Chapter 7: The Game
Vampires often experienced the present and anticipated the future while contemplating the past. An eternity will do that you. But in Bella's presence, every division consolidated like spheres of mercury in the purpose of enjoying her company.
My hands felt wrong not touching her. When she huddled at my side to examine a book or a photograph, the closeness, the warmth, was a new experience each time. Regardless of all my romantic designs, however, just being with her, sharing thoughts and opinions, at times saying nothing at all, there was an ease between us of an underlining friendship. This is what people did being in love. And for a time, I almost forgot what I was.
When we reached Forks' borders it began to sprinkle just as Alice predicted. The truck's wipers did its best to keep up with droplets that fell the further we plodded into town. To the metronome of each struggled swipe, we continued our conversation from earlier.
The Chevy slogged at a stroll back to her house. I didn't mind. Inside the cab what would have once been a claustrophobic chamber of torture now felt roomy. Granted a wish I'd whisk Bella to some lonely place and keep her all to myself.
I made up my mind to stay with her while she went about the rest of the day — before our official date tonight and my formal meeting with Charlie as Bella's boyfriend.
Billy Black foiled my plans.
Through the tentacles of mist, a dark sedan loomed in the driveway. Yet, this time Black wasn't inside the car. He was seated in a wheelchair underneath the Swans' front porch awning accompanied by the youngster from our previous standoff. I cursed above my breath when I read his mind.
Black's mission was singular — to warn to Chief Swan — but his intended audience wasn't here.
I choked off the truck's engine fermenting, "This is crossing the line." Literally! Forks, including this house, were well within Cullen territory. Family friend or not, Black knowingly violated the pact, and this, the second offense was tantamount to declaring war.
"He came to warn Charlie?" Bella gasped horror-struck.
With a silent nod, my eyes converged on Billy Black. An ancestral chant for warding off evil spirits echoed in his mind. It was a good thing Chief Swan wasn't home because I was about to make a really bad impression.
"Let me deal with this," Bella advised.
Then the protective thoughts of Black's son drew me to the youth. As he gripped the handles of the wheelchair that were just as weathered as his father, my vision lowered to Black. The sight of his debilitation shaved a layer of my anger.
"That's probably best. Be careful, though. The child has no idea."
Bella bristled and shifted in her seat. "Jacob is not that much younger than I am."
At her reproving tone, my vision disengaged from Black and fixed on her. My anger was immediately replaced with embarrassment. "Oh, I know."
Bella expelled a breath and held the door handle preparing to confront the rain and her uninvited guests.
"Get them inside," I directed, "so I can leave. I'll be back around dusk."
"Do you want my truck?"
My eyes rolled. "I could walk home faster that this truck moves."
"You don't have to leave."
"Actually, I do. After you get rid of them" — glimpsing the stationary duo — "you still have to prepare Charlie to meet your new boyfriend." In my best impersonation of the Cheshire cat, I grimaced.
Bella moaned, "Thanks a lot."
My grimace relaxed into a sincere smile. "I'll be back soon."
Then my gaze revisited the figures on the porch. And in an impetuous lapse of judgment, I kissed Bella, not on the cheek as I intended but on her neck. If Black came to rat me out, I was going to give him something worth reporting.
Black's eyeballs bulged then retracted under the hood of his eyelids. Bella's heartbeat spasmed. "Soon," she emphasized before ducking into the downpour.
It gutted me to see her go. I felt robbed.
"Hey, Billy, Hi Jacob." Bella greeted. "Charlie's gone for the day — I hope you haven't been waiting long."
"Not long," Black answered dyspeptically with one grizzled eye still on me. "I just wanted to bring this up." On his lap, he carried a rolled-up brown paper bag.
"Thanks." Bella hesitated before offering, "Why don't you come in for a minute and dry off?" She unlocked the front door conducting them through ahead of her.
"Here let me take that." Unburdening Black of the paper bag, Bella turned to stand in the doorway. Her eyes pinned me to the inside of the cab. I stared straight ahead. I knew if I returned her gaze I would not leave.
My instincts to protect her clamored for me to stay, but the Quileute chieftain would no doubt detect my presence. After my incendiary act, I had no desire to give him more reasons to wait out Charlie's return.
