Along Came a Spider/C30

A/N: Thank yous to NKubieAnakinSmom, princeselisa, and EdwardsFirstKiss for pre-reading and Midnight Cougar for beta-ing. xx

Song inspiration for this chapter: “On My Way To You,” Cody Johnson

(Playlist for this story can be found on my YouTube channel, if you search for “ghostreader24”)

Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. The NHL, NBA, and WNBA owns anything that sounds familiar. I’m here having fun.

/ /\ (oo) /\ \

Chapter 30

Bella’s news from our call last night is disappointing, and it’s still weighing heavily on my mind this morning. Unfortunately, the surgery won’t be enough for her mother. She explained that because of the tumor’s location, Renée’s doctor was unable to remove it in its entirety. Now, they are waiting for the lab reports from the portion removed before determining their next steps. With the holiday, Bella said it would probably be Monday before those reports are available.

She’s right. It isn’t good news, but I know all too well that the path to the best solution isn’t always direct.

Kind of like my itinerary for the day, which includes all middle seats.

Carmen wasn’t able to get me on any flights last night, and since I’m eager to get to Seattle, it made a good night’s sleep challenging. I should have trusted my instincts yesterday and pursued exchanging my seat to Aspen for a direct flight to Seattle when I had the chance.

After an early morning workout in the home gym on the lower level, I take a quick shower, put on some clothes, then send Bella a text.

Good morning, beautiful. X

I doubt I will hear from her this early, but I need to be careful with my texts today and not tip her off that I’m on my way, spoiling my surprise. I repack the few items I removed from my suitcase, walk downstairs, and leave it at the front door. I’m surprised to find both Mom and Rose in the kitchen. The rest of the house is quiet as they move around the area with a practiced ease.

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Mom says softly when she notices me. She stops what she’s doing to fill a bowl with oatmeal.

I know I need to apologize for not only leaving early but also not spending Christmas with everyone. “Good morning, Mom. I’m sor—”

“Don’t say it. Your sister already told me—not that we don’t want you here, but you’re going to where you’re needed. Where you should be. That’s important. The least we can do is send you off with a good breakfast. Here.” She smiles, handing me the bowl.

I accept it gladly, settling into a spot at the kitchen island. I watch when she returns to the cooktop for a skillet of scrambled eggs, scraping them onto a waiting plate nearby. Rose adds a scoop of cut fruit and slides it toward me.

“Hey.”

“Hey, good morning. Thank you both. I figured I would grab something at the airport.”

“You’ve got time, right?” my sister asks, snapping the lid onto the fruit bowl.

“Yeah.”

“How about juice or a smoothie? We have those green ones you like.”

“Sounds great.”

I watch as Rose exchanges the fruit bowl for a bottle from the refrigerator, adding it to my breakfast, and nods toward my food. “When you’re finished, I’ll take you to the airport.”

“Okay.”

“Did Bella say when her mother will be able to return home?” Mom asks, returning to filling muffin tins with some sort of batter.

“Possibly Friday. What are those?”

“They’re muffins from Lucy’s new holiday cookbook. I’m making three different ones for breakfast this morning: gingerbread, eggnog, and chocolate, chocolate chip.”

“Bella would love all those.”

My mother and sister share a subtle look at my comment, while I return to my breakfast.

“Maybe she’ll be able to try them another time,” Mom suggests encouragingly.

I nod, downing another spoonful of oatmeal. “I hope so.”

“I sent flowers to the hospital for her mother. Let me know how they look once you see them. They said they won’t be delivered until she’s out of the ICU,” Rose says, topping off their coffee mugs, then returning to the refrigerator for packages of sausage. “Mom, I’ll get these started.”

“Okay. Thank you, dear.”

I finish another mouthful and clear my throat. “Thanks for sending flowers, Rose. Carmen is taking care of everything for me, but I’ll select an arrangement from the gift shop when I visit. I guess I’ll be able to see Bella’s mom. I’m not family, but maybe she’ll be in a patient room and able to have visitors once I’m there.”

