A/N: No, you aren't seeing things - an update has arrived!
I won't take up too much time here. Thanks to WitchyVampireGirl for ongoing encouragement, afternoons at Panera, and helping me sort things out and push away a long standing creative block. And thank you to Coppertop Johnson for encouragement at a time when I most needed it.
A big thank you to everyone who is here and reading. Your support in invaluable. I love you all.
Check the end for a bit more!
Chapter Song: So Far Away by Staind
Characters belong to SM and public places or prominent figures belong to their respective owners. Everything else is on me.
Chapter 32 – At Home
My leg bounced nervously as I checked my watch for what must have been the twentieth time. Edward was fifteen minutes late, and if I didn't know any better, I'd guess he wasn't coming. I did, however, know that he cared for – no, loved – my best friend with his whole heart, and he would indeed show up to hear my apology if it meant something to her.
"Sorry I'm late." The sound of Edward's voice startled me. I watched as he dipped down and perched himself on the chair across from me. "I have fifteen loose ends to tie up before this trip and no time to do it."
"It's no problem," I said, averting my eyes and taking a sip of my water. "Thank you for meeting me, by the way."
"If it wasn't for Bella I wouldn't be here," he reminded me. I swallowed hard, taken aback by his honesty. The friendly Edward that Bella always spoke of was nowhere to be found in that moment. Instead, the successful, cutthroat Edward who didn't waste any time mincing his words greeted me.
"I know that. I'm sorry I ever put you in a position that would make you feel that way." I took another sip of my water before continuing. "I could sit here and give you a long, winded speech about how regretful I am for my actions and how I'm willing to do anything it takes to earn your respect and your trust. It would be true – all of it – but I know that's not why you came here. Instead, I'll say this – I'm sorry, Edward. I'm sorry for saying anything to Bella instead of giving you the opportunity to say something to her yourself. I'm sorry for causing a rift, for jumping the gun before hearing the full story from your mouth, and for almost causing the demise of your relationship. I should have minded my own business instead of getting involved in yours."
"What I don't understand is why you waited all week to execute your ambush? I mean, you claim that you bombarded Bella with the truth like you did because you care about her and want the best for her, right?" I nodded my agreement and he continued. "If you care so much, why didn't you call her right away? Put Jasper on the phone and make him tell her everything? If you thought that I was such a slime ball, and that I was using your friend, why would you have wanted to let her spend a whole week with me? Why not just encourage her to end it right then and there?"
I sat in silence, unsure of how to answer him. Calling Bella right away had certainly crossed my mind, though the idea of having Jasper come clean to her hadn't. "You don't have to believe me if you don't want to, but when it came right down to it, I just wanted my best friend to have some time to enjoy after running herself ragged for months. The bet was already made and the damage done at that point. It didn't seem like there would be much of a difference if I told her that night or the night she got home."
"What damage was done, exactly? Can you enlighten me on that? If I recall correctly, there was no damage done at all because nobody else knew about it and we'd called it off."
The anger in his words shined bright in his eyes as well. I wanted to look away, but forced myself continue meeting his gaze. "Making a bet like that in the first place can cause damage, Edward. That's what I meant."
He drummed his fingers against the tabletop and pursed his lips. "This is where we disagree, Rosalie. Was making the bet a shitty thing of Jasper and I to do? Yes, it was, and I'll fully admit that. But, as Jasper told you and as I've said more than once, we ended the bet – before it could cause any damage. This might be difficult for you to stomach, but there was no damage until you went on your little crusade."
This time I did look away. I closed my eyes and thought back to the months leading up to the White party. Each time I spoke to Bella while she was away on the book tour, she bubbled with excitement. When she came back, she was practically glowing, and seemed happier than I'd seen her in months, and certainly happier than I'd ever seen her with a man before. When she and Edward made the decision to live together, she was bursting with excitement, planning nights they could cook together, times we could all go on group dates, and figuring out ways to decorate the place without upsetting Edward or wreaking havoc on his style. Nothing in my memory screamed, "damaged" … Until I made the knowledge I acquired public, that is.
"You're right." When I looked up at him, tears brimmed my eyes. The last thing I wanted was to start crying. "My big mouth was the driving force behind the damage. But I'd like to hope I could be part of mending that damage as well. I don't expect you to believe me. I've done nothing but show you my worst sides since we first met. But I hope you'll give me a chance to show you that I'm not all that bad. I can certainly change, Edward, just as easily as you or Jasper or Emmett can."
He crossed his arms over his cheat and fixed his eyes on mine. I wanted to falter under his stare, but I didn't, and after a minute or so, he sighed and looked away.
"I don't want to believe it," he admitted. "It's much easier to go on believing you have no soul than making an effort to try and get to know you. But, your friendship means the world to Bella. You and Alice mean the world to Bella. And, if something or someone means the world to Bella, then that means it or they are also important to me."
I didn't realize I was holding my breath until it all left my lungs in a big whoosh. "Does this mean you accept my apology?"
"It does," he said with a nod. "But it also means that it's up to you to prove to me that I'm not making a mistake by doing so."
"My mistake making days are over," I said, before quickly adding, "At least when it comes to you and Bella."
"Good to know." Edward glanced at his watch and stood up. "I have to get back to tying up those loose ends. Tell Emmett I said hey and to take good care of you and that little one in there." He pointed to my stomach and gave me a small smile. It wasn't much, but it was a start.
"Will do. Have fun in Paris!" Edward nodded once more and ducked out of the coffee shop. I took a deep breath and leaned forward, resting my forehead on the top of the table.
