*Sheepishly waving hello*

I'm not even going to try to make any excuses for my lame ass. But if you're still here, thankyouthankyouthankyou. SM may own the characters, but you lovely people own me.


Chapter 29

"Come on, Bella. Just one more. Trust me, you need it," Alice quips with a sly grin, grabbing my classy plastic cup to refill it with another mimosa. I'm about to decline, but I just go with it, knowing my nerves are fried and I'll take any little bit of help I can get.

Alice brought up the genius idea of a celebratory "pre-graduation brunch," and a bunch of us brought juice, cheap champagne, bagels, and other goodies to share at the university before being subjected to boorish commencement speeches. We'd all agreed that a little bubbly would make it more tolerable. Maybe even a little entertaining.

But I'm downing my third drink because I need to calm the crazy jitters plaguing my stomach. The fact that I'm finally graduating and they're letting me loose in the real world has nothing to do with the gnawing ache in my gut.

In fact, I'm rather proud of myself for surviving the past two years of insane pressure and grueling clinical hours. I'd made it through 2,000 hours of classes my first year, and forty to one hundred hour workweeks of clinical rotations the second year. I assisted in surgeries, diagnosed and treated patients from birth to age ninety-three. I met the tooth fairy and Jesus. I sutured a drunk man who split his head open and took care of a diabetic after he'd had three of his toes amputated. I assisted during a bone marrow biopsy of a brave nine-year-old boy with leukemia and held his hand during his chemo treatments. I consoled an eighty-seven-year-old man in the ER whose wife of fifty-five years had just suffered a major stroke. I delivered babies.

And somehow, in all that chaos, I managed to meet a pretty, green-eyed jackass who turned out to be a prince.

So, why, after everything I'd done, was I teetering on the edge of a panic attack because aforementioned prince would be meeting my parents today?

Of course I know I'm being ridiculous. And I am fully aware that my neurotic brain is blowing this up to be far worse than it could ever be. But my twisted-up insides and shaky hands are not responsive to rational thought. So I suck down another mimosa, hoping to get through this day unscathed.

XXX

I like big butts and I cannot lie

You other brothers can't deny

That when a girl walks in with an itty bitty waist

And a round thing in your face

You get sprung

Good God, why? I'm sitting with my graduating class through our Dean's long-winded speech, and while he's talking about professionalism, and how we are the proud future of quality health care, I'm channeling Sir Mix-A-Lot?

Oh, baby I wanna get with ya

And take your picture

My homeboys tried to warn me

But that butt you got

Make me so horny

I have not been able to get this damn song out of my head all day. It's not like I've even heard it recently. It just popped into my fucking head this morning in the shower, took up residence, and has been torturing me ever since. But I have a working theory that this whole "ear worm" phenomena is some protective mechanism in the brain to intentionally distract us from stressful or unpleasant thoughts. It's quite possible that this stupid song is the only thing keeping me off the proverbial ledge.

With the help of three tasty mimosas, of course.

The unexpected vibration of my phone makes me jump, and I ignore Bree Tanner's snicker as I glance at the message.

Why the fuck are you doing the shoulder shuffle?

Oh, for the love of...Please tell me I wasn't.

I glare over at Alice, who is two rows ahead of me since we are seated in alphabetical order. She's looking right back at me with a twisted grin, and I just reach up and scratch the side of my nose with my middle finger.

Because Baby's got back

I continue to text her lyrics until I'm confident that she has the old-school anthem to big booties infecting her bitchy little brain as well.

We continue texting back and forth, and I'm grateful for the distraction until she starts getting all preachy on me.

You should have let Edward come.

I scowl as my thumbs scurry across the keys with my answer. And have the poor guy stuck sitting with my parents the whole time bored out of his skull? NFW.

I knew when Renee asked if Edward would be coming to graduation it would be a bad idea, so I immediately told her he couldn't make it. There's no way I could put him through that.

My phone buzzes again as we are lined up to receive our diplomas. I take a subtle peek and see it's from Edward.

What color panties are under that gown, Swan?

His timing is impeccable. My teeth clamp down on my lower lip as it curls into a wide grin, and part of me wishes he were here to see it.

You'll find out later.

You bet your pretty ass I will.

I snort out loud at that. Such a total ass man.

My anaconda don't want none unless you've got buns, hon!

Sigh. I really do amuse the hell out of myself.

I watch with a touch of sentimental pride as Alice and my other classmates take their hard-earned diplomas from the stage. There's a twinge of sadness as the awareness hits me that today will likely be the last time I see most of them, though I know I'll keep in touch with the ones who count. I look behind me and exchange a knowing smile with Jasper. I can't imagine not having him and Alice in my life.

