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Penumbra

Summary:
Penumbra banner * * * Part of me still revels in the knowledge that Bella genuinely desires to be with me forever – so much so that she called for a family vote a few weeks ago and then, after receiving their approval, guaranteed that she would join me in immortality by seeking Carlisle's word that he would condemn her to three days of torture after her high school graduation. The other part of me – the part that still fears the destruction of Bella's soul despite her rebuttal about my beliefs, "There's hope in you, after all." – plots daily to circumvent this rapidly approaching deadline. I thought that I had come up with the perfect stalling tactic that same morning, but I realized as the days went on that it was far more than just a strategic maneuver. It was the deepest wish of my heart. "Marry me first." * * * Penumbra – A space of partial illumination (as in an eclipse) between the perfect shadow on all sides and the full light. Eclipse from Edward's point of view.


Notes:
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.


2. Ultimatum

Rating 0/5   Word Count 13696   Review this Chapter

I arrive at Bella's house with five minutes to spare. Parking the Volvo in a spot behind a beaten and outdated sedan, the conversation happening between father and daughter is perfectly audible to me even above the steady drumming of the rain and the rhythmic whirr of the windshield wipers.

In an effort to give them some privacy, I concentrate on a soft sound echoing below the voices inside the little white house: the pulsing heart of the center of my universe – my mainstay and my solace.

Leaning my head back against the seat, I turn off the engine, silencing any further distractions, and allow her heartbeat to fill my ears, each thrum counting down the seconds until I can see her face again.

Then I hear my name, and automatically focus on the spoken words, bathed in acidic sarcasm. "Isn't Edward up for a little healthy competition?" Charlie questions. I receive a vague impression from his mind of a black-hairedboy towering over me, and I hold back a disgusted snarl. The very idea of that dog presenting any sort of challenge to me is insulting.

Apparently, Bella feels the same, for although I cannot see her expression, there is no mistaking the layers of irritation, outrage, and conviction in her rigid statement. "There's no competition."

Sensing a losing battle, Charlie switches tactics. "You're hurting Jake's feelings, avoiding him like this," he tells her, and it feels like a rebuke, which causes me to bristle in offense. As near as I can tell, Bella is the one who has been ignored for the last few weeks while the mutt has pouted like a sullen child on his people's reservation, refusing to so much as return her phone calls. Meanwhile, Charlie goes on, inserting, "He'd rather be just friends than nothing."

"I'm pretty sure Jake doesn't want to be friends at all," Bella spits out tartly. Then she asks, suspicious, "Where'd you get that idea, anyway?"

Embarrassment tints his thoughts; the wooden chair supporting his weight creaks as he fidgets before replying, "The subject might have come up today with Billy…"

"You and Billy gossip like old women." The sharp clang of metal against ceramic punctuates Bella's sour complaint, and I briefly hope that she has eaten at least some of her dinner – she hardly touched her lunch at school today.

Some utensil scrapes against a plate, and then Charlie sighs, murmuring in a troubled voice, "Billy's worried about Jacob. Jake's having a hard time right now… He's depressed." He pauses, but Bella does not respond, so he continues. "And then you were always so happy after spending the day with Jake," he remarks wistfully.

If Charlie had his way, I would be removed from his daughter's life permanently. And it is obvious whom he has chosen as her next suitor.

"I'm happy now," Bella retorts in a fiercely adamant snarl. The contradiction of such a selfless and inherently good creature snarling, coupled with the absurdity of her mismatched words and tone, shakes loose an amused chuckle from my chest. Charlie guffaws a second later, and Bella laughs, as well, the musical sound dancing through my head. "Okay, okay," she says, resuming their discussion. "Balance."

"And Jacob," Charlie persists, his chortles fading.

"I'll try," she promises, clearly to appease him, as there is no negotiating her discontinued relationship with the dog.

Dimly pleased, Charlie leans back in his chair – the weathered wood groans again – and he comments, "Good. Find that balance, Bella. And, oh, yeah, you've got some mail. It's by the stove."

Not bothering to wait for her to show any interest, he pushes away from the table, boots clomping across the linoleum, and the quiet whoosh of heavy paper sliding along a flat surface is nearly obscured by the clatter of dishes in the sink.

"Er, thanks," Bella mumbles. The paper crinkles underneath her fingertips. "That was quick. I guess I missed the deadline on that one, too."

Charlie seems oddly eager, even impatient, for his daughter to open her mail, and he chuckles lowly in an effort to disguise it.

Remembering what Alice had said about Bella receiving her acceptance letter from Alaska Southeast today, I smile to myself and make a mental note to announce my acceptance to the same school well within Charlie's hearing range.

"It's open."

"I was curious," he says, unapologetic.

Bella's teasing smirk lightens her tone as she remarks, "I'm shocked, Sheriff. That's a federal crime."

"Oh, just read it." The impatience is prevalent now in his gruff voice.

Tiny ruffling noises interrupt the sudden quiet, and then Charlie announces with proud enthusiasm, "Congratulations. Your first acceptance." A short-lived flicker of melancholy pierces his otherwise lighthearted consciousness, but it fades quickly as he resumes his stance of a pleased parent.

"Thanks, Dad," Bella tells him sincerely.

The toe of his boot scuffs against the floor. I can picture him leaning on the counter, arms crossed, one ankle looped over the other. "We should talk about tuition. I've got some money saved up –"

Bella speaks up in stubborn denial – her usual response to any discussion involving finances. "Hey, hey, none of that. I'm not touching your retirement, Dad. I've got my college fund." The majority of which is stuffed inside an old sock that she keeps hidden in her bedroom. College fund, indeed.

"Some of these places are pretty pricey, Bells," Charlie murmurs skeptically. Then the obstinacy that his daughter must have inherited begins to filter into his words as he insists, "I want to help. You don't have to go all the way to Alaska just because it's cheaper."

Actually, the distance was Bella's condition, not a consequence. She staunchly maintains that the cost of traveling to and from Juneau will lessen her father's suspicions as to why she is unable to visit during the course of the school year.

Since she has every intention of spending her first year of college as a bloodthirsty newborn vampire struggling to adapt to my family's unconventional diet, Alaska is an ideal location for a number of reasons, including the low human population and the fact that Juneau has an average of three hundred twenty-one overcast days per year.

Though I have not given up hope that I may yet devise a means of persuading her to remain human for just a little longer… I pat the thick envelope fitted snugly within my jacket and think of the black satin box in my room, waiting for the right moment.

"I've got it covered." Bella's firm reply leaves no opening for dispute. "Besides," she adds casually, "there's lots of financial aid out there. It's easy to get loans."

I pinch my lips together to smother a chuckle. Bella has access to near-unlimited resources if she would only accept the reality that I can provide for her whatever she wishes, and yet she is too pigheaded to take advantage of my wealth.

Charlie seems a bit dissatisfied, but drops the subject. However, a trickle of unease slithers into his clouded mind, and he starts to say, "So…" He trails off, intensely reluctant.

In that instant, I receive an unexpected glimpse into his thoughts – a hazy image of Bella and I sitting on his threadbare couch, arms around one another, her dark head resting upon my shoulder. Then, like a snapshot, the image focuses closely on Bella's expression. Her quiet contentment and soft smile warms my cold granite body from the inside out.

"So what?" Bella prompts him after a handful of seconds.

"Nothing," he answers. "I was just…" A puff of breath whistles through his pursed lips. The unease blanketing his mind has strengthened tenfold while he has dawdled in forming the question he dreads voicing. "Just wondering what…Edward's plans are for next year?"

"Oh." There is a world of apprehension, vagueness, and resolve in that one mumbled word.

Sensing that she may need me to field any barbed inquiries from her father, I glance at the digital clock on the dashboard. As if on cue, the numbers advance to display the start time for my allotted visiting hours, and I exit the car, moving so swiftly that the rain barely succeeds in dampening my hair and clothes.

My feet tread soundlessly up the porch steps while Charlie demands inside, "Well?"

I raise my hand and knock on the door three times. A bubble of excitement swells in my chest, my entire body humming with energy, though it has only been a few hours since I last saw Bella.

