The scent of cookies filled Jasper’s nose well before he reached the house. The long driveway was already lined in lawn decorations, and at least three strings of colored lights hung from the eaves.
The tale of Hansel and Gretel flitted through Jasper’s mind, and he sighed. It was pure foolishness to make themselves even more inviting to the humans. What if someone from town drove by and decided their new neighbors needed a Christmas fruitcake to welcome them to the neighborhood? He loved Alice more than anything in the world, but he did wonder if sometimes her zeal for decorating overrode her sense of caution.
The sight that greeted him upon entering the house was only marginally unusual. More lights were strung around the walls, a wreath hung over the stairs, a Nativity set was laid out on a small table by the large window, and Emmett and Rosalie were in the middle of decorating a rather prominent tree while singing off-key Christmas carols and pelting each other with tinsel. Noticing how the light playing off the tinsel caught rather ludicrously in Emmett’s curls, Jasper thought perhaps some vampires enjoyed sparkling a little too much.
A ripple of amusement brought Jasper’s attention to the sofa, where Edward sat with a book in his hands, grinning crookedly. Edward glanced at Emmett, then at Jasper, then went back to reading.
As Jasper walked past the staircase, Alice came bounding down it and was in his arms, her limbs wrapped around him, before he could say so much as ‘hello’. She kissed him, then said, “Missed you.”
He smiled. “I wasn’t even gone a day.”
She shrugged and dropped to her feet, then grasped his hand in hers.
“Everything went well, I trust?” Carlisle called from the kitchen, where he was rolling dough into small balls and setting them on a cookie sheet.
Jasper frowned. “Yes. We should have the new documents in a week. Why are you baking sugar cookies?”
“Not just sugar cookies,” Emmett corrected, reaching up to put the angel on top of the tree (Whether the angel had come with yellow eyes or Emmett had colored them in, Jasper couldn’t be certain). “Gingerbread, chocolate chip, snickerdoodles . . . Man, I used to love snickerdoodles.”
Jasper walked to the doorway of the kitchen to inspect the scene more closely. There were at least three plates of cookies sitting on the counter, and a bowl of dough next to the sink. “At the risk of repeating myself: why?”
Esme acted as if the cookie sheet she was washing took every ounce of her focus, and Carlisle pursed his lips. Wiping his hands on a towel, he walked to Jasper and led him back out into the living room.
Carlisle looked at Jasper’s eyes and seemed satisfied with what he saw there. “How have things been at school?”
Jasper blinked. He didn’t like the sound of where this was going. “It’s difficult,” he said truthfully, “but I’m managing.” All of them (for they could all hear this exchange, even though Jasper and Carlisle were speaking softly) knew perfectly well he wasn’t talking about his schoolwork.
Carlisle smiled faintly and nodded, and Jasper could feel a soft brush of pride from the other vampire. “Good. I knew you’d be able to handle it.” He laid a hand on Jasper’s shoulder. “I’ve invited some of my coworkers for dessert.”
Involuntarily, Jasper stopped breathing for a good five seconds. “Humans?”
Carlisle didn’t react outwardly to this, but Jasper could read his amusement nonetheless. “Yes, humans.” Something amused Edward as well, and Jasper guessed Carlisle hadn’t voiced his complete thought.
“In our house?”
Alice clutched his hand, but Jasper knew it was his panic she was feeling, not her own. “It’ll be fine, Jazz. I’ve seen it. You’ll be fine.”
Jasper took a deep breath, willing himself to believe her. She did, after all, have a way of being right about things like this. “Why?”
“We’re still new in town,” Carlisle answered. “We live outside the city limits, none of you socialize with their teenagers—not that I’m criticizing that course, mind—and my strange looks and apparent youth lead them to question my abilities and keep them at arm’s length. We need to reach out to them now, before their impressions of us are fully set, or they’ll never trust me enough to let me do my job. Even if they don’t know us, the townspeople need to think well of us.”
“Why?” asked Jasper. “You’ve treated people who didn’t like you before.”
“Because if any of them ever do get ideas about what we really are, a good public image could mean the difference between them laughing off their suspicions and them running us out of town. People are more than willing to condemn strangers—particularly eccentric ones—but they’re far less likely to entertain negative thoughts about those whom they respect.”
Jasper wanted to protest, but could see his point. “When do they arrive?”
