One summer between high school and college changed Edward’s ideas about his life’s plans. Could he really build a life with a much older woman two thousand miles away?
I’m sitting here in this conference room in the most boring meeting of my life, and I can't seem to focus on the words presented by the speaker. I couldn't care less about profit margins, not when rotating crops are the only thing on my mind. Well, not the only thing. Brown hair spilling over strong shoulders, brown eyes, endless cups of coffee, and homemade lemonade. Those are the things I can't forget. The smell of hay and manure, sweat, and biscuits in the oven. T-shirts and jeans, not crisp cotton shirts and pressed suits. Not the tie that’s strangling me. I clear my throat and tug on the knot, trying to loosen it.
I want to remember. I need to remember, to never forget.
It had only been three months, but those three months changed my life. Clearly, since I’m still thinking over them obsessively. It all started as I was about to graduate from high school at the end of last Spring. My parents were determined that I should complete community service hours if I didn’t want to take summer courses before I accepted the intern position at their company. I’d been taking college credit courses throughout high school, and I was in no hurry to start at the University of Washington, so I agreed to their compromise. I had the whole summer to devote to it, and then I would join the company at the bottom and work my way up. It was a win-win for me… until I was sent to the middle of fucking nowhere, Oklahoma. A ranch owner, recently widowed, had asked for help through the Oklahoma University student exchange program. My parents got wind of it and asked me if I minded staying on a working ranch and helping her out until she could find a foreman to do the jobs her husband had always done. Picturing an older woman too weak to keep her livelihood going, I felt the stirrings of pity, and readily agreed.
The heat was different than what I was used to, that’s what I thought first as the taxi took me from the airport out to a rural farming section. I rolled the window down, breathing in the scent of the sun on dried out grass. The wind was hot, dry. The longer we drove, the fewer buildings I could see. Soon, there was nothing but tall green crops on either side of the road; I was too naïve about farming to know what they were. The driver turned down a dusty lane with nothing more than a washed out, precariously tilted mailbox to indicate we were in the right place. As we got closer, I spotted a large white house, a red barn, what I thought was a silo, and several other buildings dotted around the property. There were a few cows wandering around an enclosed area, and a horse running in a far field.
The car stopped, and I got out and paid the driver before grabbing my bag from the trunk. I headed slowly up to the main house, assuming that was where I would find the woman I was working for. A mutt that looked like it had quite a few years on it was napping in the shade provided by the porch roof. A swing desperately in need of a paint job swung in the barest hint of a breeze. Sweat dripped down the back of my neck as I knocked on the rusty screen door. The dog picked up its head but dropped it again in disinterest.
“Hello!” I called out when nobody answered.
Still nothing. I left my duffel bag by the door and headed back out into the sun. Shading my eyes with my hand, I looked around the farm. Chickens were pecking the ground to my far right, a short wire fence keeping them from running off. They had a rather cute little red house if they needed shade. To my left were the cows I’d spotted, a good distance from the house, and further out was a huge field full of swaying green plants spread as far as I could see. Remembering that the barn was behind the house, I took off in that direction.
“Hello?” Where the fuck was everybody?
I entered the barn, and the heat changed to something downright stifling. The dark interior offered no respite, and the smell was enough to gag me. “Hello?” I called again, pulling the neckline of my shirt up to cover my nose.
“You the boy they sent to help me?” a female voice answered from somewhere in the back.
“Um, yes, ma’am.” I shifted on my feet. I couldn't see her, only hear her. It was dark, and my eyes were barely adjusting as I moved forward.
“You’d better be strong, I swear to God. I need someone that can work hard, not cry over manual labor.”
I followed the sound of her grumbling, finally finding her in the opening to one of the stalls. She was bent over, shovelling what I was positive was horse shit out of the stall and into a pile behind her.
“What can I do?” I asked, completely aware of just how out of my element I was.
“There’s fresh straw down at the end, there.” She pointed over her shoulder. “Add that in an inch high layer to the stalls down the way that I’ve already mucked.”
Okay, no pleasantries or introductions. Sure thing. I moved past her, realizing that I could see better now that my eyes had adjusted. I found another shovel in a tool organizer hanging on the wall, and got to work.
It didn't take long to realize this was back-breaking work. Sweat rolled down my brow and into my eyes, making them sting. I shrugged my shoulder up to my forehead often to catch the drips, but I wasn't always successful. My entire body was covered in dust in a matter of minutes, and I still wasn't used to the smell. I paused to catch my breath after a while, and took a good look around.
There was a set of large double doors at both ends, open to the sunshine. Dust motes floated around in the light, making me sneeze. There were long fluorescent lights along the top of the high ceilings, but they weren't turned on. The last thing I noticed was the sound; there was none, other than the scrape of the widow’s shovel. Occasionally I would hear what I thought was a cow, but I wasn't sure. I was so used to the constant sound of traffic, sirens, people talking and sometimes yelling, that the silence was too much.
“What do we do after we’ve finished this?” I spoke into the barn in general, since I assumed she’d be able to hear me.
First I heard a sigh, followed by the clang of her shovel. She moved, I could make out the shadow of her body, and then she was in front of me with a glass.
“You need to preserve your energy by not talking, and stay hydrated.” I couldn't make out her facial features, and her hair was tucked under the wide hat she wore. She was wearing pants and boots, but that was all I could see. She didn’t sound like she was a seventy year old widow woman.
I accepted the glass. “Thanks.” I took a sip, finding it to be a really delicious lemonade.
She was already gone again.
By the time I caught up to the work she’d done, she was behind me adding some kind of horse food to the stalls we’d cleaned. Then she moved the pile of shit—that I now realized was in a wheelbarrow—and took it outside. Did they have a huge hole to dispose of it in? I followed her, and watched as she dumped it into a larger pile that also had food scraps. When she was done, she closed a little gate and latched it. Huh. The pile of shit had a fenced in yard of its own.
“Late enough chickens need feedin’,” she said curtly, and I looked up just as she passed me.
“Coming,” I responded, following her to the chicken house I’d seen. She hefted a large bag of something, and while I was gaping at her strength, she dropped it on a bench and cut into it, using her hand to scoop into it and throw it at the chickens. The knife went back in her pants pocket, and she gestured for me to do the feeding.
She disappeared again as I bent and scooped and tossed what had to be dried corn. Once all the chickens were eating, I looked around. There was a cabinet attached to the little house that said Feed, so I moved the bag back in there. I didn't see her anywhere, but the sun was going down, so I went back to the front porch. The dog was gone now, and I decided to just open the door and go inside.
I found her in the kitchen, and the smell this time was so good my mouth was watering. It was definitely bread, and the distinct smell that comes from it baking. There was also a large pot of something on the stove that she was stirring. The pot was black and I swear its walls were an inch thick. I found myself staring at her back as she moved, and I noticed dark brown hair hanging in a braid, curly bits and pieces escaping the plait. Her shirt was blue checked, pushed up to the elbows, and her pants looked like regular chinos. Her boots were scuffed like she’d owned them for years, the toes a lighter color from the rest.
I realized at that moment that if I could see the toes of her shoes, it meant she’d turned around and caught me staring. I actually blushed, looking down at the floor. “The chickens are fed, ma’am, and I put the feed away in the cabinet.”
I glanced up, but she was turned to the stove again. I looked around at the pale yellow walls and the blue curtains with lace edging fluttering gently in the wind. The floor was wood, pale and scratched in a few places. I found the dog, laying by an empty dog bowl by the back door, asleep again. There were two plates, two bowls, and some cutlery on the shelf of a tall cabinet. I wanted to set the table, but I needed to wash my hands first.
I went to the sink to wash up, then gathered the dinnerware she’d set out and placed them on the small table. It rocked a little as I leaned on it to put down a fork, and I sprang away from it like it would collapse if I touched it. A little wary, I finished setting the table and turned to the stove as she pulled the pan from the oven.
“Mmm,” I moaned at the smell as it assaulted my senses.
