BIG SKY

CHAPTER 1

June

Waking to the sun on her face, Bella thought, would be the greatest luxury she could ask for. Well, maybe not the greatest, but considering its impossibility right now, it was pretty high up on the list. Right up there with having enough money to keep the Swan horse ranch from going under.

Her parents, Charlie and Renee, had run the ranch for thirty years together, and their dedication to the land had been bred in Bella's bones her entire life. Not that she minded; she loved the land, the horses, and everything about the ranch, with every fiber of her being. And now that her parents were gone, it was resting solely on her slight, sun-freckled shoulders to keep it from the hands of the bankers who kept closing further and further in.

As always, when Bella thought of the bankers who wanted her land so desperately, she saw them as a freakish combination of blood-sucking leeches and blood-thirsty sharks, circling her constantly, waiting for the perfect moment to swoop in and make the kill. Currently the price of her piece of land was high enough that she could sell it and never have to work again. She could buy more of the horses she adored and do nothing but spend time with them. Riding out across the endless plains until she reached the mountains. Breeding them into prize winners, her Quarter Horses and Appaloosas setting the standard at big name events.

Retired at 23, she thought as she pulled on her old flannel shirt and faded jeans. Not many can say that.

But Bella didn't want to sell the ranch; just thinking about it filled her with deep loathing and something close to terror.

It's all I have in this world. It's what I love.

Her parents had died in a car accident on the way home from a Christmas party at a neighboring ranch. They'd both been stone sober, since neither drank often, but the teenaged boy who hit them head-on had been blacking out drunk. He had walked away with a few bruises and no memory of the night. Her parents had been carried away on stretchers, covered with sheets. Their memory-making days were done.

Bella had spent months drowning in inconsolable grief. She'd resolutely taken care of the funeral details in her methodical way, keeping her misery well-hidden in public. But things were different at night, after the last family friend or caring neighbor had left her with the inevitable covered dish and quiet condolences. The fact that that time honored tradition of food-for-grief had taken over two weeks was proof the Swans had been well-loved by more than her alone. She'd walked into her parents room slowly, feeling the weight of a thousand nevers crushing her lungs. Never seeing Charlie stroke his mustache while he thought, forehead wrinkled in speculation. Never seeing Renee's face light up like a Christmas tree whenever a new colt or calf was born, an occasion she never missed. Never feeling their endless love supporting every step she took.

Climbing up into their big antique bed, she had let out every ounce of rage and sorrow and terror in heaving sobs. Eventually she'd slept, exhausted, only to be haunted by nightmares. The mornings found her pale and thin, the half circles under her eyes growing steadily darker. She silently went about her day looking like a piece of dandelion fluff. As if any moment a slight breeze would stir the long grasses in the fields and she would drift away on it.

For almost four months she'd carried on that way, faded and somehow insubstantial. Then one night as she lay tightly curled around herself in her parents' bed, she'd dreamed. Not the brutally gory nightmares of her parents' death that had plagued her for so long, but a dream that stayed with her when she woke. She'd lain in the huge four-poster bed and stared at the ceiling. She'd inspected every crack in the paint and decided each one was exactly as it had been her entire life. None of them had moved, grown, or been fixed. They were threads on the tapestry of her childhood memory, and her parents' death hadn't changed them at all. There had been something bizarrely comforting about that, and Bella felt that somehow the cracks in the ceiling above her were more than flaws in the mortar. They were signs from something bigger than her. Signs that even though her world had been thoroughly turned upside down, some things would never change. Things like those jagged lines running like spiderwebs across the ceiling. They wouldn't be covered, or filled, or patched; and that was right. Because they were a part of Swan history, just like her parents. She would never be patched either, but that was okay and that was right. It was another thread in a greater pattern.

Bella had been shocked to hear the harsh grating sound that came out of her throat. She didn't remember the last time she had laughed, and she had savored it while it lasted. Comparing cracks in paint and plaster to life and death was worthy of a laugh, in her oh-so-humble opinion. And she had hidden in the huge bed long enough. The ranch hadn't waited for her to finishing grieving and there was probably a ton to catch up on.

So Bella had walked out of the big house, squinting her eyes against a sun she hadn't seen in days, and taken stock. Small signs of neglect showed where patches of grass had been allowed to grow tall at the corners of the house and barns and a porch that needed sweeping. Feeling momentarily overwhelmed with the vastness in front of her, she'd paused on the bottom step, looking across the acres of rolling emerald hills under the blazing ultramarine sky.

Breathtaking. This is the feeling that word describes.

