A/N So...I had this idea mulling away and it wouldn't leave me alone. Let me know if you like it and if it's worth continuing. But if you like Bride Price I think you'll like this. I don't own Twilight or the characters created by S. M. I'm just having a little fun playing with them. Thanks as always to Aesthetic Voyager
Bella exited the reading of her father's will in disbelief. It was ridiculous! He had left her enough cash to finish college and her inheritance he had placed in a trust as a dowry. A Dowry! Who did that these days? And when she married, if she ever married, the dowry would become her husband's property. The dowry consisted of a million dollars, a very large tract of land in Tennessee and gold that he had made into buried treasure. Maps would be sent to her husband once he met the conditions her father had set. She shook her head as she walked.
It was insane. Even if she did find someone she wanted to marry, would she trust him to handle such an insanely large dowry? She'd seen what sudden large windfalls did to people; celebrities, their children, lottery winners. Inevitably they lost or spent all their money until they were broke once again not too much later. And their characters suffered for it. How a person spent money said a lot about their character.
But what if she chose someone who wanted the land and the gold? Wouldn't he love the property and money more than her? Could she even live with that? Could she settle for someone who she knew didn't love her, might never love her? But then, how much did love matter? She'd seen what passed for love in high society. It might start out well, but it never ended that way. Even if the couple stayed married, the marriage was a sham of adultery, infidelity, or simple coolness of affection which would chill the room.
Even parental love, which was supposed to be selfless and unwavering, died. Parents handed their children off to nannies and barely took the time to read them a story or play a simple game, too busy to be bothered with such childish pursuits. Sure there was some affection there, but where was that selfless love parents were supposed to have for their children? She'd never seen that. Perhaps it didn't exist? Perhaps all that was really left was kindness, consideration, friendship, affection and sexual attraction. Love wasn't trustworthy. Perhaps she was better off without it, she thought with a frown.
She and her best friend Alice had a small apartment near their college. She and Alice had been best friends throughout their private school education and continued their friendship rooming together as they attended the same college, far too close to even consider living apart. Like Bella, Alice's parents were funding her education. But unlike Bella, she had a far too generous allowance and thoroughly enjoyed spending it. Bella had just enough money from her father to pay for the rest of her college tuition and and very modest living expenses, no more.
After her father died in the spring, Bella decided to enroll in summer school to keep her mind off the loss. Since Alice was gone for most of the summer on vacations around the world with her parents, Bella stayed at their apartment alone. Before the loneliness could overwhelm her, she met James. He was a transfer student and pre-law. He was tall, blonde and charming. She was nineteen, young, and stupid. She took his attentions at face value, allowing him to wine and dine her, to romance her, until one day he slipped up. He mentioned her dowry.
She had never told anyone but Alice about it, and that one night he'd had too much to drink and it slipped out. The next day when she confronted him, he admitted he had interned in the law office her father had used to set up the trust, and had seen the paperwork. He pleaded and flattered her but when she refused to be persuaded, he showed a side of himself that she'd never seen before, and that side frightened her.
He became menacing, threatening. He told her that he was the only one for her. That she would marry him and they would be together and he would do anything to make sure it stayed that way including hurting her or killing anyone she tried to replace him with. She was so scared she agreed that she would be his. What else could she do? But she did ask for the only thing left, time. She said that she wasn't ready to be married yet and asked him to wait a year or two until she was a bit closer to finishing school. He was indulgent once she had capitulated and allowed her the time she asked for. But things between them changed. Any male person she spoke with on campus in a friendly manner was warned off, sometimes physically. And when those men refused to look at her or talk to her, or showed up with a black eye in class, she knew. She knew James was making sure no one else would replace him.
Her time was running out. Her money was running out. So finally, after long contemplation and several intense phone calls with Alice, who knew the details of her dowry and a little about James, she put the land up for sale. She gave it a bargain price, one that would be sure to draw plenty of offers, and then made sure her realtor knew her exact requirements. Then all she could do was wait, because after all, it wasn't really the land that was for sale; it was her.
