Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended. Stephenie Meyer created and owns this world in which I like to play.
So, yeah, this kinda came to me on a break from editing my original fiction book. I ignored the plot bunny because life has been just crazy. However, after I sent my book off to the wonderful Kathie for a knuckle biting edit, I decided to take a quick moment away and write this scene so it would leave me alone. Then, as soon as I started writing this outtake, another one came to mind . . . then a whole other story about the Cullens began forming. I could just hit myself in the head, seriously. I have an outline to put together for the second in my book series, and here I'm having fun in FF world again.
Anyhow, I've written twelve chapters on the new FF story (called Mother Father), and if I can get myself to finish it, I'll post. But for now, I wanted to send this out as a special thank you for all the readers who've taken the time to grace my stories over the years. It is totally unbetaed, so all errors are mine. Also, just FYI, this outtake happens before Aro's chapter (ie . . . the last chapter I posted in Sins a year ago on Valentine's Day. What a coincidence.) In this moment in the Cullen/Velathri/Black world, Aro is still alive and kicking.
I would've waited until Valentine's Day to post, but I doubt very many FF readers will be around their computers on that day for various reasons.
I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, as Jasper would say. Never one to like being in the spotlight, I was about to make a spectacle of myself. But it wasn't the attention that had me sweating, it was the possible outcome of my shenanigans that had my stomach tied up in knots. I'd been planning everything for months, but something could go wrong, including Carlie flat out refusing.
My leg jiggled, drawing my father's attention. He grinned and shook his head, which caused my mother to turn and look my way. At least she smiled encouragingly. I wanted to throw something at my dad. If I didn't know I had his full support, I would have. It hadn't been long ago I'd let him in on my plans.
"Dad, can I talk with you for a moment?" He was in his shop working on a new carving.
"Yup," he said, popping the "p." Pulling a rag from his table, he brushed off the other stool, knocking some fine shavings to the floor. The room smelled of freshly cut wood, his aftershave, and the stains he used at times. It was a combination of scents I would forever associate with home and love.
"What's on your mind?" he asked as I took a seat across from him. Having set down the project he'd been working on, his dark eyes focused on me.
He grinned wolfishly. "And that's different from any other day?" he teased.
Busted, I grinned. I was a little focused on her, but this was different. Taking a deep breath, I let the words spill from my lips.
"I want to ask her to marry me on Valentine's Day. When we go to the Cullens' party for New Beginnings."
Over the past two years, Edward and Aunt Bella had worked with one of the women who'd petitioned the Cullen's charitable organization to build a small city under Esme's guidance. Conveniently located in a previously abandoned factory close to many of the major hospitals, the facility would give families the ability to stay for free while their children were getting medical care. Named by Samantha, aka Sam2, and Madison Cullen, it was opening on Valentine's Day, and there was to be a big celebration. Everyone was going to be there, and I wasn't just talking about the Cullens, Blacks, and Velathris. It was going to be a society and press event, and I didn't want to create a spectacle. But then again, I did. Carlie was worth it.
"And you are coming to me because?" He arched his eyebrow at me.
Really? He had to ask? He was Carlie's father as much as he was mine. "To ask for your blessing. I'm going to Edward next."
He laughed loudly, grabbing me into a hug. "Make sure you let the redhead know you asked me first," he teased.
I rolled my eyes at his jab. He and Uncle Edward had become very good friends since Bellagate, as we jokingly called it. Edward had enough to worry about anyway right now, so teasing him might not be the best thing.
"Seth, I'm honored you'd ask, and, of course, I give you my blessing. I'm not certain you or Carlie would listen even if I said no. You two are made for each other." Smiling, he patted my shoulder with his hand. "Now, let's talk about what's important. Have you two decided what you're going to use for protection?"
I couldn't help but start laughing. Aunt Bella had already taken Carlie to the gynecologist to get on birth control, but it would seem dad didn't know.
"We were . . . um . . . thinking we wouldn't worry about it. I mean we are going to be together forever and having a kid early wouldn't be horrible. I mean, it might actually be better timing than waiting until we are in graduate school."
My dad turned white. Then his mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water. I started laughing so hard I snorted. The next thing I knew, we were in the floor wrestling like kids.
"Twerp," he snarled, goosing me in the ribs and causing me to lose hold of his arms.
He pinned me, but didn't think to secure my feet. Levering them, I threw him across the room into the wall beside the door. Once he might have over powered me, but I'd hit another growth spurt and was touching six four.
The door opened as he slid down the wall, and my mother glared at us both. "Really?"
My sister sniffed her disdain from beside my mom.
"Dinner's ready. If you two mutts can behave, you can come eat."
Knowing exactly why I'd come out here, she winked at me slyly before closing the door. She'd been the first person I'd talked to about it all.
My dad and I broke down in laughter when the door slammed impressively.
Sitting cross legged, I assessed the being across from me. I could do a lot worse than be the man, husband, and father he was. "Dad, I'm scared." So there it was.
All humor fled as he motioned me over to sit by him. When I did, he plopped his big arm around my shoulder and squeezed. "About what?"
"What if I fail her? It's easy to be a boyfriend, but a husband?" I shrugged, looking down at my hands.
"You know, you're going to get a lot of different advice if you ask people what makes a good marriage. Some say it is the sex appeal, others the mutual interest, and more than a few will tell you it is just plain luck. Now, I'll admit I was extremely lucky when your mom beat me over the head to make me see reason, and we definitely share interests to a degree." A devilish look came over his face. "And we know your mom thinks I'm all hot and everything." He said this as he patted his washboard stomach, and I cracked up laughing at him. He grinned and then grew serious. "But, it's all about how you manage to remain 'in like,' Seth. Your mom loves me, but I chose to think she likes me most of the time as well. It's a lot of work, but in my opinion, the key to having a good marriage is being good friends. You and Carlie have that down to a science."
