It won't look like it until the end of the chapter, but this is a
Christmas story. The plan is to post a chapter a day until
Christmas' Eve. *crosses her fingers* I hope you like it!
Huge thanks and *squishy hugs* go to my pre-readers, prettyflour
and MrsK81. You ladies make my heart smile so big!
Long Way to Christmas
The first time she saw him was the welcome result of a blunder. Bella was meant to have brunch with an old friend in Pentwater, but could not find the quaint little Shoppe where they were to meet. Her GPS unit told her she had arrived, but she didn't notice the little sign pointing down the stairwell to the basement level Café, basement level being the operative and neglected piece of information.
Pentwater is a very small tourist town on the Lakeshore of Western Michigan, and only a fifteen minute drive from her home in Hart. She had lived here for the last three years in her Uncle Charlie's house. She grew up visiting him every summer and knew the area well even before she moved to Michigan, intent on getting away from the constant heat and loneliness in Arizona.
After seeking the Café to no avail, Bella turned her Durango back toward home. Chagrined, she kicked herself for not having had the foresight to get Katy's cell number. She heard the tell-tale "ding" as her gas light kicked on, reminding her that she had not stopped for fuel on her way home from work last night.
Looking up, she saw the small convenience center that had been put in earlier that year. She had heard great things about the home made pastries, chocolates, and house roasted coffees that were sold inside, and as she had yet to eat, decided she would take a look-see. After pumping the gas, she went inside to pay and was greeted with the most mouth-watering aromas she had smelled since her childhood—back when her Aunt Sue was still alive and would bake for her.
Thinking of Aunt Sue made her heart sad for a moment, and loneliness wrapped itself around her like a shroud. Aunt Sue and Uncle Charlie were the closest thing she knew to stability growing up. She never had grandparents, as they passed on in her infancy, and she never knew who her father was. It was dubious whether or not Renée even knew. Her flighty mother was an eternal sixteen year old, who never held a job or relationship for long before flitting on to the next. Bella grew up moving from apartment to apartment, school to school, and town to town. The closest thing Renée gave her daughter to having roots was her summers with Sue and Charlie. By the time Bella was in eighth grade she had talked her mother into homeschooling, and she took charge of her own education. After enrolling in an online program, she flew through her studies, gaining a high school diploma by the time she was fifteen.
Renée and Sue had both fallen ill during Bella's freshman year at University of Arizona. Renée passed away the following summer, while Sue hung on until she got her undergraduate degree, passing only days after returning home from the graduation ceremony. Bella and Charlie were there, holding her hand as she slipped away from them. She spent the following ten years in medical school and a program at Stanford to get her Board Certification in Cardiothoracic Surgery, and then another year in a fellowship program back at the University of Arizona.
Bella lost Charlie six months after moving here to an aneurism. She had moved back not only to get away from the heat of Arizona, but to find a sense of home, and Uncle Charlie had always provided that. At least he had been there for her graduation from Medical school, and had celebrated with her when she finally reached her goal to become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon. Now she worked at Mercy Medical Center in Muskegon, and was gaining respect from her peers and the medical community in general.
Charlie left her his house as he and Sue never had children of their own. They poured all of their love and affection into Bella's life, and she was ever grateful for all they had given her. It was just difficult looking at her life sometimes, realizing she was now thirty-five years old, and all alone. She had no family. She had no boyfriend. She didn't even have a pet, because she didn't think it was fair to leave an animal alone for fourteen hours a day, four days a week.
She shook herself free of her lonesome thoughts, and looked around. The small store was homey feeling, and clean. As she approached the glass enclosure to look at the treats on display, her stomach grumbled. She heard a soft, deep chuckle from behind the counter at the coffee machine.
As Bella turned to ascertain to whom the laugh belonged, she was rooted in place by sea-green eyes. Utterly mesmerized, she didn't even hear the words being spoken to her until that same chuckle reverberated through her ears once again.
"Are you okay," said a soft baritone voice "is there something I can get for you?"
Bella blinked, and cleared her throat as she tried to pull herself together, and stop gaping. Those eyes, Gah!
"Oh, yes. Yes, I'm fine." Bella blushed. "I-I was just looking at your display case, trying to figure out what I want to treat myself to."
"From the sounds of it, you haven't eaten yet," said the man with the gentle timbre and the beautiful green eyes. "How 'bout you let me fix you something substantial, and a cup of coffee before you dive into the sugar?" There was a twinkle in those verdant orbs.
