The First Promise
She's staring at me with tears in her eyes and I'm reminded of a time not so long ago when Marley got the harebrained idea that owning a puppy would be the answer to all things happy.
"You're serious?" Bella asks nervously, like I'm going to burst out laughing and tell her I was just joking.
Has she really been fucked over this much in life?
"Her birthday is coming up." I smack my forehead. "But you already know that. You can come down and meet her."
The tears she's fighting finally break free.
"You're going to let me be a part of her life?"
"There are a lot of things that happened that were out of our control, Bella. This is my way of trying to make this right." I pass a couple of napkins across the table. "Marley knows she has a mom and dad somewhere that couldn't take care of her when she was born. She's never asked about them after we told her about the adoption, nor has she ever asked for a mom, but I think she'd like to meet you."
"She'll hate me." She croaks.
"Impossible. Marley doesn't have a hate bone in her body unless we're talking about green vegetables." I chuckle nervously and pull apart the uneaten croissant on my plate. "Things are going to be a little awkward and strained. She can know you're her birth mother and get to know you, but I'm not comfortable with a shared custody agreement of any sort. I hope you're not looking for that."
"I want to trust you, but the truth is I don't know you." I drop the pastry and lean over the table. "I've already told you how hard I worked for Marley. She's my entire world and I know that you've been handed the shitty end of the stick, but she's mine. Please don't make me regret this."
"I won't, Edward."
"You should know that my brother is a lawyer for a prestigious firm and if you decide to take this to court I'll fight to the death for her."
Her eyes widen.
"You don't have to threaten me." Bella shakes her head. "I already told you I'm not going to fight you for custody. You're offering more than I ever thought I'd get when I contacted you. I won't take a second of it for granted."
I sit back in my chair and take a deep breath.
"I'm not going to apologize for what I've said."
"I'm not asking you to. I understand where you're coming from."
"We need to remember that she's only turning five. This is going to be overwhelming for her."
"And she won't be alone in that."
I pull out my laptop and we sit side by side planning her trip.
She'll arrive the morning of Marley's birthday with an open ticket for her return. We book a room at a hotel close to the house and I offer to pay for a rental car but she speaks of her nervousness at driving in a new area.
"After the accident driving in a strange place isn't one of my favorite things to do. I'll just grab a taxi."
I bite my lip.
It's not that I don't trust public transportation, I'm just a father, and ever present worry, as well as the need to protect, is always there.
"My mom can watch Marley and I'll pick you up from the airport. If for some reason I can't do it I'm sure Rose or Emmett can."
She tries to argue, but I win out in the end.
We do live a far enough distance that will no doubt lessen her chances of finding a cabbie willing to drive her.
She insists on paying for the plane ticket and steals my computer to enter her credit card information.
The tip of her pink tongue pokes out of her mouth in concentration as she types in the tiny numbers embossed on the card, reminding me of the spoiled little four year-old waiting for me to return with a killer present from Washington.
"Done. It's official." She smiles wide as she turns back to the photo album she took home with her last night. It's the second one I brought, with the more recent photos of Marley.
I check my watch.
"I have two hours to pick out a souvenir. Do you know where I can pick out a kick-ass toy or 'I heart Washington' t-shirt?"
She reaches into the bag by her feet and hands me the Build-A-Bear box.
"You can give her this."
"That's from you."
"And I'm insisting that you give it to her when you get home. If it's all right I'd like to make a Washington State care package for her birthday present; some things that will explain to her where I come from." She presses the box into my hands. "You've already said she's going to be overwhelmed, and I'd like to make things easier for her."
"That's a good idea." I take the box from her. "She's going to love it. She's been taking ballet for a couple of months now."
"I took ballet for a while as a kid." Bella blushes. "I guess my parents thought it would help with my balance."
"And it didn't?"
"It might have." She shrugs. "Like I said I only took it for a little while. After my mom died I lost interest."
"I'm sorry." I say softly.
"Thank you." She turns another page. "Is Marley less than graceful?"
I tell her about the tumble she recently took in the backyard that resulted in knocking her three front teeth out.
"There I am cradling her in my arms and freaking out about the amount of blood coming out of her face when she turns to me and asks how much the Tooth Fairy gives for multiple teeth." I laugh. "She's a trip and acts a hell of a lot older than she is."
Bella looks at the toothless grin on the very last page of the album and runs her finger over one of Marley's cheeks.
"She looks a lot like me but she has his eyes." She leans over and inspects the photo. "I don't know where she got the button nose."
"The two of you share a lot of characteristics." I shake my head. "You make me miss her a lot."
"You're going back to her tonight?"
"I know you have your doubts about me, Edward." She reaches out and grasps my hand in her smaller one. "But I promise I'll do whatever it takes to prove to you that I'm there on your terms. You control everything but-"
She chokes on a sob, stifling it against her knuckles.
"If you decide that it's too much or that this isn't what you want for her, I need you to tell me before I get my hopes up."
I squeeze her hand.
"I really believe that I'm doing the right thing. Just don't make me regret it."
"Thank you." She says softly.
Even though I didn't check a bag I still head straight for baggage claim as soon as we're instructed off the plane.
I can hear her before I see her.
"Where is he Uncle Jazzy? I thought you said one more minute." She mutters standing on her tiptoes.
"I said that thirty seconds ago, kid. Chill for a second." Jasper explains, scanning the crowd.
I lift my hand and wave to him.
"Mars, look over there." He lifts her up so she can see. "See Daddy?"
She squints for a second before she finds me and instantly turns into a squealing wiggle worm.
"Daddy! Uncle Jazzy put me down, please. Daddy! Over here!"
He puts her down and I'm pushing through the remaining people standing in my way because it's only been a day and a half but I missed her that much.
I catch her when she takes a flying leap at me. Her tiny legs and arms wrap around me, squeezing the air out of my lungs.
"I missed you so much!" She tells me between kisses placed on every inch of my face, even the unshaven part. "You're scratchy but I don't even care."
Jasper finally joins us.
"We've been here for ten minutes and I think she's asked me where you are about a million times." He chuckles and takes my bag from me. "Welcome home, bro."
I nod and give Marley the attention she's demanding.
It's decided that I was gone for too long and that I'm no longer allowed to go on trips without her. She tells me that she's tiny enough to fit in a suitcase and that she will tag along next time. I smile and kiss my baby girl hundreds of times before we can find the car.
She loves her dog, just like I knew she would. She's confused when I tell her that someone made it for her a long time ago and that she'll have a special guest at her birthday party, but then she lets it go like most kids her age do.
I'm tucking her into bed unable to count the amount of times we've done this ritual together. I hope that what Bella's told me is true, and that things aren't going to turn ugly once she arrives and meets this wonderful little girl who has owned my heart since the moment I saw her in the baby garden.