Title: Hard To Love

Rating: M

Word Count: 9843

Pairing: Edward/Bella

Prompts: Picture #6: Cowboy on black horse with calf in a snowstorm Song: "Hard to Love" by Lee Bice.

Summary: Sometimes you have to get really lost to find what you are looking for.

Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyers owns these beautiful characters.

Hard To Love


Ice pellets hit the exposed skin on my face like tiny little daggers as the force of the driving wind barreled headlong into me, unimpeded across the flat terrain of the West Texas plains. Each inhalation of frigid air stung as it abrasively marked the path down my throat and into my lungs. Reaching up a gloved hand, I pulled my Stetson down more firmly on my head as a gust of wind threatened to send it sailing into the blustery and gathering darkness behind me.

In the lull between gusts, I could hear my horse's hooves crunching into the patchy covering of snow and ice on the ground, but the howling of the wind was growing fiercer with every step. I gripped a lantern with my other hand, my arm wrapped securely around a newborn calf I found while checking the herd in the north section. Hoping to get the little fella home alive and in the barn before the full force of the Nor'easter hit, we trudged onward.

Another blinding barrage of sleet and ice was driven into me by the strong winds, as the back flaps of my duster whipped against the flanks of my horse. The shock of the wintery blast sucked the air from my lungs and the muscles in my jaw ached, my clenched teeth beginning to chatter. My arms and back cramped and burned from the unrelenting strain of shrugging into the cold and holding the calf in place. My thighs and legs were dually numb, from the weight of the calf and the onslaught of the arctic wind, but nowhere near the numbness I felt in my cold, empty heart and the dark recesses that my mind had become.

As the storm clouds and winds churned around me, so the searing memories swirled in my head, buffeting me from every direction. Guilt was a constant presence, a smothering weight holding me a deserving hostage and shackling me to a lifetime of penance. Rage at an injustice so monumental, it consumed me, a cancerous, toxic disease. The stinging, burning and numbness, were just external manifestations of what I felt inside.

Mile after mile we labored on, the moist air I exhaled freezing into ice crystals on my eyelashes, eyebrows and the stubble around my lips. My nose stung painfully, seemingly close to frostbite. I lambasted myself, once again, for forgetting my scarf when I headed out this morning. I was jerked forward as my horse stumbled on a snow-covered obstacle, the sudden motion knocking the lantern out of my miserably cramped hand. The light went out on impact, leaving us in the gathering gloom, the crashing sound causing my horse to side-step a little.

"That's ok, boy," I reassured the beautiful black stallion, rubbing him on the neck, my voice sounding rough and cracked from misuse. "You know the way home, Jet. Take us home!" The lantern was the least of my worries. I'll just come back and pick it up the next clear day.

Some time later, I woke with a start. Must have dozed off in the darkness, lost in the swaying stride of the quarter horse. Straining my eyes to focus, I realized Jet had come to a stop in front of my barn doors. Keeping a hold on the calf and one hand on the horn of the saddle, I swung my leg over and slid off to the ground, stumbling a few steps on protesting legs. Stamping my feet in the crunchy snow to get the blood moving again, I struggled to get the barn door open with one hand, breaking through the ice on the hinges.

Clicking my tongue for Jet to follow, I laid the calf on a relatively clean bed of straw in one of the stalls and went back to turn the light on and shut the doors against the wind and cold. Jet helped himself to the open feed barrel, noisily crunching on the pellets while his rope halter dragged on the edge. He needed tended to, but he could wait just a few minutes while I saw if the calf had made it.

I stretched my numb fingers as I grabbed an extra saddle blanket and some old shop towels, and walked back to the little calf. I knelt in the straw beside him and started rubbing him down roughly, trying to stimulate some blood flow. I could see he was breathing, and finally he opened drowsy eyes. Maybe he'd make it after all. I'd have to see about mixing up some warm milk.

The leather creaked as I undid the cinch strap to Jet's saddle and pulled it off his weary back, slinging it over the rail to his stall. The halter came off next, getting hung up on the gate post. Grabbing the curry brush, I pushed it down through the coarse thick hairs of his neck, broad shoulders, across his back, and down each leg, brushing until any trace of dust from the trail and any remaining snow or ice was gone. Satisfied he was comfortable, I made sure he had water, gave him a bucket of grain for the night and stroked a final rub down his forehead. He snorted and shook his head.

Giving a bottle to any kind of baby livestock is a challenge, as they naturally push and nudge and headbutt to get the milk out faster. This little guy was still too traumatized to respond much. I put the nipple in his mouth and rubbed his throat to get him to swallow, but it mostly just dribbled out of his mouth. "OK, buddy, we'll try again in a little while," I told him, as I tucked the saddle blanket around him. I closed the gate on his stall and went around to make sure my other two horses had food and water.

As I was coming out of the last stall with the grain bucket, I noticed a crumpled pile of rags over in the shadows of a corner. I don't recall storing any rags over there. Walking over with the lantern for a closer look, I also noticed a boot sticking out from underneath the rags. What the hell? I nudged the boot with mine and it didn't move much, something about it giving resistance. When I reached down to move some of the material, I uncovered the bruised face of a young woman with long brown hair spilling out of a hood.

Dammit all to hell.

I pulled a glove off to check her neck for a pulse and found a faint one, but her skin was pale as a ghost and her lips were a sickly shade of blue. I needed to get her into the house where I could warm her up and check for any other injuries. Putting my glove back on I figured out which way her arms and legs were tangled in the heap, and gingerly picked her up, discovering she weighed next to nothing. As I trudged toward the barn door, Jet gave a soft whiney as if in concern, while I pushed the heavy wooden door open, and then closed with the back of my shoulder.

