My sincerest apologies for this latest delay. RL is kicking me in the teeth on a daily basis, unfortunately. Thank you for your continued interest and support, though. I can't say how appreciative I am for it.

Thanks to the beta dude, Stratan, for checking this over and fixing my mistakes.


Chapter 18

Bella

Edward let out a sleepy grunt of annoyance and rolled over, pinning me to the bed with his arm.

"Turn that thing off, would ya?"

"I can't," I laughed, trying my best to reach my phone to no avail. "You won't let me move."

A grumble this time. "Whose stupid idea was it to set it so early?"

"You really want me to answer that?"

He pulled me closer, a ghost of a smile on his lips. "No. Don't. I know I'm an idiot. I don't need the confirmation."

"You're not an idiot. You're a good dad."

Edward rolled on top of me and, with a kiss to my forehead, finally shut off the incessant beeping of my phone's alarm before settling back in the bed beside me.

"And you're just a little bit biased, Iz."

I smiled and wound my hands through his hair, watching as his eyes fluttered closed. His breathing evened out as he drifted off to sleep again. He hadn't said anything about my near confession, and I knew he wouldn't. As always, he waited for me to wrap my mind around it, ready myself for what lay after that. The next step.

I didn't know what the next step was. I was already his. Ella's. Maybe the next step would be to become a unit in the traditional sense. Marriage. Family.

My stomach pitched at the thought, and I managed to break away from him to stare up at the ceiling. It was curved – a barrel ceiling, Edward had called it - inlaid with wood that matched the flooring beneath us. The light fixture that hung from its center had the most incredible swirled glass-

A petulant "no" rose out of him, and panic momentarily forgotten, I laughed again.

"Yes," I said, an overwhelming feeling of love for him rushing through me. I rose up and kissed the tip of his nose, causing his eyes to pop open in surprise.

"I'll see you in a little while," I whispered.

His fingers closed around my arm for the briefest of moments, green eyes intense, and then he released me.

"Yeah," he muttered, and turned away, bringing the pillow up over his head in the process.

Reluctantly, I climbed out of the bed and quietly padded down the hall to the room that Edward had designated as mine for the duration of this trip. The white linen curtains billowed with the early morning breeze. I was dressed only in a t-shirt, so I grabbed a pair of pink pajama pants out of my suitcase and slipped them on before pushing the curtains aside. I stared at the sun peeking out from the ocean horizon. The view was gorgeous.

Scratch that.

The entire house was gorgeous. Like all the houses on this beach, it was set up off the ground and had a wooden deck wrapping all the way around it. It was stone colored with white trim and a navy blue front door. It was simple. Modern. A typical guy's house - there was nothing unnecessary and none of the fuss.

But even without all the extras, it didn't feel empty. It felt like a home. Full of warmth and happiness. Light and laughter.

I heard the door creak and turned around expecting to find Edward there.

Ella peered back at me instead, holding her Happy Napper against her chest.

"You're awake!" she gasped excitedly.

"I am," I replied. "I thought I'd watch the sunrise."

She hurried over to where I stood, easing past me so that she was pressed up against the screen in the window.

"Daddy lets me go outside and watch it with him sometimes when I wake up 'fore the sun."

"He does, huh?" I paused, debating. And then decided to let a piece of myself known to her. "We don't get sunrises over the ocean like this in Washington. We get sunsets."

"Washington?" she repeated, her tongue tripping over the word.

"That's where I used to live before I moved to South Carolina."

Her little mouth made a round 'o' of surprise.

"I lived there with my family."

"You have family?"

"I do," I whispered.

"Miss Izzy, where are they?"

"In..." I struggled to come up with a way to explain it without scaring her away. "In Heaven," I finally decided. "They were killed in an accident."

I waited for a response.

She gave me the unexpected.

"Daddy says we're s'pposed to say 'sorry' 'bout stuff like that." She frowned. "But I don't know why."

I smiled at her innocence.

"Because it's the nice thing to do," I explained. "And people appreciate hearing it, even when it comes from a stranger."

"Oh. Well, I real sorry, Miss Izzy."

I put my hand on her back. "Thank you."

