With deepest thanks to SerendipitousMC - my beta and treasured friend. And with gratitude for everyone who's taken the time to read and review.
31 Months Later ...
Record-setting cold gripped Duluth, Minn., but Edward's heart was pounding and sweat trickled down his neck. He'd been in federal prison for nearly two years when Jason Jenks, his Seattle attorney and the most disheveled man he'd ever known, showed up on a Monday, with headline-worthy news that hadn't yet hit the media.
The remains of Eleazar Denali had been found on a remote island off the coast of Brazil, along with his briefcase, which contained files that confirmed Edward's contention that he'd been blackmailed into participating in The Denali Group's fraud. On the advice of Edward's East Coast attorneys, Jenks planned to file a motion that Edward's sentence be shortened to time already served, citing said evidence, as well as the forensic accounting which verified that he had quietly discouraged prospective investors and mitigated damage to other investors when he could do so without drawing Eleazar's attention to it.
Edward sat on his bunk, attempting to look unruffled, though sweat continued to pour down his face - perhaps mingled with tears. He was well accepted now, but hadn't been particularly popular when he arrived. The media had portrayed his sentence as favorable treatment for a white-collar criminal. He wouldn't share this potential "get out of jail" card until he had a date certain.
His cellmate Alec paused as he entered the small space, as if unsure if he were welcome.
Edward rubbed his hands over his face and shook his head. "I'm fine."
Alec raised his eyebrows. "Of course you are." The man was a confirmed cynic, and not without cause. He'd carried a bag through an airport for his twin sister, who hadn't mentioned that it contained multiple kilos of cocaine. And had thrown him under the bus when a canine unit apprehended him. In spite of being a first-time offender and clearly caught unawares, Alec's sentence was shockingly long. They'd wanted him to turn on someone - anyone - and his ignorance meant he'd had nothing to offer in exchange for a plea bargain.
To Edward's surprise, Alec grasped his shoulder, a moment of solidarity, before executing his version of a vault onto the top bunk.
He wondered if that solidarity would hold if Alec knew Edward was likely going home soon.
Home. A vision of Bella, hair spread across the pillows of his bed in Forks, her liquid eyes on his, her parted lips red from his kisses. He could almost feel her move beneath him.
Every day in this place had just been a day closer to a life with her.
Tomorrow, he would e-mail Bella, though he'd asked Jenks to tell her immediately. She would have written already, and his heart swelled in anticipation of her fierce, tender, surprising words.
Emmett McCarty pressed "send," leaned back from his keyboard and stretched with a groan. Now that the piece was completed and on its way, he took a moment to survey his surroundings. He had a temporary office in a corner of Rosalie's living room, but temporary was the operative word.
He stood, dodged a couple of boxes, went to the window and stretched again, hands on the upper frame. He grinned at the pure pleasure of it. He'd been at the desk for hours now, and though the life of a freelance journalist / pundit suited him, the best part was finishing a story and being here.
"What?" Rosalie scowled. He hadn't heard her emerge from the bedroom, but turned now, and taking in her wrinkled brow and sagging ponytail as she added another box to the stacks against one wall. He grinned wider.
"What what?" He channeled his best Jimmy Dugan and growled, "C'mere you gorgeous stack of pancakes." He wasn't close enough to smack her ass, but twitched his shoulders as if he were about to try it, just to watch her bristle.
Rosalie didn't disappoint.
"What the hell ..." she trailed off, squinting suspiciously at him, and he was across the room in a flash, pulling her close for a deep, thorough, lingering kiss.
When he'd quite finished, she stared up at him, still as a statue. "Oh," she finally said, sounding dazed.
With obvious effort, she collected her wits, but he leaned in again before she had a chance to do more than open her mouth. He kissed her deeply, a growl of pure pleasure escaping.
Her lips curved into a smile as her mouth opened for him and her arms slid around his waist. "Are you trying to distract me?" She snuck the words in between kisses, but the question was entirely rhetorical since she sounded pleased at the prospect of distraction.
Emmett took the cue and trailed kisses down her neck, which made her giggle and squirm.
No panic. This fact still made his heart leap.
It had been a slow, fraught journey to physical intimacy, learning her triggers and gaining her trust. But now? Jesus. She was unbelievable.
Emmett pressed his hips against her, listening for that thrilling catch of breath in her throat. Gah - there it was.
Rosalie hooked her fingers in his belt loops and steered him toward the couch, but he shook his head. "Nope," he whispered, brushing his lips on the shell of her ear. "I want to spread you out on that bed one more time."
She wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his hips when he lifted her, then ran her tongue up the side of his neck.
Emmett shuddered and carried her to the bedroom, which was bare except for the bed in question. The movers were coming in the morning. And the wedding was just a month away.
He shuffled on his knees to the center of the bed before laying her back and easing the elastic band from her hair so it spread out around her like an avenging angel's.
She opened her eyes and smiled up at him, and the sweetness of it damn near killed him.
Then she reached for the button of his jeans.
