Edward raised his eyes to Bella’s and frowned, a hand instinctively running nervously through his long hair.
You think we should talk? Ah shit, nothing good ever came from that statement, especially from a woman.
He took a deep breath and shook his head.
“Look, why don’t I just save you the trouble. As soon as the snow melts enough for me to get a bus or something, I’ll be on my way. I’m really grateful for what you’ve done, and I’m not going to cause any troub—”
“What?! What are you talking about? On your way where?”
“Well, I assume you want me to go… after last night and… uh, this morning…” He trailed off as Bella’s blush reignited and she held a hand up, palm towards him, as if to ward off his words.
“Okay, stop, please. I would be very grateful if we could just draw a line through this morning and try very hard to forget it ever happened. Okay?”
She could barely look at him, but glanced up from beneath her lashes to see him nod.
He was too taken aback to speak, barely able to hope that Bella might be offering him a reprieve. If she was happy to overlook this morning’s debacle, then he certainly was—although he doubted he would ever be able to forget how it felt to have her face… right there. That image could well fuel his fantasies for some time to come.
“Good… right… well, let’s sit down, because we do need to talk about what happened last night. There’s tea in the pot, do you want a cup?”
Again, Edward nodded, resigned, then walked over to the kitchen table and sat down. He kept his gaze fixed on the view from the window, through which a grey, wintery light cast an eerie glow, as the snow continued to fall. He didn’t even look round when Bella put a steaming mug of tea down in front of him. He mumbled a soft ‘thanks’ and pulled the sugar bowl over, shovelling two heaped spoonfuls into his drink, before lifting it to his lips and taking a sip.
On the opposite side of the table, Bella cupped her hands round her own mug and drank deeply. After a minute or two of somewhat uncomfortable silence, she put her cup down rested her elbows on the table, and clasped her hands under her chin.
“So, Edward, about last night—”
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up. I can sleep on the sofa so I don’t disturb you—” He dropped his head, cringing internally.
Bella unclasped her hands and reached one out to cover Edward’s hand where he’d fisted it on the table.
“It’s okay, Edward… please don’t think I’m angry with you, because I’m not.”
Cautiously, he glanced up at her. “You’re not?”
Bella sighed, pulling her hand away and sitting back.
“Of course I’m not angry—why would I be? You have nightmares, over which you have no control. I’m not angry, but I am concerned. I don’t know what happened to you, but clearly it was something terrifying and deep-rooted. And I’m starting to think it may be connected to the reason why you were trying to hitch a lift on the coldest night in living memory, for which you were woefully under-prepared.”
She cocked her head to one side, a question implicit in her gaze.
Edward picked up his tea and took a drink, his mind a veritable storm of emotions: relief, chagrin, sorrow… fear.
Bella knew he was procrastinating, but didn’t push. She could see that he was struggling with what to tell her… she just hoped he would be able to tell her something.
Putting down his mug, he started rubbing at a knot in the pine table with his forefinger, his brow knitted and lips pouted. A couple of times, he took a deep breath and glanced up at Bella through his lashes, but just as she thought he was going to speak, he dropped his gaze to the table again, his frown deepening.
After several minutes of this agonised silence, Bella let out a sigh.
“Hey, I’m starving. How about I finish cooking breakfast while you check to see if the fire’s still going. You’ll need to clean out the grate by shovelling the ash into the bucket, and then you can start building it up again—do you think you can do that?”
“Uh, yeah, I s’pose,” he nodded, looking vastly relieved.
“Okay, I’ll call you when breakfast is ready.”
He pushed back his chair and practically ran out of the kitchen, leaving Bella to shake her head in resignation, before getting up to switch the hob back on and continue with cooking the sausages and bacon she’d started earlier.
In the sitting room, Edward knelt in front of the fire, grabbed the poker from the hearth, and poked at the grate the way he’d seen Bella do. The fire was out, although the coals were still warm, and he quickly shovelled the ashes into the bucket. He then re-laid the fire with kindling from the big log basket, again copying Bella’s method, and then lit the twists of paper. Sitting back on his haunches, he watched as the flame stuttered, caught the next bit of paper and then crept up around the dry sticks, which quickly started to burn. He grinned with delight as the fire really began to take hold and spread, licking around the rest of the paper and twigs. He rummaged in the basket for a couple of smaller logs and placed them carefully on top of the flames, cursing and pulling back as they flickered around his hand.
He ignored the slight burn, staring in awe at the rapidly building fire, impressed with himself that he’d managed to light it successfully—that he had, in fact, done something important for Bella… something to help.
As he gazed contemplatively into the escalating flames, he knew for sure that he didn’t want to leave this place. He also knew that if he was going to stay, he would have to talk to Bella… would have to explain at least a little of what had brought him to that motorway service station, and what haunted him in his sleep. It hadn’t escaped him that she had said nightmares—plural—and he was pretty sure that she had come to him the first night as well. He thought he’d dreamed that, thought the angel who had comforted him had been something his subconscious had invented to protect him. Now he suspected it had been Bella—although the description still stood, as far as he was concerned.
