A/N: Sheesh, I'm so sorry about the lapse. Life has been crazy - mostly in good ways. I'm still looking for some sort of balance between my wishes and my responsibilities, which isn't helped by three busy teenagers who don't really seem to need anything until I try to do something that I want to do. That's not an excuse, because everyone has their shit. I've just been crap at dealing with all of mine for a while now. I'm not giving up, though, and I truly appreciate anyone who's stuck around to read.
Huge thanks to three great friends who helped me with this chapter. Thank you Tennesseelamb and Littlecat358 for giving honest feedback and suggestions. Love you, love you! And happy birthday, Memphis! :) To my beta, Hadley Hemingway, thank you for fixing my words and for teaching me how to use google docs. I promise I'll get better! Adore you. xo
Thanks for reading. Please review.
Standing in the tunnel, I stay frozen in place, my gaze fused with the Chief's as he approaches. Over the muffled sound of the crowd outside, I can't hear his footsteps on the cement floor, but they seem to be keeping time with every third beat of my frantic heart. The instant he recognizes me, the stern expression on his face arches into surprise. As I watch his lips begin to curve into a smile, the guilt that I've grappled with for the last few days surges, mixing with the fear that's clogging my throat.
"Dad," I croak hoarsely.
Immediately, the Chief's eyebrows dive downward in concern. Picking up his pace, he calls out to me.
"Bells, what's wrong? Did something happen to you?"
His worried voice releases the hold panic had on my legs. Jarred into action, I rush toward him, shaking my head as I close the distance between us. I hurl myself into his arms when I reach him.
"I need your help," I beg, pressing my mouth against the cool, slick material of his coat.
"Okay, honey," he soothes, embracing me. His strong, sure arms comfort me in an instant. He'll fix this. "What can I do?"
"I need to see Cullen. Will you take me? Please. Please."
"I can't, Bells. You know the rules," he says gently, patting my back. I close my eyes as new tears threaten. The end of my nose tingles and burns as I struggle not to cry, and I scrunch my face up, holding on to my dad more tightly. "No one's allowed back with an injured player except family."
Maybe it's the desperate tone of my plea. Or the way I drag the word out into two syllables. Or the sob I can't quite suppress. Whatever the reason, I feel the Chief's shoulders tense, lift slightly. Loosening the stranglehold I have on his neck, I step back, resting my hands on his chest and looking up at him. Brown eyes just like mine stare back at me, study me warily… wait for me to continue.
"I am his family," I declare quietly. "I'm his wife."
Although my dad doesn't speak right away, his nostrils flare twice, and his lower jaw shifts from side-to-side. Reaching up, he grasps my left hand, pulling it off his chest. After glancing down long enough to confirm the presence of my wedding ring, his cloudy-eyed gaze meets mine again. "You… got married?"
Faced with the evidence of his pain, my heart clenches, aches a little more. I blink away tears as I nod solemnly. "Yes."
"Without us? Without even telling us?"
"We didn't tell anyone," I defend.
While he's still staring disbelievingly at me, processing what I've said, I hear advertisements begin playing over the stadium's sound system; it must be the end of the third quarter. Then, to my horror, the dreaded twang of a Southern drawl reaches my ears as someone calls my name. Turning my head, I look at the player jogging toward us, helmet in hand. Son of a buck. I forgot about Whitlock.
"Bella!" he yells again. "Have you seen him yet?" I shake my head.
"Whitlock knows?" the Chief growls, drawing my attention back to him.
"He… we… he found out by accident," I stammer, sniffling as I try to keep it together. Clutching his hand, I take a step back, trying to pull him with me, but he doesn't budge. "Dad, please. We're wasting time. I promise I'll explain everything later."
Sighing loudly, he closes his eyes and lets his head fall back. He mumbles a surly string of words at the ceiling, and although I can't hear all of them, I catch "damn bullhockey" and "last to know". The tears I've been fighting finally win, filling my eyes and spilling over just as the Chief lowers his head to look at me again. At once, his glare softens – just a little – and he rolls his eyes.
