“No, Daddy, like this,” Bella said quietly as she showed me how to knead the dough properly. I knew how, of course, but I was trying to keep her engaged, hoping against hope that I was doing the right thing by following our usual traditions.
Baking cookies used to be their thing, after all. Their mother/daughter time during the crazy holiday season. Alice had done it every year since Bella was two, and this would be the first year we’d go through the holidays without her.
I swallowed hard as I pushed my own sense of grief aside, determined to keep a brave face for our little girl. Bella hadn’t wanted to celebrate the holidays at all. Initially she’d relented in going to my Mom’s for Thanksgiving only because Mom had insisted, and I think she might have even bribed Bella in some way, though I wasn’t sure how.
Christmas was only two weeks away now, and it had been a struggle to get to the point of decorating the house. It had once been a family affair, and it hurt so much to know Alice would never be a part of it again. Not physically, at least. I knew she was with us in spirit.
I miss you, baby, I thought, glancing down at our daughter with a soft sigh. Bella looked up at me with a sad smile. Though I was aiming for a smile as well, I only managed to curve my lips on one side as I said, “Good job, sweetheart. What’s next?”
Bella rolled her eyes but dutifully explained I had to flour the surface and then roll out the dough so we could use the cookie cutters. Sometimes it was hard to believe my little girl was nine years old already. I had to swallow past a lump in my throat as the thought hit me that she’d be a teenager soon.
I’d just managed to roll the dough out to Bella’s satisfaction when the doorbell rang. “You be careful, please,” I told her as I went to answer the door, brushing my hands against my pants to get rid of the worst of the flour on my hands.
There was a guy in his late twenties standing in front of me when I opened the door. He was gorgeous; unruly auburn hair, bright green eyes, full lips, a strong jaw, and high cheekbones made up his face. Glancing down, I noted his lithe body underneath the open brown leather jacket, white button down, and faded blue jeans.
“Umm, hi, I’m sorry to bother you, but I managed to lock myself out of my apartment. I only moved in a few days ago so I don’t know anyone yet… I was… hoping I could use your phone and maybe wait for the locksmith?”
It took me a few seconds to realize he’d spoken, I’d been so caught up in what I was seeing and the fact that I was actually noticing someone again. Blinking, I stammered, “Oh. Oh, yeah, sure, no problem.”
When I stepped back to let him in, he smiled and said, “I’m Edward, by the way.”
He held out his hand, but wavered as his eyes flickered over my body. I blushed fiercely when I realized the sight I must make, wearing my ratty black t-shirt and torn jeans, covered from head to toe in flour.
Clearing my throat, I managed, “I’m Jasper. Sorry about…” I waved a hand to indicate the mess and added, “We were in the middle of baking cookies, actually.”
Right at that moment, a strand of hair came undone from the sloppy ponytail I’d put in before we’d started, and I tried to blow it out of my face. It kept falling in front of my eyes, though, no matter what I did, but I couldn’t do anything about it with my hands still covered in flour.
Edward bit his lip as he reached a tentative hand out, tucking the wayward strand behind my ear. He murmured, “There,” and blushed when he caught my eye.
He opened and closed his mouth several times, but before he managed to get his vocal chords to work, I cleared my throat again and murmured, “Thanks.” I could feel the heat rising on my cheeks as well, and a flutter in my stomach at the realization that I’d liked being touched like that – and that I wouldn’t mind if Edward did it again.
Edward stuffed his hands into his pockets and ducked his head slightly, nodding. “So… umm… phone?” he mumbled, glancing up at me through his lashes.
After showing Edward where our phone was, I invited him to make himself at home and join us in the kitchen after he was done. I dug through the drawers for the Yellow Pages and handed it to him before leaving to see what Bella was up to. I paused at the doorway leading into the hall and looked back to see Edward glancing at the pictures on the walls. He frowned slightly, his lips moving silently.
Shaking my head, I scolded myself for worrying about how he might feel. You don’t even know the man. Stop being an idiot.
