Thanks to SusanQ, Nicffwhisperer, Vampshavelaws, iambeagle, and Stephanie for all of their help pre-reading/betaing for me. Also, a big thank you to Ange de L'aube for the awesome banner. I'm always tinkering until right before posting and any mistakes are mine.
"Morning," he mumbled.
I smiled and snuggled closer, enjoying the warmth of our little cocoon. His voice was the best sound to wake up to.
"Good morning and Happy Birthday again."
"Do you have a present hidden under these sheets somewhere?" he asked, tickling my waist.
I laughed and squirmed against him. "You already had that present."
"Mmmm, yeah I did. It was excellent." He chuckled, rubbing my back. "So tell me what you thought of my friends last night."
"They were nice," I started, swallowing the Kate-sized lump in my throat. "Garrett was hilarious. Maybe we can go see one of his shows sometime?"
He kissed my neck. "Yeah, definitely. I want to take you to some of our hangouts. Speaking of... how long do I get to keep you here before you have to leave?"
"I can stay until you leave for Vancouver next week." I hugged him tighter, already missing him. "My parents are making a West Coast swing over the next few days, and I'll have to go to a couple events, but otherwise I can be here."
"Fuck. I forgot about that meeting with your dad in a couple days. I'm thinking about wearing a Kevlar vest under my clothes."
I giggled. "He won't shoot you now. Not after we've gone public and the police can link him to the crime."
He snorted and rolled us over, lifting up on his elbows to look down at me. "You're laughing now, but you have to meet my parents today. Are you ready?"
That sounded ominous.
"You told me not to worry! That they'd love me!"
He just grinned. Now I was nervous again.
He laughed, his thumb brushing over my forehead. "Quit crinkling your face at me. I'm only joking with you. It's going to be great. I promise."
"If I start babbling nonsense, you have to break in and stop me. I don't know what's going to come out of my mouth."
"I'm looking forward to that part most of all," he teased before kissing me until my toes curled.
Damn him again.
He may have been rotten for taking pleasure in my awkwardness, but he sure knew how to kiss.
"I'm going to give you a few inside tips on how to win over my parents," Emmett said, pulling me aside after breakfast when Edward was in the shower.
I nodded. "Okay." I'd take any assistance I could get.
Edward was basically no help at all.
"First of all, my mom. There are two things she loves most in this world. Me, of course." He grinned and preened. "And second is her shot glass collection."
I wrung my hands on my lap, more nervous than ever. What kind of person collected shot glasses outside of drunken frat boys still in college?
I wanted this to work between Edward and me. That included a future where our families would eventually meet and interact. But I couldn't imagine a situation where Renee Swan would be willing to so much as be in the same room as someone who collected shot glasses.
"Then Dad is a huge gun nut. Make sure to ask him if you can see his gun closet and maybe take you out firing or something."
My stomach twisted with dread.
I couldn't shoot a gun. I'd never even touched a gun. My experience was limited to seeing them in movies and on television and carried by the occasional police escorts for my family over the years. I supposed the fact my father was a strong supporter of the Second Amendment was good news, but it didn't help me if Dr. Cullen wanted to Rambo me up.
"Oh, and he's also really into Native American history. You might want to slip into the conversation that you have a distant ancestor of Indian heritage or something. He'll be your best friend and talk all day about it."
I bit my lip. "But I don't think I do have any Native American ancestors." I wracked my brain trying to remember the detailed family tree my parents were so proud of. "I'm a DAR. My grandfather, ten generations back, signed the Declaration of Independence."
"Come on now. Don't tell me some of your ancestors didn't get down with a local squaw or two in their day." He waved his hand like it was no big deal. "Just make something up." He said all this with a straight face, but he couldn't be serious. Could he? "And what is a DAR?"
"Daughter of the American Revolution. It is a society of those with ancestors who aided in securing independence for America."
He frowned. "Sounds really hoity toity. I wouldn't mention that. We are people who drink our wine from a box in plastic cups. Not from crystal goblets."
