persuasion on the phone, and eventually Carlisle stepping in, to convince Charlie to stay in Forks. Carlisle insisted that Bella could not make the twenty-five hour drive in that wreck of a truck, and that it was much better for her to fly. Charlie relented, agreeing to meet her at the airport when she arrived—and then, only on the condition that Alice and Carlisle flew home with Bella. I was distinctly not welcome.

So, I agreed to drive Bella's truck home, and come back later for the Mercedes—although in reality Emmett, Jasper and I would drive the Mercedes back to Forks now—and Charlie seemed to think that would keep me sufficiently far from Bella to not cause her any more harm. Of course, he was right to be suspicious of me—this had all been my fault from the start. And it was best for Bella to fly home—it was faster and easier on her. But it was killing me that I had only a few minutes left with her, and I would have to leave her side for the first time in nearly a week. While she was in the hospital, I had never left her room, and was literally by her side whenever Renee was out of the room, which had been most of the last few days. Even breaking every speed limit between Phoenix and Forks in the Mercedes, it would still take at least 12 or 13 hours, and Bella would be there well before I would.

I leaned my forehead against the side of her head, burrowing my face in her soft hair and whispered, "Promise you'll call me."

"I'm not going to arrive until late. Probably after 10 o'clock," she said, not quite whispering.

"I'll be up," I smiled into her hair. I felt her cheek move against my lips as she smiled in return. Carlisle sat in the front seat with the taxi driver, trying to ignore us. Bella, and her leg cast, and I took up the entire back seat of the taxi. I had insisted that Alice go in the other taxi with Renee. I would deal with Alice when we returned to Forks—I didn't want a scene in front of Bella.

"Promise me you'll call as soon as you touch down," I insisted.

"I'm going to be fine, Edward."

"Do I need to persuade you?" I asked mischievously, speaking even more softly as I grazed my lips against her ear, nudging her hair aside with my nose to expose the pale skin of her neck. I trailed soft kisses down to her shoulder, smiling as I heard her heart begin to stutter.

"Ok, I'll call..." she gasped, but I had no intention of stopping, regardless.

Raising my lips to her ear again, I whispered, "Thank you," and proceeded to caress her cheek with my lips as they sought hers. They were warm, slightly parted, and her breath was escaping in small puffs against me as I touched my cold lips to hers. Her scent filled me, making me light headed. After spending so much time with her I was amazingly desensitized, especially considering I hadn't hunted in so long—just the small taste of Bella's blood seemed to be sustaining me endlessly, giving me strength and an ability to resist her that I would not have imagined. I could touch her more freely than I ever had, without the usual surge of bloodlust, and yet I hadn't been able to even kiss her in the hospital, without constant oversight from Renee or alerting the nurses through the monitors. Even with the taxi driver staring at us in the rear-view mirror, we had more freedom in the ten minute drive to the airport than we had in the entire time in the hospital. I was taking advantage of it.

I inhaled her perfume and pulled her close to me with the hand on her hip. With her tucked into me, I could reach down past her shorts and skim the smooth skin of her thigh with my fingertips. It was as soft as the skin on her lips, now sweeping across mine with small, hungry touches. I fought back a groan that surely Carlisle would hear. But there was no masking the erratic thumping coming from her chest. I dragged my lips from hers and pressed them softly to the thudding pulse on her throat. She lifted her chin to give me better access and that small movement almost overwhelmed me, a gasp escaping my lips and blowing cool air across the hollow of her neck. The taxi lurched to a stop, jolting Bella's leg from my hand for a second and causing a small squeak of pain from her.

"Bella! I'm sorry," I said, instantly contrite.

"I'm fine," she said through clenched teeth. She received an extra dose of pain killers before she left the hospital, but it obviously hurt her to move. I groaned in frustration this time.

"You are not fine," I stated baldly.

She looked up into my eyes as Carlisle and the taxi driver busied themselves getting out of the taxi and unloading Bella's one small bag and her wheelchair. She softly stroked my cheek.

"I'll be fine when I can see you again," she said. I forced a smile through my worry.

"I'll be there as soon as I can. I promise." I kissed her lightly before opening the door and smoothly sliding her from the taxi into the wheelchair waiting for her on the curb. Alice and Renee had arrived just behind us. Alice brought the bags and Renee to stand by Bella's wheelchair. Carlisle stood ready to wheel Bella into the airport. I should be letting her go, but I found myself standing in front of her chair, blocking their departure. I leaned down, hands on the armrests on either side of her, and kissed her lightly again.

