Only one more to go. Sobsss.


- what matters most -


"Are you crying?" Rosalie asks as I peer at her through the camera lens.

I am. I can't help it. This is what I do now—cry. All the damn time.

Lowering the camera, I wipe my eyes, and she smiles sympathetically.

"I thought I was being discreet." I sigh, my heart exploding with more love than it knows what to do with. "You just look so at peace."

We're doing a photo shoot in my backyard, the late afternoon summer sun creating the perfect lighting.

"Let's take a few pictures over there," I tell her, pointing toward the privacy fence near the already-established garden. It's daunting and I don't have much of a green thumb, but I'm doing everything possible to keep it thriving.

We walk over and Rosalie gets situated, vines of pink roses climbing the trellis behind her.

Shaking off my emotions, I take another shot of Rosalie staring adoringly at her sleepy, two-week-old baby girl, Lilah.

Days before she was born, Emmett and Rosalie got the call that the agency might have found a match for them. Annie, Delilah's birth mother, reviewed their profile, and after passing up on many, many willing and hopeful couples, they're the ones she finally chose.

They flew to Boston the very next day to be there for the birth.

Rosalie was the first one to hold Lilah. And Emmett was the first to bottle-feed her.

When they returned days later with their baby girl, Edward and I were the first of their friends to meet Lilah. I'll never forget how Rosalie and I broke down in tears as she recalled what Annie said after Rose was handed the swaddled baby: "It's you. You're her mom."

"How can anyone or anything be so perfect?" Rosalie muses, softly brushing the thick dark hair on Lilah's tiny head.

"Don't ask me that or I'll cry again," I laugh, my emotions still getting the best of me.

Rosalie's gaze shifts past me and I turn to look over my shoulder to see Edward approaching us. I lower my camera, instantly smiling when I see he has our baby girl cradled protectively against his chest.

She's the reason my heart will forever be tender.

She's the reason it melts and bursts a hundred times a day.

Evelyn Rose came into the world ten days past her due date. It was the most difficult and rewarding experience of my life, and these last four weeks with her have been a dream. An exhausting, nerve-wracking, magical, and humbling dream.

"She just woke up," Edward tells me, and he looks so goddamn sexy holding her, I can't help but snap his picture because I'll never have enough photos of him with our baby.

We've been documenting as much as we can because there aren't many pictures or videos of me as a kid, and I wanted to make sure when Evie grows up she has physical proof of how loved she is.

Another reason is that as slow as the days feel, every night when I look at pictures of her, I notice how she's subtly changing and I don't want to miss a single moment.

My favorite, though, isn't a picture at all, but a video—the one I took on my iPhone from the hospital bed just minutes after she was born and it was Edward's turn to meet her.

He was shirtless and sitting in a chair beside me, holding our baby for the first time. They were skin-to-skin, the hospital blanket draped protectively over her while he stared in awe, his world forever changed.

"Happy Birthday, baby girl. Daddy already loves you so much," he'd murmured, his voice breaking as emotion gripped him. With unshed tears in his eyes, he leaned over to kiss my forehead, then whispered, "You did so fucking good, Bell. I love you. I'm so proud of you. She's perfect."

And she was.

She is.

She squirms in Edward's arms now, getting fussy, maybe sensing I'm near. As if they've coordinated, Lilah stirs awake, too.

"The besties are already teaming up against us," Rosalie teases.

"Oh, we're definitely in trouble when it comes to them," I agree. "The best trouble."

We all naturally migrate away from the garden and back to the large covered patio that's only recently been furnished with plush chairs and an oversized loveseat for tomorrow's Fourth of July celebration.

"Did Evie wake up on her own or did your mom accidentally," I use air quotes around the word, "wake her because she couldn't help herself?" I ask Edward, amused.

He grins because he knows how obsessed Esme is with her granddaughter.

"I can honestly say my mom was in the other room when Evie woke up," Edward promises, gently bouncing in place to soothe our baby.

