The names Edward and Isabella, when used in the Twilight Universe, belong to Stephenie Meyer. This plot, however, belongs to me.
This one-shot was written for the 2010 Twilight Winter Gift Exchange, as a gift for Ruby_Wednesday. I hope she enjoyed it, and I pray you will too.
A Winter in Chicago
It was close to three in the morning, and the flies were already out in force, biting at my arms, at the back of my neck, the tickle of their feet a constant annoyance. I slapped at them and pulled out Father's old timepiece, checking the time again. I'd be out of the barn within the hour, and even though the temperature was hovering around 20 degrees Fahrenheit it would be better than dealing with the flies.
This place was a pigsty; my father would never allow our barn to look like this. Steaming piles of manure kept the flies breeding, even in these frigid temperatures. If the milk had not been kept elsewhere, I'd have reported them to the authorities, even if it meant losing my employment. I would never risk the health of my clients.
I sighed, shook my head, and strolled over to the stalls. Bosco was standing against the back wall, his tail swishing at the flies, his head bowed, his eyes closed. I loved this old guy. An 18 year old chestnut Clydesdale gelding, he gave his heart to being faithful to his job and pulling that wagon each morning. In a few years time, perhaps he'll be retired to some meadow. I wondered if he'll like it. Not all horses did. The job gave them purpose, and retirement left them bored, the arthritis in their knees flaring without movement to keep them mobile. But, I was not his owner, I was his friend — and based on the care he'd been receiving before I got here, maybe his best friend in a long while.
Smiling, I gave a soft whistle and he opened his eyes and lifted his head. Blinking his eyes, giving himself a full-body shake, he slowly walked over to me, his head high in the air. As he got closer, I blew a breath of soft air at his nose, and I watched as his nostrils dilated, taking in my scent. Satisfied it was me, he lowered his head, allowing me to scratch him along his forehead, and down his powerful neck. I chuckled when his skin vibrated with pleasure.
Snapping open the latch on the stall door, I walked in and reached behind me for the halter and lead hanging on the wall just outside the door. "Time to get up, old guy," I said, as Bosco dropped his head so I could slip on the halter. I'd only been working here for a month, but the old gelding and I had quickly established this morning routine. Grooming, setting him up in his harness and hooking up the wagon. Once we were loaded he'd head for the road, needing no direction from me. Bosco knew the route better than I.
Our family farm was only a couple of miles away from the dairy, and my days started with a brisk walk to this barn. Times were difficult, and after some initial arguing, Father granted me leave to earn extra funds for the upcoming Christmas season – even though Mother had some concerns after word spread of illness in the city. I was now seventeen, no longer a child, and would not run from rumors. If this employment proved satisfactory for both me and my employer, I hoped to make permanent giving up my early mornings, and continue to save towards my future. It was time I started thinking about settling down, getting ready to take on more responsibility on the farm, and think about marriage. Producing some heirs, aside from myself, would add to the security of our farm, making sure it remained in our name for the foreseeable future. As my parents reached their later years, I hoped to ease their burden as much as possible, and the financial hardship of day labor would be eliminated when my own children were old enough to help.
Sighing to myself, I thought of all the young women from the neighboring households who were of marriageable age. The romantic in me wanted to find a woman I'd love as much as my father loved my mother. The pragmatist in me argued that I had no right to wait for something that might never happen, and would only add years of extra burden to the household. Regardless, none of these young women held my interest, and I hoped this job would offer an honorable delay, bringing in extra money while giving me a bit of breathing room to consider my options. And a gift or two at Christmas for Mother and Father would be a nice change in and of itself.
Bosco and I finished our route in our usual two hours, and I eased up on the gelding as we took a slower pace out of the wealthy residential areas of Chicago. It was cold, but I was well bundled, and although Bosco's sweat was steaming off his back he didn't appear uncomfortable. We ambled through the dark — this time of year it would remain dark for a couple more hours. Pulling the empty wagon, Bosco snorted in pleasure as his hard-used muscles cooled down. Enjoying the quiet, I leaned back and looked up at the stars, wishing I was looking at them with someone else, with the woman who had haunted my dreams for the past year. Shaking my head and sighing, I looked back at the road, focused on the traces in my hands and brought us back to the barn.
"Edward!" I turned toward the voice of Jules Banner as I hopped off the wagon. A large toad of a man, I glared at his fine, yet dirty clothes, reminded of the poor conditions the horses were stabled in, but reined in my temper. I needed this job. If nothing else, I'd make sure poor Bosco's stall was clean before I bedded him down for the day.
"I need you back out." he puffed at me as he came running over, "One of your customers hasn't paid for your deliveries for the past four weeks." I arched my eyebrow, this was quite unusual. My deliveries were to the wealthiest homes in the city. "I need you to turn around and return to the Swan residence. Be polite," he emphasized, "but, make it clear this can't continue. Rich or not, I don't run a charity."
"How much is owed?" I asked. If I was now handling collections, I didn't want to look the fool.
He consulted an ink-stained paper pulled out of his back pocket, squinting as he ran his filthy finger down the names. "Fifteen cents a quart... and they're taking two a day. Eight and 40 cents." He shook he head. "Can't run a business owed that kind of money." He peered up at me as I climbed back up the wagon. "Make sure you get it all, and tell them, politely," he glared at me, "that, if this continues they'll need to find someone else." Mr. Banner wandered away, mumbling about the rich taking advantage of the poor. I rolled my eyes, noting he did rather well for himself. Clicking at Bosco and tugging the traces, I turned us back around. Bosco snorted his displeasure but obeyed. I'd be late coming home this morning, but there was no helping it. My employer might think he was financially disadvantaged, but no man who could call seven in the morning his quitting time — returning to his home for sips of hot coffee and then his bed — was truly in need. But my thoughts remained unvoiced. I needed this job.
