October 29, 1883
"She's beautiful, my son, and has grown into a fine young woman. Her people all perished in the Chicago fire, and she was brought down to Cameron's Place out of a foundling home in Springfield when she was nine or so. When she came of age, she stayed on and now I think it's time I introduced you to the one I've chosen for you." A wrinkled hand lifted a cut-crystal tumbler to feeble lips.
The young man sat forward in his seat across from his aged father, "Sir, I respect your insight and vision for me, but I decline your help in securing my happiness. My life is as it is. Who am I to dictate fate?"
"She is coming for a few days to help set up the Harvest Ball. All I ask is that you take note of her. She's the one, Edward. I know it." The old man leaned forward red faced as a coughing fit seized him.
"Alright father, as you wish—please don't distress yourself. I'll give my attentions to the girl, but I can make no promises," Edward said.
Fighting to breathe, his father leaned back in his chair closing his eyes. "That is all I ask, my son," he rasped out.
Ol' Charlie snatched a biscuit from the cooling rack before dropping into a straight-back kitchen chair.
"I don't like it one bit, Renny. What is Mr. Cameron thinkin'? It ain't fittin' for a good girl such as herself to be out among strangers without her own around her." He wiped the crumbles off his shirt not minding the ones clinging to his full mustache.
Renny moved the cooling rack farther away from pilfering hands before she spoke, "This would be her chance, Charlie. She's marryin' age now. It wouldn't be right to hold her back. I read her cards last night, and her tea leaves this mornin'" she reassured, "this is her time to go out and make her way."
He patted Renny's rump appreciatively as she placed a mug of coffee in front of him with a knowing smile.
"Did you see anything amiss?" he asked as he took a tentative sip.
"No, well, there is one setback, but she gets to the other side of it and is better for it, I'm sure," Renny said over her shoulder as she kneaded dough on a floured board.
Ol' Charlie saw the object of their conversation bound down the servants' staircase, and his face brightened as he sat up straight.
"Good morning, Miss Bella," Renny smiled and gave the girl a hug.
"Good morning, Renny. Good morning, Charlie. It's a fine day for a ride, is it not?" the girl said vibrating with excitement.
"I don't like it," Ol' Charlie mumbled as he stood and claimed his dusty slouch hat from the table.
Renny tsked indulgently and winked at Bella.
"Come sit and get some vittles in 'ya, girl while Ol' Charlie goes and hitches up the mules."
"Uncle Carlisle, I still don't understand why you are going to so much fuss to have this ball after so many years without it, and in your health." The young man shook his head as he stood on the balcony overlooking the servants dragging wicker lawn furniture across the lawn, upturning the pieces to scrub.
"I have my reasons, one being, that you are home from university and ready to take over the reins of this place; that alone deserves a celebration. The young ladies and their mothers will be lined up to make your acquaintance. Secondly, I'd like to see this place decked out in its finery one last time," the old man said as he dreamily watched his wife in a walled garden move among the rose bushes she loved.
"Of course, sir, I'll help in every way possible," James said as he rested his hands on the railing.
An old hand patted his, "Thank you, James."
Bella sat on the plank seat of the buckboard holding the pie in her hands. Its residual heat warmed her lap. She wore her drab brown dress with its turned cuffs worn but clean. She smoothed her skirt with shaking hands and took in a deep breath.
She clutched her pie and Charlie clucked at the mules as they bumped and jostled to Cullens' Point Plantation.
"No good will come of this, mark my words," Ol' Charlie mumbled under his breath.
"Don't worry yourself, Charlie. I'll be busy working. I promise I'll stay out of trouble," Bella said soothingly as she patted Ol' Charlie's calloused hand.
As they came around the bend of the road, the morning sun filtered through the live oaks. She watched the cool breeze stir the Spanish moss into dance and felt it touch and cool her neck. She fancied even the trees were welcoming her onto the beautiful old plantation and smiled as she lifted her face to the breeze.
A body could be happy here, she thought.
When the mansion came into view, Ol' Charlie removed his hat and gruffed out, "Mind what manners you have, girl, and—and send word if you have need. I'll be here as soon as can be if you send word."
"Yes, Charlie," she murmured squeezing his hand lovingly and taking a deep settling breath.
As she looked over the house's grand façade, her eye caught movement in the third story window and looked in time to see a curtain flutter behind the red and orange reflection of the morning sun.
Charlie took them past the house with its grand pillars and wide porches, to the barn near a large kitchen garden in the back.
At the barn, he stepped down, tying the mules to the railing and disappeared into the barn to get help in unloading the pumpkins from the wagon.
Bella sat still pondering what to do. How was she to dismount the wagon without ruining the pie?
As she sat deep in thought, a cool hand touched her hand, startling her.
"Forgive me, ma'am; I did not mean to alarm. May I be of assistance?" a smooth, genteel voice asked.
She looked down into crystal blue eyes.
"Oh, would you be so kind as to hold my pie?" she frowned.
"Of course," the man said as he held out his hand.
She placed the pie in his extended hand and was surprised to see his other hand offered in assistance.
She hesitated before taking it and stepped down to the wheel axle. Once on the ground, the man towered over her. He was gentry and had a polished, entitled air; from his perfectly coiffed blond hair and well-tailored clothes to his hands, though strong, manicured and smooth.
She stepped forward to reclaim her pie but hesitated to move closer.
He smiled softly, "Do not be frightened, Miss," he said as he stepped closer and handed her the pie.
"May I escort you to the kitchen? James A. Cullen, at your service, ma'am," he said with the flourish of a low bow.
"Isabella Marie Swan, but you are mistaken, sir, I am a servant from Cameron's Place. I'm here to help with the preparations for the Harvest Ball. I'll not trouble you more. I'm sure I can find the kitchen fine," she said with a slight bob.
"Nonsense, I want to see if Molly has finished the bread puddin'. You give me an excuse to be underfoot," he declared with a broad smile.
When he reclaimed the pie, she had no recourse but to follow him to the side door beyond the garden.
Near the door, Mr. Cullen seemed to trip on thin air but managed to keep the pie safe while regaining his balance, earning a grateful smile from Bella.
"Molly, you hide the bread puddin'!" A deep, female voice bellowed as the screen door creaked announcing their arrival.
Bella froze at Mr. Cullen's side, but he rested a reassuring hand on her elbow and ushered her ahead of him through the kitchen door.
"Now Mrs. Cope, you're scaring our lovely guest. Square your cap and behave, woman," Mr. Cullen said with copious charm.
Mrs. Cope lifted her large frame from the kitchen work table to see the visitor up close. She swatted at Mr. Cullen's attempt to kiss her cheek and took Bella by the hands towing her to stand directly in front of her. The dark brown eyes of an old soul took their time surveying the girl's clean, worn, leather shoes and worked their way up to the carefully pinned mass of hair.