"You'll call me?" I asked again.

"Promise." I kissed her again, ran my fingers through her hair, and softly trailed my fingertips across her cheek. I kissed her once more, slowly and softly taking her lips one at a time between mine, and then suddenly realized that Renee was staring at us. The shock in her mind brought me up short and I realized this was the first time I had kissed Bella in front of her.

Edward, it is time...Carlisle thought. I pulled back and gazed into Bella's eyes, refusing to look at Renee and intentionally ignoring Alice altogether.

"I'll see you soon," I promised, and turned away, sliding back into the taxi that would take me away from her. I didn't want to watch them go inside without me.

We drove into the setting sun, the glare cut down by the tinted windows of the Mercedes. I insisted on driving, craving the distraction and speed as I raced Bella's airplane to Forks. The flat terrain, dotted with sagebrush and crumbling boulders, slipped past as we sped well over 100 mph down Highway 93. The craggy red mesas cast long, dark shadows that sliced across the road, like a sinister Martian landscape. Jasper rode shotgun, while Emmett leaned in from the back seat. We hadn't spoken much in the couple hours on the road. When my mind had wearied of worrying about Bella, and knowing there was not much I could do, besides drive like a demon unleashed to get to Forks as quickly as possible, I began to think again about Alice. My anger at her, for breaking her promise and revealing to Bella how vampires were created, continued undimmed, in spite of the welcome distraction of caring for Bella. Her betrayal hurt—not only had she lied, broken her promise, but she apparently had gone on in great detail about the mechanics of the process. Why? Had she hoped to convince Bella to change? She knew I didn't want that. She knew I wanted Bella to live. Was she so desperate for an eternal friend that she was willing to betray me—her brother—to ensure that she would always have Bella? Was she willing to kill Bella, just to keep her? My anger flared and I gripped the steering wheel with both hands, pressing the accelerator slightly harder into the floor. Jasper glanced at me, wondering what was going on in my head. I stared straight ahead, ignoring him. What had been his part in this? Had he encouraged it? Did he want Bella changed, too? He would do anything Alice asked, of that I was sure.

The thought of Alice's betrayal struck me harder the more I thought about it. It wasn’t just that Bella and I had a nearly constant battle running over the topic of her mortality. I had thought...I believed...Alice and I had a special bond. I felt a kinship to her that I didn't feel, in the same way, with my other siblings. She had supported my obsession with Bella. She knew I loved Bella, even before I did. I always felt I could talk to her, trust her...and now...she had betrayed that trust. Betrayed it, and threatened the one thing that mattered most to me in this miserable vampire existence—Bella's life.

Why? Not understanding it only made me angrier. Had it been a whim? A casual betrayal? No, nothing with Alice was ever casual. It was calculated—a premeditated attempt to convince Bella to opt for eternal life, over my vehement objections. Alice knew I would never agree, so she had gone straight to Bella. Did she offer to do it herself? My anger peaked. If she had dared to offer...dared to say that she would do it, even if I refused...my grip on the steering wheel threatened to turn it to dust under my hands.

Jasper was throwing me increasingly nervous looks. "Edward," he finally said, and I turned sharply to glare at him, before fixing my eyes on the horizon again. "Bella is going to be fine. Why are you so angry?" He seemed puzzled.

I glowered at him. "Why don't you ask Alice?" I spat.

He looked at me like I was crazy, and glanced at Emmett. Their thoughts showed they had no idea what I meant.

"Don't tell me you didn't know, Jasper. Don't lie to me, too."

At this Jasper, sputtered and started to grow angry himself. "Alice didn't lie," he ground out between his teeth.

"She promised me, Jasper. Promised. And she broke that promise." Flashes of pictures went through Japer's mind, trying to figure out what promise I meant. He thought briefly about Alice's vision of James.

"Yes, she held back on that, too, didn't she?" I went on, my rage rising to a full boil. "What else has she lied about, Jasper? Do you even know?"

