I might be having a wee bit of trouble pushing the "submit" button on this one...
~ EPILOGUE ~
If Bella could see me pacing the parking lot, she'd call me out for sure—"twitchy" or "Clenchward" (my least favorite of her nicknames)—but then again, I couldn't complain about "hottie mechanic." I shook off the blush she'd caused so many times, it was beginning to feel like part of my uniform.
Punched out and worked up, I caught myself reaching yet again for the phantom box of smokes in my blazer pocket. Jesus, was I really still haunted by the addiction twenty-nine months and three days after my last puff?
"Steer clear of high-risk situations," advised the brochures. I'd mostly been good that way—avoided smoky bars and friends who smoked, never allowed myself to harbor an "emergency" pack, and rerouted my path from the patches of sidewalk that used to be home to my habit. Whenever Bella was around, she was good about keeping me well-fed and offering me options that were a whole hell of a lot more satisfying than the thrill of that first drag . . . ah, shit.
It will pass; it always does. My priorities were clear, and I was not about to fuck up. I'd never disappoint Bella.
"Hey, Cullen," Seth called out from the picnic table where the wolves were stuffing their faces with lunch, "you hear about the penguin that dropped his car off for service this morning?"
He's harmless, I reminded myself, maybe even trying to help. I rarely engaged them, but today, I played straight man. "Do tell."
Seth grinned. "Yeah, so this penguin is driving along the highway when suddenly, he sees smoke in his rear view mirror. By the time he gets here, the car is shaking and sputtering. Rose tells him to sit tight while Embry checks it out. Meanwhile, the penguin sees Strickland's across the street and heads over to get himself an ice cream. A while later, he walks back and asks Embry, 'So, did you find out what's wrong?' Embry looks at the penguin and says, 'It looks like you blew a seal.' The penguin quickly wipes his face and says, 'Oh no, that's just the ice cream.'"
"Lovely. Thanks for that."
Seth laughed and answered, "Sure thing, man," just as Bella pulled up in her graduation present, a brand spanking new super red '86 Celica GT. The way that car swaggered in the sun and flashed its perfect paint job to anyone who would look reminded me of Bree spinning on stage in her sequined tutu—proud and perfect, untarnished.
Like Bella was when I first met her.
I'm a guy who fixes things, by nature and by trade. I take a hard look at the problem, make my diagnosis, and solve it. With Bella, I saw that sucker coming from a mile away, but there was no way to avoid impact. Our two sets of raging hormones were following a head-on collision course from the moment Charlie Swan offered me a job.
Now, as a rule, Swan Motors doesn't do collision work in-house; Charlie recommends Al's Body Shop at the other end of Market Street. Still, I know how to apply touch-up paint here and there to gloss over minor flaws. Covering the scratches always makes the customers feel better. Once nicked, though, a car is never the same. The chassis is more susceptible to the elements, vulnerable in ways we can't see.
Then again, perfection is a harsh boss; with that first scratch comes great freedom. "It's not truly your car until you get your first dent," Rosalie will always tell an uptight customer, and in a way, she's right. If Bella had never met me, she might still be wearing that gleaming fresh coat of paint, driving innocently but cautiously down comfortingly familiar roads. Would that have been for the best? Who can say? All I know is I could not imagine my life without her.
My stomach took an extra flip as Bella walked toward me with that slightly naughty, you-know-you're-a-goner-Cullen grin. The girl had my attention. I stood a bit taller, pulled in an extra-long breath, and restrained myself from tackling her right there on the pavement.
Rosalie elbowed her way past me, and all I could do was stand frozen in place while my boss lunged for Bella and crushed her in a bear hug. I was more than a little bit pissed—and jealous, if I'm honest—that Rose got to her first but happy they'd worked out their differences. Still, it had been a long week since graduation, and we'd barely had an unchaperoned minute to ourselves on campus. I was itching to get Bella alone again, and her short leather skirt wasn't helping the situation any. As tempting as those killer legs looked in black leather boots, I couldn't help imagining the weight of her thighs slung over my shoulders. Damn, I loved the way she tasted.
Rose handed her an envelope, which began a whole bunch more hugging and yammering. When the two of them finally wore themselves out, Rose gave Bella a friendly nudge in my direction. "All right, Edward, you can have her now."
