A/N Thanks for the feedback on the first chapter! I guess we'll carry on then :)
Thanks again to Chocaholic123 and Claire Bamboozle for their help and support on this x
My father was one of Lord Newton's better known and respected workers with many years' loyal service to his name. Mrs Cope was rather fond of him too, and so as she'd dismissed me to check on his condition, she'd made it clear I wasn't to hurry, so long as I was back for the following day's early morning milking.
I stayed the night at the cottage, shivering as I cuddled up to Alice for warmth in the bed we'd always shared.
"Oh, I've missed you!" Alice declared as she clung to me to ride out the chills that wracked her little body.
"Missed me or my warmth?" I asked, with a smile.
"Both," she replied, giggling through her chattering teeth. "Always both."
The gamekeeper's cottage was on the estate, a good half an hour's walk from the main house and the dairy. I woke in good time to be back for the half past five milking, taking up my clothes in the cold air of the bedroom and sneaking out in just my underwear, leaving my sister slumbering peacefully. As I was the only one awake, I washed by the still-glowing coals of the fire in the kitchen. The warmth was a luxury compared to how I usually dressed in my servants' lodgings during winter; hurriedly in the stark coldness, the room so chilled that ice formed on the inside of the windows.
I had barely finished fastening my dress, when a sound outside startled me. I made my way across the room and foolishly, without giving it any kind of thought, unlatched and pulled open the front door, gasping as the winter air struck me as thoroughly as a drenching from a pail of icy water. Peering into the darkness I saw the shape of a man, a large, rangy dog at his side, disappearing into the woods that ran close to the house. I called out as loudly as I dared, without risking wakening anybody else. The man faltered and glanced back. Despite the blackness that part-shrouded him, I knew enough, had watched enough to recognise exactly who he was.
It was only as I stepped back, ready to close the door, that I noticed his reason for calling. A pair of dead, paunched rabbits lay on the doorstep.
He was gone when I looked back up, stolen away into what remained of the nighttime. Bending, I retrieved his quarry from the step and brought them inside, closing the door. As I hung them from a nail in a cool corner of the pantry, I recalled the unease in my mother's eyes as she wondered aloud how they would manage with Father bedridden.
Clearly someone else understood the struggles ahead too.
If I had been convinced of Edward's innocence, even in the face of my father's claims, my thoughts were thrown into turmoil by what I had seen. The evidence was becoming impossible to ignore. Firstly, he'd happened upon my father at dawn, somewhere he had no cause to be, and secondly, he and his hunting dog were roaming the land during the night, with rabbits he'd more than likely caught himself.
The ordinary people in the community loved a poacher, but as the daughter of a game-keeper, I'd been raised to feel contempt for them, these vermin of civilised society and thieves all. They were the enemy, to be engaged and beaten in a battle every bit as serious as any war.
An uncomfortable sense of disloyalty tapped away at my conscience, as I slipped away from the cottage without a word to anybody about what I had witnessed..
I couldn't be sure if Edward Cullen was present more often at the estate farm in the following days, or if I simply noticed him more readily as I went about my work with the cows and in the dairy. Afraid I was succumbing to insanity, I purposefully adopted a light tone and mentioned his increasingly frequent presence to Rosalie Hale, with whom I carried out my duties.
She glanced up from the butter she was diligently washing, and examined a spot on the dairy wall as she cast her mind back.
"Yes, maybe," she concluded. That was that.
My own mind remained unsatisfied, but I unwillingly paid more attention to him each time he appeared. His hair, a rich, deep bronze colour that matched that of the breast of the cock pheasant, always showed beneath his cap, which in turn sat jauntily on his head.
As the days passed I noticed he would wander closer, much as an animal that grows tame through trust. I made certain not to startle him, indeed I barely acknowledged his presence, until one morning he finally spoke.
"Would I help you with that?"
