A/N: So, here's a little Ned and Stella future take that pretty much no one asked for. Ha. But in the midst of a crazy time both personally and worldwide, I picked up this chapter that had been laying around and tried to get myself past a long-ass block by finishing it.
Huge heartfelt thanks to the best beta ever, Hadley Hemingway. Your guidance and friendship mean so much to me. Thanks also to my friends who helped along the way with this story - Sixdlbfive and Littlecat358. Love you ladies so. To jeaboo1, I'm eternally grateful that this story was the reason we met and became friends. And someday, we're going to the Boom Boom Room.
Grateful as always to anyone who takes the time to read. This fandom never disappoints.
Almost Eight Years Later….
Blinding sunlight streams through the living room's large windows. Squinting against the brightness, I skirt around the edge of the couch and go through the French doors onto the deck. My arms strain a little under the weight of the wood tray I'm carrying, and I stop to adjust my grip. It lessens the ache in my shoulders… but not the ache in my chest.
When my sunglasses fall forward from the top of my head and land crookedly on my face, it doesn't really hurt, but it's one more blow to my pride and patience on a morning when I'm already struggling to hold it together. I feel the lump in my throat bubble up, and tears well in my eyes as I walk across the cool planks of the deck.
For a minute, I distract myself by getting settled on one of the lounge chairs – spreading a beach towel over the damp cushion, adjusting the backrest to the angle I like, and straightening my sunglasses. When I finally sit back, I take a deep breath and look around. This deck is among my favorite places in the world, but this morning, the dew-scented air and chirping birds don't make me smile. My eyes aren't drawn to the sunrays dancing on the surface of the lake below. Instead, the thoughts I've suppressed for the last half hour inch into the front of my mind bit by bit, blocking everything else out and bringing unwelcome – complicated – emotions with them.
"Shit," I hiss through gritted teeth. Hot tears pool in my eyes again, spilling over this time to run down my cheeks. I've moved past hurt, and now I'm mad. Mad that I let the same person break my heart again. Mad that quiet sobs rack my body. Mad that I can't yell out my frustration without everyone next door hearing me. And I'm especially pissed that I'm awake on a Saturday morning when I could've slept in. "Goddammit!"
Why? Why did I try? Why did I spend so much time attempting to rebuild a relationship that was irretrievably broken years ago? Even though I told myself I was doing it for other people, deep down I also wanted it for myself. I thought some part of me would be fulfilled, validated.
"Stupid," I mumble, shaking my head. "So goddamned fucking stupid."
I cry until the wave of anger subsides. Eventually, my shaky breaths even out again. The wet streaks on my face dry, but nausea continues to roll my stomach. Pushing my sunglasses to the top of my head, I sit up and study the things on the tray beside me, hoping for a remedy. The coffee doesn't sound good – and it's cold now anyway – so I take a few sips of the water. Wrinkling my nose at the food, I pick up the cold washcloth instead and wipe my face and neck. It feels good, but it doesn't really help the queasiness.
Sighing, I lean back again, laying the folded cloth across my forehead. My eyes scan the meadow across the lake and then are drawn to the left. Despite my dejection, the sight of the green dock jutting into the dark water grips my heart and makes me smile the way it has since the first time I sat in this spot on this deck… almost seven years ago.
I close my eyes, tilting my face toward the sky and letting my mind wander. Memories jumble together, and I'm suddenly – vividly – back in that time. I remember the excited voices of my favorite people and the laughter that echoed from every direction around the lake. I can taste the sweet cinnamon in Mama Whitlock's apple pie and smell the gunpowder drifting through the air as fireworks burst in the night sky. It was one of the best weekends of my life.
But it didn't start out that way.
I'm surprised by the quick stab of pain that still cuts through my chest when I think about the phone call I received just before that magical weekend. The call that threatened to leave a dark cloud hovering over my happiness.
Seven years earlier…
Shit! It sounds like he's coming up the stairs. Hastily wiping away the tears on my cheeks, I run into the master bathroom and stare at myself in the mirror. I look like hell; he'll know I've been crying. Yanking open the drawer of my vanity, I grab the Visine and squeeze a drop in each eye and then bend over the sink to splash cold water on my face.
"In here," I answer when he calls for me again, relieved that my voice sounds normal. I turn off the faucet and grab the hand towel, covering my face with it just as he appears in the doorway.
"Hey. I'm back, but I almost lost an arm picking up my tux at Dad and Esme's," he says, sounding amused. "When Esme found out that Dad sent me to the guest room to get it, she practically tackled me in the hallway. I ran into the wall and cut myself on that iron light thing–"
"Right. Sconce. And Esme beat me to the guest room and slammed the door in my face," he finishes, chuckling. "Apparently, there was something in there she didn't want me to see."
My wedding dress. That's what she didn't want him to see. At my final fitting last week, Esme and Mrs. Hahn, the seamstress, couldn't agree on the old wives' tale – whether the groom shouldn't see the dress or shouldn't see the bride in the dress before the wedding. Since none of us knew for sure, Esme and I took the dress to her house and hung it in the guest room, just to be safe. At the time, we laughed about the silly superstition. But now, the weight of my sadness quashes the humor of Ned's story… and dampens my excitement for the upcoming weekend.
"Saw a different side of my stepmom this afternoon. That's for sure." Although the tone of his voice is still light-hearted, I hear caution sneaking in. His footsteps are slow as he walks across the tile floor to me, and then he tugs on the edge of the towel. "What's going on under there?"
