"I know, Becca. I'll be on the road first thing in the morning." The young man at her table drops his head into the palm of his hand with his cell phone still firmly placed to his ear. "Let me talk to him."
She doesn't really mean to be eavesdropping, but she's replacing the napkins in the booth directly across from him, and it's hard not to. Furthermore, she justifies it because he's the last one to be seated in her section and as soon as her tables are clear, she can go home. Not that she has much of a home to go to: just a small studio apartment above a laundry mat and a cat named Oliver.
"Dad?" He speaks softly into his phone, sounding more like a young boy than the grown man he's dressed as. Clearing his voice, he asks, "How're you doing?" He genuinely laughs at the reply, but when he looks up, she can see his watery eyes.
Bella scolds herself for being nosey and starts to walk away, but as she turns around, she finds herself face-to-face with Esme.
"No," she responds automatically. She tries to side-step around her boss, but the woman plants herself directly in her path. She's cornered between the chubby woman with way too much product in her hair (seriously, she looks like one of those crazy moms on Toddlers and Tiaras) and the booth.
"Please, Bella, I'll pay you double."
"You'll just have to call Kate."
"I already did, but she's can't get out of going to her in-laws. Tanya can't because of her kids, and Jane won't be back from her folks' until Monday."
Bella knits her brows together and uses the only childish excuse she has, "This isn't fair, Esme. I worked Thanksgiving, and I'm giving up New Years too. You promised me Christmas!"
"I know. I know I did, but, Bella…you're the only one…without plans." She says it gently, as if that will soften the blow. It doesn't, of course; Bella feels a piece of her heart burning with hurt.
"You mean without family." Bella bites her lip after her snapped retort. She silently stares down at her boss, wishing she could say something to get her out of working. Anything.
During their stand-off, she overhears the young man on the phone. "Of course I'm bringing her. She's dying to meet you…I'll see you tomorrow, Dad. Love you."
Bella slips passed Esme and take her place in front of her last customer. She knows she's lost the battle, but she doesn't have to admit her defeat just yet.
"Hi, my name's Bella, and I'll be your server tonight. Can I start you off with a drink? If you want something to warm you up, we have coffee, hot tea, cocoa…" She lets her words trail off as the man in front of her looks her up and down, scrutinizing every inch of her. Indignation and a snappy remark rise up to her throat, (she's exhausted, and she's not in the mood to be ogled) but he beats her with his rushed words.
"My dad's dying."
And now she's really glad she didn't spout off all the horribly rude things she was thinking.
"I'm sorry. I – I know how hard that is."
His eyes began to shimmer again. "You do?" Shaking his head, he looks down, mumbling to himself, "Good, that's probably helpful."
Bella's not sure what that means, so she awkwardly points to the kitchen. "Can I get you-"
"I, uh, I overheard you talking a moment ago," he states, and she blinks back at him, wondering if he's apologizing. She briefly considers offering the same sentiment for her own eavesdropping. "You don't have plans for Christmas?"
Bella clinches her teeth. She has plans; they just include snuggling with Oliver, drinking too much eggnog, and watching sappy holiday movies that make her cry. Except now…"It looks like I'll be spending Christmas here."
"What if I could help you with that?"
She eyes him warily. Good looks don't mean anything when it comes to serial killers or rapists.
She deflects the question. "You know our cherry cobbler is delicious. Why don't I get you some?" Plastering on a smile, she jots down the order and starts to step away.
"No, wait. I mean, what if we make plans? Would she make you work?"
"Listen, you seem like a nice guy and you're very good looking so I'm probably an idiot for turning you down, but you're in a vulnerable place right now. You're looking for someone to comfort you - I know, I've been there. But I've just worked a thirteen hour shift, my feet hurt, I'm tired, and I want to go home. So please let me take your order."
"No, you don't understand. I want you to come home with me for Christmas. I'll pay you."
"Excuse me?" Bella screams self-righteously, causing Esme and three other patrons to turn in her direction. "I am not-"
"I'm sorry! That's not what I meant!" He puts both hands up in the air in surrender, his face ashen with a look of pure remorse. Bella's still upset, but she allows him to defend himself. "I'm going about this all wrong."
