10. Spitfire

Yeah, baby, show it—take it off!

Bourbon Street? More like Miller Lite Street…but I’ll take it!

She’s a pretty little thing. Hooker? College student? Either way…

Disgusted, I picked up the pace of my walking. The sooner I could escape the city center, the sooner I could shrug the depraved thoughtsthat pounded my head. I had lived almost a hundred five years without seeing anything on this order, and nothing, including Peter’s incessant descriptions, could have prepared me for the city of New Orleans at Mardi Gras. It was truly how I would have imagined hellequal parts revelry and gross debauchery. Peter had told me to be prepared but there was honestly no way to steel oneself for the constant assault on one’s senses. Nudity, cat-calling, drunkenness, rock music amidst jazz, screaming, singing, and everywhere rivers of purple and gold and green that sometimes were floats and beads and clothing and other times were the half-naked bodies themselves. And on top of that the thoughts: sick, base, inebriated thoughts that were ubiquitous and impossible to shut out.

Charlotte and Peter told me that this was actually a low year, that the hurricane that had ripped through the city a few months before meant that only just over half the usual attendees were present. There was an air of desperation and relief about the celebrations; it was as though the whole city was simultaneously deeply grateful to be back in this mode, and yet the dark cloud of fear and memories of too-recent destruction still hung in the minds of its people. The center of town had been restored in the last five months, and the celebrating humans probably didn’t notice the stench of fetid lake water still emanating from the asphalt. I was sure they didn’t, in fact. Because if they did, how could they go on dancing? The whole city reeked of death and despair.

Peter, Charlotte and I made it a point to check in every now and again at the hotel where I’d reserved a suite and parked the Porsche. When they were well-fed, the three of us would go out together looking for Victoria. This meant being in the very center of the celebration, however, and the pounding music and screaming people were quickly driving me to madness.

And so while my fellows hunted, I wandered.

I was grateful to have my companions; they were jovial and lighthearted, and through their connections to Jasper, felt like some twisted extension of my own kin. But their very presence caused me pain—every time Charlotte stroked a hand down Peter’s face, I remembered Bella’s touch; every time they laughed, I was reminded of the long time it had been since I myself had done so.

Peter and Charlotte had been Jasper’s coven mates for several years before Jasper wandered off in search of a lifestyle that quell the pain of hearing his victims’ terror. I had met Peter and his mate several times before. They’d visited us just a few months ealier, shortly after I’d first met Bella. I had spent those days keeping a tight perimeter around the Swan residence—despite Jasper’s insistence that neither Peter nor Charlotte would harm “the object of my obsession,” Peter was not known for his self-control. So I had barely crossed paths with the two of them save a brief moment when they had said goodbye to Jasper in the house. I had been in a particularly tempestuous mood that day, having spent the whole weekend away from Bella, and had been taking my feelings out on the piano via an excessively loud rendition of one of my more melancholy compositions. Charlotte had thought I was behaving very oddly at the time.

As far as I could tell, that impression hadn’t changed.

The two of them had been on their way to an all-night roller-skating party on Christmas Eve when they had detected my scent around the Porsche. They had approached cautiously, not sure who they would find.

“We should have known it was a Cullen,” Peter had said when I’d acknowledged them.

“Who besides a Cullen would own a Porsche?” Charlotte added, giving the car a loving glance. All that money…but what a price. She shuddered as she imagined Jasper drinking from the jugular of a deer.

I opened the door and stepped out into the thick night air. I could still hear the strains of laughter and well-wishes of the people streaming out of the Episcopal church a few blocks away. Leaning against the car, I crossed my arms over my chest and looked the pair of them up and down again. They were strikingly similar, dressed in dark jeans and black leather jackets, both with platinum blond hair that hung to their shoulders. Charlotte had on a pair of black gloves with the fingertips cut off, which I later discovered were standard attire at the roller rink.

“What are you doing here?” I repeated my question.

