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Chapter 17 The Game

Chapter 17 The Game

 It was just beginning to drizzle when Edward turned onto my street. Upuntil that moment, I'd had no doubt that he'd be staying with me while Ispent a few interim hours in the real world.

  And then I saw the black car, a weathered Ford, parked in Charlie'sdriveway — and heard Edward mutter something unintelligible in a low,harsh voice.

  Leaning away from the rain under the shallow front porch, Jacob Blackstood behind his father's wheelchair. Billy's face was impassive as stoneas Edward parked my truck against the curb. Jacob stared down, hisexpression mortified.

  Edward's low voice was furious. "This is crossing the line.""He came to warn Charlie?" I guessed, more horrified than angry.

  Edward just nodded, answering Billy's gaze through the rain with narrowedeyes.

  I felt weak with relief that Charlie wasn't home yet.

  "Let me deal with this," I suggested. Edward's black glare made meanxious.

  To my surprise, he agreed. "That's probably best. Be careful, though. Thechild has no idea."I bridled a little at the word child. "Jacob is not that much youngerthan I am," I reminded him.

  He looked at me then, his anger abruptly fading. "Oh, I know," he assuredme with a grin.

  I sighed and put my hand on the door handle.

  "Get them inside," he instructed, "so I can leave. I'll be back arounddusk.""Do you want my truck?" I offered, meanwhile wondering how I wouldexplain its absence to Charlie.

  He rolled his eyes. "I could walk home faster than this truck moves.""You don't have to leave," I said wistfully.

  He smiled at my glum expression. "Actually, I do. After you get rid ofthem" — he threw a dark glance in the Blacks' direction — "you still haveto prepare Charlie to meet your new boyfriend." He grinned widely,showing all of his teeth.

  I groaned. "Thanks a lot."He smiled the crooked smile that I loved. "I'll be back soon," hepromised. His eyes flickered back to the porch, and then he leaned in toswiftly kiss me just under the edge of my jaw. My heart lurchedfrantically, and I, too, glanced toward the porch. Billy's face was nolonger impassive, and his hands clutched at the armrests of his chair.

  "Soon," I stressed as I opened the door and stepped out into the rain.

  I could feel his eyes on my back as I half-ran through the light sprinkle toward the porch.

  "Hey, Billy. Hi, Jacob." I greeted them as cheerfully as I could manage.

  "Charlie's gone for the day — I hope you haven't been waiting long.""Not long," Billy said in a subdued tone. His black eyes were piercing.

  "I just wanted to bring this up." He indicated a brown paper sack restingin his lap.

  "Thanks," I said, though I had no idea what it could be. "Why don't youcome in for a minute and dry off?"I pretended to be oblivious to his intense scrutiny as I unlocked thedoor, and waved them in ahead of me.

  "Here, let me take that," I offered, turning to shut the door. I allowedmyself one last glance at Edward. He was waiting, perfectly still, hiseyes solemn.

  "You'll want to put it in the fridge," Billy noted as he handed me thepackage. "It's some of Harry Clearwater's homemade fish fry — Charlie'sfavorite. The fridge keeps it drier." He shrugged.

  "Thanks," I repeated, but with feeling this time. "I was running out ofnew ways to fix fish, and he's bound to bring home more tonight.""Fishing again?" Billy asked with a subtle gleam in his eye. "Down at theusual spot? Maybe I'll run by and see him.""No," I quickly lied, my face going hard. "He was headed someplace new…but I have no idea where."He took in my changed expression, and it made him thoughtful.

  "Jake," he said, still appraising me. "Why don't you go get that newpicture of Rebecca out of the car? I'll leave that for Charlie, too.""Where is it?" Jacob asked, his voice morose. I glanced at him, but hewas staring at the floor, his eyebrows pulling together.

  "I think I saw it in the trunk," Billy said. "You may have to dig for it."Jacob slouched back out into the rain.

  Billy and I faced each other in silence. After a few seconds, the quietstarted to feel awkward, so I turned and headed to the kitchen. I couldhear his wet wheels squeak against the linoleum as he followed.

