Fan Fiction, Sex Gods and Single Girls
A/N: As you saw last chapter, we've entered an epilogue-ish zone. This chapter will fill in some gaps. :)
Chapter 72: Missing Pages and Photographic Evidence
Bella awoke to an unusually quiet house that morning after her twenty-eighth birthday. She was surprised little Stella and E2 weren't already up and snuggling between her and Edward, clamoring for breakfast, but then she remembered the twins were in Forks with Grandpa Charlie and Grandma Sue.
She considered waking her sleeping husband, but a quiet morning was such a rarity she decided to let him sleep undisturbed. They had the whole weekend to themselves, and there would be plenty of opportunities for disturbances of an intimate nature in the next couple days. Slipping out of bed, she put on her robe and tiptoed downstairs.
Standing in the kitchen, waiting for her coffee to finish perking, Bella's eyes drifted to the first copy of her newly published novel lying on the table. She smiled to herself, and then her gaze traveled to the great room and a series of photo albums on a bookshelf. Moments later, Bella walked into the great room, pulled out the first album, and curled up on the couch with her coffee and her memories.
It was Alice, with her flair for organization and creation, who had helped Bella make that scrapbook-of-sorts of photos and memorabilia collected those first months Bella and Edward were together. Bella had presented the album to Edward on their first Valentine's Day together, and he had been touched by the gesture and memories it evoked. But it had been a while since Bella had perused the pages of their past.
Opening the book now, she stifled a giggle at the very first page. Beneath the title, Every Story Has to Start Somewhere, was a singed scrap of black silk, salvaged from the fire pit at Edward's townhome on Stardust Lane. Bella grinned at that small portion of Edward's once-upon-a-time pajama pants, remembering his reaction upon seeing it. He'd laughed in disbelief that she actually had physical evidence of their horrid first meeting. He'd laughed even harder when she confessed to rescuing the scrap from his fire pit the day she'd snooped in his home. And his laughter had turned to guffaws when she'd admitted to saving that pajama scrap in her own pajama drawer for some unfathomable reason.
The next page in the album displayed the heading, Team Asshole and the Potted Plant Mobile. There were photos of them by Edward's Vanquish, wearing their red "Asshole" caps, the morning of their first date. A few more followed with their sunflower-filled, blue Ford F-150, prior to and just after the first time they'd made love.
On the next pages, The Gardening-Garden-Party featured photos of them with friends and Edward's family, planting sunflowers in Bella's yard. One photo showed Bella with her garden gnome in the finished garden, both of them wearing sunglasses.
Taking a sip of coffee, Bella moved on, turning next to Bella Italia, August 3, 2002, B.C. (Before Cullen). There were photos of teenaged Bella, Angela, and Leah at dinner years ago, including the shot with college-bound Edward, Ben, and James in the background.
On the opposite page, titled Bella Italia, September 13, 2011, A.D. (Actively Dating!), were photos taken at the surprise party Edward had organized for Bella's twenty-fourth birthday, featuring her friends and family from Forks. In one, Bella, Angela, and Leah sat while Edward, Ben, and Jake stood behind them, their hands resting proprietarily on the shoulders of their then-girlfriends-now-wives.
Yours, Mine, and Ours! headed up a Dartmouth sweatshirt photo collage. Alice had dug up a photo of nineteen-year-old Edward sporting the sweatshirt prior to his post-graduation road trip with Ben and James. In the second photo, taken just ten days later, fourteen-year-old Bella wore the sweatshirt after being doused in soda at Port Angeles' Lincoln Theater. A further photo showed twenty-four-year-old Bella wearing the sweatshirt while gardening in her yard. In the final photo, twenty-eight-year-old Edward wore the sweatshirt while washing the Ford F-150 on Bella's driveway, and he was laughing and ducking away from the spray of hose-water Bella had been aiming at him.
Bella smiled, recalling the water fight that had ensued...
Edward had lunged, wrestling the hose away and drenching her but good. Then he'd chased her, laughing evilly as she'd fled into the garage with a shriek. She'd just made it inside the house when he'd pounced on her, both of them laughing. There had been kissing. And groping. And then, as Bella realized she was finally contraceptive-pill-protected and good-to-go on that very day, sodden clothes had frantically been pulled from shivery bodies and dropped to the floor.
"Good to Go…and We Went! on the next page headed up the aftermath of the car-washing-water-fight. Edward had taken several selfies of them as they lay together, post protected and exhilaratingly impromptu couch-sex. Wrapped up like a big love-burrito in Grandma Marie Swan's old patchwork quilt, their cheeks smashed together, eyes dopey and shining, smiling goofy-in-love grins, they gave the camera a thumbs-up.
Sipping at coffee and flipping the page, Bella came to a series of photos taken early that first October during Edward's first trip to her girlhood home. The Creatures to/from the Blacks' Lagoon showed Edward and Charlie, waving as they climbed into the Blacks' old van before heading out for a day of fishing. In the next photo, Jake, Edward, Charlie, and Billy were all lined up on Charlie's driveway, grinning proudly as they displayed their catch of the day. Fish Stories headed up the next page, and Bella smiled at images from their fish fry that same afternoon: the cleaning and cooking of their catch, and the love and laughter captured in photos as they all ate together afterward with Leah and Sue Clearwater.
The weekend was memorable, not just because it was Bella and Edward's first foray to Forks together, or Edward's first fishing trip with Bella's father, but because it also marked the first time the topic of marriage had come up.
Pulling the Vanquish into the driveway of Charlie Swan's house in Forks that Friday evening in October, Edward turned to Bella with an anxious expression. "You're sure I don't need to get a room at a hotel?"
Bella rolled her eyes as they exited the car. "No, Edward. Dad invited us to stay here. Just prepare yourself to be relegated to the living room couch."
Edward was about to ask how well his moving in with her in the next couple weeks would go over with her father, when the front door opened, and there stood Charlie Swan.
"Hey, Dad!" Bella called out as they approached the steps.
"Hi, Bells." Charlie gave Bella a brief hug and then reached out to shake Edward's hand with a gruff, "Welcome, Edward."
"Hello, Charlie. Thanks for the invitation."
Charlie nodded and reached for their weekend bags, motioning them into the house. "Just make sure to earn your keep tomorrow, Edward."
Realizing Charlie was referring to his potential fishing catch the following day, Edward smiled. "I'll do my best, sir."
Bella noticed the pillow, folded blanket and sheets prominently displayed at the end of the living room couch.
Could you be any more obvious, Dad?
It turned out Charlie could be more obvious. Moving across the room, he set Edward's bag next to the couch before placing Bella's on the stairs leading up to the second floor.
Bella's eyes flashed to Edward's with an I-told-you-so look, and then her gaze flickered meaningfully to a grocery bag he held in the crook of his arm.
"Oh! Charlie, here… I brought you something." Edward shifted the bag forward.
Bella's father took it gingerly, his brows furrowing as he peered inside. His mustache twitched with a possible smile as he looked up.
"I wouldn't have figured you for a Rainier Ale kind of guy, Edward."
Edward chuckled. "I'm not picky, but I might have asked Bella what you preferred."
Charlie snorted, his brown eyes exchanging a wry look with Bella's. "Well, thank you, Edward. I'll put these in the fridge." He spoke over his shoulder as he headed into the kitchen. "You two want something to drink?"
"Ohmygod!" Bella blurted, standing stock still at the kitchen's entrance. "You painted the kitchen?!" Gone was the tired old yellow paint her mother had chosen years ago. In its place was a fresh coat of warm taupe, and the cupboards and window frames had all been painted a crisp white.
