“I’ll be back in a few hours,” Charlie said to me as I grabbed the cases of rum from the bed of the truck. “I just need to pick up some things at home and then take care of some paperwork.”
“That’s okay. I can handle it,” I replied, lying through my teeth. No way in hell could I handle what waited for me inside the bar. Bella was the most stubborn woman in the world – she was her mother’s daughter, after all – and she insisted on working no matter what I said. We’d been arguing about it before Charlie had yanked me out of there with the rum excuse. And now I was going back in. I wondered if I could get away with duct taping her to a chair.
I picked up the cases – damn heavy things, too – and went down the stairs to the bar. About half way down I had to put them down and give my arms a break. I was clearly getting out of shape. Maybe I should start lifting weights. Or just wait for BC to come out so I could lug him around. I smiled to myself. I couldn’t wait for him to get there.
I bent down to pick up the cases again when I heard Sue’s voice through the door that was ajar.
“Edward, despite the lies and crap you tried to spoon feed him as a child, is a wonderful man. He’s someone whom I’m proud to call son-in-law and son. He’s my boy now, so you can skip your pathetic, pompous ass out of here and know that he’ll be taken care of. And if you ever darken our doorstep again, I’ll shove my foot so far up your ass, it’ll come out of your mouth. I don’t take too kindly to worthless parents. If you have any doubts about that, go pay a visit to Mrs. McCarty over on
street. She’ll tell you all about me and my
opinion of how she raised her own son. Now, get the fuck out of here.”
My dad was back? Couldn’t he take a damn hint? The way he’d been bulldozed last time couldn’t have been done more thoroughly than if he’d been hit in the head by a stray satellite from space. But it wasn’t my dad who came out through the door. It was my mom and my sister. I didn’t know who was more surprised to see who, but my mom seemed to recover first.
“Lugging liquor around? Really, Edward? That’s the best you could find?”
Luckily, I recovered, too. “Sure beats being a housewife weighed down by double standards.”
Her eyes widened. “I’m your mother – do not speak to me that way!”
“Actually, I have a mom, thank you very much. And since she’s so much more awesome than you ever were, your services are no longer required. Thanks, though. The motherly love is simply smothering me.” I looked her in the eye. “Besides, you can take a man out of the Army, but you can’t truly take the Army out of the man. And since you didn’t want the soldier, you can’t have the man.”
Her shocked gasp only made me roll my eyes. I didn’t understand what had made them take interest in me again after years of indifference. In their eyes, I was still the one who had made mistakes, and that alone told me that I’d never have a relationship with them that made me anything but frustrated and angry. So I would rather have none at all, because at this point in my life, that was what suited me. They’d made their choices, and I made mine.
“Well, then. You’ve made your bed, so now you’ll just have to lie in it.” Nose in the air and distaste coloring her words, the woman who’d given birth to me turned her back to me and climbed the stairs.
an exasperated look. She was the only
one left who hadn’t had a go at me, and she was never one to miss out on the
“Heidi and her husband got divorced earlier this year,” she said after a moment. It wasn’t what I’d expected, nor did I care as I hadn’t seen or talked to my shallow and incredibly unimportant ex-girlfriend since I’d been in fucking high school. “She asked about you when I met her last week.”
“Fascinating,” I deadpanned. “We haven’t talked in years, and the first thing you say to me is about my ex-girlfriend? Have you been that bored since high school?”
Huffing, she glared at me, and I suddenly recognized my sister again. “I’m just saying that she’d probably take you back. You know, if you came back home… and got a job.”
“I’ve got a job, thanks. A wife, too. So I’m all set,” I told her, not even bothering with the sarcasm as I knew it would fly right by her anyway. “Come to think of it, I’ve kind of got a sister, as well, so why don’t you go away,
? I’ve been doing great since high
school without you, so why ruin it now, huh?” Alice
“Well, you’ve got it all then, haven’t you?” she asked with an unattractive sneer.
“And then some,” James said, sauntering down the stairs. He almost made me laugh when he looked
over and wrinkled
his nose. “You’re the dudette on speed. I’ve heard stories about you, and they
weren’t nice.” Alice
told me. Alice
“What? You think I waste my time talking about you?” I asked. “Hell no.”