  I shoved the bag onto the crowded top shelf of the fridge, and spunaround to confront him. His deeply lined face was unreadable.

  "Charlie won't be back for a long time." My voice was almost rude.

  He nodded in agreement, but said nothing.

  "Thanks again for the fish fry," I hinted.

  He continued nodding. I sighed and folded my arms across my chest.

  He seemed to sense that I had given up on small talk. "Bella," he said,and then he hesitated.

  I waited.

  "Bella," he said again, "Charlie is one of my best friends.""Yes."He spoke each word carefully in his rumbling voice. "I noticed you'vebeen spending time with one of the Cullens.""Yes," I repeated curtly.

   His eyes narrowed. "Maybe it's none of my business, but I don't thinkthat is such a good idea.""You're right," I agreed. "It is none of your business."He raised his graying eyebrows at my tone. "You probably don't know this,but the Cullen family has an unpleasant reputation on the reservation.""Actually, I did know that," I informed him in a hard voice. Thissurprised him. "But that reputation couldn't be deserved, could it?

  Because the Cullens never set foot on the reservation, do they?" I couldsee that my less than subtle reminder of the agreement that both boundand protected his tribe pulled him up short.

  "That's true," he acceded, his eyes guarded. "You seem… well informedabout the Cullens. More informed than I expected."I stared him down. "Maybe even better informed than you are."He pursed his thick lips as he considered that. "Maybe." he allowed, buthis eyes were shrewd. "Is Charlie as well informed?"He had found the weak chink in my armor.

  "Charlie likes the Cullens a lot," I hedged. He clearly understood myevasion. His expression was unhappy, but unsurprised.

  "It's not my business," he said. "But it may be Charlie's.""Though it would be my business, again, whether or not I think that it'sCharlie's business, right?"I wondered if he even understood my confused question as I struggled notto say anything compromising. But he seemed to. He thought about it whilethe rain picked up against the roof, the only sound breaking the silence.

  "Yes," he finally surrendered. "I guess that's your business, too."I sighed with relief. "Thanks, Billy.""Just think about what you're doing, Bella," he urged.

  "Okay," I agreed quickly.

  He frowned. "What I meant to say was, don't do what you're doing."I looked into his eyes, filled with nothing but concern for me, and therewas nothing I could say.

  Just then the front door banged loudly, and I jumped at the sound.

  "There's no picture anywhere in that car." Jacob's complaining voicereached us before he did. The shoulders of his shirt were stained withthe rain, his hair dripping, when he rounded the corner.

  "Hmm," Billy grunted, suddenly detached, spinning his chair around toface his son. "I guess I left it at home."Jacob rolled his eyes dramatically. "Great.""Well, Bella, tell Charlie" — Billy paused before continuing — "that westopped by, I mean.""I will," I muttered.

  Jacob was surprised. "Are we leaving already?""Charlie's gonna be out late," Billy explained as he rolled himself pastJacob.

  "Oh." Jacob looked disappointed. "Well, I guess I'll see you later, then, Bella.""Sure," I agreed.

  "Take care," Billy warned me. I didn't answer.

  Jacob helped his father out the door. I waved briefly, glancing swiftlytoward my now-empty truck, and then shut the door before they were gone.

  I stood in the hallway for a minute, listening to the sound of their caras it backed out and drove away. I stayed where I was, waiting for theirritation and anxiety to subside. When the tension eventually faded abit, I headed upstairs to change out of my dressy clothes.

  I tried on a couple of different tops, not sure what to expect tonight.

  As I concentrated on what was coming, what had just passed becameinsignificant. Now that I was removed from Jasper's and Edward'sinfluence, I began to make up for not being terrified before. I gave upquickly on choosing an outfit — throwing on an old flannel shirt andjeans — knowing I would be in my raincoat all night anyway.

  The phone rang and I sprinted downstairs to get it. There was only onevoice I wanted to hear; anything else would be a disappointment. But Iknew that if he wanted to talk to me, he'd probably just materialize inmy room.

