The Count of Tuscany

Chapter 2

December (six months earlier)

I could go back

Edward crouched on the lowest branch of an ash tree in a Boston suburb. The garden in which the tree stood would be beautiful on warm summer evenings: fine grass, neatly-trimmed borders, and a perfect balance of shrubs. That wasn’t the case tonight. It was more like a battleground of gusting winds roaring like an express train from the Pole, the rain pelting down at odd angles.

He couldn’t recall being dry since he’d left his family three weeks ago. Not that it mattered; it was simply tedious and made the mundane issues of the world that much trickier. Soaked and mud-spattered clothing drew attention in public; ruined shoes inspired no confidence; iPhones didn’t work well with wet fingers.

Looking through the rear windows of the nearby house, he’d spent the evening apathetically watching the family sitting around the table for their evening meal, and the parents’ vain attempt to drag information out of their teenagers about their day. Then idle gossip over coffee and table-clearing.

There was nothing special about this particular family; this was merely where he’d come to a stop, just as he’d done the twenty preceding days. The house was dressed for Christmas, inside and out. Along the edge of the roof, colored lights swayed with each gust. From his perch Edward could see the flat-screen TV. He’d gazed mindlessly at the shows throughout the evening until a baseball game came on. This reminded him too much of Charlie, and therefore… he allowed his thoughts to linger over her name, and then sighed, lowering his forehead onto his knees and curling his body over the perennial ache in his chest.

You cant go back. You promised. Nothings changed.

Thunder crashed. With a yowl, a cat shot halfway across the lawn toward him, then suddenly skidded to a halt, all straight-legged, bristling wet fur and horrified eyes as it realized what it approached. Then it turned tail and dashed back the way it came. Although Edward’s memories of his human life were hazy, he was sure that he’d been fond of pets and that they’d trusted him. The cat would have rubbed up against him, purring all the while, and not fled in terror from the demon in its garden. When he stopped to think about it, this rejection by every living thing… every living thing bar one, he corrected himself… was one of the bleakest aspects of his existence.

His thoughts continued along a well-worn track. "And what if you're right?" they whispered to him. "What if nothing has changed? What if she still wants you?"

"No!" he whispered out loud. "It doesn't matter. It's not safe. She's human. They forget; she'll forget."

"Maybe she has," the persistent niggle continued, as it had over and over for nearly three months, "What if Newton" it sneered, "stepped in to comfort her? You want her with him? That your great plan? Think he'll be holding back?"

Betrayed for the thousandth time by his own imaginings, he ground his teeth. Every time he thought of Bella with him, andrecalled Newton's fantasies and daydreams: the lustful thoughts, the mental tracing of her figure, the internal speculation about her - her - undergarments - and how she would look without them… Edward shuddered, jealousy running hot acid through him. Newton wasn't the only one. Crowley, Yorkie, that guy down at the drugstore, the assistant manager at the Thriftway, the over-attentive clerk at the bookshop in Port Angeles. The list went on.

His phone buzzed, and he pulled the Ziploc bag out from his jacket and peered through it. Alice had texted, Stop moping and get under cover. Carlisle will call in two.

He straightened, and then stepped down from the branch. Just as he’d found shelter under a gazebo a couple of houses down, his phone rang. As always, he felt mixed emotions whenever he heard Carlisle’s voice. On the one hand, it soothed him, connecting him, and breaking the fixed loop of his thoughts with the knowledge that he was cherished. On the other hand, he felt guilty about leaving, and that his absence was causing distress, however well Carlisle tried to hide it.

Carlisle never hurried these calls. He would ask little, other than for honest assurance that Edward was all right and had hunted, and then would give an account of how his family had been spending their time. Edward found himself hanging onto every detail, wanting to know all aspects of their lives, even though he didn’t feel he could return yet.

Finally, Carlisle cleared his throat. This was a wholly human trait that had become somewhat of a habit when he was trying to introduce an awkward subject. “Edward, you and I have to take a trip abroad.” He sounded unhappy.

