A/N: Special thanks to deltagirl74 for the pre-read, and to StoryPainter and BelleDujour for their Beta skills!
"Alice, I don't think I'm ready for this," Jasper muttered as he pulled into the Cullen's driveway. They were running late, and by the time they got to Alice's welcome home party, the driveway was full. He parked next to a new-looking, brown SUV with the Cullen Construction logo on the side. Alice squealed a bit as she saw it, opening the door almost before the car came to a stop.
"He said it was going well, but I guess I needed to see for myself," she muttered, running a finger along the big, white, interlocking C's emblazoned across the driver's door.
Jasper removed the key from the ignition and met her on the other side of the car. "Mom said he had a hard time deciding on a replacement when the Jeep died, but I think this was a good choice, don't you?" Jasper asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.
She could feel the tears gathering in her eyes and blinked quickly, trying to head them off. Her emotions had been running high all day. It had been so long since she'd seen her family, and she suddenly felt like she'd missed too much in the last year.
"Come here, sweetheart. They can wait a few more minutes." Jasper pulled Alice close, tucking her into his chest and rubbing her back in small circles.
Alice felt the tension ease a bit, thankful for his reassurance. Now that they were here, she was suddenly intimidated to be walking into the crowded house. It seemed silly, but being late would make them center stage, and she'd need a few minutes to prepare for the spotlight, no matter how loving it would be. Jasper and Alice had been running behind schedule all day and sitting in highway construction had not allowed for a break. Even though they'd been on the road for a week, going even a few hours without touching him made her jumpy and annoyed. The relief she felt when he pulled her close was like putting on soft silk after removing scratchy wool.
She stretched her arms around his neck and pulled him close for a kiss. As always, he bent immediately, giving in to her wishes. He met her with focused intensity, teasing her mouth with his tongue and moving one hand down her back to rub her ass. He cupped her before switching to a firm squeeze. Alice moaned softly into his throat, and felt her body responding to him faster than she had thought possible.
Wrapped up in each other, they didn't hear the front door open.
"You can't even make it from the driveway to the door?" Edward called from the front porch. "Break it up or get a room!"
Alice broke the kiss when she started to laugh. God, she missed her big brother. She didn't let go of Jasper but turned her head and yelled back, "We got rooms in Cleveland, Chicago, St. Paul ... We're just getting started."
"No. She's got it wrong, Edward. It wasn't St. Paul. It was Minneapolis," Jasper yelled back, tightening his arms around her before whispering in her ear, "And, yes, we're just getting started. Enough stalling. Let's get this over with."
Edward grinned, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the railing as a shaggy, russet dog shot out the open door. It streaked across the lawn and with a few strides, it found them, skidding to a stop in front of Jasper. The dog gave happy yips, with its tail wagging so hard the entire animal shook.
Jasper bent down to ruffle her fur and scratch behind her ears. There was such adoration in those big brown eyes Alice was sure the dog was a goner, and she knew exactly how the animal felt.
"You must be Penny," Alice said softly, bending low to greet the animal with an outstretched hand. "I've heard a lot about you. Look at how happy you are to see him. Don't worry," she whispered conspiratorially, "I look at him like that too, sometimes. We just can't let it go to his head."
The dog cocked her head to the side and gave a little huff, as though she was trying to figure out who this strange girl was.
"Come on." Jasper took Alice's hand and pulled her to her feet. "If Penny's here, then my mom is probably—"
Jasper's voice was drowned out by the sound Bella screeching. With a few ungraceful bounds, Bella made it to Alice and practically knocked her over, hugging her close. Both women started talking at the same time.
"Oh my God! I thought you'd never get here. Where did you stop? I hope you took pictures. Edward and I haven't been anywhere since the honeymoon and I'm so jealous. You need to tell me all about it ... "
"I'm so sorry we were late. You got my text, right? There was the horrible construction on the highway and we were trapped between semis for miles. I took pictures of Old Faithful for you just like you asked. We were so close to Yellowstone, we couldn't pass it without stopping ... "
Out of the corner of her eye, Alice saw Jasper climb the porch steps and shake Edward's hand. He stood back a bit, and she knew it was because he didn't know how he would be received. Edward pulled on Jasper's hand, drawing the other man in for an awkward guy-hug. More tears filled Alice's eyes. She knew Jasper was a little worried about Edward's reaction to their homecoming. Now they only needed to deal with Emmett. She hoped that reunion would go as smoothly.
