Apologies for the late update. We've had a family emergency and had to scramble to make travel plans. Things are looking up and everyone is okay, but my schedule is stil all out of whack. So, while I have time today, I'm posting a new chapter, but I can't say for certain when I'll be able to post the next one (and this was the bad news). The good news is that the next chapter is the last one. I'll shoot for next week, but I don't know WHEN yet. Teaser for it is also up in the air.
Thank you for all the reviews and alerts. BCG passed 1,200 reviews. In keeping with tradition-Pixie's Mama, you posted review 1,200 and earned the right to request an outtake of your choice. Shoot me a PM!
As usual, Alice's White Rabbit, Midnight Cougar, and SunflowerFran wield the red pens.
RobsmyyummyCabanaboy and Deh are my plot coaches and shoulders to cry on. I am a tinkerer, though, so any errors left are my own boo-boos.
Without further ado, back to BCG and AwkWard.
BCG – CHAPTER 43
"Where the hell did I leave that folder?" I wonder aloud, and not without pique, while I storm around the kitchen trying to collect my stuff without dropping any of it, drink my coffee, and look for said folder.
Needless to say, the success I reap in all of these haphazard ventures is close to zero.
"Which folder?" Edward asks, wandering into the kitchen barefoot and scratching his abs with the absent, lazy gestures of a guy who just stumbled out of bed—which he did.
"It's a Fireblaze folder with a bunch of mock cover designs," I reply, still on the go and throwing murderous glances at the wall clock. Quarter past eight. I'm due at Vic's office at 9:30. I'll be lucky to make it on time, at this point.
He nods, still in that limbo he's suspended in for about an hour whenever he wakes, but stalks closer to me—and it may or may not be because I'm standing next to the coffee machine.
"Stop for one minute, love. Just one."
My face contorts into a conflicted grimace. I hate to fend him off, but I know his ways. And giving in to his pleas of "one minute" is not at all conducive to me being on time for my meeting.
"One minute, B. Just one."
I relent and melt into his welcoming arms where he stands there waiting for me. "I'm sorry. I feel frazzled and pulled in twenty different directions."
Edward folds me into his chest and shivers when I press my lips to his exposed skin. "I still haven't gotten used to your new hair." He chuckles, running his hands through my rebellious former pixie cut.
"It's been four months. It's due for a trim already."
"I love it. I really do. But sometimes, it still takes me by surprise. Don't worry about feeling frazzled. It comes with the territory. And you won't be late. You're the talent—they can't start without you," he lectures me lovingly. Then he gives me a good morning kiss that leaves me breathless and quite contrary that I can't play hooky with him today.
"I know, but it's rude. Now, that godforsaken folder …"
"Coffee table?" he asks, turning to grab his coffee mug from the machine.
Huge lightbulb moment. "Yes! Thank you!" I run back into the living room, and sure enough, the rogue folder with mock graphics sits there in full, unapologetic view—where I could have seen it twenty minutes ago if I'd been less frazzled.
"Found it?" Edward hollers from the kitchen, even though his feet shuffling along the hardwood floor indicates he's approaching.
I nod and stick the paperwork and a bunch of other crap into my tote bag. When I stand and check my belongings for the tenth time, Edward tenderly grasps my hand and stops me dead in my tracks with his gaze.
"You've been working too much. It's been a cruel, cruel summer, and you've left me here on my own …"
Bananarama. He's quoting Bananarama. And I'm on the fence as to whether I should be more worried that he's quoting them or that I recognise the damn song. "Were you even born when that song was released?"
"Not the point. We've been back here for almost three months, and you've been working non-stop."
I raise a sceptical eyebrow. "And you haven't? Who's been doing all the ADR work on Riley's movie? Casper the friendly ghost? Your imaginary friend?"
He snorts in response. I might be overworked, but at least I've retained my sense of humour.
"Point taken. This is our first stretch of … normalcy? Dare I even use that word?"
"Our version of normalcy will never be nine to five anywhere, but I see what you're saying. We've been home for the entire summer, and we've both been working our butts off."
