A/N: Thanks so much for reading, guys. Love hearing from you all, all your different opinions and point of views. It makes everything so much more interesting. :)
Betad by Michelle Renker Rhodes
Most characters belong to S. Meyer
Chapter 20 - Bewildered
One weekend, when Alice and I were little girls, our dad took us into the countryside to visit some relatives while Mum stayed home to "relax with a bottle of wine."
We called our relatives Aunty Jane and Uncle Alex. They were pretty old, actually second or third cousins of our dad, but they were quite nice. Aunty Jane's terriers had just given birth to a litter, and Alice and I would spend what felt like hours upon hours merely sitting in front of the box the puppies were kept in, watching them play and feed from their mother.
"Don't touch the puppies, girls," Aunty Jane would remind us gently and often.
We did try to listen-
-most of the time. Until one time when I simply couldn't help it and I reached into the box, carefully lifting the smallest one, the runt…
The next thing I knew, Brady, the sire, came charging from across the room, growling quite fiercely, his sharp teeth bared and threatening. Uncle Alex caught him right before he could snap at my face.
I cried for the next two hours, angry at Brady – who wasn't even punished.
"Fathers protect," Uncle Alex kept repeating. "It's their job."
Then, they simply took the box of puppies, Becca the terrier mum and Brady the dad and put them in the garden out back for a while, letting the puppies out while we were instructed to stay inside. I watched from the window as Brady licked his puppies, and the little runt I'd picked up rested happily on his stomach.
"Why is he so mean when others try to touch them?" I asked my dad when he came to watch with me.
"Because they're his babies."
I observed them quietly, the way all the puppies nipped and played with Brady.
"Why are they so comfortable with him? How do they know he's their daddy?"
My dad's mustache twitched. He snorted with a smile. "It's nature, Bella Love. They just know."
Whether it was the eyes, or the hair, or the similarities in their features that even a child as young as Elizabeth could pick up on, or whether it was something entirely different altogether, some ingrained natural instinct told Ellie that Edward was her father. Somehow, she'd just known.
Ellie has always been a friendly child. She makes conversation easily with other children, plays with them, and smiles happily when I take her to the market, and others stop to tell us how beautiful she is.
But this is different.
She's comfortable with him, a comfort that usually arises with familiarity, familiarity that arises from having known someone all your life.
That's how she's taken to him - as if she's known him all along, as if he's simply been away on a trip and has now returned.
The white teddy bear he brought her, she's gone nowhere without it since he gave it to her three days ago.
They gaze at each other with equal awe and fascination.
They ask each other a myriad of questions:
What's your favorite food?
What's your favorite color?
The title 'Daddy' flows out of her mouth with such ease, as if she's uttered it all her life.
I feel as if I'm missing something…
I think back to my own dad. Would I have known him anywhere? Would I have instantly loved him?
Would he have instantly loved me?
"Daddy, come in the water with me!"
We're on the beach - Ellie, Edward and I. We've come because she's told him all about how much she loves the beach, how close it is to our house, how much she enjoys splashing in the water even though Mummy – me – tells her that most days the Thames estuary is too cold for splashing. Edward indulges her, and though he's in trousers and a polo shirt, he folds the hems up and goes in, gripping tightly to her hand, laughing as the water laps at his bare shins and at Ellie's thighs, as drops of ocean water land on their matching manes of hair.
I sit on the warm sand a few meters away, holding Ellie's new bear, "Snowy," for her, so that he doesn't get wet, wiping sand off my shorts, watching them play and get to know each other more and more, connect on a level I've never seen my daughter connect on with anyone - besides myself. It's fascinating - and terrifying beyond belief.
"Your mom's right, Elizabeth," he chuckles after a few minutes before shuddering playfully, making Ellie giggle. "This water is freezing. Come on; let's go back on the sand."
My daughter holds his hand and follows without protest, without question, much the same way I once followed him.