"Let's go," he orders brusquely, gripping my hand as he marches up the tunnel. "You, too, Whitlock. Steve, not a word to anyone about what you just heard."
"Got it, Chief," Steve replies, smiling at me as he steps aside to let us pass.
"You may not be thanking me for long, young lady," he barks as we continue walking at a brisk pace. "This conversation is not over. If you still lived at home, you'd be grounded for the rest of your life, Isabella Marie Swan."
"Cullen," I correct quietly, wiping the wetness from under my eyes.
"I might just tan both of your hides, Isabella Marie Cullen."
"Okay, Dad." Strangely comforted by his threat of discipline, I squeeze his hand – and he squeezes back.
Veering to the left, we stop at the double doors that lead into one of the treatment rooms. My dad knocks sharply twice before he opens the door a crack and peeks in.
"I brought a visitor for Cullen." He pushes the door open wider and steps inside, dragging me along behind him. "How's he doing, doc?"
The room is crowded with people – team doctors and trainers, several suits from the Seahawks' front office, and two guys with "EMS" written in yellow letters across their backs. They all turn to look at the Chief and me. My eyes, however, are trained on the only part of Cullen I can see: His cleats. He's lying on the treatment table in the middle of the room, but the rest of his body is blocked from my view by the people surrounding him.
"Let her through please," Dr. Cameron says, catching my eye and beckoning me with two fingers. As the men scoot apart and make a path, the Chief pushes me ahead to lead the way. "Chief, our preliminary diagnoses are a left acromioclavicular joint sprain and hyperextension of the neck. I think a Grade 2 on the shoulder. We'll confirm with CT and MRI scans."
"Loss of consciousness?"
"No, and no loss of movement or sensation in his arms or legs. We've stabilized his neck as a precaution, though."
Although Cullen's injuries sound less serious than I feared, my stomach still somersaults when I see him lying flat and shirtless on the table. His left arm is in a sling, bent at the elbow and resting across his chest. A large ice pack covers his left shoulder. Reluctantly, I force my eyes to travel further, force myself to look at the blue and yellow neck brace holding his head immobile. Above the rigid plastic, his face is pale, his eyes shut. Swallowing to fight my rising nausea, I let go of my dad and hurry the last few steps to him.
"Cullen," I whisper, standing near his uninjured shoulder. When his eyes open, mine nearly slide closed in relief. Unable to move his head, he shifts just his gaze to me, and I immediately reach for him, wanting to comfort him – and myself. My touch is gentle as I rest one hand on his right forearm and the other in his hair.
"Hey, legs." He tries to smile, but the top of the neck brace presses against his chin and jaw, distorting his crooked grin. "I'm okay. Don't freak out."
"Me? I never freak out," I scoff, even though I'm absolutely freaking the hell out. But he knows that– knows me. When he huffs out a quiet chuckle, I smile slightly in return, desperately wanting to kiss him but afraid to bump him, afraid to hurt him. "Are you in a lot of pain?"
His answer is contradicted by the pallor of his skin and the strain of his voice. But I nod instead of arguing, realizing he won't be honest with so many ears in the room. Behind me, the Chief has finished quizzing Doctor Cameron. He steps forward to peer over my shoulder at Cullen.
"How're you doing, kid?"
"I'm all right, Chief."
"Glad to hear it, son… in-law. When you're back on your feet, you and I are going to have a little talk."
"Yes, sir," Edward answers. His tone is respectful, his stare unwavering, despite my dad's half-serious attempt to intimidate him. Sliding my hand down his arm, I grasp his hand, linking our fingers. His eyes shift to mine before moving past me to land on Whitlock. "What are you doing back here?"
"Making sure the Chief doesn't kill you," Jasper chuckles. "And making sure you'll be healed by the playoffs."
