Many thanks again to my amazing beta, writingbabe, and talented prereader, RandomCran. They keep me real, and I'm forever grateful that they share their skills with me and Copward.
We have two more chapters to go after this.
Two years later
"This? This is the big secret?" Bella shrugged out of her jacket before Edward had the chance to help her.
"Yeah. I wanted to surprise you." He sat down next to her.
"You definitely did. I thought you didn't like this place."
He waved his hand dismissively. "It's not so bad."
Bella laughed. "There's a ringing endorsement. We haven't been back since the first time we ate here."
Edward nodded. "It's not the food, it's the ambiance."
And the memory.
A waitress came to take their order. Edward ordered a cheeseburger with no onions and a Brooklyn Blast IPA. No matter what, the Chelsea Bar and Harbor still had a great beer selection.
"Isn't that what you ordered the first time, after the basketball game?" Bella scanned the menu, trying to mask her curiosity. She had no idea why Edward decided to come here – eating dinner was too simple an answer - and she kept sneaking looks at him to see if he gave off any clues.
"I'll have the exact same thing he's having," she said, handing the menu to the waitress with a smile. On that first night nearly four years ago, this is what they'd eaten, and what they'd said when they ordered.
"Good choice. But then, you always were smart about food."
"You did better when you brought us to Mexicana Mama. But this is special even if the food isn't the best."
He nodded. She was catching on. "That's exactly it."
Bella looked around and frowned. "Isn't this the same booth where we sat with Emmett and Rose and Jasper and Alice that night?"
"Yes, it is." He shifted so he was closer to her. "But it's better now, because it's just the two of us."
"It is more romantic."
"That, too. I was just thinking I don't have to rescue my beer from Emmett." A known moocher, Emmett would "try" anyone else's drink to see if he liked it. Usually, he'd wipe out half the glass before he was certain.
Bella watched Edward fidget. He circled his index finger around the rim of his glass, then dipped his French fries in the ketchup and swirled them around like they were in a washing machine. He also kept glancing at his watch.
"Do you need to be somewhere?" she asked, amused.
He rubbed his thumb against his jaw line. "As a matter of fact, we do have one more stop to make."
"Really? I thought you had to get home and finish reading."
"I carved out a few extra hours for us."
"So should I rush through dinner?"
"No rush. It's not worth getting indigestion over," he said indifferently. Liar. I am a lying liar who lies.
Bella eyed Edward's cheeseburger, half of which was left on his plate. The sight of it made her worry; he rarely ate slowly and he never left anything behind unless he didn't like it. There was no question about his feelings when it came to cheeseburgers.
She took another sip of beer and tried to figure out what he was up to. "What time do we need to leave?"
He checked his watch again and tried to make it seem as if it was only the first or second time he'd done it. "Around 7, so we should probably wrap this up." He motioned to the waitress to ask for the check.
They left the restaurant and walked east on 23rd Street, toward the subway station to catch the E train. The air was damp and cold, and Bella shivered inside her winter coat. It would be Thanksgiving soon, which meant that Christmas decorations were already popping up all over Manhattan. The clothing stores in particular were determined that no one would forget December 25 was six weeks away.
"So how's it feel to make it into your last year of law school, Mr. Cullen?"
"Ask me after I take the bar exam," he said ruefully.
"Oh, right. There's that. Are you really that worried about passing?"
"Not really," he replied. "It's kind of weird. I think I'll make it the first time I take it. But it's the last big hurdle of law school, and I'm going to have to study like it's the worst of the worst classes. I'm more concerned about feeling like I'm starting all over after getting through three years of school. Law board prep is a total nightmare."
Bella was loosely holding Edward's arm. She could feel him tense up as he talked about the exams and all the organizing and studying he'd have to do - again. Neither of them was looking forward to it, and for a few fleeting seconds she thought back to Edward's first year in school and how long it had taken for them to adjust.
"It won't be pleasant," she said frankly. "The worst of it will be on you, but the biggest thing we have on our side is, we know what to expect. We'll make it through." She held on to his arm more tightly. "Look, getting through law school is a huge deal. Don't forget everything you've already accomplished. You're almost done!"
