Just as Alice predicted, there wasn’t a drop of rain as thunder galloped across the sky and echoed from the surrounding mountains. The ominous sound was accompanied by an undefined tension subtly filling the atmosphere that had nothing to do with the approaching storm. Like always, when he caught her eye, Alice graced him with one of her sweet smiles, but Jasper remained alert. He noted Edward solicitously leading Bella across the broad expanse of field.
She only stumbled a few times over the tufts of rough field grass.
Being only human, she wouldn’t be able to join in their game. Even though Edward only brought her so he could show off in front of her, Jasper was pleased to see her.
Alice traipsed daintily to her place on the pitcher’s mound. She glanced toward a cheerful Carlisle, who was already stationed far back in the field, and then to Edward, his hand lightly touching Bella’s back, as he escorted her to Esme.
“Is Carlisle coming over to play?” Bella asked. “He’s wearing jeans and a baseball shirt like everyone else.”
Edward chuckled, the hint of condescension noticeable to everyone but the moderately flustered girl . “Oh, Bella, you’ll soon see why we require this large meadow for our game. He’s already in position between first and second base. I’ll be playing shortstop.” He adjusted the ball cap on her head and tapped the bill with his finger, like an adult might do with a child, and rested his hands on her shoulders. His eyes flicked distrustfully toward Jasper as he bent down to inhale Bella’s luscious scent. “Stay right next to Esme, love.”
He had lowered his voice, but all the vampires heard every word.
Jasper knew it was meant as yet another warning for him to stay clear of Bella. Edward was excited, but Jasper felt it could be attributed more to Edward being able to flaunt his speed in front of the human than to his interest in her blood.
Jasper watched impassively as the lanky youth steered the girl away from him. When she was safely by Esme’s side, Edward turned and bounded across the field to take his place near the edge of the forest.
Bella seemed confused, but she obediently followed Esme to a spot several yards behind home plate.
With a wave of his hand, Jasper gestured to Emmett. “Batter up.”
Emmett, gleaming aluminum bat in hand, knocked the dirt from his cleats, and then swung his arms in wide circles as if he were loosening his muscles.
“Tennessee Smokies? Is that a real team?” Bella asked while Esme guided her to stand even farther behind Jasper.
“Yeah, Bells,” Emmett snickered. He turned his back to her, displaying the logo on his homemade jersey. “Minors, since Tennessee doesn’t have a major league team. They even have a bear as their mascot.” He pointed at his back, and then turned to face her again, proudly running his hand down his chest. “The number fifteen is the year I was born. My angel made it for me.” He gave Rosalie a saucy wink and strutted up to the plate with a definite swagger.
“Fifteen?” Bella’s hand rose to her forehead, bumping the bill of the ball cap. “You mean nineteen fifteen?”
“That’s right, Bells.” Smiling broadly enough to split his cheeks, Emmett approached the plate. A look of concentration fell over his face as he flicked the bill of his cap, tugged at his jersey, wiped each of his palms on his thighs, and then gripped the bat.
A soft chortle sounded from Esme. She leaned forward to whisper in Bella’s ear. “Emmett has quite a warm-up routine. He’ll only be another moment.” She patted Bella’s shoulder. “Jasper is catching—”
“But he’s so far behind Emmett! And he doesn’t even have on a glove!”
“We don’t need gloves, dear, though Carlisle sometimes likes to wear his.”
Bella could hardly make out Carlisle’s enthusiastic wave.
Esme wrapped her arm around Bella’s shoulders and gave her a comforting squeeze. “Alice is pitching, and wait until you see her throw! Now, we’ll be the umpires. You’ll have to watch them closely since they like to cheat.”
“No cheatin’.” Emmett hiked up his pants and curled his fingers around the bat again. He finally dropped into his stance, bat poised above his shoulder. “Just playin’ to win.”
Jasper squatted down and nodded his readiness to the tiny pitcher. Her throw was nothing like Bella had imagined it would be. Rather than making an elaborate show of winding up, Bella almost missed her efficient and low-key movements. She was startled by a loud slapping sound and Jasper standing up. Had Alice thrown the ball? Emmett hadn’t moved, but then Jasper was tossing the baseball back to a mischievously grinning Alice.
“Strike one,” Esme announced.
“Wow, I never even saw the ball, but Jasper caught it?” Bella gawked at him in disbelief.
