(The Morning After) The Night Before Christmas
Summary: "Oh, God, Edward Cullen has seen me naked."
A/N: A bit of Christmas fluff I wrote last year and never got around to sharing. With it comes my wish that you find joy and peace this holiday season, whatever holiday you celebrate. And however 2019 went for you, I wish you–and all of us–a better, gentler, kinder 2020.
(Also, unbeta'ed, because hello, last minute. But it's worth noting that the fabulous HollettLA remains as amazing as ever. Please forgive the mistakes. xo)
. . .
Oh, God, Edward Cullen has seen me naked.
It's the first thought I have when I wake up Christmas morning in the guest house just off Esme and Carlisle Cullen's enormous Dutch Colonial home in suburban Connecticut. Then, Oh, God, Edward Cullen has DONE THINGS to me naked.
I'm going to have to assume an alias and hit the road because there is absolutely zero way I can ever be in the same room with him again. Ever. There is no way I'll be able to look him in the eyes and not be thinking about his…other parts.
Oh, God, I've seen Edward Cullen's OTHER PARTS.
I roll over and squint at the clock on the reclaimed mahogany bedside table: 6:45 a.m. Still early. I could throw on some clothes and call a rideshare and sneak out to the train station and make my apologies to Esme and Carlisle later. I could spend Christmas in quiet solitude in my apartment, drinking eggnog and reading my way through the slush pile and watching It's a Wonderful Life on repeat loop as I get increasingly inebriated in blissful isolation. I could distance myself from the Santa's bag of awkward I hoisted over my shoulder last night and pretend it never happened, resigning myself to a faint thread of awkwardness the next time I see Edward—like, a few years from now—instead of the immediate awkwardness of the morning after.
God, it's tempting.
But…I promised Alice. And, while I think a good fifty percent of her begging me to accompany her home was for my own benefit, I can't break that promise. She wants me here for this. She used the word "need," and Alice never uses the word "need." Alice is "I got this," and "I'm fine," and "No sweat." I can't ditch Alice.
I roll back over and stare at the ceiling. Immediately, I remember staring through the darkness at the same ceiling last night but not seeing it, because—
I bolt upright, my head going slightly fuzzy as all the blood in my body attempts to reroute itself in the wake of the sudden shift in gravity.
Don't think about it. You're about to sit at the breakfast table with his parents, his sister, his brothers. Do not reminisce about banging Edward Cullen like a screen door in a hurricane.
I swing my feet out of the tangle of blankets and shiver slightly as they come in contact with the hardwood floor. It isn't until now that I realize what's going on outside the window. A pillowy blanket of snow has buried everything, and the branches of the evergreen trees that line this side of the Cullens' property droop beneath the weight of the snow.
For the world is dressed in white.
It's gorgeous, exactly the kind of picturesque snow that little kids imagine at Christmas. I can tell by looking at it that it's feathery and light, too light for snowballs or snowmen. A few errant flakes drift lazily from the still-gray sky. From this side of the guesthouse, I can't see the main house, and I wonder if anyone else is awake yet. It occurs to me to wonder what time Edward slipped out of my bed and crept back to his childhood bedroom.
Oh, God, I hope no one saw him.
Flinchingly, I scan my memory for a clear picture of last night—not what happened once we got back to the house, but what led up to that. I remember the bar and the illuminated garland hanging above the row of bottles and Alice and Jasper whispering and giggling to one side of me and Rosalie and Emmett alternately arguing and making out to the other side of me and Riley deep in conversation with the bartender and Edward grinning at me, teasing me, asking me about work, asking me about Charlie, asking me about life, and actually listening to the answers.
I remember listening to him, to his watered-down stories about life as an emergency pediatric surgeon, his anecdotes about all of the funny mishaps that can happen in a hospital ER and none of the heartbreaking truths of seeing kids wheeled through doors in various states of emergency. I remember feeling slightly awed by him for the first time in all the years I've known him. Seeing him as a man instead of the kid I'd grown up only peripherally aware of. As a guy, a friend, instead of just Alice's twin brother.
I remember him holding the door open for me as we all tumbled out of the bar just before closing time, none of us truly drunk but all of us—save Alice—pleasantly loosened by liquor, happy and merry and giggly and festive. I remember walking the fifteen minutes back to Esme and Carlisle's as the first of the night's snowflakes floated down from the sky. I remember Emmett, Rose, Alice, Jasper, and Riley shushing and jostling each other as they climbed the porch steps, and Edward watching them, amusement curling his mouth, his hands buried in the pockets of his wool coat.
I remember gazing at him through the darkness and marveling, not for the first time last night, at how Alice's gangly, awkward, often annoying twin had grown up quite well, as a matter of fact. When he caught me looking at him, the amused smile stretched into something altogether different. "Come on," he said, gesturing to the walkway that snaked around the corner of the house. "Let me walk you the rest of the way."
The rest of the way, indeed.
I turn from the window and immediately step on my black and purple bra, where it sits a good five feet from the bed.
"This," he said, eyes endlessly dark as he ran a finger over the lace edge of one cup, "is insanely sexy. But it's got to go."
Heat floods my face despite the chill in the room, and I step over it on my way to the bathroom. For a moment I debate the merits of foregoing a shower in favor of the chance to sneak a cup of coffee before anyone else is awake, but then I realize that if I have to face Edward still smelling like Edward, I will lose whatever cool I'm able to cultivate. Tying my hair up, I dive in for a quick wash before throwing on sweatpants and a long-sleeved thermal shirt and thick socks. I slide my feet into boots and my arms into my puffy down coat and open the door to see the walkway ahead of me already shoveled.
Something in my stomach tightens.
One of the other boys?
Pulling the door closed behind me, I pick my way carefully over the shoveled concrete, mindful of the possibility of a patch of ice lurking beneath the stripes from shovel-scrapes, just waiting to send me sprawling. At the back door to the mudroom just off Esme's kitchen, I stomp snow from my boots and push the door open as quietly as I can. There, standing on the large mat just inside, are Carlisle's boots and, draped over the tops, his gloves and the plaid scarf he's worn every winter for as long as I've known this family, and I feel my shoulders relax. I can't explain the relief that comes with knowing it wasn't Edward with some motive I don't understand clearing my path, but Carlisle, who has been like a second father to me since I was a child.
I step inside, shed my winter wear, and creep on socked feet into the kitchen. It's blessedly empty, but the air smells of dark roast. I find the mug I always used in high school in the cabinet next to the microwave and pour myself a cup, breathing in as I lift the mug to my lips and blow, the curl of steam dissipating. Esme's kitchen looks like it belongs in a Hollywood movie about returning home for the holidays. A row of jars stands along the back of the stove: cinnamon sticks and peppermint sticks and miniature marshmallows. Snowflake-patterned oven mitts sit carefully beside the stove, and a tiny replica of an old-fashioned wooden sled with red runners hangs above it. An illuminated porcelain gingerbread house glows on the shelf that usually holds a few cookbooks, and the braided mat in front of the sink is the alternating colors of cranberry and pine.
A pair of cardinals flies past the window over the sink, and I lean forward to watch them perch on a branch to the left of the window, a clump of snow falling to the ground below. Charlie loves cardinals. I try to imagine him on a ski slope in the Adirondacks, and nothing about the image fits, except the thought of Sue grinning beside him, trying to coax him down a mountain, pouring him hot chocolate in a ski lodge, curling into his side in front of a fireplace while they watch a movie in their cabin. Charlie might love cardinals, and all things nature, but he loves Sue more than just about anything, as evidenced by his willingness to spend Christmas "sliding down a mountain on a pair of sticks," as he groused to me when Sue broached the topic. Gruff as he may be, my father has never been very good at saying no to the women he loves, and I can admit to being thrilled and not a tiny bit relieved that I'm no longer the only woman in that category.
