"Come on! Come on! Come on! We are going to be late!" Charlotte, fully dressed and in her coat, grabbed my elbow and pulled nearly causing me to stab myself in the eye with my eyeliner.
"Hold your horses. We'll go in a minute." I said, regaining control of my arm and very carefully finishing my makeup.
"Hurry! Oma Esme has a new book for me and Uncle Emmett challenged me to a Mario Kart tournament. We. Have. To. Go!" Impatience was one of the bad habits my daughter inherited from me, and it was seriously obnoxious when turned back onto me. I'm sure she thought the same when she heard those exact same words in that exact same tone pretty much every morning.
"Okay, okay. I'm ready. Let me grab the salad stuff and put on my coat." I checked myself in the mirror one more time and sighed at my reflection. I looked as good as I was going to get, which was just a step above plain. I was never one to really put much time and effort into my appearance, but tonight I had actually put on makeup and straightened my hair. All the while fervently ignoring the voice in the back of my head that reminded me the only reason I would actually put thought into my outfit was that I was going to be seeing Edward.
I double checked to make sure I had everything and we were off. Emse had insisted on hosting a family barbeque to celebrate Edward's move back to Chicago. I always felt like a party crasher when I came to their family events. Charlotte, on the other hand, had no such reservations and treated Carlisle and Esme exactly like grandparents. Rosalie and Alice had started dating the brothers Cullen while we were in college and the five of us had become a family of our own creating when I got pregnant. By the time Rosalie and Alice officially become Cullens it was just assumed I was part of the family too, like a package deal.
Charlotte didn't get to spend much time with her grandfather Charlie so Esme and Carlisle always went out of their way to make Charlotte and I feel like we belonged. They had always extended me an invitation right along with their sons and daughters-in-law to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other family events when they knew I didn't have the money or time fly to visit my father in Forks. No matter how I objected, they insisted there was always a place at the Cullen table, and I was glad that no matter how I felt Charlotte felt like she had a strong extended family.
I barely had the car in park in the driveway before Charlotte was out of her car seat and ready to hop out. While I grabbed our stuff, she ran straight through the front door and into the house without stopping to knock.
"Charlotte, you know better than that, young lady. We do not just run into people's houses without knocking." I called after her. I saw Carlisle step out and move to help me carry my bags inside.
"Don't worry about it, Bella. She's just excited for Esme to spoil her rotten." Carlisle smiled at me.
"Oh, please, more than half of that spoiling comes from you. That little girl has you and all her uncles wrapped around her little finger, and she knows it. I just hope you all tone the spoiling down a bit when you have your first real grandchild." Sometimes my daughter was too cute for her own good.
He looked at me in pretend shock as he took my coat. "Charlotte does not have to be blood to be my granddaughter and it is my God given right as her Opa to spoil her, fill her with sugar and send her back to you completely wound up and unable to sleep. Besides, I'm not the one who already has a stack of presents with her name on it for Christmas."
I rolled my eyes at him as he walked past me to put my coat and purse away. I dropped the bags of food on the kitchen counter with a thud. Esme wiped her hands on her apron and greeted me with a huge, motherly hug. Charlotte was already talking animatedly with Alice and Rosalie on the other side of the kitchen. They both smiled and waved at me, while trying to keep up with Charlotte's story.
Esme and I got to work on putting together the salads and side dishes. The men were outside manning the meat, despite the chilly October weather. Alice, as always, was banned from touching any of the food. No one would eat anything she had cooked after The Great Food Poisoning of 2004 where everyone had spent at least 24 hours curled up in the bathroom, one of us with an infant. Instead, Alice took to a fervent conversation with Charlotte about her Halloween costume.
"Esme, what can I do to help?" Rosalie asked, refilling her tea.
"We've got it dear. I don't want to keep you on your feet. Just sit and keep us company." Esme shooed her toward a stool at the breakfast bar.
"Really, Esme. I want to help." Rosalie was still early enough in her pregnancy to insist it wasn't slowing her down. I knew first hand that wasn't going to last long, but I certainly wasn't going to be the one to tell her.
