Title of Story: The Corset
Word Count: 11,274
Type of Edward: Edwardian Edward (1901-1910)
Story Summary: "At any given moment you have the power to say this is not how the story is going to end." Christine Mason Miller
Standard Disclaimer: The author does not own any publicly recognizable entities herein. No copyright infringement is intended.
"The satin corset may be the nude of our era." Edouard Manet, L'Evenement, 1881
The hustle and bustle of the morning's activities is different today. Mr. Cullen's servants are always busy in the early hours preparing breakfast and opening the house, but the arrival of a certain guest has put an extra spring in everyone's step.
I, personally, don't see the big deal. Moments ago, as I fetched Mr. Cullen's newspaper, I saw the headlines of what's happening in the world. The first round-trip flight across the English Channel and the discovery of a new type of people called 'pygmies' are both important events. Even the scores from last night's baseball games are more important to me than what will be happening here in a few weeks.
I am Mr. Cullen's valet, which is a fancy term for male servant. Anything Mr. Cullen wants me to do, I do; it's quite simple. Just because my employer will soon be married doesn't mean my life or my duties will change. I'm fortunate to have a job at all, so I refuse to allow the impending arrival of Miss Swan affect my day.
"Good morning, Mr. Masen," Ms. Esme greets me warmly. She's worked in the Cullen house for over twenty years and I've never seen her without a smile. When I left London with Mr. Cullen eight years ago, Ms. Esme became a second mother to me and taught me everything I needed to know to be able to work and live among high society. I was fourteen years old.
"Good morning. You're looking as pretty as a flower today, Ms. Esme," I bow my head toward her, making her blush.
"Such a charmer! I see the morning paper has arrived. You'd better get that to Mr. Cullen straightaway. I don't need to tell you how important today is!"
I shrug and glance around the hallway, checking that we are alone. "I don't get it, Esme. Why is he getting married now? Isn't he too old?"
Esme covers her mouth to stifle her giggle. "Of course he's not too old! It just took him awhile to find the perfect lady. You should be happy for him!" she scolds me playfully.
"If Mr. Cullen is happy, then I'm happy. Besides, it'll be nice to have someone else here to put up with his moods," I laugh as Esme tries to swat at me, missing by a mile. Bowing to her once more, I give her a wink before heading up the grand staircase.
The Cullen Mansion is exquisite in every detail, no dollar spared. With hardwood and marble flooring throughout, the house is filled with the richest fabrics and furnishings from all over the world. Even his servants wear fine clothes, showing off to other servants in the area. It is, indeed, a privilege to work here, since our employer expects nothing but the best and is never disappointed.
Mr. Carlisle Cullen was born a rich man, but since moving to New York, he's become extremely wealthy. Owning a shipping company in this day and age has made Mr. Cullen one of the most powerful businessmen in the United States. This is why I question his sudden engagement. Maybe he wants to settle down and start producing heirs to his fortune. Maybe he truly is in love. Either way, I can guarantee this wedding will be the talk of the town for weeks, if not months.
As I approach the door to Mr. Cullen's office, I hear two voices coming from the partially opened door. I immediately recognize the second as Mr. Aro Volturi, a business associate of Mr. Cullen's from Italy. He and Mr. Cullen have always seemed close in both their personal lives and in business, so I hesitate for a moment at the door, trying to decide if I should interrupt the two of them to give Mr. Cullen his morning paper or come back in a few minutes. Just as I'm weighing the consequences of each, I overhear Mr. Volturi speaking in a loud tone.
"I don't understand your reasoning for marrying this child, Carlisle!"
"She's not a child! She's twenty years old, nearly an old maid."
"And explain to me again how this benefits you?" Mr. Volturi asks.
I know I could be reprimanded harshly for listening to a private conversation, if not fired, but I can't make my feet move from the spot.
"I want what Charles Swan has. It's that simple. Isabella is a chess piece. She's my queen and the board is open. It's mine for the taking; I can taste it. Before the ink is dried on our marriage papers, I plan to have a merger in place for The Black Swan Line and Cullen Freight. When his daughter's fortune and well-being are on the line, I know Mr. Swan will see things my way."
"The next thing you know you'll be wanting to marry me," Mr. Volturi laughs sinisterly.
"We know that isn't possible, Aro. Don't make jokes."
"Do you have any boundaries, Carlisle?"
"Not when it comes to getting what I want. I refuse to let anyone stand in my way. How do you think I've gotten to where I am now?" he asks rhetorically. "It's definitely not from pussy-footing around and making honest deals," he says with a laugh that matches Mr. Volturi's.
"I hope this works out as you have planned."
"Don't worry, Aro. Isabella Swan knows exactly what she's getting herself into. She's desperate to get out of her father's house and make her own way. I saw the fire in her eyes the first time I met her. It was as if she fell right into my hands."
I can't stand here and listen to this any longer, so I firmly knock twice on Mr. Cullen's door, just as he's asked me to do.
"Your paper, Mr. Cullen," I say, placing it on the side table. "Mr. Volturi," I nod, as I turn sharply and leave the room.
As I make my way back down the hall, they return to their conversation, in a more muted tone so as not to let the help overhear, but I've heard enough. I knew there was something more to the story. I've been with Mr. Cullen long enough to know he's never loved another human being beside himself. The fact that this is all a masquerade makes a lot more sense. It's merely another business deal.
This Isabella Swan is bound to be a real treat, I'm sure.
Downstairs is just as lively as the rest of the house this morning. Maids, footmen, cooks-everyone has important duties that must be carried out before Ms. Swan's arrival. There hasn't been this much excitement since Christmas.
"Everyone must be lined up at the entrance at three o'clock sharp," Esme says, as she makes a beeline through the kitchen, making sure we're all on task. She's the one who keeps this house running. All the servants know this. Outside of Mr. Cullen, Esme is the one who has the most authority. Normally, in a house this size, it would be the butler who's in charge, but even Mr. Jenks knows that Esme has the final say-so.
"And keep in mind that you are all a direct representation of this house. You should be at your best today. There will be an inspection at half past two in the south hall. This is a very important day for Mr. Cullen, which means it's a very important day for us all," she says, turning and making her way back up the staircase.
Most of my duties are done for now. Mr. Cullen has no appointments or accommodations that need to be made. From the sound of things, he will be tied up with Mr. Volturi until Ms. Swan's arrival, so I make myself useful downstairs. There's always something to be done. Mr. Jenks has me polish Mr. Cullen's shoes and when I'm finished with that, I help Esme with the dining room preparations.
