The usual thanks to the MoorWard team - Unimaginative Olena, AstonMartin Vanquish, Busymommy and the resident historical advisor, Udo Blick.
A big, big thank you to the PLF girls.
More below...now, back to Cullen Manor.
Bella's decision to spend the forthcoming season in London set in motion a sequence of events over which I seemed to have no control whatsoever.
The next morning, when Bella first broke the news to Alice at the breakfast table, my sister could hardly contain her enthusiasm.
"Bella, this is wonderful news! We will have so much fun together! Think of the theatre, the balls, the dinner parties! There is so much we need to do before we leave. When are we leaving? We must walk into town later. So many errands to run, I'm sure I'll forget some…"
Alice prattled on, quite unaware that Bella had neither accepted nor rejected her proposal. Indeed, she looked patiently amused, her chocolate eyes crinkling with mirth over the rim of her teacup. I was tempted to cut Alice's ramblings short, though Bella hardly needed my assistance.
"Are you even listening to me, Bella?" protested Alice, a disappointed expression on her face.
"I am, Alice, believe me. I just don't think half of those vital errands you mentioned are so…vital to me."
Alice's brow creased and her lips pursed in a childish pout. She was mighty displeased with Bella's reaction to the upcoming London trip and its much needed careful preparations.
"But Bella…this is the season, the season in London, no less. You need to look your absolute best." Alice's voice was sincere, even though her words no doubt reeked of the advice she'd received herself at school. She was dutifully repeating her lessons in society. I surmised that Bella had not been subjected to that kind of tuition, or if she had, the subject hadn't found, in all likelihood, a very fertile ground. True to my suspicions, Bella remained unaffected by Alice's tirade and answered with a silent nod. With that, the conversation seemed to be over.
"I'm sure Miss Isabella will look beautiful even without the countless yards of finery you wish to inflict on her, Alice." I observed, patting Alice's hand to comfort her.
"But you'll accompany me on my shopping rounds, Bella? Please?"
Bella threw a sideways glance to Lord Whitlock, who'd been sipping his own tea in silence until that moment, and then replied to Alice, with one of her bright smiles, "Of course, Alice. Someone needs to make sure you do come home at the end of the day."
That was the last I really saw of either my sister or Bella for the best part of the following week. They were constantly in Falmouth, becoming the nightmare of every tailor, milliner, draper and seamstress alike. They left no stone unturned, no shop unattended, as if any of those tradesmen would take offense at being slighted by the absence of their highly valued custom. Indeed, Alice was the one to waltz back home burdened with countless parcels at the end of each day. Bella did keep her word and accompanied her, but never seemed to make any purchases for herself. Her lack of interest in those I assumed to be highly feminine pursuits left me wondering; even considering her peculiar disposition, she must be aware that her upbringing and her station in society required her to look the part in all ways possible. Besides, what girl could be so uninterested in her own looks, to the point that she didn't want to show off her new finery in London? Bella was truly an enigma to me sometimes.
Three days before we were set to leave, Lord Whitlock came to see me in the library while I was settling the estate accounts.
I had no particular troubles in that respect; while not large, my father's estate had been well managed and his abrupt passing hadn't impacted his affairs negatively. Day after day, the routine of Cornwall was replacing my former routine in Jamaica. I rode through the land, I visited the cottagers, I checked the pastures, I went over the accounts with the steward and I spent precious little time doing anything else. By the time Jenks ushered us in to dinner, I was exhausted. I barely kept up with scraps of conversation at dinner, but that was the extent of my involvement with my sister, Bella, and her obnoxious cousin who used to watch me like a hawk from his seat across the table.
Bella herself stole a glance or two my way every night at dinner, but she never engaged me in conversation first, mostly because Alice monopolised her time from dawn to sunset. All this while, Bella managed to attend to my sister and to her duties around the house without a single mishap. To the outsider I still felt I was to Cullen Manor, it was as if the house was capable of running itself. I knew better though, because such a well-oiled machine required hard work behind the scenes, and I never doubted for a second that Bella had eyes and ears everywhere in the guise of her ever-present, ever-faithful Jenks.
I looked up from my paperwork to meet Lord Whitlock's steady, unreadable gaze and gestured for him to take a seat. I wondered what the man could possibly want with me now. I was abiding by all his blasted terms.
"Lord Whitlock, how may I be of service to you? Is there anything particular you wished to discuss?"
He let out an uneasy sigh and tented his fingers, gathering his thoughts before speaking.