Her pulse skips a beat in response to the signal of my arrival, and then begins to flutter like a bird's wings as she shouts, "Coming!"

"Go away," Charlie grumbles under his breath.

Bella's hasty footsteps thudding towards the door cancel out the brief flicker of annoyance, and I smile with pleasure as she throws open the door, her breathing quickened, and the full force of her countenance overwhelms my heightened senses.

As always, the appealingly sweet fragrance of her blood fills my lungs with the scent of freesia and my throat bursts into flames – but the predatory instinct has been tamed into a scarcely noticeable involuntary reaction. I pay it no more attention than humans would of swallowing or blinking their eyelids. Instead, I let the warm allure of the fragile woman I love flow through me like the ocean's tide, serving as a constant reminder that she is alive, and here.

Her brown eyes sparkle and beckon like a fathomless sea, the dark depths containing countless secrets while at the same time declaring her joy at my presence and the unwavering love she gives so freely to someone like me. Her ridiculously full lips, tinted the same blushing pink as the delicate flush blossoming on her cheeks, bow into a tender smile. I would move heaven and earth for the privilege of seeing that smile on her face every day for the rest of eternity.

Thick mahogany locks slip over one shoulder as she practically lunges for my left hand, and as soon as I register the movement I find myself unconsciously reaching for her at the same time.

Fire and ice crackle and spark against one another as her fingers weave through mine, and she releases a tiny sigh while I feel some unknown tension seep from my muscles, her smoldering touch both calming and arousing.

"Hey," she greets softly, her smile tipping to one side.

The rosy glow painting her cream skin invites me closer, and I raise our knitted fingers to gently caress that enticing heat with the back of my hand, asking her in a low voice, "How was your afternoon?"

An almost imperceptible wince creases her brow. "Slow."

"For me, as well," I reply at once. My outing with Emmett was merely a distraction from the dull ache that chafes my frozen heart whenever Bella is not within range of any of my senses. Every precious second spent in her company must be savored, and I set out to do just that.

Moving our hands away from her cheek, I guide her dainty wrist towards my face and breathe in deeply, my nose gliding across the paper-thin skin covering the ambrosia pumping through her veins. My eyes close with genuine bliss as I appreciate her succulent bouquet – while also knowing full well that I will never again crave the ecstasy her blood induces.

The scorching flames clawing at my throat fade into the background with minimal effort, and I am stirred from my pleasant reverie only when Charlie's stomping reverberates through the floorboards, heading in our direction.

I lower our clasped hands – Bella tightens her grip in stubborn determination, although I have no intention of letting go simply for her father's sake – and peer into the hallway while using my free hand to shut the front door. "Good evening, Charlie," I say politely when he appears.

Bella glares over her shoulder after he responds with a hostile grunt and crosses his arms over his chest, adopting the intimidating stance of a bodyguard or security personnel. Perhaps that form of parental supervision would cause some stress in the average male teenager, but to someone with my…experience…it is frankly a bit amusing.

I ignore his antagonistic stare and look down at Bella, pulling the manila envelope from my jacket while saying, "I brought another set of applications." Playfully, I waggle the littlest finger of my right hand so she will notice the roll of stamps above my knuckle.

She groans in frustration, which is precisely the reaction I had expected, and frowns disapprovingly. Her dark eyes seem to study my expression very carefully, as though she is trying to discover how I have managed to locate over half a dozen colleges that will accept applicants so near the usual deadline.

Smiling with shrewd enjoyment, I decide to issue a gentle reminder of the level of influence I can wield on her behalf in the world of academia. "There are still a few open deadlines. And a few places willing to make exceptions."

It takes less than a second for the implications behind my words to sink in, and then she scowls darkly, her bottom lip jutting out in an adorable yet tantalizing pout.

Laughter pours out of me in a quiet burst. Even when she is aggravated, she holds me captive to her every whim. However, it is in her best interest to continue her education, so I begin to walk towards the kitchen, drawing her along after me as I suggest, "Shall we?"

With an irritated huff, Charlie tramps behind us, hovering beside the refrigerator while Bella finishes clearing the table and I lay out a decent array of forms.

I catch a quick glimpse of a tattered paperback before Bella snags it and places it on the counter, where the title is just visible along the cracked and faded binding: Wuthering Heights. I raise an eyebrow at her as our gazes touch, and she looks away. I cannot understand why that horrid novel appeals to her – so much so that she would choose to read it over and over again. I have half a mind to ask her despite our 'audience', but alas, Charlie decides to speak up.

"Speaking of college applications, Edward," he mutters, like each syllable leaves a bitter aftertaste in his mouth. He rarely addresses me directly; whatever is niggling his curiosity must be powerful enough to surmount his resentment of my continued presence in his daughter's life. "Bella and I were just talking about next year. Have you decided where you're going to school?" He delivers the question like a challenge, his eyes daring me to respond.

He has every right to his hatred of me, so I answer respectfully, "Not yet. I've received a few acceptance letters, but I'm still weighing my options."

"Where have you been accepted?" he urges. His hazy thoughts swirl with grudging interest, self-loathing for expressing that interest, and that same twinge of unease I had detected earlier.

In as unassuming a way as possible, I list out the usual choices – each of which I have already attended at some point in the last eighty years. "Syracuse…Harvard…Dartmouth…and I just got accepted to the University of Alaska Southeast today." Shifting a little in my chair, I wink at Bella. Her shoulders jiggle faintly with a smothered giggle.

Charlie's expression is awed, though he vainly attempts to conceal it beneath a glower. "Harvard? Dartmouth?" He cannot completely banish the admiration from his tone while he admits, "Well that's pretty…that's something." Then a spark of foreboding ignites in his mind, and he regards me suspiciously for a moment before going on. "Yeah, but the University of Alaska…you wouldn't really consider that when you could go Ivy League. I mean, your father would want you to…"

"Carlisle's always fine with whatever I choose to do," I interject smoothly. Charlie needs to understand that I am physically incapable of being apart from Bella, and since I have grand designs in regard to our future together, I truly wish for him to realize that I love his daughter more than anything and will never abandon her again.

Lofty ambitions, to be sure – but far easier said than done, judging by the derisive snort I receive from Charlie. "Hmph."

The soft snap of Bella clenching her teeth echoes across the kitchen table, and I gaze at her in reassurance, a faint, apologetic smile curving my lips. It grieves me to be the source of animosity between her and her father, especially given that their time together is rapidly nearing an end.

All of a sudden, her entire demeanor changes. Grinning brightly, her chocolate-brown irises glittering with mischief, she says with an air of childlike playfulness, "Guess what, Edward?"

"What, Bella?" I ask innocently, joining in her little game.

She points at the envelope lying askew on top of her worn copy of Wuthering Heights. "I just got my acceptance to the University of Alaska!"

I smile, making a conscious effort to keep my smugness under control. "Congratulations! What a coincidence," I add, and inwardly rejoice as the tiniest snort of laughter bubbles out of her, gracing my ears like the sweetest music.

Dark eyes narrowed into accusing slits, Charlie shifts his glare from one of us to the other, his thoughts broadcasting a bitter swill of acknowledgment and petulance.

As the seconds tick by, I block out the constant hum of surrounding minds and focus on Charlie, attempting to penetrate the unusual fog that partially masks his thoughts from my talent.

A surly grumble whispers through my perception a beat later. Never going to get rid of him now…

Before I can fully contemplate my brief success, Charlie mutters, "Fine." His foul mood leaks into his next words even though he is addressing his daughter. "I'm going to go watch the game, Bella. Nine-thirty," he commands, and takes a half step towards the doorway to the living room.

"Er, Dad?" Bella pipes up, eyebrows arched in expectation. "Remember the very recent discussion about my freedom…?"

I blink once, taken aback by this turn of events, while Charlie heaves a long-suffering sigh. "Right. Okay, ten-thirty. You still have a curfew on school nights." He points an index finger at her for emphasis.

This critical piece of information had escaped my notice earlier. Alice had not seen anything about a discontinuance of Bella's undeserved punishment, which means Charlie either made a spur-of-the-moment decision – highly unlikely – or there are stipulations to be fulfilled. Regardless, I cannot temper my excitement as I ask, "Bella's no longer grounded?"

