A/N: Thank yous to NKubie, LizziePaige, and Honeymoon Edward, for pre-reading and Midnight Cougar for betaing. They’re all amazing, and I’m so grateful for their help. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Never Have I Ever,” Danielle Bradbery
(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.
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“Well, let’s see. Last night, he brought over dinner with two bottles of wine.”
Garrett nods. “You could make him his favorite meal.”
“I’m not that great of a cook, and he has a private chef. How can I compete with that? Not to mention he’s really strict about his diet.”
“You underestimate yourself, and he seems like the kind of person who will appreciate anything you do. What else has he given you?” Garrett asks.
“An Aspen snow globe.”
Al grins. “Awww, he’s thoughtful. It ties in with the trip.”
“And a bikini,” I share, cringing slightly as I recall its undersized fit. Edward probably did that on purpose, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt at guessing I’m smaller than I am.
“Now we’re getting somewhere.” Al chuckles. “Lingerie would be easy.”
I scrunch my face at that thought. “But I suspect his past girlfriends have gone that route.”
Al considers my concern and smirks. “True, but that’s because it’s effective. Well, not for us, although I love Gare in varying stages of undress. I bet Edward would love something special on you.”
“What about a blowjob?” Garrett offers with a straight face, popping another salmon bite in his mouth.
Al laughs, and I snort, spraying my last sip of wine.
“That’s not exactly the kind of gift you can wrap,” I say, reaching for the napkins to dab the droplets I find on Edward’s hoodie and the coffee table.
“But he won’t turn down the offer,” Garrett points out. “It’s always a winner.”
“No man will.” Al stands. “On that interesting turn of this conversation, we’re going to need another bottle.”
Garrett grins. “So . . . need any pointers, Bella?”
“I didn’t think you would. But if you ever want to mix it up, don’t be afraid to ask; we’re experts.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I chuckle.
I sink against the cushions, stare briefly toward the ceiling, and recall Edward’s other gifts. “You know about my first game puck, but he bought me the jersey I wore to the game and a pair of ice skates.”
Garrett lights up with an idea. “I know! You could take lessons and surprise him with your new skating skills. Although that’s not exactly a Christmas gift to wrap either.”
I hold up my hand, stopping his line of thought. “I’m already ahead of you on that idea. Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve signed up for lessons with a private instructor at the hockey rink where Katie has her lessons and Eric’s team plays. I had my first lesson on Monday night and spent most of the time on my ass. My instructor is a thirteen-year-old figure skater. She’s sweet, amazingly talented, and fortunately, patient with me. I was exhausted being back at work after my week away for vacation, but I pushed through the hour like a champ, then soaked in a hot bath when I got home. It was heavenly and my favorite part of the night.”
“He’s going to love that.” Garrett nods.
“I’m just trying to keep from embarrassing or hurting myself the next time Edward wants me to skate, because I have a feeling it could be in the near future. I have lessons twice each week and another on Saturday morning.”
“Does he wear jewelry?” Al asks, rejoining our conversation. He fills his glass and leaves the corked bottle in the middle of the coffee table.
“I’ve only seen him wear a watch, and it was when he was dressed up after the game. He can’t wear jewelry on the ice.”
“You could get a tattoo,” Al suggests next.
He continues, “You could probably handle a small one, like a spider or his number. Either of those would be darling.”
“I bet he would like a tattoo in one of your more intimate spots.” Garrett wiggles his eyebrows.
“Still no. I love his tattoos, but I just don’t know if I could do something so personal. I mean I probably could handle the pain, but I think it’s just too soon to consider something permanent like that. We aren’t at the two month point of dating yet, and that’s been a breaking point for me in the past.”
Al’s face fills with concern. “Do you think he’s going to break up with you between now and Christmas?”
“Are you thinking about breaking up with him?” he wonders.
“Then I have a suspicion you’re going to get past that point easily. We’ve witnessed the heat between you two at his game. I doubt it takes much to fan those flames when you’re alone.”
“I think he’s here to stay, Bella,” Garrett reassures.
“Some days it feels too good to be true. I’m me, and he’s—” I wave toward the television. “Him. How is this happening? How did I get this lucky? When we’re together, it’s . . . like last night, it was effortless. Maybe this is just him. There’s no denying he’s a great boyfriend—inclusive, generous, and thoughtful. I could go on and on.”
“Or maybe it’s you who allows him to be the best version of himself. Have you ever been in love before? Not lust or infatuation, but real, true love?” Al asks.
