a/n Disclaimer - I don't own Twilight or make any money from it.

Well, it's been a while but I am committed to finishing this tale. I've had real-life issues and as such... well, nevermind. I'm here now, and that's all that matters isn't it?

A huge thank you, hugs and kisses to my brilliant beta JoyfulyetHesitantPen - she is the one who is to thank for sorting my ass out and making this look presentable. Geezerwench preread for me and for that she has my eternal gratitude. Bmitw, thank you for everything. SimplyJanice too, she is my sis and well she knows what she does.

All those ladies have fantastic fics, and I suggest you go read them. Tell them I sent you. They don't bite.

Thank you for all the reviews, alerts and follows - you all rock my world!

Chapter 12

Jasper POV

I smiled, looking down at my Isabella. I'd come back from a hunt to find her bed empty and Peter nowhere in sight. I asked Char where Pete and Isabella were, and she said I'd probably find them in the barn. I hoped Peter wasn't letting her do anything stupid or strenuous, as she wasn't well enough to be messing about outside. I ran to the barn and headed straight to the back stall. I should have known she'd be with Confederate.

Looking over the door, I saw her horse was stretched out on the bedding, and she was on the floor resting against him—her clothes were mussed, and her hat had fallen down over her eyes. I'd admit to feeling a millisecond of panic when I first saw her lying there so quiet and still, but the gentle rise and fall of her chest showed she was only fast asleep. Peter leaned against the back wall keeping a close eye on her, his emotions betraying just how much he loved her. She was so lucky to have found him and Char, and I knew they counted themselves lucky to have found her; together they made the perfect loving family unit. I felt a twinge of jealousy that I wasn't quite part of it yet, but I quickly brushed it away.

Confederate nickered softly and moved his noble grey head towards me, obviously expecting an apple or other such treat.

"I got nothin' for ya, boy." I spoke quietly to him, not wanting to disturb the sleeping beauty snuggled up to him.

I dropped down on my haunches next to him, gently stroked his mane and patted his neck. I wanted him to stay settled; having him surge to his feet with Isabella lying there would be downright dangerous. Peter had told me how she snuggled her horse like that, but I had to admit I hadn't quite believed him. They looked so cute all cuddled up, so I pulled out my phone and took a quick snap. I didn't have any pictures of Isabella, so this would be a good one to have as the background on my phone. If I'd been human and had a family, this would be the kind of picture I'd have loved to send to them. I just wished she looked whole and healthy, but that would come eventually.

"Char told ya she'd be here?" Peter said softly. "Puss' isn't lookin' too bad this mornin', Jas."

I nodded. She was looking a little stronger today. She had a little color about her which for once, wasn't caused by a fever. We still had a week or so before she had to make the final decision about continuing the treatment, and the decision had to be hers. I was sure between us that we could bully—I mean persuade her to go back for it—but the decision ultimately was hers and hers alone. I doubted we would be able to get her to agree to it. Since she screamed bloody murder at the mere suggestion, it would be like pulling teeth. We didn't say it to her face, but we all agreed we would understand if she didn't want to after the last round of treatment. We knew there'd be side effects, but none of us could have imagined just how bad they'd be.

We should have listened to the oncologist when he said his professional opinion was that she should stay in hospital between treatments. We would have had a miserable Isabella, but at least we wouldn't have an uphill battle to get her to go back for the second round of treatment.

Another bonus to her staying in would have been us not having to fight with her over it and having her resent us for it. Although if she'd stayed in the hospital, Peter's whining about paying for food she wasn't eating would have gotten old after a while. At least she was resting and recuperating slowly, although getting her to eat was a major battle. She constantly felt nauseated from both the treatment and her illness, and only wanted to eat ice cream. We tried to cajole her to eat other things, but when she did, she complained that it tasted funny and made her tongue hurt. She would reluctantly sip at soup, but anything solid tended to be vomited back up later. Her throat was sore from the acid, and ironically, the anti-nausea medicine that was supposed to help made her vomit more.

"You need to talk to her, Jas. There's still some questions that need answering." Peter's voice was barely audible.

I sighed, knowing he was right. I needed to see if Isabella could either confirm or deny my suspicions regarding a certain blonde's involvement in this mess. I wasn't looking forward to having to tell her that the fucking alpha knew she was still alive. I ran my fingers through my hair—telling her that her father had to leave his home and job because of the pack was going to be difficult. Hell, the whole fucking conversation was going to be awkward, and I just hoped and prayed that we could get through it without losing our already fragile relationship.

Isabella moaned in her sleep, and I tensed, ready to send her a wave of calm. She shifted against Confederate, wincing when her sore back came into contact with him. It had been weeks since her surgery, and she was still in a lot of pain. It had us all concerned.

