A/N: Thank you to myimm0rtal, who betaed this for us. We're grateful for your kindness, support and generosity.
Thank you also to Capricorn75 and VampsHaveLaws for hosting the Ho Hey Contest. Without them, this story would never have been written.
We also want to thank the judges, and everyone who voted for High Maintenance!
Love, BelieveItOrNot and thimbles.
"I like braids, Daddy," says the sweetest but most exasperating voice right now.
"We've been over this." I'm sitting on her bed. She's standing between my legs with her back to me as I'm gathering and trying to smooth her hair into a ponytail. Just after a bath, her hair is the softest thing I've ever felt, but this morning there are so many tangles it's like a horse's mane after a hard run. The knots keep jailing my fingers as I try to slide them through. It makes her screech out complaints.
"Emily wears braids."
"I can't braid." I think of Rosalie who can braid, whom neither of us have seen in three months, who's off in L.A. trying to be a model, who promised Livvy she'd come back rich, which prompted Livvy to ask me if we were poor. No, I told her. We have everything we need.
"Every Friday, she has two braids." She holds up two fingers, spreading them far apart. "They make her pretty like a princess. I never get braids."
"What's Masen Law Amendment number four?"
She takes a deep breath, her chest puffing up, and she gives a nod of her head with each word. "We don't compare ourselves to others."
I wrap the band once around her hair. "And while we're on the subject, what's Amendment number three?" I wrap the band a second time. She winces.
"Never go with strangers."
"Even if they have candy?"
I finish off the ponytail and pull it tight.
"I like Kit-Kats."
"No, you don't." I turn her around to face me. Her crooked smile is what I'm living for.
"Yes." She giggles, her eyes sparkling like the clearest blue swimming pool, just like her mother's. I can't help but be reminded of Rosalie when Livvy's eyes shine like this, can't help but be reminded of how I once loved Rosalie, even if I don't anymore, even if we haven't been together for four years. Not since we were eighteen and Livvy was one. Not since Rosalie yelled that we could never make it together and should just stop forcing it. Not since I agreed.
"And Starburst," she says.
"That garbage'll rot your teeth away. Show me your teeth."
She smiles big and then opens wide when I tell her to.
"Mm-hmm, yep, just as I suspected. You need to clean those chompers."
"What's Amendment One, Daddy?"
"You don't remember?"
"No." She smiles.
"You don't remember the first and foremost amendment?"
"It means most important."
"What's the foremost amendment?"
I tap my chin and lift my eyes to the popcorn ceiling. "I love... sailboats." My gaze falls back to her.
"Rots your teeth." She scrunches up her nose. That nose scrunch is me, that's what I do. That's not Rosalie. Her hair color's mine, too. Medium brown with a hint of red, or auburn, I guess.
"Hmm, it must be... I love..." I rub my nose against hers. "You."
"Yes!" She jumps up and claps.
"Plant one on me." Turning my head, I point to my cheek. She kisses it. Her lips are wet and smooshy and I love them. And as much as I love to see her happy like this, it makes me ache, too, because I know the world is not done letting her down. But I'll protect her from pain the best I can. Who else does she have? A mother in and out of her life? That's no parent. But even so, I'd never fight Rosalie over her right to see Olivia. Livvy needs her, even if part time.
I hold my daughter at her ribs and twist her. "I love this Bird."
"I love this dad."
Three months back Rosalie had swooped in to pick up Liv from kindergarten, both of them gone by the time I got there. It wasn't like I was afraid or anything; the teacher told me it was Livvy's mom who picked her up, but I was pissed. Not even the courtesy of a phone call to tell me she was in town, or coming to town. She talked a mile a minute that evening over dinner, telling us all about a photoshoot. Her first of many, she'd said. "I can do this," she said, twirling some blond strands around a finger, her nervous tell. "But I have to be in L.A. or it'll never work." And two weeks later she was gone again.
… … …
As soon as I see her fists burrowing into her eyes through the rearview mirror, I know what I'm in for—but what other option do I have? We've already had takeout twice this month, and I haven't budgeted enough money for more.
So I take a deep breath, gather up patience like the coins I'm scraping from the ashtray, and get out of the truck.
The day is fast-fading to dark grey, the sun in the overcast sky going under like a sinking ship.
"Come on, Bird." She purses her little bird lips at me as I unbuckle her and wait for her to clamber out of her car seat. It was that mouth that got her the nickname, reaching for the bottle, sucking before the nipple even met her lips. Just like a baby bird.
As soon as her feet hit the asphalt, her arms stretch. "Carry me."
Phantom pain shoots up my back, protesting after hours of squatting in front of a broken-down refrigerator, and then bending over a washing machine. My heart tells it to suck it up. "Sure, baby. But only into the store, okay?"
"Don't call me baby, Daddy." She's irritable, her voice already wavering on the edge of whining.
Scooping her up into my arms, I kiss her cheek. "Sorry. You're a big girl—I like to live in denial sometimes."
"It means I like to pretend you'll always be my baby."
Her head bouncing against my shoulder, a clammy arm hooked tight around my neck, I cross the parking lot, keeping my eyes peeled for idiot drivers.
"But babies can't read. So who would read to you?"
"True. That would be a predicament."
At the age of five, Olivia's already reading. Some nights as we lie in bed I'll rest the back of my head on my hands and ask her to read, closing my eyes, just listening to her voice as she choppy-reads her way through a picture book.