"Emmett, Look!" Edward waved him over to the computer screen excitedly. Their old ranch was for sale. He and Emmett had grown up there with their parents, Edward Sr. and Elizabeth Masen. When their parents had been in a car crash seven years ago, the land had been sold to pay their hospital bills. Elizabeth had remained in a coma for just over two years before passing. Their aunt and uncle, Esme and Carlisle Cullen, had taken them in, in accordance with the Masen's will. Esme was their mother's sister and had been overjoyed to look after the two boys she loved as her own and had been grateful for their company as they grieved together.
Although the boys had lived in New York through their late teen and young adult years, they missed life on the ranch and had worked hard to save enough seed money to start a new ranch. It wasn't enough to buy land, but it was enough to rent a reasonable amount, and purchase several head of cattle to get started. They still kept in touch with the Clearwater's, their parent's old friends who had worked the ranch with them. Sue and Harry lived in the Masen's old house, keeping it in good condition should they choose to return. They had returned to visit often and were good friends.
With the ranch at this price, they would have enough money to buy back the land and get a small start on the stock. If they worked hard, they could be profitable in a few years, especially considering the seed money they had left over from the sale of the original property. They would finally be able to be their own bosses. They still owned the couple acres the house and cabins were on, but the vast majority of the ranch land, and the creek were sold, and now for sale again!
"Hey," Emmett said, "You're right, that's it! But why did they put it up so cheap?"
Edward shrugged. "I don't think I care. It's well within our price range. This could work."
The young men looked at each other grinning. Their voices rang out together. "Let's do this!"
After contacting a realtor, they were surprised to find out they were required to submit an essay about why they wanted to purchase the ranch. Raising their eyebrows in surprise at the unorthodox screening process they nevertheless followed the requirements. They agreed Edward would write the essay as he was mutually agreed to be the brains of the team and was quite articulate.
After only two days they received a call from their realtor that their offer was acceptable but that an additional hoop to jump through had been set up. The seller wanted to meet them in person to discuss their offer. She wanted to meet them at a restaurant for drinks that was about an hour away. If she still approved they would meet again to discuss the details further.
It was weird and cagey but the price was right and it was beyond their wildest dreams that they would actually get their old ranch back so they set up the meeting for Monday at two-thirty in the afternoon and drove over to meet Ms. Swan.
Bella waited nervously at the corner booth in the near empty restaurant. Alice and Jasper were the only other people in sight at a table across the way. After James she had learned to be cautious. This place was over an hour from the school they attended so at least the Masen's wouldn't know where she lived if this fell through. She sipped on her mint tea, trying desperately to calm the butterflies in her stomach.
She watched Alice and Jasper and returned Alice's smile at her with a nervous one of her own. Alice had always been beautiful, but she was radiant in love. She'd only met Jasper this fall, a few weeks ago, and yet it seemed as though they'd been together forever. It was as though he was the other half of her soul. She didn't know him well yet, and didn't trust easily after James, but something in his aura was so calming that she couldn't help but feel more at ease with him than should have been possible. Alice suggested they bring him along as the muscle in case her talk went south and Bella trusted Alice enough to agree. At least he was someone for Alice to talk with in the car; the current situation made her far too anxious to be of any use in a conversation. She'd been absorbed in her thoughts since they left home.
The Masen's essay had been by far the best, though their offer had been only just what she had asked. Many had offered much more hoping to move to the top of her list, but their essays had been poor to say the least. Shallow reasons, poorly written, married, married with kids, gay even. After Alice and Jasper helped her eliminate those she couldn't marry she looked at the rest. If she was to marry someone, she would at least choose someone she could converse with on an intelligent level, whom she didn't despise on sight. Her heart ached for the young boys Edward and Emmett had been when their parents died and for their aspirations to return to the home and lifestyle they'd once lived. She had called the Clearwaters who lived at the house on the adjoining property. They were very friendly and confirmed the story, even vouching for the character of the young men.