"I like your butt. I don't want you to work it off," he retorts, pouting, as he leans on the console table in the hall next to where I'm standing.
I'm still checking I have everything I need in my purse and throwing anxious glances at the clock every now and then.
"You have to go, don't you?"
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"Don't. Apologise. We've been over that. It's the nature of the beast. It's your job now. So go get 'em, BCG. I love you. I'll see you later, right?"
"I sure hope so, EC. I love you too."
Just as I'm heading out the front door, I cross paths with Seth, who's here for his customary Monday briefing with Edward before they go on their merry way for the day. I wave at him and step into the waiting car.
"That's all we need for today, I believe," Victoria says, gathering her files.
We just ended a gruelling six-hour session with the editing people, the marketing people, and the graphics people. Tons of people. As a rule, I have almost photographic memory with names, but by now, my brain is fried, my eyes are crossing, and all the information I absorbed is blended together worse than a smoothie.
As the small throng of people congregated in the conference room file out, Vic and I wave at them and throw around automatic goodbyes until we're the only two ones left.
"We've made some distinct progress today," she announces as I reach for my water bottle.
"We did. I really love the latest draft of the cover design." This is true, although I didn't love the two hackneyed mock-ups I had to veto right out of the gate. "I didn't mean to be difficult on that score. Believe me."
"You don't need to apologise. I don't hire any people who want to get by with tired ideas, much less encourage them to stay employed. And they should have known from the start that being a first-time author doesn't imply you don't know your own mind or don't know your story. That jackass in graphics is on thin ice with me already, and now it's cracking well and good. Thank you for standing your ground and fighting for your story. We're here to help you become successful. I like having authors' input on book covers. You need to be involved, and having an organic process proves so much better in the long run."
I draw a deep sigh of relief. The experience of a first-timer in the big leagues is daunting in and of itself. "Sometimes hearing objections on how my work is viewed or represented triggers my defensive response. I guess I have to grow a thicker skin, don't I?"
Vic shakes her head, and her Titian-red curls follow suit in a riotous cloud. "Yes and no. The thicker skin is beneficial against loudmouth critics and the coteries of jealous incompetents you'll come across before too long, but don't stop advocating for yourself and your work. Only you can do that effectively, no matter how much the firm or I will champion you. Only you speak for you," she lectures, sliding the final approved mock-up of the cover towards me. "So, we're going with this?"
I look at the graphic again, trying to pinch myself mentally. I'm looking at the cover of my book. My first book. The title—Confidentiality Clause—is printed across the top section as the heading to a legal document in a sea of other paperwork strewn across a mahogany desk. A feminine, manicured hand wielding a red pen slashes edits through the document in the shadow of a tall guy in a suit, who stands with his back to the scene in the foreground. The only pops of colour are the title, the red ink of the corrections, and the guy's dark blond mop. The rest is printed in matte greyscale while my name straddles the bottom band of the cover in shiny, white block letters.
"I like it. It's not obvious, but all the elements of the story are there. Do you like the other titles?"
I finally came up with titles for the sequels, even though I've just started outlining them. But this is a machine that never stops, and I'm already planning and researching chapters whenever I'm not in meetings with Vic for the launch of Confidentiality Clause.
"I think you nailed them. They create the flair of a progression in the story—which is what we want—and yet remain mysterious enough to hook readers. It helps that they're not overused clichés. Lateral Hire and Unethical Partnership—incisive and intriguing. Bravo, B."
"Well, now I only have to write the damn books, right?"
She pats my forearm. "Don't let the pressure overwhelm you, or you'll only end up burning out too soon. We've crossed big-ticket items off our list. The cover is done. Titles for the entire series are done. ARCs are already going out to industry publications and the first round of bloggers we've identified. We have a media campaign in place. We have a launch date in six weeks. Take a couple days off. Recharge."
