Jasper managed a tiny smile, despite the tornado of thoughts buffeting his mind. Panic and shame fought for prevalence as he processed her words. She has a point. They do exhibit the behavior of addicts when it comes to my gift. How have I never seen this? Why did it take a human to point it out? A human. Listen to me. Like Bella is so inferior, simply by being mortal. Hundreds of years among us, and it took a child to point out how destructively co-dependent we've become. And I'm doing it again, calling her a child. She's an adult now, both legally and physiologically.
My own thoughts were wiped clean at the shock of Bella's words. Alice simply stared at Jasper, struggling with the realization that she had allowed—even encouraged—the abuse of her mate.
Bella remained as calm as ever. The dull look in her eye was more than exhaustion. The way she laid things out, so matter-of-fact, suggested that she'd had a significant amount of time to come to her conclusions.
Jasper, on the other hand, was on overload. I could tell that he wasn't ready to consider the long-term implications of the bomb Bella had just detonated. I could barely fathom them myself, much less factor in the family's reliance on Alice's visions and my mind-reading.
"So," Jasper continued, his even voice belying the chaos in his mind. "It's been a while, I admit, but this isn't quite how I recall senior year going the last time I endured it."
"I've made a few lifestyle changes," Bella said dryly. "Funny how a life on the lam doesn't lend itself to higher education."
"You've been busy," Jasper remarked, his expression mild. He gave no visible reaction to Bella's taunt, but his mind was racing.
"On the contrary," Bella said. She tapped her forehead. "This is what happens when you have absolutely nothing to do but sit and think."
"Because all deep thinkers eventually end up surrounded by SWAT teams?" he teased gently.
Bella's mouth twitched upwards. "This meaning my understanding of your family's penchant for manipulation and mind games."
I bit back a growl at her words. Bella seemed determined to blame the entire family for my actions. Relief and shame battled for supremacy in my thoughts.
Jasper studied Bella's expression, reading the challenge in her gaze.
"I don't see how you can pin this on us," he admonished, sweeping his hand around. I flinched at his condescending tone, but his thoughts indicated that he hoped to antagonize her into offering more information.
"Of course you don't," she sneered. "You weren't here."
She suddenly seemed taller, and, despite barely coming up to Jasper's shoulder, she peered down on him in judgment.
"How many times has Edward played this game? Make friends with the human, draw her into your little circle, dazzle her with your impression of the Bloodsucking Brady Bunch. Blind her with the brightness of your existence."
Bella began to circle Jasper in almost predatory fashion. Seeing her frail form stalk him was surreal. She leaned into him, then, her face mere inches from his.
"Then," she whispered, "you yank the floor out from underneath, and she falls."
Jasper stared back, his face impassive. I was beginning to see how right he had been to keep me out of their conversation. My emotional outbursts held no sway in the face of his expressionless strategy.
"You know why we left," he said tonelessly. He was eager to gauge her response.
Her lip curled in disgust. "I know exactly why he left, and I'm pretty sure I know why the rest of you trailed after him like ducklings. But that doesn't answer my question. How many?"
Jasper glanced at me, too quickly for her human eyes to catch. He calculated the best way to answer her to get what he wanted, and I growled lowly.
"This is not the time for your war games," I hissed below her hearing. "Tell her the truth."
"I've never seen Edward show interest in another woman before, vampire or human," Jasper told her. I sighed in relief.
Bella watched him for a moment, then smirked.
"Again, not related to my question. He doesn't have to show any real interest in order to play with some poor girl's head. The fake relationship is just liar's icing on the cake of pathology."
I sucked in a breath, feeling like I'd been punched. Did she really think that little of me? Alice caught my eye and shook her head minutely.
Really not the time, Edward, she said silently. And honestly, can you blame her? After what you said?
I guess not.
"Bella, what I really need right now is for you to calm down, and to explain exactly what's going on," Jasper told her firmly. The soldier in him simmered right beneath the surface.
Bella's face went blank for a moment, then she smirked again. A tiny burble of laughter escaped from her, and she doubled over into a coughing fit. Jasper was incredulous.
"Sorry, sorry," she waved her hand around as she smothered a chuckle. "I didn't really hear anything past need."
"I said—" Jasper began.
"That wasn't an invitation to repeat yourself," she cut in. "I was just trying to avoid laughing hysterically at the idea that I should give a damn what any of you want or need." Her arms pinwheeled around her. "Does it look like a good time for me to be fulfilling wish lists? Am I wearing a red suit and sitting on a throne?"
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Alice's lip twitch. I tried to avoid everyone's thoughts when they were sharing intimate moments, but some oversharing was inevitable in a family with supernatural senses. Alice greatly enjoyed Major Whitlock coming out to play, but it seemed she also appreciated the fact that Bella wasn't the least bit intimidated by him.
That last thought gave me pause. The old Bella was petrified that my family wouldn't like her, accept her. She worried constantly about how she was perceived by others. This Bella was flailing around, making a mockery of everything he said. What in the hell had gotten into her?