I left Bosco at the end of the sweeping lawn that led up to the imposing brick mansion. Wrapping my scarf tighter against dawn's howling wind, I trotted up the side of the house, to the servants' entrance. The wind had lowered the temperature, and now I was uncomfortably cold. Hopping in place to try to keep warm, I knocked on the door, hoping I could take care of this transaction and get Bosco and me back to the barn. It would be a miserable walk home this morning.
Raising my hand to knock again, I was startled when the door flew open, revealing a child. Peering over her shoulder, I hoped an adult would be in the kitchen behind her but, finding it empty I looked down, regretting my message would have to be passed on. Mr. Banner wouldn't be happy when I returned without the money, but I certainly didn't expect this child to give it to me.
She lifted her chin and looked at me just as my eyes caught hers, and I froze. I was staring into the face of the woman who haunted my nights, into the largest, most soulful brown eyes I'd ever seen. Framed by thick lashes, they were set in a heart-shaped face, with a small nose and soft, plump lips. Her skin was the color of alabaster, with just a hint of rose at her cheeks — the color deepening the longer we stared at each other.
This was not a child. Rather, she was a petite woman, with eyes that shone with the depths of age. I swore I could see her soul gazing out at me, and it was beautiful, and pure — and oh so sad. I suddenly felt the need to know why, coupled with an overwhelming need to see what a smile looked like upon her face.
I took a deep breath, and tried to pull my eyes away from her. Clearing my throat, I looked down at my feet.
"Excuse me, Miss, I've been sent by the dairyman. It appears there's been an oversight, and the milk has not been paid for, for the last four weeks." I chanced a peek up at her, only to see her eyes narrow and her brow crease. "I apologize for having to ask, but can you ask your mistress if she might see her way to pay the bill?"
"How much is he owed?"
"Eight dollars and 40 cents, Miss."
"Oh," she frowned. "Please step inside and out of the cold." She gestured me into the kitchen, and I gladly moved in, out of the howling wind. "Wait here, I'll be back in a moment."
I watched her walk away, her plain blue frock swirling around her ankles, her long, mahogany hair tied at the back of her neck with a simple piece of ribbon. I had to stop myself from taking a step forward to feel the texture of her hair. Looking down at my dirty hands, I scolded myself for even having such a thought. I was a farmer, and such thoughts were not only improper, but as a servant in this grand home, she was most assuredly above my station.
So I attempted to distract myself by looking at the kitchen. Oh, Mother would love a kitchen this fine. There were copper and iron pots hanging, a large enameled stove, a substantial pantry off to the side. While I waited I walked around, examining the details, keeping my hands behind my back. But, something seemed off. There were empty hooks where I'd imagine more copper pots should be, and as I wandered by the pantry, I was surprised to see how little was in there. In fact, I believe Mother had more food stored than this. I frowned, not understanding the paradox of the wealthy without food.
Her light footsteps alerted me as I spun around, and headed back to the door, casting my eyes back down as I should. She handed me a small cloth bag filled with pennies. I arched my brow and looked up, and she grimaced and shrugged.
But money was money. "Thank you, Miss," I nodded and turned, grabbing the door handle.
"Stop please, Sir." I turned, startled she addressed me again.
She had her head bowed, and she was twisting her fingers. "I don't believe we need as much milk as you've been delivering. Can we reduce it to one quart a day, please?"
"I'll be sure to tell my employer," I said softly, hoping she'd look up for just a moment so I could meet her eyes. But she didn't.
"Thank you," she bobbed a quick curtsy and ran out of the kitchen. Smiling to myself, I let myself out and back to Bosco, dozing while he waited for me.
"Our job is done, old boy." I said softly as I climbed up. "Let's get you home and to bed."
Two weeks later, Mr. Banner came to me again, with the same request.
"It's only been two weeks this time, but it's getting on close to Christmas, and I need what I can get." He shook his head. "I don't understand it. They've always been my most reliably paying customer."
It was cold today, but the sun was bright, helping to warm me under my coat, delighting Bosco as he kept raising his nose to sniff the warmed scents in the air. Again, I went to the side door and knocked. And again, the petite woman answered, wearing the same dress as before. This time, she had a shawl around her shoulders and before I diverted my eyes, I saw her lips were almost the same blue as her dress. My eyes grew wide when I saw the evidence of how cold she was, and started to say something when she interrupted.
"Ah, yes... I'm sorry, I forgot."
I felt heat rise to my cheeks, her melodic voice causing stirrings I'd never felt before. Forgetting for the moment about anything but this lovely woman standing in front of me, I cleared my throat. "I apologize for needing to ask, but I've been assigned this task."
She looked up at me, her eyes wide and glassy, as if tears were hidden in their depths. "How much, Sir?"
"Two dollars and ten cents only." She nodded, and once again walked out of the room.
I stepped in without being asked, and shivered in the frigid, still air of the kitchen. Why was it so cold in here? Looking around the kitchen, I noticed even more empty hooks than previously, and a peek through the pantry door showed it was almost bare. Listening carefully for her return, I walked over and looked inside. A small sack of flour, an even smaller sack of sugar — there was nothing else there.
I scurried back to the door when I heard her feet shuffling across the floor, a surprisingly loud echo accompanied them, as if the house was empty — but I had no time to consider it. I didn't want to get caught examining the pantry.
She held out another small cloth drawstring bag, and as I reached for it I accidentally grazed my fingers against hers.
A shock sparked between us — not the sort of shock one gets when touching another on a cold, dry day, but the kind that ran up my fingers, into my arm, down my shoulder and into my gut. I jumped back, as did she, a startled look on her face.
