Helloooo! I'm horrible, I know. Basically, there's been lots of life changes and it's been...not easy nor fun. But I won't bore you with the details-onward and forward! Some of you might not love this chapter (especially the end), but I think everything has a price and baggage is only easy to discard in hindsight. *bites nails*

Reminder: Yes, this story has a HEA. I just refuse to make it easy for the characters ;)

Chapter 19


Her dark blue eyes narrow with suspicion. Tension radiates from her like cartoon squiggles, but I stand my ground. This isn't the first stare down I've had with her, and it sure as hell won't be the last.

But it is the first one that I'm going to win.

"Outside," Anna demands, her finger stabbing at the door behind me. She taps her foot petulantly, epitomizing the stock image of an extremely annoyed toddler.

"No, Nemo," I say with the slightest edge in my voice. "It's too cold. You'll get sick."

She blinks, appalled that I'm saying no to her highness. Better get used to that expression, Alice. You'll be seeing it for the next 16 years.

"Go outside," she reiterates more loudly this time, like I'm a machine that didn't process her request.

"No." I cross my arms to muster up the illusion of authority.

Her forehead wrinkles with confused indignation, causing the corner of my lips to twitch. Keep it together, Cullen.

Anna's eyes dart between me and the door, silently considering her next move. She looks like she's performing calculus, and it reminds me of teenage Alice huffing with frustration over the same subject. Other toddlers might start crying or throwing a tantrum, but she didn't go for the low hanging fruit.

This is the daughter of a lawyer and a politician, after all.

Her chin dips to her chest and she wrings her hands behind her, swaying on her toes. The pout is replaced by a toothy smile, complete with an adoring look that would make a puppy jealous.


Stay strong. Don't break. Alice is going to give you so much shit if you get her sick. Again.

"Pwwwweease," she asks, her voice hitching higher to sound like a wounded animal. Big blue eyes bore into me with unabashed pleading, her eyebrows slanting up to the dark mass of curls on her head. This was The Pout-the nuclear option in her facial expressions arsenal, and even Alice caved when she was on its receiving end.

Fuck it.

"Ten minutes," I grumble half-heartedly, my chest warming at her excited giggle. "Don't tell mommy." Or I'll get another lecture on the dangers of spoiling her daughter, and what that might look like ten years from now-complete with a pointed look.

Even though we grew up the same neighborhood, Alice and I had radically different lives. Her parents had been ultraconservative, disapproving of everything that she did or said-her dresses were too short, her shirts were too tight, and her voice was too shrill. College was supposed to help her find a suitable husband, not jump start a law career.

The only reason her parents tolerated me was because they hoped that I'd propose. Clearly, they didn't know that the longest relationship I'd had at 18 was with my right hand and the bottle of moisturizer on my nightstand.

Three months after she moved in with me, Alice called her parents and told them she was pregnant. What followed is still one of the worst conversations I've ever heard-things no parents should say to their child. She cried herself to sleep that night, while I drove to IKEA. By morning, there was a brand new crib, hastily assembled, sitting in the office that would eventually become a nursery.

After zipping up the monstrous puffer coat that completes Anna's transition from human to marshmallow, I bend down to kiss the top of her head, inhaling the scent of baby powder and strawberry shampoo.

"Ready?" She jerks her head up and down furiously, tapping her feet in excitement. A stupid grin stretches across my face, as my chest fills with pride at being hustled by a two-year old.

Half an hour later, we get caught by Alice, who simply rolls her eyes and tells us to get inside for dinner.

It's late enough in December that the office is mostly empty when I arrive. The remaining rooms are occupied by the procrastinators, the workaholics, and those who are probably a bit of both.

As efficient as she is, Bella definitely falls into the last category.

"It sounds like the sample size needs to be recalculated," she speculates, her voice growing louder as I turn the corner to her office. I can almost picture the pursed lips and pinched eyebrows.

The door swings open, revealing a splash of blue against the canvas of the white walls. Bella swerves over, phone in hand. "Hey," she mouths, curiosity flashing across her features.

She's perched on the edge of her chair, her long dark hair piled on top of her head in an organized mess, just like the state of her office. As much as she likes to protest otherwise, I've never seen her desk not covered by papers, pens, or snack wrappers. There has to be some kind of system in place, but quantum physics is probably easier to understand.

For a few seconds, I study her profile, welcoming the rush of heat powered by the memory of last night.

Stroking her nipples before pinching them, earning a hungry moan.

Watching her fall back against the wall, lips parted and wet.

Hearing her gasp when she came, my knee wedged between her thighs.

I clench and unclench my fist. Next time, she's screaming my name.

Impatience flashes across her face as she listens to whoever's on the other line, and her fingers drum in an agitated rhythm against the solid oak desk.

Wait, we're alone and it's after hours?

I reach out and carefully lock the door, the sound of the click amplified in the silence.

Her gaze snaps to mine. "Yes, I think that makes sense," she answers cautiously, trying to keep her tone even. "Let's touch base during our check-in meeting with Sloan-Hewitt on Monday. Do you have any other questions?"

