Ohai... I'm still here. I know. Shocking. I'm just really, really busy lately and have time for nothing. Oh, and I'm a little on the blocked side. Things are so hectic, it's like it's clogged my brain.

On that note, I have about half of 18 done, but every time I look at it, nothing happens. Boo. Maybe one day, it'll click.

Thank you to everyone for your concern and PMs. Thanks for the reviews, and to my beta, Stratan, for finally having some time (he's just as busy) to go over this chapter.


Chapter 17

Edward

"Edward Masen, are you working?"

I pushed back away from the table and glanced toward the spot where Bella stood in my living room. She had slipped out of my bed and into my old Jaguars t-shirt, hair bunched up at the top of her head.

My heart skittered.

"Goin' over some stuff for this meetin'."

"At five in the morning?"

"It was either this or wake ya up to fuck ya again."

She laughed.

"You look as good as I thought ya would. Like that."

She sent me a questioning look, cocking her head to the side in confusion.

"In my livin' room," I elaborated. "After you've been sleepin' with me."

"Memorize it. Come tonight, I'll be in the guest room."

"No ya won't," I argued. "It'll just look like ya are for Ella's sake."

Her lips twitched in response, and she let her eyes roam the room. I'd redone every last square inch of it myself. Installed dark built-ins around the stone fireplace. Stripped and re-stained the exposed rafters in the ceiling to match. Ella had tried to help paint the walls and the trim. I'd laughed at her face when she'd fallen and went to catch herself, spilling white paint all over the drop cloth, splattering it on the slate colored wall. How, even at so little, she had known she'd messed up our work.

I'd fixed everything but the smeared handprint of my then two year old in the corner.

"Your house is gorgeous, you know."

"It's all right."

"You should really learn to take a compliment."

"I should, huh?"

"It'd make my life a lot easier."

I could've said a lot to that.

Instead, I motioned her over to me. "C'mere."

The second she padded close enough so that I could reach her, I yanked her into my lap. I waited for her to settle comfortably, and then leaned forward and put my head on her chest.

Her heart beat solidly into my ear.

"What's wrong?" she asked worriedly.

Her fingers threaded through my hair, and I pulled her tighter against me and sighed.

"Nothin'. Everythin'." I paused, looking for a way to explain it. Nothing was any different than it was the week before. Yet, now that I'd gotten back home - even if it was just for the week - I was finding out just how strained I'd been juggling everything back in South Carolina and here. Trying to stay afloat.

I was so, so tired.

"You don't need to explain," Bella whispered. "I get it."

"Do ya?"

"Yeah. And I'm sorry." She hesitated, and then, "Maybe after these meetings you should let Marcus take over for the week - and when I say 'take over', I mean let him do everything. Take a mini vacation with Ella and me."

"And what would we do?"

"Nothing," she answered, and I could feel her smile against the top of my head. "That's the point. We can sit out on that beach and watch Ella play. Take a swim. Just... be. I haven't done that in so long. It'd be good for us both."

"I..."

"You don't have to be everything for everyone all the time."

I puffed out a breath before I sat up to flash her a grin. "Stop actin' like ya know me."

She laughed a little. "I happen to like what I know, Edward."

I fought not to push at that, to keep things light between us. "Well, that's good," I murmured, "considerin' I've been runnin' around callin' ya my girlfriend for a couple months now."

She rolled her eyes, smile growing larger with the moment. "You never can let anything go."

"Call it a fault of mine."

"No, not a fault, baby," she said softly. "I love that you can make me laugh like you do."

I stared at her. Knew that it would be as close to "I love you" as I'd get right now.

So I took it. Held onto it.

"Say that again," I asked her thickly.

"What?" Brown eyes searching now. "Baby?"

"Yeah."

She tossed her head back and laughed. "I didn't even realize-"

"I know. That's what makes it so good."

I framed her face with my hands and pulled her down for a kiss. Mouths moving, tongues sweeping, and then, "Ya sore yet?"

"A little." She shifted, rolled her hips so that my blood rushed south. "I still want you, though."

I groaned and gently pushed her back so that her elbows were on the paperwork covering my dining room table and she could gaze down at me. I tucked a stray lock of her long, dark hair behind her ear, and then let my hands trail over her, up under the t-shirt, cupping her over pretty red lace as she rocked into my hand.

She whimpered when I moved her panties aside, carefully stroked her, fingers sliding and slipping when she was close.

"Have an attachment to these?" I murmured, pulling harder at her underwear.

"Yes, they're new." Her chest rose with a quick breath before she continued. "Didn't you notice?"

