I apologize for the delay with this chapter. Real life has been eating away all of my writing time. Hopefully, the next chapters will have less of a delay. Thank you to those who are still reading and reviewing!
Also, I got the idea for parts of this story from an article written about a man who's child was given up for adoption without his consent. Upon further research, I learned how very few rights a father actually has toward his children. Everything that Edward lists as things that he "could have done" to get their baby are things that I picked up straight from a Florida website concerning the father's rights. It's very sad, actually. Good news, though: the dad from the article that I mentioned got his daughter back after a very lengthy court process.
This chapter was edited by Twilightmom505, who is awesome! Thank you! PTB betas are the best!
And now on to the chapter!
Joy and happiness exploded like fireworks inside my chest making, me almost giddy. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt such intense happiness as I laughed and cried and finally held the baby that I'd longed for for so long. After seven years of torment, my world made sense again. Charlotte was hesitant to remove her arms from around my neck, finally letting go when Esme began ushering everyone to the table for breakfast. I wasn't ready to give her up yet, though, and apparently neither was she, asking Edward if she could sit at the grown-up table instead of the smaller one set up in the living room for the kids. I was surprised at how many of them there were. I wondered how many were Esme's new foster children; I was completely in awe of her beautiful and loving heart.
My happiness waned a bit throughout the meal each time I looked over at Edward. Gone was the almost boyish smile he'd worn on his face when he'd asked me to come to Esme's. His hunched shoulders and blank expression closed him off from nearly everyone in the room. His beautiful eyes were downcast and sullen, and though he tried to put on a good face for our daughter every time she glanced his way, I could tell that something was troubling him; it made my chest ache. I wanted to put my arms around him and ask him what was wrong, but I'd lost the right to do so a long time ago. I found myself mourning the relationship we'd once had. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed him until we were under the same roof, breathing the same air.
I missed him terribly.
Charlotte seemed to take her cues from him as she became increasingly reserved and shy, watching me when she thought I wasn't looking, staring at me through long lashes. Her brow was furrowed as if she were trying to solve a mystery or a puzzle. Though she looked just like me, she definitely had many of Edward's mannerisms.
Adding to my sudden anxiety was the confusion that ensued from having two people at the dining table with the same first name. The entire family, other than myself, seemed to have no problem with this. Charlie, my dad, knew exactly when Esme was referring to him in conversation, and Charlie, my daughter, answered anytime Edward said her name. I supposed it was all in the tone: Edward would never say my father's name sternly just before telling him to eat his eggs. Either way, it was one more instance that made me feel even further set-apart and disconnected from the people around me.
I came to Esme's home with only one thought in mind: meeting my daughter. I hadn't considered how I would feel being with his family again. It seemed as though they were constantly watching my actions, each taking turns giving me the look of pity that I'd grown accustomed to from my mom and Phil. Here it felt different though, worse. Of course it was worse. These people should hate me, not welcome me into their home. I wondered if Edward had asked them to be kind to me today. The thought made me feel out of place. They talked about daily life, and what they were studying, and the important tasks that they were accomplishing in their careers. I had nothing to offer to their conversations. I tried to not let it bother me.
Some of them I recognized from years ago: Emmett, Jasper, Celia, Michael—they were just kids when I'd left Forks; now they were all adults, my peers. Most of them were looking at me as if I was some sad, lost puppy they'd been asked to take in for the holidays. Save for Rosalie, who when she decided to give me the time of day, only did so to glare are me from across the table. Emmett kept giving me goofy grins, though, cracking jokes in uncomfortable silences as if there wasn't a large elephant in the room with my name stamped on it. Someone on the outside would have thought he didn't have a clue as to what was happening around him. I knew better.
"Bella," Charlie, my dad, said from across the table. He was sitting beside Edward's teenaged brother, Michael, who he'd just had a lengthy conversation about sports teams and managers. I'd been caught sneaking another glance at Edward as he pushed his food around on his plate. My plate was just as full.
"Do you have any plans for tomorrow?" Charlie asked.
"No," I answered apprehensively. "I don't have plans." He must have already known that though.
"Good. It's settled then. You and Charlie can have some girl time," he said, seemingly out of nowhere, as if just settling a matter that I couldn't recall being discussed. Esme glanced at Edward with worried motherly eyes.
"What's happening tomorrow?" I asked, hesitant to overstep whatever invisible bounds that might have been in place but equal parts excited and fearful at the prospect of spending alone time with my daughter.
"I work a double," Edward said, taking a sip of his coffee.
