Age of Edward Contest

Your pen name: DeJean Smith

Title: Wolf Branch Destiny

Summary: When life in the Colorado Territory didn't bring him the life he wanted, Edward returned home to Illinois. Could he find what he was missing on the shores of Wolf Branch?

Type of Edward: Frontierward

Beta diva: Javamomma0921

Plattville, Illinois, October, 1870

The cool fall sun shone high in the clear Illinois sky, casting short shadows along the streets of Plattville. Astride a silvery gray horse, a lone man rode into town, his dark eyes capturing every detail. From the whitewashed Newton Mercantile to the small brick and stone jailhouse at the far end of town, nothing escaped his cold, evergreen stare. He had the body language of someone who wanted to be anywhere else but where he was.

He clicked his tongue and pulled on the reins, guiding the beast down the almost deserted street toward the jail. From his chair Sheriff Emmett McCarty slowly opened his eyes and took in the approaching man. His eyes widened considerably as he recognized the figure before him.

"Well as I live and breathe!" he grinned, rising from his chair and extending a meaty paw to the man that dismounted his horse a few feet away. "Masen Cullen, you old so and so!"

A half-grin tugged at the stranger's mouth. He pulled off one of his riding glove and shook his old friend's hand.

"So and so, Em?" came a dust-choked laugh.

"Never know who's listening," Emmett began before two small girls, clad in dusty sackcloth dresses burst through the door and onto the porch.

"Bang! Bang!" the older one shouted, using a stick as a gun.

"Ha! You missed!" the younger taunted before sticking her tongue out and ducking behind Emmett.

"Daaaaa-deeeee!" a smaller voice came from inside.

"Did y'all lock Junior in the cell again?" Emmett demanded, trying his best to be the serious parent. His eyes darted from one girl to the next, his hands akimbo.

"No, sir!" both girls answered in unison.

"He locked hisself in!" the younger piped, earning a barking laugh from the stranger.

The girls' eyes instantly snapped to the visitor and they both became suddenly shy, jockeying for position behind Emmett.

Emmett sighed good-naturedly and motioned the others to follow, which they did. Inside the jail, they found a two-year-old boy sitting in the lone cell, happily chewing on the thumbnail of one fist.

"What up, Boy?" Emmett asked, reaching for the keys and opening the door.

"Quiet in here," the toddler grinned before marching out into the small main room of the jail.

"Lily, Grace, you two take Junior home and tell Mama we've got company for supper," Emmett ordered.

"Yes, Sir!" both girls grinned before dashing out after their brother.

"Guess that explains the so-and-so," the traveler murmured, whipping off his worn gray felted hat, revealing flattened rusty copper hair.

"Take a seat," Emmett nodded, pulling up the chair at his desk. He opened a drawer and pulled out a half-full bottle of whiskey and two glasses.

"So what brings you back to Plattville, Mase?" Emmett poured a healthy libation into both glasses.

"Edward," he corrected quietly, taking the offered glass and draining half in one swallow. "I'm Edward Masen now."

"So you gave in." Emmett had long seen the arguments between Edward, Senior, and Edward, Junior, over his name.

"Not so much gave in as grew up," Edward sighed. "Decided there were more important things to fight about."

"I was right sorry to hear about your folks. They were good people," Emmett intoned gently, raising his glass in silent salute to the departed.

"That they were," Edward sighed, remembering the telegraph he had received from his sister informing him of his parents' deaths from the influenza.

Emmett nodded and the two stared at each other in comfortable silence for a few minutes.

"Last I heard, you were out in Colorado territory," Emmett observed, motioning with the bottle to ask if Edward needed a refill.

Edward shook his head.

"I was. Worked at a ranch as foreman for a couple years."

Emmett gazed at his friend in silence.

"Woman trouble?" he finally observed.

"Sort of. She wanted to get married, I didn't. Since her father owned the land, it was leave or give in."

"You didn't leave under…bad circumstances, did you? I'm not going to get a bulletin requesting I arrest you or anything."

"Not likely."

"Not…" Emmett motioned a pregnant belly over his own barrel chest.

"You should know better than that."

"Just askin'. Rosie's gonna pop Quatro out the second she sees you." Emmett rose and motioned for Edward to join him.


"Kid number four. Due any day now." Emmett puffed up proudly as he hitched up his pants.

Hours later, after the kids were abed and supper long put away, Emmett and Edward stood on the front stoop of the cozy McCarty home, gazing up at the dark starry sky, admiring the peace and quiet.

Emmett silently handed his tobacco pouch and papers to Edward who nodded his thanks before rolling a cigarette and lighting it from the kerosene lamp hanging on the porch rafter.

"So, what brings you to town? Of all of the places to go with Colorado as the starting place, why come back to Illinois?"

"Alice said it was time to come back this way." Edward took a long draw and slowly exhaled through is nose, savoring the flavor of fresh tobacco. Railroad shipments to Colorado were still spotty and often the products were old by the time they made it to Marcus' ranch.

"Thought she and that husband of hers moved out to Washington Territory."

Edward nodded to indicate that was true, silently staring up at the dark sky.

"She still seeing things?" Emmett inquired, motioning with his cigarette.

"She is. Said I needed to come back to Illinois but not Chicago where I wanted to go. There's good work to be had at the stockyards. Something about new beginnings would find me here."

"In Plattville?"

"You know Alice."


Emmett nodded wisely, thinking for a while as he enjoyed the last comfortable fall night air.

"Tyler at the sawmill south of town recently lost his help. Went out to California to find his fortune." Emmett scoffed at the idea. It was obvious the gold bug had not bitten him. "Yeah, I know it was years ago. He wasn't the brightest lamp. Tyler might need someone if you don't mind long days."

"I'm not afraid of hard work."

"Never have been," Emmett nodded in agreement. "I'll write you a letter of introduction. I'd ride you out there myself but with Rosie ready to pop, I'm not really wanting to go too far from town."

"They far out?"

