A/N: Sorry for the unplanned delay. I'll save the random rambles for after the chap. Read or skip as you wish. :)
Thanks so much to Littlecat358 for always helping when I need it and for making great suggestions.
I truly appreciate the reviews, follows and favorites. Thanks also to those who have rec'd the story via blog, word of mouth or otherwise. xxoo
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With the sound of my rapid heartbeats echoing in my ears, I sit stunned, staring down at Cullen as my mouth hangs slightly open. Sprawled sideways on the bed with his head in my lap, he stares back. His vivid gaze is paralyzing; I can't look away, although I think I want to. Suddenly heavy, my arms go slack, causing the hand I have in his hair to drop and lay motionless on my leg.
"Wha–?" Exhaling in a gust, the word is hardly audible, even to me.
"Let's get married."
When I hear his simple statement, my other hand tightens, balling into a fist on his chest and clutching the material of his shirt between my fingers. Cullen's large hand covers it, his thumb sliding rhythmically across my knuckles. Blinking slowly, I try to process what he's now said twice. My mind races, but comes up blank.
"Legs, I know there's an extensive vocabulary in there somewhere," he murmurs. His voice is tinged with amusement, but his face remains sincere. "Do I really have to repeat myself? Again?"
"Huh uh." Through the fog clouding my brain, euphoria bubbles to the surface. But the flash of exhilaration is short-lived, quickly tempered by the cold weight of panic that follows. "You, um… um, you…what?"
"You heard me."
"Married? Tomorrow?" At last, two coherent, multisyllabic words burst their way out of my thick-tongued mouth.
Fleetingly, a vision of my Journalism 101 professor pops into my mind. She drilled the basics of investigative reporting into the heads of her eager students, and I used to methodically dissect situations, identifying the five W's: Who? What? When? Where? Why? This seems like a strange time for that old habit to reappear, but the internal dialogue of question and answer begins instinctively. For a moment, applying step-by-step logic calms my frenzied thoughts… until the fourth W stumps me, bringing the process to a dead stop.
"Where?" I ask. "The courthouse?"
"No, King County has a three-day waiting period. But there's a ten-thirty flight to Vegas tomorrow morning."
Holy crap. Holy, holy, holy crap. My stomach somersaults wildly with the realization that this isn't a spur of the moment whim. He's done research. He's been on Expedia. Or Kayak. Or Travelocity. He's serious about this… this… this.
"Jeez, Cullen. What's the rush?" I mutter, uncomfortable under his intense stare. As alarm takes hold in my chest, my innate defense mechanism flares and I let the wisecracks fly. "Why so anxious for the ball and chain? Are you about to be deported? Did you commit a crime and don't want me to testify against you? Oh, my God! Are you pregnant?"
His eyebrows shoot up, wrinkling his forehead. At the same time, the left side of his mouth twitches as he struggles not to smile. Oh, damn. He's really cute. But I'm a little annoyed by his look of pleased bemusement… annoyed that, as usual, my reaction is probably transparent to him.
"What's so funny?" I demand, hackles raised.
"You're adorable when you have a normal freak out."
"Nothing about this conversation is normal," I grumble. "Aren't you supposed to distract me before you spring the big stuff on me?"
"This is too important, Bella. You have to be sure about what you want."
"I don't know what I want for dinner tomorrow and you expect me to know if I want to go… if I want to get..." My stomach is still rolling and now my breaths are coming fast and shallow. A light sweat has broken out across my upper lip, the bridge of my nose. I'm either going to throw up or pass out – or both. "Oh, God. I feel sick."
"That's exactly what I was hoping you'd say when I proposed, Swan," he remarks wryly. "A simple 'yes' would have been so cliché."
An uncontrolled giggle escapes my mouth. I need to think, though; I can't allow myself to be entertained by his sarcastic humor right now. Fighting to regain my composure, I try to sound resolute when I speak between rapid inhalations. "Cullen, we can't just elope."
"Yes, we can. People do it all the time."
"But no one even knows about us."
"So at the end of the season, instead of telling people we're dating, we'll tell them we're married." His tone is relaxed, matter-of-fact, as if we're discussing a topic as ordinary as the weather. "And we can have a party."
"A reception," I correct automatically. "We would have a…"
When I see the glimmer of triumph in his eyes, my voice trails off, realizing he's getting the impression that I'm warming up to this crazy idea. But I'm not. Absolutely not. Definitely not. Not that warm, anyway. Really… mostly… not.
"Reception," he agrees, finishing my abandoned sentence.
Silence settles in the room, broken only by the sound of our breathing. Long seconds elapse while Cullen waits for me to say something, keeping his gaze locked on mine. My thoughts are disjointed, though, reeling from the surreal turn this night has taken – and from the way I'm starting to feel about it. I remain close-mouthed, watching as his face slowly falls, as disappointment fills his green eyes.
When he looks away, breaking our connection, pain slices through my chest. Hating his expressionless face and averted gaze, my heart hammers, protesting my continued reticence. I know I've hurt him, and I try desperately to think of a soothing remark, a witty retort – anything that will fill this dead air. Suddenly, I remember that I didn't ask him about the fifth W. Curiosity wins, even though part of my brain urges me to quit while I'm ahead… while I'm still capable of controlling my emotions.
He doesn't answer at first, continuing to stare across the room. Finally, he shrugs one shoulder. "One reason is because it might be my last day off before the end of the regular season." Although we haven't talked about it, I already assumed that. With five games remaining on the schedule, the Seahawks are fighting for post-season position. After a home game this week, three of the last four games will be played out of town, which means short preparation weeks, Tuesday meetings and very little time off, even for Christmas. "But that's really reason number two."
"What's reason number one?" I whisper, both terrified and anxious to hear it. His bright eyes snap back to meet mine again.
"I don't want to spend one more day not married to you."
"Cullen," I croak, suppressing a sob. It feels like my heart stutters, tilts in my chest. Blinded by the tears that instantly pool in my eyes, I grip the front of his shirt more forcefully, pulling the fabric away from his body. Jumbled emotions and desires swarm inside while nonsense pours from my mouth, unrestrained. "How am I supposed to? How can we? I think… Jesus, Edward. I don't know what to say."
"It's okay, baby. Take your time. I know you didn't expect this."
