Summary: This is a challenge that ericastwilight came up with to help encourage us to write. Every chapter is considered a one shot. A beginning is provided and each of us must write the rest of the story. Check out ericastwilight to see the different endings.
Bella flipped the page and tried not to look at the clock on the adjacent wall. She knew time always seemed to move slower as she waited for them to walk into her store. They always came, everyday for the last two weeks between two-forty-five and two-fifty in the afternoon.
Customers kept her busy throughout the day, but the flow of people coming through the door always seemed to dwindle an hour before their arrival. She sighed and gave in to her need to know, her curiosity always got the best of her.
Fifteen more minutes, she realized, not feeling any better. Only six minutes had passed since the last time she looked at the clock. It was obvious that reading one of her favorite books would not make the time go faster, so she decided to straighten up, perhaps dust.
She looked around, smiling at the quaint little general store she was the proud owner of, thanks to her father. Living out in the middle of nowhere, in a small mountain community, everyone knew everyone. There were no secrets and gossip kept most of the town inhabitants entertained throughout the day.
It was the only reason she had learned his name, Edward. But not much else, which she'd hoped to find out more about him herself, from him.
She sighed and shook her head; it didn't do well to fantasize. The man had yet to say anything to her that wasn't related to his purchases or the store in general. However, his companion always seemed to go out of his way to greet her.
As she wiped down her counter, straightened out all the jars of her homemade jellies, she was compelled to plate some of the cookies she'd made the previous evening. She'd been toying with the idea of selling some of her cookies, pies and cupcakes for the last few days. It seemed to be a good time as any to give away a few samples to see if anyone would be interested.
Humming as she worked, she hadn't realized someone had entered until she turned. "Oh!" she gasped, holding a hand over her thudding heart.
"I did tell you it may be a good idea to install a bell on the door," Edward said with a small smirk.
Bella rolled her eyes and laughed, taking in his appearance. His dark jeans were worn around the pockets, slightly fringed there from use. A dark blue button up was layered over a plain white t-shirt, but kept open. The hair was as always a mess of copper, brown and gold. She sighed when she realized he'd likely never forget his sunglasses, no matter the weather. She longed to know the color behind them.
"Hello, Edward. Where's my little buddy?" she asked, walking toward the counter again.
"You mean you weren't waiting for me?" he asked, feigning hurt with pout. Shocked, Bella raised an eyebrow in confusion. Edward had never actually teased her before. When she hadn't answered, his pout turned to a frown and she heard him curse under his breath.
Before she could respond, her little buddy nudged the back of Edward's thigh. Bella couldn't help but smile and knelt down to greet him.
"Hi, Max," Bella called to the dog standing behind Edward, who immediately began wagging his tail and closed the distance between them quickly. She began to laugh as he covered her face in kisses, becoming so eager that he knocked her back onto the floor.
"Oh my God, Max. No!" Edward scolded him as the dog stood over Bella, reclaiming the end of the leash in his hand. "Bella, I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"
Bella continued to giggle as she ruffled the top of Max's head, who now sat at his master's feet, and then she looked to Edward's offered hand to help her up. Her eyes rose to meet his and her laughter abruptly ceased as she suddenly became aware that, not only had he teased her as he'd never done before, but he'd spoken to her. Directly to her, without the underlying purpose of business. Her throat went dry, preventing her from uttering a single word, even if any had come to mind in that instant.
Max whimpered beside them, snapping Bella back to the moment and she finally took his hand to rise from the floor.
"It's fine, really. I used to have a Shepard mix when I was a kid, so it doesn't bother me," Bella replied with the attempt at a smile and non-chalance, but she couldn't take her eyes off Edward's tall, slender frame while the warmth of his hand still radiated through hers and up her arm.
As soon as he was certain that she was steady on her feet, he quickly released his hold on her, shoving his hand into his pocket. "You're sure you're all right? I swear, I don't know what's gotten into him lately. He's usually so sedate, I have to make sure he's even breathing at times."
Bella laughed softly with a nod, stepping back toward the counter to where the plate of cookies was. "Yeah, I'm fine. What kind of dog is he, anyway?"
Edward's eyes met hers as she held up one of the cookies in question, motioning toward the Max, who sat at his feet, but his whole hind end still moved with his wagging tail. After she assured him that it was only peanut butter, no chocolate whatsoever, he shrugged with a nod. He felt so nervous talking to her, something he'd never experienced with any woman, and he didn't know what to make of it. When he didn't answer after a moment, she looked back up from the dog and smiled at Edward, offering him a cookie as well. "No, thank you. I'm on a special diet."
Bella lifted her eyebrow at him and her eyes ran the length of his body, noting his toned abdomen under his fitted t-shirt and muscular thighs beneath the faded denim of his jeans. Is he trying to avoid hurting my feelings or something? she thought to herself as she brought the cookie to her own lips. "You sure don't look like you need any kind of diet."
Edward lowered his head to hide the embarrassment at her appraisal and what seemed like a compliment. He shifted his attention back to Max, rubbing the top of his head and quickly trying to change the subject. "Uh, I'm really not sure what breed he is, actually. He was my girlfriend's … ex -girlfriend's dog. He was an unfortunate casualty in the midst of a break-up."
Bella's eyes grew sad and she looked back down to the dog, a frown curling her lips downward and he found that he really didn't like it. "Well, he certainly doesn't look any worse for the wear. Must have a really good master, don't you?"
