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: “Follow Your Arrow,” Kacey Musgraves
(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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After Dad and I return from the hospital for the evening, the exhaustion I’ve been feeling catches up with me. He agrees room service is the best option when he wants to watch yet another college football bowl game. According to Mom, he’s been watching them all day in her hospital room. I had already planned on having room service, but I’m relieved he thinks it’s a good idea too. I can barely keep my eyes open when I finally open the door to the hotel suite, but the blinking light on the room phone gets my immediate attention. I worry something is wrong with either Mom or Edward as I call the front desk.
“Good evening, how may I help you?”
“Hello, this is Bella Swan in suite twenty-seven, thirty-five. Is there a message or something waiting for me?”
The woman chuckles. “Yes, ma’am. Mr. Cullen arranged for dinner to be delivered once you returned to your room this evening.”
“He did?” I’m surprised and wonder when he had time to do so. I know he was gone again this morning for a couple of hours to eat and workout while I slept. So, maybe he made the arrangements then. “And that’s it? No other messages?”
“Correct. Should I have your meal sent to your suite now?”
“Uh . . . yeah. That would be great.”
“Please don’t hesitate to let us know if you need anything else.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“It’s our pleasure.”
While I wait for room service to arrive, I change out of my clothes and into the hoodie Edward left for me, renewed with his scent. After plugging my phone into the charger, I climb under the covers of the freshly made bed and turn on the television for a little background noise. The main hotel menu fills the screen with available guest services, but I’m content to just let the jazzy music play.
Grabbing a couple of my remaining truffles, I close my eyes after unwrapping one and let my body sink into the fluffy bedding while the delectable chocolate melts slowly in my mouth. When I finally hear a knock on the door, I reach for a pair of knee-high, wooly socks from my open suitcase, slide them onto my feet, then hustle to answer it.
“Good evening, Mrs. Cullen.”
“Hey . . .” I’m stunned for a moment at the assumption. After moving to the side and holding the door open wide while he pushes the cart inside the suite, I correct his mistake. “It’s actually Dr. Swan. Or Bella is fine also.”
He smiles sheepishly. “My apologies. Would you like for me to set up your dinner on the dining table?” The man pauses, waving toward the dining area.
I have no idea what Edward has chosen for me, but I plan to crawl back under the covers and eat in bed. Hopefully, it isn’t messy.
“Uh, no. I think I’ll eat in the bedroom.”
Letting the door close, I follow him to the bedroom. He pushes the cart to the end of the bed, removes a bottle opener from his pocket for the wine, and nods toward the place setting.
“Mr. Cullen selected this red for you, but he also left a note.”
Hovering in the doorway, I move closer when my eyes are drawn to an envelope leaning against the large silver dome. After reaching for the sealed note with the hotel’s stationary, I open it, remove the card, and read Edward’s handwritten message.
Doc, I couldn’t let you depart Seattle without enjoying one of your favorites.
Enjoy and get plenty of rest, because I can’t wait to see you in three days.
I love you, Edward X
Beyond curious, my heart accelerates as I lift the dome, surprised to find a steaming bowl of pho. It’s one of my ultimate comfort foods, and I shared with him during our campus tour that I missed eating it at my favorite spots while living here. My mouth waters at the memory of those delicious flavors on my tongue I ate multiple times a week as a college student. Seattle has the best places for pho, and this is exactly what I need right now.
Comfort in a bowl.
It’s just everything . . . wow.
“Would you like to sample the wine?”
“No. I’m sure it’s fine. Edward has a way of picking exactly what I will love.”
He grins while pouring me a glass. “Just between you and me, Mr. Cullen may have left us with a list of his acceptable preferences to accompany your meal, if you change your mind.”
“Of course he did.” I chuckle.
He waves his hand toward the cart. “Will there be anything else I can get you this evening?”
“No. Thank you. Do I need to sign something?”
“No, ma’am. Mr. Cullen took care of everything.”
Isn’t that the truth?
Even while he’s traveling home, he found another way to take care of me before we leave Seattle tomorrow and I drive us back to Forks.
“If that’s all, then I’ll let myself out. Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“Have a good night,” I call out to him.
I hear, “Thank you,” before the closing of the door to the suite.
Glancing at Edward’s note again, I reach for the glass of wine, taking a sip. It’s delicious, but I can’t wait to devour the large steaming bowl of what I suspect is perfection. Forget crawling back under the covers, I push the sleeves of his hoodie past my elbows and settle into the spot at the end of the bed.