"Sir, if you don't order something, I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
"Jake. My name's Jake, and I'm sorry. I didn't mean for it to come out like that. It's just that I told my family I'd bring my girlfriend, and-"
"I'm sure the three of us would've had a lovely time," she quips.
"Maybe we would have, except I don't actually have a girlfriend. Which is why I need you." Jake runs his hands through his hair and lets out a frustrated sigh. "Look, I did something really stupid."
Bella raises an eyebrow and thinks his sentence needs to be in the present tense.
"I have a proposition for you." Before Bella can react, Jake raises his hands back into a surrendering motion. "Just hear me out. Please?"
She's not sure why she does it, but Bella finds herself reluctantly nodding for him to continue.
"Okay, so I kind of told my dad I had a girlfriend when it wasn't true. Now he wants me to bring her home for Christmas – which is pretty hard to do considering she's imaginary. This is where you come in. I'll give you five thousand dollars if you come home with me and pretend to be my girlfriend for the next two days."
Jake continues, his heart pouring into his words, "I love my dad, Bella, and I'll do anything to ensure his happiness for his last few months."
Bella feels badly for him, and as much as she doesn't want to, she (sort of) understands where he's coming from. She would've done the same thing for her own father if she'd had the chance.
She's still not sure she should agree though. Despite the five thousand dollars and regardless how much she could use that money, she's not entirely comfortable with this plan. She doesn't know anything about this "Jake," or his family, for that matter. What if they're a bunch of crazy, banana snorting hippies?
Okay, so that's not actually a thing. But still.
"Please, Bella. I'm begging you. I'll drive us down there, and I'll pay for everything. My sisters will do all the cooking and cleaning; you won't have to lift a finger. Just think of it as a vacation. Then Christmas evening, I'll drive you home, and you'll never have to see me again."
"Don't you have a friend or someone you could call instead?"
He starts shaking his head before she even finishes her sentence. "Everyone I know has their own family thing."
"And I'm not about to call an escort agency. I won't have that around my four-year-old niece."
His morals toward his young niece do have a slight affect on Bella. "You have a niece?"
"Yeah, she's the center of attention in our family. She loves to dress up, and she's always talking us into playing hide-and-seek with her."
Bella pictures it. A real family Christmas with gifts and laughter; she thinks about honey-glazed ham, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. She imagines children running between the adults' legs and playing games.
"Okay?" Jake repeats, disbelieving his own ears.
"Yeah, I'll do it." She smiles. She feels good agreeing to help Jake, and if it'll make his father happy, then she sees nothing wrong with it. Except for one thing… "And I'll do it for free."
As Bella's leaving the diner thirty minutes later, she calls out to Esme in the kitchen, "I guess we'll have to be closed Christmas Eve and Christmas. I'm going to meet my boyfriend's family!"
The only response she hears as she's stepping out the door is the clattering of some dishes.
The butterflies in Bella's stomach seem to increase in number as they drive closer to their destination. As they enter into the small reservation of La Push, Washington, Bella can't stop the assault on her nerves.
For the first thirty minutes of the drive, Jake awkwardly attempted small talk, gave her control of the radio station, and was genuinely concerned about Oliver being stuck in his carrier the entirety of the trip. She appreciated the sentiment; it made her feel better to know that he cared so much about her comfort – and Oliver's.
Eventually, they settled into easy conversation, only stopping occasionally – or abruptly in Bella's case (she'd literally quit mid-word) to sing along with the Christmas carols on the radio. She'd squeal and clap her hands together whenever she heard one of her favorite songs then begin to do a shimmy-type dance in the passenger seat. Jake seemed to find her moves amusing as he'd tap his hands to the beat on the steering wheel and laugh along with her.