"'Bout half a day ride. Follow the branch bordering town, and you can't miss it. It's just beyond the Swan property."

"Sounds like I'll be heading that way in the morning."

"Sounds like." Emmett slapped his friend on the back. "Good timing on your part. Almanac says this week is the last warm one before winter strikes hard."

Edward nodded, flicking his cigarette butt into the rock surrounding the house.

"Good to have you back, Edward," Emmett murmured.

"Good to be back, Em," Edward sighed, casting his eyes back up at the twinkling stars and hoping this new beginning would be everything Alice had dreamed for him.

Edward followed Wolf Branch, as it was called. Emmett's letter was securely tucked into his saddlebag as he set out just after dawn. He had forgotten how much he loved the gentle rolling hills of this part of Illinois. The green had long disappeared into a mosaic of oranges, reds and browns, though. It would not be long before the first snows blanketed the hills with their icy white.

A sudden cold wind blew across the plain, causing Edward to clutch his knee length canvas coat closer around him. Had to love the weather here—one day warm and mild, the next cloudy with a hint of winter barreling down.

As the Swan homestead came into view, Edward noticed it was not much to look at—a small sod house with a wan stream of smoke wafting from the chimney, a patch of a winter garden laid out and a scruff of a barn from which the sound of a cow shuffling back and forth could be heard. A chicken clutched furiously as it ran across Edward's path as it was chased by an amorous rooster, causing Edward to chuckle.

His laughter was quickly silenced as he heard the unmistakable double click of a shotgun being cocked.

Edward's head spun in the direction of the noise to discover a young woman standing in the doorway of the barn. She perfectly balanced a double-barreled shotgun against her shoulder with him in the sights. He found himself rather impressed that this wisp of a woman held the weapon so steadily.

"You just keep on riding," her quiet voice floated across the yard.

"I'm looking for the sawmill, ma'am," he replied, tipping his hat before placing his hands carefully on his thighs. If he had learned anything while in the Colorado Territory it was to always respect a weapon no matter whose hands it was in. "Sheriff said they might be hiring."

"That moved north of Plattville two months ago when the river dried up too much to run the saw."

Edward sighed. He loved his friend but it made sense that Emmett wouldn't remember that the mill had moved especially with Rosalie about to deliver child number four.

"So you just keep on riding," she repeated, motioning toward town with the rifle.

"Ma'am, I'm just looking for a job. I don't mean you any harm."

An older, heavy-set woman of Native Illinois descent waddled out of the sod house with a full dishpan in her hands. Her gray hair pulled back into a single braid swished back and forth as she hobbled a few steps. She paid no mind to the standoff and crossed the yard before tossing dirty water onto the garden patch. She spun around and took a single step toward the river when she noticed Edward. Her black eyes darted from him to Bella and back.

"Well who do we have here, Bella dear?" she demanded, tilting her head.

"He was just getting ready to leave, Lee-lee." Bella's eyes narrowed in a silent dare for Edward to argue with her.

"Edward Masen, ma'am," Edward stated, removing his new black wool Stetson—a gift from Emmett and Rosalie to welcome him back to town-and placing it over his heart. "I was just telling Miss … Bella was it?"

His query was awarded a grunt from Bella and a face brightening grin from the older woman.

"Miss Bella," he smiled, wisely ignoring the glare he received. "I was searching for the sawmill. Sheriff McCarty told me it was this way, and I had no intention of trespassing."

Lee-Lee's eyes flashed over to Edward and a slow smile crept over her face.

"Leah," Bella warned, dragging out the name. She had seen that look before and knew no good could come from it.

"Oh, come now, Bells. We need someone to help out around here."

"And we know nothing about this …"

"I have a letter of introduction from Sheriff McCarty," Edward interrupted, pulling said missive from his inside coat pocket.

Leah took a step forward to take the offered paper just as a wail erupted from inside the dark house.

"You go get Jacob, I'll talk with this fellow," Leah ordered gently, waving toward the cries.

With a huff, Bella lowered the gun and shot a passing glare at Edward before disappearing inside the house. Her faint soothing coos floated through the door and in a moment the crying ceased.

"So young man, you need a job," Leah stated flatly, holding her hand out for the letter.

"That I do, ma'am," Edward replied, handing over his letter of introduction.

Leah looked over the lines, nodding a few times before returning her hawk-like gaze up at Edward.

"You might as well come on in the house so we can talk this over with Bella. I'm too old to be out in this cold." Leah spun around on her heel and headed toward the sod house, leaving him to shake his head in disbelief at how thing were turning out.

Edward wrapped the reins for his horse around a post planted outside the door and hesitantly lifted his hand to knock on the door. He could hear an argument inside although the words were muffled, the intensity behind them was clear.

"You don't know this stranger, Lee-Lee!" Bella whisper-yelled.

"I'm an excellent judge of character, young lady. And the Sheriff wrote him a letter."

"That could say anything. You can't read!"

"Then read it yourself."

Edward could hear the rustle of paper and a sigh.

"Your parents left me in charge to take care of you, Bella," Leah's voice continued soothingly. "And that's what I am going to do. It was their only request before they died."

"By hiring the first man that comes by? We're not that desperate."

"No, we're not, but it's not right to send away a stranger in need. I've taught you better than that."

"Yes, I know you have."

"Jacob's going to need someone to show him how to be a man."

"Jacob's not even two yet. Besides, his parents might come back for him."

"Not with him unable to walk they won't. You know he wasn't supposed to be found!"

Edward decided to knock at this moment.

The wood door slowly opened and for the first time he was allowed to see Bella clearly. She was a petite young woman, probably a few years younger than his own twenty-three with dark brown hair pulled back from her pale face and gathered into a low braid. Her eyes held a steady sadness as if she had witnessed great personal pain in her short life but had grown stronger through it all.

