A/N: This chapter has been brought to you today in-part by beta Irritable_Grizzzly and the Institute of Apostrophe Awareness, prereaders lolafalana71, hippiestarr, Kalimando and the National Twilight Trust, a special endowment from Marly and Emergency Beta Services in cooperation with the Twitter Corporation, and by readers like you, thank you!

Disclaimer : All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

I am not a medical professional. This is fiction and not meant to diagnose or offer any medical advice. If you think you might have PPD or any symptoms of depression, please talk to your doctor. Your health and well-being is too important to go unnoticed!


Last chapter, Bella decided to live "in the moment" and pursue a relationship with Edward. She confided in supportive Vicky, who hinted about her own past love affair.

At her OB/GYN appointment, Bella admitted that she and Jacob were not trying for another pregnancy to Dr. Hamilton.

"No, we…I'm not ready to try again."

The doctor dropped his pen on the chart and confronted her directly. "I'm surprised it hasn't come up sooner. Bella, take some time to talk with your husband about your wishes. When I spoke with him last, I drew very different conclusions about his expectations. This is of mutual importance to both of you.


Rendezvous

"I couldn't concentrate on my final. I kept thinking about you, here in this sexy, sexy yellow shirt," he whispered in-between ear nibbles.

"I had no idea uniforms turned you on so much," she said playfully.

"It's a by-product of my parochial education," he admitted. "If only you had an embroidered crest right here, I'd bite it." He cupped her left breast .

Edward and Bella lay hidden in near-darkness, kissing and touching each other with abandon between canned food pallets awaiting shelving, the faint whirring noise of the forklifts in the distance.

For the third day in a row, Edward drove nearly forty five minutes from campus to the Stop & Shop for a fifteen minute "study break." He was quick to point out the impracticality of meeting at the University library. Too many students, no privacy.

Bitter cold, the stockroom mimicked the outdoor conditions and kept everyone away. Bella shivered in her long-sleeved shirt and thin apron, and Edward noticed immediately and insisted that she take his coat.

"Take it, it's warm. I can't have you freezing."

Bella squinted to check the time by her phone and shook her head.

"No, I can't. My break is almost up."

"Please, you can wear it back to the time clock – just put it on," he said, his breath coming out in a vapor.

She touched his shoulder, holding him in place.

"If I walk out of this stockroom wearing your jacket, everyone is going to know we're together."

A look of both confusion and amusement washed over his face and then he shrugged and squeezed her chilly fingers.

"So what? At least you'll be warm, right? Are you afraid of getting caught by management?"

Yes, management and everyone else in town. She shook her head.

"This is really personal for me; I don't want to share that with anyone. As soon as the Gossip Queens see me wearing that jacket, they're going to go on a feeding frenzy! They rip into you, find reasons why you're not good enough – They hate you, but they want to be you at the same time. Do you know what I mean?"

Edward sighed and helped Bella to her feet. Cases of Jolly Green Giant vegetables smiled next to her, reminding him of their first meeting at the freezer.

"I think you're worried what people will think because of our age difference. It really doesn't matter to me, honestly."

"Edward -" she began, then switched tactics. "Next time, we need to find someplace warmer."

Two days later

"Dayaamn, that chick's going crazy! Baby, I can show you how to put that mouth to work." Cai patted his zipper lasciviously.

Emmett looked up from his desk to his co-worker in front of the security monitors.

"Whatcha got? It's not that granny licking the cover of Vanity Fair again, is it?" Emmett asked.

"Hell no! These two came out of nowhere and started sucking face. He's got his hand up her -."

"What?" Emmett jumped from his seat.

"Dude, I can't see their faces. Zoom in!"

Emmett stared at the grainy image. An unidentifiable female employee was tightly wrapped around an obscured male. The two were engaged in a passionate lip lock inside a largely unused bathroom corridor.

"No, they're too close to the restroom. We could get sued for taking interior shots on camera., I'll walk down there myself."

