I definitely don't own Twilight.
Infinite love to Dawn for her cheerleading skills, and also to both she and Nic for their rec. *love*
And to The Boyfriend for, if not fully understanding, completely accepting my need to write this story. He would give Edward a run for his money.
The woman in the reflection stared back at me with wide, chocolate brown eyes. I took a deep breath; her chest heaved in response.
I frowned at the crimson that was already staining her cheeks. She looked anxious, and I willed her to look calm and collected.
I just need to focus.
I simply didn't do nervous.
I watched my hand sweep across my forehead, neatly tucking my bangs back behind my ear. Light fingertips traced down my hot cheek to my throat before resting on the pearl necklace that lay there. It was a gift from my father; a bittersweet accompaniment to his previous gift of perpetually ruby-hued cheeks.
Well, I certainly looked the part. I always did.
My pale fingers continued their downward journey, ghosting each button on my white silk shirt. I adjusted the wide belt at my waist and smoothed my straight brown pencil skirt over my hips and thighs. When my glance reached my shoes, I grimaced. Four inch heels and snake skin with lethal points.
Too sexy, I thought for the umpteenth time that morning. Not professional.
Last night I had set out a pair of sensible brown ballet flats to go with this outfit, and this morning they had mysteriously been replaced by these brown and gold fuck-me shoes. I had rolled my eyes as I slipped them on and didn't even bother looking around; I knew the flats were long gone. Alice must have known that I wouldn't be up to arguing with her this morning. Smart girl.
To her credit, her taste was impeccable. I did feel more powerful four inches higher up.
Today was a very big day.
Tamping down my nerves, I counted the last four lights on the elevator panel: 16… 17… 18… 19. Ding.
I held captive the buzzing anxiety in my chest and stubbornly denied that I was nervous, though my mouth was dry and my heart fluttered wildly. I realized that I was chewing on my lower lip and immediately made myself stop.
You're being absurd. I was cold, focused, untouchable. I was Isabella Goddamn Swan, and nothing would bother me. Now walk to your desk.
The doors silently slid open. I took one more deep breath, squared my shoulders and stepped out into the lobby.
My heels were muffled by the plush carpet beneath me. I passed by the empty reception desk and observed that Jessica wasn't in yet; no big surprise there. She usually showed up at around 8:01 for her 8am shift, ready to spend the day answering phones and just generally being terrible. Since it was still so early, I had plenty of time to make my cup of tea and settle in before I jumped into my day.
As I hung my coat up, I noted that I already felt a little more like myself: in-control, professional, unaffected. Much better.
The main office, or "the bullpen" as I'd overheard my co-workers call it, was a gleaming example of corporate spending at its best. The space had been meticulously designed to be hospitable and client-friendly, from its bright warm colors to the open-air floor plan. Even the placement of the lush green plants had been painstakingly plotted. It was deliberately natural; a calculated organic. Charlie Swan spared no expense for his second home… arguably his first home, really.
The real showstopper was the floor to ceiling window that ran the entire expanse of the back wall and afforded an incredible view of the Seattle skyline. My desk was in the far back corner, where I could enjoy the spectacular view anytime I wished. Or I could enjoy it, in theory. I didn't typically allow myself pleasures like "gazing."
I found it mildly odd that I could cognitively recognize the aspects of the space that were designed to make one feel welcome, yet I had never personally felt that hospitality. I mean… not that it was important to me. It was just odd.
During the workday, the bullpen hummed with voices and activity. This early in the morning, however, the atmosphere was appreciatively quiet.
As I passed by her desk, Angela Weber shyly looked up and caught my eye. She gave me a small smile. "Good morning, Ms. Swan."
Angela was soft-spoken and kind, with pretty blue eyes hidden behind large square black glasses. She had worked with the company for a little over a year now, earning the distinction of having officially lasted longer than any of the other Executive Assistants to the CEO. She was clever and capable, and her gentle conversations with me in the morning were, truthfully, one of the highlights of my day.
In the beginning, I had treated Angela as I treated everyone else in the office. I was standoffish and distant and deliberately discouraging, hoping to avoid any awkward feelings of friendliness that would only have to be dealt with later. I never spoke to her unless absolutely necessary, and even then our conversations never went beyond work related subjects.
But Angela… god bless her, she just kept trying. She would say hello to me every morning and endeavor to converse with me, to draw me out from behind my carefully constructed wall. Her gestures were achingly futile and intolerably kind; the attempts at communication would inevitably lead my retreat, skirting questions and quickly changing the subject back to work. I was acutely aware of how frosty my behavior was. Everyone else had stopped inviting me out long ago, to things like lunch and to their weekly trips to the local bar... Angela, however, had never given up.
It was only recently that I had begun returning her morning greetings. I don't know why I did it… maybe I felt sorry for her, trying to so hard and all. Maybe.
I was a pro at staying calm and detached on the outside, but deep down I was truly nervous that she would turn on me, would confess to someone that I was actually speaking with her and spread expected rumors at the expense of my reputation.
So far, however, Angela had remained trustworthy. She simply exchanged words with me, nothing more or less. I tried to believe that was a good thing.
"Good morning, Ms. Weber." I stood stiffly, secretly grateful for the distraction. "How are you this morning?"
"I'm great, thank you! Already busy, though…" She gestured to numerous checklists and brochures spread out on her desk. "I'm confirming details for the party, even though it's still over two months out." She raised an eyebrow at me. "The Anniversary Gala, remember?"
