This was written as a one shot for the What's In Santa's Sack 2013 Christmas compilation, but I've decided to expand it into a short story. There will be seven chapters, and I will post one each day assuming I can get to an internet connection at some point during the day while I'm on vacation.
Thanks to Twiddler83 and staceleo for hosting the compilation! There were a lot of great stories, so if you haven't checked them out yet, search for author "What's In Santa's Sack" to read the other contributions. Let's do it again next year, ladies!
Thanks also to DanceWithMeTonight for creating the awesome banner for this story.
Disclaimer: I don't own Twilight or these characters. No copyright infringement is intended.
Rated: M (The original one shot was rated T, but the expansion will be rated M.)
Summary: Ever the Scrooge, Edward Cullen has no interest in celebrating Christmas. Will his attitude change when he finds a young woman down on her luck?
I should just wear a sign that says that so people will stop wishing me a merry Christmas. That's the third time today, and I have to bite my tongue each time it happens to keep from coming back with a sarcastic retort. Things like "what's so merry about it?" or "I'm an atheist," even though I'm not, go through my mind.
I don't even remember liking the holiday much as a kid. My parents were never around, so there wasn't much point in celebrating with the nanny and the cook. The house was decorated every year, but that was only because Mother thought she had someone to impress. There were never any personal touches in the house, only decorations that were approved by some high-priced interior designer.
One year I actually gave Mother a homemade ornament and asked her to hang it on the tree. She laughed and patted my cheek. "That just wouldn't go with the rest of the ornaments," she said. I never saw that ornament again.
Then, three years ago my brother Emmett passed away from cancer on Christmas Day. If I didn't have a reason to dismiss the holiday before, I certainly did then. Emmett was the only family member that I actually cared about, and who also cared about me.
I treat it like any other day now. The only difference is that my takeout meal that day consists of Chinese food since those are the only restaurants open whereas I try to vary my takeout meals every other day of the year.
I pull my coat tighter around my neck as I walk down the street from my center city Philadelphia office to my brownstone in Rittenhouse Square. I was the last one out of the office tonight, not that that's atypical, but the office emptied earlier than usual today since it's Christmas Eve. The streets are mostly empty already with many people at holiday parties or celebrating with family.
I'm not a complete jerk. I did authorize a company holiday party last weekend—not that I attended. The employees of Cullen Corp know better than to expect me to show up.
I hurry my steps up as I continue walking up 18th Street in the dark. Normally I have a driver take me to and from the office, but once again, I am a nice guy and gave him the night off. I can see the edge of the park up ahead, and I'll cut through it to get home quicker than walking around. There is a six-pack of Heineken with my name on it, and I can already taste the pizza that I'll order later on.
Even with street lamps scattered throughout, the park is dark at six o'clock this time of year. It's also quiet. I enjoy coming here with a cup of coffee and the business section of the newspaper when I'm not working. There are always people milling about or jogging through, but no one ever bothers me.
I'm about halfway through the park and about to cut down the path that will take me to 19th Street when I hear a muffled cry. I stop in my tracks, but the noise also stops. I hold my breath while waiting to hear something more, and let it out when I come to the conclusion that it was just my imagination.
Just as I'm about to walk away, I hear a sniffle coming from my left. This time, I'm sure it wasn't in my head. Looking in that direction, all I see are trees and the benches along the path. It's too dark to see beyond that.
After another sniffle that's followed by a gasping breath, I know I have to go investigate. As much as I want to be home and alone tonight, if someone's hurt I can't just leave them here.
I step off the path and head toward the area where I heard the noise coming from.
"Hello?" I call out. "Is someone there?"
I hear another gasp and the rustle of branches ahead of me and to the left, so I follow the sound once again. "Are you hurt?" I ask this time.
I keep walking until I hear a timid female voice respond. "I'm fine. Don't worry about me."
I take quiet steps until I see the edge of an arm wrapped around a jean-clad leg peeking out from behind a bush. "If you were fine you wouldn't be crying in the bushes," I say gently as I approach the woman and crouch down next to her.
