"And, after all, what is a lie? 'Tis but the truth in a masquerade."
– Alexander Pope
Couples glide past our seats with dreamy smiles on their masked faces. Their eyes sparkle with enchantment and I'm glad, because that was what we hoped to achieve with this masquerade.
A night of enchantment.
My date sighs from my left, hopeful that I'll ask her to dance even though she knows I won't.
I snap my fingers twice and the head of my security detail flanks my right.
"Jasper, do me a favor and take Alice to dance. She's getting bored and we still have time before the auction," I whisper.
My sister perks up.
"Just go. I'm sure I'll be fine for ten minutes," I demand, picking up my wine glass and motioning to the dance floor. "Just keep your hands to yourself. The last thing I need is the paparazzi getting a hold of my darling sister being a lush."
Alice elbows me in the gut with a smile. Jasper bows and asks for her hand. She blushes under the dark pink lace mask. I realize, as they make it to the floor, that Jasper's suit, including the mask he's chosen for the night, accentuates my sister's. His left arm wraps around her dainty waist, her right hand clasps his shoulder, and they braid their fingers together. They both take a deep breath of exultation… a smile graces both of their faces before they are swept away in the throng of ballroom dancing couples. I watch the swarm and catch glimpses of them.
In the amount of time it takes for the song to end and another to begin they've changed their posture. Her arms are around his neck. His are respectively around her waist. They look at each other the same way mom and dad used to look at each other.
She graduates from college soon, and I have a feeling I'll be looking for a new head of security soon after.
I sip my wine, lifting the bottom part of my mask slightly in order to do so. A few women pass by, shaking their hips and loudly complaining about their lack of a dance partner. I find a great deal of interest in my emerald adorned cufflinks until they give up and move onto the next guy sitting alone a few tables over.
Our charity masquerade has grown significantly in popularity over the last few years following my parent's accident. Alice jokes that it's because the vapid bachelorettes are trying to sink their claws into the Cullen estate, and in order to do so, they must get a hold of me. That is the only reason Alice accompanies me every year.
I'm not interested in a gold digger, even if it means having someone to warm my bed. I've had my share of women in the past, but once I took over manning Cullen Hotels, as well as the namesake charity, I have taken a sabbatical from the opposite sex. While most twenty-six year olds are settling down, or in a few cases still sowing their wild oats, my life consists of spreadsheets, crunching numbers, and looking after Alice. She might be twenty-three, but she's still so young and naïve.
I look up and notice that the song playing is impossibly slow as if the couples on the floor are barely moving to keep with the beat. The sheer looks of adoration as their masked faces peer into their partners' makes my heart hurt. I lift my hand and rub the tender spot over my left breast pocket, as if that gesture will massage the pain away. For a moment I wonder what it would be like to accompany my love on the floor. To hold her in my arms and glide across the floor, to dip down and steal quiet kisses when we think no one is looking.
Yes, I saw that, Alice.
I shake my head.
It's not possible.
My focus is on continuing the legacy my great-great grandfather started when he purchased the dirt lot on the outskirts of a popular town and built the first Cullen Hotel, or just Cullen if you happened to check the phonebook.
The songs pick up a little. I decline interviews with the few reporters that were allowed inside the venue. My mind is elsewhere.
My publicist, Tanya Denali, is cranky with me. She knows I'm upset about the silent bachelor auction she signed me up for tonight. Tanya doesn't believe my contribution of five hundred thousand dollars this year will do the charity justice. She believes that if I enter the auction it will raise more than enough to get the ball rolling. She storms off when I tell her that I won't be interviewed and I'm left with my bottomless wine glass.
Jasper asks if he can take a flushed Alice out on the balcony for some air. I nod and watch them exit the double doors, and it's my turn to sigh wistfully. My heart begins hurting again.
I shoot a text message to my assistant asking to set up a doctor's appointment for the following morning so I can get it checked out.
The wine makes my mouth dry. I head for the lounge for a bottle of water, stopping at the balcony to inform Jasper and Alice, but stop short as my guard places a loving kiss on my little sister's lips. The pain in my chest deepens. I leave them alone and head for the lounge. I'm sure I can take care of myself.
I enter the lounge and find that most of the single people have decided to come wallow in self-pity at the open bar. The head bartender takes one look at me and points to the end of the bar to an empty seat.
