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Charlotte, North Carolina, 1933.
"Please, sir, if we could just have a bit more time."
My father is a proud man, not one to plead, but the desperation is evident in his voice.
"But there is no more time, Mr. Swan. Your debt is substantial already. I believe I was quite clear in my letter to you."
I narrow my eyes at the tone of his voice, cool and businesslike, perhaps even a little bored. Sitting behind his ostentatious desk in his fine three-piece suit, twirling a silver pen, Mr. Cullen is the picture of wealth. His dark hair is neat and pomaded, his face like that of the film stars I've seen on black and white posters—a handsome devil, but a devil no less. His eyes drift to mine, and I quickly look down, embarrassed I've been caught staring at him.
"My wife's sick," Father says, looking for sympathy where I'm certain none is to be found. "I'm sure the harvest will be good this year. My sons are hard workers."
"You have sons?"
There's a hint of interest in his voice now.
"Yes, sir—five of 'em."
"Strong and healthy?"
"And yet you've brought your daughter here today. Why? Surely finances are a man's affair."
I press my lips together, willing myself not to speak.
"I . . . I ain't so good with numbers. My oldest boys don't seem to have a head for it neither."
"And she does?" Mr. Cullen asks. I feel his eyes on me again. He's hardly stopped looking at me since we came into his office. It's unsettling.
"Yes," my father says softly. "Isabella's real smart."
"Is she now? Very well, Miss Swan. Convince me."
I look up, clutching my hands in my lap and hoping my voice won't shake too much when I answer. I'm not used to speaking with men of authority, and I know how important it is I make him see logic.
"Mr. Cullen, you haven't been in this bank long, but if you check your father's records, you'll see that mine has always paid his debt. He's an honest man, but we've fallen on hard times, just as everyone else in the county. If you take our house and land, you'd have to rent it to someone else to make a profit."
He nods slowly, twirling his pen.
"Well, who's to say the new tenants would do any better than we would? We're all hardworking people. Our family has been on that plot for three generations. We care about the property, about the land. It's . . . our home."
"Spoken like a true Irishwoman," Mr. Cullen teases. "Your family is from Ireland, correct?"
"Yes," my father answers for me. "I don't see what that's got to do with anythin'. We're proud to be Irish-American."
Mr. Cullen holds up his hands.
"I meant no offense. I'm of Irish descent myself."
My father relaxes visibly.
"Catholic?" Mr. Cullen enquires.
His eyes move to me, looking me up and down.
"Mr. Swan, how old is your daughter?"
"Isabella's nineteen, sir. Why?"
He ignores the question.
"Is she a virgin?"
I gasp, feeling as though the air has been sucked from the room.
"Now you listen here!" My father is on his feet, fists clenched.
Mr. Cullen is still seated, a hint of a smile playing on his lips.
"Again, I meant no offense. Please, sit down, Mr. Swan."
"My Isabella's a good girl. She ain't never been with no man."
"That's good, and I believe you. Now sit down, or I'll expect you and your family off the land tomorrow."
My father's face pales, and he slumps back into his seat, beads of perspiration on his wrinkled forehead. I pour him a glass of water from the carafe on the table, my hands shaking. Mr. Cullen watches us as I offer my father the water, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze.
"You're a good daughter, Miss Swan. There's nothing you wouldn't do for your parents. Am I right?"
"Y-yes," I say, doing my best to ignore the dread I feel building inside me.
He turns to my father.
"Mr. Swan, I'll sell you the land. It will be yours, forever and always."
My father looks bewildered.
"But, sir, we ain't got no money."
"No, but you do have something of value. I want your daughter."
There's a ringing in my ears and the feeling of my father's hand squeezing mine to the point of pain. He isn't moving or saying a word, too shocked to react.
"You can't buy me!" I exclaim, finding my voice.
"No," he says calmly. "But I can marry you."
"M-marry me?" I try to comprehend it but find that I can't.
Mr. Cullen leans back in his chair, carelessly dropping his expensive pen on the desk before he steeples his fingers.
"I find myself in need of a wife."
"Well, an heir, as it were, and therefore a wife. I believe Isabella will suit my needs quite nicely."
Finally, my father speaks up.
"But, sir, we are common folk. Surely, you'll be wantin' someone of your own station."
Mr. Cullen waves his hand dismissively.
"Society ladies bore me. There's also the slight complication that none of them would marry me. You are, as you say, common folk, but I've been told my reputation precedes me."
My father's face reddens.
"What reputation?" I whisper.
"That ain't for your ears," he says in a stern voice, closing the subject.
"As I said," Mr. Cullen continues, "Isabella will suit me well. She is of marriageable age, Irish Catholic—my mother will insist on that— from a strong stock with healthy sons, and . . . not unpleasant to look at."
I barely suppress a sneer. The audacity of this man! I wait for my father to refuse him his bold suggestion.
"You'd treat her well?" he whispers.
"Like a queen," Mr. Cullen says silkily. "She'll live a life of luxury. I'll have my heir. And you'll have your land free and clear. Everyone wins."
"Father, please! You can't consider this!"
He turns to me, his eyes wet.
"What choice do we got? Your mama won't survive it if we end up destitute. You'll be a society lady."
"I'd be a brood mare!" I cry.
"What a charming description." Mr. Cullen chuckles. "Albeit not entirely incorrect, one draped in silks and damask, however. Tell me, how is that worse than marrying some country oaf one day and having his children, raising them to know hunger and hardship?"
"I . . . I . . ."
"That's what I thought. Mr. Swan, do we have a deal?"
"You promise me you'll be good to her?"
"I promise. She'll want for nothing."
"Very well," my father whispers, his shoulders slumped.
I stare at the two of them, disbelieving. I always knew I'd get married some day. I don't want to be a burden to my parents, and venturing out on my own with no money and little formal education isn't an option for a young woman of my station. But not like this. Not married to a complete stranger!
"And what say you, Isabella?" Mr. Cullen asks.
I stare at him, weighing my options, already knowing I don't have any. I nod, sealing my fate.
"Splendid," he says, rising to his feet. "I'll have one of the clerks prepare the documents immediately. If you'll excuse me."
I watch as he leaves his office, his stride confident. The moment he's gone, my father bows forward, burying his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking.
"I'm so sorry, Isabella," he croaks. "So very sorry."
I've never seen my father cry, not once, and the sight stirs my emotions, replacing my anger with pity.
"There was no choice," I whisper. "We would have been thrown out. And Mother . . ."
I choke back a sob, placing my hand on his back.
"He . . . he will treat you right—or so help me God."
My father turns his head to look at me, eyes red-rimmed and watery but also determined. I have no doubt he means it. If Mr. Cullen treats me badly, he'll likely be facing the deadly end of my father's shotgun.
"I know, Father."
