Pick A Pic Challenge
Title: Everything I Knew Was Wrong, or The Long Road Home
Rating/ Disclaimer: Rated M just to err on the safe side. All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: 1840. Edward Cullen has been living in Jamaica for years, managing his family's estate. Sudden news of his father's ailing health prompt his journey back to England. Can he still call Cullen Manor home? A long road home in more ways than one.
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Jamaica, March 1840
Every single muscle in my body was aching with fatigue. I had been on horseback since the break of dawn, riding through the Cullen estates. By noon, the sweltering heat and suffocating humidity of the West Indies were taking their toll on my strength, even if I had grown accustomed to this life and this climate.
The estate was an immense, lush and green expanse of sugar cane and tobacco fields located just outside Kingston. I'd been managing it for six years. Six long years since I'd all but left the beloved and familiar shores of Cornwall behind for Jamaica, wanting to prove to my family (and to myself) that I wasn't just the clever, bookish younger son, but that I could, indeed, be a fierce, ruthless and successful tradesman who would increase the family's wealth by managing, single-handedly, the whole of the Cullen estates in the colonies.
Nothing had shaken my resolve – not my mother's pleading, not my elder brother's light-hearted bantering that my going away was just a ruse to have the county's girls pining for me, and not even my father's stern entreaties that there was no need for me to go to the ends of the world to prove my worth to him.
That – proving my own worth – I had surely done, over the years. The plantation was well-managed and highly profitable, even if I said so myself, and the family wealth had increased steadily under my management. I had adjusted well enough to life in the West Indies, where I'd long ceased to lament the lack of polite and educated company. I had a place among the merchants of Jamaica, I was highly respected in the business community of Kingston, and naturally mingled with the most prominent families in town, when the occasion presented itself. I was content with my lot in life, and proud of my achievements. Most of all, I had come to appreciate my life of action and manual labour.
Every day, I rode through the plantation to survey the workers' progress. On each market day, I made the long ride between the estate and Kingston, and ventured out to the harbour each time a ship was sailing to or from Jamaica with Cullen goods.
I woke at dawn each day and retired for the night long after my servants had gone to bed, choosing to settle the accounts and other business after I'd taken a daily stock of my land and labourers. I prided myself in being a strict, but fair master.
By no means I had severed ties with Cornwall. My intent in moving to Jamaica was not to run away from my family. Instead, I sought to escape my allotted fate of being an awkward younger son unwilling to purchase an officer's commission in one of His Majesty's Regiments.
News from home came to me as often as distance and time permitted. The letters were scanty, and infrequent. I often received bundles of battered, rain-spattered envelopes that included missives from the three family members remaining in Cornwall – my father, mother and brother.
This time, though, as I jumped off my horse, drenched in sweat and covered in dust, I was met with a very impatient messenger who bore only a lone and ominous letter.
"Massa! Massa! Letter, home, letter! Espress, massa!" hollered Augustus, my house servant.
Augustus had been born and raised in Jamaica and had worked on the Cullen Plantation time out of mind. His superior knowledge of the other labourers, his eye for strict discipline and his sense of organisation had prompted me to entrust him with the running of my household. In short, Augustus was my butler and housekeeper, though his English was sometimes broken and, more often than not, tinged with the local inflections typical of the Caribbean.
Questions reeling in my head, I beckoned to Augustus to pass me the missive.
"Hand that over, Augustus, please."
"Yes, massa," he replied with a respectful bow.
I tore open the sheet of paper and quickly looked over the letter, to see who was writing to me urgent news from home and, most of all, when. It was penned in my brother's vibrant but messy hand and was dated from Cullen Manor four months hence – so much for its being an express delivery.
I wish to announce that I will shortly be marrying Miss Rosalie Hale.
I hope you will wish us joy – though Father might advise otherwise.
Your affectionate brother,
Emmett Nathaniel Cullen"
By now, Emmett was a married man. However, save for this hasty message, I had received no such tidings from my father. Truth be told, I had not received any letters from home for quite some time, but I had attributed the lack of communication to the bad winter weather that made ocean travel difficult.
Emmett's message was just like him – abrupt and to the point, though somehow failing to paint a bigger picture. Emmett would throw a bucket of ice-cold water at you without warning, and without telling you why, leaving you wondering the where's and why's of his actions, just as he did now.
I was by no means shocked by the choice of his intended bride. In his earlier correspondence, Emmett had been quite forthcoming as to the charms of one Miss Rosalie Hale. There was no doubt in my mind that he was much taken with her and that the feeling was mutual. What left my head spinning with questions, though, as I stood under the merciless midday sun, was his rather unsubtle allegation that Father might not approve of the match.
Knowing my brother and father, I was more inclined to say that Emmett was being headstrong and selfish. And, while my father tended to be equally headstrong, it was typically not without good reason. My father was concerned with the welfare of the whole family and, while he would never cross Emmett's desires merely for the sake of it, his disapproval posed a serious threat to my brother's matrimonial happiness. I did not doubt, for even one moment, that Emmett would marry Miss Hale anyway, despite our father's wishes. I could only hope for the best, and that they would come to a happy resolution of their misunderstanding.
I had no details whatsoever on Miss Rosalie Hale, other than Emmett's highly appreciative descriptions of her beauty. My family's silence on the question seriously impaired my ability to form any sort of well-founded judgment. I concluded that I could wish my brother joy, so long as nothing else convinced me to the contrary.
For the rest of the day, I went about my daily occupations as usual, yet still the thought of my brother's letter left me uneasy, with a disturbing sense of foreboding. All through the night, I was unable to rest, and though exhausted, I tossed and turned, mulling over my own speculations.
The following morning, Augustus greeted me at the breakfast table with a silver tray and yet another letter. I raised an eyebrow, quite surprised to receive a second missive in as many days. My faithful servant sensed my silent question and commented, "Sea better, massa. More ships a' coming."
It was as good an explanation as any. This second letter was not an express – only Emmett, in his typical impulsiveness, would squander the money for an express on a letter that could be stuck aboard a ship for months – and was penned in a regular, elegant and ladylike script which was, to my even greater surprise, not my mother's hand.
I quickly broke the seal and perused the single sheet of paper to locate the date and identity of the sender. The letter was dated from Cullen Manor, two months after Emmett's letter, and was signed by one Miss Isabella Marie Swan. Unfamiliar with any relatives of ours by that name, I immediately started reading the letter, in the hope that it would reveal who this person might be and why she was writing to me from my father's home in Cornwall.
Dear Mister Cullen,
We have never been introduced and I apologise in advance for taking the liberty of addressing you so freely.
I am afraid that circumstances are forcing me to forgo some common rules of decorum and I am confident that, once you are acquainted with the matters now at hand, you will find it in your heart to forgive my boldness.
Your father is gravely ill and the doctors fear of his ultimate recovery. Your dear mother is still shocked by the news and has urged me to write to you in her stead to beg you to return home immediately.
I pray that this letter reaches you quickly, and wish you a safe and speedy journey back to Cornwall.
Isabella Marie Swan.
The letter crumpled in my fist and the china teacup I was holding in my left hand shattered to the floor, its shards scattering everywhere. Augustus, ever discrete and unflappable by nature, set about tidying up the floor without a word.
My father was ill. My father was gravely ill and had been ill in Cornwall two months hence. As the grim reality that was facing me sunk in, I knew what I had to do with the utmost clarity.
"Prepare my trunk and secure my passage on the next ship that sails from Kingston. There should be one tomorrow. I am needed in England."
Augustus did my bidding without batting an eyelid and, as was his ingrained habit, he did not bother to comment on the circumstances that were forcing me away from Jamaica for a long while. My trunk was ready and passage booked for the next day by the time my dinner was served.
