"You do realize that I have the attention of every woman in the room," I allowed my eyes to drift to the far side of the room where her parents were watching our exchange. "Including your mother."
I had watched her all evening. Her gown wrapped seductively around her body, flowing like gossamer as she moved. The rich blue color paled in comparison to her luminous skin, and my eyes were drawn to the gentle curve of her neck and the single curl that draped over her shoulder and hung auspiciously over her right breast.
Her gaze never wavered and her jaw set defiantly as she responded. "Was that meant to impress me, or intimidate me? The fact that my mother is hopeful only serves to make you less desirable to me. As for the other women in the room, I'm sure you can have your choice."
"My choice has been made, Miss Swan." Taking a step forward, I extended my hand, silently willing her to accept it. "I believe I was offered a dance."
Her gaze lowered to my outstretched hand as she sighed softly. I watched in fascination as her shoulders lifted and squared and her chin took an insolent tilt. When her eyes lifted, I found both determination and something of a challenge in their depths.
"I'll agree to one dance, as long as you remember that it was offered by my father, and my agreement is only to fulfill that obligation." She placed her hand in mine, and I bowed over it to place a respectful kiss on her delicate skin, as well as to hide my amusement at her disdain.
I was all too aware of the eyes following us as we spun around the floor, watching with growing interest as I focused solely on the woman in my arms. She steadfastly refused to meet my eyes, keeping her gaze dedicated to the starched collar and silk tie at my neck.
"Tell me, Miss Swan, what egregious mistakes have I made to earn such a poor estimation?"
"My opinion of you isn't based on your mistakes, but rather, your lack of them."
"I don't understand. Please explain your reasoning."
She sighed softly, and I began a steady movement as we twirled toward the corner of the room near the balconies. I hoped she might speak freely with me, and I wanted to provide a quiet corner where we might continue this conversation that was slowly beginning.
"I assume you arrived this evening by way of your polished, new automobile, is that correct?"
I tilted my head, watching her with growing amusement and more than a little curiosity. "That is correct."
"Then, may I ask a question, Mr. Cullen?"
"How many children did you pass in the streets? How many men asking for work to earn enough to feed their families? Surely you noticed the young girls prostituting themselves near the alleyways in hopes of earning enough to ease the burden from their parents."
"Miss Swan, please," I whispered, worried that someone might hear her blunt comments. While I was intrigued by her candid observations, it would bode ill for her to be overheard in this particular setting.
Leading her quickly toward the balcony, I continued to spin her around until we were away from the hearing of others, but still well within sight of her parents. With great reluctance, I released her from my hold and stepped back, offering a small bow of thanks for the dance. I opened my mouth to address her questions, but it was soon evident she required no answer.
"You are a showpiece, Sir. It pains me to say it, Mr. Cullen, for you are the hope of every young woman in this room. They see your very handsome face and are the recipients of your kindness and attentions, and they dream of catching your eye and your affections. Those nameless children freezing and starving in the streets are invisible to them, and it seems they are to you as well. Your brother has been tireless in his efforts to stop the growth of poverty and injustice for the masses. His advocacy for those less fortunate is inspiring while you attend parties and social gatherings and charm the ladies as well as their hopeful mothers. You may succeed in gaining their admiration, but it only serves to strengthen my poor opinion of you. I am sorry to offend, but you did ask me to speak plainly."
My esteem for this lovely creature had left me speechless. She was a rare pearl in a sea of the ordinary.
"I am not offended in the slightest, Miss Swan. In fact, I find your candor most refreshing, even if I am unaccustomed to so decisive an opinion in such a young woman. Will you allow me to address your concerns?"
She nodded in agreement and fixed her gaze on mine, waiting expectantly.
I must admit, it was a rare thing to be challenged on my character. Most people who knew my family would never question our motives or behavior, and it was a momentary struggle to find the proper words to answer her accusations while protecting my brother's interests. My first attempt was a diversionary tactic.
"Perhaps I should locate my brother since you clearly prefer his company."
