I cannot thank you all enough for your patience with me and for sticking with this roller coaster of a story.
I also could never thank my pre-readers enough, who have worked so hard throughout this entire thing.
To Twilly and LyricalKris: thank you so much for your invaluable feedback on this chapter. You both made it tons better!
SM owns all things Twilight. Everything else is mine, including any mistakes.
Here we go...
Chapter 22 - Family
Stepping through the door to our apartment, Edward tosses his keys onto the small hallway table, and my heart jumps up into my throat at the familiar sound. I busy myself with pouring more batter into the hot skillet in front of me, and if he notices I'm not humming like usual, he doesn't mention it.
"Breakfast for dinner?" he asks, rounding the corner as I wipe my shaky hands on a dishtowel.
"Mhm." My voice doesn't quaver, thankfully.
Edward steps right up behind me, pressing the full length of his body to mine, and the butterflies in my stomach flap their wings for a whole different reason. His fingertips brush my neck as he sweeps my hair to one shoulder, and his lips are cool against my heated skin.
He peeks into the skillet and lets out a moan of approval. "I knew I asked you to marry me for a reason. Your blueberry pancakes could end wars."
Smiling, I shake my head and relax into his hold. His warmth surrounding me soothes my nerves for the moment. "So you only want me for my mad breakfast-making skills?"
"Pancake-making skills," he corrects, and I laugh. His hands travel to my breasts, and he palms them. "And these."
"Yeah, they're pretty nice, aren't they?" I can't stop smiling now.
"Mm, very." One hand stays on my breast while the other moves to cup an ass cheek. "This too. God."
Shaking my head, I flip the pancakes in my skillet and then turn in his arms, planting my lips on his. "Hi," I say after I've had my fill of his mouth.
"Hi." He gazes down at me, his green eyes sparkling with happiness, and I don't even fight the sigh that escapes.
"How was your day, dear?"
Edward laughs and squeezes me in his strong arms. "Long. I missed you today."
"I missed you too." It wasn't so long ago that we were thousands of miles apart, so it seems silly to miss him while we're just at work, but I do. Every single day. "I'll have this ready in about ten minutes if you want to go get cleaned up."
"Okay." He lays a soft kiss on my forehead, and I almost girly-sigh again. "Be right back."
I get a firm slap on the ass before he goes, and I smirk, experiencing a familiar full-body clench. But as soon as he's out of sight, my nerves kick up again, and I bite at my thumbnail while moving the golden pancakes bursting with fresh blueberries out of the skillet and onto a plate.
He loves me, I remind myself. More than I ever thought possible. He's as devoted to me as I am to him. Everything will be fine.
When we got back together after our first visit with Layla, it was incredibly difficult to go back to Washington while Edward went back to Durham. But the distance proved good for our relationship in many ways, even though it was torture in others. Having done the much needed work on ourselves, we were able to build the solid foundation we'd been severely lacking the first time around. Our visits were always passion-filled and way too brief before we had to be separated again by thousands of miles. All we could do most of the time was talk, so talk, we did. About our hopes and dreams, our fears and insecurities. We talked about Layla all the time. About how much we loved and missed her. About hoping to see her again very soon.
Our wish came true on her second birthday. We'd received pictures and videos in the time between visits, but it was still a shock to see how much she'd changed in only a year. Her soft curls brushed her shoulders; she was walking expertly and talking up a storm. Recognizing us instantly, she'd said our names, and my knees had threatened to give out on me as she toddled toward us. I gave in and sank to the ground to take her into my arms.
Feeling her small arms wrap around my neck was the greatest gift I could have ever received.
It's been over seven years now since she was born, and we've visited Layla on every one of her birthdays. We've also been invited down for other occasions in between, like three years ago, when Esme and Carlisle adopted Layla's twin sisters, Amy and Amber. We Skype and talk often, and we're treated as if we're a part of their family. I know we are, in a way, but Esme and Carlisle are Layla's mom and dad. We make sure we don't overstep that boundary, as much as we may want to at times.
