Title of Story: He Came Along

Word Count: 9,551

Type of Edward: Settlerward

Category: Literotica

Story Summary: This was going to be a fresh start; a new beginning, in a far off place. But what happened that night, on a dark road near Maxwell changed everything for Bella.

The author does not own any publicly recognizable entities herein. No copyright infringement is intended.


Flat.

Everything around us, everything I could see for miles, was flat. There were sparse trees dotting the landscape, as well as the occasional shallow ravine carved into the dry earth as a recent result of rain. Apart from the mostly sun-scorched grass and the red clay that made up the road we travelled, there was nothing remarkable about the land we would now call home.

I shifted in my seat for what had to be the fifth time in the last ten minutes, catching the attention of my Pa.

"We should be there in the next twenty minutes. Think you can hold out, or do you want to stop for a bit?"

I was shaking my head before he finished speaking, "No, let's just get there. I'm ready to be out of this wagon for good."

Pa turned his attention back to the road, leaving me, once again to my thoughts. We had been on the road for more than four weeks, slowly making our way from a small town near Atlanta to the newly opened Oklahoma Territory. Having been recently hired as the sheriff of a small, but growing town, my Pa was looking forward to a fresh start for the two of us.

My mother, Renee, had died in childbirth, leaving a grief-stricken husband to care for a tiny, newborn girl. Of course, he had no idea what to do with a baby, much less a baby girl, so I grew up being entertained by the town drunk in the holding cell, and the occasional thief or gunslinger when they were caught. These circumstances did nothing for me socially, and I became the outsider, the strange girl who spent her time in places a lady should never be.

Pa was determined to make better choices, a better life, this time around. At twenty, I was already much older than most girls when they married. I was unwavering in my commitment to make my own way in the world. I was an extremely strong young woman, in a new place where everything was changing so quickly. At least that's how I saw it, but Pa saw it as stubbornness. I knew that he was also hoping there would be more than a few eligible men who might want to court me.

That thought made me more than a little uncomfortable.

Without even realizing it, I shifted in my seat once again, causing Pa to glance over to watch me as I rubbed my hand across the back of my neck and rolled my shoulders. Clearing his throat, he tried to distract me.

"This will be good for us, Bella. Who knows, we might just find you a man."

I couldn't help but shake my head and roll my eyes. "I'm in no rush, Pa. Mercy knows I have enough on my plate just taking care of you."

He nodded, reaching over to pat my knee, just as he had when I was a child. We rode for a few minutes in silence, both of us lost again to our own thoughts. I barely noticed when he turned and looked toward the horizon where the sun was slowly sliding toward the earth. There were still several hours of daylight, and Pa said we were close to town, so I was surprised when he shifted the reins in his hand, beginning to slow the horses. He turned to me, his face somber as he pulled the horses to a stop.

"Listen well, Bella," he whispered, "Get down and run into that grove of trees over there on the hill. Climb up and stay there. Don't make a sound, and no matter what you see or hear, don't come down unless I come for you. You hear me? You stay there!"

"Pa, what are you – "

"Don't argue, child. Go!"

Shaken by the urgency in his voice, I quickly climbed out of the seat and scrambled down the side of the wagon to the ground. Picking up my skirt, I ran to the trees just as my father had instructed, not even chancing a glance back. Finding one with a low branch, I grasped it, flinging myself up onto it, and then to the next one above. The smooth bark and slender limbs of the Cottonwood tree made it difficult to climb, and I worried that it would bow beneath my weight. Leaning against the trunk, I straddled two branches, settling into a solid perch that was hidden from view by the dense foliage. Desperately trying to slow my breathing, it was only seconds before I heard the approaching hooves of what sounded like several horses.

I could hear the sound of raucous laughter and a bit of taunting, as well as Pa's calm, but authoritative voice. There were several minutes of conversation that I couldn't hear well enough to make out, but there was one voice that stood out above the others. It was slightly slurred, almost snake-like in cadence, and caused me to shiver uncomfortably, especially when it seemed to draw closer. I could hear the words clearly now.

"You got a woman, don't ya, old man? Where's she at?"

"There's no one but me," Pa's voice was firm, but the others weren't buying it.

"You lie, old man, I see a woman's things here. Mmmm, they smell pretty, too. Haven't had me a woman in a couple days; well, not an upstanding woman, anyway. Better when ya don't have to pay 'em, right boys?"

There was silence for a moment, and I thought they might have given up. That hope was short lived as I heard a vile laugh followed by a single gunshot. In the silence that followed, my heart was pounding in my chest so hard that I worried that it could be heard for miles. Fearing that I might cry out, I covered my mouth with one hand, while holding tightly to the tree with the other. Forcing the terror to the back of my mind, I closed my eyes and waited.

The silence was broken by the sound of the voice once again. "Get that old man out of my wagon, and let's go."

Trying to maintain control of my breathing, I trembled as I tried desperately to hear my father. I could hear quiet murmuring, followed by the sound of shuffling movements. Finally, the sound of chains, and the creaking of wagon wheels moving on the dirt road.

And then silence.

Nothing ...

There were no words to describe the terror I was feeling. I wasn't sure how much time had passed as I waited, frozen in place. I watched the sun slowly descend; making no doubt that night was near, and soon it would be dark.

