Star Shaped Heart
At 36, Bella was what Alice called "jaded."
Which was such a pretty word, really, when it rolled around on your tongue. One that tasted exotic when it slipped between your teeth, a mix of spice and cream and smoke. Jaded. It sounded like something to be cherished. Something to be handled with soft gloves and held breath. Something expensive. Ancient. Priceless.
Jaded like the rarest sort of iceberg. The kind that formed deep near the bottom of the ocean, far beneath the blue. Ice devoid of air. Ice that kissed the sea bed. Ice that rolled over to reveal its emerald belly to the sunlight only once in a lifetime.
Jaded like the blades of the knives the Aztecs used to cut out the hearts of their sacrifices.
Jaded like the tiny Chinese figurines her grandmother lined up on bookshelves and window sills, a collection that now belonged to Bella. Miniature men and women and animals all carved from deep green stone, nearly sixty of them in all, forever stuck smiling or crying or laughing. Frozen with their hands in the air, their toes lifting off the ground, their eyes to the sky. Forever sitting in wait, staring off into their stone cold future. Caught in a trap they could not escape.
The only way for them to change was to shatter.
Bella had spent her entire life digging a hole, looking for jade a hundred feet below the surface.
A shovelful for each and every heartbreak. Each and every life lesson learned the hard way. Mining for a mineral buried far below the surface of a stone cold life. It started so young, the digging, and she just never let up.
The day her mother left. A walk-out at midnight that left Bella alone with a father who felt more like a fairytale, and a two bedroom house that felt like a mausoleum. A man who only appeared at nighttime, on the very edges of her dreams, and a home-shaped shrine to something that died long before she ever came to be. Ten years of fighting, though she knew it began before she could even remember. The anger was so permanent that it was ingrained right into her bones, into the rafters of the house until it was the only thing left holding up the roof. So permanent that she couldn't tell where it all stopped, and everything else began. There was nothing, no word, no letter, no phone call, for two entire years. Bella slammed the phone down on her mother's long-distance collect call plea, with tears in her eyes and that rage still singing through her bone marrow.
She would never trust another older woman ever again.
Michael. The football star with clear smooth cheeks and a back full of acne. Cauliflower ear and athlete's foot. All 170 hulking pounds of him stalking her through the school hallways and refusing to take no for an answer. His sweet mother who somehow managed to make Bella long for her own deadbeat version, and his car, something vintage and red and loud that his father had helped him rebuild. The windows fogged up and her hand slipping against the metal handle as she tried to escape his giant hands around her thighs. The silence in the courtroom and the silence in the classrooms and the silence that followed her like a heavy black cloud for the remainder of her days in that small town, the girl who ruined the football star's chances of world domination.
She didn't date another boy until she escaped to college.
Alec. The tall blonde twenty-something who cooked complex French food with names she couldn't pronounce and who refused to drink wine that was younger than he was. He was soft-spoken and thoughtful, until he wasn't. He was quiet and careful and sweet, until he snapped. He left her with a broken front door, a bruise on her arm in the shape of Australia, and a freezer full of single serving meals that she warmed up in the microwave, unable to even turn on the oven.
She didn't cook for six months.
Jacob. The mechanic with a bad case of tattoos. He was big and brute with arms thicker than her legs and a dick that stunned her speechless. He could pick her up and throw her over his shoulder like a sack of flour. Could make her blush crimson with his hand up her skirt and his plans for her bed whispered into her ear at dinner, not two feet from a bunch of strangers. His hands were warm, but his heart was cold. He left her with something that tasted like metal on the back of her tongue when he disappeared, nothing but a pile of his clothing on the bathroom floor in memoriam. She heard from him nearly two years later, a mid-afternoon phone call that all but knocked her off her feet, rattling her bones. The comforting thought that he might be dead in a ditch underneath that stupid motorcycle of his was replaced by the jarring reality that he was married, had two kids, lived three states away, and sounded happier than she'd ever heard him sound before.
She didn't sleep for twelve days.
Jane. The small blonde thing with wrists like birds and eyes too big for her face. She cornered Bella in the bathroom of the coffee shop where they'd been exchanging glances over the counter along with cappuccinos and red tea chai for six months, barely speaking a word to one another. One kiss, and Bella was spun. Jane was too big for her tiny body and too mean for her sweetheart face. Her tongue was too talented and her fingers were too deft and she was too good at making Bella forget why she had ever been angry with her in the first place. A screaming match at two am ended with Bella panting in the middle of her empty living room and Jane running into the street, barely missing a car, but getting caught in the grill of a city bus instead.
She didn't eat for two weeks and three days.
Emmett. The cute boy who smiled at her over a stack of books at 9:08 am and had his face buried between her legs by 9:37. The desk he'd shoved clear of paperwork smooth beneath her shoulder blades, and the flashing neon of a billboard outside his office window advertising bail bonds highlighted his hair. She let him work her over with his tongue and his fingers and his hard-won laugh, with Chinese takeout and round two in the stairwell, floor nineteen, her skirt hiked up over her hips and his pants around his ankles. Round three in his car, backseat, fully clothed, and she actually screamed when she came. Round four against her front door, the pen she used to write her phone number on his hand crushed into the carpet beneath his feet.
He didn't call and she didn't wash that spot out of the rug for a year and a half.
Her father. The life-long smoker. The career drinker. The guy who refused sunscreen and seat belts. The man who thought he was a brick wall when he was really just a soft, breakable human being. The man who thought he could outrun the clock but, instead, ran right into it. Fifty-seven with the heart of a ninety year old. Fifty-seven with the liver of a mummy. Fifty-seven with the lungs of a petrified dinosaur.
She flew back for the funeral, but flew home as soon as it was over.
Now here she was. Thirty-six. Twenty-seven pounds lighter and four failed relationships heavier. An entire family down the drain. Thirty-six and the hole was so deep she couldn't even see the sky anymore.
She'd sunken so far that there was no hope of climbing out, but still, she was digging.
Bella tried every method of self-medication to combat the malaise.
She tattooed a forest of trees up her arm, trying to remind herself that even the most ancient of monuments must sometimes burn in order to heal. Instead, she found herself wondering if her roots were too deep and too stuck and if fire was really what she needed. She inked up her arms and her legs, her hands and her feet. Buildings and skylines and pretty pastel irises in a manic flurry up her thigh. A sleeve of cupcakes and pearls. A leg taken up by a inky black puma stalking through a jungle. Her skin slowly disappearing beneath the permanence of birds flying through her freckles and stars spangling her chest.
She pierced a hole through her lip, hoping to feel young and carefree, but instead she felt washed up, like she was someone she wasn't. Trying too hard to be ten years younger and fifteen years more carefree than her heavy insides felt.
She wandered the city at night, sidestepping rats and trash and the glow of the streetlights, splashing through oily puddles in alleyways, and cutting through the crowds gathered in front of the late-night jazz clubs. She rode the subways during the day, avoiding the sunlight from the underground tunnels. Went to the lake, the one in the middle of the city, surrounded for miles by nothing but civilization. Sat near the water with her hands over her ears to drown out the noise of the traffic, watching the swans swim through the fog and the water, wondering why in the world they would stay when they could simply spread their wings and fly.
She dyed her hair black. Then blue. Then purple. Cut off twelve inches and threw the chopped ends out her seventh story window. Dyed it all back to black again and hid it underneath a knit hat through a biting cold winter. Dip dyed the bottom half red. Bleached herself California blonde. Went cotton candy pink in the spring, cut with big chunks of black because the color was just too carefree all on its own.
She painted her kitchen floor red. Painted her front door yellow. Painted her bedroom grey.
She planted flowers in the cut crystal serving bowls she'd inherited from the grandmother of the the jade figurines. Her self-imposed hermitude meant the dishes went unused until she filled them with snowdrops and buttercups and a bleeding heart that wept petals all over her windowsills.
She took up drinking whiskey and gin, cutting everything with ginger ale and water. Took up smoking tobacco and marijuana, those terrible herbal cigarettes that tasted like the rotten end of a cheap bouquet from the corner market. She took up tofu and bean sprouts. Took up red meat and high-end butter. Took up yoga and acupuncture. Took up Buddhism and Kabbalah.
Everything she took up, she dropped just as quickly.
That, or nothing stuck.
It didn't take any convincing at all.
Bella walked through the clinic doors with every justification on her tongue, ready to defend herself and this decision. Ready to go down with a fight for the life and the home and the family she was about to create. Ready to fight for her right to do this, on her own, without a partner, without a man.
Armed to the teeth, prepared for war.
