11. Echoes of Another Life
"So, Jasper. How come you're blocking me?"
Jasper shot a smirk over his shoulder at Edward. "None of your business."
The Cullens and their visitors from Denali were strolling back through the woods at a leisurely pace, sated from their hunt. Even Bella had snagged a bitter tasting rabbit, though the burn in her throat hadn't been bothering her very much.
What was really bothering her was the fact that Tanya was riding on Edward's back, her legs wrapped around his waist as he walked along a few yards to Bella's right.
"You've been doing it since Eleazar and the girls got here," Edward said, refusing to drop the subject. "So what is it? Did you develop a crush on Irina that you don't want me to know about?"
"Boy, shut your yap before you get yourself into trouble."
"You think you can take me, tough guy?"
"You want me to prove it to you? Again?"
Tanya kissed Edward's cheek and hopped down off of his back. "I'm getting out of the line of fire." She started to move away, but Edward snagged her hand and pulled her back to him.
"Don't worry about Jasper. He's all talk. He's never won a fight in his life."
Jasper just snorted and turned away, letting the absurdity of Edward's statement stand on its own.
Bella ground her teeth and forced her gaze away from Edward and Tanya, glancing around at the rest of the group. Jasper took the lead, looking as relaxed as Bella had ever seen him, with little Alice tucked under his arm. Rosalie and Emmett were somewhere off to her left, chasing each other through the trees and stealing playful kisses. Eleazar and Carmen made a much more somber picture at the right of the crowd, arms wrapped around one another and heads bent together in solemn conversation. Carlisle and Esme were a few paces behind Bella, watching Edward and Tanya with perplexed frowns on their faces. Even Kate and Irina were paired together, strolling arm-in-arm beside Edward and Tanya.
Only Bella walked alone, and it made her feel conspicuous and vulnerable.
"So, Bella," Tanya said conversationally. "In all this excitement we've hardly had a chance to get to know you. Tell us about yourself."
Bella cringed as nearly everyone turned to look at her, and she wrapped her arms protectively around her body. She shrugged, hoping something would distract Tanya from her question, but the others simply looked at her, waiting politely.
"There's nothing to tell," she finally mumbled.
"Everyone's got a story. How were you changed?"
She thought again of the night she had nearly died, about the baby crawling out of her, smeared in blood, about the bite and the subsequent burning, and she shuddered.
"She doesn't like to talk about it," Edward said quietly.
"Oh. I'm sorry." Tanya gave Bella a sympathetic look that seemed sincere. "What about before that? Where are you from?"
Bella chafed under the weight of the expectant stares, but she couldn't see how to avoid Tanya's questions without being rude, so she gave a reluctant answer. "Arizona."
Tanya let out a longing groan. "So warm! Did you love it there?"
Bella peeked at her out of the corner of her eye, surprised by her reaction. "Yeah. I did."
"I can believe it. I think I've lived too long in Alaska. The desert seems like heaven to me."
This was a safe enough topic to pursue, Bella decided, and she realized that if she wanted to keep the conversation away from less palatable subjects, she should probably keep it going. "I . . . I miss the smell of the creosote."
Tanya laughed. "It's funny, isn't it? The things we associate with home?"
She nodded, allowing a smile.
"You must miss your friends, too."
Bella focused on the ground in front of her again. She didn't miss her friends, really. She'd had a handful of people she spent time with regularly in Phoenix, but she had never managed to form strong bonds with them. "I miss my mom," she admitted.
"I bet you do. How old are you?"
Tanya shook her head. "That's awfully young to lose your human life. Was it accidental, or did your sire mean to turn you?"
So much for trying to guide the conversation to safe ground. Bella looked away, and her eyes fell on Rosalie, who was nuzzling Emmett's neck. Rosalie suddenly stiffened and shot a confused glance at Jasper, who caught her eye and then dropped a pointed look down at Alice. His gaze met Rosalie's again, and she nodded.
Bella watched the exchange curiously, barely noticing that Tanya was apologizing to her for bringing up her change again. She watched Rosalie clench her fists, and heard several quiet cracking sounds. For a moment she couldn't figure out what had made the noise, but then Rosalie was collecting bits of broken acrylic nails in one hand and shoving them in the pocket of her designer jeans.
"It's fine," Bella mumbled to Tanya, vaguely aware that she was expected to acknowledge the apology. But her eyes shifted between Rosalie and Jasper, wondering what in the world was going on.
For a few seconds nothing happened. Then Rosalie held a hand out in front of her and inspected her ruined nails. She heaved a sigh and shook her head. "One of these days I'm going to learn to hunt without destroying my acrylics. Alice, you'll fix them for me, won't you?"
"Hm?" Alice pulled away from Jasper a little in order to look at Rosalie, but her gaze was distracted and unfocused.
Rosalie fluttered her fingers. "My nails. I ruined them. Will you fix them?"
Alice brightened, and Rosalie suddenly had all of her attention. "Of course I will!"
"Oh, mine too, please," Esme said. "I feel like a change."
"How about you, Bella?" Rosalie asked. "Want Alice to give you a manicure?"
Bella glanced at her hands, eyeing her chewed, ragged nails. She had bitten them down during her time with Joham, and they hadn't grown any since.
"We all wear acrylics," Alice said, following Bella's gaze. "There aren't many vampires who come out of the change without damaged fingernails."
Bella glanced at Edward, who gave her an encouraging nod, and she turned back to Alice. "Um . . . if you don't mind."
"I don't mind at all! I'd love to do it!"
"What about you ladies?" Esme asked, directing her question to Tanya and her sisters. "Will you join us?"