Charlie's eyes cut to me, and his jaw bunches before he replies through his teeth, "Conditionally. What's it to you?" There is more venom in his tone than is currently in my mouth. Bella frowns in severe displeasure at him, but he does not appear to notice.

"It's just good to know," I tell him, emulating my father's serene mannerism. "Alice has been itching for a shopping partner, and I'm sure Bella would love to see some city lights." I smile softly in her direction.

An unexpected mental blast of a fearful NO! slams into my brain, catching me off-guard, and Charlie's face turns an unhealthy ruddy purple. "No!" he denies aloud, lips stretched over his teeth in a livid grimace.

Startled, Bella exclaims, "Dad! What's the problem?"

His jaw works for a moment, like he is forcing his teeth apart, and then he growls, "I don't want you going to Seattle right now."

"Huh?" She stares up at him in confusion.

"I told you about that story in the paper –"

I immediately spot the raindrop-dappled newsprint thrown on the counter and dash to collect it before either of them can blink, scanning the front-page story with growing trepidation while Charlie continues his tirade.

"– there's some kind of gang on a killing spree in Seattle and I want you to steer clear, okay?" He stares at his only child sternly, but the fear that something might happen to her weighs heavy on his mind, making his expression more desperate than I am sure he would have liked.

Bella dismisses his legitimate concern for her safety with a roll of her dark eyes. The girl has a complete and utter lack of self-preservation. "Dad," she remarks in a condescending voice, "there's a better chance that I'll get struck by lightning than that the one day I'm in Seattle –"

I step into the conversation, my gaze skimming the black type. "No, that's fine, Charlie. I didn't mean Seattle. I was thinking Portland, actually." Coming to a particularly insightful paragraph, I frown and say truthfully, "I wouldn't have Bella in Seattle, either. Of course not." Especially if my analysis of this article is correct. Seattle is not safe for any human right now.

In the corner of my eye, I can see Bella's disbelieving face, but Charlie eventually calms, the angry red flush fading from his cheeks. With a shrug, he tosses out a negligent, "Fine," and clomps into the living room. The TV clicks on seconds later – announcers commentating on the evening's upcoming basketball game.

Despite her usual impatience, Bella waits a full two minutes until she demands, "What –"

"Hold on," I caution, detecting Charlie's veiled mistrust while I ruffle the pages of the newspaper, intent on reading the rest of the article. Still absorbing the ominous words, I use one hand to guide the first and most important application towards Bella, instructing quietly, "I think you can recycle your essays for this one. Same questions."

She sighs in resignation and picks up the pen, scratching out her answers in her loopy cursive.

While she writes, I finish with the newspaper and place it on the floor, disliking the current direction of my thoughts immensely.

My gaze drifts to the night-darkened kitchen window, and I wish fleetingly that I could be as ignorant as the people of this cloudy little town – while also knowing that such ignorance is not possible.

It is all laid out so clearly: unexplained disappearances, a total lack of physical evidence aside from the mangled corpses of five random people, too easily found by the authorities…

A loud snort breaks into my dark thoughts, and I glance away from the window just as Bella pushes the application aside as though disgusted.

"Bella?" I murmur questioningly.

"Be serious, Edward," she says, reproachful. "Dartmouth?" Her tone ascends an octave as she expresses her incredulity.

Picking up the discarded paperwork, I meet her dubious glare patiently and set the application back in front of her. "I think you'd like New Hampshire," I reply in a gentle voice, smiling a little. "There's a full complement of night courses for me, and the forests are very conveniently located for the avid hiker." My lips twist into her favorite crooked grin as I conclude with, "Plentiful wildlife."

Her nostrils flare the tiniest bit as she inhales a deep breath, apparently striving for calm, and she looks at me with a dangerous glint in her brown irises.

My stubborn, stubborn girl. "I'll let you pay me back," I assure her soothingly, "if that makes you happy. If you want, I can charge you interest."

"Like I could even get in without some enormous bribe," she gripes, throwing up a hand in exasperation. Her heartbeat accelerates, and she scrutinizes my relaxed features, wondering aloud, "Or was that part of the loan? The new Cullen wing of the library? Ugh!" Flinging herself against the back of her chair, she crosses her arms over her chest with a huff. "Why are we having this discussion again?" she asks wearily.

Though I could list a myriad assortment of reasons, I instead gaze at her with soft, pleading eyes and murmur, "Will you just fill out the application, please, Bella? It won't hurt you to apply."

Rather than succumbing to my regular form of persuasion, Bella locks her jaw and retorts, "You know what? I don't think I will." The glint in her eyes has intensified into sparks of ire – a clear sign that she is about to do something spontaneous and potentially unsafe.

Challenging me with a fierce glare, her slim hand reaches for the half-completed forms – no doubt to pitch them into the trashcan – but I rescue the papers before she moves more than a few inches, carefully hiding them inside my jacket once again.

It takes her about five seconds to register the application's disappearance, and then she fixes me with an accusing glower. "What are you doing?" she orders, stymied.

As entertained as I am with her adorable kittenish fury, I conceal my grin and answer coolly, "I sign your name better than you do yourself. You've already written the essays." One way or another, the finished application of Isabella Marie Swan would reach Dartmouth within the week – and she will get accepted.

Bella sulks for a minute or so, and then she shoots a wary glance at the kitchen doorway while leaning across the tabletop. Stray tendrils of her mahogany hair curl onto the worn surface, and my fingers twitch with the longing to feel the silken strands against my skin.

"You're going way overboard with this, you know," she whispers, the warmth of her breath caressing my lips, and I swallow once, willing the growing hunger into submission. Now is not the time for such adolescent indulgence. I focus intently on her words as she goes on. "I really don't need to apply anywhere else. I've been accepted in Alaska. I can almost afford the first semester's tuition. It's as good an alibi as any." Her mouth presses into a firm line. "There's no need to throw away a bunch of money, no matter whose it is," she states decisively.

The chasm in my chest that had formed when I'd left her threatens to split open and pull me down into the black abyss of nothingness once again. She is so eager to throw away her one chance to truly live and join me in this eternal, unchanging existence.

While I have come to terms over these past few weeks with the knowledge that a small part of me clings to the hope that her precious soul will not be burned away when the venom courses through her veins…the rest of me has been reduced to a convoluted mass of fear, desire, agitation, and a ferocious need to make Bella understand exactly what she will be sacrificing by becoming one of us.

I feel my expression contort, betraying my internal struggle, but I cannot muster the strength to pretend otherwise. "Bella –" I breathe her name quietly, pained.

"Don't start," she counters, her tone softer but no less determined. "I agree that I need to go through the motions for Charlie's sake, but we both know I'm not going to be in any condition to go to school next fall. To be anywhere near people."

Summoned by her words, the image of Bella as a newborn vampire – marble-skinned, scarlet-eyed, her slender arms looped around Alice in easy companionship – swims into my mind's eye.

My own time as a newly awakened vampire I can sketchily recall, but only in flashes: brief memories of Carlisle's endless patience, my exercises in harnessing incredible strength and speed…and bloodlust, always the bloodlust, searing my throat like molten lava each time I caught the slightest whiff of human blood.

It will be different for Bella. She knows for the most part what to expect, although knowledge is a far cry from experience, and she is confident that she will regain control of herself in a year or two. Despite my fears that she will resent immortality, I can no longer deny the fact that the thought of forever with Bella at my side fills me with incandescent joy.

That same joy has echoed distantly through my being each time Alice hints at the future with visions of white lace and wedding vows – and the dream of tying myself to Bella, and her to me, in every possible way before the change is what motivates me to speak a gentle reminder. "I thought the timing was still undecided. You might enjoy a semester or two of college. There are a lot of human experiences you've never had."

"I'll get to those afterward," she replies flippantly.

I resist the impulse to sigh in dejection. She is missing the point. "They won't be human experiences afterward. You don't get a second chance at humanity, Bella," I tell her, a note of sadness in my voice.

She sighs, her shoulders slumping as though she is exhausted, and then she leans an elbow on the table and cups her neck with a hand, her hair spilling to one side. "You've got to be reasonable about the timing, Edward," she insists. "It's just too dangerous to mess around with."

