A/N: Here we go.
Bella's parents had been eighteen when she was born. Carlisle had been sixteen. Her mother's husband was three years younger than Carlisle.
Yeah. Awkward. Her mother was obviously attracted to her boyfriend. Renee was a harmless flirt, but still, ick. Her father, knowing full well Carlisle had been in her life for four years, was suspicious about what the hell a successful lawyer was doing hanging around with eighteen-year-old kids.
"You should have seen her." Benjamin whistled, relating the story to Alice and Jasper the day after graduation and their own private party. "She was all up in her father's face like a glorious, vengeful goddess, telling him off for trying to get in her business."
Bella snorted, sitting on the couch next to Carlisle and curling against his side as she handed him another beer. "I've been making my own decisions, romantically and otherwise, since I was a teenager. I should introduce him to James."
"Thank you, sweetheart." Carlisle kissed her forehead. "'At least he's not James' is a stunning endorsement. Just the ranking I was hoping for."
She slipped her fingertips under his shirt and tickled his tummy, grinning wickedly when he gasped. "Don't worry, baby. You're my favorite mistake."
He caught her wrist in one hand and set down the beer that was in the other. In a swift motion, he cupped the back of her head, holding her still as he kissed her. She squeaked, trying to draw away, but he wouldn't let her for a good ten seconds. When he did let go, she sputtered, sticking her tongue out and blowing a raspberry of distaste. He only smiled innocently at her.
"Beer kisses. Ew." She reached for her own drink and chugged, resulting in a tipsy, not-unpleasant rush of dizziness.
Edward groaned. "You two are going to cost me so much money in therapy bills."
"They are pretty disgusting," Alice said.
Bella arched an eyebrow. "This from the woman whose ass never touches a seat when her boyfriend is around."
Alice, sitting as usual on Jasper's lap, just smirked. "Don't be jealous just because I have the best seat in the house."
"What do you think?" On the other couch, Benjamin threw his legs over Edward's. "Should we give them a run for their money?"
Edward shoved his legs off him. "I think your ass is too heavy."
"Oooo." Benjamin got that wicked gleam in his eyes, and Bella wasn't even remotely surprised when he straddled Edward right there in front of everyone. He leaned down so they were nose to nose. "That wasn't what you said about my ass last night. You were all about what you were going to do to it...and then what you did to it-"
"Benjamin!" Edward had turned a deep puce at that point.
"Gah. Now who needs therapy?" Carlisle shook his head.
"If this is going to turn into the set of Guy on Guy volume four, I'm definitely going to need to break out the whiskey." Jasper stood up, tossing Alice over his shoulder in one swift movement, and heading toward the kitchen as she peppered smacks to his ass.
When Jasper and Alice came back with whiskey and shot glasses, Benjamin insisted on a toast. "I have something to say to you kids on the verge of adulthood from this old man with all his experience."
Edward rolled his eyes and gave his boyfriend's ear a playful tug. "Babe, you graduated last year."
"That's right. Which is one year more of real life experience than you fresh-faced graduates, now isn't it? You hush your mouth, habeeby, and mind your elders."
Carlisle scoffed. "Yes, sir? Where was all this minding your elders business when you were a teenaged little snot?"
Edward shot his brother a mock-offended look. "I have no idea what you're talking about. I was a treasure and joy."
"Oh, sure," Carlisle said.
"Well, now you're my treasure, but if you won't shut the hell up, I might take you out to a remote island and bury you," Benjamin said, fixing Edward with a beady-eyed stare.
Edward swept his hand out wide. "Go on."
"Ahem." Benjamin straightened up, holding the whiskey shot aloft. "So this is to you. To the things you'll do, and the people you'll be. To the mistakes you'll make and the bridges you'll burn. To all the jobs, weddings, babies, and even the crushed dreams ahead of you. Today is the first day of the rest of your life, and it's going to be a good life."
They all gave a general sort of cheer as they clinked glasses and shot them together. There was that dizzy rush again, and Bella, laughing at the giddiness that rose in her, fell against Carlisle's side. He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, pulling her closer.
"So, if Benjamin is old and wise, what does that make you?" she asked, splaying a hand across his chest and looking up at him.
A small, gentle smile played at his lips, and he traced the shape of her face with the pad of a single finger. "I don't know that I'm wise. Just lucky."
Before Bella could speak to that, Alice cackled. "Lucky my ass. You're just drunk right now, and you don't want to let on."
"Pfft. I can hold my liquor, little girl," Carlisle said, rising, as always to Alice's amusement, to the bait she threw out.
"That sounds like a challenge." Alice poured two shots, handing one to Carlisle.
He looked her over. "Alice, I'm not saying you can't hold your liquor. I'm just saying, scientifically speaking, it has nowhere to go…"
This boded well for their collective future. Looking around the room at her awesome friends and her amazing boyfriend, Bella knew life was going to be so, so good.
