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For 11 months of the year, Camp Arrowhead revels in the reputation as a premiere day and overnight camp where school-aged children could enjoy the great outdoors in a safe, picturesque environment. Generations of Arrowheads return year after year, some sending their children and eventually their grandchildren to a place where spectacular memories were made. Summers were filled with swimming, horseback riding, and the ubiquitous macaroni necklace creation. Spring and winter found the cabins packed with church retreats and work-related team-building activities.
But in October, oh, October… everything changes.
Camp Pumpkinhead emerges in the Pacific Northwest, a veritable paradise of all things autumn. From the celebrated corn maze to the bonfires complete with hot dog roasts and gourmet s'mores to the pumpkin patch and haunted house, every detail was meticulously planned and executed, making it the destination for thousands of children. Parents adored the place not only because many had spent a week or two every summer at Arrowhead, but also because Esme and Carlisle, the current owners, kept the prices reasonable so that all could experience a family outing that did not break the bank.
One overcast late afternoon, the kids of Forks Elementary's kindergarten classes stomped around the pumpkin patch, a straw-covered field where strategically placed mini pumpkins had been strewn for their picking pleasure. The giggles and shrieks of orange t-shirt clad five-year-olds as they ran hither and yon, grabbing a pumpkin to take home filled the air as parents and chaperones snapped pictures and video to share on the class webpage.
"Auntie Belllllla! Aunnnnnntie Bellllllaaaaaa!"
Bella recognized the voice immediately and looked for the telltale curly, blonde hair of her best friend's daughter.
"What is it, Bethie?"
"Lookit what I gots!"
Bethie ran up to her and proudly held out a palm-sized pumpkin covered in lumpy bumps. Bella smiled at the child, who at that particular moment looked exactly like her father.
"What do you have?"
"I have a pumpkin that looks like Mrs. Cope!" Bethie rolled her eyes at the language correction, reminding Bella that she had better pay closer attention to her own behavior if she did not wish to see it in her honorary niece.
Bella stifled a laugh at the comment. Mrs. Cope was a sweet neighbor who loved Bethie dearly but who had the misfortune of possessing a large mole above one eyebrow.
"Is that the one you are going to take home?"
"Well, it would be sad if I left it." Caressing the pumpkin like a lost kitten, Bethie nodded her head wisely, feeling truly sorry that this little pumpkin would be upset if returned to the thousand or so others in the field.
Bella chuckled and gave an understanding bob of the head.
"Very true. Though I imagine Poppy and Gamma would be able to take care of…"
Her words ceased when Bethie clutched the tiny pumpkin to her chest and shook her head vehemently.
"I'm only teasing, sweetie. You can have that one."
"Yay! I'mma goin' to paint it and give it to Daddy when he gets home!"
And with that, Bethie ran off to catch up with her friend, Angie, who still searched for her perfect pumpkin to take home.
Sadness gripped her heart at the mention of her best friend's husband. She knew he'd be there if he could, but the military sends you where it wants and for now, he was enjoying Uncle Sam's finest canvas accommodations in a sandbox on the other side of the world.
The sound of a cowbell ringing caught her attention, and she saw Bethie's teacher, Alice Whitlock, calling everyone together.
"Okie dokie, artichokies! It's time to put your name on your pumpkins. Mr. Whitlock is going to give your adults pieces of tape and a Sharpie to write your name on them, and he'll put them in the wagon." Alice pointed at a bright green wagon. "Please return the Sharpies; they have to last me the year. After we get the pumpkins stored, it's hay ride time! We're going to go down to the bonfire where Mrs. Esme has set up a picnic for us!"
Bella smiled at the squeals and cheers as kids shoved their pumpkins at the grown-ups and dashed for the tractor and hay ride. Suddenly, she found two pumpkins in her hands and Bethie grinning sheepishly up at her.
"You're only supposed to have one, honey."
"That one is mine." Bethie pointed to the larger one. "This one," she said as she pointed to a tiny pumpkin, "is Teddy's."
"You think your baby brother needs a pumpkin?"
And with another silly grin, Bethie ran off to find her place on a bale of hay.
Bella shook her head and dutifully wrote Bethie's name on two pieces of tape before adding them to the wagonload. When your grandparents owned the place, you got used to doing as you pleased, she guessed.
"Think the rain will hold off?" Jasper asked as he rearranged the pile of pumpkins.
