This is my first chaptered Twi-fic! I'm excited to see how this goes. It's different than anything I've written before, and I hope I won't be a total fluke at it. Thanks so much to the Project Team Beta people, Whitlocked and Rachel, who saved this from total damnation. Please leave me a review if you think this is worth continuing!
It was an unusually cold night, colder than any night so far this autumn. October had just rolled in over Chicago, and the frosty wind bit every face that traveled down the busy street. People were walking faster that usual, eager to reach their destinations; rubbing their hands to keep warm and huffing out clouds of frost, making it look like everyone was smoking cigarettes. Horses were neighing in protest as they dutifully pulled along their carriages, and the clunk of their hooves seemed to reverberate between the house walls, louder than usual in the crispy silent air. Pigeons were cooing on the chimney tops, huddling close together for warmth and cats were scraping against doors and windows, begging to be let inside.
Edward Cullen on the other hand, was walking aimlessly around, kicking his feet in the soil and watching all the people milling about. He'd been walking for nearly an hour, and though he almost couldn't feel his toes anymore and his nose was nearly numb, he had no desire to head home quite yet. Despite the fact that his home was grand and warmed with fireplaces in every room, and a maid ready to serve him a warm cup of tea. He was avoiding his parents. They were upset with him, again, after yet another failed dinner party. His mother seemed to host them more and more often these days, yet Edward stayed aloof and disinterested no matter how much she prodded and threatened and even begged. He sighed, erupting a big cloud of damp air.
She invited the finest ladies and gentlemen of Chicago to these parties, and always the ones who had daughters. Always daughters around Edward's age, peculiar enough, and the richest and prettiest at that. Edward had now become twenty years old, and his mother thought that it was not a second too early for him to marry, and start a family of his own. They were an established first class family after all, his father being the mayor in town, and it was now Edward's responsibility to settle down and prepare to take over the family legacy. She had a reputation to uphold, and she knew that all the ladies in her sewing club already frowned upon Edward's lack of enthusiasm for, well, everything. He didn't attend any of their fine balls, he didn't converse politely at dinner parties, nor had he courted any lady, or seemed interested in doing so. All their sons had either married already or found a lady to court, and did promising work in their father's companies.
So when Edward had directly brushed off Martha Stephens earlier that day - such a lovely, pretty little lady - she'd been furious. She had almost caused a scene right there among all the guests, as she gripped his arms and pulled him out into the hallway.
"When are you going to come to your senses?" she'd yelled, as she shook his arm so hard that Edward, skinny and awkward as he was, almost lost his footing. "You are making a fool of me, of your family, and offending the young ladies' parents when you make them go home disappointed every time. I swear, if you're not engaged within your twenty-first birthday, I'll pledge you delirious and send you off to the mad house. God knows I'd be within my rights!" Edward had scowled and stormed out the front door without a word.
This had led him to where he was now, brooding down the streets of the city, getting colder by the minute. He cursed his mother and her constant bickering, as he thoughtlessly turned left into another street. He noticed quickly by the sudden dim light that he'd entered a narrow alleyway, surrounded by dirty brick walls and clouded by the smoke from several chimneys, and was now facing an odd looking obstacle in the middle of the road. He cautiously crept closer, curious to what was sitting in the middle of the way like that. A few feet away, could make out a shape in the dim light.
It was a girl, sitting on the paving stones, leaning against the brick wall. She was short and thin, he noticed at first glance. So thin, it was apparent that she couldn't have had a real meal in at least a month, and it seemed she was so short and childishly built from constant malnutrition. She wore a long, grey dress, which could have been a nice casual dress once, but was now ripped and worn, and spattered with dirt and dark stains. It was also a little short by the ankles, and tight around her neck, making it obvious that it was several sizes too small. Her leather shoes almost didn't hang together at the sole, and he could see her toes sticking out at several places. As if this wasn't enough to prove that she was poor and homeless, her waist long brown hair was in disarray, and full of dried old mud. Her face was streaked, brown patches against her pristine white skin.
Her eyes though, in comparison, were bright and shiny, round and brown, her only feature clean and unmarred by dirt. And when he looked into them, he felt a sting at his heart that he could remember having experienced once before when he'd looked into the eyes of a beaten dog that he had found, left for dead on the street. They held the same hopeless sorrow, and he'd fallen in love with the dog right then, and brought it home to nurture it. It had been the most useful and good Edward had felt in his whole life, even though the dog had been damned, and died within a few days.
She looked at him desperately with those big eyes, never blinking, and she puckered her lips and shuddered. Despite it all, she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
"Hello," he said timidly and politely nodded his head.
"Hello," she answered. Her voice was deep and soft, sounding older than her appearance, and shaking from the cold. She was clearly biting her teeth to keep them from chattering.
