kept his eyes down, focusing on the scribbled notes in front of him.
As if he needed notes.
He knew Bella was looking at him—felt her eyes boring into the side of his head, her disappointment when he did not look up—but he ignored it.
He ignored her, though it ripped his heart into jagged throbbing pieces.
He knew what they thought, and not because he heard their thoughts. He saw it in Rosalie’s eyes, heard it in Esme’s sighs, sensed it in Alice’s smirks.
They thought him foolish for throwing away the best thing that ever happened to him.
They thought him arrogant for presuming to know what was best for her, for exalting his will above her right to choose.
And they thought him deluded for believing he would survive without her light in his life.
But they were wrong, wrong on all accounts.
Edward was not throwing her away—he was keeping her away from danger.
He was not exalting his will above hers—he was exalting her life above all else.
And quiet as he kept it, he had no intention of surviving a single moment without her.
Edward could be stealth, invisible when necessary. He would remain in the shadows of her life until it came to a proper end some seventy-plus years from now.
He would watch her go to college, blaze the trail of her choice in the world, and make a mark almost as lasting as the one on his heart.
He would watch her marry some sensible human, some scholar or humanitarian of sorts, take his last name, and make him the luckiest bastard on the face of the earth.
And he would fight daily not to kill that man for taking romantic liberties with the woman he loved, allowing him to breathe only because he was her pleasure.
And when she took her last breath, he would watch that too, ensuring she was truly gone before hightailing it to Volterra to follow shortly thereafter.
He would do it all, do anything, as long as she remained safe.
And as long as he remained in her life, she would never be safe.
So he was risking it all—his reputation, his family, his heart—to ensure her perpetual safety. No price was too high, no tactic too low.
As long as she was safe.
Rosalie asked if the plaintiff was ready with her next witness, and Bella came to her feet. As her troubled brown eyes drifted his way again, he tucked his love away in that iron-clad promise he made in Phoenix, to stay only as long as was best for her.
And though her love changed him in more ways than his labrynthian brain could count, it was no longer best for her.
He was no longer best for her.
So he had no choice but to take himself away.
And die trying.
“I call Dr. Carlisle Cullen to the stand,” she said.
Edward winced, cursing himself for not seeing this coming. Since the trial was announced, the Cullens did their best to keep Edward from knowing which of them would testify for the plaintiff. He figured she would duplicate some of his witness list, but he had decided not to call his parents and assumed Bella would make the same choice.
That was a major error, hopefully his only one of the day.
Carlisle took the stand and tried to appear neutral as he was sworn in by Emmett. But despite his best efforts, his thoughts betrayed him.
“Stop this, Edward.” He kept his eyes down. “Run to her side, beg forgiveness, and stop this before you destroy us all.”
The low growl escaped Edward without permission, and Rosalie tapped her gavel on the block. “Is there a problem, Mr. Masen?”
Edward noted the uptick in Bella’s heart rate and forced himself under control again. He was willing to dash her hopes for eternal happiness and make her hate him if that’s what it took.
But he would not frighten her. Not if he could help it.
“My sincerest apologies to the court.” He came slowly to his feet, looking past Bella to his father. “I was lost in thought.”
“See that you find yourself,” Rosalie replied tightly. “You may proceed, Ms. Swan.”
Bella swallowed hard, clenching her hands, and Edward wondered for the 43rd time today what she was thinking. And because he didn’t know and couldn’t cross-examine his father, he would have to resort to other means of making his point.
As he said, no tactic was too low.
“Thank you, Your Honor.” Turning to Carlisle, Bella smiled. “And thank you for agreeing to do this, Dr. Cullen.”
“It is my pleasure, Ms. Swan. I admire what you’re doing and am happy to help any way I can.”
“Objection.” Edward glared at his father. “The witness is not allowed to offer commentary on the case.”
“Sustained,” Rosalie replied. “Dr. Cullen’s observations are stricken from the record and he is hereby admonished to keep his thoughts to himself unless they are requested.”
“Pardon me,” Carlisle said. “It shall not happen again.”
“Continue, Ms. Swan,” Rosalie said.
“Dr. Cullen, how long have you known Mr. Masen?”
“What was he like?”
“Objection,” Edward sighed. “Vague.”
“Sustained. Please rephrase, Ms. Swan.”
“Yes, Your Honor.” Bella glared at Edward, and he tampered down the riot in his breast at her disapproval. “How would you describe Mr. Masen’s temperament in his first few decades of his immortal life?”
