Prayers go out to Boston and West, Texas. It has been an emotional week from these tragedies, but it helps to focus on the heroes amidst the darkness.
"The pain you feel today is the strength you feel tomorrow. For every challenge encountered there is opportunity for growth." - Unknown
Thanks to SusanQ, Nicffwhisperer, Vampshavelaws, iambeagle, and Stephanie for all of their help pre-reading/betaing for me. I seriously have so much love for these ladies.
I smirked at myself in the mirror, straightening my bow tie. It was hard to deny I looked fucking stellar in a tux.
My attention was diverted when I saw Bella walking out of the bathroom.
"You can't wear that."
She stopped mid-stride, frowning and glancing down at her dress. "What's wrong with it?"
She was in some long, black, strapless number that clung to every one of her curves. There was even a slit running along the side, revealing one of her mile-long legs with each step.
I was in trouble if she expected me to behave myself around all those snooty assholes tonight with her wearing that. It was like waving a candy bar in the face of a fat kid and telling him he couldn't eat it.
I wanted one of those spiky stiletto things she had on her feet planted on each side of my head while she rode my face.
Damn, those hips looked good. I wanted to grab hold, spin her around, bend her over the bed, and f—
My eyes darted up to meet hers. "What?"
"What's wrong with my dress?"
I walked over slowly, circling around until I stood behind her. She started to turn, but I stilled her, holding her shoulders. My fingers skimmed over her soft, bare skin and I leaned in closer. She always smelled so fucking good. When my hands slid down her arms, her body shivered a little. It made me smile knowing my touch affected her as much as hers did to me.
I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her body tight against mine. My lips brushed along her ear as I rocked my hips against her.
"This dress... you. Do you feel what you do to me?"
"Yes," she whispered between shaky breaths.
My chest was tight as I nibbled on her earlobe. It was like my whole body was tensed for action, whether from the impending showdown with her father or from the way everything about her excited me. Probably both.
I needed some kind of release or there could be serious fireworks going down tonight.
"Tell me, Bella. Have you ever been fucked while wearing a ball gown?"
"No," she said, pushing her ass against me. "Not yet."
She wanted this as much as I did.
I was about to throw her on the bed when Rose's voice shouted from outside the door.
"Let's go, you guys! Our car is downstairs."
This couldn't be happening.
Jesus, Mary, and Henry.
Son of a mothersucking fuckstick.
I kept Bella tight in my grasp, panting like a dog.
"Edward." She patted my arm, a signal to let go.
I groaned, wanting to go back in time fifteen minutes. My arms loosened in defeat, and she turned around to face me.
"Such a sad face." She kissed me, trying to hold back her giggles.
She was laughing at my misery. What had I done to deserve this fuckery?
One of her hands slipped around my neck, pulling my face to hers. Her other hand slid down to stroke my cock through my pants. I closed my eyes and moaned.
That felt nice.
"I promise when we get back, I'll take good care of you." She kissed me and squeezed. "And this guy. I'll even keep the dress on if you want."
It took a few minutes for her to convince me I wasn't going to die and to pull me out of the bedroom. We eventually made it downstairs and I scooted in next to her in the backseat of our waiting limo, trying to forget how blue my balls were.
I glared at Rose, who was perched next to her brother on the seat opposite us. "You could teach a course in cockblocking."
Jasper laughed and nodded, but Rose just shrugged.
"Don't be so pissy. I'm here for you guys tonight."
Bella smiled and squeezed my hand.
"What do you mean by that?" I asked.
Rose pointed to Jasper and then back to herself. "We're your backup. You'll probably need it. Plus, I've enlisted the help of a secret weapon."
"What do you mean by secret weapon?" Bella asked.
Rose obviously thought my plan to ask for the Senator's blessing was going to fail miserably. Even though I had my own secret strategy plotted in my head, this was discouraging.
It wasn't like I expected to turn him around completely tonight. I was only aiming for him to pretend to give Bella the approval she was seeking. Then over time, I could work on him until he truly accepted my being in her life.
I personally didn't give a fuck if he liked me or not. All of this was for Bella. I didn't want her to resent me one day because her parents didn't think I was the right man for their daughter.
