Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
A/N: UPDATED 09/10/17 - I have pulled this story to prepare it for publication. I am leaving the first chapter up to protect against any potential plagiarism claims. If you'd like a PDF of the original version, feel free to PM me and I'll send you one. -T
Chapter 1 – City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks
Snow fell softly on the city streets as people rushed here and there trying to get to Christmas Eve festivities, wives gripping their husbands' arms to avoid slipping on the icy sidewalk. Down the street, a man in a Santa suit stood next to a Salvation Army bucket, haphazardly ringing a bell. Teenage boys who had snuck out after dark laughed and threw snowballs, trading sips from a bottle of vodka swiped from a father's liquor cabinet.
Edward Cullen heard none of it.
He sat at a nondescript bar, as he had every Christmas Eve for the past ten years. Different cities. Different bars. The same memories.
He frowned at his distorted reflection in the mirror behind the bar, swirling his drink idly, then taking a sip with a slight grimace.
"Mind if I sit here?" A pretty blonde appeared in the mirror next to him, but Edward didn't turn to face her. He just shrugged in response and watched her reflection distractedly as she climbed onto the stool next to him.
She smiled at him in invitation. "Sure is cold," she said. "Thought I'd just stop in here to warm up. Oh!" She looked up at the TV in the corner and her smile widened. "I love this movie!"
Edward followed her gaze, recognizing a familiar scene from It's a Wonderful Life. George Bailey was about to jump from the bridge, in the hopes that his life insurance would pay off his family's debt. Edward watched in silence as Clarence – the angel sent to save George's life – beat him to the punch and plunged into the icy water.
"I watch it every year, and it still makes me cry," the blonde said quietly, propping her elbows on the bar.
Edward nodded slightly and swallowed the rest of his drink, rolling an ice cube around his mouth once before letting it plop back into the glass.
"I'm Tanya," she said tentatively, a little put off by Edward's indifferent demeanor.
Edward took a breath and forced a slight smile, not wanting to offend the girl. She seemed nice enough. It wasn't her fault he was in a terrible mood and intent on wallowing in that mood for the rest of the night.
"Edward," he said finally, catching the bartender's attention and lifting his empty glass. The bartender nodded and Edward pointed to Tanya, indicating he should bring her a drink as well. Evidently, Tanya was a regular, because the bartender didn't ask what she wanted, but delivered a clear drink in a tumbler along with Edward's whiskey.
"Thanks," she said with a smile, sipping her drink.
"Gin and tonic?" Edward asked.
"Vodka Collins," Tanya replied, running her finger around the rim of the glass. "So…Edward…you on your way to a party?" She glanced down at the engraved invitation lying on the bar, next to a thick hardback book.
Edward took another gulp of his drink. "Decided not to go," he said shortly.
Unthwarted, Tanya persisted. "Yeah," she said, "I can see where a dim and dusty bar would hold much more appeal than a big, glamorous charity party at…" She glanced at the invitation again and smirked slightly. "…the Four Seasons."
Edward said nothing.
"Wait a second, the Four Seasons?" Tanya continued. "I read about that in the paper. Isn't Isabella Swan supposed to be there?"
Edward cringed slightly, hearing her name spoken aloud.
"Yeah…" Tanya reached for the book, flipping it over so she could see the cover. "Oh my God, I love Cold Winter Nights! The whole Nights series is amazing," she continued, her own excitement making her oblivious to Edward's discomfort.
"Isabella Swan is my favorite author," she gushed. "They were giving away a couple of tickets to the party on the radio, but I couldn't get through. I can't believe you have an invitation and you're not going!"
Tanya paused, and Edward fought a heavy sigh, knowing she was hoping he would give her his invitation, or at least ask her to go along. He glanced at her in the mirror. She was flipping through his copy of Cold Winter Nights with a smile on her face. He'd intended to go. To finally see Bella…speak to her. He'd ducked into the bar only to garner a little liquid courage.
He was still waiting for the courage to kick in.
It had been ten long years since he made the biggest mistake of his life. He'd had the ring in his pocket, but at the last minute opted to give Bella the silver bracelet he'd purchased as a backup Christmas gift instead. She'd smiled and thanked him, of course, but it was just a few days later that they had The Talk.
The "Do We Have a Future?" Talk.
