A/N: Thank yous to NKubie, AnakinSmom, princeselisa, and EdwardsFirstKiss for pre-reading and Midnight Cougar for beta-ing. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Happy Anywhere,” Blake Shelton (feat. Gwen Steffani)
(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) /\ \
Flying solo on one of the busiest days of the year really makes me appreciate the perks of traveling with our team, which includes departing through the private terminal at Love Field. Unfortunately, I can hear the not-so-quiet whispers from all directions as people recognize me while I wait for my items to pass through screening at security.
“It looks like him.”
“I think that’s—”
“He’s one of our goalies.”
Grabbing my loose items and carry-on bag, I shove my feet into my shoes and depart security with my baseball cap firmly in place, keeping my head down. I walk toward the first-class lounge to wait for my flight to Aspen, trying not to draw any additional attention. On the way, I pass an empty departing gate with the door open, but there’s one word in the gate agent’s amplified announcement that stops me dead in my tracks.
” . . . Seattle. Final boarding call for American Airlines flight number twenty-four eighteen nonstop service from Dallas to Seattle. Any remaining stand-by passengers in the boarding area, please return to the podium. We’ll be closing the door for departure shortly.“
She’s at the end of this flight.
And I’m not on it.
Maybe I should be.
My heart accelerates, and I watch as another woman helps travelers waiting in line. There’s no stopping my approach to the gate agent.
“Excuse me. Is it a full flight?”
“Yes, it is. We’re accommodating our last stand-by passengers now. Are you on this flight? If you have your boarding pass, I can scan it for you.”
“Uh, no. I’m on another flight. Even first class? It’s full?”
She grins. “Yes, but we have nonstop flights departing for Seattle approximately every two hours with our last one at seven this evening. Would you like for me to check for availability?”
My heart is screaming Yes! but my family is waiting for my arrival in Aspen.
It’s a Christmas tradition established by my mother and her sister, Aunt Cin, years ago—the Cullens, McCartys, and Whitlocks in one home, enjoying the snowy holidays together. It doesn’t matter where I’m living at the time, I never miss this trip. I don’t stay the entire time due to my schedule, but this year my parents, Rose, Em, and the kids will also cut their trip short for my outdoor game at the Cotton Bowl. Guilt clouds my thoughts at bailing on them when they’re leaving their own vacations short to support me.
Releasing a heavy sigh, I shake my head. “No, but thanks for the offer.”
I watch longingly, as she scans another passenger’s boarding pass, before turning from the podium and running into a small group of young fans with their parents hovering nearby.
“Are you Edward Cullen?” a boy asks, wearing one of our green hockey jerseys.
A taller girl nudges him. “Of course he is. Would you sign my book?” she asks, thrusting it toward me.
“And my boarding pass?” another boy wonders, holding it out for me to take.
“Sure, but I don’t have a pen.”
The words are barely out of my mouth before the gate agent behind me taps my shoulder, offering me a black marker. My eyes travel over the fans as several curious onlookers slow their strides to elsewhere and circle back to our expanding group.
“Uh, let’s move out of the way.” I wave toward the empty seats away from the doorway and check my watch, mindful not to miss my flight. “Okay, who’s first?”
Turning my hat around backwards, I work through the group quickly and smile for selfies with everyone while signing an assortment of odd items. I add my signature with my jersey number to two Starbucks cups, a bag of peanut M&Ms, the backs of a dozen boarding passes, a Sudoku puzzle book, at least four backpacks, and a Chick-fil-A wrapper. To a round of thanks, I wish everyone “Merry Christmas” and “safe travels,” recapping the pen and returning it to the gate agent.
She smiles sheepishly. “Maybe one more? Just a selfie.”
I chuckle. “Sure.”
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
The wine is flowing and the sound of laughter escapes in bursts from downstairs where the women are gathered watching a Christmas movie in the theater room. I can hear Austin, Eric, and Peter trash-talking each other while playing video games in the den. Katie and Charlotte are tucked in and asleep upstairs for the night. I’m sitting in the billiards room with everyone else, playing poker and losing interest quickly.