Thinking of my injured husband going right back to playing is almost more than my mind can deal with at the moment. But I know how he'll feel about it, so I keep my expression neutral and my mouth shut when he answers confidently – even though my heart thuds erratically in my chest.
"Get us the bye. I'll be ready in two weeks."
"We'll get the win. Chief, you under control?" Jasper jokes. Knowing he's trying to take some of the heat off Cullen and me, I smile briefly at him over my shoulder and he winks in return.
"The only person I'm thinking about killing right now is you," my dad answers gruffly, eliciting laughter from everyone around us – except Cullen. His eyes are closed again, and his lips are drawn tight. He's clearly suffering, but when I squeeze his hand, he brushes his thumb along my finger, reassuring me. "Get your butt back on the field, Whitlock."
"Going, Chief," Jasper concedes. I don't turn to watch him, but I hear his footsteps as he moves toward the door. "Cullen, I'll check on you later."
Looking up, I meet Doctor Cameron's eyes across the table.
"He's in pain," I mouth.
He nods minutely, then answers in a hushed tone. "We'll get him some relief as soon as he lets us. He wanted to wait."
"For you. He said you'd figure out a way to get down here, and he didn't want to be out of it when you did."
"That's sweet. And stupid," I remark, glancing at Cullen long enough to see his lips curl upward slightly. "Can you give him something now?"
"We'll start an IV as soon as we get out of here," he assures me, then speaks to my dad. "Chief, we should get rolling."
Fear pulls the knot in my stomach tighter, and I wish for a second that we could just stay here… or just go home… or just go anywhere besides the hospital, where we might find out that Cullen's injuries are worse than first diagnosed. Fighting tears, fighting the swirling panic, I look down at him and gently pull my fingers through his still-sweaty hair.
The Chief's hands settle on my shoulders as he agrees with Doctor Cameron. "Bells, let's step outside for a minute."
"No. I want to stay with him."
"You can ride along in the ambulance," he promises. "But let's give the EMTs a little space to work, all right?"
Cullen squeezes my fingers lightly, but doesn't open his eyes. "Go, legs. I won't leave without you."
"You'd better not, Cullen. Or the doctors will be patching up more than your neck and shoulder," I warn teasingly. His answering laugh makes me feel lighter – until it's followed by a hiss of pain. Dropping my hand from his hair, I rest the back of my fingers against his clammy cheek and whisper an apology.
When the Chief tugs me backward a bit, I let him pull me away. As we follow the onlookers filing out of the room, I feel my already shaky composure slip a little more. Resolving not to lose it completely in front of all these people, I take a couple of deep, hitching breaths.
"He's in good hands, Bells," my dad soothes, leaning down to speak in my ear. His thumbs press firmly in a spot just above my shoulder blades – the same spot he knows tightens up when I'm stressed. The same spot he's spent hours of his life massaging, while I worried about everything from research papers to ailing grandparents.
"I know," I answer softly. Grateful for his support, I turn to look up at him. "Just don't kill him, okay?"
"Don't worry, kiddo," he retorts, patting my shoulders. "I'm not planning anything that easy for either of you."
My eyes widen as I study him, trying to decide how mad he really is. His expression seems amused, but the telltale line between his brows demonstrates his displeasure.
"Dad," I begin, eager to smooth things over.
"Not here, Bells. Too many witnesses," he advises with a sly grin. "We'll talk about it later."
Nodding, I turn around again, letting him steer me into the hallway… and trying not to think about the punishment to come.
Once we arrive at the hospital, Cullen is whisked away before I really get to say anything to him. An aggressive, but pleasant, nurse takes me by the arm and shuttles me into a private waiting room. She hands me a clipboard full of forms and the television remote, and then shuts the door, leaving me all alone. Sitting on one of the hard, vinyl-covered chairs, I reach for the chain around my neck and pull my necklace from inside my shirt, hoping the weight of Cullen's ring in my hand will ease my worry. But it doesn't help much. As I fill in the blank lines on the forms, I can't stop thinking about the ride here. Even though Cullen got the promised IV pain medication, he grimaced every time we hit a bump or turned a corner. Each pained grunt made me cringe in sympathy and caused a physical ache to slice through my chest. That ache lingers now, growing heavier with each passing moment of uncertainty.
