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Everything I Knew Was Wrong, or The Long Road Home

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Jamaica, March 1840

Every single muscle in my body was aching with fatigue. I had been on horseback since the break of dawn, riding through the Cullen estates. By noon, the sweltering heat and suffocating humidity of the West Indies were taking their toll on my strength, even if I had grown accustomed to this life and this climate.

The estate was an immense, lush and green expanse of sugar cane and tobacco fields located just outside Kingston. I'd been managing it for six years. Six long years since I'd all but left the beloved and familiar shores of Cornwall behind for Jamaica, wanting to prove to my family (and to myself) that I wasn't just the clever, bookish younger son, but that I could, indeed, be a fierce, ruthless and successful tradesman who would increase the family's wealth by managing, single-handedly, the whole of the Cullen estates in the colonies.

Nothing had shaken my resolve – not my mother's pleading, not my elder brother's light-hearted bantering that my going away was just a ruse to have the county's girls pining for me, and not even my father's stern entreaties that there was no need for me to go to the ends of the world to prove my worth to him.

That – proving my own worth – I had surely done, over the years. The plantation was well-managed and highly profitable, even if I said so myself, and the family wealth had increased steadily under my management. I had adjusted well enough to life in the West Indies, where I'd long ceased to lament the lack of polite and educated company. I had a place among the merchants of Jamaica, I was highly respected in the business community of Kingston, and naturally mingled with the most prominent families in town, when the occasion presented itself. I was content with my lot in life, and proud of my achievements. Most of all, I had come to appreciate my life of action and manual labour.

Every day, I rode through the plantation to survey the workers' progress. On each market day, I made the long ride between the estate and Kingston, and ventured out to the harbour each time a ship was sailing to or from Jamaica with Cullen goods.

I woke at dawn each day and retired for the night long after my servants had gone to bed, choosing to settle the accounts and other business after I'd taken a daily stock of my land and labourers. I prided myself in being a strict, but fair master.

By no means I had severed ties with Cornwall. My intent in moving to Jamaica was not to run away from my family. Instead, I sought to escape my allotted fate of being an awkward younger son unwilling to purchase an officer's commission in one of His Majesty's Regiments.

News from home came to me as often as distance and time permitted. The letters were scanty, and infrequent. I often received bundles of battered, rain-spattered envelopes that included missives from the three family members remaining in Cornwall – my father, mother and brother.

This time, though, as I jumped off my horse, drenched in sweat and covered in dust, I was met with a very impatient messenger who bore only a lone and ominous letter.

"Massa! Massa! Letter, home, letter! Espress, massa!" hollered Augustus, my house servant.

Augustus had been born and raised in Jamaica and had worked on the Cullen Plantation time out of mind. His superior knowledge of the other labourers, his eye for strict discipline and his sense of organisation had prompted me to entrust him with the running of my household. In short, Augustus was my butler and housekeeper, though his English was sometimes broken and, more often than not, tinged with the local inflections typical of the Caribbean.

Questions reeling in my head, I beckoned to Augustus to pass me the missive.

"Hand that over, Augustus, please."

"Yes, massa," he replied with a respectful bow.

I tore open the sheet of paper and quickly looked over the letter, to see who was writing to me urgent news from home and, most of all, when. It was penned in my brother's vibrant but messy hand and was dated from Cullen Manor four months hence – so much for its being an express delivery.

"Dear Edward,

I wish to announce that I will shortly be marrying Miss Rosalie Hale.
I hope you will wish us joy – though Father might advise otherwise.
Your affectionate brother,

Emmett Nathaniel Cullen"

By now, Emmett was a married man. However, save for this hasty message, I had received no such tidings from my father. Truth be told, I had not received any letters from home for quite some time, but I had attributed the lack of communication to the bad winter weather that made ocean travel difficult.

Emmett's message was just like him – abrupt and to the point, though somehow failing to paint a bigger picture. Emmett would throw a bucket of ice-cold water at you without warning, and without telling you why, leaving you wondering the where's and why's of his actions, just as he did now.

I was by no means shocked by the choice of his intended bride. In his earlier correspondence, Emmett had been quite forthcoming as to the charms of one Miss Rosalie Hale. There was no doubt in my mind that he was much taken with her and that the feeling was mutual. What left my head spinning with questions, though, as I stood under the merciless midday sun, was his rather unsubtle allegation that Father might not approve of the match.

Knowing my brother and father, I was more inclined to say that Emmett was being headstrong and selfish. And, while my father tended to be equally headstrong, it was typically not without good reason. My father was concerned with the welfare of the whole family and, while he would never cross Emmett's desires merely for the sake of it, his disapproval posed a serious threat to my brother's matrimonial happiness. I did not doubt, for even one moment, that Emmett would marry Miss Hale anyway, despite our father's wishes. I could only hope for the best, and that they would come to a happy resolution of their misunderstanding.

I had no details whatsoever on Miss Rosalie Hale, other than Emmett's highly appreciative descriptions of her beauty. My family's silence on the question seriously impaired my ability to form any sort of well-founded judgment. I concluded that I could wish my brother joy, so long as nothing else convinced me to the contrary.

For the rest of the day, I went about my daily occupations as usual, yet still the thought of my brother's letter left me uneasy, with a disturbing sense of foreboding. All through the night, I was unable to rest, and though exhausted, I tossed and turned, mulling over my own speculations.

The following morning, Augustus greeted me at the breakfast table with a silver tray and yet another letter. I raised an eyebrow, quite surprised to receive a second missive in as many days. My faithful servant sensed my silent question and commented, "Sea better, massa. More ships a' coming."

It was as good an explanation as any. This second letter was not an express – only Emmett, in his typical impulsiveness, would squander the money for an express on a letter that could be stuck aboard a ship for months – and was penned in a regular, elegant and ladylike script which was, to my even greater surprise, not my mother's hand.

I quickly broke the seal and perused the single sheet of paper to locate the date and identity of the sender. The letter was dated from Cullen Manor, two months after Emmett's letter, and was signed by one Miss Isabella Marie Swan. Unfamiliar with any relatives of ours by that name, I immediately started reading the letter, in the hope that it would reveal who this person might be and why she was writing to me from my father's home in Cornwall.

Dear Mister Cullen,

We have never been introduced and I apologise in advance for taking the liberty of addressing you so freely.
I am afraid that circumstances are forcing me to forgo some common rules of decorum and I am confident that, once you are acquainted with the matters now at hand, you will find it in your heart to forgive my boldness.
Your father is gravely ill and the doctors fear of his ultimate recovery. Your dear mother is still shocked by the news and has urged me to write to you in her stead to beg you to return home immediately.

I pray that this letter reaches you quickly, and wish you a safe and speedy journey back to Cornwall.

Respectfully,

Isabella Marie Swan.

The letter crumpled in my fist and the china teacup I was holding in my left hand shattered to the floor, its shards scattering everywhere. Augustus, ever discrete and unflappable by nature, set about tidying up the floor without a word.

My father was ill. My father was gravely ill and had been ill in Cornwall two months hence. As the grim reality that was facing me sunk in, I knew what I had to do with the utmost clarity.

"Augustus?"

"Yes, Massa?"

"Prepare my trunk and secure my passage on the next ship that sails from Kingston. There should be one tomorrow. I am needed in England."

"Yes, Massa."

Augustus did my bidding without batting an eyelid and, as was his ingrained habit, he did not bother to comment on the circumstances that were forcing me away from Jamaica for a long while. My trunk was ready and passage booked for the next day by the time my dinner was served.

I left instructions with my steward so that he could attend to the ordinary business of the plantation, with strict recommendations that my lawyer in Kingston could deal with any pressing or delicate matters in my absence.

I had no social calls to pay, no leave to take of anyone in Kingston. A message to my lawyer giving him full power of attorney to act on my behalf was the last duty I performed, before retiring for the evening.


The following morning, one of my stable hands drove me to the harbour and, as I stepped down the carriage, I was met with the impressive sight of the Artemis. I was well acquainted with this ship – it had been regularly employed to transport Cullen goods to and from Jamaica over the years, and I knew its Captain and its crew very well. This was, perhaps, one of the reasons why the Captain had overlooked my hasty request for a passage, accommodating it without further question. The Artemis was a fairly new, sleek and fast clipper. One of a kind, its captain and owner were extremely proud of having secured it as a merchant ship serving the busy ports of Jamaica. The clipper stood shiny and majestic at its anchor in Kingston harbour, its sails white clean and ready to billow in the ocean winds, every brass bolt polished to perfection.

There was a flurry of activity on the deck as the sailors hauled cargo on the ship and down its hold and I had to watch my steps everywhere, lest I ran into someone, something, or just slipped on the wet planking.

As I settled down in my cabin, I still felt growing anticipation and endless questions reeling in my head. A nagging feeling I could not dismiss sparked my suspicions that my brother's hasty marriage and my father's ailing health could not be wholly unconnected.

I was also quite put out that the distressing events prompting my return had been relayed to me by a complete stranger. This complete stranger was acting on my mother's behalf, and was confident enough that her plea would not go unheeded, either.

Why wasn't Emmett aware that my father was sick? Why had he not written to me, instead? Why wasn't he at home, managing my father's estate, as every dutiful elder son was expected to do?

I mulled all these questions over in my mind , in a fruitless attempt to fill the empty and boring days and nights of my passage across the Atlantic. I was used to a life of action and was not well suited to the forced idleness of a passenger. Inactivity tended to fuel my brooding nature, making my manners hasty and my temper changeable. I envied the sailors their long days filled with labour. I envied the regularity of their chores. I had left my own, well-oiled routine behind, without any hint as to what I should expect, once I returned to Cornwall.

By the end of the crossing, my temper was simply volatile, rendered almost unfit for polite company by the long weeks of idle confinement aboard ship and by the unknown prospects at home. Any novelty was welcome by now, so that I could retrieve at least part of my sanity.

In his unflinching practicality, Augustus had bargained for a convenient passage to Bristol, considerably shortening the last leg of my journey.

After long weeks at sea, I had become accustomed to the pitching and tossing of the ship and found, soon enough, that dry land apparently no longer agreed with me. I simply desired some rest, a glass of my father's brandy, and a hearty conversation with my mother by the library fireplace at Cullen Manor, but my wishes had to wait.

Bristol was a busy port, bustling with people and goods being hauled to and from the majestic ships that sailed from and to the West Indies. It wasn't difficult to get directions to the stagecoach inn, where I rested for a spell and sipped my first pint of brown ale in six years, while I awaited the mail coach that would take me to Plymouth.

The journey in the mail coach proved to be another challenge for my ever-darkening mood. A skilled and reckless horseman, I wasn't partial to being jostled in a carriage, especially when already bone-weary from sleeping in a berth for six weeks, and travelling at a pace that could not rival my tamest canter. When all was said and done, I was not inclined in the least to engage in the usual, nonsensical and nosy conversation that my fellow travellers were entertaining.

To make matters worse, my dishevelled appearance and faint tan gave away that I had been overseas. I tried to avoid the most prying questions but, when the inevitable curate in the carriage began preaching about the inhumane living conditions in the Colonies, I feigned asleep to avoid a most disagreeable confrontation. Before long, true fatigue overcame me, and I drifted off to a fitful sleep, waking to find that the coach had finally reached Plymouth.

I had had enough of the so-called modern means of transportation. Needing to stretch my legs and be independent again, I quickly located a stable and purchased a horse. If I had to extend my stay in Cornwall, the animal would be a necessity anyway. I paid the owner, who beckoned for a stable boy to help me with my small trunk and saddle bags.

I set off at an easy canter at first, acquainting myself with my new mount, and revelling in the now familiar sights and sounds of home. As the whitewashed waterfront houses of Plymouth disappeared behind me, melting into the green and purple moors I loved so much, I finally gave in and spurred my horse into a wild gallop.

I knew I'd arrive at Cullen Manor late, but I couldn't bring myself to care. At this point, all I wanted was to see my parents again. All I longed for was the comfort of the loving home I'd missed for six long years. All my mind craved were answers.

My gallop grew more impatient the closer I got to Falmouth. At long last, I slowed the horse to an easy canter when I turned off the main road and onto the long and winding gravel pathway that led to Cullen Manor.

It was late at night, much too late for anyone to be wandering about the country, and I had not encountered any other travellers on the country roads. At last, I dismounted my horse at the gate of Cullen Manor. Despite my late and unannounced arrival, I half-expected someone to come out, greet me and lead my mount to the stables. But no one came, and the house remained dark, looming over me in an almost eerie silence. It was my childhood home, and yet it wasn't.

I was troubled by a sense of foreboding that was not easily dismissed. I sighed and breathed in the cool night air, willing it to calm my nerves. Still knowing my way around the estate even in the darkness, I walked to the stables, tied my horse in one of the empty stalls and unlatched my saddle bags. I went back to the front and finally knocked on the door of my father's house.

I heard some rustling inside and a crooked figure opened the door. I recognised the old butler at once, Jonathan Jenks, who had known me since I was a rumpled, unruly child who used to ruin his carefully crafted flowerbeds.

"Jenks, I'm home," I said, moving past him to make my way inside, and not waiting for him to recover from his shock and address me.

"Master Edward, is that really you?" he asked shakily, closing the door behind him. It was only then that I noticed his eyes were glazed over with unshed tears.

"Take me to my father, Jenks." Jenks did not move and averted his eyes from my scrutiny. I was growing impatient and increasingly worried.

"Jenks, how is he? You will tell me, now," I inquired imperiously, my tone perfected from years of disciplining the plantation labourers.

Jenks merely shook his head, still not even meeting my gaze. "Master Edward, please come with me. Miss Isabella will tell you all you need to know."

Miss Isabella – that name again. Could it be that my unknown correspondent was here, living in my parents' house? Had I detected a hint of reverence in the way that Jenks uttered her name?

Suddenly, I heard a noise – the faint sound of small and graceful steps on the landing. A soothing and sweet voice rang through the quiet of the house.

"Jenks, what is the commotion at this late hour? It's making Madam uneasy…"

The voice drifted off as its owner's eyes finally landed on me.

I felt pierced to my very core by a keen, sincere and bottomless gaze. Two weary, wide, dark brown eyes were taking in my appearance, trying to decide who I was. Those same eyes turned to Jenks, in a silent but questioning look.

"Miss Isabella, Master Edward has come home," Jenks said, almost apologetically.

So this was Miss Isabella Marie Swan, and she was, indeed, living in my parents' house. Her eyes went wide with shock and her hands flew to cover her mouth.

"Thank God you are here," she whispered, before closing her eyes and staggering against the banister. She was about to collapse to the floor.

I had been raised to be a gentleman, and without hesitation, I ran to catch her from falling, trying to maintain propriety as much as possible, under the circumstances. Jenks also rushed to Miss Isabella's side, moving as fast as his age would allow.

"Miss Bella, are you all right? I'll fetch the Master's brandy, it will do you good. You're done in, child," he said, a hint of alarm in his voice. I did not fail to notice that, in his distress for her condition, he had called her "Bella".

I remembered Jenks as a strict and reclusive person, and the affectionate tone of his words was a clear indication that he must be fond of this Miss Isabella. I also realised with some consternation, I was still holding her in my arms with a little more familiarity than social conventions would condone. I stiffened, sensing her discomfort, but she was quicker than me and broke free from my grasp. Without a word, she righted herself and smoothed her dress, smiling shyly at me.

Then, she turned to Jenks and replied, "No, Jenks, thank you. That won't be necessary. Brandy makes me drowsy, and I don't want to fall asleep while I'm sitting with Madam."

Jenks seemed displeased. "But, Miss Bella…" She shook her head and added, with a warning look, "I'm fine, Jenks, but…"

"Yes, Miss?"

"Perhaps you could bring some tea, please? And maybe Mister Cullen could use some dinner, as well, after his long journey?" I marvelled for a second at her tone, resolute yet sweet, courteous but without condescension.

"Of course, Miss Bella. I'll fetch that myself. You go on and talk to Master Edward." And with that, Jenks disappeared in the direction of the kitchens, as Miss Isabella started to walk away from me, too.

"Wait a minute, there!" I snapped, and she stopped abruptly, turning to face me, in a graceful and fluid move that left the silk of her gown swishing around her figure. Still silent, she stared at me with those expressive eyes of hers, perusing my countenance, but politely waiting for me to address her again.

"Where is my father? I want to see him now," my words had a much harsher tone than I had intended and I saw a pained expression cloud her face before she replied.

"Mister Cullen, I am aware that you must have questions, but…" she paused, an uneasy frown marring her features.

I was about to unleash another string of hasty words on her, but I stopped short when I saw how deeply troubled she appeared. Until then. I had only been captivated by her eyes until then, but now I could not look away from her figure, although I knew it was highly inappropriate of me to stare at her.

Her long, dark mahogany hair was woven in an intricate tangle of tresses that gathered at the nape of her neck. Her eyes were framed by long lashes and a set of perfectly shaped eyebrows. She had a fine complexion, with porcelain-white skin that I had not seen in years – no-one in the West Indies could keep such ivory skin unblemished by the cruel sun for long – but her regular features were marked by fatigue and distress. There were dark circles under her eyes and her lips were trembling. Strangely, this did not sit well with me, and seeing her so obviously distressed suddenly caused me to partially regret my earlier words.

"Who are you, anyway? And why are you living in my father's house?" I sighed, fully aware that, while I was no longer snapping at her, this new onslaught of brusque questioning could hardly be considered civil conversation.

"I am Isabella Swan, Mister Cullen, and I wrote you the letter. Forgive my forwardness, but the circumstance was extreme." She spoke without hesitation, but did not look me in the eye, either.

I realised that her answer, while polite and to the point, revealed nothing new. I had already figured out who she was from Jenks's earlier words and had made the connection to her mysterious letter.

"I think we might need to sit down for a lengthy conversation, Miss Swan," I conceded, for once managing not to sound rude and patronizing.

She merely nodded and gestured for me to follow her into the library. The fire was already crackling lively; a tray containing a tea service and a plate of cold cuts had been placed on a table by two armchairs that flanked the fireplace, the very same fireplace I'd been longing to sit by for the last six weeks.

I motioned for her to sit down first, noting with some surprise that she chose to sit in my mother's usual place. I sat down too, the weariness from my long journey finally overpowering me. She handed me a cup of tea and then pushed the plate in my direction, so that I might help myself to the food.

"Miss Swan, I would hate to sound unduly persistent, but…I want to see my father now," I began, sighing, because I was no longer feeling so sure of my own footing.

"Mister Cullen, I… I apologise if my letter upset you. You must have been so worried. Your mother needed – needs – you here at Cullen Manor with her but…" She seemed to struggle with her words as much as I was. "Mister Cullen, I really do not know how to break this to you, but Carlisle…I mean, your father…" she continued, her voice still shaken.

"My father? What is wrong with my father? You will tell me now!"

My rash temper finally got the better of my intentions, and I could not keep the angry, agitated tone from my voice. Miss Swan drew a deep breath, but seemed otherwise unmoved by my outburst. Raising her face to meet my gaze, I saw a flicker of an unknown fire in her eyes.

"I was trying to spare your feelings, Mister Cullen. I see my concerns were futile," she stated, her gaze and voice unwavering. My continued outbursts were, no doubt, forming her resolve that any kindness towards me would fall on deaf ears.

"Dispense with the niceties, Miss Swan. I have been my own master for the last six years," I retorted, my words now as unfeeling and hasty as my temper.

"Very well, then, Mister Cullen. Your father is dead. Unfortunately, he passed away only a fortnight after I wrote to you. My condolences," she replied, her tone now devoid of emotion.

My hands shook in rage, shock and grief.

My father was gone. My father was gone and there was nothing I could do. I was shaking with powerless anger, my feelings hardly contained.

I felt Miss Swan delicately prying my fingers away form the teacup I was clenching, placing place itsafely back on the table. With a simple, merciful gesture, she'd proven her point to me, but she was, evidently, too much of a lady to lord it over me.

"Why? How? My brother?" These were the only broken words I could muster. I felt silk swishing to my side and saw that Miss Swan was kneeling in front of the fireplace, rekindling the dying flame.

"It was a severe stroke, Mister Cullen. It was sudden and violent. He never recovered," she said, her strangled words so low that they were almost a pained whisper in the darkness.

"I still can't…why?"

She heaved a deep, laboured sigh and returned to her seat, smoothing creases in her gown to avoid meeting my gaze. I felt tears on my cheeks even before I realised that I was weeping – there went my commandeering ways; I was crying in front of a stranger. A strange, beautiful lady, who appeared to have my mother's trust and had been on first name terms with my father.

"Painful, unpleasant things happened, Mister Cullen. Things that…but it's not my place…" she stammered, still avoiding my gaze.

"My brother, Miss Swan? Where is my brother?" I asked.

"Your brother is no longer welcome here, I am afraid," she finally confessed, with a sorrowful expression in her eyes.

My hands, clenched into angry fists, banged on the armrests, as I rose to my full height again. "If he did something…If he said something…"

I heard a stifled, uneasy gasp and caught a glimpse of Miss Swan covering her mouth with her hand. She was weeping silently, too. That had to mean something, at least. Maybe my suspicions were right. Maybe…

"Mister Cullen?" she said, a hint of hesitation in her voice. I turned towards her, my tall frame towering over her diminutive figure huddled in the armchair.

"Would you… Would you like to see your mother before you retire for the night?"

I had no idea how this petite person could know that the one thing that would calm me was my mother's presence, but somehow, she did. I nodded and, mimicking her earlier gestures, I motioned for her to lead the way.

In nerve-wracking silence, Miss Swan left the library and climbed the main staircase that led upstairs to the family rooms. My mother's rooms were facing the gardens, at the back of the square-plan house.

She stopped outside my mother's room and turned to face me. Her next actions were so unexpected that they took my breath away. Gently, she brushed her dainty hand against my forearm in an openly soothing gesture. Her fingers had been barely there, and disappeared just as softly.

"She's changed a lot, Mister Cullen. This might be a shock, even for a brave man whose feelings don't need sparing," she murmured.

I nodded, hoping that she would read in my eyes my unspoken gratitude for her kind and affectionate concern, even if I was sure she was behaving like this solely for my mother's sake.

Miss Isabella was, of course, quite correct in her assessment of my mother's condition. It was a shock to see her like this and I tried to hide my distress as best I could, seeking solace in the darkness of her room. By faint candlelight, she appeared to be a mere shadow of her former self, a shrunken image of the strong and beautiful woman I remembered with a son's devoted love.

I stood helpless at the foot of her bed, reluctant to get any closer and unable to move away. Meanwhile, Miss Isabella smoothed her hair, squeezed her hand reassuringly and adjusted her pillows and covers.

My mother usually harboured a pointed dislike for anyone fussing over her, she took pride in being an independent woman – and yet, she did not argue one bit while Miss Isabella cared for her with the well-practised, yet loving gestures of someone who had being doing this for a long while. There was neither obligation nor carelessness in her lithe and affectionate movements, and it was perfectly clear to me, with a furtive glance into my mother's eyes, that she deeply cared for Miss Isabella and that the feeling was mutual.

I saw my mother's eyes squint in the darkness and heard her whisper something into Miss Isabella's ear. Miss Isabella soothingly replied, her voice a gentle caress, "Yes, Mama. Edward has really come home."

My mother's hollow eyes brightened at the mention of my name and, for a moment, she seemed her former self again. "Edward. Please, come closer."

I moved to sit by her side on the bed, opposite Miss Isabella. My mother patted my hand lightly and her gaze slowly returned to Miss Isabella.

"Thank you, child. Thank you for bringing my son home to me," she said, her voice full of emotion, as tears welled up in her green eyes.

With a frown I'd seen before, Miss Isabella quickly replied, "I didn't do anything, Mama. You should rest now, I will leave you with Edward. I am sure you want to spend some time with him."

Once again, she seemed to know exactly what I wanted – and needed. I was longing for a private interview with my mother, but she was in no condition to withstand the subjects I wanted to broach with her. Besides, Miss Isabella seemed to be perfectly attuned to my mother's needs and habits and I was loathe to see her leave. She would be of much more use at my mother's side than I could ever be. My mother, though, had other ideas on the matter.

"Child, you deserve an entire night of proper rest. Go, Edward will sit with me for a while."

Miss Isabella tried to contradict her, but to no avail. "Bella, please, go. I will be fine." Even my mother called her "Bella".

Miss Isabella finally acquiesced to my mother's wishes. But, before she left the room, however, she eyed me with a stern expression. "My room is just down the hall. Please fetch me if either of you need anything," she pleaded as I held the door open for her. "I could not rest anyway, knowing that she's unwell."

Even if I would never contemplate describing my mother's current condition as simply being "unwell", I could sense that she was guarded with her words, knowing that my mother could hear.

"You do care about her, Miss Isabella, don't you?"

She nodded. "As if she were my own mother. And she has treated me as a daughter. Good night, Mister Cullen," she whispered, leaving me on the threshold to absorb the full import of her words.

I went back to sit with my mother and there, in her loving presence, I could no longer contain my grief and let my tears run freely. I had no qualms in hiding the true extent of my feelings in her company.

"Father is gone, mother. What shall we do? What shall I do?"

She squeezed my hand tenderly, but weakly. "You will brave this storm, Edward, of that I am confident. Look at the man you've become. I am so proud of you."

A faint smile graced her lips and in that smile I saw another echo of the woman she'd once been – the sunlight of our family, the mortar that held us all together, at all times. I could not help asking about my brother.

"Mother, I received a letter from Emmett. He wrote that he was going to marry Miss Rosalie Hale. What happened?"

My mother's face contorted in pain. "Emmett…he…made some poor decisions…" Her breathing became ragged and uneasy as she struggled to continue. "I can't bear to…"

I immediately reached for the glass of water on her nightstand. "It's alright, mother. We won't talk about this now. Tell me something else."

She relaxed, but only minutely. I tried to choose a safer topic of conversation that would not tax her strength overmuch. "Mother…if you don't mind me asking, who is Miss Isabella, exactly?"

My mother smiled again, with a fond tenderness in her eyes that I could not fathom and that I did not recall ever seeing in her.

"I am her godmother, Edward, and your father was her legal guardian. She is an orphan – my third cousin's daughter, actually. When her parents died, I sent for her. I could not bear the thought of her living alone in London. With Alice off to school, and you living in Jamaica…I do get lonely, sometimes, son."

I was perplexed and surprised. There had been a de facto addition to my family, and no one had bothered to tell me about it. I felt incredibly left out. My mother read my expression right away.

"What's wrong, dear?"

"When did this happen, mother?"

My voice was ice-cold and detached again. I had no good reason to be this rude to my mother but, oddly enough, it seemed that I had no middle ground where Miss Isabella was concerned. Either way, I seemed to forgo any and all rules of courtesy, common sense, and propriety. Worse still, my mother picked up on every shift in my demeanour, as insignificant as it might be.

She sighed, with a slightly indulgent look on her face. "It happened a year after you moved to Kingston, Edward. It did not seem to be that important at the time and then…"

In over five years, no one had ever mentioned anything about this in any of their letters. I had never had any idea that now I had – what was she to me, exactly? – some relative living at Cullen Manor. I didn't understand. I could not understand how this, of all things, would be treated as a trifle by my mother.

"Are you upset, Edward? Why, dear?"

"Because no-one has ever bothered to tell me! Who is she, anyway? A gold digger in disguise? Some poor offspring that you have taken in, out of charity? Not to mention the legal implications of all this! Father is dead, who will be her legal guardian now? Emmett?"

I was truly incensed though, in all fairness, I had no right to be. I had made another life for myself in Jamaica, I could not blame my family for doing the same here in Cornwall. Still, I felt deprived of my place in the family – why had they kept this from me? What other secrets had been kept from me?

My mother was not best pleased with my behaviour and her scathing look made my blood run cold, as it often had when I was a little boy up to no good. She extended her hand and rang the bell, without so much as a word.

"Mother?" I asked, trying to look properly chastened.

"I will not tolerate this behaviour towards Bella, Edward. Please, leave the room." Her tone brooked no argument. However, in a miserable attempt to set things to rights, I continued to make a fool of myself.

"Mother, please, I am only trying to understand."

"You are stamping your foot like a wilful child, Edward. I am tired. Please, leave."

The door clicked open and Bella herself, still perfectly dressed and looking rather agitated, peeked her head inside. "Are you alright, Mama?"

My mother's countenance changed dramatically. "I only wanted to wish you goodnight, child. Please, come closer."

Bella – how was it that all my barriers were crumbling, so much so that I, too, desired the privilege to address her by her own name? – complied with my mother's request and knelt by the bed, her eyes level with my mother's.

"Your cheeks are flushed, Mama. Is anything the matter?" she asked, laying her hand on my mother's forehead to gauge her temperature.

My mother ignored the question, while Bella threw a sidelong glance in my direction, one almost as scathing as that of my mother's.

"You need to rest now, Mama. It is past your bedtime and Doctor Newton…"

"Doctor Michael Newton? The Newton boy?" I couldn't help asking. The name did ring a bell in my memory.

"The very one. You should see him, Edward. He's as boring as he ever was," commented my mother, and I was glad to see that, even in her illness, she had not lost her inclination for pert replies. Bella fought to suppress a smile and, quite predictably, seemed to agree with my mother.

"As boring as he may be, Mama…I think you should sleep now."

"Mother, Miss Isabella is right. I will see you in the morning," I said, as I stood to take my leave.

My mother nodded, but did not offer a reply. I had been dismissed without ceremony and it was tangible proof that I was not back in her good graces, yet. I closed the door behind me, my hand still on the door knob, and overheard my mother speak to Bella. I couldn't resist eavesdropping.

"You will tell him everything tomorrow, Bella. Answer all of his questions."

Her voice barely above a strangled whisper, Bella replied, "Mama, please. It is not my place. Soon the lawyer will sort it all out anyway. Please?"

Bella was pleading, but my mother did not relent. "He needs to know before he learns the terms of Carlisle's will. Please, Bella. For my sake."

My mother's voice became a ragged whisper again and Bella whispered back with a stifled sob, "Very well, Mama. For your sake."

I could withstand another sleepless night, if there was a chance that I would finally have some answers on the morrow. I lay awake in my childhood bedroom all night, listening to someone's quiet weeping down the hall, and fought the inappropriate desire to go and comfort her.


Come morning, I made my way to the kitchen in search of Jenks. The faithful old butler would know the details of Miss Isabella's arrival at Cullen Manor. I was hoping that he could be persuaded to share them with me.

"Good morning, Master Edward. Miss Bella is in the orchard, but I'll fetch her directly."

Quite surprised to find that she was up and about at such an early hour, I recovered just in time to stop Jenks and bid him stay. "Jenks, would you care to enlighten me on something?"

The old man still went about his business, but eyed me warily over his shoulder. "I would be glad to help you any way I can, Master Edward."

"Miss Isabella, Jenks. That's what I'd like to know. Why did they have to take her in?"

Jenks set a cup of tea and some porridge in front of me. As I attacked my breakfast, he replied.

"They were not forced to do it, Master Edward. They wanted to, but they had to convince Miss Bella, and it weren't easy. She wanted to have her way and remain in her parents' house in London. Madam wouldn't hear of it. End of story. You know your mother better than I do."

I couldn't help a sullen grimace as I prodded on with my interrogation. "So we took in the pauper orphaned girl?" I knew that my tone was disdainful, but I couldn't control my reactions any longer.

Jenks, as much as my mother, seemed mighty displeased with my choice of words.

"You're a grown man, Master Edward, but I'll find a way to tan your hide if you can't keep a civil tongue where Miss Bella is concerned. You might be able to fool her, but you can't fool me, nor your mother."

I huffed, greatly vexed by the outcome of our conversation. I rose to my feet and made my way towards the orchard. Maybe the orphaned girl would comply with my mother's request and enlighten me herself.

Over my shoulder, I heard Jenks smugly say, "Sides, boy, a house in Grosvenor Square and a fortune of thirty-five thousand pounds hardly qualifies the lass as a penniless orphan, now?"

I was utterly shocked. I prided myself in being a skilled judge of character. I was very good at reading people, analysing their little quirks, and breaking down their actions to scavenge out their ulterior motives. Instead, I was navigating a perilous ocean of doubt, an unchartered territory without any stars to guide me. I'd been humbled by this creature.

Everything I knew was wrong.

Still shaken by this realisation, I found her indeed in the orchard, with the gardener by her side. They were potting plants and pruning the shrubs. I quickly noted that she had no qualms in tackling menial work, even if she had the means to live like a grand lady. I couldn't exactly say the same for myself. I was a younger son, still without a fortune to my name. She was an heiress; she could be her own mistress, with an enviable level of independence. Maybe, I reasoned, only maybe, this was not what she wanted?

She saw me approaching in the corner of her eye and stood up to greet me. She still looked very tired, and distressed.

"Miss Isabella, good morning." I spoke, with more civility than I had mustered in our prior conversations. I tried to behave like the gentleman that my mother had raised, through the haze of my painfully conflicted impressions.

She brushed some dust off her hands and replied to my greeting with a forced smile. "Good morning, Mister Cullen. Have you been offered some breakfast yet?"

I noticed that she was always a perfect host and it was then that it finally dawned on me. She was acting as the mistress of the house. Reflecting on my mother's appearance last evening, it occurred to me that she'd probably had the responsibility of running of the household for some time. She took care of my mother, saw that her needs and mine were attended to, she directed the servants…In short, she had been forced to fill my mother's shoes. I paused to wonder what else she'd been contending with before my return.

I was suddenly in awe of this unassuming, but extremely resourceful and resilient young lady, and I felt like a worthless idiot for my behaviour towards her. The fact that she wasn't aware of my derogatory words wasn't important – I'd done her a great injustice all the same.

"How long has this been going on, Miss Isabella?"

She gave one quick glance to the gardener, who immediately made himself scarce, and turned to face me. I was well aware that my question was deliberately vague, and that I had completely neglected to answer her earlier question.

"It all started with Emmett...I mean, with your brother's wedding…"

Of course, she had to be on first name terms with Emmett as well. I suddenly disliked these formalities with a passion and wondered whether I could dispense with them without bordering on impropriety.

"Miss Isabella, please, there is no really no need for all that. I understand that you…are close to my family. But please, do continue…"

We were walking along a sheltered pathway in the garden, at some distance from the house. We were far from prying ears and eyes and it was an ideal setting for this ominous conversation. She sat down on a stone bench whilst I stood there, towering over her.

"Would you please call me Bella, then? No one ever calls me Isabella around here," she offered, with a shy smile. I nodded, encouraging her to continue and feeling quite pleased that I'd been granted my wish, without having to ask for it.

"It all started with Emmett wanting to marry Miss Hale," she said. "Carlisle did not approve of the match, but could do nothing to prevent it. It was a very trying time."

"How so?" I asked, confused.

"Your brother is twenty-nine, Mister Cullen. Your father could not withhold his consent and Miss Hale's parents favoured the match, so there was no way to stop them."

"But what about Emmett's prospects? He's not independent…"

Technically, neither of us was, until Father's estate could be divided between us under the terms of his last will and testament. That was another matter worthy of some consideration.

"Miss Rosalie has her own fortune from her mother's marriage articles, and is an only child. Her father's estate will revert back to her, eventually. Independence was never an issue." Bella concluded, wistfully.

"I don't understand. What was Father's objection, then?"

"You'd better sit down, because this is where everything becomes…unpleasant. I'm sorry you have to hear this from me," she said, her tone bashful.

She appeared to have a special place in everyone's affections, and yet she felt that she had no business in knowing the family's dealings? Could it be possible that, like me, she felt she had no real place in this household?

"I'm thankful that someone is finally taking the time to tell me," I added, vehemently, hoping that she could see past my surprise that I was not being unkind to her, only to the situation. "And while we're dispensing with the formalities, Mister Cullen was my father. I'm just Edward around here."

"Oh, you're just Edward, who lives in Jamaica, half a world away, and rides through his plantation all day, chasing the sun…" she said, dreamily, with a joyful glint in her eyes. It was the first time that I saw her this carefree and relaxed, and I was already desperate for that state to last as long as possible.

She smiled, with a faint blush colouring her otherwise pale features. I realised, an uneasy frown marring my brow, that she was quite glorious when she looked this happy. She suddenly caught herself, and began stuttering in embarrassment.

"I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have said…It's just…Esme speaks very often of you, that's how I know. I meant no offence," she almost whispered.

"None taken, Miss Bella. It just baffles me, that you know so much about me…and I never even knew of your existence. You are a well-kept secret at Cullen Manor."

My statement, meant to be complimentary, had the quite opposite effect to increase her blush.

"There is nothing to say about me," she replied in haste, pointedly casting her glance away from me.

I begged to differ, but held my tongue. I did not want to cross her in any way, after my mother's bitter chiding last night. I was beginning to fear that my own mother would favour Bella over me, and this creeping thought did not sit well.

"Emmett married Rosalie by special licence, practically in secret," she continued with a small voice.

I was so lost in my own musings that I'd all but forgotten the whole point of this conversation. Shock brought me back to the present.

"They eloped?" I spat, my hands clenching into angry fists.

"No, but it was just as bad to your parents. They got married alone, with Miss Hale's parents as witnesses, in the Hale's family church. It was quite a statement in itself."

Statement indeed, I thought – the Hales had had no scruples at all in trampling all over my family's concerns so openly. I sensed some hesitation on Bella's part to continue her account of these unfortunate events – she was probably getting to the really gruesome details.

"And then?" I asked, feeling that it would be easier for her to proceed, with some encouragement.

"Emmett had the gall to show his face at Cullen Manor, proud as a peacock, with his new bride. He surely could have found another way to go about things. That was the day all hell finally broke loose."

"The conceited, selfish fool!" I growled, jumping to my feet again, pacing in angry circles and unable to sit still any longer.

"It broke your father's heart, quite literally." Her voice was broken, too, as she uttered those last words that rang solemn and ominous, hanging over us like a dark canopy despite the clear mid-spring sky.

"He brought it on! He couldn't stay away! No, he had to come here to gloat, the selfish, conceited oaf!"

I was shouting now, overcome by a violent rush of anger, all my feelings of brotherly affection and devotion forgotten. My fist, longing for a release of this ill-accumulated tension, hit the bark of an innocent elm tree nearby.

"Ouch! Damn it all to hell and back!" I exclaimed in pain.

I felt a feather-light touch on my knuckles. Ever the caretaker, Bella was inspecting the damage I'd inflicted upon myself. I tried to pry my hand away from her gentle touch, but my carefully crafted resolve crumbled around me as she checked on my bruised and bleeding hand without commenting on my foolishness. She was cleansing the cuts with her own handkerchief. I felt hot, furious tears line my face as she continued this tale of endless woes.

"Carlisle refused access to the house both to him and Rosalie. He said he'd never speak to either of them again. Your mother tried to bring them round, but it was useless. They'd become so hot-headed with their argument, that both were beyond seeing reason. The last straw was…" Her voice broke down in a strangled sob.

All this had affected her, too. I could see that, but irrationally, my own mind would not wrap itself around the fact that she'd witnessed all this first hand and had been affected as well Instead, I rationalised that she'd been there to prevent it, that she could have done something to alter the course of events and yet…

She was the one sitting here unscathed, whilst my family had been torn in two by this bitter feud. My own father had succumbed to apoplexy caused by my elder brother's foolish actions, and my mother was bed-ridden with an unknown affliction from which she would likely not recover. My family was falling under the axe at every turn, whilst she was living here, adored by everyone. In that instant, as that errant thought hit me, I blindly resented her and just wished she would have stayed behind in London, in her glamorous house in Grosvenor Square, instead of caving in to my mother's wishes.

"…The last straw was that you did nothing to prevent this!" I growled again, causing her to suddenly recoil away from me. I barely spared a sidelong glance at her, my spite grossly overshadowing my better judgment.

She did not reply right away, shocked beyond words and wise enough not to comment. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her return to her former seat on the stone bench before she continued.

"…The last straw was when Emmett shouted at Carlisle that you would have understood, that you would have supported him. The vaguest possibility, however slim, of both his sons turning their back on him, was too much for your father. The stroke was inevitable."

Once again, I was wrong about her. Once again, everything I knew was wrong. Now I was really helpless in the face of all the tragedy around me, and I'd perhaps just pushed her as far away from me as possible with my reckless resentment.

Maybe it was all the better for her. Maybe it was all the better for me.

"Leave me alone."

She did not reply, but I heard the swish of silk as she walked away. She complied with my ill-tempered wish and headed wordlessly back to the house.


After the painful confrontation with Bella, I spent two disgracefully slow and lonely days loitering around the house, like a boat that had lost its anchor. I divided my time between my mother's room and the library, always careful to avoid crossing paths with Bella. When she sat with my mother, I buried myself in the library, trying to make sense of my father's papers. When she was elsewhere, I dared not show my face around the house and chose to sit with my mother instead. Either way, I achieved the small comfort of seeing her as little as possible.

For my mother's sake, I tried to disguise how much Bella's revelations had affected me. The ruse was ineffective. She called me out on every ill-chosen word and on every convoluted way I found to lead all our conversations back to her. Bella was a lingering presence, to the extent that two days of avoidance were already stretching my endurance to thin rags.

On the third day of my self-inflicted torture, I sat in the library again, intent on settling my father's accounts, when I heard a knock on the door.

"Come in," I replied instantly. Jenks ushered in an unknown gentleman.

"Mister Cullen. Mister Briggs is here to discuss the terms of your father's will."

I recognised the name of our family lawyer and gestured for him to take a seat. Nodding at my instruction to fetch refreshments for Mister Briggs, Jenks left the room.

"Please be seated, Mister Briggs. I believe we both know your business here today. Please proceed."

Mister Briggs stared at me with a blank expression on his benign face and retrieved a bundle of documents from his folder.

"I must say the terms of this will are not entirely unexpected, given the circumstances," said Mister Briggs, in a neutral and businesslike manner.

"Proceed, Mister Briggs," I had no inclination to indulge in small talk. I was longing to know what my father expected of me.

By law, Mister Briggs was required to unseal the document and peruse its contents first, to ascertain that it had not been tampered with, and then he would pass it on to me. After a quick perusal, no doubt because he'd probably been the very person to draw it up and seal it in the first place, Briggs finally handed over to me my father's last will and testament.

I skimmed quickly through the preambles and legal niceties, slowing when I reached the main body of the document that detailed the various bequests.

I was to have everything.

Even from beyond the grave, Father had a few bones to pick with Emmett, and made a point of expressing his displeasure in no uncertain terms. Emmett had been completely disinherited in favour of me and of my little sister Alice, who was to have a fortune of twenty-five thousand pounds settled upon her when she married.

There was a codicil to the will, though. The codicil stated that Isabella Marie Swan, as a rightful member of the family, would always be welcome at Cullen Manor, and that her current lodgings would be set aside in perpetuity as her own personal living quarters, should she elect to remain here. Carlisle then expounded how beneficial Isabella's presence had been to the family and, by virtue of that, she was also to have the stallion called Dark Fire, my father's favourite mount in the stables of Cullen Manor.

I was at a loss. I quickly dismissed Mister Briggs to muse over the terms of my father's will in peace.

Both Cullen Manor and the plantation were mine. I'd always wanted my father to acknowledge my endeavours in Jamaica, but for him to do so posthumously, and at the expense of my brother, left a bitter taste in my mouth, even if Emmett had brought this on himself. Emmett deserved this, for his cruel selfishness had ultimately resulted in my father's death.

My father had also made sure that Isabella would always have a proper place at Cullen Manor, and a means of escape as well, should she desire it and – I thought wryly – as long as she was able to ride a hot-blooded stallion through the downs of Cornwall.

Another light, but sure, knock on the door broke me away from these thoughts.

"Come in," I replied, observing that today I was receiving quite a procession of visitors.

The visitor, though, was none other than Isabella herself. For all my attempts at trying to avoid her, I supposed it was inevitable. After all, she could well be living here in perpetuity.

"I do not wish to disturb you," she began, wringing her hands in front of her.

"Not at all, Bella. Please, take a seat."

She nodded uneasily but did not sit down, choosing, instead, to keep her place by the library door.

"I just wished to let you know that I've written to Alice," she whispered, her eyes searching my features for any signs of distress.

I did feel uneasy, but only because I had been negligent in informing my sister of my return. I only hoped Alice would forgive the oversight, given the circumstances. Once again, Bella was taking care of my family. I thought of little Alice, who wouldn't be so little anymore. I had left behind a little girl of twelve, returning to a young lady of eighteen. I wondered what she would look like now.

I suddenly realised the actual reason behind Bella's gesture. If Alice needed to come home, then there was no hope left for my mother.

I sighed, and nodded, muttering strangled words of gratitude in Bella's direction. Silently, Bella was closing the door behind her, pausing only when I addressed her again. "Fetch the Newton boy, Bella. I want to talk to him."

"He'll be here after luncheon. He rides over from Falmouth every other day," she replied, this time truly shutting the door behind her.

True to Bella's word, Doctor Newton arrived at Cullen Manor in the early afternoon, just as I was climbing the stairs to go sit with my mother.

Bella accompanied us in silence as far as my mother's door, where she turned towards the doctor and greeted him with a sad voice, "Thank you, Doctor Newton, for everything you're doing."

The Newton boy's face lit up at her words and his hand reached out to gently brush her arm. "You don't need to thank me, Miss Isabella. And it's Michael to you."

Bella looked away uneasily, a light blush colouring her cheeks. She nodded and went back downstairs. Despite the situation, I couldn't help my irritation towards the Newton boy, because he'd made Bella uncomfortable. A furious, unbidden thought also shook me – I alone wanted to bring the blush to her cheeks.

As I entered my mother's room, I immediately sensed the dramatic change her condition. The room was permeated by a faintly foul smell, that could be explained away with only one word – sickroom.

My mother's condition was worsening by the hour, that much I could see for myself as I got closer to her bed. She was highly feverish, her breath ragged, and her eyes closed as she clutched the bed sheets by her sides. This was her last struggle and I steeled myself to have her snatched away from me at any moment.

I turned to Doctor Newton, who merely nodded, correctly surmising my unspoken question. "Will you at least tell me what it is, Michael?"

"It's a wasting sickness, Edward. I've done all I can. Miss Isabella has been a wonderful help, too," he added, with an unmistakable adoration in his eyes.

"She's lost the will to live," I said, defeated.

"Not the will, Edward. See how she's fighting still," countered Doctor Newton. I shot him an enquiring glance.

"She's lost her reason to live," I said after some reflection, answering my own question.

Sadly, this made sense to me. Without my father, my mother saw no point in dragging out her existence alone. I envied her for a moment, because she'd felt this all-encompassing love and it had been requited, until the very end. Doctor Newton patted my shoulder and left.

Hours later, I still hadn't moved from her side. All this long while, I'd held her hand, even if she could barely recognise me at the best of times. Bella stood on the other side of the bed, alternately pressing cold compresses to my mother's scalding hot forehead and caressing her hand. Every now and then, Bella murmured soothing words in her ear.

Late into the night, as Bella curled in an armchair, dozing only because I'd flatly ordered her to get some sleep, my mother opened her eyes and squeezed my hand.

"Mother?"

She nodded and tried to speak, but her parched throat would not cooperate. When she did speak, her words were a croaked whisper, so low and unclear that I struggled to understand her.

"Edward…take care of your Bella for me, son…"

"Of course, mother," I replied, though half-heartedly, because there was no way I would contradict my dying mother.

A discerning eye to her very last minute, my mother guessed at my lack of conviction and repeated, brokenly, "Your Bella, take care…Edward…take…"

She could not finish.

She never would.

She was gone.


The following morning, a carriage rattled through the gates of Cullen Manor as Bella and I were upstairs by my mother's deathbed.

Attracted by the noise, Bella approached the window and, with a strangled sob, literally ran from the room. I swiftly followed her downstairs and saw her fling the front door open without ceremony.

She ran towards a slight and graceful, but sadly beautiful figure that all but fell off the carriage steps in her haste to get to Bella.

Bella embraced her tightly, soothing strands of her hair away from her face. From behind Bella's shoulders, I finally recognised my little sister.

Alice was home. Alice was home and desperately wailing in Bella's arms.

"Is she gone? Am I too late?" asked Alice, grieved tears streaming down her face.

Bella nodded, causing another outburst of tears from Alice. Then, Bella moved away from Alice's side and said, "Go to Edward, Alice. Your brother needs you now."

Alice then took notice of me standing by the door.

"Edward?" she said, eyeing me warily through the tears. I stretched my arms open to welcome her back, looking at my sister for the first time in six years.

Even in her distress, I could see the sweet features of the little girl I'd left behind. This beautiful young lady also bore a striking resemblance to my mother in her hazel eyes and in her wavy, caramel-coloured hair. Petite in stature, she stood shorter than Bella and quite disappeared when I enveloped her in my arms. With my little sister by my side, I finally gave free rein to my grief, and let my own tears flow.


That night, after dinner, Alice sought me out in the library.

"You can't lock yourself up in here forever, you know," she announced, in a melodic voice that was sorely inappropriate to the situation.

"I don't understand what you mean, Alice," I answered, my own voice clipped and annoyed.

"I think you understand me perfectly, brother. It doesn't take a scientist to see that you are going out of your way to avoid her."

Bella. Of course Alice would see my strained, ill-controlled behaviour around her and, endowed with an inquisitive mind since childhood, she would naturally begin to spin stories in her head concerning my motives.

"I'm not avoiding her," I countered, in a lame attempt to deflect her scrutiny.

"And the moon is made of green cheese," she replied, tartly at first, but then changing her tone.

"I will not allow you to do this to her, I see what you're doing. If your resentment drives her away, Edward, God help me, you will never see me again."

Angrily, I dropped my book on the table with a loud thud.

"This is blackmail, Alice. It's hardly fair."

"She's my sister, Edward. That's not fair, either."

And with that, she stormed out of the library, leaving me alone with my thoughts. My sister was turning against me, all because of my despicable behaviour towards Bella.

I couldn't find a solution to this quandary, because all my attempts were futile, all my certainties were constantly being shaken by this girl and her unexpected nature.

With some irritation, I thought that Bella was avoiding me as well. She never came to see me, she never even talked to me. And then it hit me. Bella was grieving, too, and now she had Alice. She did not need me, nor could she seek me out – it would hardly be considered proper. I thought about the times that lay ahead of us.

Would Bella want to stay at Cullen Manor? Would I be expected to stay in Cornwall, or could I flee back to Jamaica?


The next few days leading up to my mother's funeral were a cold, numb, painful whirlwind of activity. I would have rather confined myself to my room, and surrendered to the blind grief of losing both my parents, but the burden that my father's will had suddenly thrust on my shoulders, left me no such leisure.

An endless stream of visitors stopped by to pay their respects and, as the rightful master of the house, I could not shirk my responsibilities. Many were genuinely grieved by my mother's passing, whilst others were just curious to see the prodigal son looked returned, after his long exile in the West Indies.

There was a common undercurrent to their kind words of sympathy, though. All of them naturally gravitated towards Bella, seeking her out from among the crowd. With Alice constantly at her side, the two of them had everything under control, from the ordinary running of the household to being socially acceptable towards the throng of mourners attending my mother's wake and funeral.

After the funeral, I spoke with to the Newton boy, who was, as my mother had correctly remarked, as boring as he'd ever been. He had another major defect – he couldn't stop talking about Bella. Just as I was trying to concoct a way to pry myself away from the conversation, I saw the small crowd in the house part.

A huge and familiar figure appeared looming on the other side of the hall. I could scarce believe my eyes.

"Emmett." My voice rang cold and distant.

"I want to see Mother's grave, Edward. I have no quarrel with you."

He'd come at the wake, waiting until after the funeral, knowing that my sense of propriety would prevent me from making a scene, thus relenting to his request. How little he knew me now, if he thought I would disregard my father's wishes, with my mother not even cold in her grave.

"You are not welcome here," I replied, my face composed, despite the fury that raged in my eyes.

"You can't deny me the right to see my mother's grave," he pleaded. I could see that he hoped to reason with me. Mistakenly, he thought our brotherly bond would be untarnished by all that had transpired. He thought wrong.

"You are not welcome here," I repeated coldly. "Do I have to call the constable?"

"For God's sake, Edward! Don't be so damn self-righteous, I'm your brother!" Now he was almost shouting.

We were indeed causing a scene and my uneasy guests were slowly disappearing from the room. A light touch on my forearm stopped me before I could truly give my brother a piece of my mind.

"Emmett, will you step outside with me for a moment, please?"

I was not surprised to hear Bella's soothing voice beside me. Again, she was taking care of my family, she was rescuing me from myself. She threw me a sidelong, concerned glance and whispered, "Let me handle this, Edward. Emmett will not pick a fight with me."

I was worried, and was about to beg her not to go, but the look of fierce courage in her eyes dissuaded me. Of course she could convince Emmett to behave – was there anything she was incapable of?

She sensed my uncertainty and repeated, "Let me do this for you, please."

She was doing more than extricating me from an awkward situation, she was begging me to let her in. Could I do that?

I was suddenly gripped by the irrational fear that Emmett's reactions would be less than gentlemanly and I feared he would harm her. Inexplicably, I wanted to protect her.

What was she doing to me?

My father had disinherited my brother, my mother was dead, my sister wasn't speaking to me, my banished brother was intruding on my mother's memorial and yet… all I could think about was how this quiet, determined, sweet, beautiful girl was turning my life upside down. I swallowed hard, knowing I was standing here, at the turn of the tide, the waves of a raging ocean crashing down on me.

I covered her hand with mine and whispered back, "Be safe."

She nodded and followed Emmett out of the house. I felt my heart clench in anxiety as I watched her go.

I watched the door anxiously, relieved when she returned. She'd been gone for only ten minutes, but it had felt like hours to me. Alice flitted next to Bella the second she stepped back inside the drawing room.

"Well?" asked Alice, almost sizzling with anticipation.

Bella sighed and dropped, gracelessly, into the nearest armchair. She was clearly exhausted.

"It's always the same, Alice, and you know it. He wants a second chance, but…" She was going to continue, but stopped short when she noticed my brooding look.

"Pray continue, Bella. I'd love to know what my dear brother wants," I interrupted, my tone needlessly harsh.

I heard Alice scoff at my side. "Edward, this is hardly helpful," she snapped, but Bella threw her an awkward glance. "Alice, please. Let's just drop this."

"No, Bella. We won't drop this. What does Emmett want?" I spat, angrily.

She rose to her feet and walked towards where I was sitting. Her expression was unreadable.

"I told him that it would take a lot more for him to be admitted into this house again. If you will excuse me, I will retire for the night."

"Bella, can I…?" began Alice, her voice trailing off in the wake of Bella's sudden coldness.

"Not tonight, Alice, please," said Bella, pointedly avoiding my gaze.

When Bella left the room, Alice stood up to leave as well, an irritated frown marring her features.

"When will you stop doubting her, Edward?"


The following morning, as we all sought to resume some semblance of routine, a sharp rap on the front door was heard.

Jenks, ever attentive to his duties, opened it to reveal a tall, blond stranger. Dressed in the height of London fashion, our visitor was obviously no country bumpkin.

Jenks ushered him in, as the gentleman introduced himself.

"I'm Lord Jasper Whitlock. I'm here to see my cousin, Miss Isabella Swan. Will you please inform her that I have arrived?"

Hovering on the landing, intent to observe him without being noticed, I failed to hear footsteps on approaching behind me until it was too late to withdraw. Bella's voice resonating over my shoulder startled me out of my scrutiny of Lord Whitlock.

"Jasper, is that really you?" she exclaimed, her voice happily surprised.

Who was this man, and what did he want with my Bella?

Bella rushed to the door to welcome him and he enveloped her in a tight, affectionate embrace.

"Are you alright, little one?" he crooned, his hands protectively caressing her shoulders.

She nodded, an open and bright smile gracing her lips. "I…I…I…am monstrous glad to see you, Jasper, but why? How?"

"Did you think I would leave you to fend for yourself at such a time?" he replied, straight away, his eyes alighted on my hovering figure.

Bella saw me and hastened to make the appropriate introductions.

"Jasper, this is Mister Edward Cullen. He is Carlisle's son and heir. Mister Cullen, this is my cousin Lord Jasper Whitlock."

Lord Whitlock acknowledged me with a gentlemanly nod and returned his undivided attention to Bella. I attempted to dismiss the fact that Bella had addressed me formally in front of his Lordship.

"Little one, I wish to have a word with you. Will you take a turn with me outside?"

"Of course, Jasper. Let me fetch my shawl and I will show you the gardens out back," she replied, ushering him outside.

Just like that, I let her walk away from me, with her Lordship of a cousin.


They reappeared more than two hours later, and Bella politely asked my permission for Jasper to stay for a couple of days before he returned to London. Grudgingly, I granted her wish. This was, of course, her house as much as my own, if she wanted it to be.

But what about me – did I want her to stay?

Two days later, she approached me in the library.

She looked solemn and detached, her eyes full of emotion and her features lined with pain. It was apparent that this was not going to be an easy conversation, and I was hesitant to be the one to start it.

"Jasper and I have talked a lot these last few days," she began.

"You seem to be very close," I replied, blankly.

"We grew up together as children," she explained.

When I offered no comment, she continued. "He wants me to return to London with him and live with his family."

Shock and anger froze me over. She was leaving Cornwall. Her Lordship of a cousin was snatching her away from me.

Not her.

Not now.

I couldn't lose her, too.

"How so?"

"He feels it would be more proper for me to…live in a different household."

So this was Lord Whitlock's incontrovertible argument – propriety. Hang it all! I'd show him propriety.

Sullenly, I knew she accepted Jasper's reasoning, discounting her own opinions. Fear gripped me – what was she going to do? Was this what she truly wanted?

"I think…I think I should leave," she whispered.

My heart fell. I could not allow this, but knew, without a doubt, that I would never retain her by my side by haranguing her with the terms of Carlisle's will. It would be the foulest kind of blackmail and I didn't want her to stay here solely out of duty towards my parents' wishes.

But…what sort of inducement had I given her up until now, that would convince her to stay?

Alice was right, my doubts and unpleasant disposition had been driving Bella away. She must surely despise me now, but I owed myself one last-ditch attempt to change her mind. I felt my resolve crumble inside me and, with it, the last of my carefully crafted walls.

I walked around the table to stand in front of her. I drunk in the sight of her – it might well be the last chance I had, before his Lordship took her away. I hoped that my regard could convey everything I was feeling in that moment.

As longing gripped my heart like a cruel vice, my hands flew to her shoulders. She raised her head to meet my gaze.

"Is this really what you want?" I asked, anxious to know whether she agreed with her cousin.

She frowned, her eyes were revealing so much more than propriety would allow her to speak aloud.

"I'll leave with Jasper. I won't inconvenience you any longer."

So this was what she thought? My brilliant plan to keep her safe from the conflicting emotions that raged inside of me had merely resulted in her believing I thought her an inconvenience.

With a faint flicker of hope, though, I reasoned that not everything was lost – she'd never have gone to such lengths to protect me and mine if she didn't harbour deep feelings for my family, myself included.

Did I dare hope? I had to.

With sudden faith, I poured all of my confused, all-consuming feelings into a piercing gaze that sought her eyes. I gentled my hands on her and steeled myself to repeat my question.

"Is this really what you want?"

She shook her head, a traitor tear lining her face, but her words contradicted her vehement actions.

"I…I…this is no longer home to me…"

I wouldn't allow this. Propriety be damned.

I removed my hands from her shoulders to grasp her dainty hands in mine, intertwining my fingers with hers and pulled her to my chest. Hope branded my heart like a wild fire when she did not flinch or pull away from me.

A heated blush – my blush, I thought possessively – crept across her porcelain skin. I snatched upon this moment like a hawk on his prey.

"No. You won't go with Jasper. You will stay here."

"Edward?" she sighed, still doubtful.

There would soon be no doubt in her voice.

"You won't leave my side ever again. I can't imagine a life without you."

Her eyes widened, not in shock, but in silent acknowledgement of all I had just admitted. Her expressive eyes lit up with a joyful glint and a loving smile graced her features. She was glorious.

"Yes, Edward. I will stay."

I was home, at last.

Chapter Text

That moment of blissful recognition was, alas, short-lived. A firm and authoritative knock on the library door broke Bella’s dainty hands away from my grasp, but not far enough for our stance to be considered appropriate. My own hands, however, only felt empty and cold from the loss of her touch.

Lord Whitlock’s stern voice washed over me like a cold wave in the storming Cornwall sea, his words drawing Bella farther away from me.

“What in God’s name is this?”

Lord Whitlock’s cryptic gaze was focussed solely on me, a clear testament of his opinion on the situation. He had already construed the scene before his eyes, and nothing either Bella or I could say would change his mind.

“Jasper please, calm down,” answered Bella, her voice level and detached in spite of the deep breath I had just heard her take. I turned to face Lord Whitlock in time to feel, rather than see, Bella’s gown swish around the table as she moved to approach her cousin.

Lord Whitlock’s countenance remained steadfastly unreadable. I mused that this was certainly not the way I would have chosen to announce Bella’s decision to her cousin, and I immediately felt guilty for putting her in such an awkward position. Nevertheless, the quiet determination in her voice gave me hope.

“Like hell I will calm down! Isabella, be ready by morning. We are leaving after breakfast.”

My fists clenched at my sides while Bella’s gaze flitted imperceptibly towards me.  Despite my instinct to antagonise Lord Whitlock, I acquiesced to the silent plea in her eyes. Wordlessly, though, I stepped closer to Bella to show my support. I’d speak with her cousin privately about the matter, one gentleman to another.

“We have already discussed this, Jasper. I am not changing my mind now. I never will.”

Lord Whitlock frowned at Bella’s resolute tone, but then, laying a comforting hand on Bella’s forearm, his countenance softened. As he spoke, his cold, haughty stare held mine in an open challenge.

“So be it, Isabella, if that is your choice. I have my terms, though, and you will abide by them.”

I was impatient to learn what his terms entailed, but for Bella’s sake, I kept my tongue and my temper in check. There had to be a polite, civilised way to go about this without hurting Bella or her bond with her cousin.

Lost in my musings, I almost missed Bella’s authoritative tone as she nodded and dismissed Lord Whitlock from our presence, adding that they would discuss his terms on the morrow.  

With a stiff nod, he left without a word. When the door clicked shut behind him, Bella came back by my side. Anxiety took hold of me again, leaving me unable to speak. What did Lord Whitlock mean by ‘terms’? Wasn’t Isabella an independent woman, free to come and go as she pleased?

“Edward?”

Her voice called me back to reality, and to her mesmerising eyes, now shyly trying to read my countenance. After Lord Whitlock’s interruption, I couldn’t help but look ashen, but this was the last time I would allow Isabella to fight one of my battles.

“Edward, please…” she said again, no doubt attempting to elicit a reaction from me. I would brave this storm and show her the support and protection she deserved, all the more because of the choice she had just made.

“I want to be there, too,” I managed to reply, in a strangled breath.

“I can handle my cousin alone, Edward, and it would probably be best if I did,” she countered, her voice steadier and unwavering.

“I know perfectly well that you can handle him, but I want to be there for you,” I finally admitted, my gaze never leaving her face, while my heart still raced and my mind committed to memory every detail of her features. Trapped within my insistent, even ungentlemanly stare, Bella blushed. There was my blush again, I thought, marvelling at my newly found possessiveness.

“I don’t want Jasper to assume…to misunderstand…anything. I don’t want him to… You are not obliged nor beholden to me…in any way…”

Her dejected tone as she stumbled through those reasonable but unwelcome words hurt me beyond belief. Of course there was no understanding between us, what was I thinking? I had to set things to rights, so that Lord Whitlock’s possible concerns would be appeased and Bella’s position would remain untainted by censure. I had to set things to rights; I could not bear that a blasted misunderstanding might undermine the foundations of my…acquaintance with Bella, as much I was resenting this definition.