"What's a predica - predica-"
"Predicament. It means problem." The automatic doors open and I pause to let a woman push her cart out.
Setting Livvy on her feet, I offer her one handle of the plastic shopping basket.
Pouting, she shakes her head. Nice. She always wants to help with the basket, usually complaining if I don't offer it to her. I've got to get us in and out of here fast. It's only a matter of time before I'm dealing with a public tantrum.
I tell her that if she isn't going to hold the basket, she has to hold my belt loop so I can have both hands free.
I try to remember what I've already got in the fridge and cupboards that I can use up. Pasta, canned tomatoes, carrots ... "Spaghetti bolognaise work for you?"
"Well, Cheerful-bird, you'll have to make it work."
Moving through aisles, thinking of the recipe my mom taught me, I gather what I need. Ground beef. Garlic. An onion. A zucchini—"How's this one look?" I ask Liv, and she squeezes it, then nods her head. Some grated cheese. And then, in line, it starts.
"I want candy."
Why the fuck do supermarkets feel the need to display every candy bar in the known universe at the checkout?
Oh right, because they want your kid to start demanding it, and they're counting on you buying the junk to keep them from embarrassing you by throwing a tantrum if you so much as think about saying no.
"But I want a lollipop!"
"I know you do. But we're not here for those."
The elderly lady behind me starts making tsk-tsk noises. Tension rises up my spine and into my shoulders. It's worse than when I was doing maintenance on that fridge.
"But I want one!"
I scrub a hand over my face, and crouch down so we're eye to eye. "Liv. I know, okay? I know you want a lollipop but we're not going to get one. Not today. Now, I know you're tired- "
"I'm not tired!" Her voice is becoming shrill, her fists bunched up tight, her eyes watering.
"Olivia. Enough. Please, don't ask me again."
She's crying now. Steel bands tighten around my chest. I blow out a breath and stand up.
Grey-haired tsky lady's voice is clear. She's not even trying to whisper. "That child needs a belt across her backside."
Deep breath. In. Out.
"In our day that kind of nonsense would never have been tolerated. Still, what do you expect? He's only a child himself. Probably on welfare. Bleeding this country dry of the taxes we paid all our working lives." More tsking. "History repeats itself if I know anything. It's just like Maria. Remember Maria? This one here'll probably end up just like her. No better off than her father. What hope does she have?"
Her husband clears his throat. I think he's shushing her, but the ringing in my ears is so loud I can't concentrate on his crotchety voice.
"Are you gonna belt me, Daddy?"
I look down at her, stunned out of my mind. Her eyes are round in actual fear. My heart falls. My head rages at the woman behind me. "No, Livvy-Bird. Never." I squeeze her hand.
"Makenna says her dad belts her."
Setting the basket down, I lift Livvy to the edge of the counter and look into her eyes. "I'm not Makenna's dad. I'm yours. I don't hurt you."
"It's not an amendment."
"Let's make it one. Amendment Eleven: we don't hurt each other." I hold out my hand and she shakes it.
The cashier asks me to please take my little girl off the counter. The old bat behind me tsks.
Feet on the floor, hand in mine, Livvy's crying again, quieter now. The silent cries, the ones she tries to hold back or hide, those are the ones that crack my insides. I push a hand through my hair, trying to keep my temper in check.
Not so long ago, I would have turned around and informed the sour-faced bitch that I was juggling full-time work while putting myself through college, one course at time, so I could give my daughter and myself a shot at a better life. I would have tried to explain that Liv was overtired, and was usually exceptionally well-behaved.
Now, I know better. No matter how much I argue, in her eyes I'd still be a deadbeat raising a brat who will end up a loser like me. I can't lie and say I don't care what she thinks, or that it doesn't cut deep—especially now that Livvy's old enough to understand what people are saying about her—but there's no point fighting it. People see my age and they make assumptions. I have to prove myself by life, not with words.
The girl at the checkout gives me a small smile as I unload the basket. While she rings everything up, I pull bills from my wallet and a fistful of coins from my pocket. I hand her the correct change, say a quiet thanks, and gather the groceries in one arm, while hoisting Livvy up with the other. Her arms wrap around my neck as I duck out through the automatic doors. We leave any continued tongue-clucks and head-shakes in our wake. That woman can have her judgement; we're not taking it with us.
"I want Mommy," Livvy says. Depleted of strength and out of ideas, I sing our song in her ear, quiet so only she can hear. "All I know is something like a bird within her sang... All I know she sang a little while and then flew on..." The first time I sang this song to her was in the early hours of morning when she was eight weeks old. Rosalie was exhausted so I got up with Livvy. No matter how much I rocked and bounced her in my arms, she wouldn't stop whimpering. She wouldn't take a bottle, didn't need a change. So low in her ear I started singing Bird Song, the song that kept running through my mind.
"You and The Dead," Rosalie had said, an arm thrown over the comforter.
"So? It's working." I rubbed my nose on the softest cheek. "I might not be able to do anything else but I can sing you a song, can't I, Livvy-Bird?"
"I like it," Rosalie said. "Sing it again. Sing me back to sleep."
I've been singing it to Livvy ever since, whenever I need to get her to stop crying. It almost always works.
As I sing it now, a few lines into the song, she sings along. "Laugh in the sunshine, sing, cry in the dark, fly through the night. Don't cry now, don't you cry, don't you cry anymore. La-da-da-da. Sleep in the stars, don't you cry, dry your eyes on the wind."