Layla has started asking us questions for about the past year, and as difficult as it sometimes is to talk about, we answer as honestly as we can. We've made it abundantly clear that it wasn't that we didn't want her, and I think she understands as much as she can at her age. I know it will come up here and there as she gets older, but my greatest hope is that she'll always know how much we love her and that all we wanted was the very best for her. We just weren't it at the time. Not even close.
The gratitude flows between Edward and me and Esme and Carlisle like a rushing river that changes direction constantly. Layla never would have recognized us on her second birthday if they hadn't made sure we were featured prominently in her life—shown her pictures of us and let her hear our voice, be it on the phone or through the book we gave her. I will never be able to properly articulate how much I appreciate the fact that they've given us so much access to her, sent us a million pictures, and made sure she knows we're a part of her life. And we know, through those actions, they are showing us their appreciation for the gift we've given them as well. The gift of this amazing little girl, who has brought such joy to all of our lives.
As much as we wish things had been different, we don't regret the decision we made. The fact is, things weren't different. We were a mess.
But not anymore.
Edward's and my separation left us with a deep sense of appreciation for each other, especially once we were able to physically be together again and found our relationship actually worked. We fight like any normal couple, but that gratefulness for having each other is always underlying, and it helps us resolve things quickly more often than not.
Edward graduated at the top of his class, and although he'd planned all along to work at his father's old firm, things had changed. I was still in school, so he moved to Washington to be with me.
Instead of going into corporate law, as was his original plan, he decided to work in family law instead. It's not always easy. Some of the cases he works are gut-wrenching. But he enjoys feeling like he's making a difference, and working with adoption agencies holds a special place for him.
Needless to say, I'm immensely proud of him. Always.
Once I got back on track, I did well in school too. Many things drove me to succeed, but nothing motivated me more than Layla. After everything we all went through, failure, or even mediocrity, was not an option.
I'd never pictured myself working in a pediatric clinic once I got my Nurse Practitioner degree, but that's exactly what I do. And I love every moment of it.
Freshly showered and looking way more delicious than the stack of pancakes on the table, Edward takes a seat, leaning over said stack and inhaling deeply. He opens his eyes to give me a lazy smile and then wastes no time filling his plate and pouring a generous amount of syrup.
"I need to tell you something," I blurt out, no longer able to keep it in.
Edward freezes with a huge bite of pancake halfway to his mouth, sticky sweetness dripping off of it. "Okay," he says cautiously. My tone must have sounded even more nervous to his ears than it did to mine.
"Please don't freak out," I whisper with a furtive glance to him, my eyes going to the brand new sparkling engagement ring on my left hand and then settling on my still-empty plate.
"I'll try not to, but you're already freaking me out because you're obviously freaked out." He drops his hand to let his fork rest back on his plate, and I look up to see his eyes intent on me, worried, his brows drawn together. "What happened?"
Oh, God. I can't tell him this. Everything inside me feels like it's being squeezed by a giant fist. I'm bracing for his reaction, I realize. Because the last time I had to tell him this…
I swallow hard.
Tears well up in my eyes.
With the hand in my lap, I grip my napkin tight.
My other hand is on the table, and thankfully Edward covers it with his own before I really lose it.
His hand is warm, and even though there's something close to panic in his eyes, they're warm as well. It gives me the courage to say what I need to say.
I squeeze my eyes shut as soon as the words are out of my mouth.
Like last time, this was not planned. Also like last time, we were using birth control. Unlike last time, our relationship is deep and stable, we're in our late twenties with good-paying jobs, and logically I know he won't react the same way. But my body is still tensed for his anger, his rejection, his accusatory words. It's unfair, but I can't seem to help it.
I forgave him a long time ago, but it obviously affected me on a deeper level than I realized.
"Bella, look at me," Edward implores.
Peeking out of one eye, I take in his expression. His lips are curved up into a soft smile, and I let my face relax, blinking at him. The warmth is still clear in his eyes, but the panic is gone, replaced by what I think looks like immense happiness. The green of them is brighter because they're shining with unshed tears.