A few seconds later, she tilts her head skyward and rub her temples. "Great question. The meeting was productive," she grits out. "We largely focused on…"

Looks like there won't be any divine intervention. I cough to conceal my snicker, and approach her desk. My hands slide out of my pockets as I lean against it, spreading my knees. Just enough to encroach on her personal space without invading it.

Bella shoots me an unimpressed look, her head basically level with my waist. And more accurately, my cock. Is that it?

Despite her lackluster expression, I notice the quickened pace of her chest rising and falling. The slight shift as her thighs rub together, causing the dress to ride up. The way she grips the phone a bit tighter.

My grip tightens on the desk as I inch closer, hovering like a satellite. When I fuck you, this restraint won't exist.

Her eyes darken and her mouth twists with defiance. You mean if you fuck me.

I press my calf against her chair in the small space between her knees. No, I don't.

Her eyes narrow in calculation. "Mm hmm," she remarks absently. Heady anticipation flows through me like honey, the warm weight settling at the base of my spine.

Her fingers loosen around the phone, and I hear the chatter of another confused analyst but don't register anything he's saying. Instead, I watch her slowly slide forward until her thighs reach the edge of the seat.

She tilts her head and stares at me like a scientist examining an unknown species. Watching, waiting, wanting. The corner of her lips twitch.

And she slowly spreads her legs.

The blue fabric of her dress lifts, seemingly centimeter by centimeter, revealing smooth upper thighs that part and threaten to bring me to my fucking knees...until she stops.

My eyes snap back up to her face, the question obvious. Despite the blush splashed across her skin, a devious smile lurks around her lips.

It's just enough to dare me to take a closer look, offering nothing and everything at the same time.

"Bella? BELLA?"

Much to my disappointment, her legs snap shut and she swerves back around. "Sorry, Leonard. I think that all sounds, um, good." She clears her throat and brushes a lock of hair behind her hair. "Let's talk about the details next week."

The phone slams down, jerking dangerously towards the edge of the desk. "If you're calling me with a long-winded question after 5 PM just days before Christmas, then you're a jerk who doesn't know the true meaning of Christmas, right?"

Bella shakes her head, reaching over to grab something and stumbling. "Sorry, I'm venting. You're here for the final report, which needs to be reviewed this weekend so I can submit on Monday."

What report? "Among other things," I reply, shifting discreetly.

She raises an eyebrow. "I thought we agreed to keep things professional at the office."

"During business hours." I add, enjoying the way confusion obscures her features before realization dawns. I knew she probably wouldn't remember that caveat, which is why I casually dropped it into our brief negotiation in the first place.

The devil's in the details, and I look great in a suit.

Bella shoots me a playfully accusing look. "I should have known better than to negotiate with someone who does that for a living."

"Why?" I ask slyly. "Do you think you've been cheated?"

"Not yet." She squints at me, a small smile perched on her face while packing up her laptop. "Why? Are you planning to take advantage of me?" The familiar huskiness slithers under the feigned nonchalance, like we're playing tag and just within reach of each other.

I shift closer until we're inches apart. "Absolutely. In fact, I think it's safe to say you're completely fucked."

Somehow my words have the opposite effect. Bella bursts out laughing, clutching her chest. "You're ridiculous," she asserts, her eyes warm.

"That line is fantastic," I object, sarcastically offended. "Don't tell me it's not effective."

"Oh, it is," she replies, still laughing. "That's what makes it ridiculous."

I scoff, unable to fight the resulting grin. "I can take a look at this later." My fingers tap the draft of the final report. "Dinner?"

Bella nods, relief evident on her face. "Done. Can we get food that doesn't need to be defrosted this time? Call me picky, but I prefer my meal unfrozen."

I shake my head, feigning disappointment. "I knew you'd be high maintenance."

Bella purses her lips, pretending to look bewildered. "Weird. That's what my personal chef says too."

"You and I have that in common," I reply dryly, following her to the door as she slips on her coat. The knot in my chest loosens when I check my phone and don't see anything from Caine. For now.

We walk silently to the elevator while I ponder the local restaurant options. DuPont is nice, but predictable. Georgetown's overpriced and caters to tourists. Maybe Woodley Park?

"Oh!" She whirls around and snaps her fingers. "I'm paying," she says firmly. "You paid last time, so it's only fair."

Unable to resist the opportunity to fuck with her, I press the elevator button and let out an exasperated sigh. "I get it, Bella. You're an independent woman who doesn't need a man to buy her shiny things."

She rolls her eyes. "I'll take shiny things. Just don't expect to sweep me off my feet with them."

"Good," I answer, hearing the familiar chime. My voice lowers. "I'd rather have you on your knees anyway."

Whatever shock I'd expected to see disappears in a second. Eyes half-lidded, Bella arches toward me.

"You should," she replies throatily, as the doors open. Sucking in a shaky breath, she steps in.

Fuck. I grit my teeth, trying to ignore the way my cock pulses against the fabric of my pants, and follow after her.

The door shuts behind us.

What is it about an elevator that magnifies sexual tension?

Is it being trapped in a private space and counting the seconds that pass with each floor? Is it being able to do whatever the fuck that you and the other person want until the doors open?

My eyes meet hers. Or is it knowing that you're both going to find out?

"No," she says firmly.

Snickering, I stare straight ahead and try to ignore the heat coming off of us. "Number six." A beat passes before I elaborate. "This is the sixth place where I'm going to watch you swallow my cock."