Edward watched as her smile returned while speaking to Max and felt that strange tightening in his chest release. "I don't know about that."
Bella felt the familiar shiver run through her at the softness of his tone, suddenly nervous again in his presence and finding herself with nothing to say. Her back straightened and she moved back behind the counter, straightening everything there needlessly to give her hands something to do. "So, what'll it be today?"
Edward released a slow breath, his body relaxing as the comfortable conversation resumed between them. Just as quickly, the nerves began building again and he swallowed hard, his gaze moving around the small store for some logical reason for him to be there. He obviously couldn't reveal the truth; that stopping there every day to see her smile had become almost as necessary as breathing and he couldn't explain why. And even when he made the feeble attempt of resisting the urge to step through that door, Max would tug relentlessly on the leash he held, lunging toward the store and bringing their daily walk to an abrupt end. "Soap."
His sudden answer caught her by surprise after several moments of silence and her eyebrows tightened. "Soap?"
"Yeah. I really like the soap from here. Doesn't leave that film you get from commercial stuff on your skin," Edward replied in a rush and immediately began cursing himself. Real smooth. She's going to think you're a total idiot now, he internally groaned and even Max released a huffy sigh, as if completely agreeing with his thoughts.
But Bella only smiled in response. "It's an old family recipe. I use it myself."
Of course, Edward knew that. Whenever he got close enough to her, he could smell the soft, but not perfumy, scent of her skin, only heightening his desire to use it as well. And whenever he caught the scent of it, he would instantly think of her. Had he always been that pathetic? No. But it was safe, without opening himself up to hurt again. Yet, how long could that go on? It was a lonely way to live his life. Summoning his courage, he cleared his throat and looked at her, uttering the words he'd been trying to get out for weeks. "Actually, Bella. I was wondering if you had any plans for the evening?"
Bella's stomach flipped and her throat tightened. Was he asking her out on a date? Her heart felt as if it was going to pound straight out of her chest, and while she wished she could just come out and say yes, she knew she needed to refrain. Everyone had baggage, but hers was a little out of the ordinary. "Actually, I have plans for tonight. I'm sorry."
"Oh, no problem," Edward replied, his eyes falling to his feet. Now, I really feel like an idiot, he chastised himself in his head. Why wouldn't a beautiful woman like Bella have plans? Probably with some great guy, no doubt. It was so presumptuous and stupid to think that someone as sweet and lovely as she was would be single.
"Maybe some other time?" Bella added, noticing the embarrassed look on his face and feeling horrible for being the one who put it there.
"Sure," Edward replied with a half-smile and a nod, walking over to the shelves and grabbing a bar of soap, wrapped in brown paper and a rough length of twine. He paid for it quickly and his fingers lightly brushed hers as she handed him the back and receipt. "So, I guess I'll see you tomorrow? Now that you've spoiled Max here with your cookies."
Bella flexed her hand beneath the counter, hiding the effect his touch had left on her skin. It still tingled for several moments as they stood staring at each other, until she finally collected herself enough to reply. "Yeah, I'll be here."
Well, no kidding, oh queen of the obvious. Where else would you be? she internally chortled, resisting the urge to cover her face with her palm at the stupid remark.
"Okay, see you then. Come on, Max," Edward said gently and her eyes followed them as they walked out the door.
The hours passed slowly as she waited for five o' clock to arrive so she could finally lock up for the night, but Edward never left her thoughts. He was so nervous when he'd asked her about her plans for the evening, and the innocent, almost childlike, disappointment was written all over his face at her reply, and it made her chest ache. It seemed a strange reaction from a man she'd envisioned in her mind of exuding such confidence, even though she knew barely anything about him. She wanted to, but how would he react to knowing everything about her?
As the door opened again, she looked up with the foolish hope that he had returned, but the smiling face that met her was not Edward. "Hey, Charlie!"
The dark-haired little boy ran across the store, wrapping his arms around her legs before looking up to the counter. "Cookies for me?"
Bella laughed, looking up to her roommate, Angela, who followed behind her. "Maybe after dinner."
Charlie sighed dramatically. "Okay. Can I go watch cartoons?"
"Sure. Go on upstairs with Angela and I'll be there in a bit after I lock up," Bella replied, ruffling his hair with her hand and looked up at her friend. "So, how'd it go?"
Angela's head shifted from side to side with an uncertain look on her face as Charlie took off toward the stairs. "He's still not saying much. But it will take some time, Bella."
Bella nodded sadly, sighing as Angela patted her shoulder gently in passing before following the little boy to the upstairs apartment.
"So, did he show today?" Angela asked as she Bella stood at the stove making macaroni and cheese for dinner—Charlie's frequent request.
"Yeah," Bella answered with a sigh as she stirred, watching the pasta swirl in the boiling water. At times, she regretted mentioning the handsome stranger to Angela, who had been a little too excited at the prospect that she'd finally begun noticing the opposite sex again. But at others, it felt good to have someone to talk to about the confusing emotions whirling within her. "He needed soap."
"Soap?" Angela asked, lowering her voice sarcastically. "Didn't he just buy some last week?"
"And who's keeping tabs? I don't know, maybe he showers a lot. He does look like one of those really clean guys that bathes two or three times a day, and I can't recall a single instance where he stunk," Bella replied, attempting to keep the defensive tone from her voice. "He did talk to me some today. Mostly about his ex-girlfriend's dog. And then, kinda asked me out tonight."
