Chapter One: What a Woman
Make-up sex was much more than he had appreciated back when he only caught glimpses of it from Emmett's more libidinous moments. As Edward employed a growl to further arouse his mate, he listened carefully to her thoughts on how best to please her that afternoon, and felt buoyant with love and relief that – the latest fight notwithstanding – their marriage might soon be lacking in one major irritant.
"Alice! Jasper! Bella!" Carlisle had called into the rain that pelted around them in the veldt. On the southern plains of Africa, the Cullens were taking advantage of the current political uncertainties to hunt bigger game.
I didn't know they were coming! Bronwyn had groused privately. Her words were surrounded by images of her own uncertainty as she brought up Bella's appearance at the few family functions that had been graced by the triad's appearance over the past forty years. Images of Bella's face, of his own during that first unnerving night when Bella's internal shield had dropped (Or had she pushed it out? Edward had never dared to ask her.) while the Whitlock Coven had enjoyed their own post-hunt lovemaking, flashed through his awareness.
Edward winced internally and pulled Bronwyn close against his side. "I'm sorry. I knew they'd been informed and invited, but I didn't say anything because I didn't want to worry you over nothing." The Whitlock Coven did not always accept invitations.
Comforting his wife was easier than dwelling on the thoughts of the Whitlocks. Jasper's instant assessment of the group gathered already under the simple canopy they had erected against the weather was predictable.
Emmett's finally settled down, good. Don't want to embarrass him in front of Rose. Ed's here. Great. You listening? No spouting off on Isabella this time! Probably isn't listening anyway. He's all wrapped up in his mate. Alistair – he's red-eyed again. I absolutely understand. Kate's a stronger person than I am. Carlisle – at least there's no paternal vibe this time. Finally. No aggressive flares. All right. Good. Jasper's thoughts relaxed somewhat as he led Alice and Bella under the protection of the weatherproofed tarpaulin.
Alice was impossible. Reciting the latest supernatural thriller in English in the forefront of her mind. La da da, Edward. Rhys burrowed into the thick fog, hiding himself from his tormentors. He felt them, though; their anger pressing tangibly against his spine –
He vacated her mind instantly and checked on Bella. No, she wasn't letting anyone in, today.
I'm going to be polite. C'mon, Bron, you're being ridiculous, his wife admonished herself. "Hello! What a surprise to see you," she called, actually approaching Bella with her hand outstretched.
Isabella's expression was – in contrast to her thoughts – easily read. Surprise. "Thank you, Bronwyn. How's the hunting been?"
"We haven't gone yet. I think we were waiting for you." Bronwyn could curl her voice to good effect, chastising Edward as well as implying that the Whitlocks were somewhat lacking, all in seven simple words.
With a smooth smile, Bella nodded. "Very kind of you, I'm sure." She reached one hand out and touched Jasper's sleeve. "We had a bit of a delay at the airport."
Alice, as if pulled by gravity, moved toward Jasper and linked arms with Bella. "They had to inspect our recording equipment. We thought we'd combine this trip with a new unit." Oh, their teaching project. Of course. Edward was irritated that his mind had first imagined they had been delayed on account of sex. It had happened before, but he hated that his imagination went there. He did not approve of their relationship but that didn't truly matter. At least he was spared having to live with it, year in and year out.
Was Alice even looking for Bella's mate? Why should she, after all? It was clear that the three of them were content and fulfilled with one another. But it was wrong, Edward groused internally. Wrong to keep Bella to themselves. Yes, fine, by all accounts she was happy, but why should she even try to find her destined true mate if that were so?
Jasper confronted him.
Edward. You and I need to have a talk.
Edward pushed forth a wave of reluctance and irritation.
I get it. But we do. C'mon. With a nudge that felt more like a jab in Edward's nonfunctional kidneys, Jasper all but herded him away.
You know, I get this irritated, superior vibe from Bronwyn every time we come to one of these things. And when Bella shields me in a certain way? She feels it, too. Jasper subdued the growl he felt rumbling under his ribs, vibrating and angry. Edward pulsed in a wave of shock and guilt. Yeah. As Bella has told you times without number, Edward, you don't have to approve of us. Ever. It's okay. But neither do you get to judge us, all right? Bella, especially, is a stronger person than anyone I know.
"Oh, I concur," Edward murmured, since they were out of earshot of even the most sensitive vampire ears. "But she deserves to be happy and whole, Jasper."
The Leader of the Whitlock Coven didn't even think for a moment. He simply cuffed Edward on the back of his head, sending him flying forward to land awkwardly on all fours.
Fury flared all around Edward's head and torso. Jasper didn't flinch; he was prepared to do battle. That's right, Edward. Battle. I am not putting up with your pestering Bella about finding her mate. She's happy. If it happens, it'll happen. Are you jealous? Is that what this is? It was an unfair question; Jasper knew that jealousy might be in the confusing mix of Edward's emotional stew, but that wasn't his primary reason.
"No!" The mind-reader rose slowly to his feet, staying six paces from Jasper. "I just – I'm responsible for her, Jasper."