It was somewhere around the one hour mark of their four hour drive when Bella decided she could actually start to like Jake. He was sweet, funny, and considerate. By the two hour mark, she decided they could be great friends. She discovered they're both fans of the Mariners (despite their track record). Jake rides a motorcycle during the warmer months, making her jealous. But Bella has a '64 Chevy, which makes Jake jealous. Though they quickly compromise on a deal; Bella promises she'll take him out in the Chevy if he'll take her for a ride this spring.
By the time the three hour mark rolled around, Bella discovered that she had a full blown crush on her 'pretend boyfriend.' She found herself listening intently while he talked, regardless of the subject matter. She became enraptured by the sound of his voice - especially when he mentioned his family. She noticed his tone softening when he spoke of his niece and the proud edge when he mentioned his sisters' achievements. But most of all, it was the way he talked about his father; the admiration he had for him, the respect, and love all shown through the sound of his voice.
Jake reached across the console and gently took Bella's hand in his. He gave it a squeeze and a quick, reassuring smile.
"It's going to be fine. My sisters will fawn all over you, Clara'll follow you around like a puppy, and my dad'll adore you." He nods as if he's trying to convince himself of this too. "Paul and Solomon will probably give me hell, but I'm sure they'll be on their best behavior for you. They know Rach and Becca will kick their asses if they say anything stupid."
Bella tries to pay attention as he goes on, but quite frankly, she can't stop focusing on his hand still firmly clasped around hers.
Oddly enough, the butterflies started to migrate up to her heart.
Immediately, Jake drops their luggage and falls to one knee with his arms open wide. A tiny little girl with shoulder length curls and a red velvet dress then flings herself into his arms.
A chorus of "Jake!" quickly follows. Two men stand from the couch while two similar-looking women step out of the kitchen and into the foyer, the most noticeable difference between them being a protruding belly. Rachel, Bella thinks. Jake mentioned that Rachel was expecting, which meant the other was Clara's mother, Rebecca.
The little girl in Jake's arms quickly pulls herself away and looks up at Bella, cocking her head slightly. "Are you Bella?"
She nods, and the child's face lights up into a bright smile as she rushes forward, enveloping Bella's legs in her tiny arms.
"Oh, Bella," Rebecca sighs, her hands clasped to her chest. "It's so good to finally meet you." The woman doesn't give Bella a chance to reply before she's following in the footsteps of her daughter and hugging the newcomer.
At first, Bella gasps from the sudden embrace. She isn't used to such affection, but with the little girl sandwiched between them and the bright smiles of those hugging around her, she quickly warms up to the action. This is what families do, she tells herself, They hug.
As Rebecca steps back, she pulls her daughter with her, the smiles never leaving either of their faces.
"Wow, brother, she's beautiful." Rachel gently swats Jake on the chest before opening her arms to Bella. "Come here."
Of course Bella blushes at the compliment, and while she's pressing her cheek to Rachel's, she can see a tall, dark-skinned man elbowing Jake. He's not exactly quiet as he whispers, "Way to go, man. She's fucking hot."
Rachel whips her head around so fast that Bella eats some of the other girl's hair. But she doesn't dare say a word as Rachel sends the man behind her the darkest glare she has ever seen.
"Step aside now; let the old man get a good look at her. I want to see the girl who stole my son's heart." Jake's cheeks tinge a deep red as an older gentleman in a wheelchair parts the crowd in the doorway. "There, now, look at you. You're every bit as pretty as Jake led us to believe."
Bella simultaneously wants to laugh and cry. So this is the man she's here to fool. In just a few split seconds, she thinks about Jake's love for his father, his desperation to make him happy, and the small amount of time he has left to do it. Though he doesn't look like a dying man. He seems healthy and already so very happy that she wonders if it's such a good idea to be lying to him.
"Well, aren't you gonna give me a hug? I'm dying over here."
There's a collective gasp around the room.
"Daddy, that's not funny!" Rebecca scolds.
"What? An old man can't joke about his own condition? It's a fact now. We all need to get used to it." No one bothers to argue, though several look like they want to. "Now, young lady," he smiles, "Where's that hug?"