I left instructions with my steward so that he could attend to the ordinary business of the plantation, with strict recommendations that my lawyer in Kingston could deal with any pressing or delicate matters in my absence.
I had no social calls to pay, no leave to take of anyone in Kingston. A message to my lawyer giving him full power of attorney to act on my behalf was the last duty I performed, before retiring for the evening.
The following morning, one of my stable hands drove me to the harbour and, as I stepped down the carriage, I was met with the impressive sight of the Artemis. I was well acquainted with this ship – it had been regularly employed to transport Cullen goods to and from Jamaica over the years, and I knew its Captain and its crew very well. This was, perhaps, one of the reasons why the Captain had overlooked my hasty request for a passage, accommodating it without further question. The Artemis was a fairly new, sleek and fast clipper. One of a kind, its captain and owner were extremely proud of having secured it as a merchant ship serving the busy ports of Jamaica. The clipper stood shiny and majestic at its anchor in Kingston harbour, its sails white clean and ready to billow in the ocean winds, every brass bolt polished to perfection.
There was a flurry of activity on the deck as the sailors hauled cargo on the ship and down its hold and I had to watch my steps everywhere, lest I ran into someone, something, or just slipped on the wet planking.
As I settled down in my cabin, I still felt growing anticipation and endless questions reeling in my head. A nagging feeling I could not dismiss sparked my suspicions that my brother's hasty marriage and my father's ailing health could not be wholly unconnected.
I was also quite put out that the distressing events prompting my return had been relayed to me by a complete stranger. This complete stranger was acting on my mother's behalf, and was confident enough that her plea would not go unheeded, either.
Why wasn't Emmett aware that my father was sick? Why had he not written to me, instead? Why wasn't he at home, managing my father's estate, as every dutiful elder son was expected to do?
I mulled all these questions over in my mind , in a fruitless attempt to fill the empty and boring days and nights of my passage across the Atlantic. I was used to a life of action and was not well suited to the forced idleness of a passenger. Inactivity tended to fuel my brooding nature, making my manners hasty and my temper changeable. I envied the sailors their long days filled with labour. I envied the regularity of their chores. I had left my own, well-oiled routine behind, without any hint as to what I should expect, once I returned to Cornwall.
By the end of the crossing, my temper was simply volatile, rendered almost unfit for polite company by the long weeks of idle confinement aboard ship and by the unknown prospects at home. Any novelty was welcome by now, so that I could retrieve at least part of my sanity.
In his unflinching practicality, Augustus had bargained for a convenient passage to Bristol, considerably shortening the last leg of my journey.
After long weeks at sea, I had become accustomed to the pitching and tossing of the ship and found, soon enough, that dry land apparently no longer agreed with me. I simply desired some rest, a glass of my father's brandy, and a hearty conversation with my mother by the library fireplace at Cullen Manor, but my wishes had to wait.
Bristol was a busy port, bustling with people and goods being hauled to and from the majestic ships that sailed from and to the West Indies. It wasn't difficult to get directions to the stagecoach inn, where I rested for a spell and sipped my first pint of brown ale in six years, while I awaited the mail coach that would take me to Plymouth.
The journey in the mail coach proved to be another challenge for my ever-darkening mood. A skilled and reckless horseman, I wasn't partial to being jostled in a carriage, especially when already bone-weary from sleeping in a berth for six weeks, and travelling at a pace that could not rival my tamest canter. When all was said and done, I was not inclined in the least to engage in the usual, nonsensical and nosy conversation that my fellow travellers were entertaining.
To make matters worse, my dishevelled appearance and faint tan gave away that I had been overseas. I tried to avoid the most prying questions but, when the inevitable curate in the carriage began preaching about the inhumane living conditions in the Colonies, I feigned asleep to avoid a most disagreeable confrontation. Before long, true fatigue overcame me, and I drifted off to a fitful sleep, waking to find that the coach had finally reached Plymouth.
I had had enough of the so-called modern means of transportation. Needing to stretch my legs and be independent again, I quickly located a stable and purchased a horse. If I had to extend my stay in Cornwall, the animal would be a necessity anyway. I paid the owner, who beckoned for a stable boy to help me with my small trunk and saddle bags.
I set off at an easy canter at first, acquainting myself with my new mount, and revelling in the now familiar sights and sounds of home. As the whitewashed waterfront houses of Plymouth disappeared behind me, melting into the green and purple moors I loved so much, I finally gave in and spurred my horse into a wild gallop.
I knew I'd arrive at Cullen Manor late, but I couldn't bring myself to care. At this point, all I wanted was to see my parents again. All I longed for was the comfort of the loving home I'd missed for six long years. All my mind craved were answers.
My gallop grew more impatient the closer I got to Falmouth. At long last, I slowed the horse to an easy canter when I turned off the main road and onto the long and winding gravel pathway that led to Cullen Manor.
It was late at night, much too late for anyone to be wandering about the country, and I had not encountered any other travellers on the country roads. At last, I dismounted my horse at the gate of Cullen Manor. Despite my late and unannounced arrival, I half-expected someone to come out, greet me and lead my mount to the stables. But no one came, and the house remained dark, looming over me in an almost eerie silence. It was my childhood home, and yet it wasn't.
I was troubled by a sense of foreboding that was not easily dismissed. I sighed and breathed in the cool night air, willing it to calm my nerves. Still knowing my way around the estate even in the darkness, I walked to the stables, tied my horse in one of the empty stalls and unlatched my saddle bags. I went back to the front and finally knocked on the door of my father's house.
I heard some rustling inside and a crooked figure opened the door. I recognised the old butler at once, Jonathan Jenks, who had known me since I was a rumpled, unruly child who used to ruin his carefully crafted flowerbeds.
"Jenks, I'm home," I said, moving past him to make my way inside, and not waiting for him to recover from his shock and address me.
"Master Edward, is that really you?" he asked shakily, closing the door behind him. It was only then that I noticed his eyes were glazed over with unshed tears.
"Take me to my father, Jenks." Jenks did not move and averted his eyes from my scrutiny. I was growing impatient and increasingly worried.
"Jenks, how is he? You will tell me, now," I inquired imperiously, my tone perfected from years of disciplining the plantation labourers.
Jenks merely shook his head, still not even meeting my gaze. "Master Edward, please come with me. Miss Isabella will tell you all you need to know."
Miss Isabella – that name again. Could it be that my unknown correspondent was here, living in my parents' house? Had I detected a hint of reverence in the way that Jenks uttered her name?
Suddenly, I heard a noise – the faint sound of small and graceful steps on the landing. A soothing and sweet voice rang through the quiet of the house.
"Jenks, what is the commotion at this late hour? It's making Madam uneasy…"
The voice drifted off as its owner's eyes finally landed on me.
I felt pierced to my very core by a keen, sincere and bottomless gaze. Two weary, wide, dark brown eyes were taking in my appearance, trying to decide who I was. Those same eyes turned to Jenks, in a silent but questioning look.
"Miss Isabella, Master Edward has come home," Jenks said, almost apologetically.
So this was Miss Isabella Marie Swan, and she was, indeed, living in my parents' house. Her eyes went wide with shock and her hands flew to cover her mouth.
"Thank God you are here," she whispered, before closing her eyes and staggering against the banister. She was about to collapse to the floor.
I had been raised to be a gentleman, and without hesitation, I ran to catch her from falling, trying to maintain propriety as much as possible, under the circumstances. Jenks also rushed to Miss Isabella's side, moving as fast as his age would allow.
"Miss Bella, are you all right? I'll fetch the Master's brandy, it will do you good. You're done in, child," he said, a hint of alarm in his voice. I did not fail to notice that, in his distress for her condition, he had called her "Bella".