She gasps and looks away quickly so all I can see is long, brown hair hiding her face as she frantically wipes at her eyes. "I'm okay," she says with another sniffle. Her breath swirls around her head in the crisp air. "Just wanted to be alone for a little while."
Ignoring the dirt that will get on my expensive suit pants, I sit down next to her. "Rittenhouse Square may be a nice section of the city, but it's no place to be hiding in the bushes at night."
"You think I don't know that?" she retorts, turning to face me with an angry glare. The woman wipes under her eyes again. "Believe me, if I had somewhere else to be, I'd be there."
I blink a few times trying to process her words as I look her over as much as I can in the dim light shining from the path behind me. Her clothes are casual but clean and her jacket looks to be in good condition. Surely this woman isn't homeless, although there are plenty of homeless people in the city. Regardless, it's supposed to snow tonight and it's already too cold to stay out here for any length of time.
I sigh as I realize what I'm about to do goes against my better judgment. "Listen, the cops patrol this park every hour or so and they won't let you stay here. Is there somewhere I can take you? A friend's house maybe? My car is only a few blocks away."
"I told you, I don't have anywhere to go. Don't worry about me. When the cops kick me out I'll just move on to another place."
"You'll freeze out here," I counter. "You can't seriously be considering staying outside all night."
"I said I'll be fine," she barks. "Just go back to your family and forget you ever saw me."
My gloved hand rakes through my hair. I don't think I've ever met a more stubborn woman, and I haven't even properly met her yet. "Just …" I sigh again. "Come back to my house with me. You can at least warm up and wait for the snow to pass."
A dry chuckle escapes her. "Yeah, right. You're probably some serial killer who preys on innocent women."
I roll my eyes. "Do I look like a serial killer?" I wave a hand over my Armani suit and overcoat.
"Ted Bundy didn't look like a serial killer either," she retorts with narrowed eyes.
"Look, I was only trying to help, but I know when to cut my losses." I reach into my coat and pull out a business card. "My name and cell phone number are on there if you change your mind," I say, handing her the card. She takes it with shaky fingers.
Shaking my head, I stand up and brush the dirt from my pants and coat. With one last look at the woman, I turn and head back to the path that will take me to my empty house. Just as my right foot steps onto the path, I hear her call out and I freeze.
"Wait! Um … Mr. Cullen," she says as she hurries behind me.
I turn around and offer her a smile. "It's Edward."
"Bella," she says shyly. "Um, I don't want to intrude on your family time, but if you have somewhere I could warm up for a little bit, I'd appreciate it."
"I was planning to be alone tonight, so you're not intruding on anything."
"Alone on Christmas Eve?" She looks at me as if that's a foreign concept, so I just raise an eyebrow at her. "Yeah, uh … I guess that was my plan too."
In the light of the street lamp, I can now see that she looks clean and put together, not at all like the bums one would typically find on the streets of Philadelphia. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say she's beautiful, despite her red-rimmed eyes and pink nose.
"Come on," I tell her. "My house is only a few blocks away."
We walk side by side in silence for the few minutes it takes to get to my house. I cast quick glances at Bella and see her biting her lip occasionally as she looks around at the historic houses in the neighborhood.
"This is me," I say as I walk up the marble steps to the front door.
Bella looks around as I unlock it. "No Christmas lights?"
"I don't celebrate Christmas," I say sharply, throwing the door open and stepping inside. A moment later she hasn't moved from the front step. "Are you coming?"
"Um, yeah. Sorry." She steps into the foyer. "I didn't mean to offend you."
"It's fine." I wave her off as I drop my keys into the bowl by the door. "Just don't expect Christmas carols or Christmas cookies here." I take off my overcoat and hang it in the closet then turn to help Bella out of her coat. She drops a backpack on the floor. "Make yourself at home. I'm going to order a pizza. Is pepperoni okay?"
She blinks up at me and for the first time I realize how small she is. She must be a good foot below my six foot two frame.
"Don't worry about me. I'll just warm up and maybe wait out the snow, and then I'll be out of your way."
