A/N: Thank yous to Team Spiderward for all you do. xx A special shoutout to Eternally Addicted for her suggestion of this song. She’s one of my favorite reviewers, and I love her passion for ACaS’s E & B. She shared this song in my Facebook group, and I loved it instantly. After adding it to my playlist, I think it’s a perfect fit for this chapter. Thank you, M!
Song inspiration for this chapter: “Girl Like You,” Jason Aldean
(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) /\ \
When I return from walking Duke, Scout, and Shadow around our neighborhood, I notice James pulling into my driveway. We watch as he gets out of his SUV wearing a team-gear outfit similar to mine that includes a baseball cap, T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. One look at me, and he confirms how exhausted I feel.
“Damn, have you gotten any sleep?” he asks with a beaming smile, holding a large, pink bakery box.
“No.” I grin, knowing I’m bone-tired, but really couldn’t care after Bella’s thorough welcome home.
“Then you’re doing it right, brother. I really like Doc for you. I’ve never seen you happier. It shows on the ice too.” James thumbs behind him toward the house. “Nobody answered when I buzzed a couple of times. So, I hope I didn’t wake Deedee to let me in the gate.”
“Doubtful. She’s always awake early. The lights were on at their house when we passed by. Volts is probably still asleep, though.” I jerk my chin at the box in his hand. “Are you sure about this? We could wait until practice in a few hours.”
“Nah. You know what they say . . . you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and this one comes with a recommendation,” he says confidently.
“All right. Let’s go.” I smile, leading him through the carport to the side door. “I think Rose’s cat is upstairs with Leah. Sassy doesn’t miss a meal. So, she will probably wake Leah to let her out of the room to eat. These three are hungry and I need to feed them.”
“Look at you—such a responsible pet dad,” James teases with a grin as I open the door.
“You’re just jealous,” I say, knowing there is a deeper, undeniable sense of joy that Scout and Shadow bring to my home and my life. But the real reason for my happiness is still sleeping in my bed where she belongs.
He laughs. “Maybe I am.”
Once we’re all inside, I tell them to sit. Duke and Scout do as I request, and I remove the leash from Duke first while Shadow climbs from where she’s been riding on the back of Scout’s neck. She disappears as I unclip Scout’s leash, then I say the release word for Duke and Scout.
They barrel down the hallway, undoubtedly making a beeline for their water bowls and checking their food bowls for any traces of a missed piece of kibble. After slipping off our flip-flops, we follow behind only to be greeted by Sassy who is sitting on the kitchen island, making her presence and needs known. But it’s not only Sassy in the kitchen.
“Holy shit,” James whispers, stopping in his tracks.
After looking around him, I see a barely dressed Leah, wearing a dark purple pajama set with a satiny, spaghetti strapped top and tiny matching shorts. She is struggling to get my coffee maker working, and the commotion from the dogs causes her to look up, putting a smile on her face at our approach.
I grin, stepping around James. “Hey. Leah is it?”
“That’s me. You’re Edward?”
“Yeah, nice to meet you finally.”
“Thanks for letting me stay here this week. You have an incredible home. It’s like something out of House Beautiful or Architectural Digest. Obviously, it’s better than any hotel. I can only imagine the commission your realtor took on a place like this. And I love your Christmas decorations. You should have a professional photographer do a photo shoot while it’s decorated. How long do you plan to leave them up?”
“Uh . . . I think they’re scheduled to be taken down next week, but we did a short video a few weeks ago that I think covered it.”
James elbows me, getting my attention and obviously ready to join the chat.
Nodding my head in his direction, I introduce them. “Leah, this is James. He is one of my teammates and brought breakfast . . .” My eyes shift to the box he’s holding, then back to hers. “Or something this morning.”
Leah steps closer, leaning against the island and crossing her arms over her chest while her eyes dance mischievously over him, but he amends my introduction.
“Not just teammates. Captain. I’m the captain of our team.”
The sound of my opening the upper kitchen cabinet draws the undivided attention of Duke, Scout, and Shadow. Sassy watches me closely while the others gather at my feet.
“So, that’s what everyone calls you? Captain James? You could be a pirate with a name like that. Arrrr.” She chuckles, then smirks, enjoying toying with him.
