Wind whipped down Madison, a bitter preview of the arctic storm forecasted to settle in that night. My Armani trench slapped against my thigh as I glided around the rest of the morning commuters. I pressed my phone harder against my ear in an attempt to hear my brother over the roar of the city.
"Man, you should have seen it! Dude actually fucking pissed himself. We full-on scared the piss out of him!" Emmett's enthusiasm over some asshole's incontinence was concerning.
"Great. Listen, Em, did you get what we needed?" I attempted to get him back on track. I didn't have all day.
"Yeah, yeah. So, apparently, we need to pay a visit to some guy on the south side. Hold on. I put his name somewhere- Victor? Vance? Shit, I can't remember. He's supposedly the one running the operation."
"Good. You get my message across to Tyler?"
"Sure did! And anyone else thinking about selling on our side of Chicago. I even let Alec get in on it. Fucker doesn't mess around, let me tell you! Pretty sure Tyler isn't gonna walk straight again!"
"Give Alec a bump in pay this week. A bonus for a job well done. Let him know there's more opportunity for him if he can prove himself reliable."
"Will do. Oh, and Ed?"
"Mom called looking for you. Asked if I knew if you had plans Friday night." I could hear the shit-eating grin in his voice.
"God damnit," I grumbled, "I'll talk to you later." Emmett's guffaws rang through the speaker. Jackass.
Sighing, I slipped my phone back into my pocket and pulled my jacket closed. Maybe I should have called my mother immediately, but I had no interest in finding out what- or who- she had lined up for Friday night. Some vapid politician's daughter, or country club bimbo, I was sure. How she even found these girls was beyond me. Her taste was impeccable in every other facet of her life, but when it came to searching for a future daughter-in-law, she needed to be stopped.
I jogged across the street, ignoring the stoplight and narrowly avoiding a Lyft driver who flipped me the bird. I replied in kind, if only the jackass knew who he was disrespecting. I hated the phrase "King of Chicago," but if the crown fit...
"Good morning Mr. Cullen!"
I smiled at the perky barista as I entered my go-to morning cafe. Her face flushed at the attention, and I chuckled as she fumbled with a stack of napkins. The girl was cute, I'd noticed before. Definitely fuckable, if I was so inclined. However, not enough of a challenge and a little too innocent for my taste. Didn't mean she wasn't fun to screw with, though.
"Good morning, Jane. How was your weekend? You get up to anything… fun?" I let my voice drop with the last word in innuendo.
"Oh! Um, I- I mainly just worked. Oh, and I took my dog to the park!" Her face was cherry red.
"The park, huh? Lucky dog." I winked as she passed over my usual Americano with cream.
"Yeah," she sighed.
"Alright, you enjoy your day. Oh, and Jane?" I paused to take a sip of my coffee, taking my time to lick my lips in appreciation. "I don't know if I've ever told you, but your coffee is delicious."
I laughed to myself as I pushed through the door. Women were too easy for me. It had been that way since I'd had my first girlfriend at fourteen. A charming smile, the right tone of voice, and a little smolder could get even the biggest ice queen on her back with her legs spread.
Not that I took advantage. Okay, so maybe I enjoyed my share of fuck buddies, but I'd kept my partner's just barely in the double digits. After all, I was only twenty-five. Plus, I'd learned my lessons with one-night stands in college. Drunk sorority girls are never a good idea.
Despite the Cullen Consulting building being only half a block from Bean Town Coffee, my face stung by the time I rushed through the front doors. The seventy-degree heat inside the building felt like a sauna compared to the air outside.
The security guards greeted me with a "Good Morning, Mr. Cullen" as I headed toward the executive elevator. To anyone else, Felix and Paul looked like your typical rent a cop, not the cold-blooded killers they actually were.
My family was well versed in creating facades. Image was everything, and our image was immaculate. Cullen Consulting was one of the most prestigious firms in the world. We were known for our discretion and our ability to facilitate impossible deals.
