A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Good As Gone,” Little Big Town
(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) /\ \
With Edward on his way to the team’s morning skate, I’m barely sipping my freshly brewed coffee when there is a ringing indicating someone is at the front gate. It prompts a bark from Scout who is cuddled next to me with Shadow on the couch.
“I know. I know. It’s probably Leah.” I clear my throat, then answer the house phone. “Hello?”
“It’s Vladdy. I’m returning—” He snickers through his laughter. “—the princess to the castle.”
I can hear Leah cackling hysterically in the background, and I smile.
“Okay. Hang on.”
It takes me a few moments to press the right buttons, letting Vladdy through the gate, but once I do, I watch out the front windows with Scout until Vladdy pulls into Edward’s driveway. Scout sits at my side and whines impatiently at the car just sitting there.
I pat his head, lowering my voice. “I know. I can’t see anything either. Do you think they’re kissing?”
He responds with another impatient gruff.
With the tinted windows, I have no idea what they’re doing, but I can imagine. When Leah emerges from Vladdy’s vehicle, I try not to look as if I’m being nosy and open the door for her as Vladdy departs for their morning skate. I notice she’s carrying a canvas bag and wearing a Stolichnaya Vodka gray T-shirt tied at her waist.
“Good morning, princess. Welcome back to the castle. Nice shirt.” I smirk, close the door behind her, and lead her back into the great room where I sit on the couch.
“Thanks. There was a . . . cooking incident.” Leah grins at not wearing the clothes she left in last night. “But I’m keeping this one. Have you seen all the vodka at Vladdy’s home?”
“No. I’ve never been there.” I shake my head, then sip from my coffee.
“Oh my goodness. He has cases and cases. It’s some sort of sponsorship thing, I guess.”
“Edward has quantities of coconut water like that. Plus, other gels and powders in one of the closets off the kitchen.” I wave toward the hallway.
“After my tour of his home, we had a vodka tasting and tried it at different temperatures. It was so different. I liked the cold syrupy version best, but Vladdy loves it at room temperature. I can’t believe some people like it warm.”
“Sounds interesting. Have you gotten any sleep yet?”
She snorts. “No. Have you?”
I nod. “Edward is a stickler for routines. So our time was . . . efficiently managed. What did you two do last night?”
A beaming smile spreads across her face. “You really want to know?”
“Yes.” I chuckle.
“Well, not what I’m positive Edward and you did.” She wiggles her eyebrows knowingly. “After our vodka tasting, we played video games, then made pancakes. Vladdy calls them blini. They were delicious and like a crepe. I could eat them forever with only butter. Vladdy ate them with sour cream, caviar, and honey. Can you believe that? Blech. I tried a bite, but just couldn’t. I ate some with smoked salmon and cream cheese. We made a ton and ate a ton of them. I’m stuffed.
“And, oh! This is so cute. Instead of cursing around his son he says, ‘Blini!’ They walk around the house shouting ‘Oh, pancakes!’ Only they say, ‘Oh, blini!’ It’s adorable. I’ve never had so much fun.”
“Wait. You met his son?”
“Yeah. Maksim. He was there too and called me Lee-lee. Vladdy’s babushka or grandmother lives with them. I met her too. She takes care of Maks when he isn’t with Vladdy’s ex-wife.”
There’s so much to unpack with her download of information, but I ask, “What does Vladdy call you?”
“Printsessa or krasotka. Check out my Russian,” she brags with a smile.
“Interesting. So, princess or . . .?”
“He said it means gorgeous or beauty,” Leah shares with a little shrug.
I always thought Leah was a natural beauty. So, Vladdy has that right. Together they would make quite a couple, but I’m not pushing for anything when I know she’s probably not past the whole James situation and has something brewing with Pastor Isaac also. And that musician in Port Angeles. And Jacob.
After Edward and Leah told me what went down at the after party between Vladdy and Jacob, I hope Jacob will move on, but I have my doubts. He’s the type to hold a grudge. While Vladdy isn’t concerned about any retaliation and would probably welcome it, I would never underestimate Jacob. He’s an underhanded, sneaky shit.
“Sounds like you had a great time.”
“It was exactly what I needed.” Her smile brightens. “It’s just easy with him. Vladdy always makes me smile and laugh. I’m exhausted, but I can sleep when I get home. Sadly, I should go pack.”
I nod. “Okay. We’ll leave for the airport whenever you’re ready. You have plenty of time.”
“Thanks, Bella. I’ve loved spending this week here with you, and everyone was so welcoming. I guess, I won’t see Edward again for a while, but will you thank him for everything?”