Bella looked down to her purse clasped in both hands, shaking her head to clear her thoughts as her blush began to spread from her cheeks to her ears and down her neck. She looked back up to take in the whole of the man behind the counter, reminding herself to show no expression at her perusal. She failed. Her lips parted and a small gasp escaped her as she beheld a wild crop of hair the color of a well used penny, high cheek bones, sharp-angular jaw, and a beautifully anfractuous smile. He was quite tall—she estimated six foot two or three—with an athletic build. He was very handsome, and had a piercing gaze. She sucked in a deep breath, hoping that an influx of oxygen might help clear her head so that she could speak coherently.
"If I say yes, will I regret it?" Her face morphed into an impish smirk with one eyebrow raised.
"I'd like to think not." That crooked grin just grew as he drank in the view of her. He swept his eyes over her curvaceous figure, and fought to keep his thoughts in line. The last thing he wanted to do was to have to adjust himself in front of this stunningly beautiful stranger who had just breezed her way into his little store. He'd never seen her before, and hoped that she was not just a tourist. It was, after all the end of May, and beginning this weekend—Memorial Day weekend—the tourists would be out in force. He just hoped he would see this vision of loveliness again. In fact, he hoped he could keep her around for a while today.
"Why don't you go move your car from the pumps to a parking spot, then come back and relax at a table while I get you squared away?"
"I didn't place an order yet." Bella reminded him.
"Are you a vegetarian?" He ginned as Bella's face twisted into a grimace.
"Are you a vegetarian?" He laughed. "It's a straight forward question."
"Um, no." She began to wonder if staying for breakfast was truly a wise idea.
"Are you lactose intolerant?"
"What is this, twenty questions?" Bella rolled her eyes playfully.
"No, but that's a great game to play over brunch. Are. You. Lactose. Intolerant? I promise this is not a trick question."
"No, I'm not a vegan, or intolerant." She blew out an amused breath. "I'm moving my vehicle now."
"Okay, see you in a second."
Bella looked at her reflection against the paint job of her Durango, and grimaced, wondering why the handsome man inside wanted to cook for her. At five foot three, and one hundred and seventy-five pounds, she was certainly nothing spectacular to look at in her opinion. She supposed that she had nice eyes, and a pretty enough face but she was no great catch. She reminded herself to just accept the friendly gestures. Friendship was all she could expect in her own mind. She never would have pictured a man such as that looking at her with desire in his eyes. She shrugged to herself, just knowing that she had misread his lingering gaze.
After the door closed behind her, Edward watched the beautiful woman walk to her large black SUV. As she approached it, she seemed to slow momentarily, and he saw her shoulders slump slightly. He was determined to brighten her day as she just had his.
There was something about her that was refreshing. She was gorgeous, and had a sense of humor. That was plain, but there was something more that drew him. He hoped that he would be able to get to know her a bit over the quiche he already had baking. He had started it earlier because his sister-in-law, Alice was coming in to help today. Business had picked up lately in the afternoons, and he often needed assistance. Alice offered to help if he would let her supply baked goods to sell. He planned to sell confections from the start, but the pastries were a new addition and were just as well received as his hand made chocolates, and fresh roasted nuts.
He had gone to culinary school to learn the art of chocolate making. To support himself, he had worked at a coffee house, and had become their lead roast master. He made his own blend that he marketed here, and it was extremely popular. He hoped he could get the stunning lady on her way back into the store hooked on his brew; he really wanted to get to see her again beyond that day.
After graduating culinary school, Edward moved to Chicago, working among some of the best chocolatiers in the world. His confections had been a hit, and it was not long before some big names in chocolates were knocking on his proverbial door. Once upon a time, his dream job had been to be one of the top chocolate designers for a major company. By the time his dream job called, he had grown tired of being such a long distance from his hometown, and his family. He also had begun to dislike the person he was slowly becoming.
His parents were on the other side of seventy at that point and he was—at thirty—no spring chicken. He was lonely for the quieter life he had grown up in, and for the companionship of his loved ones. There had never been a shortage of offers to him for companionship of the female persuasion. During college, and his whirlwind career in Chicago, Edward had become somewhat of a playboy, and found a new plaything to entertain him frequently. He had come to regret the lifestyle after waking up in a strange bed with two young women whose names he did not know, and whose legal age he questioned in the light of day-with a sober mind. That had been his turning point. He knew that was not the life he wanted to lead, or the person he wanted to become.