I was in so much trouble.
Was I going to have any piece of common ground with them other than Edward?
"What about your sister?" Maybe she'd have some similar tastes and interests.
"Alice is obsessed with '80s hair band music, body piercings, and she has the ability to belch the entire alphabet after chugging a beer. She's been able to do it since she was twelve." He patted my leg and stood up, seemingly unaware my mouth was gaping. "You're going to be great. I'm gonna go get dressed."
"Wait!" I cried before he walked out.
He turned around. "Yeah?"
"Your sister was drinking beer when she was twelve?"
He scrunched his eyebrows and shook his head as if I were the one who was crazy. "Sure. Why not?"
I was too stunned to speak, having no words in response as he strolled out and left me there on the couch in a daze.
"Why are you so fidgety? What's wrong?"
I sent Edward the bravest smile I could muster as we sat in the back of Emmett's jeep. We were nearing his parents' house in Malibu, and I was a nervous wreck. I'd been going over Emmett's tips in my head, trying to discreetly google information about guns, shot glasses, and hair bands on my phone when Edward wasn't paying attention.
"I'm fine. Great."
He put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me to him. "I don't believe you."
I couldn't exactly tell him I was worried about the possibility I was about to meet the current-day Beverly Hillbillies.
I let out a huge sigh of relief when we pulled up in front of a sleek, modernly-styled home, no rusted-out cars or gaudy lawn ornaments in sight. In fact, the landscape was beautiful, flowers of every color blooming alongside the shrubbery.
I took in a deep breath of salty, ocean air and genuinely smiled when Edward put his hands around my waist and helped me down out of the jeep. I straightened my white, strapless bandeau dress, hoping I hadn't overdressed for the occasion.
"We're going to have to put some sunscreen on you," Edward said, his voice low as his hands lingered on my arms. "I don't want this pretty skin to burn."
I lifted my eyes to meet his, swooning a little right there in the driveway from his flirty stare.
"I do burn easily," I agreed.
His lips curved up. "Well, I'll have no problem helping out." He trailed his fingers up to my shoulders, one hand brushing across my collar bone. "I'll make sure every inch is covered."
I wasn't sure if it was the bright sun, warm temperatures, or just him making me hot and bothered.
"Come on, hornballs," Emmett interrupted, pulling Rose along ahead of us. "Let's go."
Edward laced his fingers with mine and cocked his head. "Ready?"
I just hoped I didn't make a fool out of myself and that they liked me.
Rose glanced back at me with a smile as we walked inside, probably sensing my anxiety. I straightened my shoulders and kept a grip on Edward's hand. No matter what I was about to face, I wanted to give the best first impression possible. Edward loved his family, so I wanted to love them, too.
I was pleasantly surprised as we walked through, admiring the smart and welcoming decor. I hadn't noticed a single shot glass yet.
"Mom! Dad! Where are you?" Emmett yelled.
"Back here!" A male voice answered.
And there they were when we entered the kitchen. Their mom was putting frosting on a cake and their dad was chopping vegetables. I could see parts of Edward in both of them. He got his height and good looks from his father and his coloring from his mother.
"Happy Birthday!" his mom said, her eyes lighting up at the sight of us. She put down the utensil and immediately came over to give Edward a hug.
My heart clenched a little at the sight. I'd never been greeted like that by my mother. Not even on a birthday.
I tried to let go of Edward's hand to give them a private moment, but he kept a grip on mine.
"Mom, I want you to meet Bella."
She pulled away and turned toward me, taking me by surprise when she hugged me just as eagerly as she had her son.
"Welcome, Bella. I've heard so much about you," she said, squeezing me tight. She wasn't much bigger than me, but she had a firm grasp.
She smelled like sugar cookies and happiness.
I reciprocated her hug with my one free arm, glancing at Edward over her shoulder. He was grinning at the two of us.
At least I understood now where Edward got his affectionate tendencies.