As I walked into the kitchen, Bella looked up with a question in her eyes, though she didn’t speak. I sighed, my heart clenching at the marked difference in her. Before Alice had passed away, Bella was always talking, always asking questions or making up stories. She took after her mother in so many ways. But ever since she’d lost her mother, Bella had become more and more withdrawn. It made the loss of Alice so much more painful for me because, in a way, I’d lost a part of Bella, too.
Stepping next to her, I glanced at the sheet she’d already managed to fill with row after row of Christmas trees. “Great job, Pumpkin. You need some help?”
Bella bit her lip, thinking, then shook her head. Almost as soon as she did, the oven beeped. “This one ready?” I asked unnecessarily, lifting the cookie sheet a little. Bella nodded, then bent back over the dough to cut out more shapes. With a soft sigh, I put the sheet in the oven and set the timer.
I’d just finished washing a couple of dishes so they’d be ready for the next batch of baking when Edward cleared his throat. Both Bella and I looked up to find him standing awkwardly in the doorway to the kitchen. “Err, hi.”
Glancing quickly at Bella, I caught her slight frown as she tried to figure out what was going on. It was unusual for anyone to be in our home who she wasn’t already very familiar with. Flashing Edward an embarrassed grin, I hastened to introduce them.
“Bella, sweetheart, this is Edward, our new neighbor. He locked himself out of his place, so he’s gonna stay here for a bit until someone can come and help him.”
Bella tilted her head up to me, still frowning, then turned to look at Edward again. I swallowed hard as the errant thought crossed my mind that I wanted them to like each other. Stamping down hard on the irrational urge, I placed a hand on Bella’s shoulder and smiled at Edward. “Edward, I’d like you to meet my daughter, Bella. She’s the ‘chef du Maison’.”
Bella blushed even as she bowed her head. I wanted to kick myself for using the nickname Alice had given her. Squeezing her shoulder lightly, I tried to give Edward a reassuring smile. His eyes flickered between Bella and me for a moment before he approached us, kneeling down so he was on her level and smiled, holding out his hand. “Hello, Bella. It’s nice to meet you. What are you and your dad making? It smells delicious.”
Bella shook his hand, barely raising her head to look at him, and mumbled, “Thank you. We’re baking Christmas cookies.”
“Cool. D’you think I could maybe help, since I’ll be here for a while? The locksmith’s very busy today and won’t be here for another hour, it seems.”
Bella looked up at me questioningly. I could tell that she was torn, unsure what to make of the situation but also wanting to help Edward. That was another way she took after her mother: always wanting to help others. I nodded my approval, and she turned to Edward and whispered, “Okay. You need to wash your hands first, though.”
Edward chuckled as he straightened up and took off his coat, hanging it on the back of one of the chairs before doing as instructed. Bella directed both of us in what we needed to do even as Edward and I talked easily, sharing information. How long we’d lived here, where I worked and Bella went to school.
As he was telling us he’d just moved cross-country from Chicago to work in Seattle, I got the feeling there was much more to that story than merely being transferred from one office branch to another. Bella, who’d increasingly begun to talk and ask questions, stopped cutting bell-shaped cookies, tilted her head to the side, and said, “Won’t your mommy and daddy miss you? It’s almost Christmas, you know… you’re supposed to be with family.”
Edward flinched slightly. He ducked his head, but as close as I stood, I could still make out the sadness and hurt in his eyes. Quickly wiping my hands to get rid of the excess flour, I reached to cover his arm and said, “Hey, are you okay? I’m sorry if that was too personal, Edward. You don’t have to answer that.”
He shook his head, taking a wavering breath as he looked up. Giving us both a wan smile, he said, “No, it’s okay.” He turned to look at Bella, his face serious. Though he addressed her, I was certain he was trying to gauge how I took his words as he continued, “No, Bella. I don’t think they’ll miss me. At least, not in the way you meant. You see,” his voice lowered as he spoke, “they don’t want me around anymore.”
Bella frowned, straightening up in her seat as she said softly, “They don’t want you? Why?”