"No. You're not. We've told you, Edward. She's responsible for her own happiness and so are Alice and I, to a degree. Let it go, brother," he added on a softer note. "Let her go."
Edward's face contorted and he actually slumped to the ground. "I can't. Until I know that she's whole, I'll feel like I've broken her and I have to fix it."
Jasper snorted. "She's happy. She's in love. She's everything she wants to be right now. You do not get to tell her it's not enough, you hear me? I will bury you under enough shame to pin you to the mud for the next day, Edward, if I catch anything of the sort. I love that woman and you are not allowed to say anything directed at making her feel less than what she is. Ever." Jasper felt every muscle in his body tense, prepared to pound mud down the other man's throat. He dug into his own private resources to find the shame he needed and the pain he could inflict.
"Is she even looking for him? Alice, I mean?"
"Edward! It's not your concern, you ass! Let it go!"
Rain pouring from his heavy locks of water-dark hair, Jasper pushed Edward once into the earth and stalked back.
Edward knew better than to retaliate.
Instead, he rose from the ground and used the rain to rinse the mud from his body while he thought. He didn't trust Alice. In general, yes, but he didn't trust her to be seeking Bella's mate with due diligence. There was only one other person who might be able to find a mate, if one was to be had.
Grimacing, he jogged back to the gathering, ignoring the inquisitive thoughts and direct – silent – questions from all the others as he caught his prey's eye. "Alistair," he called softly.
Kate heard him too, of course, and the mismated pair turned as one to face him. Golden eyes and red. What is it? they both wondered silently.
Bella and Alice watched Kate and Alistair leave their conversation with Carlisle and Esme to go off into a more-or-less private conference with Edward. "What is it?" Bella inquired of her dearest friend and partner. "First Jasper and now Alistair?"
Jasper had taken a few moments to dry off but rejoined them at that moment. "Ladies," he drawled, a subtle reassurance drifting from him to encompass Bella and Alice.
Bella tilted her head, Alice shook hers, and they all three regarded one another silently. "Jasper," the smallest of their triad murmured, her hand sliding up his arm, "you know that you can't go getting all mad at him because he's worried."
Bella tensed. In all their years together, Edward remained a sore point for Jasper. Not out of any type of jealousy, she understood, but because her ex-husband tended to act with intrusive concern. Still, she didn't defend him again because it had all been said already. She just sighed and leaned into Jasper's side a little. "I love you," she murmured to both of them, projecting with practiced force the feelings she held and the confidence she had in them.
"What is it all about?" Jasper inquired of Alice with an nod in the direction Edward had taken.
Alice turned to follow the path Edward, Kate and Alistair had taken. "I can't hear. I got a vision of them talking, heads together."
"Anything resulting from it?" Jasper asked in his Major's voice.
Bella held her breath as Alice searched futures. After about sixty endless seconds, the seer sighed expansively, her shoulders rolling. "No. Nothing I can see."
After spending time with Emmett discussing the current herd movements and the diurnal versus nocturnal opportunities, the Cullens and Whitlocks and all extended parties separated. It was time to hunt.
Hunting almost always led to riotous lovemaking – decades had not changed this delightful "dessert" that they indulged in regularly.
In a Jackalberry tree, isolated on the African savannah, Bella relished the love that all but shone around her. Braced against the tree trunk, she gloried in Jasper's powerful thrusts. As she approached orgasm, Alice – who watched with loving desire practically pouring from her – reached for her hand and Bella grasped tightly, her other arm clutching the trunk of the tree. Tension spiraled, her breath came in quick pants when her body tightened all around her lover's.
"Oh...!" Her scream was followed by Jasper's branch-rattling roar and Alice's moan. When they were together, in whatever level of sexual involvement, they knew that their triadic orgasms were felt by all of them. It was nothing short of staggering. Rather like Jasper's recovery time.
In a matter of moments, it seemed, he had bounced up to Alice's branch and settled her on his renewed erection while Bella watched, sated and happy and enjoying. This time, she held Alice's hand, and their fulfillment probably succeeded in scaring any animals that hadn't already left the vicinity.
Post-coital snuggling being difficult on the branches of the Jackalberry tree, the three of them leapt lightly to the ground after recovering their clothes. They planned on making the trip back to the rest as slow as vampiricly possible.
"Promise you won't let him under your skin?" Alice requested of her mate.
Jasper chuckled. "No. But I promise not to shove him in the mud again unless he refuses to heed me on one particular," he said formally.
Bella smiled privately to herself. Really, Jasper was a sweetheart for trying so hard to keep Edward off her case. "I could just close off his mind again," she said whimsically. "It is kind of fun."
"Save it for when he's really obnoxious," Alice advised. And when Jasper opened his mouth to say something, she jabbed him with her elbow. "When Bella thinks he's obnoxious."
Stop being obnoxious and tell me, already! Bronwyn chided playfully as she unbuttoned Edward's dark hunting shirt.
"I asked Alistair to find someone. And I think you'll be quite pleased," he added with a smile.
So long as you're all here with me... she thought with a sly image of them stranded in the night-shaded grasses.
With a smile, he slid Bronwyn up his body and held her tightly against himself. "I am, love. I am." And it almost felt as if he was, for the very first time.