Several minutes later, my frowning father arrives, carrying Cullen's duffle bag. He doesn't say a word as he sits down in the next chair and holds his upturned palm toward me. I don't speak either, but I set the clipboard aside and grasp his hand. Without letting go, I give him the remote, smiling when he turns the TV on to watch the end of the Seahawks game as I expected. We remain silent, but his leg twitches with every play – good or bad – and I notice with amusement that his fist tightens in triumph when the clock runs out, sealing the win.
Soon the coverage switches to the network studio. While the analysts discuss Cullen's injury, the footage of him being driven to the ground plays again and again. Feeling sick, I close my eyes and try not to listen as they speculate about how his injury will impact his new contract and the Seahawks' playoff chances.
"Know-it-all talking heads," the Chief mutters, muting the sound and dropping the remote onto the table on his other side.
Before I can sigh in relief, he clears his throat melodramatically. Uh oh. I've been through enough of these interrogations to recognize the signal – the main event is about to commence. Willing myself into a bravery I don't really feel, I turn my head toward him, but he continues staring at the television. Seconds that seem like hours pass while I anxiously study his profile, watching his jaw clench and unclench. Prepared to hear his booming voice, the single, soft-spoken word he speaks is almost startling to me.
"In Vegas. No Elvises present."
He huffs like maybe he's amused, but he still doesn't look at me. "I'm not going to be able to congratulate you until I cool down some."
"I understand." I lean sideways, resting my head against his shoulder... remembering. Hoping to speed up the cooling down process, I offer more details. "I wore Gran's earrings and the ring Mom gave me when I was a freshman in college. And you know the handkerchiefs Sue gave you with the little swan embroidered in the corner? I carried one of those."
I can hear the smile in his voice when he speaks. "You did? How'd you get that?"
"You let me use it at Gran's funeral. I never gave it back to you," I explain, my eyes tear-filled again. "It was my something borrowed."
He grasps my hand more tightly, and I hear him swallow. "Borrowed, huh? Does that mean you're going to give it back now?"
I laugh at his joke, at how similar we are. Expressing deep emotion is difficult for us, and we both rely on humor to lessen the discomfort. But I want him to know how I feel, so I shift closer and wrap my other arm around his, squeezing. "I did think of you, Dad – all of you. I'm so sorry that you're hurt."
"I know, Bells."
"But I'm not sorry that I married him."
"I'm aware of that, too," he answers, pressing a kiss to the top of my head. We settle into the stillness that follows, each lost in our own thoughts. We're quiet for several minutes before he sighs heavily. "Edward talked to me about you." Jerking upright, I twist in my chair to look at him, and he finally turns to me with a wry smile. "I didn't know he was talking about you, though."
"When? What did he say?"
"On the way home from the Houston game, he sat with me on the plane. We did some initial prep for the next game, but I could tell something else was on his mind. Just before we landed, he asked if he could talk to me about his girlfriend. Kid was practically shaking; he was so nervous. Guess now I know why," he remarks, shaking his head. "He rattled off a long list of things he loved about this girl and told me he wanted to marry her – you – even though he hadn't known her very long. And then he asked me what I thought."
"What did you tell him?" I whisper, sniffling.
"I told him he should go ahead if he was sure." Lifting our joined hands, he brushes his knuckles under my chin before letting our hands drop. "And I told him the things he'd just said are what every father wants to hear from the man who's going to marry his daughter." Afraid of dissolving into sobs, I break eye contact and rest my head against his shoulder again. The rumble of his quiet, familiar chuckle moves through his chest. "Of course, if I'd known he was talking about marrying my daughter, I might have answered much differently."