I remembered Jenks as a strict and reclusive person, and the affectionate tone of his words was a clear indication that he must be fond of this Miss Isabella. I also realised with some consternation, I was still holding her in my arms with a little more familiarity than social conventions would condone. I stiffened, sensing her discomfort, but she was quicker than me and broke free from my grasp. Without a word, she righted herself and smoothed her dress, smiling shyly at me.
Then, she turned to Jenks and replied, "No, Jenks, thank you. That won't be necessary. Brandy makes me drowsy, and I don't want to fall asleep while I'm sitting with Madam."
Jenks seemed displeased. "But, Miss Bella…" She shook her head and added, with a warning look, "I'm fine, Jenks, but…"
"Perhaps you could bring some tea, please? And maybe Mister Cullen could use some dinner, as well, after his long journey?" I marvelled for a second at her tone, resolute yet sweet, courteous but without condescension.
"Of course, Miss Bella. I'll fetch that myself. You go on and talk to Master Edward." And with that, Jenks disappeared in the direction of the kitchens, as Miss Isabella started to walk away from me, too.
"Wait a minute, there!" I snapped, and she stopped abruptly, turning to face me, in a graceful and fluid move that left the silk of her gown swishing around her figure. Still silent, she stared at me with those expressive eyes of hers, perusing my countenance, but politely waiting for me to address her again.
"Where is my father? I want to see him now," my words had a much harsher tone than I had intended and I saw a pained expression cloud her face before she replied.
"Mister Cullen, I am aware that you must have questions, but…" she paused, an uneasy frown marring her features.
I was about to unleash another string of hasty words on her, but I stopped short when I saw how deeply troubled she appeared. Until then. I had only been captivated by her eyes until then, but now I could not look away from her figure, although I knew it was highly inappropriate of me to stare at her.
Her long, dark mahogany hair was woven in an intricate tangle of tresses that gathered at the nape of her neck. Her eyes were framed by long lashes and a set of perfectly shaped eyebrows. She had a fine complexion, with porcelain-white skin that I had not seen in years – no-one in the West Indies could keep such ivory skin unblemished by the cruel sun for long – but her regular features were marked by fatigue and distress. There were dark circles under her eyes and her lips were trembling. Strangely, this did not sit well with me, and seeing her so obviously distressed suddenly caused me to partially regret my earlier words.
"Who are you, anyway? And why are you living in my father's house?" I sighed, fully aware that, while I was no longer snapping at her, this new onslaught of brusque questioning could hardly be considered civil conversation.
"I am Isabella Swan, Mister Cullen, and I wrote you the letter. Forgive my forwardness, but the circumstance was extreme." She spoke without hesitation, but did not look me in the eye, either.
I realised that her answer, while polite and to the point, revealed nothing new. I had already figured out who she was from Jenks's earlier words and had made the connection to her mysterious letter.
"I think we might need to sit down for a lengthy conversation, Miss Swan," I conceded, for once managing not to sound rude and patronizing.
She merely nodded and gestured for me to follow her into the library. The fire was already crackling lively; a tray containing a tea service and a plate of cold cuts had been placed on a table by two armchairs that flanked the fireplace, the very same fireplace I'd been longing to sit by for the last six weeks.
I motioned for her to sit down first, noting with some surprise that she chose to sit in my mother's usual place. I sat down too, the weariness from my long journey finally overpowering me. She handed me a cup of tea and then pushed the plate in my direction, so that I might help myself to the food.
"Miss Swan, I would hate to sound unduly persistent, but…I want to see my father now," I began, sighing, because I was no longer feeling so sure of my own footing.
"Mister Cullen, I… I apologise if my letter upset you. You must have been so worried. Your mother needed – needs – you here at Cullen Manor with her but…" She seemed to struggle with her words as much as I was. "Mister Cullen, I really do not know how to break this to you, but Carlisle…I mean, your father…" she continued, her voice still shaken.
"My father? What is wrong with my father? You will tell me now!"
My rash temper finally got the better of my intentions, and I could not keep the angry, agitated tone from my voice. Miss Swan drew a deep breath, but seemed otherwise unmoved by my outburst. Raising her face to meet my gaze, I saw a flicker of an unknown fire in her eyes.
"I was trying to spare your feelings, Mister Cullen. I see my concerns were futile," she stated, her gaze and voice unwavering. My continued outbursts were, no doubt, forming her resolve that any kindness towards me would fall on deaf ears.
"Dispense with the niceties, Miss Swan. I have been my own master for the last six years," I retorted, my words now as unfeeling and hasty as my temper.
"Very well, then, Mister Cullen. Your father is dead. Unfortunately, he passed away only a fortnight after I wrote to you. My condolences," she replied, her tone now devoid of emotion.
My hands shook in rage, shock and grief.
My father was gone. My father was gone and there was nothing I could do. I was shaking with powerless anger, my feelings hardly contained.
I felt Miss Swan delicately prying my fingers away form the teacup I was clenching, placing place itsafely back on the table. With a simple, merciful gesture, she'd proven her point to me, but she was, evidently, too much of a lady to lord it over me.
"Why? How? My brother?" These were the only broken words I could muster. I felt silk swishing to my side and saw that Miss Swan was kneeling in front of the fireplace, rekindling the dying flame.
"It was a severe stroke, Mister Cullen. It was sudden and violent. He never recovered," she said, her strangled words so low that they were almost a pained whisper in the darkness.
"I still can't…why?"
She heaved a deep, laboured sigh and returned to her seat, smoothing creases in her gown to avoid meeting my gaze. I felt tears on my cheeks even before I realised that I was weeping – there went my commandeering ways; I was crying in front of a stranger. A strange, beautiful lady, who appeared to have my mother's trust and had been on first name terms with my father.
"Painful, unpleasant things happened, Mister Cullen. Things that…but it's not my place…" she stammered, still avoiding my gaze.
"My brother, Miss Swan? Where is my brother?" I asked.
"Your brother is no longer welcome here, I am afraid," she finally confessed, with a sorrowful expression in her eyes.
My hands, clenched into angry fists, banged on the armrests, as I rose to my full height again. "If he did something…If he said something…"
I heard a stifled, uneasy gasp and caught a glimpse of Miss Swan covering her mouth with her hand. She was weeping silently, too. That had to mean something, at least. Maybe my suspicions were right. Maybe…
"Mister Cullen?" she said, a hint of hesitation in her voice. I turned towards her, my tall frame towering over her diminutive figure huddled in the armchair.
"Would you… Would you like to see your mother before you retire for the night?"
I had no idea how this petite person could know that the one thing that would calm me was my mother's presence, but somehow, she did. I nodded and, mimicking her earlier gestures, I motioned for her to lead the way.
In nerve-wracking silence, Miss Swan left the library and climbed the main staircase that led upstairs to the family rooms. My mother's rooms were facing the gardens, at the back of the square-plan house.
She stopped outside my mother's room and turned to face me. Her next actions were so unexpected that they took my breath away. Gently, she brushed her dainty hand against my forearm in an openly soothing gesture. Her fingers had been barely there, and disappeared just as softly.
"She's changed a lot, Mister Cullen. This might be a shock, even for a brave man whose feelings don't need sparing," she murmured.
I nodded, hoping that she would read in my eyes my unspoken gratitude for her kind and affectionate concern, even if I was sure she was behaving like this solely for my mother's sake.
Miss Isabella was, of course, quite correct in her assessment of my mother's condition. It was a shock to see her like this and I tried to hide my distress as best I could, seeking solace in the darkness of her room. By faint candlelight, she appeared to be a mere shadow of her former self, a shrunken image of the strong and beautiful woman I remembered with a son's devoted love.
I stood helpless at the foot of her bed, reluctant to get any closer and unable to move away. Meanwhile, Miss Isabella smoothed her hair, squeezed her hand reassuringly and adjusted her pillows and covers.