I knew Pa would come for me, just like he promised, when he believed it was safe.

Pa should have come for me long ago…

If he were able ...

If he could …

I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind that he would not come, I just couldn't allow myself to believe it. Because, for me to believe, it meant I had to accept that he couldn't come, and that would mean …

It would be dark soon, and I knew I must climb down. I also knew what I would find once I got to where the wagon had been.

It was a struggle to get my hands to grip the branches properly, and my feet felt numb as I slid toward the ground. Once I was firmly down, only then did I turn slowly; allowing my eyes to move along the dry earth before finally shifting them toward the motionless body that lay beside the road.

Pa.

Bleeding …

Motionless ...

Gone …

I knew it the moment I touched his cheek.

He was cold; his eyes opened and fixed on the sky above. Lowering myself beside his lifeless body, I couldn't fight the tears as they came. It hurt to see the vacant stare,showing the world that life was now gone from his eyes, as well as his body. I gently pressed my fingertipsto his eyelids, closing them one final time before grasping his hand that lay limp on his blood-covered chest. As the sky grew darker, I held it against my own, letting the grief overwhelm me.

It must have been hours that passed as the night wore on. At some point, I remembered the wagon and all of our belongings it carried. All of it was gone, but truthfully, I couldn't find it in myself to care. Tired, sore, exhausted and heartbroken, I shifted my legs from under my body, lying beside Pa's still form, my head on his shoulder as I held his hand in my own. There would be no sleep for me tonight.

It was just before dawn when I heard the approaching wheels of a carriage.

Knowing I couldn't leave Pa to go for help, I knew I would have to place my trust in someone traveling by. Should the need arise; I could run and hide myself once again while it was still dark. Rising to my feet, I ran toward the road, barely visible in the pre-dawn hours. I began to shout out for help, hoping that whoever was passing by in that moment would have mercy on me.

The sound of the carriage slowing was accompanied by the faint light of a lantern burning lowly on the driver's footrest. Almost immediately after recognizing the dark, shadowy outline of the horse and carriage, I heard the driver begin to talk loudly.

"Doc. Hey, Doc! I think you might need to take a look at this!"

"Please, please, help me!" I shouted as I ran toward the carriage.

I was met immediately by a man scrambling from the interior seat of the carriage; his expression was one of horror. "Where are you injured?" he asked as he grasped my wrist gently, his eyes scanning my bloodstained clothes. I must have looked frightful with my swollen eyes and my garments in ruin. I barely heard him as he began to question me further, "Miss, can you tell me what happened to you? Are you alone out here?"

With his last few words, I felt the devastation overwhelm me as I realized I was entirely alone. Unable to voice my thoughts, I caught his hand with my own, leading him to where Pa's lifeless body lay. Dropping to my knees, I took his cold hand in my own once again, as the man behind me was met with the gruesome sight for the first time.

"Dear God! Ben, bring my bag!" He shouted to the driver, who had followed us with the lantern as we walked from the carriage. Once the lantern was placed on the ground beside me, the driver, Ben, ran back to the carriage. The man beside me knelt down, and immediately began searching for signs of life. It took him only seconds to determine that my Pa was gone.

"Is he a relation to you? You're father?"

I could only nod in response, feeling the grief overwhelm me once again. I barely noticed his hand grasping my wrist as I fought to breathe, gasping for air between the sobs that were now wracking my body.

"Miss, can you tell me your name?"

I couldn't catch my breath enough to answer, and knew I was on the verge of passing out. He reached out, cupping my chin in his hand, forcing me to meet his eyes, "Look at me, honey." When he had my attention, he continued, "I need you to breathe with me … slow and easy, okay?" It took a moment before I could focus, but eventually I was able to match his slow, deep breaths. Only then did my body begin to calm.

"Good. Okay, now, I'd like to know your name."

"Isabella Swan," I whispered, as tears continued to course down my cheeks.

He immediately looked as though he recognized the name. He gestured toward Pa, "Charles Swan?" At my nod of confirmation, the man turned toward Ben, "Will you bring the blanket from the carriage? Two, if you have them."

Ben turned and ran toward the carriage once again, as the doctor stood and pulled me to my feet, as well. "We need to get him to town, Miss Swan."

"Bella," I whispered, "You can call me Bella."

He nodded, "Okay, Bella. I'm Dr. Edward Cullen. I'm going to take you to my clinic so we can sort this out, all right?" Reaching out to grasp my wrist once again, it dawned on me that he had beendiscretely checking my heartbeat each time he did it. I realized that it was a medical concern, and not necessarily an offer of comfort. He watched me with a cautious expression for a moment, before leading me to the carriage and all but lifting me into the seat. He placed his bag at my feet before turning and jogging back to where Ben was attending Pa's body. I turned my head, unable to watch as they began wrapping the blankets around him. They were silent other than a few, quietly spoken words as they worked together to load him into the back of the carriage.

None too soon, both men climbed into the carriage, Ben in the driver's seat as the kind Dr. Cullen sat beside me. He didn't speak as he removed his coat, draping it around my shoulders. It was warm against my chilled skin, and the comforting gesture brought a fresh round of tears. He immediately placed his soft, linen handkerchief in my right hand before lifting my left hand once again, to press his fingers to my wrist.