“I will. It’s been a pleasure.” I stand and hug her tightly. “We’ll do it again whenever the opportunity arises for both of us.”
“I’ll look forward to it.”
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
After dropping Leah at the airport, I stop by my townhouse to pick up clothes for work on Monday. My visit to my home reminds me that I need to put away my Christmas tree and the other decorations Al and Garrett helped me with before I left for Seattle. I know they offered to help, but with Leah’s departure and Edward’s road trip looming, I’m a little down, and putting away the decorations will give me something to do while Edward is gone during the next week.
Once I’m back at his home, it isn’t long before he returns from practice with little mention of James when I ask. Edward only shares that James wasn’t his typical self, whereas Vladdy was in an exceptionally good mood. I can only imagine, and I don’t want any growing animosity to come between them or mess with their team chemistry because of Leah.
Fortunately, our weekend is absolute bliss. We enjoy cooking meals together and snuggling on his couch for afternoon naps after his morning skates. I help out with Scout’s and Shadow’s care, feeding and walking them on my own, or I tag along happily whenever Edward takes them out if I’m not asleep. There’s so much pleasure in doing the simple mundane things together that I think we’re both cherishing each one.
On Sunday, Edward learns he will get the start for the first game of their road trip against Los Angeles Wednesday night. I’m thrilled for him, but he warns me not to read too much into it, as Ben is starting the next night against Anaheim. Despite his warning, I find myself growing a little more of a competitive side and secretly hope there is a possibility that Edward will edge out Ben to become the starting goaltender. I know that’s probably an unrealistic expectation, but as Edward always says, anything is possible.
Currently, we’re wrapped around each other on the couch in the great room. There’s a hockey game playing on the television that Edward is watching. I’m snuggled against his side with my head on his chest. My eyes drift shut briefly, listening to the constant, heavy strum of his heartbeat, when I hear his warm voice.
“Doc?” His hand rubs gently back and forth along my back.
“Are you awake?”
“Yeah.” I tilt my head, looking up at him.
“Can I ask you a question?”
He nods. “If you were to pick any house in Dallas to buy, would you have picked this one?”
“Uh . . .” My eyes move around the room briefly then focus back on him.
“It’s okay. You can tell me whatever,” he encourages.
“No, I wouldn’t.”
I release a small sigh, hoping I don’t upset him. “Well, for only me, it’s just too big and requires a lot of maintenance. I don’t do a lot of entertaining, so it would be a waste of resources for me. It’s why I like my townhouse. Even though it is more than I need, there isn’t any outside maintenance. I can also keep up with cleaning without hiring any extra help. And it’s close to my work.”
Edward contemplates my reasoning, then asks another question. “What if it wasn’t only you? Would you select this house then?”
“It’s still a lot of house for two people.” I shake my head, suspecting where he’s going with this line of questioning.
“Do you think I should sell it?”
“If it isn’t something you would select, then why would I keep it? Maybe you would be happier with something else. A different house. I picked this one when I moved here because I needed a place to live at the time. I thought the space would accommodate any changes in the future, but we could search for one that we both like. Maybe then you would want to live together.”
There it is. I was right about his motives.
“Or . . .” He grins. “You could ask me to move in with you.”
I chuckle at his tenacity. “And what would be your answer?”
His eyes brighten. “Let’s pack up my things, and I’ll move in with you tonight.”
“I don’t have space for all of your things,” I point out.
“Doc, I only need my suits and a few T-shirts for you to steal.” He winks, because I’m currently wearing one of those. “Plus, Scout and Shadow. We can put everything else in storage.”
“One dinner party and you’re ready to pack it all up?” I tease. “I thought it was a success.”
“That’s not it, and it was a great evening thanks to you. I just don’t want you to think that your opinion isn’t important. What you want matters to me, and I hope I can make you as happy as you make me.”
I reach up, comb my fingers through his hair, and stretch until I can kiss his lips. “Edward, I’m extremely happy with you.”
“But you don’t like this house.”
“I didn’t say that. I said it’s a lot and requires a great amount of resources to keep it going. It’s not the most financially responsible choice, which is why I wouldn’t choose it for myself, not necessarily because of the style. This is an extravagance, but I understand why it appeals to you.”
“Okay.” He nods. “Can I ask you something else?”
“What did you picture your life like?”
My brows furrow with confusion. “What do you mean?”
He explains, “You know, like when you were younger. Were you one of those people with a five or ten-year plan? Maybe you thought ‘I’ll do this’ or ‘I’ll do that’ by a particular age. You seem like someone who would always have goals or expectations for yourself. I don’t want to box you in with anything specific, but I’m wondering what those would be and if you still have them.”
