Thank you everyone for the reviews and recent adds. Thank you to my fucktabulous beta, Stratan, and to my prereaders stephk0525, Nikita2009, claireoth, twilover76, and Andrea.
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Also, Dear Maggie was nominated for Best Rec'd on Fanfiction Fridays 2012 at Rob Attack along with SO many other good ones. Thank you for that one as well!
I tossed and turned all night long. I couldn't seem to shut my mind off, stop thinking of what Edward had admitted to me earlier.
Ella was really Rosalie's daughter.
It all was a mess. But it also made sense. Every strange look he'd had, the way he was so closed off when it came to certain things about Ella.
I wondered if I should want to be a part of it, get involved further in it. Because this little girl didn't have one woman who lived close enough to her to give her what I figured a child would eventually want and need. A female influence, someone to talk boys and shaving and boobs.
"Jesus, I should've guessed right then," I muttered to myself, thinking of the night Ella rambled about getting boobs.
But I did want to be a part of it. Regardless of logic, my heart was too invested to turn back now.
Giving up on sleep, I threw off the covers in frustration and went to brew a pot of coffee. It was just light outside when I went to sit on the back deck and watch the sun come up. I sipped. Inhaled the sweet, summer air. Listened to birds chirp in the trees.
The door opened behind me; Edward's boots made a hollow sound as he came near.
"What are ya doin' up so early?"
I glanced up at him from my perch on the steps. "Couldn't sleep."
He looked stricken for a moment, and then plopped down beside me.
"It's a lot to get into," I murmured. Despite my doubts, the recent panic attack, my voice was sure. Steady.
I felt a smile start on my lips. I'd come so far in such a short amount of time; I couldn't help but be proud of that, despite the knowledge that I still had a long way to go.
And I had Edward to thank for it. Even if he had a habit of denying it.
"Iz, I don't want ya to-" He huffed and looked at me - truly looked at me - and then realized I really wasn't running off scared. I was here, with him, ready to move onto whatever life held for me now.
"Sweetheart," he began, only to stop himself and bring me to him. Kiss me so long and hard, my fingers curled into the skin of his forearms just so I didn't lose myself in it, him.
"This doesn't scare me anymore," I breathed against his lips. I slowly opened my eyes so he could see the honesty of that. "You two fill the emptiness I've felt for over a year. I don't..."
I trailed off and jerked a shoulder up.
"What?" he breathed back.
So close, right there... bubbled up to reach the tip of my tongue.
I love you, I thought, and then said something more elaborate.
Though not nearly as important.
"I don't know that I would be any better without you. I kept people out thinking I was protecting myself, but really, all that was doing was hurting myself more. Because I had nothing good to focus on. You're the good, Edward. You and Ella both. With you, I have hope that maybe one day soon I'll be able to walk into a graveyard without panicking or drive by a funeral home without wanting to cry."
"Because time heals all wounds," I quoted. "Right?"
"Well... without soundin' kinda corny or cliche, yeah."
"See, I don't know that it does. I think you have to want to heal. You have to have a reason to. And I didn't have a reason to until now."
"This is too deep for six in the mornin', sug," he joked.
I passed off my mug of coffee off to him with a grin. "Drink up, pansy."
He chuckled and took it, his fingers brushing over mine as he did. "I really thought I was gonna lose ya with this."
"Why, because you waited so long to tell me?"
"Nah." He shook his head. "I shouldn't have done it, mind ya, but I've always just thought ya kinda skittish, Iz. Like maybe the smallest thing would set ya off to somewhere else. I don't give ya enough credit. You might've run from Seattle, but ya didn't run from life. You just lived it in a different place."
"That's not totally true," I admitted, and it was surprisingly cathartic to talk to him like this instead of shutting it off or merely giving just enough to scratch the surface of all I felt. "I established a routine when I got here. I made sure I had something to keep me occupied at almost every waking hour. It kept my thoughts from getting away from me, so I was able to... compartmentalize everything, I guess you could say. I'm just now starting to willingly feel it all again."
"You're stronger than ya know, Iz," he argued. "I don't know that I could have gotten through it."
"You've been through it."
