I own nothing.

One chapter in and already I'm failing! I know this is extremely late, but the next chapter is already edited and back from my fantastic Beta, Fran, spring break is over and the kids are back in school, and the house is clean so I have no guilt about spending the day writing! Hopefully, we're back on track!

"Edward! Brilliant strategy with that shipping problem. You'll see a handsome profit from that, no doubt."

William McCarty was a large man, perhaps thirty years my senior, and married to a woman young enough to be my sister. Although his marriage had caused an uproar in social circles, he was well respected, and it was rare that he offered words of praise. I knew that he must be impressed to be so animated this evening.

We had been invited to his home along with dozens of their closest friends to celebrate the engagement of their daughter, Victoria. The McCarty's had been investing in the shipping trade with Cullen Commerce for as long as I could remember, making my attendance at this event mandatory.

"Thank you, William. I have every confidence that we'll all see increased productivity as well as a healthy purse. We've already received three new contracts this week."

"Splendid! I have no doubt you'll do well, Edward. I always suspected you had a solid head for business."

"Thank you. I appreciate your confidence, sir." My eyes finally caught sight of a certain young woman I had been searching for since entering the house. "If you'll excuse me, please."

William began waving me off as soon as I spoke, moving on to find another glass of champagne while I crossed the room to greet Miss Swan.

"Good evening."

"Good evening, Mr. Cullen. I trust you're enjoying yourself?"

"I am now." Her eyes widened, and her cheeks flushed with a lovely crimson. It was an altogether different reaction than I had received the last time we spoke, and I found myself intrigued. She looked away and cleared her throat before meeting my gaze once again.

Ah, there it is.

That determination and composure that I had become accustomed to whenever I encountered this woman. It was both alluring and maddening.

"It would seem a great deal has changed in your circumstance, Mr. Cullen."

"Indeed, it has, Miss Swan. Apparently, my brother prefers a simpler life, surrounded by impressionable minds and it has fallen to me to handle the business he left behind. I hope to live up to his example."

She remained silent for a moment, then took a step toward me, lowering her voice. "I did hear of your kindness toward the men on the docks. I must say, after learning of it I was appalled by my accusations against you at our last meeting. Please, forgive me."

"You spoke what you believed to be true of me. There is no need for apology."

It took every reserve of strength within me to keep from swelling with pride at her words. The situation she spoke of had been a sticky one, at best. We'd been short of inventory on shipments for months. The log sheets would never balance, and it seemed that Jasper never thought to go to the docks to see for himself. It took only one visit to reveal the truth about what had been happening.

There were at least fifteen men who were helping themselves to whatever was unloaded. It wasn't ever a large amount of inventory, but over a few months, the cumulative amount was a substantial loss. Taking it upon myself to confront them, I waited in the warehouse until one of the men stepped into the open to remove a carton. He was quick to confess, knowing he had been caught in the very act of thievery.

Apparently, the men would take whatever they could conceal and trade the goods for food, money, and in some cases, medical care for their children. Within the hour, I had gathered the men and absolved them of their crime on the condition that they accept employment with Cullen Commerce and report to me immediately of any others attempting to steal.

I now had a full dock crew, loyal to me and able to feed their families. A few of the shareholders had been skeptical, especially considering how recently I had taken on the responsibility of the company. I had asked them for leniency just this once, and they had acquiesced on the condition that my decision to invest in these men would turn an immediate profit. It was an easy promise to make, considering that the bottom line would escalate instantaneously with the termination of the larceny.

"My father said Cullen shipping has increased by almost twenty percent."

Miss Swan's grin confirmed the surprise I'm sure she saw on my face. "He also said that the number of men begging him for employment has decreased in direct correlation to your newfound profits."

"Did he now?" I grinned back at her. "That's an interesting comparison. Tell me, do you often discuss business matters with your father? Or perhaps you have a particular interest in my business?"

That lovely crimson colored her cheeks as her eyes shifted to the floor.

An interesting response.

After a moment, she found her voice and her eyes met mine, that familiar challenge evident in her gaze. "I take an interest in all business. Cullen Commerce simply holds the largest share in this area. My father prefers that I be well informed."

"And your mother?" I was already fairly certain of her mother's desires.

"My mother prefers that I be wed and tending a house full of children."

Her response held the possibility of so many questions. Was there a particular groom in her mother's preference? Did Miss Swan prefer many children, or just enough to secure an heir? What exactly did Miss Swan prefer for herself?