Angela's eyes widened as Bella turned to pour the contents of the pan into the strainer in the sink. "And you're here with us making dinner, why? From what you've told me, he's hot, sweet, loves his dog, and now very clean and available. Where's the problem here?"
Bella sighed and looked to Angela, gesturing her hand to Charlie, sitting in the living room and talking along with Blue's Clues on the television. "How would I explain this? I'm not in any position to think about my love life, Ang."
"Oh, no, Isabella Swan. You are not using Charlie as an excuse," Angela admonished her with a shake of her head. "You just tell him the truth. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"I'm not ashamed. It's just a lot for a young, single guy to take on. And now is not the time to be bringing strange men into Charlie's life," Bella replied nervously.
"Bella, have you ever thought that it might be good for him to have something normal like that around? It's been over a year, and he lives with two women. A male role model might actually be beneficial to him. He's five, he wouldn't need to know anything more or less at first than you have a male friend," Angela said softly, keeping her voice low as she spoke to prevent the little boy from overhearing. "And you could definitely benefit from some regular sex."
"Angela!" Bella exclaimed, the pot falling from her hand and onto the floor, catching Charlie's attention from the next room. She smiled at him in an effort to relieve the worry lines from his forehead and the corners of his little mouth, and then looked back to her friend with narrowed eyes. "That is definitely the last thing on my mind, and is not up for discussion, now or any time in the near future. Wash up for dinner, Charlie!"
"I'm just saying, you're pretty tensed up there, babe," Angela replied with a carefree shrug as she left the room to help get Charlie ready for dinner, and Bella groaned in frustration. "That's proof right there!"
Bella rolled her eyes at Angela's voice carrying down the hallway from the bathroom, and half-heartedly flipped the bird in her general direction.
All night and throughout the following morning, Bella's mind whirled with thoughts of Edward, and Angela's words from the night before. She couldn't deny that having a man in Charlie's life might not have been the worst thing for him, but was she really ready for that kind of change as well? She was finally comfortable in her life; she had the store that sufficiently provided for their needs, a great roommate, though occasionally aggravating, and the never-ending activity that surrounded raising five-year-old Charlie. Would a man, even one as intriguing and undeniably attractive as Edward, disrupt that dynamic she'd established?
However, she also couldn't pretend that when each day was done and she was left alone to her thoughts as she lay down to sleep, the one void within her made itself clearly apparent. She was lonely, even with the fullness of her life otherwise. She longed for the warmth provided by a strong pair of arms wrapping around her at night, someone there to talk to about their days, and comfort each other through the rough ones. And yeah, she was a grown woman, and sex wouldn't exactly be objectionable, either.
"Damn it, Angela," she muttered under her breath with her hand rubbing her forehead as she fought to dispel those thoughts.
A bell chimed from above the door and she glanced up quickly, finding Edward standing stationary and looking up, and she smiled.
"Someone suggested a bell to me once or twice, and I took him up on his advice this morning," she teased lightly, partially in an attempt to ease any lingering tension from the day before, and partially to soothe her raging nerves.
Edward's answering smile as their gazes met accomplished just the opposite within her, however, and her mind returned to her previous thoughts. "Well, that was a pretty brilliant idea. And adds a certain charm to the place. You should definitely thank him."
A soft, impatient bark sounded from beside them with Max announcing his presence as well, causing them both to chuckle and slightly breaking the tension between them at last. "Max, behave yourself. You're fortunate this lovely lady allows you in here, you mangy mutt. Mind your manners."
Bella released a hearty laugh as the dog obediently sat at his feet with Edward's teasing, looking up at him for the expected praise. "Dogs are people, too. Isn't that right, buddy? And besides, service animals are always welcome," she cooed at him, grabbing one of the fresh cookies from that morning and holding a piece out to him.
"And what service does he provide?" Edward asked curiously.
"Well, he always makes me smile, doesn't he?" Bella replied, catching a glimpse of her watch on her other arm, his brow furrowing when she noticed that it was only just a little after one. "You're early today."
Edward shifted uncomfortably and nodded, his eyes lowering. "Yeah, slow day at work. And this guy was insistent on his walk anyway."
"Ah, I see," Bella replied, hoping her disappointment that he hadn't come to see her wasn't obvious in her voice. It was a ridiculous thought anyway, given the current circumstances. "Listen, Edward, about yesterday—"
Edward shook his head before she could finish, waving his hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it, Bella. It was a stupid question. You don't know me from a hole in the wall. I'm sure the last thing you need is for a customer to start hitting on you. I mean, not hitting on you, but … well, you know. It was just inappropriate."
Bella couldn't help but smile at the flustered sound of his voice and look on his face as he stumbled over his words, and pinched her lips together to hide her amusement. The last thing she wanted to do was embarrass him more. "What I was going say was, it's been a bit slow here today as well, and I was thinking about closing up early for the evening. So, if you weren't busy, I'd like to take you up on seeing you tonight. Maybe meet up around four?"
Edward's face brightened a little at her words and his mouth twitched slightly with the hint of a smile. "Sure. I'd like that. I was planning on taking Max to the park across the street later, since it's actually nice out. Would you like to meet there?"
"Yeah, that sounds great. I'll bring some sandwiches or something," Bella replied, the butterflies fluttering in her stomach with the renewed nervousness.
"Sounds good. I'll see you then," Edward responded with a nod, turning toward the door again.
