A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Only You Can Love Me This Way,” Keith Urban
(Playlist for this story can be found on my YouTube channel, if you search for “ghostreader24”)
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. The NHL owns anything that sounds familiar. I’m here having fun.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
At the opening of the side door down the hallway off the kitchen, Scout gruffs, then jumps off the couch where we’ve been stewing in the great room after the call to my lawyer. Well, I have. He’s been snoozing. I need to take Scout and Shadow for a walk, but I wanted to be here when Bella got home. Maybe we can all go together. I just need her more than anything right now.
Her sweet voice is a soothing balm to my tattered heart. I’m doing everything I can not to leap off this couch and join Scout, eager for her arrival.
“How was your day?” she asks him.
Shadow and I watch from where we’re sitting as Scout emerges from the hallway first with his wagging tail, as if he just won the jackpot. I couldn’t agree more when I see Bella trailing behind him. After setting her messenger bag and purse on the island, she smiles once her eyes land on me. With her heels already in her hands, she sets them on her bag, then walks over to where I’m sitting.
“Hello, my handsome fiancé.” She wiggles the fingers of her left hand and her engagement ring sparkles in the light. “How was your day?”
“This is the best part.”
“Me coming home?”
“My fiancée coming home. It feels like the first time I’ve smiled all day,” I reveal.
She frowns. “Oh, no. A case of the Mondays?”
“This one just sucked door-to-door.”
“Yeah, we need to talk.”
“That’s never a good start to a conversation.” Bella’s brow furrows. “Shit. Is it me? Did I do or forget something?”
“No. Maybe I should say I need to. I just got off the phone with my lawyer. I don’t know what to do. I missed my nap, and my head is so full of garbage—”
Bella pushes her fingers through my hair soothingly. “Hey, it’s okay. We’ll talk. I’ll go put my stuff away and change out of my work clothes, then we can have dinner. You’ll feel better once you eat, and I know, I’m starving. We’ll go to bed early and help you catch up on sleep. I could use it too.”
She reaches for the remote, turns on the television, and changes the channel to the hockey network before kissing my lips. “There. That should help too.”
The on-edge feeling I’ve been experiencing since Heidi’s call eases a little. “Thanks. You make everything better.”
“How was working while wearing your engagement ring today?” I wonder. “It was the first time.”
Bella shrugs. “It’s different, but no issues whatsoever. I told you. It isn’t too big. It’s perfect. And everyone is jealous.”
“Well, not your sister.” She winks, then kisses me once more. “And she said you need to call her. I’ll be back in a bit.”
With Bella’s departure, I release a heavy sigh, then continue petting Shadow. My sister will have to wait. She’s probably upset that she didn’t know about my proposal, but I have more important things to deal with right now.
Shadow purrs as I give her extra attention, scratching behind her ears while Scout walks over to check his empty food bowl. When Bella returns, she’s wearing one of my T-shirts tied at her waist and leggings. I watch as she opens the freezer and ponders our choices for dinner.
“Fish or no fish?” she asks, unwrapping a frozen peanut butter cup and popping it in her mouth. “Mmmm. This is good.”
“Who said that? You or Shadow?”
I smile. “Both.”
“Did you eat the last of the wedding leftovers? Is there any of that Grigliata Mista left?”
“I ate it yesterday.”
“Maggie said she would send the recipe, but it’s simply a mix of grilled seafood. I can probably figure it out if you want me to try to make that,” Bella tells me. “It was so good, or is that too heavy on your stomach? We have swordfish, seabass, and shrimp. No prawns, tuna, or squid. I think those were in there too, right? There’s always old faithful—salmon.”
She wiggles her eyebrows obviously aware of how much salmon I eat. It’s getting ridiculous, but so easy and safe on my stomach, especially when I’m away from home.
“Whatever you want to make, I’ll eat. Maybe just one type of fish. Simple is good. And some pasta also.”
“No sauce,” I remind her.