My mother usually harboured a pointed dislike for anyone fussing over her, she took pride in being an independent woman – and yet, she did not argue one bit while Miss Isabella cared for her with the well-practised, yet loving gestures of someone who had being doing this for a long while. There was neither obligation nor carelessness in her lithe and affectionate movements, and it was perfectly clear to me, with a furtive glance into my mother's eyes, that she deeply cared for Miss Isabella and that the feeling was mutual.
I saw my mother's eyes squint in the darkness and heard her whisper something into Miss Isabella's ear. Miss Isabella soothingly replied, her voice a gentle caress, "Yes, Mama. Edward has really come home."
My mother's hollow eyes brightened at the mention of my name and, for a moment, she seemed her former self again. "Edward. Please, come closer."
I moved to sit by her side on the bed, opposite Miss Isabella. My mother patted my hand lightly and her gaze slowly returned to Miss Isabella.
"Thank you, child. Thank you for bringing my son home to me," she said, her voice full of emotion, as tears welled up in her green eyes.
With a frown I'd seen before, Miss Isabella quickly replied, "I didn't do anything, Mama. You should rest now, I will leave you with Edward. I am sure you want to spend some time with him."
Once again, she seemed to know exactly what I wanted – and needed. I was longing for a private interview with my mother, but she was in no condition to withstand the subjects I wanted to broach with her. Besides, Miss Isabella seemed to be perfectly attuned to my mother's needs and habits and I was loathe to see her leave. She would be of much more use at my mother's side than I could ever be. My mother, though, had other ideas on the matter.
"Child, you deserve an entire night of proper rest. Go, Edward will sit with me for a while."
Miss Isabella tried to contradict her, but to no avail. "Bella, please, go. I will be fine." Even my mother called her "Bella".
Miss Isabella finally acquiesced to my mother's wishes. But, before she left the room, however, she eyed me with a stern expression. "My room is just down the hall. Please fetch me if either of you need anything," she pleaded as I held the door open for her. "I could not rest anyway, knowing that she's unwell."
Even if I would never contemplate describing my mother's current condition as simply being "unwell", I could sense that she was guarded with her words, knowing that my mother could hear.
"You do care about her, Miss Isabella, don't you?"
She nodded. "As if she were my own mother. And she has treated me as a daughter. Good night, Mister Cullen," she whispered, leaving me on the threshold to absorb the full import of her words.
I went back to sit with my mother and there, in her loving presence, I could no longer contain my grief and let my tears run freely. I had no qualms in hiding the true extent of my feelings in her company.
"Father is gone, mother. What shall we do? What shall I do?"
She squeezed my hand tenderly, but weakly. "You will brave this storm, Edward, of that I am confident. Look at the man you've become. I am so proud of you."
A faint smile graced her lips and in that smile I saw another echo of the woman she'd once been – the sunlight of our family, the mortar that held us all together, at all times. I could not help asking about my brother.
"Mother, I received a letter from Emmett. He wrote that he was going to marry Miss Rosalie Hale. What happened?"
My mother's face contorted in pain. "Emmett…he…made some poor decisions…" Her breathing became ragged and uneasy as she struggled to continue. "I can't bear to…"
I immediately reached for the glass of water on her nightstand. "It's alright, mother. We won't talk about this now. Tell me something else."
She relaxed, but only minutely. I tried to choose a safer topic of conversation that would not tax her strength overmuch. "Mother…if you don't mind me asking, who is Miss Isabella, exactly?"
My mother smiled again, with a fond tenderness in her eyes that I could not fathom and that I did not recall ever seeing in her.
"I am her godmother, Edward, and your father was her legal guardian. She is an orphan – my third cousin's daughter, actually. When her parents died, I sent for her. I could not bear the thought of her living alone in London. With Alice off to school, and you living in Jamaica…I do get lonely, sometimes, son."
I was perplexed and surprised. There had been a de facto addition to my family, and no one had bothered to tell me about it. I felt incredibly left out. My mother read my expression right away.
"What's wrong, dear?"
"When did this happen, mother?"
My voice was ice-cold and detached again. I had no good reason to be this rude to my mother but, oddly enough, it seemed that I had no middle ground where Miss Isabella was concerned. Either way, I seemed to forgo any and all rules of courtesy, common sense, and propriety. Worse still, my mother picked up on every shift in my demeanour, as insignificant as it might be.
She sighed, with a slightly indulgent look on her face. "It happened a year after you moved to Kingston, Edward. It did not seem to be that important at the time and then…"
In over five years, no one had ever mentioned anything about this in any of their letters. I had never had any idea that now I had – what was she to me, exactly? – some relative living at Cullen Manor. I didn't understand. I could not understand how this, of all things, would be treated as a trifle by my mother.
"Are you upset, Edward? Why, dear?"
"Because no-one has ever bothered to tell me! Who is she, anyway? A gold digger in disguise? Some poor offspring that you have taken in, out of charity? Not to mention the legal implications of all this! Father is dead, who will be her legal guardian now? Emmett?"
I was truly incensed though, in all fairness, I had no right to be. I had made another life for myself in Jamaica, I could not blame my family for doing the same here in Cornwall. Still, I felt deprived of my place in the family – why had they kept this from me? What other secrets had been kept from me?
My mother was not best pleased with my behaviour and her scathing look made my blood run cold, as it often had when I was a little boy up to no good. She extended her hand and rang the bell, without so much as a word.
"Mother?" I asked, trying to look properly chastened.
"I will not tolerate this behaviour towards Bella, Edward. Please, leave the room." Her tone brooked no argument. However, in a miserable attempt to set things to rights, I continued to make a fool of myself.
"Mother, please, I am only trying to understand."
"You are stamping your foot like a wilful child, Edward. I am tired. Please, leave."
The door clicked open and Bella herself, still perfectly dressed and looking rather agitated, peeked her head inside. "Are you alright, Mama?"
My mother's countenance changed dramatically. "I only wanted to wish you goodnight, child. Please, come closer."
Bella – how was it that all my barriers were crumbling, so much so that I, too, desired the privilege to address her by her own name? – complied with my mother's request and knelt by the bed, her eyes level with my mother's.
"Your cheeks are flushed, Mama. Is anything the matter?" she asked, laying her hand on my mother's forehead to gauge her temperature.
My mother ignored the question, while Bella threw a sidelong glance in my direction, one almost as scathing as that of my mother's.
"You need to rest now, Mama. It is past your bedtime and Doctor Newton…"
"Doctor Michael Newton? The Newton boy?" I couldn't help asking. The name did ring a bell in my memory.
"The very one. You should see him, Edward. He's as boring as he ever was," commented my mother, and I was glad to see that, even in her illness, she had not lost her inclination for pert replies. Bella fought to suppress a smile and, quite predictably, seemed to agree with my mother.
"As boring as he may be, Mama…I think you should sleep now."
"Mother, Miss Isabella is right. I will see you in the morning," I said, as I stood to take my leave.
My mother nodded, but did not offer a reply. I had been dismissed without ceremony and it was tangible proof that I was not back in her good graces, yet.
I closed the door behind me, my hand still on the door knob, and overheard my mother speak to Bella. I couldn't resist eavesdropping.
"You will tell him everything tomorrow, Bella. Answer all of his questions."
Her voice barely above a strangled whisper, Bella replied, "Mama, please. It is not my place. Soon the lawyer will sort it all out anyway. Please?"
Bella was pleading, but my mother did not relent. "He needs to know before he learns the terms of Carlisle's will. Please, Bella. For my sake."
My mother's voice became a ragged whisper again and Bella whispered back with a stifled sob, "Very well, Mama. For your sake."