It felt good, and I indulged for just a moment imagining growing up with a mom who loved her kids. When she pulled back, I tried to untie my tongue and give her a response.
"I... uh... thank you, Mrs. Cullen. I mean thanks for inviting me. Well, I'm not sure if you invited me, but just having me. Or letting Edward bring me rather." I felt my cheeks get hot and I dropped my gaze to the floor.
Edward moved behind me, his hand rubbing my lower back.
Why was I such an idiot?
She didn't seem to notice, or she was just being nice.
"I'm so happy you're here," she said, squeezing my hand. "Make yourself at home, and please, call me Esme."
I lifted my head and nodded at her smile, taking a deep breath when she moved on to greet Emmett and Rose.
Edward led me over to the little island his father was mixing the salad at, snorting his greeting. "Mom's got you cooking?"
"Hey! I can mix a salad," he grumbled at Edward, sending me a wink.
"Don't listen to him. He burns water. I'm surprised he's allowed in this room at all."
"Please," his dad retorted. "Your mother loves it when I come in and distract her. I had her plenty happy before you showed up."
Emmett and Edward both groaned at the same time, Esme cutting in.
"Carlisle, don't you dare say anything embarrassing in front of our guests. You'll scare the poor girls away."
Was he just insinuating what I thought he was? Out loud?
My cheeks heated again, and I bit my lip to keep from laughing. This was nothing like any family gathering I'd ever been at before. Apparently Edward got his forwardness from his father's side.
And Esme was wrong about scaring me away. I was glad there was someone else there to say embarrassing things besides just me.
Plus, Dr. Cullen was all kinds of handsome. Tall, tanned, blond hair and blue eyes. Not as beautiful as his son, but very close. Esme was a very lucky woman.
He wiped his hands off and walked around to shake my hand. "Glad you're here, Bella. It's nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too, Dr. Cullen."
He waved his hand. "Carlisle is fine."
"Yes, you are."
Everyone in the room started chuckling, and it took me a minute to realize I'd said that out loud.
I wished for lightening to strike me down dead.
"Alright, alright," Esme interrupted, coming over to save me. "Let's get some drinks and relax."
Esme took my hand, leading me and Rose into another room where they had a bar set up.
"What can I get you girls? Soda, water, a glass of wine?"
It was a little early in the day for alcohol, although I knew it might help calm my nerves. I glanced over at Rose.
"Water would be terrific," she said and I nodded in agreement. "Your home is really beautiful."
Esme smiled, handing us our water. "Thank you."
I berated myself for not complimenting her first. I noticed the glassware behind the bar, spying the line of shot glasses on one shelf.
"I really love your shot glasses," I told her.
She kept smiling, furrowing her brow and tilting her head a little. "Thanks, sweetie."
It sounded more like placating me than accepting praise. This probably wasn't her real collection, and now I looked completely foolish. I opened my bottle and took a drink, trying to ignore Rose's questioning stare.
"Why don't we go ahead and take the guys some drinks?" Esme suggested.
I agreed readily. Anything to end the awkward silence which had descended.
We joined the others outside, handing out beverages for them while they carried out platters of food. A large table was set up poolside, complete with umbrellas to shade us from the sun.
Apparently everyone in California had their own pool.
Edward wrapped his arms around me after I put the drinks down. "So far, so good," he murmured.
I supposed it wasn't a disaster yet.
"Where's Alice?" Emmett asked.
Carlisle placed bread down on the table. "She's on her way. She had to run some errands."
Emmett laughed and punched Edward on the arm. "Probably picking this loser up a gift because she forgot his birthday was today."
Edward released me, turning to return a blow to his brother. "Fucker!"
"Language!" Esme yelled.
I moved away quickly, not wanting to inadvertently get pushed in the pool from the wrestling duo. This was obviously some sibling rivalry thing that I had no experience with.
All I knew was guys were weird.
Rose probably agreed because she stood there sipping her water and shaking her head at them.