“I am my father’s heir and the master of this house, Isabella. It is by virtue of my father’s testament that you will always have a home here. I want to be by your side and listen to Lord Whitlock’s terms when he presents them.”

Bella cast her eyes down before answering demurely, “As you wish, Edward.”

When she left me alone in the library, I stood contemplating my prospects, and for the first time in months, years even, I felt a blossoming sense of anticipation for the future.

***    *****   ***

The next morning, while dressing for the day, I was struck by an unusual sight outside my window. A steed as black as night, his swift movements graceful despite his powerful frame, coursed the estate, an unknown rider upon its back. I opened my window and leaned on the stone sill, fully intent on getting a closer look at the bold horseman. Initially I believed it to be Lord Whitlock, but his tall frame did not match the rider’s slight, agile physique. Dressed in breeches and a sark, his hair hidden under a riding beret, there was no question in my mind that the rider was a man.

Jenks entered my room without knocking, his arms full of clean clothes. His arrival put an end to my idle speculations.

“You not dressed yet, lad?” he asked, eyeing me sceptically from the doorway.

“I was just…I was…” I found myself incapable of providing a plausible answer.

“Daydreaming is usually a lassie’s pastime, and what are you doing with your windows open? You’ll catch your death of cold!” He protested, motioning me away to latch the window shut again. As he did, he turned to me and commented: “So I see, my lad. So I see.”

Affronted by his assumptions, I replied testily, “Whatever do you mean, Jenks?”

He clacked his tongue, handing me a clean, freshly starched and ironed shirt that I donned immediately, while Jenks went about to straighten the clothes that I had haphazardly scattered on my bed.

“Has there been a storm in here, lad?” he finally asked, with a hint of humour in his voice.

“I couldn’t pick anything that seemed…fitting. And then I…”

Jenks then did something unusual and sat down on the window ledge.

“Laddie, what’s eating at you? Not even able to pick a pair of breeches and a suit? That’s not like you.”

 “Jenks, in Jamaica I know what to do when I wake up every day. I ride through the plantation, in my work clothes, and I am covered in dust and sweat by high noon. I have no clue how to be master of this house. I have no clue how to be a gentleman of quality anymore.”

Jenks nodded, rose from his perch on the window ledge and came to stand by my side, just as I sat there at the foot of my bed. He patted my shoulder and said, with an amused but pensive grin, “Manners maketh man, my lad, not a starched sark or a fashionable suit. You are your father’s son, don’t you ever forget that.” I lifted my head to meet his gaze and murmured my heartfelt thanks.

“Laddie, would this sudden fear of yours have anything to do with someone’s cousin?”

I exhaled uneasily, thinking that Jenks had hit the nail right on the head. There was no escaping his inquisitive and incredibly perceptive questioning.

I eyed him warily, thinking that the old man was way too observant for his own good. He was also outspoken and impertinent, but I could never dismiss him on that account. First, he was as good as family; secondly, my parents would haunt my nightmares if I ever did. There was no lying to Jenks, and, I really needed an unfettered opinion on the matter.

“He is threatening to take her back with him, Jenks. To Somerset, or wherever it is that he has his estate.”

Jenks crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes at me. “And you think that Miss Bella will go quietly? I am disappointed, laddie.”

I raised my hands in surrender and shrugged, truly defeated and at a loss for words. “What I think matters very little, Jenks. It’s what Bella thinks, and what he wants.”

“Laddie, I will only say this once. Miss Bella is not the sort of person you can herd around like cattle. That lassie has an iron will, let me tell you.”

Jenks’s last words gave me hope that Bella would not go back on her word, even if we still had to contend with Lord Whitlock’s mysterious terms. Then a thought hit me in passing, just as Jenks was leaving the room.

“Jenks, why was a stable boy exercising one of the steeds?”

I thought I heard him snicker. “Stable lad?”

“Don’t look at me like I’ve grown a second head, man! There was a stable boy riding a black steed when you came in earlier.”

He snickered again, completely revelling in my discomfort. “That’d be Miss Bella, laddie.”

My eyebrows knit together and my temper inexplicably rose to its boiling point. “But he was in breeches and a sark! It cannot possibly be Isabella!” I snapped at a very amused Jenks.

“Last time I checked, laddie, the only black steed at Cullen Manor was Dark Fire. That’s Miss Bella’s horse and trust me, no one else has the gall to ride that devil but herself.” And with that, he closed the door behind him, leaving me to nurse my sudden shock.

What was Bella thinking, riding that stallion in men’s clothes? Jenks said the horse was a devil. What if it wasn’t safe for her to ride it? What had possessed my father to bequeath her such a beast, so that she could indulge in her reckless behaviour?

I had to stop her from doing that. She could ride all she wanted, but in proper attire and with a safe, appropriate, ladylike side-saddle.

I went back to the window and saw Dark Fire approach the stables at an easy canter. Bella, of course, was still riding her mount, her hair now flowing over her shoulders, free from the confines of her beret.

My temper was still quite shaken, but my shock and anger vanished when my eyes landed on her face as she dismounted her horse. Her cheeks were flushed from the exercise, her hair cascaded in a disorderly, tangled web on her left shoulder, and her features lit up in a glorious smile. I realised that I had yet to see her this happy and carefree since making her acquaintance.

My heart leapt on seeing her like this, but all thoughts of her smile were annihilated in one long, painful second. Seeing her in men’s clothes stirred something that had lain dormant in me until that moment. The clothes were not clinging to her form and yet, they were more revealing than anything she had ever worn in my presence. I could truly see the shape of her figure as my treacherous eyes ran the path along her arms and shoulders, along her waist and her legs, down to her boot-clad feet.

Startled and appalled by the strength of my response to the sight of Bella in breeches, I had to walk away from the window. My wanton desires, though, would not leave me, as I pictured her in my mind’s eye, her braids undone on her shoulders, my hands waving a trail of fire through them. Gone were the sark and breeches, Bella was clad only in a flowing nightgown, its laces undone, her white collarbones showing, and desperately luring me in.

“Goddammit all to hell and back!” I cursed, horrified with myself, but excited nonetheless by the thoughts and images plaguing my mind. What tormented me most of all, was that Bella seemed to make a habit of this reckless behaviour and of this unconventional attire. If this first reaction of mine was any indication, I could venture to imagine that this woman was, unwittingly, well on the way to wreak havoc with my sanity for the months to come.

***    *****   ***

My mind still preoccupied with Bella and the sight of her unseemly riding attire, I decided on the dark green suit that Jenks had left on the bed for me. Taking a deep, calming breath, I left my room to join the rest of the household for breakfast.

I remotely harboured the hope of crossing paths with Bella on my way downstairs, believing she would be delayed to make herself presentable after her morning exercise, but I descended the grand staircase alone and in complete silence.

Out of old habit, I walked to the back of the house and into the kitchen, where I was met by a very puzzled Jenks. “What do you want in here, laddie?”

I merely straightened the cuffs of my suit before replying to the old butler in kind. “Good morning to you, too, Jenks. I wondered if I could get some breakfast, perhaps?”

Jenks shook his head and ushered me out of the kitchen with gestures that were nothing short of a shove. I suddenly longed for Augustus’s calm and detached demeanour, wondering how he would react to my being manhandled by my own butler.

“Breakfast is served in the dining room, sir, when we have company. Have you forgotten your manners altogether in the West Indies?”

Understanding dawned on me and, for the second time since I had woken up that morning, I felt out of place and inadequate to the situation. I steeled myself and headed to the dining room, before Jenks could literally have me transported down there. I paused for a minute at the door, hit by two errant thoughts simultaneously.

First, it occurred to me that it was not really like me to second-guess myself as much as this. I was used to behaving and being treated like a master. In Jamaica, I would never have dreamed of breakfasting in my kitchen like a servant. I would have taken my usual seat on the deck, where Augustus would have waited on me hand and foot.

The odd feeling of being back home in Cornwall had sent my sense of perspective topsy-turvy. I was back to behaving like the young man who had left home five years prior, not the new head of the family and master of the house. I must not forget my station so easily if I wanted any chance of withstanding Lord Whitlock’s arguments against Bella’s decision to remain at Cullen Manor.

Second, I was startled by the noises filtering from the dining room into the hall. A cheerful murmur, like an undercurrent of softly spoken words was interspersed with a more open, wind-chime, higher-pitched laugh and a deeper one, from a certainly more controlled, but nonetheless diverted, voice.

The narrator was, no doubt, Bella herself. It was unsettling that I could already differentiate her voice and laugh amongst the hushed chatter of three people from behind closed doors. I smiled to myself, wondering about the subject of her breakfast tales, that had gone so far as to elicit such a joyful reaction from Alice, who had been in an unnatural silent haze for days, and from Lord Whitlock, who seemed to be capable, on occasion, of losing his serious outer shell in the face of his cousin’s charms. The three of them – Lord Whitlock, Alice and Bella – were having a peaceful breakfast and were talking and…laughing together.

I placed my hand on the brass doorknob and, without further procrastination, turned it and opened the door. I didn’t need to knock. It was my house. It was my dining room.

My appearance was instantly met with silence. I had successfully broken the one cheerful moment that anyone had had in this household since my mother’s wake.

Alice quickly rescued me from the awkward moment. Rising from her seat, she paced to my side and bade me good morning with a sisterly peck on my cheek. I embraced her and kissed her forehead. I had missed my little sister cruelly while I was in Jamaica and was saddened that we had been reunited only by the family tragedies. I had sorely neglected her since my mother’s passing. It was high time I mended my ways and carved some time for my sister out of my daily routine.

“Good morning, sister.”

“Good morning, Edward,” she replied, smiling. I took my seat at the head of the table, with Bella on my left and Alice to my right. Quite naturally, Lord Whitlock was seated beside Bella.

“Good morning, Isabella,” I finally said, my eyes lingering on her figure. She’d changed into more appropriate attire, but the dark green silk of her dress did not make her any less appealing to me.

She answered in a hushed whisper, as if sharing some long-kept secret, whilst merely wishing me a good day. Then, and only then, I acknowledged Lord Whitlock’s presence, nodding wordlessly in his direction.

“How nice,” said Alice, her playful gaze alternating between Bella and myself. I had no idea what she was referring to.

“What do you mean, Alice?” Bella asked with her usual forthright manner. There was no hiding from Bella, even if young Alice was not one to beat about the bush, either.

“You and Edward match, Bella. You are both dressed in green.” Of course Alice would notice and comment on something so inconsequential as the colour of one’s attire. Nonetheless, I could not help but acknowledge how well this particular shade of emerald green silk complimented Bella’s features, and I felt considerably pleased with myself, too, for picking the same colour this morning. I thought, however, that I had overheard a faint huff from Lord Whitlock’s corner of the table, and I judged it wiser to divert the conversation from the unsafe topic of Bella’s wardrobe.

“I apologise for interrupting your conversation,” I said, a steaming cup of tea appearing at my elbow. A glance to my left confirmed that Bella was still filling the role of the good host and was serving me my breakfast.

I suddenly wished we could forgo the company and share our meals alone. I wondered how that would be, and how that would change and shape her behaviour around me. I wondered how much her continued nearness would affect me. So many things would be different and maybe, just maybe, if Lord Whitlock was amenable, in the future they could.

“You did not interrupt anything, Edward, I assure you. We were simply entertaining Lord Whitlock with anecdotes about our dearest butler,” Alice chimed in again.

“Oh, really, such as?” I asked, trying to sound uninterested.

“Well, it appears that his manners are not quite up to Holland Park standards…” replied Bella, with a hint of a smile on her lips.

“Of course not, Isabella. I can’t fathom whyever you would allow a servant…” interrupted Lord Whitlock, visibly incensed. I sensed a good story there, and I silently prayed that someone would enlighten me. As if she had heard my silent plea, Bella spoke up next, dismissing her cousin’s argument completely.

“Hush, Jasper. First, it is not your place to argue that or dictate rules. Second, I told you twice already that he is like family. No one considers him just the butler. It would be nonsensical around here. This isn’t Holland Park, cousin, and I am daily thankful for that.”

Bella’s heartfelt and authoritative defence of Jenks impressed me. The old man adored her and the feeling was clearly mutual. Isabella had taken the trouble of outwitting her lordship of a cousin in favour of Jenks. I decided it was time to participate actively in this conversation.

“You had any trouble with the old man yet, Lord Whitlock?”

Lord Whitlock looked embarrassed while Bella and Alice glanced at each other with barely contained smiles. I thought I might have actually struck gold. Lord Whitlock cleared his throat and neatly placed his teacup back on the table before answering me. “Not particularly, Mr Cullen.”

Bella smiled congenially at her cousin, while an uneasy scowl marred his otherwise controlled features. “That’s not what I heard, your lordship.”

Alice remained silent, watching Bella and her cousin interact with a mysterious glint in her eyes, only partially hidden from view over the golden rim of her teacup, while Bella seemed to be particularly intent on teasing her polite, composed cousin. Those goings-on captivated me, and allowed me a few minutes of respite from my inner turmoil. It reminded me of the easy-going, free banter I had shared with my own brother for years, before everything changed, before our choices drove us apart.

“Unorthodox, that’s what I would call it, Little One.” Those were the first of Lord Whitlock’s words that I could really catch, in between glimpses of my own memories and thoughts. It appeared that I had missed part of the conversation, but they did not seem to mind my vacant behaviour.

“And he called you a conceited peacock, Jasper. I heard that,” Bella retorted, with a diverted smile on her lips.

While Bella’s expression bewitched me, her words worried me. If this was the case, Jenks had been truly rude and, regardless of our almost familial bond, I would have to remind him of his station, at least until Lord Whitlock remained a guest at Cullen Manor.

“I hope you did not condone that sort of behaviour on Jenks’s part, Isabella,” I commented, trying to convey some authority in my voice.

“Of course I didn’t, Edward,” she replied, her tone unreadable.

I heard Lord Whitlock hiss in annoyance at her side and throw his napkin on the table. “I will not tolerate this, Isabella,” he snapped at her, his face livid.

“Why, Jasper? Because you don’t make the rules here? Because I’ve made a good life of my own and you have no part in it?” she ended, her face sad, her voice forlorn.

“I beg your pardon, Edward, and you, also, Alice... This is hardly appropriate conversation for the dining room,” she added, sounding chastised.

“There is no need for apologies, Bella. We are all still overwhelmed by everything. I wish we could forget that, but we cannot.”

I was startled by the depth of Alice’s words. Her accurate assessment of the situation demonstrated maturity far beyond that of the frivolous young girl I had left behind years before.

“All the same, Miss Alice, all the same. I do believe I owe you both my apologies, as does Isabella,” said Lord Whitlock, gravely. While addressing Alice, his mystifying grey eyes never wandered far from me, giving the impression that my every word and gesture were being measured and analysed against his own meticulous standards, and I’d been found wanting.

“Nonsense, Lord Whitlock. This is Bella’s home, she need not mince her words with us. We understand her perfectly, don’t we, Edward?” Alice countered, forcibly involving me in the debate. With a strained smile, my own steady gaze levelled on Whitlock, I answered, “You are quite right, sister.”

Whitlock had the decency to reply with a mere nod, standing to leave the breakfast table. “If you will excuse me, Mr Cullen. I have some pressing matters that need attending to.”

“I believe we also have one mutual item of business that we need to address, Lord Whitlock. Shall we take that into the library presently?” I asked, my voice resolute and detached. This was the moment of truth.

Alice stood and walked around the table to my side. “I suppose this means that the younger child is confined back to the nursery for the remainder of the day,” she said, lightly brushing my shoulder in passing.

“Alice…please…” Bella retorted, but Alice merely shrugged before leaving the room, Lord Whitlock quickly following in her footsteps.

Once again alone with Bella, I thought to make the most of my time with her, until she folded her napkin and stood to leave.

“Bella?”

“Yes, Edward?” she whispered, her hand already on the doorknob.

I took a deep breath and, without consciously knowing how or why, I found myself standing behind Bella, closer than propriety would allow. My hands flew to the mahogany panels of the door on either side of Bella’s head, preventing her hasty retreat from the dining room. Though her breathing became shallow, she did not cower from my nearness. Could it be possible she needed me too, with the same all-consuming passion that that I needed, craved her already?

“Edward?” she murmured, again.

“Please, Isabella. You have to tell me now. Please be honest with me, do not toy with my expectations.”

“What do you want me to say, Edward?”

I frowned at her ambiguous turn of phrase. My Isabella certainly did have a way with words.

“Please tell me you are not going back on your word, Bella, regardless of your cousin’s stipulations. Please.” I begged her, unable to imagine my life here without her. I’d rather sail back to Jamaica on the spot, eager for the sea-sickness, the sweltering heat and the unrelenting mosquitoes to drain all memories of her from me.

Long moments elapsed in painful silence before she turned her head imperceptibly to my right, so that I could get a glimpse of her while she spoke.

“I always keep my word, Edward, whatever the cost.”

And, for the second time in as many days, she walked away. At that moment, I swore to myself that I would go to the ends of the earth and back for her, to ensure she’d never walk away again.

Chapter Text

I took a few deep breaths to steady myself before I had to walk into the library and confront both Lord Whitlock and his enchanting cousin. I straightened my suit jacket, the perfectly starched handcuffs of my shirt, I squared my shoulders and turned the door handle, making my way down the hall.

A few minutes later, I was somewhat surprised to find only the former waiting for me. His Lordship had made himself at home, ensconced in one of the armchairs by the fireplace. My features schooled back into carefully crafted indifference, I sat down at my usual place – my father’s desk.

“I assumed your cousin would be joining us for this conversation, Lord Whitlock?” I asked, both to keep up some semblance of polite conversation, and because I was aching to know where Bella was, even though I wasn’t prepared to uncover my moves to my opponent – yet.

“She mentioned she had to discuss some housekeeping issues with your butler, before she could join us.” I nodded, but before I could reply, Lord Whitlock continued, “I see she takes her duties here very seriously,” he added, with a hint of annoyance in his voice that I could neither dismiss nor misconstrue.

“I don’t think I am quite partial to the implications of your reasoning, Lord Whitlock. I would appreciate it, for Miss Bella’s sake, if you could be entirely honest with me.”

Addressing my blunt retort, Lord Whitlock’s face contorted into an enigmatic grimace. “Mr Cullen, I must admit I am not pleased with the situation. It appears that my cousin’s main reason for staying here is that this household sadly wants a mistress at the moment.”

Growing nervous, I tapped my fingers on the dark, polished surface of my father’s oaken desk. His Lordship was well on the way towards stretching my forbearance very thin, and I found myself wishing that Bella would appear momentarily, so that her calming presence could prevent me from offering Lord Whitlock a rude and impetuous retort, to the utter detriment of our future prospects. 

“I can assure you, Lord Whitlock, that you are under a grave misconception about Miss Bella’s role in this household. Perhaps you will allow me to enlighten you.”

Lord Whitlock leaned back in the armchair, smoothed his outfit with his elegant hands, and then perched his elbows on the armrests, tenting his fingers before him. “By all means, Mr Cullen. I would be delighted to hear your detailed views on the matter. Of course, you’ve just met her yourself, is that correct?” he asked, his voice laced with haughtiness.

His Lordship’s strategy was clear. He meant to belittle Bella’s importance and her place at Cullen Manor to the extent that she would be portrayed solely as a dignified servant, thus placing her much beneath her station in life, or what Lord Whitlock perceived to be her station by birthright. That would, in turn, fully justify him in removing her from my household, on the grounds that he would be acting in her best interest. I couldn’t have that. I had to prevent him from snatching Bella away from me, but it wouldn’t be wise for me to antagonise him openly, neither now nor once Bella joined us.

“I will not contest this, Lord Whitlock. There is some truth in what you say,” I began, my voice poised and controlled despite my inner turmoil.

“I have only known Miss Bella since I returned from the West Indies, but that doesn’t imply that I am unaware of the highest regard my family has had for her for the last five years. She is well-loved and respected by everyone here; she is considered a true member of this family, too.”

My statement had the ring of truth to it; I knew that Lord Whitlock wouldn’t dare challenge it and call me a liar as a consequence. He nodded and waved his hand, giving me leave to proceed.

“Besides, Lord Whitlock, I would be remiss in my filial duties if I did not abide by my parents’ wishes. My mother, God rest her soul, loved Miss Bella like a daughter and wished that she would always have a home here at Cullen Manor. My own father even included her in his last will and testament to this specific purpose.”

Those were my mother’s wishes, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t mirror my own desires. I longed for Bella to have a home with me forever, just as my mother had dreamt, only in a different capacity.

Again, Lord Whitlock couldn’t very well dispute my argument, because he would have to show blatant disregard for a lady’s wishes – a lady who was, incidentally, my late mother.

Just as I was waiting for him to speak his mind, we both heard a short rap on the door and turned our heads to see Bella’s figure appear in the doorway.

“May I come in?” she asked, almost hesitating. “I am not interrupting you, am I?”

“Of course not, Miss Bella. We were just waiting for you,” I answered, feeling a real smile on my face for the first time in days. Bella reciprocated with a shy smile of her own and then I saw her take stock of the situation in the room, with a speculative glint in her eyes, her gaze alternating from me to her cousin, and then back to me.

“He’s not being…difficult, is he?” she asked, lowering her voice, as if her words were meant for me alone. I waved her off, dismissing her concerns, but elated that she would be questioning her cousin’s dealings with me for my sake.

She went to sit by her cousin in the other armchair near the fireplace and, while I regretted her being so far away from me, I reasoned that it was probably more appropriate for her to sit with him.

“I appreciate all that your family has done for Isabella all these years, and I will be grateful forever that your father and mother succeeded where my late aunt and uncle sadly failed, but Isabella is not friendless in the world, and it should be time for her to live up to the standards expected of her station.”

There it was. Lord Whitlock’s strategy was finally out in the open. He did mean, after all, to use Bella’s wealth and position in society to force her to leave Cornwall. What neither of us could have expected, though, were Bella’s own next words.

“Station, station. Have you nothing else to say, Jasper?” she snapped at her cousin with a scathing hiss. Her face was ashen and her voice was strained and suddenly anxious. 

“Isabella, please, have some respect. Mr Cullen doesn’t need to witness this.”

“And you don’t need to imply that he is beneath me in any way. I won’t have any of that. My guardianship was entrusted to Esme for a very good reason. You will do well to remember that.”

Isabella and I were uncannily fighting her cousin with the same weapon – the moral burden of challenging the deathbed wishes of two ladies of quality, first Bella’s mother, then my own. Lord Whitlock’s features seemed to contort in a displeased grimace.

“Isabella, you can’t throw away your prospects, your position in society, your connections…for what?” rebuked Lord Whitlock, without so much as a glance in my direction.

He had relinquished all pretence of gentlemanly behaviour and he was now blatantly ignoring my presence, thus disclosing his deep-rooted belief that Cullen Manor was not good enough for Bella. In my mind, there was no question that he was also implying that I was not good enough for Bella.

“And what about my reputation and my honour, Jasper?” she replied. I did not quite comprehend her meaning at first, and got tricked into thinking that this comment would actually work in her cousin’s favour.

“If you cared about your reputation, Little One, you would have some natural and just concern about dwelling here, when you have a perfectly functional house to your own name in London. But no, the lady wishes to stay in the country,” he retorted, thoroughly incensed.

I was beginning to question whether it was even appropriate for me to participate in this discussion. This was a family dispute and I was intruding. Lord Whitlock, who had hitherto come across like a very controlled fellow, was slowly relinquishing his courtly manners, and his voice and features went a long way to prove that. I thought that maybe I could tone down the situation and help Bella.

“Lord Whitlock, I beg your pardon. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing this in my presence, I will take my leave, for Miss Bella’s sake, but…”

“Pray continue, Mr Cullen?”

“I believed we were to discuss your terms for letting Miss Bella stay at Cullen Manor, if she so wished?” I asked, trying to keep my voice firm, and almost failing. I realised one moment too late that I was ignoring Bella completely.

“She wishes to stay, and she is right here. Thank you, Mr Cullen, for reminding my cousin about the purpose of this discussion.” 

Bella’s voice was resolute, and her gaze was fiery and determined. Lord Whitlock was now the one looking sullen and disappointed.

“My terms, Mr Cullen…my terms…Now that you are both forcing my hand,” he began, but Bella wouldn’t let him continue.

“Jasper, this isn’t fair to anyone and you are well aware of it. I have given my word, I will abide by it. How could I live with myself if I didn’t? Do you want me to be the sort of person whose word is worthless?”

Bella was, indeed, a most clever young lady. She had cornered her cousin right where she wanted him. There was no moral nor gentlemanly way for him to contradict her reasoning, he knew this very well. I almost took pity on him as he uttered his next words and his poised façade crumpled.

“Of course not, Isabella! Nonetheless, I am your legal guardian, I am your next of kin and we grew up together until…until we parted ways. You cannot expect me to let this go quietly, child!”

His measured voice and his cut-glass accent slipped into an agitated mumble with those words, so much that I was fairly sure they were meant for Bella alone, although the still silence of the library allowed for his deep voice to ring loud and clear to me.

One thing he had mentioned seemed particularly shocking to me. He was Bella’s guardian? Had not my father been filling that position? Did she still need one? That meant she was not independent yet, and this would complicate everything.

“You are my guardian until my birthday, Jasper. It’s hardly an eternity, it’s just three months away. Are you going to stamp your feet like a child now? I did not see you caring this much for my upbringing during the last five years.” This was Bella’s terse reply, her eyes focused on him, her countenance otherwise unreadable.

I was increasingly feeling like an unwanted – and unwilling – onlooker in a family feud. I didn’t want to be involved, only to be compelled to choose sides. As I was concocting a plan to extricate myself from this situation, an unbidden thought struck me. Now I understood.

This had been Bella’s predicament for months, while Emmett had been wreaking havoc within the family only to achieve his own selfish wishes. She’d felt torn between conflicting loyalties – between her unwavering affection for my mother and her gratitude towards my father on one side, and Emmett quite possibly trying to convince her to support him on the other. I’d witnessed his obvious affection for her at my mother’s wake and I’d spent more than a few hours pondering what sort of bond they shared, considering that Emmett seemed to respect her almost as religiously as he did my mother.

She’d been forced to take sides, too, and she’d stayed to try and repair the damage. She was still willing to stay and put what was left of my family back together. Her strength and determination never ceased to amaze me and, for her sake, I had to stay where I was, and at least act the part of the master of the house and show her the family’s support. All the while, in a distant corner of my mind, I was lost in an imaginary calendar, counting the days separating me from Bella’s birthday.

“Lord Whitlock, the terms of my father’s will cannot and will not be contested. I will not allow this. Therefore, Miss Bella will always have a home at Cullen Manor, should she wish to stay. It is my understanding that she, indeed, wishes to stay. However, if you are her legal guardian, I do believe we need to discuss your terms, if you have any. I have no wish to intrude on any other family matters, but I will uphold my father’s wishes, and see that Miss Bella’s are granted too, whatever they may be.”

Bella’s gaze never left mine while I spoke those words in a steady, authoritative voice. That was what Augustus called ‘the massa’s voice’ and I was glad I could muster that tone with Lord Whitlock, who looked increasingly less pleased with himself, the more I advanced with my reasoning.

“I would never challenge your authority as Miss Bella’s guardian, but I believe you will appreciate that I have nothing but her best interests at heart.”

That was the most polite and sedate thing I could say without compromising either Bella or myself. After all, I wasn’t even sure we had an understanding. No words had been spoken between us.

“Naturally, Mr Cullen, naturally. My terms…”

“Yes, Jasper, your terms…” Bella was steadfastly provoking him, and he didn’t like it one bit, if his annoyed muttering was any indication of his opinion.

“Isabella, please, I really wish you wouldn’t stretch my patience any thinner, or I swear…”

Bella’s eyes widened at the sound of her cousin’s voice. He was no longer annoyed, he was livid, and my ‘massa’s voice’ paled in comparison to his icy, calculated but still incensed elocution. Bella demurely cast her eyes down and motioned for him to continue with a graceful wave of her hand.

“Mr Cullen, Isabella turns twenty-one next September. I will have no legal say in her choices after that, but I wish to set some ground rules for the months to come. After she comes of age, she will be free to choose where to take up residence, but before that, I would prefer her not to remain unchaperoned at Cullen Manor. Even though this has been her home since she lost her parents, she will no longer have appropriate company once your sister resumes her education in London.”

There was indeed an abundance of wit in this room, and it appeared that Lord Whitlock was just now taking the lion’s share. I could never, in all conscience, contest his reasoning, especially since I would never consent to such an arrangement for my own sister, were the roles to be reversed. He was also privy to a lot more information than I expected, because Alice was indeed due to return to London soon. Her school would not excuse her absence indefinitely.

“So what would your suggestion be, Jasper?”

Bella’s voice now sounded subdued, all traces of her former reckless bravery toned down, as if she was reluctant to get to the heart of the matter. He cousin’s hand went to rest on hers, in a brotherly, protective gesture. She didn’t flinch away from his touch, but seemed to avert her eyes from my gaze at the same time.

“I would very much like it if you would consider going back to Whitlock Hall with me, Isabella,” he finally said, his voice almost wavering with genuine uncertainty for the first time. Bella did extricate her hand from his grasp at that point, and I knew this option wasn’t obviously very palatable to her.

“My answer would be a resolute no, Jasper. You can’t ask me to do this. I am not going back to Somerset.” Bella’s words rang with finality and suggested that her veto against Whitlock Hall might have nothing to do with the scenery.

Lord Whitlock sighed in mild exasperation.

“I knew you would not give in, but I had to try, Little One,” he said affectionately.

“I trust you have a viable alternative, then.”

Lord Whitlock’s expression morphed into a sly satisfied smile. “I still think, despite your protestations, that you should partake of the benefits of the season in London, and you have a perfectly liveable house, in the right part of town, that’s just sitting there gathering dust.”

Bella’s lips curled up in a disbelieving, reluctant smile. “The whole season, Jasper?” Lord Whitlock nods. Bella continues, with a hint of irritation in her voice. “You want me to spend the next five months in Grosvenor Square, alone? How is that more appropriate than me staying here, Jasper?”

My eyes darted alternatively from Lord Whitlock to Bella, trying to figure out why her lordship of a cousin would be so eager to parade her through the London social circles. Then again, the realisation hit me. The season meant balls, dinner parties, exhibitions, theatre shows and concerts. It would be the ideal stage to show off Bella’s beauty and her other accomplishments to a host of young men of quality, whose rank, fortune and position in life would make them perfect candidates for Bella’s hand.

After luring her in with a wholly undesirable proposition, of course Bella would go along with anything else he would suggest. He was looking so disgustingly pleased with himself because his plan was as clear as day now, to me at least: if he were to be successful, then Bella would not return to Cullen Manor at all, not ever, because she’d be engaged, or worse still, married by the time she became of age, thus forfeiting the terms of my father’s will completely.

Goddammit all to hell and back! So that was what the conniving bastard was up to! He wanted to parade her like a brood mare at a livestock auction, so that the conceited coxcombs in town would fawn over her and fight for her attentions. Little did he know that I would fight for her, too. 

“It would be just as prim and proper as it could be, Bella, because you are the owner of that house. You may elect to live there whenever and however you please. I would, of course, spend the season in London too, so that I could offer you my company and support.”

And act as middleman to your underhand marriage negotiations? Over my dead body, Jasper Whitlock, with my compliments to the House of Lords. Those were my murderous thoughts until Bella’s next words filled me with dread for a long, excruciating moment.

“So be it, Jasper Aloysius Whitlock.”

As she continued, though, his Lordship’s pleased smile faded, while my former torment melted away as fast as snow in spring. “But I have one stipulation. I get a say in the company I will be keeping, too.”

“Very well,” conceded his Lordship with a confused expression.

“Fine. Edward and Alice are coming with us, then.”

I was going to spend the next five months in London with my Bella.

Chapter Text

Bella’s decision to spend the forthcoming season in London set in motion a sequence of events over which I seemed to have no control whatsoever.

The next morning, when Bella first broke the news to Alice at the breakfast table, my sister could hardly contain her enthusiasm.

“Bella, this is wonderful news! We will have so much fun together! Think of the theatre, the balls, the dinner parties! There is so much we need to do before we leave. When are we leaving? We must walk into town later. So many errands to run, I’m sure I’ll forget some…”

Alice prattled on, quite unaware that Bella had neither accepted nor rejected her proposal. Indeed, she looked patiently amused, her chocolate eyes crinkling with mirth over the rim of her teacup. I was tempted to cut Alice’s ramblings short, though Bella hardly needed my assistance.

“Are you even listening to me, Bella?” protested Alice, a disappointed expression on her face.

“I am, Alice, believe me. I just don’t think half of those vital errands you mentioned are so…vital to me.”

Alice’s brow creased and her lips pursed in a childish pout. She was mighty displeased with Bella’s reaction to the upcoming London trip and its much needed careful preparations.

“But Bella…this is the season, the season in London, no less. You need to look your absolute best.” Alice’s voice was sincere, even though her words no doubt reeked of the advice she’d received herself at school. She was dutifully repeating her lessons in society. I surmised that Bella had not been subjected to that kind of tuition, or if she had, the subject hadn’t found, in all likelihood, a very fertile ground. True to my suspicions, Bella remained unaffected by Alice’s tirade and answered with a silent nod. With that, the conversation seemed to be over.

“I’m sure Miss Isabella will look beautiful even without the countless yards of finery you wish to inflict on her, Alice.” I observed, patting Alice’s hand to comfort her.

“But you’ll accompany me on my shopping rounds, Bella? Please?”

Bella threw a sideways glance to Lord Whitlock, who’d been sipping his own tea in silence until that moment, and then replied to Alice, with one of her bright smiles, “Of course, Alice. Someone needs to make sure you do come home at the end of the day.”

That was the last I really saw of either my sister or Bella for the best part of the following week. They were constantly in Falmouth, becoming the nightmare of every tailor, milliner, draper and seamstress alike. They left no stone unturned, no shop unattended, as if any of those tradesmen would take offense at being slighted by the absence of their highly valued custom. Indeed, Alice was the one to waltz back home burdened with countless parcels at the end of each day. Bella did keep her word and accompanied her, but never seemed to make any purchases for herself. Her lack of interest in those I assumed to be highly feminine pursuits left me wondering; even considering her peculiar disposition, she must be aware that her upbringing and her station in society required her to look the part in all ways possible. Besides, what girl could be so uninterested in her own looks, to the point that she didn’t want to show off her new finery in London? Bella was truly an enigma to me sometimes.

Three days before we were set to leave, Lord Whitlock came to see me in the library while I was settling the estate accounts.

I had no particular troubles in that respect; while not large, my father’s estate had been well managed and his abrupt passing hadn’t impacted his affairs negatively. Day after day, the routine of Cornwall was replacing my former routine in Jamaica. I rode through the land, I visited the cottagers, I checked the pastures, I went over the accounts with the steward and I spent precious little time doing anything else. By the time Jenks ushered us in to dinner, I was exhausted. I barely kept up with scraps of conversation at dinner, but that was the extent of my involvement with my sister, Bella, and her obnoxious cousin who used to watch me like a hawk from his seat across the table.

Bella herself stole a glance or two my way every night at dinner, but she never engaged me in conversation first, mostly because Alice monopolised her time from dawn to sunset. All this while, Bella managed to attend to my sister and to her duties around the house without a single mishap. To the outsider I still felt I was to Cullen Manor, it was as if the house was capable of running itself. I knew better though, because such a well-oiled machine required hard work behind the scenes, and I never doubted for a second that Bella had eyes and ears everywhere in the guise of her ever-present, ever-faithful Jenks.

I looked up from my paperwork to meet Lord Whitlock’s steady, unreadable gaze and gestured for him to take a seat. I wondered what the man could possibly want with me now. I was abiding by all his blasted terms.

“Lord Whitlock, how may I be of service to you? Is there anything particular you wished to discuss?”

He let out an uneasy sigh and tented his fingers, gathering his thoughts before speaking.

“I’ve come to ask a favour of you, Mr Cullen,” he announced. His voice sounded subdued and uncertain. I abandoned my quill and my accounts and sat back in my chair, contemplating for a moment the magnitude of the scene before me. This man – his Lordship – was humbling himself in my eyes, asking a favour of the likes of me. The circumstances must be dire indeed, that he was forced to ask for my assistance. It was no mystery that he did not like me much to begin with. He tolerated me for Bella’s sake, and because he was no doubt a born strategist who saw no potential good results from overtly contrasting me. Therefore, something important must have kicked him off his high horse. I decided to be the better man and let this go unnoticed, even if I allowed myself one instant to gloat, inwardly.

“I’d be more than happy to assist you, Lord Whitlock.” He nodded, that wary expression never leaving his face.

“I received an express earlier this morning. I am urgently needed back in Somerset. In fact, I should be leaving within the hour if I wish to make the stagecoach in Truro. I would greatly appreciate if…”

The fog, so to speak, began lifting from my mind. He wouldn’t be able to travel to London with us.

“You wish me to escort Miss Isabella to London?”

He blinked once, then understanding dawned on his face and he breathed a sigh of relief. “That would be…most considerate of you, Mr Cullen.”

I waved dismissively at him. Of course, he wasn’t imposing in any way, though his station and manners – and his being Bella’s guardian, for the time being – required that he would formally entrust me with her care. Little did he know that there was no need to ask me; that was understood.

“Miss Isabella is akin to family to my dear sister and me, Lord Whitlock, the only semblance of family we have left. We take care of our own, Lord Whitlock. Never doubt that.”

I knew I was probably saying too much, that my feelings were too apparent, my contained expression thus unable to keep them at bay behind my heartfelt words. I didn’t care. I didn’t want doubts and uncertainties in my way. I had already given my word that I would spend five months in London, at the mercy of those scandalmongering throngs of ladies and gentlemen of good breeding, the former of whom would envy my Bella bitterly, and the latter would try to pry her away from under my nose. Lord Whitlock was a man of the world. He had to guess the hidden meaning behind my words. He had to know that my intentions couldn’t be but honourable.

“I would never venture to presume otherwise, Mr Cullen.” He replied, rising from his seat to leave.

“Very well, then.” I rose too, to lead him on his way. “Until next time, I believe, Lord Whitlock.”

“I shall see you all in London, Mr Cullen. I must be on my way. Will you be sure to tell Isabella?”

He looked genuinely concerned. For a moment, I forgot that his Lordship was scheming to overthrow my possible hope of happiness and understood his anxiety. He was leaving a precious treasure behind, and that treasure would be in my hands until further notice. It felt petty and underhanded to gloat. Almost.

“I will tell her myself this instant. I believe she must be in the orchard at this time of day. Funnily enough, no shopping errands today.”

At the oblique mention of my sister, his eyes lit up. Was that something I needed to watch more closely? Maybe there was nothing in it.

“Orchard? What could Isabella possibly be doing in the orchard?” He wondered aloud, shaking his head. He didn’t wait for my reply, but touched his hat in salute and was gone. I figured that, by now, he had to be resigned to his fair cousin’s peculiar antics.

I sighed. Bella was constantly outdoors; horse-riding, arranging flower beds in the garden and, much to my chagrin, pruning the fruit trees in the orchard, perched on a wooden ladder. There was always one of the boys or even Jenks helping her, but it still didn’t sit well with me.

I made my way to the kitchen, where I found Jenks reprimanding one of the scullery maids. I left him to do his job and exited to the orchard by the back door. There she was.

I paused for a minute, my hands on my hips, enjoying the view from the house, still undisturbed. She was indeed at her favourite pastime and one of the boys, whose name I failed to remember, was helping her keep the ladder steady while she worked.

The late morning sun threw an irregular, but equally enchanting pattern of sunrays and shadows across her figure and I couldn’t help but stand there, mesmerised by her mere presence. Her hair was, as usual, styled into an intricate style with braids and such at the nape of her neck, but a handful of wayward tendrils had escaped the otherwise disciplined net and hid her face from my view. I tempered the instinct to run towards her and instead I approached with a leisurely gait, strolling through the orchard.

The boy noticed me first, or maybe just heard my footfalls on the gravel path. “Good morning, sir.”

I merely nodded my head to him in reply, but the damage was done. Bella had been alerted to my arrival and, quite predictably, turned her head in my direction.

“Good morning, Miss Bella.” I greeted her first, and kept my address formal, for the sake of propriety.

“Good morning, Mr Cullen,” she replied with a happy, unguarded smile, brandishing a pair of garden shears. She didn’t seem intimidating or out of place. She looked perfectly at ease, as if she’d been doing this for years, and maybe she had. She reminded me of my mother who, likewise, spent hours on end in her garden and orchard.

In spite of her bewitching smile, I remembered I’d come here for a specific reason, and that I’d rather be without an audience for that conversation. Propriety be damned – we were out in the open, and in broad daylight. “Boy, you may go now. I’ll help Miss Bella.”

The boy looked flustered but nodded his head in silence and left the orchard in a hurry.

“You might have scared poor Jimmy out of his wits, Edward. What was that for?” Bella asked, once we were alone. I could detect the hint of humour in her voice. It was charming, and I felt a foreign kind of contentment bloom in my chest, just hearing her use my Christian name, and her voice so serene.

“Never mind the lad, now. I want to talk to you alone.”

I moved closer to the ladder and took the boy’s place, holding the ladder steadier into the ground. This contraption had been in the tool shed at Cullen Manor time out of mind. It was a miracle it hadn’t yet fallen to pieces. I didn’t like the thought of Bella using such a blasted piece of moulded wood. It could fall apart at any time.

“Oh. Is there anything the matter?”

I sighed. “Yes, you are the matter. Are you trying to make me go prematurely grey? First the horse riding, in breeches, no less, then you climb ladders that are not even fit to be used as firewood…”

I caught myself, for I was saying too much. She didn’t need to know that I had been spying on her, watching her from my room. Still, she didn’t comment on my slip, she just huffed and went about her business around the apple tree she was pruning, completely oblivious to my exasperation.

“Well, Miss Bella?”

“I’ve been using this ladder for years, Mr Cullen, and I’m happy to announce it never once caused me trouble. I see no reason why it should be a problem now.” She was being deliberately short with me – my comment had no doubt provoked her. Just then, I remembered that her antics weren’t my original reason for seeking her out.

“Lord Whitlock came to see me earlier.” That elicited a reaction. She stopped working and descended the creaking pegs one by one until she was, once again, with her feet safely planted on the ground. To my utter delight, I realised that, because of my current stance, she was all but enveloped in my embrace. She turned to face me, a slight frown marring her features.

“Was he rude to you?” I shook my head, quickly dismissing her misplaced fears about her cousin’s behaviour.

“No, Bella, on the contrary. He had to leave at once, though. He’d gotten an express…”

She nodded in understanding. The news didn’t come as a surprise to her.

“He’s headed back to Somerset, is he not? He’s not coming to London, then.” She titled her head to the side with that speculative look she had every time she was deep in thought, or trying to ferret out something out in her head.

“He’ll be joining us later. He specifically asked me to escort you into town.” Bella nodded again and her eyes darted around the orchard. I moved away from the ladder, freeing her from the enclosure of my arms. I didn’t like the distance.

Bella put a hand to her forehead to ward off the offending sunlight from her eyes. I thought she would walk back towards the house, but then I saw her climb back on the ladder. I quickly followed suit, and resumed my stance behind her.

“You do know we have garden hands at Cullen Manor, I presume?” I asked while she deftly cut away at the tree branches with that shear of hers. The way she moved about her work was a clear sign that she was well accustomed to this chore.

“Yes, I am well aware of that.” She was still displeased with me.

“And yet you choose to do this lowly work yourself? I wonder why you would subject yourself to this.” I heard her sigh from her high perch on the ladder and regretted my words. I’d managed to sound haughty just like her lordship of a cousin.

“Edward?” I felt rather than heard her voice closer to me. I raised my head and found her contemplating me eye to eye. She’d descended a couple of rungs so that her gaze was now level with mine. This was the closest we’d been since that day in the library.

“Aye, Bella?”

“Would you please close your eyes, and listen?”

I looked at her, quite perplexed at her request. She understood my hesitation. “Humour me, please. Close your eyes and listen.”

I did as she said. I felt her presence close to me. I felt the sunlight on my skin, less poignant and less cruel than Jamaica’s sun, but warm and comforting all the same. I felt the breeze sweep in from the sea, with its unmistakable reek of salt and seaweed. I heard nothing, not one sound. Not even the seagulls keening down by the cove. There was only utter peace and silence in this corner of the orchard.

“What do you hear?” she finally asked when she thought I’d completed my survey.

“Nothing,” I replied, still amazed at my own words.

“This is my peaceful place, Edward. This is why I come here, for respite.”

I nodded, feeling chastised for my foolish assumptions. “I will not take this away from you, Bella. Just promise me you’ll be careful. I wouldn’t want you harmed.”

She scoffed lightly, a smile on her face. “As if I could be harmed here…”

“All the same, Bella. Humour me, please.”

She cast her eyes down and nodded. “I will, for your sake.”

“Very well. Shall we return to the house?”

She nodded again and proceeded to descend the remaining rungs of the appalling contraption she insisted on calling a ladder. I took a few steps back to allow her to move freely. Just as she descended the very last rung and set back on the ground, she spun on her heel, and recoiled against the glaring sunlight. I saw her flinch for a moment, as if she was in pain. Then everything happened too fast for me to do anything.

One moment she was happily telling me of her peaceful place. The next she was collapsing on the gravel path like an empty sack. I hurried to her side, but couldn’t do more than gather her up in my arms. I overcame all concerns of gentlemanly behaviour and ran my hands down her cheeks, smoothing her hair away from her face.

“Bella, Bella? What’s wrong? Bella, please, talk to me…” Despite my efforts, she wouldn’t reply or open her eyes. I presumed she’d lost consciousness. She’d fainted, not a yard away from me, not half an hour after her cousin had entrusted her to my care. A wretched beginning, indeed. I was anxious for her well-being and knew that time was of the essence.

“Propriety be damned,” I growled under my breath, picking Bella up in my arms and walking to the house as quickly and delicately as I could, lest she’d be injured. With a swift kick of my foot, I wrenched the kitchen door open, where a startled Jenks took in the scene before his disbelieving eyes.

“What happened to the child?” he bellowed, no doubt as anxious as I was.

“Get the doctor, Jenks! At once!” I thundered back, his question unanswered, as I made my way from the kitchen towards the upper floor. Bella needed to be settled down in her room.

“Where is Bella’s room, Jenks?” I could hear the man still at my heels. He’d surely sent one of the lads to fetch Michael Newton. It was a shame the annoying boy had to be the only doctor in these parts. I didn’t like his manners with Bella, I didn’t like him at all.

“The Blue Room, lad. She sleeps in the Blue Room.” Of course my mother would have given her the most lavish room in the house. Bella probably didn’t care for it at all, but she’d abided by my mother’s wishes nonetheless. I climbed the stairs, holding a still unconscious Bella in my arms, as closely and as securely as propriety would allow. I couldn’t bear to think her ill. Not her. Not after my father and mother had been snatched away from me so cruelly.

Just as I laid Bella on the bed, Alice and the chambermaid appeared out of nowhere. I heaved a laboured sigh. I knew that I would be thrown out now, and I’d be left to my solitary misery until the doctor’s verdict would enlighten me about Bella’s plight.

“Edward,” Alice whispered, with a light touch to my elbow. “You must leave the room now. I will take care of her until Dr Newton arrives.”

I knew very well I had no place in a lady’s bedchamber, and I’d only been permitted to cross the threshold because of exceptional circumstances, yet I was reluctant to leave.

“You will tell me how she fares, Alice.” That sounded ominously more like an order than a plea.

“Of course I will, Edward, but you’d best leave now. This is no place for you. Don’t fret, brother. I am sure it is nothing serious,” she added with a slight smile. Bella was unconscious and nothing was serious? I couldn’t fathom how my sister would venture to say such a thing. Surely I was missing some fundamental mystery there. I quite detested being in the dark.

I retreated from the Blue Room and crossed paths with the Newton boy, who made a mad dash from the front door and up the stairs. Now, that showed dedication to his calling. He stopped cold in his tracks when he saw me.

“Mr Cullen, were you with Miss Isabella when it happened?”

“I was, Dr Newton. She fainted.”

He nodded pensively and then added. “No prior warnings? Did she look tired?”

I closed my eyes for a spell and tried to recall Bella’s demeanour in the orchard. “She’d been tending to the fruit trees in the orchard. Maybe the fierce sunlight…”

“Aye, that might be. I will see to her directly, Mr Cullen.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

A tedious, fidgety and uneasy hour followed. It seemed that the waiting would never end. I paced the library, unable to focus on anything other than the noises coming from upstairs. I listened to every move, every sound and every hint that the doctor had finished examining my Bella and that I’d finally know what had happened to her. I was hoping they would let me see her. I wanted to see for myself that she was well. I wasn’t contemplating any other possible scenario.

Jenks ventured inside the library after a while, levelling a stern look in my direction. I had nothing to say to him, I just wanted to see Bella, make sure that no harm had come to her.

“The child has been working herself into the ground, lad. There is no stopping her.” Now that was interesting, although I already felt uncontrollable rage brewing beneath the surface.

“She is no servant, Jenks, why in bloody hell would she do that?” I spat through gritted teeth.

“You have met Miss Bella, lad, haven’t you? Well, do you think there is a way of ordering her about? There isn’t. And it’s been a wretched time, is all. She’s been a rock, but…it was wont to wear her down sooner or later.”

“I swear I will take better care of her, Jenks. I swear.” Jenks’s gaze softened.

“You do that, lad. You do that.” He patted my arm encouragingly, just as he used to do when I was but a boy, and left without another word.

Eventually, I heard Alice’s voice talking in hushed tones to the Newton boy just outside the library door. I didn’t wait to be summoned. I stormed out of the library and barged in on their conversation with the bloodshot eyes of a madman. No doubt I was a fearsome sight to behold.

“Well, doctor?” I asked through gritted teeth, beside myself with worry and not inclined in the least to waste civilities on the good doctor. Alice regarded me with a shocked expression in her eyes.

“She is sleeping now, Mr Cullen. She should…rest for a few more days. I will send my apprentice later with a prescription for Miss Isabella.” He added, continuing his former discourse with Alice and averting his gaze from me.

After he bowed and took his leave, I hastily turned to Alice for real answers.

“What happened to Bella, Alice? Please?”

She sat down on the hall bench next to me and took my hand in hers, soothingly. My little sister was taking care of me.

“She just fainted, Edward. You saw that yourself. The doctor said it’s nothing serious. She needs to rest.” Alice sounded oddly evasive, her explanation vague and unsatisfactory. If possible, I felt even more anxious now.

I lowered an anguished gaze to regard my sister’s kind face closely. Concern marred her features, just as no doubt it was marring mine, only she was too quick to avert her gaze from me. I felt a vice contorting around my chest, making it impossible for me to breathe freely. “Nothing serious? You all keep telling me the same thing, over and over again. Alice, are you being honest with me?”

I heard Alice sniff and suppress a sob. “I am, I assure you, Edward. I feel responsible, though. The doctor said she needs rest, that she’s overtaxed her strength. I insisted on dragging her along with me for days on end. It’s my fault.”

On instinct, I embraced her. “Do not blame yourself, sister. It’s not your fault.”

“But I…”

“Shush, child. Now let me go see her.”

“Edward, no…you cannot possibly…” she protested. “Edward, please. Let her rest, you heard the doctor. Besides, it’s not…” Alice continued, but stilled when I threw a solemn glance her way and left her behind.

Rest. Was it a dignified word to conceal something more substantial? I pondered that, climbing the stairs two at a time, unable to rein in my eagerness to see Bella. I stopped just outside her room, my hand on the doorknob, when I saw Alice at my side again. She’d followed me, clearly intent on preventing me from entering Bella’s room.

“Edward, please. Not now. Let her rest. And it’s not proper for you to…”

“Enough, Alice. I won’t be dictated to in my own house. Go back to your embroidery and let me see her.” She sighed, clearly irritated with my reaction, but didn’t dare reply and disappeared from my sight.

I knocked but heard no sounds coming from the other side of the door. I knocked again and, when I still got no reply, I opened the door with circumspection and peeked inside. Betty the maid sat beside Bella, watching over her, but turned her head towards the door and regarded me with a startled expression.

“Sir, Miss Bella…” she began, no doubt to reiterate the doctor’s instructions to me once again. It might not be her fault that Alice had thrown those explanations in my face one time too many already, but that didn’t make them one jot less irritating to my ears. I’d had enough of their petty concerns about what I was allowed and what I wasn’t allowed to do in my own house.

“Never you mind, Betty. Leave us.”

She bobbed a hasty curtsey and retreated from the room in silence. I was finally by Bella’s side, unhindered and quite alone.

I sat down beside her, in the chair that had been just vacated by the maid. Bella lay in her bed, her long mahogany hair undone and spread on the cushions in dark, silky waves. I longed to run my fingers through those endless locks, but in an unexpected bout of wisdom, I kept my hands to myself. She was sleeping, her eyes fluttering beneath her eyelids in restless motions. She didn’t look peaceful; she looked exhausted and unusually pale. Bella’s natural complexion has the colour of flawless white alabaster, but right now she looked sallow, with dark, emaciated circles around her eyes. I wondered why I’d never noticed before that she had been overworking herself like this. Feeling guilty for my thoughtlessness, my breath caught in my throat. I closed my eyes and ran an unsteady hand through my hair and over my face. Then I heard her.

“What’s wrong?” It was a hushed whisper amid rustling sheets. It seemed distant but there was no mistaking my Bella’s voice. I couldn’t help shaking my head at her in disbelief.

“Oh, Bella….” Relief washed over me.

“What’s wrong?” she asked again, her voice sounding steadier.

“I saw you faint before my eyes, you’re lying there pale as a sheet, your voice barely above a whisper, and you are asking me that?” I countered, leaning in closer to her.

“It was nothing, Edward. There is no need to fret.”

I felt my temper flare, bile utterly rising within me. Everyone was telling me not to fret, and the more they told me, the more it irritated me to no end. I heaved a deep, uneasy sigh, trying to rein in my temper. It wouldn’t do to take my frustration out on Bella.

“You need to rest. I’d better leave.”

Her hand came to cover mine. “Will you stay awhile? Please?”

I couldn’t refuse her. “Only for a little while. The doctor was quite adamant that you need your rest. You’ve been working yourself into the ground, Bella. I won’t have that again.”

She protested, or tried to, and looked away from me. “I am serious, Isabella. I won’t allow you to overtax your strength like this. I’ve been shamefully thoughtless thus far, but things are going to change from now on. It’s just as well that we are going to London. You’ll be relieved of your housekeeping duties here for a few months. I just…I just…”

I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t bear the thought that I’d been too selfish and blind to see that everything that had happened at Cullen Manor had taken a toll on Bella. She’d had to take the brunt of everything alone before I came back from Jamaica.

“Edward?” I heard her, even before I felt her hand grip mine tighter. I opened my eyes and found her staring at me.

“Yes, Isabella?” I thought I saw a faint blush on her cheeks at my use of her full name. I guess I was still mildly irritated with the situation and with her reckless behaviour. I knew she would fight me on this. I knew she wouldn’t want to relinquish her duties.

“Don’t tell Jasper that I fainted…please? For my sake?”

I couldn’t restrain a frustrated groan. I was responsible for her in Lord Whitlock’s absence. I knew very well he could blame me for Bella’s bout of illness but, at the same time, I didn’t want to act in such an underhanded way and keep him in the dark.

“Bella, I am duty-bound to tell your cousin. He is your guardian and he placed you under my responsibility.”

“Edward, please. Jasper would keep me confined for weeks like a porcelain doll. I just fainted. I didn’t break a leg or get the pox.” She was enumerating those possibilities with an impatient and irritated frown, and her pert reaction alone reassured me that she was already on the mend.

“Heaven forbid! You are not to climb that ladder, or work in that orchard again.”

“Fiddlesticks.”

 I couldn’t resist a light snicker. There she was, lying in bed and arguing with me at the same time.

“You didn’t just say that.”

“I believe I did, Mr Cullen. What of it?”

“Well, I don’t believe it was a very ladylike thing to say.” She smiled, and my world turned brighter all of a sudden.

“Don’t tell Alice, then. And don’t tell Jasper I fainted.”

I huffed, half-annoyed and half-defeated, because I knew I’d eventually give in to her pleas.

“Very well, but we’re not leaving in three days as planned.”

She tried to sit up in bed to protest, but I saw her wince. She could try and fight me with words all she wanted, but I wouldn’t risk her health on the journey. A delay of a few days wouldn’t even be noticed.

“No protests, Isabella. We will leave in a week, that should give you time to fully recover.”

“But Jasper…”

“I will write to your cousin and tell him that I’m detained in Cornwall on business. He won’t dare contest that.”

She closed her eyes and stifled a yawn. “You are tired, Bella. Do get some rest. I will see you…”

To be honest, I didn’t know when I’d see her next. I didn’t think my sister would be lenient and allow me free access to Bella’s room until she recovered. I saw Bella nod her head in reply, but she was already falling asleep.

I left the room in silence and went back to confine myself in the library. I busied myself with the estate accounts and unnecessarily checked them three times over, in vain hope that time would pass quicker, until it was time to get dressed for dinner. Why Alice insisted that we did change for dinner, even if it was just the two of us, was beyond me, but I’d learnt not to contradict the will of the Cullen women.

Dinner was a quiet affair. Alice didn’t even risk talking to me, after I’d been so short with her in the afternoon. She retired to her room right afterwards, but I knew that she would check in on Bella on her way upstairs.

I retired early as well, but found that nothing could ease my nerves. Not the crisp night air that crept in from the open window, not the meaningless words I’d read over and over in my book without even taking in a single one, not the glass of whiskey I’d poured from my father’s favourite bottle after dinner.

I paced my room, unable to settle down at any sort of occupation, let alone sleep. I shed my suit and tie; I undid my shirt cuffs, leaving them hanging off my arms. I sat at the end of my bed to take off my boots, but suddenly decided against it. There was indeed something that could calm me down and clear my mind enough to be able to turn in.

I left my room and, guided only by the candle in my hand, I descended the grand staircase in the utter darkness. The house was likewise silent, since everyone had now retired for the night.

The far end of the library opened to a smaller room that my mother had always referred to, with a taint of pretentiousness, as the music room. The appellation was due to the fact that the room contained, indeed, the one and only musical instrument of the house, a Broadwood grand pianoforte that my mother had brought with her to Cullen Manor on her marriage to my father. On this very Broadwood grand my siblings and I had toiled for years, under the careful and unflinching tutelage of my mother first, and a music master later, so that we would all learn to play the instrument that she loved so much. Alas, out of the three of us, I was the only one truly gifted with a decent ear for music and, when my mother finally accepted defeat and allowed Emmett and Alice to pursue interests that better suited their talents, the Broadwood became my refuge from the outside world.

It was with a heavy heart that I’d left it behind in Cornwall when I sailed to Jamaica. I could never deprive my mother of her own heirloom and besides, there was no practical way for an object of that size to be hauled on to a clipper and survive the passage to the West Indies unscathed.

I had missed my piano all those years and yet, I hadn’t had one chance to play it again since my return. Now was as good a moment as any; I would choose something quiet, hoping that the sounds wouldn’t be carried upstairs through the stillness of the night.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the piano neat and polished, and its pitch as perfect as ever. Clearly, someone had been taking good care of it in my absence. I wondered whether my mother would put Bella to that task, while I browsed our substantial collection of sheet music.

There, I found what I was looking for. There was one piece of music that suited both my mood and the dark silence of the night that wrapped around me like a silken black cocoon, and it was Beethoven’s Sonata in C Sharp Minor.

I’d always loved this complex, layered and controversial sonata, maybe because it had taken me years to master playing it quite right. The solemn pace and the sombre keys of its first movement suited my dark mood to perfection, and I found that some of my anxious thoughts dissipated when I struck the first bars on my long-lost piano. Its funereal gravity reminded me of my own recent plight. I’d been pried away from my successful, but lonely life in Jamaica to go back to my beloved family only to find it torn apart by bitter disagreements and death.

Yet, amid all this suffering and confusion, a lone glimmer of hope and beauty had risen. I made my way through the scarce bars that made up the Allegretto, its deceptively cheery rhythm echoing through the empty and dark music room, and couldn’t help thinking that it reminded me of Isabella herself. She’d braved this storm alone, with unwavering devotion and unflinching loyalty towards my family, only to be met with contradiction, loss and the bridles of social conventions.

And Isabella herself was my hope and my quandary. Agitated and conflicted as I was, I still felt overruled by my blossoming feelings for her; feelings that I wasn’t at liberty to act upon, until her Lordship of a cousin would be satisfied that she could have the life she deserved at Cullen Manor, that she would have the world at her feet because I would pledge my life and all my endeavours solely to that end.

Bar after bar, one tantalising arch of melody after the other, I poured into the music all of my anxiety, my questions and that all-encompassing spectrum of possessiveness, tenderness, protection and desire that her mere presence elicited in me, until I was spent and the music died on my fingers in the darkest hour of the night.

Still lost in my head and my musings, I managed to hear a faint shuffling noise behind my back, like the gentle patter of feet on the hardwood floor. On instinct, I turned to see a white shape huddled in an armchair in the corner.

“Bella…?”

Started, she rose to her feet. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, just…what are you doing down here?” I asked abruptly, thinking she’d catch her death of cold out here in her nightgown. I rose from the piano bench and moved closer to her.

“I came downstairs for a glass of milk and then heard the music. I was drawn to it, and found you playing and…well…”

She averted her gaze, clearly embarrassed. “I think I should go back to my room.” She added, when she found her voice. I crouched beside her.

“Did you get that milk already, Bella?” She shook her head in denial and continued, “No, I…I just…I haven’t heard anyone here play in a while. Esme loved this piece so much and…I just wanted to hear you play, please forgive my intrusion.”

It was my turn to be embarrassed, because Bella’s voice was unsteady and the faint moonlight from the window revealed unshed tears in her eyes. I wanted to comfort her and didn’t want her to cry, at the same time. I boldly took her cold hands in mine.

“You didn’t intrude, Bella. Please, don’t ever…don’t ever hide from me.”

At my words, she met my gaze, a determined look in her eyes. A serene smile graced her features and the glow of the moon made her look radiant, in her almost otherworldly beauty. There was no more denying myself, I was smitten, and would do anything in my power to make her mine.

The realisation made me forget myself for a second, as I choked on my own words and could barely hear her reply: “Never, Edward.”

On impulse, I grazed my lips on her knuckles, and repented the brief contact right away. How could I think one faint, chaste kiss could quench my thirst? I shook my head, trying to regain my composure before I addressed her again.

“Let’s go find that glass of milk, shall we?” She nodded, without a word, but made no move to wring her hands free from my grasp.

“And then I will escort you back to your room.”

***        *****     ***

A week later, Jenks was busy ordering the maids and stable boys about while they fussed around the carriage, hoisting trunks and sundries on its top. We were finally getting ready to leave for London. Alice’s enthusiasm had no bounds and only Bella’s patient and joyful remarks could keep her at bay.

Bella had recovered entirely from her fainting spell and, despite her protestations that she was well and could keep up her duties, I’d steadfastly forbidden her to fuss about the house and had entrusted all her chores to Jenks, who was more than glad to be overworked for the short space of a week, if that meant that his dear child could be pampered and indulged. That old man was all bark and no bite, and had a very soft spot for my Bella. I teased him about it one morning, but wasn’t prepared to be stunned into silence by his reply.

“If I be going soft on the bairn, laddie, that’s as well as can be. You be the one in trouble, laddie, as you can’t keep yer hands to yeself, mind ye. The lass is a beauty, and no mistake. Now don’t you go hurting her, or I’ll have your hide raw. Are we clear?”

The harmonious chime of Bella’s soft laughter peeled me away from my embarrassing memory. “Alice, please, stop fidgeting! We have a long journey ahead, it won’t do you any good to be this agitated.”

