Falling for a Dark Soul @tufano79
Chapter 17

Disclaimer: None of this mine, nor do I claim to be Stephenie Meyer. I just like to dabble in the playground that she created with Bella, Edward and her Twilight characters. No copyright infringement is intended.

Next chapter, it will be in Bella’s POV for the MAC holiday gathering and the Christmas Eve celebration with their friends. The following chapter will be in Edward’s POV, for Christmas Day at the Cullen’s home. I haven’t decided if the citrusy action will happen on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I do not want them to be interrupted, by ill-timed phone calls, the stomach flu, Katie having a bad dream or Sam scratching to go outside.

Chapter Seventeen

Bella

It felt so strange wrapping presents in Edward’s condo without him there. The quiet was welcome, save for some music being piped through the sound system. Sam was curled up on the couch while I put a bow on one of Katie’s presents from Santa, clearly happy to have me hanging out with him. Edward’s furry friend was my shadow, but it was nice to have someone in the condo. Sam’s presence reminded me that I wasn’t home.

Don’t make this a big deal. You’re just in Edward’s inner-sanctum. No worries, right?

Regardless of my feelings of weirdness, I was grateful to have a chance to finish my Christmas shopping. Being sick knocked me on my ass and took away time that I needed to help make Katie’s first Christmas without her parents to be a special one. Regardless of that, there was an emptiness in my heart and understandably so. The first Christmas without our parents would undoubtedly be difficult, but so would Katie’s birthday, a couple days after Christmas.

Crap, I still need to get her birthday presents and plan her party. I suck as a parent. Another thing to add to my never-ending to-do list. Son of a …

“Sam, I think I’m done. Well, done for Christmas. Katie’s birthday? Not so much,” I huffed, putting the last present underneath Edward’s tree. “The only person that I don’t have a gift for is you. Do you want a juicy steak or a ginormous bone, buddy?”

He barked, his tail thumping on the pillow. I smiled, petting his head and standing up from my seated position on the floor. I picked up all of my trash, stuffing it into the garbage can in kitchen. I leaned against the counter, rubbing my chest and trying to keep the tears at bay. I had to be strong from my sister. I had to make things good for her.

Maybe, I can convince Alice to let me have an afternoon off so I could get a handle for Katie’s birthday. Fingers are crossed. But, what should I do?

I was grateful for Edward’s presence in my life. He’d become someone that I never realized I needed. Yes, he was my worst nightmare when we first met, but I realized it was just a façade, hiding his true pain from his horrific childhood. I saw who he truly was when we were alone or with Katie.

My heart, when he helped take care of me when I was sick? I saw a completely different side of him. I saw the fear in his eyes when he tried to cool me off. Granted, I was slightly delirious and embarrassed that my boyfriend was holding me, half naked, in the shower, covered in vomit, but I recognized his terror. It was the same thing I felt when Katie was diagnosed with bronchitis and I didn’t know what to do. It was the same thing that I felt when I found out that my parents had been killed in a car accident.

That fear is fucking crippling.

Then, when I saw Katie curled in Edward’s arms later that morning, I physically felt the love he had for her. His face was so relaxed as he gave her comfort, easing her pain from her bout with the stomach flu. It was all-encompassing, filling the room.

Edward had so much love to give and he was terrified to share it, of losing it.

Is that it?

I jumped when my cell phone broke my ruminations. I picked it up, sitting down on the couch next to Sam. “Hello?”

“Bella! How are you doing?” Alice asked.

“Good. I just finished wrapping my presents for Katie and Edward,” I answered.

“Did you remember your Secret Santa gifts?” she asked.

“I have those wrapped and ready to go in the backseat of my car,” I chuckled. “Though, I think my Secret Santa recipient is going to know it’s me with my first present.”

“Meh, when we work in an office as small as we do, it’s bound to happen,” Alice replied.

“This is true. Hey, Alice, I have a favor to ask of you,” I said, idly petting Sam’s fur.

“Shoot,” she chirped.

“Katie’s birthday is a couple days after Christmas. Since her birthday is so close to the holiday, my mom always made a big deal about it,” I explained. “I haven’t even thought about it. I’m an awful sister. I need to make plans for her birthday. Can I have a half-day to do that?”

“Of course, Bella,” Alice said easily. “Why don’t you come in tomorrow afternoon? Take tomorrow morning to settle Katie’s birthday party. Do you need ideas?”

“I’ll come up with something. I’ll probably go with Frozen since Katie is still obsessed. Thank you,” I breathed. “I’m sorry about leaving you in a lurch.”

“Bella, you’re still adjusting to your situation. You’re fine,” Alice said. “I’m also certain that Cynthia would love to bring her kiddos.”

“Consider her invited,” I giggled. “You are the best boss, ever.”

“I think that the best boss ever is Edward,” Alice snickered. “Now, for Christmas Eve, what time do you want us there?”

“Around three? Did you tell Cynthia?” I asked.

“She will be there with her useless husband and two adorable daughters,” Alice sighed. “I swear, Neil is getting lazier and lazier as the years go by. He lost his job. Again. Yes, Cynthia makes a great living as an attorney, but Neil needs to contribute, too! All he does is sit on his fat ass, playing video games.”

“Don’t hold back, Ali,” I snorted.

“Sorry,” she grumbled. “I just don’t like him. No one in my family does. That’s all.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Remind Cynthia about the White Elephant gift exchange. Anyone who wants to participate can bring a gift. Keep them clean, obviously, since we’re going to have kids there,” I chuckled. “Regift or if purchased, nothing over $20.”

“She knows,” Alice said. “And, we’re bringing some nummy treats, too.”

