Contest entry for the Naughty or Nice Twilight Christmas Contest
Title: Time Lapse
Summary: SAMPLE ENTRY. As a photojournalist, Edward studies human emotion, but his own feelings are closely guarded. Bella hides nothing, her feelings as free and open as her heart. Frame by frame, Edward feels himself being pulled closer. But is he ready to step out from behind the camera and into life?
Pairing: Edward & Bella
Word Count: 14,990
DISCLAIMER: Twilight and its inclusive material is copyright to Stephenie Meyer. Original creation, including but not limited to plot and characters, is copyright to the respective authors of each story. No copyright infringement is intended.
"What can I get for you, sir?"
"Coffee. Black, please." Edward reached for his wallet. The barista's smile was friendly, but her shoulders seemed to sag with fatigue as she gave him the total.
It's the most wonderful time of the year…
Edward sighed as the song played yet again through the airport speakers. It didn't matter to Edward that his flight to Denver was delayed. There was nobody waiting for him at the other end. What annoyed him was the press of bodies and excessive noise in the crowded airport.
The season had evolved into a tumult of stress and overindulgence; overspending, overeating, and overplayed music. Running even deeper than those superficial irritations, it was agony to be surrounded by reminders of what he'd lost.
"Any particular plans for the holidays?" The barista's voice interrupted his gloomy thoughts.
"Just some traveling," he answered with a practiced smile and handed her his credit card.
She ran the card and handed it back across the counter. "Sounds like fun. With your family?"
"No. Just me." He expected those questions. It was normal for people to assume that everyone had somebody, multiple somebodies, but the questions always cut a little deeper at this time of year.
At the next counter, a young brunette was ordering tea. Her loud, irritated voice caught Edward's attention.
"Mom, I'm in New York, not Afghanistan."
That made him smile. He was actually returning from a job in that country.
The brunette rolled her eyes as she paid for her drink, her phone pressed against her ear. Panic flashed across her features and she bit her lip. "I gotta go, Mom. I'll see you soon." She jabbed the 'end call' button on her phone and threw it into her oversized bag.
Edward watched, enraptured by the emotions that played across her face — discomfort, panic, and then resignation. Edward's brow quirked when she smiled easily at the barista, the worry lines and frowns gone, just like that. His fingers twitched at his side, wanting to grab his camera and capture each of her fleeting expressions just to compare, study them later.
"Are you gonna stand here all day?" A gruff voice spoke from behind him.
Edward grabbed his coffee and turned to leave. He apologized to the man and sidestepped the long line, then opened the lid and gently blew on the hot brew. He inhaled the swirls of steam, savoring the rich aroma. Fatigue clawed at him. He'd traveled halfway around the world in the last 24 hours. Now he just wanted to get home, get a few nights of decent sleep, and spend some time in his studio. He needed to post some teasers to his Instagram account to generate interest in his most recent project. In less than two weeks, he would be heading out of the country again, traveling to a world far away from western traditions, away from the lights and festivities.
Edward had insisted on taking this next assignment. Deep in the Amazon jungle, he was going to observe and capture the life of a remote village; the people, the routines and traditions, a culture untainted by modern technology and innovations. He wanted to record all the things that made that village unique, then share them with the rest of the world, show people the beauty and simplicity of this untouched civilization.
On another level he craved the unknown, the hidden dangers of the primeval jungle. Six weeks in the deserts of Afghanistan, the uncertainty of whether he would even live to see another day, should have dampened his need for adrenaline. But with the holiday season thick in the air, there was no time like the present to chase his next high. If only to escape.
Edward reached his departure gate, but there wasn't a single open seat. He turned to look for other options, but nearly toppled backwards as someone rammed into him. Coffee, scorching hot, sloshed over the front of his shirt and pants. The cup landed with a muted thunk, coffee splattering in every direction before soaking into the grey and blue patterned carpet.
"Son of a bitch!" He bent at the knee, hoping to relieve the burn on his cock and balls. "Watch where you're going, you fucking asshole!" He gritted out through clenched teeth, trying to breathe through the blistering pain.
"I'm sorry. So sorry," a woman's voice broke through the ringing in his ears. Her voice wavered and cracked as she spoke again. "I'm so sorry. I wasn't paying attention…"
Edward held up a hand to silence her. "Coffee. Black." Two simple words. One demand. He refused to spend another five dollars to cover for someone else's clumsiness. He turned and headed to the nearest restroom to change.
Sometime later, Edward wandered into the small bar a few gates down the concourse. His anger had mostly subsided. He sighed and raised the old fashioned to his lips. He finished the first and signaled for another one as he scrolled through the photos in his camera — deleting a few as he went. The deadline for next month's photo spread in the National Geographic was fast approaching. He wanted to close the lid on this project before starting the next one. And even though he held Alec, the photo editor at the office, in high regard, Edward didn't like to see his pictures over processed. He had his own vision.
Just as the bartender placed another tumbler in front of him, a to-go cup slid across the bartop. "Coffee. Black."
Surprised, Edward stared between the cup and the brunette, whom he recognized as the woman from the coffee stand earlier. He'd been in too much pain to notice before. He studied her face as she flagged down the bartender and ordered a glass of red wine. She appeared at ease, quite the contrast to how she'd seemed while on the phone. Edward thanked her and raised the cup to his lips, his attention going back to the laptop screen.
"It probably has cooled down a lot since, you know, I've searched almost an hour for you. So, if you're gonna spill it down your shirt now, it shouldn't burn as much." Her tone was teasing.
"Are you suggesting it was my fault?" He cocked one eyebrow.
"That depends on who you ask." She looked straight ahead, tilting the glass to her lips.
Edward watched her throat as she swallowed. There was a beauty to her that simply captivated him. He cleared his throat and turned to face the shelves full of assorted liquor. Gulping down the lukewarm coffee, Edward forced his thoughts in a different direction. "Before we argue about who's wrong and who's right, how about we ask a third party?"
"Alright." She leaned forward, her index finger tracing the rim of the glass. "Who do you suggest, Mr. Wrong?"
Edward chuckled. "Whoa! Hold up, Mrs. Wrong." She rolled her eyes. "Third party, remember? How about the bartender?"
"It's Ms. to you," she corrected him as he signaled for the bartender.
"Another one, Sir?"
"No, thank you. We," Edward shot his companion a sideways glance and it dawned on him that he still didn't know her name. "We need the opinion of a disinterested third party. She thinks she's right…"
"I know I am."
He held up a finger to silence her. "And I know I'm right. Would you help us set the record straight?"
Amused, the bartender agreed. Both Edward and the brunette stated their version of what had happened. She claimed that he'd stepped in her path as she'd been walking back to her departure gate. She had only averted her gaze for a split second, therefore it was his fault. Edward argued that he'd been standing in one spot for almost a minute, searching for an empty seat, and he'd only turned slightly to his right when she rammed into him. Therefore she would have run into him whether he had turned or not, so it was her fault.
After a moment of silent deliberation, the bartender spoke. "I think you're both at fault. Neither of you were paying attention to your surroundings when you bumped into each other." They started to argue, but the bartender simply excused himself to tend to another patron.
Edward picked up his old fashioned and swirled the amber liquid. "Alright. How about this?" He turned to see her watching him, her brown eyes a little glassy from the wine. "I'll take the blame if you tell me about the conversation you were having on your phone back at the coffee stand." Yeah, he was prying. He wanted to know what caused such an array of emotions to play across her face. What had her mother been saying?
She gazed at her glass for a moment, her face pensive, her lower lip wedged between her teeth. Edward's fingers twitched. He wanted to run his thumb across that smooth lip. Maybe he could even kiss that frown away.
"That's a beautiful picture."
"You're changing the subject," he said, but he turned his attention back to his laptop.
The screen showed a picture of a soldier bent at the knee, his rifle at his side as he handed a candy to a young boy. It was beautiful. A show of compassion in the midst of war. At that moment, Edward decided that this picture would make it into the magazine.
"A photo journalist, I'm presuming."
He nodded as he advanced to the next image; a different soldier talking on the phone, a massive grin splayed across his face, his eyes alight with joy.
"It must be difficult…" her voice trailed off when she saw the next image. It was taken from a distance. The body of a teenage boy lay haphazardly on the side of the road. Edward remembered that day vividly. The previous night, a small town outside of Kandahar had been shelled, killing a bunch of civilians, townsfolk, some of them people he had probably greeted while passing on the street.
"Every picture tells a story," he began, still clicking through the images, but his eyes were on her as she stared at each portrait, her face a flurry of expressions — sadness, horror, and on a rare occasion, joy. "It's my job to tell their story. Words only take you so far, but a picture… a picture shows you a broader perspective of the events." Reaching the end of the series, he shutdown his computer and stowed it away.
Silence filled the space between them, each nursing their respective drinks.
It's the most wonderful time of the year…
"Not again," he groaned, lifting his near empty tumbler to signal the bartender.
"Don't like Christmas music?"
"Don't like the holiday season. Period."