"Good morning." The voice is low and intimate and familiar and foreign and makes my chest flip. I straighten and immediately feel the length of a body just behind mine, not touching me but close enough that I can feel its warmth.
"Good morning," I reply, my voice breaking somewhere in the middle of the second word as I turn.
He looks…different this morning. The same as last night, but different. His hair, of course, is a disaster. There's a faint line in his cheek from a pillowcase, suggesting that he slipped from my room sometime closer to last night than this morning. He's wearing navy and green plaid flannel pajama pants and a green Henley that does ridiculous things to the color of his eyes and a smile that's just like his voice: intimate and foreign and familiar, but with a twinge of uncertain and a spark of suggestion.
He steps even closer. "Bella—"
"Good morning," Carlisle says, cleaving the moment as he walks into the kitchen. His hair is damp and he's wearing a pair of light gray corduroy pants and a black sweater, and he smells like shampoo as he steps between us to place a kiss on my cheek. "Did you sleep well, hon?"
"Great, thanks," I say, moving back to let him at the coffee. "Thank you for shoveling the path."
"Of course," he replies, retrieving a mug with a half-faded golf course logo from the cupboard. "I knew it would be pointless to assume any of my sons would have the forethought to attend to our guest's needs." He shoots Edward a half-stern look, to which the latter responds with a brilliant grin.
"Well, Bella should feel free to let me know which of her other needs I can attend to," he says, quirking an eyebrow in my direction as he follows his father's lead and reaches for a mug from the cupboard. "I'd be thrilled to accommodate them."
I gape at him before turning toward the table, in part to hide my flaming face and in part to give myself room to breathe. "In that case, I need new sparkplugs," I say, scrabbling for the usual witty banter I've always had with Alice's brothers.
Edward leans back against the counter and sips from his just-filled mug. Immediately, I notice what the posture does to the front of his body through his thin shirt and worn pants, and flashes of last night overwhelm me. "I respectfully disagree," he says. "You're plenty sparky, if memory serves."
Carlisle glances between us. "I have no idea what that meant, but I'm not sure I care to." He glances at the clock on the stove. "How late were you kids up last night?"
"Some later than others," Edward offers, hiding a smile behind his mug, and I drop my gaze to the runner on Esme's kitchen table, embroidered with holly leaves and berries.
"I feel like this is a prime opportunity for me to wake up all of your siblings as payback for the years of jumping on my chest at the crack of dawn crowing about presents," Carlisle says, one hand in his pocket as the other holds his coffee, his thumb rubbing over the handle. A small frown knits his brow. "Actually, what on Earth are you doing up so early? You're usually the last one to emerge blinking into the day."
Edward shrugs. "Couldn't sleep."
Carlisle nods. "ER rotation schedule can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle," he commiserates. "I remember when I was a resident. It was the most exhausted I'd ever been in my life." He smiles. "Then, of course, I had children. Everything's relative."
As if they've been summoned, Emmett and Riley enter the kitchen, both rumpled and barely awake. "Merry Christmas," Riley says through a yawn, as Emmett grunts something on his way to the coffee pot.
"Merry Christmas, boys. Sleep okay?"
"Good, thanks," Riley says, dropping into the chair across from me and glancing at Emmett. "Pour me a cup, Em."
Emmett grunts again but pulls a second mug from the cupboard and fills it. He carries them to the table and sets one in front of Riley before lowering himself into the chair next to me. Both boys alternate slurping from and blowing on their mugs, and Carlisle chuckles to himself. "It's like they're teenagers all over again." He sips from his mug as Esme appears in the kitchen, already showered and dressed in a pair of camel-colored slacks and a cream sweater, pearl studs in her ears and her hair loose around her shoulders.
"Merry Christmas!" she beams, making a loop of the room and kissing everyone, including me, on the cheeks. "Good morning! How did everyone sleep?" She crosses to the stove, igniting a burner and setting a kettle atop it before she rises to her toes and kisses Edward's cheek. "You, darling, still look exhausted."
"Worth it," Edward replies, meeting my eye. "Definitely worth it."
I shift on my chair as Carlisle nods. "It will all pay off, son."
The son in question grins again as he crosses the kitchen and lowers himself into the chair beside Riley. "I think so." I feel the side of his foot come to rest against my own. It doesn't move, doesn't do anything except touch me, and his eyes are watching me with the focus of a surgeon's. And I can't handle this right now, with at least half of his insanely large family sitting around us. I slide my foot back under my own chair and focus as Esme removes a layer of plastic wrap from the baking dish she has just extracted from the fridge and pulls the oven door open, sliding the dish inside. "What can I do to help, Esme?"
"I think I'm in pretty good shape, actually. I did all of the prep yesterday. Just a matter of getting everything timed correctly." She sets the timer on the oven and turns. "Breakfast will be ready in about thirty minutes. I didn't want to put it in until everyone was up. French toast bake."
Immediately, a pang of hunger stabs me. It's been years since I had Esme's French toast bake. "Oh, God," I moan, and in my periphery, I see Edward's head swing toward me.
"What?" Riley asks, but I'm looking at his brother, whose eyes are suddenly a shade darker.
"I just…I love your mom's French toast bake."
Once again, I feel Edward's foot, and he's watching me intently. It's thrilling and horrifying and alarming and scintillating and a thousand other things I can't dissect while I'm sitting at a table with his brothers, across the kitchen from his parents. His thumb brushes the handle of his mug, and just like that, I remember it doing the same thing across my nipple mere hours ago.
Jesus, it's hot in here.
He licks his lips. I kick him in the shin.
"Okay, I'm sorry," says a voice from the doorway. "I kept them under lock and key for as long as I could." Almost immediately a pair of towheaded tornadoes are let loose on the kitchen.
"Nana-Poppy-presents-Santa-tree-can we please-now-presents-Santa-PRESENTS-SANTA-NANA-POPPY-COME-LOOK!"
Visibly, Esme and Carlisle melt. Each takes a child by the hand and gets willingly dragged out of the kitchen and, presumably, into the living room with its giant seven-foot tree and roaring fireplace and garland-decked mantelpiece. In one motion, we all rise from the table and follow, but I wind up last in line immediately behind Edward, who spins and catches me to one side of the doorway, caging me in with his hands pressed to the wall.
"Hi," he murmurs, eyes darting between my own and my mouth.
"Hi," I whisper, thrilled and also mildly panicked that someone might turn around and wander back into the kitchen.
"How are you?"
The question is so deceptively innocent, so the opposite of his foot sliding against mine beneath the kitchen table mere minutes ago. So…old-Edward. "Good. How are you?"
"About a million miles past good." And there's new-Edward. I blush. He grins. "Except for one thing."
"What?" I manage.
"I didn't get to kiss you good morning."
My eyes drop to his lips, which are still curled into a small smile. "Well, um. Technically, it was after midnight when we—" I falter.
When we…what? Tripped through the door of the guesthouse, glued at the mouths?
Stretched out sideways across his mother's lovely guest bed, twisting the snowflake-printed flannel sheets into knots as he kissed me everywhere but my mouth?