When they finally call my name, my heart rate picks up as I walk across the stage in front of the jam-packed auditorium. It shouldn't even surprise me when the sole of my flat catches awkwardly on the polished wood floor. I falter slightly, though somehow manage to regain my footing before losing balance and face-planting in front of everyone.

Only you, Swan!

Now not only are my hands trembling from just baseline nerves, but my whole body is shaking with embarrassment. I'm a lovely shade of tomato as I walk across the rest of the stage, sheepishly thanking my program director and accepting my diploma with a handshake. At least his warm smile consoles me. "It's been a real pleasure to have you, Bella. You're going to be a great asset to the profession."

I beam back at him with shy gratitude. This is really happening. This is officially the end of my academic life and the start of being a real-life PA with the ability to fuck up unsupervised. It's equally exciting and terrifying.

As I make my way off the stage without further incident, my cell vibrates yet again. What the hell could Alice want now? I pull it out of my pocket, and much to my surprise, it's Edward.

Aren't swans supposed to be graceful?

His words don't make any sense, unless...but...he isn't, right? Instantly my eyes start scanning the audience, my heart picking up speed as I search fruitlessly for him, only to be ushered along with the procession of graduates as we are herded outside when the ceremony ends.

As I search for my parents, a familiar head of hair catches my eye, standing a few inches above the general crowd. My heart races with giddiness as I push my way past various anonymous bodies, until I'm standing right in front of him. His smile mirrors mine, and I can tell how pleased he is with himself for surprising me. "What are you doing here?"

He lets out a snort. "Did you really think I would miss this?"

I can't seem to find an intelligible response, so I just stand there, grinning like a loon in spite of myself. That is, until a familiar voice pulls me out of my lovesick daze, and I peek over Edward's shoulder to find Renee rapidly approaching with Charlie close behind.

Edward clears his throat and steps back as she accosts me with open arms. "My baby's a doctor!" she gushes, crushing the air out of my lungs.

"I told you, Mom. I'm a physician assistant, not a doctor," I correct her, failing to conceal my embarrassment.

"Pshhht, semantics," she brushes off breezily, giving me another squeeze for good measure. She pulls back with a wide grin and looks over my shoulder. "And you must be Edward."

"Yes, ma'am," he replies, extending his hand. "Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Swan."

Oh, good God. This is really happening.

"Ugh, no need to be so formal. Please, call me Renee." She's smiling ear to ear as she takes his hand, glancing back and forth between the two of us and making me squirm. Taking that as my cue, I turn to my dad and hug him.

"Congratulations, kiddo. I'm proud of you," he says simply, making my heart swell. All at once, I'm twelve years old again, basking in my father's coveted praise.

"Thanks, Dad," I whisper, holding on a beat longer before releasing him for the inevitable. "So, um..." I mentally adjust the BG panties. "I think you may have already met Edward Cullen."

They exchange a firm, manly handshake. "Good to see you, sir."

Charlie replies with a nod. "Likewise."

What follows is this awkward moment where no one says anything, and my insides twist as I try to get a read off my dad. This is when I notice how starched and sparkly-clean Edward looks—clean shaven, hair somehow coerced into conservative submission, pressed blue dress shirt tucked into belted khaki slacks. He looks like he's ready for a catalogue shoot.

Or an interview.

"You look so much like your father," Renee interjects, breaking the silence. "Don't you think, Charlie? It's uncanny."

Charlie agrees with something akin to a disinterested "Hmm."

I suck in a deep breath. Here we go.

XXX

My parents want to take us out for a post-celebratory dinner, so I decide on a non-pretentious steak house not too far from my apartment. I know Charlie loves a good slab of beef and figure anything that would keep him happy is best for all of us. Edward insists on driving, and he picks the three of us up at my apartment around 6:30 p.m. The ride to the restaurant would have been unnervingly quiet if not for Renee's insistent rambling. About how nice the weather is here. And how fast-paced it is and how many people there are. In contrast, Charlie is expectedly stoic, silent except for a stray comment about how much traffic there is on the island. Edward drives with his hands at ten and two on the steering wheel, and it's odd seeing him so...stiff. I catch him glancing in the rearview mirror with that familiar tic in his clean-shaven jaw, and my hand goes to his knee. I stroke it with my thumb, offering him a reassuring smile. My body relaxes a little when his face softens and the corner of his lip lifts.

When we arrive at the restaurant, Edward excuses himself to use the restroom while we wait for a table. As soon as he is out of sight, I immediately turn to Charlie.