I nod my understanding. “Yes, I do—stuff like financial independence, owning my own home, planning for retirement, and a path to my first million, all make my list. It hasn’t happened as quickly as I hoped, because a majority of my life has been committed to my schooling and building my skill set. There is a lot of risk upon graduating, and it’s a difficult choice to make which path is the right one to choose. I chose to take Sam’s offer, because I had a mountain of student loan debt, and it seemed like a good fit. I wasn’t in a position where purchasing an existing practice or starting my own at that point was possible.”
“I’m making great strides toward paying off my student loans and my townhouse, which wouldn’t happen in a home like this. I’m not living my dream job, but I believe I’m closer than I was six years ago. I’m also in a better position to feel out new options, and I suspect those don’t include Uley Family Dental. I can’t imagine starting over with nothing, but I don’t think I necessarily would, if I left. I have loyal patients and a professional reputation now that puts me in a better position to take a risk.”
“What about outside of your career goals? Like personally.”
“I’ve considered things like learning how to play a musical instrument, which really isn’t me, or learning a foreign language.” I grin. “I love my current French teacher, but realistically, I’m so mesmerized by him that I can barely remember anything he says, and it usually ends in mind-blowing sex. So, I should get a pass there.”
“Pass granted.” Edward winks. “And he loves you too.”
“I’m also becoming quite the ice skater, but neither of those were part of my five-year plan.”
He chuckles. “Okay. What else?”
“Travel is always fun and well . . . family—my own—makes the list. Unfortunately, I’m not the type of woman who created a wedding binder when I was young and kept it in my hope chest. I wasn’t ever in college for a M-R-S degree, like some women. I guess, I figured if I ever met anyone I would cross that bridge when I got to it.”
“Did you meet anyone?”
His question stirs memories from years ago, and I swallow down the lump forming in my throat before revealing my answer.
“Yes,” I confirm.
I smile sadly. “I was wrong.”
“When was that?”
I release a small sigh. “After I graduated with my undergraduate degree and before I started dental school. He—are you sure you want to hear about this?”
I nod. “He swept me off my feet. I kept thinking the whole time, could this be real? It was too good to be true. I was head over heels in love, and I thought he was also. But that wasn’t the case. I was a dalliance or maybe a fantasy realized. Then, suddenly, as quickly as it started, it was over, and I moved to Dallas.”
Edward reaches lower to touch my necklace gently, then his eyes find mine. “How long did it last?”
“Two months. I had a hunch—one of those you ignore when you shouldn’t. I could feel him slipping away, and I foolishly told him I loved him, thinking it would help. He laughed—” I shake my head, then rest it back on his chest. “He laughed and said he worried that would happen. It was crushing to know I wasn’t enough.”
“I hate that ever happened to you.” Edward squeezes me a little tighter and kisses the top of my head. “Fortunately for me, he was an idiot, but I can’t say I haven’t had my own moments of idiocy. I’ll bet now he would be full of regret. I know I would be if I was in his position.”
“I wouldn’t know. We lost touch after that.” Or more like he stopped taking my calls. “It doesn’t matter. He had no intention of it being anything more than what it was, and I was foolish to believe it was anything else.”
“It’s not the lawyer is it?” he asks hesitantly.
“No. He isn’t in Dallas.”
Edward smiles. “It’s probably good I didn’t know this while I was there. So, if family makes your list, I’m guessing you were thinking about . . . marriage and kids then?”
“Yes. He wasn’t.” I stare at the flames flickering in the fireplace and lower my voice. “If he had asked, I would have run off to Vegas and gotten married. That’s how into him I was.”
I glance at Edward to catch his reaction, and his eyebrows shoot up in shock.
“Wow, I never would have guessed that. After two months?”
“What about marriage and kids . . . now?”
“Well, he didn’t sour me on either idea since we never got there. I’m still open to the possibilities, and while I would like to have both, they aren’t requirements for a committed relationship.”
Edward’s eyebrows furrow slightly. “That sounds like . . . you’re trying to say the right things, but not specifically saying what you want. Why won’t you tell me?”
“What if we don’t want the same things?” It would crush me if that was the case, and I’m hesitant to put any unnecessary expectations on him or us.
Edward mentioned in Seattle that he wanted children early in his career, but what if his position changed over the years and he doesn’t want them now? Maybe being an uncle is enough for him. He’s never taken those next steps of getting married or having children with anyone. Would he really consider taking them with me?
“And what if we do? Bella, how will I ever know, if you don’t tell me?”
I release a heavy sigh. “I want you. Us.”
