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Chapter 1

"Sleep well?"


Garrett smirks at me from behind his monitor, then leans back in his chair and stretches like a cat. "Tanya asked about you… twice."

I swallow and nod as I toss my bag onto the desk, then press my palm to my forehead. Maybe I have a fever. Maybe that would somehow excuse my current and past transgressions. Wait, can you actually tell if you have a fever by touching your own forehead?

Sigh… let's be honest, I'm not sick. I'm just late.


It's Friday, and I've already been late three times this week. Somewhere between getting up, arriving at the office, and walking to my desk, I sabotage myself. Sometimes, it comes in the form of an unexpected phone call, sometimes it's a broken elevator, but the result is consistent. And unfortunately, Tanya doesn't like it when people are late.

Side note, I don't like Tanya, but that's irrelevant. I love my paycheck, and she's instrumental in providing it, so I'd rather keep her happy.

I plop down in my chair and hastily turn on the computer. Fifty-three unread emails glare at me disapprovingly from the screen.

See, I'm a marketing assistant and I work at a huge corporation that manufactures dental hygiene products, among other things. This job is supposed to be a step forward from the admin position I occupied until six months ago, when my boss, Mark, suddenly decided to retire. The sad reality is that I like my current set of responsibilities even less than I like Tanya. I have zero marketing background and zero desire to make a career in what my musician friends jokingly refer to as "101 Relatively Legal Ways to Make People Part with Their Money". There are bright moments, of course. Like when we launch a new media campaign or plan those cute "buy three toothbrushes, get a teddy bear" events. However, 90% of what we do is about profit and loss, budgets, spreadsheets, and other uninspiring stuff.

The door opens, and Tanya's head peeks out.

"Bella! Would you please come in?" Her voice is stainless steel, and all heads in the 50-foot radius turn to me. I shiver involuntarily, get up, and scurry to her office.

Tanya, our marketing director, is in her late 30s and absolutely beautiful. She's also very successful and universally feared. Her blonde hair is always flawlessly highlighted, and she wears the kind of subtle makeup that you only notice because no one can look that perfect all the time. Just like no one can have eyes that shade of blue, not even Vikings. She must be wearing contacts… Yep, I know how it sounds. I'm only slightly jealous.

Tanya's private life, on the other hand, is a mystery, but the rumor is that she's single and has a thing for our CEO. While the latter isn't surprising, I doubt that the former is true. Let's be real, Tanya is every man's dream.

I enter her office trying not to look guilty. She motions me to sit down.

"Bella, we have a problem," she says quietly, but I sense a coming storm.

Is this really about my persistent tardiness?

My gut clenches, and I open my mouth to say something preventatively remorseful, but she doesn't let me.

"What is this?" She turns her laptop to me, and I see the most recent Clean-E multipack artwork. The agency did a good job on that one.

"Um, that's the final version that was approved by everybody…" I mumble. "Is something wrong with it?"

Her mouth now a hard line, Tanya gives me a pointed look, and I suspect that we're getting to the punchline. "Look carefully. This is the version that you sent to the factory. The one currently in printing."

I squint at the screen, and after 30 seconds, it hits me. The artwork doesn't have a barcode. My heart jumps into my throat.

"Shit!" I squeal, then quickly cover my mouth.

This is bad. So, so bad. Every batch costs thousands of dollars, probably much more. How did this happen?!

"My sentiments exactly. The factory was supposed to double-check before sending it out, but they obviously didn't, just like you." Tanya isn't exactly raising her voice, but if I know anything about her, she's upset. Like I said, I don't want Tanya upset.

"Oh, no, I'm so sorry! I have no idea how it happened. Maybe we could bundle them in a multipack and offer them to Costco? Or stickers! Could we attach some stickers?!" I try to sound cheerful and project that "can do attitude" my resume claims I have, only my voice comes out embarrassingly shaky and effectively ruins the effort.

Tanya stares at me like I've grown another head.

"Bella. Do you realize that this is already a multipack? That has NO BARCODE? What Costco?!" She takes a deep, cleansing breath. "As to stickers, producing and placing them is an additional cost that is not in our budget. This batch will have to be destroyed. Destroying also costs money, by the way. I'm going to have to inform upper management, and they'll decide the further course of action." She looks at me for a long moment, her impossibly blue eyes cold and disinterested. "I'll be honest with you, I don't know what implications this incident is going to have on your career here. We'll let you know."

I walk to my desk on wobbly legs. Garrett shoots me a curious glance but probably decides that it's best to keep quiet. Which is fine by me. I can't be distracted from feeling like the ultimate failure right now. It looks like my job in the land of toothbrushes might be coming to an end, and I'm not sure how to feel about that. Being fired is scary, and I have rent to pay. My savings are virtually nonexistent, and with all the tech giants bringing their offices here, life in the Pacific Northwest is getting ridiculously expensive.