My eyes pass over the bottles of sriracha and hoisin sauce, plus smaller empty bowls to use for the dipping sauces with the beef. There are other bowls filled with herbs, bean sprouts, and fresh jalapeños, but I use those sparingly as the clear broth with its complex flavors is always my favorite part. I’m in heaven as I slurp through every delectable spoonful until the bowl is empty, and I’m consumed with undeniable warmth that’s similar to one of Edward’s all-encompassing hugs.
After refilling my wine glass, I remove my socks, toss them to the side, and return under the covers. Rearranging the pillows to prop me upright, I release a small sigh, sipping on my second glass and thinking life couldn’t get much better than this. Well, I suppose it could. Edward could be here—which is always going to be a desire moving forward. But the fact is, he was here, and I can’t think of one thing that could have made his visit any better other than making it longer. Unfortunately, that’s a part of our relationship I will need to get used to, and maybe Edward is right. With time, maybe our parting will be easier, but leaving him at the airport hours ago wasn’t easy.
Releasing a deep sigh, I think over the conversations we shared while he was here. It’s a lot to process in such a short time, but one conversation in particular about his tattoos concerned me while we were showering together yesterday. I appreciate his candidness about the two relationships that prompted them. But his teasing words about me claiming a spot made me quickly realize that I don’t want to end up as another covered up tattoo. So, despite his hopeful intentions, I can’t get behind the idea of putting something to represent him permanently on my body, or want him to do the same for me at this point.
Sure, I could change my mind with time, but those relationships in my opinion were substantial. I have no doubt he cared for and loved those women. Maybe in all the same ways he loves me now. I don’t want either of us to repeat past relationship mistakes, and despite what he says, those tattoos he regrets or he wouldn’t have covered them with new ones.
When I Googled him previously, I don’t recall anyone ever mentioned as his fiancée—which would seem like the next logical step for relationships lasting years at a time. So I wonder what kept him from proposing? Or what if he proposed and she turned him down for her own reasons—maybe her career or not wanting to move? His world is an extremely immersive experience. I can see how losing or never being able to establish your own identity could be a challenge when everything is about him or hockey twenty-four, seven.
Hell, even the room service guy tossed a “Mrs. Cullen” in my direction without a second thought until I corrected him. I’m not going to get hung up on the name, but I worked too hard to become “Dr. Swan” for that to be exchanged so easily for “Edward’s girlfriend” or any variation.
After another sip, I grab the remote and change the television to the streaming channels, find YouTube TV, then search for his team’s channel. Sure enough, when I locate it, his twenty-five minute episode of Top Shelf Talk is the first in the selection of choices. I’m stunned as I click through the other listings available to see that in only two days, his video has over sixty thousand views. It’s almost double what some have after being posted for months, and years for others.
Dropping the remote next to me, I reach for my phone and text Al.
Hey, I’m ready to watch, if you are.
Okay, give me a minute.
It doesn’t take long until my phone vibrates with an incoming video call. After accepting the call, I notice Al is in bed like me, but it doesn’t look like the one I’ve seen in their bedroom. I thought they were at home, but maybe they aren’t.
“Hello, darling. You look cozy. What number are you on?”
“Hey, I’m exhausted, but thanks to Edward, I’m full of incredibly delicious pho, chocolate, and this is glass number two. I need to go easy. I had a couple of cocktails last night with Edward that were stronger than I expected. Is that a new bed?”
“Yes, it is. We got new furniture for our bedroom before Christmas. I told Gare we needed something more luxurious this time of year. I had my eye on this bed and he surprised me.”
“He wasn’t surprised.” I can only hear Garrett from where I suspect he is sitting beside Al.
“It’s gorgeous. Is that velvet?”
“Hi, Bella.” Garrett leans into the phone screen’s view.
“Hey, Garrett. How was Christmas in Houston?”
“Uh . . . same as always.” He rolls his eyes, and Al tilts the phone to include more of him. “My father has a knack for being an ass. We left early, and I have no interest in returning. Ever.”
“Oh, no. What happened?”
Al whispers, “It was bad.”
“For years, I’ve let his subtle derogatory comments slide, but this year, I just couldn’t.” Garrett sits a little taller and removes his glasses, setting them on top of his open book. “I reached my breaking point when they began to flow from my ten-year-old nephew without a single correction from anyone around the table.”
“We’d barely sat down to eat,” Al adds. “I was starving, and it was a dramatic departure.”
“Don’t worry. I fed him.” Garrett smiles. “We stopped for food on the way home.”