Peter had been in touch with his secret friend and apparently the wolf venom stuff could be affecting her ability to heal. Fucking Peter and his secret friends and silly names for important shit. One of these days his fucking around would drop him right in it with the wrong person, and he'd be in trouble.

Peter strode over to the stall door and passed me a handful of tablets outta his pocket. "You need to wake her up to take these. It's time for her painkillers, anti-nausea drugs, and vitamins. Bottles of water are in the tack room but you know that already."

I nodded and took the medications from him. He backed out of the stall and walked away, whistling to himself quietly. I stuck my head through the tack room door and grabbed the water out of the fridge.

"Isabella, darlin'. Time to wake up, sleepyhead," I spoke softly, not wanting to startle her.

She groaned and slowly opened her eyes, blinking adorably a few times.

"Jasper, you're here?" she muttered. "I thought you were still hunting."

I nodded. "I've been, querida. I just got back."

She looked up at my face and smiled. "Your eyes—the red is so pretty."

After she'd supposedly died, I no longer gave a shit about following the Cullens' rules, so I gave up my animal blood diet and went back to my natural food source. Looking back, I knew it was a coping mechanism in part, but it was who I was. It never ceased to amaze me that the change in my eyes didn't scare her and that she actually found them beautiful. I couldn't believe she could see past the fact that a human had died to make them that color, and I loved her for never judging me for my diet. Hell, I would have loved her even if she did. Not that I could see myself changing my diet back for anyone, but for her—I just might.

I passed her the tablets and the bottle of water, and she grimaced as she muttered her thanks. Unscrewing the bottle, she took a swig and downed the tablets in one go. She was turning into a pro at this; the tablets were now part of a daily ritual. She was taking just under thirty of them a day: painkillers, vitamins, antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and sleeping tablets at night. Peter kept joking that one day he was going to mistake her for a rattlesnake. After he'd said it for the hundredth time, she no longer found it funny.

I held out my hand and helped her to her feet. She wobbled a bit and clutched on to me for support. Reaching up, she readjusted her battered cowboy hat securely on her head. A book lay where it'd fallen out of her hands in the bedding next to her, so I picked it up and passed it to her, glancing at the title; Dracula.

I raised a brow at her. "Not enough real vampires in your life, darlin'? You have to read about fictional ones?"

She giggled and shook her head. It was a beautiful sound that wasn't heard enough at the moment. "It's comfort reading, Jasper. For some reason, it soothes me."

I grinned back at her. Only Isabella could find Bram Stoker's words soothing. It just proved that she was a pretty little weirdo—my pretty little weirdo.

She just giggled again and moved out of the way as Confederate got to his feet and shook himself like a dog. After a few seconds, he came over and nudged her hip with his muzzle.

"Okay, okay." She laughed. "Here." She pulled a mint out of her shorts pocket.

I loved to see her snicker as his whiskers tickled her palm. She ran her hand up the side of his head and pulled one of his ears. Nickering softly, he bumped her again. His muscles relaxed, and his head hung low. I'd never seen a horse with such little fear; to completely trust vampires' being in his stall was just unheard of. Peter's other horses were still wary around us in close confines, but Confederate seemed to trust us implicitly and want our company. I had no idea where Peter had got him from but the horse's bond with Isabella was undeniable and a beautiful thing to see.

I had an idea. "Fancy coming for a ride, querida?"

Isabella looked sad, shook her head, and said wistfully, "I wish I could, but I can't stay up in the saddle, Jasper." She sighed deeply. "I'm too weak at the moment."

Her little hand carried on playing with Confederate's ears, and memories of her hand stroking me flooded my brain. God knows I had a whole memory bank full of visions of her gasping, writhing, moaning under me, and riding me to oblivion. I knew I couldn't help these thoughts but acting on them was out of the question, so I decided to save them for later in the shower. I mentally locked them back in their compartment in my brain and went back to thinking about how to make our conversation easier on Isabella.

"Who said anything about you having to keep yourself up in the saddle, darlin'? I was plannin' on havin' you ride in front of me."

She looked up at me, a huge smile on her face. If I'd known how much the thought of a ride on Confederate would make her happy, I would have suggested it days ago.

"Really?" she asked excitedly. "Really, really?"

"Yes, really." I laughed at how excited she was. I moved past her and into the tack room, grabbing Confederate's bridle. Walking back into the stall, I quickly put the bridle on his head, and throwing the reins over his neck, I walked him out into the warm Texas sun. Telling him to wait, I gave Isabella a leg up onto his back, and grabbing my hat off the hook near the barn door, mounted up behind her. I wrapped my arms round her waist and took hold of the reins. Squeezing Confederate, I set him off at a slow walk in the direction of the watering hole. I was relishing the feel of her in my arms, yet at the same time, I was dreading her reaction to the bullshit situation I had to tell her about.

