A Love Worth Defending

All Rise

By the time Bella reached the pavement outside her father’s house, her purposed strides became more of a march.

An angry stomp, if you will.

She clenched her hands at her sides, willing herself not to turn around, return to the forest, and clobber that stupid vampire right upside his head with a felled oak.

Or at least threaten him with a lit match.

Thankfully the cruiser was absent, so Charlie wasn’t around to hear the front door slam. Or the torrent of fury Bella unleashed on the empty house. Or the frequency of phrases like “immortal idiot” or “inhuman imbecile” followed by a creative string of expletives.

Her current favorite being “canker-caked crapweasel.”

Bella fumed to the refrigerator and flung it open in search of cranberry juice. Her irate eyes landed on the remaining trio of Charlie’s six-pack, and she wished she were the kind of girl to throw a few back.

After the afternoon she had, a good cold one would be the right answer.

“Because the moronic cold one who lived in the forest came up with the wrong answer. The worst answer to any question ever asked by anyone. Ever.”

With a huff she grabbed the plastic jug and set it on the counter. Reaching into the faded yellow cabinets for a glass, she thought she heard footsteps on the porch.

“You better not be in front of my house,” she growled under her breath.

The dull, heavy thud which answered her suggested it was not in fact the bunghole to whom she earlier referred, but the mail carrier with a package for Charlie.

“That's that's I thought!” she shouted to the empty kitchen.

Returning to her thirst, she unscrewed the top of the jug, surprised the cup in her left hand wouldn’t stop moving. She stepped away from the counter and looked at her hands to find them shaking.

Along with the rest of her.

Making her way to the nearest kitchen chair, Bella sank into it, breathing slowly through her nose. She folded her hands atop her bouncing knee, her scrambled mind racing without her permission.

“How dare he? How dare he threaten to leave me?”

“How could he? How could he try to leave me?”

“Who does he think is to do that?”

“Who does he think I am to permit that?”

She raised her throbbing head, catching her reflection in the stainless steel toaster Charlie won in a Christmas raffle three years ago. Anger, indignation, sadness, and incredulity warred on her face, and she shut her eyes.

It wasn’t until she heard the slam of the cruiser door however many minutes later that she stood up, put away the unused juice and cup, and trudged upstairs. Charlie gave her the week off from cooking as an add-on birthday present, so she anticipated another take-home platter from the diner.

Perhaps she’d have an appetite tomorrow.

She closed and locked her bedroom door and faced her open window. Though the arrogant buttmunch stayed away since her birthday, she had hoped he would return to his senses and her bedroom before the week was out.

And as she curled in a tight ball on her bed, that last stupid ray of hope died a sharp, painful death.

To Bella’s credit, her behavior in school on Friday was exemplary.

She did not hide in her truck all morning, pretending not to wait for the silver Volvo’s arrival. She did not spend 20 minutes in homeroom looking out the window to avoid eye contact with the copper-haired crapmaster she used to know. Nor did she bolt from the room at the first clang of the bell to stave off possible conversation.

Instead she arrived after the first bell, took the back way to class, and promptly placed her head atop her folded arms on the desk, feigning a headache. Despite the cloud cover and drizzle, she prayed he might decide to skip today, leaving her a 12-mile cushion.

Of course, he was the embodiment of “not helpful,” so she was unsurprised when she felt him pass her desk moments later.

She did not care when he scooted behind her. Nor did the hairs on her arms stand on end when he slipped into the adjacent seat, his cool, sweet scent invading her space like an unwelcome guest. Her heart did not speed up, and her thoughts were not tossed into immediate chaos.

Not in the least.

The whispering around her table increased in volume, but she dared not lift her head. She heard her name and his, along with poorly whispered theories about the obvious tension between them, but she reacted not.

But he must have and strongly so. Because she felt a subtle shift in the chair beside her, heard a muted velvet hiss, followed by awkward coughs, a rustle of paper, and utter silence.

“It’s so quiet in here, you could hear a church mouse pee on cotton,” a familiar Southern drawl observed in her mind. She smiled on instinct then recovered her indifference. Although she did not know his opinion on his decision, he was still his brother, and venom was thicker than water.

Or blood.

Or something.

Mr. Varner brought the class to order, and Bella took a steadying breath and raised her head. Focusing on the balding gentleman at the front of the room, she took no notice of the pale hand to her left, the heavenly fragrance wafting around her, or the traitorous quivering of her body when he quietly cleared his throat.

In fact, her only response was yesterday’s parting shot and that only in her mind.

“One class down, six more to go. I can do this.”

And do it, she did.

Bella turned off the ignition and slumped over the steering wheel. Today had been the longest day of her life, and she prayed tomorrow would bring relief.

