All characterizations, plot lines, backgrounds and details belong to the author. Stephenie Meyer owns all things Twilight.
Thanks as always, to my beta the incredible xrxdanixrx. Check out her latest story Washed Up. XO BB
Many thanks to my dear friend Lattecoug who stepped in to beta this chapter. *hugs* XO
A million thanks to my partner in crime MizzezPattinson who pre-reads this story. Much love, hun. I couldn't do it without you. XO
Thanks to all those reading and reviewing. In case you are one of those people who don't read authors notes or chapter end notes, or Twitter, I will restate here that I am still in the process of rebuilding everything I lost when my computer died several months ago. That unfortunately included the entirety of this story. Thank you for your patience.
Let's check in with Bella.
Come, join me.
They are the new breed of slot machine-colorful, fancy, exciting, wonderful... and deadly. -Frank ScobleteC
The door clicks shut behind me as I try to remember to breathe. I scan the colossal office, feeling insignificant at best, clutching my ridiculous red lunch bag in my hand. This place deserves to be in some office decorating magazine. Dark mahogany colored walls, sleek black furnishings, what looks like a full bar to the right, and several computer monitors set up on the expansive desk that sits beside a bank of floor to ceiling windows.
The most impressive furnishing in the office has turned from the windows to cast his gaze over me appraisingly.
He's dressed in a dark blue, impeccably cut suit that is probably worth more than what I make in a month. He offers me a grin that makes my palms sweat and my heart race faster, while he saunters slowly across the gleaming hardwood floor.
How can one man be equally sexy and intimidating as hell? Maybe he is sexy because he is intimidating… or vice versa. Focus, Bella!
"Miss Swan," he says, a slight smile playing on his lips as he stops in front of me. "My apologies for making you wait."
I lift a brow, wondering if he really is sorry. "Bella," I somehow manage, in a smaller voice than I intended.
He smirks and sweeps his arm to a large circular table next to the windows. "Would you like to sit, Bella?" He emphasizes my name for effect, and I take a shaky breath in, trying to compose myself.
"Yes, thank you." I move in front of him, making my way across the hardwood floor, the heels on my Payless pumps clicking rhythmically. I should have worn the Manolos. Damn him for being right about the shoes! I stop at the table, setting down my lunch bag and glance out the window.
The view is spectacular. I shouldn't be surprised. The strip stretches out below, pulsing with life, giving way to a vista of the vast open desert in the distance. I wonder how often he looks out the window and just takes time to appreciate this.
"That's quite a view," I reflect, turning back to him, finding his gaze lingering on me.
"Yes. It absolutely is," he states, keeping his eyes locked to mine as he moves to one of the black leather chairs and holds it out, his fingers grazing slowly over the fabric. "Please, sit."
I slide between the chair and the table, sinking down to the plush seat. I feel him push the chair forward, his fingers brushing my shoulder. My breathing hitches at the contact as he moves to the chair opposite me, sitting down.
Somehow, this doesn't feel much like a lunch meeting. I'm not sure how to categorize it. I focus instead on steadying my shaking hands before reaching for my lunch bag, opening it slowly and pulling out the containers, acutely aware that I'm under his intent stare. "I had Mrs. Cope bring up some bottled water, but if you like something else, I can—"
"Water is fine," I say, finally raising my eyes to meet his. Strong, confident woman. I repeat Alice's words in my head before opening the lid on my Greek salad. See? You can handle this. Simple lunch…nothing out of the ordinary.
He nods, reaching for his fork and stabbing a piece of pasta, his gaze never leaving mine. "It's quite the heat wave we've been having," he says politely.
Ah, so we're going down the forced small talk road. I don't think so, Cullen. I recall vividly the first conversation we had in the Twilight Room. He wasn't keen on talking about banalities then, why start now?