He hums, and I can feel the breath of his exhalation on my lips. How is it possible that that tiny thing feels so incredibly intimate after everything that happened last night? "Fair enough," he says, pressing a chaste kiss—the same kind of kiss he'd given me a million times before last night—to my cheek and straightening. Rather alarmingly, I'm disappointed. As he turns, he glances over his shoulder to where I'm still plastered against the wall like a bug on a windscreen. "You should know, though. Mom likes to hide mistletoe in doorways."
Instinctively, I look up, but there's nothing there; when I look back down, Edward has already disappeared.
When I make it into the living room, the adults are all watching Emmett and Rosalie's twins, Jamie and Bree, dance around the foot of the tree. Or, more accurately, dance around the pool of presents that circles the base of the tree, completely obstructing the handmade tree skirt that Esme made when Emmett, Alice, Edward, and Riley were little. I can remember the appliqués that she carefully stitched around the edge—a toy soldier, a gingerbread man, an angel, a pair of bells, a sprig of holly, a teddy bear, each of her children's names—and how the love that had gone into something like that made me miss the idea of a mother, even if I couldn't remember my own clearly enough to miss the reality of one.
"My goodness!" Esme says, her hands on her cheeks. "You two must have been very well-behaved this year!"
"We were!" Bree cries, wriggling like a puppy. "And look! Santa ate ALL of the cookies we made!"
"And the reindeers ate the carrots!" Jamie chimes in, bouncing on his toes. "And all the elf-donuts are gone!"
I lean toward Edward before thinking, the act mere habit. "Elf-donuts?"
"Cheerios dusted with powdered sugar," he murmurs, still watching his niece and nephew. "Something Rosalie saw on Pantress."
"Pinterest," I correct.
He shrugs. "Okay." I'm still watching him when he lifts his gaze from the kids to the staircase, where Alice is descending with Jasper behind her. She's wearing the white bathrobe with ice-blue snowflakes that she had in college, and her face is slightly pale. Jasper's hair is nearly as disastrous as Edward's, and he has one hand out as if to catch Alice in case she pitches forward down the stairs. When I look back at Edward, he's squinting at Alice, his lip moving slightly as he chews on it, considering her. When she reaches the bottom of the staircase, his expression clears and sharpens as he watches her cross the room and lower herself gently to the cream-colored sofa.
"Morning, everyone," she says, watching as Jamie and Bree study the red-and-white-striped packages piled beneath the tree. In the chorus of responses, I realize Edward has left the room. Settling on the couch beside Alice, I bump her with my shoulder.
"Merry Christmas," I say, and she gives me a small smile, bumping me back.
I look up to where Jasper is leaning over the back of the sofa, his hands braced on either side of Alice's shoulders. "Merry Christmas to you."
He beams at me. "Same to you, Bell."
Edward reappears on the other side of Alice a moment later with a steaming mug, the string of a teabag dangling over its lip. Alice begins to shake her head, but Edward leans forward and whispers something in her ear. When he pulls back, she looks surprised for a moment before ducking her head to smell at the mug. The small crease that had been between her eyebrows smoothes out, and she bumps him with her other shoulder in thanks. Edward watches her profile for a minute, a soft smile on his face, before pressing a kiss to her temple and turning to where the kids are humming like live wires beside the mountain of presents. He sinks back into the couch cushions and props the ankle of his right foot over his left knee.
"Wait!" Esme yelps. "Wait, just let me get my camera!" And, in true Cullen fashion, she doesn't emerge from the office off the foyer with any old point-and-shoot camera, but a Canon DSLR with a bounce flash and a wide-angle lens and a bag of accessories dangling from her shoulder. "Okay. Okay, I'm ready."
What ensues is a hurricane of wrapping paper. The kids tear through a pile of games, books, clothes, and toys. And, finally, because my honorary brother and sister-in-law are awesome, two tiny boxes of equal size. When the kids open them, Rosalie and Emmett explain that each box represents a child in another country whose family can't afford to send him or her to school, and this year, one of their gifts to their children is to let them give other kids access to education. And, because my honorary brother and sister-in-law have already done an amazing job raising their kids, Jamie and Bree are almost more excited about this than about nearly any other gift.
Watching it all, I'm hit with an avalanche of nostalgia. I've almost forgotten, in the years since I used to frequent the Cullen house, what it felt like to be swept up in the commotion of their family. But when I look at the mantel and see the two rows of stockings—Carlisle, Esme, Emmett, Rosalie, James, Brianna, Alice, Jasper, Edward, Riley, Bella—I remember. And I realize how what I did—what Edward and I did—last night could have the potential to ruin it. How the hint of weirdness I felt in the kitchen with Edward this morning could balloon into something truly humiliating. Something that would make me avoid him, and his family, and his home, in the years ahead. Then I look at him, and he smiles a smile I haven't seen on him before, and I can't make sense of my own thoughts.
"Hey," Alice says, nudging my elbow with hers. When I look into her face, her cheeks have pinked slightly, and the tightness around the corners of her mouth has vanished. She cocks her head to one side. "You okay?"
"Yeah. Fine." I make myself smile. "I just…I think I'll go and get dressed."
"Okay," she says, watching me as I stand up. Twins by name, twins by nature—Edward watches me too, and raises one eyebrow. In question, but I don't know what the question is. I sure as shit don't know the answer, either.
I slip from the living room, don my boots and coat, and step out into the winter cold.
. . .
After a second shower, I'm feeling slightly less freaked out. I dry my hair, apply a touch of mascara, and slip into the black pencil slacks and cranberry cashmere sweater I picked out for today. Inside, I may be a mess. But on the outside, I am determined to look put-together.
As I hook a silver hoop earring through my earlobe, I spot the paper bags of wrapped gifts standing beside the satchel bag containing all of the work I'm supposed to be wading through over the holiday. Every gift is wrapped in matching plaid paper: Esme's framed watercolor of Southwest Ledge Light, her favorite lighthouse; Carlisle's leather monogrammed dopp kit, purchased on a suggestion from his wife; Emmett's grill accessories; Rosalie's spa gift certificate, because when I went fishing for ideas about what she wanted, all she could come up with was time she didn't have to cut the crusts off a sandwich or wipe any body parts; Alice's music box, to add to the collection she's been building since she was eight; Jasper's book of blank sheet music, to help him work on his opus; Riley's boxed set of The Carol Burnett Show, for reasons passing understanding; and the kids' L.L. Bean sleeping bags. But the only gift I can really think about is Edward's. The gift I've had in the middle drawer of my antique writing desk for three months. The gift that might be the most incredible gift I've ever found for someone, the gift I was more excited to give than any gift I've given in my life. The gift that now holds an awful lot of implied significance, all of a sudden.
I found it purely by accident just after Labor Day, when I was wandering around a used bookstore in the Village while I killed time before a meeting. I was scanning the bargain books on a cart near the front door. A dollar apiece for old, mostly battered books. I recognized a spine and pulled it from the cart, flipping open the cover as I always do when I see a copy. As I have done probably a thousand times since we were teenagers, always to be met with a blank inside cover, or a rubber stamp imprint from some library collection or another.
This time, though, there it was. In slightly faded blue fountain ink, a careful scrawl.
Edward John Cullen
I can still remember how my heart raced and my palms broke immediately into a light sweat. How I blinked stupidly a few times, staring down at what I hadn't really ever expected to see, despite my years of casual searching.
