Edward flopped down on the couch, landing beside his seven-year-old daughter, Katie, who gasped.
"Daddy! You're gonna make me mess up!" She pulled her crayon away from the paper she was coloring-a green and purple polka-dotted frog wearing a bright yellow crown-and glared at him.
At her indignation, he smothered his grin behind his hand and shook his head. "Sorry, monkey. Go back to coloring. I'll just sit here quietly and watch basketball."
She nodded once before turning back to her frog and beginning to color in the princess standing behind it.
Edward reached to grab the remote from the table just as Bella walked into the living room, holding out the phone.
"There's a woman named Maggie Sullivan on the phone for you," she murmured, handing him the phone.
When she started to turn away, Edward reached out and grasped her wrist, gently pulling her down onto his lap. "Stay," he murmured before holding the phone up to his ear.
"This is Edward. What can I do for you?"
The lilting Irish accent caught him off guard when the caller said, "Yes, hello, Mr. Cullen. My name's Maggie Sullivan. I-" She breathed out an audible breath and said, "There's no easy way to say this. I'm with the Department of Child and Family Services in Chicago. I believe we need to meet. Are you free Monday? That's the earliest I can get to Oklahoma."
Confused, Edward slowly nodded his head, and then realizing she couldn't see him, he said, "Y-Yes, I'm free. May I ask what this is about?"
"I think it would be better if we waited to speak further until Monday, Mr. Cullen."
Feeling the knot in his stomach grow, he asked, "Can you give me anything?"
She paused, and Edward froze, his hand on Bella's jeans-covered thigh flexing with nervous tension. Bella's fingers running through the hair at the base of his neck soothed him momentarily until Ms. Sullivan finally spoke.
"Do you remember Charlotte Peters?"
Edward took the beer Jasper held out for him and then watched as his friend popped the cap off his beer and took a seat beside his wife.
"So this...Maggie Sullivan woman didn't give you anything more than that on the phone this morning?"
Shaking his head, Edward grimaced. "Nothing. I pressed for more, but she was pretty adamant about waitin' until Monday."
He relaxed when Bella slid her hand into his, squeezing his fingers. Looking over, he smiled gratefully. She'd been his rock since the phone call, telling him they'd get through whatever it was together.
Alice frowned from her seat beside Jasper. "So who exactly is Charlotte Peters?"
Edward picked at the label on his beer, swallowing back his nerves. "My ex-girlfriend from college."
Memories swamped him, and Edward closed his eyes for a minute, picturing the petite blonde that had captured his attention his first week at Northwestern, where he'd gone mainly to get away from the small town of Plainview. She'd been funny, bubbly, outgoing, and a local girl, having moved into the city from the town she'd grown up in, not far from Chicago. They'd quickly become an item, with several of the same classes and attending at least one party every weekend. Drugs-although Charlotte had shied away from any hard stuff, choosing to stick with weed and ecstasy, Edward had chosen to enjoy his newfound freedom and had tried pretty much anything offered to him-and booze became a regular part of their weekend, although somehow, both still managed to keep up with school. Then, Charlotte never came back to school after Christmas break. He'd called, and her father had said she didn't want to talk to him, that he shouldn't ever call again. He'd tried a few more times and been shot down every time, so eventually, he'd given up and moved on.
When Bella squeezed his hand, Edward was pulled from his thoughts, looking up to see that Emmett, his best friend and business partner, and his wife, Rose, had joined them. Their four-year-old son, Royce, was now running around in the yard with Cheyenne and Savannah, Alice and Jasper's twin two-year-old daughters, and Katie.
Emmett raised an eyebrow. "How ya' doin', man?"
Edward shrugged. "'Bout the same as this morning. Numb."
Rose smiled sadly. "You know we're all here for you, no matter what, right?" She reached over and took Bella's hand, glancing out at the kids before looking back at Edward and Bella. "All of you."
Edward and Bella both nodded.
"Thanks, Rose," Bella murmured. "We know you are."
Glancing at Edward, she must have seen that talking about it wasn't helping, because she quickly changed the subject. As she asked Alice about her first graders, Edward thought of how lucky he was to have such good friends and felt his mind wander again.
Plainview, Oklahoma, halfway between Lawton and the Texas border, had been home for Edward from birth through high school, and he'd known Emmett, Rose, and Alice damn near his entire life. Emmett, Alice, and their parents had moved to town, next door to Edward and his parents, when he and Emmett were four. Alice was a year younger, the same age as Rose. All three sets of parents had become good friends, which meant all four of the kids hung out together a lot. When he moved to Chicago for school instead of going to OU with Emmett, his friend had been bummed, but he'd known how much Edward had wanted out of Oklahoma. Edward had been tired of what he'd considered the "country life" and wanted to experience life in a "cooler" place than Oklahoma. Looking back, he realized he'd been young and naïve, but at the time, he'd been thrilled to go out of state for school.
At Bella's laugh, his thoughts jumped to the first time he'd met her. After college, he'd stayed in Chicago to find work, but then the terrorist attacks had happened, and he'd joined the Army. After a three-year stretch, two of which had been overseas, he'd come back to Plainview to visit his parents. When he met up with the group to catch up, they'd introduced him to Bella, who'd moved to Plainview with her parents the summer Edward left for Chicago. She, Alice, and Rose had spent their senior year becoming best friends and had joined Emmett at OU the next year, which was where Alice had met Jasper. Edward had been immediately attracted to the naturally beautiful Isabella Swan, with her long brown hair and deep brown eyes. She was a fairly new fourth grade teacher in Plainview, having gotten a job there after graduating from the University of Oklahoma.
By the time Edward had thought he would be going back to Chicago to find a job, he'd decided to stay in Plainview and try to find a job in nearby Lawton if he had to. Thankfully, Emmett had grown tired of working at his wife's auto shop, and when he suggested partnering up with Edward in a video game development company, Edward had jumped on it. Emmett was a business guy who loved all things video games, and he paired well with Edward's love of video games, computers, math, and science, so it had been a natural fit.
"Honey? Edward," Bella's voice called, suddenly pulling Edward from his thoughts again. When he looked over, she was smirking. "C'mon, hon. The others are ready to head out. Katie has a soccer game in the morning, and it's getting close to bedtime for Royce and the twins."
"Yeah, sorry," Edward said, scrubbing his face with his palm before accepting Bella's hand and moving up to stand beside her.
He watched as their friends gathered their kids, saying bye to Katie before moving back to the deck.
"Hang in there, man," Jasper said, clasping his shoulder with one hand while carrying Savannah in the other. "It'll all work out."
Edward nodded. "Thanks, Jas."
Jasper nodded and took Alice's hand to lead her around to their car. Alice smiled once more at Edward and Bella before following her husband, carrying Cheyenne on her hip.
Edward blinked as Rose patted his cheek firmly, giving him a small smile, before pulling Bella into a hug.
"Call if you need us, sweetie," she whispered just loud enough for them both to hear her.
Edward laughed as Emmett came up behind Rose, holding a squealing Royce upside down. "Did Daddy get you?"
Royce nodded and giggled, trying to climb up his own body to be upright. When Emmett slung him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, Royce giggled and beat on his back. "Daddy! Pwut me down! My face is all wed!"
Edward couldn't help but chuckle at the way the little boy couldn't quite wrap his tongue around the right sounds. "Thanks for coming over, Em."
"No problem, dude. Call me..."
"Will do. She's supposed to be here first thing. She's flying in to Wichita Falls late tomorrow night and will drive over Monday morning."
Emmett nodded. "Gotcha." When Royce beat on his back again, he growled playfully and said, "Okay, okay. Time to go. I get it. C'mon, Rosie. Time to get this monster home."
As Edward watched his friends leave, Katie came up and stood beside him to wave goodbye. When they pulled out of the driveway, she turned to look up at him.
"Daddy, are you sad?" Her brows were furrowed together, and her lips were pursed as she looked him over.
Edward swept her up and nuzzled her neck, tickling her with his day-old scruff. "No, monkey. I have a lot on my mind, but I'm good. You know what would make me even better?"
"What?" she questioned, leaning back so they could see each other.
"A monkey kiss," Edward said, pointing to the tip of his nose. "Right there."
Her face brightened and she threw her hands up to his cheeks. "Really?"
Edward's heart was full when his baby girl leaned in and planted a smacking kiss to the tip of his nose, complete with sound effects.
"Mmmmwah!" she said as she pulled away and giggled.
As Bella's arm slipped around his waist and their daughter gave them her brilliant, beautiful smile, Edward knew no matter what Maggie Sullivan had to tell him on Monday, he'd be okay.
Bella shuffled out of the bathroom, turning off the light as she went, and then slipped into bed beside her husband. Edward was propped up on the pillows, hands clasped behind his head as he stared at nothing in the dark room. Turning on her side, Bella scooted against him, resting one hand on his chest and propping her head up with the other. After a moment, she knew he wasn't in the mood to talk, so she snuggled in, putting her head where her hand had been on his chest, her fingers coming up to touch the light dusting of hair on his chest and abs.
Her mind going a mile a minute, Bella couldn't close her eyes and sleep, and from his restlessness beneath her, she knew Edward was feeling the same. It was no wonder. A simple three-minute phone call had turned their world upside down-and they didn't even know the whole story yet.
Bella was cleaning up after breakfast-their weekend chocolate chip and blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs, and sausage made a heck of a mess, but they usually cleaned up together, and she'd sent Edward in to check on Katie once the dishes were finished-when the phone rang. Tossing the rag onto the counter, she wiped her hands on her jeans and grabbed the portable phone from the base in the corner of the kitchen.
She didn't recognize the number, so with a raised eyebrow, she asked, "Hello?"
"Yes, hello. I need to speak with Edward Cullen, please." The woman spoke softly but confidently with a beautiful accent-Irish or Scottish or something similar.
"Sure," Bella said. "May I tell him who's calling?"
"My name's Maggie Sullivan."
"All right. Give me a sec to get the phone to him. He's in the other room with our daughter."
The woman-Ms. Sullivan-replied warmly, "That's fine. I can wait."
Stepping into the living room, Bella put one hand over the receiver, said, "There's a woman named Maggie Sullivan on the phone for you," and then handed him the phone, smiling.
He raised an eyebrow and shrugged, reaching up to encircle her wrist as she started to turn away. Pulling her down onto his lap, he quietly said, "Stay," before holding the phone up to his ear.
"This is Edward. What can I do for you?"