"I appreciate the offer, Miss Bella, Miss Leah," Edward began, holding his hat in his hands, "but I don't wish to cause any …"

"Emmett says you were a foreman out in Colorado Territory," Bella interrupted, shifting a young boy on her hip.

"Yes, ma'am, I was."

Her eyes narrowed as she took in his form. Edward filled the narrow doorway and was going to have to duck to enter the sod house and more than likely remain stooped over the entire time he was inside.

"So you know how to work," she continued.

"Yes, ma'am, I do."

Without a word, Bella turned around and set Jacob down on the floor to the side of the lone source of light in the house—the fire.

"Don't leave the door open when you come in," she called over her shoulder as she began to stir the stew in a large cast iron pot hanging over the embers on one side.

Edward securely shut the door behind him and felt a bit relieved at the wide grin Leah gave him as she pulled out four plates.

And that was how Edward Masen came to work at the Swan Homestead.

The weeks wore on and the weather grew colder and grayer. Edward grew familiar with the family dynamic at the homestead and realized he had found himself in a situation so very different from his own upbringing.

"So, Edward Masen," Leah casually began, chopping some odd root vegetable Edward had never seen as he fashioned a leather hasp to secure the sod house's door, "just what is your story?"

Edward silently hemmed and hawed whether to respond. He wasn't much of a talker but Leah's easy-going nature made her so very comfortable to open up with.

"I'm from Chicago, Miss Leah. Born and raised but I didn't like the city. Ever since I was knee-high I wanted to work outside so as soon as I could, I left home and wandered around for a while. I spent the last few years out in the Colorado Territory."

Edward remembered the satisfaction earned by building a fence, riding the range, and sleeping under the stars. All had given him the education he long desired. Classroom schooling had been a struggle and had done nothing to keep him interested in learning. In his field, knowing anything more than how to sign your name was a waste of time.

"What about you and Miss Swan?" Edward asked, hoping Leah did not notice the faint pink that tinged his ears when he spoke of the young woman.

Leah smiled that knowing grin that all mother's seemed to have perfected.

"When I moved to Plattville after my husband died, I found a job taking care of Mrs. Newton's children. I was happy there but a few months after I started, this new family came to town."

Leah went on to tell Edward how Bella had been the only child of two solidly middle class East Coasters. Her mother and father had raised her lovingly and had provided for her education at one of the finest schools for young ladies. She had hoped to become a school teacher, shunning her mother's wishes that she find a suitable gentleman caller upon her graduation.

Then in a fit of what some would call madness, her father had decided to sell everything and move to rural Illinois. So they did. The homestead had been granted and for the first year, all had gone well. With no prospective husband in line for her hand, Bella had no choice but to come with her parents and although it had not been verbalized, Edward had a notion that she would have rather not been dealt this hand.

"She looked so much like my Sue," Leah smiled sadly. "I had to follow her and they let me. Then Renee, Bella's mother, found Jacob and I was needed even more."

Jacob was the product of a relationship between a young girl of Leah's nation and a traveling salesman. As he was neither Indian nor white, both sides had shunned the poor boy, but the final straw had been a fall that had broken one leg and without proper doctoring left the child nearly immobile. The child had been left near the banks of Wolf Branch just beyond the Swan property line.

"Unfortunately, the weather did not agree with Mother and Father Swan," Leah sighed, peeking out the door to make sure Bella was not on her way back to the house. "Both got the grippe and died. Bella buried them side-by-side on that hill. She's grown up way to quickly but never complained."

She pointed toward a low outcropping of snow-covered soil, judiciously ignoring Edward's ungentlemanly snort at Bella not griping. To him it seemed that she excelled at that, especially when it came to his presence.

"She has a good heart, Edward. She just doesn't like relying on anyone else."

"Out here, you can't do much but rely on help. No one can do it alone. No one should do it alone."

Leah smiled broadly and nodded in agreement. She knew there was a caring man underneath that gruff exterior.

"I couldn't leave Bella. And Jacob needed someone who knew how to raise a child."

Edward silently agreed.

He could completely understand why Leah had stayed but Bella was a complete puzzle to him. Had he been told her story without ever meeting her, he would have bet good money that before the dirt had settled over her parents' graves, she would have been heading back east. But she was a stubborn one and longed to keep the homestead thriving in memory of her parents even though there were hints that she would rather be 'back home' and teaching.

Additionally, Bella was head-strong and proud, never asking for help when she needed it which often lead to confrontations between herself and anyone else around, Leah included. But sometimes, from his bedroll on the far side of the single room, Edward would swear that in the dark of the night he could hear muffled crying or quiet pleas thrown up to heaven for divine intervention.

To be entirely honest, Edward appreciated Bella's work ethic and was amazed that this town person had learned so much so quickly but he got the distinct feeling she did not like him and resented him being in the house. Leah quietly watched the two young people and reassured Edward every chance she got that Bella was just used to being alone and that he should not take it as a personal slight.

Edward fell into a good routine after a few weeks, rising long before the sun and escaping the dank darkness of the sod house in favor of the damp meager sunrise of the Illinois winter outdoors to begin his chores. One particular morning, he jolted awake to the sound of the lid being replaced on the coffee pot. His eyes shot around the small single room of the sod house, quickly adjusting to the dim light.

"Sorry," came a soft whisper, causing him to instantly relax.

Edward saw Bella's bundled figure carefully place the coffee pot on its stand next to the fire.

"'Bout time I got up anyhow," Edward mumbled, rubbing his eyes.

"I was just about to go get the eggs for breakfast," Bella replied in a flat tone, pulling on a man's overcoat.

Edward rightly assumed it had been her father's.

"Want me to get Jacob's milk?"

"Suit yourself," she nodded, wrapping a thick wool scarf over her head.

Edward pulled on his warmer things and followed her out into the snow. The two walked in silence, side by side, their feet crunching over the white ground.

"Looks like today may be clear," Edward observed, gazing at the pink tinted sky.

"Would be nice."

"Thought I might go check the traps. Saw some rabbit tracks down by the hollow."