Edward's grandfather's name. Edward's grandfather's book.
Gray's Anatomy. The 23rd edition, published in 1936. The book that interested Edward's grandfather enough to make him want to study medicine, and was thus the catalyst for the careers of now three generations of Cullen men. The only thing Edward wanted when his grandfather passed away when we were barely teenagers, but which had mistakenly found its way into a box to be donated. With the obvious exception of losing his grandfather himself—the man he was named after, the man with whom he'd always had a close bond—I'd never seen Edward so heartbroken.
I couldn't believe, back in September, that I found it. I'd paid and dashed home and immediately squirreled it away in my desk drawer, knowing that if Alice saw it, she'd never be able to keep the secret. I've been looking forward to giving it to him for months. And now, I'm terrified.
This gift is a big deal, and when he was just my friend, when he was just Alice's brother, it was a gift I was excited to give him. Now, in the bright light of the morning after, it's a gift with implication. What I don't know how to decipher is how true the implication is.
My relationship with Edward has always been slightly strange, not because of Edward or because of me, but because of my friendship with Alice and Edward's twinship with her. Edward and Alice are "those" twins—the ones who can have conversations without words, who can sense things in the other even over distances. To look at them, you'd never pick them as the twins of the Cullen brood—he's as tall as she is small, and their coloring is as dissimilar as their stature, save the fair skin they both inherited from their mother. But five minutes with them, and you know there's a conversation, an awareness, a relationship you're not really privy to.
Edward was always peripheral to me, the person I shared Alice with. Rarely did I have cause to consider him as his own person, his own entity; never did I consider him in relation to me in any way that didn't include his sister. The first time I ever had any kind of moment with Edward that didn't include Alice was when I happened upon him crying in the back yard after his grandfather passed away. I sat with him not saying a word, because even though I was only thirteen, I understood that sometimes, silent company is the best thing you can get when you're sad. We never talked about it, and almost immediately we went back to being Alice's two people: her best friend and her twin brother, even if we would both undoubtedly agree that we would thereafter consider ourselves friends, and not just two moons orbiting the same Alice-shaped planet.
In the years since we shared a ZIP code, I've seen him sporadically, heard occasional updates from Alice, and thought of him sparingly, though fondly. I've always liked Edward well enough. Felt affectionate toward him in a distant, detached way, just as I feel toward Carlisle and Esme and Riley and Emmett.
Now, I don't know what I feel.
Friendship, yes. Affection, yes.
Lust? Yes. Ambivalence? Definitely not.
Considering his wrapped gift again, I realize that while I can't quite decipher the intricacies of its truth, the truth is this: Edward's gift is honest and affectionate and anything but casual.
Perhaps this is the road in a (now-snowy) wood, diverging: one path toward real, true, honest friendship (if slightly awkward friendship because I know what he looks like without his pants on and that he shivers if you bite the skin beneath his ear) and the other toward something infinitely more thrilling and doubly terrifying.
I pick up the bags of gifts and once again don my coat and boots.
Here we go.
Back in the house, I arrange my small cluster of gifts off to one side of the tree, and straighten to find Edward watching me. In the time I've been gone, he's showered and changed into a pair of dark jeans and a half-zip sweater the color of the tree behind me. Again, with the green. Again, with the eyes.
"Hi." Again, with the hi.
I dust a nonexistent something from my hands. "Hi."
He lifts his chin in a gesture toward the wrapped packages behind me. "You know you didn't have to do that."
I roll my eyes. "Yeah, because I'm going to show up to the Cullen Family Christmas without presents."
He cocks his head to one side, and the gesture is one he shares with Alice. I forget, sometimes, how many of those little habits they have in common. "'The Cullen Family Christmas'?" he echoes.
I gesture to the mantelpiece and the tree and the coffee table, in the middle of which sits a massive glass vase filled with fake snow and cranberries and a dusting of glitter. "Yes. The Cullen Family Christmas. You guys belong on the Hallmark Channel."
He laughs, conceding the point, then steps forward, dropping his voice. "Pretty sure last night wouldn't be appropriate for the Hallmark Channel."
I blush. Of course. He grins. Of course. "Edward."
"Bella." I peer around him, but nobody's coming to interrupt us. When I meet his gaze, the grin is turning slightly roguish. "Sorry. You're stuck with me."
"How very stalkerish of you." But the bravado I was so desperately striving for is belied by the audible tremor in my voice. That maddening, self-satisfied grin again, but he says nothing, and I don't like this feeling, this uncertain, unsteady, unbalanced feeling, like I'm traversing a frozen lake in heels and I don't know whether I'm going to slip or the ice is going to give way and plunge me into freezing water, or if I'm going to be able to keep myself upright and make it to the other side. Finally, I huff. "Okay, what?"
He shrugs, but he steps even closer, half-hiding us between the Christmas tree and the wall.
"What about it?"
I can't help the inelegant snort that escapes. "Yeah, no kidding."
"It happened more than once."
At that, heat licks through me. "I remember." And I do. For just a split second, I let myself remember.
Long fingers sliding up from my breast, across my collarbone, around the back of my neck and pulling my lips down to his as I sat astride him.
His eyes flash. "Good." Then, lower, "I like what you look like when you remember."
God, Edward on the make is lethal. How have I never even considered this before? Oh, right, because I was too busy closing him firmly outside the sphere of my friendship with Alice. I relegated him to brother status without a second thought.
What an idiot.
I don't feel cornered, despite the tree to one side and the wall to the other and the what-I-now-know-to-be-solid expanse of his body in front of me. "What are you doing?" My voice is a low whisper, swirled with a cocktail of things—confusion, desperation, desire, panic—and he gives me a small smile.
"I can see you're going to have this little freak-out whether I want you to or not. So I'm just going to step back and let you have it, and when you're done, we'll get to what's next."
"What's next?" I repeat.
But as if it was its own question and not an echo, he beams. "Last night was only the tip, Bella Swan."
"Of the iceberg?" I squeak, and he shrugs, half of his mouth quirking up in a smile that is purely, unequivocally wicked.
I'm rescued from having to consider that little insinuation by the appearance of Alice, still wearing her bathrobe. I'm having a hard time believing no one's caught on to anything unusual, given that usually, by 10 o'clock Christmas morning, Alice is decked out in the designer holiday dress of choice for the year. "Hey," I say, taking in her pallor, her birch-broom hair. "Where's Jasper?"
"Showering. What's the matter with you?"
"You look like you either just chugged six martinis, stuck your head inside the fireplace, or walked into a meeting without your pants on." She presses a small hand to my cheek, and with its coolness, I realize how heated my skin is.
"Oh." Reflexively, I press the back of my own hand to my other cheek. "I guess cashmere was a bad idea."
"Alice," Esme says, peeking in from the doorway to the kitchen. "Would you and Edward mind running outside and getting some more firewood?"
Panic flits across Alice's face, and I can read it there: the logs are heavy, and she shouldn't be lifting them, but her mother doesn't know that yet. "I'll get it," I volunteer. "I could use a bit of air, anyway."
"On it," Edward says, giving Alice a wink that only I notice. She shoots him a small, grateful smile.
We slip into coats and boots in silence and step outside into a fresh carpet of snow and more flakes swirling down from the heavens.
"You know," I say as we pick our way toward the iron firewood rack just off the back porch, grateful to have something to talk about as Edward lets the empty leather firewood sling in his hand bounce against his thigh. "About Alice. How do you know?"