"Edward, with all due respect, I'm pretty sure you didn't bring me up here to talk about the heat wave," I respond flatly, pushing my fork into a piece of feta and taking a deliberate bite. I silently pat myself on the back as I see his expression shift, a glimpse of a genuine smile playing on his lips.
"You like to cut right to the chase, don't you?" he asks, titling his head to the side.
I chew the feta slowly, preventing me from opening my big mouth yet again.
"You said you wanted to talk about some changes to the room for Thursday," I prompt after swallowing. I open the bottle of water, taking a much needed sip. Wine would be so much better… or maybe vodka. My thoughts drift back to the last time I was drunk with Alice on one too many green apple martinis. Maybe that's not such a good idea.
"Right," he says, switching immediately into business mode, his hand falling over a thin stack of papers on the table. "I'm actually hoping that after Thursday I can find someone else to manage the room."
My fork stills in my salad as I furrow my brow. "I thought you said I did alright." My ego is slightly wounded. I personally think I did more than alright given the intensity of that room and the amount of time I had to prepare for it.
"You did. I just think there is a different position here that would be better suited for you," he says gently, taking a bite of the pasta.
"And what position is that?"
"We have a MBA program that's affiliated with the university, and—"
"What program?" I blurt. I don't know anything about a program. I wonder for a moment if I missed something at one of the management meetings.
"I was just getting to that," he says with a smirk. "It's new."
"It must be," I murmur, breaking from his intense gaze and focusing on the salad in the plastic container in front of me. I note that at least he's brought something equally generic. I was half expecting some five-star meal that he would try to claim he made himself. I feel slightly better knowing I don't have to feel inadequate about my lunch choices.
"I understand that you've had to put your studies at the university on hold for a while," he starts.
My mouth drops open as I glance back up at him. "How did you…" He lifts a brow, opening the bottle of water and taking a long sip. Of course he knows. Remember… he sees everything. I nod, twirling my fork absentmindedly through the salad. "My father had a stroke about two months ago, and the treatment centre is… well, it's not cheap… for us, anyway." I shake my head, staring blankly into the salad. "I had to switch to fulltime here to afford it. I can always finish my MBA later on, once Charlie is better and back on his feet." I try to sound hopeful, but I know I'm failing miserably. Charlie still has a very long way to go before I can even start to think about going back to school.
"I'm sorry about your father," Edward says genuinely after a pause. "If it's any consolation, I know how it feels." I lean back in the chair, looking at him questioningly, abandoning my fork.
"My dad had a heart attack," he explains, his entire demeanor softening as he shakes his head. "It's a helpless feeling to see the man you idolize lying in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of him."
I nod in quiet understanding. "It really is. There are days I wonder if he'll ever be the same," I say, my voice shaky. I turn my attention out the window, trying to collect myself. You will not break down… not here… not in front him!
I feel the warmth of his hand cover mine, and I turn back to him, my eyes darting from his hand to his face. "It does get better. I promise you," he says sincerely.
I manage a half smile, biting the inside of my cheek to keep the tears at bay. This is not what I had in mind when I came in here today. If I'm being honest, I'm not really sure what I expected, but I know it wasn't a deep conversation about my father.
The warmth of his hand is comforting in a way, and I find myself wondering what it would feel like on other parts of my body. Feeling the heat rise in my face, I tentatively slide my hand out from under his, and the warmth slips away.
He reaches for the stack of papers after a beat, sliding it across the table and clearing his throat.
"The MBA program we've developed will allow you to keep working here, for the same amount of pay, while you continue with your education. You can work on your final project, and at the end of the term, you'll have your MBA."
I stare at the papers, wondering if I just heard him correctly. "Wh… what? How?" I stammer like an idiot.
He grins, clearly amused. "Think of it as an internship, but I will warn you, it won't be a walk in the park. We have our charity event for the Heart and Stroke Foundation coming up, and if you agree, I'd like for you to head that up as part of the program. You'll have a mentor, organize all the meetings, perform analysis, and be responsible for the budget. Actually, you'll be responsible for every single minor detail that is associated with the Foundation."
