"Jude continued his walk homeward alone,
pondering so deeply that he forgot to feel timid."
"I have never in my life seen a man so handsome," Annie gushed as they walked to the Swan home after the party. "I could hate you for monopolizing him all night, you know. Just you wait, the minute Benjamin Cheney whisks you away to California, I'm going to snatch up your Mr. Cullen up for myself."
Beside her, Bella remained silent, a sudden heat creeping up her neck in spite of the frigid winter night. If her companion noticed the tightening of Bella's fingers around her arm, she did not show it.
She remembered the chill of Edward's touch as they danced, the bold scrutiny of his eyes, the undercurrents in his voice that seemed to call her name whenever he spoke.
"I need to see you again," he'd told her in low, urgent tones as the dance came to an end, his breath cool on her overheated skin.
Bella had stiffened, astonished at his boldness but he remained undeterred, holding her tightly against him. "Say I can call on you."
She could only nod dumbly, but it had been enough to make lips curve into a small smile as he'd released her.
Now, Annie prattled on, playfully enumerating her intentions for the enigmatic Mr. Cullen as Bella realized with some dismay that the thought of him touching Annie — touching anyone else — was very, very disagreeable.
Reverend Swan was a severe and handsome man, his age settled into dignified features and the deep-set eyes he shared with his daughter and greying the dark wing of his hair. He was respected enough in Port Angeles, his manners characteristic of an evangelist of his day: dogmatic and agreeable, with enough of a temper and a reputation for not suffering fools — or many of Bella's suitors — gladly.
"I see that your night of revelry has taken its toll," he observed to his daughter the morning after the pavilon dance, his eyes fixed on the road ahead of Georgius, the red morgan gelding pulling the one-hoss shay into town.
Isabella, preoccupied with the memory of golden eyes the night before, replied with only an absent hum.
"Michael tells me that Eric Yorkie made you an offer."
"Were you alone with him?"
"Of course not!" she huffed, grabbing the carriage frame as they descended the hill into town. "Heaven forbid I jeopardize the attentions of a San Francisco Cheney."
"If you insist on being defiant then by all means, tie yourself to one of the local lumberjacks. Perhaps one of the fishermen will have you."
"Jacob Black made me an offer once," she retorted, thinking of the hope in Jacob's eyes when he'd asked for her hand years before, only to be replaced by a young and impotent rage when Charles Swan had laughed in his face. "What of him?"
The reverend scowled, flicking the horse's reins with unnecessary vigor. "Isabella," he sighed wearily. "Please don't be ridiculous."
"It's a bit cold to be reading outside."
Lounging on the porch swing with a book, Bella's head snapped up to find Edward Cullen not six feet away, his imposing form silhouetted by the dreariness of the evening on the front steps of her parents' home.
Stunned, she hastily brought her legs down from the swing, straightening her skirts beneath the lap rug and hoping she did not appear as disheveled as she felt.
"I hope I'm not bothering you."
"No— no, not at all. My parents have gone up the way for the Christmas concert in town—"
He did not reply, but took a seat on her mother's rocking chair, his long, elegant limbs rendering the furniture almost comically rustic. She took in the rain-spattered lapels of his Chesterfield coat and trousers, the stylish Homburg hat that covered the autumn shades of his hair.
She wondered what he thought of her family's much-beloved property, of the lush green land giving way to mossy rock before dropping off entirely, the beauty of the bluffs below the home constantly buffeted by an angry silver sea.
"Did you walk here?" Bella asked suddenly.
"Yes." He seemed amused. "One only has to ask about the prettiest girl on the OP to receive detailed directions to this house."
His sardonic echo of Michael's words made her blush, a heavy silence descending as she grasped for something clever to say. She pictured him in the city, his smart attire and obscene good looks drawing the interest of women who were prettier, smarter, bolder and more accomplished…
She would have felt no less tongue-tied had the rocking chair held the King of England.
"So this is how we begin," Edward mused quietly, oblivious to the turmoil raging inside her, his golden eyes tracing the features of her face. "Which book are you reading?"
Bella frowned, shaken by the odd rhythm of his conversation. "Oh, um… Five Little Peppers."
Edward smirked. "I asked for the title of the book you're reading, not the one you're using to hide it."
She looked down to see the corner of the novel she'd hidden within the children's book peeking out, but only barely. "It's… it's supposed to be a secret."
"I've been told I can keep a secret."
Hesitant, she showed him the book cover.
"Á rebours?I'm not sure your parents would approve."
"'He cried, in his outraged pity: If a god has made this world, I should not wish to be that God. The world's wretchedness would rend my heart.'"
"You've read it?"
He shrugged. "I didn't walk all the way here to discuss French literature. Let's talk of more substantial things."
"I— you—" she began, finally dissembling beneath the unwavering intensity of his eyes. "You're very odd."
"Perhaps I seem odd because I have little tolerance for wasting time."
"Or good manners."
"You're not courting any of the local boys, are you?"
There was a strange energy that seemed to surround him, an incandescence that pulled at something in her chest. Here was a creature wholly unlike the boys of her acquaintance — Jacob Black with his boyish enthusiasm, Eric Yorkie and his awkward, earnest declarations. She felt an affinity to Edward Cullen, one that simultaneously soothed and frightened her.
There was a sudden flash of dismay as she remembered Benjamin's stolid features — a Cheney of the San Francisco Cheneys, she snidely thought in her mother's voice.
"Isabella," Edward prompted, startling her out of her reverie. She blinked, grasping for an answer that would not excessively encourage or discourage his attentions, confused and exhilarated by his blunt persistence.
"None of the local boys," she told him, looking out over the bluffs.
Edward nodded. "Good."
"Why do you care?" she wondered. "We're practically strangers."
A look of surprise crossed his handsome features. "Are we? Yes, I suppose so, according to the standards of some."
"But not by others'?"
He smiled again. "By other standards, I've known you for years."
She frowned. "You're making fun of me."
"Then I'll speak plainly: we won't be strangers for long."
"You seem so certain."
"How can you be?" she demanded tartly. "Perhaps I'll drop dead tomorrow."
"I'd never allow it. Now, can you keep a secret?"
She nodded, feeling very much like Alice descending into the rabbit hole.
"What would you do if I told you that I've seen my future and that in it, you're never happier than when we are together?"
"I'd congratulate you on an excellent imagination," she retorted, laughing at the absurd confidence of his words. But her pulse sped at the thought, and he smiled as if he could hear it.
Both Reverend Swan's conveyance and the name of his horse are nods to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.'s "The Deacon's Masterpiece."
Thanks for your patience while our family was on vacation! Another big thanks to all you who've rec'd or reviewed, just because those things really, truly make my day.
Updates may come a bit slower now, but don't worry — we'll be done soon.