  "Hello?" I asked, breathless.

  "Bella? It's me," Jessica said.

  "Oh, hey, Jess." I scrambled for a moment to come back down to reality.

  It felt like months rather than days since I'd spoken to Jess. "How wasthe dance?""It was so much fun!" Jessica gushed. Needing no more invitation thanthat, she launched into a minute-by-minute account of the previous night.

  I mmm'd and ahh'd at the right places, but it wasn't easy to concentrate.

  Jessica, Mike, the dance, the school — they all seemed strangelyirrelevant at the moment. My eyes kept flashing to the window, trying tojudge the degree of light behind the heavy clouds.

  "Did you hear what I said, Bella?" Jess asked, irritated.

  "I'm sorry, what?""I said, Mike kissed me! Can you believe it?""That's wonderful, Jess," I said.

  "So what did you do yesterday?" Jessica challenged, still soundingbothered by my lack of attention. Or maybe she was upset because I hadn'tasked for details.

  "Nothing, really. I just hung around outside to enjoy the sun."I heard Charlie's car in the garage.

  "Did you ever hear anything more from Edward Cullen?"The front door slammed and I could hear Charlie banging around under thestairs, putting his tackle away.

  "Um." I hesitated, not sure what my story was anymore.

  "Hi there, kiddo!" Charlie called as he walked into the kitchen. I wavedat him.

  Jess heard his voice. "Oh, your dad's there. Never mind — we'll talktomorrow. See you in Trig.""See ya, Jess." I hung up the phone.

   "Hey, Dad," I said. He was scrubbing his hands in the sink. "Where's thefish?""I put it out in the freezer.""I'll go grab a few pieces before they freeze — Billy dropped off some ofHarry Clearwater's fish fry this afternoon." I worked to soundenthusiastic.

  "He did?" Charlie's eyes lit up. "That's my favorite."Charlie cleaned up while I got dinner ready. It didn't take long till wewere sitting at the table, eating in silence. Charlie was enjoying hisfood. I was wondering desperately how to fulfill my assignment,struggling to think of a way to broach the subject.

  "What did you do with yourself today?" he asked, snapping me out of myreverie.

  "Well, this afternoon I just hung out around the house…" Only the veryrecent part of this afternoon, actually. I tried to keep my voice upbeat,but my stomach was hollow. "And this morning I was over at the Cullens'."Charlie dropped his fork.

  "Dr. Cullen's place?" he asked in astonishment.

  I pretended not to notice his reaction. "Yeah.""What were you doing there?" He hadn't picked his fork back up.

  "Well, I sort of have a date with Edward Cullen tonight, and he wanted tointroduce me to his parents… Dad?"It appeared that Charlie was having an aneurysm.

  "Dad, are you all right?""You are going out with Edward Cullen?" he thundered.

  Uh-oh. "I thought you liked the Cullens.""He's too old for you," he ranted.

  "We're both juniors," I corrected, though he was more right than hedreamed.

  "Wait…" He paused. "Which one is Edwin?""Edward is the youngest, the one with the reddish brown hair." Thebeautiful one, the godlike one…"Oh, well, that's" — he struggled — "better, I guess. I don't like thelook of that big one. I'm sure he's a nice boy and all, but he looks too…mature for you. Is this Edwin your boyfriend?""It's Edward, Dad.""Is he?""Sort of, I guess.""You said last night that you weren't interested in any of the boys intown." But he picked up his fork again, so I could see the worst was over.

  "Well, Edward doesn't live in town, Dad."He gave me a disparaging look as he chewed.

  "And, anyways," I continued, "it's kind of at an early stage, you know.

  Don't embarrass me with all the boyfriend talk, okay?" "When is he coming over?""He'll be here in a few minutes.""Where is he taking you?"I groaned loudly. "I hope you're getting the Spanish Inquisition out ofyour system now. We're going to play baseball with his family."His face puckered, and then he finally chuckled. "You're playingbaseball?""Well, I'll probably watch most of the time.""You must really like this guy," he observed suspiciously.

  I sighed and rolled my eyes for his benefit.