I heard a sigh, and she moved past me to set the pan down on the table. It was full of golden biscuits. The next thing she brought was the whole pot, which she sat on a trivet, and then dropped a ladle into it. “Hope you like stew.”
“Yeah, sure.” I didn't want her to serve me, but I thought it would be rude to just serve myself. Making a quick decision, I picked up my bowl and ladled the thick stew into it, then handed it to her and took her empty bowl to fill for myself. Not wanting to touch her biscuit with my bare hands, I tore one away from its neighbor and added it to the the small plate next to my bowl.
I started to eat, more hungry than I could have imagined. The beef was tender, the carrots and potatoes the perfect consistency. I couldn't believe she could run the ranch as well as she did alone, and cook this well, too. I finally slathered some of the butter she’d set out on my biscuit, and I truly thought I’d died and gone to a five star restaurant. I rinsed it down with more of the lemonade we’d had outside.
“Mmm,” I moaned again, without thinking about it. “You are such a good cook,” I said after I’d swallowed my bite.
I finally looked up. My hand was halfway to my mouth, but I froze in place. The woman across from me was not old. She was not wrinkled or grey haired. She was fucking beautiful.
“You done staring? Plenty left to do round here if you’ve nothin’ better to occupy your mind than staring.” Her tone was curt, like I’d pissed her off.
“I apologize, ma’am, it’s just that they told me I was coming to help a widow…” I trailed off at her scowl.
“And only old people die, that it?”
“Ah, no. I meant no disrespect.” I looked down at the table and stuffed more stew into my mouth.
The heart shaped face and the deep brown eyes were playing in my mind’s eye. She had freckles across her cheeks, and full, dark pink lips. Her throat was creamy, and that was all I’d seen before I was reprimanded.
I was fucked.
I finished quickly and jumped up to wash the dishes. Only, I never dreamed I’d actually have to wash the dishes by hand. I bit back my groan after furtively looking around the kitchen for a dishwasher. I ran the water until it got hot, then started the process of washing everything by hand. She came and dropped off dishes as she cleared the table, handling the pot herself after she put away the leftovers. She wiped it out and dabbed what looked like solid grease from a jar by the stove on the inside, rubbing that in until it shined.
I smelled coffee brewing by the time I had put the last glass in the drying rack. Wiping my hands on a towel, I turned to face the room. She was sitting at the table, a full mug by the stack of papers she was going over.
“Can I help?” I asked quietly.
She looked up at me, stared for quite some time. Just as I started to squirm, she lowered her gaze. Placing her pencil on the table, she pushed back her chair and stood. “I’ve a room ready for you upstairs.”
With that, she walked away, so I was quick to follow. I snagged my bag from near the front door and tried not to watch her ass as she led me upstairs. I failed miserably. The walls were covered in an old patterned paper, some sort of tiny purple flowers that repeated. The bannister was smooth as silk from an unknown number of hands running over it through the years. The floors were all the same worn wood, but there were rugs scattered throughout, giving the house warmth. We reached the second floor and she went down the hall to the second door on the left.
“There’s clean sheets, and the bathroom’s there.” She indicated with a chin nod to the door across the hall. “Towels in the closet, soap in the shower.”
She left me standing in the doorway, watching her go back downstairs, and wondering why she spoke so little. I was so eager to strip off these dirty clothes and get a shower that I didn't spend much time worrying about it. I dragged my bag into the bathroom with me, almost crying at the lack of water pressure. At least it got hot. There was a yellow bar of soap resting in the soap holder that looked like it had never been touched. The tiling was uneven and jutted out in sharp angles.
When I was clean and dressed in boxers and a tank, I made my way back across the hall. When I moved to close the door, I realized I could see down the stairs to part of the living room. There was the woman, who’s name I thought was Mrs. Swan, locking the front door and turning out the lights. I watched her stop by the last lamp, stretching her back and rubbing her temple. I couldn't guess how old she was, but she looked to be near my mother’s age. Only I’d never thought my mother was nearly as strong and attractive as I found this woman.
I backed up and closed my door, finding the bed narrow and rather hard, but the sheets smelled nice and had a soft quality to them. I slept more easily than I expected, most likely due to sheer exhaustion.
The knock on my bedroom door came way too fucking early. I blinked, realizing that the room was still dark, but got up nonetheless. I opened the door to see the widow already dressed in her work pants, boots, hat, and a bandana tied at her neck.
“Gonna sleep all day?” she asked, then turned and went downstairs.
“No, just until the sun comes up,” I muttered.
“Heard that!” she called, and I cringed. I didn't need to piss her off on my first full day.
I dressed quickly in the clothes that were outlined for me to bring. Jeans, my oldest work boots—which were probably still more expensive than her entire wardrobe—a baseball cap since it was the only hat I had, and a t-shirt. I dug out my Wayfarers and slipped them in the front of my shirt before stepping across the hall to utilize the bathroom.
I smelled coffee and bacon as I descended the stairs, and marvelled again at how much work this woman must put in on any given day. There was a plate on the table with a cloth napkin over it and a steaming cup of coffee next to it. I took my seat, noticing that she had the papers spread out again, and her plate was half empty. She got up to refill her coffee as I removed the napkin and dug in to eggs, bacon, and toast.
“What’s first for today, Mrs. Swan?” I asked her as she sat back down.
She studied me over the rim of her mug. She took a sip and set it down with a snap. “You’ll call me Bella. I don't want to be known as Mrs. Swan ever again, if you don't mind.”
That was the most she’d spoken to me since I arrived yesterday afternoon. “My name is Edward,” I responded.
“Okay.” I waited while she folded and unfolded her napkin.
“I’ve fed the animals and milked the heifers. I need to fix a fence railing at the back of the property, collect eggs, muck the stalls again, and ready the steers for the auction tomorrow.”
I gaped, I couldn't help it. “How long have you been up?”
“An hour.” She went back to her breakfast, finishing her toast and drinking the last of her coffee. She went to the sink to wash her dishes, and I scarfed down my food to keep up.
After I’d washed my dishes, I followed her out the back door. She was standing on the porch, looking out at her property. I was dying to know what she was thinking, but I didn't ask. She headed down the steps and across the yard, and I simply followed her.
She was surprisingly patient with me. I must have fucked up everything I was doing, but she would just stop me with a hand over mine and show me again. I had to ignore the feel of her warm skin sending goosebumps up my arm as we mended the broken fence rail before moving on to the cows I’d seen in the corral yesterday. She said we had to check the bottoms of their feet as she ran her hand over their sides, but I wasn't sure what she was doing. I was way too nervous to get that close to a cow, and they kept turning their heads toward me and freaking me out. They had huge horns, and I was sure I was about to become a shish kabob. Bella deemed them all ready to sell, and we moved on to the chickens.
Apparently, I had to stick my hand under the hen’s ass if she was sitting in her nest. I could only imagine how much amusement Bella got out of me getting pecked on the hand and then cursing, over and over again. My favorites were the ones that had already moved out of the coop and I could simply grab the eggs. Thankfully, I didn't drop any, but I was bleeding by the time we were done.
“Oh, dear,” she murmured. “Let's wrap those.”
“I’m fine,” I insisted.
She merely grabbed my wrist and dragged me into the house. Pushing me into the kitchen chair that I considered mine, she picked up my hand and studied it before moving to the sink and getting a white box out from under it. I saw that it was a first aid kit as she set it on the table at my other elbow. She worked silently, cleaning the nicks with alcohol wipes, spreading on antibacterial ointment with a tongue depressor, and smoothing a bandaid over each one.
Her hands were callused but gentle. Her warm breath puffed out over my hand as she worked, and I stared at the crown of her head as she was bent over my hand. Her hair was a multitude of colors in the sun; brown, red, blonde, even a few grey hairs. Inside, it simply looked like chocolate. I tried desperately not to get hard at her closeness.
“I’ve gloves, I’ll get ‘em.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly, watching her walk away.
I was so fucked.