Edward blinked. This was unexpected. During every call he’d been promised that there would be no pressure to face his family; moreover, it had been many years since Carlisle had left the US mainland. Something was up. “What is it, dad?”

In the background Edward heard keys tapping. “You've been summoned to Volterra,” Carlisle mumbled, clearly holding the receiver under his chin. “I’m forwarding the email to you now."

Edward read the message in silence.

From Aro@Volterra.com

To CCullen1640@aol.com

Esteemed friend

We are saddened how swiftly the decades have fallen without the pleasure of welcoming our brother once again to our Courts.

News reaches us that your venture in the new world continues successfully, and that you now have a mate and a growing coven; however, you have not honored us by bringing them into our acquaintance.

We fear that the years separating us, and the divisions of the continents, may have weakened the ties that formerly bound us in brotherhood. We are concerned there is an estrangement, and perhaps a waning of affection, that could bring about exposure of our race, thus leading to a perilous conclusion.

Those whom we regard as our children must be guided and given fair counsel, particularly in the retention of our superiority and security as chosen masters of this world. Where our province extends, it is our responsibility to evaluate the consequences of their actions, and to both protect and educate those under our jurisdiction.

We cordially invite Edward to visit our halls so that we might once again strengthen the connections between our families. We have been bestowed with certain gifts that enhance our species; it behooves those Fortunates to serve our kind as their talents dictate. As a quid pro quo, their lesser foibles merit understanding and tolerance. We are mindful that his actions have been largely balanced by discretion; Edward may feel assured his pet will not be harmed by the Volturi, or our Court.

We have arranged for our representatives to provide an honor escort from Boston Logan at 17.30.

We remain,

Aro, Conte di Toscana

Pet, thought Edward, sourly,' that's the limit of their understanding.

The extent to which others of his kind dismissed his feelings for Bella left him reeling. It was one sacred rule amongst vampires that needed no external enforcement because it was hard-wired into each and every one of them: once they had found the one, nothing could come between a mated pair, and none would ever try. Infidelity was the one human trait that vampires found most puzzling and distasteful.

Only a few had heard about James's pursuit of Bella, the Cullens' defense of her, and subsequent disposal of him, but there were those who found it difficult to reconcile that Edward's feelings ran as strongly as theirs for their own mates. Had James threatened a vampire mate of Edward's, the family's actions would have been lauded as logical and necessary to correct an outrage; since Bella was merely a human, to leave James's mate bereft and alone for eternity was the epitome of overreaction.

"They don't allow for a refusal," Edward commented. He read the email again to glean more information from it. "Why are you going? They specifically asked for me.”

Carlisle sighed, another human mannerism. “I don’t feel right about this. Aro won't like it; he's less than tolerant if people don't do precisely what he wants, but I feel it would be safer if I go with you. Clearly he wants you to join him. I’ve tried to keep you, Alice, and Jasper from his notice all these years because he can be relentless when he wants to acquire someone's talents.”

“What does Alice see?”

In the background he could hear Alice’s voice high, clear, and confident. “I don’t see any problems. Yes, Aro will court him, but Edward will refuse. Aro will be disappointed, but he’ll accept it.”

“Carlisle, you and I both know I have to go alone.” Edward suddenly felt weary. “I was the one who revealed our existence, and clearly they know it.”

“I don’t know –“Carlisle began, cautious, but Edward cut him off.

“It makes sense,” he said. “Alice doesn't foresee a problem, but if anything should develop, you have Esme to protect. Stay here. Maybe I can be home for Christmas.” He hated making a promise that he knew he wouldn’t keep just to make Carlisle agree.

