When we last met our hero and heroine, they were tentatively moving towards a more peaceful domestic arrangement. Grace was undergoing radiation, Bella visited Port Angeles for a friend's wedding, and Jasper fought with his wife, consuming an unhealthy amount of alcohol which landed him in Edward's backyard, and eventually on the couch.
Your husband…is a good man.
Long after I'd crawled into bed, his words lingered
Sleep finally came, and I dreamt
…now these things remain…
White tulle and silk
Polished marble and calla lilies
…but the greatest of these is love.
It took a moment for my sleep-fogged brain to comprehend that someone was knocking on the bedroom door. Before I could orient myself enough to respond, there was a high pitched giggle followed by the clomp of little feet fleeing down the stairs.
Once out of bed, I noticed a piece of paper had been slipped under the door. Resembling a giant playing card, it had red hearts adorning the corners, and a surprisingly detailed drawing of a man wearing a crown. Faint pencil marks were visible beneath the crayon and I realized Edward had sketched the figure to give Grace a framework over which to color. Across the bottom in my daughter's blocky script were the words "YOU ARE INVITED TO A MOST WONDERFUL TEA PARTY."
The invitation implied a certain formality, so I showered and took the time to tame my hair and put on something that couldn't be mistaken for pajamas. By the time I made my appearance, everyone had already assembled in the formal dining room; Edward, Grace, Bob Marley, Kanga the Kangaroo, and a miserable looking Jasper.
At my overly cheerful greeting, he winced, earning me an admonishment from Grace.
"Mommy, you have to talk really quiet. Mister Jasper's head hurts." Clearly more entertained than sympathetic, she further confided, "He said a bad word when I woke him up, but then he said he was sorry."
"Did you apologize for waking him up?"
Eyes downcast, she mumbled, "Sorry I jumped on the couch and woke you up, Mister Jasper."
"S'all right. I know you didn't mean any harm."
She favored him with a brilliant smile, her momentary contrition forgotten.
The table was set for eight, and I was in the process of sliding into the vacant seat next to Grace when she stopped me.
"You can't sit there. It's for Alice. Didn't you see the cup?"
I raised an inquiring eye to Edward who gave a who-knows? shrug as I moved into the remaining open spot.
"Are we expecting an Alice?"
"Alice will come." Her quiet certainty was unsettling.
"Alrighty, then." I turned my attention to the spread before us.
In the center of the table sat the exquisitely painted Wonderland teapot. Next to it was a carafe of strong smelling coffee with a placard identifying it as "Grown-Up Tea." There was a platter of scrambled eggs and bacon and another of mini-sandwiches. Rounding out the offering was a tray labeled "Honorary Tarts," which looked suspiciously like scones.
"Wow; this is quite a feast. You guys did a great job."
"I made the sandwiches mostly by myself. Dad messed up the tarts. They didn't taste good at all." She crinkled her nose.
"Well, tarts can sometimes be tricky," I consoled her.
"And more trouble than they're worth."
Jasper's muttered contribution had Edward averting his face in an effort not to laugh.
"But I like tarts," Grace insisted, a stubborn tilt to her chin.
"Lots of people do," Edward soothed, his lips twitching with amusement. "In fact, it's quite normal to like tarts, especially when you're young."
"Some people like them even more when they're adults."
Apparently the opportunity to drive a bad pun into the ground acted as a curative for Jasper's hangover.
Before she could figure out we were no longer discussing pastries, I decided to take control of the conversation. "At some point, most people begin to prefer healthier alternatives. Things with less…sugar."
Edward and Jasper were openly laughing now, and I threw up my hands in mock surrender. Grace regarded us with narrow-eyed derision, aware she'd been left out of the joke. I was definitely going to hear about it later.
The rest of breakfast was blessedly free of innuendo. Edward acted as server, heaping generous amounts on everyone's plates, Bob and Kanga included. Amazingly, Jasper's appetite appeared unaffected by the previous night's excess, and more than once, I saw him filch food from our stuffed guests.
The only distraction from an otherwise pleasant meal was the extra place setting reserved for the mysterious Alice. My eyes kept sliding to the empty seat next to Grace, half expecting to find it suddenly filled.
The guys were finishing off the last of the scones-as-tarts when the doorbell rang. One glance at Edward's jam-covered fingers and I waved him off.
It wasn't until I was opening the door that it occurred to me our caller might be Esme. Instead, a slender brunette in painfully high heels waited impatiently, her lips pressed into a thin line.
Without thinking, I blurted, "Are you Alice?"
The woman assessed me coolly before raising a well groomed brow. "Not so much. But I'm guessing you must be the ex-wife. Jasper isn't bothering to answer his phone. I know he's here, and I need to speak with him. Now."
She brushed past me into the foyer, and I scrambled to keep ahead of her.
With as much politeness as I could muster, I steered the frosty Maria toward the living room. "You two can talk in here. I'll go get him." Without waiting for a response, I went to fetch Jasper.
He was already on his feet, shoulders slumped in resignation. I wanted to tell him he didn't have to go talk to her, but held my tongue. I knew better than to interfere in someone else's marriage.
