A/N: Congratulations to the Seahawks on their Super Bowl win and the Broncos on their Super Bowl appearance. Thirty other teams (including my hometown team) didn't make it that far. But there's always next year!
I fully intended to get this chapter up before the Super Bowl, but it just wasn't coming together as quickly as I thought it would. Sorry for the extra wait!
As always, thanks to my friend and beta,Littlecat358, for sharing your talent. I truly appreciate all the help. Thanks for not letting me be lazy. :)
Thanks so much for reading. Please review.
In general, I'm not much of a gambler. I don't buy lottery tickets or wager money on sports. But if the odds makers had set the over-under on our first fight of cohabitation at three days, I would have bet the farm on the over.
And I would have lost.
Only two days in, Cullen stands in front of the bedroom closet at my old apartment, resting his hands on his hips and frowning at me. Hanging behind him are the objects at the center of our disagreement: My summer clothes.
"Cullen, you're overreacting," I say, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. Shifting my weight onto my left leg, I mirror his stance.
"Half of your stuff is still here."
"Almost everything except my furniture is at your place," I argue sharply.
"Our place," he mutters through clenched teeth.
Rolling my lips together in frustration, I bow my head for the briefest second to exhale, and then look up at him again. "Our place."
Although neither of us is smiling right now, the last two days have been idyllic. I'm not surprised by how easily Cullen has welcomed my complete invasion of his territory, but I am amazed by how different it feels to be a resident of the penthouse instead of a guest. I got a little thrill when I saw him using my favorite pan to sauté vegetables last night, and then he offered to hang some of my artwork on the living room wall. After he saw me struggling to fit everything in my side of the dresser, he shifted his clothes around so I could have an extra drawer. When I asked if we could rearrange the bedroom furniture to make room for my favorite, overstuffed chair, he readily agreed and wanted to help me move it this afternoon.
Our blissful bubble popped, however, when we got to my apartment ten minutes ago. First, he questioned me about the books I left on a shelf – books I wasn't planning to keep. He was temporarily pacified by that explanation, but when we walked into my old bedroom, the sight of hanging garments set him off again. Son of a buck. Why didn't I shut the closet doors when I left here two days ago?
"You left most of your books and a closetful of clothes here," he complains, his scowl indicating that my effort to placate him has failed.
"You're exaggerating." I force my tone to stay level, but I'm becoming increasingly irritated that I have to defend myself. His mouth, lips drawn into a thin line, stays closed for the first time since he discovered my not-quite-empty closet. The silence prods me to continue. "You're making a big deal out of nothing."
"It's symbolic. You always hold a piece of yourself back from me."
"You didn't accuse me of holding anything back last night," I quip suggestively, unable to stifle the wisecrack. Remorse rushes through me when I see the quick flash of annoyance in his eyes, but he retorts before I can apologize for my tactless attempt at humor.
"This isn't about sex, Bella."
"I understand that, Edward," I answer, mimicking his belittling tone. Pissed off by the way he's speaking to me, my heart beats faster, and even though I have a feeling I'll regret them, the snotty words just keep coming. "It's about my miniskirt collection."
"It's the same shit every time with you," he contends, completely ignoring my comments. "You're either unwilling or incapable of letting your guard down and fully committing to this relationship. To me."
Although his remark gives me pause – accompanied by a sick, stomach-dropping sensation – when I realize that he might have pinpointed my subconscious intention, my ire smothers any ability to discuss it rationally at the moment. Charging forward, I elbow him out of the way.
"It's just summer stuff and four cocktail dresses! I haven't even been to a cocktail party in more than two years," I snap, pulling some of the hangers from the rod. "But if you want me to move all the freaking clothes, then I'll move all the freaking clothes."
He steps away to stand beside the bed, watching while I make two trips from the closet and back. Close to tears, I refuse to make eye contact with him as I lay the offending garments in piles on top of the comforter.
"Every time I think you're finally letting me all the way in, you throw another obstacle in our path," he declares.
"You're the one who told me to keep the apartment. You knew I was going to leave stuff here."
"Furniture. You said you were leaving furniture."
"This is ridiculous," I grumble petulantly, grabbing the last few hangers from the rod. I whirl around and stomp toward the bed, but he blocks my way.
"Yeah. Ridiculous for me to think that you wouldn't leave yourself an escape route. Enjoy this while it lasts, and then go right back to your old life if things get tough. It's an easy out." Reaching forward, he tries to take the load of clothing from my arms. "Let go."
"You let go," I counter, hanging on tightly. Lifting my chin, I look up at him, and then wish I hadn't. His wounded green eyes are fixed on mine, and I suddenly want to tell him that he couldn't be more wrong… that I think it might kill me to lose him. Panicked by the urge to expose my most insecure thoughts, my deepest fears, I lash out. "You might not even be here by summertime. I'll probably just have to move everything twice."
"Jesus Christ. Let go." He pulls on the clothes, shifting them slightly his way before I yank them back. "Why are you constantly talking about me leaving Seattle?"