"How you doing man?" he asks, setting a napkin down and grabbing a glass. "What will it be?"
"Just a water, Emmett."
He looks taken aback when I use his name and then recognizes me. "Shit– I mean, damn–" his eyes go wide. "Sorry, sir. I'll get right on that."
My head bartender scrambles away and returns with a fancy bottle of water. "Anything else, sir?"
"Stop with the 'sir' already, Emmett. This will be fine." He smiles a wide dimply smile and lets out a hearty laugh. I then ask, "How's Rose doing?"
"Great." He smiles wider if it's even possible. "Riley is growing like a weed though. I'm just like, 'Slow your roll, kid,' but he won't stop. He said his first word the other day."
"'Dad'?" He shakes his head no. "'Mom'?"
"'No'," he laughs. "Rosie was trying to feed him some of these grotesque smashed peas from a jar and he shook his little head and said, 'No'. Now that's all he says."
"You'll have to bring him by the office sometime next week. I haven't seen him in awhile and I need to know what to buy him for his birthday."
Emmett smiles as he pours a couple of apple martinis and sets them on a tray. "Sure, sure. I'll be right back." He moves down to the other end of the bar and sets the martinis in front of two women.
The stool next to me slides back and a heavy set man wearing an animal themed mask sits down. "Edward Cullen?" he whispers.
"I'm not interested in any interviews this evening, Cheney," I grumble, adjusting the mask on my face.
"Just a few questions and I'll be out of your hair, Mr. Cullen. Promise." He crosses his heart with one meaty finger. "Is it true you're going to be on the chopping block tonight at the bachelor auction?"
I scowl and he reaches into his pocket showing me that he has a voice recorder.
I plaster the fakest smile I can muster on my face. "Yes, it's true I will be on the stage tonight for the bachelor auction. Anything to help the cause."
I look over at Emmett, hoping he can come give me some assistance. If I had Jasper with me, Cheney wouldn't have stepped five feet in my vicinity, especially with that damn recorder.
He must have said something funny because the brunette in cobalt blue crushed velvet snorts loudly into her martini before looking around, a blush blooming under her mask.
Her eyes meet mine and it's almost as if time stops or at least slows down.
Dark brown almond shaped eyes pierce my soul.
Her pink lips open slightly as she lets out a small gasp.
Her friend says something, but her words are lost on the brunette.
Emmett walks back towards me with a confused look on his face, blocking my view of the beauty in blue for a split second.
"Move, Emmett," I demand, standing up. Cheney jumps in his seat as Emmett steps aside and I whimper in dismay.
The seats are vacant.
The only proof that the woman who absolutely captivated me in a matter of seconds sat there is the still full apple martini on the bar.
"What's going on?" Emmett asks, staring from me to the empty seat and back again.
"Who was that?" I ask aloud.
"Dude, you know I don't know more than half of your frou-frou friends that show up to these things." He sighs looking back to the chair. "I think her friend called her 'Bella' though."
"That will be all, Mr. Cullen," Cheney smiles widely as he waddles away.
"Fuck!" I grumble, pulling at the ends of my hair.
"What's going on?" Emmett repeats.
I don't reply.
Instead I'm pushing past the people entering the lounge and back to the ballroom.
The pain is back. I rub the spot over my heart.
Something, I don't know what is compelling me to find her.
I make it to the ballroom as my sister and Jasper come back from the balcony wearing twin smiles.
"Hi big brother." Alice greets.
"I'm looking for a girl." I realize my hand is still rubbing my heart, so I stop and clench my fists at my sides. "She's wearing a cobalt blue mask of crushed velvet with black lace. There are feathers on the side."
Alice frowns and looks around. "Well there aren't many blue masks. I'm sure you'll find her eventually."
"No! I need to find her now." A few passerbys give me a speculative look, but I don't care.
Jasper frowns at my tone and grabs Alice's hand. "Ali, let's go look for this girl on the dance floor."
They are gone before I can argue.
I push past people without as much as an apology for my rudeness. There's one thing on my mind and one thing only.
The blushing brunette from across the bar.
I give up my search after forty minutes.
