"Bella," I heard gasped from the doorway.
I twisted a little, felt the weight of fabric tug at my body, to see Esme standing there, teary eyed and covering her mouth with her hand.
I grinned and turned back around, staring at my reflection in the mirror. The dress was completely different than the one I'd chosen before.
But then again, I was completely different than before.
There was no frill, no sparkle, this time. No frivolity. It was clean and simple, lace only on the cap sleeves and along the hemline. It felt like I did these days: Fresh and new, with just the barest traces of my old life lingering, found only in the memories I'd keep with me for the rest of my life.
"This is it. This is the one," she finished.
I almost laughed aloud hearing the confirmation. It'd taken a full week of traveling around the state, browsing websites and magazines - countless miles between Carlisle's Mercedes and Annabeth's Volvo - to find.
And here it had been all along, in a tiny bridal shop, in a tiny, Southern town.
I should've known.
"It better be. Or I'm going to wind up in jail on murder charges before I can get married."
Esme laughed and moved toward me, stopping halfway between the platform I stood on and the hall that led back to the showroom.
"My daughter can be…" She pursed her lips as she sought out the right term, "quite determined."
"Must be a Masen trait, then," I replied, pushing the train of my dress aside so I could turn around completely. "Rosalie just about drove me insane this week, too."
"Well, you know my mama is where they get it from…"
A giggle bubbled up, and I nodded, giddy, and glanced over my shoulder to see the dress once more. I brought my hands up to feel the bodice, noticed how they shook.
I thanked Edward's insistence on taking one of my anxiety pills before I came, because this was...
"Think he'll like it?"
"Honey, that boy will love anythin' you walk toward him in. So long as he gets ya to say 'I do'," she joked.
I didn't tell her that saying "I do" would be the easy part. The hardest part had been allowing myself to get here in the first place, to let Edward break down barriers, and rely on someone - more than someone, really - again.
To become acceptant of what happened.
To forgive myself for surviving.
Though, if I was completely honest, I still had work to do on that.
"I want… I want your honest opinion on something," I said, changing the subject.
Esme frowned. "Okay?"
"Do you really think your mom can handle this?"
"She'll make it so she can."
"That's not what I'm asking, Esme."
Her smile slid away, and she sighed. "When will y'all have the cermony?"
"As soon as they can get this hemmed. Two weeks at the most."
She nodded once, and I knew it meant that she thought we'd make it in time. "You're gonna freeze in that dress if ya have the ceremony outside."
"It's twenty minutes, tops. I can live."
"Or you could have it inside."
"The foyer. We could decorate the stairs. An arch under the chandelier between 'em would be nice."
"Esme, the whole point was to not do anything that took a lot of planning or was elaborate-"
"I know," she interrupted. "I'm just sayin'."
"And I'm just sayin'," I mocked, "that we've both been engaged before. We've both planned weddings before. Neither of us care to spend all that money on something we don't really want or need."
We just wanted each other. His family, Ella. Angela, Sam, Peter, Charlotte, and Marcus.
She laughed. "Alright, alright. Can't blame a girl for tryin'."
"I could if I really wanted to," I retorted.
Another laugh. "Turn back around. I wanna get a picture of ya for Alice before they come in and put pins everywhere."
Thoroughly made over and poked, I carefully slipped the dress off and changed back into my clothes, and then made my way back up to the front of the store, where Esme was standing.
Her back was to me, but I could see that she was talking to someone as I approached her. Assuming it was one of the salespeople, I didn't think twice to join her.
Only to stop dead in my tracks when I finally caught sight of who it was.
I plastered on a fake smile and went to Esme's side.
She glanced over at me with an apologetic look. "Bella, you've met Tanya, right?"
"Yep," I replied. "In Sam's."
Tanya gave me a once over, judgmental expression on her face. "Ah. Edward's waitress."
"Photographer, actually," I corrected.
One of those perfectly arched blonde brows went up. "Oh?"
"Uh-huh," I said cheerfully. "Got my masters and everything."
