Please to be reading about Fandom Gives Back to Autism Speaks in the A/N at the bottom. 3


CHAPTER 11

All things must change to something new, to something strange.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


"Edward, how was your day?"

Esme's pleasant voice greeted him at the door, and Edward thought for a moment how great it was to come home and hear his mother. He smiled at her as he set his bag of books down and wrapped her up in a tight hug, taking in everything that she was. Comfort, love, understanding; no matter what, she'd always give him those things.

No matter what? Then why haven't I told her-

No, best to not open that door yet.

"I'd have thought it couldn't get any better, but here you are. You and Dad are home early, aren't you?"

Esme laughed as he released her, and Edward was struck again by his mother. She was so amazing, a constant beautiful touchstone in his life . The lie, his secret, stuck in him like a cruel thorn, digging deeper with each passing day.

"Yes, well, we were going to stay through the weekend, but we decided there was no need, and with all the planning I've got to do for the party we just decided to come on home."

"Ah, the party. Speaking of, I ran into Jessica Stanley and Lauren Mallory while I was in town with Bella today. They said many empty, simpering things that I'm sure you'll have no interest in hearing about. But they'll both be here for it, so let's make sure there's lots of disinfectants on the tables, shall we?"

She laughed again, though Edward could tell she was trying not to. He knew his mother had no fondness for those two, but she was too polite to show it anywhere but at home.

"Oh, Edward. I'm so glad I never had to welcome either of them into our home as your girlfriend. I'd probably have choked on my tongue trying to think of something kind to say."

"Yeah, and Lauren probably would have been counting silver the moment she walked in the door."

Walking past his mother into the kitchen, Edward reached into a cabinet and pulled out two glasses, filling each with ice and tap water. He added a slice of lemon to Esme's glass before handing it to her, and settled himself at the table.

"So, you said you and Bella went to town today?"

Oh yeah, Bella went to town all right, he thought, as he remembered her flushed face and hard words to him in her truck. His hand went to the back of his neck and rubbed for a moment as he looked down at the table, feeling slightly guilty. He straightened quickly when he realized his mother was watching him like a hawk.

"And I'll assume from your smile that you two had a good time?"

Esme's face was innocent of all but the slightest curiosity, but Edward knew better. She was searching for pearls, some little tidbit to winnow out of him. He wasn't sure if she wanted to hear that something had happened between them or if she'd rip his head off for not treating Bella right. She loved Bella as her own, so the chances were good she was more interested in his possibly wrong actions than any sort of matchmaking scheme.

Resisting the urge to run his hand across his hair, an uneasy gesture she'd recognize, he settled on lacing his fingers together on the the table. "Well, aside from the run-in with Jessica and Lauren, I guess you could say we had a fine time. She got supplies, I got books, then I convinced her to let me help clean out her attic." He looked at Esme with widened eyes as he went on, "Have you been up there? Jeez, I didn't know anyone could cram so much stuff into such a small space, but Renee seemed to have a certain skill for it."

His mother laughed and he could still hear the pain of losing her best friend in it, but also the appreciation for Renee's ability to amaze, even now.

"I went up there about two years ago, and I was honestly terrified for my life. That woman didn't let go of a thing!" Shaking her head with a smile, her eyes looked into the distance, at memories Edward couldn't see. After a moment she blinked them away.

"Now," she continued, leaning forward like a conspirator about to share a secret, "tell me what devious tactics you used to get Bella to let you help so I can use them in the future."

Edward told her a slightly edited version of his trip to town with Bella, and how he'd simply offered and then not taken no for an answer. It didn't seem quite like lying to leave out the conversation about the kiss and the apology and all the thoughts he'd had about being Bella's friend, or the convincing he had to do to himself before he even got to Bella. Esme seemed to be buying it, but there was a scary speculative look about her that Edward didn't feel comfortable with. At all.

"Well, I'm glad that she's decided to accept some help from her friends, and I'm glad to know that not all of my efforts to raise you right went by the wayside. Now, if only I could get you to cut that mop on your head."

Edward laughed with her, playfully swatting her hands away when she reached towards his hair, and decided he'd imagined the emphasis she'd put on the word 'friends'. Probably just his own guilty conscious making things up.

Probably.

"So, what did you get at Took's Books? Something for your poor, dear mother, I hope?"