An arctic blast hit us when I passed the corner of the barn. Ducking my head down and walking into it, I pulled her head closer under my chin to protect her, as my boots crunched through the icy snow. With each step I am asking myself on repeat…what is going on…what am I doing…what is happening to me…what is…I can't do this…I can't handle this. Shaking my head, I tamp the panic back into the dark recesses as I reach the porch.

Careful not to slip on the icy steps, I somehow managed to get us both inside the door without incident. I gently laid her down on my bed and then went back to the front door to remove my boots, hanging my hat and duster on the coat rack in the corner.

Going back to the mystery girl, I carefully start removing her boots and outer layers. Her clothes are wet and frozen stiff as icicles in places, making it even more difficult, but more important that I get them off. Every inch I tugged those ice cold jeans and long johns down increased my concern for her. Jesus. She was freezing.

In all my thirty-two years, I had never seen anyone this cold and scraped up. Her knees had bruises, with a particularly bad one on her thigh. Overwhelming feelings of protectiveness surged through me, wanting to fix her and take it all away.

I ran a warm bath a gently laid her down in the water in her bra and panties, careful of her head. Using a washcloth, I gently rub over her arms and legs, willing the circulation to return. After about twenty minutes, the water started to cool off and I drained the water, drying her off the best I could and wrapped her in a big towel.

Laying her on the bed, I dried her off some more where I had better access and dressed her in some of my own clothes, gently pulling a soft t-shirt, sweatpants and socks on to her little body. I tucked a down comforter all around her. Satisfied I had done all I could for the time being, I went and took a long hot shower myself and mulled over things.

Again, my subconscious was shooting questions like darts in my brain. Where did she come from? How did she get all the way out here? Was she in trouble? Was someone missing her, and more important, would they be looking for her? All I was thinking was, I can't keep her here. She can't stay here. I decided that in the morning, the best thing to do would be to take her in to Uncle Carlisle. He can take a look at her. Let him figure out what to do with her.

After I ate some cold leftovers and threw all her wet clothes on to wash, I grabbed a blanket and a pillow and turned in for the night on the cold leather couch close to her door. I wanted to be able to hear if she needed anything during the night. I knew she might be startled waking up in a strange place.

I stared at the empty stone fireplace that would never be lit as long as I lived here, listened to the relentless West Texas wind assault the outside of the house while my memories did the same to me, and eventually succumbed to a restless sleep.

My internal clock jolted me awake, naturally at the butt-crack of dawn. Sitting up on the edge of the couch, I rubbed my hand down over my face to wake up. Shuffling in to the kitchen, I filled up the coffee machine and flipped it on, threw her clothes on to dry and peeked in on my ragdoll when I went in to grab some clean clothes. I see she is still sleeping, still breathing, but there is color back in her cheeks and lips. I mean, color besides the nasty bruise on the left side of her face that is now a horrible purple-green color. There's that urge again, to pound into oblivion what/whoever hurt her. My fists tightened up involuntarily by my sides. My rage at the injustices I encounter is never-ending.

When I headed out the front door to go to the barn, the freezing air makes my lungs ache and all I heard was silence. The wind had died down and there was a thin blanket of snow and ice over everything. I could still see my tracks from the barn from last night, but they were drifted in a bit. Everything was iced over and crunchy, as I retraced my steps to the barn.

Jet whinnied a greeting to me when I swung open the barn door and then pulled it closed behind me. I reached over the rail to scratch him behind his ears and rubbed down the front of his head, giving him a couple of apples in greeting. It's a shame I have a better relationship with most animals than I do with my own kind.

I went about my chores as I mucked the stalls, fed and watered the horses. When I checked on the little calf, he was surprisingly holding his head up. Warming his milk bottle back up, I tried again to feed him, and this time he remembered what to do. Drank the rest of the bottle down.

My mind wandered to things that needed done today on the ranch. Tyler and Mike probably already had the supplies put up from their trip into Lubbock yesterday, and had the other ranch hands loading up hay bales and feed on the trailer to haul out to the herds while the snow is on the ground. They'd need to break the ice in the water troughs, and check for any stragglers or other problems. I should probably ride out and help them as soon as I…

Dammit all to hell, forgot I have a small problem over at the house. What am I going to do when she wakes up? I have no clue how to approach or deal with her. I don't want to approach or deal with her. What if she doesn't wake up? Hell, what have I gotten myself into? I haven't had anyone in a house with me since…

Dread and anxiety have a way of twisting your innards up into a queasy knot. As I pulled open the squeaky screen door the to go back in the house, the bitter taste of bile tried to creep up my throat. I paused for a moment, leaning on the doorframe for support, and took some slow breaths of the crisp winter air to swallow everything back down. Whew, come on, you can do this…

I was quietly trying to pull things out to make breakfast when I heard a thud against the headboard in the bedroom. I looked in there cautiously, and saw my ragdoll sitting up, holding the comforter up over her mouth. When she saw me, she gasped, looked down and scooted farther away from me, reminding me of a trapped animal.

"Hey there, it's OK! Shhhh…I'm not going to hurt you!" I tried to reassure her, holding my hands up in surrender. "I found you half-frozen in my barn yesterday and brought you in here to warm up!"