Tanya inclined her head toward Eleazar and Carmen, still engaged in their whispered conversation. "I think we'd better head home."
Esme nodded her understanding.
"Actually," Eleazar said, just loudly enough to be heard, "Carmen and I have decided that we're still going to Italy. Carlisle, can I take you up on your offer to charter a plane?"
"Of course. But Eleazar . . ."
"There's information to be found that Alice can't see," he said, his voice calm and assured. "I can follow scents, ask questions, track down some answers."
"It could be dangerous. There will likely be others there, verifying the truth for themselves."
"I know. But I have to know who's still alive."
Carlisle smiled sadly. "I understand."
Twenty minutes later, they had reached the house and made the arrangements for the chartered flight. Tanya and her sisters would be dropping Carmen and Eleazar off at the airport in Seattle on their way northwest toward home.
"You'll join us if things get too dicey here?" Tanya asked, embracing Carlisle warmly.
"We will. And we'll let you know if we hear anything more." He turned his attention to Eleazar and slipped him a small silver cell phone. "Will you keep us informed?"
"Of course." He accepted the cell phone and tucked it away, and then everyone was hugging, saying their goodbyes and promising to see one another soon.
Bella stood off to the side and watched, feeling awkward. She was just about to disappear upstairs when Tanya pulled away from Edward with a kiss to his cheek and turned to her.
"It was really nice to meet you, Bella. I'm looking forward to getting to know you better."
Bella nodded and mumbled an appropriate response, but Tanya didn't seem finished. She took a step toward her, looking tentative.
"I hope you know how lucky you are," she said, and Bella thought she saw an odd sadness in her eyes. "The Cullens are the kindest, most loving coven I've met in a thousand years. You're very fortunate to have them helping you through your newborn year."
Bella had her doubts but she kept them to herself, and Tanya gave her a resigned smile.
"I know it's hard now, but I hope that eventually you can appreciate what you have."
Thankfully, she didn't wait for an answer. She turned back to the rest of the group, linking her arm through Edward's as she finished her goodbyes. The Cullens all walked their friends back outside to their car, and Bella hovered at the window and watched as they drove away.
She had to wonder if what Tanya said was true. Maybe the Cullens weren't as bad as Bella thought they were. Edward, at least, seemed okay, and Carlisle wasn't too bad. Even Emmett, for all his intimidating size, hadn't done anything threatening—and Bella had attacked him not an hour after meeting him. But he seemed more rankled by his brothers' taunting than by anything Bella had done.
Jasper, though . . .
She had learned from Joham that kindness could be faked, but the scars on Jasper's face were real. He was dangerous. More dangerous than Joham, even, and his opinion clearly held a lot of sway in this strange coven. Bella didn't want to think about the things a man like Jasper must be capable of.
But she was starting to figure him out. Since Alice had arrived home, Jasper had been attentive only to her, catering to her whims and never leaving her side for more than a couple of minutes. During their hunt he had even surrendered his first kill to her. The act had perplexed Bella, who had felt immensely possessive over her little rabbit and wouldn't have dreamed of giving it up without a fight.
Alice was the key. If Bella wanted to get into Jasper's good graces, she would have to befriend Alice.
Which meant she was going to have to readjust her thinking. With Joham and Serena, the way to stay alive was to avoid attracting their attention as much as possible. Silence was safety. Here, it looked like she would have earn her safety through action.
That was harder for her. She had always been shy and withdrawn, which often frustrated her gregarious mother. Bella tried to remember the tips Renée had given her that were supposed to help her make friends. They all seemed to revolve around asking questions and listening, and that was something she could probably handle. If she could think of any questions.
So when Alice headed toward the dining room carrying a cardboard box full of supplies, she forced a smile and joined her and the other girls at the table.
"Newborns first," Alice announced as she settled in a chair next to Bella. "Do you want french tips or polish?"
"Um . . . I don't know, what do you think?"
Alice hummed thoughtfully, tapping her chin. "What about this one?" She fished in the box and pulled out a little bottle of coral pink polish. "It would look really good with your skin tone."
"My skin tone?" she teased before her nerves could get the better of her. "Pasty white?"
Alice giggled. "It matches the color of your lips. It'll look great."
Bella was encouraged. She had scored a laugh. "It's really pretty."
"Hands," Alice said with a self-satisfied smile.
Bella held out her hands and watched as Alice pulled out an alcohol pad and scrubbed her nail beds clean. "So . . . you guys went to Paris?"
"We did! Have you ever been?"
Bella shook her head, seizing her opportunity. "What's it like?"
That was all it took. Alice spent the next half hour telling her all about their trip, with frequent interjections from Rosalie and Esme. Before Bella knew it, Alice was sliding over a long, plastic box with blue glowing light shining from an opening at the front.
"Stick your hands in here. The acrylic needs to set up." She turned to Rosalie, who was dangling her fingertips in a foul-smelling liquid. "Are you next?"
"Do Esme," Rosalie answered. "I'm not done removing the old ones."
Esme took a seat on Alice's free side and held out her hands. "Polish," she told Alice before the little manicurist could ask.
"Ooh, Mama's feeling bold," Rosalie said with a grin.
Esme smiled, her eyes sparkling. "I want it to match that dress we picked up in Guerrisol."
Rosalie and Alice both giggled knowingly, and Alice gave Bella a conspiratorial wink. "You'll see it soon. It's amazing."
"The good doctor won't know what hit him," Rosalie smirked.
Bella glanced toward the living room, where Carlisle and Edward were sitting together on the couch, their eyes locked together in an intense gaze.
