A/N: Hi! Thanks for taking a moment. The standard disclaimer applies – I don't own Twilight or anything else that is copyrighted. I wrote this story to see if I could write something different and I've yet to see anything out there quite like it. It is about family and love, as well as business and taking care of business even though you really just want to crawl back into bed and be left alone. It has love, loss, betrayal (not Edward I like CaraNo's rule about cheating!) and lots of humor because we have to laugh, especially when we want to cry. It also has a few adventures that are based upon my own memories and lots of fluff to balance the hard parts. Oh, and there are lemons later on. I loosely based Bella's business on the concept of "Project Alabama" and a store called "10,000 Villages" which is actually a ministry. In my story Bella and Alice have garnered some fame because they've got big mouths where human rights are concerned. It comes up later. Last, it's about sticking to your beliefs even when it's most difficult.
Please give my story a try and let me know what you think, just please be polite.
Each chapter title is the name of a song performed by an Irish artist. I hope you take a moment to explore these songs, a lot are very old but beautiful.
Buckle up, it's gonna be a bumpy ride ;)
Chapter 1 - If I Should Fall from Grace with God (The Pogues)
"Bella your 4:30 appointment is here," those seem like such benign words, little did I know my world was about to be rocked, and not necessarily in a good way.
"Send him in."
At that, in walked Emmett, a really bright part-time employee, who is also a full-time business student working on his MBA at DePaul University. And he looked pissed! Gone was his usual infectious smile; in its place was a grim line, and his eyes, usually so kind, were full of fury. He paints a very menacing figure as he's huge, tall with broad shoulders, very muscular body. Missing are the dimples that appear when he smiles, the ones that usually show he's really a big teddy bear.
"Emmet, what is it? What's wrong?"
"This isn't you, what happened? Why would you low-ball the payments, the total payment comes out barely above sweat-shop rates? Is it to improve your own bottom line? What's going on? Are you in trouble? Is the company in trouble?" Emmett was raised in a poor town in North Carolina, nestled away in the Appalachian Mountains, rich with history and talent yet very, very poor in finances. He sought my company for his internship because he saw first-hand what we had done for his town and the area around it. I hired him immediately, not only to help him pay his living expenses, but because he has a keen mind, kind nature and a vested interest in our mission. So to see his look of disgust really upset me.
"WHAT? Emmett, what are you talking about?"
"You claim you want people to earn a living wage, you claim it's your mission and yet, look at this!" He waved a stack of papers under my nose. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could prepare me for what he found. The invoices my company paid was significantly smaller than the amount I'd set, however the intended payment amount was still deducted from the account. Somewhere, somehow, someone was skimming the till!
"Emmett, where did you find this? This is not me, someone's stealing from Eclectic!"
He scoffed at me. "I'm serious Emmett, this amount," I pointed to the amount withdrawn, "that's what should've been paid! Why would I withdraw that amount but pay this? This isn't me, Emmett! You've got to help me get to the bottom of this!"
Emmett watched me intently, his expression softening but still clearly upset then responded, "You seriously had no idea this was happening?"
"Why would I steal from myself? Please, Emmett, help me with this. Clearly we have someone here who's up to no good."
"Who do you think it is?" Emmett asked.
"No idea, clearly someone with access to our accounts...until we find out we're" -
My assistant, Victoria's voice interrupted, "Miss Swan Edward Cullen is on Line 2, he says it's urgent." Why on Earth would Edward be calling me at the office?
"Hang on Emmett." I picked up the line, "Hello?"
"Bella, it's Edward, I'm on the way to the hospital with your dad. He needs stitches."
"Edward, what happened?"
"Not now, I'll explain later, please just get to the hospital right away, my dad is meeting us in the E.R."
"Thanks, I'll see you in a few!"
After we hung up I turned back to Emmett, "Please Emmett, will you come with me, I have to go to the hospital to see my dad, we can talk in the car and frankly this conversation has to happen someplace private."