When Bella shut the front door, I poached one last inhalation of her scent trapped within the canned heat she left behind then plunged into the rain.
Taking out my cell phone, I dialed Carlisle's mobile.
"Carlisle, can you talk?"
"Yes… well, actually, I was about to head home. What is it?" It was generally in emergencies that we used our cell phones. Carlisle knew something was wrong.
"Would you mind waiting for me before you leave? I should be at the hospital in three minutes." I was already beating a route towards his direction.
"Of course. What's happened?"
"It's Billy Black." My words like my patience were about to crack. "He was camped at Bella's house. Carlisle, this wasn't the first time."
"Billy Black?" Carlisle sounded as if he misunderstood me. "Meet me at my office. Have you spoken with Alice?"
Then in an unruffled monotone he replied, "It's nothing. I'll see you soon." Carlisle's illuminated number vaporized from the screen.
That was puzzling. Why did he mention Alice?
Then the cogs and springs of my mind creaked in activation. She hadn't seen this or my earlier encounter with Black. Even with the excitement of tonight's game, Alice would be sensitive to something this significant. It left me exceedingly troubled.
Carlisle met me at the door to his office and handed me a towel. It was a slow day at the hospital with very few people about. "Now tell me exactly what happened."
As I dried off, I detailed my two showdowns with Billy Black.
"Hmmm…" My father folded his arms across his chest, "And you believe his purpose this evening was to warn Chief Swan about you, about us?"
"I read his mind. I have no doubt."
"Edward, unless Bella can convince him otherwise, if Billy Black believes his friends are in danger, I cannot see how we might prevent him. He may feel justified."
"But to break the pact and endanger his tribe?"
Carlisle appeared placid, but internally he was just as disturbed as I was.
"I can't imagine he would," he answered, "but many things have changed."
When my family returned to the Peninsula, in accordance with our original treaty, Carlisle contacted the Quileute leader. Old boundaries were reestablished; demarcations were reinstated.
Falling in love with Bella muddied all those lines.
"You know son, you've done nothing to dishonor the pact. If Billy Black carries out his plan, he will be alone in breaching the contract."
The legality of Black's objectives was immaterial if Chief Swan discovered his daughter was dating the undead.
Then Carlisle added positively, "Bella's a sharp girl. You mentioned she botched Black's previous attempt as informant."
I thought through my father's point for several moments then nodded my head in union to his insight. A capable negotiator, I held faith Bella could easily thwart Black's schemes as she succeeded before. But then there was another matter.
"I didn't mean to worry you." Carlisle frowned.
"Why didn't she foresee this happening?"
"I'm not entirely sure, but this may be a good sign. Perhaps these episodes with Billy Black are not as disconcerting as we believe them to be." Carlisle's verbalized convictions firmed and did not belie his unspoken ones. I tried to cast aside my doubts for now.
Carlisle observed me thoughtfully as he removed his white coat and hung it on a hook behind the door. He then patted my shoulder shepherding me out into the hallway. "Let's go home. I promised your mother a hunt before baseball tonight," he said in a cheerful tone that cleared his thoughts. Yet clouds of uncertainty came to rest on me.
Esme was waiting for Carlisle in the great room when she heard our arrival.
"Edward you're home! This is a treat." From Esme's thoughts, I learned the details of my family's planned precautionary hunt before the game tonight and the encore of Bella's company. I was not surprised by their consideration.
"Jasper tells me that Bella will be joining us tonight. I think that's splendid," Esme caroled. "Care to come with us to the park? We'll be back in plenty of time. Jasper and Alice already set off —"
There was no concealing anything from my mother. She gathered something wasn't right.
"Thank you, but no…" I began.
"We had a bit of a situation," Carlisle explained and then relayed my entanglement with Billy Black.
Esme, progressively more unsettled, withheld her comments and concerns. When Carlisle finished, it was agreed that we wouldn't share this news with the others.
"We have the game tonight, and with Bella as our guest," Esme resolved, "we should concentrate on enjoying ourselves." Nothing more was said on the subject, but Billy Black wouldn't leave my thoughts.