Edward huffed, closing his eyes briefly, then flickering to mine before meeting her gaze again. “Because they don’t…” he paused for a moment as if considering how to continue. “They don’t agree with my… choices.” He scowled, then amended, “They don’t like who, or rather, what I am. I’m gay, Bella.”
My heart was beating in my throat at that point, aching for Edward as I put two and two together. He’d come out to his parents, and they’d kicked him to the curb like so much trash. At the same time, part of me was strangely – sickeningly – grateful, too. He was gay, which meant… Absolutely nothing, Whitlock. It means absolutely nothing at all. You just met the man, for Christ’s sake, and you’re still supposed to be mourning for your dead wife!
I was startled out of my reverie by Bella’s, “They don’t like you because you like men? That’s stupid. Daddy likes men, too – don’t you, Daddy?”
Gaping like a fish, I stared at my daughter. Alice and I had never made it a secret that I’d been with men. There were plenty of pictures from before we got together of both of us and our exes. We’d made sure to explain to Bella why Daddy was kissing “Uncle Pete”, especially since Peter and I’d remained good friends and we’d all hung out over the years.
I knew Bella understood that I was bi, and that she was perfectly okay with it. Never in my wildest dreams, however, would I have thought her to be so forthcoming with that particular titbit of information – especially not to a virtual stranger.
When I turned to look at Edward, I could feel the heat rise on my cheeks. It only intensified when I saw his arched eyebrow and the look of both shock, interest, and curiosity – and something else I couldn’t identify as easily – in his eyes.
A smile – a little crooked, a little shy, and very tempting – started on his lips as he leaned forward to rest his elbows on the edge of the table. He turned to Bella then and said, “You’re right. It is stupid. That’s how they feel, though, and I can’t change that. No matter how I might wish for things to be different.”
Bella tilted her head again, thinking for a moment. “So you don’t have anyone to spend Christmas with?”
Edward shook his head. For some reason, my heart started to beat double-time, but I refused to look too closely for an explanation. I watched with fascination as a look of determination grew on Bella’s face. She got up out of her seat, walked around the table, and looked up at Edward, who was watching her with a curious expression.
Bella took a deep breath, her eyes flickering briefly to me before fixing on Edward. “You should spend Christmas with us. No one should be alone on Christmas, and… and Daddy and I want you.”
Sweet Jesus! I choked back my shock. Really, I shouldn’t have been surprised by Bella inviting Edward to spend Christmas with us. It’s something both she and Alice would’ve done before Alice’s passing. It had been a while since Bella had reached out to anyone, though, and I was torn between elation and renewed sadness for the reason she’d stopped in the first place.
What got me most, however, was that her words held more truth than she could have possibly known. The moment she’d said it, I knew – I did want him. Crazy as it sounded, even to me, I was very much attracted to our new neighbor. It had been so long since I’d even felt anything remotely like this that it hit me like a ton of bricks, and I wasn’t at all sure how to handle it.
Heat rising on my cheeks once more, I did my best to hide my inner turmoil from both Edward and Bella, attempting to focus instead on Bella’s outreach to a man in pain and her desire to help him. Clearing my throat, I said quietly, “She’s right, Edward. No one should be alone for Christmas. We’d love to have you join us.”
Edward blinked, looking completely bewildered and vulnerable as he looked at us in turn. Suddenly, he frowned, then asked softly, “What about your mom? I wouldn’t want to intrude-“
My jaw and heart both clenched at that. Reaching for Bella, I pulled her to me and into my lap, where I held her as she sniffled, hugging me tight. Swallowing past the lump of pain that settled in my throat, I whispered hoarsely, “Alice passed away eight months ago, Edward. It’s just Bella and me now, so…”
“Oh sh-… I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean-” he stammered, blushing bright red.
Shaking my head, I took a wavering breath and kissed the top of my little girl’s head and rubbed her back soothingly. “It’s okay. You couldn’t know. It’s still… difficult, obviously.”
I smiled sadly at him, and he nodded, frowning again. “Honestly, Edward. It’s okay. And the invitation stands, right, Pumpkin?”