"Nonsense" Esme insisted, "Just pull up a chair and put those feet up." Rosalie opened her mouth to object when Alice neatly shoved a chair into the back of her legs taking her out at the knees. She landed with a thump.
"We know you aren't an invalid, but Esme's going to win this round. We just want to take care of the baby, so sit and rest while you still can." Alice interrupted before turning her attention to me.
"So, Bella, how have you been feeling?" Alice said, sliding back onto her stool. Charlotte had run off to find something more interesting to do.
"Fine, fine. It took me forever to get my classes back on track. It was a good reminder why I hate using subs."
"It's probably payback for how awful we were to the subs when we were in school. Do you remember the time we all switched names for the day when we were in fifth grade? Or in high school when we convinced the sub in history that our quizzes were always open book? "
"What do you mean 'we', Miss Trouble-with-a-capital-T. I had nothing to do with either of those." I had always been the calm, reserved level-head to Alice's bubbly, idea-filled excitement.
"Oh please, you may be able to pull off that goody two shoes persona with your parents and mine, but I know better."
"Any trouble I got into I did it because you and Rosalie dragged me along. And you will keep your stories to yourself till Charlotte is a little bit older." I laughed and nudged her as Charlotte ran into the room.
"Ahhh! Mama! The Tickle Monster is going to get me!" She sprinted around the kitchen to hide between my legs and the cabinets.
"I'm coming to get you!" Exaggerated footsteps moved from the hall to the kitchen. I expected to see Emmett burst through the doorway but instead it was Edward who came in, hands up and prepared to tickle attack.
"Your mom can't save you now!" Edward thundered as he approached the cowering form attached to my legs.
Charlotte screeched as at the last minute, I scooped her up and placed her protectively on my back. I took a spatula and wielded it like a sword. "Bad Tickle Monster." I scolded and whacked his arm gently with the spatula sword. "You stay away!"
Edward grinned ear to ear before groaning in pretend pain and lifting his hands in surrender. Charlotte was giggling hard as he pretended to crawl away in fear. The guys chose that moment to enter the kitchen with plates of chicken and steak. Carlisle lifted a questioning brow at Edward, but Edward just kept playing it up for his small audience of one.
Charlotte jumped off my back and ran to Alice. "Aunt Alice, can you play mama the Good Night song?"
Alice looked baffled for a moment then understanding lit up her face. "My dear, that is a fabulous idea. We could use some pre-dinner music." Alice went to take a sip of her wine before setting it down but that was too time consuming for Charlotte. Charlotte grabbed Alice's hand and jerked her towards the kitchen door, nearly causing Alice to drop the glass all together. She managed to set it on the last piece of counter before she was dragged completely from the room. I shook my head as everyone laughed.
"I never thought I would see the day when someone would have enough energy to drag Alice anywhere." Jasper said with a grin.
"What's the Good Night song?" Rosalie asked.
"I honestly don't have a clue. She's been talking about it since she stayed with Alice and Jasper the night I was in the hospital. No matter how many songs I guess, I still have no idea what song she means."
Soon Alice and Charlotte returned with an Ipod and speaker set. After a little set up, the room was filled with music. Immediately, Charlotte started dancing around the kitchen floor using all her best moves from dance class. "Alice, isn't this song called I've Got a Feeling?" Rose asked
"Yeah, but listen to the chorus. I bet you that's where she got the name. Man, Bella, you're girl's got some dancing skill. She obviously didn't get that from you."
"No, she got that from those dance classes she's been taking at the community center."
Before long, everyone was dancing along with Charlotte back and forth across the kitchen floor. Jasper grabbed Alice, spun her around and dipped her. Emmett stepped right up behind Rosalie and swayed with her, his hands around her waist. Even Carlisle came over and placed one hand on Esme's hip and the other in her hand. They turned and moved together, smiling as if they were newlyweds. Charlotte rushed over the Edward and grabbed his hands. He spun her around and around keeping her little hands in his larger ones.
I leaned back against the counter and took a sip of wine. I knew better than to attempt any dance moves or I would be spending dinner in the ER. Looking around, a pang of loneliness hit me so hard I shut my eyes a moment. When I opened them again Charlotte was dragging Edward over to me.