I laughed, hard and short. "Absolutely."
The Anniversary Gala was definitely the biggest event that the company hosted. It was quite the scene: tuxedoes and ice sculptures and tiny hors d'oeuvres served by bored-looking waiters. This year was the company's 25th anniversary, and 23rd consecutive being, (and I quote our website), "the most successful business consulting firm in the Great State of Washington."
Angela squinted at me. "I'm trying to come up with some preliminary numbers for the event planners." She leaned back and crossed her arms across her modest blue cardigan. Raising an eyebrow, she said, "Shall I put you down for two, then?"
Through our interactions, I had recently found out that Angela was actually very funny. She had been oh-so-subtly pushing the date issue for the last few weeks. It went without saying that I didn't discuss my personal life at work, but Angela knew I was single and had taken to gently prodding me during our morning exchange. I would never discuss my love life… or lack thereof… with her, but I also didn't really mind her mild teasing, either.
I ignored her question and instead offered her a small, amused smile. She grinned back at me.
"Perhaps my presence won't be necessary at the Gala. I doubt anyone around here would notice me missing."
Angela picked up her pen. "I think someone might notice," she said.
"You think so?"
Angela's eyebrow went up again. "You're the CEO's daughter. You're a Swan in the Swan Consulting Firm. So yes, I think someone might notice."
He probably wouldn't notice.
I shook my head, disappointed by my unsolicited thought. Stop it, Swan.
"Yes, you're probably right." I took a step back. Her genuine grin put me at ease and for a brief moment I actually felt like a normal human being. I was once again struck by how grateful I was for her camaraderie, however small.
She looked back down at her paperwork, but her pen hesitated for a moment; she peeked back up at me though her black frames.
"So… you find out today, right?"
Her gentle questioning brought the nerves back, full-force. I stood up straight, nodding curtly.
"Yes." My hand twitched; I wanted to smooth my bangs off of my forehead, but I willed my palm to stay firmly pressed at my side. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the firm. I hope for the best outcome for the company."
"That's very… team-player of you." She turned her attention back down to her work. I turned and began to walk away.
"Good luck," she called out softly.
Thanks, Angela. I thought the words I wouldn't allow myself to say.
Swan Consulting Firm was located in the heart of downtown Seattle, Washington. Our company's purpose was simple, our reputation proven: we routinely took failing companies and turned them in to successes, and we frequently took moderately successful businesses and turned them in to Fortune 500 contenders. Anything our clients needed to have accomplished… anything, from something as simple as remodeling an office, to maybe a desire to operate more efficiently, or even completely gutting and re-imagining a failing business model… Swan Consulting could make it happen. We employed experts from a wide variety of professions in anticipation of any need a prospective client might have: business lawyers, accountants, corporate bookkeepers, interior designers and architects. We even staffed an on-call clinical psychologist. If a company needed it, we had it. If we didn't have it, we would get it.
As a consultant, it was my job to make sure that the resources my clients needed were provided and their goals were met and surpassed. It just so happened that I was very good at my job.
A few more people had trickled into the bullpen by now. I walked swiftly, barely registering the pregnant silences that preceded my path; hushed whispers poorly masked by the staged shifting of papers from stack to random stack.
I kept my gaze forward and my pace steady. I hardly noticed them now. Their stares and silent assumptions glanced off my shoulders and nerves. I was anxious to sit down. It was unlikely that I had anything new since I had looked late last night, but I still wanted to check my email. Just to be thorough, I reasoned.
My desk was smooth mahogany, wide and blank. There were no artifacts on or around it; no pictures, no mementos, no sticky notes cluttering the screen. Just a desk. My home for nine to eleven hours every day.
Not that my bare workspace mattered; those things were just distractions. I was established as one of the most successful consultants at the firm. My schedule was booked solid two months out with consultations, and every single one of my clients were performing above their projections this quarter.
That's happiness, right?
I was determined and driven. I had achieved a level of career success and self-discipline that had taken me many years of practice. Of course success is happiness.
I busied my hands by plugging in my instant boil water pot and picking out my standard two Earl Grey teabags from my drawer. I couldn't stand coffee; it added bitterness to an already bitter workday. I drank the same tea every morning, without fail.
Routine. I contemplated. Everyday, I park in the same spot, I drink the same tea. I work non-stop. Then I go home. I took comfort in routine, in familiarity. Focus kept me going. Eyes on the prize… or whatever Rocky would say.
I hazarded a covert look around the rest of the room. One of the accountants had been watching me, but when she detected my movement her eyes snapped back down to her paperwork. I lowered my own eyes, regretting my curious glance.
One of the unfortunate side effects of my lifestyle was that I was disregarded by most of my co-workers. I always discouraged friendliness toward me with polite indifference… but really, it's not like there was a whole lot to discourage. This was despite the fact that I did everything I could to level the playing field and not take the preferential treatment that had been practically shoved down my throat…
But no one in here knew that; how could they? I didn't talk to any of them. Not really talk to them, anyway.
Sure, it used to be hard. But it didn't hurt anymore because of my conviction: I knew my silence was absolutely necessary. I couldn't let my guard down around them because any weakness could destroy everything that I had worked so painstakingly hard to build here. A friendship could be exploited… a joke could be misconstrued… no, friendly relationships were completely out of the question.