"There's no danger yet," I respond at once. Threats loom on the horizon, to be sure, but are not so immediate that Bella has to surrender her beating heart right after graduation.

From the cynical quirk of her brow, I guess that she is not inclined to agree.

Her dark eyes drift sideways, and she tucks her bottom lip between her teeth, a little V marring her forehead as she loses herself in her silent thoughts. I swallow my frustration and watch her shifting expressions intently, hoping to glean some inkling of what is happening inside that beautiful head of hers.

Suddenly she jerks upright in her seat, her blank stare widening almost in panic – which changes into distress as she winces, her face tilted downward, a study of light and shadow.

I cannot bear to see her suffer. "Bella," I call tenderly, willing her to look at me. She raises her eyes, and I feel my expression twist to match hers, my stone heart writhing in grief. "There's no hurry. I won't let anyone hurt you," I vow, trying to discern the swirl of emotion in her chocolate irises. "You can take all the time you need." This choice is hers and hers alone, no matter how badly I may want it, and I will do everything in my power to make certain that she is not robbed of any opportunities in her human life.

A weak smile flickers across her mouth. "I want to hurry," she whispers, the earnestness in her tone a feeble disguise for the worry still clouding her delicate features. Then she attempts to make light of the situation, joking, "I want to be a monster, too."

With those words, she effectively pushes me over the edge. The thin threads restraining my hair-trigger temper snap, and I grit my teeth to hold back a growl. "You have no idea what you're saying," I mutter curtly.

Snatching up the newspaper from where I had laid it on the floor, I hurl it onto the table and Bella jumps back in surprise, though I am too furious at the moment to regret my abrupt behavior. I jab my index finger at the glaring black headline. I had not intended to share this with her so soon, but her careless remark has left me no alternative.

Bella peers curiously at the front page, her eyes still rounded in bewilderment at my actions, and after a few seconds a confused frown pulls at the corners of her lips. "What does that have to do with anything?"

My ribs vibrate with another muted rumble. I push it down forcefully. Patience, Edward… she doesn't realize what is happening in Seattle. Striving for calm, I answer her in a low, controlled hiss, "Monsters are not a joke, Bella."

She studies the bold text again, and then glances up at me, stunned. "A…a vampire is doing this?" she asks, scarcely louder than a whisper. Her pulse thunders in my ears – a disjointed tempo that mirrors the horrified comprehension on her pale face.

I smile humorlessly, explaining in a cold, detached voice, "You'd be surprised, Bella, at how often my kind are the source behind the horrors in your human news. It's easy to recognize, when you know what to look for." My finger trails down the newsprint, following the line of paragraphs spelling out the handiwork of a vicious, uninhibited immortal. "The information here indicates a newborn vampire is loose in Seattle. Bloodthirsty, wild, out of control. The way we all were." The way Bella herself will be when she awakens from three days of agonizing torment.

I banish that thought quickly with a sharp jerk of my head – too fast for her to notice – but she has averted her eyes, looking down at the paper.

"We've been monitoring the situation for a few weeks," I go on, void of any inflection. Jasper was the first to notice the pattern; given his history, he naturally ascertained the presence of a newborn within the city after the initial two disappearances, which has since escalated to five. "All the signs are there – the unlikely disappearances, always in the night, the poorly disposed-of corpses, the lack of other evidence… Yes, someone brand-new. And no one seems to be taking responsibility for the neophyte…"

Taking a slow breath, my anger simmering down to a more manageable level, I recall the discussion my family had conducted last night before I returned to Bella's bedroom. "Well, it's not our problem," I say with finality. "We wouldn't even pay attention to the situation if it wasn't going on so close to home. Like I said, this happens all the time. The existence of monsters results in monstrous consequences."

Bella cannot seem to tear her gaze from the newspaper. As the silence lengthens, I begin to notice a tightness in her frame, the rigid set of her spine, and the air shudders in her lungs when she exhales.

Ashamed of my rudeness, I flatten my palm against the paper and decide to remove it from her view…when she suddenly whispers in a quivering voice, "It won't be the same for me. You won't let me be like that. We'll live in Antarctica."

I snort in wry amusement. Of all places, only Bella would think of that frigid, barren continent as a suitable location for her newborn years. And there is just one readily available food source. "Penguins," I comment sarcastically. "Lovely." A revolted shiver pricks my nerve endings as I imagine capturing a slippery flightless bird and drinking its fish-flavored blood.

Wobbly laughter rings out from Bella. She slides the newspaper from under my hand and plunks it onto the floor without a second glance, then rests her forearms on the empty tabletop. "Alaska, then, as planned," she reaffirms in a lighter tone. "Only somewhere much more remote than Juneau – somewhere with grizzlies galore." She looks up for my approval.

I nod, agreeing, "Better. There are polar bears, too. Very fierce. And the wolves get quite large."

As soon as the words leave my mouth, I know that I have made a terrible mistake, for Bella's jaw drops and she breathes out in a sharp puff, as though someone has punched her in the stomach.

Staring at her in alarm, I ask, "What's wrong?" But I needn't have bothered. Once I take in her shocked expression, the dismay and hurt in her brown eyes, I understand.

'Wolves', I had said.

The dog.

Jacob.

"Oh." My limbs seem to ice over, the stone-like hardness of my body becoming rigid while I fight to maintain control of the volatile instincts brewing inside me because of her reaction to my thoughtless remark.

Logically, I know that she and her father had discussed the mutt over dinner, so of course any notion of him or his pack of protectors would be triggered in her mind by my words. And the dog had been a good friend to her after I had torn her apart with my blasphemous lies and vanished from her world.

However, the century-old vampire in me – who has finally found his mate and will not tolerate losing her ever again – bristles with jealousy and fear, demanding to eliminate this potential rival.

Bella is still watching me, her gaze wary and distraught, and I compose myself enough to form a stiff reply. "Never mind the wolves, then, if the idea is offensive to you." My manner is coldly formal; I do not trust myself to relax my stance even a millimeter, or I risk collapsing into a destructive rage.

"He was my best friend, Edward." Her subdued voice trips a little over the past tense verb. "Of course the idea offends me." She twists her hands together on the table, clenching and releasing her small fingers in a nervous gesture.

I look at her hands for a brief time, noting the subtle changes in their color as the pressure of her grip strengthens…and I remember seeing those pale, perfect hands cradled within two large red-brown palms, an image I received from several minds including the mutt's.

I lock my knees in place and raise my head, focusing on the chipped yellow paint of the cupboards behind Bella's head. "Please forgive my thoughtlessness," I recite mechanically. The idea of her skin touching his in any way both sickens and enrages me, yet I cannot seem to get that memory out of my head. "I shouldn't have suggested that."

"Don't worry about it." Her response echoes faintly as she speaks towards the tabletop, head bowed and shoulders hunched. Her hair is a curtain of tousled chestnut and mahogany around her cheekbones, shading her features, and although she is mere feet away, the sudden distance between us feels like miles.

The subject of the mongrel and his kin has become a hindrance in our relationship.

And I hate it.

I hate it because this obstacle is something that I have wrought with my own hands. If I had never left, never tried to force Bella to live a normal life without any influence from me or my dangerous world, she would not have gotten involved with the dog and spent so much time in the company of young werewolves. The blame rests solely on my shoulders, and I have to deal with the consequences. Which means that I owe Bella a genuine apology.

I carefully unwind the tension in my muscles, rejoicing when I remain in control of my emotions, and my features soften while I regard the distressed angel seated in front of me, her lowered eyes fixated on her tightly clasped hands. Reaching across the table, I slip my finger under her chin and gently coax her to lift her head, waiting to speak until she meets my gaze. "Sorry," I murmur in quiet sincerity. "Really."