Bella cautiously embraces Jake's father, afraid she's going to hurt him if she's not careful, but he won't have it. He tugs her down to him, his strong arms circling around her shoulders and patting her back. When she straightens, he grasps her hands in his. "Welcome to our family, Bella."
She returns the sweet man's smile and fights hard to keep the tears back and a lump from forming in her throat. Jake smoothly wraps his arm around her shoulders, squeezing her to him.
It's been a long time since she's been part of a family.
Clara giggles at the orange tabby as he bats wildly at the baubles on the tree. Billy (as Jake's father requested she call him) suggested that she let Oliver run loose in the house; he didn't want the cat to be locked away for the entirety of their trip. It took a lot of convincing and reassuring, but Bella finally complied and let her cat roam free. Clara couldn't have been happier about it.
Jake currently sits between Solomon and Paul on the couch, talking about football with his father. Bella can see them over the kitchen bar as she chops vegetables and listens to the twins' gossip beside her. Jake has been by her side all afternoon, reluctant to leave her alone for long. He was attentive to her needs, always checking on her and placing his hand on the small of her back. Bella thought it was sweet, but it made the butterflies increase tenfold, and the last thing she needed was be distracted by his touch while welding a knife. So she told him to spend some time with his dad and brothers-in-law. He was reluctant at first, but Rachel and Rebecca practically threw him out into the living room, claiming they needed "girl time."
Up to her elbows in flour, Rebecca tosses the ball of dough back onto the counter, kneading it under her knuckles. "So what attracted you to Jake?"
Bella's eyes lift to find Jake sitting on the couch and out of earshot. She blushes as she answers honestly, "I think it was his smile."
"Yeah, he has our mom's smile." Rachel pulls another pie out of the oven.
"Has he told you anything about her?" Rebecca asks her.
Bella shakes her head.
"He was pretty young when she died. I just wondered since…" Bella notices how Rebecca's gaze lands on her father, and she doesn't need her to finish her sentence to know what she's trying to say. "Rachel found a research clinic in Chicago though. We're hoping Dad will agree to go there. Maybe they can help."
Bella nods. "I really hope so."
"What about your family, Bella? Has Jake met your parents yet?"
The question is innocent, Bella knows. It's not the first time someone's asked her about her family, but just because she's used to being lonely doesn't mean it hurts any less.
"No, both my parents are gone."
"Oh, Bella, I'm so sorry." Rebecca sounds horrified, and Rachel places a comforting hand on Bella's shoulder.
"It's okay. You didn't know."
"It's snowing! It's snowing!" Clara points out the window, jumping up and down by the front door.
Jake stands and walks toward her. "You know what that means? Santa's going to have to get Rudolph to guide the sleigh tonight."
Clara's eyes grow rounder. "Daddy says I can stay up and watch the news tonight. They have a Santa radar, and they'll tell us when he's coming here!"
"Then you'll have to go straight to bed or else he'll skip our house," Solomon adds.
Clara nods excitedly, and then something catches her eye, causing her to point up. "Look, Uncle Jake! Mistletoe! That means you have to kiss me."
Everyone chuckles. Jake pulls Clara to him and kisses her noisily on the cheek, though he doesn't stop there; he continues to peck kisses until she's a giggling heap on the floor.
Bella feels her heart expanding with warmth at the sight of them.
"They're adorable, aren't they?" Rebecca whispers into her ear.
"She absolutely idolizes her Uncle Jake."
Bella thinks that's obvious; the little girl's eyes light up whenever he's around, proving that she loves him wholeheartedly. And she thinks, What's not to love?
"Okay, Jake, let her up. She's going to help us set the table."
Bella follows Rebecca and Rachel out of the kitchen, each carrying a variety of dishes. Once the table is completely full of food with virtually no space between plates, the Blacks sit down to eat.
