Gathering Her Wits
eyes were fixed on Bella, scorching the side of her face. Swallowing hard, she
met his tortured gaze, and her warring urges to smother him with hugs or stab
him with a flaming spear split her heart in twain.
She needed a break.
Bella dragged her eyes from Edward, doing her best to keep a tight grip on her water bottle and sanity. Having replaced the cap after her last sip, she set it atop the pile of napkins she used as coaster and slowly came to her feet.
“Your Honor, if it please the court, may I take a brief recess?”
Rosalie was mid-nod when she remembered to ask the defendant’s permission. “Any objection, Mr. Masen?”
Bella refused to turn his away again and barely heard his verbal agreement.
“Is anything wrong, Ms. Swan?” the judge asked.
“No, Your Honor.” Bella’s smile was fake and uncomfortable. “Just need a human moment, ten minutes tops.”
Rosalie consulted the clock on the wall. “Take fifteen. We’ll reconvene at 11:30.” She tapped the gavel on the wooden block, prompting Emmett to call out, “All rise for the plaintiff’s exit!”
“That’s not necessary, Em,” Rosalie said.
“Of course it is,” he replied. “Bella’s leaving the room, and vampires should rise for humans out of respect.”
Rosalie’s expression softened as she looked at her husband. “You’re such a teddy bear.”
“And 15 minutes is plenty of time for me to get up under that robe.”
Her eyes widened, and she shook her head, poorly hiding her amused arousal. But as she faced Bella, Rosalie’s mood shifted. “Ms. Swan, perhaps we should adjourn for your lunch now. You look alarmingly pale.”
“Thank you, Your Honor, but 15 minutes is enough.” She started to leave the room, pausing in the middle of the aisle. “Though can anything be done to give me a bit of privacy?”
Rosalie looked to Alice who nodded. “Your Honor, press that red button beneath your table on the left.”
Rosalie did, and every vampire in the room winced.
“What happened?” Bella asked.
“It’s a noise distorter,” Alice said. “We had one installed in the house over the summer, and I thought it might come in handy here.”
“What’s it for?”
“It distracts us with a complicated assortment of discordant sounds, making it more difficult for us to focus on sounds outside the room,” Emmett said proudly. “Me and Eddie designed it.”
Bella turned to the second vampire he mentioned. “Why?”
“To give us some privacy when you came to the house,” he said in a flat tone. “It was my idea.” Then he raised his eyes to Rosalie. “But we’re in recess, so she cannot use that against me in court.”
Rosalie rolled her eyes and waved her hand at Bella. “Take your recess, Ms. Swan.”
“Thank you.” Bella kept her eyes down and her steps sure as she exited the courtroom. According to Alice’s earlier text, the bathroom was at the opposite end of the hall on the left. It wasn’t as far away as Bella would have liked—the next county would have been ideal—but in her current condition, Bella couldn’t afford to be picky.
She ignored the recent paint job, full-length mirror, and wall sconces in the sitting room. Didn’t care that the lone bathroom stall was the size of her bedroom and had a stand-up shower. Nor did she notice her favorite hand soap and lotion on a side table beside the pedestal sink.
Instead she flopped down on the upholstered bench, spread her knees, and put her head between them. Pinching the bridge of her nose had become a calming habit, but when her brain caught up to the familiar action, she snatched her hand away and sighed.
“Maybe some water on my face would help.”
Bella grabbed the facecloth on the metal hook beside the sink and ran it under cool water until damp. She patted her cheeks, forehead, and neck, stopping short of pressing it against her eyes. Feeling a bit of relief, Bella repeated the action with the moist cloth, tapping her wrists and temples as well. Her left temple throbbed, and she wondered it didn’t burst with the effort she used to hold herself together.
It had been two days since Edward dragged her into the forest, two days since he spoke that heartbreaking string of words that destroyed the tenuous peace holding them together since her disastrous birthday party. Two days since she harnessed her strongest indignation and challenged him to a courtroom duel.
And two whole days since she gave herself a two-word instruction that allowed her to survive his ridiculous assertions, a two-word command that would carry her through this trial and beyond, no matter its outcome.
She did not cry when Edward told her they were leaving, that “they” did not include her. She did not cry when he said his world was not for her, that he did not want her.
Though his words killed her, shattered her soul into a million sad pieces, Bella did not cry then and had not cried since. And if she could force herself to hold on, she would not cry ever.