"That's an understatement," I mumble, my response encompassing much more than what's happening tonight. No, I didn't see this conversation coming, but I also didn't expect to meet him, fall for him, love him so much. I didn't know if I would ever find someone who would want me despite my quirks and insecurities… someone who would totally get me. But Cullen does. Again and again, he pushes me to the edge of what I think I can do, and then convinces me to go a step farther, take a leap of faith. Each time, he's there beside me. Each time, it turns out better than I imagined.
Oh, no. Oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit.
"Sit back and close your eyes," he suggests, and, grateful for a momentary escape, I do. My shoulders sink into the pillow at my back while my head thuds softly against the wood. "Just relax for a minute."
When I shut my eyes, my breathing slows and the panic that flustered my mind recedes, little by little. Gradually, he pries my left hand out of its tense, curled position, and lifts it, capturing it between both of his. The gentle touch of his palms soothes me even more, and the tension begins to float out of my neck and shoulders.
The voice inside my head recites a list of reasons it's opposed to this idea, but my heart isn't listening, focused instead on the way his hands surround mine. He doesn't hold too tightly, which might make me feel trapped. He doesn't hold too loosely, so I'm not afraid my hand will fall. His steady grasp is symbolic of how he makes me feel every day – supported, treasured. I hope I do the same for him. Well, at least when I'm not freaking out.
With that final epiphany, the voice in my head surrenders and goes quiet. Gulping down the lump in my throat, I speak quietly.
"You really want to do this?"
"Mmhmm. But if you say no, if you're not ready, it won't change the way I feel about you."
"What if I'm terrible at it?"
"You won't be."
"What if you're terrible at it?"
"Terrible how? Leaving dirty clothes on the floor? Saying I'll take the trash out and then forgetting to do it?"
"You already do that crap," I mutter, unable to contain the smirk when I feel him shake with laughter.
"True," he agrees quietly, staying mum about my faults even though they outnumber his by far. "Do you want to spend the rest of your life with me anyway?"
In a millisecond, I know the answer – and it has nothing to do with dirty clothes or household chores. Behind my eyelids, new tears gather, dampening my lashes as I answer honestly. "Yes."
"I know this seems rash, like it doesn't make sense, but–."
"It makes sense," I interrupt, shocked at my candor… shocked that I actually believe his plan is more than logical: It's perfect. Since there's a lengthy pause before he goes on, I guess he's surprised, too.
"Then let's do it." His voice is still hushed, but I can hear the excitement creeping in. "Let's fly to Vegas after your show. We'll come home tomorrow night as husband and wife."
"Wife and husband," I argue teasingly, sniffing.
"Wife and husband," he echoes, imitating my tone. The words hang in the air unanswered and I'm sure the significance of this comfortable lull isn't lost on him. No more smartass comments. No more protests. No more freaking out. He sits up, removing the weight and warmth of his head from my legs. Shifting our hands, he keeps hold of mine with one of his as he moves around on the bed. When our knees bump, I open my eyes, looking briefly at our joined hands before raising my eyes to his face. "I promise I won't be terrible at it."
Nodding, affected by his husky, emotion-filled voice, I reply softly. "I know."
After a few seconds go by, he prods. "Are you going to give me an answer, Swan?"
"You haven't asked me the question yet, Cullen." I watch his lips curl upward, his eyes crinkling at the corners, when he realizes I'm right. He tugs on my hand, and I go willingly, gripping his shoulder for balance as I move ungracefully to straddle his lap; I wanted to be closer to him, too. I hear him swallow just before he says the words.
"Will you marry me?"
"Yes," I whisper, smiling as I press my lips to his. "Will you marry me?"
He chuckles, but doesn't hesitate. "Yes."
"Then it's settled," I murmur between kisses. "We're getting married." Pulling back with a gasp, I look at him, wide-eyed. "Holy crap, Cullen! We're getting married. Tomorrow. We don't have rings. I don't have a dress. We don't even have airline tickets."
"We have tickets," he interjects sheepishly as his cheeks redden. Pursing my lips to the side, I furrow my brow. "I already booked us on the flight."
"I don't know if that's presumptuous or romantic."
"It's both," he quips. "But mostly romantic."
He kisses me, first nipping at my lower lip, and then sliding his tongue along mine as our mouths meet and pull apart again and again. His broad hand is spread across my back, holding me tightly against his chest, and I get lost in the rush of prickling desire that crawls up my spine. But I resist when he tries to tip us sideways to lie down.
"What's wrong?" he asks, skimming his mouth along my jaw.
"Don't we need to make some plans?" I mumble.
"Mmhmm. In a minute." Burying his face in my neck, he sucks on the skin below my ear. His hand falls lower on my back, keeping me in place as he presses himself against me. For a moment, I let myself enjoy the sensation, rolling my hips just a bit… just enough to make him groan. Then, moving quickly, I detach myself and scoot off the bed.
"Legs," he protests, turning to look at me. "Come back. I'll behave."
He joins in when I laugh; we both know that's not true. "No way. I've been tricked into that before, Cullen," I claim, backing up a couple of steps. "Besides, I feel like… I mean, I think maybe we should wait, you know, until tomorrow."
"You're kidding me," he gripes, lying back on the bed. But I see his grin before he rolls to his stomach, hiding his face. "We're not going to have sex the whole time we're engaged?"
Engaged. A thrill rushes through me when he says the word, but I keep my tone cheeky as I reply. "I think you'll survive twenty-four hours."
"It'll be more like twenty-seven before we get home," he remarks. Turning his head, he studies me. "It's no problem for me. I'm just worried about you."
"Me?" I ask, narrowing my eyes.
"Yeah. You're always grabbing at me, trying to pull my clothes off." He pushes himself up to sit on the side of the bed, fighting to keep a straight face. "So if you change your mind about waiting, it's okay. I won't judge you."
"Thanks," I laugh, moving to stand between his legs. "I'm not changing my mind, though. About anything."
"Good to know." Wrapping his arms around my waist, he holds me close, sighing against my collarbone. "I love you, Swan."
Smiling, feeling like my heart might burst, I answer. "I love you, too."
"What's up with you today?"
Emmett's question breaks the silence in the studio, startling me. Pulling my attention away from the notes I was reading on my laptop, I glance to my right and meet his inquisitive stare.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Swan, you've spent the last three years openly admiring a certain tight end's tight end. He was on Monday Night Football last night, but you've barely mentioned him or his tight, white pants."