“Aww, Eddie, buddy, you don’t think that we could resist finding out who was in our territory, did you?” Peter asked teasingly. “You’d do the same.” Protecting our turf.

The growl was through my lips before I thought better of it. “It’s Edward,” I hissed.

Peter let out a barking laugh. “Sorry, Edd-Edward. But really, you’d come after some vampire who walked into Forks, right? Well, you have Alice, so I guess that doesn’t count. She always sees us coming.” Although perhaps you wouldn’t know what I mean—I suppose you don’t have to worry about someone cutting into your supply of…fauna. He wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“She’s not perfect,” I said, as a memory surfaced with agonizing speed. The eight of us, enjoying a perfect game of baseball—we had been having fun. Then Alice’s voice “I didn’t see—I couldn’t tell.” And James’ coven, emerging from the woods…

A second image flew at me as fast as the first—Bella, her body broken, on the floor of the dance studio. My voice, calling for Carlisle. The two of us frantically working side-by-side to save Bella’s mortal life. The beyond-excellent taste of Bella’s blood on my tongue, every fiber of my being crying out for me to feed as I was meant to feed, and then—stopping. Stopping because I could no more hurt her than I could end my own immortal life—the two were irrevocably linked in my mind.

“Alice isn’t infallible,” I repeated, my teeth clenched.

Charlotte put her hands in front of her. Goodness, he’s feisty. No wonder Jasper always steers us clear of him. “Whoa, down boy. Whatever we said to upset you—nothing meant by it.”

I swallowed and tried to regain my composure. James was not their fault.

He was your fault, the voice in my mind said. Bella would never have been in danger if you had just left her alone. If you hadn’t been so weak, if you had just run away from Forks that very first time.

But I was weak. And now, too little, too late, here I was hunting down one of a host of ever-growing threats to a woman around whom my whole existence revolved.

“I’m sorry,” I managed after a moment. “Alice is…a touchy subject.”

“Seems like it.” Peter exchanged glances with his mate. “So, how’s it going? And as I said, the real question is what are you doing here?”

“On Christmas and everything,” Charlotte added. “Shouldn’t you be at home with your daddy?” Such a bizarre relationship they have…if Carlisle didn’t have a mate, one might be led to think… She giggled, pressing herself to Peter’s side.

I growled again.

“I’m sorry. With your family,” she corrected.

“The biggest coven in the known universe—hell, you guys are bigger than the Volutri at this point, aren’t you?” Peter stared at me as he calculated our numbers in his head. Let’s see… Jasper and Alice, Carlisle and his mate, the big one and the blonde, and little Eddie here. Seven. How do they manage that without killing one another?

“I am not ‘Little Eddie,’” I shot back. “And the Volturi have their guard.”

The barking laugh returned. I always forget about his little talent. “Sorry. Yes. And Heaven help us all if the Cullens ever amass a guard!”

“We’re not getting any help from Heaven, sugar.” Charlotte ran her hand lovingly down Peter’s face. “A few too many transgressions, I think.”

“Yes. A few.” Peter grinned, turning back to me. “But seriously, Edward”—as though my name was some kind of disease—“what brings you to Texas?”

Victoria’s face swam in my mind, her wild hair behind her—the way I had seen her through the eyes of the startled newborn in San Francisco.

“I’m tracking someone.” Realizing that might give them the wrong idea, I hastily added, “Another vampire.”

Peter’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re tracking another vampire? As in, to kill him?”

“Her. And yes.”

Both of them burst out laughing. I stood there for several minutes while they doubled over, making no attempt to in any way hide their amusement. I realized that our family didn’t exactly have a reputation for violence, but even Peter and Charlotte knew that I had lived away from Carlisle and his lifestyle before. It couldn’t be that funny.

“Oh, Edward,” Charlotte said, when she finally regained the powers of speech. “I’m sorry. It’s rude of us to laugh.”

“Indeed it is,” I answered, frowning.

