"Sure, why?"

Shoving my tray one-handed into the intended cart, I speed up my steps as I make my way towards the ER.

"One question. Your opinion, I guess your reluctance to tell me means it doesn't just involve Bella and me?"

Rose chuckles, and it's a nasty sound.

"As much as I like her, it sure doesn't involve Alice."

Which, I guess, says it all anyway.

"Thanks, Rose."

"You're welcome. Now don't botch anything just because you've got your panties in a twist."

"Who says I'm wearing any?"

Her laugh is the last thing I hear before I end the call and shove my way through the swing doors into the ER, letting the bustle of people draw my attention away from my own thoughts. I know that her words will haunt me for days anyway, might as well ignore them until the end of my shift.

Chapter 12

Life resumes. Not as I have planned before last weekend, but as usual, the world doesn't stop turning just because I feel like I should really get my head checked.

Any ideas that Bella and I have discussed before are moot, at least for the time being. She's pretty busy throughout the whole week, as am I, and we don't really feel like doing either of the two scenes we've been talking about. I can tell that she thinks I'm too emotionally unstable as it is so she doesn't want to make me feel even more vulnerable by subbing to her, and I honestly prefer to spend what time we have snuggled up rather than exerting ourselves in the playroom. It doesn't happen often that my taste goes for vanilla over kink, but the fact that Bella doesn't seem to mind is balm on my tortured soul. For all her still present insecurity that her more limited interests aren't the best match for mine it's good to see that vice versa she's not just with me because I'm willing to tie her up and spank her soundly. Whoever thinks it's only the subs who have that kind of trouble has never been in love. Because, quite frankly, nothing like strong feelings screws with your head that way.

By Friday morning I have to admit that my reluctance is also based on something else - I've been dreading Bella's birthday party more than I let on, even to myself. Back in summer with her birthday months away and her parents out of reach it has been easy to crack jokes to put that adorable blush onto her cheeks, but now that the day has arrived I'm all kinds of uneasy. I know I have Renee's full approval, but I'm not sure Charlie will be as happy to see his daughter glued to my side. As far as I know he's always been fond of Mike, and for once I'm wishing Jazz and I were on better speaking terms. He practically grew up in the Swan house, and while I know that Charlie might be suspicious about 'my intentions' with his daughter because he knows about the company Jazz keeps, approval of her best friend would certainly have left a more favorable impression than what we can present now.

I feel like I'm worrying too much and repeatedly tell myself to grow a pair, but there is nothing like your gun toting father-in-law to be to scare any man shitless. I know that the only one whose approval I need is Bella herself, but that doesn't really quell my anxiety.

Working through most of the week pays off as I can at least be home by Friday afternoon, although part of me is mourning the chance to stay away.

A very small part of me that I try to ignore, but that gets harder when Bella comes down the steps from the upper floor, wearing pants and one of those wrap around blouses that accent her body in all the right places -

pouting. I know that look on her face too well by now, she's always wearing it when she's trying hard not to be disappointed but can't really help herself.

I feel a little remorseful myself but I know that I'm not quite in the mental place where I have to be if I want to push her around a little. So no corset, no remotely controlled butt plug for her today, although I'm pretty sure that from the way her pants are hugging her ass she's not wearing any panties.

Chuckling to myself I grab her as she sashays by me, wrapping my arms around her waist and tugging her closer until I can touch my forehead to hers, looking deep into her liquid brown eyes.

"Tease."

She does that irritatingly erotic thing where she catches her lip between her teeth while she's batting her eyelashes at me coyly.

"You're one to say that!"

Before she can go on I brush my lips against her mouth, stopping any further words from spilling forth when I deepen the kiss. A content sigh escapes her that suddenly turns into a high pitched squeal when I reached down and squeeze her ass. Yup, no underwear, and I know she's feeling the bulge in my jeans when I grind my hips against hers. Just because I'm not quite myself enough to keep her physically on edge doesn't mean I have to play fair.