Charlie shrugged. "It was time for a facelift. With you in your own place now, I figured you wouldn't mind if I changed your mom's paint job." Bella gaped at her father. All these years she'd thought he'd kept Renee's decorating choices intact for himself—like a shrine. She'd had no idea he'd done it for her. Realizing he was awaiting her reply, she shook her head.
"Of course I don't mind. It looks great, Dad."
"Sue helped pick the colors," Charlie stated, looking a little warm suddenly. "I don't have an eye for that sort of thing," he clarified. "Anyway…" He cleared his throat. "How about drinks? Water? Soda? Lemonade? Or I've got these…"
Edward glanced from the beer in Charlie's hand, to Bella, and back to Charlie. "I wouldn't have figured you for a Stella Artois kind of guy, Charlie," he said with a grin.
Charlie shrugged. His mustache twitched with a hidden smirk. "Well, I am picky, but I might have asked Bella what she thought you'd prefer."
Edward chuckled. "In that case, I'll have a Stella. Thank you."
"I'll just have a water, Dad." Bella smiled at the both of them.
Charlie passed them their bottles. "Why don't you give Edward the tour, Bells?"
Taking their drinks, they wandered from the kitchen, through the living room, and then upstairs. Bella pointed out the bathroom on the second floor, her father's room, and then paused in front of the door to her bedroom. "And this is…well, it was…my room." She opened the door and her mouth dropped open.
"Ohmygod! Dad! You bought new furniture?!" She looked down to her father, waiting expectantly at the foot of the stairs, clearly pleased with his second surprise of the night. The room was still decorated with things Bella had left behind, but there was a new bed, bigger than her old twin bed, and a dresser she didn't recognize.
"You took your old set for your guest room," Charlie replied. "I had to get something. Thought you might like a bigger bed if you came to visit. The dresser was in the attic. I just painted it."
Bella smiled at him. "You're full of surprises, Dad. This is great." She pulled Edward into the room and gave him a tour—leaving the door open for her father's sake.
Edward took in the mementos of his girlfriend's girlhood life, perusing her belongings and photos as she pointed things out to him.
They returned downstairs after a bit, sitting on the couch to visit and watch TV with Charlie. At eleven o'clock, Charlie stood, announcing he had to get ready to work the night shift. Bella was surprised. He hadn't mentioned that on the phone the previous day.
When he reappeared in uniform, Bella had already made up Edward's bed on the couch.
"Hope you'll be comfortable here, Edward," Charlie said gruffly, his dark eyes travelling from Edward's to the couch.
"This will do just fine, Charlie, Thank you." Edward replied earnestly.
"I'd best be off. See you two bright and early."
After Charlie left, Bella instructed Edward to lie down on the makeshift bed, test it out, roll around a little, and rumple the pillow, sheets, and blanket. Then she took Edward's hand and led him upstairs with a conspiratorial smile.
"He won't be back until morning. Trust me."
Edward was hesitant initially, but Bella's nudity was quite convincing. They christened Bella's bed-away-from-bed and then fell asleep in each other's arms, the alarm set for a good hour before Chief Swan was due home.
They were already in the kitchen, starting breakfast, when Charlie returned the next morning—seemingly satisfied with the seemingly slept-in state of the couch. After changing into his fishing gear, they ate, and then Bella waved goodbye from the front porch as Edward and Charlie piled into the back of the Blacks' van with fishing poles, tackle box, and ice chest.
Leah and Sue Clearwater showed up later that afternoon with provisions for an afternoon fish fry. While preparing side dishes, Bella was pressed for information about her relationship with Edward. In turn, Leah shared information about her mother and Charlie, with Sue intermittently swatting at her daughter's behind for spilling the beans. By the time the men returned with their catch, side dishes were ready, and beans had been spilled. Not all the beans. Some beans were better left unspilled.
Sue left early that evening, dropping off Billy Black on the way home. Jake and Leah stuck around with Bella and Edward, playing cards, picking at leftovers, and visiting until late in the evening, while Charlie napped upstairs—ahead of another night shift.
The couch-as-bed-scam was repeated for Charlie's benefit again that night. And again, Edward allowed himself to be taken advantage of in Bella's girlhood bedroom while her father worked.
Sunday morning, when Charlie arrived home, the sheets from both bed and couch were already in the washer. After inviting Bella and Edward to breakfast at the diner, Charlie was treated to his first ride in an Aston-Martin Vanquish convertible. Shortly afterward, Edward was treated to his first stack of banana nut pancakes from the Forks diner.
After breakfast, they took Charlie back home and said their goodbyes. Edward had enjoyed his weekend in Forks. He'd laughed at the fish stories he'd heard, shared a few of his own about fishing with his grandfather on Lake Michigan, and he'd survived and participated in good-natured teasing, feeling welcomed into the little group of fishermen. He'd also sampled some of the best food Forks had to offer at their fish fry and at the diner.
An hour and a half into the drive back to Seattle, Take Me Out to the Ballgame began playing from Bella's cell phone.
"Hi, Mom!" Bella said, answering the call.
"Hi, Baby! How'd it go?"
Bella frowned. "How'd what go?"
"Your trip with Edward! His fishing trip with Charlie! Staying with your dad! The whole thing! I've been on pins and needles all weekend, and I couldn't wait any longer—I had to call."
"Oh. You knew about the trip?"
"Of course I did! Your dad called with some questions he felt funny about asking you, and I…"
"What kind of questions?" Bella interrupted, frowning as she glanced toward Edward.
"Well, mostly about what he should do regarding Edward… Whether he should put him up in the hotel, keep him at the house, ask him to sleep on the couch… That sort of thing."
"What did you tell him?" Bella cut in, feeling her face priming for a blush.
"I told him it was ridiculous to make Edward stay at that horrid Forks Hideaway Hotel; he should put him up at the house. Then I reminded him you and Edward have been dating for over a month, and there was a good chance you were way beyond the hand-holding stage and were probably already..."
"Mom…!" Bella's hand flew to her forehead. She felt Edward's eyes on her.
"Well, I had to say something! I told him to put out bedding for Edward to sleep on the couch, if he so chose. Then I said if he'd really prefer not to know what was going on, he should just switch shifts with Officer Jennings—taking the night shift and leaving you and Edward to your own devices."
"Ohmygod, Mom! I can't believe you!"
"It was for the best, Bella. You know how your father is. He doesn't remember what it's like to be young and in love."
Bella rolled her eyes and suddenly felt Edward's hand on her leg. Looking over, she saw his eyebrows furrow in concern as he mouthed, "What?"
"Hang on, Mom." Bella pressed the phone to her chest. "She told my dad to take the night shifts!" she whisper-hissed.
Edward's brow quirked. He didn't understand what she was getting at.
"So he wouldn't be there! So we could have…privacy!"
"Ohhhhh…" Edward exhaled. He was shocked. Until he remembered this was Bella's mother they were dealing with.
Bella returned the phone to her ear, huffing, "I'm back, Mom."
"Was that Edward? Is he with you?"
"Yes. We're in the car, driving back to Seattle."
"Oh! Well, put me on speaker so I can say hi."
"Bella, I just want to say hello to your sweet boyfriend. Put me on speaker."
"Fine…" Bella grudgingly switched her phone to speaker. "Go ahead, Mom."
Edward watched Bella carefully for clues as he replied. "Hello, Renee! How are you?"
"I'm fine, thank you! How was the fishing trip? Did you catch anything?"
Edward smiled. "Yeah, I did okay. I had a very enjoyable time."
"Wonderful! And the sleeping accommodations worked out?"