Emmett donned his Red Sox cap, jogging toward the bathrooms near Produce, and was thirty feet away from the doorway when a red-faced Esme Whitlock barreled out. As he tried to catch up with her, he collided with a customer picking apples.

"Pardon me, Ma'am." Emmett tipped his cap at the lady and bent to retrieve the rolling fruit. One apple suffered a particularly hard blow that left his hands sticky and he grimaced with arms extended toward his destination.

Then Bella Black came out of the women's room at the opposite end of the corridor and he locked on her frightened-deer expression as her hands twisted in her apron.

"Emmett," she said stiffly, trying to appear unaffected.

He studied her evasive and somewhat hostile body language without saying a word.

"I've gotta get back to the…" She motioned toward the sales floor.

"Ah, Bella? You wouldn't happen to have seen -." Emmett paused. "Nah, never mind." He greatly respected Bella, not to mention that she outranked him. If he voiced his suspicion, it would only end badly.

At the mall.

"I hope you wore your running shoes. It's going to be a mad house in there."

She pointed to her Adidas and clutched her purse.

"I'm ready. Let's roll."

For nearly three hours, Bella and Jacob shopped side-by-side for family gifts, and by noon they'd amassed enough purchases to warrant a trip back to the car.

"I still need to buy your gift. Can I meet you back in front of the elevator in an hour?" Jacob asked as they walked back inside.

"Sure, that'll give me enough time to shop for your present."

"M'kay, bye." He pecked her quickly on her lips and disappeared into the crowd.

Bella wasn't being entirely truthful. Last week she'd taken advantage of an online-only sale and bought Jacob some specialty fishing gear. Her new focus was to find an appropriate gift for Edward. She'd cashed her paycheck Friday so she wouldn't have to charge it and have it show up on the statement.

She stopped at Starbucks to recharge with caffeine. Once inside, she leaned back against her stool and dialed Edward's number. His phone went straight to voice mail and she was about to leave a message when someone rapped on the glass from outside. Shelly Cope, arms laden with shopping bags and a Venti Latte, grinned back at her. Bella quickly shut her phone and beckoned Shelly to join her.

"Hey, Kiddo!."

"Have a seat?"

"No, I've gotta meet my son at The Christmas Tree Shops."

"Do you have a lot more Christmas shopping to do?"

"Aw, hell no! I finished Christmas shopping in October. This is for my Toy Party," she said, winking.

Bella blushed. These kinds of parties weren't her kind of thing, but she really wanted to be seen as "one of the girls."

"What day is it?"

"It's January 7th. Think you can make it?"

"Yeah, I should."

"All right, I'll catch you later." Shelly patted Bella's shoulder and left.

Bella drained her coffee and resumed her present hunt. With just six minutes left before she had to meet Jake, she made up her mind on the lambskin driving gloves, found a short line, and made her final purchase.

"Hey!" she said breathlessly when she caught up with Jacob.

"Ready for Bertucci's?" He grinned and held out his hand.

Dinner at the restaurant was pleasant, and when their waiter offered desserts, Jake unexpectedly ordered tiramisu for two.

"Wow, you're full of surprises tonight," Bella said.

"You mean that in a good way, right?" he said, flashing her a very white smile.

"You're up to something, aren't you?" She shook her fork at him.

Reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket, he produced a folded packet of papers and laid them on the table.

"I was going to keep this until Christmas, but I think I want to give it to you now."

She took the papers. It was an American Airlines travel itinerary. Jacksonville in three weeks. She refolded them on the creases and handed them back to him.

"I'll have to clear this with Mr. Newton—"

"Already took care of it.

She looked at Jake and then down at her hands. Say something.

"That's…great Jake. I can't wait. It'll be good to get away," she said through a pasted-on smile.

"I want you to be happy. I want to be happy with you."

Her eyes welled with tears and she rubbed at them with the back of her hand. Inwardly, she cursed him for being so thoughtful.

"We'd better go. I'm going to turn into a raccoon within five minutes." She stood.

"You'd be the cutest raccoon for miles," he said, and they embraced and left the restaurant together.

