Hello everyone, and thank you for sticking with me! I apologize for the long delay in posting. I participated in National Novel Writing Month this past November, and all my writing time was devoted to the original fiction project I started with that program. We also had a death in our family late in the month, I'm sad to say. With all that and the holidays, I fell way behind with updating. I hope the length of this chapter helps make up for it.

My eternal thanks again to my beta, writingbabe, and my prereader, RandomCran. I couldn't ask for better editing, criticism, and support. They're smart, caring and funny women, and I'm proud to call them friends.

When we left Bella and Edward in Chapter 12, it was early autumn and she was about to leave for the business trip related to the health care project she's been working on. Maybe it was the impending distance, but they finally said, "I love you."

Let's spend Christmas with them now.

December 5

The air and the sky were in agreement: it was going to snow. When Edward emerged from the Union Square subway station, the clouds above Greenwich Village looked moody, and the atmosphere had the unique heavy feeling that always came before a snowfall.

He hoped it held off long enough so he could get some shopping done. He didn't want his uniform soaked before he even hit the street for his afternoon shift. Edward had taken a bus into Manhattan a few hours early so he could stop at the famous Strand bookstore at 12th and Broadway. If he arrived with just enough time before he had to report to work, he could avoid doing some serious damage.

He usually went crazy in The Strand. Not coincidentally, their motto was "Where Books are Loved." He'd brought Bella there shortly after they started dating and literally lost her in the stacks. By the time he found her, she was industriously combing through a cart of pulp novels from the 1950s, where she'd found titles like "I Was a War Bride She-Devil!" She was fascinated with the dense, almost crude cover art, with men in business suits and skinny ties and women whose breasts were straining clothing seams, to say nothing of credibility.

Edward liked how she immersed herself in the store. It was one of his favorite places, so he wondered how she'd react to it. And as with almost everything else, she didn't disappoint. They stayed for two hours, nearly filling a basket with books. Even though she'd been there before, she told him that going to a famous place like The Strand with him made it into a whole new experience for her.

The sum of all these shared experiences was a growing intimacy he'd never felt with anyone else. He'd been to Mexican restaurants before. He'd taken other women to see famous artwork. Some had even come back to his apartment to meet Mookie. It was all different with Bella in a way that surpassed any first time. Everything with her slid into place like his life had been waiting for her to arrange the pieces the way he needed.

Sometimes they enjoyed things that were a first for each of them. He was still marveling about their time apart when she'd had to travel to South Dakota for work. With only a phone line to connect them for two weeks, they'd had to get creative about their togetherness. They'd lost their phone sex virginity on that trip. It wasn't the same as having her with him, naked and sweet, but hearing her say words she'd always said when they were together in that way was gratifying and fulfilling enough.

And as the saying goes, better than nothing.

Now he was strolling through the aisles alone, searching for Christmas presents. Inspiration often seemed to hit whenever he was in a bookstore; he thought they were magical places anyway, so he hoped he'd get lucky again and figure out how to fill some problematic blanks on his holiday gift list. He had one special present for Bella in addition to a few others, but he knew books were not so much a present as a pleasurable necessity.

Bella loved John Irving but he wasn't sure which of his books she already had, so Edward resolved to take a closer look at her bookshelves or somehow find a way to innocently question her about what was on her e-reader. In the meantime, he might find something for his mother here…though likely not in the sports aisle, where he'd wandered without even thinking about it.

Before he had the chance to search for anything on basketball, he came across a small section with books about fishing.

Edward suddenly remembered that Charlie Swan liked fishing - a lot, from what Bella said. And since a gift for Charlie Swan formed a massive Event Horizon of No Return within the biggest black hole of his holiday gift list, he thought that he just might have found the inspiration he wanted. He and Bella were flying to Washington State the day after Christmas to spend a week with the Swans, and Edward would love nothing more than to have this particular dilemma settled way before they left for the airport.

He picked up several books at once and flipped through them carefully. The second was titled "The Joys of Fishing," which immediately inspired him to think of "The Joys of Sex." So Edward would be buying a book for a man he was meeting for the first time, all the while thinking that sex was indeed a joyful experience with that particular man's daughter. Was Edward's sense of humor sufficiently warped enough to do it? Why, yes. Yes, it was.

Charlie was a cop, though, and Edward knew how cops thought. Bella's father just might get the joke. Edward would have to hope he didn't.

But the book had a lot of beautiful illustrations: carefully drawn pictures of salmon coursing underwater, jumping on the end of a fishing line in the Pacific Northwest sunlight, or lying quietly in glacial blue depths while the bottoms of boats broke through the surface. They were works of art, and Edward wondered if Charlie Swan could appreciate the effort and talent that went into crafting such perfect drawings. It would give them something else to talk about besides police work.

The information within the book had to be at least 50 years old. Maybe Charlie would enjoy it anyway. After all, classics never went out of style.

Edward tucked it under his arm and spent a few more minutes looking for a gift for his mother before he found a book about the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was loaded with gorgeous pictures, and it would look perfect on his parents' coffee table. Esme was the only person he knew who actually read coffee table books like they were novels. His dad always teased her about just liking the pictures and not the articles.