"It should. Think the TV said it would start around eight."
He nodded as he continued to prove he was Washington State's champion Tetris master.
"How's junior cookin'?"
She smiled and surveyed the kids running around.
"Doctor said he was doing just fine. Might come a little earlier than planned but nothing serious. I don't think Rosalie is going to mind one bit. She thinks she looks like a whale."
"Alice still swears he's going to come on Halloween."
"That's still two weeks away," Bella groaned. "No disrespect to your wife, but I hope she's wrong. I love her dearly, but the midnight cravings are a bit much."
Rosalie's first pregnancy had been a rather rough one, and when her husband, Emmett, and his best friend, Edward, had both been deployed, Bella offered to fill in as necessary. She had not expected two AM grocery store runs, but Rosalie was a fabulous friend, and Bella would do anything for her.
Jasper grinned, nodding. He understood. When Alice was pregnant with their second child, she was more than ready to be done with it all by week thirty-five.
"Heard from Emmett or Edward lately?"
Bella's face fell as she shook her head. There had been no communications from either in almost a week. It wasn't unheard of and had happened before, but chalks it up to hormones or the mostly gloomy weather of October in Washington, and Rosalie fretted. As a result, Bella had offered to come on the field trip so Rosalie could go to Port Angeles and enjoy one last day of pampering before Edward 'Teddy' Dale McCarty made his appearance.
"Well, no news is good news," Jasper announced as he took the last pumpkin from a parent. "Looks like the hayride is about to go. I'm sure Alice saved you a seat."
"I'm sure she did. Thanks, Jasper."
Bella slowly made her way across the field to where the tractor and hay wagon waited and with Carlisle's assistance, climbed up the stairs and took her place near the front.
"Now that we're all set, off we go!" Carlisle announced as he climbed into the driver's seat and put the tractor in gear.
With a soothing putt-putt-putt, the wagonload of giggly kindergarteners made its way around the fields toward the bonfire. Bella could hear Bethie tell her friends what was what as she pointed out the hay barn and the haunted house (but it's too scary for me! She said with a shiver) and Poppy and Gamma's house, and the cabins for campers.
Closing her eyes for a moment, Bella remembered a small backyard wedding down by Carlisle and Esme's house under a canopy of brilliant red, orange, and yellow-leaved trees. Edward, so very handsome in his uniform; her in a simple bridesmaid's dress. Fall was her absolute favorite time of year, and she could not have imagined a better setting for Rosalie and Emmett's wedding.
She offered up a quick prayer for safety for the two. Emmett and Edward were her best guy friends, and she could not imagine a world without either. Bella had grown up with Emmett, Rosalie, Alice, and Jasper, watching them pair up in high school after years of dancing around their mutual attractions. Edward was new to the group. Although he swore they had met before, the first time she had been formally introduced to Emmett's best friend was after they returned from basic training. Regardless of the timing, the two became fast friends, especially after discovering their mutual love for all things autumn.
Before she knew it, Bella felt someone gently shake her shoulder.
"Rise and shine, sleepyhead!" Alice grinned down at her.
Bella jolted and looked around at her surroundings. Everyone had already disembarked and was heading toward the fire pits that surrounded a huge bonfire.
"I missed my nap today," Bella grumbled as she scrambled to her feet.
"I know. Sorry about that," Alice apologized as the two joined the others. "This was the only time I could get us in since someone lost the forms I had filled out back in May."
She glared at her para pro, Jessica Newton, as the accused party flitted from father to father, trying to get their assistance.
"Did she just ask Tyler to skewer her wiener for her?" Bella stage whispered, shaking her head in horror.
"Based off the color of red he turned, I think so."
Both women looked at each other in shock before bursting into giggles before joining the others
"Blonde is certainly more than a hair color," Bella muttered.
"Oh, honey, I sadly know for a fact the curtains do not match the drapes," Alice grimaced. "I caught her and dear hubby down and dirty in the supply room before school started."
Bella's jaw dropped as she gawped at her friend, unable to respond.
"Joys of being a small town and him being the principal. Not much I could do other than shut the door and hightail it out of there."
Both women shook their heads in dismay before settling down on a hay bale and enjoying the fall festivities before them.
Fortunately, the rains held off until the last hot dog and s'more was consumed, and sleepy, worn-out kindergarteners began to fuss about achy feet and sticky faces. A few fat drops of warning fell, and everyone ran for the hay wagon, which was fortunately covered.
