I didn't stop at my desk the next morning. I rode the elevator up to HR, breathing through my nose in a way that was faintly reminiscent of Edward's "breathing exercises." I snorted in the empty elevator, feelings little warm tingles of affection spread through my chest at the memory. His face had been sheepish and a little embarrassed, but his little gesture meant a lot to me. He was right when he said it wasn't a fix, but it was a token, a gesture that showed me he meant what he said. He cared about me. He wanted this to work.
Sighing a little as the elevator stopped and the doors pinged open, I trudged down a hallway that was a little too familiar for my tastes. Beige on beige, the carpeting, walls, cubicles, and pale wood doors all blended into each other. It made me feel a little bit like I had been sucked into a desert, but without the comfort of scattered cacti to break the boredom. Whoever designed this place needed to be given a hug and a color palate.
I knocked lightly on Charlotte's door, and a light "come in" answered me. She was standing near her window, holding a cup of coffee and smiling at me as I pushed through the door.
"Well, Bella! Nice to see you."
I smiled back as pleasantly as I could and nodded. "Nice to see you, too."
"Have a seat, have a seat," she said, bustling back to her desk and collapsing into her chair. "What can I do for you, dear?"
I perched gingerly on the chair across from her and folded my hands, already feeling awkward about this. Part of me, the part of me that had insisted on dealing with James on my own and not telling anyone, wanted to turn around and walk away. But I had promised Edward, and my way hadn't worked very well the first time.
"It's about James."
She nodded, still smiling. "Can you close the door, please?"
I pushed it shut with my foot and turned back to her.
"That's better. Now, would you be referring to James Allen?"
"Yep, the same James from before. " I almost snapped the words, flinching as I recognized the edginess in my voice. "Something happened last night. We were working late, and he came over to my cubicle. He made some suggestive comments and he touched me. I told him I was uncomfortable and he didn't stop. He said if I told you about it he would have two friends say he wasn't in the building, but you can prove that, can't you? Aren't there security cameras in this place?"
"There are cameras in the elevators and outside the stairwells at each floor, so we can monitor when people enter and exit the building and every floor. There wouldn't be any coverage by your desk, however."
"But you'd be able to prove he was in the building? If he tried to pretend like he wasn't there?"
"Yes," she said cautiously. "But I'd like to get back to the details, Miss Swan. You said he touched you. How exactly did he touch you?"
"He touched my hair. He said something like... 'It's too bad you're such a pain in the ass.' He was looking at me like—" I faltered, feeling a little queasy at the memory. While I didn't really believe James would follow through on anything, he was making me increasingly uncomfortable. Next Friday couldn't come soon enough. "Like he wanted to do much more than just touch my hair."
Charlotte nodded and jotted down a few notes. Before she could jump in with more questions, I kept talking.
"I don't like the way he makes me feel. I can't keep working like this. If I have to get a restraining order or something..."
"A restraining order?" Charlotte repeated, a little skeptically.
"He creeps me out," I said bluntly. "For the most part, I've been dealing with it, and I know he's leaving soon. But I have to know that this kind of behavior isn't overlooked or swept under the rug. Please tell me you're going to do something about it this time. I'd hate to have to look for a new job so soon. I really like it here, otherwise."
Charlotte sighed and shook her head a little, leaning back in her desk chair. "I'm very sorry for what you've had to deal with. And I appreciate you coming to me immediately with this newest incident. However, I need to be frank with you about the situation."
I sighed. "That doesn't sound good."
"Mr. Allen has an excellent history with Tribune Company. And while I can't discuss the details of his employee file with you, his track record is mostly clean."
My ears perked up a little at the word "mostly," but I stayed quiet.
"His transfer to Princeton has already been confirmed, and everything is in motion. There's not a lot I can do from the standpoint of the paper here. I will, of course, talk to Mr. Allen and find out what I can from him, but it sounds like no one saw the two of you last night?"
