Jasper held his head and tried to concentrate. Though his
was a pervasive gift, he was best able to control it by isolating a minor
emotion and focusing on identifying it.
But in this room on this day with the lives of the Cullen clan hanging fitfully in the balance, the exercise was impossible. Every sense was heightened, every feeling cresting toward its peak, and there were no gradations in which to rest.
So he felt it all: Emmett’s incredulity, Alice’s muted excitement, Esme’s concern, Carlisle’s caution, Rosalie’s severity, and Edward and Bella’s everything.
“Amazing,” he thought. “Even on opposite sides, they are still in sync.”
Emmett returned to his place beside the judge’s bench after Edward swore his allegiance to the court’s decision, and now Rosalie would have to get about the business of beginning this trial.
The trial of a lifetime.
Jasper understood his wife’s euphoria at Bella taking Edward to court. Alice believed so strongly in her brother’s love for the human that nothing short of the apocalypse could tear them apart. Edward, she believed, needed only time to see that.
Jasper wasn’t so sure.
He knew Edward loved Bella. He saw that coming a mile off even without his wife’s predictions. It was fated, too cruel not to happen to an unsuspecting Edward, and could not be avoided.
But he also knew Edward feared Bella, a fear running strong and parallel to that love, and if Edward did not destroy that fear, it would destroy them all.
Jasper had never hoped so badly to be wrong.
As Rosalie instructed the litigants on the protocol of representing themselves in court, Jasper recalled how little right he had to blame Edward or Bella for their current situation as his own actions on her birthday led them to this perilous place.
Across the aisle, his wife hissed at him under her breath. She anticipated his emotions with telepathic accuracy, and he wondered if she had a special gift for reading him. Her gift previewed the decisions of others, but Jasper would never decide to feel so wretched. He would never wish such self-loathing and guilt on anyone.
Alice sent him a confounding wave of disapproval and sympathy, asking him to disembark from his current train of thought, but he could not. No matter what she thought or Esme said or Carlisle insisted or Emmett joked or Rosalie felt, it was his lack of self-control that shoved Bella into that table and might cost their family what they valued most.
Edward groaned, and a corresponding flare of annoyance came his way. They had not properly spoken since the party, aside from a four-word conversation late last night, and from the tenor of Edward’s emotions, he had no intention of letting Jasper off the hook for what he did.
For if Edward did that, Edward would also have to pardon himself. And that he could never do.
So this was Jasper’s way of making amends, his apology in action. As long as Edward blamed himself for Bella’s party, Jasper would blame himself too, giving his brother a literal partner in crime.
It was all he could do for Edward now, the worst thing he could do in Alice’s eyes and the reason they sat on opposite sides of the courtroom. She sent him another wave of emotion, seeking to woo him to her side.
“To the side of right,” she called it when they arrived this morning.
“Right is relative, cricket,” he said quietly. “And in this case, we might both be right.”
“Ms. Swan.” Rosalie drew Jasper’s attention back to the proceedings. “You may give your opening statement.”
“Thank you, Your Honor.” Bella walked toward the center of the room. Though she was nervous, confidence and indignation competed for dominance, either emotion a valuable asset in this setting. And as she fixed her glare on the defendant, Jasper felt Edward’s anxiety spike.
This was going to be a shame.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” She smiled brightly, though there was a hint of bitterness in it. “I think we all know why we’re here, but let me clarify just in case. We are here because on Thursday of this week, that man”—she pointed an accusing finger at Edward—“made scandalous allegations about our relationship. He said I am no good for him nor him for me. That his world is unsafe for me, and he is weary of pretending otherwise. That he does not love me and has no…”
“Objection!” Edward jumped to his feet, the gentleness in his voice belying the heat in his gaze. “I never said I didn’t love you.”
“Mr. Masen, do not address opposing counsel,” Rosalie said. “And please wait your turn to speak. That objection is overruled.”
He took his seat with a pleading look at Bella, and she raised her chin and turned away. “He said he does not love me, does not want me, and does not care what could happen to me in his absence as he will soon be easily distracted.”
She dragged out the word, illuminating its implications, and Jasper felt the family’s outrage swell around him. He glanced at Edward, studying his downcast head and folded hands, and marveled that his brother hadn’t crumbled under the weight of his own emotions. As it stood, the sheer variety of his feeling gave Jasper a splitting headache.
“So my purpose is simple,” Bella said. “To prove Mr. Masen is blasphemously wrong. That we are more than good for each other; we are essential for each other. That he is the reason I am alive and safe. And that a love like ours is stronger than anything.” Her voice caught on the last word, but she masked it behind a cough. “And most of all, that the worst thing that could happen would be us being apart.” She looked at him again, her eyes bright with determination. “Ever.” When he did not look up, she turned back to the gallery. “Thank you.”