Bella felt him tense, the hand that had been rubbing her thigh pausing mid-motion. After a moment, he gave a slow nod and stuttered, "Y-Yes, I'm free. May I ask what this is about?"
Again, he was quiet, and Bella watched as he looked up at her, fear suddenly in his eyes as he spoke again. "Can you give me anything?"
He was quiet for a moment, his hand flexing on her thigh. Bella reached up and began teasing the hair at the base of his neck, scratching his scalp lightly with her nails, which always had a calming, relaxing effect on him.
Finally, Edward said, "Yes, I do. Is... Is she okay?"
After a short pause, he said, "Okay. Monday at ten a.m. We'll see you then." He was visibly stunned as he clicked the button to hang up the call.
When he didn't say anything for a full minute, Bella took the phone from him and set it on the side table. She didn't know what the phone call had been about, but whatever it was hadn't been good. Looking over at Katie, she said, "Sweetie, why don't you take your crayons to your room, okay? Play quietly for a while and we'll have the chocolate pudding we made earlier. I need to talk to Daddy."
Katie looked up and smiled. "After breakfast? Whipped cream, too?"
Bella chuckled, nodding. "I'll even let you squirt it out of the can."
Giggling-Bella knew she was remembering the last time, when she'd squirted both her parents with the white fluff-Katie started gathering her things.
When Bella heard their daughter's door shut, she turned to Edward. "Wanna tell me what that was about, hon?"
She heard Edward's breath catch before he tipped his face up to look at her.
"Ms. Sullivan works for the Department of Child and Family Services in Chicago."
Bella nodded slowly, waiting for him to go on.
"She said she needed to meet with me-with us-as soon as possible, on Monday morning."
Again, Bella nodded. "Did she say why?"
With a frown, Edward shook his head. "She just asked if I remembered Charlotte Peters"-Bella raised an eyebrow at the mention of Edward's first college girlfriend-"and when I said I did, she said Charlotte passed away about a year ago. That was all the information she would give me."
Bella's heart jumped to her throat and her throat was suddenly dry, making it hard to swallow. "D-Did Charlotte have a-"
"No," Edward interrupted, startling her. "No," he said again quietly. "She'd have told me. Right?"
Wrapping her arms around his head, Bella pulled a still-stunned Edward to her and held him as the thought of what news lay ahead raced through her mind.
Giving a frustrated sigh, Edward gently slid out from under Bella, moving to sit on the side of the bed. She let her gaze roam over the play of strong muscles in his back as he raked a hand through his hair and then scrubbed roughly at his face. The moonlight coming in through the filmy curtain over the window was just bright enough for her to see the set of his shoulders, his hunched posture, and the inability to sit still-all showed just how tense he was.
He spoke suddenly, sounding more scared than she'd heard him in a long time. "What are we gonna do?"
Sliding out of bed, Bella hurried around to step in front of Edward and then sank to her knees. Cupping his face, she tilted it up so he was looking into her eyes. Even in the dark room, she could see the pain and worry.
"We're gonna do what we've done for the last nine years, honey. We're gonna face this together-whatever it is."
She watched as he fought back tears and felt her own eyes sting as her vision blurred. She blinked a few times, not bothering to wipe her face when the tears fell.
"What... What if I have a son or daughter I never knew about? He-or she-would be fifteen. A teenager!" He took a gasping breath, his body shaking as Bella sat there in front of him. "I missed their childhood, Bella. Tucking them in at night, holding them when they were sick-all those things I got to do with Katie. What kind of father does that make me?"
Bella moved up to the bed beside him and wrapped her arms around him, pulling his head to her chest as he finally gave in to the tears that had been threatening.
"First of all, you're a great father, Edward. If-and that's still an if, remember-if you do have another child, it isn't your fault you missed their life up till now. You weren't given a choice. If Charlotte had a baby without telling you, that's on her. And if that's what happened, we'll deal with it-together. Katie will get a big brother or sister, I'll get another daughter or a son, your parents will get another grandchild. Our family will grow by one. While maybe not the best circumstances, that isn't a bad thing, Edward."
He suddenly sat up and cupped her face, much like she'd cupped his before. His voice was tense as he asked, "You'd be okay with that? You'd be able to take a child in that I had with another woman? Just like that?"
Bella shrugged, turning her head to press a long kiss to his palm. "Honey, if there is a child, he or she is half yours. How could I not love them?"
She watched as he closed his eyes for a moment before leaning in and resting his forehead against hers.
"Thank you," he finally murmured against her lips before wrapping his arms tight around her and kissing her.
Bella surrendered to the kiss, pouring into it every bit of her love and support that she could. His arms trembled as he held her, and when they finally broke apart to breathe, he gave a shaky sigh.
"I need..." Edward huffed, shaking his head. "I'm gonna go out to the living room so you can get some sleep." When he looked at her, his eyes were haunted. "I need some time."
Frowning, Bella quietly said, "Okay," because she truly did understand.
She watched as he stood and pulled on a pair of pajama pants and a T-shirt before making his way to the bedroom door. Once he'd pulled it open, he whispered, "I love you, Bella."
Her heart ached for him as he didn't wait for her reply before closing the bedroom door behind him.
Bella crawled under the sheet, her heart heavy and mind racing with what was to come.
"And then we're gonna go get pizza for lunch," Katie gushed as Bella brushed her hair up into a ponytail. "Nana promised."
Edward chuckled. "Sounds good, monkey. The park and pizza for lunch? Can I go with you?"
He watched the concerned frown cross Bella's face even as their daughter giggled.
"No, Daddy! It's Nana, Poppa, and Katie time. That's what Nana said."
Holding up his hands in surrender, Edward winked at his wife and said, "Well, we can't go against Nana. I suppose I should stay here and keep your mom company, huh?"
Katie nodded. "Yes. You do that," she said firmly.
Edward smiled at his little girl's adorableness as Bella stilled her head before beginning the long braid down her back.
"Knock knock," a feminine voice called just as the kitchen door opened. Edward's mother poked her head in. "Anyone home?"
"Nana!" Katie squealed. "Mommy, hurry up! Nana and Poppa are here!"
Bella laughed. "Almost done, sweetie. Hold still one more minute."
Edward reached out and tapped Katie's nose with his finger. "They won't leave you, monkey, so just chill and let your mom finish your hair, okay? I need to talk to Nana and Poppa anyway."
She gave a put-upon sigh and mumbled, "Fine."
Carlisle winked at Edward before bending down to look at Katie. "We'll be in the living room when you're ready, Katiekins. Be patient for Mommy and then come find us."
"'Kay," Katie agreed, nodding, stilling instantly when Bella growled softly from behind her.
Edward followed his parents into the living room, where Esme immediately wrapped her arms around him, holding him tight against her. He was a good six inches taller than she was, but when she hugged him, he felt like a kid again. Resting his cheek against the top of her head, he huffed out a breath, feeling a tiny bit of his nerves fade away.
"Thanks, Mom," he murmured. He hadn't realized how much he'd needed his mother's hug until that moment.
Pulling back, Esme looked up at him, seeming to search for something in his face. Edward smiled sadly, waiting to hear what she obviously wanted to say. When he'd called the day before to tell them about the upcoming visit, they'd immediately offered to take Katie for as long as he and Bella needed them to. His mom had been supportive over the phone, not asking a lot of questions, even though he knew she had them.
"It'll be okay, sweet boy," she said quietly. "No matter what this woman tells you, you'll have us, not to mention Bella and that baby girl of yours, as well as all your friends."
Edward blew out a breath, nodding. "I know. Thank you."
"No need for thanks, son," Carlisle said, clasping Edward's shoulder and squeezing lightly. "We're your parents. We love you."
Nodding, Edward gave a tremulous smile, stepping back when Katie came racing into the room in her sock feet.
"I'm ready!" she exclaimed.
"Not yet," Bella sang as she walked in moments later, Katie's sneakers dangling from her fingers.
Katie giggled and looked up at Edward. "Daddy, put 'em on me?"
Edward raised an eyebrow. "You know how to tie your shoes now, don't you?"
Giving him the puppy dog eyes that never failed to melt his heart, Katie nodded but asked, "Please?"
As Edward pretended to think about it, he didn't miss the smirk that crossed both Bella's and his mother's faces. They were always teasing him about Katie having him wrapped around her little finger-and Edward was okay with that. It had been that way since the first moment he laid eyes on her.
"I suppose," he said as he finally relented and smiled when Katie squeaked and jumped up on the couch, promptly stretching her legs up and out for him.
He took the shoes from Bella and squatted, balancing on the balls of his feet in front of his daughter. After straightening the little pink socks she was wearing, he slid her feet into the sneakers, tying the laces "tight, but not squishing-my-toes tight," as per Katie's instructions many times over the last few years.
"There," he proclaimed, standing and scooping her up into a hug. "All set, baby girl."
His eyes stung with unshed tears as she wrapped her arms around his neck and squeezed, giving him a wet, smooshy kiss on his cheek.
"Thanks, Daddy. Now put me down. We gots places to go and people to see, don't we, Poppa?"
Edward, Bella, and Esme laughed as Carlisle nodded, looking serious.
"That we do, sweetheart. We have important business to attend to this morning." With an exaggerated whisper, he said, "I think Nana brought bread to feed the ducks."
Katie squealed and then raced over to Bella when Edward put her down after giving her one last kiss on the top of her head.
"Bye, Mommy!" she yelped. "C'mon, Nana! C'mon, Papa! I wanna feed the ducks."
The adults chuckled once more, and Edward shook his head. "Be good for your grandparents, Katherine Marie."
"I will, Daddy! Bye!" she called as she raced out of the living room and through the kitchen.
They heard the screen door in the kitchen slam closed as she hurried outside.
"We'd better go," Esme said, shaking her head. "Otherwise, I'm afraid we'll get yelled at..."
Bella laughed. "If she gets too bossy, tell her no pizza for lunch. That'll calm her down."
Edward smiled as Esme wrapped her arm around Bella's shoulder, leaning in to whisper something to his wife. Bella nodded just as Carlisle clasped Edward's shoulder again.
"Give us a call when you're ready for us to bring her home, son," he murmured as they walked into the kitchen following their wives. "If you need us to keep her overnight, we can. And if you need to talk, we're here."
Swallowing back the sudden lump in his throat, Edward nodded. "Thanks, Dad."
His eyes stung again as Carlisle suddenly turned him and pulled him into a fierce hug.
