^^Epilogue^^

BPOV

Three years later…

Once my shopping cart is fully loaded, I head toward the registers. It's almost noon on the Friday of a holiday weekend, and the commissary is hopping. I'll probably have to battle the Marines who are here on their lunch hour, grabbing deli sandwiches, chips and soda to scarf down before they get back to their grind until their day is done at sixteen hundred.

I'm so excited to be getting away for the next few days. Edward and I deserve it, and with my parents just returning from their cruise to the Mexican Riviera, they're more than ready to be on duty as Grammy and Pop-Pop, needing their third generation fix.

Oh, crud. Forgot the damn bread. Reversing my cart, I spot a familiar crop of blond hair turning the corner near the end-cap. I make my way quickly down the baby food aisle to intercept him.

"Jasper!"

He stops short with a backward glance, a huge smile on his face as he wraps his arm around his wife's back and they walk toward me.

"Hey, you two." I lean in for hugs from both of them. "How're you doiiiiing?" I sing. "Ready for action?"

They chuckle. "Oh yeah, we're ready to get this show on the road, that's why we're here walking laps. We're heading to the PX next," he adds, rubbing her lower back.

"How many days past your due date?"

"Four," she whines. "The doctor gave us the whole laundry list of things to try. I poured so much hot sauce on my breakfast burrito this morning, I probably gave myself first-degree burns."

"The day I went into labor with Christopher, I drank two mugs of Raspberry Zinger tea, had a western omelet with jalapenos and hot sauce for breakfast and got a pedicure with an intense foot massage."

"Wow, you're so lucky that all worked."

"Yeah, but if you ask my husband, he'll tell you it's because we had sex," I snort and quirk my brow. "Speaking of which…"

Maria giggles, tossing her gorgeous, mahogany hair over her shoulder. "That's what I'm sayin'!" she agrees. "We should be doing it all day, every day!"

I raise my hands in surrender while Jasper looks to the side, shaking his head and sporting glowing, pink cheeks.

"Are you two finished embarrassing me?"

I pat him on the back. "We've all been there, honey. Now finish your laps and then go home and hammer that baby outta there!"

"Thank you, dear," he mutters, giving me another squeeze as Maria throws her head back in riotous laughter. "We'll keep you posted!"

"You better," I call back, steering my cart toward the bread. "Edward and I will be in Palm Springs for the weekend, but you know my cell number!"

"Got it!" Maria sends another wave my way as they head toward the door.

I'm so thrilled Jasper found his happily ever after. A feeling of sadness descends, thinking back over the ugliness that transpired. He tried so hard to make his marriage with Alice work when he returned to North Carolina after traveling to Okinawa for our wedding. Unfortunately, it ended up being a fruitless effort. Alice was always a control freak, and the little things that Jasper let slide over the years suddenly became big things until their issues seemed insurmountable. He once confided that her drama with me was just the tip of the iceberg, even though it became a major stumbling block. Though she claimed she was "fine" with me finding love and moving forward in my life, Alice's actions and words apparently left Jasper questioning her at almost every turn.

According to him, when he moved back home after my wedding— a topic she never addressed at all— he thought they were happy for a few weeks. Alice's attitude seemed to have improved. She was supposedly talking to a therapist and attempting to make some changes. However, as soon as I became the topic of conversation again, things spiraled downward quickly.

They received our baby announcement at the end of January. We chose a collage featuring a wedding picture of us on the beach kissing in Okuma, a picture of a New Year's party hat, a noisemaker and confetti, and a third picture of a baby rattle next to some wooden blocks with a caption that read:

Happy New Year!
Edward and Bella are Happy, Hitched and Having a Baby!
Hope your 2013 will be just as wonderful.

Edward and I loved how they turned out, and we got compliments from everyone who was on our mailing list. It wasn't the case with Alice, though. I remember getting an email from Jasper saying he was thrilled to hear of our baby news, but he never mentioned Alice. At the time, I didn't think anything of it; I was still bothered that she didn't acknowledge my wedding, but I put it out of my head. I was happily living the life of a newlywed while concentrating on staying healthy and as rested as possible during my pregnancy. Once the baby arrived, we received a gift from them, but the tag only read Love, "Uncle" Jasper. Again, no mention of Alice. I was sure to include her name on the thank you note I sent, though. After all, the return address on the gift was still the home they shared in Morehead City, North Carolina. I had no reason to believe there were any problems.

