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“It worked out so much better than I expected. I was willing to wait. It’s part of the game, after all. But then your mother arrived home ahead of schedule,” his quiet voice spoke as smoothly as any luxury car salesman’s.
Phone held tightly to her ear, Bella couldn’t stifle her gasp. She was in the bedroom of their hotel suite and prayed Alice wouldn’t be able to overhear.
“Victoria and I have worked together for decades. Cell phones have made it so much easier.” James let out a delighted chuckle. “You’d be surprised at how many covens harbor a human amongst them for a time, though this is the largest coven I’ve come across to do so. The truly surprising thing was how quickly they split up, decreasing their numbers. Victoria should have no trouble with the two left behind, unprotected, back in Forks guarding your father. Hardly a challenge for her. Now listen carefully, Bella. I need you to get away from your friends. Can you do that for me?”
At the mention of Charlie, Bella’s heart stuttered and leapt up into her throat. She couldn’t think of any way to slip away from Alice and Jasper. “No.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that. You do realize the stakes are very high, and your mother’s life depends on it?” James asked, his tone still as cordial and pleasant as when he’d begun. “I want you, not her.”
Bella swiped roughly at the tears rolling down her face. Alice and Jasper were faster and smarter, but she would find a way. “I can,” she breathed harshly into the phone. “I will.”
“That’s better, Bella. I’m sure it won’t be easy, but it would be very bad for your mother if you didn’t. Do you remember where your old ballet studio is?”
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Bella burst through the unlocked doors of the old brick dance studio, barely taking note of the sign declaring it was closed for Spring Break. She ran through the darkened lobby and into the main room where, long ago, her classes had been held. It was the mirrored room Alice had seen in her vision.
Glancing wildly around the wide open space, she flinched and spun toward a movement to her right. The dim light coming in the high set windows from the street light outside confused her. Before she could scream, she recognized her own reflection in the wall of mirrors.
A whimper and shuffling sound behind her made her spin back around. Standing in one of the beams of blueish light, as if they were spotlighted actors on a stage, were James and her mother. One of his hands was holding her mother up by her neck; the other was clamped over her mouth.
Bella was struck speechless and could only stare at them.
“So good of you to join us, Bella,” James greeted her, his tone soft and inviting. “Your mother has been quite eager to see you.” He pressed his cheek to Renee’s temple, and then turned and gave her a light kiss. “We’ve had a splendid time getting to know each other. Haven’t we, Renee? When I told her I was a friend of yours, and was wondering how you were doing in Forks, she filled me in—even mentioned she was sure there was a young man you were interested in. So I decided to give her the good news and told her all about your new boyfriend and his family.”
“Let her go!” Bella shouted, her fear constricting her throat. “I’m here! James, I’m here. Let her go!”
“We wouldn’t want this party to end too soon, would we? Our guest of honor has just arrived.”
A strange trilling ring filled the room and seemed to echo from every wall.
James’ eyebrows went up and a trace of a smile curved his lips. “Please excuse me. I’ve been waiting for this call.” He took his hand from the back of Renee’s neck, but tightened his grip on her mouth. The next instant, his phone was at his ear. He nodded, a look of concentration on his face. “Oh, that’s too bad,” he murmured. “I’ll be sure and let them know. Thank you, Victoria.”
Ending the call, he slipped his phone back into a pocket. “Bella, Renee, I’m sorry to say I have some bad news. There’s been an unfortunate accident. It seems a fire started in your father’s house while he was sleeping on the couch. A couple friends of yours … Rosalie and Esme, I believe? They happened to stop by and see the smoke. Apparently, they ran inside to save him but were overcome themselves.” James pursed his lips and tsked. “Such a tragedy. Three lives lost because your daddy fell asleep while the stove was on.”
“No! No!” Bella screamed. Her hands flew to her head, and she grabbed handfuls of her hair. “No!” Charlie, Esme, and Rosalie couldn’t be gone! It was all her fault. They shouldn’t have split up. They should have stayed together and fought like Emmett and Jasper said!
She didn’t know what she could do against a vampire, but she had to save her mother. Not knowing what else to do, she ran at James, hoping to distract him somehow.
When she neared him, James threw a wailing Renee to the floor and sidestepped Bella. He shoved her as she went by him, and she slammed into the floor and rolled, crying out and clutching her right wrist.
As if he didn’t have a care in the world, James turned and laughed at her, propping his hands on his belt.
Renee struggled to raise herself from the floor, her arms shook as she pushed herself up. “Bella, run!” She fumbled, but managed to get one foot underneath her, and then the next. She lurched toward James. “Bella, run! Run!”
Without looking, James stretched out one hand and caught Renee just under her jaw. “Bella isn’t going to run, Renee. So much braver than her little boyfriend. She’s here to save you.”
Renee clawed at his arm and tried to kick him as he dragged her forward. Her eyes grew round with desperation. Working her mouth, no sound came out. She couldn’t breathe.
Tears streaming down her face, Bella staggered to her feet, holding her broken arm to her chest. “Let her go!” Bella demanded through clenched teeth. “You said you wouldn’t hurt her if I came here!”
“But don’t you understand?” James asked in a reasonable tone. “It’s all part of the game. It was just a fortuitous stroke of luck that your mother decided to join in, adding a whole new level. Renee was the bait to draw you here, adding to my fun. You’re just a human, but, for some bizarre reason, you’re important to those Cullens. I’ve never understood the fascination some vampires have with weak little humans.” James sighed, shaking his head slowly from side to side. A baffled expression crossed his face, and then it brightened. “It does add a bit of excitement. Don’t you agree?” He laughed again, throwing his head back as Renee fought against him. Her strikes and kicks grew weaker and weaker, having no effect on him.
