Approximately: 20 Pages / 9,824 Words

Chapter 12

The next morning, the gifts started.

Rosalie knocked on my door around lunch time. We had hung out a couple of times during her on-again/off-again relationship with Emmet, but it still surprised me when she showed up at my front door carrying a take out bag from the diner.

"Uh, hey Rose. Everything okay?" I asked, suddenly very aware that I looked like shit. I was in tattered sweats, I hadn't bothered brushing my hair and I was struggling to remember if I had ever brushed my teeth this morning.

"Yeah, except that Edward's a mess and, from the looks of it, you're not doing too much better."

What the hell? How does she even know about that, and why in the world would she come here to talk to me about it?

"Hungry? I brought you some lunch." She offered.

I shuffled back from the door to allow her entrance, covering my mouth with my hand so I wouldn't breathe on her.

I showed her into the kitchen where she set the bag down on the table and started to unload its contents. I asked her to excuse me for a moment as I raced to the bathroom and gargled with Listerine while I tore a brush through my hair.

When I got back to the kitchen, she was already seated and digging into her meal with the plastic ware she brought.

Apparently, she was staying for lunch.

I slid awkwardly into the seat across from her. "So…um…what made you decide to stop by today?"

She wiped her mouth daintily with a napkin and motioned to my food. "Edward was worried about you. Said he had a feeling you weren't taking care of yourself which, from the looks of it, seems to be true – if you don't mind my saying so. He would have brought the food himself, but he didn't think that would work out well, so he asked if I would mind delivering it and staying long enough to make sure you eat." With her explanation out of the way, she dipped her fork back into the coleslaw and took another bite.

I opened the Styrofoam box to find she had brought me a house salad with ranch dressing. Off to the side, I noticed a napkin rolled around something small with my name on it. She smiled when she saw what I was looking at and slipped it across the table toward me, her eyes crinkling in mirth. "Go ahead, open it."

I unrolled the thing to find that inside the napkin was one single French fry.

It was a French fry with my name on it – just like we had joked about the very first time I met him at the diner.

"You'll be happy to know he stole one of your croutons too." She beamed, stuffing another forkful of coleslaw into her mouth.

I lowered my head, trying to hide the smile that shouldn't be there.

He was going to make this harder than I thought.

ooo (*O*) ooo

December 21st found Jasper on my doorstep with a huge smile on his face– wrapped in a strand of Christmas lights much like he had done last Christmas to get Alice's attention. He had shot up a good six inches since the first time I met him, and his shoulders were starting to fill out, which made the stunt all the funnier. In one hand, he held two packages of cocoa mix and in his right, a can of Campbell's chicken noodle soup.

Hot chocolate and soup, just like I prepared for him the first time he brought me home.

"He said it's not as good as yours, but that you would get the point." He drawled.

I dropped my head, shaking it back and forth in disbelief as I giggled in spite of myself. I stepped back for Jasper to enter and he did a small, penguin-like shuffle into the warmth of the house. I had to step onto the bottom stair tread in order to reach high enough to untangle the poor man.

"I can't believe you let him do this to you again." I mumbled, fighting back the smile from my face.

Jasper shrugged. "Well, he did it for me once and look at how well that turned out. I owed him one."

"So I take it things are still wonderful for you and Alice?" Having successfully loosened the worse of the knots, the light cord simply slipped right off, pooling around his feet.

He radiated love and adoration as he thought of his girlfriend. "Yeah. I messed up over the summer. We got too caught up in Em and Rosie's problems and ended up taking sides. It was a terrible summer break, but we worked it out." He answered bashfully.

I bent down to collect the light strands as he stepped out of the bundle, then stood up to gather the cocoa and soup from him. "So, you hungry?" I shrugged, motioning to the ingredients.

"Actually, I promised Edward I would stay until you ate that. Otherwise, he threatened to tie me up in another strand of lights so that I'd never get out." We laughed together.

ooo (*O*) ooo

I was surprised when I got a frantic call from Esme on the 22nd of December. "Bella, I'm so sorry to do this to you, but I'm running late for an appointment, Edward is at work and Carlisle just got called in. Do you think you could watch Elizabeth for about an hour?" The way she said it made me wonder if she even knew anything had happened between Edward and I – but I didn't want to choose that moment to tell her. Besides, if I could keep a relationship with his family, even with Edward overseas, that would be more than I could possibly hope for. Maybe I'd get to see my Lizzie grow up after all.

"No problem, Esme. Do you mind bringing her over to my house so that I can watch her here?" I asked, still a little nervous about being in their home.

"Of course – we're already on the road. We can be there in about five minutes – is that alright with you?"

"Sure." I replied, looking frantically around my room for something decent to wear.

"Thank you so very much, sweetie. Sorry this is last minute, but I always knew I could count on you." She said, carefully enunciating each and every word.

"Always, Esme. Always." The words hurt coming out, scratching my throat along the way as it carried more meaning than she seemed to know.

I managed to pull myself together in time to open the door the minute she pulled up outside.

Elizabeth bolted from the car, running up to me with her arms outstretched. "My Bella!" She called, her voice bouncing as she ran. I bent down and swooped the little bundle of warmth and love up into a huge bear hug, burying my face in her curls.

"Hi my Lizzie." She pulled back and smiled at me. "You called me your Lizzie!" She exclaimed excitedly.

"Cuz you are, right? Will you always be my little Lizzie?" I asked, choking back the emotion. Her tiny hands came up to my cheeks as she leaned forward to peck me on the lips.

"Always and forever, my Bella." I squeezed her again, trying to hold it together before Esme got close enough to notice.