Bella's mouth dropped open, and she took the phone off speaker before Edward could reply. "Mom! Holy crap! The sleeping accommodations were fine!"
"Oh, honey... I'm on your side. I know how important Edward is to you. And I'm certainly not blind to how handsome he is, or how hard it must be to keep your hands off him."
Bella blushed thoroughly and sighed heavily, tremendously thankful she had taken her mother off speaker phone. Even though Renee was absolutely right.
"Whatever, Mom. The trip was good and we all had a nice weekend. Was there anything else?" She crossed her fingers there wasn't.
"As a matter of fact, yes. Phil and I were thinking of flying out for Thanksgiving. Do you have plans with Edward?"
That caught Bella off guard. "I'm not sure. Hang on, let me ask."
Pressing the phone to her chest again, she looked at Edward. "Do we have plans for Thanksgiving?"
Edward shrugged. "We could go over to my parents' house. But what about your dad? Will you want to spend Thanksgiving in Forks?"
Bella frowned. "I haven't even thought about it. It's over a month away."
Edward nodded. "Well, whatever you want to do is fine with me. We'll work things out."
Bella nodded as she returned the phone to her ear. "Mom? We're not sure yet. Can I get back to you on that?"
"Of course. I just wanted to let you know we were thinking about it. I miss you and I'd love to see you, but I figured you might not want to come to Florida. Of course, we'd love to have you…and Edward if he can get away. But just think about it and get back to me, all right?"
"Okay. I will."
"Well, that's it, then. I love you, baby! And I miss you so much!"
"Me too, Mom. I'll talk to you soon, okay?"
"Okay. Bye, Sweetie!"
Bella turned off her phone and rubbed her temples.
"You okay?" Edward smiled crookedly as he sped on toward Seattle.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I love my mom…but she just…exhausts me, you know?"
Edward chuckled. "She loves you, Bella. My mom drives me nuts sometimes, too. And my dad. It's probably in the job description for parents."
"I guess. She said she and Phil are thinking about flying out for Thanksgiving."
Edward nodded. "They should come."
Bella chewed at her lip, thinking.
After a moment, Edward asked, "What are you thinking?"
"What if we did Thanksgiving at my house? I mean…it will be your place by then, too. We'd be organized by then, so maybe we should have Thanksgiving dinner at our place?"
"For your mom and Phil?"
"Well…I'm thinking…maybe we could do it all if my mom and Phil fly out. We could invite your family, my dad, and probably Sue. Leah, Jake, and Billy would probably come, too. Maybe Leah's brother, Seth, if he's not going to his girlfriend's house. And I'm sure Alice would want Jasper to come if he's not going to Texas—unless he's celebrating with Emmett and Nana McCarty—but we could just invite them, too. And Rose."
Edward hadn't really heard most of what Bella had said. He'd missed the bulk of it. Most of it had been a buzzing, white noise once he'd focused on that one, all important point, that was now stuck in his head. He hadn't even realized Bella had ceased speaking and was waiting for his response until she asked, "What do you think?"
Edward's heart pounded as he stared, unblinking and still as a statue, through the windshield. His thoughts were focused on Bella's father coming to the house. To their house. The one they would be sharing…together…and living in together…in sin together...though they obviously wouldn't be naked together in front of Chief Swan.
Get a grip, Cullen! Just share your concerns!
"I just… Your dad… What would he… I mean… We'd be…living together."
Well put, Cullen!
Bella frowned as confusion set in. "I thought that was the plan. I thought you wanted to live together." Her voice sounded so small, suddenly.
"I do!" Edward reached over and grasped her hand. "Of course, I do It's not that" He swallowed. "I just never really thought about your dad being there. How's he going to react?." He paused, licking his lips. "I mean…he'd probably be happier if we were already…married."
Bella's mouth dropped open. She wondered where all the oxygen in the Vanquish had disappeared to. It was the 'already' in his observation, and the implication of it, that had struck her speechless. She stared at him with wide eyes, her voice barely audible as she finally asked, "What?"
Edward's hand gripped hers more tightly, though his palms were suddenly quite sweaty, his words having taken him by surprise, too.
"I'm just saying… Hell…I don't know what I'm saying." He turned and stared at the road, surprised he was even still on the road and not careening down an embankment at this point.
After a few silent, awkward minutes, Bella spoke up. "Are you…? You're not serious, are you?"
Edward's mouth felt dry. "I mean… Well, I think about it sometimes." He looked over at her cautiously, nervously. "Don't you?"
Bella's internal organs did a simultaneous backflip, and none of them had stuck their landing. "Well…sometimes… You know, in the abstract. But it's silly. Really. I mean, we've only known each other for like, two minutes…"
"Forty-four days," Edward corrected.
Bella's mouth snapped shut and then opened, gaping for a moment before she found her voice. "You keep track?"
Edward shrugged. "I'm compulsive and meticulous about what's important to me, and you're important to me. Anyway…" He looked over as he made his point. "It's been longer than two minutes, Bella."
"Edward, nobody discusses marriage after forty-four days! Well, few people do. Because that's…crazy! And irresponsible! And probably doomed from the start! Look at my parents… They were together longer than that and still had no clue what they were getting themselves into when they married. Then my mom jumped ship, left my dad, and took me with her." She hesitated. "I don't think we should be having this conversation. I think we should do as we planned…live together…and take things as they come. For now." She gave him a little reassuring smile. "Maybe after another five or six minutes—or even a quarter of an hour—we could consider having this conversation?"
Edward did the math in his head…quickly, compulsively, and meticulously. Because this was important, Bella was important, and her own family's history had obviously scarred and scared her.
Two minutes is to forty four days as six minutes is to…uh...one hundred and thirty two. So, early January. Fifteen minutes, on the other hand, would be…uh…three hundred and thirty days. So…July. July? That far away? That's really far away.
He didn't know how they'd gotten on this tangent, but he did know she was it for him, and he would marry her. Someday. Waiting until July to revisit the topic or potentially pop the proverbial question seemed so far away. But he would do whatever she needed and give her whatever time she needed. So, he pushed his thoughts of time frames aside and smiled reassuringly.
"Of course we can give this a few more minutes. We've got all the time in the world."
Bella felt an odd and exhilarating mix of thrill and relief. He seemed so…committed. Then again, maybe he should be committed for thinking this so soon. But at least he wasn't pushing. "Okay." She smiled at him.
"Okay," he agreed, relieved at her relief. "Now, I believe you were talking about hosting Thanksgiving at our place?"
It was the first time he'd said it and he liked the sound of it as much as she did.
Bella nodded. "What do you think?"
"We could do that. I was just concerned it might be awkward with your dad."
Bella looked out the window, chewing at her lip again. Edward was right. Charlie would probably flip. And make things awkward. He might even be tempted to clean his service revolver throughout the entire meal.
Bella reached back into her purse for her phone.
"Who are you calling?" Edward asked.
Bella held up her index finger as the call was answered. "Hi, Mom? Edward and I have decided we'd like to host Thanksgiving…for you and Phil, Dad, the Clearwaters, the Blacks, Edward's family, and some friends…"
"Oh, baby, that sounds wonderful! I'll tell Phil to look into booking something."
"There's just one thing, Mom... We're going to need your help."
"You know I'm a disaster in the kitchen, but I'm happy to help however I can."
Bella took a deep breath. "I don't mean with the cooking. I mean with…" She smiled as Edward's hand grasped hers, and she looked into his eyes, filled with love and support. "Mom, Edward and I are moving in together."
"Ohmygod! Really?" Renee's screech was an emotional one.