Could she marry one of these two men? Could she become a rancher's wife? She didn't know the first thing about ranching, but Tennessee was far from here and far from James. They allowed most people to own guns in Tennessee to defend their property. That was comforting. Hopefully the Masen's would think she was worth protecting rather than a burden to be gotten rid of as soon as possible. Her palms were sweating and her hands were shaking. She set down her cup and looked away from Alice and Jasper as tears welled in her eyes. She could do this. She had to do this. What other choices did she have?
Alice didn't know how bad James had turned out to be. Bella was too embarrassed and ashamed to tell her. She only knew that James couldn't take a hint and was still trying to be a boyfriend to Bella even though Bella had tried to break up with him. She thought the idea of putting the property up for sale to find a husband was terribly romantic; and Bella was too considerate of Alice's new found happiness to even think about putting a damper on it.
Two men and the restaurant hostess entered the aisle and passed Alice and Jasper. They walked purposefully towards her. Oh Lord. This was it.
The young men bore a strong resemblance to each other, but where one was as large and muscular as a body builder, the other was leaner, narrower, and a bit shorter. He would still tower over her though, they both would. His eyes were green, his hair an attractive reddish brown that looked a bit wild. She could barely take her eyes from him, he was so stunning. The hostess guided them to her table and left at her nod.
"Ms. Swan?" asked the largest one on the left. Her gaze broke from the hypnotic green eyes to look into friendly brown ones.
"Yes. Are you the Masens?"
"Guilty." The larger one grinned and stuck out a large hand to shake hers. "I'm Emmett. Pleased to meet you Ma'am."
She couldn't help but smile at his friendly enthusiasm. He seemed to calm her nerves somehow. She put her hand in his and he shook it firmly and with an almost childish energy. Fun. That's what he seemed to exude. He would be fun to be around. "Call me Bella please."
"Bella. Great to meet you. And this is my brother, Edward."
She turned to look at Edward, taking an involuntary step back at the intensity of his gaze. Suddenly she almost hoped she didn't have to marry him. The intense attraction she felt scared and overwhelmed her. She would surely drown in the intensity of his gaze, even as she was drowning now...
"Edward," Emmett's voice shocked her and Edward out of their trance. "I think you're scaring her. Ease up would you?"
Edward shook his head, in disapproval or to clear it? Edward reached his hand out to her, and she accepted it to be polite, her fingers trembling visibly. She felt an electric pulse run up from where her hand met his, through her arm and across her chest to her heart which traitorously skipped a beat and then decided to run amok within her chest as the man who held her hand captive brought her shaking fingers to his lips, kissing them gently. She felt her cheeks heat and then he spoke, his voice smooth and entrancing, "It's a pleasure to meet you Bella."
She opened her mouth to speak, nothing came out. She broke her gaze and his grasp on her hand, then cleared her throat and tried again.
"Will you please be seated gentlemen? We have much to discuss."
She settled herself in the booth and took a steadying sip of her tea, closing her eyes and letting the mint fill her senses.
"Emmett, Edward. Let me start by saying that this is a somewhat sentimental process for me. I want to make sure that the...property goes to the best person possible. I liked your essay but I'd like to hear you both explain your dreams and aspirations for what you would do with the land if I chose to...sell it to you."
She already understood the gist of what they wanted to do and was fine with that. What she really wanted was to hear them speak, to get a feel for their personalities and if there was anyone special in their lives. Emmett was the most visibly enthusiastic and talkative, but when Edward spoke, his words were thoughtful, calculated, and articulate. When Emmett mentioned "his Rosie" twice she inquired further.
"May I ask, who is Rosie?"
"Rosalie. She's my girl. We're gettin' married this summer! She's gorgeous, a brilliant mechanic and..."