Walking slowly through the yard Bella had silently reacquainted herself with everything she'd left behind the past few months. The smell of the Montana summer, the horsey smell of the ranch, the faintly acrid odor of exhaust and oil from heavy machinery.

Taking a deep breath as she reached her destination Bella had prepared herself for her first real, post-funeral human interaction. She'd rapped quickly on the door of the cabin the ranch hands lived in, then stood back waiting. When it swung quickly open, she avoided eye contact with the men inside and gruffly told them to get off their lazy asses and get back to work. The ranch couldn't run itself.

She'd gotten a few odd looks, which were probably due more to her haggard appearance than anything else, but most of the men had given her a look of pure pride. A look that said she was a Swan alright; when it came down to it, she would suck it up, buckle down, and get shit taken care of, pardon-their-French. It had healed her more in a moment than all her hours of tears and darkness.. It also reminded her that she had work to do, all the backbreaking labor that went into the day-to-day running of a functional ranch. And she was done shirking. She would do her job because these men were counting on her to keep the ranch running, to keep money in their pockets and food on their tables. But more than that, both wonderful and terrifying, they trusted her to. Because they believed in her.

Remembering their pride in her helped get her out of bed every day, hours before the sun touched the black early morning sky. But this morning as she trudged half awake into the hallway, stepping into her filthy work boots, she grimaced at the thought of how misplaced that pride was. She was young, and there was so much she didn't know, and she was...haunted. There was no other word for it. She was haunted by the loss of her parents, and every part of her was overshadowed by that loss.

Her parents had done everything they could to keep the ranch books in the black, but they'd been slowly and surely sinking further and further into the red. The Quarter Horses and Appaloosas they bred for showing and ranch work were expensive, and the beef cattle hadn't been selling for the best prices lately. Before the wreck, Charlie and Renee had been seriously discussing selling off a few acres...just a few acres, Bella...she could still see her father saying in the kitchen. It had been the hardest moment of her life to that point. Looking across the kitchen table to Charlie, the man she'd believed unbreakable, and seeing him near broken. And still trying to put on a good face for her and Renee.

Renee had been pale and still, her nervous energy stilled for a moment under the strain. Her normally vibrant smile now tight and brittle. It was so unlike her usual effervescent self, and Bella remembered thinking for the first time that her mother was getting old; both her parents were. There were more lines in their faces, crisscrossing the laugh lines they'd earned with worry and stress. A little more gray showed in their hair, though it was hardly noticeable in Renee's blonde braid, and just made Charlie more ruggedly charming. They'd held hands and looked at Bella with such sorrow in their eyes, silently begging forgiveness and understanding. She knew they'd planned to leave the ranch to her one day; they knew it was all she'd ever wanted. But she'd seen the figures in the books first-hand, and she knew that they were making the only choice they could.

But then the accident had happened, and Bella had gotten enough money from insurance to manage a few more months of scraping by on the bills. After that, she'd had to cut nearly half the ranch-hands, something that had driven her to near-violent sobs that night once she was alone. Some of those men had been there longer than she'd been alive, pouring their sweat and blood into their work to make her parents ranch run. She knew all of them well, loved some of them like uncles instead of employees. But each of them knew where the books stood, and those men she'd let go left quietly the next morning. There hadn't been an ounce of blame in their eyes, but Bella had felt enough blame for everyone. It wasn't something she cared to remember, because it still made her heart sore to think about.

Walking out into the crisp morning air Bella hurried past the paddocks to the stables using more instinct than sight to guide her. The sky was dark still, the deep blue color that came just before sunrise, and shadows covered the ground like a blanket. Pulling the heavy doors open she could hear the horses nicker softly and stamping quietly in their stalls. She could feel the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile as she entered the closest thing she had to heaven on earth.

Bella stopped just inside the stable, taking a deep breath in the silent, dark morning as she had every day for as long as she could remember. It was a moment of pure delight. The smell in the barn was warm and alive, comforting somehow. Sweet alfalfa and the dry, rich smell of straw mixed with leather from the tack room to make the most enchanting perfume. It was safe and unchanging, an island in the stormy sea her life had become.

Closing her eyes she could almost hear Charlie behind her, whistling quietly. Always Eric Clapton's Wonderful Tonight. It was the song he and Renee danced to at their wedding, and he swore it made the horses happy. Charlie would be a step behind her, whistling through his mustache, smiling at her because he totally understood what she felt. It was the reason they did what they did, and loved it. Despite the backbreaking labor, the work days that sometimes ran twenty hours, and the rare profit. That first moment in the stable each day made every foot crushed under a thousand pounds of horse bearable, every bruise and scrape sting less. Each of them had understood that, and accepted it with a grin. The thought stabilized her, giving her something to work for today. Something to hope for.