"I'm not," Edward muttered. There was a short pause, and then he repeated, "I'm not."
Carlisle's frown deepened.
"I know what I'm doing," Edward said, apparently in response to an unspoken thought. He paused again, and then threw up his hands in frustration. "I'm the only one making any progress here! Don't you think you should trust my judgment?"
Carlisle was instantly contrite. "Of course I trust your judgment. But I'm afraid you don't realize . . ."
But what Edward didn't realize, Bella didn't get to hear. Carlisle's voice trailed off into silence as he allowed his thoughts to speak for him again.
Edward blew out a heavy breath. "I know." He closed his eyes, presumably still listening to Carlisle, and then nodded. "I get it."
Bella turned back to the girls, but her mind lingered on the conversation in the living room. It made her nervous to know that they were having a discussion from which she was deliberately excluded. Was it about her? What kind of progress was Edward talking about? She tried to tell herself that she wasn't the only one being excluded, that it could just as well be about one of the other people in the house, but in her gut she knew better.
"What about you, Bella?"
Hearing her name startled her back to attention, and she glanced toward the living room once more before giving Alice a sheepish smile. "Sorry, I wasn't listening."
Rosalie smirked. "I sincerely hope it was Edward you were daydreaming about, because as pretty as the other one is, he's spoken for."
Bella's desire to deflect attention from herself warred with her desire for information, but her curiosity won out. "And . . . Edward's not?" she asked, quietly enough that she hoped he wouldn't hear.
"I thought he wasn't, but the way he and Tanya were hanging all over each other . . ."
"Right?" Alice agreed eagerly. "That was so weird. He's never shown any interest in her before."
"Maybe he's just growing into himself," Esme put in, but her worried frown belied her optimistic words.
"You girls know I can hear you gossiping about me, right?"
The ladies tittered with laughter as Edward abandoned his conversation with Carlisle and moved into the dining room. He perched on the edge of the table next to Bella and smiled down at her.
Bella wanted to crawl into a hole and die. She hunched her shoulders, but she couldn't wrap her arms around herself for fear of ruining her unfinished fingernails.
"So put the gossip to rest," Rosalie said. "What is the deal with you and Tanya?"
Bella peeked up at Edward and saw him shrug.
"I love Tanya, I always have. You know that."
"Yeah, you love her, but do you love her?"
"Are you getting your freak on with the Lady of the Lodge?" Alice asked.
Edward laughed. "There has been no getting on of the freak."
"So what is happening?" Rosalie pressed. "And when did it happen? Did she come down while we were in Paris? Alice, did you forget to tell us something?"
"Please. I would never withhold that kind of information."
Edward grinned. "I, on the other hand, would. Bella, are you finished doing your thing with these gossipy old biddies?"
"As a matter of fact, she's not," Alice answered for her. "We haven't even put the polish on yet."
"Plus, we're not done talking about you behind your back," Rosalie said. "You might as well march yourself on out of here and let us get to it."
Edward chuckled as he stood. "Don't believe a word they say, Bella. They're vicious liars."
Bella smiled at him as the other girls erupted into giggles. They shooed him away before refocusing on their cosmetic endeavors.
"He's in such a good mood," Esme murmured, her voice tinged with wonder.
"Yeah, I wonder why that could be?"
Bella glanced up at Rosalie and caught her curious stare.
"I saw that smile he gave you," Rosalie said. "Forget Tanya, what's going on with you and Edward?"
She shrugged self-consciously. "He's been really nice."
"Sure, he's always nice. In a gloomy, depressive sort of way."
"Oh, don't be so condescending," Alice chided. "Like you wouldn't be moody if you hadn't had Emmett with you for the last seventy years."
Bella shook her head in wonder. "It's hard to imagine you being old enough to have had a golden anniversary."
"There are perks to this life," Rosalie smiled. "You get to grow old together, but you don't have to worry about saggy boobs."
Despite her playful words, though, Bella detected a hint of sadness in Rosalie's tone. She furrowed her brow in curiosity, and Rosalie sighed.
"We lose something too, though, I guess."
"You think?" Esme asked, encouraging her to continue.
"Yeah. Like . . . maybe that's how you know someone really loves you. When you're not beautiful anymore, but he still stays with you."
Alice arched an eyebrow. "I think it's pretty obvious that Emmett really loves you, Rose. Anyone else would have left your bitchy ass by now."
"Alice!" Esme admonished, but the three of them were laughing again and Bella smiled to herself. They way they interacted reminded her of her own relationship with Renée, and that thought went a long way toward making her feel more relaxed. She sat back and listened to their chatter, occasionally inserting a comment or a question, just to keep herself relevant. The point of this, after all, was to endear herself to Alice, and she couldn't do that if she let herself be forgotten.
But the more she talked with Alice and the others, the less difficult her ploy seemed. She found all three women, and Alice in particular, genuinely likable. And filtered through their perspective, she found herself seeing their husbands in a new light. From her place at the table, the men of the house suddenly looked warmer, kinder, a little less threatening and a little more . . .
They looked like men. Men who had families and contributed to their communities. Men like Charlie and Phil.
And all this time she had assumed they were vampires.
Bella glanced back toward the living room and jolted in surprise when her eyes met Jasper's. One corner of his mouth turned up in a smile, but she looked away from him quickly. Jasper was a different story. The others might not be so bad, but Jasper wore evidence of his savage nature all over his face. Bella couldn't understand how someone as sweet and fun as Alice could possibly want to have anything to do with him. She wondered for a moment if the tiny woman might be here against her will, but dismissed the idea quickly. It was clear that Alice adored Jasper, unfathomable as her reasons might be.