Dinner this evening should be interesting. Ms. Swan's father and her younger sister will be accompanying her on this trip. From the gossip I've overheard, her father will be here only for one week, while her sister is planning on staying an additional week to help her get settled. Of course, they'll all be returning for the grand event next month: the wedding of the decade.
As I make my way up the back staircase to my modest quarters, I accidentally run smack dab into Alice, who is carrying a stack of bed sheets that towers above her.
"I'm so sorry, Alice!" I apologize profusely, while trying to help her get them neatly folded again. I know how hard she works on cleaning and pressing them to make them ready for guests. I hope I haven't done too much damage.
"It's fine, Edward. Don't worry about it. I'm sure you have a million things to do yourself. Go! I've got this."
"I'm actually finished with my duties. I was just coming up here to make sure my attire was acceptable. I have no desire to be reprimanded by Ms. Esme, especially on a day like today."
"You and I both," she giggles. Alice is always such a delight to be around. She and I have been working for Mr. Cullen the same amount of time. She was twelve when she first started helping Mrs. Clearwater in the kitchen. Much to Alice's surprise, Esme promoted her to a handmaid when she turned sixteen. For people like us, that's as much as we can expect out of our lives. We were born into servility and were accustomed to making the best of the cards we were dealt.
"Do you need help with the linens?" I ask, stacking them back up for her.
"No, Leah is waiting on me. You go and make yourself presentable. I'll see you in the south hall in twenty minutes," she says, walking hastily down the stairs. "Oh, and Edward!" she calls back. "There's a smudge on your left shoe! Be sure you take care of that!"
I shake my head and laugh, as I look down and see the white streak going across the toe of my black shoe. Alice is always looking out for me, which is why I do the same for her. If it weren't for people like her and Esme, I'd feel completely abandoned, but they're family to me.
Twenty minutes later, I'm standing in the south hall with the rest of the employees of Cullen Manor . . . pressed jacket, clean shirt, and polished shoes. Esme takes her time inspecting everyone's attire from top to bottom. When we all meet her high standards, we make our way to the main entrance and await Ms. Swan's arrival.
Collectively, we take in a nervous breath as the double oak doors open with a flourish. Mr. Jenks enters and steps to the side, ready to announce our guests.
"Mr. Cullen, it's my pleasure to present Mr. Charles Swan."
A tall, slender man steps in and removes his hat, revealing dark hair on his head that matches the thick hair above his mouth. Mr. Cullen walks forward and grasps Mr. Swan's hand in both of his, shaking it in a warm greeting.
"Charles! It's been too long! Welcome and, please, make yourself at home!"
Mr. Swan gives a small smile before thanking Mr. Cullen for his hospitality. He seems leery, though, and I wonder if he's completely sold on the idea of his daughter marrying the man before him.
"Miss Jessica Swan, Mr. Swan's youngest daughter, is here, as well, Mr. Cullen," Mr. Jenks announces, causing everyone to look up at the entrance again.
In walks a petite young lady, smiling brightly as she allows Mr. Cullen to briefly kiss the top of her hand.
"Ah, Miss Jessica. So glad you could join your family during these exciting times. I know you must be busy with your own wedding plans, as well," Mr. Cullen says.
Jessica, who looks a little young to be getting married, smiles politely. "I wouldn't miss Isabella's wedding for all the tea in China, Mr. Cullen! Besides, my wedding is still two months away; I do hope you and my sister will attend."
"Of course, dear." Mr. Cullen is a charming man and Miss Jessica seems to be falling under his spell quickly. I'm curious to ascertain if her sister has fallen as easily.
Mr. Jenks clears his throat and the moment we've been waiting for has arrived. Everyone straightens their posture and puts on their most welcoming smiles in anticipation of the elder Swan daughter's appearance.
"Miss Isabella Swan!" Mr. Jenks proclaims.
No other words are needed; we all know who she is and why she's here. What I'm not prepared for is her incredible beauty and the way it causes my breath to hitch. I try to discreetly clear my throat and am relieved that no one seems to be paying any attention to me. Looking back at Miss Isabella, though, I catch her eyes on me before she looks down, blushing.
"My sweet Isabella! I'm so happy that you are finally here!" Mr. Cullen makes a great production of taking Miss Isabella's hand and bringing it to his mouth, lingering much longer than necessary. "Let me introduce you to my staff. You've already met Mr. Jenks, so now I'd like you to meet Ms. Esme. Without her, this house would be in shambles and we'd all be starved! If you need anything-anything at all-just tell Ms. Esme and she'll gladly take care of you."
I can't help but smile fondly at the way Ms. Esme blushes and curtsies at the same time. She deserves every compliment Mr. Cullen has given her and even more that he hasn't.
When Mr. Cullen introduces Miss Isabella to me, I don't hear a word he says. He could be saying I'm really a dame and my girdle is tucked into my pants for all I know. All I can focus on right now are her deeply flushed cheeks and her full lips that are just begging for a kiss. Unfortunately, my kiss isn't the one she wants, so I force myself to give her a polite nod of my head and keep my eyes off her face.
Now her derriere . . . that's an entirely different story.
Once all the introductions have been made, Mr. Cullen encourages the Swan family to follow Ms. Esme to their individual rooms so they can rest and freshen up before dinner.
After making sure Mr. Cullen's parlor has a fully-stocked liquor cabinet and the humidors are filled with his finest cigars, I make my way to the kitchen to see if Ms. Esme needs my help. Upon her request, I open a few bottles of wine to breathe and supervise the preparation of the dining room. Knowing I have thirty minutes until dinner, I allow myself to relax in my room before washing up.
My bedroom is undeniably tiny, but I don't need much. It's private and clean and serves its purpose. Some of the other servants share rooms and I'm thankful I'm not one of them. I get along well with everyone, but I like my privacy and quiet time when I can get it.
As I lay on my bed, my thoughts drift to Miss Isabella. Her hair is the color of roasted chestnuts and is the perfect contrast to her alabaster skin. However, it was her eyes that truly captivated me earlier. They're deep brown in color and framed by thick lashes, making her look both innocent and worldly at the same time.