She was quiet for a while. The sun had risen higher, casting gold light over the ocean now.

"Miss Izzy, can we go play on the beach again today?"

"Not this beach," I said. "Daddy's taking us to St. Augustine, remember?"

"To the fort," she answered with a nod.

"But we can pack our swimsuits and some towels. See if we can convince him to drive us to one of their beaches."

She grinned up at me.

"What's all this?" Edward asked from behind us.

"The sun's comin' up, Daddy," Ella responded, spinning around to rush off and greet him.

"You should still be sleepin'," he said to her lowly, his hand absently running over her head, fingers moving through her hair.

"I wanted to see Miss Izzy."

"Well, I want to see Miss Izzy too, but it's early." He gazed at me, let his eyes flicker to the queen sized mahogany canopy bed against the wall on my right. "I say we all crawl in Miss Izzy's bed and nap until it's time to go."

She didn't hesitate to clamber over into the bed with her Happy Napper, pushing the covers back to make room for us all. She glanced up at me and patted at the mattress.

"You comin' in with us?"

It felt like a hand had closed over my heart and squeezed.

I forced a smile and went to join just as Edward moved to the spot on the other side of her. She was in between us, happy, snuggling up against her father. She brought her hand up to my arm and played with the hem of my sleeve.

My eyes darted over to Edward's, and he saw everything. How much I wanted this. How frightened it made me that I did.

"I thought you went back to sleep," I mouthed, and checked to make sure Ella wasn't paying attention.

"Somethin' told me to get up," he said. He cupped my face, thumb stroked soothingly at my jaw.

Below Ella's feet, our legs entwined.

"Ya good?"

Without another word, I nodded and closed my eyes.

And reveled.

Because for once, I was.


"I've just gotta stop off at the office real quick," Edward said, pulling into a spot in the parking lot.

I gave him a look.

"Don't look at me like that, Iz. I'm not workin'. We're meetin' Marcus here. I've gotta get somethin' from him before we head out."

"Which is?"

"Blueprints. I'm takin' 'em back to the valley with me."

"What for?"

He opened the door and slid out of the truck. "We're thinkin' about buildin' somethin' big."

I hopped out of the truck and hurried over to the driver's side to hear the rest of what he was saying.

"...Might put it in the parade next summer," he continued.

Ella climbed out and into Edward's arms.

"Is this one of those houses where you show off all you can do?"

"That'd be the kind."

He opened the glass door, and then stepped into the reception area after me. It still smelled new, like he'd refinished every last part of the room.

And knowing him, he did.

"There's my girl!" Charlotte called out from behind the gray desk.

"Hi, Miss Charlotte," Ella replied, and squirmed against Edward's torso.

"Blueprints are in your office somewhere. Marcus just dropped a bunch of stuff off in there and ran off again. I haven't had time to go through it."

With a light laugh, he set Ella down on the floor and motioned for me to follow him into his office, leaving Ella to talk to Charlotte as we headed to the back of the space.

We stepped inside and shut the door behind us. I loved his office. It reminded me so much of him, of his house on the beach. With the exception of his desk, nothing was out of place; everything was coordinated and immaculately clean.

Immediately, Edward started rifling through the papers on the desk. I stood there for a moment, watching. Waiting. Something was bothering me, but I couldn't place what it was.

"So this house... It'd take a lot of work, right?"

He kept digging through the paperwork. "Uh... yeah."

"How much?" I wondered aloud.

"Ya still like it here, Iz?" he suddenly asked me. "In Jacksonville?"

"Yeah. It's nice."

"Nice," he repeated, saying the word with disdain.

With that, I knew exactly what my problem was.

By starting this house, it meant that Edward would have to come back to Jacksonville for good. He'd be too busy perfecting it to travel back and forth all of the time.

It was like everything I'd thought of in the diner on our first day here was coming to life, right in front of my eyes.

Only I wasn't in the picture.

"Hey," he stepped away from the desk, "Ya gettin' sick or somethin'? You're pale."

I brushed him off. "I'm fine. Got what you came for?"

He eyed me for a moment, and then finally nodded, picking up a stack of blueprints and rolling them up in his hands.

