Chapter 25

Edward grips my hand tightly as he leads me back to his house. We cut through side streets to avoid the traffic on the main road, and the cadence of our steps matches the rapid rise and fall of my chest. The thought of what lies ahead is intoxicating, but the list of what-ifs presses back, abruptly sobering me up.

We sneak through a neighbor's yard and approach Edward's house from the back. It's pitch black and lifeless, and I'm comforted by the realization that he didn't plan for our night to end this way. I wrap my arms around myself as he fumbles with the lock, grateful for the stolen moment and the chance to slow down and think clearly. The muscles in Edward's forearms cord as he lifts the key at just the right angle, causing the latch pop and both of us to jump. He chuckles nervously, making me think he's just as affected by this—the quietness, the darkness, the anticipation—as I am.

"Sorry," he mutters, embarrassed. "This lock… I need to replace it."

Edward guides me inside with a hand on the small of my back, the light from a single lamp bathing his mudroom in a yellow glow. He follows closely behind me, latching the door and dropping his keys on a nearby console table. Each new noise seems louder than the one before it, and I wonder if it's the anticipation of this moment or the rareness of being completely alone with him that heightens my senses, alerting me to the smaller details of his home: the intoxicating scent of laundry detergent and cinnamon gum, a smell I didn't even realize I associated with him until now; the peaceful calmness; the familiar way he moves throughout the rooms, switching on lamps and bashfully tidying small piles of clutter.

I follow him into the living room, watching silently as he gathers a tossed-aside throw blanket and drapes it haphazardly over his couch. "You wanna sit down?"

"No." I smile shyly. "I'm good."

It's liberating being here with him, and it's a decision I can no longer hide behind the excuse of too much alcohol. False confidence may have gotten me to this point, but each step I make now is taken with a clear, conscious mind.

Edward clears his throat. "Do you want a drink?"

I shake my head.

His eyebrows climb. "What, uh… What do you want to do?"

I walk toward him silently. It feels important for me to choose this, to lead this. I'm not a teenager anymore. I want him, and this time it's not just because he's a cute boy with smooth words and sly touches.

My palms press lightly against his stomach when I close the gap between us, and I rise to my toes, pressing a small kiss to his lips. He's warm and familiar, and rather than nerves and fear, it's sweetness and anticipation that tickle my stomach and kickstart my heart.

He brings his hands to my face, cupping my jaw and covering my mouth with his. His kisses are soft and thorough, but my memory is sharp, and I know he's holding back. This is only a small part of what he has to offer.

When I bite his full bottom lip, he groans, and his hands turn from gentle to needy as he rakes his fingers through my hair roughly, biting me back, then soothing the sting with his tongue.

I fist his shirt, pulling him flush against me. He's taller and wider than when we were younger, and a rush of feminine vulnerability washes over me when I feel his hardness pressed against my stomach. I've missed the literal act of handing control over to someone else.

"Take this off," he murmurs, tugging at the thin sweater buttoned over the top of my dress. "I want to feel you."

His lips find my neck when I break our kiss to follow his command. I work the buttons on the front of my sweater, sliding it from my shoulders. Impatient, Edward yanks it down my arms, tossing it blindly to the side and trailing his hands over newly exposed skin. His long fingers grip my wrist, and he lifts my arm up and around his neck, sliding his fingertips down the sensitive underside to rest in the dip of my waist.

"I almost forgot how pretty you are," he whispers, his hooded green eyes assessing my face. "After I left, I didn't let myself remember."


"I don't want to ruin this. I just…" His hands leave my body to cup my face once more. "I'm glad I'm here. With you."

I close my eyes, overwhelmed by his honesty. He's my highest highs and lowest lows, and the manic shift between the two leaves me feeling stripped bare and exposed. I want to tell him a million things: that I'm equally thankful we're here together, that I love how he's changed, how he loves Ava, how I love...

The words sound scary, so I push them down and let my body respond instead.