Bella exhaled a little laugh. "Yeah." She nodded, looking at Edward as she spoke. "It's just so nice to come home and have dinner together and spend the evening together. And it would make so much more sense if we had the same place. It's stupid really, because we live right across the street from each other, but we just want to be…together."
"I completely understand, Bella. I just knew things were going to be serious quickly between you two! So what do you need from me? How can I help with Thanksgiving?"
"Well, I'm worried about…Dad..."
"Say no more. I'll deal with him and don't you worry. He'll come around. He just wants to know you're safe and sound. But I have faith in Edward. I can tell he's a good man. You wouldn't feel the way you do about him if he wasn't. You've always been so sensible—like your father—so I know Edward is the real deal. He's the one, isn't he?"
Bella's eyes flickered to the man at her side as she nodded in affirmation. She loved him so much. She couldn't imagine ever falling out of love with him. And seriously…she could see herself marrying him. Not yet…but someday.
"I…um…yeah…" she said, feeling the heat of a blush coloring her face. "He is. I mean, not yet, but…someday." Edward's hand squeezed hers and she smiled.
"Well, don't rush. Take your time. You'll know when it's right."
"That's what I think."
"And don't worry about your dad. He'll be fine and you'll ALL be fine. I'm looking forward to seeing you and Edward and meeting his family! Oh, and good luck with the move! Let me know how it goes."
"I will. Thank you, Mom. I love you."
"I love you too, Bella."
Bella tucked her phone away and sat back. Turning to Edward, a giggle burst forth from her lips. "I guess we're really doing this! I just set things in motion!"
Looping his arm around her, Edward tugged her close, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek as he drove. "I'm happy. Are you happy?"
Bella giggled again. "I am. I just don't want to ever find out what my mom tells my dad."
A laugh burst from Edward's lips. "Nope, probably not."
They smiled the rest of the way home that early October day.
Remembering her coffee, Bella had another drink as she turned to the next album page. A Moving Experience headed up photos of Edward's move later that October.
Edward, Emmett, Jasper, and Ben smiled as they carried furniture across Stardust Lane. Bella, Angela, Alice, and Rose carried smaller things or looked indecisive as the guys rolled their eyes and held the heavy stuff. There was a shot of all four guys, flexing their muscles, and a nearly identical one of the girls looking fierce, with Edward and Ben cracking up in the background.
That day, Edward's living room furniture became their living room furniture, and Bella's living room furniture became their great room furniture. Edward's great room remained behind, but his books and a certain plaid picnic blanket did make the move. His bedroom set didn't make the move, needless to say. Instead, Bella's bedroom set became theirs. Her guest room furniture was swapped for his, his home office joined hers, and his workout equipment filled her remaining empty bedroom. Edward's rarely-used dining room set now stood in her dining room, and her own compact set was relegated to a corner of the great room for cozy dinners and weekend breakfasts.
The final photos from that day showed everyone in Edward's hot tub, which was on the verge of becoming Ben and Angela's hot tub. As Edward's renters-to-be, they'd already extended an open invitation for Edward and Bella to use the hot tub whenever they wished. But that evening of the move, sore muscles were soaked, beers and pizzas were consumed, as the friends all celebrated until the wee hours.
Bella snorted a laugh as she turned the page and read Zombies and Goblins and Ghouls, Oh My! She'd forgotten all about the Halloween party at Emmett's place. Rose had pressed for a couples-themed party, but Emmett had wanted gore and the creepy undead. So they'd compromised and thrown a Zombie-Couples party.
The first photo showed host and hostess, Emmett and Rose, as bullet-riddled, undead versions of the 1930's outlaws, Bonnie and Clyde. Alice and Jasper, rocking Civil War period costumes, were zombie versions of Gone with the Wind characters, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. A bespectacled and dagger-stabbed, post-mortem Juliet-Angela stood with her bespectacled and poisoned-to-death Romeo-Ben. Zombie high school cheerleader, Jessica, stood next to her decaying high school football player boyfriend, Mike. Bella giggled as she looked at the photo, remembering Jessica's reaction when she and Edward had arrived that night...
"Oh my GOD!" Jessica screeched, nearly dropping her third or fourth beer. "You look awesome!" Alice! Rosalie!" she shrieked toward the kitchen, "Come look! Bella and Edward are Ethan Collins and Stella Brown, from Written in the Stars!" She'd returned to gawking at Bella and Edward then. "You totally look like them, except…undead!" Her slightly unfocused eyes settled on Edward. "Damn, you look hot, Edward!" she giggle-brayed.
Their costumes had been Edward's suggestion. A joke initially, but the idea had stuck, and they'd dressed as their fictional-and-fanfictional alter-egos.
In jeans, t-shirt, a light jacket, and an orange backpack slung over her shoulder, Bella had her iPod ear-buds stuffed into her ears. Her hair was down but held back with a girlish headband. Edward's outfit was simpler: jeans, a light blue button-down, and gray pea coat. But his hair had been more difficult. It had taken an hour, Bella's eventual assistance, and all of Edward's patience to coax his hair into the James Dean-esque bouffant with duck-tail. In the end, he'd looked like a movie star, and he had been hot...with or without the pea coat.
The next album pages, titled The First Supper (at OUR place!), showed their family, friends, and all the food at the first Thanksgiving dinner they'd hosted.
Bella had made a huge turkey with stuffing, and Edward had mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes until his arms had gone numb. Alice and Jasper had brought wines and appetizers, and Rose and Emmett had brought Nana McCarty and a ham. Leah and Jake had baked bread and brought fresh vegetables for a side dish. Phil had purchased two varieties of cranberry sauce, and Renee made an immense salad without setting the kitchen on fire. Charlie and Billy had contributed bottled waters, sodas, and beers in ice chests. Sue and Esme had baked several pies apiece, and Carlisle manned the huge coffeemaker he and Esme used for parties.
That first blending of families and friends had gone well, and Bella probably had Alice to thank for that. After Bella had confided her concerns at school one day—about combining the Fawkes, Forks, Florida, and Cullen crowds comfortably—Alice had suggested an appetizer mix-and-mingle meet-and-greet, so everyone could get acquainted.
But Alice hadn't stopped there.
The following day, she'd handed Bella a folder containing well-thought-out seating charts she'd made the previous evening. Each showed Bella and Edward's tables—all sixteen seats—filled in with everyone's names. Alice had mapped out three rotations—one for each course—for further mixing and mingling. During the course of dinner's courses, no one would sit by the same person twice.
Bella had been on the verge of saying that probably wasn't necessary when Jasper caught her eye, mouthing the words "three hours!" as he indicated the charts in Alice's hands. Bella realized she couldn't say no. And so Alice had happily gone on to make festive little place cards—three for each place at the tables—setting them out according to the devised rotations for the various courses.
Edward had rolled his eyes so hard at Alice's plan that Bella had worried he'd damage his optic nerve, or at least strain some sort of ocular muscle. But after convincing him it would be fine, the plan was put into action, and the three pages of seating arrangements were now part of the photo album.
There were photos of groups and couples you would expect, including shots of Bella cooking and Edward mashing, and one of Edward, grinning evilly as he held carving knife and fork aloft over the finished turkey. But the true beauty of their first Thanksgiving together was even more evident when you considered the other photos from that day…
American history buff, Jasper, listening raptly as tribal elder, Billy, shared Quileute legends and history.
Neurosurgeon, Carlisle, discussing healthcare issues with reservation clinic nurse, Sue.
Athletic club owner, Emmett, talking sports injury rehabilitation with Florida Marlins assistant coach, Phil.
Auto repair expert, Jake, discussing cars with PE teacher and closet auto enthusiast, Rose.