“It’s just that—” she was still making funny chortling noises as she tried to speak, “the idea of you trying to hunt a nomadic vampire—it’s like—it’s like—”

“Like a housecat trying to hunt a wild bird,” Peter supplied, eliciting a fresh giggle from Charlotte.

“Yes! With a bell around its neck.” Charlotte put a hand over her mouth to stifle her giggle. Poor dear. He’s absolutely lost. But how funny to see a Cullen trying to be a real vampire.

I rolled my eyes. “Well, it’s nice to have run into you.” My hand found its way to the door handle behind me. There was a soft click as the door opened.

Oh, not so fast. “Hold on a blessed minute,” Peter said. “You’re just going to tell us you’re on the hunt for somebody, then take off? I don’t think so. Who is this woman who’s got you all hot and bothered?”

Charlotte snorted. As if Edward Cullen gets hot and bothered…

For the first time in months, my mind pulled up a happy moment with Bella—on her couch, watching Zeferelli’s Romeo and Juliet, her lips on mine, her arms twined behind my neck. I had unlocked her from her hold and gently nudged her backwards. She had no idea that my restraint from her blood was now near-perfect—I had drunk from her and still she lived—but that I had been fighting a far different monster when I unlaced her fingers from my neck. Hot and bothered, indeed.

The happiness rushed away as quickly as it had come, leaving a searing, vacuous hole where it had resided so briefly. I put a hand on the roof of the car to steady myself as nauseating pain flooded me once more.

“Careful, there, Eddie,” Peter said quietly, gripping my upper arm. I didn’t correct him this time. He looks like he’s going to be sick. Well, that’s what that weird diet’ll do to ya…

“It’s not my diet,” I answered through clenched teeth. “And her name is Victoria.”

He looked confused. “Whose name?”

For someone with an eidetic memory, he certainly had poor short-term recall.

“Hot and bothered,” I answered. “The one I’m hunting. Her name is Victoria. She’s a crazy redhead. Have you seen her?”

Peter and Charlotte glanced at each other and shook their heads.

“Does she have a mate?” Charlotte asked. Because he’s not going to kill someone with a mate on his own—or, maybe he’s trying to get himself killed. That would be an Edward thing to do. Jasper is always saying how melancholy the boy is…

“We already killed her mate.”

If I thought Peter and Charlotte had looked surprised before, it had nothing on what they looked like now.

The Cullens killed someone? I’ll be damned. Well, I am damned. Peter smiled at his private joke. But still… Carlisle swam in his memory, his arm lovingly around Esme and a gentle smile on his face as he bid Peter and Charlotte welcome to our home in Forks. I can’t believe Carlisle would let that happen…

“We were protecting” —My mate? My girlfriend? My sole reason for existing?—“my friend.”

Charlotte’s eyes widened. “The girl,” she whispered. “He went after the girl?” Jasper’s face appeared. “He’s gotten obsessed with this human girl. He can’t hear her mind and so she’s sort of a novelty to him, I think. He’s been crawling in her bedroom window at night and watching her sleep.” Charlotte still found this disturbing. “And he’s trying to protect her from Peter.” She remembered how upset I had been by the unreasonable—in her opinion—notion that her mate might pose a threat to Bella. She tried hard to imagine what would happen if I perceived a real threat, then assessed my current defeated posture and gave up.

“Oh, tough break,” Peter whistled softly. You ask for heartbreak when you fall for a human, Eddie. They don’t stay alive that long.

“Edward. And Bella isn’t—” I couldn’t even say the word. “Bella’s fine.” Fine apart from the fact that I had left her in the woods alone and crying as I ran like a coward back to the house. I shuddered. “And we found the tracker—my brothers took care of him.”

“So you’re after his mate because…” Peter still looked a little confused.

“Because she’s…” after Bella, I added to myself, remembering Carlisle’s words from just a short while earlier. This was not necessarily true. I changed tack. “She was involved in what happened.” That much was true. “I’m worried she’ll want to finish what James started.”