Bella's fingers thread into my hair and she's kissing me hard now, her teeth scraping against my lips while her tongue is rubbing against mine. I try to remember how much time we still have, telling myself that a quickie on the still undefiled kitchen counter should be doable, but Bella's phone chirping to life destroys every hope of that. At least her groan speaks of her sharing my regret, but she's too good a hostess not to answer the phone. So instead of fucking my girl senseless and relieving some of the stress that keeps restless I check that there's enough beer in the fridge.

Two minutes later Bella puts her cell down again but the moment has passed, although her eyes are still dark with lust.

"Promise, once we get rid of all of them again I'll make good on that."

She laughs, needing no explanation for what I mean with that.

"I repeat, tease! Like we'll have any time for ourselves until next week. You know I'm going shopping with Renee tomorrow, and on Sunday we're invited for lunch with Sue and Charlie, I don't think that sneaking off for a blow job in the restrooms will take care of that itch."

"I was actually thinking of something more involved than that," I admit, scratching my head. Bella cocks one brow but then her phone chimes again, and that's that.

Our guests start arriving soon after. Friends, family, co-workers, a few neighbors, and amongst them also dear Jasper. I feel like ignoring him but that would have been childish, so I leave it at a quick nod that he answers likewise. Making sure everyone is provided for with food and drink is enough of a task to keep me busy, so until a while later I don't even have to pretend to keep myself occupied. I relax a little and tell myself to quit jumping at my own shadow. Way to make a good impression when you look guilty all the time.

My mood changes when Bella sends me inside from the terrace to fetch more napkins and I see Charlie and Jazz chatting over the canapés set on the table. I try to remain calm but my stomach is doing flips nevertheless.

The rational part of me is convinced that Jazz will hold his tongue, but the very same rational part never saw anything coming that the conniving ass dumped on me, so I choose not to listen to it. Trying to act as unconcerned as possible, I walk over to the sink and start running hot water to clean the dishes, hoping that no good Samaritan will join me so I can eavesdrop in peace.

For a while Charlie and Jazz are chatting about things of only moderate interest to me – a few curious cases the Forks PD has had over the summer, how Jasper is coping with some recent changes at work, how things are going with Alice. I'm a little taken aback how little I really care about that last topic, as I've always felt like the protective older brother with Alice, but apparently that has changed, too, with all the other things. Slowly I'm running out of dishes and I consider cutting some bread instead, but then Charlie finally asks the question, and I have to control my urge to put down my work so I can concentrate better.

"So, that Edward, is he a good guy for my Bella?"

A glance over my shoulder shows Charlie trying to look pensive, but I can tell that he's bursting to wring an honest answer out of Jazz. Who shrugs and offers one of his signature All American Boy grins, seemingly unconcerned by the question. I feel the urge to threaten him not to say something incredibly stupid, but considering his present company that would be all of suicidal.

"He's okay. Bella certainly thinks he's good for her."

Now I want to punch him, although his light tone sounds inconspicuous enough.

"Only 'okay', eh?" Charlie ventures, looking concerned. "I thought you two were best buds or something."

Jazz has the nonchalance to shrug, not giving away anything.

"We are," he begins, then something passes over his face that I can't quite catch, "or at least we were," he concedes.

"Something afoul?"

I absolutely hate the suspicion in the Chief's tone, but Jazz disbands the rising tension with a quick laugh.

"Nah, I've been acting like a jerk for a while, and Edward's still pissed at me. Which should probably tell you that he's a good guy, not just okay. It's not like he has any reason not to avoid me."

His words stun but calm me, while they seem to have the opposite effect on Charlie.

"Bella never mentioned that he's one to bear a grudge for long. Do you think she's too, you know, biased when it comes to him?"

"Don't worry, if there's one woman on this planet who can make sense of that guy, it's her. Bella knows what she wants, and it looks as if she's getting exactly that. Girl's come a long way since Forks."

Again Charlie doesn't look too happy with that assessment of his daughter.