"I've come to ask a favour of you, Mr Cullen," he announced. His voice sounded subdued and uncertain. I abandoned my quill and my accounts and sat back in my chair, contemplating for a moment the magnitude of the scene before me. This man – his Lordship – was humbling himself in my eyes, asking a favour of the likes of me. The circumstances must be dire indeed, that he was forced to ask for my assistance. It was no mystery that he did not like me much to begin with. He tolerated me for Bella's sake, and because he was no doubt a born strategist who saw no potential good results from overtly contrasting me. Therefore, something important must have kicked him off his high horse. I decided to be the better man and let this go unnoticed, even if I allowed myself one instant to gloat, inwardly.
"I'd be more than happy to assist you, Lord Whitlock." He nodded, that wary expression never leaving his face.
"I received an express earlier this morning. I am urgently needed back in Somerset. In fact, I should be leaving within the hour if I wish to make the stagecoach in Truro. I would greatly appreciate if…"
The fog, so to speak, began lifting from my mind. He wouldn't be able to travel to London with us.
"You wish me to escort Miss Isabella to London?"
He blinked once, then understanding dawned on his face and he breathed a sigh of relief. "That would be…most considerate of you, Mr Cullen."
I waved dismissively at him. Of course, he wasn't imposing in any way, though his station and manners – and his being Bella's guardian, for the time being – required that he would formally entrust me with her care. Little did he know that there was no need to ask me; that was understood.
"Miss Isabella is akin to family to my dear sister and me, Lord Whitlock, the only semblance of family we have left. We take care of our own, Lord Whitlock. Never doubt that."
I knew I was probably saying too much, that my feelings were too apparent, my contained expression thus unable to keep them at bay behind my heartfelt words. I didn't care. I didn't want doubts and uncertainties in my way. I had already given my word that I would spend five months in London, at the mercy of those scandalmongering throngs of ladies and gentlemen of good breeding, the former of whom would envy my Bella bitterly, and the latter would try to pry her away from under my nose. Lord Whitlock was a man of the world. He had to guess the hidden meaning behind my words. He had to know that my intentions couldn't be but honourable.
"I would never venture to presume otherwise, Mr Cullen." He replied, rising from his seat to leave.
"Very well, then." I rose too, to lead him on his way. "Until next time, I believe, Lord Whitlock."
"I shall see you all in London, Mr Cullen. I must be on my way. Will you be sure to tell Isabella?"
He looked genuinely concerned. For a moment, I forgot that his Lordship was scheming to overthrow my possible hope of happiness and understood his anxiety. He was leaving a precious treasure behind, and that treasure would be in my hands until further notice. It felt petty and underhanded to gloat. Almost.
"I will tell her myself this instant. I believe she must be in the orchard at this time of day. Funnily enough, no shopping errands today."
At the oblique mention of my sister, his eyes lit up. Was that something I needed to watch more closely? Maybe there was nothing in it.
"Orchard? What could Isabella possibly be doing in the orchard?" He wondered aloud, shaking his head. He didn't wait for my reply, but touched his hat in salute and was gone. I figured that, by now, he had to be resigned to his fair cousin's peculiar antics.
I sighed. Bella was constantly outdoors; horse-riding, arranging flower beds in the garden and, much to my chagrin, pruning the fruit trees in the orchard, perched on a wooden ladder. There was always one of the boys or even Jenks helping her, but it still didn't sit well with me.
I made my way to the kitchen, where I found Jenks reprimanding one of the scullery maids. I left him to do his job and exited to the orchard by the back door. There she was.
I paused for a minute, my hands on my hips, enjoying the view from the house, still undisturbed. She was indeed at her favourite pastime and one of the boys, whose name I failed to remember, was helping her keep the ladder steady while she worked.
The late morning sun threw an irregular, but equally enchanting pattern of sunrays and shadows across her figure and I couldn't help but stand there, mesmerised by her mere presence. Her hair was, as usual, styled into an intricate style with braids and such at the nape of her neck, but a handful of wayward tendrils had escaped the otherwise disciplined net and hid her face from my view. I tempered the instinct to run towards her and instead I approached with a leisurely gait, strolling through the orchard.
The boy noticed me first, or maybe just heard my footfalls on the gravel path. "Good morning, sir."
I merely nodded my head to him in reply, but the damage was done. Bella had been alerted to my arrival and, quite predictably, turned her head in my direction.
"Good morning, Miss Bella." I greeted her first, and kept my address formal, for the sake of propriety.
"Good morning, Mr Cullen," she replied with a happy, unguarded smile, brandishing a pair of garden shears. She didn't seem intimidating or out of place. She looked perfectly at ease, as if she'd been doing this for years, and maybe she had. She reminded me of my mother who, likewise, spent hours on end in her garden and orchard.