"Is that my girl I hear? Why didn't anyone say they were here?"
Alice pulled back from Bella at the sound of her mother's voice. Esme rushed down the steps and pulled her in for a tight hug. When the two women pulled apart, Esme held Alice at arm's length, and gave her a head-to-toe sweep. "Listen to me, Mary Alice Cullen, if you ever do that again, I'm going to follow you and drag you home. Imagine how embarrassing that will be! You're not going anywhere for a while. I missed you too much. Do you hear me?"
This time, Alice felt the tears spill over. Through the blurry haze, she could see Mrs. Hale step across the threshold and go to Jasper.
"Shh. No crying. You're home now. That's what matters," Esme said, hugging her again. Holding hands, mother and daughter climbed the steps and joined the growing party on the porch. Ever the hostess, Esme held out her other hand for Jasper to shake. "Jasper, I'd like to thank you for driving Alice home. Hopefully, we'll see more of you."
"Nothing to thank me for, ma'am, and I know we will see more of each other." Jasper stepped a little to the side, and ran his hand though his hair. "Mom, I'm sure you remember Alice."
Without even looking at him, Alice knew what Jasper needed, and she stepped forward. "It's good to see you again, Mrs. Hale," she said softly, putting out her hand and relaxing a bit when the other woman met her halfway.
"Please, call me Kathy. I'm happy you're here. Esme has talked about nothing else since you decided to come home." Her smile was warm and genuine. It was a good contrast from the tense, withdrawn woman Alice remembered from that awkward dinner so many years ago.
A slightly tense silence descended as Alice stepped back, and went to Jasper's side, taking his hand in hers. A year ago, it would have felt like a very bold move, but not now. It felt right to be beside him, and it was where she wanted to be. It didn't matter what anyone else thought.
Esme took a deep breath, looking from Jasper to Alice before stopping on their joined hands. She smiled softly and nodded once. "Let's all go out back and help your father before he burns the burgers," she said, leading the way through the house.
It took a few minutes to get everyone ushered onto the patio. Carlisle was standing in front of a large gas grill, filled with assorted meats and vegetables.
"Daddy!" Alice called, and she rushed over to give him a kiss on the cheek.
He hugged her close for a second, and whispered in her ear, "We're so happy you're home." With him manning the grill, it was difficult to keep up a conversation, so Alice hugged him again and looked around to find Jasper. When she found him, he was standing at the far end of the patio with Kathy and a sullen-looking Emmett. She started walking toward them when Esme called, asking her for help finishing the dinner preparations. Kathy began rising to help, but Esme insisted that she stay and chat with her son.
Normally, Alice was annoyed by the usual gender defining line where the men stayed outside to help with the grilling of the meat, and the women worked to prepare the rest of the feast. This time, it didn't bother her. She'd missed time alone with her mother and Bella. Their chatter was meant to fill her in on things she'd missed, but it was easy to forget she'd been gone at all. Some days, there was nothing better than pitching in while your mother ordered you around a bit. It didn't hurt that Esme gave her a hug every few minutes. Alice knew Jasper was getting the same sort of treatment outside. Right at that moment, she felt loved and knew that she'd made the right decision to come home.
When Carlisle said the food was ready, it only took a few minutes to get the table filled with the platters full of salads and fresh fruits. As Alice set the pitchers of lemonade and iced tea down, she noted the lack of wine glasses. Once again, her mother was the perfect hostess. Everything had been done to quietly make Kathy's visit as comfortable as possible, and that meant that the entire party was alcohol-free.
Alice took Jasper's hand as everyone gathered to be seated. She didn't want him to end up too far away, so she claimed the first two open seats she could find. As the rest of the table filled in around them, Jasper leaned close, whispering in her ear, "So far, so good."
She smiled back before starting to pour drinks and pass dishes.
There were lots of questions about their drive and the places they'd seen. Jasper looked as though he had been waiting to tell a story, and as soon as he started talking, Alice covered her eyes with her hand in embarrassment before putting her hands in her lap.
