There were so many girls – way too many girls for any of the men to notice me. I didn't stand out when I was alone in a room, and in this crowd of at least sixty other students, I was sure I could pass unnoticed. Mrs. Bond had told me my eyes were my best feature, so I kept them assiduously on the floor, staying as far toward the back as I could, trying to find taller girls to stand behind. At seventeen, however, I was one of the oldest, and the few taller girls were clustered at the other end of the room.
"Gentlemen," Mrs. Bond cleared her throat and gestured toward us with one arm. "This year's Presentation is one that I'm sure you'll enjoy. You'll recognize many familiar faces, and a few new ones. A lovely crop of girls, if I say so myself."
Crop. Jesus, could she at least spare us the clumsy metaphors?
She continued with a dramatic flourish toward her right. "Here's our lovely Maria. She's fourteen already, can you believe it? How time flies." Maria was the prettiest girl in school, and she knew it because Mrs. Bond told her almost daily. I peeked up and watched as Maria managed a small smile, looking nervously at the group of men seated in a semi-circle in front of us.
"Only fourteen, Hanson," I heard one man say, turning to his neighbor. "Maybe we should change the rule."
I didn't hear Hanson's answer but they enjoyed a laugh together. Maria's smile vanished and she bit her lip, looking like she wished she could disappear. I felt for her strongly in that moment, and tried to imagine what it would be like to be one of the pretty ones. Horrible, that's what.
"And here's Sylvia," Mrs. Bond continued, moving through the girls. She pulled Sylvia out of the group and brought her forward. "I know some of you remember her from last year and she's only improved since then. Such a hard worker, our Sylvia."
The Deacon of the American Church stood. "Sylvia, how old are you now?"
"Sixteen. One more year."
"And how go your studies?"
"Very well, sir." Sylvia'd been through enough of these Presentations to know what was expected. She smiled demurely. "I got an A in Deference last term, and a B in Cooking."
The Deacon frowned. "Only a B?"
Sylvia nodded and swallowed. "I made a mistake on the final test, changing metric measurements into standard. I'm not very good at math."
"Of course you're not," he smiled condescendingly. "Do you still want to be a cook?"
"Yes sir, very much."
"Do you think you could handle cooking for a large amount of people? Sometimes that requires taking a recipe written for a small amount of people and multiplying it to feed more."
My jaw tightened involuntarily at his tone. Sylvia wasn't the brightest girl here, but she wasn't dumb.
"Oh yes, sir. I can do multiplication, if I try hard enough." She did get an A in Deference, after all.
"Very good." The Deacon sat. "I'll be looking for you next year, Sylvia."
Sylvia beat a hasty retreat back into a cluster of her friends, as Mrs. Bond continued to go through the ranks, pulling out girls and touting their virtues. The younger ones seemed confused and embarrassed. Most of the older ones, however, had been here long enough to know the game. They smiled and flirted, batted their lashes and blushed. Patricia was the most obvious, and I did innumerable mental eye-rolls as she went through her Presentation, but I didn't mind. The men were eating it up, and if that meant she were chosen instead of me, all power to her.
"And next, we have a new student this year, but one that's of age. Bella, where are you?" Mrs. Bond was on the other side of the room, scanning our faces. I knew there was no way to hide once she'd singled me out.
"I'm right here." I stepped out and moved to the front.
"This is Bella," Mrs. Bond smiled at me for the first time ever. "She's only been with us for a year, so she's still rough around the edges." That was putting it mildly. "But like I said, she's seventeen and available. Introduce yourself, Bella."
I looked at the men gathered in front of us. Mrs. Bond and the other teachers had just spent a year coaching me for this event, but I hadn't earned an A in Deference. Far from it. I could get the words they wanted me to say out of my mouth, and I could smile, but I couldn't bring myself to do both simultaneously.
"My name is Bella. I'm seventeen."
"We know that," one of the men said. "Tell us about yourself. What do you like to do?"
I was supposed to smile and admit to a love of housekeeping and small children, but it just wasn't in me to lie. "I like botany."
"Gardening, you mean? Flowers?" Another man asked. That was as far as they could imagine a girl's interest in plants taking her.
"No, I mean the science of plants. How they cross-pollinate, specifically." I watched them raise their eyesbrows collectively as they tried to make sense of my words, and a small smile of amusement rose on my face.
Another man called out, "You're very pretty when you smile."
"You should smile more, Bella," someone else agreed.
Nothing could make me drop a smile faster than being told it made me pretty. The haste with which I returned to a blank expression amused another, and I heard chuckling. "I don't think she likes us, gentlemen."