"We love you, Edward. And if this woman today tells you what you think she's going to tell you...well, we'll love another grandchild just as much as we do Katie. Okay?"
Edward nodded, feeling a little silly at how much his father's hug helped soothe his nerves.
Katie's loud "Nana, Poppa, come on!" from outside drew them apart and made them chuckle.
After one last goodbye and promise to call if needed, Edward watched his parents leave the house, pulling the back door closed behind them.
Bella's arms wrapped around him from behind, and she pressed her cheek to his back. Edward knew it would be a long hour until Maggie Sullivan arrived, but with Bella by his side, maybe he wouldn't go crazy waiting.
The next hours were the longest of Edward's life. Bella did her best to distract him, but Edward couldn't get past the knowledge that his life-no, their lives were about to change. After worrying for the past two days, he was certain he had a child. There was no other possible explanation for someone from the Department of Child and Family Services to contact him, especially someone from Chicago. He hadn't been a saint in college-he'd liked to party and hadn't exactly been discriminating when it came to who he slept with-but he and Charlotte had always been careful. Still, she'd left school without a word, so maybe that protection had failed and she'd been pregnant when she left.
Did he have a son or another daughter? Did the child look like him or like Charlotte? Would they hate him for not being there? For taking them away from Chicago, or wherever they called home?
Bella's voice pierced his consciousness. "Edward, honey, calm down."
He was suddenly aware of her hand smoothing up and down his spine and into his hair, scratching his scalp lightly before moving back down. When he gasped in a deep breath, Bella cupped his face and turned him so they were looking into each other's eyes.
"There you are," she breathed. "You were having a...well, a panic attack, I think. You went bone white, your breathing sped up until you started hyperventilating, and you looked like you were gonna pass out any second. Better now?"
He took a stuttering breath and nodded, closing his eyes and swallowing hard. "Th-Thanks. Just...worried."
His wife smiled sympathetically. "I know. Me, too."
Edward was well aware of how hard this had to be on Bella. She'd cried herself to sleep both Saturday-the night of the phone call-and Sunday nights. She'd tried to hide the tears, but he'd heard them. Both nights, he'd pulled her into arms and they'd fallen asleep pressed so close together, they might've well been one person. She'd been so strong for him that other than at night, in the quiet, dark of their bedroom, he'd forgotten just how much it was affecting her, as well.
Straightening his spine, he leaned in and kissed her, sliding his arms around her and holding her close. "We'll get through this...together, like you said," he whispered against her lips, smiling as she nodded.
The ringing of the doorbell broke the spell between them, and Edward's nerves instantly flared. He stood when Bella got to her feet and held out her hand. Twining her fingers with his, he walked to the front door with his wife at his side. She stepped back, and after taking a deep breath, he pulled open the door.
The woman on the other side of the screen door was older-around his parents' age, if he had to guess-and fairly short, with curly red hair, a kind smile, and warm, sympathetic eyes. "Edward Cullen?" At Edward's nod, she said, "Maggie Sullivan."
Edward pushed open the screen door and stepped aside. "Please, come in." When she stepped past him, Edward let the metal door close and then shut the inside door behind them. Holding out his hand, he smiled slightly when he felt Bella's hand slip into his. "This is my wife, Bella."
The two of them greeted one another, but Edward's eyes were drawn to the large manila envelope in her hands.
It was only when Ms. Sullivan cleared her throat and asked, "Is there somewhere we can sit and talk?" that he tore his attention away and back up to her face.
"Yes, of course," Bella said, taking charge, for which Edward was grateful. "Please, follow me to the kitchen. We can sit at the table there. Would you like something to drink? Coffee, tea-iced or hot-water, or a soda?"
"I would love some water, thank you," the older woman said as she followed Bella into the kitchen, with Edward trailing behind.
Once they were all seated around the kitchen table, a glass of water in front of both Bella and Ms. Sullivan, Edward once again asked the question he'd asked before.
"What's this about, Ms. Sullivan?"
She set her glass down out of the way and drew the large envelope to her, her fingers moving to the clasp. "Please, call me Maggie. I think we're past the point of Ms. Sullivan..." She smiled sadly before continuing. "As I told you when I spoke to you before, Charlotte Peters passed away almost eleven months ago-breast cancer that wasn't caught in time. Ms. Peters had a child fifteen years ago...and until a few months ago, the father was unknown. When papers were found by her attorney, your name came to light. It took some time for DCFS to get to the information the attorney mailed, and then it took us a bit to find you. The attorney had made an error in the spelling of your name-typing Collins instead of Cullen-and then we'd had to work to find you because you'd moved out of state."
Edward's ears were buzzing, his heart thudded painfully in his chest, and his throat felt tight. "I...I have a child?"
Ms. Sullivan-Maggie-nodded, finally opening the envelope and pulling out a photo, clearly one of the posed shots taken for school pictures, sliding it over in front of Edward and Bella. "A son."
Edward felt tears prick his eyelids, and as he stared at the boy in the picture, they fell unchecked down his cheeks. Beside him, he heard Bella gasp and break into a quiet sob. He squeezed her hand with one of his, and with the other, he traced the boy's features.
There was no doubt the boy in the picture was his son. His hair was unruly, much like Edward's, although the blond was all Charlotte. He also had his mother's nose, but his chin, his mouth, and his deep green eyes were all Edward's. It was like looking at the perfect combination of himself and Charlotte.
Edward clenched his hand into a fist so hard his knuckles turned white. Looking up, he opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He swallowed, feeling the tears still falling as they soaked his shirt, and tried again. "I never knew," he whispered, a sob breaking through. "I swear, I didn't know. I'd have been there if I had."
Though his emotions were a roller coaster, Edward felt Bella's arms wrap around him, and he gratefully went into her embrace. He could feel her body shaking and her tears on her face as she held him close. He could hear her whispers, but he couldn't make out the words over the buzzing in his ears.
When he finally felt like he was as under control as he could get, he took a deep breath and released the death grip he had on Bella. He sat up but kept one arm around his wife to ground himself. After clearing his throat, he looked back across the table. Ms. Sull-No, Maggie, he thought. She was right. They were past the point of last names. Maggie was sitting calmly, a sympathetic look on her face as she watched the two of them. There were tears in her eyes, as if his pain had affected her, as well.
"Wh-What's his name?" Edward finally had the courage to ask. He was scared to death that this was a dream-or a nightmare... He wasn't sure which.
Maggie smiled. "His name is Riley. Riley Cullen Peters."
Bella gasped, her grip on his thigh tightening, and Edward swallowed hard, looking down at the picture again.
"She used my last name?" He knew the answer was a little obvious, but he was having trouble processing it all.
Nodding, Maggie said, "As his middle name, yes." She smiled. "He's a good boy, Mr. Cullen. Whatever mistakes you or Charlotte made in the past, he isn't one of them."
Edward vehemently shook his head. "No, not a mistake. A shock, but not a mistake. And please, call me Edward."
She smiled again and then took a sip of her water before pulling out a sealed letter-sized envelope. "This was sent to us by Charlotte's attorney, with instructions that it be given to you and a note that said she wrote it about a week before she passed away. I hope it will answer at least a few of your questions. You can read it now, or wait. We have a few more things to go over before I leave."
Pressing his lips tightly together, Edward accepted the envelope but set it down in front of him. "I'll wait, thank you." He couldn't imagine what Charlotte would have to say that he would want to hear. He doubted any excuse or explanation she could come up with would make the fact that she'd kept his child from him okay.
Maggie nodded once before pulling something else out of the envelope. "In cases of paternity, it is required that we do a DNA test. It isn't that we doubt Charlotte's word, but it's in the child's best interest, just to be safe."
"Yes, of course," Edward said. "Whatever you need."
Unwrapping the long Q-tip-looking stick, she said, "I just need to get a swab from the inside of your cheek." As Edward complied, she continued, "Riley's already given his. By request of his foster parents, he was simply told it was routine, in case something happened and you weren't a match. They didn't want to get his hopes up for nothing."
Curious, Edward asked, "His foster parents...they're good to him?"
"James and Victoria Hunter? Yes, they're wonderful. I've worked with them for almost ten years. Riley makes the seventh child I've placed in their home. They adopted two of the previous six and had begun to think about adopting Riley until we found out about you. They are disappointed, of course, but they know being with his father is what's best for Riley."
"G-Good," Edward said. "How long has he been with them?"
She frowned. "Almost seven months. It will be an adjustment for them all when Riley leaves, but they're right. Being with his father is what's best for him."
After a moment of silence, Bella spoke. "So what's the next step? Assuming the test comes back the way we know it will." Edward chuckled as she smirked and tapped the picture. "As if there's any question of who his father is."
Maggie smiled, nodding. "Yes, I saw the resemblance immediately when you opened the door." After a moment, she said, "As soon as the DNA results come back, I'll go to the Hunters' home and tell Riley about how we learned about you, that we tested the DNA, and that you're his father. As little as a week later, I'll fly him out here to Oklahoma and bring him to you. If he has anything that won't fit in a suitcase, I'll arrange to have it shipped here. Ideally, I'd like to get him moved here in time to start school in the fall. As long as the DNA doesn't take longer than a couple of weeks, that should be plenty of time."
Edward felt the corner of his mouth tilt down as he studied the picture. "Will he be a sophomore? Can you tell me more about him?"
"Yes," Maggie answered. "Tenth grade. He's a bright young man-loves computers and music, reading, and he plays video games a lot, which I understand will be something the two of you have in common."
Warmth bloomed in Edward's chest, knowing he and the boy-his son-already had a lot of the same interests. "Yes," he said with a chuckle. "We definitely have that in common."
A few minutes later, after more about the last eleven months of Riley's life and what the upcoming month held, Maggie finally said, "Unless you have any more questions, I think that's everything. I'll let you know as soon as I hear back from the lab, Edward." She picked up the photo of Edward, Bella, and Katie that he'd given her to give to Riley and stood.
Edward and Bella stood with her, and Edward held out his hand, clasping Maggie's hand between both of his when she accepted the handshake.
"Thank you for coming all the way out here, and thank you for being so good with Riley." He'd been able to tell how much his son meant to her, and he appreciated it, even though he didn't even know Riley himself yet.
"Of course," Maggie replied with a smile. "I'm sorry if it shocked you. There was really no easy way to break the news, I suppose."
Edward laughed, and even Bella snorted into a chuckle beside him. "No, there really wasn't."
