A/N: MoorWard is back. Maybe inspired by the Bel Ami trailer? Heck, yes.
Huge, huge thanks to the MoorWard team, aka Busymommy, AstonMartinVanquish, memphis1 and unimaginative olena. You ladies ROCK.
No other ramblings this time, on with the show...
I took a few deep breaths to steady myself before I had to walk into the library and confront both Lord Whitlock and his enchanting cousin. I straightened my suit jacket, the perfectly starched cuffs of my shirt, I squared my shoulders and turned the door handle, making my way down the hall.
A few minutes later, I was somewhat surprised to find only the former waiting for me. His Lordship had made himself at home, ensconced in one of the armchairs by the fireplace. My features schooled back to carefully crafted indifference, I sat down at my usual place – my father's desk.
"I assumed your cousin would be joining us for this conversation, Lord Whitlock?" I asked, both to maintain some semblance of polite conversation, and because I ached to know where Bella was, even though I wasn't prepared to uncover my moves to my opponent – yet.
"She mentioned she had to discuss some housekeeping issues with your butler, before she could join us." I nodded, but before I could reply, Lord Whitlock continued, "I see she takes her duties here very seriously," he added, with a hint of annoyance in his voice that I could neither dismiss nor misconstrue.
"I don't think I am quite partial to the implications of your reasoning, Lord Whitlock. I would appreciate it, for Miss Bella's sake, if you could be entirely honest with me."
Addressing my blunt retort, Lord Whitlock's face contorted into an enigmatic grimace. "Mr Cullen, I must admit I am not pleased with the situation. It appears that my cousin's main reason for staying here is that this household sadly wants a mistress at the moment."
Growing nervous, I tapped my fingers on the dark, polished surface of my father's oaken desk. His Lordship was well on the way toward stretching my forbearance very thin, and I found myself wishing that Bella would appear momentarily. Her calming presence could prevent me from offering Lord Whitlock a rude and impetuous retort, to the utter detriment of our future prospects.
"I can assure you, Lord Whitlock, that you are under a grave misconception about Miss Bella's role in this household. Perhaps you will allow me to enlighten you."
Lord Whitlock leaned back in the armchair, smoothed his outfit with his elegant hands, and then perched his elbows on the armrests, tenting his fingers before him. "By all means, Mr Cullen. I would be delighted to hear your detailed views on the matter. Of course, you've just met her yourself, isn't that correct?" he asked, his voice laced with haughtiness.
His Lordship's strategy became clear. He meant to belittle Bella's importance and her place at Cullen Manor to the extent that she would be portrayed solely as a dignified servant, thus placing her much beneath her station in life, or what Lord Whitlock perceived to be her station by birthright. That would, in turn, fully justify him in removing her from my household, on the grounds that he would be acting in her best interest. I couldn't have that. I had to prevent him from snatching Bella away from me, but it wouldn't be wise to antagonise him openly, neither now nor once Bella joined us.
"I will not contest this, Lord Whitlock. There is some truth in what you say," I began, my voice poised and controlled despite my inner turmoil. "I have only known Miss Bella since I returned from the West Indies, but that doesn't imply that I am unaware of the highest regard my family has had for her for the last five years. She is well-loved and respected by everyone here; she is considered a true member of this family, too."
My statement had the ring of truth to it; I knew that Lord Whitlock wouldn't dare challenge it and call me a liar as a consequence. He nodded and waved his hand, giving me leave to proceed.
"Besides, Lord Whitlock, I would be remiss in my filial duties if I did not abide by my parents' wishes. My mother, God rest her soul, loved Miss Bella like a daughter and wished that she would always have a home here at Cullen Manor. My own father even included her in his last will and testament to this specific purpose."
Those were my mother's wishes, but that didn't mean they couldn't mirror my own desires. I longed for Bella to have a home with me forever, just as my mother had dreamt, only in a different capacity.
Again, Lord Whitlock couldn't very well dispute my argument, because he would have to show blatant disregard for a lady's wishes – a lady who was, incidentally, my late mother.
Just as I was waiting for him to speak his mind, we both heard a short rap on the door and turned our heads to see Bella's figure appear in the doorway.
"May I come in?" she asked, almost hesitating. "I am not interrupting you, am I?"
"Of course not, Miss Bella. We were just waiting for you," I answered, feeling a real smile on my face for the first time in days. Bella reciprocated with a shy smile of her own. I saw her take stock of the situation in the room, with a speculative glint in her eyes, her gaze alternating from me to her cousin, and then back to me.
"He's not being…difficult, is he?" she asked, lowering her voice, as if her words were meant for me alone. I waved her off, dismissing her concerns, but elated that she would be questioning her cousin's dealings with me for my sake.
She went to sit by her cousin in the other armchair near the fireplace and, while I regretted her being so far away from me, I reasoned that it was probably more appropriate for her to sit with him.
"I appreciate all that your family has done for Isabella all these years, and I will be grateful forever that your father and mother succeeded where my late aunt and uncle sadly failed, but Isabella is not friendless in the world. It is high time she lived up to the standards expected of her station."