“If she’s going home on Friday, she will probably be moved today or tomorrow.” Mom glances at me, nodding toward my half-eaten bowl. “It’s going to be a long day for you. Make sure you grab food along the way. You can’t go without.”

I smile, because she’s always looking out for me. Never mind that I’m a grown man and have been taking care of myself for years. Or that I travel thousands of miles every year. Maybe not on my own, but it isn’t as if I’m clueless.

“Carmen said there isn’t much time between connections. I’ll grab something when I can.” I shrug, releasing a deep sigh. “I should have been there yesterday.”

Mom smiles reassuringly. “You’ll be there this evening and I can’t think of a better surprise or gift. I have no doubt Bella will be thrilled you’ll be spending Christmas together.”

“I wish she were here instead or I was making this trip under better circumstances. But I have to admit, I’m happy about it too.”

If all goes according to plan, I’ll have Bella in my arms this evening and there aren’t many things better than that. My phone vibrates in my pocket, and I remove it to find texts from her lighting up the screen.

Good morning, handsome. xx
We’re grabbing breakfast soon.
Then we’re off to the hospital early.
Dad wants to be there when Mom’s doctor stops by this morning.
How are you spending the day?

My fingers move over the tiny keyboard, answering carefully.

I’ll be thinking of you. 😉

All day?

Nonstop.

That sounds like quite a distraction.

The best kind.

I need to curb her curiosity about my day and shift her focus before she asks any other more specific questions.

How about we talk later tonight?

My ridiculous grin is back in full force because it won’t be over the phone as she’s probably thinking but in person.

I’m so fucking excited to see her.

Okay. I can’t wait until then.

Me either, Doc. X

/ /\ (oo) /\ \

After Rose drops me off at the airport, I’m through security quickly and waiting to board my first flight without delay, taking me back to Dallas before returning to Denver. Unfortunately, all of the nonstop flights from Dallas to Seattle are full with long standby lists. So, I’m on another connecting flight after this one. I suggested renting a car and driving to Denver, but Carmen claims this is the best and most efficient solution.

When I’m able to board, I shuffle slowly toward my seat near the back of the plane while everyone is jamming the overhead bins full of their items. I look around for space nearby and shove my bag in a narrow spot with the help of a flight attendant.

“Thanks.”

“Anytime. Let me know if you need anything else.” She winks.

I thumb toward the seats behind me. “If anyone in the exit rows doesn’t wish to stay there, I would be more than happy to trade seats for a little more leg room.”

She grins. “I believe they’re all set, but I’ll double-check.”

I look down, smile at the woman in the aisle seat of my row, and nod toward the middle seat. “I think that’s me.”

“Oh, sure.” She stands, and I’m surprised when she matches my height. Moving into the aisle, she waits to return until I have my seat belt fastened. “All good?”

“Yeah, thanks. I’m Edward.”

“Zafrina.” She leans forward and nods toward the elderly woman sitting by the window and watching our exchange. “That’s my grandmother. Her name is Senna, but everyone calls her Lolly, and I should warn you, her hearing isn’t the best.”

“I heard that.” Lolly chuckles heartily.

Zafrina lowers her voice. “She is also full of herself this morning. My apologies in advance.”

Lolly’s eyes dance with mischief as they move over me from head to toe. “Oh, my. Aren’t you something? You remind me of my husband. He was big. Tall, too. It’s where Zee gets her height. He played professional basketball for Denver, but we moved to Aspen after he retired.”

I turn back to Zafrina. “You look familiar. Do you play?”

“Yeah. Just like Pop. I’m following in his footsteps.” She grins. “I play for Dallas’s pro women’s team.”

“I’ve seen a few of your team’s games. They were great.”