"Alice decided that she wanted to spend some time driving in Yellowstone. She said it wasn't fair that I was missing all the scenery, and we should trade off driving and sightseeing. We were on our way to Old Faithful when I noticed that we were going a little fast." Teasing rang out around the table. Her family had ribbed Alice for years about her tendency to drive too fast. "I gently reminded her that the trees are fairly close to the road, and if an animal came out from between, we wouldn't see it in time to stop. She poo-poo'd me and kept right on going. About five minutes later, we came around a bend in the road, and there was a buffalo standing on the edge of the road. Its closest horn was about six inches from my car window. I could see the look in his eyes as we passed, and I think he was as scared as I was."
"What he's forgetting to tell you is that he screamed like a little girl," Alice said.
"You're absolutely right, darling. That animal was the size of a small house. If we'd hit it in that little car, we wouldn't have done anything but annoy it, and I didn't want to be that close to an irritated buffalo."
Laughter and more teasing erupted around the table.
"I'm glad you and the car are fine. How long do you have it?" Esme asked.
"It's paid for a two week rental. That should be enough time for Alice to find a car of her own," Jasper said.
"We can help her with that too, now that she's back home," Carlisle said, and Alice wondered if he was objecting because he didn't want Jasper helping her like this, or because he thought he could find a better car deal than she could.
"Don't make long range plans, Dad. I'm only here until I can find a job. I know you and Mom have had the house to yourselves for a while. I don't plan on staying long."
"Do you have any leads on a job?" Carlisle asked. "There are a few people I could call ... "
"Thanks, but I don't think it will come to that. At least not yet, anyway. I'm planning on getting started tomorrow. I've got my resume ready and a few leads already."
"Actually, I'm not sure she needs to do that," Jasper said. "We were talking about our company's new product launch and I told her about the horrible ideas from the contract advertising agency. Alice's suggestions for the trade-show were better than anything we've paid for, and that was just off the top of her head."
Alice didn't want her family to pick up on her irritation, so she set her fork down very carefully. Turning slightly in her chair, she met Jasper's eyes. "I told you, I don't mind helping out, but I'm not working for you right now."
"You're being stubborn again. It's a good job, and you'd be doing what you love at a company with good benefits and a long history. I don't understand why you're fighting this."
"I explained it all the way through Billings. I'm not coming home to take a job from you. You're still working through credibility issues after what happened with your dad. I'm not adding to that." Alice kept her eyes on him. It was important that he understood this. She wasn't rejecting him or his offer, but she needed him to see that his kind gesture would only make trouble for himself.
"Rose will be starting next year when she finishes law school," he said quickly, tossing his now unused fork on the table.
"She's your sister going into a family business—it's expected. Imagine how difficult it would be for me to pop in as your girlfriend? The situation is different. We're not going to keep rehashing this, are we?"
"You wouldn't be popping in because you're my girlfriend. You'd be there because you had better ideas than any of the high-priced consultants we've been using." He leaned forward, looking into her eyes. "And as for what anyone thinks, they'll just have to get over it. Besides, it's just a matter of time. We've already talked about getting m—"
"Alice!" Bella interrupted. "Tell me about that little car you and Jasper drove up in."
Bella's interruption broke the spell, and Alice glanced across the table with surprise. Once again, she'd forgotten where she was. This only happened when Jasper was around. She felt her entire face burn with the realization. Taking a deep breath, she looked around the table at the rest of her family: Edward was passing Bella what looked like a twenty-dollar bill, Esme was kissing Carlisle on the cheek, and Emmett was looking down at his plate, pushing something around with his fork. Kathy said something softly to him, and he looked up with a sincere, but slightly sad smile.
Judging by their reactions, they'd understood exactly what Jasper had been about to say. Confusion rushed through her. Did he intend to let that slip, or had he been as wrapped up in their discussion as she was? Her eyebrows pulled together as she looked at him, trying to work it out.
Jasper's face held nothing but a self-satisfied smile, and irritation rushed through her. He'd been fully aware of where they were and what he'd just declared in front of their families.
"We'll discuss this later," she hissed and stabbed at a cold vegetable on her plate.
"Whatever you want, sweetheart," he said softly before turning to Bella. "The car was a BMW Z4 Roadster. It was Rose's idea. She told me a good car would make the trip home more fun, and she was right. It was great in the mountains."
The remainder of dinner was subdued. Alice tried to throw off her feelings of betrayal from Jasper's exposure. It wasn't just his news to share. They should have discussed it beforehand—as a couple—and figured out the best time and place to approach everyone. This was huge news, and she was still reeling that he took it upon himself to just toss it out there along with the requests to pass the chicken.
