Thank you so much for all your kind words and support! I never expected this story to run to so many words (150 000 - eep!) or end up delving into quite so many difficult topics or going into as much detail in places. It wasn't the easiest story to choose for someone getting back into writing after a break of a few years (what was I thinking?), and it has certainly had its difficult moments. I am so glad that many of you have come to care for these characters and feel that I've done a reasonable job of addressing some challenging issues. I'm aware the ending is a bit rushed, and I do apologize. I considered adding a few more chapters to show some things in greater detail, but I need to move on. I am not the quickest writer, and I am long overdue for getting the next story in my historical romance series written. Plus, I am super excited to be writing a romantic comedy series with the wonderfully funny Tmart37. It's time for me to leave contemporary angst behind and return to the delights of Regency England . . . interspersed with some much-needed belly laughs. :)
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to NKubie, Sunshine1220, and MechCat for pre-reading this crazy story, to FiftiesRose for her invaluable PR advice, and to SunflowerFran for her excellent beta help. The last few chapters are unbetaed (because I'm an impatient numpty!) so all mistakes are mine.
"Hey, Dad! Last one to the lake is a rotten egg!"
Katie cantered past us on her chestnut gelding, and I waved Edward on to take up the challenge. I'd become a reasonably confident rider during the two and a half months we'd spent in Montana. But racing down the steep hillside and across the valley at a gallop was pushing it. Thankfully, my bay mare, Lucy, was happy to plod along at a sedate and much safer pace.
"You okay if I ride ahead?" Edward called over his shoulder, even as he spurred his large, black horse to match Katie's breakneck speed.
"Go, go!" I urged, knowing the two of them would be fine. Coordination, balance, and all-round athletic ability ran in their veins. I just hoped when Edward and I had children, they took after their father, though he'd assured me he would adore them even if they inherited my not-so-athletic genes.
My smile widened at the thought of having babies with Edward one day. I had a feeling it would happen sooner rather than later. With all the whispering that had been going on between father and daughter, I knew the two of them were planning something. My guess, and secret hope, was it was a proposal. Technically, that didn't require Katie's involvement, but I couldn't imagine Edward making such a momentous decision without at least discussing it with her first. I didn't doubt she would have given him her approval, as she made no secret of wanting me for her stepmother. Charlie and Edward had a similar mutual admiration society going on, and I had a fair idea what they'd been discussing when I'd spied the two of them having a heart-to-heart during my dad's most recent visit. Where Charlie would have given his enthusiastic permission and then left Edward to get on with it, Katie was a romantic at heart. She'd want to be in on the planning.
A wave of contentment rolled over me. Life was good. So much better than anything I'd imagined before meeting Edward. I liked to think I was independent enough not to have needed a 'prince on a white horse' to come rescue me, but I had to admit Edward's arrival had turned my life around for the better. I'd been feeling pretty damned low, and while I'm sure I would have survived and eventually found a way to thrive on my own, he certainly sped up the process. Being able to encourage and support him in return had gone some way toward leveling the playing field. It was satisfying to know he needed and appreciated me as much as I did him. We were a team, a great team, and together we'd face whatever life decided to throw our way.
Being madly in love and insanely attracted to one another wasn't too shabby, either. After three months together, we were thoroughly enjoying the honeymoon phase of our relationship and determined to make it last as long as possible. The sex was amazing, and also better than anything I'd imagined or experienced before. When I thought of what I'd been planning to settle for, how mild my feelings for Mike had been in comparison to what I felt for Edward, I was so relieved our ill-fated marriage hadn't gone ahead. Even those damned memes were something I now viewed with a grudging degree of fondness, as they'd brought me to Edward's attention and him to me. Edward felt the same way about having Katie in his life. She made everything he'd endured worth it, including the ongoing drama the revelation of her existence created.
I took my time, letting my horse amble down into the valley on our way to the lake. We'd ridden up into the hills and crossed where the river was at its lowest to get to the far side of the lake from the lodge. Everywhere you looked on the ranch was picturesque in its own way, but this was a favorite spot of ours with spectacular mountain views reflected in the glass-like surface of the lake.
By the time I arrived, Edward and Katie had everything set up for a picnic lunch. They'd unsaddled their horses, who were grazing on the still green grass along the lake's edge. Edward came and held my mare's bridle, so she'd hold steady while I dismounted. I only groaned a little when I touched the ground, my backside and legs having become used to time spent in the saddle. The first few rides had been challenging, both during and afterward. But I'd been determined to persevere, not wanting to miss out on all the adventures to be had on horseback.