My sister is upset with me after I make her visit every one of the twenty bathrooms on the banquet floor. She takes off with Jasper and I find myself back at the table nursing the wine that started all of this as they sway on the dance floor. A few people stop by my table and comment on the success of the event. I give them vacant smiles and thank them for their generous contributions on autopilot.
Tanya stops by my table and slams her cellphone on the table. "Who is Bella?" she demands.
I take a look at the screen of the phone and a webpage is opened to an online tabloid.
Cheney works fast.
Edward Cullen Wonderstruck By CinderBella
At The Cullen Charity Masquerade Ball
"Fuck me," I groan. There's a small article about how the interview he'd been waiting hours for was cut short the second I laid eyes on the brunette across the bar.
"No. Fuck me!" Tanya growls. "Do you know how hard this is going to be to explain? Why would you walk out on an interview with Cheney? Huh?! He's detrimental to your career!"
"I know, Tanya." I look around so I don't have to meet her burning eyes.
"You owe me, Cullen. I'm sending Newton…"
I glare, but Tanya seems unfazed.
"…and Yorkie over to do damage control. You will explain yourself to them in a fashionable manner and try to dig yourself out of this hole. Capicé?"
"Yes, ma'am," I sigh.
She stomps away and then the two reporters come over and sit in front of me, and the fake smile is back. I assure that there aren't any recorders on their person and answer their questions. Tanya flanks my side and pinches me when I give rather empty answers.
We finish our interview. I'm lucky because neither of the men seem to know about Cheney's recent account of tonight's event. They leave with smiles on their faces and Tanya stomps off, barking into the phone about something.
There's not much time before the auction begins when I catch a glimpse of cobalt blue across the floor.
My breath hitches.
As if she hears me, which is impossible, she turns her head and looks right at me. I notice it's just her and that her friend is gone. As if on auto pilot I stand and make my way across the floor towards her.
Her eyes never leave mine.
When we're a mere two feet apart she smiles and does a curtsy. "Mr. Cullen."
Her voice is familiar and brand new all at the same time. I stare at her in an effort to see what is behind the mask. "Have we met before?" I whisper.
"Perhaps. Though not under such grand circumstances," she laughs. It's bell-like and makes the pain in my heart let up significantly.
"Would you like to dance?" I ask.
"Edward Cullen doesn't dance at these functions," she laughs again.
"He does now." I offer my hand. "Just one dance."
She checks the small watch that hangs as a pendent around her neck and sighs.
"I'm afraid that's all I can afford. The clock will strike midnight in four minutes and twenty seconds. CinderBella must make her getaway before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin."
Shit… she knows. "You've heard about the article already?" I ask.
"Some lovely women were conversing about it in the ladies' room a few minutes ago. One look at me and they put two and two together," she mutters. "I knew I should have worn black or green."
"Green happens to be very popular at these functions," I comment, not looking into her eyes. Green's my signature color and any woman hoping to sink her claws into me happens to choose a variation of it in an effort to grab my attention.
I then glance up and stare into her deep brown eyes. "But I like blue more."
She smiles and places her hand in mine. We both gasp as soon as we touch. Did she feel the electric charge shoot up her elbow just now?
I pull her into the mess of people dancing and it's almost like junior prom by the distance we are keeping. My hand tingles where it meets hers and I can feel the heat rising through the velvet of her dress. A few people mumble as they dance past us, but I'm lost in her eyes.
"Who are you?" I ask, catching her off guard.
"Just a nobody trying to be a somebody in a world that's full of everybody," she answers cryptically with a humorless chuckle as she stares at my chest, as if embarrassed to meet my eye.
I let go of her hand and tip her chin up until our eyes meet. Again I'm lost. I realize that I've seen these eyes before. I've heard the voice before, too. I just can't for the life of me remember where.
She leans into my hand with a sigh.
Is it possible to fall in love with someone so instantly? When you know nothing about them?
The clock strikes twelve. There's an announcement that the auction will start in a few minutes and that everyone can convene in the room next to the banquet room to participate.
"Time's up, Prince Charming," she whispers. "It's better this way. I don't know what your publicist would say if she knew."
"Knew what?" I wonder, starting to feel panic arise in my chest.
She tries to pull away but I don't let her. "I've said too much already." She steps away from me and my hands involuntarily fall to my sides. "Thank you for the dance, Mr. Cullen." She curtsies again for me. "Until next year."