"Having" Bella sounded like heaven.
"Hi." Okay, not exactly sparkling conversation, but it was the only clean thought that popped into my mind.
Bella giggled as she took my hand, and I guessed she knew exactly what I was thinking. "Hi."
"Ready to blow this pop stand?"
"Hmm, I don't know. Are you sure you don't have any more work you need to do?"
"As a matter of fact," I answered, leaning in so my nose was tickling her ear, "in about two minutes, there's going to be someone in the front seat of my truck who will require some doing."
Bella dipped her face inside the collar of my jacket and mumbled, "Perv," into my neck.
"You wouldn't want me any other way." She couldn't possibly disagree, and I didn't give her a chance. "Your ass is mine, Bella Swan."
Those brown eyes I loved flashed with excitement as I pulled her against my body and started us toward my truck.
"Hells, Bells! Really?"
Oh shit. Charlie.
"Were you really not even going to say hello or goodbye to your only father?"
Only father? He was pulling out all the stops here. We spun around with a matched set of tucked chins. I did what any smart boyfriend would do: let my girlfriend do the talking.
I turned toward her, incredulous. That's the best you got? No pretending we were about to say hello? No apology?
Charlie rubbed his hand slowly back and forth across his chin. Swish, swoosh. Swish, swoosh. The eyes ticked left and right with the rhythm, at Bella, then me. Bella, then me.
Three . . . two . . . one . . . "How'd the GT handle on the highway, Bells?"
I let out most of the breath I'd been holding.
"Great. She drives like a dream," Bella replied. "There was one minor problem, though."
Charlie and I were united in our concern. I'd checked that baby out bumper to bumper and run every diagnostics test Toyota had ever invented. If there was something wrong with Bella's car, it had escaped my notice. I felt Charlie's accusatory glare as I turned to Bella and asked, "What's wrong?"
Her serious expression gave way to a playful grin. "Easy 105 didn't come in at all! I had to listen to a rock station!"
Why the little devil in black leather!
"Bella Swan," I chastised her, "we do not joke about car problems."
Bella's eyes opened wide with surprise while Charlie fought to hide his amusement.
My hands landed on my hips while I glared at them both. "What?"
"Nothing, son," Charlie answered, his hand covering the last traces of laughter before dropping to his side. "You'll have her home by eleven?"
Say what now? Charlie knew what was about to happen, roughly speaking. Was he yanking my chain?
"With all due—"
"Midnight, Dad. I already agreed on midnight with Mom." God bless my girlfriend and her mom.
He had no choice in the face of the magic discussion-ending words. "Fine."
Just as I was about to drag Bella away, Charlie extended his hand toward me and gave me a fierce look. "Take good care of my girl, Edward."
"You know I always do, Charlie."
He nodded slightly, which I took for an encouraging, "Go get 'em, tiger!" whether he meant it that way or not. Slipping my hand around Bella's, I turned us toward my truck. As we passed the side of the building where the wolves were lined up, they gave us a chorus of "aws," which I pretended not to hear.
Bella giggled softly beside me. "Hungry?"
"Always. Why do you ask?"
"I feel like I'm sprinting just to keep up with you."
"Oh, sorry." Shit. Slow your roll. I was lousy at hiding things, especially from Bella, and this was the mother of all things to hide. I settled her on the passenger side of the truck and pulled some oxygen into my lungs as I walked around the back to my own side.
We'd spent probably half of our three years of "togetherness" being physically apart, and in that time, we'd become masters at reading each other's moods over the phone. I could tell when Bella was stressed about a class, and she could sense when I'd had a bad day at work. Long periods of silence had never bothered us, but after ten minutes of driving without speaking, it was glaringly obvious that something was off.
"So . . ." I started, "how was your morning?"
"It was nice. Mom and I hit Wally Waffle and then the mall. I got a suit and a couple of skirts and tops."
"A suit, huh? I think I like picturing you all dressed up and boss-like."
Bella shifted in her seat so she could watch me better while I was driving. "You know, I won't be able to visit you in Service wearing my fancy clothes, right?"
I snuck a peek at her sly grin. "That's okay. I'll just have to come out to the parts counter for every little nut and bolt."