"I-I-I'm so sorry," she stammered in a light wispy voice that pierced my soul.

"Nothing to be sorry about, ma'am. Everyone can use a helpin' hand once in a while."

"Thank you," she whispered. She looked up at me with the most soulful brown eyes. As my eyes locked with hers, it felt like thousands of tiny tractor beams were shooting through that connection, latching onto my very soul and reeling me in. I had to shake my damn head to get my befuddled brain thinking clearly. What the hell.

"Your clothes were wet and frozen last night. I hope you'll pardon me, but I as a life-saving resort, I had to get them off you to get you warmed up." Her fearful eyebrows raised high on her face and my eyes pleaded. "I promise, I was a gentleman! I put some of my dry clothes on you. Yours have already been washed and dried. Is that OK?"

She nodded slightly.

My heart was pounding like thunder behind my ribs, my pulse throbbing in my temples, as anxiety over doing the right thing clenched my chest in a vice. Handling and caring for animals is one thing. Hell, even managing the rough and rowdy ranch hands was a piece of cake compared to a soft, beautiful, sweet…injured…scared…well, shit.

"My name is Edward. Edward Cullen, and I own this cattle ranch you are on." I paused to see if she would offer her name. She just looked at me, like a deer caught in the headlights.

"What's your name, sweetie?"

"It's Bella, sir," she replied meekly, still gripping the comforter. Bella…beautiful, of course. So fitting.

"Bella, I just want to help. I will do whatever you need to help you." Again, I hesitated, not knowing how to say the next part. "Please don't take this the wrong way…I couldn't help but notice you appear to have…to be injured," I paused, wanting her to look me in the eyes in understanding. When she finally did, I noticed her eyes were brimmed with tears. Jesus.

"Could I take you to the hospital in town to make sure you're OK?"

"No! Oh no, NO!…I can't go to the hospital! He could find me!" She cried out in alarm as tears ran down her face. "I'm OK!"

"Wait, who? Who will find you?" I demanded.

She shook her head into the comforter.

"Please tell me? I just want to help," I said as I moved a little closer.

Nothing but tracks of tears running down her face. Jesus Christ…now what do I do?

"OK, how about this. My uncle is a doctor. Could he just come out here and look at you, make sure you'll be OK?"

She looked at me with those big brown eyes, searching, questioning

"Would that be OK?" I repeated softly.

I barely heard her whisper, "OK."

I had this urge to reach out to her, but I didn't think she would appreciate that too much right now. "You must be starving. How about I go fix us some breakfast, hmm? And you go take care of any thing you need in the bathroom, right in there? Towels and everything are in the cabinets," I said, tilting my head to the door at the side of the room. "Are you good to walk?"

She nodded. "Good. I'll be right in the kitchen if you need anything," I smiled, trying to reassure myself as much as her. Heaving a big sigh of relief, I moved to go back in the kitchen and shut the door softly behind me.

Placing a call to Carlisle, I explained everything that had happened in the last twelve hours. Scrambled eggs thickened up as I stirred them and kept an eye on the sizzling bacon. He expressed his concern and said he could be out here from town within the hour. He was bringing my Aunt Esme, thinking Bella might appreciate another woman in the picture.

The toast popped up when Bella came out of the bedroom. She was still wearing my clothes, although they seamed to look better than when I put them on her. Her waist length dark hair hung damp against her slender back. Setting the plates of food on the table, I motioned to her to sit down.

"Hey there, you doing alright?" I leaned down sideways to find her eyes. I was only a few inches away from her face when she turned to look up at me through her dark lashes. The scent of soap, shampoo and clean girl met my nose. My hand lifted to caress her sweet face before I caught myself. What the hell was I doing?

"Um…w-would you like some coffee?" I stammered.

We had finished eating in silence, both of us sizing each other up in attempted stealthy glances. I had just gotten up to take our plates to the sink and refill our coffee when there was a knock at the door. I looked at her quickly as her eyes opened really wide and her hands white-knuckled the edge of table.

"It's OK, Bella." I set the coffee pot back on the machine in the kitchen. "It's my aunt and uncle," I said reassuringly as I walked to open the front door.


When this man, Edward, reached to open the front door, I felt myself tense up in apprehension. So much had happened to me in the past few months, especially in the last two days, that I think I deserved the right to have a healthy fear of the unknown. However, when the door opened and a very handsome middle-aged man walked in, followed by a beautiful slender woman, I got a gut feeling by the kind look in their eyes that they were here to help.

"Bella, this is my uncle, Dr. Carlisle Cullen, and my aunt, Esme," he said, turning to me. Then, looking at them, "Carlisle and Esme, this is Bella, the young lady I told you about." Dr. Cullen had blond hair with grey beginning to show around his temples, giving him that distinguished look. He had sky-blue eyes that reflected kindness and compassion. Esme's hair color was more of a deeper honey twisted back into a bun and her eyes were a sage green. I stood up as she set down a laundry basket of clothes on the table and walked quickly over to me, grasping my hand with both of hers.

"Hello, my sweet dear. I brought over some of my clothes because it sounded like you and I were about the same size." She looked me deep in the eyes for a brief moment before she pulled me into a wonderful motherly hug, one of which I haven't had for nearly three years. I fought tears as I felt the warmth encompass me. She brushed her fingers through my hair as I leaned into her embrace as she said, "There, there, sweetheart, it's going to be OK."