I shift in my seat, unable to focus or even care about continuing at this point. I keep waiting to hear from Bella with any new updates about her mother. While I spoke with her last night briefly after the game, she texted this morning before I left Dallas, letting me know her mother was leaving for surgery. After I arrived, she sent another message when they received word that the surgery was complete, taking a little longer than anticipated. I know they are waiting to speak with her mother’s surgeon and visit her in the ICU, but without any news, I’m distracted by every phantom vibration from my phone.
“I fold. I’m out.” I toss my cards, push away from the table, and leave the poker game behind in favor of finding something to eat in the kitchen.
Staring at my options in the pantry, I select a bagel and add it to the toaster when Dad enters the room. He dumps the ice from his glass, adds it to the dishwasher, then looks out the kitchen window.
“It’s beautiful here. All the stars. The sky reminds me of—”
“Michigan.” I nod. “I miss it. Maybe I’ll buy a cabin there some day.”
“Yeah. It’s a great place. Why not?” I shrug.
We’re quiet until the sound of the toaster pops.
Dad clears his throat, obviously with something on his mind. “I’m surprised Bella isn’t here.”
There it is.
During our conversations since I arrived, he’s been holding back. I can sense it. We’ve talked about hockey, but mostly superficial stuff. Maybe I’m going to get to the bottom of whatever his issue is with her since I suspect she downplayed her conversation with him.
“You wouldn’t be if you knew her,” I respond sharply, then soften my defensive tone. “Sorry. I invited her, but she has another commitment.”
“Her mother.” He nods, but holds up his hands in surrender when my eyes narrow. “Your sister didn’t go into detail.”
“If you already know, why ask me?” I stand to my full height, squaring my shoulders and wondering where he’s going with this.
“You’re both so quick to defend each other.” He chuckles, folding his arms over his chest and leaning against the kitchen counter. “I thought you were taking this relationship seriously.”
“Then help me understand why you aren’t in Seattle? Being in a relationship isn’t about showering someone with gifts or first-class tickets to dream destinations whenever it’s convenient for you.”
It’s a direct shot at what he knows about the relationships of my past. Maybe it’s where I went wrong, giving my exes whatever they asked for at the time to keep them happy and make up for the time spent apart. The thing about Bella is she never asks for anything. So, while I have been giving her gifts, I haven’t jetted her off to anywhere . . . yet.
When I don’t contradict what he’s said, he continues, “Lasting relationships are about compromise and support. They’re about being there for one another, especially through the difficult times. Tell me, if Bella’s in Seattle supporting her parents, who’s there supporting her? If you’re taking this relationship as seriously as you claim, shouldn’t that be you?”
It’s then when I realize his issues aren’t necessarily with her but with my failures, which he sees as my inability to commit long-term to anyone. While he thinks it’s a commitment issue, I think it’s more about compatibility. In the past, I’ve been . . . for lack of a better word, indifferent, taking on a more passive role with the women I’ve dated. And everything with Bella is different. I’m definitely not passive, trying constantly to make her happy or impress her. I’ve felt comfortable enough to open up with her in ways I haven’t in the past, but he doesn’t know that.
I release a deep sigh. “I thought this was where I was supposed to be—with our family, but now, I’m not so sure.”
“I think you can do better than that. Bella deserves it.” He huffs, as if I’m missing the point.
Maybe I am.
Or maybe I don’t like his point.
An insinuation that Bella would be better off with someone else.
Someone who can be there, supporting her full-time.
I’m well aware of the pitfalls of our relationship and the limitations that come with my job.
If he’s focusing on what Bella deserves, then I wouldn’t be surprised if he thinks she can do better than me. But I think we’re perfect complements. She’s independent with her own career and isn’t interested in what my job or bank account can do for her.
“Edward, I’ve watched you play hockey for most of your life. It’s been what has driven every decision—your True North. Do you know how many kids dream of a career like yours and never get a chance? I see them all the time. Your determination these past years has been admirable and it shows on the ice, but to let yourself get caught up in a relationship again that dictates your future isn’t like you. I thought you learned from the fiasco in Montréal. That woman nearly crippled your career. And you let her.”
“What happened with Bree was my fault for not ending it sooner.”