Bella was an angel—his guardian angel—and he had no doubt at all that she had saved his life. The least he owed her in return was an explanation.
He sighed, refocusing on the fire, which was now burning swiftly through the small logs he’d put on it. Getting up, he grabbed the coal scuttle and carefully shook the remainder into the grate. He then picked up the ash bucket and carried it, along with the scuttle, back to the kitchen. He needed to go to the basement to replenish the coal, and find out what to do with the ashes.
As he walked in, the delicious smell of bacon, sausage and toast assaulted his nose and his mouth immediately started to water.
“Oh, God, that smells incredible,” he groaned, putting down the buckets by the basement door.
Bella turned and smiled at him. “Perfect timing, I’m just dishing up. I’ve made a fresh pot of tea, so can you pour it out, please.”
Moments later, they sat opposite each other again, but this time with big plates laden with food, which they wasted no time tucking into. Edward was pretty sure he had eaten more in the last couple of days than he had in the whole of the preceding week, and he savoured every tasty morsel.
Bella couldn’t help chuckling as he groaned and hummed his way through the food, slathering butter on his toast and using it to soak up the perfectly runny fried eggs.
“I like a man who enjoys his food,” she laughed.
“Ummmm, and I love a woman who can cook a fucking amazing breakfast,” he mumbled around a mouthful of sausage.
She snorted, and he suddenly stopped chewing, looking up at her with a startled expression. Swallowing awkwardly, he put his fork down and put his hand to his mouth.
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry… fuck… oh for fu-flip’s sake. Sorry, sorry…” He trailed off, and, dropping his knife now as well, put both hands over his face and rubbed it hard.
Bella couldn’t stop giggling, which then turned to coughing as she tried to swallow the food she’d been chewing. She dropped her own cutlery and picked up her tea, taking several sips until she’d got herself under control.
Smirking at Edward, who had now dropped his hands and was frowning at her, she shook her head.
“For flip’s sake? Really? Don’t worry about it—I take it as a compliment that my humble effort would evoke such… vehement praise!”
She watched as his lips were pulled into a slow, slightly crooked smile, which lit up his face, and she was hard-pressed not to gasp at the transformation.
Oh, good God, how does he do that? He’s, like, adorable and sweet, and hot as fuck, all at the same time!
Bella jumped up and started clearing the table, intent on hiding the blush which she could feel creeping up her neck and face.
“So, uh, did you get the fire going?” she asked, as she started loading the dishwasher.
Edward grinned and launched into an enthusiastic description of his earlier success in the sitting room, making Bella smile.
“That’s great, Edward, thank you. Why don’t we get refills and go sit by the fire. I know you’re not comfortable talking to me about what happened to you, but I’d like to have a chat anyway, just about what we need to do over the next few days. Is that okay?”
He stood up and leaned against the edge of the table, shoving his hands deep into his pockets.
“Bella… look, I do want to tell you… it’s just really difficult to… talk about it.”
He dropped his gaze and stared at his shoes—shoes which Bella had purchased for him. Squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, he took a deep breath and looked up.
“Edward, it’s fine, honestly. I don’t want to force you into something you’re not ready for. I mean, we hardly know one another, so I understand, really I do. Let’s just make ourselves comfortable so we can make some plans—I know I kind of sprang it on you last night, but I really would like your help with a few things, if you’d be willing?”
He let out the breath he was holding. “Sure, of course. Sorry, I just… I don’t know how to do this…”
Bella pushed away from the sink and came over to stand in front of him, placing a hand gently on his upper arm.
“It’s okay, Edward, this is all a bit new for me too—I hope you don’t think I make a habit of picking up young men and enticing them back to my lair!”
He laughed, and the ease they’d found the day before immediately returned.
Smiling, Bella turned to retrieve her tea from the worktop and then headed out to the sitting room.
“Come on, let’s have a look at that fire you say you lit,” she smirked.
Not only was the fire lit, but it was burning brightly and giving off plenty of heat. Bella sat cross-legged on the sofa, whilst Edward sat opposite in one of the big wing-backed armchairs, his long, long legs sprawled out in front of him.
“So, you want to turn the back bedroom into a studio. Will there be enough light?” he asked, in response to Bella’s description of what she wanted.
“I think so—the back is south-facing, so it should get the best of the light through the day and the eaves aren’t so low on that side. I think the cottage is a Listed building*, so I probably won’t be able to do much about the windows, but if the room is stripped out and painted white, I’m sure it will be fine. I can have my drawing board in there, plus there’s plenty of room to fit a decent-sized workstation for my computer and, once the bed’s gone, I could get a really nice sofa in there—maybe a sofa bed in case I need to use it as a guest room. What do you think? Are you any good at putting shelves up?”
