To celebrate Valentine's Day, we thought we'd share the outtake we wrote for Fandom Gives Back. Thank you again to everyone who participated in and donated to FGB. And who knows... maybe there will be another outtake after this. Much love, Jen and Bel.
Betad by the brilliant arfalcon.
During the course of my adult life, I had come to see Christmas as more of an annoyance than a celebration. This was primarily because Christmas did not mean business as usual. For a start, it meant half my colleagues disappeared (some went on vacation, while others presumably dematerialized and never returned), which always resulted in a heavier workload for yours truly. It also meant drunken women throwing themselves at me at the company Christmas party, which at Cullen, Inc. came with the bonus of me being voted Hottest EILF (Executive I'd Like to...you know...do things to.) People hummed carols during meetings, drank non-alcoholic eggnog at lunch, wrapped things in tinsel. I had to send cards to people I spoke to once every blue moon, and accept candy canes from people who I saw once every full moon (because as a were-elf, that's when I deigned to leave my office). All this when I just wanted to get some work done.
And before I met Bella, Christmas also meant an increased number of phone calls from my mother, who with each passing year became more and more afraid I'd spend the holiday in front of the fireplace, consuming milk and cookies while I waited for Santa to bring me a wife. I'd reminded her on many an occasion that my apartment didn't even have a fireplace, and even if I did, I was generally opposed to wives being carried around in Santa's sack while he traversed the world in his sleigh. Needless to say, my mother never found these jokes funny. My default defenses of "I'm too busy working to find a wife" and "money doesn't grow on trees; I have to actually earn it myself" were always met with derision. Two years ago, she even reminded me that wives didn't grow on trees either, to which I replied, "I certainly hope not. That sounds like the most ridiculous Christmas tree ever." She started crying and sent me a box of red and green macaroons from Paris. Since I wasn't sure whether she wanted me to eat them, give them to a prospective girlfriend, or leave them out for Santa on Christmas Eve, I gave them to Seth. It was but a small consolation for the number of calls he'd had to field.
So imagine my relief when last year my mother left me alone. I'd told her I was taking my girlfriend to Ireland, and that for the first time in many years I was actually taking more than two weeks vacation. She'd been so stunned she'd left my father in charge of gift-giving. I received a cuckoo clock maintenance kit (as they didn't know Bella had broken my birthday gift), several bottles of red wine, and a surprisingly sensible cashmere sweater. It was safe to say I spent the majority of that Ireland trip in various states of undress, but when I wasn't having amazing sex with Bella, or streaking through fields of leprechaun gold, I appreciated that sweater very much. Perhaps if I stunned my mother again this year, I'd receive something equally useful.
That was wishful thinking, however. A year had passed and my mother was no longer stunned into submission. It was the beginning of December and she was at it again, calling the office once a day. To make matters worse, as of yesterday evening my parents were actually back in New York. Admittedly, I had requested that my mother deliver a certain item to me, but being back in the same time zone had its disadvantages. Despite the fact I'd spoken to her for over an hour last night, she had called the office three times today, twicein the last hour. And today was a Saturday; I wasn't even supposed to be working.
I was more than a little bit on edge today. I was letting Bella down by working on a weekend, on a day we were supposed to spend together. We'd planned to shop for ornaments before decorating the tree and then hopefully making love by said tree. As much as Christmas annoyed me in the past, Christmas with Bella was different. This cancellation hurt more than the usual rescheduling – she'd spent many a holiday season alone. I had to finish this work and get out of here.
I leaned back in my chair and sighed. Seth was sitting opposite me, helping me sort through an important stack of paperwork, and he was visibly tired too.
"I want to go home and decorate the Christmas tree," I whined. As CEO, I was allowed to set policy on whining in the workplace. I didn't usually allow myself to indulge, but I was cranky about being a disappointment.
Seth passed me a folder and nodded solemnly. "I know, sir."
"This is going to be the first Christmas I'll have a tree in my apartment, you know," I explained. "I have to get home."
He looked confused. "Didn't you have one a couple of years ago?
I shook my head. "That wasn't of my own free will. That tree forced itself on me. I tried to say stop but it wouldn't listen. Santa probably told it I was a bad boy, a single one with wood to spare." I paused. "If I don't get out here, I'll be making inappropriate jokes all night. How about we shred this paperwork and run away? Yes?"
"Hold on a minute, sir," Seth replied, obviously amused. "That's an interesting recollection. Wasn't that the year your mother broke into your apartment and set up a tree while you were at work? Maybe I misunderstood you?"
"You probably did. Wasn't that the year you wore reindeer ears during December?"
"I never did that."
I smirked. "I knew you'd come to deny it."
"Wasn't that the tree that scared you?"
He was making it sound like I was afraid of Christmas decorations. What had actually happened was I'd been unaware that the tree's Christmas lights were on an automatic timer. I hadn't noticed it previously, as I hardly frequented the living room when I was busy with paperwork. One night I woke up in need of a midnight snack. Bleary-eyed and disoriented, I walked down the hall, saw the alarming sight of a hundred floating lights, and ended up walking into a magazine rack due to the shock. I thought I'd hallucinated a swarm of fairies. That is, until I remembered the damn tree.
"I don't like unannounced trees, fairies, or any other type of Christmas surprise," I answered with dignity.
Before Seth could reply, his desk phone began to ring. I glanced in the direction of the doorway and groaned. I was too far away to unplug the phone line.
"That has to be your mother."
I slapped the folder down on the desk. "Okay, here's what we're going to do. We're going to go home. I'm going to come in tomorrow. On a Sunday. You don't have to come if you don't want to, but if you do, be ready to make me lots of coffee. I might even have to come in early on Monday. This is taking so much longer than expected."
"If you're sure, sir."
"Okay then. I'll call your driver to pick you up."