"Thanks," I said when Edward offered to unsaddle Lucy, so she could graze with the other horses.
"You're very welcome," Edward replied, taking a moment to place a kiss on my forehead. "Why don't you slip off your boots and make yourself comfortable?"
I liked the idea and quickly complied. Taking a seat on the tartan blanket that had been laid out for our picnic, I smiled upon seeing the jar of wildflowers Katie had placed in the middle. There weren't too many left this late in the season, and they added a lovely touch to the setting.
"This looks great, Katie," I said, and she answered with a grin.
"I made potato salad, a healthy green salad, since you guys like them so much," she wrinkled her nose at the admission, "fried chicken, fresh biscuits, and there are chocolate brownies for dessert. Oh, and some berries for later if anyone's still hungry. Terri did most of it, but I helped."
"Thank you, Katie. It looks absolutely delicious," Edward said, coming to join us. He sat down beside me and stretched his long legs out along the edge of the blanket.
I echoed his words, but Katie waved me off when I went to help her dish up our lunches.
"Nope, you just get to sit back and enjoy," she said, making an artistic display with the food and then pouring us sparkling non-alcoholic cider into plastic goblets.
"Fancy," I said when she passed me mine. "Am I missing something?" I asked in a teasing tone, having a sneaking suspicion but not wanting to jump to conclusions. My birthday wasn't for another month, and Edward's thirtieth had been a few weeks earlier. We'd had a great time with our families, Alice and Jasper, and about a dozen of Edward's closest friends, flying in to help us celebrate.
"Nope, you're not missing anything," Katie said, her eyes wide. "I just wanted to do something nice for two of the people I love the most." Her tone was matter of fact, but a smirk curved her lips making me suspect she was up to something after all. Whether it was the proposal I suspected might be coming soon was another matter. It had only been three months, so I guessed it was probably unlikely.
"Thank you, Katie. This is delicious," I said around a mouthful of crispy fried chicken. If I'd hit the jackpot with Edward, having Katie in our lives made it feel like I'd won the Mega Lottery. Of course, she had her dark days, and occasionally, she could be a bit bratty, but I'd have worried if she didn't. As teenagers went, she was one in a million.
Like her dad, though I suspected he was close to one in a billion. I'm not sure what I'd done to deserve him, but for someone who'd once been the poster girl for bad luck, the tables sure had turned.
After we'd finished eating, Edward helped Katie clear everything away, both of them insisting I wasn't to lift a finger.
"What's going on you two?" I asked, trying to sound fierce and failing miserably. Truth be told, I was feeling way too mellow.
"Oh, nothing," Edward said, his smirk matching the one I'd seen on his daughter's face earlier.
I thought I heard Katie murmur, "You'll see," but when I shifted my gaze her way, she had a faux-innocent expression on her face. Not wanting to spoil whatever surprise they had planned, I kept quiet, but I had to hide my own smile.
Once everything was cleared away, Katie announced she wanted to take some photos of the reflections in the lake.
"I'll just be over there, okay?" She pointed to a spot about thirty yards away.
We waved as she ran off, camera in her hand. Once we were alone, I turned to face Edward. My smile faded when I saw he was kneeling, not that it necessarily meant anything. We were sitting on the ground after all.
"Hey," I said when he stayed quiet while watching me intently.
"Hey, babe," he answered and then rubbed his hands up and down his thighs.
Whatever this was about, he was nervous. Rubbing his thighs was a tell-tale sign, as were the deep breaths he drew, expanding his broad chest. My own breath quickened a little, and I could hear the sound of my heart beating heavily in my ears. When he didn't say anything more, I raised a brow in question.
"Right, so . . ." he said then gave a decisive nod. "There is something special about today, well, I hope it's going to be special and not something you'll regret. Not that I think you will regret it, of course, but it might be too soon. And I don't want you to feel pressured in any way since it has only been three months. But they've been three of the most amazing months of my life, and—"
"Edward, slow down!" I raised a hand to halt his torrent of words. "Are you . . . proposing?"