Her breath hitches. "Prove that you deserve it."

She's so close that I can see her eyes have dilated, the hungry expression probably mirroring my own. I gently stroke her bottom lip, which parts and wets my thumb. "Only if you beg me first, sweetheart."

At that moment, the doors open. A much too familiar voice slices through the erotically charged moment.

"Perfect timing! I was just about to call and ask if you were on your way," Carlisle announces cheerily, as effective as a bucket of ice water. His grin widens when he spots Bella. "Are you coming too?"

She jerks back like a startled cat, her eyes widening. Subtle. "Oh, no. No, we're not-he and I-are not coming." she adds hurriedly. "We're going. Leaving, actually. Separately."

Carlisle's eyebrows raise. If there wasn't a giant "they're fucking" lightbulb going off in his mind before, then there's definitely one now. Possibly with an "I knew it" sign attached.

"Well, you're invited to dinner if you haven't eaten," he suggests slowly, as if it's a choice. "Esme hasn't seen you for months, and I know she misses you."

"Really? Guilt tripping?" I point out, repressing the urge to roll my eyes and failing. "I thought that was beneath you."

"Why would you think that?" he exclaims, turning to Bella with conspiratorial grin. "That's the best play in the parent handbook."

She laughs uncomfortably, still regrouping. "I appreciate the invite, but I have to get home." Her eyes meet mine in half-apology. "Definitely soon, though."

I love my dad, but I'm going to kill him.

"C'mon, it's a Friday night," Carlisle cajoles, more creepily than he probably intended. "I'm sure whatever you have to do can wait." He shrugs, a little too casually. "Plus, Esme's making cinnamon rolls for dessert."

Bella's eyes glaze over momentarily, her face taking on a dreamy expression. For fucking cinnamon rolls. I'd be insulted if I weren't already turned on.

Eventually, she blinks and her shoulders drop with a sigh of resignation. "I'm taking one to go," she asserts, sternly pointing at Carlisle, who fist pumps in response.

No, really.

"You can take two," he chirps happily. "I'm just going to grab my laptop and then I'll bring the car 'round."

That's right. We're getting a ride from my dad like awkward pre-teens who just stumbled out of a middle school dance.

For the second time.

While I debate the pros and cons of the unexpected invitation, Bella sidles closer. "His ambushing skills put the herd of wildebeests from the Lion King to shame."

"I wouldn't call that an ambush," I correct, amused at the way she fidgets with the strap of her purse. Nervous Bella. What a welcome surprise. "Just unfortunate timing."

"And childhood trauma," she muses, chewing her lip, still avoiding my gaze. "So. Dinner. With your parents."

"You've had dinner with them before," I point out nonchalantly. "Presumably at the same dinner table."

Her eyes snap up to mine. "Yeah, but I probably didn't think about getting fucked on it."

Game over. "Two hours," I propose, making some quick calculations and trying not to sweat. "Then we grab the cinnamon rolls and head back to my apartment."

"My place is closer," she counters.

"My place is bigger." With a plethora of sturdy surfaces.

Her chin juts forward. "My place is next to D.C.'s best brunch place."

What is it with D.C. and brunch? I scoff. "My place has a hot tub."

I don't miss the impressed look that flashes across her face. "Fine," she relents. "But I have to stop by my place and grab some things."

"I'm sure you can find whatever you need at my place," I say impatiently, craning my neck to see what's taking Carlisle so long. At this rate, we'll be stuck at dinner for three hours.

"I didn't know you had women's clothing and makeup in your apartment," Bella responds with fake concern. "Is this something we should talk about?"

Cute. I cross my arms. "What I have are sweatshirts with matching sweatpants. And you don't need to wear makeup."

Her left eye twitches. Not a good sign. "Thanks for sharing your opinion. I can probably direct you to my place, but I have my phone as backup."

I run my fingers through my hair. "You're being unreasonable, Bella," I point out, trying to keep my voice down as I spot Carlisle walking towards us. "And frankly, kind of a brat."

She steps back, her mouth dropping open. "You did not just call-"

"Sorry, I got roped into a phone call," Carl explains, his laptop bag slung over his shoulder. Curiosity lights up his features as he looks between us, taking in the strained body language. "Shall we?"

Bella turns toward him, her shoulders relaxing. "Definitely. The metro station is a ten minute walk from your house, right?"

For fuck's sake. "I'll take you home," I interject curtly, catching her pointed look and nodding in response, my lips tightening. A satisfied smile flits across her face, and we walk down to the garage.

I don't think so. "Then we can go back to my place," I add nonchalantly.

Murder eyes. That's the first description that comes to mind when Bella whips her head to me, fury drawing her features tight. It doesn't help that this parking lot is barely lit either.

Carlisle's pace remains steady, never missing a beat. "Oh?" He asks airily, pretending to miss the not-so-thinly veiled implication.

Thank god for witnesses. "I accidentally left some interview transcripts at home that need to be included in the final report that's due Monday." Even though the final draft of that report is in my briefcase right now.

"Actually, I think I'll head back after dinner and grab them from you tomorrow," Bella grits out, still glaring at me.

I hold her stare. "Oh, I think you'll want it tonight."