But she hadn't needed any of it. The doctor, a woman with grey roots beneath the blonde dye and chalky makeup settled into her wrinkles, didn't even flinch. She only nodded empathically and signed off on Bella's chart with a loopy signature scrawl, sporting the kind of smile and the sort of understanding that only came with years of the same story presented on her desk in prettily wrapped packages of "I can't do this alone," and "I need this," and "help me."
Bella was in. Ushered through the doors for blood work and ushered back out with explicit instructions. Vials of hormones and individually wrapped needles, packets of dietary supplements. Pamphlets and handbooks and support group information. Appointments set up for implantations and ultrasounds. She stepped back out into the sunlight of the same day, the same sidewalk, the same street, but everything had changed. Same rush of traffic, but the air seemed to have slowed. Same stink of the city, but tempered with something sweeter.
Same life, but completely, utterly different.
Alice had been against this, but Alice was too perfectly happy to understand it. She married the first boy she ever kissed, a kid named Jasper with a fake tan, a mild case of acne, and a deep Texas twang. Her pre-teen romance found a solid foothold in the side of a sheer cliff and then another, and another, until the two of them scaled the face of an impossible mountain together. Twenty-some odd years later, they had a house with a pool, and a horse named Skydancer. A kid with the IQ of a neuroscientist. A dog that fetched beer out of the fridge and a vacation home in Aspen that Bella's entire apartment could have fit into the laundry room of.
The kind of inconsolable loneliness that Bella felt, Alice couldn't feel.
The kind of desolate future that Bella saw, Alice couldn't see.
The kind of empty wasteland that stretched out before her, Alice couldn't fathom having to cross.
Which meant that Bella was far out in the middle of the desert, a deathmarch away from water, and even further away from taking Alice's opinion seriously. She knew that Alice loved her, their middle school pre-teen friendship somehow surviving the test of time.
But love was blurred at best and Alice was practically blind.
She took the first shot at twelve-fourteen am, on the floor at the end of her bed with only the blinking streetlights for company. Stabbed her leg, sucked in a breath, and pressed the contents of that needle beneath her skin, injecting hormones like the religious injected prayer, warm euphoria through her veins and an instant sense of relief.
A breath of fresh air after a lifetime of a smog and stench.
A dunk under the baptismal waters of synthesized hormones.
Yes, Alice was probably right. Bella was probably jaded. She would probably end up alone and worn through, threadbare and weary. She would probably tear open at the knees and the elbows, grind down like a tire spun against the pavement until she deflated. Or exploded. She would probably spend her lifetime searching for something she wasn't sure existed, and then die unfulfilled with an apartment empty of anything except cats and self-loathing.
Unless she did something about it.
A ten thousand dollar dip into the pool of her dead daddy's trust fund money.
Bella met Alice downtown, at a bistro too fancy for her tastes. Alice fit right in. Velvet seat covers, heavy brocade curtains, plush carpets and an indoor fountain. Food with long names served on small plates with three different forks. Bella hated coming here, but picked this spot on purpose.
The level of glitz, the standard of patrons, she knew Alice wouldn't throw a fit.
They talked about Alice for an hour. Her recent vacation to Costa Rica, and the girl who was supposed to watch their house while they were gone, but let their fish die and their plants shrivel, and the dog poop all over the pristine front lawn instead. They talked about Jasper's job, the company dinner party that ended with a heart attack, an ambulance, and a promotion for Jasper to replace the old man who passed away with his face in his clam chowder. They talked about the kid, the genius one, the one that was shipping off to some college that likely cost more in one semester than Bella made in an entire year. The robotic arm he invented, the one he shook the president's hand with last week, and the sweet but boring girlfriend he was about to leave behind.
The house was still on the market.
The sex was still phenomenal.
The dog was still fetching beer.
Bella finally dropped her own bomb when their plates were cleared and they were down to drinks, mostly to get Alice to shut up. She would talk for days, brag for hours, if she was given the opportunity, and Bella was swinging on the end of her rapidly fraying rope by the time she had enough. She shoved the little plastic stick with its two pink lines across the table without looking up.
"What is this?" Alice picked the stick up off the table with two fingers, knowing full well what it was.
"You know," Bella said, voice trembling just a little at the edges. She pressed her knees together underneath the table and swallowed hard to steel herself. It had been four months since she peed on that stick and the pink was starting to fade a little bit, but other evidence was starting to crop up. Evidence too strong to ignore. A month of nausea had kept her flat on her back in bed, eating nothing but watermelon and crackers and air. Her tits were too tender to put into her favorite comfortable bra. An exhaustion that seemed unreal, one that crept up on her at random moments and tagged along like an annoying sibling, was her new normal. She found herself waking up with drool on her pillow, four hours lost to some sort of dark black oblivion.
"Who's is this?"
Bella shrugged, stirring the spoon in her tea cup absently. "Mine. Obviously."
Alice's mouth dropped open, the single filling in one of her molars taunting Bella's twelve, and she shook her head. "I can't believe you did it."
The biggest change though, the one that spoke the loudest, was the Thumper. The nudge in her belly that she spent two weeks convincing herself was a muscle spasm. The involuntary twinge deep in her pelvis that caught her off guard every single time, had her standing still and motionless somewhere with her hand to her groin, waiting for another. Two weeks of wondering if her muscles were just adjusting until one day the twitch became a nudge, then a poke, then a full-on thump. One that made her gasp out loud. Then another. And another. That thump wasn't just a thump, wasn't her body.
It was something, someone, else entirely.
"Who's the father?"
Again, Bella found herself shrugging. "Someone smart and healthy."
Alice gaped, eyes wide and mouth open. "What do you mean, someone?"
Bella rid herself of her bed that week. Her childhood mattress, pink polyester with purple flowers stitched into the fabric. It was a faded, stained reminder of a different life. She abandoned it in the alleyway and it took four days for it to be hauled off, covered in snow and soot and garbage by the time the trash truck showed up.
Her twin-sized mattress shuffled off to a late great unknown.
Upgraded to a queen.
She'd been doing this, bit by bit, piece by piece. Taking stock of her life and its rather dismal state of affairs, finally taking the steps to resurrect it. She threw out the sad collections of wine bottles that lined her kitchen cabinets and the stacks of sex-starved magazines piled up in the bathroom. The sad, sagging couch discarded alongside the mattress, promoted to a new sleek contraption that didn't poke her in the wrong places when she collapsed on top of it. The glass topped coffee table, its sharp edges and fractured corners, replaced by a big plush version. The hard wooden floors covered with soft, shaggy carpets and the extra bedroom cleared out of her unread books, unused athletic gear, untapped potential.
There was suddenly so much room. Her life flung wide open. Her bed expanding, space for her arms and her legs and her big throbbing heart and her massive, messy brain to spread out and stretch. Bella lay on her back, her shirt hiked up over her ribs and her flat stomach on display. Her hands pressed to her abdomen and something fluttery like a fish flopping around just there beneath her skin.
How something could live inside her, she didn't understand. How something could be squirming around like that, she couldn't comprehend. How she could grow something so monumental from scratch, how she could house a tiny cluster of cells that was slowly mutating, morphing into a full fledged human, was completely outside of the scope of her imagination.
It was magic, maybe.
Science fiction, probably.
A miracle, definitely.
"I found him."
"Your sperm donor." Alice tossed an envelope across the table. Bella watched it skid toward her until it fell right into her lap without reaching out to grab it. She swallowed hard at the lump that had appeared in her throat.
"Google. It's kind of a miracle. You should try it sometime." Alice smirked, sipping her drink like she hadn't just dropped a bomb right in the middle of table on a day that was perfectly springtime. The sky was actually a pale, pretty blue, the pollution minimal today. The traffic hadn't quite drowned out the bird song yet, and there was a slight breeze instead of the typical stagnant air stuck between the skyscrapers. All in all, it was one of the nicest days Bella had ever experienced in this city.
Alice was about to ruin it all.
Bella hadn't picked this guy. The doctor had. It had been Bella's choice to do it this way. Blind. Blissfully unaware. She had assured Bella that the donor was healthy, smart, no genetic conditions, which was really all Bella cared to know and nothing more. Until now, it hadn't even been a guy, a human, a person living out there in the world somewhere. Until now, it had just been a random miracle, the genetic material she needed to help her body create a person just sort of magically appearing. Ripe for the taking. Perfect for the picking. Bestowed upon her for the simple act of injecting a fertilized egg into her uterus.
The Thumper thumped hard.
Hard enough to make her wince.
"Aren't you going to open it?" Alice asked, sipping her milky, oversweetened tea and watching Bella expectantly.
She opened the envelope.