So I stayed distant and cold, and let work fill my daytime life. I knew that they all took my silence as haughtiness, but I didn't have time to change anyone's mind. I had too much work to do.
I just did my best not to notice, or to care.
I tapped my fingers on my teacup. Why on earth am I thinking about all of this right now? Having a pity party won't make me get busy any faster. I was irritated at myself, and I resolved to make Alice punish me at the gym later on.
My computer blinked to life. Some people had pictures of their families as their background. Other people had a musical group that they enjoyed or an image from a place they visited. I had the Swan Consulting Firm company logo.
Fitting. Even in my own head I sounded a little more acidic than I meant to.
I heard someone approach my desk, and I quickly bent down to my purse, rummaging through it for nothing in particular. I knew who it was. I could smell his pungent cologne before his feet had stopped moving.
I always pretended to be busy; my hope was that he would see that I was otherwise occupied and maybe do the courteous thing… walk away, perhaps think to come again at a more opportune time…
I had heard once that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again, expecting a different outcome. Call me insane; I just didn't have a better escape route.
"Good morning, Isabella." Mike Newton stood before me, sipping coffee from his Dilbert coffee mug. Mike thought the comic strip was hilarious, witty office commentary. I thought it had to be one of the most impossibly annoying things I had ever encountered, and he made me look at it every morning with his little visits. I straightened up and reluctantly looked at him.
"Good morning Mr. Newton." I stared at him, waiting to be led through the next step in our dance. I refused to break his gaze while he took one, two, three more sips of coffee before smacking his lips and gently blowing a thick caffeinated, "Haaaaaa" down at me.
"Why won't you call me Mike, Isabella?" He grinned. Mike wasn't unattractive by any means… on the outside. He wasn't very tall, but he was lean and fit and had baby blue eyes that were by far his best feature. His hairline was just starting to show signs of receding, and his teeth were all perfectly white and straight, like ivory piano keys.
"Because I'm a professional, Mr. Newton," was my clipped answer.
He smirked and took another sip. I moved my hand to my mouse and clicked my Outlook open, scanning my email and trying to project obvious dismissal.
"Hmm. Maybe. I think you try too hard to be professional, my dear." Mike smiled his piano key smile. He was from old money, and obviously used to women reacting to his pushy advances and cocky banter. I don't think I could have been more turned off by him if he kicked a puppy right in front of me.
He rudely leaned over and craned his head to look at my monitor. My body tensed up at his sudden proximity. He turned his head to face me and grinned. "Don't worry. We haven't heard anything from them yet."
The knots in my stomach jerked tighter, but I put on my cool, plastic smile. "I assume you mean the status of the Cullen proposal." His grin widened, and I blinked at him evenly. "I wasn't even thinking about it, but thank you for letting me know." Half true: I hadn't thought about it in a minute and a half.
Mike straightened up, leaning his body away from me; somehow he managed to even sip his coffee smugly. "Right. You weren't thinking about the account that would be the company's biggest and most profitable client?"
He was making my role much easier for me to play. "I meant exactly what I said, Mr. Newton." I turned my eyes back to my monitor. "I have quite a bit to do today, so I probably won't have time to think much about it." I switched over to my calendar, randomly clicking on appointments, trying to give him the hint that I was ready to begin working. However, much to my dismay, Mike sat down on the edge of my desk, shuffling some of my papers with his tweed-covered ass.
"Oh, we'll get the account for their construction division for sure." He pulled at the cuff on his khaki jacket. "I was on fire in that meeting; they couldn't possibly turn me down after that incredible presentation I gave." He seemed to have conveniently forgotten that I was in the meeting as well, along with five other people, all of whom worked hard on making that presentation happen. Sharing the spotlight wasn't Mike's strong suit. "I bet they'll want me to manage the entire company within the month."
"Well, you're nothing if not confident, Mr. Newton."
"Oh, it's not confidence. It's a fact."
He suddenly leaned down to me. His closeness was once again startling. I felt irrationally trapped; his cologne burned my nostrils.
"I usually get what I want." He said softly, never breaking his gaze.
I looked back at my monitor, trying to seem focused and look as comfortable as my crawling skin would allow. Do NOT blush, Isabella Swan. Don't you dare.
My chest loosened as he stood up again, taking a step back. "When the Cullens agree to work with us and they request me as their lead consultant, I want you to know that I will absolutely let you help me from time to time. You could learn a lot from me, you know." He winked at me then. Fucking winked at me. "I'd be happy to show you a thing or two."
My left hand clenched tightly under the desk and I felt my face stiffen into my synthetic smile. "Thank you, Mr. Newton. I will be sure to remember that." I willed the color to stay away from my cheeks with every ounce of control I had.
Mike nodded, pleased with himself. "Of course, Isabella. Don't mention it. See you around the water cooler!" He shot me with his finger gun: the classic Mike move.
My smile disappeared into his turned back and I took a long swig of my tea. It burned my tongue and scalded as it traveled down my throat, but it helped take away the terrible taste that Mike Newton always left in my mouth. Mike made me more uncomfortable than I hoped I let on, and his subtle come-ons to me were becoming increasingly less and less subtle. I had been hoping he would become discouraged by my obvious disinterest and stop, but so far… not so good.
More specifically, I was the second highest earning consultant at the firm. The number one position belonged to God's Gift to Everyone himself, Mike Newton. And he never let me forget it.