Knowing I won't be able to hide much longer, I let him pull the towel away but keep my eyes lowered as he moves closer. He lifts his hand to cup my chin, applying gentle pressure to turn my head toward him.
"I can't look at you right now," I whisper, resisting.
"Well, that's not something a man wants to hear his fiancée say five days before the wedding," he mutters dryly. My heart lurches painfully when I hear his concern, and I suddenly want to comfort him… want him to comfort me. Twisting toward him, I bury my face in his chest, wrapping my arms around his waist. He holds me close, rubbing my back for a moment before breaking the silence. "What's wrong, baby?"
"My mom called," I say quietly as new tears gather in my eyes. "She decided not to come to the wedding."
"What? Why not?"
"She gave me some bullshit excuse about not being able to get a good deal on a flight," I respond, pausing to swallow the lump in my throat. "And she said that the ceremony is just a formality anyway since we've been living together for over a year."
"Fuck, Stel. I'm sorry." His arms tighten around me as I inhale unevenly, trying not to completely fall apart. "Do you want me to talk to her? We can pay for her airfare."
If anything about this situation would make me laugh, it would be the idea of Ned calling Renee. When we visited her in Phoenix several months ago, she was barely civil to him, even though he used all his semi-asshole charm and impeccable manners on her. I wouldn't subject him to a one-on-one dose of her nasty attitude during the week of our wedding, and she already turned down my offer to cover her travel costs anyway. But I love that he offered to try to change her mind.
I don't speak but shake my head as I move my arms to twine around his shoulders. Lifting up on my tiptoes, I press my lips against his warm neck. We stay in place for a couple of minutes, his hands still gently gliding up and down my back, consoling me.
"I need to start packing," I finally mumble, loosening my hold on him. As my hands skim down his arms, I feel a large bandage covering part of his upper arm. Pulling back slightly, I look at it, puzzled at first. "What the – the sconce?"
"Yeah," he answers with a laugh. "Esme felt terrible. She doctored me up like I was a little kid."
"She's a pretty great stepmom." He hums in agreement as I continue studying the bandage, tracing my finger along the rounded edge.
"Look at me, Stel." Reluctantly, I tilt my head back and meet his steady, serious gaze. "It's not just a formality to me."
"It's not just a formality to Esme and my dad, or to your dad and Kim. It's not just a formality to Mama Whitlock, Big Daddy, and all those honorary brothers of yours, including the one who calls you his future wife and the one who's your best friend."
"You're my best friend," I interrupt, frowning at him.
"You're my best friend, too." He's smiling as he bends down to kiss me, Just as I'm ready to deepen the kiss, though, he pulls back. "Come on. I'll help you pack."
"You don't have to do that just to make me feel better."
"I'm not. I'm doing it because you suck at folding clothes."
Pushing him away playfully, I look at him with narrowed eyes. "You have faults, too, you know."
"Lots of them," he replies, hooking an arm around my neck. As we walk into the bedroom, he draws me close, kissing the top of my head. "Think you'll like being married to me anyway?"
"Yeah, Ned," I answer, wrapping both arms around him even though it's difficult to walk that way. "I think I'll like it just fine."
"What's your point?" I ask, punctuating my question with a loud sigh. I should be more patient with the man who'll be my husband in three days, but I've been listening to him complain nonstop for the last half hour of the drive. It's irritating.
"My point is that I don't understand why the mantel still isn't installed. The rest of the goddamned house is finished," he grumbles as we pull to a stop in front of our cabin. "The builder promised the house would be inhabitable by this weekend."
"And it is," I remind him, getting out from my side of the car.
Only a week after we got engaged last August, we agreed that we wanted to get married over the following Fourth of July weekend at his grandparents' cabin in Roslyn. Ned immediately began lobbying for us to build our own cabin on the property. He didn't have to lobby very hard; I was on board pretty quickly. I insisted it be similar in style to his grandparents' house. He insisted it be built in time for the wedding. We both got our wishes.
We spent last weekend moving some of our stuff in, even though the contractor was still installing plumbing fixtures and deck lighting. Everything's done now except the fireplace mantel… which I had something to do with. Ned doesn't know that yet, though.
Still muttering under his breath, he pops the trunk open and reaches for our bags, reminding me of something else Ned doesn't know yet.
"Let's walk through the house first," I suggest, taking his hand.
He huffs exaggeratedly but doesn't protest as I hook my pinky around his and pull him toward the front porch. After unlocking the door, he pushes it open to let me walk inside ahead of him. I stop just past the threshold, mouth gaping – the house doesn't look the same as it did when we left three days ago. We knew the furniture was delivered yesterday, but what I see is so much more. In the living room, a cream-colored blanket is draped across the back of the dark leather couch. Oversized art books and a vase of colorful wildflowers decorate the square coffee table. Several framed photos of us and the people we love are set around the room.
It's a home.
Glancing toward the kitchen, my eyes fill with tears when I see the antique dishes that belonged to Ned's grandmother displayed in the glass-front cabinets. A bottle of red wine and two long-stemmed glasses sit on the island. The handwriting on the envelope propped against the bottle confirms my suspicion about whose handiwork this is.
"Looks like Esme beat us here," Ned remarks, squeezing my fingers. I squeeze back, recognizing the pride in his voice. They've grown pretty close during the last year, especially in the six months since Carlisle and Esme got married. Despite Edward's claim that he doesn't need a mother at his age, Esme has easily assumed a nurturing role in his life – in both of our lives, really.
"It's absolutely perfect."
