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"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.
This is the beginning of our entry for the Age of Edward Contest. We decided to break it up into more manageable chapters for your reading enjoyment. :) Please leave us some love in the reviews! We're working hard on finishing up Bella Donna, for those of you who are reading, and plan on posting the remainder of the story pretty quickly as soon as it's complete! Our goal is to have all of our stories finished by the end of the year. We appreciate each and every one of you! Thank you to our beta, Mauigirl60, for her awesome work!