Tougher Than The Rest - Complete
"I didn't expect my weekend to consist of anything more than a family wedding…then I met Bella and my world was blown apart. Could I accept her reality, once I'd finally learned what that even was?"
Chapter 1: "…look at you now, all curves and legs!"
A/N: I don't own Twilight or its characters; they belong to Stephanie Meyer. This is just what they got up to in my mind.
"Thank you." I nodded to the burly taxi driver as I handed over the fare and exited the cab with as much dignity as possible in the dress I was wearing.
"Have a nice day," he replied as I turned to the imposing hotel building. To the side of the double door entrance was an elegant chalkboard on an easel, proclaiming that this was indeed the venue of Tanya and Eleazar's wedding.
I had been friends with Eleazar since we were little. Our families lived next door to each other growing up, and Eli and I became firm friends. When my parents' marriage ended and my mom left, Eli had been a welcome support.
We were only eight at the time, but he was a great friend to me, and his parents cared for me in a way mine couldn't at that time. In the weeks following my mom's departure, Eli's mom used to pack extra in his lunches for him to take to school for me. Charlie, my dad, had thrown himself into his job as a policeman, forgetting for a few weeks that he had a young daughter to care for.
When he'd come around to his new reality—a reality without his wife—he'd packed us up and moved us to a new town, stating he'd got a promotion as police chief in Forks, Washington.
It wasn't until years later that Eli and I met again, but this time, as adults, we stayed in touch, meeting for meals and nights out. He soon introduced me to his beautiful fiancée, Tanya, and they invited me to their wedding.
Through conversations with the pair, it had become clear Tanya's family were paying for a no-expenses-spared event with everyone invited—from childhood friends to second-cousins-once-removed.
I'd heard all about the flower arranger breaking her arm a few weeks ago, the seating plan arguments, which resulted in a chalkboard being snapped in half, and the poor little flower girl who came down with chicken pox last week.
Therefore, I was looking forward to seeing how things turned out and hoping for a great day.
Walking into the hotel, I saw a coat check, where I handed over my jacket and bag for safekeeping. I could have kept my phone with me, but I knew if I was needed in an emergency, Garrett would know exactly where I was and would get a message to me. I would pop back after the meal and retrieve my phone to make the same call I made any time I was out for the evening.
This wasn't often, but for now I was enjoying the sense of freedom I had. I could let my hair down tonight with no one judging me. It had been a long time since I'd done that, and given how rarely an opportunity like this came around, I was determined to make the most of it tonight.
I entered the ballroom where the wedding was taking place. I'd deliberately arrived close to the ceremony time because I didn't know many people here, so I was hoping to avoid mingling around and waiting on my own.
I was desperate to speak to Eli's parents, whom I hadn't seen since childhood. I knew, however, that as mother and father of the groom, they would be in high demand right now, so I made a mental note to seek them out later.
Coming here alone meant it was easy enough to find a seat for one in the rows either side of the aisle, so I slipped into an end spot, smiling at the elderly man next to me.
As I appraised the room, I saw a gathering on the bride's side, near the front of the aisle. There were several older couples—aunts and uncles, I assumed—but there were also a few younger guys, closer to my age. One caught my attention immediately. He had striking bronze hair, which made him hard to miss, even in a room as full and busy as this one. His suit accentuated his broad shoulders and drew my attention to his body—not that he needed much help with that. I'd have noticed his body regardless of what he was wearing, but the obviously custom-made suit was a nice bonus.
I had to snap myself out of this; he was way out of my league and was no doubt married to someone from Tanya's family, probably one of her gorgeous sisters.
However, as I watched him take his place in the second row of seats, he sat on the end next to an older gentleman, leaving no room for anyone to join him.
I was still admiring him, his strong jaw and his large hands which were currently resting on top of his strong thighs, when I heard a shriek.
"Little Bella Marie!"
The loud voice caught the attention of most people in the room. The bronze-haired guy turned, and as I was already looking at him, our eyes met. However, I didn't have time to think about him further as the shriek had snapped me out of my daydream. I stood up, and turned to the woman who was now hurtling toward me.