“Awesome!” I smiled. “I’ll have the meat and salad, with you all providing the sides. It’s going to be great.”

“What are you serving for the meat? Not ham, please don’t say ham,” Alice wheedled.

“Well, I could have gone traditional and served ham, but I’ve decided to go with turkey and beef tenderloin. If there are people who are vegetarians …”

“There aren’t,” Alice said. “Neil considered going vegan but decided against it when he realized he couldn’t eat cheese. The man is addicted to cheese, I swear.”

“Sounds good,” I laughed. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I’ve missed you, Bella. I know that we’re kind of in a slow period, but it was not the same with you out this past week,” Alice said. “I’m glad you’re feeling better. Call me if you need anything.”

“I’m ready to go back to work. Bye, Alice.” She said her goodbyes and I hung up the phone. I put the phone on the counter when a text came through. It was a picture of Katie and Edward in the kitchen, grinning over a casserole dish. You hungry? We’re making homemade mac and cheese!

Does it have bacon? ~ Bella

Is the earth round? Of course it does! See you soon, angel ~ Edward

“Sam, you want to go for a ride?” I asked, picking up his leash. He barked and hopped off the couch. “Come on, bub. Your daddy is making us dinner.” I hooked up his leash, threw on my coat and locked up his condo. I wasn’t sure if Sam would know what to do with the car, but he hopped up into the backseat, sitting down and giving me a doggy grin. I rolled my eyes, ruffling his fur before I got into the driver’s seat. I drove back to my brownstone, parking in my garage. Taking Sam’s leash, we walked through the backyard and into the kitchen. Katie was sitting at the counter, prattling to Edward while he was making a salad. His smile was indulgent and his affection for my sister was clearly apparent. I bit my lip to not cry at the scene before me.

It felt like I was coming home. Not just to a house, or a place where I slept, but home.

In that moment in time, my heart truly began to beat and I knew that I hadn’t just fallen for Edward. I was truly in love with him.

But, could he love me back?

xx FFADS xx

With Senna’s help, I managed to get Katie’s birthday party planned. It was a Frozen themed birthday at Navy Pier. I dropped a pretty penny for reservations at Winter Wonder Fest. I’d finalize the cost once I knew the final total of children and parents attending. I also used my graphic design skills to create birthday invitations. I dropped them off at Katie’s preschool, only inviting children that she had classes with. I also sent a digital copy to my team at MAC, along with Edward, Cynthia and Rose.

When I got to work, I sat down on at my desk. I started working on a spring promotional line for an all-natural set of makeup brushes and makeup removers. I also did some work on the next launch for New Moon Cosmetics. Around three, I got a text from Rose.

Coast is clear, both Edward and Shelly … ~ Ro

I’d asked her to keep an eye out for Edward since her office was near his. He was my Secret Santa recipient. I picked up my gift, ‘Grinch Pills’, which were spearmint Tic Tacs. I ducked to Edward’s office, slipping inside. When I did, I put his present onto his desk. I noticed something next to his computer screen. It was a photo and I blushed when I recognized it. He had a picture of me, Katie and him, smiling happily. It was from the night he’d helped put our Christmas decorations. My heart jumped in my chest, seeing that photo on his desk.

I heard voices outside and I knew I needed to go. I walked back out, heading to the cafeteria. I saw Edward and Shelly in there, walking back from the conference rooms.

“Bella,” Edward smiled. “Did you get Katie’s birthday planned?”

“Yeah. I sent you and a few other people in the office a digital copy of the invite. I’d love for you to come,” I explained. “December 27th at Navy Pier.”

“How did you manage that? On such short notice?” Shelly asked.

“Last minute cancellation,” I replied. “Senna, a neighbor, helped me since I was such a novice. Let’s just say, my bonus check from the New Moon campaign will be used for Katie’s birthday.”

Edward made a face. I knew he didn’t like Senna. She also rubbed me the wrong way, but she was the only semi-normal mom. The rest had some sort of angle or snide comment on my parenting choices. Um, I’m learning, you petty bitches. They reminded me of the popular girls in school who made my life hell. Senna was, at the very least, forward with her opinions and she respected my choices without judgment.

“Anyway, I have to go. I was just coming to pick up a snack,” I said. “I was running around this morning and didn’t eat breakfast or lunch.”

“You need more than a snack,” Edward chided. “Come, I’ll get you a proper meal.”

“There’s a teleconference call in ten minutes, Edward,” Shelly said.

“Damn it,” Edward frowned.

“Thank you for the offer, Edward. Good luck on your call,” I smiled. Edward sighed, giving me a brief hug before following Shelly to his office. I picked up a salad and sandwich, paying for it and heading back to my office. On my desk, I saw my Secret Santa gift. I snickered at the present: a cactus essential oil diffuser. I used to say that I couldn’t keep anything alive. I even killed a cactus. This cactus, I couldn’t kill. Regardless, I spent the rest of the afternoon working and catching up on the pile of assignments that I couldn’t complete remotely.

It continued along the same vein for the rest of the week, leading up to Christmas Eve. Each day, I’d sneak into Edward’s office to drop off his Secret Santa gifts. The second day was an elaborately wrapped roll of toilet paper saying ‘In case you get crap for Christmas’. The third day was a tasty treat called ‘Grinch Treats’, a variation of ‘puppy chow’ but made with mint chocolate and M&Ms. On the fourth day, Edward came in as I was putting his present on his couch, a Grinch wreath, a couple of Grinch candles and a Grinch plate.

“I knew it was you,” he chuckled.