"Because I'm afraid we'll end up like my parents!"
I let go of the hangers just as he tugs again. He staggers backward a step, hitting the bed and sitting down on it with a grunt and an armful of sequined formalwear. Embarrassed by the way the truth spilled out of me so dramatically, I back up, too, crossing my arms over my chest.
"What are you talking about?" His deep frown illustrates his confusion.
"When I was in first grade, my dad was playing for the Saints. He was traded to the Cards in October, but my mom didn't want to move me during the school year," I explain, breathing rapidly. I can hear how shrill my voice is, and I wish I could calm down, but the adrenaline rushing through me won't allow it. "By the time we moved to Phoenix in June, they'd grown apart."
"My parents grew apart living under the same roof and sharing a bed," he stresses, apparently unconvinced that my fear is valid. "I don't want us to end up like them either, but I'm not using that as an excuse to throw in the towel on this relationship every time I get nervous."
"You always disregard my feelings! You want me to be open with you, but when I am, you sweep my worries aside like they're not important."
"I'm just pointing out that every relationship can fail if both people in it don't make an effort."
"Long-distance is different, though… harder," I insist, despite the fact that my opinion was fully formed based on other people's experience. I have no firsthand knowledge about how difficult it really is. "It'll be fine at first, but after a while, you'll be busy with your life there; I'll be busy with mine here. We'll put off seeing each other, and then it'll just fizzle out. Plus, women will be throwing themselves at you constantly."
"I want to be with you, Swan. Not anyone else," he asserts vehemently, more angry than he was a few minutes ago. "I thought you understood that. I thought we were making progress. But you still have such little faith in us that you have our hypothetical break up all mapped out?"
"I don't want to break up," I declare, unable to stop my voice from cracking.
"Really? Because what you're doing – keeping these walls between us – will ruin our relationship faster than me living in another city for part of the year."
His honest, insightful words affect me immediately, softening my anger. Tears gather in my eyes while I try to figure out what to say. Cullen doesn't speak either, letting the weighty silence hang between us.
"You're right," I finally whisper, bowing my head.
He sighs heavily. "We'll both have to work to keep our relationship strong, whether we're living together or apart."
"I know," I sniffle, grateful that he doesn't sound as mad as he did a moment ago.
"When I told you that we'd figure this stuff out together at the end of the season, did you believe me?"
"Then why are you freaking out?"
"It's what I do, Cullen. You know that."
His quiet chuckle is accompanied by the rustle of fabric, and I look up from under my brow to see him setting my dresses beside him on the bed. Stepping forward before he reaches for me, I wrap my arms around his shoulders, holding tightly. After a moment, he lies back, taking me along as he sprawls out on top of my summer wardrobe. Draped across his chest, I rest my head over his heart, listening to the slow, steady beat and letting his embrace soothe me.
"I don't want to lose you." My voice is hushed, a sharp contrast to the enormity of my revelation. Cullen tightens his embrace and gently rolls to the side, reversing our positions. His unguarded gaze holds mine, and I can see by the look in his eyes that he understands how difficult it is for me to bare my deepest fear to him.
"I'm not going anywhere, legs," he asserts, lifting one hand to my neck. I reach for his forearm, sliding my fingers back and forth. "I didn't mean to dismiss your feelings earlier… about what happened with your parents' marriage. I'm sorry. I'm glad you told me about it."
"But we're not our parents, Bella. I know what I want, and I'm all in." I smile partway at his use of gambling lingo; I guess both of us are betting on this relationship. "Everything's gonna work out if we want it to."
"I want it to," I say, closing my eyes when he rests his forehead against mine. Arching up, I press my lips to his several times. "I'm getting better, Cullen. I didn't run away this time when I freaked out."
Lifting his head, he grins amusedly at me. "True. We are at your old apartment, though. And the keys to your truck are in my pocket."
"Yeah, but still."
We both laugh lightly as he agrees. "But still." When he leans down to kiss me again, I press my hand against his chest, halting him. Although it goes against every cowardly impulse I have, I force myself to tell him the rest.
"I didn't want to."
"Didn't want to what, baby?"
"Run. I didn't want to run from you. It never even crossed my mind."
I'm not sure what I thought his reaction to my statement would be, but I'm a little startled by his sweet smile, by the way his eyes instantly darken. His lips capture mine, moving demandingly, taking my breath away. Within moments, we're frantically pulling at each other's clothes. And when he plunges into me, I don't care that we're lying on top of a cocktail dress I've only worn once.
I don't really like sequins anyway.
Eight days later, I sit in the back room of Cooper's bar looking down at my fantasy roster, but listening to some guys at the end of the long table talk about Cullen. After the Seahawks' win over the Colts last Sunday, I'm not surprised to hear them heaping praise on my favorite QB… and I can't quite suppress my prideful grin. When their talk turns to the worst-kept secret in town – the fact that the Seahawks and Cullen's agent have begun negotiating a contract extension – my stomach flutters nervously. Although Cullen is optimistic that he'll sign a deal within the next few weeks, the possibility that it could fall through has me on edge.