Leah and Alice, cracking up as they shared and compared stories about young Bella and Edward.
Renee, Esme, and Esther McCarty, speaking in hushed tones as their twinkling eyes followed Bella and Edward with knowing smiles.
Edward, washing dishes, and Charlie, drying. Just prior to a discussion of marriage.
Obviously not to each other.
Edward greeted and welcomed Bella's father into his and Bella's shared townhome in a friendly manner that day. Managing that, he had studiously avoided Charlie for the duration of the mix-and-mingle and first course rotation. It wasn't something he'd planned, it just felt right and natural, especially in the event Charlie couldn't stand the sight of him.
Of course, Renee assured Edward and Bella that Charlie was fine, regarding them living together, but you always had to wonder if Renee was firing on all cylinders.
After the first course, Edward handed Bella her wine glass and chased her out of the kitchen, telling her he'd handle the first course clean-up.
A moment later, when an unexpected gruff voice behind him asked, "How about you wash and I dry?" Edward nearly screamed. But then he composed his face into a faux relaxed smile and turned. "It's okay, Charlie. I've got this." Charlie's mustache twitched, and his gaze didn't waver as he picked up a dish towel and stood his ground. Edward realized his attempt to avoid Bella's father was futile. "But you can help, if you'd like," he'd amended.
Charlie nodded as Edward handed him a plate. They stood side by side, washing and drying maybe a dozen plates in uncomfortable silence while Edward's skin crawled with nerves. Finally, Charlie spoke. "You've been kind of quiet, Edward. I get the feeling you've been…avoiding me."
Edward's voice rose an involuntary octave as he replied. "Avoiding you? No, I wouldn't do that."
Charlie's eyes narrowed as he stared Edward down, emitting a gruff "Uh-huh," as he dried another dish.
Edward groaned internally. The man was a cop and could obviously smell a lie from a mile away. At a distance of little more than a foot, the stench must be overpowering.
"Well…maybe I've been avoiding you a little," Edward admitted, passing him another dish.
Charlie nodded as he dried, gently setting the dish onto the clean stack.
Handing over another plate, Edward suddenly felt the overwhelming need to unburden himself and confess.
Damn! The Chief sure knows how to interrogate!
"I just felt a little uncomfortable about…this."
"Thanksgiving?" Charlie asked.
Edward snorted convulsively. "No." He passed Charlie the final plate and collected his thoughts. "I just wasn't sure you'd be very happy about…Bella and I…living together." Looking over Charlie's shoulder, he noticed Bella, chatting with Renee in the great room. Bella waved, apparently pleased her boyfriend and father were bonding over dish-washing, and Edward smiled. Charlie followed Edward's gaze, taking in his daughter's happy face and the pointed and prodding expression on his ex-wife's. Giving Renee the subtlest of nods, Charlie looked back at Edward.
"Why don't we step outside where we can talk?"
Edward swallowed and nodded. "Sure."
Fuck my life. This is where it ends.
Heading out of the kitchen, Edward called out to Bella, "We're just going to get some air." She smiled and nodded as they stepped out onto the patio.
At least she'll know where to look for the body.
Funny…I've never given much thought to how I would die, though I've had reason enough in the last few hours. But even if I had, I would never have imagined my final resting place would be a shallow grave in a sunflower garden, with a gnome for a headstone.
Edward turned, startled out of his thoughts. He hadn't heard Charlie open the ice chest, but he was now holding two bottles of Stella Artois.
Edward took one. "Thanks."
Charlie nodded as they opened their bottles.
Tell him, Cullen. Just do it and get it over with.
They'd spoken at the same time, and Charlie motioned for Edward to continue. The young man was obviously tied up in knots and probably needed this conversation, as Renee had advised.
Edward looked at Bella's father earnestly. "I just want you to know that I love your daughter, sir. I mean, I really love her. I've never felt this way about anyone before. Not even close. And I know she loves me. I hope you're not upset with her for this choice we've made, or are under the impression that I'm just using her, or that I take living with her lightly, because I don't. At all. I don't intend to live like this indefinitely…" A look of horror flashed across his face. "I don't mean I plan on breaking up with her! Bella is it for me! I know she is!"
"Why don't you slow down and have some of that beer," Charlie suggested, hoping Edward wouldn't hyperventilate or suffer an aneurysm or stroke.
Edward nodded, taking a swig of beer. And then another. And then he began fiddling with his hair as he spoke. "I just want you to know that I'm completely serious about Bella. We've already talked about marriage," he added quietly.
Charlie almost choked. "You and Bella have already discussed marriage?"
"Briefly. Sort of in the abstract. And she was…hesitant. It's not the right time yet, you know?"
Charlie nodded. "You two have known each other for what...three months?"
"Eighty nine days."
Charlie schooled his features at that unanticipated and exact response. "Eighty nine days isn't very long."
Edward shook his head. "I know. And I know she's kind of apprehensive about marriage in general. But I can wait. I will wait for her."
Charlie nodded and cleared his throat. "Well…first of all, Edward, I really can't be upset with Bella…or you. It's obvious you care for each other…a lot." He hesitated and Edward waited. It was clear he had something else to say and was mulling over his words.
"I should probably tell you…" he continued. "You know that blue Ford truck of yours? The one Bella drives?" Edward nodded. "Well, I know the title on that vehicle was transferred into your name immediately after Bella's Chevy bit the dust." Edward's mouth dropped open in shock and Charlie nodded. "It's called a background check, son. And you checked out fine. We wouldn't be having this conversation if you hadn't. Anyway, I can only assume you made that purchase because you love her and want to take care of her. And I hope you don't take offense at the background check, because you have to remember, I love my daughter too."
"No, I understand. You just want to protect her. I want to do the same; that's why I bought the truck."
"I figured as much. Anyway, secondly, you and Bella are adults, capable of making adult decisions without my interference. Renee and I weren't the best role models for marriage, so I can understand Bella wanting to live together before making any further commitment. Based on what she experienced, she's cautious. She's never been much like her mother—Bella has always been sensible and practical, and Renee was always a little more capricious and footloose, you know?"
Edward nodded, he understood what Charlie was saying. He certainly wasn't referring to the 1984 musical-drama, Footloose, directed by Herbert Ross, starring Kevin Bacon.
"So, you're…okay with this? With us?" Edward asked, pushing aside his thoughts.
Charlie shrugged. "Every parent wants their child to be happy, healthy, and safe. My daughter looks completely happy, she appears to be in good health, and I can only hope you're both being safe." His brown eyes narrowed pointedly.
Edward flushed. "Uh…we are."
"Then I'm okay with this, Edward."
"Oh, thank God!" Edward exhaled unintentionally.
Charlie stifled a smile. "Just don't make me regret saying that, son."
"And take good care of my little girl."
"I will. Always."
"Then I think we're good."
The patio door opened, and a smiling Bella announced, "It's turkey time!"
Setting the album aside, Bella padded to the kitchen for more coffee. Returning, she resumed her position and perusal of the pictures of her past, arriving at their first Christmas together. The page bore the title, Christmas Vacation (No, Edward, not the 1989 John Hughes, National Lampoon movie, starring Chevy Chase). A smiley face was included. The first photos were of Edward on the Randall's old ladder, stringing up Christmas lights on their Stardust Lane townhome. Next was a photo of the house, all lit-up with a decorated tree visible in the living room window. And then there was a photo of the two of them in front of their first Christmas tree.