“Don’t try emotional blackmail with me, Edward Cullen,” Carlisle said grimly. “That’s Esme’s job.” But Edward could hear the beginnings of a smile in his tone, before he grew serious again. “I’m not going to just let you run halfway round the world entirely alone. Alice, Jasper, and I shall travel to London to be on-hand if you need us.” Edward heard a gleeful “Yessss!” from Alice. "I don't like it, but I’ll inform Aro that you’ve accepted his invitation.”

"Get yourself a decent suit," Alice ordered. "They won't be impressed if you turn up looking like that."

Despite himself, Edward smiled and blew a kiss into the phone. "Charmer!" she called.

0o0o0o0o0o0o0

June

As Charlie stuttered condolences and apologies for disturbing him, Carlisle’s fists clenched involuntarily and he forced them to relax so he wouldn’t break the phone. Then he sighed, closing his eyes and putting his hand on the desk, returning his full attention to Charlie.

"...so I guess I'll try other avenues. ...just been such a strange six months. Anyway, nothing for you to worry about..."

Carlisle replayed Charlie’s words. To cover up for his silence, and get more information, he said, "I'm sorry. I'm easily distracted these days. Who told you to contact Edward?"

"The Quileute Elders," came the unexpected answer.

Carlisle’s sense of foreboding suddenly, and quickly, deepened. “Tell me.”

“It was a few days after Bella went missing. I wasn’t allowed near the police station, since there’s a rule we can’t work on a case when there’s a family member involved. They wouldn’t tell me anything and I was out of my mind with worry, frustration, and lack of sleep when Billy Black and Sam Uley knocked on my door.”

There was a moment of silence, and then he continued.

“Billy told me this wasn’t a police matter and that I needed to find your family, since Edward was the key to the problem.” He took a deep breath. “I know he was your son, and I’m sorry for your loss, but I got real angry at them. Bella had gone through so much after he left and to hear them talk about him like that…” his voice trailed off. "Anyway, I'm sorry."

Though Charlie’s voice shook, Carlisle pretended not to hear it. "No, please, go on." He felt only sympathy. Carlisle had sincere respect for the Quileute people and if their knowledge or instincts prompted them to contact his family, he wanted to hear everything. So far, his actions following Edward's loss had been slow and cautious. He had others to protect. Now it seemed there may be wider issues than had been evident. This couldn’t be a coincidence. A hot thread of anger shot through him.

“How are Esme and your family coping?”

Carlisle found it difficult to respond. ”Esme has been incredible throughout all this. I truly don’t know where she finds the strength.” He had been taken aback by her fierceness. She would say, “They’ve murdered our son, Carlisle, but they are not going to bring harm to any other of our children.”

Rosalie’s rough-voiced plea, “We have to avenge the little twerp,” was loudly echoed by Emmett. It had been Esme who slapped them down and forced them to see sense when Carlisle had been paralyzed by shock and grief.

Alice was the most affected. Terrified, yet desperate to know what she saw, Carlisle had tried in vain to support both her and a distraught Jasper. It had been pitiful listening to her attempts to explain her vision; how she’d seen, through a haze of purple smoke, the twisted marionette that was her beloved brother when they’d finished with him; how he’d struggled to look up as Aro gave the final order. Then unrelenting darkness.

“Alice has taken it hard,” was all he could say.

“Poor kid.” Charlie murmured.

Both men were silent for a few seconds, and then Carlisle gave himself a mental shake. “Please, continue.”

“Yeah, so I tried to throw them out, but they wouldn’t go, even when I got so mad I threatened to shoot them.” Charlie’s voice was gruff with embarrassment. “And I just lost it for a while. So damned tired, I guess. They sat with me and I must have eventually dozed off. The next morning, they told me they’d been trying to find you, but had gotten nowhere.

“I felt so useless, not allowed to do anything official, so I agreed to help them search.” he paused. Carlisle waited, as he continued in a cautious tone. “Billy and Sam gave their word that this has nothing to do with drugs or organized crime, or anything like that.”

Carlisle answered his unasked question. “You have my word, also. We are not involved in such practices.”