“You annoyed the wrong woman, speedy. I’m surprised she didn’t flatten your ass…oh, wait. She did!” James said, looking behind
as if looking at her ass. “Or maybe you were born that way. Poor girl, getting
all the bad genes while your brother got the good ones. Fate’s a bitch, huh?” Alice
“Whatever! Stay here in your pathetic little town, Edward, with your pathetic little friends and your so-called family. See if I care!” She stomped up the stairs.
!” I called out. Alice
“Those shoes are so last season, by the way!” James added as a final salute.
We looked at each other and burst out laughing. “Butter balls, you must have been an evil son of a bitch in a past life to deserve a family like that.”
“Tell me about it. Good thing you can get an upgrade.”
He nodded. “Amen and thank you, little adorable baby Jesus. There was a woman up in the parking lot with the same color hair as you and looking like she’d swallowed a gallon of acid. Mommy dearest?”
I nodded and picked up the cases again. “That’s the title she started out with, yeah.”
“Someone should tell her that pastels don’t do her complexion any favors,” he said. “Need me to take one of those cases or can I just watch your bulging muscles?”
I laughed. “Fuck off.”
Following a snickering James down to the bar, I thought back to what I’d heard Sue say. Her words had touched me deeply. He’s my boy now. And yeah, I was. For the first time in my life, I was a momma’s boy, and that only a few months before I became a parent myself. Life was just a barrel of laughs.
I was pleased to see Bella sitting down when I came into the bar. I went to put the rum out back, and when I came back, she was laughing at James and Sue dancing a dramatic tango, although Sue was having a hard time staying in character.
Going over to stand behind Bella, I slid my arms around her and kissed her neck. My hands were resting on her stomach, and the brightest boy in the whole world gave a little kick to say hi. At least that’s what I told myself. “Hey, you. Since when is this an establishment with dancing?”
She turned her head and got a proper kiss. “James came in, wanting to dance with the prettiest girl in the room. And that was my mom, he claimed.”
I pretended to consider it. “Sue’s pretty, but no one is as pretty as you. I’d ask you to dance if it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve been trying to get you off your feet for months now.”
Bella giggle-snorted. “You’re a dork.”
I shrugged. “Maybe, but you’re still stuck with me.”
A customer who had braved a trip past the tango couple to get a drink needed my attention, and when I turned back to Bella afterward, her smile had disappeared. “Your mom and sister were here.”
“I know. I met them outside,” I replied. “Were they nasty to you and Sue? I’m not above going to
to tell them to
go to hell.” Seattle
“Well…” She hesitated. “Clearly, all the Cullen charm was passed to you, but they were more pathetic than anything, really. What did they want?”
“Besides behave like idiots? No clue. They’ve got this idea that I’m the one who’s made all the mistakes, and until they stop seeing things that way, I just can’t have them in my life.” I paused to give her a smile. “I wish I could give BC an aunt and a decent set of grandparents, but he’s honestly better off without them. We all are.”
She muttered something about kicking their asses as soon as BC stopped slowing her down. I kissed the top of her head and started doing what I got paid for. While I worked, I kept an eye on Bella to make sure that she stayed on her stool. She was being a good girl and only left it to take bathroom breaks. The rest of the time she worked the beer taps and ordered James and me around for the liquor. Charlie had come by, but only long enough to pick up Sue and use her as shield when he saw Renee approaching.
Mike and Jessica stopped by for a while, and while Jessica took up Bella’s attention, Mike thought it was funny to razz James and I about what was now known locally as Bella’s Revenge. James often scowled at the photographic evidence decorating the bar, but while I had been mildly – ahem – embarrassed when it had taken place, pride had kind of taken over by then. Bella was truly Jake’s sister, and even if I hadn’t been the – well-deserved – punch line, something that was so beautifully planned out had my greatest respect. Hell. My wife was fucking awesome.
The following morning, I was woken up by the doorbell. Had I been awake enough for my brain to work, I would probably not have opened. But I wasn’t. So I opened the door and unsuspectingly unleashed the terror of James on poor, sleeping Bella. I could only hope she’d have mercy on me.