"I was busy makin' ya come, remember?"

"That'll teach me to buy anything special," she answered wryly.

I chuckled, twisted them between my fingers. "I'll buy ya another pair to replace 'em."

"Lingerie from my boyfriend? When did we become so average?"

"Shut up, you."

With a quick jerk of my wrist, they ripped at the seam on her hip. Her hand shot down, rubbed, and her brows knit.

"That's not as sexy as it is in movies."

"Hey, I'm just happy it worked."

Her laughter died when I plunged my fingers into her; she gasped and arched away from me when I dragged them back toward me slowly.

"God, you're beautiful. Know that?" I said on impulse. "Ya just..."

"Less talking," she sighed, and then shot me a grin.

"Even when you're bossy."

"I'm only bossy because you..." She groaned and flexed into my hand. "Right- Yes."

I yanked my pajama pants down my hips with my free hand, brought the other up so my thumb circled her clit. I lined us up and waited.

Her eyes fluttered closed. "Baby..."

That's what I was waiting to hear. Even though I knew she loved me, having her call me a term of endearment meant I was closer to hearing her say the words. I was in her heart, her mind... as well as her body now.

Whether she'd originally wanted me to or not.

The second I was all the way inside her, she moaned and let her head fall forward. I kept still, only rubbing at the apex of her sex, regardless of how much I wanted to let my hips drive up into her.

She was pacing this. Not me. Not this time.

"You're gonna need to do the work for a while, sweetheart. I don't wanna hurt ya."

"You're not going to hurt me," she replied.

Yet still, she moved carefully. Rocking back and forth, her lower lip between her teeth. It didn't take long for her body to tighten around me, release rhythmically.

I grunted against the way it made me want to come right along with her and picked her up and laid her on the table.

"We're going to ruin your paperwork."

A languid stroke in. A kiss to her mouth. "I'll print off more copies."

She giggled out a hum of agreement, closed her eyes, and let her hips move in time with my thrusts. Faster I chased, harsh breaths stuttering past my lips with each push into her. Sweat beaded on my forehead. Bella reached up, grabbed the edge of the table to keep still; my hands grabbed her waist, pulled while my hips pistoned.

She wrapped her legs around me, bringing me closer, deeper.

It stole the last of my control, and suddenly, all the tension that had built inside me peaked, exploded.

"Fuck," I groaned, shuddering as I came inside her.

My arms gave out and I collapsed, but I was still mindful to keep the majority of my weight off of her. I laid there and worked to calm down, a kiss to her temple, another to her mouth; one lightly pressed to the hollow of her collar bone.

"Goddamn, I swear my heart is gonna give out one of these times," I rumbled into her neck.

"Maybe you should hit the gym to keep up with me," she answered teasingly.

I laughed against her skin, kissed her one last time at the spot below her ear. "Now, don't you be startin' that with me."

I knew she was grinning beneath me.

I lifted my head, got confirmation of that gorgeous smile of hers. "Shower?"

Her brow arched.

"To bathe, Iz," I chuckled. "I couldn't do that again if I tried."

"No?"

"Ya wore me out."

"I think you wore yourself out there, Edward."

"Maybe," I acquiesced, and then summoned enough energy to get off of her. I held out my hand, smiled down at her. "Come on. I'll make ya breakfast after we get cleaned up."

She took my hand and let me pull her up off the table. Papers were crumpled and torn from where we'd been together.

Not that I cared.

"How about you let me make you breakfast?" she countered.

"Ya don't even know where anythin' is."

"Well," she replied, a coy smile creeping across her face. "I have to learn sometime."

xx

Freshly printed papers in hand, I came out of the office to hear Bella clattering around my kitchen. I furrowed my brow, listened for a moment.

The mixer was started.

I grinned in anticipation.

I put the paperwork down on the granite countertop and walked around the bar. Her back was to me as she dumped ingredients into the large, gray stand mixer that had done nothing but collect dust since I'd moved in.

"Why the hell do you have this?"

"Got bored one night. Decided to make..." I tried to remember. "Bread. The girl in the book used one of these with that hook attachment thing. So I got one."

She laughed and shook her head. "Why am I not surprised?"

"Ella and I ate pretty well until the novelty wore off." I paused, put my arms around her and rested my chin on her shoulder. "Why are you usin' it?"

"Muffins. The fruit we got last night at the store seemed a little too ripe to last the week. Figured I'd stretch it with this."

She put the eggs in, turned the speed up, and spun around to face me. Flour was streaked across her forehead and over her cheekbone. I lifted one hand and ran my thumb over the spots.