When I was Livvy's age, Jerry Garcia died. My dad refused to shave and played Grateful Dead on our stereo for an entire month. It was my first memory of the band, but it was far from the last I heard of them. He played their albums throughout my childhood. They were always in the background as I helped him build tables, bookshelves, and chests of drawers. He taught me the difference between a dovetail joint and a tongue-and-groove joint to Touch of Grey.
"There's nothing wrong with manual labor," he'd tell me, as if I'd ever said there was.
Stopped at a light, two blocks from home, I check on Livvy through the rearview mirror. She's falling asleep, eyes blinking slow until they stop, cheeks streaked with dried up tears, her lips pushed into a pout, Sally jammed between her head and the car seat like a grubby, misshaped pillow.
My spine's still tight, my hands fisting the wheel hard, but my chest starts to relax as I recall how happy she was to rock that doll in her arms and call it hers. It was last year at Disneyland. My parents had taken us, insisted on it. I saved up money to buy the souvenir. In the Main Street shop, I'd told Livvy to pick any one thing she wanted. Anything. She chose the fourteen dollar red-headed rag doll. She won't go anywhere without her Sally.
… … …
Margaritaville. All lit up on the outside. I can hear the noise from the inside when someone opens the door. Fantastic.
I walk in alone.
Only a few diners still linger at tables finishing their meals. Everyone else is here for the bar, dark and crowded. A small band sets up in an even smaller area. Nobody'll dance, except maybe a couple of people who get too drunk to stop themselves. There's just not enough room.
I look around for familiar faces—spot a few guys I haven't seen in months. I find myself not even remotely interested in what they're laughing about, and I don't have anything to say. I'm on the verge of turning around and walking out the door.
Dark hair. Big, black-framed glasses. Easy smile. I can't place her. I can't remember her name, or why she knows me.
"Everyone's back there." She waves over her shoulder toward the end of the bar. "Do you want me to grab you a drink? I've got this round."
I hesitate, tapping the toe of one shoe against the other. I glance over her shoulder again, mentally trying to count the number of people jammed back there.
"It's all right," she says, her smile a little less bright. There's something that looks like understanding in her eyes. "We're not going round for round or anything. There's way too many of us. We'd be here all night, and puking all morning."
"Thanks. Just… any beer is good."
"Sure. And hey, I'm Angela. Ben's girlfriend."
I nod, my face heating a little. "Sorry, I-"
"Don't worry about it. We only met for a minute at your twenty-first. How's your little girl? Livvy, right?"
My smile sweeps up my face. "Yeah. Livvy. She's great."
"That's awesome. She sounds like a doll." She pats my shoulder, kind of clapping it like a guy friend would. "I should get these beers. You head on back."
"Edward! Daddy-man!" Emmett's hand slams down on my shoulder with almost enough force to push me through the scungy carpet and into the cement.
"Guys! Edward's here." He announces it like I'm a celebrity, but my celebrity status is due to being a guy who doesn't get out much, a guy their age, twenty-two, and the father of a five year old—it's not the kind of attention I want.
Hands jammed in my pockets, I nod at the various people calling my name, greeting me with alcohol-enhanced enthusiasm.
I get passed around, and I wonder if this is how Bird feels at a big family event. I'm shuffled between couples and trios of friends; some I haven't seen for well over a year; some, like Angela, I've met once or twice before; some I've never met at all and will probably never see again.
I'm not used to this—not used to keeping my gaze at eye level while I talk to people, not having to look away every minute or two to make sure that little ponytail is still bobbing around where I can see it, not searching out anything that could be a threat to her. And without that, it's like I have nothing to do with myself. My hands don't know where to go. My eyes don't know where to land. I let people talk at me, nodding when I should, grinning when I should, laughing when I should.
Angela slips a Corona into my hand at some point, squeezing my arm before she wanders away. The first swallow tastes like escape, the second one guilt. The sips slow down and stop after that.
I make stilted small talk with a few guys from high school, guys I have next to nothing in common with these days. Mostly, they're still studying, juggling exams and girlfriends, part-time jobs and full-time partying, toking up. A few ask about Liv, but some of them seem to have forgotten about her, like she was an extra-credit college course or something—something I'd only have to deal with for a semester, and then life would be "normal" again.
I don't belong here.
It's becoming clear to me how much I rely on Livvy in social situations. The warmth of her little hand in mine, or her knee digging into the small of my back when she's tired enough to ask to be carried, or the way conversation tends to get directed through her. She's sometimes like a little shield that I deflect people with. It's partly—mostly, even—because I hate people talking as though she's not there, but if I'm honest, it's also a way of putting distance between myself and everyone else.
I'm listening to Ben tell a story about an arrogant professor, others nodding along, adding anecdotes of their own. People, even Angela, seem to have let me fade into the background. My beer's still half-full and getting warmer, when another dark-haired girl steps into my eyeline. I recognize her as the girl whose apartment I get called into odd jobs for. She lives in Carlisle's other complex, across town. The things I get called to fix over there are ridiculous, and a waste of Carlisle's money, but as long as I'm getting paid, I won't complain.
"Hey, you're my handsome handyman!" She's not wearing the typical jeans and T-shirt I'm used to seeing on her. She's in a short dress. And I realize a lot of the girls in here must be wearing skirts or dresses, but it's her dress I notice, her legs I notice.
I drag my eyes up her curves, up her neck, to her brown eyes.