There it was. Lord Whitlock's strategy was finally out in the open. He did mean, after all, to use Bella's wealth and position in society to force her to leave Cornwall. What neither of us could have expected, though, were Bella's next words.
"Station, station. Have you nothing else to say, Jasper?" she snapped at her cousin with a scathing hiss. Her face was ashen and her voice was strained and suddenly anxious.
"Isabella, please, have some respect. Mr Cullen doesn't need to witness this."
"And you don't need to imply that he is beneath me in any way. I won't have any of that. My guardianship was entrusted to Esme for a very good reason. You will do well to remember that."
Isabella and I were uncannily fighting her cousin with the same weapon – the moral burden of challenging the deathbed wishes of two ladies of quality, first Bella's mother, then my own. Lord Whitlock's features seemed to contort in a displeased grimace.
"Isabella, you can't throw away your prospects, your position in society, your connections…for what?" rebuked Lord Whitlock, without so much as a glance in my direction.
He had relinquished all pretence of gentlemanly behaviour and now blatantly ignored my presence, thus disclosing his deep-rooted belief that Cullen Manor was not good enough for Bella. In my mind, there was no question that he was also implying I was not good enough for Bella.
"And what about my reputation and my honour, Jasper?" she replied. I did not quite comprehend her meaning at first, and got tricked into thinking that this comment would actually work in her cousin's favour.
"If you cared about your reputation, Little One, you would have some natural and just concern about dwelling here, when you have a perfectly functional house to your own name in London. But no, the lady wishes to stay in the country," he retorted, thoroughly incensed.
I was beginning to question whether it was even appropriate for me to participate in this discussion. This was a family dispute and I was intruding. Lord Whitlock, who had hitherto come across like a very controlled fellow, was slowly relinquishing his courtly manners; his voice and features went a long way to prove that. I thought that maybe I could tone down the situation and help Bella.
"Lord Whitlock, I beg your pardon. If you don't feel comfortable discussing this in my presence, I will take my leave, for Miss Bella's sake, but…"
"Pray continue, Mr Cullen?"
"I believed we were to discuss your terms for letting Miss Bella stay at Cullen Manor, if she so wished?" I asked, trying to keep my voice firm, and almost failing. I realised one moment too late that I was ignoring Bella completely.
"She wishes to stay, and she is right here. Thank you, Mr Cullen, for reminding my cousin about the purpose of this discussion."
Bella's voice was resolute, her gaze fiery and determined. Lord Whitlock was now the one looking sullen and disappointed.
"My terms, Mr Cullen…my terms…Now that you are both forcing my hand," he began, but Bella wouldn't let him continue.
"Jasper, this isn't fair to anyone and you are well aware of it. I have given my word, I will abide by it. How could I live with myself if I didn't? Do you want me to be the sort of person whose word is worthless?"
Bella was, indeed, a most clever young lady. She had cornered her cousin right where she wanted him. There was no moral nor gentlemanly way for him to contradict her reasoning, he knew this very well. I almost took pity on him as he uttered his next words and his poised façade crumpled.
"Of course not, Isabella! Nonetheless, I am your legal guardian, I am your next of kin and we grew up together until…until we parted ways. You cannot expect me to let this go quietly, child!"
His measured voice and his cut-glass accent slipped into an agitated mumble with those words, so much that I was fairly sure they were meant for Bella alone, although the still silence of the library allowed for his deep voice to ring loud and clear to me.
One thing he had mentioned seemed particularly shocking to me. He was Bella's guardian? Had not my father been filling that position? Did she still need one? That meant she was not independent yet, and this would complicate everything.
"You are my guardian until my birthday, Jasper. It's hardly an eternity, it's just three months away. Are you going to stamp your feet like a child now? I did not see you caring this much for my upbringing during the last five years," Bella replied tersely, her eyes focused on him, her countenance otherwise unreadable.
I was increasingly feeling like an unwanted – and unwilling – onlooker in a family feud. I didn't want to be involved, only to be compelled to choose sides. While concocting a plan to extricate myself from this situation, an unbidden thought struck me. Now I understood.
This had been Bella's predicament for months, while Emmett had been wreaking havoc within the family only to achieve his own selfish wishes. She'd felt torn between conflicting loyalties – between her unwavering affection for my mother and her gratitude towards my father on one side, and Emmett quite possibly trying to convince her to support him on the other. I'd witnessed his obvious affection for her at my mother's wake and I'd spent more than a few hours pondering what sort of bond they shared, considering that Emmett seemed to respect her almost as religiously as he did my mother.
She'd been forced to take sides, too, and she'd stayed to try and repair the damage. She was still willing to stay and put what was left of my family back together. Her strength and determination never ceased to amaze me and, for her sake, I had to stay where I was, and at least act the part of the master of the house and show her the family's support. All the while, in a distant corner of my mind, I was lost in an imaginary calendar, counting the days separating me from Bella's birthday.
"Lord Whitlock, the terms of my father's will cannot and will not be contested. I will not allow this. Therefore, Miss Bella will always have a home at Cullen Manor, should she wish to stay. It is my understanding that she, indeed, wishes to stay. However, if you are her legal guardian, I do believe we need to discuss your terms, if you have any. I have no wish to intrude on any other family matters, but I will uphold my father's wishes, and see that Miss Bella's are granted, too, whatever they may be."
