I own nothing.
You all are too kind. I am beyond thrilled to hear from you all and to know that you are enjoying this little tale. Thank you.
Sunflower Fanfiction is an amazing Beta! She keeps me on my toes and makes my stuff look so much better.
So ... let's see if Bella is feeling more like herself now, shall we?
I wasn't disoriented at all when I woke, and I recognized the room immediately. Sunlight was streaming boldly through the cotton curtains as the open window allowed the cool breeze, as well as, the rich colors of the autumn foliage inside. Fall had settled on Maxwell, and all that once was green had now turned to vibrant oranges and reds.
I also remembered that Edward had come home.
By the height of the sun in the sky, I knew it was mid-day, but I had no way of knowing what particular day it was. Had Edward arrived only minutes ago, or had days passed as I slept?
Either way, the humiliation I felt was crushing. I had done all within my power to prove myself sufficient and strong to Edward, and yet he comes home to find a weak, frightened girl who can't even find the courage to fend off the nightmares that have plagued her in his absence.
Knowing that there was nothing else to be done, I rose from the bed, intent on washing up and going to face Edward. I could only hope he would be willing to keep me on after my embarrassing display.
I was halfway down the stairs before Edward looked up. He had been reading one of his medical journals, making notes around the edges of the page; his brow furrowed in concentration. When our eyes met, he smiled widely, "Good afternoon, Miss Swan. I'm glad you got some sleep."
Feeling the heat rising in my cheeks, I had to look away. He seemed to be in good humor, and I hoped we could talk about what had happened calmly. I watched as he closed the books and laid them aside. It was then that I realized what he had said.
"Afternoon? How long did I sleep?"
Edward tugged his gold watch from his pocket, flipping open the face, then smiling widely, "About twenty-two hours in all. The first ten or so were pretty rough, but you finally settled into a sound rest."
To say that I was surprised would have been an understatement. I had never slept more than seven or eight hours that I could remember.
Edward stood and held his hand out, silently asking me to come to him. When I paused, gauging his intent, he curled his fingers twice, beckoning me once again. "Come on, let's get you something to eat. You must be starving."
Neither of us spoke as I followed him into the kitchen where he quickly gathered a simple meal for us before leading me to the table. My hands shook as I ate, whether from my weakened state or nerves, I couldn't be sure. If Edward noticed, he made no comment. In fact, even though the room was filled with tension, Edward remained silent while we ate. It was only after he had cleared the dishes that I attempted to start a conversation.
"Edward, I'd like to apologize," I began.
"What on earth for?" His expression was one of surprise.
I cleared my throat and glanced in his direction, being careful not to meet his eyes as I answered, "I wasn't quite myself yesterday. I'm sorry if I've made you uncomfortable."
Edward remained silent and still for a long while. When I finally found the courage to look at him, he was staring intently at me, his brow furrowed once again, as though he were trying to see into my thoughts. I was a bit unnerved, but couldn't look away. When a couple of minutes had passed, Edward finally glanced down, grasping my hand in his own.
"Tell me about the nightmares, Bella."
My face must have registered my surprise, because he smiled gently, squeezing my fingers once as he continued, "You mentioned something about it yesterday. It probably would be helpful to talk about it."
My mind was racing, desperate to remember the bits and pieces of conversation from the day before when Edward had come home. I couldn't remember telling him about the nightmares that had robbed my sleep, but it was clear I had told him something. I took a deep breath, knowing that I couldn't continue on the way I had been for the last few days. If Edward could help me be rid of the nightmares, I could be brave enough to reveal them to him.
"It's always the same. I'm in the tree, and he knows I'm there. He says he'll spare my Pa if I come down, but I don't move. He finds me anyway and grabs my leg to pull me down."
"Do you know who he is, Bella?" Edward was still holding my hand, and his eyes were searching my face in earnest.
"No. I can never see his face, but I know his voice. It haunts me …" The last was barely a whisper, and I closed my eyes tightly against the memory of both the murder and the nightmares. The feel of Edward's warm hand closed around mine grounded me, giving me a sense of peace.