If I were less awkward, I'd greet her in kind—Hey, you're the cute, witty girl with the broken oven, and the window that keeps jamming, and the busted fire alarm that needed nothing but a battery-change. But I'm not, so I don't.
"Isabella." My empty hand hangs too loose at my side. I slip it into my back pocket.
She grins like she's surprised that I remember. It's crazy, really—Carlisle's sent me over to her apartment four times in the last two weeks, and every time, she's chattered away at me about everything from the classes that put her to sleep to a band she just saw live. But here she is, smile huge, like my remembering her name is the best thing all night.
Dim lights from above shine over her long hair as she nods. "Yes! But you're not fixing things now, so you should call me Bella. How are you?"
I step away from Ben's circle and he notices, giving my shoulder a pat before melting back into his crowd. I'm starting to wonder if I look like someone who needs a back pat or an arm squeeze. I have to remember to smile more.
It isn't such a hard thing to do as I look at Bella, who's gazing at me with a lit-up face and a gleam behind her eyes like I'm someone she wants to know. She's not familiar with the "before and after" me and has no preconceptions. There's no understanding lip-twist, no pitying head-tilt, no "It's been too long, man," or "Where ya been hidin'?" She feels like a place to rest, a smooth spot in a rough sea.
"Great." I throw back my beer, finishing it off. "You? Got anymore, um, strange apartment problems?"
Her eyes fall to the floor as her whole body sways back and forth. The hem of her dress strokes her thighs. "I guess it's obvious I-"
"Hey, it's Handyman." The guy I recognize as one of Bella's roommates holds his hand out to me. "Seth."
"Loving my title," I say, giving his hand a shake.
Someone puts another beer in my hand. I look around to see who it was.
"Angela," Bella says. "She loves that sort of thing. Magic Beer Lady, or whatever."
I laugh but say I shouldn't drink, offering it out to her.
"No, I really shouldn't. I mean I can't. Not twenty-one 'til September." She lifts to her toes and back down like a little girl, like Livvy.
"Bella's the baby." Seth throws an arm over her shoulder. She elbows his side.
"How is that possible when I'm the most mature?" She steps closer to me. My eyes take in her face, her eyes, her mouth, this girl—this beautiful girl—who I'm pretty sure, before Seth interrupted, was on the verge of admitting she breaks things on purpose or makes bogus complaints just to get me to her apartment.
"Go ahead. We'll give you a ride home if that's what you're worried about." She steps even closer and there's no more little girl anything about her. Her dress is really low-cut. I try not to look, eyes on hers. But as I'm wondering if it's really only a ride home she's offering me, I look.
Damn. I raise my eyes back to hers and say, "Sorry," for my wandering eyes. I aim a thumb over my shoulder toward the entrance of the place. "Got my truck."
"I'll drive it. Seth can follow us."
"Oh sure," Seth says. "That's what I do best. Follow you."
She laughs as he walks away, and then she's pushing my beer toward my mouth. I take another swig. After three more beers I have the courage to ask her about Seth.
"He's one of my best friends. I tell him everything."
I lean in, like I might be coming on to her, like I remember how. "Everything?"
Looking straight into my eyes, hers getting slightly smaller, intense, she says, "Well, maybe not everything."
We decide to take our conversation to a table. I find myself with my hand on the back of her elbow as we move between knots of people. We end up having to share with a group. I pull out her chair for her as if we're on a date. I shake my head at the ground thinking: What are you doing? She sits next to Seth, I sit next to her, and whoever else is around, I wouldn't know, my eyes are on Bella.
"How do you know Angie?" she asks, elbow on the table, arm up, fingers playing with the petals of the fake flower floating in a vase.
"I don't, not really." I slide a hand through my hair. "I went to high school with Ben, and we keep in touch. Sometimes."
"You must have graduated just before I moved here." She leans forward, putting her hand on my knee. I look at it until her voice brings my eyes to hers. "We came halfway through my junior year."
I don't want to talk about high school, and definitely not junior year. I don't want to think about Rosalie walking the halls in oversized sweaters, trying to hide her growing belly; or about having to face our parents; or about all the classes I fell asleep in after being up all night with a collicky baby. It's a miracle Rose and I managed to graduate.
I look down at Bella's crossed legs. Her dress has ridden up, exposing more of her thigh. Just as I put my hand on her knee, someone bumps into my chair, pushing me forward and my hand slips slightly up Bella's leg. I squeeze, unintentionally, but then, intentionally, I trace my thumb back and forth.
"Should we?" Her lips rub together. "You want to get out of here?"
Minutes later I'm in the passenger seat of my truck directing Bella to my apartment. She parks, cuts the engine and turns to me.
Seth didn't follow us. Bella said she'll text him for a ride when she's ready. I think this means she wants me to invite her in.
"Do you ever meet someone and it feels like you've known the person a lot longer? Like, maybe even years?"
I nod. In this moment, in the dark, in the truck, with her, I know exactly what she means.
"It's like fate or something. A connection. It's not very common, is it?"
"No." My voice is like sand.
"You know, my dishwasher's been acting up."
"Has it?" I'm facing her, my beer-heavy head resting on the back of the seat.
"Yeah." She hooks a finger into the neck of my shirt, tugging it a couple of times.
I swallow, feeling my pulse rise at the simple touch of her finger against the top of my chest. "Please don't break it on purpose. It's harder to fix when it's something other than a natural malfunction."
Her eyes grow smaller, her voice deeper. "How will I get you over to my apartment then?"