A chill runs through me even as the warm, beach breeze strokes my bare arms.
Three days. They've spent the past three days together, but it's as if they've known each other their entire lives. She looks up at him adoringly. He looks down at her the same way.
But for how long?
And what happens now?
Edward and I haven't fully discussed it yet because none of this was supposed to happen – at least not yet. I hadn't been expecting it to happen this way. Ellie wasn't supposed to know that he was her father – not yet, not until I could be sure that he wouldn't change his mind this time; that he wouldn't leave to figure out what he really wanted.
But things are out of my hands now; they've been so since he walked into the house, into her life.
Now all I can do is watch - and pray.
I hold out a towel as Ellie nears – in her bright pink bathing suit with the tutu round it - and wrap it about her tightly, holding her close to me, feeling her inner warmth despite how cold the water has made her skin – praying silently once again.
Please don't let him break her heart.
"You're freezing, Ellie."
"No, I'm not, Mummy." She smiles up at me, her dimples on display, emerald eyes bright and excited.
"I guess I shouldn't have let her go in the water?" Out of my periphery, I see Edward run a hand through his hair - his go-to nervous action.
"It's fine," I say, keeping my eyes on Ellie, smiling down at her. "The towel will warm her up."
I sit back on the sand and bring Ellie down with me, sitting her over my lap, running my fingers down her copper hair.
Edward stands there.
I'm trying to be as normal as possible around him, for Ellie's sake, yet I know that there's still so much unresolved between us. All of that will have to wait though, until I know exactly how Ellie will fit into his life – if he's willing to fit her into his life permanently. If not, I've just let the same man who promised me the world and took it away do the same to my daughter.
How will I live with myself if that happens?
"Daddy, come sit with us," Ellie invites Edward.
He grins down at her and plops down on the sand at our side, making Ellie giggle again. Everything he does makes her giggle, fills her heart. It's so bloody familiar.
They gaze at each other for a few moments, she on my lap, he sitting with his legs crossed over the sand, forearms resting on knees.
"There's a small beach," - his voice is full of an energy and excitement I've only heard in the past couple of days - "behind our house back in New York, and in the summers, the water there gets really warm. You're going to love it." He grins at her.
I can practically feel my daughter's small frame vibrating with anticipation. She turns her head round, looking at me sideways.
"Mummy, is that the house you told me about? That you said was so pretty?"
I want to reach out and choke him.
"Yes, Darling, it is," I respond softly instead.
Ellie looks to Edward again, cocking her head to the side. "Daddy, where have you been? Why haven't you come to see us before?"
And there it is – the question I knew would be coming up. Of course it would come up. Ellie isn't two years old. And besides, she's a very precocious child. She's simply been biding her time; waiting for what in her six year-old mind would be the right moment to ask.
How do I explain this? How do I explain to a six-year old that the world has conspired against her knowing her father? That it's probably still conspiring?
"Ellie, darling, it's hard to-"
"I was lost, Elizabeth." Edward grins softly at her, his eyes – his entire expression – tender, open in a way I've never seen before.
She giggles. "Daddy, you're too big to get lost."
"I'm not," he chuckles. "I was lost…" – he holds my gaze for a few seconds before turning his attention back to my daughter…to our daughter – "...for a long time." He sighs and looks away from her for a moment, dropping his eyes to the sand. When he looks back up at her, his eyes sparkle with truth and sincerity.
How can she not love that? How can she not trust that?
"But I've found my way now, Elizabeth, and I promise, to both you and your mom, that I will never allow myself to be that lost again."
He never calls her Ellie. To him, she's simply Elizabeth. I can see how she treasures that, how her face lights up at the sound of her full name from his lips.
"I'll help you find your way if you get lost again, Daddy. Mummy and I can help. Mummy has a little machine that talks to her and gives her directions when we're in the car." She gestures with her small hands, making the shape of a square.
Despite my anxiety, I grin towards Edward. "She means a GPS."