They walked her out, waving goodbye as she climbed into her rental car and backed out of the driveway. As soon as she had turned the corner, Edward took a deep breath, holding back the tears that threatened to spill, and squeezed Bella closer to him.
"Come on, honey," she soothed. "Let's go inside."
Edward nodded, letting her guide them both back into the house, where he finally let his tears fall once more.
Edward was thankful that Bella sat quietly with him on the couch in the living room for almost half an hour after Maggie left, not saying a word, simply lost in his thoughts. When he finally felt like he was ready, he turned to his wife and pressed his forehead to hers, closing his eyes and absorbing her strength.
"You can do this," she whispered, her warm breath ghosting over his lips.
He nodded, kissing her lips once before pulling away and picking up the sealed envelope he'd set down on the coffee table.
I can only imagine what you're feeling right now. Shock over the fact that you have a son. Anger at the fact that I kept him from you. I'm so, so very sorry. I know that doesn't help. There are no good excuses. I can only say that I was young, and at the time, I didn't see another way out. We were together such a short time, and we didn't really find out a lot about each other in those few months, so I'll start, well, at the beginning, I suppose.
Growing up, my parents were...strict-at least, that's what I thought at the time. I didn't have a lot of friends, especially since I was homeschooled. So when my parents hit me, telling me it was my fault and I was a bad little girl, I didn't know any better than to think that that happened to all kids. I didn't realize the bruises they left on my arms when they grabbed me or the welts they left on my back and the back of my legs weren't my fault.
By the time I turned eighteen, I was ready to get out of the house, and college was my chance. It was...a struggle, to say the least, to get them to allow me to go and stay on campus, rather than commute from home. But questions at church of why I wasn't being allowed to go off on my own put enough pressure on them that I was allowed to live in the dorms. Obviously, I let loose during the week and on the weekends I begged off going home, saying I had to study. Alcohol and weed were as much as I dared to try, worried that anything else, they'd be able to tell and I'd get yanked out of school and away from you and the freedom I'd come to crave.
And then, just after I went home for Christmas break, I found out I was pregnant. Needless to say, they were furious. My father beat me so bad, I was lucky I didn't lose the baby. I ended up with a broken arm, a cut on my cheek that needed stitches from where he backhanded me, and a concussion from where I fell and hit my head. My parents took me to the ER, claiming I'd fallen down the stairs. The doctor was a friend of my father's from church, so there was no mention of the handprint-shaped bruises on my face or arms.
When I was able to get around again, I started to leave, but my mother asked me what kind of life we would have if I left. I was only newly nineteen, I had no job skills, no money. You were just as young, she said, and were addicted to drugs. Apparently, they'd hired someone to find out just who I'd been "sinning" with, in my mother words, and within days, the man had found out from others on campus that it was you. He'd reported that you were a wild child, using drugs and alcohol, and had no family in the area. I didn't necessarily believe what they told me, but I was so scared that if I left, I would be alone, on my own with a baby to raise. I was clearly a mess and absolutely cowed by my parents, who I believed loved me and only wanted the best for me.
So I stayed.
My parents pulled me out of school and took away my phone and keys, only allowing me out of the house if one or both of them were with me. They blocked my phone calls, locking up the phone when they left me alone in the house.
My pregnancy was rather uneventful, thank goodness. My parents still slapped me around, although I did my best to protect my growing belly. When Riley was born, things were better for a while. They seemed to love him, and in their own way, I think they did. They doted on him, while still treating me the same as they always had. Things became...normal, I suppose is a good word for it. I was allowed out of the house and got a job as a waitress at a little diner in town. Riley was a happy little boy, with friends in the neighborhood. I thought about contacting you, but by that point, you were a junior in college, and I knew you would have a good life and go on to do great things. If you suddenly had a child to take care of, you'd have to leave school to get a job, and then I'd have screwed up your future.
I know. That wasn't my choice to make. Believe me, I know. I was wrong. I took away your choice, and I'm so sorry about that. If I could take it back, I would, but I can't.
Anyway, things sailed along smoothly until Riley was five. Then one afternoon, he tracked dirt into the freshly cleaned kitchen, and my mother slapped him. When I got home from work that evening, I saw the red handprint on my sweet child's face, the pain in his eyes, and heard the shame in his voice when he said he'd gotten Grandmother's clean floor dirty...and I knew I had to leave. I could deal with it when they hit me-I'd been doing that my whole life-but I wouldn't allow them to hurt my little boy.
I took him the next morning and left. I'd been saving up tips and had managed to get enough to keep us in food for a while. I had a friend from work that let us stay at her place for a while. Once Riley started in school, I was able to get a second job, and we got our own little apartment, where we still live. It isn't much, but it's ours, and there are two bedrooms, so Riley has his own space.
I tried to find you then, Edward. I swear I did. Once we moved out of my parents' house, I called your cell phone number, but it was disconnected. I knew you'd graduated, so I called the school to find out your current contact information, but they wouldn't tell me anything. I knew I could get a court order, but that would require a lawyer, and I was already struggling to make ends meet, so a lawyer or private investigator was out of the question. I tried the phone book, the computer... I came up emptyhanded at every turn. You'd never told me what town you were from. All I knew was Oklahoma. Finally, I just...gave up. Maybe I shouldn't have. But I was out of options.
When my parents died last year in a car wreck, I used some of the money from the sale of their house to pay an attorney. They hadn't allowed me to put your name on the birth certificate, so the first thing I did with the lawyer was write up papers that stated you were his father in case anything ever happened to me.
It wasn't long after that that I found the lumps in my breast. I'd been feeling sick for a while. I was getting tired more easily, and I just generally felt...off. I hadn't been to the doctor for a mammogram because...well, I was young. I didn't have a family history, so I didn't need to. But apparently, I did. By the time I went to the doctor, it was so advanced, had already spread to my lymph nodes, that he gave me three months. We tried chemo, but it was advanced enough that I didn't respond to it much at all. I've finally accepted that it's my time.
I've tried to prepare Riley, but there's really no preparing a teenage boy for that. I told him about you, that you were a good man, and that if someone was able to find you, he should do what I didn't do and give you a chance.
He's an amazing young man, Edward. I see so much of you in him. I remember that you liked video games and computers, that you were smart. Our son is just like that. He's always been smarter than me, and I think he would live and breathe computers and video games if he could. He's my greatest achievement, and I'm devastated I won't get to see him grow into an adult and become the man I know he's going to be.
I hope this letter finds you well, Edward. I know you may never be able to forgive me for keeping you from your son. I wouldn't blame you. But know that I never stopped thinking of you and thanking you for the beautiful, one-of-a-kind gift you gave me. I truly hope they're able to find you and give you both the relationship I've denied you all these years.
Edward sat, stunned, as Bella cried openly beside him. When a drop of liquid hit the paper in his hand, he reached up, unsurprised to find tears rolling down his cheeks as well. He set the letter on the table and pulled an unresisting Bella into his arms, turning them so they were lying on the couch, her face buried in the crook of his neck.
"Th-That's so s-sad," Bella sobbed. "She had such a rough life."
"How could I not have known?" Edward muttered, angry at himself for not realizing what kind of home life Charlotte had had. It didn't make it okay that she hadn't told him about his son, that he'd missed most of the boy's child and young adulthood, but now, at least, he understood why.
They lay together on the couch for hours, rereading the letter and crying tears of sadness for the young girl who'd had to endure such hateful, abusive parents, a young mother who'd lost her life, and the boy who'd lost his mother and was now going to be leaving the life he'd grown used to.
When Edward's cell phone rang, it startled them both. Edward reached over and grabbed it from the end table, relieved to see his mom's name on the caller ID.
"Hey, Mom," he sighed.
Her voice broke as she said, "Is it...?"
"Yeah," he acknowledged. "I-I have a son, Mom."
Esme began crying, and Edward could hear his father's muffled voice as he soothed her, until he picked up the phone and spoke.
"Are you all right, son?"
Edward sighed, pressing his cheek to the top of Bella's head. "Yeah, Dad. In shock, I suppose. We both are."
There was a pause, and Edward heard a noise, as if his father had covered the mouthpiece, and then he came back and said, "Your mother wants to know if we can bring Katie home. I think your mom just needs to give you a hug."
Edward breathed out a sigh and closed his eyes. "That would be...good, Dad. Yeah, please." His mother's hug would do wonders for his tattered soul, as it always had.
"Okay, son," Carlisle said calmly. "We'll be there shortly."
As Edward hung up the phone, he sat up, pulling Bella up and into his lap with him. "My parents are bringing Katie home."
She nodded. "I'll take her out to play with Jake when she gets home. He hasn't had his walk yet today, so we'll take him for a walk and play out in the yard until you've had a chance to talk."
Feeling his heart swell with love for his wife, Edward tangled his fingers in her long hair and pressed his lips to hers, almost desperate for the physical connection. She kissed him back just as passionately, her own fingers reaching up to slide through the hair at the base of his neck before she wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close. After a few long minutes, the kisses slowed, their breathing labored as they finally pulled away.
Edward rested his forehead against her and nearly sobbed with relief that she was there. "I love you," he blurted, unable to keep the emotion from bubbling over. "Fuck, I love you so much, baby."
"Shh," Bella murmured. "I love you too, Edward."
Her words and the hand on his cheek, her thumb brushing lightly over his skin, soothed him like nothing else could.
They sat like that, forehead to forehead, until Edward's parents pulled into the drive with Katie, honking the horn once to let them know they were there. Bella had just climbed off his lap when they heard the back door open and Katie's excited voice spill over into the living room.
"Mommy, Daddy, where are you?"
By the time his daughter came skidding into the living room in her bright pink sneakers, Edward had wiped away his remaining tears, and stood. He scooped her into his arms, burying his face in her neck just to hear her giggles.
"Down, Daddy!" she gasped through her laugh. "That tickles!"
"Good," he growled playfully, pretending to fuss when Bella reached over and plucked their daughter from his arms. "Hey! That's my monkey!"
Bella laughed when Katie giggled and clung to her for safety. "Not right now," she told him, winking at Katie. "Right now, she's my monkey, and she has an important job to do."
"I do?" Katie gasped, trying to raise one eyebrow and failing, so instead of looking curious, she looked shocked.
Nodding, his wife smiled down at their daughter and reached up to tap her nose with the tip of one finger. "You do. Mr. Jake needs to be walked. Whatdya say, baby girl? Wanna walk him with me?"
"Can Nana and Poppa come?" Katie asked, looking over at her grandparents, who stood quietly in the doorway to the kitchen.