"I should think it would be rather difficult to separate him from the attentions of Miss Brandon."
Her response brought a smile and my own nod of affirmation. Jasper did, in fact, relish the attention of Miss Brandon and had eyes for no other woman in attendance.
"I would have to agree, Miss Swan. Their temperaments are well matched."
"That aside, Mary Alice is like a sister to me, and I would do nothing to thwart her happiness." Her gaze drifted as she spoke and I allowed my eyes to follow, finding Jasper and Miss Brandon conversing quietly on the opposite side of the room. I cleared my throat, I focused my attention on the woman before me and offered her the best explanation I could.
"Miss Swan, I am not unaware of the plight of so many in our city. I see them every day, whether riding in my polished, new automobile or not. Unfortunately, my father, brother and I are businessmen, not politicians."
"But you're well placed in the community, Mr. Cullen. You obviously enjoy parties and various forms of entertainment, so why not use them to the advantage of those less fortunate. Your skill at navigating society would provide the perfect opportunity for charity work or even the possibility of influencing those that are politicians."
A quick movement caught my eye, and I glanced up as Mr. and Mrs. Swan approached. There were answers I knew she wanted, but I could not offer without damaging my brother's character, so I thought it best to take my leave. I grasped her hand in mine and bent low, pressing my lips once again to her soft skin.
"It has been a pleasure, Miss Swan. Unfortunately, your opinion of me must stand, regardless of what I hoped you would see in me. Good evening."
Turning on my heel, I strode quickly to the opposite side of the room and sought out my mother for a dance. I would need to make some decisions very soon and hoped that she might be able to offer a bit of sound wisdom. My search ended quickly when she took in my expression, her hand resting securely in the crook of my arm as I led her toward the center of the room.
"I couldn't help but notice that you left the ballroom with Miss Swan."
"I did. Ours wasn't a conversation to be held while dancing." I smiled when her brow arched and her head tilted. Esme Cullen wasn't one to let the smallest detail escape, and it was clear she wanted every facet of my discussion with Miss Swan disclosed. Of course, I obliged willingly.
"Apparently, our efforts to bolster confidence in Jasper's abilities have left me with the reputation of a philanderer who cares nothing for the struggles of the downtrodden. Miss Swan was rather brutal in her estimation of my character."
"Oh, Edward. I'm so sorry. Perhaps it's for the best that you know her opinion now. If she can't see you for the man you are, then she doesn't deserve you."
"How could she truly know me when I can't refute the façade she sees daily?"
"What do you intend to do, Edward?"
I sighed, knowing that she would support me, but already regretting that she might be forced to choose if the battle lines were drawn.
"If Jasper is ever going to succeed, he will have to do it on his own. I can't continue to live like this, not if I ever expect Miss Swan, or any woman, to see me in a different light."
"Well, then. I suppose it's time for you to come out of the dark."
"Good morning, Edward."
"Jasper," I nodded in greeting before turning my attention back to the newspaper. "It seems your courtship of Miss Brandon has garnered all of the headlines today."
"I intend to speak with her father today. If he is agreeable, an announcement will be made by the end of the month."
Surprise and shock must have been clearly displayed in my expression as Jasper's grin widened when our eyes met. I rose and embraced him, congratulating him on his impending engagement.
"I can't say that it wasn't expected, Jasper. The two of you are perfectly matched. Congratulations!"
"Thank you, Edward."
I passed the plate of toast to him and then stirred a bit of sugar into my coffee. "Have you spoken with Father regarding your plans?"
"I have. Well, he knows that I'm planning to propose, but I haven't divulged all of my plans to him. I wanted to speak to the two of you together before Father makes any decisions."
"Decisions about what?"
I turned, glancing over my shoulder as my father entered the room. He poured himself a cup of coffee before settling his gaze on Jasper and waiting for his response.
Jasper suddenly looked ill at ease. He lifted his cup for another sip, cleared his throat and squared his shoulders.