Esme and Carlisle arrived days before she was born. When Carlisle flew back to Seattle a week later, Esme stayed behind and has been here ever since.

Having her here has been amazing, and we're so grateful for the help. But I'm also looking forward to it just being Edward, Evie, and me soon. Looking forward to settling into a real routine where it's just our little family.

"She's probably hungry," I say, my chest feeling engorged since the last feeding two hours ago.

As if on cue, she stirs and starts to root around, looking for something on Edward's chest to latch onto. When that earns her nothing, she brings her little fist to her mouth.

"Sorry, baby girl. I don't have the goods like Mommy," Edward says, softly smiling down at her. "Got time for a milk break, or do you want me to thaw some for her and bottle-feed?"

"If I don't feed her, I'll need to pump anyway," I say, moving closer and rubbing her back before looking at Rosalie. "Wanna pause? We can get some good shots of you and Lilah during golden hour later."

"Nah, we're done," Rosalie says breezily. "I think we got enough pictures."

"For today," I clarify because no amount of pictures is enough.

"For today," she agrees, smiling. "If my nose is correct, this little one is due for a change, anyway." Emmett walks outside then, and Rosalie brightens. "Perfect timing, Dad. We have a stinky diaper for you."

He laughs. "When people ask what I do now that I'm retired, I tell them my main gig is dirty diaper dude."

"Ohh, I like the alliteration. Sounds like a superhero," Edward muses, kissing the top of Evie's little blonde head. "But same. It's like my girl saves the worst ones for me."

"So, you're a dirty diaper dude, too. We should start a club. Get shirts made. Triple D," Emmett jokes, and Rosalie rolls her eyes.

"You mean you wanna market this… shit?" Edward offers, which only further goads Emmett on.

"Hell yeah, man," he says with a grin. "Might as well get a head start on embarrassing our girls."

"You two already have a podcast together, isn't that enough to suffice your bromance? Now you need another thing?" Rosalie asks, but I know she loves their friendship as much as I do and just likes to give them a hard time. If their podcast weren't on the top of the charts every week since they began, I'm sure she wouldn't poke fun.

"Yeah, you're right, babe. Shirts are a bit much," Emmett agrees. "But coasters… one can't ever have too many coasters."

"You get right on that," Rosalie says, kissing Lilah's head and then handing her over to Emmett. "I'm gonna go see if Esme needs any help in the kitchen."

"Thank you. We'll be there in a few," I say, and they head inside.

I remove my camera from around my neck, setting it on the outdoor coffee table before Edward carefully hands a squirming Evie to me.

"Hi, sweet girl," I whisper, sitting on the loveseat. "You hungry?"

Edward sits beside me, angling his body toward mine and watching me pull down the top of my dress to undo my nursing bra, guiding Evie to latch.

"Goddamn pro over here," he muses, and even though there's a joking lilt to his tone, all I find on his face is pride.

I laugh, shaking my head. I wasn't a pro when she was born, and I spent days stressing myself out and crying that she wasn't eating enough and thinking we'd never figure this out. But Evie never gave up on me, and we finally fell into our breastfeeding journey together.

"What time do you have to leave for the airport tomorrow?" I ask, even though I already know because the arrival of Allie has been on my mind for the last couple of days.

"Noon," Edward says, watching me. "You nervous?"

I think about it before replying. I'm not nervous as much as I am just ready to squash any lingering tension.

Allie didn't attend our baby shower even though we invited her. But she sent a gift a week prior—a light pink trunk with the name Evelyn embroidered on the inside.

It felt like an olive branch from her. Like it was her way of saying sorry and that the whole name debacle wasn't an issue for her anymore. And while I knew we didn't need her permission, I felt myself softening. Edward wasn't budging though. He appreciated the gesture but thought it was Allie's way to avoid apologizing and explaining herself.

I mailed her a thank-you card for the gift, keeping it simple, convincing myself if this is how we had to be—cordial and distant—then I'd accept that.