"Would be nice," Bella repeated.

Edward mentally shook his head. No matter how hard he tried to be civil he was always shut out from Bella's life. It was not that he wanted to marry her or even court her but if they were going to be working side-by-side, it would be enjoyable to have a cordial discussion every now and then.

Bella was lost in her thoughts, not meaning to be rude to Edward but she knew that she was being just that. She took a deep breath through her nose and watched as her exhale created little wisps in the icy air. She cast a sideways glance up at him, knowing the scarf wrapped around her head kept her slightly hidden. He certainly was a handsome fellow, tall and lean with fair skin with just a few freckles across his cheeks. She liked to imagine that in the summer sun they would increase in numbers and maybe even up to the little crinkles that gathered around his eyes when he laughed at some of Leah's stories.

Once inside the small barn, Bella hurriedly disappeared around a few piles of hay in search of the latest hiding spots for her chickens' eggs while Edward grabbed the milk bucket. Thoughts about freckles and tanning skin just would not do. He was there to help manage the homestead in exchange for room and board and nothing else. There was no way he would ever think of her as anything more than an employer.

A sudden gust of wind pelted the outside walls of the barn, causing the wood to creak and groan. Edward noticed a small stack of wooden boxes, the top one precariously balanced, near where Bella was searching for eggs. Without thinking, he grabbed the box and roughly placed it on the ground.

Edward glanced inside the box as it had no lid and saw a stack of books jumbled on top. He picked one up, glanced at the title and thumbed through the pages only to have it suddenly snatched from his hands.

"Leave that alone!" Bella demanded fire burning in her eyes as she quickly glanced at the book to ensure it was unharmed.

"I was just …"

"I don't care what you were just doing!"

Edward took a step back in shock at the vitriol with which Bella flung at him.

"That is my private book and you don't touch it!" she continued. "You always have to be right in the middle of things, don't you, Edward Masen? Not enough to come disrupt our lives. Not enough to take Leah and Jacob away from me. Not enough …"

Edward's green eyes darkened as he held his tongue. No pay was worth this. Alice had been wrong. There was nothing for him here in Plattville other than waspish women like he had left in Colorado. Come breakfast he would pack his things and return to town in search of another position.

Without a word, Edward turned and walked away from the tirade behind him. He had just begun milking when a soft cry floated over to him. After the scolding he had just received by this slip of a woman, Edward ignored the sounds and went back to attending the cow.

Another sob shattered the silence, closely followed by a muffled wail. Edward sighed and rested his forehead on the warm belly of the cow, his eyes closed tight in frustration as he tried to decide what to do next. He knew Bella well enough that she probably did not mean what she had said. Finally, he drew in a deep breath and turned toward the sounds.

"Miss Swan?" he asked in a voice filled more with courtesy than with concern.

When he received no response, Edward carefully headed toward where she was last seen. Crouched before the small wooden box, Edward saw Bella on her knees holding a small stack of books with obvious mouse chewings on the bindings. Not a single volume was unscathed. The pages hung precariously from the spines as if any minute they would detach. She looked up at him and quickly wiped the tears from her face.

"Miss Swan, what's wrong?" he asked, kneeling beside her.

"Nothing," she replied, shaking her head back and forth. "Ju-ju-just go."

"It doesn't look like nothing."

"These," she hiccupped, angrily brushing more tears from her cheeks. "These were the only books I could bring and now …"

Edward looked down at the tattered pile of leather and paper and then back at the heartbroken young woman.

"I'm so sorry," he murmured, lightly touching her shoulder in comfort.

For the first time, Bella didn't shy away from him but that was neither here nor there. It was too obvious that she was distraught over her loss to pay him any mind. An idea flitted through Edward's head and he jumped to his feet.

"Bring them to the house," he requested politely before grabbing the milk bucket and her basket of eggs and returning to the sod house.

Bella sniffled and rubbed her nose with the back of her sleeve before gathering her books in her arms and followed silently behind. Inside the room she found Edward sitting cross-legged beside the fire, a small bag at his side. She ignored the curious glances from Leah who rocked Jacob, his black eyes bright with a fever, back and forth on her lap.

Edward rummaged through the tote for a few minutes before pulling out a few tools. He held out his hand expectantly and gazed up at her with wide green eyes.

"What are you going to do?" she asked, cautiously approaching him.

"Let me see one of the books, please," he replied curtly.

Bella handed him a thin volume before kneeling beside him. In timid silence she watched as he carefully opened the book and checked the damage, muttering to himself as he studied the leather. With breathless anticipation, Bella watched Edward pull out a small hammer, an awl, a long needle and hemp twine from a leather bag. He carefully pulled apart the twine to make a thinner thread and looped it through the needle.

In rapt silence, Bella watched Edward carefully punched holes in the binding leather and began to stitch together the gnawed pieces. Before she knew it an hour had passed and he cautiously handed over a completely repaired volume. Bella clutched it to her chest, her eyes shining.

"Thank you," she whispered.

Edward nodded mutely and held out his hand for another book. She quickly handed him one and began to prepare breakfast while Edward worked. By the time she was laying eggs and bread and salt pork onto plates, he had finished another two books.

"Dairy?" Edward inquired, picking up the book that had gotten her so mad at him before.

"Diary," Bella gently corrected, her cheeks flushing pink. "That was my journal when I was back east. I wrote all my hopes and dreams in it."

Edward studied the letters printed on the cover, tracing them lightly with one finger as his mouth carefully formed each letter. When he looked up, he saw Bella gazing at him curiously.

"What?" he demanded, taking his breakfast plate from her.

"Nothing," she replied quickly.

"Suit yourself."

Edward began shoveling his breakfast into his mouth. That was one thing he would miss. Bella and Leah were mighty fine cooks and had the uncanny ability to make something out of almost nothing. He reached for his coffee and drained the last swallow, shaking his head when Leah offered him more.

"I'll get my things," he muttered, rising to his feet.