“I know. I’ll toss it with a little olive oil, a squeeze of lemon, then salt and pepper.” She jerks her chin toward Scout who is sitting patiently next to his food bowl. “Have they eaten? Scout says no, but he always says no.”
“They haven’t, and they need a walk. Scout would probably love a little fetch afterward too.”
“Then we can do that together once we’re finished with dinner.” She nods, opening the refrigerator. “Oh—what about some veggies? You like those. Maggie left this mix of sautéed zucchini, bell peppers, and eggplant. I don’t want to give you the wrong thing the night before your game.”
“They should be okay—add them to the pasta.”
“Got it. So, are you going to tell me about your conversation with your lawyer while I fix dinner?”
“Yeah, but that’s not where I should start. Maybe we should go back to Friday. But we’re going to need to go back farther for you to understand today’s conversations, and not just those with my lawyer either.”
After Shadow leaps off my lap, I stand and walk into the kitchen while they look on as I fill Scout’s and Shadow’s food bowls with scoops of dry kibble.
“Friday? You’ve been sitting on something since then? No wonder your head is a mess.”
I shrug. “I was gone with games on Friday and Saturday. I wanted to have this conversation in-person. Plus, yesterday was ours—no one else’s.”
“Okay. Give it to me in whatever order makes the most sense to you,” she encourages, removing a roasting dish from the cabinet for the fish. “I’ll ask questions when necessary, but I’m positive I can keep up.”
Leaning against the island, I know I just have to get this . . . poison out of me when it’s tainting every thought. “My dad—”
“Yeah, he showed up at Friday’s practice, wanting to talk afterward, but really, he wanted to provoke me.”
Her eyes find mine while filling a pot with water for the pasta. “About?”
“You. And our baby.”
“Mom told him.”
She nods. “And what did he say?”
“He questioned if I was the father.”
“I didn’t take that well. Actually, I punched him—more than once.”
Her shoulders sag under the weight of my reveal, and she turns off the water. “Oh, Edward.”
“I know. I’ve never done that before. I mean, I’ve been in fights, but never physically with him. He made me so damn mad to question something like that. And the way he did it.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but is he okay?”
“I don’t know. He left.”
Her face fills with confusion. “What do you mean he left?”
“I went over to Mom’s house this morning after practice to tell her about the proposal and to check-in with her. He wasn’t there. She hasn’t seen him since Friday morning. He’s on a fishing trip with friends,” I explain.
“And you believe that?”
Shaking my head, I know deep down I don’t. “All his fishing poles and tackle box are in the garage. They haven’t been touched. His car is missing.”
“How long before we should be alarmed? What if something bad happened?” she wonders, starting the burner under the pasta pot. “Oh, wait—or is he lying to her?”
“He’s been lying to all of us, and it isn’t the first time,” I confide.
“Where is he?”
“Mom refuses to track his phone, but if I had to guess, Oklahoma. It’s the closest.”
Bella tilts her head in question. “Closest what?”
“He said he would stop. There are always promises. They last for a while, then money goes missing. I’ve tried to protect Mom and Rose financially. That’s all I can do. Rose . . .” I shake my head. “She gave him thirty-thousand dollars once.”
Her eyes widen with disbelief. “No shit?”
“I was so mad at her—that she would do something like that. Emmett was the one to tell me about it. When I confronted her, Rose said she was only trying to help, but Dad never paid her back. He pissed it all away. I’m not going to let him take anything from either Mom or Rose,” I state adamantly. “But Mom, like Rose did, she’ll cave eventually, enabling him.”
“Edward, this is—what is he playing with the money?”
“Mostly poker, I believe. That’s what it’s been in the past.” I shrug.
“Wow. What about . . . sports betting? I mean it’s nearly everywhere now. Is he betting on your games?” Bella asks.
“I don’t know.” Considering her suggestion, I watch as she lines the pan with foil, adds the fish, then adjusts the knobs for preheating the oven. “Probably. Fuck. It makes more sense now.”
“What makes sense?”
