Wearing a travel-worn navy blue parka, Jasper waited at the side of the road, leaning against the fender of his truck. He ignored the fat snowflakes drifting lazily from the pearl grey clouds above.
Since Jacob Black had known who he was, and as much as ordered him to the treaty line, Jasper had to assume the new chief was well versed in the ancient legends and the agreement shared between the two groups of supernaturals. It made him wonder if any in the current generation had gained the ability to transform into the reportedly giant wolves?
It wasn’t long before Jasper felt the unmistakable sensation of suspicious curiosity. Uncrossing his arms, he took a step away from the old Silverado and lifted his nose to the slight breeze. He hadn’t heard anyone approach, but if the so-called Spirit Warriors were the natural enemy of the Cold Ones, their abilities would have to be comparable.
A most unpleasant odor of wet dog wafted by. The instincts he’d assumed were long dead came awake, and he stiffened to alertness. From between the densely growing pines a very tall, heavily muscled, and shirtless, Native American man stepped lightly through the thin layer of snow at the side of the road.
He stopped several feet from the edge of the trees, his coffee brown eyes assessing every inch of the vampire.
“I’m Jacob Black. You’re a Cullen?”
Jasper noted the young chief’s grease-stained jeans and bare feet. Mere humans had to wear much more than that in the winter. And humans usually weren’t quite so disagreeably aromatic. The only conclusion—Jacob Black was a wolf. “Actually, my name is Jasper Whitlock, but I went by Hale when I lived—”
“You’ve been gone over ten years. Why’d you come back? Are the rest of them with you?”
For the first time in that ten years, Jasper was feeling annoyance. “If you would allow me to finish a sentence, Jacob Black, I’ll tell you.”
“That’s Chief Black to you since I’m the alpha of the pack. I guess you’ve heard of us?” A gleeful grin spread over his face. “A car’s coming. Why don’t we retire to my office?” He bowed and gestured regally toward the trees. “It’ll be more private.”
Jasper had heard the vehicle approaching. Apparently, Black’s hearing was as acute as his own. Following at a cautious distance, he could just make out the quiet whisper of Jacob’s footsteps. No human would have. That the snowflakes melted a full hand span above the Quileute’s skin was intriguing.
Warily, Jasper entered the dim forest. He perceived no deception from the young shifter, but he remained vigilant for any sign of attack.
In a wide open area amongst the trees, Jacob faced the vampire and planted his feet in the snow-dusted pine needles. He cocked his head to the side and indolently crossed his arms over his broad chest, a look of expectation on his face.
“We did leave just over ten years ago,” Jasper began. “I don’t really know why I came back here. I left the Cullens five years ago. None of the rest of them are with me.”
Jacob raised his head and peered down his nose at Jasper. “You left them? Your eyes are yellow.”
“I did, but I still only drink animal blood.”
“What do you mean you don’t know why you came back?” Jacob asked his voice harsh.
“Just what I said. I lived as a nomad for a time. I got my truck out of storage, and then came here.” Jasper’s irritation at the antagonistic young chief was growing at an alarming rate, and he struggled to force it down as he scanned the surrounding woods. The hair was standing up on the back of his neck. Someone else was nearby. He wondered how many others in the tribe had shifted and might be hidden in the thick evergreens.
From Jasper’s left, a flash of purple, brown, and white streaked across the clearing, and Jacob let out a howl as what appeared to be a female vampire collided with him. They hit the ground and rolled for several yards in a spinning tornado of arms and legs, disappearing beyond the thick undergrowth.
Jasper lowered into a defensive stance, prepared for an assault from any direction. He’d sensed another, but he hadn’t realized it was another vampire. There didn’t appear to be anyone else around. He momentarily considered assisting the shifter when the sound of their irate bellows finally broke through.
“Jake! I told you not to be an ass!” Every other word the female shouted was punctuated with a resounding slap.
“Bells, quit bein’ a bitch!”
The vampiress hurtled backwards into the clearing, and Jacob was right on her, pinning her to the ground with one thick forearm and clamping his free hand over her entire face.
“When you douchebags snuck out of town like the pussies you are, you left a hell of a mess behind,” Jacob managed to bark before he was abruptly flipped onto his back. The female—Bells—leapt up and stomped her booted foot down on his neck.