What about Bella's mom? He had to find something for her, too. From the way Bella described Renee, she was all over the map when it came to her own interests. She was a yoga instructor…but no, that was a few years ago. He decided he'd enlist Bella's help in finding the right gift for Renee so he was sure he'd find something she liked. As far as Charlie's present, Edward would hang it all on the fishing book. For some reason, he wanted Bella's father's present to be his own idea. Maybe it would establish a quick connection to Charlie if he picked it out himself, especially if he got it right.

Further north in Manhattan, Bella was scratching some things off her own list at work. Sipping a cup of tea, she took a few minutes out of her work schedule to organize what had to be done before she and Edward left on the 26th.

His parents had decided to get him a new, powerful laptop for law school next year. Bella came up with the same exact idea, but once she began pricing them, she realized she'd never be able to afford it. The trip to Washington State was already stretching her budget. When she talked to Esme about what to get for Edward so they didn't buy the same gift, Bella was relieved that his parents were open to letting her contribute something toward the computer. Knowing them, they would sign the card as if it was an even three-way split, though their share was much greater than hers.

Bella had found a beautiful leather briefcase that would not only hold the laptop but also a number of books and papers Edward would undoubtedly have to carry for school. Esme assured her he'd use it after she'd worried that Edward wasn't a briefcase kind of guy.

"Maybe a really good backpack would be more suitable?" Bella asked, frowning. She held the fine leather case away from her, arms outstretched, for the hundredth time.

"No," Esme said firmly. "He'll use it. And what's more, he'll keep using it once he's done with school and he needs a briefcase for work."

Bella trusted Esme's judgment even though she couldn't see Edward toting a briefcase while wearing his usual jeans and sneakers. But then, she hadn't ever envisioned him as a law student, either.

She tapped her nails absently on her tea mug, making a light, almost bell-like noise on the ceramic. There had to be something else. Rose was buying Emmett a case of beer loaded with six packs of all different kinds, all of them his favorites. Bella wanted to think of something unique and special for Edward, too. She kept coming up short.

Knowing he was deeply affected by the death of a toddler when he was on patrol a few months ago, she was planning to make a donation to Save the Children in his brother Garrett's name. But she wanted something that would also show the depth and breadth of what she felt for him.

She set aside the thought and returned to the report she was working on. The more she got done before she left for Washington, the better off she'd be when she returned home.

Bella began flipping through the pages. She looked up, puzzled, once she realized she no longer thought of Washington State as home. Home was here, now, with Edward.

Edward is home. With a small smile, she tilted her head to the side and closed her eyes for a moment.

With time off right after Christmas, Edward was scheduled to work both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Bella wished they could spend the two days together, cozy and in bed for hours with hot coffee and presents. The thought of ten days straight with Edward took the edge off of that, even though she'd have to share him with her parents.

Two weeks went by faster than she'd have thought. Time flies when you're looking for gift ideas. She'd found lots of things for her parents –a beautiful cashmere wrap that Renee would love, and some Yankees memorabilia for her father who wasn't so much a fan of the team as he was of baseball history.

Edward had asked her about a gift for her mother, and she'd suggested a classic glass ornament for her parents' Christmas tree. It was a safe choice considering Renee's erratic interests – her mother always put a lot of thought into decorating for the holidays. He surprised her by remaining silent on what he'd bought her father. She thought he'd at least ask her input on Charlie as well.

Finally, as the days got closer to Christmas, she couldn't stand it any longer. "Do you need any help picking out a gift for my dad?"

"Nope."

"Oh." Silence. "So, you already have it?"

"Yep."

She'd asked him plenty about Esme and Carlisle. He told her about Esme's favorite spice shop in Queens and suggested a gift basket of assorted exotic herbs. He said a bottle of single-malt Scotch would last Carlisle about six months and earn his unending gratitude for way beyond that amount of time. But apparently Edward was perfectly capable of going out on a limb, without any help from her, when it came to picking something for Chief Swan.

The nerve.

Bella stopped dropping hints and managed to keep herself from asking him outright exactly what he'd purchased. It was tough, but it wound up being a matter of pride.

December 24 and 25

Esme had a large dinner party planned for Christmas Eve. Bella soon discovered that "large" referred not to the number of people – besides Carlisle, Esme, herself and Edward, the only other family members were Charlotte and her parents and grandparents – but to the menu. Bella waved away Esme's protests that she didn't need to bring anything, and she and Edward arrived at the house with a box of chocolates from a very fine, small homemade candy shop in New Jersey.

The spread that Esme prepared was bigger than Thanksgiving. It was enough to feed the entire borough of Brooklyn. A ham, a turkey, potatoes sweet and regular; several other vegetables, a ton of appetizers that looked like small works of art…Bella was mesmerized by the amount of skill and time that went into preparing it all. Everything at her parents' house was on a much simpler, smaller scale. There were only the three of them, unless they invited friends from the nearby Quileute reservation. Renee was a passable cook, nowhere near the level of culinary expertise that Esme had attained. Bella pursed her mouth and wondered if Chez Swan would be enough for Edward, or even what he'd think.