"Not very well." Two slashes of pink appeared high on his cheeks. "I want to, and Katie wants me to, not that that's why I want to, of course. It's just, I'm aware I can be a bit single-minded when I have a goal, and I don't want you to end up feeling like you've been bulldozed into something before you're ready. I just . . . I love you, Bella, and I can't imagine my life without you in it." His expression was both earnest and tender.
"I can't imagine my life without you in it, either," I said, my heart swelling with a mix of affection and excitement. This was happening. Edward Cullen, my Edward, was proposing . . . or attempting to, at any rate.
"I just want us to be together for always," he continued before adding in a rush. "Not that we have to be married to be together. We can continue just as we are now, and that's perfectly fine, too."
I nodded slowly, curious as to whether he was trying to propose or talk himself out of proposing.
"You're worried it's too soon?" I asked.
He edged closer and caught hold of my hand. "Not for me," he said with a decisive shake of his head. "I know what I want, and it's you, Bella. I want us to travel and co-write books. I want us to raise Katie together, and when we're ready, have babies, children of our own, and raise them together too. I want us to make a life and grow old living it. I want it all, Bella . . . with you."
His green eyes developed a glassy shine, and my own vision blurred. This talented, wonderful, hot as hell man with his beautiful words, wanted me.
"I want that, too," I said, my voice choking with emotion. "All of it. With you."
"You do? I'm not rushing you?"
"No!" I laughed. "But you'll give me a complex if you're not careful."
His smile widened into a grin. "We can have as long an engagement as you want . . . or short. Whatever you prefer."
"Nice to know, but aren't you forgetting something?"
An adorably perplexed expression appeared on his face.
"You haven't actually asked me yet," I said with a wry smile.
His head dropped forward, and those shoulders I admired shook with silent laughter. When he raised his head, his smile was gone, replaced with a look of tender longing. In unspoken agreement, we both raised up on our knees, our hands clasped between us.
"Isabella Swan, I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?"
My throat tightened with emotion, but nothing could stop me from answering. "Yes, Edward. Yes, I will marry you, and make a life with you, and have babies with you . . . one day."
We were both laughing through our tears by this point.
"And travel, and write books, and make a home, and raise Katie together?"
"Yes! To all of it!" I half-laughed, half-cried, my response smothered by the strength of his embrace. When he finally released me, I drew in a breath just in time for him to capture my mouth with a searing kiss. I returned it just as fiercely, desperately trying to impart all the love, admiration, desire, and commitment I felt for this truly amazing man. If Katie hadn't been a stone's throw away, I suspect the kiss would have progressed to a full-blown expression of our passion for one another. Inherent in it was a promise I knew we'd fulfill later when we were alone. For now, we allowed the frantic touches of our lips to gentle and become a kiss of tenderness and joy. Long seconds passed, as our lips moved together before Edward drew back and held my shoulders at arms' length.
"We're really doing this?"
"Yes!" I shouted, earning a whooping sound from Katie. I looked over to where she was standing and saw she was bouncing on her heels while watching us from a distance.
"Any idea when you'd like to get married?" Edward asked, recapturing my attention. "Not that there's any rush, of course."
My smile widened to a grin. "I vote for sooner rather than later."
Edward's expressive eyebrows drew down into a frown before rising high on his forehead. "Really?" he asked, clearly shocked. "You don't want a long engagement?"
"I've had the long engagement and the big wedding, and I've got no desire to go down that path again. I realize it hasn't been that long, but we've spent almost every minute of every day together for the last three months. We've also been through more drama than some couples experience in a lifetime."
"We survived our first fight," Edward added, a smirk curving his lips.
I rolled my eyes at the memory. Edward liked to swim . . . a lot. A large part of the reason we'd chosen this ranch was because it had an indoor heated lap pool. What Edward didn't always like to do was hang up his wet towels. Or put his size fourteen shoes away, so I wouldn't end up tripping over them in the middle of the night.
As failings went, they were pretty minor. Since he was willing to forgive my tendency to use every single dish and pot when cooking, making for a massive cleanup, I tried to keep his occasional messiness in perspective. He was tolerant of my need for space sometimes and my tendency to forget things when I was tired or overwhelmed, and I made allowances for when he was so focused on a project that he lost all track of time.
"We know how to compromise," I agreed.
"We balance one another out," he added.
"You see the big picture." I spread my arms wide to demonstrate.
"And you are awesome at the details."
"You're 'it' for me, Edward, and since you just proposed, I'm going to take it as a given that I'm 'it' for you."