Esme left the car running as she raced over with Lizzie's tiny Disney Princess bag. She loped gracefully up the steps before sliding the bag onto my shoulder, kissing me on the cheek, kissing Lizzie and running back to the car with a wave. "Thank you so much! I love you, Bella!" She shouted over her shoulder as she jumped into the driver's side and took off.

I wondered if she realized that was the first time she ever said that.

I put Elizabeth down on her feet and held her hand as we walked into the house. It was only then that I noticed the Styrofoam cup she was carrying. "Whatchya got there?"

She looked down at the cup as if she had forgotten it was there and then held it up to me. "This is for you. Eddie said you'll like it."

That was the first inkling I had that this was a set-up. "Really? What is it?" I asked her, taking the cup from her hand skeptically.

She shrugged her tiny shoulders and giggled. She laughed again as I sniffed at the straw before drawing in a deep drink through it.

Strawberries and cream. Just like the first shake we ever shared, because it smelled like and tasted like me. I pulled back, closed my eyes and smiled as I remembered the odd things that happened to my body by simply being in his presence. A year later and none of it had changed. Elizabeth clapped giddily as she watched me relish the milk shake. "Open your present! Open your present!" She chanted.

"What present?"

She reached her hands up to the bag that was on my shoulder, bending her fingers in and out in a "give me" gesture. I lowered the bag to the ground at her feet and watched as she unzipped it, pulling out a tiny package wrapped in silver paper with white snowflakes printed all over it.

She held the gift up to me, as if it were a sacrifice to a deity. "What did you get me, you silly girl?" I asked as I slipped my finger under the first edge.

"Not me. Eddie." She corrected, wrapping herself around one of my legs. "Eddie loves you like I do, my Bella." The lump formed in my throat before I could swallow it down. "Open! Open! Open!" She coaxed, stepping away from my leg to watch with anticipation.

Inside was a small gilt frame with a portrait of Elizabeth – a Santa hat upon her cherubic little face as she sat amidst a strand of Christmas lights designed to look like presents. It was a smaller version of the portrait I had fallen in love with at the store where he worked. On the bottom of the frame was a small plaque that read "For My Bella".

I dropped to my knees, hugging the little girl as tightly as was possible, unable to contain my tears any longer. She pulled away, using her tiny fingers to wipe the tears away with a pout on her face. "What's the matter? Why are you crying? Don't you like it?"

"I love it." I smiled, trying to reassure her. "These are happy tears. I just love you so much, there's no more room inside of me, so it's pouring out in tears." I explained.

She leaned forward and placed gentle kisses on my eyelids before looking back to see if there was a difference. "All better?" She asked, sounding hopeful.

"All better." I assured her.

I played with Elizabeth for the next hour until Esme showed up at my door, looking mischievous. "Did you make it to your appointment on time?" I asked, cocking an eyebrow at her.

"From the looks of it," she smiled down at the fact that I was holding Lizzie's hand, "I would say I was right on time. Did you have fun?"

The question sounded like it was aimed at Lizzie, but Esme's eyes never left mine. "Yes Mommy. She loved her presents. She cried happy tears because she had too much love – right my Bella?"

I blushed slightly and nodded.

Esme caressed my cheek. "Will you be over for Christmas, sweetie? It wouldn't be the same without you and…we'd all be heartbroken. Of course, we'd love to have your father too."

I lowered my head, finding it nearly impossible to turn her down. "I'm…I'm…" I struggled to tell her that I didn't think that was for the best, but the words simply wouldn't come out. "I think that my father has already made other arrangements for us, but thank you for the invitation. And, thank you for letting me spend some time with Elizabeth."

Esme's face crumbled and I had to look away before I caved in. Didn't she understand I was trying to do right by her son? That I was trying to do what was best for him? Didn't she grasp how hard it was for me to turn my back on him, much less to walk away from an entire family that I had already come to think of as my own?

Lizzie yanked on my arm, gesturing for me to bend down so that she could give me a soul crushing hug and kiss goodbye before jumping into her mother's arms. When I looked up, Esme's eyes were glassy pools.

"I love him, you know? That's why I'm doing this."

"I know sweetie…I know. People often do bad things with the very best of intentions, don't they?" She smiled sadly at me before steadying Lizzie on her hip and slinking off to the car, leaving me dazed and confused on the front steps.

Was I doing a bad thing? Sure, it was killing me to do it and, I could only imagine that Edward was struggling a little bit…now I've just seen the impact it was having on Esme and Elizabeth. Even if it was bad, was it wrong?

The foundations for my arguments were starting to get a little shaky.

ooo (*O*) ooo

December 23rd found a gift wrapped box waiting solemnly on my door step without the usual elf to help plead his case. I picked the box up, surprised by how light it was, considering its size. I carried it into the living room, placing it on the coffee table in front of the warm fire I had going. I stared at it momentarily, considering if I shouldn't just put it back outside and refuse it. Wasn't accepting these gifts only going to make things harder for the both of us?

I needed to make a clean break if this was going to work, and there was nothing clean about what was happening – the way he was penetrating every nook and cranny of my life and refusing to wash me clean from his.

I stared at the package for a couple of minutes before I realized that it was useless. I would go mad with curiosity if I didn't open the damned thing. With no one else in sight, I ripped the paper off viciously, revealing a plastic tote filled with mistletoe, similar to the box we had once stood under in the supply closet. A simple, handwritten note was taped to the top. "My greatest regret is not kissing you sooner. My second regret is letting you walk away from me. There are still many more kisses left to be had, Isabella. Let's not waste time making more regrets."

But that's what I'm doing you stubborn, infuriating man! If you stay here because of me, you'll regret it, and I refuse to be something you regret!