"Twin thing." He glances at me, eyebrows raised. "How do you know?"
"She told me when she suspected. She was worried Jasper was going to freak out."
"And did he?"
"What do you think?"
Edward smiles, the easy, friendly smile I grew up with, and a little of my panic melts away. "I think he was probably psyched that it's going to make it that much easier to convince her to marry him."
I laugh. "Nailed it in one."
His smile widens. "Imagine if it's another set of twins."
"Oh, Jesus. Your family is ridiculous with its fertility."
He waggles his brows. "We're efficient," he says. Suddenly, the idea of him as a father to a matching set of his own flits through my mind, bringing with it memories of last night.
His silhouette over me, the tear of foil in the darkness.
The quiver that ran through his whole body as he came that I could feel everywhere we touched, but most especially where we were joined.
I feel my face start to heat, and I look deliberately away from him, into the expanse of trees at the edge of the property.
"Don't," he says immediately, yanking me from my memory as he steps in front of me, effectively cutting off my path to the firewood and making me stop short.
"Don't get weird on me."
"You are." I don't say anything to that, because I'm a really crappy liar, and things are weird. "It's fine, Bella. It's fine that it's a little weird. But please don't regret it. I would hate to think you regretted me."
"I don't," I say before I've really thought it through, but I realize as the words leave my mouth on a cloud of visible breath that they're true. I don't regret him. It's awkward and confusing and shocking and disorienting as hell, but I don't regret it. Don't regret him.
"You don't?" he asks, and for the first time all morning, I see the hint of uncertainty that I now realize he's been trying to bury beneath a mountain of bluster since he first appeared in the kitchen, pillow creases still pressed into the skin of his cheek.
"I don't," I repeat, and his shoulders drop slightly as he blows out a breath that crystallizes in the space between us.
"Good." He steps back to one side, and we resume our trek to the carefully stacked logs. Edward lays the sling open on the ground before it and begins grabbing logs two at a time from the top of the pile. I help, but I can only handle one at a time, because my hands aren't big enough to palm them. And despite the fact that I've been trying to navigate—and, yes, avoid—his rather single-minded pursuit all morning, the silence is torturous. He's right. I'm going to have a little freak-out. But maybe talking it through will stop it ballooning from a little freak-out into a big freak-out.
I clear my throat. "Should we…talk about it?"
"Sure," he says without looking up, still stacking firewood into the carrier. "That was the hottest sex of my life. And I'm as surprised as you are that we now know what the other looks like naked. And yes, I'm having a hard time not picturing you topless every time I look at you, even though you're as breathtakingly beautiful clothed as you are without a stitch on." He dumps a final log into the sling and straightens. "And I'd be thrilled to hear that you feel the same way about me, and that you wouldn't mind too terribly much if I told you that all I can think about is doing it all over again with you tonight. Preferably with the lights on this time."
My mouth opens and closes, cold winter air swirling around inside it in place of each word I don't manage to say.
He smiles, a strange smile. "You're going to need to manage a few words, just to clue me in here, Swan."
"I…" I shake my head, disoriented.
"It's just…occurring to me…how little I know about you."
At that, he laughs. "You've known me since we were six, and as of last night, you've been in bed with me. How on Earth is there anything you don't know?"
I know it sounds ridiculous, but it's true—I know him as Alice's brother. Twin, yes, but still…there's so much I don't know that I might know if I'd bothered to consider him separately from my best friend. I'm growing increasingly ashamed at the realization I've been coming to all morning long: I never really have. "I don't…know your favorite dessert. Or what movie you watch when you're laying on the couch hung over on a Sunday morning. Or how old you were when you lost your virginity."
He looks mildly surprised, but a smile slides over his face. "Tiramisu. Lethal Weapon, but only the first one, because the rest were garbage. And…I was fourteen."
"Fourteen?!" I'm stunned. I rack my brain for Edward with a girlfriend at that age, and I come up blank.
He runs the back of a gloved hand over his jaw. "Yeah. It was…a bit impulsive."
"Impulsive, huh? I'm sensing a trend."
Edward rolls his eyes, but he's still smiling. "Well, this time certainly worked out a lot better than that time."
"Well, it was good for me…" He trails off, expectant and impish. I chew on the inside of my cheek. He steps closer. "You're killing me here, Bella."
"I think we both know it was good for me. A few times."
His eyes darken, and he glances once up at the house before grabbing my hand and tugging me around the corner of the house. "Good," he murmurs, and suddenly, his mouth is on mine. He tastes of peppermint and cinnamon and coffee, and as his tongue sweeps against my bottom lip, I'm faintly aware of his gloved hands bracketing my hips, calling to mind another memory of last night.
His fingers clutched at my hipbones, lifting me to meet his thrusts as he knelt between my legs and his eyes roamed my body.
"Edward," I murmur against his lips, and a soft grunt is his only reply. "Edward, someone might see us."
He pulls his mouth from mine and buries it in my neck, his breath warming the skin below the hinge of my jaw. "So?"
"So…I don't think we should…let this cat out of the bag quite yet." What I think, but don't say: if I'm destined to be nothing more than a holiday hookup, I'd rather not sit across the dinner table from your father next time I visit knowing he knows I've known his middle son in the biblical sense.
He pulls back, tucking his lips into his mouth. "You know how Alice and I are."
"Yeah, well, maybe she'll be so preoccupied with trying not to barf in her Christmas dinner that her twin-radar will be a little faulty."
He smiles, but it's guarded as he bends and picks up the now-laden firewood sling. "Talk about the spirit of the season."
. . .
"Uncle Edward! Will you help me put my Millennium Falcon together?" Jamie is hopping from one socked foot to the other just inside the door, his cowlicked hair standing up in different places all over his head, and while he looks nothing like his uncle, I can't stop myself from smiling at that tiny similarity.
"You bet, bud," Edward replies, shrugging out of his coat. He gives me a small, private smile that makes something low in my belly liquefy before following his nephew back into the living room. I take my time shedding my winter wear, trying to calm the chaos of thought and feeling swirling around in my body like a snow globe that's been given a good shake.
I think I like Edward.
Yes, I slept with him. Yes, it was pretty fucking fantastic. But if I remove that from the equation—not without effort—I think I might like him. I like his smile. I like his eyes. I like his compassion. I like his wit, and the way he is with his family, and the humility he has about the fact that, on a daily basis, he saves the lives of children. And, okay, yes, I like what he looks like without his clothes on. Shoot me.
On any other day, I'd find Alice and unload all of this on her to help me process it—out of a selfish need, sure, but also because there is nothing Alice loves more than other people's romantic intrigue—but I can't. This is too different. It's her brother. Plus, she's got her own pretty big not-quite-secret she's going to have to spill this weekend, and I feel like unloading my own freak-out onto her poor, nauseated plate would just be wrong.
At a bit of a loss, I wander into the kitchen, where Esme is sitting at the kitchen table, arranging gourmet cheeses and countless different types of crackers onto cream-colored platters with a tiny holly-and-berries pattern around their edges.
"Hi, sweetheart," she says, smiling. "Alice went to take a shower."
"Thanks," I say, leaning on the back of the chair beside her. "Can I help?"
"If you want to grab a knife from the block, you could help me cube some cheese."
Once settled into the rhythm of the task, Esme unwraps a wheel of Brie and asks, "So. How's life?"
I half-laugh. "Oh, you know. Can't complain."
"You still enjoy work?"