We walked out of the office without looking back. Had I looked back, I would've had a panic attack at the small mountain of paperwork on my desk. I had no time for panic attacks. I had to get to Bella.
When I checked my cell on the drive uptown, I noticed I had five missed calls from my mother. I'd told her last night that she and Dad would meet Bella soon, suggesting dinner at Per Se next Friday night. Instinct told me she wanted to move the dinner up. However, I wasn't about to let her bully me. I wasn't just any kid on the playground. I was a CEO. A CEO with a personal assistant who helped him dodge his mother's incessant phone calls.
As soon as the elevator doors opened at my floor, I bolted down the hall toward my apartment. I would've run much faster had I not had the weight of my winter coat and my briefcase slowing me down. In my haste, I actually knocked on my own door, eager for Bella to open up. Then I remembered it was my apartment and I obviously had a key. I retrieved my keys and let myself in, immediately searching for Bella. I found her in the living room wearing nothing but one of my dress shirts and... thigh high red and white striped socks. She cocked her head to the side and waited for me to say something. Well, that's what I think she did; I was more than a little distracted.
I dropped my briefcase with a thud. Apparently, some Christmas surprises weren't so bad after all.
"Is this your way of torturing me?" I asked as I took off my coat and draped it over the sofa.
"Yes," she said. "Is it working?"
"I dare say it is," I replied with a grin.
I unbuttoned my collar and loosened my tie. "So if I threw you down in front of that tree and made you scream my name, would that make up for my absence today?"
"It would be a start."
The playfulness of her voice told me that despite today's cancellation, I wasn't without a chance of redemption. I stalked over to her, very much wanting to close the distance between us, but she put a hand up to stop me. I briefly thought of tackling her anyway and having my way with her, but decided to follow her lead.
"But not starting now?" I asked, stopping in my tracks.
Her tone was very matter-of-fact. "We're decorating this tree, Mr. Masen. Then – and only then – may you service me properly."
I smirked and took her in my arms, kissing her quickly on the mouth. "I love you. I'm so sorry about today."
"I know you are, and I know you're doing the best you can."
Her words were a comfort to me. I kissed her forehead this time. "I can do better. I really am sorry. "
"You will be."
"Is more torture on the way? Will you be walking around naked while eating chicken pot pie next? I'll have you know that's cruel and unusual punishment."
"Worse than that. You have to put the lights on the tree."
"You know those lights frighten me," I joked, burying my head in her neck.
She chuckled. "Man up, Masen."
"I'll have to if I want to keep you around." I sighed happily. It was such a relief to be home. "What did I ever do to deserve you?"
"You were evil in a past life and now you're paying the price."
I laughed. "The Karmic Price Index. Especially brutal in this economy."
"The one percent has to pay somehow."
"Well then, I better put those lights up before you ditch me and decide to Occupy Wall Street instead."
I dashed off to my bedroom to change out of my suit. While my Columbia t-shirt and sweatpants weren't as sexy as Bella's outfit, I hoped she would still find me attractive. I'd been so rushed the last two mornings that I hadn't shaved – this amount of scruff probably ruled me out of the running for a Gillette endorsement. Maybe I was getting sloppy. Maybe I wouldn't even be able to defend my EILF title at next Saturday's Christmas party.
I was probably just being paranoid. I quickly returned to the living room to tackle the task of stringing the lights.
Bella had opened a bottle of wine and I sipped from my glass as I surveyed the tree, mentally forming a game plan for stringing the lights. The tree we'd bought earlier in the week was the perfect size for the space and added a rather pleasant smell to the apartment. I wasn't even sure how much I'd paid for it, I just wanted the best for Bella. I wanted the holidays to mean something again, for both of us. So while she opened boxes of baubles, I did my very best to string the lights as perfectly as possible.
However – and I suspected this was deliberate – Bella distracted me quite a few times by bending over, giving me the slightest hint of the red underwear she was wearing.
"You shouldn't do that to a man when he's working with electricity," I said after the third time. "I might be electrocuted, and then where would you be?"
"Right back where I started, I'd imagine. But could you leave me your apartment? I'm kind of used to all this space now."
"Speaking of which," I said, peeking around the tree. "When are you going to give up your apartment?"
She never did like talking about her apartment. Even though she was only there a few times a month, she seemed reluctant to give it up. So I was hardly surprised when she changed the subject without giving a proper answer.
"You know, Ireland is going to be a tough act to follow. How are you going to top last Christmas?"
I gave her a knowing look, but played along nonetheless. "You're right, I'm sure there's no way I can top that," I said with a smile. "Be prepared for disappointment."
"Oh, Mr. Masen. Don't you know I'm always prepared for disappointment where you're concerned?"
"That's it," I said, coming around from the back of the tree and leaving the string of lights hanging off. "I won't have my sexual prowess impugned."
"You're so sexy when you use obscure words," she said as I took her in my arms and kissed her, my hands stroking her back under her shirt. Or rather, my shirt.
Come to think of it, the shirt had been a Christmas gift from my mother. It was a white Ralph Lauren double-ply cotton Oxford shirt with a button down collar and red embroidered horse, limited edition. I knew the specifics because she'd repeated the description ten times, all with different levels of emphasis. Double-ply. Oxford. Limited Edition. Red horse. Button down. Ralph Lauren. Ralph. Lauren.The way she kept repeating herself made me think she was trying to hypnotize me into wearing it every day until I died, or at least until the collar needed to be re-starched. Needless to say, this wasn't the way she'd envisioned it being worn, but at least it was being put to good use.
Verygood use. It was essentially gift wrap now. Bella was such a turn on.
"I have many obscure words in my vocabulary," I teased. "Blame the SAT. Here's an analogy: my hand is up your shirt like something else will be up something else..."