"Not all at once," he answered roughly. "Mine was spread out over time. Still is."
"But your grandmother is everything to you."
"She was, yeah," he said lowly. "But things change. She's still important; don't get me wrong. But I have Ella now. And you."
He flashed a dimpled smile at me. "I love the two of ya. Isn't that what you were just sayin' with all that 'reason to heal' stuff?"
I went to speak, but then just grinned back at him and nodded.
He was absolutely right.
"So what are your expectations?" he asked.
"Well, now that ya know the situation, what'd ya want from us?"
"I think I should be asking you that," I countered. "You're the single parent."
"I'm not after a mother for her, if that's what you're gettin' at."
"No, but that brings up an important subject."
"It does," he conceded. "Do ya wanna be a mama someday, Iz?"
"I think I might," I replied, understanding that the question meant more than just the biological function of procreation to him. "I think I might rather be chosen to be one, though."
"Chosen, huh?" he repeated with a twitch of mouth.
"Yeah. It would mean more if she chose me than if we made the decision for her."
"You're sayin' you'll be around that long?"
"I'm saying that as of now, I have no plans to be anywhere else."
He sat the mug down and put his hands on me. "You know, I chose ya, Bella. I did the second I saw ya."
"That sounded awfully close to a marriage proposal, Edward," I responded thickly, and let my eyes wander around the yard nervously.
With a laugh, he pressed a kiss to my nose. He stayed there like that, so our foreheads were together, eyes dancing with amusement. "Settle down, Iz. You'll know for sure when I propose."
"There was no 'if' in that sentence. I need an if. We have to be realistic about this."
"I'm an eternal optimist. I believe I met ya when I did because I was supposed to chase ya down and make ya see that you were meant for somethin' outside of Seattle. You were meant for me."
God, how I longed to have some of his confidence.
But I didn't. Not anymore. Not after everything that I went through last year.
There was no use pretending I did.
"Edward," I said hesitantly, "if there's one thing I've learned, it's that life changes drastically when you least expect it. We don't know how we'll feel a year from now."
"Fine," he corrected, rolling his eyes at me as he pulled away. "You'll know if I do."
There was a commotion at the front door, a banging sound as something heavy was dropped on the floor. Alice's low curse managed to reach my ears, and I put down my book and glanced at Edward's grandmother.
"What has that girl got up her sleeve now?" she asked in exasperation.
I pressed my lips together so I didn't laugh at the expression on her face. "I'll go see."
I made my way out of the Masens' parlor and into the foyer, my eyes widening when I saw the sheer amount of explosive materials Alice had brought home.
"Miss Izzy-bella!" Ella squealed the second she spotted me. "We got fireworks!"
I laughed softly and crouched down to examine the fireworks more closely. "Ladybugs, huh? Bet I know who picked those out."
"Me! And look! We got sparklers! Jasper says I can hold them up like this," she held out her arm in demonstration, "and write my name in the sky."
"You don't know how to spell your name."
"Yes, I do."
"Oh, yeah?" I challenged with a grin. "How?"
"E-L-L-A," she recited proudly.
I pretended to be astonished. "Who taught you that?"
She giggled and rolled her eyes. "Miss Izzy, Daddy taught me."
The door was opened further, hitting me on the hip and bouncing back at the man coming through the door.
He looked at me, tightened his hold on the box in his hands, and gave me a sheepish smile.
"Damn it, Edward, if I'd a known your girlfriend was gonna be here, I'd a dressed better."
My eyes fell to the dirty, white undershirt he had on.
"What for?" I heard Edward yell back. "Not like you need to impress her; you've practically got a wife already."
"Yeah, but I don't want her thinkin' I'm some kinda white trash redneck, either."
Edward simply laughed in reply.
I stood up and moved away from the door, my hip smarting with each step I took. "I take it you're Jasper."
"Ah..." He searched for a place to set down the box, and then wiped his hands on his jeans. "Yeah. Nice to finally meet ya."
He held out his hand and smiled. He was cute. Shy. He ran his other hand through his thick, curly blond hair and gave me a quick once over as we shook. "Alice has talked about ya nonstop. Edward, too."
"Don't start with that," Edward muttered as he came inside.