Carlisle opened the door to the suite quietly and let his eyes sweep the space. When he spotted her, he stopped short, overwhelmed by the vision she presented, standing as she was at the window, looking out. He'd been struck by her beauty and poise all night,but now she was the picture of elegance. Her hair was swept into an updo. She was still in her dress from the party. He liked the dress. A lot. It exposed the long line of her back. All of this against the backdrop of Paris's Eiffel Tower and the brilliant Vegas strip stretching out below them.
He moved forward with a soft step, entertaining the thought of pulling the tie-string at the back of her neck so he could watch the gown melt off her. There was thrill in that thought-to press her up against the glass, drag his teeth along her neck and fuck her hard and deep as they watched the busy, glittering world below.
A shiver of electricity went down the middle of his spine, and his cock stirred. He pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Not yet. He couldn't go there yet. Not when he had things to say.
When he reached her, he wrapped his arms around her waist and nuzzled her neck. She sighed, a sound so content it sent warmth and happiness through him, and tilted her head against his. "The call go all right?" she asked.
"Mmhmm. Crisis averted."
She put her hands over his against her waist. "Good. So, tell me the truth. Did I make a fool of myself tonight?"
He snorted. "You're ridiculous." He kissed her cheek and the corner of her mouth. "You were brilliant tonight. Eloquent and charming. You held your own, Bella, and there wasn't an agent or exec in there that doesn't lament that you aren't looking for a contract."
Her answering laugh was breathy. "You've heard me sing. No one should have to listen to that."
"Many of those people represented actors."
"Mmm. Yeah, hard pass."
He'd had a few drinks. He blamed them for the way the word hard had his mind sliding headlong for the gutter. Desire was getting the better of him. It often did when he was wrapped around her like this, her body tucked against him and her scent surrounding him. Seeing her there in his world had done things to him.
But, he did get ahead of himself. Giving her one last kiss and a squeeze, he let her go. He retreated to the couch, spreading his arms wide across the back, his eyes on her as she turned around. She was smiling, relaxed and lovely as always. "I felt like a little girl playing dress up," she said, tilting her head as she took off her earrings.
"Believe me, Bella, that's not how you looked." He let his eyes sweep over her again. "Don't get me wrong. You're lovely and perfect in jeans and t-shirt, but you wear the hell out of a slinky dress. You looked good."
And they had looked good together. He was unbearably proud to have a young woman as brilliant and beautiful as Bella on his arm. He was proud of her. She'd been terrified to come to this thing tonight, this party, but she'd met it like she met every challenge-head on with her shoulders set straight.
Bella picked at whatever was holding her hair up, and it came cascading down. His heart gave a little double tap against his chest. She had no idea the power she had. Had she cared to, she could have been the world's most dangerous temptress, working these industry bozos with ease. She was going to be a success in anything she did.
As for her feminine wiles, well... Those she only used on him. Like now, as she stepped toward him with bedroom eyes and a that half-cocked grin playing at her lips. She reached behind her, and again, he had a vision of that dress sliding off her.
"Wait," he said, holding his hand out. He chuckled wryly. "I have something to tell you, and I really need you to be dressed."
She quirked an eyebrow, looking bemused and curious as she closed the distance between them. She took his hand, letting him pull her down beside him on the room's large and comfortable sofa. She perched on the edge, her body twisted to look at him, and he sat up.
Taking her hands, he drew them to his mouth and kissed her knuckles, his heartbeat too rapid for a few moments to speak. She waited as he took a deep breath. "I wanted to tell you a story. No one else knows this but Edward. You're the two most important people in my life, Bella. My little brother and you. You know that."
"I know." Her voice was soft and tender. She squeezed her fingers around his, urging him to continue.
He took another deep breath. "After you graduated, I told you I've never been wise; just lucky. You know a little of how I grew up."
Her eyes grew sad and she nodded. He'd had little in the way of self-worth in those early days of his life. His father had seen to that.
"When I was in high school, there was a girl named Esme." His throat closed around her name. It always did. He watched Bella's face carefully. Her eyes still held only empathy and curiosity. Some women couldn't stand to hear the names of other women from their lover's lips, but this was something she needed to understand about him. He knew her well enough to believe she'd understand why it was important to him.
"Esme believed a lot of things about my future that I didn't. I thought I was destined to live a worthless existence. It's something I simply believed about myself at the time. I couldn't save my mother. I couldn't save my new baby brother." He swallowed hard, remembering the frustration and anger he'd carried like a second skin at the time.
"When I didn't apply for college, Esme filled out the application for me. She went snooping to my teachers and my next door neighbor-I used to do some work for him-and got my recommendation letters." He shook his head at the memory. "She handed me my future."
He sighed, remembering, and hoping he had the right words to explain all this. "I was very much in love with her."
Bella's eyes were cautious now as she watched him. He saw her throat move as she swallowed hard. "She saw you," she said.
He nodded. "She did. And for all the chaos in her life, I saw her too." He took a deep, shuddering breath, old pain sparking fresh in him. "I wanted everything with her. I wanted her to be with me as I took this life she'd given me."
"But?" Bella prompted when he didn't immediately go on.
He sighed. "But, I never told her. Not a single word. I just...I couldn't imagine I deserved to be that happy. To have someone as brilliant and vibrant as she was. Her smile. She had a smile that lit up the darkest room."