"You sure about that? Still feels like yesterday when that boy stood her up before prom, what was his name?"

"Tim Jenkins."

"Jenkins, alright. I just can't see my girl cry, and I don't want any flaky charmer breaking her heart again."

I can tell that Jazz is biting the inside of his cheek when I stealthily glance in his direction, but he shrugs as Charlie keeps on frowning.

"You always thought Mike was a decent, honest guy. Turned out I was right when I told you back then that he's a slimy weasel. Trust me when I tell you that you have no reason to distrust Edward. And if not me, trust Bella. Just look at her, I mean it's been years since she's been so relaxed and happy, I don't think she's in any mood to let you spoil her good time."

He gets a non-committal grunt in answer, and I feel the unease inside of me recede further, only to be replaced by a dubious sense of astonishment.I know that unlike me or Bella, Jazz is a damn good liar, but he seems sincere in his unprecedented good opinion of me. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks like that, because if anything, Charlie's interest is piqued."I don't remember you ever sticking up for any guy Bella's been dating like that.""You do remember that he proposed to her? I think it's a lot more serious than dating for either of them. Not that they need my approval or anything.But you have to agree with me, it's Bella who has to be of a mind about him, not you. And I'm sure that any guy you'd approve of, she wouldn't.Fathers never look for the same qualities in a man than their daughters."A grudging nod."Still, doesn't really say much about him. I still remember you mentioning him being with you on most of your weekend binges in college.""As were Bella and Alice. What's your point? I think they grew up to be responsible adults both."Charlie grunts again."You know that's not what I meant."Jazz obviously does, and for a moment one of those mischievous grins appears on his face that got us both into trouble aplenty more times than I can count. A grin I miss, and now tell myself I hate."You're actually asking me of all people if I think that the guy who used to be my unwilling wingman more times than not will be a good and faithful husband for Bella? Come on, Charlie, you know that you can't take anything I say at face value, you know me better than that!"There goes my calm, instantly replaced by my previous urge to punch him.Ass!Strangely, Charlie seems more amused than angry at Jasper's statement."Not helping his case much, either."Jazz laughs, but then clears his throat as he seems to cast around for the right words."Look, I won't lie, Edward's not the well-mannered, innocent guy you probably want for Bella. He's been around, a bit, but in the end that means he's seen some of the fish in the sea and knows what he has in Bella. Trust me, your little girl's not that innocent herself, even if you'll always see her with pigtails and skinned knees. She wouldn't want a guy who can't handle her, I think she got over that notion with Mike soon enough. But considering what else is available out there on suitable bachelors, I'd say he's a good catch.""You trust him not to break my girl's heart then?"Jasper's pause is sending shivers down my back, but he's quick to catch himself and offers Charlie a good-natured laugh."I'm too old to believe in fairy tales. Did you think that things would turn out the way they did when you married Renee? But I'm sure that he'll go to great lengths to try to avoid causing her that kind of grief. He's a good guy.I trust him."That admission nearly makes me drop the plate I've been drying for the last two minutes, particularly because he sounds so damn sincere. Charlie looks equally surprised when I glance at him, once again proving that while he's not the most versed talker, the Chief is a good observer."Even though you two have a beef with each other?"This time Jazz's laugh sounds a little edgy."That's between Edward and me. But I know that if something grave should happen, I can always turn to him and Bella, and whatever might be between us now, they'd help me. Although I'm sure I've deserved it, neither of them would give up on me. Good enough for you?"Charlie only offers a grunt while he looks sheepish, then steers the conversation back to baseball before it can get any more awkward. I have to admit, I don't have the same kind of faith in myself that Jazz seems to have, but I can't help feel a little relieved.Yet as the afternoon turns into evening, the very same words start to haunt me, and Bella's concerned looks tell me I'm doing a bad job trying to appear all happy and normal. It's not like anyone is paying me much attention, with it being her day, as much as she seems to squirm through everyone handing over their gifts.She is positively speechless