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Chapter 24. SNAP DECISION

I LAY FACEDOWN ACROSS THE SLEEPING BAG, WAITING for justice to find me. Maybe an avalanche would bury me here. I wished it would. I never wanted to have to see my face in the mirror again.

There was no sound to warn me. Out of nowhere, Edward’s cold hand stroked against my knotted hair. I shuddered guiltily at his touch.

“Are you all right?” he murmured, his voice anxious.

“No. I want to die. ”

“That will never happen. I won’t allow it. ”

I groaned and then whispered, “You might change your mind about that. ”

“Where’s Jacob?”

“He went to fight,” I mumbled into the floor.

Jacob had left the little camp joyfully – with a cheerful “I’ll be right back” – running full tilt for the clearing, already quivering as he prepared to shift to his other self. By now the whole pack knew everything. Seth Clearwater, pacing outside the tent, was an intimate witness to my disgrace.

Edward was silent for a long moment. “Oh,” he finally said.

The tone of his voice worried me that my avalanche wasn’t coming fast enough. I peeked up at him and, sure enough, his eyes were unfocused as he listened to something I’d rather die than have him hear. I dropped my face back to the floor.

It stunned me when Edward chuckled reluctantly.

“And I thought I fought dirty,” he said with grudging admiration. “He makes me look like the patron saint of ethics. ” His hand brushed against the part of my cheek that was exposed. “I’m not mad at you, love. Jacob’s more cunning than I gave him credit for. I do wish you hadn’t asked him, though. ”

“Edward,” I whispered to the rough nylon. “I . . . I . . . I’m -”

“Shh,” he hushed me, his fingers soothing against my cheek. “That’s not what I meant. It’s just that he would have kissed you anyway – even if you hadn’t fallen for it – and now I don’t have an excuse to break his face. I would have really enjoyed that, too. ”

“Fallen for it?” I mumbled almost incomprehensibly.

“Bella, did you really believe he was that noble? That he would go out in a flame of glory just to clear the way for me?”

I raised my head slowly to meet his patient gaze. His expression was soft; his eyes were full of understanding rather than the revulsion I deserved to see.

“Yes, I did believe that,” I muttered, and then looked away. But I didn’t feel any anger at Jacob for tricking me. There wasn’t enough room in my body to contain anything besides the hatred I felt toward myself. Edward laughed softly again. “You’re such a bad liar, you’ll believe anyone who has the least bit of skill. ”

“Why aren’t you angry with me?” I whispered. “Why don’t you hate me? Or haven’t you heard the whole story yet?”

“I think I got a fairly comprehensive look,” he said in a light, easy voice. “Jacob makes vivid mental pictures. I feel almost as bad for his pack as I do for myself. Poor Seth was getting nauseated. But Sam is making Jacob focus now. ”

I closed my eyes and shook my head in agony. The sharp nylon fibers of the tent floor scraped against my skin.

“You’re only human,” he whispered, stroking my hair again.

“That’s the most miserable defense I’ve ever heard. ”

“But you are human, Bella. And, as much as I might wish otherwise, so is he. . . . There are holes in your life that I can’t fill. I understand that. ”

“But that’s not true. That’s what makes me so horrible. There are no holes. ”

“You love him,” he murmured gently.

Every cell in my body ached to deny it.

“I love you more,” I said. It was the best I could do.

“Yes, I know that, too. But . . . when I left you, Bella, I left you bleeding. Jacob was the one to stitch you back up again. That was bound to leave its mark – on both of you. I’m not sure those kinds of stitches dissolve on their own. I can’t blame either of you for something I made necessary. I may gain forgiveness, but that doesn’t let me escape the consequences. ”

“I should have known you’d find some way to blame yourself. Please stop. I can’t stand it. ”

“What would you like me to say?”