On the next page, A Very Cullen Christmas preceded photos of Christmas Eve at Edward's parents' home, including the lavish table, set with Esme's Christmas dishes. The house had been decorated throughout, as had the Cullens themselves. Esme wore a candy-cane cardigan and Carlisle wore a white shirt, green sweater, and a holly motif tie. There was a photo of Alice, in a red, green, and white, plaid taffeta dress, with Jasper—obviously privy to the dress code—sporting a Santa necktie over his blue button-down. Bella was just glad she'd worn her red blouse and owned a Christmas pin. Edward had dressed up without self-decorating. In his gray shirt and black pants, Alice had dubbed him "Ed-benezer Scrooge." But a photo from later that evening showed Alice and Bella's stab at making Edward more festive: He'd been decorated with every stick-on bow from the gift exchange that night. He was smiling crookedly, though there had been eye rolls leading up to that moment.
In a Christmas morning photo back at their own house, Bella, in plaid flannel pajama pants, modeled a new winter coat by their tree. Her fingers were behind her ears, pushing on her earlobes to better display the sapphire birthstone earrings Edward had also given her. She was smiling from ear to ear. Or earring to earring. A smirking Edward posed in another photo in new black silk pajama pants—and nothing else. He held gold cufflinks up to his ears as if he, too, had received earrings. Though it was impossible to see in the photo, the cufflinks had been ornately inscribed with the intertwining letters B and E. Not just for Bella and Edward, but as a reminder to just…BE…because that had worked out well for them both.
There had been other gifts, but those were the more memorable ones. At the time. And Bella had repeatedly complimented Edward on his relative restraint in the gift-giving department. At the time. He'd smiled and nodded but hadn't really said much in response. At the time.
Their trip to Forks the day after Christmas taught Bella not to jump to conclusions regarding her crazy-assed boyfriend's gift-giving-restraint.
The title of the Forks Christmas photo spread was "One Surprise After Another!" and the first photo bore testament to that. It showed Bella's old, formerly broken down and sold-off, but now completely restored and pimped-out, cherry-red Chevy truck, parked on Charlie's snow-lined driveway. Bella snickered as she looked at that photo, remembering Edward's increasing hair gropage and twirlery as he'd driven them to Forks that morning. Based on Bella's complimentary comments the previous day, he had begun second-guessing himself, doubting his surprise final gift to Bella as they neared her father's house...
Hearing the sound of the big blue truck pulling up out front, Charlie stepped out onto the porch. He stood and watched as they exited their truck, biting back a grin as Bella sputtered and shouted and waved her arms at Edward, not letting him get a word in edgewise. Charlie watched as she spewed sentence fragments, half-words, and non-words at Edward while waving and gesturing at the other vehicle already parked on the driveway. After a couple minutes, and with the two of them completely oblivious to his presence, Charlie turned around and went back inside, figuring they'd come in when Bella was done pitching a fit.
It was a good half hour before that happened.
"Oh my god…" Bella was still shaking her head and muttering as she burst through the door, carrying an overnight bag and a container of homemade cookies. Edward trailed her cautiously, carrying a bag of gifts, a bottle of wine, and his own overnight bag.
"Dad?" Bella called out. "We're h…" She stopped abruptly, taking in the anomaly before her, equally as surprising, though not as disturbing, as the unexpected reappearance of her former-and-current Chevy truck on her father's driveway. "Holy crap!" she exclaimed as Charlie emerged from the kitchen. "You bought a dining room set?! You don't even have a dining room! What happened to your recliner?"
"Hi, Bells. It's good to see you, too," Charlie replied dryly. "And Edward, welcome. Merry Christmas." He took the wine bottle from Edward and shook his hand. Then his amused gaze flickered back to his pink-cheeked, irritable, and now completely bewildered daughter as she stared at the new table, set for dinner, smack in the middle of the living room.
Sue appeared from the kitchen, her dark eyes twinkling merrily as she wiped her hands on a dishtowel. "Hello, you two!" They exchanged hugs and greetings and Sue began explaining the new table and chairs. "That's my fault. With the four of us, plus Seth, Leah, Jake, and Billy, there was no way we'd all fit around the old kitchen table. I suggested eating at my house, but your dad really wanted to have everyone over here…"
"And Sue didn't like my idea…" Charlie interjected, "that some of us could sit on the couch and eat on the folding TV trays."
"With the TV on, most likely." Sue smiled as Charlie shrugged sheepishly.
"So, I went out and bought a new table and got rid of the old rickety one in the kitchen," Charlie said. "This fits in the kitchen without the leaves. With the leaves, it seats eight but has to go in here. And my recliner is in the garage for now. We needed room for the tree."
Bella nodded. "This is so...unexpected. It looks great though, doesn't it?" She turned and smiled at Edward. His eyes lit up. A smile began to flicker across his face. But then Bella recalled the other surprise out on the driveway and she frowned. "Oh my god…" she muttered, whirling back around to face her father.
"Did you know about that?" she asked, pointing in the direction of the driveway. "You did, didn't you? You had to have! How did he…? Why would you…? Gah! How could you let him do that?"
Charlie shrugged. "It's not my place to advise Edward what to do or not do with his money."
Sue spoke up soothingly. "Jake really enjoyed the challenge of repairing and restoring your old Chevy, Bella. It brought Uley's Garage additional business, too, once customers saw what Jake could do. And from what I heard, Edward's reasons for having that old thing fixed up were terribly romantic." She smiled encouragingly at Bella and then gave Edward a pointed look. "Leah, Jake, Seth, and Billy should be here in a while. Why don't you two take your bags and coats upstairs? Charlie and I can put those things where they belong."
Handing over the gift bag and cookie container, Edward and Bella headed upstairs in uncomfortable silence.
It took quite a while for them to return from putting their coats and bags in Bella's old room. When they reappeared, Edward looked relieved and Bella was smiling, but her eyes were slightly red-rimmed. Their arms were wrapped around each other though, and their lips had that puffy, tender look that seemed to indicate prolonged kissing.
Sue gave Edward a discreet smile and wink. He returned her smile, glad he'd picked up on her hint, and thankful Jake must have blabbed the story to Leah who must have blabbed the story to her mother.
Edward had told Bella the whole story upstairs… At the last minute, he hadn't been able to sell the truck off to someone else, so he'd bought it himself. That Chevy had brought her to him after all, and things might have played out so very differently if she hadn't arrived in that noisy old monstrosity, leading him to behave like an ass to her that first day. That truck was part of their perfectly-imperfect personal history.
Bella's frown had disappeared as he'd spoken. And then she'd burst into tears, crying into his neck and feeling absolutely awful about how she'd reacted to his sweet and sentimental, ridiculously over the top gift. Because seriously, what woman needed two trucks from the same man in the space of several months? And what man would buy a truck, and pay to have it restored, so he could give it right back to its owner?
Edward had simply enfolded his sobbing girl in his arms, pulling her down to the bed, holding her and murmuring words of love. Then they'd kissed and made up. Actually, they'd made-out and made up. And then she'd made him promise he was done with the Christmas gifts.
The other photos from Christmas in Forks included one of Edward unwrapping a tackle box from Charlie and Sue, and Bella holding up a crock-pot with some of Sue's best recipes tucked inside. There were other photos of everyone that evening, but the image Bella sat and studied now was one she'd taken of Edward and Charlie, drinking Sue's special eggnog as they stood on the front porch that night, freezing their asses off.
At the time, she was unaware they'd been discussing marriage again.
Obviously not to each other. Again.
"Damn, it's cold!" Charlie shoved his hands into the pockets of his parka as he watched the vapor trail of his exhale disappear into the night.
"It is! Sorry. I wasn't thinking. I figured it would be quieter out here. I uh… I wanted to ask you something, Charlie."