Deciding to distract myself, I glance sideways at Emmett, sitting in the chair next to me. I watch closely as he takes a chip from the platter of nachos between us and piles jalapenos on top.
"So, are you taking the red-headed Seagal home with you for Thanksgiving next week?"
"Um, huh uh," he replies, still concentrating on pepper placement. "We're… not…"
When the second pause lasts longer than I think it should, I offer a suggestion. "Dating?"
With a quick grin, he turns toward me. "I was gonna say fucking." He stuffs the loaded chip into his mouth and continues talking, requiring me to use the Emmett-deciphering skill I've honed over the last five years to interpret his mangled words. "But I thought it would be rude."
"More rude than that?" I ask, pointing toward his smacking lips. Torn between disgust and amusement, I shake my head at him.
"Oh, shit! Hot, hot," he whines. He lifts his beer, sees that the bottle is empty, and then makes a grab for mine.
"No way!" I snatch the bottle from the table and hold it to my chest. "I've only had three sips out of it. You're not filling it with your nacho backwash."
"I'll buy you another one," he pants, his face reddening. "Hurry. Hurry."
"You're an idiot," I grumble, handing him my drink and watching as he guzzles the liquid. "Only you would put nine jalapenos on a chip and eat it all in one bite."
"Bar trick," he says, lowering the bottle to take a quick breath. "Gets me sympathy – and a drink – from a pretty girl every time."
"That comment will cost you an extra beer," I retort with a laugh, holding three fingers up at the waitress when she walks by. I check my watch and see that we still have fifteen minutes before the fantasy meeting starts. "What happened with the redhead?"
"I don't really know. A couple of weeks ago, we both started making excuses why we couldn't…"
"I was gonna say see each other. Don't be so crass, Swan," he says teasingly, but in the space of one heartbeat, I watch his expression turn gloomy. Unable to tell if he's joking or not, I narrow my eyes slightly. "I really thought that I was falling in love with her at first. She was smart and smokin' hot. The sex was in-fucking-credible. But after a few weeks, I realized that all we did was drink and screw. Clothed and sober, we had nothing. I want… more. I want a girlfriend. Is that weird?"
"No," I scoff facetiously. "What's weird is that you seem to have grown a vagina since the show ended this morning. Why are we talking about feelings after only one drink?"
"I don't know." He looks down at his beer, shoulders slumping. He rotates the bottle, wiping the condensation from the dark glass with swipes of his thumb. I'm not used to such an introspective Emmett, but I'm becoming convinced that there's no punch line coming at the end of his story. "I guess because you're the only close friend I have who's a girl."
Feeling guilty for responding flippantly when he was actually seeking advice, I grasp his forearm. "Emmett, I–."
"Wait! Why am I asking you? You've been as unlucky in love as I have," he interrupts, turning his head to look at me. He jabs my upper arm with his elbow. "You want to come to Alaska with me for Thanksgiving? Have you ever been to my home state?"
"No and no," I answer, twisting to say thank you to the waitress when she sets our drinks on the table.
"Swan, do you know the male to female ratio in Alaska?"
"Hmm mmm," I hum, lifting one icy bottle to my lips.
"There are, like, a hundred and seven men for every woman."
"Your talent for distortion is reaching new heights, Em. I don't think that's the real statistic."
"It felt real when I was trying to get dates with hot girls during high school," he remarks, pursing his lips so that his dimples appear deeper, cuter. He leans close, clamping one hand on my shoulder. "You know what my sister says about the chances of finding a man in Alaska? The odds are good, but the goods are odd."
"Doesn't she still live in Alaska?" I ask, chuckling.
"Yep. And her boyfriend's a fucking creeper," he answers. "See, Swan? All that could be yours."
"Wow. What a sales job," I say, patting his cheek. "I appreciate the offer, but I think I'll pass."
With a shrug, he goes back to filling in his roster. Sitting back in my chair, I sip my beer while I look around the room, sizing up the competition. I didn't have a great fantasy week and fell one spot in the standings. But Peter the prick's drop from the top has been legendary. He's fallen steadily during the last few weeks, and hasn't even shown up yet tonight. I hide my cackle and evil grin by taking another big drink.
"Do you think it's true?" Emmett's quiet, earnest question startles me. Puzzled by his mood swings tonight, I turn toward him with a furrowed brow, swallowing the liquid in my mouth. He keeps his eyes focused on his paper, though. "The way people talk about meeting someone and with just one word, one look, bam! They know it's love. Do you think that's true?"
Although I don't show it, my reaction is immediate. Staring at the side of Em's face, I see Cullen in my mind. My body relives the heart-skipping, stomach-flopping sensation that swept through me on the morning we met at the studio. I remember thinking he was beautiful as soon as he removed his helmet, but the moment our gazes locked and he spoke directly to me – only me – my spine tingled and my breath quickened. Just the memory of it has the same effect on me now.