Our lips find each other again, and this time when he presses against me, I grind shamelessly, using my teeth and tongue and hips to show him what I'm too afraid to say. His hands on my waist alternate between give and take as he holds me against him and pushes me back one step at a time. The cool leather of his couch hits the back of my knees, and I pull him with me as I fall, welcoming the weight and warmth of his body as it covers mine.

"Take this off," I whisper, repeating his words from earlier. My palms push under his thin shirt, meeting the warm, smooth flesh of his stomach. Without hesitation, Edward rises to his knees, gripping the back of his collar and pulling the shirt over his head. His shoulders are sun-kissed brown and wider than I remembered, and the way they strain and flex under the weight of his body makes me rub my legs together, desperate to quell the ache between them.

Edward moves my knees to the side, rubbing a rough palm down my thigh as he drops kisses to my neck.

"What're you thinking?" he murmurs low and soft against my skin. His green eyes are hooded, but there's concern behind the lust. I make an effort to control my breathing and grant him my full attention.

"About what?"

"About this." His palm squeezes me high up, just below the elastic of my underwear. "Is this okay?"

"Edward," I say gently, covering his hand with mine. "I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't okay."

"I know, but last time…"

"Last time I was fifteen," I remind him. "And you were horny. A lot has changed."

He snorts. "I'm pretty fucking horny right now, Bella."

I can feel him long and hard against my hip, and even though I don't say it out loud, I'm glad at least one thing has stayed the same. "I'm fine, Edward," I assure him. "We're fine. Let's not overthink this."

"You're right." He presses his lips to mine softly, but when I try to deepen the kiss, he pulls back and sits up. "It's just…"

I groan. "What?"

"I'm such a girl," he mutters, tugging at his hair in frustration. "Sorry. I just…I really want to do things right this time."

I lean against him, hiding my smile in his neck. He's first-time shy and awkward, and it's comforting to know that the playing field is level, at least when it comes to life beyond one-night stands.

"Are you doing this with anyone else, Edward?" I ask, letting my lips brush against his ear.

"What?" He shakes his head in confusion. "No. Of course not."

"Are you drunk?" I bite him softly. "Is this a drunken hookup?"

"Not even a little," he answers roughly.

I move my mouth from his ear to the sharp line of his jaw. When I suck, he hisses, and his hands tighten their grip on my waist. "Have you changed at all? Since we were teenagers?"

A small groan tells me he's finally catching on. "God, I hope so."

"And is that"—I palm his hardness—"because you want this? With me?"

He grabs my wrist, pinning it beside my head as he pushes me onto my back. Edward nudges my knees apart roughly and lowers himself so that we're pressed firmly together, hardness to heat. "Okay." He nips at my neck playfully. "I get it."

Wiggling underneath him, I squeal, trying to push him off before he marks me. Lips and teeth suck and soothe the thin skin above my collarbone until, eventually, I abandon my protests and offer my neck willingly instead.

My hands can't touch him enough. My lips seek his kisses, and my hips won't stop rolling. Each touch brings sweet relief and a promise of what's to come, and my needy body wants only one thing: him.

I claw at Edward's back as he grabs my thigh, lifting my leg higher and fitting himself against me snugly. He presses where I need it, and I cry out as his grinding ignites a flutter in my center that quickly builds into something so strong it arches my back and stills my hips.

Edward kisses me hard while my body heaves with pleasure, holding me tightly as I ride out each delicious wave. When the pulsing stops, he smooths my bangs from my flushed face and finds my mouth again, gentle and thorough this time.

"That was…" He buries his face in my hair. "God."

Light-headed and disoriented, I run my nails across his back while my heart calms its pounding.

Edward hums contentedly as I scratch, until, eventually, I snake my hand between us, reaching for his belt buckle and giving it a tug. It releases with an audible clang.

"Bella." His voice is muffled and warm against my neck. "What're you doing?"

I work the button on his jeans. "I'm returning the favor."

Rising slightly, he grabs my wrist once more, pulling my hand away from his pants and dropping a gentle kiss to my palm instead. "There's plenty of time for that," he says softly. "No rush. I'm not going anywhere."