I threw the box across the room, watching it tumble into the corner near the fireplace. Why must everyone keep making it so difficult for me to walk away when I am only trying to do what is best for him?

And when would these blasted tears finally run dry?

ooo (*O*) ooo

On the fifth day, I received a tiny first aid kit reminiscent of the one he used to clean up my scraped legs the day I literally fell head over heels for him. Attached to the handle was another note: "I know you're hurting. I know you're in pain because I feel it too. Please, can't I just come over and make it better?"

I sent my reply immediately by text message so that he wouldn't spend his entire Christmas Eve waiting.

All I wrote was a simple "No."

ooo (*O*) ooo

The only reason I knew it was Christmas day was because I came downstairs to find Charlie sitting on the couch with a bowl of cereal watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas". Otherwise, there were no stockings hung by the chimney with care – nothing red and green or white and lacy strewn about the house to remind me of the Christmas spirit.

Since Charlie had lived as a bachelor for years, it never really occurred to him to decorate for the holidays, so it had become my thing ever since I moved here. But weighed down by a broken heart, I simply hadn't been able to find it in me to celebrate.

Charlie knew something was wrong – although I hadn't talked to him about it, I knew he must have noticed Edward's absence around the house and my increasing melancholy - but girlie emotions were simply outside of his comfort zone. Therefore, he ignored it as much as I would let him.

Instead, he did the only thing he could think of – he planned a non-stop Christmas day that he was sure would distract me. We left around ten in the morning and spent the rest of the day traveling from house to house. We ate breakfast with Deputy Ben, his wife Angela and their three kids. Lunch was spent with the retired Police Chief, Harry Clearwater, and his wife and kids. We went over to Jacob's house for a while and played Dance Party on the new Wii that Vanessa bought him for Christmas. It was around that point in time that my dad's attempt to distract me fell to pieces as Jacob pulled me aside to show me the diamond solitaire he had finally managed to save up for. Things went even more downhill as we headed to the diner for Christmas dinner. Not only was the diner a sad placed filled with lonely people with nowhere else to go on Christmas day, but it was the same place I had first eaten with Edward…the same place we had come to on many late nights when we simply weren't ready to go home.

My father ordered for me, but I simply pushed the plate aside, unable to fake an appetite.

The ride home was long, cold and silent as I stared out the window at the dark trees that raced by. The only thing that snapped me from my sorrowful distractions was the bright lights that illuminated the forest across from my house. I turned around, peeking past my dad to see that our house was covered from top to bottom with brilliant, multicolored lights that set the entire block awash in color.

I jumped out of the passenger side before the truck had come to a complete stop, racing around the vehicle to stare at the beauty of my home without any obstructions. Suddenly, music came from speakers that were hidden somewhere in nearby shrubbery.

I really can't stay-
-Baby, it's cold outside.
I have to go away-
-But baby, it's cold outside…

Edward.

I spun around, knowing that he was near…feeling him pulling me. Just then, I spotted him stepping out from the shadows of the trees on the side of my house, staying just within their boundaries. My heart swelled so full at the sight of him that it felt as if my chest might crack open.

The corners of my mouth pulled up in spite of myself as his did the same, never fully breaking into what could be called a smile – but the hint of delight still plain on our faces. "Merry Christmas." He mouthed to me across the divide.

"Merry Christmas." I mouthed back, frozen to the spot. We stared at each other for a long moment before his face saddened and he stepped back into the shadows, disappearing from my sight.

I didn't know if he was ever going to stop trying.

And I no longer knew if I really wanted him to.

ooo (*O*) ooo

On the 26th, I woke up to find that snow chains had been put on my truck and a family of snowmen had taken residence in my front yard – complete with a little dog named Mittens.

The 27th brought with it a surprise visit from Emmet, carrying a jug of eggnog, which he assured me had no nutmeg in it. We talked for a while, catching up on the things that we'd missed since the last time we hung out.

"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question, Em?" I asked, my hands folded around the mug of eggnog I had been sipping.

"Shoot."

"Why do you and Rosalie keep breaking up? Or, more importantly…why do you keep getting back together?" I stared down at my mug, peeking up at him through my lashes, hoping that the question wouldn't offend him.

His brows knitted together, but he seemed to get why it was important to me. It surprised me when he laughed. "Because she's stubborn and independent." He smiled so brightly that his dimples were massive craters in his cheeks. "And I'm stubborn and needy." He brought his mug up to his mouth, sipping at the creamy concoction before licking the white stuff from his upper lip. "I've known from the first moment I saw her that I was gonna marry that girl someday. On the other hand, she comes from divorced parents and from living with a mother who's married and remarried so many times that she's lost count. She's afraid to be dependent on someone…to care about them and rely on them to care about her the same way. Then she gets me coming along with my confidence that this is a forever thing, and its scares the hell out of her."

"If she feels that way…aren't you afraid she'll never come around to see things the same way that you do? I mean, why do you keep going back to her if she keeps pulling away from you?" I realized that I was staring at him very intensely, so I pulled back bashfully. "I'm sorry, I don't mean…"

"It's okay. I get it." He smiled, patting my hand across the table before pulling his hand back to lift his mug to his mouth once again. "She's the one, Bella. That's all there is for me. Maybe there won't be a wedding and kids…but I'll have to settle for whatever it is she's willing to give me because there's nothing left of me to give to anyone else." He stared at me a long moment, watching as I let his words sink in. "It's the same for him, you know? He's never going to give up."