Was it love at first sight? Lust at first sight? I don't know, but my body, my heart, seemed to recognize that something unspoken was happening between us with just that one word – "Seven". I feel my lips curve upward slightly.
"Yeah, Em. I think it's true for some people."
"I think so, too." he asks, turning to look at me at last. "Have you ever felt like that about someone?"
Taking another gulp of my beer in hopes that it will disguise the thickness of my voice, I answer honestly, "Once."
"Hey, guys. Thanks for saving me a seat," Connor says, pulling out the vacant chair on my other side and rescuing me from any further questioning. "What's with the long faces?"
"Emmett and the redhead are no longer an item," I explain, assuming Emmett would prefer that excuse for our seriousness. I pass Connor the extra beer.
"Sorry, dude. You didn't love her, though," Connor reasons. He holds his beer toward us. "You'll find the right girl. Here's to the next one being the one."
In typical Emmett fashion, he adds to the toast, wishing that the one be gifted with a great rack. I roll my eyes while the guys laugh. But as we tap our bottles together and drink, I see the look in Emmett's eyes… and I've never hoped more that something great happens for him.
In the hallway outside the penthouse, I stand wrapped in Cullen's arms, kissing him. When I feel his grip loosen, feel him reach one hand toward the call button for the elevator, I protest.
"Not yet," I whisper against his lips.
"I have to go, legs."
"Two more minutes?"
His throaty chuckle vibrates through both of our chests. "Two more minutes," he affirms.
Pushing up onto my tiptoes, I hang on to him a little more tightly as I move my mouth urgently with his. He digs one hand into my hair, holding my head still as he tilts his, sliding his tongue tantalizingly along mine. Too soon, though, he starts to pull away again, pecking my lips softly as he pushes the down button.
With a sigh, I stand flat-footed again, looking up at him. "I'll miss you," I say quietly. "Good luck Sunday."
"I may need more luck Saturday," he muses, alluding to the fact that his family is planning to drive from Chicago to Green Bay to see him tomorrow. He hasn't said a lot about it, but after the way Carlisle and Esme hurt him a few weeks ago, I'm apprehensive that this visit won't go well. Since Cullen is currently avoiding my gaze and clenching his jaw, I think he feels the same way.
"You'll get to see your granddad, too," I remind him, trying to sound cheerful as he pulls me to his chest. I can hear the elevator coming up the shaft, and I bury my face against his shirt, inhaling his scent one more time. "I love you."
"You, too, legs," he answers, kissing the top of my head. "I'll call you when I get to the hotel tonight."
After a final goodbye kiss, he picks up his bag and steps onto the elevator when it arrives. We smile at each other as the door slides closed, and then I turn away with a sigh, walking back inside the penthouse.
As part of my commitment-phobia rehab, I drive to my old apartment the next afternoon and pack up all the odds and ends I left there. Books, unneeded kitchen utensils and old towels go in a box to be dropped off at a donation center. I use extra sheets to cover up my couch and loveseat, and then look around one last time. I'll still come back, of course, to check on the apartment and pick up my mail, but this is it. Everything is gone except the furniture. The tiny twinge of sadness I feel doesn't faze me; I don't regret moving out and I don't want to go back to my old, Cullen-free life. Picking up the box, I step into the hallway and pull the door shut behind me.
Sunday morning, I settle on the couch to watch the game. Although Cullen and I talked on the phone last night, he wasn't in a very good mood and he didn't mention his family. I tried to ask about them, but he quickly steered the conversation in another direction, and then told me he needed to get to sleep. He texted me this morning before he went to Lambeau Field, but all he said was that he loves me and he'll call after the game.
I wait impatiently through the pre-game analysis given by the booth announcers, wishing the camera would switch from their faces to the players warming up on the field. Finally, they cut to a shot of Cullen standing on the sideline.
"Oh, hell," I mumble, wrinkling my nose when I see the dark circles under his eyes, visible just above the rectangles of eye black smeared across his cheekbones. He shakes his head at something the quarterback coach says, the stony set of his jaw never changing. I don't like the way he looks – and neither does my suddenly churning stomach.
As the game begins, I take notes and keep offensive stats on my laptop. Cullen's completion percentage is down slightly, but it's the yards-after-catch total that dips the most. None of the receivers can get free of the defenders enough to gain more than two or three yards after a reception. Even with halftime adjustments, the Seahawks' offense never really gets going.
With a sinking heart, I watch Cullen trudge to the sideline after throwing a pick six in the third quarter, allowing the Packers to go ahead by two touchdowns. He's had enough media training to know that he shouldn't show a lot of anger when the cameras are on him unless he wants to be the lead story on SportsCenter, but the fact that he shows no emotion at all concerns me. He sits on the bench looking through the pictures taken during the last drive with a blank expression on his face.