"Hush. I have something to prove," I said. I grabbed her ass and pulled her against me, my erection pressing into her and making her gasp. I slowly started unbuttoning her shirt, one button at a time. It was a tease for both of us.
I had just slipped the shirt from her shoulders, revealing an incredibly sexy red lace bra, when the phone that linked directly to the lobby rang. The shrill sound was such an unwelcome interruption I may or may not have cursed several times.
"Are we expecting someone?" I asked as I tried to remember if I'd forgotten something.
"Not that I know of. Maybe it's a package?"
"It's Saturday night in New York City. The only package people might find welcome is Justin Timberlake's dick-in-a-box skit from SNL." I suddenly realized something as the phone continued to ring. "Oh my God! I didn't even close the door when I came in."
I'd been so eager to see Bella I'd just raced in without a second thought. I released Bella, jogged to the foyer, shut the apartment door, and then picked up the phone.
"Mr. Masen, it's James from downstairs. Your parents are here to see you."
"Sorry?" I couldn't have heard right. They hadn't even given me any notice.
Though my mother had tried to call me.
"Your parents – Elizabeth and Edward Senior – are here to see you," James repeated patiently. He was used to this sort of thing, I surmised. Rich people had skeletons in their closets, so he had to be on guard when someone showed up unannounced. Sometimes skeletons were hard to hide on short notice.
Bella wasn't a skeleton. My parents obviously knew about her. But she was wearing an inappropriate outfit and I had been in the middle of fixing that until I was so rudely interrupted.
"Mr. Masen, are you there?"
"Yes, James. Sorry." I paused again to think. "Please send them up."
"Will do, sir."
I hung up immediately and whipped around. Bella had followed me and was waiting for an explanation.
"You might want to change. Like, immediately. My parents are here."
She went wide-eyed and before I knew it, she'd disappeared. To the bedroom, presumably. I was sure some women would want to spontaneously combust in these circumstances, but Bella wasn't like that. Not anymore, anyway
I so very badly wanted to be angry with my parents. Sure, mother had tried to call me, but since I hadn't actually gotten back to her, decorum dictated that it was rude to show up unannounced. Multiple missed phone calls was not an announcement. If it were, society would have a problem on its hands, one it couldn't ignore. Because if you tried to ignore it, it still counted as announced.
I ran a hand through my hair and paced around the foyer. The apartment was clean enough, and we had food in the fridge, but I still felt unprepared for visitors. The only small mercy was that my parents hadn't bribed James; if they'd been let up, they would've walked straight in, caught me in a compromising position with my girlfriend, and then lectured me on the dangers of leaving my door open.
Bella came racing back into the foyer. She was flustered, but was now wearing a sensible skirt and top.
"Oh, am I overdressed?" she asked. "Maybe you should change back into your suit. Don't you think you're under-dressed?"
"I'm not dressing up for people who invited themselves over," I explained. "I'm so sorry about this. I really am."
I moved to give her a reassuring kiss on the lips, but she busied herself with the task of fixing her hair.
"You look great," I told her.
"What happened to Friday night dinner?"
The knock on the door came sooner than expected. Or perhaps I had lost all track of time, what with the shock and everything.
"Edward, it's your parents," my mother trilled from the other side of the door.
"Well, who else's parents would you be?" I replied as I opened the door. Her emphasis on things really didn't make sense sometimes.
My mother and father didn't respond to my irritation. The sight of Bella behind me in the foyer was enough to distract them.
"Oh, how wonderful! Your Bella is here!" my mother exclaimed, pushing past me so she could kiss Bella on both cheeks.
"Good evening to you too, Mother."
My father seemed to be a little embarrassed, giving me the I-tried-to-stop-this look. He stepped forward and clapped me on the shoulder. "Maybe next time you should answer your phone."
"Yeah. Or maybe I should have vacationed in Ireland again."
"Too late to fly out now, boy," he said jovially before turning his attention to Bella and extending his hand. "Nice to meet you, dear."
"It's a pleasure to meet you both," Bella said.
My father smiled at Bella, then smiled at my mother, who then smiled at Bella, who then looked at me. I forced a smile at my mother, who then cocked an eyebrow and smiled smugly at me before smiling at my father. While I had heard that smiling was contagious, this was more awkward than anything. I felt like we were trapped in a Colgate commercial, bound to show our toothy grins to an invisible audience over and over until someone pulled the plug. In the end, I grinned encouragingly at Bella and then led everyone out of the foyer. For a split-second, I thought I heard the audience murmur their approval, but it was just my mother tutting one of the paintings in the hall.
"Too abstract, Edward. It's ugly too. So brown," she complained, stopping in her tracks. "MoMA called: they want their doormat back."
"Well, they can't have it," I replied. "I need to wipe my shoes on something."
"I think it's funky," Bella said in my defense.
"Me too," my father added, nodding at her.
My mother rolled her eyes. I immediately wished we were already in the kitchen. People complained less when they had food in their mouths.
Before we reached the kitchen, however, she strode straight into the living room. She stood in the center of the space, surveying the tree for a few moments before walking up to it and eying the floor in suspicion. The rest of us watched on. I briefly wondered whether she was going to criticize the lack of gifts under the half-decorated tree, but then I realized what the present problem actually was.
"Really, Edward. I didn't give you this shirt so you could use it as a mop," my mother said, looking down at the shirt I'd so slowly taken off of Bella just moments before. A moment I would have preferred to stay in rather than having to deal with the sudden appearance of my parents.
"That's my fault," Bella said, scurrying over and picking up the shirt from the floor and hiding it behind her back. As if that would somehow make it disappear.
"I'm sure it's not, dear. You're not his housemaid, after all. This isn't the nineteen forties. And he can certainly afford a maid to come and clean up his mess." She turned to me with a rather reproachful look on her face.