Jasper Whitlock logged off of an online banking portal, shaking his head. When they were teenagers, he'd once hacked into Edward's trust fund account to get money to fund his pot habit. The trust held a sum that boggled Jasper in those days. The account he'd just logged out of was many times larger.
Sales of his video game The Vampires of Wall Street had exceeded the success of his smash Vampire Wars of the South. He would never want for anything again in his lifetime.
His phone chimed with a text, and when he checked, he grinned with nearly paternal affection. It was from Seth.
S: Dude, you there?
If any good had come from his long bromance with marijuana, it had been his chance to redeem himself by keeping Seth from throwing away his (very bright) future. In life, and in music. It had started with time in front of a keyboard - a computer keyboard.
J: Always on, except when not. heh
After a brush with the law that had Seth facing the prospect of several months in juvenile detention, Jasper had struck a bargain - with Seth and the prosecutor. Seth would code his own video game within 90 days, while under house arrest and subject to random drug testing.
At the piano, Seth could make music, even emotion. But he needed to learn about intention, and about building something. Music was so intuitive for Seth that, practice hours aside, he didn't even have to try. Being kissed by the gods had its drawbacks.
S: You are not funny. You are NEVER funny. Have I taught you nothing?
Jasper guffawed, even as tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. The power struggle had been epic, but worth it. According to the text that now swam before his eyes, Seth had finished his first semester at the prestigious McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minn., with the top marks in his class.
Seth had been the inspiration for Jasper's latest project, CodingCamp, a week-long intensive class in computer coding for kids in the juvenile justice system for nonviolent drug offenses.
Jasper grinned. He'd spent the past week surrounded by kids who reminded him of the boy he'd once been, and was still a bit high on the rush of hero worship and genuine connections he'd made with some of the campers.
He quickly typed a slightly obscene, entirely congratulatory response to Seth, then backed up today's work before shutting down his desktop. He checked his watch and turned out the desk lamp, eager to embark on some preparation and scene setting.
Because in a few hours, he had a date with his very pregnant, and very sexy, wife.
Alice stood in the wings of the stage, waiting for her cue, a microphone looped over her ear and resting on her cheek. Another TED talk. She rested a hand on her burgeoning belly and smiled.
Two years ago, after the miscarriage, she'd despaired of ever having a child, longing for it with every fiber of her being, yet helpless to do anything more than she and Jasper were already doing. She had also given up the day-to-day operations of her fashion empire to focus on her new vocation, but had yet to get her footing in the profession. For the first time, Alice had had to work hard at things, and with no assurance she would succeed.
She stroked her belly again, cherishing the swell. Jasper's renewed commitment to their marriage fortified her; his growing clarity and insight challenged and grounded her. They'd had more substantial conversations in the last two years than in all the years before.
And here she was, about to address an audience of thousands on one of the most prestigious stages on Earth.
Once her new company, , finally gained traction, her rise was meteoric. She'd already made a second fortune, and she'd stood on this stage before to talk about fashion, identifying emerging trends, following one's intuition and other topics. Today, she was taking a much bigger risk.
Her topic: Forgiveness. It had taken plenty of therapy and some hard conversations, but they'd all gotten there - Bella, Edward, Jasper, herself, even Rosalie. They'd been forgiven, granted forgiveness, and even forgiven themselves.
She needed to give this speech because she was so grateful, and so fucking happy.
Her reconciliation with Bella had taken the most time, because it required of Alice an apology that made no excuses, and sought no justifications. Jasper's atonement had taught her how to do that. Alice touched her fingers to her lips, sending him her love. Bella had long since forgiven Alice, but had struggled to forgive herself, just as Jasper had struggled.
But forgiveness had at last healed them all, even Edward. Her gut told her that Edward would be out of prison soon, in spite of his sentence, and if all went as she hoped, her family would finally be complete.
Alice's hand went to her belly again, stroking along the stretch of muscle the tiny dervish within her had claimed as its thrashing grounds. The pummeling didn't hurt as much as it exhausted her somehow, but she greedily embraced this evidence of a being knitting itself into existence from the best of herself and Jasper. Between Alice's work travels and Jasper's first CodeCamp, they hadn't seen each other in a week. It was the longest separation since London, but so very different than it had been then. And tonight, they'd be together.
Alice watched the speaker currently onstage make a point, drawing the crowd into her emotional space, cradling them in the palm of her hand. Alice wasn't that good onstage yet, but she knew she could be someday. Maybe would be today. Because a story full of sadness, betrayal, self-doubt - even prison - and at last forgiveness, resonated with people.
Bella had taught her that.
For so many reasons, she'd asked Bella to be in the audience today, hoping this speech could convey her gratitude for a friendship re-forged.
The emcee began introducing her as a stagehand adjusted her wireless microphone. Suddenly, it was time. Alice sent up a small prayer to no one in particular and stepped out into the spotlight.
The talk would take approximately 13 minutes. After that, she'd meet with TED organizers and selected audience members. But within 90 minutes, she'd be in the car, on her way to Jasper and her future.