"Bella!" Bethie's voice rang out.
"What is it, baby?"
"Angie left Punkin Bear Harvey by the cabins!"
Harvey was a stuffed teddy bear that sat on a shelf in Mrs. Whitlock's room and would miraculously change what it held to match the seasons. The students swore he came alive every night and made mischief, but no one ever caught him in action. Harvey went on every field trip and as a reward for good behavior could be taken home over the weekend.
"I'll go get him," Alice offered.
"No, no," Bella replied, shaking her head. "You need to get home to your fellas. If you'll make sure Bethie gets to Carlisle or Esme, I'll go get it. They wanted her to spend the night so Rosalie and I could work on the nursery."
"Absolutely. I'll grab my umbrella, and it'll be fine."
"I greatly appreciate this, Bella!" Alice knew it would be a good hour before every child was secure in their car seats and on their way before she could make her own trip home. Then it would be a quick supper, baths, bedtime stories and a glass of wine to relax after a hard but rewarding week.
Thirty minutes later, Bella was grumbling to herself.
"No worries, my ass."
She shook her umbrella out as she stepped onto the porch of the Sequoia Cabin. The blasted thing was broken, and while the rains had held off until she could find the elusive Harvey, the clouds finally began to release their burdens as she headed back toward the main buildings, forcing her to make a mad dash for the nearest shelter.
Thinking she'd just call Carlisle and Esme, Bella pulled out her phone only to discover she was in a dead zone.
"Fuckin' fabulous," she sighed, pocketing the useless thing just as a wave of rain tumbled from the sky and the wind picked up, blowing it straight at her.
Bella checked the doorknob for the Sequoia Cabin and found it unlocked, fortunately, and took refuge inside. Little had changed since she had slept in this room, first as a camper and then counselor years ago. The pine walls still smelled the same, and the bunks lined the walls just as she remembered. The only difference was that instead of open windows and box fans, everything had been closed up since the last group had come through, giving the room a damp, musty smell.
As her mind wandered to camp memories, she wondered if her initials were still on the wall by her old bunk and, after tossing Harvey on a bed, crossed the room to investigate. With the help of her phone's flashlight, she found them. IMS. Absentmindedly, she rubbed her finger over the scar she had gotten on her left hand when the pocketknife she'd used to carve the initials slipped and cut her.
She couldn't hate the accident too much. That was how she had met Edward, although she wouldn't remember it was him until years later. Bella had been sent off to the nurse's station where Edward sat outside, playing Uno with some of the other guys. She had blushed at the attention they had given her, embarrassed at the towel wrapped around her hand and the bloodstains on her shirt.
He had walked her back to the Sequoia Cabin at the nurse's insistence after she had been patched up and a bandage securely in place.
Try to pass out because you see blood and everyone gets jittery.
Bella smiled at the memory. She had not caught the handsome boy's name at the time but had tried to find him the next day to thank him for his assistance. Once, while sharing Camp Arrowhead stories, Edward revealed he had been called home that night due to a family emergency, but he remembered her as well.
The rain picked up outside, beating against the windows. Bella sighed. She wasn't going anywhere fast unless she wanted to get drenched thanks to her busted umbrella.
She loved a cold, autumn rain as much as the next person but she preferred it to be in her own living room, with a fire going, wrapped in an afghan with a good book and a hot cup of tea.
Or maybe with a warm body to cuddle.
Bella shook her head. It had been a long, long time since her last boyfriend, and he had not been the snuggly type.
Or the book type.
Or the …
Bella began to wonder just what she saw in him.
Taking a seat on one of the beds, she pulled out her phone and scrolled through the pictures she had taken. If she was going to be stuck here for a while, might as well make good use of the time and select the ones she was going to forward to Emmett and Edward.
A small pang of loneliness gripped her heart. Edward loved Camp Arrowhead, and Camp Pumpkinhead had been his idea, originally. She smiled at the memory. Between insurance, taxes, and salaries, the cost of Camp Arrowhead had gone up and up and up, pricing it too high for a lot of the families in the surrounding area. Esme and Carlisle had worried they would have to close the camp.
Edward wrote up a proposal and sent it to Emmett's parents while stationed abroad. Monies raised during this normally slow season could go toward scholarships for campers. It had proved more successful than he could ever imagine.
