In this alternate futuristic universe, people are separated by a hierarchical caste system, where one's station in society is determined by birthright or "marrying up." Bella is from a lower class, a "lesser," pulled up in station with her family by her sister's marriage into a prominent, wealthy family. Bella is considered a loser amongst the higher classes, because she struggles with her weight. Her problems are compounded by the pressures of high society and the expectations her family place on her. How could someone like her ever find a decent husband? Her childhood best friend might have the answer to all her problems. With a fake marriage, Edward will gain his inheritance, and Bella will raise her station, but at what cost? Who would believe a Cullen would really marry a loser?
I lay on top of my fluffy white bed with the white embossed comforter, as I pondered my options. Run? Stay? What to do? There was a knot in my stomach that wouldn't cease, and I knew it would be with me continually, until the threat had packed up her bags and returned to her mansion.
The ceiling fan spun around and around, providing only a small amount of relief from the sweltering temperatures outside. You would have thought when my sister had made the upgrades to our house, central air conditioning would have been one of them. Just wait. I was sure after a few uncomfortable nights, she would send for funds straightaway, not for us or our comfort, but for her own.
I stared around my room. White walls. White furniture. White everything. A proper atmosphere for a young virgin, still awaiting a husband. Any amount of color and I might have had an impure thought. I rolled my eyes and pressed my face into the nearest pillow, screaming out my frustrations.
My ears were on a constant alert. The moment the gravel was kicked aside from the tires that would be traveling up our path, I knew it would be only a matter of moments before that knot in my stomach squeezed even more.
"Bella!" my mother yelled from downstairs. "Time to get up and shower. Your sister will be here any minute. Don't give her another reason to look down on you!"
Like a shower would help.
I sat up, and my pudgy stomach pooched out from under my tight top. I was aware why my mother had forced me into nightwear that was one size too small. She thought she was so smart, finding subtle ways to encourage weight loss.
I chose to forgo the shower. I hoped I smelled. Nothing would please me more than dissatisfying my sister. Normally, I was a well-tempered, easy-going girl who was eager to please, but when it came to Jessica, I was afraid I lost all sense of reason or conformity.
I pulled on some jeans and an extra-large t-shirt. I knew the loose shirt would hide my natural shape. It made me feel even more self-conscious to wear fitted clothes. I didn't need to give another person a reason to pinch or prod at my fat.
While pulling on my sneakers, I heard a car slowly approaching. I ran over to the window to check. Yes, it was her. Arriving in a chauffeured black Rolls Royce. A Mercedes or standard BMW was too low-brow for her grand entrance.
I couldn't face her yet. I just couldn't. Run it was. I knew if I were to go out the front door or even the back, I might be seen. I waited for my sister to get out of the car and give her due diligence to look around the property, as if she needed to make a mental list of everything that should be rectified while she was here.
The minute I heard the front door open, I unlatched the lock on my window, raising it up and creeping out swiftly, moving cautiously to ensure I didn't fall. I carefully guided myself over the shingles of our newer roof to the side and slowly climbed down the trellis, landing silently, as I jumped the last couple of feet down to the ground. I peeked in the window and saw no one was near the kitchen, so I took off running.
And who said I didn't exercise?
I ran through the high grass field, desperate to get to the tree line and out of sight, before anyone could see me. I slowed my pace and allowed my lungs a break, as I headed through the tall oaks. I knew this small thicket of woods like the back of my hand. These two acres of land separated our property from that of the Cullen's.
The Cullen's were one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the state. Established money. The only reason I knew them was because my mother used to work as a nanny for them, when Mrs. Cullen had first had her twins, Edward and Alice. Since I had been born close in age, and out of the kindness of Esme's heart, my mother had been permitted to bring me with her to work. This was what separated Esme from the rest of her high-brow society peers. Normally, a lady of her stature would never allow for the staff's children to socialize with her own. Someone like me might teach them improper manners. Thankfully, Esme was kind.
As I approached the house, I knew I would have to go up the tree and directly into Alice Cullen's window. As kind as Esme was, she would feel the obligation to report back to my mother my unsuitable dress and unkempt hair. The amazing air conditioning would be worth the climb.
I had grown up in this house. Though, I hadn't been permitted to sleep over, until my sister had gotten engaged to a Newton. Everything had changed for my family, when we had been honored with marriage into a higher-class family. In our society as it stood, when a lady married into a family with means, it was the duty of her betrothed to see that his new fiancé's family was greatly compensated and given rise in station where necessary. After all, it would be embarrassing for someone in the upper class to be seen with their in-laws who were lower, or worse, lessers.