I wonder if she knows Mr. Cullen's plans to use her to take over her father's company. When I overheard him talking to Mr. Volturi, he mentioned that Isabella was anxious to get out of her father's house. I wonder what he meant by that. Does she not like her home life? Surely, growing up in a wealthy family like hers can't be all that bad. Is she upset that her younger sister became engaged before she did? I think it's ridiculous that anyone would consider Isabella to be an old maid. She's an exquisite young lady and any man would be proud to have her as his wife.
I don't know what kind of person Isabella is, but the idea that she'd willingly allow Mr. Cullen to weasel her father's company away from him just doesn't sit well with me. It's none of my business but, for some reason, I want to know her motives.
Who am I kidding? I want to know more about her, period.
During a perfectly prepared dinner of oysters on the half shell, roasted veal with mashed potatoes, and other various vegetables, the Swan daughters regale Mr. Cullen and Mr. Volturi with many tales from their week-long train ride from Seattle to New York. From snoring old men to children stealing candy off the sweets cart after changing trains in Chicago, it sounds as if they'd seen it all. I can't help but feel a twinge of jealousy at their easy and carefree nature. It's obvious to me that these young ladies are down-to-earth and not the typical ladies of society. Maybe Isabella will bring some fun and excitement to Cullen Manor after all.
As Mr. Cullen's valet, it is my job to stand to the right and behind Mr. Cullen throughout the meal, always ready to get him what he wants when he wants it. The kitchen staff refills drinks and serves the food; but if Mr. Cullen wants something from the bar or needs something from the house-outside the kitchen-I'm the one who fetches it for him. Most of the time he doesn't need me, so I simply stand in my position and wait to be dismissed after the meal. This, of course, allows me the opportunity to watch and listen to those sitting at the table while pretending to be disinterested.
Unfortunately for me, the more Miss Isabella speaks, the more interested I become.
I can tell by the bored look on Mr. Cullen's face and by the tense way he's holding his body that he's ready to retire to the parlor with Mr. Volturi and Mr. Swan, but Isabella is in the middle of a story. Mr. Cullen would much rather talk business than listen to a story about the children Isabella reads to every week when she volunteers at her local library. When she finishes, he's the first to push his chair away from the table, signaling that dinner is over. After the men leave the room, I notice Isabella looking dejected and, possibly, embarrassed.
Without thinking, I take a step closer to the table and speak softly.
"I really enjoyed your story, Miss Isabella. I'm sure you make those children extremely happy."
I say it because it's true. I say it because Mr. Cullen should have said it himself. When Isabella looks at me with the most blinding smile, saying thank you, I want to say something else just to see her smile like that again.
I eat a modest dinner in the servant's dining room before bidding everyone good night, and check on the men in the parlor one last time. Seeing that all three men are well on their way to being completely bashed, I close the doors to the parlor and make my way up the grand staircase.
As I walk along the hallway that eventually leads to the servant's staircase, I'm surprised when I hear giggling coming from a nearby room. I'm even more surprised when I get closer to the room and see that the door isn't closed completely.
I'm certain this is Miss Isabella's room and, as much as I'd love to peek in as I walk by, I know that would be the wrong thing to do. Just as I move to turn back around, meaning to take the long way back to my room, I hear a quiet voice speaking my name.
"Mr. Masen seems nice. Are there any romantic feelings between the two of you?"
I'm frozen in place as my brain tries to make sense of what I've just heard.
"Oh, no, Miss! My heart belongs to a groundskeeper here named Jasper."
I let out the deep breath I was holding and relax at the sound of Alice's chipper voice as she answers Miss Isabella. My feet automatically turn and lead me back toward the open door, curiosity getting the better of me.
I'm at war with myself as I inch closer and closer, knowing I could get fired for being here. This is the second time today I've snooped and pushed my luck and I can't say that I'm proud of my new personality trait. I also can't find it in me to care right now. I know the men won't be leaving the parlor anytime soon. Plus, I just can't seem to fight the urge to see Isabella one more time tonight.
When I'm as close as I can get to the door without making my presence known, I see more of her than I ever thought possible.
Isabella's hair is down and draped over her right shoulder as Alice unfastens and pulls away her ruffled dress, laying it gently on top of the bed. My breath quickens and my eyes become glued to Isabella as Alice then helps her out of her linen shift, leaving the beautiful woman in nothing but a satin corset.
I'm no innocent. I've been with a woman before and I've seen pictures that would surely make Ms. Esme gasp in utter disappointment of me but nothing has ever prepared me for the sight before me.
Isabella's skin is glowing in the candlelight and I can't help but trail my eyes down her exposed neck and shoulder, landing on her exquisite body. The corset cinches her waist so that her bosom is pushed up and her hips are rounded, making a perfect hourglass shape. It makes me want to curse the unwritten rules of society that claim a woman should ever wear more than this.
Isabella takes in a deep breath and, for a moment, I'm afraid I've been caught but it was only to aid Alice in the untying of the corset's laces. My fingers twitch with want as I watch the delicate ribbons being pulled from one side to the other. I want to be the one to undress Isabella. I want to unwrap and unravel her before making her come undone in my arms.
I've never had this kind of reaction to a woman before; I've never felt this much passion or been this attracted to anyone, let alone someone I barely know. I feel myself harden and I know I should be ashamed but I can't look away. I'm under a spell weaved by satin and lace, flesh and warmth, and I know I'm ruined forever.
Isabella's hands quickly cover her breasts, holding the material to her, as Alice nears the bottom of the corset. The movement breaks the trance I'm under and my eyes fly up to see Isabella's looking back at me through the reflection in the mirror she's standing in front of.
I expect shock. I expect outrage and anger. What I don't expect is a smile.
It's not the same bright smile I was given earlier at the dinner table. This time it's shy, but her eyes are sparkling.
She likes that I'm looking at her.
Not knowing what to do with this information, I ignore the warnings going off in my head and smile back at her, before slowly stepping away from the door.
As I make my way to my room, I look forward to being alone so that I can replay everything that just happened in my dreams.
"A woman in a corset is a lie, a falsehood, a fiction, but for us this fiction is better than the reality." Eugene Chapus, Manuel de l'homme et de la femme comme il faut, 1855
Suck in. Hold your breath. Squeeze.
Suck in. Hold your breath. Squeeze.
This is my morning mantra.