“Soon. I had expected you back earlier, hoping you’d have more time to accustom yourself to the idea, but I’m certain you’ll be fine nonetheless.”
Jasper squeezed Alice’s hand, not wanting to contradict either her or Carlisle. He glanced at Edward. Do they really believe I’ll be fine? he thought.
Edward rolled his eyes. “Of course they believe it,” he replied aloud, “or they wouldn’t have said it. Do you think they’d put lives in danger if they thought you’d slip?”
The others took this seemingly one-sided conversation in stride. Alice slapped his arm. “Why would we lie about something like this? I told you I saw it. Are you saying you don’t trust me?”
Jasper looked down. “Of course I do. I just don’t trust myself.”
Emmett was suddenly beside him with an arm around his shoulders. “Tell you what,” he said cheerfully. “If you look like you’re gonna eat one of the humans, I’ll knock you through a wall.”
Jasper laughed, his tension easing. “All right. That sounds fair.”
The first of their guests arrived just as Esme was pulling the last batch of cookies from the oven. Jasper could smell the humans as soon as they got out of their car and braced himself. He could do this. Alice knew it, Carlisle believed it, and that was practically proof in itself. He stood back near the kitchen with his fingers laced through Alice’s and waited.
Carlisle waited for the doorbell to ring, then opened the door with a smile. A slightly nervous-looking middle-aged man with graying hair entered with a dumpy blonde woman and two children: a boy of about six and a girl who looked around nine. The boy was slightly dumpy like his mother, but the girl was willowy and fragile-looking. And she smelled like strawberries.
Sensing the tightening of his muscles, Alice stroked his arm, and he forced himself to think of other things.
“Geoffrey, allow me to introduce you to my family,” Carlisle was saying, closing the door behind their guests and leading them further into the living room. “Emmett and Rosalie”—Emmett waved jauntily—“Edward”—Edward, having stood, nodded politely—“Alice and Jasper”—Alice smiled brightly and said she was pleased to meet them while Jasper gritted his teeth and attempted a smile—“and my wife, Esme.”
“I’m so glad you could come,” Esme said with a smile as she made her way from the kitchen to stand beside Carlisle and shake their guests’ hands.
Geoffrey laughed uneasily as he let go of her hand. “I know they say doctors have cold hands; never heard anything about doctors’ wives having them too.” Esme smiled benignly, but didn’t answer. The man looked around at the others. “Uh, Carlisle, I know you said your children were teenagers, but I imagined them looking a bit . . . younger. Are you sure you’re old enough to be their father?”
The sudden disquiet that Jasper picked up from the others in the room did not help his own.
But Carlisle just smiled and said, “They’re adopted, of course. Esme and I hadn’t planned on having children, but . . . well, they all needed help at one point or another, and now I can’t imagine life without them.”
Geoffrey shook his head, smiling. “So you’re one of those doctors.”
Carlisle’s smile fell. “Pardon?”
“Out to save the world, one soul at a time.”
Interesting choice of words, thought Jasper with a frown.
“I do what I can,” Carlisle allowed.
After a moment, Geoffrey blurted, “Oh, I’m sorry. I nearly forgot. This is my wife Janice, my son Michael, and my daughter Andrea.”
“You have a lovely house,” said Janice, looking quite awed by more than just the house.
“Oh, thank you,” said Esme, beaming. “Interior design is something of a hobby of mine.”
The atmosphere grew a bit more comfortable after that. The humans took seats and Esme offered them cookies and tea. Before long, more humans arrived—all adults this time—and clusters of conversation began around the room. Only Carlisle and Esme looked like they were really putting effort into the thing, though Emmett eventually got involved in an animated discussion about football while Rosalie sat silently beside him, and Alice went over to one of the young nurses (something about finding out who designed the dress she was wearing). Edward spent most of his time reading quietly and tolerating the group of women who sat giggling nearby, occasionally answering their questions with as few words as he could. For his part, Jasper sat on the stairs, his attention occupied with not killing their guests.
He had closed his eyes, trying to focus on his breathing and not the overwhelming scent of human, when he heard movement much closer than he’d have expected. He opened his eyes to find the young girl, Andrea, staring at him.
He looked back at her with something like terror. She was so close, so tender, and he could scoop her up and have her out of sight before—
“You’re very handsome. Do you have a girlfriend?”