In spite of her bewitching smile, I remembered I'd come here for a specific reason, and that I'd rather be without an audience for that conversation. Propriety be damned – we were out in the open, and in broad daylight. "Boy, you may go now. I'll help Miss Bella."
The boy looked flustered but nodded his head in silence and left the orchard in a hurry.
"You might have scared poor Jimmy out of his wits, Edward. What was that for?" Bella asked, once we were alone. I could detect the hint of humour in her voice. It was charming, and I felt a foreign kind of contentment bloom in my chest, just hearing her use my Christian name, and her voice so serene.
"Never mind the lad, now. I want to talk to you alone."
I moved closer to the ladder and took the boy's place, holding the ladder steadier into the ground. This contraption had been in the tool shed at Cullen Manor time out of mind. It was a miracle it hadn't yet fallen to pieces. I didn't like the thought of Bella using such a blasted piece of moulded wood. It could fall apart at any time.
"Oh. Is there anything the matter?"
I sighed. "Yes, you are the matter. Are you trying to make me go prematurely grey? First the horse riding, in breeches, no less, then you climb ladders that are not even fit to be used as firewood…"
I caught myself, for I was saying too much. She didn't need to know that I had been spying on her, watching her from my room. Still, she didn't comment on my slip, she just huffed and went about her business around the apple tree she was pruning, completely oblivious to my exasperation.
"Well, Miss Bella?"
"I've been using this ladder for years, Mr Cullen, and I'm happy to announce it never once caused me trouble. I see no reason why it should be a problem now." She was being deliberately short with me – my comment had no doubt provoked her. Just then, I remembered that her antics weren't my original reason for seeking her out.
"Lord Whitlock came to see me earlier." That elicited a reaction. She stopped working and descended the creaking pegs one by one until she was, once again, with her feet safely planted on the ground. To my utter delight, I realised that, because of my current stance, she was all but enveloped in my embrace. She turned to face me, a slight frown marring her features.
"Was he rude to you?" I shook my head, quickly dismissing her misplaced fears about her cousin's behaviour.
"No, Bella, on the contrary. He had to leave at once, though. He'd gotten an express…"
She nodded in understanding. The news didn't come as a surprise to her.
"He's headed back to Somerset, is he not? He's not coming to London, then." She titled her head to the side with that speculative look she had every time she was deep in thought, or trying to ferret out something out in her head.
"He'll be joining us later. He specifically asked me to escort you into town." Bella nodded again and her eyes darted around the orchard. I moved away from the ladder, freeing her from the enclosure of my arms. I didn't like the distance.
Bella put a hand to her forehead to ward off the offending sunlight from her eyes. I thought she would walk back towards the house, but then I saw her climb back on the ladder. I quickly followed suit, and resumed my stance behind her.
"You do know we have garden hands at Cullen Manor, I presume?" I asked while she deftly cut away at the tree branches with that shear of hers. The way she moved about her work was a clear sign that she was well accustomed to this chore.
"Yes, I am well aware of that." She was still displeased with me.
"And yet you choose to do this lowly work yourself? I wonder why you would subject yourself to this." I heard her sigh from her high perch on the ladder and regretted my words. I'd managed to sound haughty just like her lordship of a cousin.
"Edward?" I felt rather than heard her voice closer to me. I raised my head and found her contemplating me eye to eye. She'd descended a couple of rungs so that her gaze was now level with mine. This was the closest we'd been since that day in the library.
"Would you please close your eyes, and listen?"
I looked at her, quite perplexed at her request. She understood my hesitation. "Humour me, please. Close your eyes and listen."
I did as she said. I felt her presence close to me. I felt the sunlight on my skin, less poignant and less cruel than Jamaica's sun, but warm and comforting all the same. I felt the breeze sweep in from the sea, with its unmistakable reek of salt and seaweed. I heard nothing, not one sound. Not even the seagulls keening down by the cove. There was only utter peace and silence in this corner of the orchard.
"What do you hear?" she finally asked when she thought I'd completed my survey.
"Nothing," I replied, still amazed at my own words.
"This is my peaceful place, Edward. This is why I come here, for respite."
I nodded, feeling chastised for my foolish assumptions. "I will not take this away from you, Bella. Just promise me you'll be careful. I wouldn't want you harmed."
She scoffed lightly, a smile on her face. "As if I could be harmed here…"
"All the same, Bella. Humour me, please."
She cast her eyes down and nodded. "I will, for your sake."
"Very well. Shall we return to the house?"