The next afternoon, after I’d already put in a full eight hours of work, a truck pulled into the dirt driveway. I stopped what I was doing and watched as the driver pulled over to the cow barn and backed his trailer up to the gate in the fence. A large man with dark hair got out of the truck and came toward the house.
“She’s in the horse barn,” I called before he walked too far.
He looked over at me, and I felt like he was sizing me up. I did the same, since I had the time, and all I could seem to focus on was his arms. They were thick, as big around as my thighs. He came toward me, and I saw that his thighs were bigger around than my head.
“I’m Emmett. Bella is expecting me; I’m taking the steer to auction for her.” He stuck his hand out, so I accepted the handshake. He wasn't an ass that tried to exert his strength, and I appreciated that.
“Edward. I’m here helping out for the summer.”
“Yeah, I remember something about a city boy getting roped into helping.” He chuckled a little. “Anyway, you know where she put the milk cans? I’ll load those first, and if you can get the eggs, they go in the front seat.”
I knew what he was talking about, because Bella mentioned that she sold her eggs and milk to help offset her costs. “Sure.”
I led him to the porch and the large milk cans she’d filled in the past few days. We’d just set them out recently, and he hefted one on each shoulder like they weighed nothing. I picked up the pallet of eggs and followed him. After I set them in the front passenger seat, I watched him putting the milk in a refrigerated section between the cab of the truck and the trailer.
“Wanna help?” he asked. I jumped, realizing I’d been caught staring.
I wasn't too eager to get that close to the cattle again, but I knew I had to suck it up and do my job. Emmett went into the pen and waved his hat and hollered at the cows, and they started lumbering away from him. He directed them to the chute that led to the gate his truck was parked at, and I opened the gate as the first one came close. They were so slow, but I knew that was just how they were. I closed the gate after the first bull and waited for the next one to come along. Working together, it still took the better part of an hour to load eight steers.
When we were done, Emmett offered me a cold bottle of water, and I accepted. We both wiped the sweat from our faces and drank deeply.
I decided to venture a conversation. “Bella doesn't say much,” I started.
Really? “How long has she been a widow?” I pressed.
“Six months.” He took another drink and looked at me for a long time. “I went to school with Bella, since kindergarten. Everybody knows everybody in this town, but it’s different when you’re in the same grade. The classes are small, and we were good friends.”
He paused, and I wondered if that was all I’d get. Then he started up again. “She was forced to marry. She lived with her Ma, Renée Higginbotham, and when old Mr. Swan wanted a wife, he came asking for young Bella. After the wedding, we learned that Renée was sick. She died within months, but she’d seen her daughter taken care of, and that was her goal, honestly. She didn't truly know what kind of a man he was.”
He sighed, and I thought of all that he had said. “I don't know if I should pity her or admire her.”
“Neither,” he snorted. “She’d hate both. I tried to help her over the years, but she wouldn't accept help until that bastard was in the ground and she had no choice.” Emmett shifted, threw his bottle into the cab, and looked back at me. “Just do your job and leave her be.”
I accepted the warning for what it was; someone looking out for his friend. “Yeah, all right.”
He got in his truck and pulled out slowly, and I watched him go. When I turned back to the house, Bella was standing on the steps leading to the front porch. Her dog was standing by her side, his tongue hanging out.
“I appreciate you helping him,” she said as I approached.
“No problem,” I replied.
“Dinner is ready.”
“Okay, I’ll just wash up and be down.”
I took a few minutes, washing my hands and face and trying to smooth my hair down. It refused to be completely tamed, but it was better than nothing.
When I arrived in the kitchen, Bella was setting down two plates on her little table. I wasn't entirely sure what the meat was, but of course I recognized the mashed potatoes and glazed carrots. There was more of the lemonade that I was pretty sure she made from scratch.
And those heavenly biscuits. When she came back to the table with a pan full of them, I grinned. “It looks amazing,” I said sincerely.
She actually blushed. “Thank you.” It was surprising how young she looked when she smiled.
I sat and noticed there wasn’t a knife to cut into the meat. It looked like it was fried, but it wasn't the right shape to be chicken. I ate some potatoes while watching Bella use the side of her fork to cut off a piece of meat. Huh. I did the same and was in heaven at the taste.
“What is this called?” I asked quietly. I was slightly embarrassed not to know.
“It’s called a cube steak. I breaded and fried them.”
“It’s fantastic,” I assured her.
I became accustomed to Bella’s routine by the end of the first week, and by the end of the second, I was up by the time she knocked on my door. She no longer had to show me what to do when it came to the daily tasks, but I realized there was always something new coming up on a ranch of that size. By the end of the third week, Bella had admitted she was thirty-two.
“So you are younger than my mom,” I mused.
She laughed, and the sound trickled down my spine and tingled at the base. We were sitting on the front porch on a Sunday, the only day she sort of rested. “Good to know. It’s the hard work and the sun that makes a person look older.”
“Makes sense.” We were sipping lemonade again, but I’d made it this time after she showed me how.
“I know you want to know; everyone does.”
She didn't have to be specific, it was obvious she meant her marriage. “You don't have to tell me. I can tell you about me instead. I dated the same girl for two years before I realized she’d been cheating on me for half that time. I felt like an idiot.”
Bella snorted, and it was hilarious. We both laughed at her reaction. “Who would be stupid enough to cheat on you?”
I smiled, feeling my cheeks heat. “I wanted to wait for marriage to be intimate. She convinced me to do plenty of things I wasn't comfortable with to keep her happy, so it made no sense to me.” I stopped talking, no longer finding it funny.
Bella shifted in her spot next to me on the swing. We were sitting at opposite ends, so we weren't touching, but I could still feel her body heat. She sighed loudly. “I’m sorry.”
“It was for the best, in the end. We weren't compatible.” I took a drink. “Do you miss your husband?”
She choked on her drink, coughing as she tried to get the liquid out of her trachea. I thumped her on the back, unsure of what else to do.
She took a shuddering breath. “There's nothing to miss. I was finally free when he died, and I was… I was happy that he was gone.”
We sat quietly for several minutes. I remembered Emmett saying that nobody knew what kind of a man Mr. Swan had been. “Even though it’s been hard to keep up around here?”
“Even so,” she agreed.
“You never had children,” I observed.
She swung us forward and back, not saying a word for the longest time. I watched the trees as the prairie winds picked up, blowing everything around. The windchimes banged around forcefully, and dust swirled up from the driveway.
“He used to love to make fun of me for being barren; said it was a product of my frigidity.”
I didn't know what to say to that, so I pushed off with my foot, letting us swing some more. I couldn't believe she was really frigid; the man must have been a real asshole. Emmett said he was older, and mean. Suddenly, I wondered if he abused her. Bella was happy that he died, despite her current struggle. I looked over at her, watching the stray pieces of her hair blow around her face. Her long, thick braid was hanging over her shoulder, and I reached out to touch it, feeling bold.
I unwound the band that held the braid together, and started running my fingers through the ends, moving further up to unplait the entire thing. Her head tilted toward me, and I took that as a good sign. When I reached the back of her neck, I ran my hand over the loose curls before massaging the back of her skull. I turned my entire body to face her, pulling one knee up onto the seat. Bringing my other hand up, I stroked my thumb carefully over her jaw, while the other continued to move over her head.
Bella looked at me, and the expression on her face was heartbreaking. I dropped my hands and clasped them together in my lap, turning back to face forward again. She got up and went into the house, the screen door slapping loudly behind her. Sighing, I swung myself some more and decided to leave her be.
Dinner was silent, and I knew it was my fault. I wouldn't be surprised if she told me to leave and found someone else to help her out for the rest of the summer. I washed the dishes the same as always, and went upstairs to the smell of the coffeemaker chugging away.
The next morning, Bella informed me we needed to take a look at the whole property, which meant my ass was going up on a horse. Luckily, she had a friendly little female that took it easy on me.