When they finished with their nails, the girls all wandered back into the living room to join the rest of the family. Bella looked away quickly when Esme settled on Carlisle's lap and started nuzzling his ear, but the room was suddenly full of amorous couples. Jasper was sliding his hands provocatively down Alice's body, and Emmett was wrapped around Rosalie, walking her slowly back toward the stairs.
"You want to get out of here?"
Bella jumped at the soft voice behind her left shoulder. She hadn't heard Edward come up behind her, but she nodded quickly, more than eager to escape the house.
"Grab some books or something," Edward said. "They could be at it a while."
Bella darted around Emmett and Rosalie and raced up to her room, scooping up a handful of books. She started toward the stairs again, but then thought better of it and pushed open the window in the bedroom, hopping out so she wouldn't have any awkward encounters on the stairs.
Edward met her outside with a satchel and let her drop her books inside. He slung it over his shoulder and the two of them started jogging away from the house, putting a comfortable distance between themselves and the romantic activities behind them.
They ran for several miles, and for a while Bella didn't think they had any particular destination in mind. After a few minutes, though, she realized that they were keeping to a path that was heavy with Edward's scent. She looked around curiously, wondering if there was a reason he frequented this part of the forest.
"There's a clearing up ahead," Edward told her, guessing the direction of her thoughts. "It's beautiful. I come here pretty frequently, when the others are . . ." He trailed off and gestured back in the direction of the house.
"They do that a lot?"
"Almost every night."
Bella shuddered, and Edward laughed.
"There's nothing wrong with it. They love each other." He shrugged, his smile turning to a grimace. "It's just a frequent reminder that they all have someone, and I . . . don't."
"What about Tanya?"
Edward slowed to a walk and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah. About that."
Bella braced herself for bad news. She had a feeling she wasn't going to like what he had to say.
"That wasn't what it looked like. And . . . maybe I made it look like that on purpose?" He scratched the back of his head, looking guilty. "I didn't mean for it to be a big deal, but now Carlisle's pissed at me for being dishonest with you."
She was right. She didn't like it. She stopped short, watching Edward closely as he halted and turned back to her.
"You lied to me?"
"I was trying to make you feel more comfortable."
"No. I mean . . . I didn't lie exactly. But Tanya and me? It wasn't what it looked like."
Bella let out a breath, feeling a loosening in her chest. "It wasn't?"
"No. I love Tanya; she's a good friend. But she's just my friend." He turned and started walking again, and Bella followed after. "She flirts shamelessly, and usually I just ignore it, but today I kind of . . . encouraged it, I guess."
"Why would that make me more comfortable?"
Edward slowed to let her catch up, shrugging sheepishly. "I don't know. You relaxed a little when the girls got home. It seemed like you were a little less nervous around the guys—around Carlisle and Emmett, anyway. I didn't want you to be any less comfortable with me, just because I'm not married."
Bella wasn't quite sure how she felt about that. She thought back to how it had rankled her to see Edward being so affectionate with Tanya, and she wondered now if it was because she could tell his actions had been dishonest. It was no wonder she had been anxious to keep him in her sight.
"Are you very angry with me?" Edward asked, his voice apologetic.
She wasn't sure. It made her uncomfortable that he had lied to her. It made her wonder what else he hadn't been honest about.
But then, he was telling her the truth now. And it was somewhat comforting that Carlisle was upset about his dishonesty. Maybe that meant they had been straight with her so far. They certainly seemed genuine. They drank animal blood, and they had worked hard to prevent her from hurting anyone. And Carlisle had argued her case for seeing Charlie, despite Jasper's insistence that she shouldn't, and despite the conflict that it created with the Quileutes. If she looked at things objectively, she had to admit that the Cullens had been pretty good to her.
Even Edward's lie hadn't been motivated by malice.
She drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"I'm not angry, but I don't like that. Don't lie to me to try and make me feel better."
"I won't do it again," he promised. "I really am sorry."
Bella just nodded, not quite able to meet his eye.
They reached the clearing and Edward strode out to the center of it, sprawling out on his stomach in the long grass. Bella sank down beside him a few feet away, admiring the cool colors of the wildflowers, dimmed and purpled in the moonlight.
"It's pretty here," she murmured.
"It's quiet. Nobody around for miles. I come here to get everyone else out of my head."
Bella pulled her knees up to her chest, suddenly self-conscious. "I'm sorry if I'm intruding."
Edward laughed and shook his head. "You have no idea how nice it is to have a conversation with you. To not have to hear the mess of half-formed thoughts in your head, to not know what you're going to say before you say it. It's . . . weirdly fascinating."
"Fascinating?" she asked, feeling the tension leave her shoulders. "To be like a normal person?"
"It's been a long time since I've felt normal." He pulled his iPod out of his bag and tucked the ear buds into his ears. "It's a nice change."
Bella had to admit that she could identify with him a little bit. Here in the meadow there was no blood calling to her, making her throat burn with thirst. She didn't have to be a vampire here. She could just be Bella, and Edward could just be Edward. She could read her books and he could listen to his music, and they could put everything else away for a little while.
"You want to listen?" Edward asked, holding one of the ear buds out to her.
She smiled and nodded, scooting down beside him and accepting the little speaker. Her fingers tingled as they brushed against his, and her smile deepened. She selected a book from the bag and Edward withdrew his own, and the two of them settled in for a long, peaceful evening.