“I want you to call me every bad name you can think of, in every language you know. I want you to tell me that you’re disgusted with me and that you’re going to leave so that I can beg and grovel on my knees for you to stay. ”

“I’m sorry. ” He sighed. “I can’t do that. ”

“At least stop trying to make me feel better. Let me suffer. I deserve it. ”

“No,” he murmured.

I nodded slowly. “You’re right. Keep on being too understanding. That’s probably worse. ”

He was silent for a moment, and I sensed a charge in the atmosphere, a new urgency.

“It’s getting close,” I stated.

“Yes, a few more minutes now. Just enough time to say one more thing. . . . ”

I waited. When he finally spoke again, he was whispering. “I can be noble, Bella. I’m not going to make you choose between us. Just be happy, and you can have whatever part of me you want, or none at all, if that’s better. Don’t let any debt you feel you owe me influence your decision. ”

I pushed off the floor, shoving myself up onto my knees.

“Dammit, stop that!” I shouted at him.

His eyes widened in surprise. “No – you don’t understand. I’m not just trying to make you feel better, Bella, I really mean it. ”

“I know you do,” I groaned. “What happened to fighting back? Don’t start with the noble self-sacrifice now! Fight!”

“How?” he asked, and his eyes were ancient with their sadness.

I scrambled into his lap, throwing my arms around him.

“I don’t care that it’s cold here. I don’t care that I stink like a dog right now. Make me forget how awful I am. Make me forget him. Make me forget my own name. Fight back!”

I didn’t wait for him to decide – or to have the chance to tell me he wasn’t interested in a cruel, faithless monster like me. I pulled myself against him and crushed my mouth to his snow-cold lips.

“Careful, love,” he murmured under my urgent kiss.

“No,” I growled.

He gently pushed my face a few inches back. “You don’t have to prove anything to me. ”

“I’m not trying to prove something. You said I could have any part of you I wanted. I want this part. I want every part. ” I wrapped my arms around his neck and strained to reach his lips. He bent his head to kiss me back, but his cool mouth was hesitant as my impatience grew more pronounced. My body was making my intentions clear, giving me away. Inevitably, his hands moved to restrain me.

“Perhaps this isn’t the best moment for that,” he suggested, too calm for my liking.

“Why not?” I grumbled. There was no point in fighting if he was going to be rational; I dropped my arms.

“Firstly, because it is cold. ” He reached out to pull the sleeping bag off the floor; he wrapped it around me like a blanket.

“Wrong,” I said. “First, because you are bizarrely moral for a vampire. ”

He chuckled. “All right, I’ll give you that. The cold is second. And thirdly . . . well, you do actually stink, love. ”

He wrinkled his nose.

I sighed.

“Fourthly,” he murmured, dropping his face so that he was whispering in my ear. “We will try, Bella. I’ll make good on my promise. But I’d much rather it wasn’t in reaction to Jacob Black. ”

I cringed, and buried my face against his shoulder.

“And fifthly . . . ”

“This is a very long list,” I muttered.

He laughed. “Yes, but did you want to listen to the fight or not?”

As he spoke, Seth howled stridently outside the tent.

My body stiffened to the sound. I didn’t realize my left hand was clenched into a fist, nails biting into my bandaged palm, until Edward took it and gently smoothed my fingers out.

“It’s going to be fine, Bella,” he promised. “We’ve got skill, training, and surprise on our side. It will be over very soon. If I didn’t truly believe that, I would be down there now – and you’d be here, chained to a tree or something along those lines. ”

“Alice is so small,” I moaned.

He chuckled. “That might be a problem . . . if it were possible for someone to catch her. ”

Seth started to whimper.

“What’s wrong?” I demanded.

“He’s just angry that he’s stuck here with us. He knows the pack kept him out of the action to protect him. He’s salivating to join them. ”

I scowled in Seth’s general direction.

“The newborns have reached the end of the trail – it worked like a charm, Jasper’s a genius – and they’ve caught the scent of the ones in the meadow, so they’re splitting into two groups now, as Alice said,” Edward murmured, his eyes focused on something far away. “Sam’s taking us around to head off the ambush party. ” He was so intent on what he was hearing that he used the pack plural.