"Please be nice, Dad," I plead with my best puppy dog eyes. "He's important to me." He just quirks his brow in response.

"I'm always nice," he states dryly.

I grimace, and Renee smoothes his shirt casually, kissing him lightly. "Of course you are, dear. But maybe for Bella's sake, today you can be extra nice."

Charlie lets out a low huff, using his finger to draw an imaginary halo around his head.

Once we are finally seated, my mother continues with the light, harmless chatter about how excited she is to spend two days in Manhattan and how she's always wanted to go there. She grills Edward for recommendations on what to do and what to see. "I don't want to do any of the 'touristy' crap," she explains. "I want to get a taste of the real New York City." I know she's doing this because silence is uncomfortable for her. Even though there was a time when this annoyed me to no end, it's oddly comforting now.

I appreciate her even more when she asks the waiter what beers they have on tap. She nudges Charlie when they mention his beloved Guinness, and when he shakes his head to decline, she orders him a pint anyway, giving him a knowing smile. She casually orders herself a mojito and shimmies giddily once the waiter leaves. "I always wanted to try one of those," she whispers into my ear. "And don't worry about your father. I've got your back."

It's weird to see my mother order an alcoholic beverage. When we would go out to dinner, Charlie would occasionally order a beer, usually Guinness; but other than her traditional glass of Asti Spumanti on New Year's Eve, I never see her drink. Charlie gives her the same odd look that I do, but she leans in and whispers something in his ear. He subtly waggles his eyebrows in response.

And suddenly I am completely and utterly disturbed. I don't even want to know.

It's at that moment that I decide to order a glass of wine. I need something to take the edge off. My heart sinks when poor Edward orders seltzer. He needs a drink more than anyone, but I'm proud that he doesn't order one. I know I'm not the only one to take notice. My foot hooks around his the way he so often does to me, and he gives my knee a gentle squeeze under the table.

"So, Bella tells us you're starting another internship? Does that mean you're not going to be an Ob/Gyn?" Renee asks Edward, taking another sip of her rapidly disappearing mojito.

He nods and doesn't correct her that it isn't really an internship. "I'm specializing in Gynecologic Oncology."

"Just as well," my dad interjects. "I always wondered what kind of man would want to make a career out of looking at women's privates all day, anyway."

My jaw drops loose, and I shoot a death glare at him. "What, as opposed to doing hernia and prostate exams all day?"

Edward just chuckles. "You know, I think Bella may have asked me that very question."

Now my head quickly darts back to Edward. I'm about to protest, until my memory kicks in and I realize that yeah, I pretty much did.

Renee snorts out loud as she finishes her drink. Even Charlie seems to find this way too amusing.

Mutiny. It's goddamn mutiny.

"But in all honesty, I think most of us become Ob/Gyns because we love to deliver babies. It's got to be the most incredible experience I've ever been a part of."

I smile sweetly and look at Charlie. Yeah. Take that.

"Does that mean you won't be doing deliveries anymore?"

Edward nods wistfully. "I'm really going to miss it. Not the calls at all hours of the night, but definitely the deliveries."

The next thing I know, Renee is talking about how difficult it was to deliver me. I make several attempts to derail her, but she's in the zone. "Fourteen hours of damn labor..." blah, blah, blah, "...And the worst pain I've ever experienced. I'm telling you, Swans have the hugest heads. She damn near cracked me in half. Even the doctor said she was like a monster truck coming out of a one-car garage."

I'm not even listening anymore. I'm too busy praying for a cataclysmic event that will save me from death by sheer mortification. If Edward is still speaking to me by the end of this it, will be a miracle.

Thankfully the waiter finally saves me, and our food arrives in time to put an end to the torturous conversation. I decide to order another glass of wine when Renee orders a second mojito.

The food smells heavenly, and I'm ever-so-grateful for the distraction. My steak looks mouthwatering, and it's a bit larger than I expected. I neatly cut off a large piece of it, trimming any traces of fat away before placing it on Edward's plate, making sure it doesn't touch his fish. I notice his ears flood with pink as he smiles and thanks me, and I watch as he casts a quick sheepish glance over to my father.

Oh no, did I just embarrass him in front of Charlie? Did I just cause some kind of faux pas and compromise his masculinity or something? I stare down at my plate and berate myself for not thinking first, only to see a piece of Edward's fish being carefully placed onto it. I release my lip from my teeth and glance back at him with a grateful smile, and Edward grins back at me just before he cuts into his piece of steak.

Good God, do I love this man.