It turned out that she did take mercy on me, and it had everything to do with the fact that I made breakfast and sat through a Supernatural marathon with her and James. All the time and effort I’d put into avoiding the damn Tom Cruise marathon, and then I face-planted directly into demons, ghosts, and freaking angels in trench coats. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, I had to suffer through a running commentary about how hot the hunter dudes in the cool car were.
“Jensen Ackles is fucking sexy,” James declared, eyes glued to the screen while he stuffed his face with the popcorn he’d insisted went with a DVD marathon – breakfast time or not.
“Hell yeah,” Bella agreed. Her eyes were glued to the screen, too, and she didn’t even notice the look I sent her.
“What the hell kind of name is Jensen Ackles anyway?” I grumbled. The guy was not sexy. The car was, but that was it. Well, and maybe the blonde with the mother and… I sighed. I had no freaking clue what was going on. Demons, angels, the Shackles dude, and zombies were all fighting each other. There were good angels and bad angels, and once in a while even a nice demon. How was a guy supposed to keep track?
James spared me a glance, and it wasn’t a very nice one. “It’s a perfectly fine name, Edward Anthony Cullen.”
I rolled my eyes and secretly texted Charlie to help me. Fortunately, my father-in-law knew how to read text messages even if he couldn’t send them, and a few minutes later he called me, giving me an excuse to claim that I had to go to work early because he needed my help with something. I loved Charlie.
In my haste, I almost tripped down the stairs to get as far away from Shackles and the trench coat-wearing angels as possible. Charlie was cleaning the shelves behind the bar, and I readily pitched in.
“So, what exactly was the nightmare that I just saved your ass from?” he asked.
I sighed. “Bella and James are moaning over an actor in a TV show full of ghosts and flannel and stuff. His name is Shackles Jensen or something. The only thing that made sense to me was the ‘67 Chevy Impala. Well, and the music. It was none of that pop shit. I had to get out of there before I went completely crazy, though. I think there was a guy called Missy, as well.”
“Shackles and Missy? Really? Their parents must have been trying to send their kids a message,” he commented. “But it’s my gain. You can start stocking up the shelves while I clean the last of them down at the end.”
“Yes, sir. And thank you for the save.”
He chuckled. “Married men have to stick together.”
When all the shelves were clean and restocked, Charlie left to go tend to the diner. It was still early, but I preferred opening instead of having to go upstairs. So I grabbed a couple of sandwiches from the diner, unlocked the door, and lit the sign indicating that we were open.
Like moths to a flame, it didn’t take long before some of the usual suspects showed up and sat down in their booths. I was playing Tetris on my cell phone when the phone in the office rang. If I was honest with myself, I didn’t even know that there was a phone, because I’d never heard it ring before. Making sure none of the patrons needed me, I went in to answer it.
“Hello? I mean, this is Downstairs.” God, I was a moron and shouldn’t be allowed around phones.
“I need to speak with James Lawrence. It’s urgent,” a woman said without saying hello or introducing herself.
“He’s not here at the moment,” I replied, resigning myself to being James’ PA for a moment. “Can I take a message or maybe you’d like to call back in a couple of hours when he’s h-”
“Tell him his dad died.”
The call ended, and I stared at the phone. What the hell? Who delivered a message that someone had died like that? And shit. Now I was supposed to tell James that his dad was dead. His asshole dad, but still. Crap.
I was lost in my own thoughts when I went back out to the bar. There were a couple of customers waiting, and I served them while trying to put together the right words in my mind. I’d dealt with telling people that someone they knew had died when I was in the Army. I’d never dealt with the families directly, only written letters to them from overseas, but I’d delivered my share of bad news to fellow soldiers. It just felt like forever ago.
I was busy mixing rum with the bare minimums of Coke for Renee when James came in, whistling. He’d changed into a t-shirt with a picture of the Shackles guy and was rubbing his stomach where the picture was. I was happy to see Bella enter a few seconds later, because I had no idea how James was going to react. She was a million times better than me at dealing with him.
“James, can I see you in the office for a moment?” I asked, trying to ignore the constant Shackles rubbing he had going on.