Carlisle crossed his arms. “Edward was a complex individual...”
Rosalie cursed under her breath. “What now, Mr. Masen?”
“‘Complex’ is an imprecise characterization.”
“If Mr. Masen would allow Dr. Cullen to actually complete an answer,” Bella hissed, “perhaps he would find the precision he seeks.”
“I agree.” Rosalie leaned on the desk. “Mr. Masen, your objection is overruled. And I caution you not to exasperate this court by interrupting every few minutes.”
“With all due respect, Your Honor,” Edward said. “I have the right to object when I see fit.”
Rosalie narrowed her eyes. “And I have the right to stop you if I see fit. Now take your seat.”
Edward held Rosalie’s gaze without moving, and she growled at him in her mind. “I know what you’re doing, Edward. You’re trying to sabotage Carlisle’s testimony to compensate for your inability to cross-examine him. Don’t you think you’re hurting Bella enough without the added insult of undermining these proceedings with childishness?”
Edward blinked in surprise at Rosalie’s mental chiding, marveling at her effective trap. He could not reveal she’d spoken to him without also revealing what she said. And though he cared for nothing beyond Bella’s eternal safety, he was loath for the room at large to know his plan.
Begrudgingly he nodded to the bench and resumed his seat. “Well played, Your Honor,” he thought to himself. “Very well played.”
Rosalie hid her satisfaction as she gave Carlisle leave to finish his answer.
“As I said, Edward was complex: morally upstanding yet profoundly self-loathing, cautious yet reckless, ambitious yet introverted. A fascinating amalgam of endless contrasts.”
Bella smiled, and her indulgence of Edward’s faults made his heart ache.
“Was he happy in his new life?”
“Not really. At least not for the first 86 years.”
“What if anything changed in the 86th year of your acquaintance with him?”
Carlisle’s smile was immediate. “You, my dear. Your love changed Edward and all of us, for that matter, in ways from which we shall never recover.”
Bella blushed, and Edward clenched his fists beneath the table to quell the urge to stroke her warming cheeks.
“How so?” Bella asked.
“At first, Edward was nervous around you, angry even. He feared killing you that first day such that he fled the state to escape temptation.”
Bella raised her hand to pause him. “Just a moment, Dr. Cullen. I’d like to make sure I understand. Are you saying Mr. Masen’s thirst for my blood was so strong he left the state to avoid killing me?”
“That is correct.”
“And that is because I am, as Ms. Brandon put it, his singer?”
Bella folded her arms. “Dr. Cullen, how long have you been a vampire?”
Edward leaned forward, confused by the shift in questioning. “342 years,” Carlisle replied.
“So you’ve had more than three centuries’ worth of personal experience as a vampire?”
“I have, yes.”
“Would you say you know a great deal of vampires?”
Edward started to object to the vagueness “great deal of vampires” but felt it wasn’t worth Rosalie’s contempt.
“I would, yes.”
“Your Honor, if it please the court, I would like Dr. Cullen to be considered an expert on vampire behavior given his age and experience in the immortal world.”
Rosalie looked at Edward. “Any objection, counselor?”
Edward swallowed his first reply. “None that I can vocalize, Your Honor.”
Rosalie actually smiled. “The Court hereby considers Dr. Cullen an expert. Please continue, Ms. Swan.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” Bella’s eyes softened. “Dr. Cullen, I need to ask you some awkward questions, and I would appreciate it if you would answer them fully and without regard for my feelings. Is that understood?”
Carlisle frowned. “Yes, Ms. Swan.”
“Good. Now you testified Edward was so tempted to kill me he had to leave Forks to leave me alive, correct?”
“That is correct.”
“Of all the vampires you know, what percentage would have been able to do that?”
“When forced to sit beside their singer for 45 minutes in a stifling classroom, her blood and scent swirling around them like a heady fog, what percentage of the vampires you know would have been able to leave that singer alive?”
Carlisle gaped at Bella as did the rest of the gathered immortals. “Uh, not very many.”
“And how many would have thought it worthwhile to up and leave the state to protect that singer from their thirst?”
“Objection!” Edward found his voice. “It is an established fact that vegetarian vampires have better control than traditional ones. That respect for human life makes it highly unlikely that any vegetarian vampires would drain their singer in a room full of humans.”
“Yes, it does, Mr. Masen.” Bella smiled smugly. “Thank you for pointing that out.”