"Why are you sitting here?" Edward asked. It felt like such a stupid question, of course she was poor and had no home, but he thought it was an appropriate way to start a conversation. He wondered why he hadn't just walked by already, as random conversation was not something he usually engaged in. Yet he couldn't seem to move his feet, and pushed the thought to the back of his mind.
"Well, I got nowhere else to be," she said. "And this alley is sheltered from the wind."
"You're quite right," Edward said lightly, looking around as if considering the lack of wind. "But it's still cold as ice here, and the ground is wet. You must be freezing."
"That I am," she answered.
"Come with me, I live right by," Edward said before his head had caught up with his mouth, rejecting the voice at the back of his mind that told him his parents would have told him to send her away immediately, and that the servants might tell on him. It didn't matter; he felt an imminent need to get this girl away from the cold and starvation. The girl studied him for quite some time, looking wary.
"Why should I come with you?" she asked at last, her voice taking on a quite different tone. Edward understood, as he figured it wasn't every day that nice clothed, rich gentlemen came by her alley and asked her to come home with them. At least not gentlemen with honest intentions.
"Because it will rain soon, and you'll freeze yourself to death in this weather. Also, you look absolutely starved. I have a warm house, and food. Please, let me help you," Edward said with more sincere empathy than he'd ever felt before.
"I've survived very well so far, thank you," she snapped. She was eying his outstretched hand, and through her harsh words he could see that she was tempted by his offer.
"Then you could surely survive this," he quipped back. He bent down and pulled her to her feet as she relented.
"Fine, fine. But only until I get some warmth back in my body. And don't think for a second that we'll negotiate any special way for me to pay you back." Edward wondered what she meant with that, as he could hardly see any way this girl could pay him back, unless that ragged clothing was just a safety trick to keep a lot of money safe.
He led her the short way back to his house, thinking that it was late and his parents had undoubtedly gone to sleep, and hopefully the servants weren't running about. Her eyes were big as saucers as he opened the iron wrought gates to his home, and led her to the front door. She stepped inside quickly, and hugged herself with her arms as she looked in awe around the large, dark entrance hall. She seemed so out of place, too small and too inappropriate. She looked back at him without a word.
"I assume you're hungry and cold? We have some food in the kitchen, and there's a fireplace in there too," he suggested. He suddenly imagined the dog as it ate desperately on an old rug in front of the fireplace. He hadn't been able to deny that one anything, and felt quite the same now.
"Please," she said with a cough. Apparently, the cold affected her more than she would admit. Edward began walking towards the kitchen doors, and motioned for her to follow. She didn't waste a second, following his trails quickly. He held the door open for her, and watched, as her eyes got even bigger when she took in the large kitchen. It was a square, tall room, with dark hardwood floors, sturdy tables and benches, and a large cracking fireplace. He went over to the table nearest the fire, and held out a chair for her, feeling elated at being able to make use of his well taught manners. He wondered if she'd ever been in a kitchen before, as he looked around for something edible. He'd never had to prepare food for himself, and wasn't very acquainted with the room. He found some bread and butter in a cupboard, which he thought good enough, and prepared thick slices for the girl and applied a rich amount of butter. Putting them on a plate, he walked over to her and had barely put it down on the table before she grabbed a piece and ate like she hadn't seen a meal in weeks. Perhaps she hadn't.
He felt oddly pleased as he watched her eat, and merely noticed that her eating manners would have her thrown out of the house long ago if anyone were around to see. He felt warm inside, useful, like he had when he'd watched the puppy devour his plate of meat, years ago. She ate just like it, like she expected someone to snatch the meal away from her any second.
"What's your name?" Edward asked, suddenly remembering that he didn't know. How impolite of him, to not even ask for her name! She didn't answer immediately, as she was busy wolfing down the last piece of bread. He thought about what name would suit her. She'd be named something normal and nice, probably, not grandiose and extravagant names like the Beatrice's and Louisiana's at his mother's dinner parties.
"Bewwa," she said, while swallowing and chewing at the same time. His mother would have found it disgusting, yet he rather thought of it as rebellious and careless. He always swallowed everything before speaking during a meal.
"Bewwa?" he repeated. Surely he couldn't have heard right.
"I'm sorry. My name is Bella," she said, as she finished everything. "What's yours?"
Bella, that's a nice name, he thought. It was concise and fitting, probably a name from Southern Europe, Spanish, maybe Italian, which fit her dark mane and eyes. He would remind himself to sneak into his father's study and seek it out.
"I'm Edward Cullen," he answered.
"Fancy," she said. "Do you have any meat? I haven't tasted meat in so long," she asked in her most begging voice, and with one look into those eyes, Edward was up from his chair and rummaging through the kitchen. He found a large ham that looked tempting, and cut off several pieces that he brought back to Bella, quickly as he could. She moaned as she ate, and chewed slowly and thoroughly, as if savoring the taste.
"This is incredible," she said in between mouthfuls, giving Edward a thankful look. He waited patiently, watching her eat. When she'd nearly eaten everything, he prepared a large cup of milk, which was gone in seconds. "I can't ever thank you enough for this," she said quietly.