Bella was proud of her friend and his brainstorm. Edward often e-mailed her ideas as he designed the corn maze every year, filling her with such joy to be included. In fact, this year's maze was based on the Headless Horseman, one of her favorite spooky stories. With him stationed so far away, she felt his presence with every visit to her Rosalie's in-laws.
The brief pondering of whether Edward would be a cuddler on a cold, dreary fall night flitted through her head, but Bella shook it away. She could not risk jeopardizing their relationship by crossing that line.
With a wistful sigh, Bella remembered how he always asked about her and made sure she didn't feel like the odd one out when he came home with Emmett during the holidays. And he made her laugh, writing long letters and e-mails detailing life in the military, filling her in on what was going on.
And then there was the time he accidentally sent her a topless picture. At least he insisted it was an accident. Rosalie and Alice did not seem to think that was the truth, and in all honesty, Bella did not mind one bit. Edward Masen was drop-dead gorgeous, clothed or not.
Bella swallowed hard as her mind drifted to admiring the fit of his cargos in that image which happened to be saved on her phone. A low rumble of thunder brought her attention back to her surroundings.
"Nothing here but some rain and probably a few spider webs," Bella muttered, shifting her position on the bed. "But I'm safe and dry…and alone."
The words were no sooner out of her mouth when she heard a thump on the porch of the cabin. Bella sat up a little straighter but could not see anything. She was in the back corner, and the windows faced the wrong direction for her to get a clear view.
Then there was another thump, as if someone wearing heavy boots walked across the wood porch.
Instinctively, she reached for her purse, only to curse herself because it sat snugly in the trunk of her car. She hadn't wanted to be one of those women who had to carry a bag everywhere. Therefore, it, and the new can of pepper spray Charlie had given her as he always did, every year for her birthday since she was fifteen, sat a good mile away, warm and dry in the parking lot.
"Fuck," she muttered softly.
She heard the cabin door rattle, just barely more than it would have with a strong breeze.
Slowly, she crept around the edge of the bed, feeling her way with one hand so she wouldn't trip. Peeping over the windowsill, she saw nothing in the dark other than the edge of the corn maze.
"Just my imagination," she grumbled, straightening up, trying to ignore the muscles in her back and legs that groaned in protest.
"Damn, I'm out of shape."
After what felt like hours but more than likely was only a few minutes, Bella decided the rain had ended enough to trudge her way back to her car. Grabbing the errant class lovie, she wrapped her coat around herself and stepped out onto the cabin porch.
And stopped dead in her tracks.
Standing between her and the corn maze was a tall, shadowy figure clad in a heavy, long coat. In one hand, he held a flashlight and in the other, an axe.
It was then that Bella realized the figure, that had its back to her, had no head. Her jaw dropped in horror as she clutched Harvey closer to her as if it were a shield and took a step backward, slamming into the closed door.
Terror gripped her heart as she scrambled to reach behind and find the doorknob, which had somehow disappeared, her eyes never leaving the ominous figure.
"I don't see her, Carlisle. You sure she's supposed to be down here?"
Bella felt her entire body relax as she realized she knew that voice. She watched as the figure turned and straightened, the absence of a head quickly revealed to be nothing more than an optical illusion in the dark.
"Edward?" she murmured, taking an unconscious step toward the man.
Soon, she was running, never more elated to see someone in her life.
"No, I don't see her. I'll go…"
Edward's words were cut off as Bella threw her arms around him, burying her head in his chest.
"Found her!" he grunted, nearly losing his balance before wrapping his arms around her to steady them both.
"I have never been so happy to see someone in my life!" she mumbled, feeling her heart rate steady and calm.
A warm rumbling laugh echoed through his chest.
"Glad to see you, too, Bella."
Suddenly realizing she was hanging on just a little too long for a friend, Bella wriggled free and took a step back, her cheeks flaming red.
Then she remembered how terrified she had been a few minutes before.
"You scared the ever-loving shit out of me!" she grumbled, smacking him in the chest with poor, defenseless Harvey.
"You…" Bella pointed threateningly as Harvey dangled from her hand.
A few fat raindrops began to fall, and Edward raised one palm to pause her oncoming rant.
"Hold the thought. Let's get out of the rain."
Edward grabbed her hand and pulled her closer, raising an umbrella and popping it open as the drizzle grew heavier.