My own tears spill over.
"We're gonna have a baby?" he asks in the sweetest whisper.
Smiling now, I nod and turn my hand over to grasp his.
He tightens his grip on mine, standing and walking around our small table without letting go. Pulling me to my feet, he crushes me to him and buries his face in my neck. "I love you so much."
I melt against him. Relief. Comfort. Gratitude.
"I love you too."
Pulling back, he swipes the tears off my cheeks. "When did you find out?"
"I suspected for about a week and then took a test. I went to the doctor today to confirm. You're not freaked out? Because I have to be honest. I'm a little freaked out."
Edward pulls my thumb from my mouth before I even realize I've started chewing on my nail again. "Sure, but I think most everyone is at least a little freaked out about becoming a parent," he says. "And even though it's happening sooner than we planned, I'm also really excited."
I give him a tentative smile, and he strokes the backs of his knuckles down my cheek and then buries his hand into my hair. His eyes turn sad, and he asks, "You were scared to tell me?"
Swallowing thickly and letting my eyes fall shut, I nod, knowing he already knows the answer.
"I'm so sorry, baby. I know that's my fault. I wish to God I'd reacted differently the first time."
"Don't, Edward. Please, I don't want you to feel guilty." He leans into the palm I place against his cheek and kisses me there. "I'm sorry. I just got too in-my-head, and it's not that I thought you'd react that way again. I knew you wouldn't. I know we're in a completely different place now, and we were planning to try after the wedding anyway. It's just… again? While I'm on the pill? I'm starting to think I've been taking sugar pills all these years. Or you just have really strong swimmers."
His head tips back, and he lets out a deep laugh. "I like that theory. Strong like bull," he mocks, pounding his chest with a fist.
"Dork." I laugh along with him, shaking my head, but as my laughter dies down, my apprehension builds back up. Looking up at his smiling face, I ask, "How do you think Layla will react?"
Edward inhales a deep breath, wrapping his arms around my waist. "Well... I know we'd planned to prepare her before we started trying, but I think Layla will be excited. She loves being a big sister already, and even though the whole situation isn't the norm, it's her normal, y'know? She's got her mom and dad, but she also knows we're her biological parents. She knows we all love her. Nothing will change that."
"You're right. She'll be amazing about it, just like she is about everything else."
Edward gives my waist a squeeze. "She's an amazing little girl. And she's already the best big sister ever to Amy and Amber," he says. "Don't worry, babe. Everything will be fine."
Burying my face in his chest with a smile, I squeeze him back, so thankful for his reassurance and love.
Our wedding is small. Intimate.
On one side of the aisle sits Charlie, tugging at the collar of his shirt. Sue sits beside him, even though they decided they were better off as just friends a few months after they'd started dating. Angela and Ben, along with a few more of my friends sit behind them.
On the other side, Elizabeth holds our son, rocking him gently. At two months old, Liam still sleeps a lot during the day. Thankfully, the ceremony happened to fall during one of his normal nap times. Behind them sit Esme and Carlisle and our good friends from Durham: Alice, Rose, Jasper, and Emmett. We couldn't decide on a best man or matron of honor and leave anyone out, so we decided not to have a wedding party at all, except for a flower girl.
A beaming Layla stands to my left, holding my small bouquet of calla lilies and her basket of rose petals. She's seriously the happiest kid I've ever met.
Facing the minister at the altar, I suppress a yawn because I was up half the night with Liam. Edward squeezes my hand with an affectionate chuckle.
"Bored?" he whispers.
His shoulders shake with his laughter. The minister levels a look at him over his glasses, and Edward calms himself down. Still holding his hand, I bump my shoulder against his in solidarity, and he shoots me a wink as we turn to face each other
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today…"
"Have I told you how hot you look in a tux?" I move my hand from his shoulder to finger the black bowtie at his throat.
Edward dances us in a circle, one arm around my waist. "I think you mentioned it once or twice."