I started to shake my head, then said, "Well, my boyfriend came in at the end, he heard a little about what was going on, and I think he saw James touch me. I can get you his information if that will help."
"It might. Send me an email with his name, phone number, and information later. My point was, Miss Swan, that besides possibly putting a formal complaint in his file, there's nothing we can do here."
"Of course not," I muttered. I stood up and started pacing a little, suddenly inexplicably angry. "He's a sleaze, and you people have promoted him. I'm sure you'll still be shouting his praises when you get sued by a female employee who gets harassed under his supervision."
"Please lower your voice and sit down," Charlotte said quietly. "I understand your frustration, and I sympathize. This isn't an easy situation, but you have to understand the way these things work. I may be able to pull some strings, but it won't be here, and it won't be now."
I stopped pacing and looked up sharply. "Pull some strings?"
"Sit down," she said again. I slid into my seat. "That's better. Now, I know this isn't what you want to hear, but perhaps we can compromise."
"How?" I asked suspiciously.
"Like I said, it would be difficult to get anything done that would affect the here and now, but I have connections to corporate HR, and also at the Princeton paper. Between us, we should be able to make sure the Mr. Allen is monitored and that if anything happens, we're fully aware."
"That's it?" I asked. "He's still going to get promoted?"
"My hands are tied, Miss Swan."
I rubbed my eyes a little and looked back up at her. She smiled sympathetically. "I appreciate your help, I guess."
"I'll tell you what we'll do," Charlotte said before I could get up and leave. "I'll call down to your editor and let him know we've had another incident. Mr. Allen is only in the Chicago office for another week; I'll tell him that HR would like him reporting to someone else for the rest of his time here. He will be instructed not to speak with you or interact with you in the mean time. How does that sound?"
"That sounds pretty good, if he listens to orders," I grumbled, slightly happier with this suggestion.
"If he doesn't, you come back to me. And you stop into Chuck's office as well."
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "Thanks for your help."
I took the stairs back down to my floor, two at a time. I'm not sure what I expected to feel about telling HR about James this time, but it was almost like a weight had been lifted from my chest. I felt light. He was as good as gone, for me at least. Some annoyance lingered about his impending promotion and the company's complete inability to punish him, but this at least felt like a positive step. He'd be under surveillance, and he'd have to leave me alone.
Seth was standing at the coffee machine in the break room when I walked in, bouncing a little on the balls of my feet.
"You're looking cheerful," he said with a smile. "Coffee?"
"Yes, please." I grinned back at him and leaned against the counter. "How's it going?"
"Eh," he shrugged. "It's Thursday, which means tomorrow's Friday, which means it's almost the weekend."
I laughed. "Anything in particular going on this weekend?"
He blushed a little as he handed me a mug of coffee, his smile morphing into something akin to a self-satisfied smirk.
"Actually, yeah. I... uh, I have a date."
"A date! With who?" I had a feeling I knew, but it was nice to see him looking dreamy over someone else for a change.
"Tanya. You know, Kate's friend?"
"Oh, I know Tanya," I laughed again, remembering the way they watched each other the night Edward and I met the group of them and ended up drinking too much tequila. "First date?"
He blushed again and gave me a sort of a shrug. "Kind of. It's all really new, you know? But she's great, really sweet and funny. Not at all what you expect when you first meet her."
He looked down at his feet for a second and then met my eyes again. It was a little awkward, like he was waiting for me to protest or tell him he shouldn't be happy.
"I'm so excited for you two," I said sincerely. "You looked really cute together the other night. Where are you taking her?"
We spent the next few minutes chatting about his plans for dinner and a movie on Friday night, and I told him about the engagement party I was headed to after work.
"That's Edward's sister, right?" He hesitated a little at Edward's name, but he didn't grimace or scowl or make any of the faces I was used to when Edward came up in conversation. Maybe their drunken truce would hold up. I nodded. "Well, that'll be fun. He's... he's a good guy, Bells. A little messed up, but then, he'd have to be to go out with you." He mussed my hair and I rolled my eyes as we walked back toward our desks. "Seriously, I like him."
