A Little Too Late
Chapter One- The Greener Grass
"You're still wearing your ring."
I glanced down at my hand, not the least bit surprised by the modest diamond staring back at me. He was right—I was wearing my wedding ring. What else was new? Had there ever been a time over the past eleven years—pregnancies excluded—when I hadn't worn the symbol of our love?
"Of course I am."
"I thought, maybe, since... well..."
I knew he was nervous. These days, Edward was always so anxious, so tense—like he was afraid one little thing would set me off. He never knew what might send me over the edge.
I always knew our marriage would be for better or for worse. I just never knew, until now, what worse really meant.
I wanted to move on. I wanted to forgive him, for my sake and everyone else's. But even with time apart and therapy, it was so much easier said than done.
I sighed. "Spit it out, Edward."
He pleaded with his eyes. "Please let me come home. I miss you, sweetheart. I miss our kids."
The automatic response took over. I used it every time he asked. "I'm not ready."
He made no attempt to hide the hurt in his eyes. I reached across the table to grab his hand, reassuring him it would be soon. I wasn't giving up on us, not after everything we'd already been through. Time healed all wounds, right? It worked for us in the past, at least. And if time didn't help us now... well, the kids had already been through enough. If we couldn't get past this, the last thing we needed to do was give them any sort of false hope.
"I'm sorry, Bella. I'm so, so sorry."
I had to force the words out. "Me too."
He quickly replaced the remorse in his voice with annoyance. "What the fuck do you have to be sorry about? None of this is your fault."
I completed his sentence with the phrase I'd heard hundreds of times. "It just happened."
Still, I didn't believe it for one second.
"She wasn't worth losing this."
He squeezed my hand tighter. I retracted as if I'd been burned with nitric acid. Why was he bringing her up now? Wasn't this supposed to be our date night? For just one night I wanted to forget about our problems. I should have known better than to think Edward could do anything other than dwell on them.
Tears threatened to spill over at the unwelcome mental image of them together. "How can you even fucking say that? She wasn't worth it! Apparently she was! Do not tell me—after everything we've gone through—that she wasn't worth it. I don't believe you for one second, Edward!"
I was practically shouting, but Edward kept his voice low. "You know what exactly I mean. This is all my fault! What am I supposed to say? Please, tell me how to make it better."
Nothing. Nothing he or anyone else could say would make it better.
"Seth saw her the other day, you know?"
His face fell further at the mention of our oldest son. "How is he?"
"About the same. Still feels the need to argue with everything I say."
"At least he talks to you. I can't get him to say a goddamn word to me."
I smiled sadly. Our oldest could be so overprotective of me, even today. "Give him some time. He'll come around."
We spent the rest of our dinner date doing exactly what I'd wanted to do in the first place— forgetting about our problems. I downed three beers as Edward shared every lonely detail of his week. He stopped at four. We talked about the kids; about Kristen and her asthma, Keaton and his baseball games, EJ and his practical jokes, and even Seth's constant misbehavior. We laughed knowing it was only the precursor of what was to come. Having one teenager was bad enough. In a couple of years, we'd have a whole houseful.
Three hours later, my husband walked me to the front door of the house he'd bought for us nine years ago. Our three youngest were spending the night with my father. Much to my surprise, Seth's Jeep was parked in the far side of the driveway. We voiced our approval— I couldn't remember the last time our sixteen year old made it home before his curfew.
As we hesitated outside, Edward's hands moved to caress my face. I covered them with my own, enjoying the tingle of his skin against mine.
"I had a great time tonight," he whispered as if we'd just returned from our very first date.
He kissed me passionately and for a moment I allowed myself to get lost in the feeling. It took every ounce of strength I had left to pull away. We stalled, and I realized the obvious. Edward wanted me to invite him in.
"Please," he begged. "I miss you."
"I'm sorry. Not tonight."
No matter how much I still loved my husband, the idea of being intimate with him or anyone else made me feel sick.
"Just let me spend the night. I'll sleep on the couch if I have to."
"No. I don't want the kids to get confused."
"The kids aren't even home!"
"Seth is home. You should come in and say hi to him."
"Seth has made it very clear to both of us he's not a kid anymore. And he wants nothing to do with me."