"Not this time, sweetie. Daddy needs to talk to them," Bella explained.
When Katie looked over at Edward, he felt his heart warm at the love and trust in her eyes. At the thought of having to tell his daughter that she had a brother, it flipped in his chest, and he swallowed back the sudden lump in his throat. He hoped she was young enough to accept it and not feel like he'd torn apart her life.
"Okay," she chirped. "Daddy, talk fast, okay? I wanna play wif you too."
Edward nodded, leaning in to accept a kiss as Katie puckered her lips and leaned toward him. "I'll try, baby. Go with Mommy and make sure Jake gets plenty of exercise. I think he's getting a little too big around the middle." With a wink, he said, "It's probably all the snacks you feed him, huh?"
Katie laughed and shrugged before wiggling to get down. "Maybe. He's a good doggy, Daddy. He likes the cookies." She didn't wait for a reply before turning and racing from the room, yelling out goodbye to her grandparents as she passed them on her way through the kitchen to the back yard.
Bella leaned into him and kissed him softly. "I have my phone," she murmured. "Call if you need me, okay?"
Edward nodded, closing his eyes for a moment before she stepped away. He watched her walk away, speaking quietly to his parents as she passed them. As soon as she closed the back door behind her, Esme rushed to him.
"Oh, Edward," she sighed, pulling him into her arms. "Will you...tell us?"
"H-His name's Riley...Riley Cullen Peters."
Edward caught his mother as she swayed, and he and Carlisle lowered her to the couch, sitting down on either side of her.
"Sorry," she whispered, shaking her head. "She gave him your name."
Not trusting himself to speak, Edward nodded and grabbed the picture from the table front of them. "Maggie Sullivan left this with me. She said it's a photo his foster parents took of him a few months ago."
Esme gasped and covered her mouth with one hand while reaching out for the picture with her other. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she began tracing Riley's features, much like Edward himself had done. "He's beautiful, Edward. Look, he has your eyes..."
Carlisle cleared his throat, and when Edward looked up, there were tears in his father's eyes. "He's very handsome, son. So..." He swallowed hard, shaking his head. "So grown up."
Nodding again, Edward explained, "He's almost fifteen. His birthday's August sixth."
Esme's voice was hard when she looked up and snarled, "How could that woman keep him from you? What kind of woman does that?"
With a sigh, Edward scrubbed his face before picking the letter up and handing it to his mom. "You need to read this," he said quietly, knowing it would at least somewhat answer his mother's questions.
He took the picture of his son and held it with one hand while Esme gripped his other hand tightly in hers. His father read over her shoulder, one hand resting protectively on the back of her neck.
Esme's sobs started within moments. Edward didn't even need to look at the paper to remember every word.
My father beat me so bad, I was lucky I didn't lose the baby. I ended up with a broken arm, a cut on my cheek that needed stitches from where he backhanded me, and a concussion from where I fell and hit my head.
She'd been hurt so very bad, simply for making the mistake of getting pregnant. He couldn't imagine how scared she must have been...how alone she must have felt.
When I got home from work that evening, I saw the red handprint on my sweet child's face, the pain in his eyes, and heard the shame in his voice when he said he'd gotten Grandmother's clean floor dirty...and I knew I had to leave. I could deal with it when they hit me-I'd been doing that my whole life-but I wouldn't allow them to hurt my little boy.
Thinking of that...woman putting her hand on his son-on an innocent little boy-made Edward so nauseous, he was very nearly sick. It was...unconscionable.
I tried to find you then, Edward. I swear I did. Once we moved out of my parents' house, I called your cell phone number, but it was disconnected. I knew you'd graduated, so I called the school to find out your current contact information, but they wouldn't tell me anything. I knew I could get a court order, but that would require a lawyer, and I was already struggling to make ends meet, so a lawyer or private investigator was out of the question. I tried the phone book, the computer... I came up emptyhanded at every turn. You'd never told me what town you were from. All I knew was Oklahoma. Finally, I just...gave up. Maybe I shouldn't have. But I was out of options.
Edward couldn't lay all the blame at Charlotte's feet. If he hadn't been so damned determined to get away from the small town he'd grown up in, away from what he'd considered so beneath him, so limiting, he'd have told Charlotte more-about his family, his hometown, himself. And he wouldn't have spent so much time the first few years of college getting wasted and partying...and maybe Charlotte would've felt like she could've contacted him immediately-but then, maybe they wouldn't have had Riley to begin with.
Shaking off the what-ifs, Edward waited for his parents to speak.
"That poor girl," Esme finally whispered. "How could anyone treat their child that way? No matter how angry we got, how disappointed, we never even considered raising a hand to you. Even spanking you as a child was rare. To think of hurting you so bad... I can't even imagine."
Carlisle cleared his throat. His voice was thick with emotion as he spoke. "We would've helped, son," he said, reaching around Esme to grip Edward's shoulder. Edward looked over at his father as he continued to speak. "If she had come to you and told you she was pregnant, if you'd come to us, we'd have helped. I'm so sorry she didn't have that."
Edward sighed, reaching up to clasp his father's hand. "I know, Dad. I didn't have any doubt."
They were quiet then as Esme reread the letter before setting it aside and taking Riley's picture back from Edward.
"What now?" she asked quietly, looking up at Edward. He could see sadness in her eyes, but the love and excitement he already felt himself was also present in her gaze, and he knew his mother was as excited as he was to meet his son.
Edward raked a hand through his hair before explaining everything that Maggie had said about where they went from here.
"So our boy should be home in three weeks?" she asked, eyes wide. When he nodded, she stood, pulling him up with her and into her arms, wrapping him in a fierce hug as she said, "Then we'd best get to work. We don't have a lot of time to turn that extra room into a teenage boy's bedroom."
Carlisle and Edward both barked out a laugh, and with that simple statement, Edward felt lighter than he had in three days.
The next ten days felt like they flew by. Edward tried to stay calm, but he lived with a nervous feeling every minute of every day since Maggie brought him the news about Riley. They hadn't yet told Katie-Bella had agreed that they should wait for the definitive results of the DNA test before they sprung the news of a surprise older sibling.
Esme had been hard at work, changing the bland, boring, white-walled office into a bedroom. Edward and Bella had agreed that once he was there and settled in, they would allow him to make any changes he wanted, even down to the paint color, but they needed to show him right from the start that he was wanted. After adding a chair rail, Esme had painted the lower half of the room a light blue, while above the white chair rail was a darker blue. Edward and Bella had bought a new double bed with a sleek silver metallic headboard and frame. The nightstands were silver metallic and glass, and Esme had installed a funky hanging light in the middle of the ceiling in addition to the lamp on one nightstand. They'd hung posters from some of the more popular video games, including some of the ones Edward and Emmett had designed, on the walls, as well as some pictures of their family. Edward had even managed to find the one picture he had of himself and Charlotte with a few friends at school and had placed it on the desk in one corner of the room. In another corner was a new flat-screen TV, several new video game systems, and all the games a teenage boy could want.
All they lacked now was Riley.
"He's gonna love it," Bella promised, slipping her arm around his waist.
Edward smiled and drew her close, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "I hope so."
They backed out of the room and closed the door before Katie could see and question why they'd changed the room.
Just as they made it back to the living room, where their daughter was lying on the floor with her head on Jake's side, watching TV, the phone rang. Like every time in the last ten days, Edward felt his stomach flip and his nerve endings react like a live wire. With a deep breath, he picked up the receiver and read the caller ID:
Dpt Chd Fm Srvs
"It's her," he mouthed to Bella. She gave him a nervous smile and motioned for him to answer, so with a deep breath, he hit Talk. "Hello?"
"Hi, Edward? This is Maggie Sullivan from Chicago."
"Yes, hi. I-I've been waiting for your call."
She chuckled. "I'm sure you have." After a short pause, she said, "Well, I'll get right to it, as I know you're anxious. The DNA results came back this morning, and it's official. Riley is your son."
Edward felt his knees buckle, and he had to grab onto the back of the couch so he didn't topple over. "That's..." He blew out a breath, feeling tears once again prick his eyelids. "That's great news. Thank you for letting me know."
He could see Bella's grin and the tears in her eyes as he smiled before turning his attention back to the phone.
Maggie's amusement was clear in her voice as she said, "I'd like to give Riley a week or so to say his goodbyes and get ready for the big move. So if it's all right with you, the two of us will fly in to Wichita Falls just after noon next Saturday and get lunch before heading to Plainview, which will put us there around two o'clock. Sound good?"
"Sounds...perfect, actually," Edward admitted, closing his eyes to let the news sink in. Rubbing the back of his neck with one hand, he couldn't help but ask, "How did... I mean, have you...ya know, told him?"
Maggie made a humming sound in the back of her throat. "I haven't yet. I wanted to call and give you the news first. I called the Hunters and let them know, arranging to meet with Riley later this afternoon."
Nervously, Edward asked, "Could you maybe...pass along a message? Tell him I can't wait to meet him."
"Yes, of course. I'll tell him. Anything else? Any questions?"
"I think that's it," Edward said. "Thank you so much for calling."
"Not to worry, Edward. You have my number. Call if you need anything. Otherwise, I'll see you next Saturday, yes?"
His heart thumped, knowing he was nine days from meeting his son for the first time. "See you then," he murmured before hitting End.
Edward was still for a moment before he looked at Bella. She looked...elated. Nervous, but just as overjoyed at the news as he was. Tilting his head, he motioned to Katie, and when Bella looked at the daughter, her eyes widened almost imperceptibly. Then with a nod, she smiled.
"You ready, Daddy?" she asked, holding her hand out to him.
Edward took it and led her to the couch, sitting down beside her. "As ready as I'll ever be..." He huffed a laugh and then called out, "Hey, monkey. Turn off the TV and come up here for a minute. Mommy and I need to tell you something."
Katie sat up, looking between them. Once she'd turned the TV off, she stepped over to the couch, her brow furrowed. "Am I in trouble? I didn't do nothin' wrong, Daddy! Jake ate the rest of the pancakes this mornin', not me."
Edward laughed. "Did he now?" Pulling her up between them on the couch, Edward turned so he was facing her. "No, baby, you aren't in trouble. Your mom and I have some news, that's all."
Looking serious, Katie nodded. "'Kay. Hit me."
"She has to stop spending time with Emmett," Bella teased, rolling her eyes.