It took her two weeks to work up the courage. Fifteen days, and her flat stomach wasn't flat anymore, a rounded bulge poking out ahead of her. Fifteen days and the Thumper was no longer a supposed muscle twitch, but a full-on knock. Fifteen days, and she spent most nights awake with her hand to her belly, her eyes closed, feeling the roll and listening to the far away noise of life swishing around deep inside of her. A noise that only she could hear. She even found herself halted mid-moment, listening for it. Stalled in front of the apples at the grocery store, a hurricane in her belly. Frozen at the sink, bubbles up to her wrists, the sound of the water inside of her somehow louder than the water from the tap.
The Thumper might be hers, but it was made up of this person too.
She slipped her finger beneath the flap and sliced her knuckle open tearing the glue apart.
His name was Edward Cullen. Fifty two years old. Lived in Montana. Had an IQ of 124 and a credit score of 765. No genetic abnormalities. Six feet tall and 182 pounds. Caucasian. A normal, healthy sperm count of 210 million. Donated six years ago and kept on ice until one, Bella Swan, requested his spunk.
Bella tossed the papers to the floor, throwing her hands over her face. In a mere instant she knew more about a stranger than she could have after months of conversation, after years of companionship. Even after a decade of intimate physical knowledge, she probably never could have known these sorts of things about him. And yet here was every detail, the dirty and the clean and everything in between, all laid out for her on a single sheet of paper.
An entire human life distilled down to the bare facts.
Fatherhood on a page.
Fourteen hours, thirty six minutes and twelve seconds later, Bella was parked at the end of a long driveway somewhere in Montana.
She was twenty-five miles out of the nearest town and a million miles out of her comfort zone. Driving a car that felt too low to the ground and too sleek for the surroundings, rented it at a small town airport that barely qualified for air travel, if you asked her. Single runway, single baggage claim, sad-looking coffee stand, and not much else. She took the only car they had left, flying through a wild forest and over a mountain cut from rough rock in a machine that was cherry red and shiny enough to make her feel uncomfortable just looking at it, much less driving it.
Everything was uncomfortable these days.
Her skin felt too tight and her bones felt too heavy and clothing was just a pain in her ass. Literally. Nothing fit quite right. She'd given up on pants entirely. Given up on socks and underwires and thongs. Retreated to the land of cotton underwear and slip on sandals. Sports bras and loose, flowing dresses made out of soft cotton instead of polyester. Gave up on her hair and felt accomplished if she managed to put on underwear before she left the house.
She still didn't quite know what she was doing here.
Hopefully she figured it out by the time she came face to face with this guy.
The driveway was long and wound around a slight hill, hiding the house from the road. She parked behind an ancient red truck, its tires settled half-flat into the dusty driveway. It sat lonely beneath the shade of a giant tree that hung over the front yard, sides dented, doors rusted, and the windshield cracked neatly down the center. The house itself was postcard worthy, white clapboard and a wraparound porch. Red shutters. Metal tubs of golden marigolds on the steps. Surrounded on all sides by green fields dotted with white puffs of sheep.
The mountains far off in the distance, improbably large, kissing the big empty sky.
Bella took a deep breath and could taste it in the air. The untainted touch of nature. The clean breath of springtime. The brown cloud of the city was long behind her and cool flush of the countryside was tripping down her tongue. The sun felt stronger, air felt lighter, ground felt softer, and for the first time in a long time her heart wasn't beating double time just to keep up.
A giant shiny black truck was ambling slowly through the field to Bella's right, the sun glinting off the chrome, and all of the windows open, engine growling softly. It edged through an open fence, a cloud of dust engulfing Bella as it pulled to a stop nose to nose with the old red beater. A cat, orange and lanky, jumped from the cab of the black truck, landing nimbly in the dirt. It ran over to inspect her, sniffing at her feet and rubbing up against her legs before skittering off toward the house. It loped up the porch and flopped down on the top step, tongue hanging out, panting like a dog.
When Bella glanced back at the truck, he was already out of the cab and standing a few feet away from her. Leaning against the truck door. Taking his cowboy hat from his head. Pulling the leather gloves from his hands. Smoothing back his hair, sweat plastered to his forehead.
Absolutely nothing like she expected him to be.
She had spent the last two weeks inspecting every middle-aged man she could find, all of them momentarily filling his gap. The guy who worked the front desk at the library, his sweater vests and those tweed jackets. The ones in the grocery stores and the gas stations. Eating at the diner or waiting on street corners for the lights to change. Newspapers under their arms, shiny shoes and suits. Pot bellies and sagging jawlines. Wrinkles and spotted skin and big squashy noses.
She didn't know exactly what she thought she would find, but certainly not this.
Not him. Like this.
He wasn't one of them at all. He was rugged. Roughcut. Long and lean and sunbaked. Taunt skin and roped muscle. Wearing jeans worn soft at the knees and a faded flannel shirt rolled up at the elbows, unbuttoned at the chest, tucked behind a simple leather belt. He had a square set jaw. High, wide forehead. The faintest brush of grey at his temples, copper hair that edged toward bronze, then gold, then silver.
Eyes of biting green, set deep and somber beneath heavy brows.
"You lost?" he asked, his gaze falling slowly down the front of her. It took every ounce of her self-control not to cup her hands around her protruding belly. He was judging her; she could tell just by the feel of it, the warm burn across her skin. Her ink and her metal and her technicolor hair. Her gold sandals and the long, flowing dress. Her glow, which wasn't really a glow, but more like the dewey hint of impending nausea. Her double-sized tits and the cleavage they left behind. She took the giant sunglasses off her face and squinted at him through the bright sunshine, shaking her head.
"You look lost." The side of his mouth pulled up, white teeth appearing behind his chapped lips and Bella struggled to remember what she was even doing here.
This might have been a terrible, terrible idea.
"I'm writing a story," she said. Sometimes her mouth worked before her brain. Long before her brain. She wondered if reporters showed up with tape recorders. They probably carried a notepad, at the very least. Or a pencil. Had a business card. Wore a suit.
He just stared at her.
"About ranchers," she stumbled.
He nodded, but remained silent. Jesus.
"So… what's it like? Being a rancher?" She didn't know what to do with her hands. Or her feet. Or her face. Really, she just wanted to melt into an embarrassed puddle in the dust, but he only grinned at her, big and white, with his eyes crinkling all around the edges and his rough hand rubbing at his chin.
"We're doing this now?" he asked.
"Uh, I guess so …"
"Best if you came back tomorrow," he said, squinting over her shoulder. "I don't have time right now to talk to pretty girls."
Bella blushed. Hard. So hard, it almost hurt, and the Thumper thumped. Hard. That one definitely hurt. A glance behind her revealed another truck, this one blue, trudging up the driveway in its own cloud of dust.
"Oh, right. Yeah, I can come back." Bella wasn't entirely sure that was going to happen. She was ready to turn tail and never show her face here again, questioning her every move that had brought her out here to the middle of nowhere. She took a step backward toward her car.
A tiny old woman, stoop-shouldered and floss-haired, leapt from the cab of the blue truck with surprising agility, a dish in one hand and a bottle of something in the other. She kicked the truck door shut behind her and approached, eyeing Bella with bright blues that matched the calico dress she wore, periwinkle and patterned with forget-me-nots.
He was shaking his head at the woman, his hand moving to his neck. "You should just call; I would have come to you."
"I brought dinner, you ungrateful scamp. Talk to me that way and I'll take it home with me." The woman shoved the dish at his chest and proceeded to peel the plastic wrapping from off the top of the bottle, still studying Bella. Edward rubbed the back of his neck and it almost looked like he was blushing, though Bella had a hard time discerning it from underneath that suntan.
"This is my aunt, Rosalie Cullen. This is -" His eyes fell on Bella and his mouth paused around the gap where her name should be.
"Bella," she filled in, sticking her hand out in the old woman's direction. "I'm uh … I'm writing a story on ranchers."
Dead silence for a beat before the old woman chuckled.
"Sure you are, dearie." Rosalie took a heavy swig from the bottle and headed toward the house, shooing the orange cat off the stairs. It followed her inside, meowing loudly, and the screen door slammed heavy behind them.
"Sorry about her. She's too old to make her behave herself." Edward shook his head, staring at the house. The dish of his dinner was still in his hand, his fingers spread eagle across the bottom.
"It's fine," Bella deflected, dropping her eyes to her feet. "I'll just go now, leave you to your dinner." She shuffled toward her car, picking her dress up out of the dirt and wrenching the door open with a little too much force.
"Nice car." He was eyeing the cherry red beast, an eyebrow arched beneath his floppy hair, mouth still half smiling at her as though this was all a big joke.