Bella's gaze never left mine while I uttered those words in a steady, authoritative voice. That was what Augustus called 'the massa's voice' and I was glad I could muster that tone with Lord Whitlock, who looked increasingly less pleased with himself, the more I advanced with my reasoning.
"I would never challenge your authority as Miss Bella's guardian, but I believe you will appreciate that I have nothing but her best interests at heart."
That was the most polite and sedate thing I could say without compromising either Bella or myself. After all, I wasn't even sure we had an understanding. No words had been spoken between us.
"Naturally, Mr Cullen, naturally. My terms…"
"Yes, Jasper, your terms…" Bella was steadfastly provoking him, and he didn't like it one bit, if his annoyed muttering was any indication of his opinion.
"Isabella, please, I really wish you wouldn't stretch my patience any thinner, or I swear…"
Bella's eyes widened at the sound of her cousin's voice. He was no longer annoyed, he was livid, and my 'massa's voice' paled in comparison to his icy, calculated but still incensed elocution. Bella demurely cast her eyes down and motioned for him to continue with a graceful wave of her hand.
"Mr Cullen, Isabella turns twenty-one next September. I will have no legal say in her choices after that, but I wish to set some ground rules for the months to come. After she comes of age, she will be free to choose where to take up residence, but before that, I would prefer her not to remain unchaperoned at Cullen Manor. Even though this has been her home since she lost her parents, she will no longer have appropriate company once your sister resumes her education in London."
There was indeed an abundance of wit in this room, and it appeared that Lord Whitlock was just now taking the lion's share. I could never, in all conscience, contest his reasoning, especially since I would never consent to such an arrangement for my own sister, were the roles to be reversed. He was also privy to a lot more information than I expected, because Alice was indeed due to return to London soon. Her school would not excuse her absence indefinitely.
"So what would your suggestion be, Jasper?"
Bella's voice now sounded subdued, all traces of her former reckless bravery toned down, as if she was reluctant to get to the heart of the matter. Her cousin's hand went to rest on hers, in a brotherly, protective gesture. She didn't flinch away from his touch, but seemed to avert her eyes from my gaze at the same time.
"I would very much like it if you would consider going back to Whitlock Hall with me, Isabella," he finally said, his voice almost wavering with genuine uncertainty for the first time. Bella did extricate her hand from his grasp at that point, and I knew this option wasn't obviously very palatable to her.
"My answer would be a resolute no, Jasper. You can't ask me to do this. I am not going back to Somerset." Bella's words rang with finality and suggested that her veto against Whitlock Hall might have nothing to do with the scenery.
Lord Whitlock sighed in mild exasperation.
"I knew you would not give in, but I had to try, Little One," he said affectionately.
"I trust you have a viable alternative, then."
Lord Whitlock's expression morphed into a sly satisfied smile. "I still think, despite your protestations, that you should partake of the benefits of the season in London, and you have a perfectly liveable house, in the right part of town, that's just sitting there gathering dust."
Bella's lips curled up in a disbelieving, reluctant smile. "The whole season, Jasper?" Lord Whitlock nodded. Bella continued, with a hint of irritation in her voice. "You want me to spend the next five months in Grosvenor Square, alone? How is that more appropriate than me staying here, Jasper?"
My eyes darted alternatively from Lord Whitlock to Bella, trying to figure out why her lordship of a cousin would be so eager to parade her through the London social circles. Then again, the realisation hit me. The season meant balls, dinner parties, exhibitions, theatre shows and concerts. It would be the ideal stage to show off Bella's beauty and her other accomplishments to a host of young men of quality, whose rank, fortune and position in life would make them perfect candidates for Bella's hand.
After luring her in with a wholly undesirable proposition, he knew Bella would go along with anything else he would suggest. He looked so disgustingly pleased with himself, because his plan was as clear as day now, to me at least. If he were to be successful, then Bella would not return to Cullen Manor at all, not ever, because she'd be engaged, or worse still, married by the time she became of age, thus forfeiting the terms of my father's will completely.
Goddammit all to hell and back! So that was what the conniving bastard was up to! He wanted to parade her like a brood mare at a livestock auction, so that the conceited coxcombs in town would fawn over her and fight for her attentions. Little did he know that I would fight for her, too.
"It would be just as prim and proper as it could be, Bella, because you are the owner of that house. You may elect to live there whenever and however you please. I would, of course, spend the season in London, too, so that I could offer you my company and support."
And act as middleman to your underhand marriage negotiations? Over my dead body, Jasper Whitlock, with my compliments to the House of Lords. Those were my murderous thoughts until Bella's retort filled me with dread for a long, excruciating moment.
"So be it, Jasper Aloysius Whitlock."
As she continued, though, his Lordship's pleased smile faded, while my former torment melted away as fast as snow in spring. "But I have one stipulation. I get a say in the company I will be keeping, too."
"Very well," conceded his Lordship with a confused expression.
"Fine. Edward and Alice are coming with us, then."
I was going to spend the next five months in London with my Bella.