"Just remember you two have families on both sides who will support you through the thick and thin. You'll never be alone, and if something gets crazy, come see one of us about it. Marriage is work, even when you love, respect, and like the person to whom you're married. Having a good support system is crucial, especially for those times you're in the dog house."
I shook my head, grinning. I could see myself being there a time or two.
Suddenly he stilled. "Hey, do you need help with a ring?"
A hot rush of blood filled my cheeks. "Um . . . no. I've got it taken care of."
My recollection of that day ended with my father's confusion, even though we'd gone on to talk about more important things, like the fact I wanted him to be my best man. There would never been anyone I'd ever imagined other than him at my side. Before Edward had come into the picture, I'd wondered how we were going to handle the wedding, but providence had certainly provided the answer. In regards to the ring, I'd been sworn to secrecy, so even though I wanted to tell him, I couldn't.
I reached for the box in my pocket for probably the hundredth time. I was becoming as OCD as Edward, checking, every few seconds, that I hadn't lost it. Grinning at the thought, I focused back on the mayor and the speech he was giving, only to catch Carlie watching me out of the corner of my eye. I tried not to cringe as I faced her. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes assessing. She'd gotten on to me several times during the day, asking what was wrong and questioning my distraction. A curious, pissed-off Carlie was never a good thing.
To distract her, I leaned over and grabbed her hand, bringing her knuckles to my lips for a quick kiss and nibble. She blushed at my actions. It was a reminder of the prior evening when our kissing had gotten a little out of control. I took several deep breaths to calm down before I embarrassed myself. Waiting was killing me, and I was afraid I was going to be a lunatic before June came. It'd never been a secret Carlie and I planned to get married right out of high school, but I'd wanted to wait for the right opportunity to make our engagement official.
And hopefully tonight was the night.
Looking around at the room, I cringed at the number of people focusing on the speeches.
New Beginnings was a big to-do. Bella and Edward had found a factory that had been abandoned and placed up for sale, and Esme had gone crazy. The larger of the two old buildings had been converted to family housing consisting of apartment style homes. After removing the large concrete parking lot between the main structures, she'd developed a playground and park. However, taking into consideration the temperamental Seattle climate, she'd connected the buildings, leaving the second one open. In it, she'd built an indoor play area, including a climbing wall. To the side of the playground was an industrial kitchen and dining area that would supply meals for the families, for the times they did not want to utilize the smaller kitchens in the living units. A small laundry service and extensive library occupied the other side. In between these amenities was a living room of epic proportions. Bigger than most ballrooms, it was designed to allow families to congregate, and for events such as today, it could be cleared and utilized to bring public awareness to a worthy cause.
While the catering staff made their way between the tables, teenagers dispersed literature regarding opportunities to volunteer and for sponsorship. I was hoping the effort would produce a lot of contributions, because Aro and Marcus were going to let me draw up the first drafts of the donation paperwork. They'd have to refine them and put their names to the papers to make it all legit, but I was going to get an unprecedented opportunity. Being a favored intern at the law office had some perks, even if the hours sometimes killed me.
But long hours and a killer internship weren't the only fruits of my labor.
"You seem distracted young man," Aro said softly, drawing my attention.
Having slouched over in my chair, my elbow on the table and chin in my hand, I shot straight up at his voice. He'd asked me to read a legislative piece from the last session that hadn't passed, to note the strengths and weaknesses of the bill. I didn't understand all the premises and arguments, having avoided political discussions like most red-blooded American teenagers, but the gist of the bill was clear – the formation of a task force to investigate the possible disparate treatment of prisoners, particularly juveniles, based upon race. The data was interesting, but I'd quickly learned numbers could be manipulated to support any idea. Whether or not the disparate treatment was happening, or whether or not it was a product of different cultures or norms appeared to be the point of contention. I'd been contemplating the bill was doomed from the beginning because of the way it had been proposed . . . by a Senator known to be a hot head and one to use issues to glorify his name.
"Sorry," I apologized, wondering how long he'd been standing beside me. "I'm a little tired. I worked late last night."
"Worked?" he asked, his eyebrow arched.
"A side job helping one of our neighbors down the street."
He sat, his hands in a prayerful manner on the table surface. Having lost his hair to the chemotherapy he'd endured, what had grown back was still short, falling just at his jawline. It was a mixture of inky black and stark white stripes. Combined with his pose, it made him appear otherworldly, like some great wizard from Tolkien's worlds.
"Our compensation for the internship isn't enough?" he murmured.
Crap! I didn't want him to think I wasn't appreciative. "No!" I said quickly. "No, it's not that. I've been saving for something special."
He turned his head to the side, and I squirmed in my seat. The man could get anyone to spill their guts simply with a look.
"I um . . . I've been saving for a ring, for Carlie."
He smiled immediately, deviltry filling his eyes. "A ring, you say?" I swear I blushed, even though boys weren't supposed to. "For how long?"
I know I blushed then. "Since I was ten."
He roared in laughter, and the noise attracted Sulpicia's attention. We were working from their home because Aro hadn't been feeling well the past week. Aunt Bella had panicked along with Sulpicia and taken him to the doctor, but it had proven to simply be a virus. Still, they hadn't allowed him out of the house, ordering rest.
"What are you cackling at, old man?" she teased harshly. The tone was belied by the love and affection in her eyes as she came into his study, running her hands across his shoulders to lean in and kiss the crown of his head.
"Our boy. Did you know he's been saving for Carlie an engagement ring since he was just a pup?" He turned to look up at her.
She grinned back at him. "No, I didn't."