Jasper looked around, completely nonplussed. He didn’t have much experience with little kids (other than occasionally killing them and drinking their blood), so he wasn’t at all sure how to take her remark, much less respond to it.
“No, I have—” He stopped himself, remembering that he was meant to be a high-schooler, and high-schoolers did not typically have wives. “Uh, I mean, yeah. I do. Why?”
To his horror, the girl plopped down next to him on the step. He could feel the warmth radiating from her. Her hair was pulled up into a ponytail, exposing her neck. She was practically begging him to—
“You want a cookie?” she asked, pulling a gingerbread man out of her pocket. He shook his head dazedly. She shrugged and bit the head off, completely oblivious to the dangerous symbolism of the act.
“Why are you here?” Jasper asked in a strained voice.
“You looked lonely all by yourself. Why isn’t your girlfriend here?”
“She is,” Jasper said, trying desperately not to think of how soft her skin must be, how easy it would be to tear into—
Swallowing the venom that disobligingly filled his mouth, he nodded toward Alice.
The girl’s face scrunched up. “Isn’t that your sister?”
The question was so unexpected that it distracted Jasper for a moment as he tried to remember if that was part of their cover or not. “No. Not really. Sort of. We’re adopted, remember?”
The girl shook her head, nibbling on her cookie. “It’s kinda gross.”
Despite himself, Jasper laughed. Of all the things about him and his family that could be considered ‘gross’ . . .
“She’s very pretty, though,” said the girl, cocking her head at Alice, then looking at Jasper appraisingly. “You’re pretty, too. And it’s not like you look like brother and sister, I guess.” She glanced back and forth between them again. “Except you’re both really pale, and you have weird eyes.” Setting the cookie on her lap, she leaned in closer to him, staring at his eyes. He could feel her warm breath on his face. “I mean, really weird eyes. Why are your eyes yellow?”
He could hardly think. His skin was practically burning from the heat of her proximity. The smell of her blood was nearly making him dizzy with hunger. He didn’t seem to have any control over the words that came out of his mouth next.
“Because I’m a vampire,” he whispered.
The next instant, he realized what he’d said and jerked away from the girl . . . away from her scream.
But she wasn’t screaming. She was laughing. Bright peals of laughter like silver bells.
“You’re silly!” she chided. “Vampires have fangs; everyone knows that. No, you look like that guy from Star Trek.” She lowered her voice and said conspiratorially, “Admit it, you’re an android.”
Having never been much for television, Jasper had no idea what she was talking about, but she’d given him an out for a mistake that could have screwed up everything. So, he winked at her and said, “Ya caught me.” The girl laughed again, and then someone was approaching.
“Time to go, Andrea,” said the girl’s mother. “Say good-bye.”
The girl hopped down off the stairs, the remaining half of her cookie falling to the floor, and smiled at Jasper. “Bye-bye,” she said, then stage-whispered, “Don’t worry. I won’t tell.”
The girl and her mother joined the rest of the family at the door, and Jasper realized the guests had thinned out.
Jasper wiped a hand across his forehead, which would have been sweaty if he’d been human. Of course, if he’d been human, there would have been no cause for it to be.
“And what do you call that?” Edward said, suddenly standing in front of him.
Jasper looked up at him, annoyed and ashamed. A near miss, he thought. You all said I’d be able to handle this.
“And so you did,” Edward said, and sat next to him, right where the girl had been.
“You sent the mother over, didn’t you?”
Edward nodded. “I don’t think the others were paying attention.” He looked at the other vampires. All were still engaged in conversation. Even Rosalie had gotten involved (The conversation with Emmett and the young men had evidently moved to cars).
“If you hadn’t been listening, I might have . . . ”
“The thing you have to remember, Jasper,” said Edward, “is that we’re a family. We look out for each other. If we succeed, we succeed together. If we fail, we fail together. You’re not alone.” Before Jasper could argue, he added quietly enough the humans couldn’t hear, “And Alice’s visions—however they work—know that.”
Jasper thought that over, trying to figure out what it all meant. It was hard to get used to being part of a family. “Thanks,” he said, standing. “Do you think Carlisle would be offended if I left?” Nonverbally, he added, I’d like to go hunt a little.
“I’ll get Alice,” Edward responded. “We’ll come with you.”
Jasper looked at the half-eaten gingerbread man on the floor and nodded. “I think that would be a good idea.”