The warm glow returns to her chocolate-brown eyes, relief chasing the stressed lines from her brow, and she sighs a little, the heated sweetness of her breath on my face serving as a tangible reminder that in spite of our difference of opinion concerning the dog, she is here now with me. "I know," she says softly. "I know it's not the same thing. I shouldn't have reacted that way. It's just that…" She starts to worry her lower lip again. This particular habit of hers seeks to undermine my self-control with each passing day. I studiously focus on her eyes while she continues. "Well, I was already thinking about Jacob before you came over." Bella pauses, examining my gaze – and discovers something that causes her to plead with me. "Charlie says Jake is having a hard time. He's hurting right now, and…it's my fault." Her expression crumples in sadness.

Wanting to console her, I keep my hand under her chin and lightly stroke the dimple beneath her bottom lip with the pad of my thumb. "You've done nothing wrong, Bella," I soothe. Her selfless nature compels her to shoulder the burdens of the world, and though I admire her altruism, she has no business trying to mend the broken heart of a deluded, lovesick pup.

She takes a deep breath as though bracing herself. "I need to make it better, Edward," she persists, beseeching yet resolved. "I owe him that. And it's one of Charlie's conditions, anyway –"

My eyes narrow, my mouth flattening into a hard line. Charlie can issue all the conditions he wants – it makes no difference. Bella will not be going anywhere near that mongrel. I would willingly break the treaty and risk open war with the pack before I allow her to be as close to him as she was that afternoon in the woods outside her father's house. "You know it's out of the question for you to be around a werewolf unprotected, Bella." My steely tone leaves no room for compromise. "And it would break the treaty if any of us cross over onto their land. Do you want us to start a war?"

"Of course not!" she exclaims, wide-eyed, her cheeks flushing with a burst of warm color.

Her heat seeps into my fingertips, thawing the iciness from my posture a bit, and the sensation only reinforces my decision to ensure her safety at any cost – even if it means sacrificing a friendship that she obviously holds very dear. I will not abide anything that has the slightest chance of endangering her life… because I know what it feels like to think I have lost her forever. "Then there's really no point in discussing the matter further," I reply bluntly, and lower my hand, already missing the warmth of her skin on mine.

Bella scowls in my direction, her eyes blazing with indignation while her lips purse in sullen displeasure.

I look aside for a moment, wracking my brain for a new subject, and my attention lands on the well-worn paperback sprawled on the counter behind Bella's chair. I smile faintly, still cautious of her rare but explosive temper, and begin in a mild, teasing voice, "I'm glad Charlie has decided to let you out – you're sadly in need of a visit to the bookstore. I can't believe you're reading Wuthering Heights again." I shake my head in mock-disbelief. "Don't you know it by heart yet?"

The angry light in her dark irises flares when I mention her beloved book, and then she retorts tersely, "Not all of us have photographic memories."

"Photographic memory or not," I observe, leaning back in my seat, "I don't understand why you like it. The characters are ghastly people who ruin each others' lives." It has been quite some time since I last read the novel, but I remember feeling distinctly apathetic throughout the chapters, wondering how it could ever be labeled as a 'romance'. "I don't know how Heathcliff and Cathy ended up being ranked with couples like Romeo and Juliet or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. It isn't a love story, it's a hate story." I tilt my head to the side as I wait for her response, certain that her passion for her favorite book will succeed in fully distracting her from the previous conversation.

Sure enough, she rises to the challenge. Her heartbeat gathers speed, and the blush on her cheeks spreads to her ears, the floral scent of her blood saturating the room, but I pay the dull ache in my throat little heed. Her ardent fury is breathtakingly exquisite – even as she snaps at me, "You have some serious issues with the classics."

"Perhaps it's because I'm not impressed by antiquity," I muse nonchalantly, celebrating to myself that this diversion has captured her attention, and my lips flex into an easy grin. Still, her intense devotion to the novel has stirred my curiosity, and I am suddenly consumed with the need to know why she feels so strongly about this particular work of fiction.

My gaze roves over her inflamed features, and then I fall into her burning brown eyes, unconsciously leaning forward while I ask, fascinated, "Honestly, though, why do you read it over and over?" Drawn to the rosy softness of her skin, I extend a hand across the table and frame the side of her face with my palm, the scorching warmth stinging my nerves pleasurably. "What is it that appeals to you?" I implore her for an answer with my eyes, desperate to understand in some small way the mysterious, intricate tapestry of her mind.

Caught off guard by my rapt interest, Bella's livid expression melts away, her breath hitching for a moment before she assembles a reply. "I'm not sure." She stumbles a bit over the words, but grows in confidence as she continues, her eyes boring into my own. "I think it's something about the inevitability. How nothing can keep them apart – not her selfishness, or his evil, or even death, in the end…"

I must admit that I had never considered the story in that light. It is remarkable, really, that both her thoughts and mine are as one when it comes to the fated sense surrounding our relationship. I have always known from the first night I heard her murmur my name in her sleep that there will never be anyone else for me, and after what transpired this spring, I have come to realize that Bella feels the same. We are two halves of a whole, and despite the vast array of circumstances that have tried to separate us – her humanity, my monstrous nature, the attempts on her life and my own stupidity – we have always found our way back to each other.

Yes, I can see all too clearly why the tragic tale of Heathcliff and Catherine fascinates her so.

Coming back to myself, I give her a lopsided smirk. "I still think it would be a better story if either of them had one redeeming quality," I quip teasingly.

"I think that may be the point," she contends in a quiet, firm voice. "Their love is their only redeeming quality." She leans a little further into my hand, her soft gaze clear and beautiful as a star-filled sky, and I almost blurt out that my sole redeeming quality is the fact that a pure soul like hers finds the tainted, fractured creature I am worthy of her love.

Nevertheless, I maintain our easy banter and remark in a lighthearted tone, "I hope you have better sense than that – to fall in love with someone so…malignant."

Bella smiles faintly. "It's a bit late for me to worry about who I fall in love with," she murmurs, and a trembling sensation stirs in the pit of my stomach, my selfish heart rejoicing that I can again call her mine. "But even without the warning," she goes on nonchalantly, "I seem to have managed fairly well."

I cannot help but laugh in ironic amusement. This from the girl whose outrageously tempting blood nearly caused her death on her first day of school, whose silent mind and quiet beauty possessed a vampire to follow her every waking and sleeping moment until he could no longer resist – who reciprocated the same vampire's love even though it almost took her life on more than one occasion – who was visibly and painfully shattered when he cut himself out of her life in a foolish attempt to protect her – whose steadfast devotion and selfless courage drove her to save him from a misguided plot to commit suicide, who showed him such grace when he begged for her forgiveness – and who is willing to give up everything she knows in order to be with him forever as a cold, unchanging immortal.

Yes…she has managed quite well, indeed.

"I'm glad you think so," I say through a low chuckle.

She quirks an eyebrow, a mischievous light in her chocolate irises. "Well, I hope you're smart enough to stay away from someone so selfish. Catherine is really the source of all the trouble, not Heathcliff."

If Bella is trying to allude to herself as being selfish, nothing could be farther from the truth. However, I promise her solemnly, "I'll be on my guard," while my thumb greedily skims across her supple skin, tracing the light shadow under her eye.

A warm, fragrant sigh escapes from her, and she places her small hand over mine, pressing it closer to her face. The exhilarating heat begins to travel throughout my entire arm, instilling the fantasy that I am as alive as her.

I bask in the feeling for one perfect second…until Bella brings stark reality crashing down upon the illusion. "I need to see Jacob," she states, as though it is an unavoidable fact.

I shut my eyes, hiding from her too perceptive gaze. I do not want to waste any more precious time arguing with her about the dog, but I will not negotiate this risk to her safety. "No."

She tries to plead with me again, insisting, "It's truly not dangerous at all. I used to spend all day in La Push with the whole lot of them, and nothing ever happened." She falters slightly at the end, and I open my eyes in time to see her lick her lips nervously, the palm resting on the back of my hand turning clammy with sweat as her pulse quickens.

Staving off a flash of panic at the imagined image of Bella cowering from a massive bundle of fur, muscle and raw ferocity, I try not to dwell on what she must be remembering that would cause her to react in this way and slowly nod. "Werewolves are unstable," I remind her. The mutt had barely held it together at our last meeting; if he had phased, I would have had no choice but to end his life, though it would have been a precarious fight with Bella there. "Sometimes, the people near them get hurt." My voice is low, somber. "Sometimes, they get killed."