It was a little after midnight when they left the clearing and headed for home. Bella was pretty sure that Edward would have liked to spend more time there, but she had been restless and peevish, so Edward had packed their things up and set off through the trees.
It wasn't that she wanted to leave. Bella liked the clearing, and had enjoyed the peace they'd found there. She had been looking forward to a night of reading, but once she had the books open in front of her, she found they weren't the haven that she had imagined they would be.
She had chosen the wrong books.
The first one she tried to read was Clockwork Orange, a book she had been intending to read for a long time and had never gotten around to. But she had barely started it when she came across the protagonist's name. Alex.
She had tossed the book aside and gone on to the next one. Wuthering Heights was an old favorite, and she was confident that she would enjoy it. But at the first mention of the strange, unwanted boy, she found herself unable to continue. She had started instead on a children's book called A Higher Power of Lucky, but when she learned that the protagonist was afraid of being abandoned by her mother, she slammed it shut and shoved it away.
"Are you okay?"
Edward's concern had been kind and genuine, but Bella didn't want it. She didn't deserve it. She had shaken him off sullenly and tried to focus on the music, but it was a lost cause. Her mood was ruined.
They had lingered a few more hours, but Edward had finally given up on Bella being mollified by the peace of their surroundings.
He was quiet on the run back, but as they approached the house he slowed, a smile spreading across his face.
"Come here," he said quietly, altering his course and beckoning for her to follow.
She did, curious as to what he was after. He made a wide circuit to the north, crossing the river beyond the large outbuilding the Cullens used as a garage, and then scaled a tall, bushy pine tree. He beckoned her up after him, and she followed him onto a high limb, hiding among the tree's needles.
"Watch this," Edward said. "You'll get a kick out of it."
Bella looked around, but she didn't see anything. Edward just crouched on the branch, though, waiting patiently, so Bella waited too.
It was only a few seconds later when she heard Alice speak from the house, her voice bright and laughing.
"Jasper, sweetie, you should come downstairs. You're going to have visitors in a couple of minutes.
There was a brief pause before Jasper's surprised answer. "Really?"
"You'd better hurry," Alice giggled.
Bella heard the slam of a drawer and rustling of fabric, and then a few seconds later she saw Jasper appear at the front of the house, making his way northward through the forest. She was surprised how quiet his movements were, his stockinged feet finding soft spots in the bracken, his gloved hands gripping low branches as he swung himself over piles of dead pine needles. He spotted Edward and Bella in their tree and smiled widely, holding a finger to his lips.
Edward nodded to him, laughing silently.
Jasper's smile turned predatory as he swung himself up into a tree, obscuring himself in the greenery. He stared forward, eager and anticipatory, and Bella followed his gaze.
At first she didn't see what he was looking at. But soon her ears detected a soft rustling in the undergrowth, and her eyes picked out movement in the trees. Several hundred yards away, two people—no, not people, vampires—were jogging toward them, moving almost as quietly as Jasper had. Their bare feet avoided the dry needles in favor of grass and ferns, seemingly without any effort on their part.
Bella tensed as she took in their appearances. They both had short-cropped hair, so light it looked silvery in the moonlight that filtered through the trees, and their eyes gleamed deep burgundy. The man was tall, right around Jasper's height, with the same lean, corded muscles and prowling run. The girl was tiny, her willowy frame almost boyish under her tight-fitting tunic and leggings.
And they were both scarred—not nearly as badly as Jasper, but in a similar way. Crescent-shaped bite marks glittered iridescently in the low light, peppering their necks and arms, lending an aura of menace to their lithe frames.
Bella curled into a defensive crouch, ready to run if they spotted her. She saw Jasper slip off his socks and gloves and lay them over the tee limb beside him before falling into a crouch himself. His lean muscles bunched in anticipation and his teeth gleamed wickedly behind his smile. He watched the two visitors approach until they were only a few yards in front of him, and then let out an ear-splitting war cry and launched himself off of the branch.
His body slammed into the tall man, throwing him backwards, and the ensuing brawl shocked Bella so badly that she lost her footing and slipped from the branch. She caught herself and hauled herself back up, never taking her eyes from the snarling, snapping, hissing blur before her.
Bella expected the girl to join in, to try and defend her companion, but she just crossed her arms and huffed impatiently, jumping back whenever the men's wrestling match brought them too near.
At one point the stranger threw Jasper off of him, but Jasper tackled him again as he tried to dart away, dragging him back and starting the battle again. For several long minutes the fight continued, until finally Jasper managed to pin the visitor to the ground, face down, one knee grinding into the newcomer's back.
Bella's fingers dug into the bark of the tree as she worried over what would happen next. But the snarls subsided, and suddenly the stranger started laughing.
"Jasper, you son of a bitch," he said in a thick Southern accent. "Get the hell offa me."
Bella gasped when Jasper complied, joining in with his own laughter as he climbed to his feet and offered his hand to the stranger.
"Peter!" he cried in response, pulling the man into an enthusiastic hug. "It's been too long!"
The girl sniffed contemptuously. "Not long enough, if you ask me."
Jasper released Peter and turned to her. "Hey now, Charlotte. You're not still sore at me, are you?"
"Yeah." She arched an eyebrow and appraised him coolly.
"Are you kidding me? That was decades ago."
"You tried to kill me!"
"No, I intended to kill you." Jasper flashed her a grin. "If I had tried to kill you, you'd be dead."
She rolled her eyes, but allowed a small smile and stepped into his embrace. "You're a bastard, Jasper Whitlock."
"And you're a pain in the ass, but I put up with you for Peter's sake."