The minute my sister had said, "I do," my father had been given a promotion within his department. No longer a common police officer, he had been made a lead investigator. My mother was expected not to work and gave notice to the Cullen family. Working was for the poor lessers. Societal rules dictated that working was beneath women above a certain station. Only volunteer work was suitable, and then only if a woman wished to, with her father or husband's approval. Their fathers or husbands were expected to be able to provide. Only in rare circumstances was a lady ever allowed a job that paid real coin. This idea alone made me never want to get married.
Our house had undergone a complete renovation, and all the land we'd previously had to pay rent for had been gifted to my father. Now that my family wasn't in the lesser working class, thanks to Jessica marrying her Michael Newton, I was expected to learn the proper ways of society and become a lady, so I might have a suitable marriage when the time came. That time was now, and I hated feeling like a prized cow put out for show, where they might as well place a flashing neon sign above my head stating, "Available for marriage."
Why someone would ever want to marry me was beyond my comprehension. The reason my sister was coming for a long-overdue visit was not to spend time with her family. No, she was coming now, because she needed to be sure her family wasn't an embarrassment, when her husband and his family visited the state this coming holiday season for the Eastern Region Christmas Ball. Jessica's main embarrassment was me.
"Bella?" Alice asked, opening her window when she saw me.
"Sorry, I would've called, but I didn't realize until after I'd jumped down from my room that I'd forgotten my phone. You know there was no way I'd be able to get back upstairs without being seen."
I climbed onto the roof from the tree and watched out for the one loose tile under Alice's window that had tripped me up before. I had landed in a painful straddle across Alice's windowsill on my bottom more than once, when that tile had shifted from under my foot. That had felt worse than the personal goring I had gotten after hitting a pothole while riding Edward's bicycle the one time I had attempted it.
I nodded, slipping through the window, grateful for the generous solar array that powered the Cullen's house, hence their amazing central air conditioning.
Alice understood my plight. She was the kindest person I knew. Someone of her station should have never been friends with someone like me. Alice, being a Cullen, was from established money, whereas my family was granted money, so she should not have wanted to be seen with me. Alice was on track to marry into one of the wealthiest and most prominent families from down south. A friend like me, fat, unappealing and lower in station, might have the ability to drag her down. But Alice was like her mother. Kind. She didn't care what people thought of our association. Given her station, she didn't have to care.
There were only a handful of established money families in the state. Established meaning those who had been blessed for centuries with their financial proclivities. People like our family, who married into established money, were gifted money. Or granted money. The whole thing was rather ridiculous if you asked me. Who cared how much money we had or how we had come to have it? Oh, that was right…everyone.
Alice and I had been best friends since we were four. Edward, Alice and I had been thick as thieves growing up. Three best friends. Edward used to be like me. He, too, had struggled in the weight department. We used to sneak off to the kitchen, and while one of us distracted the staff, the other would ferret away some cookies or leftover cakes. I loved Edward. He was the first boy I had ever loved. He had even kissed me once, but no one could ever know about that. Not even Alice.
However, when we had neared our teens, Edward had been put on a strict diet and exercise regimen, and the more weight he had lost, the less he would hang out with me anymore. Now, he was off over in Europe at school, and from what Alice had told me, his father was none too pleased with him, since apparently, he was sleeping in classes, having lots of random sex, and drinking himself silly.
Occasionally, Alice would show me a new picture of her brother, and I would feel my body tingle just looking at him. He was so incredibly attractive now. No longer pudgy, but tall and handsome, with muscles completely defined, he was perfection. It was those pictures I would remember, when I was alone at night and able to touch myself in private. If my mother knew, she would skin me alive for having impure thoughts of a man who would never be my husband.
"So, when did the nasty troll arrive?" Alice asked.
I sighed and flopped down on her couch. "Just now. I couldn't face her yet. I need my strength."
"Oh, Bella, I wish you didn't have to see her. She's so cruel. She makes my blood boil. I can't wait until Jasper and I are wed. Don't worry, I'll be sure to give your sister a proper education, then. She may be with a Newton, but I'll be with a Whitlock. Whitlock's always trumped Newtons."
Yes, Whitlocks did trump Newtons, but a male Cullen would trump them all. Whomever Edward decided to wed, that girl's class would rise immediately to the top.
"Well, I can't wait to see the look on her face come that day. Have you and Jasper set a date yet?" I asked.