He makes the shape of an 'O' with his mouth, nodding his head slowly, chuckling deeply.
"That would definitely help."
Ellie's head turns towards the water. It's always fascinated her.
She turns back to Edward.
"Daddy, are you going to leave again?"
She's pulling no punches now.
Edward holds her gaze. "I do have to leave in a few days, Elizabeth, but I will be back – very soon."
"To America? Where you live?"
He nods wistfully. "To America."
"Nanny says America is very far – across the ocean."
"It is far. But I promise you that I'll be back very soon, in just a few days. I'll be back over and over again from now on. I'll always be here for you, Elizabeth." He reaches out and takes her tiny hand in his. "I promise you that too."
She lifts herself off my lap - leaving my bare legs wet and cold - and moves to his. And when he wraps her in his arms, she melts into him, nudging her head under his jaw, wrapping her little arms round his chest.
"I love you, daddy."
Edward takes deep, uneven breaths. "I love you too, Elizabeth, my little, little girl."
I want to laugh and scream and cry and pull her away and run off somewhere he'll never find us.
So that he can't let her down. So that he can't tell her he made previous promises that trump the ones he's just made to her.
But it's already too late for that.
He came back! a little voice tells me - reminds me. He came back for you, Bella.
He came back, but for what? Would he have simply played games again? Would another phone call have taken him away once more?
Would he have been a father to Ellie?
I hate that I don't know the answers; I hate that Rose took the possibility of my knowing those answers away from me forever.
I can't think. I want to curl into myself right here over the warm sand. Instead, I hold my breath and stand up, walking away towards the water.
I hear them talking and laughing behind me while I stare at the afternoon sun burning through the sky, glittering off the water. A few minutes later, I feel him behind me; feel his breath against my neck. I close my eyes and steel myself.
"So when will you be leaving, then?"
"Sunday afternoon, after Elizabeth's game. I don't want to go, but I need to take care of a few things back home."
I nod. "There's a lot we need to discuss."
I draw in a deep breath and turn around. He's standing so close. A few meters away, Ellie sits over the sand, making castles where fairy tales come true, and the prince never breaks his promises.
"You shouldn't have made her those promises."
"Why not, Bella?"
"What if you can't keep them? What if you realize that it'll be too hard to keep them?"
He closes his eyes, jaw clenching tightly.
"I will keep every single promise I make to our daughter."
I glare at him and cross my arms against my chest. "Have you figured out how to handle things so as not to disrupt her life? I don't want my daughter's world to be turned into a media circus."
He moves in, closing the space between us, dipping his head to meet my eye level.
"First of all, she's our daughter, Bella." He gestures between the tight space separating us with his finger. "Our daughter. And yes, I've come up with what I think is the least disruptive way to announce her existence-"
"Announce her existence?" I hiss. "What do you mean 'announce her existence'?"
His nostrils flare. "Bella, I have to announce it."
At my infuriated reaction, he reaches out and cups my face in his hands. I'm startled. I want to shake him off but can't seem to muster the strength.
"Listen to me. Listen to me," he repeats at what must be my defiant expression. "I've contacted my lawyers back home and given them all of Elizabeth's information. They're drawing up a new will, child support requirements, back payments-"
"I don't want or need any of that!" I hiss, though he's squeezing my face so tightly I must look comical.
"I know you don't want or need it," he hisses right back, "but I'm going to provide it because she's my daughter too, and it's my right and responsibility as much as it's yours!"
I glare at him.
"Bella," he says my name in a clipped tone, as if daring me to defy whatever he's about to say. "I'm asking you, from the bottom of my heart, to please not oppose yourself to my giving our daughter her rightful surname."
My heart drops to my feet. I push his hands off and turn away from him, tears stinging my eyes.
"This is…this is all happening too fast, Edward. She won't understand. You need to slow it down."