“And what does that look like for you? Where do you see . . . us?”
“I haven’t really thought about it. I’m happy with what we have now and I don’t . . .”
“Don’t what? Want to rock the boat? Are you afraid if you share something I don’t like that I’ll end this? Well, I can promise you that isn’t happening. I’m not him. And good luck getting rid of me. I’m not going anywhere unless it’s with you.”
“Or your teammates.” I smile, knowing that’s not exactly true with his impending departure this week.
“You know that’s my job and not what I’m talking about.”
“Okay. Okay.” I blow out a deep breath. “One day, I would like to get married. For me, the wedding would be something simple and classic, but I’m not focused on the wedding. I’m more intent on getting the marriage part right. I want one that is based on love, faithfulness, trust, support, and honesty. I realize it’s a lot to put on one person, and I think it’s unrealistic to think I could find everything I need in one person, but I can’t imagine marrying someone without all those being present in a relationship. I want a husband who can be my greatest supporter, best-friend, confidant, and lover.”
“I’m really close here. Maybe you can put in a good word for me,” he teases, lightening the mood, and grins. “What else?”
“I would like to become a parent.”
“In that order?”
“No. Not necessarily. That adventure, though . . . it’s a little scary, because I have to be realistic. It’s something that men don’t have to worry about, but I’m concerned I could have trouble getting pregnant because of my age. I’m not far from thirty-five and that’s generally a tipping point where the odds of conception begin to decrease. I continue to prioritize my career over family, which means family has fallen near the bottom of my list for the past years.”
“Is that what makes a family for you? Your own biological kids?”
Now that he asks, I’m not sure, because I realize family means so many different things for him. Edward has his hockey family, which is full of teammates, coaches, and mentors who are like brothers, fathers, and uncles. He and Rose were adopted by Carlisle, who is the man he’s known for most of his life as a father figure. I can’t forget that there are also new additions to his family, like Scout and Shadow.
When I consider my own extended family, I’ve always had the support of my parents, but Al and Garrett are like family to me too. I’m close with Leah, and I can’t deny my relationship with Rose who is my strongest relationship at the office. And of course, there is my sweet Dr. Katie who I wouldn’t have without my connection to Rose.
“It isn’t the best answer, but I don’t know. Family, to me, consists of people who support and love you even when it isn’t easy to do so. Being an only child, I always wished for siblings growing up, and when that never happened, I think my wish transferred to future-me, hoping one day I would have a large family.”
“How many kids would you want?”
“Three, maybe four. I have no idea how I would juggle the demands of both work and being a parent. I think I would need a network of support that I don’t have currently.”
“But maybe you do, and you don’t realize it yet. I’m trying to keep your wants as our focus here, but what would you say . . . if I said . . . that I would like to be married to you and have kids with you? Sooner rather than later.”
“Edward.” My heart accelerates at the thought.
“Forget five or ten-year plans. What if . . . that’s my one-year plan? Win you over, get married, and have kids.”
Tanya was right.
It’s on his mind, and now, moving higher on my list with every word from his mouth.
I blink rapidly, trying to process everything. “I didn’t hear any hockey in that plan.”
He nods. “It’s there somewhere with your job too, but I told you I would choose you over hockey. Bella—”
Edward waits until my eyes meet his gaze. When they do, I find his eyes full of hope, sincerity, and love.
“If I asked you to run off with me and elope to Vegas, would you?”
I’m not surprised he would pose this question given what I’ve shared this evening. Comparisons are inevitable, and he wants to know where he stands. After everything I’ve revealed, I know deep in my heart there’s only one possible answer. It’s one that would make my younger, more impulsive self proud that I finally found my way back to having this type of happiness in my life again.
“Yes. I would.”
And with that simple reply, one that means everything to both of us, Edward’s lips are on mine, kissing me breathless.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
With the arrival of Monday morning, Edward is awake early and will leave for his morning skate after I depart. While I get ready for work, he takes Scout and Shadow for a walk. Once they return, he feeds them, then fixes me a travel mug of coffee before sending me on my way with a series of lingering kisses. Maybe I’m dragging my feet a little, leaving this happy bubble Edward and I have been enjoying for days.
We trade “I love yous” until I’m forced to leave or I’ll be late. Well, late for being early. I’m not feeling the greatest physically with the arrival of my period this morning, and there’s a sense of dread at seeing Paul too. I’m sure he will be late, but I know he won’t miss the opportunity to take a few cheap shots because of my three-week absence. When I arrive, Rose is there, removing the holiday decorations.
“Good morning, Bella.”
“Hey, Rose. What’s next on the decorating plan, Valentine’s Day?”