During the fourth quarter, the offense performs a little better. Cullen completes one deep pass to Whitlock, and Fuller rushes eighteen yards for a touchdown, but it's too little, too late. The game ends with the Seahawks losing by ten.
I watch Cullen's televised press conference, hating the flat look in his eyes. He suffers with every loss, but this one seems to be especially painful for him. Standing at the podium, he answers every question the reporters ask, but he lacks the easy wit he normally exhibits when speaking to them. His words are still thoughtful; I see his left eye narrow the way it does when he's contemplating what to say. He compliments the Packers' defense. And even though he wasn't the only one on the team who didn't play well, he takes all the blame for the loss.
I text him when he's done, asking him to call me. He answers almost immediately.
*Don't feel like talking now, legs. I'll see you at home.
I reply that I understand, and I do, but my chest aches for the rest of the day. I stay busy by watching other NFL games and making a list of topics for the show tomorrow morning. In my head, I imagine which side Emmett will want to take on most of the topics and try to formulate responses supporting the opposite view.
It's almost eleven o'clock when I finally hear the soft bell of the elevator. Scrambling up from the couch, I leave the sex blankie and the book I was reading where I sat and rush toward the hallway, arriving just as Cullen walks off the elevator. Without saying a word, I go straight toward him and hug him tightly, winding one arm around his neck and the other around his waist. He stands still for a few seconds before he lets his duffle bag drop to the floor and returns the embrace. Bit by bit, I feel his body relax while I rub his back gently, slide my fingers along the nape of his neck.
"You don't have anything to say, legs?" he finally asks. "No smartass comment? No 'Get it together, Cullen'?"
"No," I murmur against his shoulder. "Sometimes when you have a crappy day, you just need to know that someone loves you. And I do."
He swallows before he speaks. "Thank you, Swan," he says hoarsely. "Thank you for always knowing what I need. I love you, too."
We remain in place for a few more minutes before we let go. Pulling back enough to look into his eyes, I shift one hand to his face. "What else do you need?"
"A shower. Come with me?"
Understanding what he's asking, I take his hand and lead him back to our bathroom. I open the shower door and turn on all the showerheads and the steam. While the water warms up, we undress each other, exchanging lingering kisses. Once we're in the steamy stall, I trace the lines of his shoulders and chest with my fingertips, leaning forward to kiss his wet skin.
"I'm keeping you up too late," he mumbles, sinking his hands into my hair.
"I'll take a nap tomorrow," I answer, tilting my head back to look at him. He bends down to kiss me, but it's obvious that his mind is somewhere else. When I pull away to look questioningly at him, he lets out a heavy sigh.
"Sorry, legs. I can't get all this shit out of my head." He drops his hands and sits down on the wide, built-in bench.
"Do you want me to leave you alone?" I ask tentatively. Leaning against the tile at his back, he closes his eyes and shakes his head. "Do you want to talk about what's bugging you?"
"You watched the game, right?"
"Yeah, baby. I watched."
"My performance proved the point my parents made yesterday. To them, at least." Raising his right hand, he presses his fingers against his eyes and swallows. "According to them, I'm wasting my life working at a career that isn't specialized or cerebral. And today I wasn't even good at it."
Immediately, pain slices through my chest, my eyes fill with tears. I'm also enraged at his parents for being a constant source of criticism in his life, but right now, making Cullen feel better is my main focus.
"Edward Cullen, your job is so specialized that only thirty-one other people on the entire planet have it at any given time," I say fiercely. "You have excellent analytical skills and you remember everything you see on film. You process more information in the first two-tenths of a second after the ball is snapped than most people process in two minutes – from the movement of the defense to the ability of the receivers to shake loose in the flat and stay on their routes."
"I appreciate the vote of confidence, Swan, but we both know I got lucky stepping into the situation here. There were already good pieces in place."
"So? It's your job to execute plays and make all those pieces work together," I say, my voice trembling. "And you do it. Every week. Win or lose. I think you're incredible."
"It's just never going to be enough for them. I have to accept that." When I sniffle, he moves his hand, opening his eyes to look up at me through the steam. "Don't cry, Swan. It's not worth it."
"You're worth it," I declare. He reaches for me and I step between his legs, clutching his shoulders. Resting his head against my stomach, he wraps his arms around my waist. "What about your granddad? What does he think?"
"He said, 'Screw what they want and make yourself happy'," he recalls, causing me to smile. I think I love his granddad. "And then he told me that his parents didn't want him to be a musician. But if he hadn't been playing in that little jazz club in Chicago, he wouldn't have met Gran. And I started thinking that if I wasn't playing football, I never would have moved here and had my ass insulted on the radio."
Tilting his head back slightly, he grins crookedly at me.
"I apologized," I defend, smiling back and hoping that his heavy mood is starting to fade. I stroke my fingers across his cheek. "But I'm not really sorry that I said it."
"I'm not either," he says quietly, pressing his lips against my skin. As he kisses his way across my stomach, his hands skim up my back, and then down to grasp the backs of my thighs. "We met the next day because of it."