He spoke with such affection. She could literally see his eyes light up when he spoke of her. While she wasn't sure she believed in love that lasted, she couldn't deny the love between Alice and Jasper, and now between Emmett and Rosalie, and she would not be the cause of their break up, not if she could help it. She looked at the table and sighed. It would have to be Edward then...if he was available.
"Edward? Would you mind telling me, is there someone special in your life as well?"
"I have a girlfriend, yes."
"Oh...that's nice." Damn. As Bella stared into her almost empty cup she missed the silent exchange between the brothers. Emmett sent a wildly curious look at Edward who mouthed the word, "Jessica." Emmett rolled his eyes and Edward shrugged looking back to Bella.
Bella sighed and looked back up sadly. She was going to upset Edward's life. She only hoped he didn't hate her for this. She knew she was nothing special, though her hair was pretty. Alice had fixed her up today with makeup, curls in her long, chestnut hair, and even given her a French manicure. Maybe he would think she was at least fair to look at.
Her time was running out and if she did not choose a husband quickly, James would make sure he married her this summer, and she was too afraid of him to openly defy him. She eyed Emmett, appraising him. He could double as a bouncer easily. Would James be scared of him? But then, that was assuming he would be willing to protect her. No one else had been.
"Gentlemen, I appreciate your time and your driving to see me. I need to do some thinking." She glanced at her watch. 4:45. "Would you be willing to meet with me again this evening after supper? There's a fountain in the plaza. I'd like to meet you there at 6:30. Will that give you enough time to have supper?"
They looked a bit confused but accepted her suggestion and left shaking her hand again. Alice and Jasper came over once they left.
"So? Spill!" Alice commanded.
"They were great. They seemed like great guys. Emmett, the big one, is engaged and Edward has a girlfriend."
"Oh. Well he was pretty cute, and a girlfriend is a long step from married right?"
"Yeah, I guess. But what if he hates me for messing up his life?"
Jasper spoke now. "Bella, you are not forcing him to do anything. Edward has a choice to make, one that will effect the rest of his life. I know you weren't sure how much to tell him, but I think you owe it to him to let him know all the facts before he decides. And whatever he does decide, it's his decision. You are not twisting his arm, simply handing him a heavy choice."
"Alice?" Bella asked.
"I think I have to agree with Jasper, Bella." Alice answered slowly. "He's going to learn all the details of the trust once you marry anyway, right?"
"Yes. Aro will send him a letter, the deed to the property, and a copy of the trust once the marriage certificate is filed."
"Then yes. I understand your reluctance, but I think it would be better to be honest from the start; especially with something as big as this."
Bella sighed. They were right. Would Edward become possessive like James did after he learned of her inheritance? Well if he did, at least she'd already chosen him, rather than him claiming her, small comfort that it was.
Jasper rose to signal the waitress that they would like to order. Bella filled them in on what she had observed of the Masen's during their meeting while they waited for their food. When it came, Bella ate quietly, inwardly rehearsing what she would say to Edward while Jasper and Alice talked softly.
Bella was sitting by the fountain when Edward and Emmett walked up. This was it. Again. Now she would find out if James was right when he told her that no one but him would be willing to marry her, even with the dowry. He'd said that was the real reason her father gave her a dowry, because no man would marry someone as plain as her without one.
"Emmett, Edward. It's nice to see you again." She was sure she sounded ridiculous, but she was nervous damn it! She fidgeted with the hem of her shirt for a moment before firming her spine and her resolve. Emmett was engaged. She would not force him to choose.
"I am afraid that for this meeting I need to speak with you both separately. Emmett, I'd like to speak with you first. Edward, if you would wait on the other side of the fountain please. This won't take long."
The sound of the fountain would keep her discussion with each man fairly private while still retaining the safety of a public location. Once Edward was across the way she turned to Emmett. "I only have two questions for you, but I would ask you to answer them honestly please."
Emmett scratched his head curiously, then folded his arms over his huge chest. "Shoot."
"Do you love Rosalie?"
"Without a doubt, yes."
