Chapter 24


Mr. Cullen opens the door for us. The perfect image of grace and class, he greets us with a wide, practiced smile.

"Come in." He claps Edward's back, ignoring the way his son sidesteps his touch. When he turns his clear blue eyes on me, I make an effort not to fidget under their scrutiny. My patternless cotton dress has never felt so basic.

"You must be Bella," he says eventually, interrupting our staredown. Handsome like his son, he's all sharp lines and chiseled angles, but I'm surprised to learn that the features I find so appealing on Edward appear sinister and ominous on his father.

"It's nice to finally meet you," I reply, my friendly tone belying my opinion of him.

"Where's the baby?" Edward's father appears genuinely perplexed, which confuses me. It was Edward's idea to visit his parents for the first time without Ava. He reasoned that things might still be too heated, and I know he's already explained this to them over the phone.

"She's with Bella's parents," Edward mutters. "And she's six. Hardly a baby."

Mr. Cullen ignores his son. "Esme!" he calls, leading us through an impressive foyer and into a formal living room. "Esme!"

The click-clack of heels indicates Edward's mother's arrival. "I'm right here, Carl," she announces, gracefully making her way down the stairs.

Small and wispy, she's more beautiful than I remembered. With her thick, caramel hair and smooth, honeyed skin, she's so much like her son—so much like Ava—that the noticeable likeness steals the breath from my lungs.

Unlike her husband's forced greeting, Mrs. Cullen's welcome feels genuine. "Bella." She stands in front of me, grasping my clammy hands in hers. "Thank you so much for coming."

"Thank you for having me, Mrs. Cullen."

"Call me Esme, dear." Her voice drops to a whisper. "Mrs. Cullen lives in Florida." She winks. "Let's keep her there."

Squeezing my fingers gently, she releases me and turns to Edward. The top of her head is level with his broad shoulders, a position she's familiar with based on the way she naturally folds herself against his side. Their greeting is whispered and private, but the soft smiles they exchange stir a hope in me that time and history will lessen the betrayal initially felt at the news of Ava's existence.

"Sit." Mr. Cullen's interrupting command is sharp, and I don't miss the way his wife's shoulders tense or how his son's eyes narrow in defiance. "Please," he mutters belatedly.

Esme offers us drinks and snacks, which we politely decline. If the look on Edward's father's face is any indication, I'm betting our visit will be a short one. My suspicions are confirmed when he settles into a large, leather chair and cuts right to the chase. "So," he begins, pinning me with his sharp glare. "Edward tells us you're a waitress."

"Here we go," Edward mutters under his breath. Then, to his father, "I also told you she's in school full-time, Dad."

His clarification is appreciated, but I don't need or want his rescue. "Edward's right," I confirm. "I've worked at the diner since shortly after Ava was born, Mr. Cullen."

"Call me Carl." It's a command rather than a request, and paired with his condescending smirk, it leaves me feeling like a child who's been brought to her father's office for a scolding.

My fake smile matches his. "Of course."

"And I suppose you know by now that Edward's a qualified lawyer at a very prestigious law firm?"

"Dad—"

"I know he worked at your firm previously, Carl," I reply, ignoring his son's buffer. "And I was incredibly supportive of his decision to pursue a new path. One that makes him happy."

Carl's eyes narrow slightly, but with his fingers steepled professionally under his chin, he's every bit the controlled lawyer he's known to be. "You don't mind that he neglected his daughter and her needs for six years? You just want him to… What was it you said?" He taps his lip in exaggerated contemplation. "Pursue a path that makes him…happy?"

"Jesus, Dad," Edward snaps. "That's enough. Our past is none of your business."

"It is my goddamn business!" Carl bellows, making me jump in my seat. "I put you through law school, you ungrateful little shit, while you were out screwing around and skirting your responsibilities. And you show up and pull this co-parenting nonsense? Without any thought to protecting our assets? It's disgusting. No son of mine—"

"Your son," Edward spits, "doesn't give a shit about your assets."

Carl's face is nearly purple, and for the first time I understand my brother's warnings. Carl Cullen is scary. Edward might be used to his father's rage, but I'm not. I don't want this for him. For us.

"Edward," I murmur, touching his knee lightly. "Let's just go."

His eyes hold mine for a moment, and I watch as the anger—not at all unlike his father's—funnels out of them. He nods tightly, clasping my hand and pulling me to my feet.

