Edward cleared his throat, his voice suddenly threatening not to work. Charlie was retired now, but his straight back and firm handshake hinted at a man with a strong and active past and he remained an imposing figure. His dark hair was peppered with grey at the temples and his eyes were so dark they were almost black as they sized Edward up.
"Pleased to meet you, sir."
"Likewise," Charlie kept shaking Edward's hand, regarding the other man through narrowed eyes. "I'd love to say that I'd heard lots about you…"
"I didn't know about Esme until recently," replied Edward, firmly, cutting the other man off. He took the initiative and withdrew his hand from Charlie's grip. "I intend on putting things right."
"What I don't understand," said Charlie, still looking intently at Edward in the same way that he might have looked at a perpetrator when he was in active service, "is that Bella has been receiving maintenance payments. How is that possible if you didn't know?"
Edward maintained eye contact with Charlie, although the shame of what he was about to admit made him want to hang his head. "My mother, sir," he replied, softly. "After my two brothers gave up their stake in the ranch she didn't want to lose me as well and took it upon herself to keep the news about Esme from me."
"Isn't your mother called Esme too?" Edward nodded and Charlie snorted. "The whole thing seems a bit strange in this day and age," he continued, "what with Facebook and Instagram and the internet."
"We're a little cut off on the ranch," replied Edward with a small smile, "broadband hasn't made it to Fort Troy yet."
"It took long enough to get to Forks," said Charlie, with a snort. He picked up his coffee cup and took a sip. "I was on dial up until three years ago."
"We're still on it," said Edward, picking up his own coffee cup and offering a wry smile, "makes watching porn a little problematic…." As soon as the words were out Edward mentally kicked himself. It was a joke. Surely Charlie would realise it was a joke? He was coming to the conclusion that Charlie would think he was a sex fiend when Charlie burst out laughing. After a moment Edward joined in. His shoulders relaxed a little.
After knocking on Bella's door yesterday, meeting her hostile ex-policeman father was definitely one of the hardest things that he had ever done. Bella had dropped him in it by taking Sue and Esme to the store as soon as they arrived at Charlie and Sue's. Edward was dismayed at first, it felt like walking into the lion's den. However, in the moment he was glad to have this short opportunity to give an account of himself to Bella's protective father.
Yesterday had gone better than he had dared to hope. They had finally broken the ice over dinner and whilst he had slept in the spare room they had stayed up for hours drinking wine and looking at photographs and videos of Esme. He couldn't get enough of his daughter and by the end of the night they were surrounded by boxes of photographs, school reports and macaroni pictures that she had made at nursery. He was careful around her, always aware of Esme and the implications of any of his actions on their potential relationship however she had lingered longer than necessary as she had shown him the guest bath and the spare towels and the awkward fastening for the guest bedroom window blinds. As she looked into his eyes and wished him goodnight he had leaned in and kissed her gently on the lips. There was a moment as they separated and he saw her eyes half glazed that he felt that things could go further but he was determined not to mess things up so he simply bid her goodnight.
"You two seem to be getting on well." Sue looked at them suspiciously as she entered the kitchen with a bag of groceries.
"He's alright," said Charlie. Sue cocked her head and Edward felt that he was missing something, some unspoken communication passing between the married couple as their eyes locked. Sue put the paper bag down on the wooden countertop and walked across to Edward.
"Sue Swan," she put her hand out. Edward was a little surprised but took the offered hand, surprisingly strong for being so small and slim. "Bella's step-mother."
"Pleased to meet you ma'am," said Edward.
"Polite," observed Sue, raising her eyebrow in a way that could have been sarcasm or surprise. "I heard that cowboys still got raised right."
"We try, ma'am," he replied, trying to look humble.
"Bella and I have discussed you on the way to the store," said Sue, suddenly all business. "We think it would be best to introduce you as a family friend at first." Edward opened his mouth to object. "I know you want to be part of her life," rushed Sue, not letting him get a word in, "but she doesn't know why she doesn't have a daddy but other boys and girls do. Her friend Tammy's mother passed away from breast cancer when she was too young to remember and we think she may assume that the same has happened to her daddy."He nodded, a lump suddenly forming in his throat.
