Chapter 59, I Bargain
Aro was still and silent for several minutes as he sifted through Edward's mind.
Unsure of how long the process usually took, Jasper became concerned when Demetri, at Edward's right side, and Felix, who was holding him from behind, looked down at Aro's bowed head with apprehension.
Again, Edward attempted to wrench his hand away from Aro, but Demetri's grip tightened even further on his forearm, sending hairline cracks shooting through his pale skin.
Emmett, at Edward's left side, became anxious and his eyes shifted nervously from Felix to Demetri and then to Aro.
Bella made an impatient noise. "Okay, I can't remember everything about being in Volterra before, but I don't think this usually takes so long." She looked up to Jasper, worry shadowing her face, and started to step away from him.
He held her more firmly against his side. "Don't."
"But something might be-"
"Do not fret, Isabella," Aro murmured, raising his head and turning slightly to look at Jasper and Bella over his shoulder. "I've had many years of practice determining the difference between thoughts, wishes, and ... yearnings." He raised his head and peered into Edward's fear-filled eyes. "Delving more deeply into Edward's memories is a challenge, but nothing I can't overcome. His mind holds his own memories and those of others he has heard over his existence. That's the term you prefer, isn't it, Edward?" Aro stepped back from him and cocked his head. "Countless times you wished to partake of Isabella's blood, and you found the strength to resist, but when you finally did, it was contaminated with the venom of James and the bitter morphine Carlisle had injected her with. You began to dream of the day when you could taste the untainted elixir-even going so far as to regulate her diet to ensure its purity," Aro ended with a whisper.
"No!" Edward shouted. "I would never-"
Edward's protestations were abruptly cut off when Emmett's large hand clapped down over his mouth. "Bite me, and I'll break your fuckin' jaw again," he said, his voice deep and menacing.
He wasn't the only one who was growling. Low angry rumbles sounded from everyone circling the dying fire-except for Bella.
She reached up and stroked Jasper's cheek, urging him to face her. "We already knew he only wanted me for my blood. I just didn't ... I never realized he was fattening me up like a prize cow." Bella blinked several times and shook her head sadly. She reached for Charlotte and Peter and pulled them closer. "Is this a new thing? Or was he planning it the whole time?" Bella asked Aro plaintively.
Aro's eyes swept from Bella back to Edward. He raised his head to search Edward's terrified expression. "Oh, this is new information since your too brief visit with us, Isabella."
Rosalie's quiet growl morphed into a rippling snarl, and her muscles tensed as if she were going to attack. Jasper squeezed her against his left side. If anyone was going to kill Edward, it would be him. He began listing the many different ways he'd be able to accomplish it.
"But that was merely a passing thought, was it not, Edward?" Aro asked, turning to face them, but still holding Edward's hand with his right.
Edward's panicked eyes were ringed with white. He was terrified.
He should have been.
Jasper wondered what Aro hoped to accomplish by divulging that information. It wasn't like everyone didn't already know the true reason behind Edward's obsession with Bella.
Aro's left hand drifted to cover his own chest where his heart once beat. "A mere fleeting consideration, and you feel you shouldn't be judged harshly for such. Yet how many have you condemned for their errant musings? Does a momentary thought reveal a man or woman's true self?" A devious smile spread across Aro's face. "Major, I see Edward never realized that you fed him a rotating group of memories over and over again. And Mrs. McCarty maintained thoughts only of herself and her own exceptional beauty? I assume to block him from reading your minds?"
Having a difficult time battling everyone's fury in addition to his own, Jasper could only add his silent assent to Rosalie's.
"Very wise. Edward never caught on to your ruse. All of you seem to have developed your own methods of blocking his intrusive prying. There have been some intriguing musical selections you've employed." Aro indicated Emmett with a tilt of his head, and his smile widened slightly. "It's also enlightening to see that Edward, if he was diligent and concentrated very hard, could shut out the sound of other minds. Not completely, of course, but he could knock it down to a bearable roar. All in the name of offering privacy to his family." Aro pursed his lips as if he were in deep thought. "Possible, but rather difficult for him, and he would have missed something after all. It's very nearly a crime he missed so much anyway. However, I believe with the proper training, he could become rather adept at it-if he wished."
Aro took another step away from Edward and released his hand. A thoughtful expression crossed his face. He tented his fingers, as if he were praying, and bowed his head. "Oh, Edward. You should have believed Isabella's negative reaction to you and the positive one to her Major at her awakening, yet you still required further proof she was no longer yours. In fact-never was. Even the opening of her mind to you didn't convince you as you dismissed her declarations. She was rather angry. With her being a newly awakened vampire, you were quite fortunate to receive only a few scars. Intriguing ploy she used to distract everyone. And losing an arm to a newborn? Amusing." He steepled his index fingers and tapped his lips. "Over the decades, you had ample opportunity to train with the Major, yet you refused, believing yourself to have the upper hand in any confrontation because you could read minds. Isabella and the rest have disproved that theory. Who truly thinks consciously about each and every movement they make? Perhaps when they are learning new skills, but not experienced warriors or those who are battling for their very lives. How fortunate you were to have Major Whitlock's protection for so many years."
Edward's brow furrowed as he mumbled urgently through Emmett's hand.
"It would seem Edward disagrees. Would you allow him to speak, Emmett?" Aro tilted his head toward them.
Emmett let out a long-suffering sigh, rolled his eyes, and gradually slid his hand down Edward's face until he was cupping his chin.
Edward sneered. "We certainly haven't needed Jasper's protection from anyone. No one has-"
"I beg to differ." Aro clucked his tongue and pursed his lips in disapproval. "His mere presence would be enough of a warning to most vampires, and you've not met many. Not even during your quaintly named Rebellious Years where you slaughtered humans whose thoughts you judged to be evil. You avoided coming into contact with others of our kind that drew near to you. A wise choice on your part-you may not have survived the encounters unscathed. But, I digress." A coy smile played about Aro's lips. "I've learned that a few nomads have avoided interaction with your family simply because they heard the major was a member and were unwilling to ascertain if the rumors were true. It was quite the deterrent and kept your lives relatively peaceful. You, and your entire coven, owe him a debt of gratitude."