“I’m surprised you didn’t say anything,” I quipped. “Did you like your other gifts?” He tugged me into his arms, kissing my lips. “Hey now, professional at the office, Cullen.”

“I just can’t resist you, angel,” he murmured, pressing his forehead to mine. “I’ve missed you. I’ve missed Katie.”

“You’ll see us for a long weekend. I’m shocked that you’re not sick of me,” I said, sliding my hands up to his face and tracing underneath his eyes. “You look tired, Edward.”

“I am tired. Nightmares,” he huffed, tightening his hold on me. “Christmas was a magical time for a lot of kids, but for me, it was my worst nightmare come to life.”

“Edward,” I breathed.

“I’m sorry, angel,” he sighed. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No, Edward. You can talk to me,” I urged, taking his hand and moving the gift I’d set up on the couch. “You can always talk to me. I know that you had one good Christmas, but you had a lot more bad ones.”

“Normally, I can just push them down but since I’d started talking about my past with my therapist, it’s all so fresh and very, very raw,” he choked out. His eyes were closed and his hands on me were clinging to my sweater. The fear he was experiencing was very real to him, even as an adult. “I’m okay. I know we agreed that we would remain professional, but I just needed this. I needed you.”

“Do you want to come over tonight? Katie and I are baking cookies for the party tomorrow morning here and for the Christmas Eve shindig tomorrow evening at my house,” I suggested. “I can also give you the final two gifts I have for the Secret Santa since you figured out who was sneaking into your office. They are stupid, silly gifts.”

“And, they mean more to me than anything in the world,” he smiled crookedly. He stood up, swiping the jar of Grinch Goodies I’d made for him. Opening the jar, he popped a few into his mouth. “Have you tried these?”

“I have,” I giggled, taking some from the jar. “I had to make sure that they didn’t suck. There are two ginormous bags in my pantry. One, I’m bringing for the potluck tomorrow and the other I’m bringing to your parents’ home for Christmas Day. Is that alright? I also picked up some presents for your parents. I wasn’t sure, so I got gift baskets.”

“Bella, you didn’t need to get my parents anything,” Edward chided.

“I couldn’t not do it,” I shrugged. “I got your mom a wine gift basket and a whiskey gift basket for your dad.”

“They will love that, angel,” Edward said. His phone rang from his desk. With a groan, Edward got up and answered it. “Cullen … Okay, Emmett … I trust your judgment. If you like that candidate, then you can hire him … gotcha. Let me take a look at the budget. We may have to compromise if you want this James guy. Call him and let him know that you will inform him of your decision after the holidays. If he gives you grief, he’ll make the decision for you.” Edward hung up the phone, giving me an apologetic smile.

“It sucks to be the boss?” I teased.

“Sometimes, but the man that Emmett is trying to lure to MAC is one of the best graphic artists in the Midwest,” Edward explained. “He’s expensive as fuck, though. We’re almost to the point where we’re out of budget for Emmett’s team. He still needs to hire a junior ad exec, plus another one for your team, too.”

“Well, after tomorrow, the office is closed and you can stop thinking about work,” I said, cupping his cheek. “Now, I have a few things to do before I go pick up Katie.”

“I’ll grab some dinner for us and thank you for inviting me to help bake cookies. Though, I maybe more of a hinderance than help. I can cook, but I can’t bake,” he laughed anxiously.

“It’ll still be fun, Edward,” I grinned. “You still have that key I gave you?” He nodded, a faint blush spreading over his cheeks. “You might beat me back to the house. Let yourself in and get comfortable. I trust you.”

Edward looked at me, his eyes swirling and a soft smile ghosting over his face. He kissed me so tenderly before nodding. “I will, angel. Thank you.”

I left his office and spent the rest of the afternoon working on the final assignments of the year. We were going to be off until January 2nd to spend time with our families for the holidays. Other than the plans for Christmas and Katie’s birthday, I was looking forward to just relaxing.

I left the office at half past five and I picked up Katie from daycare. Edward’s car was gone from the parking garage, indicating he’d already left. I told her that Edward was going to help us with the cookies and she asked if he was going to bring Sam. I wasn’t sure and since I was driving, I couldn’t really call or text him. I’d been pulled over and issued a warning for talking on my phone with Katie in the backseat. So, I avoided doing anything with my phone when I drove around.

Parking the car, we walked into the house and were greeted by an excited Sam. He barked and danced around her feet. Katie giggled as he gave her puppy kisses. On the kitchen counter, there were bags from Portillo’s. I’d never had it and Edward insisted that it was the best fast-food joint in Chicago. Since I was unfamiliar, I had him pick something that I’d like. We ate Italian beef with sweet peppers, onion rings, cheesy fries and a hot dog for Katie. She did try some of the beef, but she didn’t like the peppers.

After dinner, we spent the rest of the evening baking up a storm. We made snowballs, butter cookies, sugar cookies, chocolate truffles, peanut butter cookies and a family favorite, spice cookies. Katie crashed after we made the butter cookies. She wanted to squish them with a fork like she did with my mom. My sister was curled up on the couch with Sam snoring next to her. It was well after midnight when the kitchen was cleaned and the cookies were put into decorative tins.

“Thank you for coming over. I don’t think we would have been nearly as productive if you weren’t here,” I said, handing him a tin. “For you, Edward.”

“It was my pleasure, angel,” he grinned. “I can’t remember laughing so much. You and Katie are just so … you love her so much, Bella. It’s truly beautiful to see.”

“She’s my world right now,” I breathed, blinking over to my sister. “She was struggling at first, but we’re finding our groove. A lot of it has to do with you, Edward. She wasn’t really close with Phil, her dad, but they had those special moments. You’re giving that to her. I know you’re not her father, but when you took her out for breakfast? She couldn’t stop prattling on about it for days afterward. You love her, too.”