"Mm-hmm. And you'll do that thing . . . where you lean over the counter . . ."
"What?" Was she serious? "I don't have a 'thing'! I don't do that!"
"The heck you don't, Edward Cullen. You're lucky Mrs. Cope hasn't had a stroke by now. You know, you could kill a person."
I could feel the heat rising on my cheeks yet again, and in the broad daylight, Bella had to have seen it, too. "You really think my ass is gonna kill someone."
"Yes. Yes, I do."
I shook my head in disbelief. Once I started, I couldn't stop. Then I'd stop for a few seconds, and the urge to shake it again would just overwhelm me. I didn't stop, in fact, until we pulled into the parking space at Quaker Square. As I helped her down from the truck, I gave my girlfriend a little talking to.
"Okay, look. We are going into this fancy restaurant for lunch. No more ass talk. Got it?"
"I thought you liked me dirty," she answered, adding the smoldery eyes just to torture me further.
"I do. I like you way too much to sit next to you in a fancy restaurant, if you catch my drift."
And then she smiled. "I'll be a good girl if you'll be a good boy."
"Bella, I'm always a good boy."
Bella pretty much kept her word and behaved except just before our entrees arrived, when she decided to run the toe of her boot up the inside of my leg. I caught her foot before it reached the bulge between my legs, adding a cut-that-shit-out glare for added effect. She blamed it on the glass of champagne and my "dress-up hotness," and I shook my head and groaned.
"So, what's next, Mr. Mystery Man?"
Bella tipsy-leaned into me for support, and I wrapped my arm around her back. Careful not to rush, savoring every step, I coaxed her toward the old silos that some opportunistic developer had converted into hotel rooms. My stomach flipped again, taking my filet mignon and truffled mashed potatoes with it this time.
I need a fucking cigarette.
No, you don't.
The flooring changed from shiny mall tiles to the gold-beige carpeting marking the beginning of the hotel lobby, and Bella was done keeping silent. "My, my, my, Mr. Cullen, what have you gone and done?"
What I'd done was work like a slave for Rosalie's husband, Emmett, a.k.a. the front desk manager of the Quaker Hilton, for the last month of Sundays. During that time, I'd washed both their cars, cleaned out their garage and basement, repainted the guest room, and washed every window in their damn house inside and out. Hard work didn't bother me, and it was more than worth the ultimate prize I now held in my pocket—the key to the honeymoon suite, ours for the next ten hours of uninterrupted bliss. Even if Emmett could've managed to keep an overnight stay off the hotel books, Charlie never would've condoned it.
That's okay. Charlie had already given his seal of approval on the most important deal of my life.
We got off on the fifteenth floor and walked to the end of the long hallway. My heart was pounding like a worn out fuel pump, sputtering and surging and leaving me raw and uneasy.
"Honeymoon suite?" Bella read with delight. "Seriously, Edward, who'd you have to sleep with to get this room?"
"Emmett," I answered under my breath. And he damn well better have done what he promised.
The card key slid easily into the slot, and I held my breath again as the door swung open into the round room. The shades were drawn against the bright glare, and a cluster of candles on the coffee table created a soft, flickering glow. Bunches of red roses in small vases decorated the entire sitting room and a trail of scattered petals led us like Hansel and Gretel's bread crumbs to the enormous bed in the next room.
Bella twisted in my arms to kiss me, and when she pulled back, I could see the tears on her cheeks. "Oh, Edward, it's like our first time, only everything's about ten times bigger!"
"Well, not everything." I shrugged, dropping my gaze to my slacks.
She grinned mischievously, wrapped her arms around my jacket, and tugged my big-as-he-gets-but-regular-sized self against her body.
"This'll do just fine, thanks."
We rocked together in slow circles, and I hummed the beginning of "Stairway" until she kissed me again. Man, that girl's kiss could make me forget lyrics . . . and apparently, raise the temperature in the room by at least fifty degrees. All at once, my jacket and tie felt like a heavy wool blanket and a tightening noose. If I didn't undress soon, there was a good chance I'd faint. So much for romance.
"Bella, I'm sorry but I'm dying here." I peeled the jacket from my sweaty shirt and tossed it onto the chair by the curved window. My fingers immediately slipped behind the knot at my neck and released the pressure. I could almost breathe again.