That same day, he received the call. A representative from Godiva™ Chocolates called, offering him a position in their design kitchens in New York. It was the brass ring. It was everything he had been working towards… and it held none of the appeal he had anticipated. The reality of the path that such a life was leading to had become unappetizing in that single moment. He politely thanked the representative for the offer, but declined. Within two weeks' time, he had returned to his parent's home in Pentwater, Mi and began to plan his new life. He swore an oath of celibacy to himself, disgusted with the whore he had become while in Chicago, and was determined not to have sex again until he knew that he was with the one.
"Where should I sit?" Her dusky, slightly timid voice stirred him from his reverie.
Edward walked out from behind the counter, slinging his handy towel over his shoulder as he moved. He snitched a "reserved" sign off of a table between the openings to the kitchen and counter/service areas. It was taller than the few other tables that occupied the small dining area, with tall chairs that more closely resembled bar stools, were it not for their comfortable seats and back rests. The interior of the store was well thought out. From the terracotta toned flag stone floors to the brick walls, and bright copper light fixtures to the golden oak tables, seating and counters. Even the layout was inviting, with the conveniences on neatly stocked shelves to the right as you entered the building and the coffee shop on the left, complete with a small set of bookshelves housing a few classics as well as a couple current bestsellers and local newspapers. The piece de resistance was the large open-pit fireplace standing in the middle of the store. There were even two small love seats positioned near the fireplace, presumably for those who wished to snuggle in and read.
Bella was able to ascertain that the placement of the single high table and chairs was advantageous to seeing the customers entering over the top of the other diners. It was an ingenious set up, so homey and inviting. Bella wished she had come here long ago. If she were honest with herself, the bigger draw was currently asking her a question, and she snapped out of it to pay attention.
"Coffee or tea?" Please say coffee!
"Oh, coffee please! I am a serious coffee aficionado, I think it's a part of the job description." Bella's eyes were shining as she smiled up at the man awaiting her order. "I'll take it extra light, no sugar thanks."
"Coming right up, Miss…" Edward's voice trailed off as he waited for her to fill in the obvious blank.
"Oh, I'm sorry! Dr. Swan, but you can call me Bella." She extended her hand which he eagerly took into his own, marveling over how delicate and warm her hand was in his own.
"And I'm Edward, Edward Cullen. Pleased to meet you."
Edward loped off behind the counter to make her coffee, smiling all the while. He was surprised at how forward he we being with Bella. Ah, Bella. The name was apropos. Ever since he moved back to Michigan, he had become more reserved, retreating into the shy behaviors of his youth. It made all the more stark the contrast with the man he started becoming in Chicago. He shuddered slightly, rolling his eyes to himself at the workings of his own mind today.
After pouring a coffee for Bella and himself, he also started a tea steeping for Alice. He placed the three beverages on a small tray and carried them over to set them on the table. As Edward sat down, taking a sip of his coffee, Bella looked at the third cup on the table, puzzled. She tilted her head, and drew her brows, darting her eyes between his and that mysterious third cup in silent question.
Edward laughed at her expression, and held up a finger. "Wait for it…"
A door chimed at the back of the store, in the kitchen area that Bella could not quite see.
"Edward, I have all of the fresh bakery goods we discussed yesterday, and I also threw in a few scones, lemon ones because that just sounded so good to me, and oh my! It smells so good in here, are you baking your spinach-morel, Swiss quiche again? I can't wait to sink my teeth into it. Did you get my cup of Irish Breakfast tea steeping, because I could really use it right about…" Alice's voice dropped off suddenly when she saw the woman sitting with her brother-in-law. She was unused to seeing him interacting with women outside of the family, or taking money and orders from his customers. The only people that had ever shared the reserve table with him were members of his family. Until today. Her mouth fell open in shock.
"Alice, meet Bella." Edward swept one hand in Bella's direction while reaching up with the other to push Alice's mouth shut. "Bella, meet my extremely hyper sister-in-law, Alice."
Bella reached her hand out in greeting, "Pleased to meet you."
"H-hi!," Alice cleared her throat as she collected herself. "It's a pleasure to meet you as well." Alice's eyes shone with excitement. She had a sixth sense about people, and she had a great feeling about this woman. This beautiful lady was going to be her friend—even family—she just knew it.