I clear my throat, overly aware of the finger that hasn't let go of my shirt and the fact that I do feel like I know her well, and want to know her better—in other ways. "Invite me."
Instead of inviting me, she leans closer. I sit as still as a board. She covers my eyes with her hand, pressing them closed. Her touch, soft and cool, slides down to my jaw, and almost immediately her lips are on mine and I'm responding. Lips moving, parting together, wider, tongues meeting, and then it's me leaning over her, pushing her back against her seat, my hand riding up the side of her thigh, my breath heavy through my nose. Her hand's on my shoulder, rising up toward my neck, and I kiss her until I can feel my pulse in my lips.
"Sorry." I'm back in my own seat.
"Why do you keep saying that?" She's out of breath, too.
"I don't - I'm not sure what this is."
"Isn't that usually the girl's line?"
Not in my life, I think, looking straight ahead. "I should go." I reach over to pull the keys from the ignition. Her hand covers mine.
"Come over sometime?"
I squeeze my eyes closed, like maybe if I can't see her I'll be able to think straight. It doesn't help; I can still taste the mint of her kiss, smell her flowery shampoo, feel the silk of her dress and thigh. I can hear her breathing.
I think about the empty apartment above us. No Bird tucked into her bed, no quiet murmurs carrying from her room to mine as she talks in her sleep. No one to come bounding into my bed at the crack of dawn wanting bleary-eyed snuggles.
But then I think about the art gallery on the fridge door, the toys scattered across the living room, the pile of children's books on my nightstand.
Eyes still closed, I say, "Now. Invite me over now."
Bella's silent. I've come on too strong. I open my eyes. "I mean, not for-" I shake my head. "We don't have to... We can just hang out. Talk. I just - I don't think the night's over yet. Do you?"
She twists my keys in the ignition and as the truck rumbles to life, a smile tugs the corner of my mouth.
Instead of pulling away from the curb, though, Bella fishes her cell phone out of her bag between us. Her thumbs hop like jack rabbits across the buttons for a few seconds, and it chimes in response before she's even looked away from the screen.
"Good." She turns to me, grabs the front of my shirt, pulling until our mouths meet, and kisses me crazy. I'm vaguely aware of an arc of light sliding across the interior of the cab, but Bella's lips and tongue have most of my attention. Her lips and tongue, and her fingers against my chest, and the soft curve of—fuck.
I yank my hand off her breast like she's slapped me. Pulling away from her kiss, I take a breath. "Sorry."
"You really need to stop saying that," she tells me, her breathing labored. "First, you've had your eyes on them all night. And second, if I had a problem with your eyes, or your hands, I'd tell you."
"Sor- okay. Okay."
She laughs at me, leaning across to squeeze my thigh, her fingers a little too high to be friendly. "Let's go talk and hang out and stuff."
Bella's apartment is dark and silent when she swings the door open with a flourish.
"Seth?" I ask, squinting against the harsh fluorescent light she snaps on. I trail after her as she walks through the small space, flicking on every single switch.
"He's at Jake's. I told him to go ahead and stay."
I frown at the mention of another guy's name. And even when she catches my frown and explains that Jake's a friend of theirs, looking at Bella, I wonder how many guys would really be okay with just being friends with her.
"And Leah practically lives with her girlfriend."
To keep myself from putting my hand on Bella's hip, my hands find my pockets and I take a good look around. I've been here several times, but I don't make a habit of looking at people's places too closely when I'm on a job, and my work here has always been in the kitchen.
The living room's crowded. Colorful. Too many armchairs and couches squeezed into the space, and a ridiculous number of small pillows piled on each chair. Unframed photographs scatter the dark teal walls, like someone just tacked the backs of them with Blu-Tack and threw them, letting them stick wherever they landed. Faces, smiles, and poked-out tongues hang between beach scenes, bridges, and snow-capped mountains.
Bella offers me a beer, another one in her other hand.
She clinks her bottle against mine. "My house, my rules." She lifts the bottle to her mouth.
"I like this," I tell her, pointing at the photo-wall.
"Yeah, it's cool, right? Leah took them all, and they were just sitting in this old shoebox. Like, what's the point, you know? Anyway, Seth and I got bored one day so we started in her room, and kinda plastered the whole apartment with them."
I smile, imagining Livvy's reaction. She'd love it, and she'd probably want to do the same thing in our place with her drawings. She probably wouldn't go for the randomness, though. She'd line them all up neatly, edge to edge.
"Let's sit." Bella points her beer bottle at the biggest couch, which is covered in a faded red velvet-looking fabric and piled high with yellow and orange pillows.
I pick my way over footstools, beanbags and cushions, and collapse onto the couch. Bella follows, sitting with her legs tented over my lap, her elbow resting on my shoulder, fingers twirling my hair. For too long, I can't take my eyes off her legs. Self-restraint worn thin, I run my hand up and down the inside of her calf from her ankle to her knee.
She trails her fingertips down my jaw, turning my face to hers. She stares. My hand on her leg stills.
"You're one of those really good-looking guys who doesn't know he's good-looking, aren't you?"
"Psh. I know I'm good-looking." I stop myself before joking that Livvy tells me I'm handsome all the time.
She tilts my face, lining up our lips, and we're kissing again. I feel the push of her cold, damp beer nudging me to move my hand up her leg. She scoots easily as I guide her with one hand onto my lap.