Relief washed over me, and I could feel the first of what would no doubt be a wave of tears start to prickle behind my eyelids. I'd dreaded this conversation since Edward returned my call several days earlier, and the fact that we'd not only made it through, but also managed to agree on being civil, was a miracle in and of itself.
I took another deep breath and allowed myself to smile.
I couldn't look forward to going to Paris with everyone, but perhaps I could look forward to starting some new things when they got back.
The eve of our trip to Paris found me, Alice, and Rosalie seated at our usual table at Sarabeth's. Since Alice and I wouldn't be in town for brunch on Sunday we'd opted to spend the evening together instead.
"I can't believe you won't be going with us," Alice pouted. Rose tried to shrug it off, but her expression gave away her true feelings.
"I have to do what's best for the baby – and for me," she said.
"At least they let you move the travel dates for two of the tickets," I said, trying to point out some light at the end of an otherwise dark tunnel. "I'm sure you and Emmett will both need a break after the baby is a few months old."
"And you have more than enough babysitters ready and waiting to help you out!" Alice piped up.
"I know, and I love you two for trying to cheer me up." Rose stirred her iced tea and sighed. "I was looking forward to enjoying a nice, drama-free week with everyone. It's like things finally leveled out and now another roadblock came up."
"With all due respect, we probably could have avoided about six roadblocks had you left well enough alone and let Edward talk to me about the bet," I pointed out.
Rose gave me the stink eye, but her shoulders slumped in resignation. "I know I've said it a million times between our lunch last week and now, but I truly am sorry. If I could turn back the clock and erase the whole experience I would."
"The important thing is you and Edward worked things out. That's what mattered most to me after all was said and done."
An uncomfortable silence threatened to settle over our table. Fortunately Alice broke it.
"I think Jasper has something up his sleeve."
I focused my eyes on her, welcoming the topic change. "Why do you say that?"
"He's been acting very weird lately."
"Weird how?" Rose asked.
"It's hard to explain, because you two aren't around him and you don't interact with him in the same way I do, you know?" Alice thought for a moment before continuing. "He's been nervous and fidgety. He starts to ask me questions, then stops and backtracks. And I keep catching him writing in what looks like a journal, but if he notices me, or when I ask about it, he brushes it off and puts it away quickly."
"Maybe he's working on a special project?" I suggested. Rose nodded in agreement, but Alice frowned.
"What kind of project would he need to hide from me?"
Rose speared several pieces of macaroni with her fork. "Maybe it's for work and he's not allowed to discuss it with anyone?"
I nodded. "Or maybe he's planning a special surprise for the two of you? For Paris or for when you get back?"
Alice seemed to relax as we offered up our ideas. "That's probably it."
I reached across the table and squeezed her hand. "What did you think was going on?"
Alice shrugged. "I thought he might be unhappy with us," she admitted. "It's usually not a good sign when people start to get distant and act like they're hiding things."
"Oh, sweetie, Jasper is smitten with you." Rose put her fork down and looked Alice in the eye. "He's a good man who cares immensely for you. If something were wrong, he would come directly to you and discuss it. He's not the type to let things fester until they reach a breaking point."
As Alice sat in silence, taking in Rose's words, I let my mind drift off to what Edward had told me earlier in the week. Jasper planned on proposing to Alice – something that I wasn't supposed to know, but Edward couldn't keep to himself. The journal she saw him toting around was actually a notebook that contained what would eventually become his proposal speech – if he could manage to finish it.
I wanted to kick Edward for telling me any of this. It was bad enough trying to contain my excitement over something I knew was coming. Now I had to watch one of my best friends fret over nothing, and I couldn't do much of anything to comfort her.
"Rosalie Smith, are you feeling okay?" Alice leaned across the table and pressed her palm against Rose's forehead.
"What are you talking about?" Rose asked, furrowing her brow in confusion.
"You just complimented one of the two evil betsters," Alice laughed. I rolled my eyes, but cracked a smile.
"Oh, shut up," Rose huffed. "Contrary to popular belief, I don't hate everybody. Just those who I feel deserve it."
"Well, I for one am happy you decided to embrace the concept of second chances," I said, reaching across the table and squeezing Rose's hand. "And I know Edward appreciated the discussion you two had."
Rose smiled. "I appreciated it too, believe it or not."
Alice glanced at her phone and sighed. "I have to go. I have a list of things I need to get from Duane Reade, and I still have to pack."
I felt my jaw drop. "You haven't packed anything yet?"
"I may have set aside a few pairs of shoes." Alice shrugged. "You know me. I'm a last minute kind of gal when it comes to traveling."
"And yet you somehow manage to pack everything but the kitchen sink," Rose joked.
"I like to travel prepared!" Alice winked and reached for her wallet. I grabbed her wrist and shook my head.
"It's my turn to pay." When nobody objected, I whipped out my cash card and flagged down the waitress. Once the check was settled, the three of us meandered outside to say our goodbyes.
"Take lots of pictures for me!" Rose exclaimed, hugging each of us. "And eat a pile of high calorie French pastries!"
"I think between the two of us we can manage that," I said with a wink. Alice nodded, and we swept one another up for one final group hug.
"I love you two! I'll see you in ten days." Rose ducked into the back of her waiting car and shut the door softly. Alice and I watched as the vehicle pulled out and disappeared around the corner.
"So, you're off to pack?"
Alice nodded. "After I stock up on magazines and toiletries."
"Godspeed, my friend," I joked. Alice stuck her tongue out and smiled.
"I'll see you tomorrow morning!"
"Bright and early," I said with a nod.