"Thank you, baby." He watched Bella as she walked next to him, her profile so familiar and so beloved. "Some days it feels like it's gone so fast, and some days it seems like it took forever. Especially in the beginning." They descended the stairs to the platform for the train that would take them uptown.
"Definitely. But we got past all that. We figured out what we each had to do, and we adjusted," she replied.
Edward thought about her simple summary for a moment, and nodded. He'd realized what he had to do very early on; it involved fully committing to school. Bella, on the other hand, had a trickier role. She had to work to support them both, take over most every responsibility in their apartment, and hold his hand whenever he was too overwhelmed, too worried, too anxious, or even too tired to type another word.
"I couldn't have come this far without you. I couldn't finish without you. I wouldn't want to," Edward said. He took her left hand and toyed with her fingers, kissing the tips and smoothing over the knuckles.
"You were the one who studied so hard. You would have done it on your own."
"I don't know about that," he said. "I told you a long time ago that I left the force and decided to go to school for myself, and that's true. But you definitely inspired me to see I had other options besides police work. When I found you, I realized I also wanted to find other things in life-things for us, together."
Edward's eyes heated to a dark green, a sure sign that he felt something particularly intense. Knowing she was the object of that ardor sent flutters through her stomach. He'd become rather passionate about crediting her with inspiring him to attend law school despite how she minimized her role in it. More often now, it inspired him to creatively – and passionately - show his thanks.
They returned above ground at 53rd Street – a very familiar neighborhood for a number of reasons. The Museum of Modern Art was right at the corner of Fifth Avenue, and Edward led them directly to it.
"Edward, the museum is closed."
"Not for us." A uniformed guard smiled and waved at them from inside. He opened the door and gestured with a flourish.
"Good evening, Mr. Cullen. Good evening, Miss Swan."
"Evening, Sam. How are you?" Edward shook the guard's hand.
"I'm doing well, sir, thank you."
"No, thank you for your help tonight."
"It's a pleasure." He extended his arm again, this time toward guest information. "Right this way."
Edward's Aunt Maggie was waiting for them in front of a long desk, her fingers interlaced and resting against her skirt. She was dressed in a dark brown suit and heels, as if it was another day at work and there were hundreds of visitors milling around instead of only two people whose steps echoed softly on the great open floor.
Maggie smiled broadly and turned her cheek for Edward's kiss. "Hey there," she said cheerfully. She embraced Bella.
"It's great to see you, Aunt Maggie," Bella said. "But what-" She stopped asking once she saw the impish smile that graced the older woman's face.
Maggie pressed her lips together for a few seconds like she was trying to prevent something from escaping, and then inclined her head toward the elevator. "Shall I escort you to the fifth floor?"
"That would be nice."
Edward asked about Maggie's family as the elevator doors silently opened. He and his aunt chatted during the ride five floors up, and Bella managed to stay quiet. She could see she wouldn't be getting answers out of either of them, and she wasn't about to give them the satisfaction of showing she was dying to know what was going on.
Maggie stepped out of the car and, like Sam the guard, gestured theatrically toward the galleries. "I'll see you later."
"Bye," Edward said, kissing her again. "And thanks."
"Umm…bye, Aunt Maggie." Bella waggled her fingers and turned to follow Edward.
Bella knew this floor of the museum very well. By now, she was familiar with the galleries and most of the artwork they held. MoMA occasionally moved pieces of its priceless collection around, but there was one painting that never left its particular home. Her knees weakened as she began to guess where they were going and why they were here.
Wordlessly, Edward ushered her into the first gallery. The entire space was dark except for one light which was shining from the ceiling, somewhere deep inside the space. They were the only people here. The museum had been opened for the two of them.
Bella breathed out deeply but didn't say anything. Edward clearly had something in mind, and she would wait for him.
He took her by the hand and they walked toward the light.
A rich history of art cast shadows as they walked through: Cezanne's glorious still life; Matisse's vivid primary colors; Rousseau's fantasies; Picasso's somber nudes. They stepped around a corner and there, by itself, was Van Gogh's "Starry Night," lit from above.