Every day my handmaid, whether it's Kate back home in Seattle or Alice, here at Cullen Manor, has to help me dress. Thanks to the strict rules of society, women must wear corsets underneath our clothing to create the illusion of a perfect form. It's bad enough that we must cover our bodies in layers from our necks to our ankles, but we also must wear a bone-crushing corset underneath those layers, making it difficult at times to move and breathe.
I try to keep my complaints to myself because I don't want to sound ungrateful for my blessings but I long for the day when I can wear what I want, not what a European fashion magazine dictates. The day I don't have to wear gloves and a hat and carry a parasol with me every time I'm in public will be a great day indeed.
"Miss Isabella, what's got you so perplexed this morning?" Alice asks.
I smile at my new friend through the mirror before me. "Oh, nothing. I'm just daydreaming of a time when I'll never have to wear one of these confounded contraptions again," I say, tugging the corset higher upon my breasts.
Alice giggles sweetly, humoring me as she tightens the laces at my lower back.
I've become very fond of Alice and I'm thrilled she'll be my personal handmaid after I marry Carlisle, but she doesn't understand. She has no idea how a layer of the real me is hidden, with each pull of the lacings. She can't possibly see how this one undergarment not only changes my body, but also changes my spirit; squeezing and tightening until there's almost nothing natural about me anymore.
No one sees the real me. No one except for him.
Everyone here calls him Mr. Masen, but I'm the only one who gets to call him Edward, just like he's the only one to ever call me Bella.
These past two weeks at Cullen Manor have been the most exciting of my life, thanks to Edward. Ever since my first night here, he's done nothing but flood my thoughts and dreams, especially after I caught him staring at me while I was being undressed. Normally, I would've screamed bloody murder in that situation but there's just something . . . different about Edward. Of course, he's extremely handsome, but he's also kind and a hard worker. What kept me quiet that night, though, was the way he looked at me. No man had ever looked at me that way, not even the man I'm supposed to marry. Edward's gaze made me feel beautiful and desired and I instantly became addicted to his eyes on me.
"Okay, Miss Isabella, you're all dressed!" Alice declares as she spins me around, making sure everything is perfect. "You look a bit flushed. Dreaming about your wedding night?" she teases.
She means well, but her words make my stomach turn, as guilt floods my body.
Alice grabs my dirty linens and leaves me in the room alone, thankful for a few minutes of privacy.
I know what Edward and I are doing is wrong. Passing notes to each other and secretly meeting in various locations just to be alone with one another for a few minutes is not something an engaged woman should do, especially when the man she's meeting with works for her fiance'. I just can't seem to stop myself. I need him like I need my next breath.
Technically, we've done nothing immoral-meaning our relationship isn't physical other than the brief touching of our hands. But, I can't deny that Edward's the one I dream about every night. I want to be physical with him; I want everything with him.
I make my way to the dining room for breakfast, sitting down just as Carlisle is finishing his coffee.
"Good morning, Isabella. Sleep well?"
"Yes, I did, thank you. And yourself?"
"Fine, just fine. Do you have any plans today?" he asks.
"Not really. I thought I might take a walk around the grounds. The weather has been lovely, and it'd be nice to get some fresh air. Maybe I'll pick some flowers for the house."
What a pair we made! We're to be married in two weeks and we can barely hold a conversation. I'm hopeful that we'll eventually find a common ground that will sustain us throughout our marriage.
I sense Edward's presence before I see him, which allows me to force the features on my face to remain neutral as he walks up to Carlisle's chair.
"Mr. Masen, Isabella would like to take a walk around the grounds today. I'd feel much better if you'd escort her. I know I can trust you to keep my future wife safe."
Only I notice the slight widening of Edward's eyes before he nods his head and calmly replies, "Yes, Mr. Cullen."
"Excellent! I'll be at my office in the city all day but I should be home in time for dinner. Isabella, have a wonderful day and Mr. Masen, take care of my girl." Carlisle pats Edward's shoulder twice before walking out of the room, leaving one of the maids to clear his dishes.
As soon as the room empties and it's just the two of us, the air gets impossibly thick. I'm still in shock that not only do we get to spend the afternoon together alone, but also it's with Carlisle's blessing. Hearing Edward's voice brings me out of my musings.
"What time would you like to go for your walk, Miss Isabella?"
"I can be ready in five minutes."
He smiles briefly before stating, "I'll be waiting for you at the back door."
Moments later, Edward and I are walking, talking about the weather and any other boring topic we can come up with just to keep up the appearance of being proper. As we start on a trail that leads into a thickly wooded area, our pace slows and we finally can speak freely.
It's exhilarating, especially when Edward takes my hand in his.
I'm caught off guard when Edward blurts out, "Bella, why are you marrying him?"
Of course, we've never discussed this-there's never been enough time-but I still wasn't prepared for his question. Edward deserves my honest answer, so I give it to him.
"It's my duty."
"I need more of an answer than that. Why him?"
"Edward, I'm the second of three daughters. My older sister, Angela, is married and my younger sister will be married next month. You don't understand the embarrassment it causes my family and me to be the last one left. I'm twenty years old. In our society, I should already be married with one child, at the very least. I'm lucky that Carlisle is settling for me at all."
He turns to me, then, eyes full of rage. "You say he's 'settling' for you and that you are the lucky one? Surely, you can't be serious!"
"I've always been the plain one, quiet and reserved, with only my ambition to speak of. Angela is the sweet one, Jessica is the pretty one, and I'm the dreamer. Carlisle is one of the wealthiest men in the country and I know he'll provide for me and any children we may have. It's the best I can hope for." Tears threaten to fall as I whisper those last words, not being able to look Edward in the eyes.
Suddenly, my back is against a large oak tree and Edward's body is pressed against mine, one hand cradling the back of my head while the other wraps around the back of my neck.
"You are not plain; you're exquisite! You're the one settling, not him. He has no idea what he has and he doesn't deserve you."
"Do you deserve me?"
"No, I don't." His face is so close to mine, his eyes piercing mine as he looks at me through his lashes. "You're too good for me and I'll never be able to take care of you financially like Mr. Cullen can but I would love you with more passion than all of Shakespeare's plays-love you until my dying breath, if you'd let me."
There's no time to speak before his mouth is pressed against mine, urgent and sure; when his tongue swipes at my bottom lip, I don't hesitate to open my mouth, letting him deepen the kiss.
As much as I've fantasized about this moment over the past two weeks, I'm still unprepared for what it feels like to have Edward's tongue in my mouth. The feel and the taste of him has me in an absolute frenzy. I feel like a madwoman, losing my grip on reality every time his mouth claims mine and I can't hold back the wanton moan that escapes my mouth when I feel Edward's lips on my neck.