He agrees and leads me to the kitchen. While he uncorks the wine, I open the note she left and read it to myself.
Welcome home, kids. This is what happens when you give an interior design team a key and carte blanche. Enjoy your afternoon – we'll see you for dinner. Bella's room is ready at our house. XO, Es
"What's she talking about? Your room?" Ned asks, startling me. I didn't realize he was reading along over my shoulder. Time to reveal the other thing he doesn't know.
"Um, I'm staying at their cabin until after the wedding."
"You're not staying here? On the first night we can sleep in our own cabin, you decided to stay with my parents?"
"Basically, uh, yeah," I nod, daring to look at him while I take the glass he holds toward me. Now he's the one whose mouth is hanging open. He regroups quickly, scowling down at me and crossing his arms over his chest.
"Was this Esme's idea or Mama Whitlock's?"
"Neither," I insist nervously, rushing to explain. "It was mine. All the Whitlock boys and Emmett are staying here, and Jas keeps calling it your three-day bachelor party. So, one, I'd be totally out of place, and two, Mama always says those boys are louder than a pack of hounds on a hunt. There's no chance I'd get any sleep. You know how I feel about my sleep, Ned. Plus… I think it would be romantic if the first night we spend together in the cabin is our wedding night." Pausing to take a breath, I feel my face heat under his stare. He doesn't look happy. "And I have a surprise about that, too."
He raises one eyebrow. "Which is?"
"Saturday, after the reception, everyone else is spending the night at the hotel in Cle Elum. We'll have our cabin – and Masen Lake – all to ourselves. Just you and me."
His face relaxes, lips lifting into a smile. "Really? That's a good surprise, baby," he says softly, leaning down to kiss me – twice. "Any other details about this weekend you've forgotten to mention?"
"Well," I say, drawing the word out for several ticks, "there's a good chance Mama will make us line dance at the reception. She says it's a Whitlock tradition."
"How good a chance, percentage-wise?"
"Um, a hundred."
I don't expect Ned's burst of laughter, and it makes me laugh, too, engulfed in sheer joy for a moment. Careful not to spill my wine, I move in, pressing myself against his body.
"I'll do it for Mama and for you." He leans back to look at me. "Come on. Let's look at the rest of the house."
Carrying our wine glasses, we walk through the other rooms, pointing out more things we like, more of the details Esme included that fit us perfectly. Once the tour is complete, we head out to the deck overlooking the lake and sit down together on a lounge chair. Resting against Ned's chest, I lace my fingers loosely with his.
"I love it here. Promise me we'll spend every anniversary at our cabin."
"I promise, Stel. Every year."
Glancing down toward the lake, I smile when I see the freshly-painted green dock. Esme did that, too. Well, she hired someone to do it.
"We had our first big fight right down there, remember?" I ask.
"I remember," he answers. "I was an asshole."
"Semi-asshole," I correct as I pull his arms around me, snuggling closer.
We spend the next hour relaxing, talking intermittently, cherishing our last piece of peace and quiet. Before the shade of the house has completely overtaken the deck, I hear cars coming up the driveway that the cabins share.
"They're here!" Hopping up from the chair, I wait impatiently while Edward stands. Urging him to hurry, I rush down the deck stairs and along the gravel path leading from our cabin to Carlisle and Esme's. We circle around the side of the house, toward the sound of excited voices out front. "Mama! Big Daddy!"
In the rush of crushing hugs and chatter that follows, I lose sight of Edward several times, but I hear him constantly – talking to Scott and Jer, laughing with Joey, teasing Mama Whitlock. Esme fawns over Rosalie's brand-new engagement ring, and I hold Riley in my arms, even though Alice says she's too big. I love the noisy conversation surrounding us almost as much as I love all these people.
Just as Carlisle begins herding everyone into the house for drinks and dinner, one more car pulls up the drive.
"Look, Aunt Bella. Your daddy's here," Riley announces, pointing toward the truck.
"I'll take her, Baby Swan," Emmett says quietly from my left side, reaching for Riley. "Go see Charlie."
"I want Aunt Rose," Riley protests, pitching to my right instead.
Rosalie catches her, smiling at me. I mouth a "thank you" at her and then turn around. Ned is waiting for me a few feet away, and we walk hand in hand to my dad's truck. In the last few hours, my gloom about Renee's rejection has dissipated somewhat — seeing my smiling dad seems to trample the last bit of my self-pity. After squeezing Ned's hand, I let go, running the last few steps into my dad's open arms.
"I'm so glad you're here," I whisper into his shoulder.
He swallows loudly, and when he answers, his voice is thick with emotion. "I wouldn't be anywhere else."
"Well, Baby Swan, it's your last night as a single woman," Jas declares, dropping into the chair next to mine.
"What tipped you off, Einstein?" I ask cheekily. I haven't been able to contain my elation all evening. I'm practically floating two feet above the ground. "The big white tent? The catered dinner? Or was it the part where we rehearsed the ceremony with the minister?"
"Watch it, smartass," he warns with a grin, "or Em and I will take you to town again tonight."
"God, no," I groan, remembering the throbbing headache I woke up with this morning. Last night, I went to the Brick for what I thought was a drink with my boys. The rest of the Whitlocks soon joined us, and I ended up staying out way too late – and drinking way too much.
"You're off the hook. It's Edward's turn," Jas whispers conspiratorially. He gestures to the area where Ned is standing with his father and mine. "Look at him. Poor guy has no idea what he's in for tonight."