Carlisle came over as Esme released me from the hug and reached out for my hand. "Hello, Bella. It's a pleasure to meet you! How are feeling, my dear?" I could feel his concerned glance examining the bruised side of my face. I didn't realize how bad it was until I took a shower a while ago.

"P-pleasure to meet you too, sir." Jesus. I don't know why I'm stuttering like a damn fool, just overwhelmed I guess. "I'm much better now, thanks to this gentleman." I didn't feel comfortable calling him by his name, seeing as I just met him and all. Edward stood off to the side, leaning against the doorframe with his thumbs stuck in edges of his front pockets. I hurt too bad and my mind was too weighed down to get in to how all-fired sexy that tall drink of water is, but believe me, I have noticed.

"So glad to hear that. I'm concerned about your injuries, honey, so pardon me for getting straight to the point. Would it be OK if I took a look at them?

I took a deep breath and exhaled through pursed lips. I had prayed for help and I do believe my prayers had answers that stood right in front of me. I hesitantly nodded as I said, "Yes sir." I answered at almost a whisper. "What would be the best way?"

Dr. C motioned for me to just sit in one of the chairs at the table. "Let's just start with your face," he said, feeling gently around my eye socket, cheek and jaw bone.

"Nothing feels fractured, but there is definitely some deep subcutaneous bruising here. Let me look at your eyes," he stated, as he pulled out a little pen light from his pocket and shined them in my eyes one at time. "Pupils are equal and reactive, so that's good news!"

He turned to find Edward and said, "Son, do you have a little blanket Bella could use to wrap up in so I can examine the rest of her?" Edward nodded and went into his room. After hearing a door open and close, he returned quickly with a lightweight thermal blanket that he handed to me.

"Will this work," he asked in that velvety smooth voice of his. I looked up at him as I accepted it.

"That will work perfect," Dr. Cullen replied. He turned to me and asked, "Perhaps you would be more comfortable if we moved this into the bedroom?"

After I stepped into the bathroom, stripped down to my undergarments and wrapped the blanket around me, Dr. Cullen had me stand in front of him as he examined my back, shoulders and abdomen while Esme held my hand. I couldn't help but flinch when he examined the bruises there.

"These are a couple serious intramuscular bruises, Bella. These worst ones look to be a day or two old," he observed. By this time, my eyes started stinging as tears threatened to surface.

When he looked at my legs and saw that huge bruise on my thigh, he looked really concerned. "Bella, this one looks really acute, like it is a blunt force trauma caused by a hard pointed object. Can you tell me what caused this contusion?"

I gulped back a sob that had risen up my throat, but when I took a breath, it escaped anyway. Tears leaked out of my eyes like someone turned on a faucet.

"I tripped over my own damn feet," I said flatly. "I was backing away from my brother who was yelling at me, and I tripped over my duffle bag, hitting the corner of my desk with my thigh," I managed to get out, followed by another big shuddering sob.

"Plus, when my flashlight went out, I was just walking blindly trying to find the barn and couldn't see where I was going. I fell hard several times."

Esme wrapped the blanket tighter around my shoulders and pulled me into a warm embrace, rubbing my back. "Oh sweetheart, I'm so sorry!" She continued to rub soothing circles on my back as I cried into her shoulder.

Edward brought me some tissue. "Thank you," I said reaching for them, not being able to look him in the eyes, but the accidental brief touch of our fingers gave me an extra tingle in my trembling hands. These people are so kind-hearted and generous. They don't need to be weighed down with all my burdens.

Edward reached out and tucked some hair back behind my ear, resting his big strong hand on my head. The hand that was strong enough to wrangle wayward cattle and break belligerent horses, placed a reassuring touch, now on my shoulder. That touch was enough to crumble my resolve. I knew this man was used to being alone, maybe thought he preferred to be alone, but he had this haunted look in his eyes the same way I did. Maybe, just maybe, we were thrown into an intersecting path for a reason.

With the tissue dabbing my eyes, I took a big breath and began.

"I'm from close to San Angelo. We own a spread between the Colorado River and the North Concho. I went to ASU to stay close to home, because it took all of us pitchin' in to manage the place. My older brother, Jamie, also attended ASU, but flunked out from too much partying, I suppose." I paused as I shrugged my shoulders. "I guess that started a rift between us, him being envious that I continued on with top notch grades after he dragged home a failure.

I graduated three years ago, with a degree in Ag Business, fully intending to help my daddy with the books and management part of the operation since my mom was a bit of a scatterbrain. He showed me where everything was and how it worked, and things were good.

One afternoon, Daddy was out checking the fences when his horse was spooked by a big rattler and reared up. Daddy was thrown, smashing his head and breaking his neck on a rock, killing him instantly. They had a closed casket, because it disfigured him so badly. Momma didn't let me look…she wanted me to remember him the way he was." I felt my chest tighten as I gasped for breath. "I never got to tell him good-bye," came out as almost a whisper, while grief pulled me under and sobs took over.

Strong arms circled me and lifted me to a sturdy lap, my headed tucked securely under an angled jaw, as I shook with sobs. I never felt more cared for as I was pulled against a solid chest.

"Momma managed to hang around for a few months or so, but she started going absolutely bonkers. Everything reminded her of him, every piece of clothing and jewelry he gave her, every piece of furniture…she was just so agitated. Of course there were parts of him in everywhere in the house, the barns, the property that he built up from nothing. One day she was just up and gone. She left everything without a word. I didn't get to say good-bye to her either." My shoulders drooped even more, a big sigh passed my lips.