"Sounds like you both need to figure out what you want," Carlisle asserts, unlocking the car doors.

He winks. "After dinner, that is."

It hits me then that his timing might not have been so accidental.

Fortunately, the car ride is peppered with updates on work and Bella's progress on the recently renewed contract with the CDC. Her enthusiasm over this topic is obvious, and it's clear she enjoys the data collection aspect of her position much more than the management. It's only after, when we meet an excited Esme at the front door, that we stop talking about work and inhale dinner.

"This is delicious, Esme," Bella gushes, reaching for her wine. "I'd ask you for the recipe if I thought I could pull it off."

Mom waves her hand dismissively. "It's surprisingly easy, Bella. I'll write it down and stick it with the cinnamon roll."

"When my apartment goes up in flames, can I mention you on the insurance claim?"

"You're more than welcome to use our kitchen," Esme suggests, her tone a little too casual. "Edward and Carlisle hardly ever step foot in there."

"Hey now," chimes the walking fire hazard. "That was one time."

"You almost burned the house down with the furniture," the voice of reason points out. "And barbecued our son."

Nothing wrong with the order there.

"Anyway, it's been much too long," Esme muses, placing her hand under her chin. "When was the last time we saw each other? The company picnic in July?"

Bella swallows and nods slowly. "I think you're right."

"Much too long ago. I know you're both busy, but it would be nice to see you around here more often." Her head swerves slightly to include me in her crosshairs.

"I was here two weekends ago," I remind her, somewhat defensively.

"And I'm your mother who's a half hour drive from your apartment." She leans forward, interest glittering in the green eyes identical to my own. "Unless there's another woman in your life?"

As subtle as a hernia. "Ten minutes before asking about my dating status." I wipe my mouth and sit back. "I think you broke your previous record, mom."

Esme smirks, tilting her head. "Well, you know how I like to give you space."

Right. I make a show of clearing my throat, not-so-subtly glancing at Bella. "I'd rather not talk about it now."

She rolls her eyes, like I'm being overly dramatic. "Oh, calm down, Edward. Bella's already dating someone." The heat of her stare shifts to my right.

Bella's eyes widen, clearly wondering when she'd been wiretapped. "Uh, ye-yes. Just a few dates. Nothing to write home about."

I cough in protest, fighting a smile when I feel her ankle press against my calf in warning.

Carlisle leans forward, chuckling. "Back in my day, the first date was an introduction, the second date was a discussion, and the third was an engagement."

He shoots me a teasing grin."Thankfully times have changed. Otherwise, Edward would've been engaged almost five times by now."

"True," Esme chirps, glancing at me slyly. "Though you've had a lot more first dates, sweetheart."

"Sounds like I take after my parents then," I shoot back, unruffled. "What's that story about Woodstock that Grandpa Jack likes to tell-"

"Touché, Edward," Mom interrupts, conceding with a hint of warning in her tone.

Satisfied, I sit back and sip my wine. They could air all of my dirty laundry; I'd heard enough horrifying stories about their crazy Bonnie and Clyde-esque adventures from my grandparents to know that this is a fight they'd lose.

Esme refocuses on Bella and sweetly asks, "I assume it's going well, dear?"

The Jaws theme starts to play in my head. "It is. But it's early, so." She quickly takes another healthy sip of her wine.

"What's his name?"

I shoot her an exasperated look. "Mom-can we please wrap up the investigation?"

Esme blinks innocently. "Last question, I promise."

"Ted," Bella volunteers, taking another sip. "His name is Ted." A slightly triumphant expression flashes across her face.

The three of us frown. "That's a...nice name," Esme settles on, politely leaving out the fact that it's usually associated with male librarians in their 50s.

Yes, that is a fact. I invent absurd stereotypes and I double down.

Bella looks around at all of us, and quirks an eyebrow. "This is coming from three people named Edward, Carlisle, and Esme?"

"It's a classic name," Esme backtracks. "One belonging to a great president."

"And a serial killer," I mutter under my breath, earning an amused chuckle from my dad.

"He's a great guy," Bella continues, like she's finished downloading his fabricated profile. "He used to be an architect, and now he's a professor at Columbia."

Wait a second. I bite the inside of my cheek so I don't laugh. "Does he live in New York with his best friends?"

"As a matter of fact, he does," Bella deadpans. "They actually went to college together, and it's a pretty funny story of how he met them."

Esme shoots us a confused glance with a hint of suspicion. "Interesting. Well, I hope things work out between you two." Her pointed stare indicates that she doesn't mean Ted.

It takes a special kind of sociopath to say something nice but mean something completely different.

I love my parents. They're champions of finding the middle ground-assertive not aggressive, honest but not detailed, and stern but not strict. Instead of pushing me towards an instrument or a career, they gave me options. I used to think they did this to help me. Present all possible outcomes of a choice so I knew exactly what was at stake.

Now I think they just like to fuck with me.

Case in point. "You know, there's supposed to be a storm later tonight," Mom points out, with a note of concern. "Why don't you both stay over? Bella can take the guest room."

Conveniently located next to my bedroom. I wipe my mouth with the napkin, trying to figure out her endgame. "Don't you think you're a bit too young to be a grandmother?"