“Ha!” she cheered triumphantly as she flipped her long tangled hair out of her face. “I won that one, alpha-boy!” she taunted.
She finally looked up at Jasper with a beaming smile.
He was frozen in shock. The female was Bella!
Before Jasper could think to say or do anything, Jacob latched onto Bella’s denim-clad leg with one hand, and walloped her backside with the other, sending her flying directly at him. He did the only thing he could. He threw both arms around her in a protective cage as they smashed through a small tree and tumbled across the wet ground.
They came to a sliding stop with Bella on top of him, her delighted laughter ringing through the forest as she slid to Jasper’s side. His arm still around her back, she propped herself up on one elbow and pushed the mop of hair out of her face, before dropping her hand to his chest. She grinned at him in an almost manic way.
Jasper could only marvel at the beauty draped over him. He didn’t care that there was dirt on her face, or that they were lying in slushy mud, or that there were bits of forest debris stuck in her wild curls. She was the loveliest woman—human or vampire—he’d ever seen.
Her emotions were beyond happy—she was thrilled. Her hand resting at the center of his chest created a warmth like he had never experienced.
Ensnared by the rich, sparkling garnet of her irises, his mind went completely blank.
He had no idea how long they stayed like that, gazing at each other, but Jasper would have easily lain like that for the next ten years.
Their mutual regard was disrupted by an obnoxiously loud throat clearing. Jacob Black stomped into view just beyond their feet, thumbs hooked in the waistband of his bedraggled jeans.
“Not real sure, Bells, but I think he’s glad to see you.” He scratched at his closely cropped hair. “That’s kinda what it felt like.”
Jasper hadn’t felt anything for so long, he was struck dumb at the notion he had projected anything. Jacob’s intrusive presence reminded him there had been some kind of trouble. His first clue was lying right next to him, biting her lip and tracing circling lines over his coat.
“What …how?” was all Jasper could manage to stammer.
Jacob blew out an exasperated breath and sauntered over to a wide-trunked fir. He leaned one arm against the tree and crossed one ankle in front of the other. “Well, let me tell ya, bloodsucker.”
“Jacob,” Bella warned, the beginnings of growl making itself heard. “I told you about the bloodsucker thing.”
“Pffft. I call you that all the time.” He flapped his hand like he was shooing her away. “Yeah, you chickenshits left a shit-ton of crap here that we had to clean up.” Jacob jabbed at himself with his thumb. “Remember the leech with the dreadlocks? Laurent. Right, Bella?”
“Laurent?” Jasper scrambled to his feet, hauling a squawking Bella up with him.
“Ease up, Jas, you’re going to rip my coat. I like this one,” Bella complained, brushing at the royal purple nylon.
When he snatched his arms from around her and stepped away, Bella immediately followed. “I don’t mind the hug, just don’t tear it. Of course, we could take them off. It’s not like we need them.” She peered coquettishly up at him as she fingered the tab to the zipper of his parka and started to inch it down.
So far, she was nothing like the girl he assumed she was when they’d left. Was she flirting with him?
Sheepishly, Jasper patted the puffy sleeves covering her arms. “I’m sorry.” In the next instant, Bella was attached to his side again, and his arms were around her. He didn’t even mind that she smelled so much of dog.
After they’d left Forks, and Bella, he’d been a desolate, empty shell for ten long years. He’d not even been in a deep depression—he’d felt nothing, hadn’t cared about anything. After the first few months, it was as if he’d shut down, deactivated. He’d never connected it to the loss of the human girl. None of them had. Was it because she had been human at the time?
He looked down at her, belatedly realizing she had unzipped his coat. When his astonished eyes met hers, she pressed her body more firmly to his, and her hand slid up his belly and chest until her fingertips brushed the skin at the open collar of his flannel shirt. That feather-light, skin-to-skin caress filled his hollow heart with happiness until it overflowed, and his body was flooded with contentment. Like his very cells were jolted back to life. The feeling grew and spread; heating and enlivening him, bit by bit.
Edward had loved her, or the idea of her, and she returned his feelings. Had she been turned all those years ago, Jasper began to suspect the youth would have been tossed aside.
A loud oof and a squelching thud wrenched their attention away from each other. The mighty chief was sprawled on the ground and just starting to roll to his side to sit up.
“I was wrong. Hard to believe, I know.” He propped his elbows on his bent knees. “Bells, this is the guy that feels all the feels, right?”