"Young lady, look at you!" she added, holding me at arm's length now and appraising me. Unfortunately for me though, her voice was loud and bellowing, and most of the room was now looking at me too.
"Hello, Mrs. Denali," I greeted her fondly as she hugged me tightly to her.
"I knew it was you straight away, dear," she announced once she released me. "You have the same beautiful face, but look at you now, all curves and legs!" she continued as I blushed furiously. "Eli told me he'd found you again. I was so pleased…you had such a soft soul. I was worried about you when you moved. I thought that town would crush your spirit, but you look great! Eli says you're well?" she carried on, her voice finally lowering to a normal level as I nodded.
"Yes, I'm good. How about you?" I asked as she shook her head.
"Oh don't worry about us, dear. We're ticking on. Eli told me about Tyler. Bella, I had no idea…"
"Mom," Eli interrupted his mother, tapping her on the shoulder, prompting her to turn to him. "Tanya's ready. We're about to start. Why don't you catch up with Bella later? Dad will want to see her too," Eli added with a nervous smile.
"Oh, of course," his mom replied. "Gosh! My little boy is getting married!" she squealed as she squeezed Eli's cheeks and brushed some nonexistent lint off his shoulder.
Eli groaned, looking down at his overly shiny shoes, as his mom fussed over him. At least I wasn't the only person who was embarrassed right now.
"I'll speak to you later, dear. I'm so glad you're well," she added, turning back to me before I took my seat.
I could feel the bronze-haired guy looking over at me. I didn't know if he could hear our conversation over the general noise in the room, but just his look was enough to faze me.
I couldn't make eye contact with him though. My cheeks were still flushed, and my ears were still ringing from Mrs. Denali's words. I'd forgotten how loud and jolly Eli's mom was. And I'd forgotten how much I missed her—her motherly nature—her whole family unit.
Thankfully though, the room then fell into silence as soft classical music started to play, and the ceremony commenced.
The wedding was truly beautiful. The bride and groom looked so happy, and Tanya was stunning in a white lace wedding dress with a delicate flower bouquet.
Her chicken-pox-riddled flower girl wore a sparkly dress, and her wide beaming smile almost rivaled Tanya's. But my favorite part was the couples vows, they were so heartfelt they brought a tear to my eye.
It was over all too quickly and soon enough we were all exiting the ballroom onto a grassy area outside where I noticed drinks were being served. I grabbed a glass and watched people milling around, congratulating the bride and groom and chatting amongst themselves.
I spotted a group of Eli's friends, who I'd met at a lunch for his birthday. Grateful for a few familiar faces, I headed their way and joined in the conversation.
However, my thoughts were never far from the guy who had held my attention all afternoon. I saw him chatting with many other guests, but he didn't appear to be with a woman.
As I looked around again, I saw him with a curly-haired blond guy and a shorter woman with cropped dark hair rocking a baby on her hip as they chatted with him. He smiled widely and laughed with the couple, taking a sip from his glass as they spoke to him.
Then, with no warning at all, he turned and looked at me. His face was handsomely striking, and his gaze was intense. I wanted to run toward him and run far away from him at the same time. Instead, I did neither. I smiled, gaining a smile back from him before the guy he was with tapped his arm and regained his attention.
It had been a long time since a guy had paid me any attention, so a smile across the room was enough for my mind to wander—to his chest, his thighs, and his body under that suit. I had no skills or practice in flirting. I was out of my depth here, so I decided to let the night take me where it may.
Whatever happened, I'd still be me in the morning. I'd return to my happy little life and never see most of these people again. Chances were I'd end the night tucked up safely in my bed with a hot chocolate, wishing Garrett would stop snoring long enough for me to fall asleep.
I knew we would soon be called to take our seats for dinner, so I excused myself and headed for the restroom where I gave myself a talking to. I wasn't in the business of putting myself down, but I was realistic. I doubted a guy like him would be interested in me – not in my situation.
However, I didn't need a marriage proposal – I was just looking for a fun night. Most guys would like that, right?