I needed air. I needed to think. I needed to know what it was I wanted out of this, when just a few short weeks ago I was so adamant to stay disconnected, keep these two Masens at arm's length.

But he didn't let me out of the office. His hand came up to push against the heavy, black metal door as I tried to leave. I inhaled deeply, chanced a look at him.

"Iz," he murmured. His free hand came up to my waist, sliding around to the small of my back to bring me toward him. "Tell me what you're thinkin'. Please."

The roughness of his voice, the ache behind it, made me twist in his arms to hold onto him. "That's just it. I don't know what I'm thinking. All I know is that you're talking about building a house that will take so much planning and work and time, and I hate it because I'll be in South Carolina."

Alone.

"No. I want ya here," he said adamantly. "In Jacksonville. In my house, even. But if you don't love it here, I won't ask ya to come. It wouldn't be fair."

Time stilled.

My heart raced.

"I do, though. I love it because it's where you are."

He took a deep breath and leaned down, sagging against the door behind us. "Remember how ya told me that I had a way of sayin' things that broke you?"

"Yeah?"

"You do it, too. Ya say things like that and I hope. I hope for everythin' I want with you. And then I get some space to think about it and wonder if I'm askin' too much of ya still. Pushin' ya too hard or too fast. Because I can't lose you, too. I just... I can't."

"Edward-"

"I don't know how to do it," he said, his voice almost frantic. "I don't know how to keep ya without lettin' everythin' I worked so hard for here fall apart. And it might be selfish, but I don't want to give anythin' up. I want it all."

I put my hand on his face, willing him to look at me. Really look at me. See what I wanted, but was too afraid to admit.

"When would you be moving?" I asked softly.

His fingers curled into my back, eyes lit up. Because he understood. "Not till December at the earliest. Marcus can handle the main construction. I'd need to be here to see it finished out before the deadline."

"So that gives me five months to get used to the idea."

He tensed, wary. "The idea of what?"

I swallowed hard.

"Of having a family again."

"Iz-" He cut himself off, uncertain.

And then, "Ya already do."


"BOOM! You're dead, Miss Izzy!"

I turned to find Ella poised behind an old canon.

"Funny... I don't feel dead," I replied with a grin.

"You're s'pposed to pretend," she answered with a roll of her eyes.

"Oh. Hmm. Then I suppose you'll have to teach me how."

She gave me an odd look.

"You're the first little girl I've ever been around. You've got to cut me some slack."

Too smart to fall for it, she said, "I not the first kid you've been around."

"Okay, talked to," I corrected, coming toward her. "Played with... Tickled."

I rushed her, my hands finding that spot just under her arms that made her squeal.

She squirmed. Dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes with those cute giggles of hers.

When her eyes clenched shut and she gasped, I stopped.

"It means you're special," I continued.

She beamed at me.

"Now, where'd that daddy of yours go?"

"Right here, sug," Edward called to us.

I stood up and spun around, my own beaming smile finding its way across my face.

"Daddy, I go play there?" Ella asked sweetly.

"Stay where Iz and I can see ya."

"Yes, sir."

She raced over to a little, dark brown haired boy playing near the stone wall. In just seconds, she had him eating out of the palm of her hand.

"You are in big trouble with that one," I laughed.

"I'd say we both are, from the look of it."

I shrugged and tried to stay nonchalant. Inside, my stomach was turning over, my heart pounding all over again.

"Is that okay with you?"

"I think I should be the one askin' that question," he shot back.

I didn't respond.

"Tell me what changed. Why ya seem so sure of it now, when just hours ago you were in my office lookin' like you were still tryin' to work it all out."

"I'm not trying to work it all out."

He simply stared at me, that one eyebrow quirking up in reply.

"Okay, I am. I can't wrap my mind around it, really."

"Around what?" he asked lowly.

"How much different everything feels here."

"In Florida?"

I nodded once. "Everything feels so... right. Easy. Like it did back home."

"And this gives ya trouble because...?"

"Because nothing will ever really be like it was before. It'll always be sort of messed up by Jake's death simply because he was such a huge part of my life before, and I feel like I should... I don't know," I muttered.