We pulled in front of the New York Public Library, and I grinned seeing all the cameras flashing along the steps outside. Jane had come through with flying colors.
"What is this thing tonight anyway?" I asked. Bella had taken care of our tickets herself, so I had no idea.
"A benefit raising money for childhood literacy," Bella said. "Father wants to boost his education support profile."
I rolled my eyes.
Politicians were such snakes. I'd bet my Aston Martin the Senator didn't give one shit about childhood literacy.
"Wow, there's a lot of media here," Bella said.
"Yeah, it'd make it hard for anyone to cause a scene without getting noticed," Jasper answered.
I glanced over at him and he was smirking at me. Smart guy. He seemed to know I was planning to use the paps to my advantage tonight.
I gripped Bella's hand, my fingers touching her ring, and leaned in close to her. "Just follow my lead, Mrs. Cullen."
She gave me one of those heart-stopping Bella grins before Demetri jumped out of the front and opened our door. Bella and I followed Rose and Jasper out, the flashes of cameras almost blinding.
I had a sudden epiphany that my life was about to change forever. Things had been so rushed, I hadn't really stopped to take a breath and think about what this all meant. My life wasn't just mine anymore.
Bella would always be a part of it.
It made me happier than I'd ever felt before, yet at the same time scared shitless. Sure, I'd been worried about what the gossip rags would say about her when she was only my "girlfriend", but this was more. She was going to be my wife.
Every single thing said about me would be tied to her, and vice versa.
And then the fans. I knew firsthand how insane some people could be. How they became so invested in what they believed about me, that their behavior went above and beyond infatuation. I'd had stalkers, people going through my trash and contacting my friends and family to get to me. Women literally throwing themselves at me.
What if some obsessed fan tried to hurt Bella?
My heart pounded and I gulped, holding her tightly to my side as we started up the stairs. The possible threat had never really sunk in completely before this moment.
The shouts from the photographers were breaking through my heavy thoughts, and I started to second guess my intentions for the night.
Should I really do this to her? Was it what's best for her? Was I?
Rose and Jasper turned around and stopped, facing us as we stood on a landing about halfway up the stairs.
"Give them what they want," Rose said, staring at me.
My mouth opened, but I wasn't sure what to say.
Bella tugged on my arm and I looked down at her worried face. "What's wrong?"
It took less than a second staring into her eyes for me to know it didn't matter if I was the best guy for her or not. I was a selfish bastard and it wasn't possible for me to let her go.
"Don't be a pussy," Jasper said lowly in my ear.
I would have punched him, but he was right. Instead, I did something I'd never done in public before.
I placed my hands on Bella's cheeks, leaned down, and kissed the shit out of her. The shouts and catcalls coming from the crowd behind the flashing cameras were overwhelming, but all I heard was Bella's moan into my mouth.
Blue balls 2, Edward 0.
I pulled back to see her closed eyes, flushed cheeks, and wide smile. She was so beautiful.
How did I get so lucky?
When she opened her eyes and met my stare, everything around us seemed to disappear for a moment. It was just me and her.
I brushed her cheek with my thumb. "I love you."
She sucked in a deep breath. "I love you so much it hurts sometimes."
Rose's chuckle burst our bubble. "Come on, you two. We're holding up the line."
My head turned and I noticed the people standing behind us and walking up the steps around us. We were making even more of a spectacle than I'd hoped for.
I took Bella's arm again. "Ready?"
She nodded. "Let's do this."
"That kiss was hot," Rose said once we'd reached the top. "That will be on the cover of every magazine tomorrow."
It was hot. I was still feeling the aftereffects of it myself, and Bella seemed a bit dazed.
Now that one of my goals for the evening was complete, it was time to move on to round two.
The four of us stuck close together, moving our way through the crowd and off to the side, but I felt all the eyes in the place on me. That wasn't unusual, but it made me wary due to the girl at my side.
This wasn't really my scene, never having attended one of these fancy benefits before. I'd been to charity fundraisers in L.A. more than a few times, but they were much more laid back and filled with people familiar to me.
I was an outsider here.
