The Pandora Project
She traced her fingers down his nose and brought them to rest at his lips. The face she thought she knew so well wasn’t his face at all. “Edward?” Bella whimpered in shock. “I don’t understand. You’re a werewolf. When Bella saves the life of a stranger on Christmas Eve, she sets in motion a chain of events that threaten to change her life and destroy her friends and family. What follows is a journey filled with heartbreak, desperation, and the ultimate sacrifice.
1. Christmas Eve
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This Christmas was probably the happiest Bella could remember, though she was sure that eventually she would experience so many that they would seem less special over time. From her chair near the kitchen window, she watched gentle snowflakes fall. Life now had a rhythm to it and a harmony.
The harmony lasted until the sound of smashing glass interrupted it all.
Bella’s eyes darted across the kitchen to see Esme standing directly above a broken mixing bowl. Her hands were firmly on her hips, and her lips pursed. She gave the impression that the bowl had gotten what it had deserved indeed.
Bella couldn’t help but to laugh. Since life had quieted down after the Volturi had departed and returned to Italy, Esme had worked toward becoming a model homemaker. Esme wanted Renesmee to grow up as normally as possible, so she had undertaken boring tasks such as cooking and naptime in an effort to give Nessie a sense of humanity. Bella always felt a pang of jealousy when Esme and Rosalie fawned over her daughter, but let them indulge the maternal side that they, unlike herself, would never get to fully have.
It was Christmas Eve, and Esme had been trying to make petit fours that the entire family might enjoy: filled with a rich elk blood cake and frosted with icing laced with bison blood. The problem she encountered during her cooking sessions stemmed mainly from the fact that for most of their history, vampires had never bothered with cooking. It was a waste of time and didn’t quite have the same savory appeal when baked into pies, puddings, and cakes. Due to that fact, there weren’t many recipes available for dishes that might satiate the appetite of a vampire. But that didn’t stop Esme from trying.
Some things she made were quite delicious. She had transformed a recipe for gazpacho into a chilled delight. Some things she made weren’t quite as good. For Thanksgiving she had attempted to baste a turkey in its own blood and it was unanimously agreed that while she had tried, she had also miserably failed.
Before Bella had time to reconsider the broken bowl, Esme had swept it up and disposed of it, and had returned to carefully hand-decorating each tiny dessert. She turned her attention again to the window and to her delight saw them approaching.
Edward was holding an enormous pine tree up on his shoulder, just out of Nessie’s reach. She playfully dodged and leapt, trying in vain to grasp one of the fragrant branches. Esme looked up.
“Oh! They’re home,” she exclaimed to Bella.
A smile spread across her face, revealing her dimples and she set down the icing tip. Earlier that morning, Edward had awoken Nessie to go out and pick a Christmas tree. Carlisle and Emmett had agreed to go along, seemingly excited to be carrying on with traditions. They had been gone all morning and through lunch, and though Bella had never really worried, she had begun to wonder if they had gone all the way to Alaska to find the right tree.
She met them in the living room and scooped up Nessie in a huge hug. She turned to kiss Edward and noticed his furrowed expression. She then realized Carlisle and Emmett had not returned with them.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” he replied, forcing a smile.
Nessie struggled free from her mother’s embrace and looked up.
“Why don’t you go see how Aunt Rosalie is doing?" Bella asked, looking down at her.
She scowled, but took off down the hallway and took the stairs four at a time. Moments later sounds of laughter could be heard from Rosalie’s room.
“Where are Carlisle and Emmett?” asked Esme, standing in the entryway to the kitchen.
“We came across a scouting party,” Edward replied tersely.
Bella’s jaw dropped. Whenever life seemed too calm, something somewhere in the universe always saw fit to disrupt it.
“Who?” she and Esme asked in unison.
“No one we knew,” he answered, lines of worry beginning to reappear on his face.
“Two males. They said they were hunting and checking out the area. Naturally they apologized when they realized they were on our land. Carlisle and Emmett went with them to the border of our territory.”