"Edward! Come on! They're ready for the bachelors," Tanya calls.
I yell for her to hang on.
"Bella?" I say.
Her eyes grow wide and she takes a few steps backwards, the pain in my chest doubling with each step, it leaving me gasping.
"The bartender told me your friend called you 'Bella'. That's why Cheney wrote that."
She sighs in relief.
"When can I see you again?"
"I already told you," she answers. "Next year."
"Without the mask?"
She chuckles and shakes her head.
"CULLEN!" Tanya calls.
I turn around and tell her to hold her fucking horses, but when I turn back around Bella's gone. I catch a glimpse of blue as she rounds the corner of the main exit.
Tanya's screaming for me as I take off in a sprint.
Something tells me if I let her disappear tonight that I will never see her again. And that thought alone is earth shattering. I'm yelling her name and rudely pushing past people when I see her running towards the parking garage.
She looks over her shoulder and hikes her dress up. She's wearing a pair of trainers instead of the usual spiky heels that adorn most of the female guests' feet at these functions.
"Go back to the auction, Edward!" she yells.
"Not until you talk to me," I call back.
We've entered the parking garage and she rushes toward the elevator pressing the button repeatedly. The doors open and I muster every bit of energy I can to make it before the door closes. Her eyes go wide behind the mask as I pull the doors open and enter the small cube.
We're both gasping for air and I'm clutching my side from the exertion of running after her. Her face pinches and tears cascade over the blue velvet of her mask.
"I knew this was a bad idea," she cries.
"What was a bad idea?"
"Coming to this damn ball. L told me it would be fine. Masquerades are a time to be someone mysterious. To be someone you're not." She doesn't take her mask off, but uses the sleeve of her dress to wipe her cheek. "It's just a lie. That's what it is."
"It doesn't have to be." I take a step forward, but she cowers into the corner of the elevator as the doors open.
"Please. Just let me go. And don't follow me to my car. It's better this way." She brushes past me and exits the elevator. I hold the doors open before they can shut and realize we're on level three of the parking garage. Only certain people are permitted to park on the third level of the hotels parking garage.
Employees of my hotel.
A flood of images filter through my mind…
A beat up red truck at the far corner of the lot with a bumper sticker on it that says, 'I heart my pug,' with a smiling face.
The uniform bowtie secured around a delicate neck behind the candy counter.
The sweet voice as she hands me my change and my daily king sized KitKat.
The tinkling laugh when I realize I forgot my wallet back in my office and have to charge it even though I own everything.
The kind smile and even kinder wave. "Have a great day, Mr. Cullen," she would always say.
Recognition hits me like a mack truck and my knees almost buckle.
Bella, the masked beauty that has seemingly captured my heart, is Isabella… the girl that runs the candy store on the first floor of my hotel. I've seen her just about every day for the past three years and said maybe five words total each time.
How is it that I could know someone for so long and not feel anything until we meet under such different circumstances?
I hear the familiar roar of the beast like truck at the back of the garage and don't even realize I started running towards it until my hands smack against the rusty tailgate, as if that will stop it from ramming into me.
She screams out and slams on squeaky breaks lurching the monster to a sudden stop. I can hear her crying as she turns the truck off.
I pat the tailgate and push myself up before walking over to the driver's side door. I pull it open as she falls apart against the steering wheel.
"No more running," I pant.
"You're going to fire me."
"I'm going to lose my apartment." Sniff.
"I'm going to–"
She jumps. Our eyes meet. I reach forward and untie the ribbon holding her mask up and let it fall onto the seat next to her. There's the beautiful face I've longed to see without the mask hiding it. I couldn't help but cup her cheek and run my thumb underneath her eyes to catch the fallen tears.
Bella holds my hand against her face. The same tingle wherever her skin connects with mine appears. We just breathe and stare at each other.
Things are going to get rough. The press will find out I ran out of the charity auction. Things will link back to Bella.
I know I can't let her go now, not after finding out who she is. I just can't. Things will never be the same for her.
I then lean in and softly kiss her lips. I pull back barely and inch and whisper, "Stay with me?" I pause. "Bella."
She gasps and utters one word with a smile gracing her lovely face.