“I know, Bella…I know! But…London! Together! When did you say your cousin would join us?”

My sister’s question piqued my curiosity. I kept my eyes trained on the carriage, but eagerly followed their conversation from a polite distance.

“Jasper said he would be in town in time for Lord Blackwood’s ball, and he anticipated that we would all be invited. He also extended an invitation for a small dinner party at Holland Park as soon as we are in town.” Bella patiently explained to an over-excited Alice. I couldn’t miss a hint of blasé annoyance while Bella enumerated these high-class social engagements. It appeared that she cared very little for them. I was intrigued.

“Holland Park?” asked Alice. “Is it..?”

“Yes, Alice, it’s my cousin’s residence in London. Not very far from my own house, actually…but…definitely grander.”

Bella sounded dismissive, just like she did every time she didn’t want further inquiry into a matter. Jenks, who needed Bella for some last minute questions as to the household, interrupted the conversation. Alice came to stand by my side, with a mischievous smile on her lips.

“A ball, Edward, did you hear?”

“Yes, I heard perfectly well, sister.” I could tell she was excited to be mixing with society at her young age, and it was high time she did, but I dreaded the prospect of warding unwanted rivals from Bella’s side. I didn’t trust my restraint.

“And it all sounds so grand…” she continued, more for her own benefit than mine.

***        *****     ***

Two days later, Alice’s liveliness had been sorely curbed by the long journey to London. She’d become an annoying bundle of jostled skirts, sour looks and sharp repartees. Bella, on the other hand, had slept less than Alice but also whined nowhere near as much as she did. In fact, she didn’t complain once. She’d just try to find a better stance on the coach bench, by moving the covers and cushions around, but wouldn’t voice her discomfort or weariness once.

I knew we were approaching the city when the noises and smells from outside began drifting inside the coach. Bella dared a peek outside the window to get her bearings, while a sleeping Alice huddled into her side.

“Isn’t she crowding you, Bella?”

“No, Edward, leave her be, she must be tired.” I smiled. As usual, Bella was concerned with others’ well-being before her own.

“And you are fresh as a rose, I gather?” I ventured to comment.

“That’s not a thing you should say to a lady, Edward…” She countered, mirroring my own smile. I loved that we didn’t stand on ceremony in our personal interactions. Soon this would be confined to strictly private conversation, and God knew how many of those I could manage to carve into her busy social schedule.

After a long drive through the meandering streets of town, the carriage came abruptly to a stop.

“I daresay we are here,” announced Bella.

Alice, still sleepy, rubbed her hands over her eyes and stifled a yawn. “Are we?”

I dared, too, a peek outside the window, and my eyes were met with a most astonishing sight. A brownstone mansion with white marble pillars and tall, pristine windows towered over us. A parade of liveried servants and maids in perfectly pressed uniforms stood on the doorsteps and a prominent, grandmotherly figure with a white starched cap waited at the front door with a radiant smile. That had to be Bella’s housekeeper. The girl had more servants in a house she didn’t dwell in than I had in the whole of my estate in Jamaica.

“Yes, Alice. Welcome to Grosvenor Square.”

So this was where Bella lived? At the very heart of town? Neck and neck with the pick of London?

I was going to have my work cut out for me.

Chapter Text

Despite my rational instincts, the scene before me stunned me into silence, in perfect imitation of my sister. Finally, we stood on the front steps of Bella’s London residence. Or, in Alice’s enthusiastic words, “the grandest place she’d ever seen”.

Alice clung to my arm, still quite out of sorts from the journey, and whispered, “Are we going to disgrace ourselves here, Edward?”

I patted her hand to ease her nerves. “I most sincerely hope not, sister. There’s nothing at fault with our manners, and this is Miss Bella’s home, after all. Do not fret.”

At that precise instant, the mistress of the house herself called over her shoulder, introducing us to an attendant, whom I presumed to be her housekeeper. “Mrs Padmore, these are my guests, Mr Edward Cullen and his sister, Miss Cullen.”

The same grandmotherly figure I’d spotted from the carriage, the one donning a black silk dress and a perfectly starched cap, nodded and curtseyed in our direction, her gestures polished but not overly ceremonious. When she spoke, an open, light-hearted smile lit up her face and faint laugh lines danced around her eyes, revealing her age.

“The Willow and Oak rooms have been prepared for your guests, Miss Bella.”

Bella thanked her and just then, a footman appeared to fetch and carry our trunks upstairs, his face contorting in a frown when he assessed the weight and size of Alice’s boxes. Once the footman and Mrs Padmore disappeared from the hall, Bella steered us to one of the parlours where various refreshments awaited us on a table.

“That would be your notion of travelling light, Alice?” Bella teased, handing my sister a dish of cold ham.

“But of course, Bella. I still can’t fathom how you managed to take only that measly box with you.”

At last, understanding dawned on me. Bella had no interest in ransacking the tradesmen of Falmouth and had taken almost no luggage with her … because she didn’t need to. She had a mansion at her disposal here in London, with more liveried servants than I’d ever had in Jamaica, where labour came by shamefully cheap. Time for me to enlighten Alice on the matter, before she said something inappropriate in her eagerness to spare Bella a possible faux pas in society.

“Alice, dear. You should not pry into Miss Bella’s affairs. I am certain she is fully capable of packing her own items of clothing.”

Alice huffed, annoyed that I’d reprimanded her, but nodded and stopped her relentless questioning.

Bella rose from her seat, turning a pensive gaze towards the window that overlooked the garden at the back of the house.

Despite my deep concern, I couldn’t ask her any direct questions lest I raise my sister’s suspicions. I had to bide my time. After a soft rap on the door, another liveried servant, whom I assumed was the butler, appeared at Bella’s side with a silver tray.

“The afternoon post, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Fortnum,” replied Bella, dismissing him from the room. She leafed through the bundle in silence, her expression changing imperceptibly with every new missive she perused. Ever the impeccable hostess, she did not open them in our presence, though I did notice that the very last one she examined left a slight frown on her brow.

She stacked her post neatly on a writing table with graceful and measured gestures, and then resumed her conversation with Alice, only to be interrupted again, this time by Mrs Padmore.

“I beg your pardon, ma’am. I hope I’m not intruding.”

Bella waved dismissively at her with a gentle smile.

“Not at all, Mrs Padmore.”

“If you please, ma’am, Mr Cullen’s and Miss Cullen’s rooms are ready, and I would have Fortnum and young Angela attend to their needs, as they must be weary from the journey.”

“Thank you, Mrs Padmore, that would be very welcome. Alice, perhaps you and your brother would care for the privacy of your rooms to freshen up and get settled in?”

I almost sent Alice ahead by herself. I almost interrupted her, like a rude and thoughtless older brother, in my selfish attempt to have more time with Bella—more time alone so I could enquire as to the reasons behind that frown. Debate raged within me, but Alice’s demure reply, accompanied by a sidelong glance thrown my way, abruptly halted my musings.

“Thank you, Bella. That would be perfect, wouldn’t it, Edward?”

“Of course, dear sister. Thank you, Bella, for such a warm welcome.”

Bella smiled again with a glint of playfulness in her eyes. “Nonsense, Edward. Consider this your home. I won’t have you standing on ceremonies while you’re here, truly. Come to think of it … Mrs Padmore?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Would it be too late for some last-minute alterations to the week’s menu choices?”

“Not at all, ma’am. I wished to steal a minute of your time to go over them at your earliest convenience.”

“Very well. I’m sure everything will be flawless as usual. Would you just make sure that lamb and fish are worked into it as often as possible? Miss Cullen and Mr Cullen are partial to them.”

“Certainly, ma’am. I will see to it.”

I watched the whole exchange with growing admiration for Bella, who handled the management of such a mansion without batting an eye. But then again, I could not forget that she’d handled Cullen Manor, too, for quite a while. Mrs Padmore left and Alice followed suit. Completely devoid of any remaining willpower, I stayed behind, lingering at the door. My eyes searched Bella’s countenance for answers.

“You didn’t have to go to such trouble for us.”

She sighed, her fingers flying to the stack of envelopes on the side table.

“That is no trouble, Edward.”

“Will you promise me something, Bella?”

“If it is in my power, surely.”

“Will you tell me if anything troubles you?”

Something, a mere passing shadow, flickered in her eyes, but it was gone before I could put a name to it.

“I will. When something troubles me.”

***        ***        ***

The next two weeks flew by in a whirlwind of activities. A few social calls were paid and returned. Visitors followed visits, at every seasonable and acceptable hour of the day.

Bella never seemed to decline callers despite how obnoxiously boring most of those ladies of quality were. Without fail, they enquired about Lord Whitlock and the family. Bella always replied politely, but her words sounded evasive to me. Truth be told, Lord Whitlock had yet to show his face in London, and no doubt that put Bella on edge, too. I began to wonder about the real reasons why he would be procrastinating for so long.

Apart from occasional callers at home, neither Bella nor Alice and I had been to any social gathering since we arrived in town. At first, I thought Bella was only being considerate of Alice’s plight and mine, though I got away with wearing a black crepe band around my sleeve as all men of business and action do. Both Alice and I were still in mourning for our parents, and it just wouldn’t do to appear at dinner parties and balls. One morning over breakfast, though, I found that not many of those were taking place. I’d almost forgotten after so many years away that the London season followed the sessions of Parliament, and since the House of Commons tended to break for the summer, we were bound to catch only the tail end of the season. However, Bella was confident we would still have a chance to attend a few gatherings, which eased Alice’s spirits considerably.

After that, Alice tried to pry me away from the house as often as she could with the unassailable excuse that she needed a chaperone for her countless errands. Most of the time, I gave in and accompanied her, albeit reluctantly.

Then one day while we still waited for Lord Whitlock to reappear, the morning post brought a surprise. With a dazzling smile, Bella waved an embellished invitation over the breakfast table, to my sister’s immediate excitement. Lord Blackwood had included Alice and me in her invitation to his ball, regarded as one of the highlights of the season. Needless to say, Alice counted the days and hours separating her from this grand event. I dreaded it.

In Jamaica, balls were the only occasion for the British community to gather for news, gossip, and, of course, for the inevitable marriage market. A number of fierce matrons, their age exposed mercilessly by their painted faces, always made a point of running after me. Their daughters—young, shy damsels decked in all their redundant finery—would then be shoved my way so I could take turns to fill their carnets de bal. I always found their manners stale and their conversation withered … but I fulfilled my social duties, conceded one dance to each, and promptly forgot all about them the minute they left my sight.

A London ball, though? An entirely different affair, all the more because Bella was involved. All the most fashionable bachelors of London would descend upon her—wolves on to their prey.

The following morning, the arrival of a guest interrupted Alice’s chatter about acceptable attire for Lord Blackwood’s ball. The elusive Lord Whitlock finally returned from the countryside. With a flourish of his hat, which disappeared into Fortnum’s waiting hands, his lordship graced us with his presence as he prepared to sit down to breakfast with us.

“Good morning, Jasper. I trust you’ve had a decent journey?” Bella rose from her seat and welcomed her cousin, once the footman had left with Lord Whitlock’s hat, overcoat, and gloves.

He greeted Bella, nodded in my general direction, and managed to acknowledge Alice with a passing smile. That smile—again. I’d seen him only a handful of times, but the only thing that managed to thaw his countenance was my sister.

“Decent enough. The city is a welcome change of scenery,” he finally replied, taking a seat beside Alice—the only open seat at the round table in the family dining room. Apparently, Bella had no patience for tables that required ear trumpets to keep up with mealtime conversations.

“Anything would be a welcome change of scenery from Somerset, Jasper.”

Leave it to Lord Whitlock to ignite tensions. My Bella, who’d been serene for weeks—albeit annoyed by countless callers—dropped the first ill-tempered remark I’d ever heard from her within minutes of his lordship’s return. What had happened in Somerset? Who or what made it such a sore subject between Isabella and Lord Whitlock? The cogs in my head turned, forever questioning, forever inquiring, looking for a key to all these mysteries. Almost unconsciously, I coughed on my tea, and that seemed to quell the debate.

For now …

“You returned just in time for Lord Blackwood’s ball, Lord Whitlock,” Alice commented, no doubt in an effort to defuse tension, or so I hoped.

“I would not have missed that for the world, Miss Cullen.”

Alice beamed.

With a conspiratorial look, Bella turned to Alice. “He has utterly no interest in the ball, mind you. It’s just that Lord Blackwood is an old pal of his, and keeps an outstanding wine cellar.”

His imperturbable Lordship did not appreciate the remark. “Isabella, you are giving Miss Cullen a bad impression of me. Please …”

“I will not restrict my remarks to the weather, Jasper, and you know that. You can’t deny Blackwood has been your closest friend since your time together at Oxford.”

That’s where the connection came from—Blackwood and Whitlock were friends. Another reason for Whitlock to prefer his cousin in the emblazoned company of the ball-throwing peer. Still, I thought I’d lend some masculine help to the poor chap.

“I, for one, would not fault a man for paying tribute to a well-stocked cellar, Lord Whitlock. After all, it would be bad form to refuse a host.”

His Lordship recomposed himself and nodded in my direction. “And Lord Blackwood is a most obliging host. I do appreciate the support, Mr Cullen. I’m afraid Isabella misrepresents me.”

The Isabella in question revelled in her cousin’s discomfort. “Hoity-toity, Jasper, hoity-toity indeed.”

“Enough, Isabella. Your guests …”

“My guests are akin to family, Jasper, and clearly, you don’t like losing an argument.” Bella flashed him a dazzling, mischievous smile. She merely toyed with the man’s annoyance, which his lordship realised at his own expense.

“Little one, little one, you do try my patience,” he conceded, wagging a playful finger at her. “Are we at peace, Isabella?”

“We are, Jasper; we are. But there are matters that need attending to,” Bella added with a more subdued tone that seemed to allude to more than dinner party invitations.

Astonished at Alice’s continued silence, I’d kept a cursory eye on her throughout this exchange. She’d been buttering what appeared to be the same slice of toast for the last fifteen minutes, her gaze alternating between Lord Whitlock and Isabella, quite like a rapt spectator of a heated tennis match, until Bella interrupted my observations.

“Are you all set for Lord Blackwood’s ball, Alice? Anything else you might want, you need only ask.”

Alice abandoned her over-buttered toast. “I believe I’m all set, Bella. Thank you.”

“Thank heavens, no more finery,” I quipped. “What else could you possibly need, sister?”

“Don’t be so harsh with her, Mr Cullen. After all, it is a grand ball. I can’t blame Alice for wanting to look her absolute best.”

Alice, her eyes downcast, replied in unusual, subdued tones. “Although, Bella … are you quite sure it’s at all proper for me to go?”

Inveterate idiot that I was. It hadn’t been long since Mother’s and Father’s passing, and yet I didn’t even stop to think about our conduct here in London, or Alice’s reputation.

Wretched mistake.

“You have been invited, Alice, dear. It would be impolite to refuse, and I’m sure Lord Blackwood will understand the situation, won’t he, Jasper?”

Lord Whitlock, with a serious but understanding expression, turned towards Alice. “You needn’t vex yourself, Miss Cullen. Lord Blackwood is a most considerate fellow, and he wouldn’t have extended an invitation had he felt it improper.”

Alice seemed to take courage from these assurances. “You know Bella wouldn’t steer you wrong, dear sister.”

“Of course not, Edward.”

“Your concern truly does you credit, Alice. But take heart, Esme herself wouldn’t have wanted you confined to black crêpe for months on end. She would have wanted you to live a full life.”

With a hint of a tear glinting in her eyes, Alice modestly nodded and wiped it away. I had to admit, Bella’s last words had touched my heart. Once again, she’d known the right thing to say, at exactly the right time.

“If you are still concerned, we can review your chosen attire together, make sure you have everything you need and nothing is inappropriate. Would that be of assistance?”

Alice beamed at Bella, still quite moved. “Absolutely. Thank you, Bella.”

“We can do that right after breakfast. That way, if anything needs refreshing, Angela can take care of it in time for the ball next week. What else is on our agenda for today?”

The promise of social engagements seemed to fully reanimate my sister, who plunged deep into conversation with Bella as to who would call today and whose calls they were to return. This line of dialogue excluded Lord Whitlock and me from their discourse and offered me an opening to finally talk with His Lordship.

“I trust your urgent business in Somerset has been satisfactorily dealt with, Lord Whitlock?”

“It has been … for now, Mr Cullen. Thank you.”

Swans, Whitlocks—the same evasive stock. It was no wonder where Bella got her elusory turns of phrase.

Whilst breakfast conversation died down, commotion simmered outside the room. At first, I couldn’t distinguish any of the words hurled about mere yards from us, except that a lady’s voice argued with Fortnum, punctuating her displeasure with shrill demands.

“Miss Swan is still at breakfast, milady, and is not receiving any guests yet. Please let me enquire within.”

“Nonsense,” the debating female voice countered. “Out of my way, Fortnum. I will see Isabella.”

Isabella huffed—no doubt recognising the untimely intruder—and eyed her cousin. A meaningful, dark look.

“Jasper, please.”

The lady’s belligerent voice resounded once more as she whirled her way through the door. “Let me through. Now.”

The double door swung open on its hinges causing the ornate handles to bang on the walls. For an instant, I thought one of Bella’s precious vases, perched on a shelf nearby, would fall and shatter in the lady’s face.

“Ah, there she is, at last.”

“Mother,” Lord Whitlock interjected, “I believe I’d given you precise instructions.” So this had to be Lady Whitlock.

“Spare me your niceties, Jasper. You have no business ordering me around. If I want to see my ungrateful niece, I will. Whenever and wherever I choose to do so.”

Alice and I had no business being trapped in the middle of this, but right now I had no graceful way of bowing out. I opted for being inconspicuous, if I could. From the rim of my strategically held teacup, I caught Lady Whitlock’s gaze surveying the room until a spiteful smile dawned on her lips as she eyed Isabella and her son.

“You are not inviting me to sit down, Isabella?”

Bella threw her napkin on the table in a rumpled heap. “You are not welcome here. You weren’t six years ago, and you are not now. I’d be obliged if you left.”

“Mother, please mind your manners and respect Isabella’s wishes.”

Lady Whitlock sneered and gestured towards Alice and me with a haughty wave of her hand. “Who are these people, Isabella?”

“These people are Isabella’s guests, Mother. You are offending them, as well as Isabella and me, with your behaviour.”

Lady Whitlock tilted her head to one side, and the ornaments in her hair tinkled accordingly. “You are assuming I care about it.”

I caught a glimpse of Alice, her eyes as wide as saucers, while she hid her face, sipping non-existent tea from an empty teacup. When our gazes locked, her expression changed to a silent plea to me. Unfortunately, nothing we could do would be either appropriate or useful. Our best course of action was to remain silent. This was a family matter.

Another pair of eyes, grey and thoughtful, kept Alice in their field of vision—Lord Whitlock’s. His hands shook, his anger simmering to the surface right before us. I couldn’t even fathom how mortifying this whole brouhaha must be for him. I expected him to explode any minute now.

Instead, Bella had leapt to action, standing to face her aunt and looking taller and stronger than I’d ever seen. “Enough. You’ve insulted us enough. There is a limit to courtesy and to family ties. You’ve destroyed them all. Get out of my sight. Jasper, please, have her removed from my home.” With her delicate hands curled into fists, she eyed Lady Whitlock with contempt, and gestured to Lord Whitlock to see to his mother.

Whitlock rose from his seat, his chair scraping the floor with less grace than usual before he strode to his mother, clutched her arm, and whispered something in her ear while she still sneered at him and Isabella.

Then, he escorted her from the room. The last glance I had of her was a devious, spiteful look, thrown in my direction as an afterthought.

Isabella, exhausted from the ordeal, fell back on her chair.

“Now you know why I’ll never consent to living in Somerset with Jasper’s family.”

Indeed.

Chapter Text

Later that day, I found myself in Bella’s library, trying to while away the day. Alice, still rattled by Lady Whitlock’s antics, had retreated to her room to write to her school friends and to find some much needed quiet. Lord Whitlock, it appeared, had also left Grosvenor Square. Given the situation, it appeared his presence was required at Holland Park. I couldn’t agree more.

As I perused the shelves, impressed by the variety and quality of this library, a ruffle of skirts and the distinctive sound of keys dangling from a key ring interrupted my musings. Back in Cornwall, this sound accompanied Bella around Cullen Manor wherever she went—the house mistress’s keys always swayed at her waist. I wondered whether she would keep up the same habit here. Or would she take some respite from her duties and leave everything in Mrs Padmore’s capable hands?

“If you please, sir, Miss Isabella would see you in the drawing room with Lord Whitlock.”

“Of course, Mrs Padmore. Thank you. I will join them presently.”

Mrs Padmore curtseyed and led me back downstairs where I found Isabella installed on one of the settees by a window whilst her cousin, who must have returned from Holland Park, paced the length of the room, muttering to himself.

“Thank you for joining us, Mr Cullen.” Bella acknowledged my presence and gestured for me to take a seat. Lord Whitlock paused his pacing, nodded in my direction, and claimed a seat across from me at his cousin’s side.

With unobtrusive gestures, Bella poured tea for the three of us, no doubt to keep the conversation away from the servants’ prying ears.

“Isabella and I would like to apologise for Lady Whitlock’s behaviour earlier today, Mr Cullen. Her demeanour and her words were intolerable and inexcusable. Please extend our most heartfelt apologies to Miss Cullen as well.”

“Apologies accepted, though there is hardly need for any, Lord Whitlock. I assure you,” I began, only to be interrupted by Bella.

“Yes, there is. My aunt behaved abominably to you, to Alice, and me. I can bear it, but I will not tolerate her misdirected outbursts of pretence ever again. Am I utterly clear, Jasper?”

His brow furrowed in consternation, his Lordship nodded and, with some difficulty, he conceded, “Absolutely, Isabella. You need not worry; it has been dealt with.”

“It was supposed to have been dealt with already. But this is beside the point. Please proceed, Jasper.”

“Yes, certainly, my dear.”

For the second time in our short acquaintance, circumstances trapped me between Lord Whitlock and Isabella on one side, and their family grievances on the other. My understanding of Bella’s plight while meandering the Cullens’ soiled laundry at Cullen Manor grew by the minute. I had wondered about Lady Whitlock’s outburst this morning. Her animosity seemed to be directed chiefly at Bella and her choice of company. Her exchanges with her son had been tense, defiant, but without the stubborn malignity she’d reserved for her niece. Had that bad blood originated long ago? That was my quandary—I couldn’t ask these questions directly; I couldn’t pry that intensely into Bella’s family affairs. I was left to speculate, watch, and feel like the odd man out.

“I assure you, Mr Cullen, that I deeply resent my mother’s words and her attitude towards you and Miss Cullen. Please, believe me when I declare I do not share her opinions. Any guest of Isabella’s is as welcome to me as family.”

I recovered my composure just in time to nod at his Lordship’s contrite manifestations and to detect a strained tone in his last words. No doubt, those had been added at Isabella’s behest. “Thank you, Lord Whitlock. Please, do not distress yourself. It is all but forgotten. And I convey Alice’s sentiments, too.”

“That is gracious of you, Mr Cullen, gracious indeed,” he added, nodding again in my direction from behind his teacup.

“No graciousness, your Lordship. Just some ordinary understanding of the human condition. Every family has its strife; mine is not immune from that, either. The sins of the father shall not be visited upon the progeny, aye?”

Every family had their little secrets and their heartaches, carefully hidden beneath their public personas, beneath their propriety and their manners. Every family had a black sheep. I had Emmett to contend with; Lord Whitlock, evidently, had his mother. I wondered how he negotiated her social life and whether she even had any.

“Very true, Mr Cullen. Thank you; not everyone would be as compassionate as you are. My mother … She endured hardships that changed her forever. She wasn’t always a spiteful, conceited, venomous woman. Life dealt her a bitter hand.”

“Which she then contrived to visit on her nearest and dearest with the utmost gusto, Jasper. I haven’t forgotten.”

With my eyes, I pleaded with Isabella not to pursue that line of thought with her cousin, who came to my rescue and chided her, his voice laced with playful indulgence.

“Little one, please. You know she wasn’t always … You know what happened to her. Can you not spare some mercy, please?”

“I tried. You know I tried. You also know how she reciprocated my overtures no later than this morning.” Bella’s inner conflict simmered beneath the surface of her composure. How I wished I knew more; how I wished I could comfort her openly. How I wished it were my duty to protect her.

“Yes. I am no fool, Isabella. I know I failed you. She should never have come here. It is my fault. Please, forgive me. I wish you all to forgive me, Mr Cullen. I have been remiss in my duties for a long time now. But no more.”

That sounded ominous, in more ways than one. What was his Lordship planning?

“Mr Cullen, I wish to extend an invitation to you and Miss Cullen. Would you join Isabella and me, and a few other guests, for a dinner party at my residence tomorrow? I would be most grateful if you accepted.”

“I’m sure Alice shall be delighted to accept, and so am I, Lord Whitlock. Thank you.”

“It is settled then. I shall see all of you tomorrow evening. Thank you, Mr Cullen. Your equanimity does you credit, truly.”

“Thank you, Lord Whitlock. I hope my Cornish frankness did not cross any lines. I’d better fetch Alice now and tell her she needs to plan an outfit for her next social engagement. That ought to keep her busy for a while.”

That seemed to defuse the tension. Jasper smiled at me. “Er, outfit? Now I’m out of my depth, Mr Cullen.”

“So am I. If only I could enlist Isabella’s help …”

“Isabella is right here, and she’ll gladly help Alice with whatever she needs,” Bella chimed in with a cheerful rebuke at our expense and rose to leave. “I’ll break the news to Alice, Mr Cullen. We meant to go over her options for Lord Blackwood’s ball as well. Stay and have a chat with my cousin.”

Depriving me of the chance to decline her offer, Bella left with a satisfied hint of a smirk on her lips, the silk of her skirts swishing after her in graceful swirls, and her fragrance lingering in the air around me.

“She cornered us.” And she’d left me to the wolves, or rather, to her lordship of a cousin.

“That she did, Mr Cullen.” Jasper rose and stood at one of the windows, his back to me. “I meant what I said earlier.”

“So did I. And in that case, Lord Whitlock, you should know we Cornishmen do not stand on ceremonies, if we can help it. I’m known to everyone as either ‘Massa’, or Edward. Please, call me Edward. I insist.”

Lord Whitlock’s tentative look did not escape me. “Edward it is, then,” he replied, turning towards me and extending his right hand, which I shook, sincerely pleased with this development. “No more of that Lordship nonsense. Jasper, please.”

It didn’t matter that the man and I were on first names terms as of right now. He still intimidated me, to a point. Yet, this overture of his boded well—dared I hope it would be the promise of more, the promise of friendship and the end of his previous antagonism towards me? I embraced the overture and tried his lordship’s name on for size.

“Jasper it is, then.”

He returned to his previous seat and crossed his legs in a fluid, well-practised gesture. I noted in passing how effortless his demeanour always appeared. He’d clearly been born and grown into the kind of self-assurance that only came from rank. I’d earned mine and made up for the lack of emblazoned titles with a generous helping of Cornish swagger, which had helped me greatly in managing a plantation and the field and house servants that came with it. Still, I’d long lost my pulse on the delicacies the English aristocracy valued as good manners, which called for an apology … of sorts.

“I hope I did not sound intrusive earlier.”

He dismissed my concerns with a controlled wave of his hand. “Do not let that vex you, please.” Then his self-assurance seemed to waver, an unnamed shadow darkening his expression. “I’ve been remiss in my duties on various fronts. I was so focussed on Isabella’s plight that I neglected to acknowledge yours and Miss Cullen’s. Words cannot express how deeply sorry I am for your loss.” And then, as an afterthought, he added, in an almost private, tender whisper, “And for your sister’s.”

I nodded in acknowledgment but found myself incapable of further reply. Beneath his perfect breeding and controlled public persona, Jasper hid a considerate heart. While that heart never failed to mention my sister, his sincere concern for both of us overwhelmed me, flooding my thoughts with renewed grief for my parents.

Jasper noticed my unease and, with an imperceptible cough, diverted the course of the conversation.

“Jamaica, then? London must be quite the change.”

He had no idea, had he? Of course not. He may have travelled extensively through Europe to further his education, as was required of every young man of rank, but the Colonies hardly ever figured in those itineraries.

“Cornwall itself was quite the change after five years.”

“I expect you hoped for a different welcome?” Straight to the point, like a well-aimed arrow. How Jasper could blend his polished manners with such directness—in private at least—was beyond me.

“I scarce knew what to expect. I came back to … a tangled mess. I surmise you’ve heard of my family’s most recent circumstances from Isabella.”

Jasper nodded, his features marred by strained, ill-concealed reluctance. “In passing, Edward. She was not forthcoming with details.”

“Your cousin has helped in more ways than you can imagine. She cared for my mother as a daughter would, and she’s been a true sister to my Alice. I can’t even begin to fathom how … but she did.”

“She guards your family’s well-being and privacy with stalwart steadfastness, with unwavering loyalty. It took me some time to get used to it.”

“It took me some time as well,” I admitted, reminiscing my own horrible treatment of Bella when I first returned to Cornwall. “I resented her closeness with my mother, and I resented my mother for neglecting to tell me aught about her over the course of five long years. She was indeed a well-kept secret.”

Jasper nodded with a pensive look that told me he was weighing my own words carefully. Had I just revealed too much?

“I must apologise for that as well, Edward. I barged in on your household back then, and you’d just buried your mother and father. That was inconsiderate of me.”

He may have been hell-bent on forcibly extracting Bella from my house of disrepute at the time, but could I really fault him for that? Probably not, if I was inclined towards honesty, but I bit my tongue, and instead, waited for Jasper’s own rationale to surface.

“I’d always resented the fact that Isabella had preferred to live with your family after her own parents died. I took it as a slight against our family—worse, against me. We’d been close as children, and I couldn’t believe she’d move hundreds of miles away with virtual strangers and leave me behind to fend for myself.”

That admission of his gave me an opening—maybe this time I could satisfy one bit of my own curiosity, namely, the how’s and why’s of Bella’s initial appearance in Cornwall.

“If you do not mind me asking, Jasper, how did that come about exactly? I never managed to get a straight story from my mother before she passed. We simply did not have time.”

Jasper paced away to lean against the window after pouring himself another cup of tea. “My aunt and uncle—Isabella’s parents—died within one year of each other. Isabella’s father had never been on good terms with my parents, I’m afraid, and with my mother in particular. He specifically stipulated that Isabella not be entrusted to their guardianship in case she untimely became an orphan. He had my aunt swear to it on his deathbed and, because he didn’t trust her not to be swayed by her own family, he added a codicil to that effect to his will to ensure that his stipulations would be complied with.”

The plot thickened. Between “not being on good terms” and “you’re not raising my daughter, over my dead body” there was a world of difference; or at least, it seemed to me rather an extreme view to adopt, to eradicate your child from anything she’d ever known, just to spite your in-laws in the process. There had to be a grievous reason for such actions.

“And I understand Isabella’s father enlisted my mother’s help, correct?”

Jasper nodded again. “Yes, my aunt and Mrs Cullen were third cousins, as I’m sure you’re aware, and they had always been close confidantes until they had a mysterious falling out right before my aunt’s marriage. I could never quite ferret out the reason for it from my mother, but in time, her estrangement from her sister was one more blow her heart and mind could not take. She blamed Isabella and my uncle for it. And because of that, my uncle wanted Isabella to live in a loving household after he was gone, such as the one she’d grown up in.”

The implication of that last statement astonished me. Clearly, Lord Whitlock’s own household hadn’t been deemed sufficiently loving by Isabella’s father.

“I’m sure he had good reasons to act in such a way. Though a rare arrangement, it’s not unheard of. I take it your mother did not agree with that scheme, though, did she?”

With a faintly raised eyebrow, Jasper erupted in a string of negatives. “Oh, no, no, no. Of course, she didn’t. She had a whole future planned out for Isabella now that she’d become an heiress. But Isabella would have none of it. Her parents’ will was on her side. And she has a way of getting her way.”

It had been a years-long war of wills, then, which separated Isabella from her family. I wondered how much Lord Whitlock acted of his own free will in reuniting with his cousin, and how much his mother had influenced him. I knew enough about Bella by now to recognise that she’d never bend to her aunt’s will, if that meant disregarding her father and mother’s wishes. Besides, I had an inkling Bella didn’t particularly get along with her aunt; she would have rather moved to Rajasthan than to Whitlock Hall to be under Lady Whitlock’s thumb.

The subject of our confidences chose that exact moment to re-enter the scene.

“I hope I’m not interrupting, gentlemen. We have a visitor,” she announced.

A gentleman followed her into the drawing room. A tall fellow, taller than me by almost half a foot, with jet-black hair and equally dark, impenetrable eyes. His clothes exuded the lavish elegance of bespoke suits that only Savile Row and a sizeable running account with a fashionable tailor could bestow. At his elbow, a footman appeared out of thin air, and without a word, the newcomer unloaded his hat, coat, and walking cane on the poor chap. A sudden glare partially blinded me, and it took me an instant to trace its source—an elaborately carved silver ornament in the shape of a wolf’s head on top of the cane the gentleman held.

This must be the infamous Lord Blackwood.

Chapter Text

“Blackwood, fancy seeing you here.”

Jasper greeted the newcomer with the ease of long acquaintance. Lord Blackwood gave a firm shake to Jasper’s proffered hand and managed to give good old me a cursory glance at the same time.

Isabella, ever the perfect hostess, made the appropriate introductions. “Lord Blackwood, allow me to introduce Mr Edward Cullen of Cullen Manor.”

I stood up and extended my hand to him and, with a curt nod, I greeted his lordship number two. “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Lord Blackwood.”

He returned the nod and handshake and took in my appearance—again. Throughout his perusal of me, I had the fleeting impression that his eye never wandered away from Isabella though.

“Likewise, Mr Cullen. Cornwall, correct?”

“Correct, indeed, your Lordship.”

“I pride myself in taking a keen interest in all of Miss Swan’s concerns.” Jasper’s eyes narrowed at Lord Blackwood’s unbidden explanation. On the other hand, Isabella herself made a point of not acknowledging it. His lordship number one, I admitted to myself, did improve on acquaintance.

Again, one of Mrs Padmore’s minions appeared out of thin air with more tea and assorted pastries for Lord Blackwood, which he accepted with another of his nods.

“Is your mother in town, Lord Blackwood? I’d like to call on her once I get settled in as we only just arrived.” Isabella did not need her cousin—or me—to look out for her and, it seemed, she had reasons of her own to embellish the truth. We’d not “just arrived”; we’d been in London for two weeks by then; Alice’s long list of purchases could attest to it.

“I’m sure she would love to see you, Miss Swan. In fact, I came by to issue an invitation.”

She motioned for him to continue, but Blackwood turned to Jasper instead. “You being here spares me an errand, Whit.”

“I would never want to inconvenience you, Blackie.”

Isabella tut-tutted and shook one of her elegant fingers at her cousin. “Enough, Jasper. This is not the clubhouse of your old rowing team at Oxford.”

“Of course, Isabella. My apologies. I’ll behave.”

“Well,” Lord Blackwood interjected, “if you can stomach your uncouth cousin’s company for an entire evening, I would be pleased if you all joined me for dinner and some music on the morrow?” As he spoke, Lord Blackwood gestured around the room, implicitly including the country interlopers in his invitation.

Isabella frowned—too lightly for her august guest to see, but I’d had some practice with her by now. It dawned on me that Lord Blackwood was having his soirée on the same night Jasper had invited us to Holland Park. My gaze wandered in Jasper’s direction for a moment, just in time to catch a slight twitch of his eyebrow. Controlled facial expressions must be a family trait. An interesting conundrum presented itself to my titled new friend and my charming hostess.

I scarce knew what their actual relationship with Lord Blackwood might be. Their behaviour towards him suggested close acquaintance at least, with the added banter born of academic camaraderie in Jasper’s case. Despite this, their welcome had hardly been effusive. And his second, newly-issued invitation did overlap with Jasper’s.

A china cup clinked as Bella returned it to its saucer. She smiled at her guest. “We thank you heartily, Lord Blackwood. However, would you be so kind as to excuse us? We have family commitments on that very night.”

Blackwood hardly missed his stride. “Absolutely. Family comes first. I … we will miss you,” he replied, his gaze trained on Isabella.

“We will be at the ball though,” Bella said, trying to appease his disappointment. She’d lied to him and yet was loath to offend him. Isabella—ever flawlessly courteous and considerate.

“Indeed. I had hoped for a less … public gathering.”

Ah. There was the rub. This chap wanted something. Someone. My own eyebrow pulsed now—a familiar warning that a headache would soon creep up on me. Jasper must have noticed because he intervened. “Well, there will be occasions aplenty to catch up. We’re planning on staying for the remainder of the season, Blackie.”

Defeated, mayhap? “Certainly. I will take my leave now and see all of you at the ball.” His eyes, which remained trained on Isabella, belied his choice of pronouns.

Isabella rose to accompany him and rang the bell. Lord Blackwood’s coat, hat, and flashy walking cane reappeared at once. He nodded his thanks to the footman and turned to Bella again, beckoning her to stay. “That is not necessary, Miss Swan. You have company. I know my way.”

With a deep bow, he disappeared.

I returned my cup to the table and leaned back in my armchair. A low, throaty chuckle rose from Jasper’s direction. “Do not look so bemused, cousin.”

“Jasper, that is inappropriate. Thank you for not helping me with your friend just now.”

“I did not want to spoil your performance. You almost made him weep, little one.”

“You are being naughty, Lord Whitlock.”

“Am I? We ‘only just arrived’, Isabella Marie Swan?”

There they went with the tennis match again. Their easy banter was a delight to watch when they weren’t quarrelling. These two did share a warm, loving history. Enough with the niceties; my gossipy bone had been tickled and demanded answers.

“Would anyone care to enlighten me? Jasper?”

Jasper finally got his fit of laugher under control and turned to me. “Well, what do you think, Edward?”

As much as I wished to weave a picturesque narrative and unleash my speculations on them, my talents as a storyteller had to wait. A whirlwind of silk and chatter burst through the door, stifling my momentum.

“Bella, I finally received word … Oh, my apologies, everyone. Miss Barnes says I always barge my way in everywhere.” She blushed, lowering her gaze.

She didn’t need any more castigating, certainly not from me. I couldn’t resent my sister’s presence despite her intrusion. I’d lost six years too many away from my family, and now Alice was the only family I had left. The radiant smile on her face, though, wasn’t for me.

“No apologies required, Alice. What did I tell you earlier today?” Isabella knew. Instinctively, she just knew what to say and when. What Alice or I needed at any given moment. Our … my saving grace.

Alice’s face lit up again as she sat beside Bella, taking her hands into her own. “I need to take care of myself, too.”

“That is wise advice indeed, Miss Cullen,” interjected Jasper before I could even attempt to offer one word of encouragement to my own sister. Again, I seconded the sentiment and could not, in good conscience, resent his lordship’s perceptive observation or his perfect timing. Alice wasn’t immune to his charms either and rewarded him with another dazzling smile. I wondered whether, as a caring brother and responsible guardian, I needed to have a friendly word with his lordship. Being on first name terms didn’t imply I wouldn’t challenge him at the crack of dawn if he trifled with my sister’s affections.

“Any of your school friends writing to you, Alice?”

Her earlier reference had not escaped me. I might have been an indulgent, even absent, brother until recently, but I kept my ears to the ground and my eyes peeled wherever Alice was concerned. She’d been frequenting a school in London before my mother’s passing, so it made sense school friends might try to get in touch with her after an extended absence. If they knew where to find her. We’d left Cornwall in a hurry, and I doubted she had had the time to send a round of notes from Cullen Manor to London; still, two weeks had gone by, and that had given her plenty of time to send notes throughout London and its environs and get replies, post haste.

“… Some of them.” Her mumbled answer didn’t chime with her earlier enthusiastic disclosure to Bella. Also, getting a string of words out of Alice was typically easier than this. However, her reply sounded like it hovered between not lying to me outright and still managing to circumvent the truth. What was Alice hiding? A beau?

My perplexed reverie was interrupted by Lord Whitlock, who rose to take his leave. “I have overstayed my welcome for the day, Bella. I have business that needs attending to at Holland Park.”

“But of course, Jasper.”

“I will see you all tomorrow evening, won’t I? Unless …”

“Unless?” asked Bella.

“Anyone fancy a fashionable ride in the park tomorrow morning?”

“You know I don’t ride in London, cousin.” Lord Whitlock was demoted to cousin in the blink of an eye. I’d seen Bella riding her steed in Cornwall. No wonder she wouldn’t ride in Hyde Park, or any other park in London. A side-saddle and a sedate canter were not her style. Jasper’s plan was, no doubt, an open carriage drive along Rotten Row after church. See and be seen. A statement of sorts—“We are in town, how about you?”

“I wasn’t thinking of that kind of riding. Just a stroll.”

“You never ‘just’ do something, Jasper. I’ve managed to evade my list of personae non gratae until now. Your notion of a fashionable ride would render all my efforts moot.”

“They’d see you at Blackie’s ball next week anyway.” Jasper didn’t need to punctuate that with a shrug—the dismissiveness seeped through his tone clearly enough.

“But that affords me another week of peace, you oaf.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Oh, I will, cousin. I will.”

This time he did shrug before his parting shot. “What do you think is going to be more dramatic: you in your finery in the middle of Lord Blackwood’s ballroom, or a family stroll in the park on a Sunday morning?”

Bella didn’t have time or the chance to reply because Jasper stormed out of the drawing room.

“Edward, Alice, forgive me—but I need to set this to rights.”

***        ***        ***

This left Alice and me to our own devices, with a distinct lack of discussion topics. I hadn’t had a real conversation with Alice in years. I never had a reason for one prior to now. And yet … she was not just my sister. My father’s last will and testament stipulated it in clear letters, its ink dry and stark against paper—she was my responsibility now. Yet, the situation baffled me. I could manage a two-hundred-acre plantation with dozens of staff under my supervision, but I couldn’t talk to my own sister? This needed to end now. Time to gather my wits.

“Alice, dearest …”

“Edward?” My name sounded tentative on her lips, her voice a mere whisper.

“We haven’t had any time to ourselves since Cornwall. I have been very remiss in my brotherly duties. Can you forgive me, Alice? I will try to do better by you.”

Her eyelids fluttered, and when she looked up at me, a pearly tear was trapped on her eyelashes. She averted her face for a moment and deftly, in perfect, polite gestures, dabbed at her eye and regained her composure. I reached out my hand towards her.

“Alice, come seat by me, please.”

She obliged and slid her hand into mine. “You don’t need to hide your feelings around me.”

“That is not … the way of a lady. That is not … the way I was taught.” She protested, her nose scrunched up in a rather unladylike grimace, but her hand was still firmly in mine.

“I understand. It’s commendable that you value your education—you worked hard at it, but you’re human, not an automaton to be marvelled at. We just lost our parents; we’re allowed to bend the rules a little—within reason.”

“Within reason—Mother used to say that all the time. You remind me of her a lot, Edward.”

“You do too, Alice; you have her eyes, her voice …”

“I’m not sure I’m even worthy of it. The last time I was home from school, I spent all my time lost in frivolities, and not one time did I sit down with Mother and now … she’s gone, forevermore.”

This time, her voice cracked, and her composure crumpled. “I’m sorry … I shouldn’t …”

“Hush, child, hush.” I folded her in my arms. I hadn’t held her since she was scarcely older than a baby.

“What will become of us, Edward? What are we going to do?” Alice wept.

“We will get through this, dear.”

“How? You will travel back to Jamaica and your plantation, and Cullen Manor will fall to rack and ruin. You can’t be everywhere.”

She had a point. One fretful corner of my mind had been pondering that for weeks while we paid social calls with Bella and sipped tea in her drawing room. Reality would resurface sooner or later and force us to deal with it. One factor was conspicuously absent from Alice’s questioning—Emmett and his hasty nuptials. Or the fact that Father had cut him off from his legacy and from the family in one fell swoop.

“You are right. We have things to talk about, you and I. You are not a child anymore, and Cullen Manor is your home as much as mine. I won’t lord my decisions over you sight unseen.”

“Still, are you going back to Jamaica? And what about me? Are you marrying me off? And Bella?”

“Marry you off? Where does this come from?”

“Well, I’m almost through with school. Isn’t that going to be my destiny? Isn’t that all there is for me?”

I had no idea she would think me so callous as to pawn her off without so much as a “by your leave.” “Alice, dear, I don’t want you trapped with some fellow with money and a title just for my convenience. It’s not the way we were raised. I wouldn’t auction you off to the highest bidder like that; you’re not a broodmare. You’re my sister, for heaven’s sake. This nonsense stops now.”

I caught my temper at the very edge of one of my choice curses, but the steel and thunder in my voice had Alice flinch away from me.

“Forgive me, Alice. That was out of line.”

She didn’t reply. I’d gone too far. Alice sniffed without bothering to hide it behind her embroidered handkerchief. “No.”

“You won’t forgive me?” Goddammit. I’d lost her. Damn that temper of mine.

She raised her face and stared at me; after a minute shake of her head, her previous unease dissipated. “There is nothing to forgive, Edward. In fact, that was quite refreshing.”

“Alice, you are … unexpected.” This girl puzzled me to no end and intrigued me at the same time: my sister—my own mystery to solve.

“I would love to have a family of my own one day but not as a way to solve our problems. It’s refreshing to hear that you agree.”

“That question is settled then. For now, at least.” One down, a dozen more still to plough through.

“And Jamaica?”

Sighing, I said, “I have no solution for that … yet. Decisions will have to be made but not before I’ve gathered all the information I need. There are no pressing financial concerns. Father’s accounts were in order, and the estate is in good shape. You are right on one point, Alice. I can’t be everywhere, and that will need to be addressed.”

“What about Bella, then?”

“Father’s will is adamant. She has a home at Cullen Manor as long as she wishes. I will never deny her a home. Ever.”

“That’s not what I meant. And don’t try to run circles around me, Edward.”

“I didn’t know you were that observant.”

“You can glean a lot of information sitting at a breakfast table with people, brother.”

“Touché.”

“And?” My gossipy bone had to be another family trait.

“There are further considerations besides my own wishes, Alice.”

“But you do have wishes?”

“Good heavens, Alice, is this an interrogation?” If I probed her observations, would she end up telling me something I’d rather not hear? Would she tell me something I’d rather not know? No. Yes? No. She wouldn’t break Isabella’s confidence. Would she?

“No, I’m just curious, brother.”

“You little minx.” The sound of her laughter resonated through the room. Despite our challenges, Alice’s happy spirit wasn’t defeated. It was still in there; it just needed some coaxing every now and then to resurface, brighter than before.

“Is Jasper against it?” Observant … and keen. A pity she couldn’t pursue a career as a barrister—she’d be perfect.

“Lord Whitlock,” I corrected her, “is Isabella’s guardian. He looks out for her best interest, just as I would, just as I do, for yours, dear sister.”

“Fair enough. Please, Edward, I do love Bella like a sister.”

She feared I’d ruin my chances with Bella. “I know you do, Alice. It doesn’t make my situation easier, believe me. I do care about Isabella, but my hands are tied. And that is all I am willing to volunteer on the matter. For now.”

“What about that Lord Blackwood character?”

“How do you know about him?”

“Servants talk, Edward. Have you forgotten that? I saw him dash out the front door earlier. He cuts quite a figure, especially with that brand-new brougham he drives around. It stands out in a crowd.”

“Uhm.”

“And you don’t like him, do you, Edward?”

“He’s a preening peacock, Alice.”

“His family has an immense fortune and a variety of country estates, one of which borders with Bella’s main property in Somerset.”

“I didn’t know your education included perusing property records.”

“It does include learning one’s way around the peerage lists though. That chap is a hot commodity, brother.”

“And he attended Oxford with Lord Whitlock.”

“Immaterial, brother. That would qualify half the peerage.”

“True. Did you glean anything else of import while examining the peerage lists?”

“He is neither the eldest nor only offspring, but he’s the heir apparent. There’s an older sister who, of course, doesn’t count but might have a portion worth more than Cullen Manor and the plantation combined. A cousin of theirs attended our school. I did hear some cursory gossip, but I can’t tell whether any of it is reliable.”

“Uhm. Any landowner with some sense would try to acquire a bordering property. I’d do the same.”

“Acquire it or marry into it.”

I retracted my earlier assessment. Alice could best a Queen’s Counsel while painting a screen or drawing a landscape scene—with ruthless grace. “Do you think that’s his intention?”

“I wouldn’t know, Edward. You’ve met his lordship, what do you think?”

“You might be right, sister. You might very well be correct.”

“Are you going to do anything about it, brother?” I wouldn’t let his lordship snatch my Isabella away from me. I suddenly remembered one detail of Lord Blackwood’s visit.

“Maybe I will not have to do anything about it.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“I might not be the only one harbouring a passionate aversion towards his lordship.”

Chapter Text

The next day after church, Alice and I decided we’d go for that stroll Jasper had proposed. Alice was surprised when Bella cobbled up a vague excuse and stayed behind. I did not bother to disabuse my sister of the notion Bella had planted, just yet, but I did wonder about her reaction to Jasper’s suggestion.

We’d seen and called on a number of people during the time we’d been in London, but upon closer review, it dawned on me that those ladies of quality who regularly graced Bella’s parlour at Grosvenor Square boiled down to a highly restricted list of names. A small circle, indeed. Isabella had not announced her presence from the sooty rooftops of London.

Now, the intriguing conundrum Jasper had enunciated just before slamming the door in our faces deserved some consideration. While Alice and I walked arm in arm along the Serpentine, a parade of people also walked past and around us. Whether absorbed in their own conversations or roaming their eyes far and wide to take in the landscape—or park population on display—most continued on their merry way, seemingly paying precious little attention to other strollers or carriages that came in their direction.

Kingston, Jamaica hardly harboured as many prominent families as London did, but I’d come to know their ways. I would bet my second-best pair of riding boots that their nonchalance was naught but an affectation. By training and habit, their gaze scanned the crowds and singled out those they couldn’t or wouldn’t ignore. I’d found myself on the receiving end of some such attention; their social graces were as keen as their instinct for advancement, and they relayed information within their circles with the speed and reliability of a kit of homing pigeons. This epiphany convinced me that Isabella’s reluctance to joining us this morning had merit—if there were specific people, or sets of people, she wished to avoid, a walk around Hyde Park would be tantamount to heralding her arrival on a public square. If she ran into only one such person, news of her appearance would travel far and wide in no time. She’d get notes and calling cards, visits she would be compelled to return for the sake of courtesy.

On the other hand, appearing at a major social event like Lord Blackwood’s ball would make a splash. Would the ultimate consequence be comparable though? Yes and no, I pondered.

In one case, news of her arrival would percolate like the persistent drip, drip of rain from faulty eaves. One week still separated us from the ball—whatever Bella had planned for it, that drip, drip would soon fill up her calendar with visits and calls she had no wish to either pay or return, in my personal estimation.

In the second case, the splash would be instant and generalised, spreading like wildfire, but at least—as she’d reminded Jasper—she’d have one more week of peace. It was fairly safe to assume that Bella would rather put up with the effects of a dramatic entrance if the reward were a guaranteed additional sennight of relative quiet.

“Why do you think Bella wouldn’t come with us, Edward?” Alice interrupted my musings.

“I imagine she has house business to deal with, dear. After all, I take it she hasn’t been in London in a while?”

“I don’t think she’s ever stayed here since she came to live with us. Still, the house was in tip-top shape. That’s Bella for you,” she said, an affectionate smile gracing her features.

“According to Lord Whitlock, she has the means for all this. And according to Jenks, she’s more than capable of handling a complex household. I’m not surprised.”

“You’re right. I’m sure there’s no ulterior motive. She is just busy,” Alice concurred with a sage nod of her head.

“Or maybe she just wanted you and I to have some time together, as siblings.”

Alice turned to me with a benign smile. “Nudging us to talk. That is such a Bella thing to do. She is always so considerate.”

I might have had some residual qualms in being less than forthcoming with Alice about Bella’s motives, but I had no time to ponder my fibs. A stylish open carriage stopped right at our side there and then, interrupting our conversation.

“Mr Cullen, Miss Cullen, what a nice surprise!”

Couldn’t say that was mutual, but social graces—and my mother’s precepts on politeness—required me to put my best foot forward, even in Lord Blackwood’s case.

“Stephens, I’ll walk for a while. Wait for me here.” After giving instructions to his driver—tersely, I couldn’t help noticing—Lord Blackwood stepped down from his carriage with lithe motions. He moved like an athlete—a certain legacy from his days of competitive rowing at Oxford.

“I’m glad our paths crossed today,” he said with a courteous bow to Alice, who replied with a hint of a curtsey of her own.

“Likewise, Lord Blackwood, likewise. Seems as though half of London is here.”

“The good half, you mean.” To which he belonged, as his quip seemed to imply. Of course.

“I would scarce know, my lord. I haven’t been here in ages. My sister is the expert,” I said, beckoning to Alice with a sideways nod.

Lord Blackwood, who walked beside me, turned across me to acknowledge Alice, and his gaze lit up with a flash of recognition. “Of course, my cousin Emily did mention something. Forgive my boldness, Miss Cullen. Did you attend the St. Paul School, by any chance?”

Alice smiled. “Guilty as charged, my lord. I remember Emily with fondness. Would you please convey my regards?”

“I certainly will, Miss Cullen, with pleasure. However, I believe you will have occasion to do so in person next week. She’ll be at the ball too.”

“That is welcome news indeed.”

After a few commonplace remarks about the weather and how glorious London looked in early summer—and related complaints about the heat—conversation dried up, and we walked in silence for a while. Yet, Lord Blackwood kept an attentive eye on both of us; we were under a microscope. I wondered, was this genuine curiosity, or was it on account of Bella?

When we got to the eastern end of Rotten Row, I checked my pocket watch. We were due back at Grosvenor Square for luncheon, and I didn’t want us to be late. Lord Blackwood caught my move.

“It has been a most agreeable walk, but duty calls. Until next time, Miss Cullen. Mr Cullen, my regards.” He touched the brim of his hat, bowed to Alice, and walked back to his carriage.

Alice and I continued on our way towards the exit of the park that would take us back to Bella’s house. “Well, that was interesting, wasn’t it, brother?”

“Do you think we passed muster?”

“Who knows? His lordship seems to have a discerning eye. I will try and extract more information from Emily at the ball.”

“You ladies and your gossiping …”

Alice suppressed a laugh and pulled lightly on my arm. Had we been at Cullen Manor, she would have swatted my hand away. Luckily for me, we were in public, and that prevented her from manhandling me. “Stop it, Edward. You’re just jealous you can’t eavesdrop.”

“That’s just as well, Alice, just as well,” I replied, my cheerful tone matching hers for an instant. “Alice, I’ve given some thought to our last discussion. Because of the extent of our stay in London, there will be estate business that needs transacting while I’m here.”

“I don’t mind, Edward. I understand you need to take care of business. Estates don’t run themselves. Father always said that. I’ll keep myself occupied.”

“That’s not what concerns me. I figured you’d fill in your social calendar somehow.”

“Oh.” Alice at a loss for words, twice in as many days. What next? Would the sky fall from over our heads? Would London Bridge be falling down?

“What I’d like are your thoughts on all this. Cullen Manor is your home, too.”

Alice nodded, pressing her hand firmly around my arm. “I am not used to being called upon for opinions, brother. I may need a little adjustment to this new … state of affairs.”

“Very well. Adjust, and then come back to me. There is one thing you said that has merit. I can’t be everywhere, and you can’t stay at Cullen Manor alone.”

“But Bella …”

I shook my head. This line of reasoning needed to be curtailed. “Do not ‘Bella’ me on this, Alice. You being alone at Cullen Manor is no more acceptable than Bella and you alone at Cullen Manor—or anywhere.”

“But ...” Alice’s vocabulary had shrunk all the way from a string of words, to silence, to a single word. But.

“No buts, Alice Alexandra Cullen. Lord Whitlock does not have a monopoly on propriety where his cousin is concerned. I worry about your reputation, too. Both of your reputations, for that matter.”

Alice huffed. “I can’t fault you on that. I cannot leave Bella though. I don’t know if …” Her voice dissolved into a faltering whisper. “I don’t know if I can do this without her.”

“That puts us in quite the bind, does it not? I’ve spent six years away from you, sister. I’d like that to change. Whether this means we all go to Jamaica, or we all go back to Cornwall, it remains to be seen.”

“Fair enough, brother,” she answered, patting my arm with her gloved hand.

Another idea suddenly presented itself. “Alice, what would you say if I took you out of school for good?”

She raised her head and stopped short, turning to me with a keen look. “I’m still not used to being consulted, to having opinions that someone will listen to.”

I smiled and covered her hand with mine. “I can’t believe our parents just ordered you around all the time, dear. They weren’t … that way.”

She suppressed a sigh, then walked on. I followed suit. “They were not, mayhap not to you. It’s different for a girl. Especially Father—he would say his piece, lay down the law, and I was supposed to go along with it. And go along I did. Now, about this notion of me quitting school …”

“Well, are you not nearly done with it all the same? You’ve been out for weeks, and they’ve been understanding of the situation.”

“I only have two weeks left, if that.” She sighed once more.

“Would you rather go back, resume your routine, be with your friends again?”

“May I think about it, Edward? I’d like to discuss it with Bella, too. If I went back to school, I would have to spend time away from her, and from you. I’m not sure I’m too keen on it at this point.”

“Of course, dear. Talk to Bella. I’m sure she’ll be glad to listen. When you’re ready, come talk to me, and we’ll see what’s to do with it.”

After that, we walked on in silence, relishing the sunny, warm spring day on our way back to Isabella’s house until we rounded the corner after the last turn into Grosvenor Square.

“Devil take you, Edward. I knew I’d find you if I waited long enough.”

Alice and I stopped dead in our tracks. I knew that voice—but the hate seeping through it had a foreign edge that cut through my skin in a waterfall of broken glass.

The last person I expected to see.

The last man I wished to talk to.

The one I’d missed like no other—an amputated limb out of the ragged remnants of my family. Out of reach—by my father’s command from beyond the grave, and that was the bed where my loyalties lay.

“Emmett. What do you want?”

Alice, at first frozen by my side, took a tentative step forward. “Em … Rosalie … Rose …”

I held her back; to my astonishment, she complied and didn’t defy my authority. She wouldn’t. Not in public. However, Emmett was another kettle of fish, as old Jenks would say. His … wife—the word stuck in my craw—stood by him, a completely unknown quantity to me.

“Good morrow to you too, sister,” he replied, unperturbed, and touched the brim of his hat to Alice in salute.

I moved one, two steps closer; the fog of war clouded my judgement. Our roles now reversed, Alice tugged at my elbow with a cautionary whisper. “Edward, please. Not here.”

With good reason. I wasn’t about to cause a scene at a stone’s throw from Bella’s house, in one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods of London, with the cream of London’s society staring at the spectacle brewing before their eyes. Would Emmett show the same restraint?

“You could at least thank me. I spared Bella the embarrassment of having to shut her door in my face.”

“You leave Isabella out of this, Emmett Nathaniel Cullen.” I’d never known I could convey such heights of revulsion in my voice. I’d never needed to before that moment.

“That’s where we are, aren’t we? It didn’t take you long, brother.”

“Do not make assumptions about me, or about Isabella, for that matter. Your assumptions killed our father. Not that you’d care. As a matter of fact, you should leave altogether. I have no business with you or your wife.”

“You leave my wife out of this, Edward. She has nothing to do with it.”

“Quite the contrary. You know it and I know it.” How could Emmett be so blind? It had everything to do with his wife. It had all started with him and his dogged pursuit of Miss Hale despite our father’s objections.

He scowled at me. His thunderous look did not comport with the gentle squeeze he gave his wife’s arm, which was coiled around his as she lowered her gaze to the ground. Releasing her, Emmett took one, two strides towards me, whereas his wife stood rooted behind him. I chanced a good look at her—I remembered her as a young girl. While she’d always been a beauty with long hair the colour of summer wheat and startling violet eyes, the intervening years had graced her with a ladylike poise not unlike Bella’s, but uncommon especially in a fraught situation like this.

Emmett finally stood close enough to look me in the eye—long gone were the days when he’d tower over me. He was stockier, but I was taller now and stood to my full height in the face of his keen, ice-cold glare.

“So that’s what you think, Edward?”

“You appear rather sure of yourself, brother. Why don’t you tell me?” I wouldn’t give in—not an inch—before Emmett showed me his hand. I still didn’t know what he hoped to gain by cornering me on a public street, other than to irritate the pits of hell out of me.

“You. You always thought you knew better.”

“Another assumption.”

“If the shoe fits.”

I gave a minute shake of my head, and then let him continue. “You still think you know everything, Edward?”

His attitude was beginning to vex me, but we were still standing on a public street a stone’s throw from Isabella’s front door while Alice stood beside me. For her sake at least, I had to keep my composure.

“I only know that in the space of two days, I learned of your wedding and of our father’s illness. After that, I had to cross an ocean and wondered for six weeks whether I’d make it in time. If I’d even make it to Cornwall alive.”

“And you bought whatever tale of woe our father sold you from beyond the grave. Woe betide you, Edward! My mother died and I couldn’t say goodbye. Because of you. Because of Father and his outlandish notions.”

“You made a choice—choices have consequences.” I couldn’t keep my growing irritation out of my voice. Had it not been for Alice grasping my arm in a vice, I’d be shaking with anger. I turned around to leave—we’d take a longer way back, but I needed to be as far away as possible from my brother, and I needed my temper to subside before I crossed Bella’s threshold.

“He poisoned you against me, didn’t he?” Emmett’s voice sounded different, defeated. His anger had dissipated into regret. “You’ve always been a fair, honest man, Edward, and yet, here I stand, and you won’t give me the benefit of the doubt.”

Without replying, I coaxed Alice to follow me. Together, we took one step, and then another, away from Emmett, his wife, and his vitriol, but that didn’t deter him one iota.

“Even murderers have a right to a defence and a day in court. Yet, you won’t hear my side of things. What gives you the right to think you know everything?”

That piqued my curiosity and almost crumbled my resolve. I paused—a new edge to Emmett’s voice made me wonder whether there was some truth to his words, rather than just hollow taunts to provoke me into blowing up to smithereens. I couldn’t give in to his threats and taunts, however—he’d see me as weak, and I couldn’t have that. Besides, I had no evidence that he was indeed being truthful. Admitting it would also imply the impossible—that my father had lied to me. My shattered heart and my weary mind could not even begin to contemplate it.

In stubborn silence, I continued my escape, steering Alice alongside me, until Emmett’s vociferous protests evaporated in the distance.

When we reached the front steps of Bella’s house, Alice turned to me with a serious, almost pained expression.

“I do not blame you for your reaction just now, Edward. You were taken by surprise, and it was wrong of Emmett to go about things this way—not if he wanted you to listen to him, that is.”

I nodded with a resigned sigh. Alice was again demonstrating a maturity that belied her young age, and it filled me with pride. “He’s always been impulsive, dear. He sent his wedding announcement to Jamaica by express.”

Alice clucked her tongue and sighed in turn. “What if … what if there were some truth to what he said? He may be impulsive, but he’s never been a deceitful man. What are you going to do about this, Edward?”

As we climbed the front steps, I let her words linger. Fortnum welcomed us inside with assurances that we weren’t late for luncheon after all because Miss Swan had given instructions to wait for us and would see us in the drawing room before going into the dining room together.

“I need to ponder this, Alice. Right now, I scarce know what to think.”

She nodded, and when Bella rose from her favourite spot on the settee in the drawing room to greet her, Alice left me behind to run into her friend’s arms.