"Yes, Alice, your tea is steeping, as you see." Edward motioned with his hand toward the large steaming mug on the table. "Why don't you get that quiche out of the oven to rest while you place the pastries in the cabinet, and I'll wait on the customers that just walked in." He stood, locking eyes with Bella.
"I'll be right back, Bella." He smiled warmly at her, setting butterflies loose in her stomach, and a fresh blush spreading over her features. Edward walked with a little more pep to his step back towards the convenience counter to take payment from a customer purchasing a pop and chips.
"Can I get a half pound of your honey-roasted pecans, and a dozen of your Peach-Basil Truffles?"
"Absolutely. Do you want me to gift wrap them, or just box them for you today, Jim?"
"How'd you know they were going to be a gift?" Jim's face registered surprise.
"I have a great memory," said Edward, tapping his left temple as he nodded with a smirk on his face. "You mentioned last week that your anniversary was coming this weekend, and I remember how much Cherie enjoyed that flavor the day I was giving out samples."
"You have a mind like a steel trap, buddy." Jim chortled. "I actually have a gift bag to place it in, so don't worry about the wrap, but thanks for the offer."
"Anytime, Jim." Edward grinned as he measured out the nuts and boxed the delicate confections. "Here you go, man. See you next week?"
"You know it." Jim beamed a wide grin as he waved, then turned and walked back out to climb into his big Rig.
Bella sat watching the exchange, marveling at the way that Edward seemed to have a great rapport with his customers.
"So, peach-basil?" Bella drew her brows together in a dubious expression. "That sounds like a rather odd combination to me."
"I have several combinations that people tend to think sound odd, but once I get them to sample, most are sold." A smug grin was firmly in place on his handsome face as he raised an eyebrow at her, and walked right past her into the kitchen.
A couple minutes later he emerged from the kitchen with three plates of fluffy quiche, placing them on the table and waving Alice over to join them. Bella watched with a small smile as Alice and Edward bowed their heads for a short moment, she assumed they were returning grace.
"I rarely see that anymore."
"My parents used to take us to serve food to the homeless in Grand Rapids before we had our Thanksgiving dinner. We learned what it really meant to be grateful," Edward explained.
"What a wonderful sentiment," Bella looked at her plate feeling slightly humbled. For all of the shortcomings that were a part of her upbringing, she had never known want of food or shelter; only companionship. She took a moment to return thanks for the food placed in front of her, and for the opportunity to meet this amazing man.
Over the next few weeks, she found reasons to visit Pentwater frequently. Twice a week, she would stop into Cullen Conveniences and Confections for gas and coffee. She had grown partial to the blend that could only be gotten here, she told herself. While true, she also knew that the bigger reason she was going out of her way, and adding an additional thirty minutes of travel to her trek to work was the man behind the counter.
Each time she walked in, he had her cup of extra-light, no sugar coffee ready for her, and each time he had some new treat for her to "sample." He never accepted her money for the coffee and goody. Every time he would have some new question for her, continuing with their game that they began over brunch. Alice and Bella had also been getting to know each other. They had exchanged telephone numbers that first day, and had spent a few minutes talking and/or chatting nearly every day since. They had plans to meet up that coming Friday evening to go out on Alice and Jasper's boat. Bella had not met Jasper yet, but felt like she knew him already for all of Alice's gushing.
Alice and Jasper were childhood sweethearts. She had never had another boyfriend, having met him when she and her mother moved to Michigan when she was nine. At the time, Jasper was eleven, and was a sensitive, shy child. The only kids on their small street were the Cullen kids, Alice Brandon, and Emmett McCarty. The five of them would hang out often. They included Alice because Jasper could not stand to see someone being excluded, and there was no one her age within two blocks of their street. He took it on himself to be her friend and defender when the kids at school teased her about her extremely short haircut. Her mother had no time or patience for styling Alice's hair, and kept it in a pixie cut adding more fuel to the fire that was her nickname, "Pixie." The other kids meant it as an insult, but with Jasper's help, Alice turned it into an asset, and learned to work her hairstyle and appreciate her moniker. She lived up to the name at a scant five-foot-nothing.