Edward hummed thoughtfully, stepping to me and sliding his arms around my body. I pressed my ear to his chest, listening to his steadily thumping heart. “I should go. It’s only a half day, but I have to finish something that I need to hand out to the staff tomorrow,” he muttered. He cupped my cheek and kissed my lips. I just melted against him. “You’re making it so difficult to leave, angel.”

“I know,” I giggled, scratching his back.

He stared at me, his green eyes glowing as he looked at me. Tenderly, he took my face and brushed his mouth over mine, once … twice … three times before pressing his forehead to mine. “Sleep well, angel.” He took a reluctant step back, walking to the living room. “Come on, Sammy. Time to go home.”

Sam whimpered, curling closer to Katie. His tail lazily thumped against the couch.

“He can stay,” I suggested. “You’re coming back here tomorrow after our half day of work, right?”

“That’s the plan,” Edward said, arching a brow. “I don’t think I have the heart to separate those two.” He took out his phone and snapped a photo. “He’ll need to go out before you leave for work. I have poop bags on his leash.”

“I’ve got it,” I smiled. “Thanks again for your help tonight. Don’t forget your cookies.” I handed him a tin and he grinned crookedly. With another trio of kisses, Edward left my brownstone. I watched as he walked down the street in the snow, my heart beating against my chest. I waved as he drove past before ducking back inside, locking the door. I leaned against it, pressing my fingers to my tingling lips.

I was falling so hard and so fast, with each passing moment, Edward was slipping under my skin. My heart was already deeply involved and if he left, I’d probably shatter. I closed my eyes, shaking my head and ridding myself of those negative thoughts. I had to focus on the positive.

And, get some sleep.

I kept the Christmas tree on and I covered Katie with a blanket. I gave Sam a snuggle before darting upstairs to get ready for bed. After I’d set my alarm, I curled around my pillow and memories of our evening replayed in my mind. It was a perfect family evening and I didn’t feel so alone.

xx FFADS xx

When I got to the office the following morning, I was surprised to see a gift basket on my desk, in addition to my final Secret Santa gift. I plucked the card off the gift basket, recognizing Edward’s neat writing. Inside, there was a typed note.

Dear Isabella,

This is a small token of my appreciation for all of your hard work since coming to work at Masen Advertising Corporation. You are truly a rising star in our company and I look forward to seeing so much from you.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year,

Edward Cullen

CEO, Masen Advertising Corporation

Tucked in the card was a check. My eyes bugged out at the amount.

“Merry Christmas, Bella,” Alice sang, dancing into the office. “You got your bonus? It’s the largest I’d ever seen!”

“That’s a lot of zeroes,” I whimpered. “Along with a gift basket?”

“The baskets are new, but I loved it! They were all tailored to our teams. If you notice, there’s a lot of swag from New Moon Cosmetics and several other big clients,” Alice explained. “It looks like you got a gift card to Fringe. I got one from Mario Tricoci. Oh, there’s a personal note on the back of your card.” She pointed to the card that I still held in my hand.

I flipped it over, seeing Edward’s writing again.

My sweet angel,

I wanted to thank you for being so incredibly patient and kind with me. I know I made your transition to Chicago difficult with my harsh comments and biting anger. For years, I used that as a wall to keep people away. I didn’t want to get hurt, but I hurt you when I should have been more compassionate.

I will forever be sorry for that. I hope you know that.

You are one of the most kind, gentle and loving people I’ve ever known. You showed me that I didn’t need to be that dark, nasty asshole anymore. I’m a long way from being ‘better’ but what I feel for you is more than I’d felt for anyone.

It scares the shit out of me.

You are a friend, a girlfriend, a confidante, an angel … an absolute angel. My angel …

I’m so happy that I can spend the holiday with you. I’m eager to kiss you underneath the mistletoe … maybe more?

Merry Christmas, Angel. Hopefully, it’s the first of many.

Love, Your Grinch

I hugged the card to my chest, trying not to cry. Alice smiled at me, giving me a hug before leaving me in the office. I took a few deep breaths, tucking the card back into its envelope. Next to the gift from Edward and MAC, I saw my final Secret Santa gift. It was a ‘snow day survival’ kit. My Secret Santa was Sue and she wished me a safe and happy holiday.

“Knock, knock.”

I blinked up and saw Edward. “The card was beautiful,” I smiled.

“I’m sorry about the ‘form letter’ on the inside. I just couldn’t not tell you how I felt,” he said, sitting down at Jasper’s station. “How’s Sam?”

“He was curled up underneath the Christmas tree when Katie and I left. Katie giggled and said that he was acting like a present,” I snickered.

“Where is Katie this morning?” Edward asked.

“Hanging out with Senna and Tia while I’m here. Daycare’s closed,” I explained. Edward smiled at me, taking my hand. He tugged on it and I stood up. “Edward …”

“There’s breakfast in the cafeteria,” he said. “I arranged for it to be catered. Come on, angel.” He threaded his fingers with mine. I squeezed his hand and we walked to the café. Christmas music was playing and the cafeteria workers were serving a buffet-style meal. Edward and I got our breakfast, sitting down with our friends. While we ate, plans were finalized for this afternoon and I was becoming excited for Christmas.

Rose smiled and stood up. “Everyone, can I have your attention, please?” People turned and conversations ended. “First off, I hope you are enjoying this delicious breakfast. I know that I loved the biscuits and gravy. Thank you, Edward, for arranging this for us.”

Edward blushed and ducked his head.