Every little thing she did these days seemed to win my heart all over again. But I supposed that was what love really was. The good in someone, things that made you warm, amplified. The bad, the peeves, ignored.

I'd never felt this way with Tanya. Growing up in such a small town, options were slim. So we'd simply been.

It gave me a little more perspective when it came to Bella, her guilt - how identical our lives started out. How, if things had happened for me as they did for her, I might have felt the same when it came to Tanya. Now that I knew the way love was meant to be.

I admired Bella's will to get past it even more.

"What time does Ella get home?"

"Eight thirty-ish. Charlotte's gonna drop her off before she heads into the office." Finally managing to rub the last bit of flour off her face, I dropped my hand back to her waist . "You don't mind me leavin' her here, do ya?"

"I told you I didn't."

"I know. It's been just me, though, and I've always had to make arrangements for her... I don't want..."

"Don't, what?" she asked.

"I don't want you to feel uncomfortable, I guess. I don't want ya thinkin' you're stuck if you ever want out."

She opened her mouth. Promptly shut it again. She stood there, stared long and hard at me, and then finally spoke.

"Just when I think I'm getting better at this, you say something to make me realize how much I mess it up all the time."

"What? How do ya mess it up?"

"By making you feel like you can't even ask me to watch her every now and then."

"Whoa, now. That's not where I was goin' with that, Iz."

"Then where were you going with it?"

"I don't know," I said, and then inwardly cursed for the ineptness of the answer. Something nagged at me, though. Like I really did know.

The niggling suddenly burst to life. I was just as scared as she was. Of losing someone else I'd loved at some point in my life. Our circumstances might've been different, but I was just as damaged by everything I'd been through - everyone I'd lost.

And I wasn't through yet.

I scrubbed my face with my hands, choked it down, and flashed a smile at her. "I'm sorry. That's honestly not what I meant. I know I can ask ya to watch her. I'm not used to havin' many people to rely on, is all."

Not actually a lie.

Mollified, she nodded.

"Want any help?"

"Nope."

"Izzy."

"Edward."

I gave her a look, and a laugh bubbled out of her. "Seriously. Go sit down. Let me figure out your kitchen by myself."

I relented, opting to take a seat on the corner bar stool and watch her open up cabinets until she found what she wanted - the muffin tin. She lined it with white paper cups, and then doubled back to turn off the mixer. She took the bowl and brought it to the island to fold the berries into the batter.

When she was finished, she scooped up some of the batter and went to pour it into the first paper cup. She paused. Cleared her throat. Shifted to scoop out more batter.

Something was wrong.

She went back to the muffin tin, carefully poured the batter, causing the paper cup to crinkle with its weight. Her hand shook. She sniffled, and I shot up off the barstool and was at her side before she could repeat the process.

"Hey," I murmured.

She dropped the ladle into the bowl, and turned to me, eyes pleading for something.

"What? What is it?"

"I was... My mom..." she said dazedly. "It wasn't a big deal when I started baking these, but-"

She choked back a sound of distress.

I drew her against me, pressed a kiss into her damp hair.

"I can finish it up if ya want."

"No," she gritted out. "I will. I need to... stop doing this all the time."

"There's nothin' wrong with gettin' choked up over a memory, sug."

"I know." She inhaled sharply, revealing her anger. "I'm sick of it, though. It's like I can't ever let anything feel good. I have to ruin it all the time, even though I don't want to. I want to make my mom's muffins and not think about all the- the-"

Her body was racked with a sob. She shook her head, buried her face into my chest.

"You'll get there," I replied emphatically. "God, Iz, do ya know how much different you are now than you were just a couple months ago?"

She shook her head again.

"Whatever you're doin' in those counselin' sessions is workin'," I told her. "And I get to see it. I get to watch everyone finally get to know the girl I do."

The one I fell in love with.


"Daddy! Look what Miss Izzy let me get!"

I quickly took my shoes and socks off and cuffed the dark pants I'd worn today. I hurried down the steps of the back deck, feet sinking in the hot sand at the bottom. My girls were set up out by the water, Bella lying back on the lounge chair; my daughter played under the shade of the large, navy blue umbrella we kept on hand.

I sidled up next to Bella, got a good look at all that pretty, ivory skin she bared in that black patterned bikini. "Tryin' to get a tan there, sweetheart?"

"I didn't want Ella to burn, so I let her have the umbrella."

I dropped my hand to her neck and squeezed gently. "I'll have to get another one, then. I don't want ya to fry out here all week."