“Seriously, lover boy. I know you want me, but your wife is right there. You could at least be less obvious when you invite me out back for a quick romp,” he replied. “Also. Finally! Took you long enough to see the light.”
“Please,” I said. “Cut the crap and just go into the office. It’s important.”
“Well, of course it’s important. It’s only the most important moment of my lif-”
He snickered. “Coming!”
I sighed and didn’t have it in me to return Bella’s amused smile. I reached out to squeeze her hand as I passed her. “Can you come with us for a minute? The customers will wait.”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Bad news for James,” I whispered, determined to tell James before anyone else. “He might need a friend.”
Her eyes widened, and I knew she wanted to ask more questions, but I just shook my head and pulled her with me into the office.
“We’re gonna have an audience? Why, Indian Princess, I didn’t know you were into that kind of thing.”
“James, please stop with the jokes. I have something serious I need to tell you,” I said, trying not to fidget. “Can you sit down or something?”
He seemed to realize that I meant business, because he sat down and looked at me expectantly. “I swear to God, if you tell me you have cancer or something, I’ll get fucking hysterical. I’m not joking,” he warned.
I sighed. “I don’t have cancer. There was a phone call just before you came down here. Some woman who never introduced herself asked for you. When I told her that you weren’t here, she gave me a message to give you.”
“I ain’t the daddy of her baby no matter what she says!” he blurted out. “There are some places my disco stick will never go, and a vagina is one of those places.”
I wanted to hit him but took pity on him because he was about to deal with some really bad news. “James, I’m fucking sorry to have to tell you this, but your dad died.”
He gave me an empty look. “What? Why? I mean…how? What?”
Bella pulled out a chair and sat down next to him, holding his hand. He didn’t look like he even registered her.
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “I don’t know. She just hung up before I could ask any questions.”
“Hm.” The look in his eyes was completely empty, and he shrugged off Bella when she told him how sorry she was. “I’ve got to get back to work.”
Bella tried to stop him when he stood up. “That’s not necessary. Edward and I can handle it. James? James, listen to me. Just go upstairs and take it easy for a while.”
“No, no. I have to work,” he insisted. “Thirsty people and all that. I’m fine.”
Bella looked pleadingly at me, and I blocked the door before he could leave the office. “So, you’re fine. Good for you. But you just got the night off – take advantage of it, man. Get a drink and sit down. We’re here if you want to talk or need anything, okay? James, are you listening to me?”
He nodded absently. “I have to make drinks.”
“Hang on, I’m getting Mom. Keep him in here,” Bella said.
When she’d left, I managed to convince him to sit down. I looked out of the door and saw a couple of customers waiting. Signaling them that I’d just be a minute, I stayed in the office. James’ reaction was scaring me. I knew his dad had been a real asshole, but it was like James was in shock – completely detached.
“I think you talked to my mom,” he said, suddenly. “I called her once, hoping that maybe she’d left the bastard and that we could…I don’t know. I gave her the office number because I didn’t want her to have my cell phone number.”
“Maybe…” I hesitated, not sure I knew what I was even saying. What would I have done if I’d been in his situation? “Maybe you should call her back?”
“I need to get to work,” he said, standing up. “Papa Swan wouldn’t like me slacking off.”
“Papa Swan doesn’t rule the world,” Sue said sternly as she marched through the door. James didn’t resist when she gathered him in a hug. She looked over at me over his shoulder. “Go on, son. We’ll just be a minute.”
I nodded, grateful that she knew what to say and do. Closing the door behind me, I went out to help Bella with the customers. It was still early, but a bus with tourists had just gotten into town from
so there was plenty to do. It didn’t bother me to have something else to think
about, even if it stayed busy all night. Bella gave in after a couple of hours
and planted herself on a stool from which she took care of the beer orders. The
rest fell to me, as Sue had managed to talk James into coming home with her and
Charlie for dinner. Charlie had offered to stay, but I’d stubbornly insisted
that we were fine without him. James needed Charlie and Sue more than we did at
the bar. Port Angeles
Bella was half asleep by the time we closed. I left the clean-up for the morning and brought her upstairs. She was all groggy and adorable – not to mention not very cooperative – when I helped her change into her sleep clothes. When I’d gotten her tucked in and said goodnight to both her and BC, I went to lock up. Voices outside the front door made me take a look. I saw James’ door closing and Sue getting ready to leave.