Resentful irritation began to slither through Edward's fear and humiliation. "We owe him nothing! He came to us!" He jerked against the hands gripping his arms and face. "He was hiding behind Carlisle's reputation and-"
Aro grasped Edward's fingers. "He and his lovely companion, you mean. The one the nomad James had taken quite an interest in back in Mississippi. You have always been quite fond of Alice, and she has proven her worth to your coven countless times. In fact, they both were quite the addition. You've certainly enjoyed the trappings of wealth, yet you seem oblivious to the benefits you gained having the Major reside with you." Aro quietly cleared his throat and turned back to Bella. "Even still, his desire for your blood makes me quite thirsty. I believe if you had stayed human any longer, and he continued to resist its siren call, it would have driven him insane."
"Driven him insane?" Charlotte said scathingly. "He's been dancin' on the border of Crazytown since I met him."
Though he made no sound, Peter's mirth billowed out and around them. The release of tension at Charlotte's tart remark was more than welcome. Even Rosalie's rigid form relaxed slightly. What continued to puzzle Jasper was Bella's reaction-or lack thereof. She snickered at Charlotte's snide comment, but she was the only one who still didn't feel some sort of anger at Edward.
Aro's eyes twinkled as they surveyed Jasper's close group. "Edward has finally come to realize-"
"I can't read anyone's mind but Renata, Alec, and Jane! What's going on?" He zeroed in on Bella, and his sense of alarm suddenly skyrocketed. "Bella! Your wrist! More scars? If anyone of these ... these friends of Jasper's have hurt you I'll-"
"You'll what?" Bella asked. "Give them a stern, long-winded tongue-lashing before you let them beat your ass?" She blew out a disgusted breath. "Why would you automatically assume one of them did it? And why would I ask such a stupid question?" She raised her right arm and regarded the healed wound from Victoria ripping her hand off. "It was one of your mistakes that caught up to us, but Jasper did a good job fixing it. It kind of covers the scar from the first time you screwed up when you tried to protect me." She rested her hand on Jasper's bare stomach. "Weird, I know, but Victoria happened to find us."
"Yeah." Emmett grunted as he forced Edward's mouth shut once again. "You know Bella has that monster magnet in her ass."
Jasper shook his head at him, hoping to keep him from going any further. Edward didn't need to know any details about what happened with Victoria.
Edward's eyes grew wide with distress again as Emmett went on like it was no big deal. "She showed up, and we had to clean up another one of your messes. Her ashes are blowin' in the wind. We should have taken care of her and James back at the baseball field, but-"
"But better late than never." Rosalie slid out from under Jasper's arm and folded hers across her chest as she glared heatedly at Edward. "That would be another example of surface thoughts not telling the whole story. My God, I can't believe we trusted our safety to you for so many years!" She flung her hands out and then angrily propped her fists on her hips. "You know, Edward, we were so lucky that Alice and Jasper just happened to show up. We should have listened to him during that baseball game debacle instead of you."
"Rose, Rose." Bella tried to soothe her. "Mistakes happen. It kinda sucked in the meantime, you all should have listened to the experienced vampire, but it worked out. We know better now." She rubbed Jasper's stomach and smiled playfully as she tipped her face up to his and sighed. "Now I know why I was born. You feel my feelings one by one, and I found where I really belong. Nobody loves me like you do."
Returning her smile, he winked at her and declared, "My love is all I have to give."
Bella almost giggled at that.
His envious resentment and disappointment growing, Edward rasped from between Emmett's fingers, "But Bella, you're my first, my last-my everything."
Puzzled, Bella cocked her head to the side and stared at him.
"He's quoting Barry White at you." Rosalie's voice was rough with disdain.
"You know. Dr. Love, the Prince of Pillow Talk?" Emmett very nearly cracked a smile. "Rose has some of his songs on her iPod."
"So does Peter," Charlotte added.
"Dr. Love? Seriously?" Bella groaned, dropping her head. "What bullshit. Edward, don't even-"
"Bella, I can change." Edward, being Edward, had to make another last ditch attempt to sway Bella's mind. "We ... we can try again. I understand it was merely your newborn rage speaking before, but once you're past this first year-"
"Oh?" Instantly, Bella's body stiffened. Her icy scowl would have frozen the hearts of even greater men.
Jasper didn't know what she was doing to Edward, but the restrained vampire gasped, squeezed his eyes shut, and the hands that had been detaining him had to scramble to hold him up.
Aro's eyes widened. His eyebrows nearly reached his hairline as he turned to gape incredulously at Bella.
Pressing his lips to her ear, Jasper asked, "What did you do?"
She straightened against his side and raised her head up. "I think I forced the memory of what we did to Chelsea and Victoria at him," she said, sneering. "Well, that's what I was trying to do. And it wasn't my newborn rage speaking, Edward. It was me. When are you going to realize I have thoughts of my own, and that Jasper is my mate?"
Edward slowly shook his head from left to right and groaned out, "What have they done to you? Such vicious ...You used to be so kind, loving, and giving ... forgiving, and Jasper and these ...these ...They've turned you into a mon-"
"Don't even say it," Bella warned. "What? Were we supposed to invite them into the house and have a nice little chat? Or maybe we should have rolled over and let them kill us?Victoria needed to be gotten rid of a long time ago, like Jasper said, and Chelsea had to be taken out to protect my coven." She gulped and wiped at the venom that had leaked from her lips. "And it's not what my coven has done to me-it's what they've done for me. You tried your best to keep me weak and dependent, and like a stupid little mouse, I let you. Jasper, Charlotte, and Peter have shown me how to be strong and protect myself and the ones I love!" She swiped roughly at her mouth again. "Edward, you and Alice constantly did things to me like I was a ... a brainless thing ... a toy!"
Edward swallowed thickly. His eyes stole open, revealing a dull black. "No. All those things we did for you were because we loved you. So much."
"No, you really didn't, Edward. I don't know why I didn't see it before. All those things you did to me were for Alice-to make her happy. You deluded yourself into thinking you were protecting me for my own good and Alice helped. She was sure that if she shoved enough designer shit down my throat I would come to love it. But that's not me, and it was never for me. It was all for Alice."
She angrily brushed a few stray hairs away from her face. "You tried to keep me locked up to protect your toy. They," she said, gesturing toward Peter and Charlotte, "have taught me how I can protect myself!"