Edward drew Bella against him once they were right in front of the painting, standing closer than a security guard would allow. Bella had no idea how many rules they were breaking by being here, or whether Edward and Maggie had found a romantic and sympathetic administrator who'd agreed to all this. She didn't care. She felt as light and dizzy as she did the first time she'd seen the painting, with Edward, years ago.
They'd been back to view it often enough, but this night was different.
"Do you always see it the same when we're here?" Edward asked.
"I always find something new, maybe a color I hadn't noticed before, or a part of the stars or the town below. But it always takes my breath away. In every way that matters, it's like I'm seeing it for the first time."
Edward closed his eyes, a soft smile coming across his face. "Yes. I knew that about you the first time I brought you here. I didn't know you well at all, but I could see the important things. And there was so much about you that was important."
He took both her hands in his. "We'd only known each other weeks, but even then I knew I wouldn't let you go. I've had the honor of being with you all this time. We've already had a good life because we've learned something about being together under a lot of stress, about giving in but not giving up. That part's almost over. Better days will be here soon."
Edward got down on one knee. Bella covered her mouth with her hand as the tears came, first one or two, and then so many more. "Now I'll have a better life to offer you, one where I'll be present and I can thank you every day for what you've given me. I'm already yours. I have been since the first time we came here. And now" – he nodded toward "Starry Night" - "with Vincent as our witness, I'm asking you: will you marry me, Bella?"
"Oh, God," she whispered and gulped. "Oh, God." She took his face in her hands and knelt on the floor with him.
"Well, yeah, God should be there. I'd like a wedding in a church." Tenderly, he wiped the tears off of Bella's cheek. "It would be nice to hear that you'll be there, too."
"Yes!" she finally said. "Yes, Edward. I'll marry you. Of course. Yes. Yes."
"Ah, that's good." He gently moved her hands so he could hold them again. Bella thought that if Van Gogh had painted Edward at this moment, his famously passionate brush strokes could not have captured the beauty she saw there: love, need, optimism, and above all, joy.
"I waited all my life for this. All that was missing was you, and once I found you, I just had to wait for the right moment. I'm sorry law school postponed it for a few years, but I wanted so much to get it right." He kissed her, tasting her tears and realizing that he would have the privilege of drying them for the rest of their years.
"I can't believe I almost forgot this." Edward pulled a small velvet box out of his pocket. "This is definitely part of the deal." He flipped open the top and held it out show to her. "I hope you like it."
It was a solitaire diamond ring, small and perfect, set in yellow gold. The lighting reflected off the facets of the brilliant cut, emitting bright flashes as it moved in Edward's shaking hand.
"I love it, Edward. It's beautiful."
He removed the ring from the box and took Bella's left hand. Deftly, in spite of his nerves, he slid the ring along her fourth finger, where it nestled comfortably against her knuckle.
"Gorgeous. Just like you," he whispered. His voice caught. "Bella, I am so damn lucky. I don't tell you that enough. It's the least you deserve from me; my every thought, and every part of my heart." He inhaled again, his brows drawn together like he was concentrating very hard. "And you have it all." He smiled now, a rueful grin that Bella had come to know and love, along with every one of Edward's expressions. "You've had it all for years, and you're the only one who knows what to do with it."
She laughed, captivated again by Edward's ability to say the right thing in an odd but perfect way. "How can I say no to the one man who knew me as soon as he saw me? Everyone else only wanted one thing or another from me." She ran her fingers through the hair that now hung over his forehead, so long and thick and stubborn. "You wanted everything I am, and I could trust you with it all."
He took her hand and kissed it, once, twice, and then one final time. Edward turned his head and looked at "Starry Night," giving silent thanks to the artist who had sacrificed so much and who could now, wherever he was, count this as another blessing he'd made possible through his glorious talent.
"I think we've taken up enough of Vincent's time. He might need to sleep now," Edward said solemnly. Then his eyes glinted. "I'm not tired, though. Are you?"
"No." If anything, Bella felt as if every nerve in her body was alive, charged up by sheer joy and anticipation.
"Good. Let's go home."