I was impressed with the amount of land Bella actually owned. I had no idea her ranch was that large. She explained that they were originally croppers that sold corn and wheat, but Emmett had recently convinced her to take a few of his cattle. A ‘few’ amounted to fifty head, apparently.
“I have to make some money to hire staff, or I'll be forced to sell off some of my land. I don't know much about finances, but I know my husband screwed us over. He pissed off and offended every single person that tried to come work for him until nobody would answer his ads. He couldn't plant or harvest enough to cover our debts, so I've sold what I can to cover them. He thought he was equal to four men, but he wasn't. He was worthless.”
I heard the tears in her voice, but pretended I didn't. We rode in silence, occasionally stopping as Bella wrote down something that needed to be done on the notepad she tucked in her shirt pocket. I assumed that the papers she went over all the time were bills or budgets. I couldn't understand her frustrations, not completely, but I could empathize.
“Look, I know I'm young, but I'm smart. I've taken business finance classes for years in preparation for going to work for my dad. I'll look over your expenses if you want, give a second opinion or whatever.”
Bella seemed to contemplate my offer as she wrote something else down. We stared at the dead tree that had fallen over our path.
“Okay. Tonight after dinner.”
Our ride took hours, and I was impressed by the time we were done. Corn, wheat, apples, pears, milk, and eggs, were all things she harvested and sold, without help. She made butter when she had time, but said it was for personal use because to make enough to sell would require equipment she couldn't afford. She had a vegetable garden, and I asked her if she could sell any of that as well.
“I've been known to make sauce from my tomatoes. I've canned apple butter and applesauce. I make apple fritters, apple donuts, and apple cider. I just don't have the time to focus on that right now. All the animals have to be fed and the heifers milked. I have to keep the horse stalls clean. Keeping the garden up reduces my grocery bill, so I do some gardening every day.”
“You don't have time to yourself,” I pointed out.
“I've never had time for myself.” She was bitter, and I didn't blame her.
“I'm here to help,” I reminded her. “Emmett said he's offered to help. He and I can fix things while you take time for yourself. Is he married?” She hummed. “His wife could help you can, or bake, or make butter, or whatever. Or she can help us while you soak in a tub.”
“Thank you,” she murmured.
“I haven't done anything yet.”
“You care. That counts for more than you know.”
She called Emmett when we got back to the house. He and his wife agreed to come over in three days while their children were in school.
“Okay, show me how to cook.”
She scoffed. “It would take me longer to teach you than to just do it myself.”
“Maybe, but I don't see any ramen or toaster pastries in your cupboard, so this is an area I can't help in unless you show me how.”
“Fine,” she sighed. “I'm making chicken and dumplings.”
I stood nearby and watched every step. The magical biscuit dough was made and set aside to drop in as dumplings once the soup was almost ready.
“I might be able to do this,” I marveled. She just laughed at me.
After we’d eaten and I cleared the dishes, Bella pulled out a leather bound ledger book and a calculator, along with several pencils. I pulled my chair next to hers as she brewed her ever-present pot of coffee. When she offered me some, I accepted, and we sat side by side.
It took a long time, and my eyes were bleary by the time I’d looked at everything. I sat back, using my thumb and forefinger to rub at my eyelids. “So, I see what he did. A bunch of cutbacks that affected the quality of the crops, robbing Peter to pay Paul. The house and the land are free and clear; I see you paid off a second mortgage, which was a good choice. You owe money on a combine, but you need it to harvest the crops; so that’s in the necessity category. Your milking machine has two more payments, and again, it’s a necessity. Your monthly utility bills are behind, especially electricity.” Now I understood why the lights were off in the stables and why she only ran the air conditioner at night. “The sale of the steer made a big dent, even with Emmett’s commission.”
“I sold my truck about five months ago. It didn't go for much, but it paid off the mortgage. I begged him not to take out that loan, but he wouldn't listen. This was my dad’s land originally, before he died and left me and Mama struggling to maintain it. Back then we had help, though.”
“And everything changed once you got married?”
Bella threw her pencil down and slumped in her chair. She took a sip of her coffee before meeting my eyes. Hers were sad and dark. “I was seventeen when I got married. My husband was fifty.”
I practically swallowed my tongue to avoid my response. I couldn't believe her mother did that to her.
“Mama was dying, and she was desperate to see me taken care of. More than that, if I’d been the sole heir, the place would have gone to the county and me to foster care. She didn't mean to saddle me with the meanest son of a bitch to ever live in Harper County.”
I could tell she wasn't going to snap out of it this time; the memories engulfed her, and she broke down. I wrapped my arm around her shoulders as she folded over, crying into her hands.
“He never had a kind word. Never showed affection. He yelled, he denigrated, he struck. He forced himself on me, and when he couldn't get off, he blamed it on me.”
My hands turned into fists, but I still soothed them gently over her back. She sat up and turned into me, laying her head on my shoulder. I rested my arms on her back and held on.
After a few minutes, Bella picked her head up and looked into my eyes. She shifted her focus from my eyes to my lips, and I knew the second she’d decided to kiss me. I accepted the light touch of her soft lips to mine, inviting the more urgent movement of our mouths. My hands went to her hair—I had fantasies about that hair—and she clutched my shirt in her hands. I was so hot, I was afraid I was on fire. The tingling I’d been feeling in her presence exploded, and my whole body buzzed. Her tongue touched my lips, and I groaned as I opened my mouth.
Suddenly, Bella’s eyes flew open and she sat up straight, leaning away from me. Her chest heaved, and she clutched a palm there, surely feeling how her heart raced. Her eyes widened, her cheeks reddened further, and she scraped her chair back right before she fled the kitchen. Her door closed with a loud click, and I found myself staring at that boundary, wishing I could knock it down.
Emmett and his wife arrived at eight in the morning. It was July by then, hot and windy as ever. I stood on the porch next to Bella with my hands in my pockets, but I might as well have been a mile away from her. Emmett parked his truck to the far side of the yard and got out before circling the hood to open the door for his wife. He took the basket she held in her hands, and she kissed his cheek in appreciation.
They approached, and Bella stiffened next to me. “Emmett, Rosalie, this is Mr. Cullen, the boy helping me out for the summer.”
Fuck if that didn't sting.
“It’s nice to meet you,” the woman said, two blonde braids hanging over her shoulders. She looked to be Bella and Emmett’s age. “Please call me Rose. And your first name is?”
“Edward.” I glanced at Bella, who stared straight ahead. “I’m Edward.”
“Good to see you again,” Emmett said.
Rose took Bella into the house after fetching her basket back from her husband while Emmett and I got right down to business. I showed him the list Bella had made the day we toured the property.
“That's a lot, but I think we can manage it.”
“Sounds good to me,” I told him.
We spent the day hammering broken fence rails, cutting dead trees and low branches, and rewiring the electric fence in a damaged area. We staked tomatoes and peas, pulled potatoes from the ground, and harvested carrots, radishes, and cucumbers. Emmett spliced a few young apple tree saplings, explaining that all you’d get was crabapples if you didn't join the young trees together. The readiness of the combine was checked for the coming harvest, the tractor got a tune up and an oil change, and two of the horses were reshod. Rose came outside at lunchtime with sandwiches and sweet tea, but Bella remained inside.
“I convinced her to take a hot soak,” Rose explained, followed by a little cheer that made us laugh.
That was a good thing, indeed. Bella wasn't known to do anything for herself, and I was glad Rose was able to convince her. That meant my plan wasn't completely going to waste, considering that now she seemed to be mad at me.
“I’ve stewed and canned apples and tomatoes. There weren't enough early apples to make anything else that Bella used to like making. We made red sauce and canned it, and cooked off half the peas and canned them. We made dinner, it’s simmering, and I gave her some of my sourdough starter, so she has two of those loaves rising to be baked later. I told her we’d come back when it was time for the harvest; I know she hasn't participated in the community for a really long time, but it wasn't her fault.”
Emmett nodded along at everything she said while I focused on my sandwich. I was happy that Bella was getting reacquainted with her old friends.