Charlie blew out a breath. “The hardest part was that they made me swear not to tell anyone what I was doing, and that it would be dangerous for Bella and everyone else. Billy’s my oldest friend and I never thought I’d have to put such blind faith in him. To make matters worse, he’d never tell me why we were unable to find you, just that ‘it’s a bit like witness protection.’ I know that’s just bullshit and at some point I'm gonna be demanding some real good answers, but right now I just want to find Bells and the boy,"

"You mentioned that Bella wasn't the first?" Amid Carlisle’s growing feelings of dread was a suspicion that events had suddenly sped up, rushing toward him with abandon, maybe even too quickly to put his plan into action. Again, he found himself copying Edward's habit of running his hand through his hair. Grief spiked.

Charlie took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and sounded defeated as he said, "Last December, one of the kids from the Res, the son of one of my oldest friends, came into Forks for a new set of Christmas lights. No one has seen him since. I checked around and he never even made it into a shop.

"The kids from the tribe were everywhere I went. I couldn't turn round without tripping over one of them. They formed a search party, but after a few days they all shut down on me, angry and silent. It was like a stone wall. Nobody asked me any questions. Even when the Feds came to check us out, they showed no interest. Just fury."

"They gave up?" Carlisle guessed.

"Nooo," Charlie disagreed. "It was more like resignation. The whole place has been more tense than a piano wire ever since. None of the young kids travel off the Res alone; one of Sam's gang always goes with them."

"Can you tell me about Bella?" Carlisle asked this carefully, knowing that it would be a far more difficult topic.

"Just like the boy." Charlie's tone was flat. "She went to the Thriftway with a friend; One minute Angela was talking to her, and the next minute she was gone." He recalled how Angela had come to the police station, bewildered and frightened, to tell him what happened. He swallowed hard. "And again, Sam and his gang were all over the place. They all keep giving me this look, like they know exactly what's happening. I feel like the damn messenger boy!" There was another moment of silence, and when he spoke again, Charlie sounded a lot more controlled. "So, please, Carlisle, will you tell me what the hell's going on?"

Instead of answering, Carlisle asked, "Did Sam say anything else?"

"Yeah, he said, 'When you find Cullen, tell him we need to talk and that the treaty is stronger than ever.' I have no idea what he meant and he wouldn't expand on that, but now..." Charlie took a deep breath, "Treaty," he mumbled, as though trying to understand the word.

Carlisle turned around to once again look at the photograph and the love, happiness and potential it had represented. "Please, would you be kind enough to convey my regards to the Elders?" He fought to keep his tone level. Although he knew that the message and his response would be grating on Charlie's nerves and igniting his suspicions even further, he found that this bothered him only because it would cause the chief even more distress.

Carlisle’s feelings of ever-increasing rage warred with his natural patience, and despite his best efforts, he knew that his control was slipping. Fury mounted every time he thought about his family’s tenuous safety. Caution may not serve them, and if his automatic assumptions were correct, Charlie may have already lost a child as well.

With the events of the last few months, his regard for others' so-called “rules of secrecy” was worn thin. As leaders of the vampires, the Volturi should be above dishonorable actions such as breaking assurances and murdering innocents, but Carlisle’s world had undergone a paradigm shift since that day at the lake.

"I think I need to meet with Billy and Sam,” Carlisle told him. “I'll be there by morning. And please let me know if you hear anything about Bella.”

“Thank you, Carlisle.”

He paused, feeling a sudden need to validate Edward’s actions, for his sake.

“Charlie," he chose his words carefully, "I know how our departure looked to you, and I have a good idea of what it did to Bella. Please know that it was not what it seemed." The words were difficult to force out and Carlisle heard his own smooth tones begin to roughen. "Our decision to leave was not an easy one. We all love her and Esme and I considered her one of our own. And Edward, he… Bella was his universe. He loved her to the end. I swear, I’ll do whatever I can to get her back to you."

0o0o0o0o0o0o0


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