“Our season is short from May to September. While I could play internationally, instead I work in the front office of the men’s pro team during our off-season. You play hockey, don’t you? I remember seeing you interviewed on television a couple of times.”

“Yeah, I’m a goaltender.”

“Cool. I know Tyler from your team.”

I smile, because everyone knows Tyler. “He’s a great friend and incredibly talented player.”

She nods. “So, you’re going home?”

“Yes and no. Dallas is home, but I’m trying to get to Seattle and my flight is connecting through Dallas. It seems crazy that I have to go back there in order to get to Denver.”

“What’s in Seattle?”

“My girlfriend. She is there with her family.”

“Ah.”

I explain further, “My family spends Christmas in Aspen every year, but I’m changing my plans after arriving yesterday.”

“Either you’ve had enough or you’ve got it bad.”

“Definitely the latter.” I chuckle. “My girlfriend doesn’t know I’m on the way.”

Zafrina’s smile widens. “Now, that’s a Christmas present.”

Lolly shrugs. “I don’t know. That’s pretty good, but I remember for one of our first Christmases, my husband tied a bow around his—”

“Lolly! Do not finish that sentence,” Zafrina warns, sending Lolly into a fit of giggles.

This is going to be an interesting flight.

/ /\ (oo) /\ \

Sadly, Lolly’s husband passed away recently, which is why she’s spending Christmas in Dallas this year with her granddaughter and other family members. She is full of fascinating stories about juggling family life as the wife of a professional athlete. Her successful fifty-two year marriage is rare for anyone, but certainly something to admire considering her husband’s career. A part of me wishes that Bella could meet her, and it isn’t lost on me as to why. I think Lolly enjoys reminiscing about those early days as much as I enjoy hearing about them. By the end of the flight, I’m a fan of both women and request a photo of the three of us before we are forced to part ways.

After landing in Dallas, the clock is ticking, and I rush, barely making my connecting flight to Denver. I’m already missing our light-hearted conversations, when I’m squeezed between two new seatmates. The woman next to the window flashes a brief smile in my direction. I suspect the buff guy in the aisle seat knows exactly who I am based on his surprised expression that morphed into recognition once I settled into my seat. While he works up the courage to say something, I watch the woman remove her laptop and lower her tray table after takeoff. I’m a little curious and my interest doesn’t go unnoticed.

“Sorry, I’ve got a deadline. So, if you’re looking to chit-chat, try next door.” She nods toward the guy on my other side while removing one of those little bottles of liquor from her pocket, throwing back half of its contents, and making a face. “Tools of the trade. Don’t tattle on me. Need a shot? It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

I chuckle, shaking my head. “No. Thanks for asking, but I’ll pass. What do you do?”

“I’m an author.”

“What do you write?”

“Romance.” She grins, then recaps the tiny bottle, sliding it back into her pocket. “Let me guess, not your genre?”

I smile, because most people don’t know it, but James reads romance, especially during our long road trips. Some of the guys on our team tease him about it, but he’s not bothered in the least. Typically near the end of those trips, they’re the same guys bored with playing cards or video games, and asking to borrow his paperbacks or for book recommendations to download.

I’m hesitant to answer because I’m not into reading. “I don’t have a genre—but if it was about hockey . . .”

She chuckles. “Sports romance, huh?”

“That might keep my interest.” I shrug, but I know I’m a lost cause. James has tried many times to get me hooked with zero success.

“You don’t look like a guy who needs any assistance in the romance department. That crooked grin probably helps you get your way every time. Quite the jawline too. I can only imagine the tattoos from what’s peeking out at the cuff of your shirtsleeve. You probably have full sleeves or more. Am I wrong?”

“I do okay,” I downplay, knowing Bella is a fan of all those things and her opinion is the only one that matters.

“Mmmhmm. Humble too.” She raises an eyebrow waiting for me to contradict her assessment, but when I don’t, she returns to her work, mumbling, “That’s what I thought.”