"You're a good girl, Isabella, smart and kind. You're too good for our way of life—I always thought so. Always regretted I couldn't give you more schoolin'. You'll be a real fancy lady now."
I don't want to be a fancy lady. I don't want to marry Mr. Cullen. But I produce a smile for my father's sake.
Mr. Cullen returns, documents in hand and a look of smug satisfaction on his face. Everything is arranged quickly and efficiently. Mr. Cullen will apply for a marriage license and take care of any expenses concerning the wedding, including a dress for me. There will be a small luncheon after the ceremony. Mr. Cullen doesn't want a big wedding and neither do I although no one asks my opinion on the matter. It's as though I've ceased to exist. I listen mutely as they decide my future for me, feeling strangely numb. I stand when my father does, following him to the door, my feet moving of their own volition.
I blink and look up at Mr. Cullen. His gaze sweeps over me, from my face to my body, the tip of his tongue peeking out as he moistens his lower lip.
"I'll see you at the wedding."
I nod, averting my eyes as I trail after my father out of the bank, not speaking as we begin the long and bumpy ride home to the farm, the farm that's now ours, bought and paid for with my body. I barely make it out of my seat before I'm vomiting on the side of the road.
A short two weeks later, my father gives me away in front of our family and closest acquaintances. I can't recall all of the details of my wedding day. The dress is lovely, though, as are the flowers that I clutch in my sweaty hands. Mr. Cullen is dressed finely in a suit. He's hired a photographer who takes many pictures of the two of us. When I ask why, he simply replies they're for his mother, who isn't attending our wedding. His side of the church is less crowded than mine, and I tremble as he presses his lips against mine for a brief moment at the end of the ceremony. My first kiss. My mother starts to weep—not, I'm certain, from happiness.
It's still light out as we reach his home, a large townhouse in the middle of the city. I look up in surprise as we reach our destination, barely remembering how we got here. Mr. Cullen opens the door for me and offers me his hand as I exit the vehicle. My first ride in an automobile. I'll have to tell my brothers what it was like when I see them again.
When will I see them again?
I lose my footing, startling as Mr. Cullen lifts me up into his arms with no effort at all.
"It's tradition," he murmurs, carrying me over the threshold before setting me down gently.
Inside, a small group of servants and cooks are lined up, eager to congratulate us. I'm told their names and occupations but have a hard time retaining the information, their faces blurring before my eyes.
"Are you hungry?" Mr. Cullen asks.
I shake my head.
"This way, then."
I take his offered arm and follow him upstairs into a light and airy bedroom, beautifully and femininely decorated with floral patterns and a large canopy bed.
"Yes. I'm across the hall. There's an adjoining bathroom in there, also just for you."
He points to a door, looking at me for confirmation I've understood, and I quickly nod.
"Clothes are in the closets and dressers. I hope they fit you. Otherwise, we'll exchange them."
"I'll give you some privacy for your nightly ablutions and come to you again in half an hour. Will that be sufficient time?"
I nod dumbly.
Finally alone, I look around at the room I've been given. This is where I will sleep from now on. The stranger to whom I'm married will not be sharing the bed with me, and for that I'm grateful. He'll come to me soon, though, and I'm not entirely ignorant of the reason for his visit. My mother has explained what comes to pass between a husband and a wife. Knowing doesn't make the prospect any easier to accept, but I realize that this is my purpose here—to produce an heir for Mr. Cullen.
I find a nightdress already laid out for me in the bathroom, grateful I don't have to deal with the contents of the drawers tonight, but first I make myself ready.
The indoor flushing toilet is something I'll have to get used to, having only ever used an outhouse, but the running warm water in the faucet is lovely. Half an hour isn't enough time for a proper bath, but I don't believe I need one. I scrubbed myself with lavender soap just this morning, rinsing off in the large wooden basin afterward. Putting on the nightgown, I run the brush through my loose hair one hundred times and finally kneel down to say my prayers at the side of the bed. Mr. Cullen finds me there, announcing his entry with a light knock before coming in. I stand quickly, an unexpected rush of nerves running through me at the sight of him barefooted and wearing a bathrobe. The corners of his mouth twitch as he looks me up and down. I wish I'd thought to look for a robe. The nightgown is white and made of a fine, soft material that molds itself to my shape. The short, ruffled sleeves leave most of my arms uncovered, and I feel naked underneath his heated gaze, backing away as he approaches until my knees buckle as I end up sitting on the edge of the bed.
"My bride," he says, reaching out to touch my hair, running his hand all the way down the length of it.
I shiver underneath his touch, drawing a gasping breath as he nudges my shoulder to make me fall back on the bed, my feet still dangling off the edge. His hands are warm as he runs them up my calves, parting my legs as he takes the long nightgown with him, exposing me to him. I suppress a whimper when he pulls my underwear off, my heart thundering in my chest. Catching me by surprise, he leans over me to stroke my hair again, my arms, and then my breasts, gently kneading them through the fabric of my nightgown and circling my nipples with his thumbs, smiling as they harden. The sensation surprises me just as much as it does to have him touching me in that manner, being so gentle with me.
I stare at his handsome face as he slides his hands up underneath my nightgown again, suddenly probing between my legs, an intense look in his eyes. My body jerks as he begins stroking me, a self-satisfied smirk curling his lips. My mother didn't mention anything like this. He leans down slowly, his eyes trained on my mouth.
"Why are you doing that?"
The question is out before I can stop it. He cocks his head to the side, regarding me.
"Touching you beforehand will make it more pleasurable."
I shake my head. I don't care about his pleasure, and I don't like him touching me with so much intimacy, pretending my wedding night is something it isn't. I certainly won't have him kissing me.
"Just do it. Do what you came here to do, and be done with it."
For the first time I sense hesitation in him, his previous smug expression gone.
"It will hurt you if I do it that way, Isabella."
"Do it, Mr. Cullen."
I wouldn't even know his first name if the priest hadn't spoken it today.
"Very well. If that's what you want."
He watches me closely, and I give him a curt nod. Unceremoniously, he unties his bathrobe and shrugs it off, standing before me completely naked. His body is so different from mine, firm and muscled with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. The quick glance below his bellybutton makes my throat feel closed up. I press my lips together as he grabs my hips and pulls me to the edge of bed, lifting up my legs. His gaze finds mine, but I turn my head to the side, bracing myself. The moment he pushes inside, I squeeze my eyes shut, inhaling sharply against the pinch of pain between my legs. His fingers tighten and he lets out a deep breath before he starts moving slowly, each pass inside me making me wince, my body fighting the intrusion.
"Relax, Isabella." He runs his hands over my breasts and thighs, taking me with faster strokes.
I clench my fists around the bedspread as he leans over me, his breath hot on my neck and his labored moans loud in my ear as his hips collide with my inner thighs again and again until he groans deep in his throat, sinking down on top of me, his face buried in my hair.