He slowly pulls away, both of us flushed and panting, still holding onto each other.
"I'm sorry, Bella. I didn't mean to take advantage of you but I've wanted to kiss you like that since that first night I saw you, even before I saw you getting undressed. The idea that you can't be mine is killing me."
"Please don't apologize. I've wanted it, too, just as much and for just as long. I desperately wish we could be together, Edward, I just don't see how it can happen. I made a promise and many people would be upset if I broke that promise."
"What about you and your happiness? Doesn't that matter? Shouldn't that come first? Both of your sisters are taken care of, your father has his own successful business . . ." His voice tapers off like he's said something wrong.
I run my fingers along his jaw as I've wanted to do since Carlisle introduced me to Edward in his hallway. My fingertips tingle at the contact.
"What is it, Edward? What's wrong?"
He kisses my lips before leaning his forehead against mine. "I don't know how to tell you this, Bella."
"Just say it. You can tell me anything."
I watch as he struggles to find the courage to tell me his secret but I remain patient. Edward pulls away and runs his fingers through his hair before looking back at me.
"Bella, Mr. Cullen plans on taking over your father's company, merging it with his."
"But he can't do that. My father has already made plans to divide the company between my brothers-in-law. Carlisle wasn't included because he already has his own company."
"The day you and your family arrived from Seattle, I overheard Mr. Cullen tell Mr. Volturi that as soon as you two are married, he's going to pressure your father into signing his company over to Mr. Cullen, using you as bait."
Tears begin to sting my eyes again, this time because I'm so angry. If I would've known Carlisle was capable of this type of behavior, I would never have agreed to marry him.
"But why would he do that?"
"He wants to rule the shipping business from one coast to the other; marrying you provides the perfect opportunity for that to happen. I'm sorry, Bella."
I gently push on Edward's chest and step away from the tree, needing some space. The look on his face breaks my heart so I'm quick to reassure him. "I'm not mad at you, I swear. I'm glad you told me. I just need to process everything you've said and decide what to do. Will you walk me back to the house?"
"Of course, I will, Isabella. I want to help you any way I can." He places both of his hands in my hair and pulls my face to his before kissing me one last time. "I meant what I said earlier. My heart belongs to you now."
It's later that evening while Alice is undressing me that I truly feel I'm about to burst. The nap I took after my walk with Edward did nothing to calm my racing heart and frantic mind and I know everyone must've noticed how jittery I was during dinner. Thankfully, no one mentioned it. Leave it to Alice to finally speak up.
"Miss Isabella, you look like you're a nervous wreck. The wedding isn't for another two weeks, what could possibly have you so worked up?"
I need to talk to someone. I need someone to listen and help me sort out my feelings. My sisters aren't here and I certainly can't talk to my parents about this yet. Obviously, speaking to Carlisle isn't an option and as much as I love talking to Edward, he can't help me right now. Looks like Alice is my only choice.
When my nightclothes are on and my hair is done, I quietly walk to my door and lock it before motioning for Alice to sit with me on my bed.
She gives me a strange look-I imagine she's never been in a situation like this before. However, when she sees the worry on my face, she acquiesces.
"Alice, what I'm about to say you can't repeat to anyone. You must promise me. I hate putting you in this situation, but if I don't tell someone, I'll burst!"
"Of course, Miss, you have my word!"
Now that I have the chance to speak freely, I'm not sure where to begin. Alice grabs both my hands and gives me a reassuring smile, encouraging me to start.
"I'm in love!" I blurt out before covering my mouth. It's at this moment that I realize I never told Edward how I feel about him when we were in the woods today, causing my panic to multiply.
"Well, I'm pretty sure it's natural for a lady to be in love, especially when she's engaged to be married soon," Alice laughs.
Speaking softly but surely, I tell Alice my secret. "I'm not in love with Mr. Cullen; I'm in love with Mr. Masen."
"Well, what a relief that is! I couldn't fathom how you'd fall in love with a man you never spend time with, but now everything makes sense!"
"You knew about Edward and me?" I can't keep the shock out of my voice. If Alice knows, who else does?
"Relax, Miss Isabella. I only guessed because Mr. Masen-Edward-has been so different since you arrived. He's remained his professional self, for the most part, but I can spot differences in him because I've known him for so long. He's been a little bit careless and fidgety, like his mind is on something-or someone-else. He's also smiled more these last two weeks than he has in all the years I've known him," she says, smiling at me.
I look away bashfully but I'm sure Alice can still see the blush covering my face and throat. I'm so relieved Alice isn't going to read me the riot act that I tell her everything. I tell her how intrigued I was by Edward the first time I saw him and how my attraction to him only grew as I finally found the nerve to speak to him three days later. I smile at the memory-we were both so shy as I asked him where he was from originally. I'd noticed a bit of an accent when he spoke and I couldn't help my curiosity. I've always wanted to travel so when he told me he was born and raised in London, my adventurous spirit kicked in, forcing questions from my mouth so quickly that he didn't have enough time to answer. That's when we started writing letters to each other.
I tell Alice about the letters we slipped into each other's hands throughout the day and how I would always hide in my room to read Edward's words which quickly became more personal. It didn't take long for us to realize there was something more than friendship building between us and I shiver at the memory of the first time Edward's finger brushed across my cheek.
It's as if a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders, admitting these things to Alice, so I have no problem speaking about the walk we took today and how Edward declared his feelings for me and finally kissed me.
"I'm so happy for you!" she squeals before hugging me tightly.
"Don't celebrate just yet, Alice. How can Edward and I be together when I'm supposed to marry Carlisle? Plus, Edward just told me how Carlisle is planning on using me to force my father into signing his business over to him! I just don't know what to do!"
"Oh, dear, that's just awful!" Alice says, worrying her lip. "Have faith, Miss Isabella! We'll figure this out, I promise!" She has a look of sheer determination on her face and a spark of hope flares up inside me.
"Alice, I don't want to put you in any danger of losing your job. You're my closest friend here, besides Edward, and I love you dearly. Please don't do anything foolish on my account," I beg.
"Nonsense! I'm a romantic at heart and I'll do whatever I can to see true love prevail. First things first: you have something you need to tell Edward, correct? Put on your robe and slippers and meet me at the back staircase in ten minutes. I'll warn Edward that you're on your way."