The motion was reminiscent of Miss Swan's determined stance when I questioned her opinion of me the previous night. I knew that whatever Jasper wanted to discuss was of great importance to him, and I couldn't help but wonder if this particular morning might be the opportunity I had been waiting for.
"I suppose I should begin by offering my gratitude for all that you have tried to instill in me over the years. Edward, I know what you've given up for me, and I want you to know that it hasn't gone unnoticed."
I nodded but remained silent.
"Father, I am a terrible businessman. I lack the fiduciary responsibility to manage our assets and grow the business. Our investments would be severely lacking with me at the helm. We all know this. In fact, it's the very reason Edward manages everything while granting me the credit before our shareholders. Father, we've done a great disservice to Edward in allowing him to decline the recognition he deserves. The shareholders should know that it is his brilliance that has increased their profit. It should be Edward's legacy, not mine. He thrives on it, and yet I find it difficult to stomach on the best of days."
To say that I was stunned by Jasper's admission would have been an understatement. I knew he was struggling with the business, but had no idea that he was so unhappy. I glanced at my father, wondering what his thoughts were. He seemed calm and contemplative, allowing the silence in the room to become almost overwhelming. After several minutes, Father sat back in his chair and folded his hands in his lap.
"Has it always made you miserable, son?"
Silence once again settled in the room as I waited for a response. Father's eyes settled on Jasper with a speculative gaze that eventually grew sorrowful.
"Have I been so unapproachable that you would rather be unhappy than honest with me?"
"No! On the contrary, Father, my respect for you and desire for your approval have kept my silence. I would rather be miserable than disappoint you."
Father turned his attention to me then. "Do you feel this way as well?"
"Yes, sir." The admiration I had for my father ran deep, and it had been that admiration that had kept me silent for the last few years. Jasper was the eldest son, and it was expected that he would one day take control of the investment and trade firm that my father and grandfather had worked so hard to build. When it became evident that Jasper found the process difficult, I stepped into the shadows, making decisions and deals so that our shareholders and investors would remain confident.
To the rest of the world, I became the man that Isabella Swan saw.
A man she couldn't love, or even respect.
I wasn't that man, but the charade had been useful in building trust in Jasper's ability to lead. None of the men investing in our company wanted a playboy handling their ventures. The more unreliable I appeared, the more trustworthy and knowledgeable they assumed my brother to be.
My father blew out a breath and scrubbed his hands over his face. His groan of frustration drawing me from my thoughts and back into the conversation at hand.
"I never wanted either of you to be unhappy. Yet, it seems that you both are miserable for wanting to please me." He stood and walked to the window, his gaze drifting over the gardens behind the house. "When you were boys, I use to dream of your futures. I wanted you to live daringly. To create for yourselves the lives you wanted and to live them with valor. I swore that I would never show disappointment for any choice that made you happy, and yet, today my disappointment is grave."
The room was once again still as we all considered his words. Finally, Father turned and lifted his chin toward Jasper.
"What is it that you want to do, Jasper? Were I to lay the world at your feet, what would you desire?"
Jasper took a deep breath and smiled. "I want to be wed to Mary Alice within the year and I want to teach."
Father studied Jasper for several minutes, a smile slowly growing as he began to nod. "A schoolmaster. It's a noble profession, and it suits you, Jasper."
My brother seemed to come to life for the first time in ages. I knew it had taken courage for him to speak his mind and pursue the future he truly wanted. I hoped I could find the strength to do the same, knowing the reputation that I would have to overcome.
I was lost in my thoughts once again until I heard my father calling my name. I turned toward his voice, finding myself alone with him.
"I know all that you've given up, Edward. Some of the more adventurous investments you've made have been a stroke of genius. I can't imagine that it was easy to stand by and allow your brother to take the credit."
"It was best for the company at the time."
"Yes, well, now we should discuss what will be best moving forward. For the company, and for you. Let's begin with the young lady your mother is so enthusiastic about. A Miss Swan, I believe?"