They bid goodbye to Maggie downstairs in the lobby. Bella threw her arms around her and whispered fiercely, "I don't know how you did this, but thank you. Thank you."
"All those years of being a volunteer docent paid off. I knew they would." She took Bella's hand and admired the ring. "I can't wait to tell Esme that I saw her daughter-in-law wearing this gorgeous engagement ring before she did."
With one final kiss for the two of them, Maggie smiled again, her eyes tearing up. "It was all Edward's idea, of course. I was thrilled to set it up. You know I love the both of you." She gave Bella another hug. "Welcome to the family."
They also bid goodbye to Sam, the guard who gladly gave up his evening to help, and set out for the subway back to Brooklyn. As they sat on the train, Bella kept looking at her hand, where a ring that hadn't been there yesterday let everyone know her world had changed. She wasn't used to wearing jewelry, but this would never come off.
They walked to the corner of Franklin Street, the sounds and smells of the Green Point Polish business district by now very familiar to her. It had become home; it was now a place that welcomed her in a way that New York never had before, even if the people were still often preoccupied and remote. She never felt isolated any more. It didn't matter if New York never took her in its arms; Edward always would, and that was better.
As if reading her mind, he did exactly that. Under the streetlight, he kissed her, his mouth welcome and warm in the cold night.
"Did I get it right?" he asked.
"Oh, you did," she assured him. She kissed him back again, a passionate meeting of lips and tongues to reinforce her words. "It was the perfect place, the perfect setting, the perfect idea."
"It's what you deserve. Once I knew the time was right, I just had to figure out how and where. That was actually pretty easy." Edward gently touched the diamond with the tip of his finger. His mouth twitched, and he hummed like he was thinking of something weighty.
There was a sudden shift in his voice, a drop in its timbre that made it sound like it came from his gut. "Fiancée," he commanded, "as soon we are home, I want you wearing nothing but this ring."
Bella practically ran down the block to their apartment, pulling a smirking Edward along behind her. He reached around her and unlocked the door, allowing it to swing far inside so she could rush into their bedroom.
She turned her back for a moment to slip off her jeans and unbutton her shirt, leaving them both on the floor. Bella had complained to Edward many times when he'd done the same thing, but she doubted he'd bring that up right now.
Edward had gone into the kitchen. She heard water running, though Bella knew that was a pretense. He was giving her time to undress. He wanted her to wait for him, naked and ready on the bed.
After a few minutes, he arrived in the bedroom holding two glasses of water in one hand. With the other, he was pulling his shirt out of his pants and unbuttoning it. Edward stopped when he saw her on the bed, reclining elegantly on her side. She had one leg pulled up with her knee bent; her left hand, with the engagement ring, brushed the pillow next to her in slow, smooth movements.
"Oh, Bella," he breathed, and set the glasses on the dresser without even looking at them.
She smiled but said nothing, practically purring as he unzipped his jeans and tossed them on top of her clothing. He pulled his underwear off so quickly she heard the seams rip in protest. Edward only slowed his movements as he got on the bed. When he reached her, he covered her with his body and kissed her, teasing her lips with his tongue so she would let him in.
He was propped above her, holding himself up. She ran her hands up his long arms, her fingertips tracing the hard muscles as if they were discovering them for the first time. Once she looked up, Bella couldn't turn away; Edward's eyes were dark with heat and wonder.
"Mrs. Cullen," he said softly.
"No. You are. You've been for awhile. Now we'll take the last few steps together."
Lying down alongside her, he ran his hand over her heart, along her stomach, and then between her legs. His kisses were short and tender along her shoulder and neck, until he reached her breasts, where he lingered as his hand stroked her. Finally, when both of them couldn't wait any longer, he eased himself over her and slipped inside of her. Bella arched her neck and gave a breathy gasp of satisfaction.
Her hands wandered along his back and ass, kneading his skin roughly when the sensations began building to the point of spilling over. Anything that wasn't her or Edward fell far away, overshadowed by emotion and the joy of love with the man she was going to marry. It wasn't their first time together, not by far; but everything was different now. The future they'd long know they'd have was spoken for, outside of the heart as well as within.
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