"I hate it," she admitted, without thinking, because it was the truth and the truth tended to slip out of her easy like water. It was the lies she had a hard time coming up with. Bella collapsed into the front seat, her hips sore and her head tired, and put both hands on the wheel before looking back at him. He was standing at the open door, hand on the frame, grin still on his face.
"Tomorrow?" she asked, completely uncertain if she was even coming back.
"Tomorrow." He nodded, shutting her door.
She came back.
She didn't know why. Pulled down that same driveway by something she couldn't quite explain. It might have been curiosity, the newness of such a life that seemed so far out of her reach. It might have been the scenery, the clean air, or the smell of fresh grass after years of city asphalt and exhaust. It might have been the orange cat or the pretty little house or the big open skyline.
It might have been him.
The easy smile and the deep eyes and the wrinkles like canyons.
The yard was deserted, the big black truck still parked next to its old red companion. The orange cat came leaping out of the barn, stopping with its feet splayed in the dust when it spotted her. It lifted its chin and sniffed the air in her direction, the fur on its back rising slightly. Bella stood still as it neared with slow steady steps that reminded Bella of a bulldog. It sniffed her again before rubbing all over her legs with a purr loud enough to rumble its chest, tail twining through her legs.
She followed it back toward the barn.
Inside was dark and damp and cool. Smelled like dirt and straw and animals, their breath and their shit and their fur. She squinted against the dark and followed the cat toward the far end of the barn. A horse speckled brown and grey stuck its face over the gate of its stall while two snorting pigs and a stinky goat eyeballed her as she passed. The cat loped into the last stall, pausing to make sure she was following, and Bella rounded on a sight that caught her breath in her throat.
He was sprawled in a pile of straw, a lamb in his lap, and an empty bottle near his hip. Hat discarded at his feet. Head resting back against the clapboards. Eyes closed. Hand absently stroking the back of the small creature curled up on his legs. Bella shuffled in the doorway, the straw poking her feet as his eyes fluttered open.
Once again, he didn't look at all surprised to see her there.
"You can come in." He gestured with his chin and Bella stepped into the straw, sinking to her knees in front of him. Her fingers found the soft wool of the lamb's leg and she stroked it gently, in complete awe. She had never been quite so close to something so new and fresh. The lamb was curled up on top of him, legs tucked awkwardly beneath itself. Its wool was still matted with bits of blood and gore, its nose pink and soft and wet, its ears see through.
She kept her chin low, but peeked up at him at she stroked the soft, fresh baby wool beneath her fingers. He had deep dark circles under his eyes, the lids drooping heavy, and his hands moving sluggish and slow. He pressed his head back against the wood behind him, sighing heavily.
"You look exhausted," Bella whispered.
"Been up all night with this one. Thought I was gonna lose her." He rubbed the lamb between the ears and looked down at Bella. "You here to talk ranching with me?"
He winked. Almost like this was a joke.
If he only knew.
"We can… We can do this some other time," she muttered.
"It's ok. Why don't you go into the house and start me a pot of coffee. I'll finish up here and then come inside. We can talk."
Bella pulled herself from the straw and let the cat lead her toward the house, stepping through the screen door into the cool, dark innards of the place this man called home. It smelled like him, strong and immediate, the sharp tang of fresh grass and the mellow, muted scent of animals. More of that clean air. The single large room in front of her was dominated by a river rock fireplace just ahead, a living area to the left and the kitchen on the right, large windows over the countertops flaunting an impressive view of the mountains in the not-so-far-off distance.
Rosalie, the little old aunt, was seated at the table, the cat in her lap. She was dressed in another pretty cotton dress, pink with yellow flowers this time, a light blue apron tied across her front. Her silver hair was whipped on top of her head like a puff of cotton candy and her skin, though sun-browned and paper-thin, glowed. She had probably been a beautiful woman in her younger years, the hint of high cheekbones and full lips hidden amongst the wrinkles. She looked up at when Bella stepped through the door, a sly smile crossing her face.
"Well, look what the cat drug in." She winked in Bella's direction, looking so much like Edward that Bella began to wonder just how closely they were related.
"I'm supposed to start coffee." Bella glanced around, looking for a coffeemaker, but didn't see anything that remotely resembled such a thing. The countertops were clustered with cooking tools, a kettle on the stove, but not a single mechanical instrument to be seen. She stood near the table and watched as Rosalie lit the stove with a match, blue flame beneath the kettle, and set to work grinding coffee beans in a little hand cranked mill. The grounds stained the air with their signature bitter tang as Rosalie dumped them into the bottom of a french press and topped it with water when the kettle started to scream.
Bella huffed to herself, wondering if Edward was testing her by asking her to complete such a task on her own.
Rosalie turned, wiping her wrinkled hands on her apron and smiled cheekily at Bella. "You're welcome," she chuckled.
"Thank you," Bella stuttered. "I would have had no idea-"
"I know that, dear," Rosalie smiled. "He thinks he has a sense of humor." The old woman patted her gently on the arm, poking for a moment at the flowers on her elbow before heading for the door, pausing with her hand on the frame. She turned to look sharply at Bella, her eyes narrowed and bright.
"When are you due?" she asked.
Bella felt all of the blood drain out of her face, spots appearing in front of her eyes, and she gripped the back of the chair in front of her to keep herself upright. She stuttered, a string of unintelligible sounds, and the old lady smiled at her softly before turning back to the door.
"You got the glow, girl."
"I'm just sunburned," Bella retaliated at her retreating form.
"That ain't no sunburn," Rose called back as the door slammed behind her.
Edward stepped outside with two steaming cups in his hands, handing one to Bella before settling beside her on the bench swing that hung from the rafters of the porch. He took a deep sip from his cup, sighing heavily and rubbing his fingers into his eyes. Bella took a tentative sip of the coffee, her stomach rolling slightly from the scent of it. She'd been addicted to coffee before, a solid four-cup-a-day kind of girl, and giving it up had been difficult to say the least. The caffeine withdrawal made her sick for a week. She was down to one cup a day, but one cup of Starbuck's version of coffee, which was more like water than coffee to begin with.
This homestyle version tasted twice as strong and smelled even stronger.
"Your aunt seems nice." Bella was fully ready to accuse him of setting her up with that coffee fiasco, but he laughed out loud and arched an eyebrow at her that struck her stupid. The rough, heavy sound of his laughter, the deepening of the lines around his mouth and his eyes, the silvery scruff staining his jawline; he was too damn good looking for someone his age.
"That's what you wanna call her?" Edward chuckled. "She's a right pain in my ass most of the time."
"She loves you though. I can tell."
"She raised me. Parents were killed when I was four. She and my Uncle Emmett took me in."
Tears immediately welled up in Bella's eyes. Typically, it took something solid and sharp with precise aim to hit her soft spot, but these days she was all soft spots. Crying over everything, little kids playing with puppies in the park and that one commercial about the ballerina in the wheelchair that was really just an advertisement for a stupid car. Her favorite teacup cracking down the side. The lonely wail of a stray cat late at night. The bloom of her Christmas cactus in the middle of summer.
Bella looked away and tried to discreetly brush her face, struggling not to sniffle.
"You don't need to cry over them." He shook his head. "Ain't much of a loss, really."
"But they were your parents," Bella choked. The word weighed heavier on her than ever before. Parent. These days the innocuous sound was dipped in a healthy dose of fear. Mostly, she worried that she didn't have enough experience with the good kind of parenting to ever be one herself and those were the moments the big black hole of doubt swallowed her up and spit her out in a sticky saliva mess.
Maybe, just maybe, she was going to fuck this kid up worse than her parents had done to her.
"They died rolling a truck full of stolen weed outta Mexico." Edward's voice sounded bitter and resentful. "Safe to call me an orphan long before that."
"I'm still sorry."
"You ain't gonna ask me about ranching? Thought you had a story to write?" He smirked at her.
Bella huffed, pulling back on her tears. She should. Maybe not only to keep up with her lie but it would be an easy way to learn about him. She had a million questions, most of them heavier than she could even begin to deal with, so she started simple. "How long have you been here?"
"Fifteen years, give or take."
"You weren't from here before?"
"Nah. Born in Nebraska. Omaha."
"So why Montana, then?"
"Nebraska's too… flat," he said vaguely, his eyes narrowing as he surveyed the scenery. Bella gazed off over the open fields around them, the sun shining big and hot and heavy on the white puffs of sheep spotted through the green. The mountains looked bigger and bigger every time she looked at them, somehow growing more enormous with each and every day, each and every second that passed here. By now she was convinced there was a shift happening beneath her feet with every step she took, a tectonic upheaval with every breath. By the time she left, those mountains might be touching that big blue sky.