The Cullen account… it would change everything. I allowed myself to close my eyes for a brief moment. I landed the account, I would be lead earner for the company. I sat back in my seat, relaxing infinitesimally. Charlie might come over and congratulate me on all my hard work. My achievement would be recognized, and everyone would see that I had earned this level of success, that it had not been handed to me by anyone. I could walk into the office in the morning smiling, relaxed, maybe even greeting people by their first names…
He might even notice me.
My eyes snapped open. Dammit. I quickly reached out to take my mouse. That's the very last thing you need to think about. I felt my traitorous cheeks begin to grow warm. I quickly took another sip of blistering tea and brushed back my dark bangs. This day is going to be long enough… Get a hold of yourself, Swan.
Thankfully, like any good addict, my brain allowed me to quickly become lost in my drug of choice: work. My anxiety slowly slipped away from my shoulders as I made calls and sent emails, only to have a sharp jab of nerves to my stomach during brief lulls. I had to be more diligent and force my mind to stop wandering. I had so much to do. I had quarterly budget reports that I was working on for a book store in Port Angeles; those should be completed today. I had to make some calls to my sporting goods store in Forks to follow up on an inventory snafu we had caught last week, taking a few moments to chat with the store manager. Finally, I needed to order a tasteful gift basket for Dr. Jenks, whose wife was due in about a week to give birth to their first child.
I closed my file on Dr. Jenks. The folder was creased and thick with papers, and I ran my finger along its ragged spine fondly. It certainly had seen better days, but I refused to replace the original manila cardboard with the newer plastic cases I used for my other clients. It was completely silly of me, but I was secretly attached to this file. Its contents told the abridged tale of my career at Swan Consulting.
On my first day, my father had offered me a private office. It was spacious and sparkling, with a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean and a personal assistant.
Charlie Swan had been immediately upset when I'd politely refused him, with anger and embarrassment coloring my cheeks. He couldn't fathom why the daughter to the CEO, his daughter, would want to sit in the common room at a plain mahogany desk.
Even more perplexing to him was why I had also quietly refused the list of established clients he was prepared to give me. He asked why I… how had he put it?... "insisted on proving that success wasn't a priority"in my life?
I had thanked him for his offers, and asked to see my desk.
Three years after that incident, it still hu… resonated that it hadn't even occurred to him that I might be able to earn my own way here. In my father's eyes, the choices were clear: either accept his charity or fail before I began. I had obviously chosen "fail."
I paused for a moment and ran my hand along the sleek wood now, as if rubbing at the memory to ease the sting. It was good to remember this, I thought. This recollection always succeeded in steeling my resolve to focus and work harder, and I was obviously in desperate need of some reminding. I turned back to my spreadsheets, but the nagging memories still echoed in my mind.
I had been determined to prove my father wrong. That same day, I began making cold calls to local businesses, seeking out my own clients. I think I heard more "no's" in the first month than I had heard in my entire life. But I never complained, not once. I worked more diligently, pushed myself further.
It was easily the hardest three months of my life.
Every day, every single day, Charlie would come to my desk. He would stand above me and ask me if I was ready to stop being ridiculous and accept his help.
Every single day, I would square my chin, give him a plastic smile and tell him no, thank you.
And then every single night, I would go home, run to the point of utter exhaustion and collapse into a fitful sleep. Pitiful. Alice had been worried sick about me, and her quiet, unwavering support helped get through those days.
I admit; I was weaker then. More susceptible to my silly emotions. And there were definitely times late at night, alone in my bed with the silence around me deafening and the night a thick black smear across my face, that had I wanted so badly to just quit, to live off my trust fund and stop torturing myself…
But then, a cold-call yielded the information that a small dental office in northern Seattle had some improvements they would like to make, and yes, they would be interested in meeting with me to hear what I could do for them.
Nauseous with nerves and determination, I had met with the doctor. For over two hours I spoke, pitching and refusing to let him get up from the table and walk away. He was surprised and I would hazard to say a little intimidated by my… tenacity. We eventually found some common ground…
… and unbelievably, mercifully, I had my first consulting client.
Not only was Dr. Jenks my first yes, but he was also my greatest challenge to date. I had quickly realized that his office was stagnant and flailing; he knew he needed help, but was resistant to progressive managing and business planning. His business was on the verge of bankruptcy, which is why I think he even agreed to the meeting in the first place… especially when I offered to buy him lunch with the free consultation.
After many, many more meetings, phone calls, and emails marked "urgent," he had finally agreed to contract with me as his business manager. (I had thought Alice was going to do a back flip off the house, she had been so happy for me.)
I took great pride in the fact that I had surprised everyone and made great progress with Dr. Jenks in a short amount of time, earning his and the staff's trust and respect. With my business model and office management, Dr. Jenks saw his business quickly become profitable and stable. It wasn't my most profitable client, but it was certainly my greatest success story.
But unfortunately, my history with Dr. Jenks wasn't unmarred. About six months ago, I'd been in the position where I had to fire one of this people after she'd been caught stealing from the petty cash box. The disgruntled ex-employee had felt the need to call our company directly and file a long-winded complaint with whoever answered the phone. It ended up being, of course, being Jessica. The rest of the office knew within ten minutes of the call.
The negative feedback had immediately landed me in Charlie's office, with my professionalism being brought into question. There was no acknowledgement of what I had done previously with the Jenks office, or what I had helped them accomplish. Charlie's only concern was with the company's reputation. Even Dr. Jenks himself had completely understood and wasn't concerned with the incident, but Charlie had still insisted on calling him to the office to apologize personally for my mistake. I had sat there in silent humiliation as Charlie assured my client that he would make sure that it wouldn't happen again.