The baby executed a karate-like kick, and Alice breathed deep, beamed at the audience and began. In the next four weeks or so, a new future would begin to unfold. The nursery was decorated, the car seat already installed. And this? This moment was a victory lap.
Alice was 8:18 into her talk when her water broke.
Bella sat in the University of Washington Medical Center's maternity wing waiting room, clasping the locket Edward had given her the day before he left for Duluth to serve his sentence.
"Know your own happiness. Want for nothing but patience - or give it a more fascinating name: call it hope."
I love you, more than my own life.
It was her favorite quote from Sense and Sensibility, though Edward hadn't known it then. That day, he explained why he chose it, and what he hoped for when his sentence was finished.
She'd clung to the locket and those words often during the last two-plus years.
Now she worried the chain around and around, counting the clasp each time it passed, as a religious person might count prayer beads, hoping. Alice. The baby. Alice. The baby. She lost count somewhere in the 280s.
Alice's talk had cracked open something in Bella. As she sat in that audience and watched her friend tell the world about the importance of asking for forgiveness, Bella knew the message was for her.
This was a new Alice - more serious, more sincere, more potent. If teenage Alice had been all blue eyes and pixie dust, this Alice was blue eyes and insight in action.
And, yes, pixie dust.
Alice had grown. She had changed. And watching her on the TED stage, Bella had marveled.
Now she glanced around the empty waiting room. She hadn't seen this coming - who could have, other than perhaps Alice herself? She gave a quiet laugh. Leave it to Alice to make a dramatic exit from any stage.
Bella blinked back tears and clasped the locket again. It was warm in her hand.
When she first read the new message in the locket - engraved in nearly microscopic script on a platinum heart mounted so it couldn't fall out when the locket was opened - she'd had a moment of disappointment. The message wasn't the overtly romantic type she expected from Edward.
"Do you like it?" Edward had asked while fastening its delicate chain around her neck, as if he sensed her slight disappointment.
"Oh Edward. It's ..." she was truly at a loss for words. It was perfect, and yet her insecurities niggled at her, which wasn't fair. Edward had proven himself over and over again.
He cradled her face in his palms, encouraging her to meet his eyes, which brimmed with a fierce tenderness. "I chose this because I never want you to lose hope, Bella. Not ever. Promise me."
He waited, hands shaking slightly, until she whispered, "I won't."
"Because I love you more than my own life, Bella. And I hope ..." He stopped himself, though she knew he wanted to say more. He looked away for a moment to compose himself, then made the statement, full stop. "I hope."
She almost asked him once again to say what he hoped for, but they'd already discussed that, and he hadn't allowed her to promise to wait when the future was so uncertain.
And she'd understood that for Edward, the message was about the inner workings of love - the kind of love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Bella shifted in her chair and she glanced at the clock - nearly an hour had passed since Jasper ran past the waiting room toward Alice. She rechecked her mental math and inwardly saluted Jasper's badass driving. He'd made the Forks-to-Seattle run in record time. Even Edward would be impressed.
For the umpteenth time, she wished Edward were here. It would kill him if anything happened to Alice or the baby while he was incarcerated. And he'd want to be here for Jasper.
She opened her bag and pulled out his most recent letter, tracing a finger across his now-elegant script as if she could reassure him, though there was no way for him to know what was happening.
He'd had such crabbed writing as a teenager. Back then, she'd mistrusted his beauty, his sometimes cruel wit, his unsettling attentions. But his dreadful handwriting belied a hidden vulnerability, even sincerity. She'd always trusted his written words. It had been one of the things that broke through her wariness.
Tears welled as she smiled, fumbling the letter from its envelope.
I have important news ...
The most important news possible. Jason Jenks had called her, so the news itself wasn't a surprise. It couldn't be, since the media had lost no time in reporting the details of Eleazar Denali's last days, as well as the revelations found in the papers from his briefcase, which were found with him on a remote private island he'd owned under an alias.
But reading Edward's joyful words and puzzling instructions sent a rush of heat and joy through her.
Bella knew he had a plan, but didn't know what it was. His letter simply instructed her to call Rosalie. She checked the clock again: 5:48 p.m. She'd wait until 7 p.m. as instructed, but not a minute more - not unless there was news about Alice.
Her friendship was so much more precious now, grounded as it was in truth and mutual forgiveness.
Bella kissed the locket then let it fall to her chest. One of her assignments from Edward was keeping a daily journal. She retrieved a notebook and pen from her bag, sat back and closed her eyes briefly - it helped her channel the river of unexpected words. Then she opened them and began to write whatever came to mind, images and ideas swooping and dipping and surprising her still.
"You're 2.36 seconds late," Rosalie said as she answered the phone. Of course, she'd been expecting Bella's call, and had everything prepared, in spite of being naked and freshly fucked.
In a very real sense, Edward had saved her life. She'd walk across broken glass for him. Fortunately, the only favors he'd ever asked of her involved executing plans and projects all calculated to bring happiness to her closest friend.