Esme practically snickered at my response, saved only by the chime of her phone in her hand.
Grinning at the screen, she said to me, "Alice says for me to tell that you, your dress is beautiful and she's jealous you found it before she did."
I laughed once.
I turned my attention back to Tanya, intent on gritting my teeth and being as polite and conversational as possible, despite how much I wanted to rip her heart out for doing the same to Edward; for leaving Ella the way she did.
Maybe it was as black as I imagined it would be.
Esme spoke up before I could. "She and Edward are gettin' married in a couple of weeks. Isn't that wonderful?"
Another judgmental once over from Tanya.
"No, I'm not pregnant," I said, rolling my eyes, because I knew exactly what she was thinking.
My short time in the South had taught me a few things, after all.
"Not yet," Esme tittered.
I gaped at her. "You too? I swear, this whole town has me knocked up already."
"And said child named."
"Why, he'll be named after his daddy, of course," she said with a wink.
I put my hands over my face and groaned.
"I'm sorry, but if you and Edward aren't having a baby, then what's the rush?" Tanya interjected.
"So Mama can be there," Esme answered.
That one statement seemed to have rendered Tanya speechless.
Esme smiled and put her hand on her shoulder.
I fought back the urge to curl my lip in disgust.
"It's alright, honey. Nothin' any of us can do about it now."
"Ms. Annabeth was always good to me. Even after-" Tanya broke off, blue eyes darting over toward me before continuing. "She'll be missed."
Esme was solemn now. "She will."
Her phone rang again, like the thing had radar installed on it or something.
"I'm sorry, but I've gotta take this. Tanya, it was nice seeing you again. Bella, sweetie, I'll just be outside when you're finished."
She rushed out of the shop, leaving me to stand awkwardly with Tanya alone. I fidgeted with the veil I had in my hands for a moment, before I went to mumble a weak goodbye and pay for it.
I glanced behind me in confusion. "Yeah?"
"I know you hate me-"
I cut her off without thinking. "I don't hate you. I don't understand you."
"You seem good for them."
That angered me for more reasons that I could count. "You don't get to say what's good for them and what isn't."
"No, I just mean… How much do you know?"
"All of it."
She huffed and gazed off at the rack of prom dresses behind me. "I can't justify the way I left. All I can do is say that somethin' didn't feel right when we got home with Rosalie, and it scared me. And after, when I tried to explain it to Edward, he wouldn't give me the chance. He's never given me the chance."
"He kept you away to protect Ella."
"But why? I'm nothing to either of them. Not anymore."
"Not true. You're the variable. The one loose end. If you wanted to, you have the knowledge to destroy him. There's no one - not even me - who's more important to him than Ella is, because he's the only parent she's got."
"I wouldn't," she said vehemently. "I'd never do that, no matter what. I wouldn't do that to her."
"So you did love her," I deduced.
Offended, she jerked back. "She was supposed to be my daughter. Of course I did."
"And that, right there, is exactly why I don't understand you, Tanya." I took a deep breath and shook my head.
This was Edward's conversation to have - not mine.
If he wanted it.
And I was fairly certain he'd rather be dead than seen talking with Tanya over coffee about all their mistakes and failures as a couple.
"I'm sorry, but I need to pay for this and get going."
She nodded and gave me a wan smile. "Please let Edward know I really am happy for him. For both of you."
"He's not going to want to hear it."
She shrugged a shoulder. "Still. I'd appreciate it if you did."
"Yeah. Sure. See ya."
Before she could say anything else, I hurried off to the register, paid for the veil, and went to find Esme outside. The second she saw me, she hung up the phone.
"So… How bad was it?"
"I think I just escaped the Twilight Zone."
Another apologetic look from her. "I'm sorry. It was Carlisle. He was with Mama's doctor. I wouldn't have answered otherwise."
"How is she?"
"Same. He's amazed she's still up and movin' like she is with her scan lightin' up the way it is."
It felt like someone had reached into my chest and squeezed my heart.