By the time Emmett and Rose left at three, we'd checked the silo for readiness, patched the roof of the shed, and made sure all the animals had fresh straw, water, and feed. The day was done, so I headed inside to see what had kept Bella hiding.
I went upstairs and showered off a day's work first, and changed into a t-shirt and soft athletic shorts before finding Bella in the kitchen staring out the back door. Her hair was loose, and it curled and waved in a thick waterfall down her back. She was dressed differently, too, wearing a faded orange sundress. As I got closer, I saw that her feet were bare, and her arms were folded tightly over her chest.
“Bella,” I said softly.
She didn't even turn around. “Rose was wonderful today. She pampered me, which is something I haven't done since I was sixteen.”
“That's great. You deserve it.”
“We can't explore whatever this is between us, Edward. We just can't.” Her voice was anguished, and I took a step closer.
“Why not?” I kept my voice gentle.
“For God's sake, you're only nineteen! I won't do to you what was done to me. I refuse.” I could see the heavy rise and fall of her shoulders that told me she was breathing harshly.
“It's nowhere near the same. I have the choice you didn't. Don't take that choice away from me by deciding for me.”
“You and I are complete opposites, Edward, even before you factor in the age difference. I can't offer you a thing.”
“Yourself; your time.” She scoffed. “I'm serious. Those are worth the most to me.”
I set my hands on her tense shoulders and simply let them rest there. She didn't object, so I stood with her and looked out at the ranch she had given up everything to protect. I wondered if she’d ever felt a gentle touch, at least since she was a child, and I gently ran my hands over her back and down her hair. She sighed and leaned into me.
“Do you even know how strong you are, Bella?” I whispered. “Not just physically, either. You shouldn't have had to endure so much.”
I stroked my hands up and down her arms again and again until she relaxed, then moved her hair off her neck to place little kisses there. She shivered and her backside moved against me. Taking that as a positive sign, I moved my mouth to her shoulder, opening it against her skin. I heard a small breath escape her, and I finally turned her to face me.
“I’m almost completely inexperienced in this, so you have to tell me what you like and what you don’t."
Bella lifted her eyes to meet mine, and they were shimmering with unshed tears. “I have no idea. Sex was never nice for me.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” I crooned, holding her closely to me. “Please, please tell me at any time if you want to stop.”
Bella nodded her head against my chest, and I held her for a very long time. Finally, she pulled away and took my hand, leading me to the short hallway behind the stairs. Her room was there, but I hadn't ever seen it, choosing to keep that part of her home for her alone. The late afternoon sun was slanting through her windows, shining on a clean but dated room done in mostly blue.
Bella spoke up shyly. “This was my parents’ room. M-my husband wanted the room upstairs because it's bigger, but I like this one.”
“I like it, too. It's almost hidden, like a secret.”
We started slow, kissing tenderly, caressing faces, our hands in each other’s hair. I took my shirt off and tossed it in the corner, watching as her eyes went wide. I ran my fingers over the exposed skin of her shoulders and clavicle, dipping close to the top of the fabric that covered her breasts. The sighing sound she made was reminiscent of a purr, and I knew she was enjoying what I was doing. I wanted to move slowly and prove that I would take care of her in all of this.
Bella moved closer to her bed, so I followed her, pulling her close to my body again and running my hands through her soft, glorious hair. I held her tightly to me, hugging her for comfort and receiving comfort in return.
Something must have snapped in her, because she pushed me away and reached for the hem of her dress. She whipped it over her head and stood in front of me in plain white undergarments. Somehow, they were incredibly sexy anyway. Her arms and legs were long and muscled, tan from the sun exposure. Her stomach was flat and delineated by the muscles that her hard work created. I tried not to just stare at her slender form, but I was pretty new to this whole experience. I blushed finally and looked back into the eyes the same color as the coffee with a splash of milk she always drank.
“Edward. I’m-I’m ready. I think. For you to take control.”
“Oh.” I laughed self-consciously. “Do you remember when I said I’d never done this?”
She nodded with a small, sad smile on her beautiful face. “I’m not good at anything other than lying still and keeping my mouth shut.”
“Shit,” I hissed, moving over to her and cradling her face in my hands. “We’ll do it differently, I promise. We'll make it amazing, and it'll be just the two of us in this room. No ghosts of the past.”
Bella nodded as tears welled up in her eyes. She mashed her mouth to mine, gentling after the first onslaught and kissing me in earnest. I opened my mouth on a breath, and felt her tongue pressing past my lips. We spent an inordinate amount of time exploring each other’s mouths, and I finally moved to kiss her cheek, her ear, and her neck. She gasped and pressed against me, and I felt my straining erection grow harder.
She must have felt it, too, because she reached out and tentatively touched it with her fingertips. I moaned, because it felt so good, and she snatched her hand away, cheeks flaming.
“Please, it felt good, Bella.”
She reached back again, and the silky fabric of my shorts created friction as she stroked me back and forth. I reached for her bra and fumbled for the clasp, really not sure how to get hers off. She stopped touching me long enough to remove her bra for me, and I did my best not to stare at her modestly sized breasts. Instead, I held her bare chest to mine and enjoyed the way it felt to be skin on skin. I ran my hands down her back to cup her ass, and she was the one to moan.
“I’d like to move to the bed, Edward,” she said, her voice sounding like she was asking permission.
“If that’s what you want.” I wanted her to know that she had equal say in this, that she was essentially in charge.
She sat on the edge of her mattress and swung her legs up to the quilt. I rounded the double bed and sat before lying back and rolling to face her. I wasn't sure what she wanted to do next.
“Can you touch me?” she asked.
I laughed, I couldn't help it. “I’ve been dying to!”
Finally, I looked at her chest, flushed with desire, and put my hands on her breasts. She arched into my touch and stuttered out a sigh. I played with her nipples as they grew harder and loved the way she moaned. Feeling bold, I dipped my head to press a kiss to her breast, and Bella writhed so much I was afraid she’d fall right off the bed. I snaked one arm around her to hold her to me, and used the other to play with one nipple while I used my mouth on the other one. She moaned, cried out, and panted my name, until I thought she was going to burst.
She wrenched away from me and sat up, her hair wild and sticking out everywhere, her eyes wide and gleaming, and her face and chest red. She reached for my shorts and started pushing them down past my waist. I had to help her pull them away from my dick before she could pull them off, and then she just stared.
Bella met my gaze. “I’ve no idea if you'll fit.”
“I don't know anything about it either,” I admitted. Surely, that's what was meant to happen, regardless? “If it hurts, I promise I’ll stop. You just have to tell me.”
She nodded and peeled her underwear down her legs, tossing them on top of my shorts. “Will you try?” she whispered.
I leaned over her and started touching her again, since she had really liked that. I noticed her hands were roaming now and I enjoyed the way she stroked my back and my ass as I laid propped half over her. My dick was pressed up against her leg because it had nowhere else to go without entering her yet. When my hands made their way down to the patch of hair between her legs, I searched around until I found that she was pretty wet. It never occurred to me to have lube—or condoms.
“Um, I just realized that I don't have a condom,” I said sheepishly.
“Oh. I’ve been on the pill since I was 17, I just never told my husband. I didn't even think about not taking them anymore after… after.”
“So you’re still okay with this?” I verified, waving my hand between our lower halves.
I resumed my gentle stroking. This was the only part of sex I had any experience with, but neither of us knew what she liked. Her gasps and cries proved that I was doing something right, and I used that as my guide for touching her. She became more and more wet the longer I kissed her and stroked her skin, and finally I felt like we were both relaxed enough to try actually having sex.
Pushing up on my hands, I hovered over her for a second before leaning down and kissing her nose, earning a smile. Finally, I lined myself up to her entrance and then just froze.
“It’s okay, Edward. I promise.”
I pushed in just a tiny bit while I held my breath. I went in further, earning a little gasp from Bella. Slowly, half an inch at a time, I moved forward as Bella’s body accepted my size. Her legs widened and finally wrapped around me.
