I own nothing.
Thank you for being so patient with me. The last few weeks have been crazy! My dad was hospitalized after passing out while driving. He has been diabetic for over 30 years and his kidneys are shutting down. He's doing much better now and was released from the hospital just yesterday so I finally got back home and am trying to get back into a routine. I've had this chapter back from my beta for a while and I'm excited to finally get it posted!
A huge thanks to Sunflower Fran for all that she does for me and for my writing! You're amazing!
Well, you guys are torn ... about a third of you are pissed at Edward for his deception, a third of you are pissed at Bella for not seeing through the facade that made him look like a careless playboy, and a third of you are just waiting, hoping that it works out. I can't wait to see where public opinion goes next!
I could feel Miss Swan's eyes on me, and it was all I could do not to meet her gaze. The table held seating for twenty, and it was my good fortune to be seated beside Emmett, who was directly across from Isabella. Emmett would say that it was his good fortune as well, since his position at the table afforded him the same distance from Miss Hale, who was seated directly across from me.
This was our third outing as a couple.
The third opportunity for Miss Swan to observe our relationship, albeit a false one.
And the third opportunity to collect on a promise. As agreed, Emmett was quick to point out my most recent business endeavors and how they might benefit the community.
"Have you given any more thought to the development of another factory within the year using your education plan?"
I nodded, chewing slowly as I waited to see if Isabella engaged in the conversation.
Her response was immediate. Her head lifted, and her eyes focused momentarily on Emmett before settling on me. "Education plan?"
I took a small sip of wine before clearing my throat and meeting her gaze. "I've implemented a program which offers a basic education, as well as, management training to any interested employee at our shirtwaist factory. Our hope is that the younger men and women will take advantage of the opportunities we've offered in exchange for first consideration when hiring for future employment."
Isabella stared at me as though trying to discern my thoughts, and perhaps my intentions. When she found her voice, it carried an incredulous tone.
"You offer education rather than wages?"
"No, no. You misunderstand, Miss Swan." I turned slightly in my chair to engage her fully. "After that tragic fire at the Triangle Factory back in March, we determined that our employees would never face the same dangers. If we educate our workers and then promote them from within the company, the quality of the labor is much improved, as well as their own quality of life. It also increases the likelihood that they will feel compassion and empathy for their fellow workers, creating loyalty and trust among them and a stronger production for Cullen Commerce as a whole. All of our employees are paid a fair wage and are offered the opportunity for an education in addition to their income."
"I see," she whispered, her eyes never leaving my face and I was left to wonder if she truly was seeing me for the first time through eyes of respect and admiration. If her expression was any indication, I was gaining her affections more with each passing day.
Rosalie dabbed at her mouth with her linen napkin before turning to Emmett. "Is it true that you intend to provide housing to young men and women employed at the factory as well?"
Ah, Rose. She was well versed in our game of chess.
Emmett cleared his throat and nodded, "It is true. Edward has developed a plan that will guarantee a safe place for our youngest employees if they are away from family. The quarterly reports and projections show increased productivity now that they have security and a good meal. It's the right thing, the humane thing to do, wouldn't you agree?"
I heard very little of the conversation that ensued, my focus being captured by Isabella pushing bits of vegetables about with her fork while a range of emotions flitted across her lovely face.
Surprise, annoyance, frustration, sadness, and finally resignation as she carefully placed her fork on the fine bone china. She disengaged entirely from the conversation as Mr. Hale invited the men to join him in the library for brandy. The ladies began chattering on about any variety of topics as they rose from the table, intent on the parlor, I assumed.
Rose turned to Bella and leaned in with a conspiratorial gleam in her eye. "If we tarry for just a moment, we can escape our mother's clutches and take a turn in the garden."
Isabella offered a distracted smile that was little more than a vague upturning of the lips and nodded as she rose from her seat with Emmett's assistance. She glanced back at me as she took Rose's arm, her eyes full of questions.
"You should speak with her father."
I turned to find Emmett's gaze following the ladies as they made their way down the marble path, which led to the garden. Taking a few steps, I joined him near the windows. "I have spoken with her father. I'm unable to make any further pursuit while I am in your service, Emmett. I did give you my word, though it is proving very difficult to keep."
"I must admit, Edward, I expected nothing less than your loyalty. What I did not expect was the cost to you. We must end this charade before the price is too great."
"Emmett, I won't –"
"I agree with Emmett. This has gone too far."
Rosalie's voice startled the both of us. I turned, anticipating that Isabella would accompany her, but she was nowhere to be found. Rosalie shook her head and with a knowing glance, confirmed that Miss Swan hadn't accompanied her.
"Isabella has excused herself for the remainder of the evening."
"Is she ill?" Even I could hear the apprehension in my voice.
"Hmmm. Heartsick, perhaps." Rosalie's eyes dropped to the floor as her brow furrowed. After what seemed an unendurably long silence, she lifted her head and looked squarely at Emmett. "I will speak to my father in the morning. I will inform him that I no longer wish to entertain Mr. Cullen's favor."
"Rose, you must consider – "
"No," lifting her hand, Rosalie ended Emmett's protestations. "Isabella is my friend. I can't continue to break her heart for my own happiness." Turning her eyes on me, she smiled softly. "I believe you have gained her affections. She will not speak freely because she believes our deception, but her eyes and her demeanor all but declare her heart."
I could feel my own heart pounding in my chest at her words. My hopes were resting on the possibility that Rosalie was accurate in her assessment.