Hugging my dad's arm again, I smile, somehow not surprised that Edward found a way to kind of ask for my dad's permission to marry me. And also not surprised that he kind of got it.
"I love him very much, Dad."
"That's obvious, kiddo." He pats my leg, and then groans. "Oh, crap. Phil's a Cardinals fan, right?"
"So he's probably watching this post-game show, right?"
"Right," I answer, drawing the word out. Perplexed by his sudden curiosity about my stepdad, I glance first at the Chief and then at the television screen his eyes are glued to. Stunned to see myself climbing into the ambulance right behind Cullen's stretcher, my mouth drops open. "Oh, crap. How'd they get that video?"
"Looks like it was taken with a cell phone. That area is supposed to be secure, though. Some jackwagon must have gotten through," he fumes, turning the TV volume up. The reporter hasn't learned any new information about Cullen's condition and doesn't mention me, but the video is playing on a loop. Phil will definitely recognize me if he's watching. "If you haven't told your mom about this, you'd better call her. Now."
I keep staring at the screen while my dad calls the head of player security at the stadium. Although I realized Cullen and I were busted, I foolishly thought we'd still be able to reveal the truth about our relationship on our own terms. Renee has always been pretty laid-back as a parent, encouraging me and accepting my choices, so I'm not worried about her reaction. But I wanted to tell her myself.
Guilt-ridden once again, I pull my phone from my back pocket and scroll down my contact list to her name. When she answers, I hear her laughter before her voice. "I thought maybe you'd call."
"You have something to tell us?"
Even though they seem to have guessed most of what I'm going to say, Mom and Phil listen as the whole story spills out. While I'm talking, Sue comes into the waiting room, pauses to kiss my dad, and then sits down on my other side. The fact that I have the support of all four of my parents while Cullen is lying somewhere all alone isn't lost on me, and I get choked up when I tell my mom that I don't really know how badly he's hurt.
"I'll go see what I can find out," my dad whispers, standing up.
After assuring my mom and Phil that they don't need to come to Seattle, we say our goodbyes and hang up. From the corner of my eye, I see Sue turn to face me.
"So, about this secret husband you have," she begins lightheartedly. Since we talk or text almost every day, I was afraid she'd be angry when she found out the truth. But I should have known that the woman who's been a nurturer, confidante, and counselor to me for so many years would behave no differently in this situation. As I twist sideways in my chair, I don't know if I've ever been more thankful that my dad was smart enough to marry her. "This was the boy? The birthday date, the trip out of town, the Thanksgiving cooking – all him?"
"Yeah," I admit, nodding sheepishly. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
"Honey, you didn't have to say the words. It was in your voice when I talked to you and all over your face every time I saw you. I knew you were in love. I just didn't know his name."
"His name is Edward," I quip.
"Thank you for clearing that up, smartass." We both laugh, and then she reaches for my left hand, lifting it to look at my ring. "You know, I noticed this a couple of weeks ago and thought maybe things were getting serious. It never occurred to me that you had eloped, though."
"Dad's really mad."
Her honest gaze meets mine. "He's upset that he missed such an important day in your life. But he likes Edward… and he loves you more than anything else in the world."
"We didn't mean to hurt anyone."
Her arms envelop me at once, and I let myself sink into her motherly embrace. "I know. And Charlie knows that, too. Just give him a little time. He'll come around."
As we pull apart, I glance toward the clock on the wall and wonder why it's taking so long to get news about Cullen. Are his tests finished? Have the doctors already told him what they found? And where the heck is my dad? The fact that he hasn't returned makes me even more nervous. Sue must realize what I'm thinking because she tries to distract me by asking questions about Cullen, about the wedding. I play along, doing my best to answer while my heart pounds and my stomach churns.