In that precise moment, watching them reunite after a morning spent in separate pursuits, I envied my sister with a fierce passion. When Bella embraced Alice and asked her if she’d liked her walk in the park with a mirthful smile and a pat on her cheek, jealousy consumed me at the thought that my own sister could share Bella’s affection so freely while I was condemned to observe at a distance.

My turmoil must have been evident because Isabella, ever the solicitous hostess, approached me as she walked to the dining room with an arm looped around Alice’s waist.

“Did the walk not agree with you, Edward?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she regarded me with concern etched on her features. Was that for me? Dare I hope that concern was all for me?

“The walk itself was quite pleasant, Isabella.” I forced myself to answer. Now that my hands were free, I flexed my fingers into fists, trying to contain my lingering anger at Emmett’s unannounced appearance.

“Then what ails you? You look about as tense as a violin string about to snap.”

Isabella, with her keen intellect and even keener gaze, had taken one good look at me and figured me out. It wasn’t the first time either. Before her, I truly had nothing to hide. Her eyes saw right through my soul. Could I persuade her then to look further, to look into my heart and see that it was, without fail, starting to beat solely for her?

“Won’t you tell me? It does you no good to keep bad things bottled up, Edward. If you won’t talk to me, talk to Alice, please. I can’t see you like this,” she pleaded, extending one hand gently towards me, and then, as if on second thought, retracting it. A cursory glance around the dining room told me all I needed to know—servants. It wouldn’t do to be seen behaving so familiarly with me. What could be overlooked at Cullen Manor, where old Jenks did not stand on ceremonies more than we did, would not do in London.

I couldn’t begrudge Bella her mindfulness and proper behaviour. I had no claim on her.

“Edward?”

Just then, I realised I hadn’t replied to her. Through gritted teeth, I ground out my answer with a tone that was more akin to a curse than an explanation. “Emmett.”

At my words, Bella grew pale, and an anguished grimace marred her beautiful face. “What?”

I threw a glance in Alice’s direction. By now, she’d given up waiting for us and had taken her seat at the dining room table. As a guest, she should have waited for Bella to take her seat first, but since our arrival in London, Bella had told Alice she didn’t care for such frivolities—especially while dining with family. If I kept my voice to a whisper, Alice wouldn’t overhear us.

“Later. I’d rather not discuss it in front of Alice.”

“Later,” she replied with a curt nod.

I knew she’d hold me to that promise.

Chapter Text

Later never seemed to come that day.

After all, we were indeed obligated to spend the evening at Holland Park. The surprising arrival of one of Lord Whitlock’s carriages as Isabella, Alice, and I assembled in the foyer to make our own way there reminded me that a higher hand would orchestrate our movements—Isabella’s movements, rather—in society from here on out; a friendly, familiar, but firm hand that would not hesitate to bend events and people to the will of its owner, on occasion.

Travelling in style was a hardship I could endure if it afforded me an evening with Isabella. Especially after how solicitous, kind, and caring she’d been to my Alice in preparation for tonight’s small gathering. Despite her well-rounded education and outgoing personality, at the prospect of moving about a grand house such as Holland Park amid Lord Whitlock’s lofty acquaintances Alice suddenly felt hesitant and inadequate and still feared her presence—our presence—would be considered inappropriate because of our recent bereavement.

Isabella had assuaged her doubts and helped her choose attire befitting of both the gathering and the situation and, in solidarity, had elected to dress in half-mourning herself. Of course, the majority of Alice’s concerns dissipated when Bella reminded her that her cousin wouldn’t have extended an invitation had he felt it would be unwelcome or inappropriate.

That evening, when our trio dismounted the carriage in front of Jasper’s mansion in Holland Park, I could not help but revel in the mesmerising picture Isabella and Alice painted that evening with matching smiles and matching gowns. They both looked ethereal in the early evening light, bathed in the crimson hues of the last moments of an early summer sunset; as day turned into twilight, the violet undertones of the setting sun matched the lilac of their gowns better than a French master could ever capture on a canvas. The absence of any jewellery or other finery did not detract from the end result—it rather enhanced their natural, effortless beauty. Any man would have been proud to walk into a room with either of them, and here I was, walking into Lord Whitlock’s abode with both ladies on my arms.

Once Whitlock’s impeccable butler welcomed us inside, the man himself momentarily abandoned his other guests to come greet us, and with Bella now on his arm, he escorted us into his spacious and well-appointed drawing room. There I found out—much to my chagrin and my sister’s delight—that Lord Whitlock’s notion of a small gathering counted about two dozen people.

I navigated through dinner in a haze, by now almost unaccustomed to large and boisterous dinner parties—not that I’d attended but mere handfuls of those in Jamaica, and reluctantly, at that. My mind still reeled from my unexpected confrontation with my brother. While I managed to make polite dinner conversation with those seated closest to me, I kept hearing Emmett’s voice in my head over and over again, in an incessant torrent of angry words that chiselled away at all my deeply held certainties with unrelenting blows.

The evening’s seating arrangement confined me at the far end of the table from Bella who, from what I could glimpse in my peripheral vision, appeared to be enduring an endless conversation that sounded as appealing as pulling one’s teeth. Her interlocutor—a portly elderly lady, a distant relation of Whitlock’s—was none the wiser; however, from the slight frown on Bella’s alabaster brow, I could tell that her patience with whatever prattling she was being subjected to had all but run thin.

Her plight and mine hardly differed. The person next to me, a Lady Sarah Linton if memory served, delighted in extolling the virtues of her two daughters in great detail and with equal enthusiasm. The daughters in question were seated a little farther down the table and across from me, but with unfailing precision, they perked up and smiled brightly in my direction every time their mother mentioned them by name. This seemed to happen often over the course of most of our dinner. With a voice that trembled in hope and anticipation, Lady Linton also did not fail to mention that both her ‘Crown Jewels’, as she called them, would be attending Lord Blackwood’s ball in the upcoming week.

At that exact moment, Sir Linton, seated on my other side, rescued me by asking about life in Jamaica and the plantation.

“It is a lush, sprawling piece of property, sir, if I do say so myself. Fertile land, rolling hills. It’s been a good home to me for the past six years.”

“I’ve heard about those terrible storms that plague the region in the summer. How do you cope with the damage, the uncertainty?”

From what I’d gathered, Sir Linton had risen to his knighthood after a successful business career. His questions sounded genuine; the businessman in him yearned to know about risks and threats, unlike regular Londoners or titled landowners, to whom a Jamaica plantation had the mere flair of an exotic curiosity. That curiosity dissipated quickly once the men learned how profitable the business could be, but they were still put off by the distance from England, the danger posed by a hostile climate, and a lack of civilised society in general.

“We cope by being prepared, sir. We know what to watch out for since there seems to be a pattern to these storms. When one draws close, we pray to the Almighty.”

“Amen,” interjected Mrs Linton, whose former enthusiasm had now all but sobered up, no doubt after dreading the prospect of relegating either one of her precious girls to such a savage land.

I caught a glimmer of lavender silk dancing under the chandeliers when Bella rose from her seat at the other end of the table. Dinner was effectively over.

“Ladies, would you please join me in the drawing room?”

At her kind entreaty, all the ladies rose and followed suit. Because Lady Whitlock was not in attendance tonight—and thank God’s small mercies for that—Isabella had acted as mistress of the house, going in for dinner on her cousin’s arm—again, much to my chagrin. Now, she guided the ladies to their after-dinner fare of tea, coffee, and gossip, at least until Jasper deemed that the gentlemen had sipped enough of his brandy.

A few minutes later, I found myself standing by the fireplace in Whitlock’s library, where the gentlemen had retreated for their own brand of after-dinner drinks and gossip. I’d always been of the opinion that idle chit-chat was not the exclusive province of ladies; when given the occasion, men could be as adept at and as keen on it as ladies, if not worse, since they could dispense with some of the proprieties that bound the ladies’ conduct, at least when said ladies did not linger within hearing distance.

Sir Linton had left me to my own devices after becoming embroiled in a dispute over the latest bills held up in the Commons with two other gentlemen I’d understood to be the MPs for their respective boroughs. The moment of respite from polite conversation brought Emmett’s and Alice’s words back to the forefront of my thoughts once again while I nursed a glass of Whitlock’s brandy and stared into the flames, dancing and crackling in the hearth.

“You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, my friend.” Despite a hint of wry humour, Jasper’s voice sounded genuinely concerned.

I sighed and sipped more of my drink. My reluctance did not seem to deter him. “I hope your sister is enjoying the evening, Edward. I know she had second thoughts about it, or so Isabella told me.”

“Alice deserved a light-hearted intermission after the last few months we’ve had at Cullen Manor. I’m glad you included us in the invitation. Thank you again for that.”

He waved off my concerns and moved to refill my glass, then turned to address me again. “I see my best liquor is no help in dissipating that frown of yours. Anything I may be of service with? I’m a good listener. Almost as good as Isabella.”

I couldn’t help but smile at the mention of my Bella. How did Jasper suspect that she was the one with whom I longed to share my worries?

“I’m not sure how much Isabella has shared about the circumstances of my father’s passing.”

He nodded and steered both of us farther away from the rest of the guests scattered about the library.

“Your opening bodes for a conversation best entertained away from prying ears. Am I wrong?”

I took a seat in one of two leather armchairs by a small round table situated in an alcove by a window. “No, you’re not. Alice and I ran into my brother and his wife this morning. It was … unsettling.”

“Your brother and his wife, you said?” he said, tentatively. He seemed to sense there was more to the story than an unexpected encounter.

“Without a doubt, you know Alice and I have an elder brother.”

He nodded again, motioning for me to continue. “Last spring, I received an express at the Cullen plantation in Jamaica. Emmett announced his impending nuptials to a Miss Rosalie Hale. He hinted at some resistance on my father’s part. Mind you, I had not received word from home in months because the post becomes erratic and infrequent over the winter. The next day, I received a letter from Isabella, beseeching me to come home at once because my father had suffered an apoplexy. It was dated two weeks after Emmett’s own missive.”

“Did you suspect the two events to be connected?” Jasper asked with a speculative look in his deep hazel eyes.

I shook my head and continued with my tale of woe. “Not at the time. I scarce knew what was afoot back in Cornwall. I secured passage on the first vessel bound for Bristol, and when I arrived at Cullen Manor, it all crashed down on me. My father had been cold in the ground for weeks already, having never recovered from that stroke. My mother also lay on her deathbed, only I didn’t know it at the time. And then there was Isabella.”

“You were in for quite the surprise.”

“Oh, yes,” I replied with a dramatic nod. “I scarce knew what to make of her either. I had no idea she even existed before I received that letter. The start of our acquaintance was … as rocky as the cliffs of Cornwall, you could say, but nothing prepared me for what I learned a few weeks later when my father’s lawyer called at the manor to read my father’s last will and testament.”

“The plot thickens,” Jasper said, now clearly engrossed in my narrative.

“My father cut Emmett out of his will.”

“Completely?” Jasper asked, now raising an eyebrow over the rim of his glass.

“Utterly and completely. He didn’t get one penny, nor did he get any property. As things stand, I own both Cullen Manor and the plantation outright, and everything that goes with it.”

Jasper gave an appreciative nod and sipped some more of his brandy. In a petty recess of my brain, I gloated—now his Lordship knew just how far removed from an unkempt, impecunious country bumpkin I actually was. I didn’t have exact figures at my fingertips, but I could probably secure a fashionable property in London too, if I put my lawyer to it. I gave a minute shake of my head to dispel my wanderings and continued my explanation.

“Father had a few choice words for him from beyond the grave too—made it adamantly clear that Emmett and his wife were no longer welcome at Cullen Manor.”

Jasper drained his glass before attempting an answer at all. “That must have been quite a shock.”

“Quite. Especially when my brother turned up at my mother’s wake. I was hell-bent on giving him a piece of my mind, then turn him over to the constable. It took Bella’s gentle coaxing to prevent both him and me from causing a scene.”

After a series of brief, pensive nods, Jasper asked, “You never did say what your father’s objection to the nuptials was. Anything of import?”

“This is where it all gets convoluted, my friend. I feel duty-bound to abide by the terms of my father’s will. Yet, I cannot for the life of me fathom what rubbed him the wrong way about Miss Hale.”

“Objectionable family?”

“Heavens, no. Fairly prominent Falmouth family, well-established. They have a good, well-run estate and business. Miss Hale is an only child with a substantial marriage portion. Even if my brother is penniless as a result of my father’s actions, he still made an enviable match, as far as finances go.”

“Is she an ill-favoured hag?”

“Most emphatically, no.”

He raised an eyebrow again, and his eyes held a glint of mischief as he spoke. “Pray, do tell.”

“She’s the uncontested belle of the county, not that I’ve ever taken the slightest interest. I’ve been away for years, but I knew when I left that Emmett had a preference for her even then. This match has been simmering for a good, long while. My father couldn’t have been blindsided by Emmett’s intentions. Alice and Miss Hale used to be thrown together a lot when they were younger. Of course, all of my information is now sorely outdated.”

“No apparent reason to disqualify the match, then.”

“Not as far as I could tell.”

“But your father still wouldn’t have any of it, to the point of disinheriting his first-born. Forgive my bluntness, but is Emmett a misguided cad? A spendthrift who would squander the family fortune, mismanage the estate into oblivion?”

“He can be impulsive, but not irresponsible. Father had groomed him to take over Cullen Manor. He’s always had a good head on his shoulders until Miss Hale came along.”

“They do say that love makes one blind and foolish.”

I scoffed, quite perplexed over the whole affair. “It still doesn’t explain my father’s objection.”

“Why did Emmett ambush you this morning? You never got round to telling me. If you don’t mind sharing, that is.”

I shook my head. “He expressed his current opinion of me in no uncertain terms. By some miracle, he kept his language proper enough for the ladies present. Then he planted a seed with his parting shot.”

“His tactic clearly worked, if twelve hours later you are still brooding over it.”

“It’s as much Alice’s fault as Emmett’s. She said something that got me thinking.”

“Did she?” The twinkle in Jasper’s eyes grew warmer. I’d have to corner him about this at some point, but it was too early. Alice would confide in Bella or in me if anything of substance happened, or so I hoped.

“She’s a sharp-witted lass, for sure,” I replied with a chuckle. I was proud of my sister, even if I couldn’t take credit for her upbringing. “She suggested I might be operating on a less than full set of facts here.”

“Would she have any more clue than you do about your father’s objection to the match?”

I shook my head again. My glass was now drained, but I needed a clear head for this conversation. “She was away at school when all of that was brewing, so to speak. I doubt she’d know. Who’s to say she’s not manoeuvring for her two brothers to reconcile?”

Before Jasper could offer any further comment, Sir Linton and another gentleman, whose name I could not recall, approached us. I’d monopolised the host long enough.

“How about we joined our ladies, Whitlock?” said the unnamed gentleman.

“Certainly, Lord Huntington.” That was the chap’s name then. “Otherwise, I fear my cousin might barge in here and pry me off the armchair,” he said, standing up and patting Lord Huntington’s shoulder. Then he turned to me. “Shall we, Mister Cullen?”

“By all means,” I replied, gesturing for Lord Huntington and Sir Linton to go ahead of me. With a stealthy move, Jasper sidled up beside me as we walked out of the library towards the drawing room.

“Does Isabella know about all this?” he whispered, leaning towards me.

“She knows I ran into Emmett. I have no idea if Alice relayed the full import of the confrontation to her by now or not.”

“I doubt it. Knowing Isabella, she’d rather have this sort of conversation without an audience. After all, she was at the manor while all of it transpired. She might be able to shed some light on it.”

Again, Jasper offered some words of wisdom; based on her reaction to seeing my brother’s new wife, my sister would also have, no doubt, a valuable contribution towards untangling this Gordian knot. Of course, that meant Jasper would get to spend more time with her, too. I nodded just as we came to the threshold of the drawing room.

I spotted Alice seated beside my Bella at the piano bench; both of them giggled while tinkering away at a rather out-of-tune but diverting duet. Because I knew them both to be accomplished performers, I ventured to guess that their current, less than stellar rendition could be motivated by the fact that they didn’t care about showing off—they were merely enjoying spending time together.

“I hoped she would.”

“Leave it to me. I’ll send all of these people on their merry way, then you and I shall have a nightcap sitting by the fireplace while we have a nice chat with my cousin and your sister before I send the three of you back to Grosvenor Square.”

A curt nod was all the reply I could manage without being too conspicuous. Disjointed conversations buzzed around me throughout the room, and I made my way to the piano bench to talk to the two people whose company I now craved above anyone else’s here.

“Oh, the master piano player descends on us at last, Bella! We’d best leave before he berates our performance!” My sister teased me, and Bella laughed alongside her. The warm, welcoming look she bestowed on me eased my earlier gloomy temper. I longed to be closer to her, but it was neither the time nor place for it.

“On the contrary, sister. The pair of you seem to be having a grand old time of it, and I have no inclination of impinging on your diversions. It is a sight for sore eyes to see the both of you smiling so.”

Alice took my hand and pulled me down to sit beside her. “Is there even room for a third player on this bench, Alice?”

“No matter. You’ve been sequestered with those other gentlemen all night. I’ve had to endure heaps of praise on my perfect brother from a most unwelcome source. It’s high time you indulged me, dear brother.”

Bella snickered from her perch on the other side of Alice. She stood to give Alice and me more room. “Stay, Bella. I didn’t mean to chase you away,” Alice begged her, with a pleading look that brooked no refusals.

“I have to go and play mistress of the house with my cousin, Alice. The sooner we bid goodbye to everyone, the sooner they’ll leave us alone,” she replied with a conspiratorial whisper.

In keeping with her character, Bella would endure a social evening because she knew what was expected of her, especially at her cousin’s residence and at his insistence, but she craved peace, quiet, and time with her family more than socialising.

While she went about her social duties around the room, Alice and I started playing our own uncoordinated duet.

“What’s this I hear about praise from an unwelcome source?”

She scoffed, then snickered as she hit a wrong note. “The Linton girls. They couldn’t find plaudits high enough for your virtues. Although, what could they know about your virtues after watching you eat one dinner? It’s beyond me.”

“That I have outstanding table manners, perhaps? I take it you don’t like them, sister?”

She gave a cursory look around the room, no doubt to check if the girls in questions stood close enough to hear us. “They’re likeable enough,” she started with an unladylike shrug. “They were at my school for a year before their mother took them out so they could make a proper debut in society and in the marriage market. Three years later, pickings are still abysmal,” she quipped, with a dismissive grimace.

“Then what is your objection with them?”

She turned to me with a mischievous smile. “Well, it’s no use for either of them to set their designs on you, is it, brother? They should just look elsewhere, shouldn’t they?”

“Are you trying to extract information out of me?” I replied with a matching smile.

“Aren’t we in a playful mood this evening? I take it you’re over your sulking about Emmett?”

At her words, my smile contorted into a frown. “Not quite, but Lord Whitlock offered some insight. It helped.”

“I wanted to talk to you about it, but I wasn’t sure …”

We were interrupted by the sound of two voices approaching us.

“Great-aunt Millicent has finally left, and peace ensues,” announced Lord Whitlock, throwing a meaningful look in my direction when both Alice and I turned to face them.

“Come, Alice, let’s sit down all together,” Bella said, extending her arm to help Alice up off the piano bench.

I stood myself and followed my ladies to the front of the room, where Jasper had already sat in a high-backed chair. Alice and Bella took the settee to the right of Jasper, and I chose the remaining chair opposite him. He rang the bell for more tea for the ladies and brandy for ourselves, and after the footman disappeared, Bella spoke up first.

“Is this later, then?” she asked, looking straight at me.

“This is later,” I conceded with a nod.

“What did Emmett want? The usual?” she asked, alternating her gaze between Alice and me.

“Do not look at me, brother. I could hardly pass on that kind of dirty laundry at a dinner party. It would take a lot less to set the rumour mill churning,” Alice interjected before I could contradict her.

“What does the usual entail where my brother is concerned, Isabella? Because this morning, he wasn’t quite clear on that score,” I almost spat out.

Bella blanched at my involuntary harsh retort. I heaved a frustrated sigh. I yearned to extend my hand towards her so I could grasp hers; however, I had to make do with a spoken apology. “Please forgive me. I did not mean to be short with you. He just vexes me, even at a distance.”

She nodded, bestowed on me an indulgent smile, and lowered her gaze. “It’s been known as one of his talents, vexing people. His latest brand of usual, though, is asking for a second chance. He did not take your father’s decision well.”

“That’s a euphemism if I ever heard one,” quipped Alice again.

“Quite,” I replied with a cursory glance at Jasper, who’d remained silent so far.

He must have surmised my unease because he spoke up before I could say anything else. “If you’d rather have this conversation without me, say the word, and I’ll make myself scarce, Edward. Better still, I’ll send for the carriage.”

I pondered his offer for a moment. He’d been a good friend to me tonight, listening to my musings and volunteering his opinions. It didn’t seem fair to exclude him now; just then, I realised that my one true friend had always been my brother, and now I’d lost him. That loss hurt more than his betrayal, more than my father’s abrupt and inscrutable decisions.

“No, Jasper. I’d like it if you stayed, as a matter of fact. Your unbiased perspective has been beneficial so far.” I turned to Alice. “Thank you for planting that little seed in my head this morning, sister.”

She nodded at me with a look that conveyed far more than words could. The lass knew what it would prompt me to do; she’d known all along. “I didn’t mean for you to stew over it so much, brother. But I do wonder …” She stopped suddenly.

The clink of china on a silver tray alerted me to a footman’s approach; the servant deposited our refreshments and scurried away after Jasper ordered him to leave us.

“What about, Alice?” asked Bella, almost plucking the question right out of my mind.

“Well, it was never really clear to me how this sad business came about. I have no clue why Father would be so pig-headed about Ros … Miss Hale all of a sudden. We’ve known the family for years. It was hardly a secret that dear old Emmett had …”

“Designs on her, you mean? Had he expressed any intentions in that regard in the past?”

She set her teacup back on the low table in front of her, looked back at me with a small smile, and then turned to Jasper, who’d just asked her that question. “Emmett is about as subtle as a brick wall. Father would have had to be either blind or foolish not to see it, and he was neither.”

“Oh, Carlisle knew. He knew perfectly well what was afoot with Emmett and Miss Hale,” said Bella with the firm tone she’d used when I first met her and behaved abominably to her.

I’d never heard such animosity before from my Bella, not when it came to my father and Emmett. She’d shown unwavering loyalty to our family and to Carlisle’s last wishes. Her behaviour to Emmett had been the epitome of compassion at my mother’s wake, but she’d never overstepped her boundaries. What could have happened there that would now cause her to voice such reproach of Carlisle’s actions?

To hell with propriety, I thought to myself as I stood up from the armchair to go sit beside Bella on the settee. Her lordship of a cousin could complain about it later if he wanted. Now, I needed her close to me.

“Isabella … Bella, please. What would make you say that? Did Father deliberately seek to separate my brother from Miss Hale?”

She took a slow sip of her tea, and then moved to set the cup down but faltered when the saucer hit the rim of the table and threatened to tumble to the ground in a heap of broken china and steaming liquid. Before I could take conscious stock of my actions, my hand was on her wrist, steadying it so her cup wouldn’t fall.

I risked a glance at her; her blushing cheeks took my breath away. The sudden rosy tint made her alabaster skin glow in a way that shouldn’t have been so enticingly appealing to me. Not in a formal sitting room in the presence of her cousin and my own sister. Not when we did not have any sort of understanding. Yet.

I’d struggled with my feelings long enough; I wasn’t strong enough to keep fighting. I ached to give in. Mayhap I could forge a path for myself where she could be by my side? I thought of those hasty words I’d uttered in my library at Cullen Manor weeks prior, when her cousin threatened to take her away from me, and now knew them to be truer than ever. I could not imagine a life without her.

She withdrew her wrist from my grasp and rested her hands demurely in her lap.

“I will tell you what I know, Edward,” she began, and then clasped Alice’s hand in hers, “for Alice’s sake as much as yours because I see how much this rift has been tormenting the two of you. But I’m afraid …”

At those words, Jasper cleared his throat and interrupted her. “Little one, if you’d rather not say, I’m sure Edward and Miss Cullen will understand. You are under no obligation …”

I wanted to scream in his face, pound my fist into his chest, but I couldn’t; he had a point. She wasn’t mine—and she was under no obligation.

“But I am, Jasper!” she exclaimed. “Can’t you see that? There should be no room for secrets in a family,” she proclaimed in a solemn, sombre voice that hinted at other secrets than those festering at Cullen Manor. Almost unbidden, the image of Lady Whitlock in her fury surged through my thoughts.

Jasper nodded and motioned for her to continue without nary a word. I took it as my cue and leave to speak to Bella now.

“What is it that you’re afraid of, my …” And then I caught my slip, just barely, before I could make an even greater spectacle of myself in front of an audience.

“Do not fret, Edward. It’s nothing dreadful, but you may just have more questions than answers after I’ve told you. That’s all.”

I tried to convey with my regard everything I could not yet put into words.

My ... My Bella, my love.

“May I be the judge of that, please?”

“Very well, then,” she replied with another solemn nod. She sat up straighter, no doubt steeling herself for what she was about to reveal, but still, her hand remained threaded with Alice’s.

“The change in your father’s attitude came abruptly ...”

Chapter Text

“Miss Hale … or rather, Mrs Cullen now,” Bella began.

I had to stop myself from flinching when I heard her call Miss Hale with the title that had once been the sole province of my mother. She turned to face me even as she kept speaking to the three of us.

“Mrs Cullen has been a regular guest at Cullen Manor ever since I arrived there five years ago. There must be only so many families the Hales associated with in the area, or it appeared that way, because if we were invited to a ball at the Assembly Room, the Hales would not attend. Ever. However, if an invitation came from Penrith, from Sir Leonard Penrose, or from Lord Falmouth, they’d be there without fail. At first, I did not notice, but then Alice pointed it out. Emmett always singled out Miss Hale on those occasions. She had no trouble filling up her dance card, but if your brother was there, he’d be the only gentleman graced with a second set before the evening was out.”

Alice’s faint giggle interrupted Bella’s narration. “Emmett always looked proud as punch that she’d dance with him in the first place. It was a sight to see. As a rule, he’s a rather confident lad, but he’d act all nervous around her. Can you picture our brother in such a state, Edward?”

My hand contracted into a fist. “Hardly, Alice. I didn’t picture him as the sort of man who would fall for a conceited social climber.”

In my mind, I avowed we—as Cullens—had no room nor reason to claim social precedence or preferment over anyone. Despite having been established in Cornwall for generations, our family had never had an ounce of nobility to speak of. My father had been a gentleman, and his father before him. Father had raised Emmett and me to be gentlemen as well and take up his mantle with both pride and humility. He’d always ingrained into us that a man should be weighed on his own merits and not on his lineage alone. Despite the equanimity that went with it, and the warning of not judging lest we be judged, something in the Hales’ behaviour sounded contrived, which bothered me a great deal. When I was about to voice my concern, a gentle scoff anticipated me. Quite unexpectedly, it came from Bella herself.

“That’s harsh, Edward, and unnecessary. Social climbers though her parents may be, it’d be unfair to paint Mrs Cullen with the same broad brush. The sins of the father and all that … Well, I have no reason to believe Emmett’s attachment was shallow or not genuine. As for Miss Hale, I assure you that was not the case. From my own observations, she did appear haughty and cold at first, but she improved on closer acquaintance. After a while, I concluded that she is merely shy of strangers and does not handle meeting new people well. On top of that, her mother’s lofty notions did her no favours in her early forays into society. She’d had a sheltered life before being presented, and she knew no better than to follow Mrs Hale’s advice. Besides, she had no reason to challenge her mother’s impositions. Who could believe that their own mother would deliberately steer them in the wrong direction and make them more enemies than friends?”

Through her defence of Mrs Cullen—I reasoned I’d better get used to the name sooner rather than later—Bella had grown incensed as she always did when confronted with a perceived injustice. It made me think of Lady Whitlock’s behaviour again; where conceit and superiority fuelled her conduct, Bella and Jasper were immune to such flaws, and I had daily proof of it in their actions. Likewise, it behoved me to grant the benefit of the doubt to the newly minted Mrs Cullen. I didn’t know her from Eve; where would I find the gall to question her motives if I had no sense of her own character?

That realisation finally melted away my earlier bout of fiery temper. I contemplated Bella’s countenance for a moment and nodded at her in silence, hoping she’d understand I had no quarrel with her defence of Mrs Cullen or with her, per se.

Pinching the bridge of my nose, I collected my thoughts and answered Bella’s remonstrance. “I did not mean to imply that Miss Hale is somehow beneath us. Far from it. But her parents’ behaviour seems deliberately selective and pretentious. I wouldn’t want my brother to be hoodwinked into a match with somebody who did not genuinely care for him just to appease his in-laws’ appetite for advancement. The thought he’d throw away his family for this …”

With a sly smile, Alice broke through the haze of my musings again. “She saw sense eventually. I could tell things had changed when I came back to Cullen Manor last November.”

“That is when your father changed his tune about Miss Hale.”

“How so?” asked Jasper, who had so far been listening in rapt silence.

“At some point during the winter ball at Lord Falmouth’s estate, I remember looking around the room for your brother because your mother was tired and wanted to go home early. I could spot neither Emmett nor Miss Hale, but it didn’t worry me overmuch; people were milling about all over the place. They could have been anywhere, and their simultaneous absence did not imply that they were together. When they reappeared for the last dance of the evening, which they shared, their smiles could have lit up the room.”

“What changed?” asked Jasper again.

“I’d venture to guess that my brother finally found some courage and made his intentions towards Miss Hale known,” said Alice with confidence. “I asked her, of course.”

“Did she have anything to say for herself?” I prodded my sister this time.

She shook her head. “Rosalie and I used to be close, but with me being away at school, we’d grown apart. She wouldn’t tell, played coy with me. To be honest, I’d heard Emmett sing her praises for so long it struck me as odd they didn’t have an understanding already.”

Suddenly, it dawned on me—Emmett’s letter. What was the damn date on that missive? “November you said, Alice?”

“Yes, why?”

“Do you remember Emmett’s express letter to me in Jamaica, announcing his impending nuptials to Miss Hale? It was dated to last November, which leads me to believe that Emmett did offer his hand in marriage to Miss Hale that evening. What happened next though? And why was Father so adamantly against it?”

Bella cleared her throat, took another sip of her tea, and then began again. “They—your father and Emmett—had a long conversation in his study the next day. They were locked up in there for nigh on two hours. At some point, they must have gotten into quite a row because their voices carried through the hall. That’s when your mother ordered the servants away to the kitchen and bade me and Alice go take a turn in the garden, even if it was threatening to snow.”

“After that, the Hales were no longer welcome at Cullen Manor,” said Alice with a dejected expression. “I tried to ask Father why, but he rebuffed me. I insisted to no avail. ‘Never you mind, Alice Alexandra’, he said, and that was it.”

“Edward, you know your father’s word carried weight as much as Alice and I do. What he said went. Without question. Still, it didn’t take Emmett long to circumvent his orders. The Hales were no longer welcome at the Manor? Easily solved—Emmett would visit them at their own estate. Treverva Lodge is a short ride from the Manor, and Emmett rode there every other day or as often as he could get away with it.”

“That must have made for an interesting Christmas,” said Jasper with a wry smile, his penetrating gaze locked on Alice and Bella.

“If by interesting you mean tense, then, yes, Lord Whitlock,” Alice answered, addressing him directly for the first time through the entire conversation.

“That would be one way to put it,” said Bella, echoing Jasper’s arch tone. “Emmett and Carlisle were at each other’s throats constantly—as a manner of speaking, of course,” she added, perhaps realising the import of her statement.

“You needn’t embellish the truth for my sake, Isabella,” I countered, again wishing I could hold her hand, to absorb her strength and protect her at the same time. It struck me again how much she’d been thrust in the middle of the ongoing strife at Cullen Manor, and how much grace it had required of her to navigate those treacherous waters. “I know what kind of temper my father had. Both Emmett and I inherited it.”

“Indeed,” she replied, casting her gaze away from me and towards Alice. “I tried to talk some sense into Emmett. I asked whether there was anything I could do to help. It was a most bewildering conversation.”

“How so?” asked Jasper, echoing my own sentiment. Sudden curiosity piqued me; I’d never known what sort of relationship my brother and Bella shared, but based on how she’d dealt with him at my mother’s wake, I wagered they had to at least be friends.

Bella gave a minute shake of her head as if to rid herself of an unwelcome thought, and then turned to me instead of answering Jasper’s question. “Do you remember how Emmett always used to find the ludicrous side of things, Edward? Your mother called him …”

“The court jester,” I replied, unable to stop my smile at the memory of my brother’s antics. He had, indeed, a penchant for humour that had always counteracted my more serious, brooding nature.

“Well, he gave me an answer that was truly worthy of a court jester. He said, and I paraphrase, that, yes, there was one way I could help, but I wouldn’t have liked it—or him—one bit if I knew. Then, after a tortured laugh, he said he’d never do anything that would cause me to hate him; he couldn’t bear that. I tried to pry an explanation out of him, but he just said he’d made his bed, and now had to lie in it.”

Cryptic replies weren’t my brother’s standard fare. Emmett was never cryptic—straight as an arrow, more like. “That doesn’t sound like him, does it?”

Trying to conceal a yawn behind her hand, Alice replied, “No, that’s not Emmett.”

“I sensed he was hiding something from me, too, because he started avoiding me at all costs. This went on through New Year’s and well into January. Until one day …”

January—once more, the dates appeared to be consistent with the letters I’d received in Jamaica. I interrupted her again. “Forgive me, Bella. You said January?”

“That’s when I wrote to you. You remembered,” she stated.

How could I forget the letter that had sent my world into a tailspin? “That’s when Father had the apoplexy, didn’t he?”

“Yes,” she said, stifling a sob. “Emmett came to announce he was married, and there was nothing Carlisle could do to stop him. They shouted at each other in the hall, not caring one whit who heard them. Of course, Esme and I hastened over to see what the commotion was all about. It was a wretched, wretched day.”

Isabella’s pain was etched on her face; it marred her features as she wept in silence. Alice wound an arm around her shoulders to support her. I longed to take Alice’s place and comfort my Bella.

“Bella …” Her name fell from my lips like a prayer, and she turned to face me.

“I’m sorry, Edward,” she whispered.

“For what, dearest?” I no longer cared who saw or heard me at this point. To hell with propriety indeed.

“I didn’t stop him. And then he … he … he behaved so abominably to your father, and hurled insults at him, and said you would have sided with him if you knew … and Carlisle … Carlisle just couldn’t bear it. He barely had time to cast Emmett out before he collapsed.”

In the face of her lingering guilt, and of what she’d endured for the sake of my family, I threw caution to the wind and gathered her in my arms. I’d sort it out with Jasper later if he had any objections. My intentions were honourable, and it was high time I took the one good page out of my brother’s book and made them known.

“Dearest, you couldn’t have prevented that if you tried. It was not your fault, nor was it your doing. Please tell me you see that, Bella.”

“But I …”

“It was Emmett’s choice to marry Miss Hale. Just as it was my father’s choice to oppose him.”

“But you … when you came home … you … ” she whispered, still weeping.

“Aye, I was a right oaf to you when I came home. I had no idea any of this was afoot. I came home after six years to find my father dead, my brother an outcast, my mother on her deathbed, and a stranger running my house. Quite a lot to take in after six weeks at sea. Still, forgive me, please?”

“I already have, Edward. It wasn’t your fault either.”

“No, dearest. Nothing we could have said or done would have stopped Emmett. You were right that day in the orchard. He is a grown man of nine and twenty. Choices have consequences.”

“Quite,” said Jasper from the other end of the room, clearing his throat. I’d almost forgotten we had an audience.

“Which brings me back to what Alice said this morning,” I said, sitting up straighter and releasing Bella from my arms, albeit with great reluctance. “There might be some truth to what Emmett said, but the only way to know …”

“You’d have to talk to him, Edward. Are you willing to do that?” Alice asked. She’d already figured it out; sharp-witted lass indeed.

I shook my head. “I am not unwilling if that makes any sense. Right now, though …” I continued, casting a sidelong glance at the grandfather clock in the corner, which chimed midnight there and then. “Right now, it is high time I escorted both of you young ladies home. Perhaps we’d all best sleep on this. Things will look clearer in the morning.”

Jasper took that as a hint to ring the bell. When a footman appeared, he was ordered to bring the carriage out front to drive us back to Grosvenor Square.

The ladies stood and went to retrieve their bonnets and pelisses. Before I could follow them, Jasper held me back by the elbow.

“I believe we have more to discuss, Edward, don’t we?” he asked, his voice steady, unwavering. He stared at me in earnest, but I couldn’t detect any animosity there. His lordship was, by all means, a perspicacious man.

“We do, on several fronts.”

“I shall call on you on the morrow. Until then, I trust you to take good care of my cousin.”

“I shall, Jasper.”

***        ***        ***

After a night I’d spent tossing and turning in my bed, when dawn broke, I gave up all pretence of sleeping and decided to start my day early. Compared to my life on the plantation, I’d been conducting myself like a gentleman of leisure in Cornwall, and the last weeks of inactivity in London had me chomping at the bit for some action. I was used to rising before dawn, and the added turmoil of my thoughts in the last couple days had not made for a good night of rest at all.

I figured I’d go downstairs, with enough time to leave the house for a walk in Hyde Park to clear my head and come back in time for breakfast with the ladies before Jasper came calling. However, when I reached the landing outside my bedroom, which was located on the third floor whilst Alice and Bella resided on the second floor in adjoining rooms, I heard music resonating through the house. Someone was downstairs in the music room, caressing the piano keys with a haunting melody—one of Chopin’s Nocturnes.

I followed the graceful, yearning melody I knew so well, and Bella’s figure, whose practiced hands flew over the piano in fluid motions, emerged before my eager eyes. She didn’t see me come in, lost as she was in the music. I’d not been the only early riser in the household, it seemed. When the sound of the last, discordant note of the piece hung in the air the minute she stilled her fingers over the keys, I made my way towards her.

The early morning sun filtered through the window, bathing her silhouette in warm rays that illuminated strands of crimson in her hair and shades of rose petals on her cheeks. She stood from the bench, and turned towards where I waited, mesmerised. I knew the exact minute her gaze landed on me because her hand flew to her mouth in surprise.

“Oh. You’re awake,” she murmured, lowering her gaze.

“Good morning, Isabella. That was a beautiful rendition.”

“Good morning, Edward. Thank you, I …”

The sound of servants moving about the household downstairs startled Bella and alerted me to one thing—I was on borrowed time with her, once again. At any given moment, a maid, a footman, Mrs Padmore, Bella’s blasted cousin, or my nosy sister could appear and interrupt. Not today, damnation.

“I know Jasper will join us soon. I wondered …”

“Yes, Edward?”

Why was this so damn difficult? Why could I order around a plantation full of workers, a household, and an estate, but all of a sudden, one lady had me all tongue-tied? Because this was Bella, and I had no way of knowing if any of my overtures would be welcome. I had no clue where the boundaries between loyalty and desire lay. Of three things I was adamantly certain: her independence, her honesty, and how fiercely she loved. I wanted that love for myself, and animated by this certainty, I stood up straighter and walked closer still until I faced her.

“I wondered if I might have a word with you before everyone else descends on us. Please?”

“Of course,” she replied in a whisper, motioning for us to move away from the door.

She took a seat by one of the windows that overlooked the garden. This spot was secluded enough for a private conversation without being quite behind closed doors. She regarded me with an unspoken question in her eyes since I remained standing after she’d sat. I found I couldn’t sit still and resigned myself to pacing in front of her as I gathered my wits.

Back and forth I paced, well aware that I could not procrastinate indefinitely, although I was losing my nerve.

“Edward?”

I turned to face my Bella, and once my gaze landed on the beloved features of her face, my consternation dissolved like snow in the sun.

I took a seat at her side, closer than etiquette would condone, once more flouting the rules of propriety. I needed her close to me. I’d always need her close to me.

“Isabella, dearest … I have plenty of things to say, but somehow, I’m afraid words are failing me. Please bear with me as I battle with my momentary lack of eloquence.”

With a perplexed look on her face I couldn’t fault one bit, she nodded her assent. As a rule, I was more articulate than this in her presence.

“First, I must apologise if my conduct of late has caused you any unease. I know I’ve disregarded the most basic rules of gentlemanly behaviour where you are concerned, and the thought that my actions could reflect badly on you appals me.”

A slight frown marred her brow when she finally broke her silence.

“Did my cousin put you up to this, Edward? Because I swear, if he interferes or meddles …”

The fire I loved so much in her simmered in her eyes as she berated Jasper the only time the poor wretch did not deserve any blame. I had to disabuse Bella of that notion immediately. I was my own man and didn’t act on Lord Whitlock’s say-so, not where my future happiness with Bella was at stake.

“No, dearest. He did not.”

“Then why would you apologise? Did I ever …” Her words hung in the air as understanding dawned on her. “Did you think your actions would be unwelcome? That I would …”

I reached out to clasp her hand with mine and laced my fingers through her delicate ones.

“How could I presume? But I am botching this already,” I muttered, withdrawing my hand to rub the bridge of my nose.

She smiled, and I thought that radiant smile of hers would forever be my undoing. I welcomed it, revelled in it.

“Nothing in your conduct was ever unwelcome or disagreeable to me, Edward. You must know that.”

I began to hope, to breathe again, and found my backbone.

“Then I must tell you … Isabella, my Bella … Since I held you in my arms that night to keep you from falling on my stairs, my life hasn’t been the same. You’ve upended it—in the most tantalising ways—with your grace, your loyalty, your serene beauty, and your fierce compassion. I spoke the truth that day at the Manor, in the library. I can’t imagine my life without you. You inhabit my every thought. What I mean to say, Isabella … I love you with every fibre of my impulsive, mercurial being. Dare I hope you return my feelings? Dare I hope that you would do me the immense honour of consenting to be my wife?”

Chapter Text

I’d laid my feelings and intentions towards her out in the open. Now she knew the extent of my love and desire. She had the power to crush me or have me soaring to the highest heights with a single word.

A single word she hadn’t uttered yet. Through the excruciating wait for her answer, rational thoughts began to resurface in my brain in fits and starts of sorts.

I had to speak to Jasper. As her legal guardian, though for only a few months yet, he had a say in whether she would be allowed to marry me or not. I didn’t expect staunch opposition on his part, but I was prepared to bet that his lordship would require different living arrangements until the wedding, whenever that would occur—in my mind, the sooner the better. I’d have to send out inquiries for a suitable residence to rent in London for Alice and myself. My lawyer could see to it.

Then there was the entire fiasco with Emmett to deal with. Even if I made overtures to talk to him, I couldn’t walk into another confrontation blindly. He might still be harbouring devious motivations for all I knew. After all, Father had gone and deprived him of family, fortune, and future in one fell swoop. Who knew what lengths he would resort to in an attempt to assuage his bitterness?

Jamaica. I still had no clue how I would manage two sizeable estates on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Would I return to Cullen Manor and make my home there, hopefully with Bella? Would I sail back to Kingston at some point? Would she want to travel there with me? All of these questions whirled around in a corner of my mind while my regard remained locked on Bella’s countenance.

A single tear fell on her cheek, and I fought the temptation to wipe it off because, right there and then, she bestowed on me another of her glorious smiles and clasped my hand in hers.

“Yes. A thousand times yes, Edward.”

Yes. She’d just said yes to me. I could breathe again; a sense of bliss I’d never known before overtook me.

“My love, my darling Isabella …” I said and pulled her closer to me, gathering her in my arms. I cradled her face in my hands, let my eyes roam over her features, and finally wiped the remnants of that stray tear off her cheek.

“You love me,” she whispered.

“With all my heart. No more tears, my darling. I want to make you happy.”

“You’ve made me happy, Edward. I didn’t know I could be this happy, but I am, all because of you. Loving you makes me happy.”

She’d said yes—but her last words made me even more ecstatic. I’d only hoped she’d have me; I hadn’t dared entertain the notion she’d love me back with the same stubborn, desperate yearning I harboured for her.

“You love me?”

“How could I not?” she asked, her own hand now caressing my cheek. The touch of her silken skin kindled something foreign in me. I’d been no stranger to desire—especially since she’d fallen into my life—but now I had to close my eyes and take a deep, calming breath before the wilder, less gentlemanly side of me took over. I sighed in contentment and leaned my forehead into hers. “How could I not love you with all my heart?” she wondered again, so close to my lips I could taste her. I traced the line of her jaw and her own lips with a trembling, reverent finger.

Lost to anything beyond the glorious creature in my arms—my intended, she was my intended now, and she was mine—I touched my lips to hers for the first time. Startled, Bella broke away from me for a fleeting instant. Before I could worry about being an inappropriate swine, she melded her lips to mine again with renewed purpose. She moved her hands away from my face and threaded them around my neck into my hair. I stopped taking stock of her movements and gave myself over to the sensation of a rather sedate kiss that had a rather unchaste effect on me when she moaned into my mouth, and her fragrance, reminiscent of freesias, heather in bloom, and the foaming sea of Cornwall, invaded my senses.

A muted, clanking noise far in the background jarred me apart from her and broke our embrace. “Bella, forgive me. I forgot myself.” I had a notion it would happen again—it was the effect she had on me, after all.

She relinquished my arms and sat back, smoothing down the front of her gown. “I was a willing participant,” she replied with a mischievous glint in her eyes.

“All the same, anyone could have crossed that threshold. I will speak to Jasper when he joins us later. I will not have your reputation questioned in your own home.” My tone brooked no refusal, so naturally, she had an objection.

“About that. Jasper, I mean,” she began, lowering her gaze. I noticed she was now wringing her hands in her lap. She’d never behaved like a nervous damsel in my presence, but now we were without a doubt in uncharted territory.

I lifted her chin, caressing her cheek again. “What about him, my love? Are you afraid he might not approve?”

“No. Heavens, no!” she exclaimed, shaking her head. “He can try, if he fancies going to battle against windmills,” she added, defiant. “But I wondered …”

“You wondered …”

“Could we … Would you be amenable … to keeping this to ourselves for a little while?”

I pondered her request. On one hand, I was loath to deny her anything. On the other, I knew the pitfalls of secret engagements. Too many scandals could brew out of one, and I wouldn’t have her reputation tarnished. Last but not least of my concerns, there was the matter of Jasper’s original intent in bringing her to London—to have her presented to society and its marriage market. Things between his lordship and me had taken a much friendlier turn of late, but without a doubt he’d had other prospects in mind when he concocted that plan. I did not want to leave any of those coxcombs with even a scintilla of a doubt that Bella would welcome their advances.

Then there was Bella herself, who had never shown an inkling of interest for the intricacies of society and for any of those prospects whenever her cousin had hinted at it. My Bella had a good head on her shoulders and wasn’t naïve either. “I suspect you have a good, sound reason for asking other than vexing your cousin when he learns we’ve been carrying on in secret, behind his back.”

“Don’t you worry about Jasper. I’ll deal with him if he behaves like a curmudgeon about it.”

I stood and started pacing again. I hated not to be beside her, but I had to think, and my brain worked better when I was on the move. I leaned against the windowsill and faced Bella, who stared at me with an expectant expression. “Oh, no, my darling. I will worry about him. You know that despite our better protestations, his gut reaction will be to berate me for bringing you disrepute. And don’t think I haven’t noticed you still haven’t told me why you think this is a good idea.”

She rose and came to stand right in front of me. “Not for long. Only until after the ball next week. If we tell Jasper, he’ll insist on announcing it, and I don’t want it turned into a society spectacle when the news travels far and wide before luncheon tomorrow. I don’t care about a society wedding, and I certainly don’t want the news to reach my aunt in Somerset only to have her barge in on breakfast unannounced again. There is a limit to the control Jasper has over her.”

Ah, yes, the delightful Lady Whitlock. I’d pry that whole sordid tale out of either her son or her niece at some point in the near future. After all, if we were going to be related, I could argue that I was now entitled to an explanation. “Besides that, do you have any other concerns?”

“About you? About us? None whatsoever. Only …”

I couldn’t help myself. I wound my arms around her waist and brought her closer to me again, forcing her to look up at me. “Only what, my love?”

She blinked once, twice in rapid succession, to the point that her fathomless brown eyes looked almost owl-like in her surprise. “You are a most distracting creature, Mister Cullen.”

I pressed my lips to her forehead, still elated that I could now do this freely—to a point. “It takes one to know one, Miss Swan. Only what?”

“Emmett. I was thinking about Emmett and Rosalie. Are you really considering talking to him?”

“I suppose I will talk to him at some point, but I will not walk into another ambush. I am still not clear on his motives—”

“He just wants his family back, Edward,” she interrupted, her voice broken by emotion at the end.

“If that is indeed the case, then there is no harm in me making inquiries for my own peace of my mind. Most likely, nothing nefarious will come to light, but I’d rather be sure. I’ve lost him once already. I couldn’t bear the disappointment again.”

She nodded. “Fair enough,” she replied, pacing away from me just as the muffled sound of hurried steps resonated from the stairwell.

Fortnum entered the room with a bow. “Miss Swan, Lord Whitlock is here. I’ve shown him into the parlour.”

“Very well, Fortnum. Mister Cullen and I will be downstairs directly. Is Miss Cullen up and about?”

“I believe so, Miss. Weber just brought up fresh clothes for her. Should I tell Mrs Padmore to serve up breakfast?”

“Not yet. Let Miss Cullen take her time—it’s early still. Thank you, Fortnum.”

The head footman bowed and disappeared, catching on to the unspoken order to leave us.

As soon as he disappeared, I walked up to Bella and reached for her hand. “My love?”

“Yes, Edward?” she replied, turning towards me.

“Only until after the ball. Would that suffice?”

“Thank you,” she whispered, pressing my hand between both of hers.

“After that, you’re mine. For the whole world to see,” I vowed, kissing her one last time before facing Jasper.

***        ***        ***

When I joined Bella and Jasper downstairs a while later, they had yet to sit down to breakfast. Jasper appeared to be leafing through the newspaper, and Bella sat looking out the rear window at the gardens. I couldn’t rein in a smile when my gaze landed on her. I marvelled again at her beauty as love and pride surged through me—mine, I thought.

“Forgive my tardiness. I thought you’d gone in already,” I apologised, looking at Bella out of the corner of my eye to try and appear inconspicuous to Jasper’s scrutiny, but extended my hand to him in greeting when he stood. “Good morning, Jasper.”

“And to you, my friend. Pray, where is your lovely sister this morning?” he asked, letting his own gaze roam about the room; in vain, alas, because Alice had yet to make an appearance. Jasper and I—what a pathetic pair we were, neither of us capable of being subtle about our affections. This comforted me when I thought about Bella’s and my predicament. True, we might have been hiding something from him, but before long, there would be something he would want from me—my consent for him to marry my sister, if my powers of deduction weren’t steering me wrong.

“I’m afraid she’s having a lazy morning. Shouldn’t we send for her, Bella?”

She waved me off with an indulgent smile of her own. “Hardly necessary. I looked in on her before coming downstairs. We were out and about late yesterday, and she said she couldn’t get settled to sleep for a long time notwithstanding. She’ll be downstairs directly, I’m sure.”

Right on the heels of Bella’s words, Alice joined us. Or rather, she almost ran into Bella’s arms.

“Good morning, Bella. I apologise for keeping you all from breakfast,” she added, lowering her gaze when she noticed Jasper looking at her.

“Hush, sister.” I intervened to ease her worries. “We both had quite an eventful day yesterday. No one would begrudge you your rest.”

“Thank you, brother, and good morning to you, too,” she replied, her concerned frown finally dissolving into a genuine smile. I couldn’t help but notice her weary eyes though.

“Good morning, Miss Cullen,” Whitlock greeted her, bowing his head at her.

“Lord Whitlock,” she replied with a curtsey and a nod in his direction. Did Alice just blush?

“Shall we go in now?” Bella asked as she made her way into the family dining room.

A while later, after breakfast was served and the servants had been dismissed per Bella’s orders, Whitlock set down his teacup and regarded me with an air of serious purpose about him.

“Shall we continue last night’s discussion?” he asked with a surreptitious glance at Bella and Alice.

“Before you think of dismissing anyone from such discussion, I’ll remind you that you’re sitting at my table, in my house, Jasper,” Bella interjected with fiery determination.

For my part, and regardless of our changed circumstances, I had not even considered excluding Bella from any discourse about Emmett. After all, she was already regarded as family by all of us, and soon she would be a Cullen in name, too.

Jasper, however, still seemed prone to think that he could order his cousin around as he pleased. I had to suppress a wry chuckle when Bella reminded him just how opposed she was to that very idea. Though piqued—because I saw him bite back a sigh at Bella’s words—he quickly composed himself.

“Very well, cousin. As you wish. Edward, do things appear in fact clearer in the morning?”

I took a sip of my own tea to steel my resolve before answering him. I would have liked the chance to confer with Alice before sharing my thoughts with my intended and her cousin, but I had had more pressing matters to attend to this morning while Alice slept, enveloped in blissful ignorance of what had just transpired a mere floor below her bedchamber.

“I have given the situation a good deal of thought. It seems the only reasonable course of action would be for me to talk to my brother.”

Alice, who sat beside me, took hold of my arm with a trembling hand. “Thank you, Edward. I knew you’d see reason …”

“However,” I began, interrupting her enthusiastic outburst, “however, I’ll need more information before I do so.”

Jasper nodded with a speculative look in his eyes, no doubt already going over what kind of information I’d need and where best to get it. In my short acquaintance with him, I’d learned that he had a keen strategic mind and could be quite single-minded if put to a task.

Alice, alas, had other ideas. “We’ve told you everything we know. What more information could you possibly need?”

“I know you’re determined not to think ill of our brother, but one can never be too careful in fraught situations such as this. Have you forgotten how he ambushed us not two days ago? How unrepentantly he’s conducted himself so far?”

“But he’s our brother, Edward! How can you be so callous, so calculating?”

Alice was perilously close to causing me to lose my temper. Bella, ever in tune with my mood, sensed it and countered Alice’s accusations before I exploded.

“Alice, dear, consider the entire situation, if you will. Edward is the heir and executor of your father’s estate. He is your legal guardian until you marry.” Did Lord Whitlock appear to be startled by Bella’s words, or was it my imagination? “He must consider your best interest, the family’s, and the estate’s best interest at all times.”

“My cousin is indeed correct, Miss Cullen,” Jasper offered by way of confirmation, no doubt in an attempt to placate my sister’s ire.

“There were clear stipulations to our father’s will, Alice, which you are quite aware of. There might be scores of mitigating circumstances to Emmett’s behaviour, but I would be remiss in my duties as the heir to Cullen Manor and as your brother and guardian if I neglected to gather all the relevant facts before I talked to him.”

Alice seemed to be slowly absorbing the import of my statements. “All available facts? What do you mean?”

“I want to ascertain that Emmett has no legal grounds to contest our father’s will. A costly, decades-long lawsuit in Chancery is the last thing we need. It would tie up the estate and eat up our livelihood. I will not allow it.”

At the prospect of a ruinous court case, Alice’s features contorted in horror. “You cannot possibly think …”

“I cannot say either way, can I? A prudent man plans for contingencies. I do not wish to think Emmett capable of doing such a thing, but I won’t be blindsided by his actions again if I can avoid it.”

“How do you plan to avoid it, brother?” my sister asked, reaching for the teapot to replete her teacup.

I looked around the table at my friends. Bella nodded minutely over the rim of her own teacup, signalling her support as much as she could at that moment. Alice raised an eyebrow at me in a rather unladylike manifestation of her usual impatience. Jasper—good old Lord Whitlock—flashed me a sly smile.

“I suspect he’ll do what any gentleman worth his salt would do. Make enquiries. Discreet ones, of course.”

I nodded at him, once again grateful for his ability to think on his feet. “Precisely, Jasper.”

“Would you welcome any help with that? I have some connections I could put to good use.”

“I would greatly appreciate that, my friend. I also plan to pay a visit to my lawyer. He’ll know just how watertight my father’s will is. After all, he wrote it himself.”

Alice retracted her hand from my arm and returned her attention to her teacup and toast. When she started asking Bella about Lord Blackwood’s ball again, I figured her previous irritation had dissipated now that Jasper and I had diverted our discussion to business matters.

Since the ladies were otherwise occupied, Jasper, who sat on my other side at the table, leaned into me. “Do you trust your lawyer, Edward?”

“As much as one trusts lawyers in general, I’d say. He was father’s lawyer, but he’s served the estate and the family well for decades. I have no complaints about the man himself, even if I do not know him personally. Why do you ask?”

“Just in case you wanted or needed a second opinion. You may not be aware, but I’m a non-practising lawyer myself. I read law at Oxford but was never called to the bar—my father saw no point in it since I’d never practise anyway. It’s been a godsend to know if my own lawyer and my steward are trying to run circles around me or not.”

That’s where all of that strategizing came from—he had the mind of a lawyer. “In that case, if you don’t mind.”

“Absolutely not, or I wouldn’t have offered. Also, have you given any thought to where you’d meet with your brother when the time comes?”

This man certainly knew not to leave any stone unturned. “Since a remote corner of Hyde Park at dawn is out of the question, I believe I need to figure out something else. I won’t have them come into Bella’s home. I cannot force this on her—my brother, my problem.”

Jasper’s initial response was a sardonic smile. “No, Hyde Park at dawn certainly wouldn’t do. Even if we considered it, I could just picture Isabella dragging both of us back here by the scruff of our necks. And she’d do it, mind you.”

“That she would, my friend. Neutral ground would be a sensible solution. I don’t even know where they are staying in London.”

At that point, Alice answered my question, prompting me to think she might have been keeping an ear on my conversation with Jasper the entire time. “The Hales should be staying somewhere in Piccadilly. Near Green Park, I think?”

“Do they still take that house in St James’s Place?” asked Bella.

“They don’t just take it whenever they come to town—they own it. At least, they did last year when I asked Ros … Mrs Cullen about it,” clarified Alice.

The Hales resided in one of the most fashionable districts in London. The likelihood that Emmett might be after my money or my estates—because now both the money and the properties were mine, goddammit—just decreased drastically, considering that his wife was an only child and the heiress to all her father’s property. Besides, a house in that neighbourhood rented for about a couple thousand pounds a year, and if the Hales owned it, it could easily be worth as much as Cullen Manor and the plantation, or twice over, if it were an extravagant house on the fashionable side of the street.

This also explained where and why Emmett had laid in wait for me two days ago. Bella’s house wasn’t that far away from his own residence. A detour to Grosvenor Square wouldn’t have looked suspicious to anyone who knew them and suspected they may have been either on their way to or from a walk in the park, as one was wont to do of a Sunday morning.

Jasper’s expression—and the almost imperceptibly raised eyebrow that went with it—seemed to latch on to my own deductions.

“Do they, now?” he asked, his sardonic grin still very much in place. I could almost hear the cogs turning in his head.

“Oh, and the Linton girls had an interesting bit of news last night in between their incessant praise of you, brother.”

Alice’s playful remark caused an array of reactions around the table. Jasper raised his eyebrow higher, and his grin evolved into a snicker; his lordship was now unable to hide his merriment. Bella coughed, hiding her beautiful face behind her teacup, but I could have sworn that cough sounded more like a scoff. Good old me, annoyed at the reminder of the Linton girls’ stale and continued attention, had no alternative but to throw my napkin on the table.

“Oh, for the love of all that’s holy! When I mentioned how hot and unbearably humid Jamaica gets in the summer, both those girls and their mother went as pale as ghosts!”

“You scared them off with talk of inclement weather? I’ll have to keep that in mind,” quipped Jasper.

“Enough about me, you lot. What did they have to say, Alice?”

Alice couldn’t answer straight away—she and Bella being rather short on breath at the moment due to a girlish fit of collective giggles. So much so that I had to attract her attention once more.

“Alice? Well?”

She finally recovered her composure when Bella gave her arm an affectionate but still quite diverted pat. “Oh. Right. I beg your pardon.”

It struck me at that moment that it was the first time I’d heard her and Bella laugh together, happy and carefree. I’d never mind them laughing at my expense at the breakfast table if the reward was seeing them in such high spirits. After the harrowing weeks we’d all had, they deserved it.

“Nonsense, dear. No harm done. In fact, you two being silly rather warmed my old, mercurial heart. But you dangled gossip in my face, and now my interest is piqued,” I ordered, keeping my tone still playful enough she’d know I didn’t mind her earlier teasing.

“Who knew that the serious Mister Cullen had a penchant for gossip?” said Jasper in jest.

“Much more than that, my lord! My dear brother has a veritable gossipy bone, but he tries to hide it in polite company.”

“Should I take that to mean we’re not polite company, Miss Cullen?”

The piece of news she wanted to regale us with seemed to be forgotten now that Jasper had engaged her in playful banter. Their smiles and repartees told me another story—Jasper would be seeking an audience with me about my sister before long.

I gave a surreptitious cough to regain their attention. “Alice?”

“Oh, right. The Linton girls.”

“Not them, their information rather. Why would it be of any significance to us?”

My sister regarded me with a smile I could only qualify as mischievous.

“Because they told me they’d heard that a Mr and Mrs Cullen were also invited to Lord Blackwood’s ball, and they asked me if we were acquainted with them. They had no idea …”

Emmett and Rose would be at the ball.

How would they conduct themselves? More importantly, how had they wrangled an invitation?

Chapter Text

“Are you even listening to me, Cullen?” asked Jasper, his irritation with me seeping through in the manner of his address. I had not been “Cullen” to him for a while now.

“Forgive me. What was it you said again?”

Jasper heaved an indulgent sigh and tossed the sheaf of papers he’d been perusing back on the table.

Relinquishing my view over the garden where Alice and Bella had been walking and chatting in hushed whispers and covert smiles for the past half hour, I turned my back to the window to face my friend.

“You have been acting … unlike yourself these past few days. Are you sure there’s nothing else on your mind?” Lord Whitlock was too perceptive for his own good at times.

I hated lying to him, but skirting the truth seemed my only viable option for the time being. “Other than the quagmire we’re already contending with?”

He didn’t need to know I’d completely lost the thread of what he’d been telling me because I was too mesmerized by the way the early summer sunlight brought out crimson and fiery auburn hues in my Bella’s hair, or how the same warmth graced her alabaster skin with a smattering of freckles I found both endearing and enticing at the same time. I’d never been so glad that she scoffed at the beauty conventions of the time, which sought to rid a lady’s skin of those perceived imperfections.

“You have a point, I suppose,” Jasper began again, shaking into some semblance of order the papers he’d just laid on the table. “At least, we received some good news.”

He’d been instrumental in assisting with my inquiries into the Hales’ financial situation and into my brother’s latest goings-on.

“That much is true. The Hales are as prosperous as their fashionable address indicates, and nothing sordid came up about Emmett. His in-laws might still be conceited social climbers, but that’s hardly a crime, regardless of my sentiments on the matter.”

“It would depend on whom you ask,” he answered with his usual dry humour. “But the law would have no complaints. Your man, Briggs, also came through.”

In fact, the lawyer had just left. His visit, on the day prior to Lord Blackwood’s ball, had been the culmination of an eventful week of research and business discussions, during which I’d spent precious little time with Bella outside of meals—which we’d always shared with Jasper.

“The will is watertight, as you suspected. Thank you for confirming that too.”

There was another task I’d entrusted to Briggs with which he’d not been quite successful so far. Finding a suitable property this late in the season had turned out to be a challenge, and time wasn’t on my side either. After tomorrow, with my engagement to Bella out in the open and hopefully with Jasper’s consent, I knew I had to do the honourable thing and seek alternative living quarters for Alice and myself for the rest of our stay in London.

“You are going to behave tomorrow night, aren’t you?” he asked, now changing the subject.

“How do you think they finagled an invitation?”

