A Tale of Two Chocolates
*published for the Fandom for LLS*
"Hurry up, Reese! C'mon, girl. Don't you want to pee on the nice soft grass? This is sooo much softer than the carpeting in my apartment. Hurry up, pup!"
I coax her over to the fake fire hydrant, where she takes a few disinterested sniffs before tugging me toward the bushes. I don't even want to think about what my flip-flops are stepping in right now. Reese yanks her head away from me, gaining a few more inches of slack in the pink leash, which she promptly tangles into complicated knots around her clumsy paws.
Crouching to unwind the leash, I chuckle at my little monster. "How does a tiny little puppy make such a big mess?"
I scoop up my ball of chocolate-colored fluff and plant a kiss on her head. "Okay, buttercup, it's time for your appointment. Please don't pee on the nice doctor."
We take a seat in the waiting room, and Reese's sharp nails scratch deep, white lines into my bare legs as I attempt to contain her. Note to self: Next vet appointment, don't wear shorts. She claws her way out of my grasp, tumbling to the tile floor, where I miraculously stabilize her between my feet. She won't sit still long, so I inhale a deep breath and soak in the blissful moment of stillness while it lasts. This little fur ball is perpetual motion; if she's awake, she's moving. Like dog-mother, like daughter? Thank goodness, at eight weeks, she still sleeps most of the day and night.
Muffled voices float down the hallway from the exam rooms; heavy footsteps shuffle down the hall. Reese bolts from between my feet, leash flying off my wrist as she bounds across the waiting room.
I'm on my feet, but she's brown lightning. "Come back here! Stay! Stop!" Shit . . . what was the command? "Whoa! Come?" Ignoring the sniggers from the other humans in the waiting room, I sprint after the pink rope, praying the hallway is short and the vet has a sense of humor.
Reese plants her front paws on the slippery floor, skidding but not quite stopping before slamming into a man's dark dress shoe and toppling face-first between his legs. There's a comical flurry of nails clicking on the linoleum as she scrambles onto her paws and immediately starts jumping and nipping at the man's ankle. He crouches and offers her a knuckle to chew on. "Well, hello there"—the man peeks between Reese's legs, causing me to blush on her behalf—"girl."
This is very bad behavior the stranger is reinforcing. Reese has already chewed through my favorite pair of slippers and half the woodwork in my kitchen. I've run through three bottles of sour apple spray in the two weeks I've had her. I should tell him to stop, and I open my mouth to do just that, but then, my eyes drift up his expensive-looking navy suit, along the diagonally-striped tie perfectly knotted at his collar, and land on his gorgeous face.
Ask me any day of the week what attracts me to a man, and I'll tell you the same answer—hands down, no competition—it's the smile. Do I love a mouthwatering rack of abs? You bet. An ass that can hold up a pair of pants? Sure. But give me a sweet pair of lips stretched to the max with maybe a hint of dimple on the side, and I am a happy, tingly girl. And this guy wins the bonus round with a rough shadow left there by Mother Nature herself. This isn't the painstakingly-trimmed-to-look-random scruff of male models, not that there's anything wrong with that, but the face of a man who woke up excruciatingly perfect and—lucky for me!—neglected to shave.
What was I about to say again? "Um . . ." Yes, brilliant.
Thankfully, Reese has him far too enthralled to notice me being an idiot over here. The man lifts Reese gently onto his knee, her tail wagging her whole rear end from side to side. Holding her with a confident, firm embrace, the man scratches behind her ears while he leans in to study her tiny face. If Dr. Banner weren't standing right behind him, watching the whole scene in his blue scrubs, I might think this man down on one knee was the veterinarian giving my chocolate lab her first exam right here in the hallway.
In a span of a couple of seconds, I make three observations. First, my sweet puppy is a little bit of a slut. Second, I am jealous of the ear-scratching she's receiving from this very attractive gentleman. Third, bladder control is not one of Reese's strong suits.
I finally find my voice. "Be careful! She's really excited, and I couldn't get her to pee earlier!"
My warning comes just as a dark spot appears on the man's leg. His gaze shifts from the spreading stain to my horrified face, and he draws in a sharp gasp.
Shoot me now. "Oh god, I'm so, so sorry!" I lunge forward, pull Reese into my arms, and give her my strictest alpha-dog face. In a quiet but firm voice, I scold her as the book says. "Naughty girl!"
Dr. Banner offers the man a hand up. "I am so sorry about this, Edward."