She nodded again and proceeded to descend the remaining rungs of the appalling contraption she insisted on calling a ladder. I took a few steps back to allow her to move freely. Just as she descended the very last rung and set back on the ground, she spun on her heel, and recoiled against the glaring sunlight. I saw her flinch for a moment, as if she was in pain. Then everything happened too fast for me to do anything.
One moment she was happily telling me of her peaceful place. The next she was collapsing on the gravel path like an empty sack. I hurried to her side, but couldn't do more than gather her up in my arms. I overcame all concerns of gentlemanly behaviour and ran my hands down her cheeks, smoothing her hair away from her face.
"Bella, Bella? What's wrong? Bella, please, talk to me…" Despite my efforts, she wouldn't reply or open her eyes. I presumed she'd lost consciousness. She'd fainted, not a yard away from me, not half an hour after her cousin had entrusted her to my care. A wretched beginning, indeed. I was anxious for her well-being and knew that time was of the essence.
"Propriety be damned," I growled under my breath, picking Bella up in my arms and walking to the house as quickly and delicately as I could, lest she'd be injured. With a swift kick of my foot, I wrenched the kitchen door open, where a startled Jenks took in the scene before his disbelieving eyes.
"What happened to the child?" he bellowed, no doubt as anxious as I was.
"Get the doctor, Jenks! At once!" I thundered back, his question unanswered, as I made my way from the kitchen towards the upper floor. Bella needed to be settled down in her room.
"Where is Bella's room, Jenks?" I could hear the man still at my heels. He'd surely sent one of the lads to fetch Michael Newton. It was a shame the annoying boy had to be the only doctor in these parts. I didn't like his manners with Bella, I didn't like him at all.
"The Blue Room, lad. She sleeps in the Blue Room." Of course my mother would have given her the most lavish room in the house. Bella probably didn't care for it at all, but she'd abided by my mother's wishes nonetheless. I climbed the stairs, holding a still unconscious Bella in my arms, as closely and as securely as propriety would allow. I couldn't bear to think her ill. Not her. Not after my father and mother had been snatched away from me so cruelly.
Just as I laid Bella on the bed, Alice and the chambermaid appeared out of nowhere. I heaved a laboured sigh. I knew that I would be thrown out now, and I'd be left to my solitary misery until the doctor's verdict would enlighten me about Bella's plight.
"Edward," Alice whispered, with a light touch to my elbow. "You must leave the room now. I will take care of her until Dr Newton arrives."
I knew very well I had no place in a lady's bedchamber, and I'd only been permitted to cross the threshold because of exceptional circumstances, yet I was reluctant to leave.
"You will tell me how she fares, Alice." That sounded ominously more like an order than a plea.
"Of course I will, Edward, but you'd best leave now. This is no place for you. Don't fret, brother. I am sure it is nothing serious," she added with a slight smile. Bella was unconscious and nothing was serious? I couldn't fathom how my sister would venture to say such a thing. Surely I was missing some fundamental mystery there. I quite detested being in the dark.
I retreated from the Blue Room and crossed paths with the Newton boy, who made a mad dash from the front door and up the stairs. Now, that showed dedication to his calling. He stopped cold in his tracks when he saw me.
"Mr Cullen, were you with Miss Isabella when it happened?"
"I was, Dr Newton. She fainted."
He nodded pensively and then added. "No prior warnings? Did she look tired?"
I closed my eyes for a spell and tried to recall Bella's demeanour in the orchard. "She'd been tending to the fruit trees in the orchard. Maybe the fierce sunlight…"
"Aye, that might be. I will see to her directly, Mr Cullen."
"Thank you, doctor."
A tedious, fidgety and uneasy hour followed. It seemed that the waiting would never end. I paced the library, unable to focus on anything other than the noises coming from upstairs. I listened to every move, every sound and every hint that the doctor had finished examining my Bella and that I'd finally know what had happened to her. I was hoping they would let me see her. I wanted to see for myself that she was well. I wasn't contemplating any other possible scenario.
Jenks ventured inside the library after a while, levelling a stern look in my direction. I had nothing to say to him, I just wanted to see Bella, make sure that no harm had come to her.
"The child has been working herself into the ground, lad. There is no stopping her." Now that was interesting, although I already felt uncontrollable rage brewing beneath the surface.
"She is no servant, Jenks, why in bloody hell would she do that?" I spat through gritted teeth.
"You have met Miss Bella, lad, haven't you? Well, do you think there is a way of ordering her about? There isn't. And it's been a wretched time, is all. She's been a rock, but…it was wont to wear her down sooner or later."
"I swear I will take better care of her, Jenks. I swear." Jenks's gaze softened.