My apparent non-sequitur summarised the one mystery we’d not been able to unravel. By now, I was inclined to think that Jasper and I didn’t move in the exclusive circles where this kind of information flowed freely—namely, we couldn’t partake of the ladies’ gossip long enough to find out, not even if we attempted to hide behind an obliging set of curtains.

“I don’t believe they had to finagle anything, my good friend,” he said, reaching out to ring the bell for a servant to come in and clear away the remnants of the tea we’d sipped with Briggs.

“What should make you think so?”

“Good old Blackie loves to associate with glamorous people. He’s always had a chip on his shoulder for not being the eldest child, for his family not being aristocratic enough. Before you interrupt, I am aware his reasoning is poppycock. I never said logic or intellect were among his strong suits.” At this point, I had, indeed, raised my finger to object. “The Hales fit the bill. Fashionable address in town, expansive holdings in the countryside, well-padded coffers, an undisputed beauty of a daughter … Granted, no ounces of nobility to speak of, but who are we to judge? ‘Tis a brave new world, after all. Maybe he’s more of a Whig than I gave him credit for. Apart from that, I’m inclined to think the families may have been moving in similar circles, thus the Hales came by the invitation without having to wrangle one out of Blackie’s hands.”

An errant thought struck me. Anyone with sufficient interest, money, and connections could have sent for the same inquiries Jasper and I had made. What if … What if Blackwood had learned of the rift in my family and wished to expose it to my detriment? In that case, inviting Emmett and Rosalie to his ball would be a neat trick to that effect.

Would he, could he be that devious?

More importantly, did I have enough nerve to potentially slander Jasper’s oldest friend to his own face?

“What is the matter with you today, Edward? First, you let me speak for eons without even listening, and now, you’ve gone as pale as a ghost at the mere mention of Blackwood’s name?”

Could I? Could I confide in Jasper while lying to him about something infinitely more significant than this?

To hell with it, I thought. In for a penny, in for a pound.

“It just occurred to me. Could Lord Blackwood be aware of Emmett’s connection to me? Could it be that this invitation is not the mere product of a social acquaintance?”

He drummed his fingers on the table in a steady rhythm, silently pondering what I’d just said. He remained silent for a tad longer because a servant had just walked into the room. After Fortnum had done Jasper’s bidding and left the room, Jasper rose from his seat and came to stand next to me.

“Blackwood may be a conceited coxcomb, but a fool he is not. I’d wager my best steed that he either knows or suspects you and Emmett are related in some way. That said, he has an almost pathological aversion to scandal, for which you can thank her ladyship, his mother. She lords the threat of ‘unseemly behaviour’ over him as an excuse to tighten the purse strings whenever the mood strikes. It is my understanding that she controls most of the family’s fortune until he turns twenty-five or marries suitably, whichever comes first. So, there you have it. He would not want to create a scene at his most prestigious soirée of the season.”

“If you say so …”

I still doubted Blackwood’s motives. Discrediting me wouldn’t grant him any guaranteed proximity to Isabella, but it surely obliterated a perceived competitor for her affections. Little did the coxcomb know that there was no competition. Not anymore.

“I do, indeed, say so. But enough of good old Blackie. It’s you I’m worried about. You won’t do anything rash, will you?”

I heaved a belaboured sigh. “No, my friend. I wouldn’t disgrace myself, or Alice, or Isabella like that. Or you, for that matter. My temper boiled over last week mostly out of shock. I was unprepared. The lingering bitter taste of unfinished business didn’t help matters either. Now, I just want to know.”

He gave me a terse nod in reply. “I believe we’ve looked at this matter every which way. Now, to execute our plan. You know he’ll try and corner you tomorrow night.”

“I’ll be ready. I’ll offer him one meeting on the day after the ball. The sooner we get this over with, the better.”

“Fair enough. May I offer hospitality at my club for the meeting?”

It was, as a matter of fact, an excellent suggestion. Out of Alice’s and Bella’s earshot, on neutral ground, and out of the public eye.

“Can it be arranged at such short notice?”

He shrugged. “I keep a suite of rooms there. I’ll just have to order a luncheon and give notice that I’ll have two guests with me.”

Of course, whatever lofty gentlemen’s club he belonged to would be at Lord Whitlock’s beck and call. I resisted the urge to ask why he had to keep a suite of rooms at the club when he had a mansion at Holland Park, but I bit my tongue. He’d been helpful to the point of liberality. I owed him not to glibly pry into his private concerns, whatever they may be.

“Thank you for the kind offer. I’d like to accept it.”

“It’s settled then. I’ll have it arranged. If your brother bows out, we’ll enjoy the luncheon to ourselves. After this week, we’ve earned it.”

***        ***        ***

The next day, because of the ladies’ endless preparations for the ball, yet again Jasper and I spent much of the day left to our own devices until he had to return to Holland Park for his own preparations. At that point, I hid in my room, agonizing over which set of tails to wear.

Alice had steadfastly kept me away from Bella today, even going so far as to retreat to her room with her so they could get ready together. It didn’t help with my mounting nerves or my anticipation. As I straightened my stark white neckcloth, a dainty knock startled me out of my musings.

“Enter,” I replied without thought, believing it might be the manservant who’d been assisting me during my stay at Grosvenor Square. I had little patience for these urban conveniences since I’d been dressing myself for years at the plantation, but even I acknowledged that the soirée called for a little more refinement than my ordinary ballroom attire could afford. What passed muster in Kingston would be unacceptable in London.

“Hello, brother,” my sister called out in a cheerful voice from where she stood by the door, looking me over in the full-length mirror.

I took a minute to peruse her appearance, well aware of her previous concerns about attending such an event. My Bella had certainly lent a hand here—Alice looked resplendent, but it was all in the relaxed features of her visage rather than her finery. Her attire—a pearl-gray gown with lavender lace trim, a demure neckline, and sleeves that went past her elbows—radiated unassuming elegance while still partially bowing to the strictures of the rules of mourning. She wore no jewels at all.

“You look lovely, dear sister.”

She nodded and lowered her gaze. “Thank you, Edward, but I came to see how you were faring and to tell you Bella and I are quite ready to leave.”

“Aren’t we driving Lord Whitlock’s carriage there?”

“Aren’t you the most well-informed fellow?”

I quirked an eyebrow at her non-answer while still struggling to straighten the cuffs of my shirt. “Somehow, I cannot get this bloody thing to sit right.” I voiced my frustration in a low, angry whisper, which Alice detected nonetheless.

“Give it here, brother. Let me help you.” She took the few steps that separated her from me and proceeded to set me to rights. The economical, steady movements of her hands reminded me of my mother’s. I’d watched her bestow the same assistance on my father for years; the sudden melancholy of their absence struck me, but Alice misconstrued my grimace.

“Do not fret, brother. Bella is just tolerating this invitation for our sake, and because, otherwise, Jasper would pester her. She isn’t particularly keen on spending time with Lord Blackwood or his set of friends.”

I resisted the temptation to reply that she had no business enjoying Blackwood’s company but kept my own counsel.

“There, you’re presentable now. Shall we?”

I nodded, and without a word, we left my room and descended the stairs.

We found Lord Whitlock pacing in the foyer. A footman handed me my overcoat, gloves, and hat just when Bella appeared on the landing.

“Well, shall we?” she asked, echoing Alice’s earlier words.

Attracted by her voice like a beacon, I turned in her direction. When my gaze landed on her, all powers of speech abandoned me. Bella had once again chosen to dress in solidarity with Alice. Her lavender gown was adorned in pearl-gray trim, but instead of the more conservative look Alice had chosen, it swept off her shoulders in cascading pleats, showing far more silken skin than I’d ever had the fortune to admire. She, too, like Alice, wore no jewels, but her eyes twinkled in the candlelit foyer as she accepted Jasper’s arm.

Once again, I rued my acquiescence to her wishes at keeping our engagement secret—if I’d stood my ground, she might be on my arm now instead of her cousin’s. But no, that wouldn’t do—for that would leave my own sister on Lord Whitlock’s arm without any acceptable reason for it. I also rued my inability to utter a few words of greeting that wouldn’t embarrass my sorry self, but on second thought, I mused that silence might be preferable.

The short carriage ride to Lord Blackwood’s residence passed in anticipatory silence. Alice’s enthusiasm vibrated among us; she kept stealing glances in Bella’s, Jasper’s, and my direction but dared not speak a word. I had to wonder what her imaginative mind was concocting at this minute.

His lordship welcomed us and introduced us to his portly, pinched-nosed mother and his sisters, who expressed a passing interest in Alice and threw appreciative glances in my direction. However, they sounded far more eager to be reacquainted with both my Isabella and Lord Whitlock. I had an inkling this wasn’t due to long friendship but rather to their perceived social prominence and to the fact that Bella had eluded the London season after her coming out ball almost three years previously. She was an object of marvel and, based on Blackwood’s words, all but the guest of honour of the soirée—if not in name, certainly in spirit.

Dinner passed in idle chatter, which was the regular fare of such an occasion both in London and in the West Indies. At long last, a new wave of excitement coursed through the room when Lady Blackwood instructed the festive crowd to migrate from the lofty dining room to the ballroom where a quartet of string musicians and a pianist were tuning their instruments.

Then and there, it dawned on me that my brother and his wife did not appear to be among the crowd of revellers milling about in the hallways that led from the dining room to the grand ballroom. Before I could make sense of this new development, Blackwood himself materialised in front of our small group. We’d reconvened by the quieter side of the ballroom after having been scattered to the four corners of the long dining table throughout dinner.

He planted himself in front of Bella with a perfect bow. “Miss Swan, may I have the honour of the first dance?”

Jasper darted a furtive, seemingly livid look in my direction. I cursed myself again—I wanted to claim Bella’s first set. In fact, I wanted to claim all of her sets, rules of propriety be damned. I’d told my Bella as much, but she advised against attracting that kind of attention on Lord Blackwood’s turf. She figured she could either bow out gracefully or coax Jasper into pencilling himself on her dance card instead.

“Blackwood, my old chap,” intervened Jasper in a far more congenial voice than his features warranted, “I’ve already asked my fair cousin to grant me the honour of the first set. I hope you won’t mind?”

Blackwood did, in fact, appear to mind but could hardly express it in so many words. With an ill-concealed frown and his lips tucked into a hard line, he finally replied. “Of course not. Family is family. Perhaps later then?”

My Bella, ever the consummate diplomat when she so wished, nodded with a graceful incline of her head and added, “I’ll be delighted, Lord Blackwood.”

Since Jasper had claimed Bella for this set of dances, I decided to be brotherly and stand up with Alice. She wasted no time in commenting on what had just transpired.

“That was a close call, brother! I thought you were going to incinerate his lordship on the spot there.”

“I am in no position to claim precedence over Bella’s choice of dance partners, Alice. And do refrain from all discussions of incinerations in polite company, please,” I quipped with fake disdain, which my sister quickly saw through, tut-tutting at me.

She spent the rest of the set commenting on the other dancing couples, both on the ladies’ fashion faux pas and on the gentlemen’s lack of grace on the dance floor. At least, she bestowed praise and rebuke with equal solicitude.

For the sake of diplomacy, I figured I had to bide my time before I could claim a dance with Bella and opted instead to ask one of Lord Blackwood’s sisters since they’d all been introduced to both Alice and me earlier in the evening.

My first impression of an exquisitely attired girl with a non-existent personality was solidified after our intermittent conversation through our two-dance set. Miss Rebecca Blackwood, a raven-haired, grey-eyed beauty, seemed to think that giggling and batting her eyelashes were a universally appropriate reaction to any and all statements. I longed for Bella’s tart repartees.

Finally, halfway through the evening, I found myself with one hand in Bella’s, the other at her waist, ready to glide across the ballroom in a waltz. No longer judged so scandalous that unattached couples were not allowed to dance it, this felt ten times more intimate than any country dance ever could, which was the reason I’d steadfastly refused to stand up for a waltz with anyone, anywhere, until now.

As it turned out, Bella was the only lady I’d ever want in my arms, so close that I could smell her fragrance, stare into her eyes, and with every breath, feel her bosom heave mere inches away from my body.

“You haven’t been very talkative tonight,” she said with a glint of mischief in those eyes I loved so much.

“I’ve had precious little to say so far that would be fit for polite company, but do allow me to say how utterly, breathtakingly beautiful you are tonight. You’re outshining every other lady here, my love.” At my endearment, she blushed. I wagered she had not expected me to express myself so boldly in public.

“No one can hear us. Look around you. Everyone is either absorbed in their dance partners or in their idle chatter. The music will drown out the rest.”

She smiled and regarded me with diverted eyes from under her eyelashes. “You think of everything, don’t you?”

“When I have a vested interest in something I deeply care about, I do. That most certainly includes you, my darling Isabella. Although, I almost regret giving in to your wishes. I am liking this Blackwood fellow less and less by the minute.”

She threw her head back with a dainty giggle that had no comparison to Miss Blackwood’s. “Hush, now. He’s innocuous. He just entertains a high opinion of himself.”

“You mean, he flatters himself.”

“He can flatter himself until thy kingdom come,” she began, only to be interrupted by a cascade of hushed murmurs that coursed through the room like an astonished undercurrent. Waves of revellers parted like the Red Sea at Moses’ beckoning.

“Who would arrive this late to a dance party?” wondered Bella.

“I haven’t the slightest, though haven’t you noticed that my brother and Mrs Cullen have yet to show their faces?”

Sudden realisation dawned on Bella’s features. “They were invited, were they not?”

We continued speculating as we danced, for the music had not stopped. “Indeed, they were. I braced myself for Emmett’s appearance, only for them not to come.”

I would have shrugged if I could have politely done so. However, as we went through the figures of the next dance, we glided by another side of the room, which gave us a different perspective on the people sitting and chatting around the sides of the dance floor.

Bella’s gaze narrowed minutely, and after our movements had again taken us elsewhere, she said, “You’ve seen them, haven’t you?”

I nodded. “Speak of the devil and he shall appear. Emmett looks like he’s had better evenings.”

“Rosalie seems to be trying her hardest not to move a few feet to the right towards where Alice is standing. Wait, is that the Duke of Bolingbroke to Emmett’s left?”

“I have no clue, my love, but I’ll take your expert word for it. Maybe they expect their aristocratic company to make up for the rudeness of being late.”

I heaved a conflicted sigh. One thing had been the prior knowledge that he’d be here; his actual appearance at the party turned out to be an entirely different kettle of fish. “I will need to talk to him.” If someone could help me make sense of this, it was my Bella.

“Of course, you will. I trust you’ll keep things civil?” she asked with an incline of her head. She must have given this some thought.

“Yes. I’m weary of fighting with what’s left of my family.”

“It will all be well eventually, Edward. I have faith in you.”

I cocked a sceptical eyebrow at her. “In me, in Emmett, or in both of us?”

“In both of you, my darling. I flatter myself I know both of you quite well by now—neither of you have a mean-spirited bone in your bodies. With some patience and forbearance, you’ll brave this storm. If you just learn to rein in that temper of yours,” she added with an indulgent smile.

The tension that paralyzed my shoulders dissipated at her words. I couldn’t tell if her faith in me or the endearment that washed over me like a caress—my darling—had bolstered my resolve. Still, I revelled in it for the rest of our dance.

A few minutes later, the music stopped, announcing the end of the set. We retreated to the spot where Jasper and Alice stood in a sort of uneasy, silent truce with my brother and Rosalie Cullen, née Hale. Because the feud had been simmering between Emmett and me, it fell to me to be diplomatic once again and be civil first, especially after my outburst a few days prior.

I turned towards my brother, squared my shoulders, and extended my hand to him.

“Emmett. It’s good to see you.”

My brother replied in kind, grasping my hand in his handshake, which remained as firm as ever, and with an appraising glance that took in my figure from head to toe, quite like a fighter weighing up his opponent.

“Is it, brother?”

I’d opened my mouth to answer his query with unflinching honesty—he’d asked me for an audience, and an audience he would get—when Lord Blackwood, whose talents certainly did not include good timing, appeared on the scene.

“Emmett, my good friend, you’ve finally arrived!” He saluted my brother with far more congeniality than he’d bestowed on me upon arrival and was about to bow to Mrs Cullen when he realised he’d interrupted us.

“Pardon our tardiness, but his Grace …” Emmett began by way of apology, but Blackwood waved him off.

“Nonsense, my friend. You’re here now, and this is what matters. Mrs Cullen,” he said, bowing his head in Rosalie’s direction, “my mother and sisters could hardly wait to see you. They’ll be overjoyed to know you’re here.”

Rosalie rattled off a few pleasantries in reply, then Emmett exploited a lull in the conversation to lob his next shot.

“I trust you’ve met my brother, Blackwood, have you not?” he asked, extending a demonstrative hand in my direction. By then, I’d been sipping on a cup of punch distributed by a most auspicious waiter, and I had to momentarily discard it on a side table.

Lord Blackwood, still silent after Emmett’s inquiry, kept throwing alternating glances between Emmett and me. I reckoned he was trying to establish a family resemblance he would hardly find since Emmett’s features vastly differed from mine.

“How did I not make the connection before?” he wondered aloud. “Cullen … and Cullen, but of course. I wish you’d told me, Mr Cullen!” he exclaimed, regarding me with renewed interest now that he’d learned his newest friend in town was a blood relation of mine.

“Forgive me, my lord, but as a rule, I don’t include our family’s genealogy on our calling cards.”

I thought I heard a snicker behind me and wondered whether Jasper or my Isabella were the culprit. They were both sharp enough to appreciate my repartee. I also couldn’t help but throw a glance in my brother’s direction, my diverted scepticism clear on my face in the guise of a covertly raised eyebrow. Emmett caught my expression and again replied in kind, with a hint of a sarcastic smile.

That shared moment somehow told me that despite the rancour, despite the secrets, despite the rift in our midst, we were still brothers.

We still shared a connection despite the years spent apart from one another, and that connection would see us through the storm.

Before long, Lord Blackwood seemed to recover his senses and remembered another reason for approaching our little group.

“Dearest Miss Swan, I haven’t forgotten your promise,” he began, stepping far closer to my Isabella than I liked.

Bella, who had made no definite promise to the man earlier in the evening, demurely hid her face in her fan and waited for Blackwood to make his request clear.

“Would you do me the honour of the next dance, Miss Swan?”

Now utterly devoid of excuses, Bella curtseyed and accepted him. Jasper threw a quizzical look in my direction before inviting Alice to dance—again. Alice looked to me for permission, and I nodded. I would not deprive her of her diversions, and her momentary absence afforded me a few minutes to talk to Emmett in peace—the fewer ears within reach, the better.

Meanwhile, after Rosalie had disappeared from view when one of Lord Blackwood’s sisters had approached to claim her company, I was forced to look on while his lordship twirled around the ballroom with my intended. Not that he knew, I just abhorred the principle of it. I only hoped I’d schooled my features into enough blasé indifference to be believable to a casual observer.

“You look like whatever hoity-toity dish they served at dinner didn’t agree with you, brother.”

Of course, Emmett would notice my less than pleased expression.

“I most certainly do not.”

He stepped closer to me and inclined his head in my direction. “Yes, now that I’ve taken a closer look at you, you do seem a tad greener.”

“I have no idea what you mean, brother.” I would sooner lie through my teeth about it than give Emmett more ammunition against me, and compromising Isabella was far from a palatable prospect either.

“Oh, but I think you do. Just refrain from wrangling the man’s neck when they dance past us.”

I opted to stew in my own juices rather than respond to his insinuations. However, slowly, a thought began niggling at my mind. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have confided in Emmett about my engagement to Isabella. He would have been the first person I told, and should have been, since our parents were gone. If I wanted him to be honest with me, I had to pay him back in his own coin. He’d figured me out already anyway.

“Hardly, brother. Not a suitable scene for a ballroom.”

“Regardless, I understand your plight. The man is a cad, and he’s standing up with Bella. Not an easy sight to endure.”

“Quite, but Bella deserves more credit than that. Plus, aren’t you friends with this chap?”

At this point, Emmett could not stifle a scoff. “I guarantee you, the situation is not of my own choosing. Rosalie and I are guests of her parents at present, and they’re friends with Lady Blackwood, so there goes …”

Right there, this was a first indication that the Emmett I used to know still existed, pretentious wife and in-laws notwithstanding. He did not suffer fools gladly, and Blackwood no doubt qualified as one in his book—and mine.

“Honestly, how do you even tolerate him?”

“Ah, there you are. I was wondering where my brother had gone behind all those pleasantries.”

“I’m still here, as mercurial as ever. Some people just bring it out of me. What can I say?”

He nodded without a word. In the corner of my eye, I followed Isabella’s progress through her set of dances with Lord Blackwood. All smiles, he remained utterly oblivious to how stiff Isabella’s movements were despite her innate grace. Her serene countenance, devoid of smiles, did not hint at all at her forbearance in standing up with her host.

Judging by the rhythm of the last piece of music, I deduced the set would end soon. I had to deliver my message to Emmett before our friends reappeared on the scene.

“I’ve had occasion to ponder your words from last week.”

He stood taller at my statement, his interest immediately piqued. “How so?”

“I believe my reaction to you was a tad unfair, but in my defence, I only had father’s words to go by. It’s time I gave you a chance to explain yourself.”

He regarded me with a steely look that searched my countenance for any trace of artifice. Before long, he nodded.

“You see reason finally.”

I sighed but confronted him head-on. “I am not making any promises other than this: I’ll listen to what you have to say. Everything else still stands.”

He seemed poised to protest, but then thought the better of it. “Fair enough. If you listen, I’ll talk. When?”

“Are you free for luncheon tomorrow?”

“I’ll make the time. Where?”

“At Lord Whitlock’s club. I’ll send word first thing tomorrow morning.”

He nodded again and extended his hand out to me.

“Tomorrow then, brother.”

Chapter Text

I wished I could have claimed my Bella for another dance but decided against it. It would have set tongues wagging, and for the time being, both Bella and I had a keen interest in escaping notice rather than attracting it.

Shortly after my conversation with Emmett, Bella’s set of dances with Lord Blackwood ended; he dutifully returned her to our group just as Jasper and my sister also joined us. When the ladies complained of fatigue, we all took our leave from Lord Blackwood and his family. Our departure from his humble abode, however, went less smoothly than we wished.

While we stood in the pristine marble foyer, we ran into Emmett and his wife, who were still accompanied by their lofty friend, the Duke of Bolingbroke. After a minute of painful silence, Emmett and Rosalie approached us.

“Isabella, I am so glad to see you again,” Emmett began, after a nod in my direction. I battled the instinct to hide Bella behind me, out of his reach, but then remembered they had been friends for years, and there was no quarrel between them other than the one of my father’s making.

“You look well, Mr Cullen,” Bella answered demurely. “Have you met my cousin, Lord Whitlock?”

“Are you truly going to stand on ceremonies with me now?” asked Emmett with a hint of mischief in his eyes. Before she could protest, he’d nodded a greeting in Jasper’s direction and had introduced his wife to him.

“Well, brother, until next time, I suppose,” Emmett said after a few inane pleasantries had been exchanged.

“Indeed,” I replied, reluctant to divulge any other details while his wife and the Duke—whom I did not know at all—could easily eavesdrop.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends, Cullen?” his Grace cut in, and it took me an instant to discern I wasn’t the Cullen being addressed. The interruption cast a cloud of silence over everyone else’s conversations. Emmett’s genial smile disappeared at once, halfway through what appeared to be a lively chat with Bella and his wife.

“But of course, your Grace. This is my younger brother, Edward Cullen,” he began, gesturing to me first, and then around our little group to introduce Whitlock first, to whom the Duke bestowed a curt nod, and finally Alice and Isabella.

“Miss Swan, I am utterly enchanted to make your acquaintance.”

“Thank you, your Grace,” Bella answered with a curtsey, politely but without warmth. The sidelong glance she threw my way somehow conveyed her burgeoning distaste for this man who, despite his rank and dashing good looks, did not appear to possess an easy-going disposition or to be received with any peculiar enthusiasm so far.

“Miss Swan … May I call you Isabella? I am tempted to scold Blackwood for being so remiss and hiding such a beauty as yourself from me all this time. I cannot believe we haven’t been introduced before!”

My Bella blushed at the Duke’s blunt, forward manner and neglected to address his query. Far faster than it took me to relinquish the iron grip with which I held the brim of my hat, Bella regained her composure and, with flawless grace, addressed the Duke.

“Alas, I am but seldom in London, your Grace, and I’ve found that I manage to hide myself away quite well without the assistance of others.”

The Duke—a tall, athletic sort of chap with a tailored suit that reeked of Savile Row, short-cropped flaxen hair, and roguish eyes the colour of stormy skies—barely concealed his surprise at Isabella’s clever retort.

“Beauty and wits. What a charming combination! I daresay we’ll see more of each other if you’re acquainted with my friend Cullen.”

At that moment, the providential arrival of a footman announcing that the Duke’s carriage was ready spared us from sharing any further embarrassing pleasantries with him.

We were also ushered to Lord Whitlock’s own carriage at long last, which would drive us back to Grosvenor Square.

When the carriage deposited the three of us at Bella’s doorstep, Jasper called out to me before driving off. “I shall collect you in the morning on my way to the club.”

With my nod of acknowledgment, he tapped the roof of the carriage with his cane, and the coachman drove him off into the night.

*********

Early the next morning, after a pleasantly refreshing sleep, I made my way downstairs in the hopes I’d get a few minutes alone with my Bella before the rest of the household stirred into relentless activity.

I found her in the morning room, sitting at a desk overlooking the garden—the haven where she usually sat while attending to her correspondence.

It was still early for Alice or servants to be roaming this part of the house. As a rule, Mrs Padmore knew not to disturb Bella if she was at her writing desk at this time in the morning. All the same, I would not take liberties unless I was satisfied no prying eyes or ears were around.

“Good morning, Isabella.”

A strand of her hair fell out of her intricate braid, framing her face in a halo of sunshine and auburn hues; though startled, she looked up at me with a radiant smile.

“Good morning to you, too.”

With one last look over my shoulder to verify that we were indeed alone, I closed the door behind me and walked up to her desk.

“Come to me, my love,” I whispered, extending my hand to her.

After neatly rolling a blotter to her correspondence, she rose and took my hand in hers.

“I can bid you a proper good morning now,” I said, cupping her face in my hands as I pressed my lips to hers. I struggled with the sudden urge to make her mine, and through an effort I didn’t know I could muster, I willed my desire to wane and kept the kiss as chaste as I could. Engaged or not, I would not imperil Bella’s reputation in her own home.

“That was quite a good morning, Edward,” she said, exhaling when I rested my forehead against hers.

“We have a lifetime of those to look forward to. Well, if your cousin does not send for the constable when he hears the news,” I added with a wry afterthought.

She disentangled herself from my embrace, and with a smile and a laugh, she finally answered. “Jasper might act aloof on occasion, but he’s a decent fellow who does hold you in high regard. He might be surprised but would never be resentful of our understanding.”

I nodded at her explanation which, as usual, made perfect sense and did comport with everything else I knew about the esteemed Lord Whitlock.

“Not even if he feels we went behind his back?”

She waved a hand daintily to dismiss my concern. “He might huff and puff, but he would never force me into a loveless marriage or into one I didn’t want.” She smiled still, even as the answer itself spoke of a broader, deeper promise than just an understanding with the man to ward off an arranged marriage for an independently wealthy cousin under his guardianship. Somehow, it hearkened back to a painful, lived experience. Somehow, I gathered that, yet again, it all came back to their family history.

“Do you know that for a fact? I was under the impression that the entire point of dragging you to London was to introduce you to a deluge of appropriate suitors.”

She paused, staring at me with those fathomless, expressive eyes of hers, before gathering my hand into her smaller ones. “Come sit with me for a spell, please,” she bade, and I obliged, unable to deny her even the smallest of wishes.

“Jasper has had a harsh family life, all because his parents were forced into a financially advantageous, socially palatable marriage despite being utterly ill-suited for each other. My uncle and my aunt could not, or would not, find a way to live together amiably and ended up making each other’s lives as miserable as they could until the day my uncle died two years ago.

“Of course, the fact that my uncle was a cold-hearted blackguard did not help matters any. My aunt did not start her life as a conceited, mean, and spiteful woman. She became that way through years of unkindness and neglect.

“And that, my darling Edward, is why Jasper does not believe in arranged marriages or in matches only made to further social standing and fortunes. Did you never truly wonder why he’s nine and twenty and still unattached?”

A bevy of things made more sense after Bella’s explanation, except two—why Bella would be the chief target of Lady Whitlock’s spite, and why Bella herself, though evidently conscious of the origins of such spite, made no allowances for her aunt’s behaviour and remained steadfastly unwilling to associate with her, to the point that she’d preferred removing herself all the way to Cornwall instead of living with her aunt when she’d become an orphan. But those were questions for another day.

“To be honest, I haven’t dwelled on your cousin’s marital status, or lack thereof, at all. I did notice, though, that he danced two sets with Alice last night. Need I be concerned in that regard?”

She smiled again at my question, and with a glint of mischief I knew very well shining in her eyes, she quipped, “Why, would you be opposed to that match?”

I thought about it for an instant but dispelled the notion right away. Seeing as I was secretly engaged to his cousin, I could hardly complain of Lord Whitlock courting my sister, if indeed that’s what he was about. Not to mention I had far more pressing concerns at that moment.

“Alice is still so young …” I mused, wishing Bella would change the subject already.

“She knows her own mind, Edward. You left behind a child when you went to Jamaica. She’s a young lady now but a lady nonetheless. Trust her to come to you in her own time.”

“Do you know anything I don’t know, by any chance?” I asked, arching a sceptical eyebrow at her.

“No, but if I did, I would not betray her confidence,” she rebutted. Her smile did not waver, but her keen expression conveyed how serious she was about this.

Gathering her into my arms again, I tenderly pressed my lips to her forehead. “I’m so glad she’s had you all through the turmoil of the last few months. It seems as though everywhere I look, I find you there, keeping the remains of my family together.”

A wave of overwhelming love and devotion for the remarkable lady in my arms washed over me, and suddenly, just holding her wasn’t enough. I cradled her face in my hands and captured her lips with mine, once, twice, and again. I could not stop myself. My fervour took her by surprise, but she responded with a sigh, and I felt her delicate hand grasp the lapel of my suit.

The rhythmic sound of footsteps on the stairs brought me back from the pit of desire into which I’d drowned, and once again, I reluctantly broke our kiss.

“I forget myself when you’re in my arms, my love,” I whispered by way of apology as she moved a respectable distance away from me, her cheeks still blooming with her blush. “I long for the day you won’t have to sit a foot away from me.”

She lowered her gaze and replied in a hushed whisper I barely caught. “I long for that too, Edward.”

After a perfunctory knock on the door, Fortnum, who’d been the one walking up the stairs, stepped into the room.

“Good morning, ma’am. Good morning, Mr Cullen. If you please, Lord Whitlock just arrived and is waiting for you downstairs, sir.”

“Thank you, Fortnum. Please tell his lordship that I will be with him directly.”

Without nary a word, Fortnum bowed and left.

“It’s time, my love. I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I said, standing up to leave.

Without rising from the settee, she gave me a silent nod and a hopeful smile. “Good luck, Edward.”

*********

A scarce half hour later, Jasper and I sat in one of his club’s private dining rooms, sipping tea while we waited for my brother’s arrival. We didn’t have to wait long.

A footman appeared, again seemingly out of thin air, and bowed deeply at Jasper and me.

“I beg your pardon, my lord, your guest just arrived. A Mr Emmett Cullen, I believe, sir?”

Jasper threw a wary glance my way, which I acknowledged with a nod and a healthy sip of my morning brand of liquid courage—Earl Grey tea. In turn, he nodded back to the footman, waving him away.

Emmett’s imposing figure darkened the doorway a few minutes later, after the footman had ushered him in.

“Emmett.”

He may have demanded to see me, but this encounter was on my turf—or rather, on Jasper’s, but that was a mere detail. For all Emmett knew, Jasper and I presented a united front. My older brother nodded at my greeting, and when Jasper and I rose to welcome him, he offered his hand to us both.

His handshake, as firm and vigorous as ever, gave me an opportunity to scrutinize his appearance. The hostile stance he’d unleashed on me on Grosvenor Street had dissipated, but he’d aged. Naturally, so had I. The one visible difference glaring at me through his once familiar features was an air of gloom, of loneliness, a heaviness that didn’t belong with Emmett.

Our mother had not bestowed on him the moniker “the Court Jester” for naught. He’d always been a spirited, carefree lad who loved a good joke and a laugh with the best of them. Weary circles under his eyes were not his usual fare, nor should they have been for a man who, by all accounts, had married the belle of the county, with whom he’d been besotted for many a month.

The nagging suspicion that I may have blindly put too much stock in my father’s words, to the detriment of my relationship with my brother, gnawed at my conscience with the vehemence of a rabid dog.

“Let us take a seat, gentlemen,” said Jasper, ever the perfectly mannered host, startling me out of my thoughts.

“Of course, Jasper,” I replied in haste before either of them could notice my discomfort.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me, Edward. And for your hospitality, Lord Whitlock,” Emmett began in a subdued tone I would not have expected.

“And thank you for agreeing to my terms. Before I let you say your piece, though, let me be utterly clear. Nothing you may say today will ever have any impact on the terms of our father’s will. In that regard, the situation is unchangeable, and it’s out of my hands. Let alone the negligible fact that the law is on my side.”

Open to listening to his side of the story I may have been, but blindsided I would not be. He needed to know right away to divest himself of any illusions he might have harboured in that regard.

A tortured grimace marred his features before he took a long, deliberate sip of his tea.

“You misunderstand me, brother. I know I have no claim to Father’s estate. I have no wish to fight that. It’s a penance I’ll gladly take for my actions.” He paused, just as I thought that he could dispense with challenging our father’s last will and testament because his wife’s coffers were already padded beyond measure. However, his countenance and his talk of penance piqued my curiosity—and nagged my conscience once again. “No, no. No legal challenges. The estate, the plantation—it’s all yours. Fair and square, brother. You’ve earned it. Furthermore, I know you. You feel duty-bound to abide by Father’s wishes, and I would not want to put you in an awkward position. Ever.”

All this talk was well and good, but it all still sounded mysterious. Nebulous even. Emmett was dancing around the subject like a clucking hen around a courtyard.

“Then what is it you want, Emmett? Enlighten me.”

He set his teacup back on the saucer, sat back in his chair, steepled his fingers in front of him, then finally, after an agonizing minute, he spoke.

“I need to tell you why Father banished me from Cullen Manor, and why he opposed my marriage to Rosalie.”

Then he turned to face Jasper with a darker and, as far as I could construe it, guiltier expression. “I apologise in advance, Lord Whitlock. Some of what I will say might prove not all that palatable to you.”

We were briefly interrupted by footmen, who brought in our luncheon. When they left, Emmett resumed.

“Did Father ever tell you why he opposed my match with Rosalie?” he asked.

“No. I never got one word about it from him. In the span of two days last March, I received your express announcing your nuptials and Isabella’s missive imploring me to come home. I sailed back to Cornwall on the next ship out of Kingston. And you know what I found when I arrived at Cullen Manor.”

He exhaled a long, pained breath and banged his fist on the table. “Stubborn, misguided, deluded …” he muttered, almost to himself.

With a voice intended to brook no refusals, I interrupted him. “Contain yourself, Emmett!”

Wide-eyed, he turned his gaze to his still-fisted hand and flexed it open as if to drop a painfully hot poker from his grasp.

“My apologies. It’s not an easy subject for me.”

I was about to protest that it wasn’t my ideal cup of tea either, reminiscing about that six-week voyage and the weeks of grief that followed, but here we were. Our parents were dead, and there was no helping it.

“Since that day, I’ve been wracked with guilt, Edward. Guilt and grief because my stubborn actions had caused not only an irreparable rift with my family, but I’d also caused my father’s—and my mother’s—death. I then deprived Bella and Alice of my support in their time of grief. And I’d also lost your friendship and your regard, possibly forever.”

By now, unshed tears had pooled in my brother’s eyes. The thought struck me, unbidden, that I’d never seen my brother cry before.

“But for all of that, Edward, for all the crushing weight of that guilt I’ll harbour forever, whether you forgive me or not, whether you disown me or not, whether you love me or not … I cannot, in good conscience, ever regret marrying my Rose.”

I’d heard enough. And while he sounded and looked sincere, none of it made any bloody sense.

“Damn it all to hell and back, Emmett! Why did you go and do just that, then? Why are you even telling me this?”

Unaware, I’d risen from my seat through my tirade. My face now hovered within dangerous distance of Emmett’s.

“Because he confronted me with an impossible choice. Stubborn man gave me a misguided, impossible alternative and called it a choice. One which, in good conscience, I could never make.”

“Stop speaking in riddles, for God’s sake! Spit it out!” I thundered.

“Father wanted me to marry Bella!”

Chapter Text

Not her. Not my Bella.

Silence fell over me with the impetus of a cascade of broken glass.

“What?” I spat, unable to keep the sudden outrage from my tone.

“You heard me,” Emmett replied, apparently unperturbed by my reaction.

“Still, humour me?”

“Father confronted me with that ultimatum when I told him I intended to ask for Rosalie’s hand in marriage at the Winter Ball. With a straight face, he retorted that instead I would be marrying Isabella to secure her property and her place in our family, or I would not be marrying anyone at all. He gave me three months to get used to the idea, secure Bella’s consent, and told me to be quick about it.”

I fell back into my chair, sagging into it like an empty sack, with the wind and all sense knocked out of me by Emmett’s revelations. All I could muster within me was an agonised thought.

Not her. Not my Bella.

Emmett took my silence as a cue for him to continue his tale of woe. “I told Father it’d be a cold day in hell before I agreed to marry Bella—my apologies, Lord Whitlock, heaven knows I mean no disrespect …”

When he faltered, doubtlessly embarrassed at having been caught being less than complimentary towards Bella, Jasper disabused him of the notion in an instant.

“Please, no offence taken,” he began with a gesture I’d become quite accustomed to. “I’ve seen you around Isabella, and it’s clear you do not hate her. But do dispense with the formalities, please. We’re all friends here—or I hope we will be. It’s Jasper to you. I’m curious, Emmett—if I may take the liberty—why were you so adamant in not acceding to your father’s request? His attitude baffles me, to be honest. Based on what Bella’s told me over the years, your father could not have been fonder of or more attentive towards Bella if he’d been her real father, instead of just her legal guardian. She loved him dearly—still does, I believe.”

Jasper, as perceptive as ever, had caught on to my distress and managed to convey quite the same concerns I found myself battling with. Those same questions had begun whirling through my mind in a maelstrom of doubt no sooner had Emmett spoken those fateful words.

Not her. Not my Bella.

“Well, to be honest, Jasper, Bella’s been like a sister to me since she came to live with us. I love her the same way I love our Alice. I admire and respect her, but that’s where it ends. I would not—could not—have trapped her in an otherwise loveless marriage just for the sake of doing my father’s bidding, and I told him so. His rationale proved … hard to grasp at first.”

“What do you mean, brother?” I’d finally found my voice—and my wits—again.

“I don’t know the particulars because Father would not tell me everything he knew, but he made an argument that if Bella became a Cullen by marriage, she would be safe from having to return under her mother’s family’s thumb—again, Jasper, apologies, I’m merely relaying my father’s words. The mere thought of imagining Bella under anyone’s thumb sounds preposterous to me in the first place, and yet … He also mentioned something about protecting her property, but by that point, I’d grown so incensed I didn’t even try making sense of what he was going on about. I told him I wouldn’t do it. Not for Bella, not for all the tea in China.”

A conversation I’d recently had with Alice resurfaced in my memory—Lord Blackwood’s property bordered Bella’s estate in Somerset. I threw Jasper a knowing look, which he returned with an imperceptible nod of his own.

“Jasper, is it possible that my father’s fears were substantiated in some way and not just the product of his own endeavours to protect Bella at any cost?”

Emmett leaned back in his chair, his own engrossed gaze alternating between Jasper and myself.

“As far as I know, Bella’s estate is not in any kind of danger financially. I’ve not administered it myself these past few years, but it’s not far from my family’s own holdings. I’d know if something had been amiss, and I haven’t heard anything of the sort. There might be another possibility …”

“Lord Blackwood’s estate borders her property, or so Alice tells me.” I deliberately phrased my remark as a statement to see if Jasper would take the bait.

“And your father, as long as he was Bella’s legal guardian, would have received any formal suits for her hand. But good heavens, I would have heard of it had Blackwood ventured all the way to Cornwall for it.”

“What if he didn’t? What if he decided to survey the situation by another means first?”

Jasper steepled his long, elegant fingers and also leaned back in his chair in a pensive pose.

“Knowing my old pal Blackie, it would be like him to make discreet inquiries first, and then, so to speak, move in for the kill. He doesn’t like being refused, and as a rule, in everything he does, he ascertains first that he will not be denied. It would have been like him to write to your father and let his intentions be known, subtly, while asking—demanding, rather—permission to come visit Isabella in Cornwall. Yes, it’s plausible.”

“Well, I don’t ever remember Lord Blackwood coming to visit Cullen Manor though,” said Emmett by way of explanation.

“It may have not come to fruition at all. I didn’t find anything to that effect in Father’s papers when I took over. For all we know, he may have dismissed the notion without a second thought, burned Blackwood’s letter, and proceeded to find an alternative that would put Bella out of Blackwood’s reach.”

“And I was his alternative, I reckon,” concluded Emmett, resigned.

I did not quite know how to wrangle my thoughts or feelings around this.

On one hand, I wanted to thank Emmett for defying our father’s authority and wishes because, had he not done so, I wouldn’t be contemplating a happy future with Bella right now. Or worse, I would have been desperately loving her from afar, mired in the pain of seeing her married to my own brother.

On the other, while I did understand my father’s motivations to a certain extent, I found it hard to stomach that he’d use Emmett’s brotherly affection towards Bella as a ploy to protect her and her property. I would not have pegged my father to be that ruthless, or that demanding, but I had to entertain the thought that he’d changed in ways I could not fathom over the six long years of my absence from Cornwall.

Mayhap, with a less impetuous soul around him, someone more sedate and circumspect than Emmett at his side, our father could have seen the error of his ways and opted for another course of action. Mayhap, we might have not come to this. But all of these recriminations were moot—he’d been steadfast in his demands on Emmett’s future and, despite where my brother’s affections lay, his first-born had been forced to make a choice that had resulted in his estrangement from the family.

I couldn’t restore the rightful order of things even if it were in my power. Emmett had been adamant about that. There were other things I could—and would—do. I could have my brother back. Alice could have her brother back. We need not be estranged from one another any longer.

“Father, Father, why would you go and do something of the sort?” I mused aloud, hoping against hope that the universe would reveal an answer.

“He’d taken Bella’s plight to heart, Edward. She’s never been destitute by any means, but he couldn’t fathom how her aunt and uncle wouldn’t be more …” Emmett paused, and by his expression, I surmised that he’d rather avoid offending Jasper’s family again, if he could at all.

“Affectionate? Considerate? Humane? You can say that without qualms, Emmett. I have no illusions about my own family. I’ve always resented the fact that my parents’ behaviour alienated Bella’s to the point that they saw fit to entrust her guardianship to the Cullens. I grew up with her, and I’ve missed her cruelly these past few years.”

Jasper’s explanation chimed with the information Bella had shared with me earlier that day and with my own experience with the delightful Lady Whitlock.

“I can’t even begin to comprehend the scope of his motivations here, Emmett. Why he would deem you and your own happiness expendable to protect Bella’s future, I’ll never know. And even if you had entertained the notion of giving in to his wishes, what made him think Bella, of all people, would go along with it?”

Emmett nodded sagely at me from across the table with a glint of admiration in his eyes. “That was my other point. Father’s rebuttal amounted to … something asinine along the lines of ‘you have some affection for each other already, you could end up having a far better marriage than a lot of other people around here.’”

Jasper shook his head, without a doubt imagining Bella’s potential retort to that sort of reasoning. For my part, I could not repress nor hide my derisive laugh.

“Deluded indeed, if he thought Bella would go along with his scheme.”

“And aren’t you glad she didn’t?” asked my brother with a now unmistakable look of mischief on his face. That boyish grin revealed the Emmett I’d always known. He looked as if an invisible burden had been lifted from his shoulders.

“What is that supposed to mean, brother?”

“Nothing, nothing …” he replied in haste. I knew better—Emmett had figured out that I was closer to Bella than I’d shown or let on in public. If I didn’t change the subject soon, I’d have to reveal to Jasper that Bella and I had an understanding and not at the time or place I’d imagined would be more suitable for that sort of confession.

“I have to say, Emmett, your revelations do change things. I can’t, in good conscience, fault you for anything you did. Had I been in your shoes, I would have probably done the same and incurred Father’s wrath.”

Emmett nodded at me but did raise an eyebrow at my words—as surreptitiously as he could without alerting Jasper’s attention.

“Does that mean you will not object to being seen in my company in public? Would you consent to being formally introduced to my Rosalie? When can I see Alice, please? Rosalie has missed her, too.”

He erupted in a torrent of questions, all traces of doubt and tension gone from his countenance. I had to smile at his enthusiasm—in essence, my brother had not changed. He was still as boisterous as I remembered him.

“Yes, to all of those. In due time, of course. Alice and I are currently staying at Bella’s residence, and methinks she would not object to seeing your ugly face in her parlour, though I cannot for the life of me fathom why.”

“Fiddlesticks! You’re only jealous she might like me better than you, little brother!”

“Hardly. It’s still her house. It would be inappropriate for me to invite guests over. Although, there might be a way around it …”

Jasper raised one finger, signalling he had something to say. “If I may, gentlemen. I may have a solution. You and I are headed back to Grosvenor Square anyway. Why don’t you accompany us, Emmett? That is, if you have no other prior engagements.”

I had to give immense credit to Jasper—once again, he’d come up with a solution to our quandary.

“What a mighty fine idea, Jasper,” I exclaimed even before Emmett could volunteer a reply.

“If we appear back at her doorstep with an explanation that doesn’t end with Emmett being there with us, my cousin will turn us both out on our ear,” replied Jasper with a genial grin. Knowing my Bella, I could picture her doing just that.

“Plus, Alice is with her, so you’ll get to see them both at the same time.”

“Which saves both of us from repeating our story twice. Good thinking, brother. You have always been the smarter one,” he quipped. “Let me just send word to my Rosalie so she won’t expect me back for a while longer.”

Emmett rang the bell for a footman, who appeared almost instantly, and sent him on his way with a note headed for St James’s Street to the Hales’ residence.

After that, the three of us rose from our seats and made our way downstairs, where we were met by Whitlock’s carriage, ready to drive us back to Bella and Alice.

How differently had this meeting turned out to be from my own imagination. I wondered what other surprises the day had in store for me.

***        ***        ***

When we reached our destination, an unexpected, glossy black carriage was stationed in front of Bella’s doorstep. I tried to crane my neck and observe it more closely to check for a recognisable coat of arms.

Lupus in fabula,” quipped Jasper when he spotted the vehicle.

After my questioning look, he replied to my unspoken inquiry. “That’s Lord Blackwood’s brougham. I’d know that dapple grey horse anywhere. He bought it from me last spring.”

“I wonder what the conceited coxcomb is doing here,” interjected Emmett before I could react with something less than appropriate for the circumstances.

“Well, let’s make our way inside and find out,” said Jasper while dismounting the carriage.

On entering the foyer, we were met with a flood of disjointed words filtering through the doors of the downstairs drawing room where Bella usually received callers and guests.

A flustered Fortnum welcomed us and disappeared without a word once we’d divested our hats and coats onto him.

A muffled sound followed by a sudden thud sent our collective hackles rising.

“You will leave now, my lord.”

In spite of the closed door, there was no mistaking Bella’s voice, and the contempt that seeped through her words.

“I will not be refused, Isabella. You know it’s a sensible choice,” thundered the man himself.

After a quick and wordless exchange of wary glances, the three of us moved in unison towards the very same doorway that separated us from the disagreeable scene I suspected we’d find on the other side.

I had to battle with my instincts, which dictated I be the one to charge in and defend Bella from Lord Blackwood’s less than palatable conduct, but I caved in to my better judgement and let Jasper advance ahead of me.

“What in the devil’s name is this, Blackwood?” Jasper roared, his usual unflappable demeanour now utterly gone.

Once inside the room, we saw Blackwood standing far closer than appropriate to Bella, who had all but cowered into a corner, her hand on the velvet pull that would ring the bell for service. An empty vase lay on the floor, the flowers previously arranged in it scattered haphazardly on the floor amid a pool of water. The small end table that usually stood in that corner also lay on the floor—which led me to believe the hollow thud we’d just heard had been caused by the same piece of furniture having been knocked over through the fiery exchange on which we’d eavesdropped.

Once Jasper and I had walked into the room, Bella visibly relaxed and extracted herself from where she stood to come join us. With a small, wan smile, she noticed Emmett standing beside me but gave us no other acknowledgement so far.

Blackwood turned on his heels and came face to face with our incensed trio.

“I’ll ask you again, Blackwood. What in the devil’s name is this?” Jasper spat with disdain lacing his every word.

“Isabella, are you all right?” I asked, unable to keep silent any longer. Her cousin could deal with Blackwood, my only concern was for Bella’s well-being.

In a few lithe steps, she came to stand closer to Jasper and myself. “Little one?” asked Jasper, no doubt in an effort to make sure she was, indeed, unscathed despite looking understandably rattled.

With a curt nod, she murmured, “I am fine. Irritated, but quite all right.”

“You need to have a better handle on your ward, Whitlock. She has no notion of where her best interests lie,” Blackwood finally spoke, haughty and condescending in the extreme.

I did not venture to look at him, for the temptation to spit in his face might have been too great. I did hear, however, a low growl from where Emmett stood behind me. His appreciation of Blackwood’s pronouncement must have ranked about as high as mine—straight down in the sewer, or thereabouts.

“And you, Lord Blackwood, need to vacate my property this instant,” Bella declared, equally unimpressed with Blackwood’s assessment of her character.

“This kind of impudence is intolerable …” The conceited coxcomb had no notion of how badly this could turn out for him if he kept this attitude up any longer. By now, I wagered that both Jasper and my brother had about as little patience for it as I did—or none.

“Look who’s talking, Blackwood. You stand here, in my cousin’s house, after she just demanded you leave, and you’ve not only offended me but are offending her with your behaviour. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t throw you out myself. One reason.”

Blackwood averted his gaze from Jasper and walked closer to us to look once again at Bella. His brow, creased with disappointment and anger, gave way for an instant to a more wistful expression—he now had the distinct look of a rejected man. Had Jasper given any latitude to his demands, he must have surmised he could make some headway with Bella, but he’d have no recourse in the face of Jasper’s steadfast opposition. Not when Bella herself had just spurned him so categorically.

“I see how it is. This is not over, Whitlock.”

“I assure you that it is, Lord Blackwood. Please, leave,” added Isabella, pre-empting Jasper from having to retort to Blackwood’s umpteenth demand.

The unflappable Fortnum appeared in the doorway, and without giving a second look to the scene unfolding before his eyes, he addressed his mistress. “Yes, ma’am?”

“Fortnum, Lord Blackwood is leaving.”

Blackwood could not risk a scene in front of a servant, and though his attitude and his eyes said otherwise, he complied with Isabella’s request and disappeared with a disgruntled huff, slamming the door behind him.

“Good riddance to him,” quipped Emmett, who’d remained silent until now.

“Isabella?” I murmured, turning to look at her. She regarded me with a contrite, almost bashful expression. Without heeding my surroundings, I reached out to hold her hand in mine. “Are you quite all right?”

“Edward … I …” she replied, stumbling over her words. Then her complexion paled, and her hand slipped from my grasp just as her eyelids drooped.

Propriety be damned, I thought and curled my arm about her waist before she dropped to the ground like a dead weight. It was the second time she’d fainted in my presence, and to my reckoning, it was twice too many. I’d explain myself to Jasper if he asked—it was high time I did anyway.

“Bella? Bella, please, wake up!” I entreated as soon as I’d found a stable perch on the nearby settee. I turned to lay her against the cushions so she’d be more comfortable when she came to, which I hoped would be soon.

I heard the servant’s bell and concluded Jasper must have rung for service. When the door opened though, it did not reveal Bella’s maid or Mrs Padmore, but my rather agitated sister instead.

“Is that horrible, pompous man gone? Bella? Edward? Emmett, what in heaven’s name are you doing here? Oh, Lord Whitlock, you’re here, too. Good day to you.” Trust my sister to take in the scene in an instant and summarise it in an outpouring of questions.

“He’s gone, Alice. Could you fetch some smelling salts for Bella, please? I’m afraid even her forbearance has limits.”

“Of course. Do not think I will not demand an explanation for this state of affairs though,” she stated, her unyielding tone and expression so much like my mother’s that Emmett and I could not contain a nostalgic smile as we nodded our assent. In a whirlwind of silk and finery, she left the room.

Bella’s eyes fluttered open and, with a disoriented expression, she looked about the room.

“Jasper? Edward?”

“We’re here, Bella. We’re all here,” I replied, reaching out for her hand again as I kneeled at her side.

“It seems we made it back just in time from what I saw and heard,” said Jasper, who’d come to sit on a chair next to the settee where Bella lay.

“Did I hear Alice’s voice just now?” she asked, still somewhat unnerved, judging by the look in her eyes.

“I sent her to fetch smelling salts. I was worried about you for a minute there.”

She squeezed my hand and nodded. “How much did you hear?” she asked again in a hushed tone that made me think her query wasn’t intended for Jasper or Emmett.

Still, her cousin heard her all the same. “Enough to contemplate either calling the constable on him or challenging him to a duel. Of all the underhanded, improper, shameful things to do …”

“No, Jasper. Please. I’ve said my piece to him. I made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that I would not be welcoming his courtship. He was not enthused, as you saw.”

I heard pacing behind me. I surmised Jasper had to dispel his rage—as I would, had I not had more pressing concerns at that very moment.

“Bella, little one … Blackwood’s behaviour should not go unpunished. He ambushed you in your own home while you were unaccompanied, and when you refused him, he tried to infer that it was in my power to control you? Clearly, the man is insane.”

“No. I will not have any of you imperil your reputations in any way—and I mean the three of you. Do not think I didn’t notice you seething over there, Emmett Cullen—because a lofty, entitled man thought he could order me about. He’s been set to rights. He will not mention this again because he has too high an opinion of himself to tarnish it by broadcasting that he’s been refused.”

I sighed. Of course, she would not want this discussed in the open. The risk of it reflecting badly on her—or worse than it would on Blackwood—was substantial. Once again, I also rued the day I’d acquiesced to her request to keep our engagement secret until Blackwood’s blasted ball. Had I put my foot down, she would not have been forced to endure this morning’s ordeal.

“It’s time, Bella,” I murmured to her, hoping Jasper and Emmett wouldn’t hear. For an instant, Bella tried to look away from me, shaking her head minutely, but then nodded with a sigh of her own. I relinquished her hand and stood to my full height, ready to face Jasper.

“Jasper, Isabella and I have some news to share.”

Emmett, who stood by a window on the other side of the room, threw a sly look my way and tried to hide a satisfied smile. Jasper, on his part, stopped his pacing and raised his head. His steady gaze pinned me to my spot. A rustling sound of swishing fabric clued me in about the fact that Bella must have sat up.

“Do you now?”

“Yes, and we hope you will welcome it,” I began, willing my voice not to falter.

Jasper turned slightly away from me to glance at his cousin. What he found must have been to his liking because the frown on his brow disappeared instantly. “Very well then. Out with it, man,” he retorted while taking a seat.

“Isabella and I are engaged. I asked her to marry me a few days ago, and for some reason I still cannot fathom, she said yes. I hope you will give us your blessing.”

With an unreadable look on his face, he nodded, appearing to be absorbing the import of my words.

“Why am I only hearing of this now? Isabella?”

Bella stood and came by my side, grasping my hand in hers, making no attempt to hide her gesture from her cousin.

“Before you place any blame for it on Edward, please know that he had every intention of telling you. I insisted he keep it quiet until after the ball,” Bella stated firmly.

Without a word, he stood to pace the room again, stepped closer, and turned to face us—or me, more precisely. “Do you love her?” he asked, a steely expression in his grey eyes.

I did not need to think on that. “Immensely.”

He nodded wordlessly again and turned to Bella. “Do you love him?”

“With all my heart.”

He turned and resumed his perch on the chair he’d vacated minutes prior.

“You may as well have started with that opening line,” he began after a long, painful pause. “That is all I needed to know. Once you set your mind or heart on something, you never falter, Bella. You’ve always had a loyal, loving, steadfast heart. You’re a good man, Edward. I could not have found a better match than you for my cousin. You two are well-suited, and you’re already suitably wrapped around her little finger, Cullen,” he concluded with a happy smile.

Bella left my side to embrace her cousin. “Thank you, thank you, Jasper!”

He patted her shoulder and threw an indulgent look at her that I spied from over her shoulder. “I’ve always wanted you to be happy, little one. If Edward makes you happy, then who am I to stand in your way?”

“Although I cannot fathom what you see in him really!” quipped Emmett, who’d left his peripheral spot to give me a vigorous congratulatory slap on my shoulder.

“I could turn that around on your wife, Emmett, remember!” said Bella, laughing and smiling.

Jasper, with a more guarded expression, cleared his throat to attract our attention. “Well, since both Cullen brothers are in attendance …”

“Yes, about that,” interjected Bella. “Echoing Alice’s earlier sentiment, I believe we’re owed an explanation about this unexpected visit. Not that I’m anything less than thrilled to see you, Emmett. I’m glad you both seem to have smoothed over your differences.”

“Come over here, Bella. Let me greet you properly,” said Emmett, turning to my Bella.

“Now, you’ll truly be my brother,” she murmured, stepping into his embrace as her voice broke with the force of her emotions.

“That I will, Busy Bee, that I will.” I wondered about the endearment but decided to shelve my questions for later. Jasper’s reference to “both Cullen brothers” piqued my curiosity.

“If I may interrupt the festivities for a spell,” said the gentleman in question as we all took our seats again.

“Yes?” I asked with an amused lilt to my voice, crossing my arms and sitting back on the settee.

“Well, how to phrase this …” he began with uncharacteristic bashful demeanour.

“Out with it, man,” entreated Emmett, throwing Jasper’s own earlier words back in his face.

“Could I … May I … have the honour of courting Miss Cullen … Alice, please?”

I bestowed him a satisfied smile of my own before throwing a glance in my brother’s direction. The mirth dancing about in his eyes told me that he had no objections whatsoever to Lord Whitlock’s suit. Since I was still Alice’s legal guardian, I took it upon myself to ease the man’s suffering and give him our answer.

“It’s about time you asked, Jasper.”

“Is that a yes?” he asked with an expectant, hopeful expression.

“Yes, you may court our sister. I doubt you’ll find much objection there. Ease up, Jasper. We’ll be brothers by and by, too.”

He rose to shake my hand, and I clapped his shoulder to congratulate him, satisfied that the day had turned out far better than I’d hoped.

“How the mighty have fallen …” quipped my Bella from her perch beside me.

“Indeed, Busy Bee, indeed,” laughed Emmett, just as Alice stormed back into the room with Mrs Padmore on her heels, armed with a tray of refreshments. After all this excitement, I could use a soothing cup of tea.

Before my sister could rain a new barrage of questions on us, which we would not be able to resist this time, Jasper pulled the trump card from up his sleeve.

“You know what this means though, Edward?”

I rose an eyebrow and dared him to answer. I had an inkling as to where he was going with this, but I wanted him to say it out loud for everyone’s benefit.

“This living arrangement is clearly no longer acceptable.”

Chapter Text

“Thank you, Mrs Padmore. I shall serve tea to our guests.”

At Bella’s request, delivered with the usual courteous, even-keeled bearing she kept in front of house staff, the housekeeper, ever the faithful, unquestioning employee, deposited the tea tray, curtsied to Bella, and left without making another sound.

Then, three things happened at the same time.

Alice, her features alight with wonder, let her eyes roam all over my figure as if she’d last seen me months ago and not the previous night; her gaze then landed down my side, where my hand was still entwined with Bella’s. At that very instant, her eyes grew wider than our tea saucers while she struggled to keep her enthusiasm in check.

Jasper’s own regard landed on Alice’s advancing figure. His eyes and visage went through a kaleidoscope of emotions and expressions—from awe to devotion, from infatuation to uncertainty. His demeanour resembled mine when I first allowed myself to entertain the thought that Bella might return my feelings.

Lastly, Emmett, now taking on once again the boisterous and carefree persona of our youth, landed with an unceremonious gesture on a plush chair across from the tea table and, by way of lapidary comment, erupted in an unrestrained laugh.

Although I suspected her own emotions lurched along the edge of a precipice, our sister was not amused by her elder brother’s antics. “Emmett Nathaniel Cullen, if you think you can avoid providing an explanation for the current state of affairs by laughing your way out of it, you must be out of your mind!”

Bella approached her, clutched her hands to soothe her, and then said, “Come sit with me, Alice. It might take a while to hear what these three have been up to this morning. Just as well we’re sitting down with a cup of tea while they regale us with their tale.”

Alice stepped closer to Bella, and from where I stood next to my intended—for a fleeting instant, my heart swelled with pride, now cognisant that I could openly refer to my Bella as such—I heard the few words she whispered, no doubt meant for Bella alone.

“Are you quite all right? I wanted to send Lord Blackwood away, but I heard him yell at you, and it scared me. By the time I came downstairs, Edward and Lord Whitlock were already here.”

Bella patted Alice’s hand and nodded her reply. “’Tis all past now, Alice. No harm done. Let’s forget about him, shall we?”

“If you say so,” answered Alice, but her tone contradicted her words. Bella wound her arm around Alice’s waist and, in doing so, let go of my hand. She caught my disappointed look but bestowed me with such a loving smile in return that I could not begrudge her momentary concern for my sister.

With Bella and Alice sitting on one of the two settees on either side of the tea table, Jasper and I took our seats on the other one opposite them. With Emmett perched on the one lone chair at the head of the table, he seemed to be acting as a referee of sorts, a neutral entity between our two couples—one promised already, the other on their way to being promised, if Jasper ended up having his way.

For a fleeting moment, I reflected on how unlikely my older brother was to stand in between the four of us. On the other hand though, because he was our elder brother, he did have a say in our futures, or would have had if our father had not stripped him of his birthright. Another unresolved issue hanging over our heads that we’d have to learn to navigate as best we could, regardless of what our father’s considerations in that respect would have been. Those didn’t matter any longer—I could, and would, forge my own path. Decisions about the family—the estate in Cornwall, the plantation in Jamaica, Alice’s future, and mine—were my own province now.

“Edward?” Bella’s voice drifted over to me through the haze of my own thoughts. I’d gotten lost in my own mind as I was often wont to do.

“Yes, my dear?” I reckoned the endearment would be accepted as a matter of course before long and thought nothing of uttering it out loud.

“Your tea. Will you take milk and sugar as usual?” she asked with a diverted smile on her lips. I’d been caught daydreaming by my Bella—I knew she’d ask me about my musings later, if we were ever left alone again before the banns were read.

“Yes, thank you.”

After Bella handed my cup to me across the table, an obnoxious tapping noise attracted my attention away from her beloved face.

“It would appear that Emmett isn’t the only one who should be providing explanations. Now, who would like to start?” Alice asked. From the tone of her voice, I could tell she was well on the way to getting annoyed with us—Emmett and me, specifically. I didn’t think she would ever hold a grudge towards Bella since her brothers could serve as prime, preferred targets for her irritation anyway.

“Would you like the short or the long version, little sister?” asked Emmett, who had every intention of playfully toying with Alice’s expectations as long as he could.

She had to suppress a huff by hiding behind her teacup in an effort to appear unruffled by Emmett’s teasing. However, Bella suddenly had no such compunctions. She broke out in a carefree, gleeful laugh.

