Chapter 20- Who Needs Zagat's? We've Got Seven Old Guys

A/N – Thank you to everyone who reviewed my last chapter. I know the long wait between updates is frustrating, and I truly appreciate your feedback to keep me motivated to finish this story. I hope all of you in the U.S. have a wonderful Thanksgiving this week. I'm grateful (as always) for this community and especially my super-beta Sunflower Fran. Read on to see what Bella's going to be thankful for…

I jumped up out of bed, disoriented, despite the many months I had started my day in this room. The mountain pastureland outside my window was still bathed in the deep purply colors of night. The sight gave me a sense of odd unease, despite its familiarity. I blinked as I tried to remember how to turn off the blaring radio clock that cast the light around my room in a ghoulish green.

Only after I found the minuscule off-switch, did I allow myself a small groan. Thankfully, the apartment I now called home did not share any walls with the guestrooms. I'm sure none of the couples who had paid top-foliage season rates would have appreciated being woken at this hour. Of course, they would expect to see a bright-eyed, cheery innkeeper as well as a smoothly running dining room when they ventured out for breakfast. This meant I could not fall back into the pillows that, until now, had never looked more inviting.

Sure, I was used to early mornings. I wouldn't have started this type of business if I had been like so many college students who avoided any class before noon. However, that didn't mean it was always easy to get up literally hours before the sun. Today was even more difficult, because I had hours and hours of end-of-month bookkeeping to do, and that was not nearly as appealing as the dream I had been having.

In my dream, Edward and I were in a small cabin by a crystal lake. I had been cooking us pancakes in my bare feet, and he had his arms wrapped around me from behind and was kissing my neck. I blushed in the darkness, certain that there had been much more to the dream than that. But, the alarm had erased the memories of what might have been in my nightly fantasies. I shot it a hateful glance at the clock as I swung myself out of bed and stumbled to the closet, pulling out the first thing I found.

As soon as I stepped in the kitchen, Jasper greeted me with an overly cheerful "Beat you this morning, boss."

Aside from the rare times that I texted him the night before about sleeping in, Jasper and I had made a game of who could get into the kitchen first, and start the coffee. He was winning by a substantial margin, which should be a bit shameful for me, except for the fact that he made significantly better coffee.

"How many cups have you had, so far?" I asked while reaching for the pot. "You sound like Alice on her way into a shoe sale." This morning I definitely needed Jasper's special brew. I would have preferred it without his chipper smile and whistling.

Jasper threw back his head and laughed. I winced at the sound. Was it possible to find a cook willing to work at a B&B who wasn't a morning person?

"Take a look at the pot your holding, and you'll know," Jasper challenged me.

My brow furrowed as I brought the glass carafe full of black fragrant liquid up to my eyes. I turned to see Jasper handing me a mug with a smile.

"Unless you feel like drinking right from the pot, I assume you'll want that," he said.

My free hand remained by my side. "You've had a whole pot already?" I asked him with disbelief.

"I haven't had any, yet." Jasper smiled, as he reached for the pot. He took it, filled my mug, and then put in my hand, which was still hanging open in the air. Thankfully, I hadn't yet had my first sip, as I'm sure this would have made me choke in disbelief. "You haven't started taking drugs, have you?" I asked.

Another laugh from Jasper, as he shook his head. "Just excited about the day. You know what today is?"

"Spreadsheet day," I grumbled.

"Maybe for you," Jasper said, his cheerfulness only slightly dampened with sympathy. He continued, "Today is Friday for most of the world."

I shook my head again, trying to understand why this would matter to Jasper. For both of us, the weekend represented more work, not a break.

"They've come in every day since last Saturday," Jasper went on. "I asked Alex and he confirmed they were in Tuesday and Wednesday."

I nodded, understanding that Jasper had checked in with our alternate cook, though I still had no idea what he was talking about it. "Sorry, who is 'they' you were checking with Alex about?"

Jasper started rattling off a list of men's names, most of which I did not recognize. But, it was impossible not to gather that Jasper found them very important, because he was literally bouncing from foot to foot, and his smile was growing wider. I finally caught on when he got to Don Miller.

"Oh," I interjected. "The old-timers. Has it been the same group all week?" I asked, trying to distinguish the specific faces and days in my memories.

"Yup," Jasper replied. "They haven't missed a day, yet."

"And this is obviously a much bigger deal than I can understand," I said, watching Jasper closely for an indication as to why he was so excited. He only nodded. I tried searching my coffee cup for clues, but the strong bitter brew held no answers as to why a dozen old men who mostly ordered toast, were getting my cook into such a tizzy. However, I could feel my mood improve from the moment the hot liquid touched my lips.