Without being obvious, I glance at the screen and read once she starts typing. It doesn’t take too many words to realize she’s in the middle of creating a dirty sex scene. James will be so jealous when I tell him about this later. I wonder if she has a pen name or maybe he’s read something of hers. Not wanting to interrupt, I make a mental note to ask before we land. For a moment, I watch her fingers move rhythmically over the keyboard, then glance toward my other seatmate who jerks his chin in acknowledgement.

“I know you. You’re Edward Cullen.”

The mention of my name pauses the tapping of the woman’s fingers as she tilts her head and side-eyes us for a moment. She smirks before continuing to fill the screen with words once again.

“Hey. Yeah. That’s me.”

“I’m Santiago and a big fan.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Check this out.” He lifts his shirtsleeve to reveal a tattoo. I’m relieved his tattoo isn’t of me but a pinup girl in garters and goalie pads, standing next to a moose. “Hot, right?”

It reminds me of unpacking my memorabilia with Bella and her trying on my old gear. Damn, maybe I could get a similar one, only with her features. I have a hunch that she would probably object to something like that, but it reminds me I have something else for her—the link to my off-ice interview that I did recently. It’s posting to our team accounts either today or tomorrow, and I’m excited for her to see it. Maybe we can watch it together at the hotel.

“That’s nice work. The details are great,” I compliment.

“It’s one of my favorites.” He lowers his sleeve. “I’m nothing like you, but I played a little youth hockey when I was younger. Now, I’m in a beer league. We play on Monday and Wednesday evenings. You know what they say, ‘You win some, you booze some.'”

I grin. “Sounds like fun.”

“We always have a good time. I played on the Beerhawks last year, but I’m with the Rusty Blades this year.” He shakes his head, removing his phone from his pocket. “I still can’t believe you’re sitting next to me. How lucky is that? When I tell the guys, nobody is going to believe me. Do you mind? I mean, can I get a pic?”

My eyes shift from his hopeful expression to his phone. “Uh . . . if I say yes, would you not post until later tonight. I’m on my way to surprise my girlfriend and I don’t want to spoil it, if you tag me.”

The woman next to me pauses typing, either thinking or listening to our conversation.

“Sure. Sure. Anything for you, Spider. I can wait to post. We’re buds, right?”

“Right.” I hope my reassurance is enough to discourage him from revealing my surprise trip before I can get there.

After more selfies than I anticipate, he tucks his phone back into his pocket and reaches for a bag in the seat pocket in front of him. Santiago rips open the top and holds it out for me. “Do you want some beef jerky?”

It’s a new bag and I didn’t get a chance to grab anything to eat while I was switching flights. So, I accept his offer. “Yeah. Thanks.”

His smile widens as he waits for me to grab a piece, then selects his own. “How cool is this? I can’t believe I’m sharing my beef jerky with one of the best goaltenders in the league. Will you sign the package?”

I chuckle. “Sure.”

He digs around in his backpack for a pen, then pauses his search as a thought suddenly occurs to him. “You’re not switching teams and playing for Colorado, are you?”

“No. I’m not.”

“Oh. Okay, cool.” He hands me a marker. “But you’re going to Denver.”

“I’m just connecting to another flight,” I share while signing the package.

His face lights up with another idea. “How long are you staying in Denver? Do you have a layover? We could hangout. I’m getting married and you could come to my wedding or the bachelor party. That would be the ultimate.”

“I’ll be there for less than an hour.”

His head bobs slowly at this undoubtedly disappointing piece of information until he thinks of another solution. “You could fly back with your girlfriend. We’re not getting married until next week. Man, I’d love to have you both at the wedding. We’re going to have a kickass reception. We could have a dance off. I bet you’ve got some killer moves.”

Not known for my dancing, I do my best to let him down easily, handing him back the beef jerky package and marker. “As much as I’m sorry to miss that, I have a game in Dallas next week.”