Bella stands awkwardly a moment, unsure of where she should sit, until Jake grabs her hand and guides her to the seat next to his. He lets go to chivalrously pull out her chair, and even though she knows now's the time she's supposed to be sitting, she finds herself looking down at her palm, still tingling from his touch. Her gaze slowly rises until it locks with his. The look in his eye surprises her, and she's not entirely sure what it means, but she does know that they're standing awfully close together. So close that she can feel the heat emanating from his body and the sleeve of her sweater is brushing his. There have been little touches between them throughout the day, but this non-touching moment seems stronger somehow, like there's a magnetic force trying to pull them closer.
For a moment they stand staring into one another's eyes, neither making an attempt to move, nor do they seem to want to. In fact, Bella wants to stand closer and eliminate the small space once and for all.
Someone clears their throat at the table, effectively breaking the spell that seemed to cast itself around them. The pair awkwardly steps apart and takes their places at the table.
Bella's not sure what just transpired between them, but she's pretty sure she's not the only one who felt it.
The Black family clasps hands around the table, bowing their heads while Billy says the prayer. After a chorus of "Amen," they scramble to fill their plates.
Bella smiles as she watches them. Solomon and Rebecca each scoop a little of something onto Clara's plate before placing some on their own and switching. Bella thinks it's an adorable system. Rachel and Paul trade off pieces of their salads; Rachel takes off the carrots and puts them on Paul's plate while he tosses a tomato onto hers. It amazes her that two people could form a relationship where they're able to fill each others wants and needs without even having to communicate them. She wonders if she'll ever be able to have that. She knows she wants it.
"So, Jake," Solomon starts off the conversation, "how did you two meet?"
A forkful of mashed potatoes stops halfway to Bella's lips as her eyes widen, and she looks to Jake. They hadn't discussed any kind of back-story.
"We met at the diner where Bella works." Jake smiles, completely at ease. "Their cherry cobbler is delicious." He winks as he teases her, and she has to smile. He's telling a version of the truth at least.
"She was my waitress, and she didn't like me very much."
She makes a playful sound of indignation; she can tell he's baiting her.
"You were my last customer after a thirteen hour shift, and you wouldn't order. Of course I didn't like you." She dramatically rolls her eyes while laughing.
"But then you said you'd be an idiot to turn down my good looks."
She scoffs, "I did turn you down!"
"I can be very persuasive."
"No, I think it was just your desperation."
They laugh a little more, realizing at the same time that they're no longer explaining the story but joking with each other.
"You two are adorable," Rachel says. Turning to Paul, she asks, "Are we that adorable?"
"No way, babe. I'm not 'adorable.' I'm rugged and sexy."
"You're an idiot," she deadpans.
The rest of the conversation steers away from Bella and Jake's relationship, though they continue to share glances throughout the meal.
Clara sits with her hands folded under her chin on the windowsill, longingly looking outside. Jake steps up behind her, lowering himself to her level. "Look at all that snow," he stage-whispers into her ear.
"So pretty and untouched..."
"Yeah," she says dreamily.
"Let's go play in it!"
"Yeah!" Clara jumps up and runs to her mother, who's already getting her coat. "Momma, are you gonna come play too?"
"We all are, dear."
Jake quickly slips on his coat and pulls Bella's off the rack, holding it open for her. She didn't know she'd be joining them in playing outside, but she has to admit it does sound like fun. She doesn't think she's actually played in the snow for years.
As Bella's buttoning up, Jake takes down her scarf. She thinks he's just going to hand it to her but is surprised when he takes it upon himself to carefully wrap it around her neck.
Her heart flutters, and she damn's those pesky butterflies for returning.
"Look! Bella and Uncle Jake are under the mistletoe! That means they have to kiss! Isn't that right, Momma?"
"You're right, dear," Rebecca says, fighting to keep Clara still long enough to button her coat.
Rachel "Awe"s from her corner, one gloved hand held to her chest.
"Oh, no." Bella shakes her head. The room erupts with encouragement.
"What are you waiting for? Kiss her!"
"Don't be an idiot, son."
Bella blushes, and she thinks she can get by with a quick kiss on the cheek like Jake did with Clara, but he's looking at her in a way she can't explain.