  I heard the roar of an engine pull up in front of the house. I jumped upand started cleaning my dishes.

  "Leave the dishes, I can do them tonight. You baby me too much."The doorbell rang, and Charlie stalked off to answer it. I was half astep behind him.

  I hadn't realized how hard it was pouring outside. Edward stood in thehalo of the porch light, looking like a male model in an advertisementfor raincoats.

  "Come on in, Edward."I breathed a sigh of relief when Charlie got his name right.

  "Thanks, Chief Swan," Edward said in a respectful voice.

  "Go ahead and call me Charlie. Here, I'll take your jacket.""Thanks, sir.""Have a seat there, Edward."I grimaced.

  Edward sat down fluidly in the only chair, forcing me to sit next toChief Swan on the sofa. I quickly shot him a dirty look. He winked behindCharlie's back.

  "So I hear you're getting my girl to watch baseball." Only in Washingtonwould the fact that it was raining buckets have no bearing at all on theplaying of outdoor sports.

  "Yes, sir, that's the plan." He didn't look surprised that I'd told myfather the truth. He might have been listening, though.

  "Well, more power to you, I guess."Charlie laughed, and Edward joined in.

  "Okay." I stood up. "Enough humor at my expense. Let's go." I walked backto the hall and pulled on my jacket. They followed.

  "Not too late, Bell.""Don't worry, Charlie, I'll have her home early," Edward promised.

  "You take care of my girl, all right?"I groaned, but they ignored me.

  "She'll be safe with me, I promise, sir." Charlie couldn't doubt Edward's sincerity, it rang in every word.

  I stalked out. They both laughed, and Edward followed me.

  I stopped dead on the porch. There, behind my truck, was a monster Jeep.

  Its tires were higher than my waist. There were metal guards over theheadlights and tail-lights, and four large spotlights attached to thecrash bar. The hardtop was shiny red.

  Charlie let out a low whistle.

  "Wear your seat belts," he choked out.

  Edward followed me around to my side and opened the door. I gauged thedistance to the seat and prepared to jump for it. He sighed, and thenlifted me in with one hand. I hoped Charlie didn't notice.

  As he went around to the driver's side, at a normal, human pace, I triedto put on my seat belt. But there were too many buckles.

  "What's all this?" I asked when he opened the door.

  "It's an off-roading harness.""Uh-oh."I tried to find the right places for all the buckles to fit, but itwasn't going too quickly. He sighed again and reached over to help me. Iwas glad that the rain was too heavy to see Charlie clearly on the porch.

  That meant he couldn't see how Edward's hands lingered at my neck,brushed along my collarbones. I gave up trying to help him and focused onnot hyperventilating.

  Edward turned the key and the engine roared to life. We pulled away fromthe house.

  "This is a… um… big Jeep you have.""It's Emmett's. I didn't think you'd want to run the whole way.""Where do you keep this thing?""We remodeled one of the outbuildings into a garage.""Aren't you going to put on your seat belt?"He threw me a disbelieving look.

  Then something sunk in.

  "Run the whole way? As in, we're still going to run part of the way?" Myvoice edged up a few octaves.

  He grinned tightly. "You're not going to run.""I'm going to be sick.""Keep your eyes closed, you'll be fine."I bit my lip, fighting the panic.

  He leaned over to kiss the top of my head, and then groaned. I looked athim, puzzled.

  "You smell so good in the rain," he explained.

  "In a good way, or in a bad way?" I asked cautiously.

  He sighed. "Both, always both."I don't know how he found his way in the gloom and downpour, but hesomehow found a side road that was less of a road and more of a mountain path. For a long while conversation was impossible, because I wasbouncing up and down on the seat like a jackhammer. He seemed to enjoythe ride, though, smiling hugely the whole way.

  And then we came to the end of the road; the trees formed green walls onthree sides of the Jeep. The rain was a mere drizzle, slowing everysecond, the sky brighter through the clouds.