At last, the same nurse who brought me in here appears and announces that she'll take me to Cullen. Fear instantly grips my chest and flows coldly through my body. My throat feels too tight to speak, so I nod at the nurse as I stand on shaky legs to go with her. It only takes one pleading look at Sue for her to get up and link her arm with mine, steadying me. Side-by-side, we follow the nurse through the maze of hallways, Cullen's duffle bag weighing heavily on my shoulder.
Although Sue whispers words of encouragement, my anxiety grows with each step we take. I can hardly breathe as the nurse pushes the door to an exam room open and motions for me to go in. I see the Chief first, standing just inside the doorway, arms crossed over his chest. He smiles at me, calming my nerves a little, and then my eyes dart to the bed on the other side of the room – and the blue-gowned man in it. Cullen is lying back at an angle, talking to a nurse who's removing his IV. His left arm is still in a sling, but the neck brace is gone. When he turns his head slightly to look at me, his features relax; he looks as relieved to see me as I am him. His quick, crooked grin makes me smile, too.
"Maggie, my wife is here." His eyes never leave mine even though he's addressing the nurse.
"I told you I'd send someone to find her." She twists around to look at me over the top of her glasses. "He's a bit pushy when he wants something."
With a laugh, I have to agree with her observation. "He likes to win."
She nods at me before turning back to focus on her task. "You can come closer. I'll be out of the way in a second."
"I'll take the bag, Bells," the Chief offers, reaching for the strap of the duffle. Without a glance, I hand it off and walk toward Cullen, reaching him just as Nurse Maggie finishes up.
"The doctor should be in soon." She pulls her latex gloves off with a quiet snap and steps back, letting me scoot into her spot.
"Hi," I reply softly, grasping his right hand. "You look better. How do you feel?"
"I'm okay. I got good painkillers," he answers. "But my neck is pretty stiff."
"Then hold still." I lean in carefully, gently pressing my face against his as our lips meet again and again… until the Chief clears his throat. Grinning, I pull away and look over my shoulder at Sue. "Come and meet him."
Sue greets him warmly, shaking his hand, bending down to kiss his cheek. Immediately, I see that he didn't expect the outpouring of affection, but he recovers quickly enough to return the gesture. Although I keep smiling, rage at Cullen's parents boils in my blood; he's so unused to parental nurturing that he's surprised when it happens. Tamping down my anger, I move back to his side when he reaches for me, perching next to him on the bed.
"We're in big trouble," I whisper as my dad heads our way. The Chief doesn't try to hide his irritation, eyeing each of us in turn. Cullen's arm tightens around my waist, bracing us for attack.
"You're not quite back on your feet, son, but close enough," he begins. In my peripheral vision, I see Sue take a step toward Cullen and me, and I almost smile. I know – and more importantly the Chief knows – that means she's on my side. "I want some answers from the two of you, and I don't want to wait any longer. I'll start with you, Bells. Are you pregnant?"
"Charlie!" Sue chides with a gasp. "That's none of your business."
"The hell it isn't," he grumbles, shifting his temper to her for a moment. "If she is, it's my grandkid, and they'd better be honest about it right now."
"No, Dad, I'm not pregnant," I declare firmly. Cullen and I have talked about kids, and both of us want to wait a while before we take that step. But the thought of someday having a baby with him thrills me. When I turn to look at him, he pulls me closer, making me wonder if he's thinking the same thing. I kiss his cheek and slide my nose along his jaw, nearly forgetting that we have an audience.
"Now, which one of you wants to explain why I wasn't invited to the wedding of my only child?"
Ouch. My dad's blunt question reminds me how upset he is, how hurt he is. With a sigh, I sit up and look apologetically at him. For the next several minutes, Cullen and I try to smooth things over with a hearty helping of the truth. We give our reasons, talking about our jobs, his job, privacy, Cullen's parents. The Chief nods a couple of times, seeming to understand, but I can't read the expression on his face. After asking a few more questions about our life and our plans, he exhales in a gust and goes quiet, signaling that he's done – at least for the moment.