“This wasn’t originally planned, was it?” I asked him quietly.

“I wanted to give something more to everyone here," he answered. “So, yes, this was all me. Not MAC. Me.”

“Thank you for doing this, Edward,” I grinned.

“As a thank you for all you’ve done, especially recently, this is from all of us at MAC,” Rose said. She handed Edward an envelope. “It’s been a while since you’ve been on vacation.”

“You got me a vacation?” Edward asked, arching a brow.

“Not quite,” Rose chuckled. “It’s a gift card, but you can use it toward a vacation. Merry Christmas, Edward, from everyone at MAC.” She handed Edward the envelope and Edward surprised her by hugging her.

“Speech!” Emmett yelled, holding up his coffee mug.

Edward snorted, turning around. “I won’t say much. Just that I hope you have a safe and happy holiday with your families. I do not want anyone to think about work until after the first of the year. Now, after you’ve finished your breakfast you are free to go be with your families. I’ll see you in the new year. Merry Christmas!”

“Look at you,” Rose smirked as people picked up their plates and garbage. “Being all magnanimous.”

“I think I might make it optional for people to come in on Christmas Eve,” Edward shrugged. “I still have a handful of things to finish and then I’ll head over to Bella’s.” I stayed until everyone was gone and I helped Edward carry the leftovers into the kitchen. “You don’t have to do this, angel.”

“I wanted to,” I smiled. “What are you going to do with all the leftovers?”

“Donate the leftovers to a local church,” he answered. “Do you want to come with me? Did you bring your car?”

“I did bring my car. But, we could drop of the leftovers and then come back?” I shrugged. I stepped closer and captured his face. I crossed the professional line and I kissed him. He held me, returning my kiss and tangling his fingers into my hair. I nibbled on his lip and he slid his tongue into my mouth. We kissed until we were both breathless. “My apologies,” I panted.

“Don’t be,” he said, grinning crookedly. “I know we can’t do this every day, but kissing you is better than a dream.” He dropped a sweet kiss before, walking back out to the cafeteria. “The sooner we finish this task, the sooner we can be at your place and we can share more than kisses.”

I arched a brow with a coy, little smile. “I can’t wait, Edward.”

It took us an hour to load up the leftover breakfast food into Edward’s Tesla. We drove to a nearby church, delivering the food. The pastor was grateful and wished us a very Merry Christmas. After that, Edward drove us back to the office. He still had some things to wrap up, but I decided to go. I picked up Katie from Senna’s, giving her a tin of cookies as a thank you for watching my sister and for her friendship.

When we got back to the house, Katie changed into her Christmas Eve outfit, a red plaid dress with a pair of black leggings. On top, she wore a fuzzy vest. I took out Sam and gave him a treat before I changed. I put on a dark green sweater dress that hit mid-thigh. I also added a pair of black leggings and a pair of black booties. I worked on dressing the turkey.

“Helloooo!” sang Alice.

“In the kitchen,” I called out.

“Hi, Miss Alice!” Katie chirped from her perch on the stool. “Hi, Mr. Jasper. Merry Christmas!”

“You’re early,” I said.

“With our fearless leader granting us freedom, I figured you’d need help. Where do you want this broccoli cheese casserole?” Alice asked.

“I also have fixings for a charcuterie board,” Jasper said, holding up a bag.

“The casserole can go into the fridge and do you need anything to set up the appetizers, Jas?” I asked.

“A knife,” he replied. “But, I need to go out to the car and get the white elephant gifts.” He hugged me and kissed Alice’s cheek. With a ruffle to Katie’s hair, he ducked out.

“What can I do?” Alice asked.

“Can you light the candles around the house?” I requested. I handed her a flame thrower. “Katie, show Miss Alice where all the candles are on the main floor?”

“Kay,” Katie nodded. “I like your outfit, Miss Alice.”

“I love yours, Katie,” Alice cooed, taking Katie’s hand. Alice was wearing a cream-colored sweater, a maroon suede skirt and a pair of knee-high boots. “I’m digging the fuzzy vest. So adorbs!”

When Jasper came back, Edward was with him. He had a tub filled with his contribution to the meal and the White Elephant gift exchange. He hung up his coat in the closet, walking to me and hugging me close. His lips found the soft spot behind my ear, nuzzling me. I shivered, gripping his red sweater.

“You two are so sweet,” Alice cooed.

We jumped apart. I blushed, hiding my face in his arm. He chuckled, kissing my forehead. “We do try, Alice.”

“You need a bell or something,” I snorted. “Are the candles lit?”

“Yep and the Christmas trees are turned on. Katie is trying to finagle the television set so we could have some music. Where are we eating?”

“Dining room,” I said. “I do need to set the table. I was going to do to that before everyone arrived.”

“Edward and I will do it,” Alice smiled.

“The plates are on the buffet,” I explained. “Along with goblets, silverware …”

Edward wrapped his arm around my waist, nipping at my ear. “We’ve got it, angel. Thank you.” He cupped my chin and kissed my lips three times, smiling at me sweetly. He walked into the dining room and Jasper and I worked on the appetizers for the party. I also put in the turkey and prepared the beef tenderloin.

“Rose and Emmett are on their way,” Alice said, holding up her phone. “Cynthia is also coming with the girls. Neil has a ‘migraine’ and is staying at home.”

“What about Quil and Embry?” I asked. “I invited them. Embry said that they were coming.”

“I don’t have anything, but he may have texted you,” Alice answered. “You’re closer to Embry than I am.”