"Get your things?" Bella repeated, looking up from the diary she still held in her hands.

"And I'll be leaving."

"No!" Leah cried, shaking her head. She hastily checked Jacob to be sure she had not awaken him with her outburst. The child had been burning up for several days now and had refused little more than a few swallows of milk in just as long. "We need you here."

Edward shook his head in denial. "No offense, ma'am, but I don't think 'we' do." His eyes cut angrily over toward where Bella stood.

Bella stared back and forth between Leah and Edward, her hands fidgeting before her. A million and one thoughts ran through her mind before settling upon one.

"Yes, we do," Bella murmured.

Edward blinked disbelievingly.

"What did you say?" he asked quietly.

"We do need you." She exhaled heavily. "All of us. If we're going to survive the winter, we need your help. Please stay."

Edward weighed her words before nodding curtly.

"I'll be checking the traps, then," he said quietly, rising and handing Bella his plate. "Thank you for breakfast."

Bella followed Edward to the door and caught his arm as he pulled on his outer coat. He looked down at her hand and then into her eyes.

"Thank you, Mr. Masen," she murmured.

"Edward. You may call me Edward." And with that, he disappeared out the door and began the hike toward the hollow and the traps set there.

Bella pressed her cool hands to her flushed cheeks, glad that in the dim light in the house that Leah could not see the blush she was certain she had.

Just as the sun began to set, Edward returned, a leather bag slung over his shoulder now filled with small game. He whistled a merry little tune as he approached the homestead, pleased with the turn of events. He felt as if he had made headway in at least a civil relationship with Miss Swan, spent the day outdoors which was his favorite place to be, and he had success in putting food on the table. He gazed up at the darkening sky. More snow was coming, he was certain.

Edward trudged through the snow and rounded the gentle hill to the south of the sod house. As he reached the summit, he paused, his eyes narrowing slightly. A fresh set of tracks from the house to the barn were alongside a set of hoof prints. Taking a detour from his intended route, Edward headed for the barn. He quickly realized his horse was gone. Muttering a dark curse, he ran for the house, throwing open the door angrily.

Bella jumped at the sound of the door banging open and winced as she pricked her finger with her the needle she was using to mend a piece of clothing. Her face went from shock to questioning to fear when she saw Edward's stony face. He shut the door and looked frantically around the small room.

"Where's Leah and Jacob?" he demanded quietly.

"They went out to the barn a bit ago to feed the stock," Bella insisted. "Leah said he wasn't doing any better but thought the animals might cheer him up."

Edward looked at her as if trying to determine if she was telling him the truth. Bella's face held no hint of deceit and his anger quickly dissipated. Edward dropped his leather bag by the door and peeled off his coat.

"My horse is gone. There's footprints to the barn and then hoof prints away. Judging from them, it's been an hour or so."

Bella blushed, realizing that sewing was not one of her talents and she often got so distracted with the effort required to do even the simplest task that she had completely lost track of time as well as the world around her.

"It's gonna be dark soon," he muttered. "Snow's coming down, too. Maybe she was going to take him to town to the doctor."

Bella shook her head in disbelief. Leah and Jacob gone, out into the wintery night, all without a word. And now she was alone with Edward in a very small space. Bella felt her heart begin to race.

"Not much we can do about it," Edward sighed, sitting down to pull off his boots. He carefully laid them next to the fire so they would dry quickly.

Bella nodded and sat back down to recommence her darning. She absentmindedly rubbed her finger where the little drop of blood had dried. After a few minutes, she picked up the shirt she had been repairing and slowly stitched the edges together.

"It doesn't have to be perfect," Edward said suddenly, looking up from the rabbit he had been skinning.

"That's good. I'm not much of a sewer. It'll be something you can wear but not much else."

He nodded with a grunt and continued preparing his contribution to the dinner pot.

Throughout the course of the night, Bella and Edward carried out their chores in uncomfortable silence. Bella worried about Leah and Jacob and every so often the notion that she was alone with a man for the first time in her life gripped her heart and she was both thrilled and terrified at the notion. Edward was angry that Leah had taken off without a word but understood the why. She had known if the idea to take Jacob to a doctor had been brought up Bella would have insisted Edward go with her and that would have left Bella alone and that would never do. After supper dishes had been washed, he picked up one of Bella's books and examined the repair work he had done.

"Where'd you learn to do that?" Bella asked, putting away the plates.

"Just something I learned while working," he said with a shrug. "In Colorado you couldn't always get to a store to buy new parts so I learned how to fix what I had."

"Well, I'm grateful you did," she murmured with a smile.

Edward opened the book and flipped through the pages. His eyes rested on a tinted engraving of a ship, a harpoon and a large creature he did not recognize.

"That's a lot of words," he muttered, putting the book down on the table.

"That was Father's favorite story. Moby-Dick; or The Whale." Bella shook her head. She had found the story a bit too tedious in its descriptions of the whaling industry as well as a man's obsession with destroying a fabulous creature and briefly shared her feelings on the tome.

"Then why keep it?" To Edward, it was just a book—words printed on paper that held no meaning to him.

Bella's eyes welled up with tears and she rapidly blinked.

"Because other than this land, it's all I have left of him," she whispered.

"But if …"

"The story brought him joy and it's a happy memory for me," she replied curtly, cutting him off.

This he could understand, though Edward had no idea words on paper could be anything other than a nuisance.

"Didn't mean to upset you, Miss Swan."

"Thank you, Mr. Masen. I just have wonderful memories of Father reading to me every night before bed. Maybe not this book." She held up Moby-Dick. "But other stories. Fairy tales. Myths. Legends."

Bella sighed happily at the memory. Suddenly her mood changed and she got a faraway look in her eyes. She pictured her own child someday snuggled in a warm bed, a lamp turned down low next to his or her head with images of the story just read floating through the young one's mind.

Bella shook her head angrily as the cold realization that she would never have a husband or a child gripped her heart.