"Alright, enough of the sappy sentimentality," I groused, shoving his shoulder. "Back to work. You owe me a column by tonight."
He threw a sloppy salute and jogged over to his desk, and I continued past my own to Chuck's office. The door was slightly ajar, and I could hear voices.
"This is ridiculous, Chuck." James' unmistakable, snide voice filtered through the crack in the door. "She's just making stuff up, trying to make trouble for me just because I got a promotion."
"Why would she do that, James?" Chuck sounded sharper than usual, and a little annoyed. "You're still getting your promotion, be glad about that. All I'm asking, no telling you, is that you will stay away from Bella Swan until you leave. You two have never gotten along, so it's not like this should be hard for you. How many pieces do you have to finish off before the end of next week?"
"Four," James mumbled.
"And how much is there left to do on those four?"
There was a pause, then James said, "Background research and interviews are done, I just have to sit down and write them, and then do final edits."
"Great," Chuck breathed, sounding much more relaxed and calm. "So write them from home. Load up your things tonight, stick the files you need on a thumb drive, and get out of here. I'll give you permission to finish up out of the office. I'm sure you have plenty of things you need to do to get ready for your move, and you've never had a problem meeting your deadlines."
"My last day isn't supposed to be until next week," James hissed.
"And it will be," Chuck said easily. "Meet your deadlines, make sure I have your roughs at least five hours in advance so I can run a red pen through them and get them back to you. I'm offering you the opportunity to take some extra time to get your ducks in a row. Is there a problem with that?"
"I didn't think so. That'll be all, James."
I tried to pull away from the door, but James was wrenching it open before I had a chance to react. He glared at me, then stalked past me without a word. I poked my head in through the now open door and cleared my throat. Chuck didn't even look up. "Come in, Bella."
I crept in, not exactly sure what there was to say. Did I pretend I hadn't heard? Did I congratulate him for finally making a personnel decision that made sense? Did I shut my trap and wait for him to give me some kind of signal? I opted for the third option.
He looked up at me, grey eyes sweeping over my face and then past me, out the door and into the mid-morning bustle of the office. Then he sighed and motioned for me to shut the door.
"Bella, I'm going to level with you."
"There are going to be some big changes coming up, and those changes directly effect this department." My eyes flew back to his face. He wasn't smiling. "Everyone is moving online, and all of the sections have their own experts and their own ideas. We're kind of a left over department, picking up odds and ends and organizing things. But the fact is, the design department has been doing more and more of that. In an effort to save some money and make everything more streamlined, the business department has decided to... consolidate."
"I don't understand," I said slowly. "Why are you telling me this?"
He sighed. "I'm telling you this because I think you're an incredibly talented young woman, and there are going to be new opportunities opening up for you in the very near future. I recognize that this hasn't been an easy start for you, and that the changes that are going to start hitting us soon are going to be harder on you as a new member on staff."
"What kind of changes?"
"We'll be integrating into the rest of the paper. Seth will go back to working exclusively in sports, for example. I've got an editing position waiting for me over on the city beat."
"What about me? I just got this job, and it was a new position. Is this your way of telling me I'm out of a job?" I couldn't help it, my voice went a little high and panicky. Just when everything was turning around...
"No, no, nothing like that," he rushed to reassure me. "There's a position waiting for you in web design, actually. I've been talking to the woman in charge over in the design department, showing her your work. She's very impressed with you. It'll be at least equivalent to your position with us."
"Design? I've never really—"
"You've been doing design since you started here," he interrupted before I could continue. "Most of those projects we talked about you working on had heavy design aspects. I've showed them to Dianne, she loved your ideas, thinks you have a real knack for it. I know it's not really editing, but it's a good opportunity and I hope you'll consider it."