"Last I heard, she was living the life down in Houston somewhere with one of the Astro baseball players." I shrugged. "She sends me birthday cards."

Edward's warm calloused hand was reassuring me up and down my arm.

"So, then it was just Jamie and me. In Daddy's will, he split the ranch and facilities pretty much in half between the two of us. There was about five thousand acres and two thousand were now in my name. Even though Jamie got the lion's share, he was angry because he thought I received the better property, better access to water, and better pastures. He always accused Daddy of being partial to me, and said this was just proof.

I didn't understand the change in him. He started trying to prove he could do better, always trying to one up me, making everything a competition. I never bought into it, always sharing information on good deals I would find, reminding him of deadlines for things to be done.

Not sure when things started going south for him. I suspect he made some bad business deals and that didn't go so well. Maybe he tried to cover some losses with some shady loans, I don't know, but he started hanging around with some really suspicious characters, staying out late and drinking." I shook my head, not liking the images I remembered.

"He would come home late and seek me out just to pick a fight, finding fault in insignificant things and accusing me of others. A few weeks of this, I then I needed to find a way out, to distance myself from him before something really bad happened.

I had things set up with my lawyer and foreman so I could be all set to go, and thought maybe I would go visit a friend in Childress. But Jamie came home a couple of nights ago, staggering drunk again, after trying to find answers to his problems in the bottom of a bottle…or two, or who the hell knows how many.

The door slammed open to my bedroom with a crash, making me jump up in alarm. His body filled the doorway, reeking with the stench of whiskey, stale cigarette smoke and the need of clean clothes and a shower. His eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot, giving him a crazed and dangerous look. Where was the handsome hard-working big brother I used to know?

"You little conniving bitch! You back-stabbing, two-faced... It's YOUR fault I was left with the piss poor half of the ranch because you were always daddy's little girl, the golden child who could do no wrong," he yelled in a mimicking kind of voice. " It's YOUR fault I'm losing my part of the ranch because I can't keep up with all your fancy deals and your connections at school." Each time he said "your", he emphasized it with a poke to my chest. I was backing up to put some distance between us, when my foot hit the duffle bag I had been packing and with my weight shifted, expecting to step back on that foot, I fell. On the way down, my full weight was behind my thigh as it connected with the sharp pointed corner of the wooden desk Daddy gave me, and my face caught the side as well Godammit, that hurt!

Jamie was so far gone, he didn't seem to realize I had fallen and leaned over to keep telling me all my sins.

"And another thing…" he continued, but tripped over the same duffle bag and fell. I felt the heavy weight of his body falling on mine, knocking the air out of my lungs, yet again.

After lying still in anticipation with him not moving or talking for what felt like an eternity, I realized he must have passed out cold. With adrenaline pumping, I struggled to push his weight off of me, my heart pounding against my ribcage and muscles screaming from the exertion. I finally rolled him off to one side and wiggled out from under him.

I felt the left side of my face and thigh throbbing from where I had connected with the desk, but knew I only had a small window of time. My brother had lost his damn mind, and I needed to get the hell outta Dodge before he regained consciousness.

Hobbling over to my dresser because of my poor thigh, I quickly changed to put on some long johns under jeans and a long-sleeved Henley with trembling hands. I grabbed my bags I already had sitting by the closet and was out the door in about fifteen minutes.

I just headed out on Hwy 83 and drove, with the singular mission of getting far away. My old truck Daddy gave me when I was sixteen was on it's last leg, but I couldn't bear to part with it. The engine rumbled and strained as I pushed the pedal down, pleading for it to hold together one more time. Glancing at my watch, I realized it was almost 3 am.

Making a quick pit stop in Sweetwater to fill up and get a cup of coffee, I was greeted with a blast of wintery air when I opened the cab door. Glancing up, I noticed how the clouds churned around in the dark overcast sky with a promise of inclement weather. Shit. Last thing I need is a snow storm or something, to go with the shit storm of my life right now. Keeping my hoodie pulled down over the left side of my face, I paid and left.

As I pulled back out on the road, little ice pellets started to make a multitude of rapid-fire tapping sounds on the windshield. Illuminated by the headlights, they looked like tiny streaks of white zooming towards me. Limiting my range of vision, I just had to focus on the yellow lines in the center of the road.

After an hour of looking at the exact same images in front of me, snow began to mix in with the sleet. I slowly realized I'm in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere. The only towns after Sweetwater are Paducah, and then Childress, over one hundred damn miles away. I have not met another single vehicle, but then, what fool would be driving in the middle of nowhere on a night like this?

Shit. What am I doing.

A little while later, I passed a big stone entrance sign that said Circle C Ranch, Headquarters. Wow. That must be a pretty big set up.

I was still contemplating that thought when my radio and gages started flickering and sounding like static. Then everything went dark and the truck just coasted and stopped with a shudder, like a last gasp. At least I had the presence of mind to steer it to the side of the road, even though the power steering had gone out and it was a bitch to turn.

I just sat there for a few minutes…or maybe an eternity, I don't know. I finally tried pumping the gas a little and turning the ignition. It just mocked me by making a "click" "click" "click" sound. After a couple of tries, it wouldn't even do that anymore. Godammit! My forehead hit the steering wheel.

I had a bright idea to check my phone, but of course there was no signal. I don't know who I was going to call, at what, 4:30 am?


Well, I can't stay here without heat. My best bet would be back at this Circle C Ranch Headquarters. Certainly there would be a barn to get in out of the cold, if not a house, and maybe a phone. I can only hope.