"Come on, mama. Dance with us!" Charlotte grabbed my hand while Edward snaked an arm around my waist. The three of us intertwined we rocked to the beat. Soon Charlotte tired of dancing with us and escaped to prance around the kitchen in circles. I expected Edward to remove his arm from my waist, but instead he moved to put his hands on my hips. Not knowing what else to do, I put my arms on his shoulders and let him lead.
As the music faded, it seemed for just a brief second like Edward was pulling me closer to him rather than letting go. He looked at me with an intensity I didn't recognize, but the moment was broken when Esme declared it was time to eat and everyone grabbed something to take to the table. Dinner was filled with conversation and laughter. It always made my heart light be with the Cullens. Here I didn't have to be mom Bella, teacher Bella, or tutor Bella. I was just Bella and that was enough.
Like ants we lined up one after another with dishes as we cleared the table. We almost ran right into one another when Rosalie suddenly stopped just inside the kitchen doorway. "Oof! No soccer in there, baby."
"Is he kicking again?" Emmett looked both thrilled and a little upset.
"Yes, and hard!" Rosalie winced as her dishes down on the counter. Emmett got down on his knees in front of her and put his face right up to her stomach.
"Hey, buddy, I need you to quit kicking your mom so hard. I know you are stretching and growing and stuff, but you don't want to hurt her. It makes her grumpy." Emmett whispered conspiratorially to their unborn child. Rosalie rolled her eyes at him.
"Uncle Emmett! The baby can't hear you. It's inside Aunt Rosalie's tummy." Charlotte looked at her uncle as if he was crazy.
"Sure it can hear me. The baby can hear me and you through Rosalie's tummy. I talk to the baby so it knows I'm the daddy and that I love him." Emmett brought Charlotte closer to him and Rosalie. She looked at him, not quite sure if he was pulling her leg or not.
"Aunt Rosie, can the baby really hear me?" Charlotte looked at her aunt. It was amusing that Charlotte wasn't sure if Emmett was teasing her, but she knew Rosalie would always tell her the truth.
"Yup, the baby can hear us. Do you want to talk to the baby?" Everyone followed Rosalie and Charlotte into the large living room. Charlotte settled onto the couch with her face on Rosalie's lap. She put her tiny hand on the barely there bump under Rosalie's shirt.
"Hi, baby. My name is Charlotte Elisabeth Swan. I'm five, but I'm almost six, and I'm going to be your…" Charlotte's face scrunched up as she tried to come up with the right word.
"Cousin." Rosalie prompted.
"I'm your cousin and I'm going to play with you and help take care of you and teach you stuff, like how to play Mario Kart and school. I'm going to love you so much." Charlotte stayed like that for a little while just telling the baby all the things they were going to do once the baby was born. Everyone fell into comfortable conversation. I few minutes later Charlotte turned and looked at me. "Mama, do I have a daddy, like the baby?"
Suddenly, all conversation stopped and everyone turned to Charlotte. It was the first time she had asked me about her dad in front of other people. "Sure you do. Everyone has a mom and a dad." I had long ago figured out the simplest answer was the best. I shouldn't answer questions she hadn't asked. It just complicated things for her.
"Is Uncle Emmy my daddy, too? Like the baby in Aunt Rosalie's tummy?" Charlotte looked questioningly at Emmett and Emmett chuckled to himself.
"No, Uncle Emmett is your uncle, not your daddy." I answered, trying not to laugh. Charlotte and Emmett had always had a close relationship, so I was surprised she asked. In any other setting, though, it could have been really awkward.
Charlotte seemed thoughtful for a moment. "Why doesn't my daddy love me like Uncle Emmett loves the baby in Aunt Rosie's tummy?"
And there it was. The question I had hoped to postpone for a few more years, or a few more decades. I never wanted Charlotte to feel like she was unloved or unwanted, and that meant hiding the whole truth from her and everyone else. I would keep the whole truth about her father from them as long as I could. I motioned for Charlotte to come over and sit on my lap. She came over slowly and looked at me.