“That’s me. Here to steal your heart,” he promises with a grin.
Reaching for the bags of pet food, I set them on the island, listening to their banter as I fill the bowls.
“Good luck with that. So, not Cappie or Jaime? I think Jaime sounds better and less stuffy. James is a hoity-toity butler or a snooty chauffeur, but I kind of like Cappie too.”
“Just Cap works.” James smiles, not rattled by her—yet. He sets the pink box on the island and pushes it in her direction. “Welcome to Dallas.”
“Okay, Just Cap.” She winks. “Thanks.”
Opening the box, Leah lets out a snort after seeing its contents and pushes back the lid to reveal what’s inside. With a quick glance, I realize the box contains doughnut letters with a message. Continuing to dump scoops of food into the bowls, I can’t keep the grin off my face with her next words as she reads the message aloud.
“BEST. DICK. EVER.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” James says, holding his palms toward us. “I’m just passing along a personal recommendation in case you need it during your stay here. What’s wrong with a little helpful information?”
Leah doesn’t miss a beat, looking over the doughnuts. “I suppose that depends on how little we’re talking. Some of us have standards. These are what—maybe three or four inches? That’s not much of a challenge.”
I chuckle, nodding toward the box that also includes star-shaped doughnuts. “He comes with his own five-star reviews.”
“Hmmm. He does. So many choices. Which one should I select?” Leah’s eyes flash to mine, then back to James’s before reaching for the letter “D.” She raises an eyebrow while holding the doughnut between her fingertips. “Just Cap, is there any chance this isn’t cream-filled?”
“Is there any other way?” He laughs, waving toward my coffee maker. “Need help with that? I used to be a barista.”
Knowing that’s probably not true, I keep my mouth shut. James doesn’t drink coffee and hasn’t ever. I don’t think he even has a coffee maker at his house for the dates who stay over. So, this should be interesting.
“Trust me, I’m a pro,” he reassures, ready to save the day.
I may need to replace my coffee maker when he’s through helping. Hopefully not, as I bought it for Bella since it’s a combination brewer—able to brew a full pot of coffee or an espresso for those iced versions she loves.
“Well, this I need to see. I always love to watch a pro in action.” She licks her lips before taking a bite while watching him.
I shake my head, scooting Sassy’s food bowl toward her and setting the others on the floor. After returning the food bags to the cabinet, I announce my departure; not that either seems to care with the way they’re looking at each other.
“I’m going to wake up Doc. We’ll be back shortly.”
“Take your time. I’ve got this covered in here,” James says. He looks at my coffee maker before he begins tapping buttons and flipping switches with zero success.
“Do you?” I hear Leah taunt with a tone of disbelief followed by a chuckle.
After walking down the hallway, I open the door to my bedroom. With the early morning light from the bathroom barely illuminating the room, I can see Bella is exactly where I left her, only now she’s snuggling against my pillow. I take her in for a moment, wondering how I can enjoy this sight every morning.
I can’t get enough.
She always leaves me wanting more of everything.
“Hey, beautiful,” I whisper, taking the spot next to her. Rubbing my hand along her bare back, I lean closer, kissing her cheek. “Time to wake up.”
“Mmmm, Edward.” She releases a soft, raspy moan. “Again?”
There’s no keeping the grin from my face, because if I had it my way, it would be a yes.
Her eyes open slightly, looking up at me, and she realizes I’m dressed, then clears her throat. “Are you leaving for practice?”
“No, but I will soon. Even though practice is starting a couple hours later this morning, I need extra time to visit medical for treatment after last night’s game.”
“What?” She blinks rapidly at this news while her brow furrows. “Are you hurt? You should have warned me.”
“It’s nothing to worry about.” I brush off her concern, knowing I’ll bounce back from this quickly. It’s part of the game—managing injuries. “I have a few bruises and my muscles are tight. But . . . I wanted to let you know that James is here. He brought doughnuts and Leah is awake. You probably don’t want to miss out. They’re in the kitchen making coffee.”
“Okay. Coffee sounds fantastic. I think I’m going to need to join you for your nap this afternoon.”
“I was hoping you would.” I grin.