No one said anything; for a long moment, all that was heard was the sound of metal clinking on china, and a peal of muffled laughter cascading through the open dining room door from the kids' table.
I was about to turn to Edward and tell him that it was fine, I understood his hesitance. As heartbreaking as it was, I realized he was just trying to protect her from a mother who was not completely well. I couldn't just click my heels together or take some magic pill that would make me the person I was before. Edward must have seen that somewhere in the hours between finding me in the pouring rain and sitting with me at the breakfast table.
"Okay," Edward finally said. I looked up, stunned. Our eyes met, and I felt the same old feeling of butterflies that I'd almost forgotten. Seven years and my body still had the same reaction to him. I blushed and looked down at my plate forcing myself to take a bite of eggs.
I looked down at Charlotte, who was staring at her plate, hoping to see her reaction. Her silence was unnerving. I wanted to know what was going through her head. Edward reminded her, for the fifth time, to eat her breakfast.
She turned to Edward and asked, "Is Mama going to live with us now?"
Edward choked on his mouthful of pancakes, trying to recover by taking gulps of coffee which only seemed to make it worse. I looked to my dad who shared a look with Esme, both unsure what to say to her very honest question. In the end, Charlie, my dad, finally spoke.
"No, she's going to live with me just like you live with your daddy."
Charlie, my daughter, frowned and said, "But other kids' moms and dads live together."
I looked down at my daughter's sad face, wanting to wrap my arms around her and soothe her.
But I doubted myself—doubted my ability to make things better, to play the mother role, consumed by a gut-wrenching guilt that I was the one to put the melancholic expression on her sweet face to begin with—and then the moment was over. In a small voice, she asked Esme if she could be excused and walked out of the room, her glass teetering on her plate as she carefully carried both away. Edward quickly followed her, leaving two empty seats next to my own, leaving me feeling exposed. I fought back the urge to try to cover my face with my hands using them instead to wring my napkin into knots in my lap.
A long awkward moment passed.
"Can you imagine how horrible it would be if it actually started raining men?" Emmett asked from across the table. Charlie cracked up and everyone else quickly followed. Rosalie made a noise of disgust, her head dropping to her hands, murmuring, "Emmett!" Esme threw her napkin at him, which made it only halfway across the table and landed in the butter dish, causing more laughter.
The tension was effectively lifted leaving the room the bright, sunny place that it was when I'd first walked into it, partially obscuring the shadows that were residing within my own heart. The glimpse of joy that I used to know in Esme's old home was shining all around in the laughter of the people that gathered, making me realize that it wasn't the space that created happiness but the people who lived within it. I dared to hope that one day I'd have a home that was as happy as this one. Emmett looked over at me and winked; I grinned back.
Amid the sudden sound of laughter and happiness, I heard the bright tones of a piano from the other room. I turned my head to look out of the dining room door behind me. Edward and our daughter were sitting side-by-side on the piano bench. I stood up and walked into the room, sidestepping the kid's table and silently stood behind them. I was mesmerized by their closeness, watching in silence while he showed her chords and helped her when her fingers didn't quite reach the keys. He was teaching her to play chopsticks. Charlie walked up behind me.
"He's a good dad, Bells," he said quietly, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder. I nodded, running my hand across my eyes. I was so tired of crying.
"You'll be a great mom too."
I sighed, and placed my hand over his.
I hoped he was right.
Throughout the day, I watched them together, envious as they interacted with each other, sharing hugs and kisses as she clung to him as if he was her lifeline. I finally had to leave the noise and chaos of the house, instead choosing to watch from the porch outside, sitting at the corner of the window, spying on the family that was mine—but wasn't. It was the closest to Purgatory I could ever imagine. My chest ached with each breath, having nothing to do with the frigid air that blew out of my lungs like smoke curling through the rapidly darkening sky. I tried to convince myself that one day I would belong in their perfect picture of a loving family, not of the nuclear whole, but maybe just a part of it.
The front door opened, and I brushed the tears from my cold cheeks. Edward took off his coat and laid it over the top of mine. His hands lingered for a moment longer than was necessary, but I probably only imagined it.
"Hey," he said, looking over my shoulder at the scene inside, frowning.
"Hey," I said back, lamely.
"What are you doing out here?"
"I'm not used to so many people," I said. It wasn't a complete lie; it had been months since I'd been around anyone but Mom and Phil, and even then, I'd done my best to be on my own at every moment possible, always escaping any conversation or confrontation that could possibly arise. Only being 'present' long enough to appear normal and make everyone happy before I could hide again.