Edward’s mouth fell open as he realized his mistake. To Rosalie’s credit, she kept her voice neutral and said, “Mr. Masen, you seem to have validated Ms. Swan’s point. Do you still wish to enter an objection?”
“No, ma’am.” He took his seat without another sound.
“Then please continue, Ms. Swan.”
Bella turned back to Carlisle. “Dr. Cullen, I’m afraid Mr. Masen’s observation preempted your answer. Would you mind answering my last question regarding the percentage or number of vampires you know who would flee the state to avoid killing their singer?”
“Sure, Ms. Swan. Although I agree with Mr. Masen that most civilized vampires would take proper measures to avoid unnecessary loss of human life, I also think leaving the state altogether was an extreme reaction.”
“I see. And why do you think Mr. Masen took such extreme measures?”
“Several reasons. First, Mr. Masen had not taken a human life in more than 70 years and had no wish to sully that record. Second, Mr. Masen’s aforementioned self-loathing likely filled him with considerable guilt regarding the strength of his urge to kill you.”
“Is there a third reason?”
An indulgent smile spread across Carlisle’s face. “I am looking at the third reason, Ms. Swan.”
Bella fought another blush as Edward fought a groan of displeasure. “Let us fast forward a bit, shall we?” Bella retrieved her notebook from her desk. “When did you and I meet?”
“At the hospital on the day Tyler Crowley’s van skidded into your truck.”
“Based on the nature of that accident, what should have been the extent of my injuries?”
Carlisle’s golden eyes darkened, and he looked away. “You should have been killed on impact.”
Edward’s heart constricted at the memory of that fateful day, and he ached to wrap Bella in his arms to confirm she was indeed safe.
For the moment at least.
“But that did not happen,” Bella said after a moment.
“And why not?”
“Because Edward saved your life.”
Bella looked at Edward, her eyes burning a hole in his soul. “He saved my life?”
“The vampire for whom my blood constantly calls saved my life?”
“And how did he do that?”
“According to identical accounts from my four other children, Edward saw what was about to happen in Alice’s mind, sped across the crowded parking lot, and placed himself between you and the van to absorb its impact.”
“He sped across the school parking lot in plain view of dozens of students?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Didn’t he run the risk of someone seeing him?”
“And wouldn’t that have exposed your secret or at the very least forced your family to leave Forks?”
“And doesn’t such hastiness fly directly in the face of the discretion with which your family so proudly lives?”
“So why would he do that?”
“In his own words, when faced with the prospect of your death, all he could think was, ‘Not her.’” Carlisle’s eyes softened. “He loved you even then.”
“Objection,” Edward said, though his heart wasn’t in it. “Presumptuous.”
“Sustained,” Rosalie sighed with equal weariness. “Dr. Cullen’s last statement will be stricken from the record.”
“My apologies, Your Honor.”
“Accepted, Dr. Cullen,” Rosalie replied. “Ms. Swan, please proceed.”
“Thank you, Judge Hale.”
Edward pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering how much more of this he could take. Loath though he was to admit it, Bella’s case against him was subtle and solid. And if she continued this string of success, she might very well win this case.
And he could not allow that, no matter how it touched his heart to know she wanted him so much.
“Dr. Cullen,” Bella was saying, “you heard Ms. Brandon’s testimony about her visions of Mr. Masen killing me, correct?”
“How did those visions affect Mr. Masen?”
“He was deeply disturbed by them.” Carlisle shook his head. “It was as if his heart and body were constantly at war—your love or your blood—and he was deathly afraid his body would win.”
Bella turned to Rosalie. “May I approach the witness?”
Bella set her notebook on the witness stand and turned over her right wrist. “Dr. Cullen, what is this?”
Carlisle sighed. “It is the scar of a vampire bite.”
“How did I get it?”
“In Phoenix. When James bit you.”
Edward gripped the sides of his chair, nearly turning it to kindling as Bella stroked her cold skin. “What normally happens when a vampire bites a human?” she asked Carlisle.
“The vampire’s venom spreads through the body and in about three days turns the human into a vampire.”
“But I am still human, am I not?”
“You most certainly are.”
Bella looked at Edward, refusing to speak until he lifted his eyes. “And why is that?”
“Because Edward saved you.”
Bella did not release Edward from her gaze. “And how did he do that?”
“He sucked out the venom.”
Her eyes flashed, and she returned her attention to her witness. “He sucked out the venom?”