"Is this an official offer?"
"No, it's not official, but I feel like I can tell you on no uncertain terms that there is an official offer coming. I have a few managerial meetings I have to be in and out of for the next week or so, but the business execs want to get the ball rolling soon. I expect I'll be talking to everyone in the department individually in the next couple of weeks."
I nodded, then remembered the reason I had come to Chuck's office in the first place.
"Will not be bothering you anymore," Chuck said smoothly. "I trust you heard most of that conversation?"
I nodded again, smiling a little this time. "Thank you."
"Have a good day, Bella."
I floated through the rest of my day, thinking about everything Chuck had told me and what I had overheard with James. Things would be different if I took the web design position, no doubt about that, but it would be the kind of job I was really looking for when I came to Chicago. It would be challenging and new. I would be away from the odd office politics that circulated in my department, and I'd be exposed to people who worked for every section of the paper. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became.
When I left that afternoon, James' desk was empty except for a blank desk calendar and his computer. I smiled all the way to the train.
Edward came to pick me up at my apartment so we could go to Emmett's together. He seemed more fidgety than normal, his fingers drumming anxiously on his steering wheel as we inched out of the city. After about fifteen minutes I couldn't take it anymore, and I reached out and covered his hand with mine.
"What is your deal?" I laughed. "Did you suck down a shot of espresso right before you came to pick me up?"
His face visibly relaxed, the creases on his forehead disappearing as his mouth twitched up into a tiny smile. "Sorry. I didn't even realize I was doing it."
I looked down at his legs, which had started bouncing since I stopped his hands. Raising an eyebrow, I cocked my head to the side. "Edward? What's wrong?"
"Nothing's...wrong," he said, in a hesitating, slow manner that made me instantly suspicious.
"But..." I prompted, removing my hand as we started to move through traffic again.
"But my parents are going to be at Emmett's house," he finished. "And they're going to see us together and my mom's going to start asking questions and she's not going to let up until I say something and I don't know what to tell her about us."
The words rushed out of him quickly, like he was afraid I would interrupt him or laugh or something. Which, admittedly, I did. Laugh, that is.
"That's what you're nervous about?"
"Well we haven't exactly defined what...this... is, now have we? I mean, what are we doing here, really? Is this a serious thing? Are we just seeing each other casually, but exclusively?" He sighed quietly, glancing at me briefly before he accelerated toward our onramp.
My heart started to beat a little faster, and the small car suddenly felt cramped. This conversation was a long time coming, logically, but I didn't feel prepared. I looked out the window to hide my discomfort.
"What do you think we're doing?" I asked, forcing my voice to stay casual. It was the coward's way out, and I knew it. He had been more than clear. I was waffling.
"Damn it, Bella, it's not about me right now," he hissed. I sank back into my seat, caught unawares by his change in tone. It was impatience and sadness and exasperation.
"Can we talk about this later?" I asked, after a quiet and uncomfortable pause. His face tightened minutely, so I rushed to add, "We will talk about it, I promise. Soon. I just need a little more time. I can't have this conversation in a moving vehicle. In the meantime, can't you just tell your parents that we're... happy?"
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, green eyes glinting gold and flecks of blue in the setting sun. "Are we?" The words were tentative and sweet. It made me smile.
"Yeah," I said sincerely. "I think we are."
I reached up and touched his hair, tousled and soft and curling slightly around his ears. I ran my fingernails lightly over his scalp and he hummed a little, smiling at me.
"I need to get a haircut," he said sheepishly.
"Eh." I shrugged and grinned at him. "I like it like this."
We didn't speak until we arrived at Emmett and Rosalie's house. Rosalie answered the door holding Avery, who was dressed in a bright yellow onesie and a pair of overalls. He was drooling all over a bib that said "Daddy's Little Slugger."
"You're here," she said happily, pulling me into a half hug. "Good, Esme's been driving me nuts. Edward, please go to the kitchen and hug your mother before she gives me another grey hair."