When Bella gave him a puzzled nod, Jacob slapped his thighs and heaved himself up from the ground with a grunt, ignoring the dripping muck. “He’s not just glad to see you, he imprinted. Knocked me right on my ass. If I didn’t know you were such a snotty brat, I’d think I was in love with you. Or him,” Jacob said with a leer.
“Imprinted?” Jasper was even more confused.
Bella’s strangely warm hand inched its way from his neck to his cheek. “It’s what happens to some of the wolves. It’s how they know they’ve met their mate.”
Everything was suddenly becoming clear. On some level, had he recognized the human girl as his partner and been mourning her loss? It was the only explanation for his years of utter detachment. He’d thought he’d found his love in the petite Alice, and she had brought him out of a gloomy melancholy, and showed him an easier way to live, but who knew there could be so much more? He’d been aware of the love and caring concern the mated Cullens had for each other, but he’d never before known the bewildering and magical physical aspect of it. He felt the radiance of Bella’s touch into the marrow of his bones and soon understood it was something that couldn’t be described with words—it had to be experienced.
Was the building adoration he was feeling love? How could he be in love with someone he barely knew?
It didn’t matter. He wanted her.
Impulsively, he clutched her to his body and buried his nose in her hair at her neck, longing to breathe in her scent without the distraction of the wolf.
She was Bella, but not the shy, withdrawn girl left behind—she was so much more. Her youthful, sweet perfume had matured to a more womanly fragrance, and he couldn’t get enough. Before he could stop himself, he licked her throat from her collarbone to her ear and sighed. Perfect. Sweet with a hint of earthy spice he couldn’t identify.
“Ew. Did he just lick you?”
“Shut up, Jacob,” Bella hissed.
When her lips touched Jasper’s jaw, he would have sworn his heart leapt, and he was filled with a comforting peace. Had he been yearning his mate all those years?
He had felt Bella’s sheer happiness earlier, but when it blossomed within his own being, he knew it for what it really was—joy. He longed to bask in the feelings, but he wanted to know what had happened after he and the Cullens had left Forks. What did Laurent have to do with Bella? How had she been turned? All his questions were shoved to the side when Bella burrowed into his chest. Without a thought, his right hand slid to the center of her back and the left down over the curve of her ass, pulling her into him more securely.
A little voice in his head chastised him for overstepping his bounds, but he couldn’t help himself. He needed to be in contact with every part of her—feel her entire body against his. It pleased him immensely to know she felt the same way.
“Oh, God!” Jacob exclaimed in mock despair. “You guys are worse than Sam and Emily ever were! At least I can’t feel their fuck me vibes.”
Bella jerked away from Jasper’s hold and let out a rippling snarl. “I’ve been waiting a long time, Jacob. I told you to—”
Jasper grabbed her arm and cautioned, “Don’t” while Jacob wiped some of the mud from his arms.
“Look, you guys, I get it.” Jacob extended his hands toward them. “But you, Whitlock,” he said, pointing one thick finger directly at him, “need to know the shit-storm you left behind. That I, and the rest of the pack, had to clean up.”
Jacob’s anger and frustration bled through the giddy haze of romance surrounding them. A low rumbling sounded in Jasper’s center, and he embraced Bella in the safety of his arms. “Then tell me what happened.”
“Quit feeling her up for five minutes and I will.” Jacob began pacing back and forth in front of them.
“You’re such a pig!” Bella frowned, but then tried to placate her friend. “I’ll tell him later, Jake.”
“No, ya won’t. You wouldn’t tell him how fucked up it was because you wouldn’t want him to feel bad! You’d blow it off like it was nothing. I know how you are.” He punched the bark from a fir and glared at Jasper. “After your asswipe brother broke up with her, and you guys left, in about the crappiest way you could have, she was a damn mess—not that I wasn’t glad you were gone. The stupid idiot got lost in the woods chasing after Mr. Perfect, and Sam, the first Alpha, found her hours later. Then it was like she shut down. Nightmares, wouldn’t eat—she looked like hell. Out of the blue one day, she showed up at my house, we started hanging out, and she got better. Not much, but better. I even managed to put some meat back on her bones. Then the little whiny asshole decided to take a stroll through the woods by herself. Guess she didn’t learn her lesson the first time.”