  "Sorry, Bella, we have to go on foot from here.""You know what? I'll just wait here.""What happened to all your courage? You were extraordinary this morning.""I haven't forgotten the last time yet." Could it have been onlyyesterday?

  He was around to my side of the car in a blur. He started unbuckling me.

  "I'll get those, you go on ahead," I protested.

  "Hmmm…" he mused as he quickly finished. "It seems I'm going to have totamper with your memory."Before I could react, he pulled me from the Jeep and set my feet on theground. It was barely misting now; Alice was going to be right.

  "Tamper with my memory?" I asked nervously.

  "Something like that." He was watching me intently, carefully, but therewas humor deep in his eyes. He placed his hands against the Jeep oneither side of my head and leaned forward, forcing me to press backagainst the door. He leaned in even closer, his face inches from mine. Ihad no room to escape.

  "Now," he breathed, and just his smell disturbed my thought processes,"what exactly are you worrying about?""Well, um, hitting a tree —" I gulped "— and dying. And then gettingsick."He fought back a smile. Then he bent his head down and touched his coldlips softly to the hollow at the base of my throat.

  "Are you still worried now?" he murmured against my skin.

  "Yes." I struggled to concentrate. "About hitting trees and getting sick."His nose drew a line up the skin of my throat to the point of my chin.

  His cold breath tickled my skin.

  "And now?" His lips whispered against my jaw.

  "Trees," I gasped. "Motion sickness."He lifted his face to kiss my eyelids. "Bella, you don't really think Iwould hit a tree, do you?""No, but I might." There was no confidence in my voice. He smelled aneasy victory.

  He kissed slowly down my cheek, stopping just at the corner of my mouth.

  "Would I let a tree hurt you?" His lips barely brushed against mytrembling lower lip.

  "No," I breathed. I knew there was a second part to my brilliant defense,but I couldn't quite call it back.

  "You see," he said, his lips moving against mine. "There's nothing to beafraid of, is there?" "No," I sighed, giving up.

  Then he took my face in his hands almost roughly, and kissed me inearnest, his unyielding lips moving against mine.

  There really was no excuse for my behavior. Obviously I knew better bynow. And yet I couldn't seem to stop from reacting exactly as I had thefirst time. Instead of keeping safely motionless, my arms reached up totwine tightly around his neck, and I was suddenly welded to his stonefigure. I sighed, and my lips parted.

  He staggered back, breaking my grip effortlessly.

  "Damn it, Bella!" he broke off, gasping. "You'll be the death of me, Iswear you will."I leaned over, bracing my hands against my knees for support.

  "You're indestructible," I mumbled, trying to catch my breath.

  "I might have believed that before I met you. Now let's get out of herebefore I do something really stupid," he growled.

  He threw me across his back as he had before, and I could see the extraeffort it took for him to be as gentle as he was. I locked my legs aroundhis waist and secured my arms in a choke hold around his neck.

  "Don't forget to close your eyes," he warned severely.

  I quickly tucked my face into his shoulder blade, under my own arm, andsqueezed my eyes shut.

  And I could hardly tell we were moving. I could feel him gliding alongbeneath me, but he could have been strolling down the sidewalk, themovement was so smooth. I was tempted to peek, just to see if he wasreally flying through the forest like before, but I resisted. It wasn'tworth that awful dizziness. I contented myself with listening to hisbreath come and go evenly.

  I wasn't quite sure we had stopped until he reached back and touched myhair.

  "It's over, Bella."I dared to open my eyes, and, sure enough, we were at a standstill. Istiffly unlocked my stranglehold on his body and slipped to the ground,landing on my backside.

  "Oh!" I huffed as I hit the wet ground.

  He stared at me incredulously, evidently not sure whether he was stilltoo mad to find me funny. But my bewildered expression pushed him overthe edge, and he broke into a roar of laughter.

  I picked myself up, ignoring him as I brushed the mud and bracken off theback of my jacket. That only made him laugh harder. Annoyed, I began tostride off into the forest.

  I felt his arm around my waist.