“Let me get this straight,” Peter said, his brow furrowing as he began to tick assertions off on his fingers one by one. “You fell for a human. This human was hunted by a vampire. You had to kill said vampire. She is now possibly being hunted by a second vampire. You are now trying to kill said second vampire.”

“That’s the general idea, yes.”

Peter rolled his eyes and clapped a hand down on my shoulder. “Eddie. Did it not occur to you to just turn the girl?” He looked down at Charlotte, mentally inventorying her extraordinary beauty and contemplating how impossible it would be for him if she were human.

I growled again. “I love Bella. She deserves more than that.” Hadn’t he been the one who had just admitted that he was damned?

Peter gazed at me with curiosity. Jasper thinks so highly of Edward

I was surprised to hear this. I didn’t get many compliments, aloud or otherwise, from my taciturn older brother.

I wonder if he realizes that the boy is a lunatic.

And so much for compliments.

“Well, at any rate. I’ve got to keep going.” I replaced my hand on the car door handle.

Is he out of his godforsaken mind? Peter’s hand shot out and grabbed my upper arm again, in a grip so hard it hurt. “You’re not going anywhere, little brother. You’re going to stay here, and we’re going to help you.”

Now it was my eyebrows that were raised. “Little brother?”

“By marriage, or coven switch or whatever the hell you want to call it. I couldn’t look Jasper in the eye ever again if I let you walk out of here.”

“Yes,” Charlotte had chimed in. “We’ll help you, Edward.” She’d given me her sweet smile and then turned to Peter and added, “Right after we go roller skating.”

This was how I ended up spending the wee hours of Christmas morning mashed into a rickety wooden booth under disco balls and black light, while Aerosmith pulsed from the loudspeakers and giggling young adults rolled unsteadily by me on their skates. Peter and Charlotte unsurprisingly turned out to be excellent skaters—apparently the roller-derby scene was one they frequented. They were among some of the more showy skaters, taking up the center of the rink to do tricks.

To keep myself occupied and tune out the hundreds of minds of the skaters while I waited for my new and unlikely companions, I had brought along my only piece of diversion. Carlisle’s journal was beginning to smell more like me than him, and pages which had only been turned a few times in the past were growing more dog-eared as the weeks passed. Recently I had been bothered by the same entry, and I wondered if I might feel differently about it now, having talked to Carlisle.

15 June 1921

The piano is so loud at the moment I can scarcely think, but the din is such small penance for losing my temper with Edward today I cannot but let it go on. It is not his fault that the California Perfume Company has learned there is a woman living here. That he was upstairs reading when the man knocked at the door is not his fault either. Esme is yet faster and stronger than us both—if Edward had interrupted her, he would likely have met the same fate as the salesman. I am relieved that there was not time for him to try.

Good man that he is, Edward spent the afternoon soothing Esme while I worked on at the hospital, oblivious to the tragedy taking place at my home. I am deeply grateful to him for this. And yet my instinct upon returning home to find my mate sobbing with guilt amid the cloy of recently-mopped human blood was not to thank him for offering his comfort but to berate him for not protecting Esme from a temptation that proved too great. The row that ensued was terrible and only stopped when Esme burst into louder cries.

I am neither God nor man, but today Edward saw fit to accuse me of playing at both.

I was hurt then and am still now, but I cannot help but think that he is right. For even filled with joy as I am each day now, I cannot forget that both he and Esme should be at peace—Edward with his parents, and Esme with her son. That they both live this cursed half-existence with me is due to my own selfish needs, not their desires. My beautiful mate would not have murdered in her human life, and now I have forced her to live with a man’s death on her conscience.

In five days, Edward will be twenty. I find myself wondering what he would be like if he had been granted three additional years in his human form. Would I recognize the man my son was growing to be? The venom has bestowed upon him inhuman beauty as it has to us all, but he alone of us three retains the evanescent perfection of a boy still on his way to becoming a man, his features arrested in the middle of a process that will be forever incomplete.