Chuckling, Edward nodded and then looked down at his daughter. "A long time ago, way before I met your mom and had you, I went to college. In college, I had a friend named Charlotte..."
"Victoria, I'm home," Riley called, kicking his shoes off by the back door.
He'd been next door, swimming in the neighbor's pool, so when he walked into the kitchen to find Victoria, he was surprised to see James home from work early and Maggie, even though he didn't think they'd had a meeting scheduled.
"Hey," he said cautiously. "What's going on?"
"Come sit down, Ri," Victoria said, and when he looked close, he could see that she had tears in her eyes.
He slowly moved to the seat between her and James, across from Maggie. "Why are you here?" he asked, looking at his social worker.
"I have some news, Riley," she said calmly. "A few months ago, your mother's attorney sent some papers to our office, and until a few weeks ago, they were sitting at the bottom of a stack. In those papers was the name of your father."
"M-My father?" Riley stammered, shaking his head. "I don't understand... Mom said they lost touch when she left school and when she tried to find him when I was little, she couldn't."
Maggie nodded, smiling softly. "That's all true, sweetheart."
Bouncing his knee, Riley scowled. "He didn't want me, did he? That's why he didn't stay in touch with her."
"Oh, honey, no," Victoria soothed, putting her arm around him.
He started to shrug her off, but she kept her hold firm.
"He didn't know, Ri," James said, coming up beside Victoria and squatting down to put him at eye level. When Riley stayed quiet, James continued. "It's a long story, and some of it is private, but until Maggie went to see him, he didn't know he'd had a son."
"Why would she not tell him?"
Riley felt confused. His mom had always been honest with him. She'd wanted them to have a better relationship than she'd had with her parents. He didn't know what had caused their falling out-that was the one thing she'd never told him-but he hadn't seen them since he was really young, and his mom had said they were better off that way. So for her to keep this big secret from him kind of pissed him off.
"I think that's probably best explained by her," Maggie said in a kind voice as she slid a sealed envelope across the table. "You can read that after I leave, okay?"
Swallowing hard, Riley nodded and picked it up, recognizing his mom's handwriting on the front. "Can you...tell me a little about him?"
Maggie smiled. "His name is Edward." Giving him a knowing look, she said, "Edward Cullen."
Riley felt tears sting his eyes, and he blinked them back. He was too old to cry, especially in front of other people. When he felt like he had them under control, he said, "She named me after him?"
Nodding, Maggie said, "She did. You look a lot like him, too." She pulled out a picture from the folder in front of her and pushed it across to him.
When Riley picked it up, he saw a happy family, everyone smiling, their eyes bright, but his attention immediately focused in on the man in the back. He was tall, thin, with reddish-brown hair that stuck up everywhere, just like Riley's. Edward-Riley couldn't call him Dad yet-had familiar green eyes and the little dip in the top lip.
"Who's that with him? His family?" Riley huffed, immediately feeling bad. If Edward didn't know about him, he knew he had no right to be mad at the man.
Maggie nodded. "That's his wife Bella and their daughter, Katie. Your half-sister. She's seven."
Riley had always wanted a brother or sister. And God knew he'd always wanted a dad. Things had been good with his mom and him, but there were times where having a dad would have been nice.
Clearing his throat, Riley finally screwed up the courage to ask, "So...what does this mean?"
As the plane leveled off above Chicago, Riley threw his head back against the seat and closed his eyes. He wanted to sleep, but to sleep would mean to dream, and for the last week, that had meant nightmares. Ever since Maggie had sat him down to tell him about his...father-Riley nearly choked over the word as he thought it. It was still such a new concept that he wasn't used to it-he'd been having nightmares. What if he hated Edward? Or worse, what if Edward hated him? What if his wife was a bitch? What if their daughter-his half-sister-was a spoiled brat?
It was a done deal now, no matter what he worried about. He and Maggie were on a flight to Texas, where they'd rent a car and drive to a little town in Oklahoma. It was so small, it didn't have its own airport, and the closest one to it was in another state! Even the name of the town screamed small and boring. It would be a big change from Chicago, and that thought terrified him.
Battling a sudden case of nerves over what was coming, Riley needed his mom. The closest he had was her letter, which he'd read so many times now, he could almost recite it by heart. Pulling out the envelope from his bag, he opened the handwritten letter and slumped down in his seat to read.
My sweet boy,
If you're reading this, then I'm gone and you're in for the biggest change in your life so far. I'm so, so sorry, Riley. I'm sorry for not being around anymore. Know that I did what I could to stay with you. If I'd had any choice, I'd be there. I love you so very much. I wish love was enough, because if that's all it took, I'd be there with you forever. Unfortunately, the doctor's given me weeks now, so I'm writing this while I still can.
I know someone's told you by now about your dad. Edward Cullen... Yes, I did name you after him. Whatever you do, son, don't blame Edward for not being there. He never knew I was pregnant. Had he known, he'd have been there. To explain why he didn't know...I guess I need to start at the beginning.
Your grandparents weren't very nice people. When I was growing up, I was homeschooled. I told you that much. There was a reason I didn't tell you more about my childhood. They were very strict, and that translated into abuse. I was hit on an almost daily basis. I had bruises constantly growing up-for everything from not picking up my room to "backtalking" when I said I was hungry after my mother said dinner would be another hour.
So when I got to go off to college, I went a little crazy with my freedom. I met your dad a few weeks into school, and we became fast friends. We hung out a lot, went out to parties, and did some things I'm not proud of, including alcohol and drugs. When I went home for Christmas break, I found out I was pregnant. Your grandparents were...not pleased, to say the least. They immediately pulled me out of school, took away my phone and access to the only other phone in the house, and cut off all contact between Edward and me. My father beat me so bad, he put me in the hospital. I was so scared at that point that I was afraid to go against their wishes and contact Edward.
Things got better for a while. They may not have approved of me, but they seemed to dote on you. I got a job and began saving up money, and you were a happy kid. Then...when you were five, you came in from playing outside and had dirt on your shoes, and you tracked that dirt into the kitchen. Your grandmother slapped you for dirtying her freshly washed floor. When I got home from work that night, I saw the handprint, and when you said you'd gotten Grandmother's floor dirty, you were so sad. That was it for me. I took you and left the next day.
I tried to find Edward at that point, but he'd already graduated. I didn't know the name of the town he'd grown up in, so even though I tried to track him down, I was unable to. We moved in with a friend of mine from the diner where I worked, and from then on, it was just the two of us. I know we did okay on our own...but I wish I could've given you a father.
Now? I can. I just hate that I have to be gone to do it.
Our beginning might have been rough, but know that I've always loved you, Riley Cullen Peters. I've always wanted you. You are the light of my life and have given me more joy in your fourteen years on this earth than anyone has the right to have.
When you meet Edward, be the young man I know you can be. Give both of you the chance to have the relationship you should've had at the beginning.
You are my life, Riley. I hope you remember that.
I love you.
Riley finally gave up the pretense of strength and let his tears come, curling in on himself as he bawled like a baby, clinging to his mom's letter.
Maggie wrapped her arms around him as best she could from beside him. "Go ahead and cry, child. Let it all out. I've got you," she soothed, pulling his head to her shoulder.
Six hours later, Riley followed Maggie out of the airport so they could find the car she'd rented. One of the wheels of his large rolling suitcase caught on a small rock, and he steadied it so it didn't tip. Shifting his backpack, he clung tighter to the large duffel in his other hand before setting back off after Maggie.
His whole life...reduced to three bags and the large box being shipped from Chicago. He didn't have much. After his mom died, he'd had to give up almost everything when he went into foster care. All he'd had when he moved in with James and Victoria were his clothes, MP3 player, Nintendo 3DS, and a few books, as well as some pictures of him and his mom and her locket that she'd worn for as long as he could remember. Everything else had been sold and put into a savings account for him along with what little money his mom had left him. He hadn't even had a toothbrush when he moved into the first place. He'd been with James and Victoria long enough to get more stuff-a few games of his own for James's video game system, a laptop, some posters he'd had on his walls, and a lot more clothes, plus a guitar they'd bought him when he started lessons. That was packed in the box with most of his clothes.
As he stowed his suitcase and duffel in the trunk and then climbed into the front seat, Riley thought back to six hours before, saying goodbye to the Hunters before he and Maggie left for the airport.
After putting his things into the cab they were taking to the airport, Riley turned back to the house. It had become...the closest thing to home he'd had in almost a year, and he was sad and a little pissed that he had to leave.
Victoria rushed to him and pulled him into her arms, her curly red hair tickling his face as he hugged her back. "Keep up with your school work and your lessons if you can. You're getting really good on that guitar, ya know."
When he nodded, she pulled away enough that they could look at one another. "I'm so happy for you, Ri, but I'm so sad you're leaving. I'm gonna miss you."
Swallowing back the sudden lump in his throat, he mumbled, "Me too."
"Be good, okay? You have the address. Send us an email soon and keep us updated on Facebook to let us know how you're doing."
"I will," he whispered, feeling his eyes well with tears. "I don't wanna go."
James suddenly appeared beside them and pulled him into a rough hug. "We know you don't, Ri. But remember, this is something you've said from the beginning that you wanted. It's time to meet your dad in Oklahoma, son. That's a good thing." He cleared his throat, and his voice wavered when he said, "We will miss you, though."
After one last hug, Riley climbed into the waiting cab beside Maggie. As the car pulled away, he glanced back, wiping the tears away as he watched James and Victoria, their arms around one another as they stood there waving.
Riley was pulled out of his thoughts when Maggie cleared her throat.
"I know this is a big change. I wish I could make it easier. But Edward and Bella...they're really good people, Riley. You'll have a good life there." When he was silent, she asked, "Do you have any questions?"
He clenched his hands into fists, watching his knuckles turn white. "Wh-What if they hate me? If I'm not what they expected? Will I get to come back to Chicago?"
"Oh, sweetheart. They're not going to hate you. They already love you. Your dad...he took the news really hard because he missed so much of your life already. He cried because he never knew."
Nodding, Riley turned away and looked out the window, watching the passing scenery, not in the mood for any more conversation. He was afraid that if he tried to speak, he'd throw up.
He continued to watch as they drove into the little town, past the sign that said Plainview City Limits, pop. 8,240. As Maggie navigated through the streets, Riley felt his stomach doing flips. He felt tears stinging his eyes again, although he had no idea how. He'd cried so much, he should've been all cried out.
"It's just around the corner on the right," Maggie said quietly.