I'd found a temporary boldness, whether it was in the alcohol I was drinking or the freedom I'd found for one night. Either way, I wanted to be reckless for once.
To live for me.
To be bold enough to put myself first.
Edward Cullen. That was me, and by the looks of this seating plan I was placed at the Lily table with no one from my family to keep me company. Thanks, Tanya.
I sighed and walked into the well-decorated hall. I knew my cousin's wedding would be an elaborate affair—hence my designer suit—but this surpassed all my expectations.
The hall was bathed in a soft light with swathes of white linen hanging from the ceiling and attached to the walls. The tables were sprinkled with rose petals and an elaborately folded origami heart in the center of them, which read; "Sit where you wish but your place is on the dance floor."
That was definitely Tanya's influence. As formal as this wedding was, she wanted to kick back and have a fun reception. That, coupled with the fact that seating plans were notoriously a pain in the ass to arrange, meant I was free to sit wherever I wanted at the Lily table.
I took a seat, noticing that in front of me were more glasses and cutlery than I knew what to do with.
I smiled at the unfamiliar couple already seated opposite me at the table. However, before I could introduce myself, the room became occupied by many hungry guests and the noise level rose.
As our table filled up, I glanced at the woman taking a seat next to me. She was the one I'd seen a few times this afternoon, mainly when that crazy loud woman accosted her and greeted her like she was her long lost daughter.
What did she call her? Marie something? Something Marie?
Whatever this woman's name was, it appeared she, like me, had come to the wedding alone. I was struggling to believe she didn't have a date though.
She was beautiful.
Not over the top, in your face stunning like my cousin Tanya but more girl next-door—understated and naturally beautiful. Maybe I didn't hate this seating plan—or lack of—quite so much now.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her smoothing out her dress and looking around nervously, so I took a deep breath and turned to her.
"You came to this alone?" I inquired. As she looked at me, her eyes widened. I wished I knew what she was thinking, but she gave nothing else away when she replied.
"Err, yeah. I didn't feel right taking up another place just to save face." She was slightly shy, not quite making eye contact with me, but I felt like we already had something in common.
"Me too," I told her, pleased that I'd made her smile as we shared our pain at going stag to a wedding. "My family's all here though," I added while my arm circled the room, motioning to the other guests.
"Ah, family wedding?" she asked, brushing her sweeping bangs out of the corner of her eye. Her hair was long, chocolate brown, and curled elegantly for the occasion.
"Yeah, Tanya's my cousin." I picked up the water pitcher from the center of the table and offered her a drink.
"Thanks." She nodded, holding out her glass while I poured her a drink, then myself, and then offered the pitcher to the guy seated on the other side of me.
"I'm Edward," I introduced myself as I turned back to her. She looked up at me from under her long lashes and introduced herself as Bella.
"So, did you have to travel far?" she asked, making me smile at her desire to maintain the conversation.
We continued to chat as the appetizer was served. Bella seemed quite shy, but I was able to make her laugh a few times.
As time progressed, I saw her physically relax into the evening—her shoulders lowered, and her smile widened.
She was charming and intelligent which only increased her appeal. While the meal continued, our eye contact grew along with our laughs as we chatted about random things.
We stuck to common interests: TV, films, music, travelling, nothing too personal. We talked to the other guests at our table but always ended up chatting, just the two of us again.
I was drawn to her, and I think she felt the same.
The way she twirled her hair around her finger when she was thinking hard and the way she smiled widely when she was encouraging me to talk had me wanting this meal to last all night—especially when she moaned at how good the chocolate dessert was, only to look embarrassed and apologize.
Not that that was necessary—I was replaying that moan more times than any gentleman should.
Before long, we were finishing our desserts and being shushed by the wedding party, who seemed eager to start the speeches.
The head table was behind us, so we turned our chairs in order to see them clearly.
I took the opportunity to stand and remove my suit jacket. I was getting hotter and hotter. I couldn't tell if it was my attraction to Bella or the fact that I was in this room full of people.