"I don't care. I can't do this yet, Edward. I'm sorry. Please don't shut him out."
He raised his voice. "Then stop shutting me out! Dammit, Bella. We're supposed to in this together! This wasn't supposed to happen!"
A few seconds later, the front door flew open. Seth, full of anger, moved between the two of us. As he stood face to face with his father, neither spoke. Still, the tension was palpable. I waited for Edward to make the first move—to be the one to defuse the situation. It didn't take long before I grew annoyed with their awkward silence and relentless stares.
"It's okay, Seth. We were just talking." I put my hand on his shoulder. "Dad was just about to come in to say hi."
"Hi," Seth replied disingenuously.
"Don't be a smart ass," I warned.
Edward exhaled, ignoring both of our comments. "I should go. Be good for Mom, Seth. Don't forget to take the trash out on time." He stepped around our son to kiss my cheek, staring into my eyes with more intensity than necessary. "I'll pick up the kids from Charlie's in the morning. I love you, beautiful."
It didn't matter how many times he said the words; I still knew better than to believe them. At 35, I'd never felt so hideous— not after I had Seth, EJ, or even the twins. Beautiful? I wasn't beautiful, and definitely not in comparison to her.
Such a big part of me screamed, he doesn't love you. I fought to keep it at bay, refusing to let him see the tears accumulating in my eyes. I couldn't fall apart now. Not in front of Seth, and not while Edward was looking for the smallest excuse to spend the night. I didn't want compassion, especially not from him.
"Bella, I love you," he repeated, barely above a whisper. "I still love you."
I wondered aloud, mostly to myself, "Then how did we end up like this?"
11 months earlier...
"Mom, can we order pizza tonight?"
I glanced over at my fifteen year old son, overcome by a moment of deja vu. It wasn't as if asking to order pizza was a major feat at the Cullen house. As the mother of four kids, I'd caved to the temptation to order out more than I'd care to admit. It wasn't necessarily what Seth asked, but how he asked it that sent me back to an almost identical conversation I'd had with him almost ten years ago.
"What?" he asked, obviously perturbed by my gaze.
"Do you remember asking me that when you were five?"
He rolled his eyes. "I've probably asked you that like a thousand times."
"True, but on that particular night I realized I still had... feelings for your dad."
He raised his eyebrow. "Okay..."
"You were spending the night with him."
Seth filled in the gaps. "So you could go out with your boyfriend. Yeah, Mom, I remember."
His version of the story wasn't entirely true— I had gone out with someone that night, Jake, but he wasn't my boyfriend. He could have been if not for Edward's interference and the job I'd been offered in Florida. That night, ten years ago, everything started to change. My life turned upside down, and when the dust finally settled, I was knocked up and three thousand miles away from home.
"He wasn't my boyfriend," I corrected him.
Seth grabbed a hat off the counter and checked his cell phone for what seemed like the hundredth time. "Whatever, Mom, I don't really care. Can we order pizza or not?"
"As long as you're home by six." I smiled, rising up on my toes to plant an uninvited kiss on his cheek. Much to his disgust, I straightened the bill of his baseball cap in the process.
"Gah," he groaned. "Stop being gross, Mom."
I laughed, slightly offended by the way Seth wiped the imaginary germs from his cheek. My teenage son wasn't so amused. As he always loved to remind me, he wasn't a little kid anymore. Seth surpassed me in height over a year ago; he was learning to drive, shave, and unfortunately, talk back. Long ago, he decided how uncool his parents were. But even though he'd grown older, he was still very much the same boy who helped bring his parents back together a decade ago.
He left the kitchen just as his father entered. "Later, Mom. Dad," he said, heading out the front door and off to school.
"Seemed like he was in a hurry this morning." My husband of almost a decade grabbed a mug from the cabinet and went straight for the coffee pot. Caffeine was a necessity at our house, especially for me. It was only eight, but I was already on my third cup.
Four kids, remember?
My arms made their way around Edward's waist. His lips pressed lightly to my forehead and I allowed myself to enjoy a moment of peace and quiet before the time came to wake the others for school. Six years separated Seth from his brother EJ. Another two passed before Kristen and Keaton came into the picture. After the twins, we decided we'd had enough. There were times when Edward expressed a desire for one more— he desperately wanted another daughter. But at the end of the day, I was glad we stopped when we did. Twins were exhausting.