He stood silently beside me.
"Um...listen," I said. "If you're not comfortable with me watching Charlie tomorrow, I don't have to—"
"No, you should have time with her." He let out a long breath. "Esme is constantly telling me that I'm far too overprotective with her. It's not...you..."
"It's not you, it's me?" I said jokingly, trying to make light of the situation, letting him off the hook. I could tell he was uncomfortable, and I was afraid of where his sentence was going to end. I wasn't naive enough to think we'd never have the conversation about how messed up our whole situation was. It just seemed like the wrong time and place.
He smiled at me, but his eyes were serious. "Something like that," he said, and then he hesitated, looking at me for a long moment. Butterflies erupted in my stomach again. "I want you to be a part of everything. I don't want you to feel like you have to stay on the sidelines."
"Thank you," I said quietly, gratefully.
"Do...do you think you could come over to the apartment later?"
I started, looking up at him in surprise.
"I have a present for you. I didn't want to give it to you in front of everyone."
At the mention of a gift, I mentally cringed.
"I know you don't like receiving gifts, but...well, I didn't pay for this one, so I figured you'd give me a pass this once." He grinned once again, shoving his hand through his messy hair, looking very much like the boy that I fell in love with so long ago. I missed him so much.
"Yeah, I can do that." I said, trying desperately to keep my unchecked tears at bay, forcing a smile.
"Anyway, it's freezing out here. You should come inside. Emmett just dragged out the karaoke machine, which is always amusing."
"I remember," I said laughing, handing him back his coat. His warm, calloused fingers grazed mine, making me shiver.
"Edward, Bella, get in here! I'm about to bust out some Dixie Chicks!" Emmett yelled from inside the house.
Edward turned his head and said, "Only kid-appropriate songs, okay, Emmett?"
I heard Emmett mumble, as much as Emmett could mumble, "Yeah, yeah, killing all my fun."
"I don't want to have to explain 'Earl had to die' lyrics to a seven-year-old." Edward said to me, laughing.
The beginning notes began to play, and I looked at Edward warily. A song that was popular when Edward and I were still in high school began to play. I had a sudden fearful image of being pushed in front of the watching room by Emmett while he handed me a microphone.
"I don't have to do this, do I?"
"No, definitely not." he said, laughing as we started walking back into the house together.
I took one last backward glance into the yard and spotted a bike lying against the corner of the porch railing. It was pink and white with streamers that had seen better days. The frame was beginning to rust. I recognized it from my past, from endless days of riding around and around Charlie's house, pretending I was a race car driver, or a queen on my coronation trail; sometimes I'd tie my plastic baby stroller to it and pretend I was a mom driving to the grocery store. In that old broken bike, I saw the beauty and innocence of childhood, the promise of adventure.
That bike had probably sat at Charlie's house for years without being used. I imagined he'd brought it over here to let Charlotte play with it. Knowing that it was still being used gave me a feeling of hope. It was worn and somewhat broken, like me, but it still had life left in it. It was still loved. I was a lot like that bike: broken and rusted. But it wasn't completely out of the game and neither was I.
"Is everything okay?" Edward asked, probably wondering why I was still standing out in the cold, staring at an old toy.
"Yeah." I said, smiling. I turned back to him and the look on my face must have sparked something in him. He broke out in a huge grin and pulled me to him, wrapping his arms around my bulky coat. I relished in the feel of his strength and his warmth.
Everything was going to be okay.
Arriving at his home the second time felt completely different, though I still had the crazy flutterings in my stomach, I wasn't as afraid. My knees still shook when I climbed out of my truck but my footsteps were less faltering, steadier. The most important difference was the giant hole that I'd carried around in the center of my broken heart: it felt like it was finally healing. I smiled to myself as I walked up to the glass front door of the dimly lit bar where Edward had asked me to meet him.
My smile fell when I heard the music as I opened the door. I heard the notes and I froze, my heart remembering them a split second before my brain could process the emotion that was suddenly flooding through me. He was playing my song, my lullaby, the one he'd given to me when we were together. I felt each note rush through my system like a tidal wave, threatening to knock me to my knees.
Through my blurred vision, I spotted him. He sat at a simple upright piano that was far less majestic than the baby grand that Carlisle had bought for him so long ago, confirming every belief that it wasn't the caliber of the instrument that made the music, but the player. I watch him as he swayed with each note, oblivious of being watched, lost in the moment. The song that I knew morphed and changed and became something completely different: a lament. Every line and chord rang out, saying, "That beautiful thing that we had is now over." Each pump of my heart that flowed through my veins sang along in melody, and I agonized over each heartbeat, mourning the loss of him, of what we once were. I ached to touch him, to comfort him, but more than that, to make him stop playing.