He pulled back and chucked her under her chin, then threw an arm over Peter's shoulders. "So what brings you two? Just passing through?"
"Came looking for you, actually," Peter replied. "I wondered if you'd heard the rumors."
"About the Volturi?"
Peter frowned. "No, about Maria. What about the Volturi?"
"What about Maria?"
"She's raising another army," Charlotte said. "She's been hard to pin down, but we're pretty sure she has at least fifteen."
Jasper cursed under his breath.
"Come on," Edward said to Bella. He slid off of the tree limb and dropped lightly to the ground. Bella followed him, trailing behind as he strode up to Jasper and his friends.
"Edward," Peter greeted with a nod, but then did a double-take when he saw Bella. He turned back to Jasper, one eyebrow raised. "You have a newborn?"
"Found her wandering around the outskirts of town a couple days ago."
Peter and Charlotte exchanged glances. "Who's her sire?"
"She hasn't said. Kid's skittish as hell."
Peter turned to Bella, his scarred face hard and expectant. "Well?"
Bella sidled closer to Edward, half hiding from Peter's piercing gaze behind his shoulder. His hand found hers, his fingers lacing with her own as his thumb rubbed soothing strokes over her palm.
"What does it matter?" Jasper asked. "She's alone now. Believe me, I've been keeping an eye out."
"Maria's raising an army, and a newborn just happens to show up in your territory?"
"Where did she come from?" Charlotte asked. "Or won't she tell you that, either?"
Jasper's lips pressed into a hard line, his eyes finding Bella again. "Mexico."
Charlotte let out a hiss and Peter growled low in his throat.
"You think Maria sent a spy?" Jasper asked. "Why?"
"Because she's afraid of you," Peter said. "She knows perfectly well that if you raised an army against hers, you would win."
"Sure, but why would she think that might happen? I've never opposed her before."
"I'm still trying to work that out."
Jasper turned to Bella, his eyebrows raised. "Well, kid? How about it? Did Maria send you here?"
She shook her head, sliding farther behind Edward. "I don't know any Maria."
"Is she telling the truth?" Peter asked Jasper.
"Hard to say. Like I said, skittish as hell."
Peter snorted in disgust. "You want a nickel's worth of free advice? Kill her."
A fierce snarl ripped from Edward's throat, and he stepped fully in front of Bella, taking a defensive stance. But Jasper just chuckled, ignoring him completely.
"It's too late for that. She's Carlisle's pet project now. She's looking to explore unconventional dietary options."
"How convenient," Charlotte muttered, crossing her arms over her chest. "She shows up spouting the one line that's guaranteed to get her in good with your coven leader."
"Yeah, well, that part's genuine at least. The kid really doesn't like killing humans."
Bella heard the front door of the house close, and a few seconds later Carlisle and Esme appeared, their arms linked together. Carlisle smiled warmly at their visitors, stopping several yards away.
"Peter, Charlotte. It's a pleasure to see you again."
"You too," Peter said with a nod.
"Listen," Carlisle said, a sparkle appearing in his eyes. "I'd take it as a personal favor if you'd refrain from recommending violence against my guests."
"No offense," Peter grinned back. "Just looking out for your welfare."
Carlisle gestured toward the house. "Won't you come inside? It looks like Jasper owes you a change of clothes."
He glanced down at his outfit, torn and dirtied from his brawl with Jasper. "If I know Alice, she's already got something picked out for me."
"It's Versace!" Alice called from inside the house.
Peter laughed and they all followed Carlisle back inside. Peter and Charlotte changed into the fresh clothes Alice offered, and then they all gathered in the living room. The Cullens found seats around the room, but Peter and Charlotte remained standing, placing themselves a few yards from the front door.
Bella stood, too, hovering behind Edward's chair.
"I don't know how you do it," Charlotte muttered to Jasper, fidgeting anxiously. "It doesn't make you feel claustrophobic to be cooped up in here all the time?"
"You get used to it. Cars still bug me, though, especially when I'm not driving."
Peter smiled fondly at her. "My girl hasn't much cared for enclosed spaces since we got shut of those old barns Maria used to hole us up in."
"We appreciate you bringing us news of what she's up to," Carlisle said.
"Frankly, I'm less worried about the army she raised than I am about why she raised it. Something must have scared her pretty bad if she's risking another run-in with the Volturi."
"Yeah, speaking of the Voturi . . ." Jasper said.
"What? What are they doing?"
"Nothing. They're gone."
Peter frowned. "What do you mean, gone?"
"I mean, dead. At least some of them. We're not sure which, yet."
Peter stiffened, looking stricken. "Dead," he whispered. "No."
"I know, it's bad."
"That must be why she's mobilizing again. No Volturi, no one to stop her."
"Yeah," Jasper mumbled, a frown furrowing his brow. "Except . . ."
"Something's not adding up. Maria has at least fifteen, you say?"
"You don't raise an army of fifteen overnight. It takes time, especially since I'm not there to keep them from killing each other."
"You think she has another like you?"
Jasper shook his head. "Are you sure your numbers are right?"
"No, but if anything they're low. Char and I found an abandoned warehouse that looked like one of our old nests. Vampire ash and all."
"We counted thirty-one different scents," Charlotte put in.
"Yeah," Peter agreed, "but like I said, there was a fair pile ash. They didn't all make it out alive."
Bella shuddered. The cavalier way they talked about death—and the death of newborns, in particular—made the skin on the back of her neck prickle.
Jasper was rubbing his jaw thoughtfully. "Thirty-one. That would take weeks. Months, even. Carlisle, how old do you suppose Alistair's information is?"