Alice and Emmett clapped, and Rosalie banged the gavel on the wooden sound block, pulverizing it on contact. “Crap,” she muttered, causing Alice to giggle.
“Okay.” Rosalie held up her hands. “One, Ms. Brandon-Whitlock, you are not allowed to clap after opening statements or any other part of the trial for that matter. You are to remain quiet and respectful at all times.”
“Sorry, Your Honor,” she said, sounding anything but.
“Nor,” Rosalie continued hotly, “are you permitted to laugh at me. For any reason.”
“My apologies, Madame,” Alice replied. “It will not happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t.” She lightened her voice. “Ms. Swan, you may return to your seat, thank you.” Bella curtsied then rushed to her seat, reaching into the cooler for a bottle of water.
“And Mr. McCarty.” Rosalie’s voice was stern. “As an officer of the court, you are not allowed to react to the proceedings in any way. You are to be neutral and free of bias. Is that understood?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Emmett’s desire crested at Rosalie’s reprimand, and Jasper focused on an image of Emmett in drag to tamper those feelings. The last thing this room needed was an outbreak of lust from the judge and the officer.
“And get me a new one of… these.” She scooped what was now sawdust in her hands, tossing it to the floor. “Preferably one that doesn’t break at the slightest touch.”
“Yes, Your Honor.” Emmett was out of the room and back before Bella could replace the cap on her water, the new sound block properly placed. Rosalie tapped it with the gavel for good measure and turned to Edward. “Mr. Masen, your opening statement, please.”
Edward kept his eyes down as he walked around his table. He did not pause in the center of the courtroom as Bella had, choosing instead to plant himself in front of her. She huffed, though Jasper recognized her annoyance was forced, and Edward raised his head, waiting.
“Mr. Masen,” Rosalie prompted. “You may begin.”
“In a moment, Your Honor.”
Bella looked up, scanning Edward’s eyes as he studied hers. “Are you sure you want to do this?” he murmured, the anxiety rolling off him making everyone uncomfortable.
Everyone except Bella.
She leaned back in her chair, folding her arms across her chest. “Proceed, counselor.”
He sighed with a curt nod. “As you wish.”
With a parting look, he walked toward the other side of the room with measured steps. The anticipation nearly suffocated Jasper, and he fisted his hands at his sides to keep from crying out in impatience.
“Many things are believed of me,” Edward began in a low, controlled voice. “Some are true, some true but misleading. And others,” he glanced toward the plaintiff’s side of the room. “Outright false.”
He placed his hands behind his back as he paced. “But most of that, like much of everything else, is my fault. I have explained myself poorly if at all, leaving those who know me with scant speculations of my true intent. That ends now.
“You have heard Ms. Swan’s opening statement, her recitation of my accusations.” Here he paused, his brow furrowing. “And though she misquoted me regarding my feelings for her, the rest of her assertions are accurate. I said those things, meant those things, but not for the reasons she gave.
“Besides Ms. Swan, assembled here are the remaining members of the Cullen clan. Six individuals neatly divided into three couples: the Whitlocks, the McCartys, and the Cullens.” He looked each person in the eye, confusing them all. “By nature, the mated vampire relationship is a covenant, a blood covenant if you will pardon the terrible pun. A covenant demanding protection of one’s mate at all costs. Even if from oneself.
“My aim today, though I take no pleasure in it, is two-fold. One, to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that by the nature of the mated relationship between Ms. Swan and myself, and regardless of any other considerations no matter how noble, leaving her to keep her safe is my only recourse.
“And two, that any one of you, so mated as I, would make the same choice under similar circumstances. That if your presence meant the eventual, unpreventable death of your mate, you would leave without delay or deliberation, valuing your mate’s life above everything else, including your own happiness.
“Thus by the time I finish my case, this court will have no choice but to conclude that my leaving Ms. Swan is the only right decision as demanded by the mated covenant and love itself.”
Edward did not thank the court as he took his seat, but this was not a time for gratitude or gentility. This was a time for loin-girding and wagon-circling. For while Bella kept the case about her and Edward alone, Edward did the opposite, throwing down the gauntlet by playing the only card in his hand with a fighting chance of winning among such a group.
The mate card.
It was the only thing stronger than the bonds of family. And Edward well knew it.
In silence, the six referenced vampires regarded Edward with resentment and apprehension, and Jasper winced under the weight of it all. Rubbing his temples in vain for relief, he kept his head down as he waited for Rosalie’s next words.
“Ms. Swan.” The judge cleared her throat, as her emotions were as jumbled as everyone else’s. “You may call your first witness.”
Another few moments of silence passed before Bella responded. Of everyone in the room, she was the most shaken, and as she slowly came to her feet, Jasper understood why Edward had been so reluctant to begin.
To keep Bella safe, Edward would have to destroy them all.