  "Where are you going, Bella?""To watch a baseball game. You don't seem to be interested in playinganymore, but I'm sure the others will have fun without you.""You're going the wrong way."I turned around without looking at him, and stalked off in the oppositedirection. He caught me again.

  "Don't be mad, I couldn't help myself. You should have seen your face."He chuckled before he could stop himself.

   "Oh, you're the only one who's allowed to get mad?" I asked, raising myeyebrows.

  "I wasn't mad at you.""'Bella, you'll be the death of me'?" I quoted sourly.

  "That was simply a statement of fact."I tried to turn away from him again, but he held me fast.

  "You were mad," I insisted.

  "Yes.""But you just said —""That I wasn't mad at you. Can't you see that, Bella?" He was suddenlyintense, all trace of teasing gone. "Don't you understand?""See what?" I demanded, confused by his sudden mood swing as much as hiswords.

  "I'm never angry with you — how could I be? Brave, trusting… warm as youare.""Then why?" I whispered, remembering the black moods that pulled him awayfrom me, that I'd always interpreted as well-justified frustration —frustration at my weakness, my slowness, my unruly human reactions…He put his hands carefully on both sides of my face. "I infuriatemyself," he said gently. "The way I can't seem to keep from putting youin danger. My very existence puts you at risk. Sometimes I truly hatemyself. I should be stronger, I should be able to —"I placed my hand over his mouth. "Don't."He took my hand, moving it from his lips, but holding it to his face.

  "I love you," he said. "It's a poor excuse for what I'm doing, but it'sstill true."It was the first time he'd said he loved me — in so many words. He mightnot realize it, but I certainly did.

  "Now, please try to behave yourself," he continued, and he bent to softlybrush his lips against mine.

  I held properly still. Then I sighed.

  "You promised Chief Swan that you would have me home early, remember?

  We'd better get going.""Yes, ma'am."He smiled wistfully and released all of me but one hand. He led me a fewfeet through the tall, wet ferns and draping moss, around a massivehemlock tree, and we were there, on the edge of an enormous open field inthe lap of the Olympic peaks. It was twice the size of any baseballstadium.

  I could see the others all there; Esme, Emmett, and Rosalie, sitting on abare outcropping of rock, were the closest to us, maybe a hundred yardsaway. Much farther out I could see Jasper and Alice, at least a quarterof a mile apart, appearing to throw something back and forth, but I neversaw any ball. It looked like Carlisle was marking bases, but could theyreally be that far apart?

  When we came into view, the three on the rocks rose.

  Esme started toward us. Emmett followed after a long look at Rosalie's back; Rosalie had risen gracefully and strode off toward the fieldwithout a glance in our direction. My stomach quivered uneasily inresponse.

  "Was that you we heard, Edward?" Esme asked as she approached.

  "It sounded like a bear choking," Emmett clarified.

  I smiled hesitantly at Esme. "That was him.""Bella was being unintentionally funny," Edward explained, quicklysettling the score.

  Alice had left her position and was running, or dancing, toward us. Shehurtled to a fluid stop at our feet. "It's time," she announced.

  As soon as she spoke, a deep rumble of thunder shook the forest beyondus, and then crashed westward toward town.

  "Eerie, isn't it?" Emmett said with easy familiarity, winking at me.

  "Let's go." Alice reached for Emmett's hand and they darted toward theoversized field; she ran like a gazelle. He was nearly as graceful andjust as fast — yet Emmett could never be compared to a gazelle.

  "Are you ready for some ball?" Edward asked, his eyes eager, bright.

  I tried to sound appropriately enthusiastic. "Go team!"He snickered and, after mussing my hair, bounded off after the other two.

  His run was more aggressive, a cheetah rather than a gazelle, and hequickly overtook them. The grace and power took my breath away.

  "Shall we go down?" Esme asked in her soft, melodic voice, and I realizedI was staring openmouthed after him. I quickly reassembled my expressionand nodded. Esme kept a few feet between us, and I wondered if she wasstill being careful not to frighten me. She matched her stride to minewithout seeming impatient at the pace.

  "You don't play with them?" I asked shyly.