Bella and Carlisle almost do identical spit-takes, but Esme doesn't even blink. "That's quite an assumption, son." Her voice is mostly even, with a hint of mischief underneath.

I cock an eyebrow and wait.

Esme sniffs. "And to answer your question, no." This is punctuated with a hopeful look at Bella, who responds with a shaky smile and edges away from me.

I suppress a groan. Outstanding.

Carlisle shakes his head and pushes up from the table with his empty plate in hand. "I swear, it's like watching a House of Cards episode," he bemoans. "Esme-leave the boy alone. Edward-you know better than to rile up your mother."

We both direct outraged looks at him, but immediately swerve around when Bella's laugh cuts off any retort. "Oh my God," she exclaims, shoulders shaking. "You should have your own sitcom. I haven't been this entertained since discovering Shark Tank on Netflix."

We merely stare at her and wait.

Bella frowns. "Fine, it was Top Chef."

More staring and silence.

"Ok, it was the Bachelorette!" She huffs, throwing up her hands in mock exasperation.

"Is that the show where a hundred women fight over one man?" Carlisle questions, stacking up dishes. Whenever Esme cooked, it was automatically assumed that we'd clean up. I used to complain when I was younger, until I realized that peanut butter sandwiches and cereal weren't the best dinner options.

"The opposite," Bella corrects, getting up to grab the empty wine glasses on the table. "And it's the perfect off-switch for your brain. The definition of mindlessness, desperation, and human depravity." An enthusiastic grin breaks out. "I'm obsessed with it."

I playfully flinch back, reaching over to grab the utensils. "Seriously? A dating show?"

She stands, patting my arm reassuringly. "Look, they'll always have another season. Don't be bitter just because you were rejected this time."

I pick up another plate. "First of all, my application would be immediately accepted. Second, and more importantly, I would win."

Bella scoffs, her finger curling around the stem of another wine glass and adding it to the bouquet in her other hand. "Explain."

Arms loaded, we push past the kitchen door to the sink. "I'm a successful, good-looking doctor," I point out, turning on the faucet to rinse out the dishes. "Who's my competition? Models and aspiring drummers?"

She dutifully grabs the hand towel on the counter and starts to dry the first dish that I pass over. "Yep. And you're not a doctor."

I shrug and hand her another plate. "I've got a doctorate. Close enough."

"So you're saying that you'd be able to make any woman fall in love with you?"

"Not even a little. I'm saying I'd be able to fake it until I score an advertising deal on Instagram."

Her eyes widen in amusement. "So you do keep up with the show!" Excitement threads through her words, causing a primeval alert to set off in my mind. I have to shut this down before she starts getting ideas about marathoning The Bachelor with Pinot Grigio and goat cheese.

As much as I respect women, I don't think I'll ever completely understand them.

I eye her warily and grab the sponge. "Calm down. Alice used to watch it all the time in high school."

Like a stormcloud that appears out of nowhere, her expression falters and she looks down at the plate in her hands. It's inevitable that we circle back to Alice and Anna. It just means Hale isn't far behind.

I look away, squirting more soap onto the sponge. "Have you heard from him? Jasper?"

She smoothly reaches up to stack the plate in the cupboard, exuding the kind of calm that takes more effort than it actually looks. "It was his birthday last week. We texted a bit, but not much else." Her voice grows fainter, quiet with caution.

I keep my gaze forward, even though it's too dark to see anything outside the kitchen window. "Are you planning to reach out again?"

Her hands freeze on the top of the plate. "Is it so unreasonable that I might?"

Yes. "No, it's your decision." Just stop there. "But considering his track record, you may want to reconsider."

I can almost hear my parents groaning in disappointment.

Bella leans against the counter, her eyes searching mine. "Everything I know about his relationship with Alice has been filtered." Her tone is measured, almost uncharacteristically even.

"I can admit that, Edward. Can you?"

"Does it matter?" I argue, ignoring the instinct to stop before I'm ahead. "Maybe I don't know what happened in the beginning or the middle, but I was there at the end."

Her shoulders tense. "It's not that simple."

"Depends on where you're standing," I retort, shutting off the water and turning around.

Her eyebrows pinch together for a second before the mask slips into place. Recalculating. "He struggled to move on after the breakup. When she showed up, they hadn't talked in years."

I grit my teeth. "Then why didn't he turn her away? Don't you think it's curious that he chose to be there, to live with her-until he found out she was pregnant?"

"It wasn't his child." Bella points out, her voice insistent. "And she kept that from him for weeks. Even when he found out, he considered staying. But he wasn't ready."

"Then he should have told her that," I snap, allowing the restrained anger to finally leak through. "If he truly cared about her, then he would have tried. Instead, he chose to prioritize his feelings and book the first flight out of DC."

She rears back, narrowing her eyes in confusion. "So it's his fault that he stayed initially, and it's his fault that he left?

Her voice takes on an undeniable edge. "Why is Alice blameless in all this? Because she was pregnant?"

I cross my arms. "Don't make assumptions about something you don't understand, Bella."

Bella shoots me a look of disbelief. "Take your own advice, Edward."