Either way, after I removed my jacket, I hung it over my seat, undid my top button, and loosened my tie before I sat back down.
I looked over at Bella, who was watching intently. Her gaze made me feel wanted. Her look was intense, like she wanted to do, or say, so much.
But she didn't.
I undid my cuff buttons and rolled my sleeves up to my elbows, revealing my forearms and silver wrist watch.
Bella sighed and looked away, toward the head table, and now I was the one staring.
This was the first time I'd seen the whole of her body up close.
She was stunning.
Her dress stopped just above her knees, which made her legs look amazing especially the way she crossed one over the other and swung it slightly. How could I not have noticed?
I swear, I tried to listen to the speeches, I really did.
I think Uncle Alec was actually quite funny, despite him being emotional at giving away his youngest daughter earlier in the day.
However, the woman to my left was very distracting. Every now and then, we would make eye contact and smile before she would look away.
As the speeches continued, I saw her eyes drop to my chest, to the gap I'd exposed when I loosened my tie and undid the top button of my shirt.
She shook her head slightly and turned away, looking embarrassed. As we sat, I tried to read her. She hadn't given much away when we'd spoken earlier, but her body language was undeniable.
She liked what she saw.
She liked me.
As the speeches drew to a close, I laughed along with my family and friends. We all toasted to the bride and groom before they eagerly announced that the evening reception would now commence.
Bella excused herself, presumably for the restroom, and I couldn't help but watch her as she walked away.
She looked stunning in a soft red dress that sat just off her shoulders, giving her a high neckline but showing off her collarbone. The outfit was matched with a very nice pair of heels, giving her those stunning legs. I couldn't help but notice it was quite a nice fit around her ass, too.
Damn, I needed to get a grip.
"Earth to Edward."
"Huh?" I spun round, embarrassed. I recognized that voice, and it was the last person I wanted to catch me ogling a woman I'd only known a couple of hours.
"Eddie boy, made a new friend, have you? Not bringing a date does have advantages after all!" My brother laughed, delighting in my embarrassment as his wife nudged him with her elbow.
"Shush, Em. You're such a jerk," she scolded him fondly.
"Rosie, he was practically drooling," Emmett replied while I rolled my eyes. "Speaking of drooling," he continued. "My wife looks stunning tonight. Seth's been picked up by a friend's Mom to stay the night with them, so we can party, but I think we're about to leave in a minute. We're going to take advantage of Seth's sleepover, if you know what I mean!"
His face split into a playful grin as Rosalie smacked him on the arm gently.
"Em, the whole room knows what you mean!" I joked with him.
"Well, you have fun, little bro. We're gonna have a dance and then head off," Emmett told me as I nodded to him.
"Okay, see you at breakfast, if you manage to get up, that is."
"Oh, we'll be there. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast. All that food, dude…" His voice got fainter and trailed off as Rosalie pulled him onto the dance floor, and they disappeared into the many couples now dancing.
As Bella walked back toward our table, I was beginning to realize I wasn't the only guy in the room to notice her.
She, however, seemed oblivious to this as she approached me.
"I'm heading up for a beer. Would you like a drink?"
"Oh, I left my bag at the coat check..." she started before I placed a hand on her shoulder and interrupted.
"This is the point where I could pretend to be a gentleman and buy you drinks all night, but it's an open bar, so…what do you want?"
"Oh, I didn't want to assume…anyway, I'd love a mojito, but I'll come with you," she told me as we set off for the bar together.
In the back of my mind, I was actually pleased she was being so sensible about not accepting a drink from a strange man who'd just admitted he wasn't a gentleman.
However, the bigger part of my brain was just pleased to be seen with her when a few other guys in the room were clearly appreciating the view she was offering.
We soon returned to the table with our drinks, but this time we were seated facing each other, our legs mingling between our chairs as we talked.
I noticed Bella avoided talking about herself. She changed the subject if things got too personal, but we talked constantly, and I was having a great time.
I'd expected to find my family as soon as the meal was over, but I hadn't given them much thought as Bella and I continued to chat and laugh.