But the moment he glanced my way, he winked.
I tried not to smile.
Jasper chuckled and backed away. "I really am sorry about the door."
"It's okay. I should've known better than to be behind it in this house."
"And what, exactly, is that supposed to mean, sug?" Edward asked teasingly.
"You all are constantly coming and going," I answered, and then took a good look at him. He was dirty and greasy, just like Jasper. "What have you been up to?"
"Gettin' that old shack cleaned out," he responded. "I've got a team of guys comin' up to fix it for me."
"What are you doing with it?"
"Just restorin' it. I think I wanna... I don't know. I'll get the permits to put in a water line, but I think we'll wind up stayin' here."
"In the house?"
He stared off behind me, toward the parlor where Ella had gone to visit with Annabeth. "Yeah."
"What changed your mind?"
"I was bein' selfish to want to go," he said with a shrug. "I've only got a certain amount of time with her left. Seems stupid to waste it on house huntin' and movin'."
I stood up on my toes to kiss him. He smelled like motor oil, wood, and dust. I went to speak, and suddenly sneezed into his chest.
He laughed. "Am I that bad?"
"You're all dusty." My eyes landed on a cobweb stuck to his shoulder.
"I'm headin' up to shower now. Throw some stuff in a bag for tomorrow. Care to join me?" he murmured.
"No... I'm supposed to help grill. You people eat a ridiculous amount of food."
More laughter. "Come on, baby. Just sneak away with me for a minute."
"Not that I'm complaining, but you've never taken just a minute."
"But if we don't do it now, we won't have a chance until we get to the house." He suddenly stopped, lowered his hands to my waist. He clutched onto the fabric of my shirt and pressed up against me. "Never mind. The thought of the next time I fuck ya bein' in my bed is too good to pass up."
I didn't know what to say back to that.
His thumbs drifted up under my shirt, running over my stomach. Back and forth. Back and forth. His movements were almost hypnotic, causing goosebumps to break out all over my skin.
He stared down at me when I shivered.
"Want um..." I cleared my throat. "Want what?"
"For me to get ya in that bed and take ya slow... until you're beggin' me to put ya out of your misery and comin' so goddamned hard when I do..." He drew in a shuddering breath, bent forward, and dragged his lips over my jaw. In my ear, he whispered, "And then when I'm done with that, I'm gonna fuck ya in my shower. From behind. Fast and hard so ya scream my name."
"You think she'll be there when I do? She's got a playdate with my assistant's kids tomorrow night."
"Yeah," he answered roughly. "Really. I wanna do it right. I've never had a girl in my house like this."
"How is that...?"
"Possible?" he finished, and then shrugged. "No one meant enough before now."
Emotion surged through me, thick and heady, nearly sweeping me off my feet.
A throat cleared from the doorway.
"I can't hold her off forever," Jasper said wryly.
I laughed a little. "I'm on my way. Tell her she can start doing whatever it is she's dying to do."
"I like her already," he said to Edward just before he ducked back out of the room.
"I hate my family sometimes."
Edward flexed his hips into my stomach so that I could feel the effect of our conversation. "Uh, yeah. I think I do." He paused. "I might be a while."
I laughed and extricated myself out of his arms. "Come find me when you're done."
With a grunt, he shot up the stairs, leaving me alone in the foyer. I breathed in deeply, worked to hide the flush in my face, and then started through the kitchen doors.
"Ella!" Rosalie called out, motioning her from where the men of the family were getting ready to light the fireworks and over to where we sat. "Come 'ere!"
Ella dutifully obeyed, and raced over toward us. "What, Aunt Rosie?"
"Let me tie your shoe. It's come undone."
Ella glanced down at the little, pink shoes on her feet, and then jerked back when Rosalie bent down to retie the left one.
"Miss Izzy do it."
Rosalie opened her mouth once, and almost as if she had been rendered speechless, snapped it shut again.
My eyes flickered away from her guiltily, and with an uneasy smile in Ella's direction, I sat my camera down and tied the laces tight, checking the right side before letting her run off to be with her father.
"Thank you!" she shouted over her shoulder.
"Welcome," I mumbled.