She'd expected that answer. "Does Edward love his girlfriend?"
Emmett paused, aborting his first response before shrugging. "You'll have to ask Edward that."
Well, that was no help. But it did tell her that maybe Edward was not in love, or if he was, he was the type to keep it under wraps.
"Come with me please." She and Emmett walked around to where Edward stood.
"Edward, my meeting with you may take a while. But I don't want to waste your time so let me ask you one question first." He nodded. "Are you in love with your girlfriend?"
"Jessica?" She nodded.
"How is that any of your business?" he demanded angrily.
"I can tell you everything in a minute, I just need to know the answer first." She bit her lip and his eyes bored into her. She felt so horribly low just then, knowing she was about to tear his life apart.
"Not exactly in love, no. I wouldn't call it that. Now what the hell is this all about because these questions have nothing to do with the sale of property, however sentimental."
Relief. She felt relief. And those damn butterflies were about to rip her stomach apart.
"I'd like to speak with you alone now. Emmett, this may take a while. Perhaps you'd like to find something else to do in the meantime?"
Edward spoke quickly, "No. Whatever you need to say to me, Emmett can hear. This involves him to. We are equal partners in this business."
"Edward, while I appreciate the sentiment and the loyalty I am sure goes with it, the fact is that I have things to say only to you. Whether you choose to tell Emmett later is your business, but he will not be here while I tell you. This is not negotiable." If she was going to be humiliated, it was going to be in front of as few people as possible.
Emmett touched Edward's shoulder. "Hey Bro, It's ok. Call me when you're done. I'll just cruise around town." Edward nodded tersely and once Emmett was a few yards away he commanded her, "Talk!"
Bella sat on the edge of the fountain, gesturing for Edward to sit beside her, which he did somewhat reluctantly, turning to scrutinize her. With the fountain flowing behind them, she tried to figure out what to say and where to start. She couldn't come right out with, "I can't sell you the land, but if you marry me it's yours for free."
"Well?" Edward prompted. "Will you sell us the land?"
"I can't sell it, exactly..."
"Are you telling me we came all this way for nothing? Just who do you think you are to pull people around like this? Do you think it's funny?" He was standing now, not yelling, but his tone seething with anger.
"No, no, please." She motioned for him to sit and wiped away the tears that sprung to her eyes at his justifiable anger towards her. Oh God, she thought she might be sick. "The land is yours, if you still want it once I explain the...strings that come with it."
"Look, I'm explaining this badly. I need to start at the beginning. Will you listen?"
He nodded tightly, marginally calmer but still tense. Lord, his eyes pierced her soul.
"My father was a self-made millionaire. He was frugal, very smart with money. My mother was not. After she almost bankrupted them he became very strict with her and cut off her access to their money, allowing her a debit card and a low balance account that he monitored closely. As our family moved among higher circles of society he was disgusted by the wasteful spending he observed. He became convinced that most women could not handle money wisely."
Edward appeared impatient. "I promise this is to a purpose Edward. I just need you to understand where I'm coming from." He nodded for her to continue. "When he discovered he was dying from aggressive cancer he made extensive plans for his money. My mother was given an account that is set up to only allow her a certain amount every month that she can never increase." She left for Florida shortly after and Bella hadn't seen her since.
"For me, my father gave me enough cash for a four year college education. The rest he set up in a trust which is set to dissolve...under certain conditions. In this trust is the land you want, one million dollars, and a large amount of gold. The contents of this trust will be given...to the one who helps me meet the condition that will dissolve it.
"And just what is the condition that has to be met?" he asked suspiciously.
"Marriage. My father set up this trust to effectively be a dowry."
"I don't believe this." he said softly.
"I assure you it's real. Insane, but real. And there's more...my father liked treasure hunts. He buried the gold on the property in several piles. The first map will be sent to you..."
"Not to you?"
"No. My husband will receive the first map after our first anniversary. The other maps will be sent upon the fifth, tenth, twentieth and thirtieth anniversaries of our marriage with another map after the birth of our first child, should we have one."