"Thank you," I offered, just above a whisper, hoping he understood that I was more than grateful for his kindness, and not just the handkerchief. He responded with a simple nod as he covered my hand; enclosing it between both of his own as we rode in silence toward the town.

By the time we reached the clinic, the sun had risen fully, and the town was showing signs of life. As soon as the carriage stopped, Dr. Cullen released his hold on me, and quickly disembarked, before turning, to once again, offer his hand to me. We hadn't spoken during the trip, but I felt his eyes on me for most of the ride. He seemed genuinely concerned, but I suppose that would be a normalresponse from a doctor. Reaching out, I took his hand and scooted along the seat before standing. He immediately reached out and lifted me to the ground, promptly releasing my body once I was steady. I kept my eyes down, worried I might see the bundle still strapped to the back of the carriage.

Dr. Cullen was quick to unlock the clinic, swinging open the door and guiding me inside with a soft touch on the small of my back. After closing the door, he stepped around me, and I watched silently as he placed a large porcelain bowl on a low table beside the door. He poured water from a pitcher into the bowl before opening a cupboard and pulling out a couple of towels and a bar of soap, placing them on the table, as well. Finally, he crossed the room, lifting a round stool and bringing it to rest beside the table.

Taking a deep breath, he glanced up, meeting my gaze. I'm not sure what he saw, but it appeared to me that his expression had grown tender, before his eyes dropped to the floor between us.

"Miss Swan? Bella? I need to help Ben get the – um – get your father situated." He shifted uncomfortably when his eyes met mine once again, but he cleared his throat and waved his hand toward the table beside me, "I thought you might like to freshen up a bit. I'll be back in a few minutes with the mayor. I'm sure he'll want to talk to you."

Turning quickly, Dr. Cullen and Ben, who had apparently followed us into the clinic, stepped out of the room into the morning sunshine, leaving me alone.

I stared at the door for several minutes before slowly glancing around the room. I suddenly felt too exhausted to stand, and moved to sit on the stool that Dr. Cullen had made available to me. Feeling chilled, I pulled his coat more securely around my body, curling into myself, trying to find warmth, as I sat in the silence. My mind seemed to empty of all thought and reason as I struggled to comprehend that my Pa had been brutally murdered, and my entire life had changed in a moment.

Pa was gone.

Everything we owned in the world was gone.

I was utterly alone with only the clothes on my back, which were currently covered in my father's blood. Glancing down at my hands which lay limply in my lap, I couldn't help but feel sick as I looked at the dried blood that caked my nails and smeared my palms. Needing to rid myself of that reminder, I lifted a shaking hand, and grasped a washcloth from the table, soaking it in the basin. Using the soap, I lathered the cloth and began scrubbing absentmindedly, watching the water turn pink with each rinse.

Once my hands were clean, I used the cloth to wash my face and neck, knowing the evidence ofPa's demise was there, as well. Drying my hands and face, I knew there was nothing I could do about my ruined clothing, so I placed the linens on the table beside the bowl and waited for whatever would happen next. I knew I had little control over what might occur, and my thoughts drifted to the street outside the clinic.

I wondered where they had taken Pa.

Would they bring him in here? Would they leave him on the street to be observed by the townsfolk? I had no idea how these things were handled. In all the years I spent around the city jail and town hall, this was something my Pa had never let me see. When I was a little girl, he said it would frighten me, regardless of how curious I happened to be. As a young woman, he claimed it was something a lady should never see. I was sure that I would still fall somewhere in between – horrified, as well as repulsed, by the morbidity in life.

But this was my Pa. And I realized that I had no desire to see him like that. I wanted my memories of him to be those of a strong, confident, protective man. I closed my eyes, allowing those images to flood my mind as I lowered my head, resting my chin on my chest.

The sound of the knob turning and the door opening broke the silence. I lifted my eyes and watched as Dr. Cullen stepped into the room, followed by another man. He appeared to be about the same age as the doctor, a bit shorter, with blond, wavy hair. He eyed me speculatively for a few moments before grabbing one of the chairs against the wall and crossing the room to sit facing me. His eyes glanced behind me, where I assumed Dr. Cullen was now standing.

Clearing his throat, he brought his attention back to me, "Miss Swan, I'm Jasper Whitlock. I'm sorry for your loss, and I can imagine you're overwhelmed right now, but I was hoping you could tell me what happened."

The room was silent as I tried to gather my thoughts. I remembered every second of it, but putting it into words was another thing entirely. I couldn't hold his gaze as I allowed the memories to flood my mind, so I focused on the cabinet on the opposite side of the room, my eyes drawn to the brass knob on the glass door as I began to recount my story.

"We were almost here … about half an hour or so outside of Maxwell. Pa must have seen something coming our way, because he told me to hide myself up in the trees on the nearby hill … andto stay there until he came for me," I took a deep, shuddering breath, remembering the intensity in his eyes at that moment. "I did as he said. I couldn't see them, but I heard voices … but they were too far from me to hear most of it. They knew I was with Pa; they saw my clothes … but P-Pa …" my voice broke as I remembered the way he protected me.

Once again, a soft handkerchief was pressed into my hand. I glanced up and found Dr. Cullen seated beside me, watching me with a look of genuine concern. I closed my eyes, wiping at them with the cloth. When I lowered it back to my lap, it was gently covered with Dr. Cullen's hand. At first, I thought he might be checking my heart rate once again, but he made no move to touch my wrist. Instead, he took my hand in his own, holding it while gently rubbing his thumb across the top. I was mesmerized by the comforting gesture, and found myself suddenly sleepy.