He says the words as if this is no big deal at all. I'm unable to really process what he's actually saying. I feel like I've stepped outside of my body again and am watching this conversation from somewhere else. Will all of our discussions be like this? Where I sit in bewilderment at him, gaping like a fool?
"Bella?" he prompts, snapping me back to reality. I blink at him and dig deep to find Corporate Bella… the one who was in charge of the Twilight Room last night. The one who can multi-task and manage irrational millionaires with ease. She's in here somewhere and I need her desperately.
"It's a wonderful opportunity, Edward. I'm not really sure what to say." There… that sounded convincing. Very corporate.
"You don't have to say anything right now. Look over the proposal, and make some comments. Perhaps there are things you can suggest to improve it," he offers. "I'll have Mrs. Cope send you an electronic copy as well."
I nod, glancing at the papers, feeling slightly overwhelmed. "What about my job at reception?"
"If you take this on, you won't be needed down there. Quite frankly, you wouldn't have time to even if you wanted to. Your mentor can be a real hard ass," he states with a smirk.
I can't stop the chuckle that escapes. "Yeah, you can be."
His crooked smile widens as he reaches over to steal one of my strawberries. "Oh, I wouldn't be your mentor, Bella," he says cryptically, biting into the strawberry.
"You wouldn't?" I ask, my voice sounding slightly higher than normal while my eyes drift to the tiny drop of juice that sits on the corner of his mouth.
He shakes his head slowly, his tongue sweeping across his lips to capture the droplet of juice. "No. It would be my mother."
An hour later, I'm wandering around in the shopping concourse in a virtual daze, having yet another out of body experience.
On top of the bombshell that I could potentially finish my MBA and continue to be employed, Edward not so subtly suggested that I would need another dress for tomorrow night in the Twilight Room. I suppose I can't be expected to wear the same eight hundred and twenty-five dollar Prada outfit again. That would just be scandalous. I roll my eyes at myself. I guess I shouldn't complain. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
After being whisked down from the twentieth floor by the fastest elevator on the planet, I did take a few minutes to sit in the atrium and look over the MBA proposal. Surrounded by flowering magnolias and fragrant orchids, I skimmed over the outline as well as his mother's bio and information on the foundation which she heads up.
Helping to raise money and awareness about what has affected Charlie and me so deeply is obviously something close to my heart. I wondered briefly if he did the whole thing on purpose. The thought is unsettling and I choose to push it away, focusing on the opportunity. I would be an idiot to pass this up.
I'm not going to lie though, the thought of working so closely with Edward's mother does scare the living hell out of me. I've heard nothing but good things about her, and her charity work certainly speaks for itself, but it seems like a daunting task to try to live up to everything she has done.
Needing to clear my mind, I escape from the labyrinth of the atrium and into the throngs of shoppers spending money like there is no tomorrow. Bypassing Gucci and the memory of the acidic blonde sales woman sent from the gates of hell, I pass store after store.
Most of the shop windows house dresses that are more suited for a night of clubbing – skin tight, way too short, and extremely revealing. When was the last time you went clubbing? My mind is clearly working overtime. Certainly, it's been a while… a very long while.
Maybe that's what I need-a night out on the town. I know Alice would be there in a heartbeat. Sadly, I'd rather spend any free time I have at home with a good book or a movie. The thought of leering and desperate guys spilling drinks as they attempt to look interesting while they try to pick me up, is not my idea of a good time.
As I move along the concourse in a haze, I'm distracted by wondering what Edward's idea of a good time is. Shaking my head, I find myself in front of Calvin Klein, looking up at a sophisticated, dark blue, v-neck, knee length dress. Simple and classic. That's more like it. Taking a deep breath, I turn into the store, praying that I don't encounter another blonde sales clerk with an attitude.