"Are you still mad?" I ask cautiously.
"Yes," he answers tersely. His tone softens when he continues. "But not as much."
Springing up, I rush to hug him. "Thanks, Dad."
"Edward, you and I have one more thing to get straight." Rolling my eyes, I try to step back to look at my dad, but he holds me tightly, warning Cullen over the top of my head. "Don't hurt her."
"I never want to hurt her, Charlie."
"I believe you. Don't make me regret it."
The Chief pulls away slightly, his admonishing gaze landing on me next. "And if the time ever comes that I'm going to be a grandfather, I'd better not be the last one to hear about it."
"And I'd better not find out about it in the damn tunnel of the stadium."
"I promise." Moving forward, I wrap my arms around him again. "I love you, Dad."
He presses a kiss against my temple, and his voice cracks a little when he replies. "I love you, too, kid. Congratulations."
Three hours later, I stand at my bathroom sink, rubbing cleanser on my face in slow, mindless circles. Exhausted, I rest my elbows on the vanity as I bend forward to cup my hands under the faucet. Splash. Repeat. Splash. Repeat. I keep rinsing long after the soap is gone, letting the water wash away the day.
A thud from inside the shower startles me. Alarmed, I whirl around, dripping water all over the floor.
"You okay in there, Cullen?"
Concerned when he doesn't reply, I turn off the faucet and grab a towel, drying my face as I walk toward the shower. I open the frosted glass door a bit to peek inside. Cullen is sitting on the built-in bench with his eyes closed, his left arm held against his chest. The noise-making culprit – my shampoo bottle – is lying on the floor at his feet.
"You need help?"
"Yeah," he mutters dejectedly.
Frowning, I pull off my clothes, answering Cullen's defeated sigh with a silent one of my own. It's hard to believe that the man in front of me is the same man I rode home with an hour ago. That Cullen was euphoric, his eyes lit with excitement as he and the Chief, our chauffeur, talked about the playoffs. His chattering persisted when we got upstairs, praising the doctor at the hospital who pronounced that he should be ready to get back on the field in two weeks and claiming that his sprained shoulder didn't even hurt much anymore. I chose not to mention that the pain meds probably had something to do with that. He didn't shut up until I boosted myself onto the kitchen counter and summoned him with a crooked finger. Smirking, he let me pull him as close as his sling allowed so that we were eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose, lip-to-lip. And then, finally, I got to kiss him the way I wanted to.
But twenty minutes and one phone call to his parents later, everything had changed. He spoke to them alone, shut in our bedroom, while I was in the kitchen calling Newton and my mom. By the time I got to the bedroom, Cullen was standing at the windows, staring blankly at the city lights across the water. He's hardly spoken since, and he hasn't looked at me once.
As I step inside the shower with him, he doesn't open his eyes, doesn't react to my presence at all. He sits passively as I wash his hair and body, while I get angrier by the second at the reckless way his parents wield their power. It seems like every conversation with them leaves him feeling unimportant and unloved. When I ask if he wants to rinse on his own, he doesn't answer. But he gets up to stand face-first under the spray, turning his back on me.
Rejection cuts sharply through me, and I step back to lean against the shower wall. Although this isn't the first time I've seen him upset, it's the first time he's completely shut me out. My heart aches for him… and because of him. Tears spring to my eyes, and I instinctively reach for the shower door, anxious to escape the hurt, the fear. This is how I've dealt with intense emotion for most of my life, so I'm not really shocked by the sudden impulse I have to run away; I'm not surprised that – for an instant – it's just as strong as the urge to run to him was when he was lying on the field this afternoon.
For me, the surprise comes immediately after. Without thought or hesitation, I let go of the door and, instead, raise my hand to the ring hanging from my necklace. Cullen's ring. Bowing my head, I study it, the tangible proof of the bond we share and the promises we made. The symbol of the life we're building, with all its ups and downs. And I vowed to support him through it, to love him through it. Even when it's hard. Even when I'm scared.