"Well, you'll do girl." She patted the tiny hand between her own broad, calloused ones. "You'll do just fine, just fine," Mrs. Cope nodded her scarf wrapped head. Bella felt the woman drifting from them in thought but stayed still waiting to be released.
Mr. Cullen seemed to have felt the drifting as well and fidgeted next to Bella.
"Oh do be still, Mr. James," Mrs. Cope bit out as she patted Bella's hand again before dropping it.
She returned to her seat behind a pile of pea pods before speaking over her shoulder, "Molly give the boy one cup of the puddin' and send him on his way." Looking at Mr. Cullen, she added, "And don't you pester poor Molly for more."
Mr. Cullen winked when he handed the pie to Bella and clapped his hands, rubbing them together as he danced his way across the wide stone floor, herding a flustered servant girl into the butler pantry.
When the kitchen stilled, Mrs. Cope pushed out a seat next to her at the heavy, wooden table.
"Sit you down, child."
Bella stepped forward and placed the pie near Mrs. Cope, before sitting in the seat offered.
"Thank you, ma'am, may I help you with the shelling?" Bella asked.
Mrs. Cope sniffed the pie appreciatively. "Cinnamon," she said and set it on the far side of the table.
"I hope you have a fondness for the spice," Bella said as she squeezed a pod and flicked the exposed peas into the heavy earthen mixing bowl with her thumbnail causing a light 'ping' to echo off the bowl's wall.
"Oh, yes, cinnamon without nutmeg reminds me more of sweet 'tata pie," Mrs. Cope smiled fondly.
"That's the way of the kitchen I grew up in," Bella agreed.
They shelled peas in companionable silence in the warm kitchen for some before Mrs. Cope spoke. "I'm sorry child; Mr. Cullen is not known for following social proprieties. Introductions were never made," she said patting the girl's hand, "I'm Mrs. Cope, the head cook for this home for nigh on forty years. I'm glad you're here and thankful for the extra hands, for sartin'."
"Oh, of course, I'm Isabella Marie Swan. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance Mrs. Cope." Bella smiled kindly and continued the task before her.
She saw Mrs. Cope cut a look to the shadowed corner of the room, but when Bella turned to look, the corner was empty.
"You're a servant at Cameron's Place, you say?" Mrs. Cope led.
"Yes, ma'am, the Camerons were kind enough to take me on as a foundling until my eighteenth birthday," Bella said with her head bent to the task.
"And when might that be?" Mrs. Cope asked as she grabbed a basket whisking the empty ones away before dumping a basket of fresh pods on the table.
Bella picked up the closest one on the new pile, squeezing and flicking, "That was last year. I'll be nineteen in two weeks. I'll stay on with wages until a request is made for my hand, I suppose." Bella shrugged slightly, the pod slipping from her hand sending the green peas rolling in odd directions across the table.
"Mrs. Cope laughed at the sight. "You're lovely and hardworking; I'm sure a most fortuitous match will be made, dear. Can you bring me that bowl from over yonder? I'll catch the runaway peas," she said casually.
Bella moved briskly in reply. As she stepped away from the circle of lamplight over the table, a chill filled the air and swirled around her. Taking the well-worn bowl in her hands, she turned to see the light playing fancies with her mind. The kitchen seemed to move in waves shifting from Mrs. Cope and lantern light to a kitchen lit by firelight as several servants bustled about in high energy.
Bella blinked, and Mrs. Cope was alone holding out her pea filled hand for the bowl in Bella's hand.
"Come, child, I don't have all day."
Ol' Charlie came to the kitchen door with his hat in hand to say his goodbyes. Bella walked him back to the empty buckboard with a basket from Mrs. Cope's to take to Renny.
"I'll be safe here, Charlie. Mrs. Cope will see to that. Please don't worry," Bella said to his rounded back.
He took the basket from her and placed it behind the seat in the open bed before turning to her.
"I know you'll use good sense, girl. I just don't trust others to do likewise concerning you. I'll be back in three days to fetch you home," Charlie said as he watched his gnarled hand run along the seat railing.
Bella stepped forward and hugged him, his damp shirt resting under her cheek smelling of clean sweat and earth. A lump formed in her throat and her eyes stung. "Three days, Charlie. Pass my love along to Renny—and the basket," she added with a smile.
Charlie patted her shoulder and nodded. "Will do," he said as he swung up into his seat and clucked at the mules to 'get on'.
As Bella watched her old friend rattle away, she felt the breeze pick up around her, swirling her skirts. Her eyes clouded with unshed tears as Charlie rounded the road out of sight. She hugged her waist and closed her eyes to still herself and felt the cool breeze of the day wrap around her making her feel comforted and safe.
With one more sigh, she turned and walked back toward the kitchen garden to help Molly.
Edward bounded into the library, dropping into the chair across from his father's.
"You were right, Father. She's sweet and kind. You should have seen her saying goodbye to Old Charlie from Cameron's. Her dark eyes were so sorrowful as she hugged him and watched him go. I think she might be homesick." He leaned back in his chair and felt his neck heat under the knowing scrutiny of his father.
"I'm so glad, son." Carlisle smiled with satisfaction.
Edward frowned at his hands in his lap. "I'm not sure how Mother will feel about her."
"Leave your mother to me, Son. Sometimes change is for the good." The old man smiled as his eyes closed and he rested his snowcapped head against the high back of his cushioned chair.
Edward stood as Carlisle began to snore softly and studied his beloved father's weary frame. He was becoming so frail and detached from this physical world. It wouldn't be long.
He sighed heavily and bent to kiss his father's bowed head before leaving the room.
Mrs. Cope sat on the bench under the Mimosa tree by the back kitchen door peeling apples and watching the house servants weave garland from muscadine vines. She had spent the day in the kitchen and gardens with Bella and Molly. She found Bella to be a sweet uplifting addition and would hate to lose her when the time came.
Now, the girls were hard at work decorating and carving the pumpkins from Cameron's Place at a rough-hewn table under a live oak. They slid cuttings and seed scraps into a bucket at the end of the table. Mrs. Cope would have Young Sam slop the pigs with them when they finished.
Bella had an artistic eye. Instead of the crude faces of the usual jack-o-lantern, she would draw a design before cutting along fine lines. Mrs. Cope decided most of Bella's pumpkins would grace the front hall and maybe a few on the serving tables.
"Girls, you cover them with cheese cloth and place them in the spring house when you're done," Mrs. Cope bellowed as she lumbered toward the kitchen.
Bella and Molly called out a "yes'm."
At the end of the day, Bella climbed the narrow servants' stairs to the small attic room she was to share with Molly. Bella liked the shy servant girl. She'd never had anyone close to her age to work alongside, and Molly made the work day fun.
Entering the room, Bella saw a Molly sized lump and a thin blond braid resting under the covers of the bed they were to share and moved quietly around the room being careful to minimize the squeaks and groans of the wide plank floorboards. Bella took a deep breath as she removed her corset and quickly changed into her cotton nightgown before brushing out her thick sparrow-brown mane. Bella rubbed where the pins had bruised the scalp and braided it loosely, tying it with a worn ribbon.