"But Bella," Edward crooned softly, his voice full of regret, "you could have gone on to live a fulfilling human life-with children and grandchildren. Jasper's stolen that from you."
"Arrrgh! Are you an idiot?" Bella's hand slapped her forehead. "Is that all women are to you? Helpless, stupid little baby incubators? Just because I was a human female doesn't automatically mean I had a burning desire to pop out babies." She raged, "Jasper didn't steal that from me. I happened to almost kill myself wrecking my truck, remember? I wasn't living when I was in your cage-I was being manipulated the entire time. You know what else they've done for me? They really love me for me, and they've taught me how to live." She sagged against Jasper's chest, seeking comfort from his scent.
"Bella." Edward's voice cracked. "I'll try harder. I can change. I will love you more than that."
Jasper couldn't help but growl.
Bella's head snapped toward him and another flash of anger radiated from her.
"Edward, you don't get to quote the Backstreet Boys at me," she said with a disparaging tone. "What you really love is gone and there won't be anymore." Pausing a moment, she frowned in thought. "How did you know the lyrics? You must have seen I had some of their albums in my bedroom back in Forks. Renee gave them to me, by the way." Her frown darkened, and her eyes narrowed dangerously. "I already know you don't like them, since they're beneath you. And you can change? Or do you mean try harder to change me? You're the one that would say whatever it takes to keep me blind. It's all you ever did, so ... quit playing games with my heart. All you're doing is pissing me off." She leaned into Jasper and inhaled deeply. As she exhaled, she forced her ire away.
She was struggling, but Jasper was impressed with her control. Besides a few meandering thoughts, Bella was keeping it together. But then it struck Jasper what she was feeling for Edward-indifference with a heavy dollop of annoyance that grew when he tried to persuade her again. While nearly everyone around her was trying to keep themselves from tearing Edward apart, she just didn't care about him.
Many people considered the opposite of love to be hate. But Jasper, constantly aware of the emotions of others, knew better. They were wrong-the opposite of love was apathy.
Bella drew in another breath. "Don't you dare try that again," she continued roughly. "So, in the immortal words of the Backstreet Boys-forgive my honesty, but you gotta go. I don't want you back. Got it?" She patted Jasper's chest again. "Besides, it's because of Jasper and his heinous friends that I'm still here. No thanks to you." She flashed her teeth at him and then smiled brightly at Aro. "Aro, feel free to continue exposing Deadward Sullen's deepest, darkest thoughts. You can skip over the ones where he wallows in self-pity and calls himself a monster. He thinks everyone is a monster."
"Deadward Sullen." Emmett snorted loudly right in Edward's ear.
Charlotte and Peter tried but couldn't contain their spluttering laughter. Felix's and Demetri's eyes glowed with humor, but they maintained their stony, attentive expressions. Jasper felt appreciation from Alec and Jane, but they were as still as the other guards.
Centuries of practice would do that.
"So perceptive, Isabella." Aro's eyebrows rose, and he smiled indulgently at her. "You may not be enamored with knowing all his secrets."
"Pfffft." Bella flapped a hand at Edward in scorn. "He's a little weird, but I don't think he was killing babies or puppies."
"What else could there be?" Rosalie asked with a crafty twinkle in her eyes. "We all know he took off for a few years and killed humans. It is what vampires do, after all. Even I killed a few." She raised her hand and examined her nails. "I just didn't drink any of their blood." She shot Edward a haughty look.
"Quite." Aro's smile dimmed, and the amused sparkle in his eyes sharpened into a harsh glint. He searched Bella's face for a moment and then turned his attention back to Edward, whose nervousness was eclipsing his envy. "Major, your state of undress has been disturbing young Edward."
Jasper suddenly knew, without a doubt, what Aro was about to disclose next.
He probably should have mentioned it to Bella sooner.
Her utter indifference for Edward had been unexpected. It was then he realized he had no idea how she might react to a new revelation.
"Disturbing?" Bella was bewildered. "Jasper's been shirtless practically since I woke up." She lowered her head in embarrassment. "I keep ripping them off him, but I have gotten better. Aro ripped the last one off him." She shook the thoughts away. "Never mind about that. Is it the scars? I guess those imperfections make people not good enough. Edward has a few of his own now to be disturbed by."
"Tsk, tsk, Edward. Such conflicting emotions you harbor for the Major and his mate." Aro gripped Edward's hand more tightly and turned completely to face him. "Your initial reaction to him was fear, but, at the same time, you couldn't help but notice his comeliness. Your abhorrence at your own fascination with him set the tone for your decades' long antipathy." Aro glanced over his shoulder at the dumbfounded looks on Bella's and Jasper's faces. "Your disgust with your attraction was well in place by the time you learned of his ability. You kept it well concealed. Even when you met his comrades, Peter and Charlotte-"
"What the hell?" Emmett exclaimed. "See, Rose? I always said he was gay."
Bella's mouth fell open. "Edward's gay?"
"He's warm for Jasper's form? I knew it." Peter barked out a laugh, but then the grin dropped from his face. "Wait. What did ya mean when ya said ‘even when you met his comrades, Peter and Charlotte?'"
When the spark of amusement darkened to a calculating gleam in his eyes, Jasper realized Aro had been making another play for Bella by revealing the skeletons in Edward's closet. He may have been doing it just to observe how she would react, but the devious shift in his emotions said differently.
Bella was as stunned as Jasper at the revelations. It only lasted another second before he felt her astonishment combust into jealous rage. Having been warned by the tenor of Aro's emotions, he was prepared. As Bella gathered herself to leap at Edward, he threw his arms around her and crushed her to his body.
"Jasper's mine!" she snarled.
In an attempt to keep her from kicking him to get at Edward, he hopped away from Rose, Peter, and Charlotte and dropped to the ground on top of her, pinning her arms between their bodies and rolling away from the fire.
Before he could get out the first word to calm her down, Aro let out a throaty chuckle. A thin strand of disappointment joined his devious aura.
He raised his voice to be heard over her growls. "Isabella, I believe you have no need to be concerned. It seems his interest in males has, thus far, been limited to the Major and his Captain. Battle hardened warriors do hold a certain appeal."