I realized I was watching a moment that was meant to be private, but I couldn't make myself turn away. The lyric, "Killing Me Softly" had never meant so much as in that moment. The notes slowed and ended, the last low chord hovering in the air, beautiful and haunting. I looked around and behind me, wondering if I could sneak out just as quietly as I'd come in.
"Bella," he said, sounding as startled to see me as I had been to hear him playing my song. I jumped and tried to nonchalantly wipe the tears that had run unchecked down my cheeks. He swallowed thickly and looked at me with pain-filled eyes.
"I'm sorry. I'm early. I should have knocked." I said hurriedly, inwardly cringing. In that moment, I wanted to run into his arms and sob and beg him to take me back: back to that beautiful living room, dressed all in white, where he played the song for me for the first time, back to the meadow, where we lay an exhausted, tangled mess while he hummed it in my ear. Instead, I stood awkwardly at the door with my hands balled up in fists in my coat pockets.
"It's okay." He spoke softly, quietly. We stood in an odd silence for a long moment, the energy between us filled with sadness and yearning. Or maybe that was just on my part. I dug my fingernails into my palms, fighting back the instinct to put my arms around him, to touch him.
He ran a hand through his hair, cleared his throat and said, "Um...right, sorry. Your gift. I'll just...go get it." He gestured behind him to the long bar; the lights above it were the only illumination in the dark room. It made the large room look gloomy with too many shadows. As if he was reading my mind, he flipped some switches making more lights come on around me. I walked slowly over to a stool and sat down. I hooked my feet into the slats between the wooden rungs, feeling very much like an awkward kid.
"Where's Charlie?" I asked, a little worried that he'd left her alone in their apartment.
"Oh, she's upstairs sleeping. Here." He handed me a video monitor that he'd been carrying around in the back pocket of his jeans. I smiled as I looked at her tiny image on the small screen, completely lost in sleep. Her hair was wild all over her pillow, hanging in her face. She held her hands under her cheeks like an angel as her mouth hung open.
"I like to be able to keep an eye on her when I'm working down here," he said, motioning to the monitor in my hand. "I told you I was overprotective. It took me years to get to this point. She's like clockwork, though. Down at eight and not up again until seven. Except for the occasional nightmare, she's a heavy sleeper." He sighed. "Which is a good thing, living above this place." I imagined what it must be like in the bar on busy nights, loud and raucous and chaotic.
I smiled slightly, nodding my head. I couldn't help but wish for more for her. The little sleeping princess that I held in my hand should be living in a castle, or at the very least, a house like Charlie's.
"Do you own the bar, then?" I asked, setting the monitor on the shiny bar top. I couldn't take my hand away from it, though—or my eyes. It felt like an odd question to ask, as if I was just getting to know a stranger. I looked up at him, at the man he'd become, and realized we were strangers now. That familiarity that we once knew was gone. I had glimpsed it here and there throughout the day, but there was so much that I didn't know about him now. Too much time had passed. I felt like a fool.
"Yeah. It's a family business. Not my first choice, but...I sort of fell into it."
That's my fault, I thought as I ran my finger along the edge of the small monitor, wishing for the millionth time that I could change things for him, for both of us. Somehow make his world the one it should have been.
Get a grip, Bella. Don't start crying again.
"Anyway, this place was up for sale, and I needed somewhere to stay. It worked." He smiled at me. My stomach flipped again. "This is yours," he said, handing me a box wrapped in wrapped with white paper. There were pink and blue paper with hearts drawn all over it. The red bow was already half untied. I wanted to burn the beautiful thing into my memory to hold onto for years to come.
"Are you going to open it?" he asked, a slightly teasing smile on his face.
Something halfway between a laugh and a cry escaped my lips. "I want to just look at it for a minute," I said, running the risk of sounding like a crazy person. I was a crazy person—but it was the first gift from my daughter. I wasn't ready for that experience to be over.
And I felt terrible. I hadn't thought to buy gifts for anyone. What sort of person does that? Fortunately, my dad had saved the day and bought things for my daughter with my name next to his on the tag. Apparently, that was a tradition, one that I'd been unknowingly apart of since the day she was born. I tried not to dwell on that.
"Well, then, do you want something to eat? I have some frozen wings in the kitchen."