She said her prayers, kneeling on the faded braid rug, and paying particular attention to Charlie and Renny with a thank you for the new friendship of Mrs. Cope and Molly, before escaping the night chill under the Molly warmed covers.
Bella woke with a start. A draft stirred the curtain framing a moon low in the early morning sky and the smell of fallen leaves laced lightly with pipe smoke wafted in on the breeze. Bella breathed deeply and listened to the noises of the night as the rhythm of Molly's snoring coupled with the warm weight of layered quilts slowly pulled her back into dreamless sleep.
Carlisle Cullen opened his tired eyes to the lovely vision of his wife. He smiled warmly, and she smiled back as he struggled to sit up.
"Hello, my lovely wife. Did you enjoy your time in your gardens today?" He noted she was wearing his favorite of her dresses. Lavender, she was always lovely in lavender.
She sat in the winged chair at the side of the bed, smoothing her skirt over her lap. "Yes, it's lovely, this time of year with the last of the summer blooms mingling with the fall colors. The gardeners are doing an excellent job."
He smiled wistfully, distracted by the little ringlets teasing the velvet ribbon gracing her slender neck.
"They have their instructions to maintain the gardens to your standards, always, my love," he said.
"Thank you," she replied with a tender smile and added, "I saw her in the kitchen. She's lovely".
"I knew you'd like her. The boy is quite taken with her," he said with a satisfied grin.
She nodded distractedly.
"Don't fret, Esme, all will be as it should be," he sighed as he rested his head against his pillows.
A moment later, her soft whisper woke him, "I love you, husband."
"As I you, my love," he murmured as his weary eyes closed and she faded from view.
Bella dressed quickly in the morning chill of the attic room.
"Bella, you best hurry. Mrs. Cope will be in fine form with all that needs doin' today," Molly said as she threw open the door and stepped out onto the landing.
Bella did up the last button on her boot and placed her button hook on the old dressing table next to her brush and stood smoothing her skirt and checking her cuffs.
"I'm ready," she said as she grabbed her shawl and followed Molly out of the room. Running down three flights of stairs, the girls didn't see Edward and James coming out of the first-floor library, but the two men took notice of them.
Both men noted the color in Miss Bella's cheeks and the sparkle in her eye. When the girls swung around the newel and headed down the last flight of stairs, Bella's giggle made both men stop in their tracks.
"My God, she's lovely," James sighed.
Edward could do nothing but nod in total agreement before following James to the dining room for breakfast.
With the Harvest Ball just a day away, the house was in turmoil. Where the day before, Bella had stayed close to Mrs. Cope and Molly, today she was farmed out wherever willing hands were needed.
Once the girls made it to the kitchen, Bella was immediately sent to help with the serving and clean-up in the dining room.
Jessica showed her how to refill the breakfast buffet and how to pour the coffee and drinks. James and Edward's eyes remained fixed on the lovely girl so totally unaware and unaffected by their presence. When James could take it no longer he moved to talk with Bella, but his foot seemed to tangle with the tablecloth, and he fell back into his chair as Edward snickered beside him. Not to be thwarted he called out, "Miss Bella would you be so good as to bring me a fresh plate of eggs and sausage?"
"Oh, of course, Mr. James," Bella said as reached around Jessica to get a clean plate.
Edward watched her graceful form glide toward their table and sat up straighter. What he wouldn't give to have her rest her dark, gypsy eyes on him.
She placed James' plate politely in front of him and picked up his used plate. As she made to retreat, James lightly grabbed Bella's wrist and drew her back. Edward sat forward in alarm, but Bella delicately extricated herself from James' hold.
"Can I help you, Mr. James?" she said as she hid her hands under her apron.
Edward relaxed and sat back.
"Yes, you can, Miss Bella. Would you do me the favor of saving a dance for me tomorrow night?" he asked in his most charming manner.
"Oh, Mr. James, that's very kind, but I'm here to help the staff. I will surely be working tomorrow night to help make sure your ball is a success."
"I'm sure you can find a few moments to step away," he said with profuse charm and added, "please."
Edward watched her blush sweetly and was transfixed when her dark, soulful eyes darted toward him, but his heart stopped in his chest as she responded, "I can make no promises, Mr. James but if the moment presents itself, I'd be honored." She bobbed a quick curtsy and made her escape.
James sat back with a victorious grin as Edward stormed from the room overturning his chair in the process.
James frowned but picked up the chair before continuing his breakfast with a most satisfied air.
Edward burst into the library and found his father on the balcony overlooking the flower gardens.
"Shhh, my son," Carlisle murmured without turning around.
Edward quieted himself. "Forgive me, Father. I just needed—I needed … James wants her!" he finally blurted.
Carlisle turned from watching his love in her garden and saw his son standing in the curtains of the French doors. He saw his son's distress and smiled softly, knowing he had made the right call concerning Miss Swan.
"Let us sit and discuss this. Perhaps we need a battle plan," Carlisle said as he walked past the huffing young man.
"A battle plan—a plan of attack, yes, that's just what we need, Father," Edward said as he followed the bent old man to the chairs by the hearth.
Bella continued with her day with a lighter step and a secret smile. Mr. James wanted a dance with her. She felt giddy that 'sparrow brown Bella' had caught the eye of such a distinguished man.
She was sent to help with the decorating of the great rooms and halls. By late afternoon her back and feet ached, but the grand plantation house was resplendent in its fall finery.
Bella walked into a kitchen weary after the day's hectic frenzy. Mrs. Cope had a stew and day old bread for the staff and served it liberally.
After a full day between meals, Bella ate with relish. She was on her second bowl as chairs scraped and staff began trickling back to their duties.
Mrs. Cope sat at the far end of the staff dining table sipping a strong cup of tea with her bare feet resting on top of her shoes. When only Molly and Bella remained, she spoke.
"You girls'll stay for the dishes," Mrs. Cope said.
She smiled behind her cup as the girls' shoulders sagged, but each dutifully echoed a "yes ma'am."
She took a couple more healing sips before engaging the girls further.
When her cup clinked on its saucer, the girls looked up.
"Mr. Cullen has sent down word that he wants things a bit different for this year's ball. I think with his time coming on he has gotten nostalgic."
"What did Mister say?" Molly prodded.
Mrs. Cope looked at the waiting girls and smiled. "It would seem that the sentimental old man wants to see his wife's finery put to good use. He is sending down four of the Missus' old hoop skirt dresses to be made over for three girls to wear tomorrow night. I picked you two and Jessica." She smiled as the girls squealed and danced in their seats.
She continued, "We will get with Tia after morning chores and rework them. Those hoop skirts were just miles of fabric. We'll have plenty to work with; I'd think." She looked at the sweet young faces flushed with excitement, and she frowned purposefully at them, sobering them immediately.