Peter POV

I watched them ride away from the barn all cozied up together on Confederate. I didn't envy Jasper the conversation that was coming up. I worried that Puss was too fragile to deal with the shit storm of information he had to tell her, but it was necessary. We had to get as many details about the notes that broke them apart and the pack as possible.

Knowing about Jasper filled in a few holes, but it also raised even more questions about how the pack got hold of her.

When he eventually got his royal ass here, Caius would expect the full story about who we thought had betrayed Puss and Jasper. If our suspicions were right, and it turned out that one or more of the Cullens were responsible, fuck only knows what he'd do. He always spoke with scorn about the abominations, as he called them; finding out that one of them had been the cause of Puss' pain would be the final straw for him. There was a strong chance that the Cullen Coven would cease to exist by the time he'd finished with them, but that was just me speculating. Whilst I couldn't understand why Carlisle and his family denied their true nature, I didn't bear them any malice for their lifestyle. I was relieved Jasper hadn't been suckered into drinking from Raksha and friends permanently, though he did when he stayed with them. I laughed bitterly. I may not have born them any malice, but if they were responsible for my Puss getting hurt, I would make them wish they'd never been born in the first place.

Caius adored Puss and respected me, but his tolerance level for others was low at the best of times. I had no idea how he'd react to Jasper and his less-than-subtle intentions towards Bella.

It had been about a week before she received the cancer diagnosis when she met Caius for the first time...

It was a typical warm Texas evening, and we were sitting on the porch talking about our promise to Charlie to have Bella attend college. She was being stubborn and refusing to let us pay for it. Char suggested enrolling her in some snooty finishing school instead and that was enough to get Puss to agree that we could fund her college degree. I smirked. Sometimes you just had to be sneaky about gettin' things sorted.

It had taken many sessions with a fuckin' thievin', money grabbin' bitch of a therapist for Puss to start to come to terms with what had happened to her, but she was getting there slowly. She had a resilience that was rare in a human, one that caught me by surprise, but it was Puss. She always surprised me. I was going to need therapy to get over the amount of cash I was spendin', not that I resented it, but I had no idea how the hell they could get away with charging so damn much. Add the cost of college into the mix, and I could see my bank balance shrinking before my eyes.

"Peter," I thought to myself, "it's time to get off your ass and get some work done."

When a black SUV with tinted windows and what looked like bullet-proof glass pulled up, my heart sank.

Think of the fuckin' devil and he appears!

We were completely, totally, and utterly, royally fucked. I chuckled to myself at the bad pun. The big bad of the vampire world was here, payin' us a personal visit. Caius didn't tolerate humans other than as food. He played with them, tortured them, and if they were lucky, he fucked them first before sating his thirst with them. That was it, end of story.

Thoughts of hiding Puss rushed through my brain, but it was too late. I could see him scenting the air and speaking quietly to Demetri and Felix.

I'd known Caius for years, and we'd come to an understanding partly fuelled by an intense sparring session and several gallons of Jack. He didn't interfere with my shit regarding that bitch Maria—not to mention my less than legal activities since—and I provided the Volturi with information and extra muscle whenever they asked. They paid well, and there was nothing like a good scrap to settle disputes, and even if I had to say it myself, I was damn good at fightin' and even better at being a sneaky shit. However, just because Caius and I had an understanding did not mean I would be forgiven for breaking the "humans are food, not friends" rule those fuckers in Volterra harped on about all the time.

Puss didn't seem scared when I introduced him. Hell, she'd even giggled when I tried to explain exactly who he was and his "official" title. I loved that she showed no fear. Caius' whole reputation was based on people being scared shitless of him and it wouldn't do him any harm to realize that there was one human who wasn't quaking in their stylish yet affordable boots at meeting him.

I decided to investigate a little. I needed to know how long we had before the fightin' started because hell would freeze over before I'd let those assholes take or chomp on Puss without me doin' my damnedest to stop 'em. They were well aware that I'd beaten Caius in a stand-up fight before and I sure as hell could again.

I asked him straight up what his intentions were, and he said because he considered me his BFF—well, those weren't exactly the words he used, but I knew that was what he meant—he was prepared to listen before making a decision on the whole "there's a human in your house" thing.

When Bella started to speak, Caius had been his usual haughty self, but as she began to cry when she got to the bit about the pack and the woods, he surprised us all. He rose gracefully from his commandeered armchair throne in all his regal, pansy-assed glory and scooped her up. Settling her down on his knee, he wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.

I stared at Char in complete and utter fuckin' shock. That was Caius Fuckin' Volturi, the badass of the three brothers. We'd never seen this side of Caius, and I guessed that few had and lived to tell the tale.