"Don't even," she warned. "You're supposed to be so happy, you annoy the hell outta us all. Now get happy, damn it, before I start cryin'."
I tried to smile and failed. Esme let out this sound that was more like a sob than a laugh.
"You're horrible at cheerin' someone up," she said, and wiped at her eyes.
"Uh… I'm sorry?"
She did laugh then, just as she wrapped her arm around me and kissed my cheek.
I scrubbed at it immediately, knowing her dark lipstick was probably smeared all over my face.
"You're awful good to us, know that?"
"I don't know what I did to make you and your husband say that, but I'll take it, I guess."
"Ah, come on. Gettin' married in the cold so my mama can see her eldest grandbaby become your husband? Not many other girls would do it."
"Well, in case you haven't noticed, I'm not like most girls," I shot back dryly.
Esme beamed back at me, eyes roaming over my face. She reached up between us and wiped the last trace of lipstick off of my cheek before finally saying, "No, Bella, you're certainly not. You've shown us all that you're better."
"Hey, man, where do ya want this stuff to go?" Sam yelled out to Edward from the lift of the box truck.
Edward jumped down off of the bed of his truck and ran over to Sam. He ripped his ball cap off of his head and ran his hands through his hair, scanning the garage for a spot to store my things for the next week.
"There," he said, and pointed to the back, left-hand corner. "It needs to go there. That way we can pull Nana's Volvo back in without any problems."
Sam nodded and started pushing boxes toward the edge of the box truck.
My focus turned to something else, something unexpected in the foyer.
A sound from the backyard caught my attention, and I glanced in its direction with a frown.
What the hell was going on around here?
"I… I don't live at my house anymore."
"Well, sweetheart, ya kinda don't live anywhere at the moment."
"No, but I don't live there anymore," I repeated stupidly.
"Um... okay? You're not gonna freak out on me or somethin', are ya?"
"No, I just - It's all so surreal, you know?" I gazed over at him. "Tomorrow morning I'll be eating with you all in the breakfast nook."
"You've done it before."
"But I'll be in my pajamas. With your aunt. And your uncle. And - oh, God," I nearly wailed, "Jasper."
He bit his lip, struggling not to laugh.
"It's not funny!"
"It is a little, Iz. I mean, you've known this was comin' for two weeks. You knew it meant brushin' your teeth beside me in the upstairs bathroom and sleepin' in the bedroom next to Ella's with me until we're married and move all our stuff down to Florida."
"Yeah," I acknowledged, and then decided to move onto something else, because it was just another adjustment I had to make. One that was temporary.
One I was more than willing to do.
"I don't think a single family member of yours listened to me about the wedding."
With a shrug, he took my hand and led me out to the backyard.
Jasper and Carlisle were up in the rafters of the gazebo, hanging lengths of garland. I squinted to try to figure out what kind of flowers were on it, but I was too far away to see anything but magnolia leaves and blooms.
And something with glitter?
"Isn't it too soon for stuff like this?" I called out to them.
"It's fake," Jasper shouted back, and then abruptly sneezed. "And somethin' I'm apparently allergic to."
"Make your fiancée get up there and do it then," Edward laughed.
"And listen to her complain about not gettin' anythin' done in the house?" he asked incredulously. "I don't think so."
He sneezed again.
"What's going on in the house?" I asked slowly, cringing when Carlisle and Jasper exchanged a look.
"Nothin'," Carlisle replied.
"That," I pointed between the two of them, "was not 'nothin'."
Jasper smirked. "Good luck gettin' away with anythin' for the rest of your life, Edward."
Edward was laughing again. "Same could be said for you, ya know."
Jasper's smug smile disappeared. "Yeah. Guess you're right about that one."
I rolled my eyes. "I'm going to see what everyone didn't listen to me about."
"You won't win, Bella," Carlisle shouted. "Might as well learn that lesson before it's too late."
"I'm just as stubborn as any Masen! You should know that by now!"
More laughter behind me.