Impulsively, I gave him a hug. "She's in the living room. Come get one of us if you need anything."
Edward disappeared upstairs while I took our daughter to the backyard to visit Sushi. Almost immediately, we heard raised voices, and I quickly tried to put distance between us and the house. Halfway to the koi pond, I noticed something glinting in the sun and scooped up Jasper's errant phone. A little voice in my head whispered that I hoped somewhere in his contacts list was the number of a really good marriage counselor – or a ferocious divorce attorney.
Less than ten minutes later, we heard the front door slam. By the time Grace and I re-entered the house, Edward and Jasper were already holed up in Edward's study. Throughout the afternoon, I did my best to keep Grace occupied – and from lurking in front of the office door – but her anxiety increased exponentially as the day wore on. When they finally emerged, Grace hurled herself into her surprised father's arms. He held her for a long moment before gently disengaging.
"Honey, I need to speak with your mom privately for a bit. Can you help Jasper rustle up some food?"
He gave her a nudge, and she nodded solemnly, tugging Jasper in the direction of the kitchen.
When they were safely out of earshot, Edward indicated we should sit. He rubbed his eyes, weariness making him seem considerably older. "Jazz is in a really shitty position right now. Would it be okay if he stayed here for a few days while making arrangements to move onto his boat? If you're not comfortable with it, he can figure something else out, so it's totally up to you."
There'd be no question of Jasper staying if Grace and I weren't already in residence. I was touched Edward was willing to let me make the decision when he was so clearly worried about his friend. I didn't even have to think about it.
"Of course he can stay. I'll get the spare room made up if you don't mind me shuffling some of your stuff around to make room."
"Do whatever you need to." He touched my hand as he murmured thank you.
Grace carefully placed spoonfuls of cookie dough onto a greased baking sheet as I pulled out the ingredients for the next recipe.
"Why are we making so much stuff for Mister Jasper?"
"You heard your dad talking about Jasper moving onto his boat, right? I thought it would be really nice if we put together some food for him for while he was getting settled. "
"Why's he gonna live on his boat?"
"Ah… he and his wife aren't getting along very well right now. If they spend a little time apart, maybe they'll be able to talk to each other nicely again."
"Is that what dad did?"
I froze. "What do you mean?"
"When dad went away, he was on a boat with Uncle Alec. He showed me pictures. And you guys are nice to each other now."
"Well… not exactly. Your dad didn't go live on a boat; he was working for your uncle's charter company and going to school."
"Oh." She turned it over in her mind for a moment. "How come he didn't come see us? He must have been really mad."
And there it was.
Despite the butterflies in my stomach, I strove to keep my tone even. "He wasn't angry at you, I promise. Sometimes adults fight or have problems they don't know how to handle, and it seems easier to try to work it out by themselves."
"Couldn't you have helped?"
"Maybe, but he never asked for my help."
"I bet he thought you were mad and wouldn't talk to him."
A denial was on my lips when I paused. In those first months after Edward left, I'd raged at his abandonment, cried at the prospect of raising our daughter alone, and wondered almost obsessively where he'd found me lacking. What I hadn't done – had been too afraid to do – was force a conversation. I hadn't tried to contest the divorce, hadn't insisted on a face to face meeting before signing papers, hadn't done anything but go along with what Esme's lawyers suggested. It was understandable that, at nineteen and with an infant, I'd been too overwhelmed to demand answers. But once the dust settled, I'd buried the whole thing, never making a real, concerted effort to track him down and insist he step up and have a relationship with Grace.
In actuality, I'd done what was most comfortable for me. The insight set me back on my heels.
"Mom?" My daughter's concerned face peered up at me. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, honey. And you're a very smart girl."
"Oh, you do, huh?"
"Yup. Dad told me. He said I'm smarter than both of you."
"Your father is undoubtedly right. "
"There's a first time for everything, but I won't let it go to my head."
I startled at the sound of Edward's voice as his hand gently squeezed my shoulder. Grinning, he swiped a finger-full of cookie dough and popped it in his mouth. "I may not be as smart as Gracie, but I'd like to think I'm smarter than I was."
"Mommy, is this it?" Graced gazed with wide-eyed wonder at the sleek craft in front of us.
I double-checked the piece of paper in my hand. "It must be."
At least 45 feet long, with a shiny blue hull and "Every Liddell Thing" in red on the stern, even I could tell it was an especially nice boat.
"Hey there!" Jasper motioned us over.
He lifted Grace carefully onto the deck, then offered me a hand.
I presented him with the basket we'd brought, and his brow furrowed. "What's this?"
"We thought you might like—"
"Cookies!" Grace almost quivered with excitement.
"You made me cookies?" He looked taken aback.
"And a few other things." I was suddenly flustered. Was it such a small town thing to do? "I wasn't sure…I mean, I didn't know if you'd have a way to cook anything, so I thought—"
"Well, aren't you the sweetest. I haven't managed to do any shopping yet, so this is perfect." Grinning widely, he waved a hand toward the cabin. "Can I give you a tour?"
The inside was all varnished wood and stainless steel; the square footage had to be more than my first apartment. It even had built-in bookcases.
I wandered around, poking my head into the well equipped galley.