Suddenly he looked down at me. “Breathe, Bella. ”

I struggled to do what he asked. I could hear Seth’s heavy panting just outside the tent wall, and I tried to keep my lungs on the same even pace, so that I wouldn’t hyperventilate.

“The first group is in the clearing. We can hear the fighting. ”

My teeth locked together.

He laughed once. “We can hear Emmett – he’s enjoying himself. ”

I made myself take another breath with Seth.

“The second group is getting ready – they aren’t paying attention, they haven’t heard us yet. ”

Edward growled.

“What?” I gasped.

“They’re talking about you. ” His teeth clenched together. “They’re supposed to make sure you don’t escape. . . . Nice move, Leah! Mmm, she’s quite fast,” he murmured in approval. “One of the newborns caught our scent, and Leah took him down before he could even turn. Sam’s helping her finish him off. Paul and Jacob got another one, but the others are on the defensive now. They have no idea what to make of us. Both sides are feinting. . . . No, let Sam lead. Stay out of the way,” he muttered. “Separate them – don’t let them protect each other’s backs. ”

Seth whined.

“That’s better, drive them toward the clearing,” Edward approved. His body was shifting unconsciously as he watched, tensing for moves he would have made. His hands still held mine; I twisted my fingers through his. At least he wasn’t down there.

The sudden absence of sound was the only warning.

The deep rush of Seth’s breathing cut off, and – as I’d paced my breaths with his – I noticed.

I stopped breathing, too – too frightened to even make mylungs work as I realized that Edward had frozen into a block of ice beside me.

Oh, no. No. No.

Who had been lost? Theirs or ours? Mine, all mine. What was my loss?

So quickly that I wasn’t exactly sure how it happened, I was on my feet and the tent was collapsing in ragged shreds around me. Had Edward ripped our way out? Why?

I blinked, shocked, into the brilliant light. Seth was all I could see, right beside us, his face only six inches from Edward’s. They stared at each other with absolute concentration for one infinite second. The sun shattered off Edward’s skin and sent sparkles dancing across Seth’s fur.

And then Edward whispered urgently, “Go, Seth!”

The huge wolf wheeled and disappeared into the forest shadows.

Had two entire seconds passed? It felt like hours. I was terrified to the point of nausea by the knowledge that something horrible had gone awry in the clearing. I opened my mouth to demand that Edward take me there, and do it now. They needed him, and they needed me. If I had to bleed to save them, I would do it. I would die to do it, like the third wife. I had no silver dagger in my hand, but I would find a way – Before I could get the first syllable out, I felt as if I was being flung through the air. But Edward’s hands never let go of me – I was only being moved, so quickly that the sensation was like falling sideways.

I found myself with my back pressed against the sheer cliff face. Edward stood in front of me, holding a posture that I knew at once.

Relief washed through my mind at the same time that my stomach dropped through the soles of my feet. I’d misunderstood.

Relief – nothing had gone wrong in the clearing.

Horror – the crisis was here.

Edward held a defensive position – half-crouched, his arms extended slightly – that I recognized with sickening certainty. The rock at my back could have been the ancient brick walls of the Italian alley where he had stood between me and the black-cloaked Volturi warriors.

Something was coming for us.

“Who?” I whispered.

The words came through his teeth in a snarl that was louder than I expected. Too loud. It meant that it was far too late to hide. We were trapped, and it didn’t matter who heard his answer.

“Victoria,” he said, spitting the word, making it a curse. “She’s not alone. She crossed my scent, following the newborns in to watch – she never meant to fight with them. She made a spur-of-the-moment decision to find me, guessing that you would be wherever I was. She was right. You were right. It was always Victoria. ”

She was close enough that he could hear her thoughts.