My eyes darted up to meet his, surprised that he was able to see so clearly into the heart of the matter. "I get what you're trying to do…so does he. But it's not going to work. If you really want him to follow his dreams, you're going to have to go about it a different way. Doing it without you is simply not an option for him."

ooo (*O*) ooo

On the tenth day, it was my turn to deliver a gift. In the pitch black of pre-dawn, I raced up to the front of the house, slipped the envelope into the mailbox and jumped back into my truck, speeding off down the lane before the rumble of my engine had time to wake him up.

It was a brochure of Paris – the sights, sounds, tastes and attractions that made the city great. I kept my note simple: "If you really want me back, you have to find a way to make this work. I'm so sorry for the hurtful things I said. You have to know I didn't mean them; I was just trying to let you go so that you wouldn't skip out on your dreams to be with me. There are only two things that I said that hold true: I love you always, but I will not be your excuse to be anything less than extraordinary."

I received his text message before I even made it home. "I'm working on it. Miss you."

"Miss you more." I texted back. "Still love me?"

"Always."

ooo (*O*) ooo

On December 30th, it was tiny Alice who knocked on my door. Although we kept in touch regularly through phone calls, text messages and Facebook, I hadn't actually seen her in over a month. She nearly knocked me over as she pounced on me the moment I opened the door. "I'm so excited!" She clamored around me, carrying a large gift box.

"What's that?" I asked, closing the door behind her as she made herself at home in the living room.

"It's my gift to you." She smiled widely before her grin faltered. "Okay, fine, Edward told me to do it and he paid for it and stuff, but I totally picked it out!"

She plucked a card from the top of the box and thrust it into my hands. "I've been dying to know what that says, would you please open it?"

The little fireball cracked me up some times. "It's an invitation to a New Year's Eve party at the Cullen's house."

"Oh! That explains it then!" She bounced up and down on the couch, quickly sliding her legs beneath her so that she was perched on her knees, sliding the large box over to me. "That's what this is for!"

I recognized the silver paper with the snowflakes – it was the same kind he had used on one of my other gifts. I slipped my finger beneath one of the seams, carefully prying it apart as was my custom, but Alice was having none of that.

"Dear God, Bella! The party's tomorrow, not next New Year's Eve!" She yelled maniacally as she clawed at the paper, leaving shreds of it behind in her wake.

With the wrapping paper absolutely demolished, I lifted the lid from the box and peered inside to find a glittering silver dress. I lifted it up to see that it was a simple, backless, form fitting piece that would go down to about mid-thigh. Also in the box was a pair of silver peep-toe heels that I instantly knew were designed to elongate the leg and improve a woman's posture, ensuring that I would be subtly thrusting out my ass and boobs the entire time I wore them.

"What in the world were you thinking, Alice?" I asked, shocked that she would pick something like this for me. I hadn't worn something this risqué since last year's elf costume.

"I was thinking that I really, really want to wear this for Jasper, but my parents would kill me, so I'm giving it to my older friend because she can get away with wearing it without getting grounded." She put her hands on her knees, pouting dramatically at me. "Please, Bella! You are going to look so fucking hot, Edward won't be able to keep his hands off of you!"

"Alice!" I screeched, shocked.

"C'mon, Bella – we established a long time ago that I was no angel, so just put the damn thing on and stop complaining."

I tried it on and, the shy blush aside, I had to admit that I felt pretty sexy. Alice absolutely beamed with pride. "Can I come over tomorrow to help you get ready? I know exactly what to do with your hair and make-up to make that outfit pop."

I laughed at her. "Please, because I'm pretty sure I have nothing in my arsenal of make-up to make this face match this outfit."

"Yay!" She clapped excitedly before lunging at me with another strangle-hold.

What the hell was I getting myself in to?

ooo (*O*) ooo

On the twelfth day since I told Edward we were through, Alice came over to my house around four o'clock to help me get ready. That seemed a little drastic, considering I didn't have to be at his place until seven, but Alice assured me that we needed the time.

I didn't appreciate the insinuation behind that, but I let it slide.

We stayed in my bedroom, away from any mirrors, so I can't say that I know exactly what she was doing the entire time but, to her credit, she did stay busy for two and a half hours primping, pampering, styling, etc.

We both jumped when my cell phone chimed around 6:30. "I hope you don't mind, but the streets are bad today, so I've sent someone to pick you up. They should be pulling up shortly."

I sighed in exasperation – my silly, overprotective Edward strikes again. Alice, on the other hand, swooned and mocked passing out on top of my bed. I swatted her on the thigh. "Unless I'm done with the royal treatment, you outta get back to work. No telling when the armored tank will pull up outside." I teased.

She studiously went back to work for about five minutes more before announcing that her masterpiece was complete, following me into the bathroom to get my immediate reaction.

Holy hell, I looked hot!

I didn't recognize myself at all! My eyes were done up with a dramatic smoky look, rimmed in black with silver and metallic accents. My lips were painted in a shiny, dusty rose color that made them look extremely kissable, and Alice assured me that the color would last all night, though I would need to reapply the gloss that she had slipped into my bag. My hair was done up into a lazy bun, one black chopstick stabbed through the mess with random curls hanging down to frame my face and tickle my neck and shoulders. My earrings were a set of slender, dainty silver chains that hung down at different lengths and the high halter top of the dress ensured that I didn't need any kind of necklace.

She raced out excitedly before jumping back into the room. "The final touch." She said as she held the pumps out to me.

I slipped them on one by one, amazed by how comfortable they were, despite their intimidating appearance. One sideways turn revealed exactly what I had been expecting. My slender ass was now pushed out in a way that made it look absolutely voluptuous, and the heels made me arch my back so that my small breasts appeared more pronounced.

