A/N: In one of the reviews on the previous chapter, Sweetie7smiled came up with an idea that hasn't occured to me before, and I decided to add it in because it fit rather well with the plot. In order to do it, I had to edit the end of the previous chapter. I've reuploaded it so you can go back and reread the ending before you get into this one. Also, this is the final chapter, but there's still an epilogue to come, so stay tuned, it will be posted in a few days. Thanks so much for reading, everyone, your feedback means a lot :)
Part Five: Charlie's Choice
Both Edward and Jacob were already waiting for us in front of the restaurant when we arrived. It was a relief to see them there, standing each by his car on two opposite sides of the road. We parked right behind Edward's Volvo, and Jacob was already crossing the street towards us. He stopped dead on his tracks, literally in the middle of the road, when I stepped out of the car. Edward, who had up until then leaned against his car, straightened up. It was warm in Charlie's cruiser, so I removed my coat, and it was now hanging against my arm, giving both of them full view of my new dress. Jacob didn't even seem aware of the fact he was ogling me. Edward, normally perfectly reserved under any circumstances, seemed equally astounded. I was relieved it was so dark out; at least they wouldn't see me blush.
As we followed Charlie to the entrance, I lingered at the back, easily falling into step with Edward. "How was your last task?" I asked him as quietly as I could, hoping Charlie wouldn't notice. I still had no idea where they had gone to; Charlie hadn't mentioned it once during the ride to Port Angeles, and I was curious.
Edward flashed a crooked grin at me. "It was... interesting," he said, and his eyes lingered on my dress for slightly longer than was probably appropriate. "You look absolutely stunning," he added in a sultry murmur.
"You've got your sister to thank," I replied. "It was nice of her to do that for me."
"My sister?" he asked, puzzled.
"Sure. Who else but Alice will leave two dresses on my bed? I was a little surprised she didn't stay behind to help me out, but – "
"Bells, are you coming?"
As my eyes slowly adjusted to the soft light of the restaurant, I could barely make out my dad's image as he stood there waiting for us to catch up with him. Jacob, right by his side, was eyeing Edward and me in dismay. I couldn't care less. I nodded to my dad and walked forward to join them. Edward's hand remained on the small of my back, guiding me forward.
Charlie got us a table at the very back of the restaurant, away from prying eyes, but I still felt as though every eye in the room was on us as we made our way to the table with Charlie on the lead. I was certain every single person in the room could hear the way my heart hammered in my ribcage, threatening to burst each and every seam of my tight fitting dress.
"Well, this is nice," said Charlie as soon as our waitress disappeared with our orders. Jacob nodded enthusiastically, his previous irritation forgotten. His eyes lingered on my cleavage for a second too long. I narrowed my eyes at him, fighting the urge to stomp on his foot.
"So, boys, you've done well this weekend. I'm proud of both of you. I have to admit I'm truly impressed, especially with your performance on your final task."
I looked at the three of them as they exchanged wry smiles. It was a sight so rare that for a moment, I forgot to wonder what their final task was.
Charlie was smiling at me in a way that made me think I was missing something insanely obvious. "What?"
"I thought you would figure it out by now," he laughed softly. "Before we left the house, you told me this dress was a gift from Alice, but I know for a fact that isn't true. Alice didn't give you this dress."
"Really, Bells, how did you think the dresses ended up on your bed? Unless Alice has somehow broken in through your window, which I highly doubt she has." He laughed at his own joke, unaware of my cringing. Actually that was exactly how I imagined it had happened. It wouldn't be the first time.
"So... you got me the dresses?"
"Not exactly. The boys here did."
A gasp escaped me before I could hold it back. I honestly didn't see this one coming. "Who chose which?"
"Why don't you tell us first why you decided to wear this one."
I looked down at myself, and tried to picture the pretty pink dress that was left deserted on my bed. "I'm... not sure. They were both pretty, but I ended up choosing this one because it's… well, timeless."
And as soon as I said it, I immediately detected the smile that curled at the edges of Edward's lips, as though he thought it was the perfect word to describe the dress. And at the sight of that hint of a smile, I just knew. "It's you," I whispered, feeling my lips curl in a smile as well. Of course it would be him.
"Good taste seems to run in their family, if you mistook this dress with the one you got from Alice," Charlie laughed obliviously. Jacob shrank in his seat. This time Charlie noticed. "Come on, Jake, you heard her. She didn't say she didn't like the dress you picked out." Jake mumbled something incoherent into his napkin. Charlie chose to ignore his sudden grumpiness. "Like I said, both of you surprised me this weekend, boys. I wasn't expecting you would take this so seriously. But you obviously care for Bella, and now that I can see that, I want to know a little more about you."
"What exactly do you mean, Dad?" I asked slowly, dreadfully. I hoped this dinner meant this was finally over. Apparently, I couldn't be more wrong.
"Relax, Bells. I'm done with the embarrassing part, I promise. Why don't we start with you, Jake?"
"You know me since I was a baby, Charlie." Jacob was smiling as he said it, but there was still this hint of bitterness hidden in his voice, as if he couldn't quite get over the fact I hadn't chosen the dress he had got me. "What can I tell you that you don't already know?"