Emmett's right; I usually can't contain my Jimmy Graham gushing, although my appreciation this season has been solely centered on his talent and effort, and not his ass. But my preoccupation with watching the clock this morning has hindered my interest for every topic we've discussed, including Jimmy. I'm not fessing up to that, though.
"The Saints don't wear white pants," I retort instead, smirking. "Home or away."
"Forget the pants," he says through gritted teeth, exasperated by my evasion. "He had a season-high receiving yards total, but you've hardly commented on it."
"I said he had a great game. What else do you want me to say?"
Looking away from him, I focus on sorting the papers for the lead-in. We're in the final bottom-of-the-hour break of the show, meaning we'll be off the air in just over half an hour, and I'll be driving straight to the airport. Cullen should be on his way there now – in a cab, so we can ride home together when we get back tonight. Tonight. After our wedding. Butterflies flit furiously around my stomach, half excited and half nervous… but all happy.
"That's not the only weird thing about you today," Emmett remarks, interrupting my daydream. Apparently, he's not finished scrutinizing my behavior. His chair creaks as he leans back in it, and I can feel his eyes still trained on me. "The lounge coffee is shitty, but you haven't complained or begged Seth to make a Starbucks run. And last hour, Newton gave you two cold reads, which you hate. You didn't even bitch about him."
"Emmett, the coffee here is never good and Newton is always a jackwagon."
"Yes," he agrees emphatically, rolling his chair over next to mine. Belatedly, I peek at the microphone light to make sure our conversation isn't being broadcast in the control room and am relieved to see it's unlit. "But you didn't react. At fucking all. You're all Zen and cheerful today, like you've been drugged or… oh, oh… wait a minute."
"What?" Involuntarily, my head swivels and I find myself practically nose-to-nose with him.
"Did you get lucky last night?"
Although I try to muster some outrage at his intrusive question, he asks it so innocently – with a quirked eyebrow and deep dimples – that I answer spontaneously.
"No," I reply, drawing the word out.
Boisterous laughter fills the room as Emmett shakes his head at me disbelievingly. I can't stop the wide smile that pulls at my lips. "You're lying," he accuses.
I guess I am lying, even though I didn't get lucky the way he means. The plans for today came together so easily – from the car service to the dinner reservation in the wine cellar of an Italian restaurant – that luck had to have something to do with it. Cullen and I spent an hour talking to the coordinator at the location we chose for the ceremony. The coordinator, Mrs. Cope, assured us that the after-sunset wedding in an almond orchard north of the city would be private and confidential. And beautiful.
"You totally are. You got a little brown chicken, brown cow," he laughs, waggling his eyebrows.
"Shut up." Rolling my eyes with a huff, I face my computer screen again.
"We're back in thirty seconds. Bella, you have the lead-in." At Seth's reminder from the control room, I hold my thumb up over my shoulder, acknowledging that I heard him.
"You're skipping the post-show meeting?" Emmett is still sitting close by, still not ready to give up on the interrogation.
"Uh huh. Leaving as soon as we're clear."
"What did you say you're doing today?"
"I didn't say."
"Newton wants to know where you're going."
"It's none of his business."
"He thinks you're interviewing for a job somewhere else."
Since Emmett sounds worried, I turn to look him in the eye. "Then he's either paranoid or hopeful. I just have some personal stuff to do."
He nods, moving back to his spot as the show music begins playing in our IFBs. Scooting toward the mic, I clear my throat and watch the break clock tick toward zero.
"Swan," Emmett says quietly, waiting until I shift my gaze his way to continue. "Whatever you're doing today, it seems like it's important to you."
"Mics are hot," Seth announces. "On-air in six… five."
"Then good luck." Emmett whispers, leaning away from his microphone. He holds a closed fist toward me. I bump it twice with mine, and then we point at each other, both smiling.
"Thank you," I mouth as Seth finishes counting us in.
The rest of the show passes without any more snooping by my co-host. He offers to take my IFB and battery pack once we're off the air, suggesting that I sneak out the back door of the station to avoid Newton. Since my goal is to elude Newton as often as possible, I follow Emmett's advice, only pausing long enough to wave goodbye to Seth through the control room window.
Traffic is light during my drive to the airport. In the parking garage, I find a great spot near the skybridge to the terminal. Everything is going according to plan – until I get to the security checkpoint. The line is long. Really long. I try to be patient, but after standing still for a few minutes, I'm craning my neck to see what's going on at the front.
"One of the scanners is broken," the man in front of me says, turning around. He's older, with kind, blue eyes and silver hair. "We haven't moved for ten minutes."
"Oh, crap," I mutter.
"Half of the people in line headed to one of the other checkpoints, but we heard they're backed up, too." He shrugs before facing forward again.
For the next fifteen minutes, I bounce nervously on my feet as we inch forward, afraid that this snail's pace isn't fast enough to get me to the gate in time. As I'm checking the clock on my phone for the millionth time, it buzzes in my hand. Cullen.
*Long security line.
*You've still got time. Don't worry.
It's a little late for that, but I don't tell him. Lifting up on my toes, I scan the crowd and try to guess how many people are in front of me, but I quickly realize it doesn't matter how many. It's too many. When tears prick the back of my eyes, I blink them away, holding myself together… until my phone buzzes again a few minutes later.
*You gonna make it, legs? Our flight is boarding.
Inhaling shakily, I cover my mouth with the back of my hand. Yesterday I didn't even know I wanted this, but now the thought of missing this flight – missing this day – crushes me. I type a response, praying it's true.
*I'll be there.
The man in front of me peers over his shoulder, looking uneasy when he sees that I'm upset. He elbows the woman next to him and whispers to her. She turns to face me, concern wrinkling her already-wrinkled brow.
"Honey, why are you crying?"
"I'm supposed to get married today," I mumble, wiping at the wetness under my eyes. "But I'm going to miss my flight."
"Goodness gracious! There won't be a wedding if the bride's not there," she declares. "Let's make sure that doesn't happen, shall we?"
Winding her arm through mine she pulls me forward, and then taps the shoulder of the woman ahead of her. My rescuer explains my story so loudly that several others turn around to hear it, and before I really know what's happening, I'm being passed up the line by smiling strangers. Some pat me on the back as I thank them or wish me luck as they nudge me forward. It's not long until I'm almost at the front of the line – but then a stern look from a middle-aged businessman stops me in my tracks.