And, just like that, she's gone, leaving me bewildered but excited at the same time. I get dressed as Alice told me to and brush out my hair, before sneaking out of my room with a lantern.
Alice meets me at the stairs and takes my hand before leading me down to the servant's quarters. When we stop at a door around the corner, she knocks firmly as she smiles confidently at me.
As soon as the door opens, Alice nudges me forward as Edward pulls me inside, immediately wrapping his arms around me, and burying his face in my neck. I feel the lantern being taken from my hand just before the door is closed and I melt into his embrace.
"Bella, my love, is everything okay? When Alice woke me and told me you needed to see me, I was so scared something bad had happened to you."
His words clear my head a bit and I realize that my arms and face are touching Edward's bare skin. Without thinking, I drag my hand down the hard planes of his chest and over his stomach muscles, mesmerized by his perfection.
"Bella?" I hear the mirth in his voice and when I look at his face, the smirk that's in place makes my body heat up-not with embarrassment, but with desire.
"I love you, Edward. I didn't tell you this afternoon and I was such a wreck after learning about Carlisle's plans that I didn't realize it until I was confiding in Alice. You must know that despite whatever happens, you are the one I love."
"I know you do and I love you. I don't want you to worry, though. We'll figure a way out of this mess, I promise."
I'm so nervous, I'm making myself sick. Carlisle is taking me to a Broadway play tonight because he believes we should be seen in public at least one time before we're married. My guilt would be greater if I thought he was taking me out simply because he wanted to but it's obvious he's only doing this for appearance's sake, so I have no remorse for not wanting to go in the first place.
Carefully, I walk down the stairs where Carlisle is waiting for me. He surprised me with a lovely dress that is quite narrow at the ankles, which makes walking difficult for me. When I finally join him in the foyer, he smiles and tells me how beautiful I look. I thank him just before looking over his shoulder. Edward is watching us, still as a statue, except for when his jaw clenches. I can see the muscles in his face tighten with every clench and my heart breaks for him. I can't imagine what it would feel like to see him leave with another woman and I hate that he has to be here right now. At least he knows that I'll be in his room later tonight, just as I've been every night this week.
Ever since the night Alice brought me to his room a week ago, I've sneaked out of my room and spent a couple of hours in Edward's. We spend our short but precious time together talking with a lot of kissing and brief touches thrown in. We both agree that our relationship shouldn't become physical until we're free to be together completely, but that doesn't make it any easier to break apart when our kisses become too passionate.
The ride to the theater is quiet because Carlisle and I still haven't found anything to talk to each other about. Every day I question myself about why I agreed to this arranged marriage in the first place. I honestly didn't think I'd ever fall in love. Boys have never been interested in me and I didn't think that would ever change, which is why I blindly accepted Carlisle's proposal; I was certain it was the best offer I'd ever receive.
I hate that I've put myself and Edward in this position but, as Alice reminded me tonight while she was helping me get dressed, if I'd never accepted Carlisle's proposal, I'd never have met Edward in the first place, and I could never regret that. Even if we have no future together, I'll never feel bad about our time together. I just hope we can find a way out of this mess and soon. Edward has already made it clear that if I marry Carlisle, he'll look for employment elsewhere. I cried when he told me, stating that if he did, we'd never see each other; he explained that he could never stay in that house again, knowing that Carlisle and I had been intimate with each other. I certainly don't blame him for feeling that way but it still hurts to think about.
The play we're watching tonight is called The Pillars of Society and it's about a domineering businessman in the shipping industry. Interesting choice. It's considered to be a classic which illustrates how the rich and powerful are often corrupt but it's the ending that has me spitting nails.
On our way home, I try to engage Carlisle into a discussion about the play, asking how he felt when the main character gets away with attempted murder. He answered me by saying, "It's only a story, Isabella. Don't take things so seriously."
I can't believe I'm marrying this man in only a few days.
It's wonderful to have my family here with me, but I feel like such a phony, pretending to be happy about my wedding tomorrow. My mother and older sister, Angela, along with her husband, Benjamin, arrived with my father and Jessica; seeing them makes me realize how much I've missed them all.
Carlisle has continued to treat me as nothing more than an obligation. He rudely interrupts me and dismisses me at every turn. If I cared an ounce about him, I would be greatly offended, but his actions make mine less guilt-laden.
Edward and I haven't seen much of each other today because Carlisle has him running around the house like a madman, making sure everything is just perfect for tomorrow. I know he must be hurting the way I am but every time I see him, he gives me a smile. Sometimes it's even paired with a wink, knowing it'll make me blush.
Those glances and smiles make me wonder if he has something up his sleeve. We haven't talked much more about Carlisle or what I'm going to do about my impending nuptials. Our last conversation was him telling me that everything would be okay. At the time, I felt like he was just saying that to appease me, trying to make me feel better; but now, I'm not so sure. Maybe he really has figured a way out of this seemingly impossible situation.
As I'm getting dressed for bed, I feel absolutely sick to my stomach. This could be my last night as an unwed woman. Tomorrow could be the day that changes my entire life. I can't imagine going through with it but, on the other hand, I can't imagine finding a solution.
"Do not lose hope, Miss Isabella," Alice soothes, as she helps me into my nightgown.
"It's so hard not to when I feel so helpless," I reply.
Alice answers when there's a knock on my door. I expect it to be my mother or perhaps my elder sister, Angela, coming to give me some pre-wedding night advice. My stomach turns as that thought enters my mind.
Alice and I are both surprised when Edward rushes into my room, breathless.
"Bella, I have it! I have the proof we need to show your father what Mr. Cullen is planning!" he excitedly whispers, while waving what looks to be a contract in front of me. "When you and Mr. Cullen were at the play last week, Alice and I did some snooping and found two marks of interest on his calendar. The first was an appointment for a meeting with his lawyer from earlier that day and the second was for today, the day the-and I quote "papers arrive". I suspected it was the contract that he'll try to force your father to sign but I wasn't sure until now. I'm sorry I kept all of this from you but I didn't want to worry you any more than you already have been."
"Edward, that's wonderful, but how did you get the contract? Where's Carlisle?"
"He and Mr. Volturi are both passed out in the parlor with a very large and a very empty bottle of Scotch sitting between them. After seeing that he was out cold, I went to his office and found the contract on top of his desk."