"You can tell me about your plans, for example."
Jacob stared at him, dumbfounded. "My plans?"
"In life. What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"Oh. That. Umm…" His voice trailed. He scratched his head, smiling sheepishly. "I guess I, umm, don't have anything in mind just yet. I figured I had some time to think about it, you know, since I'm still in school and going to stay there for a while."
"Thinking ahead is very important, especially if you need your school credentials in order to move forward and get accepted into a good college. I'm surprised your dad or your sister Rachel haven't mentioned it to you." Jacob just shrugged. Charlie seemed at loss for a moment, but whatever else he was thinking, he kept it to himself. "I'm sure you have plans, don't you, Edward?"
"Absolutely, Sir," was Edward's somber reply. He wasn't looking at Jacob, but his voice had this distinct undertone; I knew he was gloating inwardly. "I'm thinking of becoming a doctor, like my father."
Charlie let out a whistle, almost despite himself, it seemed. "Now, that's impressive. Do you want to be a surgeon like Carlisle?"
"I'm not sure at this point, but I was thinking more in the direction of pediatrics. I feel that would be more rewarding, for me."
How did he do that? How could he make my insides melt even while he was bluffing?
Charlie seemed quite besotted himself. It was entertaining to watch. "That's a good plan you got there, boy. Very noble." Then he seemed to snap out of it, and shot Jacob this no-nonsense look. "This is what I mean, Jacob. Edward is not much older than you, and he already has some sort of direction in his life."
"Well, not all of us can afford med school." I'd never heard Jacob's voice so cold in my life. It made me cringe; it was so unlike him. "Besides, I have a direction." He stopped, as if he was still thinking about it, and then said, "I'm thinking about opening my own shop one day. In La Push. This way I can still watch over Dad whenever he needs me now that both Rachel and Rebecca live away."
Charlie nodded, as if that was an improvement to his previous hasty answer. "And how does Bella fit in this plan?"
"She can join me on the rez, obviously. She knows she's always welcome there. She could cook," he added, his tone a little brighter, as if he didn't sense the trap he was getting himself into.
But before Charlie could respond to that part of Jake's answer, our waitress was back with our food. I stole a glance at Edward. He had ordered something like the rest of us, and I couldn't help but wonder what he was going to do about the plate filled with human food the waitress had just set in front of him. He caught my eye when Charlie wasn't looking. His smile was tight yet reassuring, wordlessly telling me to trust him. I wondered if he was as nervous as I was.
As always, his actions were far too inconspicuous for my human eyes, or Charlie's, for that matter, although my dad's unrelenting questions meant he wasn't paying much attention to anything but the guys' answers. I was happy to learn that at least he wasn't discriminating – he was interrogating Jacob just as thoroughly as he had Edward. I picked at my food, not really listening to what they were saying. The voices of the people around us sounded too loud, closing in on me. I was trying to read my dad's body language – his tone, the way he was leaning towards one guy but not the other, the slightest crease of his forehead at one of their answers – and I had no idea what he was going to choose.
I blinked, and there was Edward, watching me with concern. His golden eyes were nearly amber in the dim light. It felt like our first date here all over again. "I'm sorry, what?"
"I asked if you wanted to dance." He nodded towards the other end of the small space, where a dance floor had been set up. Funny, I couldn't recall there was a dance floor here the last time we came here.
I took in the pleading in his stare, and then Jacob's baffled expression, and felt as though I had missed on some essential part of the conversation. I looked up at my dad for explanations. "One dance with each. And then I'll tell you my decision."
"Umm… okay, then," was all I managed. I was about to put my hand in Edward's, when over my shoulder, Jacob cleared his throat.
"Do you mind if I go first?"
Edward tensed, but only for a second. "No. Of course not. Go ahead."
I didn't give Jacob my hand though. I got up as soon as he had, and led the way to the dance floor. When we got there, we just stood awkwardly facing each other. Then he made a clumsy step forward and held his arms out. Telling myself I had agreed to this, I settled myself in his arms, and we began to move to the mellow sounds of some old love song I didn't recognize.
"Look, Bella," he started. I looked up at him, and his eyes were boring into mine with an urgency I remembered only vaguely. In moments, the scene transformed. We were back in my truck on the night that followed my cliffdive, right before all hell broke loose.
"This has been a crazy weekend. I know I acted like a jerk most of the time. I know you're still mad at me for telling your dad about the motorcycle. But all that doesn't change the fact that I…" He let his voice trail; his arms wrapped around me a little more tightly. "I care about you. A lot. Just as much as he does. And I don't want to be second best in your eyes because I know I can be better for you than him."
I wanted to tell him he was wrong, that there was no one else for me, no other possibility, but in a way, I knew he was right, because it was a possibility I had considered myself at one point only a few months ago. "It's not up to me to decide anymore," I whispered, because I didn't know what else to say that wouldn't hurt him, that wouldn't hurt both of us.