The ivory silk of my dress swishes as we move. "Too bad it's rented. Can we keep it an extra day?"
He chuckles. "That could probably be arranged."
After our dance on the restaurant's small dance floor, we sit down and check on Liam, who's nestled in Sue's arms now. He woke up long enough for me to breastfeed him between the ceremony and our small reception, and now he's back out again. With a sigh, I glide a finger down his soft cheek. "He's gonna be up all night again."
"Good thing we followed your OB's advice and took a babymoon before he was born."
I smile at Edward's soft laugh. "It's your turn tonight."
He returns my tired smile and murmurs, "I know."
Like any other new parents, we're stressed and sleep-deprived. We sometimes lose our patience with each other because of being stressed and sleep-deprived. But the foundation we've built remains strong, and we make it through.
Thank God Alice, Rose, and Angela jumped at the chance to help plan our wedding. I couldn't have done it without them. And luckily for all of us, I don't seem to have the bridezilla gene.
Hand in hand, Edward and I make our way over to where the Platts are sitting, and I hug Layla for the umpteenth time, so incredibly thankful that she could be here.
"You look so pretty, Bella," she says.
"Thank you, sweet girl. So do you."
She smiles and looks down at her lilac dress, twisting her body a bit to make it sway. Her thick copper curls spill over her shoulder, and I will never get over how beautiful she is.
Sue comes over then and hands me a fussing Liam. "I think somebody wants his mama." She throws a burp rag over the delicate lace strap of my gown, and this is motherhood. It's not glamorous. There's a very real possibility he'll puke on me.
Well, spit up, but still. It's gross.
Parenthood is beautiful... but yeah, gross. Rewarding but frustrating. Organized chaos and sometimes just chaos. But even with my fancy degree and great job, it's still the best thing I've ever done. And giving that gift to parents without a child when I wasn't up to the task myself, ranks right up there with it.
Once I have him settled back down, Layla asks if she can hold him.
"Of course, sweetheart."
She turns her chair to the side and then sits down, vibrating with excitement.
"Make sure you support his head. There you go. Just like that." A proud smile breaks across my face, and Layla just radiates with happiness at holding her little brother.
I hope they'll be close one day. It may not happen until they're adults, but I hope for it.
"Is he coming home with us?" Layla suddenly asks Esme, her anticipation of this clear as day on her face.
My smile dies, tugged down by the heavy weight that settles into my stomach.
All eyes turn to me, some worried, some downright alarmed. Except Layla's. She awaits Esme's answer with bated breath.
Edward's palm comes to rest on the small of my back, and he rubs what should be soothing circles with his thumb. I stare at Layla, not having a clue what to say.
Esme looks back at her, and her face softens. "No, sweetheart. He's staying here with Edward and Bella."
"But you said he's my brother."
For a moment, I think it may have been a huge mistake to refer to him as that with her. But I know she would have figured it out anyway, and we don't ever want to lie to her. The best we can do, as always, is explain as openly as possible and hope she's not hurt by it.
Esme moves her chair closer to Layla and strokes a hand down her hair. "He is, sweet girl."
"Amy and Amber are my sisters, and they live with us."
"That's right." She swallows, visibly searching for the right words to say.
"And people gave us Amy and Amber. I was there. And you said Edward and Bella gave me to you and Daddy. So why can't we have Liam, too?" Her arms tighten around the soft bundle that she thinks should go home with her, and I can't help the flutter of panic that dances up my throat. At the same time, tears well in my eyes.
"Honey..." Esme starts, "Liam needs to stay here. Edward and Bella are his parents. Not me and your daddy."
"But…" Her little brows furrow, and I get that it's hard to understand. Why would we give her to them and not give her brother to them as well? And these are the types of things that make open adoption difficult in some ways, especially since Edward and I worked out our problems and got back together. But it's brought us so much beauty and happiness too; I wouldn't change it for anything.