Jasper's fists were clenching and unclenching, and Emmett looked nervously between us. I didn't care. My anger and fear frothed in my mind and I felt like I was going to explode. "She told Bella how she could change her. She promised she wouldn't, but I guess that didn't matter. I guess she doesn't mind lying to get what she wants."

Intent on spitting out my hateful words, I didn't sense Jasper's intention until I heard the crack of his fist slamming into the immovable object of Emmett's palm, which had materialized in front of my face. A split second later, the fury of Jasper's angry thoughts hit me like another punch.

"Now, now, boys," Emmett said, coolly. "Mom wouldn't want us to wreck her car...or Edward's pretty face." I glared murderously back at him and realized Jasper was doing the same. "Reel it in, Jazz."

Jasper's face twisted with emotion and his thoughts envisioned his hands at my throat for the things I said about Alice. Awash in his hatred, I felt sick to my stomach. Slowly, the waves of rage coming from Jasper subsided to a slow boil, but his eyes never left mine.

"If I'd known it would cause such a fuss, I would have told Bella myself," Emmett said calmly. I tore my eyes away from Jasper's angry stare and glared at Emmett.

"What?"

"Is she a woman, or a child, Edward?" he continued, a little more pointedly, and I just stared at him blankly, uncomprehending. "You can't have it both ways." He smirked at me. "I'm pretty sure you don't think of her as a child."

I narrowed my eyes at him, unsure of what he was saying, but not liking it.

"You can't keep things from her, Edward. You can't treat her like a child, and just not tell her things you'd rather she didn't know," he continued. "If she asked me, I would have told her." He shrugged.

"She's too young to understand the decision she's making," I protested, weakly, suddenly unsure. "She can't possibly know what she's giving up." Somehow my anger was evaporating and I was reeling to recover. Jasper nodded appreciatively at Emmett.

"You didn't think she was too young when you were thinking all those things you'd like to do with her," Emmett smirked again. My eyebrows shot up suspiciously. "I don't have to be a mind reader to know what you're thinking when you look at her like that."

I sputtered, angry and embarrassed and enraged that Emmett was...right.

"Bella," Emmett seemed to roll the name around in his mind for a moment. "That's one spunky girl, for a human. She outsmarts these two," he jerked his thumb towards Jasper and the absent Alice, "and heads off to take on a sadistic vampire. On her own. That's my kind of woman." Emmett let loose an appreciative grin and I just stared at him, dumbfounded. "That kind of woman deserves some respect, Edward my brother, and you had better figure that out fast. Stop treating her like a child."

I didn't know what to say. Of course, Bella wasn't a child. I love her. I want to make her my wife. But she was still too young to know the consequences of giving up her mortal soul, throwing away her life to become a monster like me. I couldn't reconcile it in my mind. The mere possibility that Emmett could be right about this made my head throb. But, slowly, I realized he was right about one thing: Bella deserved my respect. Perhaps I couldn't keep things from her just because I thought I knew better. She did deserve my honesty.

And Alice, always five steps ahead of me, knew that before I did.

"Jasper," I said quietly, staring at the road.

It's alright, Edward, he thought, and I could see that he had already forgiven me. But if you talk like that about Alice again, you better hope that Emmett is here to protect you. I laughed shortly, and snuck a glance at him. He smirked.

"You can take a shot now. I deserve it," I said aloud, and Jasper laughed.

"Can I have one?" asked Emmett.

"Just try it.”

"I have a better idea. I know just the thing to get this party rolling," Emmett said, a gleam in his eye as he watched a green sign roll by reading Las Vegas 120 miles. "I'm thinking it's time for a layover in Sin City, boys." Emmett put a hand on each of our shoulders as the last rays of sun disappeared over the horizon.

Jasper had a wide grin. "Oh, yeah. I'm in," he said.

"That's my boy," Emmett said, with a clap on Jasper's shoulder. I frowned. A layover? I was not going to stop this car for anything but gas until we reached Forks. I would not be separated from Bella for any longer than necessary. I needed to be there to help her recover, adjust to being back in Forks...and what about Charlie? He was sure to be difficult...

Emmett's hand smacked the back of my head. "What the...!" I objected.

"Wake up, pretty boy. We're going to Vegas!" Emmett grinned like a fool.

"No, we're not. We're going to Forks. If you think we're stopping, you are insane, Emmett."