"Another grey hair?" he said skeptically. "I don't believe it. Rosalie Cullen, are you going grey?"
"Don't push it, prodigal son," she snarled playfully. "I pull my own hair out by the roots, strand by strand. You don't think I can do the same to you?"
He shuddered comically and sprinted past her, heading through the house to the kitchen. I could hear the low murmur of voices from the family room. Rosalie turned to me with a more appraising eye, taking in the skirt I had thrown on hastily and my messy up-do.
"You look good," she said finally, nudging me with your shoulder. "Love suits you."
I opened my mouth to protest, but Esme's voice came filtering through the background noise.
"Bella! Where are you?"
"Coming," I called, beating a hasty retreat.
Esme was waiting in the kitchen, one arm wrapped around Edward's waist and a glass of wine in her free hand. She set it down as soon as I was within arm's reach and wrapped her arm around my neck, pulling me into a weird, three-man hug with her and Edward. He looked like he was holding in laughter, and for the shortest of seconds I could have sworn I felt his hand graze my butt. Then it was gone, and I was pulling away from Esme and looking at her pink cheeks and bright eyes.
Esme was a little toasted.
"Bella, I can't tell you how nice it is to see you," she said enthusiastically, squeezing my neck a little bit for emphasis. I struggled not to wince. "I was just saying to Edward how nice you looked at Thanksgiving. The two of you I mean. Did you get a chance to look at those photos more closely, dear?"
I laughed and softly detached myself from her grip, nodding. "Yes, I did. A lot of good memories in that box. Thank you so much."
"You and Edward were always so sweet together," she continued, "even when you were driving each other crazy."
Edward laughed and smiled at me, his eyes crinkling happily. "When were we not driving each other crazy?" he asked.
She waved her hand distractedly and took a sip of wine. Suddenly, her eyes welled up with tears and she looked back at me quickly. "And now my little girl is getting married," she sighed. "Where does the time go?"
Carlisle and Emmett walked into the kitchen then, both of them carrying beer. Carlisle hugged Edward and smiled at me before making his way over to Esme.
"Hey, butthead," Emmett said, giving Edward a light punch on his bicep.
"You got dinner coming soon?" Edward asked, after nodding his own hello. "Mom looks like she could use something to eat."
Esme laughed and Rosalie swept in then. "Dinner will be ready in about a half hour. By the time we're done eating, Alice and Jasper's friends should be arriving."
"And when are Alice and Jasper due?" I asked.
"Eight," she said decisively.
"He just sent a text to say they got to their reservations and are running on time," Emmett chimed in. "I think the obsessive planning is keeping him calm about the whole thing."
"Nah," Edward said. "I talked to him at school today, the guy was beaming. He's not nervous at all."
He smiled at me, and I felt a warm fluttering in my stomach. I helped Rosalie with the salad while the rest of the family congregated near the kitchen table, just chatting. It felt nice to be part of the family again, and to feel the comfort always seems to hover around close knit groups of people getting together for food and celebration.
"So, do you think Alice knows something's up by now?" Rosalie asked.
"Probably," I laughed. "You should have seen her at lunch the other day. She was so mad that Edward and Emmett weren't committing to a location for family night, and then she was all irritated at Jasper for making dinner plans when we always get together on Thursdays."
I was about to say something else when Edward laughed, and my attention was pulled from Rosalie and the cucumbers I was chopping. He was standing next to his brother, and he looked so happy. He was a different man than he had been when I met him again in October. Everything about him seemed lighter somehow, from the way he held his head up a little straighter to the way his eyebrows moved expressively as he talked and gestured to make his point. He was animated. Alive.
Rosalie gave me a knowing look, but for once she didn't say anything. At dinner, Edward slung his arm casually around my shoulders, and I periodically reached over to touch his knee. The conversation flowed easily, again reminding me of the stark contrast of that first dinner. Carlisle told us about his plans to start scaling back his hours at the hospital and Rosalie and Emmett shared the results of Avery's latest baby check-up.