I couldn't help but notice her neck and her collarbone. I was desperate to lean in and whisper in her ear, nibble at her neck, and make her moan again.
I didn't know where those thoughts were coming from. Sure, I was a red-blooded male who did okay in the dating department. I'd dated pretty women before, and I definitely didn't live like a monk. But Bella, she made me think, made me feel, and I hadn't had that in a long time.
I noticed her looking at me—my hands, my arms, and my thighs. She was losing her shyness and becoming more forward with me.
She leaned in and held my arm when she laughed. She tapped my thigh to scold me when I said something uncomplimentary about the Seattle Seahawks, her favorite team, and she held her breath when I finally did lean into her and whispered in her ear.
Her hair smelled amazing, and I ached to kiss her neck. I'd been attracted to her as soon as I'd seen her earlier, but now, this was something else. I felt a need to know her better, to be with her, to make sure she felt this too.
As we finished our drinks, Bella turned her body toward the dance floor and watched couples dancing around.
She was looking wistful as she tapped her foot to the beat of the slow song. I stood and stretched my tall frame, and before I had time to overthink my actions, I bowed down slightly in front of her and offered her my hand.
"Would you like to dance with me?" I watched her face, noticing she was clearly surprised by my words.
"I, umm, coordination isn't my strong point. I haven't danced in years. I'll probably break your toes, especially in heels," she stumbled shyly.
"Leave your shoes here," I suggested. "Come on. I can hold my own with the slow songs. I'll help you."
She stood up slowly and stepped out of her heels, losing about two inches in height as she did so. She paired her shoes together under the table and turned back to me to take my proffered hand.
Her hand felt small in mine, and when we reached the center of the dance floor, I placed my other hand on the middle of her back, and realized how well she fitted under my chin. Her other hand stretched toward my chest.
I'm pretty sure she wanted to rest it there but changed her mind, and instead held onto my waist, gripping my hip just above my belt. Despite being close to the part of my body that was working overtime right now, the placement of her hand felt less intimate than if it was on my chest.
"Hop on," I said as she stared at me blankly, a pretty cute confused expression clouding her features. "My feet!" I clarified, not letting my mind think of any alternatives to my words.
"Your feet? I thought the idea of dancing was not to step on your partner's toes?"
"True, but the idea is also to have fun, so hop up, and we'll be waltzing round the room in no time."
"Okay," she agreed nervously. "But tell me if I'm squashing your toes."
"You'll be fine," I assured her as she gingerly stood one foot on top of mine, followed by the other. I think it was around then we both realized how close to me she now was.
I started moving my feet slowly, but that didn't help. Her body was now rocking up and down mine with my movements.
Damn! She was now very close to certain parts of me.
"So you've taken dance lessons?" she inquired, probably to ease some of the tension we were both feeling now.
"Err, yeah," I started, but coughed to clear my throat that was suddenly very dry. "My mom and dad—they're around here somewhere—they love dancing. They're always dancing around the house. It used to embarrass the hell out of me, but now that I'm older, I can see it's really great how in love they still are. Anyway, they insisted on teaching my brother and me some moves for our prom. It turned out to be real fun to learn with them. It all stuck with me. I just never forgot," I explained with a shrug.
"So did it impress your prom date?"
"Me? Not so much. I got a peck on the cheek at the end of the night, and then she started dating someone else the following week. I guess something must have worked for my brother though, 'cause he's married to his prom date." I grinned at the memory of Emmett and Rosalie at prom, and the—now very outdated—photo of the event that hung in my parents' hallway.
"Wow. High school sweethearts?"
"Yep. They should be around here somewhere too, but I'm pretty sure they've taken advantage of their son being collected and looked after by a friend, and they've escaped already."
"Right." She nodded as a slightly awkward silence followed.
"What about your prom? You must've danced then," I said as we continued to move slowly to the music.
"Not really. I dated a guy from a different school. I didn't have too many friends in high school."
"I find that hard to believe," I answered truthfully. This woman was smart, funny, and beautiful. I was having the best night I'd had in a long time.