I open my eyes again, trying to take in the strange sensation of having his body against mine. With a soft lingering moan he presses his lips against the side of my neck for a brief moment before pushing off me and withdrawing. I hurt between my legs and curl up on my side, listening to him cleaning himself up in the bathroom, knowing I need to go do the same, but I can't face him right now. I close my eyes again as I sense him approach, standing silently for a long time at the edge of the bed watching me.
"You're . . . you're a healthy young woman, Isabella, and I'm certain you'll be expecting soon. You won't have to . . . endure me for very long."
He leans down and touches my hair for a moment.
"G'night," I whisper.
Only after the door closes with a soft click do I allow tears to flood my eyes. He didn't hurt me, not really, and I know this is what I agreed to, but the experience has still overwhelmed me, left me feeling raw and exposed, something I'd never show him. After a few minutes I climb off the bed, wincing at the soreness in my lower half as I walk into the bathroom. There's a little blood on me, but my mother told me this would likely happen, and I quickly wash it away, feeling better after I've cleaned up. Back inside the bedroom, I stare at the bed, cringing at the sight of the stained sheet. I have no idea where there are fresh ones and cover it with a small hand towel.
A light knock on the door makes my heart jump and I open it, worried Mr. Cullen is back for more of what he just did to me. It's a young maid, holding a tray.
"Good evening, Mrs. Cullen," she says brightly.
Mrs. Cullen. That will take some getting used to.
"Mr. Cullen wasn't sure if you liked tea or coffee. I brought tea since it's nighttime, but I can fetch some coffee if you'd like." She places the tray on the serving table by the window.
"This is from Mr. Cullen?" I whisper.
"Yes, ma'am. He said you didn't eat much at your luncheon today."
"Oh." For a moment I'm touched by his thoughtfulness, but then I remember he'll want his broodmare healthy and well-fed. He doesn't care about anything else.
I rub my arms, feeling chilled.
"Here, Mrs. Cullen." The maid goes to the closet and pulls out a housecoat for me, helping me into it.
"Thank you. I'm so sorry. I've forgotten your name."
"Angela, ma'am. Don't you worry about that. I'm sure it's been a tiring day for you. Won't you sit down?"
She ushers me to the chair by the window and moves the serving table close, pouring tea and handing me a plate. There are sandwiches and fresh fruit, cakes and desserts. I've never seen such a spread for an evening repast!
"Is there anything else you need, Mrs. Cullen?"
I push down my embarrassment as best I can.
"I would like a fresh sheet for the bed, please."
"Of course." She curtsies and is out the door in a flash. Before I can even taste my tea, she's back, heading straight for the bed.
She stops in her tracks as though struck by lightning.
"I, uh, I can do it."
"Certainly, ma'am." She curtsies and puts down the folded sheet. "Will there be anything else?"
I look around the room, but I can't find anything for her to do. I don't want to be alone, though. I've never been all alone, not a day in my life.
"No. Thank you, Angela."
She smiles at me and curtsies again before walking out, leaving me to my solitude and my tea.
Sleep is hard to come by. The bed is a lot softer than what I'm used to, and I can't find any restful position to lie in. Eventually, I drift off, tears staining my pillowcase.
The next morning, Angela brings me breakfast. When I ask her about Mr. Cullen, she tells me he's already left for the bank. I suppose this is a good thing—he won't make demands of me. But what am I supposed to do, then?
"Angela, what do women like me, bankers' wives I mean, do all day while their husbands are at work?"
"I, uh, I don't know, Mrs. Cullen. Tend to their children?"
"But I don't have any children."
Angela gives me a helpless shrug.
"I could draw you a bath," she suggests. "And help you find something to wear for afterward?"
I nod, feeling grateful. The warm water is wonderful on my skin, and I lie in it until I start to prune. I marvel at the many clothes in the closet. Back home, I had three dresses to choose from: two for work and one for church. Now I have close to thirty. It's overwhelming, but Angela helps me pick out a dark blue short-sleeved number that falls below my knees, pairing it with comfortable saddle shoes—the only pair without heels. Besides my wedding dress, I've never looked so fine. Angela helps me pin my long hair, creating the illusion that I have the stylish bob I've seen on magazine covers. I hardly recognize myself as I stand in front of the mirror. Bathing and dressing done, I don't know what to do with myself. It's not even ten yet.
"Angela, do you think I could see the rest of the house and maybe the garden?"
She gives me an odd look.
"Of course, Mrs. Cullen. It's your house now too."
Right. I suppose it is.
I explore the house in wonder, not able to truly understand that all of this is now mine too. Each time I encounter someone, they either curtsy or bow to me, which makes me uneasy, especially since most of them are my senior by many years. I've been raised to respect my elders, and having them treat me with such deference merely because I've married the master of the house feels wrong. I'm no better than they. Angela serves lunch to me in the dining room downstairs, and as she leaves to take her food in the kitchen, I stare longingly after her, wishing I could eat with her and the rest of the staff, not in the quiet of these unfamiliar surroundings. I long for my home.
After lunch I walk in the garden, wishing I had something to occupy myself with. When I return to my room, I see that the small bag I packed at home before leaving for church has been brought up, and I cry as I curl up on the bed and clutch it to me, the only remnants of my old life inside. I fall asleep, and when I wake up, it's because Angela has arrived to help me dress for dinner. Apparently, I've been wearing a morning dress. I find the notion ridiculous but let her put another dress on me, this one even finer than the blue one, and she fixes my slightly mussed hair. I draw the line as she suggests lip stain and rouge for me. Mr. Cullen already knows what I look like, but I allow her to put a small bit of perfume behind my ears and on my wrists because I've never tried it. It smells nice.
As I make my way downstairs, my heart starts to race, and I hesitate at the entrance to the dining room, trying to gather my courage to face him. I've mostly avoided thinking of him today—my husband, the stranger who took my body last night, the handsome devil who took advantage of my family's situation to buy himself a bride. How am I supposed to eat dinner with him as though this is an ordinary marriage?
The moment I enter the dining room, he turns, looking me up and down, a pleased expression on his face.
"Good evening, Isabella. You look lovely."
He's dressed in yet another three-piece suit, impeccable as always.
"Not unpleasant to look at, you mean," I say, unable to stop myself.
Mr. Cullen chuckles, approaching slowly.
"Perhaps I could have phrased it differently. I didn't think you'd care much for compliments from me with your father listening."
He places his hand on my lower back to lead me forward. The slight contact sends a jolt of nerves up my spine. He leans in to murmur in my ear.
"You wouldn't have liked it if I said how alluring you looked in your plain cotton dress, how innocently enticing you were with those big eyes and that girlish braid draped over your shoulder. The prettiest girl I've ever laid eyes on."
I stop abruptly, staring up at him with my eyes narrowed. There's not a trace of humor on his face now, though. He looks perfectly serious.
