This was originally written for The Heart of Country Contest. I didn't win, but I hope you'll enjoy it anyway. Thanks to my beta-extraordinaire mauigirl60 for all her hard work and encouragement on this and all my other stories. ;)
Life on the ranch is hard, but even harder when the one you love is gone. Edward Cullen knows, he saw the goodbye in her eyes.
Twilight is not mine, nor is anything else that might be copyrighted. But the rest is all me, so please don't take it.
~*~Goodbye in Her Eyes~*~
The harsh sound of the shovel as it breaks the hard earth echoes in the air, the light breeze and calls of a lonely bird its only companion. Heat is heavy in the air, the mirage of waves dancing up from the ground as the sun beats down, causing sweat and dirt to mix into sticky film across my face, neck, and arms. I stop for a minute, leaning on the wooden shovel with one hand as the other plucks my battered white Stetson from my head before I wipe the sweat away from my eyes.
Digging fence post is back-breaking work, especially in the late July sun, but it has to get done. If I plan to get the cattle out to this back twenty before week's end, then there isn't time to waste hoping for a day that the temperature might dip down below one hundred. Or even better, wishing someone else would come out here and do it for me since God knows I have no desire to be out here on my own, just me and my thoughts.
I snort derisively at myself, knowing that is a futile wish. I've seen thirty-five years under the Texas sky, living all but four of those years on this ranch, and I know as sure as the day is long, that that kind of wish is never going to come true.
Not as long as you want shit done right, anyhow.
I hear the bluebird chirping in a maple tree nearby again, its call for another going unanswered, except for the grasshoppers who continue to play their songs. I replace my hat and get back to my work, knowing that bird isn't the only one who will be alone tonight.
Try as I might, I can't keep from seeing her in my mind again, the last time we spoke playing like a movie that never ends.
It's part of the reason I hate being out here on my own, nothing but the shovel and line of fence to keep me out of those painful memories.
But as it is, they float up, soaking my skin like I know the ground will do if it ever rains; straight down and all the way through, leaving no drop unused.
I'll never forget the day I met Bella Swan. She was all fiery brown eyes and hair that trickled down her back and rested on the curve of her ass, her smooth legs peeking out from below a white lace dress and above bright red cowboy boots I knew damned well had never stepped foot outside to do any real work, besides taking her from the house to the car.
She was as far from the country girls I'd grown up with as New York and San Antone, but when I saw that smile on her pretty red lips, the sound of her laugh carrying over the shouts and cheers of children as they waved wildly at the parade floats, I was caught.
~*~ 12 years earlier~*~
I made my way up to the her, sliding through the crowd of folks who'd come out to see the new parade Queen, offering 'hellos' and 'how-are-yous' as I went.
She was laughing at something, her hand resting on the shoulder of her friend, who I was relieved to see was someone I knew and could maybe give me an introduction to the beautiful woman.
"Oh my God, Whit, is that her? The Queen of Corn?" the lovely girl was asking, her voice full of laughter.
"You bet. Four years running."
"A feat unsurpassed in the history of Smithville," she replied, laughing loudly at her own joke, as both Jasper and I looked on. I wouldn't admit it, but I knew exactly what she was referring too, having had my baby sister watch that movie so many damned times when we were growing up, I could probably recite it myself if need be.
"Something funny over here?" I asked, taking the chance and making my presence known.
Jasper looked up, a wide smile on his face as he reached over for my hand. "Edward! Hey man, how the hell are ya?"
"Doin' all right. You?" I replied, smiling at him and glancing at her. I couldn't help the smirk that pulled at my lips when I noticed her looking at me, those brown eyes sultry as they gazed into mine.
"Yeah, yeah. Things are good. Finally got my Pop to let me take lead on the ranch, so I can't complain too much."
"That's great, man," I told him, happy to hear his good news. Despite what others may have thought, men like us weren't guaranteed anything in life just because our fathers owned land. We had to earn our place on the ranch just like any other hand, toiling in the dirt and cow shit in the cold and heat like everyone else. Usually having to do more, since we were free labor and all, and had been since we were old enough to pull on boots and tie a rope.