“Jesus,” I bit out. “I have never experienced anything like this.” My hand was nothing in comparison to Bella’s heat.
“Me either, I promise you,” she replied.
We watched each other’s faces, apparently each afraid we’d hurt the other or do something wrong. When I didn't think I could go any further, I pulled back smoothly before pushing in again. I realized that her wetness was coating me and I didn't have to be so afraid of hurting her. I did it again, pulling out and pushing back into her warmth, and she moaned in approval. I shifted on my arms and changed the angle I was using. We both groaned at the change in sensations, so I sped up my movements. Bella’s hands gripped my hips and urged me to move faster.
It didn't take more than a few strokes at that pace for me to lose it, and I let out more cuss words than I normally used in a month when that tightness hit me and I came inside her. I slowed and became still, trying not to place my weight on Bella. I kissed her thoroughly, embarrassed that she didn't appear to have had an orgasm, because I came too fast.
“That was better than anything I've ever done before, hands down.” She huffed and puffed a little as she said the words.
“No, it wasn't,” I grumbled, rolling off of her and laying on my back.
“I promise you, I have never done anything that fun.”
“Okay.” I didn't want to argue with her, but I wondered if she was patronizing me.
Then she was looming over me, her hair falling in my face. She laughed as she scooped it back over one shoulder out of the way. “You know I was young, right?” I nodded. “And he was not. Well, he was very rough the first time, and uncaring. He wanted a virgin, and he expected me to accept whatever he wanted without complaint. But the first few times, I fought and screamed.” The tone was matter of fact despite the horror of what she described. “I had no idea that in the end, I would, in fact, end up acquiescing without a peep.”
Bella traced patterns on my bare chest with her fingertips, and I watched her face to gauge her expression. “And the birth control? You said he didn't know.”
“He wanted strapping boys to run the ranch for him. He was a slave driver, Edward, let me tell you. The men he hired weren't allowed breaks for any reason. Every few years we’d have someone collapse out there from lack of water or just sun exposure. He would fire them. Most quit after the first week. After a while, even the poorest men in the area would sooner starve than come to work for that man.” She closed her eyes, and I heard her uneven breathing for a few seconds. “I would not bring children into the world he had created. I got the prescription before we were married, even though I had to go two towns over, because that's what my mom told me to do. She suggested a few years alone would be ideal, but I kept renewing that prescription every time. I hid them in my box of tampons for fifteen years, can you imagine?” She dropped her head to my chest, and I kissed the top of it.
“You went through more than anyone should have to. You endured and you survived. You deserve to be pampered and to make all of your decisions on your own.” I squeezed her, keeping her close as the sun changed directions outside the window.
“Would you like some dinner?” she finally asked.
“Not if you have to cook.”
“I put away what Rose made, but we can reheat it. Let's get cleaned up first, though.”
After a trip to the bathroom for each of us, we got dressed again and went to the kitchen. It was closing in on five o’clock, and my stomach started to rumble. Bella started a pot of coffee and tried to look in the fridge, but I couldn't keep my hands off of her. Kisses and touches and sighs interrupted our search for dinner, and we wound up making out in front of the sink for a really long time.
“Okay, okay. I'm hungry.” She finally stopped me so she could actually scrounge up something to eat.
She heated up the pork roast and vegetables and a small loaf of bread. I discovered that she loved pickles and fancy olives, and she bought them all the time now. We talked about what we’d accomplished that day, and what other plans she had for the summer. The crops would be ready to harvest soon, and the tradition had always been for the surrounding farms to help each other out and switch off the farm they went to each day until all the crops were taken care of. Her husband had polarized the community and was stuck doing it all on his own for close to a decade.
Which meant no sleep for Bella for weeks as they worked together to retain their livelihood. Blisters, scratches, and bruises would riddle her body for all of August and September.
“The apples are almost ready, and I want to make everything I used to make. Rose promised to come back and help me pick them and set them up.”
She was animated when she spoke, her face alive and her mouth mobile as she smiled and made little facial expressions. Her hands moved as she talked as though they were attached to her mouth. I stared, becoming more turned on the longer she spoke.
“What are you staring at, Edward?”
“What? Oh.” I blushed; I could feel the heat. “You, I guess.”
“Is that so?” she asked, getting up and coming closer.
“Yes, it is.”
I grabbed her hips as she straddled my lap, and she ran her hands up under my shirt. There was no more talking after that.
Everything changed after that night. All of our time together was spent with little touches and stolen kisses. I moved my things into her room and we spent our nights curled up together. I felt like I was walking on water the first time I saw her lose herself to an orgasm I'd given her. She was so sexy to me.
At the beginning of August, we were sitting on the porch waiting for the neighboring ranchers to come over and help with the harvest. We sat a respectful distance apart to ensure nobody would suspect how close we’d grown. Emmett’s truck turned down the dirt driveway, and dust started swirling around the tires. A different truck turned in behind him, and I squinted to make out who it was. I didn't recognize anybody else, of course, but I was curious to see their faces.
Rose stepped out of the driver’s side of the first truck, followed by a pretty brunette girl with curly hair and a blond boy with scraped knees. I watched the other truck as a woman got out. She was petite with black hair, and she was obviously pregnant. She helped a little girl get out of the car seat behind her. She was probably about two, and she had the darkest hair I’d ever seen on a person. Two huge green machines made their way behind the vehicles, one driven by Emmett and the other by a man in a large cowboy hat. They continued all the way to the golden fields to the left of the house, past the cattle.
“That’s Jasper in the Stetson, and his wife Alice there, and their daughter Penelope. Rose and Emmett’s kids are Sara and Jason.”
A long van came down the street and turned into the yard. I looked at Bella, and she was smiling. “That’s Mike and Jessica. He runs the grocery store. Wait until you see their kids.”
As instructed, I waited for them to pull all the way up and park before people started exiting. Two adults, check. One child, two, three, four, five, six? And then the woman turned, and she was about to give birth any second. Bella laughed quietly behind me.
“They’re a really happy family,” she snickered.
“And Catholic, by the looks of it.”
Every person in attendance wound up coming up to the porch, all fifteen of them, and the kids began climbing on the railings and piling on the swing. Bella greeted each person warmly, listening to the stories the children told her about boo-boos and mean kids at school and the frogs they’d caught but weren't allowed to put in their sister’s bed. She was a new person in my eyes, and I felt like the others had to notice it, as well.
Alice and Jessica were going to stay with the children, and they’d brought toys and snacks and so many other things, and Rose and Bella headed out to the equipment barn with the four of us men trailing along. I only knew a few basics to the steps, but I figured I’d be riding with someone and it wouldn't matter. I was good at following directions, that was for sure, and not afraid of hard work.
Bella only had one combine, hence Emmett and Jasper bringing theirs. Mike would use Jasper’s pickup truck to transport the separated grain to the silo and the storage shed. It looked like I was going to be helping him.
It was an all day affair, between the harvesting, separating, storing, and drying. Some grain went to storage to be sold, and some went to the silo to be used to feed Bella’s animals in the winter months. It was another lesson in farming and agriculture that I’d never given consideration to in the past. Watching the grain elevator take the wheat fodder to the opening in the top of the silo, the dust it created in the air, and the dust sticking to the sweat on everyone's bodies, was an experience I’d never forget.
We broke for lunch, and Alice and Jessica had prepared a platter of sandwiches and tea and lemonade. I wasn't even surprised when the ladies ate two sandwiches each. It was hard, hot work, and it worked up an appetite for us all.
At the end of the day, we all spent some time indoors cleaning up before settling in the living room floor with the children. The ladies had spent the day making supper to be ready to serve, so we each took a bowl of chili and sat wherever we could; some of us on the couch, some on the chairs, and the rest on the floor. It was a modest sized room furnished in antiques that weren't exactly comfortable, but we made it work.
The conversation flowed easily between the neighbors; it seemed that they got together pretty often. Bella was very quiet, and I knew it was because she was used to isolation.