We took refuge along a wall, close to the silent auction area. It wasn't quite as crowded, but we had a good vantage point to watch all the schmoozing, dancing, and drinking. A server passed, carrying flutes of champagne on a tray, and I grabbed four for all of us. Bella downed hers in about two seconds and I chuckled, handing her my still-full glass.
"Nervous?" I asked, leaning close to her.
She nodded. "A little. My parents are over there."
I followed the direction of her eyes, and sure enough, there they were on the other side of the room. The Senator was the center of attention, surrounded by a group of men and women who were hanging on to his every word. Bella's mom was attached to his side, smug as ever.
If I weren't here, I knew Bella would be planted on his other side. A prop expected to do nothing more than smile and nod at the appropriate times.
She believed they didn't love her and never did. It was easy to agree with that notion from what I'd witnessed up to this point. However, I really wanted to believe it was possible they did love her. Maybe they just didn't know how to show it. Maybe their ambitions and personal goals were simply blinding them to how they made their daughter feel. Bella's propensity to be pleasing and suffer silently only made it easier for them to ignore their behavior. I wanted to hope there was some good buried deep down inside them, and that it would surface once they were made aware of how much they'd hurt their own daughter over the years.
Glass half full and all that jazz.
Bella had turned me into an optimistic fucker.
I lifted her ring hand up to my mouth, leaving kisses along her knuckles until she smiled. Her trembling made it clear she was more than a little nervous.
"It's going to be okay," I said.
She nodded, pulling my arm until I leaned in closer. "Those are James' parents next to them. On the right."
I watched her eyes dart back and forth between me and them, and my stomach twisted. "Are you having second thoughts?"
It might kill me if she said yes, but I had to know.
She suddenly pushed her wineglass into Jasper's hand, grabbed the waistline of my pants, and yanked me closer. "Don't ever ask me that again," she hissed, her narrowed, fiery eyes boring into mine.
This was a new side to Bella, and I'd never been more turned on in my life. She was staking her claim and leaving no doubt.
I leaned in, brushing my cheek against hers to whisper in her ear. "Do you have any idea how much I want you right now?"
Her answering whimper forced me to clench my hands into fists to avoid grabbing her. Pictures of us fucking against the wall weren't exactly the exposure I was aiming for tonight.
"This looks like the fun group."
A new voice had joined us, and I realized I was hulking over Bella like a caveman. She wasn't making it any easier with her heaving chest and flushed cheeks. I briefly imagined tangling my hand in her hair and dragging her around the corner.
All I needed was a club and a loincloth.
"It isn't everyday I get to see my granddaughter and her fella about to attack each other."
It was Bella's grandfather.
He, Rose, and Jasper all laughed as I attempted to nonchalantly back away from Bella.
"They aren't very subtle," Rose chimed in.
I turned around and slipped behind Bella until we were both facing the rest of them... and so she could hide the tent in my pants.
"Hello, sir," I said with a nod to Marcus.
He nodded back with a smile. "I see my Isabella is keeping you around for good." His face fell a little, but he kept smiling. "You two remind me of when I was young." His hand rubbed over his chest. "Just like me and my Mary."
Bella moved forward at that, taking his hand. "Are you okay?"
I watched as he squeezed her hand. "I'm fine, Babydoll. I'm old and sentimental. I still miss your grandmother every single day." He sighed, his fingers brushing over her cheek. "I'll be better when I know you're happy."
"I am happy." She reached back for my hand, pulling me close to her again. "We're getting married."
He nodded again, his smile brightening. "I know. That's why I'm here tonight."
Both Bella and I turned our heads toward Rose.
"Secret weapon," she explained.
Even though Rose's intentions were good, I hoped Bella wasn't too disappointed about not being the one to tell her grandfather.
"Don't be upset with Rose and Jasper," he said, our focus returning to him. "We had lunch the other day and it just came out." His eyes flickered from Bella's face to mine and back to hers. "I'm happy for both of you, although I don't expect your parents will feel the same." He shook his head. "Your father puzzles me. Always has. And he never listens. But you stay strong and don't back down." He bent over a little, getting in Bella's face. "No backing down. Remember what I said when I gave you your graduation present. This is your life and you get to make your own choices. Only a blind fool couldn't see you two were meant for each other."