I stepped forward to hail a cab, but stopped myself. The weather was nice, the city was alive, and I didn't mind walking. I pulled my phone out and sent Edward a quick text, letting him know I'd be home later than planned, then began my journey.
The Concrete Jungle would always be my home.
But, I couldn't wait to get to Paris.
-=- HC -=-
"For fucks sakes, can this plane land already?" Mike grumbled.
"You need another Xanax," Laurent said, rolling his eyes.
"It's a seven and a half hour flight," Alice pointed out. "We've been in the air for seven hours, so we should land soon."
"Thank fuck." Mike took the small orange pill from Laurent and popped it in his mouth. "I feel like a god damn toy that's been wound too tight."
Laurent crossed his arms over his chest and glared at Mike. "You're acting like a child right now, sweetie, so feeling like a toy is rather fitting."
"Well excuse me Mr. I-love-to-fly-and-my-family-took-me-around-the-world. Maybe you should just stow me in the cargo hold next time and that will solve all of your problems!"
"If only that were an option," Edward mumbled. I elbowed him gently and he leaned his head on my shoulder.
"Please stop," Jasper pleaded from his seat next to Alice. "We can't start bickering while we're still in the air. At least wait until we've checked into our hotel."
"Nobody's bickering," Laurent said matter-of-factly. "When Mike whines, I point it out. That's all."
"And when Laurent becomes an asshole, I point it out." Mike turned to Laurent and narrowed his eyes. "Vous êtes un trou du cul!"
Alice cocked an eyebrow and smirked. "I'm impressed! Someone brushed up on his French before we left."
"I may have visited an online translator or two," Mike said with a wink.
While the Xanax kicked in and Alice kept Mike preoccupied, the rest of us began to put our books, iPads, and iPods away in preparation for our landing. Once the plane was on the ground and we had our luggage, we set off in search of the driver that Rose had arranged.
"Bienvenue à l'aéroport international Charles de Gaulle," a female voice came over the loudspeaker.
"What is she saying?" Mike asked. Alice held an index finger up toward the ceiling.
"Welcome to Charles de Gaulle International Airport," the same female voice said in English. The usual airport jargon followed, in both French and English.
After a few minutes of searching, we found our driver and were ushered off to the hotel. Edward and I were both hungry by the time we got checked in and finished unpacking.
"We need to find some food," he muttered, rubbing his grumbling stomach.
"It's after eleven. Do you think anything is open?"
"There must be something," Edward said, grabbing one of the local guides that littered the desk in our room. As he flipped through the pages, he looked more and more confused. "I'm not fluent enough in French to read these."
"Let's check with Jasper and Alice," I suggested. I grabbed my purse and Edward followed me down the hall to our friends' room.
"Food?" Jasper didn't bother with a greeting. Edward and I both nodded.
"There's a pizza joint not far from here. It's probably our best bet at this hour," Alice called from inside the room.
"Our first night in Paris and we're going out for pizza," Edward laughed. "Who'd of thought?"
"At this point, I'll eat anything that doesn't eat me first," Laurent said, joining us in the hall.
"Where's Mike?" I inquired.
"Passed out. Between the Xanax and the cocktail he insisted on having once we were checked in, I think he'll probably be sleeping for a few hours, if not longer."
Edward sighed in relief. "I'm sorry to be like this, but I'm not disappointed in the least. Between the airplane freak out and the constant yammering in the limo, I'm happy he's not joining us for dinner."
Laurent just laughed. "Oh, honey, that makes two of us. I love the man, but I don't like him very much today."
The pizza place was within walking distance of the hotel. I couldn't take my eyes off of the buildings that surrounded us. Paris felt like a completely different world, and I didn't want to miss a minute of it.
"Has anyone bothered to read over our itinerary?" Laurent asked, tugging a few sheets of rumpled paper from his fanny pack.
"That fanny pack has win written all over it," Jasper said with a laugh.
"Tell that to the fashion designing mama back home. She never would let me out of the house, let alone in the airport, if she saw me wearing it!"
"I think I read in Cosmo that they're making a comeback," Alice said with a wink. Laurent simply rolled his eyes and spread the itinerary out before him.
"What's this Versailles bike tour on Tuesday?" Laurent scrunched his nose and looked around the table.
"We take a train out to Versailles and then do a bike tour around the gardens," Alice explained. "I believe we also stop at a market and have a picnic while we're there."
"Is that the only pre-arranged activity we have as a group?" Edward asked. Alice nodded.
"Rose has traveled here so much with her family that I think she planned on showing us around and taking us out for some things," I said. "It's nice, because we have a lot of freedom with our schedules now."
"That is nice," Jasper said, leaning over and giving Alice a kiss on the cheek. "I wanted to spend some quality time with my lady here."
"Let's not get started on that quality time while the rest of us are trying to eat, mmmkay?" Laurent threw Jasper a wink and took a giant bite of pizza.
Edward laughed. "You're not exactly one to talk there, Giuseppe. You and Newton are the Kings of PDA."
"Queens of PDA," Jasper corrected. Laurent picked up a breadstick and tossed it across the table.
I surveyed the scene before me and couldn't help but smile. We were all exhausted from our travels, but it was nice to see everyone in one place with smiles decorating their faces.
"I think a toast is in order," I said, picking up my bottle of mineral water and holding it in the air. The rest of my friends followed suit and looked expectantly at me. Unfortunately I had nothing profound to say, so I said the first thing that came to mind. "To Paris."
"To Paris," they echoed, and the sound of clinking glasses filled the air.