“Right. Sleep.” I wink. When I got ready this morning, I could see she unpacked her suitcase as I had hoped. “Do you need help getting dressed?”
A smile tugs at the corners of her lips. “You know, it’s interesting how exactly half of your closet was empty when we arrived.”
I can’t resist any longer and peck her lips. “Plenty of room for your things. I didn’t know how many suitcases you took with you, but I wanted you to have space for everything.”
“Mmm-hmm,” she hums her obvious disbelief.
I shrug. “You know. You could just . . . I don’t know . . . leave your stuff here. It would be more convenient.”
“Would it?” Her smile soon matches mine.
“Doc, if I thought you would say yes . . .” I hesitate, realizing I probably shouldn’t have brought this up yet.
“What?” she prompts when I don’t continue.
“I would ask you to move in with me.”
Bella appears stunned for a moment by the idea.
“Edward. Wow.” She rubs her eyes before they flit past me and around the room. “This is a lot before I’ve even had a sip of coffee.”
I grin. “I know. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Have you . . . lived with anyone . . . here?”
Bella nods, and I can see the wheels spinning when she rephrases the question.
“Has anyone wanted to live here with you?”
While Chelsea and I dated, she stated her intentions clearly on multiple occasions that she thought it was the next step for us. My instincts told me she might have been more interested in my house than me. It was another thing that left me more and more reluctant to continue with the relationship when I realized my feelings were not growing as they should. I didn’t love Chelsea, but I do Bella, and I’m all about transparency. I want Bella to know how I see our relationship progressing.
“And you didn’t want that . . . previously?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“But you want it now?”
I can’t keep my smile from widening at the thought. “Absolutely. But, I don’t want to pressure you.” I know she needs time to get used to an idea as big as this one would be for her. So maybe it doesn’t hurt to plant a small seed about my future intentions. “There’s no rush.”
“And you’re not asking now.”
“Would I get a yes, if I did?”
“Uh . . .”
“That’s what I thought. I don’t want you to hesitate when I ask. I’m hoping for a confident yes no matter how long it takes. I don’t want to put a number laced with expectation on it. Whatever is comfortable for both of us is the right answer.” I can be patient and I’ll keep working toward that. But I think it’s time to steer her away from this conversation and toward her getting ready. “So getting dressed . . . how about one of my T-shirts and a pair of leggings?” I think I saw those in a drawer earlier.
Her smile widens. “I’ll need underwear too.”
“I’ll pick my favorite G-string then.” I grin, standing and opening the closet door.
“I didn’t bring any of those to Forks.”
I pause in the doorway. “Then, maybe a quick trip to your place for the essentials.”
“G-strings aren’t essential.”
“We’re going to agree to disagree, Doc.” I wink, then step inside, moving her suitcase to the top shelf, and out of her easy reach.
She raises her voice, “I need a bra too.”
“Are any of these see-through?” I ask, opening and closing the drawers while looking through the contents.
“No!” She chuckles.
I know what I’m buying her next.
After handing her the small stack of clothes I collect, Bella disappears into the bathroom with a passing all-too-brief kiss. I’m sitting on the edge of the bed waiting for her when Scout pushes through the slightly open bedroom door to thank me for another meal. I’ve never experienced a pet that has to find me after every meal and share a look full of his gratitude for being fed. It’s something he does every single time and Vera thinks it’s because he has a grateful heart.
When Bella emerges from the bathroom, I’m scratching his neck with his head bowed and pressing firmly against the side of my leg. Much to my delight, the excess material of my shirt is tied to reveal her midriff, making her look as enticing as ever. My happiness surges seeing she’s still wearing her new necklace, which hopefully means she loves it and it’s found a regular home around her neck.
“Ready?” I ask, noticing she’s put her hair up into a bun sitting near the top of her head.
“Yeah. Good enough until I can shower.” She leans close to pet Scout’s head who basks in her attention. “Morning, snuggle buddy.”
I slide my arm around her while my fingers seek the silky feel of her skin, urging her closer. “Where’s my good morning kiss?”
“They haven’t stopped since you got home in the early morning hours,” she says with a grin, kissing my waiting puckered lips.
“Don’t blame me for being addicted to you.” I wink.