They'd exchanged gifts with his parents after dinner. Bella loved the expression on Edward's face when he saw his new laptop. It was a look of lust that was usually only reserved for her.

Once he opened the box that held his briefcase, a range of different emotions flickered over his handsome face: surprise, then awe, and then a softening that could only accompany everything he held in his heart.

"This is really nice," he said, almost in a whisper.

"I'm glad you like it."

"Like it?" He opened it and inspected all the compartments. "Baby, I love it."

Bella leaned over to kiss him, and before she could move away he touched her cheek. "Thank you," he said. "Not just for this, but for everything. You support me no matter how hard it can be." His voice was a little shaky, and Bella saw him swallow hard.

"You don't have to thank me. I'm proud of you."

Edward reached out and grabbed at the air, then closed his fingers as if he'd caught something. He tapped his fist against his chest. "I'm keeping that for all the times I'll need it in the next three or four years. You'll be here, right?"

"Every minute," she replied.

Despite the deep contentment that showed on his face, Edward looked tired. He'd worked that day among the huge holiday crowds in midtown Manhattan and was constantly on his feet. Tomorrow would be just as bad even though the stores were closed. When the clock struck 10, Bella nudged him gently and suggested they leave even though he was having a great time teasing Charlotte about what she might get from Santa.

After she'd retrieved their coats from the closet, Bella found him in the living room with his young cousin.

"What kind of cookies are you leaving for Santa?" Edward asked this question as if he was already a serious lawyer.

"Chocolate chip," Charlotte answered with certainty.

Edward shook his head woefully. "Santa likes oatmeal."

Charlotte scowled. "No. I always leave him chocolate chip. And carrots for the reindeer."

"Good call on the carrots," Edward said. "But I think you need to have some oatmeal out for him, or else he might get annoyed and you'll get someone else's toys. Someone who maybe likes plastic bugs and clown hats," he added.

Bella frowned at him from above Charlotte's head. You're scaring her, she mouthed in disapproval.

Edward made a quick motion of dismissal with his hands. "C'mon," he said to Charlotte. "Aunt Esme has lots of oatmeal cookies. Really good homemade ones. You can put them out and save the chocolate chip cookies for yourself."

Charlotte left with her family, looking very relieved. As they walked out the door, her mother gave Edward the finger.

"What was that about?" Bella asked.

"Siobhan hates oatmeal cookies. She'll have to eat them so Charlotte doesn't know what's up."

"Maybe she'll just throw them out."

"Oh, no," Edward said. "Charlotte would find them, no question. My cousin would rather eat them than figure out how to explain why Santa threw out the snacks that Char so lovingly prepared for him." The smile on his face was way beyond smug.

Bella smacked him lightly in the chest. "You're so mean."

"Siobhan would be disappointed if I didn't find new ways to give her crap."

"You never tease me like that," she griped.

"What? Are you asking for it?"

"You're so good at being a wise guy. I feel…slighted. Like I'm missing out," she said, trying to look mock-pouty.

He grabbed her around the waist on his parents' front stoop, which was dark now that all the other guests had left. "You get everything else I have. Everything else I am." Edward kissed her, tenderly at first, then more passionately, his mouth claiming hers so fiercely that her knees went weak. "I give it all to you because there's no one else who gets to see that. There's no one else who gets it, period."

She would have felt the strength of his declaration even if he didn't have his arms around her. His words warmed her through the blasts of December air, and she kissed him back, releasing everything she felt at this moment through their connection. "I love you, Edward."

"I love you, too." As they stepped down to the sidewalk, though they could hear neighbors calling out final greetings to family members who were leaving. Card doors began slamming up and down the block. From where they stood, a ray of streetlight created planes and shadows along Edward's face. His eyes shone.

"I love you like crazy. Like nothing else, like no one else."

The urgency in his voice surprised her. "Is something wrong?" she whispered.

"No. How could anything be wrong?"

"You sound almost afraid."

"No," he said again, though he didn't sound as certain.

"Are you nervous about meeting my parents?"

"No. Well, a little," he amended.

"Be normal and be nervous; it's okay. But don't worry about it, because they'll love you."

He took her hand and they walked to his car. "Even though I'm completely insulting your old man's profession by ducking out and becoming a lawyer?" Edward was smiling but looking straight ahead, and Bella heard more than he was saying.

"I've been thinking a lot about that," she said. "I don't think he'll make very much out of it. He'll be curious about why you're changing, but I have a feeling he'll say that it's a better career for you, especially if he thinks you're serious about his daughter."

"So that's my get-out-of-dad-jail free card? Being serious about the Chief's daughter?"

"It'll help," she replied honestly. "Though he'll probably tease you about it at first. You can see whether he's as good at that as you are."

It was late when they finally arrived at Edward's apartment. Bella could see he was worn out; his eyes were nearly at half-mast, and he kept yawning. When they climbed under the covers and Edward reached for her, Bella made a noise of uncertainty and touched his face.

"You're so tired," she whispered, even though it was just the two of them. "You need sleep."

"I need you," he said. They made love slowly and sweetly, and afterwards, he fell asleep immediately. Bella drifted off to the sounds of his deep, peaceful breathing. The last thing she remembered before midnight was reaching over and stroking his back.