I recall the men I’ve dated. They range the gamut in time and connection. After fairly innocent dating in high school under my father’s ever-watchful eye, I spread my wings in college. Being on my own for the first time, I was ready to experiment, finding I could appreciate men in all forms. There was the rare one-night stand, but I also recall a few friends with benefits. The others weren’t necessarily serious relationships, but they did last longer than I expected.
After graduating and moving to College Station for grad school, I thought I was in a better position to find the right guy. Maybe some of those relationships could have been close, but even with feeling what I thought was love, none of them included any steps or commitments toward sharing a life together permanently, which led to their eventual demise.
“I thought so at the time, but looking back, I think maybe I was wrong repeating those words back to anyone. It wasn’t love. Lust yes, but in the moment, I said what was expected—what I thought would lead to the next step. It’s probably why it feels like forever since I’ve said them again.”
Al shakes his head. “I don’t think it’s ever wrong to tell someone you love them, no matter how deep that love is at the time. Life’s too short. In the moment, it probably felt right, and I don’t think for a minute you would say it without meaning it. Don’t second-guess yourself and attempt to discount your feelings in those relationships. Part of being in love is making the other person happy, and your words undoubtedly did that.”
“Some people think love feels not only like happiness, but also like home. Sure there’s companionship and physical attraction, but comfort, stability, and security are important too.” Garrett winks at Al and stands from his spot. “I’m going to grab more food. Do either of you need anything?”
Al grins. “I’m good, darling. Thank you.”
“Not for me.” I set my empty plate on the table.
My mind shifts to Edward’s Instagram post with Garrett’s mention of love and home. His caption with the heart and home emojis standout. Is there a chance he could be experiencing feelings of love about me this soon?
An even better question: Am I having feelings of love for him?
I don’t know.
I love and respect many of the things I’ve learned about him.
Finishing my wine, I refill Garrett’s and my empty glasses.
“Thanks, Bella,” he says with a smile after returning with another plate of food.
“There’s a saying that love rearranges your priorities,” Al shares, finishing his last bite and setting his plate on the coffee table.
And that’s what Edward’s been doing—rearranging his priorities. He’s moved to Dallas because his family is here rather than to Michigan where he was raised. Or any of the other locations where he’s previously lived and played. Those are in his past, and his love for his family is taking priority here—including his recent additions of Shadow and Scout to his immediate family.
As if Al can read my drifting thoughts, he finishes making his point. “I think you could be one of his priorities too. Don’t underestimate your place in his life, Bella, even if you’re still in the early stages of your relationship.”
“I suppose. I just don’t want to get ahead of myself.”
“Always so cautious.”
“Not always. I can be spontaneous in the moment, but I’m more comfortable keeping my expectations realistic.”
Al nods. “Practical. You and Gare are so much alike, but it can hold you back from what you really want.” He smiles softly. “Bella, I’m a romantic. I see love everywhere, but since Edward’s become a part of your life, especially in you.”
At that moment, my eyes are drawn instinctively to the television where Edward fills the screen. Sitting at the end of the bench, he stares upward toward the scoreboard while a graphic of his stats for the season are displayed along the bottom. The camera loves him, and I can’t pull my eyes away from his smiling face. My expression probably matches his, as he laughs at a comment from someone beside him.
There he is.
As charismatic as ever.
My thoughtful gift giver.
Always making quality time for us.
Weaving me into every aspect of his life.
Determined to satisfy my physical needs before his.
Ready to listen, offering words of encouragement or support.
My breath catches as it all adds up to—
“It’s too soon to say it,” I whisper. “But I think . . .” My words trail off when he disappears from the screen and play continues.
“Think?” Al prompts, sipping from his glass.
My eyes shift to his, but I hesitate for a moment, while he nods encouragingly as I let the realization sink in.
Love is the dominant emotion I feel toward Edward. There’s no denying the attraction between us, but it’s so much more than that and growing stronger every day.
“I think we’re on the road to—” I stop, not sure if I’m ready to say the words out loud.
“He’s already showing you his in so many ways.” Al grins, as if he’s accomplished his purpose in helping me see this simple truth. “It’s obvious.”
“But he hasn’t said it.”
Garrett smiles knowingly and pats my leg. “He will when he thinks you can handle hearing it.”
“Maybe he loves easily.” I glance up at the screen again and blow out a big breath.
“Or maybe he loves you easily. I know I do,” Al confirms and blows me a kiss.
“That’s a different kind of love.”
“But it’s still love.”