"He's in the 99th percentile for height!" Emmett announced proudly.
"Because we needed another giant man stomping around this house," Rosalie added with a laugh.
"And how's your job, Bella?" Esme asked politely. Edward stiffened at my side, but I patted his knee lightly and turned to smile at her.
"Actually, things are probably going to be changing for me very soon."
"Changing?" Edward asked, more than one question in his tone.
"I talked to my editor this afternoon," I explained, "and they're doing some rearranging between the departments. They're planning on putting the people in my department into other groups throughout the paper, and he told me that the head of the design group was really interested in my work."
"Design? Like what you did for us?" Emmett asked.
"Kind of," I said. "It's a really good opportunity though, and a step toward the kind of career I want."
Everyone offered me their congratulations, and I smiled and gave them more details as they peppered me with questions. Edward leaned in to brush a kiss on my cheek. Before he pulled away he whispered in my ear, "You deserve it. I'm proud of you."
Carlisle and Edward cleared the dishes while Emmett helped Rosalie set up more chairs in the family room, and Esme and I hung a big "Congratulations" banner across the windows.
When we were done, we backed up and examined our handiwork.
"Do you think it's a little wonky?" I asked, tilting my head to the side.
"Hmmm." She took a few big steps back and then mimicked me. "You know? I kind of like it a little wonky. It's almost like a metaphor."
I laughed. "A metaphor for what?"
She smiled and laughed with me. "Oh, I don't know. Life? Happiness? Nothing ever comes in perfect right angles. Certainly not the things worth having like family and friendship and love."
I flushed a little and she reached out, rather suddenly, for another bone-crushingly mothering hug.
"I know something happened," she whispered. "I know that it was hard on everyone, but especially you and Edward. I don't want to know the details, because it's none of my business. But watching the two of you together tonight made me so happy. You've brought him back, and I know that sounds silly and sappy, but it's true. So thank you."
She released me and wiped a few stray tears from her eyes. "Don't mind me, honey, I'm three sheets to the wind."
We dissolved into helpless laughter.
Once people started to arrive, Edward gravitated back to my side, hand on my hip, shoulder touching mine. We chatted with people who worked with Edward and Jasper at school, and every once and a while I would see a familiar face from Alice's New Year's Eve party. I had a moment of panic when I ran into Alec in the kitchen, but luckily he seemed to have forgotten all about me running out of our date and sticking him with the check. He introduced me to his date, a woman named Jane with an equally creepy, if not as blank, stare. I breathed a sigh of relief and got the hell out of there before I could run into any more of the ghosts of blind dates past.
It was almost eight when Emmett got a text from Jasper saying they were on their way.
"They'll be here in five minutes," he announced over the music, herding everyone into the family room and under the banner.
"Are we supposed to yell out something?" one of Alice's co-workers called from the back of the group.
"All hail, Queen Alice," a woman who went to college with her suggested. Scattered giggles broke through the group.
"Good luck, Jasper, you'll need it?" Edward suggested. Esme swatted him on the back of his head and he flinched, still smiling. "What? He will."
The lights from Jasper's car hit the front windows of the house, and we quieted down again. "Do you think she'll be surprised?" I asked Edward quietly. His eyes were fixed on the hallway that connected to the front door.
"I don't think it will matter one way or another." He smiled at me then, and that same ultra-confined feeling from the car swooped in on me. This time, though, it was fuzzy and comfortable, like a tight hug. I found myself wanting to prolong it, to keep it with me. I hugged his waist, enjoying the way his face brightened at the contact.
When the doorbell rang, Rosalie sprinted to answer it. We heard her greet the two of them and tell them the rest of us were in the family room.
"Actually, Rose, we have some pretty exciting news," Alice was saying as she turned into the family room.