The first twenty-two floors of our building were strictly legitimate operations. Where the deals that showed up on our tax forms were brokered. I stepped forward when the elevator dinged at the twenty-fourth floor.
"Good morning, Rosalie. I'm glad to see the stick up your ass wasn't removed over the weekend."
Rose rolled her eyes from the welcome desk. I'll give it to her, she was a gorgeous woman, but I was pretty sure she ate balls for breakfast.
"Your father's waiting for you."
"His office or mine?"
She pointed toward my father's office. No longer interested in interacting with me, she went back to flipping through emails. I sighed, turning toward my office to strip off my jacket and set my half-drunk coffee on my desk. So much for enjoying it hot.
A message from Rosalie sat on my keyboard: call your mother.
I tossed the sticky note in the trash. I'd have to deal with my mother after I found out what my father needed. I straightened my tie and brushed non-existent lint from my suit as I headed down the hall.
"Pops?" I leaned my head through the open door and knocked gently on the frame.
"Son, come in." My father sat behind his desk, looking impeccable as always.
I settled in one of the imported leather armchairs, leaning back and crossing an ankle over my knee. I schooled my features, having learned long before not to let my emotions show in business, legitimate or not. "The man in charge is the one that has no tells." One of my father's many important lessons.
"Emmett said everything is under control with the hiccup we had last week?"
"Yes. It's being handled. We believe we know where the situation originated."
He nodded, not needing more information for the moment. The trust was new. He had been letting me take the reins recently. I would call the shots for this operation, and let him know once the situation was fully under control… or when it was entirely out of control, and I needed help. I prayed it was the former.
"Let me know when it's resolved."
"I'm proud of you, Edward. You're taking to your new responsibilities well." My father was not a man who gave praise when it was not due. Knowing I'd made him proud made an odd feeling bubble in my chest. "Which is why I think it's time to start discussing your future within the businesses."
"I thought that was already set?" I'd known for years I would be taking over for my father. I'd been groomed for it since I was a teen.
"Let me re-word… we need to start setting up a timeline. I'm getting older, and as you know, this is a young man's game."
"You're fifty-one!" I laughed.
"And your mother started putting pressure on me to step back last year. Fifty was always what I had promised her. She understands that this is not an overnight process, but we both believe you're ready for me to begin transferring power over. Thoughts?"
Thoughts? Yes? No? My father was asking me to take over not only as the CEO of Cullen Consulting but as the head of the most sophisticated organized crime syndicate in the US.
The Cullen name was synonymous in the underground world with the most impressive weapons and antiquities trading operation in existence. You wanted it? We could find it and get it into your hands within the month. Our classified contracts with multiple government intelligence agencies made avoiding customs a breeze. Our reputation made us available for only the highest bidders. Our morals kept us away from the seedy bastards trafficking girls and drugs.
My father wanted to put me at the head of the syndicate. What did I think? I thought he was insane.
"Shit. I- am I ready?" My cool broke as I lost control of my emotions.
"Edward, you've been running things here for almost a year now. I've left every decision up to you and acted only as counsel. Have you not noticed?"
I thought over everything we'd been dealing with. Obviously, the fucker we caught using the Cullen name to try and peddle opiates through the city I'd taken care of. Over the summer, we had a situation with the Chinese over the quality of goods they'd produced. My trip to Shanghai had been quick and bloody. Remarkably, a new shipment arrived in the states the following week. It had been of the highest quality, as had every shipment since. Guess that's what happens when you cut a guy's balls off and mail them to his boss.
"I actually hadn't realized I'd been in charge," I admitted.
"I plan to still act as an advisor for you, and I will remain on the board of Cullen Consulting. I won't leave you to the wolves."
"This is a lot to take in. I thought I had at least another five years."
"Do you have any qualms with moving that time frame up?"
"No. I think I'm ready." I nodded, excited. I could do this.
"Good. Now, there's one thing we do need to address before we start this process."
"You need to settle down."
"Um? I am settled… Do I look nervous?" Sure, I felt nervous anticipation regarding the new responsibilities headed my way, but I was pretty sure I looked cool, calm, and collected.