I couldn't think of a better way for our week to begin.
When we were four days into our Paris vacation, Bella and I finally got to spend time together – alone.
I had spent the week before our travels trying to plan what I hoped would become the perfect romantic night out. After all, they didn't call Paris "The City of Love" for nothing. I checked some places out online, asked my mom for a few suggestions, and finally figured out a plan. Bella and I had taken in an early show and then enjoyed a bottle of wine and some French pastries at a café along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Now we had arrived at our final destination for the evening, where I hoped to show her just how much I adored her.
"Where are we?" Bella's eyes were closed as I helped her out of the taxi. After I paid the driver I stepped up behind her and withdrew a silk scarf from my pocket.
"You're about to see," I whispered as I gently tied the scarf around her head, creating a soft blindfold.
"You're really pulling out all the stops tonight, Cullen," she joked.
I dipped my head down and pressed my lips gently against her bare shoulder. "You haven't seen anything yet, Swan." I took one of her hands in mine and guided her slowly toward the hotel entrance. The front desk staff, having recognized me from earlier in the day, waved their greetings and watched on as we made our way to the elevator. A moment later I withdrew the key from my pocket and unlocked the door.
"Are we there yet?" Bella smiled at the sound of the lock clicking into place behind us.
I slid a finger over the soft skin of her cheek and down her jaw, smiling when I saw her shoulders shake with the shiver that followed. "We're here," I whispered, tugging at the blindfold. The fabric loosened and fell away from her eyes.
"What is this place? It's beautiful." She spun in a circle, taking in our surroundings. When I had first checked out the One by the Five, it seemed rather cheesy to me. The more I thought about ending the night there, the more the hotel grew on me, and now, as I watched the expression on Bella's face, I knew I'd made the right decision.
Our room was designed to look – and feel – like we were sleeping among the stars. The floor beneath us was dark in color and adorned with small white twinkle lights and sweeping paintings of clouds. The ceiling above mirrored it, and the large bed, covered in a white comforter and fluffy pillows, was suspended from the wall. The lights in the room were dimmed, casting shadows on everything and silhouetting the woman I loved in a warm glow.
"We're at a small boutique hotel," I explained, slipping off my shoes and opening the first button on my shirt.
"You arranged all of this?"
I nodded. "I wanted us to have a night we'd never forget while we were here in Paris."
"It would be impossible for me to forget any of the moments I've had here with you."
"Yes, but I wanted this one to stand out among the others." I took her hand and pulled her against me, kissing her forehead gently.
"Well, you've succeeded in making it so. This evening screams perfection in more ways than one." Bella looked up at me and smiled.
"You scream perfection in more ways than one."
She laughed. "Nobody screams perfection. We just happen to fit perfectly with some people."
"Well, I couldn't have asked for a better person to fit perfectly with." I shook my head and chuckled. "In case you hadn't noticed, Paris makes me incredibly lame and cheesy."
"Well, it's not the first time I've seen your incredibly lame and cheesy side, and I doubt it will be the last."
"True. I mean you do live with me now. You have unlimited access to all sides, good, bad, ugly, or otherwise."
Bella wound her arms around my waist and began running her hands up and down my back. "Good, bad, ugly, or otherwise, I wouldn't have you any other way."
"I can say the same for you, Ms. Swan." I leaned down and pressed my lips to hers gently. She melted easily into the kiss, opening her mouth and brushing her tongue against mine in a dance that never failed to take my breath away. Goosebumps peppered the soft skin on her arms and my fingers found their way to her silky hair. I took several steps back, stopping when I bumped into the bed.
"I need a step ladder to get up there," she joked when we parted.
"Nah, that's not necessary." I grabbed her waist and lifted her off the ground, spinning around and depositing her on the edge of the large bed. She laughed and fell backwards, stretching her arms over her head and wrapping her legs around my waist. I slid my hands beneath the fabric of her dress and up her thighs, stopping when I reached the edge of her black stockings. "I can only imagine how incredibly sexy these look on you."
Bella propped up on her elbows and fixed me with a seductive stare. "Perhaps you'll get a look."
"That's tempting," I said with a smile. "But right now, I have something else to show you." I crossed the room to where my overnight bag sat, withdrawing a long white box from inside. I returned to the bed and held the box out to Bella.
"Is this for me?"
"It's for both of us," I explained. She looked down at the ribbon that held the lid on the box, and then back up at me again.
"Do you want me to open it?" she asked. I nodded. She tugged at the edge of the ribbon and it slid off easily. Once the lid was removed, Bella stared in confusion at the contents. "Keys?"
"Yes, those are keys. One set is for you and one set is for me."
"We both have keys to the apartment. The keys to my old place are on the rack at home. So, what are these keys for exactly?"
I took a deep breath, hoping this was a surprise she'd enjoy as opposed to one she'd resent. "Those are keys to our new house in the Hamptons."
Her eyes grew wide. "We have our own place in the Hamptons?"
"As of two weeks ago we have a timeshare there." I placed my hand on top of her free one and gave her fingers a gentle squeeze. "I know the events that followed our trip out there weren't so great, but the time we spent there was. We made a lot of memories, and I wanted us to have a chance to go back and do it again whenever we wanted – and in a place we could call our own that didn't have any of the negativity tied to it."
"Can we afford something like that right now?"
I smiled. "I spend my days with numbers, sweetheart. I wouldn't make an investment that we couldn't afford."
A smile tugged at the corners of her lips. "This is all a bit surreal to me. Surreal and foreign, actually."