I checked my phone, seeing a brief message from Embry. I’d overheard him talking to Maggie and Sue about how he wasn’t going to spend Christmas with anyone but Quil. Embry’s family did not approve his lifestyle. They loved him but they said for him to leave his boyfriend at home. Embry didn’t want to do that since Quil didn’t have any living relatives. So, I invited them for Christmas Eve.

By four, everyone was at my brownstone. Music was playing and the sounds of laughter, conversation and squeals filled the house. Addy, Kamryn and Katie were playing in her room while the adults were drinking some wine or mixed drinks. I was checking on the turkey, happy with its progress.

“Hey, Bella?”

I looked up and saw Rose. Our friendship had been a bit rocky since that ‘girl’s night’. “Hey, Rose. Do you need anything to drink?”

“I’m good,” she answered, holding up her filled glass of white wine. “I just wanted to talk. I know that things have been …” She walked over to me, swiping a piece of cheese from the tray on the counter. “I’m sorry for how I acted that night. When I see you with Edward, I see something so special. I’ve worked with him since he started at MAC. He always had walls, but with you, they’re gone. I hope that, in time, you’ll be able to talk to me and forgive me for my unthinking words.”

“I have forgiven you, Rose,” I said. “I’m sorry for being distant. With my new position at MAC, Katie and everything else, I haven’t had a chance to really talk to you.”

“How about we go out for drinks or shop the after-holiday sales?” Rose suggested.

“I’d like that,” I smiled.

Rose walked over to me and hugged me. “Now, do you need any help? I can’t do much. I’m not a cook. I leave that to Emmett. I order out and drink like a pro.”

“If you could bring the broccoli casserole into the dining room? We’re almost ready to eat. I just need to cut the beef tenderloin and arrange it on the platter,” I said. Rose nodded, picking up the casserole dish and carrying it into the dining room.

A half hour later, Edward helped me carry in the meal. Everyone was seated, leaving two seats available. One was at the head of the table and the other was to the right of the head. I went to sit there, but Edward guided me to the head of the table. “Your home, your family,” he whispered, squeezing my fingers.

I sat down, blushing furiously. I shook the napkin onto my lap.

“I’d like to propose a toast,” Alice said, holding up her wine glass. “To Bella … for hosting this wonderful meal and welcoming us into her home. We’re so lucky to have you in our lives, Bells. Merry Christmas!”

“To Bella,” everyone echoed.

“One more toast,” Edward said quietly, but with confidence. “To family … blood does not bind us, but relationships do. I never realized how much I missed. Thank you to Bella for enfolding me into her family and for all of you forgiving me and … giving me a chance.” He cupped my cheek and kissed me before tapping his wine glass with mine. “Now, I don’t know about you, this looks and smells delicious.”

“Everyone dig in,” I said. I turned to Katie, who was sitting next to me. “What do you want, Kit Kat? Beef or turkey?”

“Turkey, with stuffing and the cheesy potatoes,” she chirped.

“You need to eat one veggie, Katie,” I snickered. “Do you want broccoli, which is covered in cheese, or asparagus?”

“Broccoli,” she answered, her nose wrinkled.

“You won’t even taste the broccoli, Little One,” Edward said, taking her plate and scooping a small portion of the broccoli casserole onto it.

“What did you bring, Edward?” she asked. He chuckled and pointed the stuffing. “Was it the same stuffing you made at our house?”

“Same recipe, Katie,” he answered.

“Oh, goodie! It tasted good,” she grinned as I put her plate in front of her. “Thank you, Bella. I love you!”

“I love you, too, Kit Kat,” I said, brushing her hair back.

Dinner was delicious and the emptiness I expected to feel was absent from my chest. I took a moment, staring at my new family. I had the sisters I never realized I needed with Rose and Alice. Cynthia was a goofy cousin, laughing and making jokes. Emmett and Jasper were like big brothers, protective and loving. Embry was a connection to my past, with his Quileute heritage and his boyfriend an awesome addition.

The biggest surprise was Edward. He’d become my partner in so many ways. Gone was the closed-off, angry man. He was laughing, smiling and so affectionate. He must have noticed my stare. He took my hand, kissing my knuckles and giving me one of his deliciously crooked grins. A tear fell down my cheek and his smile faltered. Reaching over, he brushed it away. “Are you okay, angel?”

“Just thinking about how blessed I am,” I sniffled. He stood up and tugged on my hand, sliding his arm around my waist.

“Everything okay?” Emmett asked.

“Just getting more gravy and wine,” Edward fibbed, guiding me out of the dining room. Once we were in the kitchen, he pulled me into his arms. A quiet sob was muffled against his chest. He didn’t say anything. He just held me, gently swaying in the kitchen. I eventually calmed down. “It’s okay to feel this way, angel. I may not remember my birth parents, but there’s an emptiness inside.”

“Thank you for getting me out of there. I didn’t want to put a damper on Christmas Eve,” I said, tracing the pattern on his chest. “I am blessed to have such a close group of friend, adoptive family. It’ll just take time for me to … get over this.”

“Losing your parents is not something you get over, Bella, but we’re here for you. I’m here for you,” he whispered, wiping my tears away.

“Kiss me?” I asked.

He nodded, brushing his mouth over mine three times before hugging me again. I snuggled against him and took a few calming breaths. “Better?” he asked. I nodded. He kissed my forehead, picking up another bottle of wine and filling another gravy boat with some bearnaise sauce for the beef tenderloin. He handed me the wine and he took the gravy, threading our fingers together.

Dinner continued as if we hadn’t left and I did feel better, allowing myself a few moments of grief. Now? I had a holiday to celebrate.