I had put on my plastic smile, thanked Charlie for his input, and promised both he and Dr. Jenks that I would work harder.
And I always keep my promises.
My growling stomach brought me back to the present. I'd obviously switched over to autopilot and with a shock I realized that it was almost 3:30pm. I always worked through lunch, so that in itself wasn't a surprise. I was, however, quite pleased that I had gone nearly the entire day without having gone crazy waiting for the Cullen response.
I pulled a protein bar from my purse and wondered if Mike had been so controlled. I snuck a quick glance at him out of the corner of my eye; he was leaning back in his chair, staring off into space, furiously gnawing on a pen and scratching the back of his head. I chuckled quietly, proud of my self-discipline.
However, now that my concentration had been broken, cold anxiety flooded my stomach. I glanced around my desk, trying desperately to find something else I needed to do. I futilely checked the inbox on my desk. Of course there were no messages; I was always here to take my calls.
A distraction came then in the form of Jessica swishing by my desk, carrying a stack of papers beneath her jutting breasts. She threw a glance down at me as she passed.
Jessica was undeniably beautiful. She was blonde and tan, young and perky and quick with a smile or a touch for any and all male employees. Today, she was poured into a tight, shimmery blue dress that came midway down her thighs, and a deep v-neck revealing cleavage that was both ample and still being paid for in monthly installments. Her stilettos were silver and flashy, and her long legs scissored, making her full hips sway.
Though she did a great job of appearing trashy and harmless, Jessica was really a bully; a snarling wolf in imitation cashmere. Her barbed tongue and thinly-veiled insults had made Angela cry on more than one occasion, and best of all her disgust for me was barely concealed. She might intimidate poor Angela, but she sure as hell didn't scare me.
Her face twisted into a smile and I nodded; I recognized plastic when I saw it.
"Ms. Swan." She spat the words out quickly, cold and sharp.
"Ms. Stanley." She continued back to her desk, not pausing for my reply. I saw Mike's head whip around and his eyes lock on her swaying ass. I narrowly suppressed an eye roll as he devoured the sight of Jessica sliding into her chair
In a perverse way, the time I spent sitting at my desk alone was the most honest, least-plastic part of my day. To my clients, I was warm and engaging, funny and interactive… I was Bella. To everyone here and my interactions with them, I was distant and focused, and probably very easy to hate… that was Ms. Swan. And I had learned to live with that.
A jovial laugh suddenly filled the room. A booming voice calling out, "Good afternoon, everyone!"
I censored a smile. Emmett never made a quiet entrance.
A moment later, however, my breath caught in my throat. Emmett's arrival brought on a whole new situation to deal with. Shit.
Swan Consulting had a fully-staffed IT Department, and most of our clients also contracted with us to take care of their computer and technical needs. Emmett was the head of that department. He was enormous; well over 6'5", broad-chested and solid, with curly brown hair and deep laugh lines around his eyes. He was also the perfect IT guy: total computer nerd, great with clients, and extremely good at his job. His enthusiasm was infectious, and he was definitely an office favorite.
Despite my best efforts to distance myself, like Angela, Emmett had never been anything but sweet to me. I appreciated Emmett's presence more than he understood. He made a bee-line straight for my desk.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Swaaaaan." He always dragged out my name, making fun of the formal way I addressed everyone. His boyish smile always let me know his teasing was good-natured. My lips twitched up slightly.
"Hello, Mr. McCarthy." I folded my hands on my desk and craned my neck to look straight up at him. Emmett took a quick look around the room, and I took the opportunity to steal a look behind him; he appeared to be alone. I was both relieved and disappointed.
"How's it going? No new client yet, huh?" Emmett has also been involved in the meeting with the Cullens last week. They had been not only interested in hearing about our business consulting and managing services, but also from our IT support department. Emmett was being nonchalant about the prospect of bringing on a multi-million dollar client. I hoped I appeared as calm as he did.
"Nothing yet." Hopefully soon. I wanted so badly to confess to him, but I just couldn't say the words. Instead, I gave him a genuine smile; only my second of the day. He grinned back at me, giving me a covert wink. Not a creepy Mike-like wink.
"It'll be good news, I can feel it. You kicked ass in that meeting, Swan. There's no way they will say no."
I immediately flushed furious scarlet. "Thank you, Mr. McCarthy." I was flustered by the compliment. What was wrong with me? I mentally chastised myself. My normally satin-smooth demeanor was really being put to the test today; I was tense like a piano string and feeling a bit… jumpy. Not good.
He smiled again, no teasing this time. "Don't mention it." He turned away from me, but suddenly stopped short. He snapped his cigar-sized fingers and spun back around.
"Oh, I almost forgot what I came over here for! I got your email yesterday…" I nodded; I had completely forgotten that my printer wasn't working. I was completely hopeless when it came to computers, and Emmett knew this. "I'm sorry I haven't been here…"
"It's not a problem, honestly…if I need to print something, I will just use the main printer. Don't worry about it."
"Don't be so damn sweet. I'll send Edward over here to look at it ASAP, okay?"
My head nodded jerkily, neck pivoting as if on rusty hinges. With a huge grin, Emmett turned and was gone, leaving me once again blushing and disconcerted.