"Good luck with Charlie!" was written on a note in Alice's hand and pinned to a shirt she'd hung in my closet along with a raincoat and other Alice-approved attire. That Alice. I thought appreciatively.
As I changed, I wired into Emmett's mind and his plot to waylay me in the hallway. He arrived when my parents departed. Rosalie was still out hunting or more like venting. I felt sorry for the creatures that crossed her path today.
After zipping up my raincoat, I dove out a window and noiselessly reentered the house. Standing behind my brother as he prepared his attack, I considered administering a surprise strike but settled on tapping him on the shoulder.
"May I help you?"
"Damn-IT!" Emmett squawked throwing his hands up in aggravation.
"Will you ever learn?"
He whirled around to face me. Emmett's disappointment never lasted longer than four seconds. Grinning he said, "Sooooo, you're finally coming out to play. Excellent!"
"Bella's coming too," I added.
"I heard! This is serious, if you're willing to embarrass yourself in front of your girlfriend."
A peculiar sensation stole through me when Emmett named Bella as my girlfriend. Bella was right, it was a deficient descriptor, but a possessive part of me got very excited.
"Jazz told me about your showboating this afternoon. Excuse me, but that's my job." He ran a finger under his nose and sucked air through his teeth. "And I plan make my point tonight." This was Emmett's version of a Maurian haka.
I rolled my eyes. "And Rose?"
"I'll make sure she behaves," Emmett promised… in Rosalie's absence of course.
I socked him in the arm and turned for the stairs, "Oh, can I have the Jeep tonight?"
"Mi coche es su coche."
"Some of us pay attention in Spanish."
"Thanks Em! Um, gracias. Su generosidad será recompensada."
"No problemo." My brother waved me off as I breezed down the staircase.
A couple of miles from the Swan residence I singled out my name from the convolution of conversations swirling around my head. It was no effort to zone in on Bella's and Charlie's voices.
"It's Edward, Dad." Bella corrected.
"Sort of, I guess."
Is he what? Is he what!? I demanded, wishing I had tuned in a few moments earlier.
"You said last night that you weren't interested in any of the boys in town." Charlie bellowed.
"Well, Edward doesn't live in town, Dad."
A protracted silence followed.
"And, anyways," Bella went on, "it's kind of at an early stage, you know. Don't embarrass me with all the boyfriend talk, okay?"
Oh! Boyfriend — the moniker was definitely growing on me.
"When is he coming over?"
"He'll be here in a few minutes."
"Where is he taking you?"
"I hope you're getting the Spanish Inquisition out of your system now." Bella griped. Then with more equability clarified, "We're playing baseball with his family."
Her father snorted, "You're playing baseball?"
"Well, I'll probably watch most of the time."
"You must really like this guy." Charlie's tone was weighted with wariness. Bella sighed in reply. I sighed in relief for it was clear Bella succeeded, Black had not gotten to Charlie. The clouds of uncertainty lifted.
In a rumble, I parked the Jeep behind Bella's truck and prepared for my introduction to Chief Swan. If there was one benefit to being a vampire, it was the ability to project composure in the face of pressure, which was particularly handy at this moment.
Vampirism held one small added bonus — as I anxiously finger-combed my hair and adjusted the collar of my shirt — inactive sweat glands.
"Leave the dishes, I can do them tonight. You baby me too much." I overheard Bella's father protest.
Donning my raincoat, I outmaneuvered the showers this time and rang the doorbell. Charlie sauntered heavily towards the entryway with Bella scuttling behind him. Before they answered the door, I shook off the flecks of rain.
"Come on in, Edward." Charlie pulled the door wide open. My stomach somersaulted.
Bella looked to us and then exhaled pointedly.
"Thanks, Chief Swan." I said. Nervousness was playing with the pitch of my voice.
"Go ahead and call me Charlie. Here, I'll take your jacket."
"Thanks, sir." I was careful that my cold skin didn't make contact.
"Have a seat there, Edward."
Bella was smiling uncomfortably. I, on the other hand, embodied calm, collected, confidence while my stomach, instead of somersaults, performed a gold medal floor routine.
Taking a seat in the chair opposite the sofa forced Bella to sit by her father. She narrowed her eyes at me. I winked in return when Chief Swan wasn't looking.