I worry about that which I have stolen from these two whom I love so much. After the horrors of this afternoon, I had expected my mate to loathe me just as Edward seems to at the moment. Yet Esme assures me that despite her thirst, and that which it has driven her to do, she is happier than she ever remembers being as a human. Even after today’s tragedy she is still speaking of formalizing our union, and I find this idea pleases me deeply. But even if her new life makes her happy, was it my place to prevent her old one from ending?

C. C.

I laid the journal down on the table and stared as the page flashed purple and green under the pulsing lights. The fight Carlisle described had been one of our worst, second only to the battle we’d fought in 1927 when I had announced I wished to try a different way of life. That one had actually turned physical; this one had been only a prolonged shouting match. I had returned to merely seething at him within the space of a few hours. He had accused me of being inattentive; I had accused him of playing God.

I hadn’t realized until I read this journal entry and the several that followed it how seriously Carlisle had taken my accusations. But now I understood fully why he had. I recalled Peter’s earlier question, “Did it not occur to you to just turn the girl?” After reading this entry again, I felt even surer of my answer. Of all his actions in his long life, there was nothing Carlisle questioned more than his decision to turn each of us. And if he could worry about the life he had stolen from us even when each of us had been at the very brink of death, how could I let Bella allow me to take hers? One of us should know better than that. One of us had to take responsibility for this mess.

A pale hand snapped the journal closed as Peter and Charlotte slid into the booth across from me.

“So,” Peter said with finality. He spoke with a voice slightly quieter than normal, as though it was possible that any human could ever hope to eavesdrop on a conversation that wasn’t shouted over the pounding rock music.

“So?”

“So Charlotte and I have come up with a plan.” He dropped his hands to the table excitedly. I hadn’t noticed until now that the fingernails on both hands were painted black. I had to hand it to them—they knew how to fit into this scene. Under the lights even their eye color looked appropriately bizarre rather than frightening.

“Hot and bothered is on her own without a mate right now, am I right?” So three of us could take her down if we needed to.

I nodded. “We killed her mate.”

Peter chuckled. “I never get tired of hearing you say that, Eddie.”

“Edward.”

“Whatever.” He leaned forward, a conspiratorial smile on his face. “So. What we’re thinking is, we’ll travel the south for a little while. Spend some time in that hot rod of yours. See if three of us can pick up her trail. But” —he paused dramatically— “if she knows what’s good for her, she’ll be in New Orleans in about three weeks.” He pronounced it “N’awlins.”

“I’m sorry. New Orleans?” Why did they think Victoria was headed for Louisiana?

They both laughed.

“You Cullens. You’re so buttoned-up. Not that Carlisle is not amazing. I have the utmost respect for the man. But he’s got you all so sheltered.” Peter leaned in a little closer. “Mardi Gras, Eddie.” Easiest hunting all year. Not to mention a damn good party. And just like here, we fit in. He shot me a sadistic grin. “It’s why we came south to begin with, and it fits with helping you. So we’ll go.”

“I’m not so sure I’ll enjoy the hunting. Besides, aren’t you people usually more—“ how did I put this politely “—territorial?”

“Listen to him,” Charlotte said, laughing. “‘You people.’ As though the Cullens are the ones behaving normally.” She beamed at me. “It’s sort of like old home week. Those of us that go put the fighting aside for a little while. No one bothers anyone else unless they’re after the same human—and there’s hundreds of thousands of humans. The humans go missing there all the time even without our help. They don’t even know what hit ‘em.” A young man came to her mind, his torso painted purple and multiple strands of colored beads strung around his neck. He was calling to her, and he smiled when she advanced—and then he screamed only briefly before his eyes rolled back in his head.

“Don’t dwell too much on that, sugar,” Peter said, still smiling. “You’ll scare poor Eddie and his diet away.” Maybe he can snack on some alligator.

I wrinkled my nose. Not exactly the kind of large game I had in mind. Still, the idea of being able to find Victoria gave me a fresh rush of energy. And, as Peter had so astutely pointed out, three of us could take her down with ease. I nodded to them both.

