A/N: I know. It's been forever. We can chat below.
Many thanks to my friend and beta Hadley Hemingway for pushing and prodding me to get off my lazy bum and finish all these dangling stories. Love her!
Thanks to anyone who stuck around waiting. I promise the waiting won't be so long again. People have been much kinder than I deserve, but that's just the way this fandom rolls.
A gray mist hangs in the air the next morning. I stare out the bedroom window at the blurred Seattle skyline, sipping coffee and half-listening to Cullen talk on the phone. The calls started coming in at the crack of dawn – his agent, the team doctor, the sister he likes. Right now, he's talking to someone from the Seahawks' front office.
"I don't think we need a strategy." Cullen sounds annoyed, but when I turn around to look at him, he winks at me. I force a smile in reply before facing the window again.
A dull headache throbs behind my eyes, and my body feels heavy, emotionally hungover. I didn't sleep much, despite being exhausted by the time Cullen and I finally got to bed. As soon as I laid down, my brain launched into overdrive, replaying the worst moments of the day with the never-ending enthusiasm of a morning news anchor. And the reel always ended with the incoming in-law invasion, now just a few hours away. A fresh round of dread hollows out my chest at the thought.
When Cullen hangs up a few minutes later, I turn to face him, leaning back against the window frame. "Trouble at work?"
"The PR team strongly encourages making the rounds on the TV interview circuit this week," he grumbles, staring at the screen of his phone.
I'm not surprised, and Cullen probably isn't either. The team issued a statement last night about his injuries, but nothing takes the place of the player getting in front of the cameras to prove he's healthy, especially at playoff time. I'm not sure why he's this irritated… or why he won't make eye contact with me.
"Oh," I breathe as realization dawns at last. My stomach lurches, and I clutch my coffee mug more tightly, needing something to hold on to. "This isn't just damage control about your shoulder, right? This strategy they're plotting is also about us."
He tosses his cell phone on the bed. "Yeah. They think the sooner we get the truth out in the media, the quicker the rumors and questions will die down." I haven't checked social media this morning, but Cullen's agent told him the video clip of me climbing into the ambulance has been all over every platform. As he adjusts the sling holding his left arm against his chest, his cheeks redden, signaling that there's something more he needs to say – something that makes him uneasy. And that makes me uneasy. "They asked if we'd do a joint interview, but I told them no."
At last, his gaze snaps to meet mine, surprise evident in his green eyes. "I thought we didn't want to put our personal life on full display, Legs."
"I thought we agreed to handle this fallout together, Cullen," I argue, crossing the room toward him. On the spectrum of requests the PR department could have made, this is minor. Relief floods my veins and pushes all my other anxiety to the background for the moment. "If doing a couple of interviews will appease the front office, then I'm in. We don't have to tell them every detail."
Edward doesn't look convinced, but he smiles slightly at me as he reaches for my coffee. I let him take the mug, rolling my eyes in fake irritation. When he chuckles, I have to bite my cheek to keep from grinning. This, at least, feels normal. Feels like us.
"Don't drink it all," I warn, "or I'll tell all the reporters that I had to help you put your pants on this morning."
He laughs out loud, and then he holds my gaze as he drains every last drop.
Since both of our cars are still at the stadium, the team sends someone to get Cullen. He has a long day of neck and shoulder rehab ahead of him, but he's anxious to get started, despite how painful it will be. Once he's gone, I go through the apartment room by room, straightening up – fluffing every throw pillow, lining up the spines of the books on the coffee table, making sure not a speck of dust is left on any surface. I'm not expecting any of this to make a difference with my in-laws; I just don't want to give them any added ammunition.
Thankfully, I get a welcome distraction from Emmett just before noon. When he texts me and offers to bring my purse and laptop bag over, I immediately accept. Thirty minutes later, he follows me from the elevator into the penthouse, whistling low and long.
"Nice digs, Swan." He glances my way. "Can I still call you that? Are you changing your name?"
"Yeah, to both," I answer with a laugh, leading the way into the kitchen. "It's still Swan professionally, though. For the moment."
"You okay? Cullen okay?" He reaches over to squeeze my shoulder. "Off the record on Cullen, of course. Oh, shit! Is he here?"
I shake my head. "No, he started treatment today, and he's not back yet. We're both good. Want something to drink?"
After Emmett answers, he sets my purse and laptop bag on the counter and walks to the windows that look out over the Pacific. Even on this gloomy day, the view of the water stretching endlessly toward the western horizon is impressive.
"Newton thinks you're knocked up."
"He also thinks Tupac is alive and living in Cuba," I retort with a huff. Newton was nice on the phone last night when I told him I needed a few days off, but I knew it wouldn't last. Since I like to be right, I'm not even that annoyed by his implied suggestion that the only way Cullen would have married me is if I were pregnant. "Is that what you think, too?"
"Nah. Nothing but respect, but I'm pretty sure Tupac is actually dead," he answers, turning to look at me.
Handing him the soda he asked for, I narrow my gaze. "You know that's not what I meant. I'm not, though. On the record."