"I know. I just wanted you to know that… you have other options. And if Charlie picks me…" There was the tiniest hint of hope in his voice, in his eyes. "I'm not kidding myself. I can't promise you forever like he can. But I promise that in the time that we'll have, I'll make you happy. We'll be as happy as Sam and Emily. So please, just… think about it. Don't dismiss me so easily."
Then he glanced over my shoulder and frowned. He laughed once; the sound was dark, bitter. "Looks like that's all the time I have left," he said quietly, and slowly let me go.
He didn't say anything as Edward took his place. I settled more easily in his arms and pressed my cheek to his chest so I wouldn't have to see Jacob leaving. I could still picture him in my head though, slumped shoulders, crushed expression. I closed my eyes against this image.
"Are you alright?" Edward murmured over my head.
"Just tired." It was true. It had been a long weekend. I felt drained. "Do you know…" I started, but soon faltered. It felt like cheating to even ask him that.
"He hasn't made up his mind yet. As of three minutes ago, he was still debating." He sounded as anxious as I felt, and despite my concern for him, I liked it. It made him more human in my eyes. "Bella, whatever happens…"
His voice broke. He looked as if he was about to cry, if he could. There was tightness in my own throat. I let my fingers flutter against his chin, memorizing his face. Just in case. "I just got you back."
"And I love you. Please just remember that, no matter what happens."
"Of course," I whispered. "Always."
I knew I was probably breaking some unwritten rule of the competition, but I didn't care. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled myself closer. He held me just as tightly, burying his face in my shoulder. We just stood there holding one another, dance all forgotten. I was trying hard to push away the fact that this might be the final time I would get to hold him like that.
A while afterwards, he gently untangled himself from my iron grip. "We'd better head back," he said sadly, reluctantly. I nodded, and kept my hand securely clasped in his as we made our way back to the table. I was all but clinging to his side. If Charlie disapproved, he showed no signs of it.
"This has been a long weekend and we're all tired, so let's get on with it," Charlie said as soon as we were seated again. I stole a glance at Edward. His expression was sealed. He wasn't looking at me, and I puzzled at the meaning of it. At this point, he must have known what Charlie was about to say. Was he avoiding me knowing I wouldn't like what I'd find in his eyes, or was he trying to play fair until the very end, and let Charlie break his decision to me?
"Jacob," my dad said. My heart stopped. Jacob sat a little straighter in his chair. His face was white.
"You're the boyfriend every man will want for his daughter. You're kind, you're funny, you're a lousy cook, but you're handy when it comes to cars. You're my best friend's son and you seem to really care about my daughter."
I was properly sweating now. I kept my hands under the table, fisting them together to stop them from shaking. I had expected this to happen from the moment Charlie had announced his intention to choose my boyfriend from me. It was the inevitable ending; I had prepared for it from the very first moment.
So why did it still feel as though my heart was crushing into million pieces?
"Unfortunately, all that is not enough."
My breath knocked out of me. My hand shot to my mouth to hold back the sound that was halfway up my throat, a cross between a gasp and a sob, as I stared at Charlie in disbelief. I was grateful to be sitting down. My legs felt wobbly even this way. If I stood up I would have stumbled for sure. Under the table, Edward's cool hand was suddenly covering mine, squeezing it lightly, comforting. He sat there unflinching beneath Charlie's gaze, which was oddly vicious.
"I could kill you for what you've put Bella through. Lord knows, I wanted to kill you when you showed up with her in your arms in March as if the last few months have never happened. Not to mention everything that happened last year in Phoenix. But seeing you together just now on the dance floor… There's just something there. And I can't allow myself to be the one destroying it."
I didn't even feel embarrassed. My mind was everywhere. I was still looking at Charlie, waiting for him to grin and say he was only joking, that Jacob was and remained his first choice, but his expression remained grave. He was completely serious.
"I kind of knew it was a lost battle," said Jacob, and stood up. If I wasn't so caught up in my own happy moment, I would have felt sorry for him. He slipped into his worn out leather jacket and his gaze met mine. I tried not to flinch. He looked as if he was about to cry. "I guess I'll see you around, Bella," he said so quietly it was almost a whisper.
"Bye, Jake," I whispered, but he was already turning his back on us, hurrying out. Charlie shook his head and stirred what's left on his plate. Under the table, Edward squeezed my hand again.
"Thank you, Charlie. I appreciate the faith you have in me despite everything that's… happened." Edward's forehead creased with the slightest cringe. Charlie nodded wordlessly. "I want you to know I don't take it for granted. As far as I'm concerned, keeping Bella happy is just another task."
"As far as I can tell, you're doing just fine," Charlie murmured, looking somewhat embarrassed at Edward's words. Then his eyes wandered to me, and his eyes narrowed. "But leave the house for more than two days again because of him, and I'm breaking this off so fast that – "
"Don't worry about it, Dad," I laughed through tears. His threatening glare didn't hold; a smile was breaking in the corners of his lips. I returned it slowly, and hoped he could see in my eyes how grateful to him I had been. Then, slowly, I released the breath I didn't even know I was holding, one I'd probably been holding throughout this weekend. Not anymore, though, I thought, my smile getting impossibly wider. It was over.