She awoke early in the morning and got out of bed easily, knowing she had the luxury of going back to sleep while Edward had to work. Padding silently into the kitchen, she prepared his breakfast so he could stay in bed a little while longer.

Bella woke him with kisses. When Edward opened his eyes, she held up a perfectly toasted bagel, a peeled Clementine, and a mug of coffee.

"Merry Christmas," she said softly.

He rubbed his eyes and grinned widely, his hair sticking up all over his head. At the moment, he looked like any eight year old that just woke up on Christmas morning. Bella smiled and put the food down on the nightstand, then smoothed over the short strands of his hair.

Edward pulled her closer and kissed her soundly. "Merry Christmas, baby. The first of many," he said, his voice hoarse and deep from waking up. She climbed back into bed, settling in right next to him to make the most of every minute they'd have together on this day. He ate the breakfast she'd prepared for him, and they chatted quietly until it was time for him to shower and leave for his shift.

Bella crawled back under the covers, craving the spot still warm from Edward's body. She had hours before she had to start working on their small Christmas dinner. Later, as she ate her lunch, she skimmed over news sites on her iPad in the kitchen. She logged on to The Daily News' home page, idly chewing without much thought, when the headline made her choke.

Christmas Day Shooting in Upper East Side – Two Feared Dead

Her blood ran cold; her skin suddenly felt like she'd left every window open. Frantically, she read through the article, but the shooting happened so recently there was very little information. The reporter didn't specify whether the victims were pedestrians or police. Bella swore and pressed her fingertips into her forehead as she quickly read the article again. This had happened on Edward's beat.

She grabbed her phone off the counter and immediately dialed Edward even though he disliked being called at work. He'd usually phone when he had a few minutes' break, but she couldn't wait for that. Bella wanted to hear his voice, and she wanted to hear it now.

The phone rang 15 times before she finally hung up. She texted him instead, her fingers shaking so hard she had to constantly backtrack and fix typos so the words made sense, as short as the message was.

Hey. Is everything ok?

She hesitated before hitting "Send." What if he was nowhere near the shooting? He'd probably get annoyed with her because she was worried about him on the job again.

Screw that. Like I should feel embarrassed about being concerned?

But her fears had been topics of discussion - some of them intense - for quite a while, and Edward always became frustrated because he thought Bella couldn't believe he knew how to protect himself. Bella decided to rephrase.

Hey. Thought I'd say hi. Call me when you can. Miss you!

And if – when - he replied, she'd know he was fine and he wouldn't be any the wiser about how desperate she was to get in touch with him.

He didn't respond. Bella held the phone in her hand, willing it to chime with a message from Edward. Minutes passed as she sat there, stupidly looking at the screen.

Finally, she tossed it on the table, where it skittered across the surface and came to a halt right near the edge. She refreshed the screen on the iPad, but of course the news article hadn't been updated in the last 10 minutes.

The phone was silent. The iPad was silent. Mookie was silent, asleep in the bedroom. Bella walked through Edward's silent and small apartment, from the living room where the Christmas tree stood to the kitchen where she'd hung an extra stocking on the back door, as she waited to find out if anything had happened to her boyfriend.

She couldn't stand to look at any of the festive holiday decorations that were crowding the apartment; their cheeriness was unbearable. The two of them had decorated together after realizing they'd be spending more time at Edward's than at Bella's place this season. She went overboard buying Christmas items, and he loved it. The place was littered with them; some beautiful and unique, and some the cheesiest, silliest things that she knew would make him laugh. Right now, the sight of it all made her stomach hurt and her eyes fill with tears.

There was still no response to her text. Bella refreshed the news article online again, and it had an update that said two people had died and a child was slightly injured in a shooting on 63rd street. There were still no names or other specifics, but the article did say that police were on the scene, trying to clear the area.

She was desperate and restless, feeling like the walls of Edward's apartment were closing in on her. Yet she didn't want to leave even if she took her cell phone. She had this strange instinct that it would be bad luck if she left.

The clock in the kitchen ticked toward noon. Bella had earlier planned to tackle the last of her packing and finish the laundry Edward hadn't been able to take care of. They were to fly out the next day in the early afternoon. She refused to even go near the thought that they wouldn't be saying goodbye to Mookie and locking Edward's door one last time for ten days.

The minutes dripped away with all the quickness of honey. There was no other update on the online news story. Her phone was still silent and uncooperative.

He could be busy. He might be at the shooting site helping victims or keeping order. There were a hundred reasons why Edward couldn't call her, and very few of them had to do with him being hurt or worse; she reminded herself.

Bella sat down hard in one of the kitchen chairs and drained her cup of coffee, which by now was cold and unappealing. She scratched the palm of her hand mindlessly as she mentally flipped through all her options. She'd promised Edward weeks ago that as long as he was a cop, she wouldn't worry about him; that she'd keep her head when the dangers of his profession were evident. Did that count when there was a shooting bad enough to make the news?

I'd rather look like the neurotic idiot I am than sit here doing nothing if he's really hurt. Finally, she came up with a good alternative. She punched the key for Esme's number.