"Wait," Bella called after him and he looked back to her, appearing as if he almost expected her to take it all back. "Do you need anything today?"
Edward's smile grew as he lowered his sunglasses back onto his face and shook his head. "No, just a visit this time."
Holy shit, she thought as her breath left her quickly, watching as he left with Max in tow. He had come to see her. And how had she missed the fact that he'd taken those sunglasses off, and why hadn't she taken the time to notice the color?
Edward's leg bounced impatiently as he sat on the bench at the park, checking the time again on his watch. It was almost four, but still not past it. She wasn't late. She would show.
Max looked back at his owner, giving him an annoyed look before resting his chin on Edward's knee.
"Oh, shut up. I'm not nervous. Besides, it doesn't mean anything but two people meeting up for dinner," Edward said as if replying to some kind of teasing remark and then rolled his eyes as the dog huffed. "Yeah, I'm not buying into that myself."
The truth was that he'd barely been able to contain his nervousness for the nearly three hours that had passed since he walked out of her store. He'd gone home and taken a long, hot shower, brushed his teeth twice, and spent the rest of his time pacing the floor of his living room until he was almost sure there would be a worn out path along the rug. At that point, he decided to grab Max's leash and head for the park, arriving over a half hour early. His head shot up with every sound of footsteps along the walk, with nearly the whole town seemingly out and about, also enjoying the pleasant weather of the late afternoon. But it was never her, and he'd sigh with another glance to his watch.
"Look, Mama! A doggy!" a small, excited voice rang through the air and Edward looked up at the sound, his breath catching at the sight before him. It was Bella, with a little boy holding onto her hand and tugging it gently.
Bella came to a stop in front of the bench he was sitting on with a nervous smile on her face. "Hi."
Edward stood to greet her, his eyes drifting to the little boy before returning to her. "Hi."
Bella noticeably swallowed hard and took a deep breath, waiting for the line of questions to begin, but they both stood silently until she felt a tug at the bottom of her sweater.
"Who's this man?" Charlie inquired, moving closer to her side shyly but never taking his eyes off Edward.
Bella lowered down next to him, wrapping her arm around his waist and finding her voice again. "Honey, this is my friend, Edward, that I told you about. Edward, this is Charlie."
Edward looked at her as her eyes rose to him and then extended his hand to the little boy. "It's very nice to meet you, Charlie. And this is Max."
"Hi, Max," Charlie said softly, holding his fingers out hesitantly for the dog to sniff and giggled when Max licked them, and then looked to Bella. "I'm hungry, please."
Bella laughed as she rose to sit on the bench. "Okay, but first, we're going to wash those hands."
Edward tried to mask his urge to smile as the little boy looked on in annoyance as Bella wiped his hands down with a baby wipe from her purse, and then eagerly took the sandwich she retrieved from the paper bag she'd brought with them.
"Now, go sit right there on the grass and eat, but don't go too far."
"I won't," Charlie sighed heavily as he ran over to the grass, with Max trailing along with him.
"Will he be okay?" Bella asked nervously, looking from where the dog laid down beside Charlie's legs to the leash Edward still held in his hand.
"Yeah, he's great with kids," Edward replied as he sat back down beside her, watching them intently as well until Bella's hand caught his attention, holding a sandwich out to him as well. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Bella said softly as he took it and then began picking at her own bread, bringing a morsel up to her mouth while trying to find a way to break the ice between them. "So, you said it was a slow day at work. What do you do?"
Her question took him by surprise, definitely not what he was expecting. "I, uh. I'm a pediatrician. I work at the clinic downtown."
"Oh, wow," Bella replied breathily. How had that escaped local gossip? she wondered, but also began mentally calculating how old he must be. She hadn't thought him to be much past thirty, at the most, based on his appearance alone. But just medical school and internship would practically take care of that alone, not to mention his residency and establishing himself in a practice. Her fingers began shredding at the crust of her bread, her eyes remaining lowered. "So, if you don't mind me asking, how old are you?"
Edward laughed softly and turned his head toward her. "I'm thirty-six. Too old?"
Bella's eyes widened in shock; way older than she'd thought. She began running her gaze over him—not a single trace of grey anywhere in his still thick mass of bronze hair, where she found herself startled by the sight of his sunglasses once again perched there. When the hell had she become so unobservant? She immediately shifted her perusal lower, seeing only the subtle smile lines around his hypnotizing, green eyes. There was a faint hint of a scar above the corner of the left one, but nothing disfiguring at all. He was, for lack of a better word in her muddled brain, beautiful, and all man. She couldn't imagine how someone like him would still be single, coming up on forty.
"It is, huh?" Edward spoke suddenly at her lack of any further response while she was ogling him, his gaze lowered to his still wrapped sandwich.
"Oh my God, no. I'm sorry. I was just surprised, that's all," Bella replied, her face heating with the flush overtaking her cheeks. "I'm twenty-one. Too young?"
Edward chuckled softly, shaking his head. "No. Just surprised, that's all."
Bella echoed his laugh as he repeated her words and then caught him stealing another glance at Charlie, and then she took a deep breath. "I guess we should approach the elephant-sized question hanging in the air, shouldn't we?"
"You're not obligated to explain anything to me, Bella," he replied gently, shaking his head.
"Charlie's not mine," Bella said and Edward's eyes met hers, squinting slightly as his forehead wrinkled in confusion. "He does live with me and is part of my life, so I did want to have that out in the open right from the start. His name is Charles Swan … Junior. He's my half-brother."