“New Orleans it is.”

Even several miles from the center of the city, the uproar of hundreds of thousands still echoed in my ears. I was finally far enough, however, that the din had taken on a surreal muted quality, as though I’d dived underwater. More importantly, I was no longer under assault from the perverse thoughts of the revelers, most of whom were hoping that their next drink would lead them into a fleeting sexual encounter by means which betrayed a gross misunderstanding of cause and effect.

But here the streets were silent and deserted. The houses which loomed on either side of me were empty and dark, their windows either smashed or boarded up, with shutters that hung freakishly askew. Waterlines and moss bore witness to a flood that had reached to second-story windows. Porch roofs sagged, their supports having rotted or washed away. Upturned furniture and waterlogged cars joined the mountains of debris in the streets along with a host of even stranger deposits—drainage pipe, refrigerators, cinder block, crumpled street signs. The stink of mold and rust hung in the thick air. A few of the homes that had sustained less damage were beginning to be attended to, but as Esme’s son I knew enough about construction to see that nearly all would eventually need to be razed. Compared with the drunken mayhem on Bourbon Street, this place was a desecrated wasteland.

I found it soothing.

In the five weeks after Christmas, Peter, Charlotte and I had almost no more luck than I’d had alone. The storm season this year was strong, and the constant rains continued to wash away scents as soon as any of us stumbled across them. The closest we’d come had been in Galveston, when someone had noticed us together and remembered a white-skinned redhead, but he’d focused in on us again so quickly I couldn’t even be sure it was Victoria he was thinking of. He seemed to remember her with her hair in a ponytail, which struck me as unlikely. Still, we had remained there searching for two weeks, until a young man that Charlotte had thought was homeless and thus fair game turned up on the local news as a missing college student. We had to beat a hasty retreat to Corpus Christi. And although Peter and Charlotte did their best to keep my spirits high—usually by dragging me to yet another oppressive nightclub—I was spiraling back into my personal hell with each passing week.

So far in New Orleans we had been unsuccessful as well. If there were other vampires in the city they certainly weren’t out enjoying the scene the way Peter and Charlotte did. But then, I couldn’t imagine vampires that would—when Jasper had always described his former coven as choosing a more “peaceful” lifestyle, I hadn’t realized it involved the party circuit. Perhaps Jasper didn’t either. But for a pair who had been turned right at the beginning of the era of rock and roll, I supposed it made sense in a way. And Peter was right; it was one of the few places where they fit in perfectly with their pale skin and strange eye color. As a predatory strategy, it really was one of the best.

Tonight they were out hunting and partying in the thick of things. I took the opportunity to wander, and found myself in the ruins of what six months before had probably been a perfectly adequate neighborhood. Now it had been reduced to rubble, a soggy and stinking testament to the flood that had raged here six months before.

A house not far from where I stood still had its front porch largely intact, one of the few that didn’t seem to have been nearly washed away in the floodwaters. I tested the stairs carefully to be sure the rotting wood would hold my weight and then sat down to think, pulling my knees to my chest and resting my chin atop them. My arrival startled a garter snake that had made its home in the dank shadows, and it slithered away quickly over my shoes.

Huddling in the darkness, I let my thoughts drift, as they always did, to Bella. What was she doing now? I clung desperately to those weeks of perfect attendance I’d seen on Carlisle’s computer back in Forks. She was living; she was unhurt. She might even be happy by now—more than four months had passed since that terrible day in the woods. Surely she had returned to her friends. Angela was so gentle and kind, and even Jessica’s perkiness would have to be of comfort. Hadn’t I seen high school girls ready to tear their hair out over the boy that had dumped them one day, and then swooning over a new boy the next? Bella wasn’t a typical high school girl, no, but she was still human. If I could stay away long enough, she would move past me.

I just had to keep her alive that long.