"Only me and Jasper?" Peter began as he brushed his hair back from his face. "Well, I am so fuckin'-"
Charlotte slapped her hand over his mouth. "If ya know what's good for ya, don't even say it."
Glaring at Aro's self-satisfaction, Jasper murmured quickly into Bella's ear. "Aro only said that to piss you off, Bella. You know I'm yours. There's nothin' to worry about."
"But it's true!" she hissed.
She stopped struggling but her low growl continued to vibrate throughout their bodies.
"Only recently. It was when I dazzled him back in Forks to find out if he'd hidden anymore of your blood. At the time, I thought it was just because I was touching him."
"You be-dazzled him?" She strained against his hold again. Her deep rumbling growls grew into snarls. "I've had it with that asshole! I need to kick his ass! He shouldn't be here anyway."
Jasper pressed his jaw to hers, forcing her head down. "No, he shouldn't be, but listen to me! I've never felt his attraction. Primarily, what I have felt is disgust. I just thought it was because of my scars and the memories of my time with Maria." Shifting his lips to her ear, he spoke softly to her. "Bella, you know Aro is trying to manipulate you. Don't let it work."
She clenched her teeth and took in several quick breaths. "Okay. You're right. I know he is. He's always playing games. I just need a sec." She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and then they flew open. "If Edward thinks you and Peter are sexy, what does that say about me?"
Leave it to Bella to put that spin on it.
Rosalie and Charlotte started laughing, and Peter's guffaw rang through the predawn chill.
"What'd she say?" Emmett was feeling left out.
"It means, Bella," Charlotte began, still chortling, "that Edward likes big, strong, battle-scarred blond males and pretty little brunette females."
"I can't tell you how relieved I am he doesn't like blonde females," Rosalie said with a smirk.
Charlotte wholeheartedly agreed.
Edward's mortification grew by leaps and bounds while a sly grin grew across Aro's face.
Bella twisted beneath Jasper and craned her neck to catch the conniving King's eye. "Aro, I don't care if you embarrass Edward, but I won't let you manipulate me. Remember?" she said trailing off, her eyes hardening.
Aro's hand rose to touch his temple. "Isabella, wouldn't you prefer it if I could read his mind?"
"Yes, I would, but you're pushing your luck."
Low enough that no one else could hear, Jasper asked Bella, "Can you block Edward from reading anyone?"
Her lips brushed over his ear. "No. I already tried. I guess I have to touch him first. But I already touched him. I don't know why I can't shield him."
Her power had strengthened since Jasper had brought her to Wyoming. Luckily, it had grown enough to prevent Demetri from being able to track any of them before they were even aware of that ability. "Well, you were kicking the shit out of him, and that was before we came here. I think you getting to know Peter and Charlotte made you feel more protective of everyone, and you automatically shielded us to protect us. Have you felt protective of Edward at all?"
She snorted. "No. Ugh. I'm going to have to touch him."
Drawing a hand from beneath her back, Jasper smoothed her hair away from her face. "Now's a good time, while he's being held. But don't trust him or Aro."
Smiling at her, he kissed her nose. "Good. Are you calm enough not to attack him? You know you have nothing to worry about. I'm all yours. I'll be right next to you."
"Do you know how it makes me feel to hear my ex-boyfriend wants to date my current boyfriend and his brother?"
"He ain't man enough for me, Bubba." Peter winked and grinned.
"Well, then it's a good thing you're already spoken for, though God alone knows why. Now stop it." Charlotte smacked his arm before turning to Bella. "Folks just like who they like, sweetie."
Lifting Bella up from the ground, Jasper started brushing off her clothes and picking grass out of her hair. The instant he let go of her arm, she was only a blur as she leapt over the low fire and landed with a loud thump in front of Aro and Edward.
She gripped Edward's arm below Demetri's hand and squeezed. "Now you can't hear anybody."
Jasper was midway through his flight across the fire pit when he saw Aro's eyes light up, and he reached for Bella. Demetri snatched his hand from Edward's arm and tried to sweep Bella away.
They all flopped bonelessly to the ground when Jasper hit them with a powerful surge of lethargy and indifference. The ground shook when Felix and Emmett hit it.
Jasper did notice Felix still had his arms clamped around Edward. He was a good soldier.
As his feet touched down, he scooped Bella up into his arms. Knowing his second was right behind him, Jasper spun and shoved Bella into Peter's arms. He swiftly kneeled between Edward and Aro, wrapping the fingers of his left hand around Edward's neck and the right around the seemingly unconscious king's.
"At least your aim's gotten a hell of a lot better," Peter groused. "Used ta be you'd knock everybody out within a hundred yards."
"He was younger then," Charlotte said, hissing.
She was guarding Jasper's flank from Renata and the twins, but there was no need as none of them had moved.
Rosalie started in surprise, and then dashed around the fire. "Could I get Emmett out from under Aro?"
"Grab and toss," Jasper barked at her. "Char, move Demetri and Felix out."
It took less than a second for Rosalie to dislodge Emmett from under Aro while Charlotte ran around Jasper to kick Demetri away.
As hard as she booted him, one would have thought she still didn't like him much.
So she wouldn't end up on the ground, Jasper eased up on his emotional assault while Charlotte pried Felix's hands from Edward. When she had him clear, Jasper refocused on Aro and Edward before they had a chance to move. He didn't need their drama interrupting what he had to say to Bella.
She was squirming in Peter's arms, but she couldn't break his hold. His hands were secured around her wrists, and he had her arms crossed over her body.
"Isabella! What the fuck were you thinkin'?" Jasper was incapable of suppressing the growl in his voice. "I said I'd be right next to you when you touched Edward. In case you didn't notice, Aro almost-"
"He didn't grab me!" She thumped the back of her head against Peter's chest, making him grunt. "Though Peter could let go of me now."
Jasper couldn't help wondering why she hadn't raked her heel down his shin or tried to hook her foot around his ankle to pull them both down.
"No. We had both just said we didn't trust Aro, and you go and jump over a goddamn fire and put yourself right next to him!"
"But my shield-"
"Was your shield up?" Jasper adjusted his grip on Aro's and Edward's necks as he stared down the love of his life.
She dropped her head to her chest in shame as she admitted, "No."
Demetri, Felix, and Emmett moaned as they sat up, each bringing a hand to their heads.