Fuck. We're getting nowhere. A frustrated exhale leaves my chest as I struggle to find the right words. The ones that explain that I'm not trying to be a jealous dick. Alice's broken expression from two years ago resurfaces in my mind, along with the sound of her sobs over the phone after Jasper had left. The only time I've been more scared was when I drove Alice to the hospital while she was in labor.

"What if...he thought they'd be better off without him? What if...he thought the best option was to walk away?" Her voice is small and unsure, as if she wants to believe this but doesn't know if she can.

I slowly turn back to meet her questioning gaze. "Giving up is the most selfish option. It's only fair to the person who's giving up."

Bella flinches back as if struck, blinking rapidly to regain her composure. "Right." A small shrug. "I guess you've made up your mind."

"Yes," I answer, my tone clipped. "You can't always expect people to do what they say."

Her eyes flash with undisguised anger. "Don't lecture me, Edward. I know the world isn't all sunshine and rainbows."

"Prove it," I challenge.

Bella shakes her head, moving her hands in agitated circles. "You've cast Jasper as a villain in a story that's not even yours. Only two people know what really happened between Jasper and Alice, and neither of them are standing in this room."

She bites her bottom lip, deliberating. "Have you even asked Alice if she's seen Jasper since he's been back?"

The immediate defense that I prepared dies in my throat. No, I haven't.

She looks down briefly, balling her fist, before glancing back earnestly. "Jasper did hurt me. But I'm not going to blame him for everything that went wrong. When I say I accept some responsibility over what happened, I'm not asking you to disagree or prove that he's really the bad guy. I'm telling you that I've thought about this-probably too much-and accepted that we both screwed up by trying to make something out of nothing."

"So why are you trying to be friends with him?" Why try at all?

Something that looks like regret and resignation reaches her eyes. A small, sad smile stretches her lips. "Because even when I hated him, I missed him." Her shoulders drop. "We might not be whatever we were, and that's fine. We can be better, and I truly think that's as friends."

Bella swallows, shifting her weight onto the other foot. "Is that-can you accept that?"

It's at this point that I realize we've been alone for almost half an hour, only to be standing awkwardly across from each other, showing off our best statue imitations. Appropriate, but not great. None of this feels natural. None of this feels right.

"I accept that you've made a decision," I force out, my mind racing. "But I don't agree with it."

She nods resolutely. "Fair enough."

Talk to me. "I'm missing something, aren't I?" I guess quietly, watching her reaction closely. "He's closer to you than Rose or Emmett."

She winces, as if remembering something that was physically painful. I watch her fist clench and unclench. "He was there when I needed someone the most. I just didn't know it."

"But you won't tell me what that means." I state this like it's a fact.

"Not yet," Bella confirms, her expression pleading. "I've already given you so much, even if you don't realize it."

"I do, Bella," I insist, angling closer to her. "I just want more."

My chest tightens when her head drops down, processing and deliberating. At this distance, I can see the faint freckles that are clustered around the bridge of her nose. I can see the indents of her teeth temporarily imprinted on her bottom lip. I can see the tiny twitch of her left eyebrow, rhythmically broadcasting the uncertainty splashed across her features. She looks like a girl who doesn't want to ask for something because she might not get it.

So I wait. And I watch the previous girl disappear.

Because this is also the woman who kicked me after I stole her coffee. She suggested kickboxing for our second date and kicked my ass. She's a leading researcher in her field who's authored as many reports and publications as I have.

Taking a deep breath, Bella raises her determined gaze to mine. "I'm really good at pretending because that's what feels normal. That's easy. But this-" Her hands gesture wildly between us. "I don't know how to do this. So I overthink and overanalyze instead of talking to you, because I don't know if the words will mean what I say. But I want to try. Because I want this to be real."

And despite the previous conversation, despite all of the noise, I realize that's exactly what I want too.

"Come here," I request softly, finally closing the distance and folding her against my chest. She stiffens for a second before allowing each muscle to relax.

I brush my lips over her ear. "You can tell me anything. Anything. Maybe I'll ask you questions or just let it go. Maybe we'll argue or joke about it."

I feel her lean into me, the soft weight pressing against me. My fingers skim over her shoulder, eliciting a shiver.

"There isn't one way to make this work. But we have to try. That's what makes it real."

A long sigh hits my chest. "Are you sure we can't just have lots of great sex instead?"

I snort. "But men love to share their feelings. Almost as much as we love shopping and taking selfies."

"I sense resentment. Isn't it a bit too early for that? I haven't even yelled at you for accidentally calling me fat."

"I've seen Carlisle sleep on the couch enough times to avoid making that mistake."

Her sharp laugh echoes throughout the small room. Taking advantage of the temporary silence, I gently explain, "You don't have to tell me everything. That's part of dating-the getting to know you, the waiting."

My hands slide to her shoulders as I pull her back, meeting her gaze. "But if there's even a piece of you that wants something more than friendship with H-Jasper...that I won't wait for."

A soft smile plays around her lips, and she slides her hands onto mine. "You know those puzzles that are made up of a million little pieces? The ones that you have to use the picture on the box because otherwise, it's impossible to tell one piece apart from another?"

Actually, I was more of a Legos guy.

Her voice starts to hum with excitement. "At some point, you're convinced that one piece should fit with another, even though it doesn't. But you still jam it in there, hoping that the edges will magically adjust themselves on the sixteenth try."