As she enumerates everything we did today, a frisson of unease creeps down my spine at the very last point on Vic's list. I've been entreated, cajoled, encouraged, and then flat out ordered to build an online presence. It's kind of a must. I've had my hang-ups about this, though.
"The social media thing. Do I really have to?"
Vic retracts her hand, crosses her arms, then takes a long, good look at me. "This isn't just you wanting to be a reclusive author, is it?"
I've seen the bad side of fans and what they do when they don't like what their idols are up to. Most of my time with Edward—both as his PA and as his girlfriend—has been smooth sailing. Edward flat out refuses to have an online media presence, and he believes this has helped him avoid the most vitriolic abuse on the interwebs. His stance about it is that he makes movies, gives interviews about them, and that's all the public needs to know about him and what he does. He stands out as a rarity—most up-and-coming and established celebrities now have a social media presence of some kind, be it Instagram or Twitter or what-have-you. He eschews it. Avoids it like the plague. That is why I'm reluctant to dip my toes into the social media waters. I'm worried about the possible repercussions for Edward.
"Are you only worried for Edward's sake?" Vic asks.
We've had this conversation before. Her media people, and even Maggie, called in as reinforcements once Ang got involved, have assured me there are ways to manage things and keep them separate. It's not how the collective hive mind thinks, though. Nothing is separate—it's all connected, à la The Matrix.
"If I'm honest, it's not just that. I am worried for his sake. His fans know we're together, and I'm worried I'm going to get trolled out of existence, and my events will get sabotaged by a bunch of delusional, envious people who like to spew hate online."
"Okay. Fair enough. Have you talked this over with him?"
"Yes." Despite his overriding desire for privacy, he's enthusiastic about my upcoming career, so he's on board with whatever Vic or Ang say I need to do. "He's not worried about it for himself. He'll go along with whatever I need to do."
"We'll go slowly. We'll keep your feeds and your content insulated and separate from whatever Edward does. You don't have to talk about him. Or about your personal life—at all. It's only going to be about the book, the book tour, and any related promotion. Nothing personal."
"People are still going to reply to me. They're going to slide into my mentions like fiends."
"And this is where the thicker skin comes in. Haters gonna hate, babe. You can't get petrified into inaction by that. Go your own way. Chart your own route. And do not, I repeat, do not feed the trolls."
I steel myself, sit up a little straighter, and draw another deep, cleansing breath. I recall countless conversations where Ang and I drilled similar notions into Edward until we were hoarse. Now it's my turn. "Fair enough. I'll ask Seth to set up accounts on Instagram and Twitter. He'll coordinate with the media peeps for the promo posts we agreed on. For now, I don't feel like sharing anything personal. My life is my own. But we'll see."
"That is the right attitude. Dip your feet into the pool a little at a time. Get comfortable with the platform. We'll send Seth suggestions for other people you can follow back and interact with—all Fireblaze authors, so you can get to know each other. They've been where you are now. They'll be glad to help."
"Thank you. This feels loads better and less intimidating now you've talked me through it … again."
She nods, stacking her notepad and other paperwork into a neat pile while she rises from her seat. "That's a good start. You don't have to put yourself on display, only your work. And for God's sake, girl, take a breather! We are six weeks away from launch. Take a break."
"Well, I might be forced to do that. We've got the London contingent descending on us next week."
"Oh? Really? Who exactly is in that contingent?"
"You know my brother's girlfriend who just moved to L.A. from London? Well, her brother—and my ex-boss—is dating Edward's sister. They've taken Rose's move as an excuse to come visit us in bulk. Apparently, Edward's parents are also flying in, but that might be more because Edward's father is here attending a medical conference of some kind. We'll have quite a bit of people underfoot."
She nods again with a twinkle in her eye, absorbing all the information, but then looks evasive all of a sudden, offering no direct comment on it. "Well, I hate to love you and leave you, but duty calls."
"No problem. I'm beat. I'm just going to traipse home and collapse into bed," I reply. Then, a yawn breaks through the remnants of my professional façade.
"Go, B. I'll see you in a week," she says, waving me out of the conference room with a playful smile.