We never did decide on what to shout. There were scattered whoops and cries of "Congratulations!" and "You're getting married!" and one or two people even went with "All hail, Queen Alice!" Edward was right about one thing though. It didn't matter.
Alice was glowing. I never really understood what people meant when they said that before, about brides and new mothers, but looking at Alice, it was easy to see. It wasn't about the ring, which sparkled tastefully on her left hand. It wasn't about the clothes she was wearing or the way her hair was styled just so. It was all about the man that stood beaming next to her.
When she saw the crowd of people waiting for them, she burst into tears. I was ready for giddy Alice, or hyper Alice, or even outraged that she wasn't let in on the secret Alice, but instead, she was just grateful.
She hugged her parents first, then Emmett and Edward. Then she threw her arms around my neck and tugged me down. By the time she let me go, I was sure my face had turned purple from lack of oxygen. Finally she turned back to Jasper.
"Best surprise ever," she said happily, and we all cheered while Carlisle snapped photos.
The party ended fairly early, because most of the guests had to work in the morning, but before she left Alice took me aside.
"For being a part of this," she said sincerely. "I know things have been rocky between us lately, and we're just getting started again—"
"Alice, of course I wanted to be part of this. So did Edward. Neither one of us would miss this for the world. You're family."
"Maybe someday," she joked, giving me an exaggerated wink and bumping me with her elbow.
"No, you're family now," I said seriously. We hugged again, only stopping when Jasper pulled us apart.
"I have to get my fiancée home," he said proudly. Then he laughed. "God, that sounds good."
"Don't get too used to it, bub," Alice said with a grin. "Soon it'll be wife."
Edward and I left shortly afterward, promising Esme and Carlisle we would get together with everyone for a couple of meals over the weekend. When we got back into the city, he looked over at me.
"Your place or mine?"
I laughed. "My place makes more sense, I guess. You can drive yourself home in the morning... that is, I mean, if you want to stay."
He smirked a little at my stumbling, but didn't respond other than bobbing his head once.
As we walked up to my apartment, I tried to figure out how to start the conversation I had avoided earlier. Nothing seemed right. I didn't want to worry him by saying something like, "Edward, we need to talk." I didn't want to launch into some convoluted explanation or declaration without any warning either.
I sighed loudly as I unlocked my door.
"You look like you're trying to solve a calculus equation," he laughed, squeezing my hand. I smiled a little, and he closed the door behind us.
I led him to the couch and pulled him down to sit next to me, close enough so our thighs were pressed together comfortably.
"I'm ready to talk now," I finally said, meeting his gaze steadily.
He nodded. "Okay." His face didn't tell me anything about his expectations or his hopes, but I found that I suddenly wasn't as nervous about that as I had expected to be. I reached out for his hand and started to trace the lines in his palm, focusing on them rather than on his eyes.
"You wanted to know what we're doing here," I started slowly. "And I guess my answer to that is that I think we're doing something pretty big."
I paused as I heard him take a sharp breath, but then forged ahead in case he was thinking of interrupting me. "I know this hasn't been easy, and that we've still got some things to work through, but I think that's okay. You're not perfect, and God knows I'm not."
I smiled, remembering Esme and the wonky banner. "I want to work on our flaws together. And hey, if all else fails we can just love each other in spite of them."
That's when I finally looked up, smiling brightly and completely ready for the words I was about to say.
"Because I love you, Edward. I was too afraid to say it before, but that doesn't mean I haven't felt it. I love you."
"I love you," he said immediately, pulling me into his chest and kissing me sweetly. He started dropping kisses along the edges of my lips, making trails across my cheeks to my eyes. "I've loved you for so long."
I pulled away far enough to look into his eyes again, and I couldn't help the goofy smile that took over my face as we looked at each other. He seemed to be having the same problem.