"Something wrong?" Edward asked, concern evident in his voice.

"Just thinking." Her tone was curt and it was obvious she did not wish to tell him what had gone through her mind.


"Something private."

"Something private?"

"Yes. You know, things I don't wish to share."

"I see."

Edward took the two steps toward his side of the house and pulled out his whetstone and began to clean and sharpen his knife, effectively cutting off any further discussion since he decided that was what Bella wanted.

Bella silently went about preparing her side of the room for bed, pulling out her bedroll and sighing as she saw Leah and Jacob's blankets tightly rolled and in the corner.

"They'll be alright," she murmured to herself, hoping with all of her heart that she was right.

After getting her bed settled, Bella pulled out her journal and began jotting down a few things. She paid no attention to Edward as he finished his knife sharpening and rose. He crossed behind Bella and noticed her hunching closer to her book as he neared.

"I'm not going to read it," he muttered, reaching over her for a small tin.

Bella relaxed minutely and made to apologize before Edward cut her off.

"I can't read."

"You …" Her voice trailed off in disbelief.

"Couldn't learn." Edward turned around and returned to his side of the house, obviously not wishing to discuss the matter any further.

Bella watched in silence as Edward prepared his bed roll and began to shuffle around as if to get ready for bed.

"You gonna put up the blanket or do you want a show?" he inquired gruffly beginning to unbutton his shirt.

Bella felt her face flush red, and she jumped up, grabbing the blanket and throwing it over the rope that bisected the room, ignoring the soft laugh that floated through the room.

For three days the snow fell over the Swan Homestead and for three days Edward and Bella said no more than what was absolutely necessary which suited Edward just fine. Without his horse, he was trapped until the poor weather lifted, but he found he no longer held the strong desire to leave. Bella's attitude toward him had softened slightly. She did not treat him as if he were the scourge of the earth and even gave him a wan smile as she placed their meals on the small table in the center of the room.

After dinner, Edward pulled out a small pouch of tobacco and rolled a cigarette and began to smoke. Sitting at the chair nearest the fire, Bella watched the smoke as it spun gracefully up to the roof. She suddenly jumped up and began to rummage through a small box in the corner.

Edward watched with some interest as Bella muttered to herself, shifting around a few things until a cry of glee arose and she spun around with a cloth wrapped bundle. Her eyes shone as she placed the box on the table and began to pull back the fabric. Inside was a carved walnut humidor. Bella cautiously picked up the box and approached Edward.

"Mr. Masen?" she timidly inquired, shifting her weight from foot to foot.

"Yes, Miss Swan." Edward eyed her questioningly.

"Here." She quickly put the box down before him and retreated back to her place by the fire.

He silently lifted the lid and his eyes widened as he took in the collection of cigars before him. Edward withdrew one and admired it before returning it to the box.

"That was Father's," Bella murmured, her eyes shining as she remembered how he had loved sitting in the parlor after dinner and while she had picked out what story she wanted him to read to her before bed he would enjoy an after-meal cigar.

With a watery smile, Bella rose and quickly grabbed the blanket and threw it over the rope as the first few tears spilled down her cheeks.

Edward had no idea the history behind the box but realized he had just been given a precious gift. He heard a few muffled snuffles and muted words of chastisement. Rising, Edward approached the blanket partition and made to knock before realizing that would be completely ridiculous.

"Miss Swan?" he inquired softly.

A few moments later, a hesitant affirmation met his ears.

"Thank you," Edward stated honestly.

"You…you're welcome, Mr. Masen."

"Name's Edward, Miss. I think you can call me by my first name seeings how we're stuck here together at least for a while."

Edward thought he heard her nod her head in agreement.

"I can't hear you nod, Miss Swan," he teased, grinning widely as he heard her laugh.

"Edward," she whispered.

"Now that that's settled, I have a favor to ask."


Edward took a deep breath and released it slowly.

"Teach me to read."

Bella's head appeared around the blanket, her eyes blinking rapidly as she gazed at him. Edward noticed she had unbraided her hair and it hung loose and heavy over her shoulders.

The two stared silently at each other for several minutes.

"Only if you call me Bella," she whispered.

Edward smiled, his green eyes twinkling. "Bella," he agreed.

And so for the next several nights, after all the required chores were completed and supper had been eaten, Bella and Edward sat next to each other huddled over a book, carefully sounding out words and letters. Bella discovered that Edward was a quick study; he had just never been motivated to learn as a child and as a result had not done so.

Bella was increasingly proud of Edward's progress and beamed greatly as he began to understand more and more. Likewise, she often caught herself squeezing his arm or touching his hand as he sounded out increasingly difficult words. Edward would chuckle as she blushed red as she realized what she was doing and often slapped him on the shoulder when he teased her about her flush.

Edward discovered he liked this side of Bella. She was an excellent teacher with an endless source of patience. And she was rather pretty without the chip on her shoulder. Edward came to realize that he had found his contentment—he no longer felt like he was searching for something. He had found it in a little sod house on the plains of Illinois. Edward hoped that someday he would discover that Bella felt the same way about him.

The nights grew increasingly colder and colder and as the snow piled up around the little sod house, the small fire contributed less and less to the comfort of the single room. One evening, Edward awoke to hear teeth chattering. He stood and peeked around the thick quilt that acted as a moveable wall, separating his and her sides of the room and found Bella huddled under a pitiful single blanket.

"Bella!" he whispered angrily, pulling the quilt down and throwing it over her. She'd be a damned fool if she froze or got sick from the cold in the name of propriety, especially since no one knew the two of them were in the house alone.

"So cold," she muttered, curling up under the blanket.

After several minutes she seemed to warm up slightly but still shivered.

Muttering to himself, Edward stomped over to his side of the room and grabbed his blankets. He carefully laid them over Bella before climbing under the blankets next to her.

"What are you doing?" she whisper-yelled.

"Keeping you from freezing," he angrily replied, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her back flush against his chest. "Damned women and your privacy screens. Waste of a good quilt."