Alice went over and sat back down at her vanity. She began to run a brush through her gorgeous chestnut brown hair.
"Not yet, but his father and my father are in their final negotiations, so it'll be only a matter of days before I can finally pick a date. I was thinking next summer, but it feels like forever and a day. I don't think I can wait that long…especially for sex."
I laughed and shook my head. "Are you horny, Alice?" I giggled.
"Aren't you? My god, I can't wait to have sex. I think I'll make a little negotiation of my own with Jasper. See to it that he gives me sex everyday…perhaps twice a day. Not only to have babies, but because I know that, once I start, I won't want to stop."
Hearing her go on about sex made me want it, too, but who the hell would ever have sex with me? Plus, I was sure when my parents or sister found someone to take me on, they would want me to be pure. Sometimes, it felt as though that was all I was good for. To my family, a possible financial gain, and to my potential husband, one good pop of the cherry to stake his flag in to claim.
"I don't know if I'll ever have sex. I think I'd much rather be a spinster, allowed to live my life however I wished. I'd take having a job any day over a marriage for gain only."
"Oh, Bella, don't say such things! Besides, you work now, so…not much would change."
She was lying. I didn't work. I "volunteered." I wasn't allowed to accept payment for my time, because of my new station. People would also think my family was financially strapped, and then we would bring shame to Michael Newton, because he was, after all, responsible for our wellbeing by marrying my sister.
Currently, I volunteered at the local hospital, where Alice's father, Carlisle Cullen, worked as the chief of surgery, as well as having a financial stake in the hospital. He was the one who had gotten me my volunteer position. At first, I would read to comatose patients or people in the intensive care ward, but lately, my job had changed. The hospital employees would call me the grim reaper. It was a silly joke. One I enjoyed, but if my mother ever found out, she would be horrified and expect me to quit there straightaway.
They called me the grim reaper, because I wanted to sit with patients who had no one and were being taken off life support. No one should have to die alone. I took it upon myself to hold their hands or read to them, so perhaps they would go peacefully, knowing they weren't alone.
"I don't know, Alice. I think I'd rather take my chances with cats. Plus, if I was a cat lady, then it'd infuriate my sister, and why would I pass up the chance to do that?"
"Your sister would probably make your parents disown you. You wouldn't be able to afford cats. You'd be a gutter baby."
"Aw, are you saying you wouldn't take me in and let me work for you? You know I can do anything domestic and do it quite well. I'd make a fine servant for your budding family."
Alice set her brush down and turned to me. "I'd never let you work for me, but of course, I'd take you in," she replied seriously. "Bella, there's something I want to ask you. I hope you'll agree to it. It'd mean the world to me."
Somehow, our light conversation had turned serious.
"Would you be my maid of honor?"
My mouth slowly dropped open. "You can't be serious."
"I'm very much serious. You know I love you. You're my best friend. I can't imagine anyone else I'd want to stand by my side on the happiest day of my life."
I slowly shook my head. "Your mother would never agree to it. I mean…Esme's a dear, but look at me? They'd never want this to blemish your pictures," I replied, waving my hand up and down my body.
"I don't care what my mother thinks, or anyone else for that matter. True, you'll have to wear a dress and do your hair and makeup. You can't come in jeans and a baggy t-shirt," she joked.
I threw a pillow from her couch at her.
"Is that a yes or what?" Alice asked again.
I nodded my head and laughed. "Of course. I'd be honored."
I stood up and went to hug her. A sense of dread filled my stomach, when I thought of standing in front of all those people, but I would do it for Alice. Odd thing was, this kind of honor was something that might get my sister off my back. Being seen at the right hand of a Cullen on her wedding day did carry a certain clout.
I knew I couldn't spend my whole day with Alice, as much as I wanted to. It would only take a couple of hours, before my mom would send out a search party for me. So, I shimmed down Alice's tree and headed back towards my house.
I had hoped my father would be home by the time I returned. He was always softer on me, when Jessica would come home and have her claws out for me. I knew my mother would take Jessica's side, no matter what she said or did. It wasn't my mother's fault. Technically, Jessica was higher in station now with her marriage, so my mom would have no choice but to listen to Jessica and give her words weight.
"You'd better get in there, child. I think your sister is mighty upset with your disappearance," Mrs. Cope said, as I came through the back door into the kitchen. We'd only gained Mrs. Cope after my sister's marriage. She did all the standard housework and cooking now that I used to do, and she was a dear. I gave her a quick hug, and she squeezed me back, wishing me luck.