Sure. He's just going to send Edward right over here. Why wouldn't he, the way this day is going?
My heart hammered in my ears. I angled my head toward my screen but scanned the room out of my periphery vision; no sign of him. I couldn't smell him, either, so he must not be too near by…
… my mistake. Speak of the devil.
He was standing by Jessica's desk, his back to me. She was looking up at him from under her eyelashes, laughing too loudly and deliberately trailing her hand down her neck, over her exposed collarbone to the generous swell of flesh spilling out from her top. The back of his neck peeked out over the collar of his blue shirt; his broad back tapered to his lean waist. He was perfect, like a Greek fucking marble sculpture.
My thoughts whirred about in my head, suddenly liberated.
I wonder if he is as firm as he looks.
I quietly shook my head at the wild thought and at the same time his body movement mirrored my own undulations, shaking slightly as he was chuckling at something. Not helping. He ran his long hand through his thick bronze hair… and I swooned a little. I fucking swooned. Ugh.
Edward Masen was the most recent addition to the Swan Consulting's IT department. He had been with the company for three months now, and had thus far been an exemplary employee. He was very… qualified. He had a Masters degree in computer science from Stanford University. He smelled amazing and his jawline belonged in a sonnet. He had spent the first two years out of college working for a non-profit organization in Sacramento, California, then a year in San Francisco developing a software program for a major search engine. He was punctual and polite.
Most recently, he had been in Seattle for the past two years working for a major law firm as their IT person. That law firm, Black & Clearweater, happened to be one of our newest clients and when we were contracted to supply their IT support, Edward had been offered a position here with our company. He was an incredible website designer. He was brilliant and tall and he liked coffee with whole milk and he looked amazing in blue.
Not that I noticed him or anything. Or thought about him much. Or had memorized his resume.
Out of all the things in this office I had to deal with on a daily basis… Charlie's indifferent emotional sabotage, Mike's arrogant, annoying advances, Jessica's silent daggers, and the distain of the entire office… Edward Masen was easily the most dangerous. He made me want to talk to him. He made me want to joke and flirt and touch his hard bicep like Jessica was now.
I gripped my desk tightly.
I was well aware that women are inherently at a disadvantage in the corporate world, having the automatic stigma of "emotional" and "unstable" tacked on to us before we even set our pump-clad toes in the door. I placed a huge emphasis on my ability to keep myself under tight control. I couldn't imagine anything worse than being emotional at work, in front of everyone.
But when he walked into a room… well, fuck me. No matter how fierce my mental battle, I was incapable of controlling my body's physical reactions. My stupid, disloyal flush betrayed me every time he was nearby. His long legs, his straight posture, even his long fingers tapping on a keyboard or manipulating a pen… my traitorous face would grow hot and my breath would hitch in my throat.
Luckily, he seemed to have yet to really notice I existed, so my absurd behavior was still a shameful secret. And its gonna stay that way.
And his smell… oh god. When he'd walk by, I would catch his scent trailing behind him, light and tantalizing, and it would sink into my skin… like leather and rainfall, and something sweet I couldn't place.
But even as I vehemently denied my impulses, and though I despised myself for it… I now couldn't help but wonder what he and Jessica were talking about.
The most absurd point of this whole Edward situation? I had never actually talked to him. We had exchanged pleasantries at the meeting with the Cullens, it had been our first direct contact… but it had been a chaotic morning, and in the rush and excitement of such a huge meeting our introduction had been rushed and distant, without even a handshake. He had smelled even better up close, though…
I am beyond ridiculous. Of all the things I have to think about today….really Bella? A smell? But it was an unfortunate fact: Edward Masen just… did something to me. I had no better explanation than that. I was still working out how to stop it.
I checked the clock again: it was 4:37pm. I decided that I was going to call it a day and just go straight home at 5pm, which I almost never did. I wondered if Alice would be surprised to see me before 8 o'clock tonight. This whole day had been one big mind-fuck and I was hungry and my feet hurt. I just wanted to go home and run and watch the Mariners game with Alice. I hadn't been able to catch a single game with her in weeks.
In an uncharacteristic gesture, I angled toward the window and put my hand over my eyes, gently rubbing my temples. Perhaps we wouldn't hear back from the Cullens today. Tomorrow might just be an extension of today, and I would have the pleasure of being all tense and mixed up again. Awesome. Maybe Charlie could come out here and loudly let me know how inept I was both as an employee and a daughter. Hey, maybe Jessica could be a bitch directly to my face, and Mike could dry hump me by the recycling bin, and Edward could wear a speedo and a bowtie and do a bump n' grind dance for me from across the room…
My hand flew down from my face, and my spine went rigid.
Oh his eyes are so green.
I knew they were green, but from only five feet away they were emerald and dynamic as they met mine fully for the first time. His hair was bronze and wild, and I was close enough to see the stubble dusting his jaw. Oh god. His lips were full and there…
If Edward's presence made me blush from across the room, my face was in danger of combusting now. I suddenly became fully aware of the uncomfortable silence floating between us.
"Mr. M-Masen." I stuttered. I hated how uncollected I sounded. I took a deep breath… he smelled even better than I thought. The sweet smell… it's honey.
I stared dumbly into his eyes, and once again I was lost. Jesus, what did I need from him again?
His eyebrows went up slightly; I realized in horror that I must look insane. Or stupid. Or both.