"Uh, thank you," I mumble, averting my gaze as heat spreads across my cheeks.
"Come wife. Let's eat."
The moment we sit down, a servant appears, pouring wine and bringing food to the table. It all smells wonderful, but I hardly have an appetite for it. I've been idle all day and eaten better than I can ever remember for both breakfast and lunch. Mr. Cullen, however, starts eating with gusto. I ask the servant, whose name I've also forgotten, to switch my wine for water. Mr. Cullen looks surprised at my request.
"Only for holy communion," I explain. "Temperance is a virtue. You don't give thanks before you eat?"
He sighs, putting down his fork.
"Isabella, I shouldn't be made to feel guilty about my ways in my own home. You may worship as you please, but do not lecture me." His voice has an edge to it.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Cullen."
I feel his eyes on me as I silently say a quick prayer before picking at my food.
"You aren't hungry?" he asks after a while.
I shake my head.
"What did you do today?" he continues.
I look at him.
"I was just . . . here."
I look at my plate again, listening to him as he finishes eating, unable to come up with anything to say to him or ask him. I've never had to think of topics of conversation before.
"May I be excused?" I ask the moment the servant has removed my plate.
Mr. Cullen exhales slowly, his frown still in place. He's displeased. I can tell.
"Very well," he murmurs before addressing the servant. "Marcus, I'll take my coffee in the living room."
We leave the table at the same time but walk away in opposite directions. Much later that night after I'm in bed, he comes to me, and I watch as he disrobes wordlessly before climbing underneath the covers. Lifting up my nightgown and taking off my underwear, he wets his fingers and touches me for a few moments before lifting my legs and pushing inside. I can't help but whimper at the intrusion. My husband sighs above me, placing his hand on my cheek, his thumb gently stroking my face as he starts to move. He smells like alcohol and cigar smoke, but his hands and thrusts are gentle, his moans soft. After he's done, he slides my underwear back up my legs and lowers my nightgown before slipping out of the bed.
"Goodnight," he mumbles as he exits.
"Goodnight," I whisper to the empty room.
The next morning after washing and dressing, Angela brings me a pocketbook. I stare, uncomprehending, at the neatly folded up bills.
"Mr. Cullen left that for you in case you'd like to go out shopping today."
I couldn't care less about shopping, but there is something I'd very much like to do.
"Angela, does Mr. Cullen have a chauffeur for the automobile?"
"Do you think he could drive me today?"
"It's your automobile, too, Mrs. Cullen."
I should've known she'd say that.
For the first time since my marriage was decided for me, there's a spring in my step. Angela helps me make a basket with things from the overflowing pantry and icebox. The chauffeur is gracious, holding the door for me as I climb into the back.
"What is your name, please?"
"William, ma'am. William Black."
"Thank you for driving me today, William. I don't know how myself."
He smiles at me.
"I'm happy to be of assistance, Mrs. Cullen. Mr. Cullen likes to walk to the bank in the summertime, so there isn't much for me to do at the moment. Where am I taking you today?"
"My parents' farm, please. I'll give you directions."
"A country drive sounds like a fine idea on such a lovely day. Lead the way, Mrs. Cullen."
I smile in anticipation, clutching my hands in my lap. I'm finally going home.
As expected, my brothers are more interested in the automobile than me. They give me quick hellos before surrounding William, peppering him with questions. My father stands still as I walk to him. As I come closer, I see that his eyes are wet.
"Isabella." He looks me over carefully. I do my best to smile at him. "He's treatin' you well like he promised?"
"I want for nothing, just like he promised, Father."
"Good. That's good. You look real fancy. Go and see your mama. She's missin' you something fierce."
"I've brought lunch for everyone." I hold up the basket. "Wash up and come inside when y'all are done fawning over that there automobile."
My father gives me a rare grin, showing a few gaps where some teeth are missing. My mother's taught us all how to speak "proper" in school and town, but I am my father's daughter too. A pretty dress and a wedding ring will never change who I am or where I come from. Inside the house my mother is busy preparing the washing, her face red with exertion and weathered from too many bad years, but she breaks into a smile at the sight of me.
"Isabella!" She rushes to embrace me, stopping at the last moment. "Wait. Let me change my apron. I don't wanna dirty you."
"Oh, hush," I say, putting the basket on the floor before throwing my arms around her. "I've missed you, Mama."
It's nearly impossible to hold back tears as she hugs me, but somehow I manage, knowing it will only upset her.
"Let me look at you," she says, holding me at arm's length. "It's like you stepped out of a magazine!"
I chuckle, doing a little twirl. I'm in another knee-length dress, emerald green with white lace accents, and the saddle shoes I wore yesterday.
"I like your hair like this," she comments. "You look all grown up."
"I suppose I am now."
My mother turns serious.
"Is he kind to you?" she whispers. "I know you'll have everything money can buy, but . . . does he treat you gentle-like?"
"Yes, he's very gentle with me." It's the truth. He hasn't been at all harsh with me on his nightly visits, something I never expected and something I'm truly grateful for. "He . . . he isn't a cruel man. All he wants is an heir."
My mother exhales deeply, which turns into a cough. It leaves her heaving for air, and I help her to the table to sit down. It sounds worse than when I left, and I remember the small bag draped over my shoulder.
"Mama, here." I hold out the bills. "For a doctor and medicine."
She stares up at me, eyes wide.
"Isabella, no. Your husband wouldn't like you giving us his money."
"It's my money too," I say, imitating Angela. "I have no need for new dresses. Please, take it."
I push the bills into her hands, considering the matter closed.
"Look." I collect the basket. "I brought lunch for everyone. Father and the boys will be in soon."
"You just get yourself well again," I say, unloading the food and drinks. "That's all that matters."
We set the table, and soon the rest of my family join us, eyeing the spread we've put out. My youngest brother Seth lets out a whoop.
"It's just like Christmas!"
We laugh and all of us sit down to join hands, giving thanks for the food. I let them all dig in and head outside to ask William to join us. As I'd expected, he declines politely, so I bring him a plate and a bottle of lemonade. Back inside, the spirits are high, and I enjoy myself immensely. My father has many plans for the farm, now that it's truly ours.
"The upcoming harvest is looking good," he tells me. "If we keep this up, we might be able to send Seth for some proper schoolin' when he grows up."
My little brother blushes under the attention but puffs his chest out like a peacock at the thought of college. He'll be the first in the family to go.
"It should've been you, Iz," my older brother Emmett says quietly. "It should've been you."
I give him a sad smile.
"It wasn't meant to be. I'd rather hear about you all. How's Rosie doing?"
The tips of his ears turn red at the mention of his fiancée, a lovely girl from a neighboring farm. The talk turns to their plans and other happy topics and I soak it all up, knowing I can't stay here. But as I look around the table, I can see the outcome of the sacrifice I've made. This house, this land, it belongs to us now. Seth, the family's great hope, will have a chance for college someday. Perhaps my other brothers could learn a trade of their own. With no more crippling debt and land of their own, my family has a chance not just to survive but to thrive. And it's possible, thanks to my marriage.