"I used to love it." He turned to face her again and was immediately engrossed as her face beamed, her gaze miles — even years — away. "My dad decorates their three acres every year with lights, reindeer, trees, candy canes. He even has a Santa's workshop in the back acre! He enters the town's holiday lights contest each year and, without exception, each year he wins. As a kid, that was my favorite part. Helping him decorate, sipping eggnog. His was spiced, of course."
Edward chuckled, picturing a younger version of this beautiful woman. He leaned closer wanting more of her.
"Every night, I'd wander through the maze just to get lost in the lights. It was magical." She trailed off, the joy slowly fading from her face.
"What happened?" Edward pushed.
She let out a humorless laugh. "I grew up. Moved away. And my mother," she shook her head and gulped more wine. "My mother has been hounding me to settle down ever since. I love her, but she doesn't grasp the fact that I'm okay with not settling down just yet. That's why I haven't been back home for Christmas in two years. Because I know she won't be able to drop the subject the entire week I'm there. She claims she's worried about me all alone in this big city. It wouldn't be such a big deal, but both my brothers married their high school sweethearts, and here's me… Bella. The twenty-eight year old spinster. According to my mom. Maybe I should start collecting cats."
Usually when stranger unloaded their life story or tragedies on him, Edward found a way to excuse himself from the situation. But with her… he didn't feel that compulsion. Instead, he wanted to pick up his camera, catch every new expression, he wanted to catalog them all. But she was still a stranger. Named Bella. Single. Besides the fact that her mother was a nutcase, those two things hadn't gone unnoticed.
Edward placed his camera bag on the stool between them. He took out his DSLR and a lens. Both assembled, he quirked an eyebrow at Bella as she watched him. "Do you mind?" He asked in a low tone, adjusting the white balance, aperture and shutter speed to counterbalance the low lights of the bar.
Her cheeks pinked. Before she could answer, he snapped a picture.
Wide eyes stared at him. "How terrible is it?"
He showed her the picture, and her blush intensified. He inhaled her sweet vanilla and cinnamon scent. "You smell like Christmas," he grumbled, slightly conflicted by that fact.
Bella raised her gaze, and it lingered on his mouth. Her tongue darted out and swept across her lower lip. Edward swallowed.
Then she drew back, her face flushed. "I think the alcohol is going to my head."
"You're so good."
"Hmm?" Edward murmured from behind the camera, looking through the viewfinder, engrossed in his subject.
"I always hated having my picture taken, but that one photo you just took made me look…" she searched for the words, a look of concentration on her face, then her eyes closed, and her features relaxed into a dreamy expression.
She was beautiful, bathed in the low lights of the bar.
"Beautiful? Sexy?" Edward offered, already anticipating her reaction.
Bella's head swiveled to face him, her eyes wide, mouth agape. Every fraction of a second, Edward's camera clicked as he watched her features transform, expressions ranging from unbelief to flattery.
"You don't even know me. You're a stranger."
Lowering the camera, Edward leaned closer, and she did the same. The air felt charged, intense.
"I don't have to be. Name's Edward."
Closer. Closer. Her breath fanned across his face. Her eyes searched his — apprehensive, yet wanting, needing.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
"Speak of the devil," Bella murmured and drew back, retrieving her phone. "Mom…" she gave him an apologetic shrug and headed out the door, her rolling suitcase smacking into chair legs as she hurried to find some privacy.
"Fuck," Edward murmured and drew a hand through his hair while the other tightened around the camera.
His jaw ticked. A quick 'wham bam thank you ma'am' would have done wonders for his overworked nerves. But now… the mood had evaporated the moment her phone rang. Yeah, he knew she wouldn't be up for a quick romp in the nearest bathroom stall when she returned — if she returned. He cast a glance over his shoulder towards the exit of the bar and saw her pacing on the other side of the glass, phone pressed to her ear, anxiety twisting her features.
The tones of the intercom signaled the start of another announcement, and the gate attendant announced that boarding was beginning for his flight. Edward began to pack his bags — his laptop and camera — as the bartender slid the receipt across the bar top with a smile. His gaze flickered to Bella's abandoned wine glass.
"Put hers on my tab, too." He turned to see if she had noticed he was leaving, but she was gone.
Edward was disappointed, but what was one more missed opportunity? Realistically, with his nomadic and often dangerous lifestyle, a girl like Bella was not the one for him. His mind was already returning to work as he crossed the busy concourse to his boarding gate.
"Enjoy your flight and Merry Christmas." The flight attendant handed him back the boarding pass with a bright smile.
"Yup," Edward responded with a tight-lipped grin.
He was one of the first to board, so he quickly found a place to stow his camera equipment in the overhead compartment, but kept his camera with him as he took his seat. While he backed up all of his pictures to the cloud, the camera itself was worth too much to risk to bumps in flight or rough treatment by other passengers cramming their bags into the small space.
Edward watched the rest of the cabin fill with travelers, but the seat next to him remained vacant. As they neared the scheduled departure time, the flight attendants began their pre-departure checklist. A commotion near the front of the plane caught his attention, and his eyes widened, watching Bella barrel haphazardly down the aisle, pushing a small suitcase ahead of her, all the while mumbling apologies to the passengers she kept jostling.
Edward cocked his head to the side and smirked as he watched her approach, her eyes flitting between the seat numbers. Her gaze snapped to the vacant seat beside him then jumped up with surprised recognition. Edward raised a brow as she blushed, frozen in her tracks a few rows away.
He stood aside to let her access her seat. "Hi," he murmured as they both got settled.
"Care to pay your tab?"
Bella gaped. "What?"
Recognition dawned, and her surprise morphed into embarrassment then slight irritation. If he could just capture those expressions on film!
"No! I paid for your spilled coffee, and even the bartender agreed that was more than I owed you. I think we're even."
Edward shook his head, finding each interaction with her more entertaining. "Fine. Let's call it even. Truce? I saved you a seat after all."
She looked like she was about to say something when her cell phone dinged. Bella grimaced, typed a quick reply and turned it off just as the flight attendants started the emergency procedures briefing.
Edward cast a sideways glance at her. With her eyes closed, she leaned against the window. She looked… sad, unsure. Not at all like the feisty, aggressive display from seconds earlier. He raked a hand through his hair. He wanted to know why every time her phone rang or beeped, she looked as though she was facing her executioner.
"Maybe you should get rid of your phone if it only gives you bad news."
Bella huffed lightly, a small smile lifting her features. "Maybe." Then she pursed her lips and continued to stare out the window as the plane taxied towards the runway. Her words seemed hollow, trepidatious as she spoke. "It's my mother. My overbearing, 'what's wrong with your boyfriend' mother. She just can't help herself…" Bella trailed off, her jaw clenching.
"Is there something wrong with your boyfriend?" Edward asked, wondering if he'd heard her incorrectly earlier. Hadn't she said that she was single?
"Ex. And nothing's wrong with him. He's just… not… for me."
"What is foryou?" He really wanted to know. What did she look for in a potential match? Edward stared at the floor and frowned. Why did he care so much? He already knew he didn't fit the bill.
"I… don't really know. I guess I'll know when I find it… him. Or if I ever find 'Mr. Perfect'." She made quotation marks with her fingers.
"I don't think there's such a thing as perfect. But I guess anyone is better than Mr. Wrong… right?"
"Haha. Very funny. Fine then. Maybe I should be looking for Mr. Good Enough. I realized while I was packing for this trip that I had forgotten a few things at his apartment last time I stayed there. That's how I found the ring box in his dresser. I could see my entire future with him, and it was dull and boring and nowhere near good enough. So I waited until he got home from work to tell him that I wasn't ready for him to meet my family because I couldn't see us having a future together. And that's that."
"So if you think a comfortable life with a successful husband would have been boring, what are you looking for?"
"I don't know exactly, but I wanna see the world. I want to experience life, not just view it through the narrow window of the city I live in and the career I chose." She twisted in her seat to face him more fully, her expression bright and animated. "This might sound a little weird to you, but last week at the dentist office, I was flipping through an issue of Time Magazine and there was an article about the Vatican. There was one picture that made me stop. It's like everything else disappeared and I was pulled into the frame… not just another country… another world! It was beautiful, so direct that it cut right through me. The photograph was black and white, an elderly woman sitting in the pew of the church, prayer beads in her hands, head bowed. The beads and her hands had a hint of color. Subtle, but just bright enough to draw your eyes. I must have stared at that one image until they called my name. I wanted to sit with her. To talk with her, know what she was praying about or for. I wanted to know her story; to know if her prayers ever got answered."
Edward rubbed the back of his neck, feeling his body warm. He'd never received such candid feedback about his work. "She was praying for a miracle. Her grandson had just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and the family didn't have the money for medical expenses. Italy… well, let's just say that their government doesn't have the resources that we do. The only people who receive optimal care in a timely fashion are those who can pay for it themselves. And the kid's father had been out of work for months."
Bella stared at him, bewildered and slightly amazed.
"I don't believe in God and I certainly don't believe in miracles, but I know the family got the money they needed. Time Magazine bought the picture and I sent them fifty percent of the check." Edward shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. He'd never intended to tell anyone what he'd done, and he had no idea why he was sharing now.