"Edward, no." Esme grabs her son's arm. "Please. Don't leave."

"I'm not doing this again, Mom."

"Of course not," she agrees, shaking her head. "We'll talk about this like civilized adults. Right, Carl?"

It's heartbreaking, the way she pleads with her husband to grant her his calmness. My family isn't perfect, but we're not screamers. I can only imagine the stress of being married to a man who rages, the stress of being his son.

Carl's agreement comes in the form of a carefully controlled nod. "Esme," he grinds out. "These things need to be discussed."

"Yes," she agrees, "but calmly."

At his mother's insistence, Edward and I sit gingerly on the couch once more while a tense silence settles over the room.

"My apologies, Bella," Esme says eventually. "I'm sure you can understand our…frustrations. We've just learned that we have a six-year-old granddaughter whose mother is a girl we never even knew our son dated—"

"Oh, we never dated."

Edward's cheeks flush pink at my admission, and I immediately regret how crass it sounded. It feels like an important part of our story, but it's obvious that this isn't the right time for me to have shared it.

"We were so young," I rush to clarify, "and we made a lot of irresponsible decisions—"

"I made a lot of irresponsible decisions," Edward cuts in.

"We both did."

Edward disregards my argument and faces his father. "But you're right, Dad. I neglected my responsibilities, and I chased your dreams while Bella raised Ava alone."

Carl dismisses his son with a wave of his hand. "You always wanted to be a lawyer."

"Maybe," Edward replies, shrugging. "But I never knew there were other options."

"I've only wanted what's best for you. I've only ever wanted what's best."

"This is what's best for me! I'm not fighting Bella for Ava, and I'm not working at the firm." Edward meets his father's glare head-on. "I'll agree to pay back everything you've given me, but I won't keep having this conversation. I know I screwed up. I lost six years with my daughter and ruined multiple relationships—"

"I'm simply protecting our family, Edward. I've dedicated my life tobuilding our reserves, and I won't stand by and watch it all go to—"

"I paid Bella a couple hundred bucks in guilt money when I left, Dad. That's it! She's never asked me for a single dime, and your insinuation that she's after our family's money is just…preposterous. She's owed years of back child support!"

"Edward," I interject quietly. "Don't." These pieces of our past feel too private and raw to be publicly dissected by his ruthless father.

He studies my face briefly before addressing Carl again, calmer this time. "My point is… We're working through it, and we don't want your advice or your input. Not about that."

Carl's face is less purple, but his steely posture nearly vibrates with unspoken disapproval.

Edward turns to his mother. "I'd love for you to be part of Ava's life," he tells her quietly, looking at me for approval.

"Of course," I agree.

"Bella's done a great job of protecting her from our pasts," he continues. "And, thankfully, Ava has no idea that she wasn't, uh... She wasn't planned, but she's not a mistake. You can't punish her for my decisions."

Esme raises her clasped hands fervidly. "Edward, I would never—"

"No, I know…" He trails off, glancing at his father. "But I'm not taking any chances when it comes to Ava and Bella. Not this time."

. . .

We agree to stay for a lunch of homemade chicken salad, which I learn is Edward's favorite. Carl retreats to his office, but based on his family's indifference, I suspect his absence is common. Preferred, even.

"Leah will be so disappointed she missed you, Bella," Esme says, expertly dicing fresh fruit to pair with our meal. "She's at a conference in Colleyville this weekend."

Edward's sister Leah is a second-grade teacher at a nearby elementary school. Esme explains that both she and Leah have their teaching degrees, although Esme let her license lapse years ago in lieu of managing Carl's office.

"Leah's been the level-headed one throughout all of this," she continues, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. "She manages to empathize with her brother and her father." She laughs. "Something I've never been very good at."

"You do just fine, Mom," Edward mutters, shaking his head. "Dad doesn't make things easy."

"You're sure I can't help you do anything, Esme?" I ask, steering the subject away from Edward's father. It's not often that I partake in a meal that I didn't prepare, and I feel slightly awkward sitting idly by while she cooks.

"I'm almost done here." Her smile is wide and genuine. "But thank you, Bella."

She moves around the kitchen with effortless ease while I browse the row of built-ins lining the breakfast nook. There are photos mixed with knickknacks perched atop books, and I pick one up and finger its frame. It's a younger Edward, all sun-kissed cheeks and a wide, toothless grin. His shorts are neon and his hair appears slightly longer in the back.