Christmas Eve came quickly that year. Choosing to forgo hours of preparation, Bella and Jacob ordered a prepared meal from Stop & Shop, and she picked it up just before the deli closed.

"Your spouse, he vill like zeh meat, but no powder potato. You buy fresh and you cook, yah?," Irina said as Bella took the bag."

She nodded vaguely at the deli clerk and hoped it appeared she'd comprehended the instructions. Her mind swam. Jacob had planned a trip for two to Florida to make her happy, and her in-laws expected an afternoon dinner followed with plenty of Christmas cheer. She figured as long as the liquor flowed freely, no one would question the mashed potatoes.

As she lay there with insomnia once again, Jacob's gentle snores mocked her. Without a sound she finally left their bed in the early morning hours and went downstairs. She mulled over calling Edward on his ski vacation. Only one of his daily calls from the Berkshire slopes had reached her successfully. With Jacob in the same room, she'd had no choice but to let the calls go to voicemail.

She called but there was no answer. It was 4:30 a.m., so he was probably asleep.

When her alarm went off at 6:30, she felt like a zombie on auto-pilot. Her day was already planned to the half-hour, starting with a shower and that new round, beige pill. With just a week's worth of doses taken, she couldn't say whether the anti-depressant was effective. She'd managed three quarters of her tasks before Jacob emerged downstairs.

"What can I do to help?"

"Set up the punch bowl or bring out the folding chairs."

He screwed up his face but lumbered down to the basement storage. Bella quickened her pace and had everything wrapped, heated or placed before noontime. Jacob's sisters and their husbands, followed by Charlie and Billy, arrived a half an hour later.

"Hi Bells! You look great. We picked up some flowers at 7-Eleven," Charlie said sheepishly and shrugged out of his coat.

"Thanks, Dad, Billy. Let me take these from you. Rachel and Rebecca are already in the living room. Dinner will be ready soon."

Charlie nodded and went to mingle with her in-laws as Billy sat quietly in the foyer and studied the pine bough garland on the console with great interest. Bella decided to leave him be and walked the bouquet into the kitchen.

Moments later, Billy wheeled in and wordlessly drew his chair to the refrigerator. The side-by-side was posted with various coupons and paper clippings and he was scanning them when something caught his eye. He tapped his finger against it.

"Are you a friend of Bill W.?" he asked.

Bella set down the flower vase on the counter and looked at her father-in-law.

"Excuse me?"

Billy cleared his throat and squirmed uncomfortably in his seat.

"Live one day at a time?"

Still not understanding, she stepped toward the fridge and peered at the taped-on clipping Billy had read.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Oh. Oh! Realization dawned on her. She shook her head.

"Did you put this up?"

"I found it on a tea box and I just liked it," she said with a pang of embarrassment.

Awkwardly, she moved away from Billy and returned to the flowers He looked at her for a few more seconds, and then dropped the subject. The doorbell rang again and he wheeled himself back to the foyer to greet the newest arrivals.

In the den, Jacob pulled out his copy of the Guinness Book of World Records to share with his brothers-in-law and then dumped the contents of the storage ottoman, looking for back issues of Sports Illustrated. The front door shut and he gathered an armload to bring into the living room when a low voice came from the doorway.

"Hello, Jacob. Your dad said I could find you here."

"Leah? Merry Christmas," he said with genuine surprise. Seth had mentioned on Wednesday that he might stop over for drinks, but said nothing about bringing his sister.

"You too. Look, I have something. It's not much, but I couldn't give it to you in front of everyone, you know?"

Jacob put down the magazines and faced his best friend's sister. Leah wore black corduroy pants and a red sweater. She'd attempted to tame her short, scraggly hair, but little cowlicks misbehaved against her side part. Something else looked different about her, but he couldn't decide what it was.

Leah was silent, and he realized that he'd been staring.

"I'm sorry, what were you saying?"

She thrust a small, tissue-lined bag toward his chest wearing an anxious expression and biting her thumbnail.