I ignored it.
I hurried around the house and up the front stairs, yanking the screen door back and stepping into complete and utter chaos.
"What the hell?"
"Bella! Do ya like it?" Alice chirped from the top of the steps.
"I don't know what it is."
"Your reception hall. Sam's bringin' all his stuff here and is gonna set up shop in the kitchen. We've got a couple of the girls comin' to serve and we're-"
"He's supposed to be a guest."
"He is," she promised. "He just wanted to cater, too, is all."
I shook my head and squeezed my eyes closed. "Alice, no."
When I opened them again, she was almost to the bottom of the steps, her black ponytail bouncing behind her. "What'd ya mean, 'no'? Do you have any idea how many people around here like ya enough to wanna help out with this?"
"They're not doing it for me," I argued. "They're doing it for Ms. Annabeth."
She scoffed. "You're joking, right? Except for Jessica - who's horrible, by the way - everyone's excited for you and Edward. Mostly you."
She jerked a shoulder up. "How am I supposed to know?"
I bit my lip uncertainly.
"Just hear me out... Please?"
Without giving me an opportunity to answer, she took my arm, and off we went to the parlor.
I noticed immediately that Annabeth's bed had been moved to the corner of the room.
"Nana's bed will stay there until the mornin' of the weddin'. Then we'll move it into the livin' room and bring the furniture from the livin' room into here."
"To have a place to sit when we get too drunk to stand in our heels," Rosalie said.
The women of the family all turned to stare at her.
She put her hands on her hips. "Y'all aren't gonna make me stay sober for my own brother's weddin', are ya? That's just cruel and unusual punishment!"
No one said a word.
"Thank ya very much," she said gleefully. "So anyway, we'll need a place to sit, Nana especially, and we're all in agreement that we won't be rentin' any of those tacky foldin' chairs so-"
I held up my hands in front of my face and waved them wildly. "You know what? I don't care. Do what you want."
Rosalie and Alice both looked at each other, and then at me.
"Really?" Rosalie asked hopefully.
Jumps and squeals and hugs followed, before they were whisked away by another one of Esme's instructions.
I rubbed my temples and exhaled heavily.
"That was real nice of ya, hon."
"Well, I've got to live up to my reputation around here."
Edward chuckled and motioned me over to him.
"I'll make 'em all quit if ya really want me to."
Enveloped in his arms now, something Esme had said to me over lunch one afternoon after dress shopping came back to me.
Weddings are sometimes more for the family than they are for the couple.
It turned out that I was going to have one of those kinds of weddings.
"No, that's okay. Let them have their fun."
His brows furrowed as he stared down at me. "Ya sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. It's something for them to do for us, and if they want to spend all week trying to make it perfect-"
I was suddenly cut off by his lips.
"I love you," he said quietly as he moved away.
"I'd hope so," I joked.
"Bella," he said seriously. "You didn't have to do this. And yet, ya did."
Blushing now, I brought my hands up to his face and tipped it down toward me to see him better. "We're doing this for your grandmother, right?"
"Would she rather us just have a ceremony outside and call it a day, or would she rather have a few hours surrounded by her family drinking and having fun afterward?"
His lips twitched, seeing where I was going with my questioning. "The second."
"Then what's the point of getting married like this if we're not going to do all we can for her?"
"Nothin', sweetheart," he murmured.
"Okay, then. Conversation closed."
I gave him a blank look.
"You need to know somethin'."
Not realizing the weight of what was coming, the sincerity of what he was about to say, I simply asked, "What's that?"
A full blown smile now, and I swore something in my chest burst right along with it.
"You puttin' aside anythin' you might want and doin' this for us all… It means more to me than I'll ever be able to tell ya."
Alone for the first time, I stood back and stared at my reflection in the mirror. With the amount of time Alice and Rosalie had spent doing my makeup and pinning my hair up, I expected to see someone else staring back at me.
Except, it wasn't. It was me, same as always. Dark brown hair, dark brown eyes. Just… dressed up a little more for the occasion.