Emmett narrowed his eyes and stared me down with steely resolve. "Jasper and I would be happy to throw you from the car, Edward. You can run back to Forks for all we care. I'd like to see you explain to the police how you broke the speed limit...on foot."

Fine. If I had to run back to Forks, I would. I set my teeth and said nothing, daring him to follow through with that threat.

"Edward..." Jasper said, tearing my attention away from my staring contest with Emmett. "You can't arrive back in Forks any sooner than tomorrow afternoon, anyway." I looked at him like he had lost his mind. "You're driving Bella's truck, remember?" he patiently explained. "You can't get that thing over 50 mph. If you arrive in Forks too soon, Charlie will be suspicious."

Damn. He was right about that. I groaned and flicked my eyes back to the road.

Emmett laughed again, sensing victory. "This is just what the doctor ordered, Edward. We're going to make you a new man."

I didn't like the sound of that. At all. Reluctantly, I took the turnoff for Exit 48 towards Las Vegas. A sign flashed by. Welcome to Nevada. Las Vegas 100 miles. I stared ahead into the gathering gloom. I swore I heard Emmett lick his lips.

Less than an hour later, we could see the electric glow of Sin City hovering in the distance. As we drew closer the dazzle of moving spotlights and sizzle of neon lights practically blurred my enhanced vampiric vision. There weren't many cars on the street, but the sidewalks were alive with people streaming in and out of the massive casinos that lined the Strip. The City That Never Sleeps. Seemed to like the right place for three vampires to have a short layover, if I didn’t have an injured human that I loved more than life itself, waiting for me in Forks. I sighed.

Emmett's mind buzzed with his plans for the night, apparently intending to spend all night in Vegas. He and Jasper had already decided earlier that poker would be their game, the only question being where to find the best high roller table.

"Here," Emmett said, pointing to the valet parking at the entryway to some enormous casino that covered an entire block. Emmett and Jasper hopped out of the car and I reluctantly handed our keys over to the valet. Emmett found the concierge and was talking furtively with him. I saw Emmett pull out the family's black American Express Centurion card and slip it into the concierge's hand. While his face was impassive, I heard the mental gasp across the paved walk as the concierge pocketed the card and frantically began to think of how he could fulfill Emmett's requests as quickly as possible.

While the concierge spoke rapidly into his cell phone, and eyed Emmett for what I hoped was his shirt size, and not something more...indelicate, I joined Jasper and Emmett and we walked just inside the main casino doors. Tourists of all shapes and sizes swam around us. Our pale skin washed out under the glare of the fluorescents and neon lights, and with our casual attire, still left over from hunting James, we fit in with the rest of the visitors that made up Las Vegas' lifeblood. However, Emmett clearly had grander designs for us.

"Edward," Emmett said in a hushed tone. "I'll get us in, but then we need some kind of signal."

"For what?" I asked suspiciously.

Emmett rolled his eyes, and then looked over his shoulder to see if there was any human near enough to overhear us. Feeling safe, and eyeing the black security globe hanging from the ceiling in the middle of the room, he continued in his hushed tone. "A signal for whether we should fold, call or raise."

"Are we playing cards?" I asked, acting mystified. Jasper laughed so hard, he was doubled over gasping for air, and Emmett gave me a look that said, as if his thoughts weren't loud enough, Are you really that stupid?

Annoyed, I said out loud, "So you want me to help you cheat?"

Wide eyed, Emmett shushed me and said, "Jesus, Edward, we won't even get in the door if you're talking like that."

"I never wanted to stop in Vegas," I reminded him.

"Fine, fine. I know, but we've got some time to kill, and what better way than taking these high stakes players for all they've got?" Emmett's tone was conspiratorial again. "Jasper can flood table with doom, convince everyone they have the worst hand imaginable, or make them nervous, so they fold quickly. You read the cards, and the rest is my skillful poker playing..."

"Count me out."

"Seriously, Edward. You are just no fun at all," said Jasper, who was still recovering from his laughing fit.

"You do whatever you like. I'm not playing. And as soon as you're done, we're getting back on the road." Apparently we had to stop here, but I didn't have to like it.

Emmett's grand designs were confirmed as the concierge appeared out of nowhere with three assistants bearing suit bags draped over their arms.