She let go of my hand and wrapped her arms around him. I stood back, watching the two of them hug and whisper back and forth for a minute or two. It made me happy at least one member of her family had her back.
Perhaps Rose was a genius for asking him to be here tonight. I'd have to get her a thankyou present or something.
Before I knew it, he'd let Bella go and pulled me to him in a hug.
"Be strong for her," he whispered in my ear. "She's going to need you."
His words shook me. It seemed like he was talking about something more than our engagement and impending marriage.
He cut me off, patting my back. "Just take care of Isabella. Rosalie, too. Make sure they're happy."
Rose, too? What did he mean?
I was confused as hell when he pulled away and rubbed his face. Whatever was going on was upsetting him. I glanced over and took in Jasper's stoic expression, wondering if he knew what Marcus meant. Rose and Bella were standing next to each other, but they didn't appear to think anything was out of the ordinary.
The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach grew stronger.
A few moments later, Marcus straightened his shoulders and put a smile back on his face. He took Bella's hand. "Are you ready to head over to the snake pit?"
She chuckled and nodded.
"Okay," he said, placing her hand in mine. "You two go ahead. We'll all be right behind you."
I squeezed her hand and forced all thoughts of Marcus' odd requests to the back of my mind. It was time to put on a show.
The timing of our arrival couldn't have been more perfect since there was a photographer loitering very close. I let go of Bella's hand and placed my arm around her waist as we approached her parents.
The people standing around the Senator moved aside when they saw who was walking through, giving Bella and I space to move forward. It didn't surprise me to see her parents' smiles become strained when they noticed I was beside their daughter.
The couple she'd identified as the Hearsts didn't even pretend to be polite as they sneered in our direction. It was then I saw James standing next to them, glaring at me, and I grinned at him.
Eat it, Bitch.
"Senator," I greeted, holding my hand out to him.
He shook it as the cameras flashed. "Edward."
I reached for his wife's hand next. "Mrs. Swan, I've been looking forward to meeting you for so long."
Someone snorted behind me. Probably Rose.
Bella's mother barely held my hand before pulling away, never uttering a word. Although she kept a smile on her face, I could tell by the look in her eyes that she wanted to crush me like a bug.
Bella then greeted her parents, kissing her mother's cheek and nodding to her father.
"Isabella, I didn't know you would be accompanied this evening. I wouldn't have provided an escort if you'd told us," her mother said, just loud enough for me to hear.
Escort, my ass. Fuck her and James.
"Well, we... I... or we have some news," Bella answered, her voice shaking a little.
I wanted to wrap her up in a hug—reassure her—but it wasn't the time. Yet.
Both of her parents' faces went pale, glancing from Bella to me.
"This isn't the appropriate place to have this conversation," the Senator said.
"It is." I jumped in, moving closer to them and away from the eavesdropping ears all around us. "This is the perfect place." I took Bella's hand in mine, not wanting to beat around the bush. "I love your daughter more than I can say. I've asked Bella to marry me, and she agreed. We're engaged and we hope to have your blessing."
He scrunched his brow, his lips forming a thin line. "Let's go out on the veranda." He didn't wait for a response, turning on his heel and stalking toward the doors leading outside with his wife behind him.
Everyone around us was staring at me, probably waiting to see what I'd do. I didn't know how much they'd heard of the conversation, but it was obvious the Senator wasn't happy by the way he rushed out. When Bella squeezed my hand, I glanced down at her worried face.
"Hey, that wasn't so bad," I joked, waiting for her smile. "I think your mother in particular approves of me."
Her lips curved up a little and I planted a kiss on them.
"I love that you know when I need a little boost," she said, opening her eyes.
"You do the same for me."
She didn't believe me, but that was okay. She would one day.
We had all started toward the door, when I glimpsed the camera guy again. There weren't as many photographers inside as there were on the way in, and I wanted to take advantage. I stopped and turned my head toward Jasper, who walked over.
"Do me a favor?" I asked, waiting until he nodded. "Tell that guy with the camera to wait about twenty minutes and then come outside. Tell him he'll get one hell of a story."