“Because of our strength and speed, we adjust the rules a bit. If they don’t hit it it’s a strike.” Esme leaned closer. “Emmett will hit it this time,” she murmured knowingly.
Again, Bella could hardly detect their movements, but that time a thunderous crack rang out across the field, causing her to jump. “He hit it? Is it a home run?”
“Just wait.” Esme smiled. “Edward is very fast.”
Bella couldn’t believe the speed at which they moved, even faster than when Edward had carried her to the field. Jasper magically appeared at the plate as Emmett disappeared. Carlisle darted after the large, pale streak that must have been Emmett.
Esme cocked her head as if she were listening. “Ah! He’s out!”
“What?” Bella squinted, straining to see the far end of the field where Esme was looking. She then realized Edward was nowhere to be seen.
He soon sprang from the edge of the forest, face beaming and arm held high.
Esme clapped her hands together. “Edward has it!”
The next few innings followed the same almost frantic pace—booming hits that drowned out the rolling thunder in the sky, and streaks and flashes of color circling the distant bases. Though Bella gave it her best effort, she missed most of the action of the game. She didn’t even know what the score was.
Again, Emmett was up at bat, and Jasper was behind the plate, when Alice gasped and dropped the baseball. “I-I didn’t see it. They’re closer than I thought.”
Edward was immediately in front of her, gripping her arms, searching her eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Alice’s contrite voice was the only sound to be heard.
“What’s going on?” Bella asked, leaving Esme’s side and walking forward.
“How long, Alice?” Jasper held his arm out, blocking Bella before she could make her way past him.
“Five minutes.” Viewing possible futures, she finally blinked, her vision clearing. She looked beseechingly toward Jasper, Bella, and Esme. “They heard us playing. They want to join us.”
“They who? What are you talking about?” At the obvious tension, icy fear crept up Bella’s spine. She gripped the sleeve of Esme’s jacket, her knuckles turning white.
“There’s time to get her out of here,” Jasper said, his tone low and unhurried.
Edward’s hands flew to his hair, his eyes wild. “We have to protect her. I don’t know … Alice!” he shouted and grabbed the petite vampire, shaking her. “What do you see?”
Frustration marginally overtaking her alarm, Bella took hold of Jasper’s wrist to get his attention. “What? What’s going on? Somebody tell me!”
Jasper’s eyes met Bella’s, and he calmly told her, “A few days ago, Alice saw three nomadic vampires passing through this area as we were playing ball. They came close, but didn’t stop. Evidently, things changed when Edward decided to bring you to officially meet the family and impress you with his athletic skills.”
“Jasper, that’s not—” Edward began and stopped himself. He released Alice and started toward Bella. “I can take her—”
“Too late!” Alice cried, running with the others to home plate.
“No. No!” Edward moaned. He dropped his head into his hands. “It’s my fault!”
“Edward!” Carlisle pulled his son’s hands from his face. “What is it?”
“Alice saw … I can hear them. They caught Bella’s scent along with ours in the forest. One named James … he’s a tracker,” Edward choked out.
“A tracker?” Eyes narrowing, Emmett turned to search the outlying forest. “The hunt is on then.”
“Emmett! Stop!” Edward hissed angrily.
“Edward?” Bella reached for him, her face tight with fear. “What does Emmett mean by tracker and the hunt is on?”
Forcing his expression into one of reassurance, he took her hand and raised it to his lips. “It’s nothing for you to be concerned about, love. I’ll protect you.”
Gazing skeptically at Edward, still looking as undaunted as he did when the ball game first began, Jasper shifted to face the same direction as Emmett, but his golden gaze dropped to Bella’s worried one. “What Edward meant to say was although most vampires can easily find their prey—after all, humans are everywhere,” he paused, raising an eyebrow, “there are those that are especially skilled at playing … hide and seek.” The corners of his lips lifted in the ghost of a smile. “A lone human with a coven is either their pet or will soon be shared amongst them for dinner. Or both.”
“Jasper!” Edward stomped toward him, fists raised and trembling. “There’s no need to frighten Bella with such—”
“Truth?” Jasper asked with a smirk. One hand shot out and clamped around Edward’s throat. “Judging by your reaction to what Emmett said, I’d say the tracker is thirsting for a hunt. Which means he’ll try to get the human away from the vampires. I don’t even need to read his mind to know what his game is.” Jasper’s speech sped up, but he knew Bella could still hear everything he said. “You know you should have stayed gone when you left, but you had to come back. Then you stupidly and unnecessarily played the hero when that boy’s van went out of control on the ice. You know as well as I do it would have hit the front fender of her truck.”