After we finished eating, Edward, Embry and Jasper pushed me out of the kitchen so they could dishes. Katie, Alice and I took Sam for a quick walk, bundled up against the winter weather. It was snowing, making the neighborhood look magical. “You seemed a little weepy earlier, Bells,” Alice said as we wandered along the sidewalk.

“I’m better now. Edward gave me a few moments to cry it out,” I shrugged.

“Bella, Sammy’s pooping!” Katie chirped.

“Thanks for letting me know,” I snorted, taking out a plastic bag to pick up his mess. “Life could have turned out so differently, Alice. Those first few months? I was a zombie and the only thing that kept me sane was taking care of my sister. But, with you, Rose, Edward … I’m feeling like I’ve got my footing. I just missed my parents. I needed a moment away and Edward recognized that.”

“God, the way he looks at you,” Alice said as we cleaned up after Sam. “He loves you, Bells.”

“He hasn’t said it,” I murmured.

“Actions speak louder than words, Bella,” Alice smiled, looping her arm through mine. “You look at him the same way. Do you love him?”

I didn’t answer her verbally. I shrugged nonchalantly. I did love him, but the first person who should hear it was Edward, not Alice. “I’m freezing. I think Sam is good. Katie? Come on, let’s go inside. We need to set up for the White Elephant gift exchange.”

“Kay,” she said, gently tugging Sam back to the house.

“Bella, I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable,” Alice said.

“You didn’t,” I smiled. “It’s just that my relationship with Edward is for us … how I feel, I should tell him first.”

“Agreed,” Alice nodded.

Walking back to the house, Emmett and Quil helped take our coats. We settled onto the couch, chatting about the gift exchange. Edward came out ten minutes later, carrying two cups of coffee. He sat down on the overstuffed chair and he pulled me onto his lap. He nuzzled my neck. “You smell like a fire, angel,” he purred.

“A lot of my neighbors have their fireplaces going. I don’t trust it, hence the candelabra in the fireplace,” I said, snuggling in his arms. I sipped my coffee. “Thank you for the coffee.”

“You feel better?” he asked.

I nodded, kissing his lips.

“Miss Bella, are we going to do the gift exchange?” asked Addy. She was sitting on the floor, petting Sam.

“We are,” I grinned. “Give me a second. Edward, can you put the gifts on the cocktail table?”

“Sure, angel,” he replied.

“I’ll help you, Edward,” Alice said.

I walked into the kitchen, grabbing the Christmas bowl with the numbers inside. I made sure I had the correct amount before walking back into the living room. Edward pulled me back onto his lap. “You’re awfully cuddly, Grinch.”

“Just showing you how much heart has grown,” he smirked. He pressed his lips to my ear, whispering, “for you.”

I melted against him, my heart just exploding at his sweetness. I held up the bowl and explained the rules. “In this bowl, there’s a number for everyone here. That tells us the order of who’s choosing the gifts.”

“So, if we get the number one, we go first?” Embry asked, leaning against Quil’s legs.

“Not necessarily,” I quipped. “I’ll tell you who will start once we get our numbers. Anyway, you have a choice as to what you want to do when it’s your turn. You can pick a gift from the pile, open it and it’s yours, for the time being. You can also steal a gift from another person and they open a gift from the pile.”

“Can you steal from someone and then the other person steal?” Kamryn asked.

“If your present is stolen, you only get to choose from the pile,” I said. “We used to do this when I lived with roommates in college. We did the steal and steal again and the game ended up a hot mess. So, the only option if you choose to steal a person’s gift is that you choose from the pile.”

“These gifts are all kid appropriate, right?” Cynthia asked, a brow arched.

“Nothing X-rated,” I chuckled. “So, take a number and when everyone is done, I’ll tell you who will start the game. We’ll either go from one to twelve or twelve to one.”

“Let’s this party started,” Emmett grinned, taking the bowl from my hands and picking a number.

The bowl went around and ended back in my hands. I held it for Edward, who took the final two pieces of paper. I put the bowl on the table, taking one of the pieces of paper from his fingers. He opened his, showing me his number. “Three, baby,” I said.

“What’s yours?” he asked.

I opened mine and grinned. “Eleven. What starts? One or twelve?”

“One. Let’s keep it easy for the kids,” Edward said, sliding his arms around my waist. I snuggled him and told everyone who was starting. Rose was number one and she plucked a gift off the table.

The game lasted an hour and the gifts that were brought were hysterical. One of the most sought after gifts was a One Direction cell phone case, complete with glitter and a pop socket. Embry ended up with that. Katie actually got something that she liked, with a set of purple earbuds. Edward’s original gift that he picked was a travel pillow, but it had been stolen from him. When the game was done, he had a makeup kit with glitter nail polish and bright pink lipstick. I tried to steal the travel pillow back, but Jasper, who was last, stole it back and I got stuck with a pair of slipper socks.

Cynthia left after that, needing to drive back out to the suburbs. Alice and Jasper left with her since they were spending their Christmas Day with Cynthia and Alice’s parents. After they departed, I had to drag Katie up to her room to put her asleep. “But, Bella, I want to see if Santa comes,” she whined.

“Santa won’t come if you’re awake, Kit Kat,” I said, tucking her into bed. I sat down next to her and chuckled when Sam hopped up by her feet. “Did you have a good Christmas Eve?”

“Yeah, it was nice to see Addy and Kamryn. Plus, Edward gave me his gift from the elephant thing.”

I smiled “I don’t think glitter is his thing, Kit Kat.”

“Do you think Mommy and Daddy are celebrating Christmas in heaven?” she asked.

“I do, Katie. They’re smiling down on you, missing you so much,” I whispered. I kissed her forehead. “I love you, Kit Kat.”