Jasper's darkening eyes still on Bella's downcast face, he sucked in a lungful of air. "Just because you like him doesn't mean he is trustworthy. It doesn't mean he won't keep trying to get his hands on you and your power. Aro didn't seem to care that he'd lost Chelsea, but he liked using her gift well enough. And if you think about it, supernatural creatures who meet you are drawn to you ..." His voice faded out as he had another one of those brain-jamming epiphanies concerning Bella.
Why hadn't he seen it before?
Peter's eyebrows went up in question.
"They're drawn to you," he mumbled. "Aro doesn't need Chelsea, and he wouldn't need to have his guard enslaved to him if he had you and a slew of vampires ready to protect you. He'd only need you near him!"
Bella's head jerked up, her eyes wide. "No. Wait. But he said-"
"He's a damn liar, Bella." Exasperated, Jasper's throat tightened around his words. "You don't get to be over three thousand years old by-"
Peter snugged his grip on Bella. "By bein' stupid, naïve, and gullible. Or believin' every damn thing you hear."
"Or by being cocky," Jasper added. Bella opened her mouth to speak, and he cut her off again. "Yes, Aro is confident and self-assured, and he has reason to be, but he bit off more than he could chew when he came here. He'd heard about my reputation, and he was cautious enough to question it, but he should have kept it in mind. He knew you were a shield, and he expected it to get stronger when you became a vampire, but he didn't expect it to become so much stronger. I've become stronger since I mated with you. Aro was so sure his gifted vampires would subdue us he didn't bother to bring reinforcements. He must have expected an out-of-control newborn surrounded by her new, distracted mate, and a bunch of ungifted vampires. He didn't make any contingency plans." Jasper glared down at Aro and back to Bella. "And some of our success has to be attributed to luck."
"Luck?" Bella asked in disbelief.
"Yes. We were lucky he didn't bring more vampires with him. He could have swarmed us-overpowered us with numbers and skilled soldiers. We were lucky Chelsea was so sure she could bond me to him she wasn't paying attention to anything else until it was too late. We'd have still gotten her-"
Emmett jumped to his feet and crushed Rosalie to his chest in a tight hug. "But not if they'd brought a couple dozen vamps or more with them. Your shield might have held them all off if you got it up fast enough, but for how long? All they'd have to do is wait us out."
Felix rose to his full height, agreeing with Emmett's words, and began brushing dirt and grass from his sleeves and suit coat. "As you Americans say, ‘I'd rather be lucky than good.' Though being good at what you do doesn't hurt." His gaze fell to Jasper and he winked.
Jasper caught Bella's eye again. "You got too cocky. You jumped right at him and left yourself wide open."
Peter cleared his throat to get his coven leader's attention. "My right hand's itchin'."
Then Jasper remembered. "Just fuck me." He groaned. "How many?"
"I'm thinkin' it's Poindexter's Mommy and Daddy come to collect the prodigal."
Of course, it would be. It would only make sense. He should have remembered.
Shit, shit, shit.
Bella slumped in Peter's hold. "I'm sorry, Jasper. All I was thinking about was touching Edward and shielding him because once I do it then I don't have to touch him again, and I wanted to hurry up and-"
"Bella," Jasper with a sigh, trying to staunch the verbal flood. "We'll discuss it later. At this time, I'd like for you to unshield Aro and Edward. Aro is hiding something about Chelsea, I just don't know what. She must have had something on him. He was strangely relieved when we got rid of her. My guess is she was blackmailing him somehow." As he was speaking, he quickly studied the guard members. They were ... not surprised, but puzzled. He didn't think any of them knew what it could have been. It didn't matter. Aro wouldn't miss Chelsea, but he would miss the use of her gift. He would not be replacing her with Bella. In the meantime, with both of them unshielded, maybe Edward would pick something up.
Not that it would do any good if Edward didn't mention it, and Aro was smart enough to cover his thoughts.
Jasper would take his chances with that.
If the impending guests were Esme and Carlisle, they'd want their boy back. They were trying, but Jasper didn't exactly trust them to keep Edward reined in. They hadn't been able to prevent him from coming to Wyoming. Jasper had a solution to that problem, but only if he could keep himself from ending Aro.
"Peter, let Bella go and get ready to hold Aro down. Charlotte, you hold Edward. Emmett, Rose, back ‘em up." As they moved into position, Jasper looked to Bella. "Darlin', I really need you to stay back. Don't touch them no matter what I say."
She started nervously tugging at her fingers. "What are you going to do? Aro didn't actually get his hands on me. I mean, he tried to grab me, but he didn't, and ..." She snapped her mouth shut and crossed her arms. "What are you doing?"
"Killin' two birds with one stone."
"You're going to kill them?" Bella's hands flew up to cover her mouth.
"No, Darlin'." He chuckled. "They can both be useful to us."
Charlotte and Peter each gave Jasper a nod, letting him know they were ready to hold down their current guests. Jasper stood and moved away from their feet and then released Edward and Aro from his power. Peter and Charlotte pressed their hands down on their shoulders, pinning them to the ground.
Aro recovered first, and when his eyes opened, he found Jasper immediately. "Major-"
Holding up one finger to silence him, Jasper spoke, his voice as cold as ice, "That was your last mistake, Aro. You won't survive another."
Peter smirked. "Guess you're lucky he's grown. Used ta kick ass, take names, and leave toe tags-or dust, as the case may be."
Jasper shot him a shut-the-hell-up glare and returned his attention to Aro. "If you want to continue your existence, you will respect our wishes. Bella does not want to join you."
"Pity. She reminds me of my beloved sister whom I miss terribly," Aro said softly.
In his peripheral vision, Jasper saw frowns form on Demetri's and Felix's faces. Edward's eyes narrowed as if he were concentrating.
Despite his antipathy toward Jasper, he answered. "She was very beautiful and-"
Aro drew in a quick breath. "She had been brutally murdered. I was the unfortunate soul who came upon her ashes and had the dreadful task of informing Marcus of the loss of the love of his life."
"Isabella looks nothing like her," Demetri murmured. "Major, Didyme was lost before my time, but there are many portraits of her. Master Marcus himself has painted several."