"You know it wouldn't have made a difference, right?" Edward's voice was quiet and tender. I opened my eyes, to find him watching me. "Even if you had revealed yourself, they still would have murdered your father, and probably would have done unspeakable things to you ..."
His words trailed off, and Edward released my hand as he scrubbed both hands over his face and into his hair, his gaze focused on the table. When he finally looked up, his expression was unreadable. He didn't reach for my hand again, but I found myself wishing he would, leaving my hands lying on the wooden surface in hopes of the comforting contact.
"I know that. Pa protected me. I just feel a little lost and unsure without him." I hoped that he understood that while I was grateful to him, I was still struggling to come to terms with losing Pa so suddenly. Edward had promised me a home as long as I needed one, but I couldn't help but wonder what would happen when he met a girl and wanted to settle down and start a family. The security I had always known was gone, taken from me so quickly. The only certainty I had now was that Pa was gone, and I had never had the chance to say goodbye.
"The last words we spoke were in panic, and I questioned him rather that trusting that he knew best," I glanced up to find Edward's gaze fixed on me. "I think he knew I loved him, though."
"Bella," Edward grasped my hands once again, "he knew you loved him. And his actions that night were born out of his love for you. Don't ever doubt that."
"I don't. I just wish I had told him once more."
The silence stretched between us for some time, both of us lost in our thoughts. After a while, Edward rose from the table and went to the kitchen. He came back moments later with two cups of water and took his seat again. As I picked up the cup and took a sip, Edward cleared his throat and leaned forward, placing his folded arms on the table between us.
"There are some things that we need to talk about, and I'd like for you to hear me out and then we can discuss it, alright?" He waited for me to nod in agreement before continuing. "I never should have left you here alone, Bella."
"I can take care of myself, Edward. You don't ha-"
"I know that," he cut me off, lifting his hand between us as though to ward off any further argument. "You promised to listen first, remember?"
His face showed no sign of anger or frustration, nor was his tone condescending. In fact, I was struggling to understand exactly what emotion was displayed in his eyes. Something inside of me stirred, and I found myself desperate to know what he wanted to say. I nodded once again and relaxed into my chair, to hear him out.
"You are, by far, the strongest woman I've ever met. You're courage and tenacity is both inspiring and frustrating." A soft chuckle had escaped him before his expression sobered once again. "I forget sometimes that it has only been a couple of weeks since your father died. You've not had the opportunity to properly grieve his loss, much less come to terms with the way in which he died. It's perfectly reasonable for you to have fears and anxiety about being here alone after what you've been through. I should have asked Jasper to bring you to his home. Alice would have kept you company, and you wouldn't have been afraid. I'm so sorry, Bella."
My response was immediate, "It's alright."
"No, it's not alright," he answered, vehemently. "But, can I assume that means I'm forgiven?"
I smiled before looking away, suddenly feeling extremely shy, "Of course, you're forgiven."
"Good. Thank you," his grin was blinding. "Now, I want to address a couple of things. First, I want you to know that the barn is not your responsibility. I know you take care of the milking every morning, and I have no problem with that. You need the milk to prepare breakfast, and I'm sure that Bess is happier with your gentle, unhurried hands than she was with mine. You get more milk out of her than I ever did. She was holding out on me." Edward's grin was still in place, and he winked at me, causing the strangest sensation in the pit of my stomach.
"As for anything else out there, I'll take care of it. You take care of our house and keep us well fed, and I'll handle the barn and tack, agreed?" Edward's expression was stern, but his eyes were gentle, and I gave him a single nod, lost in my thoughts.
He had said 'our'.
That odd feeling in my belly had turned into a full flip, and I hoped that my stuttered breathing had escaped his notice.
Did he realize he said it?
Did he really see it that way?
"Bella?" My eyes focused on his face, which was etched with concern.
"I'm sorry, what?" I asked.
"I was saying that the house was sparkling clean and that I fear you've been working much too hard. Are you well?"
"Oh, yes. I think I'm just still a bit tired, that's all." I hoped he wouldn't see through my feeble half-truth.
Edward's eyes searched my face for a moment before he hummed and nodded, "I imagine you are still tired. I was hoping … do you think you might be up to a little ride out to the Crowley farm? I need to change the dressing on his leg."