Edward's eyes flicker back and forth between mine, and the honesty in them squeezes my too-full heart. Anxiety and one-sided worship motivated my decisions the last time I offered my body to him, and their absence is a welcome relief tonight. He's not slipping through my fingers or pulling away before he's even come undone. He's real and tangible and present, and he's right. No regrets and no rushing. This time is different.

Later, in his bed, we're intimate in a way we've never been before. The moon paints Edward's bedroom in a blueish tint, casting dark shadows across his face and chest and granting me the courage I need to bare myself to him for the first time since giving birth to our child.

Edward unhooks my bra, letting it fall from my shoulders. I fold my arms across my chest, catching it against me and using it as a literal shield against a moment of uncertainty. My breasts aren't the same as they were all those years ago, and they aren't the same as most girls' my age. I fed our daughter with my body.

"Nursing leaves things…"

"Stop," he whispers, silencing me with soft kisses and gentle hands. "You're perfect."

This time our touches are slow and our looks linger. He stares, and I let him. My body's imperfections feel less like insecurities and more like memories finally ready to be shared. Edward never saw my belly grow or felt the kicks and flips of the life we created. He missed out, and I did, too. I wonder, though, as I flush under the gaze of his adoration, if this is what it feels like to welcome a tiny, new life with love by your side.


Small kisses against my neck and shoulder draw goosebumps across my body.

"Bella." More kisses. "Wake up."

My eyes stay closed, and I burrow further into the warmth at my back. Edward's fingers span my belly, rubbing softly, while his nose follows a line of kisses up and down the side of my neck.

I press myself into him and he hisses. He's thick and hard against my ass, and when I grind a little, he pushes back. A thin layer of cotton separates us, and while I know he's right about not rushing, there's nothing I want more in this moment than to feel him inside me.

"How're you so wet already?" he whispers, inching his fingers below my underwear and between my folds. He gathers me on his fingers and retreats a bit, spreading my wetness around in small circles. Sleeping against him all night has me wanting and needy, and it doesn't take more than a few swirls and fingers before I'm grinding myself against his hand.

Just like last night, he buries his head in my neck after I come down, groaning as he pulls his fingers from my still sensitive flesh. "So fucking hot," he mumbles.

When I shift to my side and grab him through his boxer-briefs, he throws an arm over his eyes and groans once more. "Bella," he warns. "I'm close…"

"Shh." I squeeze him tightly before lowering his underwear over his length. "Let me make you feel good."

My hand makes circular passes over his smooth flesh, and I revel in the sigh that leaves his lips when my fist bumps his tip. There's such power in watching his body respond to my touch. It's heady and exhilarating and…natural.

"Like this?" I whisper, slowing my speed and tightening my grip.

The muscle in his jaw clenches with each pass of my hand. "Yeah."

It doesn't take long until he's swollen and throbbing and alerting me through gritted teeth. Moving my hand faster, I watch with fascination as he pulses, digging his fingers into my bare thigh before spilling onto his stomach and my fist.

It's a rush, knowing I can make him do…that. I grin against his chest while his breathing levels out, relieved to be hidden from view by the arm still covering his eyes. Eventually, though…

"Tissue?" I squeak.

He laughs big and deep, pulling me against his chest and dropping a kiss to my forehead. "No tissues, but…" He cranes his neck, reaching for last night's discarded undershirt on the floor. "Here. Use this."

I take it hesitantly. "You're sure?"

"It's just a shirt, Bella," he teases. "What kind of guy would I be if I didn't know how to wash jizz out of my clothes?"

I halt my cleanup, scrunching my nose at his comment. "Nice."

Shrugging unabashedly, he grabs the shirt from my hands, tossing it smoothly into a basket across the room. "Come on." He sits up, pulling me with him and smacking my butt. "I'm starving. Let me feed you before we go pick up our girl."

We stop at the diner on our way to my parents'. Maria greets us at the door, and I'm immediately relieved to see it's her shift we've stumbled upon and not Kate's. Maria doesn't know me well enough to recognize the meaning of Edward's and my early morning arrival. If Kate were here, she'd assume we…

My cheeks flush hot with the memory of Edward's hands on me—in me—last night and this morning.