"Marcus is quite the artist when the spirit moves him." Aro lightly cleared his throat. "No. Isabella does not resemble my dearly departed sister physically. It is the ... aura about her. Those who were fortunate enough to be in Didyme's presence basked in her shining happiness and grew to love her. It was as if they were enticed to her by her inherent joy. Isabella appears to possess a similar trait. Those who move within her influence seem almost predisposed to be fond of her and wish to remain close." Aro's eyes moved unhurriedly over the Whitlock coven members. "Others seem compelled to guard and protect her." His eyes flicked to his own guardsmen. "I am unsure as to the extent of that particular power as I've not been able to read Demetri and Felix or your coven members."
"You're not going to either," Bella piped up. "So that's a gift?"
"Oh, yes." Aro smiled at her. "Much like your mate's innate charisma. Again, it is similar to our Heidi's gift-"
"Of drawing in dinner and keeping them from getting too upset about it or wondering what they're getting into?" Jasper asked sarcastically. "Or maybe like Chelsea being able to manipulate bonds?"
"Er, yes. Similar." Aro became a little uncomfortable. "I've not yet come across two powers that were exactly alike."
Curious if Aro would answer truthfully, Jasper wondered aloud, "So Didyme had a way of ... getting people to like her-creating a sort of bond. Bella has this. And Chelsea could manipulate others to be bonded to you."
Aro examined the tall blond as if he could, somehow, manage to dig into his mind. "Chelsea could consciously bind others to herself or others, or break existing bonds. Didyme had no such control. As it seems your Isabella does not."
"Like I said," Emmett spoke in a low voice. "Bella's got that supernatural monster magnet in her ass. Guess she just can't turn it off."
Bella hissed at him, but otherwise didn't say anything.
"That's it!" Rosalie exclaimed, as she stared down at Edward in her astonishment. "Edward always said she had no sense of self-preservation, but she does! Humans weren't really drawn to her, but when she came in contact with supernatural beings-"
"Sucked ‘em right in like a black hole and they wanted to take care of her. Even Peter, and he doesn't like anybody," Charlotte said bluntly. "No offense, Bella," she added as an aside, scrunching up her nose.
Peter and Bella frowned at her.
That attraction being a kind of power explained a lot. Even James' coven had been drawn in. He hadn't wanted to protect her, however.
There was something else there, but that was enough discussion about talents, minor or otherwise. Aro seemed to be using it as a distraction. If Esme and Carlisle were on their way, they could show up at any time. Jasper had already decided they weren't getting Edward back.
"Aro, as I said, you've made your last mistake here, but I'll let you go-this time. Edward has received several object lessons already, but you seem eager to extend his education."
Eyes narrowing shrewdly, Aro peered up at him. "I believe, with the proper guidance-"
Jasper waved his hand as if he were shooing a fly. "Take him. Keep him."
Edward had been quietly watching and listening, but his eyes flew open at the dismissive offer to the Volturi king. "You ... you have no right! I'm not your chattel. You can't just pack me off to Volterra like some sort of-"
"Oh, really, Edward?" Rosalie stepped away from Emmett and sauntered forward, crossed her arms, and studied Edward as if he were a stain on a Persian rug. "Maybe they'll pick your clothes out for you and let you know who you're allowed to associate with. They might even decide what your diet is going to be." She loomed over him. Her lips pulled back from her teeth in a devilish grin.
Peter reached over and slapped his jaw. "So, Jasper's not the boss of you? Is that it? Any of that shit comin' out of your mouth ringin' any bells, Eddie-boy?"
Edward's shock at the slap and their biting words only lasted a moment before he decided to act. Charlotte ripped his shirt from his back as he spun away from her and lurched to his feet. He was headed directly for Bella, who was standing beyond Demetri, a smirk plastered across her face.
When he bounced back from the invisible wall of Bella's shield, Jasper caught him by the nape of his neck and flung him to the ground. Charlotte pounced on him, flipped him to his stomach, and wrenched his arms up behind his back. She had hold of both of his wrists and her booted foot was planted firmly between his shoulder blades.
"And I'll bet your daddy's goin' to hear all about it." She ground her heel into his back, forcing a pained, wheezing cry out of him. Then she turned to Jasper, feeling apologetic. "Sorry, Jasper. I should've expected him to try and bolt. It's what he does."
"Not your fault, Charlotte. He is fast, especially when he's runnin' scared." Jasper placed himself in Edward's field of vision. "There's a few things you need to learn about vampire etiquette, Edward, since either Carlisle never bothered to teach you or you didn't think you needed to learn. You came to my territory, uninvited, and attempted to lure my mate away-knowing she's mine. All this after you'd been warned to stay away. Your coven leaders understood this, and I'm sure they passed the information along. You disobeyed. As leader of my own coven, I have every right to do with you what I will."
With a grunt, Charlotte tugged at Edward's arms until everyone could hear the faint sounds of crackling. "And we don't take prisoners."
Peter bared his teeth in a malicious grin. "Too much trouble to watch ‘em-unless we rip their arms and legs off."
Cringing, Edward hissed. "You wouldn't!"
"Sure we would. Ask Demetri and Felix." Charlotte yanked at his arms again. "And I like you even less than I like them."
Even through his obvious pain, Edward glowered at Jasper. "You do not own me. I am part of Carlisle's family. You have no right-"
"Shut up, boy. And yes, I do. Doesn't matter what you call it, you left Carlisle's coven and trespassed against mine." Jasper signaled Peter to release Aro.
As Aro gingerly rose from his prone position on the ground, Bella came up behind her mate and rested her hand at the small of his back in support. Jasper continued, "Aro, the sun'll be up soon, and you have far to go." Narrowing his eyes at him, he took the small ribbon of fear he felt from him and tweaked it up. "How would you prefer to transport Edward? In pieces?"
Aro smoothed the front of his coat with both hands and cleared his throat. "Er, that won't be necessary, Major." His eyes darted around and settled on Alec and Jane who were several feet beyond Jasper. Renata appeared at his side, and he gave her a tremulous smile. His wary gaze returned to Jasper. "I believe my dear Alec will be able to keep him contained until we reach Volterra."
"Splendid idea." Jasper replied with a smile displaying his sharp teeth. Aro gulped and took one step away from him. "Bella, can you block Edward from reading anyone's mind and still let Aro read him?"
"Maybe. I'll try."