"It's not much -"

Dipping his hand into the bag, he grasped something small, cool and metal. He removed it from the tissue paper and saw it was a tiny silver-plated rattle, engraved with Baby Sarah's name and date of birth, along with Forever in our Heart. He looked up at Leah with tears in his eyes.

"Thank you, it's perfect," he whispered.

Leah looked at the den bookcases instead of Jacob. If she stood there silent any longer, she knew she'd cry too, so she deflected her emotion with more talk.

"We do trophies and small plaques at work...I mean, I don't engrave them. I just pack them. I thought this might be—"

Jacob gave her a fierce hug as she closed her eyes and breathed him in. She was grateful he couldn't see her dopey expression right now. A few minutes alone with Jacob Black and she was already punch drunk.

"Hey, my man! Merry Christmas!" Seth called from the doorway.

Leah slipped out of Jacob's embrace and pretended everything was normal as Jacob dropped his arms back to their sides, turning to greet Seth.

"Hey, glad you stopped over! Come have a glass of eggnog with me? Bella made you a rum cake from her grandma's recipe."

Leah snorted then quickly covered it up with a cough. Seth shot his sister a warning look, but she rolled her eyes at him, dug into her purse, and extricated a small bottle of brandy.

"No thanks! I bring my own holiday cheer wherever I go," she said and left the room.

"More like she brings her own evil spirits!" Seth said under his breath and grinned.

"Come on, Bro." Jacob laughed.

Christmas and New Year's 2010 went past in an indulgent blur. Edward returned from the Berkshires, rejoining Bella at work for major inventory preparations. For the first time since her Maternity Leave, she'd worked a full-time work week, spending days hunched over with a stubby pencil in her teeth, counting and separating merchandise on the sales floor and out back. Edward's day was split between inventory prep and cashiering, much to her jealousy. All store associates grumbled over the week-long drudgery, but those who finished first made a daily stampede for Happy Hour.

For the first time, she and Edward chilled together with work friends without having to explain. Their co-workers teased him about his age. Shelly Cope ordered him a virgin Margarita, with an emphasis on the "virgin." He bore their teasing with good humor, but Bella sensed wistfulness behind his expression.

"Can I see you tomorrow? Maybe I can come over and we can have a movie marathon? You can pick the titles." He sounded hopeful and took her hand, swinging their arms gently. She noticed he was wearing his new leather gloves.

The blustery night sky blew snow flurries onto the sea of cars before them. Some caught on his watch cap and lashes, sparkling under the flood lights..

She winced guiltily. "I can't, Edward. Shelly's party is tomorrow, and I promised her ages ago I'd be there."

"Well, can I come too?"

"No, it's a...Ladies' Night."

"Huh. I guess this is where I'm supposed to say, 'Have a great time!'."

She leaned into him and kissed his cheek.

"Yes, that's exactly what you're supposed to say."

"Bella, can you hold the popcorn while I get the brownies from the back?"

"Yep. Just put it on top of the guacamole." Bella took in her surroundings in the frigid January air. Shelly lived in a large condominium complex about a mile and a half away from the Stop & Shop. Limited guest parking had necessitated that the women carpool.

They trudged up a short path in a snow covered courtyard.

"You know, I didn't see Esme's car, did you?" Bella said.

"No. Maybe she's still sick? I switched shifts with her one day last week because she wasn't feeling well."

When the got to the condo, the front door opened and Ricky Martin music blasted out onto the sidewalk. Shelly appeared with a bite-sized cheesecake at her lips, beckoning them inside.

"Come in, come in! Ladies, I think you know everyone. Everyone, Vicky and Bella are here!"

The other guests milled around and chattered about their recent holiday and store gossip. A couple of young, newer cashiers smiled shyly at Bella.

"This is my first time at one of Shelly's famous toy parties. Yours too?" she asked.

The younger one blushed, but the older of the two, a blonde, nodded and giggled.

"Shelly wouldn't take no for an answer. Besides, I heard there was a door prize," said the blonde.

"What's the prize?"

"It's a Vamp." the young cashier whispered.

"It's a sparkly dildo that you can put in the freezer," the blonde explained.