I was brought out of my thoughts by the voice of Mr. Whitlock. "Miss Swan? Can you tell me what happened next?"

I lifted my eyes to his, steeling myself for what I must remember next. "Pa told them he was alone. I heard the g-gun f-fir-ring." My composure was slipping, but I was determined to finish in hopes that someday my father might have justice for his murder. "They took the wagon and horses. They just left him … alone … in the dirt."

I couldn't breathe.

The memories of that moment; of hearing the gunshot, and then seeing my father lying motionless on the ground, were more than I could take. I pressed the handkerchief to my eyes, allowing the sobs to break free. It was several minutes before I had control of myself once again. When I finally had calmed, I looked once again into the patient gaze of Mr. Whitlock.

However, Mr. Whitlock's eyes were on Mr. Cullen. It was then that I felt his arm around my shoulders, his chest against my cheek. He had held me as I wept.

Embarrassment overtook me, and I sat up abruptly, "Forgive me. I didn't mean – "

"No. No need to be uncomfortable, Bella. You've been through a horrible time, and I'd just like to help you." Dr. Cullen's gaze was sincere as he spoke, and I was immediately set at ease.

Glancing up at Mr. Whitlock, I finished as quickly as I could. "I stayed in the tree, waiting for Pa to come, but he never did. I knew… I knew he was gone when I saw him. But I couldn't leave. I don't know how long it was before Dr. Cullen came along."

"Did you see any of the men? Do you know how many there were?" Mr. Whitlock had pulled out a small black journal and was writing quickly.

"No, sir, I couldn't see anything. I think I may have even closed my eyes for a while."

He sat silently, watching me for a bit longer. Releasing a sigh, he nodded and offered me a pitiful smile. "Thank you, Miss Swan. I'll let you get some rest," he stood and pushed his chair back to the wall. "Edward," he said, tilting his head toward the door on the other side of the room, indicating he wanted to speak privately.

I watched as he took a couple of steps toward the door. I realized that I needed to know what was to happen now. "Mr. Whitlock?" I called out. He turned toward me and lifted his brow in question.

"I don't have any money, you know … for a burial, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do now." I knew I wasn't his responsibility, but I hoped he might be able to give me some direction.

"Best to get some sleep for now, Miss Swan; the rest will work itself out," he gave Dr. Cullen a fleeting glance as he left the room.

There was no help offered in his statement, and I was momentarily surprised that I didn't feel panicked at the realization that I had no idea what was to become of me. It seemed I was too exhausted to care at that moment.

"Bella?" Dr. Cullen's voice was low and gentle as he spoke, "Come with me." He offered his hand, which I took with no hesitance. He led me to one of the doors, ushering me into a small room containing only a bed, a chair, and a side table with a basin and pitcher placed on the top.

"Rest here for a bit. We'll get everything else sorted out. Are you hungry?"

I shook my head and sat on the edge of the bed, feeling the weight of the last twelve hours on my shoulders. My body slumped, and I pulled the coat tighter around me, suddenly too cold and too tired to remain upright. I closed my eyes and let the darkness surround me as I felt his gentle hands lift my feet onto the bed and drape a coverlet over me. I could have sworn I felt his fingers brush my cheek as well, but I could have already been dreaming.

I felt his finger trace along my cheek before stroking my lips, leaving sharp tingles in its wake. I opened my eyes and was met with Dr. Cullen's vivid, green eyes. They were dark with an intensity I didn't recognize, and something began to stir deep inside me.

Unbidden, my hand reached up and cupped his cheek, my thumb tentatively stroking his bottom lip. His eyes closed for a moment, only to open once again, burning with a fire that both frightened me and set me ablaze. It was a sensation I had never felt before, and had no time to consider as Dr. Cullen leaned forward, tilting my chin up with his thumb and covering my mouth with his own.

His lips were soft, but insistent as his fingers wove into my hair, tilting my head for a better angle. It was deep and intense, and left me gasping for breath as his mouth continued across my jaw, down my throat, and nipped gently at my collarbone.

I tensed for a moment as I felt his hands slide down my arms, resting beside my breasts. He lifted his eyes to mine, his chest rumbling as he spoke softly, "Relax. I'll take care of you. This will be good for the both of us, Bella"

I simply nodded, leaning into his touch as his hands covered my breasts, stroking and squeezing gently. His lips found mine once again as his hands continued their exploration, pulling my skirts up before bringing his body to rest above mine.

Having never been with a man, I didn't recognize the sensations that I was feeling, but I knew I wanted him to continue. I wanted him.

I wrapped my arms around his shoulders, pulling him against me as I moved my legs to cradle his hips. Lifting his head, his eyes searched mine.

"Are you sure, Bella?"

"Please," I begged.

It seemed only an instant later that I felt his flesh against my own, his mouth plundering mine as his hips rocked forward, pressing into me. I couldn't help but move against him, desperate to feel more.

He wrapped one hand around the back of my neck, anchoring me to him as his hungry kisses stole my breath. With the other hand, he grasped my knee, pulling it up against his hip as he pushed into my body.