"Didn't think so. I figure you're just a thirsty jersey chaser." Smirking, he scoots away when I try to punch his arm. I see the glee in his eyes and know he got the reaction he was hoping for. "Take it easy, Swan. It's just a joke. You've never been like that. And, shit, yesterday was scary. It had to be awful for you."
"It was, Em. Thank you for getting my stuff. And for riding the elevator down to the tunnel with me."
"We're friends. That's what friends do." He shrugs one shoulder like it's no big deal as he takes a sip of his drink. "Of course, friends also tell each other when they freaking get married, so there's that."
"I felt so guilty not telling you and Riley. But I didn't want to put you guys in a position where you had to lie for me," I explain. We sit down at the table, and I let him tease and quiz me about Cullen, making sure to overreact a few more times to appease him.
When I'm walking him out a little later, I unintentionally sigh loudly as my mind is consumed once again by the in-law countdown clock.
"Chin up, Swan," Emmett says, misunderstanding, pulling me to his side. "I'll forgive you eventually."
Laughing, I return the one-armed hug and look up at him.
"Is there anything I can do to make it up to you? A few more apologies and a bottle of Crown?" I ask, opting not to wound his ego by telling him I was preoccupied with thoughts of Cullen's family.
Until he brings them up.
"I don't know. I've been a little lonely since I couldn't go home for the holidays. Does Cullen have a sister?"
Tilting my head, I study him. He's joking, right? His deep dimples and shining blue eyes are on full blast. And he's only about a month out from the disastrous blind date with Newton's sister, so I doubt he actually wants a set up with someone I'm now related to. But I still shudder a bit at the idea of Cullen's bitchy sister breaking his heart.
The ding of the arriving elevator saves me before I have to answer. I shove him inside with an exasperated groan, waving goodbye as the doors slide closed.
By the time Cullen gets home, his parents are already on the ground in Seattle. They're due to arrive here for dinner in an hour. My stomach is in knots either from the apprehension about their visit or the amount of gum I've swallowed in the last half hour. Or maybe both.
Perched on the edge of the bathtub, I swallow another piece and watch him get dressed in front of his sink. He seems nervous, too, even though he's trying to cover.
"You're sure you want to do the joint interview tomorrow? Damn, why are buttons so hard to do with one hand?"
Assuming the second question is rhetorical, I answer the first as I get up and walk toward him. "Yes, I'm sure. I picked out a couple of wedding photos to release, too. You want to see which ones?"
He turns to face me, wincing as he moves his neck to nod. This afternoon, we agreed to do one joint television interview and release a statement with two wedding photos on our social media accounts. The PR office fought back a little, but we stood our ground, insisting that Edward's injury rehab and playoff preparation couldn't be interrupted by constant media obligations.
We're quiet for a moment while I button his shirt and help get his sling back in place. He reaches out with his right hand, pushing some hair behind my ear, tracing down my back, and finally resting his palm on my ass. When I look up at him with pursed lips, he smirks back at me.
"Hey, Legs, now that people know we're married, we can be late for everything. Everyone knows newlyweds are always in bed."
"Not these newlyweds. Not this week." Despite my words, I shift closer, gingerly wrapping my arms around his waist. Pressing myself against him, I rest my cheek against the right side of his chest. "I read your discharge papers last night. No extracurricular bedroom activity until the doc clears you."
"You're putting me in a sex timeout?"
"If we make your injury worse, we have to answer to Coach Erickson and my dad. How's that sound?"
"Like we're both in a sex timeout."
We laugh lightly then go silent. His body is rigid, his muscles tense under my hands, and even though we stand in place for a minute, he never relaxes his stance.
Finally, he clears his throat softly and speaks. "Tonight will be rough."
"The less popular 'for worse' part of the wedding vows, huh?" I tease, pressing a kiss to his chest.
"I'm serious. There's no telling where Esme and Carlisle will be on the indifferent-to-hostile scale."
"We'll get through it together, Edward," I promise, rubbing his back, trying to soothe him while my own trepidation skyrockets. Here's hoping for indifference, I guess. "Team sport."
He doesn't repeat or reinforce my sentiment, so I know he's still stressed about it. My worry shifts from how we're going to fare tonight to how he will, and I desperately want to get his mind off of it, at least for a few minutes.
Gently pulling away from him, I take his hand and lead him out of the bathroom. "It's time to ice your shoulder. Doctor's orders. The quicker you heal, the quicker you'll be able to play."
"In more ways than one, right, Legs?" He grins playfully when I turn to look at him. I let him pass me in the hallway and give his ass a quick slap.
"Definitely, Cullen. Game on."
As luck – or sneaky planning – would have it, my dad and Sue are at the penthouse when Edward's family arrives. They dropped off Cullen's car for us, and then they just sort of lingered. My suspicion that Charlie purposefully timed his visit is proven when he moves to stand behind me as my in-laws come into the entryway.
"Dad, stop," I whisper, trying to break free of the hold he has on my shoulders, but rather than loosening his grip, he steps protectively closer.
Cullen hugs the only smiling relative, his sister Rosalie, first. Their affection looks genuine, but his half-hearted embraces with the rest of his family appear perfunctory. Cullen moves stiffly between them, and it occurs to me that I've rarely seen him this uncomfortable. Even in other awkward situations, he's usually confident about his actions, his feelings. My heart pounds painfully, hating that they've made him so ill-at-ease in his own home.