  "No, I prefer to referee — I like keeping them honest," she explained.

  "Do they like to cheat, then?""Oh yes — you should hear the arguments they get into! Actually, I hopeyou don't, you would think they were raised by a pack of wolves.""You sound like my mom," I laughed, surprised.

  She laughed, too. "Well, I do think of them as my children in most ways.

  I never could get over my mothering instincts — did Edward tell you I hadlost a child?""No," I murmured, stunned, scrambling to understand what lifetime she wasremembering.

  "Yes, my first and only baby. He died just a few days after he was born,the poor tiny thing," she sighed. "It broke my heart — that's why Ijumped off the cliff, you know," she added matter-of-factly.

  "Edward just said you f-fell," I stammered.

  "Always the gentleman." She smiled. "Edward was the first of my new sons.

  I've always thought of him that way, even though he's older than I, inone way at least." She smiled at me warmly. "That's why I'm so happy thathe's found you, dear." The endearment sounded very natural on her lips.

  "He's been the odd man out for far too long; it's hurt me to see himalone.""You don't mind, then?" I asked, hesitant again. "That I'm… all wrong forhim?" "No." She was thoughtful. "You're what he wants. It will work out,somehow," she said, though her forehead creased with worry. Another pealof thunder began.

  Esme stopped then; apparently, we'd reached the edge of the field. Itlooked as if they had formed teams. Edward was far out in left field,Carlisle stood between the first and second bases, and Alice held theball, positioned on the spot that must be the pitcher's mound.

  Emmett was swinging an aluminum bat; it whistled almost untraceablythrough the air. I waited for him to approach home plate, but then Irealized, as he took his stance, that he was already there — farther fromthe pitcher's mound than I would have thought possible. Jasper stoodseveral feet behind him, catching for the other team. Of course, none ofthem had gloves.

  "All right," Esme called in a clear voice, which I knew even Edward wouldhear, as far out as he was. "Batter up."Alice stood straight, deceptively motionless. Her style seemed to bestealth rather than an intimidating windup. She held the ball in bothhands at her waist, and then, like the strike of a cobra, her right handflicked out and the ball smacked into Jasper's hand.

  "Was that a strike?" I whispered to Esme.

  "If they don't hit it, it's a strike," she told me.

  Jasper hurled the ball back to Alice's waiting hand. She permittedherself a brief grin. And then her hand spun out again.

  This time the bat somehow made it around in time to smash into theinvisible ball. The crack of impact was shattering, thunderous; it echoedoff the mountains — I immediately understood the necessity of thethunderstorm.

  The ball shot like a meteor above the field, flying deep into thesurrounding forest.

  "Home run," I murmured.

  "Wait," Esme cautioned, listening intently, one hand raised. Emmett was ablur around the bases, Carlisle shadowing him. I realized Edward wasmissing.

  "Out!" Esme cried in a clear voice. I stared in disbelief as Edwardsprang from the fringe of the trees, ball in his upraised hand, his widegrin visible even to me.

  "Emmett hits the hardest," Esme explained, "but Edward runs the fastest."The inning continued before my incredulous eyes. It was impossible tokeep up with the speed at which the ball flew, the rate at which theirbodies raced around the field.

  I learned the other reason they waited for a thunderstorm to play whenJasper, trying to avoid Edward's infallible fielding, hit a ground balltoward Carlisle. Carlisle ran into the ball, and then raced Jasper tofirst base. When they collided, the sound was like the crash of twomassive falling boulders. I jumped up in concern, but they were somehowunscathed.

  "Safe," Esme called in a calm voice.

  Emmett's team was up by one — Rosalie managed to flit around the basesafter tagging up on one of Emmett's long flies — when Edward caught thethird out. He sprinted to my side, sparkling with excitement.

  "What do you think?" he asked.

  "One thing's for sure, I'll never be able to sit through dull old Major League Baseball again.""And it sounds like you did so much of that before," he laughed.

  "I am a little disappointed," I teased.

  "Why?" he asked, puzzled.