"No, thank you. I'm not hungry." I saw a disapproving look on his face; I could tell he was holding back, he wasn't saying what he was thinking. It made me oddly happy, the fact that I could still somewhat read him, but I'd already had that discussion with my dad twice today. He changed the subject.
"So, what do you think you girls will do tomorrow?" He seemed genuinely happy about the prospect of me spending time with our daughter. It made me smile.
"I don't know." My brown furrowed. "What do seven-year-old little girls like to do?"
He laughed, "Well, she has quite an extensive My Little Pony collection. I'm sure she'd happily show each one to you, including all their names and background history. Then there's the DVD collection. She has some of them memorized."
"Wow," I said, genuinely stunned. "I remember you saying that TV was just an idle waste of time. What happened?"
"Guilty! I did say that. That was my teenaged, pious, know-it-all, pre-kid self. The new, dad-needs-to-take-a-shower-without-being-interrupt ed self did some soul-searching and decided it wasn't so bad," he said, jokingly. "I went a lot of days without, in the beginning. Esme threatened to shoot me with the water hose."
I laughed and then looked down at the box I held, curling the ribbon through my fingers. I would have liked to see him with that way, a new inexperienced father of a newborn. "Oh, if I could turn back the hands of time." I said more to myself than to him. He heard me and placed a hand over mine on the box. The sudden warmth made me want to leap through my skin.
"It's not your fault." he said, his tone and look very serious. I wanted to believe him, if it were not for my own guilty conscience telling me otherwise. I let out a long breath and changed the subject, more than a little disappointed when the warmth of his large hand left my smaller one.
"I guess I've stalled enough," I sighed, turning the box around, trying to find the best place to open it without ripping the paper. I'd had so much taken from me. I was going to save every single scrap of this. Edward tried to hide his smile behind his hand, resting his elbow on the table, as I gently peeled the tape away from the paper. I gave him a pseudo warning look and then smiled back—another beautiful glimpse of 'us.' Once I'd finally removed all the wrapping, I placed it to the side and opened the lid to the box. My smile faded and my shaking hand flew to my chest.
"You're giving me this?" I felt the tears pricking at the backs of my eyes again, for what had to be the hundredth time that day—it was a losing battle. Inside the box was an album, simple yet beautiful with pink ribbon across the front that was tied in a bow holding it closed. On the front was a small frame with a photo of my baby, the one that I never got to see, all wrinkled and tiny. She was dressed in a white, frilly gown with a matching bonnet on her head. I stared at her beautiful face in astonishment and sadness. My breathing faltered. I should have had memories of this image. Instead I was looking at someone else's memory, staring at a photograph of a baby who I didn't know.
"This should have been yours to begin with." he said finally. I looked away from the album to meet his eyes. A long moment passed. So much should have been said, could have been, but we both let it slip through our fingers like sand: a moment lost. Finally, he looked away from my face and down at the photo and said quietly, "I had copies of all of them made. These are the ones you should have received."
I placed my face in my hands. I wasn't ready. I wasn't ready to see all the things that I'd missed, view the happiness and joy from others eyes when it should have been my through my own. It's a strange thing, the paradigm shift that occurred the moment I'd discovered I was pregnant with her. I'd never wanted to be a parent before, but I suddenly found myself longing for all of the sleepless nights, and bath times, dirty diapers, but most of all, the memories that were a parent's right when they had children. Edward was beside me then, putting his arm around my shoulders.
"I can't do this," I whimpered.
"We'll do it together," he said, softly. I nodded, my lip quivering as I watched him untie the ribbon and open the book to the first page which displayed a picture of Edward holding our baby in his arms. A look of awe and adoration and a tiny bit of fear was on his young face as he gazed down at a small infant with a mass of dark hair. She was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
"She's so small," I said, sniffling. "How much did she weigh? And she had so much hair." I marveled, laughing through tears, remembering all the heartburn I'd had while pregnant with her. That old-wives tale must have been true after all.
"She was seven pounds, two ounces. She did have a lot of hair. It looked just like yours. She lost it all though, pretty soon after." I looked at him in shock and he smiled. "It's okay, that's just one of those things that happens sometimes with babies." I nodded, lamenting the fact that he knew what was normal and what wasn't with infants and I hadn't a clue.
"Was she healthy?" I was afraid to ask, fearful that anything I might have done, or not done, could have affected her negatively.
"Yeah. She was perfect." He smiled at me. Moisture welled-up in his eyes.