"Where's Granddad?" Cullen asks as he backs away from his mom.
"He's too fragile to travel this far at his age, Edward. You would know that if you kept in contact with us," she says. Although her expression is passive, her words are meant to wound. First shots fired – and they're not even inside yet.
"I talked to all of you three days ago, Mom. He sounded plenty strong then," Edward argues.
"He puts on a show for you. He doesn't want you to feel guilty about being so far from home."
"What you should feel guilty about is your dishonesty," his dad interjects sharply, lobbing a second wave of hurtful artillery. "You've spent months lying to us. He's disappointed – we're all disappointed – in you. And now we've had to interrupt our lives to come here and deal with your mistakes."
Cullen shoves his good hand in his pocket, shifting his eyes to me for a second before he looks at the ground. I know my mouth is hanging open. I'm too stunned to shut it, or to speak.
"These people are jackwagons," my dad whispers, squeezing my shoulders. I know he didn't doubt Cullen's description of them last night at the hospital but witnessing them in action is sad confirmation for him. For me, too. With gentle pressure, he nudges me forward, finally releasing his hold. "Go get 'em, kiddo."
Moving quickly to Edward's side, I slide my left arm through his right and hold my other hand out toward his father. "I believe I'm one of the mistakes you're referring to. Bella. Lovely to meet you."
Carlisle is clearly taken aback by my impertinence – and maybe my sarcasm – but reluctantly shakes my hand. I shift my focus to Esme next, and now I'm the one struck dumb. Up close, the resemblance between mother and son is so obvious, so pronounced. He favors her facial features, and their eyes are practically identical. The shape. The color. But where Cullen's eyes are generally full of warmth, Esme's green gaze is cold and disapproving. Although she shakes my hand, she doesn't try to conceal the judgment on her face. Slightly raised eyebrow? Check. Downturned mouth? Check, check. I guess I didn't win her over with my winning smile and powerful grip.
Edward is still quiet, but he moves his hand out of his pocket and slides his fingers between mine. I hold on tightly, trying to show my support for him, as I greet his sisters and introduce my dad and Sue.
With little more than a snooty glance and nod at them, Esme turns to me again. Her lips twist into a smile that looks more like a sneer, and I brace myself for more animosity. "I hope you don't intend to keep us in the foyer all evening. It's been a long day for us, and we're quite anxious to see Edward's home. Can we go inside now?"
My eyebrows shoot up as I roll my lips together. Don't say, "I don't know, can we?". Don't say, "I don't know, can we?"
Willing my mouth to stay shut, I repeat the internal order several times. I'm sure Charlie is having a hard time not uttering my standard auto reply as well, since I learned it from him.
Beside me, Cullen coughs twice, and I'm pretty sure he's covering a chuckle. He squeezes my hand, and I squeeze back, remembering the two of us having this same exchange on the night we first had dinner together.
Choosing to ignore Esme's dig about this only being Edward's home, I answer her politely and then turn to him. "You want to take their coats while I walk my parents out?"
Once he agrees, he pauses to speak softly to my dad and Sue before leading his family inside.
"Oh, Bella. You have your work cut out for you tonight. You're sure you don't want us to stay?" Sue whispers as we hug goodbye at the elevator.
"No, thanks. We'll be okay," I answer, hoping it's not a lie. "The food was catered, so at least they can't complain about my cooking."
"Where was this caterer all those years I suffered through your cooking?" my dad jokes, showing his affection in the way he knows best. We hug for a long moment, and he pats my back before letting go. "We're only a phone call away if you need reinforcements, Bells."
"We know. And you have no idea how much that means to us."
Squeezing Sue's hand one last time, I promise to call her tomorrow. Then I turn to walk inside, so grateful that my parents have always had my back. And now they have Cullen's back, too.
In the kitchen, Rosalie is standing at the island pouring wine. Alone.
At my quizzical look, she offers an explanation. "They're taking the grand tour. I decided to wait here for you. Wine?" Nodding, I take a glass and a sip, unsure what to say, unsure where this conversation is headed. After checking on dinner in the oven, I stand across the counter from her and meet her gaze. "So, I guess Edward has told you our parents are… unconventional. And not in a cool, eclectic way."
Cautious, wary, I answer. "He's mentioned it."
"Yeah, well, they'll probably be real dicks tonight. They're basically assholes who are overly concerned about optics, their own optics." She pauses to roll her bright blue eyes. "They'll ask you about all kinds of things that I don't give a shit about, you know?"
No, I don't know, but I nod anyway. "Okay."
She settles on one of the barstools, and I'm a little surprised by her openness, her easiness, considering we just met under pretty unusual circumstances. It reminds me of someone else I know and love. It doesn't come naturally to me the way it does to them, but I know how important she is to Cullen. And that makes her important to me. Trying to look much more relaxed than I feel, I take another drink and lean forward, resting my elbows on the counter.
"Me? I'm only curious about one thing." She pauses longer than just a beat, forcing me to wait for the question with only my rapid heartbeats to fill the silence. "Do you love my little brother enough to be married to him?"