"You can't just jump the line," the suit-and-tie grouch snaps.
"She didn't," someone defends from behind me. "We let her go ahead of us."
"Well, I'm not letting her cut in front of me," he responds defiantly.
"She'll miss her flight," another voice chimes in. "And her wedding."
"Please, sir," I beg, undeterred by his scowl. "My boyfriend – fiancé – won't have another day off for at least a month."
"What kind of job does he have?" His condescending tone sets my teeth on edge, but I know I have to play nice to get past him.
"One he loves. But he doesn't get much time off in December."
"Come on, man. Have a heart," the guy behind me says. I spare a second to smile at him and he smiles back. "Quit wasting time and let her by."
Looking quizzically at the grouch again, I wait until he grudgingly steps aside, grumbling under his breath. The last few people in line wave me through, and I hear some of them applaud after I pass the inspection of the first TSA agent. Turning around, I seek out the couple who initially propelled me forward in line and wave to them. Then I rush through security and practically sprint down the concourse.
My heart jumps when I spot Cullen standing near the gate, holding our bags and towering over everyone around him. Under the bill of my old Mariners hat, his eyes search the crowd. He doesn't see me, though, lost in the sea of average-sized people. I want to yell his name and run to him, but I don't want to attract attention – especially since it was my idea to keep this relationship just between us until the end of the season.
Instead, I veer to the left, separating myself from the cluster of people, hoping he'll notice me. His crooked grin appears at once when our eyes meet.
"You're cutting it pretty close, legs," he says, gathering me close with one arm when I reach him.
"I know," I whisper, clinging to his neck. I want to tell him everything that happened in the security line. But over his shoulder, I see that only a few people are still boarding our flight and the waiting area is almost empty. Conversation can wait. "Can we get on the plane now?"
"I don't know, Swan," he chuckles as he releases me, bending down to peck my lips. "Can we?"
In the backseat of the black SUV, I stare out the window as we speed along the highway. It's impossible to see all the sights of the strip from this angle, but I read the names of as many hotels as I can. Cullen holds my hand on the seat between us, stroking his thumb idly along mine and talking to the chauffeur, Billy. Ever since Edward mentioned that his granddad once played at Caesars Palace with Ella Fitzgerald, they've been discussing the golden age of music in Vegas. Liberace. Wayne Newton. Elvis. The Rat Pack. I'm listening quietly, impressed with their knowledge but distracted by the enormous buildings that seem to glitter under the desert sun.
Our first stop is the county clerk's office. There are so many people roaming the halls of the courthouse that I'm afraid it will take hours to get our marriage license, but, thankfully, the process is quick. We're back in the car within twenty minutes and headed toward the jewelry store that Mrs. Cope recommended.
During the drive, I carefully unfold the license and lay it on my lap. I can't stop staring at it.
"Everything spelled correctly?" Cullen asks, amused.
"Yeah," I nod absently. "But holy crap, Cullen. This is, like, official. We're getting married."
"I know, baby," he laughs.
"Here we are," Billy announces.
When the car stops, I look up with a start and lay the paper on the seat beside me. The jewelry store is freestanding, located in the parking lot of a shopping center. Cullen comes around to open my door, and as he helps me out, I notice a boutique across the lot. I'm so busy staring at the dress in the window that Cullen has to say my name twice to get my attention. Apologizing, I slide my fingers between his, gripping tightly as we walk into the store.
Inside, we look around for a few minutes before a salesman comes to check on us. Edward asks him to show us several rings topped with large diamonds. They're stunning and sparkly… but not me. Wrinkling my nose, I shake my head and wander away with Edward and the salesman trailing behind. I pass by glass case after glass case, then stop suddenly when I see one I like. It's exactly what I wanted.
"Ah, the antique rings," the salesman says, moving to stand across the counter from me. "I thought you might end up over here. Is there one in particular that caught your eye?"
"That one," I say breathlessly, pointing to a wide, silver-colored band.
"This is a beautiful piece from the early 1930's," he explains, removing it from the case. He hands it to me, motioning for me to try it on, and I slide it onto my finger. It's perfect. "The eighteen karat white gold band is engraved with orange blossoms. Each flower has a diamond center, and the jewels are all original. Seven diamonds in all."
"Seven," I repeat, turning to look at Cullen beside me. "That's the first thing you said to me."
"I remember," he says, reaching for my hand. Fighting tears, I watch as he twists the ring on my finger. "You want to try any others?" Afraid to try and speak, I shake my head. "Okay. Now we just need mine."
While I reluctantly remove the ring and hand it across the counter, the salesman points Cullen in the direction of the men's wedding bands. Walking toward him unhurriedly, I scan the vintage jewelry in the other cases, pausing several times to look more closely. I hear the salesman talking quietly about which rings match mine in age and finish, and then Cullen calls my name.
"Find one?" I ask. He holds his hand up, the ring already in place. My eyes dart from his finger to his face and back again. After examining the simple band and its raised, ridged edges, I look up at him. "You like it?"
"Yeah. Do you?" Nodding slowly, I blow out a long, silent breath as Cullen tells the salesman that we'll take both of them. Pleased, he disappears into the back room to clean and box them. Cullen turns to face me again, looking a little dazed. "Jesus. Can you believe this? The only two rings we tried on fit perfectly. What do you call that?"
Several words spring to mind: Eerie, unsettling, bizarre, disconcerting – maybe even flat-out creepy. But when I open my mouth, a totally different, yet fitting, response comes out.
"Fate." Concerned that he's having second thoughts, I lift my hand to his jaw and step closer, narrowing my eyes. "Are you freaking out, Cullen? Because that's my gig, you know."
"I'm not freaking out." Smiling, I boost myself up to kiss him, and then laugh when his stomach growls. "I'm starving, though."
We agree that he'll go get food for us while I wait for the rings and shop for a dress. As soon as he's gone, I beckon the salesman toward the vintage watch case. After looking at a few, I choose one for Cullen and ask if it can be engraved. Fast. I'm running out of time.
Less than ten minutes later, I leave the store with the watch and rings. Crossing the parking lot, I study the dress in the boutique's window. It's elegant, cream-colored, knee-length. Bridal but not too bridal, which is exactly what I had in mind; I want to wear it home.