I could withstand another sleepless night, if there was a chance that I would finally have some answers on the morrow. I lay awake in my childhood bedroom all night, listening to someone's quiet weeping down the hall, and fought the inappropriate desire to go and comfort her.
Come morning, I made my way to the kitchen in search of Jenks. The faithful old butler would know the details of Miss Isabella's arrival at Cullen Manor. I was hoping that he could be persuaded to share them with me.
"Good morning, Master Edward. Miss Bella is in the orchard, but I'll fetch her directly."
Quite surprised to find that she was up and about at such an early hour, I recovered just in time to stop Jenks and bid him stay. "Jenks, would you care to enlighten me on something?"
The old man still went about his business, but eyed me warily over his shoulder. "I would be glad to help you any way I can, Master Edward."
"Miss Isabella, Jenks. That's what I'd like to know. Why did they have to take her in?"
Jenks set a cup of tea and some porridge in front of me. As I attacked my breakfast, he replied.
"They were not forced to do it, Master Edward. They wanted to, but they had to convince Miss Bella, and it weren't easy. She wanted to have her way and remain in her parents' house in London. Madam wouldn't hear of it. End of story. You know your mother better than I do."
I couldn't help a sullen grimace as I prodded on with my interrogation. "So we took in the pauper orphaned girl?" I knew that my tone was disdainful, but I couldn't control my reactions any longer.
Jenks, as much as my mother, seemed mighty displeased with my choice of words.
"You're a grown man, Master Edward, but I'll find a way to tan your hide if you can't keep a civil tongue where Miss Bella is concerned. You might be able to fool her, but you can't fool me, nor your mother."
I huffed, greatly vexed by the outcome of our conversation. I rose to my feet and made my way towards the orchard. Maybe the orphaned girl would comply with my mother's request and enlighten me herself.
Over my shoulder, I heard Jenks smugly say, "Sides, boy, a house in Grosvenor Square and a fortune of thirty-five thousand pounds hardly qualifies the lass as a penniless orphan, now?"
I was utterly shocked. I prided myself in being a skilled judge of character. I was very good at reading people, analysing their little quirks, and breaking down their actions to scavenge out their ulterior motives. Instead, I was navigating a perilous ocean of doubt, an unchartered territory without any stars to guide me. I'd been humbled by this creature.
Everything I knew was wrong.
Still shaken by this realisation, I found her indeed in the orchard, with the gardener by her side. They were potting plants and pruning the shrubs. I quickly noted that she had no qualms in tackling menial work, even if she had the means to live like a grand lady. I couldn't exactly say the same for myself. I was a younger son, still without a fortune to my name. She was an heiress; she could be her own mistress, with an enviable level of independence. Maybe, I reasoned, only maybe, this was not what she wanted?
She saw me approaching in the corner of her eye and stood up to greet me. She still looked very tired, and distressed.
"Miss Isabella, good morning." I spoke, with more civility than I had mustered in our prior conversations. I tried to behave like the gentleman that my mother had raised, through the haze of my painfully conflicted impressions.
She brushed some dust off her hands and replied to my greeting with a forced smile. "Good morning, Mister Cullen. Have you been offered some breakfast yet?"
I noticed that she was always a perfect host and it was then that it finally dawned on me. She was acting as the mistress of the house. Reflecting on my mother's appearance last evening, it occurred to me that she'd probably had the responsibility of running of the household for some time. She took care of my mother, saw that her needs and mine were attended to, she directed the servants…In short, she had been forced to fill my mother's shoes. I paused to wonder what else she'd been contending with before my return.
I was suddenly in awe of this unassuming, but extremely resourceful and resilient young lady, and I felt like a worthless idiot for my behaviour towards her. The fact that she wasn't aware of my derogatory words wasn't important – I'd done her a great injustice all the same.
"How long has this been going on, Miss Isabella?"
She gave one quick glance to the gardener, who immediately made himself scarce, and turned to face me. I was well aware that my question was deliberately vague, and that I had completely neglected to answer her earlier question.
"It all started with Emmett...I mean, with your brother's wedding…"
Of course, she had to be on first name terms with Emmett as well. I suddenly disliked these formalities with a passion and wondered whether I could dispense with them without bordering on impropriety.
"Miss Isabella, please, there is no really no need for all that. I understand that you…are close to my family. But please, do continue…"
We were walking along a sheltered pathway in the garden, at some distance from the house. We were far from prying ears and eyes and it was an ideal setting for this ominous conversation. She sat down on a stone bench whilst I stood there, towering over her.
"Would you please call me Bella, then? No one ever calls me Isabella around here," she offered, with a shy smile. I nodded, encouraging her to continue and feeling quite pleased that I'd been granted my wish, without having to ask for it.
"It all started with Emmett wanting to marry Miss Hale," she said. "Carlisle did not approve of the match, but could do nothing to prevent it. It was a very trying time."
"How so?" I asked, confused.
"Your brother is twenty-nine, Mister Cullen. Your father could not withhold his consent and Miss Hale's parents favoured the match, so there was no way to stop them."
"But what about Emmett's prospects? He's not independent…"
Technically, neither of us was, until Father's estate could be divided between us under the terms of his last will and testament. That was another matter worthy of some consideration.
"Miss Rosalie has her own fortune from her mother's marriage articles, and is an only child. Her father's estate will revert back to her, eventually. Independence was never an issue." Bella concluded, wistfully.
"I don't understand. What was Father's objection, then?"
"You'd better sit down, because this is where everything becomes…unpleasant. I'm sorry you have to hear this from me," she said, her tone bashful.
She appeared to have a special place in everyone's affections, and yet she felt that she had no business in knowing the family's dealings? Could it be possible that, like me, she felt she had no real place in this household?
"I'm thankful that someone is finally taking the time to tell me," I added, vehemently, hoping that she could see past my surprise that I was not being unkind to her, only to the situation. "And while we're dispensing with the formalities, Mister Cullen was my father. I'm just Edward around here."
"Oh, you're just Edward, who lives in Jamaica, half a world away, and rides through his plantation all day, chasing the sun…" she said, dreamily, with a joyful glint in her eyes. It was the first time that I saw her this carefree and relaxed, and I was already desperate for that state to last as long as possible.
She smiled, with a faint blush colouring her otherwise pale features. I realised, an uneasy frown marring my brow, that she was quite glorious when she looked this happy. She suddenly caught herself, and began stuttering in embarrassment.
"I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have said…It's just…Esme speaks very often of you, that's how I know. I meant no offence," she almost whispered.
"None taken, Miss Bella. It just baffles me, that you know so much about me…and I never even knew of your existence. You are a well-kept secret at Cullen Manor."
My statement, meant to be complimentary, had the quite opposite effect to increase her blush.
"There is nothing to say about me," she replied in haste, pointedly casting her glance away from me.
I begged to differ, but held my tongue. I did not want to cross her in any way, after my mother's bitter chiding last night. I was beginning to fear that my own mother would favour Bella over me, and this creeping thought did not sit well.
"Emmett married Rosalie by special licence, practically in secret," she continued with a small voice.
I was so lost in my own musings that I'd all but forgotten the whole point of this conversation. Shock brought me back to the present.
"They eloped?" I spat, my hands clenching into angry fists.
"No, but it was just as bad to your parents. They got married alone, with Miss Hale's parents as witnesses, in the Hale's family church. It was quite a statement in itself."
Statement indeed, I thought – the Hales had had no scruples at all in trampling all over my family's concerns so openly. I sensed some hesitation on Bella's part to continue her account of these unfortunate events – she was probably getting to the really gruesome details.
"And then?" I asked, feeling that it would be easier for her to proceed, with some encouragement.