“His connection with Jake. Jake has probably been feeding him what he posed as insider information for years.” I chuckle sadly. “They’re both idiots because it’s never paid off. At least not for Dad. Maybe that was Jake’s plan all along. Fuck us both over. I called Heidi.”
“Your ex?” Bella clarifies.
“Yeah. She confirmed that you’re right. They’re working together. Against me. Can you believe that shit? I can’t trust either one of them.”
“Oh, Edward. I’m sorry.” She reaches out, cupping my jaw, then lifts onto her toes to kiss my lips. “Are you okay?”
“Not at all. I need to fire Jake, but Steve—”
“Yeah, he said our original contract states I need to give notice—ninety days before I can fire him unless I have cause, which includes fraud, theft, or abuse. Heidi believes Jake is behind the rumors on that website I told you about, leaving me with the only path being a trade out of the state to another team when you dump me.”
“Obviously, that isn’t happening,” Bella states unequivocally. “Ugh. I swear. Jacob is . . . shouldn’t this qualify as some sort of aggravating abuse? Or shouldn’t you be able to trace information about the original poster?”
“I don’t know. Steve isn’t confident that I can end our relationship immediately with what I shared. I doubt anyone would be able to link him to that website bullshit. He’s smarter than that to use anything traceable. I’m not the first athlete to have rumors spread about me, and I won’t be the last. Ninety days puts us at the end of the regular season and extends into the playoffs. I can’t imagine keeping him for that long, but undoubtedly, it’s what I’ll be forced to do. I have no choice. The timing of all this is horrible. I don’t need any of this shit in my head, and I have no idea what to do about Dad.”
She shakes her head. “Thirty. Thousand. Dollars. Wow. Where did it come from? Savings or—”
“Dad asked Rose to take it out of the home, but she couldn’t since I own it,” I explain. “He suggested that she forge my signature with some online home equity loan company. Dad claimed he was in trouble and owed a guy—didn’t want Mom to know or get hurt, only it wasn’t true. There was no guy. She emptied an entire savings account for him.”
“Holy shit! Really?”
I nod. “When Rose and Emmett were dating, she leaned on her friendship with Alice, hoping to find a spot for Em to work with Jasper. Without a college education, Jasper put Em on a construction crew. While it was steady income, they still didn’t have the money to buy a home before they planned to get married. Rose was still in college and they could barely afford the apartment where they were living. She took out loans to cover her college expenses, which I paid off after she graduated.” I blow out a breath, remembering my anger at my father at the time.
“Rose asked Dad for money before coming to me, and he told her no—get a job, if they wanted to get married or buy a house. I paid for the wedding she wanted. I paid for their home, and I continue to pay for its maintenance, plus the taxes and insurance. It’s an investment—my sister and her family are worth it. I don’t want them to worry. They cover their other expenses for the kids, cars and shit. But I’m the one who provided for them then, and I continue to protect them now.”
“Oh my goodness. That’s—I wondered when we went over all the properties, why Rose and Em weren’t listed as owning their home.”
“But it isn’t, Edward. I saw the paperwork. Legally, we should change that.”
I know that’s a risk I’m not willing to take. “And I’ve got thirty thousand reasons why we shouldn’t. While it was a bad decision on my sister’s part and a low point, I don’t believe Dad has reached bottom yet.”
“That’s incredibly sad. You don’t trust your sister.”
“Can you blame me? If it wasn’t for me, who would be there for her? Where would they be? What if they lost their home because of him?”
“Emmett and Rose are in better financial positions now. Both have stable jobs and the kids are older. What about your mom?”
“Where to start?” I brush my fingers through my hair, then release a heavy sigh. “When she told you about how she met our father at your parents’ wedding?”
“She never shared that before. It was new information for me and probably Rose too. After my father died, we all felt his loss for some time. It was just the three of us and we were all struggling, especially Rose.”
“Clearly those wounds haven’t healed yet. They may never,” Bella says.