But even more, her hands were ice cold, and trembling. Above my station or not, this would not do.
"Excuse me, Miss, but doesn't your employer heat the house properly?" I asked gently. It was more forward than I should have been, but there was no excuse for this.
"The coalman is late with his delivery. I'm using it very sparingly right now."
I frowned, the tone in her voice made me wonder if she was telling the truth.
"Excuse me again, but you're shivering. Would you consider walking outside into the sunshine for a few moments to warm up? I believe it's warmer outside than inside." She gave me an odd look, and a small smile. Nodding her head, she walked around me to the door, barely giving me time to open it for her before she took a step outside.
The sun lit her hair, setting red highlights on fire as the wind caught the strands. I drew in a breath, she was beautiful. Could I? Would it be improper? I decided to risk it.
Walking down the stairs together, I turned to her. "I suppose I should introduce myself formally. My name is Edward Masen."
She turned her eyes to me as she continued out into the sunshine, wrapping the shawl tighter around herself but breathing a sigh of relief as she lifted her face to the sun.
"My name is Isabella. It's a pleasure to meet you." She lowered her eyes and turned towards the street, breaking into a smile that made the bright, morning sun look pale.
"Is he yours?"
I shook my head. "No, he belongs to the dairy, but he's a wonderful old boy." Dare I? "Care to meet him?"
She smiled even wider and, without waiting for me, danced down the walk to meet the old gelding. Bosco had been napping, head down, but at the sound of our steps he lifted his head and turned an calm eye towards the woman running up to him.
Stopping in front of him, her large brown eyes stared into his, and then up at his enormous head. She held her hand in front of his nose, and after he snuffled at her palm, he lowered his head, allowing her to just reach his forehead and, by pulling up on her toes, his ears. Isabella started murmuring to him, and I watched him close his eyes in pleasure. I took a step closer, wanting to hear what she was saying to him.
"I used to have a mare, you know," she whispered, stroking his ears tenderly. "I loved her, and she loved me," she muttered quietly, the depth of sorrow in her voice sending a chill through me.
"What happened to her?" I whispered. She turned her sad eyes on me and gave me a small smile.
"We could no longer afford to keep her. She was sold," she said, looking out towards the street, "but I don't know to whom, and I don't want to know." She looked back up at me. "I'd be too tempted to visit her, and that would break my heart."
I nodded, understanding and feeling her pain. I hardly knew this young woman, but something in her struck a chord. There was more wrong here than met the eye, and perhaps one day she'll trust me enough to confide in me. I thought again about how much she looked like the woman I'd dreamt about, but shook my head, dismissing it. My life was cold realities, not fantasies.
The sun rose above the roof of her house, shining directly into my eyes. It was late, and I had to return Bosco and the money, and I had to get back to help Father. I cleared my throat, and it startled Isabella.
"My apologies," she said, stepping back. I've detained you for too long, but I have enjoyed this time. It's been so long." Looking closely at the horse's enormous shoulder, she frowned. "He could use a good curry, especially with his thick winter coat."
I laughed. "You're right, Miss, and I'll attend to it as soon as we return." I looked at her again, at the small smile on her beautiful face, and decided to set propriety aside. "Perhaps some day, you'd like to visit me at the barn and help with him?" Her face lit up, and I took a step back in awe. She was absolutely radiant as she smiled at me, as if I'd offered her a king's ransom.
"I'd love to do that! Would it be permitted? When may I?"
"Well, my employer leaves at seven in the morning, to return to his home. If you like, you can come to the barn then — it's not too far a walk. I'd drive you there myself, but..." I realized I'd better backtrack, I could not ask this young woman to walk to the barn to meet me. "But perhaps it's too far a walk, I apologize for ..."
"Oh no, not at all, and the walk will do me good. When may I come?"
"Would tomorrow morning be too soon?"
She clapped her hands, startling Bosco. "I'd love that, and thank you Mr. Masen!"
I smiled at her, at her joy over such a small thing. "Please, Miss, please call me Edward."
She gave me a small, shy smile before turning back to the mansion. "Only if you call me Bella."
My days had turned from drudgery to joy as each morning saw Bella visiting the barn, always a kind word and a warm hand for all of the horses, but her attention was focused on Bosco, and me. We worked together, grooming him, currying his thick winter coat until he shone, all the while talking about my family's farm, the few animals we had, and her love of the countryside outside Chicago. We grew easy with each other, laughing over childhood adventures and silly injuries.
But I was also worried. Each day, when she removed her wool shawl, I'd notice her simple dresses getting looser. Her long neck was looking a bit thinner, her cheekbones more prominent. Her eyes seemed a little sunken, with light circles under them. I was worried about her, but I didn't feel it was my place to ask. I could only assume the master or mistress of her household was feeding the staff properly. The weekly payments for milk delivery were now made regularly, in a small cloth bag of pennies tied around the neck of the empty bottles left outside the door. But I also wondered about the additional reduction in how much milk her household wanted. It was now down to one pint a day.
Bella and I had been sharing our care for the old gelding for over two weeks, and we had moved into December. An early storm had brought high, frigid winds in from the north, and it was a difficult trek to the barn that morning. I arrived, feeling partially frozen, and looking forward to digging my hands into Bosco's coat, warming the stiffness out of them before we set out into the freezing morning. Walking up to his stall I whistled as always, but no head appeared in the stall door. Concerned, I opened the door and stepped into the straw of his stall, and stopped when I saw him lying on his side. Panicked that he was ill, I rushed up to him just as he lifted his massive head, and looked straight into my eye. He nickered softly, and that's when I saw her. Wrapped in her shawl was Bella, behind him, fast asleep, with her body snuggled against him for warmth, burrowed deeply, and sleeping in the straw.