"Damn, Bella! I almost wanna do you!" Alice squeaked, causing me to crack up laughing, shaking loose a couple more tendrils from my bun.

A horn blared from below, alerting me that my ride was there. The two of us took off, pushing past each other as we raced from the bathroom, back to my bedroom to look out through the window. Stretched across my front yard was a black limousine, complete with a driver standing by the back door, his gloved hand resting on the door handle, ready for my arrival.

"Holy Shit! He sent you a limo!" Alice exclaimed, her eyes wide.

"Holy Shit! He sent me a limo!" I repeated, looking at her before the two of us broke into a fit of childish giggles.

"Go, go, go!" She scooted me out the door, snatching my clutch from the bed and shoving it into my arms, shooing me all the way down the stairs. "Have fun and do all kinds of things that would get me in trouble if my parents found out!"

I turned around and hugged her, feeling just a little like Cinderella on her way to the ball. "Thanks, Alice!"

"Don't thank me, silly – thank that boyfriend of yours!" She chided as she literally pried my arms off of her and pushed me out the door.

"Miss Swan." The chauffeur greeted me as he pulled open the door. "I apologize for the horn, but no one responded when I knocked on the door."

"Oh, I'm sorry about that – I was upstairs." I bumbled.

"Please ma'am, no apologies necessary. Please enjoy the ride and let me know if there is anything I can do for you."

I wrapped my hands behind my butt, trying to keep my dress down as I slid into the seat. "What's your name?" I asked.

"Taylor, ma'am." He smiled politely with a tip of his hat.

"Thank you, Taylor. I'm Bella." I smiled up at him.

"Very well, Bella. Are you comfortable?"

"Yes sir." I responded, biting my lip as I was unsure if I should be tipping him or something.

"Very well. Let us be on our way – I've been informed that there is a young gentleman very anxiously waiting to see you." He smiled, appearing amused at the two desperate lovers he was about to reunite.

Once he closed the door, I turned around, gasping as I inspected the inside of the limo. At the other end of the limo was a huge teddy bear dressed like Santa Claus. In his arms was a stunning bouquet of red roses, bound with a red and green plaid bow. The floor of the limo was filled with red and green balloons and smelled distinctly of…strawberries and cream.

I looked at the intimidating instrument panel located above my head until I found the button that appeared to lower the glass partition that separated Taylor and I. "Um, Taylor? I'm sorry to bother you, but I've never been in a limo before and I don't really know how to work anything. You're lucky I lowered the window instead of blowing up the car, actually." I joked, trying to hide my embarrassment.

Taylor laughed, peering at me through the rearview mirror. "Actually, Mr. Cullen requested we have the 'blow-up-the-car' button removed for just that reason, Miss." He teased.

He was sarcastic. That instantly made me feel right at home. "Okay, smart ass, then it would appear you removed the 'turn-on-the-music' button too!" I laughed.

His eyes crinkled as I noticed him fidgeting with something on the dashboard. "I believe Mr. Cullen has a special request for you….Aw, here it is."

I instantly recognized the introduction to Eartha Kit's "Santa Baby".

"How's that, Bella?" He called out from the driver's seat.

"Perfect, Taylor. Absolutely perfect."

We pulled up outside of the Cullen home before the song had come to its conclusion. My door opened and I reached without looking to take Taylor's hand so that I wouldn't fall on my way out, except when I looked up to thank him, it was Edward's vibrant green eyes that I saw. The beauty of his face knocked the wind right out of me, making my knees go weak.

"Whoa, steady." He said as I fell against him, his arms winding around me protectively.

His proximity made it even harder to regain my balance, but I was eventually able to stand on my own two feet once again. Taylor made his way over to us and Edward reached out to shake his hand. "Thanks a lot. I appreciate it." It was clear to me that no money exchanged hands.

Taylor clapped Edward on the shoulder. "Anytime. Good luck." He turned to me with a mischievous grin and a nod of his head. "It was a pleasure, Bella."

"The pleasure was all mine." I replied with a smile. As Taylor made his way back towards the front, I leaned forward to whisper "Are we supposed to tip him?"

Edward laughed and, although it made me slightly self-conscious for my ignorance on the matter, it was still a welcome sound. I had forgot how giddy his laughter made me.

"Remember the two boys who cuddled up beside you at the hospital? Taylor's son was the older one. When he heard what I had planned, he wanted to help so that he could meet the girl his son was in love with." He chuckled when my eyes widened in surprise. "You seem to have made quite the impact."

The intensity of his gaze was making me a little nervous, so I quickly looked for a distraction.

"Oh, the stuff!" I yelped, turning around to climb back into the limo for the teddy bear and roses.

Edward immediately came up behind me, his hands on my waist as he pulled me back against him. Although it was entirely inappropriate, I couldn't help but notice that my heels raised my backside so that it was at the perfect height to rub against his groin.

"Don't worry about that – Taylor will get it." I stood up, instantly panting at the contact between us, my face flushed and my temples dewy with nervous anticipation.

He leaned down, his ears brushing softly against my earlobe as I swallowed nervously. "As delicious as you look in this dress, you might want to be a little more careful about bending over, Bella." He slid his hands off my waist and over my hips until he was gripping the hem of my dress, tugging it back down into place. It was only then that I realized how very high up it had traveled in my hurry to get the teddy bear.

I swallowed again, this time choking down my embarrassment.

The evening started out innocent enough. Carlisle and Esme greeted me as if nothing had ever happened and Lizzie was just as excited to see me as always.

"You look like a princess!" She complimented, and I smiled, very careful to keep my dress pulled down as I knelt to talk to her. "Except, my princesses' dresses are always long and yours is really short."