Clutching a grey Calvin Klein dress bag under my arm with my lunch bag, I hold the MBA proposal in my other hand, standing in line at Starbucks. I think I may be in love with Mr. Klein. The dress fits like it was made for me, and I didn't have to endure any whiplash mood swings when I mentioned the purchase would be added to Edward's account.
That feeling is still unsettling, but my wardrobe is just not going to cut it for what is required in the Twilight Room. I also know that it's more than just the shopping adventure that has me unsettled. This whole afternoon has been overwhelming and it's left me in desperate need of something familiar. Right now, that something is a grande vanilla bean frappuccino with extra whip. Screw the non-fat option.
I shuffle along in the line waiting as customer after customer puts in their complicated order. It reminds me of Charlie's extreme dislike of this place. "A coffee should be simple. You shouldn't need a menu to order one," he always says.
I wonder when the next time is we'll get to have that conversation without him having to struggle through it. I close my eyes, feeling the stress of the last few days washing over me. Tomorrow only promises to bring more of the same, with an evening in the high roller room on the horizon.
"Miss?" The sound of the young man behind the display case brings me back to reality. I move up to the counter, placing my order.
As another Barista whirls the blender to life, he punches a few buttons on the register, looking up at me. "That will be $4.51." Charlie would be infuriated at the price. I smile at the thought, glancing down to my hands for my purse, suddenly feeling the heat rise in my face.
Oh, fuck. In my haze, I went straight from his office to the atrium and then to the shops. I didn't even stop to pick up my purse. I feel the judging eyes of the customers in line burn into me as they all wait impatiently for their caffeine fix.
"Oh… I…" My now sweaty hands shift the dress bag as I will the ground to swallow me up. How embarrassing is this? Can I add a frappuccino to Cullen's account? My stomach turns at the thought. I'm fairly certain that they are not going to want to call up to a CEO's office and get approval. Why am I such an idiot sometimes?
"I left my purse up at the Oasis. Can I just pay you back tomorrow?" I ask desperately in a hushed whisper, leaning forward and praying that he takes pity on me. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm going to be that lucky.
He furrows his brow, looking a little sorry for me. "I'm really not supposed to…" he starts quietly.
"I'll get it," a firm, male voice from behind me states.
I turn around surprised, looking up into a pair of dark brown eyes, my own quickly taking in the man who is saving me from utter humiliation. He's dressed in a dark, grey suit which does nothing to hide his obviously muscular body. A crisp white shirt under his suit highlights his short, cropped, jet black hair and coppery skin. He flashes a smile at me as he casually twirls a key ring around his index finger.
"You don't have to do that," I say, rather weakly as the crowd behind us grows more impatient.
He stops twirling the keys, engulfing them in his hand while he grins at me. "I know, but I make it a policy to never let a good frappuccino go to waste," he teases.
I chuckle, relaxing slightly. "I can pay you back. I work right upstairs at the Oasis," I explain.
He smirks, his eyes sweeping to the garment bag in my hands, and he nods slowly. "I'm pretty sure you're good for it," he says, easing beside me, turning his attention to the cashier and places an identical order to mine.
I stand meekly beside him, watching while he lifts his wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket, opening it up to reveal a wad of cash. I look away while he pays, moving down the counter to wait for the order.
Sometimes I forget just how much money some of the people in Vegas have. He's another high roller, no doubt. Not that it matters who he is. He's saved me from a massive embarrassment, and that's all I really need to know. I intend on thanking him and calling it a day. I'm beyond exhausted, and I still want to visit Charlie before it gets too late for him.
He grins, making his way to me, stopping to lean against the counter. "So, you can afford something from there…" He nods to the garment bag before continuing, "…but somehow you don't carry any money around."
"It's a long story," I say, shifting the bag in my arm. A bit of a cocky comment coming from a perfect stranger, but I guess he does have a point.
"Hmm…" His eyes settle on mine. "I'm Jacob Black," he says with an air of confidence, extending a hand.