Sudden emotion collects in my throat, and I feel like I might cry. Even though her intimate question pushes the comfort limit of my candor, I keep my gaze matched with hers as I answer. "Without a doubt."
"Good. He's the best one of us," she says, smiling softly. Her eyes are misty as she taps her glass against mine. "Don't tell him I said that. And don't hurt him. I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts. I know where to hide a body."
"Same, girl. Same," I reply, retreating to my well-tread, and much less vulnerable, wheelhouse. Our shared laughter breaks the serious moment, and I grab the antipasto platter, setting it between us. "Hungry?"
Cullen has had a lot of media training, and I am the media, so we know how to steer conversations. As we sit down to dinner, we team up, successfully diverting the topic to his parents by asking open-ended questions and feigning interest in the answers. Like Cullen has said before, their favorite subject to discuss is themselves, and we keep them talking well into the second course.
Exchanging a sly smile with Cullen, I lean over to kiss him. He rests his hand on my thigh, leaving it there even when I pull away. Foolishly, I let myself think we're winning – or maybe even winning them over. I fantasize that Cullen and I will laugh about all this later, relishing the way we outmaneuvered Esme and Carlisle.
Soon after, though, their willingness to indulge in long-winded answers seems to wane. Fearing that they're onto our strategy, I serve dessert and fill the lull in conversation with small talk. I realize I'm playing against the clock now. I want to get them out of here tonight while Cullen and I are still ahead.
But when Carlisle turns to Edward, his stare is so frosty that I feel it in my bones. Instantly, the fantasy of ending tonight with a win deflates faster than the tires on Carrie Underwood's cheating boyfriend's truck. I push my plate of half-eaten chocolate cake away and reach for Cullen's hand. Looking down, I watch as he envelops my whole hand in his, resting them on his leg. He slides his thumb along my knuckles, calming me.
"I think it's time we discuss the real reason we're here," Carlisle begins. The friendly way he spoke about himself just minutes ago is gone, replaced by a tone chilly enough to match his glare. As I raise my head, I notice the shift in Cullen's body language. He sits up straighter, and the set of his jaw is rigid, like he's clenching his teeth. "I simply can't understand why you continue to play this game rather than pursuing one of the other career options at your disposal."
"I have the job I want," Edward answers.
"But this injury has proven the point we've been making for years. You're lucky not to be more seriously hurt. She certainly can't want you to keep playing football after this," Esme interjects, gesturing toward me, and it suddenly occurs to me that she hasn't said my name once since they've been here. It's "you" or "she" or "her" every time she addresses or refers to me.
"Actually, I think only Edward can make that decision. It's his career, his passion," I say, determined to be supportive even though it will take some time for the vision of him lying on the field yesterday to fade from my memory. "I'm with him, whatever he decides."
This comment seems to displease my monster-in-law, but it's her own fault. She basically solicited my opinion. Did she really think I'd side with them against my husband?
Carlisle clears his throat, recapturing control of the conversation. "Leaving your professional life aside for the moment, let's focus on your personal life choices. Nothing you've said so far tonight explains why you felt compelled to get married after only a couple of months."
"You're still in the infatuation stage of this relationship. You don't even really know her!" Esme cries, tossing her napkin on the table. "I don't know what kind of pressure she put on you–"
"You've got it backwards. Bella wasn't the one doing the pressuring," Cullen interrupts. When Esme tries to speak, he pulls his hand away from mine and fists it on the table. "I don't regret anything I've done since I came to Seattle, least of all the decision to ask Bella to marry me."
He turns to look at me, twisting his whole upper body my way. Although nervous somersaults have rolled my stomach for the last several minutes, they shift and change directions when Cullen's eyes meet mine. Instantly uplifted, I'm helpless against his wink and quick smile, and I grin right back at him. He rests the back of his hand against my cheek, continuing to watch me as he speaks quietly.
"And I do, in fact, know her very well."
"Edward," Alice sighs from my other side. I swivel my head to look at her as Cullen's hand shifts to the back of my neck. "How can you still be so naïve? You have money, fame, this swanky penthouse. When you finally figure out that she's more interested in those things than in you, don't ask us to pick up the pieces."
I'm shocked that the comment comes from Alice. Until now, she's seemed disinterested in the dinner talk and has mostly been silent. I hardly knew what her voice sounded like. Snotty, thin, high-pitched. It seems to fit her personality perfectly. In my lap, I grip my linen napkin so tightly that I'm surprised it doesn't rip. But it's that or smack Edward's oldest sister in her rude, wrong, aggressively-Juvedermed mouth.
"Don't worry, Alice. I learned a long time ago not to go to you for comfort," Cullen replies sharply.
"Well, it is a little hard to believe that you were introduced by happenstance to a coach's daughter as soon as you arrived in Seattle," Esme adds, barely glancing my way. "It's suspect, to say the least. They didn't waste any time tying you to the team. And their so-called fam–"
"Mom!" Cullen's harsh exclamation isn't loud, but Esme looks surprised by the interruption. Although I fully anticipated these accusations, I suddenly find myself furious. Come after me, monster-in-law. Not my dad.