"No problem, but you better let me drive; you're white as a ghost! What happened to your dad? I didn't know he was in the hospital." I nodded and tossed him the keys to my truck. After the one-two punch I've just had, there was no way I wanted to add a car accident or speeding ticket.
"I don't know, Edward is taking him for stitches and that's all I got out of him. God I hope it's not cancer again, I don't know if I could go through that again! He's been cancer-free for two years now." His last scan showed he was clear and that was six months ago. What a nightmare that was. It's enough to have kidney cancer, but when Carlisle told me he had lymphoma, too, it scared the shit out of me. Two years ago my big, strong, brave dad had to have a testicle removed because of the lymphoma. I can't even imagine how hard that must be, I suppose it's like a woman having a breast removed, but, thank God I don't know that feeling and could only try to be there for him. Adding insult to injury, he retired from the firehouse so he could fight the cancer. He hated not working and missed the camaraderie of the guys at the station and was too sick for his usual fishing expeditions. It was like he was gutted, but he fought hard and beat cancer's ass. God, please don't let it be cancer...
"Bella, come on, get your stuff and we'll get there a.s.a.p. I'll text Alice and let her know, she'll want to be there and you know how much Charlie loves her! He'll be happy to have his girls there to support him."
So while I grabbed my laptop, i phone, bag and wallet, he called her.
His phone beeped, "She's meeting us there in about an hour; she's at the Mart today. Come on B, let's get you to Charlie."
The Mart, the place that let me start this little empire of mine, that huge wholesale design market in the city, is like another world. To me, a normal girl who grew up the daughter of a firefighter and a travel agent, it reeked of excess. We're thoroughly middle class so the first time my design class attended I had shell shock from the sticker prices. I couldn't believe people actually paid those prices, but I saw an opportunity so I set to work creating Eclectic, my class project gone berserk.
Eclectic started as an exercise in one of my classes; we had to design a business model. No biggie right? Well I did some soul searching and came up with a plan to help the people I'd seen while traveling. The gist was that I'd create a boutique where I'd sell heirloom items, handcrafted by artisans from around the world. The catch, I'd pay a living wage and use cottage industry to bring the money to the people who need it most. The teacher loved it and as a result, I've built a little empire with a huge showroom at the Mart, that endeavor spiraled off to the home goods and clothing lines we're working on for major retailers like Macy's and Von Maur, but I'm super jazzed about the line Alice and I are preparing to launch at Target! What can I say, despite all this success, I'm still a middle-class girl at heart and I love that store, I love that they keep things stylish yet affordable for most people.
At first I merely imported what people made, and people loved it, having hand-woven fabrics and hand-tatted lace to purchase by the yard. We featured all kinds of unique items. Very quickly I expanded Eclectic, to outsource my designs to the world's poor so we added touches of various cultures, creating a line with a distinctly ethnic flare. By doing it this way, moms around the world could remain with their children while creating items that would be sold a world away in my stores, but soon they'll be sold in chain stores around the US. The format we use in our stores can make it hard to regulate quantities of what we're selling. But as it turns out, that has added to the mystique in my shop, people know if they see and like it, they better buy it now – it won't be there later. Nearly immediately after launching Eclectic I realized how much I'd need Alice, my partner-in-crime from design school. Thank God she was willing to stay in Chicagoland; I'd have curled up in a ball and given up ages ago without my girl and her husband, Jasper. Thank God, also for having gotten my business degree first before attending design school, I'd never have managed to build this business without all I learned.
"You know Emmett you're one of very few men I've let drive my baby!" He chuckled at me but I could see his excitement as his smile finally broke out. My truck, a 1953 Chevy truck was a gift from Charlie for my 17th birthday. It was huge, rusty and solid so I felt safe in it –like I was driving a tank. It was fairly reliable, too. Thankfully Charlie is good at working on cars so he kept it running for years. When Eclectic took off, I gave myself a little gift in the form of having it fully restored. Well restored is an understatement, I had it pimped! They completely overhauled it, from the engine that can finally go over 50 to the glossy paint on the body and the plush and comfy seats (no more springs poking my backside!), top of the line sound system, GPS, Lo Jack ... the whole works! My baby was reborn and I loved it. So did every red-blooded man who came across her.