He raises his eyebrows as if I’ve proved his point. And there’s no fucking way I’m ending things with Bella. If anything, I’ll do the opposite and leave my days of playing hockey behind me before I would consider losing what is growing between us. There’s a big difference between the two women he doesn’t realize. Bree gave me an ultimatum—hockey or her. My gut says that Bella would never ask something like that of me.
“Right now, I’m focusing on two things—hockey and Bella. Not necessarily in that order. And family, which is why I’m settling into my home in Dallas with her help. So, three.”
“Mmm-hmm. That’s what you say, but Vegas was a great deal. For you. To not even consider it was . . . foolish.”
“I did consider it. I spoke with Junior and he supported my decision either way.” At least as our GM, Royce understood and respected my decision.
I think Dad is more upset that I didn’t talk with him before making my decision, but there really wasn’t one to make. I’ve committed to my team, and with Bella’s support, I refuse to let Jake pull me in every direction when a new possibility arises. End of discussion.
“Well, something will come up before the trade deadline. Dallas will be lucky to make the playoffs with the way the team is playing currently. I don’t understand why Ben was in goal last night to take another incredibly lop-sided loss. And you’re too good to stick with them. Is this really how you want your career to end? Riding the bench? I heard Edmonton and Vancouver are both looking for new options. You should keep them in mind. I can make a few calls.”
I shake my head, hoping to end this conversation because the last thing I want to consider is moving to Vancouver or Edmonton, which is too far away from Bella. “I’m not interested in leaving Dallas and will be there for the rest of the season.”
“And after that?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I’ll consider my options after we win the Cup.”
“Right,” he says, rolling his eyes, obviously in disagreement that our team has a chance.
“Uncle Edward,” Katie’s sweet voice from behind Dad interrupts our discussion. “Can you read me a story? Charlotte is already asleep, but I need one more.”
“Sure.” I’m happy to end this conversation and follow her upstairs into their shared room, lowering my voice. “Which one?”
“This one.” She reaches for a handmade creation from her nightstand, holding out a bright pink book with raised red glitter lips and white teeth on the cover.
“You wrote a book?” I ask.
Katie settles under the covers, and I take the spot next to her, leaning against the headboard.
“Yes. I’m an author now.” She smiles proudly.
“And a poet.” I wink.
“My teacher says that it’s a first edition. It could be worth a lot of money someday.”
“I have no doubt.” I smile, realizing I could be covered in red glitter before I’m through, and read the title out loud, “Smiles Are Contagious by Katie McCarty.”
“Contagious means that you can catch something, like a cold. But this is a good kind of contagious.” She looks up at me and smiles. “See, you’re already smiling. I’m right.”
“You always make me smile.” I tap the end of her nose lightly and open the book, finding the dedication. “To Dr. Bella, who takes care of everyone’s smiles including mine.“
“Mine too,” I agree, turn the page, and begin her story. “There are . . . First smiles.“
She points to her hand drawn illustration. “That’s me as a baby with only two teeth. Mama said I smiled all the time.”
“You still do.” I flip the page. “Best friend smiles.“
She points out each of her drawings. “That’s Duke, Sassy, Scout, and Shadow.”
“Let’s hope my house is still standing when we return. They’re probably having a party.” I chuckle.
“Or playing tag.” Katie giggles as I turn the page.
“Good morning smiles.” There’s a drawing of a happy face pancake on a plate with silverware next to it and a glass of orange juice.
“That’s my favorite breakfast. Sometimes Mama uses blueberries, but I like it when she makes the strawberries that look like hearts for the eyes.”
“I’m jealous. She never made anything like that for me.”
“We could ask her.”
“We should.” I flip the page again. “Smiles under construction.” Her drawing includes a smile with braces on the teeth.
“Don’t tell Eric, but that’s him. He said I couldn’t put him in my book, but I did it anyway.”
“Well, your secret is safe with me.” I wink, turning the page. “Spooky smiles.” She’s drawn a traditional jack o’lantern with triangle eyes and nose, including a three-teeth grin.
Katie rests her head against my shoulder. “We had fun at Halloween, except for you losing your teeth.”
“We did,” I agree easily. “But I met Dr. Bella then.”
“You like her a lot, don’t you?”
She grins. “I thought so.”
Flipping the page, I continue, “Frosty smiles.”
She wiggles in her spot, sitting up slightly to point toward the window. “Did you see the snowman we made yesterday? It almost looks like the one I drew.”