A soft moan escaped his lips as he buried his face in the crook of my neck. His body stilled for a moment before he shifted his hips away, pulling himself almost entirely frommy body. His lips found mine once again as he pressed forward, this time thrusting his hips more firmly against me.

My thoughts were muddled as I was being overtaken by sensation. I remembered how my friends had said that their wedding nights were uncomfortable; how they had felt pain as they coupled with their husbands for the first time. I found it odd that I felt no pain, only desire and a building of something low in my belly that I didn't quite understand, but chased with desperation.

Dr. Cullen lifted himself over me, watching me as he rocked his body into my own, drawing out the sweetest pleasure. My eyes never left his face as I felt my body spiral out of control, waves of the most intense euphoria washing over me as I grasped the sheets beneath me.

Dr. Cullen stilled his movements, his body remaining intimately connected to mine. His expression grew tender as his fingers once again brushed my cheek.

"Let me take care of you, Bella."

Exhaustion suddenly overtook me, making it difficult to keep my eyes open. The darkness closed in slowly as I drifted into oblivion, hearing him whisper, "Sleep, sweet Bella."

By the position of the shadows in the room, I guessed it to be just after mid-day. I hadn't slept very long, but I was awake and alert, and somewhat refreshed. In the past, I would experience nightmares and vivid dreams following traumatic or fear-causing events that I may have experienced. I tried to remember if that had occurred as I slept, but my mind was numbingly clear. I had rested very well, and knew that I had Dr. Cullen to thank for that.

I instantly noticed two changes in the room. The first was a small stack of folded clothing on the end of the bed. The second was a tray with an apple, some bread and cheese, and a glass of water.

I could hear murmuring in the next room and wondered if I might find some answers regarding Pa's body. However, taking in the current state of my appearance, I hoped the clothing left in the room was intended for my use, as I was reluctant to meet anyone else dressed as I was.

Unfolding the fabric before me, I discovered that it indeed was a lady's blouse and skirt. I made haste to fill the basin with water from the pitcher before removing my bloodstained garments. After washing myself more thoroughly, I dressed quickly in the available clothing, choosing to overlook the fact that they were a little roomier on my body than I would have liked. I pulled the pins from my hair and ran my fingers through it, combing out any snarls before braiding it and letting it hang down my back.

Once I felt presentable, I sat back on the bed and slipped my shoes on, carefully lacing them up. My eyes caught sight of the pile of ruined clothing on the floor. I knew they were beyond salvaging and made a note to ask Dr. Cullen what I should do with them.

"Absolutely not!"

"We're paying for the burial. That's enough. She's not our responsibility."

As I tied my shoe, I couldn't help but hear the conversation that was apparently taking place in another room of the clinic. I wasn't sure how many people were there, but they were clearly discussing my situation in increasingly louder voices.

"That's right. Swan knew what he was coming into. It was his decision to bring her here to Maxwell, not ours."

"Have her contact her family and she can go home to them. There's nothing for her here."

"She's not the criminal! Why are you so set against offering her any help?" That was a voice I knew – Mr. Whitlock. He was arguing for me?

"She can stay in the house until a suitable resolution is found. It's a fair option." This voice I knew, as well. Dr. Cullen.

"Out of the question! That house is to be available to the sheriff. That won't be Charles Swan, so it won't be his daughter! We'll have to hire another sheriff and the best enticement we have is that house. No. She can't stay there. She's not our concern."

"You're being unreasonable! She is just a girl, and all alone. She has been through a terrible if it were your family, your daughter?" Again, Dr. Cullen's voice rose in my defense.

"Fine. You want the responsibility? She's all yours! Don't come crying to me when you're the laughingstock of the town because of your 'kept woman'."

I'd heard enough.

It was obvious I had become a burden at the moment of Pa's death and I had no desire to stay where I wasn't wanted. I certainly had no intention of causing Dr. Cullen any discomfort or embarrassment. He had been beyond kind to me in the last several hours, so the least I could do was take care of myself so he wouldn't feel obligated.

Making a quick decision, I rolled up my ruined clothing and placed them in a bundle on the floor beside the door. I folded the blanket that had covered me and laid it on the bed and neatly folded the coat that Dr. Cullen had wrapped around me in the carriage, before placing it on top of the blanket. Finally, I used the linen napkin on the tray to wrap up the bread, cheese and fruit, tying it securely and tucking it under my arm.

Quietly leaning against the door, I could hear voices still discussing my predicament, but it was clear they were not in the larger room. Opening the door slowly, it became obvious that they were in the other smaller room, making my undetected departure much easier. I stepped out into the room, closing the door behind me, and quickly making my way out of the clinic and into the street.

The carriage was no longer in front, and the street was bustling with people, horses and wagons. Not really having any idea of where I should go, I turned to the left and headed up the street. It seemed a little busier in this direction and I hoped it might be easier to lose myself among the townsfolk.

"Ain't seen you 'round here before. I'da remembered that."

Startled, I turned quickly and was face to face with a man that looked to be about Pa's age. He was tall and lanky with long, stringy blonde hair that looked like it hadn't been washed in years. His eyes seemed to linger over inappropriate parts of my body before meeting my eyes, and his mouth turning up in a vile smirk, as he took a step closer.