I start to answer him, but then exhale in a gust instead when he circles my belly button with his tongue. The flash of desire is immediate and has me gripping his shoulders, trying to remain standing on my shaky legs. Wrapping one arm around my waist to support me, he moves his mouth slowly up the center of my body. My lips fall open; my nails dig into his skin as he teases the area between my breasts.
"Cullen. Oh, God," I whisper, shivering slightly as a tingle spreads up my spine and down my arms. He closes his hand over one breast and his mouth over the other, and then looks up at me while he sucks strongly. "I'm supposed to be making you feel better."
Humming against my skin, he swirls his tongue around my nipple and nudges my foot with his until I step apart. When his fingers slip from my breast and trail down my abdomen, I moan, waiting impatiently for his touch. Just before he slides his fingers between my legs, he pulls his mouth away from my breast.
"Watching you like this does make me feel better," he says.
He keeps his gaze locked with mine as his fingers skim over my clit and push inside me. It feels so good, his hand pressed against me, that I can't stop my hips from rocking forward. Slow strokes gradually speed up, the pleasure building until my eyes close, my head falls back. Crying out when the orgasm bursts through me, I let him hold me up, I savor the sensation of his stubble-covered chin rubbing back and forth across my stomach. As my body returns to normal, I look down at him, smile when he smiles at me, and move willingly when he pulls me to straddle him.
Kissing him, I glide my tongue along his bottom lip, and then pull it between mine to suck gently. His hands cup the sides of my neck, fingers sliding under my wet hair as he responds to my attention. Intending to draw out his pleasure, I smooth my fingertips across his face, down his neck. I trace the muscles of his shoulders and arms. Finally, I place my palms against his chest and let them fall slowly. He groans into my open mouth as I finally wrap my hand around him.
"I love you so much," I murmur against his lips.
His only reply is to kiss me more passionately. He doesn't let me continue caressing him very long, pulling my hand away and shifting us so I can sink down onto him. Tongues tangling, we breathe into each other's mouths, but I know he needs more. I need more. Gripping his shoulders, I lift myself slowly, delighting in the low sound Cullen makes. His hands land on my waist, fingers digging in, to guide me in the rhythm he wants, and soon I feel myself racing toward another orgasm. Sliding his hands to my ass, he moves me faster, driving into me at the same time. Wrenching my mouth away from his, I hold him close as I come again, feeling him follow right after.
Panting, we stay still, wrapped around each other and surrounded by steam. He leans against the tile wall and I lean against him, burying my face in his neck. His fingers skim up and down my spine a few times, tickling me, before I feel his hands drop away to rest on the seat beside my legs. Smiling softly, I hope that he's as satisfied as I am.
"Hey, legs," he mutters several minutes later, his voice deep and raspy. He waits until I answer before continuing. "We've been in this shower for half an hour and we're dirtier than when we got in."
Laughing, I sit up to look at him. He's smiling, eyes barely open. "Come on, baby. I'll wash you off."
He grips my legs, not letting me stand quite yet. "Kiss me first," he pleads. I press my lips to his gently. "Thanks for staying up with me."
After answering, I get up and pull him to his feet, rambling about my weekend while we finish showering. Wrapped in a towel, he steps out of the stall first, and then offers me his hand as I follow.
"What are we doing for Thanksgiving?" he asks, surprising me.
"Um, I don't… don't you have regular practice Thursday?"
"Yeah, but I have Tuesday off. We could cook then."
All my life, holidays that take place during football season have just been regular workdays for my dad. It's a side effect of the business. We've always celebrated in February when he has some time off. Before now, it didn't occur to me that things would be any different with Cullen, but I'm instantly grinning, excited by his suggestion.
"Really," he nods. "I know my schedule screws it up some, but I don't want to just ignore our first big holiday together. Even if we can't have Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving."
"It's not about which day we cook the bird, Cullen. It's about taking time to be grateful for what we have," I contend.
"You're right. Maybe it should be our tradition – Thanksgiving on Tuesday every year." I recognize the telltale redness creeping into his cheeks and know that he's anxious about what he's saying. "What do you think?"
"I think having a tradition with you sounds absolutely perfect." Holding my towel closed with one hand, I raise the other to his neck and boost myself up to kiss him.
We talk a little about what food we want to make, but neither of us can stop yawning while I dry my hair. When we get into bed several minutes later, he curls up behind me, holding me close.
"Cullen, can I tell you something?" I whisper.
"I never had a best friend when I was growing up. I mean, I had good friends, but I didn't have anyone that I told everything to," I confide. Reaching for the hand he has draped across my waist, I pull it to my lips, kissing his fingers. "Until you. You're my best friend."
"You're my best friend, too, Swan," he responds, his soft words slightly slurred with sleepiness. "I love you so much."
Hearing him echo my feelings, I sigh happily and let my eyes slide closed. Too tired to answer, I squeeze his hand, trusting that he'll understand what I mean… and he squeezes back.