Edward smiles at me again and his confidence in his plan-in us-makes me giddy.
Forgetting that Alice is still with us, I throw myself into his arms, more hopeful than I've been all month.
"I have to show my father," I whisper into Edward's chest, my voice hitching in my throat. Tears sting my eyes, as my mind spins with all of the repercussions and possible outcomes, but I know I must tell him. I must do what is right for me . . . and for Edward-for us. I refuse to sit by one more moment and let others make choices for me. I can't live without Edward. I know that I was brought here for a purpose, and that purpose was to find Edward. I feel it with every fiber of my being. I need him like the air that I'm breathing.
"Tonight," he says quietly, "we must tell him tonight, before it's too late."
"I'm scared," I confess, gripping the sleeves of his jacket.
"I'll go with you. You'll never have to take another step in this world alone, Bella. You are my life now."
His lips find mine and I feel the truth behind his words. If Edward and I leave here with only the clothes on our backs, I will feel like the richest girl in the world.
"Go, you two! Hurry!" Alice demands, standing by the partially opened door, holding a lit lantern.
Edward grabs my hand and we make our way quickly, but quietly down the staircase.
When we reach the bottom step, my heart is pounding so hard that my head feels dizzy and I momentarily lose my balance. Edward's arm holds me steady, as he brings the lantern up to my face. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," I say quietly, relishing in the feel of his hand on my back. He quickly steals a kiss and gives me a reassuring nod before we head down the long hall leading to the room my mother and father are staying in.
Standing in front of their door, I hesitate for a moment, before gently knocking. There's no answer and after a few moments, I knock once more. As I press my ear to the door, I hear shuffling and murmurs on the other side of the door. A moment later, my father appears.
He's standing there in his night clothes, a myriad of emotions crossing his face. His eyes show concern, but the way his brows pull together I know there's a layer of anger there somewhere; he's obviously confused about why I'm standing in front of his door with Edward, a servant. To make matters worse, I failed to dress appropriately. I know I need to speak quickly before he makes any hasty assumptions.
"Isabella? Are you alright?" my father asks, exchanging questioning looks between us.
"Father, I have something important to show you," I whisper.
Reaching down, I lace my fingers through Edward's, presenting a united front. There's no time like the present for my father to know the complete truth. If he's going to be able to help us, I know I'm going to have to tell him everything.
"Actually, we have something important to show you," I say, looking up at Edward. I expect to see nervousness or even fear, but when our eyes meet, he's a pillar of strength. He gently squeezes and rubs his thumb across the back of my hand, assuring me with his touch that everything is going to be okay, just like he promised.
"Please, Mr. Swan, a moment of your time," he asks, holding up the documents.
After we lay everything out for my father, showing him the papers that Carlisle had drawn up just two days ago, he has no choice but to believe what Edward tells him about the conversation he overheard the day of my arrival. His brows are now locked down tight in an angry scowl, his mustache twitching with the fury I see burning in his eyes.
Charles Swan is generally a gentle man. Although he may look intimidating, he's relatively harmless, unless he's provoked to anger. I've learned well over my twenty years to stay out of his way when he looks like this. His wrath is something I've only had to witness a few times in my life, and it's something I avoided at all cost.
"Daddy?" I ask, using the one name I know that will calm him down and soften his hardened features.
Edward once again reassures me with a soft squeeze. My heart is beating so fast, I can hear it whooshing in my ears.
I glance over at my mother, who's sitting on the edge of the bed covered in a crimson robe. Her hand is covering her mouth in a look of dismay. I can't see her face very well in the dimly-lit room, but I wish she would say something. I need to know what she's thinking-if she's mad at me . . . disappointed in me.
Tears threaten to spill over, as I work hard to control my breathing. I know that sobbing uncontrollably, which is what I'd like to do right now, would only make matters worse.
"Are you angry with me, Daddy?" I ask, my voice faltering. "Please say something . . . anything."
He ignores my question and turns to Edward instead. "Edward, what are your intentions with my daughter?"
Without hesitation, Edward replies, "If I have your permission, Sir, I'd like to ask for Isabella's hand in marriage."
The tears that I was trying to hold back spilled onto my cheeks. The surety in Edward's tone and words means everything to me. He really wants me! He really loves me . . . and wants to marry me. Even though he had alluded to that fact in our conversation, hearing him ask for my father's blessing makes it feel so real and, once again, hope fills my heart.
I look at my father, who has yet to give his response, and I see him watching me.
"Is this what you want, Isabella? Does he make you happy?"
"Yes," I gush, my voice thick with the tears that are falling. "I love him." Glancing at Edward, I see everything-every answer to every question, my past, my present, my future. "I didn't know I could be this happy until I met Edward."
"Edward," my father commands, "I want you and Isabella to pack your necessary belongings and leave as soon as possible. A carriage will be waiting at the front gate in one hour."
"What about Mr. Cullen?" Edward asks.
"Leave him to me," my father replies, with finality. "I will feel better if the two of you are as far from here as you can be come morning."
"Thank you," I say, wrapping my arms around him. My mother comes over, smoothing my hair back the way she used to when I was little, assuring me that everything will work out. With a kiss goodbye, I turn to meet Edward in the hallway where he's waiting on me.
"Edward," my father says, reaching out and grasping his shoulder, "take care of my daughter."
"You don't have to worry, Sir. I love her more than my own life."
My father nods in understanding and pats Edward on the shoulder.
After Alice helps me quickly dress and pack my trunk, Jasper shows up to carry it downstairs. It's the middle of the night, so we have to use the utmost caution. I want to say goodbye to my sisters, but my father said he would explain everything to them once he had spoken to Carlisle. My stomach, which was upset with dread, is now fluttering with anticipation and a bit of nervousness. I'm not sure what I would say if Carlisle awoke and interrupted our escape.
"Don't worry, Miss Isabella. I promise that everything's going to be fine. I have an uncanny sixth sense about these sorts of things. You'll see!" Alice winks and hugs me close.
"I'm going to miss you so much," I whisper, wishing with everything I have that I could take Alice with me.
"We'll see each other again," she assures me.
Edward is there waiting on me, just like he said he would be. He has a modest size suitcase with him in one hand and takes mine in the other, thanking Jasper for carrying it downstairs. The two of them exchange words and something else that I can't see. It's pitch black out, except for the lone candle that Alice brought so that we'd have light to see by while we walk to the gate.