"I don't think she'll have any trouble at all understanding, Bella." I hear the way his voice shakes, as if he's trying to reign himself in. "You hear the questions she asks. She's not a slow child. She's open and honest and intelligent, and if she does have trouble understanding, we'll help her through it. I don't think this is happening too fast at all. This all should've happened years ago."
"That's not my fault," I snap.
He doesn't answer at first. Then he simply sighs. "Look, I'm not trying to assign blame here, not right now. Now, all I want to do is spend as much time as I can with my daughter, make sure that she's well taken care of and that she has everything that's rightfully hers."
"She has been well taken care of!"
"I'm not saying she hasn't!"
He sighs. "Look, can we just…have a civil conversation here? Let's leave the blame and accusations out of it for now. I'm trying to tell you how I plan to handle this."
I close my eyes and breathe in deeply, the scent of the beach calming me.
He's right. I know he's bloody right. But I feel so tightly wound up these past few days that I fear I may actually explode. I'm scared and angry and worried, and I wish I had someone to talk to about everything. Alice is still so young, and I don't want to worry my mum with all my concerns; besides, she bloody adores Edward, loves the way he is with Ellie. So does Alice.
And Rose…no, I no longer have Rose.
With another deep breath, I turn back round, forcing myself to hold his gaze.
He nods once. "I've contacted Kate and asked her to schedule a press conference for Monday afternoon."
"What? A bloody press conference, are you mad?"
"Bella," he says, nostrils flaring, "I have to announce it. If this gets out on its own, it'll be worse-"
"Worse for whom? For you?"
"No! For you! And for Elizabeth!"
I press my lips tightly together.
"You're a journalist, Bella! You know how the press works! They get a hold of this on their own, and all sorts of stories will start running rampant, mostly about you, the other woman, and the love child that was born from whatever they turn it into, which will probably be as sensational and ugly as they can manage!"
"And what are you going to turn it into?" I sneer. "A love story? Are you going to proclaim to the world that you couldn't help screwing around behind your fiancée's back because you fell in love? I still come out looking like the whore in that!"
His eyes flare. "First of all, whatever I do say about it will be the truth, Bella. Trust me, I'll never let you come out looking like a whore."
I snort. "Trust you."
He closes his eyes for two seconds before opening them back up. "Second, I was not engaged at the time I met you that weekend."
"Yes, you were!" I retort quickly. "You told me! What, do you really think I would've forgotten that?" I ask indignantly.
"Bella!" He grips my arms then takes what looks like a deep, calming breath. "When I received that phone call…that…last phone call…I was informed that my engagement – an engagement I had never agreed to - had just been announced. I was not engaged when I met you."
"What do you mean 'you were informed'?"
"Bella, I was an idiot, a stupid, goddamned idiot. I lied to you when I met you, yes, by not telling you about...Tanya. By not telling you that I was dating someone. But when I met you...nothing else mattered, Bella, and yes, I should've told you from the very beginning and let you decide what you wanted. I should've told them all to go fuck themselves on the phone that day. I fucked up - so badly," he emphasizes, "in so many ways. But I was not engaged."
I blink rapidly, confused. "Then why…why did you tell me that you were?"
He runs a hand through his hair before gripping my arms again. "God, I don't even know why I made it sound that way. At first, I thought maybe…I was protecting you somehow, making it easier for you to…forget. I thought that if I made you believe that I didn't care it would be easier for you to let go. But then I couldn't do it and...I don't know, Bella," he growls. "All I know is that while I was trying to explain things to you, I was so…goddamned shocked and confused myself. Yes, I hesitated when I should've known all along and I'll always hate myself for that moment, but I didn't sleep with you while engaged to someone else. I would've never used you that way, Bella."
I search his eyes, looking for the lie, but…but it's not there.
When I close my eyes, a soft whimper escapes from within my lips. Jesus, have I been wrong about everything? My mind swims, leaving me bewildered, floating over a wide river of confusion; bare, stripped of so many of the beliefs that have kept me afloat for so many years.