At the end of that year, Edward was chosen by his colonel— voluntold was more like it— to help select captains for the next promotion board. He'd be on TAD in Quantico, Virginia for four to six weeks starting at the end of January. He couldn't fathom being away from Christopher and me for that long, so he bought us a plane ticket and we made the trip with him. My parents were over the moon to hear we'd be so close to them for so long, and they drove down to meet us and stayed in a local hotel for about ten days while we were in the Crossroads Inn on base.

Sadly, while we were in Virginia, I got a message from Jasper that his mother passed away. His dad had died about six months earlier after battling Hodgkin's disease, and his mother was left despondent. Jasper knew she wouldn't hold on for long after he passed. They'd loved each other since grade school. Though it was technically a terrible case of pneumonia, Jasper firmly believes that his mom died of a broken heart. And though he was sad, he knew she was happier being back together with his father, and that gave him some peace.

I didn't think twice about wanting to be there to support Jasper, but I knew I'd have to face Alice. Thankfully, the mass and burial were held on a Saturday, so Edward was able to make the trip with me. I wasn't at all afraid to see her on my own, but I'm proud of my husband and my child, and I simply wanted them with me so that we could all support our friend in his time of loss. Edward remembered Jasper being a decent guy back when we lost Mike, but when he showed up to our wedding halfway around the world, it blew Edward away. He's been a true fan of Jasper's ever since.

I'd made plans to meet up with Angela and her girlfriend on Sunday for breakfast, but I needed to make it through Saturday first. The service for Jasper's mom was moving, of course. Jasper gave a heartfelt eulogy, the mass was accompanied by lovely music and he was surrounded by his extended family and friends, which made the day as bearable as possible. The repast was held at Jasper and Alice's home. I felt confident walking up to their door, even though my throat was suddenly bone dry. It had been eighteen months since Alice and I last spoke…yelled, whatever. It was ugly and our friendship was destroyed. After such a long estrangement, I wondered if there was any chance for reconciliation.

At the gathering, I reconnected with several friends from my teaching days in North Carolina. They were thrilled to meet Edward and Christopher, all of them remembering my past tragedy and so happy that I was able to move on and find happiness. I managed to spend a little bit of time with Jasper, but he was busy greeting many of the other guests. It was obvious that Alice was avoiding me, and I refused to cause a scene, so I let it go. After about an hour, Christopher started getting fussy and we made our rounds to say goodbye. Alice was standing with Jasper at that point, so she was forced to acknowledge me, whether she liked it or not.

"We have to take off. The little guy's had it for the day." I wrapped my arms around Jasper's shoulders. "I'm so thankful I had a chance to be here."

"Thank you for making the trip. It means the world to me, Bells. And Christopher's adorable. Congratulations again, to both of you."

Edward readjusted the whining baby in his arms to shake Jasper's hand. "Thank you, Jasper. So sorry about your mother."

I turned to Alice who'd been picking at her fingernails.

"Sorry for your loss, Al. I know you were always close with Gloria."

She stopped messing with her cuticles long enough to glance at me. "Thank you." Her eyes instantly left mine, and she walked away toward a group of cousins on the sun porch.

With a pinched smile, I swallowed tightly, looking back to Jasper whose mouth was agape. "Well, we've gotta run. I'll talk to you soon." I squeezed his hand before walking away, shockingly unsurprised by Alice's royal brush-off.

Much later that evening, already wrapped up in my husband's strong arms, I got a text message from Jasper's phone.

"I need to talk to you face to face before you take off again. Figured using J's phone gave me a better chance at you responding. Is it too late for me to meet you at your hotel? ~Alice"

I didn't hesitate to invite her to the Hampton Inn, room 212, where I was huddled in with my family for the night. Though I was fully ready to face Alice on my own, I refused to do it without her acknowledging my husband. He deserved that much, and so did I. A groggy Edward agreed to answer the door when she knocked, and then I'd leave and go elsewhere to speak with her.

"Alice, come on in." I heard Edward greet her as she responded with a short thank you.

I stuffed my feet into my sneakers, pulling my hair into a ponytail. "Hey. I'm just about ready."