"Mr. Cullen, sir, your card." He handed Emmett the black Centurion card and the assistants each handed us our change of clothes. Waving a golden electronic keycard at Emmett, the concierge continued, "Sir, your room is ready if you wish to change. If you will allow me, I can escort you there."

"Please lead the way," said Emmett with a smirk. I heaved a sigh and trailed along as Emmett and Jasper followed the concierge, each of us clutching our suit bags, to an elevator tucked around the corner from the registration desk, marked 'Private'. The elevator whisked us to the 37th floor, where there was only one door with no markings. The concierge deftly swept the golden card and held the door for us. The room must have taken up the entire floor, with a large living room area complete with fireplace and several leather couches, a wet bar and a huge deck overlooking the city. There were several doors off the main room. The concierge handed Emmett the keycard and another small dark colored card. "Sir, please call me at any time if you need anything else. The chips you requested will be waiting for you on floor 38, and your keycard will grant you access to that floor at your convenience."

"Thank you," said Emmett, his eyes dancing.

"Thank you, sir. Please let me know if there is anything else I can help with. Enjoy your stay." Like a ghost, the concierge slipped from the room and was gone.

As I suspected, our suit bags, labeled in gold lettering with the mysterious tag Brioni, held high end tuxedos. Our concierge must have come from the same gene pool as Alice. Somehow he had procured single breasted, notched lapel tuxedos that fit like they were tailor made for us in less time than it took for us to conspire to cheat some high rollers out of a night's winnings. With white shirt and black tie in place, supplemented with white suspenders that were strangely labeled Thurston braces, Jasper, Emmett and I suddenly bore a striking resemblance to high stakes gamblers. The black silk trim made even Emmett look dapper, I had to admit. Jasper looked shockingly at home in his formal attire, his long frame leaning casually against the wall, waiting for us to finish dressing. Almost as if he had been born in a tux. He grinned.

"Sure you won't join us for some fun, Edward?" he asked.

"I'm going to have fun watching you lose. Just try to leave something for Alice to spend when we get back home."

He laughed, and Emmett waved the gold card at us. "Let's go make some money."

"I don't think it's technically making money when you cheat at cards, Emmett."

"God, you really aren't any fun, are you?" he asked, laughing and holding the door open for Jasper and me.

The whisper quiet private elevator took us to floor 38, which turned out to be a very ornate room, hung with expensive looking original artwork and gilt trappings. It felt like a lot of money had been lost in this room. There were a dozen or so waiters and assistants lingering at the dark edges of the room, but the center was brightly lit and there lay the poker table. It was an oval shaped table with seating for six, but only four players were currently engaged in a game. There was no house dealer, and apparently the players took turns dealing. Three of the four players were men, one bearing an outsized Texas cattleman hat, along with his black tie tuxedo, while the other two were more conventionally dressed in tuxedos alone—one was of Arabic descent and the other a middle aged man with silver hair creeping at the edges of his ears. The fourth player was a woman, dressed in a brilliant blue evening gown that only covered one of her shoulders, the other hidden mainly by her long dark hair. The Texan was apparently the dealer, smoothly sending two cards to each of the players in turn as they started a new game. They each had stacks of varying height of midnight blue chips. I lifted the value of the chips out of the woman's mind as she furtively, mentally counted her chips in between bets. $1000. Each. Emmett appeared determined to lose a lot of money tonight.

Jasper and Emmett watched as the game progressed. The four at the table each wore a stone cold expression, but had very different thoughts running through their heads. The

Texan bet aggressively and had been on a winning streak. Adrenaline from the last pot that he won still coursed through his veins. The Arab was subdued, having a string of losses, but was not particularly eager to get up from the table. He bided his time for a good play. The older man was shrewd, some kind of high powered executive that enjoyed risking large and tolerated losing on occasion. The woman had a single minded determination to win. The stakes in this game were very high for her, for some reason that was not clear. Curious, I gazed at her, trying to understand what drove her. She didn't look at all like Bella—she was older, probably thirty, and had an air of self-assuredness about her, with a dark undercurrent of desperation—but her warm brown eyes and long auburn hair falling on her shoulders reminded me of Bella, nonetheless, and I couldn't help feeling a little protective of her.