"The 'we' concept." She curled her fingers into quotation marks. "Making decisions as a couple, sharing things as a couple, living together … all of it. Please don't get me wrong, I love it, I really do, I'm just not quite used to it yet."
"Neither am I," I admitted.
"An outsider would never know that. You're a pro at this."
"I'll take that as a compliment considering we've lived together for less than two months."
"Just imagine how awesome we'll be at this in a year!" Bella dropped the keys back in the box and pushed it to the opposite side of the bed. She scooted forward, wrapping her arms around my neck and pressing her lips softly against mine.
"I'll never get tired of kissing you," I mumbled, turning the cheesiness up another notch.
"Thank you, Edward."
"Everything." She looked up at me with love-filled eyes. "The kiss in the back of your car last fall. New Year's Eve, the book tour, the Hampton's house, and this whirlwind romance. Thank you for all of it, Edward."
I rested my forehead against hers. "It's all been my pleasure, however, I'm the one who should be thanking you."
"What do you have to thank me for?"
"Humbling me," I answered, brushing my fingertips over her hair. "For taking a chance on me despite what you'd heard and witnessed. For believing I could change when nobody else – not even I – believed it possible. For still being with me, even after all the crazy shit that happened this spring. And for loving me."
"That's quite the list," she teased, giving me a wink.
"It could be my next book, really," I joked. When her eyes met mine again I let the smile fall from my face. "All joking aside, I really am thankful for everything I just mentioned."
"All joking aside, I really am happy I could be a part of it." Bella ran her fingers through my hair and smiled. "Now, I think that was enough seriousness to last for the rest of our trip."
"Sooo…" her voice trailed off and a wicked glint shone behind her eyes. "What do we do now?"
"How about showing me those stockings?" I asked, wiggling my eyebrows suggestively.
Bella simply laughed and pressed her lips to mine once more.
4,000 miles stood between New York and me, but that didn't matter.
I was with Bella.
And that meant I was at home.
The closer we got to Bois de Boulogne the more anxious I became. A thin layer of sweat coated my palms and my heartbeat refused to slow. I should have done this right when we got to Paris. Not the night before we're scheduled to leave.
"Are you okay?" Alice squeezed my hand and brought my attention back to her.
"I'm fine," I said with a smile. "I'm just thinking about going back to New York tomorrow."
"Ten days went by much too fast," she said with a forlorn glance out her window. I nodded my agreement and allowed my mind to wander right back to the worried state it had been in since we left for our date earlier in the evening.
Hard copy of the proposal speech just in case I forget everything at the last minute? Check.
Champagne toast at the hotel prepared? Check.
I ran through the mental checklist of everything I needed three more times before the driver brought the car to a stop at our destination. My behavior up until this point, though far from impressive, was exactly what I would expect from a man about to ask the women he loves one of the most important questions of his life.
"I'll never get over how beautiful this city is," Alice breathed, reaching for the door handle. I quickly leaned over and stopped her.
"Don't get out yet!" I shouted. She glanced at me like I was crazy and pulled her hand back.
"Are we waiting for someone?"
"No, I just, uh, I need to make a quick call. Privately." I jumped out of the car and shut the door behind me before she could ask any more questions. Once I dialed Edward's number, it felt like forever before he answered. In reality it was only after three rings.
"Did you do it?"
"We just got here and I'm freaking the fuck out!"
"It's going to be fine, man. You've been preparing for this for weeks."
"Did you and Bella get everything back at the hotel set up?" I glanced over and saw Alice peering out the car's back window, confusion blanketing her features. I gave her an awkward smile and a small wave before turning away.
"It's all taken care of, just like we discussed."
I closed my eyes and tipped my head back, pinching the bridge of my nose and blowing out a nervous breath. "I don't know if I can do this."
The next sound I heard was Bella's voice. "Jasper?"
"I'm only going to say this once and then I'm hanging this phone up." I opened my mouth to protest, but she continued. "I've known Alice for years, and I've never seen her fall as hard for someone as she's fallen for you. She loves you, wholeheartedly. Be as nervous as you'd like, but you really have nothing to worry about."
I kept the disconnected phone pressed against my ear for several seconds before finally slipping it in my pocket and taking a deep breath. I opened my eyes, squared my shoulders, and walked to the other side of the car. My stomach continued to churn with nervousness as I opened Alice's door.
"You look like you're going to be sick," she said, taking my hand and stepping onto the curb. I smiled and closed the car door behind her.
"I'm fine," I assured her. Red and orange hues colored the bottom half of the sky as the sun began her descent below the horizon. I entwined my fingers with Alice's and led her toward the entrance of the rose garden.
"Nights like this don't exist in New York," she commented, taking in the beauty of the sunset.
"Sure they do. You just have to travel to the outer edges of the boroughs," I joked.
She nudged my ribs gently with her elbow and laughed. "Or be blessed with a penthouse at the top of a tall tower."
"True." I took a deep breath and led her down a path to our right. The walkway was lined with bushes of roses, each a different color. "Penthouses and an abundance of material possessions do not a blessed man make, even in a place like Manhattan."
"Is that so? Tell me, oh wise one, what makes a Manhattan man blessed then?"
"Finding an incredible woman to walk beside him." I reached down and pulled a burgundy colored rose from one of the bushes, handing it to Alice. "Have I ever told you how much I love you?"
A smile danced on her lips as she brought the flower to her nose and inhaled its sweet smell. "Yes, but I would never object to being told once more."
"For as many times as I've said the words, I'm still not certain there's an adequate way to express just how much I mean them." We continued our slow walk and my mind drifted off to the speech that I had spent weeks trying to perfect. "Have I ever told you all of the things that I love about you?"