"Why would you ever apologize for getting undressed?" Bella answered in her sexiest voice, crossing her hands over the edge of her fuzzy, soft pink sweater and sliding it inch by delicious inch up and over her perfect tits. As the sweater cleared her head, a slight tug lifted her chest just enough to produce an entertaining bounce on the way back down.
"You make an excellent point," I agreed. Then, thinking better of it, I waved my hand toward her bra and added, "Or two." I was smiling like a horny fool, but she was used to it by now.
She grinned back and slowly slid her tongue across her lower lip. Her eyes met the lump in my pants. "As do you."
"Yeah, well . . ." I pulled her against me, and we made some points together.
As I released her, my fingers slid down her throat and into the dip of her necklace, the Christmas present she'd worn every day since I'd given it to her. "You still like this?"
Her eyes narrowed the tiniest bit; she suspected something. Her fingers met mine, tickling me and caressing the gold heart. "Mmhmm. Why? You want it back?"
I tossed out, "Nah. I'm not really into girls' jewelry," to throw her off track. My carefully planned dialogue was not going anything like I planned. And why was I still sweating bullets?
I plowed on. "I'd like to give you your graduation present now."
Bella giggled and glanced at my pants again. "Sounds good to me."
I shook my head. "Not . . . that. Not yet, anyway."
"No?" Her eyebrows popped up, and then she seemed to understand everything. "Oh! You're gonna . . ." She released the necklace to swirl her index finger down toward the front of her skirt.
Even though she was way off base, I had to admit, that shit felt good. Yeah, I'd converted my girl. She was kind of addicted to my tongue, which worked out well for me because I loved giving it to her.
"Nah, not that either."
Her little pout of disappointment was a huge ego booster. I quickly reassured her, "We'll be getting to that later, though, if I have anything to say about it."
"You usually do," she answered, her sly grin returning. "Hmm, so if it's not that and it's not that, what do you have up your sleeve, Edward?"
"Actually, it's over there on the nightstand."
"But how did you—" she started, interrupting her own thought as she spun toward the gift. "Is that what I think it is?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. What do you think it is?"
She walked toward the nightstand, looking back over her shoulder at me every few steps, as if I would tell her this was a joke, and she should come back and be ravished. Good thing she didn't ask what I was really thinking, watching her walk away in that sexy getup.
Reaching the bedside table, she raised the brown lunch bag as if something might pop out and bite her. When she decided it was more or less safe, she brought it to her nose and sniffed. I could tell I'd stumped her.
"You got me an oatmeal cookie?"
There was far too much space between us I realized and quickly remedied that situation with a few long strides. "Not exactly. You know how you love the silver dollars. I got you a dozen."
She was puzzled and maybe a little frustrated as to why cookies might be an acceptable substitute for sexual acts. "Thank you. That was really sweet, but I'm not exactly hungry right now."
Bella moved to set the bag down again. Aw, hell no.
"I am," I replied.
That indulgent smile came over her—the one that said, "I know you're nuts, but I love you, so I'll humor you anyway." She pushed the bag to my stomach. "Go for it."
"I was kind of hoping you'd feed me."
And her jaw dropped. "Okay? So this is some kind of kinky slave girl thing? Do you have a big palm leaf I can fan you with while you chew?"
"No, but thanks for the great birthday idea." I locked my hands behind my back, refusing to take the bag.
She chuffed and shook her head, but she reached in and grabbed me a cookie. Still warm from the oven, the raisins were soft and chewy, just the way I liked. "Mmm, this is so good. Those Quaker Oats people sure know what they're doing down there. Are you sure you don't want a bite?"
"Yep. I'm still not hungry, but thanks for offering to share my present with me."
I polished off the first one and asked for another.
"Yes. That thing was barely as big as a Thacker's burger."
Rolling her eyes all the way, she reached back into the bag and retrieved a second cookie, which she brought to my lips. I wasn't exactly hungry either, but I had a job to do. "Mmm, thanks. I'll take another one, please."
Bella shook her head, but she was still smiling. "This is like having my very own human trash comp—"
She stopped dead.