“I cannot tell you how much I’ve longed to see the three of you like this!” she exclaimed, regarding Alice, but gesturing to Emmett and me.

“Like what, I pray?” asked Alice, who appeared torn by conflicting emotions—the frown on her brow battled with the dawning smile on her lips, which told me that her former irritation had all but given in to amusement. She was accustomed to our elder brother’s ways and knew his teasing was always good-natured.

“Behaving like three siblings together,” she simply replied, her voice overcome with emotion.

“It’s been a long time coming,” stated Emmett, solemn for once.

“That may be true, but it still won’t get you lot out of telling me what transpired this morning. I’ve had enough of your cloak and dagger antics—both of you, Emmett and Edward—you left this morning before breakfast, before even biding me good morning. Well?”

Alice delivered her tirade in one long, agitated breath, as she always did when engrossed with something that ranked high in her priorities. I threw Emmett a sidelong glance, and he nodded in reply before addressing our sister.

“Well, dear sister, as I asked just now, would you like the short or the long version?”

She gave a minute, dainty huff and turned towards Emmett. “Whichever clarifies best what on earth the two of you—no, three. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, Bella—have been up to,” she quipped.

“First of all, I would like to apologise if last week I offended or vexed you in any way with my behaviour, Alice. It wasn’t my intention to do so. I just saw no other way of contacting Edward at the time,” Emmett began, alluding to our disastrous meeting on Grosvenor Street.

“Apology accepted, brother. All this time, I just wished you and Edward would reconcile.”

“Well then, the short version of our tale should please you. We’ve reconciled,” added Emmett with a mischievous smile of his own. It was a truthful rendition, but it no doubt lacked all the details Alice would demand from—and successfully extract out of—Emmett and me.

“That is not a satisfactory explanation, brother. I hardly know what was wrong to begin with, except for you going off to marry Rosalie Hale.”

Emmett, once again, looked in my direction. We both knew the crux of the matter now, but would revealing that to both Alice and Bella at the same time be the right course of action? How would they react? Most importantly, how would my Bella receive that particular piece of news? Alice required—and was wholeheartedly entitled to—an explanation now. I had no time to confer privately with Bella and soften the blow. This would have to do.

I gave Emmett another subtle nod in reply, and he continued with his tale. “That’s exactly where the problem lay. For our father, at least. He didn’t want me to marry my Rosalie. He had other designs for me.”

Alice’s delicate features contorted into a befuddled grimace. “How is that possible? He never voiced any objection against Rosalie. Not to my face. Bella, did you know anything about that? You were at home much more than I was in the past year.”

Bella shook her head and grasped Alice’s hand in hers again. “I have no idea, Alice. It’s not something your father would have shared with me.”

This gave Emmett a perfect opening for his next shot. “For a very good reason. Our dear father had gotten it into his head that someone else would be a much better choice of bride for me than Rosalie. You, Bella.”

Alice nearly dropped her cup and saucer to the floor but recovered just in time. “No!”

Bella, however, had no such qualms and was so taken aback that she almost slammed her teacup on the table. “What? Please tell me it’s not true …”

I longed to dart across the room and take her into my embrace, comfort her. I couldn’t. I had to sit and watch as confusion slowly gave way to understanding on her features.

“Is that … is that why you all but stopped talking to me?” Bella asked Emmett, the pain of her newfound knowledge dawning in her eyes and in her voice.

Emmett, cognisant of her discomfort, rose from his chair and took a seat beside her. “I couldn’t go through with it, Bella. Father demanded I cast Rosalie aside and marry you instead. I couldn’t do that to Rosalie and me—or to you, for that matter. It pained me that I had to avoid you, but I saw no other way at the time. I couldn’t tell you—and if we spent time together as we used to, you would have pried it out of me before long. You’ve always been too astute for me. Can you ever forgive me?”

My lovely Bella, who now had tears in her eyes, replied in woeful whispers. “I didn’t see … but why … why would he do that?”

“Bella, please, you are as dear to me as Alice. You are—and have always been—a sister to me. I cannot bear the thought that my actions caused you sorrow. I need to know—I need to earn your forgiveness. Please,” Emmett pleaded. I’d never seen him so rattled, so conflicted, and in such depths of distress.

“There’s nothing to forgive, Emmett, for goodness’ sake. It wasn’t your doing—it was your father’s! I wish you would have confided in me, but I understand why you couldn’t. I cannot, for the life of me, fathom why Carlisle felt he could arrange my life and my future thusly—behind my back even!” Bella’s fierce independence finally resurfaced, and indignation replaced her earlier emotions.

“I wondered about that too. Worse, I asked him outright. He explained it away with his usual brand of unassailable logic. Unfortunately, that time it sounded unassailable only to him.”

“Well? What did he have to say for himself?”

With a deep sigh, Emmett left his place beside Bella and Alice and resumed his seat on the plush, high-backed chair he’d vacated earlier. “His main concern was keeping you and your property safe. He figured that would be easier if you became a Cullen.”

Bella shook her head, even more befuddled. “Safe from what? Did Carlisle at any point take leave of his senses, and no one at Cullen Manor realised it?”

Jasper, who had so far kept steadfastly silent, chose this moment to voice his thoughts. “I don’t think that was the case, little one. From what the three of us were able to reconstruct, we believe Carlisle decided on this course of action because he may have received a suit for your hand—one he deemed unworthy. My educated guess would be that he was afraid you would somehow be torn away from Cullen Manor and back into your parents’ family orbit. He made a misguided choice animated by the best of intentions.”

“Anyone with a pair of eyes and ears could have told him there was no ordering Bella around! What on earth was he thinking?” hissed Alice with uncharacteristic fury. “More importantly, didn’t he see he was breaking the family apart? It’s all his fault!”

When her vehemence and frustration melted into silent tears, Emmett knelt before her. “There is no use recriminating over whose fault it was or wasn’t now, sister. I can’t spend my life with that darkness hanging over me, nor should you. Edward and I have found a way back to each other, like brothers, and that’s how it’s supposed to be. I beg you, don’t dwell on the past. It’s only bound to give you pain. I do not wish that for you.”

On seeing Alice enveloped in Emmett’s brotherly embrace, Jasper threw me a meaningful glance, which I understood all too well. He wished he could be the one to console the object of his affections but wasn’t at liberty to do so—yet.

When Alice’s tears and sniffles subsided, she extricated herself from Emmett’s hold. “This reconciliation changes things, I suppose?” she asked, her voice still tentative.

“We’re all here together, are we not?” replied Emmett.

I suspected Alice wasn’t questioning our whereabouts but rather more substantial concerns.

“But I thought with the two of you reconciling … I know it’s not my place …”

It was time I intervened. This was as much Alice’s family as it was ours. She had a voice and a place to express her opinions. “Alice, it is your place. It’s your family too.”

“Are you … will you … go back to Jamaica?” She feared I would leave now that everything appeared to be sorted out for the better.

Emmett took it upon himself to disabuse her of that notion. “Alice, let me be very clear. There is no quarrel between Edward and me, and we both plan on making up for lost time, but nothing else is going to change. I never had any designs to dispossess Edward of his rightful inheritance. I will not challenge Father’s will, now nor ever.”

That didn’t seem to appease Alice’s doubts. “But what will you do? Where will you go?”

“Rosalie and I have a home at Treverva Lodge—we always will. Her father needs help with the business—he’s getting on in years and wants me to be involved. I won’t be an idle country gentleman, if that’s what worries you.”

“Oh … I see. It makes sense, I suppose,” replied Alice, lowering her gaze. “You must know you’re welcome at Cullen Manor anytime you wish now. Oh … forgive me, Edward. I should have … I should defer to you on these things.”

“Nonsense, Alice. Cullen Manor is also your home. I agree with all my heart. Emmett and Rosalie are certainly more than welcome. Speaking of which, when can we meet the lovely Mrs Cullen, brother?”

“Wait. Do not think you can distract me with social engagements, Edward!” Alice exclaimed. “What is this I heard from Lord Whitlock earlier that this living arrangement is no longer acceptable? Would anyone care to explain that to me?”

Emmett raised his hands in mock defeat, all the while eyeing Bella and me with mirth dancing in his eyes. The Court Jester had just reappeared.

“Alice, I have some news for you,” I began, looking at my Bella, who blushed now that all eyes were upon her. “Better yet, Bella and I have some news for you …”

“I knew it! I knew it! And, you rascal, you kept denying it!” Alice erupted, jabbing a reproachful finger at me across the table.

“Maybe you’d best let the man finish, sister,” quipped Emmett, who was thoroughly enjoying the scene.

“Bella and I … we’re engaged to be married, Alice.”

With a radiant smile, Alice turned to Bella and engulfed her in an enthusiastic embrace. “We’re going to be sisters! Oh, Bella, I am so happy! You shall have a gorgeous white gown like the Queen’s!”

Bella reciprocated the embrace, laughing along with Alice, whose joy spread across the room. Our moment of celebration was cut short when Alice finally made sense of Whitlock’s earlier words.

“No longer acceptable … Where are we going to stay then, Edward?”

Jasper intervened. “In fact, I was going to offer Edward to come stay with me at Holland Park. Bella, you and Miss Cullen can hardly stay here without a chaperone now though. I’m sorry to inflict her on you, but …”

With a diverted smile, Bella replied, “Once and for all, I cannot fathom how you can be so merciless to the poor old lady. First, she’s not so bad; second, she happens to be your great-aunt too; lastly, she may not be your cup of tea, but she’s a kind soul. Alice and I will do nicely with Great-aunt Millicent staying with us for a spell. As a matter of fact, I shall send her a note before the day is out.”

Ah. The name rang a bell—possibly the portly lady who’d attended the dinner party at Holland Park. I had no clue what Jasper’s objections towards her were, but I could certainly investigate further with my Bella.

“I daresay it’s settled then. Edward?”

“It is. Thank you for the hospitality, my friend.”

Bella rang the bell for service. “When do you want to move over to Holland Park, Edward? I’ll have Fortnum get your trunk ready.”

I raised an interrogative eyebrow at Jasper, who replied in my stead. “It has to be today, Bella. If we announce your engagement tomorrow, Edward must be out of your house already. On that, I will not budge.”

Bella acquiesced with a nod of her own right when Fortnum himself appeared in the room.

“Fortnum, I’m afraid we’re going to have a little game of musical chairs here. Mr Cullen will stay with Lord Whitlock for a while, so please see to it that his belongings are packed right away. Lady Holcombe will be coming to stay here, I suppose from tomorrow or so. Please get her usual room ready. That will be all. Thank you.”

Fortnum bowed and disappeared.

“Now,” began Bella again, “shall we all have dinner here together, Rosalie included? Emmett, do you and your wife have any prior engagements?”

Emmett rose to his feet and bent to bestow a brotherly kiss to Bella’s forehead. “No, Busy Bee. In fact, we’d be delighted to join you. Do let me go and fetch her myself though. She will want to know what all has occurred today. Before I leave and do that—Jasper, Alice, would you care to take a turn in the gardens with me?”

Subtle, Emmett was not, but I appreciated his attempt to give me some time alone with my Bella. When the three of them left for their stroll, I wasted no time in taking a seat beside my beloved.

“What a day, Edward!” exclaimed Bella when I gathered her in my arms.

“It’s all in a good day’s work if I end it with you in my arms and with the promise of dining with my brother and his new wife. Thank you for inviting them,” I said, cradling her face in my hands.

“A purely selfish gesture, I assure you. I’ve missed the big oaf, and Alice has too.”

“There’s not a selfish bone in you, my darling,” I replied, now kissing her in earnest. I’d missed holding her in my arms, feeling her lips on mine, and for a handful of endless moments, I gave in to my desire, to which she responded enthusiastically.

“I shall miss these moments with you from tomorrow,” she whispered when we broke the kiss.

“Perhaps, we can find a few out of the way alcoves in the gardens at Holland Park,” I replied playfully. “My darling, now that the family knows, we should think about arranging our nuptials. I will see to it that banns are read both here and in Truro.”

“I should like us to be married at Cullen Manor,” she said, boring her soulful eyes into mine. “It is our home, or it will be when we are wed. We should be married surrounded by family and friends.”

Once again, she’d read my mind. On one hand, I wished to make her mine as soon as humanely possible—and had contemplated being married in London so we could travel to Cornwall as man and wife. On the other, she had distilled my wishes perfectly. I wanted to be on my land when I married her, with my family to wish me joy. That, and I couldn’t deny her anything.

“That is a wonderful idea. I’m sure Jasper and Emmett will have no objections to travelling back to Cornwall with us. I wonder how long it will take your cousin to break my sister’s resolve down?”

She giggled delightfully at my question. “No time at all. As best I can tell, she has been besotted with him for a while, despite keeping very quiet about it.”

I shook my head, laughing. “Well, that’s bound to make our life even more interesting. Now, before we are invaded again, what is Jasper’s grievance with Lady Holcombe?”

She looked up at me with mirth in her eyes. “Nothing of consequence. He just thinks she is a boring old biddy—which she is not. She appears all prim and proper, hence boring, in mixed company, but she can be delightfully mischievous among other ladies. Obviously, he cannot appreciate her. What can I say?”

“And you can?”

“She was the only one on that side of the family who ever showed me any kindness, any affection. How could I not appreciate her, Edward?”

I kissed her forehead again and held her close to my chest. All those years of being spurned by her mother’s family and starved for family warmth and affection seeped through her words.

“Now that Jasper is courting Alice, I will need to have a long talk with him about Lady Whitlock. Should I be worried, my love?”

She disentangled herself from my grasp, only to look up at me with a serious expression. “You have every right to be concerned and to demand explanations from Jasper. My aunt is a despicable woman, but if Jasper cares about Alice, he will do his utmost to protect her from his mother. If anything, to spare her my aunt’s spiteful behaviour.”

“Very well. I trust you, and I trust him. I shall give him an opportunity to explain himself.”

She nodded into my chest and folded herself closer into my embrace. As I listened to her steady, relaxed breaths and felt her heart beating next to mine, I remembered there were more questions I wished to ask. “Are you absolutely certain you are quite all right, my love? You fainted in my arms again today, and if you expect me to disregard the circumstance, you are sorely mistaken.”

She looked up at me again and pressed her hand to my cheek in a loving caress. I threaded my fingers through hers—another attempt to hold her closer. “I am certain, Edward. I feel perfectly fine now. It was the shock of dealing with that horrible man, nothing else. I assure you.”

“Very well,” I replied, bestowing another loving kiss to her forehead. “If you are sure. I couldn’t bear it if anything ever happened to you, my darling one.”

“My Edward, ever the worrier …”

“I know to count my blessings, my love. You are prime among them, and I will always treasure you as such.”

She rewarded my overture with a whisper of a kiss, which barely quenched my thirst for her and, for a moment, made me ponder the merits of applying for a special license so I could marry her in two weeks’ time instead of a month.

“This might sound like a non sequitur, but what is it that Emmett called you earlier? Busy Bee? I sense a story behind it.”

She regaled me with a loving, open smile. “Yes, he used to call me Busy Bee at Cullen Manor. He said I used to flit about the house like a busy worker bee.”

My brother, despite his earlier protestations to the contrary, had a perceptive mind. His description of my Bella fit her like a glove. “Astute and to the point. I remember you flitting around my house, ordering my staff about. Although I should say our house and our staff now,” I commented, still fondly remembering her in those first days after my return when I didn’t understand her yet, when I had yet to grasp the strength and grace that animated her.

“I am so proud of you today, Edward,” she began again with an expression of such utter devotion on her features that, for a moment, I doubted I could deserve such high praise—or whether I could deserve her at all. But then it occurred to me—I’d denied myself the warmth, comfort, and companionship of my family for six years to prove myself to them, to my father … to forge my own path instead of confining myself to the narrow lot of the second-born son of a country gentleman, and I’d achieved what I’d set out to do—goddammit all to hell and back, I did deserve her. I did deserve the love of a good, caring, selfless woman who understood me … who loved me. And with that newly found faith in my heart, I held her closer to me and marvelled at her—my reward, my miracle.

“How so, my love?” I asked, eager to be privy to the workings of her mind.

“You conquered the preconceived notion your father had unwittingly forced upon you with regard to Emmett and his marriage. You listened to your brother’s reasons and exercised independent judgement to draw your own conclusions on the situation. You didn’t slavishly follow what the implications of Carlisle’s conduct and decisions would have been. You chose your own path and decided that reconciling with your brother was a worthier endeavour than respecting your father’s misguided wishes. Not every man would have done so,” she explained in a fervently delivered speech.

I had to suppress a shrug and opted instead to gather her close to me again in a feverish kiss.

“I didn’t see any alternative, my love. I could walk through life bitter and alone, wondering forevermore what my father’s objection could have been and be forced to forget I ever had a brother, or I could suspend judgement and listen to him. Mind you, I still feel conflicted to my core.”

“Why would you, Edward?” she asked, still caressing my cheek.

“I am duty-bound and bound by law to the terms of my father’s will. I know no property will exchange hands despite our reconciliation; still, I cannot help but feel I’ve disappointed my father by disregarding his wishes. And yet …”

“And yet?”

“I cannot but rejoice that I shall be able to marry you and have my brother at my side, or that Alice shall not lose her brother too.”

She looked pensive for a moment, and after giving me a resolute, graceful nod, she replied, “I believe you should take Emmett’s own advice in this respect. You cannot let that sort of darkness hang over you. It’s in the past. Let bygones be bygones. Nobody will fault you for reconciling with your own brother if you’re not openly flouting the terms of the will.”

“Forge my own path, aye?”

“Indeed, my love,” she replied. Then all of a sudden, she disentangled herself from my grasp and exclaimed, “Jenks! We need to write to him, or he may tan both of our hides if we don’t convey the news to him ourselves!”

And that is how Emmett, Jasper, and Alice found us laughing a minute later when they returned from their stroll through the gardens.

Chapter Text

A few hours later, I had successfully decamped to Jasper’s residence with all my belongings—because Bella ran her household with such unflinching efficiency that my trunk had, indeed, been packed “right away”—and the two of us sat in his carriage on our way back to Bella’s for the impromptu dinner she’d decided to throw to celebrate my reconciliation with Emmett.

From his seat opposite me in the carriage, Jasper seemed intent on escaping my scrutiny in whatever way he could. So far, he’d evaded my questions by providing only monosyllabic retorts, or thereabouts. Usually a brilliant conversationalist, he’d refrained from initiating any small talk to the point of sullenness; he’d shied away from my questioning looks by steadfastly gazing outside the window as the streets of London flew past the carriage in a riotous blur of colours and sounds.

At long last, I’d had enough of the avoidance and decided that a direct, scathing question might coax him into being more reactive, or so I hoped. “Did I do or say anything to vex you, Jasper? You’ve been avoiding me since we left your house.”

Granted, my remark probably had a tad more bite than I intended, but sure enough, it shook Jasper out of his daze. “What, me? Vex you? God, no, Edward,” he retorted, flustered—or as flustered as he could look in his impeccable dinner attire. His gaze danced this way and that, as if again he didn’t have the gall to look me in the eye. His gloved hands patted his thigh in a staccato pattern. So that’s what was the matter with him—it dawned on me as a tortured grimace contorted his brow, and then disappeared when he schooled his features back into his usual, genial mien.

“Could it perhaps be, my dear friend, that you are nervous this evening?”

He huffed a response under his breath, which I could not for the life of me discern.

“Yes, I suppose I am. I didn’t … there was no …” I never thought I’d witness Jasper Whitlock stammer—twice in the same day even.

“Would it be a fair assumption to suppose that your discomfort might, in any way, be due to seeing Alice again?”

He opened and closed his mouth a few times, quite incapable of gathering his thoughts and putting them into words.

“Yes, if you must know. I apologise. I didn’t mean to be discourteous to you earlier. What must you think of me now …”

“You forget, I was in your position not too long ago. A modicum of … apprehension … is part and parcel with the experience, I reckon. But if my dear Bella is to be believed, you have nothing to fear on that score. You’re not walking into an execution. We’re having dinner with family and friends—friends who are about to become family.”

He heaved a deep sigh, trying to compose his features just as the carriage came to a halt in front of Bella’s residence.

“Easy for you to say, my friend. Your intended has already said yes,” he replied, dismounting the carriage.

I wished I had time for more probing questions, but in a matter of minutes, we were standing in Bella’s foyer, handing our overcoats and hats to the ever-present Fortnum while two voices filtered in from the parlour—one was surely Bella’s, the other, I deduced, must be the infamous Lady Holcombe since it did not sound at all like Alice’s or Rosalie’s.

“But, my dear, it was scandalous enough that he’d been staying here until today. And no chaperones at all. What are people going to say?” she asked in a tone that sounded almost too dramatic to be in earnest.

Bella’s subsequent riposte confirmed my suspicion. “That would imply you cared about other people’s unsolicited opinions, Aunt Millie, which I know to be an utter falsehood.”

They both erupted in merriment when we made our appearance in the room after Fortnum had announced our arrival.

“Aunt Millie, may I present my intended, Mr Edward Cullen?” my Bella asked as she walked towards me. When she reached me, she took my hand in hers and gently pulled me closer to her aunt. “Edward, please meet my great-aunt Millicent Whitlock, Lady Holcombe.”

Lady Holcombe turned towards me from her seat and bestowed on me a heartwarming smile. Her hazel eyes, encased in laugh lines that betrayed her age, sparkled with cheer and danced across my countenance with such an air of deep understanding that I felt vulnerable to her scrutiny for a spell but not rebuffed. She was sizing up the man who had captured her niece’s affection.

I bowed to her in greeting and took a seat as she accepted a somewhat awkward embrace from Jasper after she’d had to chide him for not visiting her as often as she wished.

Once we were all seated, Lady Holcombe turned to Bella. “Well, my dear, so far, I must say I’m pleased with your choice—a dashing, polite young man, your Mr Cullen. Well done!” she exclaimed, hiding a mischievous smile behind her fan. Bella laughed along with her, though Jasper seemed to be embarrassed by her antics—but struggling to hide his amusement at how outspoken his aunt was.

“For goodness’ sake, Aunt Millie, I thought I’d asked you to come visit to ensure some propriety here,” he said.

“Yes, well. First, Bella asked me to come visit, and not you, my dear. Second, what did I say that was inappropriate?” she asked with a look of practised innocence.

I was beginning to understand Bella’s assessment of her great-aunt and how taxing her playful behaviour could be on Jasper, who was perpetually concerned with not besmirching Bella’s good name in the peculiar situation in which we’d found ourselves, and especially tonight, when he had his own concerns to contend with.

As I pondered the issue, Fortnum appeared in the room once again to usher in my brother and his wife. After a round of joyful greetings and introductions to Lady Holcombe, who once again expressed in no uncertain terms her appreciation for the “charming Cullen siblings” and protested that “there had to be something in the water down there in Cornwall” and how she might have to inspect it herself before long, we all walked in to dinner.

Lady Holcombe insisted on going in on Jasper’s arm, but then realised we were odd-numbered and decided to just enlist Bella’s assistance on her other arm, declaring that she did not often enjoy the privilege of both her favourite niece’s and nephew’s company at the same time. Then she ordered me to escort Rosalie, whereas Emmett would escort Alice. Jasper tried to protest that she was disregarding rules, but the spirited lady wouldn’t hear of it.

“Hush, child. We’re all among family. This isn’t one of your lofty dinners at Whitlock Hall.”

That silenced Jasper until we all took our seats. Lady Holcombe had claimed the hostess’s privilege and the corresponding seat at the head of the table, with her nephew to her left and Bella to her right. I found myself ensconced between Jasper on my right side and Emmett on my left. The ladies occupied the opposite side of the table, with Rosalie sitting across from me, Bella across from Jasper, and Alice across from Emmett. These seating arrangements located Bella too far away from me for my liking, but I would make do if that meant being spared Lady Holcombe’s biting, sarcastic reprimands.

While dinner was served and conversation flowed with ease among the ladies, I took a moment to throw an appreciative glance at my Bella. Her alabaster skin glowed in the candlelight, with her figure encased in an alluring midnight blue gown—its low, sloping neckline and short, dainty sleeves again showed off more of that silken skin I longed to know more intimately.

The rest of the repast went past me in a blur. If questioned, I would scarce know what had been served. I had eyes only for Bella, who thrived among the company of her nearest and dearest. I participated in conversation when called upon but otherwise devoted what was left of my attention to the newest additions to our party—Mrs Cullen and Lady Holcombe.

I’d not been granted more than a passing glance of Mrs Cullen so far, and my memories of her before I left for Jamaica were few and far between. Despite her almost otherworldly beauty, I’d never felt drawn to her and thus had never had any sort of meaningful conversation with her. Six years later, now a married lady of quality, and an heiress to boot, Rosalie—as she’d asked to be called—kept up a steady stream of conversation with Bella and Alice, who both seemed glad to finally be reunited with their friend.

“I can’t tell you how pleased I was with your invitation, Bella,” said Rosalie at some point halfway through dessert. “Emmett came home with such happy news too,” she added with a meaningful look.

Lady Holcombe, whose keen eyes never failed to take in the entire room, also seemed to never miss a whit of the conversation going on around the table, and this instance proved to be no exception. “Speaking of happy news. When will we announce it, nephew?”

Jasper, who had seemed rather cross at the moment—whether at his aunt’s remark or at being seated so far away from Alice throughout dinner, I couldn’t tell—replied with a hint of annoyance. “Is tomorrow early enough, my dearest aunt? And by the way, is this really a topic for the dinner table?”

Lady Holcombe tut-tutted at her stickler of a nephew, but the sparkle of mischief in her eyes belied her gesture. I suspected she merely wished to get a rise out of him. It seemed to be one of her favourite occupations from what I’d observed of her so far. I could see her character and Bella’s being well matched. They both took delight in pointing out absurd and conceited behaviours whenever they could.

“Well, you do make a good point. Since we’re all done with dinner, we should remove to the drawing room for more appropriate chatter. Would that suit your lordship?” she asked, rising from her seat.

Since she was acting as the hostess, we all followed suit. We had no sooner congregated near the door leading into the drawing room that she called us all to order again.

“I will have no gentlemen retiring to the library to discuss politics and the price of grain while befouling the air with the stench of your cigars tonight, Jasper.”

The poor chap seemed about to protest—with cause, for I knew him not to be a smoker—but Lady Holcombe pre-empted him again. “In a manner of speaking of course. There are so few of us here that we hardly need to part into separate herds. If you gentlemen insist on having your brandy, you may, but I’d rather we all spent some time together, getting to know each other.”

Jasper nodded sagely and offered his arm to his great-aunt to escort her. I darted my eyes across the room, regarding my other dinner companions and wondering whom I should escort now. Like a moth to a flame, my gaze landed on my Bella again. I longed to hold her but dared not provoke any of Lady Holcombe’s pert remarks. I wasn’t sure my wits were quite up to the task of battling with hers.

“Alice, Rosalie,” said Emmett, who was standing beside me. “Let me accompany you both. I’ll wager our Edward here has been in agony all through dinner and now wishes to be reunited with his fair Bella.”

“By all means then,” said Lady Holcombe. “But mind you, I’m keeping my eyes peeled, young man,” she quipped, walking past me. I nodded at her with a smile as I turned to Bella, who now stood beside me.

“Shall we, my love?” I finally asked, offering her my arm.

With a smile that lit up her entire visage, she wound her arm around my elbow, resting her hand in mine. “Thank you, Edward.”

We’d been conveniently left to close the ranks, so to speak, and I exploited the occasion to whisper in her ear before anyone could interrupt us again. “I missed you at dinner.”

“We sat at the same table,” she replied with mirth in her voice.

“That may be so, but it felt as if you were a mile away, my darling,” I said just as we both approached the only available spots in the drawing room—the settee.

“You can stop wooing the girl now, Mr Cullen. She’s already said yes,” said Lady Holcombe.

Bella made a feeble attempt to tame her, but the lady wouldn’t concede. It all ended in good jest, with even Jasper cracking a smile at his aunt’s antics. She, however, did not appear to be done with me, not in the least.

“Mr Cullen … Edward. May I call you Edward?”

“Certainly, Lady Holcombe,” I replied more for the sake of politeness than anything else. Lady Holcombe would have called me anything she damn well pleased regardless of my opinion on the matter.

“I can see you’re another prim and proper sort like my nephew here,” she began, throwing a diverted look in Jasper’s direction. “And do not think I didn’t see you there dying to contradict me, Jasper.” The fellow, who now sat beside my sister, seemed resigned to suffer at his aunt’s hands and didn’t even venture to concoct a reply. Lady Holcombe paid him no mind and continued right after Bella had rung the bell for after-dinner refreshments. “Now, Edward, I don’t believe my niece mentioned it. How old are you?”

“Seven and twenty, ma’am.”

Before she could comment further, Emmett cleared his throat and interrupted. “My brother, ever the modest sort, is neglecting to mention that he’s about to turn eight and twenty, Lady Holcombe.”

“Oh, and when would that be?” she replied, pleased as punch at the news. Bella turned to me with a raised eyebrow and a knowing smile. This had to be new information to her as well.

“In less than a week’s time. On June twentieth,” proclaimed Emmett.

“We should celebrate,” interjected Alice, who never turned down an excuse for a gathering. “It seems we have bountiful reasons to celebrate.”

“That, dear Alice, is a wonderful statement,” Lady Holcombe commented with an appreciative smile.

“Well, I’m all for it,” said Bella. “As long as it doesn’t turn into a parade of the entire peerage roll. A little of high society goes a long way with me.” Jasper seemed, again, ready to protest, but his fair cousin, who knew how he operated, headed it off. “You already know my opinion about it, Jasper. And very soon, you will no longer have any room to order me about. Now, ladies, some hot chocolate?” she asked, leaving Jasper completely speechless.

Emmett, however, had no qualms in expressing his opinion. “Well, I must say I’ve missed your repartees, Bella. They’re even more entertaining when I’m not on the receiving end,” he proclaimed, to everyone’s diverted reaction.

Rosalie, who’d been sitting demurely by his side so far, patted his hand to capture his attention. “Yes, my dear?”

“May I tell them now?” she asked, almost in a whisper.

“Of course, Rosie,” he replied genially and left the floor to his wife, who appeared to be uneasy at suddenly being the centre of attention.

“Dear Bella and Edward, Emmett and I wish to hold an engagement party in your honour. We would host it at my parents’ residence. Would that please you?” she asked in a quiet voice that sounded at times unsteady—from nerves or emotion, I had no way of knowing.

Bella turned to me in silent enquiry, and I nodded my assent. I trusted her to handle the matter, and I wanted her to be comfortable with the arrangements.

“Edward and I,” she began, looking up at me with a smile as her cheeks bloomed under everyone’s scrutiny. “We would be honoured, Rosalie. Please thank your parents for their hospitality too. When were you thinking of having this party? We could celebrate Edward’s birthday as well, perhaps?”

“Now that is a capital idea, my soon-to-be sister,” Emmett interjected with delight. “How about Saturday next week? That would be the day after Edward’s birthday. What do you think, brother?”

“You know as well as I do that gentlemen have no say in party planning other than showing up at the appointed time and place, Emmett. Whatever our ladies will arrange shall be to my satisfaction. Other than that, the date seems agreeable, I believe?” I asked, looking again to my Bella for confirmation. She nodded again.

“Rosalie and Mrs Hale will certainly consult with you regarding the guest list. Invitations will need to be sent out soon, I suppose,” Emmett continued.

Rosalie and Alice launched into a lively discussion of refreshments, guests, and music entertainment until one of Rosalie’s comments attracted my attention. “I’m hoping the Blackwood girls refrain from showing up in hand-me-down gowns again. My mother nearly had a fit at the ball the other day when we arrived with His Grace. He even took notice of it with one of his snide remarks. Did you see, Alice?”

Now, normally, I would pay no heed to the ladies’ chatter about fashion and frocks, but this one had different implications. The Blackwood girls wearing made-over clothes at their family’s peak event of the season, held in their own home, spelled possible financial trouble for the family. It gave an entirely new perspective to Blackwood’s aggressive designs on my Bella and on her extensive properties.

Jasper threw me a speculative look from his seat beside my sister, and Alice, who was privy to my earlier reasoning on the matter, did not disappoint in her subsequent remark.

“I more than saw. Their own cousin Emily told me. She was so mortified—she was afraid everyone would notice. How on earth …” she began, only to be interrupted by Jasper.

“Would your parents be very keen on inviting the Blackwoods, Rosalie? All of them?”

“Well, of course, we’re inviting all of them. Isn’t Lord Blackwood a friend of yours?” asked Rosalie, mystified. Evidently, she’d not been told about the afternoon’s incident with the blackguard in question. Emmett had frowned at Jasper’s comment and now appeared to be at a loss for words in finding an explanation for his wife that wouldn’t expose Bella’s quarrel with Blackwood any further.

Bella herself came to his rescue. “He is, but you see, Rosalie … There’s been a disagreement brewing. A property dispute, if you will. We would rather not be in Lord Blackwood’s company if that can be helped. I understand your parents and his family are friends though. Please believe we mean no disrespect.”

With a shocked expression on her face, Rosalie hastened to reply. “But of course, Bella. I wouldn’t dream of putting you in an uncomfortable predicament at a party in your honour. There will be no sign of the Blackwoods at all, mark my words. Besides, they seem to have lost their shine with Mama of late …”

Alice breathed a sigh of relief, but her expression broadcast her interest in Rosalie’s words. “How so?” she asked, again sparing me the effort of interfering too eagerly with the ladies’ gossip.

“Papa heard some nasty rumours at his club. Now, mind you, they’re rumours, so who knows whether there’s an iota of truth to them, but still.”

I filed the comment away for later scrutiny. The notion of nasty rumours didn’t comport at all with the scandal-averse picture of Blackwood that Jasper had conveyed to me. Perhaps he might be able to shed some light on this.

“Well, my dears, whatever it is, we had better disregard any harmful gossip,” Lady Holcombe stated sagely. “This is some excellent hot chocolate, Bella. My compliments to your Mrs Padmore again. My word, that woman does know how to run a household.” And with that, the topic was effectively dismissed.

The ladies went on trading information and ideas for the combined engagement-birthday celebration and decided they’d all reconvene on the morrow for tea and more party planning.

“Since we’re being abandoned,” quipped Emmett with false disdain, “I suggest we gentlemen find alternative occupations to amuse ourselves tomorrow. I’ve been idle too long and wouldn’t mind going for a ride somewhere. Jasper? Edward?”

We both enthusiastically accepted the invitation and agreed to meet along Rotten Row in the morning before Lady Holcombe declared she’d had her fill of the evening.

“I’m giving these young men a curfew, otherwise they’ll never leave,” she said in evident jest and to Jasper’s and my detriment.

“Am I included in the curfew, Lady Holcombe?” asked Emmett, ever eager to stir up some mischief.

“No, but your wife might be tired too, my dear. Don’t be an inconsiderate oaf.”

Emmett, chastised, looked puzzled for a moment, and then bowed to her with a rogue smile on his lips. “I stand corrected, my lady. My wife and I shall take our leave.”

“Yes, yes, my dears. Until tomorrow,” she added with finality before Rosalie and Emmett left.

As Jasper and I turned towards the door, Alice’s voice startled me from over my shoulder. “Edward, wait!”

I turned back to face her, and she ran into my arms. “Thank you,” she whispered, rising on her toes to kiss my cheek.

“For what, I pray?”

“For giving me my brother back.”

*********

The next morning found Jasper and me making our way to the park to meet Emmett as we’d agreed.

After the last evening’s entertainment, Jasper seemed to have shed his morose disposition but appeared no more inclined to be talkative. Again, I decided to take matters into my own hands before we met up with Emmett. If I knew my brother well, and I did, he would catch on to Jasper’s mood and the probable reason for it. The Court Jester would not spare the august Lord Whitlock from his good-natured teasing—he’d make a sport out of it just to irritate the poor man. As things stood, I had no way of knowing how far Jasper’s forbearance would go with Emmett’s behaviour if the latter proved as mischievous as I knew he could be, especially with the former being a man newly in love.

“Did you have a nice time yesterday with my brother and sister?” I asked, trying to shake him out of his current reverie. The man was riding alongside me, humming to himself—the tune sounded eerily like one of the dances he’d shared with Alice at Lord Blackwood’s ball.

“Sister? Oh … Yes, yes I did. Your brother was very … welcoming.”

“Was he? Did you have an opportunity to talk to Alice with Emmett prowling about? He used to be quite protective of her.”

He turned to me to answer, only to later catch himself and tip his hat at a gentleman riding in our direction. I vaguely knew the man’s face from one of the dinner parties we’d attended with Jasper and Bella but couldn’t remember his name.

“The Earl of Stafford,” Jasper supplied after the gentleman had disappeared from view. “He’s a friend of Blackwood’s, and at the moment, I’m not keen on associating with that lot.”

“I see.” Once again, he showed good judgment and utter loyalty to his cousin.

“Plus, he’s a terrible gossip. I wouldn’t want him to overhear my affairs,” he added almost as an afterthought. Or a justification? From his tone, I couldn’t really tell.

“So, did you?”

“Did I what?”

This conversation sounded more and more surreal by the minute. I wondered whether Jasper was still nervous about my sister or whether he was being deliberately obtuse.

“Talk to Alice. Yesterday, in the garden.”

“Oh. Alice. I … I did, in fact.”

It wasn’t a surreal conversation; this was venturing into teeth-pulling territory.

“For goodness’ sake, Whitlock. It’s my sister we’re talking about. And if you’re not aware yet, it would better serve you to tell me now that we’re alone rather than wait until Emmett joins us. He wouldn’t let your tongue-tied conduct go without some of his irreverent remarks.”

“I’m sorry, Edward. A precious few things in life baffle me as a rule, but your sister … is one of them.”

His statement concerned me. For a minute, I feared Alice might have played coy with him instead of giving him a straightforward answer. But she wouldn’t, would she?

“I hope we’re friends by now, Jasper. My future association with Bella or your future association with my sister should not change this state of affairs. Was Alice receptive to your overtures? Do I need to talk to her?”

“Please, no. There is no need …” His stricken expression put me on my guard for a minute.

“There is if she’s been trifling with the affections of an honest man. Although, I hardly believe my sister capable of such behaviour. There’s a good man, Whitlock. Come clean with me. What happened?”

“She’s not … She hasn’t … She has behaved in a perfectly appropriate manner. Please. She deserves no reproach.”

“Then why did you just look like the next hunting season had been suddenly cancelled, my friend?”

“Fair enough. You’re her brother. You deserve to know. She hasn’t said yes but hasn’t said no either.”

“Heavens, man. Could you possibly be any less clear? My head is starting to spin.”

“She’s … open to my suit but would like to know me better. We haven’t been thrown together all that often, and she expressed a desire to spend more time with me.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. Alice could look frivolous to people who didn’t know her better, but I knew her heart was in the right place. It would have pained me to see that she might have chosen to behave like a coquette just because her loftier friends from school seemed to think it was the fashionable way to treat gentlemen who came courting.

“There, was it so difficult? I can’t say I disagree—the girl wants to make an informed choice.”

“Is she permitted to make a choice?”

“Jasper, let me be very clear to you. Neither Emmett nor I will ever force Alice into marriage. Let alone the fact that she’s barely out of the schoolroom, we’re not in a hurry to marry her off. So yes, she is permitted to make a choice.”

He nodded and spurred his horse to a canter along the path. I chose to let him stew over my comment for a while. I didn’t disagree with Alice’s response—she had a right to take a measure of the man before she decided whether she wanted to wed him or not—but I suspected she might also have provided him with reasons for doing so.

“Did she give you any grounds for that reply?” I asked when I retook my place beside him farther along on the path.

“Well, none that I could find fault with. She argued that we haven’t been able to spend much time in one another’s society, and she’s right. I’ve admired her from afar for quite a while, but your engagement to Bella … well, it gave me hope.”

I nodded sagely, taking in all the information he’d been relaying. “Did she say anything else?”

At my question, a deep frown marred Jasper’s countenance. “She mentioned …”

With his usual atrocious timing, Emmett chose that exact moment to appear. Steering his dappled grey steed at a lively canter down the path, riding in our direction from the other end of Rotten Row, he made quite an entrance when he stopped his mount right in front of us with a flourish of his hat.

“Gentlemen,” he said by way of salutation. “I trust you’ve had a fine morning so far?” he asked, taking in Jasper’s expression and mine.

“Very fine morning, Emmett. Thank you,” replied Jasper.

“Brother.” Emmett tipped his hat at me with a jovial smile when I acknowledged him.

After agreeing on a general direction for our ride, we started off in silence towards a section of the park where we would find fewer carriages than on Rotten Row proper. It seemed Emmett wasn’t keen on the whole “see and be seen” routine either. My brother also seemed intent on not making any facetious comments to Jasper’s detriment so far. In fact, he’d barely spoken a word after his initial pleasantries.

“I’ve been meaning to ask, Whitlock … Why did you turn as pale as a ghost when Alice mentioned your mother yesterday?”

And there he went.

Chapter Text

Emmett never beat about the bush. Ever. He had little patience for niceties, and if he wanted to know something, he’d ask outright, proprieties be damned—his reasoning being that the worst consequence he’d face would boil down to people telling him to mind his own business.

While his straightforward disposition sometimes made him few friends and definitely barred him from any diplomatic endeavours, his frankness equally endeared him to those who did have his friendship. It reminded me how unsurprising his brotherly closeness to Bella was. Both of them shunned any sort of duplicity or hypocrisy, which explained how bitter Emmett’s former estrangement must have felt to Bella, all the more because she’d had no notion of what had caused it. Yet again, it was all in the past now.

Still, my brother’s impromptu question had just thrown Jasper into a spell of utter befuddlement. Our polished friend appeared once again to be at a loss for words and limited in his reaction by the fact that he was in public and astride a horse, trotting down one of the busiest paths in Hyde Park. Not exactly a prime location for unburdening one’s heart.

When Jasper failed to find his bearings for the third time, Emmett took pity on him. “Let’s turn down that path over there, my fellow. I didn’t mean to stun you into speechlessness.”

Quite telling in itself was the fact that Emmett had stopped short of apologising to Jasper for his words. I wondered what he knew, or may have heard, or Alice had said about Lady Whitlock that could have spurred such a question without a preamble of any sort.

We trotted for a few minutes down a narrow path along which nobody else seemed to roam until it opened up into a secluded meadow where a stone bench sat forlorn under a massive, gnarly yew tree.

“You have every right to inquire about my mother, Emmett. I was dreading this would come to pass, but you and Edward are entitled to know her entire story. Alice too—I owe it to her and to you both, my friends, to be honest about this … wound that’s been festering within my family for decades. None of it has been of my own making, but it’s impacted the people closest to me—it imperilled my friendship with Bella in the past, drove her away from me into your family’s waiting arms. I won’t have it poisoning my relationship with Alice or leading her to refuse me. I could not bear it.”

Jasper had begun with enough vigour, but after his initial outburst, he seemed to have lost steam.

“Get off that horse, my man, before your emotions overwhelm you. Bella—and Alice, for that matter—would not forgive us if we dared bring you home in less than the pristine condition in which we found you this morning,” said Emmett at last.

We all dismounted and secured our horses before walking over to the stone bench, which offered the advantage of being sheltered in the shade. Quite a relief on a warm, sunny June morning in London. Jasper sat next to Emmett on the bench while I opted to vent my frustrations by pacing back and forth in front of them.

The issue of Lady Whitlock’s lovely disposition had plagued my conscience for a while, especially now that Jasper was courting Alice. To her credit, she must have harboured the same doubts too, if she’d gone as far as asking him about her prospective mother-in-law.

I shuddered at the thought of the lady’s behaviour on the one occasion I’d met her just as Jasper started speaking again.

“I don’t know what you may have heard, Emmett, for you’ve never met my mother. Edward and Alice have, and I’ll never cease being grateful for their understanding and gracious reaction to a most unpleasant circumstance. I still blame myself for that incident—I failed to properly deal with her. That is no matter now, I’m sure … but you’ll think I’m rambling. Forgive me. It is a fraught subject to me.”

The man had witnessed Emmett and me airing our literal dirty linen a few days ago, and now, ironically enough, he found himself in the same predicament. Sometimes, life truly had a way of slapping you in the face.

“Well, I believe we all know something about sore subjects here. How about you start from the beginning?” asked Emmett again with an understanding smile on his face. There was no hint of reproach or suspicion in his expression. He truly just wished to know—and so did I; the piece-meal information Bella had relayed wasn’t nearly enough to paint a thorough picture of what promised to be quite a harrowing story.

“Bella must have told you something, Edward.”

“Regardless, I’d rather hear it from you. Straight from the source. So far, I had no reason to ask or pry into your private concerns, but you asked for permission to court Alice. If your intentions are serious, then you must understand … she’s our sister.”

“I do understand. As I said, you all have a right to know. If Alice hadn’t broached the subject herself, I would have come to you.”

He looked frazzled, almost desperate now, as he flung his hat and gloves on the grass, paying no mind that they’d get stained and ruined.

“I believe you, my friend. You’ve always been straight with me. Perhaps, as Emmett suggested, it’d be best to start from the beginning?”

Jasper stared at me with those deep, hazel eyes of his that now looked stormier than the November skies in Cornwall. I nodded at him in encouragement, and he turned to Emmett, who gestured for him to take the floor, so to speak.

“My father was a conceited, cruel, and cold man. He had a loftier notion about his station in life than his circumstances warranted, and when the time came, he planned to marry accordingly. His eyes fell first on the youngest daughter of Lord Cuthbert Higginbotham, the Earl of Longwood. Only, the fair Renée would not have him. His riches and title did not matter to her, but he was determined to have the daughter of an earl, felt he was entitled to it, so he moved on to her older sister. Catherine, who had inherited none of her French mother’s inclination for romance, was suitably swept off her economical feet by my father’s land, wealth, and newly acquired title. Lord Garrett Whitlock, the devil take him, thought he’d met his match. Their combined elation was, alas, short-lived.”

Emmett, who’d listened wide-eyed to Jasper’s tale so far, interrupted him with a surprised huff. “Renée, you said?

“Yes, my astute friend. You guessed it, didn’t you?”

If Emmett had guessed whatever it was Jasper alluded to, I hadn’t and must have looked accordingly puzzled, so much so that my brother shot me an incredulous glance. “Well, I’ll be damned. Your father was after Bella’s mother at first?”

Jasper nodded, and for the first time this morning, cracked a smile. “Believe me, the irony has never been lost on me. But back to the sordid tale …”

“Wait,” Emmett interrupted again. “When Bella came to live with us, she told me quite a bit about her family. Didn’t her mother end up almost estranged from her family because they felt she’d married beneath her?”

It comported with what I’d heard from my mother when I first arrived back home. Bella’s parents had appointed Esme and Carlisle as Bella’s guardians to prevent her from falling into the clutches of her mother’s own family.

“That was always my mother’s notion. Bella’s father had extensive property but no titles. The fact that he’d earned every penny he owned reeked of mercenary disgrace to my mother—and to my father too. No matter that half the rooms in the Higginbotham ancestral home were closed off because there was no money or staff to maintain them. So, while the younger sister—Bella’s mother—married for love and ended up swimming in riches, the older sister—my mother—married for riches and ended up in a loveless marriage with a cold-hearted bastard who liked parading her around on his arm but otherwise paid her no heed.

“Things, if possible, got worse for my mother when she suffered three miscarriages in the space of two years. My father wanted—demanded—an heir to his domains, and he saw my mother’s misfortunes as failures no less heinous than a personal affront. His baser, crueller instincts became the only way he channelled his rage and disappointment by knocking my mother about. It was never stated out loud, but there were whispers among the family that her third miscarriage had not been accidental at all.”

By now, I was downright horrified. Bella had indeed used the word “cruel” to describe her deceased uncle, but I would not have fathomed him to be such an uncaring, abusive cad.

“When I was born, my father changed for a spell. By all accounts, he was fond of me as a child and acted kindly to my mother, who’d finally done her duty and produced an heir. As some miracle would have it, when I was three years old, Catherine conceived again—a little wisp of a girl she named Charlotte. Alas, darling Charlotte didn’t live to be a year. Scarlet fever took her from us.”

Sudden dread took hold of me. Whether one’s children lived to adulthood was entirely a matter of chance, despite all the advancements in science we’d witnessed in the last few decades. For the first time, I pictured Bella and me in the same position—cruelly losing to illness a child we’d expected, wanted, and loved since it’d quickened in my Bella’s womb. A wave of black despair washed over me—how would I, how would Bella react if that ever happened to us? How had Jasper’s mother reacted? His father?

“My mother, who’d never had the sunniest disposition to begin with, plunged into fathomless desperation. She was inconsolable for months, refusing to leave the nursery where Charlotte’s crib stood empty. To my father, Charlotte was only a girl while I was hale and hearty, untouched by the scarlet fever. He shrugged the whole thing off and went about his life as unconcerned as ever.”

“Heavens above, Jasper. How did you bear it?”

Jasper exhaled a tortured sigh and looked at me to answer my question. “I’d just turned five years old. They told me Charlotte had gone to heaven, and that was the end of it. I cried out for my mama every night, but only the nurse ever came to find me. Harsher changes came later.”

“How is it that your mother is so bitter towards Bella?”

“My aunt Renée embodied a host of things my mother loved to despise but secretly envied. First off, she’d always been regarded as an uncontested beauty with an endearing, affectionate personality. People took to my aunt naturally as if she brought sunshine wherever she went. She lacked any kind of conceit or affectation about her. Secondly, she’d married for love a man richer than Croesus but without titles, a man who fiercely loved her until the day he died and had no qualms about showing it to the world. Thirdly, she seemed to have conceived her one daughter without a speck of trouble. And yet … and yet, the more my mother berated her sister for her choices in life, the more she envied her, wrecked by jealousy and regret. My mother had fallen for outward charms, but where had that led her? Just to bitterness and isolation. She tried to bring Bella into her way of thinking while she was growing up, but you both know my cousin. It didn’t matter to her that she’d been raised like a shopkeeper’s daughter, as my mother scathingly used to say. Every time, Bella retorted she’d rather be a well-loved shopkeeper’s daughter than the rancorous wife of an earl.”

Fighting words perhaps but unsurprising to all who knew how outspoken Bella was.

“When my aunt passed, it got worse. My mother expected Bella to bow to her every wish and opinion, but my cousin denied her at every turn. Not that she didn’t have a point—my mother all but demanded that Bella forget her parents ever existed, and soon after my aunt’s death even wanted to force Bella into marrying someone of her choice. Bella wouldn’t have it. As it turned out, your father arrived the next day to accompany her to Cullen Manor.”

“Quite so, my friend. And knowing my Bella, I can picture her saying just that. If you don’t mind me asking, why did you say earlier that … how did you phrase it? Yes, that you’d failed to deal with your mother on the one occasion Alice and I met her? How so?”

“I must go farther back in time to explain that, so please bear with me. When it became clear my mother wouldn’t conceive again, my father lost all interest in her except for his keenness on taking his frustrations out on her. He became increasingly violent over the years, even causing her to tumble down the stairs on a few occasions. His preference would have been to have her committed, but he wouldn’t lock her up in an asylum because of the stain of disrepute that would tarnish the family’s good name. Instead, he confined her in her own home, banishing her to a set of rooms she wasn’t allowed to escape, with no diversions, no company, and a stalwart maid who had instructions to keep her quiet and restrained. I hardly ever saw her before I was sent away to school, and even less so thereafter.

“Almost six years ago, after I’d left university, my uncle and aunt died within a few months of each other. I went to see Bella and begged her to come home with me to Whitlock Hall. She refused. Then, with much prodding, I found out why. While my grandfather the earl had lived, my father kept up appearances with Bella’s side of the family, asking her to visit a few times a year. Bella quickly suspected something sinister was afoot at Whitlock Hall when my father provided evasive answers every time she asked about my mother. One day, Bella climbed the stairs to the set of rooms that had become my mother’s prison. After having been starved for company for years, however, my mother had become quite unaccustomed to it, and instead of welcoming Bella, she mistook her niece for her dead sister and attacked her savagely. Bella, while understanding of my mother’s plight, packed her bags and left the same day. Once she had arrived back home, her father extracted the entire story out of her. My uncle was furious. He rode to Whitlock Hall and gave my father a piece of his mind, accused him of being a tyrant, fit only for the stocks. I believe that was the day Bella’s parents decided the Cullens would be best suited to act as guardians to their daughter.”

This explained Bella’s attitude toward her aunt—and also filled me with dread at the prospect of Alice living under the same roof as that woman.

“If I may ask, what happened when your father passed away?”

“When I became of age, I tried to reason with my father and get more involved in caring for my mother. I talked to her doctors. I visited and sat with her every time I went to Whitlock Hall. But she’d been confined within four walls for too long and, as I said, had been a morose woman to begin with. She could not see past her tragedies. She lashed out at everybody, me included. Slowly, I began to understand Bella’s parents had been right in keeping her away. What sort of life could Bella have led at Whitlock Hall, without guidance, without affection? No, she’d been better off in Cornwall. I missed her, surely, but I wasn’t naïve enough to think that my mother’s darkness wouldn’t have touched her if she’d been close enough.”

There was one thing to Jasper’s great credit—he certainly wasn’t holding back any details. Between the information Bella had relayed to me, my own observations, and now Jasper’s narrative, I’d pieced together most of the entire distasteful story.

Lady Whitlock had experienced many misfortunes in life—an unhappy marriage to an otherwise eligible prospect, miscarriages, a child dead in infancy, an abusive husband, a descent into despair and near-madness—but most were hardly atypical of her station in her life, or of life in general. While I empathised with her on a human level, rationally I could not. For all I’d seen, the cause of her attitude seemed to go well past the aftermath of her tribulations—and therein lay the real problem. Lady Whitlock, it seemed, had clung to her conceited notions and imbued them with her own increasing bitterness about life, instead of recognising that there existed more than one way of going about things. The worst of it lay in her insistence in forcing her views and wishes on other people—namely, on my Bella. Instead of consoling a bereaved niece, offering her guidance and the comfort of her loved ones, she’d meant to arrange a no doubt socially advantageous match for which Bella could have had no appetite in her mourning state. To me, that reeked of a mercenary, merciless disposition—which comported all too well with her spiteful behaviour that morning she’d intruded on our breakfast.

While our adversities might not always be of our own making, it is entirely our choice what to do with them and how to react. Lady Whitlock had chosen to shun the affection of the few family members who did care about her, to take a revenge of sorts on the world that had been so unfair to her. I wasn’t quite sure how it had worked out for her eventually.

“In any case,” continued Jasper, breaking through my own musings, “when my father passed, I was determined to break her free of her prison, so to speak. Not all of my attempts worked. Some doctors steadfastly refused to treat her, saying she’d never fit back into regular society, and I had to resign myself—she’d be off to Bedlam before long. But with the right doctors, and a more caring nurse who’s less prone to stun her charge into oblivion by plying her with gin, we’ve been trying to gradually get her out of those four walls. We’ve had some results.”

“Some?” Emmett sounded rightly incredulous.

“I still don’t believe she’s fit to mingle or have an independent life. I doubt she ever will be, which is why I said I failed to deal with her a few weeks ago. She has a small establishment in a cottage on Whitlock Hall grounds. She’s not allowed to visit, or receive guests I haven’t approved if I can’t be there as well, and I check on her personally every fortnight. As a rule, there is no way for her to be able to make it out of the house, let alone as far as London. But that day, she did. A new nurse was left alone to care for her by some mistake, and my mother hoodwinked the poor girl into dressing her in her best finery and getting her carriage ready so she could meet with me at the main house—and that is how she came to invade Bella’s parlour that fateful morning.”

“How do we know Alice will be safe at Whitlock Hall? Will she be expected to take over her care in any meaningful way?”

This time, Jasper was too agitated to sit still and stood to join me. “If I am ever so blessed to call Alice my wife, she will not be involved with that. Absolutely not. I will do my utmost to ensure her safety, and that includes sending my mother farther away should she become intractable. I will keep supervising her care. Alice will not even need to see her.”

He’d thought about this long and hard. While I remained leery of the lady herself, I trusted Jasper. If he harboured for Alice half the regard I had for Bella, he’d keep her safe and far away from Lady Whitlock.

“Fair enough, my friend. I believe you. I’ll trust you to relay the same information you just shared with us to Alice herself.”

“I will,” he said after exhaling a deep sigh of relief. The deep frown that had marred his features was gone, and he looked about five years younger, as if a burden had been lifted off his shoulders. “Thank you, my friends, for believing me.”

Now I understood what Bella had meant about secrets ruining families. I also understood Jasper’s determination that Bella be free to marry whomever she chose and for love, if that’s what she wanted. I also understood his own procrastination in finding himself a bride—after what had happened to his parents, it was no small wonder the man would be wary of marriage.

I offered him my hand, and he shook it firmly. He regarded me with such an awed, grateful look that I thought I might be gaining far more than a lifelong friend in him. He’d soon become another brother to me.

*********

A week or so later, after the grand party Rosalie’s parents had been so gracious to throw for Bella and me, I took stock of my status in life as I prepared to travel back to Cornwall with the rest of our party.

I was a year older, engaged to be married, no longer in a bitter dispute with my brother, and the de facto head of my remaining family. In the ladies’ expert estimation, the combined engagement and birthday celebration had been a smashing success and would be the talk of the town for the waning days of the Season before the rest of the ton decamped to the country for less august, more bucolic pursuits. There had been no disagreeable incidents, except for the sudden appearance of the Duke of Bolingbroke, who’d showed up without an invitation, presuming on his long acquaintance with the Hales. For a minute, Jasper, Emmett, and I had feared Lord Blackwood would dare show his face, but a few well-aimed words at his mother from Mrs Hale had apparently kept him away.

Before the party, we’d decided together as a family—it felt at the same time foreign and exciting to phrase it in such a manner—that we’d leave for Cornwall two days thereafter. We no longer had any reason to linger in town. Jasper had agreed to follow us back to Cullen Manor and had enlisted Lady Holcombe as a general chaperone to watch over the betrothed and courting couples, much to the delight of said lady.

The plan was to travel back to Cullen Manor at a leisurely pace and break our journey at Bella’s property in south Somerset since it conveniently lay about halfway between London and our final destination. Because both Jasper and Bella had their own carriages in London, they’d also proposed foregoing the stagecoach, to the utter relief of the ladies, who did not look forward to travelling in a cramped cab for more than two hundred miles.

And so it was that four days after our engagement party in London, Bella and I found ourselves sitting in a carriage with my brother and his wife, Lady Holcombe having taken it upon herself to travel in Jasper’s carriage with Alice and her nephew, to said nephew’s utter discomfort.

I’d been hiding my face behind a copy of the Times while the ladies kept up a steady stream of conversation. As a matter of fact, Rosalie did most of the conversing while Bella answered here and there. The topic of the day seemed to be the female guests’ chosen fashion at the party, and Rosalie had far more enthusiasm for finery than Bella did, which was completely unsurprising to me. Bella had lit up the entire ballroom with an emerald green gown I’d never seen on her, and Rosalie was passing on all the compliments she’d heard from the other ladies in attendance.

“That colour looked marvellous on you, Bella. Your complexion glowed in the candlelight. And it complimented dear Edward’s eyes so well. What is it that my mother said? Oh, yes, I have it now. You looked scintillating. That’s the word she used.”

Bella thanked her quickly but sounded uncomfortable under such heaps of praise. She didn’t like being the centre of attention but, in fairness to Rosalie, my intended had truly dimmed the lights upon appearing in that ballroom. Even now, I couldn’t suppress the burst of pride and love surging in my chest when I thought about it. I cleared my throat to dispel the thoughts conjured up by the less gentlemanly side of me and lowered the newspaper to participate in the conversation.

“She’s right, Bella. You outshone every other lady present, and I don’t mean any offense to our fair Rosalie here either. Just that everyone else paled in comparison to you.”

She patted my forearm indulgently before answering. “You, Mr Cullen, are a shameless flatterer, but I’ll graciously take the compliment, and thank you for it. Now, enough about my looks. Aren’t you all excited to be going home at last?”

Emmett chuckled at her attempt to steer our discourse away from what she doubtlessly deemed treacherous territory. “And you, my dear sister, are still the humblest person I know. Our Edward here looked as proud as a peacock when he led you through your many sets of dances together. How many was it, four? Even good old Lady Holcombe tut-tutted at you, brother. She said you were monopolising the guest of honour.”

“I’m sure Aunt Millie meant it in jest. You know she has little patience for these conventions whenever she can help it,” replied Bella with an amused smile.

“Well, I was a guest of honour too,” I protested.

“If you say so,” retorted my brother with a mischievous smirk.

His wife’s interruption prevented him from having further diversions at my expense. “Bella, how will you manage with wedding clothes and such now we’re leaving London? Did you place any orders before we left?”

My Bella stifled a yawn behind her gloved hand before answering Rosalie’s inquiry. “There are perfectly capable tradesmen in Truro, whom I know and respect. I’d rather bestow my custom on them than brave the crowds and gossip in London every time I walk into a milliner’s or seamstress’s shop.”

Rosalie seemed quite puzzled by Bella’s reasoning, to the point she couldn’t find a suitable response for a moment or two. When she began, she sounded, for lack of a better word, tentative. “Oh … I never considered … that. I thought you’d wish to … secure the best?” she asked with a small voice.

I had no idea how often Bella and Rosalie might have been thrown together before my father had banished contact with the Hales, which meant I couldn’t gauge how comfortable or how friendly they were with each other. One thing seemed crystal clear to me—Rosalie was a sweet-tempered, if at times shy, young lady, but one whose pursuits, likes, and dislikes were conventional enough. Reminiscing about one of my first glimpses of Bella at Cullen Manor, I thought Rosalie Cullen wouldn’t be caught dead on a rickety stepladder in her garden pruning a tree when she employed gardeners who could do it without any inconvenience to her or her finery. Bella’s considerations about avoiding gossip and social exposure to the ton probably flew over Rosalie’s head; if her parents had a penchant for social advancement, it was quite possible she’d been taught to court attention since her first season rather than shun it. On the other hand, Bella, with her fierce independence, her dedication to other people, and impatience with outward social pleasantries that belied an utter lack of genuine sentiments, would no doubt prove mystifying to Rosalie.

“I will secure the best of what I need, and I can do that perfectly well in Truro in one afternoon, and then drive back to Cullen Manor in time for tea. I don’t relish London crowds that much, to be quite honest. Too many high society ladies end up asking too many questions I have no desire to answer.”

Emmett reacted to Bella’s statement with a wry smile. “Now that, my dear Bella, is a sight I’d pay good money to see: you putting the noses of those pretentious ladies out of joint.”

“Do not be inappropriate, Emmett,” Rosalie hissed at him.

Bella eased her concerns with a laugh of her own. “Of course, you would. But it wouldn’t make my cousin happy, I reckon.”

“Forgive my husband, Bella. Sometimes, he doesn’t know when silence is the best policy,” added Rosalie, still quite ill at ease after Bella and Emmett’s exchange.

“There is nothing to forgive,” answered Bella with a friendly pat to Rosalie’s hand. “We both know we were speaking in jest.”

Rosalie nodded and seemed to recover her composure after a few deep breaths. “I wish we could have taken the train. It would have been quite an adventure, wouldn’t it?”

“The railway is still under construction, my dear.” There had been talk of travelling by railway at least part of the way, but Lady Holcombe had quashed the motion due to her distrust of the modern conveyance.

“How far are we from our destination?” asked Rosalie again.

“Truro or our intermediate stop, my dear?” asked Emmett for clarification.

“Bella’s estate. You did tell me its name …”

“Cygnus Court,” Bella said. “A rather lofty play on words on our family name. My father’s idea—it became a family joke in the long run. Let’s see … what’s the last post inn we passed?”

“Sherborne, I believe. We shouldn’t be far away now, should we, my love?”

