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 Camerons' 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 crumbs 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 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 a pumpkin pie in her hands. Its residual heat warmed her lap. She wore her drab brown dress with its turned cuffs, worn but clean, and smoothed her skirt with shaking hands, taking a deep breath.
Charlie clucked at the mules as they bumped and jostled to Cullens' Point Plantation. "No good will come of this, mark my words," he 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 Camerons' 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 time 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 Camerons' 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 Camerons'. 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 Camerons' 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 the 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 she 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 to view Edward standing in the curtains of the French doors. He noted 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.