As she made the last turn, Riley held his breath until she pointed out the big white house with dark blue trim. When he saw the man stand from his seat on the porch, he was unable to stop the tears he'd been holding back.
Maggie pulled into the driveway, put the car in park, and turned off the engine. He made no move to get out, unable to tear his gaze from the man-Edward...his father.
After a minute, Maggie said, "Come on, sweetheart. Come meet your dad." She reached over and gave his hand a squeeze before climbing out of the car.
Edward couldn't stop his knee from bouncing as he waited on the porch for Maggie to arrive with his son. He knew their plane had left Chicago on time, and Bella had told him not ten minutes ago that she'd checked the status of the flight online and it had arrived on time as well. So they would be getting to Plainview in a few minutes. He was nervous, worried that Riley wouldn't like him, wouldn't be able to accept him as his father...that he'd be angry at him for not being there, even though it hadn't been his fault.
Twenty minutes later, a little gray sedan came around the corner, and Edward tensed. When it turned into the driveway and he got the first look at his son through the windshield, his heart began pounding in his chest. He stood, wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans, and straightened his shirt before raking a hand through his hair.
It was a nerve-racking minute before the driver's door opened and Maggie Sullivan stepped out. She stepped up to him, giving him a smile before whispering, "He's very nervous."
Smiling wryly, Edward nodded. "He's not the only one."
He waited another thirty seconds, barely breathing, until the other door finally opened and his almost-fifteen-year-old son unfolded his lanky body from the passenger seat. When Riley looked up, Edward saw the worry in his glassy eyes and couldn't hold himself back any longer. He moved quickly to stand in front of his son, but then suddenly felt awkward. Not wanting to overwhelm him, he waited for Riley to speak.
Edward was taken by surprise when Riley held his hand out and in a shaky voice said, "H-Hi," but he hid it behind what he hoped was a welcoming smile and reached out to shake his son's hand.
The moment their hands met, Riley's long fingers reminding Edward so much of his own, his calm facade cracked. With an almost-desperate sob, Edward pulled the boy close and wrapped his arms around him. Riley stiffened in his arms, awkwardly patting Edward's back.
"I'm so sorry, son. I didn't know," he swore, repeating the words over and over until Riley finally seemed to collapse in on himself. He clung to Edward, his fists clenched in the back of his shirt as he began to cry.
Edward only pulled away when he heard the front door of the house open. Without looking back, he knew Bella had come outside, unable to stand waiting any longer. Picking up the backpack Riley had dropped when he'd hugged him, Edward smiled nervously and said, "Come meet my wife, okay?"
When he turned, he could see Maggie up on the porch with Bella, and both were teary eyed as he and Riley stepped up to them.
"Hi, Riley," Bella said sweetly, her voice calm and even. "Welcome to Oklahoma."
"Thanks," he muttered shyly, his cheeks turning a light shade of pink as he looked down at his shoes.
Edward shifted awkwardly, not sure what to say or do next. Thankfully, his wife stepped up to the plate yet again.
"Why don't we go inside? I'm sure y'all could use something to drink. It's warm out today, isn't it? That's Oklahoma in July for ya."
"That would be great, Bella," Maggie agreed.
As she opened the door to let the older woman through first, Bella said, "I've got sweet tea, lemonade, and water, or you could have a Coke."
"Oh, a soda would be good," Maggie answered quickly.
Bella smiled. "Good! What would you like? We have Coke and Pepsi, both."
She and Maggie continued chatting as they all made their way inside.
"Would you like something to drink, honey?" Bella asked once the front door was shut.
Riley finally looked up and then shook his head. "No, thank you. I had a Pepsi on the plane."
Smiling, Bella nodded. "Okay. Just let me know and I can get you something, or you can just go in and grab whatever you'd like. There's pop in the fridge, along with the lemonade and tea, and if you'd like a glass of ice, the cups are in the cabinet just to the left of the sink."
Riley nodded. "Thanks."
Edward had never been happier that his wife was so strong, so calm. She was his rock and the only thing giving him direction at the moment. He'd been floundering about what to say and do until she spoke again.
"Edward, why don't you show Riley his room while Maggie and I get something to drink?"
Clearing his throat, Edward nodded. "Sure. Come this way, son. It's the second door on the right."
Riley looked back at Maggie, and Edward saw the way he bit his lip nervously until she smiled and mouthed, "Go on."
Edward started down the hall and looked back to see Riley following.
When they stepped past the first door on the right, Edward said, "That's Katie's room. Our room's down the hall, last door on the left. There's a guest bathroom that Katie also uses and the washer/dryer closet here on the left, but you have your own bathroom."
When they reached the closed door to Riley's room, Edward said, "This is it."
He waited, and after a moment, Riley turned the knob and opened the door. Edward followed him inside, setting the backpack on the bed as Riley looked around curiously.
"We...We did what we thought you might enjoy, but you can change whatever you'd like." Nervously, Edward started rambling. "Paint color, pictures, posters...whatever. It's your room. You can do whatever you want to really make it yours. We can go shopping for whatever you need."
Riley was quiet as he looked over the pictures Esme had hung on the wall. When he got to the one on the desk of Edward and Charlotte, he froze. "You have a picture of you and my mom..."
Stepping up beside his son, Edward nodded. "It's the only one I had, unfortunately. That's us with some of our friends. This was taken in November at a football game, about a month before she left school." He smiled, reaching out to point out the other people in the picture. "That's Peter, Maria, Jessica, and Eric."
"She looks so...happy," Riley said quietly, sounding surprised.
Edward sighed, nodding. "She was. She wasn't always-that's something I can look back on now and realize, but at the time, she hid it well. Until Maggie came down here the first time, I didn't know just how unhappy she was, even after I met her. If I'd known..."
"My mom...she wrote me a letter, telling me about her parents and what they did," he sneered, "and said you didn't know about her parents or...or me." Curiosity and a tinge of disbelief filled his tone at the last part.
"I didn't, son," Edward breathed, shaking his head quickly. "She hid...everything from me when we met, and then she never contacted me after she left for Christmas break. I swear it. If I'd known, I'd have been there...for her and for you. I wouldn't have left her in that situation with her parents, and I wouldn't have let them touch either of you again."
Riley nodded, looking down at the picture in his hands. "I m-miss her...all the time," he admitted.
Edward wasn't sure what to say, so instead, he tentatively reached out and placed a hand on Riley's shoulder, squeezing gently.
The moment was interrupted when Bella stepped into the room and cleared her throat. "Sorry, guys," she said softly, "but Maggie needs to go. Her plane leaves soon."
Edward raised an eyebrow, not having realized she would be going so soon, and then turned to wait for Riley, who gave the picture one last look and then placed it carefully back on the desk.
A few minutes later, standing with his hand in Bella's, Edward watched his son say his goodbyes to the woman who'd been a constant in his life since his mother passed away. His arms were around her, and she was whispering quietly to him. Edward was able to hear bits and pieces of the conversation, although he wasn't deliberately trying to overhear. She told him that if he ever needed to contact her, he had her number. That she knew he was going to be just fine, and to give us a chance.
Riley finally nodded and stepped back, scrubbing at his face in a move so much like his own that Edward froze for a minute. Bella squeezed his hand, smirking when he raised an eyebrow.
After their own goodbyes to Maggie, Edward and Bella stood with Riley on the porch, watching her back out of the drive. She gave a wave as she pulled away.
Riley looked lost until Bella slid her arm around his shoulder and said quietly, "Come back inside, hon. You can ask us any questions you want to while we wait for Katie and your grandparents to get here, okay?
Nodding, Riley stepped into the house, leaving Edward to follow.
A few minutes into their get-to-know-you conversation, Riley blurted, "Wait... You're EE Entertainment?" His eyes were wide as he gazed at Edward, who nodded. "You... I have a bunch of your games!"
Edward grinned. "Oh yeah? Which is your favorite?"
Riley nodded, smiling back at him. "Zombie Nights. I'm at level forty-seven. I love that game!"
Bella rolled her eyes playfully as she listened and then turned back to the stove, where she was preparing the lasagna for dinner.
Edward laughed at her before turning back to Riley. "She's just jealous. I won't help her get past level thirty-six."
"I'll show you," Riley said quickly, blushing when Bella looked up and smiled.
"Yeah?" she questioned. "Your dad keeps telling me to figure it out on my own...but I've been stuck for weeks!"
Edward listened as Riley asked her questions about the problems she was having, explaining in a patient tone of voice just what she'd done wrong to get stuck where she was. He knew it didn't mean the road would always be smooth, but knowing he and his son shared this aspect of his life, and that Bella could share it as well, made him confident that things would be okay.
Riley was just finishing up his explanation when the kitchen door opened and Katie ran inside.
"Is he here? Is my broth-" Her eyebrows shot up as she noticed Riley sitting beside Edward at the kitchen table. "Oh!" she gasped and immediately stepped over to curl into Bella's side.
Before Edward could introduce her, his parents stepped into the house. His dad was smiling, his hands on Esme's shoulders, and his mother was already crying softly.
When Edward stood, Riley stood with him. He could see his son's nerves hit as he swallowed and raked his hand through his hair, tugging on the wavy blond strands.
"Riley, these are my parents, Carlisle and Esme Cullen, and that little thing hiding behind her mother over there is Katie-but don't let her fool you. She's not nearly as shy as she's letting on," Edward teased, winking at his daughter when she shot him an indignant look.
"It's good to meet you, Riley," Carlisle said quietly, holding out his hand, which Riley took after a moment's hesitation. "How was your flight?"
"It was fine, sir," Riley murmured.
Edward watched as Esme pulled him into a hug, her tears flowing freely. "None of that sir stuff, sweetheart. We're Nana and Poppa-or Carlisle and Esme, if you'd like." Riley stiffened for a moment before tentatively patting her back. She sniffled, pulling back to cup his face. "Oh, my sweet boy. You look so much like your father. Doesn't he, Carlisle?"
Edward's father nodded, moving over to clap Edward's shoulder. "He does. And Esme's right, Riley. No need for sir. We're not nearly that formal." He smiled, shaking his head.
"Come here, monkey," Edward said, sitting down in his chair at the table and patting his lap. When his normally outgoing daughter climbed onto his lap, he turned her so she was facing Riley, who was fidgeting in place and watching Katie nervously. "Baby, this is Riley. Remember? We talked about it. He's my son, which means he's your brother. There's no need to be nervous, silly girl. He's family."