We have no meetings in a week. Why did she say that?
Two weeks into September, our covert plans to throw Bella a pre-launch party kick into full gear, and keeping all of it a secret from the guest of honour is proving quite a challenge. Especially now that we're forty-eight hours from go-time.
She thinks we'll be going to Ang's for dinner, for a quiet double date with her and Ben because they have news to share with us. We had to tell her something. Something she'd buy hook, line, and sinker. Something that would persuade her not to question why Seth blocked out an entire evening on her calendar a month ago.
Today, Bella went over to Rose and Em's place to sort through some of her odds and ends that strangely weren't moved here back in April. This came in very handy for our covert ops because I sent Tyler to collect my parents from LAX, whereas Em will pick up Jazz and Alice.
When my phone blares out my generic ringtone, I pick up without even looking at caller ID.
"Cullen," I reply in a slightly pissed off grunt.
"You should sound a tad more enthusiastic, son." Oh, shite. Big mistake. The Admiral.
"Charlie! Sorry, it's been quite the day."
"No worries. I'm just pulling your leg."
Once again, this confirms the man shares an extensive portion of genetic materials with Emmett.
"How can I help you, sir?" The "sir" just tumbles out of my mouth. Pavlovian reaction. I'm even standing up straighter.
"How many times did I tell you to drop that, Edward?"
"I'm on autopilot of late. So I'll blame it on my non-existent verbal filter. Anyway, what's your latest?"
The Admiral has been invited to Bella's shindig. So has Renée. The latter let it be known through Alice that she can't swing the time off. It's too close to fashion shows for comfort, and apparently, she's shooting a campaign in some exotic locale anyway. This brings me to the former—I doubted it would be safe for national security to congregate the Admiral and Emmett in close quarters, but Em said he had zero interest in ruining Bella's party. Rose will neither confirm nor deny threatening bodily harm to Emmett to ensure his compliance, but we'll take whatever we can get. The crux of the matter was getting the Admiral on this side of the Atlantic at the right time. The man sure is busy.
"I come bearing good news," he announces in his usual gruff but jovial tone. "I managed to shuffle a couple of logistical headaches around. I deputized a bunch of crap I had no patience for to begin with, and voilà. I'm flying out in a few hours."
Talk about cutting it close. "I'd offer you a place to stay, but we're all booked up around here."
"Nah. Don't worry. Russell is tagging along, so …"
"Is he? The old man didn't even bother telling me," I exclaim, a tad piqued. Keeping track of RSVPs is worse than herding cats. The fact that it's all hush-hush isn't helping any. I've had a taste of organisation hell with this party, and now I know, without a shadow of a doubt, I'm not cut out for Bella's former job—or Seth's current gig, for that matter. Saints, the lot of them.
"I think he told your dad. And his PA may or may not have told Seth. But anyway, Russ and I are sorted, accommodation-wise. We'll meet up with your parents and get to Angela's together."
At least he corralled his pal at his end. Good old Charlie.
"Thank you for that. I'm losing my damn mind keeping track of everything."
He chuckles. "Don't envy you, son. Not at all. Well, I'll see you in a couple days."
"Yeah. Take care, Charlie."
He clicks off the line in a manner not unlike Angela's unceremonious send-offs, leaving me there to shake my head while I fire off a couple texts to Seth, who's helping pull the reins of this entire thing from the wings.
Perfect timing—the sound of the front door opening signals Bella's return.
"Edward? You home? You won't believe what Rose and I found at Em's place …" she yells, laughing. This has to be a good one.
Two days later—the day of the party—we're having a relaxed breakfast at home with my parents, who just flew in yesterday.
Bella did question the timing of both the senior Cullens and Jasper and Alice being in L.A. in the same week, but she's so all over the place for the impending launch of the book that our flimsy excuse—straight out of the bargain bin of excuses—went over without a fuss.