"You will be expected to work without distraction. Time will be set aside for you to dance and enjoy the evening, but we are here to make sure Mister's last Harvest Ball is a success." She watched the girls nod solemnly and added, "You're good girls. I know you will behave with a decorum that will do me proud."
The girls nodded earnestly, and Mrs. Cope smiled. "It'll be a night of memories for you to tuck away, I expect," she sighed. "Now off to get after the dishes," she said and watched them giggle and skitter off toward the scullery.
Mrs. Cope leaned back heavy in her chair and poured one more cup.
Esme Cullen came in quietly and settled in a seat, pouring herself a cup. She hated that Cope used the Brown Betty for her everyday set. She loved the gold set with the sweet rose resting in the bottom of the cup, too fine for Cope to be comfortable using she guessed.
She settled back in her seat and took a sip that went all the way to her toes.
"I guess you told the girls."
Mrs. Cope frowned slightly and took another sip.
"Oh, don't be such an old stick in the mud, Shelly. The girls will have a night of fun, and it will be sweet to see my old dresses dancing a ballroom again." She took a sip and her dear servant friend took a sip with the corners of her mouth turning up.
Esme smiled too, knowing the tender heart of the tough bird everyone respected and even feared.
"If we work it just right, there will be a wedding come spring for Molly and Young Sam," Cope murmured over her cup.
"That would be lovely," Esme agreed.
With another sip, a crease formed over Mrs. Cope's brow. "Mr. James has fancies for Miss Bella. Dressin' her up above her station ain't gonna help that girl none," Mrs. Cope mumbled as she shook her head.
Esme studied the worry on her old friend's face and nodded.
"You'll keep an eye on her. We all will," Esme soothed.
"Lord, I like the girl," Mrs. Cope voiced. She hesitated and then added, "I'd wish for her to stay if it was best for her." She finished the last of her cup and brusquely began gathering the tea things.
Esme placed her cup on the tray and stood with her friend.
"Good night, Shelly dear," Esme said leaving her friend and moving up the stairs to her husband in the library.
Bella walked the stairs on leaden legs. She couldn't remember a time she was so weary, but as her hand hovered over the garland running the banister Bella was proud of all the hard work they had accomplished in a day.
As she passed the library, she saw Mr. Cullen asleep in his seat by the fire. She stopped to study the rise and fall of his feeble chest. She stole quietly into the warm, shadowed room, picked up the light blanket at his feet, and draped it carefully over his lap, being sure to tuck it snugly around him.
The lamp light flickered from a draft as she made her way quietly out of the room and continued on her way and as she began the trek up the last flight of stairs she thought of the generosity of that sweet old man and said a little prayer for God's keeping.
Reaching her room, she began dismantling her wardrobe and breathing deeply as her night shift slipped over her small frame. Removing the pins from her thick wavy hair, she brushed the fatigue away with each long stroke. As she worked systematically to brush through her hair, she walked to the small attic window that overlooked the grounds. She loved the view and leaned on the windowsill breathing in the chilled night air. Her mind began to wander, and she played with the fancies of dancing in strong arms under the golden glow of the chandeliers she had draped with garland.
A movement below caught her eye, and she looked to her left in time to see a man walking the gravel path of the rose garden. She stepped back from the sill aware of her undress and began braiding her hair as he turned to walk the other direction. Although cast in darkness, she could tell he carried his tall frame well.
Molly bursting breathlessly into the room had Bella turn from the window.
She raced across the room and grabbed Bella's hand, dragging her to sit beside her on the bed.
"Oh, Bella, I'm so excited! Sammy asked me to save a dance for him. He said he was given time off tomorrow evening and he hoped I would be on his arm."
Bella squeezed her friend's hands, "What did you say?"
She blushed and replied, "I said there was no one else I would want to dance with."
Bella hugged her friend and rejoiced with her.
Molly began disrobing with nervous energy. When her shift was on, Bella sat her in front of the mirror and began unpinning her hair. She looked at her friend in the mirror. "We'll have to put extra care in your toiletry tomorrow. It will be an important night. I'm happy for you, Molly."
Molly squeezed the hand resting on her shoulder. As Molly began braiding her hair, Bella returned to the window to finish her braid.
"We will have to pay extra care to yours as well if you are to dance with Mr. James," Molly called.
"Oh, no, that will be just a dance, but yours will be a moment."
Bella watched the man in the garden lighting his pipe. The glow from his deep drafts illuminated his face for the briefest of moments, and she saw his features were angular, masculine—handsome.
"Molly, who is that man below?" Bella called.
Molly came to see as she tied the ribbon around her narrow black braid.
"Who?" Molly asked.
Bella looked, but the man was gone. "He was there, in the rose garden."
Molly shrugged and began turning back the bed covers. "He was probably the head gardener. He likes to walk the gardens and survey the garden team's work in the evening," she said.
That made sense and Bella nodded as she helped her bed mate ready the bed. They climbed in their respective sides, and Molly blew out the lamp.
"Good night, Bella."
"Sweet dreams, Molly."
"I think they will be, "she said, and the girls' giggles filled the dark room before settling into quiet sighs, and the soothing rhythm of Molly's snores and Bella drifted off with tobacco smoke filling her senses.
The day of the Harvest Ball broke breezy and fair. The girls rushed through their morning chores and when Mrs. Cope gave them the signal, giggled up two flights of stairs to Tia's sewing room. Four dresses lay across every available surface.
Molly immediately gravitated to the burgundy and Jessica squealed over the blue and white damask as Bella picked up the cream lace.
"No, no that will not do for your coloring," Tia said, pulling the cream-colored confection from Bella's grasp. The petite French woman picked up the fourth dress and pressed it into Bella's arms. Tia brushed back a russet curl from her over-powdered face and smiled. "This is for you, Miss Bella. A dark coloring needs the dramatic."
Bella looked down at the lavish, satin hunter green dress. "Are you sure, Miss Tia?"
"Oh yes, for you, it is perfection."
Neither Bella nor Molly had done much fancy work and left the fine stitching to Tia and her helper. Instead, the three girls cut, seam sewed, and hemmed the three dresses for most of the day.
After a quick late lunch, Bella and Molly helped set out the china and punch set for the buffet before being allowed to dress for the evening.
They bathed on the kitchen porch before rushing up back stairs to Tia's studio. Tia and her servant helped Jessica, Molly, and Bella dress. Molly's burgundy gown had puffed sleeves and lace trim underpinning an empress waist. Jessica's blue and white had lace panels from the fourth dress and a wide sash to draw attention to her small waist. Bella's hunter green satin was transformed into a form fitting bodice that narrowed to her hips and a delicate lace draped artfully across the skirt.
"Oh Miss Tia, it lovely, too lovely!" Bella breathed.
"Nonsense," Tia barked as she fussed over the draping.