“Hey. Is he okay?” I asked.
Sue smiled sadly. “The poor boy doesn’t know what to think. You grieve when your parents pass away, right? But what else are you supposed to feel when they’ve treated you badly? James is trying to figure that out.”
I nodded, somewhat able to relate.
“He’s been debating all night if he should go to the funeral or not,” she told me and leaned against the couch, looking ready to pass out. “One the one hand he just wants to leave it all behind, and it’s not like the dead bastard – don’t look at me like that, I’m just stating facts – deserves any respect. But on the other hand, it could mean closure for James on several levels. If he does decide to go, I’ll be going with him. No way is my boy facing that deadbeat excuse of a mother on his own. If he doesn’t like it, he’ll just have to deal with it anyway.”
“He’s lucky to have you, Sue. We all are,” I said, meaning every word. “I’ll keep an eye on him. Hell, I’ll even leave the door unlocked so he can climb in between Bella and me during the night. You look ready to hit the hay, too. Do you need a ride home?”
Sue laughed and patted my cheek. “You’re a good man, Edward. And no thanks. Charlie’s waiting in the car downstairs.”
I followed her outside and said goodnight. Back inside, I locked the door to the outside and wished I had the words to make James feel better. I was pretty sure that this confused, grieving James would make me long for his obnoxious flirty ways in no time.
I left the door to the apartment unlocked and climbed under the covers. Bella was fast asleep, but BC wasn’t and gave me a few kicks when I put my hands on Bella’s stomach. Brightest unborn kid ever.
“I promise that I won’t be a screw-up daddy like my own and like Auntie James’, little buddy,” I whispered. “I won’t be perfect, but I’ll love you more than anything and support you in whatever you want to do with your life.”
BC gave me another kick, letting me know that he’d heard me. “Sleep now, kiddo. Don’t wake Mommy with all the kicking. She needs her sleep.”
Luckily Bella didn’t wake up, and I held her close as I tried to fall asleep. I wasn’t a particularly religious man, but if I’d been the praying type, I would have folded my hands and thanked God for my family. The brightest little boy was going to come out soon, and he would be mine. My wife was so beautiful that my heart ached sometimes when I looked at her. She was everything I hadn’t known I’d been craving. I had a family. Not just my own little Cullen brood, but parents and friends close enough to be family. I wasn’t just lucky. I was blessed.
As it turned out, James did not climb into out bed during the night, but I did find him in my kitchen the following morning when I went to make breakfast. He was already dressed, although wearing his beloved fluffy, bunny slippers, and busy making pancakes. In fact, it looked like he was making pancakes for the entire town and perhaps a few of the neighboring towns, as well.
“Good morning,” he greeted me without looking up from the pan.
“Morning. How’re you doing today?” I went to grab a cup of the coffee he’d brewed and got a good look at him. The empty look in his eyes was gone, and he looked like his old self, except for the lack of…sass.
“I’m okay.” He looked up. “Really. I just…it was a shock, you know? And I didn’t really know what to feel or think. He was my father and he was a bastard, and I was torn in different directions. I stayed up all night to figure out what was what, and I’ve got it now.”
“Well, that’s good. Right?”
“Yeah, it is,” he said decidedly and expertly flipped a pancake in the air “I’m going to go to the funeral. You know why? So I can throw dirt at his coffin.”
I considered that as well as the things he’d told me in the past about how his dad had beaten him up for being gay. “That’s an excellent reason.”
“I know, right? Of course, it would have been better if he’d been alive when I threw dirt at him, but it’s better than nothing.”
We sat down to eat after I’d convinced him that he didn’t have to make anymore pancakes unless he wanted to go down on the street to hand them out to people. Bella joined us a little later and hugged James until he squealed.
“She kicked me!” He stared at Bella’s stomach. “My niece kicked me.”
And the old James was back. “Nephew,” I said, trying not to smile.
“You still haven’t gotten a second opinion, so I’m not convinced. Sit down, baby mama, and eat some pancakes. I’m sure my niece loves Auntie James’ pancakes.”