The name rings a familiar bell in the back of my mind somewhere, but I can't quite place where I've heard it before. I set the proposal down on the edge of the counter, sliding my hand into his. "Bella Swan. And thank you… you know, for the frapp." His hand engulfs mine, and he tightens his grip gently.
"You're very welcome, Bella," he replies, his dark eyes never leaving mine. "You work at the Oasis, huh? What's that like?"
I break from his stare to look down at his hand, which is oddly, still holding mine. Glancing back up at him, I slip my hand from his and try to look as casual as he does. "It's really great, actually. Are you visiting or do you work around here?" I ask.
His smile widens as he makes a show of looking over his shoulder before leaning closer. "I work down the street," he whispers. "I'm really not supposed to be here. Shhhh!"
I laugh as he gives me an exaggerated wink, and I play along, nodding while I whisper a reply. "Right… It will be our little secret."
He laughs, flashing me a megawatt smile as the barista calls out our frappuccino orders. He passes one to me, and I take a long sip. "God these are good! Thank you, Jacob. I really needed this."
"I can assure you, Bella," he starts, his voice dropping slightly. "The pleasure is all mine."
"Okay, well, I guess I'll see you around," I say, turning for the exit to the shopping concourse, and feeling the need to get home as fast as humanly possible. I've had enough encounters today to last me for a while. I need my university hoodie and my yoga pants, stat.
"Aren't you forgetting something?" Jacob's voice calls out to me, causing me to stop in my tracks.
"Shit," I mutter under my breath, turning back to the counter, seeing him waving the proposal in his free hand. "Yeah… sorry. I'm usually not this out of it. It's been a long day."
He grins, handing the papers back to me. "Sure, sure. I know the feeling. Hope the rest of your day gets better," he says happily. "And remember, it's Vegas! Anything can happen!"
I laugh at his enthusiasm. "You're right, and thanks again, Jacob."
He smiles at me while I tuck the proposal under my arm, and sip happily on my free drink as I make my way out of Starbucks. Looking back over my shoulder, I see him lift his frappuccino in my direction, nodding before disappearing into the crowd.
Smiling, I make my way back up to the Oasis. Who says random acts of kindness in Vegas are dead?
"One more time, Dad," I say encouragingly, watching as he lifts a shaking spoonful of the rice pilaf concoction to his lips.
His brow furrows deeper in concentration as he opens his mouth, a few pieces of rice falling off before he closes his lips around the spoon. It's taken us almost twenty minutes to eat just a few bites. Still, it's progress, and I'll take whatever I can get at this point.
Smiling, I hold the plastic, blue water glass for him, tilting the straw to his lips. "Take a little sip," I instruct quietly.
He keeps his eyes on me, sipping slowly before pulling back, resting his head into the propped up pillow. "Th…thanks, B…Bells," he manages. "You d…don't have to—" He shakes his head slowly, not saying anything else.
I know how hard this is for him, having his independence taken away. It's hard for me too. So, I do the only thing I know will help relax him, I take his hand in mine, squeezing it tightly, and shift our attention to the sports section of the Las Vegas Sun newspaper. I listen as he slowly reads the first page to me in stuttered breaths, his eyes widening at the latest NCAA basketball stats for the Rebels.
"They're n…not doing so h… hot," he notes, shaking his head in disappointment. "May… maybe next year."
I nod, smiling as he continues reading out loud, my eyes falling to the City section of the paper that sits on the end of the bed. I furrow my brow, seeing the headline: Eclipse Set to Expand Poker Lounge. Some casino is always expanding. I'm not even sure why this is news. They never seem to be satisfied with what they have. Everything always has to be bigger, better, and louder.
Opening up the section to read the article, I feel my mouth drop open, staring back at the name in bold letters under an intimidating looking stock photo.
Jacob Black, CEO
He didn't look so intimidating this afternoon.
Chapter end notes.