Since I'm the only customer in the boutique, I get a lot of attention. Three ladies listen to my story, ask my size, and then divide and conquer. In the fitting room, they bring me undergarments, a garter, lingerie for later and even a black cardigan that I can wear as camouflage on the plane. And, finally, the dress.
"Please fit. Please fit," I mutter, eyes squeezed shut, as they help me try it on.
I hear their quiet approvals before I look in the mirror and I know: It does.
"Almost there," Billy declares, turning onto a winding road.
Although Cullen and I have been talking quietly, Billy's announcement halts our conversation. As Cullen leans forward to ask him how much further, nervous excitement stirs my stomach. Glancing out my window, I pull two pieces of gum from my purse, unwrapping one to chew. We pass the lush greens of a golf course, and within a minute I see the entrance sign for our destination, Valley Grove. Gulping down my gum, I immediately put the second piece in my mouth.
Up ahead, I recognize the sandy-colored building topped with a red tile roof that Cullen and I saw online last night. As we get closer and closer, I chomp my gum harder and harder. By the time Billy drives under the covered part of the circle drive, my heart is pounding and I'm fidgeting in my seat. I've also swallowed another piece of gum and reloaded.
The woman waiting on the sidewalk comes forward to open my door when we roll to a stop, introducing herself as Mrs. Cope. Cullen walks around from his side of the SUV to meet her, and soon after, she's got each of us by the wrist, pulling us to the back of the car.
"It's a fantastic day for a wedding," she enthuses as Cullen breaks away from her to get our bags. "December can be chilly, but it's nice and warm today."
When I see Cullen curiously peeking inside the shopping bag from the boutique, I yank it from his hands, grinning and shaking my head. We follow Mrs. Cope into the building, stopping briefly in the dressing rooms to drop off our things. She chatters almost nonstop as she leads us through the ballroom where large receptions are held, and then out through a set of French doors to the rear of the property. We take a curving path past a fountain and around the side of a large gazebo.
"This also makes a wonderful place for the ceremony, but when you said you wanted something intimate and secluded, I knew it had to be the orchard. Now, don't worry when you see it," she warns, which, of course, makes me immediately apprehensive. And as the cluster of almond trees comes into view, I see the bare, gnarled branches and understand her concern. In the online pictures, the trees were full and beautiful. It didn't occur to me that the leaves would all have fallen off by this time of year. "It doesn't look like much now, but it's breathtaking after dark. Trust me."
Even though I'm a little disappointed, I nod and smile politely. Cullen and I cooperate as she points here and there, showing us where he'll stand, where I'll walk. She describes the music and the photographer and the minister. When she asks if we want to rehearse, I look at Cullen and shrug.
"Want to wing it, Swan?" he asks, winking at me.
"It's worked for us so far," I laugh. Stepping closer to his side, I wrap my arms around his waist.
After making sure we don't have any other questions, Mrs. Cope hustles away, claiming she still has a lot to do. Once she's out of earshot, he steps in front of me, meeting my gaze.
"You all right?"
"You've swallowed five pieces of gum, legs."
"Only four," I chide jokingly, holding the fifth piece between my teeth to show him. Chuckling, he leans down to kiss me, but I pull away after a few seconds. "Hang on. I have something for you."
"I have something for you, too," he replies, reaching into his pocket. Holding a black velvet pouch, he takes my hand and turns it palm up. He tips the pouch, sliding a silver bracelet into my hand.
"It matches my ring!" I exclaim when I see that it's imprinted with the same delicate flowers as my wedding band. Deep blue sapphires separate the two blossoms on each link. "How did you find it?"
"The salesman at the jewelry store pointed it out to me, so I went back while you were shopping."
Swallowing my gum, I hook it around my wrist, and then look up. "It's beautiful, Cullen. Thank you. I love it. I love you." Lifting up on my tiptoes, I wrap my arms around his shoulders, holding tightly. Flat-footed again, I take the square watch box from my purse and give it to him. "Happy wedding day."
Grinning crookedly, he opens it. "Swan, you shouldn't have done this."
"I know you already have a watch–."
"That's not what I mean," he interjects. "This… is expensive."
"Well, I can't return it. It's already engraved."
Removing it from the box, he turns it over and reads the inscription. "From the first minute, I fell." The date and our initials are also etched on the silver backing, but he doesn't say the rest out loud. He keeps his head bowed for so long that I'm afraid he doesn't like it. At length, he clears his throat and unclasps his other watch, putting it in his pocket. With the watch I gave him in its place, he looks at me with slightly reddened, but mischievous, eyes. "If you were falling, then how come you kept turning me down when I asked you to dinner?"
"Because falling for you scared the crap out of me. I didn't think I should put that on your wedding gift, though," I quip. We're both smiling as he bends down, and just before we kiss, I murmur the truth against his lips. "But I fell, Cullen. And it's the best thing I've ever done."
"Come in," I say, answering the quiet knock. Mrs. Cope peeks around the door, smiling genuinely at me.
"How are you doing, dear? Need any help?"
"Yes, please. My zipper." She closes the door to my dressing room as I turn around and move my hair over one shoulder. Her touch is gentle as she zips the dress and fastens the hook-and-eye closure at the top.
"Are you nervous?" She's being kind; I know she can see that my hands are shaking.
"Not nervous to marry him, but nervous, yes. Does that make sense?"
"Absolutely. It's a big day; the day you choose your life," she asserts, nudging my shoulder until I turn to face her. Her words and her supportive smile have an oddly calming effect. "Do you have your four somethings? Old, new, borrowed and blue?"
"I think so. My grandmother's earrings are old. My dress is new." Looking down at the handkerchief clutched in my right hand, I trace my thumb across the dark blue swan embroidered on one corner. "I borrowed this from my dad. I've had it for three years, though, so it might be more like stolen. Do you think that counts?"
Lifting my head, I breathe a sigh of relief when she nods, chuckling. "Yes, I think it counts."
"And blue. Cullen gave me this bracelet earlier."
"It's gorgeous," she declares, studying it before she looks at me again. "What about a garter?"
"In place," I respond, automatically reaching toward my right leg to verify that it's still there.
"Sounds like you're all set. Shall we go?"