When she didn't respond, Edward raised his head to look at her. She smiled softly. "Have you considered that you were her miracle?"
"I'm no miracle. I'm just a man."
"A good man."
"A good enough man?" He asked with a teasing grin.
"Maybe. But you don't like Christmas."
"I have my reasons," Edward countered. He was relieved when the drink cart stopped beside him. He needed a diversion. "I'll take a whiskey," he said and held out his credit card.
"Just water for me," said Bella.
Edward sipped his whiskey and stared at the seatback in front of him. She didn't pry but he could feel her curiosity. For the first time in years, he felt compelled to reveal his history.
"My parents died in a car accident on Christmas Eve when I was fourteen years old."
"Oh gosh. I'm so sorry."
"Yeah, everyone's sorry, but that doesn't change anything."
Bella slipped her hand into his and squeezed gently. Edward stared at their joined hands. His first impulse was to pull away and shut her out. If she'd been anyone else, he would have, but there was something so compassionate and genuine about her gesture. He could feel the tension bleed out of his chest.
They settled into a comfortable silence, fingers interlocked, as the plane soared smoothly through the sky. Edward didn't know why he began speaking, but the words started to spill out of his mouth; slow and disjointed at first, but flowing faster as he got lost in the memories. He told her about the big family gatherings they'd had each year and how they would sit by the fire on Christmas Eve and read the Nativity story. Edward chuckled lowly as he told her about how he'd tried to convince himself and his parents that he wasn't excited about opening presents the next morning, but every year he failed miserably by storming down the stairs at the crack of dawn.
His expression sobered as he spoke about the accident, the feeling of being absolutely alone in his grief, left behind. "My guardian was a friend of my father's. They provided the necessities, but Christmas just didn't feel like Christmas anymore. The memory was tainted. After graduation I wanted to travel, to escape the memories. I became an apprentice to a photographer, and he taught me everything I know today. When he gave me my first camera and my own assignment, he gave me something to do, something to look forward to. But more than that, he taught me a fresh way of seeing the world, and a way to share that vision with others. I still have that old 50 millimeter on a shelf in my condo."
"Your work is simply beautiful. There's something unique and so raw about it. Like the picture I just fawned over. I'm still in shock to find myself talking to the man who captured that moment."
Edward gazed down at her. "To be honest, I don't think I've ever experienced such a deep connection to another person through my work. You took me by surprise."
"Mmmm… I don't normally like surprises..." Bella murmured, her eyes closed. She squeezed his fingers once more, shifting her head on his shoulder.
He waited to hear what else she had to say, but several minutes passed in silence. He looked down again and realized she had dozed off. Edward watched her intently, wanting to retrieve his camera to capture her natural beauty. Her face was relaxed and content with sleep. She was simply stunning with the rays of the sinking sun causing her skin to glow.
Bella jerked awake when the flight crew announced their descent into Denver International Airport. She sat up, looked around with a disoriented expression, and wiped her chin self consciously as if checking to make sure she hadn't drooled. "I didn't snore, did I?"
"I don't think anyone heard over the engines."
Bella gaped at him, her face red with embarrassment. Edward's lips spread wide with a smile, absolutely loving her response.
They joked and teased as they descended into Denver, but as they taxied to the terminal, Bella grew quiet, turned on her phone and started replying to texts. He squared his shoulders and looked straight ahead, unsure of what to say or how to act after the intimacy they'd shared. Edward was adept at recording emotions, but was unfamiliar with being the one in the frame.
It dawned on him that they would be going separate ways in minutes. He was almost relieved. Part of him missed having her hand in his, her head resting on his shoulder. But the tightness in his ribs, the ache in his stomach, those were uncomfortable feelings. He'd feel more sure of himself once he was back in his own space.
Silently, they walked towards baggage claim. Edward trailed a few steps behind Bella, but whenever they turned a corner he could see that she was deep in thought, her lip wedged between her teeth and her brows furrowed.
When she stopped at their assigned carousel, he stood a few paces away, determined not to invade her space, but unable to leave without the opportunity to wish her 'safe travels' before she disappeared. He turned his attention to his equipment, taking inventory, ensuring he hadn't left anything on the plane. He was surprised when he looked up to see her standing right beside him.
"Edward…" Bella gnawed on her lower lip as she watched the conveyor belt.
"No one should be alone on Christmas."
"Okay." It was a true enough statement, but chronicling so much violence and human tragedy had taught him that 'should be' seldom 'was'.
She turned to him, her face alight with excitement. "Come celebrate Christmas with us."
He frowned. "Wait… what?"
"Come with me. Be my 'boyfriend'. Well… pretend. Just for a week. To get my mother off my back."
Laughing, he shook his head. "I don't think…"
"I'll make it worth your while."
That got his attention. He turned to her with eyebrows raised, and his lips curled up with a knowing smirk. He stepped closer. "A week of my time is worth quite a lot. This could get interesting…"
She blushed and took her lip between her teeth again. Edward traced his thumb across her lip and slowly pried it loose.
"What did you have in mind?" Bella asked.
He hesitated for a moment. He'd only been half serious, flirting as they had been all day, but her blush gave him the confidence to tell her what he really wanted. He leaned closer, his mouth at her ear. "If I was a gentleman, I would ask you out to dinner. But I know I wouldn't be satisfied. I want you, all of you."
"Sex?" She squeaked.
"Mmmm hmmm. Sex." He felt her whole body shiver as he murmured the word.
Bella swallowed and drew back, then a look of determination settled over her features. She extended her hand. "Deal."
"Deal." Edward laughed at the absurdity of shaking on it, but he played along. "Now what do I have to know about your ex to convince your family that I am him?"
"Mike. He's an investment banker." Edward pretended to gag. Bella rolled her eyes at him and continued. "Wears a suit. Has a cat. Isn't the hands on type of guy."
"I can tell. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here. Deprived." His innuendo was clear.
Bella cleared her throat and steered the conversation back to business. "So you'll do it?"
"Do I get a deposit?"
"You'll be paid in full after. My flight home leaves on the 27th. We'll leave my parents' house a day early, and I'll spend the night with you."
"Not even twenty-five percent down payment?"
She rose up on her toes and kissed his cheek, her fingers digging into his biceps for balance. "Twenty-five percent. Our bags are arriving."
"That was more like five to ten percent. But don't worry. I'll collect the other fifteen before the day is over."
Bella had slept through the in-flight meal, and Edward hadn't wanted to jostle her awake, so they both picked out snacks from a vendor, then ordered a car to pick them up. On the drive home from the airport, Bella gave him the lowdown on her family. "My dad's a retired Sheriff. He does own guns and I think he has a stash of pot underneath the bed. He's… odd sometimes."
"A gun toting, pot smoking ex-sheriff. Awesome." The sarcasm was thick in his voice.
"Anyway, my oldest brother, Emmett, is a salesman. Works for Mercedes Benz in Denver. And my other brother, Jasper, is an instructor at the Air Force Academy. Then…"
"Any more brothers?"
"No, just those two. Both older than me. Emmett's wife, Rose, is seven months pregnant with their first child. Emmett is super excited. Alice, Jasper's wife, is a dance instructor. Ballerina. She's pretty great. Laid back, but meticulous about some things."
Edward nodded. "Okay. I think I've got the basics down. Crazy mom. Pot smokin' dad. Sales guy. Pregnant lady. Could be hormonal. Air Force and Dancer."
"That's my family. We're… weird."
The Uber turned down a driveway, and Edward looked around, taking in the snowy landscape and dozens of trees, elaborately decorated and glowing with lights. Compared to the other properties they'd passed, this seemed excessive.
"Remember. Your name is Mike Newton. You're an investment banker with Robinson and Fuller. You care about your work…"
"And my beautiful girlfriend," Edward interjected with a big grin and watched her fumble for a response. It was satisfying to see how his teasing flustered her, but he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with his body's response. It had been such an innocent kiss, but her lips… they were absolutely perfect. He wanted to taste them.
"Yeah, that's not like him."
The Uber stopped near the front steps. Edward's jaw dropped at the obnoxiously decorated house. It was an old colonial style home, two stories, white with blue shutters, and a million Christmas lights adorned every surface. Plus a massive Santa and his ten reindeer were perched atop the roof.
"Oh god," he groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. Edward had trained his eye to find the beauty and balance in almost everything, but this was just too much.
"Yeah. Like I told you, he goes crazy this time of year. Wait til you see the backyard. Three acres!"
He groaned again, briefly wondering what the hell he'd gotten himself into. Then Edward looked at Bella as she climbed out of the car, giving him a spectacular view of her well fitting jeans.
It was going to be so worth it.
"Hey! I'm here!" Bella yelled as they walked through the front door.
"Oh my goodness! You're here…" Edward fixed a polite smile on his face as Bella's mom scurried into view. Her hair was pulled back into a messy bun, and several strands were fighting to escape. He stepped forward to offer his hand in greeting, but she carried on speaking at the same frenetic pace. "... and you brought Mike. Does that mean his urinary tract infection cleared up?"
Edward's jaw dropped, and he glanced back at Bella in alarm.
"Mom! What the hell?"