He nodded again, hanging back as the rest of us departed. The August night air was hot and humid when we walked out, keeping most of the elite crowd inside. The veranda looked like it was normally set up as a cafe-style area, where patrons could have a lunch or coffee. There were only a sparse few out here aside from Bella's parents, who appeared to be talking furiously with each other near the balcony.
My anger spiked when I saw James standing next to them. Did that fucker have a death wish?
"Are we breaking up a party?" I asked as we neared.
Yeah, I was being an ass, but all three of them deserved it.
Mrs. Swan ignored me, her rage targeted on Bella. "How could you embarrass your father like that in front of all these people? Did you let this trash get you pregnant? Is that what this nonsense is all about?"
Bella's breath caught and her eyes fell. I squeezed her hand, trying to encourage her to finally let go and give her mother the backlash she so truly deserved.
I knew I'd never wanted to hit a woman in my life as much as I did in this moment.
Before Bella could respond, it was her father who spoke up next.
"Father, why are you out here?" he asked Marcus, who stood behind us with Rose. "Go back inside. This doesn't concern you."
I laughed. "Doesn't concern him? What is this fucker doing out here?" I asked, waving my arm in James' direction.
Mrs. Swan's mouth dropped open, but I wasn't sure if it was because I called James out for being present or for calling him a fucker. "You! You're ruining everything," she spat, addressing me for the first time ever.
"What? What exactly have I ruined? We're happy together."
"Everything was going to be perfect. It was all supposed to work out tonight," she rambled on, ignoring my question.
Was she crazy? Clinically insane?
I should have asked Eleazar to come with me on this trip to Looneyville so he could translate.
"There's still time." Her eyes went wide, almost pleading as she glanced at Bella.
My blood boiled when I noticed James had furtively made his way to the other side of Bella, whispering something in her ear as she shook her head. I should have been paying closer attention to that asshole instead of waiting for Mrs. Swan's head to start spinning around.
I let go of Bella's hand and lunged at James, grabbing the lapels of his jacket and shaking him. "What the fuck are you trying to do? Huh? Don't talk to her. Don't look at her. Don't ever come near her again."
His eyes fired back at me, while he grabbed me too, trying to keep his footing. "This was supposed to be my night."
"Your night? What the fuck does that mean?"
Bella's hand gripped my arm. "He was going to propose to me tonight."
It all fell into place. They wanted Bella to arrive alone. For James to propose in front of this crowd and force Bella into saying yes to save face. They were counting on her vulnerabilities so they could trap her into a situation she would have a hard time extracting herself from.
Sure, my plan was to use the crowd and media to keep her parents in line, but this was different. This was almost cruel, especially since she'd told them flat out she loved me and not him.
I shoved James hard, and he crashed into one of the tables. When I started to go after him again, Jasper stepped between us, putting a hand on my chest.
"Not now," he said. "I'll get him out of here."
I was seeing red as I pushed Jasper's arm away from me. "If you know what's good for you, you'll stay the fuck away!" I yelled after James as Jasper practically dragged him away. I spun back around, taking a few deep breaths as I wrapped my arms around Bella and stared in disbelief at her parents. "I really don't understand this. I don't at all. Why are you so set on hurting your daughter? Why do you keep breaking her heart?"
"Breaking her heart?" Mrs. Swan asked. "We're setting her up for life. She'd be joining one of the most esteemed families in the country. She would have dignity, respect, wealth. She'd have everything with him. With you, she'll only be dragged down. All of us will."
Talking to her was like talking to a brick wall. It was useless, exhausting. No wonder Bella had so many issues in regards to her mother.
"I have everything with Edward," Bella said softly. My heart hurt seeing the tears in her eyes, but she finally lifted her head and faced both of her parents. "I'm sorry you can't see that. I'm sorry we sprung this on you and you can't accept it. But we're getting married. I came here wanting your approval, but I don't care anymore."
"Isabella." Her father stepped forward, his head down. I wondered if he felt any remorse for the charade he helped set up tonight or for the tears in Bella's eyes. "I only want the best for you."
"If that were true, you'd open your eyes and realize Edward is the best for me."