Emmett and Jasper waited through successive rounds of betting, carefully watching the player's strategies. By the third or fourth round of betting the woman and the Arab had both folded, leaving a showdown between the Texan and the CEO. The Texan had the winning hand and took the pot. One of the shadowy assistants darted in, collecting the house's percentage of the pot, and then slipped back into the recesses of the wall. Emmett and Jasper each took one of the open seats and asked to buy in to the game. Two assistants, who glided over the floor with unnatural smoothness, brought Emmett and Jasper several stacks of chips, collecting a sitting fee of $5000 from each, and leaving them with about 50 chips to play. Another assistant stood silently at my elbow as I leaned against a column, until I heard his thoughts wishing I would turn around. He held several stacks of the dark, almost black, chips for me as well. I waved him off and he scurried away.

I watched as Emmett sized up each of the players, taking in the minute human changes in respiration and heartbeat and looking beyond their smooth poker faces. He smiled sweetly at the female player. She did not even nod in reply, but I could hear her heart skip a beat under Emmett's friendly stare and I was sure Emmett could hear it, too. She glanced at Jasper and her heart fluttered again, and I couldn't decide if she thought Jasper was attractive or frightening. She was nervous, but not because of them, and focused all her thoughts on the game. My eyes swept the other three players—they did not seem as agitated. I looked at her again. Her face was impassive in spite of her heart spasms. Emmett counted cards as they started playing, and Jasper tested the waters by slightly elevating and depressing the mood of the table. They each had their poker faces on, which made me grin in spite of myself. No one can go as stone cold as a vampire.

The game was Texas Hold 'Em, apparently, one I had never played. I quickly gleaned the rules from the first round of play, where the dealer, which was now the woman, gave each player two hole cards. The first round of betting started, based on the hand that each held. Jasper bet in the blind, a required bet, and opened the betting with two chips. The other players called his bet, and the woman discarded, or burned, the top card and dealt the flop, three community cards that she laid on the table. Another round of betting, calling, raising and an occasional folding went around the table. When she dealt a fourth community card, the turn, more betting and folding ensued, and then the fifth, and final, community card, the river, was dealt. At this point, only Jasper and the woman remained, and a showdown between the two of them left Jasper the winner, having the best five card hand possible between his hole cards and the community cards.

The woman was disappointed, but it didn't show on her face. She calmly collected the cards and passed them, and the dealer button, to Jasper on her left. Up until that point, Emmett and Jasper had been playing clean. In the next several games, Jasper selectively flooded individual players with depression or anxiety, causing them to fold, while exciting the other players and inducing them to bet high. Emmett counted cards and carefully examined the players to guess their hands. He and Jasper were often the last two standing, and took turns taking the pot. After an hour of this tense betting battle, the other players were starting to run low on chips. The Arab had already asked for a re-supply of chips from the ever-ready assistants.

The rollercoaster of emotions started to take its toll on the woman. She was nervous to begin with, and now she began to wonder if she could last long enough to make the money she...needed. It wasn't clear what the money was for, but there was something lingering in the back of her mind that she was trying very hard not to think about, in order to concentrate on the game. She casually slid one hand under the table, and I could see her clenching and unclenching it in an attempt to gain control of the emotional havoc Jasper was wreaking in her. The other players seemed to take their emotional seesaw more in stride, although the Texan was starting to lose his poker face and silently cursed the last time that he folded. The mental curses he threw at Jasper were quite colorful.

Emmett’s thoughts danced gleefully when he raked in a particularly large pot, nearly wiping out the woman's cache of chips. I decided it was time to step in. I crooked a finger to one of the assistants and asked him in a whispered tone to bring me a chair to the table. I stepped up to the woman's chair and smiled down at her. She looked up at me with wide, startled eyes. I said in my most soothing voice, "Would the lady allow me to be her good luck charm?" She eyed me suspiciously and thought I was trying to take her seat.

Looking directly in her eyes, I said, in my most honeyed voice, "I believe your luck is due for a change for the better. Please, let me help." Her carefully neutral face showed only the slightest frown as the assistant appeared with my seat. I pulled it up behind her, so that I was sitting quite close to her and could easily see her cards. Her mind cast about, trying to decipher my motives, wary of me and at the same time drawn in by those predatory lures that came in handy every so often. Emmett tried hard not to snicker under his breath, but Jasper‘s mouth hung open. It slowly dawned on him that I had entered the game, and intended him to lose.

Bring it, he thought.