"Come on in! You're dad's out back checking the lights." Renee turned to exit as fast as she had appeared, puffs of flour swirling from her hair and apron.
Edward hooked his hand around Bella's elbow to hold her back as she tried to step past him. "Urinary tract infection? What am I missing?"
"No! Oh god no. But I couldn't let my mother talk to him. Can you imagine how that would have gone? So my standing excuse was that Mike was in the bathroom. Clever, I know." She shrugged and looked to the side sheepishly.
"That's my dad." And now she looked embarrassed.
"Renee, get your keys! We have to go to the department store now! A fuse blew and all the lights out by the lake went out." Bella's dad stomped past toward the kitchen without even acknowledging their presence. From his snow-encrusted knit cap, pom pom bouncing madly, to his winter boots, sloshing mud and melting snow across the tile entryway, he looked like a wild woodsman.
"Lake?" Edward felt his eyebrows climbing higher every second.
"It's just a pond. He's exaggerating."
"Oh, hey Bells." Her dad backed up and looked her up and down, as if he had only just registered their presence and wasn't entirely sure he believed they were solid beings.
"Hi, Dad. Missed you."
"And you're Milf? Mark?..." His eyes shifted to Edward, fixing him with an intense glare.
"Right. Mike. You like milk?"
"Ummm… sure." It sounded like a trick question. He was certain it was a trick question. But looking at the exasperated expression on Bella's face, he wasn't able to guess the correct response.
"You buy the cow to get the free milk?"
"No… Wait… yes? What?"
"Then no more milk for you! No milk without buying the cow!" He blew past them and out the front door, stomping down the steps.
Renee followed close behind, buttoning her coat as she walked. "You guys get settled and we'll go to town. I have to do a some last minute grocery shopping…"
"No milk! No butter! No cream! No dairy whatsoever!" Her dad bellowed over his shoulder.
Bella was swinging the door shut behind them when her mom screamed, "STOP!"
"What is it now, Mom?"
"Mistletoe. That means you gotta kiss."
"Mom, we're tired. Can't this wait until morning?" Bella shrugged out of her coat and hung it by the door.
"You're underneath the mistletoe now. Mike, kiss her!"
Before he could react, Bella rose to her tiptoes and kissed Edward's cheek.
"That's not a real kiss," her mom scolded, gloved hands on her hips.
"Let me," Edward murmured, mesmerized by the pink staining her skin.
He cupped her cheeks, gauging her reaction. A mixture of fear and want shimmered in her eyes. He moistened his lips with his tongue and watched her eyes dart down in shock, but then her lashes fluttered closed, and her body pressed against him, soft and inviting. His fingers slipped into her hair, cupping the base of her skull, and drawing her in deeper. Edward ran one hand down to rest against her lower back, his fingers curling against the fabric of her shirt. He wanted to crush her body against his.
"Now that's a kiss," he heard her mother sigh.
"What did I tell you, Miles? No free milk!"
Edward drew back with a satisfied grin. "There's my twenty-five percent."
"Come on, Charlie. Let's get that fuse and your milk."
"I already bought and paid for my milk."
"And they're sharing a room, so…"
"He can sleep…"
Bella swung the door closed with her foot. Silence. Edward still had his arms wrapped around her waist. She slowly extricated herself from his embrace and gazed around the empty hallway, her cheeks flushed. "So those were my parents."
"They're definitely something else."
"Yeah, sorry about that. This time of year makes dad a little… nutty." She shook her head. "And apparently I'm a cow."
Edward brushed his knuckles across her warm cheek. She leaned into his touch. "And I can't have any milk. How am I supposed to get the hundred percent?"
She snickered. "I have a feeling you'll find a way." She turned towards the stairs, suitcase in tow.
Edward ogled her backside, smirking. "Damn right I will."
Bella opened a door down the hall upstairs. "My room."
Edward took in the queen sized bed, pushed against the wall. There was a simple pine dresser by the closet and another door stood open, revealing an ensuite bathroom.
"I wasn't just saying we were tired to redirect my mom. I really am exhausted. Unless you're hungry or something. I can see what my mom has in the fridge. Or there's a pizza place that delivers out here…"
"I'm fine. That sandwich I got before we left the airport was plenty."
"In that case, I'm going to get changed for bed. I'll be out in a couple minutes, then you can have the bathroom."
Bella took her entire suitcase into the bathroom with her. Once the door closed behind her and he heard the water turn on, Edward started rummaging through his own luggage until he found his flannel pajama pants and a grey shirt.
Dressed, Edward wandered around her room. He saw several photographs of her from early childhood through high school on the walls. A graduation photo caught his attention. She stood between her parents, her smile radiant, her cheeks flushed with excitement as she held the certificate in her hands.
"University." Bella explained as she came to stand beside him, her hair wet and skin flushed pink from the shower.
"What did you major in?"
"Majored in Accounting, minored in business. Boring I know, but I understand numbers. That's when I received my CPA."
"New York makes sense now," he said. "And it does offer you the opportunity to travel."
"One day," Bella said wistfully. "When I finally pay off my student loans."
"One day," he reassured her. Then he glanced down, saw what she was wearing and burst out laughing. Bella's black pajama pants had a small version of Olaf from Frozen and the line: I like warm hugs printed all over.
"Your legs like to give warm hugs?" Edward asked teasingly. He stepped closer and lowered his voice. "They can hug me anytime."
Bella stared at his lips for a moment. He wondered if she was thinking about that kiss as much as he was. "They'll hug you… later."
"One hundred percent later?"
She laughed and turned down the comforter, slipping between the covers. "One hundred percent later." She patted the spot next to her and continued, "I would make up a bed on the floor or let you sleep in one of my brother's rooms, but they'll show up tomorrow with their wives and it would kinda look weird if we didn't share. Plus, if I make up a bed on the floor and one of my family members bursts in — like my mother — I'd have to come up with a whole new story."
"Like Mike is an active sleeper and you don't want a broken nose?" Edward laughed and slid into bed beside her. "You've really thought this through, haven't you?"
Her shoulder lifted with a shrug. "Yeah. As much as I could between the airport and getting here."
He turned on his side and propped his head on his hand. The twinkling lights that hung along the rain gutter outside the window illuminated her face with variating colors.
Bella smiled softly. "I'm sorry about my parents. I wish I could tell you that my brothers are more tame and down to earth, but they're not. They're rude, obnoxious and boisterous. Rose and Alice are the sane ones, I promise."
"And yet, I find you pretty tame myself," Edward murmured, wanting to kiss her again.
Bella kissed the corner of his mouth. "Thank you," she murmured. Before he could respond, she said goodnight and turned on her side, facing away from him.
"Goodnight," Edward replied softly.
He fell back against the pillows and stared up at the ceiling. The outdoor lights cast dancing patterns across the surface in odd sequences. Downstairs he could hear Renee and Charlie coming in through the front door and talking in soft murmurs. He ran both hands down his face and wondered what the next day would bring.
Edward woke as the first rays of sunlight streamed through the window. He blinked up at the ceiling, the previous day reeling quickly through his mind. There was a warm weight on his chest, and he looked down to see Bella's head resting on him, her face relaxed in sleep. Her hand lay on his stomach beneath his shirt, skin against skin. She shifted in her sleep. Her face tilted up towards him, and her hand moved slightly lower, her fingertips brushing the waistband of his boxers.
He squeezed his eyes shut. She must have moved some time during the night. His body reacted to her proximity, his erection straining against the seam of his pants. Her hand was just so damn close.
Bella stirred again, and her breathing changed. Edward gritted his teeth as her hand crept up toward his ribs. He gazed down at her as she blinked. "Morning," he said, his voice rough with sleep and desire.
She bit her lip, but didn't move. "Morning," she whispered, her gaze flitting from his eyes to his lips.
Seeing her desire painted so clearly in the morning light, Edward couldn't resist the temptation any longer. He leaned forward and kissed her lips. She moved with him, against him, her body warm and tantalizing under his hands. Slowly, he rolled her onto her back and settled between her legs.
"Good morning," he said again with a heavy emphasis on the 'good', trailing kisses along her jaw and collarbone. He hooked a finger into the strap of her tank top and slid it down, watching her face for signs of hesitation. She followed his movements with her mouth slightly open, panting. Her fingers found their way into his hair, gripping just a little tighter. He kissed the top of her breast, eliciting a low moan.
"Your breasts are gorgeous. You like nipple play, don't you? Tell you what, if I get you off with just my tongue, I'd count that as thirty-five percent."
In her aroused state, Bella rolled her eyes and fisted his hair, trying to guide him to her exposed nipple. Edward really liked that she knew what she wanted. He kissed the top of her breast again, drawing his tongue across her skin, all the while pressing his cock between her legs.
Bella gasped loudly, her hips moving up to meet his. Edward lightly bit her and groaned, his body vibrating with want. He moved his lips to her nipple and sucked hard, causing her to cry out.
He swirled his tongue and thrust his hips harder, then sucked at her again.
The bedroom door swung open with a crash. "Stop diddling my sister! Get your asses out of bed, we're going tree shopping." The door was yanked closed just as fast as it had opened.