I keep that thought in mind as William drives me back to the city. Like it or not, I am now and forever Mrs. Edward Cullen and therefore bound to the man whose name I've taken. Feeling inspired, I head downstairs the moment I arrive.
There are two women working in the kitchen, and they immediately drop what they're doing to curtsy.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Cullen."
"Good afternoon. Are you the cook?" I ask, addressing the older of the two, a kind-looking woman with graying hair peeking out under a headscarf.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm Mrs. Cope. This is Jessica. How might I be of assistance?"
"I would like to help cook dinner, please."
Her eyes widen.
"Is . . . is there something you don't like about my cooking, Mrs. Cullen?" She doesn't seem offended, but rather worried.
"Oh, no!" I assure her. "Everything is wonderful. But I should like to cook for my husband."
She shifts her weight nervously.
"Please? I know it probably isn't done in grand houses like this, but . . . I . . . I am not a grand lady. Where I come from, a wife does this for her husband, and . . ."
Tears spring to my eyes.
"Please, I'm all alone upstairs. I'd like to be helpful. I've worked all my life, you see."
"Oh, Mrs. Cullen, don't cry," the girl, Jessica, whispers. "Can't she help us, Mrs. Cope?"
I see the older woman deliberating.
"You are the lady of the house, so I suppose . . . if that is what you want," she finally says.
"Thank you, Mrs. Cope! I promise I won't get in your way. Please put me to work."
Jessica fetches an apron for me and directs me to a stack of vegetables that need chopping. I jump to the task, ecstatic to be working with my hands again. Finally, something I know how to do. Angela comes in, halting at the sight of me. I give her a big smile and she returns it, taking a seat at the large table after having poured herself a cup of coffee. Soon, more of the staff come in, all of them obviously surprised to see me.
"Mrs. Cullen is helping us prepare dinner," Mrs. Cope announces. "She wants to cook for her husband, and I think it's a fine thing for a wife to do."
I hear murmurs of approval as they all sit down with cups of their own. Mrs. Cope places trays of sandwiches and what looks to be orange cake on the table for everyone.
"We eat supper after you and Mr. Cullen," she explains. "So we have something now to tide us over. I hope you don't mind."
"Why would I mind? Please, sit. I can keep an eye on things here."
She smiles and joins the others, and soon a lovely chatter fills the room while I continue cooking. My mother taught me well, and I find myself more at home down here than I've ever felt upstairs in the fancy parlors.
"Mrs. Cullen?" I look up to see Angela smiling at me. "Won't you join us?"
I look around the table, seeing nods and friendly expressions. Feeling elated I take a seat, accepting the cup of coffee Mrs. Cope pours for me. The afternoon flies by quickly, and as I enter the dining room that night, I feel light and happy.
"Good evening, Isabella."
I smile at my husband, noting his surprised expression as he offers me his arm and escorts me to the table. I'm eager to try the food I've helped prepare and eat heartily of it. Mr. Cullen does as well.
"Marcus, be sure to send our compliments to Mrs. Cope. I believe she has outdone herself."
I hide my smile behind my napkin as I dab my mouth.
"Certainly, Mr. Cullen."
Marcus knows I've helped with the cooking but thankfully doesn't say anything before he leaves the room. I want to tell Mr. Cullen, but I'm worried he might not like my being downstairs and forbid it.
"You're eating well tonight," he observes. "William tells me you used the automobile today."
I pause mid-bite, looking at him.
"Yes. I hope that's all right?"
"Of course." He nods, wearing a friendly expression. "Did you go shopping?"
"Um, yes." The lie tastes like ash on my tongue.
I'm suddenly fascinated by my plate, my stomach in knots. I listen as he sips his wine.
"That's nice. What did you buy?"
His tone is light and I glance up at him again. I'm not sure I can trust him not to become angry with me, but I don't want to lie to him. He's my husband, for better or for worse.
"I-I didn't go shopping. I went to see my family."
He frowns, slowly rotating his wine glass.
"Why didn't you just tell me that?"
I draw a deep breath, suppressing my nervousness.
"Because . . . because I gave the money to my mother. It's all gone. She needed it for a doctor and medicine."
Mr. Cullen sighs, rubbing his forehead with his fingers.
"And you didn't think I'd give you extra money if you'd simply told me your family needed help. You thought I wouldn't care." He looks at me. "How lowly you must think of me."
I feel as though my heart is being squeezed.
"You cannot blame me for that," I whisper. "Not after the way you treated my father when he came to you for help at the bank."
"That was business. If I let everyone forgo their payments, I wouldn't have a bank, and everyone who works for me would be out of a job. This is family and my own money. Like it or not, Isabella, we are family now, you and I, and that makes all the difference."
"I'm sorry I lied."
He draws a breath and lets it out, picking up his fork again.
"If you need anything else for your family in the future, please just let me know."
Hope fills my heart.
"So . . . you won't mind if I go and visit with them again?"
"I don't care how you spend your days, Isabella. I . . . I'm new to this marriage business too." His gaze meets mine. "I know you didn't choose to marry me, but I do hope you'll . . . at least find some measure of happiness. You smiled today. I liked seeing that. I should like to see it more."
A strange sensation rushes through me, an unseen force that seems to pull me toward him.
"So, no, I don't mind you visiting your family," he continues. "Do whatever makes you happy. If it costs money, let me know."
He starts eating again and I sit feeling stunned with gratitude.
"I mashed those potatoes," I whisper.
He looks up.
"You cooked this?"
"I helped in the kitchen all afternoon. I-I know it isn't what's done but . . . I enjoyed it."
He takes another bite.
"All right. It's very tasty."
And that's all he says about it. His way of telling he won't forbid me from visiting the kitchen, I suppose. I blink back tears of relief before picking up my own fork again.
"How was work?" I ask.
He gives me surprised smile.
"It was good. How is your family doing?"
I return the smile and we continue eating in silence. It isn't unpleasant, though. After dinner I go with him into the living room. The radio is on, and soon, coffee and cake are served. Mr. Cullen lights a cigar and even offers me one. I laugh and decline. I like the smell of them, though. He smiles at me and asks me if I'd like a paper to read, which is what he usually does after dinner. We spend the evening like that, on opposite ends of the couch, making small comments to each other about things we're reading and listening to music. That night he comes to me, his eyes and touches soft, his lips on my neck as he takes me slowly, lingering for a few minutes with his head on my chest after he finishes. He kisses my forehead and whispers good night before he leaves, and for the first time, I find myself wishing he'd stay a little longer.