When dessert was over and the last people at the table were Esme, Kathy, and Alice, she excused herself and found Jasper alone on the patio. She asked him to join her in Carlisle's office, and as soon as the door clicked shut, she walked to the desk and perched herself on the edge. Now that she had him here, she was having trouble beginning.
When she didn't speak, Jasper raised an eyebrow at her and held his palm up in a well, why are we here? motion.
The fact that he apparently didn't know what she wanted to talk about ignited her temper and got her mouth moving. "What did you think you were doing at dinner? We didn't talk about telling anyone! The last time I remember discussing marriage, we said it was a good idea sometime in the future, and when I said future—I meant years from now!"
"I know what you meant. I also told you that I'd rather not wait that long." Jasper leaned against one of the tall bookcases in the office and folded his arms across his chest.
"We don't need to rush into anything! We're still figuring this out. There's no need to plan everything right now." She could hear her voice take on a whiney tone and took a deep, calming breath.
"Maybe planning things out isn't a bad idea." His voice sounded strained. "It would save us trouble later. There would be fewer surprises."
Her eyes narrowed, and she moved off the desk, walking toward him. "Something doesn't make sense. Mr. Spontaneous wants to plan out our entire lives after only a couple of weeks back together? Why? We haven't been home two hours! I told you that I'm going to need some time to reestablish my life here before I can make that commitment."
"And I'm telling you I don't want to wait that long!" he shouted.
It was the first time she'd heard him raise his voice, and she must have moved back a fraction of an inch. She wasn't afraid, but his sudden intensity startled her. He shoved off the bookcase, starting to pace back and forth across the room, running his hands through his hair. He opened and closed his mouth several times, obviously working to find the right words.
Alice was patient, and didn't interrupt. Whatever this was, it went far beyond him overstepping a boundary about who got to share their good news.
"Alice, think about it, please. Look at what's happened to us in the last couple of years. That's a long time. Anything can happen."
"I'm sorry, I still don't understand. Nothing's going to happen. We're finally both right where we need to be." She wanted to go to him, but knew he still needed space. He finally stopped pacing near the window but didn't turn to face her. When he spoke, it was so quiet that she had to strain to hear.
"I've been here before, Alice. I've been in love and wanting to spend my life with someone. My track record isn't good. I don't want this to disappear too."
"Hey!" she rushed forward as the understanding shot through her. She felt so stupid to not have seen this coming. She thought he'd maneuvered the situation for some superficial reason, but she should have been looking deeper. Fucking Maria was the reason, and a tiny part of Alice realized that from this moment on, she would always think of her as Fucking Maria. Fury flowed through Alice following these realizations as she shot off the couch. Grabbing his shoulder, she turned him to face her.
"Don't you dare paint me with someone else's brush! I'm not her, and I'm not going anywhere! You got me?" she asked with a finger pointing into his chest. "I waited for you for years—then spent the better part of a year dating half of Manhattan, trying to find someone like you. You are exactly what I'm looking for in a lover, a playmate, and a friend. The only way you're getting rid of me is to send me away. Understood?" By the time she was done, she was panting slightly.
His shoulders seemed to dip a bit in relief, but he otherwise gave no indication that he'd heard her.
"Jasper, I wasn't kidding in the car. I do want to marry you and if you want to get engaged soon, I'd be happy to advertise the fact that I belong to you. But, I'm asking for time to get my life back together before we take that step. Let me find another job to put on my resume before I end up at your company, because we both know it's inevitable I'll end up there. Let me reconnect with the friends I lost when I went to New York, and let me spend some time with my parents. Is this making sense to you?"
"How big a ring?" he finally asked.
"You stubborn ass! I poured out my soul and all you got was the fact that you get to go ring shopping?" She wanted to punch him in the shoulder, but she resisted the urge and threw her hands up in a frustrated gesture.
"No, darling," he said, starting to laugh. He put out and arm and gathered her close. "I figured out that I'm rushing you, and I'm doing it because ... "
"We both know why. What's important is that you understand we're starting fresh. We're going to learn from our mistakes and move forward, and that means making decisions that make sense for us—both of us."
"Fair enough, sweetheart." He tried to pull her tighter to him, but she pulled back.