An hour later, I found myself standing beside Edward, holding bandages and fasteners as he cleaned and redressed Mr. Crowley's wound. I worried that the sight of it might be too much for me, but I was fascinated by the stitches that marked his skin, and the surgical precision with which Edward treated his patient.
The Crowley's were gracious people, and sent us on our way with several jars of preserved, spring vegetables and freshly baked sweet rolls. I couldn't help but notice the way Edward's eyes lit up when Mrs. Crowley, or Lauren as she insisted we call her, handed him the pastries. Obviously, he enjoyed them. I would have to remember that in the future.
Once we had begun our trek back home, Edward grew quiet, and his hands fidgeted constantly with the reins. Finally pulling the carriage to a stop at a fork in the road, he turned toward me, hesitating for a moment before taking my hand in his.
"I'd like to make one more stop, if you're willing. Are you too tired?"
He seemed so nervous, and I had to admit that it made me curious. "I'm fine. I'd be happy to accompany you wherever you need to go."
His eyes seemed to burn into mine for a moment before he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Finally, nodding to himself, Edward turned the horses in the opposite direction of the house and drove quickly to our next destination.
It was a secluded area just outside of town. Edward quickly climbed out of the carriage before lifting me out, as well. Leading me a few steps away, he turned me to face away from the late afternoon sun.
There, only a short distance away, was a fresh mound of red dirt with smooth stones stacked at one end. I knew immediately what it was and felt the tears sting my eyes as Edward placed his warm hand against my cheek.
"I'm so sorry that you lost him, Bella. I'm sorry that I hadn't thought to bring you here before now. You deserve a chance to tell him what you need to say. You need a chance to say goodbye."
I looked up at him, the movement causing my tears to spill over. His gaze was tender as he whispered, "Take whatever time you need. I'll wait for you here."
My legs were unsteady as I walked the short distance to the grave and sat on the hard, dry earth. I had thought the shock of seeing his grave would be unbearable, but as I sat there, the cool breeze blowing across the flat plains, I felt …
I had always known that Pa would have placed himself in harm's way to protect not only those he cared about, but also those he had been hired to serve. To lose him this way had been awful, but to know that he did it willingly, to protect his own child, gave it so much more meaning to me. It wasn't some nameless, faceless stranger that was alive because my Pa had protected them … it was me. He had loved me so much that he offered his own life to keep me safe. That realization was heavy with responsibility.
I was responsible for something … I owed it to my father, to live the life that he would have wanted me to live. To be happy and make him proud so that his sacrifice wasn't in vain. Sitting there, faced with that truth, I knew what I needed to say.
"I love you, Pa, and I'll miss you every day. I don't understand why you're gone, but I know I'm still here because you loved me and gave your life to keep me safe." I didn't even attempt to stop the tears, finding them to be oddly comforting. I wept for my own grief, for the time that we would never have together, and for the grandchildren I might one day have that he would never know.
When the tears had run their course, I wiped them from my eyes and took a deep breath. "I promise to live the life you wanted for me. I'll be happy and strong, and I'll do my best to make you proud." I glanced over my shoulder, to see Edward standing beside the carriage, watching me silently. "I don't know if you sent Edward to find me, but he's a decent man. He's been watching out for me just like you would have. I think you would have liked him, Pa."
The sun was beginning to set, and I knew we needed to be on our way. I could think of a million more things to say, but I knew I could tell him at another time, and didn't need to come here to do it. It was only his body in that grave, after all. I lifted my fingers, pressing them to my lips before lowering them to the dirt, leaving one last kiss for him.
I stood and turned my body toward the sun that was now lowering into the pink and orange twilight sky, and closed my eyes. Taking a couple of deep breaths, I opened them to find Edward still watching. His watery eyes were fixed on mine, and his gaze was so intense that I faltered in my steps and stopped altogether. Edward looked away and swallowed hard, before lifting his head and meeting my eyes once again. The corners of his mouth lifted in a soft, timid smile as he stretched his hand toward me.
The shyness I felt, knowing what he had just witnessed, was gone the moment I stepped toward him. I was ready to move on, ready to embrace my future, and I had to admit that I hoped the man before me would continue to be a part of it.