"You do that, lad. You do that." He patted my arm encouragingly, just as he used to do when I was but a boy, and left without another word.
Eventually, I heard Alice's voice talking in hushed tones to the Newton boy just outside the library door. I didn't wait to be summoned. I stormed out of the library and barged in on their conversation with the bloodshot eyes of a madman. No doubt I was a fearsome sight to behold.
"Well, doctor?" I asked through gritted teeth, beside myself with worry and not inclined in the least to waste civilities on the good doctor. Alice regarded me with a shocked expression in her eyes.
"She is sleeping now, Mr Cullen. She should…rest for a few more days. I will send my apprentice later with a prescription for Miss Isabella." He added, continuing his former discourse with Alice and averting his gaze from me.
After he bowed and took his leave, I hastily turned to Alice for real answers.
"What happened to Bella, Alice? Please?"
She sat down on the hall bench next to me and took my hand in hers, soothingly. My little sister was taking care of me.
"She just fainted, Edward. You saw that yourself. The doctor said it's nothing serious. She needs to rest." Alice sounded oddly evasive, her explanation vague and unsatisfactory. If possible, I felt even more anxious now.
I lowered an anguished gaze to regard my sister's kind face closely. Concern marred her features, just as no doubt it was marring mine, only she was too quick to avert her gaze from me. I felt a vice contorting around my chest, making it impossible for me to breathe freely. "Nothing serious? You all keep telling me the same thing, over and over again. Alice, are you being honest with me?"
I heard Alice sniff and suppress a sob. "I am, I assure you, Edward. I feel responsible, though. The doctor said she needs rest, that she's overtaxed her strength. I insisted on dragging her along with me for days on end. It's my fault."
On instinct, I embraced her. "Do not blame yourself, sister. It's not your fault."
"Shush, child. Now let me go see her."
"Edward, no…you cannot possibly…" she protested. "Edward, please. Let her rest, you heard the doctor. Besides, it's not…" Alice continued, but stilled when I threw a solemn glance her way and left her behind.
Rest. Was it a dignified word to conceal something more substantial? I pondered that, climbing the stairs two at a time, unable to rein in my eagerness to see Bella. I stopped just outside her room, my hand on the doorknob, when I saw Alice at my side again. She'd followed me, clearly intent on preventing me from entering Bella's room.
"Edward, please. Not now. Let her rest. And it's not proper for you to…"
"Enough, Alice. I won't be dictated to in my own house. Go back to your embroidery and let me see her." She sighed, clearly irritated with my reaction, but didn't dare reply and disappeared from my sight.
I knocked but heard no sounds coming from the other side of the door. I knocked again and, when I still got no reply, I opened the door with circumspection and peeked inside. Betty the maid sat beside Bella, watching over her, but turned her head towards the door and regarded me with a startled expression.
"Sir, Miss Bella…" she began, no doubt to reiterate the doctor's instructions to me once again. It might not be her fault that Alice had thrown those explanations in my face one time too many already, but that didn't make them one jot less irritating to my ears. I'd had enough of their petty concerns about what I was allowed and what I wasn't allowed to do in my own house.
"Never you mind, Betty. Leave us."
She bobbed a hasty curtsey and retreated from the room in silence. I was finally by Bella's side, unhindered and quite alone.
I sat down beside her, in the chair that had been just vacated by the maid. Bella lay in her bed, her long mahogany hair undone and spread on the cushions in dark, silky waves. I longed to run my fingers through those endless locks, but in an unexpected bout of wisdom, I kept my hands to myself. She was sleeping, her eyes fluttering beneath her eyelids in restless motions. She didn't look peaceful; she looked exhausted and unusually pale. Bella's natural complexion has the colour of flawless white alabaster, but right now she looked sallow, with dark, emaciated circles around her eyes. I wondered why I'd never noticed before that she had been overworking herself like this. Feeling guilty for my thoughtlessness, my breath caught in my throat. I closed my eyes and ran an unsteady hand through my hair and over my face. Then I heard her.
"What's wrong?" It was a hushed whisper amid rustling sheets. It seemed distant but there was no mistaking my Bella's voice. I couldn't help shaking my head at her in disbelief.
"Oh, Bella…." Relief washed over me.
"What's wrong?" she asked again, her voice sounding steadier.
"I saw you faint before my eyes, you're lying there pale as a sheet, your voice barely above a whisper, and you are asking me that?" I countered, leaning in closer to her.
"It was nothing, Edward. There is no need to fret."
I felt my temper flare, bile utterly rising within me. Everyone was telling me not to fret, and the more they told me, the more it irritated me to no end. I heaved a deep, uneasy sigh, trying to rein in my temper. It wouldn't do to take my frustration out on Bella.