"Okay, local boy, explain it all to the girl from far away," I said. This phrase had become an invaluable short hand for Alice and me when Edward or Jasper didn't realize something that was supposedly obvious.

"Do you want to tell me what you want for breakfast first?" Jasper asked. He sounded like a kid on Christmas morning, trying to convince his parents that he was fine waiting awhile before he opened his gifts.

"I'll eat when Edward stops in," I told him, waving at him to continue with a glance at the clock. I hoped this little lesson would take less than an hour, which was the time we had before I expected my boyfriend. I was hoping we could take our breakfast up to the apartment, and perhaps have a few spare minutes to reenact a bit of my dream.

"I've got to get going on some potatoes," Jasper said, following my gaze to the clock. "You want the story while I grate?"

"Oh, boy," I said. "There's a story?"

"Don't start without me," came Alice's chipper singsong voice from the front hall.

"You're here early," I said, raising my eyebrows in surprise as she danced into the kitchen. Alice would often visit with Jasper and me at some point in the morning, but as her decorating business was filling up more of her days, she didn't wake up at the same time as the B&B staff anymore.

Alice got up on her tiptoes, and Jasper bent his knees a little so that their lips could meet. I smiled at their kiss, but was glad they kept it short. Alice grinned at me as they broke apart and then got her own cup of coffee before pulling up a stool next to mine.

Meanwhile, Jasper gathered up some russets from the pantry and began shredding them with a box grater he had modified using some needle-nosed pliers. It was one of the many culinary secrets that Alice and I were privy to, only because we had promised to uphold the NECI code. As the pile of future hash browns grew, he shared the tale.

There was once a great diner in town, still remembered for its giant pancakes. It had been the place where almost every vital decision about the town that had been made. Official ballots and debates were secondary to the open forums that had occurred over the old Formica counter of the Forks Diner.

When a suspicious fire had brought it to the ground, the blow was overwhelming. The burning of this beloved meeting spot had affected practically everyone in town. Local government stopped functioning to the point that paychecks were late. The town had lost its social center, and that void had yet to be filled.

"I always hoped that I could recreate that perfect mix of good food and welcoming atmosphere. But, you can't force people to feel a certain way when they come into a place … but you can hope they'll want to come back," Jasper finished.

"So, what I'm saying is that the men who have been coming in this week have been here for a reason. The past and current select board members, the town road crew, and a few guys who've never had an official position in town, yet nothing would ever be done without their approval," Jasper says , "they were scoping us out."

"So, Swan's might be it? The new center of town?" Alice asked, giving us both a proud smile.

"Maybe, maybe," Jasper said. "I'm trying not to get ahead of myself. I think the real test will be if they come in today and don't ask for menus. That's a definite sign that they're settling in."

Nervous now, I paced into the dining room and peeked out the window. The road outside was still dark enough that the lone car passing by had its headlights on. I held my breath as I watched it go pass, its taillights soon becoming lost in the pre-dawn gloom.

My shoulders slumped in disappointment, but a few seconds after I turned away, there was the sound of a truck downshifting as if to turn into our parking lot. I swerved back to the window and felt Alice flit to my side.

"Oh, it's just Edward," she said with more disappointment than was necessary. I elbowed her.

Despite my own anticipation about whether or not Swan's would become the hub of the community, nothing could be a more welcome sight for me than Edward stepping out of his truck and making his way into the Inn.

My nose wrinkled at the sight of what my handsome boyfriend was carrying, however. Alice started sputtering beside me.

"No, no, and no!" cried Alice as Edward entered the room. "That is not going anywhere in this building. Bella, as your best friend and your decorator, I insist you make him bring that back to his truck, or better yet, bury it."

"I'm not going to get into an argument with you, Alice," Edward replied, with a particularly wide grin. "But you should probably ask your boyfriend what he thinks of it."

"Jasper!" Alice hollered loudly enough that I was afraid we might actually get a complaint from the guests. "Tell your brother that Swan's Inn is not about dead things."

"What?" Jasper asked, poking his head out of the kitchen. Edward was hefting the pile of antlers mounted on wood up for Jasper to see.

"No fucking way," Jasper said, his voice a reverent whisper. "How did you get that?"

"I know people in high and low places," Edward replied. "I was trying to think of a fitting gift to crown your week with the old timers, and I remembered a friend of a friend who owed me a favor..."

"No shit," Jasper said. "Are you fucking sure that I'm not going to have the Staties showing up later today?"

"Trust me," Edward replied. "This is 100% legit."