I flinch when she moves against me—she has to be able to feel me. She lays her head on my shoulder, pulling my hand to her lap where she plays with my fingers. "How come we've never met? I mean outside of you fixing the apartment? Common friends, same school-"
"Don't you go to UC Santa Cruz?"
I shake my head, hoping for no more questions. I start tracing circles over her thigh, higher and higher to distract her.
This seems to be a good diversion. She squirms as my fingers near the top of her thigh. Her arm curves around my neck, fingers sliding into my hair. Her chest is right next to my chin, and this time I don't feel quite so bad as I take a good look down her dress. My fingers tighten around the bottle, as I imagine what her breasts will feel like in my hands. Soft skin under my fingertips, hard nipples against my palms—fuck. My hips push up against her.
I drain my beer and just chuck it beside me on the couch, and the clink-clink of glass on glass sounds as Bella drops her bottle next to mine.
I find the zipper at the side of her dress and slide it down. My hand inches under the fabric, around her waist to her stomach. I feel it tighten as she inhales. Her fingers in my hair give a slight tug.
Slipping my hand up, I hesitate. "Can I?"
"Yes," she whispers.
I palm her breast. She lowers her head as I raise mine. Our lips meet. I circle my fingers around her nipple. Her mouth opens and I swallow her groan.
Breaking our kiss, Bella sits up, my hand falling away from her breast. Her short nails rake up my bicep, dipping under my sleeve, and then she pulls at my arm. I don't even have time to wonder if I've gone too far too fast before she's pushing me, trying to make me lie back on the couch. I comply, grunting as I land on two empty beer bottles.
I move them out from under me, setting them on the coffee table, letting them roll when they don't land upright. They've barely hit the wood before Bella starts undoing my jeans, tugging them down my hips. She's on top of me, her lips hard on mine. I groan against her lips. My hands find her ass, squeezing and pulling as I press up into her, loving the little noises that slip from her mouth and into mine when I find the right spot.
"Bella." Her name kind of whooshes out of my throat with my exhale. "I don't-" I stop short on the lie. Because I do usually do just this. Not often—I can count the number of girls I've been with since Livvy was born on one hand—but this, casual sex, this is what I do. One night stands with girls I'll never bring home, and never introduce to my daughter.
But with Bella it feels different. There's something… more. It's scary as fuck, because I barely know the girl, but it's undeniable.
"It's okay," she says. "Not tonight." Her breath is on my face, her mouth brushing mine. "Just this."
Eyes closed, lip between my teeth, I nod.
And then my hands are on her hips, pulling her down against me until those little sounds slip from her again. I kiss her or she kisses me, and it's more than pressing lips and building pressure. There's something in these kisses that is tangible, that has shape. And that shape is in my arms. Bella.
Kissing Bella feels like diving into the ocean.
I'm coming apart with her name on my lips. And even though part of me is embarrassed that I'm spilling in my boxers like a teenager, the other part is oblivious to anything else. Until the rush starts to fade and I'm throwing a hand over my eyes about to apologize—it's been a long time—only I have no voice.
"No, it's okay." She pulls my hand from my face. "I wanted that. I wanted you to-" her voice quiets "-come."
Hearing her say that to me, I can almost feel myself getting hard again.
"I mean, I think I would've had some sort of complex if you didn't."
… … …
Lying back, I watch the way Bella slides into bed in her short-shorts, the way she lifts the sheets, her legs curving behind her; her thighs, the last thing I see before the sheet falls, covering. She catches me watching. I don't apologize.
She curls up next to me and I put my arm around her, tracing her arm up to her shoulder, thinking of how close I'd come to not going out tonight, how close I'd come to not being in this bed with this girl.
It's Livvy I have to thank for this, though I can't say that I ever will.
My mom had started it, telling me I should go, that I'd be late, as I lingered at her dining table after dessert.
Reluctant to go anywhere, I slouched in my chair, not even caring that the hard edges in the design my dad had carved into the wood were jamming into my back. "Maybe I'll just take Bird home and hit the sack."
Livvy looked at the hot pink My Little Pony watch that flopped loosely around her wrist. "The big hand is almost at the twelve."
"What time will it be when the big hand is at the twelve?" my mom asked her from across the table. Her smile was proud as Livvy looked closer at the hands.
"Nine o'clock." Her ponytail bounced with her nod.
"Past your bedtime," I said, giving her nose a pinch. "Okay. And what if the big hand kept moving past the twelve and landed at the six?" Playing this game was better than going out to meet a bunch of people I hardly knew anymore.
"Half past nine, and you'd be very late."
My mom laughed, having found her accomplice.
"Otherwise known as way past your bedtime."
"Livvy? Don't you have an amendment that says Daddy has to go out even though he doesn't feel like it?"
Thanks a lot, Nanny.
Liv folded her arms, looking up at me with all the sternness she could muster. "What's Amendment Six?" The little lisper had already won and they both knew it.
My mom winked at me, getting up from the table and gathering our empty plates.
I thanked her for dinner and she waved me off.
She'd cook for us more if I'd let her, but determined to prove myself a responsible father, I refused. When Livvy was born, my mom had used her savings to take a whole year off work to look after Liv so Rose and I could finish school, and my dad was not about to let me forget it. He loved Livvy but did not love the situation I'd put my mom in, the ongoing impositions that she couldn't deny Livvy, Rose, or me. And that was such a heavy weight on my shoulders—a weight that trekked its way back with every new favor asked.