"It seems so rude to tell you to fend for yourselves the second night you're here, Esme," Bella tells my mum while my dad suppresses a smile from behind his crumpled, two-day-old copy of The Times. "But there's no getting out of this thing with Angela. Apparently, it's important," she comments, while I try to hide my face from her scrutiny.
"On the contrary, darling. We feel guilty that we're descending on you like this."
Dad fabricated a preliminary meeting for a medical conference as part of the excuse for their trip to L.A.
"We know you and Edward are both busy. We'll have dinner together another night, don't worry about that," she pacifies Bella with one of her signature Esme Cullen smiles. The ones that will make you forget you've ever been cross about anything in your life.
Sure enough, Bella falls for it. "You're so understanding, Esme," she replies. "Isn't she?" she prods with an elbow to my sides.
I catch my father's mischievous glance from behind his newspaper as I come up with a plausible answer for my girlfriend. "She is, my lovely. After all, she raised Alice and me. Comes with the territory."
"Well, kids," Dad begins, folding his paper neatly into a pile. "This is where we part ways for the day."
After my parents leave, Bella and I putter around the kitchen to clear away the remnants of breakfast. We have a housekeeper who comes in a few times a week, but we keep up with day-to-day shit ourselves. And oddly enough, my barely house-trained arse is loving the domesticity of it all. To the point that I've begged her to go grocery shopping together. It's been a fun experience. We ended up on TMZ three hours later. Much to people's astonishment, we eat. And shop. Fancy that.
"And that was the last plate. We can run this thing now, so we'll have clean stuff tomorrow morning," she says, closing the dishwasher. "Now, what am I going to do with myself until tonight and this mysterious dinner you've roped me into?"
"Roped you?" To my dirty mind, it's a tantalising possibility, but I can't stray from the master plan. I can't blow my cover, today of all days. Angela would have my balls in a sling after all the work we've done. "How long has it been since you've actually sat down for dinner with Angela, no work-related shit on the agenda for the foreseeable future?"
She sighs and leans into me when I pull her close, throwing the dirty dishtowel somewhere on the kitchen counter. "You have a point. Even Vic told me last week to catch a break every now and then."
"Glad you see it my way, love."
"I still can't figure out what possessed Alice and Jazz to come here this week of all weeks. It's nobody's birthday. It's not Christmas. You don't have a premiere. My book isn't launching until next month. Something stinks—mark my words."
Diversion technique. Right now. I capture her lips with mine and let my hands run down the column of her spine, right over the thin cotton of her sundress. She shivers in my arms, and responds with abandon. Crisis averted. "Let it stink. So, I have a proposition for the day. Since we're left to our own devices."
She nuzzles the crook of my neck with tiny pecks that she knows drive me crazy. Minx. "What kind of proposition?"
"Let's have a lazy day. A walk on the beach. Maybe a dip in the hot tub. Just chill out until we have to be at Angela's later."
"You always have the best ideas, EC."
Hours later, it's go time. My phone is blowing up with text after text. Everybody's coming to this party.
The senior Cullens left half an hour ago to go pick up Russell and Charlie. Check.
Em, Rose, Jazz, and Alice are also on their way to Angela's. For the occasion, they're hitching a ride with Tyler since they can't all fit into the Viper, much to Rose's dismay.
Seth is also on the way and noted he wouldn't be bringing a plus one. Wonder how Maurice will react to that one. Needless to say, Mr Best-Dressed-List will be there, appropriately bedazzled, and possibly with Sam Jones. I'm glad Sam accepted the invitation—I've started being more involved with the launch of his menswear line, and although it's brought more work at my end, I'm proud and honoured he saw something in me and wanted me on board for this. Over the weeks we've worked together, we've bonded and forged a tentative friendship. The guy is apparently a movie junkie. Debating movie history with him has been a hoot, and he's even taught me a thing or two. Come to think of it, he and Seth would get along swimmingly, considering Seth's course of studies. But I'm not going to try my hand at matchmaking. Not touching that with a ten-foot pole. Nope.
Vic and Ben will obviously be there. Vic will be there with a plus one. Well, well, well. Who might that be?