Her revelations only served to confuse him more. "But, he called you 'Mama' just now."
Bella nodded, swallowing hard as tears began rimming her eyes. "He does that from time to time. We don't think it's a totally conscious thing. He's only five, and it's been a very hard, confusing year for him." She paused to take another deep breath to collect herself before continuing. "Our dad and his mother were killed last year in a car accident. Charlie was home with me at the time. And as you can imagine, the state was a little less than keen on a twenty-year-old girl with no job, not even college behind her, taking on the responsibility of a four-year-old. But I just couldn't let him go into the system. He's my brother, and he'd already lost his parents, why should he lose the last of his family, too? And I love him so much. When I look at him, I see my dad all over him."
"I'm so sorry, Bella," Edward whispered softly, resting his hand gently over hers in a comforting gesture, but then froze and began retracting it, shocked by his forwardness. "So, the store?"
"Yeah, it was my dad and stepmom's. They started it up right before Charlie was born. They left it to the both of us in their wills. And I knew it was my only chance to keep him with me, and hold our family together," Bella replied, straightening her shoulders and wanting more than anything to change the painful subject. "So what about you? Any family? Kids?"
Edward shook his head, nodding toward Max. "No, not unless you count him and the ones visiting my office every day."
Bella chuckled softly. "Yeah, he does seem like a bit of a handful. But if it's not too personal, how did you end up with him if he was your ex's dog?"
"Well, part of getting to know someone is to get personal, isn't it? And it's honestly not that much more so than what you just shared with me," Edward replied reassuringly, but she still noticed the hint of tension in his shoulders as he took the first bite of his sandwich finally. He chewed slowly and she became mesmerized by the movement of his strong jaw and the bob of his Adam's apple when he swallowed. "We'd both known it was over for a long time, and even though we were still living together, she started seeing this other guy from her gym. But when the time came for her to move out, and in with him, he turned out to be this health nut, neat freak, that couldn't stand the thought of dog hair or drool all over his precious apartment. And he gave her a choice between him and the dog."
"What an ass," Bella said, looking out to find Max lying on his side with Charlie resting his head back against his ribs.
"Yeah, that's what I said. And I honestly thought that would be the deal breaker for her. She loved that dog more than she even liked me most days, even when things were good," Edward replied, laughing slightly at his halfhearted joke. "She left him behind, though. But that's okay. I got a great dog out of the deal, and like I said, it's almost the same as having a kid."
"You wanted them, then?" Bella asked nervously, knowing that even though they were just getting to know each other, his answer would immediately make or break any possibilities between them. No amount of interest or attraction on his part, or hers, would ever matter more than Charlie.
"Yeah, I always wanted them … someday. And then 'someday' became 'after med school'. Which turned into 'maybe after my residency, since interns don't own their own lives at all', which melded into 'after I get set up in my practice' and 'once I meet the right woman'. And well, you get the picture," Edward said softly with a shrug.
Bella sat silently, becoming more fascinated by the man beside her in just the short time they'd been sitting together that afternoon than in the entire two weeks he'd been coming into her shop. And that, in itself, was mindboggling. She honestly thought she would have difficulty getting him to open up with as shy as he'd seemed every time they'd spoken, especially after the shock of learning about Charlie.
Yet, if anything, he seemed more at ease after being informed of her situation than before. That, and revealing his age. But she had always been a very firm believer in the old "age is just a number" adage, especially following her father's marriage to a much younger woman. Katie had been just a few years older than Bella herself at the time, but she couldn't remember a time when she'd ever seen her father happier, and then came little Charlie—the part of the puzzle they'd never known they were missing.
"I think we might have a problem, Bella," Edward said suddenly, breaking Bella from her thoughts and she focused on him again, watching as he smiled and pointed toward the grass.
She looked in the direction of his gesture to find Charlie sound asleep against Max, while the dog rested his chin on his massive paws. "Oh my."
Edward chuckled and leaned forward on his knees. "I think they've found a buddy in each other."
"Yeah, it definitely seems that way. Why is that a problem?" Bella asked softly as her eyes lowered to the bag of food, pulling out two cookies and offering one to him. Once again, he politely declined and she sighed. "Okay, I swear, I'm not poisoning them, or I wouldn't give them to Max."
"I'm sure you aren't, Bella. I'm not insulting your cooking or anything," Edward replied with an apologetic smile. "I just really am on a special diet."
"You're not a health nut, are you?" Bella inquired with a creased brow.
Edward barked out a laugh, causing Max to slowly lift his head while not disturbing the sleeping child. The amusement faded and he leaned back against the bench again, sighing without meeting her gaze. "Not exactly. I'm just very careful about what I eat. I'm a diabetic, and my levels have been a little more off than I feel comfortable with for the last few days."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Bella replied, shoving the cookies back into the bag.
"Why are you sorry? I've been one since I was a kid. That's not your fault," Edward said, finally looking back over to Bella to find her blushing.
"I shouldn't have just assumed things like that," Bella replied with her eyes still lowered.
"It's fine, Bella. How were you supposed to know? It's not like I put something like that on public broadcast," he said gently and then turned his attention back to the grass. "And to answer your previous question, I think this means we might have to be seeing more of each other."
Bella looked up again to see Charlie nuzzling his cheek more into the dog's side, his body relaxing as soon as he was comfortable. "And again I ask, why is that a problem?"