I stepped quietly to her side and, kneeling next to her, reached down and gently placed my hand on her shoulder.
"Bella, it's time to wake up." She flinched, her eyes popped open and she jumped to her feet, straw stuck in her long hair, a few pieces adorning her woolen shawl. Bosco gave a grunt and carefully pulled himself to his feet, brushing his head against her shoulder in greeting, and knocked her into me — I suddenly had this woman in my arms as I steadied her. I was hesitant to let go.
"Bella, why are you here?"
She looked at me, frightened, her eyes darting as if she was trying to find a way to escape.
"I'm not upset with you, just tell me why you're sleeping in the barn? Did you displease your mistress?" I was losing control of my temper. Bella was not a slave. It was obvious she was becoming increasingly underweight, and now, finding she had to sleep next to a horse in order to stay warm... this was the final straw, this had to be resolved.
"That's it, I can abide no more. Come, it's time I had a talk with your mistress, and warn her there are authorities that can be brought into this situation. She's abusing you." I reluctantly let her out of my arms and grabbed her hand. "Perhaps we'll start off with a talk with Mr. Banner, he's fairly influential..." So caught up in my own thoughts of outrage, I hadn't realized she had stopped, our arms now stretched between us, our hands still clasped. She was looking down at the ground.
"I can't do that, Edward, I can't complain."
What? "Of course you can, Bella. I won't tolerate this treatment of you."
"Edward, there's no one to complain to. There is no mistress, there is no master." She looked up at me and grimaced. "I'm Isabella Swan. I'm the owner of the house... for now at least," she said, mumbling her last words.
She was the owner of the house, of the Swan residence? Her full name was Isabella Swan? I was stunned. They were one of the wealthiest families of Chicago.
She looked up at me, eyes wide and sparkling with tears. Still holding her hand, I led her to a bench in the aisle outside the stalls. I begged her to sit, and then lowered myself next to her.
"My father died two years ago," she whispered, looking down and twisting the small fingers of her free hand in her dress. "We were left with sufficient funds, but... well, my mother is not good with money, I suppose." She took a deep breath. "We started having some difficulties a few months ago, and one of the first things to go was Pocito, my mare. Then, I noticed certain items were missing from the house – artwork, statuary... Mother's jewels were next. She'd said nothing, but I saw her starting to wear old paste she used to let me play with when I was a child."
"I didn't know precisely what happened, or where the money had gone, but it was gone." She looked up at me for a moment, her humiliation palpable, before she looked down again. "Our friends stopped coming around, she discouraged their visits. Mother didn't want them to see things were now missing, too proud to allow them to see we were in dire trouble. And then she got sick. The illness was in her chest, like so many others I've heard about." She shivered. "It was very fast. She was dead within a week." She looked back up at me, tears slowly trailing down her face. "I'm an only child. It's just me now, and I've seen nothing but solicitors and creditors since then." She looked down again, and shook her head. "There's nothing left to take except for the house. It's currently tied up in court proceedings, but I imagine they'll have that as well before summer ends."
Still holding her hand, I squeezed it. "The first thing we're going to do is get you warm. You don't have to heat the entire house, perhaps just one room?" I started thinking furiously for ways to help her. "We can close off doors to the rest of the house, perhaps a room near the kitchen can be left accessible? We have plentiful firewood at home, and I know Mother will be able to share some of the food she's put up for the winter. It's only the three of us, and we've always had plenty to see us through."
Bella shook her head. "No, I can't live off the charity of others, and your mother doesn't even know me."
"Stop that, it's not charity when you're helping a friend." I smiled at her. "I assumed that's what we were. Was I wrong?" She smiled back and nodded shyly
"Then it's settled. Ride with me on my rounds and I'll take you home. As soon as I'm done, I'll go home and get what's needed for now." I decided I'd give Bosco a bit more exercise today, and lease the use of him and a wagon from Mr. Banner. I had some money saved, and he was certain to be happy to lighten my purse. I could bring back a good load of firewood and a sufficient amount of food to start restocking her pantry.
"Edward, I don't know what to say, except thank you." She looked up at me, eyes brimming with tears. "But, I will find a way to repay you."
"I wish for nothing except your friendship." But as I said those words, I knew they weren't true. I was determined, then and there, that if she was willing, that if she might feel the same way about me, I would, one day, make Bella my wife.
On Christmas Eve day I knocked at the kitchen door, and I was greeted by Bella with a huge smile and red cheeks. Grabbing my hand, she pulled me into the kitchen and over to a simple wooden table.
"Thank you for joining me for dinner, Edward," she said softly, holding her hands out for my outer clothes. I removed my hat, scarf and coat and she hung them close to the fire to dry. Working together, she and I had managed to isolate the dining room and kitchen, making it easy to warm using both the fireplace in the dining room and the kitchen stove. We had moved her featherbed into the corner of the dining room, as the two of us were not enough to handle the large oak frame. But it was a comfortable place for her, and it was warm and safe. My goal was to ensure her wellbeing while she decided what her future held, and while I got up the nerve to ask if her future might include me.
My days were now spent working, grooming with Bella, walking her safely home, and then rushing back to the farm to help. My parents were supportive, and asked me to consider asking Bella if she would move into their guest room if the worst happened, and her house was taken. I was hoping to create something a bit more permanent before that happened, if I could only find the courage.
But for now, we enjoyed our company, and a fine dinner of smoked ham and Mother's canned beans. We worked together, setting a simple table in the kitchen, and every time I looked into her bright and laughing eyes I fell into them just a little bit more. I could no longer deny it, or question it. I had fallen in love with this lovely woman. Deeply in love. I had found what I was looking for, and found it in the most unlikely place.