He listened to her story, his expression blank. I caught him glancing down a few times as if checking she was okay. In a soft voice, he asked her a few questions, gently coaxing answers from her. He didn't rush her and even asked her if she needed a drink, something to eat or a bathroom break. Char and I were stunned into silence; I didn't even realise he cared that humans had needs. Hell, I didn't even realise he remembered they had them.

When she finally got to the end of her tale, he stood up, still holding her in his arms, took off his cloak and wrapped it around her. Placing her gently back on the chair, he strode over to Demetri and Felix and walked outside with them. Covering her with his scent signified that he was interested in her, and he was in effect warning us off her, and that was worrisome. Did he want her for dinner? A quick fuck? I didn't need my gift to know that neither of those would end well for us.

I took a large swig of my drink and waited to see what they'd decide. I was more worried than I was lettin' on, and I still wasn't sure if it would come down to a fight or not. If Aro had come with Caius, I might have been able to talk my way out of any shit storm that was about to head our way. I had never been able to figure it out, but Aro liked me, and he really "liked" Char. I mean really, really "liked" Char. The campy, giggling bastard liked to flirt with my wife. Maybe that was why Aro kissed my ass, and believe me, that ass kissing was the only reason I didn't kill him for the flirting.

Seriously though—I respected all three of the kings, even though I would rather have my nuts ripped off an' cremated before I would admit that out loud.

Caius came back inside after his secret squirrel pow-wow with the two Volturi goons and went to gather his cloak 'round himself like he always did before layin' down the law. Trouble was, Bella was still sitting on the chair wrapped up in his cloak and it kinda spoiled the effect to have his hands just flapping about. I sniggered, and he gave me the patented Caius death glare. Knowing that fucker, he'd probably trademarked that glare and is earning royalties from it. Then using his special "I am King" voice, he proclaimed a whole load of shit that boiled down to the whole pack and all their living relatives being exterminated and him personally leading the campaign.

At that point, I had to find the strength to rein in the sarcasm. I highly doubted Caius would see me butting in with "No shit, Sherlock," as a winning contribution to the conversation. And campaign? Seriously? He wasn't leadin' the fuckin' Roman army anymore.

Bella did not react to his pronouncement well. She started shrieking that some dude named Paul had to be spared because he'd saved her life, and if Caius couldn't promise that, he could kiss his whole campaign goodbye. She then spent the next eleven minutes lecturing him 'bout how genocide wasn't the answer to any situation.

Our jaws hit the ground, and the look on Caius' face was priceless. If I'd been a betting man, I'd have put money on the fact that no one had ever told him that he was wrong before. Noticing him glare at me, I quickly wiped the smirk off my face and made out that I'd been listening carefully the whole time.

Bella ranted on for a few more minutes and then sat down with a huff, folding her arms across her chest and glaring at the big bad King of the vampire world. Caius stayed silent for a few minutes; then he cracked a smile and started laughing, deep belly laughs that were infectious. When we all finally stopped cacklin' like a pack of hyenas, he spoke rapidly to Felix and Demetri in Italian, and they shrugged off their cloaks and sat down.

After a bout of intense negotiation, we agreed that in return for me passing on the information they wanted and getting in touch with some old acquaintances, they would leave the pack alone for the time being. But when the time was right to move against them, they demanded an invitation to join the party.

As Caius crouched down in front of Puss, taking her little hands in his as he did, he quietly explained that while he had no intention of ordering our executions, he couldn't let us off for breaking the law entirely. She would have to be turned at some point.

She nodded and smiled at him gratefully. He then said that as a gift to her he would let her choose when she wanted to be turned and that he would change her himself if she wanted.

Felix and Demetri gasped and actually recoiled as though Caius had dealt them a physical blow. They stared at Bella as if she'd suddenly grown a second head and muttered something in Italian that Char and I couldn't understand, but the tone of their voices raised the hackles on the back of my neck. Upon seeing my raised eyebrow, they explained it to us in English. They said Caius had never gifted immortality to anyone other than his mate, Athenadora, and that he had often declared that no other would bear his mark except as a corpse or a pile of ash.

I don't think Bella noticed the shock in the room as she leaned over and kissed Caius on the cheek, whispering her thanks. Grinning, I nudged Char with my elbow and cocked my head towards Caius' face—the look he was sportin' was priceless. I swear if he'd been human he would have been blushin' like a nun in a whorehouse.

I needed to know if all this bluster was because of sympathy for what she'd gone through or because her situation reminded him of Didyme, whom he was unable to save from lycans who ripped her apart and burnt her before the Volturi could rescue her. Was all this because he actually cared about Puss or was this some misplaced projection of revenge for a person he'd loved, lost and failed centuries ago? Another factor in all this was that he'd barely escaped with his life after trying to rescue Didyme. Was he reliving his own pain through Bella?

I sighed. Caius was, by nature, complicated, and it would take a far smarter man than me to work him out. I made a mental note to talk to Marcus about the bonds that I was sure were forming between my Puss and the normally volatile king.