"That's seriously it?" Jasper asked, his eyes wide and his voice soft as a child.

Edward grinned in that special way he did when he knew he was making someone happy. "The mounting's new, but the bone is definitely it," he said, his arms still raised to hold the antlers out for view. "Look, you can actually see the scorch marks."

"It's way too early for all this suspense and drama," I huffed. "One of you boys better start explaining why Edward is holding something dead, and why Jasper is so excited about it before Alice gets the moderator's gavel out and starts conking you both over the head with it."

"Which reminds me," Edward said, lowering the horn. "Kathie told Esme to tell us to tell you that she needs that back."

Alice waved away the concern with a dramatic gesture. "I may be a flatlander, but I know Town Meeting isn't until March. She'll have it back by then."

Concerned we were all losing focus, I spoke up before Edward could cite the Town Charter to argue with Alice. "Seriously, Cullen men, I need to know what the big deal is with a hunting trophy."

Jasper was the one to respond, as he took the piece from Edward hands as if he was receiving the Holy Grail. "The town diner that burned down was officially called Big Horn Diner," he told us. "This was hanging over their door."

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," Alice huffed. Her irritation at being ignored and left out of the secret was nothing to the ire I could see building in her with the realization that she may have to incorporate this antler into our decor.

Jasper took one look at her face and quickly gave the antler back to Edward, then darted to Alice to wrap her in his arms. "Baby," he said. "I know it's not something you would have picked out or pictured." He kissed her on the right temple. I could see his hands rubbing small circles into her back. "It may not look as pretty as any of the things you've picked out, but people from Forks are going to look at it and see an important part of our Town's history."

He kissed her cheek and started to sway with her, as if to hypnotize Alice with a hug.

Alice raised herself on tiptoe to allow her to see over his shoulder. The icy gaze she gave Edward sent a shiver down my spine. She pointed at her eyes with two fingers, then at Edward, then back at her in a silent promise that she'd be watching for an opportunity to pay him back for this.

"Fine," Alice sighed. "I'll find a place for it."

"Not yet, darling," Jasper replied. "They haven't come in, today. Don't want to jinx it."

Casting my mind to find a way to ease the tension that the anticipation of the elders, and the antlers had brought on, I blurted out. "Let's have a party tonight!"

"What?" Alice said. "But, you hate parties, Bella."

I rolled my eyes at her. "I hated college parties, but I think we should celebrate. The Inn is doing great, and even if they don't come in today, I think having the old timers coming in as often as they have is a major sign that the locals are accepting Swan's as a part of Forks, even if it's a flatlander who owns it."

"Bella, love," Edward said, wrapping his arms around me . "You're not a flatlander."

I rolled my eyes at him. "To some people I am, but you guys are the ones that matter. I want to celebrate, and there's no one in the world I'd rather celebrate with." I twisted in Edward's grip, to look at his brother. "I honestly couldn't have done this without you, Jasper. And, I might not have had the opportunity to meet you, and hire you, if Edward hadn't introduced me to Esme, so your whole family is a part of what's made this work. I want all the Cullens over for ... uh..."

"How about some wine and tapas, boss?" Jasper cut in. "And we can ask Angela and Jessica along with their boyfriends."

"Yes, that sounds perfect," I replied. "Just a small celebration and thank you to everyone."

"Celebration and thank you," Jasper repeated, raising his eyebrows at Alice. "That reminds me..."

"Reminds us," Alice cut in, "of something that's up in your office, Bella. Why don't you and Edward run along, and we'll let you know as soon as we need you down here."

"What are you talking about?" I asked. "Alice, you don't even work here anymore. You can't order me out of the dining room."

"No," Jasper replied. "But I can. I believe that was in my contract – kitchen and dining room are my domain. Seriously, you two go check out your present. I can handle only so much anticipation and nervous energy this close to an open flame."

I turned to see Edward was wearing his most crooked grin. "Did you know they were getting me something?" I asked, feeling my eyes narrow.

"I may have had some forewarning," he smirked.

"I hate surprises," I grumbled, stomping my foot.

Alice ignored the start of my tantrum. She placed her hands on my shoulders and spun me back toward the apartment. "Deal with it Bella. We're being nice and letting you open it without watching you."

"Yeah," Jasper snorted. "Because I really want to be there for the fuss she's going to make. Better you than me, bro."

"I think I can handle it," Edward told him, his voice close behind me. "Come on, Bella," he said. "I promise, it won't be that bad. At least, I have to think so for my ego."

If it weren't for the fact that I was heading up to my room with my boyfriend ALONE for the first time in what felt like far too long, I definitely would have stayed to fight with Alice and Jasper. "They definitely know my weakness," I muttered.