"Who are you and what have you done with Jasper?" Alice came to a stop and turned to face me. "Did the Paris romance bug bite you this morning?"
I shook my head. "Actually it was the Alice bug that bit me, and it happened last fall." I tried to keep a straight face, but even I couldn't help but laugh at how corny I sounded.
"Wow." She shook her head and rolled her eyes. "You did not just go there."
"On the contrary, I did just go there. And if you don't mind, I'd like to keep going." I took one last deep breath and ran with it. "Before I met you, Alice, I wasn't living; I was simply existing. I was a shell of a man who occasionally attempted to date, but never managed to get past the initial stages of awkwardness before finding one reason or another to end things and move along. I couldn't see it at the time, but now that I look back, I think each of those ending moments were meant to happen, because they led me to one person I never want things to end with – you."
"Jasper-" Alice began. I pressed my finger to her lips so I could continue.
"Any man – or woman for that matter – would be lucky to say he or she knows you. But I see myself as the luckiest of all, because not only do I know you, but I also know all of the little things that make you the amazing woman you are. Like the way your eyes start to sparkle when you're about to launch into a story about something that excites you. Or the way your lower lip twitches ever so slightly when you're nervous. Or how you spent all of one Saturday morning creating the perfectly mixed cup of coffee and cream, only to put it in a to-go cup and take it to Lowe's so you could make sure they mixed the paint for your kitchen in the exact shade of mocha you wanted it.
"You're amazing, Alice. You're beautiful, intelligent, witty, and funny, and all of the small things about you – the oddities and quirks, the endearing characteristics – come together to create a woman who couldn't be more wonderful if she tried." She clutched the rose tightly with one hand while tears brimmed her eyes. I smiled and shook my head as the last of my apprehension melted away.
"Never in a million years did I think I'd be standing here, in the middle of a gorgeous rose garden in the most romantic city in the world, with the woman who caught my eye at the Guggenheim. But, here I am, and I can't think of anyone I'd rather be with in this moment. In fact, I can't think of anyone I'd rather be with for any of the moments of the rest of my forever." I let go of Alice's hand and dropped to one knee. The tears began to pour down her cheeks as I pulled the black velvet box from my pocket. "You, Alice Erickson, are the love of my life. You're the page to my words, the eggs to my bacon, and the answer to my forever. Will you do me the unimaginable honor of becoming my wife?" I flipped the box open, displaying the rose gold ring it held.
Alice dropped to her own knees in front of me. Her tears were falling freely now but a smile lit up her face. "I want nothing more than to become your wife, Jasper Whitlock." I pulled the ring from the box and slid it onto her trembling finger. A small sob escaped her lips as she cupped my face between her hands and pressed her mouth against mine. I wound my arms around her shoulders and pulled her to me, both of us laughing as we fell to the ground in a happy, tearful heap.
Up until that moment, I thought I'd found ultimate happiness.
The truth was, I'd never been happier in my entire life.
Time flew by as it always did when I was enjoying myself, and before I knew it we were back in the city in the day-to-day grind.
"Victoria will be here in ten minutes!" I looked up and saw Alice in the doorway of my office.
"Is the conference room ready?" I asked, gathering up the pile of documents I'd spent the morning going over.
"I put out bagels, along with coffee, juice, and water. It's probably a bit much, but I want this to be a morning we can all remember for a while."
I nodded and smiled. "I do too." As soon as I was alone I allowed my mind to wander off, focusing on my evening plans instead of the nervousness I felt.
"Are you coming?" Alice reappeared in my doorway, tearing me away from my trance. I slipped the stack of papers into my pad folio and followed my friend down the hall to where our meeting would take place.
"Your dad's attorney read through all of this, right?" I already knew the answer, but it seemed logical to ask the question one more time.
Alice nodded. "Everything is legit. Did you sign anything yet?"
I shook my head. "It seemed like something we should do together."
"I agree." We were about to sit down when our receptionist tapped on the door.
"Ms. White is here to see you."
"Send her in," I instructed. I straightened the bottom of my pencil skirt and glanced at Alice one last time.
"Alice! Bella! It's so great to see you both!" Victoria breezed into the room, greeting us each with a peck on the cheek. She looked stunning in a flowing white sundress and a large Kentucky Derby style hat.
"It's great to see you too, Victoria," Alice said, taking a seat at the head of the large rectangular table.
"I can't tell you how happy I am that we're having this meeting!" Victoria exclaimed. Her enthusiasm alone was enough to melt away any of the last lingering worries I had regarding what we were about to do.
"We're both happy as well," I said, opening my pad folio and spreading the pile of documents out in front of me.
"I assume you've gone over the terms of the contract?"
"We have," Alice answered.
"Do you have any questions you would like to ask me?"
I shook my head. "We reviewed everything together and had an attorney look things over."
"Do you have any questions for us?" Alice asked.
Victoria spent a minute thinking before she answered. "I do have one, actually. It's no secret that your family is well off, Alice. Why haven't they offered to help with any part of your business ventures?"
"They have offered, actually," Alice explained. "We just never took them up on it. I've always prided myself on achieving success without having to dip into the Erickson pool of funds. So many people assume that I live off of my family's fortune, when in reality everything I have in life I've earned myself."
"That, my dear friend, is even more reason for people to respect you." Victoria smiled and withdrew a pen from the briefcase style tote she carried. "And reason for me to feel even more confident about financing your event planning venture." She signed the appropriate pages on the master copy of our contract and passed the document to Alice. After we all had our turn, I called on our receptionist to make copies of the signed agreement.