“I was a kid when it happened. I didn’t think about Mom ever finding someone new until she met Carlisle. And I already had this connection with him through hockey. I just don’t understand when it all changed.” I pause, thinking back and trying to recall a particular instance. “Maybe when Rose and I left home? Maybe they stayed together for us. Or me?”
“They’re still together now. So, I doubt that’s the case. There must still be something there.”
“Mom always comes to his defense or brushes off my concerns until there’s no avoiding them. Regardless, that doesn’t change our current situation. When he finally loses all the money or credit he’s been given access to and returns home, she’s going to see the marks I left.”
“Will he tell her it was you?” Bella asks.
“I don’t know. I can’t predict him anymore.”
“If he was going to press assault charges, I guess you would have heard something by now.”
“That’s what my lawyer said. I’m just so done with him. I can’t trust him in any capacity. With Rose. Mom. You. My career—whatever’s left of it.”
“Hey, you’re not done yet,” she says softly, then smiles. “As you always tell me, there’s a lot of hockey left for you to play.”
“What if I . . . ?” I start.
“What?” Bella prompts.
“What if I changed my name back to Masen?”
She blinks rapidly. “Wow. Okay. I think that would definitely hurt your mom. And Carlisle—which is probably what you are going for. Maybe your brand recognition too. You would be making a very private family situation, public. Are you sure that’s something you want to do? You would be inviting plenty of questions and speculation.”
“And I can say no comment. Rose changed her name when she married, and Masen is still her middle name. I think I want my name back. You could be Dr. Bella Masen.” I know she’s been reluctant about a name change, but maybe this idea could sway her.
“Rose isn’t a professional hockey player with branding deals, and I just want to point out that you’ve been a Cullen for a lot longer than a Masen.”
I shake my head. “Not true. I’ve always been a Masen. I was born a Masen. Are you going to tell me that you want our kids to have his last name or mine?”
“Up until a few moments ago, I didn’t realize Masen was an option. And of course, I want our children to have our last name, whatever we choose that to be.”
“Your name is as important as mine. We could hyphenate. Swan-Masen. You can be first.”
Bella eyes me carefully. “That’s a lot for a kid to learn to spell when they’re young.”
“Then, let’s all go Swan. Rose became a McCarty, and I can change mine to Swan. Edward Masen Swan.” There will be an adjustment period, but I’ll adapt.
“I think we should sit on this one for a little while and not make any drastic changes,” Bella suggests.
“You sound like my lawyer,” I concede. “He said I should talk about everything with you. I think his specific comment was that I’m being unreasonable and maybe you could talk some sense into me.”
“I’m liking him even more now.” She smiles. “It’s a lot to consider. Professionally and personally.”
The oven beeps that it’s ready, and I watch as she slides the pan onto the rack before setting the timer.
“I just want us to be happy, Bella.”
I lift her to sit on the edge of the kitchen island, then spread her legs apart, settling between them.
“I am happy, but I do have several concerns, especially for you. The overriding one is that Carlisle won’t respond favorably to these changes you want to make, essentially cutting him out of your life. If his back is against a wall, what is he capable of doing? Or Jacob? I suspect neither will go away quietly, and I don’t want them damaging your career or hurting you any further.”
“I have no idea, but I’m not going to live in fear of the ‘what if’,” I promise.
“I’m not saying you should, but in this situation we need to think further ahead. We both know I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be by your side for everything. But what does the future look like for you? When you finally hold the Stanley Cup above your head, and you’re celebrating, is your dad there?” Bella questions.
Thinking back to my words in the heat of the moment, I know I can’t take them back, not that I’m planning to do so.
“I may have fucked that up. Friday . . . I told him never to come near or speak to either of us ever again.”
We’re both quiet as she considers the impact of my declaration.
“It sounds as if you both know how to get under each other’s skin. Family can be like that sometimes. So, is he there celebrating with you?”
I nod. “He’s there.”