I lifted my arms, hugging the small linen bundle to my chest. Unfortunately, in my effort to hide my breast from his view, I only drew his attention to the area. Taking a step back, I turned to walk away without offering him any greeting.

I was stopped cold when his hand grasped my arm just above my elbow. Turning quickly, I glared at him, furious at his forward manner.

"Unhand me!" I spat through clenched teeth.

"A feisty one," he laughed with a surprised expression, "I could use a girl like you. Pretty face, nice curves. You lookin' for a job, missy?"

I gasped in shock. I had never had a man speak to me this way! The realization that it was probably because my father was a respected lawman was immediate. Unwilling to ponder this information in the presence of this disrespectful, filthy man, I jerked my arm from his hold without giving him a response.

I could hear his laughter and feel his eyes on me as I walked away. I desperately tried to keep my steps steady and even, not wanting to appear as scared as I really was. After a moment, his raucous laughter turned to chuckles and I heard him call after me, "S'not hard work, little girl. Just gotta lie there and take it. Hell, you might even like it!"

Turning the corner, I all but ran toward a line of houses, looking for a place to hide. It was nearing late afternoon, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I had no money, and no possessions to sell for money. No place to stay and no means of employment. And I was so tired. My body was emotionally and physically drained, and all I could think about was finding someplace to lie down.

I kept walking until I came to the far edges of town. There were no businesses out here, and the houses were farther apart. For a moment, I considered presenting myself from house to house, looking for employment or the kindness of a stranger for a night or two. I quickly changed my mind when I thought about the people I had encountered so far – a group of men who had murdered my father, another group of men who didn't want to be bothered with the daughter of the deceased sheriff, and a man who wanted to hire me as a prostitute.

But, I had been shown kindness by two men; the mayor and the doctor. I couldn't help but wonder if their wives were kind as well, or if they would side with the majority of the others I had met.

Shaking my head, I realized it would do me no good to ponder those possibilities. I had more pressing matters for the immediate future, and I would deal with them forthright.

I needed a safe place to rest.

Five days had passed since my Pa was murdered on that lonely stretch of dirt outside of town.

The first night after I left the clinic, I stumbled across a poorly constructed lean-to in a small grove of apple trees. The fruit was past season, and most of it had been harvested long ago, leaving the orchard quiet and somewhat safe. Fortunately, the small amount of over-ripe fruit that remained in the grove had provided sufficient nourishment, while the lean-to provided a much needed break from the seemingly, endless winds.

The nights were terrifying. Being alone, and away from the hustle and bustle of the city, magnified the sounds and movements in the dark. All sorts of rustling, growling and howls could be heard all around me, robbing me of my peace of mind as well as my sleep.

I continued to grieve over the loss of my only family member; the only person I had ever had in my life that I could count on. Realization had set in, and my situation now appeared even more somber than before. I always had Pa to rely on and to talk to, but now everything was changed.

Fall had set upon Maxwell, and while the days were still warm enough, the nights had become chilly. It became a necessity to leave the isolation of the orchard, and look for work. If I could save enough money before winter, I could find a boarding house or a room to rent. So it was with this intent that I found myself walking back into the center of town on the fifth day after Pa's death.

The town was already buzzing with activity, so it was easy to remain mostly unnoticed as I took in my surroundings. The town of Maxwell was located in the center of Indian Territory, which had been open to claim just over six years ago. Due to the influx of settlers staking claims, the boundaries of the territory had been expanded, and the town was booming. The railroad had been steadily laying track in this new expanse, and towns were springing up rapidly.

Maxwell had become one of the more populated towns, but like all the others, was still self-governed, since the federal government hadn't begun to regulate the region as of yet. Pa had been hired as the sheriff because he had a sound reputation back home in Atlanta for keeping crime rates low, and maintaining the peace.

The town before me had two main streets that came together in a T, with several other shorter, side streets that led to a row of small, irregularly spaced houses. The farther away from town, the larger the claims and homesteads were. And many of them had barns and outbuildings surrounding the main houses.

As I stood on the corner, watching the town come to life, I let my eyes trail along the storefrontsand buildings, noticing the vast array of businesses that operated in Maxwell. Newton's General Store stood near the center with a dress shop on one side and a small restaurant on the other. Just a little farther down was a shop that appeared to carry hardware and livery goods. The building I stood in front of was brick with a large plate glass window that boasted the words, The Chronicle, in large red letters, and I assumed it was a newspaper. The saloon was at the far end of the street, and several other buildings were scattered along the way, but my gaze was drawn to the large, two-story building directly across from Newton's Store. The building contained two inhabitants, the town hall and the clinic.

I couldn't help but wonder what had happened that day after I left with no explanation to the kind doctor and mayor. Had they been upset or concerned? More likely, they had been relieved and not given me another thought.

I shook offmy musings and squared my shoulders. I needed to find a job today, and I really needed to get moving before the day began and anyone who might be hiring was too busy to talk to me. Newton's seemed to be the center of activity this morning, so I decided to begin there.

Mr. Newton was easy enough to find. He stood just inside his store, a broom in his hand and a crisp, white apron wrapped around his waist. He eyed me warily as I stepped into the shop.

"You're a little early, Miss. We're not really open yet."

"Yes, sir," I nodded, aware of how early it was. "I was hoping I might speak to you about a job."