“So what’s the real story?” Bella asked.
“The real story is that they’re looking for someone in particular, but even they don’t know who. I think they sensed something was up, because I had a hard time getting much out of them. What really bothered me the most was how fascinated they were with Nessie. One of them couldn’t take his eyes off of her. I would have gone with Emmett and Carlisle to escort them back off of our land but I was in too much of a hurry to get her away from them.”
Bella crossed her arms and frowned. She was greatly disturbed by anyone taking any kind of interest in her daughter, particularly strangers, and most particularly, strange vampires.
“Is Alice back yet?” Edward asked, clearly agitated.
“No,” Esme replied softly.
Two days ago, Alice had left almost without warning, saying she needed to go find someone, though who that was or why she was looking for them had been left rather in the dark. She had promised she would be home in time to celebrate Christmas.
Rosalie glided down the staircase with Nessie quick at her heels. She faltered when she realized Emmett was not there.
“He’s with Carlisle,” Edward answered before she could ask. “They went to escort a pair of scouts to the border of our land and to point out the Quileute territory.”
Rosalie opened her mouth to demand more information from him but he stopped her before she uttered a single syllable.
“We can talk about it later,” he said firmly, his eyes darting to Nessie.
Rosalie let the subject drop, though she looked extremely displeased with Edward. Renesmee, though just over a year old, had the physical appearance of a child of six or seven and an even older sense of emotional awareness and maturity. She edged her way over to her father and attempted to hold his hand. Edward knew better. He casually raised his hand to his face and brushed the remnants of snow from his hair and smiled coyly at his daughter.
“Let’s get this tree set up before it dies huh?”
Nessie smiled, jumping up and down and clapping. She followed Rosalie out to the garage to find the box of Christmas decorations.
Bella disliked the tension that had been brought into the room by Edward’s announcement. There was the fear of the eventual return of the Volturi, but aside from that, things had settled down. The past year had been so peaceful and tranquil: perhaps too much so.
Bella thought about Carlisle. He had been restless lately, and so had Alice. In an attempt to remain happy and ignorant, Bella had artfully avoided inquiring about their anxiety. But she was considering it now. Every so often however Carlisle had made mention of their time in Forks starting to wear thin. They had been in the area long enough for people to start wondering about the Cullens and asking questions, and that made everyone nervous. Bella wasn’t ready to leave yet. The thought of leaving Charlie and their little home deep in the woods filled her with intense sadness. It was Christmas. She really didn’t want to think about it.
She watched Edward haul the massive tree through the front door, visually noting that even with the arched ceiling the tree was certainly not going to fit. Much to her surprise, the needles are the very top of the tree barely kissed the ceiling, fitting perfectly into the corner near Edward’s piano.
She had secretly wished they could have a tree for their own little home on the property, but had conceded to Nessie spending Christmas with the whole family instead. She knew she was being stupid by being so possessive, but with as fast as her daughter was growing, Bella felt that every moment away from her was a moment she was never going to have again. Yet she also felt torn for the sakes of Rosalie and Esme, who would never know what it felt like to raise a child. Motherhood was certainly complicated.
Instantly, the room was abuzz with action. Rosalie and Nessie returned from the garage with a large load of lights and ornaments. A split second later, the front door burst open. In the threshold stood Jacob, holding the lifeless body of a woman soaked in blood. Edward flew to the corner of the room near the kitchen, taking deep breaths and struggling intensely to restrain himself from the sweet and overwhelming scent of the woman’s blood. Rosalie gripped the box she was holding tightly enough to shatter several glass ornaments inside of it. Nessie cried out, bewildered at the sight. Esme appeared from the kitchen to stand next to Edward, wary of the distance between the woman and herself.
“Where’s Carlisle?” Jacob exclaimed.
“My God,” Bella cried.