Though her eyes were mostly trained to the floor, in the muted light of the room I caught her sneak a glance at a sleeping Christopher in his pack and play. A hint of a smile played at her lips, but it was almost as if she refused to give in to her natural instincts and emotions. It boggled my mind. I just didn't get it. I hoped she'd help me understand while we talked.

After I gave Edward a quick kiss, Alice and I made our way to the lobby.

"Thank you for meeting me. I had a lot to say, and it certainly wasn't the time nor place at Gloria's repast."

"I understand," I said with a nod. "Fire away."

"I know you think it's ridiculous, but I just can't get over how you got together with Edward," she blurted out. "I realize it's been a year and a half since we last saw each other, and I realize that after we argued, you obviously tracked him down and worked through whatever caused you to split in the first place…but regardless, I thought you made a huge mistake traveling on your own, and it resulted in the end of our friendship. I'm still pissed."

My brows furrowed. I had to interrupt. "You're pissed about which part, exactly?"

"All of it," she said without missing a beat. "You took off on a whim, never called while you were there, gave me this shitty attitude the one time we did speak…" She trailed off with a shrug. "Hawaii changed you and I never got the real Bella back. It's why I refused to come to your wedding or acknowledge the baby when he was born. I'm not a hypocrite, and I won't pretend that what happened with us was in any way all right with me."

I shook my head in disbelief, not knowing how to react to any of this. "So, you're essentially blaming the vacation I took and the destination itself as the impetus for the demise of our friendship?"

"Yeah, pretty much," she snipped without hesitation. "And the fact that you jumped into bed and into a relationship so damn fast. I don't understand how you think that was all okay! And with the guy who told you that your husband was dead?" Crossing her arms, she went on. "I thought it was all in very poor taste. You were so incredibly selfish and disrespectful of Mike's memory. I couldn't even see straight through my fury. I still can't."

"Alice—"

"No, seriously, Bella. Did you ever stop to think about how creepy and even convenient it all was? If I didn't know any better—"

"That's enough!" I cut her off, slamming my hands down on the armrest, ready to knock the stupid out of my former friend. "I answered your text and agreed to meet you because I thought perhaps you had something intelligent to say. That maybe you've spent the last eighteen months reflecting on your words and behavior, realizing that one human being has no right to tell another human being how to live or feel, especially in the wake of a tragedy…and that's just for strangers. We were friends, Alice. But you've gone high and to the right and elevated lunacy to a whole new level."

"I don—"

"No, screw this!" I barked. "Do you even hear yourself? Did you rehearse what you were going to say and really thought it made any sort of sense coming out of your mouth? Because your comment that started with 'creepy and convenient' makes me assume that you might have actually tried to convince me that Edward meticulously planned Mike's death and our reunion three years later. Were you seriously gonna go there?"

Alice was the picture of calm, her voice steady. "It's been known to happen, Bella. Sociopaths study people. You had no idea who he was until he showed up on your doorstep."

I stood, shaking my head. "But I know who he is now. And I refuse to continue this asinine conversation with you. If I thought we might make any kind of headway, I'd stay. But you're not even operating within the realm of logic right now. For eighteen months THIS is the theory you've stewed on?" I took a deep breath in an attempt to regroup. "Alice, I have no idea what happened to you when Mike died. If these are residual issues from something else you've never shared with me about your parent's divorce, or maybe you just can't figure out how to move past Mike's death…whatever it is, I can't be a part of it. I've missed you over the last year and a half…but in all honesty, I missed the friend you used to be, prior to Mike's death. Once he was gone, you shifted into this mode of constant mourning and refused to let me out of it…for three damn years." I shrugged. "I mourned, I grieved and I moved on. I'm sorry that you don't approve, but it really doesn't matter. I don't think there's anything worth talking about, until you figure out that basic fact."

"I knew talking to you wouldn't do anything," she huffed. "I just needed to get it all off my chest."

All I could do was stare at her and feel pity. This person used to be so incredibly important to me…but maybe it was only for those first three years of happiness, when Mike was alive and he introduced me to his childhood friend. Once we lost Mike, I lost her, too. The shell of Alice stuck around, yes, but her mind has since traveled to unhealthy places, and it's not within my power to try and fix her.

"I don't know what else to say. I hope you can find some happiness in your life. Goodbye, Alice."