Once in the carriage, I begin to relax. Knowing that with each gallop of the hooves, we are that much closer to the beginning of the rest of our lives.
Hot breath and warm kisses wake me from the best sleep I've had in ages. For a brief second, I'm afraid that I dreamed the events of last night but when I roll over and find Edward gazing down at me, I'm more than relieved. I'm downright ecstatic.
Thanks to my father and the large amount of cash he handed me before we left, Edward and I were able to afford a very nice train car for our trip to Chicago. I'd been so nervous climbing into the bed with him, but Edward quickly put me at ease by assuring me we'd only be sleeping together in the platonic sense until after we were married. Blushing from my head to my toes, I admitted that I was disappointed with that information but, truthfully, I know he only wants to protect me and my father's reputation. In fact, it only made me love him more.
"Good morning, my love." More kisses are placed on my forehead, nose, cheeks, and then finally, my mouth. I can't believe I'll get to wake up next to this man every day from now on.
"It's the best morning," I reply, running my fingertips over the new stubble along his jaw. Edward is breath-taking when he's dressed to the nines and freshly shaved but this sleepy-eyed, fuzzy-faced version is quickly becoming my favorite.
"We'll be in Chicago soon. We need to get ready and eat breakfast before we stop. We have a very important day ahead of us," he says, brushing my hair away from my forehead. "But, first, there's something I want to do."
Pulling my eyebrows together in a confused look, I ask "What is that?"
"This isn't exactly how I imagined doing this, but nothing about our relationship has been typical, so why start now?" he quips. "Isabella Swan, I know this may seem rushed to some people but I've known you're the one for me since you caught me peeking in your room, and you didn't do anything but smile back at me." We both blush at his words. "Will you do me the incredible honor of becoming my wife?"
Reaching up, I pull his mouth to mine and kiss him, morning breath be damned. "Of course I'll marry you, Edward. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me and I never want to be without you."
His smile is blinding but not as blinding as the ring he holds in front of my face.
"Edward! Where did you get a ring so quickly?"
"Apparently, Ms. Esme found out what was going on when we were sneaking out of Cullen Manor. This was her wedding ring; she gave it to Jasper to give me for our wedding. I know it's not very fancy, but I promise I'll buy you your own ring as soon as we can afford it."
"You'll do no such thing, Edward Masen! This is the ring you proposed with and it's beautiful. I love it, thank you."
I hold my left hand out and bite my bottom lip as I watch the man of my dreams slide the ring over my finger, before bringing it to his lips and kissing it.
"Now, let's get married!"
We dress separately and eat breakfast before exiting the train. Thank goodness, Chicago hasn't yet adopted the new policy other cities have that makes couples wait forty-eight hours to be married after obtaining a marriage license. That means in just a few hours, I'll be Mrs. Isabella Masen.
After hailing a taxi, we arrive at a local courthouse and quickly begin the process of applying for a marriage license. The wait time for the ceremony is relatively short; before we know it, we're standing before a Justice of the Peace, with two strangers who act as our witnesses.
Never in a million years did I think this is how my wedding would be, but I also never thought I'd be fortunate enough to marry someone as wonderful as Edward.
Our vows are spoken with trembling lips and watery eyes. When we're officially declared 'husband and wife', the impact of our new-found freedom is expressed with a kiss that is normally frowned upon in public. After a few throat clearings from the Justice of the Peace, we finally pull apart and thank him for his services.
Our next train doesn't leave for a few more hours, so we spend the rest of our time sightseeing in Chicago, our hands and lips never breaking contact for long.
Watching the conductor hole-punch our train tickets and welcome us as "Mr. and Mrs. Masen" is a moment I'll never forget. All at once, I'm struck by the excitement of our day, along with anticipation of what is yet to come.
Edward is quiet as we walk hand-in-hand to our private car. Once we're inside and the door's closed, his mouth claims mine with more passion than I've ever witnessed. When he pulls away, his chest is heaving and his eyes are dark and hungry. My skin breaks out with goose bumps when I realize he is hungry for me.
"I want to undress you, Isabella."
The only response I can give is a quick nod of my head. If I were to try to speak, I'm positive no sound would come out of my mouth. It feels like I've waited for this moment for so long; I'm torn between needing it to happen soon and hoping it lasts forever.
Edward takes my hand and leads me to our bed before removing his shirt. With a boldness I didn't know I possessed, my hands caress his shoulders, chest, and stomach, followed by my mouth. Tasting his skin on my lips and tongue ignites a fire in my belly. I want to consume him just as much as I want him to consume me.
His strong and steady hands find the hooks in my dress and soon, the material is pooled at my feet. When only my corset remains, I notice a look of surprise on Edward's face.
"What's wrong?" I ask.
"How did you get that on? Have you been wearing it since we left New York?"
Blushing, I admit that I brought it with me to the courthouse restroom and asked the female attendant to tighten it for me.
"She didn't do as good of a job as Alice does but I wanted to wear it for you."
"Because of that night?" he asks, knowing which night, in particular, he's speaking of.
"Because I want you to be the one to take it off me." My voice is sure and my eyes never leave his as I continue. "I've always thought of this corset as being my cage. When it's tightened, I'm no longer free to be me, just as my body isn't free to move. But, when it's loosened, I feel like a bird no longer confined to its wired coop. I've never felt more liberated than I do at this moment and it's because of you."
"My wife, I see you, the real you, and I love you more than I ever thought possible. You say that I've given you freedom but don't you see that you've done the same for me? You saw past me being a servant and accepted me-wanted me-for who I am, not for what I do. It's my honor to remove these bindings just as you've removed mine."
Edward moves behind me and kisses my skin, just as I did his, moving his mouth from my left shoulder, across my upper back, and ending at my right shoulder. The bow at the bottom of the corset is untied and soon, I feel the familiar tug before the restricting laces are loosened. After each section is unsecured, my husband kisses my exposed skin until the only things holding up the corset are my hands.
Facing me again, he reaches behind my head and unclips my hair, watching as it tumbles down in long waves. I take a deep breath and let it out before letting my hands fall to my side. My corset shimmies down my body, leaving me completely exposed.
"You're perfect, my Bella," Edward whispers reverently, his words making my insides melt.
Lying on the bed, we take our time learning each other's bodies with our eyes, hands, and mouths. When we're finally connected in the most intimate and precious way, we move as one until we're overcome with pleasure, completely unraveled just like my corset.