Ava and I spend the next morning recovering from our time in the sun and pool. We wash the chlorine from our hair and slather our sun-soaked skin with lotion. Sunday mornings are for pancakes around our house, but we missed breakfast in lieu of sleeping in, so we have them for lunch instead.
We're just sitting down to eat when there's a loud knock at the front door.
"Who's that, Mommy?" Ava asks, dragging her fork through a puddle of maple syrup.
"I have no idea." Standing, I place my napkin on the table. "Stay here. I'll be right back, okay?"
She nods her assent, and I make my way to the front of the house, my pace quickening when the knocks become more persistent.
The window beside the door reveals a distraught Edward on our front stoop. He paces, his hands balled tightly into fists, his chest heaving.
"Oh my God, Edward." I hurry him into the house. "What's wrong?"
He shakes his head, starting and stopping several times, trying to find his composure.
I wait patiently, the picture of calm. Inside, though, I'm dying.
"Yesterday went so well…with your parents." He's upset; pleading for me to understand. I don't, but I nod my head, encouraging him to continue. "I thought I could do it. I thought I could tell my family about Ava."
My eyes widen. This isn't what I was expecting at all. "What happened?"
Unshed tears make his eyes shine like green glass. "I was horribly wrong."
My stomach drops, and a bitter taste fills my mouth; my body's physical response to the extreme protectiveness I feel for my child. "What did they say?"
His eyes belie his rigid posture. Broken and desperate, they're filled with worry and with fear. "I can't…" He starts and stops again, grappling for words. "Fuck them. Fuck him."
I grab his hand, squeezing it once in silent understanding, and lead him to the couch and away from the kitchen. "Ava's eating breakfast," I remind him gently.
The sound of her name must rile up something inside of him once more, because his eyes flash with anger, and he groans as he scrubs his hands over his face.
Jesus. What did they do to him?
"I'll be right back," I tell him softly. "You'll be okay for a minute?"
"Yeah." His voice is rough. "I'm sorry. I—I'm fine. Go."
"Hey," I whisper, waiting for his eyes to meet mine. "Whatever this is… You're here now. Everything's okay."
His smile is half-hearted but sincere, and I hope he understands the meaning of my words. His parents' reaction to the news of our daughter doesn't have to penetrate the fort we've painstakingly erected around our dysfunctional little family.
I rejoin Ava in the kitchen, moving my untouched plate to the sink. "Who was it, Momma?" My girl's mouth is full with the last bits of pancake from her plate, and there's syrup on her face and in her hair. I'm so full of love for her in these moments—when I'm reminded of how young and pure she is—and I'm not ready for the drama surrounding Edward's and my past to get its hooks in her.
"It's your Dad." I'm deliberately cautious with my words, but her face breaks into a wide grin despite my hesitation, and she moves to climb down from her chair. "Wait a sec, Bug," I say, joining her at the table. "He had a bad morning, and he's not feeling very happy right now."
"No," I repeat softly, "he's not. I think he wants to talk to me for a little while before he feels like playing. Does that sound okay?"
"And then he can play?"
I smile at her sticky face. She's the most open-minded person I know, and it's refreshing in a way I can't even comprehend. "Yeah. When he's feeling better." My fingers tangle in her syrup-coated hair when I move a strand behind her ear. "Let's get you cleaned up, and then you can watch a movie in my bed. Okay?"
She nods eagerly and moves her plate to the sink before following me out of the kitchen and into the living room.
Edward sits where I left him, but his eyes are dry, and his posture's more relaxed. "There's my girl." He grins when he sees Ava, and I've never been more proud of him than I am in that moment. Parenting is about so much more than pet names and ice cream treats; it's anticipating the emotional needs of your child, even when that means altering your own feelings to protect theirs.
"You're sad, Dad?" Ava moves to stand beside him, her small hand rubbing soothing circles on his arm. It's a calming technique I recognize as one I use on her.
"A little," Edward whispers. He grabs her hand and kisses her palm. "But I'm feeling better already."
"Mom said we can play after my movie."
"I can't wait."
I lead Ava to the bathroom to wash her hands and face, then turn on a movie for her in my bedroom. She chooses one she's already watched several times, but it's her favorite, and it will keep her happy and occupied while Edward and I talk.
My stomach's in knots when I rejoin Edward in the living room. My mind has already played through several possible scenarios in the short amount of time since he arrived, and none of them seem pleasant.
Reclined in defeat against the back of my couch, Edward turns his head to look at me when I sit beside him. "Sorry," he says softly.
"Bursting in here like this. Dropping a bunch of drama on you. I didn't— I wasn't sure where to go."
I draw my knees up to my chest, hoping the position change will alleviate the dull ache I feel inside.
"I'm glad you came here," I tell him truthfully. Even though I know the words he's about to share will hurt, I'm glad he feels like he has a safe place in Ava and me. "What happened?" I ask gently.
"I just felt optimistic, I guess." He scrubs his face roughly again, bumping his hat farther up on his head. "After yesterday, you know?"