The sound of Bella's steps down the stairs interrupts my musings. Once again, when my gaze lands on her, I lose all powers of speech. She's wearing a light, flowy summer dress that falls past her knees in asymmetrical folds. The whole thing, its colour somewhere near dark green and teal, is held up by two wide shoulder straps decorated with black, shimmery sequins. One of those straps devolves into a pleated panel that wants to be a sleeve but it's not. Not quite. Yet, it all envelops her in a graceful, understated cloud that hides but at the same time showcases her form with every step she takes.
"You take my breath away. Come here," I manage to croak out, emotion and pride bubbling up and impeding my less than stellar delivery.
"Angela's?" she asks after I've kissed her long enough to make both of us forget about everything else but us.
I nod and lead her to the car. Eric is our driver tonight.
After a long drive spent making small talk and discussing the next few weeks of commitments on our calendars, we arrive at Angela's. The plan is to get into the foyer of Weber's mansion where everyone will jump out of the woodwork and reveal themselves.
As we step inside, Bella starts to smell a rat. "I don't get why she isn't welcoming us inside. That's unlike her."
"She mumbled something about coming straight in when I talked to her this morning." Fake it 'til you make it. And I need to make it for about three more minutes. Come on, Angela. Don't abandon me.
We get to the front door and push in. Hardly any lights are on.
"What in the world …" Bella starts when a small booming noise and the click of the overhead light coming on startles her. "Shit! What is this?"
Angela, Ben, Vic, Riley—there's the plus one—Seth, Sam, Maurice, Em, Rose, Jazz, Alice, my parents, Russell, and then the Admiral all jump out from the side hallway shouting, "SURPRISE!"
Bella erupts in laughter. Or tears. Or both. Then turns to me. "You did this, didn't you?"
I smile and kiss her. I can't help myself.
"Why does he always get credit for everything?" Angela complains, walking up to us. "It was my idea!"
"What is this, exactly, Ang?" Bella asks again, recovering her composure at last, and flashing a glorious smile at her friend and agent.
"It's a surprise party for your book launch. What does it look like? The Golden Globes, home edition?" she sarcastically retorts, indicating a gigantic banner with Bella's book cover standing right there in the middle of her foyer.
"I can't believe you did this," she says, shaking her head and looking at me.
"To be fair, it was Ang's idea," I counter. "But I helped."
"We all did!" Emmett booms from afar, never one to be timid about his contributions to society.
"Dad?" Bella's gaze finally lands on the Admiral, who's waiting in the wings with his partner in crime—Russell.
"Congratulations, Isabella. You deserve all this and more," he says with a kiss to her forehead. The man sounds genuinely emotional. And proud. Beaming proud of his daughter.
I throw a glance over to Emmett, who also looks on the scene with nothing but pride in his eyes—and a few unshed tears. This is his little sister's triumph, and his past beef with the Admiral has no place here.
After a chaotic and merry fifteen minutes of more explanations, greetings, and whatnot, we're all seated outside on Angela's luxuriant patio with drinks in our hands and full plates of canapes in front of us. Conversation flows in disjointed spurts all around us as it's bound to do at big, mixed gatherings like this. People are talking, laughing, and sometimes lobbing good-natured insults over each other. The insults seem to occur whenever Emmett is involved.
Then the distinctive, clinking sound of cutlery rattling the side of a glass stops all sounds of chatter in the background. We turn around, seeking the source of the call to order. Jasper.
"Thank you. I'd like to propose a toast to our Bella on the upcoming publication of her first book, Confidentiality Clause. Even though I take issue with your characterisation of the male protagonist. I am not that much of a wanker," he protests with an affectionate laugh.
"How many times do I have to tell you, Jazz? It's not you. It's an abstraction. Deal with it."
"Someone resembles that remark," quips Emmett from a few seats down. A chorus of laughs and of, "Hear, hear!" follows. Bella murmurs a litany of thank-yous around the table as we all clink our glasses together.