"Be miserable," he finished for me.

"I guess," I replied, jerking a shoulder up. "But I think it's more than that. My parents won't ever get to know you. They won't know Ella or how wonderful you two are. There will always be this bittersweet feeling that comes with being with you. So to be this happy is just..."

He was even closer now, green eyes heavy with emotion. "Not everythin' has to be explained, Iz. Sometimes, things just are. Stop tryin' to make it all fit into your little, idealistic box."

My lips pushed out into a pout. It was exactly what I was trying to do, and I hated that he'd called me out on it.

He laughed. "Aw, come on. Let's try to get Ella away from this thing and start home."

"Ella wants to hit the beach."

"No. I wanna go home."

"Now who's poutin'?" I mimicked.

"Mmm," he said with a smile and a quick arm around my waist, "you sound sexy with an accent."

"Beach," I tried to change the subject, "is where?"

"Wonder how long it'd take for ya to get one?"

"Never, if we live here."

"We." He grinned slowly. "I like the sound of that, too."

"Alright, you sap. You're going to scare me off with all that talk of accents and we and the future."

"Nah," he replied, that smile still spreading. "I think ya secretly like it. It makes your heart all fluttery and your palms all sweaty."

He dropped his hand to mine and clasped it.

"What'd I tell ya?"

I swallowed thickly. Willed my speeding heart to slow.

"You know nothing."

He chose that moment to throw my words back at me. "I know you, Bella Swan. And I happen to like what I know."

xx

Clothes were everywhere. In laundry baskets, scattered all over the couch. Suitcases were half packed, and I had the list of things that Edward and I had to do to close up the house before we left in my hand.

I heard a shuffle behind me, glanced over my shoulder.

"Your boy makes some mean biscuits and gravy."

I laughed a little and stepped over the toiletries at my feet to get to where Marcus stood. I stared at his plate and smiled.

I'd bet my meager savings that was his grandmother's recipe.

"What time are you guys headed back?"

"As soon as I'm done with this," I answered.

He nodded and shoveled another bite into his mouth. "I'm glad I met you, Bella," he said around his food. "You're fun."

"You're kind of disgusting," I shot back.

I expected him to laugh, but his blue eyes seemed to darken, and he glanced over to the row of windows on the back of the house.

Not wanting a serious conversation with a man I barely knew, I tried to keep things light. "I'm sorry we didn't get to hang out much while we were here."

"Edward was busy showing you his life," he replied. "He wants you here."

"I think I want to be here."

"Think?" he pressed.

"Know," I amended. "I know I do."

He nodded. "As his friend, it's my obligation to tell you that while I like you, I'm still debating whether you're good for him or not."

"Oh?"

"I don't know you yet."

"Which is another reason why he's lucky to have you."

Marcus rolled his eyes and smirked. "Flattering the best friend. I like it."

"Thank you," I said, grinning back. "I thought it would help."

"It does."

Marcus went to speak again, but was interrupted by the sound of Ella screaming from her room. Before I had time to react, she raced into the living room, holding her hand up for me to see. A small cut streaked across her knuckles, just barely bleeding. But apparently to a five year old, it was the end of the world.

"Miss Izzy, look," she wailed.

I bent down to humor her. "It's fine, Ella. Just a scratch."

"It hurts!"

"I know."

"I need Neo-sporn."

"Neosporin?"

She nodded, a fat tear falling down over her cheek. Unthinkingly, I wiped it away, cupping her cheek as I asked, "Do you know where it is?"

Another nod.

"Get it. And then get one of those Hello Kitty Band-Aids we got you out of my purse in the kitchen."

She walked away, head bent down, staring at her hand.

"That's another thing that helps," Marcus said quietly.

"She deserves..." I trailed off, unsure how to finish, or what it was that I even meant.

"Yeah. She does."

I stared off toward the hallway that Ella had disappeared down. "You know, I have to give Rosalie a lot of credit. I couldn't do it."

"No?"

"I barely know the kid and already, I-"

Realizing what I was about to admit, I bit back the rest of my words.

Marcus simply beamed at me.