She wondered if he still saw it all the same way she did. If the awe was gone. If maybe it was only broken fence lines and lambs trying to die on him.
"That's all you got?" he asked. He was grinning at her again, the big wide one, like he'd just told a joke and was only waiting for her to catch up and laugh.
Bella resisted the urge to glare at him. "You're kind of hard to get a read on," she grumbled. "You don't talk much."
"Yeah, well, John Wayne." Edward shrugged, tucking his grin into his coffee cup.
Bella didn't like westerns much. She had only ever seen one, and she had no idea if John Wayne was in it or not. The lead guy had a cigar in his mouth for most of the movie, a beer gut, and he whipped his horse harder than he needed to. He killed four Indians and drug a woman over his knee by the hair to give her a good wallop on the ass halfway through the film.
"What about him?" she asked, not even sure she wanted to know.
Edward turned to look at her, the corner of his eye wrinkling deeper as his grin widened. She wasn't sure if it was the caffeine, or the way this guy looked at her, but the Thumper flip flopped all around like it was excited for something. Edward's voice dropped, his accent flattening out and when he spoke, he sounded just like that old cowboy in the movie she hated.
"Like he always said… Talk low. Talk slow. And don't say too much."
Bella woke with a start.
It was dark and there were crickets. Wind on her cheeks. She was beneath something heavy and scratchy and warm. She blinked slowly, her mouth dry and her eyes itchy, swallowed up by that exhaustion monster again, the one that snuck up on her at the strangest of times and in the most inconvenient of places.
She sat upright, licking her lips and checking her surroundings. She was on his porch. On the padded seat where they had been sitting earlier. There were lights pouring out of the windows, a warm breeze blowing over the fields and the orange cat was sitting two feet away, watching her. She could hear someone shuffling around inside and her neck felt stiff and sore. She wiped the drool off her face and hugged the blanket around her shoulders as she stood unsteadily.
The cat led her lazily through the front door, propped open against the summertime heat.
Edward glanced over at her as she stepped through the doorway. He was standing in front of the sink and there was steam rising around his face, the thin white t-shirt he was sporting stuck to the damp skin of his chest. Bella clutched the blanket tighter around herself, thankful for the extra coverage. There was something about his gaze. Something about the way his eyes lingered. He didn't make her feel uncomfortable, or naked, or even sexualized. Didn't make her want to crawl out of her skin or melt through the floorboards.
He made her feel see-through and sultry, like she was a fog he wanted to walk through.
"You hungry?" he asked, as though it was normal for tattooed girls to show up and pass out on his porch. Like this happened every day. Her stomach growled, the Thumper thumping in agreement and she nodded nearly against her will. There were two china bowls set out on the big butcher block table. Two chipped coffee mugs and mismatched silverware. Fabric napkins, checkered red and white like a picnic tablecloth. A pretty etched glass with a couple of floppy wild daisies in it.
Edward set a basket of bread on the table and ushered her further inside. Bella sat in one of the chairs, the cat curling around her ankles, wet nose to her skin.
"Hi kitty," she cooed, leaning over as far as she could to scratch the cat behind the ears. It had the loudest purr she had ever heard, a deep rumble that caught her off guard. The cat flopped onto his back and bared his belly for a rub, looking up at her expectantly. The dusky orange color of its fur melted out to a creamy butter hue beneath its chin and between the legs, downy and soft.
"Kentucky," Edward offered simply, rummaging through a jumbled collection of whisks and ladles that were clumped together like a bouquet in an old heavy pitcher on the counter. He dunked a ladle into the blue enameled dutch oven and set it on the table beside the bread.
"No dog?" Bella asked, complying with the cat's invitation, rubbing her fingers through the soft fur of his belly. The cat stretched out long and lean against the rug, obviously enjoying the attention.
"No. Too high maintenance." Edward shook his head.
"Huh," Bella huffed, her forehead wrinkling.
"What?" Edward asked, his eyebrow raised as he sat beside her, a bottle of something amber and two glasses in his hand.
"Nothing. I just had you pegged for a dog type," Bella mused, still scratching.
"Cat might as well be a dog. Rides the fence lines with me. Runs with the sheep. Gets fleas."
"He was in the truck with you yesterday." Bella laughed, remembering the sight of the cat leaping from the cab of the truck as though it was perfectly normal.
"He rides in my lap with his head out the window." Edward nodded, rolling his eyes with a chuckle as he started to dish up their meal. He ladled something thick and chunky, smelling of garlic and carrots and rosemary, beef and thyme, into her bowl.
"He really is a dog," Bella laughed, abandoning the cat for her spoon. She blew tentatively on the first bite, positively starving. "This smells wonderful." It smelled even better than that, but she didn't know how he'd react to a compliment so she kept it to herself. Edward offered the bottle, motioning toward her but Bella shook her head, trying her best not to redden around the ears.
"No thanks. I'm off… drinking," she muttered.
"Suit yourself." He shrugged, pouring himself three healthy inches and polishing half of it off in one gulp.
Edward walked her out to her car after dinner, opening the door for her. Bella couldn't shake the feeling that he wanted to say something to her but didn't know how. She started to shrug out of the sweater he'd insisted she put on earlier, a handknit green that was softer than it looked and probably looked fantastic on him.
"Keep it. Bring it back tomorrow." He set a hand down heavy on her shoulder, stopping her. "It gets cold here at night, remember that. No matter how warm the day is."
"I'll keep that in mind." Bella pulled the soft sweater closer around herself. Her eyes prickled again, traitorously unstable. It wasn't only just the sweater, the hand on her shoulder. It was the unspoken indication that she was coming back tomorrow. The fact that he didn't ask, just assumed.
Bella stopped with one foot in the car, turning to face him. He was still staring down at her, a wrinkle between his eyebrows, his eyes questioning. He looked thoroughly confused, slightly perplexed, as though she was a math problem and the answer was beyond him. She knew the feeling; he was just as intriguing and full of unknowns.
'What did you do before you came here?" She knew immediately it was the very last question she should have asked him. His jaw tightened. Eyes narrowed. Knuckles turned white on the frame of the car door and he swallowed heavily. She watched his tongue drag slowly over his bottom lip, wetting it slightly before he took a slow, deep breath, looking away into the dark.
"I used to ride bulls," he exhaled. His face didn't flinch, but there was a red hot flash behind his eyes and his jaw set to stone.
"And now you raise sheep?"
Edward shrugged. "They don't have horns." He shut her door and stood in the driveway, watching her leave until he was nothing but a tiny smudge in her rear view.
She googled his name that night.
She was naked in a hotel room fifteen miles away. It was the only four star she could find within fifty miles, the bed surprisingly soft, the bathroom spacious and suspiciously clean. The guy at the front desk had called her darlin' and complimented her ink and upgraded her to a suite.
She stripped off all her clothing the moment she stepped in the door, the latch locked behind her and all the air falling out of her lungs. She felt like she had been holding her breath all day. Felt like her skin had been holding her insides together against the unrelenting urge to split apart at the seams. She shrugged out of her dress and left it where it hit the carpet, shuffling out of her underwear and throwing her bra across the room with more force than necessary. She stood in front of the full length mirror for a while, like she had been doing every night, inspecting herself from head to foot. The small changes and the big ones. The subtle stretch of her belly and the not so subtle expansion of her tits. The dark line that was beginning to appear down the middle of her belly to the top of her crotch like a trail on a treasure map.
The Thumper thumping away like x marked the spot.
Bella warmed up some water and took her tea cup with her to the bed, gathering up her laptop and the old fuzzy socks she was growing ever more fond of. She pulled them on as the computer booted up, drank her tea while it connected to the internet, and then stared at the home screen for a long time before she found the courage to type in his name.
Alice was right, Google was kind of a miraculous thing. Ten seconds, and she knew it all. Maybe knew too much.
Edward Cullen. The orphan turned rodeo star.
He started young. Really young. First gold medal at six years old for barrel racing. Another one the next year. Two the next. All in all, by the time he was eighteen he had won sixteen regional awards and nine county fairs. By twenty two he had four state titles and one national championship beneath that belt of his. He was a star. A rodeo king. An ingenue who would have been a champion if it hadn't been for a last minute entry into a small-town competition somewhere in Wyoming, his career cut short and his life very nearly cut even shorter.
23 years old and ripped down the side by a beast known as War Dance.