"I was actually excited." He scoffs. "That's the really fucked up part. I was excited to share her with them—with my family."
"What happened?" I repeat.
"My mom and sister are in shock. My dad, though…" He trails off nervously, his features alternating between rage and shame.
"It's okay," I prod. "They're just words. What did he say?"
"That I should demand a paternity test." He shakes his head, bewildered. "Even though I told him that she looks just like me. Even though I told him that you'd never…you hadn't—"
He swallows thickly around the words caught in his throat. "He… He thought you'd kept her from me, and he was fixated on my rights—my rights as a father. My rights as his son." His voice drips with disdain as he spits the last word. "He told me I should draw up papers…"
I think I knew it was coming, but it's like a physical punch to the gut, nonetheless. The breath that rushes out of me is a painful sounding sob.
Edward slides off the couch and drops to his knees in front of me. "Bella," he pleads, holding my face in his hands. "Bella, look at me."
I can't see his face through my tears; can't focus on anything other than the panicked sound of my pulse pumping in my ears.
"Hey. Shhh. I would neverdo that to you." He kisses my lips firmly. It's a kiss void of passion or heat. It's a desperate reassurance; a plea for me to listen and to understand. "I swear to you. I would never try to take her from you."
"I'm all she has." Ava's never even been away from me, save for an occasional night spent at my parents'. Edward's and my current arrangement with our daughter is organic and simple, and I can't fathom being forced by a judge to split her with him. "I'm all she's ever had."
"I know," Edward whispers, pushing my bangs from my watery eyes. "Nobody's going to take her from you."
"But he said—"
"He's an asshole, Bella. This is what he does best. He makes a living bullying and intimidating people."
His father's words play on a loop in my head. Draw up papers. Draw up papers…
"What about your mom? Does she agree with him?"
"She was too irrational to agree with anything. She and Leah—my sister—they were so upset that I hadn't told them. That Ava's six and they don't know her—" His voice cracks with emotion, and he clears his throat roughly, looking away from me to stare out the window. "I had no idea how many people I would hurt when I walked away that day."
"So what now?" I ask quietly, drying my face with the palms of my hands. "What happens next? Should I expect something from your dad?"
"No." His voice is strong and clear. "He's full of empty threats. Besides… I quit."
"I quit," he repeats, shrugging. "I can't work for him. Not after the way he talked about her. About you."
My head is spinning. There's so much to discuss here, and I don't even know where to begin. "What are you going to do?" I stumble over my words in my rush to get them out. "Where are you going to work? You just came back. You just met her—"
"Breathe, Bella." He chuckles softly. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to call one of my old professors in the morning. He's got a few connections in the area; the type of law I actually want to practice."
"But your dad." I think back to all the things my brother has told me about Edward's father. "Emmett said—"
"He'll make it rough. I'll have loans to pay back and favors to repay, but I've got plenty saved. It's okay." He pulls me tight against his chest and kisses my hair. "We'll be okay."
Edward seems more eager to redeem himself with my family after things went so horribly wrong with his parents and sister. He hasn't mentioned them and I haven't asked. I'm still too shaken up over his father's demands that Edward turn this thing between us into a legal battle, and I'm terrified of what that could mean for Ava and me—for all of us, really. Thankfully, Edward's equally appalled by his father's orders, and I'm relieved to learn that he hasn't acknowledged them at all. Rather than stress under the weight of his family problems and recent job loss, he actually appears happier and more at peace.
This time, when I invite him to our family's weekly dinner, there aren't any butterflies in my stomach, and he doesn't hesitate to say he'll attend. When we arrive, and he and Emmett disappear with my dad into his study, I feel nervous for him, but not worried. I trust him—a shocking amount, based on our history—and I've seen how he handles uncomfortable situations. He's calm, cool, and collected, even when he's not, and that's incredibly comforting to me. It's also not at all unattractive.
And later, when Rose and Emmett announce over dinner that they've found a house and they're already in the process of signing the closing papers, it's Edward who leads me to a quiet hallway just off my parents' bedroom and lets me cry into his shirt. He hugs me tightly in the dark and whispers words like strong and capable in my ear.
I saw the signs. I knew this was coming. I'm happy for my brother and my best friend, but an incredibly bittersweet chapter of my life is coming to a close, and I'd be lying if I said I'm not sad to see it end. Emmett's been my protector and my friend. He was a father to Ava before her own daddy showed up, and he's never once asked me for anything in return. He's owed this happiness; he deserves it. I'm trying hard not to beg him to stay.
"Maybe it's for the best, in some weird way," I tell Edward on our ride back to my house later that night. Ava's asleep in the backseat, and I'm wishing I could join her there. It's been an emotionally exhausting week, and it's only Tuesday.
"How so?" he asks softly.
"Maybe I need this. This independence. Maybe I've lived under Emmett's wing long enough."
He hums, and I watch as the lights from the road and the dash dance across his angular face. "I don't think you've lived under his wing, Bella," he says eventually. "I think you were young—too young—to deal with something so big by yourself. I certainly didn't help—"
"This isn't about that."