The elbow-length veil slipped behind my shoulder as I breathed out a sigh of relief, and I quickly reached up to put it back in place, my hands lingering over the lace trim, trembling.
My chest started to feel heavy, feel like everything inside it was fluttering around.
I wasn't anxious for my usual reasons. More like worried that I'd trip over my dress as I went up the steps since I was walking the aisle alone, or get dirt somewhere on its pristine fabric before the ceremony could start. Things Alice had commiserated with me about before heading down the hall to get dressed.
Things Esme had promised were normal, bride-to-be jitters.
I swallowed hard and searched the room for my bouquet, needing something to do with my hands all of a sudden, only to be unable to find it.
My search was interrupted by a knock on the door.
Edward peeked out from behind it, impish grin curving his lips.
With a noise of protest, I ran over to him, intent on shutting the door in his face and then yelling at him through it.
But the look in his eyes, the way his jaw dropped as they roamed over my dress and how his expression changed with his emotions made me reconsider.
He took that moment to compose himself, green eyes slowly lifting to find mine.
For just a split second in time, everything paused. Stilled.
"It's bad luck to see the bride before the wedding," I breathed.
"Since when did ya care about any of that superstitious shit?" he chuckled.
"Since… Since I met you," I answered honestly.
He went to say something in return, but was suddenly shoved aside by Ella forcing herself into the bedroom.
"You're dressed, Miss Izzy!" she exclaimed, racing over to me in her red satin dress.
"So are you," I noted, and crouched down to the floor to straighten the sash at her waist. "You look so pretty. I like how Aunt Rosie fixed your hair."
She smiled widely and reached up to pat the bun on the top of her head. "Aunt Rosie said I have too much hair for only bein' four."
I laughed softly and nodded. "Well, she is kind of right. You've definitely got a lot of hair."
"You has lots of hair, too." She stopped; her tiny hand moved over the sleeve of my dress. "Miss Izzy? Aunt Esme says that when you marry Daddy, you'll be my step-mom."
Eyes large, I glanced up at Edward.
He moved from his spot against the wall and came closer to us.
"Well, that's usually what happens," I chanced.
"But..." She pouted, staring at the floor.
"What, El?" Edward asked her. "You can tell Iz and me anythin' ya want."
Those big, bright green eyes slowly came up again. "Madison at school says ya have to already have a mommy to have a stepmom. And since I don't have a mommy, I can't have a stepmom."
She turned around to see Edward.
"Is she right, Daddy?"
"Well…" He puffed out a breath and came down to the floor with us, and I finally noticed how good he looked in his black tux.
He caught me staring and winked.
"Yes and no," he continued. "The thing is, sug, not every family is the same. Not everyone has a mommy and a daddy and three brothers or sisters and a dog to tell people about. Some people just have mommies. Some have daddies-"
He chuckled and tweaked the tip of her nose. "Like you. Some just have aunts and cousins and some, like me and your Aunt Rosie, get to have a mommy and a daddy for a little bit, and then get to have a nana take their place when somethin' happens to them."
Edward nodded, and ran his hand over her back. "So, ya see, Miss Izzy can be whatever ya want her to be, whenever ya want her to be it."
"So… She could be my mama if I wanted her to?"
"Eventually, yeah," he answered, and she whipped her head around to stare at me in surprise.
Nervous - hell, I was scared out of my mind - I took a deep breath and went for a smile. "I'd love to be your mom. But, Ella, I want us to live in Jacksonville for a while together and get to know each other even better than we do already. And if you decide in a few years that you love me enough to want me as your mom, too, then we'll make it so I am."
"That, Ella bug, is a conversation for another day," Edward said.
She was quiet for a while, for so long that I started to panic again.
Because what if she never wanted me to?
Then she did something that rocked me to the core.
She threw her hands around my neck and gave me a quick kiss, grinning up at me as she pulled away.
"I will love you, Miss Izzy."
My ears buzzed, and I forced myself to draw in air.