She shoots me a meaningful glance. "It's only after the puzzle is mostly assembled that you can easily see where that piece actually fits."

I blink, trying to follow her logic. "Uh, am I the puzzle or the piece that doesn't fit? This metaphor is confusing."

Bella rolls her eyes, and grabs the front of my shirt. "You're the piece that solidifies that I don't want anything more with Jasper."

I eye her hopefully. "Does that mean you won't see or talk to him again?"


"Alright, fine." I reach up to tap the end of her nose with my index finger, snickering when she scrunches her face in annoyance and backs away. "But I'm optimistic that my generous actions will be rewarded."

Bella fakes an annoyed sigh and pretends to get down on her knees, making both of us laugh.

"Soon," I promise, smirking when I see the familiar flush spreading to her cheeks.

A familiar buzz vibrates against my thigh, causing the mood to evaporate. "Fuck." I shoot her an apologetic glance. "I need to take this."

"Yeah, of course."

Dropping a kiss on her forehead, I push past the swinging door out to the dining room, checking to make sure no one is around.

My stomach tightens as I answer. "What is it?"

"The investigation is going to start next week," Caine barks without warning. "Call your lawyers."

I swallow. "Which committee?"

"House of Oversight and Government Reform. I forwarded you the list of members, but it's led by McClansky and Locke."

A familiar sense of dread crashes over me, and I steady myself with the chair. "This is going to be a fucking circus."

"It doesn't have to be." His tone is almost accusing, but not quite.

I scratch my cheek distractedly, staring at a loose thread from the tablecloth. "It's not the right time yet."

"It's getting closer," he unnecessarily points out.

"No shit," I mutter, grinding my teeth.

"Look, I know you don't want to be the bad guy, but at some point, you need to do what's right for you."

"It's not just about me."

"Cut the self-deriding bullshit, Ed," he interjects. "You can either get the numbers and use it to save your ass, or I'll be visiting you behind a cell in six months."

I shake my head. "It's not that simple, dickhead. I don't want to force her to do something that she doesn't want to do."

"Tanya is a fucking adult, who has information that could turn this whole thing on its head. Using her to save yourself isn't the best choice. It's the only choice." He's stating what I already know, albeit more harshly. If it were anyone else, I'd tell them to fuck off. But this is my best friend from childhood, and one of the few people I trust.

Still, convincing Tanya to turn in her own family? "I need more time."

I hear a loud noise in the background, most likely his fist slamming down on a hard surface.

"Have you been listening?" He exclaims. "You're going to get dragged up the Hill by the end of next week."

"She-" My hand reaches up to pull at my hair, and I breathe through the sharp sting of pain. "She has kids."

I hear him pause. "Any of them yours?"

"What? Fuck you, no. But if she turns in her dad, her husband, and the company? I mean, what does she have left?"

"A clean conscience?" He asks dryly.

My lips flatten into a line. "I'm not going to ruin any more lives if I can help it."

"Jesus. Alice said you've been moodier than usual, but I think this is worse than in high school."

I freeze. "You've been talking to her again?"

"Relax, bro. Just because we fucked that one time doesn't mean I'm still pining after her."

My shoulders relax, allowing myself to be momentarily distracted. "You took her home after prom and got a kiss on the cheek. And you don't need to work so hard to piss me off-these calls are enough."

"Feeling's mutual, asshole," he says curtly. "Look, I get that this feels like an impossible situation. Which is why you have to keep it simple-reach out to Tanya, get the evidence, turn it over to your lawyers, and walk away."

Steps 1, 2, 3, and 4. "Yeah, I think you're right." I rap my knuckles on the table twice, realizing it's been more than a few minutes. "Look, I have to go. Can't keep my date waiting."

"Is that your right hand or your left?"

"Go fuck your-" The sound of the door opening cuts me off, and I spin around to find Bella, no doubt having heard the last few seconds of my conversation.

I end the call and suck in through my teeth. "Any chance we can go back to the elevator?"

She grins and walks up to me. "I think we should call it. But what are you doing on Wednesday night?"

I peer down at her speculatively. "How honestly do you want me to answer?"

Her cheeks pinken. "I'm off at 7," she continues, smiling. "And that's the third date. So better make it count."

I step closer and cup the back of her neck. "You know I've stopped counting, right?" It's possible that I sound more certain than I feel.

She exhales shakily, her arms tentatively circling around my waist. "Yeah. Me too."

An alert on her phone interrupts the silence. Bella reluctantly pulls away, her mouth twisted into a frown. "My ride's here. Sorry-I wasn't sure how long you'd be on the phone."

The corner of my lips quirk up. "It's fine. I'll talk to you later."

Her expression softens. "Night," she breathes, before turning around.

I wait for the car to disappear before pulling out my phone again. Every argument we've had is about Jasper and Alice. Or Bella and Jasper. Or Edward and Alice. When it should be about us, trying to avoid stumbling at every step forward. There's too much uncertainty, too much confusion. Too many mistakes that seem easy to make and smart to avoid.

This just isn't one of them. And I don't need to make things more difficult right now.

"Hey," Alice answers with a whisper, a faint rustling in the background. "Sorry, Anna just fell asleep. What's up?"