Edward's eyes met her nervous, questioning ones, getting lost in their soft brown depths. "It's not … for me. I really like you, Bella. As good as those sugar-free jellies of yours are, I honestly didn't need the six jars I have sitting in my fridge right now, still unopened. Or the two bars of soap, or anything else I've purchased in the last two weeks. I came to see you."
It was Edward's turn to blush and Bella's breath became hitched in her throat as he spoke and his eyes lowered in obvious embarrassment at his revelation. It was everything she had hoped for, but never allowed herself to believe. "Why didn't you ever say anything?"
Edward shrugged and his lips pursed as if in deep thought. "I guess I was nervous, which really isn't like me at all. You're just so young and beautiful, I thought it was foolish to think that you'd ever see anything more than a nearly forty-year-old bachelor with a dog. When you could easily have any man you wanted. And Max adored you so much, and I've always felt that dogs were a better judge of character than most people. And I thought when you turned me down yesterday that maybe you already had someone."
Bella laughed without the intention to, shaking her head when his eyes rose to hers. "I'm sorry, I'm not laughing at you. I just haven't really thought much along the line of dating and relationships in a long time. Probably since high school. And Charlie has kept me plenty busy for the last years, so they've been even further from my mind."
"Of course. I wasn't meaning to insinuate anything," Edward replied, attempting to keep his voice level and retain a shred of his dignity. He was surprised when her hand came to rest over his, wrapping her slender fingers around it.
"But that doesn't mean I'm not open to the idea," Bella added softly, turning a little on the bench to face him more fully. "It isn't like I wasn't just as happy to see you walking through that door every day, and not just my buddy over there. I've actually wondered on more than one occasion why there wasn't a wedding ring on that hand over there, because I couldn't find a single thing I didn't like about you. And I still can't."
"And you were worried what I would think about Charlie?" Edward asked, and Bella lowered her eyes and nodded. His gaze fell as well to their joined and gave her fingers a gentle squeeze. "To be honest, I was a little surprised when you walked up with him today, but it didn't change my opinion of you at all. I think it's an amazing thing you're doing for him. He seems like a very happy little boy, even with the circumstances, and that speaks volumes of the woman you are. And obviously, I like kids, given my chosen profession."
"Not all pediatricians actually like kids. Some just happen to be good at what they do," Bella replied softly as her thumb began running in a distracted path along his hand. "And I didn't know what you did for a living until you just told me."
"That's true, on both counts. But I can assure you that I actually do. Children were actually the entire reason I chose this career path in the first place. Growing up with diabetes myself, I wanted to help kids that were like me, and even those who weren't. And they are far better patients than a majority of adults, in general," Edward answered with a smile.
Bella gazed into his gentle eyes, seeing the absolute sincerity within them and she felt her heart melting a little more. There was such a depth to him that she never even imagined, beyond his handsome face and the obvious affection he had for his four-legged friend. He was exactly the kind of man she would have created for herself if she could, and the thought actually scared her a bit. He seemed a little too perfect and she could envision herself falling hard for him very easily and becoming very attached. And what if Charlie did as well, and things didn't work out? Would either of them sustain well through a loss like that? She drew in a deep breath and swallowed hard. "So, what are we going to do?"
Edward watched her eyes shift back and forth between his with her question and then waiting for his answer. "I know you have to be careful, for Charlie's sake as well as yours. And we only met two weeks ago, but I would really like to continue getting to know you and see where this goes. If you want to involve Charlie in that, I'm definitely okay with it. But I also understand if you don't, until we have a better idea of where we're headed."
Bella nodded, squeezing his hand gently. "I think that would be best. Maybe we can meet here once or twice a week to talk. My roommate, Angela, wouldn't mind watching him for a few hours. And if I bring him along to see Max, we'll just limit things like this."
Edward smiled in understanding as she lifted their linked hands between them before slowly releasing her hold on him. "And if you don't bring him?"
"Then, I have no objections. It actually felt kind of nice," Bella replied with a soft, shy giggle.
"Bella?" Charlie's voice pierced through the moment and they both looked to the little boy, rubbing his eye with his fist, having just woken up. "Can we get a dog like Max?"
Bella chuckled, lifting him onto her lap and rested his head on her shoulder. "Probably not right now. We don't have much room for one, sweetheart."
Charlie sighed heavily and leaned into her more, his eyes moving to the man beside her. "Mr. Edward?"
Edward smiled at the soft voice of the little boy. "Just Edward, buddy. And what is it?"
Charlie bit his lip nervously as Edward had noticed Bella do on more than one occasion, and he looked remarkably like his sister in that moment, with the exception of his hazel eyes. "Can Max come and play again soon? I wanna throw a ball for him and I've got some at my house."
Edward's eyes met Bella's for a moment until they both looked back to Charlie and she hugged him before replying, "I think that can be arranged. Maybe this weekend sometime?"
Edward knew the question in her tone was directed toward him, so he nodded, but still kept his eyes on Charlie. "I believe Max would really like that. He loves playing fetch, and we're free Saturday afternoon, if that's good for you."
Bella laughed as Charlie nodded as enthusiastically as she could manage. "Saturday afternoon, then."
"And I'll bring lunch next time," Edward added with a smile.