Still, we didn't hear from her after that.

Not until Evie was born.

She called Edward when we were in the hospital and they talked for a couple of minutes, keeping it strictly about the baby and how I was doing. However, Edward did throw in a "nice of you to finally unblock my number" before they hung up.

It wasn't until last week that Allie texted Edward and asked if she could join us for the Fourth of July, but she understood if we said no. I guess she found out Carlisle was flying back for the holiday and might have felt a little left out.

Before Edward replied, we talked about it. I said I was fine with it. We had to rip the bandage at some point, it might as well be on our turf and terms. He pointed out she still hadn't apologized for anything. I said we couldn't force her to, and suggested we talk to Esme first and get her thoughts on it.

"Allie and I have been talking and I think it'd be good for her to come visit. I'll leave it up to you two, though. It's your house, your choice. I'll support you both no matter what."

Edward seemed less irritated after that. Maybe because he trusted his mom's judgment. Or maybe it was because we both got the sense Esme was desperate for peace and cohesion among her family again.

"No, I'm not nervous about Allie being here," I say honestly, switching Evie to latch onto my other breast. "If Allie is disrespectful, we'll ask her to leave. Are you nervous?"

"Nah," he replies, something unidentifiable in his tone. "When we talked after Evie was born, she sounded different. Like, nervous and maybe even a little regretful? I doubt she'll pull anything. And…"

I raise a brow. "And?"

"I'm kind of glad she's making an effort and coming."

I can finally place his indecipherable tone as fondness.

"You miss her," I softly accuse, but I'm so glad he does because I know he has a heart and a soft spot for his sister. If there's any chance for us to move past this, he needs to be open to hearing her out.

"I mean. Yeah. I just miss all of us being together. Miss there not being this fucking unnecessary drama. It takes a toll, you know? Especially on my parents," he says, shrugging.

"I know."

"Family feels even more important now that Evie is here," he vulnerably admits, reaching over and touching her tiny foot. "I want this shit with Allie behind us, but only if she's genuine and wants it behind us, too. If she shows up here and it's obvious she's remorseful, then yeah. Maybe things will be okay."

I search his open, earnest face then stare down at Evie and whisper to her, "I have a little secret to share with you—you make your daddy soft."

He laughs, adorably covering his heart with a palm like he's wounded. "Yeah. I'm fucked."

"You love hard," I muse. "That's not a bad thing. In fact, it's really endearing and my favorite thing about you."

"Really?" he asks, a playful glint in his eyes. "I thought your favorite thing about me was my big—"

"Heart," I interject, jokingly covering Evie's ear.

Edward bites back a grin and leans over to kiss me.

With our lips close, he murmurs, "Yeah, I love hard, but my heart is only soft for my two favorite girls."


After dinner, Rosalie and Emmett head home, and I'm glued to the couch, breastfeeding Evie yet again.

When Esme tries to start cleaning the kitchen, Edward kicks her out.

"You do too much. Go relax," he tells her, taking the dish towel from her hands and letting it hang over his shoulder.

"I like helping," she insists.

"Yeah, well, so do I," he challenges, turning on the faucet to start the dishes. "You cooked. I'll clean."

She tuts but I can see her fighting a smile.

"Thank you," she tells him, meandering into the living room and sitting on the couch beside me while I burp Evie. "I can't believe I have to leave next week," she says, already getting misty-eyed as she watches me.

"I know," I agree, my heart tugging. "How are we going to survive without you?"

As excited as I am to be with just Edward and Evie, I'm nervous too. Edward goes back to work in a month, and even though I know we'll be fine, I also have this irrational worry that we aren't qualified to have a newborn.

Esme smiles warmly. "You two will manage just fine. You've got this whole new parent thing down," she promises, her expression shifting from thoughtful to almost proud. "I have to admit when you two said you were selling your place in Seattle and staying here, I was apprehensive. Not because I thought it was the wrong move, but… I just worry."