Her expression went completely flat, and all the color drained from her face. Her eyes locked on mine as she pulled her hand out of the bag, dropping the remaining cookies on the floor in the process. "Edward! What is this?"
"I don't know. A mutant raisin?" I held out my hand. "Lemme see."
She extended her arm mechanically and set the ring into my palm, instinctively trusting me to decipher this mystery. I sank to one knee and took her left hand in mine. Bella gasped, and her other hand flew to her mouth. Tears began rolling from her eyes, blurring my vision as well. Our joined hands were shaking as she waited for me to say something.
"Okay, here goes." Not exactly what I'd rehearsed, but it got me rolling. "Bella, first off, I love you. I think you already know I would do anything for you."
"Ye-e-e-sss," she answered with a shaky voice.
I smiled into her teary eyes. "That was supposed to be rhetorical."
She cry-laughed and nodded while I found my place.
"I have no idea what life will throw at us. God knows, everything won't be perfect all the time." I paused as memories of my father's death flooded my brain, and I choked down a pile of sadness threatening to invade this moment. Bella seemed to know where I'd gone, and she reached out and ran her fingers through my hair.
"And God knows I'm not perfect all the time."
A nervous little giggle slipped out of my propose-ee, and I scolded her. "That was definitely rhetorical."
She mouthed, "Sorry," and I continued.
"What I want more than anything in the world is to take care of you, make you happy, keep you safe, and make sure you know every minute of every day how much I love you. Will you let me, Bella? Will you marry me?"
She'd drawn her upper lip between her teeth, and when she released it, everything quivered.
"Am I supposed to answer now?"
"Yes! Of course! Yes! Yes!"
Relief. Joy. Peace. Happiness.
Too much to process.
I'd hoped for it, but I guess, deep down in my gut, there was still that shadow of a lingering doubt. But no more.
"Hey," she said, running her fingers through my hair a little firmer. "Change your mind already?"
"What? No! I'm just a little bit dazzled."
"Yeah. I know the feeling." Her fingers wiggled in front of my face. "Speaking of dazzling, do you think I could see how that mutant raisin looks on my finger?"
Motherfucker! What an ass I am!
"Yes, of course. I got your ring size from your mom, but if it doesn't fit, you can—"
"Edward, enough words! Put it on already!"
I found her ring finger, slid the simple gold band past her knuckle, and settled the diamond on top. "Looks like a good fit."
Bella smiled. "Just like us."
I stood up and drew her into my arms. "Enough words, Mrs. Cullen-to-be. Kiss me."
I caught Bella checking out her diamond several times while we were tumbling around on the huge bed but decided to rise above—I wasn't about to be jealous of a ring. Plus, I was pumped that she loved it even if it meant she was distracted. We still managed to have our fun and thoroughly wear each other out.
At least, I thought Bella was worn out until she jumped out of bed and rushed over to open the curtains. How she did that, I have no idea. I couldn't even feel my feet, let alone trust them with my weight. Bella stood by the window for several minutes, twisting her hand all around and grinning as the sun turned her diamond into a tiny but mighty disco ball.
I stretched out on my back like I owned the place, folding my arms behind my pillow and gawking at my fiancée. My eyes crawled up her long, lean legs, taking their sweet old time around the gentle curves of her perfect ass. She seemed completely oblivious to the sunlight painting her with a soft glow, slightly darker around the nipples I could still taste on my tongue.
Ogling Bella was good sport, no doubt about that; just then, it dawned on me that Bella had agreed to share her naked body with me for "as long as we both shall live." That was a happy thought, but it wasn't her perfect tits or the dimples at both sides of her lower back or even the way she squealed when she came that brought the wide smile to my face. I just fucking loved that she was standing at the window buck naked, completely uninhibited and filled with joy—because of me.
As if she'd heard my inner gloating, she looked over and smiled at me.
I was fairly sure I knew the answer, but I asked it anyway. "Happy?"
"Pretty happy. How about you?"
"Other than the fact I can't reach you, I suppose I'm pretty fucking happy, too."
She took my subtle hint and with three quick steps and a giant leap, Bella dove across my body and landed with a loud thwap!
"Mmm, much better." I grinned, slapping my palm onto her ass and enjoying the feel of her in my hand.
"So this is how it's gonna be now?" she teased.