They both turned back to me at the same time. I still got weirded out over the Velathris, but couldn't figure out why. They'd been nothing but amazing to my family. It was with that thought an idea struck me.
"Do you have a recommendation for a good jeweler? Someone you could trust to give me a fair price?" I shrugged. "I don't have a ton of money, and certainly not enough for what I'd like to get her." I'd been planning to approach my dad or Edward to help me go look, but the words had just popped out of my mouth.
Aro smiled serenely. "Yes, I think I might have a suggestion or two." He rose, indicating for Sulpicia to take the seat he was vacating. "I'll be right back." Eyes wide, I watched him leave.
"Humor him?" Sulpicia asked softly, confusing me.
"Sure," I answered without understanding what she was requesting.
I respected them immensely, and it didn't hurt that Carlie thought of them as family, pseudo grandparents or an esteemed aunt or uncle at the least.
She distracted me from questioning her by asking about what I'd been reading. I was explaining my interpretation of the papers when Aro walked in with what appeared to be a large briefcase. Assuming he was looking for a business card he'd stashed in it, I was struck dumb when he placed the case before me and opened it. It was not a briefcase, but a large jewelry carrier; a multitude of necklaces, rings, and bracelets glittered back at me in the bright lights.
Horrified, I looked back to them. "I–" The words stuck in my throat. I didn't want to take something from them, wanting to do this myself. Sulpicia caught my eyes and narrowed hers at me in warning.
Humor him . . .
Aro lifted the first layer away to reveal another, then another. When he was done, three narrow trays of brilliant gems twinkled in greeting from their placement on the table before me.
Putting his hand on my shoulder, Aro said, "Now, I'm certain you want to do this by yourself."
What! Was he some mind reader?
"But allow us to help a little. These pieces are ancient . . . things from Sulpicia's family or items I've acquired over the years in payment for services rendered." He chuckled softly when I jerked. "All legal, young Seth. Now, with no excuses for being nosy, how much do you have for your Carlie?"
I was proud of the amount, even though I knew it wouldn't buy the best of rings. "A little more than five thousand."
"Impressive," Aro murmured. His eyebrow even arched, which was a mannerism generally reserved for my dad or Edward.
It'd helped I hadn't had to buy a car. Edward, Aunt Bella, and my parents had made sure Carlie and I had safe ones to take to college.
"And you don't want to pick out a ring with her?" Sulpicia asked gently.
So here was the heart of the matter. "I was thinking a diamond solitaire, and then when I can afford something better we can choose a setting she likes for an anniversary or special occassion. She is so organized and a planner . . . and bossy." We all chuckled at that. "It's not like everyone doesn't know we want to get married, so a ring is a given. I just want to surprise her once, you know?" I sounded like an idiot.
Sulpicia wiped a tear out from below her eye. "Then it has to be perfect."
Perfect. The jewelry before me wasn't . . . for Carlie. It was all too much. Some of it wasn't even attractive, or at least to me, but I didn't know how to break it to them. Aro saved me.
"Well, none of this is perfect for Carlie, but many of the stones are rare and priceless like her." He pulled a chair to sit beside me. "Look at the stones and see if one appeals to you, then we'll take the piece to my friend at Tiffany's. This will all go to Isabella and Carlie upon our deaths anyway, so this will allow you to focus on the quality of the setting. It'll take what you have saved to buy a platinum setting and wedding band."
Sulpicia added, "So you'll be using the money you saved to actually buy the ring. The stone will just be hers a little earlier."
They were conning me, but I didn't want to appear ungrateful. It couldn't hurt to look before I begged off of the generosity. Pushing the file I'd been reviewing to the side, I nodded. I swear I heard Sulpicia squeal like Alice, but she was too reserved and refined for that.
There were diamonds galore, but most of them were too big. I'd been researching on-line and figured, one day, I'd like to get Carlie a nice quality one-carat stone. Her fingers were too small and hands too delicate to carry anything bigger gracefully. I was thinking whatever I could buy now might serve as an accent to my dream . . . but the ones on the first tray Aro presented made a carat look like a chip. The second tray wasn't much better, until I saw a delicate necklace. It had a single oval diamond suspended from a slender white chain.
I picked it up, holding it closer to examine. It would be a shame to destroy the necklace for the diamond, but it was very nice.
"Nice selection. It's most likely a little over a carat," Sulpicia said. "The shape would be nice in a solitaire. Put it to the side and keep looking," she encouraged.
Handing it to Aro, I did as she said, but my mind was stuck on the oval gem. Then at the bottom of the tray, I saw something intriguing. It was a bright yellow stone. Set in an atrocious ring and surrounded by a bunch of smaller diamonds, the round jewel still shone brightly.
"What is this one?" I asked, handing the ring to Sulpicia. I was no gemstone aficionado. I'd been way out of my league with the clandestine research I'd been putting into rings.
She hummed. "A very rare and unique fancy yellow diamond. It was my grandmother's. The story is my great grandfather brought it from Africa as a present when my father was born. The ring is horrible." She shuddered delicately. "But the stone is magnifico. I remember playing with it on her finger as a child. My grandmother treasured this piece until she died."
She reverently handed the piece to Aro to place beside the necklace.
I didn't see a need to go farther, but did so anyway and complicated everything. An emerald winked at me in the middle of a bunch of gold. Emerald cut . . . wow, showing off some of my knowledge . . . and a deep true green, it dazzled me. Already set into a simple gold ring, I could see it immediately in my mind as an engagement ring. But an emerald? Was that even acceptable?
"Carlie's eyes," Aro said softly.
I nodded, holding the ring before me. My hand shook.
Aro cleared the trays away, laying the two other pieces I'd selected on a soft cloth of blue velvet. It took me a moment to set the emerald ring down beside them.