Edward chuckled by my side, offering me his hand to help me get up from the precarious position I was balancing in. Up until this point in time, it had been suggestive glances and subtle touches, but now, he wound his arm around my waist and pulled me tightly against his side, leaning over to whisper in my ear once again. "She's right. Have I told you how absolutely stunning you look tonight?"

I gulped, grabbing and straightening his tie for a distraction. "Well, you don't clean up too badly yourself." He was wearing the pressed black slacks and starched white shirt from my dream, but had yet to forego his regular black boots and leather jacket. He was my Santa…my rebel…just playing dress up for New Year's Eve.

We parted ways as the party picked up, mixing and mingling with the crowd. He made sure to play polite host to the various neighbors and family in attendance as I greeted and chatted idly with the people I was surprised to see there – namely Alice, Jasper, Rosalie, Emmet and Aro.

"Yeah, I'm thinking of getting out of the Santa photography business and starting a matchmaking service instead. Hell, look how well I did with you kids without even trying!" Aro teased.

Edward wound his way over to me when the temperature dropped dramatically; alerting me to his presence as he silently slipped his jacket over my trembling shoulders. "Want to go inside and warm up?" He whispered.

I nodded, noticing for the first time that my teeth were starting to chatter.

We stopped and chatted with people we passed along the way, eventually making it to the privacy of his bedroom. Once he shut the door, I noticed that the teddy bear and roses were now perched near the head of his bed and the room was alight in the glow of two dozen or so candles. I stepped into the room, approaching one of the candles to find that it illuminated a framed picture of the two of us taken at a traveling carnival. Another candle lit a photo of him holding me proudly on graduation day. Photo by photo, picture by picture detailed the journey we had taken to get to this point together.

I spun around to find that he was right behind me. He stepped forward, taking my face in his hands, his thumb gently teasing at my quivering bottom lip. "You were silly to think I'd just let you go without a fight – you know that, right?" I nodded, willing the tears away.

"It doesn't matter, though. You have to go to Paris, Edward. You have to take that internship. Even if you can live with the what-if's, I can't stand by your side wondering if I held you back."

He wrapped his arms around me, crushing me to his chest. "We should have talked about it – tried to figure it out. What were you thinking, pulling away from me like that?"

I hugged him fiercely, his shirt soaking in my warm, salty tears as they fell. "You wouldn't have listened to me. I thought - if I could make you believe it was over - that you would go. I don't ever want to hold you back. I thought it was the only way…"

He grabbed my upper arms and pulled away from me to look into my face. "And if the situation was reversed, would it have worked on you? Would you have just let things end between us like that and run off to Paris?"

I had never thought of it that way. If I knew, as he knew, that he was still in love with me, I would have clung even tighter to him, no matter how hard he tried to push me away.

He laughed as he saw the dawn of realization spread across my face. "You get it now, don't you?" I nodded, my lips trembling with new tears as I realized what a waste of time it had all been. All the heartache and misery for nothing when we were bound to end up back in eachother's arms, no matter what.

He intertwined our fingers, pulling me over to his bed so that we could sit down, side by side and hand in hand. "I'll wait for you, you know? I'll wait for you as long as you want me to. But, if you go over there and…and..." I couldn't get the words out. "…and you decide that you don't want me anymore, I'll understand – I promise, I won't hold it against you." The words came out in a strangled whisper.

He pushed his index finger against my lips, silencing me. "What if you don't have to wait? What if…what if we don't have to be apart?"

"What are you talking about?"

"I sent Riley my portfolio and, he was interested in one of my models. Asked me if I would give him her information because he was interested in getting in touch with her." He gulped, obviously nervous. "He wants you to model for him."

My eyes shot wide. "I'm not a model!"

"I told him you'd say that, but he says he'd beg to differ. He wanted to offer you a one year paid contract and, it pays really, really well. At the end of the year, it's up to you if you want to renegotiate, or you can just take your earnings and we'll come back here and you'll have more than enough money to pay for college. You'll even be able to afford tuition for the state university, if you still want to go there."

My head was swimming. Me? A model in Paris? It was crazy!

"You told me, if I wanted you back, I had to make this work, Bella. You insist that I go and, I can't do it without you. You're right…maybe I'm scared…absolutely frightened…but the thing that scares me the most is having to spend another stupid day without you. If anything, this little stunt of yours only proved to me that that is not an existence worth living for me. So, there's my answer. Together in Paris or together at home, but together nonetheless. That's the best I've got."

I gulped. Together at home wasn't an option for me, because that would only rob him of his chance. But a year in Paris? As a model? That was never a future I imagined for myself.

But what was the point in arguing it? His choices were clear, and there was only one choice I could live with. We'd figure the rest out together.

"When do we leave?" I asked.

His eyes shot wide, his mouth open in the most amazing, adoring smile I had ever seen. "Really?"

I nodded, instantly infected by his happiness.

He wrapped his arms around my waist, spinning me around excitedly as I squealed in delight.

When he placed me back on my feet, the atmosphere shifted around us – becoming suddenly heavier and heated. "If you had any idea how much I loved you…" he said, stroking my brows and temples, "you never would have tried that."

I sighed in exasperation. "If you have any idea how much I love you, you'd understand why I had to try."

His hands wandered over my bare back as he pulled me flush against his body, leaning down, teasing his lips over my temples and eyelids – brushing them softly against my mouth without applying any pressure. "You hurt me, Bella. Left me in agony for days while I wondered if you were ever going to figure out that we're meant to be together." His lips whispered along my jaw and over my throat.