"Yes, I think so. Now that you've agreed to my conditions." I watched for the flash of recognition, and Bella did not disappoint.
Giving me the Oh-no-you-don't head shake, she added, "Speaking of conditions, I have one of my own."
"Nope. Sorry. Too late. You took the ring."
Bravado was all well and good, but fuck me, now I was dying to know what she was thinking. "Okay, fine. You can make an addendum, I guess." I grumbled the last part, but judging from the smile on her face, I wasn't very convincing.
"You need to let me take care of you too sometimes."
I definitely did not have a problem with a lifetime of blowjobs and massages, so I clenched my jaw and answered, "I suppose I can live with that."
All my pretend grumpiness flew out the window when Bella started tickling me. I pinned her to the bed and tortured her with my fingertips until she begged for mercy then rolled onto my back and let her do the same to me. Totally spent again, we fell asleep with our arms and legs sloppily twisted together like the pile of tangled covers on the floor.
"We should call our parents," she said.
"Ugh, were you thinking about your father just now while I was kissing you?"
That mischievous smirk crossed her face. "No, of course not. I was thinking of your mom."
"You are rotten, Bella Swan."
"Too late. You're already locked in for life." The beautiful smile she gave me almost wiped out the yucky imagery.
Bella sat up and pulled the industrial telephone onto the bed between us. "So, who do we call first?"
"You're the bride. Aren't you in charge of all wedding-related decisions?"
"Good point," she agreed. "I think we better tell my father first."
I fluffed up my pillows and settled in against the headboard. "Go for it."
Bella's hand slid off the phone, and she gave me that what-are-you-up-to look. "You don't seem nervous enough."
I wasn't nervous at all. "Bella, do you really think I'd ask you to marry me without getting your father's blessing?"
"What?" Bella folded her arms across her chest. "I need to hear about this!"
"How did I know you'd say that?"
"Because any fool knows this is gonna be a good story. Now spill the beans! Where'd you do it? At work? Did you call him at home? What?"
"In person! I would never do something this important over the phone."
"A couple months ago. Before I bought the ring."
I didn't want to discuss finances with her, but the ring was a huge stretch for me. She was worth every penny, and I was happy to do it, but I wouldn't have enjoyed finding out her dad didn't approve of the marriage after I'd already dropped the load.
"I came in early one day and kind of lurked around the showroom until he came in. He didn't seem surprised when I asked if I could talk to him."
"Did he give you a hard time?" Her lips curled up at the corners with her question.
"He knows how I feel about you, Bella. Everyone does." And there went my damn blush. "You hadn't decided yet about that offer from Chemical Bank, so Charlie naturally wanted to know how things would work for us if you decided to go to New York."
"This sounds like a conflict of interest for him!"
"So what did he say?"
"He said he loves his daughter and he wants what's best for you, and obviously that's me. He told me that love has a way of solving problems, and time and space don't matter."
"Wow. Pretty romantic."
I smiled, remembering the dreamy look Charlie got in his eye when he talked about love. He was such a softie. "Yep. So I asked him how he'd feel if the two of us ended up moving to New York."
"He'd lose his best mechanic."
"Yeah, well," I started, determined not to blush again, "his response was, 'You know, your little brother is turning into a pretty damn good mechanic.'"
"No, Bella. Not at all. Masen's okay; he's no . . . me—at least, not yet. That was your dad's way of telling me he's not going to abandon my family."
"Of course not. You're family, too. You always have been."
"Yeah. He's always been good to me that way. Your mom, too. But he doesn't give handouts, and we don't want 'em."
I caught Bella's eye roll. "The proud Cullen men."
"Speaking of which," I said, "your father asked if I could handle making less money than my future wife."
We both grinned over that one. "What'd you say to that?"
"I said I was looking forward to being a kept man."
I got a poke in the gut for that one, but it came with a giggle. "I'm sure he loved that."
"Bella, what was I gonna say? I have a high school equivalency and I fix cars. You just graduated from of one of the best business schools in the country. If you don't make more than me, something is seriously wrong."
She thought about my airtight logic for a minute then asked, "So that was it?"
"Pretty much. He said he didn't want to put the cart before the horse."