"You good?" Edward blows the steam off his coffee while I study the menu I've had memorized for years.

"Yeah?" I glance at him, confused. "Why?"

His lips curl smugly. "Your cheeks," he replies. "They're pink."

"Oh." I fan myself with the menu. "It's hot in here, right?"


Caught, I scowl at him playfully. "Drink your coffee," I mutter.

Edward orders bacon and eggs and grits, and I nibble an omelet while thoughts of last night tumble around in my head. This morning has been natural and easy, and I can't deny that there's a part of me that's relieved things haven't grown awkward.

As if he plucked the thought from my brain, Edward asks, around a bite of bacon, if I'm okay with everything that's happened. I'm surprised by his directness, but it also feels nice to know that he's making an effort to keep things open and honest.

"I'm fine," I reply, laying my fork down gently. "I've spent a lot of time thinking about"—I wave a hand back and forth between us—"this."

"And what is…this?" He mimics my movements with a smile.

"I don't know." I haven't given myself permission to label us or box things in, and I shrug, unsure how to answer him. "Two parents having breakfast?"

The smile slides from his face. "Is that what this is? Co-parenting with benefits?"

"No," I rush to clarify. "Of course not. I…I enjoyed last night." My face burns with embarrassment at my candid admission. "A lot. I just meant…it also feels really good to have a partner now. With Ava."

"I like that part, too," he says softly.

"I always hoped you'd be a part of her life," I continue. Once tapped, my thoughts bubble up quickly. "I just…never thought you and I would…you know. Whatever."

He nods, that smug smile tugging at his lips again. "The whatevering is good."

Maria returns to top off our coffees, saving me from Edward's teasing. He thanks her politely, waiting until she's a few steps away before diving right back in. "Don't forget this morning."


"You said you enjoyed last night. I'm saying this morning was good, too."

I roll my eyes at him over the rim of my cup. "I think our whatevering has affected your ego."

He grins, snagging my legs between both of his and caging me in. Our difficulties have made our triumphs sweeter, and these light, playful moments send happiness bubbling through me like a brook. It's overwhelming, the swelling of my heart. It's like staring at the sun too long; I have to look away.

We eat quietly, sharing embarrassed smiles—me— and playful glances—him—until the sound of Edward's vibrating phone demands his attention. Scowling, he silences it quickly and moves it aside.

"Everything okay?" I ask hesitantly.

"My mom." He sighs. "She's blowing up my phone."

"Is something wrong?"

"Not really. She and my sister…" He looks at me warily. "They're on a mission to meet Ava."

I stay quiet, waiting for him to elaborate. When he doesn't, I ask, "Does that bother you?"

"I don't want her to go through what I did. As a kid, you know?"

I nod. I've had the very same thoughts before, about wanting more for Ava than what I had. It's a natural part of parenting, and it's yet another sign that Edward's propensity for fatherhood is strong.

My parents didn't get it right with my brother and me, but they're amazing grandparents. I'd hate for Edward's anger to override his parents' effort. "Can I tell you what I've learned? Or does that annoy you?"

He grabs my hand. "Not at all."

"They're different," I say. "Our parents. They're not the same as when we were kids. I mean they're still them, and some things will never change, but I can tell you from experience that your parents will probably be different with Ava than they were with you."

He scoffs. "Have you met my dad?"

"He's tough," I agree. "But your mom's great. And it sounds like Leah is, too."

Our visit with Edward's parents yesterday wasn't easy. I'm not looking forward to the hurdles we'll face with his father or the awkwardness that will come with explaining how we ended up in the situation we're in. Having a child when you're still a child yourself invites judgement and criticism, neither of which is new to me. The difference now, is that I'm not facing it alone.

"We'll figure it out," I repeat his words from last night. "There's no rush. I'm not going anywhere."

Bella's breasts are rock hard, and her tired eyes are so swollen with sleep deprivation that they're blurry and sensitive.