"Drink, Mother?" I asked. Bella was starting to look anxious, so I thought diverting the conversation away from the shirt was wise.
"Yes, darling. Whatever you have open is fine," she said, waving at the open wine bottle and glasses that were currently on my coffee table.
"I'll have whatever your mother is having."
I nodded and walked over to Bella. "You're doing great," I whispered in her ear.
She smiled tightly at me and held up the shirt, gesturing to the general vicinity of our bedroom. "I'm just gonna go..."
I gave her a reassuring smile and squeezed her elbow. "If you'll excuse me for a moment," she said to my parents before taking off down the hall.
I started toward the kitchen to get wine glasses for my parents, and my mother followed me. So much for a moment to gather my thoughts.
"Why are you having that nice girl clean up after you? I raised you better than that. And the sweatpants. Honestly, Edward."
"I don't make her—forget it. I planned on dressing properly for dinner on Friday."
"You're the one who wanted this," she said, rooting around in her purse and handing me a small black velvet box. "Why not buy that lovely girl a proper ring? We have an accountat Harry Winston, you know."
"Bella's not the Harry Winston type. Grandma Lillian's ring is perfect, trust me," I said, opening the box and admiring the small but flawless and perfectly set diamond my grandmother wore for years.
"Every woman likes diamonds, whether they admit it or not."
I smiled and kissed her on the cheek. She was certainly annoying at times, but all in all, she'd come through for me. "Thank you for bringing this, Mom. And believe me, Bella will appreciate this much more than anything I could buy her, no matter how big or expensive."
"Well, you know what they say. Size does matter," she said with a smile and a wink.
I groaned and tugged at my hair. "Please, Mother."
"Oh, don't be so sensitive."
I put the ring in my pocket, took two glasses from the cabinet, and walked back to the living room with my mother.
The week following the surprise visit was a whirlwind. It got to the point where there was so much paperwork on my desk that if Seth and I were to somehow shake the office, we'd effectively end up with a snow globe of my working environment. Despite the snowstorm of reports, however, I did manage to have lunch at Midtown Grill on three occasions. An extra sight of Bella during my day was enough to help me plow on. She did point out mid-week that my visits meant I benefited from her cooking even more than usual, a fact she seemed quite pleased about. After I finished drooling over my lunch, I assured her that her cooking amounted to torture in some respect, as it only made me want more, like a can of Pringles. Once you pop, you can't stop!
I was now banned from using snack food analogies. Her cooking did not amount to anything so readily packaged in a can, unless that can was a "can of whoop-ass." (I learned this term from Seth, who was also responsible for any SNL analogies or other references I would normally not know about.) The same level of respect could also be attributed to the cuisine at Per Se, where we had dinner with my parents last night. Bella – who had been understandably nervous last week in their presence – was more confident this time. Even my mother was in awe of her culinary expertise, eventually deferring to her when each dish from the Prix Fixe menu was brought out.
At one stage, when Bella left to go to the bathroom, my father kicked me under the table and asked when I was going to "pop the question." After purging the tag-line of Once you pop, you can't stop!from my head, I asked him why he'd felt the need to kick me when I was already paying attention to him. He claimed he was overexcited. I then revealed I was planning something fantastic. My mother looked at me expectantly, as if she expected an invite to the proposal, but I averted my gaze and pretended to be fascinated with my soup spoon. My father took it upon himself to tell her that I'd always been a bit shy about women, so to leave me alone. Either that, he said, or I was planning to learn how to bend spoons with my mind.
As usual, I was relieved when Bella returned. Everything was better when she was around. And it was this simple fact that I hoped would get me through tonight's company Christmas party.
"You look stunning," I told her for the fifth time as I helped her out of the limo.
"You said that already," she said with a smirk.
"Really? Forgive my short-term memory loss. Looks like I'll be saying it all night."
We walked up the steps of The Plaza, arm in arm, and were promptly greeted in the foyer by a harried looking Seth.
His manners were thankfully still intact despite the stress. "You look very pretty, Ms. Swan," he said, nodding at her.
"Thank you, Seth. You look very handsome yourself."
"Thanks." He turned to me and cleared his throat. "Let's get going. You're behind schedule, Mr. Masen."
"Yes, I did receive your texts," I replied patiently as Bella and I followed him. "You know, I really do like the new iPhone. I asked Siri if she could take over for a week so you could take an early vacation. Unfortunately, she said no, but I think if I ask her again tomorrow she might budge. Maybe we should get her drunk tonight."
Seth shook his head. "If you douse your phone with alcohol...I don't know what I'll do."
"Are you okay?" Bella asked him.
Seth then revealed what had gone down in my absence. "The Art Department girls are already drunk. And I mean really drunk. I'm two hundred percent sure they're responsible for the random patches of vomit near the women's bathroom. One of them has her dress on backwards! What else...Someone is going around with the sole intention of taking unflattering pictures of everyone. People are taking bets on EILF runner-up, because we all know who has the overall title on lock. And there was almost a fistfight between two people from Admin, all because someone messed up the Secret Santa draw."
I sighed as we turned the corner. I could already hear the sounds of the festivities. "Christmas. It's all very annoying, isn't it?"
"When you're not with a beautiful, intelligent woman, I mean."
Bella looked appeased. "Where's Heidi?" she asked Seth.
Surprisingly, Seth looked a little uncomfortable. I wasn't sure why – he and Heidi had been an item for over six months. My relaxing of the non-fraternization policy earlier this year had paved the way; employees now had to declare relationships and sign contracts acknowledging their responsibilities to the company, lest there be any trouble.
We got our answer when we walked into the Terrace Room. Heidi was waiting at the entrance, hands on hips and an unimpressed look on her face.
"Where have you been?" she demanded to know.