Bella turned to me and graced me with one of those smiles of hers that warmed my heart. “No, Edward. We’re less than ten miles away.”

“About another hour or so then,” said Emmett.

No more words passed among us for some time until the carriage turned down a sloping lane flanked by rows of well-shaped yew trees. A majestic residence stood at the bottom of the lane, its Elizabethan façade an ornate tapestry interwoven with tall, mullioned glass windows. A distinctly Tudor-shaped arch framed its front door.

When the carriage stopped right outside, Bella sat a little straighter, smiled at us, and then motioned with her hand to the carriage window. A line of servants stood by the door, ready to greet their mistress.

“Welcome to Cygnus Court, my friends.”

Chapter Text

After a lively and delicious dinner, we all retreated for the night to the guestrooms that had been prepared for us at Cygnus Court. Being family, Jasper and Lady Holcombe had their own preferred quarters; Bella, of course, had her own suite of rooms—which had been her mother’s; Alice occupied the room right next to Lady Holcombe’s; Rosalie and Emmett were given a stately room with a majestic view of the walled garden, and I was accompanied by Bella and her housekeeper to a room next to Bella’s—not without some frowning on Jasper’s part.

When I opened my mouth to protest in an attempt to appease Jasper, Bella silenced me. “This is my house. He can hardly expect to order me about here. And this was my father’s room—I wish to imagine he’d be happy to know I found someone like you, Edward.”

Fully comprehending the thoughtfulness and honour behind that gesture, I acquiesced. “As you wish, my love. Good night then,” I said, placing a chaste kiss on her forehead.

“Good night. I’ll see you in the morning.”

*********

The next morning, I woke refreshed and ravenous. Bella had assigned one of the footmen to my service for the duration of my stay, and I suspected she’d imparted similar instructions with regard to the other guests. The footman in question—a tall, gangly, and jovial lad not yet in his twenties—assisted me in my morning ablutions and helped me with my clothes and luggage before I went downstairs for breakfast.

As he brushed some lint off my shoulders, I suddenly thought of my own staff in Jamaica and what they must all be doing this time of year, almost the height of summer. My impending nuptials implied I wouldn’t be travelling back to the West Indies any time soon, and for all that my steward was a capable, trusted man, a plantation of that size needed a master’s eye and care. Time for me to concoct a solution to this quandary. Quite unbidden, a ghost of an idea took shape among the haze of my morning thoughts. The scheme could have some merit but needed further pondering.

Another thought had been plaguing me since arriving at Cygnus Court the previous evening. This estate—the size of the grounds, of the house, its elegantly appointed rooms—spoke of a vast patrimony. I couldn’t gauge what its annual yield might be without taking a look at the books or at the land itself, but experience told me it would be in excess of Cullen Manor’s yearly returns in an exceptionally good year. I’d known Bella was wealthy—just not quite how much. The subject required some discussion with Jasper, who would certainly wish to negotiate her marriage articles sooner rather than later.

When I came to the end of the staircase, I met with my brother and Jasper, who both appeared ready to walk into breakfast.

“Good morning, gentlemen.” I addressed them both, and they turned to look at me.

“Edward, just in time. Come in and have some sustenance,” offered Jasper.

“Gladly. What happened to the ladies?” I asked, looking around for my Bella and the others.

“Let’s see”—Emmett began enumerating on his hand—“Rosalie isn’t ready yet, Lady Holcombe is taking breakfast in her room, and Alice is with Bella whispering about I don’t know what. That should sum it up.”

“Oh. Should we wait for them?”

Jasper waved my concerns away. “They shouldn’t be long. They know we need to be on our way. They’ll join us soon enough. Mrs Higgins?”

A short, portly lady in housekeeper’s clothes appeared at the dining room door, announced by the tinkling of keys that dangled from the chatelaine tied to her waistband. “Good morning, your lordship. Would the gentlemen care for some breakfast?”

“As a matter of fact, we would.”

Mrs Higgins—whose features looked familiar, all of a sudden—nodded and pushed the dining room door wide open to let us in before ringing the bell for service. When two footmen appeared with platters of hot food, I had no doubt she’d had them ready to appear as soon as someone arrived.

“You, Mrs Higgins, are a treasure,” Jasper thanked her just before she disappeared from the room.

Once we were all seated and equipped with tea, toast, and sundry food items, I voiced my suspicions. “Mrs Higgins seems so familiar. Why?”

Jasper chuckled but obliged. “You noticed, didn’t you? Well, as fate would have it, she is Mrs Padmore’s sister. And young Higgs, the footman assisting you, is one of her sons.”

“Well, I never …” Leave it to Bella to keep an entire extended family employed.

“Both sisters were employed by my uncle, and Bella would never dream of parting from either of them. And she shouldn’t either. They keep both houses in tip-top shape, whether she lives there or not.”

“Oh, believe me, I know how capable Bella is when it comes to running a household. I would never dream of interfering with her decisions.” I couldn’t tell if Jasper’s statement was meant as a warning to me, but I chose to convey my own words of caution anyway. “Jasper, once we’re settled in at Cullen Manor, I believe we’ve other … things to discuss.”

Emmett, who sat beside me, alternated an inquisitive gaze between Jasper and me. “You’re not going to have … words again, are you?”

“I believe words are required for a discussion, Emmett.”

“Don’t you be flippant with me, little brother. You know what I mean,” he added with a serious expression.

I shook my head before answering. “I have no quarrel with Jasper, you know that. Just … there are financial matters to settle before I marry Bella, and he’s still her legal guardian.”

Emmett regarded me with an unreadable frown. “And mind you, I’m only telling you because you’re my brother, and we’re all friends. Bella’s fortune is her own business.”

“Hardly, Edward. Once you’re married …”

I thought best to head off Jasper’s comment at the pass. Granted, under the law, all of it would become my property, but I didn’t want greed and convention to rule my actions, not where my wife was concerned. Bella deserved better. “Once we’re married, it will be our business. I know the law, but my intended is an intelligent woman with spades of common sense. It’d be foolish of me to administer the whole lot without consulting her.”

Emmett raised a properly impressed eyebrow in my direction. “Well, little brother. You certainly don’t need my counsel on how to maintain marital peace.”

From the other side of the table, Jasper bestowed on me an appreciative nod just before the door opened.

“I’m sure everything will turn out fine, Alice. Do not fret,” Bella murmured with an affectionate pat to Alice’s forearm.

“But what about …” Alice replied, frowning.

“Not now,” Bella interrupted her as they approached the table while Jasper and I stood to help them to their seats. “Remember what I told you, will you?”

“Yes, thank you. I shall do that.”

Bella’s words of reassurance and advice immediately piqued my curiosity. What had my two favourite ladies been discussing?

“Good morning, my love,” I greeted my Bella when she took her seat beside me.

“Good morning to you too. Emmett, Jasper,” she added, almost as an afterthought.

Jasper nodded at her, after helping Alice into her chair, and turned to ask her, “Where is Rosalie? Is she quite all right?”

“Yes. She will be downstairs in a minute, I believe,” Bella explained.

Emmett, on the other hand, seemed quite unperturbed by his wife’s absence at breakfast. “Let me guess. Was it the dress or the style of her hair this morning?”

“Emmett, that sounds unkind, even for you,” Alice chided, wielding a buttered slice of toast in his direction.

“I just know my wife, sister,” he replied, smirking, just as the lady herself came through the door looking like the picture of perfection.

“Good morning, everyone. My apologies. I hope I didn’t keep everyone waiting.”

While Emmett reassured her that we’d all just sat down and the ladies struck up a conversation with her, I chanced a sidelong glance at my Bella. She’d chosen a long-sleeved, dark blue dress in a delicate flower print, which complimented her figure beautifully and seemed practical enough for travel at the same time. Mindful of my brother’s earlier comment about Rosalie, I took in her appearance. In a white and purple striped shimmery silk gown, she looked ready for high tea at St James, which reinforced my previous assessment of her—she valued looks over practicality and probably hadn’t considered the labour of the maid who’d have to launder mud stains off her dress after one day of travel.

My musings over the ladies’ fashion were brusquely interrupted by raised voices wafting in from the hall.

“What’s with all the palaver?” asked Jasper with a concerned look when the arguing voices didn’t seem to abate.

“I’ll call Higgins. She’ll know,” Bella said, ringing the bell.

A frazzled Mrs Higgins appeared in an instant. “I was about to come look for you, ma’am. A gentleman demands to be received.” Her tone and her expression belied the very words she used, so much so that I clasped Bella’s hand and wordlessly beseeched her not to vacate her seat. At least, not alone.

“Nonsense, Higgins,” countered Jasper. “No gentleman demands to be received. Much less at this hour. Who is it?”

“My sentiments exactly,” I added, grateful that Jasper agreed with me. Perhaps if we presented a united front, Bella wouldn’t contradict us. Perhaps.

An irate voice I knew all too well filtered in again from beyond the door. “I have it on good authority that Miss Swan is in residence. Escort me to her directly, lad.”

“He wouldn’t dare,” whispered Bella, grasping my hand tighter.

“Apparently, he does.” Jasper rose from his seat, angrily throwing his napkin on the table. “I’m going to have a word with this gentleman, Higgins. Do not show him in under any circumstances.”

Bella cleared her throat. “You seem to forget, cousin. This is my house. I will speak to the gentleman.”

“Not alone, my love. Please. Not after what happened in London.”

She seemed poised to object, but then a fearful frown marred her features, and her shoulders sagged in defeat. “Fair enough. I suppose you’re not going to sit back and wait either?”

“You suppose correctly,” I confirmed. “Jasper, shall we?”

“With pleasure.”

Emmett made to rise and go with us, but Bella stopped him. “No, Emmett. Stay back, please—I think I’m sufficiently guarded. I am in my own house, after all.”

With reluctance, and after a long, steady look in Bella’s direction, Emmett acquiesced and resumed his seat. “Very well. But I will keep my ears to the ground.”

Bella nodded in turn and fell into step with me; ahead of us, Mrs Higgins led the way through the door into the hallway where two footmen and Jasper’s own manservant stood as a barrier around none other than Lord Blackwood.

His lordship appeared to have just jumped off his horse. Spatters of mud dotted the hem of his heavy traveling cloak, his neckcloth hung loosely from his shoulders as if it’d been hastily undone, and a conspicuous burgundy stain marred the laced cuff of his shirt. Blackwood not only seemed worse for wear but also deep into his cups. It didn’t bode well for a civil discussion. I chanced a glance in Jasper’s direction, and he silently nodded to the stained shirt cuff in response. He’d reached my same conclusion.

At the commotion of our arrival, the blackguard straightened his spine and trained his regard towards Bella. I surmised his tactic would be to intimidate her and rile Jasper and me up at the same time by pretending to ignore our presence.

There was no misconstruing the sneer he threw in my direction, but when Blackwood’s gaze landed on Jasper, who stood with his fists almost vibrating by his sides with his mouth pressed into an unforgiving line, Blackwood’s bravado vanished in a puff of smoke. At that moment, though I wished to be Bella’s protector in all things, I decided to let her and Jasper have the floor—he shared a long acquaintance with this sack of vermin and might well know how best to handle him, and Bella had already proven she could hold her own in a confrontation. She would not appreciate me coddling her and speaking for her—not a woman with her keen sense of independence. I would intervene if she needed me.

“Ah, Isabella. Just the person I wished to see.”

“I assure you the feeling is not at all mutual, Lord Blackwood. I don’t take kindly to people intruding on my breakfast.” Bella delivered her opening shot with enviable calm despite her earlier discomfiture.

Jasper, on the other hand, made no effort to hide his disdain. “Blackwood, I thought I’d made myself clear in London.”

“Well, my invitation to the engagement party must have been waylaid somewhere along the route from Grosvenor Square, so I had to see for myself if the rumours were true.”

“And you rode more than a hundred miles to do so?” asked Jasper. “A note would have sufficed.”

“Oh, but that would have deprived me of this wholesome spectacle—both of you gentlemen rising to defend the damsel.”

Bella huffed, clearly irritated with Blackwood’s improper display. “That hardly makes one sympathetic to your plight, Lord Blackwood. If you have nothing else to say, we will return to our guests and our breakfast. Higgins will show you out.”

Her harsh words seemed to rattle him for a second, probably reminding him that if he got kicked out too soon, he couldn’t deliver any message whatsoever. “Well, Miss Swan, that’s awfully unkind of you. I remember a time when we were friends. And, of course, it’s not too late to change one’s mind, with the right inducement,” he said, titling his head in my direction, the meaning of his statement crystal clear.

He had the gall to accompany those indecorous words with a lewd leer and a step towards Bella, and it angered me to such lengths that my Bella herself had to pull on my hand to stop me from conveying my opinion to Lord Blackwood with actions rather than speeches. With my fist. Repeatedly.

“That’s enough, Lord Blackwood. I will not tolerate such ungentlemanly behaviour in my house, from anyone.”

He took another step, but Jasper raised his arm to stop him, effectively forming a barrier between Bella and Blackwood. His stone-faced countenance brooked no refusal, but still, that scum of a man wouldn’t budge.

“So it’s true. You really are choosing this … country bumpkin instead of me. I cannot believe it. This is an outrage …” he said, defiant, almost spitting his resentful words in Bella’s direction.

It occurred to me, consistent with Bella’s earlier reasoning, that Blackwood’s spitefulness wouldn’t help him one whit in pleading his case, especially not with someone like Bella, who didn’t value social stature or wealth as a guaranteed means to attain matrimonial bliss. Not to mention the fact that his horrid behaviour alone would disqualify him even from addressing Bella, never mind contemplating to marry her. What a pompous, deluded piece of human refuse this man was.

“You asked your question in London and were given an answer. That answer is unchanged and would not change were you the only man in England. Please leave before I have you forcibly removed.”

Bella’s words appeared to have a minute effect on Blackwood, but he hid it quickly. He turned towards Jasper, who was still shielding Bella from the scum.

“You heard the lady, Blackwood. I’ve been magnanimous enough towards you so far because of our long acquaintance. It ends now—let’s see how solicitous the Duke of Bolingbroke and his circle will be when they hear certain things about you.”

“There’s nothing you could say to Bolingbroke …”

It was Jasper’s turn to sneer at his former friend. “Nothing? Shall we test that theory, Blackwood? There’s a rumour I heard at the club last week … What was it? Gambling debts?”

Blackwood shrugged, but the grimace that took him one second too long to suppress gave away his game. Jasper was on the right track to have the upper hand on him.

“Or what about the other rumour I heard at your ball? A failed betrothal for your sister …”

That sounded like news to me, but what did I know? Jasper had much better connections than I did, and he’d just spent two days in a carriage with my sister and his great-aunt. He’d probably been kept abreast of all the London gossip he’d not yet heard.

Blackwood scoffed in annoyance. Jasper’s taunts were chipping further away at his hectoring.

“Or this … Bolingbroke took quite a shine to my cousin that night. I wonder what he’d say if he knew of your present antics? And of your earlier display of ungentlemanly behaviour towards her?”

The threat of exposure to his acquaintances in the upper echelons of the ton finally broke him. The fiend blanched and stepped away from Jasper. “You wouldn’t, Whitlock.”

“Try me.” Jasper faced him with a steely countenance, his arms crossed in defiance.

Without another word, he stormed through the front door, muttering a string of abuse, no doubt to our detriment. I had no interest whatsoever in hearing his complaints.

“And good riddance again,” Bella said in an exasperated huff.

I longed to comfort her and hold her, but the three footmen and Mrs Higgins still hovered.

“Higgins?”

“Yes, Miss Isabella? May I bring you anything?”

“I’m fine. Thank you. Just pass along that Lord Blackwood now belongs on the undesirables list. Send word to your sister in London too.”

The housekeeper nodded her assent, curtsied, and corralled the other servants to follow her after ordering them to keep their mouths shut about the incident with the rest of the staff.

When they left, I gathered Bella in my embrace. “My love? Are you all right?”

She nodded and raised her head to look at me. “Yes, Edward. Thank you. I’m just supremely irritated, and I abhor confrontation. I detest having to be disagreeable to people, but with some, there really is no alternative, is there?”

“No, my love. But I’m proud of you for how you conducted yourself.”

She burrowed farther into my chest and wound her arms around me. “Thank you for letting me deal with him. I think it would have just provoked him to be more horrible if you’d stepped in.”

“I agree, Bella,” Jasper finally said, patting a comforting hand to her shoulder. “Are you sure you are quite well, little one? No one will blame you if you need a moment to yourself.”

She turned to him, a distraught grimace still marring her beautiful face. “I know, but all I need now is the company of friends and family. Plus, he interrupted our breakfast,” she added with a petulant stomp of her delicate foot. For a moment, she looked innocent and childlike, and I couldn’t help myself—without even thinking, I touched my lips to hers, relishing the soft, velvety texture of her skin. Jasper’s presence be damned.

“Well, that’s easily remedied. Shall we?”

Jasper’s surreptitious cough prevented me from taking things any further, and I remembered I had a question for her. “Undesirables list, Isabella?”

Bella relinquished my embrace but didn’t let go of my hand as she turned to follow her cousin. “Any objections, Edward?”

“None whatsoever. Just wondering who else might be on it, my love.”

Jasper opened the door, throwing Bella a questioning look as he let her pass. “My mother, no doubt.”

“Wouldn’t you like to know, cousin?”

When we entered the dining room, Emmett rose immediately to approach Bella. “Bella! Are you all right? Did he leave?”

“Heavens above, Emmett! Yes, I am quite all right, as you can see. I will not be, however, if anyone else asks the same question again.”

“Well, forgive a man for being concerned about his sister-to-be, will you?” He opened his arms for her and snatched Bella away from me. I didn’t begrudge him the gesture—I could never resent his brotherly concern for my beloved.

“He’s gone?” he asked, assessing Bella’s appearance from head to toe. She nodded. “For good?”

Jasper answered in her stead. “If he knows what’s good for him, yes.”

“That’s all I needed to hear. Shall we get back to breakfast?”

Bella’s sigh of relief devolved into an ill-restrained chuckle. “That, my dear Emmett, is a capital idea.”

*********

The next day, well on our way into Cornwall, Bella and Rosalie had both dozed off for a necessary but rather uncomfortable nap while Emmett and I discussed yesterday’s unsavoury incident between ourselves.

“And she said those exact words to his face?” my brother asked.

“You’ve known her longer than I have. Is it so hard to believe that she’d defend herself adeptly?”

He threw an affectionate glance her way and smiled before answering. “No, not at all, but that doesn’t mean I’m not in awe of her. I love Rosie with the heat of a thousand suns, but she’d never be able to …”

I waved him away, perfectly aware of the turn his thoughts had just taken. “Don’t, Emmett. Don’t start comparing them. They’re two different people, with different dispositions, who’ve had entirely different upbringings and lives. There’s no way in hell they’d ever react to anything the same way. Especially not something like this.”

“She did collapse as soon as we settled into the carriage, though,” he added.

I nodded. She had tried to keep up some conversation but had quickly given in to her exhaustion. “I have a theory about that.”

“A theory, you say?” he replied with a raised eyebrow.

“Yes. She abhors confrontation, as she told me this morning. And yet, as we’ve learned from Jasper, she’s had to put up with more than her fair share of it throughout her life, thanks to Lady Whitlock’s interference. Jasper’s father wasn’t far behind in his nagging, if my understanding is correct. I think she’s had to steel her resolve, so to speak, to cope with them, but it’s not in her nature, and it takes a toll on her. She was still magnificent …”

“That she was, but I understand your logic. It makes perfect sense—and comports with her eminently practical nature. She’ll do it because she has to. Doesn’t mean she has to like it.”

I ventured a look outside the carriage window, and my gaze landed on a rather familiar sight. “Isn’t that Treverva Lodge we just passed?’

Emmett nodded. “You have a good eye, brother. I sent our servants ahead to open up the house since the Hales are still in town. We’ll ride over tomorrow. It will be … quite something to be staying at Cullen Manor for the night though. Thank you for your hospitality.”

I knew he meant to thank me for more than providing him and his wife with shelter for the night. To him, it was a welcome home of sorts after his long estrangement.

“Don’t even mention that. It’s your home too. Old Jenks will be pleased as punch to see both of us together.”

He snickered at my mention of the old man. “Pshaw. Once he sees Bella, you and I will be utterly forgotten.”

I shook my head, unable to suppress my chuckles. “Appropriately prophetic.” Then those flashes of an idea I’d had back at Cygnus Court resurfaced in a corner of my mind. I still hadn’t had the time or occasion to discuss it with Bella, but I figured that sounding out my brother’s opinion wouldn’t be a bad idea in the meantime.

As it turned out, he offered me the perfect opening for it. “You must be glad to be home at last, Edward. Or do you miss Jamaica?” he added when I hesitated to answer.

“I miss having structured days of work more than the idea of Jamaica itself. I’ve been back in England for almost three months, and I’m growing lazier by the day, or so it seems. I’m used to waking up well before sunrise. This life of a gentleman of leisure doesn’t agree all that well with me.”

“I miss that too,” he confessed after a while in a tortured whisper I barely heard. “I miss riding through the estate with father, working with him. I’ve been helping out Mr Hale with his business, but it’s … less action, more bookkeeping. I’m not ungrateful for the opportunity, but it’s not … it’s not me.”

“Would you ever consider living, making a home, anywhere other than Treverva?”

He took a serious, level look at me, almost as if he were scrutinizing my intentions. Then, before long, he replied firmly. “If I could? In a heartbeat. I long for Rosalie and me to have an establishment we can run to our liking, away from her parents’ influence. Don’t misunderstand me, brother … they have welcomed me with open arms, but sometimes I feel …”

He seemed conflicted enough, so I decided to help him along. “… That she would benefit from flourishing on her own?”

He heaved a relieved sigh. “Yes, exactly that. They love their daughter to distraction, and goodness knows everything they’ve done has been to ensure her a comfortable future, but you and I have been raised with different principles, and while Rosalie is a lovely person in her own right, their influence has made her frivolous and conceited at times. If she had room, and time, to come into her own away from them …”

I nodded, taking his comments to heart. Maybe my proposal would not be abhorrent to him. Maybe.

Bella’s voice, still heavy with sleep, startled me out of my musings. “Are we there yet?”

I sensed she might be right but had to peek out the window to check our surroundings. Sure enough, we were about to turn into the driveway leading to Cullen Manor.

“We’re home, my love.”

“Home.”

Chapter Text

“If you pull on it any stronger, you’ll be bald by the time your bride sees you.”

I’d not even heard Emmett knock on my door, let alone enter.

I threw a murderous look at him from where I stood in front of my mirror, plagued by a rather unmanly attack of nerves. Even good old Jenks had had enough of my cantankerous arse and left me to my own devices.

“Are you here to comment on my nervous habits, or do you plan on making yourself useful?” I spat, struggling with the buttons of my waistcoat.

Alice, aided by Rosalie, had insisted I rely on the services of Emmett’s tailor in Falmouth to get fitted for a new suit since I was getting married and all that. I’d tried to weasel myself out of it by pleading my case with Bella—to no avail alas. She’d said with a playful shrug that the decision was mine to make, and she had enough on her plate already to be thinking of which pair of tails I would or wouldn’t be wearing on the day of our nuptials.

That conversation had taken place three weeks ago, right after our return from London. For all that we’d all spent the intervening weeks at Cullen Manor, I’d finagled precious little time with my bride—as Emmett just called her—because of the mounting demands on her time as the prospective mistress of the house.

First, there’d been the countless expeditions into Truro and Falmouth for wedding clothes—and from those, to my utter relief, I’d been not only exempt, but unceremoniously excluded. Then Jenks, of all people, and Alice, had snatched her away from me day in and day out because this or that thing needed “refashioning” around the house. Lastly, her belongings had to be moved from her original rooms into her new quarters.

I had graciously been included in that conversation when she’d approached me one day in the study while I went over my steward’s dispatches from Jamaica. I remembered with fondness her shy voice as she shared her concerns with me. Alice had thought it a foregone conclusion that Bella and I would take over my parents’ master bedroom—or rather, the suite of rooms that included my father’s larger bedroom, my mother’s sitting room, and the dressing rooms connected to them. But Bella had balked at the suggestion, believing that it would be somehow disrespectful to my parents’ memory to take over their space so soon. I’d tried my best to allay her doubts, secretly hoping she’d give in before long since those rooms were the largest and most private of the house, being located far away from all the other bedrooms. Eventually, Jenks swayed her by telling her that those were supposed to be the missus’s rooms, and since she was going to be the missus, they were hers by rights. At that point, Bella relented and let the old man and my sister make a fuss about renovating the rooms, and that was the end of it.

If I were being honest, there was a positive angle to the fact that Bella had been spending so much time away from me. I’d managed to sit down with Jasper for a couple of long afternoons we’d spent negotiating Bella’s marriage articles—a feat that had left me even more in awe of the patrimony bequeathed to her by her father and of the stipulations he’d put on it so she’d never be swindled out of her fortune by a predatory husband or guardian. Whoever his lawyer had been, they deserved the highest praise. Far from me was even the merest idea of absconding Bella’s wealth in any shape or form, but I hadn’t been able to suppress a wry chuckle when I first contemplated all of Mr Swan’s protective codicils. When I shared my reasoning with Jasper and Emmett, who’d agreed to witness the entire undertaking, they’d both erupted in cackles along with me. If Blackwood had thought marriage with Bella would have solved his financial woes, he surely thought wrongly.

My brother’s towering figure appeared in front of me, blocking my reflection in the mirror and interrupting my train of thought.

“Even if you’re behaving like an old curmudgeon, I thought I’d do you a good turn since it’s your wedding day and all …” he began, as he fiddled with my waistcoat and shirt cuffs and scrutinized my appearance, all the while with mischief dancing in his ocean blue eyes.

“Ummph.”

“Well, well, will you look at that? The boy is anxious,” he quipped while adeptly adjusting my neckcloth.

Because I knew how he operated—and without a doubt he meant to goad me into a reaction—I was determined not to take his bait. But then, with anticipation clamping my hands into tight fists and my throat into jittery silence, I changed my mind. His teasing could be relentless but never mean-spirited; he just probably meant to lighten my mood. After all, my brother had been in my shoes before. He had to know.

“Yes, well … weren’t you?”

He raised an eyebrow at me, and all hints of mischief disappeared from his countenance at once. “Yes. God, was I nervous.”

“Because you were eloping?”

He shrugged, then leaned back to gather my suit from where Jenks had previously laid it on my bed.

When he didn’t answer, I prodded him. “Did you have any doubts?”

He turned to look me in the eye, his expression at the same time projecting worry and indulgence. “Are you having any doubts, brother?”

I couldn’t tell why the slightest suggestion of it irritated me, but it did. “No, goddamn it!” I yelled, pushing Emmett away from me. Then I composed myself somewhat, cognizant that I owed him an apology. “Forgive me. I forgot myself for a moment.”

He nodded in acknowledgement. “But we’ve established you’re not harbouring any doubts about marrying our fair Bella.”

“Dear God in heaven, no! I love her more than my own life, Emmett. I just …”

Without a care for my new, stylish coat, he threw it on the bed, and beckoned me to take a seat. “Oh, I see now. You, my dear brother, are not nervous about getting married … Rather, it’s the wedding night that has you all tangled up in knots, isn’t it?”

I heaved a deep, tortured sigh. He’d hit the nail on the head. “I don’t want to hurt her, Emmett.”

“Physical pain is part and parcel of taking your wife’s maidenhead, I’m afraid,” he stated.

“Do you have to be so blunt about it, for God’s sake? It’s Bella we’re talking about.”

Unapologetic, he shrugged again before responding. “I’ve always been blunt, brother. You know me. But back to your quandary …”

I pinched the bridge of my nose as my irritation brewed into a bothersome headache—the last thing I wanted today. “And you’ll be … or try to be … less indelicate?”

He raised his hands in a peacekeeping gesture, his previous impish grin now gone. “I promise to try, but the subject being what it is, and me being an indelicate oaf to begin with … Please bear with me and know I mean no disrespect.”

I nodded and motioned for him to continue. “What is it that has you most nervous? Do you know …”

I stopped him as a warm wave of deep embarrassment coloured my cheeks. I’d heard enough about what went on in bawdy houses to be fairly … informed about congress without ever having engaged in it before. Kingston, after all, was a port town. Those goings-on often took place in broad daylight. My present fears lay elsewhere.

“I’m familiar with the mechanics, thank you. What if she’s been fed the conventional pile of puritanical, prim and proper notions, and she’s afraid of me? What if she spurns me or barely tolerates me? Or worse, if my desire … offends her?”

A shadow of unease clouded my brother’s features from which I inferred that somehow my consternation mustn’t sound so foreign to him. “Emmett? What’s wrong, brother?”

He shook his head as if to dispel an unwelcome thought, then schooled his features before speaking. “Unfortunately, the puritanical hogwash might just be all she knows about it. But Bella … she’s had an unusual upbringing, and she has a mind of her own. I don’t picture her being … quietly passive. And that’s as delicately as I can phrase it for your sensitive ears.”

“That may be true, but how do I ensure …”

With a suddenly tortured look, he interrupted me. “I cannot tell you that. I’m not even sure I’m qualified to dispense advice on this, to be quite honest, when my own wife … but that’s a different matter. Forget about it,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Until now, having seen him and his wife together on multiple social occasions over the last month or so, it had never occurred to me that their union might be other than happy and fulfilled. They painted a perfect picture of matrimonial harmony on the outside—he behaved as an attentive husband to her every need while Rosalie fawned and fussed over him to no end.

“Well, I’m hardly qualified either, but I’m a good listener.”

Emmett looked at me, then averted his gaze and ran a nervous hand through his curly, close-cropped hair. “How do I say this without sounding like an ungrateful, lecherous cad?”

Now he harboured delicate sensibilities? “Shall we stipulate that I know you’re definitely not one and proceed from there?”

He stood from his perch on my favourite chair to pace back and forth by the fireplace. At length, he stopped to face me. “To hell with it. You’re my brother. If I can’t talk to you about it, whom can I talk to then?”

“My point exactly.”

He dropped like a deadweight into the chair he’d vacated minutes earlier and regarded me with an expression that spoke of longing and regret. “My Rose … she’s had an entirely traditional upbringing. Her parents love her, but they … they’re nothing like our parents, Edward. Our parents loved each other openly and fiercely. The Hales, not so much. Their match was arranged by their families, and they went along with it, found an amicable way of living together, but … they’ve never loved each other. Mr Hale had dalliances in his younger years, and while he went about it discreetly, Mrs Hale never let him forget it. She’s carried the betrayal and shame with her like a millstone around her neck and despised him for straying ever since. They’ve slept in separate bedrooms since they wed. That kind of married life is all Rosalie has ever experienced. So we sleep in separate rooms. She allows me to ‘visit’ her a few times a month and then promptly dismisses me to my quarters. And though she loves me, she cannot bring herself …”

For a moment, the thought of Bella being reserved, unfeeling, or worse, unable to reciprocate my affection to the point that she’d keep her distance at all times hit me with crippling pain, and I could not but empathise with my brother’s plight.

“Is that why you’re so adamant about removing her from her parents’ influence?”

Without raising his eyes to look at me, he nodded. “Among other things, yes. I don’t know how to help her otherwise. I know there’s nothing unusual to her behaviour, in her eyes. It’s all she’s ever known, and it’s the conduct expected of a lady. I just …. I just want my wife to want me, dammit.”

I didn’t know how to help him either—but one thing did occur to me. “It may or may not work, but …”

“I’ll try anything at this point. I look at you and Bella and wonder why you’re the one here being nervous. The two of you behave with each other like you’re wed already. She almost reads your mind, for heaven’s sake. How did you even achieve that?”

“We talk a great deal. Bella abhors being ordered about—as you know—but is receptive to other ideas if I discuss them with her instead of arranging things behind her back. Maybe involving Rosalie more closely in decisions that affect both of you might help? Let her know her parents’ way is not the only way. She might need time.”

He listened intently, nodding to himself as I talked. When I finished, he raised his gaze to meet mine, wonderment painted all over his features. “You know, you might need to take your own advice there.”

My brow furrowed in confusion; I turned to him. “How so?”

“Well, talk to Bella about … your desires. The girl’s about as outspoken as I am. What’s the worst that can happen? For all I know about her, she may surprise you.”

I thought about all the times I’d been … overcome with longing as I held Bella in my arms and kissed her. She’d never been reticent or unreceptive. She’d never spurned me. In fact, she’d been as eager as I was. “You may have a point, Emmett. If I can’t talk to her about it, whom can I talk to then?”

He stood and held my coat out to me. “It’s settled then. Let’s go get the two of you married, brother.”

*********

Of the hour-long wedding rite, one moment branded itself into my memory forevermore—the moment I took my bride’s hand in mine and bestowed my mother’s emerald ring on her as a token of my troth.

“With this ring, I thee wed; with my body, I thee worship; and with all my worldly goods, I thee endow. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

As I beheld my Isabella—my wife—standing radiant at my side, unshed happy tears in her eyes, her dainty hand quivering within my larger but no firmer grasp, the rest of the minister’s proclamations were lost on me, except his last words.

“Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.”

*********

“Mrs Cullen.”

I seemed unable to call her any other way today, still revelling in the joy of knowing we’d made it thus far. Bella and I were married.

“Yes, Mr Cullen?” she replied, her eyes twinkling with elation as she accepted another cup of punch from my hands.

“You look positively radiant today, my love. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it yet.”

We’d managed to evade the company of the few friends and family who still lingered around the garden of Cullen Manor after the wedding breakfast. The Hales had already left and taken Lady Holcombe with them.

“Well, consider your grievous oversight remedied. Thank you,” she whispered, lacing her fingers through mine.

“It’s time I hold Emmett to his promise and let him take everyone else off our hands for the night. What do you think?”

Part of Emmett and Rosalie’s wedding gift had been to take over hosting duties for our house guests by inviting all of them to stay at Treverva Lodge so Bella and I could enjoy one another in the coming days since we’d elected not to take a wedding tour at this time.

She lowered her gaze, suddenly shy of me. Or perhaps she was prey to the same anticipation I’d been feeling? “Let me take my leave of them then.”

I nodded, unwilling to part with her but well aware that it’d be temporary, before I walked away to impart my final instructions for the household. “Very well. I’ll see them all off, and then join you in our room, Mrs Cullen.”

“You do seem to like the appellation,” she said, slowly closing her eyes while a beatific smile formed on her luscious lips. Lips I’d longed to kiss without restraint since we left church.

“I do,” I said, kissing her temple. “Most fervently. There will be … a surprise waiting for you in our room.”

She untangled herself from my embrace, and with an arm perched on her hip, Bella regarded me like the lad who’d been caught stealing pastries. “Not another wedding present, Edward!” she protested, jabbing a commanding finger in my direction, but from the mirth dancing in her eyes, I knew her heart wasn’t in it.

“It’s my job as your husband to anticipate your needs. This is me, anticipating one of your future needs. Please don’t deprive me of that pleasure, Mrs Cullen.”

This gift had been the last, and most elaborate, of my presents to Bella for our wedding. She’d only moderately grumbled at the expense and trouble she believed I’d gone through for the other gifts, but I’d silenced her with kisses so far. I’d had a brand new saddle made for her to ride Dark Fire—a regular one, for I knew she cared little for riding side-saddle; then came the emerald earrings paired with her wedding ring, which she both accepted because they’d belonged to Esme; and lastly, I’d been in contact with a renowned local painter who’d take her likeness—at that she’d drawn the line, and called it an extravagant, pretentious idea. But this latest present had required more planning, though I had no doubt she’d find it congenial. At least, she wouldn’t deny the practicality of it in the long run.

“You seem to have put a lot of thought into all your gifts, and I’ve loved them all so far. I don’t want to seem ungrateful—it’s the furthest thing from the truth. I’m not used to being so … spoiled.”

I wound my arms around her waist and touched my forehead to hers, bringing her closer to me. “Get used to it, Mrs Cullen. I’ll see you upstairs.”

*********

It took me the better part of another hour to usher my exasperating brother, his wife, my sister, and her prospective betrothed—after today, I had absolutely no doubt of that—out the door so I could join my wife.

The anxious anticipation that had almost crippled me in the morning had by now evaporated into an almost electric excitement. Now, with every fibre of my being, I ached for Bella. I longed for her, burned to finally make her mine.

Jenks murmured some ribald joke about my eagerness when he saw me ascending the steps two at a time. I shouted my goodnight at him from the top of the stairs, along with an order that Mrs Cullen and I were not to be disturbed the next day. It only resulted in another peal of cackling laughter at my expense.

I paused in front of our bedroom for a spell, and after a moment’s deliberation, I walked into my dressing room instead. There, I threw my tails and waistcoat on the clothes stand nearby where they landed in a haphazard pile. Then, I fidgeted with my neckcloth until my trembling fingers cooperated and, once I had it undone, flung that onto the same pile. My boots came next. With my shirt and cuffs undone, divested of my formal attire, my skin felt alive, almost feverish. I took a deep, cleansing breath, donned my favourite banyan, and then pushed open the door connecting to the newly appointed master bedroom.

Once inside, I took in the sight before me. Bella’s wedding gown, folds and folds of ivory silk and blue trim, lay neatly on a nearby bench. Cloaked in a dressing gown that grazed the floor, Bella sat at her dressing table while young Angela Weber extracted pin after pin from her hair as it gradually fell in loose curls on her shoulders, liberated from the confines of the elaborate coiffure she’d showed off for the day.

A couple weeks ago, I’d overheard Bella telling Alice how much she would have liked to have Weber back at her side now that she’d have her own establishment. With the intent of giving my Bella her heart’s every desire, I enlisted Jasper’s help in communicating with Mrs Padmore to arrange Weber’s removal to Cullen Manor. She’d arrived earlier in the day to resume her duties as Bella’s maid. This was my last surprise for my wife, who finally heard me close the door and turned in my direction.

“Edward, you’re here,” she whispered, extending her hand towards me as I approached.

Weber curtsied to me, and then went back to her work when I came to stand behind Bella, leaning against one of the bedposts. But this wouldn’t do. Now that it was at all proper for me to do so, I longed to run my hands through my wife’s hair instead of watching her lady’s maid at it.

“Thank you, Weber. That will be all,” I addressed the maid, hoping she’d take my meaning and disappear. She stopped but looked at Bella for confirmation. Bella hesitated—was it because she was also nervous or because she’d rather not follow my lead? I couldn’t tell, but when Weber appeared to object, I stopped her again.

“I shall see to Mrs Cullen, Weber. Thank you.” Young Angela curtsied again at both of us and took her leave.

When the door clicked closed behind her, I finally laid my hands on Bella’s shoulders. “May I, my love?”

She looked at me with a timid smile from her reflection in the mirror. “It’s not a man’s work.”

“I wish to attend to my wife. In all things,” I replied, and with an unsteady but delicate hand, I extricated more pins from her hair, every time running my fingers through the strands to untangle them.

“Your brush, my love?” She handed it to me, and I proceeded to run it through her mane, marvelling at the silken texture of it. “Your hair is so soft, like a cloud of silk. I’ve yearned to touch it for so long.” My fingers replaced the movement of the brush, and I buried my face in her tresses, breathing in her tantalising essence.

Sighing, Bella kept her eyes on me—or rather, on my reflection—then turned to face me. I captured her lips without warning and deepened the kiss when I felt her hands feverishly clutch mine. She rose from her seat, falling into my embrace as she sighed again when my arms wound around her waist under her dressing gown, where her stays and undergarments still encased her figure. I rained a trail of delirious kisses down her neck while her hands gripped my shirt until she pulled it out of my trousers. I couldn’t stifle a wanton moan when her fingers trailed down the naked skin of my back for the first time.

And that’s when I remembered Emmett’s advice and slowed my advances before my baser desires got the better of me. I pressed a tender kiss to her lips again, walked us back to the bed, and pulled her to sit on my lap so I could hold her in my arms while we talked.

“My love, before we take this any further, there’s something I wish to discuss with you. I would have done it sooner had I been at liberty to do so.”

“Is anything the matter, Edward?” she asked, furrowing her brow at my somewhat ominous opening while she ran random patterns on my back where her hands still hovered over my heated skin.

“It’s a rather indelicate question, my love.”

She raised an eyebrow at my comment. “We are wed, Edward. There’s hardly any indelicate subjects between husband and wife.”

I shook my head minutely at her matter-of-fact answer. Her attitude had just proven Emmett’s assumption to be correct. I kissed her again, unable to help myself. “Very well, my love. Here goes. I know you resisted us taking over these rooms for our own use, and you gave me your good reasons for it. I’d just like to know whether there were any … other reasons that would lead you to prefer not sharing a room with me.”

I’d taken quite a roundabout way to tackle the topic, and my confirmation lay there in Bella’s puzzled expression. How could I convey my doubts without offending her?

“No, Edward. None at all. I thought you’d wish us to share a room. Unless … unless now you don’t? Wish to share a bed with me, that is?” she asked shyly, parsing her words with unease as if the thought sounded unwelcome to her. What a brainless cad, I had offended her—led her to think I didn’t want her.

“There is nothing I wish more than for us to share a room … share our bed. But I’ll be honest, Bella. I have no idea what notions you have of married life, and I’m afraid those might differ from mine. I swear, I would have broached the subject before now, but … well, I wasn’t about to speak of such things before we were wed, my love. I’m making a mess of all this, forgive me. I’m just afraid …”

“Afraid of what, my beloved? We’ve always been good friends, you and I. That shall not stop now. On the contrary, no subject is barred to us now as man and wife. Especially here—this is our room, our own sacred space. No one interferes here. Talk to me, Edward,” she entreated me, tenderly cradling my face in her hands, pleading with me to unburden my thoughts onto her with her eyes, so full of love and devotion. My wife—my darling Isabella.

“Oh, my love. You truly are my most precious treasure,” I whispered. “I’ve loved you and ached for you for so long. I’m only anxious … that you won’t want me as much as I do you. I don’t know what you’ve been told, or taught, or what you expect … Do my desires … offend you in any way, my love?”

Still cradling my face in her hands, she pressed a tender kiss to my lips and shook her head before speaking. “I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who loved each other, and I witnessed their love every day until they died. That’s how I’d wish our life to be, Edward. My place is at your side and in your bed.”

Dammit to Emmett for calling it like it was. If he knew, he’d never let me forget it. But then again, why in hell was I thinking of Emmett at this moment when my wife’s alluring form was melded to me, and I could think of nothing else besides unveiling her, layer after tantalising layer?

Bella trailed a hand down my neck and rested it on my naked chest where my shirt lay open. Her touch branded me like fire. “Oh, Bella, I love you. And I want you, my love …” I laid my own hand over hers, entwining our fingers together. “My heart, it beats for you. And my body … longs for yours.”

“I've longed for you as much as you’ve longed for me, Edward,” she whispered onto my lips. “I have no idea how to show you, though. I know some things are expected of wives ...”

“I have no expectation but to love you. I made a vow today, to worship you with my body. And that’s what I intend to do. Shall we learn together, my love?”

“Yes,” she sighed, rising from her perch on my lap.

I followed suit and stood to join her. Slowly, with a silent question in her beckoning eyes, she gestured to my banyan, and then pushed it off me until it fell to the floor in a heap.

“May I?” I asked, laying my hands on her shoulders again. When she nodded her assent, I ran my fingers down her neck until I reached the tops of her dressing gown. I grasped the gossamer-like fabric and slid it off her figure.

She twisted one of her arms around her back, and it dawned on me that she was reaching for the laces of her stays. Again, I pleaded for her permission with my eyes and turned her within my embrace so she’d face away from me. I stilled her hand with mine and laid a whisper of a kiss to her now exposed collarbone. “Allow me, my love.” She nodded, grasping one of the bedposts for support. My hands grazed down the length of her back until I met the ends of those ties and proceeded to undo them, first untying the knot, and then loosening them bit by alluring bit.

Bella sighed as the corset, now loose around her chest, started to slide off her figure. I stepped closer to her, and with my arms wound around her waist, I pushed it off her until it fell by her feet. She stepped away from it and flung herself into my arms again.

“Oh, Edward,” she whispered, letting her eyes roam over my figure. “I want …”

Embracing her again, and nearly overcome with the enticing sensation of feeling her naked skin through the thin fabric of her chemise as my hands also roamed over her back, I replied in enraptured gasps. “What, my love? What do you want?”

After I voiced my question, she hid her face in my chest. “See you …”

In one excited gesture, I reached for my shirt collar and wrenched the blasted thing off me. “May I see you, my love?” I asked while her hands hungrily glided down my chest.

Until now I’d been able to neglect my own craving, lost as I was in discovering every detail of her as they appeared before me in their tantalising perfection. But as her fingers traced the outlines of my pectoral muscles and grazed my nipples in their descent, I hissed at the contact, and for the first time tonight, I felt my erect member twitch within the narrow, uncomfortable confines of my trousers.

“Bella … Oh, God … I need …”

“Yes, Edward?” my minx replied, bestowing a forward open-mouthed kiss to my chest.

“Love, I need to see you too …”

Those words left my lips in a garbled torrent of want, but by some miracle, my Bella caught my meaning and stepped away. A ribbon around the neckline kept her chemise in place. Slowly, as I gathered the length of it in one hand and ran my fingers up her side, I undid the ribbon until the last remnant of her modesty fell off her shoulders before my eyes.

I clutched her closer to me, lifting her in my arms to lead her to our bed until we fell on the upturned covers in an excited, frenzied heap of roaming hands and lips. I rolled us over to the centre of our bed and finally allowed myself to look down on her as she lay beneath me.

With the silken cloud of her hair fanned around her visage, she looked to be floating. Eagerness or shyness bloomed in almost crimson hues over the otherwise alabaster skin of her chest and breasts. And her breasts … dear God in heaven, her breasts …

When I lowered my lips to her bosom and took one rosy nipple in my mouth, her moans drowned me in a deluge of pride—despite my inexperience, my bride was finding plenty of pleasure in the experience so far.

“Edward …”

Her hands tugged at the waistband of my trousers. Since she’d teased me, I thought I’d give back as good as I got. “Help me with those, love?”

“Yes,” she hissed, arching her back into my touch while my hands travelled lower, and lower, until I found her mound. She jolted around my fingers as I probed her folds—that was the one useful thing I’d gathered from any tawdry talk I’d overheard in the past, checking for readiness—and a shivering moan vibrated through her as she fell back; with frantic movements, she entangled her legs with mine, helping me kick off my last, offending garment.

I gazed into her eyes, still brimming with such depths of devotion, love, and trust that I felt moved almost to tears through the fog of my arousal. While I murmured words of love onto her skin, and she replied in kind with kisses, I positioned myself between her legs.

“Oh, Bella, my love … I can’t …”

“Edward, please …” she exhaled. She prodded me along by brazenly laying a hand on my buttock.

Involuntarily, I pushed my hips against her. “I don’t want to hurt you, darling … but it can’t be helped …”

“Please … beloved …”

That word on her lips undid any shred of restraint I had left, and in one quick thrust, I entered her. I paused, giving her a minute to adapt and myself the time to gather my wits lest I shamed myself irrevocably and reached my peak before we’d even begun. I couldn’t resist kissing her but moved off to the side to lean on my elbow so my weight wouldn’t crush her in my fervour.

“Did I hurt you, my love?”

“No,” she breathed with a watery smile. “Please …” she entreated me, cradling my face in her hand.

Her heat enveloped me and set my body on fire. My member pulsed inside her, and when I could no longer hold still, I thrust deeper until I felt some resistance and—because I reckoned prolonging her pain wouldn’t be an advisable option—I gave in to my desire and pushed past it until I was joined to her to the hilt.

“Sweet Christ, Isabella …”

“Oh, Edward …” she moaned, one hand still firmly planted on my gluteus, and pushed me forward as her back arched farther into me.

Fuelled purely by desire and instinct, I hitched her leg onto my hip and drove into her as a torrent of murmured words of love interspersed with curses tumbled out of my lips.

Suddenly, Bella’s breathing pattern changed, and her sounds grew shallower and more disjointed as her movements started to match mine. “Edward, yes …”

When my name fell from her lips like a prayer, and I felt her flutter and constrict around my pulsing cock, something inside me snapped, triggering my release all too soon for my liking. I came with a triumphant roar. “Bella …”

Half drowning in my post-coital euphoria, half disappointed that I’d most certainly robbed Bella of her own release, I rolled off her just so I wouldn’t crush her. I gathered her to my side and ran my fingers through her now utterly tangled mane.

“Dear God in heaven, Isabella …”

“I’m so happy, Edward …” Her response began as a sigh and ended in a girlish giggle before she laid her head on my chest.

“Are you, my love? You didn’t … finish, did you?”

She ran a hand through the smattering of auburn hair on my chest before answering. “I … I don’t really know, Edward. But it felt really … good.” Her last words were muffled by her movements as she bestowed lingering kisses along my collarbone. I’d not completely disappointed her, but we had definite room for improvement.

She burrowed her face into the crook of my neck, throwing her arm around me. “I guess I’ll have to do better by you next time, my love. Pardon my eagerness.”

“I love the feel of your skin under my touch …” she murmured again, almost slurring her words.

“Your touch feels like fire, my love. It ignites me.”

“Impossible,” she teased with an impish smile.

Before I could concoct a witty retort, she moved to pull the covers over us and failed to hide a rather unladylike yawn.

“Did I wear you out, Mrs Cullen?”

She raised her gaze to meet mine. “Well, no, but it’s been a rather long day, so …”

“So, my love?”

Mirth shone in her eyes where specks of gold reflected the light of the candles among a sea of warm, inviting chocolate depth. “Maybe we should replenish our strength for a spell?”

“And then?” Teasing was irresistible now that she was being so open and free with me.

“More of this, perhaps? For the sake of … improvement?” she asked, as I felt a dainty foot run the length of my naked leg.

“You shall be my undoing, love.”

Chapter Text

Well used to rising before daybreak, when a first flicker of sunlight filtered through the heavy curtains to warm my eyelids, I jolted awake and involuntarily tightened my hold around Bella, who still slumbered huddled into my side.

With a care not to rouse her, I extracted my arm from underneath her so I could lean on my elbow and gaze at my wife. She’d fallen asleep in my arms last night after looping her own loosely around me. I, on the other hand, hadn’t succumbed to Morpheus’ charms so easily. With the nervous energy of our coupling still vibrating through my body and soul to my very core, sleep had eluded me for almost an hour until, at the stroke of midnight, Bella sighed a single word.

My name.

The sound floated through the dead of night like a prayer, and there in the darkness, in the now familiar warmth of her embrace, I finally found peace and rest.

At present, in the soft, rosy-fingered light of morning, my Bella—my wife—slept in my arms. Trusting, peaceful, sated … Happy, if the slight smile on her lips was any indication.

I’d woken with thoughts of our night together still branded in my memory, alive through every nerve ending I possessed, as enveloped as I was in the fragrance of her hair, her skin, of her, and in the reverent, passionate—if guarded—touch of her hands on my own heated skin.

I longed to have her again and hoped she’d be receptive to the idea while I battled with my desire as she lay in my arms. My cock seemed to have risen with the sun, as it was wont to do every morning. Only this morn, the overeager fellow had good reason to tempt me with the object of his desire—and mine—sprawled within reach.

While I berated myself again for my current brutish thoughts and my abysmal performance last night, Bella stirred. With feline grace, she stretched her limbs slowly, turning her head this way and that to shake off the last remnants of sleep. When she opened her eyes, her features still quite rumpled and her hair spread on the pillow in a tangled cloud of mahogany strands, I got lost in her eyes and in those other lines that wove together the perfection of her.

“You truly are the most beautiful creature I’ve ever beheld, my love. Good morning.”

She gazed at me with lazy, still disoriented eyes and the same easy smile as before etched on her lips. “Good morning, Edward.” She wound an arm around my neck with the clear intent to pull me closer. Because I prided myself on being a dutiful husband, I obliged and captured her lips in a searing kiss.

“So far, I quite like being married to you, Mr Cullen,” she said with satisfied cheek when I released her.

“Not as much as I do, I’ll wager, Mrs Cullen.”

Through her answering giggles she shifted in my embrace until her knee, which she’d bent under the covers, grazed my thigh and member, and my sudden, tortured hiss startled her into stillness.

“I’m so … I’m sorry, Edward.”

Her shy murmur came before I could barely shake my head in response, not so much because of physical discomfort, but rather because of the abrupt, electric shift the air around us seemed to have taken. My tender feelings toward her—though ever-present and flowing through me as one with my own blood—gave way to my more carnal cravings. One touch sufficed. One innocent, inadvertent touch sparked an inferno in my loins. I breathed her in deeply, with my eyes sewn shut for fear she’d read my wanton designs in my countenance, and I attempted to muster a semblance of restraint. My strategy worked until she touched me. Her hand cradled my face, coaxing my eyes open in reaction.

“Does it … does it hurt? Did I hurt you?”

“No, my love,” I murmured, leaning into her touch to kiss her palm.

“May I”—she started, drawing closer to me—“May I touch you, Edward?”

I hissed again, incapable of uttering one coherent word of reply. Before long, I nodded, as the lustful, greedy wretch I was. I looked down, unable to resist the pull towards her when she gently wrapped her hand around my shaft.

Slow and tentative, she caressed me in haphazard movements until instinct or curiosity drove her to grip me tighter, pumping up and down my length.

“God almighty, Isabella …” My over-excited growl stilled her motions.

“Should I … Should I stop?”

My hips bucked into her touch involuntarily. “No, my love … But I do want you. Good God, Bella, how I want you,” I whispered in abrupt breaths in between feverish kisses I planted wherever I could. “May I have you?”

Please say yes, I thought. I need you too much to be able to stop.

“I want you too, Edward …”

Good enough. I construed that in the affirmative as she moved her hand off my cock to grasp my buttock in the possessive move she’d made last night.

Too far gone now to be gentle, in a quick move, I hovered over her, determined to give her a far more blissful experience than last night, which required reining myself in for an instant. Whether I could, that was another matter entirely. Especially because, at that precise moment, Bella hitched her slim leg around my hip, bumping her core against me while her roaming hands traced scorching patterns on my chest, on my arms, along my neck, wherever she touched.

With a savage growl, I cradled her face in my hand before lowering my lips to kiss her. When I tasted her, she obliged and moved her tongue in time with mine, igniting me further into frenzied passion.

“Oh, God …” Only this time I wasn’t the one taking the Lord’s name in vain. “Edward …”

“Aye, now you have it right, my love.”

Drunk on the feel and scent of her around me, I licked a wanton path down her neck and collarbone until she writhed like a shivering mass in my arms. In one sudden thrust, I was joined to her and took that moment to gaze at her face.

“My love … God, Bella … I swore I’d be better; I’d be gentler … but I don’t know if I can …”

“Please, Edward … Please …”

That repeated plea destroyed every last shred of restraint I’d mustered. I pulled out slowly, mindful in case she’d be hurt or sore from last night. When she didn’t wince or recoil from me, I thrust back inside her warmth where I belonged.

“I’m not hurting you, am I?” Though driven almost to distraction, I couldn’t help my protective streak from surfacing.

“No,” she whispered, digging her nails into my shoulder as I drove into her again and again.

The overwhelming sensation of being one with her made every single one of my nerves thrum with arousal, and I lost awareness of anything that wasn’t her … her touch, her smell, the taste of her skin on mine, and the sounds of her as she loved me.

“Sweet Christ …” I exclaimed, teetering on the edge of oblivion when her hips rose in time with mine, and her moans grew languid, feverish, dripping with want.

Her core claimed me, thrust for thrust, gripping me like a vice, pulsating around me to the staccato rhythm of her heartbeat. With one move, I rolled us over until she straddled me. I sensed her sudden pause when, unsure what to do, she took all I gave as I relentlessly drove into her.

She leaned back above me, gripping my thighs for balance, and on my next thrust, a low, keening sound left her lips.

“Oh, God … Oh, God … Oh, Edward …”

She chanted my name time and time again until the need to have her closer, to engulf her in my embrace overwhelmed me, and I sat up, never stopping my movements.

Another exhaled litany wafted off her while she met each of my thrusts with a driving force I didn’t know she possessed.

“Edward …”

She breathed out my name in one last moaned prayer, and then stilled in my arms with shivers rippling her skin while her core pulsed around me. When her walls gripped me one last time in her climax, I could no longer hold myself together, and with one last powerful push, I spilled into her.

I couldn’t leave her. I couldn’t bring myself to pull out of her as we fell to the mattress in an uncoordinated mass of vibrating, sated limbs. I rained kisses on her face, her lips, down her neck as she still trembled in my arms while she murmured random words of love.

When we finally caught our breaths a few minutes later, I tipped her nose tenderly with my finger and took a good look at her—with her skin heated in a rosy blush, her eyes alight with excitement, and a radiant smile on her lips, her countenance gave a new definition to the expression “well-loved”, which I’d sometimes heard in less wholesome circumstances. Yet, I’d loved her, and she’d loved me with the same intensity and desperation. The push and pull of our passion had brought us to the peak together. I reckoned I’d redeemed myself with my now satisfied wife, whose form felt boneless in my arms.

“Is this what they call wedded bliss?” she asked, not without some sauciness to her tone.

“I believe it is, my love.”

With a possessive squeeze of my buttock—and I took due note of her apparent preference for that body part of mine—she replied, laughing, “Oh, Mr Cullen, I’m sure going to love being married to you!”

***        ***        ***

“What is it that has you so deep in thought, husband of mine?”

We’d been married for three days by that point, but already she read me like an open book. Then again, she’d always been observant when it came to me and my mercurial moods. From her perch on the chaise longue that stood in a corner of our bedroom, still clad only in her shift and dressing gown—quite unsurprisingly, for we’d hardly left our rooms since the wedding night much to Jenks’s amusement when he’d been by to leave a tray of refreshments for us—Bella eyed me from behind the rim of her teacup, and her expression reminded me so much of the early days of our acquaintance that I just had to go and sit beside her.

“What makes you think I am deep in thought, wife of mine?”

Would my attempt at humour deter her? Probably not. The woman was far too smart to fall for my meagre ploy.

“You’ve stopped sipping your tea, you keep staring vacantly out the window and did not reply a minute ago when I asked if you were quite all right. Oh, and that line appeared in between your eyes—the frown that always spells disaster. Out with it, Edward.”

“It would be just my curse to have wed such a perceptive lady as yourself. A man can’t hide a thing from you.”

She reached for my hand and gave me a reassuring squeeze. She spoke her next words with a tender expression. “It’s all because I love you. Is something the matter?”

I leaned in to kiss her, and for a moment, she responded and forgot all about her questions and my frowns. That is until she put her index finger to my chest and pushed me away.

“This sort of distraction only works for so long,” she commented with a smile.

“You’re right as usual, my love.”

She sat upright and wound her arm through mine, tugging at my hand for both comfort and encouragement, if I had to guess. “You can tell me anything. You know that, don’t you?”

“Aye. It’s nothing nefarious or worrisome. But it’s been on my mind for a while and somehow got shoved out of the way because we’ve had …”

“Other priorities, Mr Cullen?” she asked with a mischievous smile.

“That would be one way to put it. But now …”

Why was it so difficult to broach the subject with her? We were close, Bella and I. We talked all the time. And yet, I didn’t know how to tell her, probably because I couldn’t quite gauge how she’d react. I took her hand in mine again and looked her in the eye. As usual, I saw no judgment there, no condescension. Just concern and immense tenderness.

“Well, it’s an idea that came to me around the time we left London. No, later than that actually. How well do you know Rosalie?”

She raised an inquisitive eyebrow at me. “Not as well as I know Alice. We’ve gotten closer these last few weeks, though. Why are you asking?”

“Emmett believes a period of absence away from Treverva Lodge and her parents’ influence would benefit her greatly.”

Her eyes narrowed minutely as the expression on her face turned speculative. “Well, I can see that, to some extent. Her mother is a meddlesome, ever-prattling woman obsessed with social status and current fashions. Her father is only preoccupied with his business and with leveraging their high society contacts to his advantage. Never mind that his friends in the ton will never let him forget he owes his position to his prosperous business. Some still treat him as a mere tradesman behind his back, not that he has the acuity to either suspect or notice it. He only cares about the lofty invitations. Rosalie has been paraded and hailed as a beauty wherever she’s been, but apart from Alice, she doesn’t really have close friends.”

I’d been right to consult my Bella. Her contribution seemed to be confirming my own findings already. “The reason I ask is because it could be in our power to help Emmett with that.”

“In our power, Edward? How so?”

“I’ve been away from Jamaica for a few months now. My lawyer and my steward have everything in order, the plantation is doing fine, trade is good, there’s been no damage from summer storms so far, but at some point, a property needs managing, Bella. Not by hired help either. It takes a master’s voice to keep things on the straight and narrow in the long term.”

A frown marred her features, and for a minute, it rekindled my fears.

“Would you … Do you want us to travel back to Jamaica?” she asked in a small voice.

I shook my head, but before I could offer her my firm, verbal denial, she interrupted me. “I would go anywhere with you, Edward. My place is by your side, wherever that is. It’s just unexpected.”

“Oh, Bella … my love …” I took her in my arms and kissed her, offering what loving reassurance I could. “No, it will not come to that. I don’t want to move us to Jamaica. I don’t want to go back. Not now, anyway.”

She looked up at me and kissed me again softly. “Thank you.”

“In fact, I’ve been toying with the idea of asking Emmett to manage the Cullen Plantation in my stead. What do you think?”

She nodded along with my words, pensive and silent, and continued in this pattern for an interminable minute. Then, in an abrupt motion, she threw herself into my arms with a force that almost knocked me over, and she covered my face with kisses.

“You are the kindest, smartest, most generous man I know, Edward Anthony Cullen. I’m unbelievably proud of you. And I love you so much. My Edward …”

Relief washed over me as I laughed and kissed her back with abandon. “I take it the scheme is agreeable to you, Mrs Cullen?”

Once she calmed down, I pulled her onto my lap before she looped her arms around my neck. “I love you, my darling. So, do you? Agree with my idea, that is?” I asked again.

“It’s a wonderful proposition. Do you think he’ll be amenable to it?”

I shrugged and went over my conversations with my brother in my head while I pondered my answer. “I believe he’d at least consider it. He’s dropped a few hints. He’s uneasy with the Hales’ influence over Rosalie, so my best guess is that this would give him a perfect excuse to remove her from their orbit. They’d be clear across the Atlantic.”

“The idea has merit but would require some serious planning on their parts. I agree with you though. If he’s been dropping hints … short of Rosalie being adamantly opposed to it, I think Emmett would welcome it.”

“I’d help with the planning. I have six years’ worth of experience with the land and the people, and I’d put it at their service. If they can get their affairs here settled and be ready to sail before the winter months, it’d be best.”

She nodded, resting her head on my chest. “When do you plan on asking Emmett?”

“Next week when they all descend on us again. But now …”

“Yes, Mr Cullen?”

I lifted her in my arms and walked us back to our bed.

“I’m going to make love to my wife.”

***        ***        ***

This meeting, though necessary, had been running far too long for my liking. My notion of riding into Truro to discuss business with my banker as quickly as I could, and then ride back to Cullen Manor in time for luncheon with my wife—before our friends and family lovingly intruded on us again on the morrow—had turned into wishful thinking at the speed of greased lightning.

First, good old James Pascoe began reminiscing about my father; then, halfway through sorting out my accounts, he sprang on me that Sir Devin Trevelyan, one of the local magistrates and another friend of my father’s, would be joining him—us—shortly, and he’d said he wouldn’t “mind looking in on Cullen’s boy to see how he’s getting on”.

That had been two hours ago. Now, we’d just been joined by Sir Devin and another local potentate, Sir Leonard Penrose, who’d been so jolly he’d run into me that he proposed we all decamp to the nearby Bull & Crown for a spot of lobster and a convivial pint.