"A dil-. Um, okay." She rubbed the back of her neck and tried not to show her embarrassment. Who the hell got off with a frozen dildo, anyway?

Shelly said, "Everyone's here, so let's go to the dining room and I'll introduce you to Senna from Amazon Woman Products."

"...And then he said, 'I'll take you for a ride, Baby'. Oh my God! We were laughing so hard."

The guests roared with laughter as Jessica told another story. Shelly passed the wine and shrimp cocktail around as the women chattered around the table, and Bella speared a shrimp with a toothpick, but Vicky declined and excused herself to the bathroom.

"Can I get you something else?" Shelly said.

"No, but – can I ask you something? In private, if that's all right?" Bella asked carefully.

"Sure! Come to the kitchen with me."

Bella followed her hostess to the small galley and perched on a barstool.

"Shelly, Vicky mentioned something to me once about an incident that happened with her a while ago. I didn't want to ask her about it, it seemed too awkward."

Shelly's eyebrows rose over her aqua eyeshadow as she smacked her lips.

"I know what you're talking about. I don't think I'd be doing much harm telling you. I figured everybody knew who was working with us back then..."

Bella had been working with the women for a decade, but had never felt a kinship with them until now. Had she been too aloof?

"It was maybe five years ago. Vicky and her husband were going through a rough patch ... I think it had something to do with child discipline at home…so one of the store detectives starts flirting with her. He was a lot younger, maybe twenty-five. They began taking their breaks together, and then they started seeing each other outside of work. She was smitten."

"Vicky said it ended after about seven months. What happened?"

"She was going to leave her husband for him and he called the whole thing off and told her he was getting married!"

"To who?"

"That little bitch Nabisco merchandiser, that's who! Naomi, or something."

"No!" Bella gasped. She vaguely remembered Naomi and couldn't believe that the scandal took place without her being aware of it.

"Oh yes he did!" Vicky said from behind them.

Bella's face turned beet red. How much of the conversation had Vicky overheard?

"That's my cue to leave," Shelly said and whisked back to the living room.

"Bella, if you wanted to know, you could've just asked me," Vicky said, sounding hurt.

"I'm so sorry. It was wrong of me. I just didn't want to dredge up anything painful by asking you."

Vicky inhaled sharply and leaned her head against the wall, her clingy jersey dress making her tall frame appear even more angular. She appraised Bella momentarily.

"I'm not mad at you. It's not painful, per se. It just reminds me how stupid I was and how many witnesses there are to corroborate."

"I'm sure you're exaggerating. Nobody thinks you're stupid," Bella said.

"I think you'll find that Emmett disagrees. He's given me the Scarlet Letter treatment for years."

"Maybe he's jealous?"

"Probably not. Look, bottom line is that I loved this guy, and he broke my heart. I told my husband and asked for forgiveness, and he gave it. I've moved on."

As they went back into the dining room, the door prize winner was announced.

"...And the lucky Goddess is...Jessica! Congratulations. Use it in the best of health," Senna said.

Shelly cleared her throat. "Ahem. The winner also gets a second prize. I've contributed a ten dollar gift card to Radio Shack. If you're like me, that'll get you a week's worth of batteries!"

Friday afternoon, Bella arrived to work early, slipping past most of her co-workers unnoticed, save for Edward, and crept into the empty break room, waiting for him to follow.

She'd had just touched up her lip gloss when he sauntered through the door with a mischievous grin. He kept his eyes locked with hers as he pulled his time card from his wallet and swiped it through the machine.

Hello, he said with his eyes, and came toward her. They were taking a big risk. Usually they tried to maintain their distance when in the common areas where they could be caught, but right now they seemed to both be forgetting that.

Just as he was reaching out to her, Esme Whitlock burst into the room, owning every inch of her five-foot-four-inch frame, her nostrils flared, pointing at Bella indignantly.

"I can't believe what a fool I've been! You've been seducing this boy right under everyone's noses. How could you, you trollop? Who do you think you are, Mrs. Robinson?"

"What are you talking about?" Bella said.