"Jasper, so help me, if he's not upright for the wedding–."
"Don't worry. We'll go easy on him," he soothes. He gets up, offering a hand to pull me to my feet, too. "Gimme some sugar, sugar."
We kiss each other's cheeks and hug tightly, swaying side-to-side for a moment.
"I love you, Jas," I whisper, misty-eyed.
"Love you, too, Baby Swan. I'm really happy for you."
"I'm happy for me, too," I laugh. I let go of him and press my fingers to the leaky corners of my eyes.
"Run along, son. I need a few minutes with Bella," Mama says firmly, appearing out of the shadows. Jas and I exchange a look, both recognizing the tone of her voice. She means business. He whispers something to her as he bends to kiss her cheek, and then winks at me before he turns to walk toward his brothers. Mama hands me a glass of white wine and links her arm through mine, leading me away from the tent and all the lights. She smiles warmly at me. "You've hardly had a second to breathe this evening. Did you at least get a piece of my pie?"
"Yes, Mama, I had pie." Knowing she always fishes for compliments about her baking, I try to please her. "It was even more delicious than usual."
"Suck up," she teases, squeezing my arm. Her tone changes when she goes on. "Now, then, sweet pea, I have a few things to say."
"Is this going to be enough wine?" I mutter, only half-joking. I have a feeling this conversation is going to be at least partly about my mom. I haven't asked Ned, but I figure he must have quietly let everyone know she wasn't coming because no one has mentioned her absence during the two days since we all arrived.
"Your sarcasm does amuse me sometimes," she remarks wryly. Even though I can't see her face, I can tell by her inflection that her lips are pursed. "I just wanted a moment alone with you before things get crazy tomorrow."
"Sorry, Mama," I reply, feeling a little guilty for my wisecrack. But I also take a big gulp of wine.
"I've remained quiet about the elephant in the room as long as I'm capable. I'm so sorry that your mama's not gonna be here. Having never met Renee, I don't know enough about her to venture a guess at what she's thinking."
"Well, I have met her, and I can't explain her decision either," I mumble.
"This is just one of those times in life when you have to accept that you can't control another person's behavior."
"I did that a long time ago when it comes to Renee. Or I thought I did. Somehow, this still surprised me… hurt me."
"Oh, honey, I know how keen the cuts inflicted by family can be. Mamas are supposed to do better, though." When she stops walking, I do, too, and we turn to face each other. "But as your honorary mama, I want you to know that I couldn't be prouder of you. I love you just as much as I love those wild boys I raised from birth. And I'm honored that you asked me to be here with you and Edward."
"Thank you," I reply, my voice breaking. I hug her, soaking up the affection she always gives so unconditionally.
"You're as welcome as a cool shower on a hot day," she murmurs, squeezing me tightly. We're silent for a beat before she speaks again. "I trust I don't need to give you one of those 'night before the wedding' talks."
"No, ma'am," I insist, smiling and sniffling as we pull back to look at each other.
"What about Edward? Is he all set?"
"I don't think Edward wants to talk to you about sex."
"Don't be silly. I wasn't offering to speak to him."
"I was offering to have William speak to him. I tell you true — that man sure had a knack in the sack back in the day," she declares, chuckling as I chug the rest of my wine. "My boys weren't the ones who first called him Big Daddy, you know."
"Didn't know. Didn't need to know," I answer quietly, closing my eyes. "I can't talk to you about this, Mama."
"Oh, all right, all right. Don't go gettin' your knickers in a knot," she says, laughing again. I know part of her objective is to distract me from the weight of our earlier conversation, but I'm afraid she's also serious about some of what she just said. Luckily, before I have a chance to think too much about it, she pats my back soundly. "Pull yourself together, sweet pea. My boys are headed this way with your groom."
"Hey, Baby Swan, we're gonna borrow Edward for a while." Jeremy's voice is cheerful – too cheerful.
"What are you going to do?" I ask, eyeing the group suspiciously as I step away from Mama.
"Just get a few things straight before you hitch yourself to him for life," Joey offers, grinning at me. He claps his hand on Ned's shoulder. "Right, city boy?"
"I don't think I have much choice," Ned gripes, but he's smirking.
"Sure, you do," Jason adds. "You can agree to our conditions right off the bat, or you can drink whiskey until you do agree."
"Jasper and I are driving. And not drinking," Scott says to Mama before she can ask. She nods approvingly as he jingles the keys in his hand. "Let's roll. Say goodnight to the ladies, Edward."
"Night, Mama," he says obediently. Stepping closer to me, he bends down to speak softly. "You okay, Stel?"
"Mmhmm," I respond, smiling at him. "Have fun. Call me if I need to come and save you."
"I can't. They took my cell phone away."
I laugh, and Ned joins in. "Then you're on your own. Good luck," I tease. Raising one hand to his neck, I hold him in place and kiss him gently. "See you tomorrow night at six."
"I'll be waiting at the end of the dock."
Before I can kiss him again, Joey and Jer pull him away. Mama and I stand together, watching the rowdy group walk toward the cars parked out front. My eyebrows shoot up in surprise when I see that Carlisle, Big Daddy, and my dad are following them.
"Goodness gracious, even the old-timers are tagging along," Mama says with a giggle as they pile into two cars. "You know, sweet pea, I almost feel sorry for Edward."
"You know, Mama," I laugh as the cars drive away, horns honking obnoxiously, "I almost feel sorry for him, too."