"You know how he likes to spend time with Katie before school," I reminded him.
Katie and Seth had been inseparable since school began almost two months ago. Their friendship started over the summer and slowly worked its way into something more serious. When Seth wasn't working part time at Newton's, it was almost a given that they were together. Mostly, they spent afternoons at our house working on homework and art projects. When I needed to work late, I knew I could almost always count on Seth and his girlfriend to be my impromptu babysitters.
Edward sighed. "That's what I was afraid of."
It was typical for Edward to jump to conclusions, but Seth and Katie weren't bad kids. Sure, they were teenagers, but they knew when to stop... or so I hoped. The longer their relationship continued, the more Edward began to wonder. Things came to a head last week when my ten year old rushed upstairs to tell us all about the compromising position he'd stumbled upon. Seth and Katie ashamedly insisted that they were just making out, but Edward and I knew better than to think it would have continued like that for much longer. With yet another stern reminder to keep the door to his basement bedroom open at all times, Edward warned our son not to let it happen again.
"Oh, relax, honey," I pouted. "He's just a teenage boy."
"Yeah, well, I was a teenage boy once too. Remember?"
How could I forget?
I got pregnant the night of my high school graduation. Edward had been my lab partner, and in hindsight, a good friend— but nothing more. I went to the beach that night; to a party with people I barely knew and had no reason to trust. Edward was there too. That night, he told me he was only there to buy some pills, but I knew better than to believe he would have just left if not for me. He would have found more alcohol, probably another girl, and none of this would exist for me. I would have gone to college, to UCLA, and never looked back. Instead, I went home with Edward. I lost my virginity that night to a boy who seemingly wanted nothing more to do with me or our baby— a boy who struggled for years with his own self esteem and the guilt from holding me back from the future he thought I deserved.
A boy who refused to allow himself to love or be loved for the next six years.
Even still, I felt confident when I said, "Well, if he's anything like his father, we have nothing to worry about."
My husband didn't agree. "That's the problem. He's too much like me."
"Edward, how many women have you been with?"
He scoffed. "You know the answer to that."
I did; I just wanted to hear him say it. "Well?"
"You," he finally whispered.
"You're thirty-five years old and you've only had sex with one woman."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
My lips brushed the stubble on his cheek. "No. It's definitely not. But do you know how rare it is? How many people has Jasper slept with? Or Emmett?"
Jasper was Edward's man-whoring best friend. He finally settled down, but only after getting my best friend pregnant. Edward's older brother, Emmett, had quite the reputation for messing around while we were in high school. It wasn't until a year after his graduation that he found Rosalie. I don't know how she managed, but she did a fairly good job of keeping him in line. Their oldest son was only a couple of years younger than ours.
He shrugged. "What can I say? I knew what I wanted. Or should I say who."
My husband slowly began to brush his lips against mine. I needed to wake the kids up soon, but that didn't stop me from savoring the attention. My daughter's allergies had been bothering her all week, along with her asthma. She'd been weaseling her way into our room at night, and that left no time for Mommy and Daddy.
Our sex life wasn't on fire, not by any means, but that didn't mean I didn't want him. It had been almost a week since the last time we'd been intimate. He deepened our kiss, and I brought my hands to the back of his neck. His went to my hips, lifting me onto the kitchen counter. A few seconds later, my legs wrapped around his waist and I felt his arousal through the thin layers of material that separated us.
I pulled away all too quickly.
"Bella," Edward groaned.
"I have to wake the kids up," I told him, "and you have to go to work."
He began to loosen his tie. "It's not even eight, babe. I don't have to be at my desk for another half hour. And getting the kids ready doesn't take forty-five minutes."
"Edward," I reproached.
"Come on, sweetheart." He grinned. "I can make it quick."
Pushing him back, I hopped down from the counter. "I have no doubt about that, but my answer is still no."
He let out an exaggerated sigh.
"I'll make it up to you tonight. I promise."
"Assuming we don't have a seven-year-old wedged between us."