"So, in short, Edward Cullen," I started in a ridiculous voice, "I love you." I stuck out my index finger, beginning to count out my list. "I've never felt this way about anybody else. I have a really hard time believing that I'll ever feel like this again." I kissed him again. "Does that answer your question?"
"I think that about sums it up," he laughed.
"Are you staying the night?" I asked.
He smiled and hugged me closer, kissing my forehead. "I'm not going anywhere."
The first time Edward Cullen told me he loved me, he was ten and I was eight. In a little more than twelve hours I would be getting into a car with my mother and driving away from our rainy little town forever. Alice and I had spent the afternoon playing with her easy bake oven, trying to concoct the perfect going away cake. We forgot the baking soda. Emmett and Edward ate it anyway.
My dad had called over to let Esme and Carlisle know he was coming to pick me up. I was sitting on the Cullens' wide front porch, momentarily abandoned by Alice who had just remembered a keepsake that I had to take with me. Edward walked over to where I sat on the steps, a yellow tulip from Esme's garden in his hands. It still had its roots.
"I wish you didn't have to go, Belly Bird," he said softly, handing me the bedraggled flower.
"Me too." I starting tearing up, and for once it had nothing to do with that stupid nickname.
He scooted closer to me and reached out to hold my hand. "Don't cry," he whispered, offering me his sleeve. I laughed and shook my head, tears still falling.
"Bella," he said seriously. I blinked. Edward almost never called me Bella. "Don't go. I love you. I think I'll love you forever."
My dad pulled up in his police car, and Alice and Emmett ran out, flanked by their parents.
"I have to go," I said, still crying. Alice hugged me and shoved a notebook full of doodles and notes into my arms. Emmett and Carlisle hugged me, and Esme gave me a kiss on the cheek.
"Goodbye," I said. I was talking to all of them, but for some reason, I couldn't stop looking at Edward. Right before I got in the car, he ran up to me and hugged me tightly.
"I'll love you forever," he whispered.
I believed him.
A/N: The End. That's all she wrote. The end of the line. No, there won't be an epilogue.
There is one last piece to come for this story, but it will be posted separately. Daisy3853 won an outtake in the Fandom Gives Back auction. She's put in her EPOV request, and I'll be starting it shortly. I may throw in an extra outtake just because her second choice sounded entertaining. If you're interested in the EPOVs, put me on author alert. I repeat, the outtakes WILL NOT BE POSTED as a part of this story.
I can't even believe it. I started this story last May, and since then it's grown into this crazy thing... so many of you have started to read and review, you've tweeted, you've come by the forum thread on Twilighted, and from what I understand, some of you even congregate on The Gaz. I just want to take a minute to say thank you to every single one of you. To those of you who reviewed this silly story every single chapter, and those of you who left insightful and constructive comments, thank you. Heck, even if you never said a thing, just read the updates and enjoyed the story, I'm so grateful. And those of you who I've gotten to know over the last nine months, well, you know how much I love you guys. You're rock stars, every single one of you.
Speaking of rock stars, ginormous thanks go out to two special ladies who have been fantastic supporters of me and this story. Spanglemaker9 and Daisy3853 have held my hand, pre-read, beta'd, critiqued, and told me to get over myself throughout this whole process. Some of these chapters would have taken days, if not weeks longer if it hadn't been for them. For example, Daisy beta'd this chapter at 3:30 in the morning so I could post it today. That's crazy. These women are fantastic. Did I mention they're also amazingly talented? Go read their stories.
Girl with a Red Umbrella, the collaboration I'm writing with Spanglemaker9, is still going on. We update like clockwork every Tuesday. 1950 in Paris, with a swoonworthy artist-Edward and a cast of crazy characters? I think you'll like it. Go check it out. The link is in my profile. Other than that, I'm doing the Twilight 25 this round, and I've got plans for some much shorter stories. And after that? Well, who knows?
Anyway. Thank you. Stay classy, Fandom. (Too cheesy? Nah. Come on. You liked it.)