"Diamond for tradition, emerald for Carlie's eyes, and canary diamond for?"
"The stars," I admitted with a shy grin. "It's one of our favorite things to do . . . go out to the beach at the Rez and watch the heavens. We've been doing it since we were kids. On a clear night, there are a million stars watching over us. Like the guy on It's a Wonderful Life, I've always told her I wished I could rope her one." Yeah I knew Jimmy Stewart said the moon, but Carlie had always wanted the stars.
Sulpicia did sob then.
"Carlie isn't your usual young woman, Seth. Any of your choices would make an exquisite ring," Aro offered.
She'd actually said she didn't even want an engagement ring, just a wedding band. I didn't know if she was being truly honest, or simply trying to keep from hurting my feelings. I'd been sneaky with hiding my money, so she probably thought I wasn't able to afford anything. In fact, I was hoping so, because it would make the surprise even better.
Sulpicia picked the oval diamond up, dangling it by the slender chain. "This would make Carlie a nice wedding present from us, Aro. She could wear it as her something old."
Clever woman. It was down to the emerald and canary diamond.
"I thought we were paying for the honeymoon," he murmured, making my jaw drop. "But if you want to add in the necklace, that's fine."
I gaped at him. "Honeymoon?"
"We've already had a discussion with your family. Your mother and father are paying for the wedding, we're doing the honeymoon, and Isabella and Edward are funding your college and the housing, if you choose to move away from Seattle. However, I would suggest you remain here at the University and enjoy the use of Bella and Carlie's first home. If done properly, the money you could invest from what Isabella and Edward have planned would easily provide financial security when you settle out of college or graduate school."
My mouth hadn't closed yet. I knew there were some plans, just not the magnitude. And when were they planning to let us in on all of it?
Aro snickered. "As you know, I love messing with your father, you know. Edward runs a close second. Act all surprised when they speak to you about this."
I couldn't help but laugh at his too pleased expression. Yellow canary in one hand and emerald in other, I pondered.
"Seth, are you sure everything is okay?" Carlie asked, leaning over to trace her fingertips along my jawline.
I had to catch my breath. She was absolutely stunning in her long white formal dress. Long dark hair pulled into some fancy twist her aunt had managed, the length of it fell down her back in curls. She wore the faintest of makeup, but her eyes had been highlighted with some smoky stuff making them glow like emeralds.
Like me, Carlie had continued growing and was now a couple of inches taller than Aunt Bella. She'd also filled out from the slender girl of our early teens. Curves had replaced tom-boy hips, and it took everything I had not to look down at what the neckline of her dress revealed. It gave away a little too much in my opinion, and I didn't like how other guys kept staring at her. Understanding completely how the green eyed monster had gotten Uncle Edward into so much trouble, I wanted to rip their eyes from the sockets.
Most of the guys on my football team and around school talked about Victoria Secret models as their ultimate fantasies. Those women had nothing on my girlfriend. I knew. The last summer had almost killed me with the tiny bikinis Carlie unleashed on me. She was my everything. But my everything came with a temper too, and I saw her eyes narrowing at my silence.
"Carlie, I'm nervous. You know I don't like being in front of people," I admitted.
The frustration melted from her features, and she grinned before leaning over to kiss my lips softly. "You're going to be fine. And while you are up there wowing them, I'm going to sit here and gloat about you being mine."
She giggled as I rolled my eyes at her.
"I'm still trying to figure out how to thank you for my necklace," she said softly, reaching up to run her fingertip along the line of the delicate platinum chain gracing her neck. "I love it! I know I've told you, but I can't believe you did this. Between the opening and your surprise, I can't imagine this day getting any better!" She bit the side of her lip. "You said Aro helped you get this made?" she asked, running her fingertip along the infinity sign with the emerald mounted at the junction of the loops.
The jeweler had about had a heart attack when Aro and I stepped into his private office and he'd gotten a first look at the two pieces I'd brought in to discuss. Pulling out a jeweler's loupe to look at the stones, the man attempted to remain professional, but he'd ruined the image when his hands started shaking.
"My young apprentice would like the emerald set in a necklace, and the diamond in an engagement ring," Aro had announced with flourish.
When I'd told my mom of my plans for a ring and the idea about presenting it to Carlie on Valentine's Day, she'd cried. But then she'd instructed me on the intricate art of proposing. It would seem getting your engagement ring for a Valentine's Day present wasn't "all the rage." She'd gone further to inform me I would have to give Carlie something else in addition, even if it was a small token. When the man from Tiffany had swallowed deeply and set both pieces of jewelry down with great reverence and greed, I'd known Carlie wouldn't be getting a trinket.
I'd about joined the man in critical care when he told me how much the diamond and emerald were worth, not to mention the stones I'd all but ignored beside the yellow one. At Aro's insistence the pieces were mine to bargain with, I'd come alive to work a deal to exchange the smaller diamonds bordering the canary one for the cost of necklace and solitaire setting. I'd still left a substantial credit with which Carlie and I could later shop for wedding bands, and my savings in the bank, much to my chagrin. The only thing that'd helped my ego was Aro's insinuation I could use it on our honeymoon to pamper Carlie. Much later, I'd realized he'd known exactly what he was doing taking me to Tiffany's and then distracting my very juvenile mind with visions of Carlie and me alone.
So if Carlie was left ignorant about the fact she wore the equivalent of the cost of a car around her neck, the more the better for now. I would never admit, unless she threatened to leave me, what the diamond in my pocket was worth. It absolutely scared me, but I'd known the minute I'd decided on the yellow stone, I'd made the right choice. Sulpicia had broken down in tears about her grandmother's legacy continuing, and in the end, I'd decided it was about what I wanted to give Carlie and what the stone would symbolize for the rest of our lives.