"I can't imagine it's very old. The destruction of the most powerful coven in the world isn't something that will remain a secret for long."
"No, we'd have heard about it pretty soon," Peter agreed. "The nomad grapevine is surprisingly efficient."
"So there's a good chance Maria started raising this army when the Volturi was still intact."
Silence fell over them for a few moments, before Peter asked, "What are you thinking, Jasper?"
He leaned back on the couch, letting his head fall back as he stared off into space. "I'm thinking about that army we fought outside of Monterrey—this was before your time, Charlotte. You remember the one? The leader preferred quality over quantity. There were only a handful of them, but they were big."
"I remember," Peter said. "You had Maria turn that girl for it. Little thing. Couldn't have been more than fourteen years old."
"I needed somebody fresh. Small, unscarred, as nonthreatening as possible."
"Why?" Carlisle asked.
"Bait. I sent her in posing as a spy, but she let them catch sight of her and then ran. She looked like such an easy kill that they sent a couple of their soldiers out after her. Of course she led them right into an ambush."
"It worked twice," Peter said. "And that diminished their numbers enough to make the real battle an easy win."
"I see," Carlisle whispered, his voice full of new understanding.
Peter frowned. "What?"
"The Volturi fell because of a newborn," Jasper told him. "There was one hunting in Volterra. Should have been a ten second job, but Chelsea went out after it and never came back."
Charlotte let out a low whistle.
"Wait," Peter said. "You're saying you think Maria might have borrowed your strategy to take down the Volturi?"
"Take them down, or at least diminish their numbers. If that's the case, she got damn lucky that she snared Chelsea."
"But you think it was Maria?"
"I think it's a fair possibility. Did you come across any other armies she might have been guarding against?"
He shook his head.
"Any evidence that she had used her army to secure land or attack an established coven?"
"And you never actually saw Maria's army?"
"No. We tracked them for a ways, but we lost the scent on a wharf just south of Corpus Christi."
"Mm-hm. Peter, if you wanted to transport an army of newborns to Italy, how would you travel?"
"Not by air." His gaze locked with Jasper's and for several long moments they just stared at each other. "Aw, hell," he finally muttered. "Can you imagine the kind of notoriety she could get for raising the army that took down the Volturi?"
Jasper smirked. "Hear that, Carlisle? You may have some competition for Aro's old job."
"Bidding for succession?" Peter asked Carlisle with raised eyebrows.
"No. And if you'd spread the word that we're not interested in the position, I'd be much obliged."
Peter chuckled. "I'll pass that along."
Charlotte was casting impatient glances at the front door, and Peter wrapped an arm around her, hugging her close. "All right, little lamb. We're leaving."
"Can't stay for a while?" Jasper asked, rising.
He shook his head. "This ain't a social call. We're fixing to head south again to see if we can come up with any more information. I just thought you ought to know what was going on."
"Are you sure you want to go back? Maybe you should just steer clear of her until we see how things shake out."
Peter shook his head. "I'm not giving her the advantage of surprise. If she's going to be a threat, I want to know about it."
"Fine, but hold on a minute." Jasper headed into the kitchen and returned a moment later with a silver cell phone that looked just like the one Carlisle had given to Eleazar. He pressed it into Peter's hand, along with a charger. "Hang onto this, and charge it whenever you can. We'll keep each other in the loop."
Peter scrunched up his nose in distaste, but tucked the phone in his pocket. "It's like wearing a leash," he muttered.
"Yeah, I know. But information is going to be valuable for the next little while. It'll be worth the inconvenience. Also." Jasper ducked back into an office behind the stairs and pulled a map out of a drawer in the desk. He returned to where Peter stood and unfolded the map on the back of the couch. "You should be aware of our neighbors. This area right here . . ." he pointed out the borders of La Push on the map. "Give it a wide berth."
"Why? What's over there?"
Charlotte's jaw dropped. "You're kidding!"
"How many?" Peter asked.
He arched an eyebrow at Jasper. "Three? What's the matter, has the animal blood made you soft? You can't handle three little mutants on your own?"
"You want us to take care of that for you?" Charlotte asked, stretching up to pat Jasper on the head.
He batted her hand away. "We've agree to leave each other alone for the time being."
Peter's smile fell and he gave Jasper an incredulous look. "What the hell's gotten into you lately? You've got shifters to the west and a sketchy newborn right here in your house, and you're not going to do anything about either one of them?"
"Don't worry about it. I've got it under control."
"Maybe for now, but you're playing with fire, friend. You're still flammable, you know."
"I'll call you if I get in over my head. For now, steer clear of the Reservation, will you?"
"Jasper, listen to me." Peter gripped his arm, locking eyes with him. "I don't care what you do with the shifters. You could handle ten times that many without even messing up your hair. But Maria? She's a different story. I'm telling you, it's a mistake to keep that kid around."
"That's enough, Peter," Carlisle said calmly.
But he didn't let it go. He turned to Carlisle, his jaw set in grim determination. "I know this sort of thing turns your stomach, but I'll make it real easy. Say the word, and I'll take care of her for you."
Bella didn't even realize Edward was moving until he had shoved Jasper aside and slammed into Peter, sending him sprawling back onto the floor. His feral roar mingled with the sound of splintering wood as the two of them crashed through the hardwood and shattered the joists beneath.
"Damn it, Edward!" Jasper grabbed him around the neck and yanked him off of Peter before he could do any more damage. "Cool it, or I'll turn you loose and let Peter teach you to think before you act."