I turned to him and smiled, and then brought the blaze of my smile back to bear on my lady companion. "I don't know what you're playing for…" I said, and her thoughts immediately jumped to three small children, no older than six or seven, with dark curly locks like their mother. My face was only inches away, and I blew cool breath over her as I spoke, "…but let me help and we will win it for you." She slowly nodded, mesmerized by my gaze, wondering if she had truly lost her mind, to trust this perfect stranger with the blazing eyes and tender voice. Glancing at her two remaining chips, she decided she didn't have many options left.

The cards were dealt and after the pre-flop betting, she was already all-in, with her final two chips. I motioned to the assistants standing ready to bring me some of the chips they had offered earlier. The woman's heart started to pound ferociously as the assistant silently slid a stack of chips next to my hand. She struggled to control her breathing, but her mind was gripped in panic. I glanced sharply at Jasper, thinking he had sent her into some kind of anxiety attack, but I quickly realized from her thoughts that she was afraid of me. It had suddenly occurred to her that I might trap her into owing me, for fronting money for the pot...money she couldn't hope to repay.

I draped my arm over the back of her chair, so I could move closer to her and whisper in her ear—at least the humans would not be able to overhear, and I didn't care what Jasper and Emmett thought.

"It's okay," I spoke softly, "don't worry. If we win, you can pay me back. If we lose, you will owe me nothing. Just follow my lead..." I pulled back and smiled, trying to convince her of my sincerity. She wavered between believing me and bolting from the table. Her heart still pounded in her chest, but it started to slow. She looked back at the game. The betting had returned to us. We needed to call or fold. We had by far the best hand on the table so far, and Jasper had already managed to depress the Arab into folding.

"Call and raise two chips," I whispered in her ear, and she stared at the stack of chips by my hand, which still rested on the table. With a steady hand that betrayed the fear thrilling through her, she took two chips, slid them into the pot and then another two.

"Call, and raise you, two chips," she said evenly. Jasper's face was unchanged, but his mind raced to find a strategy to beat me, knowing that I knew all the cards on the table. Several rounds of betting passed, the pot growing, until Jasper and the woman and I were the only ones left. I knew we had the winning hand, once the river was played.

"Go all in," I whispered in her ear, unable to resist a smile as I did so. As soon as she slid the remaining chips into the pot, Jasper folded immediately. I didn't think it was possible to growl in your mind, yet I distinctly heard a growl come from Jasper, although there was no audible noise from him. Jasper watched the woman rake in our chips, many of which used to be his, and I tried not to look too smug. Jasper started reciting the first verses of Genesis, in Latin, and I realized the playing might get a little more difficult if Jasper could successfully keep me from seeing his cards.

We continued playing for some time, and occasionally Jasper or Emmett won, mostly when they had a good hand and could play an entire game without letting down their mental guard. Once in a while, I would let them win, just to confuse them, let them think there was still some chance in the game. We had cleaned out the Arab's chips a while ago, and he had departed. The Texan was close to having to concede, or get more chips. I decided that in this next game I would take Emmett for all he was worth. As the first round of opening bets started on a new game, a small trilling sound interrupted the dead silence of the table. It took a moment for me to realize it was the small silver phone in my pocket. Leaning away from the table, I flipped it open, slightly annoyed.

"Hello?"

"Edward," she breathed into the phone. It was Bella. I glanced at the clock on the wall. Of course, she would be home by now. I quickly rose and walked away from the table.

"Bella, I..." I stuttered. "How are you? Did you make it back to your house all right?"

"I'm fine, Edward, just like I told you."

"It's still good to hear it from you," I said, softly, glancing back at the table. Emmett was snickering and the betting had gone on without me. The woman was panicking that her good luck charm had left the table and I couldn't tell if it was Jasper-induced. I scowled at him. He ignored me.

"Where are you?" Bella asked, whipping me back to the phone.

"Uh...I'm, um, playing cards," I said. Emmett's shoulders were shaking with silent laughter.

"In the car? At night?" Bella asked, confused. Of course that didn't make any sense at all.

"No, Emmett made us stop. He wanted to do a little gambling," I said, glaring at him. Meanwhile, Jasper was busy getting the Texan to fold and coolly evaluating whether he could finish the hand before I got off the phone.

"So...you're in Vegas?" she asked, with incredulity in her voice.