Relief again. If it had been the Volturi, we were both dead. But with Victoria, it didn’t have to be both. Edward could survive this. He was a good fighter, as good as Jasper. If she didn’t bring too many others, he could fight his way out, back to his family. Edward was faster than anyone. He could make it.

I was so glad he’d sent Seth away. Of course, there was no one Seth could run to for help. Victoria had timed her decision perfectly. But at least Seth was safe; I couldn’t see the huge sandy wolf in my head when I thought his name – just the gangly fifteen-year-old boy.

Edward’s body shifted – only infinitesimally, but it told me where to look. I stared at the black shadows of the forest.

It was like having my nightmares walk forward to greet me.

Two vampires edged slowly into the small opening of our camp, eyes intent, missing nothing. They glistened like diamonds in the sun.

I could barely look at the blond boy – yes, he was just a boy, though he was muscular and tall, maybe my age when he was changed. His eyes – a more vivid red than I had ever seen before – could not hold mine. Though he was closest to Edward, the nearest danger, I could not watch him.

Because, a few feet to the side and a few feet back, Victoria was staring at me.

Her orange hair was brighter than I’d remembered, more like a flame. There was no wind here, but the fire around her face seemed to shimmer slightly, as if it were alive.

Her eyes were black with thirst. She did not smile, as she always had in my nightmares – her lips were pressed into a tight line. There was a striking feline quality to the way she held her coiled body, a lioness waiting for an opening to spring. Her restless, wild gaze flickered between Edward and me, but never rested on him for more than a half-second. She could not keep her eyes from my face any more than I could keep mine from hers.

Tension rolled off of her, nearly visible in the air. I could feel the desire, the all-consuming passion that held her in its grip. Almost as if I could hear her thoughts, too, I knew what she was thinking.

She was so close to what she wanted – the focus of her whole existence for more than a year now was just so close.

My death.

Her plan was as obvious as it was practical. The big blond boy would attack Edward. As soon as Edward was sufficiently distracted, Victoria would finish me.

It would be quick – she had no time for games here – but it would be thorough. Something that it would be impossible to recover from. Something that even vampire venom could not repair.

She’d have to stop my heart. Perhaps a hand shoved through my chest, crushing it. Something along those lines.

My heart beat furiously, loudly, as if to make her target more obvious.

An immense distance away, from far across the black forest, a wolf’s howl echoed in the still air. With Seth gone, there was no way to interpret the sound.

The blond boy looked at Victoria from the corner of his eye, waiting on her command.

He was young in more ways than one. I guessed from his brilliant crimson irises that he couldn’t have been a vampire for very long. He would be strong, but inept. Edward would know how to fight him. Edward would survive.

Victoria jerked her chin toward Edward, wordlessly ordering the boy forward.

“Riley,” Edward said in a soft, pleading voice.

The blond boy froze, his red eyes widening.

“She’s lying to you, Riley,” Edward told him. “Listen to me. She’s lying to you just like she lied to the others who are dying now in the clearing. You know that she’s lied to them, that she had you lie to them, that neither of you were ever going to help them. Is it so hard to believe that she’s lied to you, too?”

Confusion swept across Riley’s face.

Edward shifted a few inches to the side, and Riley automatically compensated with an adjustment of his own.

“She doesn’t love you, Riley. ” Edward’s soft voice was compelling, almost hypnotic. “She never has. She loved someone named James, and you’re no more than a tool to her. ”

When he said James’s name, Victoria’s lips pulled back in a teeth-baring grimace. Her eyes stayed locked on me.

Riley cast a frantic glance in her direction.

“Riley?” Edward said.

Riley automatically refocused on Edward.

“She knows that I will kill you, Riley. She wants you to die so that she doesn’t have to keep up the pretense anymore. Yes – you’ve seen that, haven’t you? You’ve read the reluctance in her eyes, suspected a false note in her promises. You were right. She’s never wanted you. Every kiss, every touch was a lie. ”

Edward moved again, moved a few inches toward the boy, a few inches away from me.