“That’s right. Damn, I’m going to miss the big game with Nashville. Is it wrong to watch hockey on your honeymoon?”

“I wouldn’t know, but my guess is probably.”

“Right. No hockey on the honeymoon.”

“Where are you going?” I wonder.

He grins. “The Poconos—the Honeymoon Capital of the World. The suites have mirrors everywhere, heart-shaped pools, and those seven-foot Champagne glass shaped Jacuzzis. Have you ever seen those?”

“No, but I can picture them.”

“It’s some cheesy ass shit, but my girl digs it. I hope we fit. Nettie, that’s my fiancée, is a tiny thing. So, we’ll find out. I splurged on our suite. It’s going to be so cool.” He rubs his hands together. “I’m hoping for a honeymoon baby.”

I laugh. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you.”

“I know! If it’s a boy, we’ll name him after you. Or if it’s a girl we’ll name her . . . Edie or I know—Culley.”

I remove my earbud case from my pocket, hoping my seatmate will get the message, and I’ll be able to chill for the rest of the flight with a playlist.

“Well, send me a message on Instagram when you return and I’ll get you tickets to a game. My treat,” I offer.

“Oh, man! That would be incredible.” He shakes his head. “The guys aren’t going to believe this. Thanks. You’re the best.”

I grin, while pushing my earbuds in place. “Good luck with the wedding and that honeymoon baby.”

His smile is blinding at my words and he nudges my elbow. “I’ll let you know when you can meet your namesake—hopefully, in nine months.”

“I’ll look forward to it.” I take out my phone, start a playlist, then point toward my ears. “I’m going to zone out a bit and listen to some music.”

He nods and I close my eyes, tilting my head backward against the seat. I’m still over five, probably more like six hours away from Bella, but the fact that this airplane is pointed in the right direction is all the encouragement I need, putting a smile on my face for the rest of the flight.

/ /\ (oo) /\ \

After landing in Denver, I tuck a freshly signed paperback for James from my author seatmate into my carry-on bag. While I’m excited to be another step closer to Bella, my muscles are stiff from all the sitting. It feels good to be off the plane and moving around. Locating the departure gate for my next flight, I take a gamble and approach the gate agent, hoping there is a chance I can switch seats. Fortunately, luck is on my side and fellow passengers have missed their connecting flights to Denver from other airports, allowing me to switch to an aisle seat near the back of the plane.

Excited that I’ll have more legroom for my final flight, I take the opportunity to walk around the area, using the restroom, then scanning my food options. I purchase two bottles of water and a couple of turkey sandwiches from a nearby deli, then stop at another shop for a few granola bars and trail mixes to satisfy my now growling stomach. I combine everything into the same bag and settle into a seat near my gate, allowing me to finish a sandwich, bag of trail mix, and a bottle of water before my flight is called to begin boarding.

Checking my phone one last time for any new messages, I notice several from Carmen, sent not long ago.

You’re all set.
Your gifts have arrived at the hotel.
They’re being delivered to your suite.
Your driver will meet you at baggage claim.
He’s available 24/7 until you leave on Thursday.
You’re on a direct flight back to Dallas.
Check your email for details.
Merry Christmas, Edward.
Enjoy your time with Dr. Swan and her family.

You’re amazing.

Don’t you forget it! 😉

Thank you, Carmen.
Merry Christmas.

I’m buzzing with renewed energy at her message and can’t wait to get to Seattle. It’s not as long as I would like to spend with Bella and her family, but at this point, I’ll take every hour I can get. When I’m finally on board the plane, my excitement dims slightly at the sound of a screaming baby getting louder the closer I get to my seat. I’m not surprised when that same baby is my new seatmate, including his or her frazzled mother, who is already apologizing before I sit down.

“I’m so sorry. She’s terribly unhappy at the moment,” the mother explains from the middle seat between screams while holding the infant in her arms. “I just changed her diaper and she’s hungry.”