“Asshole?” Bella exclaimed. “Who’s the other asswipe that broke up with me?”
“Look, you know that wasn’t my fault.”
Bella was trembling with a rapidly escalating rage, and Jasper renewed his hold. “Are you two going to argue, or are you going to get to the point?” There wasn’t any real animosity behind the bared teeth and snarls, and he was starting to think the verbal sparring was a regular thing with them.
“Okay,” Jacob griped with a slight whine. “So I turned into a wolf, and Sam said I had to stay away from her, but then she slapped … Never mind.” He threw his hands up. “Anyhow, little Miss Grizzliette Adams went on a nature hike and got herself bitten by a vampire.”
Jacob rambled on despite Jasper’s rising growl.
“Me and the pack killed the leech—Laurent,” he sneered, “But then I had to protect Bella from them! They wanted to kill her because she was turning into a vampire.” His voice grew harder and sharper. “I said I’d watch her and make sure she didn’t kill anybody. Do you know how hard it is to keep a newborn vampire from slaughtering people while you’re trying to keep her from killing you? Thank Christ she remembered who I was!”
“Well, that was mostly Paul that wanted to bite my head off—guess I shouldn’t have slapped him—and you do kinda stink, Jacob,” Bella replied.
“As a matter of fact, I do know how hard it is,” was Jasper’s cutting retort. How close had he come to losing her forever? An involuntary shudder raced through him.
“That’s not all Paul wanted to bite. Heh, heh, heh.” Jacob chortled with a lecherous smirk. “Anyhow, that’s where you got all them scars from, blondie? Bella mentioned something about that. In fact, she mentioned you a lot. Edward, she wanted to flambé, but you she wanted to talk to.” Jacob let out a gusty, long-suffering sigh. “I guess I can see why now.”
“That’s not it, Jacob. Or I didn’t think it was.” Bella smiled up at Jasper and ran her hand over his chest. “I didn’t know much because Edward didn’t tell me shit, but I knew Jasper had had something to do with training newborns.” She reached up and kissed Jasper’s throat. “If only I’d been allowed to speak to you, maybe my formative years wouldn’t have been so difficult. I’m so glad you’re here now. Jacob told me about the Cullens being here before. I was hoping you’d come back some day. If I could wait that long.”
“Difficult? Difficult!?” Jacob’s voice jumped an octave. “Screaming like a banshee, running all over the damn place like she was out of her mind. Thank the spirits Embry came to help me. There’s no way to keep up with somebody who never goddamn sleeps!” He loomed closer to them.
Jasper bared his teeth. “Back the fuck up, Jacob Black.”
“Sorry!” Jacob held his hands up as he took a few steps back. “Forgot the new mate thing. Sheesh! Don’t need you or your little girlfriend taking a bite out of this fine ass.”
Keeping one distrustful eye on the shifter, Jasper nuzzled Bella’s cheek and whispered in her ear, “I didn’t know, Bella, or I’d have been here sooner. I’d have never left. I’m so sorry.”
“You’re here now.” She breathed him in, closing her eyes. “I wanted to look for you, but I had no idea where to even begin. Jacob and Embry did help me. When Seth and Leah phased, they were a big help, too, even when Leah was kicking my ass. Every time I went a little crazy and wanted to take off, they convinced me to stay a while longer.”
“A little crazy?” Jacob scoffed. “Animal blood just wasn’t doing it. She didn’t calm down until she drank a human.”
At Jasper’s sharp intake of breath, Bella growled again. “You have absolutely no tact whatsoever, Jacob Black! That’s why I said I’d tell him later!”
“It’s not like he can’t see your hideous demon eyes, Bells. He’s a Cullen moron, but he can’t be that stupid.”
Bella sprang at Jacob but Jasper caught her mid-shriek and hauled her back. “Ex-Cullen,” Jasper amended. He held Bella to his chest, murmuring huskily in her ear, “I did notice your eyes …” To him they glistened like rubies.
“The first human she ate was a drug dealer we caught on the Res. He was passing through and nobody even missed him when he was gone.” Jacob chuckled. “She was quiet for three whole days—finally being full and all mortified and shit at herself for taking a human life,” Jacob said in a mocking tone. “Somebody who would sell that to kids is subhuman, as far as I’m concerned.”
Bella was still growling. “What about the pot you guys smoke?”