when she opens the envelope I hand her, containing my official present - the other one still resting in its box upstairs under the bed – and I get some approving smiles from both her and my parents at the weekend getaway at a remote resort I've organized, date to be chosen by my dearest herself. The fact that I can't do wrong in her eyes only adds to the disturbed feeling that's still gripping me from Jasper's admission, and I'm glad when hours later we're finally alone again, kitchen and living room left in a state of utter warfare."May I presume that this gift of yours comes with at least some ulterior motives, Edward?" Bella asks, batting her lashes coyly at me just like she has been doing before the party.I shrug and never miss a beat in loading the dish washer, but do my best to hide the smirk that's creeping onto my face at the question."I hear they have a terrific spa at the resort, too, with the main house.""Edward Anthony Cullen, if you seriously tell me you chose the 'remote, detached bungalow-style apartments' because of the spa, I'm going to be very disappointed in you!"I flash her a grin at the air quotes she's doing between throwing used cups into a trash bag, and catch her gaze for a moment."I don't know, it seemed kind of useful. Afterwards, you know.""Afterwards?" she echoes, her smile slowly gaining on intensity."Afterwards," I repeat, then continue stacking the plates. I don't hear her when she taps over to me, but certainly don't protest when I feel Bella's arms snake around my body as she hugs me from behind."Thank you. A very thoughtful gift."Pushing the tray into the machine, I start the dish washer before I turn around in her embrace and pull her closer, placing a gentle kiss on her lips."You're so very welcome."Bella laughs, a husky sound that reminds me immediately of the conversation her ringing phone interrupted before all party hell broke loose earlier."How long do you think will it take to rub down the counter so we can, you know, christen it?"A look at the heap of dishes and other clutter makes my heart sink, but only briefly."Why don't we leave that for another day and go upstairs instead?"For a second she looks positively hopeful but then her smile dims, and I'm not quite sure what I've done that makes her lose that radiant glow from one moment to the next."Sure, I'll just grab a shower, I really don't want to get the new sheets all sweaty."Now that's a challenge if I ever heard one but she doesn't look coy, and when I don't respond immediately I see her shoulders sag momentarily.Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I've been doing so much second guessing these past days, it's hard to break the routine.Again Jasper's words echo through my mind. If things were to become dire, he'd trust me to overcome my resentments. Bella has told me the very same thing, over and over again, and it takes my uncanny knack for eavesdropping to make me realize that I don't really believe her, same as I don't believe Jazz. But I want to believe them, deep down I know that to a certain degree it's been my own doubt that has kept me from moving on.There's nothing I can do about Jazz, but Bella is a wholly different matter.My sweet, frustrated Bella, who seems to be reconciling herself with another eve spent reading in bed and cuddling until we both fall asleep wrapped around each other.I might be wrong, but suddenly I feel like I have to disappoint my birthday girl.She lets out a dismal shriek when I grab her from behind, trapping her arms between our bodies while my hand in her hair wrenches her head back, baring the long line of her throat to me. I hungrily kiss the sensitive skin there before I lick a wet line up to her ear, feeling her shiver as her breath leaves her in a nearly inaudible gasp."You have ten minutes to clean yourself, then I want you ready for me in the playroom. Understand?"She's nodding eagerly before I'm done talking, yanking her roots when I don't let go of her hair, but I get the drift she's doing that deliberately. When she tries to turn her head so that her face comes closer to mine I let go of her, sending her towards the stairs with the gentlest of nudges as my hands trail over her sides and ass. Not even stopping to look at me she scrambles up the steps, proving that I guessed the reason for her moodiness right.I wait until I hear her close the bathroom door forcefully before I set to the task of cleaning up the kitchen island. I really could have chosen a better day for that plan, but quite frankly, for the way I want to tie her up, the padded bench in the playroom is not the right size – and I've never been one to shy away from improvisations. A few minutes of stacking dishes into the sink and I'm done, and a quick rub-down later the cool marble slab is ready for my devious plan.