In future days, as Bella reviewed the recordings she, Jasper and Alice had made for their latest educational endeavor, she would think of how happy she had been. Good times, no overt negativity even from Rosalie, and Bronwyn had been more than merely polite. Even Edward never became obnoxious, never frowned when he saw her embracing both of her loves. It had to have been too fabulous to last.
Far to the north, on the Emerald Isle, a red-haired, ably-muscled man returned to a shaded cottage before a misty sunrise could glance off his skin. His eyes glowed with the blood of a fresh meal over the newly-inherited sweater he had also coveted. "Siobhan! Maggie!"
The women of the coven appeared. "Liam! You're back! Did you find him?" Siobhan asked. They had been lovers for a decade before Siobhan found Maggie, and the curvaceous blond vampire knew all his secrets. His sire, a tracker with a mediocre level of skill, had found his way to their corner of County Cavan. Known for its many lakes, the County attracted a fair share of tourists – Liam's natural prey – and bodies were easily made to look like boat-accident victims. If they were careful, it was a good place to live for a time. "You said he'd come back." They all knew of whom Siobhan spoke.
"Did you will it so, love?" he teased her, a fresh air of freedom about him. At her disclaiming gesture, he laughed. "I did find him. He had just captured a new victim. One who will not, mind, be joining our race."
Maggie whistled. "You did it! You're free!"
"You appear less tense, Liam," Siobhan said. They stood speaking to one another in their natural, rapid speed, their bodies stone-still, for they had no near neighbors and only the birds were about at this hour.
He acknowledged her observation with a quick nod. "I uncovered myself." It was his gift, and it worked far better than any gift his sire had hired, to be sure. He could hide himself at will from all but physical eyes. He had kept himself covered for decades, more than half a century, really, and the effort expended – though negligible – had left a perpetual feeling of tension in his personal space. "Feels good."
Siobhan gestured with a friendly wave of her arm and the three moved indoors. "So now what?" she inquired.
He smiled ruefully. "Honest, dove, I've no idea. I'm thinking I'll travel, some." He embraced each woman with one arm, pulling them against his sides. "I know you'll appreciate the privacy, eh?"
"Oh, you!" Maggie slapped him on the stomach.
"Bella? It's Kate."
Bella grinned and relaxed in the front seat of the Jeep she, Jasper and Alice were using on their excursion. "Hey, Kate! How are you? Did you guys go back to the U.K.?" The big reunion had ended amicably and Bella felt so much less tense now that she and Alice and Jasper were doing what they normally did, out here in the wild.
A nervous laugh. "Yes, we did. It's very comfortable here. Look. I am calling because Edward spoke to us at the hunting party."
"I saw that. Everything okay?"
An uncomfortable sound filtered through the connection. "He asked my mate to do him a favor."
"What kind of favor?" Jasper, who had been checking the fluids under the hood of the vehicle, popped his head around to watch her. Alice quit flipping pages in the magazine. Bella beckoned to Jasper, who stepped around to the window, reaching in just to place a soothing hand on her thigh. Alice scooted forward until she had her cheek on Bella's shoulder. The contact with the loved ones relaxed Bella considerably. "I can't imagine what Edward would want from Alistair."
"Your mate, not to put too fine a point on it."
Unnerved, Bella stilled. "Oh?"
There was a small sliding sound and then Bella caught a voice she had never heard except in person. "Isabella? It is Alistair."
Alice puffed out an impatient breath that moved a lock of Bella's hair. "Alistair? What is it?" both women asked simultaneously. Jasper's sudden flash of a grin was gone almost as soon as they'd registered it, but his jolt of amusement had been palpable.
"I do not wish to do this without your knowledge, for it seems to me that Edward Cullen's request was – inappropriate, to be quite honest with you. He wanted me," Alistair went on, reluctance heavy in his tone, "to seek your mate."
"What the hell?" Bella protested. "How dare he?" With her free hand, she gripped Jasper's and squeezed hard to avoid breaking the phone.
A loud breath. "He told me he's still feeling responsible for you."
"He's an ass," Jasper interjected, grimacing from his position half-in the window.
"That is true," Alistair agreed with a snort loud enough for all three of them to hear. "The thing is, Isabella, I rather feel as if I owe it to you to look, much as I'd rather not."
A spike of fear, oddly edged with a strange curiosity, shot through Bella, feeling as if it came in at her neck and went out through her spine. "Oh." She darted a look to Jasper and then to Alice, seeing frowns on their faces that mirrored her own, she was sure. "Well, then. Alistair, it's your gift. I can't tell you how to use it. I cannot believe Edward asked this of you."
"I can," Alice muttered. "Alistair?"
"Thanks for letting us know."
"It is the least I can do."
Bella pressed her lips together and closed her eyes. "Can I call you back about this?"
"I make no promises," the misanthrope replied before ending the conversation.
Immediately thereafter, Jasper pulled her out of the Jeep and into his arms. Alice was right behind, wrapping her body as closely as she could around the two people who brightened her world.
Isabella trembled as feelings ran riot through her. "I love us three," she whispered. It was their affirmation.
"So do we," Jasper assured her.