"It was suicide, Edward. I killed myself a little more each day, knowing you loved me and trying to stay away from you for your own good. But I'd do it again…if I honestly thought you'd be better off without me…I'd die for you." A second later, his lips crashed against mine, making me forget all about the agony of the twelve days I had spent without him by my side.

Our tongues twisted together and no sugar coated candy had ever tasted as sweet. I wound his tie around my hand, tugging him closer still as his hands slipped down my back, his fingers teasing beneath the low cut fabric so that his hands could slide low over my ass, pulling me to him fervently.

I loosened his tie, reaching beneath the knot to undo the button of his collar before working my way down. Just as I reached the third button or so, he grabbed my wrists to still me. My mind screamed out No as I looked up into his eyes, begging him not to pull away…but the look on his face was different this time.

Hungry.

Carnal.

He released my wrists and grabbed his shirt, buttons scattering as he tore it open the rest of the way. I gasped as he grabbed my wrists once again, placing my hands against his chest. "Touch me, Bella." He husked, his desire eating away at me, lust saturating my senses. "No holding back."

I clawed at his shirt, tearing it back off of his arms as my hands wandered over the dips and valleys of his muscular shoulders and back. He brought his hands up to the back of my neck, fidgeting with the halter until I could feel the clasps give way – the front falling limp between us. I stepped back, my eyes burning coals as I held the dress in place, wanting to see his face as I revealed my body to him for the first time. I expected to be shy and nervous…but knowing that he wanted me as badly as I had always wanted him made all the fear and worry disappear.

He ran his hands soothingly up and down my arms as I stared into his eyes, waiting to see that he was ready. In one swift movement, I released my dress, feeling the smooth material skim over my body as it pooled at my feet. His eyes held mine for a moment before slowly traveling down my body. My skin broke out in goosebumps beneath his lingering gaze, my nipples pebbling the moment his green eyes landed on them. He growled, a feral sound I had never heard before as he lowered his head to my breasts, taking my peak into his mouth for the very first time.

His hands splayed across my lower back as I arched into his greedy mouth, my fingers digging into his hair, clinging to him desperately as his tongue flicked over the sensitive flesh. "Don't stop, Edward…please don't stop…" I moaned unabashedly.

He stood up to look into my flushed face, green fire scorching my exposed skin as he reached up with one hand to pull the chopstick from my hair, letting my mahogany curls cascade over my shoulders and tickle my back. "So beautiful." He whispered as his fingers weaved into my hair, bending me backwards so that he could suck and nip along my throat and collar bone.

I clung to the back of his shoulders, my nails scraping lightly as I struggled to pull myself closer still. He dipped me farther back, taking my other peak tentatively between his teeth and rolling his tongue around it as my hand wandered around his waistband to the button of his slacks. With the button and zipper undone, I felt his pants loosen and slipped my fingers under the waistband of both, pushing the material down his long thighs.

We stumbled slightly as he kicked off his shoes and then used his toes to push his pants down the rest of the way. My hand reached down between us, grabbing him fully and squeezing gently, loving the way he moaned and pulsed at my touch. Using my grip as leverage, I pulled slightly, coaxing him to press his body deliriously against mine.

He kissed and nipped at my skin as he lowered himself down my body. He licked between my breasts and kissed my navel, making my knees go weak when he dipped his tongue in slightly. "Bella, Bella, Bella" he chanted as his hands wandered down my sides, his fingers wrapping around the sides of the dainty, black lace panties as he knelt before me.

"Take me Edward." I crooned, my entire body on fire. "Take me now."

He yanked with all his might and my panties split apart, the shredded pieces fluttering to the ground as he stood, lifting me and carrying me over to his bed. He sat me on the edge and I reached out for his tie, pulling him to me, afraid I might wake up if I let him wander too far away.

He lowered himself beside the bed, sliding his hands down my inner thighs to part my knees, opening me up before him. I moaned and writhed beneath his touch as he kissed his way up my thighs, blowing lightly on my moist center. He lowered his head at the apex of my thighs, looking up at me from beneath his lashes reverently as he inhaled. "Strawberries and cream" he whispered before diving in like a vampire about to feast. My body exploded as he placed his mouth on me for the very first time, exploring me with his tongue, fingers and lips. "Fucking strawberries and cream" he murmured as I watched his bronze hair sway with the motion of his loving. I fisted my hand in that outrageous hair of his, holding him to me as my hips undulated back and forth, starving for the release he was trying to supply.

"Ungh…yes baby! Yes!" I gasped as my body convulsed beneath his ministrations.

He knelt on the floor at my feet as I slowly floated back down into my body, once again aware of the family and friends gathered outside. I felt like a newborn, seeing the world for the first time – trying to understand the sights, sounds and smells that surrounded me but not being able to grasp anything but him. He was here, with me…loving me.

I looked down to find him still kneeling beside the bed, looking at me with a mixture of worry, fear and lust. "Are you okay?" He asked.

I smiled, sitting up to caress his face. "That was extraordinary." I breathed, my heart still racing.

"We don't have to…" he let the word hang there as he gulped. I traced my fingers down his jaw and below his chin, working my fingertips downward until I could grip his tie. I wound it once around my hand before I started pulling it, using it to draw him towards me.

"I want you Edward." I pulled him enough so that he had to raise himself on his knees to kiss my lips. I hummed, licking his lips clean when I realized I could taste myself there. The combination of our flavors was intoxicating. "Don't you want me?" I whispered in his ear, tugging a little more on the tie so that he was now gripping the edge of the mattress on both sides of my knees.

"Yes, Bella. Always." He husked, his eyes growing black with desire as I pulled him farther up my body.