"I have the check for you," Victoria explained, withdrawing an envelope from her bag and sliding it across the table. "We should schedule the first few monthly meetings that were outlined in the contract."
I thought more about what we were doing as I pulled out my planner. When Victoria originally suggested we branch out into event planning, it just didn't seem like a viable option. Time and money were the biggest obstacles, with the later presenting more of a problem, but on top of that, neither Alice nor I felt like we had adequate experience in the field. Edward's book release was a success, as was the White party, but both locations had event managers who shouldered a lot of the work. We'd never planned any single event entirely on our own, and who knew if we even could.
Between the White party and present day we'd done a lot of thinking and talking to others, both in and outside the industry. After much consideration, we agreed to proceed with the expansion. Alice would continue to manage the PR firm, while I would take leadership of the event-planning segment. Victoria's investment was large enough that I could hire a second staff to help me when things got off the ground, with the hope of expanding even more once we developed a list of clients. Esme was already talking us up to several hard hitters in the travel industry, and had put us in touch with some people from her network that had the potential to become valuable resources down the line. There was risk involved – a lot of it – but Alice and I both agreed that nothing in life came free or easy, and more often than not the biggest rewards had a high amount of risk attached.
"Would you like a bagel or some coffee?" I glanced up as Alice pointed toward her small spread. Victoria simply smiled and shook her head.
"No, but thank you for offering. I have a lunch date after we're done here." She glanced down at her phone screen. "So, July 18, August 9, and September 20 are all on the books, correct?"
I nodded. "Does ten o'clock in the morning at our office work for each one?"
"Absolutely." Victoria keyed the information into her calendar before tucking the phone away. "Please remember, if you have questions about anything, including getting this new venture off the ground, I'm always available to help."
"That's it?" I asked. "This seems so … informal, for lack of a better word."
Victoria waited for our receptionist to drop off the contracts before speaking. "We took care of the bulk of things at our last meeting. As long as you have no questions, I don't see any need to make this more complicated than necessary. Lawyers on both ends have reviewed everything, you have a solid business plan to run off of, and I know your CPA. If you were strangers, or novices, this would only be a jumping off point. I guess it still is a jumping off point, but you're accomplished businesswomen and you've proven your abilities on more than one occasion. Formalities really aren't needed at this point, at least not for me."
"Well, then I guess this is settled." Alice smiled brightly and stood up. "Thank you for everything these past few months, Victoria. I promise you won't be disappointed with this."
Victoria stood and collected her things. "I'd be disappointed if you didn't agree to try this. But you did agree to, and I know you'll do fantastic." She circled the room once more, giving us each another peck on the cheek. "I'll see you in a month, ladies."
"See you in a month," I called, waving after her as she breezed out of our office.
Alice looked at me. I looked at her. And, just like a pair of young girls, we let out simultaneous squeals of delight.
-=- HC -=-
"How was the meeting?" Edward was leaning against the side of the Lincoln, a small bouquet of roses in one hand and a bright smile on his face.
"Fantastic," I said, standing on my toes and pressing my lips against his. He handed me the flowers and opened the car door. "What are these for?" I asked once he was seated next to me.
"It's my way of saying congratulations." He slid an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close to him. "Were you nervous?"
"As hell," I laughed. "But it melted away pretty quick. Victoria is a good person and all of this just feels right."
"You're amazing at everything you do. This will be no different."
"I hope so." I rested my head on his shoulder and sighed. Moments later, the car came to a stop. I looked down at the roses, unsure of what to do with them.
Edward took the bouquet and laid it on the seat next to him, as if reading my mind. "They should be okay in here while we eat."
I smiled softly and slid out of the car. It had been a few weeks since we returned from Paris, and we had yet to get the whole group together. So, when Jasper called everyone earlier in the week to set something up, we all jumped at the chance.
"Bell!" Mike leaped out of his chair and raced around the table, picking me up and spinning me around in a giant hug.
"Holy hell, Newton! When did you grow guns?" I joked, squeezing his biceps when I was back on the ground.
"Don't let that display fool you, honey," Laurent scoffed. "That's all adrenaline rush and no muscle in there."
"Adrenaline rush, huh?" I dropped down into the chair Edward had pulled out for me and hung my purse on the back of it. "Why so excited, Mikey?"
"Can't I be excited to see you, Swan?" Mike rolled his eyes and took a sip of his martini.
"You just saw me last week," I pointed out.
"For fucks sakes, woman, take a compliment and go with it!"
Edward took a seat beside me and frowned. "Where is everyone?"
"Rose's doctor appointment ran late, but she and Emmett are on their way. I haven't heard anything from Alice," Mike explained.
"That's because I'm here!" My best friend slid into the chair on my other side and winked. I couldn't help but feel giddy when I caught sight of the expression on her face. Her post-engagement glow was still going strong, and her eyes continued to dance in a way I'd never before witnessed.
"Just the woman I wanted to see!" Laurent leaned forward on his elbows and flashed Alice a grin. "Did you set a date yet?"
"We'll discuss that when everyone is here." Jasper wiggled his eyebrows mischievously.
"You're evil," Mike pouted.
"What did Short Stop do now?" Rose and Emmett appeared out of nowhere.
"She's withholding pertinent information," Mike whined.
I looked over at Laurent and narrowed my eyes. "What inspired you to let him leave the house today?"
"This," Laurent waved his hands in the air, gesturing toward Mike, "isn't my responsibility, sweetie. I'm his boyfriend, not his babysitter."