"Are you pregnant?" her mother asked again, interrupting the two of them.
"No!" Bella shouted. "I'm not!"
"Thank goodness." Mrs. Swan let out a huge sigh of relief, and I wanted to stomp on her head. She pointed her finger in Bella's face. "Then nothing is set in stone right now. I think you'll start to see reason if your father and I cut you off."
"Renee," her father pleaded.
"What? Let's see how independent and flighty she is without our financial backing."
I shook my head as silence fell all around us. She was stupid on top of being crazy and power-hungry.
Bella started giggling, which then turned into full out laughter. I couldn't help my own chuckles coming out as she continued. Even Rose, Marcus, and a returning Jasper joined in.
"You don't get it. You never have. I would rather be poor and homeless than marry James." She lifted her ring finger, watching the diamond sparkle in the dim lighting. "Besides, I have my own money."
"And mine," I added.
She turned her face toward me, sending me a playful smile. "I may have even more than you." She reached back and palmed my cock.
I growled in her ear. "We'll have to compare portfolios."
We both laughed while Bella's mother seethed in front of our display.
"What money?" she screeched.
"From me," Marcus said, stepping up beside us.
"What did you do?" the Senator asked. "You gave me power of attorney over your estate and I don't know about this."
"I told you I came back to settle things. That's what I'm doing. We'll talk about it later."
"Talk about it now."
Marcus' eyes hardened as he stared at Bella's mother. "Watch yourself. I'm tired of seeing you trample all over Isabella. That ends now. What I do with my money is none of your business."
The music from inside grew loud for a moment as the door from the veranda opened and the photographer made his way outside. He walked over hesitantly, probably noticing the heavy tension in the air.
"Senator Swan, Mr. Cullen," he said with respective nods. "May I take some pictures?"
"Yes," I said before anyone else could answer. "You've come at the perfect time. We were just celebrating our news."
I positioned Bella and myself in between her parents, who plastered smiles on their faces for the camera flashes.
"Oh really?" he asked. "What's the good news?"
"Miss Isabella Swan and I are engaged to be married."
He kept clicking pictures as I held out Bella's hand to show off her ring.
"Congratulations! Can I spread the happy news?"
The Senator shifted next to me, and I wished I could see his and his wife's faces. I imagined the pictures would be priceless.
"And you Senator, I should also say congratulations to you."
"Thank you," he said gruffly. "We're very happy for our daughter."
Rose and Jasper tittered in the background, and I finally relaxed. My job here was done for now. Once the photographer went back inside, Bella pulled me to her.
"I'm ready to go," she said.
"Okay. Go ahead inside with Rose and Jasper. I need just a minute and then we can get out of here."
Bella didn't say another word to her parents, walking away flanked by her friends. I watched until they went inside, knowing Jasper would never allow James to get near her even if he tried.
I turned back around, Marcus and Bella's parents standing there quietly. It was clear father and son were going to have some kind of battle of their own, but it wasn't my concern. I had only one thing left to say.
My eyes met the Senator's. "I don't know why, but despite how Bella's been treated by you all her life, she still loves you. If you care for her at all, you'll accept that I love her and she loves me. We're going back to Vancouver. She and I will plan our wedding and if she still wants you there, I hope you will be. She told me she wanted you to walk her down the aisle, but that was before this mess tonight. I don't know if she still wants that or not, but it will be up to her." I stepped closer, lowering my voice. "I do know one thing. If you ever want her help again, then you will start acting like a real father and support your daughter."
If he didn't step up at this point, I might just go gung-ho on his opponents' bandwagons. I'd campaign against him until he begged me to stop.
With a final handshake and thank you to Marcus, I went off in search of Bella.
Two days later, I was lying in bed next to Bella when her phone rang. It was the middle of the night, and I listened as she groggily answered the call.
"What?" she asked, sitting up suddenly and letting out a sob.
I waited as she talked and cried and agreed to something, pulling her into my arms. I brushed the hair from her face as she ended the call and buried her face in my neck.
"I... have... to... go," she said, her voice faltering between sobs. "Grandfather died."
AN: I'm sending hugs to you all. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on this chapter.
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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