“I did. It’s impressive.”
“Daddy and Uncle Felix helped. That’s why it’s so big.”
I nod and smile at the next page of someone missing a few teeth. “Hockey smiles.”
“Did you know your friend is missing his front teeth?”
“Yeah, he showed me at Thanksgiving. He has removable teeth and let me hold them. Did you know he likes guacamole too?”
“I’m not surprised.” I chuckle, turning the page. “Family smiles.“
Her illustration is full of circles smashed together with slight differences in each smiling face and hair color.
“This is like when we take a big family picture, but I only have room for faces. That’s Grandpa and Grandma Cullen, Grandpa and Grandma McCarty, Uncle Felix, Daddy, Mama, me, you, Dr. Bella, Austin, Eric, Duke, Sassy, Scout, and Shadow.”
There’s a flutter of happiness that she’s included Bella with this family picture as I flip the last page. “But there’s no greater smile than yours.” A pink heart-shaped mirror is glued in place, reflecting my undeniable smile back to me. “Katie, this is fantastic. I love it.”
Her smile widens. “I used my Barbie mirror, but I didn’t ask Mama if it was okay. When she read my book, she didn’t say anything; so, I didn’t get in trouble.”
“Staying on your mother’s good side is always important to keep smiling.”
Katie nods as I close her book. “Do you think Dr. Bella will like my book?”
“I think she will love it.”
“I wanted to give it to her for Christmas, but I didn’t get it finished until after she left. I wish I could give it to her. She probably needs some smiles. Mama said Dr. Bella’s mama is having surgery today. That’s when the doctor cuts you open to fix what’s broken or take out the bad parts. Charlotte and I made get well cards for Dr. Bella’s mama too.” She points to where they’re sitting on her nightstand. From here, I can see plenty of hand drawn hearts and smiley faces.
“That’s very thoughtful.”
She’s quiet for a moment, and I wonder if she’s finally ready to fall asleep when she asks an unexpected question. “Were you and Grandpa arguing earlier?”
I shrug. “Not really. He has a lot of opinions and he’s never shy about sharing them, like your mama or you.” I wink, prompting her giggles.
Taking a moment to contemplate our conversation, I hate to admit it, but I know he’s right. Not about Vegas but about Bella. While Mom and Rose will probably be disappointed with my departure, I know I shouldn’t be here. The more I think about it, the more I know what I need to do.
“You know I love spending Christmas with you, right?”
“Everyone’s gifts from me are under the tree, but what if I were to deliver your book and get well cards to Dr. Bella and her mother myself?”
Katie lights up. “Really? You’re going to deliver them? Like Santa?”
“I think I am.” I grin, standing and tucking the covers around her before reaching for her and Charlotte’s creations. “Good night, sweetie.”
“Good night, Uncle Edward. I love you.”
I leave a kiss on her forehead. “I love you too.”
Screw the countdown.
I’m going to Seattle.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
After leaving Katie and Charlotte’s bedroom, I walk down the hall to my room, putting my phone to my ear. I slip their creations into an outside zipper pocket of my unpacked bag, while I wait for my call to connect with the one person who always comes through without fail—my personal shopper, Carmen. I don’t mind shopping, but together we’ve come up with some great gifts for Bella without overwhelming her. Carmen knew when I began describing Bella that she would be more likely to accept small, thoughtful gifts, and she hasn’t been wrong yet. With my limited time, Carmen’s been a godsend and I’m hoping she can help get me out of Aspen too.
“No,” she says in greeting, not giving me a chance to speak. “I did everything you requested with time to spare. You should know by now I don’t do anything at the last minute, especially at Christmas.”
I take a seat on the edge of the bed. “But Carmen, you’re the best. You know I wouldn’t call if I wasn’t desperate. I need your help.”
“Edward, all your Christmas presents are wrapped and delivered—double-check under the tree or with your sister, if anything is missing.”
“This is for Bella—”
“But I thought you already gave Dr. Swan the latest gift bag?”
“I did, but . . . I’m not staying in Aspen. She’s in Seattle, and you know me, I can’t arrive empty-handed. Carmen, please . . . help me,” I plead.
“You’re going to Seattle?”