Lying in bed a few hours later, I stare at the ceiling, too excited – and nervous – to sleep. Twisting my engagement ring idly around my finger, I listen to the music carrying across the surface of Masen Lake and through my open window.
The cars came up the driveway a while ago. Along with slamming car doors, I heard the boys shouting and then one loud splash. The raucous laughter that followed was so exuberant that I laughed along with them, even though I bet it was my fiancé who was tossed in the lake. I hope Ned is having fun – and I hope Joey and Jer aren't getting him too drunk.
Eventually the sound outside quiets down, and I close my eyes, finally feeling sleepy. Just as I'm drifting off, something scratches against the side of the house, startling me back to alertness. Alarmed about what kind of critter could be crawling up toward my room, I stare at the window anxiously, heart pounding. Paralyzed, I clutch the quilt and listen to the noise come closer… and closer. It's not until I hear a hissed expletive that I realize what – or rather, who – is out there.
"What the hell are you doing, Ned?" I whisper sternly when I see the silhouette of his unkempt hair pass the edge of the windowsill. In the dim light, I see his face appear, and I have to bite the inside of my cheek not to laugh at him. "If you're climbing up here to call off the wedding, you can just go right back down."
"Why would I call off the wedding?"
"I don't know. You've been out carousing all night. Every available girl in Roslyn was probably flirting with you. Maybe you've decided the single life is pretty good," I answer, watching as he pries the loose screen away and knocks it to the floor. "Or Joey might have scared you off. He's a bad influence, you know. Even Mama says so."
"He just started pouring tequila in our kitchen," Edward chuckles, boosting himself through the opening. We've both professed our love for Joey, despite the penchant he has for getting himself – and us – in trouble when we visit the ranch. Being in love with Maggie has slowed him down some, but Joey will always be Joey. "I said I was going to sleep, and then I sneaked over here instead."
"I missed you."
"I missed you, too," I confess, pulling the covers back in invitation. He grins affectionately at me before replacing the screen on the window. Moving to stand at the side of the bed, he takes off his shoes and shorts and then slides in beside me so we're face to face.
"Hi." We both smile as our lips meet. I smell alcohol, but it's not as strong as I feared. When I curl my fingers around the nape of his neck, his hair is damp. "Lake?"
"Yeah. Emmett and Jasper threw me in. That was after the fourteen fucking lectures I got from all of them, including Carlisle, about what will happen to me if I screw this up," he complains, sounding both grumpy and amused. "For the record, Stel, I'm not stupid enough to do that again."
"Good," he grins, pecking my lips. "Talk to me. I've missed hearing you ramble at night."
"Are you implying that my droning on and on puts you to sleep?" I tease. Pulling my fingers repeatedly through his hair, I tell him about the funny relationship advice I received from Mama and Esme and the sweet conversation I had with Kim about my dad. Although Edward smiles and hmms at the correct moments, he blinks more and more slowly until his eyes finally stay closed. When he doesn't react to my detailed description of the honeymoon lingerie Rosalie and Alice gave me, I know he's out. I brush my lips lightly against his. "Night, Ned."
He grunts in reply, never opening his eyes.
Content to be back in his arms after spending two nights away from him, I scoot down to rest my head against his chest and shut my eyes, expecting sleep to come easily. But it doesn't. For what feels like hours, I listen to his deep, even breaths and the steady beat of his heart while I think about him, about tomorrow, about everything we've gone through to reach this day. I don't know how long it really is that I lie wide awake, musing about him. Long enough that my body warms. Long enough that my breaths come faster. Long enough that I don't want to wait anymore.
Giving in to my desire, I lay my hand flat against his stomach and shift higher in the bed. He doesn't move – doesn't react – as I slowly kiss my way up his neck. When I fasten my mouth around his chin, scraping my tongue along the stubble, he digs one hand into my hair, groaning. Changing the motion of my mouth, I suck lightly, letting my hand drift down to the front of his boxers at the same time.
"What're you doing, Stel?" he mumbles, grabbing my hand before I can grab him.
I kiss him once, and then leave my lips almost touching his as I answer. "Demonstrating my impressive seduction skills."
"Baby, we can't," he mutters. "Not here."
"That's not what you said when we did it in this same bed last weekend," I quip, lifting one leg over his.
"Your dad wasn't sleeping across the hall last weekend."
"He's not sleeping across the hall now," I whisper, pausing to trace my tongue along his lower lip. "He's next door."
"That's worse! We shouldn't, Bella," he protests, but he's finally kissing me – not just kissing me back. I know he's going to give in.
"We'll be quiet."
Letting go of my hand, he moans into my mouth when I slide my hand along the front of his boxer briefs. Stroking him slowly through the material, I feel him grow and harden under my fingers. For a few moments, he pushes himself rhythmically against my hand, and then he nudges my arm out of the way to pull me closer. His lips slow, nipping at mine, teasing me while his hand settles low on my hip.
"Spectacular ass," he says. My automatic argument that his is better is forgotten when he kisses me passionately once more. Hot bursts of lust and love flow through me, and I hold on tightly, hoping he understands everything I feel for him.
When he pulls away, I open my eyes and watch him sit up to take his t-shirt off. His boxers are next, dropping softly to the floor, and I follow suit, sliding my shorts and underwear down until I can kick them away. He moves over me, pushing my tank top up to kiss my stomach, my breasts.
"Where's my trivia, baby?"
It takes me a minute because Edward's mouth is very distracting, and one of his hands is slowly sliding up my inner thigh, but finally, I blurt out some random knowledge.