As Emmett drove, I brought my mind back to what he'd told me in the office, I mean I'm worried about Charlie but frankly if I learned anything from Charlie's battle with cancer, it's this; worrying only makes things worse, it ruins your health and robs you of your peace! So I mentally switched gears. "What are we gonna do, Emmett? Some scumbag is stealing from my families and I didn't have a clue!"
"Who do you trust at the company, I mean really trust?"
I thought for a minute, "Well, you, Alice and Angela are the only ones I know for sure wouldn't do something like this. I'd like to think we're all one big happy family and no one would do this but then we don't live in Mayberry and plenty of families have members steal from them."
"Well for now, why don't we keep quiet and figure this out, we'll include Alice and start digging for our traitor. We'll have to work fast and hope no one gets wind of this, bad publicity would really harm Eclectic's credibility."
"Oh!" I groaned. "Damn it! I hadn't thought about that. I need to call in my secret weapon!" Back in my Air Force days I'd volunteered with Public Affairs, giving base tours to kids and old people. Rosalie Hale, the dynamo who ran the program, impressed the hell out of me and we became good friends after bonding over adult beverages.
"Ooh B, you've got a secret weapon?" Emmett is forever teasing someone about something; it's one of the most endearing and annoying traits about him!
"I may have an ace or two up my sleeve. Just give me a chance to call Hale." At that, Emmett's face lit up, he'd seen pictures and heard stories about Sgt. Hale. The first time he saw her picture he'd said something about how he'd like to play Hale to the Chief with her. Yeah, he's real mature. Little does he know she's the toughest cookie he'll ever meet. "Hot Damn I hope she can come help, I've been waiting to meet her!" Hale is the picture of beauty with her supermodel good looks she sent many a mouth gaping, even wearing her standard-issue BDUs. But she's down-to-earth and fun, but most of all she's loyal and really fucking good at her job. Thanks to Hale, her last base's Public Affairs office was named "Best in the Air Force," the whole damned Air Force! And not once but they were named best twice, two years running! Yep, she's my ace all right.
I pulled out my phone and called up my pal. Thankfully she answered, "What's up my bitch!" Man I've missed her!
"Hale I don't have long, the shit is seriously hitting the fan and I need your help, can you get some leave?" Rose is still in the service, whereas I left after one tour, deciding civilian life was more my style.
"B this is what happens when you go too long between calls! I got out last week!"
"No shit! That is great! Where are you? Where are you working?" I can't believe it's been so long since we talked!
"Chill out B. You said you don't have long. You're in luck, I went home to visit the parents and haven't lined anything up yet, work-wise, I'm just enjoying a break. If you need me, I'm there, I'll get out of here ASAP and I'll text you the flight info."
"You rock, we'll get you from O'Hare, just get here and we'll take care of the rest. Thanks so much!"
Emmett looked over and wiggled his eyebrows, I couldn't help but giggle. "You heard all that?" He smiled his affirmation.
"Well with you, Alice, Hale and me, we're off to a good start. When her flight gets in, we'll have a little pow-wow so we can sort all this out and figure out what to do next." Things are looking a little up. "With class over for the summer will you up your hours?"
"I was hoping you'd let me," Emmett said with a grin and I gave him my own smile, relief probably written all over my face. I'm seriously going to need him as we sort all this out.
We pulled into the hospital parking lot and headed to the ER entrance.
"B you head in, I'll park and meet you in a minute."
"Thanks, Em." By the look on his face, I knew he could tell I was thanking him for more than just getting me to the hospital.