"Well, yes. It wasn't my idea, Bella, I promise you." She laughed, which confused me, but I couldn't take my eyes off the woman as her hands wavered over our chips. She was about to place a very bad bet.

"Well, leave it to Emmett..." she said, but I interrupted.

"Are you sure you're all right, Bella, love?" I asked quickly.

"I'm fine, Edward," she sighed patiently.

"Then I should go, because if I don't, Jasper is about to take a large sum of our money."

"Our money?" Oh no. I didn't want to lie to Bella, but I needed to get back to the table right away, or half the night's winnings were about to be lost. I would explain it later.

"Yes. Can I call you in the morning?" I asked, edging my way back to the table.

"Of course. Good luck, Edward," she said, and I could almost hear her smile through the phone.

"I love you, Bella," I said softly.

"I know," she said, practically laughing. I flipped the phone shut, and slid into place next to the woman, nearly yanking her hand back from the chips she was sliding toward the pot, realizing only at the last instant that I didn't want to explain my chilly touch.

"Fold!" I hoarse-whispered quickly. She seemed startled to find me by her side again, and jerked her hand back.

"F-Fold," she said shakily, pulling the chips back again. I sighed with relief. Jasper narrowed his eyes at me. Well, this will be an interesting story to tell Bella...he thought. He was right. I was going to have some explaining to do in the morning. But, for the moment, I was more concerned with relieving Jasper of the remainder of his chips.

Over the next hour, the table slowly cleared, until only Jasper and the woman and I remained. I let the game drag on to let the other players believe there was still some chance of winning, rather than taking some of their chips outright in a few hands, and scaring them off. This way, they slowly lost all their chips before they decided to leave. As the players dwindled, Jasper mastered his ability to hide his cards from me. He still had a few chips left to lose, however. The last few rounds he had been singing annoying show tunes in his mind, masking his thoughts but also driving me mad.

I leaned in close to the woman before we started the next game and said, "Is this enough? For what you need?"

She snuck a glance at me and then mentally calculated her winnings, lying in neat stacks of midnight blue chips in front of her. There were at least 100 chips before her.

"Yes," she whispered back.

"Then perhaps we should leave the gentleman with his dignity," I suggested with a smile. She smiled back, looking at Jasper as she rose out of her seat. Jasper stood automatically, glaring at me. I wasn't ready to concede, Edward, he thought. She extended her hand across the table to Jasper.

"Thank you, sir, for a game well played," she said.

"The pleasure was mine," replied Jasper, quickly sweeping her hand in his and lightly pressing his lips to it. The touch was quick, but sent my eyes wide, and hers as well as she felt the chill in both his hand and lips. He quirked a smile, mostly for me, and gathered up his remaining few chips, signaling an assistant to cash them in for him.

She turned to me, looking up at me with those soft brown eyes that reminded me so much of Bella's. "How...I..." she stuttered. Closing her eyes for a moment and then opening them to look directly in mine again, "How can I thank you? I don't even know your name."

"Edward," I smiled. "And yours?"

"Stephanie," she said softly, and then seemed to stammer again. "Thank you, Edward. You've have no idea...you've saved my life." Images of the dark haired children flitted through her mind again. I gestured to the pile of chips waiting for her, and pulled her last name out of her thoughts.

"I hope you use it well, Ms. Meyer," I smiled. Her jaw dropped open as I turned to go, wondering if I knew her, as I seemed to, and how I could have appeared out of nowhere when she needed me most. She thought I must be some kind of guardian angel, sent to help her get her children back. My smile widened as I walked towards Jasper and Emmett. She flipped open her phone, speed dial set for her lawyer.

"I have the money, Sid. Do what you have to, but I want my kids back..." Images flitted through her mind of her husband kidnapping the kids, taking them to another state and freezing her accounts, while filing for divorce. She hadn't seen her children in weeks, and was fighting to get them back. Now that she had the money, she could pay her lawyer to go after them. She remembered suddenly to pay back the chips that I had fronted her, whirling around to find that we had already left the room.

As Emmett and Jasper and I took the short elevator ride back to our room, I wished her luck…and hoped that would make a good enough story for Bella, when I called her in the morning to explain why I had to get off the phone in order to swindle some high stakes players in a poker game in Las Vegas. My grin lasted the rest of the night.