Rosalie stood up and said, "I'm gonna grab me somethin' to drink. Y'all want anything?"
"I'll just come with you," Alice answered immediately. "I need to put on some more bug spray anyway."
The second the screen door shut behind them, I flopped back into the wicker chair and sighed.
"Edward told ya."
My head whipped around toward Mrs. Masen. "How did you know that?"
"That look on your face," she said softly. "He's got the same one half the time. I don't know what it is with you people and thinkin' ya got somethin' to be guilty for."
"She doesn't know I know."
She pursed her lips, green eyes focusing on mine. "Hmm. He didn't talk to her first?"
"He tell ya everything?"
"Mama," Esme hissed.
"It's okay," I said to Esme. "And yeah. He did."
"Good. You need to know about Tanya."
"Heard she was comin' home in a few weeks' time. She never comes home."
"Just don't want that girl takin' ya by surprise, is all."
"I'm sure I'll be fine."
A thick laugh rose out of her. "I'm sure ya will."
I was quiet for a moment, watching Edward laugh at something his uncle said.
"Think I should tell him?"
"It's up to you," Mrs. Masen replied. "That girl's a parasite. Used to be able to get under his skin like no one else. I don't think she can much anymore."
I thought about that, and then murmured, "I'm still going to warn him. Seems stupid to keep it from him."
She smiled approvingly at me. "All right."
I rushed out toward them, catching Edward's eye the second I stepped away from the bricked patio in the backyard. He grinned, sat some kind of rocket launcher aside, and went to meet me.
"Hi. Mind if I hang out with you guys for a while?"
He smirked. "Missed me, did ya?"
"I..." I chewed on my lip, debating.
"Iz." No nonsense now. "What's goin' on?"
"I'm kind of uncomfortable around Rosalie."
He scowled. "Because of what I told ya?"
"No... I mean, yeah, that's part of it. But Rosalie called Ella over to tie her shoe, and instead of letting her, she wanted me to do it."
"She's four," he said, like it explained everything.
"I know, but it's weird."
He chuckled and took a step closer. "I'm sorry."
"For tellin' ya and makin' ya feel weird."
"I don't feel weird about the situation. Just that she's unaware of me knowing," I explained.
"Ah. Well," he searched the yard for something, and then let his eyes travel back to me. "How 'bout we talk her when we get back from Jacksonville? It'll gimme a little more time to figure out what to say."
I nodded. "Okay."
A kiss to my nose now. "Okay. Wanna light the first firework?"
"Come on," he laughed. "Don't be a baby."
I narrowed my eyes at him.
"El's ladybugs are up first."
"Well, in that case..."
"Oh, no. They've got more bite than ya think. Gotta light it and toss it away before it can get ya. They're jumpy fuckers."
I giggled. "Seriously? You think I can't handle a little ladybug?"
"Just you wait."
He dug a ladybug out of the package and handed it to me, following it up with a lighter and three giant steps back.
"Now, if ya don't let it go in time, I don't wanna hear a word about it. I tried to warn ya."
"Fine. I won't. All my words will be directed to the doctor in the family," I retorted.
Carlisle snorted with laughter.
I held the flame of the lighter to the fuse until it sparked, and then threw it out to the flat slab of concrete they'd hefted out into the field. It jumped up in the sky and spun, and I grinned when I heard Ella's squeal of delight come from the house.
I tore my eyes away from it to glance over at Edward. "Your ex is coming to town in a couple of weeks."
His eyebrow slowly rose.
"Your grandmother said there's been a lot of gossip."
"Course there has. She hasn't been here in ten years." He puffed out a breath and dragged his hands through his hair. "I might've had somethin' to do with it."
"What do you mean?"
"When I saw her... I made a dig about never comin' home to see her mama. I also mentioned you. Not you specifically, but the general comment that there was someone."
I nodded in understanding.
"She'll be comin' by Sam's to visit. Like everyone who moves away does."
"You good with that?"
Now I was the one to arch my brow. "Any reason why I shouldn't be?"
He made a disgusted face. "Bella."
An abrupt, protective feeling swept through me. "I don't want her anywhere near Ella," I said firmly.