The three girls giggled at the bustle each dress required they wear, but the graceful effect on their silhouettes halted their giggles and brought on blushes as they surveyed their womanly figures in the looking glass.
The girls took turns in the chair in front of the vanity as their hair was artfully fashioned with rouge and power applied liberally.
Each girl was given a fan and set of elegant, lace gloves as they returned downstairs to report to Mrs. Cope.
The night commenced with Mr. Carlisle Cullen's welcoming address from the first-floor balcony with his nephew by his side. James joined the party to the applause of the crowd below as a nurse led Mr. Cullen toward the library.
The string ensemble, in an elevated alcove of the ballroom, launched the evening as people swarmed James Cullen welcoming him back to the neighborhood. Dancing began, and the buffet opened as James made his way through the crowd.
"There you are, my lovely Miss Bella. How resplendent you look tonight."
Bella turned from talking with Molly and Young Sam to see Mr. James bowing low before her.
"Oh, Mr. James, thank you. My dress was refashioned from one of your Aunt's," Bella said as she smoothed her hand down the satin folds.
"My Uncle Carlisle told me he wanted to gift these dresses. Seeing you tonight, I will have to thank him," James smiled charmingly and held out his hand. "Would now be a good time to claim my dance, Miss Bella?" he asked.
Bella cut her eyes to Mrs. Cope by the punch service and received a nod.
"Yes sir, I would be honored," she said as she took his hand and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor.
People were beginning to fill the house with genial energy and Bella reminded herself to breathe as Mr. James took her in his arms for a lively two-step.
He was a spirited dancer who made the dance free and fun. Bella let go and enjoyed the thrill of being spun around an elegant ballroom in the arms of a most dashing young man, knowing this would be a cherished memory she would take to her grave.
They didn't talk much, but laughed and thoroughly enjoyed the moment in each other's company. As the song came to a close, both stood panting and smiling as they clapped. James kissed Bella's hand with a flourish and blushing, she curtsied low.
"Come Miss Bella let me get you back to your friends. I am afraid I have the bullseye of duty painted on my back."
Bella looked at James and saw a maturity to him that she had overlooked in their previous meetings.
"I hope you can enjoy this evening as much as I have enjoyed this dance, Mr. James," Bella said earnestly.
James stopped walking and turned to her. "It has been my sweetest privilege to dance with you. I have enjoyed this evening immensely thus far. I thank you for that, my lovely Miss Swan," he said with earnest sincerity.
He returned her to Molly's side and with a kiss to her hand and a wink to Molly he was off to charm the crowded room.
Molly was soon whisked away by Young Sam leaving Bella to meander toward the punch bowl. She had the dainty crystal cup in hand and was just settling in to watch the dancing when a soft, genteel voice came alongside her.
"It's a most glorious All Hallows' Eve, don't you think?"
Bella looked to find an elegant woman by her side. Her caramel hair glowed in the lamplight, and she graciously waited for her response with a lifted eyebrow.
"Yes, it is," Bella said with a slight bob as she took a sip of her punch.
"I'm Esme Cullen, and you are Isabella Swan." The lovely lady said as she ladled a cup for herself.
Bella started, but of course, the lady of the house would know such things.
"Yes, ma'am, thank you for inviting me to help with this wonderful ball. And thank you for the use of your beautiful dress," Bella said as her hand smoothed down the skirt.
"It is lovely, isn't it? I remember the heavy sway of this one." Esme sighed. "It suits you. You look enchanting, m'dear."
Bella watched a graceful hand reach to touch the sleeve. "I love the new style of puffed sleeves," Esme said dreamily, "and the bustle instead of the hoop gives the silhouette quite a turn."
Bella blushed. "Yes, yes it does. I feel like Cinderella. Thank you," she repeated.
Esme waved her thanks away, "Think nothing of it," she said as they watched Jessica whirl by on the arm of the livery hand, Michael. "It thrills me to see my dresses dancing again." She smiled warmly at the sweet young girl, and Bella nodded as she watched Molly and Young Sam swing past them.
"I saw you dance with my nephew," Esme said startling the young girl next to her.
Bella's cheeks colored. "Yes, ma'am, he was gracious enough to condescend to dance with me," Bella said.
Esme gave an unladylike snorted and said, "Oh posh, if I know my nephew, and I do," she said conspiratorially, "it is you who condescended. He's a charmer that one." Esme finished taking a sip of her now warming punch.
"But not a rake," Bella blurted, quickly coming to James' defense.
The older woman gave Bella a direct look. "Do you have feelings for the boy, Miss Swan?"
Bella watched refracting lamp light in the crystal cup as she turned it in her hand. "No, no ma'am, not of that sort, but he's a sweet, genuine man. I-I think if I had been blessed with a brother, I would have wanted him fashioned after Mr. James," she said without looking up.
"A brother—well that pleases me, I must say." Esme smiled and took a sip.
Bella looked at the older woman and waited for her to explain her statement.
Instead, Esme seemed to change the subject.
"My son is somewhere hereabouts," Esme murmured as she looked around the crowded room. "Edward is a wonderful dancer," she added with pride.
She put her cup on the table and turned to go. "It was lovely talking with you, my dear. I hope we will see each other again."
Bella bobbed, "Yes, ma'am, and thank you again."
Esme gave her a smile and a nod and was gone, blending into the mass of people scattered about the ballroom.
The heat of the room and the press of people caused Bella to make her way out to the front foyer to cool herself. She opened her fan with a snap and was admiring its finery as Mrs. Cope approached her.
"Bella dear, there you are," she said as she began pulling Bella along with her.
"Ma'am?" Bella muttered as she tried to keep up.
In the kitchen, Mrs. Cope shoved a tray into Bella's hands.
"I need you to take dinner up to Mr. Cullen in the library."
Bella maneuvered a better grasp, muttering, "Yes ma'am, of course."
"And if he's sleeping just bring it back down." Mrs. Cope said as she began filling a serving tray for the buffet.
"Yes, ma'am," Bella said as she turned to go.
"And after that, you're free for the evening," Mrs. Cope muttered without turning from her task.
Bella bobbed to her back. "Thank you, ma'am."
"Just mind your ways, I'm here if you've a need."
Bella smiled at the back of the large older woman, and her voice softened, "Thank you, Mrs. Cope—for everything."
Mrs. Cope turned at that and flustered, flapped her apron at the girl. "Now off with 'ya."
Bella laughed and quickly made her way up the stairs.
She tread quietly into the comfortable room. She loved this room with the dark wood of its high book cases, large stately desk, and deep inviting chairs.
She found him in one near the company of a crackling fire. He seemed asleep, and she turned to go, but the rustle of her full skirts roused him.
"Ah, my dear Miss Swan," Carlisle said as he sat up straighter.
"I—I brought you dinner, sir," Bella said with a curtsy.
"Ah, thank you, please, come, sit with me."