"So, I hear you're getting my girl to watch baseball," said Charlie in an especially paternal tone as rain galed against the living room windows.
"Yes, sir, that's the plan." In all the times I had secretly made myself comfortable in their home, it was outside of strange sitting in the Swan living room, chatting with Bella's father. I wanted to become acquainted with Chief Swan. More urgently, I wanted to be judged worthy to court his daughter. But as he sized me up with a scrutinizing stare, I also eagerly wanted to make my getaway.
"Well, more power to you, I guess." Alluding to Bella's aversion to sports, Charlie chuckled and so did I.
"Okay." Bella pronounced rising from the sofa. "Enough humor at my expense. Let's go."
She marched to the hallway and shrugged into her jacket. With a slap to his knees, Chief Swan stood up and headed for the entryway with me following after him.
"Don't worry, Charlie, I'll have her home early."
"You take care of my girl, all right." He said passing me my raincoat but not letting go when I reached for it. With every authority as an enforcer of the law, he fixed me with a deterrent gaze.
I pledged, "She'll be safe with me, I promise, sir." Chief Swan then released my coat like a baton.
As Bella strode out the door, Charlie laughed awkwardly. I joined him.
Bella then halted at the porch and her father whistled when they caught sight of Emmett's Jeep.
Admittedly, it was an intimidating contraption of automotive weaponry with its oversized tires and double-framed crash bar that lay like a headdress above the hardtop. A row of four enormous spotlights fronted the circlet of steal. Each headlight and taillight was protected behind metal cages.
"Wear your seat belts," Chief Swan ordered as Bella proceeded toward the Jeep. Right behind her, I opened the passenger side door.
She held the sides of the doorframe while her foot felt for something to boost herself up. I exhaled humoring her for a moment then in the next instance elevated her into her seat. Remembering Charlie was watching, I walked around to the driver's side at a concertedly human pace.
"What's all this?" Bella gesticulated when I opened the door and took my seat behind the wheel.
"It's an off-road harness."
"Uh-oh." But she began to tackle the configuration of buckles before her. I sighed again and reached over to click her in. When she was trussed up in the net of nylon fetters and silver clips, my fingers made excuses to get detained at her neck and linger at her collarbone.
Then a snip of the ignition and Emmett's Jeep growled awake. Chief Swan presided over our departure as we swerved out from behind Bella's truck and into the darkening firmament.
"This is a… um… big Jeep you have."
"It's Emmett's. I didn't think you'd want to run the whole way.
"Where do you keep this thing?"
"We remodeled one of the outbuildings into a garage."
"Aren't you going to put on your seat belt?"
I glanced at her incredulously.
Bella then gulped grasping something. "Run the whole way? As in, we're still going to run part of the way?"
My lips arched into a smirk. "You're not going to run."
"I'm going to be sick."
"Keep your eyes closed, you'll be fine."
While Bella's bottom lip hid within her compressed mouth, I bent over to kiss the top of her head and moaned. She peeked up at me.
"You smell so good in the rain."
"In a good way, or a bad way?"
A slow ballasted sigh fell from my lips. "Both, always both."
A solitary scrap of sky revolted through the guard of clouds, and when we were a few miles out of town the weather yielded. The rain was a light sprinkle. As the Jeep jounced along our makeshift Supercross course, I pretended that it wasn't funny the way Bella was tossed within her restraints. Slowing the Jeep to a stop when the path dead-ended, I killed the engine.
"Sorry, Bella, we have to go on foot from here."
"You know what? I'll just wait here," she said with a nauseated expression.
"What happened to all your courage? You were extraordinary this morning."
"I haven't forgotten the last time yet."
Before she could supply more evidence of her increasing qualms, I rounded the Jeep to unlock her door and began disconnecting the top tier of buckles.
"I'll get those, you go on ahead," Bella insisted.
"Hmmm…" With expeditious care, I released her from the remaining bonds.
"It seems I'm going to have to tamper with your memory," I said extracting her from the Jeep and standing her squarely.
In a near phobic inflection Bella questioned, "Tamper with my memory?"
"Something like that." I set my hands on the Jeep on either side of Bella's head, and with mingled determination and amusement, slowly inclined myself toward her.