“I don’t know anything about his past relationships. Not that I really need or want any of those details. But some guys say what they think you want to hear. I’m already such a sucker for his French. And his tattoos.”
Al gasps. “He speaks French? How are you still walking among us?”
“I know, right?”
“I feel the same way when Gare gets out his guitar and starts humming—let alone the singing. Oh, how I love his voice. I may need a minute.” Al fans himself, chuckles, and winks. “Or we may need a minute.”
Garrett grins at his husband’s compliments and leans forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. “Bella, while Edward may have dated his fair share of women because of his high-profile profession, I think what he’s feeling for you is genuine. Does it really matter how either of you got here?”
“No, it doesn’t change a thing. I went into this relationship knowing that was the case, and I was still willing to give us a chance. Maybe it puts us in a better position for knowing what we want? We’ve already had what didn’t work.” I drain the rest of my wine in one gulp and remove my phone from my pocket, holding it out for either of them to take. “I think one of you should hide my phone, so I’m not tempted to drunk text him later. I’m already feeling a bit buzzed.”
Garrett chuckles, taking my phone and tucking it away from my view. “He’d probably like that.”
“You’re right, but if either one of us is going to say those words, it shouldn’t be through text or over the phone. I don’t want to blurt it out by accident, and I’m not sure I can keep what I’m feeling to myself, if he were to call me later.” I grab the bottle, refilling my glass and topping off each of theirs. “And this conversation stays between the three of us. No telling anyone.”
“Are you going to say it first?” Al asks surprisingly.
“You don’t think I should?”
“I didn’t say that, but most women wait until—”
“The guy says it first?”
“I’m not most women, and my relationship with Edward is different. I feel it, and I think he does too. I don’t want to scare him off, but we’re older and at points in our lives where we’re open for more. I wonder, though, how much more?”
“That’s for you two to figure out,” Garrett says with a smile.
“Well, I’m rooting for you to say it first. It would be a big step for you.” Al sinks against my couch cushions with a dreamy expression on his face. “And I love love.”
“Who said it first between you two?” I ask, shifting my eyes between them.
“Guess.” Garrett’s eyes twinkle as he looks lovingly at his husband.
My gaze lands on Al who may burst with the answer if I don’t hurry. “I’m leaning toward Al, because he can’t hold back anything—with or without wine.”
Garrett nods. “You’re right. Al said it first, but we were both on the same page from the moment we met.”
“Awww. That’s sweet. Well, I don’t want to rush anything, but I think if the moment is right between us, I’m not going to hold back.”
“Good. Now, that’s settled, let’s get back to figuring out what you should get Edward for Christmas,” Garrett suggests.
“He has everything money can buy.” I shake my head. “I’m going to get the brownies. I think better with wine and chocolate coursing through my system.”
“Good idea. I need music too. How about my latest Christmas playlist?” Al suggests.
“Sounds great. You can play it over my speakers.”
“Bella, do you really think I know how to do that?”
Garrett holds out his hand. “Here. Hand me your phone. I’ve got this.”
With Garrett’s assistance, the room is filled with soft Christmas tunes. I return with Al’s cookies and a small plate of brownies. After they cooled earlier, I cut them into triangles, adding quick zig zags of light green icing and decorating them with sprinkles.
“Oh, these are darling little Christmas trees, Bella.” Al selects a brownie, taking a quick bite. “And delicious. Wait. Is there wine in the brownies?”
I can’t keep the grin from my face. “Another new recipe from Rose. I think she got it from her mother-in-law, Lucy.”
“That woman is a treasure. I watch all of her shows and that laugh—I can never get enough. I’m dying to cook with her. I just so happened to stop by Rose’s over Thanksgiving while she was there.”
Garrett shakes his head and lowers his voice, giving me all the behind the scenes details. “There was nothing innocent about that trip over to Rose’s. He went to fangirl and audition. You should have seen the mess in our kitchen leading up to that visit, and the over the top assortment he just so happened to show up with—”
Al interrupts, taking over the story. “Bella, I had been preparing for days and chose my best three recipes. Pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, and these darling little pumpkins I created as a finishing touch. Perfect for little hands at the children’s table. You know I appeal to all ages.”
Garrett nods. “Those were good.”
“I also made peach tarts with goat cheese and honey. It shows my range and the touch of elegance that cheese or I can bring to the end of any meal,” Al explains haughtily.
Garrett scrunches his face, shaking his head. “Not my favorite.”
“I’m only being honest. I’m not exactly a fan of peaches.”
“Maybe a little too honest. And who doesn’t love peaches?”
“Me.” Garrett mouths.