"Don't play coy with me! I've been watching you for weeks now, and when I saw the way you two looked at each other right before he followed you in here, I decided to confirm my suspicions."

Edward said, "Yeah we've been seeing each other, so what? That's no reason for you to be calling her names. Why does everyone have to make such a big deal about the age difference? It's no big deal."

Esme spun in surprise. "He doesn't know? Well, let me enlighten you Edward."

"No, please! Not like this," Bella begged.

"What's she talking about? Bella, talk to me."

Esme clicked the lock and pressed her back to the break room door, staring at Bella with anger and vehemence.

"Nobody's going anywhere until we get this out in the open. Bella, you tell him right now or I will."

Bella broke into a cold sweat and felt the blood retreat from her face as she braced herself against a nearby chair, defeated.

"I'll do it." Summoning up all the courage she had, she said, "Edward, I'm married." Then she squeezed her eyes shut, preparing for his wrath.

"You're married," Edward repeated slowly. "What does that mean?"

Esme sighed. "It means that she has a husband and a house with a mortgage. She's a grown-up."

"Fuck you, Esme! I'm not a child," Edward said.

"Well, I – Excuse me." Esme's voice wavered and she abruptly left the room.

Seconds ticked by without a sound as Bella felt the full weight of her shame.

She couldn't look at him as she said, "I'm so, so sorry. I wanted to tell you, but I was scared."

"I need some time to process all of this."

"Of course," she said, her voice giving away her desperation.

Then he rushed out, leaving her alone as she stood and wiped her sweaty palms against her apron and tried not to cry.

She wasn't sure how she got through her shift that night. Edward had disappeared from his register, most likely having left early. She avoided Esme at all costs and Vicky had the day off. Somehow, she managed to smile at the customers and listened halfheartedly while Jessica read her a Cosmo quiz.

"I'm going to go take a coffee break, okay?"

"Sure, Bella."

She stopped at the bathroom first and was washing her hands when the door opened and Esme entered.

"He doesn't want to talk to me anymore. "

Esme looked at her for a long moment and sighed, combing her fingers through her neat hair. The creases in her forehead had become more pronounced since last week.

She spoke with renewed calm. "That's probably for the best, I think." Then, taking a deep breath she said, "Bella, I don't want you to think that I hate you. You might not realize this now, but you were making a huge mistake that you would have lived to regret your entire life. I couldn't stand by and watch you do that to yourself, or to Edward. He's like a son to me, and I don't want him robbed of his -"

"You see me as an Old Testament temptress, out to steal a young man's virtue."

"No, I was going to say 'his romantic heart.' I've known that boy all his life and he's so naïve and vulnerable. You could break him so easily."

Bella swallowed back her tears.

"You give me far too much credit. I've never broken anyone's heart. Edward would've been the one to tire of me, sooner or later. I should thank you, actually."

"I can't believe I said all those horrible things to you! I'm menopausal... I'm an old grouchy mama bear looking out for her cubs."

"More like an irritable grizzly," Belly said wryly.

They laughed and Bella turned off the faucet and turned to face Esme.

"How long have you known?"

"I've suspected it for a couple of weeks. I'm sorry for the way I handled it, but not the result. Do you forgive me?"

She nodded and tasted the salty tears that had collected on her lip.

It was over before it began.


End notes:

There's a golden oldie, Secretly, sung by Jimmie Rodgers that kept playing in my head when I wrote this chapter. You can Google it if you like. I used to listen to it on the radio when I was a kid. At the time, I naively equated the lyrics to teenage angst. Now I found out that it's somewhat of a GLBT anthem. - My duh!

The Christmas Tree Shops - a New England retail chain originating in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In spite of its name, it isn't a Christmas specialty store.

Thanks for sticking with me. I'm working on an outtake right now that I'm a little nervous to tell you who it's about. I'll just go ahead and say it and suffer the consequences. It's a Leah outtake because you deserve to know her luggage.

I'm still writing, but epically slow. You're welcome to PM me with questions here or find me on Twitter at jeneffleurage. Ciao.