Her mouth opens, preparing to disagree – but then her brow crinkles, disconcerted by some memory of her time among the dogs, and I hold my tongue, waiting with a grim sense of satisfaction for her to acknowledge the danger her 'friends' present.

Finally, she shakes her head, refusing to admit the truth, her expression desperately stubborn. "You don't know them," she whispers.

She wants so much to believe the best of everyone – but this is simply a fact of their nature. The wolves are volatile and instinct-driven; this new pack is too young and inexperienced to have gained the needed self-control to rein in the urge to phase when provoked. Even those we had first encountered when the treaty was formed were a hotheaded band of brothers. "I know them better than you think, Bella," I point out softly. "I was here the last time."

"The last time?" She stares at me, uncomprehending.

"We started crossing paths with the wolves about seventy years ago…" It takes me less than a minute to recall every detail of those tense confrontations, and I summarize our history with the Quileutes as objectively as possible for Bella's sake. "We had just settled near Hoquiam. That was before Alice and Jasper were with us. We outnumbered them, but that wouldn't have stopped it from turning into a fight if not for Carlisle." My father has a great gift for defusing any potentially violent situation, and his compassion knows no bounds. A true humanitarian. "He managed to convince Ephraim Black that coexisting was possible, and eventually we made the truce."

Bella starts just noticeably when I mention the Blacks' ancestor. Rather than call attention to it, I mutter under my breath, "We thought the line had died out with Ephraim. That the genetic quirk which allowed the transmutation had been lost…" After seventy-odd years, why would the wolves return now when there has been no indication of any strange activity in the area since before my family took up residence again?

It seems to me that these events were all set in motion by a single catalyst: my personal danger magnet.

I glare at her critically, though there is little force behind it, and accuse, "Your bad luck seems to get more potent every day. Do you realize that your insatiable pull for all things deadly was strong enough to recover a pack of mutant canines from extinction?" I purse my lips to hide a grin. "If we could bottle your luck, we'd have a weapon of mass destruction on our hands." My finger lightly taps the end of her nose.

The dumbfounded look on her face is not the reaction I had expected. After a handful of seconds, she finds her voice and replies, astonished, "But I didn't bring them back. Don't you know?"

"Know what?" My head tilts sideways as I study her expression, the voracious curiosity to hear her thoughts gnawing at my sanity.

"My bad luck had nothing to do with it." Bella seems almost…sympathetic as she explains in a logical tone, "The werewolves came back because the vampires did."

Eyes widening, I become absolutely motionless in surprise, forgetting for the moment to uphold my human façade. Could this really be a simple matter of cause and effect? Or is Bella's information merely a part of the folklore the Quileutes have passed down through the generations?

She interrupts my frenetic internal questioning. "Jacob told me that your family being here set things in motion," she says hesitantly, her gaze shadowed by a slight frown. "I thought you would already know…"

Irritation flares within me. Of course the dog would cast my family as the villains in the story he spun to Bella. He would use any means necessary to sway her loyalty. "Is that what they think?" I comment icily, narrowing my eyes as I wonder what other fables he had filled Bella's head with in my absence.

Leery of my temper, her fingers curl gently around my hand still cradling her face, and the burst of fiery warmth clears my thinking enough to focus on the rest of her explanation. "Edward, look at the facts. Seventy years ago, you came here, and the werewolves showed up. You come back now, and the werewolves show up again. Do you think that's a coincidence?" She lifts her eyebrows in question.

I blink once, the rigid stillness leaving my frame as I consider her words. Her reasoning is sound; I will have to share her evidence with my father sometime this evening, and I say as much aloud. "Carlisle will be interested in that theory."

"Theory," she scoffs, rolling her eyes, and drops her hand onto the table with a dull thump.

My palm slips from her cheek while I mull over the possibility that the presence of vampires – namely, my family and myself – would trigger the gene encoded into the Quileute bloodlines that allows their sons to change into foul-smelling furry guardians.

Gazing unseeingly out the window into the rainy night, I am confronted by a disturbing thought. As our numbers have increased since the treaty was established, has the pack grown, as well? Are we the ones who will be outnumbered the next time our paths cross?

I pull away from these somewhat unsettling notions and turn back to Bella, smiling just a little. "Interesting," I concede, "but not exactly relevant. The situation remains the same." She will not be associating with the mongrel or his compatriots unsupervised – or at all, if I have my way.

I realize then that my behavior is appallingly high-handed, but I offer no excuses. Bella is the core of my existence, the reason I still walk this earth. And will do what I must to protect her…even from herself.

Silence descends upon the tiny kitchen. Charlie's basketball game echoes dimly from the living room, mingling with the soft sounds of breathing and the most important heartbeat in the world, and Bella watches me for a few minutes, her eyes flashing with emotions too swiftly for me to identify. Then, she draws herself upright and walks around the table, warmth radiating from her like a self-contained sun.

Understanding her unspoken request, I angle my chair towards her and open my arms in invitation.

She settles into my lap, weightless as a feather, and tucks herself snugly against my cold, solid chest like there is no place else she would rather be, her low exhale warming the skin at the base of my throat.

I wrap my arms around her fragile form and breathe in the scent of her hair as it tickles my chin, the heat of her delicate, living body soaking into my every cell. I would be content to hold her like this for the rest of eternity.

Bella avoids my eyes, staring instead at my hands clasped around her as she begins to speak. "Please just listen for a minute."

Her voice is so morose, so subdued, that I tighten my embrace infinitesimally, seeking to comfort her, although I fear I already know what this is about. Bella is not one to surrender easily. Of course, neither am I.

"This is so much more important than some whim to drop in on an old friend. Jacob is in pain," she says, pronouncing the word as though it cuts her like a knife. "I can't not try to help him – I can't give up on him now, when he needs me. Just because he's not human all the time…" She pauses, takes a breath, and then soldiers on. "Well, he was there for me when I was…not so human myself. You don't know what it was like…"

The words seem to die in her throat, bathed in remembered pain, but the anguish is fresh in my mind, and my whole body tenses in response.

I have seen in many others' thoughts the damage I had done to this trusting, loving woman now resting so willingly against me. I witnessed firsthand the vacant stare, the listless appearance and the wan complexion. I had heard from her own lips how she had sought adrenaline-infused stunts in order to hear my voice in her head, telling her to not do anything reckless. And I had glimpsed in both the dog's mind and my sister's the ill-fated jump from the ocean cliff into the swirling gray water.

My hands clench into fists, the nails digging into my palms, and my eyelids screw shut. I deserve to die for what I did to Bella.

She continues, still hesitant, but no less convicted. "If Jacob hadn't helped me…I'm not sure what you would have come home to. I owe him better than this, Edward." I can feel her eyes on my face, her pulse accelerating as she reads the strain in my jaw, the lines etched into my forehead.

Swallowing hard, I whisper huskily, "I'll never forgive myself for leaving you." She has forgiven me so easily, undeserving wretch that I am, but I will carry the burden of my blackest sin until the end of time. "Not if I live a hundred thousand years." And that seals my vow.

Before I can immerse myself in the depths of self-flagellation, an angel plucks me from the dark realm of purgatory – as she has does so many times before – by laying a burning-soft hand on my cheek, and then waits patiently for me to rejoin her in the light.

I sigh, long and deep, and open my eyes to meet Bella's chocolate-brown gaze, reflecting her constant love and devotion to this broken man.

"You were just trying to do the right thing," she assures softly. "And I'm sure it would have worked with anyone less mental than me." She smiles a bit at her self-mocking repartee. I stifle a groan. Selfless to a fault, Bella would rather blame herself for her suffering than the one who had knowingly crushed her heart and her trusting spirit in one fell swoop. "Besides, you're here now. That's the part that matters."

The underlying current of peace in her tone should have been enough to quell the storm of intense emotion brewing inside me, but it only grows stronger, loosening my tenuous grip on the willpower restraining my mercurial temperament. The harsh retort erupts before I have a chance to stop it. "If I'd never left, you wouldn't feel the need to go risk your life to comfort a dog."

Bella flinches as though I had growled out an obscenity; I shove aside the twinge of shame that follows, with minimal success.