"I'm still upset with you though, because I don't know how you afforded this thing. Momma said emeralds could get real expensive." She had no clue.
I shrugged. "Hush and accept it gracefully."
Her eyelids lowered a tad bit more before I kissed her back, hopefully distracting her.
"Let us hear from one of the founders now," the mayor announced, drawing both of our attention back to what was happening around us. "Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce Mr. Edward Cullen."
Applause exploded around the room, with a loud whoop of excitement billowing out of Emmett. Rose smacked him in the back of the head, but nothing could detract Emmett from making a racket as my future father-in-law walked up on the makeshift stage. Dressed in a tuxedo, he drew several gasps from around the room making Aunt Bella chuckle.
"All they'd need to experience is his anal tendencies, and they wouldn't think he was so hot," she murmured in a teasing tone.
Carlie and I both rolled our eyes. Aunt Bella was sometimes delusional, but right now, she was being cantankerous. At Emmett's loudly yelled, "SS," the family, including Bella, burst out in laughter. I saw Edward blush even from where we were sitting.
"Hey!" Edward said, greeting me with a hug.
He was cooking something that smelled wonderful, and my mouth watered. I was starving, having come over to the house directly from school.
"Hungry?" he asked, going back over to the pot to stir it.
"Yeah." I sat at a stool, leaning against the marble counter top of the breakfast bar.
"I made potato soup, homemade yeast rolls, and a salad. Bella has only been able to handle bland stuff, so I hope that's okay?" He smiled as I nodded my head quickly. "I'll have it done in a minute, and you and I can eat." He reached over to where a cutting board of bacon sat and dumped it into the pot.
"Where's Aunt Bella?" I asked, realizing it was awfully quiet.
"Asleep, thank God." He shuddered, and I chuckled at him. "She's been so sick, and getting her to rest is about impossible. My mom took Nia and Tony over to her house to give us a few moments of peace and quiet. Sam and Madison were excited to get to watch them, so it worked out for all of us."
The twins were approaching their terrible twos, and although I wouldn't say they were all that terrible, they were energetic and far too intelligent for their own good. They could run circles around Carlie and me and had on many occasions.
"Any luck finding a part-time nanny?" I asked.
He turned and grinned over his shoulder at me. "Yes and no. We found two. One who came recommended from our last one and a man."
"Man?" I arched my eyebrow.
"Yeah," he shrugged. "He's a grad student from France and speaks four languages. I like him a lot, but I had to give him the stink eye over Bella."
I chuckled realizing he was being sincere.
"Then he got a look at Carlie . . ."
I growled, earning a chuckle.
"Don't worry. I took care of it."
Bringing the salad bowl and the rolls over in a basket, he put them down on the bar before going back to stir the soup. "Looks good to me. We'll be the taste testers," he proposed, holding out a large bowl for me to come over and serve up my own portion.
It was only when we sat down that I asked more about Aunt Bella. "What did the doctor today?"
"Not twins this time!" He acted so excited I had to laugh. They'd known it was only one baby for a while, so he was attempting to be funny. At my raised eyebrow, he chuckled. "It's a boy, and the doctor said Bella is fine, just a little dehydrated from the morning sickness."
"And afternoon sickness and evening sickness," I added.
"Yeah," he said, taking a deep breath.
I laughed at his sorrowful look. The family had absolutely tore them to pieces with glee when they'd admitted Bella was pregnant again. No two babies were more loved than Tony and Nia, but Aunt Bella's career had skyrocketed after the release of her last book. She'd finally revealed her true name, and the press had gone crazy. To add to it, Edward had gone back to work. So, on top of their careers, taking care of the twins and Carlie was a full time job. I knew Edward could've cared less about having more children. He was totally entranced, as my mother put it, with Bella, Carlie, and the twins. So the new baby was somewhat of an enigma and miracle at the same time.
I wasn't privy to their innermost workings, but I'd gathered Aunt Bella had been on the pill when it happened, like last time. This time, though, there hadn't been the excuse of antibiotics. It was then that Emmett had labeled Edward as SS. We should've known better than to ask, but Edward had chased him out of the house when Emmett announced it stood for Super Sperminator. That Bella had started retching just a moment after Edward leapt to chase Emmett hadn't helped calm the ribald atmosphere of the family dinner.
So Aunt Bella was a ticking time bomb to be treaded lightly around. Ninety percent of the time, she was all googly eyed over Edward. The other ten percent of the time, she was a beast. Through it all, Edward kept smiling, encouraging her to rest, holding her hand when she was sick, and rubbing her feet, arms, legs, shoulders, and probably anything else she wanted. I'd overheard my dad talking with my mom about it. He'd said Edward had made an appointment to get a vasectomy, unwilling to risk another "oops." There'd been pride in my dad's voice as it was discussed. Edward had come a long way to redeeming himself in my dad's eyes.
"I'm glad she's going to be fine." I tried to keep from snickering.
"Whew," he swiped his hand over his forehead in fun before rolling his eyes. "I'm still in so much trouble," he said in a mock whisper.
He looked anything but repentant. In fact, he was all but glowing, if it could be said that men glowed. Edward did something though, because he attracted females, and some men, like honey did bees. Carlie had joked about her dad recently. Seems a magazine had written an article about how he'd gone from being one of Seattle's most eligible bachelors to the most wanted DILF. Carlie, with her irreverent humor, had thought it all hilarious. I wondered what the magazine readers would think if they could see him with baby throw up down his back and juggling a dirty diaper. Knowing his luck, it would make him even more desirable.
"So . . ." he said, leading into why I'd come.