As I moved in closer so that there was no distance between her face and mine, she slumped against the door. "Now," I whispered, "what exactly are you worrying about?"
Bella muttered, "Well, um, hitting a tree —" she swallowed " — and dying. And then getting sick."
Seeing my tactics were working, I pressed my advantage. I thought of my untried experiments as I lowered my head to hers. My mouth found its special haunt at the hallow of Bella's neck. "Are you still worried now?"
Cold breath was losing to her heated skin.
"Yes," she said shallowly, "About hitting trees and getting sick."
From the base of her throat to her chin, my nose browsed upward. My mouth grazed the skin under her jaw. "And now?"
"Trees." She closed her eyes. "Motion sickness."
I then drew up to kiss her eyelids. "Bella, you don't really think I would hit a tree, do you?"
"No, but I might."
Leaving a wake of kisses down her cheek, I lingered at the corner of her mouth. "Would I let a tree hurt you?"
She replied with a flimsy, "No."
"You see," my lips spoke against hers, "There's nothing to be afraid of, is there?"
Against all advisability, my hands held her face. Then I covered her mouth with my own.
Bella's arms flung up around my shoulders closing her fingers at my nape. She pulled me to her. Something, an ankle, tethered around my leg. And I sank into the warmth, the softness as the ground screwed away from under me.
She parted her lips, let out a massive sigh, and with it the most virulent scent. Ahead of what I knew what was happening, it charred a path from my throat to my abdomen.
Bella was taking me down, down, down to a place I never wished to leave. I wanted her body. I wanted her blood. The two diametric desires could have only one fatal outcome. Screaming at the nobler margins of my conscience, I somehow kicked myself back to the surface and stumbled backwards.
"Damn it, Bella!" I panted. "You'll be the death of me, I swear you will."
Bella's hands were on her knees. "You're indestructible." She was taking in air as if she just completed a race while I had my arms around my stomach aching at the starting line.
"I might have believed that before I met you. Now let's get out of here before I do something really stupid," I grunted. Slinging Bella across my back, her legs and arms wound around me.
"Don't forget to close your eyes," I reminded her.
When she buried her head into my back, I took off.
Keeping upright to protect Bella from the slipstream, we excelled fluidly through the forest. The convection of her body branded my own. The sensation of warmth and weightlessness expended a fraction of the anger I kept for myself. Again, I had almost lost control, and I despised myself for it.
Drawing up a short distance from the field, I reached around me.
"It's over Bella."
When she unlatched herself, I felt her slope down my back. A squelching sound followed. "Oh!" she yelped. I wheeled around only to discover Bella sitting on her backside with her legs outstretched in front of her. Her upturned hands were speckled with sediment and nettles.
My concern was replaced by hilarity as I watched her face contort into successive expressions of bewilderment and exasperation. My mouth twitched opening a tide of laughter.
Bella scrambled to her feet wiping clumps of dirt and flora from the back of her jacket. And smarting at my response, she stormed towards the woods.
Before she could take two paces, my arms belted her around the waist. "Where are you going, Bella?"
"To watch a baseball game. You don't seem to be interested in playing anymore, but I'm sure the others will have fun without you."
"You're going the wrong way."
She twirled around, and her chin led the way in the other direction. I trapped her once more with one arm above her chest barring the way.
"Don't be mad, I couldn't help myself. You should have seen your face." I snickered but managed to tame another outburst.
Her eyebrows lifted incriminatingly. "Oh, you're the only one who's allowed to get mad?"
"I wasn't mad at you."
"'Bella, you'll be the death of me?'" she said in a tart imitation.
"That was simply a statement of fact."
She went to wriggle from my hands once more, but there was no way for escape.
"You were mad," she protested.
"Yes." I agreed.
"But you just said —"
"That I wasn't mad at you. Can't you see that, Bella?" She had misinterpreted my frustration. All embers of amusement were doused at once. "Don't you understand?"
"See what?" she challenged.
Suddenly, I was especially conscious of my words. "I'm never angry with you — how could I be? Brave, trusting… warm as you are?"
"Then why?" Bella's bruised voice scored a deep perimeter around my heart. When she peered up at me, hurt was calculable in her eyes cutting out that dead organ from my chest.