On the other hand… Oh, yeah, I'd be thrilled to be out of this place and free, if only for a few weeks. After all, there are tons of underpaid jobs in this city. So… either way, I win, I say to myself and try to relax a little.

As I go through my to-do list for the day (which is inexplicably always twice as long on Fridays as on any other given day), I register a slight wave of whispers coming from the elevator. Right as I raise my head, I see an Armani model walking towards Tanya's office.

Just kidding.

That's Mr. Edward Cullen, the CEO of Cullen Platt.

He doesn't grace us with his presence too often, so it's always a pleasant surprise, not to mention a visual delight for everyone working here, men and women alike. My day just got so much better.

Mr. Cullen doesn't look a day older than 30, although I know that he has to be at least 40-something. I've read his bio with meticulousness that could have been better used elsewhere (like, my job, maybe?) Supposedly, he graduated from Harvard 20 years ago. I've never once seen him smile, or betray any other emotion, for that matter.

But do Armani models smile? No more than Renaissance statues in museums.

He reminds me of those statues. With skin as pale and clear as marble, eyes an unusual shade of green, almost gold, and a mouth that romance novels would call "sensuous," he's simply striking, but his most remarkable feature is his hair. I rarely notice men's hair, except in a binary way (whether it's still there or not), but Mr. Cullen's hair is a piece of art in and of itself. Like his eyes, its color is almost impossible to describe–probably auburn, with sudden golden streaks that momentarily blind you. It's like looking at the sun, and I can't lie, I always stare, openly and fearlessly.

He doesn't notice me, of course. He doesn't notice anybody, and it's clear that open offices are not his favorite environment.

Mr. Cullen disappears into Tanya's office, and I begrudgingly return to my screen. I wonder if Tanya will mention my epic failure. Probably not. It's such a small thing in the grand scheme of Cullen Platt. My desk isn't far from her office, and although it's sort of soundproofed, sometimes things can be heard from the outside.

Right now, Tanya is laughing… hard. That's interesting. It's a seductive laugh, too. I wonder if Mr. Cullen is laughing back. I can't hear him at all. Does he like sexy, ambitious blondes?

Too bad, there's nothing online about his private life. Believe me, I checked.

Suddenly, my cell phone chimes, and a message from Alice appears on the screen: Yay! Norma tonight! I hope you're ready, dressed up and all! Meet me at Roco's at 6 pm and we'll have a quick drink before the show. I'm so excited I'm jumping out of my skin right now. Love, Ali.

I swear under my breath. I completely forgot about the opera.

As an aside, Alice is my roommate. We met at college, where I studied music and Alice studied art and design. Oh, how we used to laugh about eventually burning our useless diplomas and opening a cat hotel together. Only her degree has proved to be less useless than mine because a few months ago, she landed a job at the costume department of the Seattle Opera. One of Alice's endless boyfriends turned out to have connections there, and now she can finally do what she loves most in the world–making costumes. Moreover, someone actually pays her for it. To say that I'm jealous is an understatement. Alice now has more music in her life than I could ever dream of. But honestly, if anyone in this world deserves happiness, it's Alice.

Life hasn't exactly been nice to her. Her parents died when she was just a baby, and she was in the system for a very long time until some uncle decided that he needed a family. He took her in when it was already time to go to college (for which, I have to admit, he paid diligently). It's a miracle Alice turned out the way she has: a talented, smart, quirky little thing who I call my best friend. She's happy, too… or at least she tries to be. I don't even have half of her challenges, but I often find myself moping and complaining. Alice makes me a better person, or rather, as she likes to say, I'm her "work in progress".

The day drags on in its usual manner, and as people start dissipating at 4 pm, I get ready to leave, too. Tanya said goodbye right after Mr. Cullen left her office… I guess her mission for the day was accomplished. So, no need for me to pretend that I'm a good employee with no Friday night plans other than serving my company.

I grab a taxi and return to the apartment to take a quick shower and change. What's appropriate Opera attire these days? It's been such a long time... so, I go for black dress pants with high heels and a black silk shirt. I love wearing black. It makes me feel comfortable, especially since in terms of appearance, I'm average in every way: 5'4", pale, skinny (but not because I eat healthy and exercise), brown-haired, brown-eyed, and marginally attractive. Why bother wearing something colorful to stand out when there's nothing to back it up?

Alice says that I'm a chromophobe.

As I take a final glance in the mirror and step outside, I smile, having no idea that this will be the last time I see the inside of my apartment for a very long time.