Bella placed the tray on the side table and moved it in front of him before taking her seat in the winged-back chair across from him.
The smell of fire smoke and dusty books filled the room with a faint scent of pipe tobacco lingered in the fabric of her chair. She supposed Mr. Cullen enjoyed his pipe in his day and sat back as the peacefulness of the room overtook her.
"Is the dance well under way?" he asked carefully buttering his bread.
"Oh yes sir, the rooms are full to overflowing, and everyone is having a splendid time."
Carlisle nodded as he chewed and swallowed.
"Stand and let me see, my Esme's dress—if you don't mind, Miss Swan," he said.
She blushed, but stood and made a full turn before he motioned with his dripping soup spoon for her to regain her seat.
"Lovely, just lovely," he said dreamily. "You do the dress justice, my dear. My beautiful wife wore that dress for our last Christmas ball before that awful war. Its skirts were much fuller, of course," he sighed. "She swayed, bell-like around the dance floor all night," he said as he pushed away his soup bowl. "Tia did a marvelous job." He nodded, "Yes, quite lovely."
"I had the pleasure of making your wife's acquaintance tonight," Bella offered.
Carlisle smiled, amused. "Did you now?"
"Oh, yes sir, she was very kind. Her dress is breathtaking."
"Lavender with brown trim," she said.
Carlisle smiled tenderly, "Perhaps we'll have our dance later this evening."
"I'm sure she would love that, sir," Bella said feeling slightly outside of the conversation.
"Have you danced tonight?" he asked.
Bella blushed and rose to pour his tea. "Oh, yes, I had one dance with your nephew. He's a delightful partner."
His shaking hands took the cup, and he quietly enjoyed the first sip as bergamot perfumed the air.
"I'm glad. I hope when you leave me you will determine to dance more if asked."
She placed her hands on her lap. Knowing her night to be nearing an end, she said, "Yes, sir, I'll endeavor to enjoy the rest of the evening."
He frowned. "And say 'yes' to a request to dance …"
She smiled and laughed softly. "And say yes to any request to dance," she repeated.
He smiled satisfied and rested his eyes.
She stood to pour him a second cup, but his wrinkled hand stayed hers.
"Go, be young—find your love, Miss Swan. The night is waning, and life is fleeting."
She straightened and made to remove the tray.
"Leave the tray," he said and opened his weary eyes to give the sweet young lady a thin smile.
She stilled. "I'll bid you goodnight then, sir," she said with a bob.
"'Til tomorrow, Miss Swan," he murmured as he began to doze.
She moved the table to the side and made sure his blanket was in place over his lap before leaving the room.
Once on the landing, the music seemed to draw her down the steps. She slowed when she caught sight of a tall gentleman with unruly auburn hair at the foot of the stairs. He was in evening suit with tails, its lines—perfection. He bowed low before her.
"Hello, I'm Edward Cullen, and you're Miss Swan," he said in a smooth, cultured voice.
"Yes, I am, Mr. Cullen. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Your mother spoke of you."
He took a small step toward her. "By way of her unorthodox introduction, I was wondering if I might procure your hand in this next dance, Miss Swan."
He had warm heather green eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled and a most sincere manner. Remembering Mr. Cullen's extracted promise, she gave a slight curtsy and said, "I'd be pleased, sir."
"Please, call me Edward, ma'am. If we can't be friendly on All Hallows' Eve, when can we? It seems the time to drop all formalities and just enjoy the spirit of the evening," he said smiling warmly down on her as her cheeks pinked handsomely with his attention.
"Thank you, Edward, please call me Bella," she said and dropped her gaze.
Pleased, he held out his arm for her, and she slipped her gloved hand into the crook.
At the threshold of the ballroom, they noted the heated press of people.
Bella spotted Molly dancing with Young Sam toward the back of the room where most of the servant staff congregated and Mr. James whirled past them with a beautiful redhead in his arms. Bella couldn't help but smile.
Edward rested his hand over hers on his arm to regain her attention.
"The music can be heard on the veranda. Would that be agreeable to you, Miss Bella?"
She looked through the French doors to the generous lighting and nodded.
He smiled, pleased and with a squeeze of her gloved hand he led her to the expansive porch. A cool breeze greeted them and she sighed at the comfort of it after the close rooms of the night.
Edward led her to an open spot and turned her to face him as the orchestra began a beautiful flowing waltz. She placed her hand in his and a thrill ran through her as his gloved hand rested lightly on the small of her back.
She relaxed in his capable arms when he smiled down at her, and they took their first step.
He swallowed thickly. "I—I've seen you around. You're quite the worker bee," he teased nervously. As he spun them around a pillar, he tried again. "My mother said you are from Cameron's Place, a foundling."
She hadn't thought of the horrible time in Chicago for many years, but she supposed she would always be an orphan.
She lifted her chin. "Yes, the Camerons have been very gracious, and I've made a few dear friends there."
"Like Ol' Charlie?"
"I witnessed your goodbyes. I know Ol' Charlie cares for you greatly. Have you been homesick while you were with us?"
She was surprised he had noticed her so soon after her arrival. "No, I haven't had time, and I've made some good friends here as well."
He squeezed her hand, glad she was content here. "Like Molly?"
She nodded, "and Mrs. Cope," she smiled shyly, "Mr. James and now—you."
He pulled her small frame closer on the dance floor, deeply gratified to be included in that short list.
"I'm glad you've enjoyed your time here. Are you eager to get home?" His eyes bore into her as he waited for her answer.
"I miss Charlie and Mrs. Renny, but I will truly miss Cullens' Point. It is such a beautiful place," she sighed.
They took two turns quietly absorbed in their thoughts.
"This music is lovely. What is it, do you know?" Bella asked.
"This is Mein Lebenslauf is Lieb und Lust by Joseph Strauss.
"Oh," she said and blushed on the last word.
He laughed softly at her innocence. "I believe it means roughly 'the course of my life is love and desire."
"Love and desire," she echoed.
He squeezed her hand and brought their coupled hands to rest on his chest between them, drawing her closer still.
"Yes, love and desire. Do you have a love, sweet Bella?" he asked softly.
She shook her head and looked up into his earnest eyes.
"No, and you?"
He smiled at the sweet tremor in her voice.
"No, Bella, I've had no love, but I do have the desire to love." He squeezed her hand, and they finished the dance in a heated silence.
At the music's ended, they applauded and stepped apart.
"I would like to petition for a second dance, Miss Bella, but I don't wish to impose. Lady's choice, would you like me to return you indoors or may I claim you for one more dance?" he asked still holding her hand.
She was deeply gratified that he still wanted to spend time with her. He was such a handsome gentleman she was sure the other ladies would vie for his attention, but she remembered her promise to Mr. Cullen and drew bravery from it.
"If I'm not detaining you from other company, I would be most honored, Mr. Cullen—Edward," she said and smiled shyly at the brilliant smile that flashed across his beautiful countenance.