Smiling a little to herself, Bella walked to the first stall and began her brutally long day feeling content.

By the time noon rolled around, Bella was covered in dust, dirt and sweat; pieces of straw stuck out of her brown hair, she she was sore from head to foot. But she felt completely alive. Working with her hands, knowing she was physically working to keep her ranch always made her feel so good. She missed her horses, and they'd missed her as well. Her favorite mare, a gray Appaloosa named Morning Star, went out of her way to be difficult and tried twice to step on her foot. And Big Bear, the newest chestnut stallion, had nibbled her hair into a soggy mess.

It has been an all around fantastic day, Bella thought, and meant it.

As she walked out of the barn she saw Harry, one of the remaining hands, and smiled. Harry had been her father's best man at the wedding, and Bella loved him. He loved her just as much, and sometimes allowed himself to think of her as the daughter he and his wife could never have. While Bella had been "gone" after her parent's deaths, Harry had taken care of the day to day chores and decisions involving the ranch, which Bella felt terrible for. He was too old to be doing all that work. He should be sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, telling stories about the old days, and how times had changed. Whenever she mentioned it to him, he'd snort and told her not to insult him.

"Hells Bells, you're a mess," the old man said, smiling around his mouthful of chewing tobacco.

"Some of us have to work for a living, something I can tell by your good looks you're totally unfamiliar with," Bella said, a wide grin across her face. They both knew he worked harder than everyone else there.

"For a moment there I thought Robert Redford himself had graced the Swan ranch with his presence."

"Shoot little girl, I could steal whatever lady Mr. Redford can get his hands on with my charm alone," Harry responded with a wide grin. One of his bottom teeth was missing, leaving a gap that did indeed make him charming.

The sameness of the routine, of stopping to banter between chores as she had nearly every day of her life, made the glow inside of her burn a little brighter. She might be on the verge of losing the last thing she had in the world, her legacy, and her parents dreams, but damned if she would let it ruin her day. Bella couldn't hold back her own grin.

Life can be so sweet, you just have to take a little piece as it goes by. Don't you forget that Isabella Swan. Don't you ever let yourself forget that.

Smiling at herself for being so zen and profound, she noticed how quickly Harry's smile faded and steeled herself to hold on to that happy little glow. Something bad was coming, she could tell by the way Harry was looking past her now instead of into her eyes.

"You never could keep a secret from me old man. Spill it."

Scuffing the toe of his old cowboy boots in the dust, Harry took a deep breath, and let it out slowly before answering her.

"Well Bella..." he sighed, hesitating for a moment. He hated seeing her young face so tight with exhaustion and fatigue. He knew she was pushing herself more than was healthy, but he was also proud of her for it. This was a hard life in hard country, no matter how beautiful it seemed. If you couldn't handle the demands of that, it would knock you down relentlessly, until you had no life left. No Swan would curl up to die quietly; they fought and fought until there was no fight left. And he thought she still had some fight left in her, despite the purple circles under her eyes. She was Charlie Swan's daughter through and through alright. So he'd give it to her straight.

"We're going to have to sell the cattle, Bella. All of them." As her face fell, he plunged ahead before he lost the nerve to finish.

"Actually, I think we're going to have to sell some of the horses too. Maybe five or six of the mares."

Doing a quick tally in her head Bella cringed inwardly.

Five or six? That's a fourth of the mares. MY mares damn it, and I'm not selling them!

Shut up Bella and stop being such a damn baby. You know he's right. The money you can make off the two Quarter horses with keep this place running for another month at least. With the rest from the three Appaloosas, it'll be enough to get us through until late September. That's a far as I can think about.

Maybe by then I'll have come up with a miracle.

Swiftly shutting away the Bella in her head who wanted to cry at the injustice of it, she took a steadying breath and once she felt she could open her mouth without bawling, she said,

"We sell the beef cattle. And five mares. Call McGuire over at the Halstead ranch. He offered a great price for Ladyhawk and Sorceress at the fair last year. See if he's still interested. Let me know what you work out with him."

Turning away before her trembling voice betrayed her, she didn't see Harry looking after her, twisting his broken down Stetson between gnarled knuckles, his deeply lined face full of sorrow and pain.

Sliding into the bath at the end of the day was the only luxury Bella allowed herself on a regular basis. Sinking down in the steaming hot water to her chin, she closed her eyes and relaxed muscle by muscle, emptying her mind of everything. All the stress, and the fears, all the struggling and sadness...she just breathed, in then out. In then out.

In.

Then out.