"Don't be silly, Bella. It's just pizza."
She rolls her eyes and huffs. "Pepperoni is fine then."
I step into the living room and flip the switch for the gas fireplace. "I'll be back in a few minutes," I tell her and then make my way into the kitchen to find the takeout menu for my favorite pizza place. Once the order is placed, I run upstairs and take off my suit, tossing it haphazardly over the chaise in my bedroom. I quickly pull on some jeans and a long sleeve shirt.
A few minutes later I make my way back to the living room where I find Bella looking at the few pictures I have on the bookshelf. "That's my brother, Emmett."
She jumps at the sound of my voice. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be nosey."
I shrug it off and hold up one of the beers in my hand. At her nod, I walk over to her but snatch it back just before she can grasp it. "Are you twenty-one?" I ask with a quirked eyebrow. She looks young but has a maturity about her so it's difficult to tell.
"Yes, actually. I just turned twenty-one in September. Would you like to see my license?" Her smirk gives away her attitude.
"I trust you," I comment with a nod, holding out the beer to her again.
"I don't know why," she says. She holds up her beer and I tap mine against it.
"Neither do I." There's something about her that tells me she's not here to steal from me or take advantage of me. I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it's the way she's dressed or the way she holds herself confidently even though thirty minutes ago she was in a park with nowhere to go. Whatever it is, I don't think I'll regret offering her help.
I wave her over to the couch where we take seats at opposite ends. "You live here alone?" she asks.
"Ah, yes. I do."
"No wife—" she nods toward my empty left hand "—or girlfriend?"
"No wife," I acknowledge. "And I haven't had much time for a girlfriend lately."
She nods and sips her beer.
"How about you?" I question. "No family or boyfriend to go home to for the holiday?"
She looks down and squirms a bit. "No. No one to go home to," she murmurs.
"I don't mean to pry, but I have to ask … you don't look like the type to spend the night in an empty park, Bella. Do you have somewhere to go tomorrow?"
She swallows hard before answering, still looking down and tracing the pattern of the couch with her finger. "Not until the second."
"Of January?" I shout, causing her to jump. I lower my voice. "I'm sorry. Please tell me you weren't planning to spend the week on the streets."
"I hadn't exactly gotten as far as a plan," she says with a huff. "Everything just happened so quickly. One minute I was finishing my exams and the next I was locked out of the dorm with nowhere to go."
"There has to be some other way. Isn't there someone you can call? Family or friends, or maybe someone at the school?"
She looks up at me with watery eyes. "Don't you think I would have called them already if there was someone I could call? I certainly didn't choose this!" Dropping her beer bottle on the coffee table, she stands up and storms across the room, wrapping her arms around her body.
"Oh God, I'm sorry." I put my beer down and cross the room to her. She startles slightly as I place my hand on her shoulder but doesn't shrug it off. "I didn't mean to be insensitive. Why don't you tell me what happened so we can figure out if there's something that can be done. I have a lot of contacts in this city. If there's any way I can help, I will."
She turns and shakes her head. "You've already been kind enough. I'm sorry for yelling at you, but you don't need to be brought in to my problems."
"Bella …" I tug on her hand and pull her back to the sofa. "All businesses are closed for a holiday that I don't like to celebrate. I've got nothing to do for the next few days anyway, so let me help."
She swipes at a lone tear as she sits down, putting her elbows on her knees as she drops her hands between them. "I wouldn't even know where to start," she says with a shake of her head.
The doorbell rings, interrupting whatever she was about to tell me. "Let me grab the pizza. The den is down the hall to the right. I'll bring everything in there in a minute."
With a nod, Bella heads to the den while I go to the door. I tip the delivery boy well as I collect our meager Christmas Eve dinner and then stop in the kitchen to grab some plates. Bella is on the couch when I enter the den. I place the pizza and plates on the coffee table.
"Help yourself," I offer. "Music okay? I prefer to stay away from TV with all of the holiday shows on."