And so it goes. I spend my days with frequent visits to my family, helping in the kitchen, and even exploring the city a bit. I read books from Mr. Cullen's library and listen to the radio, or I tend to the rose bushes I've planted in the garden. I spend my evenings with my husband, having dinner and polite conversation. He's started to teach me to play cards, chess, and backgammon. As days turn into weeks, it doesn't escape my notice that my monthly never makes an appearance. It was due the week after our wedding. Mr. Cullen visits me every night, so I knew it was likely to happen; I think I am in the family way.
While this has been my purpose all along, I've given the notion of having a baby very little thought. Now I am forced to do so. I do want children; I always have. But I never imagined I'd be having them with someone like Mr. Cullen. What kind of father will he be? I know he wants an heir, but is it just to carry on the family name and one day take over the bank like he took it over when his father passed away? Or does he genuinely long to hold a baby in his arms and help me raise it? With each day that passes, I become more convinced it has happened. My mother confirms my suspicion when I tell her my symptoms.
"Isabella, are you all right? You seem distracted tonight."
My husband is seated across from me, a chessboard between us.
"I'm all right," I reply, drawing a breath. "I have something to tell you."
He sits up straighter, nodding.
"I believe . . . I believe I am expecting."
Mr. Cullen's lips part and he inhales sharply.
"Expecting? Are you certain?"
"It's been . . ." I can't help but blush, sharing such intimate details with him. "It's been four weeks since my monthly, uh, bleeding was due. It never came. So, yes, as certain as one can be."
"You are with child? Truly? Oh, Isabella!"
He's on his feet immediately, lifting me up to embrace me, swinging me around. I cling to his broad shoulders, shocked by his reaction. I knew he would be happy, but I never expected this exuberance.
"This is wonderful!" he exclaims before bending down and slanting his mouth over mine.
He kisses me with passion, pressing our lips and bodies together. I'm too stunned to do anything but hold onto him. Except for that one time at our wedding, he has never kissed me. He'll sometimes caress my neck with his lips as he takes me, and he'll give me a peck on my forehead when he says good night, but never like this, his velvet soft lips molding themselves to mine so enticingly. It makes me want to run my fingers through his hair and touch his face. I never touch him when he's on top of me. I've never let myself. Abruptly, he pulls back, looking down as he lowers me to my feet.
"I . . . I beg your pardon," he says, his voice hoarse. "I was a bit overcome by the moment."
He steps back, straightening his jacket.
"It's . . . fine," I whisper, taking my seat again. My mind is strangely clouded as though I've been in the sun for too long without water.
"How are you feeling?" he asks. "Should I make an appointment with a doctor for you?"
"Why? I'm not ill. I feel fatigued, but my mother says that's normal."
"Of course. I apologize for keeping you up. Let me help you up to your room. You're in a delicate state."
He offers me his arm and I take it, stifling a laugh as we walk through the quiet of the house. I am not so "delicate" at all. Most women I know have worked up until the birth of their children.
"I wondered if tomorrow you'd like to come with me to see my mother?" he asks as we climb the stairs.
"Your mother's here?" I'm surprised. The only time I've heard mention of his mother was when he had pictures taken at the wedding, so I assumed she didn't live close by.
"She lives across town. She's very ill." His voice is solemn.
"Oh. I'm so sorry."
"Thank you. Perhaps . . . I could accompany you to church and we could go afterward?"
Another surprise. I've been attending church alone each week, a local one within walking distance.
"I'd like that," I say, smiling up at him as we stop at my door.
He looks down at me, hesitating for a moment before lifting my hand up and pressing his lips to the back of it.
"Thank you," he says softly. "I'll see you in the morning, then. Sleep well."
"Good night," I whisper, watching as he turns and goes into his bedroom across from mine.
I'll see you in the morning, then. He won't be visiting me tonight? No. He won't. I am expecting now and won't have to endure him any longer—his promise to me on our wedding night. Only, as I climb into bed after my evening prayers, I find myself watching the door, realizing that I hope it will open, and my husband will come to me after all.
I . . . don't mind his nightly visit. I've grown accustomed to it, and our intimacy no longer causes me pain. I find the sensation of his weight on top of me almost pleasant, certainly comforting in a way, and I do enjoy the sounds he makes as he finds his pleasure, knowing I am the reason for it. Pressing my fingertips to my lips, I remember how it felt when he kissed me downstairs. I enjoyed that too. Rolling to my side facing the door, I sigh, placing my hand on my lower abdomen. It's strange to think a child is growing in there, but I know I love it already. If it's a boy, I hope he has his father's green eyes . . . and his smile.
The creaking of a floorboard right outside my room steals my attention, and I listen with a pounding heart, staring at the door handle, willing it to turn. But it doesn't. Perhaps it was merely the house settling, but in my heart, I find myself hoping it wasn't. I fall into an uneasy sleep, dreaming of moving covers and warm lips on my skin, not understanding the restlessness and odd frustration I feel as I wake up.
The next morning as I walk downstairs, I find it nearly impossible to look at my husband without blushing. He's dressed in his Sunday best, and my heart starts to pound as he smiles.
"You are a vision this morning, wife," he says softly.
"Th-thank you. You are . . . you are . . ."
"Not unpleasant to look at?" he asks, a spark of humor in his eyes.
I giggle and nod, taking his offered arm as he leads me out to the automobile, happy he's pleased with how I look. I'm wearing a coral dress with a belted waist and puff sleeves, a matching hat, and lace gloves. I'm nervous about meeting his mother and want to make a good impression. As we walk down the aisle at the church to find a pew, I notice several people gawking at us as they whisper to each other. I know this attention is directed at my husband as I have been here several times already. I don't, however, know why his coming here would cause a stir. I glance up at him as we take a seat, and he merely smiles at me, seemingly oblivious to the stares he's drawing. After mass I sit and wait while Mr. Cullen goes to the confessional. He's in there for a long time. When he comes back to me, he looks a little worn but wears a peaceful sort of expression on his face. I'm curious about what he has said, but I know it's between him, the priest, and of course, God.
"Is she expecting us?" I ask. We're standing in front of a house even grander than the one we live in. I'm dreadfully nervous.
"I telephoned. She'll be out of bed, knowing we're coming. It won't be a long visit. She tires easily."
My mother-in-law is resting, reclined on a divan in one of the downstairs rooms when we arrive. She's neatly dressed, and her graying hair is in a tidy updo. She's much older than I expected; she must have had her son late in life.
"Edward!" she exclaims, breaking into a smile at the sight of him.
"Mother." He leans down to kiss her cheek. "I would like to introduce you to Isabella Cullen, my wife."
"Come here, child, come here!" she says, waving me closer.
Her smile puts me at ease, and I approach, doing my best impression of a proper curtsy.
"It's wonderful to meet you, Mrs. Cullen."
"You are even lovelier than the pictures I've seen," she says. "Do call me Esme. It's a bit much with two Mrs. Cullens in the room, wouldn't you agree?"