"Daddy!" Ella grinned up at me. Her hair was in thick, wet ropes across her shoulders, and her swimsuit strap had fallen off and was hanging down by her elbow.

"Someone looks like she's been havin' fun."

"See what I made?"

I took the necessary steps toward her to see that she had a new sandcastle kit scattered around her. A partially built sandcastle, complete with moat, sat to her right.

"It's great, Ella bug. You make that all by yourself?"

She nodded excitedly. "Yeah! And Miss Izzy made that!"

I glanced over in the direction that Ella was pointing in and saw a dragon molded out of the sand. Trails of fire were carved into the beach, like it was coming from its mouth.

"Ya know that'll get washed away in about an hour, right?"

"I know," Bella sighed. "I'll just make another one for her. She's got to protect the castle from something."

I smiled down at her.

"Daddy, you done with work?"

"I am. I was thinkin' I'd go make us some supper."

Her little nose scrunched up, and she picked up the purple, plastic shovel at her feet. "But I want pizza."

"Pizza?"

"Uh-huh."

I slid a look toward Bella.

"I don't care what we eat."

"Then pizza it is," I stated, and flopped down on the sand.

She sank back into the lounger with a smile.

I watched Ella while ordering the pizza. I noted the time on my phone when I'd hung up, and then let my eyes drift over to Bella again.

I pressed my thumb into the skin of her upper arm, watched it turn white almost instantly.

"How long have y'all been out here?"

"Since lunch. Twelve or so?"

"Jesus, Bella."

I shot up off the ground and picked Ella up. She squealed, laughed when I playfully growled at her. I sat her on the other side of the castle and gathered up the sandcastle kit.

"Play over here, okay? The sun's goin' down and I want ya to stay in the shade."

"Kay," she replied absently.

Having no idea what I had in mind, I heard Bella giggle behind me. I turned on her, watched her lips twist as she fought off a smile.

Grinning, I abruptly reached down and picked up the end of the lounger. She screeched and held onto the armrests while I dragged her over to the now empty spot in the shade.

"Give a girl some warning, would you?"

"You were burnin'. Can't sit on the beach all week if you're peelin' and miserable." I flashed another grin at her. "Now scoot up so I can sit behind ya. Vacation starts now."

xx

"Do not tell her that story," I warned Charlotte, and picked up the stick I'd found to poke at the fire in the pit. Smoke rose into the dusky sky; flames licked higher at the logs.

Bella poured more merlot into my glass and set the empty bottle to the side. "Oh, I think I want to hear it."

"Why would you wanna hear somethin' like that?" I questioned, and then let my eyes dart back to where Ella played with Garrett and Tyler. Satisfied they were still being good, I gazed back at her.

"It'd be nice to know you weren't always this perfectly put together father."

I groaned and fell back against the lawn chair. "Fine. Tell it. You're gonna anyway."

Charlotte grinned at me, and then let her blue eyes move to Bella. She tucked her light brown hair back behind her ears and sat up straighter, poised to tell her something that had haunted me for the last four years.

"Edward literally had Ella home for a day before Tanya left him," she started. Her eyes flickered to me to make sure I was okay. Satisfied, she continued. "He'd never changed a diaper before."

"Wait. He..." Bella glanced over at me in confusion.

"I told ya I wasn't sure about takin' her till I saw her," I explained quietly, "and in the hospital there were so many people doin' things for her, I just never ended up changin' one. I think between Nana and Esme, Ella was changed more often than was probably necessary. When we got home, Tanya did it. And she was there for three days, Charlotte. Not one."

She waved him off. "So there's this thing newborn babies have. Meconium. It's basically dark, sticky-"

Peter made a face. "Thank God we never have to deal with this again," he muttered.

Charlotte laughed and swatted at his thigh. "Edward didn't know what he was really in for until Ella'd..."

She trailed off with a wink aimed in Bella's direction.

"It was everywhere," I lamented. "All the way up her back, spillin' out of the neck of her shirt."

"And this one... He had plenty of diapers," Charlotte added. "But no extra clothes. Not even a onesie or an extra blanket."

"Hers had spit up all over it," I sulked.

"He had only a few wipes, and let me tell you, it was easier to just hold the poor baby in the sink and rinse her off."

"I had to buy her an outfit in the mall," I interjected.

Bella burst into a fit of giggles. "Wait, she pooped everywhere? Where were you?"

"Across town. There was a new subdivision goin' up. I was biddin' on it."

"Did you at least get the job?"

I flashed her a grin. "I did."

"That's not the best part," Charlotte told her, eyeing me.