We try to contain our giggles while Al continues.
“I finished with bite size almond raspberry spoon cakes.”
Garrett adds, “Very creative. I didn’t know it was possible to bake a bite of cake on a spoon or that we had that many spoons.”
Al holds out his hands in question. “I mean how could she not be impressed? Who thinks of stuff like that? Me. I thought it was a perfect audition.”
“What did Lucy say?” I wonder.
“Bella, you know I’m made for the spotlight and love baking, I was hoping—I don’t know . . . to be invited for a guest spot on her show.”
“She said I was a dear and autographed my cookbooks.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you took those with you too.”
“Well, I did. I knew it would buy me more time with her.” Al slides to the edge of his seat. “She wrote To Alfred—”
“Not your name,” Garrett mutters.
“Let’s not get hung up on the details, Gare. She wrote—’To Alfred, never stop putting love into every bite.’ So, obviously she sees potential in me. I have to keep going and continue to hone my craft. Has Rose said anything about Lucy’s next visit?” he asks eagerly, hoping I’ll have details.
“No.” I shrug without a clue if Emmett’s family will be with them in Aspen or not.
“Well, I need to be ready. Stardom happens when you least expect it. I could be the new Babs or Gaga.”
Garrett chuckles at Al’s reference to last year’s release of A Star is Born. “Spoiler alert—if that’s where you’re drawing career inspiration, then it won’t end well for Lucy.”
“Oh, she’ll be fine and Lucy has a long career ahead of her. Maybe she’s looking for a successor.” Al waves off any concerns while pointing to himself. “I just don’t know if I’ll be a stylist forever. I love hair, but who knows? My creativity can’t be contained to only one medium. I could really leave my mark on the world of food too.”
“Hun, we have no doubt.” Garrett winks. “But let’s get back to helping Bella figure out a Christmas gift for Edward.”
“Right.” Al sinks backward into the cushions and ponders the possibilities for a moment. “I know—you could always buy Edward a pair of funny Christmas boxers? There are some really creative ones.”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” I like picturing Edward in merely a pair of Christmas boxers or none at all.
For a moment, an image of Edward in only a Santa hat and boxers on Christmas morning derails my thoughts. It’s easy to get lost in those daydreams—just the two of us. While we aren’t going to see each other on another holiday, I realize I could have a couple of versions of that fantasy before I leave, and make a mental note to include the possibility of finding a Santa or elf hat on my growing to-do list.
“What about an experience with Edward instead of a gift? You know, something you could do together for the first time possibly,” Garrett suggests. “Or maybe something charitable.”
His idea starts my mind churning with what ifs, as I grab another brownie. Edward and I could do something to benefit a local charity or partner with a business in some way. The more I consider it, the more I think I’m on the right track.
After finishing my mouthful, I reach for my glass. “Garrett, I think you’re a genius. I love that idea—the charitable one—and I think he will too. Edward loves buying and giving—I’ve got it.”
My mind races with thoughts of shopping, and I know Edward would love to do something like that together. We could shop local and maybe donate our purchases to a toy drive or the children’s hospital. I need to check if they have an online wishlist available. There’s also the SPCA who would probably have a list of needs we could fulfill. I think giving Edward a day of giving could be the answer, but I’ll keep their other more seductive suggestions in my back pocket just in case.
“Well? What’s your idea?” Al prompts.
“I need to make a few calls but stay tuned.” I wiggle my eyebrows.
He giggles. “Such a tease. I love it.”
I glance at the television and notice Edward’s team is winning at the intermission. As the commentators analyze the first period of play, it seems like the perfect opportunity for us to grab my holiday stuff from the garage.
“I think it’s time.” I stand with a slight sway and hold out my arms, steading myself. “Whoa. Okay. I’m okay. Let’s get all of my Christmas boxes and decorate! I’m feeling the Christmas spirit.”
Garrett snickers, guiding me around the coffee table. “Or that could be the wine.”
“You sound like Edward,” I say, as he follows.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Garrett says proudly.
“You should. No disrespect to my current company, but Edward’s the sexiest fucker on the planet.”
“How many glasses have you had?” Al asks with a wink, as they enter the garage, looking over my storage shelves and locating the labeled Christmas boxes. “And I think Gare could give him a run for his money.”
My happiness dims slightly. “I guess that means you win, because he’s your hus—”
“No, Bella. We’re both winners. You and Edward only need time. I have no doubt you’ll get there too. Just promise me you’ll allow yourself to enjoy the ride.”
I smile. “That I can promise.”