Glancing down at Bella for confirmation, she sniffled once and then turned to look at Edward, nodding. “Please?” she added.
Edward rubbed the back of his neck, watching us both uncertainly.
“C’mon. What do you say? You can help Bella open her presents… and I’m sure Santa’ll be happy to leave yours under our tree, too.”
I bit my lip, hoping I hadn’t pushed too far with either of them. Opening presents had always been something Alice had helped her with, while I’d been relegated to getting her reactions on video. As for Edward, I had no idea how he was used to spending his holidays, or whether he’d even want to be around kids.
When his lips twitched before turning into a small smile, I heaved a sigh of relief. At his, “Alright. If you’re sure,” I smiled. For the first time since Alice died, I was actually looking forward to Christmas.
I nodded. “We’re sure. Now, what do you two say to finishing up these cookies?”
Edward chuckled as Bella hopped off of my lap and hurried to her station to finish cutting cookies. Just then, the doorbell rang. Edward sighed, glancing at me. “That’s probably the locksmith.”
I nodded and headed to answer the door, Edward following close behind. Sure enough, it was the locksmith. After giving the man the okay to start work on getting Edward back into his apartment, Edward hovered at my door. “Listen… I really am sorry for… you know.”
His eyes darted toward the kitchen before he held my gaze. Stuffing my hands into my pockets, I shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. Like I said, you couldn’t have known.”
He nodded and bit his lip. Clearing his throat, he said, “So, would it be incredibly forward of me to invite myself over for dinner tonight if I order pizza?”
I huffed out a surprised laugh, and he grinned, scuffing his toe against the doormat. “I just… it was nice, hanging out with you guys and helping with the cookies and stuff… and I know you’re not done yet, and…”
I grinned, feeling both amusement and an odd sort of affection for the man as he babbled. Pulling a hand from my pocket, I cupped his shoulder and said, “That’d be great. I’m sure Bella’d love that, too. I haven’t seen her like this in… well, in a very long time.”
Edward blushed and nodded. “Okay, let me just…” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the locksmith working on his door and added, “I’ll finish this up and call in the pizza before coming back. Okay?”
We were sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. Bella was snuggled up to me, clutching her bear under her arm and her cup of hot cocoa – with marshmallows – in both hands. Her attention was completely focused on Edward, who sat opposite us.
He cleared his throat dramatically, then glanced up at me with a look that said quite plainly, “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” and then turned his attention to Bella as he started to read out loud.
“‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…”
I smiled as I watched him tell the story, voices, dramatic pauses, and all. How Bella had managed to talk Edward into reading to us, I wasn’t sure, but it felt good. After that first night when Edward had knocked on our door and asked to use the phone, Bella had insisted he come again the following night.
And the one after that, and the one after that. Every night before he left, she’d make him promise to join us for dinner, or at least a movie or a craft. Something. Anything. It didn’t seem to matter to her. When I asked her about it after the fourth time she’d done it, she’d looked up at me with all the seriousness her nine-year-old self could muster and told me she wanted Edward to not be alone.
She wanted him to have a family again.
Bella’d touched my cheek then and said, “Daddy, he needs us. And I think maybe we need him, too.”
Over the past two weeks, Edward and I talked a lot, sharing our histories for hours after Bella went to bed. He wanted to know everything about Alice. How we’d met, how long we were together. How and when I’d proposed to her. About our wedding. About Bella being born.
I told him about the drunk driver who’d taken Alice away from us much too soon. How I still missed her. The changes in Bella after losing her mother, and again since meeting Edward.
In turn, Edward told me about his ex and hiding part of himself for so long from his family. How, when he’d finally mustered up the courage to come out to his parents – the only family he had left – they had turned on him. His father screaming at him about sin and hell and abominations and everything bad while his mother cried as if he were dead rather than just gay.
How, when he’d tried to talk to them, his mother had put a hand on his father’s shoulder to stop him from attacking Edward, but that the words from her mouth had been so, so much worse to him than a beating would’ve been – that it would’ve been better if he had died, rather than be what he was.