I turned to walk away and ran smack dab into Jasper. He was holding Christopher's baby bottle. I'd forgotten that I left it in their refrigerator. My breath froze for an instant as he stepped around me. The ashen look on his face revealed that he'd heard every word of our exchange. Even though I knew I wasn't the reason for the astonished expression on his face, I still felt awful.

"I'm so sorry," I whispered, getting choked up.

He shook his head, his stare directed at Alice. "So am I."

A horn blares from behind, jolting me from the memory of how the three of us parted ways that night. I heard from Jasper later that month, saying he was mortified and demoralized to have believed that Alice had tried to be mature and change. He filed for divorce a few weeks later, citing irreconcilable differences. I've not heard from Alice since.

Jasper ended up requesting a transfer to California and was placed in one of the schools on Pendleton the year before we PCS'd here. Maria is an ESL teacher who also happened to be working in that same school. They met, fell in love and married all within six months and have been blissfully happy ever since, expecting their bouncing baby boy any minute now.

^^TotS^^

I pull up to the gate, wrestling with my wallet in order to retrieve my ID. The Marines standing guard here are the scariest out of all those I've ever seen posted at the entrance to a base. M-4's slung around their chests, pistols strapped to their thighs and waist, an arsenal at their fingertips. Ready for anything. In Okinawa, it was a Japanese security force that was posted at the gate for each base, but here in California? At the entrance to the second largest Marine Corps Base in the world? Yeah, heavily guarded with the meanest looking men and women you'd only ever want on your side of the battle when it was all on the line.

I get a nod as the corporal takes my card from my hand. "Morning, ma'am." He looks over the sticker on the windshield of my car, making eye contact with me, comparing my face to the one on my ID.

Satisfied that I'm not an imposter, he hands it back.

"Thank you, ma'am." He then locks up his body, the heels of his boots together, staring straight over the hood of my Honda Pilot. His right arm snaps up parallel to the deck— as my husband would say— making a perfect ninety-degree angle. His four, long fingers are joined in a line while the pad of his thumb bends and presses into the side of his index finger. His hand is angled only slightly toward his face, just grazing the edge of his eyebrow. The entire movement is crisp, instantaneous, taking no more than one second to complete.

A textbook, perfect salute. Nobody knows how to salute like a Marine. It's kind of swoon-worthy…not gonna lie.

"Thank you." I nod with a smile and a "Wifey wave", as my husband trained me to do when I'm saluted.

Saluted. Me. Still cracks me up a little bit, to be honest. I'm just Bella, but being married to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Masen comes with privileges, whether I require them or not. Yes, every officer's wife is saluted, or should be, when entering and driving on base. While in your car, whenever you pass a Marine who sees the sticker on the windshield indicating the owner of this car is an officer, no matter who's driving, they'll stop in their tracks and salute. It gives me such pride to know that Edward has earned that respect. They all have. For all the sacrifices and blood shed over the course of history, every man and woman who wears the eagle, globe and anchor on their uniform deserves unending thanks and reverence.

With the circulation in my fingers just about cut off, I manage to bring all nine bags of groceries into the house on the first attempt…God forbid I actually make two trips. Heaving my load onto the counter, I toss my keys next to my purse and giggle, hearing the sounds coming from the monitor.

Rubber Ducky, you're the one!
You make bath time lots of fun!
Rubber Ducky, I'm awfully fond of you.
Voh-voh-vohdee-oh…

I can picture exactly what's happening. Edward is singing to our babies in the bathtub. That's our standard shampooing song. He's probably elbow-deep in sudsy hair, while the other one splashes and plays. Stinking adorable, the lot of them.

I kick off my sandals and make my way up the stairs while my husband keeps singing. Pausing at the entrance of the bathroom, I lean on the doorjamb, peeking in but hoping to not be discovered just yet. I love these moments. Watching Edward with our little ones. He lives and breathes for them, for all of us. Not a thing in this world makes me happier than seeing Edward teach, bond, and snuggle with our children.

"Daddy, make CeeCee's hair have the bubble Mohawk!" Edward rinses Christopher's head of shampoo while baby girl splashes in her tub seat, chewing on her Flynn Rider bath toy.

"Bubble Mohawk, huh?"

"Yep! And keep singing…you didn't finish."

Edward rubs the shampoo in Cecilia's brown curls. "Oh, right…sorry."

Ohhhhh…
Every day when I, make my way to the tuhh-bby,
I find a… little fella who's… cute and yella and chuhh-bby…
Rubba dub dubby
.