"And now?" I wonder. "Are you still worried?"

"Not one bit. You've built a beautiful life here with some amazing friends. I'm so proud." She squeezes my hand, my eyes filling with happy tears. "I hope we can sell soon and find a place here because I don't think I can go too long without seeing this beautiful girl."

I pull Evie back a bit to look at her sweet little face as I talk to her.

"Sounds like a plan, huh? You want Mimi to move closer so you can see her whenever you want, don't you?" I ask, and she replies by spitting up all over me, some of it getting in my hair.

"I'll consider that a yes," Esme says, and we both laugh. She grabs a burp cloth from the coffee table, reaching for Evie. "You can go clean up. I got her."

I thank her and head upstairs for a quick shower.

Sometimes I'm desperate for a moment alone, but any time I get one, I rush to be back with Evie like I might miss something.

When I'm back downstairs in pajamas and puke-free hair, I only find Edward and Evie on the couch watching the Dodgers play. He's lying back against the cushions, his legs outstretched on the attached ottoman, and she's resting against his chest, practicing lifting her head.

"You got it, baby girl. Work those neck muscles," he encourages. "I'm convinced she's the strongest baby alive. She held her head up for like, thirty seconds."

"Of course, she's going to excel at everything she does. She's your daughter," I say, and he breathes out a laugh as I sit beside him. "Where'd your mom go?"

"Mimi was casualty number two and got spit up on," Edward says, rubbing Evie's back. "She's showering then heading to bed."

"My ruthless girl," I tease, reaching for her. "You're so cute, you can spit up on me anytime."

My phone vibrates on the coffee table and Edward sits up and reaches for it.

"It's Renee," he says flatly. "Again."

It's the third call today.

I haven't talked to her in months. Not since Thanksgiving. My parents have been on my mind a lot recently, though.

Since giving birth, my love for Evie has been all-consuming, and I can't get past the idea that I was never the most important person to my parents. I can't understand why they wouldn't have done everything in their power to protect me from the burdens of life, but instead, they added to my worries at such a young age.

The phone stops ringing only to start up again.

"I bet she found out about Evie," I guess. I wasn't trying to hide my pregnancy from my parents, but I also wasn't jumping at the chance to tell them. "I finally posted a picture of her on my private Instagram today."

Edward's brows pull together. "I thought they didn't have Instagram?"

"No, but if someone else saw and reached out to congratulate them?" I offer, a sudden wave of courage washing over me because I can answer. I can have a brief, civil conversation that won't break me because I'm in the healthiest place I've ever been in. "Here, take Evie."

Edward looks at me, wary. "Maybe you shouldn't answer. They don't deserve to know shit, Bella."

"Oh, I agree. But I want to clear up any confusion or questions instead of letting them fill in the blanks. Because that might be more harmful than good."

Edward takes Evie, cradling her in the crook of his arm and pausing the baseball game. She starts to fuss and he gently shushes her, easing the pacifier into her mouth.

Grabbing my phone, I accept the call before it goes to voicemail.

"Hello?" I answer.

"So, who's the father?"

It's the first thing Renee says.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't that.

Anger flares in my chest, heat creeping up my neck.

Her question is deliberately low. A way to remind me that my marriage hasn't been easy. A manipulative way to overshadow one of the happiest times in my life.

I think about calling out her petty behavior, but I know it's useless. I can see it all play out—Renee telling me I'm overreacting. That her comment was a joke and I should relax.

My thoughts travel past the present and into the future, specifically how my parents will treat their granddaughter for the rest of her life.

Berating disguised as care. Judgment disguised as love. Neglect disguised as fostering independence. All the while, any concerns I'd have about their treatment of her would be disregarded as being a sensitive, helicopter parent.

I refuse to watch them treat her the way they treated me.

I refuse to be further gaslighted about how I feel.