When she opened her eyes again, she felt better, even though she knew all her problems were still there. Her rule was no drama allowed in the bathtub. It was silly, she knew, and slightly ridiculous. But it kept her from going completely crazy under the strain of just making it though each day. It was an excuse to turn all that off, for just a little while, and remember that she was a 23 year old girl. The huge master bathroom, with it's cool tile floors and double sinks was her sanctuary. She could slide into the giant claw-footed tub and just pretend for a little while. Pretend her parents were still alive, pretend the ranch was flush with money and horses. Pretend she had someone to share the joy of that with...

Relaxing further into the bathtub, Bella shut her eyes and let her familiar fantasy take her away. She would come home, filthy and tired from another day of doing what she loved, and a man would meet her at the steps. He would be exhausted too, but they'd pause for a moment and hold hands. Looking out over what they made, understanding that love completely. Sharing a silent moment of pure joy and bliss.

Sighing a little as her sore muscles loosened slightly, Bella tried to wrap herself up deeper in her daydream. Something kept interrupting her thoughts though. The sound of big trucks and horse trailers, their tailgates opening and slamming shut punctuating the silent night air. A sound she could recognize in her sleep, as could everyone who grew up on a ranch. She knew instantly who it was. The Cullens were back from the trip to Texas. Where they probably won every prize invented for their stupid, perfect cattle and their stupid, high-bred horses. And now they were back on their stupid ranch, where all their bills were paid on time, and nothing ever went wrong.

Guilt immediately made her regret taking out her vile mood on the Cullen's, so she stopped her "stupid" train of thought. It wasn't really fair of her, and she didn't really have anything against the Cullens. Their ranch was next to hers, a low white fence separating the miles of land. She grown up climbing back and forth over that boundary with their youngest child, Alice. Carlisle and Esme had been friends of her parents, and she they were two of the sweetest, most generous people she knew. Those traits had carried down to their children as well...for the most part.

Emmett, the oldest of them at 28, was a huge bear of a man, all bulging muscles and big hands with a big booming laugh and the maturity of a twelve year old. She couldn't help but smile thinking of him. He looked like a beast, but she knew he was really a big teddy bear. She'd helped him birth a breech foal last winter, and seen the tears in his big blue eyes when the tiny creature had successfully walked on new, spindly legs to nuzzle its mother. Emmett met her own tear-filled eyes, and smiled like an idiot. Accepting that he was indeed a big, unapologetic softy.

His wife, Rosalie, was just as soft-hearted when it came to children, though she preferred to hide it behind her aloof exterior. Tall, curvy, blonde, and stunning, Rose looked like an out-of-place big city girl, but she had proved she belonged out here in Big Sky country. She had started a Big Sky Big Heart, a program for children with problems, both mental and physical. They came to the Cullen ranch for riding lessons every week, and Rose showed them the endless patience and boundless love those poor kids needed. She connected on a very deep level, and seemed to instinctively understand their needs. Big Sky Big Heart had a waiting list a year long of parents from all over the US trying to get in the program, and word-of-mouth was the only advertising she'd needed. People who'd never seen that side of her thought her cold and haughty, "reserved" being the word they used in polite company. Bella knew better, though she was still slightly intimidated by Rose.

Helping her with the horses was Alice, the youngest Cullen child. Even though she was 21, Alice could have passed for 16 with her tiny frame and pixieish face. Alice was horse-crazy, plain and simple. She ate, slept, and breathed horses from the moment she woke up each day. Her wild, short, dark hair was often covered with a beat up cowboy hat, and more often than not she was up on a horse, looking like a fragile china doll on their huge backs. But Bella knew Alice was no doll. She could remember Alice riding some of the wild mustangs Carlisle and Emmett brought to the ranch. She was tiny, but she was tough as nails. Bella, being on the small side herself, and frequently underestimated, could appreciate her. And while her endless chatter and seemingly boundless energy could be wearing, she was Bella's closest friend.

Smiling a little, she knew Alice could also be softy. But she'd only seen two things that could make Alice go all gooey-faced; until recently that had been designer horses and designer clothes. But she'd seen some of the sidelong glances her friend had been throwing towards the new horse trainer, Jasper Hale. And she had to admit, he was a good-looking. A tall, cool drink of water her mother would have said. He was uncanny with horses, especially ones who were green-broke, or mistreated. They seemed to sense his inner peace, and allowed him to work miracles others had said were impossible. She wondered idly when and how his zen-master calm and Alice's all-out exuberance would collide.

And as hard as she tried to avoid it, she was inevitably brought around to the last, and her least favorite, Cullen. Edward Stupid Cullen. Ugh.