"Not an axe!" Bella exclaimed, earning a befuddled look. "When I thought you were the Headless Horseman, I also thought you carried an axe."
"No," he said with a grin and a shake of the head. "Just an umbrella."
The two walked side-by-side toward the main buildings.
"What are you doing here? Not that I'm not glad to see you, but…. Oh, God. Nothing's wrong with Emmett is there? I know they send …"
She continued to ramble louder and faster about best friends and flags and Rosalie and Bethie before Edward halted.
"Bella! Stop talking!" he ordered.
She froze, eyes wide. He had never used his officer voice on her, and part of her was startled while another was oddly aroused at the sound.
He softened his tone and turned to face her even though she couldn't see him clearly in the darkness.
"Emmett's fine. I promise you. We volunteered for a mission, and upon its completion, we earned leave through the holidays. It was a surprise."
"A mission? Was it dangerous? Did anyone get hurt?"
"The only injury was Hunter, who fell out of the truck when we got back to base. He has a twisted ankle and will be out of commission for about a week."
"Oh, thank God!"
James Hunter's klutziness was often an excuse he used to write her.
"I dropped Emmett at their house, and I'm staying in the guest house. We didn't think it would be a good idea for Bethie to see me, and I certainly didn't want to stay there while they were…"
Bella nodded. She had roomed with Rosalie during college and knew how loud she was. Then the realization struck that she was without a place to stay for the night. Most of her stuff was at Emmett and Rosalie's.
"Rosalie apologized if this put you in a bind," Edward said quietly.
"Oh, I can go stay with…"
"You can bunk with me. I mean." Edward cleared his throat, and Bella was certain if there was more light, she would see the tips of his ears turning red. "There's a sofa bed I can sleep on. You can have the bed."
"I'd love to catch up with you. Hear what's going on. E-mail's great, Bella, but I've really missed your voice."
Now it was her turn to blush.
"I'd like that."
In comfortable silence, the two skirted the corn maze on their way to the guest house. The rain picked up, and without thinking, Edward pulled Bella closer to him. She did not mind one bit and slid one arm around his waist to nestle up against him.
He was warm and cozy, and she thought she fit perfectly up against him.
"I missed this," Edward murmured softly close to her ear.
Bella's mind flew through countless possibilities of what he meant.
Going for walks in the dark without worrying about getting shot?
Edward guided her toward the guest house before unlocking it but not opening the door.
"Missed what?" she finally whispered, looking up at him.
"My favorite time of the year at one of my favorite places in the world…with one of my favorite people."
Bella smiled, thinking that she agreed wholeheartedly.
"I've realized something."
"That time is too short. That it can end in the blink of an eye."
She nodded, thinking sadly of all the horrible, terrible, no-so-very-good things he must have witnessed during his career.
He took her hands in his and held them gently, making sure she was watching him as he spoke.
"And I don't want to let the best thing ever to enter my life go another moment without knowing how much I care for her."
Edward paused, watching her face intently. Bella suddenly realized what he had been saying.
"And the only thing to make tonight more perfect would be…" His voice trailed off, and he pulled her closer with one hand while the other gently cupped her cheek.
"Would be?" She swallowed hard.
"A welcome home kiss. From my girlfriend."
OH! Bella's eyes flew open in surprise, and she suppressed the squeak that threatened to erupt from her lips. She had kissed him on the cheek both in greeting and in farewell before, but something about how he said it this time meant more.
Then his last sentence registered.
Was he asking?
Did she want to take that step? It took milliseconds to decide, and Bella found herself nodding.
Smiling, Edward leaned down and kissed her softly, giving her every opportunity to turn away or pull back. She did neither. Rather, Bella stood up on her tiptoes to get closer, bringing her arms up to wrap around his neck.
The kiss was everything she had hoped for, and when she finally pulled back, it was way too soon to her liking.
"Well, Edward Masen, I need to ask you one very important question before we go any further," she murmured in a soft voice.
"And what is that Bella Swan?" his voice matching the humor reflected in his eyes.
"What is your perfect way to spend a rainy fall evening?"
"Curled up with my girlfriend in front of a fire doing whatever she wants to do."
"Good answer. Very good answer."
Bella opened the door to the guest house and pulled a willing Edward inside before closing and locking it to prevent any interruptions as she welcomed home her soldier.
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