“I thought so. Then we need to work toward that picture—including him, no matter how challenging that could be. Baby steps,” Bella says.
There’s no keeping the grin from my face, and I reach out covering my hand over where our baby is growing. “Pumpkin steps.”
She holds her hand over mine. “I’m a big change, and Pumpkin will be too. For as much as we are excited by the changes we’re making together, Carlisle is having trouble accepting me into your life. From my understanding of your previous relationships, this isn’t new. He sees me as a threat to his control over you. This connection between us—he doesn’t know what we know—how strong we are together. Maybe he’s never experienced that with your mother.”
“We are stronger together,” I confirm.
Bella smiles, then it fades slightly. “I understand your mother’s loyalty to him, but sometimes people marry for other reasons. Maybe they didn’t marry for love. Your mother already did that, and it was taken away from her unexpectedly. I’m not saying she doesn’t love Carlisle in some way, but—”
“He married her for money?”
“Possibly. Your money or your potential. Was there any type of life insurance settlement that your mother received?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you cut yourself from his life, where does it leave him? You’re probably the best part. If something were to happen to him—well, I don’t want you blaming yourself. He knows you won’t abandon your mother or Rose, and you’re his only family. He’s lashing out against me, and when that doesn’t work, against you about me.”
“I won’t ever forget what he said.”
“But can you forgive him?”
“For you? Absolutely.”
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
Tuesday night at AAC, I’m feeling good. Nah. Scratch that. I’m feeling great—lighter, calm, and focused. It has everything to do with my fiancée, sitting just beyond the glass behind my net. After our conversation yesterday, I let go of some of the betrayal and hostility I was feeling over the situation with Jacob and Dad. Jacob is motivated by greed, pure and simple. Dad was trying to be hurtful in the most spiteful and cruel way, but my behavior wasn’t any better.
While I’m not ready to make peace with him yet, it doesn’t mean I won’t in the future. If he wants to remain in our lives, he will need to make changes going forward, but that’s on him, not me. And right now, an apology to either of us simply isn’t good enough for moving forward. I need him to admit he is wrong. About Bella. About me. About my place on this team. Or else, we’re at an indefinite stalemate.
As I stretch, my gaze shifts from Bella to her parents who are here with Victoria, Al, and Garrett. I noticed Mom earlier with Rose, Emmett, and the kids. They came down to say hello, then left not long ago for the smaller suite I reserved, since it’s only family here tonight. They’ll watch from there, where there’s plenty of food and additional seating.
Generally, as I work through my pregame routine, my teammates leave me alone while I’m in my own little bubble, but Vladdy skates close, tapping on my pads lightly with his stick, prompting my grin. He’s back for tonight’s game, but unfortunately, Marcus is out. It is the first game he will miss this season. Marcus skated a little during warm-ups before ultimately deciding to take the night off. Something’s just not right and he can feel it. With his reassurances that it is only minor, he plans to be on the plane when we depart after tomorrow morning’s skate for our next three-game road trip. We’re playing Toronto, Montréal, and Ottawa on this next one. And I’m missing Valentine’s Day because of it.
Not ideal, but Bella understands the schedule is set and unrelenting. When I mentioned making it up to her, she stopped me from continuing, reassuring me that isn’t a path for me to take. It’s our life and I need to stop thinking that I always need to apologize or make something up to her for missing important dates or events. Either way, I don’t feel great about not being home for this first one.
We have plans for dinner together Friday night via a video call, but I’m also sending two dozen long-stemmed red roses to her office earlier in the day. Carmen claims to have found another item I requested—the biggest heart-shaped box of chocolates she could find. I sent her a photo of one I found on the internet from a place in Brooklyn. It has over two hundred pieces of chocolate inside, and I’m hoping it or something similar will blow Bella’s mind with her love for everything chocolate.
I’m thrilled that she’s here for tonight’s game. Now, I just need to focus on doing my part with a win against Carolina. It’s their last stop of a four-game road trip. They opened it with a loss to St. Louis, then took wins over Arizona and Vegas. We’re all ready to derail any momentum they could be gaining.