A bull who had already injured four riders, one of them fatally. There was a video link, but she couldn't bring herself to watch it, reading instead about the moment that nearly cost Edward his life. The toss and goring and the ten minutes it took the clowns to lure the bull away from his broken body. The blood loss and the surgeon's statement. The outcome, grim at best. The four weeks in intensive care and the three blood transfusions. The one hundred and eighty two stitches. The seventy two staples. The part of his spleen they had to remove entirely.
The eight days in an induced coma.
From there, the buzz went flat. Trail went cold. No more contests. No more awards. No more mentions of his name, no more articles or interviews. Edward Cullen disappeared from the limelight, retreated into the dark, and no one seemed to know anything about his current whereabouts.
Only one thing was for certain.
Edward Cullen never rode a bull ever again.
Edward was throwing gear in the back of his truck when she pulled up the next day. He smiled at her as she hauled herself out of the low red car, trying to make it look as though it wasn't as hard as it actually was. Her back was sore and she'd barely been sleeping these days, her bones feeling mushy and her brain way too full. She'd managed another dress today, a simple black thing that buttoned up the front and fell long and flowing around her ankles, but she'd forgone a bra completely. She tried twice, but was unable to confine her breasts into anything even remotely tight, nipples sore and lungs feeling smashed and small.
"I've got some fence to mend, a ditch to dig out," Edward told her, striding close enough that she could smell him over the dust, something stingingly sweet about him, like the liquor he drank last night. "You can come back later, I still have stew left over from last night and we can try your interview again."
"I don't care about the interview. I want to come." Bella glanced off across the fields, already relishing the feeling of the sunshine and the breeze and that see-through gaze of his.
Edward's eyebrow arched steadily, his eyes blinking placid as though he'd expected her to say as much and wasn't surprised at all, before his gaze fell to her feet. "You can't wear those out there." He shook his head and Bella looked down herself, leaning forward just a little to glimpse her feet beyond the subtle swell in her stomach, painted pink and strapped into sandals. Edward retreated to the house and returned with a pair of black leather cowboy boots, small in his giant hands. They were nothing like his. They didn't look worn down or even loved all that much. Weren't dirty or even dusted around the edges. They were shiny and new, the flowery stitching intact, the sole flat and the tips capped in silver.
Edward knelt in front of her and Bella slipped her feet out of her sandals, steadying herself on his shoulder as he guided her into the boots.
"Whose are these?"
He glanced up at her briefly before tucking his head to help her into the second boot. "Rose's."
Bella tossed her sandals into her car and pulled herself into the truck with a grunt, the muscles in her belly protesting. Edward let out a whistle, two fingers in his mouth, and an orange streak appeared a couple of hundred yard down the driveway. The cat leapt through Edward's open door and clambered into Bella's lap, paws on the open window and his face held out in the breeze. Bella laughed, a hand on his back with his tail swishing in her face as Edward winked at her, starting the truck.
They drove slowly over the bumpy field, following the fence line until the house was out of sight.
Bella wandered off to let Edward work in peace, trailing off through the thigh high grass. It was full-on summer and she had never been somewhere so open and empty and natural. Not a car or house in sight, the closest highway a solid twenty minutes away. She could breathe out here, for the first time in ages her lungs felt like they worked. For the first time in forever, the air didn't taste dirty or heavy or tainted. She wasn't gagging on each breath. Wasn't struggling for air.
She chased a group of lambs around, Kentucky prancing along. Found a soft spot in the grass and spent an hour making herself a crown of daisies and dandelions and buttercups. Made another smaller one for Kentucky. Kicked off the boots and flopped onto her back, looking for clouds to find shapes in, but the sky was just improbably blue and big and empty. She let the cat curl up near her shoulder and one of the lambs rest its head in her lap and she stared up at the sun.
She was nursing a crush.
She shouldn't be. It wasn't why she came here. Wasn't what she expected at all, but it was his fault. She couldn't help it when he looked at her like that. Couldn't help it when he smiled at her that way he did, like she was the bright little anomaly in his life that he couldn't quite figure out. She couldn't help it when his gaze lingered on her neck or her face or her eyes. When he spoke soft and the hard pulse in his neck throbbed beneath that half-grown beard he seemed to always be sporting. Couldn't help that she wondered what his hands felt like. What his mouth might feel like. What his breath would feel like, ghosting over her skin.
He was sixteen years older than she was. Driving when she was born, drinking when she was five. Getting gored open by a bull when she was seven. In numbers, it seemed like such an impossible divide, but face to face, the difference wasn't as apparent as she thought it would be.
For the first time ever, the Thumper thumped hard enough that she could feel it in her palm.
A solid kick resonating through her hand.
"Can't say I ever seen a prettier sight out here."
Bella glanced up toward the sky just as Edward's shadow sprawled over her. He was shirtless, jeans slung low, splattered head to toe in mud. Hands were hidden in leather work gloves and his cowboy hat was pulled low over his face, nearly hiding that grin of his. He had tried to wipe away the mud from his face but had only managed to smear it across his cheeks and he was staring at her intently, leaning on the handle of that shovel.
She was sure she blushed crimson from her hairline to her ankles.
"You're a mess," she laughed, struggling to sit up gracefully. Edward looked down at himself, shrugging as he nodded.
"Yeah. Can't dig out a ditch without making a bit of a mess."
He collapsed into the grass beside her, pulling off his gloves and tossing aside his hat. Bella lay back and watched him, the sunlight making his skin shine golden brown and his hair burn bright. There were greys, yes, but scattered and light, and there were wrinkles, yes, but they reminded her of flying over the deserts. The way the cracks in the dirt started small and thin before they eventually puddled together, drawn thicker and deeper at the edges of his eyes and carved across the wide expanse of his forehead.
"Why'd you do all of this to yourself?"
Edward was staring at her leg, the skin exposed where her dress was hiked up. The vines inked around her ankle. The irises penned into her thigh. His eyes tracing the outlines of the stars on her shoulder, the milky way on her chest, jumping over the fish on her arms. Bella's first instinct was anger. It was always anger, followed closely by a wave of indignation. The bite of justification. The completely uncalled for wave of embarrassment that came hand in hand with this type of scrutiny. She hated being criticized.
"I'm an art project," she muttered, frowning. "I don't want to be boring."
"I didn't say I didn't like them." Edward reached out and brushed a fingertip down her arm, the petals of flowers basking beneath the heavy callus he was sporting. "And you are far from boring."
Bella watched him study her skin, the way his eyes hovered over her ink as that wrinkle between his brows appeared again. She took the opportunity to memorize the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes, the creases in his forehead, the smile lines that bracketed his mouth deepening with every grin he shot in her direction. When he glanced up at her, she must have looked just as intrigued as he did. Edward blinked, shaking his head as though he was trying to clear it.
"What?" he asked.
"It's just… " Bella shook her head. "You look at me like I'm-"
"Beautiful?" He quirked that same grin at her.
"Strange," she corrected. Edward sighed heavily, brushing the hair back from his face, the grin melting away to something serious and heavy. He leaned closer, all his weight on his palm sunken into the grass between them, and plucked the flowered crown out of her hair, dropping it into her lap.
"Don't hit me or anything, ok?" he whispered, face so close he was a blurry version of himself. Bella closed her eyes before he landed.
Sweet and soft at first, the light brush of chapped lips and exhales before it pressed deeper. Harder. Mouths opening to tongues and teeth and heavy sighs. Bella flopped back into the grass, Edward close behind with a knee between her thighs and his hand on her neck, fingertips dancing over the thumping pulse beneath her skin. She watched the sky roll overhead as he dipped his face to her neck, her chest, the buttons of her dress slipping free between his fingers. The scratch of his stubble against her increasingly sensitive skin, her nipple screaming in pain and pleasure when he licked it, tightening in the breeze as he pulled away. His fingertips were rough, callused at the knuckles, and rubbed hard and smooth over the palms from years of work with that shovel. She caught her breath and lay still in the grass, content to just feel it. The lazy trail he was tripping through the flowers on her arms.
Up her neck. Down her cheeks.
Across her chest, tracing the stars tattooed over her heart.
Up and over the lump in her stomach.
His eyes fell, the fabric of her dress suddenly see-through and her skin too thin to hide the Thumper. His hand stilled, the warm weight of it right over the squirming fish in her belly, the hard balloon that had replaced the soft squish of her intestines, and his eyes rose slowly to hers.
So slowly that she was nearly crawling out of her skin by the time they locked gazes.
"You're pregnant," he said, flat and bland, as though he should have seen it earlier but had chosen to ignore it. Like he'd known since the beginning. Like he wasn't surprised at all.