"I beg your pardon!" Bella hissed, trying to pull away. Now she was no longer shivering but only due to the fact she was angry.

"I promise you, this is only for preservation. Your honor will remain intact."

Bella started to sit up but found herself locked in his arms.

"Get to sleep," he ordered brusquely.

She relaxed back down, still furious that he had insinuated his way into her bed. A thousand thoughts ran through Bella's mind ranging from how much warmer she suddenly felt and how a part of her was grateful for the extra blankets to insulted that he had made the unilateral decision to take down the quilt and throw it over her before joining her in her bed. And then, there was the tiny part of her that felt something completely different—something she could not completely understand but the crux of the matter was she felt safe pressed up against him. And she was not entirely sure just what this meant.

Edward found he could not go back to sleep quickly. Part of him was infuriated that Bella had been so cold when the solution was right there before her—take down the damned quilt and use it. He had been nothing but a gentleman until now. Surely she could trust that he would not take advantage of the situation if he had not by now.

A few minutes later, Edward heard the quiet even breathing of someone deep asleep come from Bella. He had to admit, he really liked the feeling of her in his arms. Edward shifted ever so slightly and Bella rolled over and faced him, her head buried in his chest and one hand resting over his heart.

"Just what am I going to do with you, Bella Swan," he murmured, daring to place a light kiss on the top of her head. He smiled as he was answered with a quiet snore.

The next morning Edward was gone before Bella awoke and she discovered she felt rather disappointed not to find herself in his arms. She shook her head to clear the last remnants of her sleep induced haze and decided right then and there that Edward had only climbed into her bed to warm her and once that had been accomplished, she was once again alone.

"He was being courteous," she muttered to herself as she grabbed the coffeepot and prepared the pot. "Nothing more."

And right then she decided she would treat Edward like she would any student she had back East which was completely easier said than done.

The days continued to pass with Bella and Edward saying very little to each other. Any time he began to strike up a conversation, she would scurry away, leaving him to wonder just what had happened.

But in the evenings, Bella kept her promise. She patiently taught Edward how to read and found him a most willing pupil. What Bella did not realize was what Edward liked most about their evening lessons was her leaning over him to help him make out the letters and the unintentional touches that came with that assistance.

One evening it finally happened. Bella beamed as Edward finished reading an entire page of text without a single prompt. She was so overcome with joy, Bella threw her arms around his neck and tightly hugged him. All too quickly, she realized what she had done and tried to pull away but Edward held her in place against him.

"You don't see me complaining about being touched," he insisted, closing the text they had worked on.

"I've just never wanted to touch anyone before you…" she began before clamping her mouth shut and quickly turning away before her face turned an even darker shade of red.

"You never wanted what?" Edward teased with a crooked half-smile, suddenly curious in what she had been about to say.

"Never-you-mind," Bella muttered, freeing herself from his grasp and stomping the few steps across the room to where her bed was stored. She began to pull out her blanket and pillow with overdramatic flourishes, obviously not wanting to continue.

Outside the wind whipped around the house, seeping around the door and causing the fire to flicker wildly. Edward stood and threw another log into the flames and stirred the coals to help the wood catch fire.

"Miss Swan," he said quietly but she continued to ignore him.

Edward took a few steps toward her but she made no indication that she noticed he was closer.

"Bella?" he whispered, standing directly behind her.

Bella ceased her movements, clutching her arms around her waist and heaved a great sigh before turning to face Edward. He gently raised her chin, studying her face.

"I like it very much when you touch me, Miss Swan," he continued in that same soft whisper.


Edward smiled and gently traced one finger down her cheek and over her jaw. She shivered at the touch and hummed appreciatively.

"I like touching you as well," he quietly murmured close to her ear. "I cannot tell you how much I like it."

"Really?" Bella's eyes widened and flew toward his. In Edward's eyes she saw something she did not quite recognize—some emotion or thought that was just out of her reach.

"Yes," he continued, pushing back a wayward curl that had escaped her braid. "More than I should."

"More than you should?"

Edward nodded slowly.

"You should have finer things than this." He motioned to the dirt walls and rough-hewn wood supports. "You deserve to follow your dreams and have a fine house near a town with an educated man to give you everything you could ever desire."

Bella blinked a few times as she processed his words.

"What if I would rather have an honest man who works hard and makes sure I am well provided for even when I'm so very stubborn?"

"If that is what you think you want."

"I think I do."

"Then he would be a very, very happy man, Miss …"

Edward's words were cut off suddenly when Bella threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. What she lacked in skill, Bella more than made up for with enthusiasm. Edward winced as his lip was pinched as their teeth clapped together.

"Sorry!" she gasped, attempting to pull away.

He shook his head as his hands gripped her hips and held her still.

"You deserve better, Bella," he whispered as he twisted her dress around his fingers, clutching her close.

"Better than what? You're hard-working, kind, honest…"

"You deserve a husband that can give you everything you could ever want."

"Husband?" she squealed.

"You will if you'll have me. I'm sure Sis will make you a pretty dress and we can find a preacher in the spring and I'll be the best husband I can be."

"I don't want to wait until spring to be yours." Bella blinked a few times before whispering, "Edward."

Edward's eyes darkened and studied her face in the flickering light.

"Do you know what you're saying?"

Bella thought for a minute and then shook her head. Her mother had passed away before relaying the essential information required to satisfy a husband's urges and desires.

"I just know I want to be yours," she whispered.

Edward gazed at her in silence before taking her hand and gently leading her toward the pile of bed stuffs.

"We'll go slow," he murmured, kissing her cheek before placing his mattress next to hers in the middle of the room.

Together they laid the blankets across the bed as best as they could. Edward sat on the edge of the bed and turned toward Bella just to see her begin to pull the pins that held her braid curled into a bun on the back of her head. She gave him a hesitant smile as she unbraided her hair. She realized by the look in his eyes that he was pleased.