The folk song She Waits by the River for Me* began to play and Edward held out his hand. "Shall we, Miss Bella?"
She placed her hand confidently in his as he placed his hand on her back. Bella began to hum the familiar tune as Edward led her gracefully around the veranda.
"You know this song?" Edward asked as he maneuvered her around a rattan settee.
"Yes, Charlie picked it up after the war, said it played in every public house he was in as he made his way home. He had been held up north as a prisoner of war. It took him some time to make it back afterward."
Edward's dancing slowed, and he looked stricken.
"Sir, have my words upset you? Please forgive me," Bella cried.
Edward shook his head and forced a smile to ease her fears.
"No, it is I who should seek your forgiveness for alarming you, sweet Bella." He pulled her closer needing to reassure them both. "It is only that the war was quite costly for Cullens' Point—as it was for all."
She nodded solemnly. "Did Cullens' Point lose many good men?"
Edward's jaw ticked, his eyes darkened, and he looked away, hiding his anger lest he scare her. "Yes, many good men."
He realized they had stopped dancing and looked into her tearful eyes.
"I'm so sorry, Edward," she whispered.
He placed his hand gently alongside her face allowing his thumb to brush the bloom of her cheek.
"Sweet Bella," he whispered.
The music ended, and the applause around them broke the spell. Edward and Bella smiled as they joined the clapping. It appeared the musicians were to take a break and Bella's heart sank that her time with Edward was over.
"Miss Bella, would you care to visit the rose garden with me?" Edward asked cautiously.
She looked at him relieved that he didn't want their time to end.
Seeing her hesitation, he quickly continued, "I would never seek to compromise your good name, but the gardeners set out torches to light the paths, and I've seen several people amble that way as we've been dancing. We would not be secluded or alone."
She smiled at his concern. "Yes, that would be lovely."
Greatly relieved, he held his arm out to her and smiled as she took it.
They walked without conversation until they reached the brick walkways of the formal garden.
"This is a lovely garden. My attic window overlooks it," Bella said.
He pulled her closer to his side to keep her skirts from catching on a vine and was pleased when she didn't replace the distance between them.
"It is my mother's garden. My father began the gardens soon after their wedding and planted a special rose bush for each year of their marriage. This year's was a hybrid from Ellwanger & Barry in New York," he said with pride.
"I guess something good came from the north," she teased.
He smiled and then sobered, "You came from the north, Miss Swan and I think we are most blessed to have you here."
She blushed, and he couldn't resist lifting her gloved hand to bestow a kiss.
"Thank you, Edward," she whispered.
They came to a shadow between torches and Edward brought them to a stop. He turned her toward him and held her hands tight.
"Bella, I must confess, I've had my eye on you for some time, and I'm thankful to be given this brief moment to press my suit," he said with a rush.
She was so tiny, his beautiful little gypsy girl. He watched her dark, smoky eyes round with disbelief search his own and quickly continued.
"I've seen how you work hard and love deeply. You are kind and sweet and temptingly beautiful. But I must say I knew I must have you for my own when I saw you in the arms of my cousin."
She saw his jaw tighten and quickly found her tongue, "Dancing, we were dancing, sir."
"Yes, of course, but I did not like it. I want you in my arms, only mine. Miss Swan, although we have just formally met, I have a deep attachment to you, and I would very much like to secure your hand."
As if turned to stone she stared dumbfounded at him. He forced himself to remain still. He had such a small window of time to make her his. He had no choice but to press, but now he waited for her response.
He watched her slowly melt and breathe again.
"Edward, it is sudden, I agree, but I would be lying if I said I did not share your feelings of attachment. I can scarce explain it," she said with a tremor.
He took courage from her words and stepped close and lifted her chin with his finger. They stood looking into each other's eyes, each other's souls for an indeterminable length of time.
"Have I scared you, Miss Swan?" Edward whispered.
"No, surprised, honored, but not scared," she whispered back.
"May I kiss you, my Bella?"
Her eyes, darkened pools, widened further and he felt as though he stood teetering on a precipice.
She nodded and leaned toward him ever so slightly.
She was so sweet, so tender and innocent, and his chest tightened with the need of her.
Slowly, he wrapped his arms around her and dropped his lips to hers, feeling the intoxication of her breath mingling with his.
She broke the kiss, and he saw awe and desire laced with fear.
"Bella?" he whispered.
"I'm not saying 'no,' Edward but—but I don't know what to think. I—I think I should remove myself from you to gain perspective."
As she said the words, the sorrow in her eyes gave him hope.
She wanted this; she just needed time.
He loosened his hold and stepped back.
"Of course, my love," he said.
He rested his hand along her cheek and ran his thumb over her freshly kissed lips. "I will wait for you here. Come to me when you know your heart, my beautiful Bella."
She moved to step past him but stopped and on tiptoe pressed her lips to his, taking in the pipe smoke lingering in his clothes and the dizzying feel of his nearness before running toward the house.
Mrs. Cope and Esme sat in the darkened kitchen and watched the dying embers of the kitchen hearth.
"It was a good day," Mrs. Cope said.
Esme sighed as she slipped her right foot out of her dancing slipper, "Yes—yes it was, Shelly."
The two women didn't move but watched a highly flushed Miss Swan scurry past them and race up the stairs.
"She'll be gone and safe in the morning," Mrs. Cope said with a resigned sigh.
Esme looked at her hands folded on the table. "Yes, she'll be safely away come morning." and slipping her foot back into her slipper, she stood. "Good night Shelly, dear," she said as she moved toward the stairs.
Mrs. Cope rubbed her face and hefting her bone weary frame from her seat; she shuffled toward her bed.
In her attic room, Bella panted as she pulled at the fingertips of her gloves. Her clothes smelled of pipe smoke, crisp fall air, and Edward.
Her head was spinning, and her heart was racing with the notion of Edward Cullen wanting her, plain sparrow brown Bella. Her heart raced as she touched her lips. Tonight she was kissed in the rose garden. She could die happy, she thought with a smile.
She looked out her window and there he was, pacing in the garden just as the night before. Her heart skipped a beat as he stopped and looked directly into her window, seeming to lock eyes with her and draw her to him.
"When you know your heart—I'll be waiting." His word echoed to the rapid beat of her heart.
She dropped her gloves on her bed and was passing the library on the first-floor landing before reason overtook her. She smiled and merely hastened her step, scurrying quietly through the kitchen and out the back door.
As she drew closer to the garden wall, she heard Edward.
"Come to me, my Bella. Come!"
She lifted up her skirts and quickened her pace, her eyes searching for him.
Just outside the garden wall, her foot hit a rock, and she turned to right herself only to step on the hem of her skirt and fall backward. With the impact, she felt and heard boards cracking and splintering beneath her weight before she was free-falling down a shaft. She hit hard against the muddy ground as water splashed around her.