"They're in the garden," said Sue, softly. "Bella says that you can join them when you're ready." He nodded, turning his head to look out of the kitchen window to the Swan's large and slightly overgrown garden. Bella pushed a swing, a small dark haired figure swinging backward and forward. His heart almost stopped when he heard a peal of laughter escape from her mouth.
"She has your eyes you know," said Sue, softly. She laid a hand of encouragement on his upper arm. Impulsively he put his hand over Sue's, wildly grateful for the kind words and the encouragement.
"Cowboy!" He didn't even get halfway across the garden when Esme saw him and squealed. It was all Bella could do to stop the swing moving before Esme wriggled off the low wooden board and ran across the grass towards Edward, legs moving like little pistons. She stopped suddenly, a few feet away from him, suddenly overcome by shyness. Edward could only stare at her. Sue was right, the photographs didn't do it justice, Esme's eyes were the same clear green as his own. Her hair was thick and long like Bella's but a few shades lighter. A smattering of freckles decorated her button nose.
"Hello," he said, getting down onto his knees, oblivious of the wet grass soaking his heavy denim jeans. "I'm Edward."
"This is Mummy's friend," said Bella quickly, materialising behind her suddenly with a wary expression on her face. "The one I told you about on the way back from the store."
"Mummy says you're a real cowboy," said Esme.
"I am," said Edward.
"Do you have any ponies?" asked Esme.
"What sort of a cowboy would I be if I didn't have any ponies?" said Edward.
"I love ponies!" squealed Esme.
Edward set the kitchen table for two. He could hear the murmur of Bella's voice down the corridor in Esme's room as she read a bedtime story. He was exhausted but deliriously happy, having spent the full day with Bella and Esme. He had pushed her on the swing, helped her with a puzzle and crawled around the floor like a pony with Esme squealing on his back, grinning through the pain as she kicked his ribs with her little feet in her excitement. He had even read her a story, although Bella had kept control of the bedtime routine and story time. They hadn't discussed the sleeping arrangements and he hadn't checked out of his hotel however he hoped that he would get to sleep in the spare room again.
Charlie had given them a couple of steaks and while Bella bathed Esme and read her bedtime story he had made himself useful in the kitchen. The steaks had been grilled and were in the warm oven resting, alongside jacket potatoes rubbed in olive oil and salt and wrapped in foil. The green beans were prepared and ready to saute at the last possible moment. Bella had told Edward to make himself comfortable, however he hoped it wasn't too much of an imposition that he had found a bottle of red wine in the cupboard and opened it to breathe as well as getting out large wine glasses stuffed at the back of the cupboard behind the colourful plastic beakers that Bella and Esme normally used. He had to admit, with a single freshly cut white swamp-rose in a tall stemmed vase the table didn't look half bad.
"She's asleep," said Bella, in a soft voice, padding into the kitchen in her bare feet. She looked casual but lovely in soft denim jeggings and a cosy red cardigan worn long over a cream sleeveless blouse. "This looks great." Edward didn't know whether to be pleased or put out by the surprise in her tone. "Can I help with anything?"
"No ma'am," he couldn't help but grin as he pulled out a chair and tucked it under her as she sat down. "Everything is under control. Wine?" She nodded and he poured her a generous glass.
"Thank you," she replied, taking a sip. "Mmmm…" She closed her eyes in pleasure. "Delicious. Charlie, Sue and Rose are all beer drinkers so unless I want to drink by myself I don't drink wine much. It's nice," she said, her eyes half open, gazing up at him through long lashes, "to have somebody to share with."
Edward couldn't think of an appropriate response to that question so he turned his attention back to the food. The pan was already warming so he threw in unsalted butter and garlic, waiting until the butter was bubbling before throwing in the green beans. He tossed them occasionally as he took the plates, steaks and potatoes from the oven and plated them up. When the beans were tender he grated a little parmesan over the top and arranged them carefully on the plates.