Over her protests, I helped her clean up after dinner, and then we moved into the dining room, to the old wingback chairs I'd moved from the living room for her. We sat in front of the fire together, watching the flames dance while we talked about inconsequential details of our day. My hand kept reaching to my pocket — there was a box in there, a Christmas gift for her. I ran my fingers along the outline of the box, feeling its edges, wondering when the right time would be. Finally, I just took a deep breath, reached in and grabbed it, then leaned towards her and held it up.
"For you, Bella. Merry Christmas."
Her eyes got wide and I saw the sparkle that meant there were tears hidden in them. I prayed she'd accept this from me as I watched her trembling hand reach out. She untied the scrap of ribbon, her tears now falling loose, but her smile still there, and it was her smiles that I craved.
Lifting the top off the box, her smile grew even wider when she reached in and removed the smooth glass heart I'd attached to a braided piece of hemp.
"I hope you like it," I said, feeling suddenly shy, afraid it wouldn't be grand enough. "One day I'll replace the hemp with a gold chain, but for now... will do me the honor of wearing it?"
She flew out of her chair and bent down, wrapping her arms around my neck. I could feel the softness of her warm body, smell the scent of her skin and her hair, feel the hum of vibration between us as I hesitantly raised my arms and gently wrapped them around her. I tilted my head and breathed into her neck, and my body caught on fire. Trembling, I moved my hands back to her shoulders and pulled her back slowly. We were not chaperoned — as the thoughts racing through my head, and the immediate reaction of my body, reminded me. Bella was a lady; I would need to treat her as such.
I could see on her face she remembered the same, and turning a delicious shade of scarlet she straightened up and took a step back.
"I love it, Edward, so much," she whispered. Holding it out, she gazed directly into my eyes. "Would you help me put it on, please?" Nodding, I rose and took the necklace from her outstretched hand, and walked behind her. She swept her hair off her neck, and once again I was assaulted by her scent as I looked down at the creamy perfection of her pale skin. I tied it around her neck quickly, hoping I would be seated before she saw the evidence of my shameful arousal.
Isabella returned to her seat, looking down and fingering the heart, running her fingers over its smooth surface. "I have something for you as well, Edward." She reached into her pocket and removed a folded piece of cloth, holding it out to me.
I held out my hand and she placed it into my palm. I could feel the weight of something in the center, and unfolding the cloth I found a small silver locket hidden in the middle. "Bella, this is too much!" I whispered, examining the beautiful scrollwork crafted by some artisan. The locket was old, with hints of tarnish in the crevices, but it was beautiful.
"No, Edward, nothing is too much for you. It was my mother's, and I'd like you to have it." She leaned over and captured my eyes. "Open it."
I carefully slid my thumbnail into the edge and gently pried it open. Inside was a tiny photograph of Bella, her hair piled on top of her head and a glorious smile on her face.
"It's for you, Edward. It's the least I could do to thank you." I nodded... I would not embarrass her by refusing her gift. I slipped the chain over my head and slid the locket down under my shirt, against my chest. Then I stood in front of her as she remained seated in her chair, and took her hand. With the other I patted the locket against my chest, against my heart, while I gazed into her lovely eyes. She smiled, knowing what I was saying, without the words to say it. We both knew it was too soon, propriety would not allow more, but in that moment our eyes spoke to each other. We just needed to wait.
Winter turned into a muddy spring, and we finally had weather warm enough that I leased a buggy and a flighty Thoroughbred, and took Bella to the farm, to meet my parents. As nervous as I had been, Father and Mother got on with her as if she was their own daughter, and more than once I saw that shimmer in her eyes that let me know how overwhelmingly happy she was. Later that night, after taking her home, I sat at the kitchen table with my parents, and let them know it was my intention to ask for her hand. I received hugs and handshakes and backslaps all around. They both were already in love with Bella.
"Edward," my mother said softly. "I know it might not seem proper, but do you think there's a chance you can convince Isabella to move out to the farm and into our guest room, at least for a while?" She was busy cleaning the dishes, and didn't look at me directly while she talked. "I keep hearing more and more about illness in the city. I'd think it would be safer for her to move here, and I'd also like it if you stayed away as well," she turned to me as she said that, a worried look on her face.
"End of summer, Mother, is my plan. I should have enough saved to build an extension on the house for us, and enough to ask for her hand. And I know Bella wants to stay in her house until the last moment. It's all she has left." I looked out the window at the tiny leaves budding on the trees, and all the signs of returning life. "She'll be fine, I'll make sure she has enough to eat, and I'll be fine, too." I leaned over and kissed her cheek, and retired to my room to change my clothes and help Father with the late day milking.
It was the end of summer, and I was in Bella's parlor, on one of the few pieces of furniture left. We'd reopened the downstairs rooms when the weather turned warm, throwing open the windows to allow the cool breezes to flow through the house. Bella was preparing a cup of tea for us, and I was sitting there, perspiration pouring down my neck from both the heat and nerves over what I was about to do. Once again, just like Christmas, I was fingering a box hidden in my pocket, although this time the box was far smaller.
The curtains lifted in the breeze, and with the wind came the sounds from the inner city — the wailing, the mourning for the dead, the cries of the sick. This morning I had given Mr. Banner my notice, and if all went as I'd hoped, by tomorrow I'd be moving Bella out of the city with me. There was nothing left for her to lose — the house was ordered to be taken next week. I'd rather she is gone, and not have to face the sheriff and her final humiliation as her last few items were put out into the street.
I lifted my head as I heard her soft footfalls come into the room, steaming tea in the last two fine china cups she owned. She smiled when she placed them on the table between us, and sat down, small drops of perspiration on her forehead, over her lip, and leaned her head back to catch the soft breeze blowing through the room. I gazed at her face, at her closed eyes with their long lashes, her long and silky hair, her porcelain skin. But more than anything else, I gazed at her bravery, her intelligence, her acceptance of her situation with no bitterness. I admired her for her beauty and her courage.