Mrs. Cope turns to walk out of the room and I follow, a bit wobbly on the high heels I so rarely wear. At the door, she holds her arm out for me to go first, and then takes the lead again, guiding me down the hallway and through the ballroom in the same path we took just two hours ago. She plucks a bouquet from a table along the way and stops inside the French doors that open to the outside. She hands me the flowers, cupping her hands around mine and pressing to steady them.
"You look lovely," she says approvingly. "Ready?"
"Ready." I trail half a step behind her on the walkway. As we curve around the gazebo, the orchard comes into view. The trees are wrapped with tiny white lights and tall lanterns line each side of the path. I can't contain my astonished gasp when I see how much different it looks now that the sun has set. "Mrs. Cope, it's incredible."
"I told you to trust me. I'm very good at my job," she murmurs proudly, stopping and turning toward me. "You wait here until you hear the music."
"Breathe. Smile," she commands, laughing as she hugs me lightly.
When she's gone and I'm standing alone, I wrap my dad's handkerchief around the flower stems, swallowing the lump in my throat. I expected this moment to be bittersweet, and it is. I wouldn't change a thing about today; I love that it's just Cullen and me here, making these promises to each other. I'm happy that the moment will be ours, away from the publicity machine that he's sometimes pressured to satisfy for his job. But I also feel a little sad – and a little guilty – that I'm getting married without my family. Closing my eyes, I think of them – Mom and Phil, Dad and Sue. My parents are always behind me, encouraging me. I think they will be this time, too. Cullen's parents may be a different story. Selfishly, though, I'm glad they won't be able to spoil this night for him.
Before I can dwell too long on melancholy thoughts, I hear the guitarist begin playing a classical song that I recognize, but don't know the name of. That's my cue. With a final deep breath, I open my eyes and walk, only taking a few steps before I get around the gazebo. As soon as I see Cullen, standing beneath brightly lit branches that arch just above his head, the sadness and worry melt away. I only think of him, us.
His crooked smile greets me as I reach him, rest my hand in the crook of his offered elbow. When the minister begins, I listen attentively, absorbing every word about love and commitment and honesty. Once we've each confirmed that marriage is our intent, Reverend Tom focuses on me.
"Bella, Edward asked me to read something for you," he says, unfolding a sheet of paper. Cullen's slanted handwriting is visible on the page, and, surprised, I peek at him before looking at the minister again. "He chose a passage from a letter that Robert Browning wrote to his wife, Elizabeth.
"Words can never tell you, however, form them, transform them anyway, how perfectly dear you are to me, perfectly dear to my heart and soul.
I look back, and in every one point, every word and gesture, every letter, every silence, you have been entirely perfect to me, I would not change one word, one look.
You have given me the highest, completest proof of love that ever one human being gave another. I am all gratitude, and all pride (under the proper feeling which ascribes pride to the right source) all pride that my life has been so crowned by you."
By the end of the excerpt, my eyes are brimming with tears and I hear Mrs. Cope sniffling quietly on my left. When I look up at Cullen, his eyes are watery, too, but he smiles.
"You've been reading poetry?" I whisper.
"I've been Googling poetry," he answers lowly, making everyone laugh. Cheeks reddening, he bends toward me, kissing the spot in front of my ear, and then speaking softly so that no one else hears. "But it's how I feel."
In front of us, Reverend Tom is still snickering as he folds the paper. "Edward, you might want to hold on to this," he suggests, interrupting our tête-à-tête to hand it to Cullen. "It may be useful the next time you're in trouble."
Putting the note in his suit pocket, Cullen looks at me with a raised eyebrow. "He's probably right," I agree, playing along with his unspoken, teasing question. Laughing again, I squeeze his arm and lean my head against his shoulder for a brief moment.
Nodding at us, Reverend Tom instructs, "Please face each other and join hands."
I give my flowers to Mrs. Cope and turn toward Cullen. He goes first, reciting the words that will bind us together legally… spiritually. As he vows to love, honor and respect, his voice is sure, unwavering. Mine is the opposite, trembling noticeably when it's my turn to repeat the lines. Cullen's thumbs slide soothingly across my knuckles, his gaze never leaving mine. I finish without completely breaking down, but a couple of tears overflow, rolling down my left cheek.
"I love you," he murmurs. He shifts both of my hands to one of his, using the other to wipe away the wetness. Struggling to rein in my runaway emotions, I grip his fingers tightly in reply, but don't try to answer out loud.
"May I have the rings please?" Reverend Tom asks. While Cullen gets them from his pocket and hands them over, I take several deep breaths, determined not to cry my way through the rest of the wedding. Cupping our bands in his palm, Reverend Tom points out the significance and symbolism of exchanging rings, and then holds them toward us. "Edward."
Cullen lifts my left hand and slides the ring into place, echoing the reverend's quiet words. "Bella, I give you this ring as a sign of my love and faithfulness."
Picking up his ring, I put it on his finger, keeping my eyes locked on his. "Edward, I give you this ring as a sign of my love and faithfulness." Pleased that my voice is stronger this time, I smile. Then I lower my gaze to his hand, watching as he flexes it and makes a fist a few times. When I look quizzically at him, he shrugs.
"Just getting comfortable."
"You'll get used to it," I reply, amused. "You won't even know it's there after a few days."
"I'll know it's there, legs."
Moved by his sweet sentiment, I reach up to trace my fingers along his jaw. He grasps my hand, pressing his lips to my palm before lowering our hands to hang between us. Grinning crookedly, he swipes his thumb across my ring, and I suddenly realize that it's done; we're married. Elation swells in my chest and I can hardly stand still. I'm nearly bouncing as I turn to look at Reverend Tom when he speaks.
"Bella and Edward, you have pledged to be loyal and loving toward each other. You have formalized your bond with spoken vows and with the giving and receiving of rings," he declares warmly. With a quiet chuckle, he continues, "It is my pleasure to now pronounce you wife and husband."
Laughing, I immediately look at Cullen, knowing that he orchestrated the reversal of the standard phrasing. He's laughing, too, and before Reverend Tom finishes giving us permission, his lips are on mine. Giddy, I kiss him back, wrapping my arms around his neck when his circle my waist. The guitarist is playing quietly in the background. The photographer is moving around us, her flash lighting up often. Mrs. Cope is talking. But I ignore all of it, concentrating only on my husband. After a moment, I break away long enough to whisper that I love him, and he lifts me up, hugging me tightly as he responds in kind.