"Um, even after thousands of years of studying eels, no one really knows how they mate and reproduce."
A good five seconds tick by before he stops what he's doing and raises his head. Frowning, he looks like he doesn't believe me. "Wait. Really?"
"Swear to God. They, like, don't have reproductive organs, so no one knows for sure where the babies come from. There are just a bunch of theories about floating eggs and clouds of sperm."
"Huh. That's actually kind of disgusting, Stel."
"Sorry," I reply, knowing he's right and hoping I didn't kill the mood. "But I have wedding-relevant trivia, too."
"The average married couple has sex 68.5 times per year."
He laughs silently, resting his forehead against my chest. "Are we going to keep track? Because challenge accepted. I think we'll easily be above average in this department."
"No doubt," I agree as his mouth covers my breast again. He pushes my tank top up farther, and I yank it off, flinging it across the room. Crying out softly, I roll my lips together when he slides two fingers inside me, stroking slowly. The rapid rush of arousal spikes again, flooding my veins. As good as this feels, I want more, want him inside me. I lift my hips, weave my fingers through his hair, and he knows my body well enough to read those signals. But instead of giving me what I want, he pulls his hand away and pushes himself up on both arms, looking down at me.
"Hold on. How can you have point-five sex?"
Panting – and frustrated – I let my gaze slide to the left, pretending to ponder his basic and inconveniently-timed math question for a moment. With my heart still racing, I shift my eyes back to his.
"Uh, well, maybe if one person falls asleep before the other person is finished."
Patting his cheek patronizingly, I roll my lips together again, this time to keep from laughing. Ned is also fighting to keep a straight face.
"Well, maybe the first person had jet lag from flying for twenty-two hours straight to get home to the second person."
"Sounds like he's dedicated. So, he honestly should have been more determined to get her off," I retort, squealing when he grabs me around the waist and rolls us. He shushes me with a laugh, and I clap a hand over my mouth to quiet the giggles as I settle over him. We study each other for a minute, the mood turning more serious.
"I love you," he whispers, pulling at my arm until I lean down to kiss him. "And I promise to stay awake tonight if you do."
"Challenge accepted." I lift my hips, and we both sigh when he pushes deep inside me.
His hands move across my back, grip my ass, as we rock our bodies together. I keep kissing him until the intensity is too much, then I bury my face in the crook of his neck, moaning softly as pleasure finds me.
It's another hour before we finally give in to sleep, still clinging to each other.
A quiet knock at the door wakes me. The sun is already up, shining insistently through the sheer curtains over the windows as I untangle myself from Ned.
"Just a sec," I call. Scooting off the bed, I grab his t-shirt from the floor and pull it over my head. Before I reach the door, I hear his fingernails scratching across his stomach, and I turn to smile at him over my shoulder, holding one finger to my lips. I open the door a crack, grateful that it opens away from the bed.
"Mornin', sweet pea," Mama says, smiling sweetly. "It's past nine o'clock on your big day. Time to get moving. Here. I brought you a cup of coffee."
"Thanks, Mama," I yawn, accepting the steaming mug.
"You're welcome," she smiles, patting my arm. "Now, give Edward's shirt back to him, so he can skedaddle. We have things to do without him underfoot. And tell him to use the stairs instead of that ramshackle ladder that's leaning against the side of the house. We don't want a groom with a broken leg."
"Yes, ma'am," he calls out, laughing as I groan. My face feels like it's on fire as I close the door and turn to face him.
"Oh, my God. Everyone will know you were here all night. I'm so embarrassed."
Ned rolls out of bed and pulls on his boxers and shorts. I take his shirt off, wrapping a robe around myself. "We live together, Stel. I think they've figured out that we sleep in the same bed."
"But still," I whine, tossing his shirt at him as he walks toward me with a grin. "Don't make fun of me."
"Do you want me to go downstairs and tell everyone that I slept on the floor, and we kept all our clothes on?"
"Yes!" We both smile as he leans down to kiss me. When I hear a crinkling noise, I break away and look down. Edward is pulling a balled-up plastic supermarket sack from his pocket, which he hands to me. "What's this?"
"Just a little something I picked up for you." He takes the coffee mug from my hands and lifts it to his mouth, trying to hide his smirk. I narrow my eyes at him as I unwind the "wrapping," but I can't stop the flood of giggles when I see the little pink bottle inside the sack.
"You brought me Pepto?"
"I figure you might get nervous before the wedding. I want to make sure you show up."
"Oh, I'll be there, Ned, without or without Pepto," I assure him, tossing my gift toward the bed. I link my arms around his neck and pull him close. "I'll be the one in the long, white dress."
"I'll see you there, Stella."
"Say it like Brando."
"Stellaaaaa. Stellaaaaa," he murmurs, kissing me softly.
I push him into the hallway a minute later, not realizing until I shut the door that the semi-asshole stole my coffee. Walking toward the closet, I smile and shake my head when I hear an eruption of laughter from downstairs, wondering what Ned said to them. I unzip the black garment bag hanging from the top of the closet door and spread it open, revealing the long, white dress I told him I'd be wearing. As I run my hand along the lacy fabric, tiny, crazy butterflies flit around my stomach.
Maybe I'll need that Pepto after all.
The day passes in a blur of makeup and nail polish and hair pins. Before I know it, I'm hanging onto my dad's arm as we walk down the gravel path to the dock. Even though we kept the guest list small, it feels like there are a thousand eyes watching me. My gaze lands on several faces I know from Hale Software and from McCarty and Whitlock. I smile widely at Ang and Ben, and then at Peter and Charlotte.