Finally coming out of my shock, I crouch down in front of her. My dress billows around me as I lay a hand on her knee and wait until I have her beautiful eyes on me. "Layla. I know this is hard to understand, and I'm sorry for that, sweet girl. Do you remember how we've talked about Edward and me finding the best mom and dad for you because we couldn't be what you needed when you were a baby?"
She glances down at Liam and then looks back to me with a nod.
"Your mom and dad are just what you need, and they take such good care of you."
It's plain to see how much she loves Carlisle and Esme in her sweet smile. "Mama and Daddy took us camping last weekend. It was so much fun!"
Everyone in the vicinity chuckles at her exuberance.
"That's so cool!" I say back to her, even though I already knew about the camping trip. "Well... now that we've worked really hard... Edward and I are just what Liam needs, and we'll be able to take care of him hopefully just as well as your mom and dad take care of you. Does that make sense?"
Layla looks down at Liam's sweet sleeping face again before whispering, "I think so." She curls her body over him a bit, and I get a vivid flashback of doing the same thing with her the day we signed the adoption papers. With my free hand, I grasp the edge of the table, white-knuckling it to get control of the emotion working to break free. "Will I get to see him again?" Layla asks, bringing me out of the dark place I was heading.
"Of course you will." I give her a reassuring smile. "He'll be with us every time we come to visit you. And you can Skype with him and talk to him any time you want. How does that sound?"
"Good," she answers with a grin.
Edward then crouches down on my left and lays a large hand on top of one of Layla's. "We love you so much. Nothing will ever change that."
"I love you too," she says, looking at Edward and then me. "And I love Liam." She beams down at him again. "I wish we could take you home," she whispers to him, "but we're gonna get to play and have lots of fun together. And even though Amy and Amber are stinkers, you'll have fun playing with them too."
Soft chuckles emanate from the group again.
In some ways, it's heartbreaking that Layla won't grow up seeing her brother, and any other children we have, on a daily basis. But I know we'll all work hard to keep them connected as much as possible. And I know she'll be the best big sister, in whatever capacity she can be, to all of her younger siblings, regardless of whether or not they live with her.
We've considered moving closer to the Platts, but again, we don't want to get so close that we make Carlisle and Esme uncomfortable. Layla is their daughter, and we don't want to confuse her any more than she already is by the whole situation.
We still live in Washington, and they still live in Northern California, so it's not too far to travel fairly often. We've discussed going down to visit more often, now that Liam has arrived and Layla is old enough to understand more of what's going on, and we hope we'll be able to do that.
Maybe our family isn't what some would call perfect. But it's our version of perfect. And we all do our damnedest to make the best of it.
Donning my sexy black lingerie, I climb into bed next to Edward that night. He holds me close, strong arms banded around me. His deep kisses soothe my soul, and the way his hands move over my skin makes my whole body heat in anticipation.
A sharp cry comes through the baby monitor, and we still. We wait. Liam fusses some more and then quiets down, so we resume our touching. It's lazy and soft because we're exhausted.
When Liam cries again, Edward groans in frustration with his mouth against my neck, his hands cupping my ass. My limbs, tightly wrapped around him, go slack in my own frustration. "He'll go back to sleep," Edward mumbles. "Get those legs back around me."
I do as I'm told, and he rewards me with a firm flex of his hips right where I need friction the most.
Liam's cries die down, and our movements pick back up.
But then… he's too quiet.
Patting Edward's back, I whisper, "I need to go check on him."
"He's fine," he mumbles around my nipple.
He lifts his head, glances at the monitor, and then back to me. "He's fine, baby."
"Bella, please," he groans. "We haven't had sex in almost two weeks, and before that, it was months, and this body… God." He runs firm hands down both sides of my torso and grasps my hips. "I need you. He's fine. I promise. Please just let me have you."
Well... when he puts it like that.
I push him up, but just as he protests, I roll him onto his back and straddle him. His eyes blaze with love and lust, and I've never been happier in my entire life.
Leaning down, I brush my lips over his. "Thank you for marrying me."
He smiles. "Thank you for letting me."