"Bella! Merry Christmas!"

Esme's tone was warm and soothing, the exact medicine Bella needed in these awful moments. She slumped back in her chair, the tension in her neck and shoulders settling down. Thank God Esme sounds so calm.

"How are you? All ready for your trip?" his mother asked cheerfully.

"Almost. I wanted to help Edward and do some laundry for him so he has clean underwear." Too much information? Bella didn't care; she was dropping hints like they were lead fishing sinkers.

"That sounds like my son," Esme said, laughing. "Very generous of you. I recommend you not get in that habit or you'll be doing it all the time." She paused, then asked, "So what's up, sweetheart?"

"Well," Bella said, hesitating. She frowned into her phone as she tried to think of the best way to frame it, then figured honesty was the only way to go. "Edward's at work. I was reading the news online and I saw this article about a shooting in Manhattan. It looks like it might be right where Edward would be on patrol, so I wondered if you'd heard anything."

"Yes, Carlisle said something about that. He heard it on the local NPR station a short time ago." Esme's voice softened even more. "Are you worried that Edward might have been hurt?"

"Yes," Bella confessed.

"Please don't be," Esme said. Her tone was still easy but firm, and Bella recognized it as the voice of experience. "I'm sure he's fine. He knows how to take care of himself."

"I know," Bella said, feeling embarrassed. "I guess-well, whenever I hear something like this happening, I can't help but think the worst."

"I went through that when Edward started out on the force. Every time he left for a shift, I worried that I wouldn't see him again."

Bella blew out a breath. Finally, someone who understood – someone who would listen without judgment. "I do, too. I can't help it."

"You can't," Esme agreed, "but you can learn to live with it. Time will help, especially for you – you only have to worry about it until the fall. He'll be in law school this time next year."

"Your lips to God's ear," Bella murmured, loud enough for Esme to hear.

His mother laughed. "Oh, he'll get into school with no problem. I know it. But in the meantime, Bella, please don't drive yourself crazy. Take it from me: you won't do yourself or Edward any good."

"He keeps telling me not to worry, but I can't help it," Bella confessed. "And it's so stupid. I never worried like this over my father."

"Of course not. Your mom did enough of that for you."

Bella opened her mouth to respond but shut it when she couldn't think of anything to say right away. "You're probably right," she finally replied lamely. "This is all so different than with my dad. Maybe I was just too young to really understand."

"Or you felt differently about your dad, like he's invincible. Not that you'd never worry about him," Esme added, "just that it's not like your feelings for Edward. And I imagine your dad's police work in Forks is much different than Edward's."

"Oh, hell yeah." Bella was starting to feel so relieved she wasn't paying attention to what was coming out of her mouth. "It's all such small town stuff. The worst are the drunk drivers or the domestic abuse cases."

"And those can be bad enough," Esme agreed, "but it's not at the level you see it here. And I'd bet there's much less concentration of violent crime."

"True. I feel like I'm still getting used to that."

"You can't turn it off, I can tell you that. But you can learn to work around it," Esme said. "Edward's smart. Doesn't mean he wouldn't become a random statistic. But there's a reason they're called 'random.'

"It's not worth it to make yourself crazy worrying. You can't change what happens, and you lose the time you could have to just enjoy each other," she added kindly.

"You're right." Bella sighed. "It's hard to remember that sometimes."

"You really care for my son, don't you?"

"I do, Esme. So much," Bella admitted.

"I'm very glad to hear that," Esme said, her voice returning to a soft, loving tone. "Then it's natural for you to worry. Just keep it in perspective. And as far as today's incident, no one has called us. You can bet that if anything happened, we'd let you know."

They said their goodbyes once Esme was satisfied that Bella had calmed down. She put her phone away in her purse and walked to where her husband was waiting in the foyer.

"Is Bella okay?" Carlisle asked.

"I think so. She's worried about the shooting today."

"Naturally," Carlisle replied. "Did it help you feel better to help her?"

"It did. I felt a bit of a hypocrite, telling her words I don't always believe myself." She slid her arms through the sleeves of her coat as her husband held it out for her.

"Don't focus on that," her husband chided her gently. "You probably said exactly what she needed to hear."

"I wish I'd thought to call her earlier. She must have been upset for awhile."

"You had your own feelings to contend with," Carlisle replied. "Let's not worry about it. I'm sure Edward is fine."

"I'm going to believe that, too." She finished securing the coat buttons and shook her head, her mouth in a rare grim line. "I'll be glad when we won't have to worry about this any more."

As the Cullens left to visit with family, Bella put her cell phone carefully on the table. She vowed not to look at it every 30 seconds or so, but made a deal with herself that she'd be allowed to carry it with her if she left the room so she could hear or see any incoming messages or calls.

She folded more laundry, petted Mookie and played with him for as long as he allowed it, and then washed dishes. She also limited herself to checking the Web only every half hour.

A cup of tea is in order. Bella filled the kettle and set it on the burner, then rummaged through a cabinet to find something she wanted to brew.

Her phone buzzed, jumping to life on the table after remaining motionless for hours.