"How could I not get something for my poor, dear mother when she's so obviously in need of gifts to show I've not yet forgotten completely about her?"

"You are a bad, bad son, Edward Cullen, and I'll be speaking to the adoption agency immediately about sending you back. You're obviously defective beyond any repair."

Smirking over his shoulder, he went to the hall to grab his books from the table and heard the rumble of footsteps moments before the door burst open. Emmett, Jasper, Alice, and Rose all tumbled in, laughing and talking over one another.

"Emmett, I swear, you would charge a bull head first just to prove you've got the bigger pair of-

"Uh, hey there Mrs. Cullen."

Jasper's face pinked slightly when he saw Esme standing behind Edward, and everyone laughed at his discomfort. Except Esme, who merely raised one eyebrow and said, "Jasper, I've told you to call me Esme too many times to count. And believe me, he's already tried it. The bull couldn't have been more disinterested, thankfully."

Everyone laughed again and followed Edward back into the kitchen, still talking all at once and filling the quiet house with the kind of noise only a family can make. Edward stood by the sink for a moment to take it all in. He loved the ruckus and shouts and playful punches they traded as they settled at the table.

"Esme, weren't you planning to stay the whole weekend? Did Carlisle come home too?" Rosalie asked, pushing her long hair over one shoulder as she sat next to Emmett.

"Yes and yes, but we came back early because obviously with all of you here the house couldn't be trusted to stand on it's own. Now hush, all of you, so my son can give me my present in the hopes that I don't send him back to the rock we found him under."

"Well, if you're going to be like that, Mom, I'll have start with everyone else's presents."

Reaching into the bag, Edward pulled Jasper's book out first.

"Jasper, for you."

He handed Jasper a heavy coffee table book titled A History of Vintage Muscle, and laughed when Jasper immediately asked, "Does it have the-"

"Yes, page thirty-seven. And it's green."

Already flipping to the page, Jasper let out a low whistle as he looked the 1965 Mustang Fastback pictured there.

"Damn, she's a beauty. Thanks, man."

Nodding, Edward reached back into the bag, then paused to look at Alice. "Now, Alice-"

"Shut up already and let me have it! Yay! I love new things, thank you so much Edwar - ooh, Edward, Twenty Years of VOGUE. Oh my god, you are my brother!"

Laughing, she hugged him then sat down to pour over the pages of fashion and models. To Edward, they looked like they belonged in a circus instead of a book about fashion, but that just showed what he knew. Alice was obviously thrilled, so he'd consider that a success.. On to Rosalie.

"You are not my brother, in blood or spirit, unless you got me something wonderful and amazing and - oh Edward." She looked at the book he held up to her. "You are good, aren't you? I've been meaning to pick this up for months. Thank you."

Leaning across the table to kiss Edward's cheek, Rose took her book, The Horse Boy, and sat down next to Alice. She told Esme, "This is the one I was telling you about, with the autistic boy, and his parents traveled all over the world trying to find ways to help him. They finally settle on equine therapy and the boy just flourishes! I really can't thank you enough, Edward."

If Edward hadn't known better, he'd have thought there were tears in her blue eyes, but Rose wasn't one to get mushy over things that easily. Still, he thought with a smile, mission accomplished.

"Where's mine, bro? Wait, lemme guess. Playboy, A History?" Jumping away from Rose's slapping hand landed him directly in line for Esme's, which caught him on the back of his head. "Ow, Mom! Kidding, kidding, sheesh!"

Edward handed him the book he'd found about the history of comic books, how they'd become so much more than just picture stories for kids. He'd known it was for Emmett the moment he saw it; the only thing Emmett read as a child were comics. The grin and bone-rattling punch he got from his brother in thanks was proof he was right.

"Now, where is Dad anyways?"

"Dad is right here, and what is this? Christmas come early? Ah, no, I see Edward stopped by Took's."

Reaching into the bag again, Edward pulled out the book of selected works by Longfellow he'd considered keeping for himself. Only knowing how much his dad would enjoy it made it possible to let it go.

"Still have it, I see. Well done, son. Very well done."

Flipping open to a page at random, Carlisle began to read aloud. Everyone immediately quieted and looked up at him as his voice spoke Longfellow's words. His voice took on a strident, cadenced quality. It was the voice of a born story teller, and one his children had always loved.