"I would, Esme. You must call me Isabella, then."
She beams at me. Mr. Cullen fetches a chair for each of us to sit close to his mother as tea is served.
"I'm so pleased to finally meet you, Isabella, and welcome you into the family."
Guilt stabs at me even though I have done nothing wrong. Until yesterday I had no information at all regarding her.
"Thank you. I apologize for not coming sooner."
"Heavens, no! You've been busy. I remember being a young bride myself. It's a whole new way of looking at life."
It certainly is.
"It's my fault," Mr. Cullen interjects. "I've been monopolizing my bride."
"You must tell me how the two of you met and courted," Esme implores me. "Edward has hardly told me a thing except that your family lives outside the city and are customers at the bank."
I glance at my husband who's wearing a pleasant smile. There's tension in his shoulders, though, and his brows are slightly drawn together. I wouldn't notice if I didn't know him so well by now. His mother's expression is so honest and eager, and she has been so kind to welcome me into her home and family. How can I tell her the truth?
"It is true that we met at the bank," I say. "I was accompanying my father there."
I draw a deep breath.
"The truth is that we were having trouble with the rent on the farm. My family is not wealthy, Mrs.—I mean, Esme, and times have been hard for us."
She nods, a look of sympathy on her face.
"I have heard that the crisis has affected farmers the most."
"Yes, that's why we were at the bank, but . . . but your son was so kind to me and my family. He understood our plight and gave my father some very good terms so he could keep our place. He . . . saved us from destitution. I was so moved by his caring and understanding ways. It was . . . a whirlwind romance thereafter."
"Oh, Edward. How wonderful and charitable of you!"
I avoid looking at him as I take a sip of my tea, but I feel his eyes on me.
"My actions weren't entirely altruistic, Mother," he says calmly. "I certainly had an ulterior motive."
A rush of fear trickles up my spine. Surely he won't tell his mother the truth now that I've lied and painted him in such a good light? I dare to turn my head in his direction, watching as he leans closer to his mother.
"How could I possibly hope to woo this enchanting creature if I first evicted her family? I knew I wanted to marry her the moment I saw her, that she was the one for me, so I pursued her quite insistently."
He reaches for my hand, caressing the wedding band on my fourth finger as he grins at his mother.
"As you can see, it worked. She found herself unable to resist my charm." He leans in and kisses my cheek, making my face heat up. "And I hers."
"Edward, you are a rogue!" Esme's laughter is filled with delight. "A romantic at heart, just like your father was."
She smiles at the both of us, and I return it, hoping it doesn't look forced. I hate having to fabricate a great romance for her, but I know telling her the truth would only cause her pain.
"With my wife's permission, there's something I would like to tell you." He looks at me and I nod. "Isabella is expecting."
"Oh!" She covers her mouth with her hands, tears filling her eyes. "That is the best news I have ever received!"
She laughs and cries until she suddenly goes still and silent, her face paling as she clutches her chest.
"Mother!" My husband is at her side at once, holding her hands, a look of frantic worry etching his features.
"I'm fine." Her voice is feeble. "Truly. I became too excited. That is all."
Mr. Cullen sweeps her up in his arms despite her protests, and I follow close by as he carries her upstairs.
"You must come and see me again," she says, reaching out to hold my hand.
"Of course. Any time you want, Esme."
My husband is quiet on the drive home, lost in thought. He escorts me inside and finally turns to me.
"Why did you make up that story of how we met?" he asks. "Why didn't you just tell her the truth?"
"It was the story she wanted to hear, the one that would make her happy. You are her son and . . . well . . . the truth would . . ."
He nods, stepping away so that my arm slips from his.
"It would break her heart knowing the truth about the kind of man I am." He withdraws further, a faraway look in his eyes. "Despite what you may think of me, I love my mother dearly. She is not long for this world, so you won't have to pretend to care for me for very long. Excuse me."
Before I can say a word, he walks away, leaving me feeling forlorn. I had hoped we would spend the day together, but I don't see him all afternoon, and for the first time, I eat alone in the dining room that night. Marcus informs me that Mr. Cullen is out to dinner, an unspoken apology in his tone as he delivers the message. My husband went without me, leaving me here like a broken toy he no longer wants to play with. Will this be our life together from now on? He'll discard me until I have this child, and once I'm able to produce a new one, he'll resume his nightly visits until I'm expecting again? My appetite gone, I retire to my room early.
Later that night I lie in bed, wondering and worrying. Where is my husband? His nightly visits tell me he's a man with strong needs. Will he find another woman to take care of them for him now that I'm expecting, and he isn't taking me to bed any longer? Is he already with someone else at this very moment? The thought makes me nauseated.
I sit up with a start as the door to my room bursts open, and my husband comes in, slamming it shut behind him. I stare at him, unable to stop myself from admiring his tall frame, the tuxedo that fits him to perfection, his devilishly handsome face. Then I realize he's agitated, scowling at me.
"M-Mr. Cullen," I whisper.
"When will you stop addressing me as though I were a stranger to you?"
Before I can formulate a response, he continues:
"You are my wife." He throws his arm out in my direction. "My wife! Yet you won't give yourself to me. Won't let me—"
"I've never denied you!" I exclaim. "Even in the beginning when it hurt me, I let you."
He scrubs his face with his hands, shaking his head.
"You let me?"
I nod slowly. I don't understand why he's so upset. I know I've never refused him.
"You let me, Isabella. You endured me because you felt it was your duty. You don't . . . enjoy me . . . the way I enjoy you."
He sighs, looking me over.
"Forget what I've said. I'm tired and you need your rest too. I won't bother you anymore with my attention."
He turns to leave, and I finally find my voice.
"Will you find another woman? Were you with one tonight?"
He whirls around again.
"No! I thought about it, but . . . damn it, Isabella!" He runs his hands through his hair, ruining its careful styling. "I don't want any other woman. I-I want my wife. I want only you."
There's a strange feeling in my chest, the unseen force drawing me toward him as we stare at each other. I've been experiencing it more and more as of late. Acting almost of its own volition, my hand reaches out to him, beckoning him.
"I know I shouldn't have made you marry me the way I did," he whispers, perching on the edge of the bed, close enough to hold my hand. "If I'd believed for a second your father would have allowed me to court you, I would have. I would have pursued you in a much more traditional manner."
"Your reputation. It's about you and women, isn't it?"
I never believed my husband came into this marriage as inexperienced as I, so I'm not surprised when he nods.
"I was a spoiled child, the only one my parents were ever able to conceive. They doted on me, gave me everything I wanted. As an adult I still treated the world that way. If I saw something I wanted; I took it. My mother hasn't socialized much in recent years and seems oblivious to my tarnished reputation, thankfully. I haven't been an honorable man, but I want to be."
He strokes my hand with his thumb.