I choke on a stifled sob, covering my mouth to try to hide it. "God damn it. God damn you, Edward, and all of your lies."
"Bella…" he says softly, the way he used to say my name, the way that used to burn me from the inside out. I suddenly feel his hand cover mine…his fingers brush over my cheek, under my eye, coaxing me to open, but I can't.
"Bella," he whispers, "when I told you I wanted you with me, when I said I wanted to bring you home with me, I meant that Bella." I feel the tips of his fingers caress my face, feel them circle my lips. "That was never a lie."
The warm breeze flutters my hair, his breath tickles my skin. I hear the tide come in and leave. I hear Ellie playing, talking to Snowy just a few meters away. From the outside, anyone would assume it was a perfect moment…as perfect as things seemed then…until…
My eyes open. "Perhaps that wasn't a lie, but as soon as you received that phone call, it was all over."
He drops his hands, gazing at me with eyes full of pain; of apology.
"It was one moment of hesitation, Bella. As soon as you ran out of that room, I knew-"
I shake my head and look away from him, look down at the wet sand under our feet.
"I can't do this right now, Edward. It's too much, too overwhelming. You keep throwing these…revelations my way…and I simply can't." I take a deep breath and look back up at him. "Please, please, let's just focus on how we're going to get Ellie through this."
He doesn't answer straight away. "I understand," he says solemnly after a long while. There are a few more moments of silence before he exhales heavily.
"As I was saying, if I hold a press conference, we can control the information better. I'll announce that I'm withdrawing from the senatorial race to spend time getting to know my daughter and make a plea for privacy. The American people can be pretty understanding at times. I think if I announce it, rather than let it leak out, they'll be more willing to leave us alone quicker. It will still make headlines, Bella, and I apologize, but there's absolutely nothing I can do about that."
I quietly absorb this plan, while in the background Ellie sings happily to herself.
I must admit, he's probably right.
"So you'll be withdrawing from the race then?"
I look down at the wet sand that washes over our feet, feeling…guilty all of a sudden.
"I want to spend time with my daughter. A senatorial campaign would only get in the way right now."
"Your father won't like that."
I hear him snort, but he says nothing else.
I look back up at him. "Is that really why you're withdrawing?"
"Yes." He looks at me as if this should be obvious and then raises a curious brow. "Why, Bella? What were you thinking?"
"I…" – I release a heavy sigh. "…when I first decided to tell you about Ellie, I thought…I thought you'd resign from the race to spare the Cullen name from the embarrassment…and that you'd beg me to keep Ellie a secret."
I feel shame wash over my face and drop my head again.
A couple of minutes pass, and he releases a long, heavy breath. "After what I've done and what you've believed of me, I suppose I can't blame you for being so ready to think the worst."
I can't look up at him – I can't deny it.
He sighs. "Is that really the only reason you'd decided to tell me, then? To destroy my career?"
I hear the pain in his voice. He's becoming so much easier for me to read, to understand. I don't know how I feel about that.
"I…yes, Edward," I admit. "At first, I just wanted to…hurt you, because you…because I thought you'd never looked back, but then…" – I shake my head – "…even before I knew you had come back, I couldn't go through with it. I don't know what's true and what's not right now, Edward, but there's one thing I've always known: my daughter, our daughter is not a punishment, and I pray to God that you don't..."
I trail off, unable to finish.
A few moments later, he lifts my chin with his forefinger, forcing me to hold his gaze.
"Bella, I will never turn my back on our daughter."
My bottom lip quivers. "You'd better not, Edward, no matter who calls you this time, because if you do, I swear I'll make you regret it."
"I will never turn my back on our daughter," he repeats with even more vehemence, and in his eyes, behind the words, it seems as if he might have wanted to say more.
It's hard to let go of a belief system we've held on to for so many years…
Coming up next, the last "Then" chapter, and then we'll be all in the present. But it's an important one, guys…
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