Bella had spent her whole summer enjoying the company of her new friends. What started as a twice-weekly visit had become a daily trek, as on her off days, she would share breakfast with Edward and Alice before taking off to the beach with Alice and her twins Anastasia and Aaron, and they often took Rose and Emmett's son Nathan as well.
Bella still pined for Edward, staring at him as he waited on customers, and relishing the time they spent together. He seemed more reserved with her than he was in the beginning. Their getting-to-know-you questioning had ceased, and conversations seemed a little bit stilted recently, but she figured that he had no intention of getting closer in their friendship. As much as she wished that Edward were interested in more with her, Bella could not bring herself to blame him. He was an Adonis, and creative genius. She was a plain, bordering on homely woman by her estimation. She was just happy to know that he tolerated her hanging out so frequently.
Edward's summer had been so busy, he had barely had time to enjoy it. He knew that the first five years in business were going to be the toughest, and he started out happily devoting all of his time and energy to running it. He was there seven days a week from six am until six pm, or later in some instances. He had hired only minimal staff to keep the place running, bearing the brunt of the burden himself so that he could invest the majority of the income back into the business. He wanted to make sure that it was firmly established and would last before hiring a full staff to run it. Two years in, and he was exhausted. Exhausted, and now jealous.
He saw Bella every day, and it tortured him that he could not pick up and run off to the beach with her. He longed to see her in a bathing suit. Her cute outfits over the summer had turned his head, and given him plenty of fuel for shower time activities. She was always dressed respectably, even on the hottest of days, but sometimes he would get a glimpse of cleavage that would draw his eyes like a beacon. She was short. Almost a foot shorter than he, and he could not help it if in looking down at her, he occasionally got a peek at her assets… her more than ample assets.
He was always checking her out. He might even say that he had developed an unhealthy obsession with her. He longed to know more about her, but had come to feel like he was being a creeper asking too many questions, so he stopped. The more he knew, the more he wanted to know, and he just knew that he was not worthy to breathe the same air as this gentle woman who saved lives on a daily basis. No, she was so far above him, and deserved a man who had not slept their way through half of Chicago's list of socialites.
As much as he knew about her, she seemed reluctant to tell him exactly where she lived. He knew that she worked at Mercy in Muskegon, so he figured she must live near town, or maybe on the southern end of Mason County. It seemed only natural to assume so, since Muskegon was south of Pentwater. If he had known the truth at that point, that Bella drove fifteen minutes north every day, before turning around, and tracking back the way she came to get to work, he might have realized earlier that she was attracted to him. His low self esteem kept him from seeing the reality under his nose.
She wasn't any better, assuming that this beautiful man could never be attracted to her tubby self. She couldn't see her own beauty. Yes, she was overweight, but she was healthy. She carried her weight in "all the right places" as the saying goes. She was a 38 DD, and had a small waist. She had to have her jeans special made, because she had broad hips, and a bubble butt which were a serious contrast to her waistline. Based on her twenty-eight inch waist, she should wear a size eight, but based on her forty-four inch hips, she should wear a size sixteen. She was grateful that most of her wardrobe consisted of scrubs that had elastic at the waist. It was such an annoyance to find clothes to fit properly that she resented her figure, and could not see how truly amazing her hourglass figure was. She didn't notice men noticing her.
The two had locked themselves into a holding pattern of longing for more than friendship, and fear of branching out. Alice talked to them each individually about being the first to say something, but never went so far as to reveal the mutuality of their regard. She watched them gaze at each other with wistful eyes from across the room. When one would look up, the other would look away, and after three months of this rubbish, she knew that something had to give. She began to hatch a scheme to get them together. She enlisted her mother-in-law to assist her.
Esme and Bella had met several times that summer at the beach and at the store. Esme liked Bella a lot. She could tell that this woman would be perfect for her son… if only he'd get his head out of his behind and reach for her. She too saw the fixed, weighty stares that went back and forth between the two. While he had never gone into any detail with her, she knew that her son had come back home with his tail tucked between his legs, and full of shame. She knew that he had not lived the kind of life she had raised him to, but she also knew that he had a truly good heart. Edward was her oldest, and the least settled in life. He deserved love and happiness, and she wanted both for him so badly. At now seventy-one, she also wanted to see the beautiful grandbabies she knew he would make for her.