Victoria’s gaze zeroed in on the gap between us. It would take her less than a second to kill me – she only needed the tiniest margin of opportunity.

Slower this time, Riley repositioned himself.

“You don’t have to die,” Edward promised, his eyes holding the boy’s. “There are other ways to live than the way she’s shown you. It’s not all lies and blood, Riley. You can walk away right now. You don’t have to die for her lies. ”

Edward slid his feet forward and to the side. There was a foot of space between us now. Riley circled too far, overcompensating this time. Victoria leaned forward onto the balls of her feet.

“Last chance, Riley,” Edward whispered.

Riley’s face was desperate as he looked to Victoria for answers.

“He’s the liar, Riley,” Victoria said, and my mouth fell open in shock at the sound of her voice. “I told you about their mind tricks. You know I love only you. ”

Her voice was not the strong, wild, catlike growl I would have put with her face and stance. It was soft, it was high – a babyish, soprano tinkling. The kind of voice that went with blond curls and pink bubble gum. It made no sense coming through her bared, glistening teeth.

Riley’s jaw tightened, and he squared his shoulders. His eyes emptied – there was no more confusion, no more suspicion. There was no thought at all. He tensed himself to attack.

Victoria’s body seemed to be trembling, she was so tightly wound. Her fingers were ready claws, waiting for Edward to move just one more inch away from me.

The snarl came from none of them.

A mammoth tan shape flew through the center of the opening, throwing Riley to the ground.

“No!” Victoria cried, her baby voice shrill with disbelief.

A yard and a half in front of me, the huge wolf ripped and tore at the blond vampire beneath him. Something white and hard smacked into the rocks by my feet. I cringed away from it.

Victoria did not spare one glance for the boy she’d just pledged her love to. Her eyes were still on me, filled with a disappointment so ferocious that she looked deranged.

“No,” she said again, through her teeth, as Edward started to move toward her, blocking her path to me.

Riley was on his feet again, looking misshapen and haggard, but he was able to fling a vicious kick into Seth’s shoulder. I heard the bone crunch. Seth backed off and started to circle, limping. Riley had his arms out, ready, though he seemed to be missing part of one hand. . . .

Only a few yards away from that fight, Edward and Victoria were dancing.

Not quite circling, because Edward was not allowing her to position herself closer to me. She sashayed back, moving from side to side, trying to find a hole in his defense. He shadowed her footwork lithely, stalking her with perfect concentration. He began to move just a fraction of a second before she moved, reading her intentions in her thoughts.

Seth lunged at Riley from the side, and something tore with a hideous, grating screech. Another heavy white chunk flew into the forest with a thud. Riley roared in fury, and Seth skipped back – amazingly light on his feet for his size – as Riley took a swipe at him with one mangled hand.

Victoria was weaving through the tree trunks at the far end of the little opening now. She was torn, her feet pulling her toward safety while her eyes yearned toward me as if I were a magnet, reeling her in. I could see the burning desire to kill warring with her survival instinct.

Edward could see that, too.

“Don’t go, Victoria,” he murmured in that same hypnotic tone as before. “You’ll never get another chance like this. ”

She showed her teeth and hissed at him, but she seemed unable to move farther away from me.

“You can always run later,” Edward purred. “Plenty of time for that. It’s what you do, isn’t it? It’s why James kept you around. Useful, if you like to play deadly games. A partner with an uncanny instinct for escaping. He shouldn’t have left you – he could have used your skills when we caught up to him in Phoenix. ”

A snarl ripped from between her lips.

“That’s all you ever were to him, though. Silly to waste so much energy avenging someone who had less affection for you than a hunter for his mount. You were never more than a convenience to him. I would know. ”

Edward’s lips pulled up on one side as he tapped his temple.

With a strangled screech, Victoria darted out of the trees again, feinting to the side. Edward responded, and the dance began again.