Caius was constantly in touch with Bella after that visit, still only speaking to me when he had work for me to do. She'd called him in tears soon after the cancer diagnosis, and I could have sworn I'd heard his voice break while he was speaking to her. He'd immediately reiterated his offer of immortality, but she'd told him she wasn't ready yet. He'd again taken us by surprise when he didn't insist, just reminded her that it was an option. Once we realized the cancer had been caused by the wolfy venom shit, he had thrown himself into trying to find a way to help her, and his laboratory was full of samples of Bella's blood and that of a rogue lycan he'd managed to kill. He knew that the lycans and the mangy pack weren't exactly the same, but he hoped that there were enough similarities to help him.

He invited Bella to visit Volterra as his personal guest, and we'd gone during a period when her cancer was in remission. I'd started lookin' up flights on the internet, moaning about the expense to Char, who just rolled her eyes at me. Bella patted me on the back in fake sympathy and said that I needn't worry as Caius was sending the private jet for us to use. She immediately bonded with Marcus, Aro, and Sulpicia, but her time was mainly spent with Caius and Dora. It was a sign of how deep their bond was that while Char and I had been given one of the common guest rooms, Bella had been presented with one of the rooms near Caius and Dora, one usually reserved for family. They told her it was solely hers to use whenever she desired to spend time in Volterra in the future. They'd become close friends, and I know he wouldn't admit it to anyone, but she turned him into a big pile of Volturi-flavored mush.

I brought myself back to the present with a shake of my head. Remembering was fine—dwelling on the past wasn't. It was time to get our heads in the game and make plans

I knew Caius would be arriving soon, but as usual, I had no idea when—he worked to his own timeframe and nothing was going to change that. Typical fuckin' Volturi. He would make a grand entrance, throwing the doors open with his hair all shiny and his cloak billowing out behind him like some romantic hero charging in to save the damsel in distress. All he'd need was some dramatic music and a wind machine to make the scene perfect.

I had no fucking idea who he'd be bringing with him, but I did know there was going to be fireworks when they arrived. Demetri and Felix never turned down a chance to see Bella, and when you put the three of them together, it was a recipe for disaster... for everyone else. Come to think of it, there wasn't a single one of the guard that she didn't get on with. They all seemed drawn to her and not in a "Happy Meal with legs" kind of way. There was a chance we could end up with the whole of the Volturi showing up. I groaned—just what I needed, the recently renamed "Nerf Herder" ranch full of foreign vampires, eating the locals and costing me a fortune.

I wondered idly if Bella was gifted and if the close friendships she'd built up with our kind were a result of it. Her being gifted was a snafu that would see me sprouting gray hairs, so I put it on the back burner for now. I would catch up with Eleazar at some point in the future. I'd never gotten Marcus alone to talk about her bond with Caius; after we got the bombshell that Puss had cancer, chasing him round Volterra just wasn't important.

I knew Caius, Demetri and Felix would go ballistic when they found out that Jasper was her mystery man. They'd sworn vengeance on the one who broke her heart during a night of drunken revelry, even though she refused point-blank to name him.

At one point Felix had decided that they would torture the name out of her, but despite hours of tickling and being forced to watch reruns of Barney & Friends, she refused to give up his name. What can I say? The girl had guts. Not many people walk away from a Volturi torture session laughing and calling Felix's methods lame.

I was considering selling tickets to Caius and Jasper butting heads over Puss. God knows the cash would be welcome. I didn't need it, but my girls were used to me being a tight-ass, and I had a reputation to uphold as head of the house. I snorted, we all knew who was the boss in our house and it sure as hell wasn't me. Mind you, as morale boosting as it would be, we needed to not start squabbling amongst ourselves.

I had no clue what was around the corner—my gift was playing dead. All I knew was we were in a shit load of trouble, and even with the Volturi's muscle, there was no guarantee we would all walk away from this unscathed. I knew that one of us would be leaving our little family but whom and in what way, I had no fucking clue. I didn't know any more than that, and it scared the shit out of me. Wearily, I went to find Char. I needed a hug right about now, and I wasn't afraid to admit it.

Jasper POV

We rode in silence. My arms were around her—one holding the reins, the other wrapped around her waist. My fingers were splayed against her side, rubbing her gently through the thin T-shirt she was wearing. I loved the feel of her so close to me. She was intoxicating. I felt almost drunk on the apple and vanilla scent wafting towards me. I wanted to bury my face in her hair and never leave. It was looking good with the sunlight making the red in it shine.

Since she'd left the hospital, some of its lustre had returned, and it looked better than it had in ages. She'd pulled it back in two braids tied at the ends with scraps of blue gingham ribbon, and I hoped that one day she'd let me play with it again. Her soft sighs as I used to brush it through was one of the memories I treasured the most.