"No, Bella! Please-ahhh!" Edward shrieked as Charlotte ground her heel into his back again.
Jasper patted the fingers Bella had wrapped around his arm and looked over his shoulder at Alec. "Alec, be ready-"
Even though Charlotte was itching to pull his arms off, Edward still managed to run his mouth. "No! Not Alec! You'll regret this, Jasper! When I-"
Alec appeared beside Edward, and Charlotte leapt away. He merely placed his hand on the side of Edward's face, causing him to go limp and silencing the empty threat.
Still not trusting Aro, Jasper kept him within view as he asked, "Alec, can you handle him?"
"Yes, Major. Now that he is subdued, he will be no problem."
Jasper nodded and stalked toward Aro until he was close enough to take hold of his jaw. "Listen up, Aro. This is your final warning. I've allowed you to live, in spite of your attack on my coven and your attempts to capture my mate, and I have given you Edward Cullen. Personally, I don't care what you do with him, but it might ruin your friendship with Carlisle if his first companion were to be ... damaged extensively." The pupils in Aro's deep red eyes blew wide. Jasper glided closer to him and reiterated, "Since I've already enthralled you, you'll be even more susceptible to it, and don't forget Bella can control the shield she placed around your mind from thousands of miles away. You will never try to capture her again."
"But we can be friends, right?" Bella asked softly.
Jasper looked heavenward and sighed. "Aro, my coven can be considered your allies. You will never cause harm to Bella or put her or her coven in danger."
"Of course not, Major," he answered breathily.
"I don't care how long you keep Edward. He's got a lot to learn."
Bella was patting Jasper's arm, trying to get his attention again.
"What is it, Darlin'?"
"Aro can keep him, but if Edward doesn't want to eat people ..."
Only Bella would really care about that, but Jasper had to agree with her. As much as he hated the arrogant little bitch, Edward should still be able to choose how he fed. Aro would be keeping him on a short enough leash.
"Yes," Aro said with a dazed smile. "My new charge will be able to maintain his current diet, if he so chooses."
Jasper could imagine Aro applying a little pressure in that area. "As I said before, I expect-"
"A just and fair sovereignty. I recall every word, Major."
Irate hisses rose from Peter and Demetri, and Jasper flung his senses out to pick up who was approaching. Near panic and sharp concern stampeded ahead of them, and he was sure it was Esme and Carlisle. A third set of emotions, that were extremely wary, split off from them. His guess-Alice. Carlisle would have recognized Aro's scent, and Alice wouldn't have wanted to run straight into the lion's den. None of them had any idea what might be waiting for them.
Bella's fingers squeezed Jasper's arm, and a look of determination grew on her face when she saw Jasper's attention shift to the woods. Alec dragged the senseless Edward closer to them, while Jasper increased his grip on Aro. Everyone else fanned out around them as if they'd performed the maneuver a hundred times.
Carlisle broke through the trees beyond Demetri and Felix and skidded to a stop, throwing his arm back to halt Esme, who was right behind him. At first, he looked bewildered by the sight before him-Aro in Jasper's grasp and everyone else guarding them.
Jasper was certain Carlisle had never imagined seeing the head of the Volturi in such a position, or under Jasper's control.
Carlisle remained baffled as he took in the rest of the mind-boggling tableau. His eyes darted over everyone, and when they landed on Edward's unconscious form, his face crumpled. He sighed heavily, and his shoulders slumped.
His sad gaze slowly rose to Aro's somewhat disheveled appearance and flicked to Jasper's black eyes. "Jasper?"
Carlisle wasn't stupid or uninformed. He had taken in the scene and interpreted it correctly. He was well aware of the protocol he should follow.
Jasper couldn't help but feel pride at how alternating members of his coven and Aro's guard had circled them, blocking anyone from attempting to get to them, or from reaching Alec as he knelt beside Edward. He pierced Carlisle with his steely gaze. "Your old friend Aro and some of his guard decided to pay us a visit. We've had a very mutually beneficial discussion." Jasper increased the pressure on Aro's jaw for an instant and then drew his hand away, shooting him a look full of warning.
The entranced haze over Aro's eyes cleared, and he quickly took in the situation. Studying Jasper, he nodded, brought his hands together, and increased the distance between them.
"Carlisle, my very good friend. It's been much too long. This must be your lovely wife, Esme?" Aro's eyebrows curved upward, and he smiled engagingly.
"Er, yes." Awkwardly, Carlisle cleared his throat. "Esme, I'd like to introduce you to my ... old friend ... Aro."
With venom-filled eyes, Esme smiled nervously and peeked around Carlisle's shoulder. "Hello." Her voice was shaking. "It's ... it's nice to meet you." Her hand gripped Carlisle's arm. "Edward?"
Aro gestured toward Jasper, and then answered the worried pair. "As the Major said, we were having the most enlightening encounter when young Edward decided to join us. Meeting him again was most informative." Aro's smile widened. "Might I ask where the charming Alice is?"
Before Carlisle could come up with a reply, Jasper touched one finger to his temple and said, "She's around."
"You can sense ...?" Aro's eyes grew round with wonderment.
"Yes." He noticed Esme hadn't been able to pry her anxious attention from Edward's still form. It was time to get down to brass tacks. Jasper pulled Bella more firmly into his side and whispered cautiously into her ear, "Is your shield ready?"
"Yes," she answered quietly. "What-?"
"I don't think we'll need it, but nobody touches Edward unless I say so." Straightening to his full height, he raised his head and scrutinized Edward's former coven leader. "Carlisle, I'm sure you advised Edward that he wasn't welcome here. He disobeyed you and me by trespassing on my unmistakably marked territory and against my coven. He's, once again, made an attempt to coerce and lure my mate away." Bella slid her arm around his back and leaned into him, curiosity radiating from her-probably due to the unexpected use of the more formal language.
Carlisle, like all the rest, understood Edward's infractions were being laid out for all to hear.
His sadness deepened into despair, and he winced as he clutched Esme to his side. He nodded erratically, knowing the next thing he would hear would be the judgment that had been decided upon. He well knew interfering with someone's mate could be punishable by death.
A rather large part of Jasper regretted promising Bella he wouldn't kill Edward, but he thought time in Volterra would be an even better punishment. "As Edward is clearly lacking in certain areas of conduct," Jasper explained in a low voice. "Aro and I have reached an agreement. He has graciously offered to remedy this oversight and assist with Edward's further education."