Edward explained that he tried to make amends with them for two months, calling them, stopping by their place, but it went from bad to worse. When they told him to leave or they’d call the cops on him for trespassing, he finally had enough and arranged to move here instead. He said he couldn’t live there anymore, be that close, and know how they felt. He’d needed a clean break.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!” Edward finished with flair, snapping the book shut and pulling me from my thoughts.
Bella put her now-empty mug down beside her and shuffled over to Edward, hugging him tight as she whispered, “Thanks, Edward.”
“You’re welcome, sweetheart,” he murmured, hugging her back as he smiled at me over her head.
Something inside me warmed at the sight of them like that. It looked… right. It felt right. Like Edward belonged here with us. The thought made me blush and roll my eyes at myself, earning me a raised eyebrow from Edward.
Before he could ask, I cleared my throat and got to my feet. “Alright, little lady, time for bed. You want to be asleep so Santa won’t catch you awake and decide to not stop here to bring your presents after all,” I said, putting as much seriousness in both my voice and my face as I could manage.
Bella looked up at me with wide eyes.
“I mean it,” I said, putting my hands on my hips. “Santa won’t come if you’re not asleep soon.”
Edward whispered in her ear, just loud enough for me to catch, “I think you’d better do as your daddy says, sweetheart. Wouldn’t want Santa to think you’ve been naughty, would you?”
She shook her head emphatically and scrambled to her feet before hugging Edward around the neck and wishing him goodnight. “You’ll be here tomorrow, right Edward? You promised!”
Edward smiled, cupping her cheek in his hand. “Yes, ma’am, I’ll be here bright and early. I promise.”
She gave him a scrutinizing look, then nodded in satisfaction and turned to hug me goodnight. “Love you, Daddy.”
“Love you, too, Pumpkin. Now off to bed with you.”
She almost made it to her bedroom before she turned around with wide eyes.”Daddy! We forgot to leave Santa cookies and milk!”
Shit! Slapping my hand to my forehead, I stifled a groan. That had always been Alice’s job – something she did with Bella before putting her to bed. How the hell could I have forgotten?
Gesturing for her to come to the kitchen with me, I hurried to grab a plate and glass, filling it with milk while Bella picked out the best cookies to leave for Santa. When she was finally satisfied with the arrangement, she carefully picked up the plate and asked me to bring the milk as she walked gingerly to the living room and put the plate down on the side table nearest the tree.
“There. Now Santa can have a quick snack when he’s here, and you’d better hurry to get to sleep now, or he won’t make it.”
She nodded, hugged both of us in turn, and then scurried to her room. I stood watching for a while, still berating myself for forgetting such a simple thing when Edward stepped up to me and took my hand in his, squeezing it lightly. “You alright?” he whispered.
Turning to look at him, I sighed and nodded, running my free hand through my hair. “Yeah, I guess. It just… that was Alice’s thing, you know? She and Bella’d put the cookies and milk out before bed – and I forgot.”
He rubbed my arm. “It’s okay, Jasper. She remembered, and you still did it. You’re still learning to live, Jazz. Both of you. It’s going to take time, and I’m sure you’ll make new memories and new traditions as you go. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
I sighed, glancing at the tree with blurry eyes. I wanted to believe him – so much. Still, part of me couldn’t help but feel like I was letting both Bella and Alice down, somehow. Especially because the more time I spent with Edward, the more I wanted him. It was a little scary to have those kinds of feelings again after Alice.
Swallowing hard, I closed my eyes, trying to keep it together. Everything just felt so heavy all of a sudden – too much – and I didn’t know what to do anymore. Suddenly, Edward’s arms slipped around me, folding me in a gentle hug, meant to soothe and comfort. Grateful, I leaned into him, wrapping my own arms around him as I allowed myself to just be for a minute.
It felt so good to be held again. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d missed that simple contact with another adult. Bella hugged me all the time and I her, but it simply wasn’t the same. Taking a deep breath, I pulled back, smiling sadly as I said, “Thank you.”