"Emmett had the gall to show his face at Cullen Manor, proud as a peacock, with his new bride. He surely could have found another way to go about things. That was the day all hell finally broke loose."
"The conceited, selfish fool!" I growled, jumping to my feet again, pacing in angry circles and unable to sit still any longer.
"It broke your father's heart, quite literally." Her voice was broken, too, as she uttered those last words that rang solemn and ominous, hanging over us like a dark canopy despite the clear mid-spring sky.
"He brought it on! He couldn't stay away! No, he had to come here to gloat, the selfish, conceited oaf!"
I was shouting now, overcome by a violent rush of anger, all my feelings of brotherly affection and devotion forgotten. My fist, longing for a release of this ill-accumulated tension, hit the bark of an innocent elm tree nearby.
"Ouch! Damn it all to hell and back!" I exclaimed in pain.
I felt a feather-light touch on my knuckles. Ever the caretaker, Bella was inspecting the damage I'd inflicted upon myself. I tried to pry my hand away from her gentle touch, but my carefully crafted resolve crumbled around me as she checked on my bruised and bleeding hand without commenting on my foolishness. She was cleansing the cuts with her own handkerchief. I felt hot, furious tears line my face as she continued this tale of endless woes.
"Carlisle refused access to the house both to him and Rosalie. He said he'd never speak to either of them again. Your mother tried to bring them round, but it was useless. They'd become so hot-headed with their argument, that both were beyond seeing reason. The last straw was…" Her voice broke down in a strangled sob.
All this had affected her, too. I could see that, but irrationally, my own mind would not wrap itself around the fact that she'd witnessed all this first hand and had been affected as well Instead, I rationalised that she'd been there to prevent it, that she could have done something to alter the course of events and yet…
She was the one sitting here unscathed, whilst my family had been torn in two by this bitter feud. My own father had succumbed to apoplexy caused by my elder brother's foolish actions, and my mother was bed-ridden with an unknown affliction from which she would likely not recover. My family was falling under the axe at every turn, whilst she was living here, adored by everyone. In that instant, as that errant thought hit me, I blindly resented her and just wished she would have stayed behind in London, in her glamorous house in Grosvenor Square, instead of caving in to my mother's wishes.
"…The last straw was that you did nothing to prevent this!" I growled again, causing her to suddenly recoil away from me. I barely spared a sidelong glance at her, my spite grossly overshadowing my better judgment.
She did not reply right away, shocked beyond words and wise enough not to comment. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her return to her former seat on the stone bench before she continued.
"…The last straw was when Emmett shouted at Carlisle that you would have understood, that you would have supported him. The vaguest possibility, however slim, of both his sons turning their back on him, was too much for your father. The stroke was inevitable."
Once again, I was wrong about her. Once again, everything I knew was wrong. Now I was really helpless in the face of all the tragedy around me, and I'd perhaps just pushed her as far away from me as possible with my reckless resentment.
Maybe it was all the better for her. Maybe it was all the better for me.
"Leave me alone."
She did not reply, but I heard the swish of silk as she walked away. She complied with my ill-tempered wish and headed wordlessly back to the house.
After the painful confrontation with Bella, I spent two disgracefully slow and lonely days loitering around the house, like a boat that had lost its anchor. I divided my time between my mother's room and the library, always careful to avoid crossing paths with Bella. When she sat with my mother, I buried myself in the library, trying to make sense of my father's papers. When she was elsewhere, I dared not show my face around the house and chose to sit with my mother instead. Either way, I achieved the small comfort of seeing her as little as possible.
For my mother's sake, I tried to disguise how much Bella's revelations had affected me. The ruse was ineffective. She called me out on every ill-chosen word and on every convoluted way I found to lead all our conversations back to her. Bella was a lingering presence, to the extent that two days of avoidance were already stretching my endurance to thin rags.
On the third day of my self-inflicted torture, I sat in the library again, intent on settling my father's accounts, when I heard a knock on the door.
"Come in," I replied instantly. Jenks ushered in an unknown gentleman.
"Mister Cullen. Mister Briggs is here to discuss the terms of your father's will."
I recognised the name of our family lawyer and gestured for him to take a seat. Nodding at my instruction to fetch refreshments for Mister Briggs, Jenks left the room.
"Please be seated, Mister Briggs. I believe we both know your business here today. Please proceed."
Mister Briggs stared at me with a blank expression on his benign face and retrieved a bundle of documents from his folder.
"I must say the terms of this will are not entirely unexpected, given the circumstances," said Mister Briggs, in a neutral and businesslike manner.
"Proceed, Mister Briggs," I had no inclination to indulge in small talk. I was longing to know what my father expected of me.
By law, Mister Briggs was required to unseal the document and peruse its contents first, to ascertain that it had not been tampered with, and then he would pass it on to me. After a quick perusal, no doubt because he'd probably been the very person to draw it up and seal it in the first place, Briggs finally handed over to me my father's last will and testament.
I skimmed quickly through the preambles and legal niceties, slowing when I reached the main body of the document that detailed the various bequests.
I was to have everything.
Even from beyond the grave, Father had a few bones to pick with Emmett, and made a point of expressing his displeasure in no uncertain terms. Emmett had been completely disinherited in favour of me and of my little sister Alice, who was to have a fortune of twenty-five thousand pounds settled upon her when she married.
There was a codicil to the will, though. The codicil stated that Isabella Marie Swan, as a rightful member of the family, would always be welcome at Cullen Manor, and that her current lodgings would be set aside in perpetuity as her own personal living quarters, should she elect to remain here. Carlisle then expounded how beneficial Isabella's presence had been to the family and, by virtue of that, she was also to have the stallion called Dark Fire, my father's favourite mount in the stables of Cullen Manor.
I was at a loss. I quickly dismissed Mister Briggs to muse over the terms of my father's will in peace.
Both Cullen Manor and the plantation were mine. I'd always wanted my father to acknowledge my endeavours in Jamaica, but for him to do so posthumously, and at the expense of my brother, left a bitter taste in my mouth, even if Emmett had brought this on himself. Emmett deserved this, for his cruel selfishness had ultimately resulted in my father's death.
My father had also made sure that Isabella would always have a proper place at Cullen Manor, and a means of escape as well, should she desire it and – I thought wryly – as long as she was able to ride a hot-blooded stallion through the downs of Cornwall.
Another light, but sure, knock on the door broke me away from these thoughts.
"Come in," I replied, observing that today I was receiving quite a procession of visitors.
The visitor, though, was none other than Isabella herself. For all my attempts at trying to avoid her, I supposed it was inevitable. After all, she could well be living here in perpetuity.
"I do not wish to disturb you," she began, wringing her hands in front of her.
"Not at all, Bella. Please, take a seat."
She nodded uneasily but did not sit down, choosing, instead, to keep her place by the library door.
"I just wished to let you know that I've written to Alice," she whispered, her eyes searching my features for any signs of distress.
I did feel uneasy, but only because I had been negligent in informing my sister of my return. I only hoped Alice would forgive the oversight, given the circumstances. Once again, Bella was taking care of my family. I thought of little Alice, who wouldn't be so little anymore. I had left behind a little girl of twelve, returning to a young lady of eighteen. I wondered what she would look like now.
I suddenly realised the actual reason behind Bella's gesture. If Alice needed to come home, then there was no hope left for my mother.
I sighed, and nodded, muttering strangled words of gratitude in Bella's direction. Silently, Bella was closing the door behind her, pausing only when I addressed her again. "Fetch the Newton boy, Bella. I want to talk to him."
"He'll be here after luncheon. He rides over from Falmouth every other day," she replied, this time truly shutting the door behind her.
True to Bella's word, Doctor Newton arrived at Cullen Manor in the early afternoon, just as I was climbing the stairs to go sit with my mother.