Focusing on his feelings instead of my own, I move up behind him. Delicately, I trace the muscles of his back with my fingertips, silently giving thanks that he's home, that he's okay. He doesn't flinch or recoil, which I hope means he's ready to accept more contact. I shift closer, pressing against him as I skim my lips along his skin, trying to show him the care that he's shown to me so many times. After a moment, he exhales, and I feel the tautness in his body start to ease.
"That feels good, legs," he murmurs, reaching his right hand back to me. I slide my fingers between his, and then he pulls my arm around him. "You know how much I love you, right?"
"I was pretty sure when you hung in through the Chief's interrogation."
"You think he's done grilling us?"
"Not even a little bit." Cullen's quiet laugh boosts my spirits, and I smile as I rest my forehead against his back. "You know I love you, too, right?"
"I know." Even though he pauses for a few seconds, I can tell he's got more to say. I stay silent, giving him the time he needs to work through his emotions. He presses my hand flat against his chest, covering it with his own, and he blows out a long breath before he speaks again. "Carlisle and Esme weren't exactly ecstatic about our news."
My stomach drops, which is ridiculous; I expected nothing short of vehement disapproval from his parents. But faced with the reality of it, my apprehension builds again. "What did they say to you?"
"They tried to order me around like a fucking eight year-old. Told me to come home… like their house is still home to me," he says with a bitter chuckle. "They were stunned when I told them I wouldn't leave Seattle – or you. The conversation deteriorated pretty quickly after that."
"I'm so sorry," I whisper, wishing my words could heal the scars left by theirs. "Maybe they just need a little time to adjust, like my dad."
"I doubt it, but I'll know soon enough. They're flying out here tomorrow."
"Well, once we all sit down– "
"Are you kidding?" he interrupts angrily. "I'm not letting them anywhere near you, Bella."
"Edward, look at me," I plead, shifting back so he has space to turn around. His green eyes are bloodshot and fiery when they meet mine. "You don't have to shield me from them."
"I want to protect you."
"And I want to protect you," I counter forcefully. My gaze stays locked with his in a battle of wills. I refuse to give in, refuse to let him take on his parents alone. Frustrated and a little pissed, I fight to keep my tone even. "We said this relationship was a team sport. We said we'd deal with the fallout together if this happened."
At first, my words don't seem to have much effect, but slowly the heat begins to fade from his eyes. He sounds tired when he finally relents. "They won't be nice to you, legs."
"I can handle it. The Chief was tough on us, but we survived."
"Carlisle and Esme will make Charlie look like the good cop."
"Then you'll need me beside you," I shrug, reaching past him to turn off the water and steam.
Neither of us speaks while I dry him off, but my realistic mind races, imagining what the next few days will hold… and it all seems painful. Cullen will start rehab on his shoulder, which will be physically and mentally draining for him. It sounds like the visit from my in-laws will be a little slice of hell. And they probably won't be the only ones who level harsh criticism at us. No matter how much we try to prepare for the emotional rollercoaster, it will still be rough. I'm not looking forward to any of it.
I wrap the towel around Cullen's waist and grab another to put around myself. As I'm tucking the end in to hold it in place, he reaches out to help, nudging my fingers out of the way.
"Were you this stubborn when we got married?"
Pleased that he sounds more like himself, I tilt my head, looking up at him with a sly grin. "You're not the only one around here who likes to win, Cullen."
"I guess it's a good thing we're on the same side, then, Cullen."
His statement is simple; his smirk is adorable. And just like that my practical head is overruled by my dizzy heart. Whatever challenges the days ahead bring, they're ours. We'll tackle them, defeat them together. He can't bend down, so I kiss my fingers and then lift them to rest against his lips.
"Yeah. It's a really good thing."