He was so easy to talk to that I didn't hesitate to jump right in. "Valentine's Day is coming up, and I thought it might be a good time to formally ask your daughter to marry me. I wanted to ask your permission to take the ring you put on her finger off and put mine on it instead."
He glanced down at his soup and smiled brightly. Taking another bite, he chewed slowly and swallowed before meeting my gaze.
"You know, when the two of you walked into my office on Bella's birthday, it was the beginning of a new life for me. I remember feeling such a surge of love and protectiveness for Carlie, and I thought, 'I'm going to have to have a real talk with this young man.' It didn't skip my notice you were your father made all over." He grinned, his lips pulling up into a smirk. "Now, in case you didn't know, your father and I haven't always seen eye to eye."
I almost choked on my soup. Talk about major understatement.
Edward chuckled at my reaction.
"But one thing I quickly learned during those weeks I fought to win a place in Carlie's and Bella's lives was your consistency, character, and the love you have for both my wife and my daughter." He pushed the basket of rolls over to me, seeing I'd already devoured the one he'd given me. "To be frank, I was wondering when you'd be coming to see me." He smirked again before shaking his head. "You talked to your dad first, right?"
"Good. He deserves that, but don't tell him I said so. Let him think it upset me and all."
Sometimes I just didn't understand their dynamic. Whatever it was, it was working. Dad had actually come and taken Edward on a guy's night out during one of Aunt Bella's tirades. My mom had calmed the "raging pregnancy hormones" while dad got Edward tipsy. When Edward had come home and dropped to his knees in front of Bella to announce she was the most beautiful of all creatures, Aunt Bella had sobbed, pulling him up for a kiss that probably shouldn't have happened in front of Carlie and me. But considering Bella had gone at least a week before losing it again at him, it had been a pretty good strategy.
"If I composed a list of attributes I wanted in Carlie's husband, I couldn't fashion a more perfect man than you, Seth. Of course you have my permission and Bella's too. We've spoken many times about this. It'll be an honor to see you first ask my baby to marry you, and secondly see you standing there at the altar for her. And speaking of weddings, Bella and I would like to see you and Carlie situated in your own place for college, even though you know we're all still routing for University of Washington. If you decide to stay in Seattle, you'll have a multitude of free options, so we'll put the money in a savings account for you to use when the time comes," he said.
Carlie and I had already decided on the University of Washington, but she wanted to surprise them. She and Edward were still bonding after losing so many years, and the draw of other colleges wasn't enough to convince her to leave, when a great college was just minutes away. We'd spoken about asking to move into Bella and Carlie's house beside my parents. It would give us some independence, while still being extremely close to both my parents and her family.
"We can talk once you decide what you're going to do, but it'll be our wedding present to you."
"Thank you." I could've tried to fight it, but I knew I wouldn't win. We didn't want everything handed to us, but having a home to start out would certainly make things easier for law and medical school.
"So what's your plan for the proposal?" he asked mischievously.
Considering the romantic coupe he'd pulled off asking Aunt Bella to marry him, I'd been waiting for this moment and opportunity to pick his brain.
"Well . . ."
Edward returned to the table, having given a heartfelt speech about the charitable division of Cullen Enterprises. He'd explained how the yearly awards had been a way of celebrating Aunt Bella's birthday over the years since it start. No one, seeing the look of love on his face as he leaned over Aunt Bella and the passionate kiss she planted on him, would've guessed how many of those years they'd spent apart believing the other held only hatred in their hearts. If their love wasn't such a powerful thing, it would've been embarrassing. Thankfully, Aunt Bella's stomach must have been agreeing with her at the moment, and she grinned at him, running her fingertips along his jaw. Hand on her very sizable baby bump, she tugged him down by the hair for another kiss, earning groans of mock embarrassment from Emmett. Carlisle and Jasper added into the teasing, while Esme, Alice, and Rosalie gave token protests. Edward could care less, slinking down into his chair like a well satisfied cat, he put one arm around Bella's shoulders and the other hand on her stomach.
He wasn't the only one enjoying the fruits of his labor, so to say. At the Velathri's table beside us, Felix towered over tiny Jane. Her stomach was even bigger than Bella's, and considering her small frame, she looked ready to pop even though I knew she had at least another month to go. It was a boy. One, if Jane's stomach was any indication, would rival his father in size. Demetri cradled one baby to his shoulder, the little girl's golden hair shining brightly in the lights of the room as his other hand cradled Elizabeth's bump. Emmett had crucified him because Elizabeth had gotten pregnant just before their wedding, and pregnant again two months after Hannah's birth. Poor Elizabeth, it would seem she and Demetri couldn't get enough of each other, and she was the one to pay the price. But if the constant smile on her face wasn't a sign of how she felt about it all, I didn't know what could be. The elders were not to be left out. Aro, held Nia, while Marcus entertained Tony even as Caius attempted to interfere. Regal, the Velathri wives held court over Jasmine, Emmie, Ross, and Alistair.
But it wasn't just the presence of so many babies and soon-to-be babies that made my and Carlie's extended family happy, it was the new beginnings everywhere. Sitting at the table to the other side of us were Aunt Bella's publishing friends. Her agent, Leslie, had married a man she'd met during Aunt Bella's last tour, and the two of them sat as close as the chairs would allow. And Robert, the man who Carlie and I had finally figured out had given her father a run for his money, had fallen head over heels in love with the English author he'd been sent to woo. She hadn't been able to attend our event, but that didn't mean he lacked for company. Sam 2 and Madison had proclaimed themselves his dates and sat to each of his sides like twin guardians. He'd held their hands through the initial activities, guiding them safely from place to place and introducing them with great skill as the women being honored by the event. He was handling Bella's new book launch while Leslie was on an extended honeymoon, and she would be returning the favor with his clients soon. His wedding was planned in England for late summer, and Carlie and I would be accompanying Edward, Bella, the twins, and baby Charlie.