Inhaling a fiery breath of freesia, I realize that my only option is to spell out for her that there are no limits as to what I am prepared to do in order to keep her safe. However, as I look down at her perfect face, her brown eyes troubled beneath a knitted brow, the words seem to stick in my throat.

"I don't know how to phrase this properly," I admit in a low murmur. "It's going to sound cruel, I suppose. But I've come too close to losing you in the past. I know what it feels like to think I have." I wince a little as the dulled ache of an agony too great to bear blooms in my chest. I shift Bella closer to me, her soft warmth tethering my awareness to the present moment, and the pain starts to fade. "I am not going to tolerate anything dangerous," I finish with quiet fervor. If I have learned anything in the last seven months, it is that I cannot survive without Bella. She is essential to my existence – a sustenance more nourishing than blood, a force more powerful than gravity. She is my whole world.

Her hand presses into my cheek, her heartbeat throbbing against my hardened flesh, and she persists in testing my resolve, coaxing, "You have to trust me on this. I'll be fine." I can tell from her clear eyes and firm chin that she truly believes in the mutt's fluctuating self-discipline.

My mind fills with the memory of the dog's near-loss of control in the woods – his quaking limbs, the shiver of air around his too hot skin, the instinct to attack roaring in his skull – and I picture Bella standing in front of him, white with terror, stumbling to the ground as she tries to flee…

A stab of pain slices through my abdomen, nearly doubling me over. Instead, my body bows further into Bella's delicate frame, and I see my pained expression reflected in her wide pupils as I lean forward. "Please, Bella," I beg in a hoarse whisper.

Captive to my relentless, burning stare, she asks, "Please what?"

"Please, for me." The muscles in my forearms tense around her soft curves, and I find myself wishing for the thousandth time that I could hold her without worrying about my inhuman strength maiming her silk-over-glass body. "Please make a conscious effort to keep yourself safe. I'll do everything I can, but I would appreciate a little help." I purposefully breathe out through scarcely parted lips, allowing my scent to waft into her upturned face, and her pulse skips a beat, her eyes glassy from my 'dazzling'.

Unfortunately, her immunity must be improving, for she blinks the haze from her stare and offers as reassurance, "I'll work on it."

The girl is going to be the death of me.

Surrendering to my body's inherent desire to be encircled around hers, I pull her tightly against my chest, and she twists sideways to slip her arms under my ribs, her hands spread out across my back, making tiny circles that soothe and thrill at the same time.

"Do you really have any idea how important you are to me?" I murmur passionately, and gently move her dark hair behind an ear while a beautiful blush creeps across her face. "Any concept at all of how much I love you?" I tuck her head under my chin, the flames licking at my dry throat a mere match light compared to the slow-burning blaze incinerating my insides as her flushed cheek warms the arc of my neck.

She turns her head ever so slightly and brushes a kiss on my throat, igniting a surge of wildfire that races through my veins and floods my silent heart like an electric shock. "I know how much I love you," she breathes in response, her lips chafing my skin like the softest velvet, and the hunger I had felt earlier flickers to life, urging me to bend down and cover those soft lips with my own.

As I have done for a century with the thirst, I block out the carnal impulse and focus on our conversation, determined to prove my point that her protection is my sole concern, which is why she cannot be in the vicinity of any reeking, furred mongrel. "You compare one small tree to the entire forest," I tell her, the words ruffling her hair.

I have no intention of belittling her feelings for me – quite the opposite, in fact. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she loves me as intensely as a human heart is capable of, but the emotions of a vampire are heightened far beyond what any mortal could endure.

My love for Bella is an elemental force that has reshaped the core of my essence so that every thought, every desire and every second of my never-ending existence revolves around her. I no longer belong to myself, or even my family. She is what holds me to this earth and creates beauty and significance from what I had once considered mere survival.

Bella angles her stubborn chin across my collarbone, opposing my claim. "Impossible."

My lips find purchase on the crown of her dark head and I release a low sigh, the sound both contented and despondent. "No werewolves," I reiterate quietly. I belong to her, but that does not mean I will cater to her reckless aspiration of placing her wellbeing in the hands, or paws, of an immature pup.

Nestling deeper into my embrace, she contradicts our physical unity by arguing, "I'm not going along with that. I have to see Jacob."

There is an odd note of what could almost be defined as…longing in her tone. If I were not so adept at reading the complex melodies of thought and emotion in her voice I would not have noticed, but as such, it is enough to cause a twinge of disquiet to unfurl at the base of my spine, its icy tendrils crawling beneath my skin.

Suddenly, I find myself second-guessing my motivations for keeping Bella apart from the dog.

While it is true that her safety matters more to me than anything else in the world, my desire – my need to have her with me, to feel the warmth and softness of her body against my own and to know beyond any doubt that she belongs to me is also guiding my actions in this situation, albeit from the shadows of my most base instincts.

And those instincts stem more from the man in me than the vampire.

Can I declare with absolute certainty that I am acting in Bella's best interests by preventing her from maintaining a friendship with a young, unstable werewolf – when that same presumptuous cur has obvious feelings for the woman who embodies my whole universe and considers himself my rival for her affections?

I would be lying if I say yes.

But regardless of my state of mind, circumstances have not changed. It is too dangerous for her to be alone with the dog, and it is well within my power to ensure that Bella does not put herself in harm's way, or out of my reach. "Then I'll have to stop you," I tell her, the confidence behind my words bordering on downright arrogance, but any hint of shame that is spawned by my domineering conduct is negated when I remember how it felt to hold Bella in my arms after months of separation while trapped within the belly of the beast in Volterra, terrified that my heaven might literally be snatched from me at any second. I cannot and will not endure such helplessness again.

The rhythm of Bella's heart increases a bit, a telltale sign of her nervousness, and she remarks lightly, "We'll see about that." Her attempt at a bluff is pathetically laughable, but so charming in its naiveté that I have to smile. "He's still my friend," she murmurs a beat later, and my amusement fades, leaving me in a tangle of erratically shifting emotions.

Wrapped around one another, we remain apart for some time, lost in our own thoughts – until a trickle of suspicious curiosity filters through my ruminations, along with a half-heard scattering of words.

…wonder why it's so quiet in there…

With a low sigh, I whisper to Bella, "We should get back to work on those applications. Charlie's getting worried about how quiet it is in here." I start to loosen my hold around her, though every cell in my body shrieks in protest.

"Let him worry." Thin arms squeeze my rib cage with all of their limited strength, and Bella buries her face in my chest, clinging to me despite the faint shiver that quivers through her limbs. Her muffled words and heated breath create a very different kind of shiver in my chilled flesh as she states obstinately, "I told you that I'm not filling out any more applications. And since you said that you write my name better than me, you can just do it yourself, then."

I chuckle, finding an absurdly inappropriate sense of satisfaction in the way she locks her fingers on the small of my back, but when another shiver trembles her delicate frame, I reluctantly extricate myself from her grasp and place her in the chair beside me.

Bella sticks out her lower lip in a pout, her dark eyes narrowed at me. "Cheater," she growls.

I shrug one shoulder, neither admitting nor denying the accusation, and she pushes away from the table with a huff, stomping over to the sink. Jamming the plug into the drain, she turns on the water, a thin veil of steam rising from the basin, and grabs the bottle of soap from the cupboard. After dumping a considerable amount of the yellow liquid into the sink, she glares pointedly in my direction, a mountain of suds building in front of her.

Without a word, I amble over to her side, my lips pressed together to hide a grin, and dutifully assume the task of rinsing while she washes the dishes from her and Charlie's meager fare.

Bella seems to take out her frustration on the pot Charlie had used to boil the spaghetti noodles. Several burnt remnants are baked onto the sides, and she scrubs them vigorously with a square of steel wool, grunting a little from the effort.

Gently, I loop my arms around her hunched shoulders and still her hands with my own. "Let me," I murmur, stepping in close behind her and removing the steel wool from her limp fingers.

Her heart flutters wildly as she settles her back against my chest, but she picks up a washcloth and cleans the silverware while I scour the pot, making short work of the overcooked noodles.