I loved her beyond reason.
With an audible gulp I stood up and walked over to her, standing in front of her until her eyes opened, smiling brightly, an eyebrow arched in question. I slipped my hand into my pocket, removed the small black satin box and dropped to one knee.
My head was bowed when I heard her gasp, and I couldn't help the small smile from curling the corners of my mouth. I raised my head, braving a look at her, and her eyes were glistening, tears trickling down her cheeks. I took her hand in mine, and took a deep breath.
"Isabella, Bella... you know this is what I've wanted since almost the first day I met you. You're brave, beautiful, witty, compassionate, and I love you with all of my heart. I may not be wealthy, and I may never be, but all I have now and forever is yours, if you'll consent to do me the honor of being my wife."
I lowered my head again, and as the seconds went by with not a sound from her I started to panic, and tentatively raised my head. She was sitting there, broad smile on her face, her eyes wide and her cheeks wet. And she was nodding her head enthusiastically.
She said yes!
I rose to my knees and leaned forward and grabbed her around her waist, pulling her to me, my face in her neck, the scents that were only Bella surrounding me, pulling me in, heightened by the heat. Her neck was wet from perspiration and my tears, and I started to tremble as I drew her even closer, my lips grazing along her satin skin, my first taste of her essence and, oh god, it was better than I ever could have imagined.
I pulled back, and looked into her eyes. So beautiful, so tender.
"I love you, Bella," I murmured.
"I love you too, Edward," she said gently, and looked down at my lips. I closed my eyes, feeling her words like the sweetest incense seep into my heart. Opening my eyes again, I looked at her pink lips, and raised my hand to cup her smooth cheek. I leaned forward, slowly, my eyes darting between her eyes and her lips, making sure I had permission. She gave me a soft smile, and so I closed the gap and brushed my lips against hers.
The feel of silk, so right, the humming vibrating from her lips to mine, I touched them again, this time a little more firmly, and I felt her small hands reach around my neck, her fingers weaving into my hair. Wrapping my arms around her narrow waist, I kissed her again, taking her top lip in mine, lost in the softness, the sweet taste of her and suddenly I was on fire and drew her against me. Oh god, she was incredible, she was what the masters write about. Suddenly realizing I had gone too far, I started to pull back when I was met with resistance, more strength than I could have imagined as Bella pulled me back to her, her breath coming in gasps, her lips parting as her tongue came out to taste my bottom lip. And I lost all reason.
I gasped and crushed her against me, my tongue meeting hers, her taste beyond anything I could have imagined, beyond all of my dreams as I lost myself in her. My love, my life, the other part of my soul. My hand grasping her hair, her fingers in mine own, we tilted our heads and she slid her tongue into my mouth, her chest pushing against mine, her breasts with their hard nipples flattening against me as she leaned forward and we both fell onto the floor, onto the old rug beneath us, hands moving feverishly up backs and arms, the only sound in the room our gasps and moans of pleasure and the low whine of the blowing breeze.
"Bella," I gasped. "I love you," I whispered into her mouth. I felt her purr as her hands came down, roaming the expanse of my chest, across my shoulders, warmth and vibration following her fingers. If we didn't stop soon, I would take her here, on the floor, and that would not be what she deserved.
"We need to stop, love." She shook her head and reached around and grabbed my hair tighter, her lips leaving my mouth as they trailed their way down my neck, pillowed lips against me, nipping, tasting, as I tried to hold on to my presence of mind.
"No, Edward, please don't stop." She ran her tongue along the hollow of my throat. "I've loved you for so long, needed you for so long... propriety doesn't apply now." She lifted her eyes to mine and stroked my cheek. "We're engaged, my love, and all I've lived with for years now, has been sorrow and loss, until you entered my life." She gave me a soft kiss and then looked into my eyes with hooded lids. Moving her arms from my neck, she sat up, her hands dropping to the front of her dress and, one by one, she started opening the buttons on her bodice.
"I want you," she whispered, blushing furiously but her chin up. Then, her eyes got wide and her hands stilled. "Unless, of course," she stuttered, "you don't want..."
Sitting up, I shook my head and placed my hands over hers, shaking when I realized I was touching her bodice. "Bella, you have no idea how much I desire you. There are no words for it," I gently pushed her hands away, and one by one, my trembling fingers slipped open the tiny buttons, revealing the white cotton chemise underneath, the ivory contours of her delicate collarbones, her chest rising and falling as rapidly as my own. She reached up, and slipped her dress off her shoulders, her eyes never leaving mine. Her pale, bare arms came into view, and I had to suppress a gasp.
And when I thought I could take no more, she reached down again and started unbuttoning the front of her chemise. I held my breath as I watched the sliver of skin appear. When all the buttons were undone, she reached over and took my face in her hands, and kissed me softly.
"I'm yours, Edward," she murmured against my lips, rising up on her knees and pressing her body against mine. I could feel her heat, drink in her scent as I lost control and drew her to me, my hand grabbing a fistful of her hair and guiding her to my mouth, my arm around her waist pulling her tighter against me. My arousal pressed against her stomach pushing harder as she pushed back, groaning into her mouth as I got so hard it hurt.
Suddenly, she pulled away, and stood. I looked up, wondering what was wrong when I caught her eyes looking down on me, and her mischievous smile. And as she stood, her dress dropped to the floor. Bella stood there in a chemise, her pale shapely legs and ankles on display for me. I stayed on my knees, where I knew I belonged, worshipping her, when she did the unexpected. Eyes remaining on me, her blush extending down her neck and disappearing under the white cotton, she reached up and pulled her chemise over her head, and let it drop to the ground, on top of her dress.