Smiling, I feel the warmth of larger, older Edward against my back. His warm breath scatters the fine hairs at the base of my ponytail. "The '90s were a very delicate time for me," he whispers.

I snort. "I'll say."

He pinches my side. "Don't think I haven't noticed that picture of you in your Dad's office. I think your bangs could've given my mullet a run for its money."

"Those bangs were exactly like Ariel's, and they were perfect."

"If you say so."

"Ava looks so much like you," I say quietly, running my finger across the photo. "I've known that for years, but it keeps surprising me."

He hums in agreement.

"It's like I wasn't involved at all."

"That's not true." He chuckles lowly, and I feel the vibration of it against my back, feel it tickle my hair. "She has your eyes."

"She has green eyes, Edward. They're yours."

"Maybe in color. But the kindness… That's all you."

He guts me with these comments. It's obvious he's lacked kindness in his life, save for his mother and his sister, and the fact that he's open about how much he admires my gentle nature makes my heart swell.

"You want the tour?" he asks, grabbing my hand and giving it a playful tug.

I'm grateful for the shift from heavy to light. "Sure."

Edward winds me through his childhood home, stopping in each room to give me specifics about its purpose or history. The house is stylishly decorated and immaculate, yet it feels homey and comfortable. It's the type of house I wanted when I was a little girl, and it doesn't escape my notice that the home Edward ran from when he was younger is exactly the one I wished I'd had.

We pause outside Carl's office door, an unspoken agreement to proceed as quietly as possible passing between us, before moving to a lone room near the end of a long hallway.

"This one was mine," Edward says, shoving his hands deep in his pockets and shrugging awkwardly.

"Ah. Teenage Edward's room." I sigh dreamily, and he laughs, shaking his head and leading me inside. "I'm betting your decorating style was a subtle mix of baseball and boobs."

I couldn't be more wrong. Edward's childhood room is neutral and sparsely decorated: a plaid bedspread folded across a small bed, a mostly empty bulletin board, and a few law books piled neatly on a nearby bookshelf.

"I stayed here for a few weeks when I first moved back," Edward reminds me when he sees me eyeing the books. "A few incredibly long weeks."

"It's actually not at all what I expected." I circle the room once more before sitting beside him at the foot of the bed.

"You seriously thought it'd be baseball and boobs?"

"The Edward I remember wasn't interested in much else."

He shakes his head, plucking a loose thread from the bedspread. "Not true. The Edward you remember had plenty of interests. I just got caught up in a bunch of shit along the way."

"The Laurens and Jessicas of the world?"

"Don't remind me." He groans, scrubbing at his face as though he's attempting to physically remove the memories. "I'd give anything to be able to go back and do things differently."

"Which things?" I ask quietly, wondering if he's talking about the things he and I did together, or the things he did before, during, and after me.

"Everything," he says, holding up a finger for each regret. "I wouldn't have hidden you or made you feel like you weren't good enough. I wouldn't have lied to Emmett or snuck around behind his back. I definitely wouldn't have—" He sucks in a deep breath, dropping his eyes to his lap. "Not in the car. Not like that. It fucks with my head, you know? That your first time was…that we made Ava...like that."

My cheeks heat at the mention of my first time, our only time, and I nod, because I do know. Part of me wants to placate him, tell him it's not a big deal, that it's fine. But another part of me, a larger and more mature part, recognizes the levity of my less-than-ideal first experience. Things were awkward and rushed and meaningless to one of us. I can't change the past, so I remain silent instead.

"I promise to make it up to you," Edward says quietly, and I give him a suspicious sideways glance. "Not that," he remedies, laughing. "Well, not just that." He slides his eyebrows up and down mischievously.

"Ugh." I roll my eyes, trying and failing to hide my smile. "So predictable."

He wraps an arm around my neck, pulling me against his chest and dropping a kiss to the top of my head. It's friendly and playful, and it makes my stomach dance. "Thanks for coming with me today," he says quietly against my hair. "I know it can't be easy for you, and… Well, I'm sorry for a million things, but one of my biggest regrets is that you're having to live this all over again."

I don't bother telling him that my heart will never be as broken as it was when he walked away from me and his baby. I don't mention that this—reliving others' reactions to the news of Ava—is nothing compared to the feeling of being rejected by him.

"They'll come around, Edward," I tell him softly and from experience. "It just takes time."