"And for the record, I'm happy to talk through anything you have going on, but it's going to take me a while to get used to talking about Maria. Part of me just wants to hunt her down and—"
"Whoa. Slow down, you little spitfire. Your possessive side is very sexy. I might have to keep you in here for a while."
"Is that so?" As she pressed herself against him, Alice could feel the tension seep out of her, like watching the sun roll in after a storm. Everything seemed clean and fresh. This thought was followed by something else. It was an incredible need to reconnect. She inhaled deeply and pressed her breasts against his chest, wondering if this is what it would be like every time they argued? If so, maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all? She supposed she'd have a long time to find out.
Licking her lips, she raised her eyes to his and could see a matching expression of surprise and desire.
"Holy hell. You're going to keep me on my toes," he muttered before dropping his lips to hers.
Jasper's mouth was open, insistent, and a physical representation of his need to reestablish their connection. She opened for him and gave what he needed. Her tongue met his stroke for stroke, and her hands came up to grasp the sides of his head, holding him in place, so she could take control. Tracing across his bottom lip, she gave it a tug with her teeth.
Warm hands ran down her back to grasp her ass, pulling her completely against him. His erection was pressed between them and made her whimper in need. He held her too tightly to move back, but Alice had enough room to grind her pelvis in a rolling motion. She needed friction; she needed him. Her brain barely registered his hands moving again, one splaying across her ass and the other inserting itself between the two of them.
"Easy, now. I've got you," he whispered between kisses, inching up her skirt. His hand paused when he felt the slight ruffle at the top of her panties. "These are the pink ones, aren't they? I told you not to wear these. They make me crazy." His hand withdrew, shifting the fabric of her skirt. She started to worry that he was pulling away when his hand snapped back, swatting her just hard enough to make her squeak in surprise. Somewhere in the back of her head, she thought, must buy more pink panties as soon as possible. His hand rubbed that spot in a circle before adding a gentle pinch.
"Should I go without panties? Would that be better?" She was a panting mess by the time his fingers pushed aside the damp strip between her thighs. Two long, firm fingers began rubbing back and forth across her heated, swollen flesh. He bit gently on the side of her neck, as he alternated between rubbing her clit and sliding back to taunt again.
"Damn it! Stop teasing me!" Alice whispered. Her thighs were shaking with the intensity, and if he didn't ease the ache soon, she would toss him across the desk and violate her father's favorite place in the house.
"Impatient, aren't you? Is this what you wanted?" he asked just as he slammed those two fingers into her. Jasper's mouth covered hers, muffling her moan. He alternated between fast and slow strokes, never pulling out completely, but never giving her enough to fall over the edge.
The urgency was becoming too much. She knew her legs wouldn't hold her, so she hooked one arm around his neck and fisted the other in his shirt. "Jasper, more." She managed to whisper, hoping he understood.
"That's it, darling. Hang on," he urged against her neck, and his hand increased pace and speed. Multiple, hard, fast strokes took her over the edge and her knees gave out just as she started convulsing around his fingers. She bit her lip, trying to stay quiet, knowing her family could be right outside the door.
"God, you just keep going," he said as the last of the spasms eased.
She winced slightly as he pulled his hand away, and she straightened her knees, hoping they would support her again. Breathing deep, Alice closed her eyes and sagged against Jasper's chest. He leaned back slightly and made several movements over her head; she was pretty sure he was licking his fingers, and the idea of it made her whimper again. He made a movement against her hips that was so small she almost missed it. She knew exactly what he needed.
Pushing back, she reached down and splayed her hand across the bulge stretching his jeans. "Your turn," she said with a saucy smile. Keeping her hand in place, she crouched down in front of him and had just undone the first button of his fly when she heard noises outside the office door.
With a horrible sense of deja vu, Alice could make out voices just before the pounding started. She jumped when Edward's voice boomed through the panel.
"Break it up! You were fine as long as there was yelling, but it's too quiet. Mom was looking for you, and I certainly don't want to tell Dad his baby girl defiled his desk."
Jasper gave a ragged sigh and looked up at the ceiling. His hands came up and refastened the button she had managed to work free.
"I'll make it up to you," she said, kissing him quickly. "Just let me find a place where we can be alone for a little while." Alice automatically started thinking about secluded places in the garden that might work.