I could hear my mother and Jessica talking in the sitting room. It was teatime. I looked down and saw my pants were muddy, and my shirt was stained with sweat. I knew I should sneak up to my room and shower, but I decided to go a different route.
"Good afternoon," I announced, entering the formal sitting room. My damp sneakers squeaked on the polished wooden floors.
"Bella!" Jessica said my name in disgust.
"Bella, I told you to get ready for your sister's arrival! Where have you been?" my mother hissed angrily.
"Yes, what's your explanation for this? You look ghastly, and you've made me wait," Jessica sneered.
"My apologies. I'll just dash upstairs and come back when I'm acceptable."
"And just how long will that take?" my sister demanded, rolling her eyes.
"Girls…" my mom started.
"Well, just how long am I expected to wait? From the looks of her, I'll be here for the rest of the year, if I'm to have any luck in managing her care."
I stopped in my tracks and turned around.
"Please, don't go to any trouble, Jessica. You need not waste your time on me. In fact, how about we make a deal? You leave me be, and I'll be sure to make myself scarce when your in-laws come this winter," I offered.
"Ugh," Jessica responded in disgust. "You think my in-laws are just going to forget about my fat, unappealing sister? They'll expect to see that some progress has been made since the wedding. How do you think it'll make me look when they see you? They'll be worried daddy might have to sell the farm for someone to take his un-prized pig. And who do you think will be responsible for that dowry? Me and my well-connected husband!"
For a brief moment, I forgot myself and hauled off and smacked her straight across the face.
Jessica stood there staring at me. How disappointing that my slapping her stupid was purely a fantasy that happened only in my mind.
"Marriage agrees with you, Jessica."
A common greeting. She narrowed her eyes, knowing my words were insincere.
"And I don't see how it'll ever agree with you!"
"Then, deny me! Please. I'd much rather spend my days on the streets than to put up with you!"
Now, I had done it.
"Bella!" my mother snapped. "Stop it. She'll not be denying anyone. Now, go upstairs, and for the love of god, throw away that entire outfit!"
"No, by all means, keep the outfit. It'll be something you can wear, when we start our exercising regiment. I've hired the best trainer in the western states to come and deal with you," Jessica smirked.
I wanted to fire back a snappy retort, but I stopped myself.
"I'll gladly meet your trainer. But I'm doing this for Alice Cullen, not you. Alice has asked me to be her maid of honor, and I've accepted."
My mother screamed out in joy and then covered her mouth, before it could provide further embarrassment. Jessica looked nearly offended.
"Oh, Bella! What a great honor!" my mother praised, bringing me in for the first genuine hug she had given me since I was a child.
"Did Alice get Esme's blessing? I doubt she'd approve of this," Jessica replied haughtily.
I rolled my eyes. "No, but Alice doesn't care. She wanted me."
Jessica shook her head. "Alice Cullen always was a loon. I don't know how she ever convinced a Whitlock to look her way," Jessica huffed, sounding a tad jealous.
"Be careful, Jessica. You're speaking down about a Cullen. What would people think if they knew of your harsh words? Do I need to remind you of your place? Should I run up and draw you a chart?" I taunted.
"I don't need a chart. I know all the prominent families. Far better than you'll ever know."
I snorted out loud, which made Jessica's face turn green with repulsion. "I only need to know one family. The Cullen's trump them all," I sang, turning on my heel and leaving the sitting room.
I could hear her and my mother continuing to discuss my sad nature, as my feet traveled up the stairs and toward the bathroom. I was never one for bubble baths, but knowing it would keep me away from Jessica longer, I decided now was the time to invest in some time alone.
I lay in our clawfoot bathtub and closed my eyes, listening to the birds outside my window, while I thought about Alice's offer to be her maid of honor. Any normal girl would be giddy at the thought. I had never been a maid of honor before. Jessica would have laughed out loud or possibly cracked a smile if I had ever asked to be her maid of honor when the time came to select someone. I was a bit surprised I had even been invited to her wedding. I wished I hadn't been. The looks on the faces of Michael Newton's family had been enough to make me never want to leave my bedroom again. I hadn't seen them since, and that was over three years ago.
Once Alice and Jasper received their official permission to marry from their fathers, their wedding season clock would be set. Jasper would take ownership of their new estate. Alice would be permitted to move into a guest suite until the day of their wedding, and then after they said their vows, Alice would move into their bridal suite, where forever she would stay with Jasper.