He looked me up and down for a bit before scratching his head and sighing, "I just made a new hire a couple of days ago. I don't have much call for help, especially once the harvest is past."

I offered him a small smile and a quiet "thanks" as I turned to leave. There were still several places I could go. Hopefully someone would be hiring.

"Listen," he called as he followed me onto the steps, "I think the hotel might be able to use you. They were looking to hire some girls to do the housekeeping." He pointed to the building at the end of the street, near the saloon.

"Thank you. I'll go there now." I immediately headed that way, hoping I might have better luck at finding the work I so desperately needed.

Unfortunately, my luck ran out as soon as I stepped onto the street.

There, standing directly in front of me was the same vile man I had encountered in front of the saloon. He was leering at me, making my skin feel as though it was covered in millions of bugs. He took a couple of steps forward, holding his hands up in front of him, palms facing forward.

"No need to be skittish there, girl. I came to make amends. I was drinkin' and spoke outta turn. I was too forward with ya the other day."

He made no attempt to approach, so I nodded my head in agreement and acceptance of his apology. Dropping my eyes to my feet, I cleared my throat, preparing to excuse myself when he spoke again.

"Couldn't help but hear ya talkin' to Newton. I got use for ya over at the saloon if you need a job." He must have read the anger on my face, because he quickly shook his head and amended his offer, "I mean an upstandin' job! I could use a girl to help out when we get busy, cleanin' and keeping things tidy."

I watched him carefully, trying to determine his character. Was his offer legitimate, or a poorly veiled attempt at bedding me; not just for himself, but for the other, drunken men who frequented the establishment? As desperately as I needed a job, I couldn't believe it had come down to this. Surely, I could find employment elsewhere, saving my dignity, as well as, my virtue.

I was so lost in my thoughts that I failed to notice that we had been approached by another individual. A warm hand on my shoulder was startling, and the soft voice calling my name brought my eyes towards the intense gaze of Dr. Cullen.

"There you are. I've secured a table at Kate's," he glanced at the man in front of me, "Please, excuse us, our breakfast awaits." He lifted my hand and placed it in the crook of his arm, turning me quickly, and walking toward the small restaurant without a glance back at the man we had left standing in the street.

I was stunned at the turn of events, finally finding my voice as we stepped up onto the wood planked walkway. "He was offering me a job."

"I heard."

I tugged his arm, halting his steps, "I need a job. He wasn't – "

"You don't need that job, Miss Swan," his jaw was firm and his eyes narrowed as he turned to face me. I took a moment to observe his features, taking in his vivid green eyes, his brown hair that glinted red in the morning sun, and the square set of his clean-shaven jaw. He was extremely handsome.

And he had just ruined an employment opportunity for me.

"Dr. Cullen, he was offering legitimate employment, cleaning the saloon."

He was shaking his head before I could finish speaking, "There is nothing legitimate about any employment in that saloon. Have you any idea how many of his girls he has lured into the saloon with that same promise? You can't fathom the abominations I've seen in my clinic! The outrages that those girls are forced to suffer!" His eyes shut tightly and his fingers rubbed them harshly as though he were trying to remove the horrors he had seen. After a moment, he sighed heavily and opened his eyes, his gaze tender, "Come, Miss Swan, let's share a meal and get to know one another."

He offered his arm, and we walked the short distance to the restaurant. Once inside, he led me to a table where we sat, in plain view of the rest of the room. There were about a dozen tables covered in pale blue cloths with candles in the center. Almost immediately, a young woman brought a small basket of biscuits and preserves, placing them on the table and confirming that we would both like coffee, and the breakfast special.

My mouth watered at the scent of the warm biscuits, but I found some control, lifting the basket and offering the contents to Dr. Cullen. He smiled as he removed one and placed in on a small plate, setting it in front of me as he took the basket from my hand. After removing one for himself, he settled the basket back on the table and pushed the preserves toward me.

We were silent for several minutes as we ate. When the woman brought our coffee, Dr. Cullen asked her to bring me a glass of milk as well. I frowned as she walked away, having realized that my hunger had overwhelmed me to the point of forgetting that I had no money with which to pay for my meal. I dropped the biscuit back to my plate, as I glanced around the room. About half of the tables were occupied and a few of the other diners were casting curious glances our way.

Sensing my discomfort, Dr. Cullen covered my hand with his own as he pleaded, "Please eat, Miss Swan. You are far too pale and fragile for my liking. You are here at my invitation, so the expense is mine. In return, I would like you to answer some questions for me. Is that acceptable to you?"

I met his gaze, finding nothing but kindness and concern in his eyes. I nodded in agreement, and noticed his posture relax instantly. We were silent for a few minutes as our meal was delivered and we began to eat. He encouraged me to go slowly, understanding that I most likely had little to eat in several days. At my questioning look, he smiled sadly, "You're more slight of frame than you were when I saw you last. I've worried about you since that day; wondered where you were and if you were safe, and how you would fare all alone in a strange did you run?"

I shifted in my seat, trying to formulate an answer that wouldn't anger him. After all, these men who had made me feel so unwelcome were, quite possibly, his friends. I quickly realized there was no way to answer but truthfully.

"I overheard your conversation once I awoke. I'm unwelcome here without my father, and I don't want to be a burden to you, or to your reputation." The last was spoken softly, as I was embarrassed at what those words implied. The memory of being referred to as 'a kept woman' was humiliating.