Just then, Riley’s fist caught Seth’s flank, and a low yelp coughed out of Seth’s throat. Seth backed away, his shoulders twitching as if he were trying to shake off the pain.

Please, I wanted to plead with Riley, but I couldn’t find the muscles to make my mouth open, to pull the air up from my lungs. Please, he’s just a child!

Why hadn’t Seth run away? Why didn’t he run now?

Riley was closing the distance between them again, driving Seth toward the cliff face beside me. Victoria was suddenly interested in her partner’s fate. I could see her, from the corner of her eyes, judge the distance between Riley and me. Seth snapped at Riley, forcing him back again, and Victoria hissed.

Seth wasn’t limping anymore. His circling took him within inches of Edward; his tail brushed Edward’s back, and Victoria’s eyes bulged.

“No, he won’t turn on me,” Edward said, answering the question in Victoria’s head. He used her distraction to slide closer. “You provided us with a common enemy. You allied us. ”

She clenched her teeth, trying to keep her focus on Edward alone.

“Look more closely, Victoria,” he murmured, pulling at the threads of her concentration. “Is he really so much like the monster James tracked across Siberia?”

Her eyes popped wide open, and then began flickering wildly from Edward to Seth to me, around and around. “Not the same?” she snarled in her little girl’s soprano. “Impossible!”

“Nothing is impossible,” Edward murmured, voice velvet soft as he moved another inch closer to her. “Except what you want. You’ll never touch her. ”

She shook her head, fast and jerky, fighting his diversions, and tried to duck around him, but he was in place to block her as soon as she’d thought of the plan. Her face contorted in frustration, and then she shifted lower into her crouch, a lioness again, and stalked deliberately forward.

Victoria was no inexperienced, instinct-driven newborn. She was lethal. Even I could tell the difference between her and Riley, and I knew that Seth wouldn’t have lasted so long if he’d been fighting this vampire.

Edward shifted, too, as they closed on each other, and it was lion versus lioness.

The dance increased in tempo.

It was like Alice and Jasper in the meadow, a blurred spiraling of movement, only this dance was not as perfectly choreographed. Sharp crunches and crackings reverberated off the cliff face whenever someone slipped in their formation. But they were moving too fast for me to see who was making the mistakes. . . .

Riley was distracted by the violent ballet, his eyes anxious for his partner. Seth struck, crunching off another small piece of the vampire. Riley bellowed and launched a massive backhanded blow that caught Seth full in his broad chest. Seth’s huge body soared ten feet and crashed into the rocky wall over my head with a force that seemed to shake the whole peak. I heard the breath whoosh from his lungs, and I ducked out of the way as he rebounded off the stone and collapsed on the ground a few feet in front of me.

A low whimper escaped through Seth’s teeth.

Sharp fragments of gray stone showered down on my head, scratching my exposed skin. A jagged spike of rock rolled down my right arm and I caught it reflexively. My fingers clenched around the long shard as my own survival instincts kicked in; since there was no chance of flight, my body – not caring how ineffectual the gesture was – prepared for a fight.

Adrenaline jolted through my veins. I knew the brace was cutting into my palm. I knew the crack in my knuckle was protesting. I knew it, but I could not feel the pain.

Behind Riley, all I could see was the twisting flame of Victoria’s hair and a blur of white. The increasingly frequent metallic snaps and tears, the gasps and shocked hissings, made it clear that the dance was turning deadly for someone.

But which someone?

Riley lurched toward me, his red eyes brilliant with fury. He glared at the limp mountain of sand-colored fur between us, and his hands – mangled, broken hands – curled into talons. His mouth opened, widened, his teeth glistening, as he prepared to rip out Seth’s throat.

A second kick of adrenaline hit like an electric shock, and everything was suddenly very clear.

Both fights were too close. Seth was about to lose his, and I had no idea if Edward was winning or losing. They needed help. A distraction. Something to give them an edge.

My hand gripped the stone spike so tightly that a support in the brace snapped.