My chest squeezes at the mention of Anna. "It's not important. Just wanted to see how you're doing."

She makes an incredulous sound. "At 10 o'clock on a Friday?"

"Sorry, it's late," I acknowledge, rubbing my eyes. "We can talk in the morning."

Her voice becomes concerned. "Edward-I'm awake, I swear. And you sound off. What is it?"

I collapse onto the loveseat in the living room, and drop my feet onto the ottoman. "Caine got back to me. Apparently, the investigation starts next week."

A door groans as it closes, before shutting with a soft thud. "Have you called the legal team?"

"Not yet."

Alice's voice is quietly cautious, like a compass trying to pinpoint my location. "You're not still thinking of turning yourself in, are you?"

"No," I answer tiredly, tilting my head back. My hand reaches up to pinch the bridge of my nose. "No, I know what I need to do. It's just an impossible situation."

"But you have a choice," she reminds me. "Even if it's not an ideal one."

I grunt in response, reaching for the pillow behind me and throwing it aside. "Speaking of less than ideal choices...have you heard from Jasper since you moved back?"

Sharp inhale. "Um, yes, actually." She clears her throat.

I try to keep my tone neutral and curious, even as my muscles tense. "Did he reach out to you?"

"No, I reached out to him," she clarifies. "And before you start your lecture, keep in mind that it's been two years."

Last time. You get to go over this one last time. I lower my voice and lean forward. "Yes, it has. But he still hurt you. He left you."

A heavy sigh rattles over the phone. "I hurt him too, you know," she replies sadly. "Possibly more."

A snort escapes before I can think to stop it. "Somehow I doubt that."

"You only know him as the guy who left, but he-he was there when he didn't have to be." She sounds even more tired now, like this is a story that she's told herself a million times. And it's not that we haven't talked about this before. But instead of automatically defending her, I consider the earlier conversation with Bella.

"So why was he?"


I tighten my grip on the phone. "Why did you reach out to him two years ago?"

"I…" Her voice trails off, uncertain.

Because you didn't know what to do. Because you were abandoned and completely vulnerable.

But those aren't her answers. Those are mine.

"I used to believe it's because I was scared and confused and alone," Alice starts again. "But I think a part of me knew... that he wouldn't say no."

Suddenly, the metaphor about the puzzle pieces starts to make sense. "You knew he still had feelings for you."

"I knew it was a possibility," she acknowledges, regret spilling from every word. "A likely possibility."

For the first time, some of the anger that I'd reserved for Hale transforms into pity. I've always thought of Alice as a little sister, which is why it's never been weird between us, even after Anna was born.

I sit up straight, struggling to hold onto my perspective. "It shouldn't matter. You were vulnerable and needed someone, and he-"

"Edward, stop," Alice interrupts sharply, offering a glimpse of the lawyer commanding attention in the courtroom. "We're just running around in circles. I've always appreciated your concern, and I know it's coming from a good place. But this is not your fight. I shouldn't have reached out to him. I knew that then, and I regret that now. And I wish it was entirely because of my situation at the time-I wish I could tell you that things just happened. But they don't. Everything that happens is because of a choice that someone makes."

She exhales deeply. "You can't keep blaming him because he chose to leave and you chose to stay. Jasper isn't you, and that's not anyone's fault."

"No, it's not," I admit, rubbing my forehead. "But I just remember when you called-"

"I know," Alice says urgently, her voice thick. "I know. And I love you for what you did, especially when you didn't have to. But I'm not that scared girl anymore. I can't be. So maybe...maybe you have to let that girl go."

Is that what I've been doing? It made sense at the time to offer Alice a place to stay, and take care of her when she was pregnant. It made sense to hate Jasper for what he'd done. But does it make sense now?

I've been caught up in wondering whether Bella still has feelings for Jasper, or if Alice is still punishing herself for what happened, that I've been living in the past almost as much as they have.

If Alice can move on from everything that's happened, then what the hell was my excuse?

My voice softens. "So why reach out this time?"

"Because it was the right thing to do," she admits immediately. "We were such an important part of each other's lives that it seemed so pointless to keep ruminating over the past."

A defeated sigh escapes. "Being in love with someone is the best thing and the worst thing at the same time," she reflects. "Because eventually, you reach a point where you love someone so much that you hate them."

I picture her attempt a half-hearted shrug. "I don't know if it's harder to stop loving them or to stop hating them."

"So it's better to walk away," I guess.

"In this case, yes."

I fall back against the couch, silently considering. "Thank you." It's not about having all of the answers, but figuring out what the right questions are.

"Anytime." Her tone becomes business-like. "Now, about the investigation-did Caine say which committee is going to be involved?"

"Oversight and Government Reform." I pull up the website. "It's led by McClansky and Locke."

"McClansky," she states flatly, concern underlining the name. "You're sure?"

"Yeah, I just looked him up now. Why? Do you know him?"

"Not personally," she continues, her voice strained. "But I know who does."

I freeze, my thumb hovering over the "Staff" link. "Don't tell me-"

A frustrated sigh echoes through the phone. "That's Jasper's boss. He's co-leading the investigation."

I swallow. Hard. "What does that mean, exactly?"

"It means that you're going to hear from him very soon."

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