“Are we going to see you on Sundays, Bella?” Jess finally asked.
“I suppose so, if you want me to come,” she answered, blushing and looking down.
“Oh, honey, we’ve always wanted you to come, you know that wasn't the problem.”
Mike tried to shut his wife up, but she had a pretty big mouth. “No, Mike, we all know about the elephant in the room. Why shouldn't I tell her that we always wanted to get to know her away from that overbearing husband of hers but never got the chance.”
“Um, I’d rather not talk about him,” Bella said, her voice pained.
“Sorry, but know that you have a standing invitation for Sunday lunch. That's all I’ll say for now.”
“Thank God,” I heard Mike mutter.
We were interrupted by one of their children anyway, so the atmosphere shifted to the silliness of kids playing around and looking for attention. Emmett got on the floor to race around the cars his son had brought, and a few of the Stanley’s children joined him. Alice volunteered to clean the kitchen, but I said I would go with her. She had been busy all day, too.
I washed while she dried, and we put everything away together. I wiped down the stove and the counters as she watched me, and the back of my neck prickled the longer she stared.
“What?” I finally said as I turned to face her.
“You've been good for her,” she stated.
“I think not having her husband here has been good for her,” I countered.
“You've lightened her load significantly,” she argued.
“That's what I was hired to do,” I pointed out, suddenly panicked that she could see right through me.
“Except you're here for free. When do you have to go back?” Her eyes were intense.
“At the end of the month.” Something that caused a pang in my heart every time I thought about it.
“And what will you do when you go back to the city?” she asked, leaning a hip onto the counter.
“I'm supposed to become a paid intern at my family’s company, and start college classes.” I shifted my feet, nervous under her scrutiny.
“What do they do?”
“Run a graphics business.”
She wrinkled her nose. “What’s that?”
“They create pictures you see in ads, or on billboards. Cereal boxes, soup cans, diapers, you name it.”
“Is that something you want to do?” She tilted her head as she studied me.
Did I? I always thought I did. “No,” I admitted quietly.
“I had a feeling you'd say that.”
“I have to go, though. I have my ten year plan laid out for me. What else would I do with my life?” I felt irrationally angry at this woman prying into my life.
“Build a new life. A new ten year plan. Be your own man.”
I felt frustrated, tired, angry. I looked up to say something that I probably would have regretted, but Alice had left the kitchen. I was alone, and for a second, I truly felt alone. What the hell had I done?
“Edward? Do you want to say goodbye?” I heard Alice call.
Of course I did, so I went to the front of the house and said goodbye to all fifteen people. When the door closed behind the last of them, and it was just the dog and Bella and me, it was entirely too quiet.
“I'm completely beat,” she admitted.
“Let's get some sleep.”
We both pretended there wasn't a huge weight settled on our shoulders.
With the money Bella made during the month of August, she was able to pay off all of the debt her deceased husband had accrued. She began to save money to pay a ranch hand when I had to leave at the end of the summer.
It was something we didn't speak about; the elephant in the room, as Jess had said. I had to leave soon, but I had already learned that I would be leaving my heart on the Oklahoma prairie. Bella clung to me, and I to her, in the stillness of the black nights. We had discovered every inch of each other’s bodies, our likes and dislikes. I knew what made her eyes roll back in her head and exactly where to touch her to make her scream my name. Bella had learned the art of oral sex, and used it constantly.
I never complained.
We were in the horse barn early one morning in the middle of the week. We'd only been outside for a handful of minutes, observing a pregnant mare; the one I’d ridden around the property. We'd moved her to a bigger stall with extra straw, and she was a happy sort of horse anyway. We were facing the huge double doors when Bella suddenly stepped in front of me and started unfastening my pants.
“Bella, what—holy shit,” I hissed. She'd knelt and pulled my cock free, her strokes hardening it quickly. Now her mouth descended on the length, and I leaned back against the stall door for support.
She licked, sucked, and swirled her tongue. I kept my hands clenched on the door behind me, unwilling to make her feel forced if I should grab her head. There was nothing but the sound of my moans and soft whinnying from the horses around us as she worked me over.
“Oh, God, Bella, I'm gonna come. You'd better—" She only sucked harder, ignoring my warning as I exploded in her hot mouth. I kept my eyes tightly closed as I came down from the high.
When I reopened them, she had fixed my pants and stood so that there was no evidence of what she'd just done. Well, except for the flush on her chest and neck.
“I hadn't yet given you a proper good morning,” she giggled with a wink.
She looked so young, so carefree and happy. “And quite a greeting it was, Miss Bella.”
“Happy to oblige, especially after that thing you did last night. Good God, I didn't know it was possible to feel that way. Like I was burning from the inside out, and then everything coalesced.” Bella sighed, a dreamy look on her face.
I grinned. “Maybe I'll do it again tonight, then.”
She laughed. “Oh, really? Maybe—"
“Hello!” someone called from outside the barn.
Bella moved several feet away from me, running a hand over her braid and brushing off the knees of her pants. I turned, checking that my pants were properly zipped and buttoned.
“In here, Michael!” Bella called.
I faced the door as he came around the corner, his face red from the sun and his hat in his hands. His sweaty hair was stuck flat to his head. “Miss Bella. Edward.” He nodded at the both of us in turn.
“What can I do for you?”
“Well, Jess wanted me to come by and ask if you have any of that apple butter yet this season. Said she'd be willin’ to pay ya for it.”
“Oh. Well, I made some last week, but I've yet to take the time to do a big batch. Why don't you take her what I have, but no charge.” She smiled warmly at him.
He slapped his hat on his thigh as he seemed to think through his next words. “Well, you see, Jess isn't happy with the brand I stock in the store. Says yours is better. So I kinda want to come ever so often to buy some from ya."
Bella blushed. “Oh.”
I wandered off to let them discuss their transaction. Bella was fitting into the community now that she was out from under the thumb of oppression. She was flourishing before my eyes, and I couldn't be happier for her. The ranch had prospered this summer, and she was going to be alright. More than that, she was going to thrive.
And there was that voice in my head again, asking me what I was going to do at the end of the summer. I was due to leave in two weeks, to go back to Seattle and work in a high rise glass building. I was going to start at the bottom in the mail room, but eventually I would move up. I had always wanted to be the CFO, it's what I’d been groomed for since I turned thirteen. My family was relying on me to learn from the ground up, to eventually take over for my father when he retired. I pretty much had a ten year plan laid out for me, pushed on me, and I had always simply gone with the flow. Now there were doubts in my head about how boring it would be. I had new wants, new dreams, but couldn't execute them.
“Well, that was interesting,” Bella said, interrupting my thoughts as she came to where I was standing.
“I'm so happy for you, Bella. You're making friends and creating new sources of income. You'll be able to hire someone soon.” I brushed a loose strand of hair from her face. “You never have to be alone again.”
She looked at me, stared at my face and searched my eyes. Finally, she rested her head on my chest and pulled me close for a hug. Neither of us spoke again until several minutes later when we separated to go about our chores.
The desperate need to be buried inside Bella all night intensified with every passing day. The clock was ticking, we were hyper aware of it, but didn't talk about it. I was afraid it would make it too real if I said it out loud.
We were drinking coffee on the porch swing one night, wrapped up in each other and staring up at the sky when the emotions overwhelmed me. I wouldn't burden her with my issues, and force her to make an offer she might not want. She had said herself I was too young for her. She didn't need that sordid scandal on top of what she'd already been through. She would take some time to herself and then find a suitable farmer her own age. She wasn't too old for children, so she even had that opportunity if she chose.
The thought of her having a future without me broke me. I kept my tears silent, holding her close to me, and pictured myself a bachelor for the rest of my life. There wasn't a chance in hell my parents would understand why their only son wanted to marry a woman that was so much older and run a ranch with her. It was out of the question.