"You need to rest. I'd better leave."
Her hand came to cover mine. "Will you stay awhile? Please?"
I couldn't refuse her. "Only for a little while. The doctor was quite adamant that you need your rest. You've been working yourself into the ground, Bella. I won't have that again."
She protested, or tried to, and looked away from me. "I am serious, Isabella. I won't allow you to overtax your strength like this. I've been shamefully thoughtless thus far, but things are going to change from now on. It's just as well that we are going to London. You'll be relieved of your housekeeping duties here for a few months. I just…I just…"
I couldn't finish. I couldn't bear the thought that I'd been too selfish and blind to see that everything that had happened at Cullen Manor had taken a toll on Bella. She'd had to take the brunt of everything alone before I came back from Jamaica.
"Edward?" I heard her, even before I felt her hand grip mine tighter. I opened my eyes and found her staring at me.
"Yes, Isabella?" I thought I saw a faint blush on her cheeks at my use of her full name. I guess I was still mildly irritated with the situation and with her reckless behaviour. I knew she would fight me on this. I knew she wouldn't want to relinquish her duties.
"Don't tell Jasper that I fainted…please? For my sake?"
I couldn't restrain a frustrated groan. I was responsible for her in Lord Whitlock's absence. I knew very well he could blame me for Bella's bout of illness but, at the same time, I didn't want to act in such an underhanded way and keep him in the dark.
"Bella, I am duty-bound to tell your cousin. He is your guardian and he placed you under my responsibility."
"Edward, please. Jasper would keep me confined for weeks like a porcelain doll. I just fainted. I didn't break a leg or get the pox." She was enumerating those possibilities with an impatient and irritated frown, and her pert reaction alone reassured me that she was already on the mend.
"Heaven forbid! You are not to climb that ladder, or work in that orchard again."
I couldn't resist a light snicker. There she was, lying in bed and arguing with me at the same time.
"You didn't just say that."
"I believe I did, Mr Cullen. What of it?"
"Well, I don't believe it was a very ladylike thing to say." She smiled, and my world turned brighter all of a sudden.
"Don't tell Alice, then. And don't tell Jasper I fainted."
I huffed, half-annoyed and half-defeated, because I knew I'd eventually give in to her pleas.
"Very well, but we're not leaving in three days as planned."
She tried to sit up in bed to protest, but I saw her wince. She could try and fight me with words all she wanted, but I wouldn't risk her health on the journey. A delay of a few days wouldn't even be noticed.
"No protests, Isabella. We will leave in a week, that should give you time to fully recover."
"I will write to your cousin and tell him that I'm detained in Cornwall on business. He won't dare contest that."
She closed her eyes and stifled a yawn. "You are tired, Bella. Do get some rest. I will see you…"
To be honest, I didn't know when I'd see her next. I didn't think my sister would be lenient and allow me free access to Bella's room until she recovered. I saw Bella nod her head in reply, but she was already falling asleep.
I left the room in silence and went back to confine myself in the library. I busied myself with the estate accounts and unnecessarily checked them three times over, in vain hope that time would pass quicker, until it was time to get dressed for dinner. Why Alice insisted that we did change for dinner, even if it was just the two of us, was beyond me, but I'd learnt not to contradict the will of the Cullen women.
Dinner was a quiet affair. Alice didn't even risk talking to me, after I'd been so short with her in the afternoon. She retired to her room right afterwards, but I knew that she would check in on Bella on her way upstairs.
I retired early as well, but found that nothing could ease my nerves. Not the crisp night air that crept in from the open window, not the meaningless words I'd read over and over in my book without even taking in a single one, not the glass of whiskey I'd poured from my father's favourite bottle after dinner.
I paced my room, unable to settle down at any sort of occupation, let alone sleep. I shed my suit and tie; I undid my shirt cuffs, leaving them hanging off my arms. I sat at the end of my bed to take off my boots, but suddenly decided against it. There was indeed something that could calm me down and clear my mind enough to be able to turn in.
I left my room and, guided only by the candle in my hand, I descended the grand staircase in the utter darkness. The house was likewise silent, since everyone had now retired for the night.
The far end of the library opened to a smaller room that my mother had always referred to, with a taint of pretentiousness, as the music room. The appellation was due to the fact that the room contained, indeed, the one and only musical instrument of the house, a Broadwood grand pianoforte that my mother had brought with her to Cullen Manor on her marriage to my father. On this very Broadwood grand my siblings and I had toiled for years, under the careful and unflinching tutelage of my mother first, and a music master later, so that we would all learn to play the instrument that she loved so much. Alas, out of the three of us, I was the only one truly gifted with a decent ear for music and, when my mother finally accepted defeat and allowed Emmett and Alice to pursue interests that better suited their talents, the Broadwood became my refuge from the outside world.