But once my eyes meet Edward's, I don't look around any more. I drink in the sight of him, standing in the golden evening light, waiting at the end of the green dock for me. Just like the first time I met him, I will my eyes to memorize this moment, wanting to always remember the vision of him. The rush of emotion I feel is overwhelming as I kiss my dad and move to stand with Ned in front of the minister. The ceremony seems to happen in slow motion, yet it's over in the blink of an eye. We exchange vows and rings. We kiss to seal the promises made and whisper words meant only for each other as our guests applaud.
After posing for way too many pictures, we head to the resort in Cle Elum for the reception. I barely let my new husband out of arm's reach while we drink and dance with our family and friends. Although I think he's having a great time, he looks at me with a raised eyebrow as the clock ticks past eleven o'clock. It's a look I know well – I get it at every party we attend when he's ready to go. Tonight, I'm ready, too.
Nodding at him, I take his hand, leading him to our families to say goodbye. Neither of us wants a big send-off, so once we're finished, we quietly slip out of the hotel and into the resort's limo.
The drive to the cabin is quick, and as Ned unlocks the front door, I put my hand over his.
"Wait. You have to close your eyes before you go in," I order.
"I was going to carry you inside."
"We've already shunned most of the wedding superstitions, Ned. What's one more?" I laugh. I pull the key from the lock and wrap my fingers around his palm, pushing the door open with my other hand. "Close 'em. Watch your step."
"How am I supposed to watch my step with my eyes shut?" he grumbles, but he comes along willingly, letting me lead him to the living room. I stop him behind the couch, facing the fireplace, but far enough away that he can see the entire mantel with one glance.
Knowing how much he loves the personalized, intricately-carved mantel at his grandparents' cabin, I was surprised when he didn't include a similar one in the plans for this cabin. A few months ago, I called our contractor and he helped me find someone to design and craft one. "Cullen" is carved across the front of the wood, and our wedding date is cut into one side. We won't discuss how much it cost – or how much it cost to have it installed on a Saturday night while we were at the reception.
"Okay. Open them," I whisper. "Surprise."
"Bella," he breathes. He studies the mantel while I study him, happy that he looks pleased, emotional. Squeezing my fingers, he lifts our hands to his mouth, kissing the back of mine. "Jesus. It's gorgeous."
"I'm glad you like it," I answer quietly, following as he pulls me around the couch to get a closer look.
"I love it," he corrects, tracing along the smooth, dark wood. "I feel bad for yelling at the contractor about it, though."
"He understood," I say with a laugh. "But you were kind of an asshole to him last weekend."
"Semi-asshole," he argues, turning to smile at me.
"Semi-asshole," I agree with a nod.
"Thank you," he murmurs, leaning down to kiss me, then looking into my eyes. "You're stunning, Stel."
"Right back atcha, Ned." Winding my arms around his neck, I pull him down to kiss me. Just before our lips meet, I hear the first pop and sizzle of fireworks outside. We head out to the deck to watch, arms wrapped around each other. I watch the colors explode in the sky, reflected on the lake below. "It's midnight. The neighbors will hate us."
"Nah. They've been warned… and bribed with whiskey and Mama Whitlock's apple pie."
Grinning, I tilt my head up at him. "You think of everything."
"Not tonight, Stel. Tonight, I'm only thinking of you."
When he kisses me then, I press myself against him. Fireworks still burst overhead, but I'm not tempted to look. Not even once. And when Edward picks me up a few minutes later to carry me over the back threshold of our cabin, I whisper that I love him… and that today was perfect.
Lost in my sweet reminiscence, I'm startled by the noisy voices coming from the path below. My alone time is coming to an end, but instead of mourning that, I turn my head in the direction of the voices, looking for them. But they're on the part of the trail that winds through leafy trees that obscure my view. Sitting up straighter, I pull the washcloth from my forehead and set it aside. I push my sunglasses up to the top of my head, then I close my eyes again. I love listening to them.
"Daddy, Pops says I gets to help in the garden today."
"That's great, Caroline. Maybe Max can help, too."
"No! Not Max. Max is still a baby," she insists defiantly. "Just me and Eli and Will gets to help Pops and Riley."
"Max is a big boy. Aren't you, Max?" Ned asks. I chuckle to myself when Max jabbers in reply. I pick out a couple of words, but at seventeen months, most of his speech is still unrecognizable. "Slow down, Caroline."
"Mommy's on the deck. I see her legs," Caroline calls excitedly as she runs up the deck stairs. "Mommy! Mommy! I bringed you pancakes."
The thought of food turns my stomach, but I smile at her as she runs to me. Thanking her, I take the paper plate she shoves at me, grateful it's covered with foil so I don't have to look at the food.
"I'll get you syrup," she offers, running away before I can stop her. Her long nightgown flaps around her legs above her sandals. "And I gots to get dressed 'cause Uncle Jas is letting Riley take me and Will and Eli in the canoe."
The French door behind me opens and slams shut as I set the paper plate on the little table next to me.
She's always excited to be included in the older cousins' plans. Although Riley loves spending time with her little brothers and Caroline now, we're on borrowed time. She's a teenager, and the day isn't too far off when she'll prefer to stay in Seattle with friends rather than spend the weekend here with her family.