"How did this devolve so quickly?" Rosalie wonders, glaring across the table at her parents. "This visit was supposed to be about seeing your injured son and getting to know your new daughter-in-law. Are you even paying attention to them? Because they're clearly crazy about each other. It's really fucking cute."
"Vulgar language isn't necessary, Rosalie. And I think it's a bit premature to make that declaration," Esme scoffs as she refills her wine, apparently recovered from her son's scolding. "Perhaps we should finish this discussion with just the family. I'm sure she won't mind excusing us for a few minutes."
Frowning, I tilt my head, studying her. What does she mean by "family"? Is she trying to kick me out of my own kitchen? Just as I open my mouth to protest, Cullen slowly turns my way again.
"Legs, can you give me a few minutes alone with them?"
Floored, I let my mouth hang open for the second time tonight. I don't know why he's giving into her demands so quickly, but I'm not going down without a fight.
"I'd rather stay."
"Baby, please," he pleads through gritted teeth. His eyes are red, and mine immediately tear up in response, the will to resist his request leaving me in a swift gust of exhaled breath. Hesitantly, I nod, leaning in to kiss him as I get up from the table. Then I go to my room like a rebuked teenager.
For the next thirty minutes, I sit on the floor just inside our bedroom, wondering what he's saying to them and, worse, what they're saying to him. I hear angry voices raised several times, but I can't make out the words.
To pass the time, I play a game on my phone, chew more gum – swallow more gum – and pick at the carpet. When I can't contain my nervous energy anymore, I get up and pace around the room. I swipe my finger along the top of the doorframe and wipe my dusty finger on my skirt. Then I study the framed paper hanging on the wall – the poem that Cullen had the officiant read at our wedding. I love his neat, angular handwriting. I love the creases in the paper where it was folded and carried in his pocket that day.
During my third read through of the poem, I realize the loud voices in the other room have gone silent. Creeping across the floor, I twist the doorknob and slowly pull the door open a crack. It's all quiet, so I think it's safe to leave the bedroom. Wandering toward the kitchen, I see that their coats are gone from the entryway bench where they were laying, and Cullen is nowhere to be found. He must have gone downstairs with them.
All the plates have been carried from the table to the sink, but the wine and water glasses are still on the table. I start to pick them up, wedging as many as I can between my left arm and body as I round the table. Several pieces of paper lay face down at Edward's seat, and I flip them over unthinkingly. My stomach drops at the same time my heart leaps into my throat when I see the title printed in bold type at the top of the front page.
Weak-kneed, I sit down and begin to read it, barely noticing the wobble and clink of the glasses as I set them down. The first paragraph spells out the obvious: The agreement is between Edward and me, even though I'm not named. There's a blank line to fill in the name of the "wife". I can't stop the wry chuckle that huffs its way past the lump in my throat. Even here, they won't acknowledge my name.
Page one is pretty straightforward. If we divorce without having any children, he keeps his money, property, and retirement funds. The "wife" agrees not to request spousal support. There's no equitable distribution of community property. I just take my things and go, disappearing like a magician in a cloud of smoke. Poof! The marriage is cleanly erased as if it never happened.
The following pages detail what would happen if we have kids. The maximum amount of spousal support Edward would pay. Child support and holiday schedules. Health insurance. Life insurance. Schools. Deconstruction described in maliciously specific detail.
By the time I finish reading, new tears have gathered in my eyes, but I blink them away. Sniffling, I stand up and carefully load the glasses back in my arms. After setting them beside the sink, I pour another glass of pinot… and get a pen.
I take several gulps of wine while I go through the papers again. I'm numb, detached, as if I'm reading the whittling down of someone else's marriage, someone else's life. My hand is steady as I write my name on the blank line for "wife" and initial every page. Just when I finish signing the last page, the elevator chime dings, and I turn the agreement over, leaving it on the table where I found it.
I hear Cullen's footsteps as he comes back inside, and I sigh in relief when they move away from the kitchen, grateful I don't have to face him yet.
While I clean up, the emotions I've suppressed for the last half hour come roaring back from somewhere deep inside. At first, rage fuels my thoughts, and I'm hardly able to load the dishwasher without throwing every plate and glass against the wall. Grabbing the last dirty wine glass, I notice the dark red lipstick prints along the rim; this one was Esme's. A white-hot flash of anger surges through me, and I vigorously scrub the color from the glass.
As I wipe the counters, though, the anger recedes into hurt, slicing cut after deep cut through my chest. Silent tears fall – not so much for me; I'm not all that surprised they didn't give me a chance. But Edward is their son, and they've dismissed the life he's built with a contempt that most people reserve for sworn enemies. They don't seem to know who he is, what makes him tick. And they apparently don't care to find out. My heart breaks for him. I can't imagine any of my parents acting that way toward me.
Once I'm feeling more in control, I go searching for Cullen and find him sitting on the couch in the dark living room. His unblinking eyes are focused on the television where yesterday's game is replaying, but I know he's not really watching. The sound is muted. He's not taking notes or holding the remote so he can rewind plays he wants to see again.