They were both silent a beat as he collected his thought. "Toward the end of Freshman year, there was a man. Charles. She…" He shook his head, anger making his throat go tight. "She had her own issues, and the role Charles played in her life, I'm not sure I'll ever understand. She wasn't in love with him. He was controlling. Possessive. And the more she saw of him, the less she saw of me."
He nodded. Hell was exactly the word. "To make a long story very short. She got pregnant that summer between freshman and sophomore year. So, while I got to go on with school, began to put together this life I have, she dropped out." He clenched his jaw. "Her smile faded. The light in her eyes went out. Two months after their son was born, Charles killed all three of them."
Bella's hands shot to her mouth. "Oh, no. Oh, God. Carlisle, I'm sorry." She reached out, touching his face with such tenderness, his heart ached. "I'm so sorry."
Despite the clench of his heart, he had the urge to smile. She was an incredible woman, sitting here, hurting for him because he'd lost the woman he loved so many years ago. A woman who, had she lived and had he had her the way he wanted, he and Bella would never have had a chance.
Life would never not be strange and somewhat bitter in its sweetness.
He smoothed Bella's hair back, letting what he felt for this incredible woman wash through him, soothing the ache of old, old wounds. "When she died, for a little while, I thought I was going to die too. There was nothing I could do to bring her back, and that was something I couldn't deal with. That and the what-ifs. Could I have helped her? Would loving her have been enough? I have no idea. I'll never know.
"But what I decided then was that I still had this gift. I still had this beginning of a life she'd given me. I still had the ability to decide what I could do with what I was given. So, I got to work. Got to planning. I put together a life I could be proud of; that she would be proud of me. When it was clear I couldn't save my mother, I saved my little brother."
"You're a good man, Carlisle." Bella's eyes shown with emotion. Her tears, he knew, were for him. "She'd have been proud of you. I know I am."
He ducked his head, wondering if she could possibly grasp what those words meant to him. It was a sentiment he'd rarely heard in his life, and never from someone as important to him, as vital, as she was.
"I'm telling you this because in all that time, I have never loved another woman with anything approaching the depth of feeling I had for Esme." He took her hand and pressed it to his heart as he looked up again. "Not until you."
Keeping her hand in his, he raised his free hand to stroke his knuckles across her cheek. "I don't want you to think that there's any comparison. I don't look at you and wish Esme were still here with me. The boy who loved her is so far removed from the person I am now. I just mean that she was profound to me. I'm giving you this story because it's the very last piece of me.
"A long time after Esme died, when I let myself believe I could love again, I promised I wouldn't make the same mistake twice." He laughed and shook his head as he looked at her. "Then, of course, I went and fell for the one person I had no business seeing like that. And, of course, for the second time in my life, I didn't say a damn word about the way I felt."
She gave a breathless laugh, smiling at him with shining eyes. "Yeah, that was silly of you. Not like she was an adult who could have made up her own mind."
He hummed. It was more complicated than that and they both knew it, but it was, tonight, beside the point. "Well, luckily for me, also for the second time in my life, a woman I love more than I have words for came to me and changed everything, handed me a beautiful life on a golden platter. You're so much braver than I've ever been, Bella. You say often that I can be intimidating. My love, I don't hold a candle to you."
Taking a steadying breath, he slid off the couch then, onto one knee. Her eyes went wide, and she gasped out a little, "Oh."
"I love you," he said, looking into her eyes. "Truly. Deeply. Irrevocably." He took her hand, pulling it to him and pressing a small box into it. He closed her fingers around it. "You have all of me, Bella. I'm yours." He couldn't help but smile at the open-mouthed expression on her face. "You know what I want. You know what this is." He squeezed her hand and the box she held. "You don't have to open it now. It's yours whenever you're ready. Believe me, baby. I'll wait."
He had no idea what he was expecting. What he wasn't expecting was the way she launched herself off the couch into his arms. She knocked them both backward, so he had to catch himself with one elbow on the floor. He huffed out an "Oof" but that was about all the breath he got before she was attacking him with kisses.
"No more waiting," she said between kisses. "I'm done with waiting." She wrapped her arms around his neck as he managed to get them both upright, propped against the couch. "Yes." She kissed him. "Yes." And again. "Yes." She kissed him long and deep.
And broke the kiss with a gasp. "Ooh, we're in Vegas. We can do it now."
He stared at her, incredulous, and laughed. "I...really?"
Her look softened. She took his face in her hands and kissed him sweetly. "I told you. I'm done waiting." She kissed him once more. "Okay?"
Again, he laughed. "Okay."
They got to their feet, both grinning wildly and giggling like little children. They were disheveled and rumpled and Edward was going to kill them when they got home. But, it didn't matter.
Holding hands, they exited the suite and headed out into the Vegas night. Because when they were both finally on the same page, there was no reason at all to wait.
A/N: Thank you to Mina, Packy, MoH, Eleanor, and Betsy for her never-ending patience with fics she would never read of her own volition. Lol.
Thank you out there. Your kind words of love and encouragement mean so much to me. Thanks for coming along on another tale.