“It-it skidded around—it could have crushed her!” Edward exclaimed.
“It spun after you hit it,” Jasper bit out.
“You were planning to kill her!” Venom leaked from Edward’s mouth. He would have shouted if he’d been able to take a full breath.
Bella merely stood in shock, gaping at both of them.
“Wrong again, mind reader.” Jasper’s smirk widened. “That was Rosalie. I said I would set it right, I never said I would kill her. She could have died when you saved her from the van, but not by my hand. Being your singer, she could have died that first day in your biology class. Alice assured me she wouldn’t. There have been several other instances where it was a close thing.” Never taking his eyes from Edward’s, Jasper tilted his head toward Alice. “Alice, guard her. Edward, I know what they’re feeling. Anticipation, eagerness. Their caution is being overridden by want. I’d say they’re a little hungry. Two of them are exuding confidence while one is still wary. What are they thinking?” Jasper’s hand tightened around Edward’s throat. “Tell me,” he demanded through clenched teeth.
“Jasper, what are you doing?” Carlisle reached for his arm but snatched his hand back at the answering growl.
“You all know Alice saw Bella coming. Edward brought her into our world sooner than anticipated. Because of him, she’s nearly died twice that you know about.” Jasper shook him. “Should I mention all those other times, Edward?”
“You wouldn’t dare!” he gasped, anxiety and shame radiating from every pore.
Alice, one arm protectively around Bella, lightly touched Jasper’s forearm. “The blond male sees Edward overreacting while trying to protect Bella, and he decides to take her from us. Just now, when Edward decided to run with her …”
“It didn’t end well,” Jasper filled in, his eyes darkening and taking on a hard glint.
Alice gave Jasper an unwavering look. “Though you already know—this is it.” She blinked, wrapped her arms around a silently overwhelmed Bella, and started to back away. She latched onto Esme’s arm and dragged her with them.
With a troubled glance toward his wife, Carlisle tried again. “Jasper, surely we’ll be able to speak with them. Having been forewarned about possible outcomes, I’m certain Edward can control his reactions and still keep Bella safe.”
“He’s incapable of controlling himself around her without my … assistance, Carlisle, and I’m tired of waiting.”
“Waiting?” Carlisle swallowed thickly, his eyes darting apprehensively between Edward and Jasper.
Edward didn’t have any breath left to speak, but was mouthing no as he clawed ineffectively at Jasper’s arm to free himself.
Rosalie stalked forward but was stopped short by Emmett grasping her arm. She’d never seen Jasper look so dangerous before. “Jas, what’s going on? What are you doing?”
“Taking care of something I should have handled a while ago.” Jasper easily held Edward at arm’s length. “Read my mind now, boy. She’s mine, and I’m taking her.” With a powerful jerk, he snapped Edward’s neck. He watched dispassionately as the head dropped to the ground, and then let the body collapse next to it.
Carlisle stood in shock, unmoving, not even breathing, as Jasper pulled off his Texas Rangers jersey, exposing a grey T-shirt beneath. He tossed it over Edward’s disembodied head.
Bella’s horrified dismay battered against him, and, just as suddenly, was gone.
“Oh! She fainted!” Alice’s voice rang out.
Jasper spun around to go to her, but saw Alice catch and gently lower her to the ground.
“I’ve got her, Jazz. Esme will stay here with us.”
He wanted to be the one to catch Bella when she fell. He regretted exposing her to such violence, but he knew there wasn’t time for delicate words and diplomacy.
Bella was in good hands, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He nodded his thanks to Alice and spoke to the others. “Emmett, Rose, throw your jerseys over Edward.”
Rosalie opened her mouth to protest, but again, Emmett hushed her. “Just do it, Rose. Looks like he’s taking his mate like you took yours.”
Frowning, Rosalie unbuttoned her over shirt and threw it over Edward. “Mate? Bella?”
Jasper released a sharp breath. “Yes, and under better conditions than leaving behind an unfired rifle and a shredded grizzly bear.” He raised his eyebrows at the blonde. “Wouldn’t Emmett’s family have found that strange?”