“Fast food. Can you imagine?” Al chuckles. “Chicken tenders and French fries. I felt like a kid.”
“Isn’t that what everyone hopes for on Christmas?” I ask, attempting to find a bright spot.
“You’re right, Bella. New tradition!” Al declares.
Garrett grins. “Next year, we’re going to either Hawaii or the Caribbean, somewhere full of sand, sunshine, and love.”
“In that case, forget the chicken tenders tradition.” Al shakes his head. “We’ll do a luau or something similar with plenty of tropical drinks. I’m loving this idea so much. I should write this down.”
I grin at Al’s planning, but return my focus to his husband. “I’m so sorry that’s how Christmas went for you both.”
“Thanks, Bella. I was defensive going into this one, because my father asked if I was bringing my friend again before we ever arrived. I’m like, what the fuck? Al is my husband. We’ve been married for four years.”
Al lowers his voice, but I still can hear him clearly. “I love you, darling.”
“I love you too.” They share a brief kiss before Garrett continues. “It isn’t my fault they refused to attend our wedding or acknowledge our marriage. Of course I’m bringing him. They have pretended I wasn’t gay for years. Now, they have adopted this attitude that I’m broken and can be fixed.”
“Oh, my goodness. That’s disappointing.”
“Unfortunately, their methods are a little too transparent when my mother invited two other families to join us this year with their single daughters in attendance. Like this is some sort of intervention.”
“Yes! It was obvious and just ridiculous.”
Al adjusts the phone to include them both again. “I told Gare, we each have a family of origin and our family of choice. We can choose who we want to spend the holidays with and shouldn’t ever go there out of obligation.”
Garrett nods. “We’re no longer obligated. I made that clear.”
“Good for you,” I encourage.
“Want to join us on the beach next year?” Al asks.
“Yes! Absolutely,” I agree without a second thought.
“I’ll put you down for . . . two?”
My thoughts shift quickly to Edward.
“Oh, wait. He goes with his family to Aspen every year.”
If my mother’s situation was different, I probably would have been in Aspen with him instead this year. But what if next year, we decide to do something else? He chose to be with me in Seattle for what time he had available. We could choose to go somewhere tropical.
“I can see the wheels turning and love that your ‘couple brain’ is kicking in.” Al smiles. “That’s new. How about I put you down for two with an asterisk? We would love to have you with us next year, but if you find yourself in Aspen, we will understand.”
“Okay, that works for me,” I agree.
“Are you ready to watch your hunky spider’s show?”
“You’re watching that again?” Garrett asks.
“I told you earlier I was going to watch it with Bella. It isn’t that long, but I could watch it muted and on repeat for his home alone. His sexiness is a bonus.” Al wiggles his eyebrows suggestively.
“Oh, dear.” Garrett shakes his head with a grin and puts on his glasses, returning to the book in his hands. “I’m going to attempt to mind my own business.”
“Good luck with that.” Al laughs. “Okay, Bella. Are you ready to go?”
“We’ll press play at the same time, but if you need to pause and rewind or discuss, let me know.”
“Got it. Do you want to count us down?”
“Sure. Three, two, one, and play.”
The intro music starts while I turn the volume up a little, then a blonde who I guess is the host appears on the screen.
“Hey, hockey fans! It’s Chelsea with the latest episode of Top Shelf Talk. Today, we’ll spend game day with Edward Cullen for a behind the scenes look with one of Dallas’s hottest goaltenders.”
“She’s got that right.” Al grins. “And pause.”
I scramble for the remote. “I don’t disagree, but why are we stopping? We’ve barely started.”
“I’m curious. Do you know her?”
“No.” I shrug. “I have never heard of Chelsea-no-last name. Is she channeling Oprah or something? Do you know her?”
“Nope, but I know a little about her. More on that later. Let’s keep going. Three, two, one, and play.”
I watch as Chelsea turns and walks along the path of Edward’s home, leading to the front door where she knocks, which prompts a couple of loud barks from inside. After a brief moment, he opens the door, coming into view.
His hair is peeking out from under a team cap, but I’m too distracted by his T-shirt that clings to every muscle with his tatts on his arms exposed. My eyes move lower, scanning the pair of jeans he’s wearing, which are worn in all the right spots.
Damn, he’s so sexy. I miss him already.
I notice Scout at his side.
“Hey, Edward. Thanks for inviting us into your home today.”
“Hi, Chelsea. Come on inside. I’ll show you around before we leave for morning skate.”