“Time to find those doughnuts.” She laces our fingers together and tugs me to stand before our kisses become horizontal again.
It wouldn’t take much.
And I love those too.
With Scout leading the way, I smile when the three of us depart the bedroom. As we cross the entry and into the kitchen hand in hand, I see Leah shoving the doughnut she’s holding into James’s mouth. She reaches for her coffee mug and puts the kitchen island between them, sitting on one of the stools.
“You got it working?” I ask, noticing the almost full carafe.
James nods and finishes his mouthful. “It was unplugged.”
Maybe someone—Maggie or one of the cleaning ladies unplugged it while I was away.
“Morning, Bella,” Leah says, pulling the doughnut box closer to make another selection. “Nice necklace.”
They share a look as Bella’s smile widens. “Hey, Leah. James.”
He nods. “Hey, Doc.”
“I’ll fix your coffee,” I promise, leaving a kiss on her cheek, then another on her neck prompting her giggles.
“Thanks,” Bella says, settling onto the stool next to Leah. “So, I heard there are doughnuts.”
Leah waves toward the open box. “Help yourself before I eat them all.”
I grin at Bella’s confused expression when she reads the remaining message. “BEST. ICK. EVER?”
“Not ICK. DICK. I had the D,” Leah admits proudly, then sips from her coffee mug. “It was creamy and D-licious, but I don’t think I ever met a D I didn’t like.”
Leah winks at James, and I think there’s a subtle blush passing over his face, but I don’t miss the icing near his lip.
He’s in over his head and it’s only been minutes.
But he started it with those doughnuts and his recommendation.
I open the refrigerator, grabbing the cream for Bella’s coffee and a juice for each of us.
“Here, Captain James.” I offer him the bottle, then tap the corner of my mouth. “You’ve got a little icing.”
While his thumb finds it with a swipe, he grins, accepting the juice. “That’s because I asked Leah to share a little taste. Clearly, there was a miscommunication since she shoved the rest of her doughnut into my mouth more harshly than necessary.”
After grabbing a mug from the cabinet, I fill it with coffee and reach for the sugar bowl.
Leah’s smile widens at his words and she teases him, “Why Just Cap? What else could you have meant?”
I know James.
I’m betting he was hoping for a kiss. Even just a small peck. He’s not one to hold back his affection toward anyone he’s interested in, especially if they’re dating. It’s just who he is.
By the look on her face, Leah knows this too. If I had to guess, I’m thinking she’s the opposite—a no-PDA kind of woman, especially with anyone else around, even if it’s only Bella and me.
“Well, I’m calling dibs on all the E’s.” Bella says, interrupting and catching my gaze. “And the B, unless you want that one, Edward.”
“It’s yours.” I wink, adding a splash of cream to her coffee and giving it a quick stir. “Here you go.”
Leah reaches for the “I” with a smirk and holds it gingerly between her fingertips. “I guess that leaves it to me to finish Just Cap’s cream-filled ICK.”
James nearly chokes on his juice at a phrase he undoubtedly never anticipated hearing in this whole scenario, as Leah and Bella can’t contain their laughter while I pat his back.
/ /\ (oo) /\ \
I’m late leaving the locker room after practice since I spent extra time with one of the medical trainers. With a check of my watch, I realize I only have a short window to catch Bella before I need to be upstairs for our team lunch. After lunch, we’re all going to a local shop to be outfitted with cowboy hats and boots to wear for game day on Wednesday, which will delay my return home this afternoon. I forgot to tell Bella about the shopping trip this morning before I left. I’m worried when I reach the end of the hallway to find James talking with Leah while Bella is nowhere to be found.
“Hey. Where’s Doc?” I wonder, looking around and eager to see her.
“She got a call. Her dad.” Leah points toward a hallway in another direction. “She went that way.”
There’s no stopping my pursuit, and after a few turns, I find Bella with her phone to her ear staring out a row of floor-to-ceiling tinted windows.
“So, what do you want me to do?” Her voice is soft with a slight tremble, and she releases a frustrated sigh. “Come back?”
She’s leaving again?
“No. I mean, yeah, I agree. You’re right, Dad. That’s probably best.”
I reach out, touching her arm lightly to let her know I’m here and not startle her since it doesn’t seem like she heard my approach. She turns her head toward me, and I can see a few tears.