"Sometimes babies are born and the mom and dad are ready, like Emmett and Rose. Sometimes babies are born and the mom and dad aren't ready. Your dad wasn't ready for a baby. He couldn't take care of you the way a dad should. He loved you enough to know it was better for you to be with people who could love and care for you in ways that he couldn't."
"Oh." Charlotte considered that then she asked, "So my daddy didn't talk to your belly when I was inside you? He didn't get you funny foods to feed me like Uncle Emmett does for Aunt Rosalie?"
"Nope, but do you know who did?"
"When you were growing inside me, your Uncle Emmett would talk to you all the time. Every time your Uncle Emmett saw me, he would talk to you. He would sit with me on the couch and tell you jokes or all about his day at the fire house. Sometimes he even sang to you."
"She's lucky she isn't deaf. I've heard Emmett sing and it's about the right tone to make ears bleed." Jasper joked.
"Well, I kept him limited to 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' and 'You are My Sunshine' so it wasn't too bad. A couple of times I had to remind him no Queen or Van Halen for the baby." I laughed out loud when I remembered how Emmett had tried singing Bohemian Rhapsody to my pregnant belly. "And when you would move around a lot and kick me, he would tell you to calm down and you always did just like he did with Rosalie."
"Really, Uncle Emmy?" Charlotte looked at Emmett with big eyes.
"Yup, how do you think I got so good at talking to the baby inside your Aunt Rosie?"
"And do you know who got your mom funny foods when you made her want funny things to eat?" I prodded, helping Charlotte focus on the love of her slightly unorthodox family.
Rosalie raised her hand and Charlotte's eyes got very big. "We lived together, Rosalie, Alice and I, and Rosalie was the designated food-fetcher."
"Once your mom refused to go to sleep until I went out at three in the morning for tacos and fudge. And we always had to have fish fingers and M and M's in the house. Unfortunately, I was also the person who helped hold your mom's hair back when she got morning sickness. So I got to see all that food more than once."
"Gross!" Charlotte exclaimed sticking her tongue out. "What about Uncle Jasper and Aunt Alice? Did they help too?"
"Your Uncle Jasper talked to you all the time while he helped me do well in all my classes at school so I could be a teacher. He would stay up late and read to us, help me study for tests, and check over my papers to make sure I would pass. After you were born, he would come over and hold you while I studied. He's the reason you are so super smart." Jasper beamed at me. He had gotten me through school when I had been ready to give up.
"Your Aunt Alice made sure you had everything you needed. She got your clothes, your blankets, all the pretty stuff in your bedroom. She made sure we got pictures and videos of everything about you from the time you were in my belly until now. She was so excited about you that she threw two different baby parties before you were even born."
"I wasn't going to leave your wardrobe to your mom! Plus, you know I can always use a good excuse for a party."
"Yeah, except I could have done without the first party. I spent most of that one nauseous in the bathroom."
"Well, everyone else enjoyed it!" Alice smirked at me. I knew she had thrown that party to help me get excited about the baby. The first few months of my pregnancy had been hard, and I was struggling to feel anything positive about being pregnant. Even the little bit of the party that I was able to enjoy made a huge difference in my attitude.
"Your Oma gave me all the best advice about how to take care of you. Your Opa was your doctor who took care of you from the moment you came into the world." Charlotte looked around the room but I couldn't read the expression on her face. I hesitated, giving her time to digest all those stories.
"Baby Girl, does it make you sad you don't have a dad like our baby?" Emmett looked at her with seriousness that I didn't see often on his face.
"Nope. I got my mama, Uncle Emmett, Uncle Jasper and my Aunt Rosalie and Aunt Ali and Oma and Opa and now my Edward to love me. Lots of people help take care of me, even if my dad can't." I was floored. She was so mature and thoughtful that sometimes I had a hard time believing she was not even six.
I held her face in between my hands. "That's right, baby. We love you so much. Please remember that. It's okay if sometimes you feel sad about not having a dad like other kids. But I want you to remember how much you are loved."
"K, mama. Can Uncle Emmett and I play Mario Kart now?" And just like that, the moment was over. Emmett scooped her up and walked her over to the television to get everything set up.