With one last longing look at Bella, Jasper turned back to them. Carlisle hadn’t moved. The centuries-old vampire was transfixed by Edward’s headless, shuddering body.
Such a response wasn’t unexpected, but Jasper couldn’t contain his snort of disapproval of the coven leader and shook his head in annoyance. Movement at the edge of the meadow snapped his focus toward the three figures emerging from the distant trees. He studied them intently. “You can put him back together when I’m finished here,” he spat at Carlisle.
Jasper closely observed the nomads’ approach. Their casual clothing was dirty and worn from traveling. A male with long, dark dreadlocks walked ahead of the other two, but was entirely too nervous and unsure to be their leader.
Having been led and controlled for most of the first century of his second life by a woman, his scrutiny switched to the red-haired female who wore a white fur stole. Despite her smug and self-assured countenance, she kept glancing at the blond male who was examining them all. His calculating and vigilant demeanor spoke volumes to Jasper. The female wasn’t the head of the coven, the male with the ponytail—James—was. He’d put the other male out front as a ruse, to divert suspicion from himself.
It seemed a well-practiced ploy, and had probably worked for them many times in the past. It would have been successful again if Carlisle hadn’t been paralyzed with shock at the beheading of his first changeling, and if Jasper hadn’t been there.
Barely moving his lips, Jasper breathed out, “Rose, keep Carlisle out of my way. Emmett, at my signal, you secure the red head. The dark-haired male in the leather jacket is no threat. I’ve got the blond.”
As the dreadlocked male called “Hello” and raised his hand in a greeting, James grabbed his arm and nodded. “Laurent, there she is!”
“Emmett, go!” Jasper was little more than a flash of gold, white, and blue as he rocketed across the nearly flat expanse.
His initial observations were confirmed. Not having been aggressively challenged before, the three nomads were so astonished by an unanticipated, immediate confrontation; they all hesitated for just a moment. It wasn’t long, but it was enough.
Emmett, with the finesse of an M1 Abrams tank, barreled into the female and caught her by her wild red locks. She screamed for James and attempted to flee, but Emmett flung her to the ground, snagging her arms behind her back, and muffling her high-pitched snarls in the dirt.
With his decades of experience in the Southern Vampire Wars, Jasper instantly categorized the brunette Laurent as no real challenge. Even so, the vampire still had teeth. Jasper clotheslined him, trapping Laurent’s neck at the crook of his elbow. He reached over with his left hand, hooked his fingers under Laurent’s chin, and wrenched his head back, tearing it from his shoulders.
As the body crumpled to the ground with a dull thud, Jasper twisted around to confront James. Ready to defend against any attack, he was only mildly surprised to see James sprinting for the woods, in the opposite direction of his incapacitated coven-mates.
Tossing Laurent’s head in the air, Jasper snatched at the long sections of hair and began swinging, twirling it like a rock-laden sling.
He bolted after the escaping vampire, took aim, and hurled the makeshift weapon. Like a cannonball, it rammed into the back of James’ left leg, the dreads whipping around and entangling the right. James slammed to the ground with a thunderous boom.
Jasper pounced, landing on the downed vampire before he could flip himself over.
“You’re protecting that little piece of meat?”
“Yes, I’m protecting her. She’s mine,” Jasper snarled, slapping his hands on either side of James’ head and twisting.
“Who the fuck are you?” James howled.
“I’m hers.” Jasper’s grip tightened, his fingertips savagely puncturing James’ skull. “You’ll hunt no more, tracker.” Jasper tore his head away, threw it down, and leapt to his feet. He unwound Laurent’s hair from James’ spastically jerking legs and lifted the grimacing head to the sky. “I know you can hear me.” His words were low and threatening. Digging a book of matches from his back pocket, he displayed it in front of Laurent’s black, agony-filled eyes. He rubbed it between his fingers until it burst into flames, and then dropped the little fireball onto James’ head. “You need to remember that Major Jasper Whitlock allowed you to survive this day.”
Seeing James’ head being eaten away by flames, the redhead renewed her desperate fight to escape Emmett’s hold.
“Nooo!” she screeched when she freed her mouth. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you all! While your bodies burn, I’ll take your little human and drain her right in front of you!”
Jasper stalked toward them, absently dropping Laurent’s head next to his body as he passed it. He quickly scanned the others. Carlisle was bent over Edward, having reattached his head, but his face was a picture of appalled bewilderment. Rosalie, standing over them, wasn’t faring much better.