He gazed at me for a moment. "Neither do I. I don't trust her not to say somethin' just to piss me off."
"Great. So she's a psycho ex-girlfriend," I said dryly.
That got a laugh. "I have no idea. I did my best to avoid her till now."
A loud boom went off behind us; a burst of color flashed overhead.
"Ya pack anythin' yet?"
"No. I was going to in the morning."
"You put it off any longer and I'm gonna think ya don't wanna go."
I rolled my eyes. "I'm a girl. There's a lot of stuff I use in the morning. It's easier to just pack it all up when I'm done with it."
"Uh-huh," he joked. "Pack any clothes yet?"
I glanced away. "No."
He grabbed my shirt and playfully yanked me over to him. "What for?"
"It's a big step."
"You're kiddin'," he answered flatly.
"No. I don't know... I don't know how to do this. What you're expecting."
He sighed. "Look, I don't know much either. I don't know if you'll like it there or not and what we do once... But whatever it is, however it works, I want it. Because I'll always want you. Okay?"
Just like that, he eased my fears.
"Higher, Miss Izzy!"
"Uh... No," I replied, and pushed Ella again. "I'm not really comfortable with that."
She twisted around to face me, blonde hair whipping into her face.
"Turn around before you fall!"
Edward snickered beside me.
I glared over at him. "It's not funny. She could break her arm or something."
"She's not gonna break her arm," he replied calmly. "She's got a death grip on those chains."
I gazed back over to where Ella swung in front of us and noticed her knuckles were white from how tight she was holding on.
I gave her a gentle push forward.
"Maybe we should stop."
"Sure. If ya wanna deal with a tantrum."
"I can't do this all day."
"She'll tire out," he promised.
He grinned. "Then I'll drag her off the playground myself. I wanna take ya out on the beach before it gets dark."
My heart fluttered frantically behind my ribs. Edward took one look at me and put his arm around my waist.
I shook my head once. "No. Everything's... Well, it's beautiful here."
Inland, it reminded me of South Carolina. Lush and green. Toward the shore, the vegetation thinned and palm trees lined the streets. Sand found its way onto the sidewalk, into my shoes.
And then there was the glimpse of ocean, the sound of it rushing the shore.
I closed my eyes and swore I could still hear it, taste it in the air.
"So you like it here?"
My eyes snapped open and shot to his. He seemed so uncertain all of a sudden, so much like me.
"So far, yeah," I answered with a smile, hoping to relax him a little. "But I have yet to see your house."
He stepped back; his hand came up to mess with his hair, and he gave me a smile. "Sorry 'bout that. She loves this place."
I waved the apology away. "It's fine. She missed her home."
"Yeah," he said, and the way his voice sounded had me reaching out for him again.
"Just... stressed out," he said with a shrug. "I guess that's expected with what all's been goin' on."
I didn't answer. I wasn't sure I could. I might've understood, but anything I thought to say suddenly felt... inadequate.
My hand dropped to his, and I squeezed as I stared up at him. The sun was bright overhead, and he smiled at me, leaned down to kiss me-
"Daddy!" Ella shouted.
He jerked away from me. "What, bug?"
"You not s'pposed to kiss Miss Izzy right now."
"Why not?" he asked with a laugh.
"Cause she's s'pposed to be pushin' me," she answered hotly.
"Hmm." He gave her a big push, sending her high into the air. "I think it's about time for us to get goin, anyway'."
"No," she whined.
"Yes. Especially with ya actin' like that."
"Ella Marie," he warned. "What happens when ya get an attitude?"
She looked like she was about to protest further, but - smart girl that she was - decided against it.
"I get in trouble," she finally answered morosely.
"Uh-huh." He suddenly grabbed the seat of the swing and held her still. "Listen, hon, I was thinkin' we could take Bella to the house and show her our beach soon."
Ella brightened considerably.
"Daddy, I show Miss Izzy my room and all my toys first?"
"If you behave."
"I will," she swore.
"I know ya will," Edward replied, smiling, and placed a kiss to her hair.