“I understand. Babies cry. I feel that way when I’m hungry too.” I smile reassuringly, giving my bag a final shove into the overhead compartment and sliding my bag of food under the seat in front of me.

“I’ll give her a bottle as we take off. She should fall asleep once we’re up in the air.”

I settle into my new seat, extending my legs into the aisle. “No problem. I’m Edward.”

“I’m Kim and this little one is Claire.”

“How old is she?”

“Seven months. Do you have kids?”

“No. It’s been a long time since my nephews and niece were this size. I remember those days. My sister made it look easy.”

She nods. “Some days are better than others. Unfortunately, nothing has gone right today. I’ll be glad once we land in Seattle. It’s our last flight, but I’m worried my ride isn’t going to make it.”

“Are you staying in Seattle?” I wonder.

“No. We’re staying with my ex-boyfriend’s mother, but she lives about four hours away. She was supposed to pick us up, and sent me a message earlier that she’s having car trouble.” She shrugs and sighs deeply. “We’ll figure something out.”

I watch as Kim dries her daughter’s tears and tries to give Claire the pacifier clipped to her outfit. She accepts it greedily for a moment of silence before realizing it isn’t what she thought, releasing another tearful scream before it falls from her mouth.

“Shhhhh. Come on, sweetie,” Kim coos from beside me, patting her daughter’s back gently. “Help your mom out. Not much longer and you’ll get to meet Grandma.”

Once we’re taxiing down the runway, Kim removes a baby bottle from the seat pocket in front of her and pops the top.

“It’s not warm, but I hope she’ll take it anyway. She did earlier.”

“Do you want me to ask one of the flight attendants to warm it?” I offer, pointing over my shoulder where I can hear the flight attendants talking.

“I don’t think Claire or the rest of us can wait.” Kim chuckles, cradling her daughter in her arms, holding the bottle near her mouth. “Here you go, sweetie.”

With every strong pull from the bottle, peace is restored to our area of the cabin. I lean my head against the seat, closing my eyes and enjoying the silence. My excitement at being closer to my destination—only hours away—from Bella returns, filling my heart with another surge of happiness.

“So, what brings you to Seattle?” Kim asks softly once we’re in the air and the bottle is almost empty.

I can’t keep the smile from my face at the thought of her. “My girlfriend.”

“Figures.” She grins, pulling the bottle away and patting her daughter’s back lightly.

After a loud burp, Kim tucks Claire into her car seat, but before she can fasten the buckles, Claire starts twisting and lets out another wail of displeasure. With several failed attempts at taking her pacifier, Claire cries while Kim looks like she’s about at her wit’s end and is going to cry too.

She glances at me. “I’m so sorry. She should be sleepy.”

“Maybe she’s not ready for a nap. Would you be willing to let me try?” I suggest. “I can give you a break and entertain her for a little while. We’ll walk along the aisle and be in your view the entire time. Would that be okay?”

Kim hesitates for a moment before her shoulders sag with relief. “Okay.”

I notice my bag and ask, “Have you eaten recently?”

She shakes her head. “No, but they’ll probably pass out snacks or something in a bit. I’ll be fine.”

“Here.” I reach for my bag, lower her tray table, and set the food on there. “Help yourself. There’s a bottle of water, turkey sandwich, and snacks. Take half of it or the whole thing. Whatever you want.”

She looks inside the bag, examining its contents briefly. “Edward, I can’t eat your sandwich.”

“I’ve already had one. Trust me. I’ll be fine.”

“You already ate a whole sandwich? This one is huge.”

“Like I said, help yourself.” I grin, unbuckling my seatbelt and motioning for Kim to hand me Claire. “Pass her to me.”

“If she becomes too much—”

“She won’t,” I reassure, settling Claire against my chest. “Let’s go, sweetheart. You and Uncle Edward are going on a walk. We’ll explore the airplane and give your mom a break.”

I move to stand, but Kim stops my departure with a hand on my arm.