Christopher joins Edward for the final chorus.

Rubber Ducky, you're so fine, and I'm lucky that you're mine!
Rubber Ducky I'd like a whole pond of—
Rubber Ducky I'm awfully fahhhhhhnd…of youuuuu.

The jig is up when I get an itch on my ankle and have to shift my weight to scratch it. My little boy's eyes light up when he spots me in the background.

"Mommeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!"

"Well, here's my super-duper clean family!" I tickle my fingers on the nape of Edward's neck and he tips his head back. "Hi, hubby," I say with a quick peck on his puckered lips, before lowering the toilet seat lid.

"Hey baby." His eyes follow me as I maneuver, and he sends a sexy wink my way, making me swoon just a little. I'm wearing a sundress that's a smidge on the short side. It's one of his favorites; he tells me my legs look sinful in this getup.

"I heard your wonderful voices all the way downstairs when I came home. I had to come join the party!" I lean over the tub and plant a smooch on Cecilia's wet forehead. Her lone toothed-smile is to die for. "Hi, Beauty."

"The kids' costumes came in today. They're on the ironing board." Edward continues to rinse the babies with the hand-held shower sprayer, ridding them of bubbles. "Your son isn't a fan."

My shoulders sag, hearing this news. "Why not? You didn't like your Beast costume, bud?"

Christopher's eyes get big as saucers and his lips curl…we've reached the verge of tears. Abort! Abort!

"The mask was the downfall," Edward starts, picking up our dripping son and standing his little nakedness on the bath mat. I hand him the towel, and he starts at his hair and face, drying him in long strokes down his body to his toes. This perfect man of mine is the perfect daddy. "Once he glanced at his reflection in the mirror, it was anarchy."

My lips turn downward as I gather my dried baby boy into my arms, setting him on my lap while Edward turns to his princess.

"So, I think the Beast will be sans scary face for trick-or-treating this year. This little bundle however…" Edward scoops CeeCee out of the water and wraps her body in the hooded towel with bunny ears. "This one looked too cute for words in her yellow gown." He sits on the edge of our tub with her, drying her face, belly and legs, giving her zerberts along the way. "Right, Princess?" She giggles, getting another set of tickles from her daddy. "How was your morning with the ladies?"

"Glorious," I say, wiggling my toes. "Pedicures, manicures and mimosas…oh, and an upper back and neck massage during the manicure…I presume it's how the other half lives."

Edward and I get up and bring the kids to our bedroom where their outfits are laid out on our bed.

"Mimosas, huh?" Edward starts slathering Johnson's lotion on Cecilia. Nothing smells as good as a freshly bathed and lotioned baby. "You tryin' to get my baby girl drunk?" he chuckles.

While helping Christopher into his Lightning McQueen underpants, I snort. "I can pump and dump, babe. Aren't there still several bottles in the fridge?"

"Yeah."

"Okay, so why don't you give her one now. There's plenty of breast milk in the freezer to last through the weekend, plus she'll have some rice cereal and peaches before bed tonight," I explain, pulling Christopher's top down over his head. "She won't starve, I promise."

"Sounds like a plan." He finishes diapering the baby and then quirks his brow. "Is that what you're wearing to the ceremony?"

I roll my eyes. "Seriously, honey? Gimme a little credit. I know how to dress for these occasions."

"I know, I know. I just don't need all sorts of men eyeing up my wife's goods."

I slap Edward on the ass as he walks past Christopher and me. He turns and flashes a sexy smirk my way, causing me to giggle.

"Ooooh, Daddy. Momma popped you on the tushie."

"I know, little man. She's always popping me!"

Christopher gasps. "Always?"

Edward nods, wide-eyed. "Yup. I think she likes it."

"Ohhhh-kay, that's enough outta you, Daddy!" I give Edward the stink eye as he reaches for the baby, who's been gnawing on her feet during our exchange. "Grammy and Pop-Pop will be here in about twenty minutes."

^^TotS^^

After my parents arrive, we overload our babies with hugs and kisses, stocking up for the next two and a half days.

"I'll miss you, baby. You be a good helper for Grammy and Pop-Pop, got it?"

"Okay, Momma. Wuv you." His little arms wrap around my neck and I melt.

"Love you more, Sweet Pea."