My mouth fell open. I was kneeling at the feet of Aphrodite. I moved towards her, crawling on my knees, slowly, unable to look away, my hands trembling as they reached for her of their own volition. I started to pull them back when Bella grabbed them, holding my hard calloused hands in her tiny ones, and brought them to her small, round, perfect breasts.
"I'm yours, my love. Love me."
I couldn't help the groan as I explored the perfection of her body, and her moans, as I ran my fingers over her flawless skin, fueled the fires. Still on my knees before her, I laid my head on her chest, kissing her between her breasts, taking in her flavor, feeling her heart racing under my lips. My hands continued to explore the firm softness of her breasts, and then I could no longer resist. Sliding my hand around her waist I moved my head and touched my tongue to her hard, pink, perfect nipple. Bella moaned and threw her head back, my arms supporting her as she sagged. Dear god, her taste was perfect, unable to control my groans of rapture as I wrapped my lips around her breast and suckled her gently. My lover, my fiancée, the woman who was to be my wife... she was mine, and I was hers.
I slowly stood and slid an arm under her waist. Sliding the other behind her legs, I picked her up and walked her to the bed, my lips brushing hers as I moved. I laid her down gently, her hair fanning around her head as I gazed down on the sheer perfection of this woman. And as I watched the blush creep up her face, I knew it was only fair if I bared myself to her the way she had to me.
I haven't removed my clothes in front of another since I was a young boy, and that was in front of my father. But my hands moved on their own, sliding my vest off, then unbuttoning my shirt. Bella kept her eyes on mine, trying to make it easier for me. I removed my shirt and stood in front of her, bare-chested, watching her smile as she finally allowed her eyes to roam, and then looked back up at me, with a quick slip of her tongue across her lips. I moaned, my arousal throbbing, and knowing that was the next thing to be revealed.
Taking a deep breath, I kicked off my shoes, and reached for the buttons of my trousers. I'd only had the top button undone when Bella sat up and reached for my hands, and while looking up into my eyes, unbuttoned the remainder. Then she slid her small hands around my waist and pushed my trousers and underdrawers down together, my body and my arousal fully revealed to her.
A brow arched, asking for permission. I gave her a small nod and she reached over, running her palm over my length. White hot fire exploded in me, and I fell to my knees in front of her, unable to breath, blindly reaching, pulling her naked body against mine. Her succulent breasts were pressed against my naked chest, her soft stomach against my arousal. I ran my tongue over her neck, to her shoulders while she did the same to me, her hands everywhere, smoothing over my back, my chest, to my waist, her breathing as ragged as mine, her groans as loud as mine as we licked, and kissed, and suckled on skin, both of us desperate, both of us needing the other, neither of us quite knowing how to take the next step.
I leaned forward, pushing her down to the bed with my arms around her, rolling to my side and taking her with me. I knew she needed to be ready, and I knew this was likely to hurt her, but I wasn't certain what to do.
Bella took my hand, and holding it against stomach, slid it down her body, towards the apex of her thighs, then let go. I allowed my eager fingers to continue, sliding over her soft curls to where she was...oh my god, she was wet, and she was burning hot. I looked into her eyes and she nodded. I took a deep breath, kissed her softly and rolled on top of her as she spread her legs open, her hips cradling mine, supporting most of my weight on my hands and knees. I kissed her again, my tongue slowly exploring the inside of her mouth, frightened, hoping I wouldn't disappoint her. Then I froze when her warm hand grabbed me, and wiggling under me, she guided me to her entrance.
And there it was again, white hot fire, the humming between us pulsing as I pushed slowly into her, into her wet, tight heat. I leaned back and watched her face, but she just nodded as I pushed in further, every muscle trembling as I tried to move slowly, overwhelmed by the feel of her, and so afraid it would be over before it started, I closed my eyes as I felt the tension building in the middle of my belly.
I kept sliding in, and although I felt no firm barrier, I heard her give a little squeak and looked down. Her eyes were scrunched up, and then she relaxed. One leg lifted up and wrapped around my thigh, and she pushed towards me. That was all I needed. I slid all the way in, her hips lifting up and sliding against mine. My eyes closed I searched for her lips and found them, groaning into her mouth as I slid part way back out and then back in again, her hips synchronized with mine, her arms around me, her other leg lifting up and around my waist as she pushed up even harder. I growled and began thrusting, losing control into this woman who fit me perfectly, who was everything I ever wanted a woman to be, and who was the only woman I would ever want to be with... this vision of perfection who was going to be my wife.
Too much, oh God, too soon, I exploded, crying out, holding her tightly against me as she held me with all her strength. And then I collapsed against her, breathing frantically, desperate to catch my breath, and then grabbing her, I rolled to the side before I chanced crushing her.
"You didn't..." I panted into her shoulder, and then looked up when she giggled.
"We have the rest of the day and night for that, don't we, my love?"
I smiled...I could do that all day, all night, and every day for the rest of my life.
"I love you, Bella."
She reached up and kissed me softly. "And I love you, too."
The rest of the day was a blur. We finally remembered to slide the small sapphire engagement ring onto her finger, and the night was spent in front of a slow fire, on her bed, feeding each other bits of food in between glorious bouts of love-making. Tomorrow, I would help her pack her bags, and bring her back home with me. Mother and Father knew to expect this, and the guest room would be prepared in case she agreed. I was hoping she'd be willing to marry as quickly as possible, and the construction for the extension on the house would start immediately.
We went to sleep with kisses, and love, and dreams of our future on our lips. I'd never been so happy; I didn't know joy like this could be found on Earth, all wrapped in this small package nestled in my arms.