The bright scent of lemon mingles with the floral sweetness of freesia, and I cannot resist leaning down to kiss the hollow beneath Bella's ear, inhaling her intoxicating fragrance directly from its source.

She starts, a low gasp parting her lips, and the handful of silverware she had been rinsing clatters loudly into the sink.

"Everything all right in there, Bells?" Charlie calls from the other room, more to deliver a warning than out of actual concern.

"Yes," she squeaks, shoving in vain against me as I snicker into the curve of her neck. She unplugs the drain and the water gurgles quietly, yet she keeps her hands hidden beneath the slow-moving suds.

Before I can anticipate the movement, Bella whirls around and blows a handful of soap bubbles into my face, grinning like a naughty child. "Ha!" she cries, triumphant.

My nostrils filled with the overpowering aroma of citrus, I blink iridescent suds from my eyelashes and level a stern look at the blushing imp trapped between me and the sink. Cupping my palm around the remaining soap bubbles, I inform her mock-seriously, "You shouldn't start a battle that you can't win, love."

Too quick for her to follow, I bring my hand up to my face, and soon there are suds in Bella's hair, glittering on her cheeks and forehead, and then I put a dollop on the tip of her nose.

Instead of an indignant scowl, she stares up at me with wide eyes, the smoldering gleam in her chocolate irises twisting my insides into a knotted mess.

A second of motionlessness, a sharp breath – and we come together like a pair of magnets, our kiss hardly modest given the fact that her father in less than thirty feet from the kitchen.

Bella weaves her damp fingers into my hair, the lemony taint of soap on her lips, and I rest my palms low on her waist, my brain screaming at me to break away while the rest of me begs to stay wrapped up in her for as long as possible.

Of course, the need for oxygen causes her to pull back, gasping, and I take the opportunity to create a respectful distance between her body and mine, my hands burning as they continue to shape themselves around the curve of her hips.

We stare at one another, breathing heavily, her heart pounding out a frantic tempo, and in her eyes I see excitement, surprise, the barest hint of fear, worry, and awe. Letting out a shaky breath, she mutters as if to herself, "That was…" An appropriate adjective seems to elude her for a moment and she bites down on her bottom lip. My hands twitch as I hold back the sudden urge to press her soft form into mine once again. "…different," she determines a second later.

I hold my tongue, struggling to regain some semblance of self-control, and unthinkingly inhale a deep breath through my nose.

It nearly proves to be my undoing. The devastatingly appealing scent of the woman I love clouds the entire room like a fog, the floral sweetness darkened somehow by a warm musk that makes my head swim as though I am an addict glorying in a drugged stupor.

With massive effort, I cast aside the sensation and peer into Bella's eyes, wondering what she sees as she studies my expression. Does she realize how difficult it is becoming for me to uphold the strict boundaries that have been placed in our physical relationship? Can she understand my appalling selfishness, which entices me to give in to her kisses, even though the consequences could result in death?

Something in my frozen features must betray my inner conflict, for the light in Bella's steady gaze flares like an awakening star and she begins to lean forward, her heart throbbing fiercely, her small hands gripping the front of my shirt…

A dull thump slices into the tense quiet and Bella starts violently, jerking out of my grasp like a skittish horse, her eyes wide and horrified as they swing towards the doorway to the living room.

Laughing, I gently enfold her in my arms. The too-fast cadence of her pulse worries me, so I brush my lips on her forehead and say in a soothing whisper, "It was just the refrigerator. I would know if Charlie was sneaking up on us." At least I should…but that is debatable at this point, considering my utter lack of common sense mere moments ago.

"Oh," she mumbles, one hand pressed over her heart. "Right." The rosy stain on her cheeks has drained away because of her fright, and she takes deliberately measured breaths, her face angled towards me in such a way that I realize she must be inhaling my scent. Her heartbeat slows its unruly pace after about half a minute, and then she looks up at me, a rueful smile wrinkling one side of her mouth. "Sorry I'm so jumpy," she apologies yet again for something that is not even her fault. "I guess I'm still a little keyed up."

Acutely aware that scant inches are separating her lips from mine, I lean back, relaxing my hold around her, and suggest, "Well, the dishes are done –" Bella's skin flushes in remembrance; I shift my gaze to the kitchen table, uncertain if I will be able to resist the allure of her blush, and go on. "– and since you are disinclined to complete any more applications, maybe we should work on our history assignment." Homework is a waste of time for me, of course, but hardly a torture when I can assist Bella in comprehending the material. She has a wonderful mind – she just lacks the self-esteem to showcase her intelligence to her teachers and classmates.

"You mean the paper that just happens to be on historical events between 1910 and 1920." Bella steps back and crosses her arms, an eyebrow arched dubiously.

I shrug, replying, "We were given our choice of decades. I thought you might appreciate a firsthand account rather than sifting through library books and research websites." I give her a brilliant smile, and she sighs in defeat, trudging up the stairs to collect her backpack from her room.

Listening to her footsteps cross the hall and enter her small bedroom, I feel my forehead crease in puzzlement when she hesitates longer than necessary, her slight weight shifting back and forth atop the floorboards like she is indecisive.

A crinkling sound – a piece of paper, perhaps – echoes faintly down the staircase, and then grows louder as though she is crushing it into a ball, which proves to be correct when I hear a light thud from the trashcan beside her desk.

In a burst of insight, I suddenly recall the 'delivery' she had asked her father to make this morning to the dog. She must have written a note for Charlie to pass along, and she is obviously not pleased with the response she received.

Juvenile curiosity mixes with frustration while I consider the possible words exchanged between them, but I am not so overly controlling as to forbid Bella from any and all contact with the mutt, though I cannot deny that a part of me wants to do exactly that.

She clomps downstairs a minute later and lobs the backpack onto the table, pulling on the zipper as she slips into a chair, a pencil clamped between her teeth.

I move the nearest chair beside her and sit, carefully removing the pencil from her mouth with an amused snort of laughter, and devote myself wholeheartedly to the mundane task of schoolwork.

Contrary to our disagreement about her friendship with the dog, neither of us broaches the subject again, content to just enjoy this short time together under the watchful attention of her father until I am dismissed promptly at ten-thirty…only to return through her window after Charlie is asleep.

And with her supple, warm body tucked into mine, I admit within the confines of my own ceaseless thoughts that this battle of wills is far from over. My Bella is unbelievably stubborn, and combined with her self-sacrificing nature and innate pull for anything supernaturally dangerous, she is liable to act without a thought for her own safety – and my sanity – to achieve her goal.

It is a fine line to tread, between wanting to give her whatever she desires and striving to protect her at the same time. Falling off either side would most likely end in disaster. And for a creature such as I, whose emotions are so extreme that I am constantly thrust from one end of the spectrum to the other, this may prove to be a severely taxing ordeal. Which is only just beginning – of that I am certain.

I resist the impulse to pinch the bridge of my nose in aggravation when Bella moans very softly in her sleep, her cheek nuzzling my hard shoulder. Selfishly, I tug her blanket-swathed form into my body, wrapping my arms around her as tightly as I dare, and bury my nose in her tousled locks. "I'll keep you safe," I breathe soundlessly, a tiny ripple of pleasure feathering down my spine as she whispers my name in return.

The slow, even beat of her heart resonates through my own chest – the metronome for the magnificent symphony of her human life. I have every nuance of the rhythm committed to memory; I have often tested myself by focusing on sound alone, whether at school or before she leaves the Newton's store when I pick her up from work, to see if I can determine her location from the sweet pulse that now thunders in my ears.

Though it grieves me that the music of her priceless mortality is doomed to end, I know after what transpired in Italy that there is no other course for either of us. We have to be together. It is…inevitable. There is no way that she or I could revert back to separate individuals, for we are so intricately bonded that neither would survive apart from the other for very long – my idiocy proved that only weeks ago.

To my intense surprise, a snippet from that ridiculous novel Bella loves so much rises to the forefront of my thoughts, seeming to affirm my conclusion.

"Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He's always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being."

Perhaps I should read that book again.

Savoring the completeness I feel only when Bella is in my arms, I pass the rest of the night in peaceful silence, content to leave the musings of the future for another time.

* * *