As I approach, my boots thud noisily on the hardwood floor, but Cullen doesn't acknowledge my presence. Unexpectedly unsure of myself, I sit down on the edge of one of the chairs instead of sitting beside him, disappointed when he remains silent, stoic. Normally, if we're in the same room, we gravitate toward each other until we're touching. Now he won't even look at me.
"Hey," I whisper after a moment.
Another heavy silence stretches between us, and I glance at the Christmas tree in the corner. God, was Christmas only three days ago? It feels like a lifetime since we were that carefree, that happy. Briefly, I close my eyes, gathering my courage for the conversation we need to have, one Cullen isn't going to like. I look at him again in profile, watching the muscle at his jaw twitch.
"Um, I wasn't trying to snoop, but I found the papers that were on the table when I was cleaning up."
He sighs loudly, rubbing his hand across his face. "Legs, I'm sorry."
"I signed them." I barely get the words out before he turns to look at me.
"You what?" His voice is low and hoarse. He sounds pissed. He looks pissed. He doesn't wait for me to repeat myself before he continues. "What the hell, Bella? I've been sitting in here trying to figure out how to apologize to you for my parents' behavior, and you've been in the kitchen helping them undermine our marriage."
"I undermined our marriage by signing a piece of paper?"
"Jesus. Can you ever leave the sarcasm out?" I think he's pretty mad, so I bite back my instinctive retort. He exhales and presses his lips together for a moment. When he speaks again, he sounds calmer, but I hear the cold undertone. "They came here to drive a wedge between us, and now they have. You just handed them exactly what they wanted – our admission that maybe this whole thing will fall apart."
"That's not how I feel. That's not what I meant to do."
"Really? What did you mean to do, then?" he seethes, getting to his feet. He stands in place for a moment as if he doesn't know what to do next. My stomach is rolling, threatening to toss up my dinner, and I cross my arms over it to ease the nausea. "I knew there would be a competition of some kind tonight. But I mistakenly assumed you'd be on my side. So much for 'team sport' in this relationship, huh?"
He turns away and starts to walk from the room, from me.
"Cullen, wait," I plead. My voice cracks as I say his name again, but he doesn't stop.
"I don't want to talk to you. I don't even want to be around you right now."
Pressing my hands against my mouth, I watch in devastated disbelief as he heads down the hallway toward our bedroom. We've had arguments before, but he's never flat-out walked away from me. When he shuts the bedroom door not with a slam but with a soft, firm click, I know his anger runs deep, not just hot. And I can't hold the sobs in anymore.
Emotions and thoughts tumble through my mind in an incoherent mess as I cry into my hands. But one thought pushes its way to the front: Run.
Outside, I stuff my hands in my coat pockets as I rush across the street to the sidewalk that overlooks the ocean. The night sky is clear, brightly lit by the full moon. I stop and stare at it for a second, bright white against an indigo velvet background. Beautiful and serene, but with the power to affect tides and human behavior from a couple hundred thousand miles away.
Maybe that's what's wrong with Cullen's parents. It's the full moon.
In answer, the universe sends a gust of cold wind, stinging my face and stealing my breath. I'm not sure if that's supposed to be a confirmation or a reprimand, but I gasp, filling my aching lungs as tears fill my eyes again. I turn north on the pathway, taking several quick steps before Cullen's words come rushing back into my mind. Am I giving his parents exactly what they want? Fighting with Cullen, running away. Is that what they hoped would happen when they came here?
The wind blows hard again, but I don't need help from the universe to come up with the answer this time. I veer toward the railing and lean over it, watching the water below. Angry whitecaps break loudly – almost violently – against the rocks. With a shaky laugh, I roll my eyes, using my sleeve to brush away the tears cooling on my cheeks. I mean, how much symbolism do I need?
I don't want to run away anymore, but I'm not ready to face Cullen yet either. So I stay where I am, watching my puffs of exhaled breath evaporate in the dark, letting the tide of emotions churn itself out. Eventually, though, I'm cold, and I think I'm as composed as I'm going to get tonight. Turning around, I glance up at the inviting lights of the condo and head home.
Crossing the road to our building, I notice a man at the curb gathering his luggage from the back of a taxi. I beat him to the lobby door and impatiently hold it open for him as he approaches.
When I look at his face, the recognition is immediate. Even if I hadn't seen so many photos of him, I might have known. His stature is similar to Edward's, but it's the green eyes that give it away. Eyes he passed on to his daughter and grandson. Eyes that are friendly and sparkle like Cullen's do when he's really happy.
"Mr. Masen?" I ask tentatively.
"Yes," he replies, looking surprised to be called by name until he realizes who I must be. "Are you Bella?"
Finally, someone in Cullen's family speaks my name. I feel my face crumple a little as I nod. He immediately sets his bag down and hugs me so tightly that everything inside seems to break wide open again. His arms are the comfort I thought Cullen and I would be for each other when this family ordeal was over. Tears threaten again, and I blow out a slow breath before releasing him.
"It's so great to meet you. I've heard so much about you," I say as we pull apart. I pick up his bag, insisting that I'll carry it while he rolls his suitcase. "Does Edward know you're here?"
"No. I called from the taxi, but he didn't answer." I remember seeing Cullen's cell phone on the coffee table before he stormed out of the living room. It must still be there. "Lucky for me, you happened by."