Edward. My stomach clenches at the sound of his name. A grown-up man, not like the guys I hang around with at USF. Nor do they wear suits to play Frisbee on the green. And this Edward is tall! I'm nearly five-ten, and he tops that by a few inches—not just inches for the sake of being inches, but good ones! The man exudes class and style, pretty much the opposite of flip-flop girl over here with the tragically behaved puppy.
I suddenly have the urge to piddle on the floor.
Edward shakes his head, still looking pretty rattled. "What's your dog's name?" he asks me. His smile is gone, which kind of sucks, but it's as if his lips have stepped aside to make room in my heart for the most hypnotic green eyes I've ever seen.
"Uh . . . Reese." Could you quit sounding like a moron for one second? Jeez!
"Reese." He stares at Reese as if trying to solve some complicated mystery. "Seriously?"
"As in Reese's peanut butter cups?" Remind me why I thought the whole chocolate reference was so clever anyway?
"Excuse me, I have to go." Tears pool in the man's eyes as he turns abruptly and charges out of the office.
"Take care, Edward," the doctor calls after him.
Just like that, the smile, the sparkling eyes, and the six-foot somethingness of him are gone. "I am so sorry. I feel terrible about his suit."
"He's not upset about the suit." Dr. Banner places his hand on my shoulder. "We just put his dog down."
Of course! Who walks out of the vet's office without a pet? Duh, Bella! "God, that's awful."
"She lived a long, beautiful life, but the end is always very sad."
"What kind of dog was she?"
He reaches over and cups Reese's face. "A chocolate lab."
"Yeah. Anyway . . . I'm sorry to bring you down. This isn't exactly the way I like to greet my new patients. Now, how about we take a look at this adorable puppy?"
Still frisky after three shots and a merciful nail clipping performed by my new hero, the good doctor—who, it turns out, does have an impressive sense of humor—Reese darts out of the vet's office, straining against the leash as I juggle heartworm pills and puppy kindergarten pamphlets in my free hand. She prances over to the fire hydrant as if she owns the place, sniffs every urine-covered inch, squats down, and does her business.
"Hurry up, Reese!" I feel silly for saying it while she's already going, but the book says to associate the words with the act so eventually, she'll learn to pee on command.
A head turns, a man I hadn't noticed earlier sitting alone on the bench at the far end of the little makeshift park. It's Edward, and now I've disturbed him—again. Shit! Has he been sitting here the whole time in his pee-soaked suit?
He surprises me by standing and turning in our direction as if—dare I hope?—he'd been waiting for us. A pair of aviators hide his eyes—red-rimmed, teary eyes, I'm guessing. Lost in thought, hands tucked deep into his pants pockets, Edward watches Reese sniff every blade of grass. I can't make out the man's emotions; his flat-line mouth doesn't tell me if we're making things harder or easier for him today. I can't imagine this poor man would want to be bothered by a silly girl and her silly puppy, but he's here, and a certain thrill makes me tingle from the inside out.
I tear my gaze away—actually, Reese does, chasing a butterfly into a thicket of thorn bushes and pulling back with an indignant yelp. "Aww, c'mere, silly girl. That butterfly is teasing you." She rushes back to me for comfort, somersaulting head first at my feet.
Despite the fact that we're romping through what is basically a huge outdoor toilet for every animal in Dr. Banner's practice, I can't resist dropping to my knees in the grass and rolling my ridiculously cute goofball onto her back. Her puppy growls and squeaky yips make me laugh every time. "You silly girl! You're gonna need another bath after this—and so am I."
A shadow creeps over us; a pair of dark shoes appear on the grass next to my side. My eyes are level with Edward's knees, and though his pant leg has at least dried in the morning sun, there's a noticeable stain. Wonderful.
He clears his throat far above my head before speaking. "Excuse me, I'm sorry to interrupt you two."
Craning my neck, I lift my gaze to the tall figure next to me. He's taken off his jacket, which makes total sense as it's sweltering outside, but I sure could've used a warning for the shirtsleeves rolled up and pushed to his elbows, not to mention the loosened tie hanging slack around his unbuttoned collar. If he looked stunning in a suit—and he did—he's even finer with fewer layers. I'd be willing to bet the trend would continue, but I push those thoughts from my head. A bright orange blaze radiates outward from his reddish hair where the sun bursts free around the edges, casting an otherworldly superhero look to his shadowy face.
"No worries," I answer. "This little girl and I have plenty of alone time, don't we, girl?"
That might not have come out exactly right. I divert his attention by flipping Reese back and forth between my hands like a ball of dough. She kicks out her paws, struggling to right herself.
He crouches beside me, folding his hands between his knees. "Listen, I, uh . . . wanted to apologize for my atrocious behavior inside."