"How did you get her?" I'd been wanting to ask the question all day but had been afraid to until that point. The weight of his arm around my shoulders gave me confidence. It felt as though we were in our own little bubble for a moment. I tried to push aside the knowledge that this was only temporary—one more moment that I could add to my collection of memories from the day, stored in a tiny bottle in my own mind. My own happy thoughts. I felt like I was going insane.
"Esme," he said, simply. "She was amazing. I have never seen anyone work so tirelessly for anything in my life. She took care of all of us all day, cooked, cleaned, and was on the phone for hours in between, calling everyone she could possibly think of to call. After five adoptions of her own, she had a lot of connections."
"But...Renee," I couldn't stand to call her Mom, "said that I was giving the baby to a loving family. If she was just going to give her to you, why would she say that? Why wouldn't she have told me?"
"I don't know, Bella." His hand moved up and down my arm in a comforting gesture. "I don't understand any of it." He paused for a moment, lost in thought. "Do you think you'll ever ask her?"
"No." I said, quickly, determined. "At least...not anytime soon."
He nodded and turned his attention back to the album.
Something from our conversation the day before suddenly came to the forefront. "I mentioned adoption yesterday and you didn't correct me."
He cringed sightly. "Yeah. That's because there was an adoption." He paused. "Esme adopted Charlotte when she was born." He looked at me sideways, gauging my response. I looked away, tried to pretend that that knowledge didn't bother me as much as it did. Esme was my daughter's mother. How could I ever compete with that? I couldn't be half the woman that Esme was, even if I'd kept her, even if I'd stayed in Forks.
He let out a long breath, hurt evident all over his face.
"If you don't want to talk about it, it's okay," I said, quietly.
"No. It's just...old wounds, I guess."
He laughed softly, humorlessly. My breath caught in my throat. I waited in silence for a long moment, saying nothing. I was afraid to ask for more details, but I wanted to know everything, every detail of what he'd been through, even if it pained me to hear it.
"It turned out, I had no rights." he said, finally, the last words came out in a blur. "I mean, I probably could have had them if I'd done a number of things in advance, but my lack of money and the distance made it really difficult. The fact that I was underage didn't help things either."
He saw my confusion. "If I had acknowledged I was the father from the very beginning, paid your medical bills, been there for the birth... but I didn't know that you were pregnant until months had passed, and Carlisle refused to give me money to pay for anything. I got a job, and I sent every paycheck to your address, but they kept coming back, 'return to sender.' Renee refused to answer my calls. She said you didn't want to hear from me. She tried to convince me once that I wasn't the father, but I knew better. I knew you."
"Eventually, I realized there was nothing else I could do. I was losing you and our baby." He took a deep breath and swallowed thickly. "In the meantime, though, Esme was doing everything she could to prevent it from happening. She defied Carlisle and hired a lawyer and used her influence with the social workers that she knew. Days would pass that seemed like months, and still we weren't making any headway. I was never sure if it was going to work out. I was running out of options, and Esme wasn't getting the feedback she'd hoped for. They were all saying that, in the end, it would be your decision. You would only need to file a petition with the court saying that I hadn't been supporting you financially, or that I'd abandoned our child. It wouldn't have mattered if it was true or not."
He stopped talking for several heartbeats as I watched him in silence, my mind reeling. I hated myself for putting him through this. If I'd only stayed...
"Finally, Esme had had enough. She pawned a very expensive ring that Carlisle had given her for their tenth wedding anniversary and offered Renee a bribe. I asked her not to. I felt horrible that she had to give up something so special because of me, but she insisted that me having my child was more important than a piece of jewelry."
I watched him as he struggled not to break down, my own heart cracking and threatening to break into pieces as well.
My mind was reeling over that piece of information. She'd accepted a bribe. None of my pleading and begging had meant anything, but she accepted a payoff? I couldn't process any of it, couldn't fathom who, or what, my mother had become. In numb silence, I sat, barely breathing, wondering what had happened that would turn my mother into such a cruel person. It was as if we were talking about someone else, some stranger who I never knew. My heart rallied against it, screaming that this was injustice: she had been so good to me, taking care of me, never hurting me my whole life. Talking about her as if she was a criminal—even thinking it was so fundamentally against everything I knew of her. It seemed so wrong.
"She also hired a private investigator, hoping that she could find something to use against either Phil or Renee to convince them to let us have the baby."
I had a difficult time picturing Esme, the saint, doing something so calculated.
"She did find some little things, but in the end, we think Renee just got tired of fighting. Now that I know she was keeping it all from you, I think that she must have been afraid you would find out something. In our desperation, we were relentless. I sent three letters a day, some of them certified to your name. I don't know how they didn't get to you."