Seth was now uneasy and annoyed. "Where do you think?" he said, nodding his head in my direction.
"You know how demanding a CEO can be," I said smoothly.
"He's very demanding," Bella added. "Super demanding, even."
"I even demand that I be more demanding." I turned to Seth. "If that's possible, of course."
"I, uh, don't think it is," he said, wisely going over to Heidi and taking her hand. "Heidi, why don't you and I get a drink? Mr. Masen has to do the rounds. Starting with Mr. Cullen."
"Ah, Carlisle is here already."
"He likes to be on time," Heidi said, refusing to be ushered away. She leveled a harsh look at Seth. "I just spoke to him. I wanted to introduce him to my boyfriend, but he was AWOL."
"But Seth has obviously met Carlisle before," I pointed out.
"Not in this capacity," she answered.
Seth gave me an apologetic look before leading her away. "Let's go."
Feeling lost, I looked to Bella for an explanation. "I don't get it. What capacity? The capacity to wear a tuxedo?"
She planted a quick kiss on my lips before adjusting my bow tie. "Are you demanding a translation?"
"I might be. What will the cost be?"
"Just put down fifty dollars on me to win Most Desirable EEILF. That's E-E-I-L-F. The odds should be good. I've got my old pals in IT rooting for me."
My head was beginning to hurt, and I hadn't even started drinking yet. "I'm sorry, I'm even more confused."
"Ex-Employee That I'd Like to...you know," she said with a cheeky grin.
"That can't be real."
She grinned mischievously. "How do you know it's not real? Did you not hear Seth? This is a company full of debauchery: drunkards; gambling; threats of violence. I'm glad I got out when I did."
I laughed. "Let's enter the den of sin then. Carlisle and Esme are probably waiting for us."
The problem with being fashionably late was everyone was bound to notice when you did arrive. Then again, I was the CEO, so perhaps the attention came with the territory. Heads turned, conversations halted, other whispers started up. I made a mental note to arrange a distraction for next year's party. Perhaps a marching band, or maybe just the smoke bombs ninjas used to hide their movements. If I went with the latter, I could also steal people's drinks.
"Wow, everyone is staring," Bella said.
"Oh, I told them to do that. Sent a company wide email. I'm very vain, you see."
I nodded at the employees closest to me, who raised their drinks in return.
"My first Cullen, Inc. Christmas party," Bella mused.
"Music, drinks, people dressed to the nines. Can't be half bad." I spotted Carlisle and Esme to our right. They indicated for us to come on over, so Bella and I made our way through the crowd, with me trying to acknowledge as many people as I could along the way.
It must have been strange for Carlisle, attending a function like this. It was the first Christmas party to be held after his departure. Throughout the year, he had continued to encourage me, helping me with the transition and making sure I didn't run his pride and joy into the ground. He was still my mentor in many ways, but this was a new era.
He immediately clapped me on the shoulder. "Good party," he said happily. "Nice of you to show up."
"I do what I can," I replied before kissing Esme on the cheek.
"You again," she said.
I laughed and then watched her and Bella embrace.
"Bella, nice to see you," Carlisle said politely when the women broke their hug.
Bella kept things in the Christmas spirit. "Good to see you too."
I doubted things between them would ever be fully peachy, but at least this was civil. Civil was so much better than hostile.
Bella and Esme made things easier by immediately forming their own conversation.
"So, how are you?" I asked him.
"Still retired. So don't try and palm off any work on me. Though I am glad you got the Manchester deal sorted."
I took his approval in stride. "That makes two of us."
"The only two who count." He took a swig of his wine. "Seriously, though. They shouldn't have pulled that shit last week. Who do they think they are?"
"It's under control. That's what matters," I assured him.
He glanced at Bella, who was laughing away with Esme, and lowered his voice. "I get that you want who you want, but I had the policy in place for a reason. I hope I don't ever have to say I told you so. Business is business."
While I respected the fact that Cullen, Inc. was his baby, I made it clear I remained confident in my decision. "The policy change is a good thing."
Not surprisingly, he wasn't convinced. "My former assistant with your assistant. Even support staffers can cause problems, you know."
"I know what I'm doing."
If anything, Seth and Heidi were an example of two employees who worked better with the policy in place. Seth was more productive now that he didn't have to spend every thirty minutes dealing with Heidi's unnecessary emails and phone calls.
"I hope so," Carlisle replied.
"Hey, have you caught up with my folks yet? They're back in town."
"Yes, I know." He paused before offering me a rueful smile. "Look, I hope the proposalfor that project goes well. I really do. You're a good man. I've always known that. You deserve to do well in those sorts of matters. Don't let my track record deter you."
"I appreciate your support," I replied. He really wasn't the best person to dispense such advice, but I wasn't about to pick that battle right now. I planned to let my relationship speak for itself.
I turned my attention to Bella, who was tugging on my sleeve.
"I think Seth is trying to get your attention," she said, nodding to my left.
Indeed he was, though he was being rather subtle about it. His tactic seemed to be one of I'll stand here and stare in the direction of my boss until his girlfriend thinks it's weird. Part of me wondered if I had ever used that ploy on Carlisle. The other part told me to go and see what Seth wanted instead of standing around thinking so much.
"I should go see what the problem is," I told Bella, Esme, and Carlisle. "Maybe Crowley wants to challenge me to a dance off."
"If you win, I'll give you a free lunch on Monday," Esme joked.
"Yes, we'll get one of the sous chefs to cook it," Bella chimed in. "Or maybe you can cook it yourself."
I pretended to limber up. "Well, I should warm up then."
Bella gave me a nudge. "Go on then. I'll be fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, just go."
I kissed her on the cheek and left her for the time being. I looked back at one stage and saw that Carlisle decided to continue doing the rounds on his own. It was a small mercy, but I was thankful nonetheless. Even though she could hold her own, I didn't want Bella to have to endure a stilted conversation with him.