Before I can respond to Jasper's toast with my own, my sister also stands.
"I want to offer my own toast to Bella. I'm so happy you crossed paths with my brother and managed to reform his sorry arse. To Bella!"
When a new round of laughter and congratulations dies down, I finally manage to cut in and offer my own toast to my BCG. "We're all here tonight to celebrate Bella and her crowning achievement. And no, it's not 'reforming my sorry arse,' as Alice eloquently put it. But there's a guiding thread connecting all of us here tonight, and that thread begins and ends with Bella. When I met her almost a year ago, little did I know how much my life would change. At first, it was little things—I stopped being late for interviews …"
"Thank God for that!" Angela interjects to everyone's amusement.
"And thank you, Ang, for putting her on my path. But you saw something. And so did Bella. And so did I. I saw a talented, caring, funny, smart, breathtakingly beautiful woman I'm proud and happy to call mine today. She could have everything. Anyone. Be anybody. But instead, she's here, with me—with us—and I'm beyond grateful I get to witness her finally have the success she deserves. Because God knows she's worked her butt off for it. I'm so fucking proud of you. And since I'm no wordsmith, I highly doubt my meagre words will do you justice, but here's to you, my Bella. Congratulations!"
This time, there's no eruption of laughter or "Hear, hear!" Glasses clink against each other in an almost eerie silence, and then, as my gaze is squarely riveted to Bella's figure sitting next to me, the sounds of chairs scraping the floor alert me to the fact that our friends are leaving this moment to us. Alone. I sit down and grasp Bella's hand in mine.
"No wordsmith … Right," she says haltingly through a watery, radiant smile.
"It's all you, love. It's all you."
"Thank you," she whispers, caressing my cheek. "Thank you for all this. For everything you've said. I love you. And I'm sorry if I was such a b-word to be around lately."
"None of that, BCG. I've been worse. I've been a heck of a lot worse. One word: Vancouver. Ask Seth. We're finding a new normal for us. Things will change again. We'll find another new normal. As long as we're together. I love you, BCG."
A while later, the party reconvenes after our private moment. We're all mingling in smaller groups. In our effort not to play favourites, Bella and I try to make the rounds on the patio and end up gravitating towards Alice and Jasper, who are engrossed in conversation with Sam and Maurice.
"Are you still upset with my book, Jazz?"
He sidles up to her and sticks a fresh glass of margarita in her hands. "I'm not upset … much. But my fictional alter ego comes across as a big wanker."
Bella chuckles and Alice jumps in. "What do you expect, Jazz? He's a lawyer."
Jazz throws her an exasperated look. "Not you too, poppet."
"If he doesn't like his alter ego now, wait until I publish the sequel," Bella whispers in my ear with a wicked smile. Our murmurs and laughter seem to attract Alice and Jasper's attention again.
"So, I have a little announcement of my own," Alice begins. "I'm moving back to London."
At Alice's news surprises me—as the older brother, of course, I'm the last one to know. I throw a glance at my parents, who've appeared at the edge of our grouping by now, but they seem as flabbergasted as me. At least we're on an even footing here. Jasper, however, doesn't look surprised. Nor does Rose who, with Emmett-like timing, is approaching at this exact minute. Something's rotten in the state of Denmark, I tell you.
"Wow. Why now?" asks Bella, none the wiser to my rapid assessment of our little crowd.
"Well … life changes, you know?"
"You don't look surprised there, Miss Hale-Whitlock," Bella quips in Rose's direction. Ah. She noticed it, then.
"Rose and I did a little game of musical flats. I'm moving into her old place. For now."
"For now, uh? Whatever does that mean?" Time for me to play the concerned big brother.
"I'm taking a new job; my new friend was giving up her flat, so the time was right for her to sub-let until I can take it over in a few months. But, as I said, life changes. So, who knows," she offers with a shrug.
My best guess? She won't be renewing that lease. My Spidey senses say she'll be moving into a certain renovated loft in Islington.