"That's fine," she responds, opening the pizza box and putting a slice on each of our plates while I step over to the stereo and turn it on for some background noise.
We eat in silence and sip our beers for a few minutes. When I notice Bella only picking at what's left on her plate, I decide I can start up our previous conversation. "So, why don't you tell me what led you to Rittenhouse Square?"
She sighs and puts her plate on the table. After kicking off her shoes, she turns on the couch to face me with her feet tucked up under her. "It's a pretty long story. Are you sure you want to hear this?"
"I've got nowhere to be." I give her a reassuring smile.
"I guess everything started with my dad's stroke over the summer. I'm from a tiny town in Washington called Forks, but I've been attending Drexel University on a scholarship. I was home for the summer so I was able to help my dad out, but when it was time for school to start up he insisted I come back here. I had to hire a nurse to take care of him." She picks at a thread on her jeans and doesn't look at me while she speaks, her voice devoid of any emotion, as if she's telling someone else's story.
"Of course, money was tight and I was worried about him when I came back. I guess I didn't realize that my grades were slipping. Then he passed away at the end of November. I went home for the funeral and had to meet with a lawyer because his estate was all messed up with so many medical bills. I thought the lawyer was taking care of everything, but a few days ago I found out that things had gotten worse instead of better.
"I went to buy a ticket to fly home but my bank account was frozen because my father's name is also on it. As much as that sucked, I figured I could wait it out and buy a ticket as soon as the lawyer could unfreeze it. What I didn't think about is that the dorms closed for the holiday as of this afternoon."
My eyebrows shoot up higher and higher as I listen to everything that's happened to her recently.
"To make matters worse, my advisor called me in today and told me that with the results of my finals I lost my scholarship. So, I was locked out of the dorm and I have to go back on January second to collect my belongings, unless I can come up with the money for my final semester of tuition by that time."
She wipes the tears from her face once again and I hand her a napkin.
"Thank you," she says with a sniffle, wiping her face with the napkin. "I just started walking when I left my advisor's office. I'm not even sure how I ended up in Rittenhouse Square, but once I was alone I just started falling apart. I really didn't have any idea of where to go or what to do when you walked by. I still don't." She shrugs and looks up at me with a humorless smile.
My mind is running in a thousand different directions after hearing this poor woman's story. None of this is any fault of her own; it's just horrible circumstances. It is even understandable that someone's grades would slip while dealing with an ill parent and then their death on top of it.
As much as I fight against everything that has to do with the Christmas holiday, I do realize that I'm in a unique position—the position to give. I live a solitary life by choice, but that doesn't mean I can't assist a person in need.
Bella must mistake my stunned silence for something else because she quickly apologizes. "I'm sorry. I really didn't want to burden anyone else with my problems. I'm sure I'll find a way out of this mess. Maybe I could just use your computer to look up a shelter in the area and then I'll get out of your way." She starts to stand from the couch.
She freezes momentarily before jumping into action and putting her shoes back on. "That's okay. I'm sure I'll be able to find somewhere on my own. Thanks anyway."
"No, Bella," I say again, shaking my head. I put my hand on her arm to stop her. "I meant no to you going to a shelter."
She looks at me with a question in her eyes.
"There's no need for you to go anywhere. Look around … I have a huge, empty house. You can stay here." My words surprise even me, but I mean them. Despite our lack of parental affection growing up, Emmett was the most giving person I knew. He'd kick my ass if he knew I was in a position to help someone and turned them away. As much as I hate this holiday because it's a reminder of what I lost, I can at least honor his memory by helping out someone who is down on their luck.
"Edward, I appreciate your offer but I can't accept it."
"Please, Bella. All of the city shelters will be overrun this time of year, so your chances of finding someplace with a bed are already slim. Besides, I'd feel horrible sending you to one of those places. I have two extra bedrooms upstairs that never get used. And, well … you could keep me company tomorrow and keep my mind off the holiday. You'd actually be doing me a favor."
She looks at me with furrowed brows before slowly sitting down. "Why do you want to keep your mind off the holiday?"