I'd known Jasper since damned near diapers, and it didn't take long before we got to talking, catching up on the whos and whats of our small town life, including how he and little Mary Alice were doing, having gotten married right out of school while I went on to college in East Texas.
I had almost forgotten about the pretty brunette beside us, except for the way my eyes continued to find her every minute or so. She seemed content to let us talk, biding her time by watching the parade and swaying to the marching bands as they passed.
Still, I could feel a nervous excitement steal through my body as she seemed to get fed up being ignored, clearing her throat and bumping into Jasper's shoulder with her own.
"Oh, hell, sorry, Bee. I'm being rude, let me introduce you," Jasper said, waving a hand between us. "Edward, this is my cousin, Bella Swan. Bella, this is my buddy, Edward Cullen."
"Pleasure to meet you," I said with a smile, and meaning it.
She smiled back, a warm blush on her cheeks and a sparkle in her eye. "You too, cowboy. I like that hat," she said, grinning mischievously. I was about to thank her when she jumped up, her little hand reaching out and stealing the new white Stetson from my head before I could say a word. My mouth dropped open in surprise.
"What do you think, does it look good on me?" she teased, sliding the hat further down on her head. "Man, you should do something about that mop on your head. Don't you own a brush?" She giggled, reaching up on her tiptoes to run her fingers through my hair, laughing the whole time.
I finally closed my mouth, looking at Jasper with surprised eyes. He was shaking his head in disbelief. If there was anything people knew about me, it was that you didn't mess with my hat.
Or my hair.
And this woman had just done both.
Jasper whistled lowly, shaking his head and stepping back. "I'm going to find my wife, if that's all right with you folks," he said, but only looked to Bella. When she smiled widely, he shot me a look that clearly implied I should behave, but I didn't think I was the one Jasper should've be worried about if Bella's wicked smile was anything to go by.
"Now, I know you city girls must not know this, but taking a man's hat is frowned upon around here," I said, stepping closer to her.
Bella smiled coyly, one hand on her pretty dress hem, twisting it sinfully, if you asked me, and the other on my hat. "Really? I thought all you country boys liked to be kind to strangers," she said, playfully batting her lashes.
I grinned, knowing she thought she'd won. I stepped closer again, my body as close as it could be in the light of day, and lowered my voice and head so I could speak into her ear. "Well, usually that's true, but a man's hat, his cowboy hat in particular, is like a part of the man himself. A very… personal part, you might say." The shudder that shook her body made my own stand at attention.
"Mind if I keep it, then?" Bella asked, touching the brim of the hat. We both knew it wasn't what she meant as she gazed up at me, her red lips stretched into a seductive smile that I found hard to resist.
"You bet, sweetheart. You can have any part of me you want," I said, cocky smirk in place as I took her hand and entwined our fingers.
She didn't hesitate to twist hers with mine, and offered me a nod of agreement.
That was the beginning of the end for me, as no other woman would ever come close to Bella Swan in my eyes.
She was only in town for a short time, having to get back to California for her final year of college, but it didn't stop us. We started seeing each other that summer, spending all the time together we could. I took her out mudding on the back country roads, chasing fireflies around the house, and swinging on Grandma's old porch swing as we sipped iced tea. We fished in the creek beds that cut across my father's land and played in the tall bluegrass, her running and me chasing before we tumbled down onto a blanket she'd packed for a picnic, me nuzzling her neck to get to that sweet honey and lilac scent that clung to her skin no matter how hot it was.
It was more than fireworks in the sky when we kissed that first time and sweeter than any dream had a right to be when we finally made love, just me and her and the crickets under the night sky in the bed of my pick-up truck. I showed her how to ride a horse, and she showed me the shape of her breasts in a wet t-shirt, before ripping off her clothes and mine, both of us frantic and full of need as we furiously sought the connection of each other's body in the shade of an oak tree beside my family's lake.