I take a small bite of the miso glazed salmon, trying to keep an open mind. It isn't bad. The glaze is tasty, but I liked the flavor of the grouper much more.

"Good God. I think Hell just froze over."

I roll my eyes and glare at my mother. "What?" she asks innocently. "I just can't believe I'm watching my own daughter eat fish!"

"Well, maybe because I know Edward wouldn't give me fish that squeaks when you chew it."

Charlie lets out a strange snort-like noise and covers it with a cough. Renee turns her confused expression to him, and he conceals his mouth with a napkin as he composes himself.

"What is she talking about?" she mutters to my dad, tightly knitting her brows.

"Nothing, honey. Bella was just never a big fan of the kind of fish I caught." She eyes the both of us dubiously but seems placated by his answer, and when she returns her attention back to her food, he shoots me a chastising glare and takes a sip of his beer to hide the knowing smirk he's been fighting.

I relish the peaceful silence for a few minutes while we are all occupied with our meals. The subtle undercurrent of tension lingers, and my mind seems determined to ignore it by singing along with Sir Mix-A-Lot, my foot in cahoots, shaking to the beat in my head.

XXX

I have developed a whole new level of respect for Edward. Maybe it comes from his medical experience, but he's performed amazingly well under pressure. I, however, am falling to pieces and counting down the minutes until this is over. All this time I was so worried about Charlie, but he's been perfectly well behaved, if not a little aloof. My mother was never even on my radar.

When the waiter comes and asks if anyone would like to order dessert just as Renee is questioning Edward about menopausal symptoms, I immediately tell him "No thank you," and ask for the check. But noooo, Mom just has to ask for the dessert menu, and Charlie does nothing to stop her.

"So anyway," she continues, "The hysterectomy totally wreaked havoc on my sex drive for a while. Is that common?"

"Dammit, Mom!" I finally snap. "Will you leave the poor guy alone?"

"Oh, please, he's a doctor. You don't mind, do you, Edward?"

Of course Edward smiles good-naturedly. "Not at all. I discuss this kind of thing all the time."

"Well, I mind! You're my mother for Christ's sake! You aren't supposed to even have a sex drive! And I still hold on to the belief that I was dropped on your doorstep by a humongous stork!"

Charlie guffaws loudly. As little as he's contributed to conversation, he's obviously enjoying the whole show. But Mom isn't even remotely fazed. "Well, it doesn't matter now anyway. Everything is more than back on track since I started reading that new book. I'm completely blanking out on the name of it...100 Shades of somethingoranother?"

Charlie's guilty pinked cheeks send me over the edge. My scorching face collapses into my hands as I shake my head side to side. I can't even find words.

"What?" Renee asks. "We read it in Book Club."

Angela's mom is in her book club. The fucking preacher's wife is reading porn with my mother.

And just when I think it can't get any worse, Renee adds, "Seriously, Bella. You should read it. Though by your reaction, I think you already have."

My head shoots upright, eyes wide as saucers, meeting her amused expression and regretfully taking in Charlie's yes-I-am-judging-you glare.

I feel Edward's eyes on me, and I can't even look at him. Yet I refuse to let full panic to set in because, yeah, I'm totally guilty as charged—but Hell will freeze over before I fess up to that around anyone at this table. So I pull it together and shoot the evil eye right back at my parents. "Everyone knows about those books, you pervs. And now I'm going to have to bleach my brain thanks to you two."

Charlie just sits back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest, grinning ear to ear. "Now you know why your mother never drinks."

XXX

Renee seems to have run out of steam, and the drive back to my parents' hotel is significantly quieter. This time, I appreciate the mental break. When we get there, I decline her offer to come back to their room. "I told you that Jasper's having a graduation party tonight, and I have a few things I still need to take care of before we go," I hedge. "Let me walk you in."

Charlie helps my mom out of the car as she steadies herself on wobbly feet. She's cursing her shoes as if it were their fault, not the mojitos she marinated herself in.

"Thank you for letting me join you for dinner." Edward steps out of the car to join us, extending his hand to Charlie. He takes it stiffly as they exchange polite goodbyes. Renee just throws her arms around him and gives him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

"You're such a sweet boy," she chirps. Edward blushes with a shy grin as he glances over at me.

I pretend not to notice Charlie's eye-roll.

"Yes, you are," I coo, patting his cheek once she releases him. "I'll be right back, okay?" I feel bad leaving him behind, but I need a minute alone with my parents.

He smiles, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear. "Take your time. I'll be waiting in the car."