"This is the place. Stand still, my steed,

Let me review the scene,

And summon from the shadowy Past

The forms that once have been."

Edward knew immediately which poem his father read from, and recited silently along with him. When Carlisle reached the verse that Edward had always seen his mother in, he closed his eyes to imagine it again. Only this time, there was Bella in the lily white dress, walking down the sunny lane.

I saw the branches of the trees

Bend down thy touch to meet,

The clover-blossoms in the grass

Rise up to kiss thy feet,

"Well, we'll save the rest for later, yes?" His father's voice pulled him out of the scene in his mind, and Edward's eyes snapped open. He glanced around to see if anyone had noticed but they were all still looking at Carlisle.

Of course they didn't notice me thinking about Bella, it's not like there's a sign in flashing lights above my head.

"Oh, Carlisle." Esme's eyes held the sheen of tears, and the look they shared left room for nothing else in the world but the two of them. Everyone sat in silence for a moment, enjoying being forgotten for such an obvious, enduring love. Then Carlisle spoke again, and the spell was broken.

"I read this poem in it's entirety the day I proposed to your mother. Thank you, Edward."

"I thought you might like it. There's a few others in there that-"

"Oh, is mine in there? Mine and Bella's?" Alice's voice piped up from her seat.

"Well, it's a collection of favorites, so I'm sure they wouldn't leave that one out, would they, my grave Alice?"

"Wait, Alice, grave? I've seen nothing that would make me believe it for a second. Not a single split second." Rosalie's arched eyebrow indicated just how disbelieving she was that Alice was anything but rambunctious.

"Oh, hush, Rose. Just because I'm rarely grave doesn't mean it's not still my poem. Well, mine and Bella's. Dad used to read it to us when we were kids and she'd sleep over and we were being too loud. It was his way of shutting us up for a minute, but c'mon. Who couldn't be quiet when he reads with that voice?"

Rose was nodding her agreement. "It's true, Carlisle. You suddenly turned into an English professor for a moment there. I had no idea you read aloud like that."

"Well, I don't do it too often. Can't have all the ladies chasing me around, at least not when my lovely wife is watching." With a wink to Rose, Carlisle expertly sidestepped Esme's swatting hand, showing how many years more practice he'd had than Emmett as he managed to successfully evade any direct hits.

"Dad, please? Just one little bit of it? Please?" Alice begging instantly reverted her to a child, all wide eyes and pouty lower lip. Edward wondered if she'd still have that ability when she was sixty, and decided she probably would. The mental image was slightly alarming.

"Not now, sweetheart. But the next time Bella stays the night, I promise I'll read The Children's Hour to you, alright?

"Now, Edward. What have you got for your mother?"

Edward smiled at his dad as he reached in, knowing Esme was going to love it and Carlisle was going to shake his head. Sure enough, Esme squealed like a little girl and his dad shook his head as he looked down at the heavy volume Edward handed her.

"The Better Homes and Gardens Decorating Anthology? Really, Edward? She won't come up for air until she's devoured the whole thing, and then only to redecorate the entire place. And here I thought you loved me."

Edward smiled at his father's mock chagrin, shrugging his shoulders carelessly.

"Something tells me she'll channel all that decorating energy into the garden party, especially since there's an entire section on outdoor parties in there." Esme's eyes lifted to his and the pure joy shining out of them made her look like a girl again.

"Oh, Edward. I've changed my mind. We'll keep you for as long as you like and continue telling everyone you really are our son. It's perfect."

Rising from the table, Esme crossed to Edward and wrapped her arms around his middle, squeezing tightly before looking up at him with a gentle smile.

"Truly, son, you did wonderfully. As always. You make me so proud."

Edward tightened his arms around her, as if bringing them closer together physically would leave no room for the painful twist of shame he felt. With each deep inhale he pushed his secrets deeper inside. Part of him wanted to walk away then, just distance himself from the woman who adored him so completely, who he was lying to with each second that passed. Instead he held her closer and tried to let himself just take in all the love she offered.

"Love you, Mom," he whispered into her hair.

"Love you back, kiddo."

Esme turned and looked at the bag, still sitting on the kitchen table. Breaking free from Edward, she reached towards it, and he felt a moment of unwarranted panic.

"Looks like there's one more in there. Did you get something for yourself?"