It was with a heavy heart that I'd left it behind in Cornwall when I sailed to Jamaica. I could never deprive my mother of her own heirloom and besides, there was no practical way for an object of that size to be hauled on to a clipper and survive the passage to the West Indies unscathed.
I had missed my piano all those years and yet, I hadn't had one chance to play it again since my return. Now was as good a moment as any; I would choose something quiet, hoping that the sounds wouldn't be carried upstairs through the stillness of the night.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the piano neat and polished, and its pitch as perfect as ever. Clearly, someone had been taking good care of it in my absence. I wondered whether my mother would put Bella to that task, while I browsed our substantial collection of sheet music.
There, I found what I was looking for. There was one piece of music that suited both my mood and the dark silence of the night that wrapped around me like a silken black cocoon, and it was Beethoven's Sonata in C Sharp Minor.
I'd always loved this complex, layered and controversial sonata, maybe because it had taken me years to master playing it quite right. The solemn pace and the sombre keys of its first movement suited my dark mood to perfection, and I found that some of my anxious thoughts dissipated when I struck the first bars on my long-lost piano. Its funereal gravity reminded me of my own recent plight. I'd been pried away from my successful, but lonely life in Jamaica to go back to my beloved family only to find it torn apart by bitter disagreements and death.
Yet, amid all this suffering and confusion, a lone glimmer of hope and beauty had risen. I made my way through the scarce bars that made up the Allegretto, its deceptively cheery rhythm echoing through the empty and dark music room, and couldn't help thinking that it reminded me of Isabella herself. She'd braved this storm alone, with unwavering devotion and unflinching loyalty towards my family, only to be met with contradiction, loss and the bridles of social conventions.
And Isabella herself was my hope and my quandary. Agitated and conflicted as I was, I still felt overruled by my blossoming feelings for her; feelings that I wasn't at liberty to act upon, until her Lordship of a cousin would be satisfied that she could have the life she deserved at Cullen Manor, that she would have the world at her feet because I would pledge my life and all my endeavours solely to that end.
Bar after bar, one tantalising arch of melody after the other, I poured into the music all of my anxiety, my questions and that all-encompassing spectrum of possessiveness, tenderness, protection and desire that her mere presence elicited in me, until I was spent and the music died on my fingers in the darkest hour of the night.
Still lost in my head and my musings, I managed to hear a faint shuffling noise behind my back, like the gentle patter of feet on the hardwood floor. On instinct, I turned to see a white shape huddled in an armchair in the corner.
Started, she rose to her feet. "I didn't mean to frighten you, just…what are you doing down here?" I asked abruptly, thinking she'd catch her death of cold out here in her nightgown. I rose from the piano bench and moved closer to her.
"I came downstairs for a glass of milk and then heard the music. I was drawn to it, and found you playing and…well…"
She averted her gaze, clearly embarrassed. "I think I should go back to my room." She added, when she found her voice. I crouched beside her.
"Did you get that milk already, Bella?" She shook her head in denial and continued, "No, I…I just…I haven't heard anyone here play in a while. Esme loved this piece so much and…I just wanted to hear you play, please forgive my intrusion."
It was my turn to be embarrassed, because Bella's voice was unsteady and the faint moonlight from the window revealed unshed tears in her eyes. I wanted to comfort her and didn't want her to cry, at the same time. I boldly took her cold hands in mine.
"You didn't intrude, Bella. Please, don't ever…don't ever hide from me."
At my words, she met my gaze, a determined look in her eyes. A serene smile graced her features and the glow of the moon made her look radiant, in her almost otherworldly beauty. There was no more denying myself, I was smitten, and would do anything in my power to make her mine.
The realisation made me forget myself for a second, as I choked on my own words and could barely hear her reply: "Never, Edward."
On impulse, I grazed my lips on her knuckles, and repented the brief contact right away. How could I think one faint, chaste kiss could quench my thirst? I shook my head, trying to regain my composure before I addressed her again.
"Let's go find that glass of milk, shall we?" She nodded, without a word, but made no move to wring her hands free from my grasp.
"And then I will escort you back to your room."
A week later, Jenks was busy ordering the maids and stable boys about while they fussed around the carriage, hoisting trunks and sundries on its top. We were finally getting ready to leave for London. Alice's enthusiasm had no bounds and only Bella's patient and joyful remarks could keep her at bay.