Because she feared if she did, she would never stop.
Like most girls who never considered themselves romantic, Bella scoffed at the melodramatic rom-coms her Phoenix classmates were so found of. The ones where the heroine fell to her knees, begging and pleading when her beau called it quits. The ones where she gained or lost a ton of weight, destroyed her life or abandoned it altogether, choosing to spend her remaining days mourning his loss until the next guy came along.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Bella never understood those women, how they could let one man break them so thoroughly. She thought them naïve, stupid, and worst of all, pathetic. Her mother would break out the tissues, preparing to match the female lead tear-for-tear, and Bella would grab a handful to muffle her laughter.
Because she was far too smart and well-adjusted to ever behave that way.
Bella replaced the washcloth on its hook and covered her mouth with her hands, forcing back a snort. The only thing keeping her from crying was too shameful to admit aloud, a reason making her more pathetic than the very women she mocked.
She didn’t want to hurt Edward.
After all he’d said and done, all he was prepared to do that she hadn’t yet seen, Bella knew Edward loved her, knew he loved her more than he could handle. And hearing her cry would hurt him more than he was hurting himself, and she could not allow that.
“And if this were a movie, there’d be an appropriately melancholy instrumental playing in the background. Probably a piano solo, since he’s so good at that.”
Bella huffed at her musings and forced herself to focus. She did not want to hurt Edward, that was true. But neither was she in a position to lose her grip. The trial was going well, in her favor she dared believe, and coming apart now was not an option.
Not when she was so close to winning.
There was little point in lamenting their current situation as Edward had left her little choice the other day. She tried last night to convince herself not to show up, to leave him twisting in the wind as he deserved.
But she couldn’t do that to the stupid vampire she loved.
And boy, was he stupid right now.
Stupid because he couldn’t see what was right in front of him. Stupid because his fear and recklessness made him more stupid. Stupid because he refused to listen to reason.
And stupid because he thought leaving her forever would keep her safe.
“Ugh!” Bella groaned, reaching into the covered wicker basket for a granola bar, again her favorite kind. “Son of a puss-addled, crapweaseling back-scratcher!”
She tore open the wrapper and took an indelicate bite, heedless of the crumbs falling onto her skirt. As long as she lived, she would never understand how he could be immortally intelligent and make such a moronic decision.
He might as well have said, “To keep you dry, I’m going to toss you into the ocean.”
And even here, in the relative privacy of the bathroom, Bella felt bad for judging him so harshly. Despite Edward’s attempts to hide it, she knew Edward was hurting, flogging himself with each objection and cross-examination. He did not want to hurt Bella anymore, did not want to put his family through the torture of watching their love implode.
But stronger than it all was his refusal to endanger Bella’s life with his presence. And if she surrendered and let him go, this would all be over.
This would all be over.
Bella stopped chewing, swallowing past the lump in her throat. Was that the right answer? Should she return to the courtroom and withdraw her petition?
Edward would not relent; she knew that. Her case was winding down, and it would soon be his turn. And though she was clueless about his witness list, she knew his presentation would be brutal, nearly impossible to withstand. And the more she persisted, the harder he would fight.
Fight until everyone lost.
What’s more, his masochism was so profound he would approve his self-destruction and see the eventual loss of his family as justice being served. He might even be twisted enough to stand by and watch Bella move on, lurking on the periphery of her life until it ended.
A part of Bella saw something beautiful in his willingness to sacrifice it all for her sake, understood on a subconscious level he was captivated by love and motivated by fear. And with no real-world experience with either, he was bound to make mistakes.
But that part was small, infinitesimal compared to the part that saw nothing but that trademark Edward arrogance deciding what was best without giving her a vote.
And it was that louder, stronger, pissed off part that brought Bella to her feet and propelled her out of the bathroom. Yes, she wanted to cry because the boy she loved broke her heart. But more than anything, she wanted to wipe the floor with his presumptions and make him sorry he ever tried to run and ruin her life.
Motivated by love or not.
Bella burst through the courtroom doors without a hello or how-de-do and planted herself behind her desk, her eyes blazing with determination as the judge brought the room to order.
“Are you ready to continue, Ms. Swan?” Rosalie asked.
“Most definitely, Your Honor.”
Bella glared at Edward, noting the confusion in his eyes.
“Game back on, Cullen.”