I bit my lip. His eyes landed on my mouth as he continued speaking.
"One of Esme's closest friends, who's a social worker, traveled to Florida to pick her up. I wanted to go, but everyone thought it would be a bad idea. I think they were worried for me, of what I'd do. They were afraid I'd lose my temper or cause a scene that would change your mind about letting me have her. I admit, I wanted to."
My eyes met Edward's; all of the sorrow and desperation from the past clearly evident in his sea green eyes. The mother who had taken such good care of me and loved me my whole life... Maybe it hadn't been me that she'd been trying to hurt. Maybe she'd wanted to hurt Edward.
"I'm so sorry." It was paltry and simple, but I couldn't articulate what I truly wanted to say. I wished I was musical, capable of putting every emotion into song like he could. Instead, I sat in silence, hating myself, hating my circumstances, wishing with all my heart that something could have been done to prevent this tragedy. If I'd never left— If I'd only told him.
"Bella, I don't hold any ill will toward you. I want us to be friends in this, to work together. I don't want to keep you and Charlie from each other. She needs you."
It took everything in me to not throw my arms around him then. I was angry at Renee, angry that she'd taken away not only my daughter, but the chance of ever being anything to the only love I'd ever known. My past, present and future had been altered by her conniving hands. Edward was graciously allowing me into her life but not into his. Friends. The word in such a context sounded unnatural and wrong. We were never meant to be only friends... Once upon a time, anyway.
"She told me you didn't want to have anything to do with it," I said, barely a whisper. I wasn't sure why. It wasn't as if I needed to give him more incentive to hate my mother. Maybe it would help him to understand my side of things. I wasn't sure why I said it, but I immediately regretted it. His face turned bright red and then very pale. I reached for his hand, but he turned away. I watched him take several deep breaths, composing himself. When he finally turned back toward me, he looked haunted. He said nothing else, but placed his arm back around my shoulder lightly, turning the next page in the album. For a short moment, he became the Edward from this morning again, withdrawn and distant.
We went through page after page together as he seemed to shake off whatever had been bothering him. I listened with rapt attention as he told stories of all of her first moments: how she would never go to sleep unless there was music playing, how she wouldn't talk for months and they'd worried she was delayed, only to realize she'd just been spending all of that time observing and listening. How he'd taught her to read a year before she started Kindergarten. She'd informed her teachers they'd spelled her name wrong. It turned out she had preferred "Charlie" to Charlotte. She adored her Grandpa Charlie. I told him she had very good taste.
The next hour was spent going through memories that weren't my own, images of my daughter's childhood that I never belonged in. My emotions were on roller coaster as each new image rehashed old pain and loss, and each new story that Edward told brought new feelings of joy and pride. By the time we'd reached the last page, my heart was simultaneously aching and extremely full.
Before I knew it, it was almost midnight. I knew he had to be up early for work.
"Do you want me to come over here first thing, save Esme a trip?" It didn't make sense to make her drive over first thing in the morning when I could do it myself. I wanted the responsibility. I wanted to be the parent.
"Are you sure? It's really early," he said, yawning. It was contagious; I yawned too. We both smiled.
"Yeah. I want to be here," I said.
"Okay. I leave for work at 6:30."
I picked up the album in my arms and my purse and got up to head toward the door. I stopped and turned toward him once more. "Thank you, for this," I said, clutching the album closer to my chest.
"Bella." He grabbed my hand and took the album gently from me, setting it down on the bar stool where I'd been sitting. "Thank you...for having her."
I could feel the tears welling up behind my eyes. His hands were warm, gentle. I missed those hands that used to hold mine as we were walking down the street. I missed them when he held me close and they were splayed across my back. Their warmth used to give me comfort, now they brought painful memories and heartache, but I wasn't ready for him to let go of me.
"Thank you for taking care of her, for loving her when I couldn't." My voice broke. "And for this," I said, gesturing toward the album with my free hand. "And for letting me be a part of her life. Thank you."
He pulled me toward him and leaned his head forward, resting his forehead on mine. I could feel his breath on my face. I wanted him to kiss me.
"I want us to be partners in this, Bella—friends," he said for the second time that night; his words were soft, almost a whisper. I looked up to meet his eyes. They were warm, burning, more than friendly. Instinct, and the ache of missing a physical connection with him, made me lean closer and he made no move to stop me. A small, nagging voice was telling me that I was making a mistake. Why should I have any right to try to reclaim anything I'd had with him in the past? I gave him up, left him. I couldn't just come back, and in a couple of days, earn back what I'd so completely broken: his trust, his love.