Labor Day weekend was coming, and Alice and Esme had fought tooth and nail with Edward to make him take the day off. The entire family was going to the beach for a cookout, and to enjoy spending a rare moment all together. Between Rose and Emmett's garage, Edward's store, Carlisle's still busy schedule at Hackley Hospital, and Jasper's thriving Marina, getting all of her family together at the same time was like pulling teeth. It was a monumental task that seemed to only be accomplished six times a year. She knew she could count on it for Mother's Day, Father's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and either Memorial Day or Labor Day. This year she had managed to pull off the impossible. This year, they were getting together on Labor Day, even though they had already gathered for Memorial Day.
She and Alice had been working on Bella for a few weeks to come to the family cookout. Bella felt awkward about accepting, because she was an "outsider" in her mind. She was so used to being alone that she had a hard time accepting the invitation. How was she supposed to act around such a large family? She wondered. She always dreamed of being a part of a large family, but had come to think it impossible. After all, who wants to date a dowdy almost thirty-six year old, and a virgin at that? After much pleading and cajoling and whining—on Alice's part— Bella had given in.
Labor Day Saturday had dawned bright and promising. Bella was excited to join Edward's family on their holiday cookout. She had managed to finagle the time off by agreeing to work on Monday, which was usually an off day for her, and it was a fifteen hour shift at that. This meant that she had to go in at nine am on Sunday, and do her usual twelve hour shift, then she was going to catch a few hours of sleep in the on-call room before working Monday from three am to five pm. It exhausted her to think about it, but she was eager to spend the day with the Cullens.
Bella dressed thoughtfully for the day. She wore her black swimdress with the halter neck and the large gold buckle at the gathering between her breasts. It did tend to draw the eye to her cleavage, but it was modest, and the least unflattering suit she had managed to find. Over that, she wore black capris and a periwinkle blue loose-knit, summer-weight cardigan that she left unbuttoned. She decided to leave her hair down, since she would be swimming today, and she hated how it always ended up winding itself around her hair ties when she wore pony tails into the water. She was completely oblivious to how lovely the color looked against her Anne Hathaway-esque complexion. She slipped on her black flip-flops, and headed out the door with three dozen of her homemade mini lemon-cheese shortcakes and a large bowl of strawberries, and clotted-cream in a large basket. She hoped that the Cullens would like the clotted cream as much as she did, ever since Katy introduced her to it.
Edward decided to sleep in, taking advantage of his first day off since Memorial Day. Really, he hadn't taken Memorial Day off. The family had an earlier than usual picnic, and he excused himself after the clean up to go back to his store. He knew that his small staff was loyal and competent, but he just couldn't sit and enjoy the time with his family properly when he was constantly wondering if the afternoon rush was overwhelming his employees.
After waking up at the unheard of—to him—hour of nine am, Edward took a leisurely shower, during which he may or may not have enjoyed thoughts of the lovely Dr. Swan, and whitewashed his shower drain. Edward dressed casually in grey board shorts and a black wife-beater with a grey Hawaiian print shirt that had white, black and orange flowers on it. He stepped into his little used black sandals, and ran a hand through his mop to remove the tangles, reminding himself—yet again—to get a haircut, and headed out.
As Edward pulled his deep plum 2010 Dodge Challenger to a stop at his store, he looked up and noticed a familiar Black Durango pulling into the lot. He chuckled to himself at the fortuitous timing, and darted inside to make coffee for himself, and the lovely lady who was pumping gas. He checked to make sure that his staff were all there, and that everything was running smoothly, then took the coffees outside, handing Bella hers as she finished filling up.
Edward paused as he took in her appearance, swallowing hard and willing parts of his anatomy to behave. Her porcelain toned skin was radiant against the black and periwinkle—a color he could only name because it had been Alice's favorite color growing up. This was the first time he had seen her with her hair down. He knew her hair was long, but he didn't realize it went fully to her waist. Her beautiful mahogany locks danced in the slight breeze, and he could smell the strawberry scent from her shampoo and conditioner as it moved. He longed to run his hands through it… to tangle his fist into it at the nape of her neck, and pull her to him. He wanted nothing more than to make a feast of her lips and neck.
Edward offered her to leave her Durango in the lot, and ride with him to the beach. He tried not to feel rejected when she declined, citing the fact that she was always on call for emergencies, and needed her vehicle to cut and run if necessary. She even explained that as a surgeon in her field, she had had flashing lights such as the firefighters use installed in the Durango so that she could get to the hospital faster in those events. The one time she was pulled over, she explained to the officer why she was speeding with flashers on, and managed a police escort as well.