One of the men stood, and I recognized him immediately. John Norris was one of the town's largest landowners, whose holdings included a sizable dairy farm. He'd gone to school with my dad, and they'd maintained their friendship over the years with annual fishing trips. "Does your interest in plants extend to animals?"
Was he imagining me working on his farm, helping him with his herd? Didn't he recognize me as his friend's daughter, the girl who used to dig worms for them before they left?
"No, I'm not interested in animals. Except digging for worms, I guess." There, that should remind him, and hopefully shame him into sitting back down.
No such luck. "Ah, yes, Charlie was very indulgent and let you have your own garden. I remember that now." He put his hands in his pockets and looked me over more thoroughly. "Working on a farm would at least get you outdoors." He said it like I should be appreciative.
"I already feel like I'm on a farm."
"Because I think you're all pigs." I heard an audible gasp rise from the students behind me.
Mrs. Bond rushed to my side and swatted my head. "She needs more work. I'm so sorry, gentlemen. I'll have her straightened out by next year."
Another man stood, a man that looked familiar. "But she is seventeen, correct?"
Mrs. Bond's expression turned fawning. "Yes, she's legal. Difficult, but legal."
"I don't mind difficult."
Who was this man? How did I know him?
"In fact," he continued, "I rather like difficult." He took a couple of steps forward and I got a better look at him.
My eyes widened in surprise. It was Barrow. Simon Barrow, president of the local American Bank. He'd foreclosed on Charlie last year, sending my father into bankruptcy, sending me here. I hated him.
He didn't seem to hate me, however, his eyes moving up and down my body appreciatively. "You've filled out nicely."
How dare he look at me that way? I might not have passed Deference, but it wasn't because I hadn't learned the rules. Rule number one was that ladies must never curse. "Fuck you."
A cacophony of groans filled the room, both from the men and the girls. Apparently I'd crossed a line, and Mrs. Bond moved toward me again, her arm raised.
"No, leave that to me." Barrow's words stopped her in her tracks. "I'll take her."
Fuck, no. I looked at Barrow with all the hatred I could muster. He smiled back at me, his thin lips pulling up, something telling around his smile. Had he planned this? I knew he already had three wives, but for some godforsaken reason had he decided that I was to be his fourth? Is that why he'd foreclosed on Charlie? To put me here? To make me available? I decided to find out.
"Was this your plan all along, Barrow? Was this why you jacked up my dad's mortgage payment so high that he couldn't pay it?"
Barrow tilted his head and gave me a small smile. "Now, now, my pretty thing. It's not for you to worry about business matters."
"It is if it's my dad's house, if it's my home." I glared at him. "And I'm not a thing."
"Your home is going to be with me from now on. That's all you need to worry about."
"The hell it is. I'd rather die than go with you."
He tilted his head back and laughed. "Oh, you and I are going to have so much fun together. Such spirit." His eyes had a nasty gleam when he returned his gaze to my face. "You'll fight me tooth and nail, won't you?"
"We aren't going to have anything, because I'm not going with you. Didn't you hear me?"
I looked to Mrs. Bond to back me up. She'd always assured us that if we were chosen by someone we didn't like, we could refuse. She was smiling at Barrow, however, looking as pleased as possible. I started to get a sick feeling, and made fists with my hands. My palms were sweating.
"I'll pick her up in the morning, Mrs. Bond. Please have her ready at nine."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Barrow. She'll be ready to go."
Mrs. Bond took my elbow, not making eye contact as she snapped out a hasty command under her breath. "Go to your room and stay there. I'll be up after I'm done with the other girls."
I was glad to go, horrified that although I'd tried my hardest to go unnoticed, and then offended every man who'd spoken to me, I'd still been the first chosen. Someone gave me a quick hard shove as I worked my way through the girls toward the door, and Patricia shot me a look that would have wilted a lesser person. "I can't believe you were chosen before me."
There wasn't any point in answering her. I couldn't believe it either.
A/N: Hi everyone - I hope you're ready for story #3! I got the basic idea this spring during the healthcare debate in the US and the so-called 'war on women.' I started imaging what the country would be like in fifty years if certain of our political and media leaders got everything that matched their rhetoric. It wasn't pretty. I don't mean this to be a political statement, but I do have my opinions and they'll no doubt become obvious as the story continues.
I'd also been toying with the idea of attempting to write Edward as a vampire. Turns out it's fun.
And lastly, I only have about a fourth of it written so far, and I'm way out of my comfort zone posting before I've completed it, but I wanted to challenge myself there, too.
Oh, and I'm posting this without a beta, so any and all mistakes are on me. Hopefully I learned enough from the wonderful women who beta'ed The Western that it will still be readable.
All right, enough about me. I hope you liked the first chapter, and I'll try to get the next one up soon.