I glanced up and found him staring intently at his half-eaten food. When he finally met my gaze, his expression was apologetic, "I'm sorry you heard all of that. It was such a surprising turn of events, for which no one knew the best course of action to take. By the time I came in to ask your opinion on the matter, you had gone."

We both turned our attention back to our food for the moment. I wasn't sure if he expected an apology for my leaving the way I did, but I offered it anyway.

"I'm sorry for leaving that way. I was scared and angry, but I should have, at least, said something to you. You were very kind to me that day on the road, and also after you had brought me back to your office, and I owe you my gratitude for taking care of both me, and my Pa. I was a stranger, and when you came along, you didn't have to be so caring."

"It was my pleasure," he answered quietly. Almost as soon as the words left his mouth, his eyes widened and shot up to meet mine. "Oh, not that I took any pleasure in your suffering, I, um …" he trailed off, looking mortified.

"It's okay. I understand what you meant," I smiled softly at him, drawn in by the blush of embarrassment that covered his cheeks.

He took a sip from his coffee cup then lowered it. Swirling it in his hand, he seemed mesmerized by the movement of the liquid inside as he asked, "Where did you go?"

I observed him quietly for several seconds before he looked up at me once again. Once again, I was worried about my response to this question, knowing it would either anger him, or reveal his indifference. For some reason, I preferred the anger.

"I found a place to stay just outside of town," was my initial reply. When he remained silent and lifted a brow in challenge, I dropped my eyes to my empty plate and answered fully, "I stayed in an abandoned lean-to in a grove of apple trees. It provided some shelter from the wind, and a dry place to sleep."

When I glanced back up, I found his head bowed, his brow furrowed and his eyes tightly shut. The muscle in his jaw ticked furiously as he exhaled loudly through his nose. After several minutes, his head lifted, and his eyes found mine. His piercing gaze was much more intense than it appeared on the street, and I felt the oddest sensation well up inside of me, as though I somehow recognized that intensity. My stomach seemed to flip, and I worried that perhaps I had eaten too much, too quickly.

"Miss Swan Bella... I must make a confession. I feel a strong need to care for you; to protect you, ever since the night of your father's murder when I came along and found you alone with his body. It's unthinkable to me that you have no place to lay your head, and the worry I have been under since you left the clinic has been almost unbearable. Five days with no word from you … the idea of you out there, alone …"

I was certain that he continued to speak, but I was too focused on what he had just said to hear anything beyond that. Did he say that he wanted to care for, and protect meand that he was worried? Even Pa had never expressed words so full of emotion.

"Bella?" his hand waving in front of my eyes broke me from my thoughts.

"I'm sorry, what were you saying?" I asked, positive that I looked as confused as I felt in that moment.

"I asked if you had any family that I could contact for you."

"I have an aunt, but she wasn't on speaking terms with my parents, and I've never met her. I'm not even sure of her surname."

If my revelation bothered him, he masked it well. Smiling at me, he nodded and leaned back in his chair, "Well then, I have a proposition for you. I need to employ a responsible, young woman, to care for my home. She will need to prepare meals, keep the house clean, and occasionally assist in the clinic."

He paused, as he waited for my riposte. I grinned and shook my head, "I think you want a wife, Dr. Cullen."

"Perhaps, Miss Swan, but not just yet," he returned my grin and winked at me. "What do you think? I will pay you fair wages, and provide a place for you to live. You can take your meals with me … keep me company … and I can watch over you."

I surveyed him for a moment as he waited for my answer. He seemed in earnest, but I realized that the only thing I knew of him was his name and profession. "I know nothing of you, Dr. Cullen. How am I to know you are any safer than the man we left standing in the street this morning?"

Dr. Cullen dropped his gaze to the table, frowning for a moment before clearing his throat. When his eyes met mine, they were blazing with an intensity I had never seen.

"My name is Edward, and I prefer that to Dr. Cullen, at least from your lips," his eyes dropped to my mouth for a moment before returning to hold my gaze once again. "I moved here from Chicago just over a year ago. My parents still live there, as does my sister and her husband. I enjoy the challenges life in Maxwell brings me, and have no desire to live in the big city again, as I am quite content to care for the good people here. I have never had a wife or children, and will be twenty nine on my next birthday."

He placed some money on the table before he stood and offered his hand, "Now you know more about me than anyone in town, Bella. If you are amenable, I'd like to show you to your new home and let you get settled … and I'd like for the two of us to get to know each other better. I realize this offer comes as a surprise, but I think the arrangement will help you get acclimated to Maxwell, and get you on your feet. And it will provide me with a meal and good company when I arrive home after a long day of work."

"I truly believe this will be good for the both of us, Bella."

I gasped at the familiarity of his words. I was sure I had heard him speak them before, but couldn't remember where. Glancing at his outstretched hand, I knew in my heart I could trust him. He would be good to me; I felt sure of it. I could still make my own way, but maybe we could do it together, and at the very least I would have a friend. I think Pa would approve of Dr. Cullen as a friend for me here in Maxwell.

Smiling shyly, I grasped his hand, effectively accepting his offer, as his words echoed in my mind.

"I'll take care of you. This will be good for the both of us, Bella."