"This is the best stuffing," Sue says, setting an index card in front of me. Pointing my phone at it, I take a picture of each side of the card while she continues flipping through her recipe book.
"Will I be able to make all this stuff?" I mumble, flicking my finger across the screen and perusing the recipes for all the Thanksgiving dinner staples. Turkey. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes. Sweet potatoes. Pumpkin pie.
"Use the refrigerated pie crust," she advises. "You'll be fine for all the others."
"Thank you for everything," I smile.
I freaked out this afternoon, realizing that I've never done more than assist in the kitchen for holiday meals. My mom isn't a great cook, but Sue is. When I called her for help, she volunteered to share all her recipes… and she hasn't asked a single question about why I want them. Judging by her knowing smiles, though, she's guessed I'm cooking for a man.
"You're welcome, sweetie."
We both turn toward the back door when it opens and my dad walks in.
"Hi, Bells! I was surprised to see your truck in the driveway. Everything okay?"
"Hey, Dad," I reply, standing up to hug and kiss him. "Things are fine."
"What brings you by?" He releases me partway, but keeps one arm around my shoulders.
"I just came to see Sue."
"Isn't that your holiday cookbook, honey?" he asks her, pointing toward the table. Before she has a chance to answer, he turns to look at me, sadness evident in his brown eyes. "You're cooking Thanksgiving dinner? You're not going to your mom's this year? You could go to Portland with Sue, you know."
"She knows she's welcome at my sister's house, Charlie," Sue points out. "She doesn't want to go."
"She should be with family," he insists, clearly not catching Sue's hint. "I hate that I always miss the holidays with you two.
"Oh, my God," I groan, pulling away from him and sitting down again. "Dad, can we please not do the guilt thing again?"
"I just want you to be happy."
"I am," I say emphatically, letting my head hang back to look up at him. "I had a happy childhood. I have a happy adulthood. I'm not scarred because you have to work on holidays during the season. We'll celebrate Thanksgiving-mas in February the way we have since I was a kid."
He chuckles at my use of the moniker we came up with years ago for our make-up holiday. Resting his hands on my shoulders, he squeezes lightly before moving toward Sue. He bends down to kiss her, and then sits down, shrugging out of his jacket. I stay a little longer, but now that I know Cullen is probably at the penthouse, I'm itching to get there, too. After hugging and kissing them both, I head for home.
"C'mere," Cullen mutters, lifting his head to look at me.
"I can't," I whine, adjusting the decorative pillow under my head. "I'm miserable."
Chuckling, he grabs my foot. "Me, too. We made a damn good Tuesday Thanksgiving, legs," he pronounces.
In spite of my state of discomfort, I smile when I think about the day. Cullen did all the grocery shopping while I was at work, and we spent the rest of the day side-by-side in the kitchen. We've cooked a lot of meals and spent a lot of Tuesdays together, but today ranks among the best of both. We laughed at each other's funny stories about Thanksgivings past and reminisced about our grandmothers. We Googled cooking terminology we didn't know, dumped out one dish that went horribly wrong and high-fived every time something turned out well.
When we finally sat down at the table, we toasted to our first holiday and named the things we're thankful for. By dessert, I'd had two glasses of pinot and too much food, so I only had a couple of bites of pie. Cullen, however, topped his piece with whipped cream and ate the whole thing before we moved to the living room and collapsed on opposite ends of the couch.
"I agree," I answer with a satisfied sigh. "And we're good, too, right? I mean, every day, even though I think this – us – can't get better… it just does."
"Yeah, Bella. We're good, too." His voice is raspy as his fingers tighten around my foot. "Make room. I'm coming up there."
Rolling to my side, I giggle as he moves to lie next to me, groaning from the effort. We face each other, intertwining our arms and legs. Content to enjoy the closeness of the moment, we kiss unhurriedly, pausing often to smile at each other. My chest swells, overcome with love for him, gratitude for this day.
"We forgot to do the wishbone," he remembers, pulling back.
"I'm too comfortable to get up, Cullen."
"But it's a tradition. It's good luck." I have no defense against the wrinkled brow, the plaintive look in his eyes.
"All right, but I'm still not getting up. We'll have to improvise. Close your eyes and hold out your pinky," I order, smiling when he immediately complies. He's so boyishly cute this way. I hook my pinky around his and lean forward to kiss him. "Make a wish and pull."
Physically, I know I'm no match for Cullen, but I also know he won't use all his strength to beat me right off the bat. I put up a fight long enough that I hope he won't know I'm totally letting him win, and then give up the struggle. Clasping my hand to his chest, he opens his eyes and grins crookedly at me.
"Did you lose on purpose so I could get my wish?"
Shrugging one shoulder, I answer cryptically. "Maybe. What did you wish for?"
"If I tell you, it won't come true," he refuses, wrapping his arm around my waist. He slips his hand up the back of my shirt, gliding his fingers along my skin. "What about yours?"
"I couldn't think of anything to wish for," I admit. "I have everything I want right here. I'm so happy."