"Take me, Edward. Don't stop." I pulled more until he had climbed up onto the bed on top of me, his body rising slowly between my legs as I could feel more and more of his weight.

"Are you sure, Bella?" He asked, concern still tainting the lust in his voice.

I released his tie to cup his face in my hands, looking deeply into his emerald green eyes. "You and I are going to be together forever, Edward. I know it. I don't want to wait another moment for our forever to begin." I took his hand, causing more of his weight to press deliciously against me, and brought his fingers to my temple. "You're here, in every thought I think." I moved his hand down to my chest, wondering if he could feel the pounding of my heart beneath my breast. "You're here – every heartbeat is for you." With that, I slipped our hands down between us until I could feel his fingers grazing my wet heat. "Now I want you here. I want to feel you inside of me. It's the only thing left I have to give, and it's yours."

His breathing grew ragged as his reached further down, slipping his fingers between my lips and sliding amidst the moisture he found there. He leaned down, his breath foggy on my ear and throat. "I can still taste you, Bella. So sweet…so perfect." His tongue lashed out at my ear and I shivered. He moved his thumb to the top of my sex and moved it in small circles, zeroing in when my body tensed, letting him know that he had found my clit.

"It's gonna hurt, baby." He whispered as his fingers continued their blind exploration. "I don't want to hurt you."

"It will only hurt for a moment, but I want you, and the wanting is hurting me far worse. It will get better, Edward…but this aching for you…it's not going to go away." He slipped one finger in between my folds and I gasped at the foreign feeling before my mind wrapped around the idea that I was taking him in, one small piece at a time.

"Does that feel good?" He asked, slipping his finger slowly in and out while his thumb continued its gentle dance.

"Yes, Edward…so good." I moaned, too caught up in the sensations he was giving me to remember to be embarrassed.

He slipped a second finger in and moved them in and out together, separating them slightly so that I could feel myself stretching around him. "How about now, Bella…"

"God, yes Edward…ungh…please don't stop…" My body began undulating in waves, my hips pulsing against his hand as I attempted to find a rhythm.

"I'm going to marry you someday, Bella. I'm gonna make you my wife. And then, I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to make you this happy again and again."

"Everyone get together! It's almost midnight!" The partygoers shouted from outside, oblivious to our little rendezvous.

"Yes Edward! I'm going to spend forever loving you, just like this!" I crooned as my body began rocking feverishly against him.

"Ten! Nine! Eight!" They shouted from below.

"I love you, Bella…" His voice strained.

"Seven! Six! Five!"

"I love you too, Edward…with all of my heart…" I struggled as the pleasure threatened to take me under.

"Four! Three!"

Suddenly, he withdrew his hand and, before I knew it, I could feel his length slide within me in one swift thrust.

"Ungh!" We gasped together.

There was pain – in many ways, worse than I had expected – on the other hand, I was too far into the throws of my orgasm for it to stop, so there was pleasure too as cries of "Happy New Year!" and the notes of Auld Lang Syne could be heard drifting in through his bedroom walls.

He thrust twice more within me before collapsing on top of me, thoroughly spent. He rolled over, quickly pulling me to him so that I could rest my head upon the flat planes of his heated chest, his heart pounding against my cheek. He reached over with his other hand, smoothing the tangled hair from my sweaty skin as he peppered my face with sweet, tender kisses.

We sat there, lost in the moment until the fervor and excitement of the New Year quietly died down outside. I crossed my arms over his chest and rolled over flat on my stomach. "I just took you inside of my body, Edward. You were literally inside of me. Do you get how huge that is?"

His mouth pulled up into a crooked smile and I could immediately tell where his thoughts were headed. "Okay, Cullen…get your mind out of the gutter." He chuckled before tucking my hair behind my ear.

"I meant it, when I said I was going to marry you someday. You know that, right?" He looked down at me, his eyes radiating warmth, satisfaction and love.

"Oh, my Eddie…of course I know. Though, I'm pretty sure your mom may have figured it out before either of us." He laughed and prompted me to sit up before reaching over to grab something off of his nightstand.

"Well then, since we're in agreement, I don't suppose you'd mind wearing this for a while…just until we make it official." He popped open a tiny, black velvet box revealing a tasteful diamond solitaire set in a dainty white gold ring.

"Are you asking me to marry you, Edward Cullen?"

"Actually, I thought we just kind of skipped that part." He teased, but blushed at the same time.

I wrapped my arms around his neck, squeezing him with all of my might, relishing the way the hardened, flat planes of his chest felt against all of my soft curves. "The answer is yes, my Eddie. It's always been yes."

So it was, in the first minutes of the year 2011 that I finally gave mind, body and soul to Edward Cullen – my savage Santa, shy rebel, and soul mate, all in one.

A/N: For those of you who have asked, yes - there are two shout-outs to Icy and her stunning "Master of the Universe". The limo driver was inspired by Fifty's head security officer and, although I didn't do it intentionally, the silver dress that Bella wears to the New Year's Eve party is eerily reminiscent of the silver dress Alice convinced Bella to buy in the MOTU update I had read the day before. I've never made any secret of the fact that I want to be Icy when I grow up. lol

A/N: On the twelfth day of Christmas my readers gave to me: joy that Bella's cumming, a break from all this typing, a leather jacket for safekeeping, smutty romancing, a word that rhymes with "Milking" (Know what? Never mind…), a Christmas tree and trimmings, Edward flirting and playing, Naughty Santa Dreams! Many happy words, sexy Cullen men, gratitude and love, and reviews that fill me with glee…

Here's wishing you all a safe, happy, healthy and prosperous New Year! Thanks for making 2010 one of my very best years! Smooches to ya'll!