“But the venom was in my bloodstream, was it not?”
“That is correct.”
“Which means he also tasted my blood?”
“Yes, he did.”
“That blood which called to him as none other ever had or will?”
“So he drank some of my blood?”
“Yes!” Edward roared as he came to his feet. “The witness stated more than once that I tasted her blood. Why must she continue to harp on that?”
Rosalie tapped her gavel on the wooden block several times causing Emmett to fly out of the room and return with a new one. “I got it!”
“I’m good, Mr. McCarty,” Rosalie said, after checking the block was still intact. “Thank you.”
“Just doin’ my job,” Emmett replied, setting the unused block on the small table beside him.
Rosalie returned her attention to the exasperated defendant. “Mr. Masen, was that outburst your rather inappropriate way of voicing an objection?”
“Yes, Your Honor. Please. That question has been asked and answered.”
Rosalie waited a beat. “Sustained. Ms. Swan, please move on.”
“My pleasure, Your Honor.” Bella’s eyes pinned Edward in place as he sank in his chair. “Dr. Cullen, according to Ms. Brandon’s visions, one taste of my precious blood would be all it took for Mr. Masen to end my life. How do you explain that I am still alive and still human?”
“Very simply, Ms. Swan: Mr. Masen’s love for you is stronger than his thirst for your blood.”
“And I have the scar to prove it.”
Edward tore his hand through his hair. “Your Honor...”
“Withdrawn,” Bella said. “Just a few more areas to cover, Dr. Cullen.”
“Take your time, Ms. Swan.”
Bella flipped through her notebook, tapping her pen against the pad. “I’d like to talk to you about your wife.”
“Esme?” Carlisle glanced her way. “Sure, if you’d like.”
“How long have you been married?”
“And how long have you loved her?”
“94 years,” he smiled.
“So you spent 10 years dating?”
“As if I could hold out so long,” he chuckled. “No, I’m afraid there were serious obstacles preventing our union.”
“For starters, she was a human girl of 16 when I met her, and I did not think myself worthy of her love.”
“Much like Mr. Masen does not think himself worthy of mine?”
Carlisle paused as if expecting Edward to object. “Precisely. Then our lives took us in different directions, and I did not know if I would ever see her again.” His eyes darkened, and Edward winced at his venomous thoughts toward Charles Evenson. “But God saw fit to reunite our paths, and though the circumstances were tragic, I was honored and blessed to make her my wife shortly thereafter.”
“And how have things been since then?”
His voice warmed with affection. “A literal dream come true.”
“How did you cope in that 10-year period without her?”
Carlisle cringed, his happiness gone in an instant. “Though I found partial satisfaction in my work at the hospital and my eventual companionship with Edward, living without Esme was the closest to hell I should ever hope to come.”
“Would you ever want your children to experience such separation from their mate?”
“I would sooner throw myself on a raging pyre.”
“If I may return to Mr. Masen.” Bella shut her notebook, cradling it to her chest. “Even with everything he has done since Tuesday, do you think Edward still loves me?”
Edward did not dare raise his eyes, as this was the first time she’d spoken his name all day. “I think he loves you more than ever,” Carlisle replied.
“Then why is he doing this?”
Carlisle sighed. “Because Edward believes he can save your life by leaving you. And saving your life is the most important thing to him.”
“I see,” Bella said. “And what would happen if I died because he wasn’t here?”
Edward’s head shot up, his face contorted in shock.
Carlisle leaned forward, his ancient eyes sullied with sadness. “It would kill him.”
His malediction echoed in the ensuing silence, and a few moments passed before Bella indicated she was finished with her witness.
“Very well.” Rosalie cleared her throat. “As Mr. Masen is disallowed from cross-examining this witness, Dr. Cullen, you may step down.”
Edward did not notice the sympathetic look his father gave as he passed his table. Nor did he pay attention to the bawdy jokes Emmett was telling under his breath to lighten the mood.
He only had eyes and ears for Bella.
He watched as she resumed her seat and took a long drink of water, her eyes straight ahead as she did so. He noted how she angled her body away from him, as if he did not exist.
He heard the quickening of her heartbeat, though he could not guess the reason. And he heard her soft sighs, again ignorant of their root.
But he kept his blazing gaze upon her, wondering above all at the meaning behind her final, unexpected question. And as her mind continued to taunt him with silence, Edward feared he might combust from the force of his inner conflict.
“And rightfully so."