Bella accompanied us in silence as far as my mother's door, where she turned towards the doctor and greeted him with a sad voice, "Thank you, Doctor Newton, for everything you're doing."
The Newton boy's face lit up at her words and his hand reached out to gently brush her arm. "You don't need to thank me, Miss Isabella. And it's Michael to you."
Bella looked away uneasily, a light blush colouring her cheeks. She nodded and went back downstairs. Despite the situation, I couldn't help my irritation towards the Newton boy, because he'd made Bella uncomfortable. A furious, unbidden thought also shook me – I alone wanted to bring the blush to her cheeks.
As I entered my mother's room, I immediately sensed the dramatic change her condition. The room was permeated by a faintly foul smell, that could be explained away with only one word – sickroom.
My mother's condition was worsening by the hour, that much I could see for myself as I got closer to her bed. She was highly feverish, her breath ragged, and her eyes closed as she clutched the bed sheets by her sides. This was her last struggle and I steeled myself to have her snatched away from me at any moment.
I turned to Doctor Newton, who merely nodded, correctly surmising my unspoken question. "Will you at least tell me what it is, Michael?"
"It's a wasting sickness, Edward. I've done all I can. Miss Isabella has been a wonderful help, too," he added, with an unmistakable adoration in his eyes.
"She's lost the will to live," I said, defeated.
"Not the will, Edward. See how she's fighting still," countered Doctor Newton. I shot him an enquiring glance.
"She's lost her reason to live," I said after some reflection, answering my own question.
Sadly, this made sense to me. Without my father, my mother saw no point in dragging out her existence alone. I envied her for a moment, because she'd felt this all-encompassing love and it had been requited, until the very end. Doctor Newton patted my shoulder and left.
Hours later, I still hadn't moved from her side. All this long while, I'd held her hand, even if she could barely recognise me at the best of times. Bella stood on the other side of the bed, alternately pressing cold compresses to my mother's scalding hot forehead and caressing her hand. Every now and then, Bella murmured soothing words in her ear.
Late into the night, as Bella curled in an armchair, dozing only because I'd flatly ordered her to get some sleep, my mother opened her eyes and squeezed my hand.
She nodded and tried to speak, but her parched throat would not cooperate. When she did speak, her words were a croaked whisper, so low and unclear that I struggled to understand her.
"Edward…take care of your Bella for me, son…"
"Of course, mother," I replied, though half-heartedly, because there was no way I would contradict my dying mother.
A discerning eye to her very last minute, my mother guessed at my lack of conviction and repeated, brokenly, "Your Bella, take care…Edward…take…"
She could not finish.
She never would.
She was gone.
The following morning, a carriage rattled through the gates of Cullen Manor as Bella and I were upstairs by my mother's deathbed.
Attracted by the noise, Bella approached the window and, with a strangled sob, literally ran from the room. I swiftly followed her downstairs and saw her fling the front door open without ceremony.
She ran towards a slight and graceful, but sadly beautiful figure that all but fell off the carriage steps in her haste to get to Bella.
Bella embraced her tightly, soothing strands of her hair away from her face. From behind Bella's shoulders, I finally recognised my little sister.
Alice was home. Alice was home and desperately wailing in Bella's arms.
"Is she gone? Am I too late?" asked Alice, grieved tears streaming down her face.
Bella nodded, causing another outburst of tears from Alice. Then, Bella moved away from Alice's side and said, "Go to Edward, Alice. Your brother needs you now."
Alice then took notice of me standing by the door.
"Edward?" she said, eyeing me warily through the tears. I stretched my arms open to welcome her back, looking at my sister for the first time in six years.
Even in her distress, I could see the sweet features of the little girl I'd left behind. This beautiful young lady also bore a striking resemblance to my mother in her hazel eyes and in her wavy, caramel-coloured hair. Petite in stature, she stood shorter than Bella and quite disappeared when I enveloped her in my arms. With my little sister by my side, I finally gave free rein to my grief, and let my own tears flow.
That night, after dinner, Alice sought me out in the library.
"You can't lock yourself up in here forever, you know," she announced, in a melodic voice that was sorely inappropriate to the situation.
"I don't understand what you mean, Alice," I answered, my own voice clipped and annoyed.
"I think you understand me perfectly, brother. It doesn't take a scientist to see that you are going out of your way to avoid her."
Bella. Of course Alice would see my strained, ill-controlled behaviour around her and, endowed with an inquisitive mind since childhood, she would naturally begin to spin stories in her head concerning my motives.
"I'm not avoiding her," I countered, in a lame attempt to deflect her scrutiny.
"And the moon is made of green cheese," she replied, tartly at first, but then changing her tone.
"I will not allow you to do this to her, I see what you're doing. If your resentment drives her away, Edward, God help me, you will never see me again."
Angrily, I dropped my book on the table with a loud thud.
"This is blackmail, Alice. It's hardly fair."
"She's my sister, Edward. That's not fair, either."
And with that, she stormed out of the library, leaving me alone with my thoughts. My sister was turning against me, all because of my despicable behaviour towards Bella.
I couldn't find a solution to this quandary, because all my attempts were futile, all my certainties were constantly being shaken by this girl and her unexpected nature.
With some irritation, I thought that Bella was avoiding me as well. She never came to see me, she never even talked to me. And then it hit me. Bella was grieving, too, and now she had Alice. She did not need me, nor could she seek me out – it would hardly be considered proper. I thought about the times that lay ahead of us.
Would Bella want to stay at Cullen Manor? Would I be expected to stay in Cornwall, or could I flee back to Jamaica?
The next few days leading up to my mother's funeral were a cold, numb, painful whirlwind of activity. I would have rather confined myself to my room, and surrendered to the blind grief of losing both my parents, but the burden that my father's will had suddenly thrust on my shoulders, left me no such leisure.
An endless stream of visitors stopped by to pay their respects and, as the rightful master of the house, I could not shirk my responsibilities. Many were genuinely grieved by my mother's passing, whilst others were just curious to see the prodigal son looked returned, after his long exile in the West Indies.
There was a common undercurrent to their kind words of sympathy, though. All of them naturally gravitated towards Bella, seeking her out from among the crowd. With Alice constantly at her side, the two of them had everything under control, from the ordinary running of the household to being socially acceptable towards the throng of mourners attending my mother's wake and funeral.
After the funeral, I spoke with to the Newton boy, who was, as my mother had correctly remarked, as boring as he'd ever been. He had another major defect – he couldn't stop talking about Bella. Just as I was trying to concoct a way to pry myself away from the conversation, I saw the small crowd in the house part.
A huge and familiar figure appeared looming on the other side of the hall. I could scarce believe my eyes.
"Emmett." My voice rang cold and distant.
"I want to see Mother's grave, Edward. I have no quarrel with you."
He'd come at the wake, waiting until after the funeral, knowing that my sense of propriety would prevent me from making a scene, thus relenting to his request. How little he knew me now, if he thought I would disregard my father's wishes, with my mother not even cold in her grave.
"You are not welcome here," I replied, my face composed, despite the fury that raged in my eyes.
"You can't deny me the right to see my mother's grave," he pleaded. I could see that he hoped to reason with me. Mistakenly, he thought our brotherly bond would be untarnished by all that had transpired. He thought wrong.
"You are not welcome here," I repeated coldly. "Do I have to call the constable?"
"For God's sake, Edward! Don't be so damn self-righteous, I'm your brother!" Now he was almost shouting.
We were indeed causing a scene and my uneasy guests were slowly disappearing from the room. A light touch on my forearm stopped me before I could truly give my brother a piece of my mind.
"Emmett, will you step outside with me for a moment, please?"
I was not surprised to hear Bella's soothing voice beside me. Again, she was taking care of my family, she was rescuing me from myself. She threw me a sidelong, concerned glance and whispered, "Let me handle this, Edward. Emmett will not pick a fight with me."