My father laughed, "No, Edward. You need to find a girl. Settle down, get married. There are certain expectations for the head of the family. Expectations held by our clients and partners. They trust a man with a household and a wife at home. Not to mention, you will eventually need an heir to pass the Cullen name to."
An heir? Was he fucking kidding me? I hadn't even had a girlfriend since my junior year of high school! Fuck buddies? Sure, plenty. The current two I'd been rotating between for almost two years. When one started to cling, I'd switch to the other, and so on. Vicky was a fiery red-headed lawyer with an affinity for being spanked, something I was more than willing to oblige. Bree was a sportswriter who gave great head and always had box seats to Cubs games.
Neither girl was wife material.
Hell, I didn't even know what made a girl wife material.
"I can't imagine you'll have too much trouble figuring this out," my father continued. "You're a good-looking young man, with more than enough resources to take care of a woman."
"Dad, you have got to be kidding me! Who the hell am I going to marry? Actually, no! I am not getting married. That is insane!"
"Edward, be reasonable. You knew this was a stipulation. It's never been a secret."
"Right, a hundred years ago! It's the twenty-first century. What kind of antiquated rules are we living by?"
"The same rules that pertain to our affiliates overseas. The transition will bring its own difficulties. Many will have trouble seeing past your age, assuming inexperience. You don't need to add on to that."
"Okay, so say I went along with your psychosis. I don't have a girlfriend. Much less someone who I want to make a fiancé!"
"You should call your mother. She's been trying to get a hold of you." He smirked.
"Oh, God damnit. I knew she was trying to set me up! Who?"
"I don't have a lot of details, a daughter of a book club friend, I believe."
"Ugh!" I scrubbed my hand over my face, losing my cool for the second time in one morning.
"Don't be so dramatic. Speak to your mother, start figuring this out, and I'll be getting rumors out there that you will soon be the main contact for the family."
"Figure this out," I muttered, "like it's a damn business transaction."
"However you need to look at it, son." With that, I was dismissed.
What was he thinking? He didn't understand. He met my mother when he was nineteen. The pretty girl that he spotted in class at Northwestern. A simple dinner date that turned into lifelong love. I wasn't like him. I knew better than to bring some poor unsuspecting girl into my world. Not to mention, my mother had already been part of a crime family, albeit a very sheltered member. The marriage of Carlisle Cullen and Esme Platt had merged two of the most notorious families in the country. Good old dad had lucked out. I hardly expected the same.
After slamming the door to my office, a thought occurred to me: what about a marriage of convenience? I could easily manage a wife beautiful enough to fuck and capable enough to work our social circles. I would just need to be allowed my freedom. In exchange, she would get access to my black Amex card. There were plenty of women in my world that would fit that bill.
My cell buzzed in my pocket as I ruminated over that revelation.
"Hey, Ma," I sighed, accepting the call.
"You know you are not an easy man to get a hold of, Edward!"
"Yeah, sorry about that. Busy morning."
"I've been calling you for two days."
"Oh. Must be having issues with my phone."
"Liar. Your father just texted and said he got a chance to talk to you?"
"Yeah. Ma, you really wanna set me up?"
"I think you'll like her, Edward. Her name is Kate. She's studying art history at Wheaton, graduating this spring. She's twenty-two and volunteers at the animal shelter a few times a month. Very sweet girl."
"What's she look like?"
"Tall, blonde, very pretty. But Edward, looks aren't everything."
"But they help." I smirked, knowing I was getting under her skin.
"Edward! Please, would you just have dinner with us on Friday? Your father and her parents will be there as well."
"Jesus! Is this some sort of arranged marriage? Is there a fucking dowry involved?"
"Edward, language! No, of course not. Your father and I needed to host her parents for dinner anyway. It just made sense to introduce you two at the same time. Not to mention, I believe your father wants you to meet Senator Jenks anyway."
"Senator… makes sense," I muttered. We always needed politicians in our back pocket. "Alright, I'll come."