"How many people does this thing sleep?"
"Technically ten. But comfortably, about six. We'll go out sometime, if you'd like. Edward and I have taken her through the San Juans several times, and even up into Canada. He's mentioned wanting to take Grace along, but…ah, he didn't think you'd agree to it."
He was right. Two months ago I hadn't even been aware Edward knew how to sail, and wouldn't have cared in any case.
I smiled down at my daughter. "What do you think kiddo? Maybe in a few months, if the weather's good?"
We chatted a little more, but Grace was clearly tiring, so we said good-bye, and I carried her up to the marina parking lot. As I maneuvered her drowsy form into the car, I heard a bright peal of laughter.
My eyes were pulled to the jogging trails adjacent to the marina, finally fixing on a pair of retreating figures.
Unable to look away, I watched until they faded into the distance.
That night, Grace was fatigued enough that she took herself to bed early, leaving me with unexpected time to catch up on correspondence and pay bills. In an effort to put off confronting my dwindling savings, I opted to answer emails first.
I read through several from Leah, one from Rosalie (who emails while on their honeymoon?), a lengthy missive from my mother, and a brief note from Jake confirming our plans for his visit over the Fourth of July weekend.
Buried at the bottom of my inbox was something from the Port Angeles School District inquiring about my availability to return to work in the fall. Grabbing the calendar used to track Grace's appointments, I counted off the remaining weeks of radiation. She would then need another MRI and further labs, followed by a recheck in a month. That would bring us to the middle of August.
If all went well, I was hopeful they'd allow the chemo portion of her treatment to be done closer to home. She was happy enough here, but she was also lonely for kids her own age and had started to ask about going back to school. I felt a twinge of guilt, aware that our return to Port Angeles meant a separation from her father, but there was nothing that could be done about it. It's where we lived, where my job and all our friends and family were.
Most of her family.
I jotted off a note to the district explaining I couldn't yet give them a firm commitment, then reluctantly began to tackle the pile of bills.
Even with the added economy of living with Edward, my resources were stretched. I divided the bills into "must pay now" and "can put off another month" before hopping online to start making payments.
While verifying my bank balance, the figure I saw didn't match with my personal tally. I scrolled through the transactions and spotted a sizable deposit the previous week that I knew I hadn't made. Either there'd been a bank error, or my parents had added money to my account. The latter seemed unlikely - there'd been no mention of it in Renee's email, and I couldn't imagine how they'd have managed that large a sum.
Fear that my dad might have sold his beloved boat made me pick up the phone. A short conversation later, and I knew the money hadn't come from them. I looked again at the deposit, this time thinking to click on the transaction icon, and had my answer.
Should I be offended at Edward's presumption or grateful for his generosity? A month ago, I would have made a point of rejecting his help out of hand. What did it say about me – and about our current relationship – that instead of anger at his interference, I felt…thankful and cared for, and maybe a little teary?
I could hear Edward shuffling around in the next room, and knew, without having to look, that he was talking himself into herbal tea when what he really wanted was cocoa. I hesitated, wondering at my motivation for what I was about to do, then closed the laptop and joined him in the kitchen.
"Hey, I have a craving for some hot chocolate. Do you want to sit with me and have some?"
Mugs in hand, we made ourselves comfortable in the living room. Reclining into an overstuffed chair, Edward closed his eyes, seemingly content in the silence. I tucked my feet under me and waited for the right time to speak.
Finally I offered, "Grace and I dropped off Jasper's care package this afternoon, and he gave us a tour of the boat. I was surprised how nice it was."
"Oh yeah, she's beautiful. It should work out pretty well."
"I know it's none of my business, so you don't have to tell me, but what's the deal with Jasper and his wife?"
Edward grimaced, his eyes still closed. "They've had problems as long as I've known him. But I think it was always volatile, even at the beginning. Glad he's finally fed up enough to do something about it."
"Do you think he'll go back to her?"
He leaned forward and scowled. "He'd better not."
The vehemence in his voice made me wonder if Jasper and his wife's marital woes went beyond basic incompatibility.
"What if they got counseling?"
"It's not possible to make Maria happy. She's like an emotional vampire. Dealing with her bullshit is a constant drain on him. And she's scary when she's truly angry; I've seen it. He needs to get away from her and be done with it, but he's hung-up on the divorce thing."
"In what way?"
"Doesn't believe in it. He was raised Catholic and still goes to Mass sometimes, which is weird 'cuz he's also a Buddhist. I had no idea until he crashed over here one night, and I got up early and found him sitting in the lotus position, buck naked and chanting."
I had no problem visualizing that.
"It sounds weird, but there's something almost old fashioned about him. A real sense of honor, I guess. Nothing like Maria."
"Makes you wonder why they got married."
"No idea. Probably for the same reasons most people get married. A combination of love, lust, and social pressure."
"Or a case of the babies, like us," I joked.
Edward shook his head emphatically. "That wasn't why."
"What do you mean?"
He stared at me so intently I felt myself flush.
"I didn't marry you because of Grace. I only married you sooner."
As ever, I am eternally grateful to Hilary, Alla, Christy, and Laura.
Thanks for keeping the faith.