It had been over for seven years, and what had we had really? A high school crush and a first time together? Most guys would just consider that water under the bridge and move on. Edward wasn't like most guys, though. I knew I needed to just back away and let him move on, though, like he'd planned to at the bonfire with Jacob and his friends. I moved away, even though it was painful to do so. Edward quickly placed a hand on either side of my face, holding me still and began to close the small space between us. The butterflies in my stomach were in full force, and my heart was pounding, my body was a nervous ball of energy. His lips were so close to mine; I could feel his breath brush gently across my mouth.
Then the screaming began.
I jerked upright. He moved away from me quickly, grabbing the monitor and running out the door and up the stairs. It took me several seconds to catch up to what was happening. By the time I realized that it was Charlotte doing the screaming, Edward was already gone, disappearing quickly through the heavy wooden bar door and up the steps to his apartment.
I ran through the door before it had closed completely and was quick on his heels, stumbling on the wooden steps. I had to catch myself on the railing once so I wouldn't land on my face. He'd left the door wide open and when I'd reached it, the screaming was over, replaced by childish sobs.
I hesitated once I reached the living room. Looking around, I could see that he'd put all of the pictures and mementos back in their proper places. The front of the fridge was full of drawings and coloring pages. I took a deep breath, suddenly overwhelmed. When it had been empty, it was terrifying. With it being full and back to normal, it was much more homey, but I had the sense that I didn't belong in it. I didn't like either feeling.
Cautiously, I walked through the small living space to the hallway at the end of the apartment. It was mostly dark except for the warm, soft glow that bled into the living room from my daughter's bedroom. I knew it was hers as soon as I stood in the doorway. Pink was everywhere: the walls, the plastic dollhouse that sat in one corner, the gauzy canopy that hung over her bed, even the comforter and pillows were all drenched in it. I'd never been a fan of the color, but knowing that she loved it made me love it too. Edward was sitting on the bed, holding her in his arms, stroking her hair and singing to her.
"Daddy," she said, her voice cracking, though she still sounded as though she were still half-asleep."I dreamed that Mama left because of me. Is she going to leave?" I nearly doubled over in the doorway, my hand automatically went to my chest, over my heart. I'd never hated myself, or my actions, more.
"No, Baby," he said softly. "That's not going to happen." He looked at me as he spoke, his eyes hard and resolute, as though just saying the words would make them truth. Charlotte, realizing someone else was present, peered over Edward's shoulder at me, and then buried her face in Edward's t shirt in embarrassment.
I wanted to hold her, to comfort her, but I wasn't sure if she'd want me to...or if Edward would want me to. Instead I stood silently in the doorway, like a ghost. The knowledge that I didn't belong weighed heavily on me. "The occasional nightmare" is what he'd said.
He stayed with her, rocking her until she finally fell back to sleep. I watched him kiss her forehead, and I backed away from the door and waited in the hallway, making room to let him pass. He wrapped long fingers around my wrist, stopping me in my tracks.
"Please say you're staying." His eyes looked nearly gray in the half-light that cascading through the doorway from the small room. They were serious, more serious than I'd ever seen them. I knew he wasn't asking me to stay for his sake: he was asking for her's, but for a split second, my breath caught in my throat and the possibilities and "what if's" swam through my head, making me dizzy. I shook my head no, and then nodded, unsure what I was supposed to say. When I finally spoke, my voice came out hoarse and strangled. "I'm not going anywhere. I promise."
The same look of hurt from earlier in the day was evident, but he nodded and said he'd walk me to my car. I turned to look into her room one more time, watching her sleep. The day hadn't been complete sunshine and roses, but it was more than I'd ever hoped to have, more than I'd ever dreamed of having.
I turned to look in her room one more time, watching her sleep. The day hadn't been complete sunshine and roses, but it was more than I'd ever hoped to have, more than I'd ever dreamed of having. It was naive of me to think that I could back into their lives and be accepted so easily. I vowed to do everything I could to earn Edward's trust.
He walked me to my car uneventfully, leaving me with a quiet "I'll see you in the morning" while he opened my truck door. The exhaustion of the day caught up with me and I barely made it home, wishing I had some caffeine to keep me awake. Charlie was already in his room when I got home. I trudged up the stairs, my feet made of lead and collapsed onto my bed, sound asleep before I'd taken off my jacket and shoes. My dreams were haunted with the mournful notes of a piano.