He laughed. “Yeah, I can put a shelf up, if you’ve got the tools and materials. I had to learn how to do all that stuff for my mum…”
He trailed off and looked at the fire. “Anyway, we need to clear the room out first, so we should go up and have a proper look to see what needs to be done. We’re a bit limited until we can get out to a D-I-Y* store.”
Bella nodded and stood up. She hadn’t missed that first reference to his home life, but could see that this wasn’t the time to press.
“Come on, then, let’s take a look and see what’s what.”
She led the way upstairs, and Edward tried hard not to look at her jean-clad bottom, as it swayed hypnotically in front of him—whether or not he tried hard enough was debatable, because he failed utterly.
Following Bella into the room she had earmarked as her studio, he was brought up short as he walked straight into her, where she had stopped just inside the door. He immediately reached out and grabbed her around the waist to prevent her toppling forward, which had the effect of pressing her back against him.
Instinctively, he dipped his head and breathed in her scent.
God Almighty, she smells fucking amazing.
As for Bella, she could feel him everywhere, and where his big hands almost circled her slender waist, heat radiated out to every part of her. She knew she should pull away, but couldn’t seem to make herself move. Time seemed to stand still, seconds stretching out like elastic, until, finally, it was Edward who dropped his hands and stepped back.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“S’okay,” Bella replied, shivering slightly.
“We’re gonna need boxes… uh, I think I saw some in the basement… I’ll just go have a look,” he gabbled, before turning and rushing out the door.
Bella heard his rapid footfalls on the stairs and walked quickly over to the window, where she pressed a glowing cheek against the cold glass.
What the hell?! This is getting ridiculous.
Bella gave herself a mental shake and turned away from the window. She was not going to let this… whatever the bloody hell it was, take hold of her. Edward was substantially younger, he was, to all intents and purposes, a homeless itinerant, and he was never going to think of her that way—he was grateful to her, that was all. Telling herself to grow up, she refocused her mind—albeit with some difficulty—on the task at hand.
Looking around, she started trying to visualise the room without the bed and other furniture, working out in her mind’s eye where she should put her drawing board and computer. This thought led on to the much more unpleasant one, of how she would go about retrieving these bulkier possessions. She had gathered up all her artwork and put it in her portfolio, which was still sitting in the hall downstairs. She also had her laptop and a draft of her latest manuscript on a flash-drive, so maybe she could just buy a new PC and drawing board. She still had a hard time getting used to the fact that, after a lifetime of penury, she could actually afford to buy something if she wanted it.
With that thought in mind, Bella made the decision that there was nothing at Jake’s that she needed to go back for, and immediately felt lighter, as if a burden she’d been unaware she was carrying had suddenly fallen away. She realised at that moment that, even though she’d escaped in one piece—more or less—she had, on some level, been terrified of having to confront Jake again, but now she could put it all behind her and move on.
Without warning, Bella felt laughter bubbling up inside of her, and before she knew it, she was giggling like a fool. She hugged herself, embracing this new and rather foreign feeling of… freedom. Not just from the fear she’d harboured over the last few months with Jake, but from a lifetime of heartache and worry—from the grief she’d felt after losing her parents, to the constant and debilitating anxiety about money.
The more she thought about it, the more she laughed. She was struck by the whole incongruity of her epiphany, here in this shabby bedroom, sitting on a threadbare and uncomfortable chair in her dead grandmother’s house. Tears rolled down her face as she rocked back and forth, trying to contain what was beginning to morph into hysteria.
Thus, Edward found her, his arms full of flat-packed cardboard boxes.
“Bella? Jesus, are you okay?” He took in her maniacal laughter, her wild, tear-filled eyes and her desperate swaying, and immediately realised that something was very much amiss.
Dropping the boxes he strode over to where she sat and dropped to his knees in front of her. He grabbed her shoulders, and peered intently at her as she continued to half-laugh and half-sob, her eyes like saucers.
“Bella, you’re scaring me. What’s happened?” he demanded, his voice edged with concern.
“I c-can’t… I d-don’t know… oh G-God, Edward… c-could you hold me… please?” This last came out as barely a whisper, but he heard it and didn’t hesitate. Pulling her towards him, he wrapped his arms tightly around her, feeling, for the first time, like he could finally repay, in some small measure, the debt he owed Bella.
He held her against his body, rocking her gently, until she stopped hugging herself and put her arms around his waist.
“It’s okay, Bella… shhh…I’ve got you,” he crooned softly.
Her grip on him tightened as, in a blinding moment of clarity, she knew this to be true.
Listed building – In the UK, many buildings of historical or architectural importance are placed on a Local Government list, which means they can’t be demolished, extended or drastically altered without specific written permission from the local planning authority.
D-I-Y Store – Do It Yourself: Where you can buy anything to do with home-improvements, garden supplies, etc.