Sometimes I still wondered what my mom would've done with her savings otherwise. She never told me, the same way I never talked about what my plans for college had been in high school in front of Livvy. There were enough remarks from other adults on all the promise I once had. Livvy didn't need to—and never would—hear it coming from me.
I stifled a groan. I should have known some of these would come back to bite me in the ass. "Amendment Six: Daddy doesn't have to go out on Friday nights. He gets to stay home and have a little girl read him stories until he falls asleep."
Little eyebrows lifted, and little arms folded as she clucked her tongue at me.
Sighing, I caved. "Amendment Six: sometimes, we have to do things even when they're hard."
I'd come up with that one when Liv's best friend in daycare moved out of town and she decided she didn't want to go anymore. It also worked when I tried a new vegetable in our dinner, had to take her to the doctor or the dentist, or, on certain days, when I couldn't get her to clean her room.
"You need to socialize, Edward. You don't get to spend much time with your friends," my mom said through the kitchen's swinging doors. "Go out, have fun. Act your age for a night."
"Yeah, you need to shocialize. Have fun, Dad. Like a playdate." Livvy patted my shoulder, and melted my damn heart.
My mom was right. I couldn't name the date I'd last had a night out with people my own age. Still, I was fucking tired, and all I wanted to do was sit on my Bird's bed and listen to her chirpy voice reading to me until she fell asleep, and then fall onto my couch and watch mindless television until I passed out.
"I don't know, Bird. It's been a long day."
I'd had an early job—fixing a leaky kitchen faucet—on the other side of town. I managed to finish one essay, and start another, in between four other maintenance calls, a trip to the laundromat and an almost hour-long argument with Carlisle about whether or not I should fix appliances that are still under warranty. (Conclusion: I shouldn't. As I told him last week.) He was a real pain in my ass sometimes, but I counted on both the job and the massive rent reduction it brought with it.
"Is Daddy still not convinced?" my mom asked, leaning on her forearms over the table, eyebrows raised at Livvy. "What else can we do?"
"Daddy, if you go, then maybe tomorrow, I can read you five stories."
My mom giggled as I scooped Liv into my lap and squeezed her tight. "Five? How 'bout ten?"
"Seven." The note of finality in her voice was a perfect echo of me putting my foot down.
"Okay. For seven stories, I guess I can manage. Are you going to be a good girl for Nanny?"
She nodded, and my mom said, "She always is."
"Do you have everything?"
She ticked them off on her fingers. "Pajamas, clean undies, pillow, toothbrush, Sally. That's it."
"Nope. You forgot something."
She heaved an exaggerated sigh, but put her soft, little hands on either side of my face. She kissed my cheek and then the tip of my nose. "Be good, Daddy."
… … …
I'm on my feet before I'm really awake, blinking in panic, Livvy's name on the tip of my tongue.
My head whips back toward the bed I've just sprung out of.
Sun coming through the window shines on brown eyes looking up at me and brown hair tumbling around pale shoulders.
Her lips twitch. "You okay?"
"Yeah." I sit down on the edge of her bed. "Sorry if I scared you. I was just… I guess I was disoriented."
Her hand is warm on the small of my back. "I get like that, too, sometimes."
My head drops into my hands as Bella rubs circles over my T-shirt.
"Hungry?" Her hand's gone and I already miss her touch. A towel lands in my lap. I look up to see Bella yawning, her arms stretching, her back arched, her top lifting, revealing a couple inches of stomach. I want to swipe a finger across it, rub my hand up under her shirt, but now, in the light of day, buzz worn off, my nerve is gone.
After another yawn, she lets me know I can shower while she makes breakfast. "And coffee. Definitely coffee."
The shower door is uneven, difficult to close, but the steady rhythm of hot water beating against my lower back has me forgetting all about it. Steam billows around me, filling the tiny bathroom, fogging up the glass. Stooped under the stupidly low shower head, I realize that if I want this to be anything more than just last night, I need to tell Bella about Livvy.
I stare at the murky brown tiles, trying to imagine how she'll react. Maybe she'll be pissed that I didn't mention Livvy sooner, that I didn't tell her before I asked her to bring me home. I guess she'd have a right to be. I don't know the rules. I don't know if my having a daughter will scare her away, but I won't keep Liv a secret. It wouldn't be fair to Bella, or to Liv. And if Bella's interested in me the way I am in her, she needs—deserves—my honesty.
On my way out, towel around my waist, the shower door gives me trouble again. No doubt Carlisle will be calling me out soon to fix it. I think about that—how, as Carlisle's sole employee, if this is it for Bella and me, we'll still have to see each other. Maybe I should fix this today.
Dressed and in the living room, I call to Bella, asking if she has any tools. She comes in from the kitchen wearing the same tank top and shorts she slept in.
"Your shower door-"
"You're going to fix it?"
"Why not? I'm here."
She digs through the back of a closet and pulls out a pink metal toolbox. Squatting down, I wipe dust from the top and open it. I pick up a screwdriver, scoffing at what I see.
"Bella. Your Phillips head has flowers on it."
"Yeah." She waves her hand. "My mom."
She heads back into the kitchen, telling me that breakfast will be ready in ten minutes.
On the bathroom floor, fixing the door, I find myself hoping I'm not about to break something else, something that's hardly had the chance to become anything. But even the potential of something can break and it can still hurt coming apart.
When the shower door opens and closes smoothly, I put the flowery tools away and join Bella in the kitchen.