I was angry when I had to throw back the small crawfish and croppy I worked all day to catch because Bella couldn't bear to let them die, and she screamed her anger out when I wouldn't let her shoot a shotgun, even if it was just skeet practice. I held her close as she cried after I told her about her favorite pig meeting the kitchen table as bacon and she offered me comfort that I wouldn't always be in my father's shadow as a rancher. We drank with friends around late-night campfires and slept in too-small tents, learning about each other and ourselves like we'd never done before.
She had me twisted up, turned inside out, and right-side in by the time summer came to its end, taking her with it. We kissed a thousand kisses and loved a hundred different ways, but it still didn't feel like enough.
As I finish up another post, the blinding hot, white sun burning in the midday sky, I knew it wasn't enough.
No amount of time would be enough with Bella, I'd always known that.
Even still, I'd given my heart to that girl, and let her take it back home while I waited in Texas, only our promises of soon and always, and the love we shared to hold me over. It felt like forever before she came back, but when she finally did, I knew I'd never let her go again.
Cursing lightly to myself, I wondered if that was the case, then why am I here, alone, now?
Pushing those thoughts away, I gather up my few materials and toss them in the bed of the truck, slamming the tailgate closed before I hop into the cab. I pump the clutch and take off, bumping and jostling along the grass until I hit the small dirt path that has been worn into the ground from years of travel.
I look out over the land, feeling pride well in my chest as I realize how far I've come from that young kid, scared he'd never live up to his father's demands, even more terrified when Dad passed and left it all to me. I grin widely when I think of how I'm doing even better than he'd done, thank God. I was pushing enough livestock through to finally pay off that second mortgage we'd had to take out, though it had been a fight to do it. Even now, though it hadn't solved anything, I don't regret it. That loan had given us more life than we should have had.
As I pull up to the large white house, shutters faded from the vibrant red Bella had painted them after years in the sun, I smile to myself, thinking about her dressed in her little jeans shorts, paint all over her body and remembering how before the night was through, it was all over me too.
When Bella came back, her hair a little shorter but her love for this country boy no less passionate, we came together like vanilla ice cream and apple pie; just perfectly. She didn't hesitate one minute to let me know just what I would be doing with the rest of my life; taking care of her.
I didn't argue for even a second, never once thinking things would turn out differently than we'd planned.
But life is funny like that, in the least humorous way possible. It's been said by many that God laughs at the plans we make, and I am sure God had been laughing then, so thoroughly had he ripped our plans apart.
It's just one of the reasons I can't step foot in church come Sunday mornings anymore.
"Edward! You get finished up thar yet?" I hear Billy yell out, his old but still lean body ambling over slowly from the horse training pen.
I feel the mud from the mix of sweat and dirt crack on my neck as I nod. "Just about. I still got about a half dozen or so left, but it's too damned hot in this midday sun to keep at it. I'm going to cool off in the house for a bit then head back out after I get some lunch."
"You know Jacob could hep ya with that," Billy offers, his thick accent rolling off his tongue. "You'd been done a helluva lot quicker if you take my boy with ya."
I nod politely, my eyes averted from his as I pretend to think the offer over. Truth is, Jacob is the reason I am having to re-fence the back lot over again anyway, he'd done such a piss-poor job last time. The boy was only nineteen, but I know this kind of life isn't for him, and so does every other person who's worked the Rockin' C Ranch for me, except for his father. And if Billy hadn't been my father's best hand, I would have let Jacob go years ago, but he and I both know his father would never approve of that.
As it was, I do my best to keep Jacob occupied with easy tasks that aren't too important, but Billy is in charge of deciding who does what when I'm not around, and well… I hadn't been around much in the last six months.
Not that anyone blames me.
Still, it left a lot of shit not done or simply not done right, because Billy had been pushing for Jacob to get more involved, or so my guys told me when I came back.
Now I'm biding my time, making things right slowly so that Billy doesn't realize and up and quit. His son may be shit at this life, but Billy is far from it.
Some men were born to be cowboys and Billy Black came out with spurs on, if one didn't know better.
I laugh quietly, Bella use to say that about me. "Edward Cullen, if I didn't know better I'd think you were born with spurs on!"