I hadn't quite determined which question to ask when we were approached by Emmett McCarty. My closest friend since childhood, Emmett was a generous, kind man with a reputation in international trade. I hoped to bring him into Cullen Commerce as an active investor, but he was reluctant to leave his father's business.

"Good evening Miss Swan. Would you allow me a word with Edward?"

"Of course, Mr. McCarty. If you gentlemen will excuse me, I should find Victoria and offer my congratulations."

Bowing slightly, I watched as Miss Swan seemed to glide across the floor, greeting ladies as she passed. Emmett was silent but clearly amused as he waited for my attention.

"You certainly have a watchful eye on that lady."

I offered nothing more than a non-committal grunt and turned to face my jovial friend whose frame rocked with laughter at my expense.

"I can only assume you wished to speak to me about something other than Miss Swan. What can I do for you, Emmett?"

Reining in his laughter, Emmett grinned and nodded. "I'll offer a word of advice, then I'll leave it alone. You should be more cautious with those lingering glances if you're attempting to conceal your interest. Your enamored expression betrays you."

"Noted."

Emmett nodded toward his father's study, and I followed him into the room, curious as to his secrecy.

I didn't wait long for my curiosity to be satisfied.

"All teasing aside, Edward, are you in an arrangement with Miss Swan?"

"No. We have no arrangement, but I have considered speaking with her father."

Emmett sighed and then turned toward the cabinet behind him. Lifting a decanter, he poured a generous amount of what appeared to be brandy into two glasses. Holding one out to me, he took a healthy sip of the other.

"I need your assistance in a somewhat delicate matter, Edward. I haven't another friend that I trust with this information or endeavor. Will you hear me out?"

"Of course." Emmett and I had been friends a long time and I knew him well enough to know this was a serious matter to him.

"Very well. There is something I want desperately, and I need your help to get it. It won't be difficult, but it will require two things from you. One you've already offered, and I'm hoping the offer still stands."

"Speak plainly, Emmett."

Placing his glass on the desktop, Emmett scrubbed his hands over his face and then lifted his eyes to mine. "I'm leaving my father's employment. If your offer still stands, I'd be honored to work for you at Cullen."

I'm sure surprise colored my tone. "You always have a place at Cullen, Emmett. Now, what is this about? Have you had a row with William?"

"No, nothing of the sort." He was silent for a moment, then gave me a boyish grin. "It's Rosalie Hale."

"A woman? You're allowing a woman to influence your business decisions?"

"Tell me you wouldn't do the same for the right one, Edward."

I couldn't disagree with him. "No, you're absolutely right. I would. But only for the right woman. But Emmett, how is it we're having this conversation? William wouldn't force you to choose between your employment and Miss Hale."

"My father wouldn't, but her father would."

Ah.

Suddenly, I knew exactly where this conversation was going.

"Olivia Hale holds great influence in this community. She wouldn't allow her daughter to be sullied by marrying into such a scandalous family. Unfortunately, Jefferson Hale will allow his wife to dictate their standing in society, even to the detriment of their daughter's happiness."

"So you must distance yourself from your father and his very young wife in order to win the approval of Mrs. Hale, thereby winning the hand of the fair Rosalie. And to assist in gaining this distance, you wish to join me at Cullen Commerce?"

"Yes." His answer was a simple affirmation, but there was a hesitancy that was easy to read.

"There is more?" I knew there was something else, and his nervous energy confirmed it without a word falling from his lips. I crossed the room, sat in a large leather chair near the window and watched as Emmett paced the width of the area twice.

Halfway through the third pass, he stopped and faced me.

"Mrs. Hale has already set her sights on a suitor for her daughter. Royce King is apparently a suitable match in her estimation. Rosalie has assured me that she has no interest and that I hold her affections, but I have no recourse to keep him from her, but I thought … perhaps …"

His expression was one of a desperate man, his eyes silently pleading with me.

"What exactly are you asking, Emmett?"

"I thought, well, I hoped you might stand in for me. Take an interest in Rosalie and court her. Well, not actually court her, but appear to court her just long enough for me to establish myself and my reputation outside of my father's name."

I was sure he could see the shock register on my face. "You wish me to pretend to court Rosalie so that her mother won't foist King on her. And what of the affections of Miss Hale?"

"I've discussed it with her at length. She loves me and is willing to do what we must to ensure our future. I wouldn't ask it, Edward, but she's spoken with her mother, and the woman is most unreasonable when it comes to my family's reputation."