She's singing to herself, her voice off-key, and I'm almost grinning. She gives me a huge smile—pink lips, white teeth, bright eyes—gesturing for me to sit. She's flipping a pancake. Before I take a seat, I push her heavy hair aside, fingers brushing skin, and kiss the back of her neck. She tilts her head for me, my lips welcome. With one more kiss, I hope it won't be the last.
I pull out a chair. A vase of local wildflowers with long, sprawling stems stands in the center of the table. I wait, everything I'm about to say burning my throat, my eyes, my nostrils, until she joins me with two plates of pancakes and sausage, and two mugs of coffee steaming between us.
"Look, I-I don't normally-"
She rolls her eyes at me. "Neither do I."
"Just - let me finish, please." I don't mean for it to come out as short as it does, but she seems to catch my tone, her exasperated expression replaced with... something else, as she straightens in her chair.
She frowns, talking into her plate, almost whispering. "Please don't tell me you have a girlfriend."
"God, no. Bella." Her eyes meet mine and she looks relieved, but how long will this relief last? "I-I want to see you again."
"And I want to see you again after that."
"Listen. No girlfriend, but there is someone else in my life, someone more important to me than - than breathing." I reach for my wallet, flipping it open to pull out the picture of Liv.
"Do you have a kid?"
I blink at her, the wind knocked out of me. My mouth opens and closes, the answer stuck in my throat. Pulling the photo from my wallet, I hand it over. I could say that Olivia Rose Masen is my life. I could say that she's the only thing that matters in this world. I could say that I can't be with anyone who can't accept her. I say none of it.
She looks at the picture of Liv for a long time, occasionally her eyes flickering to me, like she's looking for resemblances.
"She's adorable. What's her name?"
"Olivia. Livvy, usually. Or Bird." I can't help but smile at that, even if it's only half a smile. Bella doesn't smile. She nods, a corner of her lip hidden in her mouth, her eyes still focused on my little girl's grinning face. What's she thinking? She doesn't look freaked out or angry, but I don't even really know what freaked out or angry looks like on Bella. Maybe they look just like this, like no expression. Hands clenched tight in my lap, I wait for the axe to fall.
"How old is she?"
"She'll be six in August."
Bella's smile stirs hope inside me. It trickles through my veins, easing into my bones. I relax in my seat. She hasn't kicked me out yet. It seems she won't.
She plucks a yellow wildflower from the vase and, along with Olivia's picture, hands it to me.
Picking up her knife and fork, turning her attention to not-quite-hot pancakes, a little crease forms between her eyes. I try not to notice it or wonder what it means as I slide Liv's picture back into my wallet. I leave the worn out leather thing on the table next to the yellow flower.
We eat in silence for a while. There are a million questions gathering in my gut but I hold them down. I've just dumped something enormous into her lap. She'll need time to process, I guess.
Our plates are empty, and loaded into the working-perfectly dishwasher, and she still hasn't said much more than "You're welcome," when I thanked her for breakfast.
I check my watch. Livvy will be waiting for me. It's Saturday, and Masen Law Amendment Eight states that: For at least two hours every Saturday, Olivia Rose Masen is the boss. Amendment Eight and a half was added later: Within reason.
"You're thinking about your little girl, right?"
My gaze snaps to Bella. Her expression is still guarded, but there's a hint of a smile on her lips.
"Uh, yeah." I scrub a hand over my jaw. I need to shave, or Liv will complain about my prickles.
Bella nods, like I've confirmed something for her. "You get this smile… even before, when you were here fixing things. I thought it was for a girlfriend or someone." She glances away, her gaze settling on my wallet. "Now that I know who it's for, I'm kind of, well-" she presses a finger against the tabletop "-it's swoony."
"Yeah, you know-" she lifts the back of her hand to her forehead and pretends to faint "-swoony."
"Oh." My nose scrunches up. I know all about swoony. A little girl toddling around a playground bossing her "Dadda!" around is a more effective chick-magnet than a chihuahua puppy. "I don't know, Bella. It's not exactly glamorous."
"I know." She puts so much weight on the words that I think maybe she does know. Maybe she knows exactly what being with me would mean.
I take her hands, looking at my fingers curled around hers. "I have to go. I need to pick Livvy up from my parents'." I look up, she's looking at me. I take a breath and send the ball over the net into her court. "I like you, Bella. And I'd like to see you again. So, I guess - I mean, it's your call, okay?"
She opens her mouth, but I shake my head. "Just… take some time to think about it. Being with me, it wouldn't be easy."
"Okay, I'll think about it. I mean, it is a big deal. I get that. And it should be, you know? She's important. She's everything."
"She is." I slide my wallet into the back pocket of my jeans and pick up the flower, holding it carefully by its bendy stem.
Bella drops my keys into my palm. They land with a muted jangle. Her fingers coast up my forearm and she pulls me in by my elbow. She gives me the slightest brush of her lips against mine, like she's telling me a secret that I don't understand.
I want to say something but I don't really know what to say. See you later? Maybe I won't. Call me? Maybe she won't.
So I don't say anything, I just kiss her cheek and I let myself out. I climb down the stairs and head to the parking lot.
I hear my name as I'm unlocking my truck. I turn to see Bella running up to me. Out here, her shorts look even shorter, her tank top tighter, and anyone can see she's not wearing a bra. A part of me wants to cover her up with something. A blanket? Myself? But I don't know if I have any right to.
"Ask me out," she says.
I smile. "Now?"
"Sometime." She backs away, waves, then turns to head back to her apartment.