"Yes." Bella's hand drifted to the sore spot above her legs. Her palm landed on top of his, the sun-warmed skin of his hand between her and the Thumper.
"Whose is it?"
Bella swallowed her heart, the burning ball of muscle that had been lodged up in her throat ever since she drove down that bumpy driveway and stopped in a cloud of dust in front of this man and his unencumbered life.
They drove back to the house in silence. The cat fell asleep on the dashboard and the windows were open to the breeze, but Bella could barely breathe. Sheep ran along the fences, bleating at them through the tall green grass, and the sun started to sink behind the far-off horizon, the sky bleeding lilac and rose.
Bella's heart hadn't stopped snapping around in her chest since he pulled her out of the grass.
Edward drove casual, one-handed, but his knuckles were white. Jaw was set. He didn't speak, keeping his face locked firmly on the dusted windshield, his chest barely moving. He parked them in the same old spot and exited the truck, the door slamming behind him. Before Bella could gather up her wits or her heart or her crushed up insides, he appeared at her door, opening it and offering his hand. Bella swallowed hard and accepted, folding her palm into his and letting him help her from the vehicle. He didn't release her when she hit the dust, only led her toward the house. They climbed the stairs before he collapsed heavily onto the cushioned swing. He dropped her hand, planted his elbows on his knees and forehead in his palms. Staring at the spot between his feet.
"I'll just go," Bella muttered, her throat tight and her hands shaking. She toed out of the cowboy boots, leaving them by the door and turning to retreat to the relative safety of her car. Ready to resume the anonymous city life she'd been living, despite the hole burning in her chest.
Edward's voice was harsh, rough around the edges. She glanced back at him, her toes off the the first step, dress bunched up around her stomach and her heart bunched up in her throat. He was shaking his head at her, mouth in a thin, hard line. His hand was hovering out in her direction, fingers curling once, twice, again.
Bella was nothing but a helpless handful of hesitations and second guesses. "I didn't mean to-"
"Take that damned dress off," he interrupted. "I want to see it. I want to see you."
Bella swallowed, the taste of his mouth still all over hers, and his voice tripping up and down her skin.
She pulled the dress from her shoulders, let it slide down her body and fall limp to the porch. Standing in nothing but her underwear, the body that wasn't entirely hers anymore on full display. The one that hurt and ached and felt a little like a taken-over country that lost an epic war, on full display. She barely recognized herself anymore. Her hips and her tits and the ever- expanding swell of her stomach, everything bigger and wider and softer. Everything tender and tingly to the touch. Everything unstable and wobbly. All the things that held her bones together before suddenly turned to jelly, her skeleton threatening to collapse.
"I'm a whale," Bella huffed, crossing her arms over her chest, struggling not to cry.
"I think you're pretty fucking gorgeous, actually." Edward's voice came out strong, his hand still reaching in her direction. Bella took a hesitant step across the worn-smooth wood, then another, his palm working around the curve of her backside to pull her closer. She stopped between his knees, focused her eyes over his head onto a spot on the wall, blinking fiercely. His hand bunched her underwear, the other fluttering midair over the taut skin of her stomach and the stretch marks that were starting to scatter themselves across her midsection. When he finally brushed the callused tips of his fingers against her, her eyes watered over and spilled down her cheeks.
"They're ugly. I hate them," she hiccuped.
"They're not ugly." Edward shook his head, tracing a trio of purple stripes on her hip. "They mean something."
"They are ugly." Bella could feel her voice catch in her throat, could hear the way it came out as a sob. She bit her lip hard, blinking through the ocean caught behind her eyelashes.
"You've got nothing on ugly." Edward shook his head at her before he pulled the shirt over his head, tossing it blindly aside. He bent forward slowly, his hands on her hips and his hair brushing her belly before his forehead met her skin, the curve of his back on display in the dim light.
The scar stretched from the base of his neck to his hip. Small and tapered at the ends with the puckered spots where stitches had once held him together. It ran ragged across his shoulder, cut close to his spine and splayed over his abdomen, ending in a lightning bolt just above the waist of his jeans. Thick and angry and red. Deep and dented and mangled.
His skin broke out in goosebumps as she traced her fingers down the length of it.
"So, we've both got some scars," he exhaled, hot against her waist. "Except yours are making something new, and mine about took it all away."
Bella sunk into Edward's mattress, heavy and feather-light. Head spinning. Fingers numb. Skin prickling. Heart lurching around in her chest and the Thumper banging around beneath her ribs. She was trying to breathe, trying to remember how to breathe, but she'd forgotten everything. Her name. Her face. Where she was. What she was doing here. His hands were on her knees and his face was buried in her neck and she was holding tight to his belt loops, hoping to keep herself grounded to the bed.
She felt like she might lift up and float away if he didn't pin her down.
"This is unreal," Edward marveled, eyes on his hands as he ran them down her side, wrapping gentle around the curve of her stomach. He knelt between her knees, bent at the waist to bring his lips to her skin. The stubble on his cheeks rasped against her, an almost painful rub against her paper-thin skin. His fingers pulled at her underwear, dragging it away, and when he touched the creases in her legs all her pent up anxiety came flooding out of her mouth.
"I used to be-"
"I don't give a shit about what you used to be …" he huffed, slipping his fingers between her lips, pressing her clit between his thumbs hard enough to shut her up. Firm enough to make her see stars. Strong enough to make her moan.
When he settled on his elbows, he was grinning to himself.
When his breath hit her skin, he lit a fire in the spaces between all of her cells.
When he pressed his nose up against her, she went up in flames. Incinerated, in all the best ways. Nerves on fire, blood boiling, eyes burning, and her breath coming in heat waves that scalded her throat.
Edward hummed deep in his chest, folding his tongue against all of her soft, slippery skin, licking his way through every crease between her legs. Dipping deep inside before pulling away, pressing too soft and too hard and too much and too little against her clit. Licking his thumb and sliding it deep inside, groaning to himself as he watched, eyes hooded and face wet. Pressing his face back in for more, slow languid swirls that started and ended in firm, wet pressure. Deep, sucking kisses that pulled her tight and taut, buried rubs of his nose and tongue and teeth. Bella bent her knees, dug her toes into his shoulders, writhing against the mattress. His fingers dug deeper, arm pinning her hips down, his hair bobbing soft and slow over the bulge in her stomach.
When she came undone, it was so slow that she barely recognized it. So strong that she couldn't contain her voice, sighing his name. So hard that he left her bones shaking and her muscles quivering, her fingers threaded through the sheets and her breath caught up in her lungs.
"Goddamn, woman," he growled, leaning back to undo his belt, subtly wiping his face. "I'd spend the rest of my life right there, if you'd let me."
Bella woke to big, callused hands on her hips. To fingers digging into her skin. To an unfamiliar something pressed hard and hot and demanding against the crack of her ass. To breath on her neck and a heartbeat thrumming against her shoulder blade.
The Thumper wriggling around beneath a heavy hand on her stomach.
She bolted out of bed, wondering wildly where she was, her heart pounding frantically just behind her tongue and a rush of adrenaline surging through her. The room was dark, steeped sometime in the middle of the night and it took ten solid seconds for her eyes to adjust. Edward was lying on his side, draped in nothing but that thin white sheet. He was up on one elbow, his hand swiping his eyes before falling open and empty on bed where she had just been curled up against him. His hair was deliciously chaotic, standing upright at all odd angles, the bones in his face sharper than ever before in the shadows. He wasn't breathing, at all. Statuesque. Naked. And obviously aroused, that much was obvious.
Bella glanced down at herself.
The evening came rushing back like a bar fight, toppling over itself in its haste to be remembered. A jumbled mishmash of arms and legs and panting, most of it hers. A blurry flood of tongues and fingers and teeth, of heavy grunts and heavier groans, most of them his. She wasn't entirely sure what happened to get her here, but she did know for certain was that she'd slept with Edward last night. Several times. And that she was falling hard. Fast.
Like a penny dropped off a skyscraper.
Hitting the sidewalk with g-force velocity and indenting her face right into the concrete.
"Hi," she choked, her voice rough. She wasn't sure if she could blame the uncertainty coursing through her, or if she'd spent most of the evening screaming his name.
Edward's mouth immediately pulled up at the corner into that smirk of his, eyes flashing. "Hi," he said, simply.
Bella gulped. "I, uh… " she faltered, not knowing what to say. Edward's eyebrow arched and his hand lifted off the mattress. He held it in the air between them, fingers stretched in Bella's direction, beckoning. She stepped toward the mattress, slipping her hand into his and he closed his fingers around her palm. The strangest sensation washed over Bella, a serene complacency that polished the sharp edges of the terror and confusion coursing through her. She let out a heavy breath without even realizing that she was holding it.