Bella folded her arms over her chest, which made me a little bit unhappy because I really liked looking at her chest. "Did you just call me a horse?"
"Not really. Maybe. I guess."
She giggled at me. "Did he say anything about Mom?"
"He said she'd been waving the Team Edward flag for a long time, and I had nothing to worry about there. Would you by any chance consider uncrossing your arms?"
She scowled for a second, but it was well worth it when she did as I asked with no more objection than a muttered, "Perv."
"What about your mom?" she asked.
"She helped me pick out the ring, so clearly she's in favor of this union."
"Even if we leave Akron someday?"
A twinge of guilt tugged at my heart. "She wants me to be happy. That's the bottom line."
Bella drew her knees up and wrapped her arms around them, resting her chin on top. "I guess we don't have to worry about that for now since I took the job at Swan."
I scooted closer and wrapped my arm around her shoulders. "That's fine, but we shouldn't feel stuck. Nobody wants that. We should go where you're going to be happiest."
She turned toward my words. "Where we're going to be happiest."
Planting a kiss behind her ear, I answered, "Bella, there are broken cars everywhere. I'll be happy wherever you're happy."
She was quiet for a bit. "Who else knows?"
My jaw tightened, and I hoped she wouldn't be mad that she was basically the last one to find out about this proposal. "Well, Emmett got us the room and the cookies and arranged the rest with housekeeping, so obviously he and Rose know everything. Alice knows—because did you see my fancy new clothes earlier?—so that means Jasper knows."
"Sheesh, wow. Okay, but I don't see how any of those people could know I said yes unless this room is bugged. Please tell me the room isn't bugged."
I chuckled. "I think the fact that we've been up here for five hours fucking like bunnies might be a dead giveaway."
"Do you mean to tell me you wouldn't have slept with me if I'd said no?" She folded her arms across her chest again and scowled at me. I was not going to get the boobs back anytime soon if I gave the wrong answer here.
"Well, I mean . . . I guess, yeah . . . but I honestly don't know what might've happened if you shot me down. I mean, I've never not been able to rise to the occasion, but . . ."
I guess I passed that test because Bella opened her arms and turned into my body. I felt the warm, comforting squish of her breasts against my chest.
"Aww, that may be the nicest thing you've ever said."
We downed the complimentary bottle of champagne and devoured the chocolate-covered strawberries along with the burgers and fries and the rest of the oatmeal cookies. Practically comatose, we'd been staring at the in-room movie menu on the television for the last fifteen minutes because we were both too lazy to lean over and pick up the remote when Back to the Future ended.
"What do you think the sequel will be called?"
"I dunno," I answered with a lazy slur to my voice I didn't even care to fix. "Do you honestly expect me to have any brain function left at this point?"
It was a fair question, I thought.
The bed was the eye of the storm, the only spot in the whole room that didn't look as if it had been hit by a herd of horny, hungry hippos. I think we were both afraid to move off our little island.
"Come on," she urged, "give me your best guess."
"Okay, fine. Back to the Future Part II."
"Gee, that's real creative. Is that the best you can do?"
"Yep. Why? What've you got?"
"I don't know . . . Back to Back to the Future?"
"Pfft, how is that better?"
She looked at me all serious at first, then dissolved into giggles. "I have no idea." Naturally, I kissed her. Slow and gentle was about all I had left in me, but Bella seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.
When she pulled back, she gave me one of those be-serious-for-a-minute looks. "Can I ask you something?"
I was feeling pretty brave thanks to the champagne, so I answered, "You're talking to your future husband. You can ask me anything you want."
She smiled the way I'd hoped she would, and then she asked, "Do you still get cravings?"
"For you? All the time."
I got "the look" again, and I knew she meant business. Fine.
"Sure I do, but it's nothing I can't push away." She seemed satisfied with that, but then it hit me, maybe I wasn't the one she was really worried about. "Do you?"
"I don't. I never really did after we quit. I guess all I ever really craved was you."
"Fuck, Bella, you say the sweetest damn things."
We stared at the ceiling together for a while, and I felt my eyelids getting heavy again. I wasn't too worried about falling asleep since I knew Emmett had a wake-up call scheduled for eleven. That gave us plenty of time to sober up and get Bella home safe and sound.