That, all of it, was bliss, as close to heaven as I'd been in years.

I couldn't help but be fully aware that this might be the last time she allowed me to be so close. I had no idea if she would blame me for what was coming our way. I had to tell her my suspicions about Rosalie, about her father having to run from Forks, that Sam knew she was alive and coming for her. I hated that she was going to have to relive what happened to her. It was going to turn her whole world upside down again, and it broke my heart to have to do it to her. The guilt I felt over it was consuming. I wished I hadn't gone hunting and to pick up the ring that morning. I wished I'd stayed in bed with her. I wished that people we trusted hadn't betrayed us.

What was it they said? Oh yeah: if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Well, I was a penitent beggar, and I was riding straight to hell.

Confederate stumbled, and Isabella shifted against me slightly. I heard her catch her breath; the painkillers were getting less and less effective, and though my Isabella was a fighter, the disease was inevitably progressing. It was a small but significant reminder that I was close to losing her, and it inescapably forced my mind to the idea of remedying that permanently. Though I wanted to more than anything, it wasn't a good idea to bring up changing her. She was still capable of making that decision for herself, and my brother and sister had made it abundantly clear that the choice was hers—well, hers and Caius'. I had no fucking say as far as anyone was concerned, and talking about it wouldn't endear me to her, especially now, right before I was about to lay all this shit down.

I couldn't pin down how I felt about the Volturi being involved. Despite Peter's assurances, I didn't trust them one bit. Peter worked with them, and I avoided them at all costs. Rumor had it they were interested in my connection with the Cullens and that gave me cause for concern. I had never been a "full-on rabbit muncher." I only went veggie to put a sock in Carlisle and Edward's incessant whining when I visited them. The only reason I'd stayed with them that long was because of Isabella. I usually could only put up with their self-important bullshit for a week or so. If the Cullens were going down because of their abnormality, I wanted no fucking part of it.

Peter had reassured me in the past that Caius meant me no malice, and I knew the Volturi weren't evil, but they were still shadier than hell. I knew full well Peter exaggerated occasionally, but there was no way he'd lie about something as serious as the fucking Volturi. It still didn't make it any easier for me to trust them.

Looking around, I realized that despite how deep in thought I'd been, we'd made it to the swimming hole. I tightened the reins slightly and brought Confederate to a halt. Letting go of both Isabella and the reins, I slid off the horse and walked to his head. Bringing the reins over his ears, I let them trail on the ground, knowing he'd been trained not to run away when this happened. He dropped his head to the grass and started munching happily. I patted his neck, running my fingers through his mane and across his withers until it came to rest on Isabella's thigh. I squeezed gently and looked up at her. She glanced at my hand, and then covered it with her own soft, warm one, rubbing her thumb across the back of it.

"Want to sit awhile, querida?" I asked quietly.

"Of course, Jasper." She stroked the back of my hand before letting go and tangling it in Confederate's mane.

She swung her leg over the horse and gently slid off him, but her knees wobbled when her feet hit the ground, and I grabbed hold of her to keep her from tumbling to the dirt. Unfortunately, in the process, she ended up being pinned between me and her horse.

Having her so close to me made it impossible to resist the desire to kiss her, so I buried my face in the side of her neck, nudging her hat up with my head, and inhaled deeply. Letting my lips roam over her the back of her neck, I kissed her over and over with little butterfly kisses—the kind that used to drive her wild. She pushed back against me and moaned softly.

"Jasper, please. It hurts."

I moved away in a flash, absolutely mortified that in my eagerness I'd hurt her.

"Querida, I... I... I'm sorry," I stammered, averting my gaze. I couldn't look at her, not after that..

I felt a gentle touch on my face. "It's okay, Jasper, it wasn't your fault." I snorted in disbelief, but she held her index finger to my lips and shushed me. "No," she insisted. "My back hurt from pressing against you, but that's all. I promise."

I kissed her finger and smiled at her. "I'm still sorry, baby."

She backed away and settled down at the edge of the water. The dappled shade from the tree she was sitting under made patterns on her skin, and I savoured the last few moments of peace before I ripped her world apart again. When would this stop? When would we ever get to be just Isabella and Jasper, just two people in love and happy? She did love me. I know she did even if she hadn't said it and had promised she believed me when I told her how I felt. I didn't need her to say it though. My gift told me the words she couldn't or wouldn't admit to either me or herself.

I started to grin as I remembered the last time I'd been here with her, when she'd shot me, and I'd thrown her in the water before stealing her horse. I started to make a big show of checking around me, parting the long grass growing on the bank of the pool. Isabella looked at me quizzically as I lifted up a rock and peered underneath it, then knelt down and ran my hands across the grass.