Every event up until the wedding would be planned out extensively, and since I was the maid of honor, I would need to be ready to see to Alice's happiness. All while wearing a dress. I shuddered at the thought.
I sunk down deeper into my bath and let my hair wash clean under the water. My face was fully submerged. It was all so peaceful. What I wouldn't give to be left alone. Not my sister's problem. Not my father or mother's. Just left to be my own person.
I dreamed of what life would look like, if I wasn't forced to worry about marriage and the class system that had become so ingrained in our society. I thought of South America. White sandy beaches. Sunny, perfect weather, and exotic men, amongst whom I might perhaps find one to think of me as attractive. I could have a job. Something honorable, like a teacher or nurse. I would have children when I was ready, and they would be perfect. I tried to picture my imaginary family, but a husband's face did not appear. My children faded away like sand being blown aside, and my picture showed only me. Alone.
A loud knock on the door woke me from my sad, silly fantasies.
"Bella, you should get out soon, dear. Dinner will be ready, and your father should arrive any moment," Mrs. Cope called through the white wooden door.
I pulled the plug on my bath and groaned, as I heaved myself up and out. Mrs. Cope had left me enough time to blow dry my wet hair, so I might give off a better impression. I stood in front of the mirror, appraising my naked body, and I hated when I immediately cringed at my rolls. I don't care what people think... I don't care what people think…
I recited this over and over, even if I didn't believe a word of it.
I settled on dress pants and a dark green top. It was significantly a step up from what I had worn previously that day, but I doubted it would placate my sister. When I did finally arrive downstairs, I could see everyone in the house was in a flurry of excitement.
My father sat in his comfy chair, while he and my mother talked excitedly.
"There you are. Guess what just arrived?" my mother sang, as she waved an ivory card around in her hand.
I shrugged and hid partly behind the wall separating me from the living room.
"Oh, Bella, stop slumping like that. Stand up straight and proper. With lines like these, you can easily shave off a couple of pounds," she modeled to me how she wanted me to stand. She looked like a crippled swan attempting to straighten out its neck. It looked awkward and displeasing to the eye.
She pulled me into the room, as I heard Jessica's heels clicking down the steps behind me. And here we go for round two…
"Jessica, look at what just came." My mother had now forgotten me and moved on to her favorite daughter. She presented the ivory card to Jessica.
"Esme Cullen wishes to have tea with Bella tomorrow afternoon. This must mean she'll approve Alice's choice for maid of honor. Can you imagine what this'll mean for our family?" my mother beamed.
"Mother, it's just tea and…a bridal party position. It's not a guaranteed marriage proposal. I don't know what everyone is getting so excited for."
"I can't believe it. My sweet Bella, my little diamond-in-the-rough, standing beside a Cullen on her wedding day. I'm mighty proud of you," my father smiled, acting as if he hadn't heard a word from my sister.
"She hasn't been little in over a decade!" Jessica grumbled.
"I have to figure out what I'm going to wear," my mother squealed.
It was customary for my mother to attend alongside me until I was married, because supposedly, only after marriage would I gain the insight to be able to speak for myself. However…
"No, Mother. I'll attend with Bella," Jessica declared.
Since my sister was a station above my mother, she had the authority to come and speak on my behalf.
"No! Come on…" I complained.
I saw the light go out in my mother's eyes, as she sat down like a scolded puppy.
"Esme Cullen is as worthy as they come. I'd think you'd want someone like me to stand on your behalf and accept this honor. I'll see to it Esme knows that, when it comes to representing our family, I'll do everything in my power to make you acceptable."
I looked over and pleaded with my father. The light had gone out in his eyes, too.
"Bella…she makes a valid case. I'm sure Jessica will have your best interests at heart," my father replied quietly.
I wanted to throw a tantrum, but I refrained. I wanted to run upstairs and scream into my pillow until my voice was hoarse, but I refrained. I wanted to shove my steaming chicken pot pie into my sister's face while at dinner, but I didn't. Why? Because I was not that girl.
I saw my future now. It was not in South America with some exotic husband or beautiful children. My future was being under my sister's thumb for the rest of my life. Even if I did marry eventually, Jessica would always be higher in society. I would never get out from under her.
I married someone higher than a Newton.
AN: Thank you for reading and reviewing!
Thank you to DOLLYBIGMOMMA for editing. She took on the amazing feat of going through and editing this from the beginning! I will never understand how amazing and generous people can be with their time to help me out! thank you, girl! You're amazing!
STORY IS MINE. CHARACTERS BELONG TO STEPHENIE MEYER.