“Great. I can’t wait for everyone to see your gorgeous home.” She crouches lower to pet Scout’s head. “And who is this?”
“Scout. My cat, Shadow, is also here somewhere.”
After closing the front door, Edward suggests, “How about we check out the kitchen first?”
“Oh, they recorded this early. He leaves around 8 a.m. for morning skate. Maybe he was late since he was recording this, but I can’t imagine him ever being late.”
They walk through the enormous entry, but the camera lingers, not missing it’s gorgeous features.
“That’s incredible,” Al says. “I love his double staircase.”
“It’s even better in person,” I share, and watch when the camera follows Scout curling up in a spot on the couch in the great room.
I miss him and Shadow too.
I can’t wait to be back in Dallas.
“This is a beautiful kitchen, Edward, and what a view. Your Christmas tree and decorations are the perfect holiday touch.”
“Thanks. The pool area is one of my favorite parts of this home and what sold me on this place. We’ll check it out next.”
The camera pans to the wall of French doors in the great room where the pool and patio area are just beyond before returning to the kitchen where they are standing around the island.
“This kitchen is a chef’s dream. Do you cook?” She waves a hand toward the restaurant style appliances.
“Yes. I had a coach early in my career stress proper nutrition. As a developmental player, we took cooking classes. I remember him saying to stick with the food plan or we wouldn’t make it in the league, because everyone else, who was already following it, would skate right past us. For the most part, while playing youth hockey, we were the superstars on our teams. But at that point, we were humbled to be in a league overflowing with superstars. It’s a best of the best situation and up to us, if we would rise to the levels of elite skill and natural talent. His words stuck with me, and today, players take nutrition much more seriously at an even younger age than I did. It makes a difference. I cook simple proteins and carbs.”
“What’s your favorite meal to prepare?”
“Uh, probably Caesar salad and steak out on the grill with rice or sweet potatoes.”
“Now the go-to meal of every aspiring goaltender.” Al chuckles.
“He eats a lot of fish and chicken with pasta too,” I add.
“Can we check out what’s in here?” Chelsea asks, pointing toward his refrigerator and freezer.
She pulls open the refrigerator first, then stands back while the camera scans the neatly organized shelves full of various foods and drinks.
“This is amazing. I have refrigerator envy.” Chelsea lets the refrigerator door close, then pulls open the freezer door. “And on the other side . . .”
As soon as I see the camera scanning the labeled contents, I realize I’m about to be outed when her hand reaches for the container with my nickname.
“Oh, shit. That was quick.”
Al only chuckles, as if he already knows.
“What’s in here, Edward?” she asks, shaking the container and the contents rattle loudly.
“Frozen mini peanut butter cups. They’re my girlfriend’s.”
Her teasing smile falls a little at my mention or maybe it’s her seriousness at this tiny peek at my chocolate stash, which I completely understand. Hopefully, they don’t reveal the rest of it in the nearby cabinets.
“Can I have a couple?”
I gasp, sit upright from my spot, suddenly more awake, and shake my head in dismay. “She’s going to eat my chocolate? Doesn’t she see my name?”
All laughs harder. “She probably does.”
Edward smiles. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Well, we won’t tell her.” She winks into the camera, opens the lid, and removes a frozen cup.
“Son of a—is she going to drink my favorite wine next? Stay away from the wine fridge! Pause! I can’t believe the gumption of Goldilocks.” I join Al’s laughter, raise my voice, and wag my finger at the television screen. “He didn’t buy those for you! And stay away from the air hockey table too!”
Al is laughing so hard that the phone is shaking, and I can see Garrett with a wide grin in the background.
“Bella, you’re making it difficult to focus on my book.” He snickers. “And I didn’t know you played air hockey.”
Al’s eyes light up, leaving me with little doubt he’s figured out exactly what kind of playing Edward and I did on that table. With a loud gasp, he exclaims, “Bella! You didn’t!”
“Oh, fuck.” Running a hand through my hair, I chug the remaining contents of my glass in one gulp. “I had no idea this was how this viewing would go. I shouldn’t, but clearly, I need more wine. I’ll be right back. Let me grab the bottle.”
“Gare, she did!” He falls over in a fit of laughter before shouting, “Kudos, you seductress! Poor Edward. He doesn’t stand a chance.”
Dropping my phone onto the bed, I can hear them laughing, while I reach for the bottle on the room service cart. After refilling my glass, I leave the bottle on the nightstand and return to my spot. Ready to learn more about my Spider.