"C'mere, ManMan!" Edward trades with me, placing Cecilia in my arms. He scoops Christopher up out of our mushy moment, burying his face in our son's little neck, chomping away. Edward's hands seek out all of Christopher's vulnerable areas: under the arms, thighs, feet, ribs… squeezing him mercilessly until our boy is laughing uncontrollably, with practically no sound coming out. These are the best tickle moments ever.

"Let him catch a breath, Daddy. I have no time to take a hyperventilating child to the hospital."

The tickling slows and Christopher wheezes out his final giggles. "That was a good one, Daddy."

"It was, kiddo. You tasted good today!" Edward kisses his forehead once more. "Be my good little guy while we're gone, 'kay?"

"Where ya goin', Daddy? You weaving the Carine Morps base?"

All the adults snicker, hearing Christopher's adorable phonetic mix-up. He's said it a few times before this, and I refuse to correct him. It's too damn cute.

"Yeah, buddy. Mommy and I are going to a special event on the base, and then we're going away for a few days. But we'll be back on Monday."

"Okay, Daddy."

After a final round of hugs, kisses and thanks to my parents, along with last-minute instructions that pop in my brain as we're stepping out the door, we're on our way for some serious adult time.

^^TotS^^

Emmett and Rosalie are in from Miramar for today's events. Plus, they're going away with us this weekend to Palm Springs. Their little Erica's third birthday was last weekend and Em's mom and dad came down to celebrate and just stayed with them so that they could watch her while Em and Rose enjoy a baby moon, waiting on the arrival of number two next month. We all agreed we could use a parental weekend away, and Riley needed a big brother break. At fifteen, Kalia's realizing that having a big brother is uncool at times, and their bickering is driving him berserk. Her girlfriend's parents are taking their daughter to Disneyland for the long weekend and Kalia was invited to go along. She begged Riley's permission and he agreed to let her go…but this weekend's respite is just as much for him. They need a few days apart. Edward and I do our best to have Kalia over to spend time with us separate from "family activities" when Riley is involved, but now that we have our two, it's not always easy to carve out the time.

We pull into the parking lot, finding a space as close to the exit as possible because my husband is a mental case and has to plan our exit strategy. Logistics. It's always about the damn logistics.

"Pack anything fun for the weekend?" Edward offers his hand and threads his fingers through mine as he closes the car door behind me.

"Very little." I raise my brows, and he gives me the toothiest grin he can muster.

"Atta girl. You know what your man likes."

I laugh out loud. "My man likes NOTHING! He'd be happiest if I simply packed a toothbrush and my tropical-scented shampoo."

"You're doggone right. Glad we've got that straight." He sighs deeply. "I can't wait to get out there. One drink at the party this evening and we're gone."

I click my tongue. "Are you out of your mind? It's Riley's big night! We can't skip out on him after one drink."

"Please, he'll probably be begging us to snatch him out of there, too. Watch."

I'm immediately suspicious. "What do you know?"

"Stuff." He holds the door to the O-Club open for me.

"Thank you…and what kinda stuff?"

"It's classified."

I roll my eyes. "Oh, here we freaking go. It's classified. You and your lingo."

We walk into the lounge area of the club and my eyes immediately spot what I assume Edward was referring to as classified. I can't hold back my squeal.

"Ahhhh! I can't believe you're here!" I throw my hands around Senna's shoulders. "Who knew about this?"

She smiles. "Just your hubby." She gives him a hug. "It was an important day. I wanted to be here."

"How are Riley and Kalia?"

"We almost had to resuscitate Kalia," Senna laughs. "She was blown away. Riley was pretty shocked, too. He keeps staring at me. I think he's checking to see if I'm really here and I'm really me."

My grin can't be contained. "This is the best. AND you're coming to Palm Springs with all of us tonight!"

"That's the plan," Edward chimes in. "Now, do you see why I know Riley will be itching to leave his own wet down?"

Twenty minutes later, Emmett reads the promotion warrant for Riley, just before Kalia and Senna step up to pin silver oak leaves on his collar.

Edward has the honor of reading the pledge, which Riley recites back to him:

"I, Lieutenant Colonel Riley Biers, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies both foreign and domestic. I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same. I take this obligation freely and without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion. I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

And that's the hat trick. Emmett made Lieutenant Colonel last May and Edward got it in July. Silver oak leaves all around. I can't help but be proud of our military family circle.