As I ran in I looked around, there was no sign of Edward, Charlie or Carlisle, Edward's father, who is also the head doc here. The receptionist told me to have a seat while she tracked Charlie down. In the meantime Emmett walked in with a concerned look on his face, "Any news?"
"None yet," I replied. I looked to where the receptionist had disappeared and saw some familiar faces. Edward was headed out, followed closely by Carlisle. Carlisle Cullen is my dad's neighbor and doctor, his son, Edward, moved here a couple months ago after an ugly divorce. He's a lawyer by trade but has taken a break from working to tend to his children, Seth and Emily, as they all recovered from the betrayal of their mother. That bitch had walked out on all three of them to join her lover in his travels abroad. How a mom can walk out on her kids is beyond me, and to walk away from the Greek god that is Edward Cullen, well the woman clearly is insane. Anyway, in his effort to pick up the pieces, he'd moved them all from New York to stay with his folks here in Algonquin. He's been staying with them while he studies for the state's bar exam. During that time, we've become friends. He's incredible, not only is he wildly attractive but he's kind, funny and an amazing dad.
Yep, I'm crushing, hard-core. Of course he has no romantic interest in me, it a hard time for him and his kids, and I'm always so busy with my company, about to be busier fixing this mess with the finances. Add my lack of experience in the romantic realm and it makes us better as friends. I've got plenty of guy friends, but no one has ever sparked a real interest for me. My friends tease that I'm asexual, but that's not the truth, I just refuse to give in to pressure. Sure I've dated, but no one ever took me seriously and that just pissed me off. I'm dedicated to my Catholic faith, my family and my business. People around the world count on me for their livelihoods and these guys want to play around with me? I don't think so. I'm 27 and still a virgin, so my friends tease me. It's worth it to me, I've watched plenty of people around me hook up and fool around and end up broken and angry. I watched people lots and lots, it solidified my decision to wait for the right man, and if he never shows, fine, I keep plenty busy and am content with my life. I'm not frigid or suffering from bad self-worth, I just know my worth and won't settle for games losers like to play.
As the two men approached, Edward gave me an anxious smile and Carlisle suggested we go somewhere to talk. Emmett said he'd wait while the rest of us walked back to an examination room. Finally Carlisle spoke, "B, your dad is okay right now, but something's up. Before I go on, I want you to know he gave me permission to talk with you about this, we're not going behind his back or breaking HIPAA laws."
Shit. "Is the cancer back, Carlisle?"
"No, but it's serious. This morning when Edward was driving back to the house, he spotted Charlie out in the garage, wearing only his boots while arranging his fishing gear. Edward sent the kids into the house with Esme before they could notice then walked over to talk to him. He could tell Charlie was out of it, Charlie jumped and cut his hand with his pocket knife, he'd been using it to cut the line on his down-rigger. He cut himself pretty badly, so Edward quickly grabbed him some clothes and brought him here."
This had to be a joke, why would Charlie be in the garage naked? Edward saw my expression and spoke up. "Bella, I've noticed him acting a little oddly since I moved here, I chalked it up to a quirky neighbor, but I mentioned it to Dad and he said something must be up. We meant to discuss them with you this weekend when you'd be over to visit with him."
"What's going on?" I asked Carlisle. "Did he have a stroke?"
"No, there's no sign of that. I'm fairly certain he's got Alzheimer's disease. There are some meds that can help a little, if the one I'm prescribing works, we'll know for certain it's Alzheimer's disease as it isn't effective for other degenerative diseases. This is such an insidious disease, and Charlie is so young to have anything like this. I'm prescribing them but I got Charlie's permission to talk with you because with Charlie living alone, this is bound to get worse, you may want to hire a nurse or arrange for him to live in a facility so he can get the care he'll need."
"Carlisle, I can't ship him off to rot away in a home! He's my dad, a firefighter and paramedic for crying out loud. The man is a hero, I can't just shelve him!"
"It doesn't have to be like that, he can get care he needs, there are some really nice ones where you can visit any time night or day, and they'll keep him safe."
"Safe? What do you mean?"