Locking up everything in the truck except my purse, I tied the hoodie under my chin, zipped up the jacket, tied the hood on the jacket, pulled my gloves on, and wrapped a quilted blanket around me I had pulled out from behind the seat. Good thing I had on my long johns, too. Now I felt like a puffalump. Last thing I grabbed was my big flashlight that Daddy always made sure I had batteries for.

I started walking back the couple hundred yards towards that entrance sign, my boots clumping along on the pavement which had a little bit of blowing snow and some patches of ice. When I reached the entrance and stepped off the highway, there was more iced over snow accumulated, which made walking more treacherous.

Trudging along the cleachy drive, my steps were now making heavy crunching sounds as my blanket flapped behind me in the wind, which seemed to be increasing in force. The exposed part of my face was beginning to sting, as the relentless assault of sleet was making it hard to focus. It was as if even the elements themselves were out to get me and hold me back. I stumbled a few times from the uneven ground and ice covered snow, going to my knees and feeling the cold wetness starting to seep through the denim material.

I kept plodding along, trying to see anything ahead that resembled the shape of a building through the swirling snow. How far were they off the damn road? How far had I come already? I was losing track of time and distance as the winds buffeted my body, but I shrugged into it and pushed on. My toes were numb inside the cold leather of my boots and my fingers ached from grasping the blanket and the flashlight.

Finally, I thought I could see a pinpoint of light in the far distance and set my goals on reaching it. Willing myself to put one foot in front of the other, I continued against the punishing wind. Suddenly, I'm surrounded in complete darkness as the damn flashlight went out. I shook it a few times and flipped the switch back and forth, but nothing. Jesus Christ. I heaved a big sigh as my head fell forward, letting my arm fall down straight, the flashlight dropping with a clunk to the frozen ground. I really felt like having a good cry right now, all the good that would do. As a matter of fact, I can't promise that a few teardrops did not escape down the sides of my face.

I will not let this defeat me! I can get somewhere and find help. I will find a way to get out of this eternal darkness and biting cold. I angrily wiped at the wetness on my cheeks and looked up to find that little light. I focused on that light and started taking aching but determined steps toward it.

After what seemed like an eternity later, and at least a dozen stumbles and all out falls, I stood, exhausted to the bone, shivering wet and teeth chattering in front of a large barn with a lone spotlight mounted over the big door. I was struggling to take ragged breaths, inhaling the frigid air. Looking around, there appeared to be a large, covered outdoor pavilion, a huge log cabin style house and maybe another barn, but this one had my focus right now. With my last ounce of strength, I pulled with all my might on that big door and was rewarded when it creaked open a few inches, enough for me to squeeze through. I tried to pull it closed again, but couldn't quite get it to touch.

Standing still for a moment to get my bearings, I heard the rustle and snorting of horses and smelled hay and leather, probably feed as well. It was warmer here, out of the wind. All I could think of was finding a dry corner to collapse in and rest for a few minutes. So cold…so, so tired. Just going to sit right over here and rest. Just going to close my eyes a sec…Just a little…


As I listened to Bella's heartbreaking tale unfold, an unbidden roar began to build up inside my head, my heart, and my chest, as my fists clenched in apprehension and then rage. My turbulent thoughts, usually centered on all the trauma and injustices I have withstood, were now refocusing on everything she has endured. I could sense my emotional mechanisms grinding and changing gears, a giant shift as my soul recalibrated all the principles I held myself to the past five years. For the first time in years, I have managed to focus on someone else's tribulations besides my own.

Instead of keeping myself distanced from her like I had planned last night, when she collapsed into sobs talking about her father's death, I went to her. I grabbed around her slender waist and lifted her to my lap, pulling her into my protective embrace. She was a perfect fit with her head tucked securely under my jaw.

Carlisle, sensing the change in my demeanor, had relinquished his space next to Bella. He stepped into the kitchen, bringing back a chair for Esme to sit in, as she continued to hold Bella's hands while she talked.

As she continued, telling how her mother just quit and left, my heart felt shredded – like a cougar's claws just ripped right down, the newfound pain for someone else burning in my chest. My arms held her more securely as I began rubbing her reassuringly up and down one arm.

It was the revelation of the change in her brother and his attitude toward her, that my heart to fully burst out of its former confines, throbbing back to life in a righteous rage at the injuries and indignations she had suffered because of him. He had better hope and pray I never come into contact with him, or even more likely, pursue and hunt him down! My mind was churning as I contemplated everything.

At the conclusion of her story, which was up until the point in time where I found her in the barn, I slowly rocked her trembling body until she calmed down, as we all sat there in a stunned silence.

After hearing what had transpired in her life, I realized what a special and unique person she was. She was smart as a whip and had such a strong spirit. How, even after the great loss of her father, being abandoned by her mother, rejected and verbally berated by her psycho brother, she still had the tenacity to carry on, the drive to persevere, the determination to hold her head up with dignity in the face of adversity. From her testimonial, she also brought me emotionally to my knees with the understanding that I am not the only one who has suffered and lost in this world. What an insufferable asshole I have been, thinking I was the sole owner on having lived through hell.

Esme spoke first, saying, "Bella, sweetheart, you are safe now. You have come to the best possible place and we will help you with whatever you need, OK?" She reached up and cupped Bella's cheek and she nodded, taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly.