Nice work if you could get it. Rosalie grinned.
"Well, I thought about calling when Alice's water broke during her TED talk, but ..." Bella trailed off.
"Bitch, please. Don't even try that shit with me."
"I'm not kidding, Rose. I'm in the waiting room at the hospital. I don't know anything. Jasper's here now, but ..."
"Oh god, you're serious."
"As a heart attack." Bella's voice wavered. "I hope everything's okay."
"Me too. Hold on a sec." Rosalie pushed back the covers and reached for her clothes.
"Were you in bed?" She could almost see Bella, eyebrows raised, mouth quirked with a suppressed smile.
"Yes, I was," she said, attempting to sound matter of fact and falling dismally short of the mark. It was impossible to be stoic about Emmett, naked in their bed and deep in a post-coital nap. She ran her eyes over him as she dressed with the phone squashed between shoulder and cheek.
His body was a revelation. She'd slept with handsome men before, but Emmett was a glorious specimen. And his combination of tenderness and raw sex appeal (and skills) took her breath away. Often.
She must have sighed or muttered something - sweet fucking Jesus was for some reason echoing in her head - because Bella snorted.
"Yeah, yeah Missus Newlywed. Cut the long-term celibate a break here, okay?"
Rosalie tried to rein in her delight for Bella's sake. Edward had been in prison in Duluth for just over two years. She didn't want to consider how Bella coped.
At any rate, it wouldn't be much longer now.
"You're packing for a trip." Rosalie smiled. She knew where, when, how and had a fair bit of insight into the whys of Edward's plans - she'd clandestinely visited him to discuss the arrangements, which went with numbered envelopes he'd left in Rosalie's care when he reported to Duluth to serve his sentence. "Check the box for your instructions." Bella had a box on her front porch that Rosalie used to deliver letters when Edward requested it. "Call me when you're done. And call me sooner with any word on Alice and Guido."
It was Rosalie's nickname for Alice's belly, which she knew was funny, though Emmett and Bella assured her it wasn't. Bella did so now.
"I love you, asshole."
Bella hung up the phone and wished she could race home and grab the envelope waiting in the box on her front porch.
She closed her eyes, recalling the letters and packages Edward had left behind for her, apparently all assembled and written in the weeks between his sentencing and when he left for Duluth. They were invariably overwhelming. His love, concern and selflessness were tangible on each page and in each gift.
How could he have guessed the things he seemed to know about the workings of her mind and heart? As if he could read her like a book, he had addressed her every doubt and fear - often before she recognized them herself.
Suddenly a hand was on her shoulder and her eyes snapped open. Jasper. The tears on his face terrified her until he broke into a beatific smile. "She's okay. They're both okay."
"Thank goodness." The relief was almost too much to bear. She stood and threw her arms around him, and Jasper rocked and hugged her, kissing the top of her head. She'd have thought this a purely celebratory moment if she couldn't feel the shaking of his silent sobs.
"Hey, they're okay," she soothed. "It's all right, J. Shh."
He nodded, then released the hug and grabbed her hand, tugging her toward a door near the far end of the hallway. "Come and see her."
"Are you sure?" Bella demurred, the old feeling of not belonging resurfacing.
"I'm sure, darlin'," Jasper insisted, dragging her toward the hall. "Her parents won't be here for hours, Edward is still in Duluth. I know you're the first person she'd want to meet our daughter." He swallowed hard. "You and me - we're the only family she's got."
Family. A sudden wave of warmth, of rightness, crashed through her. She stashed her notebook, then followed Jasper to Alice's room.
When a sweaty, radiant Alice caught sight of her, she burst into tears, and Bella didn't hesitate. She crossed the room in an instant and wrapped her in a fierce hug, both of them laughing through tears.
A wail erupted from the far corner of the birthing suite as a nurse swaddled a very small bundle. She brought the baby to Alice and gently handed her into Alice's waiting arms. The baby was very tiny, and Bella shot the nurse a worried glance, though Jasper and Alice had eyes only for their daughter and each other.
On her way out of the room, the nurse touched Bella's arm and murmured, "She's fine. She's tiny because she's a few weeks early, and she'll probably spend an extra couple of days here until we're sure she's thriving, but she's healthy."
Jasper had settled himself beside Alice in the hospital bed, their heads bent together over their new daughter.
Bella stared unabashedly at the scene, memorizing every detail to share with Edward.
It was nearly dawn when Bella finally arrived home. She sank onto the rocking chair on her porch. The chilly pre-dawn air had a clarifying quality that far outweighed the discomfort of shivering. Bella lifted the lid of the box, pulled out a bulky manila envelope and opened the clasp.
Envelopes - some of them lumpy, all of them numbered.
She arranged them in order and shakily tore open the first envelope. It was one of the lumpy ones. Following one of the instructions he left her with, she carefully extracted the letter without looking at whatever was enclosed with it.
I couldn't in good conscience ask you to wear this when I left for Duluth. But as you can see by the date above and the Rosalie Hale Courier Service delivery, I wanted to.