Beyond them, Alice was sitting on the ground, holding Bella against her chest, and she was stroking the unconscious girl’s hair.
Esme appeared to be weeping into Alice’s shoulder.
Jasper returned his gaze to the struggling, snarling female. “Your name.”
“I’ll never tell you! I’ll kill—”
In a flash, Jasper was crouched in front of her, his hand spread over the crown of her head. A deep growl rumbled through his chest as he increased the pressure with each deliberately enunciated word. “Tell me your name.”
“Victoria!” she shrieked.
Her screams continued even after he drew his hand away, silvery venom dripping from his fingertips.
Victoria paused to suck in another breath, and Emmett, uncertain and decidedly unsettled, blurted out, “Are you going to kill her?”
“You heard her. Let her up.”
Without any hesitation, Emmett let go and scrambled away.
Lightning split the sky, momentarily causing Victoria’s writhing body to stand out in stark relief against the dull scrub grass. She wailed and dug at her cracked skull, her hair darkening as she bled.
Jasper took another book of matches from his pocket. He plucked one loose, struck it, and tossed the miniature flaring missile onto the mass of venom-soaked, curling red hair.
The resulting shrieks were ear-splitting. Victoria lurched to her feet and stared incredulously at the sputtering flames licking over her hands. The panic in her eyes flipped to depthless hatred, and she charged at Jasper, her grasping hands straining to reach him.
In one fluid motion, Jasper’s hand snaked out as he side-stepped her. Victoria’s furious screams were abruptly silenced when her head tipped over and slowly began to roll down her back. Her decapitated body took two unsteady steps before flopping heavily to the ground. The fiery mass of rapidly disappearing curls bounced once and settled beside it. Purple-tinged flames quickly spread to her clothes.
Dazed at the sudden, irrevocable carnage, Emmett shook his head and peered cautiously at Jasper. “What the fuck was that, man? Do you always carry around matches?” He shivered at the deadly calm in Jasper’s eyes.
“Always.” Jasper pulled off his T-shirt and methodically wiped the foreign venom from his arms and fingers. “They threatened my woman. They’ll never do it again.” He balled up the shirt and lobbed it into the crackling, popping fire.
Emmett shook his head again, but kept his eyes lowered. He was afraid to witness what else might be revealed in Jasper’s eyes. “How … the venom on your hands … How did you keep from catching yourself on fire?”
“Years of practice.”
Scrubbing his palm over his face, Emmett mumbled, “Holy shit. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Carlisle’s kept you ignorant about the reality of this life—all of you. It’s time you learned.” Jasper purposely strode toward the others. When he reached Rosalie, Carlisle, and Edward, he halted; hands propped on his belt, and stared down into Edward’s terror-stricken face, but addressed the head of the family. “Carlisle, you can put Laurent back together or not. That’s up to you. He won’t be a problem.” He sighed. “Bella’s father knows she’s with Edward. It’s simple, but it should work. Both of them, and Alice and I, dying in a car accident will explain our disappearance.”
Carlisle finally found his voice. “Disappearance? Alice and—?”
“I’m leaving and I’m taking Bella with me. Alice is going with us.”
“But then Edward wouldn’t be able to be seen—”
“I don’t care. You’ve done it before. You’ll figure it out if you want to stay here a while.” Jasper leveled one finger at Edward. “She’s your singer not your love.”
Dismissing them, he continued toward Alice. “Alice, I think it’s time I properly meet Bella.”
“She’s still out for the time being. She’ll wake up on the way to your place. Unless you want to change her now?” Alice’s face lit up with an encouraging smile and her eyes twinkled. “Whether you do it now or decide to wait, either way, she’ll be a little upset at first, but she’s going to love you.”
“She won’t be the first newborn wanting to take a bite out of me.” The emotionless, stony face of the war-hardened vampire finally began to soften. The iron set of his jaw relaxed, the frigid black of his irises melted away to warm gold, and the rigid tension drained out of his body. At long last, the young man he once was appeared as he knelt on one knee to take his young mate into his arms. He cradled her tenderly to his chest and tucked her head under his chin. Gradually rising, he slowly breathed in her scent, nuzzled her hair, and closed his eyes with a contented sigh. “It’s so nice to finally meet you.”