"I can't believe you got him to say that," I say, chuckling again.
"Anything for the bride. It's your day."
Rearing back to look at him, I frown. "It's our day. The groom should get what he wants, too."
"I did, Bella." He sets me down gently, and then rests his forehead against mine, closing his eyes. "I got everything that I wanted."
Sitting in the middle of the backseat, I rest my head against Cullen's upper arm. When I glance at the highway sign we pass, I'm relieved to see that the airport exit is just a mile ahead. We've been married for almost two hours now, and we have to catch a plane by the time we hit the three-hour mark.
Relaxed from the wine I drank during dinner, I wind my arm through Cullen's and close my eyes, content to let my mind replay the last few hours. Again. Every detail of the ceremony is burned into my memory, from the look in Cullen's eyes to the sound of his voice. In ways I wouldn't have thought of, he made sure our wedding included moments – both romantic and humorous – that were meaningful to us.
The wine cellar where we ate dinner had a private entrance and was isolated from the dining room of the restaurant. Wooden shelves lined three walls, holding dark bottles of the finest vintage. After Cullen chose one for us, we toasted each other and drank with our arms linked, following tradition. We also fed each other chocolate cake for dessert. My pulse quickens as I remember the way Cullen closed his lips around my fingers to lick off the sticky icing. Flirting with me. Tempting me. Arousing me.
Just as I leaned in to kiss him, someone opened the cellar door, interrupting us, and I huffed in aggravation. But my frustration turned to delight when I saw the portly, little accordion player come into the room, calling "Buona sera!" Thinking of him now, I laugh quietly.
"Guido?" Cullen guesses, chuckling, too.
"His name was Giustino," I say, sitting up to look at him. "He was cute. And so eager to play for us."
"Of course he was. You're beautiful and I look like a good tipper."
"Cullen," I chastise playfully. "He was sweet."
Unapologetic, he shrugs, grinning. "He was an old flirt who wooed you with his Italian accent. Then you told him your name and he played the spaghetti song from the dog movie for you."
Recalling how excited he was to play a song with my name in it, I can't help but have affection for him. Although we didn't tell him that we had just gotten married, he insisted that Cullen and I dance, claiming the song was for lovers. Once I heard the tune, keeping a straight face wasn't easy, but Cullen turned me away from Giustino each time I was overwhelmed by a fit of giggles.
"He played the spaghetti song from the dog movie for us," I argue. "And now it's our wedding dance song, which kind of makes it our song song."
"You don't like it?" he asks, hearing the whine I couldn't quite keep out of my tone.
"It's a song about noodle-slurping, cartoon canines."
"No, it's not, legs," he contends, brushing the back of his hand along my cheek. "It's a song about finding someone you want to share everything with."
Shaking my head at him, I feel a smile tug at the corners of my mouth and purse my lips to contain it. "I swear you do this disarming, romantic crap on purpose," I mutter. "Now I'm gonna like the damn dog song."
Lifting his arm, he wraps it around me and pulls me to his chest. "I like the damn dog song, too." He kisses the top of my head as Billy stops at the airport curb to let us out. "Ready to go home, baby?"
Inhaling his scent, I sigh contentedly, and then look up at him. "Ready."
"This is awkward."
"Cullen, I'm not this kind of girl."
"Well, I am this kind of guy." He shifts me a little in his arms as the elevator ascends.
"You didn't have to carry me all the way from the truck, though."
"I'm not sure which threshold in the building I'm supposed to carry you over. I don't want to screw this up." Smiling, eyes shining, he looks the way I feel: Completely happy.
Leaning in, I kiss him until the elevator stops on our floor. He carries me into the penthouse foyer and sets me down, kissing my lips and then my forehead.
"I'll get our bags. Be right back."
Once he's gone, I take off my cardigan and leave it on the entryway table. I walk to the kitchen and get a bottle of water, sipping it as I head down the hall toward our bedroom. Stopping short in the doorway, my mouth falls open. The dim, recessed lights are on, making the room glow softly. Large vases of white flowers sit on the nightstands and each end of the dresser.
Wondering how he had time to do all this, I move toward the dresser, bending down to breathe in the sweet floral scent. After setting my water down, I step out of my heels and push them to the side, and then pull out the pins holding part of my hair up. When I hear Cullen coming down the hall, I'm suddenly shy, peering sideways at him as he carries our bags into the bathroom. He returns a moment later to lean against the doorjamb, watching while I remove my jewelry piece by piece until only my wedding ring remains.
Dropping my eyes, I study this ring I love, given to me by this man I love. As I'm looking down, I sense, more than see, him move behind me. Wrapping one arm around my waist, he lifts his other hand, pushing my hair out of the way and leaning down to kiss my neck. His mouth skims up toward my ear, barely touching my skin, sending a shiver down my spine. I tilt my head to the side a bit to give him more space and raise my eyes to the dresser mirror to watch him.
"Thank you for the flowers."
"You're welcome," he murmurs, his lips tickling my ear. With a soft sigh, I let my eyes slide closed. "I wanted to do some of that disarming, romantic crap for my wife."
Although I'm amused by the way he throws my words back at me, I fixate on the last part of his statement. "That's the first time you've called me your wife," I whisper, smiling.
"I called you my bride earlier, though."
"Mmhmm." His mouth drifts down my neck, pausing several times to suck lightly, bite gently. "I like that, too," I pant, savoring the arousal that blooms in my belly and seeps outward to flood my body. His hands wander from waist to hips to back, and my eyes pop open when I feel him reach for the zipper of my dress. "Wait, Cullen. I have new lingerie."
"I can't wait to see it." He presses a lingering kiss to my shoulder, and then raises his head to meet my gaze in the mirror. "Tomorrow night."
As he unzips me slowly, deliberately, I turn my head to kiss him. Our lips move together while he peels the dress from my upper body and pushes it past my hips to drop to the floor. His fingers ghost over my bare skin, sliding along the curve of my waist, drawing around my navel, tracing my ribcage from front to back. When he unhooks my strapless bra, I grab it and toss it carelessly aside, waiting anxiously as Cullen's broad hands glide across my stomach.