Instead, I asked you to hope, and I've asked the same of myself. If you are reading this, then the future is finally open to us. Us, together, if you're willing.
Rosalie will give you the particulars of my release, and tell you when and where we will see each other face to face, free to begin whatever life you choose.
Because it's your choice, Bella. If we meet, and you aren't wearing this, I will love you still. If we meet and you are wearing this, you will make me the happiest man on Earth.
What's most important, though, is whether it would make you happy.
Bella tipped the envelope, and a ring slid out. Vintage square-cut diamond on a platinum band, it was clearly an heirloom piece.
With shaking fingers, she slid the ring on. It fit perfectly, which didn't surprise her in the least. Edward's attention to detail was unparalleled.
She'd hoped - truly hoped, rather than hopelessly longing - for a future with Edward. And though she knew he had hoped for the same thing, it was finally here. The diamond was beautiful, but when she looked at it she only saw Edward. Her Edward.
Bella wanted to say something - yes, and thank you, and I love you so much - but the joy was too big. She sat back in the rocking chair, gazing at the symbol of the future on her hand.
Tonight, Alice and Jasper had told her their daughter's name would be Elizabeth. And they'd asked her to be Elizabeth's godmother. In the Cullen tradition, the godparent chose the child's middle name.
Bella now knew the middle name she would gift to Alice and Jasper's baby girl: Hope.
Edward stepped out of the gates of the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth and found Seth waiting for him exactly where he expected: in the prison's visitor parking lot, behind the wheel of the small SUV Rosalie kept at her house on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River at Winona.
He shook Seth's hand.
The boy smiled and clapped him on the shoulder. "Rosalie had me take your things to the house, except for a bag in the back." he said. "And I've got Bella's flight information. Oh! And this." He pulled an iPhone from his pocket and handed it to Edward. "Rosalie said there's a message on there for you."
Edward nodded, smiling. "Perfect. I really appreciate this, Seth."
"No trouble, Mr. Cullen. I'm glad to do it." A ghost of Seth's youthful awkwardness lingered about him, but the boy was clear-eyed and well-spoken.
"Jasper says you're doing well in the program."
Here, Seth ducked his head and nodded, "It's going great."
Modest understatement: Edward approved.
Between Rosalie and Jasper, Seth seemed solidly on track, and Edward was grateful. He regretted the timing that had kept him from being a more direct help to Seth, though he'd written the boy often, and conferred with Rosalie and Jasper to ensure that Seth didn't self-destruct.
It had come close, but the boy behind the wheel looked to be solidly established in a life he cared about.
Edward made small talk about compositions, techniques and concert schedules, then lapsed into silence as the Minnesota landscape sped by. They were on their way to pick up Bella from the airport in Minneapolis. But they'd stop in the city first so Edward could get a decent haircut, and change into presentable clothes.
No one had been at the prison for his release at Edward's insistence. He wanted to look and feel like a free man before he saw the people he loved, especially Bella.
So he'd asked Carlisle and Esme to stay in New York. Carlisle had been spared prison time, but had been forced to resign from his position at the hospital. Now they were both active in fundraising for the philanthropy established to raise money for victims of the Denali Group fraud, and a gala had been planned long before Edward's release was secured. They worked closely with Tanya, whose husband had put up the original $500 million challenge grant to bring in donations intended to reimburse teacher's union and municipal employee retirement funds as well as individual investors.
And Esme was Carmen's only connection to her past life. When the fund began, Carmen granted an interview to express her regret at Eleazar's actions, and her commitment to raising restitution funds. But after late-night comedians did some especially cruel impressions of Carmen's particular stroke impairments, Carmen had isolated herself. Esme was now the only person outside of her family that Carmen would permit to see her.
Edward's heart fell a bit, thinking of the proud and beautiful Carmen, mocked and reviled for things that weren't her fault. Eleazar had hurt so many people, and for a moment, the old guilt gripped him. He'd participated in Eleazar's crimes. Not willingly, but how much did that matter in the face of those suffering as a result of their losses?
He sighed and refocused on the Minnesota landscape passing by. And on today: Release day. He'd paid his debt to society, so far as that was possible, and now he was free.
Keeping Alice away on a day like this would have meant an epic battle of wills if it hadn't been for the early arrival of Baby Elizabeth. Of course: Elizabeth, their dead mother's name. Edward had always adored his baby sister; this tribute to their mother raised his estimation of her even higher.
Edward furrowed his brow. Given that she was Alice's child, he doubted Elizabeth would ever lack for anything, including middle names. Yet his questions on this had gone unanswered.
He sat back, opened up the phone's messaging app, and found Rosalie's notes. He'd asked her not to tell him Bella's decision - he wanted to see for himself.
But everything else was in place: an appointment with a judge, just in case; a suitable celebration dinner, and a place to stay.
Because if she was wearing his ring, he fully intended to marry Bella before sundown.