Before long everyone all the Wii-motes were out and Charlotte, Emmett, Alice, and Carlisle were locked in the heat of a race. I got up to do some of the dishes in the kitchen. I had just started when Edward stepped beside me with a dishtowel in hand. He didn't say anything at first, content to help me rinse and dry. It was a comfortable silence and I wasn't in a rush to break it.
Instead it was Edward that spoke first. "So, there is this really neat playground they just put in near my apartment. I was wondering if you and Charlotte were interested in going over there, maybe taking a picnic lunch."
My mind was racing. He was asking me out, and by his tone this wasn't just a friendly outing. It was a date. A date! Disjointed thoughts bombarded my mind. I thought of the only two dates I had been on since Charlotte was born. Both had been blind dates and complete disasters, mostly due to the fact that Alice has tricked me into them. As a mom I felt strongly that I shouldn't be taking my daughter out on dates with me, especially with a man I barely knew. I had gotten to know Edward pretty well over the past few years, but I had no idea what he would be like once I got to know him better. As Emmett and Jasper's brother I knew he would be around more now that he was in Chicago, but that was another reason why I shouldn't accept his invitation. It could all go horribly wrong and I would lose my entire support system. My mind was confident it wasn't worth the risk. Too bad my heart seemed to be in disagreement.
"Bella, I think that dish is clean." Edward half-smirked as I noticed I had been violently washing the same pan the whole time I was lost in thought.
"Oh, right. Um…here." I handed the dish to him and his hand brushed against mine. I felt an warming, electric current where we touched and I jerked my hand back away from his. "Edward, I don't think that would be such a good idea. I mean, you and I getting together…" I wanted to continue but before I could Alice ran into the room, practically vibrating with excitement.
"I have the PERFECT dress for you to wear tomorrow night! This is going to be so much fun!" She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet while I stared at her incredulously.
"What on earth are you talking about?" I said, looking between Alice, Jasper, and Emmett as they came into the kitchen.
"Dinner tomorrow night, silly. Jasper has managed to get us a table for six at this fantastic new place downtown. It's supposed to be amazing and it's a miracle we got a table." Alice attempted to dazzle me, but I caught Jasper's momentary look of confusion before he covered it up.
"Is that right, Jasper? How did you manage that?" I looked at Jasper with my best innocent face. I knew something was up.
"Well, I…we…answered a call to the house of one of the chefs and he said he could get us in." Jasper kept his face smooth, but his response was stuttered. Emmett looked baffled.
"I don't remember…"Emmett interjected. Alice elbowed him in the ribs hard, but tried to cover it up as a friendly gesture.
"Sure you do!" Alice said quickly. "And Carlisle and Esme were just telling us how much they want to have Charlotte come over and spend the night. They are dying to spend some quality time with her."
"They were? I must have missed…" Emmett's face looked thoroughly confused now. Alice's swung her foot out then solidly connected her heal to Emmett's shin. "What the…?" He exclaimed, rubbing his leg and staring daggers at Alice.
"Sorry, Emmett. Accident." Alice said sweetly.
I exchanged confused glances with Edward, but he just shrugged at me and went back to drying dishes. He was not going to be of any assistance if I was going to get out of whatever convoluted set-up this was. "Alice…I don't know. I don't want to impose and I don't know…" I said trying to quickly formulate a rebuttal.
"Don't be like that! It will be great. Charlotte loves it here and I've already set it up for them to take her overnight tomorrow night so that we could all go out. It'll be just like old times. Come on, Bella. It will be great, and I miss you so much. I never get to see you and you're my best friend." Now she was pulling out the big guns. She had on the saddest face she could muster. She even had tears building in her eyes. I had been played. I knew I was done for as the fight drained out of me.
"What time are you coming over to play Bella Barbie?" I said with a sigh. I was greeted with an ear shattering squeal as Alice thrust her arms around my waist.
"I guess the park will just have to wait for another weekend." I heard Edward say. I caught a glance of his grin before Alice forcibly removed me from the room to talk hairstyles.