With his lips still wrapped around her nipple, Edward met Bella's wide eyes. She stared down at him, her face flushed, her chest exposed. He released her slowly, and the mood evaporated.
Edward flopped onto his back, threw his arm over his eyes and silently cursed whoever that was for the cockblock.
"So that was Emmett," Bella whispered shakily, drawing up the blanket to cover herself.
"Uh huh," he said, grinding his teeth in frustration.
She slipped out the bed and locked herself in the bathroom. Edward heard the water turn on. There was no chance that he would be able to join her, to recreate the moment. The mood had been murdered by her dumbass brother.
"So much for hitting thirty-five percent," he grumbled.
Edward and Bella sat in the backseat of Emmett's car as they drove to the tree lot, following behind her parent's car. Emmett kept checking the rearview mirror, casting dark glares towards Edward.
"So, Mike…" he started, his gaze jumping between the road and the rearview mirror. "What are your plans with my sister?"
"Em!" Both Rose and Bella shouted at the same time.
"What?" He asked innocently.
"It's none of your business." Bella frowned and mouthed a 'sorry' to Edward.
Rose turned in her seat, her hands clasped over her very pregnant belly. "Excuse my Neanderthal husband." She flicked the back of his head. "He usually has better manners. None of which you'll see today, but any other day…"
"I'm an angel," Emmett interjected and grinned at his wife.
"Right." Bella scoffed and rolled her eyes. "He's the one that got the evil gene. You'll see all of it on full display at the tree lot. Along with Jasper. Two peas in a pod."
And she wasn't kidding when she'd said that. Edward watched with rapt fascination as both Emmett and Jasper inspected each tree, keeping up a constant stream of crude commentary.
"Crooked trunk. Kinda like you, Jas." Emmett sidestepped the backhand Jasper directed at his head.
"Ha! And look at this one. Droopy like you, limp dick."
Both Alice and Rose shook their heads and smiled ruefully, regretfully. "Our husbands. Don't mind them. They behave like this each year."
Charlie shuffled from tree to tree, grumbling about lights and optimal branch strength to ornament weight ratios. Renee was in the back corner of the lot, flailing her arms as she argued with the manager, demanding to see his 'secret stash' of trees. She insisted that this wasn't his best selection, and she knew because they had been coming here to get a tree for more than twenty years.
Edward trailed a few steps behind Bella's brothers, half listening to their banter but still hearing every word Bella, Alice and Rose were saying.
"Damn, Bella. I thought you said that he never left his desk. He sure doesn't look scrawny. Look at those shoulders!" Rose exclaimed.
"And that ass," Alice added.
"He's been… hitting the gym lately," Bella lied smoothly.
Edward smirked and cast a glance over his shoulder. He chuckled to himself, immensely enjoying the bright red blush on Bella's cheek. Her lip was wedged between her teeth again as she let her gaze wander over his frame.
He wiggled his ass, and her eyes snapped up to his.
"Busted," he mouthed with a grin.
Bella came to his side and looped her arm through his. "Were your ears burning?"
"Found it!" Charlie's shouted from the other side of the lot before Edward could muster a response.
Edward took Bella's hand and the entire family assembled around the selected tree. He leaned in close and whispered, "Big, sturdy. Thick trunk. Girth is what really matters, you know."
Bella pointed to the melting snow as it slid off the evergreen branches. "And wet," she murmured.
He swallowed roughly. Game. Set. Match.
Charlie strung the lights. Emmett was on duty sweeping fallen pine needles, and Jasper placed the star on top of the tree. Rose and Alice handled the tinsel, while Bella and her mother wiped dust off ornaments and hung each one. Edward's eyes frequently strayed to her, observing as she placed each ornament with a gentle smile. In the glow of the lights she was simply radiant.
"Mike, what do you and your family tend to do for Christmas?" Renee asked as she pulled more decorations out of a box.
"They usually go on a trip to Europe or Cayman Islands. You know, things like that," Bella rushed to say, her eyes on Edward's as he handed her another ornament.
"That's not very Christmasy. How about family traditions?"
"Yeah," he said before Bella could lie for him. He smiled at her reassuringly and turned to Renee. "We used to read the Nativity story every Christmas Eve."
"Aww. What a beautiful tradition. And you don't do that anymore?"
He shrugged and handed Bella a photo ornament. "We grew out of it."
"Oh, no. Mom, look at this picture of Gran and Gramps. It's ruined."
Renee took the small frame and sat down heavily on the sofa. "But it's the only copy we have." Her normally anxious expression was replaced by heavy sadness.
Edward stepped closer and squinted at the photo. It was a wedding photo, shot in color, but faded and water stained. The box he had pulled it from showed signs of water damage, although the other ornaments were glass and seemed to be unaffected.
Bella explained with tears in her eyes. "Those are my mom's parents. It's the only picture we had of them when they were younger. They lost all of their possessions in a fire when I was little. What's more, Gran passed away last year, so this feels a little like losing her all over again."
Ever since Edward had agreed to Bella's plan, he had been wracking his brain for a suitable Christmas gift. He felt she deserved something meaningful. Personal. Now he had the perfect idea.
Later that evening, Edward sneaked away the image of Bella's grandparents and scanned it into his laptop. He was mid edit when Jasper handed him a mug of spiked eggnog and took a seat in the recliner beside him. Edward could feel Jasper watching him.
"So what's the deal?" Jasper finally asked.
Edward saved his work and gazed at Bella's brother slightly confused. "What's what deal?"
Jasper braced his elbows on his knees and cocked his head. "I've talked to Mike. I Face Timed Bella one evening, and he answered because she was in the shower."
Edward squirmed and ran a hand across his neck.
"So what's the deal, since I know you're not him," Jasper probed again.
"Yeah, umm…" Edward cast a panicked look towards the kitchen. "She…"
"It's our Mom, isn't it? She didn't want to tell her she broke up with another one right before Christmas, huh?"
Edward nodded, relieved that he had pieced together their story without him having to explain Bella's reasons.
"Yeah, she's a little much sometimes, I know. Well, if it's any consolation, I like you much better. Mike was a pretentious prick, more concerned with his salary and three cars than my sister."
"That's what I said. So… who are you?"
Edward extended his hand. "Edward. Photojournalist. I met Bella at the airport in New York. As luck would have it, we were seated next to each other on the plane. When I told her I didn't have any plans this week, she asked if I could help her out."
"Nice." Jasper took a sip from his cup. "Sounds like her. Just to appease our mother. She'll take the news better after New Year's."
Charlie barreled through the backdoor and stomped his snow covered boots on the floor mat.
He saw the mug in Edward's hand and stopped. "That better not be milk."
Jasper laughed. "Dad! Seriously. Nobody's drinking milk without buying the cow."
Charlie huffed, shook his head and hurried out the door as Emmett called him.
"You, too?" Edward asked.
"You know how 'normal' parents give the birds and the bees talk? Yeah, not Charlie. For him it's milk and the cow it came from."
"That's…" Edward searched for the right word.
"Weird? Different? Crazy? All of the above?"
"Kind of." He pursed his lips. "You're not gonna rat me… us out?"
"Nah, your secret's safe with me. I'm just surprised that you're still here."
"Yeah," Edward said absentmindedly, his focus on Bella's movements in the kitchen. She was laughing at something Rose said. Flour in her hair and batter smeared across one cheek, she looked content, happy.
"I can see why," Jasper murmured and walked towards the kitchen, kissing Alice on the cheek while stealing a gingerbread cookie.
That night, Bella changed into her pj's, climbed into bed and rolled to face the wall just as she had the first night. But seconds later she rolled onto her back, gave him a small smile, then snuggled into his side.
"Why fight it, huh?" He asked.
She jabbed a finger into his side, making him jump, but wriggled a little closer.
Over the course of the next few days, whenever time allowed, Edward worked on editing and restoring the photo. He was a little surprised to realize that free time was pretty limited. Renee was constantly dragging them to different activities in town.
When he had first arrived, the decorations had been overwhelming, but as he got to know Bella's family, he could appreciate the gift Charlie was giving the community by creating this fantastic display. Every evening, families and couples walked down the decorated paths, visiting the Nativity scene, Santa's workshop, and dozens of snapshots of an idyllic winter wonderland.
While they had started setting up more than a month earlier, Charlie was constantly making repairs and adjustments. He didn't rest until the light display met his exacting standards. When the panel of judges arrived on the evening of the 22nd, including the town mayor, two city council members and two representatives from the Rotary, they greeted Charlie and Renee like old friends, obviously accustomed to Charlie's eccentricities. The younger couples trailed behind as they toured the property, and Edward carried his camera, taking candid pictures of Bella, her family and the individual lighting displays.
Bella leaned her head against his arm as he paused to flip through the images in his camera. In one, Rose stood beside the manger, looking down at the lifelike Baby Jesus, one hand resting on the makeshift cradle, the other hovering protectively over her swollen belly. The look on her face was a complex blend of hope and fear. Emmett stood in the background, slightly out of focus, watchful and protective.