Shaking my head, I look back to Billy. "Nah, I think I'll handle it myself. I could use the work, get back into my routine and all."
Billy does his best to hide his grimace and pity, but I see it all the same. "Well, you change yer mind, let me know," he says, spitting a large chunk of brown tobacco out.
"Will do," I reply, turning toward the house again and climbing the porch steps. I knock off some of the dirt from my worn boots, knowing my sister would skin my hide if I tracked it in across the floors.
"Rosie!" I call out, placing my hat on the rack near the door. It is stained brown, a ring of salt from years of sweating in it around the crown and the brim worn thin from fingers pulling on it.
"You should get rid of that old thing," Rosalie says as she steps into the hall, her nose crinkling in disgust. "Lord knows what is living in it."
"Nah, it's got some good wear left in it," I tell her. "Besides, I just 'bout got it broke in now."
Her blue eyes roll as she shakes her head, blonde hair gliding around her shoulders. "Whatever you say, Eddie. You ready for lunch?"
I nod, making my way behind her to the kitchen, where the smell of fresh grilled cheese hangs in the air.
"Uh, nothing against your expertise, but I don't think grilled cheese is going to be enough to hold me over 'til dinner, Rose," I comment warily, eyeing the plate that holds half a gooey sandwich.
"Thank you, genius, I had no idea a grown man would need to eat more than a sandwich to get through a workday. Oh, what would I do without you to set me straight," Rose fawns in her best Southern Belle accent as she moves to the fridge, pulling out a covered plate and placing it on the counter. "Good thing I also plated up the roast chicken from last night, along with corn and baked beans, huh?"
I smile apologetically, and take the offered plate, kissing her cheek lightly. "Thanks, sis."
Rose waves me off, moving to clean up the left-over sandwich as I heat up my lunch in the microwave. "Where's Emmett?" I ask after I've shoveled a few forkfuls into my mouth and washed it down with a fresh glass of iced tea.
"Oh, he took Peanut out for a ride after lunch," Rose replies, smiling the soft smile I only see on her face when she thinks of them.
I stop eating, my fork coming to rest near my plate on the countertop as I swallow past the catch in my throat. I don't like the feeling that washes over me, sadness and joy all knotted together in a messy line I can't begin to untangle.
"She doing okay?" I ask quietly, unsure of why really. I want to know, need to know.
"Yeah, she is. She's happy, you know?" Rose answers softly, doing her best to keep from upsetting me. "Confused and sad still, but she's getting better. She's got a lot of love left to give, you know. She's like her Daddy that way."
I shake my head. "No, like her Mama, I think."
Rose nods, tears glistening in her eyes and I can't stand to watch them fall. I pick up my plate and toss the food in the trash, no longer hungry. "I'm going to grab a shower and cool off," I tell Rose, turning to leave the kitchen.
I can't handle the look Rose's face or the feelings our conversation were bringing up in me. I don't want to, honestly. I want to do anything and everything to keep those thoughts from my mind.
Even though I was doing my damndest to keep from thinking of it, as I made my way up the stairs and into the bathroom, desperate to ride myself of the nasty muck that coated my skin and ease the aches in my body and spirit, I am taken back to the last day, the day it all came crashing down.
~*~ Six months ago~*~
It was there, clear as the sun sets in the west that it was over.
She had goodbye in her eyes.
Those dark pools that I knew better than my own were speaking to me, even if the words out of her mouth were disagreeing.
"Hey, beautiful," I said, leaning in to press a kiss to her lips. Bella didn't respond much, the feel of her lips on mine barely a breath. I leaned back, taking her in and marveling at her, just as I had since that day at the parade so many years before.
"Don't look at me like that," Bella grumbled, turning her face toward the window. I moved back, not wanting to upset her more.
She'd been snippy lately, her temper flaring one minute before bottoming out the next. I hated to be the reason behind it, but I knew me and my stubborn ways were the most likely cause.
"You wanna take a walk?" I asked her with a teasing smile, lifting her hand up and pulling lightly. I dropped it back down when she silently shook her head.