As I gazed out at the desecrated street, Carlisle’s words from a month before came to me unbidden: “Even now, Edward, are you sure that Victoria actually poses a threat to Bella?”

An involuntary growl tore forth and the searing, burning pain ripped through my midsection once more. In agony, I threw my head against the column that held up the porch roof. The wood exploded, the rotted parts going to mush and the dry parts crashing down on me in a shower of splinters. A chunk of the porch roof fell also, and I sat still as moldy shingles slapped down on my head.

Was I only imagining danger to keep myself from insanity? It seemed more and more likely. Even if Victoria had truly been in Galveston—even if she had been in San Francisco—she had a right to move around the country, didn’t she? Carlisle had always told us that our family was to lead by example. If others wished to join us, they would. I saw again through Carlisle’s eyes the trio of formidable men, cloaked and red-eyed, standing in their opulent chambers and watching approvingly as one of their guard wrenched off the head of a quaking newborn vampire. In the memory, I felt my gut twist along with my father’s. “We are only peaceful protestors. Not police,” his voice echoed in my mind.

Go back.

It startled me. I hadn’t heard that voice in awhile. In fact, in these weeks I’d spent with Charlotte and Peter, I hadn’t heard that voice once. As crazy as it drove me at times—Peter still hadn’t stopped calling me “Eddie”—companionship was nice.

You had a companion. You had a friend. You had your mate. Go back!

A strangled howl echoed off the abandoned houses and I was on my feet before I realized that the pitiful noise had come from me. I was just starting to sit down when my eye caught the fleeting motion across the street. I frowned. Perhaps it was an animal.

Then, unmistakably, I heard: Edward.

Whatever had just run by knew my name?

I launched myself forward with such force that most of the remainder of the porch collapsed behind me with a shuddering boom as I shot across the street. But I almost hadn’t needed to get any closer—added to the stink of rot and mold was the unmistakable sweet scent of another of my kind.

Victoria. It had to be. Who else would have run?

My feet were moving again before I willed them to, and I was running at full speed. The trail was easy to follow, weaving between the dilapidated houses—until it stopped.

The trail had hit a dead end just at the edge of where the houses stopped being in such terrible state—here the water had clearly been lower, and I could even see a few windows with lights, the homes whose inhabitants had not left the city. Surely Victoria would have slowed her pace here—the scent should be more obvious, not less. I stood there, puzzled, when at once I heard, There he is, and something dropped from the rooftop above me.

I attacked.

The being who’d surprised me flew backward and we crashed into the wet earth so hard our bodies left deep indentations. For a moment all I knew was snarling, growling, and flailing limbs as my assailant and I locked ourselves in combat. And then just as suddenly as the attack had come, it was over, and I was flat on my back under the hand of a tiny, dark-haired woman I’d met only once before. She had a triumphant but crazed smile on her face as she shook her head.

Maria?” I spluttered. Looking up into the dark eyes of my brother’s fiery former companion, I promptly recalled Charlotte’s words from more than a month earlier: “It’s like old home week.”

She hadn’t been kidding.

Maria had changed—then subsequently tried to kill—Peter, Charlotte, and Jasper. I knew Peter and Charlotte, being nomads, occasionally ran into her. Jasper, however, had gone out of his way to steer clear of her after her visit to our home in Calgary several decades before, which had resulted in the deaths of several of Carlisle’s patients and our immediate relocation.

It would be best to keep mum about my traveling companions.

“You are loco, Eduardo,” Maria said disapprovingly. “Why are you attacking me? I let you up, you gonna act right?”

I nodded, and she laughed, lifting her hand from my chest and pulling me to my feet.

She shook her head at me, clucking her tongue disapprovingly. “Te ves horrible. What are you doing here?”

Brushing off my slacks, I muttered, “I could ask you the same thing.”

She laughed again, throwing her black hair behind her. “I’m here hunting los humanos, pobrecito. Something tells me you aren’t here for that.” She made note of my golden eyes—I had very luckily discovered a pack of coyotes running in the woods around Lake Pontchartrain and had eaten like it was my last meal.