I started at the sound of the unexpected voice, knocking my pail slightly and watching in dismay as a wave of the warm, creamy milk sloshed over the side and pooled on the floor. "Sorry, I meant no harm." I looked up to find him standing beside me. He was tall; taller than I'd thought as I hadn't had cause to be this close to him since we were children, and the distance we'd kept since then clearly played tricks on the mind.
I turned my head quickly left and right, looking to make sure we weren't being watched.
"You shouldn't be in here," I hissed. "If someone should find you..."
He smiled, and the gaiety lit up his face, despite the dim light in the milking parlour. I tried not to stare because I'd been taught it was rude, but his eyes were the unseasonal green of new spring grass in the meadow, and I found myself unable to look away.
"Where are you taking these?" he asked. His voice was smooth, carrying the words flawlessly from his mouth and feeding it gently onto my skin where it raised goose pimples. The feeling caused my mind to lose its way, and I failed to answer him immediately. The tip of his tongue emerged from between his lips, wetting them as he waited for me to respond.
"Oh!" My cheeks burned when my thoughts caught up and I realised he was waiting on me. "The dairy," I replied, and although I'd intended arguing about his helping, I found myself removing the now redundant wooden yoke from my neck, and walking ahead, showing him the way as he carried both the pails as easily as if they were filled with feathers, rather than the heavy milk.
"You can set them there," I told him when we reached the dairy, pointing to a spot on the floor He placed them carefully down and I expected him to leave, but instead he leaned against the marble-topped work space that ran around the edges of the room. His departure would have pleased me more, as the effect his presence had on me was such that I was beginning to feel rather unwell from the insistent churning of my stomach. "Thank you," I said, turning away from him to prepare everything I needed to make the milk into butter, and hoping he would understand it as the dismissal I intended it to be.
He made no sound, and I was forced to turn to see for myself whether he had stolen away or if he remained. A smile returned to his lips as I found him still there.
"Have you no work to do?" I asked, an air of petulance skating over my words.
"Aye, but I started early. It's done for now."
"I thought your father was a tenant farmer?" I queried, my curiosity about his recent appearance here over-riding my efforts to ignore him.
"He is. Winter's quiet though; my father scarcely has work for himself and my brother. His Lordship offered to give me work until the sheep come lambing."
"So you'll be at the Servants' Ball on Christmas Eve if you're working here?" I asked, listening carefully for his reply. The ball was all Rosalie and I had spoken of for weeks, such was our anticipation of the event. I had my dress all ready, a pretty blue one my mother had acquired from a friend for a very reasonable price. It wasn't new, but it was the loveliest thing I'd ever owned.
Edward laughed and I merely looked on, wide-eyed.
"Not likely! It's meant as a treat, I understand? Well I can think of no greater punishment!" He shook his head, amusement still sitting bright in his eyes as they fell back onto me. I hung my head, wondering if I should feel foolish for looking forward to it so.
"You shouldn't be in here." Rosalie's sharp voice brought me out of my thoughts, and my head sprung up in time to see her pushing past Edward, a tray of clean dishes in her hands.
"I've a message from my brother," he said, digging a folded scrap of paper from his jacket pocket and handing it to Rosalie. She looked down at it in his dirty hand and gingerly took it, stashing it quickly away in the pocket of her apron.
"Mrs Cope's on her way. You'd better make yourself scarce," she warned, her voice gentler than it had been when she first walked in. He nodded.
"Good day, Isabella," he said, touching his cap with thumb and forefinger and disappearing away through the door. I turned, put my head down and resumed my work.
Neither Rosalie nor I spoke, but I noticed her hand strayed often to the pocket of her apron, lingering a moment before moving away again. She excused herself no more than five minutes later, and I knew she'd hidden away somewhere to read the note. She arrived back in the dairy only a few minutes before Mrs Cope, her cheeks still flushed from whatever the note contained. I glanced her way often during the hours that followed, but she never caught my eye, instead she worked diligently, humming a happy melody as a small, enigmatic smile rested comfortably on her lips.