Plus, thanks to my blabbermouth parents, he knew I was going to propose. I wasn't sure his poker face was up to it, not when it came to the personal matters of other people.
With that situation under control, I made a beeline for Seth, who was looking increasingly anxious.
"What's going on?" I asked when I reached him.
He motioned for me to follow him. Thankfully, he just wanted to speak discreetly in a corner. For a second I thought I was about to get a guided tour of the Art Department's vomit exhibition.
"I'm so sorry to bother you," he said. "But I can't assist you properly until I get this other matter sorted. It's throwing me off my game."
"Well, tell me what the matter is."
He pulled a face, as if he were reconsidering the admission. But then he came right out with it. "Heidi keyed me right before the event."
"How exactly does one key another person?" I really was in need of a translator.
"She gave me a key to her apartment. I don't know what it means. Does she want me to move in with her? Is this serious? I don't want to move to the East Village – I much prefer Williamsburg." He certainly was flustered. "If you could dispense a quick word of advice, that would be excellent."
I considered his question carefully, relating his situation to my on relationship (it was something I could do now, which was very exciting on some basic level.) Bella had a key to my apartment, but the whole thing had come about rather naturally. I hadn't demanded she take it. Nor had I snuck it into her purse. It just made sense that she have a key, as she was always there. But on the other hand, she still insisted on retaining her apartment, even though she had no real need for it. It was a sub-let in Soho – it wasn't as if new tenants were going to be impossible to find.
A surge of panic made my stomach clench. And it had nothing to do with the complex nature of New York City's tenancy laws. It had everything to do with the heirloom ring I had hidden in my tax drawer (a sensible hiding place, as no one would bore themselves by snooping around there.) Was Bella as keen as I was when it came to the supreme commitment?
I told myself to stop being paranoid. I was confident she was. This matter was about Seth, not me.
"Where do you spend most of your time together?" I questioned.
"Well, it's kind of even. Though she hates commuting from my place," he answered.
I saw someone out of the corner of my eye and had a brainstorm. "Hey, Whitlock, come here for a sec, will you?" I called out, motioning him to come on over. He was good with this kind of stuff, and a good friend at that.
"What are you doing?" Seth whispered. "Are you firing me and sending me to Hades? I mean, Marketing?"
I shushed him and welcomed Jasper into the circle. Well, a circle previously of two.
"I love this song, don't you?" he said.
"Yes, yes, Jingle Bell Rock," I replied. "Listen, we need your advice. Seth's girlfriend keyed him."
Jasper was aghast. "She keyed your car? Why would she do that?"
Seth merely blinked at him before turning to me with a why are you punishing me look on his face.
"No, she gave him a key," I explained.
"The key to his own car? That doesn't make any sense."
"Yes, it truly does not make sense," Seth said.
"Women think we don't understand them, but we do," Jasper advised, nodding wisely. "She's trying to tell you she's already driving your car. She's all in. Time to step up and tell her she's welcome to drive it. Except during rush hour in Manhattan – let's not waste gas now. I know it's your car, but still."
I nodded in support. "The wasting of finite resources is everyone's business."
Seth looked dumbfounded that the advice actually made some kind of sense. "Wow. She's all in."
Jasper continued. "Love is a beautiful thing. So is marriage, if you're thinking about it. My life is so much better with Alice in it."
The mention of marriage must have scared Seth off, because he suddenly declared he had to get back to work now that his head was clear.
"Out of curiosity, how did you propose to Alice?" I asked Jasper as Seth hurried away.
"With confidence, Mase." He nodded in Alice's direction – she was mingling with some of her dad's friends. "With confidence."
He was right, yet again. I had to trust how sure I was about Bella.
"So – "
He was distracted by a passing waiter. "Ooh, lobster puffs. Later, dude."
He left me standing by the wall like some kind of high-powered wallflower. It was a little like junior prom. However, I knew I wasn't really alone. While this was a company party, with employees I still needed to greet tonight, there was really only one person I wanted at my side.
Bella: my fiancée as of next week, and my wife for life.
Holidays were pretty casual while I was growing up, but we had certain traditions. Namely, we'd wake up early on Christmas morning, tear through our presents, gorge on banana pancakes, then spend the day in our pajamas watching movies and sorting through our newly acquired loot. Even when money was tight it was more about all of us spending the day together than what was (or wasn't) under the tree.
Last year, in Ireland with Edward, I was pretty sure we spent the holiday naked in bed. My memories of that trip were hazy at best, dominated by naked limbs, amazing sex, rich food, and more bottles of wine than I could count. The days kind of melded together.
Best Christmas Ever.
This year I had to have Riley fit me for a dress for Christmas Day dinner with Edward's parents. It all felt ridiculous, but I knew it meant a lot to Edward, so here I was at Bergdorf's at opening time on a Sunday morning.
We were going to spend Christmas Eve with Rose and Emmett for some balance. I was cooking, so maybe I'd make us real blue-collar food so I didn't forget my roots: franks and beans, tuna casserole, meatloaf, and deviled eggs. I'd have to have everyone sign a non-disclosure before they ate, though. I couldn't have Esme finding out about my foray into the depths of 'home-cooking'.
"What are you thinking?" I asked Riley as he stood behind me in front of the mirror. I'd learned to trust him completely over the past year–at least where dressing me was concerned. I didn't know if I'd ever be completely comfortable in Edward's world of charity events, working dinners, and nights at the Opera, but even if I was awkward and made a fool of myself, I always looked good while doing it.
"Maybe pants," he said, grabbing my hips and turning me slightly.
"What? Why? Is it because I gained a few pounds?"
"Did you?" he asked, squeezing my hips with a frown on his face.