"Bella, Esme is right, we will help you in anyway we can. You have been through a tremendous ordeal and need assistance in several areas. I think the first course of action is to take care of your injuries," Carlisle said, slipping back into doctor mode of course. "As far as I can tell, nothing is broken. The first treatment for serious bruises is rest and ice, but since it has been more than twenty-four hours, we might use a little heat to help move the liquid out of your tissues and make you more comfortable, and a mild pain reliever would help," he continued. "We need to get you somewhere you can rest and get the help you need. Perhaps you'd like to come with us back to town…"

The protective roar erupted out of my chest, "No! She stays here!" I exclaimed. "I mean, that is, if you want to. I have plenty of room and you are welcome to stay here." I leaned back and looked at her sheepishly.

She blinked a few times and a smile slowly lit up her beautiful face. "Are you sure about that? I mean, I wouldn't want to impose or intrude…"

"You would be a very welcome intrusion," I said, returning her smile. "I have everything you need, and if I don't, I can get it pretty damn quick."

"Can you…get my dead bucket-of-bolts truck off the highway?" she asked with a mischievous gleam in her eye.

"I sure can. As soon as the men get in from tending the herds, I'll grab a couple and go tow in up to the shop. What else?" I raised an eyebrow as I looked at her.

"Can you…help me find my purse? I started out from the road with it on my shoulder. It may be in the barn," She looked up at me hesitantly through her lashes.

"If it's not in the barn, I'll search for it between here and the road, maybe even find your flashlight," I nudged her with my shoulder.

"I'd like to stay for just a little while then, if you're sure."

I gave her a gentle squeeze. "I'm sure," I answered.

"But only on one condition," she added smugly.

"What's that?" I asked with surprise.

"That when I am able, you will let me compensate you or earn my keep for what you are doing for me. I may be in a pinch right now, but I don't want to be a charity case. I need to take care of myself," she insisted, narrowing her eyes at me.

Whoa. I noticed it was mare a statement of fact and not a question. I believe a bit of spark had returned to her personality, which is good to see. I'll give her this, since she needs to preserve her dignity.

"Deal," I said.

I looked over at Esme whose eyes were shining as she said, "Come on Bella, let's see if any of those clothes fit that I brought." With that, she tugged on one of her hands until Bella rose out of my lap, taking away her warmth and leaving my arms empty.

"Don't overdo it sweetheart, she needs to rest," Carlisle reminded.

My eyes follow them through the door and then traveled over to Carlisle leaning against the wall. He gave me a shrug, a wink and a smile and said, "Come on, let's go see what we can rustle up for lunch. I'm starved!" With that, he turned and walked out the door as well, leaving me trying to figure out what just happened. My familiar tendency to be an asshole was still lingering on the edges of my thoughts, but I flicked it away, following him into the kitchen.

After a warm lunch of soup and grilled sandwiches, Carlisle braved the cold and accompanied me out to the barn to feed the little bull calf, while Esme offered to let Bella pick which spare room she wanted. When I pulled the door open to the barn, I was greeted with snorts and whinnies from all three horses. After we let them all out in the corral to get some fresh air and run around and stretch their legs a bit, we went back in to check on the little guy. He was surprisingly standing up on his feet, trying out his newfound legs. I mixed up a warm bottle of formula and let Carlisle feed him while the calf butted and wiggled in his eagerness.

Looking around, I found Bella's big leather purse half buried in the pile of straw I found her in. Picking it up, I heard a truck pull up out side and doors open and close.

"Hey, Boss!" Tyler boomed loudly as he came in the door, Mike close behind.

"Hey, Ty, Mike. How did everything go?" I asked, shouldering the bag.

"That's a good look on you, Bossman," Mike chuckled.

"Isn't it though? Latest style and all," I shrugged, smirking. "Look, I need y'all to unhook the trailer and load up the tow chains, we have a dead truck to pull in from the highway."

"Sure thing, Boss! On it," they hollered as they went back out. They were really good ranch hands who have been with me for almost eleven years. They have been with me through thick and a multitude of thin. Tyler was the one who…nope, not going to go there.

Shaking my head, I looked over at Carlisle giving the calf a little rub down. "I'm going to head out to the highway with Ty and Mike to find Bella's truck. You want to come along?"

"Yeah, that will give the women-folk a little time to get squared away," he responded.

We went out and got in the back of the supercab and drove back out the two miles plus drive back out to the highway, spotting her abandoned flashlight more than half-way back. I filled the guys in with the part about Bella and how her truck died, stranding her to walk up to the barn in the dark and freezing cold.

A couple hundred yards to the right of the entrance, we found Bella's beast of an old red truck. Pulling our gloves on, we stepped out of the cab to see what the damage was. Deciding it would be better to look at it in the shop, we were chuckling about her driving it as we hooked up the chains to the frame. All the time I couldn't keep my mind off a certain little brunette back up at the house and if she would be OK.


After three days of playing invalid like I was told, I was restless to do around and help out. One can only take so much of lying around in bed reading, doing crosswords, or watching old movies. My bruises were turning a disgusting yellow green color and on the way to healing. I felt like such a clutz, tripping over my own feet, basically! Jeez.

Esme had helped me get settled as much as possible into the guest room opposite from Edward's. They both had en suite bathrooms, so I didn't have to limp out into the living area for that purpose.