The only presence missing from the event was my grandfather. He'd passed away in his sleep just before Christmas, but even still, the pain washed over me in great waves. I would've loved for him to be here for this night, but I knew he watched over me, and how he'd felt about Carlie, so it was all I could ask. Reaching over, I grabbed her hand and linked our fingers. Smiling softly, Carlie moved her seat even closer to me. I couldn't remember the first time I'd held her hand. I was certain we must have done it in the crib. But what was more important, I couldn't remember a time I hadn't held her hand.
The center's director had stepped to the podium after Edward, and her slide show about the vision, history, and construction of New Beginnings was winding down. Panic set in, making me sweat bullets.
"Now, as we come to the conclusion of our ceremonies, we've asked some very special guests to come forward to perform the ribbon cutting," she announced. "For those of you who aren't familiar with the reason for this project, I would introduce Samantha and Madison Cullen, and their hero, Seth Black. Can we all give a round of applause while they take the stage?"
Taking a deep breath, I pushed my chair back to rise, but was stopped by Carlie's hand on my arm.
"Give 'em hell, tiger," she teased before kissing my cheek. It was the words she whispered in my ear that counted the most. "Make us proud."
I hoped to.
Stepping to the table where Robert had kept my co-stars entertained, I pulled both Madison's and Sam's chairs back for them to rise, then offered an arm to them both. Madison's grip was the tightest. She was still terrified of strangers and nervous in large crowds, but she'd fought hard to be in attendance tonight and participate, and I was going to do everything I could to support her. We'd bonded over the ordeal that brought her into the family. She saw Demetri and me as her saviors, even if I hadn't been the one to storm into the crappy house and pull her out of the hell hole she'd been caged in. Two years of intensive therapy had only skimmed the surface of her horrors, and I was one of only a few men, mostly the Cullen family, she allowed touch her. Robert had been a surprise, but I was beginning to believe the man could charm any female.
The clapping continued, and some of the participants, who knew Madison's and Sam's stories, stood to honor them. Madison stepped closer to me, her fingers like claws on my arm.
"It's going to be okay," I said softly to her, making sure to let Sam go up the steps first and putting myself to Madison's back.
We went, not to the center stand, but one to the side of the stage. Beside us was a huge red ribbon that had been tied in a bow. It covered the archway connecting the play building to the housing one. Once cut, the attendees would be able to wander over to see the magic Esme had created in the living quarters. Above the doorway was an intricately carved archway with the words New Beginnings carved in it.
Sam was speaking first. At almost eight, she was wise beyond her years . . . an old soul.
Pulling the step stool that had been placed to the side forward, I placed it in front of the stand. Holding my hand, Sam climbed up. Nodding softly, she let me know she was ready, so I stepped back, taking Madison with me. Arranging her cards in front of her, Sam took a deep breath before leaning forward to speak into microphone.
"When I was five years old, I had to go to the hospital. My leg was broken." She brushed her hand along her face. "And I had cuts here. It took a long time for me to get better, but when I did I was alone. I didn't think anyone would want me." She looked up finally at the crowd, finding Edward. He smiled encouragingly at her. Her lips quirked softly before she looked back to what she'd written.
"But I learned I was wrong. Someone did love me, and he introduced me to his family, who became my family. Now, I have sisters and brothers and cousins. So many of them who love me for me. I'm not a mistake. I'm someone who can be loved."
Esme was tearing up and leaned over to rest her head against Carlisle's shoulder. He in turned kissed the top of her head. They loved the two little red headed green eyed girls more than life itself. I pitied anyone who ever tried to hurt Samantha or Madison again.
Having said what she'd decided to say, Sam moved her cards sideways, making sure Madison's were easy to see. She waved her hand at the scared girl beside me. Madison's hand gripped me as tight as she possibly could. "Don't leave me," she whispered.
"I won't," I promised.
I didn't expect her to continue holding my hand when she faced the crowd, but she'd asked me not to leave her, so I allowed our interlinked hands to hang between us. Samantha helped her with the first card.
"My name is Madison." She looked out over the crowd for but a second before tucking her chin to her chest. In doing so, she missed how they reacted, most leaning forward in support, others dabbing at their eyes with napkins. Taking a deep breath, she met Carlisle's gaze. "Madison Cullen," she said with pride, her back straightening and her shoulder going back slightly. "I'm six years old."
Carlisle nodded softly at her before she looked back to the card in front of her. The second one was just a picture. One that made my gut hurt. A stick figure lay on a square. She turned to me, big tears in her eyes, and I shuffled closer to her. Assured I was staying, she spoke. "A bad man hide me in a hole where Mr. Demetri found me." Her eyes cut to find him in the crowd. "He's my hero."
Demetri shook his head, but every eye was focused on the brave girl speaking to them. The next card made me grin. It was a picture of me, and it was actually flattering, if the hearts above the figure's over sized head were taken into consideration.
"But it took Seth . . . " she held our linked hands up for everyone to see " . . . for Mr. Demetri to find me. Seth's my hero too."
The next card was a bunch of stick figures. "They brought me to people who love me. My family." This time Madison smiled at our tables, getting grins from friends and family alike.
The last card was an explosion of happy faces. "And everyone needs a family when they are trying to get better."
This was my cue. Turning the microphone toward me, I remained standing beside the girls. Samantha wrapped her arm around Madison's shoulder giving her a soft squeeze of congratulations.
I'd practiced most of my speech a hundred times, so the words began flowing freely.