I was worried, and was about to beg her not to go, but the look of fierce courage in her eyes dissuaded me. Of course she could convince Emmett to behave – was there anything she was incapable of?
She sensed my uncertainty and repeated, "Let me do this for you, please."
She was doing more than extricating me from an awkward situation, she was begging me to let her in. Could I do that?
I was suddenly gripped by the irrational fear that Emmett's reactions would be less than gentlemanly and I feared he would harm her. Inexplicably, I wanted to protect her.
What was she doing to me?
My father had disinherited my brother, my mother was dead, my sister wasn't speaking to me, my banished brother was intruding on my mother's memorial and yet… all I could think about was how this quiet, determined, sweet, beautiful girl was turning my life upside down. I swallowed hard, knowing I was standing here, at the turn of the tide, the waves of a raging ocean crashing down on me.
I covered her hand with mine and whispered back, "Be safe."
She nodded and followed Emmett out of the house. I felt my heart clench in anxiety as I watched her go.
I watched the door anxiously, relieved when she returned. She'd been gone for only ten minutes, but it had felt like hours to me. Alice flitted next to Bella the second she stepped back inside the drawing room.
"Well?" asked Alice, almost sizzling with anticipation.
Bella sighed and dropped, gracelessly, into the nearest armchair. She was clearly exhausted.
"It's always the same, Alice, and you know it. He wants a second chance, but…" She was going to continue, but stopped short when she noticed my brooding look.
"Pray continue, Bella. I'd love to know what my dear brother wants," I interrupted, my tone needlessly harsh.
I heard Alice scoff at my side. "Edward, this is hardly helpful," she snapped, but Bella threw her an awkward glance. "Alice, please. Let's just drop this."
"No, Bella. We won't drop this. What does Emmett want?" I spat, angrily.
She rose to her feet and walked towards where I was sitting. Her expression was unreadable.
"I told him that it would take a lot more for him to be admitted into this house again. If you will excuse me, I will retire for the night."
"Bella, can I…?" began Alice, her voice trailing off in the wake of Bella's sudden coldness.
"Not tonight, Alice, please," said Bella, pointedly avoiding my gaze.
When Bella left the room, Alice stood up to leave as well, an irritated frown marring her features.
"When will you stop doubting her, Edward?"
The following morning, as we all sought to resume some semblance of routine, a sharp rap on the front door was heard.
Jenks, ever attentive to his duties, opened it to reveal a tall, blond stranger. Dressed in the height of London fashion, our visitor was obviously no country bumpkin.
Jenks ushered him in, as the gentleman introduced himself.
"I'm Lord Jasper Whitlock. I'm here to see my cousin, Miss Isabella Swan. Will you please inform her that I have arrived?"
Hovering on the landing, intent to observe him without being noticed, I failed to hear footsteps on approaching behind me until it was too late to withdraw. Bella's voice resonating over my shoulder startled me out of my scrutiny of Lord Whitlock.
"Jasper, is that really you?" she exclaimed, her voice happily surprised.
Who was this man, and what did he want with my Bella?
Bella rushed to the door to welcome him and he enveloped her in a tight, affectionate embrace.
"Are you alright, little one?" he crooned, his hands protectively caressing her shoulders.
She nodded, an open and bright smile gracing her lips. "I…I…I…am monstrous glad to see you, Jasper, but why? How?"
"Did you think I would leave you to fend for yourself at such a time?" he replied, straight away, his eyes alighted on my hovering figure.
Bella saw me and hastened to make the appropriate introductions.
"Jasper, this is Mister Edward Cullen. He is Carlisle's son and heir. Mister Cullen, this is my cousin Lord Jasper Whitlock."
Lord Whitlock acknowledged me with a gentlemanly nod and returned his undivided attention to Bella. I attempted to dismiss the fact that Bella had addressed me formally in front of his Lordship.
"Little one, I wish to have a word with you. Will you take a turn with me outside?"
"Of course, Jasper. Let me fetch my shawl and I will show you the gardens out back," she replied, ushering him outside.
Just like that, I let her walk away from me, with her Lordship of a cousin.
They reappeared more than two hours later, and Bella politely asked my permission for Jasper to stay for a couple of days before he returned to London. Grudgingly, I granted her wish. This was, of course, her house as much as my own, if she wanted it to be.
But what about me – did I want her to stay?
Two days later, she approached me in the library.
She looked solemn and detached, her eyes full of emotion and her features lined with pain. It was apparent that this was not going to be an easy conversation, and I was hesitant to be the one to start it.
"Jasper and I have talked a lot these last few days," she began.
"You seem to be very close," I replied, blankly.
"We grew up together as children," she explained.
When I offered no comment, she continued. "He wants me to return to London with him and live with his family."
Shock and anger froze me over. She was leaving Cornwall. Her Lordship of a cousin was snatching her away from me.
I couldn't lose her, too.
"He feels it would be more proper for me to…live in a different household."
So this was Lord Whitlock's incontrovertible argument – propriety. Hang it all! I'd show him propriety.
Sullenly, I knew she accepted Jasper's reasoning, discounting her own opinions. Fear gripped me – what was she going to do? Was this what she truly wanted?
"I think…I think I should leave," she whispered.
My heart fell. I could not allow this, but knew, without a doubt, that I would never retain her by my side by haranguing her with the terms of Carlisle's will. It would be the foulest kind of blackmail and I didn't want her to stay here solely out of duty towards my parents' wishes.
But…what sort of inducement had I given her up until now, that would convince her to stay?
Alice was right, my doubts and unpleasant disposition had been driving Bella away. She must surely despise me now, but I owed myself one last-ditch attempt to change her mind. I felt my resolve crumble inside me and, with it, the last of my carefully crafted walls.
I walked around the table to stand in front of her. I drunk in the sight of her – it might well be the last chance I had, before his Lordship took her away. I hoped that my regard could convey everything I was feeling in that moment.
As longing gripped my heart like a cruel vice, my hands flew to her shoulders. She raised her head to meet my gaze.
"Is this really what you want?" I asked, anxious to know whether she agreed with her cousin.
She frowned, her eyes were revealing so much more than propriety would allow her to speak aloud.
"I'll leave with Jasper. I won't inconvenience you any longer."
So this was what she thought? My brilliant plan to keep her safe from the conflicting emotions that raged inside of me had merely resulted in her believing I thought her an inconvenience.
With a faint flicker of hope, though, I reasoned that not everything was lost – she'd never have gone to such lengths to protect me and mine if she didn't harbour deep feelings for my family, myself included.
Did I dare hope? I had to.
With sudden faith, I poured all of my confused, all-consuming feelings into a piercing gaze that sought her eyes. I gentled my hands on her and steeled myself to repeat my question.
"Is this really what you want?"
She shook her head, a traitor tear lining her face, but her words contradicted her vehement actions.
"I…I…this is no longer home to me…"
I wouldn't allow this. Propriety be damned.
I removed my hands from her shoulders to grasp her dainty hands in mine, intertwining my fingers with hers and pulled her to my chest. Hope branded my heart like a wild fire when she did not flinch or pull away from me.
A heated blush – my blush, I thought possessively – crept across her porcelain skin. I snatched upon this moment like a hawk on his prey.
"No. You won't go with Jasper. You will stay here."
"Edward?" she sighed, still doubtful.
There would soon be no doubt in her voice.
"You won't leave my side ever again. I can't imagine a life without you."
Her eyes widened, not in shock, but in silent acknowledgement of all I had just admitted. Her expressive eyes lit up with a joyful glint and a loving smile graced her features. She was glorious.
"Yes, Edward. I will stay."
I was home, at last.