^^TotS^^

EPOV

Emmett, Riley, Kalia and I are sitting at a round, club table, chatting and letting the week of work roll off our backs. Bella has Rosalie and Senna out on the dance floor, enjoying some girl time; they haven't been together as a threesome in over a year. Senna committed to teaching remedial classes this past summer in Okinawa— where she's still stationed— and Riley and Kalia went out to visit her last Christmas. It's good to have her back in the fold, though. I'm just wondering when the next phase will take place.

She and Riley really took their time getting to know each other. Their entire relationship revolved around Kalia and her school work for almost a year, until Senna finally asked Riley out, tired of waiting for him to make the first move. He accepted immediately, but they took each step very slowly. She's met his family here in California, and he's met hers in Houston, but Riley's been insistent that there be no rush. Kalia's apparently been all for the relationship, since Senna asked him out. It's definitely been Riley who's been tightening the reins.

When he got orders to Pendleton last year, he asked Senna to come with them, but she turned him down. Her job is very important to her, but because he wasn't making any moves toward solidifying their future with an engagement ring, she wasn't ready to give up her life in Okinawa on the possibility that things could work out for the two, well three, of them. Understandable.

It definitely hurt Riley, but he got over it pretty quickly after a few verbal ass-kickings from me and my wife. I'm sure Em and Rosalie took their pot-shots, too. It was his ego that took a hit more than anything. He knew he needed to guarantee Senna that there was a future for the three of them, before she could give up the life she created for herself out in Japan. And it wasn't ever because he wanted to explore other options, he loved her way before he ever admitted it and felt confident that Senna was the one…he was just so gun-shy because of Kalia and even his heart that continues to heal following the loss of Nalani.

After everything that I've been through, I know for a fact you only hurt yourself by wasting time. Fear of the unknown paralyzes you from moving forward. I'm thankful every day for my awakening, however painful it was.

I can't imagine my world without Bella, Christopher and Cecilia. They're my lifeline.

Cecilia Marie is my princess. Only fussing when she's hungry or tired, it's her gummy smile that melts me every time I walk through the door, and she has the most infectious belly laugh when I give her a good tickling. She has my green eyes and Bella's brown, wispy curls. Arriving eight months ago, she was the perfect result of my "return from deployment marathon of love-making." Typical military kids…a typhoon baby and a deployment baby. I was in Afghanistan from October until April, and Bella was pregnant by the beginning of May. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear Larry the Cable Guy shout out, "Git 'er done!"

Christopher is my shadow and I love every minute of it. In the last three years, I've imagined him walking on Mars, curing cancer, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, scoring the Superbowl-winning touchdown and snagging the gold in any number of winter and summer sports in the 2034 and 2036 games, respectively. CeeCee will obviously be worshipped by whatever boy is fool enough to come calling at her father's doorstep. She'll have her mother's independent and free-spirited drive for adventure…and, of course, she's already proven that she's naturally brilliant. Aside from saying "Momma" and "Dada," she says "dizziz". Bella and I have decided that she's going to be a trail-blazing doctor someday, already talking about diseases and such.

Big dreams for my children aside, when my wife grounds me— and thank goodness she does— I just pray that my children will stay safe, happy and healthy and live to be one hundred and two.

And speaking of my wife, I have to smile and chuckle inwardly as I see her shimmy around the dance floor. I don't know how I can ever repay her for this incredible life she's given me. Where would I be? Single, most likely bored and wistful, continuing to wreck families with the worst news. I haven't had to make a CACO call since I was stationed in Hawaii. Thankfully, with the rank I've achieved, I probably won't have to make a house call like that ever again.

I don't think I'll ever be completely rid of the demons waiting in the wings, trying to convince me that doom and gloom are right around the corner, but I don't let them own me anymore. I refuse to live my life being afraid and fearing the worst. I take every day as a blessing; even when the babies run us ragged or work responsibilities are exhausting and frustrating, the life I have now is a thousand times better than staying single just in case.

Life is for the living and I plan to enjoy every breath I'm granted.

"You better slow down, kiddo. You're going to give yourself a brain freeze," I comment to Kalia, who's sucking down her third virgin piña colada like it's going out of style.

"Too late!" she says, wincing, her fingers flying to her temples to calm the twinge.