After a moment's consideration, I shrug. "I think so. I mean, yes. Most of the time. I just…" I cube jack cheddar with careful precision. "I wonder, sometimes, if I made a mistake."
"I've always loved reading. You know that." I roll my eyes. "Everybody knows that." She hums in agreement. "There's always been a romance about reading, for me. I worry occasionally that it was idealistic of me to try to parlay that feeling—that love for reading—into a career."
"It's not romantic anymore?"
"Sometimes. When I find something really good, it feels like magic. That just…doesn't happen as often as I thought it would."
"Lots of time spent with the slush pile?"
"Hmm." This is one of the things I love about Esme. She just listens. She sometimes offers gentle guidance, but mostly, she listens. What I wouldn't give to be able to unload on her about the other confusion in my life. As if she's read my mind, she asks, "And the actual romance side of things?" Another reason I love her: she asks about my career first, and my love life second.
Using the phrase "love life" loosely, of course—a few months of casual dating, some decent sex, an eventual amicable breakup, lather, rinse, repeat. They've all been fine because they fit perfectly with where I am in my life: young, career-focused, not looking for anything serious. I don't know how what happened with Edward fits into that scene at all, but it feels different. It feels like something with weight.
"More the mass market paperback variety these days than the sweeping saga."
"Well, the mass market paperbacks certainly have their uses."
I look up from the block of cheese. "Et tu, Esme?"
She grins, looking so much like her middle son. "Don't tell Carlisle. But they're good for 300 pages." She leans in slightly. "But when have you ever fallen head over tail for a Harlequin hero? You don't. You can't know enough in 300 pages. Have you ever still been thinking about one a week after you finish the book?"
"Right. Because they're good for the get in, get off, get out."
"God knows, there's a time and place for that," she continues, as if I haven't spoken, casually arranging the Brie on the platter. "But you just don't find Atticus Finch in a mass market paperback."
"Oh, man, Atticus Finch."
"Tell me about it." She looks up. "You're very bright, Bella. Very talented, very kind, very bright. You'll find where you're meant to be."
"Thank you, Esme."
"And if you read any really good 300-pagers, do send them my way."
I laugh. "I will. And ditto, with the sweeping sagas. I could use a little more Atticus Finch in my life."
"Couldn't we all, darling."
"Couldn't we all what?" Carlisle wonders, stepping into the kitchen.
"Ah, my very own Atticus now." Esme beams up at her husband, and say what she will about the 300-pagers, Esme Cullen is no doubt living the sweeping saga. I hope I'm still looking at my husband with as much adoration thirty-plus years into my marriage as she is.
"Do I want to know?" he asks me, refilling his mug from the coffee pot.
"Your wife thinks you're a pretty ideal romantic hero," I translate, and he smiles, leaning back against the counter.
"Good news, indeed," he says with a smile. And the way he looks back at her? Talk about romance.
"Okay," she says after a beat, surveying the sea of platters before us. "Do you think I have enough cheese?"
Back in the living room, Edward and Jamie have a half-assembled Millennium Falcon on the coffee table, near where Rosalie and Bree are sticking stickers in the appropriate places on her just-assembled Barbie Townhouse.
"Hey," I murmur, lowering myself beside him, and he grins at me, pleased, I think, that I've sought him out this time.
"Hey." He leans against me, just for a beat, before leaning forward to stick some tiny piece of plastic to some other tiny piece of plastic.
Could it really be this easy?
. . .
Hours later, plastic contraptions painstakingly assembled and lovingly played with, the Christmas panorama continues. Emmett is pretending to pay attention to Jamie's laser sound effects while yelling things at the football game on TV. Alice is pretending not to be half-asleep on Jasper's shoulder, and Jasper is pretending not to be dropping an unusual number of gentle kisses to the crown of her head. Riley is pretending to watch the game with Emmett as he furtively exchanges texts with someone on his phone, and I'm pretending not to notice the feel of Edward's thigh pressed against mine as we both sit on the sofa, chatting with Carlisle.
Esme is in the kitchen, having shooed Rosalie and me away, and the smells wafting from that direction have set my stomach growling. When she emerges, untying the strings of her red apron, she grins. "Okay, everyone. Table."
Obediently, we rise from our places of languor and relocate to the long dining table, the red and green plaid tablecloth barely visible beneath the dishes of vegetables and the baskets of rolls and the gleaming gravy boats. There are tiny place cards at each setting, and, as usual, I'm seated next to Alice. On my other side, though, is Edward, and it occurs to me to wonder if this has always been the way. Yet another thing I never thought to notice. We sit, and Esme retreats to the kitchen once more to retrieve the enormous spiral ham. It's when she re-emerges and places the ham in the middle of the table—the gorgeous, gleaming, fragrant ham—that the wheels come off the wagon.
"Oh, God," Alice blurts before pushing back from the table and making a dash for the bathroom.
"What the—" Riley says as the door slams, and I glance around the table as the muffled but unmistakable sound of retching comes from not far enough down the hallway.
Edward looks sympathetic.
Emmett looks confused.
Rosalie looks suspicious.
Esme and Carlisle look at each other with expressions I can't identify.
Jasper looks busted.
After a few moments, Alice reappears, her face pale. Jasper rises from the table to stand beside her and, at everyone's looks, she sighs. "I'm pregnant," she says softly, toying with the hem of her sweater.
"What's pregnant?" Jamie asks, as seven pairs of eyes fix on Jasper. He might be standing in front of her entire family after having knocked up her up out of wedlock, but there's not an ounce of apology about him as he beams down at Alice.
The room is silent for a few beats. Finally, Esme opens her mouth to speak, but is cut off by Riley. "I'm gay," he blurts, and eight heads swing to face him.
"What's gay?" Bree wonders aloud, and the only person in the room who remains unsurprised is Edward.
"Uh, we're moving to Philadelphia?" Emmett offers, as if he's the saintly kid who's been forced into confessional but has nothing interesting to cop to. "In February."
The shift of glances around the circle would be hilarious to anyone not caught in its crosshairs, and when my eyes meet Edward's, he grins. "I slept with Bella."
Six heads swing to him, except Alice's, which turns directly to me.
"Edward," Carlisle says after a moment, clearing his throat. "I don't think—"
"Well, I get the feeling the only way I have a shot with her is if she thinks she's not going to be ostracized from our family if I screw it up, so would you clowns all assure her that that won't happen so she'll let me kiss her again? Please?"
"Wow," Rosalie says into the stunned quiet. "That was…a lot of information."
Esme, who hadn't even had the chance to sit, rounds the table at which her family members all stare at each other in varying degrees of disbelief. "Alice. Darling." She presses her hands to her mouth and shakes her head, eyes glistening. "Congratulations, sweetheart. And Jasper." She pulls Alice in for a hug, then extends one arm to pull Jasper in as well. Releasing them, she makes her way back to the table, pausing by Riley's seat and leaning over his shoulder, crossing her arms across his chest in an embrace. She murmurs something no one else can hear. It must have been a question, because he nods quickly, and she beams, nodding in response before pressing a kiss to his cheek and squeezing his shoulders. "You two," she says, directing her gaze at Emmett and Rose from over Riley's shoulder. "I'll need the train schedule between here and Philly by mid-January."
"You got it, ma," Emmett says, glancing at Rose.