Another shot captured a rare smile on Charlie's face as he looked out across the property from the gazebo near the pond; pride, satisfaction at a job well done. Renee had a similar expression, only based on the direction of her gaze, her great work appeared to be Charlie himself, her husband of 35 years.
The pond had been transformed into Swan Lake, with majestic birds glittering white and gold on wire frames. Jasper was all smiles as his petite wife danced about him, a crowd gathering as she improvised. She was far more graceful in fur coat and winter boots than Edward would have expected. Jasper put a stop to her pirouettes by pulling her in for a deep kiss as the crowd cheered. That was the second that Edward's camera shutter snapped closed, a moment of passion and joy frozen on film forever.
"I don't know how you do it," Bella murmured in awe. "You make the world appear more beautiful."
"When I look through my camera, I see the world as it is. Beautiful and hideous in turn. But you're right. Tonight is beautiful."
He turned and backed away, raising his camera again. The shutter snapped repeatedly. Pensive. Wondering. Surprised. Embarrassed. Blushing. Gorgeous. He finally lowered his camera, and their eyes met.
"For what?" she asked, burying her hands deeper in her coat pockets.
"For inviting me to spend Christmas with you."
"Thank you for saying yes." Bella linked her arm with his as they continued on down the path.
The morning of the 23rd, the family gathered in the kitchen to listen as the local radio station announced the winners of the holiday lights contest. Even though it was expected, everyone cheered when Charlie received the first place prize. The tension seemed to seep out of his body, and he relaxed into his chair as Emmett poured out the champagne. For the first time since his arrival, nobody was hurrying out the door. Everyone seemed to be settling in for a low-key, relaxed morning.
When Bella excused herself to help her mother clean the kitchen, Edward pulled Jasper aside and asked for his assistance. There was a pile of gifts under the tree, several of them intended for Mike, and he had nothing to offer in return. But he had an idea, he just needed a ride into town to call on an old friend.
When they got back to the house soon after lunch, Edward and Jasper carried in four wrapped gifts and positioned them around the tree. Bella caught his eye and smiled with a curious look on her face. He shrugged, trying to hide how excited and self conscious he really felt. When was the last time he had been so emotionally invested in a gift and how it was received? He couldn't recall.
When Edward woke up on Christmas Eve, Bella was already in the shower. He scribbled a short note and left it on her pillow, dressed in warm layers and went downstairs. He found Emmett in the kitchen making coffee.
"I have to run an errand, and I don't know if the roads are cleared yet after the snow last night, or else I'd order an Uber. Can you drop me off in town? I'll get a ride back here as soon as I'm done."
"Are you kidding? Don't waste your money. Take my car. It's all wheel drive, with new snow tires, and there are chains in the back. Not taking any risks with a baby onboard, you know?"
Emmett tossed Edward the keys and headed back upstairs with two mugs of coffee in one hand and a plate of toast and eggs in the other.
Edward looked around the empty kitchen, taking in the covered plates of cookies and pies, the worn countertops, scuffed cabinets, mismatched bakeware… all the signs of a comfortable, lived in family home. And he thought of his condo, sitting cold, sterile and empty. He poured himself a small cup of black coffee, chugged it down, and took a cookie for the road.
Edward took the interstate south for a ways before turning west towards the foothills. Not much had changed over the years. There were more shopping centers, taller buildings, but the feelings of abandonment and grief still overshadowed everything else as he followed the familiar route to the cemetery. Today marked 19 years. He'd lived more of his life without them than with them. However, he still heard their voices. Still saw their faces in his dreams. And today of all days, he remembered the way they smelled, they way it felt when his mother hugged him or his father ruffled his hair.
He didn't cry anymore. But the biting wind made his eyes burn. He stood at the foot of their shared grave and told them about his year. He told them about the helicopter pilot that had tried - and failed - to make him sick while they shot pictures up the length of the Grand Canyon. He laughed a little remembering the Afghani boy that had taught him how to milk a goat, then giggled when the goat got irritated at his ineptitude and kicked over his tripod. Fortunately his camera had been slung around his neck at the time. He told them about the grandeur and elaborate ceremonies he'd witnessed while visiting the Vatican.
Then he arrived at the present and found himself speechless. Smiling. When he started talking again, he couldn't stop. He had witnessed too much hilarity, tenderness and joy in the last four days to keep it to himself.
When he finally ran out of words, he brushed the snow from the headstone and read the inscription, even though he had memorized it long ago. Then he stood, his breath condensing into a faint cloud around his face.
"Mom… Dad… M… Merr… Dammit. I miss you."
When he arrived back at the Swan residence, the acres of lights didn't make him cringe. Bella met him at the front door as he shed his coat and boots.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah. I'm okay," he replied, pulling her in for a hug. "But I woke up alone. I didn't like that. I thought I'd be at 50% by now for sure."
"Is that all you think about?" she asked with one eyebrow raised.
"If it wasn't, I wouldn't be normal. Have you seen yourself?"
"Ugh. Flattery will get you nowhere." She paused, then rolled her eyes. "Fine. Everywhere. But not now. We're playing Pinochle and we need even teams. Help yourself to lunch, then get your gorgeous ass into the family room, Mike."
"Yes, dear," he said sarcastically. Then he muttered under his breath. "Mike… schmike… It's my name you're going to be screaming in two days."
The rest of the afternoon passed in a warm blur of food, drinks and games. Edward was reclining near the crackling fireplace, rubbing his too-full stomach and nursing his second mug of hot buttered rum when Bella set the heavy, leather-bound family bible in his lap.
"Would you read it to me? This entire week has been full of my family, our traditions. But yours are just as important."
She nudged an ottoman closer and sat down, a sweet, but expectant smile on her face.
A forgotten memory flashed into his mind.
He must have been eight or nine at the time. He was curled up against his dad's side. They were waiting for his mom; she was bringing hot chocolate and cookies from the kitchen.
"I remember being about your age, sitting around the family room with your aunts and uncles while my father read from this very same bible," his father had said. "Maybe one day you'll be sitting with a family of your own, sharing this story with them. You know, at the heart of it all, the Christmas story is one of love. Family. Hope. That's why we read it together. Because as beautiful as the lights are, and exciting as the presents are," and here he'd nudged Edward playfully, "there is nothing more important than remembering that it all started with the gift of love."
His mother had walked in then, a gentle smile on her face. That brief lesson must have made an impression on him for memory to lay dormant, but crystal clear, deep within his mind. Edward tilted his head back and waited for his eyes to stop burning.
"I'm so sorry," Bella whispered when she saw how affected he was. "I didn't think about how painful it would-"
"Don't apologize. It's okay. Actually, it's been too long." He brushed his fingers down the page, the words still so familiar. He read from the Gospel of Luke, slowly at first, pausing to clear his throat every couple lines. The rest of the family filtered into the room, finding seats and sitting quietly. Edward's voice grew stronger and clearer as he finished.
"Mike, that was absolutely beautiful," Renee gushed. "I hope you'll read it again for us next Christmas."
"Mom, could you please, for once, not ruin the moment?"
It was Emmett that said it, but everyone else laughed. Bella shook her head, an exasperated expression on her face.
"And on that note, I think it's time to hang stockings and get to bed," Jasper said.
Bella handed an embroidered stocking to Edward, and they hung them from the tarnished brass hooks beneath the mantle. "Goodnight everyone. Merry Christmas." Then she took him by the hand and tugged him toward the stairs. "Quick, before my mom starts giving you brochures from her favorite jeweler. She's… ugh."
"Enthusiastic?" Edward chuckled.
"Don't you dare encourage her."
"So you're saying I should return your gift?" he teased, arching an eyebrow.
"You didn't!" she cried as the bedroom door swung shut behind them.
"Nope. But you're blushing… maybe you aren't as against settling down as you claim." He leaned back against the door and grinned.
"Goodnight, Edward," she huffed, disappearing into the bathroom.
Edward lay down on the bed with his hands clasped behind his head and his ankles crossed. He really couldn't wait to see her reaction to his gift. Bella was a hopeless romantic. He was certain she was going to love it.
"Get your asses out of bed! It's Christmas, baby," Emmett hollered.
Edward jerked awake, his heart pounding. It was too fucking early, the sky still dark with only the hint of false dawn lightening the eastern horizon.
"Shut up, Em!" Bella yelled at his side. She grinned at him sleepily. "He hasn't grown up."
"And he's gonna be a father soon," Edward said and wiped the sleep from his eyes. He turned to face her, his fingers ghosting across her cheek.
"Morning." She turned into him, a yawn escaping from her lips. "You've survived my crazy, dysfunctional family."
"I've got my eye on the prize."
She chuckled softly. "I'm not much of a prize."
He leaned in close, his lips brushing hers. "You should see it from my perspective."
The door swung open and Edward groaned, shooting a glare towards Emmett.
"Dude! Get your horny, humpin'…"
Edward flung a pillow towards Emmett. The fucker cackled, picked it up and tossed it back. The door closed.
"I said no milk…" Bella's father yelled from down the hall.
"... Without buying the cow! We know Dad," Emmett recited.
"We should have installed a lock on that door."