He takes a step closer, his hand coming up to cup her cheek. Her breath catches as he closes the distance between them, kissing her softly. His lips are sweet, pressing against hers, and she finds herself leaning into him. She can't decide if this kiss is too long or too short as she's lost all track of time. For the sake of modesty in front of his family, she wants to be appropriate, but she's become lightheaded and part of her doesn't want this to end.
Clapping, a couple of whoops, and a wolf whistle finally pulls them apart. Bella ducks her head, covering her burning face with her hair. She's glad they're going outside; she definitely needs a chance to cool down now.
Once they're all bundled up, they venture out into the snow. Billy sits next to the window, happily watching them with Oliver curled in his lap.
The group rolls together two snowmen, one male and one female as Paul creatively adds breasts to his and Jake's snowwoman. Rachel tosses a snowball at him for his shenanigans, effectively starting a war between the girls and boys. Snowballs begin flying in all directions. Bella runs behind a laughing Rachel, thinking that no one would dare risk hitting the pregnant woman. Solomon picks up Clara, holding her up in front of him.
"How dare you use our daughter as a shield!" Rebecca yells at him. "What kind of father are you?"
"Yeah, what kind of daddy are you?"
The trio continues to playfully bicker, but Bella's no longer paying attention as she spots Jake rounding behind her. She quickly scoops up a handful of snow and dodges his attempt to strike her with his snowball. As he's bending down to create another, she's tossing hers, hitting him square in the jaw.
She covers her laughter with her glove as he wipes the snow from his cheek.
"Oh, I'll get you back for that," he promises, his hands already digging up more snow. She squeaks and runs off in the other direction, circling behind a nearby tree for cover. Jake chases after her, still warning of her impending doom. She giggles as she runs from tree to tree, ducking each snowball and shouting back teasing insults.
Her mocking comes to a quick end when she stumbles and two warm arms wrap around her waist, pulling her down into the snow. The cold seeps through her jacket and pants. Her hair's fallen wildly in her face and her fingers are nearly frozen, but she honestly can't stop laughing.
Jake shifts beside her, one arm still tucked beneath her back and his legs somewhat tangled with hers, but he finds a way to prop himself up so he's smiling down at her. He pulls his wet glove off with his teeth, tosses it to the side, and uses his warm fingers to brush the hair back out of her face. Threading them through her hair, he leans down and kisses her, not because he has to, she realizes, but because he wants to.
Bella's hands lift to his shoulders, her lips parting just enough to grant him access to deepen the kiss. He presses himself closer, and she's suddenly forgotten about her cold, wet clothes and the snowball fight continuing on the other side of the trees.
Billy reads 'Twas the Night Before Christmas aloud next to the fireplace, the story sounding much more majestic coming from him. Bella and Jake continue to share secretive glances at one another ever since leaving their private grove in the trees and rejoining the family hand-in-hand. Bella blushes nearly every time she catches him looking at her, but yet she can't wait to find another moment alone.
The night is coming to an end, and she knows that upon their arrival, Jake put their luggage together in his old room. At the time, she was terrified and angry that he didn't warn her beforehand that they'd be sharing a room, but now it seems like the perfect solution. She wants to have him alone again, and judging by the looks he's giving her, he wants the same thing.
Waiting for the appropriate moment when they can retire to their respective bedrooms seems to take ages, but when opportunity arises, Jake jumps at it. He barely gives Bella a chance to say goodnight before briskly pulling her along to the bedroom. He shuts the door and presses her up against it, kissing her fiercely. She would have been offended if she hadn't wanted it so badly.
Jake's hands cup her face while hers explore the expanse of his torso. Her fingers find the buttons of his shirt, and before she can rationalize what it is she's doing, he's shrugging off the garment. She could probably come up with a thousand reasons why this is a bad idea, but captivated by the sight of his muscular upper body, she promptly forgets them.
Jake claims her lips once again, gentler than before. Now that their need is being satiated, they can continue at a much more leisurely pace.
His fingers skim down the length of her body, stopping as they reach the hem of her sweater. Lifting her arms above her head, she assists him in removing it, with her bra immediately following the sweater's fate.