"Can I help with anything?" I asked Esme, who was busy arranging things on the table.
She must have realized I needed some outlet for my nervous energy, giving me a nod. "Sure. Can you bring out the hummus spread I have in the fridge?"
"Come on, Bella," Carlisle said. "I'll show you where it is. I need to get the pasta anyway."
I followed him inside, working up the nerve to try my hand at another compliment.
"Here we go," he said, pulling a container out of the fridge.
I took from him when he held it out. "Thanks. I'll just take this out. I... uh... I'd really like to see your guns sometime."
He stood there, seemingly frozen for a few seconds, before looking down at each of his arms. Then he backed away a couple steps, rubbing the back of his neck.
Oh, my God, why were his cheeks tinged pink?
I'd clearly said something wrong again.
"Pasta," he mumbled, turning toward the stove, rummaging around with pans and bowls. "I've been married to Edward's mother for almost thirty years now, and I love her more than ever."
I wanted the Earth to open up and swallow me whole.
Did he think I was trying to come on to him?
"I... take... this. Okay." I'm not sure those were the words I squeaked, but I hightailed it out the kitchen as quickly as I could.
I was so mortified and completely at a loss. His mother thought I was strange and his father thought I was slutty. This was one big cluster from top to bottom.
I was in such a hurry, I almost crashed right into someone on my way out.
"Whoa! Where's the fire?"
I was face-to-face with a girl who could only be Edward's sister. She was about my height, with dark, shoulder-length windblown hair, her green eyes sparkling as she smiled.
She held out her hand. "Bella, right? I'm Alice."
I nodded and shook her hand, close to tears from the kitchen scene.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"Yes." I tried to pull myself together. "I have the hummus."
"Good." She nodded slowly once and moved to my side, hooking her arm with mine. "Come on, let's go sit down and talk."
I had never been more grateful to an almost complete stranger. We made it back to the table, Alice sitting down on one side of me and Edward taking the other side. Rose and Emmett sat on the other side and Esme taking one end.
I focused on my lap when Carlisle came back out, carrying the pasta and sitting down across from Esme.
"How are you liking California so far?" Alice asked.
I lifted my head when Edward's fingers twined with mine, resting on my leg.
Did he know when he touched me like that it made everything better? Did he sense I needed a bit of support right now?
"It's beautiful," I answered to Alice. "We only got in yesterday, but it's been great so far."
"Well, you have to let me take you and Rose out to a few places if you two are going to be here for awhile. A lot less cameras around when we ditch Edward."
He squeezed my hand, and I caught his smile.
"That would be great," I told her.
"Dig in everyone," Esme said.
I finally took a breath and tried to relax, glad some of the attention was off of me. Everyone was talking at once, filling their plates, and joking around.
I caught Rose's eyes across the table.
"You okay?" she mouthed.
I nodded and shrugged. I was going to have to go over every detail of this with her later so she could help me figure out damage control.
"Bella?" Esme grabbed my attention. "Are you excited about the campaign? I imagine it's quite thrilling to have your father running for President."
Everyone went quiet again, my eyes sweeping around the table. They were all watching me, except Carlisle, who appeared very interested in his plate.
"It's really only begun and hasn't been too hectic yet. I think it'll start to hit me more when the primaries begin in January."
"But your father is expected to be the Republican nominee, right?"
I nodded and sipped my water. "Those are the projections now, but you never know. Things can change quickly."
And I seemed to get my groove back at that point. Questions abounded toward me and Rose, mostly the simple getting-to-know-you type, but I handled them well and avoided any further bumbling of the English language.
I didn't escape my notice that Edward's father remained mostly silent. I needed to do something to rectify my major blunder. Emmett nudged my leg under the table with his foot, shrugged his shoulder towards his dad, and raised his eyebrow at me.
I realized Emmett was trying to help me out when I overheard him telling his dad about watching The Last of the Mohicans last night. I took a deep breath and centered myself, wanting to try anything to make Carlisle comfortable in my presence again.