"Jasper, what are you doing?" She cocked her head to the side in curiosity and bewilderment.

"Checkin' for weapons," I said as blandly as I could. It was hard to keep my voice from betraying that I was trying not to laugh.

"Did you just say weapons?" She went bright red, but her mouth twitched at the corners.

"Yes, weapons querida!" I exclaimed earnestly, still making a huge deal out of looking around, going so far as to reach up into the tree she was sat under and patting the branches and trunk down as if I was a cop searching a suspect.

"Jasper, what weapons?" Her voice rose, but there was definitely a giggle underneath the question.

I wiped my hand over my face in an attempt to quell the broad smile that was trying to make its presence known and pouted instead.

"Last time we were here, you shot me. I'm just makin' sure I'm going to be safe this time."

"But...but...but...you..." she started to say. Then she looked at me. I'd rarely seen her lost for words, and I was enjoying the teasing. I winked at her and couldn't hold in the sniggering any longer.

"Oh, Jasper, you asshole!" She burst out laughing too, holding her sides and throwing her head back. When she finally managed to get her giggles under control, she glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. I didn't like the mischievous glint in them, nor did I appreciate the smirk she was trying so hard to hide.

Isabella got to her feet slowly and with purpose, she raised her hands above her head and lingered in her stretch deliberately. I tried desperately to tear my eyes away from the sight of her T-shirt stretched taut against the enticing curve of her breasts as its hem lifted ever so slightly, but it was a lost cause, and when that rising fabric revealed a hint of purple lace peeking over the waistband of her low-riding jeans, I knew I was done for. The sight of her standing there, pretending to look so innocent, had my mouth watering and my jeans getting a little tighter than was comfortable.

She was up to something, and I knew that after this little tease of hers that whatever it was, was going to end badly for me. She stretched again, arching her spine this time. That damn T-shirt rose a little higher and moulded to those perfect breasts like a second skin, and I bit back a groan. I could see the soft, creamy skin of her belly and I wanted to touch her more than anything—that skin was beggin' me to—but I stayed where I was.

"Mi osito, come here," Isabella beckoned in a low, sultry voice.

I swallowed back a mouthful of venom at her using her pet-name for me, my girl was pushing all my buttons today. Little bear might seem a strange thing to call me, especially to those who knew my past, but it had a special significance for Isabella and I. To be honest, the first time she called me that, I was kind of offended until she explained her reasoning—apparently, when I growled during sex, I sounded like a bear.

I shook my head. "I'm fine, darlin'." My voice was strangled. "The view's just dandy from here."

She pouted adorably, her bottom lip quivering as if she was about to cry. Only the wicked glint in her eye gave away that she was faking it. She knew what she was doing to me. She fucking knew!

"Jasper, please baby." Her hand started to play with the hem of her T-shirt, and she lifted the red cotton up slightly, running her fingers across her stomach. I groaned. This woman was going to be the death of me.

Look at her face, look at her face, I kept chanting to myself. When I glanced up she was chewing on that damn plump bottom lip of hers. Those soft, kissable lips ... God! I could almost taste her on my tongue, her breath warm and sweet as it brushed my face. I wanted to lose myself in her, to drown in those expressive, brown eyes, just stay forever kissing her, tasting, ravishing, loving her.

I couldn't resist any longer. I no longer cared what she was planning. My restraint had blown away in the wind, and I needed to touch her. I knew deep down we couldn't do much, but we could touch and feel and just be together, skin touching skin. I was just about to go to her when she launched herself at me, jumping up at the last minute and catching me off balance. I started to topple over, so I let go of her. It was better that she hit the ground than land on top of me. Arms windmilling as I tried to regain my balance, I fell backwards straight into the swimming hole.

Splashing and swearing, I stood upright, water dripping everywhere. I pushed my wet hair back off my face and shot daggers in her direction. She stood at the water's edge, and the mischief and mirth rolling off her in waves was undeniable. How could I be mad at her when she was enjoying the sight of me sopping wet so much?

"Payback's a bitch, Jasper," my little minx managed to blurt out between fits of giggles. I growled quietly, grabbed my now soaking wet Stetson and rammed it back on my head.

"You're supposed to be all sick and tired and weak!" I hollered with mock fury and a little shock. Then I laughed. How could I not? She had just pushed me into the fucking swimming hole! "How the hell did you knock me over?"

She smirked. "Physics, Jasper. Plain old, human physics. You know, kinetic energy, force, gravity. You have heard of these things haven't you?"

I shook my head, a grin as wide as the Mississippi on my face. "Petey will be so pleased you managed to learn somethin' while in that damned expensive college, darlin'."

She carried on laughing, and my smile grew wider and wider. She continued muttering about even vampires having a centre of gravity and not being immune to Newton's laws of motion. I had no idea what she was waffling on about, it was just so good to see her lettin' go and sassing me even if it was at my expense. I was sure she would pay pain-wise later, but they say laughter is good medicine don't they? And for now I was willing to see if it worked.