Was I strong enough? Was I brave enough? How hard could I shove the rough stone into my body? Would this buy Seth enough time to get back on his feet? Would he heal fast enough for my sacrifice to do him any good?

I raked the point of the shard up my arm, yanking my thick sweater back to expose the skin, and then pressed the sharp tip to the crease at my elbow. I already had a long scar there from my last birthday. That night, my flowing blood had been enough to catch every vampire’s attention, to freeze them all in place for an instant. I prayed it would work that way again. I steeled myself and sucked in one deep breath.

Victoria was distracted by the sound of my gasp. Her eyes, holding still for one tiny portion of a second, met mine. Fury and curiosity mingled strangely in her expression.

I wasn’t sure how I heard the low sound with all the other noises echoing off the stone wall and hammering inside my head. My own heartbeat should have been enough to drown it out. But, in the split second that I stared into Victoria’s eyes, I thought I heard a familiar, exasperated sigh.

In that same short second, the dance broke violently apart. It happened so quickly that it was over before I could follow the sequence of events. I tried to catch up in my head.

Victoria had flown out of the blurred formation and smashed into a tall spruce about halfway up the tree. She dropped back to the earth already crouched to spring.

Simultaneously, Edward – all but invisible with speed – had twisted backward and caught the unsuspecting Riley by the arm. It had looked like Edward planted his foot against Riley’s back, and heaved –

The little campsite was filled with Riley’s piercing shriek of agony.

At the same time, Seth leaped to his feet, cutting off most of my view.

But I could still see Victoria. And, though she looked oddly deformed – as if she were unable to straighten up completely – I could see the smile I’d been dreaming of flash across her wild face.

She coiled and sprang.

Something small and white whistled through the air and collided with her mid-flight. The impact sounded like an explosion, and it threw her against another tree – this one snapped in half. She landed on her feet again, crouched and ready, but Edward was already in place. Relief swelled in my heart when I saw that he stood straight and perfect.

Victoria kicked something aside with a flick of her bare foot – the missile that had crippled her attack. It rolled toward me, and I realized what it was.

My stomach lurched.

The fingers were still twitching; grasping at blades of grass, Riley’s arm began to drag itself mindlessly across the ground.

Seth was circling Riley again, and now Riley was retreating. He backed away from the advancing werewolf, his face rigid with pain. He raised his one arm defensively.

Seth rushed Riley, and the vampire was clearly off-balance. I saw Seth sink his teeth into Riley’s shoulder and tear, jumping back again.

With an earsplitting metallic screech, Riley lost his other arm.

Seth shook his head, flinging the arm into the woods. The broken hissing noise that came through Seth’s teeth sounded like snickering.

Riley screamed out a tortured plea. “Victoria!”

Victoria did not even flinch to the sound of her name. Her eyes did not flicker once toward her partner.

Seth launched himself forward with the force of a wrecking ball. The thrust carried both Seth and Riley into the trees, where the metallic screeching was matched by Riley’s screams. Screams that abruptly cut off, while the sounds of rock being ripped to shreds continued.

Though she spared Riley no farewell glance, Victoria seemed to realize that she was on her own. She began to back away from Edward, frenzied disappointment blazing in her eyes. She threw me one short, agonized stare of longing, and then she started to retreat faster.

“No,” Edward crooned, his voice seductive. “Stay just a little longer. ”

She wheeled and flew toward the refuge of the forest like an arrow from a bow.

But Edward was faster – a bullet from a gun.

He caught her unprotected back at the edge of the trees and, with one last, simple step, the dance was over.

Edward’s mouth brushed once across her neck, like a caress. The squealing clamor coming from Seth’s efforts covered every other noise, so there was no discernible sound to make the image one of violence. He could have been kissing her.

And then the fiery tangle of hair was no longer connected to the rest of her body. The shivering orange waves fell to the ground, and bounced once before rolling toward the trees.

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