When the flight attendant announced the final descent into Minneapolis - St. Paul International Airport, Bella buckled her seatbelt and swallowed the lump in her throat. He was here. He would be waiting for her.
She smoothed her hair then her skirt, and straightened the ring on her left ring finger. She didn't want him in suspense for a second longer than necessary. She couldn't wait to see the joy on his face as he caught sight of her answer.
The plane bumped down on the runway, slowing in the thrilling way that only jetliners can, and Bella looked out at the Minnesota sky. Sunshine, high clouds. A day full of promise.
When they reached the gate, Bella used the time before the plane's doors opened to send her first text message to a new number. "Landed. See you soon. xo Your Bella"
Was that too much of a hint? She smiled to herself, then stood to collect her coat and carry-on. As always, the aisle was full, but she didn't mind. Every step brought her closer.
And reminded her that, per the instructions in letter 5, she wasn't wearing panties.
Finally, she was off the plane and hurrying up the concourse. Edward would be waiting just outside of the TSA security area. She hoped to catch a glimpse of him before he spotted her. She wanted to watch the change on his face.
She got her wish. Whether it was sun through a window or just the right angle of lighting, she caught a glimpse of his copper-penny hair - he was looking down at something. Probably her text message.
He straightened, and for a moment she saw his furrowed brow as he scanned the crowd, then the transformation of his smile.
Bella ran, to the extent that was possible in boots with heels and a carry-on bag in tow.
Then they were together, his mouth on hers. She held his face between her hands, and one of his hands covered hers, feeling. She felt his growling approval when he touched the ring.
He broke the kiss and confirmed with a visual, then met her eyes.
They were both too overwhelmed to speak, so she nodded. Yes. Always yes.
He lifted her into a bone-crushing embrace, and she kissed him again. When he set her down, she flushed, realizing that passersby were caught up in their reunion.
He grasped her hand and brought it to his mouth, kissing the ring as he held her gaze.
Bella's muscles suddenly liquefied, and a remote part of her brain noted that they hadn't spoken a word yet. So she said the only one that mattered. "Yes."
S: On the way to courthouse. Winona ETA 7ish?
Rosalie smiled through tears at Seth's message then swooped into action, placing a couple of elegant floral arrangements and setting the dining table with the finest china and crystal in the cabinets.
She'd nearly sold the house on the bluffs just outside of Winona after her parents' reaction to what happened in New York. Her lips tightened at the thought, but she let it go. They were climbers, and they'd loved Royce and his connections. So much so that when Rosalie chose not to pursue the deal Royce had insisted was her future, they'd told her she'd blown the best thing that ever happened to her. And after the rape, they'd expressed their doubts about Rosalie's version of events.
They'd long since moved to Phoenix, so Rosalie didn't have family here anymore, but she'd kept the house anyway. And now it would finally be a place of happiness.
Emmett was in the kitchen, working with the caterer to get cold things into refrigeration, hot food into warming ovens, and icing down the champagne.
Edward had asked her and Emmett to stay for dinner, but she was determined to keep the meal short. God knew they needed to be alone.
She and Emmett had arrived in Winona two days before in order to set Edward's plans in motion, and she was eager to get back to Washington. She was mounting a new show at the gallery, and still putting the finishing touches on the home she and Emmett had purchased outside of Port Angeles. It was a stone cottage on a mountainside, built more than a hundred years before, and newly restored. Modern amenities were carefully chosen with respect for the historic home.
It was small and spare (except for a sumptuous bedroom), and the most perfect place Rosalie had ever known. She'd grown up in a household dedicated to keeping up and showing off. Here, her piano dwarfed all the other furniture except their bed. The rooms were cozy, and decorated with hand-picked pieces she loved for their beauty, practicality or antiquity. Usually all three.
Rosalie paused at the expansive window that overlooked the Mississippi from a high position on the bluffs. Directly above this room was the master bedroom, which she'd prepared for the happy couple. It had a balcony and hot tub, and a wood-burning fireplace. Emmett had stocked the woodbox, so Bella and Edward could enjoy a fire if they chose.
Emmett found her at the window, slipped his arms around her from behind and kissed her hair. "Everything ready?"
She leaned into him, content, and nodded. "All we need now are a bride and groom."
Emmett squeezed her gently. "They've been through a lot," he said. "I'm glad it's finally their turn."
Rosalie tipped her head back and kissed him beneath his ear, which made him squirm. It was adorable. "Me too, baby."
Emmett growled playfully. "God, I love it when you call me baby."
Rosalie pressed her bottom back against him and grinned wickedly at his faint reflection on the window. "I know."
His need for Bella was so overwhelming, Edward almost wished he had the distraction of driving. With Seth behind the wheel, he had her nestled against him, the warm, floral scent of her making him nearly giddy with desire after two years of prison smells, two years without her touch.
Bella raised his hand to her mouth and kissed it, and the softness of her lips ... he shifted, hoping the movement would ease the tightness over his insistent erection - it didn't - and watched her cheek lift in a knowing smile.