"No!" I said, slapping his hand away. "Okay, maybe a little. It's all that restaurant food. And Edward's mother can be a bit much to take. It's stress eating." I put my hand over my mid-section self-consciously. I wondered if Edward noticed. Maybe that's why we hadn't had much sex in the last few weeks. I groaned.
"Is his mother that bad? Monster-in-Law material?" he asked, looking me over as he squeezed his lower lip between his fingers.
"No, not really," I said with a sigh. "She's actually been really nice to me." And she was. Though she sometimes looked at me with a knowing smile, as if she knew some secret I wasn't privy to, and it made me uncomfortable. Still, she was kind to me and it was obvious she adored Edward. So we had that in common.
I looked at myself in the mirror and groaned again. "I don't look right. How are you with computers? Can you Photoshop me?"
"Girl, you should see some of these women I dress. Either all plastic or all cellulite. Most of them are bitchy as all get out, too. You look fantastic." He smiled at me and looked me over one more time. "I'll be back," he said.
I sat with a sigh and closed my eyes. It had been a busy few weeks. The restaurant was packed every day with holiday parties and lunches, I had my own holiday plans to attend to (I had yet to find Edward a gift), and there was the added bonus of having Edward's parents in town, and the Cullen, Inc. Christmas party we'd attended last week. The party was more fun than I thought it would be. I saw Jake, who seemed to have cleaned up nicely. He even attended the party with a real live female person and not a fictional character. A step in the right direction, all things considered. I did get the stink eye from the Art Department girls all night, but where that would have made me cringe in the past, it now made me smile. Edward was mine to take home at the end of the night, no matter how many dirty looks I got.
Even though we weren't officially inhabiting the same space.
I knew that bothered Edward–he'd asked me to move in more times than I could count but I always avoided giving him an answer. I didn't even know what my problem was. I was at Edward's almost all the time and only went to my apartment to pick up my mail and extra clothes. If I looked deeply enough I suppose I'd find that I thought giving up my apartment meant giving up my independence. But I wasn't sure that really meant anything anymore. If anything, my relationship with Edward enhanced my independence–never before had I been so free to be me.
But somehow I still couldn't push myself to take that step. I didn't know exactly what my problem was but as the days passed I realized there wasn't another shoe and it wasn't going to drop. Our relationship wasn't perfect by any means, but it was as good as I'd ever had and more than I ever hoped for. It was about time I got over myself.
I took out my phone, planning on calling Rose to try to hash some of this out, but it rang with Edward's ringtone before I could.
"Hey," I said. I was happy to hear from him. He'd left for work before I was even awake that morning.
"Are you busy?" he asked.
"I'm still with Riley."
"How's that going?"
"I think I'm carrying a few extra pounds."
"You don't have to carry all those shopping bags, you know. Have them sent to the apartment."
"Oh no, I'm not talking about the bags. I'm talking about me."
"I like talking about you. It's my favorite subject," he said. "And you must be mistaken, because you look the same to me."
"How would you know?" I teased. "You haven't seen me naked in at least a week. Just saying."
"Ah." He cleared his throat and lowered his voice. "I've been very busy lately. I'm sorry. But I need to put in extra time now so I can take off for the holidays. You know that."
"I know. I'm looking forward to the day you make it up to me. I deserve a reward for my patience, don't you think?" Riley walked back in the room and hung up a few items for me to try on. He fiddled around and pretended not to listen as I continued my conversation with Edward.
"I most certainly do," Edward said. I could hear the smile in his voice and it made me feel less like of a nag. "As a matter of fact, I was calling to see if we could spend some time together today."
"Really? Is that my reward? I was holding out for diamonds, but I'll take time instead," I joked.
"Oh, you never know what I'm going to come up with. How much longer will you be? I'll pick you up."
I was momentarily thrown by the quick change in subject but managed to recover and look over at Riley and the stack of clothes he had picked out for me. "An hour?"
"Sounds good. I'll see you in a bit."
"'Kay. Love you."
"Love you too."
Edward was there an hour later, his cheeks red from the cold, looking as handsome as ever.
"I haven't seen you in forever," Riley said, kissing Edward on both cheeks. "Are you cheating on me?"
"I don't have time to be unfaithful. It takes too much work," he said to Riley before turning and kissing me in greeting.
"Why the pout?" he asked, resting his hands on my hips. "Aren't you happy to see me? Or did you and Riley have plans I wasn't supposed to know about?"
"She's not my type," Riley said, bagging my purchases. "You, on the other hand... that we can talk about."
"Sorry," Edward said with a quick look over his shoulder. "If I don't have time to cheat on my shopper I definitely don't have time to cheat on my girlfriend."
"And also because you love me," I said.
"Right. That too," he said with a smirk.
Edward took the bag in one hand and my hand in the other, we said goodbye to Riley, and he ushered me out to the waiting car.
"To what do I owe this rare treat?" I asked once we were seated and heading uptown.
Edward shrugged and smiled. "I've been working a lot lately. I thought it might be nice for us to spend some time alone before the real mad madness of the holidays starts."
"Where are we going?"
He pulled me into his lap and kissed me. "It's a surprise."
He held me firmly and then kissed me again. "Now where are all these extra pounds you told me about earlier?"
"Turns out it was all in my head. In that I seemed to have made it up, not that I had extra pounds in my head like Mayor McCheese."
He looked at me skeptically and shook his head. "So what's this really all about? Is it the lack of... private time over the last week? I think it's because my mother almost walked in on us. I have PTSD."
I bit my lip and rested my head on his shoulder as I played with the buttons on his shirt.
"Bella?" he prompted.