Before she could reach in and pull out the last book, Edward grabbed the bag and stepped back quickly, stumbling a little. Six pairs of eyes were trained on him, all of them openly curious.

Dammit, that wasn't obvious or anything.

Sighing, rolling his eyes, but refusing to give up his bag, Edward said, "I did. My books are upstairs. This one is for a friend. Yes, a friend, I see how you're all looking at me. And before the Spanish Inquisition starts, yes, she's a female, no, I'm not sleeping with her, and no, I won't tell you what the book is."

"It's for Bella then."

Edward stopped his backward retreat to stare at his little sister, who was back to flipping idly through glossy pages of Paris fashions. After a moment of silence, Alice realized everyone was looking at her expectantly and huffed out a sigh.

"Oh come on. If she's a female, well, that could be anyone. If she's not sleeping with Edward, she's obviously either on her deathbed, hasn't hit puberty, or has more brain cells than all those town floozies. And if she's a friend, well... that just leaves Bella. Though I wasn't aware she was your friend now, and one of the book-receiving ones at that. You two must have had some time in town today."

She gave Edward the tiniest evil smirk before returning to her book, appearing completely disinterested in the explosion Edward knew would follow her words. Instead, there was only silence, and appraising looks from everyone but her.

Wicked little firestarter. You'll pay Alice. Oh, you'll pay.

As if she'd heard his thoughts, Alice glanced up at him again, stuck her tongue out, then smiled back down at her book.

"So, you and Bella are friends now? I'm glad to hear that."

"Yeah, Dad, I helped her clean out her attic, and I'm going over there tomorrow to try and fix that pump in the south barn. You know, the one that's been breaking every other week for years?"

"Yes. Good, I'm glad she's finally accepting some help. And it'll get you out of my hair for a few weeks, hopefully."

Leaning down to kiss his wife, Carlisle turned and walked from the room and headed to the barn to catch up any and everything he'd missed while he was gone. Thinking he was getting off fairly easy, Edward started inching from the room, only to back into a wall he didn't remember being in the kitchen. Turning, he stared into Emmett's rather enormous chest for a moment before backing up to see his brother's face.

"Upstairs. Now."

Emmett turned and stomped up the stairs, causing Esme to comment under her breath about a herd of elephants and Rosalie to shake her head. Jasper glanced at Edward and asked a silent question, one that Edward nodded to and turned to follow Emmett up the stairs.

When they'd reached the bottom of the stairs they paused, and Jasper asked quietly, "What's going on? Do I need to bring a weapon or something? Or is this some sort of brother thing I don't know about?"

"Honestly, I have no clue what's going on. Emmett's pissed about something, and I'm getting a little pissed myself, because I haven't done a damn thing to piss him off. Come on, let's go. Oh, and if he looks like he's about to charge, just step to the side at the last minute. Always works for me."

Except it didn't this time. The moment Edward opened the door to his room, Emmett grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him around til his legs hit the bed, forcing him to sit down.

"What the fuck, Em? You got a problem with me, you tell me right the fuck now!"

Emmett took a step back and then bent over, putting his face right in front of Edward's. When Emmett got mad, he got loud and moved around a lot, like a a thunderstorm that blows through loud and fast. But when Emmett really lost it, a very rare occasion, he got quiet and still. It was a little scary.

Keeping his face inches from Edward's as he lowered himself into a crouch, he put two bruising hands back on Edward's shoulders and spoke very slowly.

"If you think, for even one moment, that Bella is someone you can use and throw away, I will end you. Personally. Are you listening to me, Edward? I... will... end you."

It took Edward a moment to get his brain working again, but once he did, he was mad. Beyond mad, and close to losing it himself. He raised his hand and stuck one finger out like a weapon, jabbing it into Emmett's chest repeatedly to make his point.

"No, you listen to me," poke, "you stupid oaf, and listen damn well," poke, "because I'll only say this once," poke. "Bella is a good person, a better person than anyone I've ever met, and if you think for one second that I would just... use her? Fuck you, Emmett. You think I can't be friends with her because she's a fucking woman? She's smart, and tough, and she deserves a friend who doesn't expect anything more from her than to help her out. So fuck you, you self-righteous ass!"

Pushing Emmett out of the way, Edward stood up from the bed and tried to walk out of the room. Tried, because the sound of Emmett's laughter stopped him in his tracks.