Just as they'd planned, they all met at the park that Saturday for a picnic lunch, and Edward and Bella watched on while Charlie and Max ran around for hours playing with the baseball the little boy had brought with him. The conversation between them was light but never lulled, until the sun began lowering in the sky, and Bella announced to a very disappointed Charlie that it was time to go home.
She noticed the subtle, mirrored response from Edward as she stood from the blanket they'd been sitting on, and softly whispered that she'd see him soon.
Yet, Bella found herself disappointed when Monday arrived, after anxiously awaiting it all day Sunday when the store was closed, when five o'clock came and passed with no sign of Edward. She couldn't understand why he hadn't come. Did he have a busy day at work? Or had Saturday made him realize exactly what her life entailed? She was quiet all through dinner, even under Angela's questioning eyes, and went to bed immediately after getting Charlie settled for the night.
Edward had seemed so honest and compassionate, and she'd really felt as if she could trust him. That he wouldn't be one of those men that scared off so quickly. She wiped her eyes quickly and curled into her blankets, determined to just let it go and move forward as she had before anything transpired between them.
When the bell above the door rang at two forty-five exactly the following afternoon, she was actually surprised to find Edward standing there … alone. Fear shot through her heart with Max's absence, dreading the worst from the lack of his visit the day before and the fact that Edward's head was lowered.
"Oh my God, Edward. Is Max okay?" Bella asked worriedly as she made her way over to him.
Edward removed his sunglasses and looked at her, and she noticed a very odd look in his eyes. They weren't red-rimmed or even sad, but nervous. "Oh yeah, Max is fine, just still a bit worn out from Saturday. I don't think he's played that hard in a very long time. Charlie certainly is an energetic little guy, and Max has been sleeping for the better part of the last two days."
Bella's hand rose to her chest and she breathed out a sigh of relief. Max had been all Charlie had talked about since Saturday, and she knew he'd be crushed if anything had happened to him. But more than that, she also knew that Edward would be completely devastated. It was very clear how much he loved that dog. "So, is that why you didn't come yesterday?"
Edward shifted nervously from foot to foot, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Yeah, about that. I was going to call, but then I realized that I didn't have your number. And you're not listed, and with as many times as I've come in here, I've never noticed the name of your store before. I'm sorry, it was a pretty idiotic thing of me."
"Not at all. I didn't remember to give it to you, either," Bella replied, her eyes lowered with that realization. "I thought maybe you were sick of me already."
Edward's gaze shot up and he quickly shook his head. "Oh God, no, Bella. Not in the slightest. Damn, now I feel like a real idiot. I had an amazing time with you and Charlie this weekend. And I was kinda hoping to see you again tonight."
Bella smiled and approached his rigid form, experimentally lifting her hand to rest on the front of his shirt. The hard muscles beneath tensed and then relaxed again under her touch, his eyes holding hers. "I'd really like that, Edward. But on one condition."
"What's that?" Edward asked curiously.
"You give me your number, and your last name," Bella replied with a smirk.
Edward quickly smiled and reached into his back pocket for his wallet, pulling out one of his business cards. "Trust me, I'm not good with technology and you'd never be able to read my handwriting. I picked the right career path for my horrible penmanship as well."
Bella took it and read over the crisp print. "Dr. Edward Cullen."
"I'll be needing yours, too. Just your number, though, Miss Swan."
"Let me see your phone. I don't even have the excuse of being a physician for my chicken scratch," Bella laughed and took his phone, punching her number into it.
When she handed it back to him, he slid it back into his pocket. "Until tonight, then?"
"Yeah, I should be done here by five-thirty. Same bench?" she replied, her eyes questioning.
"I'll be waiting," Edward said with a nod and slid his sunglasses back on before turning and walking out the door.
Bella was in the middle of a shrieking, 'happy dance' when the bell rang again, and she spun around to find Angela standing there with a raised eyebrow. She could feel her entire body heating under her friend's scrutiny and cleared her throat, attempting to compose herself. "Hey, Angela. What's up? You're early."
Angela's arms folded over her chest with Bella's hurried statement, trying hard not to laugh at her frazzled state. "I just realized that I've been without my wallet all day. So, that was him, huh?"
"What was who?" Bella replied innocently, slipping the business card she still held between her fingers into the back pocket of her jeans.
"Oh, don't play coy with me. That incredible hunk of absolute yum was the mysterious Edward, wasn't it?" Angela asked pointedly and Bella sighed with a brief nod. "Nice. Guess some things really do improve with age."
Bella covered her face to hide the furious blush that was spreading over her cheeks and nose, but managed a nod. "Yes, that was Edward."
"Well, damn, Bella. Guess I really should have just left you to your own devices. You sure know how to pick them," Angela said, looking over her shoulder to glance out the front window, even though Edward was long gone.
"Anyway," Bella sighed abruptly, lowering her hands and shifting her weight from foot to foot. "Would you be okay with watching Charlie for a few hours this evening? I have a sotra date with Edward tonight."
"You bet. Whatever a 'sorta date' means," Angela replied with a teasing smirk. "You definitely deserve this, Bella. I haven't seen you smile like this in so long, I was beginning to think it was permanently gone."
Bella brought her fingers to her mouth, running them along her lips and feeling the definitive curling at the corners. She laughed softly in embarrassment and shrugged. "I can't explain it. He makes me so happy when he's around, or when I even think of him, it's scary."