The rumor mill was ablaze about the sudden distance between her and him, though his presence in all but one of her classes kept the questions to a minimum. The day-long headache she’d faked was her ticket out of eighth-period gym, and she barely paused to buckle up as her truck pealed out of the parking lot.

With today behind her, she needed to strategize for tomorrow’s trial. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she exited the truck and headed for the house.

And was stunned to find him on her porch.

Avoiding him all day had ill-prepared her for the intrusion, and her heart stuttered in her chest at this first sight of him in nearly 24 hours.

But the reminder of yesterday’s events put the kibosh on poetic sentiment, and she halted on the sidewalk with a glare. “What?”

He started but recovered with a taut nod. “I was hoping we could talk.”

“We will. Tomorrow morning. At 10:00.”

She strode past him to the front door, and he grabbed her arm. “Bella, wait.”

“Don’t. Touch. Me.”

He released her as if her body was aflame, folding his hands in front of him. “Forgive me. That was out of line.”

“Right, that was out of line,” she muttered as she entered the house. He remained on the porch, and she sighed. “I don’t live in a barn, you know.”

She soon heard the front close moments followed by heavy footfalls in the hall.

“That’s far enough,” she said. “You’re not staying long.” He paused in the hallway with wounded eyes, and she ignored them as she steeled her own. “What do you want?”

“To talk.”

“About what?”

“About what we’re doing.”

“About. What?”

“The trial.” His exasperation pleased her, but she refrained from smiling. “I want to be sure you understand what you’re doing here.”

She walked toward him with measured steps. “You are not only obnoxious and obtuse but presumptuous and pompous to boot. I may not know what you are doing, but believe me, I know exactly what I’m doing.”

He closed his eyes, and she chided hers for their urge to soften. “Stop that! Don’t you dare empathize with the chumbucket who broke your heart.”

“Please don’t do this,” he murmured, breaking into her thoughts. “I don’t… I don’t want to hurt you.”

He winced at his phrasing, but Bella denied him the satisfaction of her immediate response.

“Well, you have a funny way of showing it.” He met her eyes, and she turned sharply toward the stairs. “Shut my door on your way out.”

She heard his sigh as she continued to her room, and she idled on the stairs until the click of the front door, her resolve further solidified.

“Tomorrow it begins.”

Bella rose by alarm Saturday morning and stretched awake. Charlie was on the other side of town, helping his deputy build a deck on the back of his house. She’d given him vague indications of plans to hang with the Cullens, but he hadn’t asked for details.

Thank God for small miracles.

After showering and shaving her legs, she took her time get dressed, steeling her nerves for the task ahead. She was ready, ammunition lined up and set to go. With the irrefutable arguments she’d prepared, there was little doubt the court would rule in her favor.

And little room for considering what she’d do if it didn’t.

Checking her reflection one final time, she grabbed the leather satchel containing her notes and exhibits and headed out.

The drive to the courthouse was silent and simple. The multiunit office building was on an unfamiliar street on the outskirts of Port Angeles, the courtroom itself most recently a disco according to the text she received last night. Bella didn’t need the details: just an assurance of privacy and the space for the whole weekend. With those requirements met, little else mattered.

She parked in the small lot behind the nondescript building, tucking her truck into the space closest to the far wall. Planning to be the last to arrive, she was pleased to find three other vehicles lined up across from her selected spot. With minutes to spare, she proceeded to the backdoor with purpose, the text message also indicating the door would be unlocked.

The bleak corridor with its inconsistent lighting suggested the building was one broken window from being condemned, and she hoped the first floor suite to which the sign directed her was more properly outfitted.

And as she pushed through the heavy wooden doors, she saw how needless her concerns had been.

The creamy golden walls yielded to high vaulted ceilings centered by glittering chandeliers. Tall, narrowed windows were hidden behind thick burgundy drapes which brushed the burnt gold carpet. Identical plaintiff and defendant’s tables were separated from the viewing gallery by a waist-high divider and from each other with a coordinating aisle runner. From the judge’s high bench flanked by a proud American flag to the wide encasement for the witness stand, the dark cherry wood furniture legitimized the space, and Bella wondered for the first time if she might desire a career in litigation.

There were four occupants in the room, five if you counted the one she refused to acknowledge, and she nodded to the members of the former group as she proceeded to her spot. The fifth person’s gaze seared the side of her face, but she kept her eyes on opening her briefcase and organizing her papers, noting the small cooler of ice and bottled beverages beside her table.

Plastic bottles, of course.

The door to the right of the judge’s bench opened to admit a uniformed bailiff. Bella set her portfolio on the chair beside her and smoothed her skirt, crossing her hands in front of her. The bailiff strolled past her desk with a neutral expression and stopped in the center of the room to face the six persons present.

“All rise!” Emmett called out in a strong voice. “This court is now in session, The Honorable Rosalie Hale McCarty presiding.”

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