I cleared my throat. "My printer." Two clear words. Better than a stutter.
He nodded and walked to the right side of my desk, reaching down. I watched him move, shamefully captivated by his hands. I wanted him to speak again, to say my name. But not the impersonal, "Ms. Swan."
Bella. Please call me Bella. Dammit, stop it. Now I am arguing with myself. Great. Nice to meet you, Edward, now please excuse me while I go jump off the building.
He suddenly turned his tousled head, and I was caught. My cheeks burned hotter, and my eyes locked with his. I felt an electric current lick my skin and I noted with utter horror that my nipples had hardened.
He gave me a crooked grin before turning back away. I had never seen that smile before, and the distance between us suddenly snapped with energy. I suppressed a gasp. My hands grew clammy and I suddenly felt exposed, raw. I didn't feel in control of my self, and that was not acceptable. I needed to get out of here. I quickly turned back to my computer and stared at the monitor, afraid that I might not survive this encounter unless I found distraction.
I heard a gentle, "hmmm" coming from my right. Against my better judgment, I turned back to him.
He was staring at the printer, his eyebrows knitted together. "So it just stopped working?" His voice was soft velvet and I wanted to feel it against my cheeks. I nodded.
"Yes." More silence. Smooth, Swan.
He ran his hand through his hair again, pausing a moment before gesturing a long, thick arm toward… my lap?
"May I take a look?"
My brain was sludge. Take a look at what? Me? My hands pressed flat on my thighs, my mouth opening slightly…
Oh. My computer tower, under the desk.
"Of course." Can one die from shame?
Edward came around to my side of the desk. I scooted my chair backwards, but there still wasn't much room for two. He quickly knelt in front of me; his lean torso was about six inches from my bare legs. The air around me was thick, like I could physically stick out my tongue and taste the space between us. His lithe body was under my desk, touching my computer. His shirt had ridden up a bit, become untucked, and I could see a sliver of his smooth back above his dress pants.
I sat there, completely blank. For once, I had no analysis of the situation. My brain was on overload from this day, and I could only stare at the thin line of skin, absently wondering if he tasted like sugar, or limes, maybe smooth white chocolate. I licked my lips.
After an eternity, Edward backed up and began to turn around. His movement faltered, his eyes fixed on something below him. Oh. My. God. It was my shoes. My four inch, brown snake-skin, fuck-me shoes. Alice, I might murder you.
His eyes continued to travel up: ankles to calves, exposed knee to thigh, until green eyes met my brown. Electric emerald. I was smoldering.
"It wasn't plugged in."
I blinked. "I'm sorry?" His eyes were dazzling, and I hated my disloyal body more and more for its mutinous reactions to this man, essentially a stranger, who was currently kneeling between my shaky legs.
Edward smiled. "Your printer. The USB cord was unplugged. Maybe you kicked it out?"
That was it. I was dying. Goodbye, Seattle.
"Oh." My face flamed. Electricity snapped and danced. "Thank you, Mr. Masen."
There was that smile again. "You're very welcome, Ms. Swan." Soft and low. His eyes met mine once more. His electric current buzzed through my addled brain.
And I felt myself smile back. No plastic; my real smile. Our grins were real and shared.
Ding. My Outlook suddenly alerted me that I had a new email. Edward's iPhone chimed out a split-second later from his back pocket. From across the room, I saw Mike straighten up, his feet coming down from his desk top and his hand flying to his mouse.
Edward stood up and took out his phone as I moved my cursor to check.
One new email, forwarded from Charlie Swan to the entire company.
From Carlisle Cullen.
Subject Line: Business Partnership Proposal.
My mouth was dry. My hand twitched once as I clicked it open.
Dear Mr. Swan and fellow associates:
My wife Esme and I would once again like to thank you for the time you and your team spent with us last week. Your presentation on what Swan Consulting can provide to Cullen Corporation was very informative, and we very much enjoyed meeting with your consultants and computer technicians.
As you are well aware, we are planning a major expansion of the construction division of our company, which involves adding several satellite offices, expanding our services to include renovation and architectural planning, and a complete re-vamping of our marketing and advertising.
After much consideration, we would definitely like to take the next step toward a partnership with the Cullen Corporation and Swan Consulting in both a consultation capacity and for our computer and technical support.
My heart was beating so loudly I was afraid Edward could hear it. I could hear low murmurs and gasps going on all around me as we all read the email simultaneously.
We feel that the next step would be for Swan Consulting to develop a comprehensive business strategy for our expansion, using the next three months as a timeframe. We are very eager to see what ideas your consultant can bring to us.
If possible, we would like to meet to review these reports this upcoming Friday in our corporate location. We realize that this is a short amount of time to prepare; however, we feel that the sooner we can all get on the same page about our business direction, the sooner we can negotiate fees and draft the necessary paperwork to make our partnership official.
Esme and I look forward to meeting this Friday with our preferred representatives from your consulting and IT departments
Isabella Swan and Edward Masen. Please contact our executive administrative assistant Rosalie Hale at your convenience to make scheduling arrangements.
CEO, Cullen Corporation.
I gaped at my monitor, once again finding myself stunned. I managed to keep my upper body completely still, despite my trembling knees. The electricity I felt from Edward had now been joined by a vibrant hum that came up from my stomach, through my chest, and hovered in my throat. I felt swollen, jittery.
This is it. This is my chance. I swallowed hot adrenaline. This is it. This is my chance.