“Gah. Why do you have to be so romantic?” She releases a heavy sigh. “One day, I’ll learn how to refuse you, but apparently, that’s not today.”
“And my normal fee is doubled for this.”
“Okay,” I agree without issue.
“What do you need?”
I toy with a loose thread on the knee of my jeans, considering possible gifts. “I think something for Bella’s parents.”
“Is her mother the same size?”
“A little smaller. She’s in the hospital.”
“Temporarily?” Carmen wonders.
“Okay, got it. She’s easy. What’s her name?”
“Renée . . . I don’t know her last name, but it’s not Swan.”
“Not a problem. I’ll figure it out. What about Dr. Swan’s father?”
I recall what little I know about him. “Charlie is a retired police chief and likes to fish.”
“Smaller than you?”
“Yeah, about Dad’s size I would guess from the pictures I saw of him standing next to Bella.”
“What about something else for Dr. Swan?”
I’m way ahead of her and plan to give Bella something Carmen and I discussed previously. “I can do hers myself.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re shopping at the airport, because I’m always going to veto that idea.”
“Do you think they’ll have bikinis there?”
“In Aspen? Never mind. I’ll take care of Dr. Swan too—unless you want me to ship the necklace overnight to Seattle?”
“Yes. I picked it up the other day, but I thought you were saving it for next week.”
“Right. Let’s stick with that plan.”
Carmen clears her throat. “Okay, where are you staying?”
“I don’t have a hotel room yet. Or a plane ticket. Can you help with those?”
She huffs loudly. “Edward, I’m not your travel agent.”
“Carmen, please. Our team office is closed or I would ask someone there about making the arrangements.”
“I should force you to go to the airport and figure it out on your own, but I won’t. Where’s Dr. Swan staying?”
“And her mother’s hospital?”
“I think last night she said Harborview. They’re close to one another.”
“I’ll take care of the plane ticket first, then get you a room and arrange transportation. When were you planning to return to Dallas?”
“Thursday. I have a morning skate on Friday.”
“Okay, I’ll send you updates as I have them.”
“Should I go to the airport now or wait until morning?” I wonder.
“I doubt there’s anything available tonight, but give me a chance to check. You’ll hear from me soon.”
Ending the call, my eyes shift to the creaking of my door opening as my sister steps inside the room.
My phone screen darkens and I slide it back into my pocket. “Hey. What’s up?”
“I was just checking on the girls.”
“Katie is probably still awake.”
She nods. “You’re leaving, aren’t you?”
“As soon as Carmen can get me on a flight.”
My sister smiles. “Good.”
“You’re not upset I won’t be here longer?”
She takes a seat next to me at the end of the bed. “If it was Em, I never would have flown to Aspen. I’d be in Nashville, holding Lucy’s hand and his, every step of the way.”
I run my fingers through my hair nervously. “I’m messing this up.”
“You’re not, but I understand being conflicted about the right thing to do in this situation. What changed your mind?”
“Dad. He questioned whether or not I was taking my relationship with Bella seriously by choosing to be here. And as much as I don’t want to admit he’s right, he is. I should be in Seattle with her.”
“It sounds like your priorities are shifting.”
“I think maybe they are.”
“Not a bad thing, little brother.”
Bumping her shoulder with mine, Rose teases as she has our entire lives. There’s nothing little about me, but she’s competitive and always wants the upper hand, reminding me she was born first.
“You’re only older by seventeen minutes.” I chuckle. “And why weren’t you playing poker tonight?”
She snorts. “Because there’s nothing sadder than watching grown men cry at the start of our vacation, including my husband. I know all their tells, especially his.”
My phone starts vibrating and I suspect it’s Carmen, but when I remove it from my pocket, it’s Bella.
“I’m going to take this.” I’m relieved to hear from her finally and stand, walking toward the window. “Hey, beautiful.”
“Hey.” Her voice is soft and I can barely hear her over the background noises.
I plug my ear, hoping to hear her more clearly. “How are you doing?”
After a few sniffs, she replies, “I don’t know.”
“Did you get a chance to talk with your mother’s surgeon?” I ask, turning and locking eyes with my sister who is interested in the answer to my question too.
“Yeah. We did. Unfortunately, it’s not good news.”