Our time during the day was devoted to the property, as always. Our nights, though, were spent tangled together in Bella's narrow bed. She'd turned the air conditioner back on since she'd been making money, which was a small blessing. The sheets were cool on my back as I slid underneath them, down Bella's body. She arched off the mattress, moaning in anticipation of what was to come. My tongue roamed her belly, her inner thigh, and finally her clit. It was her favorite thing for me to do, and there was nothing I wanted more than to make her happy. Sucking her clit between my lips drove her mad, and she gripped my hair as she bucked against my face. I used two fingers on her and looked up, watching her come undone. Her face was flushed, her mouth open slightly. Her breathing was fast and her chest rose and fell with each breath. Her nipples were hard, and they were my next destination, but first, I swirled my tongue until she choked out several curse words. Her legs stiffened and her pelvis stayed pressed into the air as she tensed.
Immediately I moved up, my hands touching, teasing, pinching and rolling her nipples while she huffed sounds of pleasure.
“Edward, I need you,” she moaned.
“I'm here, Bella.” I pushed inside her, my own breathing labored. Pressing in slowly and savoring the sensation of her wet warmth before pistoning my hips and slamming into her over and over. Gone was the shy, uncertain widow, and in her place was a sensual young woman that enjoyed sex. At least, with me, she did.
It never took me long to become overwhelmed, and I stopped being embarrassed when she told me that she didn't care. I spent so much time on her before I ever got mine, that she wasn't bothered by it in the least.
I rolled off of her, flopping on my back to catch my breath before getting up and cleaning up in her bathroom. She came in behind me and kissed my shoulder as I walked back out. We had an easy intimacy now, and I found that to be the most important thing. I’d never felt so connected to one person in my life.
We climbed back in bed together and slept close, one part of ourselves constantly touching the other person.
Time was slipping away from us. I only had one week left. Bella had stopped doing her chores in order to be close to me, and that wasn't productive. I insisted on doing the most important chores together, and the rest could wait. She had interviews lined up for the day after I left; I was grateful that I didn't have to see the group of men vying to become my replacement.
Time went by in lurches and bumps. Mornings were quick paced, while afternoons dragged. The need to be near each other meant nothing was being accomplished. I couldn't stand the thought of being anywhere else, though, so we talked. We talked about my childhood, what it was like as an only child of a wealthy businessman and the expectations placed on me. We talked about high school and whether I was a jock or a nerd. She shied away from talking about her life again, and I was pretty sure I knew everything by then anyway.
On the last day, we fed the chickens, gathered their eggs, milked the cows and talked about her buying an electric butter churn. We cleaned the horse stalls and fed them, checking in on the mare several times. Water troughs were cleaned and refilled from the hose, and then finally we went inside to make lunch.
I’d learned a few things, and I made lunch most days. It was typically hamburgers or cube steaks, something filling that didn't require too much skill. And some days it was just leftovers from the night before. Bella often started dinner while I was putting lunch together, stew or chili that simmered in the cast iron pot while we were finishing up the day’s work.
We ate in silence, drinking the lemonade that I was in charge of now. I wondered who would make it when I was gone, her, or the person she ended up hiring. After we cleaned up, we sat in the living room together for the last time.
“Nobody has ever been as kind to me, as respectful to me, as you are. Not since my mother, has anyone cared about my feelings. You lightened my load around here, but it was so much more than that. It’s a level of caring that I’m not used to, and I want to say thank you.” Her words were quiet.
“All I did was listen to you. What you said, and what you were afraid to say. I care because I'm compassionate. I was taught to pull my own weight, and you were doing the work of three people. I didn't want you to serve me on top of that. I'm really proud of you and what you’ve accomplished.”
She buried her face in my neck and I felt tears run down my skin and soak my shirt. “You have to leave soon,” she said needlessly.
She sighed, but said no more.
I pulled her into my lap and kissed her softly. She pulled at my shirt, and I obliged by taking it off. Her shirt followed, and then we stood to remove our pants. She pushed me back onto the couch and sank down on my lap. My breath stuttered out of my chest at the realization that this would be our last time. She moved slowly, kissing me and looking directly into my eyes the entire time. I saw the tears streaming from the corners of her deep mocha eyes, and I kissed them away. Bella pressed her chest tightly to mine as she shook and her legs tensed. It took a few more pushes before I came in silence.
I took the time to shower and dress before the cab came. Bella and I held each other on the porch until it pulled down the drive, kicking up dust that swirled around the red flowers recently planted along the path. I picked up my bag and walked down the porch steps without looking back. We’d said our goodbyes and there was nothing left for us.
By October, I had finished my stint in the mail room. It was clear to everyone that I was bored and overqualified. I was moved into the position of junior assistant to one of the associates, and I did that job with no complaints as well. I never complained; as a matter of fact, I never joked or laughed with my colleagues, either. I didn't go out for drinks with the other assistants, and I didn't go to my parents’ house for dinner. I even insisted on putting off the Fall semester at UW. My body may have been in Seattle, and my brain, if I’m being honest. I had to do my job, after all. But my heart and my soul were on a ranch in Oklahoma. They belonged to the woman that ran it, to the apple orchards, to the pregnant mare, to the tall grass and high winds. The buildings here crowded out the sky, the amount of people made me claustrophobic. There was too much smog, too much constant noise.
The finance director droned on and on. I was supposed to be taking notes for my boss, but I couldn't focus. All I saw was long brown hair that waved around creamy shoulders. I saw quiet strength and intelligence in dark eyes. I thought of how the city had made my muscles soft the way they used to be, before ranching life had toughened me up. I could still feel a callus on my palm if I rubbed it with my thumb. I missed the satisfaction of a hard day’s work at the end of the night, and coffee on the porch.
I missed looking out to the endless pastures, orchards, and fields. Fifteen hundred acres was vast, especially when compared to a one bedroom apartment with a view of an empty rooftop. Fifteen hundred acres was what I’d given up. That, and the love of a beautiful, strong woman.
“Fifteen hundred fucking acres,” I muttered.
Apparently I’d been too loud, because everybody in the conference room turned to stare at me. I stared back for a minute.
“I can't do this anymore.” I stood and strode from the room, my decision made.
I was feeding the dog his dinner when I heard a car come down the road. The hedgerows hid what was coming, and the sun was still bright as it set, causing me to shade my eyes with my hand. My new ranch hand, Seth, came to stand near me as the car turned down my driveway.
“Were you expectin’ anybody, Miss Bella?” he asked.
“No,” I said quietly, too afraid to hope.
We stood still as the dust kicked up and obscured the driver, but I finally saw that it was a yellow cab. My heartrate picked up speed and my breathing accelerated. I blindly thrust out a hand and grabbed the nearest porch rail.
“No,” I breathed, this time in disbelief.
I was still standing there when he stepped out of the taxi and handed the driver a wad of cash. He walked toward the porch with his bag thrown over his shoulder, and my hand covered my mouth as the tears poured down my face. His red hair was blowing in the wind, just a tad too long on the top. His lean body was clad in jeans and a shirt that hugged his muscles. He was coming closer to the house, closer to me, and I knew with sudden clarity that he had chosen me.
I rushed down the steps and slammed into him before he took another step, and he dropped his bag to wrap his arms around me as he lifted me off the ground and laughed as he spun.
“Oh, Edward. You came back!”
“I came back. I came back for you, and for the ranch.” He stopped spinning and kissed me. “I love you, Bella, and I hope you love me, too.”
“I love you so much,” I admitted in a choked voice. “I've been dying without you.”
“I know the feeling,” he murmured, kissing me again. He looked up. “Is that the new hand?” He lifted his chin toward Seth.
“Yes. He has a wife and two kids that live in town. His name is Seth, and he’s the only thing that’s kept me sane these past two months.”
“I'm glad you got a good one,” he admitted, smiling as he looked into my eyes.
“Oh, you have no idea how much I missed you.” I buried my face in his neck, my favorite place to be, and I finally felt calm.
He replied, “I found my home in the last place I expected; on fifteen hundred acres in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma. With you.”