Jake kisses down the column of her neck to her breasts, descending to her stomach. On his knees, he looks up at her, keeping eye contact as he unbuttons her jeans and removes her last two articles of clothing. His large hands roam up her thighs, to her hips, and around her back as he repeats his previous actions in ascent. Bella presses harder against the door, her body writhing and yearning for more.
Tugging on the waistband of his jeans, she pulls him closer, licking at his collarbone as she removes the last pieces of clothing between them.
Jake cups the back of her neck, and with his arm around her waist, he spins them around, guiding her backwards to the bed.
They each take their time in exploring the other's body, hands roaming freely and breaths intermingling. He tells her she's beautiful, and she feels ridiculous for blushing.
His fingers ghost up her side, sending a tingling sensation throughout her entire body, and she wonders why she's never felt this way with anyone before. This intimacy between them is perfect and comfortable.
He smoothes his palms down her arms. Taking her hands in his, he raises them above her head. Her heart beats wildly in her chest as he kisses her passionately, their fingers still interlaced. A ball of warmth settles itself in her stomach and spreads throughout her body as he carefully presses into her. This is what making love feels like, she thinks.
Her movements are guided by the sounds he makes and the intensity of his breathing. She moans into his shoulder, kissing and nipping at the juncture of his neck. His pace is slow and romantic; his hands grip at her hips and slide down her legs, holding her to him as if he can't get her close enough.
She's not sure how he does it, but within minutes, she's breathing erratically and throwing her head back as he brings her to ecstasy. A moment later, he's collapsing on top of her and breathing heavily into her ear.
Jake rolls onto his back, tugging her with him so that she's cuddled into his side with her head on his chest and their legs intertwined. He alternates between combing his fingers through her hair and lightly stroking her back as she listens to the rhythm of his heart.
Hours later, Bella stifles her yawn as they lie awake talking. Both feel groggy and heavy with sleep, but neither wants to fall into unconsciousness for fear of the morning and the moment when their time together will come to an end.
A loud pounding on the door causes Bella to wake. She feels exhausted and unable to move, though a large part of that has to do with the beautifully naked man laying with his arm and leg over her.
Rebecca's voice reverberates through their closed door. "Time to get up! It's Christmas morning!"
Jake groans and buries his face deeper into her hair.
Bella pushes lightly at Jake's shoulder to wake him. She squeaks as he suddenly tightens his hold on her and flips them around so she's lying on top of him. He laughs at her surprise and waggles his eyebrows at her arousal. She playfully swats at his chest and considers chastising him for his actions – his sister is right outside the door for goodness sakes! – but he kisses her before she can say anything. Her head becomes muddled, and all sense of thought leaves her immediately.
Once Bella is able to convince Jake to get out of bed, she notices a difference between them. They're no longer hesitant about touching; they kiss every chance they get, and they're just plain giddy (well, Bella knows she's giddy anyway.)
They step hand-in-hand into the living room. The others are already sipping on coffee or hot tea while Clara's fussing over a new, shiny pink tricycle.
Jake heads to the couch, pulling Bella along and setting her on his lap, where he proceeds to nip at her ear.
She giggles and pushes at his chest. "Behave."
"Can I talk to you, son?" Billy asks, and Jake tentatively nods.
"I'll be right back," he says, kissing her quickly and chastely. She obediently shifts off his lap, so he can follow his father.
"Clara, come help me sort out the presents." Rachel carefully lowers herself to the floor in front of the tree and begins digging out gifts.
"This one's for Bella," Rachel reads, handing a small gift bag to Clara, who immediately runs it over to the recipient.
Bella takes the present as if it's made of glass, and a lump forms in her throat. Her heart expands in her chest as she realizes that this family has taken her in as one of their own quickly and effortlessly. She looks up at the family still bustling around in front of her, and her eye catches on something near the fireplace. Her name is staring back at her in beautiful cursive print on a perfect red and white stocking, hung right along with the rest of the family's. They've not only accepted her but have grown to love her in the same way that she's fallen in love with them.