His hand makes mindless circles over my shoulder and back while he contemplates my advice. "I'm sorry you know so much about that," he says eventually. "About waiting and forgiveness. I'm sorry I'm the one who taught you those lessons."

I'm learning that these moments, when he's full of apology and shame, are necessary steps for him to sort out our pasts and settle his conscience. I no longer feel compelled to appease him or offer forgiveness.

We sit in companionable silence for a bit, each of us caught in our own web of thoughts and feelings and memories. Finally, he squeezes my thigh gently. "Should we head back?"

I nod. It scares me a bit, but I think I'd follow him anywhere.

. . .

My mom has Ava bathed and pajamaed when we arrive to pick her up a few hours later. "Just let her sleep here, Bella," she pleads with me. "She's already settled in. Look. We're about to make sundaes!"

I roll my eyes, because there's never a visit at my parents' that doesn't involve some sort of sugary snack.

"Yeah, Momma, please," Ava begs, grabbing a nearby jar of maraschino cherries and hugging it tightly. When I remain unconvinced, she turns her charms on Edward. "Please, Dad?"

Edward chuckles, plucking a cherry from the jar. "Up to your mom, Bug." He shrugs. "I'm on her team."

"Gee, thanks," I mutter, stealing a cherry for myself. "I guess it's fine. But no staying up late. And you must brush your teeth before bed. Promise?"

"Promise!" she squeals. She palms a handful of sprinkles, tilts her head back, and deposits them expertly in her mouth.

Edward and I exchange amused glances, and he raises an eyebrow in silent question. Do I want him to step in, or would I rather handle it myself? Go right ahead, I mouth.

"Easy on the sugar, Ava," he tells her, firmly, but not unkindly. "You're missing enough teeth as it is."

He ruffles her hair, dropping a kiss on top of the nest he made, then moves aside to give me room.

"Be good," I whisper in my girl's ear. "And have fun. I'll be back to pick you up in the morning."

Tossing my keys and phone inside my purse, I zip it up neatly and follow Edward to the door.

"Momma?"

Ava's mouth is stained blue, and her eyes look sugar-wild. "Yeah, Bug?"

"Will Daddy live at our house? Now that Uncle Em's moving away?"

I freeze, blindsided by her line of questioning. I knew this was coming, but…not now, not like this. Edward tenses beside me, his face reflecting the same surprised bewilderment I feel.

"No," I say eventually, attempting to temporarily make light of a very heavy question. "Your dad has his own house, remember?"

She nods and dips her spoon in the cherry jar, seemingly having lost interest in the conversation already. "'Yup."

"Okay then." I chuckle nervously. "Bye?"

Her gap-toothed grin is wide, and cherry juice runs in rivulets down her chin. "Bye!"

. . .

Edward convinces me to make the most of my kid-free night and grab a drink with him. We end up at Fran's East Side, a dive bar just around the corner from his place. It's seedy and stinks of stale smoke and booze, but it's oddly comforting in its lack of pretension, and I find that I'm grateful for the relaxed way Edward and I blend right in. Especially after a long day of tension.

"Em and I used to sneak in here all the time," Edward tells me once we've snagged a high-top. He smiles at the memory.

"You're kidding," I say, laughing. "I figured a place like this would eat high school punks for lunch."

"Nah. Em knew one of the bartenders."

I wrinkle my nose. "And by knew, I'm guessing you mean…"

Edward's playful smile confirms my suspicions. He slides my glass across the table, sloshing my too-full beer over the side and coating his fingers in the process. I watch with rapt attention as he brings them to his mouth to suck them clean.

When I find his eyes again, he's staring at me, smiling a secret smile.

"What?"

"Nothing." He shakes his head, grinning.

I look away, embarrassed to have been caught staring, and he takes pity on me and changes the subject. "Thanks again for today," he says, his quiet voice carrying smoothly across the table despite the bar's loud music and crowd. "I'm glad you were there."

His eyes squint slightly at the corners as he takes a long pull from his drink, and I find myself studying him again: his long fingers and the way they grip his glass, covering the bar's logo in the most masculine way; how he folds his elbows across the table when he's sitting, watching, listening.

I hide my face behind my glass, hoping he hasn't caught me staring again. "It was nice to finally meet your parents."

"Yeah." He snorts. "Right."