Kissing him deeply, I rub myself all over his rock-solid body, enjoying the feel of him and hoping we actually get to the sex part tonight.
One of us keeps falling asleep before it happens.
We might have to start mastering the art of the quickie.
This time, when Liam cries again, I'm the one who lets out a frustrated groan against the skin of Edward's stomach. I was this close to peeling his boxers off.
"I'll go," he says.
"No. I'll go."
"It's my night."
"I know, but it's okay. I wanted to check on him anyway. I'll be right back. Don't move. And don't fall asleep."
He salutes me. "Yes, ma'am."
I end up feeding Liam a little, mainly for comfort, and I snuggle him close, inhaling his sweet baby scent. Once he's back down, I tiptoe out of his room and close his door as quietly as possible.
Back in our room, an adoring smile spreads across my face at seeing Edward sound asleep with his phone on his chest, the Candy Crush theme song playing softly from the speaker.
At least he tried.
Crossing my arms over my chest and leaning against the door jamb, I gaze at him for a moment, taking in his handsome features, soft and relaxed in his sleep.
When the day is done and I'm alone with my thoughts, I still sometimes think back to those dark days and often can't believe we found our way back to each other. We work hard not to take one another for granted because we know what it feels like to be apart, wanting, needing each other.
My gaze wanders down his arms, and my soft smile widens at the sight of the wide platinum band on his left hand. I think calling Edward Cullen my husband will give me a thrill every single time I say it.
As my eyes move farther down, and I realize he's still hard, I push off the door frame and crawl up his body on the bed, kissing a line up his left leg. He lets out a soft moan before fully waking up and helping me get us both completely naked.
He slides inside me, and it's slow and reverential at first. Then it morphs to rough and needy, and it couldn't be more perfect for our wedding night.
Afterward, Edward glides his fingertips up and down my back as we lie pressed together. We're quiet, absorbing the events of the day, until Edward murmurs, "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me, Bella. You know that? I don't know how you put up with me sometimes, but I hope to God you don't ever stop." He squeezes me tight to him. "Thank you for giving me an incredible daughter and an amazing son. Thank you for agreeing to be my wife. I'm the luckiest fucker on Earth, and I will do everything in my power to be what you deserve. I just..." His voice is thick, and I look up to see tears gathering in his eyes. "I love you so much." He swallows, and two of his tears spill over as he leans in to kiss my forehead.
I'm full-on crying. Not ugly-crying, but there are fat tears rolling down my cheeks. Placing my hand on the side of his face, I swipe my thumb through the moisture on his cheek. "I'm lucky too, Edward. You know that, right? I know exactly how lucky I am to have you. And I'll spend every waking moment trying to be what you deserve, too. Because you deserve the very best of everything. You're the most amazing man I've ever known, and I'll—"
A loud wail interrupts me, and we both chuckle.
"Damn, we're cheesy," Edward says, wiping his cheeks and then mine with his hand.
I laugh harder, thinking my face might split in two and that I couldn't imagine being any happier than I am right at this moment. "You started it."
"I'm rubber. You're glue."
"Oh, shut it, and go snuggle your son," I laugh out, winking at him.
Still in bed, I watch in rapt fascination as Edward moves to pull on his boxers and some pajama pants. He flashes me a grin over his shoulder. "Perv."
I waggle my eyebrows at him. "I'll be waiting patiently for round two."
"Oh," he says. "You got it. But please, baby. Don't fall asleep."
I try, but Edward's soft humming coming through the baby monitor puts me out within minutes.
But I dream of him. Of round two and three and four. Of years to come and more gorgeous children. Of Layla coming to visit us when she's older. Of a house filled with laughter and love.
And I know… I just know that, despite the obstacles in our past and despite any hardships we've yet to face, it's all worth it. Our life together is beautiful. And our future is brighter than I ever could have imagined.
Thank you all so much for reading! I set out to write something I'd never seen in the Twilight fandom before, and it was hard to stick to my guns at times, but I truly hope you've all enjoyed the ride. xoxo