"That will do, Edward." Carlisle hadn't moved from his position on the couch as he calmly watched the situation unfold in front of him. "I won't be sanctioning any injury to Isabella today. Thank you for your concern, Peter, but we'll give our new friend the benefit of the doubt."
Peter let Charlotte help him to his feet and winked at Alice as he caught the bundle of undamaged clothes she threw him. "Thanks, doll."
"You're welcome. But next time you decide to provoke Edward, let me know in advance so I can save the Versace for after."
Edward reluctantly backed off—at Jasper's forceful urging—and moved to stand beside Bella, hovering protectively over her.
Peter grinned at him. "Next time, pretty boy. If I'm wrong about her, I'll let you kick my ass."
Edward growled at him.
Jasper sighed. "Peter, would you quit poking at him? I swear, you two are as bad as a couple of kids." He led Peter and Charlotte to the front door and opened it for them. "Come on, I'll run with you a ways."
Once the door closed behind them, Edward ran his fingertips lightly up Bella's arm, drawing her attention back to him.
"Are you all right?" he whispered.
She whirled to face him, her hands curling into fists. "Am I all right? Do you think I'm all right?"
"I'm sorry. I know that Peter was harsh, but he's really not such a bad guy."
"Are you kidding me? He stood right there in front of me and told you all that you should kill me! If he's not such a bad guy, who is?"
"Isabella . . ." Carlisle rose, but Bella backed away from him, her hands raised to shield herself from him.
"What? You're going to tell me that you're still trying to help me? That you didn't standthere and laugh like it was some big joke, and then invite him in for a chat?"
"He's an old friend—"
"I don't want that kind of friend," she snapped, stalking toward the door. "I don't want any of this."
Edward bolted after her. "Wait, Bella!" He darted around her and blocked her path to the door. "Please, just wait, don't leave. Can't we talk first?"
The desperate, pleading look in his face made her pause. She didn't want to leave him. Edward was the first friend she'd had in months, and that meant more to her than she wanted to admit.
"Please," he said again. "I don't want you to go."
Her eyes stung with phantom tears. "How can I stay? Jasper thinks I'm a spy from some crazy lady's army."
"That doesn't matter. I told you I wouldn't let anyone hurt you, and I won't."
"He wants to kill me."
"No he doesn't. He never even considered it. In fact, he's a little worried about Peter for suggesting it." When Bella didn't answer, he continued. "Jasper thinks Peter's fear of Maria is making him irrational. He's out there right now trying to talk him out of heading back to Texas."
She crossed her arms in front of herself, hunching her shoulders. "He doesn't like me."
"I like you." The corners of Edward's mouth quirked up, and he held out a hand to her.
Something that felt like relief washed through her at his words, and she placed her hand in his. He pulled her a little closer, smiling down at her, and she let him twine his fingers with hers.
"I won't let anything happen to you," he whispered. "You can trust me."
She couldn't, she knew. But she wanted to. So for just a few minutes she took comfort from his quiet, steady presence, telling herself that he could make everything okay again. She barely noticed when the phone rang or when Carlisle moved to answer it, but she jumped when she heard Billy Black's familiar voice on the other end of the line.
"Cullen," he said, his voice short and cool. "I'm sorry to have to tell you that the Council has denied your request. You are not to tell Charlie anything."
"I see." Carlisle rubbed a hand over his jaw. "I'd like to appeal the decision."
"On what grounds?"
"On the grounds that Charlie is related to one of the council members."
There was a beat of silence. "Oh?"
"Quil Ateara's mother was Charlie Swan's third cousin, twice removed. Their common ancestor was not Quileute, but there is a blood connection. I'd like you to discuss whether that's enough to give him the right to know your tribal histories."
There was a longer silence this time. "Just a moment."
Bella stood rigid in Edward's arms, her gaze fixed on the telephone in Carlisle's hand. She could hear muffled voices on the other end, but nothing clear enough to understand. Finally, Billy's voice returned to the line.
"Cullen? I'll call you back."
The line disconnected before Carlisle could answer, and he placed the phone back in the cradle.
"How did you know that?" Edward asked.
Carlisle looked back over his shoulder at Edward. "This is a rural area with a long history. Everyone is connected. You just have to find the path."
"When will he call back?" Bella asked, staring at the telephone.
"I don't know. He may not even be with the council. It could be days."
But nobody moved. For several long minutes, they all stared at the phone, waiting for it to ring again. Alice joined Bella and Edward near the door, clinging to Edward's arm in anticipation. Esme clasped her hands in front of her, her eyes closed, lips moving soundlessly.
Jasper returned while they were still waiting and stopped in the doorway. He gazed around at the gathered group in bemusement. "What happened?"
"Billy Black called," Carlisle replied.
"He's going to call again."
Jasper looked around at them again and then shook his head, mumbling about a watched pot.
The phone rang then, though, startling Bella. Carlisle answered, and Billy's voice again carried through the receiver.
"The Council has reversed the decision. You may tell Charlie anything you like about your kind, but we request that you allow us to tell him about our tribal heritage ourselves."
"Of course. I can't tell you how grateful I am, Mr. Black. Please pass along my thanks."
Billy cleared his throat, and when he spoke again his voice was gentler, less remote. "Carlisle . . . do it soon. Please."
"As soon as it's safe," he promised.
The line went dead again, and Carlisle replaced the phone in the cradle.
"That's that, then," Jasper said, crossing to the back door. "Let's go, Isabella."
She froze, feeling the panic well up in her again, and her hands gripped Edward's shirt tightly. "Go where?"
"You want to see Charlie without killing him, don't you?"
"Then we've got work to do. We have to get you ready."