"Something funny, Mrs. Cullen?"
Bella squeezed his hand, this time kissing the ring on the third finger. It had been her only condition for marrying today - that they stop at a jeweler so she could give him a wedding ring.
"I'm just happy," she said, looking up at him, her face flushed with joy. A banked fire of longing shone in her eyes. She held his gaze, letting him see that she needed him as much as he needed her.
He kissed her deeply, Seth be damned. Why the hell had he thought it would be a good idea for her to be without panties when he couldn't do a thing about it?
She returned his kiss, her breath fast and shallow, then softened it before pulling back and caressing his cheek. "Soon." It was barely a whisper. He nodded and closed his eyes, leaning his forehead against hers.
Bella released his hand and pinched his trousers, tugging discreetly to ease the fabric over his straining cock without touching it. It pulsed toward her touch, but he had a bit more room now, so it wasn't as painful. He smirked at her and mouthed "thank you," then took a steadying breath and focused for a moment on the trees and bluffs, and glimpses of the Mississippi River.
It would take practice to work out the logistics and boundaries, but Edward had had plenty of sleepless nights in prison to consider Bella's needs and his limits. He was reasonably sure he saw the way forward on that front.
But that was for another day. Tonight, after a celebratory dinner with Rosalie and Emmett, he would take his bride to bed and lose himself in her.
They rode in silence for a time, hands clasped, as the late day sun bathed budding trees in golden light. Then Seth pulled off the highway onto a winding road that rose steeply to the top of a bluff, and into the driveway of a house that belonged on the cover of a coffee table book, its wide windows glowing with the sunset.
Thank you, Rosalie, Edward thought as he noted the vase of flowers decorating the porch stairs.
As soon as Seth parked the car, Edward threw open his door and stepped out. He reached back to help Bella out. When she was on her feet, Bella looked up at the house, then at him, tears glistening in her eyes. "It's perfect, Mr. Cullen."
Edward kissed her until she swayed, then scooped her up in his arms and carried her up the stairs and over the threshold.
The candles on the beautifully set table burned low. Light glinted off the empty champagne flutes. Emmett had risen to clear away the dessert plates, and Rosalie was now seated at the piano.
When the music began, Edward stood and held out his hand for her. Bella took it and stepped into his arms. Edward in a suit was intoxicating; Edward - her husband - twirling her slowly across the living room of Rosalie's spacious and elegant house? Indescribable.
He bent and kissed a delicate trail from temple to jaw to neck. Bella shuddered and pressed herself closer, eyes closed, arms tightly wrapped around him.
"Open your eyes," he whispered, a smile in his voice.
She did, and what she saw - the love and happiness in his eyes - was more than she could bear. She was on her tiptoes, brushing her lips against his. "I love you, Edward."
"I love you so much, Bella." His eyes welled. "I've never been this happy."
The music seemed to carry them, floating, above time, so that they were 17 again, but also here and now - survivors of separation and fully realized adults. A shimmer of years to come, of children and gray hair, glowed between them.
Bella still swayed in his arms when she realized the music had ended. The house was so quiet that she knew Rosalie and Emmett had left them to their reunion.
Edward stilled and they drank each other in. Then he pulled her close for a smoldering kiss. She put her arms around his neck, wanting him closer.
When they were both breathless, Edward wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her off the floor. She clung to his neck so she could whisper in his ear. "Take me to bed." She made no effort to hide the longing in her voice.
His quiet groan of agreement lanced through Bella, and she flushed from head to toe.
They released their embrace, and holding hands, ascended the stairs together.
The master suite took up the entire upper suitcases had been placed in the walk-in closet.
"I don't have anything pretty to put on," she said. A private wedding suited her perfectly, but she now felt a pang at not being able to wear something beautiful to their marriage bed.
"Stand here," he said, pulling her close to the bed. He sat on the edge, bringing them eye to eye. "Now turn around."
Bella turned, lifting her hair away from the top of the zipper of her dress.
Edward rested his hands lightly on her shoulders, then ran them down to her waist. He repeated this until she swayed, then unzipped her dress. She let it fall to the floor.
This left her in her bra, garter and stockings, and boots.
He unhooked the bra, and she let it fall to the floor.
Then he turned her to face him and knelt at her feet. He kissed each nipple, then bent to unzip her boots. She rested a hand on his shoulder for balance as she stepped out of them.
He knelt up then, kissing from her navel, up and over her breasts, and finally meeting her mouth. He kissed her with tenderness and urgency as he deftly released her stockings and unhooked the garter.
When she was naked except for her ring and the locket, Bella pushed the suit jacket from his shoulders, and tugged his tie so he would stand. She slowly undid the tie. Her fingers lingered over his shirt buttons as she unbuttoned each one, leaning in to kiss his throat, chest, belly.
Her hands were steady as she unbuckled his belt, unzipped his pants and pushed everything down. She knelt to pull away his pants and socks as he stepped out of them.
She realized: he was standing, she was kneeling. It was a position he hadn't been willing to entertain before he served his sentence.