"And what, pray, is this new job of yours?" Bella asks with a pointed sidelong glance at me as she pats my forearm. A warning not to growl in Jasper's face.
"I was just telling Sam here I wanted to work in a younger, fresher environment. I'll be joining Temperley."
The name rings a faint bell in my ears. Not so with Bella, who reacts with an enthusiastic hug. "Niiice! Congratulations, Alice!"
"Thank you, Bella. It means a lot."
"Aww, shucks. Now you're making me blush. Hey, when are you moving back? Because my book tour …"
"I already quizzed Seth about it. You're going to be in London in mid-November, right?"
The dreaded book tour. I'll be stuck in L.A. most of the time with promotion, interviews, more auditions, and the start of filming on one of my new projects. But I'll try to pop in and surprise Bella whenever I can.
As Bella and Alice start getting into the weeds of planning their London get-together, Jasper pulls me aside. "I caught your look earlier. Are you really fine with Alice moving back to London?"
"Jazz, I know you're a lawyer, but be straight with me. Are you really asking me if I'm pleased my sister is moving back to her hometown within a Tube ride from her parents? Or …?"
He chuckles, shaking his head. "There's no getting past you, is there?"
"It didn't take a scientist to see that Alice isn't planning on crashing in Rose's old pad in Clapham for years to come. It's her life. I'm her brother not her keeper."
He nods, serious all of a sudden. "Still. Look, it's not happening tomorrow or next month. But that's where I see us headed. Together. It was hard enough negotiating things between Milan and London."
"Are you looking for my blessing? Because you don't need it. I see my sister happy; that's my reward. And that's where my concern ends. I don't dictate her life."
He breathes what could qualify as a sigh of relief, and the frown on his brow dissipates. "It's just … I know the two of you are close."
"And I'm thankful and happy she's with a solid, trustworthy guy. With the added bonus that I can have a few pints with him and not be tempted to tune him out as he speaks. But, Jazz, honest to God, would you have ever contemplated making any edicts to Rose if you didn't like Emmett?"
His eyebrows rise to untold heights. "Heavens, no. Not if I wanted to keep my balls intact."
"There you have it. It's Alice's life. But I'm glad you'll be in it. You're a decent fellow, mate," I retort with an encouraging pat to his shoulder.
Our heart-to-heart is interrupted by a surreptitious cough. I turn towards the source of the noise. The Admiral.
"Can I get an audience with the two of you before Russell drags me away?" he asks, nodding his head towards Bella, who's still talking to Alice and Rose.
"I'll get her for you, Charlie," Jasper offers, stepping away with a nod of his own in my direction.
"Dad! I swear I wasn't trying to ignore you," she protests one second later when sidling up next to Charlie.
"Never thought you were, Bells. It's your party. But …"
"But what, Dad?" she prods with a puzzled expression.
"I don't know what your long-term plans look like, darling. But I'd like to mark this occasion with something I've meant to do for a while," he begins, handing her a small gift box.
She opens it, and then croaks out, sniffling, "You didn't. Dad, why?"
Charlie, clearly uneasy with the emotional display, looks to me for help, but since I have zero idea what's going on, all he's getting out of me is my own puzzled frown.
"What's going on?" I ask, hoping someone will explain.
"Look, Edward. It's keys. It's the keys to 36 Montagu."
No fucking way. The Admiral is giving her Montagu Square? Does the man also read minds in his free time? "Charlie? How? Why?"
"I've had the deed updated with your name on it. As I said, I don't know what your long-term plans are. But it seems you might have to travel quite a bit, and well … I want you to know you always have a home in London, if you want it."
By now, Bella's weeping in earnest. "If I want it? Dad, I don't know what to say …"
"That you'll take it, Bells. That's all you need to say," he replies, folding her into a fatherly embrace. All the while he's holding Bella, his gaze doesn't waver one bit away from me. He's sending me a message. My only reply—a thankful, earnest nod.
The future—our future together—is inching closer and closer tonight.
We're close to the end, people. Can you feel it?