I woke in the morning, to summer heat, my eyes hot and glassy. I looked past her to see if the fire was still burning, but it was nothing but cold ashes. I collapsed back onto the pillow — my chest felt heavy and I was certain I was simply physically exhausted from all our activities. I peered over at Bella, who was just starting to stir.
"Good morning, love," I said, surprised at the scratch in my throat, the rasp in my voice. Bella's eyes flew open, and she turned around to look at me.
"Edward, are you okay," she said, her voice frantic. Why would she be so worried?
"Of course I am." I coughed to clear my throat. "Why do you ask?"
She sat up and looked down at me, terror on her face as she took her small cool hand and held it to my forehead.
"Edward, you're burning with fever!"
"Don't be silly, Bella, I never get sick." I smiled at her, and then had to turn my head when the coughing fit hit, my chest rattling, the pain deep and sour. I turned back to look at her, my eyes watery with tears from the heat, and I sucked in a breath, as the true meaning of her terror came home.
Bella shot to her feet, and searching around the floor found her clothes, slipping them on as quickly as possible. "Stay here, Edward," she said, sitting down to tie her shoes, looking at me sternly. "You are not to get up; you are not to go anywhere." I started to protest, but when I tried to sit up a wave of dizziness hit, and I fell back into bed.
Bella came back over and knelt down next to me. "I know a doctor, Edward, a good doctor. He was too late to save my mother, but just know he can save you."
"I can't afford a doctor, Bella, and neither can you."
"He'll help us, he didn't charge me before, and I know he won't now." She ran her cool hand over my forehead again, and moved the sheets around, trying to comfort me.
"Just stay here and sleep. I'll be back with Dr. Cullen as soon as I can."
I slept fitfully, worried about her, not knowing who this doctor was, concerned how we would pay him — I could not imagine there would be no fee. I thrashed around the bed, dreaming about dark, damp woods, wolves howling in the distance, making my skin crawl… when I felt myself being shaken. It was so hard to set aside the dream, it seemed so real — but I finally opened my eyes and Bella was standing in front of me. Night had fallen, and the room was lit with candles. A man was with her, with blonde hair and gentle, light brown eyes.
"Edward? Good, you're awake. My name is Carlisle Cullen. I treated Miss Swan's mother, and she told me you're now sick as well?"
I tried to get up. "Not too sick, I don't believe..." A wave of nausea hit me, and holding my hand over my mouth I fell back to the bed, the room spinning. My skin hurt, it felt hot, and my chest was so heavy.
"Miss Swan, Edward is very..." I heard a pause, and a rustle and the sound of running feet. I opened my eyes and managed to lift myself up, leaning on my elbow. Bella was on the floor, the doctor hovering over her.
"Bella? Bella?" I rolled off the mattress and onto the floor, and started crawling towards her.
"Edward, shhh, back to bed with you," Carlisle said. He squatted down in front of me and ran his hand over my head. "You're both very sick, Edward, I need you both in bed. Can you do that, can you help me?"
I looked up at him and gasped. It was like looking into the face of an angel. Was it the fever? Why did this man possess such unearthly beauty? Did he descend from the heavens to save the most pure soul I've ever known, or was he here to claim it?
"No,'' I told myself. He was a doctor, and no more. He was here to help us.
"Dr. Cullen, we were engaged to be married last night. Don't let her die, please. Do anything to save her." He looked at me, an odd expression on his face, his beautiful eyes reflecting both compassion and pain. Nodding to himself, he bent down and placed a hand under my back, another under my legs, and lifted me as if I weighed no more than a child. He walked back to the bed and carefully laid me back down.
"What, I mean, how...?" I said, confused and rambling. He smiled sadly and shook his head. Then he walked over to Bella, picked her up and laid her next to me.
"Edward, she needs to be changed into a nightgown. Do you feel strong enough to do that for her?" I nodded.
"I'll get you a pitcher of water, and I'll return later, after I'm done at the hospital. Just stay here with her."
I rolled to my side and looked over at Bella, my love, the woman I would marry. Her beautiful skin was pale, I could feel the heat radiating off her face. I struggled to my knees, and managed to undress her, lifting her up enough to slip the cool cotton nightgown over her head. I laid her back down, and drew the sheet over us both, and grabbing her tiny hot hand, lay next to her. One way or another, I vowed, she and I would get through this. Together.
I stood behind the house, staring into the dank, dark green forest – so much like my dream from all those years ago. There weren't that many memories from that time, but for some reason that dream remained. The wolves had gone, and the treaty was signed. I turned back to look at the house. It would need some work, but already there were flowers in vases in all the rooms. Just a little touch, but it reminded us of the sweet smell of life, regardless of its incarnation.
Smiling to myself, I walked up the back stairs and into the kitchen. It would be the last room to be dealt with, but I knew she would. Making my way into the living room I found her, her back to me, needlessly fussing with the large flower arrangement on the piano. I knew I could never sneak up behind her, but I tried, and as my arms slid around her waist I heard her musical giggle as she leaned back into my chest before spinning around in my arms.
I missed her dark chocolate eyes, but these shone like a thousand suns when she was happy, and I did everything I could to keep her that way. I loved this woman, and now I would love her for all eternity, or for as many years as we'd be allowed.
She leaned her head against my chest. "Carlisle should be back soon, and I think he could use our help when they return."
I nodded, and kissed the top of her head. "I'm glad for him, and I'm happy for her," I whispered into her hair. Pulling back and looking into her eyes, I grabbed her tightly again, thinking of what we both almost lost and how, due to a decision from a lonely man who didn't want to be lonely any longer, Bella and I did marry. And now, the lonely man would be even less lonely.
We'd do all we could to help him, and to make Esme feel comfortable.