"All she ever wanted was to see me with a family of my own, so when she became ill, I wanted to grant her greatest wish so she could die in peace, believing I was settled and happy even if it wasn't really true."
He draws a deep breath.
"I never dreamed this would happen," he says softly.
"That I would fall in love with my wife."
I feel myself staring at him, my gasp loud in the quiet of the room.
He reaches out to touch my loose hair, caressing it down over my shoulder and arm. "I wasn't being deceitful when I said I wanted to marry you from the moment I saw you or that you're the prettiest girl I've ever laid eyes on."
I lean into his touch as he cups my cheek.
"I know you don't love me," he murmurs, "but maybe, with time, you could learn to care for me? I want you to be happy with me, happy about carrying our child. Do you think it's possible?"
His expression is open and hopeful as he gazes down upon me, and I know he's speaking the truth. He really does love me. He never expected it, and I certainly never did either, but I can't deny the pull between us, the desire to make him happy and raise our baby together.
"Yes," I whisper. "Yes, I think it's possible . . . Edward."
His face lights up as he smiles, the sight making my heart pound so fast and loud, I'm sure he'll be able to hear it. It also makes me want to feel his lips on mine again. I blush at the thought, and he notices, his fingers brushing over my warm skin.
"I know I'm already expecting, but I wouldn't mind . . . that is to say, I do enjoy it when you take your pleasure with me. And I know you wanted to touch me on our wedding night to increase your pleasure, but I stopped you. I won't do that again."
He leans in, a soft look in his eyes.
"I was talking about your pleasure, not mine."
The corner of his mouth lifts in a half-smile.
"Will you allow me to show you?"
I nod, hoping it means he'll kiss me. A moment later he does exactly that, pressing his lips against mine, tilting my head slightly to grant him better access. I startle as after a few seconds, the tip of his tongue tickles my lower lip. The sensation certainly isn't unpleasant. Feeling curious, I reciprocate, an unfamiliar sound erupting from me as our tongues touch and the kiss deepens. I shiver as his hands move, touching and caressing my arms and my back before he brushes the straps of my nightgown off my shoulders, his mouth leaving mine to trail soft kisses down my neck. He continues his exploration until I'm naked before him for the first time, my body trembling from nervousness and anticipation.
"You are beautiful, wife."
"Y-you are overdressed, husband."
He chuckles and stands up, undressing quickly until he's as naked as I am. I blush as I look him over. His body is as stunning as his face.
"Do you want me?" he asks. There's no smugness in his expression. He genuinely wants to know.
I nod, reaching out my hand to him and seeing a relieved smile tugging at his lips. We lie close together, and I finally understand what Edward said about enjoying each other. I'm fascinated by his body, his reactions, as I kiss and touch him for the first time. It is a night of firsts. A while later, I lie in his arms, still trembling and panting as I try to absorb the experience he has given me, the realization that I'm more than capable of feeling pleasure when we come together like this. His lips taste like me, and he smirks when I comment on it, sending me a roguish grin and kissing me again. Now I welcome him, admiring the strength of his arms as he holds himself above me, the look on his face as he sinks inside me, the shuttering groan that escapes his parted lips. I startle as he rolls us over.
"Enjoy me," he says. "Do what feels good to you."
I move slowly, reveling in his touches and gasped words of encouragement, his eyes wandering over my face and body. I never imagined I'd be able to feel pleasure as he does, but soon I feel it building inside me, amplifying with each move I make, each touch of his fingers where our bodies come together. I cry out in rapture, hardly aware of it as he rolls us over again, taking me with hard, fast strokes as I cling to him, cresting again and again until he calls out my name, sinking down on top of me, his lips trembling against mine.
"I love you," he whispers later, his head still resting on my chest.
I smile into the darkness of the room, gently stroking his hair. He stirs, moving up to lie next to me, draping his arm around me as I roll to my side to face him.
"Will you stay with me?" I ask, tracing his features with the tips of my fingers—feeling rather than seeing his answering smile.
"You want us to share a bed? What a bold suggestion, Mrs. Cullen."
I laugh, leaning in to kiss him, my lips finding his easily even in the dark.
"I want us to share a life," I whisper, "and a happy marriage. I think that includes sharing a bed."
"How right you are," he murmurs, his hand moving to my breast, stroking it in a suggestive manner before he kisses his way down my all-too-willing body. "I'll make you happy, Isabella, as happy as you've made me. That's a promise."
My husband keeps his promise. The nature of our marriage undergoes a complete transformation as we truly get to know each other as husband and wife rather than strangers living underneath the same roof. He shows me a whole new world of wonder at the cinema and restaurants when we go out and in our bed on the nights when we stay in.
When Esme dies a few months later, I console him and help him through his grief, letting him lean on me at the funeral and fall apart in my arms in the privacy of our bedroom. We get through it together.
Edward dotes on me and the child I carry. Sometimes I wake up at night with him curled up behind me, feeling his large warm hand on the swell of my belly, protecting us even in his sleep. He loves us, and slowly but surely, I fall in love with him too. I miss him during the day, greeting him at the door when he comes home, delighting in his reaction when he sweeps me up and carries me upstairs to our bedroom. His wanting me doesn't wane as I get bigger—quite the opposite.
On a fine spring evening, I go into labor. The birth is, according to the doctor, easy and fast. I strongly disagree, using curse words I hardly knew were in my vocabulary. Edward paces downstairs, frantic with worry. My mother tells me as much, even remarking that she has had to stop him from coming upstairs on more than one occasion when my screams have traveled. By midnight, the doctor delivers our child into my arms and I cry, overwhelmed with happiness. I have hardly been washed and dressed before Edward storms in, ignoring everyone else in the room as he climbs into bed with me, his arms shaking as he wraps them around the both of us. The others leave us.
"Oh my God," he breathes, reaching out to touch the baby's cheek.
"It's a girl," I whisper.
"She's . . . perfect."
I look up at him, surprised. I know he wanted an heir. His eyes are wet as he leans down to kiss our daughter's downy head and then my lips.
"You aren't disappointed it wasn't a boy?"
He shakes his head.
"Look at her. We made her, Isabella. She can be whatever she wants to be—even a banker."
I raise my eyebrows. This is certainly unexpected. He grins, lit up with happiness.
"The world is changing," he says, kissing the tip of my nose. "We must change with it."
"So if I wanted to someday go to college?"
"Whatever makes you happy, dear heart."
"You make me happy," I whisper, my eyes filling with tears again. "I love you, Edward."
"You've never said that to me before." His voice is rough with emotion. "It's . . . God, I love you, Isabella. And our beautiful little girl."
"Esme," I murmur. "We should call her Esme."
He kisses me again and holds the both of us close, love and peace surrounding our little family. Times have been hard, and we'll most likely face hardship again, but as I watch my husband softly cooing at our daughter, I'm filled with optimism for the future and the life we'll share. I know it will be wonderful.