“We’re not little kids, and it’s not the same as the shit that guy had on him, and you know it!” Jacob snarled back. “It was kind of an accident. Sam, the alpha then, caught the guy by the school and dragged him into the woods to beat his ass. The fucker pulled a gun and shot at him but missed. Of course, Bella came running.”
“I do protect you guys,” Bella said, rolling her eyes. “He shot me twice, and then I ate him. The bastard ruined my damn T-shirt.”
“I told her not to feel bad because she ripped his head clean off. He could have killed Sam, and she kept him from the kids.” Jacob ran his hand over his head, flicking melted snow away. “After that, we went dealer-hunting, until Bella decided she wanted to sip on pedophiles.”
At the stunned look on Jasper’s face, Bella lunged again. “Jacob! Convicted pedophiles!” She slumped in Jasper’s arms. “Oh, God,” she groaned. “You must think I’m such a failure, killing all those people.”
Jasper finally found his voice. “No, I don’t.” He turned her to face him. “I don’t,” he reiterated. “You’re a vampire. I only stopped drinking human blood because I couldn’t take their emotions when I killed them any longer, not because I think humans are some divine creation more worthy of life than any other.”
“Yeah, because people suck, and it seemed like a workable compromise,” Jacob added with a shrug. “It calmed her ass down, and she’s doing the world a favor. It’s a win-win.”
At Bella’s renewed snarl, Jacob ducked behind a tree. “Well, she helped us, too,” he admitted, peeking around the trunk. “She’s got five vamp kills and five assists. Not including the red-haired vampire.”
It was just one mind-numbing shock after another. “What!?” Jasper’s head jerked up. “Red-head? Victoria?”
“We got her, Jas.” Bella said softly. She cupped his cheek and peered into his eyes. “She kept teasing the pack. They’d chase her, and she’d jump into the trees or dive into the ocean and get away.” Bella’s eyes darkened. “Until I was waiting for her.”
The out-of-character smirk that spread across Bella’s face sent a jolt of desire up Jasper’s spine.
“She couldn’t smell me underwater,” Bella went on. The deep burgundy of her eyes flicked to midnight with the memory. “She didn’t spot me right away because I was wearing a ski mask and black gloves and clothes. That and I was hiding behind some rocks. It was Quil’s idea.”
“Damn if it didn’t work.” Jacob was shaking his head in amusement. “It helps that you vamps don’t have to breathe. We get down to the beach and Bella the sea-ninja is walking out of the waves, Vic’s head in one hand and dragging her by the foot in the other.” He laughed out loud. “That bitch made a beautiful bonfire!”
“We burned her head last,” Bella finished with smug satisfaction.
Jasper couldn’t contain the new growl erupting from his chest. His heart ached with the thought she’d had to face a vengeful, centuries-old vampire, and he hadn’t been there to protect her. He knew he should have gone after that nomad. If Bella had been on her own …
He was overcome with relief and gratitude. “Jacob, I want to thank—”
“No need to thank me, leech.” Jacob bounced up on his toes and waved him off. “We handled it. Taught Bells everything she knows. We sorta had to since she was abandoned. You might even say she was the orphan raised in the forest by wolves. She sure acts like a wild animal sometimes. Uh, most of the time.”
“Jacob, that’s enough,” Bella said through clenched teeth. “If you don’t shut up right now I’ll—”
Swallowing back his own venom, Jasper seized her and buried his nose in her hair, cutting off her words. He wasn’t especially fond of the arrogant alpha, but he and his pack had saved Bella’s life. She was the tribe’s mortal enemy, but they had allowed her to stay on their lands, had worked with her, and made sure she hadn’t taken innocent lives. Without them, she’d have been lost to him. If they had killed her when she awoke, would he have spent eternity as less than half a man, or would he have gone insane? He hadn’t known she had become a vampire, but something deep within had been aware of the tenuous connection and was profoundly affected by her absence. What would he have done without her?
“Bella,” he croaked around the constricting knot in his throat.
“Jasper, I know. It’s okay.” She hugged him with as much reassurance as she could put into it. “Come home with me.”
Jacob couldn’t resist running his mouth. “Yeah, we set her up in a cabin not far from here.” He began to back away from them. “I’ll let the guys know you have company, Bells. Don’t forget to put a sock on the doorknob!” He waggled his eyebrows at her and bounded away.