"Oh, brother. I'm sorry if I scared you, but that girl has enough trouble with you adding more to it. Which I don't think you're doing, so stop glaring at me. I just wanted to make sure you knew how things were."

Still raging inside that his brother would think so little of him, and pissed that he couldn't entirely blame him for it, Edward turned walked back to get right in Emmett's face. "How things were? And how are things, Emmett. Why don't you just go on and fill me in, since you're sitting on your high and mighty throne at the moment?"

"Calm down, calm down," Emmett's voice took on the soothing tone he used to calm horses, his hands raised in front of him to pacify. It only served to stoke Edward's anger higher. Biting his tongue against it, he tried to listen instead of just swinging.

"I'm just saying... Bella's like family. She's had so much shit piled on those scrawny little shoulders I don't know how she stands up straight anymore. If you're going to help her out, take some of that off her, I think it's great. Hell, I'm jealous I can't do it, because she won't let anyone close enough to offer a hand. So if she'll let you, then I'm happy about it. Really. She's a big girl, and she can obviously take care of herself, so I don't think she'd put up with any of your Lothario bullshit."

A choking sound came from Jasper's general direction but Edward didn't look away from Emmett as he continued.

"She's been broken down and trampled on lately, and I don't even want to think about making her have to shut you down. So just don't go there, okay? Don't fuck with her like that. She's too important. If it doesn't mean everything, it doesn't mean anything."

If it doesn't mean everything, it doesn't mean anything. Dammit, Emmett, since when do you make sense?

"Now, if you still want to hit me, and I can tell you do, let's go down to the yard and pull out the boxing gloves. It's been a long time since I pummeled your ass." Emmett's grin showed just how much he was looking forward to it. For a moment Edward could feel it; the heat and sweat coating his hand inside the battered old gloves, the weight of his entire body slamming into Emmett's stupid - and currently grinning - face through his shoulder and arm, the satisfaction that would drown out the pain in his knuckles, even through the gloves.

Because Em's got a face like a slab of cement, the fucker.

It was impossible to hold on to the rage he felt, because part of him knew that Emmett was right to question his motives, make sure things were set straight. Hell, he'd want to do the same thing to anyone he saw hanging around Bella right now. Anything but a real friend would tear down what little remained of the walls she had holding her up, and he wouldn't do that to her.

"Since when did you get smart, Emmett?"

"Since I've always been smart, Edward. But if you're referring to the fact that I'm not blind to the way you treat women-"

"No, I'm not, and I don't even want to go there right now. I'm referring to you being Bella's white knight."

"Shit. That girl don't need a white knight, bro. She needs a friend. Just a friend."

Just a friend.

That same nagging sense of disappointment tugged at Edward, but he pushed it down again beneath his anger. Anger at Emmett, because he really was hurt that his own brother thought he'd use her, and anger at himself for partially deserving it. For not being totally honest, with himself or Bella. For so many things. All that was left, for Emmett, for Bella, for himself, was to let it go and do the best he could.

"I'm just a friend, Em, and I swear I'll do the best I can by Bella." Settling for a friendly punch to Emmett's ribs, Edward said, "Now, can we quit this girly talk bullshit and see if Mom's hiding any more ice cream? I seem to remember having my share taken by a wandering troll."

Jasper watched as the brothers left the room laughing, Emmett with one massive arm slung over Edward's shoulder, Edward punching him lightly in the side, no real heat behind it.. Jasper, who'd smartly remained silent throughout the sibling mini-war, shook his head and followed them out. Brothers fighting over a girl was always bad news, but brothers fighting over a girl who was more like family was even worse. Something nagged at him though, and the more he thought about it, the more it worried him and pleased him in equal measure. Jasper didn't think they both looked at her like family.

No, not quite like family at all.

Hiding his smile behind his hand as he followed them down the stairs, Jasper decided to keep his thoughts to himself for the time being. He was too busy thinking about how bad and good things could possibly go if he was right to notice the pair of eyes that followed him, and the smile beneath them, not hidden at all.

All of her carefree feelings from the day before disappeared the moment Bella woke to her five o'clock alarm. Fighting to free herself from the tangled sheets around her legs she nearly rolled off her bed, and managed to hit her ankle twice on the nightstand in her war.