They were the last to arrive at the secluded section of beach that the Cullens owned. Carlisle had bought the beach-front property years before, and the only improvements he had made were a small building with running a counter for filleting fish, a small bathroom for dressing and showering, and he built a small playground for his children, and a pavilion nestled into the trees for shade—perfect for eating away from the sand and sun.
Bella had enjoyed the seclusion of the beach there this summer, since she was so self-conscious. It made it possible for her to wear a swimsuit without the obsessive need to cover it with an oversized tee. Today, however, she was beginning to feel sick at the thought of stripping off her outer layer in view of the men-folk. Specifically Edward.
Nathan, Aaron, and Anastasia all ran straight for "Auntie Bella" as soon as she arrived. The children adored her, and she loved them in return. She had doted on them from the first outing, taking them to the Dairy-Freeze after an afternoon of swimming. As she learned their personalities, she had started bringing them a small gift each time she saw them. She always brought "Annie" hair bows, or clothes for her baby dolls. She brought books for Aaron, or historical documentaries of the Civil War as his father's love of the period had rubbed off onto his son. For Nathan, it was always sports related. A new basketball, an aluminum bat, a baseball cap… today she brought with her a special treat for each.
For Annie, Bella bought a Clinique make up starter-kit, to Annie and Alice's delight, and Jasper's dismay. For Aaron, she bought a Civil War drummer-boy uniform, knowing that next year, Jasper had plans for the whole family to go to Gettysburg for a reenactment on the Fourth of July. For Nathan, she had a signed Jersey by Matthew Stafford himself. She had treated his mother over the summer, giving her a new lease on life, and Matthew offered to do something special for her. This was her request. All of the guys went nuts for the gift, and Bella became the hero of the day.
Dinner consisted of sides and desserts prepared by the women—and of course Edward made candies—and the meat that the men grilled. Hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken and steak… there was so much food, they could have fed an army, and that was just the meat. The sides included Esme's potato salad, Rosalie's grape salad, Alice brought pasta salad, garden salad, and what she referred to as "Lawnmower Mulch." It looked weird, but it was fantastic.
Edward noticed after lunch that Bella had yet to shuck her outerwear and get into the water. Bella noticed immediately when Edward had, drinking in the sight of his toned abs, and back muscles, the manly thatch of hair that grew on his body, and the sexy as all get-out tattoo on his left shoulder. It was his family crest, and it was not just on his left shoulder. All of three Cullen men had one. Jasper and Carlisle sported theirs as proudly as Edward.
Bella was surprised to see one on Emmett's back, as he was a McCarty, and only a part of the family through marriage. That day she learned about how large a role Carlisle had played in his upbringing, because his father went to prison when Em was only nine years old.
All of the Cullen men were easy on the eyes, and the women just sat back and enjoyed the view as they played Frisbee, and played in the water with the children. It was Esme that broke the silent ogle-fest that was taking place.
"Bella, how long have you lived in the area, anyhow? You rarely talk about it."
"I spent all of my summers with my Uncle Charlie growing up." Bella closed her eyes and tried to remain light and focus on the happy memories of her childhood, and not sink into the sad pit of emptiness that her home-life had become. "I moved here after I finished my surgical fellowship, almost four years ago."
"And you went to University of Arizona?"
"Yes, for my undergraduate degree, and my doctorate. Then I went to Stanford because they had the best Cardiothoracic fellowship program, and then I went back to UofA for a year a year to work alongside my mentor there. He wanted to see how far I had come, plus he was working on a brand new technique that he wanted to share with me."
"Sounds like you leave a fond impression everywhere you go." Esme smiled at Bella and touched her arm softly.
"I guess." Bella shrugged, she felt rather indifferent to the statement. She had been friendly with her mentors and professors in college, and even a few of her colleagues, but had not formed any lasting attachments. Until this summer, her last remaining connection in this world died three years ago, and she was all alone. She had been looking forward to spending her first Holidays with family—since she was seventeen—when Charlie died. Throughout college, her intern and fellowships, she volunteered to work on the holidays - allowing those with families time off. She didn't have anyone waiting at home for her. She hadn't even bothered to decorate in over a decade. No, Bella didn't feel like she had left an impression on anyone, anywhere. None that mattered.
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