Edward had a beautiful four bedroom log home nestled against a backdrop of picturesque canyons and there seemed to be a river running against the base of them. I could see big cottonwoods and water willows growing along the riverbank through the beautiful arched bay windows at the back of the living area. The windows were built around a gorgeous stone fireplace, which surprisingly looked like it had never been used. Hmmm…

I had started getting up after Edward left before light each morning to go take care of the stock, to fix him a good breakfast. I had noticed he liked to eat when he came back in, looking for some hot coffee to warm up.

He was genuinely surprised and I hope impressed, the first time he came in to find hot pancakes and bacon to go with his coffee. I told him I was just earning my keep. He kept giving me these glances like he was seriously contemplating the thoughts rumbling around in that gorgeous noggin of his. Oh yes, I am all about admiration of his attributes and assets these days, emphasis on "ass".

I have always been a fan of cowboys with narrow hips and firm buttocks in tight jeans. And Lord have mercy, the sight of Eduardo's tight ass sauntering by in his jeans has me clenching my thighs together something fierce! And that's just the backside of him! Don't get me started on the front side! He has a riotous head of rusty brown hair to crown the most beautiful face, gorgeous green eyes that remind me of green fields of wheat, broad strong shoulders I am itching to massage, long lean legs that go on for miles…

Where was I? I had to blink a couple of times. Oh yeah, cooking. I had gradually started adding other meals and doing a bit of baking, all to Edward's skeptical approval. Not one for idle talk, that feller! But you know what? I think I'm wearing him down.

It had been a few weeks now, my bruises are just faint yellow discolorations and Dr. C had said I was good to go. I decided to push some of Edward's buttons.

"Edward, your Uncle Carlisle has declared me healed. I figure I'd best be moving on and finding a new place to stay," I paused before I looked up to see a panicked look on his face.

"W-What do you mean? No, you can't go, you need to stay. You still owe me, um, the towing fee for bringing that beast of a truck back up here and fixin' it," he all but pleaded.

"Please Bella, don't go." He sounded so despondent.

"Well…OK then. I guess I might need to earn that off." Inwardly I'm fist pumping and giving him just enough line to reel him in.

I fixed him some of the best fried chicken I have ever made for supper, with mashed potatoes, corn, rolls and a salad. While we were eating, I could feel his eyes on me, causing the little hairs to stand up on the back of my neck as I heard him crunching on his chicken. What in the world is he thinking? I have wished, and not for the first time, that I could read his mind.

That night, I had just reached over and turned the light out after reading a few chapters, when I thought I heard a low moan coming from across the hall. This wasn't a low sexy kind of moan, this was a sound of agony. A few minutes later, I heard it again, and it sounded like he was in excruciating pain. What the hell? Was he hurt? Sick? I was just starting to swing my legs over the side of the bed to go check on him when I heard an ear splitting scream and I hit the ground running.

When I opened his bedroom door, Edward was writhing around bare-chested on his bed crying out and moaning. Then he sat straight up, grabbed both hands in his hair and screamed, "MAGGIE…NO, NO,NO Oh GOD, no!" and then he broke down in sobs rocking back and forth, tears streaming down his precious face. Oh sweet Jesus! I ran up to him and wrapped my arms around him, rocking him back and forth, and telling him it was all right.

"Edward, wake up honey, you're having a nightmare!" I pleaded. "It's Bella, I'm right here. I've got you, baby," I promised, trying to soothe him. His anguished cries were tearing up my heart. Oh my God, what had he gone through?

"Edward? Can you hear me? Edward, it's me Bella," I persisted, holding his face with one hand, trying to see his eyes. His sobs gradually subsided to hiccups, and then big sniffs. I continued to rock him, wrapped around his broad shoulders.

"I'm here, Edward," I repeated.

"Bella…?" he glanced up through wet lashes.

"Yes, sweetheart, I'm here," I assured.

"Bella, I'm so sorry," he said, his voice rough from crying. "I lost them, Bella."

"Lost who, honey?"

"My wife and baby boy," he barely whispered. I waited, letting him find his words, and rubbing his back.

He blew out a long breath, his hands fiddling with the sheet. "I had been out riding the range with the hands, mending fences, diggin' fence posts, rounding up any stray head of cattle," he paused and swallowed. "We were getting close back to the ranch and noticed the dark smoke rising in the air and I got the sickest feeling of pure dread."

He stopped to take a few deep breaths and sniff his nose. "We took off at a full gallop all the way back, praying to God it wasn't too late, but when we got to the house, it was engulfed in flames. I tried to run in and find them and save them, but Tyler pulled me back just as the roof collapsed." He leaned his head back and made a high keening sound. My God, my heart is breaking! I pulled his head over to my shoulder as he leaned into my embrace.

"By the time we could dig through the ruins to find them, they were just charcoaled remains, her wrapping his tiny little body in an eternal embrace," he could barely get it out from choking. "I failed them. I should have been there. I should have gotten there sooner."

"Shhhh…no, no, no!" I grabbed both sides of his face and raised it so he could look me in the eyes. "Edward, listen to me. What happened to them was a horrific tragedy, but I want you to do something. Think of the good times you had with those sweet people. Celebrate the wonderful memories you had with them, the time you shared with them while they were on this earth. Cherish those moments in your heart forever, but let them rest, sweetheart. Let your mind be at peace." I ran my fingers through his hair.


"Yes, Edward?"

"I've got so many flaws. I get hung up in my own thoughts and sometimes I might drown my sorrows in a drink or two," he confessed. "Sometimes I get aggravated and have a short fuse. I don't know how you could ever put up with me 'cause I'm hard to love, but Bella…"

I look down at him in my embrace.

"Bella, will you stay?"