"Tell me you'll stay and I'll tell you the reason." I don't know why I'm desperate for her to stay with me, but at this point I'm willing to beg if it comes to that.
After staring at me for a minute longer, she nods once. "If you're sure …"
We sit in silence for another minute before Bella breaks it. "Okay, so why do you not like to celebrate Christmas?"
I clear my throat and turn on the couch, kicking my feet up on the coffee table. "It's, uh … it's never been a big deal to me or my family," I start with a shrug.
"Even when you were a kid?"
"Especially when I was a kid," I confirm. "My parents weren't around much. My brother and I were pretty much raised by the nanny. My father is a doctor at CHOP and we barely saw him. My mother, although technically a stay at home mom, was always involved in one women's group or another."
"They didn't make time for celebrating Christmas with you?" she asks.
I quirk an eyebrow in her direction. "Do you want to hear this or not?"
"Sorry," she says, looking properly chastised.
"Mother would have the house professionally decorated for the holiday, so there were never any personal touches, not even inside the house. Most of the time off that my father would take would be spent going to galas and holiday balls, wherever Mother deemed his appearance necessary. We never saw them on Christmas Eve, and although they'd be home on Christmas Day, there wasn't much to it.
"Sure, there were plenty of presents under the tree, but they would be exactly what Emmett and I put on our lists. Nothing with any thought put into it. We'd have dinner together—dinner that the cook would prepare—and then we'd all go our separate ways.
"As a teenager I didn't see much point to the holiday. My parents made it feel like more of a duty than anything else, so Emmett and I finally just told them to stop bothering." I take a deep breath and let it out through my lips. "Then my brother got sick. Of course my father sent him to all the best specialists, but after living for six years with Hodgkin Lymphoma, he passed away three years ago … on Christmas Day."
"Oh, Edward." Bella's hand on my arm leaves me feeling a warmth throughout my body. "I'm so sorry to hear that."
I shrug it off. "It's no worse than what you went through with your father, which I'm sorry to hear as well. Is your mother around? You didn't mention her."
She sits back in her corner of the couch, and I feel the loss of her hand on me immensely. "No, she's not around. I haven't spoken to her in years. I doubt she even knows I've been in Philly for the last three years, let alone that Dad died."
"Well, we're quite a pair, aren't we?"
Bella gives a little chuckle. "Yeah, we could probably exchange sob stories all night. I think we need to lighten the mood up around here."
"That sounds like a great idea," I agree. "How about I get us some more beer and you pick out a movie?" I gesture toward the entertainment center where my extensive movie collection resides. At least I know she won't pick a holiday flick considering I don't own any.
When I get back to the den, Bella has History of the World: Part 1 in her hand. "I thought we could use a comedy," she says, exchanging the DVD case for her fresh beer.
"You're a Mel Brooks fan?"
"Yeah, my dad and I used to watch his movies all the time. I hated watching sports, and that was the one thing we could agree on."
"Well then, it looks like we could be occupied until the new year. I think I have all of his movies."
I turn off the music and put the disc into the Blu-Ray player, turning on the surround sound and lowering the lights. Bella returns to her spot on the couch while I grab a blanket from the drawer of the entertainment center.
"Care to share?" I offer, holding up the blanket.
I take a seat closer to her this time and open the blanket, spreading it across both our laps before I pick up the remote and press play. As expected, the movie has us both laughing and quoting lines together before long.
About halfway through, I look over and see Bella with a real smile on her face, something I hadn't seen before now. I take in her appearance and realize she's actually a very beautiful woman. Her brown hair is long and wavy, framing her heart-shaped face perfectly. She has expressive brown eyes that smile along with her lips, which are full and plump. Her frame is petite yet curvy, and her clothes offer just a hint of what lies underneath.
She catches me staring but continues to smile, so I lift my arm and offer her a place to rest. Her smile widens before she leans over and places her head on my shoulder. Something about her feels so right, so natural as she lays up against me. I've never been one to cuddle, but then again I've never had much opportunity. Most of my relationships have been over before they started, and it's not an exaggeration when I say I haven't had time for a girlfriend lately.