Bella dived after it, almost sobbing once she saw the caller ID on the screen.

Edward

She hit "answer" and said, "Edward? Are you there?"

"Yeah, it's me." He sounded exhausted, his speech slower than usual. "You texted me?"

"Yeah, I…just wanted to hear your voice." Well, it wastrue. But mostly, she didn't want to ruin Christmas for either of them by revisiting the argument over worrying about his safety on the job.

"It's good to hear yours too, baby. It's been a crazy day." He sighed. "I was hoping it would be uneventful because practically everything is closed, but no."

"I heard about the shooting," she said, trying to sound as casual as she could. "Was it close to you?"

"Just north of midtown, around Barney's. We were a few blocks away so we ran over to help at the scene. Wound up being a lot of crowd control."

Bella grasped the back of the chair where she stood, her eyes closing slowly in relief. "You sound so tired. Did it take very long?"

"Yeah, there was a standoff. A guy confronted his wife on the street and managed to get hold of their kid. Then he threatened her with a gun."

"Did he shoot her?"

"Yeah."

"In front of their child?" Bella said in disbelief. She opened her eyes and sat down, hard.

"Yeah. Someone tried to get the kid away and the guy shot her, too. Not sure if it was a relative or what. He wouldn't let anyone near him. They called in special forces because it was a hostage situation. We had to try to keep everyone clear." He laughed, a tired, hollow sound. "On the fucking Upper East Side. On Christmas Day."

"Oh Edward," she said, her voice husky with sympathy and relief. "I'm so sorry. But I'm so glad you're okay."

"Yeah, I'm fine," he said distractedly. "Can't wait to get home. I should be back the usual time."

"I'll be here." It was a promise and an enticement. Just get home.

"I'm counting on that." He sounded like his energy was rallying just at the thought of returning to her.

"I'll have dinner ready." She kept her voice as nonchalant as a woman who'd been married and bored for 30 years. It seemed important to act calm right now. Any words of happiness and love were selfish when a little boy had lost his mother and possibly another loved one.

"Good. I'll be starving." Bella could hear Edward inhaling deeply. "Damn, I'll be glad to not have to deal with this job."

She didn't know whether he was referring to their vacation or law school, but either way, she knew how to reply to that. "Me too, Edward."

The delicious aroma of the roasting chicken hung in the air but the cooking made the small kitchen too warm. She wiped away a patch of condensation on a window and saw the pearly grey of twilight outside.

Dinner would be ready soon, and she'd arrived at one of those blessed moments of inactivity where everything she'd prepared was taken care of for the time being. Bella pulled on her jacket and opened the front door of Edward's apartment to step outside. She needed fresh air, and she was curious about what the world looked like on a Christmas night in Brooklyn.

The entire block was strikingly silent. Bella had never seen a street in New York City that had no pedestrians or traffic. Tonight, everyone had somewhere to be that wasn't outside, and Bella had a sudden wish that each neighbor had the comfort of companionship with loved ones on a holiday that was the very definition of family. She knew the awful emptiness of spending Christmas by herself, far from her parents and without someone to love. This year, she had Edward, and it made all the difference in her world. He filled her heart and every vacant space inside her - spaces that used to crack open painfully whenever she felt alone and overwhelmed in this city. No more.

Very little of the snowfall remained from earlier in the month, but the air was clean and crisp. Without much human presence, it smelled like clear ice. She balanced herself between the top and second step of Edward's apartment house and turned toward Greenpoint Avenue. The little she could see of the business strip was dark. All the shops were closed, of course; there wasn't even any light coming over the tops of the buildings from lit storefronts, as she'd see any other evening.

Bella squinted at a shadow that rounded the corner. The figure remained dark from where she stood, even when passing under a streetlight. But the step – that particular way of walking – was familiar to her at any distance.

She checked her watch, and the timing was right. It was Edward, coming home from work.

She dangled off the porch railing and waved to him. He didn't respond at first, so she doubled her effort and waved harder. The figure hesitated, and she stopped, embarrassed that she'd made a mistake.

He waved back and picked up the pace, almost running so he'd reach her faster, while she jumped off the stoop to meet him. Eagerly, he dropped his duffel bag on the stoop and swept her up in his arms, swinging her so they both spun in a circle.

Edward buried his head in her hair. "I've been waiting all day for this," he murmured. He slowed down the spinning but squeezed her waist, needing to draw her as close to him as he could.

"Welcome home," she said.

"Well, thank you," he said. He set her on her feet, only to lift her up again without even thinking of it as he kissed her, needy and grateful. "What are you doing out here?"

"I just needed to step outside. The kitchen's pretty steamy and I thought I'd get some fresh air." She tucked her arm under his and pulled him toward the steps. "C'mon. Dinner's almost ready.

"You spent your holiday cooking for me?"

"No, only I can eat. I'm filling up tonight because I'll have only crappy food on the plane tomorrow." She made a face at him. "Let's go in before Mookie helps himself to some chicken."

Edward insisted on changing before they ate, but once he got into the bedroom he collapsed on the bed, his legs hanging off the side. Bella unlaced his boots and tugged them off, watching as he flexed his feet and wiggled his toes.