For once, I didn't know what to do.
My eyes silently swept around the room. Mike was staring at me, his jaw slack. Angela was peering around the corner, beaming. Emmett popped his head up over a partition, giving me a fist pump and pointing at Edward, who was still standing beside me.
I couldn't look up at him. I cast my eyes down, feeling dazed and unexpectedly bashful. My head buzzed. I was flying. I felt free, triumphant. I felt… brave.
I raised my gaze to his; he had been watching me. My mouth opened to free rebellious words; I wasn't sure if I was going to tell him I was happy to be working with him or admit that I wanted to lick the thin skin of his throat.
I swallowed both confessions when the door to the CEO's office suddenly opened. The excited murmurs instantly died.
Charles Swan stood in his office doorway, filling the whole room without moving an inch. You wouldn't think that the company he built from the ground up had just earned itself a multi-million dollar client from the scowl etched into his face. The happy grins around him did nothing to soften his expression.
He locked identical chocolate brown eyes with mine. He straightened the cuffs on his suit as he walked toward me, and the buzzing excitement drained out of my chest.
I knew that look. I knew what was coming. And I knew how close Edward was standing to me right now…
Charlie stood above me. He looked at Edward thoughtfully before extending his hand. "Well done, Mr. Masen." Mike looks really jealous, I noted hollowly. He won't be for long.
Charlie turned to me. "Bella." He said my name like a diagnosis, or perhaps an accusation. He wasted no time. "I think maybe we should have Mike head up this project."
His words shattered the mood around me, slicing brutally into my skin. Furious words bubbled up to my lips so fast I almost didn't have time to catch them. I saw Edward's head move slightly.
"Mr. Swan," I started quietly, keeping my voice even and calm, "I believe that the Cullens specifically requested to work with both myself and Mr. Masen."
"They did indeed," Charlie shook his head, "but frankly, Bella, I am not sure if you are up to the task. I doubt that they fully appreciate how little experience you have with expansions, or how full your workload is…" He looked down at me, his face devoid of any emotion; another ability we shared. "We had that complaint with the Jenks account a little while ago, and we can't afford to have mistakes like that with the Cullens."
My face burned from the injustice. I could see heads beginning to turn our way. For once, I wished Edward was farther away from me, even over at Jessica's desk, anywhere else… and not able to hear about my failure. I was well-aware of the circumstances surrounding that incident and Charlie was, too. But damned if it didn't hurt to hear him spin it, to make me feel like he was talking down to little Bella.
But I wasn't little Bella. I was Isabella Goddamn Swan, new top earner for the company. And I'd be damned if he took that away from me now.
I knew I had to stay calm, or it would just give Charlie ammunition that I wasn't emotionally stable enough to handle such an important client. I could see Mike observing the situation unfolding in front of him. He was leaning back, arms crossed, practically salivating.
"With all due respect, Mr. Swan," I said through tightened lips, trying to ignore both my churning stomach and the burning presence of the man to my left, "I believe it was decided that the incident to which you are referring was a behavioral issue with an ex-employee, and has long since been settled." I took a breath, forcing my words to stay smooth and unruffled. "I stand by my record here at this company, and I believe I have earned this assignment by working diligently and bringing results to my clients." I paused again, my resolve growing stronger. Charlie's eyes were narrowed, his jaw set.
"If you feel like I would not be able to successfully complete this job, then by all means, assign someone else to the account. But I ask that you make that decision based on my work performance, and not personal reasons."
In that moment, I knew my career was over. Charlie's cheeks suddenly flamed red, and I was thrown off momentarily by the all-too-familiar reaction. His mouth opened, and then shut; opened and shut again.
We three stood still, participants in a silent tableau for what could have been thirty seconds, could have been an hour. Charlie then placed his clenched fists on the desk and leaned toward me.
"Prove me wrong, Bella." He was gone as swiftly as he had arrived.
I watched as my father walked away from me. My triumph has survived but was now tempered by the dull ache I had grown used to over the years. The fact never escaped me that nothing I had done was good enough for my father… especially now. Infuriatingly, no matter how carefully I locked my heart away, his criticism still had the power to hurt me. I absolutely hated it.
I knew if I thought about it hard enough, really examined what just happened, that exchange with Charlie would threaten to bring on the tears that I refused to allow. But I couldn't think about it now. Today, I had won. This was the chance that I had given up the last three years of my life for. I had so much work to do…
I was suddenly intensely aware of Edward again, the low hum of his electricity gently filling my senses. He seemed to be hesitating. A wave of embarrassment washed through me again. He must be absolutely appalled by what he just saw...
Slowly, inexplicably, he leaned down towards me. He was still a modest distance away, but the heat from his body touched me, licking my skin though my clothes. Searing voltage surged through my chest, my stomach, lower.
His quiet voice caressed by ear, hot satin and male; only I could hear him.
"I look forward to working with you."
He walked away then, completely oblivious to the muted cracking of my resolve.
For anyone who read or reviewed... holy shit, thank you SO much.
I can't believe I got reviews... incredible.
Along the way, please feel free to share with me any specific questions that you have about the story. I'm NOT an author... I'm just some chick wearing clown-shoes who needed to get these characters out of her head, and I want to make sure I tell Bella's story as fully as my clumsy writing will allow. I will depend on you to keep me honest.
Thank you all again.
PS: check out s/5030931/1/On_the_Inside_of_Love. It's adorable.