Esme releases Riley, patting him once on the cheek before lowering herself into her seat and addressing not Edward, but me. "Bella. Despite that rather unromantic revelation by my middle son…he really can be charming. I'm going to politely remove myself from your personal business, but you will never, could never, be unwelcome in this home. Regardless of whether you opt to entertain my son's attention or not. Okay?"
"Okay," I whisper, desperate for everyone to go about their business and forget Edward's little confession.
"Okay." She looks at Carlisle, who's been watching his wife with amusement and affection clear in his eyes. "Darling? Anything to add?"
Carlisle glances around. "I love you all as much as I ever have, and I'm thrilled with every single little revelation, in equal measure." He raises his glass. "And I think this all warrants a celebratory toast." His eyes settle on his only daughter, his smile widening. "Except for you, young lady. For you, the finest glass of water in all the land."
Alice smiles, relief leaving her limp as she sags against Jasper, who walks her to their seats. Everyone lifts a glass, and Carlisle looks around the table at each of us, his eyes twinkling. "To my family's joy. May it all continue and only grow."
"Hear, hear," Esme says, her eyes glassy, and we all drink. When I return my glass to the table, I feel Edward's foot slide against mine.
. . .
The thing I like about the way the Cullens do gifts is that there's no awkward spotlight. They don't do the hand-a-present-to-someone-and-all-watch-as-she-opens-it. (Just as well, since the sheer volume of presents beneath that tree would make it take for-fucking-ever.) Somebody kind of takes the lead and finds a present for everyone and people open and ooh and ahh and thank each other quietly amid the chaos of everyone else's unwrapping. It's nice and as private as a gift exchange with nine people can be.
Likely because of this buzz of activity, it isn't until I'm lifting my head to thank Esme for the softest and most gorgeous knitted afghan blanket I've ever felt that I spot Edward. Amid the pandemonium, he is staring down at the inside cover of his grandfather's book, which sits on his knees, atop the ripped sheet of plaid wrapping paper. He has one fisted hand pressed to his mouth as the other runs softly over the title page.
She must follow my gaze, because Esme says, "Edward?" A few other pairs of eyes follow, and the din lessens somewhat as his brothers and sister watch Edward, who simply shakes his head and lifts his eyes to me. I realize with a start that they're glassy, and my heart lurches in my chest.
"How did you…?"
"I…looked for it. Whenever I saw an old copy. That was at a used bookstore in the Village a few months ago."
"Bella," he says, his voice soft and intimate and so reminiscent of the way it sounded in the darkness that my blood buzzes.
"What is it?" Rosalie asks, and Edward blinks as he lifts the book from his lap.
"It's…my grandfather's book."
"Oh," Esme says. "Oh, Edward." She looks to me. "Bella, my goodness."
I'm aware that the eyes of his entire extended family are on us, but for the first time all day, I can't find it in myself to feel uncomfortable. I only have eyes for Edward.
. . .
"Hi," he whispers, holding out a steaming mug with a sea of marshmallows floating atop it like an ice field.
"Hi." I take the mug carefully as he settles beside me. "This might be the highest number of times I've said 'hi' to the same person in the same day in my life."
"Huh." I feel his arm settle along the back of the couch, his forearm just barely touching my shoulders. "Maybe because every time I see you today, I feel like I have new eyes."
I turn to face him, but there's nothing remotely amused in his face. His expression is earnest and genuine and gentle. "How did I never know that you were this charming?"
"Tragic oversight on your part," he offers, shaking his head in mock sadness. "Think of all the time we wasted."
"Pretty sure I'd have run far and fast, had I known."
He doesn't miss a beat. "Just as well, then."
"Quite the day of revelation," I offer after a moment, and he hums.
"You knew it all already, didn't you?"
"Everything except Emmett and Rose moving closer. That was a nice surprise."
"He told me three months ago. I was sort of his test case before telling the rest of the family."
"Huh." Yet another thing I never gave much thought to: the sibling dynamic that exists outside of Alice and Edward. It says a lot about Edward's character that, of all of his siblings, Riley chose to come out to him. It makes me like him even more.
It hits me again, the truth of it: I like him.
Yes, I like the boy I knew. Alice's brother. Carlisle and Esme's son.
But I also like him as the guy I talked to in a bar one Christmas Eve night. The man I took home with me and had—yes—the best sex I've had with. The doctor-son-brother-friend with the crazy-beautiful green eyes and eternally fucked up hair.
"What?" he says, and I realize I've been staring at him.
He tilts his head. "What?" he presses.
As I gaze up at him, the last thread of resistance melts away like a snowflake on a warm windowpane. "I like you."
A wide, wonderful smile. "That is good news. I quite like you, too."
"You were right."
"I usually am, but about what specifically in this instance?"
"About me being worried your family would…"
"Kick you to the curb?" He chuckles. "Yeah, I think they're more likely to get rid of me than you."
I appreciate the sentiment, but I've seen the way Esme looks at him when he isn't paying attention and the way Carlisle's eyes shine with pride. The way he and Alice orbit each other like moons and the way Emmett teases him with such overt affection. The way Riley looks up to him. "I doubt that," I say simply, and let myself lean into his side, taking small sips of the steaming cocoa. His hand curls around my shoulder, and I've never felt like I fit anywhere better than I do right now, even in all the years I've been folded into his family. When I look up, Esme is grinning at us from where she sits on the loveseat beside Carlisle. I feel a blush creep across my face, and as if he can tell despite the fact that my face is turned away from him, Edward squeezes my upper arm.
I watch Christmas Vacation with his family, getting an unexpected amount of joy from the way his chest shakes against my shoulder when he laughs, and enjoying a nearly illicit thrill at the way he takes occasional sips from my mug, his lips covering the same spot mine did, his tongue coming out to lick his lips after each sip.
Gradually, the crowd thins.
Emmett and Rosalie each carry a sleepy child upstairs. Jasper gently wakes Alice, who fell asleep against his chest ten minutes into the movie, and guides her upstairs. Riley, still not-so-stealthily texting, says his goodnights and disappears upstairs with his phone still tightly clasped in his palm. Esme and Carlisle give Edward and me hugs and kisses and Christmas wishes before climbing the stairs holding hands, Carlisle casually asking Edward to make sure the fire is out and the doors are locked before he goes to bed. When we are the only two who remain in the room, Edward's hand tightens slightly around my shoulders, even though he says nothing. We watch Clark Griswold's Santa and reindeer lawn ornaments blaze across the sky onscreen, and once again I revel in the feel of his laughter rumbling through his chest.
"How many times have you watched this movie?" I ask as he laughs, and I feel him shrug.
"At least once every Christmas since I was seven."
"And you still laugh," I say, finally letting my head drop against his shoulder.
"Some things never lose their luster," he replies, and when I look up at him, he's not looking at the TV anymore. "And some things get a whole new luster when you pay closer attention."
"Is that supposed to be a play on the word 'lust'?" I ask, even as I try not to let the effect of his words play out across my face.
"No, but that is a rather appropriate implication."
I try to laugh, but my insides are too turbulent for it to be convincing. "Isn't it weird that your family assumes I'm going to drag you back to the guesthouse to do depraved things to you tonight?"
His eyes spark in the firelight. "And here I thought the book was my Christmas present."
"Edward, I'm serious."