"Like that would have stopped him. Then he would stand there pounding on it until one of us opened it." Bella sighed. "I guess we better get downstairs. Em's not gonna quit before we're all seated around the tree. In fact, it'll only get worse."
"So much for getting my fifty percent worth," Edward said with a smirk, running his fingers up her inner thigh, but stopping just short. He rolled off the bed and went to the bathroom, laughing at her growl of frustration as the door swung shut behind him.
Dressed in pajamas, they all gathered around the tree. Renee brought out a tray full of coffee mugs and handed each person a cup.
"Are you putting milk in your coffee, son?" Charlie asked, his lips pursed, his eyes glaring.
Edward looked to Bella and she rolled her eyes, grinning. "Yeah, Dad. He's having lots and lots of milk. Cream, too. And butter."
Edward bit his lip to keep from bursting out in laughter at the shocked and irritated expression on Charlie's face.
"Charlie, let it go." Renee handed him his cup that read Still Nifty at Fifty. "They're adults. I'm sure Mike has plans to propose soon, right? Bella isn't getting any younger." She winked at Edward as if they shared a secret.
Bella choked on her coffee. She coughed, her face turning red. "What the fuck, Mom?"
"Language!" Her mother scolded.
"I'm not that old."
"Maybe not, but I just want you to be happy. Settle down. Have a family…"
"Mom, seriously. Stop!"
Renee turned her focus on Edward. "Mike, you do plan on marrying my daughter, don't you?"
"When Bella's ready for me to go all in, I'll be 100 percent on board." He grinned, then yelped when Bella pinched his thigh.
Emmett dropped a gift in Edward's lap. "Present time. You go first, Mike."
Rubbing his thigh to erase the sting, he took the gift and tore open the wrapping. He eyed the sports jacket warily.
"Try it on," Emmett encouraged, grinning in anticipation.
It looked too small for Edward's broad frame, but he put it on, the fabric tight around his arms and stretching across his chest and shoulders. He was sure he heard a small tear.
Renee pursed her lips, while Jasper tried to contain his laughter. Emmett pouted and Bella, along with Rose and Alice, snickered.
"You owe me a hundred bucks," Jasper wheezed, stretching his hand out towards Emmett, who begrudgingly dug out the cash from his wallet.
"I thought you said he wore medium." Renee pulled on the too short sleeves, trying to button the coat and failing.
"He's been…" Bella's paused.
"... hitting the gym lately," Edward finished for her. The same excuse she'd given Alice and Rose.
"Oh." It seemed to appease Renee. "Well, exercise is good for you. I'll just exchange it then."
Jasper winked at Edward, thoroughly amused. Edward shot him a glare as he struggled out of the jacket.
Emmett didn't pass out the gifts in any particular order, but the family only opened one at a time. Jasper and Alice were the first ones to open one of his gifts. While Jasper had driven Edward to his friend's print and frame store, he hadn't seen the images, only the frames. The look of wonder and peace on his face was transcendent. The kiss the couple shared was even sweeter than the one Edward had captured down by the decorated pond.
"Thank you, Ed… Mike," Jasper said, barely catching himself in time.
"It's okay, son. I can't remember his name half the time either," Charlie said, winking at Edward as if to apologize for his verbal blunders during the first day of his visit.
Edward laughed along. He was pretty certain that those 'slips' hadn't been slips at all.
Rose actually came over to give Edward a hug when she and Emmett saw the picture of them at the Nativity scene. When she sank back down onto the sofa, Emmett caressed her belly softly, then mouthed a 'thank you' to Edward. There was a new kind of respect in his gaze. Hopefully that meant he would stop barging into their room before Edward and Bella had even gotten out of bed.
Charlie wiped moisture from his eyes, his mustache twitching , when he and Renee opened the large, oak-framed picture of them surrounded by lights. "I didn't want to say anything quite yet, but this is just… dammit, it's wonderful. This was the last year. I'll still put up lights, still pipe music out across the lake, still have hot chocolate and cider out for the kiddos and their parents that stop by, but I'm not entering the contest anymore. It's time for somebody else to get some recognition. So this… well, this picture just makes it all perfect. Yes it does." He sniffled again, and took the tissue Renee handed him to blow his nose.
Bella slipped her hand into Edward's and leaned her head against his shoulder. "I can't thank you enough," she said, her voice cracking slightly. "That's the most perfect gift ever. And dad's impossible to shop for. The last time he reacted even half as strongly was the year Emmett bought him that freaky singing fish."
"Big Mouth Billy Bass!" yelled Emmett, laughing. "He was the best. Whatever happened to him?"
Renee shushed him frantically. Evidently, she did not want the singing bass making a comeback.
Charlie was deaf to it all, though, still shaking his head and staring at the picture. "Renee, honey, just look at this picture. You look radiant. Prettier than the day I met you. That's talent, son. Real talent."
Renee fell silent, and Edward saw where Bella had gotten her brilliant blush.
He'd learned a lot about many of his subjects over the years, but this was completely different. He'd gotten to know each of them and was immersed in their lives. He was emotionally tied to those images. He still existed behind the camera, but parts of him were trapped inside the frame. He felt a tugging in his chest. Not painful. Not entirely unpleasant. But unsettling.
There was one gift left, a small silver-wrapped box. Edward had hidden it beneath the tree skirt to ensure that he was the one to hand it to Bella.
She took it hesitantly. "You didn't have to."
"I know," Edward murmured and watched her peel back the wrapping.
Bella gasped as she lifted the miniature frame with the restored photograph of her grandparents. She traced a finger delicately along the edges. "This is… it's just… how did you..." she met his gaze, a tear trailing down her cheek.
Edward brushed it away with his thumb. "I have a digital copy for you, too. So you can add it to albums or frame it properly on the wall."
She hung the new ornament in place of the damaged one, then turned and kissed him on the lips. "This is unbelievable. So beautiful," she whispered, her voice thick with emotion. "Thank you. Just… thank you." Bella kissed him again, her fingers weaving into his hair as he deepened the kiss.
He was getting accustomed to the smell of her hair, the taste of her lips. His hands knew the curve of her spine. His eyes were closed, but he was certain he knew exactly what expression she was wearing. Desire. That was one image he wanted to capture and keep forever.
Jasper cleared his throat comically. "I would tell you to get a room, but you already have one. Maybe you can wait until you're in it?"
This time it was Bella who retaliated by throwing a crumpled ball of gift wrap at her older brother. A paper fight ensued, with Rose laughing from the safety of the couch.
Edward pulled Bella aside when Renee finally called for a truce between the combatants. "Later," he promised her with a wink. "I'm vying for fifty percent now."
After a delicious dinner and an evening of lounging in front of the fire as the snow blanketed the ground outside, Edward and Bella said goodnight to the family and headed upstairs.
The moment the door clicked shut, Bella spun on her heels and kissed his lips furiously. Surprised, Edward stumbled backwards, his back hitting the door.
"Bella," he managed between kisses. "Bella," he tried again, but her body was such a distraction.
"I don't care," she murmured against his mouth, slipping her hands beneath his shirt. "I don't care about the agreement anymore. I want it all… you… I want you tonight. One hundred percent."
His body ached. He wanted to be with her, but his heart was conflicted, his mind at war. All of this had started as a charade, a few white lies intended to make her holidays a little easier. And he had jumped at the opportunity to have her. Edward wanted her body, but now as his eyes flickered between hers, he realized that in under a week — the time spent with her family, her, all of it — the charade had become real to him. Too real.
Edward cupped her cheeks and kissed down her neck, afraid that she would see the panic in his eyes. Reality, separation, was two days away. She'd go back to New York, back to her life, while he was heading to South America, worlds away from her.
He swallowed as his lips traced her collarbone. Her scent — cinnamon and vanilla — was intoxicating. Those scents used to remind him of everything he'd lost. From now on, it would always remind him of her.
"Let's stick to our original arrangement," he whispered and squeezed his eyes shut, the words painful.
"But… ," she started to argue.
Edward drew back and shook his head, pushing her backwards towards the bed. "Fifty percent tonight. The rest is for tomorrow."
The lie tasted foul to him, but far better to lie tonight than to take what she offered him and still do what he had to do. He couldn't hurt her like that.
Slowly, he began to undress her. Her shirt fell to the floor. Her fingers combed slowly through his hair as he kissed down to the swell of her breasts. He unclasped her bra and slid the straps off her shoulders, letting it go to land at her feet. Edward inhaled sharply. Bella bit her lip as she peeled off his shirt.
"I was right. Beautiful. Sexy." The words he'd uttered in the bar at the airport. His lips brushed lightly across her nipple, then she cried out as he sucked at her. Desire was painted so clearly on her face. Edward's hands slid down to her hips. "Do you trust me?"
"Yes," she answered after the briefest pause.
Retrieving his camera, Edward adjusted the light of the lamp on her nightstand and opened the curtains, the flickering light dancing through the room and across her skin.
"What are you…?"
He cupped her cheek. "Do you trust me with your body?"
She leaned into his touch. "Yes." A whisper.
"This is just between you and me." He kissed her slowly, deeply. "No one else," he promised.