"Yes. Lucky." The smile on my face is as forced as the steadiness in my voice. I am happy to meet him. I'm just sad about almost everything else.
I lead him toward the elevator, catching a glimpse of my disheveled reflection in the mirrored doors before they open. Hair tangled from the wind. Nose and cheeks red from the cold night. Eyes swollen from crying. When we're inside the closed elevator, Mr. Masen fixes those kind, observant Edward-eyes on my face.
"Chilly outside for a late-night walk," he begins, smiling a little. "Is everything all right?"
"Yeah. Um, Edward and I just had a little… disagreement."
"I assume my daughter had something to do with that." He checks his watch. "She's been in town about eight hours now. Right on schedule."
Thankfully, we arrive upstairs before I have to come up with an answer to his statement. Mr. Masen follows me inside, but we don't find Cullen in the living room or kitchen.
"I'll go get him," I offer, turning to leave the kitchen.
"He'll find us, I bet. I could use a drink if you don't mind."
I offer leftover food and hot tea. He declines the food, suggesting bourbon to go with the hot tea instead. With a laugh, I fill the kettle and get the liquor while he looks around.
"I saw my piano in the other room. Does Edward play often?"
"No, not much," I admit, feeling a little guilty, a little like I'm tattling on him. I've heard Cullen pick out a tune here and there, but not for any longer than a few minutes. "His schedule is just so busy."
"I understand. Did he tell you I taught him to play?" He pauses to make sure I nod before continuing. "I guess we all want our kids – grandkids – to love what we love. He was a good sport about it, put up with my prodding. But his passion was always elsewhere."
While I put mugs of hot tea and glasses of Maker's Mark on a tray, he wanders toward the living room. I follow right behind and find him standing at the baby grand. He reaches for the bourbon when I set the tray down, looking at me with a twinkle in his eye, daring me to do the same. Raising an eyebrow, I pick up the other glass, tapping it against his.
"Here's to you," he says. I echo the toast, and we each take a drink. "That's the warmth these old bones needed."
I don't drink straight liquor often, but I relish the temporary burn in my throat after being outside for so long. Another sip sends the prickling heat through my chest and down my arms.
"Would you?" I ask, gesturing toward the piano. "I'd love to hear you play."
"It would be my pleasure."
He sits down, patting the bench beside him for me to sit, too. As he plays, I watch his hands move nimbly over the keys. Despite his age, his obvious talent shines through. He talks quietly, telling me about various musicians he's known and places he's performed. I'm captivated, fascinated, and still sipping my drink while the tea goes cold.
The music stops, and I turn abruptly toward the sound of Cullen's voice. He's standing by the couch, wet-headed and bare-chested.
Cullen tosses the shirt he was carrying on the couch and strides quickly toward us. I stand to the side as they embrace, watching Cullen's face. He's smiling, and his eyes are squinted shut. Total elation.
"I thought you weren't up to traveling," Cullen says.
His granddad huffs, sounding annoyed. "Regardless of what your mother says about me, I'm not at death's door yet."
We all laugh, but when Cullen looks at me, his smile fades. For the third time tonight, I think he doesn't want me around. This time, I decide to go before he has a chance to verbalize the sentiment.
"Well, I'm sure you two have a lot to catch up on, and I'm exhausted. I'll see you in the morning." I kiss Mr. Masen on the cheek and head down the hallway, trying to ignore the quiet voices behind me.
Feeling excluded – lonely – again, I soothe myself with a hot shower. When I'm ready for bed, I slide the bathroom doors open, surprised to see Cullen sitting on the side of the bed. I assumed he would stay up with his granddad for a couple of hours.
Wrong again today, Bella.
Pulled back into the icy waters of reality, I feel the knot in my stomach tighten again. Decidedly uncertain about what to say, I stand frozen in the doorway, Edward's blistering expression pinning me in place.
"It's not gonna make them like you," he says brusquely. His voice is quiet, guarding against his granddad's presence in the guest room next door. "Signing that stupid agreement won't get my parents off your ass."
"I'm not trying to get them off my ass," I whisper harshly. "I'm trying to get them off yours."
"That'll never happen! All they want is for this to fail. And I guess you're betting on that, too."
"That's not true," I insist. Although it takes effort, I manage to soften my tone, keep the exasperation out of it.
His hard stare cuts into me for another moment before he lowers his eyes to look at the floor. I exhale and lean my shoulder against the door jamb, hating the excruciating quiet of the room. As it hangs weighty between us, I suddenly realize that this kind of silence does have a sound. Cullen's audible swallow. My rapid breaths. The hushed tick-tick of the watch I gave him as a wedding gift impartially counting the seconds it takes for the hurt to cut a little deeper, my heart to ache a little more.
"We – my sisters and I – were accessories they thought they wanted." Lost in my thoughts, I'm startled when he finally speaks. His voice is less sharp than a moment ago, but I still hear the edge underneath. "Kids need a lot of attention, though, and we took up too much of the time they wanted to spend on their careers or other interests. Once my grandparents stepped in to help raise us, my parents didn't have much use for us. As kids or as adults."