I giggled and buried my nose in the menu. Fifteen minutes later we had successfully placed our food and drink orders, and were ready to get down to the business of socializing.
"Alright, everyone is here, so please answer my question." Laurent fixed Alice with his puppy dog eyes, causing the rest of us to laugh.
Alice looked over at Jasper and then around the table. "How do you all feel about a summer wedding?"
Rose's eyes grew wide. "Summer as in sometime in the next three months?"
"Yes, Rose, because shotgun weddings are all the rage in the Erickson family." Alice rolled her eyes. "Next summer. June 22 to be more specific."
Mike looked like he was about to bounce out of his chair. "Ohh, I love summer weddings! You can do so much with the colors! And the dresses! Are you going strapless? Please say you're going strapless-"
"Stop!" Alice held one hand up and closed her eyes. I could almost hear her mentally counting to five before taking a deep breath and opening them again. "We just set the date. I'm not even going to start thinking about any other details for at least a month."
"Well, if you need any help in the way of bridal couture, you always know where to find me," Rose said with a wink.
"Of course! Who else do you think I'd have design my dresses?"
"Chanel?" Mike teased.
Rose glared across the table, but there was humor behind her features. "If I wasn't seven months pregnant I'd slap you silly."
"Oh, you could still slap him silly. It might do him some good." Laurent ducked to avoid Mike's attempted swat to the head. "Now, which of you strapping gentlemen will be the next to propose?" He looked back and forth between Edward and Emmett expectantly. It took all of a minute for them to both burst out laughing.
"Dude, we just moved in with each other," Edward told him.
"And we aren't even living together," Emmett pointed out.
Mike arched an eyebrow. "So? You already spread your baby batter all around Smith-town. Putting a ring on it is the next step."
"Baby batter?" Edward scrunched his nose up in disgust. "Are we thirteen again?" I couldn't help but laugh at his expression, and soon the entire table followed suit.
"Ok, ok, enough talk about baby batter and wedding bells!" Rose looked expectantly at Alice and me. "I want to hear about this secret meeting you had today."
Edward leaned over and lowered his voice to a whisper. "You didn't tell anyone else?"
"What super secret meeting?" Rose's question caught everyone's attention, including Emmett, who up until then had remained fairly quiet.
"Bella and I have some exciting news to share." The noise at the table died down and all eyes turned to us.
"We met with Victoria White today," I began.
"And?" Mike hedged.
"She's financing our business expansion!" Alice exclaimed.
"Business expansion? Since when did you decide to expand?" Rose was visibly shocked.
"We've been discussing it since before Paris," Alice explained. "We made the decision to do it when we got back."
"What kind of expansion are you doing?" Laurent inquired.
"Bella is going to head up a new event planning segment." Alice beamed proudly at me. I felt my cheeks redden with embarrassment.
"Bell! That's so amazing!" Mike was out of his chair and around the table again, wrapping his arms around my and Alice's shoulders in a big hug.
"Thanks," I said. "We signed the papers and got the check today. So, next week I officially start the daunting task of trying to set this operation up – in addition to playing publicist for some good-looking New York author."
Edward grinned. "What a lucky guy. Do I need to find him and kick his ass?"
"Perhaps. You could probably take him. He's a bit of a softie," I teased. Edward elbowed me in the ribs playfully.
The conversation continued until our food came. Emmett talked about his newest theater production, getting some "oohs" and "ahhs" from Mike when he said Orlando Bloom was the male lead. Edward gave everyone a few details about the book he had just started working on and Rose launched into an animated description of a line of evening gowns she was designing. As I looked around the table at my group of friends, I couldn't help but smile.
Emmett rubbed his hand on Rose's belly lovingly and gave her a chaste peck on the cheek.
Laurent whispered something in Mike's ear, causing him to turn read and mouth, "Not until we're home!"
Jasper held Alice's hand and stroked his thumb gently over her ring. And Edward rested his hand on my knee, giving it a light squeeze and making my blood rush straight to my cheeks.
Since the beginning of the new year, it seemed like every piece of the puzzle known as life had began silently falling into place. Edward and I had defined our relationship, survived a series of large hurdles, and come out stronger than ever. My friendships were constantly evolving, but it seemed like we'd all reached a place we'd never been before; paired off, happy in our relationships, and comfortable with what the future looked like. For the first time in my life, Charlie actually liked a man I was dating, and now Alice and I were about to embark on a new business journey.
We were all entering uncharted territories together. Motherhood, marriage, and co-habitation hung over our heads, threatening to make or break us if we didn't play our cards correctly. That didn't seem to matter, however, because we had one another to pick us up and brush us off if we fell. I wasn't foolish enough to believe that things would always seem so perfect. Life was a challenge regardless of how a person chose to live it. There would no doubt be hurdles along the way, but I knew we would all move forward together, taking the difficult parts in stride.
I couldn't have asked for a better group of friends.
I couldn't have asked for a better life.
Vous êtes un trou du cul! = You're an asshole.
Bienvenue à l'aéroport international Charles de Gaulle = Welcome to the Charles de Gaulle International Airport.
I used Google translate because I had no luck finding a French speaker to assist with translations. So, if these aren't correct, I apologize. I can speak Spanish fairly well, but French is out of my ballpark.
As most know, this is the final regular chapter of the story. There are two epilogues coming and then it's a wrap.
Thank you once more for being patient and continuing to read. I've been asked via PM, Facebook, and Twitter if I'm going to finish this story, and the answer is yes. I love these characters too much to leave this hanging. And I would never do that to readers either.
Until we meet again...