"When Madison and Samantha were asked to speak at this ceremony, it was clear to me why. They are the muses behind Edward Cullen's decision to finance New Beginnings. Why they insisted, against better judgment, that I stand here with them today I'll never know." Twin giggles came from beside me, lightening the moment. "Madison and Samantha believe they are in my debt, but in fact, there is no debt to pay. Because in families it isn't about keeping score."
I couldn't help but stop a moment and look at the tables where the Velathris, Cullens, my parents, my sister, and our friends sat. How different our lives were now than that day Carlie and I walked into the Cullens' business. We'd been a family of five then. Now, it seemed I lost count on days.
"This is to be a place for new beginnings, hence the name Madison and Samantha chose. It is an honor to have been asked by these young ladies to join them in this moment, but it wouldn't be right for me to cut the ribbon without the woman who has shared my journey for the past eighteen years." Carlie was grinning at my mother, assuming I was speaking about her. "Carlie would you please come up and help us?"
She jerked, eyes flitting nervously around the table as the family turned to her. In fact, everyone other than my father, mother, Edward, and Aro looked as confused. But as table after table of people shifted to watch, Bella, Esme, Alice, and Rosalie encouraged her to join us. Carlisle's eyes turned speculative, while Emmett and Jasper whistled in encouragement as she rose. Clapping excitedly from Aro's lap, Nia chanted her sister's name as Carlie passed by them. A deep blush stained Carlie's cheeks, but her eyes glittered dangerously, and I started praying hard.
"Don't worry Seth, she's going to love it," Sam 2 said, laughing softly. She stepped closer to the podium where she and Madison had stored one of our surprises.
Gaining my side, Carlie hissed at me. "This was not discussed when you worked on your speech."
I grinned. This was the Carlie I knew, spitting fire and brimstones. I was suddenly very calm.
"Change of plans," I announced softly to her.
To the large group, I continued with my speech. "My grandfather taught me great lessons about life. Things like the grace of love, which is the very emotion we celebrate this day. But he didn't stop there. He instilled in me the worth of wisdom and the limit of knowledge, the belief that what you place in the universe will find its way back to you, and the simple understanding that the merit of the person you are is not that you won't make mistakes, but the way in which you redeem yourself. But the most important thing he taught me is the power of friendship, family, and love. And that is what this facility will give families the ability to do . . . love, honor, and support one another during what must seem the bleakest moments of their lives. Futures will be made here."
"Tonight, this facility will be open officially for everyone here to walk through and be amazed at the creativity and hard work that went into creating it." I couldn't help but grin. "Or at least I hope." Chuckles and laughter echoed throughout the room. "And there is no doubt it is a magical place. One that is filled with bright colors, necessary services, and hidden surprises. One produced by the tears and the sweat of volunteers. One that is the fulfillment of a vision of an amazing group of architects and philanthropists. And it might all seem to be a miracle.
"But I think the true miracles will be seen tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, when families fill these halls, pushing children in wheelchairs, or coming home to rest and cry because they've had to leave their son or daughter in a hospital bed a mile or two down the road."
I couldn't look at my mom any longer. She was crying. As many times as I'd practiced in front of her, she still couldn't hold it together. Aunt Bella was as bad off, sobbing into Edward's tux jacket. I didn't know if it was the pregnancy hormones making her a basket case, but it was seeing two of the three most important women in my life emotional that caused my eyes to glaze over. Forgetting her irritation at me, Carlie stepped beside me, placing her hand on my back for support.
"And this place, this refuge, will certainly be their safe harbor, their place for hope and love to grow, and their place to add another memory to the beautiful mosaic of their lives."
Taking a deep breath, I forged ahead. "A little over two years ago, my life and family were irrevocably changed in the most wondrous of ways as I was introduced to new cousins and aunts and uncles. Friendships were formed as the sins of past transgressions and misunderstandings withered away in the light of love and forgiveness." Bella's sob carried across the room, and I could hear Carlie's deep unsteady breaths. "Tonight, as we come to the end of our ceremony and the beginning of our celebrations, I asked permission to claim the first miracle within these new walls and to hopefully add one more piece to my mosaic. A tile, so to speak, that would represent a new beginning for me and my family . . . my entire family."
Madison finally let go of my hand, and I reached into my pocket.
Going down on one knee before Carlie, I heard the gasps from the crowd and the ruckus from our family table, as it seemed a dozen lights went off blinding me.
Carlie had frozen, a stunned look on her face as she focused down at me. Madison, the little devil, grabbed the microphone and held it near me as Samantha cradled the bouquet of long stemmed red roses we'd hidden in the podium.
"Carlie Swan-Cullen." My voice cracked, and I had to clear it slightly. "Eighteen years ago, our parents put us in a crib together. There are pictures of you pulling my hair, kicking me in the side, and spitting up on me." Laughter floated around us, but I was focused on the deep green eyes glowing down at me. "There are also ones of us holding hands and snuggling together. You've been by my side for as long as I can remember." I held up the box and heard several whoops of excitement from the audience. "I want you to remain there for the rest of our lives. I promised you when we were six years old that I would lasso a star for you. I won't stop trying, but for now this is as good as I could do." Flipping the blue box open, I took out the canary diamond solitaire and held it up. The lights of the stage caused the stone to twinkle, and for a moment it appeared as if the setting held a star, shimmering in the night. "Carlie, would you please do me the extraordinary honor of becoming my wife?"
Chaos erupted from the family tables, threatening to drown out her answer.
"Yes!" she gasped, falling to her knees to kiss me as the press took pictures, Samantha and Madison danced in glee beside us, and the women of our family rushed the stage, the men only slightly behind.
But it was all lost on Carlie and me, as our world narrowed to the taste of each other's lips and the promise of forever one mosaic piece at a time.
Hope you enjoyed! And Happy Valentine's Day to everyone.