"I'm fine. Your brother pounding on the door is an automatic hard-on killer," he said. "Would fifteen more minutes have been so bad?" He straightened his shirt and jeans, giving Alice a quick once over to make sure she was presentable. "You know, if you're going to live here until you find a place, it's going to throw a wrench in our time alone."
"All the more reason for me to find a job soon. No more Edward pounding on the door. You know he did that on purpose, right? He waited just long enough for us to get something started, but not be able to finish."
She nodded. "Positive."
"Cock-blocking asshole," Jasper whispered.
"I'll figure out a way to get back at him. I usually do," she said with a devious gleam in her eye. He'd never seen this side of her before and it was a little scary and very sexy. "You in?"
He made a mental note to never underestimate her. God knew, life with Alice would never be boring. Pulling her close, he kissed her, long and deep.
"I love you," she said as they pulled apart. She ran a hand through her hair, knowing she couldn't do anything about her red, swollen lips, or the flush in her cheeks.
"Ready?" he asked as he put a hand on the doorknob.
She nodded and followed him out the door. It felt a little like he was going first in a military strike, providing cover for their entry into the hall. Thankfully, it was empty. Jasper gave her a peck on the cheek before he headed toward the patio doors.
Walking into the kitchen, Alice realized that the dishes were done, and her mother was doing a final wipe of the counters. Esme looked her daughter up and down, rolled her eyes and chuckled, but didn't say anything. She imagined this was awkward for her parents, watching their children become sexually active and then select spouses. It must be quite a transition, to go from diapering someone to suspecting they were up to no good just a few doors away.
Alice was too embarrassed to speak and wanted out of a kitchen that suddenly seemed very small. Tossing a dishtowel over her shoulder, she went back to the table, verifying they'd cleared all the dishes. There was nothing there, but sometimes Carlisle left a platter or two near the grill, so she went out outside to check.
Carlisle and Kathy were sitting near the grill, Edward and Bella were nowhere to be seen, and Emmett was sitting on the far side patio, scratching the ears of a very sleepy Penny. Jasper was sitting on the edge of one of the patio chairs, with his elbows on his knees, leaning forward. Neither man was speaking.
This was hard for Alice to see. At one time, Emmett and Jasper had been close friends, but now they were so far apart. A week driving cross-country had given Alice and Jasper lots of time to talk. He'd confessed that he and Emmett had barely spoken in the last year, and he wanted to mend this relationship, but she knew it wouldn't be as simple as it was with Edward. Emmett felt things deeply and never forgave easily. She also knew that his proximity to the Hale's family issues gave him a better understanding of what she and Jasper would be up against. Perhaps if the roles were reversed, she would be upset too.
"You gonna talk to me?" Jasper asked, looking down at his hands. He was clasping and relaxing them, a visual cue to how tense he was.
Alice had to give her man credit. He was taking the bull by the horns and starting something he didn't want to do. Good for him. She stood stock-still, hoping they wouldn't see her. God help her, she shouldn't be eavesdropping, but she couldn't help it.
"You're home. Alice is home. Everybody's thrilled. Not much else to say," Emmett said.
"You don't seem thrilled." Jasper looked from his hands up to Emmett's face.
"Doesn't matter what I think." Emmett kept looking down at the dog, as his hands stroked the thick fur.
"That's not true, and you know it."
"What do you want, Jasper?" Emmett said quietly. "You want a blessing of some kind? Sorry, not gonna happen. I've watched you for too long. Even with Maria married and out of the picture, I still don't believe you've changed."
"You have no idea how much I wish I could go back, but I can't change what's already done. I can only tell you that things are different. I'm different. I love your sister. Part of me has loved her since the day we met. I was just too stupid and screwed up to realize it."
"Yeah. Well, the screwed up part is what I'm talking about. You say you love her, and you probably do, but that doesn't change the fact that I don't trust you, at least not where she's concerned."
"What do you want, Em? I'm changing my entire life here because I don't want to go back to living without her. You want me to commit to her? Well, I'll marry her as soon as she agrees. I've already told her that."
Emmett didn't answer for several seconds. When he finally turned to look at Jasper, Alice could see his profile. There was no expression on his face.
"I don't know. It's not what you tell her or anyone else. Words aren't going to do it. It's going to take some time and the right actions. You're going to have to prove that you're serious."