"There will be no special way for you to pay me back, remember?" he said, and she smiled. Edward thought she looked pretty smiling, with her little dimples and all. He'd never liked it when ladies smiled before. He'd known that they were just trying to offer themselves up for him and his heritage, but from Bella he knew it was genuine. He put away the cup and plate so the late night meal wouldn't be evident, and led Bella to the little study on the first floor, where there was a sofa amongst several bookshelves.
"Oh my," she uttered reverently when she saw all the books. She went over to a shelf and touched her fingertips across the paperbacks. She stopped every now and then, reading titles, giving comments and little laughs. It was if she was emerged in her own little world.
"You read?" Edward asked curiously.
"Why wouldn't I?" she snapped.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply to you can't read, just because you live on the street. I just haven't met many people my age that had any interest in books before, except for what's expected at school," he excused himself quickly. She sent him a forgiving glance over her shoulder before finally pulling out a book and settling down on the sofa. He cringed as he saw dirt smear onto the silk fabric, and wondered how he'd explain this to his mother. She looked expectantly at him, and he sat down beside her.
"My mother taught me how to read and write," she explained. "Almost from the day I was born. And I have always enjoyed it, though I don't get the chance so often. Especially not a place like this."
He was intrigued. The ladies who usually surrounded him weren't taught to read and write, they were expected to keep their homes and families, and do things suitable for a lady - like dancing, singing or playing the piano. Reading was always for the men, like those in his father's club. He'd used to sneak into the study while they had their meetings, and listened to their conversations about politics, wars and the rest of the world. The boys at his school were far more interested in sports and girls to care about reading. Apparently these rules hadn't applied to Bella.
"Where is she now, your mother?"
"She's gone," Bella said quietly, flipping a page in Jane Eyre. He'd read that book, and imagined himself as Mr. Rochester, old and alone, and dodging away from ladies like Miss Ingram who where crass towards his servants, and very invested in his money. He'd always think he'd rather fall in love with the clever little governess, who wouldn't care about meetings amongst the fine people, and dining room parties.
He understood that Bella wouldn't discuss her mother any further, and he was left wondering if she were dead, or if she'd simply left. Anyway, Bella was probably left alone, and he felt a pang of sorrow in his chest.
"I'm sorry," he said. "It can't be easy, living in this city all alone."
"Oh, I cope. And I'm not all alone," she answered, though far more interested in the book than in their conversation. Edward felt the need to prod her for more, wanting to hear her speak, and tell her story.
"You have other family in the city?"
"No," she answered simply, but did not elaborate. He wished she'd tell him more, that she would speak with him and show him more of all her secrets. He'd never met a girl who consisted of more than money and batting eyelashes, and now that he found one, he wanted to talk forever. He watched as her eyes went back and forth, reading sentence after sentence, and by the speed he could see that she was well educated. Her eyelashes, such a tiny little detail, were long and black, and fluttered like butterfly wings as she read, and made him think of Bella in the summer, running around the meadows on the countryside with him laughing and grasping after the colorful little creatures. She'd be clean, dressed in white, and without a care in the world just like the ladies he'd seen when they vacationed there. Oh, how unfair the world was, to deny someone like Bella all the joys in life. He wondered if she'd ever been to the countryside, or if she'd lived in the grime of the city all her life.
Suddenly, he heard creaking from the hallway stairs. Someone was on their way down, and if they'd entered the study he was sure neither Edward nor Bella would see daylight again. His heart jumped into his throat, and he pulled Bella up quickly, making the book tumble to the floor noisily.
"Someone is coming, it's probably my parents," he whispered. "Come, quick!" He pulled Bella after him as he stormed towards the door on the other side of the study. They rushed through another hallway, and entered a room that he knew had a door out to the side of the house. It had a key in the lock inside, thankfully, so he could open it and pull them out into clear air. He turned to Bella and took a hold of her shoulders. Quickly he took off his coat and laid it around Bella's narrow frame. It looked enormous on her, and reached all the way down to her knees, but it would suffice to keep her warm and dry.
"You have to leave, quickly, or else they will damn us both, okay?"
She nodded hastily.
"But Bella!" he hissed as she moved to run away. "Please come back to me. I will feed you again, and we can read more. Please?" he begged. It was so important to see her again, it felt like his whole existence depended on it.
She didn't answer, but made no move to run away. He didn't understand if that meant a yes.
"Or I'll come find you again. I promise." He took one last hard look into her eyes before he dodged back into the house, and used the servant's stairs to get to the second floor and into his bedroom. Just as he closed his door as quietly as he could, he could hear his mother come back upstairs, murmuring about useless servants leaving the lights on. With his mind in entirely different places, he took off his clothes and crept into bed. A new fluttering in his abdomen made him lie awake for a lot longer than he was used to, yet he didn't have it in him be upset about it.