"Me too." But he picks up the remote and turns the volume way down so that it's barely a hum in the background, then slides off the couch and onto his knees on the floor in front of me. "Bella. Forget about my family for a second. You said you like me. I like you, too. And here's the next thing: I wouldn't be doing this if I thought it was a fling. This isn't a fling for me. This isn't me getting my rocks off while I'm home for the holiday and then going back to life as usual and pretending it never happened. I could never do that, especially not with you. I'm in this. All I need to know is if you're in it, too. I hope you are. But if you're not, it's okay. If you want to take a step back, or go back to just being friends, that's okay. No hard feelings. My family won't make it a thing. But I'm not going to talk you into it. You have to decide. You know how I feel. I've shown you my cards. Now it's time for you to show me yours." He lets a tiny smirk flit across his face before school his features back into open, honest sincerity. He's quiet, waiting.
I think back over the day: my initial freak-out first thing this morning, the slow simmer of confused apprehension mid-morning, the twinge of cautious fascination with the possibility later in the day, and the warm glow of affection and affirmation this evening.
"I sort of understand how Jamie and Bree felt this morning when they had to wait for their presents," Edward murmurs in a low voice, and though he's going for humor, I can once again see the thread of doubt in those evergreen eyes.
"I do like you," I say. "And I'm not worried about your family anymore. Now I'm just…sort of worried about us."
"Us?" he echoes.
I look down at where his hands are clutching my thighs. He has beautiful hands. "Now that I've realized how much I like you, I'm sort of worried about it not working out."
I hear him exhale. "How about we worry about that later?"
I look up. "Edward. Aren't you worried about what later might look like if we go down this road and find out we're incompatible?"
"Bella, I've known you since we were kids. And yeah, there's stuff I don't know. Trivia. About you. But I know you. I know who you are. And for the first time in my life, I'm not worried about it not working out."
His certainty is fascinating, and not something I've ever felt myself. And yet, I can understand the truth of it. How easy it would be to just trust him—to like him, and then some—because he's right. I know him. I know who he is, at his core. The man Esme and Carlisle raised, the brother who grew up alongside Alice. "Okay," I whisper.
"Okay, what?" he asks, and I flash back to his words from mere moments ago. You have to decide.
"Okay. Let's do it."
His eyes flash. "Let's 'do it'?"
I laugh, all traces of seriousness vanishing and being replaced with the same heat, the same desire I felt last night. This time, I'm the one who leans forward, catching his lips with mine. His hand comes up, cradling the back of my head, and he takes the kiss from warm to hot, tongue in my mouth and other hand clutching my hip.
"Let's do it," I whisper into his mouth, and he groans, fingers tightening against my hipbone. I press a hand to his chest. "But not on the couch."
He pulls back, lips and cheeks pink, slightly breathless. I rise from the sofa, running a hand through my hair. "Put the fire out," I murmur, holding a hand out to help him up.
"Not possible," he replies, and I laugh again, turning toward the door.
. . .
Last night was borderline wild. It was fun.
The way he pressed me up against the doorjamb of the guesthouse, his warm lips covering mine. The hunger with which he moved me around the bed, lifting my legs and pinning my hands and guiding me by the hips. The certainty with which he'd rolled me over and pressed me back down into those snowflake-printed sheets. How he'd woken me in the darkness without apology, his mouth sliding down my body.
Tonight, it's different. Still hot. Still exciting. But the wildness has been replaced by something softer.
Last night, I was in bed with a fun, casual Edward I happened to connect with in a bar on Christmas Eve.
Tonight, I'm in bed with the gentle, warm Edward who helps his nephew assemble thousand-piece Lego sets and makes his pregnant sister ginger tea. The Edward who teared up at seeing his grandfather's blue-ink scrawl and with whom I sat beneath a moonlit sky while he cried so many years ago. Tonight, I'm in bed with the Edward I have a history with, and neither of us is interested in pretending otherwise.
I'm overheating in my cranberry cashmere sweater, and when I pull away from Edward to stand at the foot of the bed, he sits up against the pillows, hair deliciously tousled and cheeks charmingly flushed. He leans to one side and turns on the bedside lamp, tossing the room into a warm yellow glow, and I recall his words from earlier.
Preferably with the lights on this time.
Desire buzzes through me as I pull the sweater up and over my head, and he exhales softly. "Bella. You're so beautiful."
I say nothing, unbuttoning and unzipping my slacks and pushing them off my hips; when he sees the matching lingerie set the color of deep red wine, his eyes roam my body hungrily, and with such focus I feel as if it's a physical touch. "Jesus."
Beneath his steady gaze, confidence wars with familiar uncertainty. "I thought the deal was, I show you mine…" I trail off, and a wicked grin slides across his face as he rises to his knees atop the quilt. He pulls his green sweater up and over his head, then does the same with his navy blue t-shirt. In the lamplight, his abdominal muscles shift, and I lick my lips before I can stop myself. His eyes darken, and he undoes the button on his pants.
"Point of no return," he says, and I eye the visible outline beneath the fly of his pants.
"Is that what we're calling it?" I volley, and he grins.
"You can call it whatever you want," he replies, lowering the zipper. "It's yours now." He pushes his pants off his hips, and they pool around his knees.
I kneel at the foot of the bed and watch as he shucks his pants before rising back up to his knees to face me. "Hi," he murmurs, and I grin at him.
Suddenly, it's as if he goes shy. "I'm so glad we're here."
"Me too," I whisper, and he watches my face closely. "Really glad."
As I had known it would be, it's different this time.
When he reaches for his wallet, I stay his hand. "Do we need one?"
He peers at me, a million things flying around in his eyes. "I don't if you don't."
"I don't," I say, and whether it's because I've known him forever or whether it's that , it's the shortest, easiest conversation I've ever had about that topic. I know what he means, and he knows what I mean, and I wonder if everything between us can possibly be this easy.
I hadn't thought it possible, but I like it with the lights on. It's impossible to hide anything, from the miles of skin bared to the soft smiles to the tender look in those green eyes. When he pushes into me, I notice the way his long eyelashes flutter. When he starts to move, I don't miss the way his eyes dart down between us, to watch his body slide in and out of mine. When he's close to coming, I see the way the cords in his neck stand out as he grits his teeth in an effort not to go before I do. When he comes, I last just long enough to watch his eyes fall closed before I follow him over the edge.
. . .
"So you liked your present?" I'm sliding a hand across his bare chest, enjoying the way he shudders when my thumb glides over his nipple. Fair payback.
"I loved all my presents," he says, words slightly rounded at the edges as he fights the pull of sleep. "You're a very nice Santa."
"I'm not Santa," I reply, punch-drunk, and he hums.
"Nope." I roll toward him, biting the skin beneath his ear and reveling in his shiver. "Santa only gets to come on Christmas Eve."
"Poor Santa," he mumbles, and I can tell from the lack of wit in the response that he's half-gone already. I raise myself on one elbow and gaze down at him, heavy-lidded and heavy-limbed, making such a beautiful picture in bed beside me.
I pull away, and he makes a noise of protest at the loss of contact as I reach out to switch off the bedside lamp. When I return to his side, he curls an arm around my shoulder. "This is only a temporary reprieve," he says, even as his eyes fall closed.
I think about this morning, about waking up in bed alone. "Don't leave," I whisper into the now-dark room, listening to the gradually slowing thud of his heart beneath my ear. "Stay here tonight."
"Okay," he murmurs, and presses a kiss to the crown of my head. I turn to my other side, pulling his arm with me and situating us into spoons. "Merry Christmas," he says just before he tips over the edge into sleep, and I watch the window as snow continues to fall from the dark winter sky.
"Merry Christmas," I whisper back, and follow him into sleep.
. . .