I walked over to her and reached for her hand. She pulled it away with a "don't you dare get me wet" look on her face. "You're all soggy, Jasper. You'll get cold."

I would have laughed but it was nice to have her fussing over me again. "Okay, querida. I better go get dry then. Will you be okay here by yourself?"

I didn't want to leave her. Every time I went to hunt or to get her ice cream, I wondered if it would be the last time I ever saw her, either due to her being stolen again or her cancer. But I had to leave her this time, Peter would shred and burn me if I let her ride back to the house with me wrapped round her sopping wet. He would go on and on and on about immune systems and how even a cold could be fatal.

His nagging was getting old but at least he cared. There were times I felt like I could trust no one, no one but her, but that was a dumb fucking thought. I knew I could trust Pete and Char, and if I had doubted it before, they'd proved themselves by taking care of my Isabella, even if they hadn't known she was mine. So really, my distress and paranoia was because of the fucking cancer. Would she take her last breath while I left her for some inane reason or purpose?

That fear so often ruled me. I wanted to say more than will you be okay; I wanted to ask her not to die while I was getting myself some dry clothes, but I couldn't. I knew that she wouldn't. she wasn't sick enough...yet, but she was getting close, and how the hell could I ask her that? How the hell could I ask her not to leave me, not to die?

I wanted to throw myself at her feet and beg her to let me change her, and if that failed to sway her, to promise I would follow her to her grave, but I couldn't. I hadn't walked into a pyre last time I buried her because my hatred kept me going, but this time was different. This time I would follow her as soon as I could.

Great, I thought to myself, one more secret to keep from Peter. He'd kill me for even entertaining the thought of giving up an' burning if Isabella dies. I could hear his voice telling me I was being a melodramatic, selfish ass with a narcissistic ego, and he'd probably drag out the insult he saved for when he was so pissed he was lost for words and tell me I was behaving like a Cullen. There was no way I could verbalise what I wanted to say, so I just asked if she'd be okay.

"Sure, I'll just sit here and wait. Hurry back, mi osito." She smiled in reassurance, almost as if she knew the thoughts that were torturing me as she flopped back down under the tree. Hearing her tell me I was hers made my jeans get a little tighter again and my cold, dead heart swell with love for her. Suddenly, I knew she wouldn't leave me. Well, not right then anyway.

"I'll be back before you know it, darlin'. I promise."

She didn't speak, just made shooing motions with her hands. I guessed being alone was strange for her at the moment—she always had one of us hovering around her, making sure she was okay. I thought she was secretly looking forward to even a couple of minutes to herself. That didn't mean I was going to take my sweet time though.

I considered taking Confederate but decided running was quicker so I sprinted back to the house. I poured a bucket of water from the pump over my head, Pete's laughter and Char's questions following me upstairs. In a flash, I was dressed in a dry T-shirt and pair of battered jeans. There was no rescuing my boots or hat, so I left them to dry. If they were ruined that little minx was buying me new ones. I was trying to explain to Peter what happened, but he growled out that maybe his Puss and I shouldn't be allowed at the swimming hole together, and that he'd shoot me himself if I made her cry.

I offered to load the gun myself, biting out, "If you're going to shoot me for making her bawl, then maybe you'd better get your head out your ass and tell her what the fuck is comin' yourself instead of leavin' it for me."

He had no good retort for that, so I set off running back to where my woman was waiting for me. If I didn't leave then, I wouldn't be able to resist the urge to break his nose for leaving me to shatter Isabella's heart again, and I had been away from her for too long as it was. I had no more time to waste on his moody theatrics.

When I arrived back at the swimming hole, Isabella was still chuckling to herself. She had moved closer to the water's edge and had her tongue stuck out of the side of her mouth as she concentrated on pulling her boots and socks off without landing on her ass in the mud. Though I wanted nothing more than to go to her, I hesitated, merely watching. In a few short minutes, her whole world would be blown apart again and I wanted to give her these quiet moments, the peace and the opportunity to forget how sick she was, even if it was just for a few short minutes.

As she dipped her bare toes with their sexy, purple-painted nails in the cool water and wiggled them, the look of complete bliss on her face and her moan of delight at the sensation, was nearly my undoing. I knew that I could not have chosen any better in giving her that little slice of what seemed to be heaven for her.

I took a few deep breaths as a way of calming myself, walked slowly over and sat down next to her. Leaning over, I dropped a kiss on the top of her head before leaning back on my elbows and stretching my legs out in front of me.

"I love it here," she sighed, happily splashing the water with her feet. "It's my favorite place in the world."

Great, I thought. I'm about to spoil her favorite place. Just my fuckin' luck.