"Last night was… " she dropped her eyes, examining their hands.
"Terrific? Horrible?" Edward prodded.
The corner of her mouth pulled up, involuntarily, her eyes flashing to his. "It was... nice," she said in a whisper, tightening her grip. It was only then that she realized that she had her entire little hand around his single monster-sized thumb, her fingers barely wrapping around it. The sight of it made her lungs go momentarily solid.
"Just nice?" Edward asked.
"Really nice," she choked.
Edward looked up at her, gripping her hand tightly, his voice half pleading, half demanding. "Come back to bed."
"I should… I should go," she stuttered.
"You think I'm gonna let you leave? Now? After all of this?" He sat upright, the sheet pooling at his waist and his feet finding the floor. His long arms tugged her closer, a warm hand cupping the bulge in her belly. His forehead wrinkled and his mouth turned down at the sides, hands trembling against her.
"I didn't mean to just barge into your life like this," Bella whispered, scared to speak any louder.
"Like a damn bull in a china shop," Edward chuckled, smoothing his palms over her stomach, his mouth finally cracking into something like a smile.
"You don't ride bulls anymore." Her voice straddled the line between a laugh and a sob, the irony of the metaphor not lost on her. She set her hands to his bare shoulders, the beginning of his scar beneath her fingertips, and held on tight. Her legs felt like jello and her hips were wobbly and she might just fall over if she didn't hold onto something solid and strong.
"If you're the bull, honey, then I'm the china shop."
"I know. I'm ruining everything." Bella bit her lip, hating her hormones and her tears and her trembling. "I'm going to destroy everything you've worked for."
"What in the hell are you even talking about?" Edward looked up at her, pulling her close, his warm hands held tight and hard against her. "Here I am thinking about love, and you're ready to bolt?"
"Well, maybe not yet." He shook his head, his hands still insistent. "But we could."
"I think I could fall hard," Edward said solemnly.
"And it's up to me?"
"It's up to both of us." He rubbed her belly firmly and the Thumper flailed beneath her skin, a tsunami wave against his palm. Edward looked up at her in awe, his hand held still and his breath caught. "The three of us, then."
"What do you think it is?"
It was dawn, the sky beginning to break open at the edges, and Edward was whispering. The sound of his voice echoed up through his bones and his muscles and his steady heartbeat, Bella's ear pressed firm to his chest. She was naked, sprawled up against him with her legs wound through his, her hands roaming, her breath finally coming easier. He was half asleep, stroking his hand lightly down her back and around the curve of her belly, palming her stomach with hands that had barely left her skin all night. The bed was stripped, covers puddled on the floor, the thin sheets kicked down around their feet with Kentucky snoozing in a nest of cotton.
She could have found out, during the last ultrasound. She even had an envelope, plain white and unassuming, hanging from her refrigerator at home with the answer to that very question inside, but she'd left it unopened. Stared at it every time she opened the door and stared at it again every time she closed it. She wasn't entirely sure what was keeping her from confirming the fact.
"I'm not sure." She shrugged, the fluttery Thumper flailing around in its little personal ocean.
"But what do you think?" he pressed, stroking her softly.
"A girl." She didn't know how, but she was sure of it.
A beam of fresh sunlight spilled through the window, white hot and brand new, breaking over the mountains to herald the start of another day. Bella snuggled closer, the quiet such a peaceful change from the insistent noise of the city; the wailing of cars and horns and sirens that just never let up, even in the middle of the night. The farmhouse was so far removed, so deep in the middle of an unobstructed wilderness, that the silence was almost deafening. The scattered birdsong, the random bleat from a sheep, or the brush of the wind up against the siding of the house, the only break in the quiet.
"I can't believe you're out here, all alone like this," she mused, rubbing her fingers through the scattered hair on his chest, more salt than pepper, and marveling at how his muscles tensed beneath his skin.
"Just never found the right girl, I suppose." Edward shrugged, his breath hot through her hair and his hands hot on her skin. "I've been waiting on you, though. Always wondered if it would come to this, some girl driving up the road with my kid in her arms." He pinched her thigh, making her squirm, and laughed back at her giggle. "Thought you would have shown up sooner. I almost gave up hoping."
"Why did you do it?" she asked, tentative, not entirely sure she wanted to know. His fingers tensed into her side, the Thumper poking back at him from its deep-water sleep, and she heard the breath catch beneath his ribs.
"They were gonna take her house. Rose's. Emmett passed away and she couldn't pay; the bank was going to seize it if I didn't do something." Edward shook his head against the pillows. "I couldn't sell off land fast enough; it would have taken months. I was a few grand short and I needed it fast."
"Money?" She could barely believe that's what this was all about, coming from the guy who didn't even own a coffee pot.
"Yes, money," he confirmed.
"Hasn't anyone ever told you that money doesn't buy happiness?" Bella teased.
"It bought this." He waved a hand in the air, the grandeur of the mountains and the fields through the window. The solid white farmhouse. The brightening bedroom. The giant bed and their little cocoon of silence. Edward cupped her closer and she could hear the smile in his voice. "Which is damn fucking close."
Bella stopped digging that hole of hers the day she left the city for good.
Hung up her headlamp and set aside her shovel. She felt so carefree, this moment alone in the cab of Edward's pickup, waiting for him to drive them the long two days back to Montana. It wasn't just the semi truck behind them, packed full of her old life, intended for a new one. It wasn't the flip-flop hurricane that was rolling around in her stomach every night, growing hair and nails and and bones. It wasn't the way Edward looked at her, the glint behind his eyes that made her feel as lightweight and fluttery as a preteen girl with her very first crush.
Well, not all him, at least.
He looked so out of place, a cowboy amidst the concrete and asphalt, as uncomfortable as he probably felt. His shoulders were stiff, jaw clamped tight, the muscles in his arms clenched as he signed off on the truck that was loaded with her possessions. He'd wanted to move it all, one clean sweep, but Bella had discarded more than she thought she would. Let go easier than she imagined she could, the material possessions that reminded her too much of the life that came before this. The heartbreaks and the loneliness. The malaise and that tag-along melancholy.
This was her fresh start, and only the most important things could accompany her. The crystal dishes with their long dead plants. The books she'd loved to near page-shedding demise. The jade figurines, wrapped in newsprint and kept safely in a box at her feet.
Bella dug through her purse, her fingers closing around something small and heavy at the very bottom of the bag. Something smooth and cool and heavy. A butterfly, cut from a piece of pale pink jade. Its wings were detailed, antenna carved thin and delicate, body solid and striated. Bella rubbed it between her fingers, the only piece in her grandmother's collection that wasn't in a shade of green. The only piece given to her when she was a child. The only piece that she had carried with her for most of her life, the last year forgotten in the bottom of her bag.
The door of the truck opened and Edward appeared, pulling himself into the seat with that easy grace of his, the practiced air about him that made her feel sure and steady for the first time in her life.
"Ready?" Edward asked, the engine growling to life beneath them. Bella smiled, rubbing her belly which was now so big she could barely see her feet, let alone between her legs. She was sure everything was still there and Edward made certain she knew everything still worked.
"Question is, are you ready for us, old man?"
"You're really going there?" Edward scowled at her, his eyes narrowed and his chin pushed out and Bella laughed at him, shaking her head. Kentucky, the orange pile of fur that had been snoozing on the dashboard, woke with a stretch and a groan, showing off sharpened teeth for an instant before climbing down to make a place for himself on Edward's lap.
"Take me home, old man," Bella teased, reaching across the seat to ruffle the silvery hair at Edward's temples.
Bella watched the city slip away as Edward drove, the skyscrapers giving way to subdivisions and finally wide open fields and sky, the butterfly warming between her fingers. According to Chinese folklore, the jade butterfly was a symbol of concentrated love. There was a legend of a poor young man chasing a butterfly into the garden of a mandarin. He expected to be punished for trespassing, banishment or even death, but he met and married the beautiful daughter instead.
It was a story that Bella's grandmother told her when she was too young to understand. A myth with a meaning that she wouldn't understand for years to come, that sometimes, nothing was as it seemed. That sometimes, jade wasn't green; sometimes it was grey, or lavender, or pink. That sometimes, love wasn't always planned, or obvious.
Sometimes it was a mistake or a stroke of fate, a stumble, that lead you to your destiny.
- Judge's Pick for the May to December Romance Contest
- Dedicated to Hadley Hemingway.
As a validator for the contest, this was the first time I wasn't able to utilize her skills this time. It was terrifying.
Look Ma, no hands!
Love you forever and ever and ever.