He sighed and turned to face the window. "I hadn't considered that you might have an interest in Miss Swan. If you find that you can't agree, I will understand."

An interest in Miss Swan.

If I were being honest, I would have to admit that it was more than an interest. I'd been besotted with Isabella Swan for years. She was entirely different from other young women. Where their interests were ruled by the latest fashion and society news, Isabella was passionate about people. Specifically, she was determined to see that life was fair and full of hope for all, regardless of wealth or station. She was adventurous and brave, and I knew she held my heart that night that she chastised me for not living with more purpose. It took every bit of strength in me to hold my tongue and not speak the truth about my brother.

The reality was that my brother was already so miserable and out of his element that he couldn't see past his own need to those around him. It wasn't that he was cold-hearted, he was just unhealthily preoccupied with his own struggle. I couldn't help but see the plight of those less fortunate. My heart was broken for their pain and need. Especially the children.

If Miss Swan were pleased with my arrangements for the men on the docks, she would be absolutely thrilled with my latest endeavor. Perhaps thrilled enough to consider a courtship with me.

A courtship that would be impossible if I were known to be courting Rosalie Hale.

The burden of Emmett's request weighed heavily on me as he waited silently for a response. Could I step in for my friend to secure his future with Rosalie while he established himself in her mother's eyes? Would I hesitate to ask the same of him if the situation were reversed?

But then …

Perhaps it would provide me an opportunity as well.

If Isabella's estimation of my character had changed so drastically with the events of the last month, I could feasibly win her heart with only a little more persistence. I could use the time Emmett asked for to establish myself in Isabella's eyes as well.

Did I dare hope she might come to love me as well?

A slow, wicked grin formed on my lips, and Emmett's eyes widened as he watched me struggle with his request. Perhaps we could both gain exactly what we wanted from this endeavor.

"Very well, Emmett. I'll agree to your scheme on three conditions. One, you allow me three days to set some affairs in order before I contact Rosalie or her parents."

"And the others?" He was on the edge of his seat, his head nodding in agreement as I gave my first ultimatum.

"You will use every opportunity to help me appear in a favorable light to Miss Swan. It's no less than you're asking me to cast a glow about you for Mrs. Hale. And finally, that no one, other than you, Rosalie, Charles Swan and myself know the truth of this arrangement."

Emmett appeared startled at the mention of Isabella's father.

"The others are obvious, but why Charles Swan?"

I grinned and extended my hand toward my old friend. "Because he and his lovely daughter are the affairs I need to set in order."

It took a great deal of effort to maintain eye contact and my composure. Mr. Swan had a piercing gaze that seemed to burrow directly into one's soul for the admission of truth. He was shrewd and clever, but had an impeccable reputation for his honesty and integrity.

And I was asking him to lie.

Perhaps it wasn't a lie, but a simple withholding of the truth until the opportune moment. Either way, I desperately needed his assistance and agreement.

"You're not the man I believed you to be, Edward." He sat back in his chair and a slow grin spread across his face. "And in all honesty, that's a very good thing. You can be sure I would never consider this for you if I still thought you were less than honorable."

"Thank you, sir." I had just spent the better part of an hour explaining my reasons for allowing my reputation to be questionable, as well as my request that he allow no suitors for his daughter while I attempted to falsely court Miss Hale. Once he understood my motives, the rest of my request was met with a favorable response.

"To be clear, your intention is to court my daughter?"

"No, sir. My intention is to marry your daughter if you will permit me."

Charles Swan had made a name for himself as a master negotiator, and in those minutes, I could understand why. His expression gave nothing away, and his nonchalant disposition in the face of my turmoil was maddening.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Mr. Swan pursed his lips and nodded. "Very well, I'll agree to your request. But know this, Edward, the Hales are close personal friends. If you hurt her, or my Isabella, there won't be a cave deep enough in which you could hide. Do we understand each other?"

"We do, sir. And I give you my word that I would never intentionally harm either lady."

"Good. Now, tell me about this business with the shirtwaist factory. I'm interested in a sound investment, and I hear tell that you may be on to something here."

So it was done.

Within a matter of hours, Emmett would begin his employ with Cullen Commerce, and I would call on Jefferson Hale with a request to court his daughter.


Oh boy ... so for all of you that were frustrated, angry with, or all out hated Bella, I can't wait to hear what you think about Edward's scheming now!

One last thing - check out the entries in the We Love Mobward contest! I'm judging for the first time and I can already tell it will be difficult. There's some great stuff in there!