James and Sue left later that day to go to James’ father’s funeral. They’d be gone for a few days, and until then my Project Get Bella To Stop Working was temporarily suspended because she was needed at the bar. Well, that and she threatened my balls with a meat hammer. Seth worked at the diner after school to help out, and Charlie was considering hiring another bartender. Even if Bella was stubborn as hell, BC was being a good boy and slowed her down a lot. I’d even heard her give him his first scolding for that. I, on the other hand, went and bought him a stuffed giraffe as a reward.
Sue returned after two days, joining Bella, Charlie, and I while we were having lunch at the diner. “I helped James throw dirt at the coffin and told his mother what I thought of her – respectfully and all since she’d just lost her husband, of course. James ran into some friends and wanted to stay an extra few days,” she told us.
“The boy doing okay?” Charlie asked.
“I think he is,” she replied, stealing a french fry from her husband’s plate. “And I think it was a wise decision for him to attend the funeral. His no-good mother tried to guilt him into buying her a house of all things, but he handled himself beautifully. I think he’s finally free of those awful people.”
“Good for him,” Bella said, munching thoughtfully on a carrot stick. “You know, growing up I never appreciated how lucky I was to have awesome parents. I don’t know why, as I could see Rose and Emmett struggle with theirs. I guess I just thought they were the exception to the rule. Instead, it seems, I am. Thank you, Mom and Dad.”
Sue reached over to hug her, but Charlie saw the tears in her eyes and fidgeted uncomfortably. Firecracker tears were still my kryptonite, but I’d gotten better at distinguishing between the real ones and the pregnancy ones. Charlie, however, looked like he was ready to go do some inventory. How had the dude not figured it out, having had two kids? I mentally shook my head at him and tried not to laugh.
The following days, Charlie enlisted my help in his quest for a new bartender. He’d set up a string of interviews with applicants, and my presence was needed, apparently. After the first two, I wanted to stab my eyes out. And cut off my ears. There was no end to the stupidity. My admiration for Charlie skyrocketed as I sat listening to him ask questions from his little note book and patiently listen to their answers that were so horrible that my brain went numb. It might even have bled a little.
One guy, right out of high school, thought he was interviewing for a position as manager. Another one could only work every other Wednesday, while a third believed drinking alcohol was a deadly sin. And then there was Renee who had applied, too. Charlie made up a bad excuse and gave me the note book, telling me to take care of it and whatever I did, not to hire her.
Two wasted days as there was no one Charlie wanted to hire, even if someone paid him. Then, out of the blue, a solution presented itself. I was helping out at the diner as Leah was out sick when James came barreling in, dragging some poor guy in a hoodie after him.
“Papa Swan! Papa Swan!” James yelled, making everyone look at him.
Charlie stuck his head out from the kitchen. “Where’s the fire, boy?”
James let go of the guy and ran over to hug Charlie. “I missed you, Papa Swan!”
Patting James on the back, Charlie chuckled. “I missed you, too, son. It’s been so damn quiet around here lately.”
“I’ll fix that,” James promised seriously. “First, though. Mama Swan said you were looking for a new bartender. I found you one!”
Charlie looked pensive. “You did?”
“Yes!” James replied, enthusiastically, pointing over at the guy he’d come in with. “I found myself a real soldier boy like Bella did! And guess what? He’s a bartender, too. What do you say, Papa Swan?”
I looked at the guy, and when James dragged him forward, I suddenly recognized him. “Alec?”
He looked over at me and grinned. “Edward Cullen! I’ll be damned. I barely recognized you with all that hair.”
“It’s good to see you again,” I said, smiling. We’d served together on the last tour, and I knew he was a nice guy. I hadn’t known he was gay, but it was pretty obvious from the way James had attached himself to his arm that there was something between them. I decided that I was happy for them.
“It’s good to see you, too. I didn’t connect the ‘hunky man meat’ James told me about with you, although maybe I should have,” he said, grinning.
Great. Another one. James had clearly found a kindred spirit.
Alec said hello to Charlie, and five minutes later Alec and James had charmed Charlie into hiring a new bartender on the spot. Interesting times were ahead.