He looked at her in disbelief. "Are you kidding me?"
"No. I swear it is the truth."
He ran his hands through his hair. "How do I know you're telling the truth? I mean, I don't know you. I need some proof here."
"I have my copy of the terms of the trust with me. Would you like to see it?"
He nodded and she pulled the thick envelope from her purse and gave it to him. He flipped through the heavy paper slowly, reading carefully.
"This looks official enough. I need proof this is real though."
"We can meet with Aro in New York. He's the lawyer who set this up with my father. He can verify it for you. You'll also receive a copy of he trust and the deed to the property you want once the marriage certificate has been filed with the state. Just in case I hadn't told you, you would have learned about it then."
He was silent, staring at nothing, the papers in his hand.
"Will you do this?"
"You mean will I marry you?"
He laughed mirthlessly. "Aren't you supposed to be down on one knee when you ask that?"
Would she be willing to beg him to marry her? Yes. To escape James, yes. The tightness of her skirt would not allow her to go down on one knee so she knelt before him on both and dared to place a hand on his knee.
"Please, will you marry me?"
He looked at her in astonishment. "Why? Why are you so desperate? Surely you could take some time and find someone you loved to marry?"
"I can't wait."
She couldn't tell him that. She was almost out of money and she had a fiance she did not consent to. She was ashamed, embarrassed.
"It doesn't matter. Will you marry me?" she tried again.
"Are you so desperate for money? From what you've said, I would get everything and you nothing. What do you get out of this?"
"I get to get away from here!" she answered desperately, tears finally falling. He was going to say no.
"Look," he pulled her off her knees and back up to sit on the fountain wall. "Ranch life is hard work, physically. You won't be able to afford fancy clothes and manicures." He gestured to the clothes Alice had chosen and the French manicure Alice had insisted on. Just her luck that trying to look more attractive would not work in her favor. "I honestly don't think you are cut out for it. You would hate it and I will not be married to a woman who hates the lifestyle I love."
"I can handle it. I promise!"
He studied her face intently. "We'll see. I need to think about this."
He didn't say no! He didn't say no!
"I need an answer soon." she pressed. "If you won't do this I have to find someone who will."
He nodded. "I'll be in touch."
"Here, let me give you my phone number." He pulled out his cell and typed in the number she dictated. "And I'd like you to have Alice's number too. If I can't answer my phone, you can leave a message with her. I trust her." He looked at her oddly.
"Why can't I just leave a message on your phone?"
"No! You...just can't. And if a man answers the phone don't say anything, just hang up. OK?"
"Why would a man answer your phone Bella?" he asked softly. His eyes saw straight through her, and suddenly she couldn't lie to him.
"There's a guy, he...he's kind of possessive. He sometimes answers my phone and checks my messages."
"Why would he be possessive Bella?"
"He...um...plans to marry me this summer."
"What?" he yelled. She cringed. "If you're already engaged then why..."
"I'm not! I didn't agree. Look, he found out about the dowry and now he won't let me go. I need you to take me away from him."
"Why don't you just go to the police?"
"He hasn't really done anything...to me, yet. He's just...scary. Look, just let me know soon, OK?"
He gave her an intense look and nodded. "I'll be in touch." And then he walked away. She just hoped it wasn't for good.
So? What do you think? It's an idea that wouldn't let me alone. I've got some research to do before I get much further. In the mean time, is anyone interested in being a beta? I'm looking for someone who can proofread and say, "Hey, I think you meant her instead of here." and someone who could ask good questions to help me develop characters and plot, who can poke a hole in someone's logic or offer suggestions to make the story better. A bonus would be someone who knows about or has personal experience with ranch life. If you do, please feel free to let me know. I'd love to pick your brain.
Also, for those of you who read the previous story and kept up with my news, I'm 6 weeks pregnant and we saw a heartbeat on the sonogram the other day!