“I’m looking for someone,” I mumbled. “Another vampire. Her name is Victoria.”

As soon as I said the name, her face appeared in Maria’s mind, red hair spilling over her shoulders as always. I felt a surge of excitement. “You know her!”

She cocked an eyebrow. “Victoria? La pelirroja loca? Yeah, I know her, hermanito.” There was a pause, then, “Why are you looking for her?” He looks like he wants to kill her, she thought in Spanish.

“Killing her is what I have in mind, yes. Do you know where she is?” I spat.

I forget about his mind-reading thing. Maria tossed her hair behind her with a flick of her wrist. “Posiblemente. Why you trying to kill her?”

“She tried to kill my—well, her mate tried to kill my girlfriend.”

Su compañero? Then why aren’t you looking for him?” Or is that why you want her?

I winced, bracing myself for her inevitable response to my next statement.

“My family already killed him.”

Her eyes widened, as I knew they would. “Carlisle Cullen killed somebody? Madre de Dios!” Carlisle’s face appeared in her mind, accompanied by feelings of respect.

It was funny how the things my father loathed garnered him the most honor in the vampire world.

“Carlisle didn’t do it himself,” I spat back. He had been too busy tending to the massive injuries the love of my life had sustained while foolishly trying to protect me from her attacker. I shook my head in disgust. If I had never been in her life; if I had just left her alone, none of this would ever have happened.

She only laughed. “Well, you’re in the wrong state, mijo. Last time I saw her she was in Texas. By the gulf.”

Galveston. I knew it. I let a word I didn’t usually say in front of women slide through my clenched teeth.

Maria laughed. “Listen to that mouth. I should tellCarlisle.

“Where is she headed? Do you know?”

Maria studied me a moment, her black eyes following mine. I can’t tell him that. In her mind a conversation with Victoria appeared—they were arguing in rapid Spanish. Her memory seemed not to be in complete pieces, as though she was trying to hide something. But still I caught the word Rio.

“Rio? Rio de Janiero?”

She looked startled for a second, but then a smile flashed briefly across her face. “Tu familia tiene una casa allá, no?

We did have a house in Rio, but how would Victoria know about it?

“She’s going to Isle Esme?” Did this mean she was actually after our family? Was she planning retaliation?

Shaking her head, Maria only laughed. “No, no, querido. She went down there for the same reason I am here.” Dancers appeared in her mind—huge feather boas, drunken people, the same sea of purple, green, and gold. “El carnaval. ”

“Because the hunting is easy.” I had never been in Rio for Carnival, but I had heard it was many times more chaotic than New Orleans. Now having seen New Orleans, I had a much better sense of what that meant.

Sí.” She gave me a condescending pat on the shoulder. “Now you are starting to get it, hermanito.

If she referred to me in the diminutive one more time, I was going to have to hit her. But Carnival. It made a little bit of sense, after what I had seen here. If you were a hunter, you went where the prey was bountiful. And if she was in Brazil—well, then Carlisle was right. “She’s not going back to Forks,” I sighed with relief.

Maria rolled her eyes. “You truly are in love, aren’t you, Eduardo? You think el mundo entero gira alrededor de tu novia. I’ll tell you a secret–everything is not about you.”She threw her head back and laughed again.

But my entire world did revolve around Bella; that was the thing. I had to get to Rio.

“Thank you, Maria,” I said hurriedly. “You’ve been a huge help.” Suddenly flooded with energy, I took off at a run, hoping to blow off enough steam before I was back in the populated area that I could avoid barreling full-speed down Canal Street.

“Tell Jasper hello!” she called after me as I sped away. And before I got too far, I caught: Who in the hell brought Edward Cullen here? No matter. He’ll never find her in Rio.

I laughed to myself as I ran. I had been away from Bella for almost five months.

Compared with surviving that, anything was possible.

Chapter Notes

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