"Wonderful! We're meeting at the restaurant at six-thirty. Oh, and Edward, will you please at least try and tame that hair!"
I laughed, as if my hair was even remotely tamable. "Sure, ma, I'll see you Friday."
I gazed through my windows at the city skyline, wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into.
"Ange, I'm going to be fine. I'm looking forward to having a place of my own!" I smiled at my friend, slash ex-roommate, trying to convince her of my sincerity.
"I know, Bella, I just feel bad. Like we kicked you out of the apartment or something!"
"You got married! And it was my choice to leave. You and Ben have been nothing but accommodating, but you need your space. I think this will be good for me."
"You know our door is always open if you need anything."
"I know. I'm going to miss seeing your pretty face every day!"
"I'm going to miss you too!"
Angela placed the last kitchen box on the new-to-me little wood table in my dining area. We squeezed each other tight, sad to see our roommate time end, but excited for what life held in store.
"It's been a good run!" I grinned, pulling back to let Angela grab her purse.
"Two years! Definitely the best roommate I could have ever asked for!"
"I'll talk to you soon, okay?"
"You better! Be safe!" She slipped out the door, clicking it closed behind her.
I snapped the deadbolt shut and then surveyed the mess of boxes that covered the tiny space. It was the first time I was ever living on my own. A little thrill rushed through me at the freedom I possessed- all the possibilities. I could sing along to my playlists as loud and off-key as I wanted. I could watch whatever I wanted every time I turned on the TV. I could even walk around naked if I wanted to! Okay. There was no part of me that wanted to walk around naked, but the option was there.
Deciding I might as well just rip off the unpacking band-aid, I stuck my earphones in and got started. I tore open the first box and began stocking the kitchen.
I spent the few days I'd requested off from my job at the library, getting my apartment in an acceptable living condition. The place was cute. Most of my furniture was either leftover pieces from Angela's or acquired at bargain prices through Facebook marketplace.
It was a bit mismatched, but it was homey. My little one-bedroom was coming along nicely.
A couple of hiccups had me hunting down my super on Monday afternoon. Most notably, the water pressure was almost non-existent. Washing my hair took nearly half an hour due to the trickling water. He informed me that it was an issue with a city water main scheduled for maintenance the following morning. No big deal. He seemed on top of it.
Tuesday morning had me back on a normal schedule. I hopped on the L toward work with my "Book Nerd" travel mug, full of coffee, in hand. The wind was particularly biting, making the train seem like a sanctuary when the doors closed. A little girl holding a stack of books sat with her mother just across the aisle. A copy of Serafina and The Black Cloak topped the pile.
"I love the Serafina series!" I said, smiling toward the girl.
"They're okay. I had to read it for school." She shrugged.
"Oh. Well, what kind of books do you like? I work at the library. I might be able to give you some recommendations."
"She's not a big reader." The mother rolled her eyes and tapped away on her phone.
"Actually, if you work there, could you return these for us? I've got a nail appointment. Oh, and she's gonna be late for school too." She glanced at the girl as if school was an afterthought.
"We're not really supposed to do that…."
"Give the lady the books." She wasn't even listening to me. Instead, she encouraged her daughter to dump the books on my lap.
"Thanks," the girl mumbled. Her mother pulled her off the train as the doors opened for the next stop.
"Yeah. No problem." I shook my head and slipped the books into my bag. I guess it was at least good that they were getting returned. Our rate of lost books was absurdly high.
At the next stop, I rushed from the train pulling my scarf tighter as the wind bit at my neck and made my hair dance in front of my eyes. Some of my coffee sloshed across my mitten as a guy on the phone bumped into my arm, without as much as an "excuse me."
Thankfully, the back entrance to the library was only about a block away from the station. I scampered in as my co-worker held the door open for me.
I clocked in and put my bag in my locker, removing the books I had been tasked with returning. I was on front desk duty for the day, so at least it would be easy to make sure they got returned properly. At the desk, I started up the computer and rearranged a couple of stray office supplies that had been left out the night before.