He sat her down on the edge of the bed, adjusting her posture until the light landed perfectly, her skin practically glowing. Adjusting the aperture and white balance, he lifted the camera…
Bella bit her lip and watched him as he circled around to her other side. He couldn't think of another time his subject had been this alluring, this captivating. He swallowed, fingers gripping the camera.
"Lie down," he murmured after a moment. He was almost crippled by the need to strip her down, to take her and worship her body. "Put your arms over your head, on the pillow."
Click! Click! Click!
"So fucking beautiful."
She diverted her gaze. Her body was reacting to the low timbre of his voice. Her fingers curled into fists and her nipples tightened into points. Her stomach muscles clenched, the smooth planes of her belly disappearing beneath the waistband of her jeans. Her breasts, her hips, the tension in her thighs… He captured it all. The shifting light accentuated the contours of her body, each picture highlighting another feature. He felt exultant. Adrenalized.
"I need to see all of you," he whispered, lowering the camera.
He bent to kiss her, his body trembling with need. "I promise. Just you and me."
Slowly Bella reached for the zipper of her jeans. The camera focused on her hands, her graceful fingers. Edward held his breath as she gripped the fabric, wriggling a little as she slid her jeans and underwear down, unveiling the curve of her hips, the long muscles of her thighs, her calves. All of her.
Bella sat up and reached for his jeans, pulling him closer to stand between her knees. Edward groaned. He could see everything. Her mouth hung open, saliva glistening on her lower lip, and he ached at the thought of her mouth on him. Instead he focused on her hands, and the shutter closed just as she undid the button. It was almost too much.
He set his camera on the nightstand and cupped the back of her neck, his mouth finding hers, and laid her back. He covered her body with his own, feeling her breasts rising and falling as she breathed. He thrust his hips against her with a hiss as her nails scraped from his scalp to his neck and down the span of his back. She was marking him, parallel trails of ice turning to fire. He burned with lust.
Edward kissed slowly down her throat, nuzzling her neck, lingering at her breasts. He teased her until she whimpered and squirmed beneath him, his name falling from her lips in a desperate plea.
He moved down between her legs, kissing her inner thighs, inhaling her delicate scent. Bella panted his name, fingers curling into the sheet, her hips rotating, inviting him closer.
"So beautiful," he murmured softly as he kissed her hipbone. He grabbed his camera and placed it on her stomach, aimed at her face.
With one finger on the shutter button, he kissed her inner lips. She gasped and…
Each cry and moan he documented on film as he pleasured her with his tongue, pushing her closer to oblivion. She grasped her breasts with her hands, pinching her own nipples and arching her back.
He could only hear her, only feel her, his senses consumed by her as she finally tumbled over the edge with his name falling from her lips.
Slowly, he moved back up her body, kissing her warm skin until he reached her lips. "That's fifty percent," he said with a teasing grin.
"You're incorrigible," Bella murmured, her eyes fluttering closed, a content, satisfied smile on her face.
"You have no idea." Edward drew the blankets over her body and kissed her forehead. He stroked her cheek as she snuggled deeper into the covers, sleep already claiming her.
Later that night, with his bags packed and waiting by the door, Edward retrieved his old weathered notebook and began to write:
My plan this Christmas was to sit in my condo in the city, alone, doing some editing, preparing for my next assignment. It was just another day or week in my calendar. Nothing special.
These last few days, I've come to cherish this time of year again. The lights, the festivities and even your dad's bizarre restrictions on milk products. But none of this would have been the same without you. You gave me a sense of belonging. I haven't felt that since my parents passed away.
I only wish that we didn't have to pretend. I wish I could have introduced you to my parents. I wish I was the kind of man who could have given you a ring. And I wish for so much more...
Our lives intersected for a brief moment, just a handful of frames in a time lapsed video. I wish it didn't have to stop here.
I'll always think of you!
His pen froze, hovering above the page. Edward slowly turned to face her, knowing he couldn't hide what he was feeling. The muscles of his face, strained and trembling, displayed all the pain and conflict that burned inside his chest.
She crawled closer, naked, eyes darting to his messy scrawl on the page. He knew she was reading every word, but he couldn't bear to look at her, already knowing that tears were trailing down her cheeks.
"What were you going to write at the end?" Bella asked, her voice thick with emotion.
He shook his head and gripped the pen tighter. He felt exposed, raw.
"Please tell me." She moved to straddle him, cupped his cheeks and kissed his lips lightly, eyes darting between his. "Say it."
She knew. Of course, she knew.
"Merry Christmas, Bella." His voice broke on the last syllable. Those were words he hadn't spoken to anyone since his parents died, now uttered into the stillness of her room
She seemed to understand the significance, even without an explanation. "Merry Christmas, Edward," she whispered against his lips, but what he felt was a promise. Love. Family. Hope. If he was willing to accept it.
"I don't care about our agreement anymore… A trade? Payment? I don't want that." He held himself back as she tried to kiss him again, although every part of him wanted to be closer.
Bella caressed his neck and shoulders, leaning her forehead against his. "I'm only interested in one hundred percent of you."
The notebook landed on the carpeted floor with a thud. Bella stood and tugged on his hands urging him to his feet. Edward towered over her, clothed before her unashamed nakedness. With sensual kisses and soft caresses, she peeled away his defenses until he stood before her, vulnerable and trembling with need.
Her fingers traced the planes of his chest, nails scratching lightly across his lower abdomen. So close. Edward hissed. He gripped her hips, pulling her closer and onto his lap as he sat on the edge of the mattress.
"One hundred percent," he murmured into her neck, eyes closed, feeling her warm and wet against his thighs.
She positioned herself above him and slowly sank down with a whimper. He groaned, fingers tightening on her hips. Each thrust drove him higher. Her whimpers fueled his need, and when she started moaning his name, he followed her over the edge and into the abyss.
Spent and out of breath, Edward drew the blankets over their naked bodies and let sleep take him. For the first time in nineteen years, he looked forward to the future. It didn't seem so lonely anymore.
The next morning, Edward took Bella's hand as they headed downstairs and into the kitchen. The entire family sat around the table, mugs of coffee in hand.
"Mom. Dad," Bella started. "I have a confession."
"Oh my god, you're pregnant," Renee shouted.
Edward eyebrows jumped. He knew he'd made her see stars, but he hadn't thought any further than that moment. Was the burning in his stomach caused by terror, or excitement? What if she…?
"What?! No! Geez, Mom. I've been on the pill for 10 years and you know it."
Well, that answered that question.
Emmett and Jasper laughed, but one glare from Bella silenced them both. "I broke up with Mike…"
"What?" Charlie stood. "Then why is he still..." he pointed at Edward, brows furrowed.
"... And this is Edward," Bella finished with a smile, her arm looped through his.
"You mean to tell me that there's been a stranger sleeping in my house?" Charlie's hands twisted into fists, his face pulled into a grimace.
"He's not a stranger. Not to me. Not to any of us."
"Bella," Renee started with a shake of her head. "I thought Mike was the one!"
"Why would you think that? Just because he's someone? None of you had even met him! And if I had brought him here this week, you wouldn't have that photo hanging above your mantle," Bella retorted, folding her arms across her chest. She wasn't backing down.
"I don't understand." Renee continued. "Why would you feel like you had to lie to us?"
"Have you met you?" Jasper asked loudly. Emmett nodded in agreement. "She's your only daughter, and you have such high expectations of her. Any time she calls or visits, she can barely speak without you hounding her to 'find a man and settle down'. Why do you think she moved so far away, Mom?"
"But… I…" Renee started, eyes pleading as she looked at each of her children. "I only want what's best for you."
Charlie finally shook off his surprise and took a step in Edward's direction. "You've been guzzling milk, haven't you? That's why you came stomping down those stair like you… you…" His voice tapered off, and he seemed to notice how close Bella was standing, comfortable with Edward's hands on her hip and shoulder. Supporting her. Protecting her. But allowing her to face down her family on her own terms.
Charlie ground his teeth, caught between his own protective instincts and acknowledging the evidence of his daughter's happiness.
Bella, searching for anything to divert her parents' attention, pointed towards her brother. "Dad, Emmett wants to name the baby Dasher."
Emmett spun around and stared at her, slack jawed.
"What? Emmett, why…"
Everyone turned to Emmett, including his wife. He glared at Bella, but accepted that she needed the distraction, and started arguing his case. With the combined athleticism of both parents, his son was sure to be a fast runner. And they all loved Christmas...
Laughing, Bella pulled Edward into the living room. She leaned against the wall and pulled him closer. "I might need your assistance again. I need to escape from my dysfunctional family."
"Oh yeah?" He pressed closer. "My time is worth quite a lot."
"Twenty-five percent." She kissed his lips. "Thirty-five percent." Her hand cupped his cock. "Fifty percent?" She ran her fingernail down his zipper, one eyebrow raised in invitation. She tipped her head towards the stairs, lacing her fingers with his.
Edward chuckled and brushed her lips with his own. "Maybe I should take you back to my place. If you really need to escape."
She looked up at him and swept her tongue across her lower lip. "One hundred percent worth it."
"Merry Christmas, Bella."
"A very Merry Christmas, Edward."
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