"I am, too."
"But you still made a wish."
"So maybe my wish involves you… and me… and our happiness," he leads, raising one eyebrow at me.
"Cullen, I'm suffering from tryptophan overload," I complain, burrowing into his chest. "I'm only going to be awake about forty-five more seconds. I can't follow some wayward brain teaser tonight."
"Okay, baby. Go to sleep. I'll fill you in later."
Before I slip into the kind of nap that's only possible when you have a full stomach and a full heart, I clutch his shirt in my fist, loving the way he's wrapped both arms around me.
"Happy first Thanksgiving," I mumble.
His lips rest against my forehead, ruffling my hair as he answers. "Happy first Thanksgiving, Swan."
On Sunday, Cullen and his teammates play an almost flawless game in Houston, scoring thirty-one points while holding the Texans to just a field goal. Cullen takes a knee on the last play of the game and keeps his expression neutral as he shakes hands with several players on the other team, but he doesn't fool me. I see the excitement in his eyes. The win is the most lopsided so far this year, and is Cullen's best statistical game to date. I watch with joy as he answers questions during the post-game presser with his usual unassuming humor. When he gets home late that night, his smile is wide and his eyes are shining.
After a short practice on Monday, he spends several hours doing radio and television interviews for both local and national media outlets. But by early evening, he's situated on the leather couch in the living room, watching game film of the Vikings to prepare for next weekend. His playbook is open on the coffee table in front of him, and he's taking notes on the legal pad balanced in his lap.
He seems engrossed in his task, so when I pick my laptop up from the kitchen counter and head toward the bedroom, I try to be quiet. He doesn't turn to look at me, but as I walk past, he reaches one arm over his head, bent at the elbow, palm up.
"Come here, legs."
Veering his way, I skim my fingers across his palm playfully. Bending over the back of the couch, I set my laptop down beside him and kiss the top of his head. When I wrap my arms around his shoulders, he threads his fingers with mine.
"Watch this." Grabbing the remote, he rewinds the video and shows me several plays. "Tell me what you see."
"Hmmm. They give the illusion of pressure by lining up in blitz formation, but they don't blitz when the ball is snapped," I say, surprised that I can concentrate on the television with his thumb rhythmically stroking the underside of my wrist. "They drop back and play man-on-man at the line most of the time."
"I think you can go after the weak side safety," I continue. "It looks like he usually bites on the out route and tries to go stride for stride with the wide receiver. If the receiver stutters and switches back toward the post, the safety will run right by. Nobody else in the secondary is fast enough to catch the wide receiver, leaving the potential for a big gain."
"I love listening to you break down the defense," he says, squeezing my fingers as he presses his lips to them.
"You love getting me to do your work for you," I tease, even though I can read on his notepad that he's already identified the same patterns I did, plus more. I kiss him again before I pull away. "I'm going to go finish a couple of things for the morning. Are you coming to bed soon?"
"Yeah. In a bit," he answers, but I can tell I've already lost his attention as he goes back to watching the video.
An hour later, I'm typing notes for the show when I hear Cullen come into the room. Sitting propped against the headboard, I see him standing at the end of the bed, but he doesn't say anything until I look up at him, raising my eyebrows.
"Hey." I continue typing, trying not to lose my train of thought.
He crawls up the bed to lie facedown, wrapping his arms around my waist. I glance at the screen again, my fingers clicking quickly across the keys. Using his forearm, he nudges the laptop away from me until it becomes difficult to type. More amused than annoyed, I save the document and move the computer off my legs. Immediately, Cullen shifts to put his head in my lap, closing his eyes as I drag my fingers through the top of his hair again and again. I rest my other hand in the middle of his chest, and he reaches for it, playing idly with my fingers.
"I love you, Swan," he says quietly.
"I love you, too. Are you done studying?"
"For tonight. I'll get more video tomorrow."
"Good. I don't want you flattened by any of those defensive backs next Sunday. Burgess really trucks around the outside if he gets a jump on the O-line."
"I don't want to talk about football, Bella," he murmurs.
"Okay," I smile, playing along. "What do you want to talk about?"
"Do you get the whole day off?"
"Yeah. No practice. No meetings," he confirms. "Do you have plans after your show?"
"Nope," I answer, still sliding my fingers through his hair. "Why?"
"I've been thinking that we should… I want us to do something."
"What do you want us to do?" I ask, mentally running through the list of Seattle activities he's mentioned before. The ferry. The aquarium. The vintage music store on Pike Street.
But staring down at him, I see his face begin to redden and immediately sense that none of those things are what he has in mind. Realizing that he's nervous to tell me, I feel a sense of dread begin to spread outward from my chest, and I have to remind myself that he just said he loves me; whatever he wants can't be that bad. When I feel his heart beating rapidly under my palm, however, my stomach flips and I have a hard time breathing.
His Adam's apple bobs as he swallows, and then his eyes pop open. The bright green gaze that meets mine is anxious… expectant.