What the fuck was I thinking? What kind of voodoo magic did that devil man do to me yesterday to convince me I could use his help here? Now he's going to be here, all day, with me.

Stilling her thrashing movements, Bella lay there for a moment and searched for the sense of calm she'd felt the night before.

I sound like a broken record. This is ridiculous, and I refuse to be that girl who falls back on the same argument without trying to change her outcome. Today starting bad has nothing to do with him. It's my reaction to him that's making me mad. There, statement made. Now, resolution. I will no longer blame Edward for my personal problems.

Her silent vow lasted for the next thirty seconds. Leaning down to tug the sheets off her ankles, she hit her forehead on the nightstand that had suddenly become a weapon.

"Errrgh!"

With a last pull and a grumbled curse, Bella managed to separate herself from the sheets and remain upright. Taking a moment to curse herself silently as well, she started her morning routine determined to send Edward away the moment he arrived.

"I don't need help-I'm not some sort of charity case. And I've told him that, I've told everyone that. Yet here I am, making extra damn coffee for some spoiled, irritating bastard to come drink while he does his civic duty and feels good about himself. How did I get myself into this? He must be, no- he is the devil. And seriously, how did he talk me into this?"

Waiting for her toast to pop up, she didn't realize she'd been speaking out loud until a voice answered her last question.

"Well now, the devil has been known to sweet talk a soul or two. What exactly did he convince you to do this early in the day?"

Bella whirled around at the gravelly voice only to find Harry leaning against the refrigerator, arms crossed and trying his hardest not to smile. It was a losing battle, and after another moment spent watching Bella flush red then white then red again, he gave it up as a lost cause.

"Harry, you sneaky old man. You damn near scared me into a heart attack!"

Laughing his low rumble, he crossed the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee for himself. He raised an eyebrow at Bella, clearly curious why there was twice as much brewed than normal.

"I, uh... Edward is coming over. To work on the pump in the south barn."

Waiting for some sort of reaction, unsure of what exactly, but expecting one nonetheless, Bella was left waiting as Harry just nodded and walked out of the kitchen. He didn't speak until he had his hand on the door, ready to head out to the barn and start his day.

"It's about time you gave that Swan stubbornness a break. Needs a day off now and again, same as the rest of us hard working folks."

Before Bella could make an appropriately sharp reply he was gone, the door closing behind him, leaving only an echo of his chuckle. She stared at the closed door for a moment, wondering if it was worth it to throw it open and yell at his back but knowing she'd look ridiculous. Sighing loudly, she stomped over to pull on her boots and glanced at the clock for the twelfth time in half as many minutes.

She had a little over two hours to figure out a way to send Edward home without braining him with a shovel or stabbing him with a hoof pick.

When Edward showed up, on time and with a smile, Bella took a deep breath and mentally prepared herself for a very long day.

"Hey. So, you're going to the south barn? To work on the pump?"

Why are they questions? I hate it when people speak in questions. Just tell him what to do and get on with it-it's what he's here for. Right?

Before she could rephrase her words into commands, Edward was nodding, taking his coffee cup and heading back out onto her porch. Bella took one last moment for an internal pep talk and followed him outside.

For a few minutes they talked about what they thought was wrong with the pump, what Bella had done so far to fix it, what tools Edward had brought with him for the job. But Bella's mind wasn't really there. She was trying to look, without actually looking, at Edward's eyes. He seemed different today, subdued somehow. Less dangerous.

When has Edward ever been dangerous?

Deciding she was being crazy, and that it was way too early for any sort of deep thoughts, Bella pushed everything aside and made a quick decision. While Edward was working on her ranch, he was working for her. That made him no different than the rest of her ranch hands. That was good, easier than dragging all of her baggage involving Edward into what was just simple work; nothing more and nothing less.

"Bella? Where'd you go?"

Edward's voice pulled her out of her thoughts and she turned to see him staring at her. Refusing to feel embarrassed for getting lost in her own head, Bella smiled and apologized.

"Just thinking about my list of chores for today. And now that I've run through it, it's time to make it happen. If you need anything, just holler, I should be close enough to hear you. And if I'm not, Harry or one of the guys will come around, I'm sure. Do you need anything before I go?"

He was looking at her again, with some expression she couldn't even begin to puzzle out. Whatever was on his mind must have been pretty heavy, but she had enough heavy to deal with so she pushed it away again.