I cupped her face in my hands. "I infuriate myself," I said. "That way I can't seem to keep from putting you in danger. My very existence puts you at risk. Sometimes I truly hate myself. I should be stronger, I should be able to —"
Bella capped my mouth with her hand. "Don't"
Taking her hand, I held it to my face. "I love you," I professed. "It's a poor excuse for what I'm doing, but it's still true."
It was the first time I said this to Bella… aloud. My justification for resisting in the past was that there were no words important enough to express how I felt. And yet, I knew quite well kingdoms were built and brought down on those three words.
I surveyed the expanse of my own inner empire for Bella and feared what those words from me would impose on her. No good could come from Bella strengthening her connection to me. By no means did I desire anything that would only result in bringing her harm.
But to her ruin, it was the first time I said I loved her — and with all my missing principles I would never hesitate again.
I whispered, "Now, please try to behave yourself." I stooped down lowering a kiss to her lips.
She remained appropriately stock-still. Afterwards, she listed against my right hand and sighed. "You promised Chief Swan that you would have me home early, remember? We'd better get going."
"Yes, ma'am." Still warm from her kiss, I dressed my mouth with a smile and let her go save for her hand.
Past high growing ferns, through dangling Lazarus moss, and around the stoutest hemlock, I led the way into a clearing hidden in a dale of the Olympic range. When we cleared the forest's final barriers, Esme, Emmett, and Rosalie were in sight lounging on a rock formation that overlooked the open space. Carlisle was occupied designating bases while Alice and Jasper played catch in the outfield a half-mile ahead.
They heard us coming but didn't approach as Esme instructed. She did not want a brigade of vampires descending on Bella all at once. My mother came away toward us followed by Emmett who stared at Rosalie's back when she rose up like an iceberg to join Alice and Jasper on the field.
Edward, Rose mentally acknowledged, and Bella… donna. I credited my sister for actually knowing another type of donna besides the prima variety. However, aside from her internal slight of Bella to the poisonous nightshade, Emmett kept his word, and Rosalie behaved. Even her thoughts remained relatively benign. I didn't care for her unsociability, but with Rose, being ignored was always preferable to outright hostility.
"Was that you we heard, Edward?" inquired Esme when Bella was in earshot.
Emmett was making a face. "It sounded like a bear choking."
Bella threw a thumb at me and confirmed, "That was him."
I pictured Bella's look when she landed on the wet ground. "Bella was being intentionally funny."
On cue, Alice sprightly covered the distance of the field and sailed to a stop in front of us.
You made it! She chirruped inwardly and without her typical fanfare, outwardly broadcasted. "It's time."
With ominous synchronization, thunder clashed its way westward charging the atmosphere.
"Eerie, isn't it?" Emmett said with a mystical lilt to his voice. He next mentioned silently, No need for an introduction. We're already pals. And winked at Bella.
"Let's go." Alice presented her hand to Emmett. Hand-in-hand they loped into the field.
"Are you ready for some ball?" I said in a live inflection that matched the turbulent air.
With lackluster enthusiasm Bella cheered, "Go team!"
I laughed, rifled her hair, and blasted after Alice and Emmett quickly overtaking them.
"Shall we go down?" I overheard Esme say. Always the gracious host, she guided Bella to the clearing. Look at the way she looks at him. There's no doubt she's smitten! And why not? She couldn't find a more thoughtful, beautiful soul then Edward. Esme extolled to herself.
I knew Bella was in safe hands, but I was unsure of the security of my manly reputation. I snooped around Esme's mind as they talked.
"You don't play with them?" asked Bella.
"No, I prefer to referee — I like keeping them honest."
During their exchange, Emmett was picking teams. "Okay, me, Rose, and Ed—" Rose sent him a dirty glare, "— um, Jazz..." In turn he looked to Jasper and pointed his eyes to Rosalie pressing him into service again. Jasper nodded. "…versus Edward, Alice, and Carlisle." Emmett said finalizing the roster.
In the distance, Bella continued, "Do they like to cheat, then?"
"Oh yes — you should hear the arguments they get into! Actually, I hope you don't, you would think they were raised by a pack of wolves." There was a smile in Esme's voice and on her face when I gazed in their direction.