"If this is Alzheimer's, and I'm pretty sure it is, he's been really forgetful the last couple years -"
"Wait! That was from the chemo and radiation! He has always been a sharp man!" I shrieked.
"No Bella, calm down, let me finish please. He's been forgetful but it's been increasing rather than decreasing. Have you noticed how cranky he's gotten, too?" I nodded feeling dread pool in the pit of my stomach. "This has been progressing and it will only get worse. If he doesn't have someone with him on a regular basis, he might cause serious harm to himself or others. And this tends to be particularly bad for patients at night, some have terrors or wake up from dreams thinking they're real and attack people."
Double shit, "I still can't just park him there, not yet. I'll move in, but I need someone who can help, where can I find a nurse to hire?"
"Actually, I know just the person, Sue Clearwater. She's a widow and her two kids are grown and gone, but the bean counters eliminated her job in the last round of layoffs." Jeez, even the hospital is suffering in this crappy economy! "She's a great woman. I can get you her number"
"That sounds great, hopefully I can get her to live in; that'd make life a whole lot easier. Have you told Charlie all this?"
"Yes, he's obviously not thrilled, denial is very common. There will be a lot of time where he will not believe what we're telling him and he's not going to realize that he isn't making sense when things are off. Other days he'll seem like his normal self. This is all so hard, you'll need to adjust his life, soon he won't be able to drive for fear he'll get lost, and you certainly don't want him out on the lake alone."
"Oh! I hadn't thought about that, he's gonna hate this, it was bad enough when the chemo made him too weak to go out fishing, but to be kept from his hobbies again will kill him faster than this damned disease!"
"Bella, I'll help, I don't mind taking him out to fish, I'm sure if you tell his friends from the firehouse they'll help, too," Carlisle said.
"I'll help," Edward said as he rubbed his hand across my shoulders and upper back to show support and sympathy. "Seth would totally dig going fishing with Charlie, Emily too, as long as she doesn't have to bait her hooks" The thought of his girly-girl baiting a hook gave me a much-needed chuckle. I always felt the same way.
"Thanks so much you two, it means a lot to me. I'm sure Renee will help, too." My mom is only a few towns away and when my parents divorced they maintained a somewhat friendly relationship for my sake. Mom just couldn't handle his long hours away at the fire station, though ironically she married a baseball player, he has to travel for his job, but she's able to travel a bit with him so it all works out. I'd like to think she grew up a bit but honestly she's such a free-spirit that I don't think she'll ever really grow up. At any rate, she'll help me in her own way. I don't have any brothers or sisters but I have some really great friends to help.
"Esme asked me to invite you for dinner tonight, we're grilling out and I'll bet you could use a margarita after all of this."
I guffawed, "Seriously, you two have no idea how much I need an adult beverage, this has been one crappy day. Which reminds me, Edward, I need to pick your brain when you get a minute. The proverbial shit is hitting the fan at work and I need someone I can trust to help me."
His expression brightened, "Sure, I'll be happy to help in any way I can." Just then my phone sounded, I had a text from Hale, she'd be in this evening, she managed to catch a flight right away, one of the bonuses to living in Denver was there are so many direct flights to Chicago. Things will get better. I thanked them for their help and we headed out.
As we returned to the waiting area to talk with Emmett, I noticed Alice had arrived. That girl is such a whirlwind! She flew at me grabbing me in a bear hug so forceful I felt my ribs contract and my back pop! "B what happened, where's Charlie, what's going on?"
I couldn't help but chuckle, seriously with her in my life, I feel like we can take on anything, Alzheimer's included. "Alice, calm down, you're drawing attention and we really don't need any of this in the news!" It's times like this I really hate the notoriety that has come with running Eclectic. I'm a normal girl; I work hard trying to help people why would that make my life fodder for gossip magazines? It's not like my life is that interesting. It makes no sense to me. "Charlie's fine for now, but I need to talk with you," I pointed to Emmett, too "in a quieter, more private setting.