Edward placed his hands on my arms, squeezing them lightly as he smiled, “You’re welcome. Why don’t you go check on Bella, make sure she’s asleep before we put the gifts under the tree?”
Nodding, I cleared my throat, pushing aside the desire to kiss him. “Yeah, I suppose I’d better. I’ll be right back. Why don’t you get us both some wine or something?”
Edward grabbed the empty mug Bella had forgotten to put away and headed to the kitchen while I went to check on my little girl. Pausing in her doorway, I couldn’t help but smile as I saw her curled up around her bear, her hair fluttering over her face with every breath she took. Shaking my head, I quietly walked up to her bed and carefully tucked her hair behind her ear. She made a snuffling noise, but didn’t wake up – once she was out, she was out for the night, thank God.
Satisfied that it was safe to prepare for tomorrow, I quietly closed the door behind me and made my way back to the living room to find Edward already putting a couple of presents under the tree. He looked sheepishly up at me when he heard me and cleared his throat. “I, errr… I got you both something. I know we’ve only known each other a little while, but…”
I grinned and walked to the hallway closet where I’d stashed all the gifts, grabbed the bag, and took them back to the tree. Settling down next to Edward, I reached into the bag and pulled out the top box, showing it to him. His name was clearly visible on the tag. “Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. Bella insisted on making you something, and… well…” I shrugged, putting his gift next to the ones already under the tree.
Edward’s eyes were wide with surprise, and when he looked at me, he smiled in a way that made me blush. He helped me put all the gifts under the tree, and I could tell whenever he noticed something with his name on it. Every time, he’d pause and get this look of wonder on his face, as if he couldn’t quite believe it. All in all, it happened six times.
By the time I placed Bella’s gift from Santa under the tree, as was our custom – she knew most gifts came from either me or her grandparents, but there would always be one from Santa – I felt hopeful again.
Edward took the bag, folded it carefully, and placed it to the side before getting to his knees and moving closer to me. His eyes never left mine as he leaned in, wrapping me in his arms again. It felt different, this time. More intimate. It made my heart race even as I hugged him back. “Thank you,” he whispered in my ear, his warm breath sending shivers down my spine.
“For what?” I asked, closing my eyes, unsure whether I really wanted to know the answer.
He pulled back far enough to look at me, though I kept my eyes closed. I could hear the smile in his voice, however. “For making me feel wanted again… welcome. For including me in your Christmas even though I know it won’t be an easy holiday for you and Bella.”
My jaw clenched at the reminder of Alice. Edward’s hand cupping my cheek made me relax it almost instantly, my eyes popping open in surprise only to meet his so much closer than I’d anticipated. Slowly, he closed the distance between us to brush his lips against mine.
A whimpered, “Oh God,” escaped my lips as he kissed me again, firmer this time. I pulled him closer to me, one hand moving to tangle in his hair. My heart beat a staccato rhythm that felt so loud I was sure he could hear it.
Edward gently pushed me backward until I was lying on the rug in front of the fireplace and he was sprawled over me. It felt like Heaven – kissing him, holding him – and I wanted it to go on forever. Eventually, we both needed to catch our breath and gather our bearings. I’m not sure what Edward saw when he looked down at me, aside from what I was sure was a goofy, disbelieving grin on my face, but he smiled and pecked my lips once before whispering huskily, “Merry Christmas, Jazz.”
I gave a hoarse chuckle, shaking my head in wonder. “This is real, right?” I asked, though I’d meant to wish him Merry Christmas, too.
He grinned, nodding. “Yeah, it’s real. Crazy fast, maybe, but real, if you want it to be.”
He gazed down at me with sudden apprehension, as if worried I might tell him to get lost. As if I ever could. I honestly didn’t think I’d be able to let him go – and I was certain that Bella wouldn’t let me even if I had wanted to. Cupping his cheek, I smiled at him and whispered, “I want you, Edward. Merry Christmas.”
“It really is,” he murmured, smiling brilliantly as he kissed me again.