"And what might make you happy," Edward said, taking my hand and placing a kiss on my knuckles.

"True, time alone with you does make me happy," I said as we entered my room. I didn't bother looking around for the gift. Instead, I wrapped my arms around Edward's neck and took full advantage of not having anyone around to give him a more proper morning kiss.

Edward tickled the back of my neck with one hand, while his other arm snaked around my waist and pulled me close against him. We stood just inside the door, our lips locked for several minutes. He finally broke away.

"You're stalling, aren't you?" he teased.

"Are you complaining?" I answered.

"Not in the least," he said. "I could do that all day. But, I think I may have a better chance of that if you do open your present."

I rolled my eyes. "Let me guess," I said. "Alice gave you strict orders to make sure I didn't just shove whatever it is they got me in a drawer."

"I definitely won't let you do that," he said.

I reluctantly tore my gaze from Edward's green eyes to look around the apartment. "Where is it?" I asked, wondering when Alice would have had time to sneak a box up here.

"Right here," Edward replied, releasing me and starting to open up his coat. My breath caught for a second as I thought he might be getting undressed. I shook the thought away quickly. My best friend might be a little strange, but she wasn't that inappropriate.

Edward was reaching for something in his inner pocket. My curiosity rose when I saw it was a simple, white envelope.

He placed it in my hand.

"Well," Edward said. "Come on, open it."

"It's not Jasper's two week's notice, is it?" I asked.

"Don't be ridiculous, Bella," Edward replied. "You sound like a crazy person."

I snorted. "You've never seen me accept a gift before," I told him. "I'm actually doing quite well comparatively."

Edward didn't say anything else, but stared pointedly at the envelope in my hand; his arms folded across his chest.

Tentatively, I lifted the back flap. I could see the first page was a computer printout, with the word reservation on the top. I pulled it out and unfolded what I now could see were three pieces of paper. The first page was a receipt for a one-night stay at one of the B&Bs in my dream book that I had never been able to stay at before. The second page was a reservation for the following night at another Inn that I had just recently read a great review on. The final one was a reservation for the place that had been an all-time favorite of both Charlie and I. I could feel my mouth open, but couldn't make any sounds come out.

Edward cleared his throat. "They're all for double occupancy," he said. "Jasper and Alice made sure I could take the days off from work, but you don't have to invite me along if you don't ..."

I stopped him before he could finish the sentence by crashing my mouth into his. My heart was thumping in my chest, and I could feel tears pricking in my eyes.

I was the luckiest girl in the world to have such good friends who would give me exactly what I wanted. It had been so long since I had allowed myself to think of taking time to be a guest, rather than the owner, of a B&B. Moreover, I definitely wanted more time with Edward.

When we finally pulled our lips apart to take a breath, Edward brushed his thumb against my cheek, wiping away the stray moisture.

"I hope the idea of three nights with me isn't so horrible it's making you cry?" he said, mostly joking, but the question in his voice was clearly seeking reassurance.

"The thought of three nights with you is enough to make my heart explode," I answered. "You can't hold a few tears against me."

"So, I can come with you?" he asked.

"Of course," I replied. "There's no one in the world I'd want to spend time with." I blushed as I thought to myself that it was an even more true statement, if that time involved being in a room with a bed. The heat in my cheeks turned to a full body shiver as the realization took hold. We would be alone together for three days, with no guests that I'd need to run and take care of, and no overly friendly neighbors to judge us if we paid no attention to anything else but each other.

"So, you won't mind taking a little time off soon?" Edward asked, his green eyes boring into mine with an electric intensity. I didn't miss his last word, or its likely meaning.

Before I could take my next breath and respond, the sound of tires on the driveway announced the arrival of multiple vehicles. My head reflexively turned to the sound. I bit my lip, hoping that Edward wouldn't take it personally that I could be distracted even at a moment like this.

He chuckled and kissed my cheek before taking my hand and leading me to the window so we could both see who had arrived. Three different pick-up trucks had pulled in, and the old timers piled out of their vehicles and headed toward the door of Swan's Inn.

My little B&B could arguably claim to be the new, most important place in town. But, I couldn't imagine being happier at the idea of leaving it for a few days.

I threw my arms around Edward's neck, and his lips pressed against mine.

A/N – Whatever will Bella and Edward do to entertain themselves at all those B&B's? Will Bella have enough books to bring along? (ha, ha) Next two chapters will be from Edward, and then Bella's POV of their getaway, which I promise will contain some citrus. Thanks again for hanging in there with me.