"Apologize? To me? My puppy wet your pants!" Ugh, I really should march back inside and see if Dr. Banner has a muzzle in my size!
Edward chuckles softly, and my chest eases a bit. "Would you mind terribly if I pet your dog again? I don't want you to think I'm some kind of creeper. I lost my chocolate today, and I seem to be a bit of a mess."
"Sure, of course. I'm really sorry to hear about your dog."
"Thank you," he says quietly, snapping for Reese with long, beautiful fingers. His tone shifts to a deep bass. "Come, Reese!"
Reese instantly responds, and she's not the only one. "Wow, you have a really good alpha-dog voice."
Edward smiles, but it's only about a quarter of the smile Reese coaxed out earlier. "Comes in handy at work." His hands roam all over Reese's body, and she nuzzles shamelessly at his leg until he scratches behind her ears.
"What kind of work do you do?"
"General Manager of the St. Regis at your service." His focus doesn't move from Reese as he speaks. "Go ahead, make your James Brolin joke."
Edward's head turns in my direction, two bushy eyebrows raised above the rims of his sunglasses. He really looks me over for the first time; for one fleeting, insane, exhilarating second, I wonder if he'll check between my legs. "Were you even alive in the eighties?"
Heat rushes to my face. My age has never felt like a disadvantage before this moment, but right now, I wish I were at least a legit mid-twenties.
"Not exactly," I answer, adding, "I turned twenty-one last month," when he shakes his head.
"Ugh, I am so old." His heavy sigh overflows with sorrow and exhaustion, and even though we just met, I know I'd do just about anything to lighten his load.
"Mind if I ask how old?"
He's startled by my question, and he takes several long pulls through Reese's hair before answering. "Thirty-six going on seventy."
"Oh boy. Seventy is pretty old," I tease, hoping for that smile to return. Thirty-six. When I'm thirty, he'll be forty-five . . .
"Tell me about it."
Beating around the bush isn't helping. Maybe the direct approach . . . "I'd love to hear about your dog if you feel like talking."
He slowly pulls off his sunglasses, revealing misty eyes that shimmer in the sun. "She was a gift from my wife."
Game over. I bite back my disappointment at the unwelcome information. Of course he's married. Get with it, Bella!
Reese chooses this moment to flop onto her back, paws splayed to the four corners of the earth. Without missing a beat, Edward rubs her belly in slow, loving strokes. I think I might die of envy. She does seem to know how to keep him talking, though.
"Fourteen years ago, June thirteenth to be exact, I get home from work at eight-thirty in the morning—I was working front desk back then, right out of school—and there's my wife, Angela, sitting at the breakfast table with a tiny ball of brown fur in her arms. I say, 'Baby, what's this?' and she says, 'This is a chocolate lab.' And I say, 'Yes, darling, I can see that, but why is this creature in our kitchen?'"
He glances up from Reese's belly to explain. "It wasn't that I didn't love dogs, mind you, but we were newlyweds, working our fingers to the bone to make ends meet. We barely had time to take care of each other, let alone a freshly weaned lab. I'm sure you can appreciate that."
His eyes beg me to understand, and of course, I do. "All I have to manage are a few classes, and this little girl has me on the edge of a breakdown."
"Exactly. So you can imagine my hesitation . . . but my wife . . ." Edward shook his head, knocking loose a tear from his right eye. Shit. "She says, 'Edward, sit down.' I say, 'Honey, I've just worked a twelve-hour shift in a polyester suit, and I am in fierce need of a hot shower and a pillow.' Now, my Angela is not one to take no for an answer when she sets her mind on something, so we both know the puppy is staying, but I really can't understand why she's doing this to us, and I'm not really in the right frame of mind to find out. But life has a way of moving forward whether you're ready or not . . ."
I sink into the grass and wrap my arms around my knees to cushion the blow I feel coming.
"She says, 'Sweetheart, sit.' It's not lost on me I'm obeying the most basic puppy command there is, but I sit because I love my wife, you know?"
I nod, but I'm not even sure he can see me right now through his tears.
"She says, 'I need to tell you something,' and I say, 'Okay.' I thought I was ready for it, but . . ." An ugly sob catches in Edward's throat. Reese scrambles onto all-fours and licks at Edward's hands with her little sandpaper tongue. He clears his throat and continues. "So she says, 'I got some bad news today from the lab.' 'What lab?' I ask. At this point, my stomach is churning up the Egg McMuffin I ate on the way home. 'I've been waiting on some tests . . .' She covers my hand with hers and comforts me—she comforts me!—while she delivers the blow. 'I have cancer, and it's bad.'