"How'd the move go?" Eric, the IT guy, leaned against the counter in front of me.
"Good. Pretty fast, I didn't have that much stuff." I shrugged.
"Cool. So… are you going to have a housewarming party or anything? I mean, I've heard so much about the place, I'd love to see it sometime!"
"Um, I wasn't planning on it."
"Well, maybe I could come over or something? I could bring Chinese?" Was he asking me out? At my own apartment?
"Bella, could I have a word before we open?" My boss stepped in from the back door, saving me from the awkwardness.
"Yeah, Sure! Sorry, Eric, I'll talk to you later," I said, rushing toward the offices.
"Oh, yeah, okay…" his voice trailed off as I shut the door behind me.
"Hey Lauren, what's up?"
"Have a seat. I just wanted to go over some scheduling stuff." She gestured to one of the grey upholstered chairs in front of her desk.
"Sure. By the way, I want to thank you again for the promotion to Assistant Librarian. The extra pay is super helpful right now. I moved into my new apartment over the weekend." My smile at the mention of my place nearly split my face.
"That's unfortunate," she muttered.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Well, Bella, part of your raise was due to the fact that the minimum wage in the state rose at the first of the year. Problem is, they didn't think to raise the public funding for the library system to cover the wage hike for employees."
"So I'm not getting a raise?"
"Well, legally, you have to get an hourly raise. Unfortunately, we have to cut back on everyone's hours."
"What? But I'm supposed to be full-time. I signed my lease based on being paid for full-time hours!"
"I am sorry, Bella, but we're going to have to cut you back to four days a week. You've been an exemplary employee, so I'm going to give you your choice of what day you'd like off."
"But…" I sputtered, trying to do the math in my head. "I'll be making the exact same amount I was before the raise!"
"Can I make a suggestion? I'd pick either Friday or Monday. That way, you'll have a longer weekend." Lauren grinned at her idea.
"I- what am I supposed to do about my rent?" And food, utilities, and living expenses? This would be a twenty percent pay cut!
"Maybe get a weekend job?" She shrugged. "Sorry, Bella, it's not really under my control. Oh, hey, if you get any free time today, can you change the entry display? We've still got the Christmas one up."
I gawked at her. My salary would be cut by nearly five hundred dollars a month, and she wanted me to change the Christmas display?
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I can't live off of four days a week, Lauren! I don't have a choice. I'm going to have to find another job!"
"Don't make a rash decision. Why don't you think about this for a few days."
"Fine." I stood, turning toward the door. I was close to crying, and the last thing I wanted was to cry in front of my boss.
"Hey Bella, my cousin works at this Italian restaurant on Taylor Street. She said one of their hostesses left recently. I can call her and see if they're looking for someone."
"Seriously?" I gave Lauren my best glare.
"Look, I know this sucks. If you want the truth, I fought for you when they told me, but the library higher-ups don't care. We're the peons in a huge system, and being good at your job doesn't make you exempt. I'm sorry."
I sighed in resignation. "Fine. Call your cousin."
Esme's was unassuming from the outside. The restaurant was housed in an old brick building. Expansive windows gave a view of tables covered in white cloth. Little vases with a single red rose sat in the center of each table. I stood under the black awning pulling my coat tighter over my navy sweater dress. It was the only thing I owned that was even slightly interview-appropriate for such an upscale place.
To her credit, Lauren was able to get her cousin to help me out. I got the feeling that Jessica was a little flighty, but she at least got her manager to give me an interview. Lauren took pity on me Thursday morning, and let me take an extra-long lunch, so I could interview before the restaurant opened.
"Bella?" A surprisingly young man in a button-up and tie opened the front door, ushering me inside.
"Yes, hi, I'm Bella Swan." I held out my hand to shake his.
"Riley Biers. Thanks so much for coming in early today. It's almost impossible to do interviews when we're open."
I followed Riley as he escorted me past a large circular host's desk. The desk was made of deep cherry wood. It was accented by a fogged glass wall that gave a sense of privacy to the main dining room.