Jasper smiled as though he finally found something he'd thought was lost.
"Fair enough. I've got time. Actually, I plan to spend the rest of my life proving to her that I'm here for the long haul. Proving it to you will just be icing on the cake."
Emmett nodded once, as though accepting an agreement.
"Did you bring her?" Jasper asked, pointing at Penny, who had drifted off.
From her perch, Alice could see the dog's limbs twitch from time-to-time and she wondered what the pooch was dreaming about.
"Yeah. I helped your mom with her while you were gone. She's good company."
As Emmett spoke, Alice's heart broke a little. She'd missed him so much. How could she not have realized how lonely her brother's life had become? Well, she was home now and they could spend more time together.
A tiny tap on her shoulder turned her around. Bella stood behind her, with one hand outstretched and the other holding a finger across her lips. Alice tiptoed backward, not wanting to break the spell for the boys. When she'd made it inside the door, Bella grabbed her hand and practically dragged her up the stairs. By the time her best friend shoved her in the bathroom, both of them were giggling like schoolgirls.
"Well?" Alice asked. She had a feeling she knew what Bella was about to spill. She'd been waiting for this news for weeks.
"We did it! I'm six weeks tomorrow! Edward and I decided to wait to tell everyone, but I couldn't hold out anymore. I told him this morning that I was telling you. He doesn't mind. He's just glad you're home."
"I'm so happy for you guys! Does that mean you haven't told Mom?"
"My guess is that she already figured it out. Edward was very passionate about there not being alcohol here today, for Mrs. Hale's sake. The second time he said it, your mother gave me a weird look. You know how fast she picks up on things."
Alice knew Bella was right. For years, she'd wondered how Esme knew everything that happened in the house. As she grew older, she'd realized that you could learn a lot just by being observant, and her mother was the queen of observation.
"Are you're feeling okay?" Alice asked, concerned for her friend.
"Other than the fact that I can't stand anything with tomatoes in it, I feel fine. Maybe a little more tired than usual, but I just sleep extra while Edward's working."
They ended up sitting cross-legged on the bathroom floor, catching up, giggling, and talking about all the things that they couldn't talk about in front of their families. Before they realized how much time had passed, Edward was knocking on the door.
Alice unlocked it and swung it open. "Haven't you done enough door-banging for today?"
"Funny," he said dryly. "Don't lock yourselves in and I won't have to pound." He turned to Bella. "You ready to go, baby? I've got to work tonight."
The girls reluctantly gave up their perch in the bathroom, and Alice watched reluctantly as the party broke up.
Emmett left first, shaking hands with the men and giving kisses to Esme and Alice. He promised to have lunch with Alice one day next week. Bella and Edward followed him out and there were more promises to get together.
Kathy said goodbye to her hosts, and took Penny to wait in the car. She'd agreed to drop Jasper and the dog off at his apartment, leaving the convertible for Alice's use. Carlisle shook Jasper's hand and Esme hugged him before they went inside, leaving Alice and Jasper alone on the porch.
She immediately stepped into his embrace. "We did it!" she exclaimed into his chest, and she started to giggle. All the awkwardness she'd feared was over, and she was thrilled to find that she still wove easily into the fabric of her family.
"I love you, sweetheart," Jasper said, before kissing her softly. "Are you still meeting me for lunch tomorrow?"
"I wouldn't miss it! I want to see where you work, and I want to see your apartment, and I can't wait to spend more time with Penny." Hand-in-hand they walked toward Mrs. Hale's car.
It was his turn to laugh. "You want a lot of things, don't you?"
"You know I do. You come first, though. You'll always be the first thing I want."
He sighed deeply, as though he had been waiting to hear those words. Giving her one last chaste, closed-mouth kiss, he got into his mother's car, waved, and they pulled out of the driveway.
Alice stood in the driveway until the car was out of sight. She pulled her bag out of the convertible and made sure it was locked up tight. When she climbed the porch steps, Esme was waiting for her, holding the door open.
As she passed the threshold, she remembered that saying about not being able to go home again. Maybe for some people that was true but not for her. She did get to go home again, but it wasn't exactly the same. In a lot of ways, it was better.
There will be one more epilogue because I just can't seem to let them go. :) It will be a bit of a wait, unfortunately. Thanks again for everyone who read and reviewed. It means so much!