"Daddy, I go play with my Barbies now?"
"Uh…" Taken aback, he went to run his hand through his hair, only to remember he'd fixed it and dropped it at the very last second. "You've got about ten minutes before Alice is gonna come lookin' for ya. Make the most of 'em."
She skipped out of the room happily, leaving Edward and I to collapse against one another in dumbfounded silence.
Eventually, he spoke first.
Which was probably best, seeing as how my mind wouldn't stop racing, heart pounding.
"I'd say you were just initiated quite thoroughly."
"I've never been so scared of a child in all my life," I told him honestly.
With my head on his shoulder, dress all over him, he reached over and found my thigh, squeezing reassuringly.
"Ya did good, Iz."
"Thanks," I sighed, and then moved to sit up. "Now, get out of here before someone catches you and we get in trouble."
He flashed a grin at me and reached inside his tux jacket. "I really did come in here for somethin'. Stand up."
Even with the dress as constricting as it was, I managed to turn over and pick myself up off the floor, using Edward's arm for leverage.
I had my veil readjusted and was making sure I hadn't snagged my dress anywhere when Edward stood in front of me, hand fisted between us, with that same, impish smile on his face he'd had when he first came into the room.
Instantly, my eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Alright, what did you do?"
The grin widened, dimple flashed, as he unfisted his hand and let the silver necklace dangle off of his finger.
Swinging at the end of the chain was the biggest, brightest teardrop-shaped diamond I'd ever seen.
"Now, before ya get all worked up, it's a tradition in the Masen family for each Masen woman to inherit at least one piece of jewelry from the eldest at the time of her death."
"Nana's givin' it to ya a little early. It was my great grandmother's, so think of it as your somethin' old."
"Why…?" I swallowed thickly. "Why are you the one giving it to me?"
"She figured you'd take it easier from me than her."
Too overcome, I could only nod.
Gently, he unclasped the chain and put it around my neck, fingers tracing over my collarbone after he had it fastened once more.
I shivered with pleasure at the way his touch felt, the feather lightness of it when he ran the pad of his thumb under the stone and let it fall back to my skin.
His eyes were intense, the air heady.
He smiled again.
"I couldn't have dreamed up a better picture if I tried."
A broken sob escaped my lips. "Edward…"
"Shh," he murmured, his smile growing. "I'm marryin' ya in five minutes, ya know. You'll have the rest of your life to bitch at me for this."
"This too," Rosalie said quietly from the doorway.
I spun around, eyebrows drawn down in confusion, and watched as she came into the bedroom with my bouquet.
"Well, now I see why I couldn't find it a minute ago."
Looking a little nervous, she held it out to me. I noticed that wrapped around the white calla lilies now was a red, grosgrain ribbon, hiding the floral tape that had been used to bunch them together. Something silver flashed as she passed it off, and I turned it over just enough to see that a locket had been attached to it.
I opened it, saw the last picture I'd taken of my parents together, and for a moment, I couldn't move.
The world went blurry with my tears; my hand came up to smother the sound rising from my throat.
"We thought you'd want them with you today," Rosalie explained. "I hope ya don't mind me goin' through your stuff."
All I could manage was a shake of my head, because despite how much I fought it, despite how much I didn't want it…
By the miracle that was this family, here I stood again.
On the verge of starting all over.
Finally, I was ready. Willing.
I smiled and reached out to Edward, taking the hand of the man who'd healed me.
And let him lead me to where his family - our family - was waiting for us.
I was excited to post this so I thought I'd change it up and move the A/N to the bottom. That, and I got tired of seeing my bullshit in the teasers on the Book.
Thanks for all the reviews and love, the adds and shares. Thanks to the awesome Stratan for the beta work. This fic would probably suck without his input, so... yeah.
Mushy moment over.
I won't post until after the holidays (Thursday, if I can get my hands on my laptop) so for those who celebrate it, MERRY CHRISTMAS! I plan to spoil my children, and my lawyer dude, rotten ;)