Katie nodded, biting her lip as she watched him. Finally, she said, "D'ya like video games? Daddy and I play 'em all da time. Maybe we can play sometime." Riley nodded slowly, making Katie's face light up. "D'ya like to color? I have lots of colors. I could share. D'ya wanna go color? I have a new book. It's got lots of pi'tures for boys too, like snakes and bears 'n' stuff."
Riley looked stunned when he looked to Edward, who held in his chuckle and nodded.
"If you want to, go ahead," he said. "Monkey, give a guy a break, okay?"
She giggled. "Silly Daddy. Me 'n' Riley'll have fun, right?" she asked as she climbed down from Edward's lap and raced out of the room. Her voice echoed from down the hall. "C'mon, Riley! I'll show you my room. It's right by yours!"
Everyone finally laughed as Riley looked around and shrugged. "I, uh...I guess I'll go color, if that's okay."
"That's fine, hon. Don't let Katie railroad you, though. If you don't want to do something she suggests, you don't have to do it." Bella grinned, shaking her head as Riley shrugged again.
"I don't mind," he said. "I-I've never had a little sister. So it's cool."
When he smiled tentatively at Edward as he left the room, Edward felt his emotions swell. He had a beautiful, sweet, spitfire of a wife, loving parents, an amazing, bubbly daughter, and now a son that seemed like he was going to fit in just fine.
His heart had never been so full.
"Need any help?" Edward asked as he came back into the kitchen from the living room.
Bella shook her head. "Nah, I've got it. This last batch of cookies is just about done. I'll send them home with the boys for their parents."
It was the second day of Christmas break, nearly five months since Riley had come into their lives. Riley had been thrilled to learn all his new friends would be in town for Christmas. Bella had told him to invite them over whenever, and he'd taken her advice to heart, asking them over the day they got out of school. Two of the boys hadn't been able to come until the next day, so they'd made plans to get together first thing that morning.
"How are the boys?" she asked. She still worried about Riley, even though he'd seemed to settle in fine.
Edward smirked. "Fine. Riley's schooling them in Ground Recon."
Laughing, Bella shook her head. "It's no wonder!" EE Entertainment's latest game was a huge success, and Riley and Edward had been playing what seemed non-stop for the last month.
He shrugged, grabbing a still-warm cookie from the sheet she'd pulled out of the oven just before Edward game in.
"That's enough, mister," she chastised, swatting at him with the spatula. "Go ask the boys if they want some of these before you eat them all."
Licking his lips, Edward gave her a sugary kiss and then winked before leaving the kitchen.
Knowing the answer would be yes-what teenage boy turned down cookies?-Bella added a pile of them to the plate, leaving some of the special ones she'd made for specifically for Tyler, who she knew was a Type 1 diabetic, on a separate plate. Just as she was headed to the living room, Katie rounded the corner.
"I want some cookies too, Mommy," she gushed, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
Bella laughed. "I know. There's plenty here." Holding out Tyler's plate, she said, "Can you carry this one in for Tyler?"
Katie nodded and took the plate, carrying it carefully as she walked into the living room ahead of Bella.
"Cookies!" Riley called, grinning up at her. "Thanks, Bella."
"Mmhmm. Just be sure to share, Ri." She winked as she handed him the plate, watching as Katie gave Tyler his.
"Thanks, Mrs. C.," Tyler called. "Katie, you want one of mine? They're good..."
Katie shook her head. "Don't like those nuts. I want da chocolate ones."
Tyler chuckled, shaking his head. "Don't know what you're missing, kiddo." He shrugged and turned back to the game, watching as their friend Jared worked to find the leader of the country they were invading.
Edward pulled her down to his lap, and they watched as Katie hopped over to Riley, snaking her arms down to grab a cookie.
"C'mere, monkey," Riley teased, tugging her arm and then patting the spot beside him. "You can share my seat."
Bella watched as Katie settled to Riley's beanbag, her face animated as she teased Paul with a cookie.
It was amazing to see the change in both kids. Katie had always been an outgoing little girl, but she'd blossomed even more with an older brother. As for Riley, it hadn't taken him long to find friends once school started, and he'd become Katie's protector almost immediately. Bella knew they were lucky because they approved of all of Riley's friends, and all of them treated Katie well, which was good, since she was glued to his side as much as she could be.
That wasn't to say that things had been smooth sailing. Shortly after Riley moved in, Bella and Edward had sat down with Riley and decided they needed to find someone to talk to-for Riley alone and for all of them as a family. Weekly therapy sessions had helped ease the transition, and Riley and Edward both had been working through their issues. Riley had never truly grieved for his mother, and then he'd been dealt the blow of having to move away from the place he'd begun to think of as home to live with the father he'd never known. Edward had had a lot of anger inside him about Charlotte-while he understood why she hadn't told him, it still didn't make it all okay that he'd missed the first almost fifteen years of his son's life.
"I need to get the cookies packed up," Bella sighed when she finally looked away from the kids.
"Two minutes, baby," Edward huffed, nuzzling her neck. "Just take a break and enjoy the moment."
Listening to Katie giggle and the boys laugh and tease, shoving each other playfully, Bella nodded. "Okay," she acquiesced. "Two minutes." She snuggled back against her husband, unable to keep the smile from her face.
Christmas Day dawned bright and early. Katie was still at the age where Santa was a real person, so she was up at six in the morning. Lucky for Bella and Edward, she waited until seven to wake them-the earliest they'd told her she could come in to get them up.
Unfortunately for Riley, that seven o'clock apparently hadn't applied to him, and he looked up blearily when Bella walked into the living room in her pajamas and robe. His blond hair stuck up everywhere, reminding her of Edward's, and his smile wasn't nearly as bright as he handed Bella a cup of coffee.
"Here ya go," he mumbled.
"Aww, sweetheart, you didn't have to make coffee..."
He waved her off, making her grin when he said, "I was up. Figured might as well."
She looped an arm around his neck and pulled him down-he was Edward's height already, much to Riley's and Bella's amusement-kissing the top of his head. "Well, thank you anyway."
He blushed and nodded, moving back to the couch and falling into the corner of the soft cushions.
"When can we open presents, Mommy?" Katie asked, bouncing in her spot in front of the fireplace, which Edward was in the process of lighting.
"When everyone else gets here, baby girl," Bella said, flopping down beside Riley and reaching up to run her fingers through his hair, which pulled a sound not unlike a purr from him.
Besides Carlisle and Esme, their friends were all coming over to spend the day. Emmett and Alice's parents had retired to Florida the year before, and since they'd spent Thanksgiving down there with them, they'd wanted to stay home for Christmas. Their parents were coming up after Christmas to see the kids and bring their presents, planning to stay for a month. Neither Rose nor Jasper's parents were in their lives, so it was an easy decision for them to agree to spend Christmas at Bella and Edward's.
Bella took a sip of her coffee and closed her eyes, settling in to wait for the others.
Six hours later, presents had been opened, a light lunch eaten, and Bella was in the kitchen with Esme, Alice, and Rose, working hard at getting Christmas dinner all prepared.
"How are things going?" Rose asked, rubbing her distended belly. She was eight and a half months pregnant and waddling everywhere.
Bella smiled, pointing to the kitchen chair. "Sit down before you pop that baby out in my kitchen," she growled playfully, waiting until Rose sighed and nodded, pulling out a chair and taking a seat. "They're going...great, actually. We had our last therapy sessions last week. Ri actually told us a couple of weeks ago he was ready, so we gave it another week to let us meet with Dr. Eli. He said Riley-or even Edward-can always come back anytime they need to talk, but for now, we're done."
"That's good, sweetheart," Esme said, squeezing her shoulder as she walked by with the bag of stuffing mix.
Nodding, Bella said, "Yeah, we've been lucky. The transition was a lot easier than we'd anticipated it might be."
Before she could say more, the kitchen door opened and four kids came traipsing in, faces red and snow coating their shoes and coats. Alice immediately took charge, peeling off snowy clothes and shoes and directing the kids to the living room to warm up in front of the fire.
"Where are the others?" I asked Katie as she grabbed Cheyenne's and Savannah's hands to take to the living room.
She answered, "Having a snowball fight," before disappearing from Bella's view.
Alice followed behind them-Bella knew she was going to make sure no little people went too close to the fire-calling over her shoulder that she'd be back to finish helping in a few minutes.
When the door flew open a few minutes later, laughter spilled into the room.
"Get in there, old man," Riley snickered, shoving Emmett through the open doorway.
Bella laughed as she watched Emmett whirl around to grab Riley in a headlock.
"Old man?" he scoffed. "I'll show you old man..."
The two scuffled until they bumped into Esme, her hands deep in a large metal mixing bowl, combining the ingredients for dressing. At the clearing of throats from behind them-Carlisle and Edward stood with their eyebrows raised-they straightened up and looked properly ashamed.
"Sorry, Mom," Emmett said, batting his eyelashes and ducking when Esme reached out to swat his arm with her food-covered hand.
"Yeah, sorry, Nana," Riley said, sounding much more sincere. He leaned in and kissed her cheek before backing away and taking off his wet shoes and coat.
"Go get warm, all of you," she ordered with a playful glare at the five "boys."
Emmett, Jasper, Carlisle, and Riley traipsed into the living room after hanging their coats up in the corner.
Edward grabbed a handful of paper towels and used his foot to wipe up the mess from nine pairs of wet shoes. Once he'd thrown it away, he came up behind Bella and wrapped her arms around him.
"Hey," she said, leaning in to the kiss to her temple. "Who won?"
His chuckle was low, and he growled, "Who do you think? Ri and I kicked their a-"
"Language, Edward Anthony!" Esme scolded from behind them.
Bella laughed softly at his repentant face.
"Sorry, Mom. Ri and I kicked their butts. The kid's got a good arm. Might see if he's interested in baseball this spring." He kissed her cheek. "I'm gonna go warm up, then if you need me, just let me know."
"We got this covered. You can take over kid duty and send Alice back in, though."
He nodded. "Love you."
Bella's heart warmed. Every time he said that, it was like the first time. "Love you, too, hon."
When he left the kitchen, Bella heard their daughter's squeals and couldn't hold in her laugh.
"Daddy, I just got dry! No! Don't shake your hair onto-Daddy! No, Riley. Riley!"
Then her protests dissolved into giggles, joined in by laughs from Edward and Riley, and once again, Bella was reminded that she was a very lucky woman. In the last six months, their world had been turned upside down, but they'd weathered the storm and come out the other side better for it.
Life was good.