I join them inside the lobby of the Holiday Inn. "Thanks for dinner, guys." It was only half as bad as I expected.

"Oh, it was our pleasure," my mom answers. "You have yourself a fine young man." She turns to Charlie with a raised eyebrow. "Doesn't she, honey?"

He replies with a noncommittal grunt.

"Ignore your father. Hopefully I'll be able to remove the stick from his ass this weekend."

I don't even try to hide my amusement. "You were very nice tonight, Dad. Thank you," I say, hugging him close.

"Anything for you, Bells." He gives me a brief squeeze back before pulling away. "So, we'll see you on Monday, then. Is there anything else you need us to help you take care of?"

"Not really. Edward's helping me with all the last minute stuff. But, umm..." I fight off the sudden nausea that my hammering heart is churning up. "I decided not to go back with you guys on Monday. I'm going to fly back with Edward on Wednesday instead."

Charlie's eyes narrow, and my heart sinks when his expression hardens. "We made all the arrangements ages ago," he states calmly but firmly.

"I know, Dad, and I'm sorry to change plans on you guys last minute. I just want a little more time here, that's all."

Charlie's face conveys everything he isn't saying. Disappointment. Disapproval. And finally, resignation. He looks past me at the exit doors, as if shooting his glare to Edward in the parking lot. "You're a big girl now, Isabella. You can do whatever you want."

Hearing him call me Isabella cuts me more than anything. I can't even remember the last time he called me that. My face falls like a reprimanded child. I almost feel lost.

"Oh, don't mind him, sweetie. He's just got his boxers in a bunch because I'm dragging him through New York City for the next two days. Especially after he found out the ESPN Zone closed."

Charlie's glower redirects to Renee, his mustache twitching as he holds his tongue. She completely ignores him as she smothers me in another hug. "You are a big girl, and we know we raised you right," she says, loud enough for him to hear and presumably more for his benefit than mine.

"Love you, Mom," I say into her hair, and I start to wonder if she knew exactly what she was doing the whole time today.

"Me too, baby." She smiles warmly at me, and then nods her head to my dad, who is thoroughly inspecting his shoes.

I tentatively put my arms around his tense body. "I love you, Dad," I tell him softly, and I feel him let go as he hugs me back. "And I promise to make lasagna as soon as I get home."

He chuckles softly. "Love you too. Better make it two trays, and bring the Crotch Doc with you. He's got a long way to go before I can trust him with my big girl."

Oh, Dad.

My smile is tender. "Of course."

When I get back to the car, I take a moment to collect myself, letting my body sink into the leather upholstery. It almost feels like I've run a marathon. That's when I realize the blissful silence.

Well I'll be damned. Sir Mix-A-Lot has left the building.

"You okay?" Edward asks, his voice quiet. I turn to him and smile, taking in his beautiful face that's laden with concern. The center console is the only thing preventing me from crawling into his lap and nuzzling into him while I purr.

I reach over and grab his shirt, pulling him close enough to meet his lips. I greedily breathe in his scent, letting it fill my soul and soothe my nerves. It feels like the first real breath I've been able to take all day.

"Yeah, I am now." I run my hands through his unnaturally tamed hair, ruffling it up so he looks more like my Edward again.

I want to apologize for having to put him through that.

I want to reward him in the dirtiest ways possible for being his wonderful, composed self throughout the torture.

But most of all, I just want to be with him—alone—now that all of the stressful crap of this day is finally behind me.

I lean in for another kiss, and his hand cups the back of my head, his thumb stroking my cheek while our mouths carry on their own intimate conversation. I feel so contented at this moment. Like everything in the world is right.

I think my heart is purring.

"You're wonderful, you know that?" I sigh.

He beams back at what must be the stupidest dreamy smile on my face. He kisses me softly once more, and then brushes his cheek lovingly against mine. "Are you in a rush to get to Jasper's party?" he murmurs.

"Not at all. I was hoping to just go back to my place and unwind for a while."

"Does unwinding involve nudity?" he asks, flashing that delicious, sinful grin.

Good God, have I mentioned how I love this man?

"Absofuckinlutely."


A/N:

Again, I'm sooo sorry this took so long. Even sorrier that you may now have Baby's Got Back stuck in your head ;)

The only reason this chapter finally finished is because of Prettyflour, NKubie, Twilly, Nuttyginger, and my amazing beta, mcc101180. I love these ladies like family.

All of my love, as always, to Beccagold and Pennyloafer, who are family.

Lastly, I promise I will NOT abandon ToB. EVER. This is my baby, and I will give it the HEA these characters deserve.

XOXO