  "Well, it would be nice if I could find just one thing you didn't dobetter than everyone else on the planet."He flashed his special crooked smile, leaving me breathless.

  "I'm up," he said, heading for the plate.

  He played intelligently, keeping the ball low, out of the reach ofRosalie's always-ready hand in the outfield, gaining two bases likelightning before Emmett could get the ball back in play. Carlisle knockedone so far out of the field — with a boom that hurt my ears — that he andEdward both made it in. Alice slapped them dainty high fives.

  The score constantly changed as the game continued, and they razzed eachother like any street ballplayers as they took turns with the lead.

  Occasionally Esme would call them to order. The thunder rumbled on, butwe stayed dry, as Alice had predicted.

  Carlisle was up to bat, Edward catching, when Alice suddenly gasped. Myeyes were on Edward, as usual, and I saw his head snap up to look at her.

  Their eyes met and something flowed between them in an instant. He was atmy side before the others could ask Alice what was wrong.

  "Alice?" Esme's voice was tense.

  "I didn't see — I couldn't tell," she whispered.

  All the others were gathered by this time.

  "What is it, Alice?" Carlisle asked with the calm voice of authority.

  "They were traveling much quicker than I thought. I can see I had theperspective wrong before," she murmured.

  Jasper leaned over her, his posture protective. "What changed?" he asked.

  "They heard us playing, and it changed their path," she said, contrite,as if she felt responsible for whatever had frightened her.

  Seven pairs of quick eyes flashed to my face and away.

  "How soon?" Carlisle said, turning toward Edward.

  A look of intense concentration crossed his face.

  "Less than five minutes. They're running — they want to play." He scowled.

  "Can you make it?" Carlisle asked him, his eyes flicking toward me again.

  "No, not carrying —" He cut short. "Besides, the last thing we need isfor them to catch the scent and start hunting.""How many?" Emmett asked Alice.

  "Three," she answered tersely.

  "Three!" he scoffed. "Let them come." The steel bands of muscle flexedalong his massive arms.

  For a split second that seemed much longer than it really was, Carlisledeliberated. Only Emmett seemed unperturbed; the rest stared atCarlisle's face with anxious eyes.

  "Let's just continue the game," Carlisle finally decided. His voice was cool and level. "Alice said they were simply curious."All this was said in a flurry of words that lasted only a few seconds. Ihad listened carefully and caught most of it, though I couldn't hear whatEsme now asked Edward with a silent vibration of her lips. I only saw theslight shake of his head and the look of relief on her face.

  "You catch, Esme," he said. "I'll call it now." And he planted himself infront of me.

  The others returned to the field, warily sweeping the dark forest withtheir sharp eyes. Alice and Esme seemed to orient themselves around whereI stood.

  "Take your hair down," Edward said in a low, even voice.

  I obediently slid the rubber band out of my hair and shook it out aroundme.

  I stated the obvious. "The others are coming now.""Yes, stay very still, keep quiet, and don't move from my side, please."He hid the stress in his voice well, but I could hear it. He pulled mylong hair forward, around my face.

  "That won't help," Alice said softly. "I could smell her across thefield.""I know." A hint of frustration colored his tone.

  Carlisle stood at the plate, and the others joined the game halfheartedly.

  "What did Esme ask you?" I whispered.

  He hesitated for a second before he answered. "Whether they werethirsty," he muttered unwillingly.

  The seconds ticked by; the game progressed with apathy now. No one daredto hit harder than a bunt, and Emmett, Rosalie, and Jasper hovered in theinfield. Now and again, despite the fear that numbed my brain, I wasaware of Rosalie's eyes on me. They were expressionless, but somethingabout the way she held her mouth made me think she was angry.

  Edward paid no attention to the game at all, eyes and mind ranging theforest.

  "I'm sorry, Bella," he muttered fiercely. "It was stupid, irresponsible,to expose you like this. I'm so sorry."I heard his breath stop, and his eyes zeroed in on right field. He took ahalf step, angling himself between me and what was coming.

  Carlisle, Emmett, and the others turned in the same direction, hearingsounds of passage much too faint for my ears.