"Come to dinner tonight, you know Esme, the more the merrier," Carlisle said to Alice and Emmett. Both smiled brightly and nodded while saying thanks. I couldn't help but laugh to myself, who would turn down Esme's hospitality and cooking?
"Rosalie sent me a text, she'll be landing at O'Hare at 7:10," I told the group. Edward looked curious but didn't say anything, we'd hung out a bit over the past couple months, but this is the first time he's met my friends. Alice and Emmett both looked excited.
"Jazz's class lets out at 6, I bet he'd be willing to brave rush hour to pick her up for you," Alice said. Jasper is a history professor at College of DuPage. He's a total book nerd, quiet and really smart, and yet, somehow he makes that sexy. I bet all the girls sign up for his classes just to try and get his attention. Jazz is tall and well-built with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. Did I mention he's originally from Texas so he's got a bit of a drawl when he speaks? YUM. Too bad for those girls, he's totally smitten with his wifey poo!
"Sounds great, Ali, I'll send Hale a note." While Alice called Jasper, I sent my text. She'd have her phone off for the flight, but hopefully would read it when she landed.
"Bella I need to head back to the office, my boss just piled on a huge load of work," Emmett said with mock annoyance.
"My boss is such a heartless ball-buster…and on a Friday afternoon to boot!" We all laughed but Emmett looked at me expectantly. "Oh crap! I forgot you drove me here! I still need to check in with Charlie, and you know how long everything takes in the E.R." I said with a laugh.
"I could drop him back on my way home, I'm sure the kids are climbing the walls at home, I should get back," Edward said. He and Emmett hadn't met before so that was really sweet of him to offer, I bet they'll get along, they're both such good men. Edward hasn't gotten out to make many friends since he's been here, the poor guy is just trying to dodge all the school moms who keep throwing themselves at him, not that I blame them, the dude is HOT. But there's so much more to him than that.
"Thanks so much Edward, I don't know what would've happened today if you hadn't helped Charlie!" This was all so weird, Charlie is supposed to be indestructible, he's so strong and brave and yet ... I can't think about it now. "It'd be great if you could drop him, then he can get started on that project and meet us at your house, what time is dinner, by the way? And what can I bring?"
"Don't worry about a thing, just come when you can and we'll take care of the rest." Carlisle seriously rocks, heck the whole Cullen family does. Carlisle and Esme had been a Godsend during Charlie's battle with cancer; they helped us through every step. I'd spent many an hour on their back deck crying on Esme's shoulder. She's such a beautiful woman, inside and out.
"I don't know what I'd do without all of you, thanks so much," I said as I followed Carlisle back to see my dad and my friends headed out.
Charlie had not handled the news well. Who could blame him? We both were shell-shocked as we took in the info Carlisle provided. He recommended specialists and even some unconventional approaches to managing this, not that I consider good nutrition to be above and beyond, but some people might. Carlisle is stepping outside his normal duties to take care of Charlie and we're so grateful for his gentle, loving approach. I know with him on our side, we'll do things the right way. We all discussed having a nurse and while Charlie was still in denial, he agreed that to be on the safe side, he could handle having someone there, if for no other reason than he'd have someone to drive him around if he wants to visit with friends. That could've gone much worse, he could've fought the whole notion of Alzheimer's and all that it entails. I think he's embarrassed but he won't show that to me, he's where I get my stubborn nature.
When we get back to Charlie's later I tell him about the dinner invitation and he declines, says he just needs to be alone to think. Can't say I blame him so I just headed toward the kitchen and made him some tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich; if there was ever a day for comfort food, this is it. Since I had a little time before my friends would arrive next door, I tossed together some of my favorite salsa, and grabbed a bag of tortilla chips. Charlie always keeps the ingredients around because he loves when I make this. Armed with my impromptu appetizer, hey everyone knows you don't go to a party empty-handed, I headed over to the Cullen's home.
Thanks for reading!