“Love you, too, Bella,” she said, hugging her stuffed animals to her chest.

I got up, turning off her lights, but leaving the small tree on as a night light. I went downstairs and sat down on the chair that I’d shared with Edward. He was noticeably absent, along with Emmett. “Where did Edward and Emmett go?”

“He said he was grabbing the ‘Santa’ presents you left for Katie from his car. Emmett went with him,” Rose answered. “He’ll be right back.”

“That man is over the moon for you,” Quil sang. “I’d probably be pregnant with the googly eyes he’s made at you if I had ovaries or a uterus.”

I snorted, sipping my coffee. “Edward is definitely something amazing. I can’t remember being in a relationship like this. My exes in high school and college? I was just … I don’t know … there, for occasional sex and movie date nights.”

“Those guys were obviously losers,” Embry said, threading his fingers with Quil’s. He kissed his boyfriend’s lips. “When you have something special? You nurture it.”

“Amen, baby,” Quil smiled. “Want to nurture each other?”

“Not in front of my tree,” I snorted.

“Nah, we’ll do it in front of our tree,” Quil grinned, waggling his brows.

“Not yet. It’s nice to just hang out,” Embry said.

The door opened and Edward and Emmett came inside. Their hair was covered in snow. “Holy fuck nuggets, it’s really coming down out there,” Emmett said, putting the bicycle I’d purchased in front of the tree.

“At least it’ll be a white Christmas. We’ve had so many ‘green’ and ‘brown’ Christmases lately,” Rose said.

“Warm me up, Rosie,” Emmett said, putting his hands under her sweater. She gasped, smacking his hands away.

Edward laughed as he practically lifted me from the chair and draping me over his lap. “Maybe your nickname should be ‘Snugglebug,’” I teased.

“I’ll take Grinch,” he said, rolling his eyes. “That’s, at least, masculine. Snugglebug?” His hand slid under my sweater and they were frozen solid. I squeaked in surprise while he snickered.

Rose, Emmett, Embry and Quil stayed for another hour, waiting for the snow to let up. They told us about their plans for Christmas Day. Rose and Emmett were going to church and then spending the day with Rose’s family. The following day, they would go visit Emmett’s family for their Christmas celebration. Quil and Embry said that they’d hang out with a few of their friends from their apartment building, having a similar gathering to what we had today.

Once our friends left, Edward and I cleaned up before turning off all the lights, except the Christmas tree. We curled up on the couch. “This is the best Christmas I can remember ever having, Bella,” he whispered.

“It was pretty magical,” I said. “Thank you for bringing over the presents for Katie over from your condo.”

“My pleasure,” Edward said, holding me closer to his chest. “I do want to give you one of your presents tonight, angel. Something for just you and me … no audience.” He took out a gift bag, handing it to me. “Merry Christmas, angel.”

I opened the bag and pulled out a mahogany box. Arching a brow, I gasped when I saw a gorgeous sapphire pendant laying on a white satin pillow. “Edward …”

“It’s your birthstone,” he murmured. “We weren’t really copacetic at that point in time, but I saw this and I wanted to buy this for you. If you don’t like it, we can …”

“No! It’s beautiful,” I breathed. “Can you put it on me?”

He nodded. I took the pendant out and twisted my hair up. Edward clipped it, kissing my neck and tugging me to his body. “I wanted to give you this … just the two of us.”

“Having this moment? It’s a good idea,” I agreed. “Don’t move.” I hopped up and found the gift I wanted to give to him. I walked back to the couch, handing him the box. “Merry Christmas, Edward.”

His eyes lit up, making him look so much younger. He tore into the gift and saw a beautiful watch. “Oh, Bella, this is exquisite. My old watch died recently and … I’ve been relying on my phone … this is so much more elegant.”

“I had it engraved,” I whispered.

He took it out and slipped off the satin pillow. On the underside of the watch, I added the engraving: My love for you is timeless … Bella. His eyes widened and he looked at me. I took the watch, sliding it onto his right wrist since Edward was left-handed. “I know that … you may not be ready to say this, and that’s okay, but I can’t not hold it back anymore. I love you, Edward.”

He stared at me, reaching up and tracing my features. His eyes were brimming with tears, but he blinked them away. “I’ve heard people say those words and I never understood them,” he said quietly. “You’re also right in saying that I’m not ready to say them, but I’m starting to understand so much.” He took my hand and pressed it to his heart. “This beats for you, Bella. You’ve broken through the walls around my heart and I’m no longer the shell of a man. I may not be able to say it, but I’m starting realize that I’m capable of … being loved and loving someone else.”

“You are so loveable, Edward. Once you get past the gruff, Grinchy exterior,” I said.

“I may not be able to say the words, but I want to show you how much …” he trailed off. He looked at me and his eyes were swirling with love. Love for me. Without saying a word, I stood up and took his hand. Together, we went upstairs to show how much we loved each other.

A/N: This took me FOREVER to write. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It took me a week, but I was so scattered. Anyhow, up next will be a juicy little kumquat through Edward’s eyes. Bella, however, did say that she loved him. When will our Grinchward drop the ILY?

Pictures from this chapter are on my blog … we’ve got Bella’s Secret Santa goodies, Edward’s Secret Santa goodies, pictures of the cookies (no recipes, sorry), decorations and pictures of their private gift exchange. You can also find me on FB: Tufano79’s Twilight Fanfiction Appreciation. I’m on twitter, too: tufano79.

Up next will be the juicy kumquat, Christmas Day with gifts from ‘Santa’, spending the day with Carlisle and Esme and Katie’s birthday party (maybe). Leave me some loving!

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