Hearing more footsteps on the stairs, I glance that way just as Max appears, riding on Ned's shoulders. He waves his arms excitedly when he sees me, and Ned lifts him down, setting him on the deck. While Ned slides the stair gate closed and latches it, Max toddles to me on chubby legs. Reaching my chair, he pats my knee and lays his head against it for a beat. Whispering good morning to him, I manage to stroke my fingers along the smooth skin of his hand before he breaks away, heading to the far end of the deck where his toys are.
"Morning, Stel. I was hoping you'd sleep in if I took the kids to Dad and Esme's for breakfast," Ned says, sitting sideways on the lounge chair next to mine.
"I couldn't sleep."
"You feeling okay?" he asks, frowning. Leaning toward me, he props his elbows on his knees. "You look pale today."
"Ned, I'm pale every day," I argue. I can't see his eyes behind the dark lenses of his sunglasses, but his lips curve upward, pink amongst the dark stubble of his unshaven face. Watching his head turn just the slightest bit, I realize what he's about to realize and reach for him, resting my hand on his forearm.
"Bella." His whispered word lets me know that he's examined the contents of the tray on the table between us. The large glass of water is half-empty while the coffee mug – filled with decaf – is full. The folded washcloth sits next to an unopened sleeve of saltine crackers and a plate of dry toast. The plate of Esme's pancakes – my favorite breakfast with or without syrup – is still covered. "Anything you want to tell me?"
"I was going to wait until our anniversary tomorrow," I answer, swallowing the lump in my throat. "But the morning sickness arrived a little earlier than expected."
"Baby," he says hoarsely, shifting to sit on my chair beside my legs. He pulls his sunglasses off and tosses them toward the other chair as he leans in. Both of us are teary-eyed as our lips meet, and then he pulls away, bending down to press a kiss on my stomach. "And baby."
Sniffling, I rest my hand on his head until he sits up again, grinning at me. "We're gonna be outnumbered now, you know. For the rest of our lives, it'll be them against us."
"I think we have a few years before that battle begins," I reply with a laugh.
"Here's the syrup, Mommy," Caroline announces, dashing back onto the deck. Thankfully, she doesn't bring a fork, so I don't have to pretend I'm going to eat the pancakes. Edward takes the bottle from her, and she disappears inside once more.
"Will it make you sicker to move so I can sit with you?" he asks quietly. Shaking my head, I scoot forward, glancing toward Max to make sure he's still occupied. Edward settles behind me, and then I lean back against his chest. "When did you find out?"
"A few days ago," I answer, linking my fingers with his. "I wanted to surprise you."
"I was going to take you down to the dock tomorrow. Or maybe out in the canoe."
"You think it happened then? The weekend we were here alone?"
"Mmhmm," I smile, remembering.
Esme and Carlisle offered to keep the kids the weekend before Edward's birthday so we could get away, and we eagerly took them up on it. We spent three and a half days alone at the cabin, talking, laughing, and sleeping. Since we weren't preoccupied by listening for Max crying or Caroline trying to get into our bedroom, we also relived our former, child-free life – in bed, on the dock, in the canoe. Although we missed the kids, the luxury of being lost in only each other for a couple of days was pure bliss.
"Are we telling our families this weekend?" he asks.
"I think we'd better. You'll never be able to keep your mouth shut," I tease, loving the chuckle that rumbles through his chest.
"Well, it would be convenient since my parents are here, and your dad and Kim are on their way," he reasons. "Then we can call Mama and Big Daddy. And Renee, too, unless you're going to wait until you go to Phoenix next week to tell her."
"Uh, the trip to Phoenix is cancelled," I say, breathing through the sudden rush of heartbreak that pushes my voice up an octave. "Renee called early this morning to say that it's not really a good time for the kids and me to visit her."
"Stel." Although his voice is hushed, I can hear the barely-controlled anger in his tone.
"Stop. It's no big surprise," I interject. That's true; I'm not surprised anymore by the new ways she finds to reject me. As the grief courses through me, I allow myself a moment to mourn the relationship I wanted but never had, vowing this will truly be the last time I let her affect me like this. "Renee's been pulling this same shit for years. It just pisses me off that she's doing it to the kids, too."
"It's her loss, Bella," he says, resting his head lightly against mine. "We have so many other people who love us and our kids."
Caroline races onto the deck again, slamming the door behind her again. I can practically feel Ned cringing behind me as the glass in the door rattles. She grabs her life jacket from the railing and opens the stair gate, much faster than either of us adults can ever manage. She hustles down the stairs and runs along the path to meet Riley and the boys, squealing the whole way.
"Christ," Ned mumbles behind me. "I love that kid more than my own life, but it's pretty early in the day for that pitch of shrill."
My ears are ringing, too. I can't help but smile at her happiness, though, and at her bouncing brown curls.
"She's the same age that Riley was when I met her… met you."
He grunts out a quiet chuckle, tightening his grip on my hands. "How about that? Full circle."
"We've come a long way since that first night we met."
"You mean when you yelled another man's name in the heat of the moment?"
"Stop making me laugh," I complain, wrapping my arms across my still-churning stomach. "I meant that we've really built a life together. And I love it."
He kisses the side of my head. "Me too, baby. Want me to get you some tea or ginger ale?"
"No, Ned," I answer, closing my eyes and leaning my head back against his shoulder. He grabs the washcloth and wipes it gently across my face. I'm happy and relaxed, listening to Max play, to the older kids' voices drifting up from the lake below. I wish I could bottle these moments, these precious days with all of them. But I'm satisfied with stealing these little bits of perfection whenever we can. "I want to sit here with you, just for a few more minutes."
And that's what we do.
(Finally) THE END.