"Damn, that feels great," he groaned.

"Do you want to take a shower before we eat?"

"Nah, I'm good." Edward sat up. "Just let me get out of my gear." He stood up, unbuttoning his shirt.

"Let me." Bella soothed his fingers away and undid the rest of the buttons.

"You don't have to." He looked uncomfortable, and for a crazy second Bella wondered if he was feeling shy or self-conscious – a far-fetched thought, as far as Edward was concerned.

Once his shirt was open, she saw his bulletproof vest, even darker than the navy blue uniform he wore. Layers of soft cloth lay over the strong fibers that protected him, woven together in an ominous piece that was bulky and thick.

It should have been something that would make Bella feel grateful, but instead, it made her shiver. It reminded her of exactly what he'd had to deal with this afternoon, on a Christmas Day while she'd been at his home on a calm street.

Edward looked away, his lips pressed together. He'd know what her reaction would be. She didn't want him to feel worse; then she'd feel guilty, and he'd feel even worse about that. As naturally as possible, she unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants.

Bella looked up, inviting him to step out of his clothing. She stripped apart the Velcro fasteners on the vest. When it was loose, she pulled it off of him and held it in her arms, close to her own chest.

"Life saver," she murmured, her eyes meeting his. His face relaxed, with simple fatigue replacing the tension around his eyes. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, letting a kiss speak for him.

They had a quiet dinner. Bella noted with satisfaction that Edward had a good appetite; he ate two helpings of almost everything. That's normal.

He wouldn't let her clean up; he insisted on taking care of the dishes and putting away the food, even though his exhaustion was evident in every slowed-down movement of his body. He wanted her to wait for him in the living room so they could exchange the last of their Christmas presents, but Bella refused.

"I want to spend as much of Christmas with you as I can," she said firmly. "I'll stay here and keep you company."

"You're too sweet."

"You're too stubborn. Are you sure I can't help?"

"Here." He handed her a salt shaker. "Put that away."

With an elaborately theatrical gesture, she placed the shaker very carefully on top of the stove, where it was usually kept. "There. What's next?"

He gestured to the chair. "Just sit. You've been busy today, and you're probably tired, too."

"From cooking? It wasn't a huge meal, Edward."

He eyed her from the stove, where he was carefully wrapping up what was left of the chicken. "From worrying."

Bella rubbed her face. Hiding how she felt was more tiring than she would have believed. "I'm that transparent?"

"In a good way. I know you, baby." He came over and kissed the top of her head. "Don't think I don't appreciate it. I just hate knowing you're wasting your energy."

Bella sighed and flopped against the back of her chair. "I won't deny I'm counting the days until you're safely in the cutthroat world of law school."

"Me too."

It was cool in the living room; the large picture windows allowed an extra chill. Bella sat on the couch while Edward disappeared for a few minutes, then joined her with an extra blanket, which he carefully wrapped around her shoulders.

Bella had lit a few scented candles which were the only illumination besides the lights of the Christmas tree. The soft aroma of the pine needles added extra comfort, and she snuggled down into the blanket, feeling grateful and satisfied and much, much lighter than she had a few hours ago.

Edward ducked under the Christmas tree and picked up a small box. With a slight smile, he handed it to Bella.

She smiled back, first at him, then down at the package. Carefully, she pulled the bow apart and then drove her thumbnail under the tape that held the wrapping together.

A small jewelry box was inside. She held her breath and snapped open the lid.

Inside was a gold necklace with a pendant that was about an inch in diameter. There was a small circle with a miniature map of a portion of the New York subway system. It showed the "L" line as it crossed the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A kind of convex glass covered the map so that it magnified the letter, leaving no question about what it stood for.

That alone took her breath away, but then she turned over the pendant and read the engraving on the back.

I see you.

I love you.

Tears gathered in her eyes as she stared at the necklace in the palm of her hand. She shrugged off the blanket and curled herself into Edward "I know you do. I love you, too. So much." She sobbed a little, and Edward held her tighter, letting her cry. For several moments she stayed in his arms, her sobs gradually calming.

"You know what you mean to me?" he said, smoothing her hair back. He swiped his thumbs underneath her eyes. "You've opened up everything for me. You put everything right; things I didn't even know were wrong or weren't there." Now he cupped her face in his hands, his eyes intense and emotional. "I will always, always come home to you. Never worry about that."

"Okay," she whispered. Bella held on to his arms at the wrists and closed her eyes. She believed him; the conviction of his tone wouldn't allow for anything else.

After a moment, she wriggled out from under the blanket and picked up the last present waiting under the tree. "My turn."

It had been really tough, finding the perfect small, final gift for Edward. He didn't wear jewelry. He had enough art books to read into the next decade. He owned almost every Knicks-related tee shirt that had been printed since 1985. And he wasn't ready yet for dress shirts.

She still wasn't sure she was successful, but the keychain she found captured her attention as soon as she saw it. Most likely, it was the basketball charm in the shape of a heart that sealed it. She'd seen it in a jewelry store while shopping with Rosalie and Alice, so she knew it was genuine gold.

On the back, she'd had it engraved:

You saw me

and the date that they'd first met at the Piers basketball court.