The summons came before breakfast the next morning. My mother informed me that a messenger had arrived hoping to deliver Mr. Hale's invitation before I had left for the office. So, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I found myself being welcomed into the Hale home around midday.
"Edward! Welcome. Please have a seat." Mr. Hale extended a hand toward one of the chairs opposite his large mahogany desk.
"Thank you, sir. Rosalie tells me that you're planning a trip abroad with Mrs. Hale." He smiled at my attempt to make conversation as he took the seat across from mine.
"I am. It's far overdue, and she has grown impatient with me as of late. I fear for my safety if I postpone another holiday in favor of business."
"Well, isn't that why we do all that we do, Mr. Hale? So that we might enjoy life and the fruits of our labor?"
He laughed heartily, "Let us be honest! It is so that our wives might enjoy life. And Edward, the name is Jefferson. We're far too well acquainted to stand on such formality. We're practically family, son."
I swallowed hard at his insinuation and wondered exactly what Rosalie had said to her father.
"Tell me, Edward, what are your intentions toward my daughter?"
I felt my mouth open, but must have appeared an imbecile as it refused to form words. I coughed to cover my flailing and attempted to speak coherently. "S-sir, I don't …"
He laughed and shook his head, "You're hesitation confirms my suspicions as well as Rosalie's words. You feel no affection for my Rose."
"Jefferson," I paused, focusing on the floor at my feet and measuring my words carefully. "I have a high regard and fondness for Rose, but it is more of a companionable sort and – "
My words died in response to Jefferson's booming laughter. Wiping his eyes, he shook his head. "Square up, man! Rosalie explained your charade."
"She's told you of our deception?"
"Ah, my Rose is a cunning creature, but she can hide nothing from me. Nor would I wish her to do so. No, Edward, she has no desire to continue this courtship, and I have no desire to see her bound to a man whom she does not love or who does not love her in return."
Silence fell in the room as I contemplated this new turn. I pondered the reasoning that would press Rose to reveal all to her father. Did he know of Emmett's intentions? Did he know of mine? What of Mrs. Hale? How would she react to any of these revelations? Would this have all been for naught?
I rubbed my fingers across my forehead, hoping to quell the ache I could feel building in my head. When I lifted my eyes to meet Jefferson's, they were no longer full of mirth.
"I don't condone the trickery, Edward, but I do understand why you felt it necessary. I'm not oblivious to the desperation that young love can cause. I am also not altogether unaware that the consensus is that my wife dictates the matters of our home. While that assumption amuses me, it is entirely false."
I knew my eyes were wide with surprise at the turn of our conversation. I also knew that I suddenly had an ally in Jefferson Hale.
"If you take nothing else away from this meeting, Edward, remember this. It is a smart man who keeps his wife happy. Olivia is most content when she feels as though she has the upper hand in all situations. My job is simply to remain objective, oversee all, and ensure that she has the information she needs to make the decision I favor."
"And Emmett McCarty? Is he favorable?"
Once again, Jefferson rocked with laughter. "You get right to the matter, son!" He stood abruptly and walked toward a small table to the side of the window, lifting a crystal decanter and tilting his head in question as he continued. "I'll speak plainly then. I know you have plans to enact as well."
I gave a brief nod in answer to both his unasked question as well as his offer of a drink. He was silent as he poured and then carried both glasses back to where we were seated. Handing me one, he sat and cleared his throat.
"I care very little for the ridiculous social requirements my wife and so many others place on us. Olivia's father was from a wealthy, established family but she would do well to remember that her grandmother was a maid in her great-grandparent's home. Her grandfather lost his mind with love for the girl and the family was reasonable enough to allow them to wed." His eyes fixed on the sunshine pouring in through the window as he continued. "Perhaps she hides behind her rigid societal strictures in an effort to keep the rest of those old buzzards from remembering her humble history."
I choked back a laugh at his classification of the older women in our community. Jefferson grinned widely, and his eyes held mischief as he tipped his glass and drained the remnants of his drink.
"Emmett is a fine man. I have no reservations in handing my daughter into his care. I only regret the difficulty this little scheme may have caused you and Miss Swan."
He had my full attention now.
"How do you mean, sir?"
"I fear you may have a limited time to act, Edward. Charles told me this morning that his Isabella had asked him to consider allowing her to travel. She wanted to book immediate passage to Europe."
My throat went dry at the thought. My alarm had to have been evident as Jefferson gestured toward the crystal tumbler in my hand.
"I thought you might need that. Have a drink, son."
Tipping the glass, I downed the liquid and sputtered a bit at the sharp fire that lit my throat and chest in its wake. I closed my eyes briefly and waited for the heat to dissipate, clarity replacing the panic his words had caused.
"His response?" I asked.
"He said he would not be pressed into a hasty decision and that she must be patient while he took it under advisement." I relaxed a bit which caused Jefferson to grin widely. "I suspect you find some relief in his response?"
It was more of a question than a statement, but I didn't bother to answer. We both knew it was the truth.
I sat the glass on the table beside my chair and leaned forward, hoping to convey my need to bring an end to this meeting without offending my host. Thankfully, Jefferson was a perceptive man.
"Go, Edward. Settle your affairs and give that dear girl a reason to remain in Chicago. And when you speak with Emmett, inform him that I am quite at my leisure to entertain any requests of a personal nature he might have reason to ask of me."
We stood, and I shook his hand, my grin spreading quickly as I turned to go. I hoped to catch Charles Swan before he left the office for the day, but first, I had one more errand to complete.