Finally, he cups my breasts, squeezes tenderly, brushes his fingers over my sensitive nipples again and again. Lazy kisses increasingly become more heated, and I reach up to grip the back of his neck, keeping him in place. He drops one hand, slipping his fingers under the lace of my underwear to make quick circles around my clit.
"Cullen," I gasp, wrenching my mouth away from his. I clutch the collar of his shirt to stay steady on my trembling legs, letting my head fall back against his chest… sinking into the building pleasure.
Too soon, his fingers slow, and I roll my lips together, moaning quietly in blissful dissatisfaction. Aching for more… aching for him, I twist around, pulling his mouth to mine while I unbutton his shirt. I help him push it off his shoulders impatiently and he yanks off the t-shirt underneath, too. Stepping over the dress puddled at my feet, I take his hand and walk backward, pulling him with me.
At the side of the bed, I let go of him to fold down the covers and hear the clink of his belt buckle as he finishes undressing behind me. When I climb onto the mattress, he reaches for my right leg, halting me.
"A garter?" he asks, hooking his fingers under the satin-covered elastic. I peer over my shoulder at him before I answer.
"It's a tradition."
Flashing a crooked grin at me, he lets go so that the garter snaps softly back into place. Laughing, I lie down and he crawls over me, nudging my legs apart to lie between them.
"I like it," he says.
Lying chest to chest, our smiles fade as we look at each other. He dips his head to kiss me… really kiss me… seducing me with lips that move swiftly and then slowly until I'm desperate for release. Scooting down, he covers my breast with his mouth, swirling his tongue, sucking unhurriedly while I squirm under him. It's only when I rock my hips against his that he continues moving down. Wrapping his hand around my right leg, he bends my knee and bites the garter. Breathing hard, I lift my head and see him looking up at me playfully, one eyebrow cocked.
"It's a tradition," he replies through gritted teeth.
With a slightly embarrassed giggle, I lie flat and close my eyes as he begins dragging the garter down. The sensation of the silky fabric and Cullen's mouth skimming along my leg heightens my craving for him, erases my unease. Lost in desire once more, I don't watch as he slides off my underwear and begins diligently working his way back up my body. But behind my eyelids, bright colors burst and fade with every hot breath against my skin, every touch of his tongue, every caress of his fingers.
Our lips meet again just before he pushes inside me with a quiet groan. He moves slowly, staying buried deep with each thrust. It feels so good, but I want more… need more. I hum my approval into his mouth, but dig my fingernails into his back at the same time, knowing he'll understand. Reaching down, he grasps my leg and pulls until I wrap it around him, and then drives into me more forcefully. When he twists his mouth away after a moment, I open my eyes to find him staring at me.
"You're so beautiful." His voice is raspy. His dark eyes, filled with love and lust, search my suddenly-teary ones.
"I love you," I murmur around the lump in my throat.
"I love you, too."
Holding still, he kisses me again – plucking softly at my lips, nipping along my jaw. When I can't take the sweet torment any longer, I whisper his name, sighing as he settles his mouth on mine. Grabbing my hands one at a time, he pushes them above my head and pulls almost all the way out of me. I cling to him, lifting my hips as he slides back inside. Steadily, he moves faster, faster, burying his face in my neck.
"Oh, God. Oh, my God," I moan, arching my back as shockwaves of pleasure flow through me. After several more thrusts, he comes inside me, sending another jolt of ecstasy rippling through my body.
Recovering, we lie silently as our breathing slows and our skin cools. A few minutes later, we pull the covers up and shift to lie on our sides, facing each other. Trading soft kisses, we intertwine hands, arms, legs.
"You need to sleep, legs," he remarks, brushing my hair away from my forehead. "You have to get up for work in three hours."
"I know," I grumble. "But I don't want this day to be over. It was perfect."
"You're right. But so am I."
I wrinkle my nose at him until he laughs and twists away from me. I watch him get out of bed to turn off the lights, and then roll over, smiling when he curls up behind me and drapes his arm over my waist. Thoroughly content, I shut my eyes and fiddle with the ring on his finger.
"I know it's only the first day, but so far, I love being married to you."
Tightening his arm, he hugs me to his chest. "I love being married to you, too, Swan."
"I was correcting you. I'm a Cullen now, too," I clarify. Resting his lips against my shoulder, he lets several seconds pass while he remains mute. "Right?"
I turn over and he digs a hand into my hair, holding me in place as his lips land on mine. Kissing me sweetly, he presses my lips open to slide his tongue inside. Unrushed, the kiss changes from playful to passionate and back again. When he eventually breaks away, he skims his mouth across my cheek to speak quietly in my ear.
"Do you have any idea how much I love you, Cullen?"
"Yeah… I think I do," I whisper. "But I wouldn't object if you want to show me again."
"You're gonna be tired for work," he admonishes, but he shifts to lie on his back, pulling me on top of him.
"I'm not worried about it, Cullen." Propped on my arms, I stare down at him, watching his face come into focus as my eyes adjust to the darkness. "I'm not worried at all."
A/N Cont'd: Happy spring! Spring is usually my favorite season, but this year, it's been a little rocky in my household. After a pretty good February, March, April and early May were tough for my family. My father-in-law became very sick, and with a traveling mother-in-law, we took on some of the nursing duties for a while. He's had a tough road with multiple hospitalizations and a surgery, but he is starting to improve and regain some of the strength he lost. We hope it continues. We'd like to keep him around for a while.
In the middle of his illness, my daughter also became really sick. After two ER visits, a stop at the pediatrician and an overnight stay at the children's hospital, we finally had a (sort of by deduction) diagnosis. I'm grateful that her prognosis was good, but she had to endure about four weeks of pretty severe pain since her condition didn't have a cure except pain management and time. Thankfully, for the last two weeks, she has been pain-free and finally back to being her normal, social, bouncy, teenage self. Who ever thought I would miss the eyerolls and snotty comments when they disappeared? Ha. But I did. :)
Anyway, I had a rough patch for a bit, but I'm almost totally back to my sarcastic, suspicious, kinda bitchy personality. I learned a lot about true friendship, deep fear, deeper love and Frozen. Great movie, but come on. She's 14 and I had to watch it at least 25 times. LOL I also learned it's okay to cry (I'm so not a crier normally) and to appreciate the people in my life, even when it's not convenient. So, on second thought, maybe it's been a good spring after all.
If you've read this far, you deserve a prize!
Thanks for reading. Please review.