I could do this. I could do this.
"I... ah... I think one of my ancestors was Native American," I interrupted.
"Really?" Emmett said, nodding with interest and nudging his dad's arm with his elbow.
Carlisle turned toward me, the strangest expression on his face. I wasn't sure if that was good or bad, but at least he wasn't avoiding me any longer.
"Yeah," I continued, wetting my lips and trying to spin a tale in my head. "There's a rumor that... uh... one of my ancestors, she was daughter of a chief and was captured and held captive by the English. She... well... she fell in love with one of them. Yeah. She decided to stay with him, instead of going back to her tribe. Her name was Little Big Foot."
It was possible I'd just recited the synopsis of a Disney movie and combined it with the name of a mythical creature.
My heart was pounding in my chest as everyone stayed silent. It probably wasn't a good sign that all their mouths hung open a little.
This was so bad.
"I'm going to go grab some wine," Edward said. "Bella, would you come help me?"
He stood up, helping me stand and leading me inside. As soon as we were through the door, he sat me down on a chair and knelt down in front of me, rubbing my thighs.
"Baby? What's going on? That was some epic babbling, and I think you're scaring everybody."
I felt the tears welling in my eyes. "I don't know," I cried. "I was just trying to get your parents to like me, but I've ruined it. Emmett gave me some tips this morning, but I've bungled it all up. I don't think I got across what I was trying to say very well."
Edward's head fell forward as soon as Emmett's name left my lips.
"What did my brother tell you?"
I spilled it all. Everything from glassware to alphabet belching. Edward burst out into laughter, snatching me up in his arms. It took him a few minutes before he was composed enough to speak again.
"Don't ever, ever, ever believe anything Emmett says."
I was a complete moron. A naive, gullible toolbox of a moron. I had fallen for it all hook, line, and sinker.
He'd made it all up. Every single bit.
As the truth washed over me, I remembered the things I'd said to his parents since arriving, a new wave of embarrassment hitting me hard.
But I was feeling another emotion even more.
"Let me go," I yelled, maneuvering out of Edward's grasp.
I jumped up, rushing back outside. "Emmett!" I screamed.
He stood up from the table, walking toward me and laughing like a lunatic.
"You... you... asshole!"
I didn't care that his parents might think I was even crazier than they already did. I didn't care that I was making a scene. I didn't care that I screamed an obscenity.
And I especially didn't care that Emmett was soaked head to toe-clothes included-after I pushed him into the pool.
The caring came the second after my haze of anger cleared and I realized what I'd done. I had never acted like that before. I'd never blown up in rage and vented in such a physical or outward way.
It had felt so good, but then I was nervous about the consequences.
Had I gone too far? Had I just ruined everything for me and Edward? Was his family going to hate me now?
The last thing I was expecting was the thunderous applause and cheers I got from every single one of them.
Edward's arms came around me from behind, hugging me tight. "Serves you right, dickhead," he said to his brother who was smiling from his spot in the pool.
"Aw, come on. She's now been initiated," Emmett retorted.
After sitting back down and watching Emmett scamper off inside to change, Esme and Carlisle both apologized for their son and explained that he had confessed to them all what happened after Edward took me inside.
And after my complete humiliation, breakdown, and breakthrough, everything else was a piece of cake. We laughed, ate dessert, drank wine and got to know each other the rest of the night.
I had only one more lingering question in my head as I leaned toward Alice.
"So you didn't drink beer when you were twelve, right?"
She stared at me. "Sure. Why not?"
I was relieved when she couldn't hold her straight face as well as Emmett had, assured she was only joking with me.
Ultimately, my meeting the Cullens had ended as a success. They were loud, affectionate, loving, wild, and I didn't quite understand all of their senses of humor yet, but they were the yin to my family's yang, and I adored them.
Every single one.
AN: Poor Bella… but at least it all got cleared up in the end.
Thank you all so much for reading, reviewing, and letting me know your thoughts. I read and enjoy every single one.
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