“Where’s Mom now?” Her eyes hold my gaze while she waits for a response. “Okay. I’ll call later tonight.”
I lean against the window, pull her to stand between my legs, and leave my hands at her waist.
“Yeah. Thanks for letting me know.”
Bella attempts to sniff back the tears, but I reach up, brushing them away.
“I love you too. We’ll talk soon. Bye, Dad.”
She ends the call, sags against my chest, and tucks her head under my chin as I wrap her in my arms. Leaving a kiss on the top of her head, I embrace her tightly, already suspecting what prompted his call. I sway us back and forth gently, wondering what I could possibly say to help the situation until Bella pulls away, looking up at me.
“It’s okay,” I reassure her softly, tucking a few wayward strands behind her ear. “You can tell me. Are you leaving again?”
She shakes her head, then starts and stops a couple of times before she’s able to get out the words barely above a whisper.
“That was my dad. The doctor called with the lab results from the biopsy.” While tears trickle down her cheeks, her glassy eyes search mine, and I know what she’s going to say before she confirms it. “It’s cancer.”
“Oh, Doc.” I tighten my arms around her, then leave a delicate kiss against her forehead.
“I don’t know how much time we’ve gained with Mom’s surgery, but Dad thinks it’s time for a second opinion before we move forward with any decisions about her next treatment options. The problem is that was her second opinion after seeing a doctor in Florida before she moved to Washington to be with him. This doctor was supposed to have the solution, but we knew there was a chance that it wouldn’t be enough. Now, Dad is adamant we find someone else.”
I nod, understanding his position, then I realize who could probably help. “In that case, I have a recommendation.”
“Okay,” she says, using the back of her hand to wipe away more tears that escape while still clutching her phone.
“I think you should have a conversation about your mother with Alice.”
Her brow furrows in confusion. “As in, Alice Whitlock?”
“Yes. I understand you may not be that close to her for having such a personal conversation, but trust me, she has the experience, and most importantly, the connections you’re going to need. We’ll send a private plane for your parents, if that’s best, but we need to make plans for getting them to Houston, sooner rather than later. Anderson is the best in the world, and I recommend you start there with a new doctor.”
“You think we should bring them to Texas?”
“I do. Is it okay, if I tell Rose and get her involved? She’s closer with Alice than I am. Unless you have Alice’s number?”
“I don’t.” Bella shakes her head and considers my suggestion for a moment. She releases an unsteady deep breath, then agrees, “Okay. I would tell your sister anyway, but let’s get Alice involved. It can’t hurt, right?”
“No, it can’t,” I promise. “I’ll do anything I can to help. Just say the word.”
After leaving a brief kiss on her lips, she closes her eyes and melts into my embrace, whispering a soft, “Thank you.”
All thoughts of hurrying upstairs for lunch or our team-shopping trip evaporate instantly, because I’ve just had an important reminder of where my priorities should be and that’s with the woman in my arms.
Bella needs me.
And without a second thought, my actions match my words, holding her tightly for as long as she needs.
“Doc, I’ve got you, and I’m not letting go,” I reassure, leaving another kiss against the top of her head. “We’re in this together.”
She pulls away slightly and her head tilts backward until her tearful eyes lock with mine. “You have no idea how much I need to hear that.”
I peck her lips lightly. “I love you and that’s what matters.”
“Oh, Edward. I don’t want to lose her, but I feel like we could be fighting the inevitable. I’ve looked, trying to prepare myself for this scenario, and the numbers aren’t good.” Bella shakes her head slightly.
“Hey. We’ll do everything we can and have faith for the best outcome possible. Your mother is strong, like you. This isn’t a setback. This is a change in a new direction. She’s been living with cancer for a while now. Maybe years. You just didn’t know that’s what it was, and now that you do, you can make the best decisions toward her treatment and recovery. There is a chance that one day she will be cancer-free, and in my opinion, that’s all she needs. It’s a real possibility that you shouldn’t discount.”
“You’re always so positive.” She gives me a slight smile. “I love you so much.”
I plant another small kiss on her waiting lips. “And that’s all I need.”
Everything else is the icing on the cake.