"Damn it."

"The best part is that the next time I saw him, he'd stuck latex gloves, a pair of safety goggles, and a gas mask in the diaper bag. With an entire bin of wipes and three different outfits shoved inside with it."

"It wasn't a gas mask," I argued. My cheeks warmed, thanks to Charlotte's attempt at humiliation. "It was a dust mask I had at the office."

"How long did your aversion to poop last, baby?" Bella asked with a smirk.

"Until the second she projectile vomited in my mouth." I paused, pursing my lips in thought. "So about three months."

Bella covered her face with her hands, trying hard not to laugh at my expense.

"Ah, go ahead. Not like I wouldn't laugh if it happened to you."

"It wouldn't happen to me," she protested through her laughter.

"You've got less experience with kids than I did. It'll happen, Iz. And I'm gonna sit back and watch when it does."

Her eyes widened with the implications of that, but to her credit, she didn't panic. She simply shook her head and smiled as she said, "Laughing the whole time, right?"

I wanted to reach out, pull her into my lap and murmur something of substance.

But Peter and Charlotte knew only a generic version of Bella's past.

So I grinned, kept it all hidden. "Right."

"I need another drink," Charlotte said, looking at Peter. "You?"

"Yeah." He took the last pull from his cup. "I'll go with you."

"Can you keep an eye on the kids, Edward?"

"Sure."

I watched Peter and Charlotte start up the steps, hand in hand. I checked on the kids one last time before focusing on Bella again.

"You want more?" I asked, gesturing to the empty wine bottle at our feet.

She shook her head. "I think I've had plenty."

"I think you've just barely started comin' out of your shell."

"Are you trying to get me drunk?"

"Maybe," I shot back teasingly. "I'd like to see what you're like in bed all liquored up."

"Do you think of anything else but sex?"

I feigned like I was thinking it over. "Not really. No," I answered.

I gave her a slow grin and watched her reaction.

"You have to drink with me," she breathed.

That lower lip of hers was pulled between her teeth, eyes heavy as they stared back at me.

I felt the effects of it in my groin.

"Can't get too drunk. Got a four year old to watch. Besides, it wreaks havoc on the circulatory system. I need to be able to actually get a hard on for drunk sex, ya know."

She giggled and leaned toward me. Her chair toppled to the side in the sand; with a flail of hands, she grabbed my shoulders and caught herself.

I chuckled and kissed the tip of her nose. "Maybe you have had enough."

"The sand's making my chair all wobbly," she pouted.

"Likely excuse. Just don't be fallin' in the fire. A trip to the ER doesn't sound all that fun right now."

Another giggle. "I don't want to go anywhere. I just want..." she sighed heavily, "to be here. With you. I always want to be with you. Touch you. Taste you. Hear you laugh. See your smile. It's like I can't get enough of you."

"Iz..." I started roughly.

She abruptly sat up. "Is it supposed to be like that? I can't remember it being this way with Jake. Can't remember feeling this... addicted."

"Sweetheart, what are ya sayin'?"

"Sometimes, I don't think I loved Jake." Her brows knit together. "Not like you're supposed to when you marry someone."

"You're wrong," I said fiercely. "You did. You wouldn't have been so hurt when he died if ya didn't."

"I guess. It's not the same, though," she reiterated. "I didn't love him like I-"

I covered her mouth with my hand, heart jumping in my throat. "Not like this."

She looked at me beseechingly.

But I wouldn't give in.

"You have no idea how much I want to hear ya say it. But not like this. Not with all this..." I trailed off, tried to put together my thoughts. "I don't want ya wakin' up tomorrow regrettin' it."

She jerked away from me to speak. "I wouldn't regret it."

"Bella, I'm tryin' to do the right thing here, and you're..." I huffed and closed the space between us again. "I love you. More than anythin' else in the world 'cept for Ella. But I can't have him in the picture when ya say it back. I'm selfish that way. I want it to be just you and me. No one else. Can ya do that yet?"

Whatever reply she had slipped from her tongue. With a broken sob and a shake of her head, she caved in on herself.

I gathered her up and brought her to my lap. Her arms wrapped around my neck; her tears were hot on my skin. She took my white, pinstriped button up between her fingers, balling up her fists at my shoulder blades.

Her breath hitched once, and then she clung tighter. "You know I do too, though, right? I'm just..."

The unspoken word hung between us. The very one I'd realized was felt by both of us just a couple of days before.

Scared.

"I know," I said softly, feeling like some of the weight had been lifted from me with the confirmation.

"I promise ya I do."