I shrugged. "So we'll wait for her to fall asleep and carry her back into her room."
"But then you'll probably be too tired."
He was probably right. "Whatever, Edward. Go to work already. All of this pouting is so unbecoming of you."
As a final attempt to get his way, Edward gave me one last lingering kiss. I straightened his tie— one of many reminders of the things that had changed over the years. Since moving back to Forks, Edward had been given a series of promotions at the hospital. He now held the position of Nurse Manager, meaning he oversaw all of the other RNs. When Keaton and Kristen finally started school three years ago, I took a part time job at the police station doing clerical work. My dad desperately needed the help, and with the kids gone, it wasn't like I had anything better to do. Plus, we could always use the extra money.
"I hope you intend on keeping your promise, Mrs. Cullen," he whispered. "In the meantime, kiss my babies for me."
I saw past his attempt to seduce me with charm. "Have a good day. Oh, and tell Alice I said hi."
He began to grumble again, this time about sharing an office space with my best friend. It was hardly ideal for him, especially with all of the drama surrounding Alice and Jasper. Over the past few months, our friends had hit a bit of a rough spot in their marriage. We tried to avoid the conflict as much as possible, but it was hard with all of us working and living so close together. We heard about it everyday.
It all started when Jasper began to spend more time at the station and less time at home. Of course, it didn't take long for Alice's imagination to get the best of her. Every time she came to me with her suspicions, I tried my best to soothe her fears. I saw Jasper all the time and never noticed anything out of the ordinary. As far as I could tell, he was still very much in love with his wife. They had their moments, of course, but so did we. At the station, he worked hard and maintained the highest level of professionalism.
Her name was Victoria.
Their first encounter happened a little over three months ago at the bowling alley in Forks. Someone was stealing money from the till. As it turned out, Tori had been slipping tens from the register for weeks. Jasper escorted her back to the station before convincing the alley to drop the charges. He took her home, and as far as most knew, that was the end of it.
It was a few weeks before he actually saw her again.
SWAT raided her house. Well, technically, it was her mother's house.
The information Tori provided Jasper with had been more than enough to put Tori's mom, along with a handful of others, behind bars. It propelled Jasper's career forward and saved a teenager from her own living hell. The bust didn't happen a moment too soon. No child should ever have to steal for food. Nor should she have to fall asleep fearing what or who she might wake up to.
Tori's mom was a terrible mother. A wretched, despicable mother.
The horror stories she told Jasper were enough to make me sick to my stomach. Her father died of an overdose when she was seven, leaving her to fend for herself over the past nine years. He failed her, and so had the system... time and time again.
But as she soon found out, foster care wasn't much better.
Social Services placed her at a home in La Push. There were already three other children in the home, each with a laundry list of problems. Tori wasn't a perfect child, not by any means. She admitted to using, stealing, and a slew of other things. As Jasper insisted, she didn't know any better. Her mother did nothing but encourage her behavior.
He refused to accept that she might have been a lost cause.
The way he saw it, she just needed someone to care—a parental figure to keep her in line. Jasper more or less became that person. He was the one to make sure she was in school everyday. Jazz made sure she had lunch money and a ride home. He worked overtime on her case, ensuring that she wouldn't go home even after her mother was released. She went to him when she needed something and even when she didn't. Tori began spending most of her time at the station. Sometimes, she kept me company when Jasper wasn't around.
Alice didn't trust her. She couldn't understand why Jasper had become so attached, why he couldn't let go. It really wasn't my place or Edward's to say anything. After all, we had our own kids to worry about.
"He's just trying to be a nice guy," I said to my husband in Jasper's defense.
"Yeah, well, she isn't his kid, Bella."
"Would you want some drugged up, over-sexed teenager hanging around our babies?"
I rolled my eyes. "Oh, come on. She isn't that bad."
"I don't care. Alice is right to keep her away from Maddie and Jack."
"And we're right to stay out of it," I reminded him. "I still can't believe they're considering separation over it, though."
"I know, I know. Just... thank God it's not us, right? I hope we never end up in their shoes."
I kissed him one final time. As far as I was concerned, nothing would ever tear me away from my husband—not after everything we'd already been through.
"Seriously, Edward. What could possibly get us to that point?"