"At this point, I'm staring at the puppy in her arms because I can't bear to look into my wife's eyes and acknowledge that she's dying. She says, 'I'm sorry to tell you this way, but I wanted to be sure it was serious before I worried you. You know how you get.' Because I'm an idiot or something, I ask, 'How serious?' I mean, anyone can tell what she is trying to say, but I need to hear the words. It just isn't sinking in, you know?"
A tear rolls down my cheek as I nod.
"She kisses the puppy's head and says, 'This little girl is six weeks old today. In another six weeks, it's gonna be just you two taking care of each other.' And that's when everything hits me."
Closing his eyes, Edward picks up Reese and holds her against his face. My little puppy laps up the tears as they spill. My heart breaks for this beautiful man, who clearly lost the love of his life all over again today.
Through clenched teeth, he says, "God help me, I hated that damn dog at first." Edward's eyes fly open, and he turns my way. "I hope you don't think I'm a monster, but to me, that dog represented my wife's death, and the last thing I wanted to be doing at the height of my grief was taking care of a high-maintenance puppy."
"I get it," I answer, barely resisting the urge to reach out and place my hand on his arm.
Edward nuzzled Reese's little wet nose, and a small smile broke at the corners of his mouth. "That little puppy wormed her way into my heart. I fell in love with her, and she saved me, just as Angela knew she would. If I'd been left to my own devices those first few months, I never would've gotten out of bed. That's not exactly an option with a puppy, and Angela damn well knew that."
"What was your dog's name?" I figure asking about the dog is safer than asking about the wife, and I feel a little shitty for not feeling one hundred percent terrible that he's single . . . or is he?
"Della. Short for Ghirardelli—Angela's favorite chocolates. See why I flipped out when I heard yours was Reese? Oh hell, you probably don't know who Della Reese is, do you?" He gives me his I'm-an-old-man look again, which I quickly shrug off.
"Of course I know! And that is pretty weird." Maybe we were meant to be, I'm kind of dying to add, but this seems the wrong time for a girl's nonsense.
"I thought so, too." He's sobering up, coming out of his funk. "I think I owe you another apology."
"I can't believe I just dumped all that heavy stuff on you. Here you are, just starting out with a puppy of your own . . . I hope I haven't sullied the day too badly for you."
"Hey! We're the ones who sullied you! Er, at least, Reese did. Maybe all this would've been easier for you if you hadn't bumped into us today."
He chuffs and sets Reese down in his lap—lucky bitch! Reaching inside his jacket for a handkerchief, Edward wipes his eyes. "There was no way this day was going to be easy, and stop worrying about my pants. Della lost control of her bladder a few months ago, and I keep a spare suit at the office."
Now that his eyes are dry, I can make out every shade of green and gold gazing into my sad expression. I wish I could be all sunshine and happiness for him, but Edward's story tore a hole in my heart, and I'm shit at hiding my feelings. He actually gives me a grin to cheer me up, which makes me feel worse.
"Do you know that I have never told another living soul the conversation I had with Angela that morning? Not even my grief counselor!" He regards the docile puppy tucked into a contented little ball in his lap. "I can't tell you how many times I've replayed it in my head, but I've never had the courage to say it out loud before today. It must be the chocolate brown eyes."
"Yes, she is a big flirt."
Edward glances up at me. "Not hers. Yours."
I melt a little bit more, and he gets that faraway look in his smile again, like he's seeing a ghost. "You have my wife's eyes. When I saw you earlier, you reminded me so much of Angela before she got sick, all her energy, the youth and beauty . . . Even though I've obviously gotten older since then, to me she'll always be frozen in time at twenty-two." His smile fades again, as easily as it appeared. "Uh-oh. I fear I've just wandered into inappropriate creeper territory."
"Not at all. I think it's sweet." And wildly romantic.
Edward gives his head a shake. "Between you and this adorable puppy, I seem to be helplessly enthralled."
You're quite enthralling yourself, mister. "You're not really going into work today, are you? Maybe you should give yourself a little time to heal. Spend the day with us. C'mon, what's Reese gonna chew on when you take your knuckles away?"
Jeez, Bella. You couldn't quit while you were ahead?
His soft chuckle erases the awkward picture I painted. "You really need to be careful with your special powers, young lady. The idea of playing hooky with you two is mighty tempting."
"You wouldn't get fired or anything, would you?"
"Nope. I could take a personal day." He passes his hand through Reese's hair a few times, and I can actually see the suggestion taking hold. "To be honest, that's starting to sound like a damn fine idea."
"It's settled, then."