"No, I know." He pauses, watching the road carefully as he considers his words. "It kinda is, though. I'd do it all differently if I could, but raising Ava by yourself… It's made you who you are. Smart. Strong. An incredible mom." He glances at me briefly, and I smile softly at his kind words.
"Do you think things would have been different for us?" I ask quietly.
"I don't know." I fiddle nervously with the zipper on the bag in my lap. "Like, do you think we would've stayed...together? If I hadn't gotten pregnant."
He shakes his head. "No way."
"Geez. No offense or anything."
"No, I didn't mean it like that. I meant… I was an idiot." He scoffs. "I'm still an idiot. It took meeting Ava for me to figure that out."
The car is quiet while we digest what he's said. He's right: it's incredible how sharing a child can change two people; grow them up, push them apart or pull them together.
"I know one thing, though." Edward's voice pulls me back to reality.
"Those tiny shorts you used to wear? With the little shirts? And the freckles?" He releases a sigh so big it puffs his cheeks. "I was a lucky idiot."
"Gross," I laugh, smacking his chest. He grabs my hand and wraps it up in his, bringing our clasped fingers to rest on his knee.
My face—bright eyes and a wide grin—is reflected back when I turn my flushed cheeks toward the window.
"Bella. Hey. It's…uh, me. Sam."
I falter at the sound of his voice, feeling guilty and wishing I hadn't forgotten to return his most recent missed call. "Hey, Sam. How're you?"
"I'm well, thanks." His voice sounds formal and distant, and it lends an air of awkwardness to our conversation. "I was actually calling to see if you're free this weekend?"
"This weekend?" I croak.
"Oh." I hate how this feels—letting him down again. "We're not, actually. We have this...thing. With my family. See, my brother's moving out—he and Rose bought a house together—and we're all going over to see their new place."
"You and Ava? Or you and Ava and Edward?"
His sigh rumbles through the phone. "I just… I'm trying to be fine with it, Bella, the amount of time you spend with him—"
"He's Ava's dad."
"No, I know." His voice loses its edge, and now he just sounds sad. "I know. I know how far the two of you have come and how hard you've worked to get there… It's just. I don't think you're really in this." He pauses, and I can hear the steady sound of his breath in my ear. "Not the way I am."
His name hangs awkwardly in the air. I don't want to hurt him, but I also can't deny what he's saying. I'm not as invested in our barely-there relationship as he is. My life isn't so cut and dry. Things for me aren't easily labeled; they're not all in or all out. I have a child…and Edward.
"I don't know what to say," I finish lamely. "I really like you. You've been incredibly patient and understanding—"
"Ah, the proverbial but," he groans, laughing lightly.
"No, no buts. It's true. You've been more patient with me than I deserve. I know it's not easy, dealing with a weird situation like mine, and you've been so kind about everything, but—" He interjects with a hum that says, I told you so. "I'm just… I'm not sure I'm ready to be with someone yet."
"You mean someone who's not Edward."
"What?" I stammer. "No. Edward has nothing to do with this."
"Sam." I mimic.
"I just hope he's really in it this time," he says gently. "You deserve someone who's really in it."
He's right. He's sweet and respectful and so, so right. "I'm sorry, Sam," I tell him softly.
"Nah, don't be. I'm good. It's been a fun couple of months." He's back to the light-hearted guy I'd only just gotten to know. "Let's keep in touch. Have a drink or something, after Rose and Em get settled."
"I'd like that," I tell him truthfully.
"Take care, Bella."
"So what does that mean? You dumped him?" Edward's grin is infectious, and I tamp down the matching smile that pulls at my lips. It's getting late—Ava's been asleep for hours already—but Edward's been spending more time in the evenings with us now that he doesn't have to be at work early the next day.
"I didn't dump him, Edward. Geez."
He waves his hand dismissively. "Semantics."
"It's not semantics," I insist. "Sam's a really great guy."
"But it's over? With him?"
"Edward." I sigh dramatically, nudging his leg with my socked foot. "You're making me wish I hadn't told you."
He pulls my foot into his lap. "I'm just gathering information."
"You started talking about what was happening with you and Sam—"
"You asked! Daily!"
Unabashed, he shrugs his shoulders and laughs. "I'm a curious guy."
"That's the truth," I murmur.
Edward tickles the bottom of my foot in retaliation, and I bat his hands away. We settle back into the couch, flipping through channel after channel of mindless television while I pretend to appear interested in what's on the screen. All I can think about, though, is how comfortable this is, this night with Edward—in my home, in my living room, on my couch—and how wholly complete it feels. Big things are changing in my life, and the irony isn't lost on me that the least stable person has suddenly become the most.
A/N: Much love and thanks to the amazing Tiffanyanne3 for her invaluable advice and guidance. Thanks also to Cejsmom, who dropped everything to lend me an ear and a heaping dose of self-confidence.
For those of you who're still reading and haven't given up on me—thanks for your patience. It means more to me than you know. XO