"No, I'm sure I'll be fine Bella. What are you doing today, anyways?"

A sudden bout of nerves made the words pour out quickly. "Well, I was going to ride out and check the lines again, but suddenly, I don't think I will. It looks like it's going to be another beautiful day, so I'm going to enjoy it while I can. I'm going to take Little Debbie out and put her through her paces. We've got a buyer coming for her next week and I want to make sure she's as perfect as she can be."

Thinking about selling Little Debbie, the horse her mother named after her insane pregnancy cravings for the sugary treats, stabbed into her like a hot poker. But it had to be done, and that was all there was to it.

Edward smiled and finished his coffee off, saying, "Little Debbie. Registered name, Sweetest Treat of All. She's the little bulldog bay, right? Thirteen hands, great pacing, white blaze on her forhead? Don't give me that look, Bella, I know your horses almost as well as our own. Besides, I've always had a soft spot for Deb. She's sweet as can be, but she's got that feisty, playful side. And she runs like the wind when you let her have her head."

Bella decided to stop expecting anything when it came to Edward Cullen. The man obviously had deep reserves of knowledge she knew absolutely nothing about. Better just to go with it.

"Yeah, that's her. She's a powerhouse, and I hate to get rid of her, but..." Bella trailed off, trying to find the professional place in her mind that made her able to deal with losing little pieces of herself with each sale.

Edward must have noticed, because he just nodded, and said, "Well, I'm off to fight with the pump. Should I worry about lunch on my own?"

Thankful for the shift back into work mode, Bella decided on something different today.

"Nah, I think they guys deserve a real lunch for once. Meet me back here at one, and let the guys know, if you see any of them."

Edward nodded and tipped his fingers from his ball cap to her in a funny little salute, then walked towards the south barn. Bella told herself she was just finishing up her coffee before she went to the stables, and definitely not waiting to watch him walk away.

Nothing to do with way the man wears a pair of jeans, or has that loose, relaxed walk, or how his-

Enough! Friends don't ogle. Time to work now.

With one last glance at Edward's retreating form, Bella went to the place she'd considered heaven for as long as she could remember.

Five hours later, sweating in the afternoon sun, Bella was laughing as she raced around the paddock on Little Debbie's back. She'd put her through her paces with Harry watching, and both declared she'd never been in better condition. Harry had offered to take her for her cool down and grooming, but Bella looked at her watch and saw she'd nearly half an hour before she was due to make lunch and decided to make the best of it. Removing Little Debbie's saddle, Bella took deep breaths of the air surrounding her.

Summer sun, churned up dirt, and horse. Smells that make you feel alive.

She told Harry to take the discarded tack for her and jumped back up on Debbie's wide back for a quick run. Bella hadn't ridden a horse for pleasure a long time. Too long, she thought, as she flew around the ring on Debbie's bare back. They made their own wind as they rushed along, and Bella laughed out loud from the freedom of it. On horseback there was no worry, no overdue bills, no terrifying grief to be held down with an iron fist. She could outrace anything, and see only the horizon in front of her, calling, beckoning her to chase just one more hill, seek out just the next valley.

Passing Harry, Bella slowed to a canter to yell out, "Harry! I'm sorry about lunch! Tell the boys to help themselves to whatever's in my fridge. I've got to-"

She didn't finish what she was saying. Little Debbie sensed her rider's momentary inattention and took advantage. With a leap she took off, running full speed again, and Bella was laughing to hard to speak. Harry knew though. He'd understand her need to run, to leave everything behind but the thundering of hooves and one thousand pounds of pure muscle working in perfect synchronization to carry her away.

When she finally made it back to the stables, she and Little Debbie were both breathing hard. Harry met her in the stable and took Debbie's reigns, telling Bella, "Go on down to the south barn, that boy is 'bout done with the pump."

Unable to keep from grinning hugely, Bella kissed Harry's cheek before bounding out of the stable and into the sunlight on quick feet. She ran all the way to the south barn and felt like singing, flying, laughing, all at once. When she reached the south barn, she raced in, slowing only when she saw Edward bent over the pump, lifting and releasing the handle.

He looked up when he heard her, and for a moment his face was nothing familiar- intense and sharp and burning somehow. It was enough to slow Bella to a walk. Then he smiled, wiping his hands across his thighs, and he was just Edward again. As much as he could ever be just Edward.