I've been so focused on getting my company up and running that everything else has fallen by the wayside. It's true that I could easily step back some now that I have the right people in place and things are running smoothly. I have never had a reason to work any less though.
"Could you please step on the same foot at the same time? My tits are falling off!" Bella quotes with the movie. We both laugh at Madeline Kahn's character, and Bella's body rubs against mine with the vibrations of our laughter. I wrap my arm around her a little tighter. She turns her head and looks to me with a smile a mile wide.
There's something about causing this woman to smile that makes me feel like the Grinch when his heart expanded three sizes. For the last hour, I even forgot that tomorrow is my least favorite day of the year.
We follow that movie with Spaceballs and more laughs before realizing how late it's gotten.
"I'm sure I have an extra toothbrush around here somewhere," I tell her as I lead her into one of the guest bedrooms. "The bathroom is just across the hall, and there are towels in the linen closet if you want to shower or anything."
When I look over at her, she's fidgeting with her fingers and shuffling her feet.
"I, um … I don't have any clothes to change into."
"Oh," I say, rubbing the back of my neck. "I'm sure I can find something for you to wear to sleep. Hang on."
I run across the hall to my bedroom and rifle through a few drawers until I find a pair of sweatpants and an undershirt and then head into my bathroom to find a new toothbrush. "Here," I offer when I get back to the guest bedroom. "They'll be a little big, but it's better than sleeping in your jeans."
She takes everything from my hands with a sad look on her face. "Thank you, Edward, for everything. You really didn't have to do this. I'll find a way to pay you back for your hospitality once I get my mess cleaned up."
"Nonsense, Bella. You've already made tonight much more bearable than it would have been if I were alone. I should be thanking you."
She shakes her head but shrugs. "I'm glad I could help, I guess."
Without thought, I pull her into a hug and kiss the top of her head. "Get some sleep. I'll be in my room if you need anything," I say as I release her. "If you're up before me in the morning, help yourself to whatever you want in the kitchen."
I turn and leave her room, walking the short distance across the hallway to mine before collapsing on my bed. This has been such an odd day for me and I don't have a clue what to make of it. As miserable as I was when I woke up this morning knowing what lay ahead, somehow now I feel lighter and more relaxed. Dare I say I actually enjoyed myself tonight?
With that thought, I get myself ready for bed and crawl under the covers. It doesn't take long for me to drift off to sleep while my mind replays the most beautiful laughter I've ever heard.
I wake the next morning to the smell of freshly brewed coffee drifting into my bedroom. Confusion momentarily sets in since I didn't set the coffee pot last night knowing I wouldn't be getting up for work this morning. But then I remember—Bella.
I jump out of bed and go through my morning routine as fast as possible, not sure why I'm so anxious to get downstairs. As I approach the kitchen I hear music playing, and when I turn the corner I see the back of Bella as she sways her hips to the beat while standing over the stove.
I'm suddenly dumbstruck watching her body move. Although she's wearing clothing that's much too large for her, there's a seductiveness to her movements that causes my dick to twitch. The domesticity of the act while she wears my clothes only adds to the allure. My undershirt is tied in a knot on her right hip, allowing a sliver of skin to peek through above where my sweatpants are rolled and resting low. My cock jumps again as I look at the creamy skin.
Jesus, I need to get laid.
It's too bad I've never been one for casual sex. The act itself is great—no guy in his right mind would deny that—but I don't enjoy it as much when there are no emotions involved.
I need to break this train of thought immediately before I pitch a tent in my sweats. The semi I'm sporting right now is bad enough.
I shake my head and then clear my throat, startling Bella in the process. She jumps and spins around, her hand coming up to rest on her chest when she sees me in the doorway.
"You scared me," she says, breathless.
"Sorry about that."
"I hope I didn't wake you."
"No, you didn't. But you didn't have to do all of this," I tell her, waving to the pile of pancakes and the already set table.