Moments passed with nothing said between us. We had always had so much to say, so much to share and give to one another, but the past year had seen that fade away, like so many other things we used to do.
It killed me, knowing I was losing her, seeing it in her eyes when she'd look at me, and in the way she held my hand, the hesitant way she would smile.
"Edward, do you love me?" Bella asked, cutting me off and shocking me all in one light breath.
"What? Yes, of course I love you! Bella, you know I do," I told her vehemently, clutching her hand tightly in mine. "Why would you doubt that?"
She turned, her eyes full of love like I hadn't seen in so long, but covered in a veil of acceptance I couldn't get to, that I continued to deny.
"Edward, you know this is over," Bella said softly. When I tried to speak, her fingertips pressed to my lips, a sad smile on her own. "Don't, Edward. You can't deny what we both know, what we've both known for too long now."
"No, Bella. We can get through this, we just need more time," I told her, begging her to believe me.
She shook her head, empathy and sorrow in her eyes. "I wish that was true, you know I do, but it's not. And no matter how much you refuse to see it, this place isn't for me anymore. I can't stay here, Edward. I need to go."
"Bella, no, that isn't going to happen. You can't go, we aren't over. I refuse to accept that, we aren't through yet."
"Edward," Bella sighed, her eyes fluttering closed in exhaustion, from this same argument or more, I didn't know, I just knew I couldn't let her go, not then, not ever. "My life isn't yours to control. You don't get to say yes or no."
"How can you go now, huh? How can you leave, when Peanut is here? She is going to need you, you can't leave her. You're her only mother, what will she do without you if you leave?" I knew it would be a low blow, but I couldn't stop myself, I was desperate to keep her anyway I could.
"Don't be mean, Edward. I know this is hard; it's hard for me too, but it's time. We tried, baby, we really did, but I'm done here. And you will both be okay, together. As long as you're with her, loving her, you'll be fine and I'll be happy knowing that." Bella looked at me with stronger eyes than I'd seen in weeks, determination in every fragile feature of her beautiful face.
"Please," I begged, burrowing my face into her throat, my body practically covering hers on the bed as I tried to pull her into myself, knowing I could keep her safe there. "Don't leave me, please. I can't do this without you, Sweetheart. You're my everything, don't go."
"Oh, baby," Bella cooed, her hand running gently through my hair. "You're my everything, too. But I won't be leaving you, not really. You'll always have a piece of me, right there on the ranch. Take care of her and you'll take care of me."
The tears were uncontrollable then, my eyes burned as I emptied out all the emotions, the fear and sorrow I'd felt for the past few months as I watched Bella slowly pulling away rushed out of me and fell onto her.
Minutes or hours could have passed but I wouldn't have known. Cradled in her arms as I wrapped her in mine one last time was all that I knew. When I felt her body shudder, the move not in pleasure but pain, I jerked back, praying I hadn't caused it.
Her face smoothed out, her eyes glassy when they finally opened again, but the light in them dimmer than I'd ever seen. It was then, I knew. She was really going and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
"Baby, I love you. I'm sorry I wasn't enough, that I couldn't do enough," I told her, my voice cracking on the last word.
"You were enough," Bella said, smiling gently as she brushed a hand over my cheek, her eyes full of love again. "You were more than perfect for me."
"Not enough to keep you here," I choked out.
"Stubborn until the end, huh, cowboy?" Bella teased.
"For you, of course." I leaned forward, pressing my lips to hers, feeling them meet me more fully this time. I didn't want to break the kiss, the love and passion I still had for her ever present on my tongue and in my lips, wanting and needing her more than life itself.
If only that was enough.
"You still got my hat?" Bella asked a few minutes later, our eyes locked on each other.
An abrupt laugh left my mouth, causing Bella to smile as I nodded. "Yeah, 'course."
"Good. You know taking a girl's hat is kind of a big deal, 'round here," she teased with a playful smile, putting on a Texas accent she'd never gained.
"Is that so?" I said, playing along with her game as I knew she wanted me to.