"Voila," he said, setting the plate down carefully in front of her. They ate mostly in silence, punctuated by little squeals of delight from Bella as she commented on the tenderness of the meat, the deliciousness of the sautéed green beans and even the fluffiness of the jacket potatoes. Edward couldn't help but let the compliments go to his head a little.
When she had finished he stood up and took her plate away, intending to stack the dishwasher.
"Dishwasher's broken I'm afraid," sighed Bella. "It's good old soap and water in this house."
"I could look at it," said Edward.
"No," said Bella, putting her hand on the white appliance. "You've done enough. You don't need to fix things too."
"Maybe," said Edward, putting his hand over Bella's, "maybe I want to fix things. Maybe the thing that I want most in the world it to make everything right." Bella exhaled. She was so close that he could feel her breath on his face, could smell that familiar floral scent, see the warm dark pools of her eyes.
"Maybe," she whispered, turning her hand over so that their hands were facing each other and it seemed the most natural thing in the world for their fingers to interlace, "we need to start building something new instead of fixing something old." Her free hand moved to his waist. He couldn't tear his eyes from hers as she stood on her tip-toes and planted an excruciatingly gentle kiss on his lips. He couldn't bear it and in a moment he had taken her in his arms, a little moan of delight escaping from her lips as he kissed her hard, all of the longing and sorrow of the last three years fuelling his feverish kisses. She responded in kind, clinging to him, kissing him back with abandon. After a few moments her hands started to pull his shirt from the waistband of his jeans. He paused for a moment, searching her face for doubt or confusion yet there was none. She took his hand and led him down the corridor toward her bedroom, stopping on the way to pull Esme's door fully shut.
Edward woke early, as was his habit. Watery morning light filtered in through the corners of the curtains. For a moment he was confused, yet as a voice sighed the happy contentment of sleep and snuggled further into his back he remembered. His stomach leapt in happiness, he couldn't remember being this happy in a long time. He reached up to the nightstand to check the time.
"What time is it?" came a muffled voice.
"Sorry," he said, "I didn't mean to wake you." He focused on the hands of his watch. "Almost six AM."
"Don't worry," she said, "when you have a kid you always sleep light." She pushed back the comforter and sat up, holding it across her naked breasts as she turned on the bedside light. They both winced for a moment, although the light was soft and warm. "You have to be gone by the time Esme wakes up." Edward opened his mouth to complain then thought better of it, squashing down his romantic image of making a cooked breakfast for Bella and Esme, spending their first morning together as a real family. "I don't have men to stay over," she said, firmly, "and I want Esme to know who you are before she finds you here in the morning."
"Understood," said Edward. He pulled back his side of the comforter and swung his legs over the side of the bed, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes with the backs of his hands. "I can't wait to get you both back to the ranch."
"Oh?" replied Bella.
"You'll love the sunsets," said Edward, pulling on the boxer shorts that he had discarded on the carpet. "It really is beautiful. There's a new range in the kitchen and we can teach Esme to ride on Angus."
"Really?" For a moment Edward thought there was frost in Bella's voice. He twisted around and smiled at her, before standing up and pulling his jeans up over his legs. "A range?" she said. "Have you got me cooking and cleaning for you already? I work. I told you that."
"I can take care of you both," said Edward, amazed that she couldn't see what he was offering. "You won't have to work."
"So," she said, a little louder. This time he was sure that her tone was confrontational. He paused, his shirt on but buttons not yet done up. "We spend one night together and you've got me and Esme already moved in at the ranch playing happy families."
"Yes?" He was confused. Was that a question or an accusation. "The family business is there, it makes sense."
"My life and my family and my work is here," said Bella. She sounded angry. "I'm a few weeks away from being a fully qualified teacher and Esme is settled into nursery with plenty of family and friends nearby."
"No buts Edward," she spat. "I spent too many years drifting along at the whim of a man, living somebody else's life instead of my own and that's a mistake I'm never going to make again. You can visit Esme and we'll build up to letting her know who you are, but this," she circled her hand over the bed and the discarded clothes, "this can never happen again. We can never happen."