When he raises his gaze to meet mine, the misery evident in his bloodshot eyes guts me. Instantly, the anger and frustration simmering between us melts away. I walk toward him, stopping just before I reach him. "It's embarrassing, you know? I've learned to live with it, learned not to bring my friends around them. But tonight… having you see that my parents don't give a shit about me? That's humiliating."
"Cullen," I murmur as I step forward and wrap my arms around him. He buries his face in my neck and pulls me close with his uninjured arm. He chokes back a sob, and I cry with him, rubbing his back, trying to console him from an inconsolable anguish. I kiss the side of his head and leave my lips there, whispering that I'm sorry over and over.
After several minutes, he clears his throat and answers me. "What are you sorry for?"
"Everything that happened tonight," I reply. "Not talking to you before I signed the agreement. But especially for making you think for one second that I'm not on your side."
"Those goddamned papers were insulting. They think since money and material possessions are what's most important to them, it must be the same for everyone else, too."
"Cullen, look at me," I plead, pulling slightly away from him. He looks like he feels as raw as I do, and it's physically painful to look at him. But I make myself keep my gaze matched with his, determined to try and give back some of what his parents have taken from him. I use the sleeve of my pajama shirt to wipe the wetness from his face, and he uses his thumb to do the same from mine. Grabbing his hand, I kiss his palm and then link our hands between us. "What they said is partly true. I do love living here in this apartment. It's nice to not worry about having enough money for necessities, although, honestly, I had that on my own before I met you."
"But the reason I love living here is because you're here. And money doesn't buy happiness."
"They're proof enough of that."
"So, there's one thing they're dead wrong about," I continue, trying to finish before I get choked up again. "If we ever split up, it wouldn't be the apartment or the money that I'd miss."
Cullen nods, smiling slightly. "I know that, too, Legs." He lets go of my hand and reaches for his wedding ring, still hanging from my necklace since his left hand is swollen. He studies it, slides it along the chain for a long moment before shifting his gaze to mine again. "You were wrong about one thing you said earlier tonight, though. Football… my career… those aren't the only things I'm passionate about. You and this marriage mean more to me than anything else."
No words could be powerful enough to express how I feel, but I echo his sentiment as I lean in to kiss him. Almost immediately, the kiss intensifies as we try to put the pieces of us back together. All the emotions we felt today – hope, anger, hurt, love – seem to combine between us in lust, desire. Even with our mouths fused together, I don't feel like I can get close enough to him.
He breaks away first, breathing hard as he kisses down my neck. I'm panting, too, tipping my head back to grant him better access. With a quiet moan, I pull my shirt over my head when he pushes it up. I allow myself to stay lost in the pleasure as he cups my breast, grazing my nipple with his thumb.
I've definitely lost the ability to think by the time he wraps his arm around my waist, taking me with him as he lays back on the bed.
"Oof. Shit!" he hisses when I land on top of him, inadvertently putting my weight on his injured shoulder.
"Oh, crap, Cullen. Are you okay?" I scramble off him, barely breathing while I wait for his answer.
"Yeah. It's just a twinge," he answers, opening his eyes and looking at me. "Come back, Legs. I've still got one good hand."
"Oh, no. We weren't supposed to be doing this anyway!" I exclaim. I scoot off the bed and grab my shirt. "I'm getting your nighttime pain meds, and then we're going to sleep."
Surprisingly, he cooperates without complaint. He still seems a little distant, not making eye contact as I help him get settled. But when I get on my side of the bed and turn out the light, he reaches for me, gently tugging until I scoot over beside him.
After lying still for a few minutes, I whisper into the silence. "I need to tell you something."
"Okay." Cullen sounds leery, so I take his hand, sliding my fingers between his.
"I think I'm falling in love with your granddad."
His laugh is throaty but quiet, and I push myself up with one arm to look at him. Even in the dark room, I can see the brightness of his eyes, the wide smile on his face. His amusement inspires my own chuckle, and my heart feels whole and full, the way it does when someone you love is purely happy.
"Well, I never thought I'd be competing against my granddad for a woman," he finally says. "And I hate to be demanding, Legs, but you're going to have to pick one of us."
"I'll always pick you, Cullen," I answer. I'm being honest, but since he seems a little lighter now, I keep my tone playful. "That's just the kind of wife I am."
I kiss him – chastely, this time – and lie down beside him again. I'm almost asleep when he squeezes my hand.
"Hey, Bella. I'll always pick you, too."
A/N: So life handed us all some lemons in 2020, huh? Almost everyone I know also had/has other challenges in addition to the pandemic. For me, it was crazy long work hours at the start of the pandemic as we tried to figure out how to do everything from home. Then my mom got sick and required 24/7 care, which my sister and I tried to provide at home because COVID. A few months later, my teenager had a severe concussion that required neuro appointments and vestibular therapy (which I didn't know existed before this), and on the heels of that, my husband had a heart attack and spent three weeks in the hospital. So it was a little hard to mentally downshift into my hobby, even though I love writing and love this fandom. Some of this is behind me now, and some of it we're still working through in our family, but I'm trying hard to balance my life out again. I hope life is looking up for everyone and that 2022 will be kinder for all of us.
Thanks for reading. Please review. xoxojayhawkbb