Charlie couldn't be sure whether it was the edge in Edward's voice, or the fact that he had something to ask rather than something to tell, but something tipped him off that this was an important moment and Edward was nervous as hell.
"I don't suppose you're going to ask me about my aluminum siding?"
Edward blinked and snorted a soft laugh as he looked at Charlie's perceptive eyes. "Uh…no, sir."
"Didn't think so. Can you give me one moment?"
He waited while Charlie disappeared back inside and took the opportunity to collect his thoughts. And freeze his ass off. And his balls. Which he really needed for this conversation.
"Here," Charlie said, returning with two glasses. "It's Sue's eggnog. Just don't light any matches. It'll ignite."
Edward chuckled as Charlie touched his glass to his. "Cheers."
"Cheers." Edward took a drink and gasped. His eyes teared up. His throat was on fire. "You sure there's eggnog in this?" he asked hoarsely.
Charlie snorted. "Probably not much. But it'll warm you up."
Edward had to agree. He wasn't just warm, he was now sweating. But that could have been due to the impending conversation.
"So, you wanted to ask me something?" Charlie reminded him.
"Oh, yeah. I mean, yes. I uh…I want…" He paused and took a deep breath before exhaling his answer. "I want to ask Bella to marry me, but I wanted to speak with you first and ask you for your…you know…your blessing."
Charlie nodded. He'd had a hunch. "It's only been four months." Edward nodded. "What are your plans if Bella says she's not ready?"
"I'd wait for her to be ready."
"Well then, you've got my blessing."
"You think I shouldn't give you my blessing?"
"No! I think you should. I mean, I'd hoped you would. I just meant…" Edward exhaled a little laugh. "That was just a lot easier than I expected."
"The way I see it, Edward, you already seem to be part of the family, you're just waiting for Bella so you can make things official. If she's ready to say yes, I'm good with that. And if she's not, and you're not going to pressure her into being ready, then I'm good with that as well."
"I would never pressure her."
Charlie nodded. They drank a little more eggnog.
"You asking her tonight?" Charlie wondered a moment later.
"No. But soon."
Charlie nodded and looked out at the driveway. "Well, for your sake, I hope she takes that surprise better than she did the Chevy."
Edward burst into laughter. "You and me both, Charlie."
There was one more surprise coming Bella's way that evening, though it didn't involve a marriage proposal.
After Jake, Billy, Seth, and Leah left, Charlie announced he would be taking Sue home shortly.
"Okay, Dad." Bella barely acknowledged his words as she snuggled with Edward on the couch, watching TV while Edward drank more of Sue's eggnog.
"I'll just get my things," Sue said, smiling at Charlie before heading upstairs.
Charlie cleared his throat. "So, uh…I guess I'll be seeing the two of you tomorrow, Bells."
"Okay, Dad." It took a moment for his words to sink in. "Wait… You're working tonight?" Bella looked at her father. He wasn't in uniform, and it was only ten o'clock.
"No. I'm off tonight and tomorrow." Charlie scratched at the back of his neck. He looked uncomfortable. He was avoiding eye contact.
Ohmygod! Is he…blushing?
Bella was about to ask for clarification when Sue returned, carrying her purse and coat.
"Are we ready?" she asked.
Charlie nodded. "Yeah…I think we're good."
And then it hit Bella like a wrecking ball. Face first and full force.
Ohmygod! Dad and Sue! They're having a slumber party for two!
She looked at Edward, her eyes as big as saucers.
Edward had been a little faster on the uptake. "Let's say goodnight," he said, biting back a smile. He gave her hand a tug as he stood, helping with her equilibrium as Charlie helped Sue with her coat.
They hugged and thanked Sue for the wonderful dinner she'd made and for the gifts she'd had a part in giving.
"Oh, goodness!" she exclaimed. "I left my own gifts upstairs!" She crossed the room, heading back upstairs. "Give me one minute, Charlie, and then we can leave."
Charlie looked like he wished he'd already left. He cleared his throat. "So…I uh probably should have said something…" he muttered, glancing at Bella before looking toward the stairs.
Bella shook her head and smiled. "Don't stress, Dad. Sue is great, and it's fine by me if you think so, too." She took in the look of embarrassment on his face and her eyes twinkled. The temptation was too great, so she leaned in, asking in a low voice, "You got your pepper spray on you?"
Charlie rolled his eyes. "Don't be a smartass, Bells." His eyes shot to Edward's, smirking right next to her. He'd obviously heard and knew what was up.
"You're both kind of annoying," Charlie grumbled.
"I didn't say a word!" Edward protested as Bella giggled at his side.
"You didn't need to," Charlie replied gruffly as Sue came back down the stairs, gifts in hand.
"Love you, Dad," Bella said, hugging him tightly.
"You too, Bells."
Edward shook his hand. "Goodnight, Charlie." He didn't chance adding anything further, like "Have fun!" or "Be safe!" He certainly didn't want Charlie to rescind his blessing.
Bella closed and locked the door behind them, covertly peeking through the drapes, watching as her father slid his arm around Sue's waist. Sue was looking up at him and smiling. "Wow," Bella exhaled. She turned, leaning against the front door as her eyes met Edward's. "Wow."
"You said that already," Edward pointed out with a grin.
"I'm pretty sure I'll be saying that for days. But I'm happy for them." She shook her head. "Wow. I think I'll have some of that volatile eggnog after all."
Edward chuckled. "I'll join you. It goes down easy after the first bite."
Bella smiled at that photo of Edward talking about marriage with her father on the porch that night. Then her mind drifted to another conversation the following morning.
She'd slipped from the room to shower and dress, leaving Edward to sleep off his eggnog. A short while later, she'd just started a pot of coffee when Charlie returned home, and Bella recalled Sue had to work that day.
When had Edward emerged over an hour later, showered, shaved, dressed, and looking only slightly worse for the wear, Bella and her father were seated at the new table—relocated to the kitchen—with two cups and a nearly empty coffeepot between them. Bella and Edward left for the diner soon afterward, with Charlie waving off an invitation to join them since he'd eaten earlier with Sue.
As Bella backed her refurbished new-old Chevy out of the driveway, Edward's hand moved to her leg.
"You okay, love? You seem quiet."
"I'm fine." She covered his hand with hers. "Just thinking."
She smiled. "I just had the best talk with my dad, and you know him, he's not a talker."
"What'd you talk about?"
"Him and Sue. Him and my mom. My mom and Phil. You know…relationships. He told me why he thinks he and my mom didn't work out, and why he thinks she and Phil do. And how important it is to talk about what you want out of life before tying the knot with someone, in case they don't want the same things."
Edward nodded, thinking about what Charlie had told her. And probably why.
Bella shrugged. "I doubt he and Sue are getting married anytime soon, but who knows? Maybe he is thinking about it."
At the time, Bella hadn't known why her father had suddenly opened up, but in the weeks that followed, she and Edward had a number of conversations about their own thoughts and hopes and dreams for the future.
Bella turned, settling against the arm of the couch, and tucked the gray, blue, and black plaid blanket around her legs. Repositioning the album on her lap, she turned the page.
Beneath the title Partaaaaaaay! were photos from the New Years' Eve bash at Club Eclipse. Emmett had schmoozed eight tickets to the event from the club's owner—a member of Gymerica, whom Emmett trained personally. In the first photo, Angela, Rose, Alice, and Bella, stood by a limo, dressed to impress. Angela, with legs for miles, wore a little black dress, Rose was voluptuous and sultry in clingy red, Alice sparkled in silvery sequins, and Bella shimmered in a coppery-bronze that hugged every curve—as if molten caramel had been poured over her body. She'd been unsure if she could pull off the slink-factor of that dress, but judging from Edward's strangled sounds and guttural growls that evening, and the physical manifestation of his obvious appreciation, the dress was a slinky, sultry, slam dunk.