Edward held his hand out to her and gently guided her to sit beside him.

"My Bella," he whispered, gently pulling her toward him.

She nodded mutely before hesitantly kissing him. Bella melted into his embrace as the kiss grew deeper. Edward reached behind her and carefully unfastened the bow that held her apron on and gently tugged it off. Next came a row of hooks up her back and her dress slid off, revealing a modest cotton shift and woolen underskirts.

Edward quickly removed his shirt and undershirt and boots before sitting back down beside her. Bella found herself intrigued by the little tuft of bronzy chest hair that peeked out of his woolen undershirt. She reached up and placed her hand over his heart, feeling its strong sturdy beat under her hand. He took her hand in his and brushed a quick kiss across the back of her knuckles.

Another blast of cold air whipped through the cracks around the door causing them both to shiver.

"This isn't going to work," Edward muttered, standing.

Bella's face fell as she thought he was giving up on their consummating their relationship. Sensing her thoughts, Edward placed a quick kiss on her temple and whispered reassuringly into her ear.

"I mean it's not going to work the normal way. We're not going to be able to completely undress."

Bella blushed even more at the idea of seeing the handsome Edward Masen completely nude as he pulled back the covers and motioned for her to climb in before joining her. Carefully holding himself above her, he rolled over on top of her, his hips between her thighs.

Bella's nervous giggles turned to a surprised gasp as a cool hand slid under her skirts and gently pushed them up around her waist, first one side and then the other. She felt the coarse brush of denim against her naked skin and her eyes flew wide open with the sensation.

"You okay?" Edward whispered, his concerned green eyes trying to read her face in the dim light.

"I've never," she whispered back.

Edward's smile filled his entire face. This woman was going to be his and only his and a deep part of him held that notion with a great deal of pride. He reached down and fumbled with the fastener on his jeans.

"I need you to help," he murmured, nuzzling her neck.

Bella nodded and carefully tugged at the offending buttons until they popped open. She was rewarded with a kiss on her collarbone which caused a shiver to run down her spine.

"Help me lower them," came the next request as more kisses were peppered down her jawline.

Bella knew her face flushed bright red because Edward began to chuckle softly next to her ear, but she cautiously reached down and together they wiggled the pants and woolen underwear down.

Edward gently rested his lower half against hers, sighing contently as he felt the gentle brush of bare skin against skin. He realized his control was waning quickly as she gently bucked her hips towards his while her hands wrapped around his neck and her fingers laced through his hair.

"I don't want to hurt you," he whispered as his teeth grazed over her breast causing the nipple to peak and earning a groan of appreciation.

"Edward, please," Bella murmured, running her hands down his back and gasping when she came in contact with bare skin. Without realizing it, she shifted her body just enough to bring him right where he wanted to be. "Please," she whispered again.

Unable to hold back any longer, Edward nodded mutely and thrust his hips, groaning as he joined her. He felt Bella's entire body tense and stilled for just a moment before gently beginning to rock back and forth.

"I'm sorry, love," he apologized breathily against her ear. "I am so sorry."

"I'll be fine. Please. I can't take you being still. I need …" She had no idea what she needed but something deep inside her told her muscles to move and she began to undulate beneath him.

Edward groaned as the pure ecstasy shot through him at the sensations of him gliding inside of her. Bella watched his body, mesmerized by the muscles of his shoulders and arms as he gracefully flexed above her.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he whispered as his movements grew more and more frantic.

Bella paid no attention to Edward's words but rather to the tightening she felt down there—that place no polite woman ever talked about to anyone much less a man. She groaned in pleasure as that sensation grew and intensified.

With a growl and a shudder, Edward's entire being shook as he found his release and relaxed against her, his forehead pressed against his.

For several moments the only sounds filling the room were those of the crackling fire and the wind whipping around outside.

Without a word, Edward gently straightened Bella's clothing and then his own before wrapping his arms around her and pulled the quilts close around them.

"Are you alright?" he whispered, nuzzling her neck before placing a light kiss over her ear.

Bella hummed appreciatively and nodded as she snuggled further into his embrace.

"I think I'd like to do that again," she whispered, shyly looking over her shoulder at the shadowy profile of the man she had fallen in love with.

"I think we can do that," he smiled, placing another kiss on her cheek.

The two lay wrapped together for several minutes in silence.

"I cannot wait for spring," Edward whispered softly.


"So we can do that without these in the way." He plucked at his and her underclothes with a laugh. "Until then, I'll just have to do my best to keep you warm."

"I think I'll like that."

"I know I will, Miss Swan."

"You know I am perfectly capable of helping you load the wagon," Bella sighed, waving her bonnet before her face in a futile effort to cool herself.

"You just stay right there and I'll get it all," Edward called from the barn. A few moments later he emerged with the last box and tucked it into the back of the wagon.

Edward pulled out a kerchief from his back pocket and wiped his brow. He eyed the collection of belongings before him and the supplies needed for the trek from Illinois to the Washington Territory.

Had you asked him six months ago he would have never believed all the changes that would happen in his life. He looked over at his wife with pride as she bent over to pick up her bonnet which she had dropped for the tenth time today. She took great joy in telling him just how clumsy she had become since their marriage.

He was pretty sure the vows had nothing to do with it.

Bella turned and smiled at her husband, a tiny gold band glittering on her left ring finger as her hand unconsciously resting on her just barely swelling belly. She remembered how just two months before when they had been able to make it to Plattville for supplies and found the letter from Alice inviting her brother west while Bella had asked around if anyone had seen Leah and Jacob. Edward's horse had been left with Emmett but since Quatro had been born, he had not been able to return it before Bella and Edward's visit. She also remembered throwing up as Rosalie had brought out their supper and the knowing smile on her new friend's face. The town doctor had told her that she was foolish to even consider making such a journey while pregnant but their desire to join Edward's family in the Washington Territory spurred her to agree to the trip. And somehow, she knew everything was going to be just fine.