"Gas drops…gas drops," she murmurs, scanning the overwhelming aisle of infant and baby care products. Her eye stutters over a small box containing an even smaller bottle, the sacred words she's searching for stamped across its front: Little Tummy's Gas Relief Drops. She's so happy she thinks she could cry.

She grabs a box, then another for good measure, and adds them to the stack of nursing pads and newborn diapers already occupying her handheld basket.

Her phone buzzes with a text from her brother.

She just woke up, and she ain't happy. Hurry.

Bella's tired feet carry her to the checkout counter. She remembers the days—months ago, although it feels like years— when she'd aimlessly stroll these very aisles, trying on samples of nail polish and reading the backs of haircare products. She nearly laughs out loud at the prospect of such luxuries these days.

"Bella?" Surprised, the new mom spins, hand to heart. "I thought that was you!"

Edward's mother is one of the last people she wants to see. She's tired and hormonal and raising a fatherless eight-week-old, the irony of which is not lost on her as she looks the abandoner's mother in the eye. She doesn't have the energy for this.

"Hi, Mrs. Cullen," she answers tiredly, placing her items one by one on the conveyer belt.

Esme feels her smile slip as she takes in the young girl's appearance: messy hair, purple shadows under each eye, two matching wet spots slowly spreading across the front of her stretched-out cotton shirt…

"Everything okay, Bella?" she asks softly.

She watches as the young girl loads an assortment of baby-related products onto the counter. The air is heavy with tension, and Esme feels confused and uncomfortable.

Eventually, Bella's expression shifts, and she offers the older woman a kind smile. "I'm fine, Mrs. Cullen. Thanks."

"How's Emmett?" Esme thinks of her son's friend often. She doesn't know why he backed out of attending school with Edward, but she realizes—as she stares at the young mom before her—that there must be more to the story than what her son gave her.

"He's doing well," Bella answers politely.

"I know Edward misses him," Esme persists. "He's just been so busy adjusting to school and baseball and—"

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Cullen. I'm in a bit of a hurry. It was nice seeing you again." Bella forces a smile. She knows there are good intentions layering the kind woman's words, but the absurdity of the situation—making small-talk with her baby's unaware grandmother—is more than she can handle.

"Of course, dear." Esme returns her smile and lays a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Take care."

Bella misses the backward glances she gives her as she walks away.



"Yeah, Mom. It's me."

"I can't tell you boys apart these days." Esme's laugh sounds slightly nervous. Edward's roommates are loud and obnoxious, polar opposites of the introverted persona he donned like a cloak when he arrived on campus. He doesn't bother to correct her. "It's been so long since we spoke," she continues. "How are things?"

"Things are fine, Mom." Edward's words are guarded and to-the-point. "Just busy with classes." He pauses. "I'm, uh. I'm sorry I didn't make it home for Thanksgiving. Finals, you know?"

"Of course," Esme replies softly. "I understand."

"How's Leah?"

"She misses you." Esme uses her daughter as an excuse to put words to feelings she's too nervous to share. "She wishes you'd visit more often."

"Tell her I'll come home for a weekend soon." The heavy silence over the staticky phone line is an ominous representation of their strained relationship. "She still teaching at that school in Hurst?"

"No, she's in Colleyville now. Which reminds me. You'll never guess who I saw at the grocery a few days ago."

Edward scans his memory for common links between his mother and himself. "Who?"

"Bella Swan." Esme pauses, waiting for her son's response. "Emmett's little sister?"

"Yeah," Edward croaks. "I know who she is."

"You'll never believe this, but"—she drops her voice to a whisper—"I think she's had a baby. Bless her heart. So young, and—"

"I've gotta run, Mom," Edward interrupts. "I've got class in a few. I'll talk to you later, okay?" He hangs up before his mother can say anything else. He's heard enough already.

Thanks, as always, for your patience and for your thoughtful and encouraging reviews. I read and love them all (even the bad ones, although they're way less fun).

To my amazing beta and favorite friend Tiffanyanne3: Bahama, baby. Bahama.

Cjesmom: Enjoy your holiday! XO