“Thank you.” She tears up slightly. “You have no idea how much I need a break.”

I smile. “You’re welcome. We won’t be far.”

I didn’t realize it initially, because I’m just trying to help a clearly overwhelmed new mom traveling with an infant, but strolling slowly back and forth along the aisle with Claire is what we all need. Kim is able to eat and relax while Claire quiets in my arms, restoring peace for everyone once again. Like Claire, I’m happy to move around and can understand the need no longer to be confined to one spot. It isn’t too many trips before Claire’s eyes droop and she yawns adorably. Supporting her head and neck, I shift her in my arms until she rests her head against my neck and under my chin.

When it seems like Claire has had enough walking, I return to my seat.

“Hey.” Kim smiles. “Thank you. I can put her in her car seat.”

I shake my head slightly and whisper, “I don’t want to risk waking her up. I can hold her, if that’s okay with you.”

She nods, watching her daughter nuzzle against me. Thankfully, the rest of the flight is uneventful, and when we begin our descent, Claire wakes for a moment. I’m successful with her pacifier this time and she sucks on it a few times before returning to her nap while we land. Once we’re on the ground and sitting at the gate, Kim gathers their things while we wait our turn to depart. She moves efficiently, and I watch as she fits an infant carrier over her body, clicking it into place.

“Thank you so much, Edward. I can take her.” She holds out her hands for her sleepy daughter.

“No problem. Do you need help with your stuff? I can carry the car seat and diaper bag,” I offer, nodding toward the waiting items.

“I’ve got it,” she says, buckling Claire in place against her chest.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. Her stroller will be waiting once we exit the plane. The car seat fits in it, plus it has storage for the diaper bag. I have my backpack and I’ll just need to grab our suitcases from baggage claim.”

One person shouldn’t have to carry so much.

“What about your ride?” I wonder, standing and removing my bag from the overhead bin.

Kim checks her phone, tapping the screen, then frowns. “Unfortunately, she’s not going to make it.”

As much as I’m eager to get to Bella, I can’t leave Kim and her daughter not knowing if they found a way to make the trip.

“Well, how about you share mine?” I suggest. “My driver can drop me off at my hotel. It’s probably on the way, then he’ll take you wherever you need to go.”

“I can’t let you do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s four hours there and four hours back to Seattle. That’s eight hours out of the way. On Christmas Eve.”

“I’ll make sure he’s tipped extra, if that makes you feel better. Kim, let me help—consider it my Christmas gift to you both. You can’t turn down a gift.” I smile softly. “I’ll feel better knowing you made it safely to your destination in time to spend it with your family.”

“Oh my goodness. Why are you so kind? And generous. I can’t believe you’re offering me this.” She looks up at me with tears in her eyes. “It probably costs—”

“Nothing for you. My driver will be waiting at baggage claim. We’ll grab your bags and be on our way.”

“Wait. I don’t even know your last name.”

“I’m Edward Cullen and a professional ice hockey goaltender for Dallas. You can Google me later.” I wink.

“Hockey? Should I be asking for your autograph?”

“Only if you’re a fan.” I chuckle. “Otherwise, it gets weird quick.”

“After this flight, how can I not be? Okay. We’ll accept your extremely generous gift. And I’ll Google you on the way.”

I laugh and wave toward the open space in the aisle ahead of me. “After you, ladies.”

When I reach for the car seat and diaper bag before she can get it, Kim smiles. “Thank you.”

Following them to the front of the plane, I know I’m less than an hour from being reunited with Bella. It’s been nine days since I’ve seen her. While we’ve been in contact, I’ve missed everything about her. It’s made me realize that I don’t want to go this long without seeing one another again, and I have an idea how to minimize those times in the future. She won’t be easy to convince, but I believe it’s the best option for us right now. Our time apart has made it crystal clear—I need her. I can only hope she feels the same way and needs more of me too.