"Your mom's pretty great, Edward," I point out, not wanting to talk badly about his father. Experience has taught me that it's okay to vent about family as long as they're your family.

We rehash today's visit with his parents and discuss Ava's abrupt question from earlier, and before I know it, my glass is empty. "You want another?" he asks, tilting his chin toward the bar.

"Sure." I shrug. I'm not a big drinker—my face already feels sensitive and flushed—but I'm kid-free tonight, and I figure one more can't hurt.

Three beers later, we're somehow side-by-side. Edward's denim-clad knee is pressed against my bare one, and the warm skin of his elbow and forearm are settled right next to mine. If there was any lingering formality between us, we've drunk it away. Suddenly, after six years of absence and one stolen kiss, we're on the most familiar of terms.

Edward's hand grips my knee for balance as he leans across me to reach the drink menu, and when he leaves it there, I grab his bicep and tuck in closer to his side. Touching him this way feels like the most natural thing I've ever done, and if it weren't for his hooded eyes and the steady sweep of his thumb burning a fire across my thigh, I might think we'd been doing this for years.

He tilts his head so that we're nearly eye to eye. "All good?"

His breath is warm and smells like the beer he's been drinking. It's heady and intoxicating, and I'm once again reminded of the changes in this newer, older Edward: his sharp jaw and rough stubble, the crinkle at the corner of his eyes, the way he presses his palm to the small of my back when I'm talking, ensuring that I have his undivided attention.

I nod, too overcome by Edward's nearness to offer much more. This bar is loud and smoky and not the least bit private, but our proximity leaves me feeling raw and exposed. I lean my head against his arm, suddenly overwhelmed and unable to meet his eyes.

"Hey," he whispers, squeezing my thigh. His face is right there, and I know that lifting mine means making a conscious decision to take this someplace new. Someplace where I'm not sixteen or attached to someone else, where we're finally on the same page, moving at the same pace.

When my eyes meet his, it's the last bit of permission he was looking for. His strong hands cup my jaw, angling my face as he presses his lips firmly to mine. He's warm and soft, and his mouth moves with a familiarity that makes my heart ache.

When he bites my bottom lip gently, my body warms in a way that has nothing to do with alcohol. When he tugs my knees, roughly turning me so that his leg is pressed between mine in just the right spot, I grind against him to let him know that it's exactly what I need, exactly what I want.

His tongue is hot and needy and every bit as mind-numbing as I remembered. "Please," I pant, when his open mouthed kisses travel from my mouth to my ear to my neck. "Please."

"Please what?" he murmurs. "What do you want?"

His hands manipulate my jaw so that our eager mouths find each other in exactly the right way. I can't think clearly. My head is capable of only one word, one thought: Edward.

"I want… I want… "

"What?" He's nearly growling, and coupled with the small bites he delivers to the soft skin at the base of my ear, it's enough to draw a moan from somewhere deep and untapped in the center of my chest. "Tell me."

"You," I plead. "I want…you."

"Not here," he whispers, palming my hair back behind my ear. His hooded eyes search mine, and he places a softer, gentler kiss against my swollen lips. "Not like this."

His comment is sobering. Am I really so far gone that I'd consider hooking up with Edward in the bathroom of a bar? Or, even more reminiscent of our past, in the car?

I shake my head, hoping to clear it. "No," I mutter. "Of course not."

"Can you walk?" Edward's hands grip the back of my neck, rubbing it gently. "We can't drive, but…my place isn't far. Just around the corner."

Despite my less-than-clear head, I know what following him out of this bar means. It changes everything. It's my past colliding with my present, and they both include an Edward who has the potential to change everything.

"Bella," he says gently, as though he's read my mind. "We don't have to do anything you're not ready for. I want...so much...with you, but I'm not in a hurry." He kisses my mouth softly. "I'm not going anywhere."

His eyes are hooded but clear, and they search mine with a vulnerability that rarely shows itself. It's surreal, having his hands on me so openly and freely. We're not hiding or questioning our actions tonight, and it's freeing in the most liberating of ways. I'm tired of being the responsible one. I want, for once, to listen to my heart.

"Let's go."


A/N: A few, quick things:

- Tiffanyanne3 and I wrote a collab for the Ruggedward contest and, amazingly, it won! It's posted on my profile if you'd like to check it out.

Much love and thanks to Cejsmom for her time and encouragement and for giving me new ideas to chew on. And to Tiff, my beta and friend. I love you like crazy.