Edward had liked that dress so much he couldn't wait to get Bella out of it.
In a second photo, Bella and Edward danced close, gazing into each other's eyes, unaware Alice was even taking the photo. And in the third photo, Ben, Jasper, Emmett, and Edward were grouped around their table. They looked handsome though flushed from the effects of their partying. A grinning Ben wore a glittery Happy New Year! hat. Jasper's cheeks puffed out as he blew into a noisemaker. Emmett grinned cherubically, wearing Rose's Happy New Year! tiara. Edward, seated on the end, wore no hat and certainly didn't look silly.
He looked like the poster boy for fornication.
It might have been the scruff. That masculine beard-shadow was sooooo lickable. Or maybe it was the hair. His fuck-me-hair had a lot to do with his sex appeal. It could have been the way he was sitting: leaning back, with arms outspread along the top of the booth in a sort of here-it-is, come-and-get-it arrangement of willing body parts. Mostly, though, it was centered in his dark and blazing eyes, staring right at the camera as if he was undressing it. Or Bella, more likely, since she'd taken the photo.
He'd looked at her like that nearly the entire night. And she'd been looking right back at him…looking like that…looking at her…looking like she did…all evening. They'd grown increasingly handsy as the night progressed, and when their limo finally dropped them off at home several hours into the new year, they'd behaved like the poster couple for fornication.
Looking at that hot photo of her hot man, remembering that hot night, Bella pulled the plaid blanket off her hot legs and flipped the page, arriving at her favorite part of that first photo album.
It was a mid-January event Alice had planned since the start of school that year—right after the idea had occurred to her at that long ago barbecue.
Beneath the title An Adjunct Duty and A Rite of Passage were photos of the Fawkes High School Winter Formal, featuring teacher-chaperones and dates, Bella and Edward, Alice and Jasper, Rose and Emmett, and Ben and Angela. Alice looked sophisticated in black lace. Rose was glamorous in champagne charmeuse. Angela was lovely in deep purple silk. And Bella had felt beautiful in dark blue satin scattered with tiny beads, winking like stars in the midnight sky. The guys had all worn tuxedos, and in one shot of the entire group—posed by the photographer—they almost looked like a wedding party.
Bella smiled at the thought as she moved on to the next photo, taken at Alice's house earlier in the evening. She'd invited them for appetizers and a glass of wine. One glass, only. Bella snorted a laugh, remembering that conversation...
"Wait…I only get to have one glass of booze before this shindig?" Emmett pouted.
"Just one!" Alice sang cheerily. "We're chaperones, Emmett! We have to supervise, be on the alert for alcohol-induced shenanigans, and keep the kids from grinding and freaking on the dance floor. The last thing we want is to show up reeking of alcohol, pawing at each other, and grinding and freaking on each other...like we did on New Year's Eve."
"But I want that," Emmett protested, raising his hand.
Alice batted his arm down with a laugh. "Because YOU won't have to see those kids at work on Monday! Some of us don't want to be called into Principal Green's office for a stern lecture about responsibility and respectability."
"Can we grind and freak a little?" Emmett asked, dimpling cherubically and hopefully.
Rose gave him a sexy smirk, but Alice just smacked him on the arm again.
"Afterwards. Once the formal is over, we can have drinks and dance in the hotel bar."
The formal was held in the ballroom of the stately old Gardenview Hotel. Though it was winter, and the garden itself was somewhat bare, the garden courtyard and remaining greenery were decorated with twinkle lights. A photo, taken by the event photographer, showed Edward and Bella upon their arrival, standing in a lattice archway decorated with greenery, flowers, and twinkling lights.
Once the students began arriving, Jasper and Ben had pat-down duty, making sure the boys weren't trying to sneak in flasks of alcohol or other contraband. Alice and Rose checked the girls for the same, and Bella was given purse inspection duty. Emmett, Edward, and Angela, as non-teachers, merely looked on with amusement.
The dance ran smoothly, and they enjoyed themselves, chatting, listening to the music, and occasionally dancing amidst the students. Alice only had to remove three pairs of boys' hands from their dates' buttocks, replacing them on the girls' backs. Rose only had to threaten to blow the whistle…literally…on two couples making out like porn stars. She merely stood next to them, eyebrow cocked, with her silver PE instructor's whistle in her mouth, and that did the trick. She was glad she'd thought to tuck the whistle into her little evening bag.
The final pages of the photo album featured four photos taken as Winter Formal neared its end. From the ballroom's side exit—and at Alice's request—the photographer had discreetly photographed Bella and Edward out in the garden courtyard's gazebo. Alice had felt a bit uncertain about intruding on their private moment, but Bella had been so glad afterward that the momentous moment had been captured on film.
Edward had asked if Bella would like to take a walk and get some fresh air. She had agreed, and after retrieving their coats, they passed along the side of the ballroom, coming to an exit near the DJ's station. Bella wasn't sure they were allowed to leave, but Emmett, standing at the door and looking like an imposing bouncer, had merely smiled and opened the door for them. She didn't notice the conspiratorial wink Emmett had given his "bro."
They'd stepped outside into the brisk evening air. Though they could hear the muted sound of music inside, the courtyard itself was quiet. Taking Bella's hand, Edward led her along a walkway to the garden courtyard and a gazebo at its center. Brightly lit by tiny twinkle lights, it had a glowing, magical appearance.
Bella looked lovingly at the page's title, The One and Only, and the photos that followed.
In the first photo, they were seated on a bench inside the gazebo, their heads bowed and nearly touching as they looked at Edward's phone. She remembered shrieking in surprise when he'd pulled up the Star-lighted site on his phone for her to read The One and Only, by STARDUSTED. She'd had no idea he'd been writing a story. It was a one-shot work-in-progress, posted to his documents, but he was a bit unsure about the ending. He wanted her to read it and share her thoughts and input. And so she'd read it. Out loud. And she'd gotten the surprise of her life.
In the second photo, Edward was on bended knee, looking earnest as he held a small box out to Bella, who was still seated but looking stunned, her hands pressed to her heart.
In the third photo, Edward still knelt, but Bella was leaning forward, and they were clutching and kissing each other as if the rest of their lives depended upon it.
And in the fourth photo, they were in each other's arms, dancing in the gazebo, their smiling faces lit up by far more than the thousands of tiny twinkle lights surrounding them.
Beneath that photo was the caption, Marry Me (First Dance Mix) by Train. It was the song that had softly and magically begun playing through the gazebo's speakers as Edward dropped to one knee, proposing one possible outcome for his story.
On the final album page was a final photo. It had made the event photographer's night, he'd told them. Bella and Edward stood once again in the lattice archway, surrounded by greenery, flowers, and twinkle lights. With one arm wrapped around each other, Bella was tucked close into Edward's side, their smiling faces flushed with excitement and anticipation. Bella's left hand was in Edward's right, turned in such a way as to display the very eye-catching, sunflower-shaped arrangement of diamonds on her ring finger. Above the photo was the title, The Future Mr. and Mrs. Edward Cullen! and beneath the image, a message:
Happy Valentine's Day and Happy Forever,
With all my love,
Bella closed the album with a happy sigh. So many wonderful memories!
Looking at the clock, she decided it was time to wake Edward and make a few more memories with her delicious husband of four and a half years.
Or one thousand, six hundred, and forty three days...and counting...according to that husband.
A/N: One final epilogue chapter to come. I hope you enjoyed this nostalgic look down Bella and Edward's memory lane. :)