"You sound like my mom," Bella chuckled and Esme included her own laughter.
"Well, I do think of them as my children in most ways. I never could get over my mothering instincts — did Edward tell you I had lost a child?"
"No," Bella sputtered.
"Yes, my first and only baby. He died just a few days after he was born, the poor tiny thing," Esme sighed. "It broke my heart — that's why I jumped off the cliff, you know."
Bella lowered her voice. "Edward said you fell."
At that second, Alice aimed the ball at my head. I caught it an inch from my nose.
What? "I'm warming up," Alice said wide-eyed shrugging her shoulders.
I turned to my sister. "By the way, thanks for the clothes and everything."
Alice smiled a, "you're welcome." Then I returned a fastball that she had to catch with both hands.
"Always the gentlemen." I overheard Esme say. "Edward was the first of my new sons. I've always thought of him that way, even though he's older than I, in one way at least." My mother's tone sang with feeling as she continued. "That's why I'm so happy that he's found you, dear." From where I stood, Esme's eyes glittered like gems at Bella. "He's been the odd man out for far too long; it's hurt me to see him alone."
"You don't mind, then?" Bella implored. "That I'm all wrong for him?"
I almost yelled in protestation across the field.
The ball pegged me this time, "Sorry Edward!" Jasper sniggered. But my focus was on a conversation a half-mile away.
"No." After a moment of reflection Esme added, "You're what he wants. It will work out, somehow."
Then at the clangor of thunder we assumed our positions on the pitch. Carlisle played shortstop with Alice as pitcher. I was far off in left field, but I could see that Bella and Esme reached the edge of the clearing that served as sidelines.
Emmett's team was up first. He wielded the bat like a sword. This bat was specially reinforced with compound metals. Likewise, the ball was something Emmett had specifically fashioned to endure great impact. Despite their durability, however, my family could obliterate dozens of bats and balls in one game. We didn't bother with gloves.
Jasper crouched several yards behind Emmett lending himself as catcher for my team. He could differentiate in minute detail Alice's various pitches. In the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play, he usually kept that advantage to himself.
Alice, in turn, could identify Jasper's various batting postures with comparable acumen, which she wasn't above tattling to her teammates when she and Jasper were on opposing teams.
"All right," Esme officiated. "Batter up."
Alice claimed her place on the pitcher's mound facing right field and held the ball in her hands at her waist. She looked forward, then over her left shoulder nodding at Emmett who was performing a couple of warm-up swings. She then looked ahead again cocking her arm in a straightforward windup. With a sharp snap of the wrist, the ball whipped from her hand into Jasper's with a thwack.
Through Esme's perceptions, I heard Bella ask, "Was that a strike?"
"If they don't hit it, it's a strike," Esme confirmed.
Jasper fielded the ball into Alice's ready hand. A superior smirk crossed her face, and without warning she launched another pitch.
But this time Emmett made contact. The resulting clash reverberated across the landscape. He was already rounding the bases with Carlisle a half step behind him.
Backing into the forest, I tracked the ball meteor through the sky. The ball soared above me as I zigzagged past trees and scurried over the undergrowth. As it plummeted to the earth, I sprung into the air. The ball plunked into my hand.
"Out!" Esme called.
In a flash, I shouldered past the edge of the forest hoisting the ball over my head. Although a distance away for her eyes, I smiled triumphantly at Bella.
Emmett was our most powerful hitter, but I was the fastest runner. He kicked up veils of dirt when he left home plate without a hit.
Jasper got a grounder much to Alice's irritation. After a body check into Carlisle, Jasper made it to first base. "Safe," Esme judged without hesitation.
When I caught the third out, we finished the inning with a score of one to zero. Rosalie had managed to steal home on one of Emmett's fly balls.
Between innings I dashed to Bella's side. "What do you think?"
"One thing's for sure, I'll never be able to sit through dull old Major League Baseball again."
"And it sounds like you did it so much of that before," I razzed.
"I am a little disappointed."
I stared at her for a second. "Why?"
"Well, it would be nice if I could find just one thing you didn't do better than everyone else on the planet."
My face split into a gargantuan smile.