The music shifts to a slow tune and our three ladies move over to the bar to get drinks.

Kalia nudges Riley's shoulder. "This one's for you, brother."

He looks at her, confusion marring his features. "What do you mean?"

"I meeeeeean," she says, rolling her eyes. "This song, 'Marry Me'. I chose it for you from the juke box. It's time. You know it is. You have the ring, I know you do. I found it."

Emmett and I freeze as Riley's chin dips, shaking his head. "How did you find it?"

"It wasn't that hidden, dork. When I do laundry, I always put away everything but your gross boy stuff. It was right there in your sock drawer."

He huffs. "Did you like it?"

"I loved it. And she will, too." She pushes her drink away and turns completely so that she's facing him. "We've spoken about this before, Riley. We're ready…you're ready. It's been four and a half years since the accident. This isn't about my sister anymore. We all know how much you loved her." Clearing her throat, she continues. "Putting off the rest of your life just to prove that fact is only hurting you and Senna."

Riley looks toward the bar where Bella and Rose are laughing with Senna. A thoughtful smile forms at his mouth, absorbing Kalia's words and his girlfriend's demeanor.

"Okay," he whispers.

"Really?" Kalia tackle hugs him through her squeal. "She's gonna say yes, I know it! I just want you to be happy again." When she pulls away, tears gathering, Riley makes eye contact with Emmett and me.

"We all do," Emmett adds. "You deserve this, Ri."

The four of us raise our glasses to the occasion. We've all been promoted. We're all happily married—or getting there— our families expanding at every turn. With all its dips, dives and barrel rolls…life goes on.

"Who's ready for the weekend?" Bella plops herself in my lap and leans in for a kiss. "Time's a-wastin', Lieutenants Colonel." She laughs, looking around for help, and I have to steal another kiss. "Or is it Lieutenant Colonels?"

"Lieutenant Colonels, baby." I pinch her side and she contorts, giggling.

"Let's do it," Emmett bellows. "Wifey here needs some palm trees and fresh desert air."

"Okay, let me do my grip and grin for anybody who's still here. I think my tab cut off about an hour ago." Riley gets up and extends his hand for Senna who takes it with a smile.

Bella and I stand, waving to a few people while making our way outside to wait for the rest of the gang. The breeze is still warm for an October evening. The aromas of the restaurant's food wafting around the building only make me more excited about the five-star cuisine that awaits us in Palm Springs. It's a rarity these days that we get to go out to any place that doesn't have chicken nuggets and juice boxes on the menu. For the moment, though, I manage to tune out all the outside distractions surrounding us and focus on my gorgeous wife. "Ready to get away from it all…even if it's just for a few days?" I ask, tucking some loose hair behind Bella's ear.

She steps forward, burrowing herself in my embrace and humming against my chest before looking up at me. "Almost four years ago, I told you I'll always want to adventure with you…I'll always be ready. You taught me well… tip of the spear, right?"

I laugh through my nose and give her another peck. "First to the fight, yes…and in this case, first to the fun. And I told you a long time ago, you are and always will be my perfect tip of the spear. Let's do it."

^^TotS^^


A/N: A final standing ovation to Team Cabana for sticking with me for the last 16 months. I'd never have made it without their support and tender kicks to my hind parts. Much love to you Momo, Born, Cejsmom, Jules and of course, to my Major.

To all my readers who held on tight when the updates stretched to three and four weeks. Your support and kind words boosted me to keep going, even when real life was tap dancing on my head and heart. Thank you so much for your reviews...no, it's not money, but it's a currency that is invaluable to a fanfic writer. Please continue to do that for me and anyone else you read. They write, you review. It's love any way you slice it.

The clamoring fans got their wish, and I designed a Tip of the Spear t-shirt. If you'd like to learn more and/or sign up, please PM me here, or find me on Facebook or in the Cabana group. The TotS t-shirt comes in either navy blue or forest green. And another list for Last Call Girl t-shirts has formed. Those shirts are dark grey v-necks. I'll be ordering all of the above in a few weeks, so don't wait too long to contact me.

Military terms quiz in the Cabana next month! Stay tuned to win prizes from the PX on base!

One more outtake to post, so keep TotS on alert. It'll be of the time that Spearward was deployed to Afghanistan...post-Christopher, but pre-Cecilia.

Thank you again for being here. It's been an amazing journey.

xo, Jen