"I'm sorry about lunch, Edward, I just had to-"

"Yeah, I know. Sometimes you just have to run. Anyways, I can't imagine you being a better cook than Harry. Damn that man can make a steak!"

Bella, who'd been smiling at Edward's understanding of her need to go, and at the compliment to Harry's cooking, quit smiling and started frowning.

"Steaks? He made you steak? And I missed it? Dammit!" Harry's steaks were legendary, and absolutely worth pouting over shamelessly.

"Best steak I ever had, and don't you dare tell my mother I said that."

Sensing a plan of attack, Bella smiled sweetly and said, "Oh, just so long as you were kind enough to save some for me, I won't tell. If you didn't, well..." She let her threat trail off, anticipating expressions of worry and fear to cross Edward's face.

Instead, he looked smug. "Well, I may have put a little something aside, for myself of course, for later. But I may be convinced into sharing with you. For a small price."

Immediately flashbacks of Edward kissing her in a field of tiny purple flowers went through her mind and she took a step backwards before she was aware of doing so.

"I don't think that's, uh... I mean, I can get my own, thanks."

Edward laughed, taking a step closer to her to bring their distance back together.

"Don't worry, Bella. Friends, remember? Now, do you want to hear my small price or not? Did I tell you he did the skirt steaks with peppercorns and-"

"Alright, alright! Damn you, Edward Cullen, you really are the devil. What is this small price?"

And how did you know I was worried about it being something... too friendly?

"Go riding with me. Not today," he continued, seeing the refusal already forming on Bella's face, "But the next day you can spare some time. I saw you today on Little Debbie. I don't know how long it's been since you went riding just for yourself, but it's been way too long for me. So, trade a steak for a ride, what do you say?"

Bella thought back to her earlier ride, the freedom and unencumbered joy she felt. The way it was her time, her time alone, without any of the trappings of life holding her down. Did she want to share that with someone, and especially a someone who was Edward? God knows there were enough trappings in her mind to hold her back where he was concerned.

I can't lose that. I have to hold onto that one thing.

But it's just a ride, just a few hours. Stop making such a big deal about it.

Like he was reading her thoughts on her face again, Edward said, "If you want to say no, Bella, it's okay. Really. And I'll still tell you where the plate of food is hiding in the back of your fridge. I made sure none of the guys got to it."

He made me a plate of food. He saved it for me. He thought about me when I wasn't there.

That alone was enough to make her feel selfish for not wanting to share her riding time. It also made her feel something else, something a little warm and sweet.

Don't even go there. Don't even.

"Well, I think it's the least I can do for a piece of Harry's famous pepper steak. I'll let you know when I'm free, okay?"

There was that smile again, the open, easy one that made him look so happy. Not just happy on the surface, but happy deep down. Bella wondered fleetingly when that look had become the exception instead of the rule.

He's been through his own battles, same as me. Somewhere, something changed him.

Curiosity warred with her own innate need for privacy, and her dislike at invading someone else's.

Forget about it, Bella. Just because you're supposed to be friends now doesn't mean telling all your secrets. Besides, everyone is entitled to their own.

"So, who won today? You or this infernal water pump?"

Edward pulled her over to show her what he'd taken out and added in, and when it ran perfectly Bella gave a relieved laugh and impulsively hugged him before quickly letting go. He didn't do more but squeeze her back lightly when she squeezed him, and Bella thought that it might actually work.

Edward Cullen is my friend.

The smile that spread across her face felt nice, so she left it there for the rest of the day.


A/N: Vocab assistance needed?

Tack = all the things a horse wears, like saddles, bridles, etc.

Bulldog = referring to a smaller, stocky Quarterhorse. Very powerful hind end.

Entire poem Carlisle read from: http:/www(dot)poemhunter(dot)com/poem/a-gleam-of-sunshine/

The Children's Hour (Alice & Bella's poem. One of my faves) http:/www(dot)poemhunter(dot)com/poem/a-gleam-of-sunshine/

So much love to my amazing betas, Le Rameau, izzyyysprinkles, and Bookjunkie1975. The share my love of Swiss Cake Rolls and unintentional perving where bareback riding is concerned ;)

They worked so much magic with this chapter, and anything that's not awesome is all me.

CONTESTS! Here's some stuff I'll be getting into. You should too.

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