But it was intensely erotic. Bella met his eyes, asking, and she could see his need fighting with his concern.
"Let me?" It was a plea.
Edward twined his hands in her hair, guiding her to his straining cock.
Bella followed his cue, licking up the underside with the tip of her tongue, slowly teasing before finally taking him completely into her mouth.
His thigh muscles quivered, and she knew he couldn't take much, and wouldn't want to come in her mouth now.
She eased away and stood, and he pulled her close, lifting her onto the bed. He lay her back so her hair spread across the pillow, and she could see the pleasure this gave him. She drew his mouth down to hers, kissing him slowly, sweetly, not wanting to push him too far too fast. They'd been celibate for two years now - this was a moment to savor, to the extent that was possible.
Edward pulled back to gaze at her body; her skin prickled in anticipation.
He seemed to sense this, and applied his mouth to one breast then the other, then trailed lower, making her ache with need.
When his mouth connected with her pussy, they both groaned. Bella let her legs fall open, welcoming everything he chose to offer her.
He lingered, kissing, licking, sliding fingers in. It took every ounce of Bella's self control to hold back her orgasm, but her years of training in the playroom helped.
Finally, she needed him too much. "Please," she begged, and Edward seemed to understand.
He held himself over her, a question in his eyes.
Bella answered by wrapping her legs around his hips and raising herself until he was touching her entrance.
He rocked forward and back, sliding against her without entering, then bent close to gently kiss her mouth. "I love you, Bella." His words dissolved into a groan as he slid slowly in.
"Oh god," she breathed, wanting to close her eyes with pleasure, but unwilling to take her eyes off of him. He was so beautiful.
Edward set an exquisitely slow pace, the muscle in his jaw twitching with the strain of holding
himself in check. She lifted her hips to meet each stroke, needing him closer, deeper.
"I need you," he gritted, lifting a hand to capture her leg in the crook of his elbow, opening her wider.
Bella groaned and Edward buried himself in her. She took his face in her hands and kissed him slowly, deeply, and Edward's movements became suddenly erratic.
"Oh Bella," he rasped, "oh god." His mouth dropped open in his extremity, and watching him lose himself pushed her over the edge.
Their eyes locked as they rode out their climax, then Edward collapsed into her arms, burying his face in her hair.
Bella turned on her side so she could cradle him against her heart, and Edward's shoulders began to shake. She lifted his chin and kissed his wet cheek. "You're here," she whispered. "We're together now."
He kissed her gently, then pulled back, making no effort to hide his tears as he seemed to drink in every inch of her - hair, face, breasts, belly. When his gaze returned to hers, she wiped his eyes and his smile was like sunshine breaking through clouds. She smiled too, and felt a twitch against her thigh.
She raised an eyebrow and he grinned, bending his head to flick at her nipple with his tongue. The noise that escaped her clearly pleased him, because he set to work alternately licking and sucking, one nipple then the other, until she was helpless with need. She reached for his cock and grasped it, stroking as she pushed him onto his back and swung a leg over him.
Edward clutched at her, pulling her down, pushing up, burying himself in her. Bella held onto the headboard and set a tortuous rhythm, circling her hips before sliding slowly down until he was buried in her then slowly lifting herself to do it again. And again.
Edward squeezed and stroked her breasts so that her swollen nipples ached and tingled. She lost herself in the pleasure, throwing her head back and riding him with abandon. There was no separation, no Eleazar, no Tanya in the meadow. No years of heartache.
She looked down to see his eyes fixed on her, his climax building.
Suddenly, the only thing that mattered was Edward. She clasped his hands, pressing them to her breasts, urging him to touch her. And she ran a finger down his chest, his belly, until she reached the place where they were joined.
Edward's eyes darkened. "Touch yourself," he rasped. "Make yourself come on me."
Bella kept her eyes on his as she circled her clit, her thighs shaking with the effort of riding him, the pleasure of touching herself, the need as he rolled her nipples between thumb and forefinger.
Her climax nearly toppled her, but Edward steadied her hips, and pushed up to keep the rhythm when she faltered.
She shook and shook, but never lost focus, intent on Edward when he pulled her hand to his mouth, sucking on the finger she'd used, and quaking with the pleasure of his own release.
Sometime during the night, she woke in his arms. When she shifted to look at him, his eyes were open, liquid in the moonlight. They made love slowly, as if they had all the time in the world.
As she lay in Edward's arms after, a smile played at her lips as she realized: They did.
Thank you for reading.
Since it's Giving Tuesday, I wanted to mention a great charity that was the inspiration for Jasper's latest venture. Code dot org "is a non-profit dedicated to expanding participation in computer science by making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color. Our vision is that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science. We believe computer science and computer programming should be part of the core curriculum in education, alongside other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, such as biology, physics, chemistry and algebra." There's a great divide in tech, and it defines many futures. So if you're inclined, consider making a contribution, whether in dollars or in kind during the Hour of Code week, Dec. 8-14. Learn more at code dot org.