"Have you ever had a chance to eat here before?" Riley asked.
"No, I'm not in this area of the city very often."
I also didn't tend to spend thirty dollars a plate when I went out. I'd pulled up the restaurant's menu on the website after scheduling the interview. While the dishes sounded fantastic, twenty-seven dollars for a plate of mushroom ravioli was definitely beyond my budget.
"No worries, let me give you a little background. The place is named after the main owner, Esme Cullen. It was her father's before that. He named the place after her when she was a child."
"Yeah, it is. Anyway, before that, the place was a different restaurant named Luigi's. Luigi was the uncle of Esme's father. Want to hear a crazy rumor about Luigi?" He asked, raising his brows as we sat at a corner table.
"Luigi was supposedly linked in with Al Capone's guys, the gangster, you know? So, one day Luigi up and vanishes. Edward Platt, Esme's father, takes the place over, changes the name, and renovates. No one ever found out what happened to the uncle."
"Oh, wow… that's kind of cool history."
"If these walls could talk, right? The place is a pretty tight run ship now. Esme is here a few times a week overseeing things. Her family uses it for business meetings a lot, so it's imperative to have the best service and food available."
"What business is the family in."
"The Cullen's? Cullen Consulting?" he asked. I shook my head, not recognizing the name. "You from Chicago originally?"
"No, the North West. A tiny town in Washington state."
"Got it, the Cullen's are like Chicago royalty. Their firm has clients worldwide. We've had diplomats and businessmen from all over the world dine here with them. One time we even had a Saudi prince!"
"It is, and why it is imperative that our service is always above and beyond. With that, let's go over your resume. Do you have any restaurant experience?"
"Yes, in high school, I waited tables at a place called The Lodge in my hometown." I failed to elaborate that "The Lodge" was a fancy name for the town's fifty-year-old diner.
"Good, and you currently work at… the library?"
"Yes. Budget cuts are affecting our hours right now, so I'm looking for supplemental income."
"We need someone a few nights a week, usually five until ten-thirty on Wednesdays and four until eleven-thirty on Friday and Saturday. Will your library hours conflict with that?"
I bit my lip, considering Riley's question. I could probably get Lauren to let me leave by four-thirty on Wednesdays, and I'd already decided to take Friday as my extra day off from the library… but working most of the week and Friday and Saturday nights?
"Would that be the schedule every week?"
"Give or take. Sometimes there are opportunities for extra hours when the family holds events here. I should probably also mention the pay. Esme is very generous with her staff. I think that's why it's so easy for us to meet her standards of service. Hosts start at twenty-two dollars an hour plus a percentage of each night's pooled tips. We can usually give you the tips in cash at the end of your shift."
My mouth hung open at Riley's explanation. I'd been working in the wrong profession! Who cared about socializing on the weekends for that kind of pay!
"I can make that work."
"Okay, let's go over a couple of scenarios so I can get a feel for your customer service skills."
Riley drilled me on how I would handle irate customers, screaming children, long wait times, etc. My answers seemed to please him as he nodded and smiled after each one. My stomach twisted the longer we talked, and I realized I really wanted the job. I'd been sneaking peeks around the space as we talked, and I was falling in love with the environment. It had a modern upscale feel but kept hints of its early twentieth-century roots. The serving staff had been filtering in, getting tables ready for the lunch crowd, everyone greeting each other and introducing themselves as they passed by. By the time Riley was done with his last question, I was a ball of nerves.
"Alright! Do you have any questions for me?" He asked, closing the file he'd been taking notes in.
"If I were to get the job, when would I need to start?"
"We were hoping to find someone by this weekend, and I'll be honest, I'm ready to give you the job right now. I've got to pass everything by Esme first, but assuming she's on board, would you be available to start training with Jessica on Friday night?"
"Oh, um, yah! Absolutely!"
"Perfect, keep your phone on you. I'll aim to call you this evening."
I smiled and shook Riley's hand. I could feel a little bit of the weight lift off my shoulders. I wondered if Esme's would end up being a blessing in disguise.