Bella had recovered entirely from her fainting spell and, despite her protestations that she was well and could keep up her duties, I'd steadfastly forbidden her to fuss about the house and had entrusted all her chores to Jenks, who was more than glad to be overworked for the short space of a week, if that meant that his dear child could be pampered and indulged. That old man was all bark and no bite, and had a very soft spot for my Bella. I teased him about it one morning, but wasn't prepared to be stunned into silence by his reply.
"If I be going soft on the bairn, laddie, that's as well as can be. You be the one in trouble, laddie, as you can't keep yer hands to yeself, mind ye. The lass is a beauty, and no mistake. Now don't you go hurting her, or I'll have your hide raw. Are we clear?"
The harmonious chime of Bella's soft laughter peeled me away from my embarrassing memory. "Alice, please, stop fidgeting! We have a long journey ahead, it won't do you any good to be this agitated."
"I know, Bella…I know! But…London! Together! When did you say your cousin would join us?"
My sister's question piqued my curiosity. I kept my eyes trained on the carriage, but eagerly followed their conversation from a polite distance.
"Jasper said he would be in town in time for Lord Blackwood's ball, and he anticipated that we would all be invited. He also extended an invitation for a small dinner party at Holland Park as soon as we are in town." Bella patiently explained to an over-excited Alice. I couldn't miss a hint of blasé annoyance while Bella enumerated these high-class social engagements. It appeared that she cared very little for them. I was intrigued.
"Holland Park?" asked Alice. "Is it..?"
"Yes, Alice, it's my cousin's residence in London. Not very far from my own house, actually…but…definitely grander."
Bella sounded dismissive, just like she did every time she didn't want further inquiry into a matter. Jenks, who needed Bella for some last minute questions as to the household, interrupted the conversation. Alice came to stand by my side, with a mischievous smile on her lips.
"A ball, Edward, did you hear?"
"Yes, I heard perfectly well, sister." I could tell she was excited to be mixing with society at her young age, and it was high time she did, but I dreaded the prospect of warding unwanted rivals from Bella's side. I didn't trust my restraint.
"And it all sounds so grand…" she continued, more for her own benefit than mine.
Two days later, Alice's liveliness had been sorely curbed by the long journey to London. She'd become an annoying bundle of jostled skirts, sour looks and sharp repartees. Bella, on the other hand, had slept less than Alice but also whined nowhere near as much as she did. In fact, she didn't complain once. She'd just try to find a better stance on the coach bench, by moving the covers and cushions around, but wouldn't voice her discomfort or weariness once.
I knew we were approaching the city when the noises and smells from outside began drifting inside the coach. Bella dared a peek outside the window to get her bearings, while a sleeping Alice huddled into her side.
"Isn't she crowding you, Bella?"
"No, Edward, leave her be, she must be tired." I smiled. As usual, Bella was concerned with others' well-being before her own.
"And you are fresh as a rose, I gather?" I ventured to comment.
"That's not a thing you should say to a lady, Edward…" She countered, mirroring my own smile. I loved that we didn't stand on ceremony in our personal interactions. Soon this would be confined to strictly private conversation, and God knew how many of those I could manage to carve into her busy social schedule.
After a long drive through the meandering streets of town, the carriage came abruptly to a stop.
"I daresay we are here," announced Bella.
Alice, still sleepy, rubbed her hands over her eyes and stifled a yawn. "Are we?"
I dared, too, a peek outside the window, and my eyes were met with a most astonishing sight. A brownstone mansion with white marble pillars and tall, pristine windows towered over us. A parade of liveried servants and maids in perfectly pressed uniforms stood on the doorsteps and a prominent, grandmotherly figure with a white starched cap waited at the front door with a radiant smile. That had to be Bella's housekeeper. The girl had more servants in a house she didn't dwell in than I had in the whole of my estate in Jamaica.
"Yes, Alice. Welcome to Grosvenor Square."
So this was where Bella lived? At the very heart of town? Neck and neck with the pick of London?
I was going to have my work cut out for me.
Edward plays the Moonlight Sonata in the library. Except, it wasn't yet named Moonlight Sonata at the time, and he is a perfectionist who would of course remember its correct name. Listening to the three movements should enhance the experience. Here are links to my favorite version, as played by Daniel Barenboim:
First Movement: http : / www . youtube . com / watch?v = E10K73GvCKU&feature = youtu. be
Second Movement: http : / www . youtube . com / watch?v = zs0QAA0eItU&feature = youtu . be
Third Movement: http : / www . youtube . com / watch?v = YJeD8ckihN8&feature = youtu . be