"Well it's true," she explained with a shrug as I listened in disbelief. "When my parents split up my Mom moved away, so I had to grow up pretty fast. I didn't have much in common with my peers," she added.
"Excuse me..." I heard a voice start as a hand gripped my shoulder. Bella jumped at the sudden interruption. I think we'd both fallen into our own bubble and forgotten the rest of the room. "Can I have this dance?" the voice continued as Bella stepped back off my feet, making me miss her closeness and body heat immediately.
I looked up at the guy attached to this annoying voice. His hair was dirty blond, and he had a smirk that showed he knew exactly what he'd interrupted.
I felt Bella's hand grip mine more tightly. That was all the answer I needed.
"Sorry. We're not done here," I explained.
"You don't wanna let the lady speak for herself?" the guy asked.
I looked at Bella and waited, giving her time to speak. "We're not done here," she answered, echoing my words. Now it was my turn for the smug grin.
"Fine," the guy replied. "Maybe later," he muttered as he turned and left. I watched him walk away, but it wasn't far enough for my liking.
"You want to get some fresh air?" I offered as Bella grinned up at me.
"Yeah, just let me grab my shoes," she added before she disappeared into the crowd.
I heard Bella's heels clicking before I saw her. Once she reached me, I grabbed her hand and pulled her through the—now even busier—dance floor toward the patio doors at one end.
We exited onto a deck, and even though we were the only people out here, we moved down, so we weren't in front of the doors. I then released her hand and leaned on the balcony railing, looking out to the hotel grounds below.
The view was more than I'd expected. The gardens were nicely landscaped with solar lights illuminating the shaped bushes, adding a soft glow to the darkening sky. The stone path was lined on either side with candles in mason jars hanging from the trees, giving a magical feel to the evening, and the cool breeze out here was a welcomed relief from the hot, slightly stuffy reception hall.
"You know that guy?" I asked her, struggling to forget his interruption.
"No," she answered with a shake of her head. "I've never spoken to him before. I don't know why he'd want to dance with me."
I raised my eyebrows. "Hmm, sure," I scoffed, slightly louder than I'd intended to. She looked at me, confused as she too leaned down, resting on the balcony rails. "Bella, you look beautiful," I told her. "A lot of guys were looking at you in there. Your legs look ten feet tall in that dress. That probably has something to do with it!" I told her as she elbowed me.
"Shut up!" She laughed.
"It's true," I insisted. And it was. Her legs were distracting, especially now that they were once again attached to those red heels.
"Well, I'm pretty sure you in that suit isn't a disgusting sight either," she told me as I barked out a laugh. It was great to laugh so much. I realized it had been too long since I'd felt this kind of connection and attraction to a woman.
"Is that your version of a compliment?" I joked with her. "I'm not disgusting? Jeez thanks. That's the best you got?" I teased.
I watched her, fascinated by the blush creeping up her cheeks as I pressed her for compliments.
"Your hands are…hot," she announced, in a quieter voice now.
"Hands? Huh." That was a new one. I'm not sure I'd ever been complemented on my hands before. I looked down at them and turned them over before realizing Bella was looking too. "You're a hands girl?" I asked, still sounding amused as I raised an eyebrow in question to her.
"No. Yes. Well, I'm more of a chest girl—chest and biceps actually—but I haven't seen those, so…" She trailed off as I waggled my eyebrows at her. "You're gonna laugh at that too?" she asked as I shook my head.
"No, I'm a chest guy too!" I joked.
"So predictable!" she scoffed before we fell into silence.
"Are you staying here, at the hotel?" I asked as she shook her head.
"No. I'll grab a cab soon," she answered. "You?"
"Yeah, I have a room. My family's all staying here," I told her as she nodded but didn't reply. Her mention of going soon didn't sit right with me.
I wanted to get to know her better—to see more of her. Well, more of her personality.
Who was I kidding? It wasn't just her personality I wanted to see more of!
Please review and let me know what you think.
A huge thank you to Project Team Beta for all their beta help with these first few chapters.