She shrugs and turns back to the stove. "It's the least I could do. You didn't have much to choose from, but I hope you like banana pancakes."
"You made these from scratch?" I know I didn't have any pancake mix in the house.
She slides the last pancake off the griddle and adds it to the stack before placing the spatula in the sink and taking the plate to the table. "Yeah, you had all the basic ingredients so …" She trails off and shrugs again.
"It looks delicious. Thank you." I head over to the cabinet and grab a mug, gesturing to Bella to see if she wants coffee. At her nod, I take out a second mug and fill them both before bringing them to the table. "Milk?"
I get the milk from the refrigerator while Bella puts some pancakes on each of our plates. Before long, we're both digging in and I'm humming my appreciation. "This is delicious, Bella. I can't even remember the last time I had a home cooked breakfast."
She smiles at me. "I'm glad you like it. If you had more food here, I'd cook dinner tonight. I like cooking but obviously can't do much of that in the dorm." Her expression falls at the end of her statement, no doubt a result of her precarious situation for next semester.
I watch her eyes drop to her plate, but instead of eating another bite she pushes the food around. My chest begins to ache as I think about the issues she has to deal with. If anyone has reason to be bitter right now it's Bella, yet here she is trying to be as happy as possible with the hand she's been dealt.
I don't understand why I feel so protective of this young woman. There's something inside of me that doesn't want to see her in pain, and if I'm honest with myself, I crave her smiles. The next words are out of my mouth before I even have time to consider them.
"What if I gave you the money for your last semester of tuition?"
She looks up at me with wide eyes. "What?"
I drop my fork to the plate and sit back in the chair. "It's not like I can't afford it."
"No. Absolutely not. You've been very kind and I appreciate your hospitality, but I'm not going to let anyone clean up my mess." Her words are final and she pushes back from the table, her chair screeching across the hardwood floor. Before I know what's happening she has stormed out of the room.
I let out a breath through puffed cheeks. That definitely didn't go over well. I still can't wrap my head around my need to help her, but I want to find a way to do it anyway.
Giving her some time to cool off, I finish eating the delicious pancakes and clean up the kitchen. There's not much to do because Bella must have cleaned as she worked. Once the plates are in the dishwasher and the griddle is wiped down, I top off Bella's coffee and my own then head upstairs.
With both mugs secure in one hand, I knock on her door gently. "Bella? Can I come in for a minute?"
A moment later, the door opens and I see a red-eyed version of the beautiful woman I've come to know. She's still beautiful, but I sigh as I realize I'm the cause of her latest tears.
I step into the room and hand her the coffee and then take a seat in the chair in the corner. "Thank you," she says quietly as she sits on the edge of the bed.
"I'm sorry about before," I start. She goes to speak, but I hold up my hand. "Just let me say this and then you can have at me all you want." She chuckles while looking into her mug so I continue. "I didn't mean to offend you or insinuate that you couldn't take care of yourself. But this also isn't your mess. You had no control over your father's health, yet you're stuck dealing with the aftermath of the problems anyway.
"I'm in a position to help, and that's all I want to do. I could give you the money as a loan until you're back on your feet so you can finish school. If it would make you feel better, I can even draw up paperwork to say that you'll pay it back over time once you have a job. No one should be forced to drop out with one semester left, and that would take part of the pressure off of you.
"If it were any other time of the year and you were not stuck with only a week to handle this—a week where most businesses are closed—you'd be able to get a loan on your own. All I'm doing is offering an alternative while you're in a time crunch."
She takes a sip of her coffee and puts it down on the nightstand. "Why are you doing this?" There is no malice in her voice, just genuine curiosity.
I sigh, knowing I don't have an explanation. "I don't know. If you ask anyone who knows me, they'd tell you that I'm normally a Scrooge, especially this time of year. Maybe it's because I've been thinking of my brother when I normally try to put him out of my head. Maybe it's because you haven't asked for a thing. Maybe I just feel the need to help. Or maybe it's just you." I run my hand through my hair. Nothing is making sense in my head at the moment, but I can't give up.