We shared a grin before his expression turned endearingly hopeful. "You really don't want to wait?"
I waggled my head side to side, doing some quick calculations. We'd be leaving the ranch in another few weeks and then spending a few weeks on a whirlwind tour, promoting our books in the U.S. After that, we'd be heading for the Caribbean for Katie to visit her grandfather and because it was somewhere I'd always wanted to visit. Our families would be joining us there after a few weeks for a tropical island holiday before we embarked on the rest of our journey, starting with South America then heading across to New Zealand, Australia, and up into Asia.
"Ten weeks from now," I said, enjoying the look of stunned surprise that appeared on his face.
"Ten weeks? But, but, how?"
"Well, unless you want a big wedding with all the bells and whistles . . .?" I asked, fearful that he might. I wasn't sure I could put myself through it again. When he shook his head, I breathed an obvious sigh of relief, earning a laugh. "Phew," I said, miming an exaggerated swipe of my forehead.
"You're thinking something small . . . tropical," he said nodding along with his words. "When our families come and join us in the Caribbean?"
It was my turn to nod. "Exactly! We can just extend the invitation to our closest friends . . . all sworn to absolute secrecy, of course. If we keep the ceremony simple, it shouldn't take too much organizing."
"Simple. Small. Intimate. That sounds perfect." Edward drew me back into his arms where I stayed for a moment before he drew back a fraction. " You're not worried people will say it's too soon?"
I shrugged. "They'll say whatever they're going to say, though I'm sure Glenda can help us sell the idea. Don't most fairy tales end with a wedding? I'd like to keep it a secret until after the fact. The engagement, too, or we'll have people hounding us for details."
"We'll have to make sure Katie knows not to announce it ahead of time," Edward said with an indulgent smile. "Speaking of Katie . . ." After pulling me to my feet, he turned and waved her over. She took off like a rocket, running toward us at full speed.
"Tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me," she called. "That was a yes I heard, right?"
"Yes, it was a yes." Edward laughed, and we drew her into a three-way hug.
"When?" She turned to face me. "You're not going to make us wait forever, like a whole year, are you?"
"Nope," I said, enjoying seeing her eyes widen in surprise. "I'm thinking ten weeks from now during that island holiday we've already got planned with the family. We'll just extend the invite to a few more people."
Her eyes widened comically. "That's perfect! I'll have plenty of people to look after me, so you guys can have a proper honeymoon. Maybe you could hire a yacht and cruise around for a few days?"
Edward and I shared a glance. "Sounds good," we said in unison and then laughed before our gazes softened. Before we could get lost, once more, in the magic of the moment, Katie gasped and pulled out of our arms.
"We have to get back," She said, grabbing up the blanket and starting to fold it away. "I have to call Alice. And Esme. We have sooo much planning to do." She looked up, taking in our stunned expressions. "Hey, someone's got to do it, and you guys have enough going on with your books coming out, and your writing, and the rest of our trip to plan. Of course, we'll run everything by you, but my guess is you'll want something small but special . . . nothing over the top." She smirked before adding. "And definitely nothing that could be turned into a meme."
"Oh, I don't know," I said, and Katie and Edward looked at me with matching perplexed expressions. "Maybe we could give the world the definitive image for what 'Happily Ever After' looks like?"
Laughing, Edward put one arm around my shoulders and the other around Katie's. "Sounds good to me," he said, and together, we walked over to where the horses were grazing.
That's all for now, though I might return for a glimpse of their honeymoon cruise if anyone's interested in reading some lemony goodness featuring these two. It could be cool to hear how their book releases go in New York, Chicago, and L.A. . . . and the TV interviews with Katie . . . and her reunion with Marcus . . . and the wedding . . . Darn, it's hard to say goodbye to these guys. Is there anything else anyone would like to see? It might be a few weeks away, but I suspect I'll be back one more time.
I get so much joy out of writing and sharing my stories. Speaking of which . . . I have started a 'Reader/Reviewer' group for my published stories. If you're interested in being included, please send me your name and email address, and I'll add you to the list. You'll receive ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of my published stories, and in return, I'd just ask that you consider leaving honest reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, Bookbub or wherever you normally review.
PS: I'm submitting a paranormal 'shifter' romance to the Babies at the Border Fiction Compilation. There are over 100 amazing authors contributing, so please consider donating.