"Iz, baby, what the hell happened to..." Edward stopped at he stepped into the room, glanced between us and frowned. "I don't even want to know," he said with a shake of his head.

"It wasn't all that bad," Marcus replied, still smiling.

"Right," Edward said, disbelieving. "Iz. Ella came runnin' into the kitchen hollerin' about needin' a Band-Aid before she bled to death."

"What? It was just a scratch."

"And ya coddled her over it."

"I just told her to get a Band-Aid!" I protested.

He smirked, came closer. "As great as it is that you've..." A pause as he struggled for words, "closed some of that distance between the two of ya, there's somethin' you need to know about our Ella there."

My blood pressure spiked at the use of the word "our".

"What's that?" I asked weakly.

"Unless it's serious, you've gotta ignore her. Otherwise, she'll milk the scrape, cut, bruise - whatever it happens to be - for the rest of the day. Hell, week, even."

I nodded my agreement. His hand came up to my jaw as he stared down at me, and I knew immediately where I'd gotten this small gesture of comfort. Having him touch me, even as simply as this, made everything feel... better. Not perfect. But better. Having him love me made everything better, though again, not perfect.

Nothing would ever be perfect again.

But thanks to Edward's family, I was realizing that no matter how things looked from the outside, nothing was ever perfect. There was always something hidden from the rest of the world.

And that... That made everything I'd been struggling with seem so ridiculous. Everyone had demons, big or small. You could either rise above them or you could let yourself drown.

Staring back at him, I knew I didn't want to drown.

Three little words were at the tip of my tongue, nearly bursting out of me.

Unfortunately, now was not the time. Not with Marcus still in the same room as us.

It was enough to make me second guess myself again.

Closer, Edward brought me to him.

Then, almost like he knew how the fear bubbled up, he smiled, pressed a kiss to the top of my head, and moved away.

"You ready?"

Deep breath, I reminded myself.

Because I wanted this. Him. Everything that was in arms reach now.

I only needed to let go.

"Does it look like it?" I asked, referring the piles of laundry scattered around us.

"Throw it in the suitcase and come on."

"But-"

"A few wrinkles never hurt anyone, Iz," he laughed.

"But if we throw it all in the suitcases, that makes more work for me when I get home."

"I'll do it."

"No, you have your own to take care of."

"I thought all girls liked to be spoiled some," he said, grinning from ear to ear. "Leave it to me to fall for the one that's gotta do it all herself."

"I don't," I objected.

"You're arguin' about laundry," he pointed out.

I stupidly was.

"Fine," I grabbed up a stack of Ella's clothes and tossed them into the nearest suitcase, "you win. Happy?"

"I am, actually."

I rolled my eyes. Got to work on packing and finding my balance again, finding the normality between Edward and me, despite my revelation and the weight that came with it.

The weight was good. It was grounding. Saving. It made me feel like I'd finally found what I was meant for after spending so much time lost and confused, heartbroken and miserable.

I should've known it wouldn't last.

The last of our things was packed - a bottle of sunscreen - when Edward came back into the room. His eyes were red, as if he'd been crying.

I'd never seen Edward cry. Not really. He was always so strong when he talked about his life, his family.

He didn't speak for a moment. When he finally could, his voice was unlike anything I'd ever heard come from him before. Raspy.

Dead.

I shivered involuntarily.

"That was Rosie. They had to take Nana to the ER just now."

"Why?"

Marcus. Voice of reason.

I couldn't move. Couldn't think, blink, comfort Edward... Nothing. I'd been frozen in place, waiting for the worst. For the pain - the grief - that would eventually come with it.

I couldn't go through it again.

"She picked up a cold a few days ago. No one wanted to bother me with it because..." He swallowed thickly. "She can't breathe. They think it's pneumonia."

"Shit," Marcus muttered.

"Everything's packed," I said hollowly. "We can leave whenever."

Edward only managed a rigid nod.

I was across the room, arms around him before I could think twice.

"It's okay," I whispered into his shirt. "No matter what happens, it'll be okay."

Almost as if he could see past the lie, he said, "Will it really, Iz? Because I'm not so sure this time."

Silence surrounded us.

Because none of us had the answer.