With a deep breath, I take one last moment to collect myself and gather my thoughts. Because I'm only going to say this once, I need to ensure I'm clear. I'm sure my therapist would urge me to take a different approach, but the one I pick feels so damn good at this moment.

"I have to thank you and Charlie," I say, my body vibrating with anger, my chest filling with animosity.

"For what?" she asks, sounding genuinely curious.

"For teaching me the kind of parent I don't want to be," I seeth into the line, feeling Edward's gaze on me. "I am done. Treating me as insignificant my entire life is one thing, but I'm not going to let you disrespect my family, too. How dare you say that to me. You're being deliberately ugly because you already know who the father is. But who you won't ever know is my daughter because fuck if I'm going to expose her to anyone who will ever treat her as an afterthought. This ends with me."

As expected, Renee tells me I'm being dramatic and that it was a joke, but I don't give her a chance to finish before I hang up, then promptly block her and Charlie's number.

Edward secures Evie in the bouncer by our feet, then gently squeezes my shoulder, his touch calming my raging mind.

"What just happened?" he coaxes, not the smallest hint of I told you not to answer in his tone.

Tears well in my eyes from the one-sided confrontation, and I just shrug.

"What happened is something I should've done a long time ago—cut ties with my fucking family," I mumble, feeling both shock and relief at what just happened. "She asked me who the father is. Like, what the fuck?"

Edward immediately pulls me closer and crushes me in a hug, holding me tight.

With my face pressed against his chest, he gives me the space and strength to cry.

"It's okay," he reassures me, voice tender. "I'm proud of you for doing that. So fucking proud, Bell."

I sniffle. "I'm not even sure why I'm crying. I don't feel sad. If anything, I'm relieved to have stood up for myself against them. But maybe the fact that I had to be put in that position at all is just… depressing and disheartening."

Edward squeezes me tighter. "I got you. You'll never have to fucking talk to them again if you don't want to. And our daughter will sure as shit never meet them."

I nod, exhaling a shaky breath, so grateful to finally be free of their toxicity.

Once my tears subside, Edward grabs my face with both hands and affectionately wipes my cheeks with his thumbs before kissing the corner of my mouth.

"Did I overreact?" I ask, my chin wobbling as I second-guess myself. "I know I'm still hormonal and—"

"No. You're protecting yourself and Evie, and cutting ties has been a long time coming. In my mind, you haven't been a part of their family since the day you met me," he insists, and I soften because deep down, I know that's true. Whether I attached myself to him, or him to me, we've been a unit since day one. "So many times I've wanted to put them in their place, but it didn't feel appropriate. I've gotten in digs here and there, but nothing close to what I've wanted to say. But now I don't have to because you just handled that yourself. And I have to admit, it was pretty damn sexy."

I breathe out a laugh, then use a clean burp cloth to dab my eyes. "Sexy or deranged?"

"You didn't do anything wrong, Bell. You were direct, fierce, and protective," he lists off, offering reassurances that I hold close to my heart. "You're finally setting a boundary, and it's so fucking necessary with them."

But still, I'm unsettled.

"And… what if one day Evie asks about my parents? What are we going to tell her?"

"Easy. That she already has two of the best grandparents in the world who love her so much and they're all she needs."

"Yeah, that will hold her over until she's maybe eight…" I trail off, knowing I don't need to worry about this right now but unable to stop myself. "I don't want to ever lie to her. Sure, we can protect her from some things. But…"

"Then when she's old enough to understand, we'll tell her that your parents were neither worthy of knowing her nor continuing to be in your life. They took you for granted and as a result, they lost any relationship they could've had with her." He says it simply, easing my worries, then picks up Evie from her bouncer, his voice softer when he looks at her. "Then I'll tell her she has the strongest, most loyal, and loving mommy in the world." His focus shifts to me, meeting my watery gaze, my heart melting. "I'll remind her how amazing you are, and that we are so fucking lucky you're ours. And that's the goddamn truth."