Angela placed her hands on Bella's shoulders, bringing her attention to her and softening her smile. "Don't be scared. This is a good thing. Now, I'm going to grab my wallet and get my ass out of here. I don't want you thinking or worrying about me or Charlie tonight, just concentrate on having a good time tonight, okay?"
Bella took a deep breath and released it slowly with a nod of her head. "Okay."
Yet, even after Angela left, Bella couldn't stop her hands from shaking. She couldn't remember ever being as nervous as she was at that moment. Dating had never been her strong suit, even in high school, but it also hadn't bothered her much then, either. However, Edward was older, so much more mature than she was. What if, once they were completely alone, without even Max as a distraction, she came off awkward and way too damn young? They were fears she couldn't quell and made her feel hesitant about becoming too attached to him—which, from the emotions and thoughts raging through her all morning, she knew it might just be too late already.
Once again, Edward sat on the bench in the park, his gaze flickering nervously over his surrounding and waiting for any sign of Bella. He wondered if it would be one of those things that got better with time, that eventually, he wouldn't be so fearful that she wouldn't show up. Her relief when he'd explained where he'd been the day before was palpable, and she seemed genuinely happy upon his request to see her again that night. Her responding smile was so beautiful, it almost hurt to look at. He could only hope that he would continue to evoke that reaction from her for a very long time to come.
Don't get too far ahead of yourself, Cullen. It's only been a few weeks, you know, his inner voice reminded him, but he didn't have the chance to think too long on it as he spotted her coming down the path toward him. She had her hair pulled back from her face in a haphazard ponytail, and he thought at that moment that he really preferred it that way, as opposed to down around her shoulders. Not only could she not hide behind it, but it also gave him an amazing view of her face and eyes.
Edward stood to greet her as she came closer, and found himself unsure of how to do so. Should he start with a simple hi? A hug? A kiss on the cheek? The hand? What was the protocol for situations like that?
"Hi," he finally decided upon, shoving his hands into his pockets.
"Hi. Sorry I'm late. I didn't get out of the store as quickly as I was planning on, and I had a Charlie to dodge," Bella replied with a shy giggle, motioning with her hand to tuck her hair behind her ear, except the stands weren't there.
Edward looked at his watch to find that it was 5:35, and couldn't help but laugh. "Bella, five minutes isn't really considered 'late', you know."
"I'm extremely adamant about punctuality. One more thing you should know about me, I suppose," she said with a raised eyebrow and then lowered herself to sit on the bench.
"Dually noted," Edward replied, smiling as he sat beside her and bought his hands to fold in his lap.
"So, any little quirks I should know about?" Bella prodded, trying to find something—anything—to break the ice with him. She hadn't struggled so much with opening up conversation with him on the Saturday before, but being completely alone with him outside the store was something new.
"Um, let me think," Edward began, rubbing his chin with his fingertips. "Well, along those same lines, every clock in my house is twenty minutes faster than the actual time. But I still hit the snooze button at least four times every morning before I actually get up. Drives Max insane."
Bella laughed and it sent a shiver through him. It was such a light, soothing sound, and it caused her nose to wrinkle at the bridge, which he found incredibly endearing. "Yes, I can see how it might."
They both stared down at their laps, seemingly struggling with finding the next topic of conversation, and he had to admit that it worried him a little. He sighed and chuckled nervously, finally turning his eyes to hers. "Why is this so hard?"
"I don't know. I was just thinking the same thing. I mean, we talk pretty much every day," she replied, folding her fingers together and clearing her throat. "I guess not about things that really matter, though, right?"
"Well, maybe that's where we should start, then," Edward said and her eyes met his at last.
Bella swallowed hard as she gazed at him and then turned sideways, folding her leg beneath the other. "Okay, here's the thing. I really like you, too, Edward. It's been a long time since I even wanted to be attracted to anyone. And now with Charlie to consider as well, I'm really trying not to feel guilty for thinking about myself, and what I want and need. I know it's a ridiculous thing to think, but I can't help it."
"It's not ridiculous at all, Bella. It's thinking like a parent, regardless of who actually gave birth to Charlie, and it's completely understandable," Edward replied, shaking his head in an attempt to reassure her, but also felt the tightening in his chest with the fear that her mind had changed about them. "If you're not ready for something like this, it's okay."
"No, I'm not saying that. Just wondering exactly what 'this' is?" Bella answered softly with her eyes lowered again. "I mean, do you want to date, or something a little more casual than that. It's all a lot to consider. And not to be blunt or anything, but I really can't do a booty call kind of thing."
Edward began to cough uncontrollably, masking the shock and awkwardness her statement caused in him. With a hand on his chest, he drew in a slow breath to calm himself and then looked back to her. "Well, seeing as I'm not the 'booty call' type of guy, as you say. I was thinking more along the lines of going on a few dates, even if they consist of nothing more than sitting right here on this bench and talking, getting to know each other. I apologize if I led you to believe anything along those other lines."
"No, you didn't. I just needed to know if we were on the same page, you know?" Bella said softly with a shrug of one shoulder.
Edward's head bobbed slowly with a nod, and then rested the back of his hand on his thigh, his palm up, as he gazed at her again. "I think we are."
Bella's smile gradually increased and took her lip between her teeth to keep from grinning like an idiot as she rested her hand atop his and carefully entwined their fingers. His breath seemed to release with the gesture and she held his eyes as she gave his hand a gentle squeeze. "I think we are, too."
Never looking away from each other, their faces drew slowly together until their lips testingly brushed the other's—the first of many more to come.