The "Are We Moving Forward?" Talk.
The "Will You Commit to Me or Leave Me Behind When You Take That Internship in New York?" Talk.
He'd let her go. He said he wasn't ready and Bella's eyes had filled with tears. He'd left her behind, moved to New York, and tried not to look back.
But on Christmas Eve, looking back was all he could do. The "what-ifs" just about drove him crazy, and instead of missing her less with each passing year, he found he actually missed her more. He'd picked up the phone a hundred times to call her, but shame and guilt kept him from dialing her number. Plus, there was the fact that nothing had really changed. He was still in New York, pursuing a career in television journalism. She was still in grad school in Seattle, and from what little he'd heard from mutual friends, she'd moved on.
He hadn't. He tried dating, but never really connected with anyone. He tried one-night stands, but found them unfulfilling. So he focused on his career, working long hours, moving up the ladder, and trying not to think about what he'd left behind.
It only got worse when Bella's first novel hit the New York Times Bestseller list…as did her second. Soon, her picture was in every bookstore…on TV commercials…her soulful brown eyes seemed to be surrounding him, watching his every move.
It was torture.
So when the network offered him a foreign correspondent position, he'd jumped at the chance. He traveled the world, reporting on wars, famine, drugs, politics…and spent as little time in the United States as possible. He lived out of a worn duffle bag, roaming from disaster to tragedy, and avoiding civilization as much as he could. But now, after six years on the road, he'd been given the opportunity for a special weekly segment on the nightly news. It was an offer too good to pass up, but it meant less time out of the country. He came back to New York to meet with his Executive Producer and found out all of the senior management and on-air talent had been invited to a charity party.
Where Isabella Swan was to be the guest of honor.
To see her name printed on the invitation was jarring, to say the least. In that moment, he decided he was going to go to that party and see her. Say hello…and finally lay the past to rest. He'd even bought a copy of her latest book so he'd have a reason to approach her.
He'd already read it, of course – numerous times. He always snagged a copy of her books as soon as they were released and devoured them quickly, straining to find a glimpse of who Bella had become in the printed lines. His own copy of Cold Winter Nights was dog-eared and cracked, the dust cover torn from his repeated readings. Tanya was right – the book was amazing.
"Edward?" Tanya's voice made him realize he'd been staring off into space. "You okay?"
Edward sucked an ice cube out of his drink and crunched it slowly. "Yeah. Just thinking."
"Want to talk about it?"
"Might help," she suggested.
Edward considered Tanya's offer. For some reason, he liked her…felt he could trust her. He'd just met her, but she almost felt like a friend and, the truth was, he had very few of those. His tongue was also a little loose, given the whiskey he'd had, and he thought it might be nice to have someone to talk to.
What the hell. He was in a wallowing mood. Why not add whining to the equation? Edward reached for the invitation, running his fingers over the engraved lettering, then tapping it against the bar lightly.
"I was actually on the way to the party when I stopped in here," he said finally.
Tanya sipped her drink. "And…" she prodded.
Edward exhaled heavily before he continued, "…and, I just can't bring myself to get up and go."
"What's stopping you?"
Edward grimaced slightly. "Bella."
"Bella?" she repeated slowly before her mouth dropped open. "You mean Isabella Swan? You know her?"
"I did. It was a long time ago." His eyes focused on Bella's name in gold, sparkling script on the invitation.
Tanya studied him for a moment before she nodded slowly in understanding. "I should have known."
Edward turned to her in curiosity. "Known what?"
"Haven't you heard?" she replied wryly. "All the good ones are either married or gay…or still in love with the one that got away."
Edward flushed slightly. "Is it that obvious?"
"Only to an extremely gifted judge of character."
"I never thought a guy who dodges grenades for a living would be such a chicken," Tanya teased.
Edward's eyes widened. "How did you know—"
Tanya waved a hand before picking up her drink again. "It took me a minute to place the face, but I do watch the news." She rolled her eyes at his shocked look. "Don't worry. Your secret's safe with me, Edward. But seriously, this is obviously killing you. Don't you want to at least try to see her?"
Edward swallowed down the rest of his drink, a warm numbness finally drifting from his stomach to his extremities. Of course he wanted to see her…needed to see her.
He could do this.
Taking a deep breath, he offered Tanya a shaky smile. "Want to go to a party?"