“Probably. We have a whole box of winter themed items I could use, but I should just donate those or something. We never get much snow in Dallas, and it feels wrong to use them. I like having bright pink and red hearts everywhere. So, I think I’ll go ahead and get out the Valentine’s Day decor. I’m positive I’m not the only one feeling the love this year.” She grins.
“Good point,” I agree. I’m feeling the love and that’s one hundred percent because of her brother.
Walking down the hallway toward my office, I’m not surprised to find Paul’s empty as expected, but there’s a voice I don’t recognize coming from mine the closer I get. Once I’m standing in the doorway, I find someone sitting in my chair. With his feet kicked up on my desk, he is talking on the phone and tossing a golf ball in his other hand.
My blood goes cold when he swivels around, and I recognize him instantly—Jared Cameron—one of the candidates for the associate position.
I’ve gone from feelings of love to hate in a heartbeat.
Walking farther into my office, I drop my messenger bag on one of the chairs in front of my desk. When Jared finally notices me standing there, he wraps up his conversation.
“I’ll have to call you back. Sure. We’ll get out on the course again soon. I promise. Bye.” Jared returns the handset to the office phone. “Hey, Bella.”
I’m not doing this with him.
“It’s Dr. Swan, and what are you doing in here?”
Leaning back in my chair enough to make it creak, Jared holds out his arms. “Aren’t you going to congratulate me and welcome me to the team? I’m the newest addition to Uley Family Dental.”
Releasing a deep breath, I realize instantly that I’m going to wring Sam’s neck. He hired the worst possible candidate from the selections without consulting me. And he cowardly did it while I was gone.
I turn my building ire on Jared. “I’ll ask again, what are you doing in here?”
“Oh. Sam said I could use your office. He didn’t know if you would be coming back. You know with your mom and everything.”
As if Jared knows one single thing about my mother.
“I’m here now.”
But as I process this turn of events, I realize maybe not for as long as I thought. Jared continues rambling, because he obviously doesn’t know when to shut up and get out.
“Paul said he would be surprised if you returned since you have a seven-figure boyfriend now. Isn’t he some kind of athlete?”
I’m not going to make small talk about Edward with this guy.
And Paul has a lot of nerve.
He knows exactly who my boyfriend is.
I blow out a breath and steady my voice. “Get. Out.”
Jared holds up the fucking golf ball, pointing it at me. “You should be thanking me. I covered for you last week. You’re lucky there were only a couple of emergencies that needed to be handled. So, you’re welcome for those. And . . . you’re almost out of chocolate.”
He’s been in my fucking chocolate drawer.
Who does he think he is?
My eyes narrow and I practically growl each word. “I. Said. Get. Out. Now.”
“Wow, I don’t remember you being this bitchy during the interviews. Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I’m going to need some time to pack up my stuff.” He chuckles. “I can see why Sam wants to get rid of you.”
Get rid of me?
Is that what he’s doing?
He hired Jared to try to get rid of me?
Force me to quit?
An undeniable feeling like a punch to my gut radiates through my body. I can’t believe Sam would do this. But Leah’s words from last week come back to me.
“When people show you who they are—believe them.”
Sam never intended to do anything other than use me to build his practice until I could be forced out by another incompetent golfing buddy. I reach for my messenger bag and exit my office. Walking back down the hallway, I pass through the waiting room, hell-bent on getting out of here.
“Bella?” Rose looks up at me with surprise, before her features fill with great concern. “Wait! Is everything okay?” She lowers her voice. “Is it Dr. Cameron? He was here when I arrived this morning. I had no idea Sam hired anyone. I thought he told you.”
“Uh . . . no, he didn’t. I’m going to—I’m going to need a minute.” I’m livid when I push through our heavy office door, and without delay, keep going until I’m back outside the building.
Who am I kidding? I’m going to need more than a minute.
I pace back and forth along the sidewalk, taking deep breaths.
“That underhanded motherfucker.”
What am I going to do?
“I can’t believe this. I can’t fucking believe this.”
My exasperation grows and I shake my head.
“He wants me out.” I chant over and over until I’m nearly in tears.
I had no idea that was his real reason for hiring someone. Sam said it was to support me and grow the practice. But now I know that was never his true intention. My eyes scan the parking lot until I realize I know exactly what I have to do.
If he wants me out, then he’s going to get his wish.
I’m out of here, but not without leaving a mark first.
No. Sam isn’t going to get off that easy.
He’s cheated me out of income and professional advancement for years.
All to his benefit.
My departure is going to hurt, and I promise, he isn’t going to forget it.