"But he has several advanced degrees," Carlisle began, a pleading note entering his tone. "You know he's been to-"
"His education in vampire etiquette and rules, Carlisle," Jasper clarified. "When it suits him, his manners are impeccable in the human world, but he's not human, and he never will be. He's had over eighty years to learn the customs of his own people, and he's chosen to ignore them, thinking those rules didn't apply to him, or that he was above them."
Peter shifted from one foot to the other and hooked his thumbs in his belt. "It's only dumb luck that's kept him from comin' across more real vampires like James and Victoria, and ya gotta admit, the boy has a knack for pissin' people off. If he wants to stay in one piece, he'll have to learn how to deal with his own kind, not just humans he can enthrall to his will." Jasper could tell his captain was wound up by the way his eyes flashed as he jabbed a finger down at Edward's slack face. "The punk needs to learn some more, like how to apply the basic rule ‘if it ain't yours, don't touch it.' Then there's some of those other ones he picks and chooses from. How about thou shalt not covet? Especially thy neighbor's mate!"
Esme's sharp intake of breath drew everyone's eyes to her, except for Bella. She continued to stare at Peter with concern.
Reaching beseechingly toward Jasper, Esme gasped, "But he's just a boy. He needs to be with his family. Can't-"
Jasper cut off her pleas with a brusque, "No."
Bella leaned forward and interjected. "And that's his main problem. When Carlisle changed him, he was just a boy. When Jasper and Emmett were changed, they were men, living men's lives. Rosalie was a young woman about to be married and take over the responsibility of running her own home! Alice and Edward ..." her voice faded, and then her head jerked up in surprise as she realized something obvious that had, none-the-less, eluded her for so long. "Edward might have been tall, but he was a pampered only son who took piano lessons and was a junior in high school, trying to wheedle his mother into letting him drop out to join the Army!" She emphasized her heated words by slapping her thigh, and started talking faster. "When he took off for his Rebellious Years, he wasn't a grown up starting his own life, he was a kid that ran away from home! And you've been letting his temper tantrums dictate your lives! He needs to grow the hell up and learn how to be a real vampire, like my coven is teaching me. It'll be good for him!"
"Out of the mouths of babes," Emmett muttered.
"Stick a sock in it, Em." Bella glared at him. "Edward said vampires don't change. They do if they have to, just like humans, and now he has to! Aro will protect him while he's learning, right, Aro?"
"Without a doubt, Isabella." Aro bowed his head.
Carlisle murmured something unintelligible to Esme and then said out loud, "Jasper, we can speak to him and stress to him the importance-"
"No." Jasper's clipped tone silenced them. "Talking doesn't work. His mind reading has made him think he's above everyone else, and he doesn't have to comply."
Charlotte spoke quickly. "The boy's been a danger to our coven, and himself, because he doesn't know how to control himself."
Carlisle's eyes widened. "His control-"
"Sucks." Peter spat. "Since he doesn't know when to shut the hell up."
Esme stepped away from Carlisle, her palms outstretched imploringly toward Bella and Jasper. "Please, Jasper, Bella."
Jasper lifted one hand. "Esme, I feel your disappointment. I know you've spoken with him, but he's disregarded everything anyone has said. If he is to survive, he needs this. Others won't be as merciful as I have been." His discussion with them had come to an end. He glanced at Aro. "I'm sure there are matters in Volterra that require your attention."
"You are so very right, Major." Aro smiled brightly and clasped his hands. "As much as it would please me to stay and catch up with you and your beautiful wife, Carlisle, we've been away too long. Duty calls, and we must be on our way. The terms of Edward's apprenticeship will be well thought out and duly recorded. Copies shall be delivered forthwith to all parties involved." He spread his arms wide. "Come, dear ones, we have a lengthy journey before us."
As Alec gathered Edward up and slung him haphazardly over his shoulder, Jane darted toward Bella. "Alec and I were so glad to meet you, Bella."
Bella took hold of her hands. "It was good to meet you, too, Jane." She grabbed Jane in a tight hug. "I'll be calling you soon. And you can call me on Jasper's phone. I don't think I'll be getting one just yet."
Jasper handed his phone to Jane. "Put your numbers in. I already have Demetri's and Felix's."
"Ah, yes, Demetri and Felix?" Aro asked, spinning toward them.
Jasper saw and felt an instant of longing pass through Demetri before he answered his king.
"We shall be right behind you, Master," he replied with a slight bow. "Isabella, Major, I am honored to have met you."
Before Jasper could stop her, Bella darted toward the guard and hugged him, released him, and grabbed his wrist. She yanked him toward Felix and then threw her arms around him, as well. "It was good to meet you guys, too." She was patting and rubbing their arms. "It was a little rough at first, but it turned out all right. You'll have to let us know how things are back at the castle."
Demetri started to reach for her hand and stopped, his fingers slowly curling into a loose fist as he brought it back to his side. "We will, Isabella."
Esme stepped forward, "Can't we even say goodbye to Edward? Does he even know?"
"Alas, dear Esme, in my experience, it would be best if he awakens in Volterra." Aro smiled sadly, but the gleam showed brightly in his eyes. "He is aware of our arrangements." He extended an arm toward the break in the trees where the driveway came through. "The sun rises, dear ones. Let us be off."
Rosalie waggled her fingers and said with a broad smile, "In the unforgettable words of N-Sync, ‘bye, bye, bye.'"
And just like that, they disappeared down the gravel drive.
Peter groaned loudly as he pulled Charlotte into his arms. "Thank God and Greyhound they're gone."
Bella hissed. "Stop it, Peter!"
He shrugged. "Just throwin' out some song lyrics like you all were doin'."
Bella fell into Jasper's arms and sobbed. "I'm going to miss them, Jasper. Except for Edward."
Her sadness flowed over and around him, and he held her securely to his chest. "I know, Darlin'."
Staggered at the abruptness of the Volturis' departure and the disturbing sight of his unconscious first son and companion being hauled away, Carlisle stuttered, "J-Jasper, if you would, I think Esme and I would appreciate knowing what ... what happened."
"My coven can fill you in. I need to take care of my mate."