"Please, Bella, just consider it. You don't have to give me an answer right now. The offer stands, so you can take some time to think about it. Now, unless you still want to tear into me, we have a whole bunch of Mel Brooks movies waiting for us."
The last comment at least gets her to crack a smile. "I'll be down in a minute."
I head downstairs and get the next movie ready while I wait for Bella. As soon as she arrives, we get settled under the blanket and I press play to start To Be or Not to Be. It's only fifteen minutes into the movie when I realize that Bella hasn't laughed once while I've been cackling up a storm at the on-screen insanity. I peek at her through the corner of my eye and see a glum expression on her face.
That just won't do.
I pause the movie and turn to Bella. She's still staring at the screen blankly. "What's wrong?"
"Hmm?" She turns to look at me once she realizes the movie is no longer playing. "Sorry, I was just dazed out for a minute."
"Um, no, you've been in another world since the movie started. What's wrong?"
"Nothing. I'm fine." Her attempt at a smile falls short.
"Bella, come on. After everything we talked about last night, surely you can tell me what's on your mind now."
She huffs out a dry laugh. "Trust me, this isn't something you want to hear."
I don't miss the emphasis she placed on that sentence. "Just tell me." I turn to face her with my back against the arm of the couch.
She shakes her head. "Don't say I didn't warn you." I nod, so she continues with a shrug. "I'm just sad that I'm not celebrating the holiday, and especially that I don't have my dad here anymore."
"Ahh," I acknowledge. There's obviously nothing I can do about missing her father but … am I really considering this? I close my eyes for a moment and suck in a breath, steeling my nerves as I open them. "What did you normally do to celebrate?"
She turns to face me, stretching her feet out to the middle of the sofa so I mirror her position, the blanket still covering both of our lower halves. "The usual, I guess. I'd cook us a big breakfast before we opened gifts, we'd watch Christmas movies on TV, I'd have holiday music playing while I made dinner. Usually a bunch of people would show up throughout the day. My dad was Chief of Police so people were always stopping by to drop off baked goods and stuff."
I watch her as she picks at the ends of the blanket, looking down the entire time she speaks, and I know I need to do something to bring back her smile. The decision is an easy one.
I turn the power off to the Blu-Ray player and pick up the remote control for the TV. "What are you doing?" she blurts. "I thought we were watching Mel Brooks all day."
"We can do that tomorrow." I flip through the on-screen guide until I find something suitable. With a gulp, I press enter to change the channel. "How's this?" I ask as the TV flicks to A Christmas Story.
"Edward, you don't have to do this." She leans forward and puts her hand on my arm. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable in your own home."
I drop the remote on the table and put my arm around her shoulders, pulling her body closer. "It was making me uncomfortable to see you so upset. It's no big deal. Let's watch the ridiculous Christmas movie."
She doesn't say anything for a moment but then turns and looks up at me with joy in her eyes. "Thank you," she says quietly. She kisses me on the cheek and then settles back next to me, snuggling in to watch the movie.
I try to pay attention only to her giggling instead of the sound coming from the TV, but eventually I'm also drawn in.
"I can't put my arms down!"
"Well … put your arms down when you get to school."
I find myself laughing as I watch the antics on the screen when Randy rolls around in the snow because he can't get up while wearing all of his snow gear. It takes me a minute to realize that Bella is now sitting up and looking at me. When I turn to her, there's a strange look in her eyes.
Our eyes stay locked for a long moment. My mouth goes dry and I lick my lips, feeling a tingling sensation running throughout my body. Our heads inch closer to one another. Without conscious thought, my lips capture hers as my hand comes up to rest on her neck.
Bella gasps lightly against my mouth but her lips respond, molding softly to mine over and over again. The tingling increases to a buzz I can feel on every inch of my skin, and I come to the sudden realization that Christmas miracles do happen, even to me.
I pull back to look at Bella, who looks even more beautiful with flushed cheeks and red lips. Her eyelids flutter open.
"Merry Christmas, Bella," I whisper.
Her responding smile is warm enough to thaw even my cold heart.