This man bared his soul to me; it'd be cruel to continue fighting the urge to touch him—and I don't. Reaching over, I squeeze the hand resting on his knee. Without a word, Edward flips his hand over and interlocks our fingers. "Thank you," he practically whispers. "You're very kind to comfort a complete stranger."
"You're not a stranger. You're a fellow chocolate lover. I have never seen Reese calmer than she's been with you. You have some kind of Midas puppy touch."
He smiles again, and all the earlier warmth is back. "She has a great disposition; you can tell right from the start how a puppy is going to turn out. Did you pick her out yourself?"
"She was the only chocolate in the litter. It was love at first sight." Edward's eyes catch mine; a blush heats my face. "Of course, the second I got her in the car, I realized I had absolutely no clue what I was doing with this creature. I thought it would come naturally; we always had pets growing up."
Edward nods. "You should've seen me in the beginning with Della. It was all I could do to take her for a short walk without the silly thing snapping her neck in the collar. And the only time she paid any attention to my commands was when they happened to fall in line with exactly what she was going to do anyway. I was a terrible doggy dad."
"I can't imagine you were as much of a spaz as I am."
"At the risk of tarnishing my Midas image," he says with a self-effacing laugh, "I was a total spaz. There was no doubt as to who ruled the roost. You can ask Dr. Banner. He'll tell you."
"How'd you get so good at this?"
"Puppy kindergarten helped with the socialization, but mostly, it was about not battling wills. Labs want nothing more than to please their humans, but at the same time, they're goofy, wonderful, free spirits—like my wife and, I'm guessing, you."
"So I have to just let her do whatever she wants?"
"Noooo," he answers with a chuckle. "You need to teach her what you want her to do so she knows how to please you."
"I think I'm confused."
Edward squeezes my hand. "I can help you if you like."
Oh, I like the sound of this! "You'll help me train Reese?"
"Sure, but to be honest, I'd have Wonka do the heavy lifting."
"He's my eight-year-old chocolate. Della taught him everything he knows, and he's gonna be one lonely guy when she doesn't come home with me later."
"Aww, poor fella. I'm glad you don't have to be alone though."
"No, I couldn't bear that," he says. Hmm, so there isn't another human after all.
"So Della taught Wonka how to sit and stay and all that good stuff?"
"Let's just say she modeled excellent behavior, and he figured out pretty quickly that being a good boy has its rewards. She also taught him how to swim, which was a rather comical process."
"They need to be taught to swim?"
"Some labs take to the water quickly—Della waded right in the first time I took her to the beach—but Wonka had no clue what those webbed feet were for until we went out on my boat, and Della showed him the way."
His boat? I mind-hop into my bikini, hand myself a fruity cocktail, and gaze across the imaginary deck at a bare-chested, wind-blown Captain Edward. Sigh . . .
"This sounds like the exact opposite of 'You can't teach an old dog new tricks.'"
"Yes, ironic, isn't it?" he says with a snort. "You know, puppies aren't the only ones who can learn from an older dog."
His blatant innuendo shocks me. Apparently, Edward is feeling better. Maybe we're good for him after all. "Is that so?"
A mischievous grin pulls at the edges of his lips. "Just sayin'."
As I answer his flirty offer, my own smile cannot be contained. Whatever Edward wants to teach, I am down for learning. "I don't even know your last name."
Edward's laughter rings out. "I don't even know your first name!"
"It's Bella. Bella Swan."
Still holding my right hand in his left, Edward offers his other for a handshake. "Edward Cullen at your service, Bella Swan."
I go in for the upside-down, left-handed clasp, which is so awkward, we both start to giggle—though his is a much more mature, masculine version. "In that case, Edward Cullen, I do have a few questions . . ."
Author's Note: Research dollars to LLS saved my son's life, pure and simple. Eighteen months ago, in an E/R in Columbus, Ohio, our 23-year-old son faced the diagnosis—leukemia. The hematology oncologist told us that five years ago, he would've endured a bone marrow transplant and a far scarier prognosis. Today, because of organizations such as LLS, researchers have devised a treatment that treats the disease, almost obliterating its effects—nothing short of a miracle. I could not be prouder that our fandom supports this most worthy cause, and I'm honored to donate this piece. I'd like to thank Jayme TyZane, Ladyeire Breville, and Meredith Cullen for pre-reading this story to make sure it tugged on the right heart strings. As usual, Chayasara brought my story to heel with the perfect mix of love and discipline. To all who donated your money and/or talent to this effort, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. And to all the good people who devote their lives to treating this family of diseases, we owe you our son's life.