Edward was the same age as her, and as far as she could see, that was all they had in common. They'd run in different crowds through school, she in the library with the book-heads, he in the parking lot with the cool crowd. Although he'd been more of a loner even then, spending time with that particular social group out of requirement more than anything else. And really, for someone as gorgeous as Edward Cullen, there was no other group who would even try to claim him.

Bella could remember her sophomore year, and how desperately she'd wanted his attention. He'd been too busy to notice she was alive, and juggling dates with every pretty girl in school. They knew each other of course; they'd grown up on neighboring ranches, but they'd never had any sort of friendly interaction. She'd been an irritant when she was younger, she and Alice wanting to tag along with him and Emmett all the time, and then she'd grown up a little, and been too intimidated by him to be any where near him. When he'd left after high school for Arizona, something in her lightened imperceptibly, as if she was breathing deeply for the first time. She hadn't realized how much he had affected her, his mere presence forcing her into silence for fear of looking stupid in his eyes.

Bella, you were pathetic. Thank God you grew up and left that crush in the past.

When she'd understood just how attuned she was to him, and the enormity of his effect on her, she'd decided hating him was better. She'd hate him for frightening her into silence with his good looks and quick laugh.

With hate there was no room for fear, and Bella didn't like feeling fear.

Damn him for being so hot. Even though she'd decided to despise him, she couldn't argue that point. He was tall and slender, but still well muscled from daily ranch work. His eyes were the most striking color, somewhere between icy blue and warm sea green, and his hair was an unruly shock of copper, usually covered with a well-worn Stetson. And the way he moved...Edward walking in a straight line across a parking lot was a study in graceful fluidity. It was like all his joints were loosened, giving him a careless, hip-shot stance, making every move smooth and silken. And his lips...his perfectly chiseled, mouth-watering lips...

Fuck. Dammit Bella, forget his god damn perfect lips. Forget him being perfect, you know he's no angel. Not that he's made any effort to hide it, she thought with a grimace.

Stretching out one last time in the cooling water, Bella stood up and reached for her towel. Everyone knew Edward was no angel; he hadn't come by his nickname of "Lo" in high school by being the sweet guy who helped little old ladies with their groceries. Lothario was the perfect name for him.

Man-whore is a better one, Bella though snarkily, and snorted lightly as she finally stepped out of the bath and wrapped her robe around her. Drying her hair briskly with her towel, she reminded herself exactly why she disliked Edward Cullen.

He was cocky. He was insufferable. He knew he turned women into puddles of goo at his feet with his little lopsided grin, and he used it to his best advantage. He was so damned arrogant about it too! When he'd been called out in front of the entire cafeteria by Mike Newton, the high school's star quarterback, for making out with his girlfriend, Lauren, Edward had just smirked and shrugged, as if to say, Yeah, I did. What are you going to do about it?

And the fucked up thing was, nothing had been done about it. Mike had shifted from foot to foot, massive shoulders filling out his letter jacket, and finally muttered something about Lauren keeping her mouth to herself, then stalked off. Edward had gone back to eating his lunch in silence, ignoring the looks from those around him. Envy from the guys, at his ability to be so cool, and lust from the girls, who saw him as some sort of gorgeous god.

Bella thought he was a jerk, and disgusting. And despite the fact that Alice had repeatedly told her he had gotten better since he came home from Arizona, she decided to keep thinking that. Putting on the old cotton tank top and shorts she slept in during the hot summer months, she couldn't help glancing out her bedroom window. It gave her a perfect view of the front of the Cullen's house, the wraparound porch filled with rocking chairs. The porch lights were on, and the pale yellow glow illuminated the forms of two men; one moving slowly back and forth in an Adirondack rocker with the glow of a pipe in front of them, the other leaning against the porch rail. She could tell it was Edward even though his back was facing her. He wasn't as big as Emmett, and the light made his copper hair shine like new pennies. He laughed at something Carlisle said, and turned his face towards him, showing Bella his profile.

Gorgeous.

Seriously Bella, get a fucking grip. You're too old to pay attention to hormones, even if Mr. "Lo" Cullen isn't.

Rolling over into her bed, she turned her lamp off and let the day's weariness overtake her. Within seconds she was asleep so deep not even dreams could reach her.

A/N: Thanks to my great beta for her endless patience and general ranch-y knowledge. Any mistakes are mine, not hers. There's a lot of history to get out there first, but things will be moving a little faster once I get that all out of the way. Be warned though: I love anticipation, not instant gratification. There will be some slow-burning going on here. Chapter 2 is EPOV, and will be up within the week. Reviews are great, & thanks so much for reading!