My father had been an active presence within our community as long as he’d lived, and these gentlemen had been his close friends for decades. I couldn’t find it in me to shun them now, even if it did inconvenience my plans. Bella, of course, as forward-thinking as ever, had predicted this morning over breakfast that I’d end up spending the day in town and had organised her own day accordingly.

“How about that pint, gentlemen?” asked again Sir Leonard, a tall, sinewy fellow with a rebel mop of ruddy hair he insisted on hiding underneath a sorely outdated wig. I could hardly fault the fellow for his attire since he was well into his seventh decade.

I nodded my assent as Pascoe ushered us all out of his office and into the bustling streets of Truro.

“You just seemed a little peeved there for a moment, my boy.”

“I was just thinking, Sir Leonard, that I should’ve just listened to my wife this morning. Turns out she was right, as she often is.”

“Ah, yes. Young Isabella. How is she? I’ve met her once or twice at the manor. Well, I am an inveterate bachelor, but I have it on good authority that listening to one’s wife is usually a good course of action.”

Here lay another facet of life in Cornwall where Bella had accrued a few advantages over me during my long absence. She knew all these people, their wives, their children, how they took their tea, and countless other details. Her counsel and observations would be a tremendous help in dealing with them, which could soon become of vital importance to us because, right now, with a pint of dark Cornish ale in my hands and the raucous din of a tavern during market-day luncheon rush resonating in my ears, I had the distinct impression these three august gentlemen had lured me into a well-concocted ambush.

“Pray, how is your beautiful bride? Lady Trevelyan is so fond of her. Although, we haven’t seen her since …”

When Sir Devin’s features turned ashen, I guessed at his unspoken words. We’d had a very small wedding, Bella and I, which we’d gotten away with because the family was, strictly speaking, still mourning my parents’ deaths. Thus, most of our local acquaintances hadn’t seen either Bella or me since my mother’s wake almost four months ago. A wake marred by my brother’s then hostile appearance. It stood to reason that the good society of this corner of Cornwall would have questions, especially given Emmett’s marriage into another prominent local family and the circumstances around it.

“She’s very well, thank you. I’ll be glad to pass along your regards, sir.”

“Now, my good fellow, if you’re a smart man—and if young Isabella wed you, you must be because that lass never suffered fools gladly—you’ve figured out that this isn’t a purely social occasion.”

I couldn’t suppress a wry chuckle. At least, they were being outspoken about it. “I had an inkling it wasn’t.”

“Very well,” began again Sir Devin. “Now, we’re not here to tell you how to run your affairs, but your father was a dear friend to us, and we’d all like you to know that our friendship extends to you.”

“Thank you, Sir Devin. Father was always fond of you, all three of you. He valued your opinions, and so will I. But I’ll insist on one thing—I’m my own man. I’ve been my own man these past six years. It’s too late for me to go back now.”

With a peace-making pat to my forearm, Pascoe interrupted my rant. “Now, now, there’s no need for that, Edward. You forget I handle your money. I know you’re neither a simpleton nor a foolhardy lad.”

I nodded, reluctant to thank them again verbally lest I appear too servile. They were all my seniors by a few decades, but I’d not made my way in the world by being too accommodating. I also had no idea what they did know about the family’s trouble around my father’s death and Emmett’s estrangement. The furthest idea from me was arming them with more potential ammunition since I had no clue where they stood on that whole sordid matter.

“We heard you’ve reconciled with your brother, and I speak for Devin and James here,”  said Sir Leonard. “We’ve been impressed with your actions, Edward, and wish to commend you for doing so.”

Now that came as a surprise. Maybe I’d misjudged their intentions.

“You do?” I couldn’t keep the astonished tone out of my voice.

“Yes, my lad. We do.”

“Oh.”

“Bet you weren’t expecting that, were ye?” asked Pascoe.

I shook my head, still not quite sure what tack they’d be on next. Pascoe flagged a boy for a fresh pint, then spoke again. “Who do you think tried to convince Carlisle not to change his damn will? I tried to talk him out of that ridiculous scheme, but he was past seeing reason, alas.”

“You knew?”

He nodded sagely along with Trevelyan and Penrose, who answered instead of Pascoe. “We had to pry it out of him. It was worse than pulling teeth. Probably because the old fool knew it was a terrible idea to start with.”

“Now, all’s well that ends well,” said Pascoe. “Still, we thought you had a right to know. Handle things as you see fit. It’s squarely within your rights, but know that, at all events, you and your brother were put in an impossible position by a terrible idea your father foisted on both of you. The law is unchangeable—but still, you’ve shown some solid mettle in the way you’ve found a way back to your brother.”

“And on that note”—Trevelyan continued—“we’re asking, if we may, what your future plans are. These parts could use someone with that kind of mettle. There’s a vacant magistrate chair, Edward. You could do a lot of good in a position like that.”

“Unless you’re planning to return to the West Indies. In that case, all our best-laid schemes are moot,” concluded Penrose, taking a long swig of his pint.

They’d been straight with me and deserved the same honesty in return. Now, being a magistrate—I’d never even contemplated it.

“Sirs, you do me great honour. And for that, and for your understanding, I am deeply thankful. I have a few things in the works, and if all goes according to my plans, I will not be returning to the Caribbean for some time. That said, your proposition has merit, as my wife would say, but this sort of commitment requires some thinking. And a frank discussion … with my lady wife.”

“You do that, my boy. And then come back to us,” replied Pascoe.

“Yes, Edward. We’re here for you. I’ll have Lady Trevelyan write to your Isabella. You should both come for dinner at Penrith when you can spare an evening for us old folks.”

With a few more friendly claps to my back and promises of future meetings, I parted ways with the three sages, now feeling a lot more reassured that my actions—finding my way back to Emmett, trying to assist him with his future prospects—wouldn’t be regarded as a contemptible about-face against my father’s wishes despite what the man himself might have thought this side of the grave.

When I arrived at Cullen Manor after a leisurely ride from Truro, the unexpected and delightful sight of my sister and my wife walking on the front lawn welcomed me.

Alice saw me first and ran to me at such breakneck speed that I feared for her safety for a minute.

“Edward, Edward! Such wonderful news!”

For the second time today, I had a good inkling what the wonderful news might just be.

***        ***        ***

After I’d washed the grime of the road off me and dressed for dinner, I returned downstairs to find our guests assembled in the drawing room. I bestowed general greetings and well-wishes around the room, but before I played the good host any further with any of them, I found Bella standing by Lady Holcombe and wasted no time drawing her close for a kiss.

Her ladyship’s quiet chuckle reminded me that we were no longer alone in our own home, and our guests were also a day ahead of schedule, now I thought about it.

“Good evening, my love. I missed you today.”

“Edward …” she chided me in jest, judging by the mirthful look in her eyes. “Behave, won’t you? We have guests.”

I bowed and kissed Lady Holcombe’s hand in greeting. Displaying her usual genial manner, she waved my formalities away. “You’re family now, Edward. Enough with the ladyship. I’m Aunt Millie, if you want me to answer you,” she ordered with a raised eyebrow.

“Welcome back at Cullen Manor then, Aunt Millie. I trust you had a tolerable journey?”

“Yes, my dear boy. Thank you. But if you confine me with the Hales for an extended stay again, you and I are going to have words.”

“Aunt Millie, please … They’re not so bad.”

“Pshaw,” she replied to Bella’s comment with a horrified expression on her face. “You can say that because you had far better company this past week,” she quipped, winking at me.

“Is that why you all decided to invite yourselves over for dinner, Aunt?” Bella asked, crossing her arms.

At that moment, Jasper and Alice appeared at Lady Holcombe’s elbow.

“No, that would be my fault, little one. I told you why.”

Bella turned to her cousin with an expression that would have appeared blasé on anyone else. On Bella’s features, her eyes alight with mischief and a hint of a smile, I sensed she was ready to lob one of her well-aimed verbal strikes at her cousin.

“Yes, well. You could have sent a note ahead. Jenks nearly had a conniption fit when I told him there were five more people for dinner. He’s not used to this, you know?”

It was my turn to raise a disbelieving eyebrow. “Is the old man giving you trouble, my love?”

“No, I’m just enjoying giving Jasper a hard time,” she whispered in my ear, leaning closer to me.

Because of the alluring effect of her warm breath on my neck, it took me a beat longer to make sense of her words. I grasped her waist harder under my hand and bent to whisper back into her ear. “Good. Now you behave, darling.”

The faint blush blooming on her alabaster cheeks was confirmation enough that I’d had an impact. She heaved a deep sigh to compose herself, and then turned to Jasper again. “He’s here now. What are you waiting for?”

A quick look around the room verified for me that Emmett and Rose, who’d been talking in a corner a few steps away from us, had just stepped closer.

“Jasper, do you have any news for me?” I decided to just wade right into it because I was already fairly certain what the news would be. Alice’s beatific smile when she greeted me outside had given it away.

“As a matter of fact, I do.”

He looked down at Alice, and his features shone with such depths of adoration that I almost felt I was intruding on a private moment. This was the face of a man deeply in love, and my sister looked up at him with the same intensity.

“I asked Alice to marry me yesterday, and by some miracle, she accepted me. May we have your consent?”

“So that’s why you all hurried over here, isn’t it?” I asked, throwing a glance over at Emmett, who smiled proudly back at me.

“We didn’t mean to … intrude … but …” Jasper began, suddenly at a loss for words.

“I insisted, Edward,” Alice interrupted. Of course, she had—impatient, enthusiastic, happy girl. She deserved this happiness with the year we’d had so far.

“And Jasper is so lost that he gives in to all your wishes already, doesn’t he?” That’s when I received a surreptitious elbow into my side, courtesy of my wife. I opened my arms to embrace Alice. “You have my consent, dear sister, with all my heart. Come here.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, Edward!”

Jasper nodded his own thanks through Alice’s vivacious exclamations. A relaxing pat on her shoulder from Bella sufficed to bring my sister back to earth and in a state fit for polite conversation.

Congratulations and more embraces were passed along to the happy couple from everyone, interrupted only by Jenks, who came in to announce that dinner was served.

With Aunt Millie and my Bella on my arms, I led our merry procession into the dining room, and for one fleeting second, it occurred to me I hadn’t seen that many people around my mother’s formal table in years nor heard so much laughter and joy.

***        ***        ***

If I surmised Aunt Millie would corral all of us into the drawing room after dinner to lob jests at my and Bella’s expense, for once my assumptions proved incorrect. After dessert, she threw her napkin on the table in a dainty, playful motion, rose from her seat to her full height of four foot nothing, and in a tone hovering halfway between an order and a dare, addressed the female guests with one laconic, adamant word.

“Ladies?”

“What? We don’t need to get to know each other anymore?” I asked, quite unable to suppress my own mirth.

“Well, no, dear Edward. I’d love to talk to my girls just now. I’m sure you gentlemen can go deplete your father’s—or yours, pardon me—reserve of brandy for a while? Or would our abandonment crush your spirits?”

I had to respond first with a hearty laugh. Lady Holcombe always gave back as good as she got. “We’ll endure it as best we can. Won’t we, lads?” I asked my two befuddled companions, who nodded wordlessly as the ladies left the room in a huddle of hushed confidences.

“And there they go, talking behind our backs,” Emmett said with an equally fatalistic and entirely insincere dramatic gesture.

“More likely, my aunt will be bombarding Bella with inappropriate questions about married life.” Did Jasper just turn pale?

“Oh, to be a fly on that wall,” mused Emmett, still diverted. “What, brother? You’re not curious to hear what your dear wife divulges within the secrecy of this impromptu gynaeceum?”

I was, in fact, curious and would later extract the same information from Bella when I’d be at liberty to tease her into acquiescence in the privacy of our bedchamber. But Emmett didn’t need to know that.

“Maybe. Or maybe Bella and I have no such secrets,” I added with a ribald wink of my own, eager to see how Emmett would receive a dose of his own medicine. Then I rose from my seat and rang the bell for Jenks, who appeared within minutes.

“Jenks, would you please get one of those bottles of old ale from the wine cellar?”

“The reserve?” asked the old man with a questioning raised eyebrow.

“Yes, we’re celebrating my sister’s engagement. There’s a good man, go fetch it now.”

“Well, if it’s for Miss Alice …” he answered upon retreating.

After he’d returned with the requested ale, which he’d proceeded to tap and pour into three goblets for us before leaving without another word, I toasted the betrothed couple to Jasper’s and Emmett’s separate cries of, “Hear, hear!”

“I swear I’ll never understand that man’s attitude,” groused Jasper after a healthy sip of his ale.

“He’s known us since we were in britches, good old Jenks,” Emmett explained.

“Earlier still. From the cradle, I believe. He’s a sort of surrogate grandfather,” I added.

“Or cantankerous uncle. Hence the liberties he sometimes takes with us.”

Our explanations did nothing to dispel Jasper’s unease—he shook his head in disbelief again. “I hope I don’t come across as haughty. I’m just not used to this sort of repartees from servants.”

“There’s the rub, Jasper. Stop regarding him as a servant, and it’ll all sound less outlandish,” Emmett offered, clinking his goblet to Jasper’s again. “Now, your lordship, are you planning on wrangling a special license from an obliging prelate and absconding with our sister faster than she can assemble her trousseau?” Emmett’s words were playful, but his expression had turned suddenly sombre.

Jasper sighed, set his glass on the table, and steepled his fingers in a move I’d seen him do a number of times since I met him. He was preparing for a serious discussion.

“No, nothing of the sort, my friends. Rather, I’d like your opinion on a few things.”

“Well, we’re here. Regale us,” I entreated him with a lithe motion of my hands.

“Would you be opposed to Alice and I having our wedding at Whitlock Hall instead of here? I expect it to be fairly well attended, and I wouldn’t want to force all those guests on you. There’s a lot more space at Whitlock Hall, and … if we were wed at the parish there, I could arrange for my mother to attend quietly, out of people’s view.”

He’d given much thought to the matter, and I couldn’t fault him for wanting his mother to witness his nuptials. Hell, I’d have moved heaven and earth if I could have had my mother at my own. I threw a sidelong glance at Emmett, who nodded his silent assent from his perch beside Jasper.

“We don’t mind at all, provided Alice agrees. Whitlock Hall is close to Bella’s estate, isn’t it?”

“Cygnus Court is within an hour’s ride.”

“That’s settled then. We could all stay at Cygnus Court until the wedding. I’m sure Bella will be pleased with the arrangement.”

Jasper nodded. “I think our aunt was already concocting that sort of plan. She’d never let Alice stay at Whitlock Hall before the wedding.”

“Well, two weddings before summer’s out! We certainly aim to keep a busy schedule around here, don’t we?” Emmett quipped.

“As a matter of fact, Alice and I were thinking of the week after Bella’s birthday.”

“Which falls, if I’m not mistaken, on September 13th. That would put it around six, seven weeks from now, correct?” I said, pre-empting Emmett’s own reply. It would not do for a new husband to appear ignorant of his wife’s birthday.

Before either of my companions could reply, a short rap on the door announced that our time for manly pursuits away from the ladies had drawn to a close.

“Lady Holcombe ordered me to summon the three of you back into genteel company,” announced Alice, who could not help blushing when her gaze landed on her intended. As if on command, he rose to join her.

“Keeping my aunt waiting is never a good idea. I’ll accompany you,” he said, already herding her out of the room without waiting for us. Alice stopped him, though.

“Edward? Are you and Emmett not coming along?”

This just created a perfect occasion for me to talk to Emmett alone. “In a minute, dear. Convey our apologies to Aunt Millie. We’ll join you shortly.” With a smile and a nod, she disappeared behind the closed door.

“You didn’t just keep us behind to talk about the weather, brother. Or did you?”

“As blunt as ever, upon my word,” I replied with a sarcastic smile. My brother knew me far too well. “But I do have an ulterior motive for this conversation.”

With a flourish of his hand, Emmett gave me the floor. “Out with it, man.”

Now or never. “What would you say if I offered you the post of superintendent and manager of the Cullen Plantation in Jamaica in my stead? You’d live at the lodge there, collect a hefty salary, and look things over for me. You’d have to leave before winter sets in for an optimal ocean crossing.”

For once in his life, my burly elder brother appeared to be speechless. “I … I don’t know what to say, Edward.”

“‘Yes’ would be a good thing to say.”

As his eyebrows rose to his hairline, Emmett abandoned his relaxed stance in his chair to nervously scratch his forehead. “I’m … more than honoured, truly.”

“But?”

He heaved a deep, pensive sigh. “I must ask you to bear with me for a while, brother. This requires some pondering on my part. I can’t foist this on Rosalie off the cuff.”

“Of course. It’s a major life change. I understand.”

“It would solve a lot of my current problems, that’s for sure. I promise you I’ll think long and hard about it and talk to Rose.”

“You do that, and then come back to me. Now, let’s go back to our ladies.”

When we rose to make our way to the drawing room, my brother surprised me once again by clasping my shoulder and drawing me into a brotherly hug.

I’d not embraced Emmett since I left for Jamaica almost seven years ago.

Chapter Text

The distinctive sound of swishing silk pulled me out of my present musings, alerting me to a feminine presence encroaching on my self-imposed exile within the confines of the library at Cygnus Court.

I abandoned the bundle of papers I’d been perusing—even though we’d decamped to Bella’s estate a week earlier in preparation for her birthday and Alice and Jasper’s wedding the next week, my work never stopped, as the countless dispatches being sent on from Cornwall proved on a daily basis—and looked up to the extremely welcome sight of the lady of the manor herself.

“Come here, my love,” I beckoned, and she obliged immediately, walking to my side of the desk and laying a loving hand on my shoulder.

“Still at your accounts, beloved?”

I answered with an exhausted sigh. “Alas, yes. The plantation is doing quite well despite my concerns. I’ll be glad when Emmett finally gives me a straight answer to my offer.”

“They’ll be here tomorrow,” she replied, leaning towards me for a kiss I eagerly reciprocated. I pulled her to sit on my lap before she could protest. To my utter delight, no protests came, only a shiver and a slight moan when my hand landed on Bella’s silk-covered thigh.

“Right, for someone’s birthday …” I said after breaking the kiss.

“Edward …” She sighed when I started a tantalising string of kisses down the column of her neck.

“Where’s Alice?”

My sister had come to stay with us at Cygnus Court before the wedding while Lady Holcombe had elected to keep house for Jasper at Whitlock Hall and prepare the household for its new mistress. The easy distance between the two estates implied that on any given day, depending on wedding preparations, my sister could be in either location since she could conveniently rely on the presence of a chaperone anywhere she went.

“She stayed at the hall after luncheon. Some delivery was due from London, and she wanted to inspect it.”

Ah, trousseau deliveries. Alice hadn’t wanted to appear overly frivolous by demanding an extended trip to London to secure her new accoutrements, but with Bella and Lady Holcombe’s counsel, she’d been convinced to drive down for a shorter trip to meet a few tradespeople with whom Lady Holcombe was already on good terms and who would accommodate her requests for deliveries in Somerset where necessary.

“She’ll be back for dinner, I wager,” I replied, mentally calculating how long I’d have before my sister intruded on my time with my wife again.

She’d almost caught the two of us in a compromising position a day or two ago. Nothing outrageous—but apparently, my young sister thought it quite scandalous for a married man to kiss his wife on a chaise longue in the cold light of day. It had taken Bella a good hour to explain that perhaps knocking would be a cautious, polite practice in a household where a newly married couple lived. Alice’s blush had rivalled the intense hue of the ripe strawberries we’d had for dessert that evening, but she’d taken Bella’s advice to heart. Her knocks now sounded unmistakable in both persistence and loudness.

With almost inhuman speed, I spirited Bella away from the library and into our bedchamber.

“What has gotten into you today, in heaven’s name?” asked Bella as I marched her backwards to our bed without letting go of her or interrupting my ministrations.

“I’ve missed you today, love.” Now positively ravenous for her, in my haste I divested my coat, waistcoat, and neckcloth in a haphazard pile on the floor. Young Higgs could deal with that later. I had better things to do. “You divine, tempting, alluring creature …” I whispered while my hand roamed under Bella’s skirts. Damned petticoats. At least, she was wearing a gown that buttoned in the front—small mercy for an overeager husband.

“Edward …” She sighed against my lips.

I cradled her beloved face in my hands and stopped kissing her to gaze at her features. A new, powerful wave of desire drowned me, and my knees almost gave out underneath me when she looked up at me, her eyes alight with wonder and love, and her countenance flushed with excitement. “I truly cannot help myself, my love. And I’m not going to apologise for it.”

She caressed me with the tips of her fingers, and her touch singed a trail of feverish want on my cheek in its wake. “Apologise for what, I pray?”

“For wanting you so much. It never stops, this yearning I have for you. I crave you constantly.”

She lowered her gaze, suddenly shy at my brazen statement. Or perhaps it was because my hand persisted in travelling a path under her gowns, up the silken skin of her thigh, which trembled under my touch.

“Then don’t.”

The barely whispered words she uttered against my chest almost escaped me, and in my frenzied state, it took me an instant to construe her exact meaning.

“Don’t apologise, Edward. It’s the same for me, you know.”

Louder and more determined, she now looked up at me with her hand resting at the top of my shirt as she slowly undid one button after another. With a stealthy motion I almost missed, her hands then began unfastening my trousers. The minx was nothing short of crafty and had been getting a tad more forward of late.

“I do want you, my love. Will you have me?”

She leaned back on the bed, pulling me on top of her, and in a rather undignified heap, I fell with her in more ways than one.

“Yes. My answer will always be yes.”

*********

A couple hours later, after I’d enjoyed a lazy and thoroughly satisfying afternoon with a rather adventurous Bella, we lay naked in each other’s arms, procrastinating instead of preparing for dinner and resuming a more civilised state for Alice’s return to Cygnus Court.

“I … we need to get dressed for dinner, beloved,” Bella finally said.

“Always the responsible one, I swear. Fine, ruin my fun.” I probably pouted like a petulant child.

“I don’t believe I was ruining your fun earlier, was I?” she asked archly, running her delicate fingers through the smattering of auburn hair on my chest. Her movements were loving rather than suggestive, but her touch never failed to awaken my desire for her, which she clearly felt as entwined around me as she was. “Again, beloved?”

“You should be flattered, my love. You being near me is enough for me to … rise to the occasion,” I quipped, curious to hear how she’d react to my rather forward remark.

“Scandalous, Mr Cullen, you’re being positively scandalous. What will your sister say?”

I suppressed a laugh as Bella disentangled herself from under the covers and quickly stepped out of bed to retrieve her dressing gown. Her less than stealthy move treated me to a tantalising view of her naked curves, and I groaned, willing my ever-eager cock to stand down.

“My sister shouldn’t even be mentioned while you’re naked in bed with me, my love. But I’ll overlook it because it’s getting late. I wouldn’t want to scandalise Mrs Higgins again.”

I’d no sooner uttered those words than a sedate knock sounded on our door. It was Mrs Higgins’ covert signal—Alice was back, and dinner would be served shortly.

It was time for Bella and me to be civilised again and leave the safe cocoon of our bed.

*********

On the morrow, the day before Bella’s birthday celebration, Bella and I welcomed Rosalie and Emmett back at Cygnus Court.

Alice—whose bridal sensibilities rendered her increasingly more agitated as the days wore on—had begged off dinner with them after the refreshments Mrs Higgins offered with our tea had not agreed with her weak stomach. There was still a full week before her nuptials, but Bella had privately suggested to me that seeing the first guests appear may have caused her early onset of anxiety. Bella and Rosalie, on their part, tried to rally her spirits and reassured her it was quite natural to feel nervous at such a time. Still, they said, if she wanted to retire early nobody would blame her, and she could certainly use a few more hours of rest with all the work she’d been doing in preparation for the wedding. Alice’s early departure left the four of us to some amiable conversation after a lively dinner.

We sat in one of Bella’s favourite rooms at Cygnus Court—the drawing room on the first floor that boasted a full-figure portrait of her parents. It reminded me of Bella’s reluctance at having her likeness taken when I announced I’d hired a painter for her portrait. Maybe she would relent if I offered to sit with her, I wondered?

Mrs Higgins entered the room with one of the footmen, who helped her serve hot cocoa for the ladies and brandy for Emmett and myself, and then left with a curtsey in Bella’s direction.

Once we were left to our own devices, I took my rightful seat beside Bella and smiled at her from my side of the settee when I refused to let go of her hand.

“Can I have my hand back, please?”

“I far prefer its present location, my love.”

She huffed, shaking her head at my antics. It was a sort of running joke of ours—since we wed, I had the unceasing need to feel her, touch her, hold her, regardless of where we were or what we were doing. It had created some rather diverting incidents so far.

“I’m sure you do, but I’m having a hard time stirring my hot cocoa, one-handed as I am,” she quipped.

If she hoped I’d behave in front of our guests, she was sorely mistaken.

“You are truly determined to ruin my fun today, wife.”

Emmett chuckled at my repartee and threw in a comment of his own. “It’s heartwarming, seeing the two of you like this.”

“While I try to discipline your brother for polite company, you mean?” asked Bella, still quite amused at the entire situation.

“No, dear sister, not quite.”

“Oh?” she asked again, no doubt unsure what Emmett’s meaning might be.

“Happy. The two of you are truly happy together. You belong together. I’m wondering what Father would say if he knew.”

Bella’s gaze turned tender and contemplative. In a quite roundabout way, my father’s wishes had come true. Bella had become a Cullen; she just married a different one. Unbidden, the thought of my mother’s words on her deathbed struck me. “Your Bella” she’d said, and at the time, clueless dolt that I was, too entrenched in my ways and in my heartache to make sense of it, I’d dismissed those words as the vagaries of a dying woman. But no—somehow my mother had known, even before I’d seen it, that Bella would be my safe harbour in the storm, my future, and my one and only love.

Emmett’s comment prompted me to take a long look at him and Rosalie. I’d observed them quietly since their arrival this afternoon, and I’d noticed a few things.

Rosalie seemed less ebullient in her demeanour but hardly unhappy. There was a quiet grace and contentment in her features I’d not seen before. Emmett, on his part, had divested every last shred of moroseness our estrangement had caused him to harbour, and his bearing spoke of a man who’d shaken a massive burden off his shoulders. Also, a new light shone in his eyes—as if new hope for the future brewed in his heart.

“I’m sure he sees, Emmett,” Bella said at length. “I hope you’re no longer blaming yourself for what happened.”

Emmett heaved a deep, cleansing sigh before replying. “No. I’ve ceased blaming myself for other people’s actions. I’m determined to claim responsibility only for my own blunders from now on.”

With a warm, loving smile on her lips, Rosalie patted his hand affectionately, and he entwined his fingers with hers almost on reflex. It occurred to me I’d rarely ever seen them show their affection in public before. Perhaps Emmett had taken my advice on that score, but it was hardly the time to question him on that.

“In fact, brother, I believe I owe you an answer. I’d like to give it now.”

I nodded at him, unable to articulate my reaction into words yet. I thought it best to let him say his piece in its entirety before commenting.

Still clasping his wife’s hand in his, he began. “Rosalie and I have had long discussions since you presented me with your offer a few weeks ago. We are honoured that you’d think of us … of me for this position, and we’re aware it will be a drastic change to our life, but with your help and your advice, I believe we could be up to the task. If the offer stands, we’d be happy and proud to accept it.”

I relinquished my hold on Bella’s hand, rose from my seat, and offered Emmett my hand. When he shook mine, I pulled him to stand and clapped his shoulder in satisfaction.

“Thank you, brother. Now, we’ve got plenty of things to plan.”

*********

This wasn’t the way I’d intended to wake on Bella’s birthday, but I wasn’t going to complain, especially if this vision turned out to be true and not the workings of my lustful imagination. Bella’s luscious mane of mahogany hair cascaded on my chest, tickling my skin in delightful, tantalising ways. The touch of her hands singed my skin lower down on my abdomen, painfully close to my now erect cock, and then—and that’s when I thought my grasp on reality was well and truly gone—Bella’s lips enveloped me in their warmth. Her lips … on my shaft.

“Dear God in heaven, Isabella … what on earth …”

She hummed an unintelligible reply around me, and it vibrated all the way up my spine. I fisted the sheets to stop myself from any sudden movements that would injure her inadvertently or, worse, stop her ministrations.

She continued exploring me at her leisure, first unsure, then more daring as my response—which was rather confined to hisses and gratified moans, my powers of coherent speech being somewhat hindered at the moment—bolstered her confidence further.

Though lost in the pleasure she was bestowing on me, at length I responded, threading my fingers in her hair, and nearly came undone there, at her mercy, when a cogent thought finally surfaced.

“Bella … love … please, stop.”

She released me but looked up at me with a puzzled, shy expression. “Did I do that wrong?”

“Heavens, no. Almost too right, my love.” I pulled her to my chest to line her body up to mine and let my hands roam underneath the gauzy nightgown she was wearing. My brain was still too addled by her attentions to even parse how she’d ventured into the heady realm of fellatio—again, my own knowledge was sketchy and came courtesy of the bawdy talk overheard in Kingston’s port taverns.

“Then why did you …”

I silenced her with a passionate kiss, which she repaid in kind. “Because I want to come inside you …”

With a saucy smile, she kissed me again and straddled my hips, flinging her nightgown off her shoulders. “Well, since it’s my birthday …”

*********

A few hours later, after we’d gotten our private birthday celebration out of the way, we rode with Alice, Emmett, and Rosalie to Whitlock Hall since Jasper had insisted on hosting a little party there for Bella.

It wasn’t my first visit to the hall, but the elegant, neatly kept neoclassical façade of Jasper’s main abode never failed to impress me. The family had done extremely well for themselves, and Jasper confirmed his value as an attentive administrator of the estate whenever we drove by the lands farmed by his tenants, which sprawled around the main house and its gardens.

Alice was clearly marrying for love, and both Emmett and I heartily approved of her choice, but seeing that she’d be well taken care of by her future husband was a huge comfort to us as well. They were well-suited to each other, as I’d had occasion to witness in the last week or so. Alice had a lively disposition, which had been somewhat dampened by the loss of our parents, but with Bella’s help and Jasper’s loving attentions, she was back to her usual, jovial self. Jasper had a penchant for seriousness, which suited a man of his age and position who had to contend with the level of responsibility thrust upon him on his father’s death, but Alice’s good humour helped balance out his gloomier moods.

Our little birthday celebration for Bella, though intimate, was animated by good cheer and even better company.

Rosalie and Alice kept up a steady stream of lively chatter with Bella, who only tut-tutted at Alice when my sister appeared all too eager to volunteer details on her wedding dress where Jasper could freely overhear her. He protested to the ladies that, despite Alice’s faux pas, he’d not heard a syllable since he was too caught up in our own conversation to eavesdrop on the ladies.

For his own part, my brother made it his mission to pepper me with questions on the plantation and life in the West Indies, which I answered with candour and honesty. He needed to be well-equipped with facts to face that kind of journey. I had my own questions for him, too.

“And Rosalie? Is she really happy with this new development?”

Emmett stopped sipping his punch and paused before replying as an open, relaxed smile graced his features. “She knows it’s not going to be a walk in the park, and our life isn’t going to be as glamourous, or as comfortable as in London, or Cornwall, for that matter. But she yearns for independence, and for her own establishment. Treverva Lodge is, and has always been, her mother’s house. She has no say in how the household is run. I believe she meant to interrogate Bella in that respect, too.”

“Extracting information, is she?”

Jasper and my brother both chuckled at my quip. “Well, what can I say? How many households does she run at the same time? Cullen Manor, her London house, and Cygnus Court? I’d say she’s highly proficient.”

“That she is, Emmett,” replied Jasper, helping himself to another pastry. One unexpected detail I’d discovered about my titled friend—he had a keen sweet tooth, a fact for which Bella and Alice liked to tease him to no end.

The disjointed hum of commotion coming from inside the house—because the weather had cooperated, we’d been having our celebration in the garden—interrupted our conversation.

A screech—or rather, a harsh, loud protest—sailed over the hushed, harried voices of servants trying to tame whatever mischief was afoot and turned louder and more piqued the closer to us it got. I recognised that harsh voice immediately and turned towards Jasper with a horrified expression. My obvious, unasked question lingered in the air.

Goddamn it all to hell and back! How had Lady Whitlock eluded her caretakers again to intrude on Bella’s birthday? How had she even known we’d be here?

“I didn’t tell her, Edward. I swear.” Jasper’s strained response allayed my anxiety but only just.

Lady Whitlock stood, in all her haughty, spiteful glory, before my wife, sister, and sister-in-law, arms akimbo, as she glared at them while an attendant tried to pull her away from the scene, unfortunately to no avail.

“There she sits, the prodigal daughter of my impoverished relations!” she spat at Bella, who made it a point not to lift her gaze to her aunt but rather proceeded to studiously ignore her.

The lady in question did not like being ignored and proved it by lobbing further insults at the other ladies present.

“And who is this?” she sneered at Alice.

That gesture alone broke Jasper’s composure and caused him to rise from his seat and rush at his intended’s side with a thunderous expression I’d never seen on his face.

“Mother, you were not invited here today.”

“That I can see, you ungrateful son,” she snapped at Jasper, unceremoniously elbowing her attendant to break free from her hold.

The sounds of further commotion filtered over from the house, and a few seconds later, Jasper’s housekeeper and butler both arrived on the scene, murmuring apologies in their master’s direction.

“I will not be confined like a prisoner in my own house,” Lady Whitlock stated again, turning up her nose at Jasper’s entreaties to return to her residence with good grace.

“Mother, you’re making a scene. Please, return to the lodge. I will come visit you tomorrow.”

“So that you all can peacefully celebrate my contemptible niece in my absence?”

Jasper’s countenance turned furious, and he stepped closer to his mother in an attempt to shield her from the ladies. He hissed into her ear something I couldn’t hear, but still, she wouldn’t comply.

“And what is it I hear about a wedding? Is it a suitable lady, at least? Or some penniless, graceless, insipid girl?”

This comment piqued my interest, especially because I knew for a fact that Jasper had disclosed the news of his impending nuptials to his mother weeks ago, his reasoning being that the longer she’d have to get used to it, the better it would be for all parties involved. She also was informed of the identity of Jasper’s bride, so her current protestations that she had no idea who Alice was were just another pretence. It seemed Lady Whitlock didn’t care so much for the truth but was rather keener on being purposefully cruel to her relations, and it made me wonder about her motivation. Perhaps Bella was right—this woman had had a harsh life, had been treated abominably, but had chosen to cling onto her spite and anger instead of finding whatever peace she could.

But that realisation—and how malignant she’d been with her deliberate, bold-faced lies—caused my hackles to rise. I’d had enough of the torrent of abuse she’d been raining on both my wife and sister. And poor Jasper—I pitied him and silently commended his patience at the same time.

As I made to rise and step closer to Bella, Emmett eyed my movement askance and shook his head at me. “Let Jasper deal with her,” he whispered.

No sooner had I resumed my seat than another feminine, resolute voice rang in fury.

“Enough!”

I had to look twice to verify that, indeed, the imperious outburst had come from my own diminutive sister. Better yet, Lady Whitlock, probably too shocked at being rebuffed so openly, stood silent and still as a marble statue.

“Enough! We’ve all had enough of it. Your insults, your spite, your pretences, your unkindness. Enough. Can’t you see you’ve been hurting your only surviving child with your behaviour?”

“And who might you be?”

“Alice Cullen, your ladyship,” Alice stated with a flawless curtsey and a determined expression. She’d just reprimanded the woman without restraint but wouldn’t forget her manners if need be.

“Ah, yes, one of those country bumpkins from Cornwall.”

That last barb, apparently, caused Bella’s own measure to overflow because she stood and put her arm around Alice’s shoulder in a show of support.

“She’s my sister-in-law, and Jasper’s bride. For someone so intent on etiquette, you ought to show a tad more refinement, Aunt. Although why I bother with you, that’s beyond me.”

“You, ungrateful, disgraceful child!” she yelled, launching herself at Bella. With a sudden, effective gesture, Jasper intervened to restrain her in a firm but unbreakable hold. She struggled but relented when two more servants appeared with a glass of clear liquid in which they dissolved a powder of some sort—hopefully, a calming draught.

“That’s enough, Mother. I’ve been understanding, even lenient so far, but I won’t tolerate any further mistreatment of Bella or Alice. I’ve made myself clear. If you persist, I’ll be washing my hands of you.”

Jasper’s voice, unyielding and grave, seemed to finally convey to Lady Whitlock the seriousness of her situation. Her shoulders sagged, and her former supercilious attitude evaporated like snow in the gleaming sun.

“You wouldn’t … I’m your mother …”

“And there are limits to my forbearance. You’ve crossed them.”

Alice moved closer to him, and he gathered her to his side in a loving embrace.

Lady Whitlock did not relent. “But …”

“You’ve made your bed, Aunt. I suggest you now lie in it,” proclaimed Bella from her seat, with a steely expression on her face. “For years, we tried to be compassionate, but there’s only so much venom you can spit at people before you poison them against you.”

“You’ve hurt your own son time and time again, your ladyship. As his bride, I can’t let you do that. I don’t care one whit what you think of me, but if you believe I’ll let you walk over me, and over him, you’re sorely mistaken. I’m not a merciless person, but you’ve tried my patience once too many times already.”

Jasper gave one last, unwavering look at his mother, then nodded to the servants, who proceeded to administer to Lady Whitlock whatever concoction they’d previously mixed. Her ladyship, now defeated and sombre, surrendered to her attendants and left.

Pride blossomed in my chest for these two women—my wife and sister—who’d had the courage and grace to stand up to their tormentor. I smiled at Bella from my seat, and she nodded at me. Alice melted into Jasper’s hold, and he murmured words of comfort in her ear.

But alongside that pride, compassion for my friend’s plight also lurked below the surface. For all that Lady Whitlock was still quite among the living, her latest episode had condemned Jasper to a course of action which implied that he must, forevermore, consider his mother all but lost.

*********

All too soon a week passed, and we all donned our best finery to drive back to Whitlock Hall for Jasper and Alice’s wedding.

Jasper, resigned to his mother’s deteriorating attitude, had tried one last consultation with her doctors. A new alienist he’d summoned from London had shed more light on her case and held the professional opinion that her condition, though mired in a lingering melancholy she would probably never relinquish, wasn’t caused so much by a mental deterioration, per se, but rather by uncontrollable moods. The doctor had recommended rest and a life devoid of strenuous emotions in a quiet, secluded environment. On the alienist’s advice, Jasper had sent his mother to stay in another of their properties farther away with a nurse who’d come highly recommended in dealing with ailments similar to Lady Whitlock’s.

The new development came as a huge relief to all of us, chiefly to Bella and me for almost identical reasons. I wanted Bella and my sister safe from Lady Whitlock’s venomous behaviour while Bella wanted Alice safely away from her aunt and yearned for her cousin’s concerns to be soothed as much as her aunt’s illness would allow.

Free from the pall her ladyship’s latest outburst had cast upon the impending celebration, the wedding went off without a hitch. As Jasper had predicted weeks ago, the festivities were well attended by all sorts of titled and non-titled fellows and a never-ending strain of highly elegant ladies.

All through the wedding breakfast, and well into the afternoon, the crowd wouldn’t stop congratulating the bride and groom, who were so happy and taken with one another that they gracefully thanked everyone in between more laughter, more dances, and more cake than anyone could eat in one sitting.

Alice, a resplendently happy bride in a striking, stark-white silk gown, never strayed more than a foot away from her new husband, who, for his own part, had relinquished his serious, sedate nature for the day.

At long last, the happy couple deemed they’d made enough of a merry spectacle of themselves for their guests and announced they would be going away soon. Alice disappeared upstairs, followed by Bella, Rosalie, and Lady Holcombe, who had been instructed to help her change into her going-away attire. Jasper also followed, for he could hardly set off on a journey to Paris in his best set of tails.

Emmett and I lingered and chatted about inconsequential things while waiting for our wives to return from their errand.

“I heard some intriguing gossip from Lord Huntington,” my brother began with a mischievous glint in his eye.

“And what did Lord Huntington report that’s worth passing on to dear old me?”

He threw a sidelong glance around us to check for any eavesdroppers, but by now, most guests had either retired or waited for the newlyweds to reappear and were thus deep into their own conversations.

“Well, it concerns our old friend Blackwood. Does that pique your interest now?”

The damned blackguard. Would we ever be truly rid of him?

“Yes, it does, provided he’s either under lock and key, disgraced, or besieged by greedy creditors. Or all of the above,” I quipped, unrepentant in my uncharitable thoughts of the scum who’d been so abhorrent to my Bella.

“It sounds like the taunts Jasper fired at him at Cygnus Court a while ago weren’t entirely groundless.”

“We did know about the gambling already. Jasper had it first-hand from someone at his club, I believe.”

Emmett nodded but had more information to relay. “Yes, but remember what Rosalie and Alice said back in London? About his sisters wearing old, made-over clothes? And Jasper mentioning a failed betrothal for one of them?”

This ventured further into the territory of ladies’ gossip, but because it pertained to Blackwood, I’d retained that information and had wondered myself how much of it could be substantiated in any sort of way.

“Well, his mother, Lady Blackwood, seems to be quite upset with her heir apparent and his antics. She has tightened the purse strings considerably. He’s been dispatched without ceremony to North Yorkshire, where they have horribly bourgeois but awfully wealthy relations with a trove of unwed daughters. He’s been ordered not to return until he’s secured the hand of one of them. His sisters have been pawned off to an aunt of theirs who resides in Bath in hopes of securing them palatable matches away from their brother’s lack of social graces.”

Emmett’s glee at Blackwood’s misfortune couldn’t be contained, nor could his affected contempt for his common relations. He sounded like Mrs Hale during one of her condescending tirades and looked like Alice in the midst of an exceedingly well-appointed milliner’s shop.

“And you have this on good authority? How does Lord Huntington know?”

Emmett had to suppress a chuckle before answering. “On the best authority. It’s his son who’d been on the verge of proposing to one of Blackwood’s sisters. Lord Huntington and his son confronted Blackwood about the gambling debts. The chap had the misguided idea of rebuffing them with the excuse that a gentleman shouldn’t be questioning a gentleman’s honour, and at that point, Huntington delivered an ultimatum. He wouldn’t allow his son to marry into the family unless the debts were cleared immediately and with good proof. He said flat out he didn’t want his son to fall into the role of shadow banker to his brother-in-law’s shady dealings. And that was the sad end of the betrothal.”

“Serves Blackwood right.”

“Indeed.”

“The two of you are gossiping worse than old ladies,” quipped Lady Holcombe herself, now back downstairs for the happy couple’s return.

“It’s not gossip if the information is tried and true,” countered Emmett, utterly unapologetic.

Her ladyship tittered into her fan. “I’ll give you that, young man. I’ll give you that.”

“And how would you know, Aunt Millie?” I asked, now curious.

“Who do you think told Lady Huntington about the gambling debts?” she parried back at me with her own unapologetic smile.

When the bride and groom approached us in their procession towards their exit, we took our turns embracing them and conveying our well wishes and stood staring at their retreating carriage as they drove away.

“Paris, what an adventure!” exclaimed Rosalie with a contented expression. All of her former unease when in mixed company had vanished, and she’d also lost her more pretentious and awkward attitudes, perhaps because she’d been spending so much time with Alice and Bella, who were nothing but serenely confident and devoid of affectation.

“We are going on our own adventure next month, Rosie,” countered Emmett.

“I know! I’m so excited. You’ll write to me, Bella, won’t you?”

“Every month, Rose. We’ll be on pins and needles waiting for word that you’ve settled in,” my Bella replied with a reassuring pat of her hand to Rosalie’s arm.

“Oh, and Emmett? Please don’t send anything express from Jamaica,” I joked at my brother’s expense, reminiscing his impetuous missive from almost a year ago.

“You may have mentioned something of the sort, brother,” he grudgingly admitted.

“When do you sail?” Bella asked, winding her arm around mine. Eager to reconnect with her, I wove my fingers through hers and gave her an affectionate squeeze.

“Four weeks from today from Falmouth by way of Lisbon. So Rosie will have some sort of foreign adventure before we land in Jamaica.”

We all laughed at Emmett’s eager proclamation before noticing that all the other guests had now either left or retired. We retreated inside and walked upstairs to the rooms assigned to us for the night by the housekeeper. We bid goodnight to Emmett and Rosalie and entered our own bedchamber, closing the door on the world outside and on a merry but long day.

“We finally married your sister off,” Bella said, sitting at the dressing table to remove pins and ornaments from her hair. I stepped behind her and began taking over her work. I could never resist the temptation of running my hands through her hair.

“To your cousin.”

“Whom you didn’t like one whit when you met him,” she pointed out.

“Well, he wanted to separate you from me,” I countered, remembering Jasper’s stance towards me all those months ago.

“How our life has changed, hasn’t it, beloved?”

Bella was, as usual, right. Jasper was not only a friend now but my brother by marriage. Bella and I were married. Emmett and I had reconciled, and he was about to upend his life to be of service to our estates in Jamaica.

Life was different now, so much different than when I embarked on a ship from Jamaica almost seven months ago. But this life, full of peace, serenity, love, and the promise of a brilliant future, was also exceptionally better. With Bella by my side, it would be extraordinary.

“Aye, it has. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, my love.”

Chapter Text

On a windswept October day, Bella and I stood at the Falmouth pier to bid our goodbyes to Rosalie and Emmett.

“We can send on anything you need, Rosalie. Please don’t hesitate to ask,” Bella entreated to an excited Rosalie, who was on the verge of tears at the same time.

Rosalie nodded and embraced Bella in return. “Who knows when we’ll see you next! Will you please look in on my parents, visit them? I’m so worried about them.”

I had half a mind to point out that my wife could probably name ten other chores she’d take up more willingly, walking on hot coals being one of them, but decided silence would be a better policy. Bella did indeed promise to visit the Hales from time to time so they wouldn’t feel too lonely at Treverva Lodge.

“Rosie, your parents will probably be either in London or travelling all the time. Please don’t force other obligations on Bella.”

“It’s no obligation, Emmett. If they’re in London, I’ll just dispatch Aunt Millie to see them.”

Rosalie failed to notice Emmett’s amused smile to Bella’s proposition. She was too shaken up by their impending departure now, just as one of the crewmates bellowed out that all passengers were wanted on board.

I shook my brother’s hand again, and he surprised me by pulling me in for an embrace. Now that we’d mended all our fences, Emmett had become more demonstrative of late.

“Thank you, Edward. You don’t know what this means to me, that you’d give me this opportunity. I’ll do you proud. I won’t disappoint you.”

“Just go out there and live the best life you can for yourself and your wife. Augustus will help you around the house and plantation with anything you need. He knows them like the palm of his hand. Trust him.”

He nodded and moved on to give a parting embrace to Bella, which left Rosalie standing in front of me with a watery smile.

“I want to thank you, too, Edward. Emmett’s been a new man since the two of you reconciled.”

I took her hands in mine. “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself knowing I’d done nothing to extend an olive branch. Not after I knew what my father had forced him to do. And I owe you an apology, too. I didn’t treat you fairly or respectfully when we first met.”

She shook her head. “It’s all in the past now. Our future—Emmett’s and mine—is on that ship and on the other side of the ocean. And it’s all thanks to you and Bella.”

“It’s time to go, Rosie. Or the ship might sail without us,” said Emmett, who’d now relinquished Bella.

“This isn’t an adieu. I know we’ll see you both again,” Rosalie said haltingly as she and Emmett walked up the plank of the Ajax, the vessel that would transport them to Lisbon first, and then all the way to Kingston in about thirty days.

Bella and I stood on the pier for a while longer, watching their figures grow smaller and hazier in the distance while a bitter, cold wind howled around us and threw salty, white sprays on our faces.

We walked back to our carriage in silence, as if neither of us had words for our present feelings. Or maybe our hearts were just too full. At length, my determination to always reassure Bella in any situation won over my reluctance to voice my thoughts.

“They will be safe. This journey will soon be over, and they’ll settle in at the lodge. They’ll build a good life for themselves.”

Bella squeezed my hand, threading her gloved fingers through mine. “I have faith that they will. It’s just … there’s been so much change around us, Edward.”

Although it seemed to be too much of a profound conversation for a busy street, her consideration deserved a well-thought-out response, which prompted me to stop our progress and turn to face her. “Change isn’t always bad, per se, my love.”

She rewarded me with the hint of a smile, and at that moment, I knew she wasn’t in a sombre mood. “You’re right. It just takes some getting used to, ‘tis all. I feel as if I’ve been spinning like a top this entire year, and this whirling and whirring is just now stopping.”

She had every right to feel overwhelmed. Our lives had both been upended—in good and bad ways—in the last seven months or so, and things were only beginning to settle into a steadier, calmer rhythm. Without another thought, I lowered my lips to hers but restrained myself from taking things any further, mindful of our surroundings.

“I might mark the day on the calendar. You actually said I’m right about something.”

She tittered for an instant, all traces of unease now erased from her countenance. “Credit where it’s due, Mr Cullen. Thank you, beloved.”

I rubbed my hand along her forearm and pressed my lips to her forehead. “Anytime. Anything for you, my darling. Shall we?”

She nodded, and we resumed our walk towards the carriage. We spent the short ride to Cullen Manor discussing the goings-on at home and our upcoming social engagements. After Alice’s wedding, we’d been invited by every other prominent family in the area and had been having dinner away from the manor quite often. Sir Leonard and Sir Devin were still angling for me to take up the magistrate chair, and after consulting with my Bella, I decided I’d accept it. Her argument had been unassailable. “You don’t want a less than honourable man in that position, Edward. You’d be an honourable and fair judge. You’d do a lot of good for the people of these parts.”

Upon our arrival, Jenks welcomed us with the post tray before disappearing again within his domain—the kitchens.

I divested my coat and helped Bella out of hers as she perused the mail.

“Anything of importance in there?”

She shook a missive in my direction as an infectious smile bloomed on her lips. “From Paris!”

We sat down in the library where she started reading her letter while I got saddled with more reports from the steward at Cygnus Court. Although it was Bella’s property, she’d entrusted me with managing it, stating that she would confine herself to managing the household but the price of grain, farming, and leaseholds were not her province.

Fully engrossed with her letter, she didn’t dignify me with one glance for a good ten minutes before she erupted in a giggle.

“What are Lord and Lady Whitlock up to now?” I asked.

My sister had been writing to Bella almost every week. My teasing comment had been that Jasper wasn’t doing a good job with his husbandly duties if she had so much free time. Bella’s answer to my quip had been an elbow to my side, accompanied by a, “Scandalous, Mr Cullen. Positively scandalous.”

“They’re still in Paris but have been on a short trip to Normandy. They will be extending their journey to the French Riviera in a few days. They might already be in Nice by now, I reckon.”

“They’ve been gone for a month already! Are they planning on returning to Somerset by Christmas, at least?”

Bella shrugged, folding the letter back and lifting it in my direction. “Read for yourself. Jasper enclosed a couple paragraphs in it for you.”

I perused the missive quickly, reading out loud to Bella Jasper’s portion. “Sends their regards for Rosalie and Emmett. Says Lady Holcombe might ask to come spend time with us because she’s bored in London. Lady Whitlock had a nasty bout of pneumonia, on the mend now but much subdued. Will be back for Christmas. Inviting us to spend it at the hall.”

“Efficient summary, Mr Cullen,” she said at length in a small voice.

“What’s wrong, my love?”

She sighed before answering with a shake of her head. “Just thinking of my aunt. Sometimes I wonder …”

I motioned for her to continue. I had my own theories about Lady Whitlock’s ailment, but they weren’t entirely charitable.

“I just wonder … whether Jasper and I have dealt with this all wrong from the start, you know? Maybe a gentler hand …”

I left my perch at my father’s old desk to sit on the armrest of Bella’s armchair and wound my arm around her shoulders. “You and Jasper did all you could. Don’t shoulder the blame for someone else’s choices, love.”

“But she’s my aunt … And she’s alone in that secluded house …”

She’d struggled with Lady Whitlock’s situation since her birthday. For all that she’d been firm in the face of her aunt’s nasty remarks that day, Jasper’s removal of his mother from her cottage near the hall to a more sheltered abode farther north in the moors of Yorkshire had left Bella feeling conflicted. She still believed her aunt exploited her illness to justify her horrid temper and behaviour, but rued the fact that Jasper had been forced into such a choice, and sometimes tortured herself with this dilemma, thinking there had to be something else they could have done with her, something else they could have tried instead.

“She would have been alone at the cottage anyway. Her doctors always forbade any visitors except Jasper, remember?”

“I know, I know. In my head, I recognise this is the way things have to be. My heart feels heavy for Jasper, though. He’s had to come to terms with the harsh reality that the sweet mother he knew as a child is gone forevermore.”

A pained grimace marred her features, and a lone tear lined her cheek. “But I’m being ungrateful. Esme’s been cold in the ground these past seven months, and here I am being overly compassionate about a woman who’s expended her best efforts in being evil incarnate to your sister. Can you forgive me, Edward?”

“There’s nothing to forgive, my love. Your compassionate heart is one of the things that made me fall hopelessly in love with you. I wouldn’t have you any other way. If anything, it does you credit that you can still look upon your aunt with that level of solicitude. Jasper has accepted the situation, and so should you. She’s chosen to behave abominably to you time and time again. You heard the alienist. She’s coherent and logical in her responses, but her thirst for vengeance against your mother and the perceived wrongs she suffered at her hand—wholly unjustified assessment, those wrongs are all in her head—motivates her outbursts. I don’t want you torturing yourself like this. You have no fault in this matter, my darling one.”

My voice had grown firmer and steadier the further I spoke. I was afraid my tirade would irritate Bella as her mood seemed to inexplicably shift every now and then. I’d explained it away on account of her conflicted feelings regarding Lady Whitlock’s situation so far. I cradled her face in my hands and wiped her tears away with my fingers. “Don’t cry, my love. It pains me to see you suffer so.”

She nodded, sitting up straighter in her armchair. She straightened the front of her gown and patted my hands affectionately. “Thank you, beloved. You always manage to reassure me. I love you, Edward.”

I kissed her temple. “As I love you, Mrs Cullen.”

She stood and walked to the door, turning to me with a smile. “Back at my chores now. Sir Devin and Lady Trevelyan will be over for supper. I need to check on Jenks and see what’s cooking.”

***        ***        ***

A month later, on a rather gloomy November day, we finally received word that Jasper and Alice were travelling back from France.

Lady Holcombe, who’d left London to prepare the household ahead of their arrival, would welcome them back at Whitlock Hall and stay with them for a few weeks. She’d declared that the season in London this year was an utter bore, and she’d rather spend it in the country with her newest niece than in town surrounded by Lady Blackwood and her daughters, whose pickings in the marriage mart were still non-existent, whereas their brother, per Lady Holcombe’s account, had finally finagled a bride from his unwitting northern relations. Needless to say, Aunt Millie was unimpressed with the newest Lady Blackwood.

As I finished reading Jasper’s missive with a chuckle, I looked out the library window just in time to catch a glimpse of Bella’s carriage driving up to the front door. She’d been out visiting Sir Leonard, who’d been laid up in bed with a bad cold.

Bella had tried to protest when I’d had my mother’s carriage reupholstered for her to use. I countered her objections saying that if she wasn’t going to use it, the carriage would be left in the carriage house to rot, and I couldn’t very well have my darling wife traipse about the Cornish countryside on foot or horseback in the inclement winter weather. That caused her to pause, relent, and apologise for being ungrateful and stubborn. I’d silenced her with a kiss, telling her it was my job to spoil her now, and she’d best get used to it.

I stepped out into the hall to welcome her just as she came through the door, her complexion ruddy with exertion and, no doubt, the bitter bite of the November wind. She flew into my arms with one of her radiant smiles.

“Welcome home, my love. I’ve missed you today.”

She laughed in between the kisses I rained on her gelid face. “It’s good to be home. Sir Leonard sends his regards.”

“How’s the old curmudgeon?” I’d grown quite fond of the elderly gentleman in the last few months. He was, in fact, a perfectly amiable chap, but his sometimes abrasive manner had become a sort of private joke of ours.

“Mildly curmudgeonly, so on the mend, all in all.”

I followed her into the kitchens, where she started checking on the various pots the cook and Jenks had on the stove. Then, after lifting the lid on one of them, she dropped it back onto the pot unceremoniously, bringing a hand to her mouth and running straight to the bucket of slops Jenks kept out of the way in a corner of the scullery.

Taken aback by her sudden reaction, I ran after her and heard the distinct sound of retching.

“Bella, love? What happened? Are you unwell?” I asked, anxious.

“Something in the stew doesn’t smell quite right,” she answered. “I’ll speak to Jenks about it,” she added in a rush and disappeared from the kitchen before I could enquire further.

The next morning I went down to the kitchen early for a spot of breakfast and ran into the man himself.

“What did you put into that godforsaken stew yesterday, old man?”

Jenks’ only reply amounted to a disgruntled, guttural noise at first. “Nothing I haven’t put in my stew these past fifty years, you insolent young man! What about it?”

“Bella came into the kitchen yesterday, took a whiff of it from the boiling pot, and then retched right into the slop bucket. Are you trying to poison my wife?”

He set down the basket of onions he’d been hauling in from the root cellar and took a seat at the table. “Took a whiff of stew and chucked up her luncheon, ye say?”

“Yes. Careful with those onions. If they’re rancid, they’ll set her off again.”

He nodded repeatedly but offered no other explanation. After I’d stood and walked away from the table, he retorted to my retreating back. “The onions are fine. The missus isna retching because of rancid food, lad. For all that ye’re a smart man, ye havena figured this one oot yet.”

I wrote Jenks’ comment off as his usual form of ribbing at my expense but did note from that moment on that Bella started avoiding certain foods. I vowed I’d persuade her to see the Newton boy—despite my keen dislike of the chap and his keen preference for making eyes at my wife, he was still the town doctor—if she showed any further alarming symptoms.

***        ***        ***

November fog dissolved into December snow, and Christmas came upon us almost by surprise. Bella and I had settled into a busy routine and a highly satisfactory married life.

She ran the household, visited the ladies of the town, and saw that our tenants and farmers’ families were well taken care of, even going so far as encouraging Dr Newton to see to their winter ailments at our expense and raising money for a small school for the village children, which she’d entrusted to the local pastor.

For my part, I managed the estate, prepared to receive my chair as a magistrate at the first quarter sessions of the new year, and waited every two weeks for dispatches from Jamaica.

We’d had reports from Emmett and Rosalie regularly throughout their journey. The first letter had come from Lisbon a week after their departure. Then every so often, we’d get a hasty missive whenever their packet crossed with another ship bound for England.

Then, in mid-December, we finally received a longer letter dated from the plantation. They’d settled in at the lodge, gotten the lay of the land, and made friends with a few local families, thanks to the good offices of my local lawyer and a few neighbouring landowners. Augustus was thoroughly enjoying the presence of a new mistress in the house, and Rosalie seemed to love the house and the weather so far.

Jasper and Alice had come to the manor for a short visit around that time, and we’d shared with them the good news from the West Indies. Bella and I were happy to reunite with our family, and Lord and Lady Whitlock looked very much like the perfect couple, perfectly in love. After some talk and deliberation, we’d decided we’d spend our first Christmas as married couples in our own homes and would reconvene at Whitlock Hall for New Year’s Eve. The weather so far had been cold but fairly cooperative, with no heavy snowfalls, which obliterated any safety concerns we’d have in travelling to Somerset.

A crisp but sunny Christmas Eve dawned on us as we lay in bed with no plans to relinquish our warm cocoon under the covers any time soon. A roaring fire warmed our bedchamber, and a tray of hot breakfast sat as ready refreshments for us, along with a bundle of mail. I’d instructed Jenks not to disturb us this morning, and I had no plans of engaging in any productive endeavours whatsoever.

“Did Jenks go apoplectic when you told him off earlier?” asked Bella, who’d laid her head on my chest and currently played with my wandering fingers as she spoke.

I scoffed in good humour. “The old man is as unflappable as ever. He erupted in one of his unintelligible noises and grunted out something to the effect that it was high time the two of us took it easy.”

“Good old Jenks.”

“He cares about us. About you, in fact. He told me in no uncertain terms to take better care of the missus.”

“I don’t know what he’s prattling on about,” Bella retorted with a laugh. However, her words sounded evasive for some reason.

I extended a hand towards my bedside table where Jenks had set the mail a while ago and started leafing through it, handing Bella the messages addressed to her.

“Lady Holcombe, for you. Briggs in London, for me. Jasper, for me. Alice, for you. Lady Trevelyan, for you. Rosalie, for you. Emmett, for me. Lord Falmouth, for me.”

“That’s quite the pile we’ve got there. Let’s see what Rose has to say,” she said, plucking from my hand the sheaf of letters I’d been separating.

I was also anxious to hear from my brother and broke the seal off his missive after dumping the rest of my post on top of the covers.

The plantation was doing well, he was getting along fine with the workers, Augustus was a godsend, and the local merchants had welcomed the new gentleman from England like the second coming of Christ. That was all good news, but I’d hoped for something a tad more personal.

Ah, there it was. At first, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Or that my brother would use such saucy language in a letter. I had to squint and read his scrawled words again. But that wasn’t the entire story. Then Bella gasped, seized my arm with her right hand, and shook me until I looked at her. A surprised smile graced her face, and her eyes, though wide as saucers, shimmered with an expression halfway between awe and joy.

“Rosalie is expecting!”

I squinted again. Did I just hear her correctly?

“Yes, my love. You heard me. The doctor in Kingston confirmed it. Augustus has taken it upon himself to ease her burden, and she’s henceforth banned from any and all household work. Did Emmett say anything to you?”

I shook my head in happy disbelief, and then read Emmett’s account again. “Yes, he did. He’s ecstatic. He hopes for a boy—of course, he would.”

“That is such marvellous news. Rosalie says she’s due around mid-summer.”

“So does Emmett. They could have saved on postage—they’re sounding like there’s an echo in here. I’m happy for them. I truly am. Emmett is asking if we’d consider travelling there next summer to meet our new niece or nephew.”

Bella lowered her gaze. “That is a grand idea, but …”

“I’ll keep you safe during the ocean crossing, my love. You needn’t be afraid.”

She looked up at me with an unreadable expression in her eyes—nervous, mayhap? I couldn’t tell. “I have no doubt you would, beloved. It’s just that …” She paused again, which sent me into a tailspin of my own nervous concerns.

“You’re starting to worry me, love.”

She heaved a deep, drawn-out sigh and sat up straighter in bed. She clasped my hand in hers and twined her fingers through mine. “I’d planned to tell you tomorrow, as a Christmas present, but … It won’t be safe for me to travel next summer.”

Quite perplexed, I regarded her with a puzzled expression and, no doubt, mouth agape like a fish. “Not safe? How? Why?”

“Because … Well, Edward, I expect to be confined next summer, beloved.”

Of their own accord, my hands came to rest on her stomach, and I caressed her reverently where our unborn child rested. Words of love and gratitude wilted in my throat, overcome with joy as I was. At long last, I found my voice.

“Is it true? You’re with child, my love? Are you well?”

She erupted in a crystalline, carefree laugh. “Yes, Edward. I’m healthy as a horse. Or so says the midwife. And Dr Newton.”

I folded her in my arms and kissed her deeply. She melted in my arms, responding in kind. Then I remembered her delicate condition and held my horses.

“When?” I murmured, bestowing a whisper of a kiss to the alabaster column of her neck.

“Early summer. Midwife thinks mid-June. You might get a son or daughter for your birthday,” she answered, running her hands through my hair.

“A child. Our child. Oh, love …”

All of a sudden, I didn’t care one whit for New Year’s Eve celebrations, or the plantation, or the estate, or Rosalie and Emmett’s news. I was lost in the utter, complete, and all-encompassing joy that our love had created a life, and God willing, we’d welcome a child into the world come next summer.

Our world was a blank canvass, ebullient with a kaleidoscope of coruscating, hopeful possibilities.

 

***        Finis          ***