She was stunned by the impact, and black spots danced before her eyes blurring into a vision of Edward sprawled across a battlefield with cannons booming and smoke blowing across his blood soaked uniform. She gasped, suddenly engulfed in the sorrow of a death notice in Edward's lovely mother's hand as she fainted and rolled limply down the front staircase, landing lifelessly at the bottom still clutching the shocking news.
Bella's sobs brought her back to pitch blackness until a shaft of light brought a hand reaching for her. She grasped it and allowed herself to be pulled from the well.
Before her in full Confederate regalia, stood Edward, tall, distinguished in his officer's tunic with it shiny buttons and stripes of gold.
"Captain Edward Anthony Masen Cullen, at your service, ma'am," He said as he bowed stiffly over her hand and brought her knuckles reverently to his lips.
As he straightened, she took in his uniform clean and polished. He stood before her handsome and whole.
"I saw you on the battlefield," she whispered.
He stepped closer and rested their joined hands on his chest between two rows of brass buttons.
"I died at Cedar Creek on October 19th, 1864, the year you were born, I believe." He smiled tenderly down on her and waited for her to take in all the truths of the past few moments.
She pulled her hand tentatively from his, and he frowned but allowed it.
She lifted it to rest on the side of his face. "I don't ever want to see you hurt again," she whispered fervently.
He reclaimed her hand and kissed it. "I believe I am past hurting," he said with a smile and sobered as he added, "As are you, my love."
She looked up at him with shock and turned back to the gaping hole. She leaned over but Edward held her fast. Far below in shallow water lay the form of a brown haired girl. The ragdoll with her twisted limbs wore a matching dress.
Bella's hand flew to her mouth. "That's me!"
"Yes, my love," Edward whispered and wrapped his strong, sure arm around her waist pulling her firmly against his chest and rasped, "Stay with me, Bella. We could be happy together. I—I love you. Please stay with me." His pleading voice broke at the end and as his forehead rested on her shoulder; she felt his despair mingled with desperate hope.
She turned from the gruesome scene back to the handsome man and his earnest desires.
"You live here, at Cullens' Point?" she asked in a tremoring whisper.
Eager hope broke across his handsome countenance. "Yes, my mother and I have lived here and have been content. I think after this night we might find ourselves fortunate and quite euphoric."
The sky had lightened to a soft gray as the promise of a new day approached. She looked back at the grand house with its sweeping lawn, the delightful gardens and the tall, stately trees she had grown to love.
"A body could be happy here," she whispered to herself.
Edward took a step closer, "Bella?"
She looked up at him, "You love me?"
"I do—most earnestly," he answered anxiously.
She looked out over the plantation. "I felt a draw to this place from the first." Her eyes moved back to him, and he saw wonder and awe dancing in them. "I think I felt you. I felt as though I knew you when we first met. I think I could love you, too," she said.
"So you'll stay with me, be mine?" Edward whispered.
She moved into his arms. "I'll gladly stay with no regrets. And you will be mine?" she asked timidly.
He kissed her forehead and looked deeply into her dark, gypsy eyes. "I am yours, my Bella."
He pulled her closer, tightening his arms snug around her tiny waist, lowering his mouth to hers. He claimed her lips with a need born of waiting. She melted against him feeling for the first time that she belonged to people and place. Edward was her people, and this beautiful home was now her place.
Unable to contain herself she broke from his arms and danced in circles. He laughed as he watched the joy that radiated from her and sighed with relief that it was over. She was here—safe—with him.
He held out his hand. "Come, I'd like you to meet my mother. She will be glad you are here," he said as he reclaimed her hand, tucking it in the crook of his arm.
He turned to escort her to the house as a pink glow shown on the horizon.
They reached the threshold of the library in time to see Esme standing over the still form of Carlisle Cullen. She took his hands to draw him from his chair and gasped as she was rewarded with a tall, handsome man emerging from the empty, broken shell.
The gentleman placed his hand on her cheek tenderly, and as Esme released a sob, he lowered his lips to hers. They lingered thusly before slowly melting into each other.
Edward wrapped his arm around Bella's waist pulling her back against his chest as Carlisle and Esme began to sway and finally to swirl and dance around the room, circling the still form in the wingback chair by the dying fire.
"They did get to have their dance after all," Bella whispered.
Carlisle gave a low chuckle and brought Esme to stop in front of Bella and their son.
"Are you all right my dear?" Carlisle asked as he took Bella's hand patting it fondly.
"Oh, yes sir—a bit surprised," she smiled and added, "but I am very happy."
He laughed softly and released her hand. "I'm sure you were, child." He looked to his son and with a firm pat on his back he added, "I'm sure now we all will be—very happy."
Understanding dawned, and she looked sharply from Carlisle to Edward and back. "You brought me here, invited me—on All Hallows' Eve—that I might meet him."
Carlisle grinned at the clever young woman. "Yes, my dear, I knew you would complete our family circle, and I also knew it would soon be too late for me to play the matchmaker."
Esme wrapped her arms tighter around her husband's firm bicep. "You cut it very close, Mr. Cullen."
He patted her soft hand and smiled tenderly, "That I did, sweetheart, forgive me." He drew a deep breath, filling his lungs for the first time in ages. "Now, let us walk together in the lovely cool of the day," he said with a most satisfied air.
Bella moved to follow, but Edward brought her back against his chest. As he wrapped his arms around her, he said, "We'll catch up with you and Mother presently, sir."
Carlisle smiled knowingly and wrapped his arm around Esme's shoulder, "Of course, you have much to—discuss."
Edward held her tight while he watched his parents, restored and reunited, walk from the room. With a contented sigh, he turned her in his arms.
"Good morning, my love," he said tenderly.
She smiled brightly and added, "And a happy forever."
His face brightened, "We will be happy, won't we?"
She ran her hands up his lapel to rest on his broad chest. "We are happy," she said and added, "kiss me."
His heart, once so tired of waiting, so weary of hoping swelled. Overwhelmed, he crushed Bella to him, clinging to her as the lifeline she had become.
She smiled against the rough wool of his uniform coat, breathing in the familiar sweet scent of tobacco, and closed her eyes in contentment.
"Thank you for coming to me," he rasped, and she looked into eyes swimming with love.
She smiled cheekily, "The pleasure's been all mine, sir," while making a slight bob within the tangle of his arms.
He smiled and sniffed. "I believe a kiss was ordered."
She blushed sweetly and whispered, "Yes, please."
He ran a forefinger over her cheek, her lips, memorizing every detail of the beauty of her countenance before lifting her chin. "Come to me, my love," he murmured as he brought her sweet lips to his, cherishing, and eternally claiming the precious gift of her love.
"Is this heaven?" she whispered against his lips.
Tears clung to his lashes as he said, "My family is reunited, and you are in my arms. Yes, love, for me this is heaven."
*She Waits by the River for Me" (1866) by J. B. Swett and E. K. Cole