Bella knew it was stupid, she’d have no chance against his strength, but she had to try. Edward’s plane should have landed by then. Jasper and Alice would be on their way. If she lasted long enough, maybe they would catch James and kill him. Bella charged.
James barked out another laugh as he caught her and drew her to him, crushing her against his body. “I suppose your boyfriend and what’s left of his little family are on their way. But I still have time to enjoy myself.”
He was holding Renee’s nearly limp form up, her toes just brushing the floor. With a quick jerk of his arm, he snapped her neck and opened his hand, letting her body fall in a heap at his feet.
Bella tried to scream, but nothing came out. Everything she had done to try and save her mother had been for nothing! She beat on James’ chest, ignoring the agony shooting up her arm.
James pushed her away and grabbed her forearms. “Shall we dance?” At her grimace of pain, a grin spread over his face. “Is this the broken one?” He squeezed her right arm, finally wrenching a scream out of her.
The next thing she was aware of was a fiery burn racing up her arm.
James clutched both her shoulders and leered in her face. “That’ll keep you occupied while I quench my thirst with your mother. She smells nearly as good as you do. I’m saving you for dessert.”
He flung her toward the back of the room. Her body crashed into the barre, crushing her ribs, while her head, upper body, and legs slammed against the eight-foot tall mirror. It shattered at the force of the impact.
Her vision going black, Bella dropped to the hardwood floor among the glittering shards and splinters of glass. Remembering her mother, she twisted her throbbing head toward the sound of James’ muffled growl.
The dim scene in front of her swam before her eyes.
James was holding her mother up, her head dangling at an angle that made Bella’s stomach lurch and roll.
His head snapped up, and he threw her to the floor, blood dripping from his mouth. He spun around in a crouch like he had heard something. All Bella could hear were her mother’s pleas for her to run repeating in her head and a loud, droning buzz.
Something ran from the shadows and collided with James, tossing him to the far end of the room.
Someone was shouting her name.
Edward’s pale, stricken face was right above hers. He was saying something, but she couldn’t make out the words.
Finally, his voice broke through the blaring white noise.
“Oh, no, Bella! No! I’ll get you out of here!”
“Running instead of fighting? Already certain you can’t beat me?” James appeared out of the darkness over Edward’s shoulder. “Better run fast, little boy,” he sneered.
Before James could get his hands on Edward, his head disappeared from his shoulders with an ear-shattering screech. His body spasmed and slowly tipped over until it landed on the floor with a reverberating thud.
“It’s … it’s burning. Burning!” Bella shrieked.
“Burning?” Edward stared at her in horror, his eyes bulging. They snapped to the bite on her arm. “He bit you? No! This can’t happen! I never wanted this for you!”
Everything shifted to a disjointed, jerky motion.
Edward bent toward her, his arms reaching for her as if he were going to pick her up.
A white hand appeared. Edward’s arm was gone. His mouth was wide open in a silent scream. Or maybe Bella just couldn’t hear it over the rending screech of tearing, twisting metal.
A blond man was crouched in front of her, his back to her.
“But I do,” his deep voice roared.
Another voice broke through. “She’s bleeding out, Jasper. I can help her. James bit her. Perhaps we can suck out the venom—”
Alice’s shocked face swam into view through the mottled clouds in Bella’s vision. She looked so far away. “You can’t do this, Jasper! Why did you rip his arm off? Edward didn’t want—”
“I don’t care what he wants. He’ll heal as long as he stays back.”
Bella couldn’t understand what was going on. Every part of her body throbbed in agony with each pounding heartbeat. She fought against the blackness overtaking her, struggled to piece together what was happening. She couldn’t hear everything they were saying.
The scene shifted again, and she was in Jasper’s arms. His eyes were as black as midnight. A slow blink and his teeth were in her throat.
The fire in her arm was nothing compared to the flames spreading through her jaw and down into her shoulders and chest. She tried to get away from it, but Jasper held her tightly to her chest. His deep, rumbling growls vibrated through her entire body.
The grey clouds of her vision were turning black and growing larger. An orange glow filled the room and grew brighter and brighter.
It felt as if the whole world was on fire.
Jasper’s commanding tone broke through the screaming in her head.
“You took care of him, Emmett?”
A distant voice answered. “In pieces and gone.”
Bella had to tell them about Rosalie, Esme, and Charlie but her throat stuck shut on the words.
Jasper’s chest rumbled again. “We have to leave. The fire will burn hot enough to take care of—”
“No, Jasper.” Carlisle loomed closer. “We have to get her mother’s body—”
“I’ve played this game before, Carlisle, you haven’t.” Halfway to the door Jasper stopped, glanced down at Bella and back to Carlisle, his eyes narrowing. “Then take care of it. In a few days, I’ll have my newborn mate to take care of.”
“What about the red-head?” Emmett called from somewhere inside the thick, black clouds.
Edward appeared behind Carlisle, holding his arm to his shoulder. “Forget about Victoria. I told you she wouldn’t be a problem! You cannot take Bella away from me!”
Jasper hissed as he backed through the door. “And that’s where you’re wrong again, boy.”
Alice darted toward them, glistening eyes wide, imploring hands reaching out. “When are you coming back?”
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