"I'm up," I announced. With another look to Bella I darted to home plate.
As if attuned with Alice's forecast, nature continued the duet with our artificial thunderstorm. By the end of the second inning my team was up by one. I hit a ground ball and slid into second before Jasper could tag me out. Next, Carlisle's homerun hit crashed through clearing that it visibly startled Bella. Carlisle and I both crossed home plate, met with a high-five from Alice.
After three more innings, endless heckling and jeering, and several unavoidable scuffles, with Esme's umpiring keeping us in check, my team was leading by two runs. It was Carlisle's turn at bat with me catching.
Then in a bolt of surprise — Alice gasped.
My head jerked to her to witness her frame arrest in an attitude of shock. Alice's eyes momentarily slid out of focus before they glued onto mine. For an instant, her vision blinded me to my surroundings.
They were coming.
I was at Bella's side before Esme broke the compressible silence. "Alice?"
"I didn't see — I couldn't tell." Alice shook her head as if to clear a bad reception.
My family crowded around us.
"What is it, Alice?" Carlisle quietly commanded.
"They were traveling much quicker than I thought. I can see I had the perspective wrong before."
Jasper hemmed in closer detecting Alice's self-targeted blame. "What's changed?"
"They heard us play, and it changed their path."
My eyes flickered to Bella, where a half-dozen pair of eyes congregated briefly then looked away. The thoughts of my family bombarded me in blitz.
Then with identical suddenness, all focus fell on Carlisle when he spoke to me, "How soon?"
I could scarcely respond as shock, anger, and fear, mostly fear coursed through me. "Less than five minutes. They're running — they want to play."
"Can you make it?" Carlisle's eyes flashed to Bella again then returned to me as permutations of escape went through my mind in a blur.
"No, not carrying —" My sentence was trampled by my next thought. "Besides, the last thing we need is for them to catch the scent and start hunting."
Emmett turned to Alice. "How many?"
"Three!" Emmett shucked the word out of his mouth. "Let them come." Punching his palm then wringing his hands together.
We looked to Carlisle.
"Let's just continue the game," he directed. "Alice said they were simply curious."
Edward. Esme beckoned me internally. Her lips quivered with a question. I shook my head. She was relieved with my reply, but it wouldn't ground my arcing panic.
"You catch, Esme." I was pantomiming the appearance of control. "I'll call it now," and I moored myself in front of Bella.
The others trooped into the infield scanning the depths of the forest for signs of the visitors. Alice and Esme posted themselves as sentinels at Bella's side. Both silently vowing they would let no harm come to her.
"Take your hair down," I grumbled
Bella removed the elastic band from her hair and arranged it over her shoulders.
"The others are coming now." she said. The simplicity of this statement dramatized her vulnerability.
I was powerless to withhold the strain in my voice. "Yes, stay very still, keep quiet, and don't move from my side, please." I then drew cords of her hair to the front of her shoulders shrouding her face and throat.
"That won't help," Alice noted colorlessly, "I could smell her across the field."
My false composure was withering. "I know."
Carlisle was at bat resuming the game. The others followed in pretense.
"What did Esme ask you?" Bella spoke again, and in my hysteria, I nearly carried her off.
The muscles in my jaw were jumping. "Whether they were thirsty."
Bella's eyes dropped away from mine. We both looked ahead. My mental scopes spanned for foreign voices as my vision scavenged the forest.
There was a countdown of dread the instant Alice gasped. The visitors were approaching. A fracas of my family's thoughts buzzed in the background, most blaring were Rosalie's aspersions, but they were overpowered by my own self-condemnation. How could I be so stupendously careless!
"I'm sorry Bella," I uttered in wretched antipathy for myself. "It was stupid, irresponsible, to expose you like this. I'm so sorry."
Then my lungs asphyxiated honing in at something beyond right field. With ultrasonic awareness, my mind was filled with the percussion of footfalls rivaling the pounding of Bella's heart.
Carlisle, Emmett, and the others snapped to attention in the same direction, as my family distinguished the incoming invaders tear towards the clearing. My wits sharpened against the single-minded focus of Bella's defense. And I aligned myself between them and her, shielding Bella from the advancing menace.