A look of disbelief came over Edward's face. "You didn't."

"I did." Bella laughed, and then started crying again. "I can't believe it."

"I can." He cradled her face in his hands. "Most important day of my life – well, so far." He grinned, a cheeky smirk, before becoming serious again. "Now I know it's the most important day of yours, too. I was doing something I'd done every week for years. I had no idea that day would be so different."

"I had no idea basketball would ever be so good to me, considering I was never much of a fan," Bella replied, tears still streaking her face.

He grasped her hands and lifted them out of her lap. "I have one other present I want to ask for."

"What's that?"

"I want to see you wearing the necklace."

Bella opened the clasp and moved to put it around her neck, but Edward stopped her.

"I want to see you wearing only the necklace." In the soft light, his eyes were the color of the tree, a pine green sparked with meaning. First, he took the blanket off her shoulders and spread it on the floor, picnic style. He fingered the hem of her sweater for a moment, then lifted it up and off. Carefully, he took the necklace from her hand and then placed it around her neck before securing it.

"That's a start," he said thoughtfully. "But you're still wearing too much clothes."

"So are you." She placed his arms out at his sides like a stiff rag doll, then tugged his sleeves off. She pulled the shirt off his head and followed with his undershirt.

His skin was warm and inviting, especially here on the cold floor. Bella made a show of blowing on her fingers to take away the chill before running her hands over his arms, down his pectorals and abdomen, then up over his back. She traced the edge of his jeans before impatiently tugging at the button.

He raised his eyebrows. "Someone wants to see Santa."

"Let's hope he doesn't only come on Christmas Eve." Bella pushed him back on the floor and straddled him before unzipping his jeans and pulling them off. Now he was only in his briefs. She crawled her way back up his body, the satin of her bra brushing over his calves and thighs.

Edward was just about to protest that she was still wearing her clothes when she reached his groin. He could feel the shape of her breasts through her bra and his underwear. He groaned and closed his eyes. He'd been wanting this all day.

He opened the zipper and hooked his thumbs on the sides of her jeans, pulling them down along with her panties in a move of much-desired efficiency. With one last flourish, he unsnapped her bra, and she was above him, naked and glorious.

Slowly, Edward moved his hands along her hips and up the side of her body, sometimes pressing his fingers into her skin, sometimes gliding along as if to tease. He cupped her breasts lovingly and hummed, his eyes closed to better feel them while shutting down one of his senses. With a sly smile, Bella leaned over, offering them to him.

He slipped his mouth over one nipple and continued smoothing his thumb over the other, his right hand palming her full breast. Bella sighed deeply as her hips rocked over him involuntarily. As she lifted slightly, she felt Edward's left hand touch her, softly exploring, seeking then stroking.

His fingers moved up inside her, teasing and spreading the slipperiness around between her legs before they sought the one place he always looked for with his hands or his mouth. With just enough pressure, Edward heard her breath catch before she moaned and cried.

Seconds later, Bella collapsed on his chest, where she lay until her exhales calmed and slowed, and she hummed in contentment.

"Best present ever," he whispered.

She kissed him, her lips parting so her tongue could meet his in a passionate exploration that showed her love and gratitude. Bella pulled away just enough to keep their faces very close. With a wicked smile, she reminded him, "It's not midnight yet. I have another present, too."

She rubbed her hand over the prominent rise in his underwear before pulling the cotton briefs down around his legs and tossing them on the couch. Trailing her hair over his abdomen, she bent over and took him in her mouth, loving the sharp sudden moan that told her it was the right move.

After a few minutes, she climbed back up his legs, hovering right over him. One hand was on his right shoulder; the other grasped him and slipped him just enough inside. Slowly, she eased him inside her and started to move her hips.

Edward put his arm around her and deftly turned them both over so she was underneath him. Bella cried out in half surprise, half laughter, especially since Edward had slipped out of her.

"What was that for?" she asked breathlessly.

"I can hold you closer when we're like this." He entered her again, closing his eyes at the sensation. Bella ran her hands through his hair, smoothing back the short strands. He smelled of a long day's work and an evening of sex: sweaty, savory, and very much Edward.

They moved as lovers do, each knowing what the other needed by now. Bella gasped, overwhelmed by the strength of another climax ignited by love and lust and the mere knowledge that Edward was inside her. She arched her neck and threw back her head, not caring that the floor underneath the blanket was hard and unforgiving.

He slowed down a bit until she came down; he kissed her neck, her jaw, and finally, her lips. With his hands around her back, Edward looked in her eyes, and the desire he saw there swept his breath away. She wanted his climax too; she needed to feel it like she did her own. She shifted a little to encourage him, more of their skin meeting, sticky and warm, with the tilt of her hips.

His breathing grew more uneven as his rhythm grew more intense. When he called out her name she cried out with him, her hands grasping his ass to pull him as close as she could, his chest against her breasts like they were one stratum of love and sex. And even when it was over they stayed together, not speaking, only sharing an occasional kiss and caress.

They were here. He was safe, she was loved, and she loved him. The world fell away; quiet as it was this Christmas night, they saw or heard nothing but each other.