"Are you getting tired of me? You can tell me." I picked my head up and looked at him. "We can try some... new stuff. I heard about this one thing. I'd have to start going to the gym to be able to do it, but I think I–"
I was cut off my Edward's lips on mine. He kissed me deeply, his hands resting in my hair. When he pulled away he had a completely serious expression on his face. "I love you more every day. I'm not tired of you and you're the sexiest woman I've ever met."
I looked down and let out a long breath. Edward lifted my chin and smiled at me. "Tell me what's really on your mind."
"I don't like your bedroom," I blurted out. "I think the bed should be closer to the windows and I don't like the red you have in the curtains."
"Okayyyyy," he said slowly, an understandably confused look on his face. "Shall I hire someone to come and change it?"
"No," I said, shaking my head. "I want to do it. After I move in."
I snuck a look at Edward and watched his face transform as his brain caught up with my logic.
"Really?" he asked, a slow sweet smile spreading across his lips.
"Really. I'm sorry it's taken me this long. I'm pretty much an idiot."
"No you're not," he said, running the back of his hand across my cheek. "Besides, isn't that my line?"
"Yes. Idiot. Maybe you're rubbing off on me. Now take me home."
"Uh, I thought we'd go to a museum. We haven't done that in a while."
"Don't sound so enthusiastic."
"I'm sorry. It sounds like a great idea. I just thought we'd go home and celebrate." I put my hand on the back of his head and pulled him to me, kissing him firmly on the mouth.
"Ah, right. Well. I have other plans for you today." He kissed me quickly on the lips then sat back, a small smile on his face.
I was kind of disappointed. It was cold out, snow was in the forecast, and if Edward was taking a day off I wanted to spend it cuddled up in bed with him. Naked. It was likely I would see paintings of naked people at a museum, but it just wasn't the same.
"Do I detect a pout?" he asked as the car came to a stop a few minutes later.
"Here?" I asked, my pout becoming even more pronounced.
"Yes, here. Come on." He grabbed my hand as the driver opened the door and we got out. The front door to The Frick Collection was opened as we approached and we were ushered inside.
"A pleasure to see you, Mr. Masen," a woman greeted us.
"Thank you, Nancy," he said. As if it was every day someone was personally greeted by staff when they entered a museum. "This is my girlfriend Bella."
She smiled nicely at me and stuck out her hand. "Nice to meet you, Bella."
"You too," I said, shaking her hand. She took our coats and Edward took my hand to lead me into the museum.
We walked around for a bit and the uneasy feeling I had when we arrived quickly abated. This really was quite a spectacular collection.
Distracted as I was by my surroundings, it took me a while to realize how quiet the museum was.
"I feel like we're the only ones here. That's odd for a Sunday afternoon, wouldn't you say?" I asked, looking around in vain for another person.
"You think so?" Edward asked, a rather bemused look on his face. He pulled my hand and it took me a second to realize we were in the room where that disastrous benefit had been last year. Edward was invited again this year, of course, but he sent a check instead. We weren't quite up to attending.
"Why are we here?" I asked.
"I received an inside tip about an exciting development," he said cryptically, a smirk tugging at his lips.
"An exciting development? Are they renovating the gift shop? Installing vending machines in the courtyard?"
"Even better than that. In fact, I have it on good authority that it might be life-changing. But only for you and me."
I was thoroughly confused. "Only for us? That's very specific. Did you accidentally add a couple zeros to your donation check?"
"Ah, I'm confusing you." He shook his head. "Okay, maybe the museum is just a backdrop. The development doesn't involve them at all. It really is just about you and me."
Then he dropped to his knee.
Dropped to his KNEE.
My heart started to pound and my palms were sweaty. I swallowed loudly and my stomach was so queasy I was afraid I might throw up on his beautiful hair.
"You all right?" he asked, looking up at me with a mixture of concern and amusement.
"That depends. Did you drop a contact lens?"
"My eyesight is perfect."
"I'm wearing a sweater."
I looked down at his handsome, earnest face and bit my lip. I didn't know if I was ready for this, but then again, I was more sure of Edward than I'd ever been of anything. What came with marriage would be easily handled with Edward by my side.
I took a deep breath and smiled.
"May I continue now?" he asked.
"You may," I replied. He looked up at me and smiled and I suddenly felt completely calm. This was right.
Edward reached into his pocket and took out a small box. "I've rehearsed this part a million times, but it's entirely different in the moment. It's actually so much easier. All I can think about is how much I need you, and how I plan to love you for the rest of my life. Executing this plan – a plan I believe in wholeheartedly – requires us to be together always. So, what I'm trying to say is: I want you to be my wife. I want this more than anything. Bella, will you marry me?"
I wanted to answer, but I seemed to be at a loss for words. Even one as simple as "yes." Because up until he actually asked, he could have been looking for a lost button or giving me a pin instead of a ring. I was overwhelmed by his words and the unexpected turn of events. Edward was proposing. Marriage. To me. My brain had to catch up with my mouth. It was something I wasn't used to; I usually had the opposite problem.
Looking at Edward and seeing his unsure expression sprung me into action. Even if I couldn't speak quite yet, he shouldn't doubt for a second that I wanted this as much as he did.
I reached out my left hand, which he took with a relieved smile, and he placed the ring on my finger. I tugged on his hand so he would stand and then threaded my hands through his hair and kissed him.
"Is that a yes, Ms. Swan?" he asked against my lips.
"That's a definite yes, Mr. Masen."
I realized, as Edward and I stood there smiling and kissing, that he'd effectively turned the place where our relationship almost ended to the place where it was only beginning. It was the best of omens, a sign that we had changed our lives for the better.
"I hope you've been practicing signing my name," he teased.
"I have notebooks full of my future signature. In fact, I scribble it on all my cookbooks, and even on other people's. Now take me home so we can pre-consummate our marriage."
He laughed and took my hand.
Best frickin' day ever.
Thank you for reading.
Until next time...