"It is. A cowgirl's hat is like a part of her… a very personal part," Bella said, taking our entwined hands and placing them over her heart.
"Take care of it for me?"
"You know I will."
"I love you to the moon and back a thousand times, Edward Cullen. Don't you forget that."
"Never," I promised her. We kissed once more, soft and slow, my heart in my throat and tears on my chin as I felt her leaving me, her eyes fluttering closed in sleep moments after I'd released her lips from mine.
"I'll love you as long as there are stars in the sky, Bella Cullen. Even if the clouds are out, the stars are waiting just behind," I whispered in her ear, kissing her forehead softly liked she loved me to do.
Bella died not two hours later, never waking from her sleep, and I was thankful for it. I knew the cancer was painful for her, and she was finally at peace, though my own world had effectively tumbled down into the dark.
The only light left was at the ranch, and I hurried home to it that night.
It was the only thing that kept me going, the reason I climbed out of bed and forced my body to work through each day, knowing I had to go on, like Bella wanted.
I finish up my shower, grateful for the water washing away the tears that still linger when I think of Bella's final days, the pain I still feel rippling in my chest as I remember her knowingly sad eyes that day, telling me goodbye.
Once I've gotten dressed again, a clean white t-shirt but the same dusty jeans, I make my way back downstairs and out the door, heading for the old truck I'd bought for Bella to learn stick-shift on, shortly after she'd moved back from California.
She wanted to be a "real cowgirl" she'd told me, and driving stick was a huge part of that, at least in her mind. I never could say no to her, and this truck seemed safest since it was practically a dinosaur itself, all steel and iron and chipped rusty orange paint.
She loved it, refused to part with it. Now I'm the one who refuses to let it go.
Before I get myself in the cab, I hear whining from the paddock by the barn. I look over the bed of the truck, my heart stopping short and skipping a beat before it starts up again.
A chestnut mare is running the length of the pen, her mane flopping in the breeze as dust kicks up from under her hooves before she comes to a stop. Her white nose bounces up and down in the air as she whines, feet prancing merrily before she takes off around in a circle again.
Damned horse is always showing off.
Nutty is Bella's horse, and even though Bella was the only one who could ever get her to do anything useful, I'll never get rid of her.
Besides, my little peanut just might turn out like her mama in that regard, if her current position is anything to go by.
Standing by the wood fence, her little face barely able to see over the first rung, is my baby girl, dressed in her cowgirl finest. She's got a white tank top with pink sequins on, paired with her fluffy ballet tutu that she only wore once before she quit, a straw cowboy hat that's one size too big for her and, oddly enough, pink rain boots.
She must know something about the weather that I don't.
Smiling, I walk over to the paddock, enjoying the giggle that's coming from my daughter's mouth as she watches Nutty perform just for her.
"Whatcha doing, Peanut?" I ask, bending down to wrap my arms around the light of my life. She turns in my arms, her dark hair plastered to her face from the heat, Bella's eyes shining brightly at me from her cherub face.
"Daddy, did you see? Nutty is dancin'," she giggles.
"I see that. Why do you think she's doing that?" I ask with a smile.
"So it'll rain, Daddy! Uncle Em says we needed it, so I gots my boots on and started to rain dance like the Indians used to do and then Nutty started dancin' too!" she laughs loudly.
"You are so silly, Nutty!" Lyla calls to the horse.
"I think you're silly," I say to my baby, scooping her up and hugging her tightly before I let loose with my fingers, tickling her until she begs me to stop.
I release her, a broad smile on my face as I watch Lyla go back to dancing with her mother's horse.
It wasn't the plan Bella and I made for our lives, losing each other so early. But even though Bella isn't here physically, as the sky begins to fill with rain clouds and Lyla dances beside me, I know Bella is still with me, with Lyla, watching over us and showing her love the best way she can.
She may have said goodbye, but it's not forever. I'll see my cowgirl again.
Until then, I'll work the ranch we loved, raise the daughter we made, and keep loving her until there are no more stars in the sky.