After a few more minutes of watching Ella play, we walked to a small diner Edward said he loved. The moment we walked inside, I could see how much he came here before he moved. People went out of their way to talk to him, much like they did back in Masen Valley, but it was different this time. It was welcomed. The tension seemed to visibly leave his shoulders. His expression relaxed, and I found myself staring at him, seeing him for the first time all over again.
The shock that came from the sight of it again, and how it left me breathless. Fuzzy. His eyes found mine from across the room, all things back in South Carolina momentarily forgotten -
I kept a hold of Ella's hand and couldn't help but wonder how he didn't break under all the pressure he was under back home.
Then something occurred to me, like ice water being dumped over my head.
He wouldn't stay. Not for me, for his sister. He'd leave the second he could, because this place was what made him happy. It made Ella happy. And something went through me, a feeling rising just to the surface - one I'd never experienced before. It made me realize something: she needed to come home. She needed to feel that stability, the security she had here with the life they had here together.
He'd done too much - given up too much - to ruin it now.
I gazed around the room, envisioned myself meeting him here for lunch, becoming a vital part of his life. Ella's.
It would be so easy.
And I wanted it. I wanted to let everything holding me back go; let it all scatter with the wind, dissolve in the waves that crashed against Edward's backyard.
All he had to do was ask.
Masen Valley had somehow become temporary. A refuge when I was at my lowest. A way to regain my strength, myself again..
He came back over to us then, picked Ella up, and led us to a booth along the windowed wall. I could see people milling around a shopping complex; businesses to our left. The sun was bright, wind kicked up.
"My office is that way," Edward said, pointing in the direction I was staring. "Close enough to walk when it's not too hot."
I spotted an Italian restaurant, and then glanced back at Edward questioningly. "Why here? Why not someplace a little..."
"The burgers taste like the ones back home. Not as good, but close."
"You bring your clients here?" I teased.
"Please," he scoffed, grinning back at me. "If I can get 'em to agree to a meetin' with me despite my accent, ya think I'm gonna mess it up by bringin' them to some mom and pop place?"
"They agree to meet you because you're talented, Edward."
"You're just sayin' that 'cause ya have to," he returned with a wink.
"Ah. The truth comes out."
I tossed a packet of sweetener at him. "Stop it."
His phone buzzed on the tabletop. He picked it up, read the text, and smirked.
"Marcus," he stated.
"Am I going to meet this infamous Marcus while I'm here?" I asked.
"He's a part of your life," I said in answer.
"Tomorrow," he said decidedly, eyes dark as they locked onto mine. "I'm keepin' ya to myself tonight."
I tried not to react to that - all those promises he'd made last night - and failed, shifting ever so slightly in the seat I shared with Ella. "What time is she getting picked up?"
He smirked again, wider, and pushed at my foot with his under the table. "Eager, are we?"
I merely shrugged in response.
"Seven," he said lowly, his eyes flickering to his daughter. She sat oblivious, lips pursed in concentration, tiny hand fisted around a purple crayon.
"Thank God," I sighed. "Okay, shutting up now."
"Yeah, well..." I nodded in Ella's direction.
He sat back, an intense look on his face. I felt like squirming under the weight of it, with the way it made my heart pound and my throat close up.
"You keep looking at me like that lately. Why?" I managed to ask.
He didn't answer immediately, almost like he couldn't. He brought his glass to his lips, took a sip of his Coke, and finally let his lips curve.
"Countin' my blessings is all, Iz."
Tears sprung to my eyes. "Edward..."
"Look, Miss Izzy! See what I made?"
I exhaled sharply, thankful for the interruption. "It's beautiful," I said emphatically.
"That's me and Daddy..." she pointed out. "And over here, that's you, Miss Izzy-bella."
"What am I doing all the way over there?"
"You're not really over there," she replied with a little giggle. "I didn't have room to draw you with me and Daddy, so ya have to pretend we're all together."
"Oh. I see." I shifted my eyes across the table, saw that same expression on Edward's face again.
"I can do that," I told her gently.
"Of course I will," I responded, acting slightly offended. "I'd be lonely all by myself."
She giggled again and picked up an orange crayon. "You're silly, Miss Izzy."
And then quietly, so that no one could hear...
"I really was, wasn't I."