She can no longer keep the tears back now. She quickly excuses herself and rushes back to the bathroom for tissues. As she passes by the master bedroom, she can hear Billy and Jake talking. She doesn't mean to eavesdrop on them, but she can't stop herself from overhearing either. (The fact that she's actively peeking into the bedroom has nothing to do with it, of course.)
"I may be a presumptuous old man, but I think you need to take this and give it to that girl out there." Billy places something small into Jake's hand, and when he looks at it, his mouth falls open slightly.
"Mom's ring?" Jake turns the piece over in his fingers. His voice grows huskier as he replies, "Thanks, Dad."
"There's no time like the present, son."
"You want me to give this to her now?"
Bella's heartbeat doubles in chest, her breathing spikes, and the butterflies return to her stomach.
"Take it from an old man who knows. Life's too short. Live it while you can, and live it to the fullest."
Jake nods while Bella shakes her head. No, no, no, no, no!
He can't possibly ask her to – No!
Bella turns abruptly, fleeing into the living room to grab her coat and running straight out the door. She needs air. She needs to think.
It's snowing again, and Bella tightens her coat around her neck as she treks through it at a surprising pace, continuing straight on until she hears the sound of waves crashing onto the shore. She follows the sound, and after a few short minutes, she finds herself on the edge of the ocean.
"Bella!" Jake calls behind her.
She closes her eyes and wishes she'd gotten a few more minutes to think.
"Bella." He's no longer shouting as he takes those last few steps to reach her. "What ar-"
"I can't, Jake. Please."
She whips around to face him. "I heard you talking to your dad, okay? I know you want to make him happy, Jake, but I can't pretend to be engaged. I just can't."
She gives him a frustrated look. "We are!"
"Are we? I don't know about you, Bella, but I haven't been faking this."
She stops for a moment, unsure of what to say.
"Tell me honestly, have you lied even once this weekend?"
She shakes her head no.
"Have you been pretending to like me?"
She bits her lip and, again, shakes her head no.
"What about last night? Was that fake?"
"No." She starts to smile as she realizes that he's right: they haven't been lying to anyone, not really. Besides leading his family to believe they've been together longer than they really have, everything else has been the truth.
"You see? Everything about this weekend has been real."
"Thank you for bringing me here, Jake. I know you only asked me because you were desperate and I didn't have any plans, but I'm glad you did. I really feel like part of the family, and that's something I haven't felt for a really long time."
"That's not why."
"That's not why I asked you. Did it ever occur to you that my family would want to know my mysterious new girlfriend's name?"
Bella furrows her brows. It hadn't occurred to her.
"I had a crush on you long before I talked to you. When I told my dad I had a girlfriend, I told him her name was Bella and gave him a description of you. He could tell how much I liked you over the phone, so he asked me to bring you home for Christmas. That's why I was so desperate. I didn't need a random girl. I needed you."
"But I never even met you until the other night. How did you know who I was?"
He shrugs. "I've been to the diner a few times before. I never had you as a waitress, but I watched you. Wow. That sounds really stalkerish and creepy, huh?"
It kind of does, but she shakes her head and says, "I think it's sweet."
Tucking her hair behind her ear, Jake closes the space between their bodies, pressing himself flush against her. "We really have something here, don't we?"
"Yeah, I think…" she hesitates, "I think I might be in love with you."
"Good. Because I'm in love with you." He doesn't waste a single moment before he's pressing a passionate kiss to her lips while snow falls around them and the wave's crash behind them as background music.
Breaking away, Jake breathes his words against her lips like a caress, "I love you." He takes a step back and drops down onto one knee before her. "So let's do this for real."
AN: This was my entry to the JBNP Naughty or Nice Christmas Contest. I am honored to say that this won First Place! Thank you to all who voted! I was so surprised (especially when I looked at my competition! There are some wonderful stories on there and I urge you to go and check them out!) and I appreciate it so very much.
Huge thanks to my glorious and beautiful friend Jkane180 for betaing during this extremely busy time of year. ILY!
As always, let me know what you think.