. . . And engaged.
I lifted her left hand into the space between us and admired my choices. Perfect ring, perfect girl.
"That is some mutant raisin," she said.
"I know, right?" I slid my fingers between my fiancée's.
"About that plan, Edward . . . Exactly how many of those cookies were you prepared to eat?"
I turned my head on the pillow to face her. "All of them."
"You were going to eat a dozen cookies after that huge lunch?"
"I was hoping it wouldn't come to that."
"Did you ever consider maybe buying half a dozen . . . or three?"
"That wouldn't have been nearly as exciting."
She chuckled. "No, I see your point."
We twisted our joined hands lazily, barely moving.
"You probably don't want to hear my first idea."
"Oh, I think I do."
I smiled and made her work for it. "Guess."
"Lemme think. Hiding it inside my cheeseburger? No wait, they would've had to grill the ring . . . or stuff it in after, and that's just gross. Plus, I might've swallowed it."
"That sounds like a terrible idea."
"I agree," she said. "I suppose you could've stuck a French fry through the ring and buried it under the pile?"
"Hmm, not bad, but it's not really 'us.'"
"Us?" She looked at her hand again, then smirked. "It's a little too small to fit around your uh . . ." She twirled her other hand toward my very happy, very tired penis, and I smiled so hard my face hurt.
"Are you kidding me? You still can't say the word after all this time?"
"I can," she huffed, "I just don't really like to."
"Okay, we can work on that. Maybe by the time we have our twenty-fifth anniversary, I can get you to say 'penis.'"
"That would be quite the accomplishment," she agreed. "I give up. What was your first idea?"
I felt for her. Guessing was hard work. "Cheetos."
"I was going to hide the ring in a bag of Cheetos."
"That's disgusting! The diamond would've been coated in orange grime!"
"I realize that. I also thought you might be a wee suspicious if I gave you a bag of Cheetos for graduating college."
She laughed. "That would've been the cheesiest move ever."
"You love my cheesy moves."
"I do," she agreed. "Every last one of 'em."
I leaned across the valley between our two pillows and rested my nose against hers. "Now, don't you go thinking that you've seen every last one of my moves."
Her eyebrows lifted, and she rolled away onto her side. With a sly grin, she informed me, "I think the only move I could handle right now is a short walk to a hot bubble bath."
"Mmm, you know I can't resist you when you're clean."
She giggled and pulled us both out of bed. "That's because all you want to do is make me dirty again."
My girl was right again, and I could not wait to get started.
~~ THE END ~~
A/N: Epic sigh . . . at least we're leaving these two in a hot bubble bath together with plans for a long, happy future. I really hope I answered all your questions and hit on all the scenes you wanted to see. I loved wrapping happy ribbons around all the subplots- consider them little Christmas presents from my heart to yours.
I have a few important thank-yous to dole out before leaving Akron for good. First, thank you to my instigator, Intricacy Alterite, the mighty force beneath my wings. She got me started on this one with her neverquenchable thirst for angst, and I did my best to twist it up. Along the way, Shellshock and Amber's Pen added their insights as well, and I'm grateful to both of you ladies for your help on some of those early chapters.
And then there was one. I cannot possibly say enough about my partner, Chayasara, who stuck with me through this whole lengthy process-from contest entry through a change of heart and a full-blown expansion that ended up being four times as long as the contest max! You earned the dubious distinction of being the sole surviving support staff (holy alliterations, Batman!). Your encouragement, your gentle suggestions, and your wise counsel were with me all the way. I look forward to the projects ahead of us and our ever-deepening friendship. Todah rabah!
Finally, my gratitude to you readers (with special love for the reviewers who shared, encouraged, cajoled, questioned, challenged, and especially, the one who QUIT SMOKING!) Let's face it- the best part of posting a story is hearing from you guys. Thank you all for leaving me your love, playing with me over in the Patch on FB and for making this angsty journey that much more rewarding.
So...now what? Well, Postapocalypticdepository and I are writing a light and fluffy holiday collabadabble called SHAKE! (here on my profile). It's another kind of Mechanicward. And there's one more bit of fanfic I have to share with you- an outtake of KEA I'll be posting on my blog in a few days. After that...who knows?
Keep in touch, okay?