She rushed to the odd pair in the entryway. The woman was unconscious but alive- barely. The blood seemed to be coming from a massive cut to her head. Her clothes were in tatters and she also bore numerous scratches and abrasions all over her body.
“Where’s Carlisle?” Jacob persisted.
“He’s out with Emmett. What happened?” Bella croaked.
The powerful smell of the blood was almost too much for even Bella to stand. She took a deep breath.
“Put her on the couch,” Bella whispered.
Jacob slowly moved towards the couch and laid her down. Bella felt her neck for a pulse. It was weak and fading. Esme slowly approached the mangled woman, carefully and determinedly.
“Rosalie, will you please take Renesmee upstairs,” Bella said quietly, glancing over her shoulder.
Without another word, Rosalie dropped the box on the floor, breaking several more ornaments, grabbed the child by her arm, and wheeled her upstairs and away from the scene. Nessie was in too much shock to protest.
“I was out looking for Leah and smelled the scent of a person I didn’t know. I don’t know what happened to her but I think she fell down a small overhang two miles south of our property. I didn’t want to take her to the hospital and have people think I did this…”
His voice trailed off and Bella felt a rush of sympathy for him.
“You brought her to the right place,” Bella said firmly. “Who is she?”
“I think I know this woman,” Esme said quietly, her voice no more than a whisper. “She works with Carlisle. I’m almost certain.”
“If you don’t do something soon, she’s going to die,” Edward said clearly from the other side of the room.
“I think she’s lost so much blood she may die anyway,” Jacob said, waving his hand over the deep laceration near her temple.
“Well good job dog,” Edward snapped. “Thanks for bringing her here to die. It’s not like everyone in town isn’t talking about us already.”
“I brought her here because I thought you would help her!”
“She doesn’t have to die,” said Bella nervously. “We can help her.”
Edward looked at her in complete disbelief. Jacob snorted in a manner that sounded conspicuously like a growl.
“Bella, we can’t just go around making anyone and everyone like us. People need to die sometimes. It’s the natural way of things.”
“Carlisle saved you,” Bella retorted hotly. “Think about your daughter. What will you tell her? That we could have helped her but instead did nothing?”
“He’s right. I don’t think the pack would be exactly pleased with another one of you showing up. They’re on edge enough now as it is,” Jacob interrupted.
“We should think this over,” Esme said carefully.
“We don’t have time to think it over,” Bella moaned. “We don’t know when Carlisle will be back. We don’t have time. I’ll do it myself right now if I have to.”
Suddenly the woman twitched, ebbing on the verge of consciousness. She grabbed Bella’s arm weakly and with all the strength she could manage. Her eyes were still shut and obviously she was in excruciating pain.
“Don’t let me die,” she cried weakly. “Please, please, help me.”
“Bella, stop!” Edward and Jacob shouted together.
“You heard her, she doesn’t want to die,” Bella replied desperately, looking from Edward to Jacob.
Her time was running out. The woman was panting in agony. Everything about her looked limp. Her dark brown hair was matted to her bloody face. Before they could protest any further, Bella reached down to the woman’s throat and sunk her teeth in. The woman let out an intense howl that echoed through the room. It was too late for anyone to stop her.
The woman’s eyes ripped open in fear and pain and bored right into Bella. She reached her arms up to grab Bella by the shoulders but lacked enough strength. Something about her seemed off, aside from the massive traumatic injuries.
“You,” the woman breathed. “It’s not possible…”
Bella looked at the woman in desperation. She couldn’t watch her die. She bit her again and again, close to her heart, her wrists, anywhere there might be a pulse. Edward, Esme, and Jacob looked on in varying emotions of shock, anger, confusion, and fear. The woman began to writhe again in agony. It was working.
The atmosphere of the room was so intense and the woman’s screaming so loud that they failed to notice the arrival of Emmett and Carlisle.
“What is she doing here?” Carlisle demanded.
His tone was very unfriendly. It was very un-Carlisle. It made Bella scared.