It’s also Military Appreciation Night. While we have special camouflage warm up jerseys and tape for our sticks, the first fifteen thousand fans were given camouflage baseball caps with our logo upon entry. I also have a new mask for tonight, which looks pretty cool with its green, black, and white camo design. It, our jerseys, and some game-used pucks will be signed, then auctioned off online after the game. The proceeds from the auctions and our fifty-fifty raffle will go to a couple of charities for veterans we’re highlighting this evening.
After the singing of our National Anthem, I slide on my mask—loose and eager for the puck drop at center ice. Once we’re underway, we capitalize early in the period when two of Carolina’s players run into each other near me, giving us a four on two opportunity at the other end of the ice. With their goaltender at the top of the crease hoping to fend off our attack, Demir shifts the ice, passing to James who scores easily and we’re on the board first, one-zero.
While we take a penalty for boarding, I deflect every shot on goal from Carolina’s power play unit. Unfortunately, moments later when they’re at full-strength a shot gets past me. I’m curious to see the replay, because I thought I had it blocked with my fully extended leg and skate. As I watch overhead, it’s clear that the puck barely squeezes past my toe—a matter of inches.
In the final minute of the period, Carolina gets another opportunity, and I block that shot, but the rebound almost gets away from me. I dive to stop any second chance with my stick while sprawled out on the ice. It’s a close call, but l keep the puck out of the net. When the sound of the horn marks the end of the first period, I breathe a sigh of relief and we go into the intermission tied one-one.
In the second period, Carolina takes several penalties. While we’re on a power play, Surčin scores on a rocket of a one-timer with assists from Demir and Jonsu, putting us up two-one. In the replay, the puck hits with such force that it shatters the lid of the goaltender’s water bottle where it’s stored in the holder on the back of the net.
After a short delay for its replacement, play resumes and we find ourselves on the power play once again. With several quick passes, it’s one from Tyler to James that scores his second goal of the game in the top left corner of the net. We’re up three-one by the second intermission.
With the arrival of the third period, we continue to grind away winning faceoffs, blocking shots, and putting hits on key Carolina players. Every power play, James is on the ice, seeking that elusive third goal. With two minutes remaining, Carolina pulls their goaltender, leaving everyone with the same thought—get the puck to James.
After another short shift, James hops back on the ice. I deflect a shot on goal into the corner that travels around the boards out to the blue line. The Carolina defenseman takes a hard hit from Vladdy, forcing him off the puck. James seizes the opportunity, grabbing the puck, then skates with it toward the empty net. With a Carolina player hot on his trail, James shoots and scores, giving him his sixth career hat trick.
At the sound of the goal horn, the hats begin to rain down onto the ice. While we wait for those to be collected by our ice crew, I glance up and notice Bella with her parents and friends, sending theirs over the netting. The hats will be bagged, then it will be up to James to figure out how to get them home. With the rate they’re continuing to fall, they’ll probably fill his entire car, but what a great problem to have.
Once the final seconds of the game tick off the clock, we win with a score of four-one. I’ve made twenty-four saves for my third straight win. James is the first star of the game with Demir and Surčin as the other two. After returning to the locker room, Coach shares his kudos on how we executed our game plan and compliments my solid performance in net.
It’s a good night, only to become a great one when I learn that James, Demir, and Coach will be speaking with the media, letting me off the hook. As quickly as possible, I finish my postgame workout and emerge from our locker room freshly showered and dressed in my suit. My smile can’t get any wider when I find my fiancée waiting among our family and friends. She leaps into my arms, and after a brief kiss, I bury my nose in her hair, relishing the smell of her.
It doesn’t get better than this.
After a round of congratulations on the win, we say our goodbyes and I guide her toward my truck. I’m high on our win and vibrating with plenty of extra energy. I can’t wait to get her home and naked.
Tonight, my dinner will have to wait because I’ll be devouring her first.